‘Racing Through the Dark: The fall and rise of David Millar’ by David Millar

David Millar will be known, to anybody who has followed the Tour de France on ITV4, as a commentator, with a rather lovely voice and a very informed and clear outlook. Anybody who knows little about cycling will perhaps never have heard of him.

He was formerly a top professional cyclist, who achieved some notoriety additionally to his cycling fame when he was exposed as a doper. This book is, as the title says, the story of his fall and subsequent rise. It’s rather good, so much so that it has just earned an Oblique re-read.

DSCN6799Apart from beginning with some forward glimpses, the structure is pretty much chronological, to my pleasure; I have read too much recently which tries to be clever by dodging around in time and ends up being confusing. It’s very good on David Millar’s early life: born in Malta, raised in Britain and Hong Kong by his divorced parents. I found the everyday details of his early life as a professional cyclist absorbing, as with the subsequent account of his rise to success. It is written “in collaboration” with Jeremy Whittle, but reads very much as Millar’s own voice.

Gradually, one realises the pressures on him to start doping; how he is never going to achieve the success he craves and deserves if he doesn’t give up his intention to stay clean and ‘prepare’ for the key races. He is very good on the conspiracy of silence which stops people disclosing the real secrets of drug use. This is what kept Lance Armstrong’s image so clean for so long. (At the time of publication of this book, in 2011, the Armstrong scandal had still not broken.)

Millar tells the story of his fall matter of factly, explaining his motivation without making excuses. He doesn’t flinch from the details of injecting and taking precautions not to be found out. What is remarkable is how he recovered: he has since taken a very firm anti-doping stance, and had some success when he resumed his career. This is the ‘rise’ of the title.

It’s difficult to know how people who are not keen on cycling would take to this book. I think it’s a great human story, as well as a sporting one, told with humour and I believe honesty. Recommended.

(David Millar has published another book about life as a professional cyclist subsequent to this one, which I have not read. Both were in the bookshop I visited today.)

Reading in Public

Now that I have more leisure time, I have started to notice what people are reading in public. Just for my own amusement, but hopefully yours, I am sharing my observations with you.

This all started when I saw somebody who I stereotyped as a businesswoman reading Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a world without work, by Nick Srineck and Alex Williams, which is apparently a “major new manifesto for a high-tech future free from work”. To which I will only say: oh yeah? For all the starving or impoverished billions of the world? Or just the privileged few? No, I haven’t read it, and am not inspired to do so.

Persuasion (Jane Austen) This was being read by the kind of lady you would expect to be reading Jane Austen; although a surprisingly wide range of people like her work. An old hardback copy. It does inspire me to want to reread Austen, a pleasure that never fails.

Azol Agol This is a cautionary tale, perhaps. We were in Boston Tea Party, Honiton; the youngish man at the table was reading a book. Mindful of my intention to write this blog, I was peering to see what the title was, and realised this looked incredibly creepy, so stopped. It was something like Azol Agol, but I can’t find this anywhere! I can find books with Azul (I think this is “blue” in Portugese), but not the exact title. Have I misread it? I know it was recommended by New Statesman. It remains A Mystery.

Kindle Here, of course, is Another Mystery. There is no way of knowing what someone is reading on a Kindle. Of course, you could guess, from the gasps of surprise or horror, the tears, or perhaps the heavy breathing: apparently this is a good way to disguise an interest in pornography (sorry, erotic literature). Fifty Shades of Grey is allegedly a favourite; no, I haven’t read it; yes, I have peeked into it; yes, it does really look like rubbish. Come to think of it, I see a lot of Kindle reading, by all ages, and I am sure this is more for convenience than from a desire to hide titles from prying bloggers.

(According to Mrs O. it is common to see Japanese commuters reading the most violent and sexual manga comics and books on their journey to and from work.)

On a lighter note,  I was delighted to see two young children having breakfast before school in the Waitrose café, reading with apparent pleasure and apparently uncoerced. Their books were J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and that timeless classic, Digger to the Rescue (author unknown) (see footnote). Interestingly, there is at least one edition of the Harry Potter books that was published in “serious” covers for adults. A couple of weeks later, I saw the family again and had the courage to tell the mum that as a retired teacher it did my heart good to see children reading, not playing on their phones. “Oh, you wouldn’t want to teach this one,” she smiled. “He reads all the time, even when the teacher is talking.” I rather think this might be a Good Thing. Depends on the teacher.

Another recent sighting was a table of four people with a copy of The Ups and Downs of Cruising. Before you get any peculiar ideas about the subject matter, it turns out to be a rather light-hearted book by Bryan Shelley about…. taking a cruise. Not “walking or driving about a locality in seach of a sexual partner” (Wikipedia). What a relief. This is Hampshire, after all.

Trains are another good source of reading matter observations: newspapers, manuals and magazines as well as books of course. The Kindle is popular. However, last week I saw Miracle Cure by Harlan Coben, which I think is some sort of medical thriller, and A Piano in the Pyrenees, which is a “light hearted travel book” by Tony Hawks. Older readers will remember ‘A Year In Provence’, another book in which an Englishman moves to France. I assume that this is similar, full of gentle misunderstandings and affection. I may be wrong and I have too much to read to confirm or deny this. I speculate that these books may be indicative of a desire to escape from the mundane reality of commuting. I only spotted the author’s name on another train book: Phillip Kerr, who I have found writes crime novels set in wartime and post-war Berlin, with detective ‘Bernie Gunther’. More escapism?

I suppose I should mention The Tent, the Bucket and Me by Emma Kennedy and The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend. These could recently be spotted being read by the Obliques while waiting for daughter #3. I have blogged about the latter (‘The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend’ by Katarina   Bivald). The former is apparently a very amusing read about camping. We’ve been there….


Footnote: ‘Digger to the Rescue” is part of a series by Mandy Archer and Martha Lightfoot. Putting jokes aside, they look great for young readers.

‘The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend’ by Katarina Bivald

I picked this up from a charity stall. The basic premise: Sara, from Sweden, visits a little town in America called Broken Wheel, and sets up a bookshop. Well, you can see why it appealed.

It is apparently a New York Times bestseller and is translated from the original Swedish.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend

Some time ago I decided only to read books written in English, but occasionally make an exception. I was happy to do so for this book, as I suppose it is best described as charming.

Sara is meant to be visiting Amy, who she has only ever corresponded with. Amy dies; Sara is left without a purpose to her visit. The town take care of her and she responds with the bookshop, thereby gently changing lives.

It is not primarily about the transformative power of books, although that does come into it. It’s more about people and everyday sorrows and kindnesses. Love of course plays its part, without overwhelming the rest of the plot. Characters are sympathetically drawn.

I suppose some might describe this as chick-lit, although I’m never quite sure what that means and wouldn’t see it as a derogatory term. My only slight reservation is that my edition is a ‘Richard and Judy Book Club’ edition and has ‘Richard and Judy Book Club’ Questions for Discussion. Yes, I could easily ignore that. I wouldn’t mind being in a Book Club, anyway.

To sum up; a gentle, pleasant read. Probably good for holidays. Or just for pleasure.


Of Sigils and Quidditch, or Lord Voldemort meets the White Walkers

To my surprise, I find myself admitting that, on the whole, the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling are a Good Thing. They have enthused and excited a whole generation of readers. Many of those readers have been motivated to read at a level of complexity and difficulty far beyond what they would otherwise attempted. As far as I know, this is still going on.

There are drawbacks. Some children were daunted by them and thus given a further negative outlook on reading. I know that some parents pushed their children to read the books, because they felt it was a Good Thing, and that this had a very negative effect. There is a fine line between encouragement and pressure. However, I also know that some parents read the books to or with their children- a Very Good Thing. (Miss O. #1 says that my reading ‘The Hobbit’ to her was her gateway drug to reading. Nothing makes me prouder.)

(Probably some of the original Harry Potter generation are reading the books to their own children. I just hope this doesn’t lead to the Roald Dahl problem; at one point he was being read and promoted to the exclusion of new authors.)

I read ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ when the series was starting to achieve a popularity beyond its initial cult following (but before the films). I enjoyed it, although I thought I detected echoes of ‘The Worst Witch’. I have read the lot and have one major reservation: they are too long.

It’s probably heresy to say this, but I believe that Ms. Rowling needed a good editor. The first book was comparatively tautly written. I got increasingly bored with the series. Particularly I wish there was nothing about Quidditch, or at least much less; and I wish there were no references to snogging. They are tiresome. Quibbles aside, I would love to have an abridged version of the whole thing. Don’t get me wrong; there are some moving and exciting episodes. Probably the very things I find uninspiring are the things young readers love. Butterbeer, anybody? Anyway, who am I to quarrel with such a success?

The title of the book in the picture may surprise British readers- presumably this is the American version.

Harry Potter Continue reading

‘Martin Chuzzlewit’ by Charles Dickens

I think that to read Dickens for pleasure in this day and age requires a certain mind set- and a good amount of time. Even though I now have plenty of time, I do not always afford reading Dickens the attention it needs. I do admit that sometimes having seen a dramatisation helps.

I jumped into Martin Chuzzlewit without much thought and have generally greatly enjoyed it. I have recently found that it helps to have a guide to the characters in Dickens, as in Trollope and Tolstoy (never him again). I drew my own character map as I read, a method I thoroughly recommend. Miss Oblique the Eldest suggested I publicise this, so I have. Please notice it only includes the main characters in England: there are American interludes. I apologise for any errors.


Notwithstanding this complication, there were times when I read this like an “easy” read. I wanted to know what happened. I wanted Mr Pecksniff to get his comeuppance and I wanted Tom Pinch to get the girl. I wanted marriages and happy endings, romcom fan that I am. I will leave you to discover if I got what I wanted.

This book has classic, rolling Dickensian sentences (occasionally opaque), lists and grand (sometimes grotesque) characters. I don’t think it’s his best.

Specifically, I find parts of Martin Chuzzlewit over-sentimental and overdone. Mr Dickens does at times signal what will happen so strongly that it is no surprise.

I was interested to look at the very good biography of Dickens by Claire Tomalin and to find she has a similar view. She considers it “long, confused and uneven” with “sickly sentimentality”, but points out that it has “scatterings of brilliance”. Dickens was apparently proud of it.

martin_chuzzlewit_illus2It’s worth noting that the novel is stunningly critical of the U.S.A. It finds very, very little positive. Despite this, the Americans still loved him and I think his opinion softened. Oddly enough, the illustration with this paragraph, of Mr Pecksniff and his daughters, is by Solomon Eytinge Jr., “from the 1867 U.S. edition published by Ticknor and Fields”. (It is public domain.)

This is not what I would recommend for a first Dickens novel, or even a second, but if you do get round to it I’d be delighted to hear if the chart was of any use.

Note: I read it on a Kindle. Useful for keeping track of characters, and free, but maybe I’ll read my next Dickens in a ‘real’ book; much easier flipping back a page or two- and there’s more to each page.

OK, OK, I give up: On abandoning ‘The Making of the British Landscape’ by Nicholas Crane

To start with, if anybody wants to borrow this book they have only to come and collect it. I’m afraid to say that I have given up.

dscn6455I bought it on the basis of a glowing review in the Guardian. They call it a “magnificent book, ranging from the ice age to the present, (which) considers the influence on the countryside and cities of climate, geology and a long history of immigration”. (Hey… doesn’t Nicholas Crane sometimes write for the Guardian?) It’s always a pleasure reading a new book, and I started it with enthusiasm and pleasurable anticipation. As so often with this blog, I’m trying to sort out my own thoughts. What made me give it up?

Perhaps I’m in the wrong mood for this type of book. I have been reading a lot of fiction. However, I feel it’s more than that.

Firstly, it’s a dense read; I’m not sure exactly not sure what I mean by that, but I find it packed and dry. Occasionally long lists, something in the style of Peter Ackroyd, grate. Mr Crane tries to make it come alive by envisaging how people interacted with the landscape; sometimes, in my opinion, he goes too far, so we get a sentence like: “Killing an animal was a process of transformation; the cosmos was indivisible from self”. Another minor irritation was “the idea of an elongated sacred space- let’s call it a temenos”. Why are we calling it a temenos? I find this style less than absorbing.

The more I think about this, and the more I revise and re-revise this blogpost, the more muddled I get. You could well argue: “It’s beautifully written and well researched. You need to concentrate more, Mr Oblique.”

One Amazon review calls it a “superb addition to our knowledge”. (Another reviewer says it “promised much and has failed to deliver”, noting the absence of maps and diagrams, but likes the style.)

I really enjoyed Nichols Crane’s first book, ‘Clear Waters Rising: A Mountain Walk Across Europe’. I like his work on TV and enjoy his journalism. I WANT to enjoy reading this book. I could best sum my problem up by saying it does not come alive for me. Why can’t I get into it? Is it me? Answers, please.

‘The Warden’ by Anthony Trollope

May I gently propose to you the gentle pleasures of this book?

It is totally inconsequential to modern life. It was written in 1855 and concerns itself with ecclesiastical conflicts. I was going to say in-fighting, but that’s too strong a term.

Briefly, Mr Harding is the warden of a ‘hospital’ in the sense of a home for 12 poor old men. His erstwhile son-in-law considers that the income he receives from the charity is excessive.  The bishop and his son, the archdeacon (who is married to a daughter of Mr Harding’s) get involved. The row extends to the wider world and… that’s it, really.

There are some choice points. There is a great satire on the influence of ‘The Times’. Charles Dickens, as Mr Popular Sentiment, and Thomas Carlyle, as ‘Dr Pessimist Anticant’, are mocked. Pretensions are ridiculed, but most characters are rounded and charitably treated. Essentially, as I have already over-emphasised, it’s a very gentle piece, set in the fictional Barchester, an amalgam of Winchester, Salisbury and the like.

It’s short (284 pages) and eminently readable, although not to a lot of modern tastes. I commend it to my readers.

(Footnote: I read this, for the second time, in the ‘World’s Classics’ paperback edition, with lovely little illustrations by Edward Ardizzone. I don’t know if this edition is still available, but it is a good advertisement for ‘real’ books.)


Sketch of Trollope by R. Birch after a photograph by Sarony. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons