It has been a challenging year in a number of different respects. Difficulties at work, family bereavement, complexities in my volunteer role as a senior Scouter.
I’ve read nearly fifty books in 2017, though some of this reading will have been comfort re-reading – a bit like comfort eating or comfort shopping, but healthier. We’ll look at some of the more edifying reading, as well as some of the comfort food, here.
Peter Frankopan – The Silk Roads
I started off the year reading this excellent overview of world history from the standpoint of trade. Trade goes along roads. This was a history of the world in roads, and had little enough to do, however excellent and readable, with the Silk Road or with Central Asia.
Stephen King On Writing
Perhaps the best and most inspiring read of the year, recommended to me by fellow members of the Woldingham Writers Group. This was an encouraging and stimulating autiobiography, telling the story of how King wrote his first novel – “Carrie” – in his lunch breaks whilst working at a laundry.
Stephen King – The Stand
Thought I’d re-read quality fiction after my interest in Stephen King was re-ignited by his autobiography on writing. The opening paragraph is unforgettable, classic Stephen King – “Arnette, a pissant four street burg in East Texas”. Yet, he is never disrespectful of such a humble place or of the humble folk who hail from ordinary places. King’s heroes in The Stand are not the Walkin’ Dude or the old lady Abigail, but common folk like Stu Redman, hailing from “pissant four street burgs”.
Nicholas Monsarrat – The Master Mariner
Read masterly fiction – it should sharpen your eye and make keen your appetite for good writing. This is classic tale weaving. Our hero Matthew, guilty of cowardice at a battle in the 15th century, is cursed by a witch to live on and on until he learns courage. Clearly he had not managed it by the time of Trafalgar, centuries later.
David Eugene Smith and Louis Charles Karpinski – The Hindu-Arabic numerals
This is a nineteeth century work on the history of numbers, and is, for something hailing from that era, surprisingly accessible and informative.
Len Deighton – Declarations of War
Another fine writer whose work we would do well to emulate. Deighton here brings us a series of short stories about war, some with amusing twists in the tail. We read one about the rise of right-wing politics amongst honourable and upright men – ostensibly in the UK – and only in the last lines do we see the name of Herr Goebbels mentioned. In another, men battle in the home counties against the German invasion, as the front rolls inexorably toward London.
Richard Morgan – Altered Carbon
Richard Morgan’s characters are bitter and twisted. You don’t need to read more than a few dozen pages of his fiction to feel anger and frustration boiling off the page. Here we have a dark detective story set in the San Francisco of 500 years hence. An immortal man has killed himself – and it is important to find out why.
Chuck Palahniuk – Fight Club
Why did I read this? It was on my daughter’s shelf. It was certainly compelling, but ultimately a futile read about a futile subject. And in any case, the first rule of Fight Club is, don’t write about Fight Club. I should point out that I never watched the film, nor ever will I watch it.
W.H Murray – The evidence of things not seen
For me, the long-awaited autobiography of celebrated Scottish climber and environmentalist Bill Murray. His work “Mountaineering in Scotland” is one of the best pieces of mountain literature available. In this longer work we see the whole of Murray’s life laid out before us, from childhood, through his war service as a tank commander in the Western Desert, imprisonment in Germany, and onto his work in Everest reconnaissance in the Himalayas after the war.
Bruce Sterling – Holy Fire
I like Bruce Sterling; this earliest of the “cyberpunk” authors here tells a rather odd story of an old woman who through late twenty-first medical technology, is restored to full health and youth. The holy fire, I think, is that of youth.
Peter Fleming – Bayonets to Lhasa
Peter Fleming was the older (and today, less well-known) brother of Ian Fleming. Both brothers were capable and gifted writers. Here, Peter Fleming writes an account of William Younghusband’s assault on Lhasa in 1904. It is an essential piece of reading for anyone like me interested in Central Asia or in “The Great Game”.
A. N Wilson – Our times
Another sweeping historical perspective work, covering the new Elizabethan era – our times – from the mid 1950’s until the early noughties. Much changed in the first four decades of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. But, it might be said that more has changed in the UK since A. N Wilson finished this book, than in all the forty years before.
Geoffrey Wellum – First Light
A delightful boys-to-men account of a youth who longs to fly, joins the RAF, and becomes a great pilot, taking part in the Battle of Britain. Even as I write this, I am reminded of Robert Mason’s classic “Chickenhawk” which tells a very similar story about a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. But Wellum’s account is stiff upper lip throughout. Mustn’t grumble, old boy….
J D Vance – Hillbilly Elegy
J D Vance has been condemned as a “poster boy of the right” for his Republican views, but what he surely is, is an example of conquering adversity and winning through against the odds. It is the story of how a boy from the backwoods of Kentucky, a hill-billy – made good. Three things contribute to his success: the faith, love and support of his grandmother; serving in the Marine Corps, and a certain amount of luck. Other reasons are available: ability, charm etc. A very inspiring read.
Isaac Asimov – It’s been a good life
I set out deliberately this year, to read autobiographies of great writers. Find me someone who thinks Asimov was not a great writer, and I’ll find you a fool. Isaac was blessed with a mind far sharper than most of us, and as a writer was energetic, prolific, and wide-ranging in interest. John Campbell said of him, I think, “Isaac Asimov once had writer’s block….it was the worst ten minutes of his life”.
Rick Broadbent – Endurance – life of Emil Zatopek
This was encouraging to me as an erstwhile and very amateur 10km runner. I first heard of Zatopek when I was just a boy. I recall reading about his amazing triple triumph at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. That year, he took the gold medal in the 5000m, 10000m, and in the Marathon. I found the book much more interesting in the first half, which dealt with Zatopek’s upbringing and his early success as an athlete. The second half, dealing with his fame and his struggles with the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, whilst important enough a subject, I confess I found less stimulating.
R.A Heinlein – The unpleasant professional of Jonathan Hoag
Representing the many sci-fi books I read this year, this is Heinlein’s only real horror story. It would make an excellent movie if only someone would write the screenplay. The story opens with a man trying to find out from a doctor what the substance is that is stuck in his nails. He goes on to hire a private detective – to find out what he does for a living. After that, things get macabre.
Hampton Sides – Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West
This was spot on: whilst at one level, a biography of Kit Carson, at another level, it is a biography or history of the American nation in the late nineteenth century, as the imperial expansion out to the Pacific was made reality by the grit, determination and plain nastiness of men like Carson and his mentor Fremont. A very worthwhile read.
Tim Harford – Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy
A first rate canter through some interesting technical and cultural developments that shaped the modern world. The book is basically an extended version of some chats given on the BBC World Service. I wasn’t sure which one of the fifty I would have chosen, if any, as the most important, but if I had to pick any one, it would be the JOint Stock company or the concept the Limited Liability Company or LLC.
Len Deighton – SS-GB
I remember when this came out; I tried to read it then as a youth and could not make headway against it, however well-written it is. Len Deighton is a master of the written word and you’ll learn a lot by him: read him, emulate him. Unsurprisingly much-copied, this is the grand-dad of all alternative history spy thrillers. I was particularly gratified to find in his story that the side-streets around the back of Victoria Station, on Vauxhall Bridge Road, were considered one of the roughest inner city areas in Europe. Go there now!
Tim Marshall – Prisoners of geography
I go this in a charity shop in St Ives. A most excellent account of history as seen through maps, cartography and the importance of where you live, where your country lies. Straits, river mouths and estuaries, mountain ranges, cliffs and forests – these are the difference between life and death, wealth and penury. Even in the days of cruise missiles and cybersecurity, your location still matters.