A long time ago I was reading a biography about Richard Burton called ‘Rich’ by Melvyn Bragg. The book used Burton’s own diaries and mentioned, amongst other things, Burton’s love of books. When Burton went on holiday he looked forward with delight to the contents of his ‘book bag’. I know it’s a pretty tenuous link but one thing I have in common with Richard Burton is a love of books and when I go on holiday, one of the delights of lying under a warm sun on my sun bed is a good, undisturbed read. I read a lot at home and on my lunch breaks at work but it’s a few minutes here and a few minutes there and whenever I get interrupted it kind of breaks the flow. Some books, as we all know, are just made for a really long, uninterrupted read so here are the books I took on holiday with me recently, all sourced from either the internet or secondhand bookshops.
Total Recall by Arnold Schwarzenegger
This book was a Christmas gift from Liz. She knows I’m a big film fan and I do love reading about the background to films and how they are made. Arnold is from Austria and he tells us a little of his life there but mainly focuses on his desire to be a great bodybuilder and to eventually go to America. There is a lot of talk about the process of competitive bodybuilding and the different muscles, muscle definition, reps and squats and all that stuff. Arnold eventually wins various competitions and is wondering how he can compete in the USA when he gets an invitation to do just that. The bodybuilding industry is a close knit one and there seem to be various people welcoming him to California, helping him to find a place to stay and so on. He wins more competitions and makes a little money. He starts a mail order business selling magazines and pamphlets about himself and his body building techniques. He brings one of his Austrian friends over and the two begin a bricklaying and home improvement business. His big break is getting a film part as Hercules and even though the production eventually goes bust it seems to give him a taste of the film business and he wants more. He plays Conan the Barbarian in the film version of a comic book hero and pretty soon he plays the Terminator and goes on to success after success, even becoming governor of California.
I’m not sure I actually came away liking Arnold. I know this is an autobiography but it’s a very me, me, me book and Arnold is constantly bigging himself up. The final chapters about his political career are perhaps the most interesting. He had thought about running for governor but senior republicans seemed to have been more interested in another candidate. However, when Gray Davis was elected in 2000, there seems to have been something of a backlash and there is a curious precedent in Californian politics. The public can demand a recall, a new election in which the public either go for the elected governor or someone new. Arnold entered into the recall and won. He seems to have been in an odd position politically. He was a Republican but had married into the Kennedy family who are Democrats but his success as a politician seems to have come from holding the centre ground in California and bringing Republicans and Democrats and getting them to work together.
At the end of the book Arnold gives us his personal philosophy and his rules for success.
Verdict: I’m not sure whether Arnold wrote this book just to give us his story or to further promote himself but if I had to choose, I’d probably say the latter. Having said that, Mr Schwarzenegger is a man who gets things done and has a positive attitude. Perhaps I should take another look at his rules for success.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
This is not a book I brought on holiday but one I found on the shelves of our rented villa in Lanzarote. I started reading it when I got a little bored with Arnold Schwarzenegger and liked it so much I just carried on to the end. It is a real pleasure to read something by a master wordsmith and I enjoyed every minute even though I had read this novel years ago. Young Pip, apprenticed to be a blacksmith, is invited to the home of an eccentric rich woman, Miss Havisham, purely for her amusement. Later in his young life he finds he has ‘great expectations’ and is to inherit a remarkable property. He is taken to London to be brought up as a gentleman and although he is told that his benefactor has asked to remain a secret, he naturally assumes it is Miss Havisham. At the beginning of the book, Pip encounters Magwitch, an escaped convict on the marshes near his home. He compels Pip to bring him some food and a file. He is captured and transported to Australia and later we find, much to Mr Pip’s shock and amazement that Magwitch is the mysterious benefactor.
The book is rightfully one of Dickens’ best loved stories and is a wonderful read. I’ve always thought it had a rather ambiguous ending and in fact in my edition back home, it is one of those with various notes and background information, I am advised that Dickens felt that it was important to assure the reader that Pip had a future with Estella, the spoilt adopted daughter of Miss Havisham and so changed the ending slightly. Pip of course did want a future with Estella but I still feel the book leaves a happy ending slightly uncertain.
Verdict: An absolute classic from a master storyteller.
A Mad world, My Masters by John Simpson
This is a collection of globe trotting stories from John Simpson who has travelled the world as a journalist for the BBC. These though are travel stories with a difference, for instance in the first chapter he talks about airports, not the airports that I generally use, tourist destinations like Spain and Greece. The ones Mr Simpson mentions are airports in war torn Angola and Bosnia, and places like Kabul in Afghanistan and other places where he has had his passport and papers routinely torn up or thrown into a river by laughing revolutionaries and mercenaries. He tells us about headlong dashes to catch flights, including one somewhere in eastern Europe where he was in such a mess after weeks living rough the stewardess was reluctant to let him on board, especially as he had a first class seat. His fellow passenger in the next seat asked to be moved. Luckily John wasn’t flying on a budget airline like the ones I travel with.
On one occasion in Afghanistan with the Mujahadeen, a bearded man appears dressed in white robes. He tries to get the Mujahadeen to murder Simpson for $500. It later turned out that the man was Bin Laden. Simpson talks nonchalantly about many other encounters with revolutionaries such as Arkan, the Bosnian warlord. There are other chapters on dictators that he has met and other sometimes ordinary people who have impressed him, like the simple village priest trying to make life safer for his fellow villagers in Colombia, one of the great drug producing countries of the world.
Most of his stories are hugely fascinating although the more interesting ones are about people, either the ones he has interviewed or the ones who work with him, his fellow journalists and sound-men, cameramen and so on. Most of this book is about the days when a BBC crew consisted of a cameraman, a sound-man, a producer and sometimes even others. Today, Simpson’s crew would consist of him and one other doing the filming and editing. There are some TV journalists today that even have to film and edit themselves.
The last part of the book where the author talks about his love for middle eastern rugs and antiques and the process of bartering that goes with buying those things was perhaps not my cup of tea. Verdict: A patchy read with some very fascinating chapters as well as some not so interesting ones. Generally, though, this was indeed an excellent read.
The Firm by John Grisham
There is a process by which I choose books to take with me on holiday. I like to think it’s a thoughtful process combining different genres of books, some novels, maybe the odd classic, and some biographies and autobiographies. What actually happens is that the day before our trip I’ll just grab something near to hand that I know I haven’t read yet and shove it in my suitcase. Anyway, that’s how I ended up with the books you see above. Last year I read The Rainmaker by John Grisham and I thought it was a pretty good read. I must have mentioned that to Liz so she filed that away and got me a stack of Grisham novels for my last birthday. The Firm isn’t a bad read and in my case it was a nice change of pace after reading Dickens and John Simpson’s globetrotting memories. It’s a good story but like a lot of Grisham’s works, its more plot driven than character driven. The characters are sort of bland templates that I’ve recognised in a lot of his novels and so far I’ve only read three. Anyway, characters aside, this is a really original story about a young guy who graduates from law school and gets head hunted into a firm he has never heard of but which offers tremendous financial benefits, a brand new BMW, and an ultra cheap mortgage as well as other financial bonuses. The downside as he comes to learn later is that the firm is just a cover operation to launder money for a big mafia crime family and the FBI wants our hero James McDeere, to help them.
Verdict: Highly enjoyable and a great holiday read but nothing more, although that didn’t stop the book from becoming a best seller as well as a hit film in the 1990’s.
The Woman in The Window by AJ Finn
I’m not sure I would normally have picked up this book if I hadn’t run out of books to read. I saw this on the shelf in our rented villa and Liz had read it and mentioned about numerous references to old black and white films which were right down my alley, apparently.
Anyway, I thought I’d give it a go and I’m very happy that I did. It’s about a woman called Anna Fox suffering from agoraphobia who cannot venture outside her house. She is in effect almost imprisoned there but spends her time playing online chess, seeing two therapists, one physical and one psychological as well as taking medication and drinking a whole lot of Merlot. She also spends a lot of time watching old films on TV and DVD as well as watching her neighbours.
She hears a terrible scream one night although no one else seems to hear it. She questions her tenant who lives in her basement but at the time in question he was doing some work while wearing earphones.
She meets Jane Russell from across the road, not the Jane Russell from the films but a pleasant lady whom she invites in and has a glass of wine with. Later through the windows of Jane’s house, she sees her get stabbed. Anna calls the police and tries to go across to the house but she cannot get over the road due to her agoraphobia and she ends up in the park where she is found by paramedics.
When she surfaces, we find that no one believes her story and also that Jane Russell is still alive, except, she’s a different Jane Russell to the one Anna saw murdered.
The tension builds nicely in this thriller and a number of shocks are dropped in front of the reader along the way as we find out what has caused the agoraphobia and what really happened over the road.
This was also made into a film starring Amy Adams as Anna Fox although I’ve yet to see it.
Verdict: Great read, so much so that when we left the villa, I had to take it with me to finish on the plane home. To be fair I did leave behind The Firm to replace it.