Monday, November 14, 2016

Book review: Psychogeography by Merlin Coverley



"Psychogeography: The study of specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals," definition from the International Situationiste movement.

This is a useful guide to an idea that is a much literary these days as it was originally political.

With roots in the works of Defoe, with his plague year trawl through London, and Blake's thoughts about London and Jerusalem, the idea of charting and reacting to an environment went political with the situationist movement in the 50s and 60s. Figures like Guy Debord set about defining psychogeography and underlining the idea of people using it as a tool to find their own space, to create something new.

But in a modern world which seems to work against the pedestrian it has become less about trying to change the environment than sharing a reaction to it.

That's not to say the current psychogeographers do not bemoan modern planning and Sinclair was particularly vocal about the development of the Olympic Park and there has been plenty of criticism of the way Thatcher changed communities during her time in office.

But as Michel de Certeau noted in the 80s things had started to change and even experiencing the environment was becoming a varied experience.

Voyeurs look down from the sky scrapers and walkers are down below. Psychogeography is about giving the emphasis back to the walkers. The vouyeur loses the individual and sees the city as a homogeneous whole.

"Their story begins on ground level, with footsteps," writes de Certeau.

Technology is working against the walker surveillance and closed areas etc as a result the novelist and poet not the psychogeographer who is able to capture the emotions of a city.

London has again become the centre with JG Ballard, Iain Sinclair and others.

Walking is again being seen as a tool for the writer. If someone wants to immerse themselves in the city then they need to do it on foot.

My only concern, which isn't dealt with in the book, is that not only has modern technology made it harder for the modern psychogeographers physically getting in touch with the ground but also in terms of having an open mind.

One of the themes of the book, whether it be about London, Paris or New York, is that psychogeographers can somehow find secret parts of the city and unlock hidden truths.

In the age of social media I find it hard to believe that rose secrets would remain so for very long or that it would be possible to walk to a destination keeping an open mind to allow the feelings it sparks to be felt genuinely.

In summary this is a very useful guide to the main ideas and people involved with psychogeography. Very interesting for anyone who has read Ballard, Sinclair, ackroyd or has an interest in major cities and a passion for walking in them.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Book review: Dottings of a Dosser by Howard Goldsmid

I have been reading The Worst Street in London by Fiona Rule, which is about Dorset Street in the Spitafields area.

One of the main reasons why that street and the neighbouring area went downhill in the Victorian times and became such a place linked with vice, poverty and crime was because of the lodging houses that dotted Dorset Street.

Lodging houses were places where people that could not afford weekly rent could pay just a few pence for a night's lodging. They were desperate folk that spent their waking hours trying to scrape together the money for the night. In theory there were rules that governed just how these lodging houses were run, but in reality people were packed in to foul smelling rooms so landlords could maximise their takings.

In an effort to get a glimpse of what this world was like I discovered the useful Dottings of a Dosser, which saw Howard Goldsmid go undercover to find out what these places were like.

Dressed in his tramp gear the 19 year old Goldsmid bravely set out to share his experiences of spending some nights in the most notorious lodging houses.

The lodging house is not just about the beds lined up next to each other in a stuffy room but starts downstairs in the communal kitchen area. Here the characters emerge with drunken couples fighting, old men sharing their survival wisdom and shocking tales of families struggling with infants in that environment.

Goldsmid rarely lasts more than until the early hours in rooms that are so stuffy and toxic as a result of the foul smelling drunken men that you can really sense the terrible atmosphere in those places. There is one room where his desperation to open the window and breath in fresh air is tangible.

The upshot of his adventure is that he concludes that the law is failing because it is not being observed and enforced. He also warns that people in that situation will surely not stand for it for ever and fears there could be a revolution.

The language is of its time and the references are in the context of the 1880s and the author would have expected the audience to have known those. But it is very readable. The decision he makes to go to different parts of London make sure that any sense of repetition is avoided.

This is an ideal companion to any reading into the state of the East End in the 1880s. It provides a first hand account of a real world that is far more shocking than fiction.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Book review: The Ghost Map - Steven Johnson



Last year I enjoyed Steven Johnson's series about where do great ideas come from- How we got to now, which was shown on the BBC and so already had an idea of who he was when I saw his name on the spine of this book.

Johnson is fascinated about how great ideas come to fruition and is a keen advocate of the theory that the big breakthroughs often come on the back of smaller ones. the concept of a single genius enjoying their light bulb moment is more of a fiction.

The same is here with it taking the efforts of John Snow and Rev Henry Whitehead to crack the cause of the cholera epidemic that ran through Soho in 1854.

Most people have a rough idea of what happened with Snow discovering that it was the drinking water that was the source of the disease and getting the pump shut off that had been spreading cholera.

But getting to that point took a long time and Snow was going against the consensus that diseases like Cholera were airborne.

What clinched the argument for Snow was his dedication in mapping the spread of the disease and finding the Broad Street pump had been the common link. But it also took the efforts of Whitehead, who initially disagreed with Snow and set out to disprove his theory. As he worked hard to counter the waterborne theory he managed to reinforce it by knocking down his own objections. It was Whitehead who found the original cholera case and traced how it found its way into the water supply.

The legacy of Snow's efforts were profound not just in the sense of linking cholera to water supply but also the way he mapped the spread of the disease. His Ghost Map is something that has been mimicked ever since and helped change the way scientists visualise data.

This is a story of the hard working hero plodding around the streets of Soho after working all day as a doctor fighting the establishment to find the real cause of the cholera outbreak.

It is a story well told but my only criticism is the sense of repetition of the main arguments. I got it the first time but there seems to be a fear from the author that unless he really spells it out the main points might be missed.

But that is a minor criticism because overall this book manages not only to share the story of what happened in 1854 but also the legacy. Snow's techniques combined with the internet, social media and the latest mapping techniques are being used right now to save lives. That is a profound legacy that has lasted well beyond the original cholera outbreak.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Psychogeography by Merlin Coverley

I must confess I have not quite finished this book but wanted to get some of my thoughts down about it before I forgot them.

Psychogeorgraphy is something that anyone who has read Iain Sinclair or Peter Ackroyd will be familiar with as it infuses their ideas of the history and development of London. But what exactly is it is perhaps something that is worth looking at on its own.


If geography describes nature and the physical environment then psycho geography describes the emotional reaction to that environment. The best way to experience it is on foot walking and sensing the different areas.

That's why Sinclair is such closely associated with it. Most of his books involve waking through an environment and then sharing observations and reactions to that space.

The ley lines stuff is more new age and had been largely forgotten until a 70s revival. The original theory related to the countryside and not so much to the urban environment. Ackroyd has picked up on this idea in London. Sinclair raised the idea Hawksmoor churches were on ley lines and there is some hidden force governing the development of certain areas of the capital.

What appeals most perhaps is the idea that a city can have different emotions - sad, happy, stressed etc -  and if you are prepared to walk through with an open mind and a critical eye then those secrets are ther to be unlocked.

Will post a fuller review when I get to the finish.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Underground thoughts


Thoughts at the half way point of: Underground Overground: A Passenger's History of the Tube  by Andrew Martin

One of the problems with history books, no matter how interesting the subject, is that facts have to be shared and as a result sometimes the narrative gets pulled back from heading off in other directions.

That problem does crop up here when there are moments when you want to get past the chronological timetable to explore just what happened in certain parts of the underground. Most of the time though the writing keeps you going with the promise that the delights of the future will come in time.

The attraction of this book was that as a regular user of the underground - my route to work includes North Greenwich to Bond Street on the Jubilee and then the Central Line to Oxford Circus - there is the desire to know more about it.

Despite the age of the network the tube is constantly evolving and it remains a constant source of conversation for its users. You just have to look at the excitement that the possible extension of the Bakerloo Line down to Catford is causing to get a glimpse into just what being on the network means.

Pick up an Evening Standard regularly and the tube, usually over crowding, will make its way onto the front pages, which it did recently with problems at Oxford Circus.

The Standard should know all about it because of its position as London's evening newspaper and as a journalist Andrew Martin brings a lot of that same style to this book. So far he has talked of the development of the rube and the mix of dreamers who wanted to improve the world to companies and individuals who hoped to make money.

Trying to make money out of it became a sought after mirage, which was largely popped by the experiences of the Circle Line, but thanks to those that tried the capital was left with a decent tube infrastructure.

There is still more of this book to consume but it is worth sharing thoughts at this stage for those looking for a history of the tube that is not too heavy and has enough additional anecdotes to make it come alive for the current underground user.

A full review will follow soon.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Review: Moon over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch


Having established most of the themes of his books in Rivers of London there is perhaps no surprise that this is more of the same with different ghosts to battle and a different part of London central to the action.

The first book, Rivers of London, concentrated on the Covent Garden area but this moves focus slightly towards Soho with the Cafe Royal and some of the dingy strip clubs that populate the side streets being venues for some of the action. You still get the history lessons about those parts of the capital and some of the major events and it is from something that happened in the second world war that the main story develops.

At the same time we get to know Peter Grant, the main character, that bit better and find out that as well as a policeman, trainee wizard and son of a jazz musician he is also a lover.

Some of the threads left at the end of the first book are picked up here and developed and others remain largely in the background, presumably with the intention of being picked up in the third or fourth volumes.

This is a darker book compared to the first, which had its moments as well, and there are some scenes that will impress themselves on your dreams. But the humour is there to create a good balance.

As Grant develops more of his skills the story of the police wizards, and magic more generally, starts to unfold. This is when it does get a bit Harry Potter with the idea of good and evil and the thought that there could be a Voldemort type figure out there waiting to try and put Grant and his boss out of business permanently. That is left hanging with the main case solved and the disruption to London and explained away by a Met keen to brush the existence of magic well under the carpet.

In many senses this is a second book that will appeal to anyone who enjoyed the first.  The danger is that the casual reader will find the barriers to entry too high. All of the ingredients are here for this to run and run with different areas of London providing the backdrop for another story. it will be interesting to see what lies ahead in the third book and whether or not it will keep that edgy feeling or go more in the direction of explaining the wizard's story, which might not deliver quite the same experience.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Review: Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

One of the cover lines describing this book asks you to imagine what would have happened if Harry Potter grew up and joined the police. In a very basic sense that provides a guide to the pages within but it also falls well short.

The Harry Potter reference comes because of the magic in the story. The idea of a policeman having the ability to talk to ghosts and as a result the chance to become a wizard's apprentice forms a large part of the story.

It gives Ben Aaronovitch a chance to introduce vampires, creepy ghosts that inhabit the bodies of innocent Londoners and an insight into the training of an apprentice wizard with lights formed by the mind one of the main speels that gets worked on.

As well as having fun introducing the idea that the modern streets of London could be populated by vampires and ghosts there is also a lot of mileage to be had in the main character Peter Grant because he is a young officer in the Met who has a mixture of wide-eyed wonder and cunning that makes the whole wizard's apprentice premise much more believable.

But for me the other main character in the book isn't Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, the last English wizard who lives in the Folly, an old building protected by magic, but it is London itself.

Set around Covent Garden and involving moments when the story of the City goes right back to its formation this is a tour through a particular area of the capital. Plenty of history is thrown in and facts about the police, the theatre and the area but it is usually done with a light touch. As a result you are learning about the story of London and the idea of wizards being employed by the Metropolitan Police feels as if it could legitimately be part of that tale.

The story is delivered with a mix of humour and when needed graphic horror as Grant gets to grips with the ghost of a frustrated actor. But there are other threads here that you know will be picked up in other books, including the references in the title, to the Rivers of London. It comes as no surprise to find out there is a Father Thames with his brood of children named after Thames tributaries. But there is also Mother Thames and the battle between the two runs as a backdrop throughout the book.

So on one level Peter Grant is Harry Potter in the Police. But on another this is so much more because the world he inhabits is not a fictional land of Hogwarts but London. The same London that is waiting for anyone to pop up at Covent Garden tube and stroll through. The ability to use the capital as a backdrop, provider of mystery and history is what makes this book stand out.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Dipping into some Leonid Andreyev


After deciding to dip into Project Gutenberg and see what was there, and to postpone getting bogged down further in the Dostoyevsky I'm trying to read, I downloaded The Crushed Flower and Other Stories by Leonid Andreyev.

It's shaping up to be quite a diverse collection of short stories with different techniques used here to cover such themes as adultery (The Crushed Flower), love and faith (Love, Faith and Hope) as well as the very short tale from the view point of a snake (The Serpent's Story).

The serpent tail did make me think of Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog, in the sense it takes the reader into an animal's mind. And I have to confess thinking of Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole series when reading The Crushed Flower, because it has that ability to show the reader an adult world through the eyes of an innocent child.

There are some great descriptive flourishes and you sense that this is a writer on a bit more of a mission to use literature as part of a political dialogue that was moving on towards revolution.

I'm only a few stories in to the collection but did want to share some initial reactions, which are favourable. Not everything he works but the vast majority does and you find yourself being drawn back to read more and wishing the tube journey to and from work was just those few stops longer.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

A short introduction to Turgenev


In a last ditch effort to try to have a go at using an e-reader I fired up the Nook on the tube to work this morning and taking advantage of some Russian short stories downloaded a while ago from Project Gutenberg managed to do a spot of reading.

What has out me off using the Nook up to this point has largely been the price of ebooks and the mixed experience of reading digitally. It still feels unnatural and it was only because it doesn't feel right to dump the Nook without giving it a fair go that I have chosen to use it today.

Anyway the upshot of it is that I was able to read a bit of Ivan Turgenev, who is an author I have not really dedicated anytime to before. I own some of his books but there has never really been a moment when they have been read. So today gave a chance to start to rectify that.

Mumu
This short story contains a great deal of the classic ingredients of great Russian literature. A central character of a pesant that is abused by his rich mistress. First the deaf and mute Gerasim is taken out of his beloved country and moved to Moscow at the whim of a lady who wants to use him as a watchman and courtyard sweeper; Then he falls in love with one of the laundry maids but again the mistress uses her power to force the girl to marry a drunkard in an attempt to get the man on the straight and narrow; Finally he saves a dog, named Mumu, and it becomes the love of his life before the same Mistress demands that it is killed because the barking keeps her up at night.

There is a great deal of tragedy and the story exposes the slavery conditions that most peasants found themselves subjected to by the rich from the Cities. Turgenev chooses a deaf and mute character because the man can only express his feelings through physical movement and the setting of his expression. But in many ways the peasants were mute when it came to talking of their own lives and any attempt to change things would have fallen on deaf ears.

It's one of those stories that you hope doesn't head the way it does but you keep reading and rooting for Gerasim because of the core values of the man to be true to himself.

It certainly would make me want to read more by Turgenev and I hop to in the next few weeks.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Review: A Country Doctor's Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov


Mikhail Bulgakov is world renowned for the brilliant The Master and Margarita but if you go back to the start of his writing career you get a slightly different but still hugely enjoyable experience.

The main difference with A Country Doctor's Notebook is that it starts in 1916 when the war is the background but the revolution and the Stalinistic oppression that hung over the rest of his writing has not yet arrived. As a result you get an insight into a country of extremes - light and dark is Bulkgakov's metaphor - with vast differences between cities and the countryside.

Sent as a newly qualified doctor to head up a rural hospital with a staff of two midwifes and an assistant the main character and alter-ego for Bulgakov heads away from electricity, telephones and civilisation to a remote world where the weather and the roads can make a six mile journey take all day. This is an environment where ignorance about medical matters among the peasants is supporting the spread of syphilis and people fail to follow their courses of medication because they simply cannot grasp what the doctor is telling them.

But the stories about individual cases, used to illustrate the experience of being a country doctor, are told with a degree of warmth and humour that makes you stick with the story and grow to like the main character. Of course he can be boorish and arrogant but underneath he shares his constant insecurity about his lack of ability and inexperience with most medical crises.

The small hospital is not just a learning ground for him in terms of medicine but also as a man as he copes with facing the demons of isolation and loneliness for months on end. By the end he is not only a much more competent doctor but also a better observer of human nature.

For all but a couple of chapters the story focuses on the remote country hospital but once the main character leaves and heads back into civilisation to a larger city-based hospital there is a shift in direction. Now he uses the stories of others, both doctors, to illustrate the dark side of being in such a remote and isolated situation at such a young age as well as introducing the theme of the revolution and the battle for control of Russian in the civil war.

The last couple of chapters give off the sort of feeling that most of his work would have following the arrival of Lenin and his friends with a tension and fear that is not apparent before starting to creep in. It makes the earlier stories about the country hospital ones that can be seen with a degree of sentimentality.

The Russia described in the first two thirds of the book disappears not long afterwards under five-year plans and the persecution of rich farmers. There is a certain irony that just as Bulgakov starts to find his writing wings and soars with this descriptions of rural Russia the full stop at the end of the book is not just his return to the bright electric lights of the city but a stop to an era stretching back hundreds of years. You sense that not long after the ink dried on writing this book it became in large parts a work of almost instant history.






Published by The Harvill Press, 1995
Translated by Michael Glenny

Friday, January 17, 2014

Going for a Russian lit/history focus


Having been thinking about things now for most of this week the decision that has been reached is to opt for an area that I could read about all year with great happiness. As a result this blog will now be covering Russian literature and history.

Both of those areas are real passions and I think that having a focus will make it easier to keep the reading and the blogging going. I have read a few of the Russian greats but there are still plenty out there and as well as the classics I'm hoping to get into some more modern stuff, depending on what has been translated and is available.

The history theme is also going to provide me with a chance to have a better mix of fiction and non-fiction and provide an opportunity to occasionally complement the era used as the setting for a novel as a period of history to study in more depth.

To celebrate I have started reading A Country Doctor's Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov and am enjoying it immensely. Set during the First World War this is a rare Bulgakov where the spectre of Stalinism does not over shadow the tale and as a result you get a different take on Russia's problems at the time. The main theme is one highlighting the difference between rural Russia and life in the cities. The world that young Bulgakov is sent to to deliver his medical skills is dark in more than just the quality of the light.

Anyway hope things going forward will make more sense now this blog has a bit more of a direction.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

No longer the everyman

Thinking about what this blog should be about has lef me to a few possible options. When I was a child I remember going into a stamp shop and telling the man behind the counter that I enjoyed collecting stamps. He asked which ones and I replied "All of them". He then laughed and said that most serious collectors specialised in one country or one period and that although my collection was a good one for a young boy it lacked any focus.

I often think of that same conversation when I think of this blog. At the start the idea was that I would record all the books I read. The broad remit was that after years of just reading non-fiction there was a lot of catching up to do and so I would pick up some of the greats and get thoughts down on those. It was also an attempt to try and capture thoughts that would otherwise have been lost as a result of my leaky memory.

But there are various problems being an everyman blog. It leaves you often without direction, makes it hard to engage with a specific online community and prevents any great analysis from ever developing as you jump from genre to genre and period to period without enabling too much comparison.

So thinking about what I like to read a lot there are a couple of stand out options:

Russian literature and history has always been a passion of mine and I would be happy to go down that route. Pros are that it would keep me entertained for a long time. Cons are that the books tend to be fairly gloomy and I'm not sure a sustained diet of Russian lit would be good for the soul.

History, specifically modern, is something that I have studied in the past and there is plenty of material here. The Pros are that you can really get stuck into some interesting things, like my current interest in the Vietnam War. The Cons are that the books tend to be long, dense, not always that well written for the lay reader and can be hard to share.

IThe third choice is of course to combine the two but I'm not sure how that would work.

Plenty of food for thought there and I hope to make a decision soon and change the blog strapline and get a more coherent focus.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Must try harder


It's hard to believe that when I started blogging I took great pride in the output and used to pat myself on the back for doing at least a post a day, if not sometimes multiple entries.

So when I see the total posts of last year only came to 10 it is quite a shock and a graphic illustration of just how far things have changed. There are several reasons why things have slowed down:

* Time - I just don't seem to have any of it anymore. As a result of running a marathon last year (first and only) and a couple of half marathons I seem to spend the little time I have donning lycra and trying to fight the bulge.

* Kids - I have a young son, not yet two, and it's hard reading and blogging when there are special moments to be had with him. Milo is a real joy and along with his brothers deserve my attention.

* Motivation - The drive that used to be there at the start has almost completely burnt out. I know that this will never be a blog attracting thousands of hits, my interaction with people is poor and there are so many better alternatives (see the blogroll). I'm comfortable with that but am still working out just what this all means for the blog going forward.

* Readers block - this is a really serious one for me. Last year I just couldn't read without feeling stressed and the result was that I only managed to read a handful of books and most of the time started and abandoned reading books. I'm not sure what this is all about but suspect that it is psychological connected to some of the other factors I have listed here.

If I have one aim for this year it is not only to fall back in love with reading but also to try and work out what this blog is for. It is something that I want to provide me with enjoyment, that hopefully can be shared, but right now it is doing little of that. Hopefully that will change and I will work out a strategy for 2014.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Review: Chickenhawk by Robert Mason

This is the second book about the Vietnam war I have read in recent weeks as I amble through the history of that conflict that might see me take in a couple more before moving onto another subject.

Just as with Matterhorn, which was written from the view point of an infantry solider who was out in the bush coming into contact with the enemy on the ground this is also a personal history that is used to tell a larger tale about the war. This time around the focus is on the air with a Huey helicopter pilot the narrator of a tour of duty that sees him go from a believer to a sceptic and from a functioning human being to someone crippled professionally by PTSD.

The points that come out of this book are similar to Matterhorn with the enemy regularly underestimated and an arrogance of those controlling the war to believe that firepower and body counts would win and grind down their opposition. But with people in the field like Bob Mason who were trying not just to make sense of orders but stay alive and fight their own demons the chances of success appear to be limited.

The book flows well and there is a benefit perhaps of having a year tour from August 1965 to July 1966, because it by default gives a structure to a large part of the book once you get past the before and share a little bit of the after story. There are a few photographs online but my edition could have benefited from having a few. There is also a slight need perhaps to provide brief thumbnails of what became of some of the people that Mason mentions regularly throughout the book. Not all finish their tours at the same time and are left behind in Vietnam and the reader is left a little bit in the air wondering and hoping that they all came through in one piece.

Each book about the war comes from a different viewpoint and that is true of Chickenhawk. But if you read enough of them then a picture starts to emerge of an army that had the best of soldiers but a level of ignorance about the way to fight the war and of a political and military machine bogged down in spin. The Tet Offensive blew away the idea that the war was almost over and revealed that the strategy of body count was not working. But until that point you are left in a world, like Mason, where there is optimism mixed in with speculation that turns out to be based on spin and hope.

Having read Matterhorn and now Chickenhawk and got tales of the war from the ground and the air its hard not to feel depressed about how these young men were taken into a war they knew so little about. The stories are there to be read and hopefully the lessons are there to be learnt.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review: Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes


I have read a great many books about the Vietnam War because it has always interested me. I came to this book wondering if there's anything new to be learned from reading yet another account of the war.

 But I was pleasantly surprised and drawn in and found that despite being almost 600 pages it really was what you would term a page turner. Written by a marine who served in the Vietnam from the fall of 1968 to the fall of 1969, it covers the first few months of his tour of duty. In that time he is involved in two major battles that are relayed in such detail to give you a sense of the fear and tension those under fire felt. But this is not just about the frontline and also gives you a sense of the futility of war. Marlantes touches on some of the big themes about military leadership, the political dimension and the racial issues that were felt in society at the time. There are also consequences mixing young men from all over the US who sometimes struggle to respect each other and resort to extreme violence, fragging, those they don't agree with. In the end of the day most of the people who were fighting where 19 to 20 years old and what they're asked to do was perhaps beyond anybody.

Told through the eyes of lieutenant  Mellas you find the story begins on Matterhorn, the name given to a hill that the American troops are defending to try and stop the North Vietnamese from incurring further into South Vietnam. The daily routine involves going out on probing search and destroy missions, defending the lines at night from attack and spending the time inbetween trying to behave as normally as possible, whilst constantly fighting the fear of death. 

And people do die. Young men die in the most wasteful and the most heroic ways. With the powers that be deciding that troops need to be deployed to the low lands Matterhorn is abandoned and other mountains around. But the enemy is always moving and they have to retake that ground in a bloody encounter. Most of Mellas's  platoon is wiped out and the young men suffer brutal and horrific injuries and die on the hillside and in their bunkers. 

As American troops come and go in their helicopters contesting pockets of land, which they then often relinquish after the enemy moves off, you wonder what sort of war this is. The approach taken in World War II to capture land and push the enemy back was almost non-existent in Vietnam, where body count was used to try and measure success. 

Failing to define success gives an army a haunting sense of never being able to rest. Even back at base you can't relax as the front line is everywhere.

Plus back at base there is a battle with the politics as the rise of black power and the racial tension is never far away from the surface. Ambitious want-to-be generals push their troops harder and harder as as they look for promotion, medals and glory for themselves. 

Marlantes writes the story from numerous viewpoints giving you an insight into the pressure everybody feels, including those that are ordering the troops into the front line battles. It feels totally authentic because it was written by somebody who was there and somebody who cares deeply about his fellow soldiers and wanted to tell their story. 

He writes a story which works from beginning to end and leaves you frazzled after sharing some of the horrors of war. At the end you are left wondering about the futility of it all and feeling frustration at the pointlessness of the deaths of such young men on both sides of the conflict. 

Sadly I suspect that those who are not interested in the history of the Vietnam war would not pick up such a weighty tome. But the war is a backdrop to some universal Issues about politics, race, fear and heroism. This is a story from the past that challenges us to think about the future. To think about Afghanistan and any conflict where young men and women are going through a similar hell.