Category: general reading

true grit

Another book that I’ve read recently is True Grit by Charles Portis.

True Grit tells the story of 14-year-old Mattie Ross as she seeks revenge for the murder of her father.  Mattie is uncomplicated and incredibly brave.  Her voice is clear and authentic and she wins over even the hardest of men with her clarity of mind and her unwavering determination.

“You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God.”

The book naturally and beautifully re-creates the world of its time.  The danger and thrill of the American adventure.  The world of the native American, the outlaws, the marshalls and the ordinary families trying to make their honest way.  The dignity and the utter cruelty of men.  The longing for justice.  The love of a daughter.

It is one of those stories that I expect to revisit very soon.  Immensely enjoyable.



I have recently read Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts.  The book is based on his life and tells the story of his escape from an Australian prison and flight to Bombay.  He falls in love with the city, runs a free health clinic in the slum he chooses to live in, becomes involved in the Bombay mafia, works in Bollywood and fights with the mujaheddin in Afghanistan.

But more than the (incredible) story of what he does, Shantaram is a story of the (incredible) relationships that he builds.  There is the immensely friendly Prabaker, the beautiful Karla, the trustworthy Abdullah and the father figure of the mafia, Abdul Khader Khan.  It is this relationship which most struck me.

“I also felt a sudden rush of affection for him, an affection that seemed to proceed from and depend upon the inequalities between us.  It was vassal-love, one of the strongest and most mysterious human emotions.”

This love leads Roberts to commit crimes for the Khan, to help run his mafia and ultimately to fight his war in Afghanistan.  There is a point in this relationship when Roberts sees the cost of this love.  The Khan has used him, manipulated situations to his harm – even allowing him to experience the dreadful conditions and torture of a Bombay prison – and his relationships.  Abdul Khader Khan also allowed a close friend and ally to be brutally murdered to serve his own ends.  His own vainglorious war in Afghanistan.

But Roberts, and the men around him, still love the Khan.

It is an emotion that I have both seen and experienced.  A love built around inequality that allows you knowingly to be used for someone else’s purposes to your own cost.  Strong and mysterious indeed.  And when you stand outside that relationship, as to some extent we are forced to in reading an account of someone else’s life, it becomes inexplicable.

Roberts’ search for an approving father figure costs him dearly.  And yet, at the end of the book, you suspect that he wouldn’t have had it any other way.

The Jews and the nation of Israel.  I don’t know about you but most of my conversations about modern Israel have been in the context of theology – particularly eschatology.  What does the bible tell us about the Jewish nation in the end times?  This week I realised that I have never considered the issues thoroughly enough. 

Because this week I have been confronted with a Palestinian perspective.

I have just read Mornings in Jenin – a really powerful, passionate debut novel by Susan Abulhawa that tells the story of the conflict through six decades of a Palestinian family’s history.  It stands alongside Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner or A Thousand Splendid Suns for its impact.  It is simply stunning.

And suddenly the issues are not abstract becasue they involve real people’s experiences, tragic and horrific and unjust experiences.  The suffering of tens of thousands of people and the brutality of the settlements and the refugee camps.  The forced removal of people from a way of life they had known and loved for hundreds of years.

Abulhawa, herself the daughter of Palestinian refugees, writes with a truly authentic voice.  Of Jerusalem her heroine says, “It sparks an inherent sense of familiarity in me – that doubtless, irrefutable Palestinian certainty that I belong to this land.  It possesses me, no matter who conquers it, because its soil is the keeper of my roots, of the bones of my ancestors.  Because it knows the private lust that flamed the beds of all my foremothers.  Because I am the natural seed of its passionate, tempestuous past.  I am a daughter of the land, and Jerusalem reassures me of this inalienable title, far more than the yellowed property deeds, the Ottoman land registries, the iron keys to our stolen homes, or UN resolutions and decrees of superpowers could ever do.”

Then Abulhawa employs a stunning literary device – she quotes actual news reports and historical works to demonstrate the force of her case.  And having detailed the graphic horror of the slaughter of refugees in their camps in 1982 she simply asks the question, “How does an Israeli soldier, a Jewish man, watch a refugee camp being transformed into an abattoir?”

It is a question without answer. 

I’m not suddenly pro-Palestinian and I’m certainly not anti-Semitic.  I simply abhor violence in all its forms and whoever its perpetrator is.  What has changed this week is my perspective of this conflict.  The anonymous news on my TV screen has become personalised and I am changed because of it. 

I highly recommend this book to you.


I’ve just finished reading Knots and Crosses – the first Rebus book by Ian Rankin.  It’s excellent. 

To be fair, my mate’s been raving about Rebus for years but I’m a bit of a literary snob and don’t often read crime fiction.  Then just before the summer I saw a collection of Rankin novels going for a good price and I bought ten of them for my holiday.  I read them all.  Just gripping.

In a documentary on Rankin I heard someone suggest that he was a proper novelist who just happened to  have chosen this genre.  So, pride intact, I’m loving them.  Rebus is simply a superbly drawn character who ages in real-time.  He is complex and admirable, he blurs the lines and boundaries of right and wrong and yet as a reader I never lose my connection with him.

Actually, Rankin does this in a number of his novels.  I end up rooting for the hero even when they are not the traditional good guy.  Life is often complicated and Rankin is happy to exploit the uncertainties of morality in the pressure of difficult situations.  It’s a challenge to retain a moral compass when you get caught up in the lives of the characters and actually, that sometimes happens in life too. 

If you haven’t discovered Ian Rankin yet – he writes a cracking book.  I haven’t read one yet that I didn’t enjoy.

the audacity of hope

As Barack Obama flew in for the G20 at the beginning of April, I finished reading The Audacity of Hope – the book he published in 2006 which outlines his views on family and faith, American politics and values and the world beyond their borders.

As I have said before, Obama writes beautifully.  He is open and engaging, able to step back from party politics and present a broad sweep of American history over issues of race or foreign policy with simple and illuminating clarity.  He is a consensus politician who is also withering in his assessment of the politics of Bush from his economics to the war in Iraq and who seems able to think beyond the boundaries of political expediency or culturally accepted truths and norms.

He comments that in 1980, the average CEO earned 42 times what an average hourly worker took home.  By 2005, the ratio was 262 to 1.  He challenges the culture behind it and the tax cuts under Bush that gave 47.4% of their benefit to the top 5% income bracket.  He observes that America has 3% of the worlds oil reserves and consumes 25% of the worlds oil, “We can’t drill our way out of the problem.”  He challenges “our optimism once the Cold War ended that Big Macs and the internet would lead to the end of historical conflicts” and insists that America can no longer act unilaterally as the world’s policeman but must “hold sway in the international court of opinion” and rethink a defense budget that topped $522 billion in 2005 – more than that of the next 30 countries combined.

He looks the challenges of globalisation squarely in the eye with a view that it has, “allowed countries like China and India to dramatically reduce poverty, which over the long term makes for a more stable world.”  His concern for the poor of all countries permeates every chapter.

The question I asked when he was elected, that a friend of mine just back from the States says they are asking there and that I heard echoed on Newsnight recently is a simple one.  Can he deliver?  I think it’s still too early to call.

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