Just read, The Book of My Lives, Aleksandar Hemon

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I’d seen great reviews for Aleksandar Hemon’s recent book and was thrilled that my thoughtful friend gave it to me for my birthday a few months back. Our background is similar to Hemon’s and I’ve been aware of him as an author but never read any of his books before. I’d been itching to read this book though, I knew I would love it from the reviews but I also wanted to be able to read it properly – something I couldn’t really do while studying. So it sat, in the periphery of my field of vision during April and most of May. ‘Finishing the essay’ became major priority, taking over my life while busy work added to intensity and high stress levels. The essay was sent off last week, work calmed down somewhat and yet I felt that I couldn’t just pick up the Hemon book straight away. So I read a couple of other short fiction books first and then started on The Book of My Lives yesterday morning, finished it earlier today. It was tough. As I was reading it on the bus returning from work yesterday, I stopped for a moment and observed the effect it was having on me: my hands gripped the book while at the same time, my body was physically trying to distance itself from it, forming an oddly concave shape. His story is deeply personal yet the experience of being displaced because of war and trying to create a space – internal and external, for yourself to reconcile with the displacement is shared by many. It is a difficult feeling to vocalise and Hemon does it so well. I was about to use the word ‘beautifully’ but displacement due to war is never something beautiful. The book is very funny in places and quite harrowing in others, especially the last part about the death of his infant daughter. My friend said she wouldn’t be able to read it because of the last part, which is understandable. It is a very powerful book and Hemon really does have a way with words. I’m glad I managed to control my impatience and read it properly without distractions. Think I’m going to look up some of his other books too.

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Just read, The War of the World, Niall Ferguson

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Major achievement, I’ve finally managed to read all the Niall Ferguson books I had on the shelf – well Colossus and The War of The Worlds, I’d bought them as soon as they came out in paperback, must be 7-8 years ago. I thought The War of The Worlds might come in useful as I’d been studying empires and decolonisation and am currently planning my last essay for the course. While not particularly useful for what I’ve decided to write about (using ‘decided’ in a very loose sense here), I rather enjoyed it and would pause every now and then and think to myself that Ferguson, whatever you think of him and his ideas, does make sense. He really hammers home the genocidal tendencies of the twentieth century, everyone seems to have been involved. Difficult as this may be to comprehend, there is a good quote from Sigmund Freud at the end of the book about man’s destructive tendencies that helps. I guess the reason I’ve enjoyed a number of Ferguson’s books now is that he underpins his arguments with a diverse range of writings – Freud, for example or a number of early twentieth century novelists and their experiences of WWI. I immediately wanted to go and read All Quiet on The Western Front again. Haven’t read it since school. I have a feeling that my grandmother’s copy is still about, that I had enough sense to ask mum to post it to me in the ‘best of childhood/ growing up’ edit box before their move. Might look for it over summer although, being quite old, it would need a good airing prior to reading.

I’d also found Victor Klemperer’s story particularly moving because I’d recently read Slaughterhouse 5, which deals with the bombing of Dresden, the effects and aftershocks felt by the US POWs present. I think this is why Ferguson is such a successful writer, he gives you the hard facts and analysis but he is also very readable, regardless of whether you find his arguments convincing. He includes characters outside the political power plays and this adds not only a level of humanity but also brings closer the events he writes about. This is a good thing for me as my next course (starting in the autumn) is all about the twentieth century. Now I just need to get this last empires essay out of the way and then I can seriously get on with clearing the ‘pile of shame’ of books, which has only grown and grown over the past few months. Current size: utterly ridiculous and totally shameful!

Just read, Conquest by David Day

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A short break from fiction to have a look at Conquest: How societies overwhelm others by David Day. This book was recommended as useful reading for a history course I am doing and it is useful for anyone interested in the ways in which peoples and societies attempted to conquer and supplant others throughout history. At the same time, this process of supplanting cultures and societies still goes on, so it is an interesting read. Yet, I wish I’d read this before I started my course because the book is  more of an overview and sometimes just touches the surface without much detailed analysis. It is particularly strong on South East Asia/ Pacific, Australia and North America but weak on Central and Latin America and Africa. The processes involved though are fascinating, particularly the various foundation myths and propaganda employed by the supplanting societies alongside the various ideologies used for moral justification of conquests. These usually involved ‘civilising’ missions and also, weirdly, one country telling another ‘we’ll take that bit of land as you don’t seem to have populated it enough so we’d like to populate it with our people, thanks’ as the Japanese seem to have done in Manchuria. I also found it quite incredible that some countries still deny the existence of major ethnic groups within their territories. Most fascinating of all is the idea that while the white Europeans were the ones that did most of the supplanting in places like North America, Australia and elsewhere hundreds of years ago, some of the societies they founded are now experiencing a slower population growth, so Day’s suggestion that they would be, in turn, supplanted by other immigrant societies over time, seems pretty reasonable.

Anyway, since I finished Conquest, I’ve moved on to David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest, 60 or so pages in, I can’t quite make up my mind about it and keep asking myself all sorts of questions. It’s clearly ambitious but I can’t quite decide if it is pretentious, it feels so. All the very long sentences, dozens of abbreviations and the end notes scream pretension but at the same time they demand my attention and involvement as a reader and that is a lot more than many books ask of you. I haven’t quite gotten emotionally involved with it yet but want to keep reading it if only to find out whether I will or not. At nearly 1,000 pages though, this is a lot to ask. I feel slightly stupid for starting it this week, we’re away this weekend and it’s a bit heavy to carry but if I leave it for a bit now, will I actually pick it up again when we get back? Think I’ll decide once I start packing, it’s not like there’s a lack of books to take with…

Just read, Explorers of the Nile by Tim Jeal

IMG_0495A proper ‘ripping yarn’ this, aptly subtitled Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure. The exploration part was fascinating, I knew a bit about exploration of Africa from reading about Mungo Park and David Livingstone but this book brings in a host of other characters, from Henry Morton Stanley to lesser known explorers such as John Hanning Speke, their guides, translators and helpers, tribal chiefs and many more. It is absolutely fascinating. The ‘scramble for Africa’ part at the end is no less fascinating and quite tragic. What really comes across is how the explorers genuinely thought they were opening the continent to ‘commerce and Christianity’ as Livingstone famously put it and all campaigned to end the slave trade, once the continent was ‘opened up’ other ideas, ideologies and political games took over. Despite the sad reality of later imperialism, I’m very glad I read this book, it’s very well researched and a rewarding read.

Just read, You aren’t what you eat, Steven Poole

This little book should be on every single obsessive ‘foodie’ reading list, to teach them the error of their ways:

IMG_0482Fed up with gastroculture indeed. I do love food, think that’s pretty obvious from this blog but I do not like fads. In recent years, foodie fads have gotten steadily more silly if you really think about it. I’m certainly also guilty, as I’m involved with food for a living and have been known to get obsessed in the past. Luckily, and this is also what comes from being involved in the industry for a living, seeing the real obsessives does make me pause and think. Am much calmer now, I love cooking and eating but not to the extent that I’d spend every waking hour thinking of the next meal or ‘Experience’. Steven Poole does mention capital E Experience here in connection with dining out, going to food/ restaurant shows, going foraging and all sorts of stuff that’s become ever so fashionable in recent years. It’s fascinating, very well researched too, funny and ‘cutting’ as Jonathan Meades described it in a review, making me immediately want to read it. Am glad I did.

Just read, Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, Kate Summerscale

IMG_0473This is a very good book. I really enjoyed Kate Summerscale’s Suspicions of Mr Whicher a few years ago so bought Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace soon after it came out, sometime early summer I think. Only just got around to reading it and it took me a while, not because the book was slow going, on the contrary, I’ve just been busy. What I really like about Kate Summerscale is how she manages to make the story utterly fascinating. On the surface, it is not really a big story or a very important event, it was just a bit of a Victorian divorce scandal but Kate Summerscale builds on this to discuss Victorian morality, the media, social standing of women and what a momentous occasion the introduction of the divorce was in 1858. Also the fascination with writing diaries, influences of Romantic poetry and fiction, and basically how unfulfilled and repressed some women (and men) were in their lives in mid nineteenth century. Interwoven with all this, familiar Victorian characters such as Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Charles Darwin appear and it is fascinating to see how current events often influenced what the first two wrote about. I love reading Dickens and particularly love finding out, (always sometime later) how a real event inspired a character or a storyline, he was such a magpie (in the nicest possible sense).  Then there are bits of medicine, what was accepted and what was considered ‘quackery’ – for example homeopathy and craniology as well as some ideas in psychology and psychoanalysis that predated Freud. At the same time, the narrative is never weighed down, there are no clunky conclusions and there is ambiguity, you are not forced to feel pity or to make a judgment, Summerscale just draws a parallel or your attention to something, then moves on. I didn’t feel there was anything laboured or overworked but the story will definitely linger. What a marvel of a book.

Just read, Guns, germs and steel, Jared Diamond

IMG_0466I really wish I’d read this book years ago. Earlier this year, I read Jared Diamond’s Collapse and very much enjoyed it but I didn’t enjoy this book quite so much for several reasons. Firstly, and this is why I wish I read it years ago, the ideas and theories it discusses have become fairly well established since the book was first published in 1997. Namely that the onset of food production led to formation of organised societies, which could then dedicate people and resources to development of technology, statecraft and culture, and this ultimately led to conquest of the New World and other parts of the world by the Europeans (to simplify). Furthermore, that the onset of food production and animal domestication was influenced by a variety of environmental factors including geography, continent orientation (East-West and North-South axis) and isolation. So, some peoples ended up having more of a head start in development through pretty much being in the right place at the right time. While Diamond didn’t originate some of these ideas, he does provide a very good synthesis by applying studies of environment, ecology, linguistics and so on to history. Of course, these ideas now make a lot of sense and I was perhaps hoping to learn more from this book, especially as I’ve just been studying conquest of the New World. So, basically this book was not quite in the right place at the right time for me, which really is a shame. The other reason why I didn’t enjoy it quite so much was its repetitiveness, which did get a bit infuriating at times. I did, however, like the conclusion very much and there’s no doubt that this is a very good book.

In other reading related news, I am really enjoying Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale, although am getting through it quite slowly (has been relegated to ‘occasional bed reading’ as Diamond took priority for being ‘important for study’). Am going to read Niall Ferguson’s Colossus next as ‘important for study’, it’s referenced in my course books and I’ve had it for years so may as well get on with it.