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Reviews Written by
Paul Harris (Llantrisant, Wales)

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Land of Israel: 100 Years Plus 30
Land of Israel: 100 Years Plus 30
by Tim Gidal
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Valuable photographic record of Zionist settlement..., 8 Sept. 2013
Dating from the late 1970s this is now very much an historical footnote. There are however some fascinating early photographs of the Zionist pioneering of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Especially of interest are those showing Jaffa at the time of Tel Aviv's foundation (1908-09) and those of that city's earliest streets and residents.


But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz
But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz
by Geoff Dyer
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An indelible impression of jazz soul..., 8 Sept. 2013
So difficult to review this book - the likes of which I've never read before. I shan't attempt to in all honesty. Suffice to say, Geoff Dyer's writing is gripping, heartfelt, and all too believable. Which is pretty much all that matters given the subject matter - imagined portraits of the equally troubled and gifted musicians he portrays - Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Ben Webster, Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, and Art Pepper. I finished each chapter with an indelible impression of the soul of each of these men.

It matters not if you do or don't know the music of each artist covered, though you may want to refer to the select discography at the back. Dyer bases each vignette on known histories, conversations, photographs, newspaper clippings, all of which he references in the appendix. Interweaved between each story is the very appealing construction of an imagined Duke Ellington on the road between gigs, alone with his driver Harry, as he crosses the American night.

Following the main part of the book is an extended essay on the artistic course and ongoing direction of jazz music which I found a satisfying accompaniment to the earlier chapters. Recommended for all, and a must for anybody with a love of Jazz.


Under Arizona Skies: The Apprentice Desert Shelters at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West
Under Arizona Skies: The Apprentice Desert Shelters at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West
by B Pfeiffer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing desert abodes - beautifully photographed, 9 Dec. 2011
This is a charming small book which shows off some of the many innovative desert dwellings constructed by students at the Taliesin West site in the Arizona desert. The text introduction is well written and serves as a good primer for the pages that follow. I would have preferred a little more text to accompany the sparse descriptions of each construction, and possibly some input from the apprentices responsible for them, but overall it is a delightfully presented representation of what can be achieved with minimal resources in a harsh environment.

The photography is excellent, but it would have been nice to have the book published in a larger format - although understandably the publisher and the budget available dictate such things. The illustrations of the design plans though were in the main just a little too small and inadequate to really satisfy my curiosity. Overall a really nice publication which will be of interest to anyone interested in architecture or contemporary design.


Psychogeography
Psychogeography
by Will Self
Edition: Hardcover

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mischievous and diverse as ever..., 9 Dec. 2011
This review is from: Psychogeography (Hardcover)
If you don't like Will Self's take on modern life, you probably won't like this. If however, like me, you do appreciate his dry wit and well crafted writing style, then you will almost certainly enjoy this collection. A seemingly random arrangement of his column in The Independent newspaper is brilliantly complemented by the always excellent Ralph Steadman's illustrations.

Self writes on all manner of subjects from the mundane to the profound. Infused with his inimitable sardonic sense of humour and mischief, these essays were for me the perfect length to get just the right flavour of whatever, or wherever, he was talking about or exploring. In places as diverse as Rio de Janeiro, The Orkney Isles, India, Iowa, and English coastal nuclear power stations, he takes you with him as he uncovers little nuggets of the 21st century world we live in.

The extra length introductory essay - Walking To New York - is a real treat as Self travels the usually unconsidered hinterlands of south and west London on his way to first Heathrow Airport, and then from JFK across Long Island over to Manhattan. A very unusual and enjoyable read.


Flight of Passage
Flight of Passage
by Rinker Buck
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful!, 27 Oct. 2011
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This review is from: Flight of Passage (Hardcover)
Well, I expected this to be good - how could the tale of two teenage brothers flying together in a Piper Cub across continental Ammerica east to west and back again NOT be good?! - but I think this was in the end an excellent read. I was moved, charmed, and thrilled by the story of Rinker and his older brother Kern first restoring the aircraft in the family barn over the winter, and then the adventure of the flight itself.

But there was more to this book than the 'adventure' itself. This is an endearingly told story also of brothers and how they are able to simultaneously love and hate each other, and how their relationship eventually blossoms. These brothers however, each have a quite different relationship with their father - the one legged former barnstormer pilot Tom Buck. His lively pipe-smoking presence looms imperiously in the background as these boys are literally trying to fly away. The twists and turns in this aspect of the story are told with a beautiful poignancy.

'I looked back several times at my father as he waved, wiggling
the wings for him a couple of more times. Behind and below me,
he was framed by the tail section of the plane, as if in a
picture. I remember the way the sunlight turned the grass
around him a hard green, and the way the image of him was
blurred and kept going double from the slipstream beating my
hair into my face and whipping up tears in the corners of my
eyes. I was filled with an immense sadness and happiness for
him at once, and afterward I couldn't understand why that
particular vision of him moved me so much, or why it returned
so often in my dreams. After a while I just accepted it as a
portrait of contentment between us. Maybe we would never say
it that way but the truth was that we were happiest watching
each other recede in the distance.'

Back to the flying at the heart of this lovely memoir. Buck has a fantastically simple way of saying things that are both eloquent and straightforward. There is plenty of technical detail in the flight descriptions but I never felt that it was too difficult for me to grasp whatever was happening to '71-Hotel' or the air around it through which it flew. Some of the prose describing their passage over a July 4th weekend USA is as delightful as any I've read.

I could insert other passages here in this review to show off Buck's fine writing, but I won't as time is pressing in on us. The chapter covering the Rocky Mountain traverse is brilliantly written and is simply enthralling. The many varied characters they encounter are wonderful slices of Americana of the mid-60s. This was a highly satisfying book and will please readers of many different genres. Read it!


Westsiders
Westsiders
by Tom Finn
Edition: Paperback
Price: £18.00

3.0 out of 5 stars Not bad, not great., 8 Sept. 2011
This review is from: Westsiders (Paperback)
I got this book because I like North American literature, short stories, and historic fiction - so I expected this book to appeal. Set in the late 1940s, I liked some of the early stories - 'Mouse' stood out as the best for me - the characters were very believable and had real 'voices' if that makes sense. All of the stories seemed to have a theme of wanting or needing to get away from something, or Corner Brook itself - where they were predominantly set - and Tom Finn does a good job of conveying the staid atmosphere of this quiet place where not a lot happens. But I just didn't find myself interested enough in the plots or moved particularly by the prose.

If you have a particular connection to Corner Brook, or perhaps Newfoundland in general, this humble collection will probably be of interest. Unfortunately I can't say that it was especially to me.


Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys
Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys
by Michael Collins
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.38

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Simply magnificent!, 8 Sept. 2011
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Simply magnificent! As I've spent the last few days tearing through this engrossing book, I've been mindful of how I might be able to review it once I'd reached its end. Now that I have done so I find that I don't really know quite how to express what it is about Michael Collins' writing that moved me so much - except that I know this is most definitely one of the best memoirs I've ever read. It is truly a one-off, as the events it describes are so unique (most obviously the historic Apollo 11 mission) that they could only have been written by one of the members of 1960s NASA space program who was actually 'there'.

Collins' writing is very laid back and as informal as it is informative. I rarely read books (for pleasure at least) with quite so much scientific content: rocket propulsion, trajectories, inter-planetary navigation, and so forth, but he puts these topics into words that I found no problem in understanding. Not that these subjects really dominate the narrative - his tale is told in a very personal and humourous style. For an astronaut (& fighter pilot for that matter!) Collins is incredibly humble and self-effacing - he repeatedly reminds the reader of how poor a mechanic he is and how lazy he can be...

The early chapters retell his experiences as a USAF test pilot while in the background NASA's manned space program is underway. After some early setbacks he is eventually accepted into the astronaut staff at NASA in Houston, and begins the arduous training for the Gemini program. Amidst tales of geological field trips and survival training in inhospitable desert or jungle environments (in the event of any future re-entry going awry), and endless sickness inducing zero gravity dives, he gives a great sense to the day to day existence of an astronaut-in-waiting. As enjoyable as these pages are, the reader knows - as does the author of course - that it is all building up to the momentous day when he will finally sit at the 'tip of the pencil on the launch-pad' at Cape Kennedy on his way into space.

The Gemini 10 mission he flies along with John Young is covered in every breathtaking detail, none more so than Collins' 2 EVAs (Extra Vehicular Activity - spacewalks to you and I). In the first, as he was taking star readings with his sextant whilst standing up in the hatch - head and shoulders out 'there' in space - he writes that he felt at that moment "like a Roman god riding the skies in his chariot". The 2nd EVA, where he has to leave the Gemini altogether and cross the void to reach the adjacent Agena craft (sent up previously specifically for this planned rendezvous), for the purposes of removing and replacing an experiment installed on its outside, is altogether more terrifying. He finds himself grappling with zero gravity while attempting to 'climb' aboard the rear end of a craft patently not designed for such an activity (there were no foot or handholds for his convenience) in bulky spacesuit complete with cumbersome gloves and yards of entangling umbilical line... There is no 'up' and there is no 'down' - talk about vertigo! All this while simultaneously reminding the Gemini pilot Young not to use whichever thruster may happen to be nearest to burning through either said umbilical lines or indeed Collins himself! It's edge of your seat stuff.

The final third of this terrific book covers the famous Apollo 11 mission to the moon itself. The quirks of fate that led him to this moment are not lost on Collins as he writes of the medical problem which was discovered while he was due to be assigned to the Apollo 8 mission. His flight status of 'grounded' for several months inadvertently leads to his later inclusion on Apollo 11.

I won't retell all that happens, but the moments when he is truly as alone as any human being has ever been - Charles Lindbergh's later congratulatory letter tells of relating to his experience more so than Armstrong's or Aldrin's - in lunar orbit while the landing module 'Eagle' is away on the Moon's surface are some truly gripping passages of tension. That said, the whole exciting tale is really page turning stuff.

The final chapters contain Collins' thoughts on space travel in general (written in 1973) and where it might be headed. As well as his thoughts on humanity's attitudes to our 'blue and white planet', he poignantly expresses with one word above all how he sees Planet Earth now that he has seen the 'world in a window' - fragile.

An excellent read and one which I heartily recommend to all.


1967: Israel, the War, and the Year That Transformed the Middle East
1967: Israel, the War, and the Year That Transformed the Middle East
by Tom Segev
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.16

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Four and a half stars... a brilliant and objective history..., 18 Aug. 2011
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Tom Segev has written an impressive and extremely well researched account of the pivotal year in the modern history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Once again (as with the excellent 'One Palestine, Complete') he has presented as unbiased and objective account of this topic as you are likely to find. There is no agenda with Segev except well written history. The book covers in great detail the situation both within and without Israel in the years leading up to the Six Day War of 1967; the events and thoughts of those - both public and private individuals - in the period immediately before, during, and after the war; and the fascinating political and sociological implications of the aftermath of the war. Among the well-known leaders and politicians involved, there are numerous intriguing portraits of the likes of Levi Eshkol, David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Dayan, Yigal Allon, Ezer Weizman, Menachem Begin, Lyndon Johnson, Abba Eban, Gamal Nasser and King Hussein - as well as many other key political, military and diplomatic aides and commanders.

The wide-ranging sources cited by Segev in this account are really the strength of the book. From LBJ's White House machinations to the minutes of the Israeli war cabinet, from myriad private letters of concerned citizens to the various press articles and columns of the day. There is an important consideration given also to the cultural atmosphere in Israeli society whether before, during or after the war. These give the book an intensity of 'putting you right there' in amongst the days of drama. Those less familiar with the personalities discussed may struggle to keep apace of the fast-moving developments and intricacies of both domestic Israeli politics and complex cold war era international relations - this is not 'an ideal introduction' to the Arab-Israeli conflict. But for the interested reader of this subject, Segev's thorough book will prove compelling, well-written, and will quite probably serve to present a perspective on the war that you may not have previously been privy to.

The chapters covering the action of the war itself are based simultaneously on the candid records of minutes and diaries of most of the principals involved, but most interestingly also include large extracts from the diary of one army reservist in particular called up weeks ahead of the conflict. This is Yeshayahu Bar-Dayan, and his diary provides a unique window into the mind of an everyday Israeli called on by his nation to do his duty. He is not a particularly gung-ho commando or special agent or anything as obvious or cliched as that, but a humble mechanic attached to a unit of the Tank Corps. His writing from the battlefield in Sinai is often at times both intimate and profound - an extremely valuable inclusion.

All told, this is an extremely good addition to the shelves of any reader with an interest in post-war 20th century history and/or the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is a particularly in-depth look at the complex Israeli national psyche of the 1960s, and the war which still shapes the fierce debate of the still ongoing troubles in the Middle East. It is a superb addition to the work of one of the finest contemporary Israeli historians around.


The Polish Officer
The Polish Officer
by Alan Furst
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Highly atmospheric..., 18 Aug. 2011
This review is from: The Polish Officer (Paperback)
Until recently I didn't know of Alan Furst's writing at all, but I'm very pleased to have now discovered it. This was my first of his books, and from other reviews out there it looks as though there are plenty more to enjoy which will be even more satisfying than I found this one. I don't often read what might be called 'spy thrillers', but I am a fan of historical fiction. This book - and I gather the others of Furst as well - is a successful blend of the two genres.

In a word I would describe this as 'atmospheric'. Highly atmospheric. The plot itself is not the most intriguing element, rather a series of early wartime assignments following the 1939 invasion of Poland and taking us up to the first winter following the German invasion of Russia in 1941. The main protagonist - Captain de Milja of the title - is a very believable character. He is a man who appears to have surrendered himself to the circumstances he finds himself in at the war's start, determined to make the best of it in order to survive. He will do what he can for his nation while it finds itself under occupation and it's government in exile.

Where this book excels though is in the authenticity given to the various locations that the story unfolds in, primarily Poland and France, and the feel of the places that really comes over. The cafes, the locomotive sidings, the lonely hotels, the remote farms. You can smell the wood smoke on the village's edge and hear the old clocks' dull ticking in the safe-house of a humdrum railway town. The secondary characters are fascinating and I only wished that some of their stories be slightly more explored, though perhaps this is Furst's intention, as de Milja so often finds himself suddenly reassigned or having to make an abrupt escape.

Overall, a very enjoyable and escapist read into a frightening world which the author brings to life very skilfully. I will definitely be reading more of his work.


The Family Orchard
The Family Orchard
by Nomi Eve
Edition: Paperback

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A book about family and place..., 18 Aug. 2011
This review is from: The Family Orchard (Paperback)
Where to begin? I had this book on my shelf for ages - years in fact. Something led me to take it off the shelf and start it a few weeks back... Maybe because I have been reading other books at the same time, I found the opening chapters took a while to get into. I soon got into my stride though, and found myself really enjoying Nomi Eve's writing.

Her characters were so real and interesting. Their flaws and foibles making them very intriguing personalities. This is a book about family and place. The story covers the generations of the Sepher family from their arrival in Jerusalem in the mid-19th century through to their moving to a small agricultural community near the citrus groves around Petah Tiqva. The family orchard of the title is the livelihood and home that Shimon Sepher makes for his family in the early 20th century, a time when Palestine was changing rapidly as the Zionist pioneers move to their promised land. The orchard would in time pass to son and then grandson.

The historical setting for this generational novel is the background plot as the dramatic national events through the years manifest themselves on an intimate scale. The orchard is of course the central character in the story and witnesses the key moments in our protagonists' lives. Eve writes with a really lovely feeling full of poignancy and poetry - but never going overboard with it. I particularly loved the detail of the orchard's life cycle and the different seasons that would pass, it helped give the story a nice rhythm. Overall I enjoyed it very much.


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