Book Review: Frank Sinatra Has a Cold and Other Essays by Gay Talese

The title piece of this collection was mentioned in The Girl in the Spider’s Web and after a quick Google I decided to check out Talese’s writing. And I’m glad I did so.

Talese is a fantastic writer with a great eye for detail and small, quiet moments. His writing is engaging, warm and filled with clever observation. He was one of the front runners of “New Journalism” which was more subjective, literary and informal than what had come before. 

Talese puts you right in the heart of his stories and the focus of his pieces is informed by his attitudes and feelings. He writes about boxer Floyd Patterson languishing in misery and embarrassment after a loss to Sonny Liston, a melancholy portrait reflecting his habit of empathy for the defeated. 

The pieces are collected from over thirty years and so a theme is hard to pin down. What does appear in several is fragile or damaged masculinity. Most evident in Patterson hiding out after a loss it appears elsewhere; Joe Louis is shown in middle age, his prime years before, Frank Sinatra’s talent, his voice, is shaken by illness and this throws him off. Similarly in an article from the ’90s we see two enemies of the American establishment in the ’60s, Muhammad Ali and Fidel Castro, meet as ageing men both with poor health. 

Sinatra demands to be in charge, is shown to be a man who hates disrespect and being made to look foolish. Patterson has a fake beard in his dressing room so he can sneak out should he lose. Talese homes in on these insecurities, on male proud it’s even in the story he tells of his father where a wily tailor tricks a mafioso using the man’s vanity and fear of looking stupid to win the day. 

While many pieces feature famous faces there are other examples where Talese turns his focus on less well known subjects. He writes about the offices of Vogue in a wry piece where he steals the language of the magazine to describe it’s workers. There is an article about the dedicated, grim work of an obituary writer at a major newspaper as well as personal essays about his father in Italy or how he became a writer.

Despite the time he wrote in Talese seems liberal and even handed. His portraits of black boxers avoids racist stereotyping or condescension, which can mar other articles from this era. The one misstep is that during the Sinatra piece he refers to Ali by his former name Clay, which many sportswriters were guilty of, but it’s hard to see any malice here, perhaps ignorance or the insistence of an editor?

Talese’s writing and the empathy, insight and understanding that resonates through it show that he was a student and lover of human nature, and a keen observer. Each portrait is engrossing and detailed, providing a real sense of all who feature.

A great read and I shall be checking out more of his writing in future.

Verdict: A talented nonfiction writer Talese produces essays which are involving and insightful. He captures the small, quiet moments that reveal the bigger characters and deeper stories. A delight. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO. 


Book Review: Commitment by Didier Drogba

Cards on the table time, I’m not a massive Didier Drogba fan. This is probably because despite being a skilled footballer I felt he was too prone to diving and he played for Chelsea during an era when I severely disliked the team (mainly because of the tag team of tools that was Ashley Cole and John Terry).

But I received this book as a Christmas present from my big sis, who likes Drogba a lot because of his Christian beliefs and charity work. To be fair to the guy, he does seem to do a lot of good work and has donated a lot of his sponsorship cash to worthy causes. 

This book details some of this work, and the reasons behind his charitable work as well as his personal life. Born in Ivory Coast he moved to France as a young boy where he moved frequently as he lived with his journeyman footballer uncle. A lover of the beautiful game from a young age he wished to follow in his uncle’s footsteps.

Missing out on academy football he was late in making it compared to his peers, but soon made up for this with a knack for scoring goals. This is what most of the book is devoted to, with the story divided by specific sections of his career.

For non football fans it might be a bit of a struggle as it’s mainly about how he did every year, the goals, injuries, triumphs and failures along the way. The sections about family and charity are separate, and feel tacked on.

Drogba comes across well enough and it does give a little bit of background to the dressing room atmosphere and his explosions on the field. But the insights are rather limited and the writing is thoroughly pedestrian. 

Maybe it’s because of the language barrier, but there’s a genuine lack of humour or depth. It’s an easy read, but uninspiring. But as I used it to help pass time on night shifts this actually turned out to be a positive- just about interesting to keep you going and easy enough for a sleep deprived mind.

An okay read if you’re a huge Chelsea or Drogba fan, but for others might be a bore.

Verdict: It passes the time, but is rather dull and lacks the humour, scandal or insight to make it a great autobiography. 5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Medic! By Ben Sherman

Since my teens I’ve been fascinated by the Vietnam War and have read several books about it. This one, a memoir of one man’s war is unique in that it deals with a man who was drafted but refused to carry a weapon.

Sherman requested to be listed as a conscientious objector, as his personal beliefs meant that while he was happy to serve his country he wasn’t willing to kill for it. His objections are overruled and he is sent to basic training, where he refuses to pick up a rifle. After a brief spell as a military prisoner he is transferred to become a medic and ships out to the war.


I admire Sherman for his courage in sticking with his beliefs and also for the honesty in his writing. He describes simply but effectively the horrors he witnesses and his emotions throughout. He repeatedly opens up about his fears and doubts.

His war is slightly shorter than the average tour but not without incident. Originally placed at the morgue he then moves on to his posting where he medics rotate through three jobs- surgery aboard a ship, combat medic on the ground with the troops and then on helicopters for medevac missions.

During one mission and under fire, he falls from the chopper and is listed KIA. Dazed, wounded and alone, Sherman is haunted by ghosts of dead friends and drifts in anspd out of consciousness, terrified of what might be hiding in the jungle. It turns out he isn’t alone, his only companion being a deranged officer. Nicknamed Captain Buttshot because he has been shot three times by his own men, he makes poor company and Sherman worries for his safety.

Luckily a fellow medic comes out to rescue him, and he returns to base where he discovers that his colleague Smitty has been looking out for him for longer than he thought and hides him from the front until he recovers.

It’s a short book but well written and engaging, with Sherman being a no frills writer who delves into his memories of his time in Vietnam. As a medic he saw the horrors of war up close and experienced the tension of waiting for attack and the terror of combat. 

It’s refreshingly low key and as a conscientious objector he isn’t going hi but admits to not having been one of the protestors. In a way he highlights the middle ground, the disinterested youth who were sucked into this war. And his return to the world means he discovers what has been going on and how divisive the war is.

Sherman provides a unique and atypical war story, and it’s admirable that he doesn’t try to avoid service but stays true to his belief. His war shows the odd mix of bureaucracy and chaos that was his life in the army. The impression is one of young men thrown into a mad, confused conflict with only ten days of medic training to help him deal with the carnage he would be faced with.

Verdict: An interesting and well done memoir of one man’s war and principles. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Books v. Cigarettes by George Orwell

This is the third nonfiction Orwell book I’ve read (after Homage to Catalonia and Down and Out in Paris and London) and I definitely prefer them to his fiction. This book contains a handful of articles that he wrote which cover a range of topics including his experiences in school and a French hospital, the threat to freedom of speech and books.

The title piece sees Orwell thinking about how much cash he spends on books and why reading had fallen out of favour. It’s dry and I’ve always found old money slightly confusing, but it’s interesting to see reading weighed up against other pursuits and Orwell observes that it is not just cost that can be blamed.
The book works at it’s best when he’s writing about personal experience which gives him an opportunity to use his keen observation and description to great effect. When talking about a hellish hospital in France or his miserable time as a schoolboy he writes in evocative style, honest about his emotions and recollections. The events and characters are utterly real to the reader, and his insight is keen.

But his talent is linking these personal experiences with wider themes and ideas. He talks about how doctors and medical attitudes have changed, how the hospital in France could never exist in Britain and how his schooldays represented the end of an era of snobbishness and petty cruelty which he celebrates being consigned to the past.

Most interesting is his writing about his patriotism, his feeling as World War II loomed that he would do what he could for his country. He writes openly about how as a teen he dismissed all patriotism as foolish, but now writes about it in a different way. His patriotism seems to me the same I feel, a love for country which doesn’t mean blind acceptance or faith. He knows Britain is flawed, but he knows it is better than the Nazis and has good points.

It’s a quick, interesting read and Orwell is an immensely talented writer. The dryer parts drag a little, and it’s dated but the keen observation and intelligence shines through.

Verdict: Not every essay is a winner, but it’s all written well and Orwell impresses with his ability to express his memories in such evocative and full fashion. A good book to dip in and out of. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Kindle Single Bumper Edition

A little bit of a change today as I’m going to review three books in one post. Over the Christmas period I read a few Kindle Singles, the short books Amazon offer for their e-reader. I’ve grouped them together as I thought it would be better than trying to fit three separate posts in.

First up was I Murdered My Library by Linda Grant, a charming read which sees novelist Grant talk about the dilemma she faces as she prepares to move to a smaller place and realises that amazingly there is such a thing as too many books.

Grant describes her sprawling, book filled house in a way that would make a book lover green with envy and during her clear out touches on how the books we read and keep often carry more than what is on the pages in between. Writing with easy charm she talks about the memories attached to some of the books, how her personal library both shows how she has changed over the years while also influencing those changes.

What could just be one woman’s clear out is far more involving thanks to skilled writing with a light touch. Addressing changing attitudes to books and reading, the influence of new technology and the passing of time, Grant writes beautifully and in a way that reader’s who hoard books like me will relate to. 

While Grant talks of one woman’s small scale story, M. J. Foreman’s Bomber Girls deals with several women who played a part in a larger story. Shining a light on a corner of World War II that I was unaware of, Foreman writes about the female pilots of the ATA (Air Transport Auxillary) who during the war were responsible for transporting planes to wherever they were needed.

These brave women flew a variety of planes, often in poor conditions and with little training on that model. They encountered sexism and danger along the way, and while Germany and Russia had female fighters and bombers, the Brits refused to let the ladies carry ammunition, leaving them defenceless against attack.

Unfortunately the book highlights the flaw of the Single format as Foreman is unable to provide any real depth or insight into the women and their war. It’s an interesting enough read but really only a taster, and I feel that I’ll probably look into more books about these young women. Perhaps focusing on one or two pilots would have been better, but the scope is too broad and so we get intriguing snapshots rather than a detailed account. It also suffers as Foreman is a rather uninspired writer.

If Foreman’s prose feels flat this is not a problem afflicts Mishka Shubaly in Are You Lonesome Tonight? I’ve read a few of Shubaly’s Singles now, and while they’ve been a mixed bag there’s no denying that the man has a talent for honest, raw writing.

In this book Shubaly opens with an angry, tear filled argument in the street and a suggestion of lies being revealed. He then jumps back to meeting and connecting with a woman online. Detailing their online communications and his growing affection with open emotion the reader sits uncomfortably, drawn into his warm words but aware it will end badly.

The bad ending arrives with a surprising twist at which point everything crashes down around him and the recovering addict struggles with a tumult of emotion. It’s written in such raw terms that it’s like watching a friend break up, feeling their pain but unable to help. That’s not that Shubaly is a whining heartbroken wreck, his writing is well done with a good eye for metaphor and visceral description and also some dark humour. A great read of heartbreak, betrayal and obsession.

Verdicts:

I Murdered My Library: Well written and relatable look at books and our relationship with them. Book lovers will find themselves nodding along. 7/10.

Bomber Girls: An interesting story but handled poorly, with not enough depth to satisfy. 5/10.

Are You Lonesome Tonight?: Brilliantly written and involving, Shubaly is a gifted and genuine talent. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Football Neutral: Season 2013/14 by Jim Smallman

I adored this book, and found myself really wanting to go out and take in a football match (it has been far too long). The book is a collection of blogs that comedian Jim Smallman wrote after deciding that while he was on the rode he may as well enjoy his Saturday afternoon away from home and decided to watch a match every chance he got.

A Leicester City fan, Smallman decides that he can’t just go and watch his own team, and that he will avoid premiership matches, instead embracing lower league matches and a new team every match day.

This is what makes the book such a joy as Smallman writes with warmth and affection for the teams and fans he meets along the way. From Championship all the way down to non-league he slots games into his free time and sees glamour ties like Aldershot vs Wrexham. He appears to enjoy most of the matches, describing the action with some good football knowledge and a keen eye for people watching.

He’s a charming and funny companion in the stands and captures the atmosphere and appeal of going to live games. Every entry is well written and entertaining, with even the more dire matches written about with energy and wit. Throughout he is engaging and excited about football, interested in the clubs and their fans and stories. It’s also nice to see someone open about their oathing of certain clubs (for Smallman it’s Coventry and MK Dons, although he shows Coventry sympathy I would struggle to muster for Cardiff).

As well as being about football it’s also an interesting look into the life of a working comedian. There’s a second book available collecting the next season’s matches and it has gone right into my “to read” list. It also makes me want to go see a live match again, and so in the new year I might wander over and take in a Barry match.

Verdict: A warm and amusing read which will appeal to any football fan and captures life in the stands, and gives a snapshot of life in the lower leagues. Smallman is a funny and charming writer and his enthusiasm is infectious. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Elephant in the Room by Jon Ronson

Finally the US Presidential election is drawing to a close. The process is so long and convoluted that by now everyone just wants it over with. I’m hoping that Hilary Clinton emerges as the victor because despite her flaws the alternative is terrifying.

Donald Trump is an irresponsible narcissist who would be too much if he was a fictitious character. Nobody would buy it. But sadly truth is stranger than fiction and The Donald (contender for lamest nickname ever) is a walking, talking embodiment of some of the worst personality traits out there. That he has made it to the final two is depressing.

As with the Brexit result in the UK, Trump’s success has emboldened bigots and racists. They see the popularity as a sign that the tide is turning and more people are agreeing with them. After the election, regardless of result, the hornet’s nest of hate, fear and anger which has been stirred up will not disappear overnight.

Trump has found favour with the far right and the “alt-right”, which is the focus of this short book by Jon Ronson. It focuses on an old acquaintance of Ronson’s, Alex Jones who he met while investigating conspiracy theories for Them and who some may know for his intense rants online on topics like government cover ups, Satanism and Justin Bieber.

Jones in full flow

It’s an interesting and well done read, with Ronson amiable and honest in his writing. He admits that, despite Jones’ more out there theories, he likes the man. He talks about attending Trump’s rallies and of the almost cult like atmosphere, of how the fringe appears to have taken over the centre.

It’s hardly new ground, although I did learn some more about the background of Trump’s associates and it’s interesting to have a snapshot into the supporters. It’s almpst sad that Jones is shown to have fallen for Trump’s platitudes and attempts to win his support in a way a more experienced media figures saw through.

Ronson also touches on how polarised politics have become and how entrenched positions have become, it’s an interesting look at the current political landscape in the US as they prepare for their election.

Verdict: A short, well written piece by Ronson which gives a quick look at the fringe players in the Trump story and his rallies. It’s not comprehensive but it’s still a decent and insightful read. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Big Race by Michael Brick

A cross country motorcycle race featuring a host of odd characters from across the USA. The whole thing set up by a man with a questionable past and dodging allegations of being a con man, but who claims to be doing it to help the Native American community that adopted him. 

That all sounds very interesting doesn’t it? That’s what attracted me to pick this up on my Kindle, but unfortunately as a read it doesn’t quite measure up to the premise or reader expectation.

It’s a Kindle single so part of this is down to length but a larger problem is that Brick never probes that deeply. There are hints that the organiser of the challenge is an eccentric, suspicious chap but it never gets to whether he is a con man or not.

In fact Brick struggles to capture a sense of any of the players beyond brief, simple sketches. And as the book unfolds all the questions that are set up go unanswered. Worst of all the writer is quite a way from the action of the race.

Brick talks about wanting to work out more about Jim Red Cloud, but never delves that deep and instead relies on a couple of hints and a sneaking suspicion he holds, but the man remains a mystery.

The writing is readable and unfussy, which isn’t always a bad thing, but here it just feels flat in places and the lack of humour or genuine insight makes this an immensely forgettable book.

Verdict: An intriguing premise is let down by shallow examination and lack of any real narrative arc. Too brief and light to make much of an impact or satisfy the reader. 3/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Baby Steps by Mara Altman

This is the fourth book I’ve read by Altmann and like the others it sees her respond to a personal issue by researching the topic and writing about it. In this case, the fact that everyone around her is having babies and that, newly married, she is being asked about her own plans around children.

Altman talks to family, friends and experts about society’s obsession with babies and the pressures on women to become mothers. It’s personal and humourous but it touches on some big issues about parenthood and gender roles.

Throughout Altman asks herself whether she even wants kids herself, and flip flops back and forth on this issue. To see if she’s suited to motherhood she tries on a fake belly, looks after a robot baby and these are quite interesting side stories but really this is about her weighing up her options and trying to make the right decision for her future.

It’s a Kindle Single so rather short, and some ideas are half explored, but it’s still a warm and entertaining quick read.

Verdict: Altman writes with warmth and humour, and this is a quick and entertaining read about one woman deciding what she wants to do with her life. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: As They Slept Part 3 by Andy Leeks

This is the third part in Leeks’ series of writings completed on his daily commute following a Facebook argument over the fact that those who sleep on their journey to work are wasting time.

Like previous installments this means that this is a series of quick, short entries which provide a combination of observation, anecdote and rants. Your enjoyment depends on how much you agree with Leeks. Personally while he writes with some humour in places he’s often a bit too old fashioned and curmudgeonly for my liking. 

Does it really matter if someone else uses Angry Birds to help pass the time? 

What’s weird is that halfway through there’s a piece where Leeks talks about how is wife gets fed up with his optimism. This doesn’t fit with the grumbling that has come before,  although it could be that his optimism takes a while to get going in the mornings.

There are bits that made me smile and a few good observations, but for much of the book it seems like Leeks is a bit of a joyless grump.

A section near the end about his daughter getting pneumonia while on holiday livens things up and shows a softer side. 

Leeks has skill as a writer but is too prone to grumbling, and lacks the wit to make his moaning properly funny. 

Verdict: Not without charms but at times Leeks irritates with his complaints and petty peeves. The idea is solid and fair play to him for writing every day, but too often he misses the mark. 5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.