Category Archives: Books

The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion

Kei Miller - The Cartographer Tries to...

Miller, Kei (2014): The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (Manchester: Carcanet Press)

For the second book in my 26-books-in-52-weeks challenge I chose this slim volume from the Jamaican-born poet Kei Miller. I’ll start off by saying that I really enjoyed reading this, which is a bit unusual as I am not much of a fan of contemporary poetry. For someone raised on Eliot and Yeats a lot of post-war poetry seems to be bland and navel-gazing stuff:

      I went to get my car but the

battery was frozen and cold as a blackjack dealer’ s

smile       so I had to take my wife’s car

which smelled of french fries

One day I turned on the radio and heard Kei Miller reading one of these poems. It really grabbed my attention – the musical cadence and the interplay between English and Jamaican patois were intriguing. I wondered whether just seeing the words on a page would have the same impact,  but taking time to read and think about each section allowed me to appreciate more of the complex imagery. After I finish this post I am going to try reading it out loud and see how that works.

The setting of the collection is Jamaica. The recurring theme is a conversation between the cartographer and the rastaman. The cartographer is intent on mapping the island. His job is “to untangle the tangled, / to unworry the concerned, / to guide you out from cul-de-sacs / into which you have wrongly turned.”

The problem is that:  “On this island things fidget. / Even history. / The landscape does not sit willingly / as if behind an easel / holding pose / waiting on / someone / to pencil / its lines, compose / its best features / or unruly contours.”

The rastaman has “another reasoning”. He counters: “draw me a map of what you see / then I will draw a map of what you never see / and guess me whose map will be bigger than whose”

This conversation is carried out in 27 installments, interspersed with short related poems and notes on place names. Over time the cartographer begins to question his reductive, scientific approach, and wonders whether he should instead be trying to find his way to the rastaman’s Zion.

Along the way Miller raises a lot of meaty issues about colonialism and its aftermath. The act of mapping and codifying the “human terrain” is part of a system of imposing order and control that replaces the local and the unique with the measurable and the efficient, and can itself seem to the inhabitants as a form of violence  – a point explored in detail in James C Scott’s in Seeing Like a State.

As I said earlier I really enjoyed reading and re-reading this volume. I highly recommend it and I think it will stand the test of time.

Kei Miller

Kei Miller was born in Kingston Jamaica in 1978. In 2004 he left to study in England, eventually earning a PhD in English Literature from the University of Glasgow. He has been a visiting writer at York University in Toronto, and currently teaches creative writing at the University of London. (source – Wikipedia)

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

Montefiore Biography Cover


Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that he intended to read 26 books over the next year. Though I am not a “friend of Mark”, it’s not a bad idea. Like a lot of people my intend-to-read list is growing faster than my have-finally-read list, at least partially because I spend an excess amount of time on Mr Zuckerberg’s site and its ilk.

So I am taking up the challenge: to read a new book every two weeks for the next year, and to post a short report on each one. Here’s the first:

Montefiore, Simon Sebag (2003) Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar  (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson)

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10 Classic War Novels

There are thousands of war novels and obviously I haven’t read them all but this is a selection of books that stand the test of time.

I have stuck for the most part to novels that are about the experience of war or in which war plays a major part. This lets out a lot of good books which use the war as a backdrop – Len Deighton’s SS-GB, Ken Follett’s The Eye of the Needle and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain for example.

There is nothing really obscure here so if you plan to use this list for gift-buying you will want to check whether your intended recipient already has a copy.

 Fields of Fire – James H Webb

The Vietnam war spawned a number of fine novels, but for my money this the best of the lot. The action is specific to the time and place but the depiction of small groups of men in combat is timeless.

The Killer Angels

The classic novel of the American Civil War. This is not really about interior drama and character development: instead it covers the Battle of Gettysburg and, while telling the story with verve and pace, provides a potential narrative for why and how things went so badly for the South. Real Civil War anoraks have quibbled about the pivotal role it gives to Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine, and apologists for Robert E. Lee don’t much like it, but for the rest of us this is historical fiction at its best.

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Christmas Books for your Military Partner

Just in time for Christmas, here’s a list of the best of military books for your spouse/partner, or really for anyone who wants to learn more about the world of the warrior. These are the classics, so you will need to check first to ensure that the object of your affections doesn’t already have a copy. All are currently available on Amazon.


Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda – Sean Naylor

Blackhawk Down – Mark Bowden


Tet!: The Turning Point in the Vietnam War – Don Oberdorfer

A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam – Neil Sheehan

The Experience of War

The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme – John Keegan

The Forgotten Soldier – Guy Sager

War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning – Chris Hedges

Quartered Safe Out Here: A Harrowing Tale of World War II – George MacDonald Fraser

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