Posted by: billpurdue | July 17, 2008

16 East and West – Contrasts and similarities

I’ve been reading two books, one about the USA and one about Russia. The first is by the BBC’s USA correspondent Matt Frei , now the presenter of BBC World News America, and talks about his experiences of life as the Washington correspondent. It’s a mixture of high politics and daily life in that paranoid city Washington DC. The second is a TV tie in from the recent series by Jonathan Dimbleby who recounts his long and arduous journey across Russia from north to south and west to east.

 

I have read a decent chunk of Matt Frei’s book, but decided to give it up, not because it is badly written or because it isn’t fascinating, it is both of those, but because the more I read about life in the USA – political or domestic , the less I like it, though I have to keep telling myself that he is talking about Washington. Hopefully things are different in other parts of America. The book begins with Matt’s first experiences of the country when he arrives in 2002, from getting a driving licence (not as simple as you would think) to finding somewhere for him and his family to live. To quote the book “what Las Vegas is to sin, Seattle to coffee, Hollywood to movies and Detroit to cars, Washington is to power” The political atmosphere within what is called the Beltway (like the M25 around London) must be stifling – the daily motorcade including two armoured stretch limos, motorbikes and an ambulance just to get the Vice President to the office and the sheer number of war memorials (246 within Washington), not to mention the frequent security alerts. No, America, at least that sort of American life as experienced in Washington DC, does not entice me.

 

I have to admit that having other books around the house, demanding to be read, was also another factor in my giving up that one, but for those interested in American politics and some of the stark contrasts on offer in that country, I would recommend Matt Frei’s Only in America [4th Estate, £16.99, 9780007248926]. Meanwhile, I’m reading Jonathan Dimbleby’s Russia: a journey to the heart of the Land and its People  [ BBC Books, £25, 9780563539124] . Having seen most of the episodes of the tv series late on Sunday evenings, I wanted to read the book and it’s here that we find that the author is on a kind of spiritual journey as well as his exploration of different parts of Russia, again a land of stark contrasts. The book begins with Mr Dimbleby explaining that the opportunity to undertake the journey came up at a very troubling time in his personal life. After over thirty years of marriage, in 2003 he began an affair with an opera singer, Susan Chilcott. Susan was diagnosed with cancer and when it became evident that she had only a short time to live, Jonathan left his wife to be with her until she died in September 2003. The damage to his first marriage could not be repaired and eventually Jonathan met someone else, but the grief for Sue was still there when the Russian journey began. On a special website just for the programme and the book, you can watch a video of the man himself giving his own introduction.

 

But the book is not about Jonathan’s emotional journey, though he is reminded of his grief from time to time. If you saw the programmes, you’ll know that he travelled from Murmansk in the far northwest of Russia to Vladivostock near the border with North Korea, meeting a wide variety of people and experiencing various deprivations en route. He tries to find out what the future holds for Russia and talks to people who compare the situation now with the Soviet era and finds many differences, but also many similarities. Things have changed dramatically, but not necessarily for the better. I’m really enjoying the book and might just finish it, though Russia holds no enticements for me either.

 

Just browsing

 

I’ve been lurking in the bookshops again and have spotted several titles which I’d like to see more of.  

Do you remember those Ward Lock Red Guides, the deep red cloth covered regional guides for various parts of Britain? They are collectors’ items now and there’s even a website for Red Guide enthusiasts. I don’t know what enthusiasts think about the new reprints which appeared at the end of June. It certainly took me back a few years and wishing that I hadn’t thrown away the copies I used to have all that time ago. Each of the eight titles issued so far costs £9.99 and is a very good facsimile reprint.

 

Industrial Derbyshire by Michael E Smith [Breedon Books, £14.99, 9781859836071]  looks at the history of Derbyshire’s industries and their part in the Industrial Revolution and afterwards. It covers a wide range of industries from Crown Derby and the Midland Railway to Rolls Royce and Toyota. I would like to have seen better illustrations, but then this would have put the price up I suppose.

 

David Benioff’s City of Thieves  [Sceptre, £12.99, 9780340822302] is being touted as a possible bestseller – the amazon.co.uk  page lists glowing accolades for this, his second novel from all the best reviewing magazines and newspapers. It’s set at the time of the siege of Leningrad. Worth a try ?

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