2021 in books (October – December)

Books

Here we are, racing into yet another new year already! I hope everyone is settled into their routines and is tackling January as best as they can.

Last year seemed to get busier as we progressed through to Christmas for me. Some of it therapy related, some of it music related (on that note, keep your eyes peeled for a new announcement by the end of the month about an exciting new project). It seems like reading time was well and truly diminished. My New Year’s resolution is to always make time for reading! Nevertheless, here are my customary reviews of the titles I did manage to read from October to the end of the year…

Child I by Steve Tasane (2018, Faber & Faber)

Lauded novelist and performance poet Steve Tasane is the son of a refugee himself. He wrote this story to highlight that which us desired by all children: the want to beling;the want to not be hungry”; the want “just to be able to laugh and play”.

The novel, aimed at young adults, focuses in a small group of unaccompanied children in a mud-soaked refugee camp. It is a sparse, poetically written and moving tale about children without any proof of identity, stateless and lost. But what caught my eye was the presentation of this book, starting as it does right at the beginning, on the very front cover

Such an unusual stylistic choice shouldn’t have caught me so off-guard, but I found myself a page or in before I realised it wasn’t merely a text-heavy cover page. Yet, it makes sense. Why would a refugee used to precious few resources waste paper?

Leah Price wrote about the layout of books in her book about books, reviewed here. Similarly, this short story (just 186 pages) certainly made me reconsider the accepted form most of our books are packaged in, and nowadays taken for granted. Why exactly do we need those introductory leaves in the same order each time?

However, the real thought-provoking issue isn’t the format in which the text is presented but the way it gives life to paperless, and in this book, nameless (each child is assigned initials, used throughout the book, as the authorities are unable to confirm their real names), children such as Child I, our eponymous narrator. This brief but beautiful book is not just for young adults, but for all.

Confronting the classics: traditions, adventures and innovations by Mary Beard (2013, Profile)

Following last month’s special instalment on Roman history titles, I found myself picking this collection of essays off the shelf of a local charity shop. And once again, it’s not a typical book. Rather, it is a series of Beard’s book reviews from the last couple of decades, collated here along with her ‘manifesto’ on whether the classics have a future, and her rationale for using reviews a means of widening historical debate. On that score, Beard will find no argument from me – as one who publishes succinct reviews of every book I read every quarter, who am I to judge?

In previous installments, I have recommended essay collections. I find them an enjoyable way to learn something on a subject where an entire book might dissuade you from reading about it altogether. They are also perfect for shorter time frames, where one chapter or subject can be finished in one sitting. In this collection, Beard praises, critiques, questions and in some cases outright savages the work of her peers,but maintains her vivid style of wit and enthusiasm throughout. She regularly highlights how source material can be selectivity interpreted when authors are attempting to make a particular argument, forcing one to rethink how we read history.

After reading Beard’s reviews, I came away with a very good sense of what the original book was getting at, without having to read it. In a sense, this books gives you over thirty for the price of one! Even the most casual fans of classical history should cast their eye over this collection.

The Monk of Mokka by Dave Eggers (2016,)

I actually read this over the summer, but as it was the only book that wasn’t in some way related to Roman history, I decided to hold back my review until this installment.

Eggers brings us a tale on behalf of Mokhtar, a Yemini raised in San Francisco. Almost through chance, an aimless Mokhtar develops a passion for coffee and sets off on a mission to bring coffee from Yemen back to the global market – just as civil war breaks out in his homeland. As well as learning about the process the beans go through before they reach our cups, we follow Makhtar’s attempts to escape the country, not only with both his shipment of coffee beans, but with his life.In all honesty, the book is propelled by the story. The narrative is engaging where the writing is sometimes not, and it is string enough to keep one reading. Recommended mainly for coffee aficionados. You can read more about Mokhtar and his foundation at his Port of Mokha website.

Scandinavians: in search of the soul of the North by Robert Ferguson (2017, Head Zeus)

Ferguson looks back through the history of the Swedes, Danes and Norwegians to draw out what links them and what gives them their unique cultural personality. These dives into history are intersected with vignettes from the author’s own life, having travelled around and lived in various parts of Scandinavia in the last five decades.

Ferguson seeks to ascertain the origins of the Scandinavian character. In terms of the ‘brooding melancholia’ one might associate with the land of long winters nights and Scandi-noir drama, he points to various moments in their history, from the cultural drought brought about by Sweden’s reformation in the medieval period to the time of (playwright) Isben and (artist) Munch and their creative work full of intense angst. Ferguson examines not just the culture itself, but the effect on how outside nations perceive these three separate but interlinked nations.

Ferguson certainly a few interesting arguments. However, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive conclusion, and the book feels somewhat unfinished as a result. Worth a read for those interested in Scandinavian culture and history. It also highlights a few interesting locations to visit if you find yourself travelling there anytime soon.

My favourites from 2021

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the Themis Files trilogy. I recommend it to any fans if science fiction looking for something a little different. I also enjoyed and recommend Yevgeny Zamyatin’s distopian tale We. These two were standouts in another good year of reading (both reviews can be read here).

I have noticed that I have shied away from music books in recent years, perhaps as they represent something of a busman’s holiday. However, there are a few music titles making their way into my to read pile along all the history and fiction, so watch this space…

As always, let me know what you’ve been reading, as well as your favourite books of 2021. In the meantime, stay safe and happy, until next time…

A year of books (July – September)

Books

It’s hard to believe that we’re in the final three months of the year. What a year it’s been! I’m sure no one could have reliably predicted the majority of changes which most of us have had to undergo, hopefully on a temporary basis, because of this pandemic. I hoped that it might offer more time to get through my oft-mentioned (and ever increasing) ‘to read’ pile. However, if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that life doesn’t always go the way you expect it to.

Still, there has been some reading since the last installment (which you can read about here), and here is a brief review of it…

The Italians by John Hooper (2015, Penguin)

An affectionate and sometimes amusing look at the characteristics common to Italians, and why that might be the case. Hooper also reiterates that Italy is a relatively new country (as a unified whole), and spends almost as much time highlighting what separates Italians from different regions; north and south; Romans and Sicilians; mountain dwellers and those who reside by the country’s ample coastline, and so on. Hooper regularly interjects anecdotes from his extensive time living and working in Italy as a journalist. These passages give the book a greater cohesion, in that the presumed reader (and Englishman) sees the situations unfold through the eyes of the author, and with similar inherent sensibilities. However, Hooper restrains himself from writing this as a straightforward memoir, which I expect that has increased it’s potential readership.

I read this book during lockdown in England. Of course, Italy had imposed one of the most stringent lockdowns of any country in the world, and the Italians have seemingly been obedient and compliant. This seemed to go against one of the common reoccurring themes in Hooper’s observations; that Italians will regularly bend the rules to suit their needs or preferences. The reports I was hearing on the news in 2020 didn’t sit with this assessment, until I considered another of the books themes – the emphasis and commitment Italians place on family. From this angle, undertaking the strictest measures, which seemed like virtual home arrest to some, made sense, as it gave your elderly relatives a fighting chance of making it through this madness alive. And that, argues Hooper five years before any of this was upon us, is a key characteristic of Italians. Recommended for anyone with an interest in staying in Italy for longer than an average-length holiday.

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson (2010, Bloomsbury)

Jacobson’s 2010 comic novel about three male friends – two of them Jewish and a third man who suddenly feels that he might be, won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 2010. This sudden interest in the religion of his friends is the author’s way of examining the universal themes of life and society. It is amusing in places, and the characters are interesting and well-written. Yet I certainly wasn’t gripped by it as much as I had been led to believe the reviewers who had gushed over this novel upon it’s release. Humorous and touching, yes, but also confused in places, and ultimately, slightly underwhelming.

Athelstan by Tom Holland (2016, Penguin)

A recent addition to the Penguin Monarchs series (that is, books on British monarchs published by Penguin books, although there’s a pun about Emporer Penguins in there somewhere), this book examines one of the lesser-known pre-1066 Kings (who wasn’t Alfred the Great).

I enjoy Holland’s writing, having read several of his books previously – in particular, I thoroughly recommend Rubicon, about the last gasp of the Roman Republic. At 160 pages, this is a quick read, but it covers what is known about Athelstan, from the few sources available. Personally, I’m pleased that Holland resisted the temptation to pad the book out with unnecessary additional information or unfounded presumptions.

Utopia for realists by Rutger Bregman (2016, Bloomsbury)

Alternate subtitles for this book, depending on country of publication, include and how we can get there (UK) and the slightly less pithy sounding the case for a universal basic income, open borders, and a 15-hour workweek (Holland). Although the latter of these two subtitles is somewhat unwieldly, it must be said that it up this book’s subject matter much more effectively. The book originated as a series of articles for the Dutch online news site De Correspondent by Bregman, a popular historian, and was later complied and translated. It has quickly became a bestseller, which ringing endorsements from a wide range of economists and politicians across the world.

The text centres on the three polices highlighted in the original subtitle, along with the principle that ideas can change the world, according to Bregman, who states “people are the motors of history and ideas the motors of people”. Of course, there are many who have said that Bergman strays into idealism, and it will certainly prove more popular with readers of a more left-leaning political persuasion. But Bergman is only aiming to issue a challenge, or a promise, of what could be possible but I doubt if the title Utopia for Idealists would have sold quite as well. A manifesto for a brighter future? Maybe not by itself, but a good place to start.

Goshawk Squadron by Derek Robinson (1971, Cassell)

In the afterword section of the book, Robinson recounts his inspiration for writing the story. He read a former R.A.F. pilot describe the tactic of the world’s first fighter pilots during WWI as “to sneak in unobserved behind his opponent and then shoot him in the back”. Hardly the cavaliers of the clouds they have often been immortalized as in tales such as the Biggles series, amongst many others.

This Booker Prize shortlisted book paints it’s fictitious characters in a more truthful light, based on the diaries and letters of real WWI pilots. The book was met with anger from veterans of the Royal Flying Corps (the forerunner to the Royal Air Force) when it was first released, but reading it in 2020, it feels much less controversial now – the idea of a ‘lovely war’ has remained a 20th century concept – but the story is no less gripping for that fact. At just over two hundred pages, it’s a relatively fast read, but I found that the story stayed with me long after I had replaced the book on the shelf.

The next and final installment of this series (due in late December) will feature two novels I have been looking forward to reading. You can also expect updates on some upcoming studio dates and an in-depth review of a new guitar built for me recently. Until next time…