Monday, December 29, 2008

Riding on the Edge

By John Hall.

“Sure we got into some shootings and serious shit. But most of it was just good, clean fun, like drinking beer all night and standing up on the seat of your motorcycle, drunk and without a helmet, at three o’clock in the morning, while you blew every red light on Hempstead Turnpike.”

I suppose one could debate whether that is an apt description of “good, clean fun”, but what I found quite interesting about this book was that Hall describes a 1960’s outlaw scene that was totally devoid of any criminal activity of a serious nature – no drug dealing, no trafficking, no prostitution – just “good, clean fun”. And so I suspect that there’s either a lot Hall left out of the narrative or there’s quite a bit of revisionist history being presented here.

But while Hall may have been selective in his recollections, Riding on the Edge still opens a window on the outlaw culture at the time and the early days of the Pagans as they began their march to become, according to the book’s jacket, “the most violent criminal organization in America”.

The story line is pretty typical and quite repetitive – getting drunk, taking offense, trashing bars, screwing underaged groupies, internal power struggles, who’s righteous and who isn’t. Reading about all that is good clean fun in its own way but what really differentiates this book from others of the same ilk are Hall’s periodic detours into the history of the Pennsylvania Dutch, the Mennonites and the Brotherhood of Zion, observations on Polish family traditions, and so on. Finding these gems scattered among the wreckage of yet another trashed bar or run-in with the authorities is what makes the book readable and kept me turning the pages (I read it in 2 days). It’s still not great literature, but it’s a decent, entertaining read.

Oh, and one last nit to pick: the inside cover says, “In the 1960s, John Hall, a Harley-riding hell-raiser hooked up with the Pagans...”. According to the book, Hall rode a 1963 Triumph TR-6.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Riding with Rilke

By Ted Bishop.

Ted Bishop is an English professor at the University of Alberta. He is also an avid motorcyclist. So when an opportunity presents itself to combine both his passions, he leaps at the chance, and the result is quite an amazing tale.

At first I wasn't too sure how the motorcycle/university research pairing would work, but Bishop pulls it off and delivers a very good read indeed. Part travelogue, part literary research project, part passion for motorcycling, this book has it all.

From the portrayal of his (real life) accident to the narrative on how he developed his obsession with Ducati’s, the story has a feel of authenticity to it – been there, done that, got the t-shirt – and long-time riders will be able to relate with (mostly) fond recollection to Bishop's insights and humour. His brother’s instructions on how to bump-start a Ducati 250 cc Mach 1 took me back a lot of years (“You put it in gear, hold in the clutch, and push it. When you get running you hop on it side-saddle and let the clutch out at the same time, then hop off and keep running. It’ll catch, and then you pull the clutch back in and rev the throttle.”). And his descriptions of the feel of a truly 'great' motorcycle as you throw it through the curves and twisties of your favourite off-the-beaten-path riding roads are right on the mark. As for the agony of bad-weather riding – Bishop’s narrative had me shivering from the remembrance of water dribbling down the back of my neck on rides taken 30 years ago.

Interesting and well-written, Riding with Rilke deserves a place in any motorcycling library – right between Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Long Way Round.

The Eye in the Door

By Pat Barker.

The Eye in The Door is the second book of Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy. Whereas Regeneration focused on the relationship between Dr. William Rivers and Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart, this book deals with life on the home front in 1918 and the relationships between one soldier, an intelligence officer, and the various conscientious objectors, war resisters, and homosexuals he comes into contact with in London as part of his duties.

But that soldier, Billy Prior, was also not left unscathed by his time at the front. After a breakdown, he was removed from active combat duties and underwent several months of therapy at Craiglockhart. When ‘cured’ he was attached to the Department of Munitions in their Intelligence Division. It’s during his tenure there that we see him begin to break down emotionally and psychologically. Eventually he is forced to consult with the one man who had helped him previously – Dr. Rivers.

One tends to assume that the war effort was universally supported in England – how else to explain the continued recruitment of young men to throw into the meat grinder of the Western Front – but there was an active and organised resistance to the war in England at the time. The Eye in the Door offers an interesting glimpse of that world and with a narrative that is both compelling and disturbing, Barker delivers a fascinating read that offers one more perspective on The Great War and how it changed a generation.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

At The Sharp End

By Tim Cook.

Volume One of a two-volume set, At The Sharp End is the compelling story of the Canadian Corps in the first two years of The Great War. From the first significant Canadian engagement in the Second Battle of Ypres in 1916 and on to the charnel house they called the Somme some 18 months later, Cook has taken the harrowing experiences of the infantrymen – those at the sharp end – and has woven them into a gripping, almost page-turning, narrative. And I say ‘almost’ only because his descriptions of life at the front are so powerful and the narrative so intense that the reader, like the front-line troops themselves, periodically has to withdraw to decompress and catch one’s breath.

The Western Front during the early years of The Great War was a brutal place to be. Life expectancy was often measured in days and hours. Friends and comrades were wounded, killed, and oftentimes simply disappeared in a “red mist” during the continued shelling that took place 24 hours a day along much of the front. Cook takes these facts and intertwines them with the battlefield history of major engagements, attacks, counter-attacks, and strategy, never losing sight of the terrible human cost.

Books – both fiction and non-fiction – describing the horrors of the front are not uncommon but what makes Cook’s account so forceful is that he has extensively researched and liberally uses excerpts from war diaries (actually forbidden, but fortunately for historians many men kept them anyway) and letters home. It is these entries and letters that constantly bring the reader back to the fact that these were real men, with wives and lovers and parents, who were thrust into this maelstrom and who tried to fight the good fight. Some survived, many didn’t.

The letters themselves were surprisingly blunt, especially considering they were going home to worried family members and friends an ocean removed from the carnage – John N. Beaton wrote to his father of the first German gas attack of the war: “It was the poisonous gases that killed a lot of our poor fellows. They did not have a chance to fight.” And some were perversely poetic with the imagery leaving nothing to the imagination – Lieutenant Coningsby Dawson wrote of The Somme: “When [the shells] struck, the ground looked like Resurrection Day with the dead elbowing their way into daylight and forcing the earth from their eyes.” One cannot read a line like that and simply dismiss it without emotion.

In addition to the letters and diaries, Cook includes facts and other details about the war in general and specific battles themselves that are not easily distilled from the more academic, if I can use that term, analyses of the war. For example, Cook reports that “an estimated 100 million 18-pounder shells were fired by the British and Dominion forces during the war – the equivalent of 44 shells, per second, every second of the day, for the duration of the 1,561 days of the war.” That’s simply an astonishing number, especially when one considers that’s the output from only one specific calibre of gun, in support of one army, on one side of the war. And if that doesn’t adequately describe the sheer mass of artillery fire that rained down on the troops at the front consider this, during the 5-month battle in 1916 “... parts of the Somme were subjected to more than 1,000 shells per square metre.” One square metre – just about the size of the chair I sat in while reading this book.

Heavily researched and well written, At The Sharp End is an excellent read for the serious military history scholar as well as for someone like myself who has an abiding interest in The Great War but more from the viewpoint of the men and women who were there. It’s an important addition to any World War I library, and I can’t wait to get to get my hands on Volume Two.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Great Karoo

By Fred Stenson

When I first picked up The Great Karoo I was anticipating a novel comparable to Three Day Road (Boyden), another story of Canadians at war. However unlike Three Day Road (which I would have read in one sitting if the need for food and sleep hadn’t interrupted), I found The Great Karoo to be a bit of a struggle.

The Great Karoo is primarily a story of Western Canadians fighting in the Boer War. The story line follows Frank Adams, a cowboy from Alberta who signs up with the Canadian Mounted Rifles, through training, across the ocean to South Africa, crossing the Great Karoo Desert, and into the thick of the fighting.

Frank is certainly not the best soldier Canada ever produced, but he manages to survive, and through the lens of his experience we see the war, its conduct, and the relationships these men develop with each other, their horses, and even, in some cases, the enemy.

I found the book interesting from an historical perspective as I learned a few things about the Boer War I didn’t know before. But surprisingly, for all the rich potential of the story, I found the tone of the book to be confusing, and even somewhat impassionate. The Great Karoo couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a war story, a story about the relationships between these Westerners, a story about South Africa, or a love story. The seeds were there – bits of all four were scattered about – but they never germinated into the fulsome, engaging tale of adventure, war, and personal experiences I was expecting. Consequently I developed no emotional attachment to the story or any of the characters – historical or fictional. Frankly by the end of the book it mattered not one whit to me who survived and who didn’t; I just didn’t care enough for any of the characters to celebrate their safe return or mourn their loss.

It took me a long time to read The Great Karoo as I could only read 5-10 pages at a time before something more interesting would attract my attention. That perhaps was partly the reason I couldn’t get “into” it - a bit of chicken and egg here – I didn’t commit the time to become consumed by the story, and I wasn't consumed by the story so didn’t expend the time and effort. So it could just be me and the head space I was in when reading this book, but I’m not so sure....

Is it “A truly magnificent novel” as David Adams Richards enthuses on the cover? Not in my opinion. It’s an interesting read and worth the effort if you are curious about the role of Canadians in the Boer War, but it’s certainly not a page-turner, and surely not “a deeply satisfying novel” as claimed on the overleaf.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Jupiter's Travels

By Ted Simon.

Jupiter’s Travels is one of those books that no motorcycle library should be without. Especially now that Boorman and McGregor’s epic motorcycle journeys, supposedly inspired by Ted Simon, have become so popular. In short, it’s a must-read for anyone interested in the genre.

Having said that, I must admit the anticipation far outstripped the reality of this book for me. For whatever reason I was just not able to really connect with Simon and his experiences. While he relates funny moments, moments (actually, days) of sheer terror, and everything in between, I found myself reading about them as a dispassionate observer – not really engaging beyond reading the words on the page. It’s almost as if Simon, who frequently talks about his feelings and the emotional impacts of his experiences as he journeys around the world, was afraid to really expose them to us through his writing in case they somehow lose potency for him personally.

However the reader does get a reasonable sense of what it was like in those far-off lands in the early 70’s as Simon – always exposed and vulnerable, just him and his Triumph motorcycle – makes his way around the world. He describes spectacular scenery, horrid road conditions, his relationship with his motorcycle, and the people, always the people. With few exceptions, complete strangers, initially just curious, become helpful and ultimately very friendly and supportive. (Having travelled North America by motorcycle extensively during the 1970’s, I can say his experiences in that regard were no different than those I had here in Canada and the US. Strangers would approach just to talk, offer assistance, or go totally out of their way to help. Quite a wonderful experience, and one that I have never duplicated while travelling by car.)

After nearly four years on the road and having travelled through Africa, America, Australia, India and points in between, Simon, not surprisingly, starts to lose interest in his journey. He senses the end is near and becomes consumed with his ‘homecoming’. In his rush to get back to England he finds himself “ ...moving mechanically through the landscape, undeviating, incurious...”. Interestingly, the exact phrase that I, had I his writing ability, might have used about the last 150 or so pages of this book.

So is it worth reading? Yes, if you are a fan of motorcycle road stories, and want to see what the fuss was all about. But it is certainly no page-turner.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

In the Hot Zone - One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars

By Kevin Sites

I finished this book about a month ago but have put off writing a review because, quite honestly, I wasn’t too sure how to communicate my somewhat conflicted thoughts on the book.

First, let me get the basics out of the way.

Kevin Sites is an award-winning photojournalist hired by Yahoo! News as their first Internet correspondent. His job: To spend a year traveling to, and reporting from, twenty hot spots around the world. The objective was not to provide more of the same-old crisis reporting that we see every day on the television news, but rather to try to get behind the scenes and shine some light on the human side of these tragedies so that the rest of us can, perhaps, gain a little better understanding of how the people themselves survive such horrific conditions.

This he does very well. In fact he does it so well, that I found the horror and misery sometimes a bit much to take in one sitting and so had to put the book down just to get a mental break.

Whether he’s talking about how rape is used as a weapon in the Congo, or interviewing a surprisingly forgiving young Israeli woman maimed by a suicide bomber, Sites manages to treat his subjects with humanity and compassion, and tells their stories in a simple, straightforward way that I found, on occasion, disarming. He clearly feels very deeply for these people and it shows in his writing.

It is very powerful.

As a snapshot of the very real human impacts of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’, it’s one of the best books I have read in a long time. And it should be necessary reading for every student of current history or political science if for no other reason than to clearly illustrate the results of failed wars and failed foreign policies.

But here’s my problem with the book – it’s simply too intense. The stories are, each and every one, compelling, but the fact that he has but a few pages to allocate to each means that he was unable to give us much more than the broadest brush of their experience, focussed, naturally enough, on the worst that mankind inflicts on others of different races/tribes/religions. Long before I was ready, Sites had already started reporting from yet another war zone, and I was left wanting to know much, much more about the people to whom I had just been introduced, their lives, their hopes and dreams.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is this was a great book, but it would be an even better 3 or 4 books!

Absolutely worth a read.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


By Gregory David Roberts

I think The Seattle Times reviewer nailed it: “Shantaram is a true epic. It is a huge, messy, over-the-top, irresistible shaggy-dog story.”

Shantaram is based on Roberts’ own personal history and his love of the city where he spent most of his fugitive years during the 1980s and where he now lives and works.

We meet the protagonist, Lindsay, when he arrives, for the first time, in Bombay. From then on, we follow his voyage of discovery of the city and its people. We see the city through his eyes. We smell it through his nose. We experience it through his life. In many ways, this is as much a story about Bombay as it is about Lindsay himself, and in the end, I think, every reader will also come to love Bombay at some level, although few would presume to have the attachment for it that Roberts so clearly has.

Lindsay’s journey really starts with Prabaker, a freelance Bombay guide who insinuates himself into his life by grabbing his bags as Lindsay exits the airport shuttle bus in downtown Bombay. A fast and enduring friendship is born from that chance meeting and it is Prabaker who introduces Lindsay (and the reader) to his city, his world. Lindsay, in response, embraces the city and the people and comes to know and love them both.

From living in the slums to consorting with prostitutes, freedom fighters and the Bombay mafia, Lindsay becomes part of the warp and weave of Bombay life, and Bombay becomes part of him: “Everyone in the whole world ... was Indian in at least one past life.”

In the beginning, when Lindsay is still somewhat in awe of the city, the book has a lightness and underlying sense of discovery and humour that offsets some of the misery and poverty that he encounters in his travels. To a large degree, that is due to the fact that Prabaker is still a major presence and influence in his life and in many ways continues in his role as Lindsay’s guide. However as Lindsay becomes more and more involved in the Bombay mafia, and with Prabaker’s untimely and accidental death, the story loses that sense of joy and wonderment and becomes progressively darker. Lindsay’s life becomes bleaker and more desperate, and it’s only periodically that we get to see flashes of the humanitarian Lindsay who set up and ran the medical clinic in the slum, or who marvelled at the resilience and joy to be found among even the most desperate of Bombay’s impoverished millions.

A great, rambling tale, Shantaram grabbed me from the very first page and kept me up well past my bedtime on more than one occasion. Highly recommended.