“Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.” Mark Twain
If I had to pick an ideal time to read, other than it being every day, I would pick winter. This is the time to disappear into a soft squishy chair under a fluffy rug, a mug of tea, wine or chocolate at the ready, and just float blissfully into a book.
There have been so many wonderful books published but just looking at some published this year (and a few earlier), I found the following well worth a peek.
Disclaimer: Because there are a couple I have yet to read, I have in part for some books, ‘lifted’ or borrowed part of various reviews, such as those from Amazon; The Economist; The Guardian etc.
Decoded. Mai Jia
This looks good. I’ve not read the book yet but it is definitely on my list! The book is described as a fine Chinese novel that book lovers with no special knowledge of China will relish. Written by a former member of the intelligence service, now one of China’s greatest and most popular contemporary writers, it is said to stand out for the sheer novelty of the tale it tells –a thriller that takes the reader deeply into the world of code breaking.
Mai Jia reveals the mysterious world of Unit 701, a top-secret Chinese intelligence agency whose sole purpose is counterespionage and code breaking.
Rong Jinzhen, an autistic math genius with a past shrouded in myth, is forced to abandon his academic pursuits when he is recruited into Unit 701. As China’s greatest cryptographer, Rong discovers that the mastermind behind the maddeningly difficult Purple Code is his former teacher and best friend, who is now working for China’s enemy—the first of many betrayals.
Said to brilliantly combining the mystery and tension of a spy thriller with the psychological nuance of an intimate character study and the magical qualities of a Chinese fable, Decoded discovers in cryptography the key to the human heart. Both a riveting mystery and a metaphysical examination of the mind of an inspired genius, it is the first novel to be published in English by this author.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Richard Flanagan
Written by an acclaimed Australian author, this novel is a multi-prize winner, the most notable of which is the Man Booker prize for 2014.
The Narrow Road to the North speaks of the cruelty of war, tenuousness of life, and the impossibility of love. Richard Flanagan’s story, based upon his own father’s experience, is of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor haunted by a love affair with his uncle’s wife. It takes the reader from the caves of Tasmanian trappers in the early twentieth century to a crumbling pre-war beachside hotel, from a Thai jungle prison to a Japanese snow festival, & from the Changi gallows to a chance meeting of lovers on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
At the heart of the novel is one day in a Japanese slave labour camp in August 1943. As the day builds to its horrific climax, Dorrigo Evans battles and fails in his quest to save the lives of his fellow POWs, a man is killed for no reason, and a love story unfolds. The novel grows to encompass the post war lives of Japanese and Korean prison guards as well as Australian prisoners of war.
This savagely beautiful novel is a story about the many forms of love and death, of war and truth, as one man comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost.
One reviewer has described ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North as a big, magnificent novel of passion and horror and tragic irony. Its scope, themes and its people all seem to grow richer and deeper in significance with the progress of the story, as it moves to its extraordinary resolution.
Thirty Girls: A Novel. Susan Minot
This is another I have yet to read but is on my List. Topical & based upon a true story set in Uganda, this fictional account by a masterly American author is about a group of 139 schoolgirls kidnapped by the rebel group ‘Lord’s Resistance Army’ . Reviews state that ‘Sister Giulia follows and bravely argues for their release & returns with 109. The outlaws keep 30, including the smart, courageous Esther’. In contrast, the story is also of Jane, an American writer and youngish widow, who visits a friend in Kenya and takes up with Harry, a chap passionate about paragliding—‘a poetic and apt embodiment of the illusion of freedom’. Jane, along with Harry & other characters, is on her way to Uganda to speak with young women at a camp for traumatized children who escaped their enslavement to the psychotic rebels. In her first novel in more than a decade, spellbinding Minot (Rapture, 2002; Evening, 1998), who according to reviews is a writer of delicate touch, perception and nuance, ‘contrasts Esther’s and Jane’s radically different, yet profoundly transforming journeys in a perfectly choreographed, slow-motion, devastatingly revealing collision of realities’. It asks deep questions about whether innocent human beings can ever recover from being made to inflict pain, or even kill.
The novel is described by The New York Times as “Wrenching . . . Suspenseful . . . By far her best.”
The Boston Globe “. . . A book that looks hard at trauma, love, and humanity, that contemplates the wide potential spectrum of life, concluding perhaps that life is not competition between us, but instead a struggle within each of us for whatever ‘twigs’ of love and happiness we can manage, no matter what the context.”
It looks to me like a good read given these reviews, but I did note that some other reviews I read found there were a few clichéd moments. That would not put me off however, given the frightful fact that this sort of outrageous abuse of human beings is going on right at this very moment.
Fourth of July Creek. Smith Henderson
In this shattering and iconic American novel, PEN prize-winning writer, Smith Henderson uses the intimate relationship that grows up between a flawed social worker, Pete, and a paranoid survivalist to explore grand themes about American culture, its winners and losers. It delves into the complexities of freedom, community, grace, suspicion and anarchy, brilliantly depicting the nation’s disquieting and violent contradictions.
Pete tries to help Benjamin Pearl, an undernourished, nearly feral eleven-year-old boy living in the Montana wilderness, and comes face to face with the boy’s profoundly disturbed father, Jeremiah Pearl. With courage and caution, Pete slowly earns a measure of trust from this paranoid survivalist itching for a final conflict that will signal the coming End Times.
However, and in parallel, as Pete’s own family spins out of control, Pearl’s activities spark the full-blown interest of the F.B.I., putting Pete at the center of a massive manhunt from which no one will emerge unscathed.
I’m about a third of the way through this work – the language is so precise & spare that I can hear the accents, & see the characters. It’s a bit depressing given the subject but a brilliant book & great piece of literature.
Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery. Henry Marsh
I absolutely loved this book by phenomenal UK neuro-surgeon Henry Marsh. Marsh impresses as a quiet and unassuming man, who is clearly a brilliant and devoted surgeon who has been at the height of neurosurgical specialisation for decades.
An exquisitely honest and moving series of meditations, Marsh’s tells stories with great tenderness, insight and self-doubt of the pain, the blood and the unfathomable and intricate beauty of the human brain and the people in whom these incredible organs reside. His language is often poetic, exquisite. Veins in the brain “like the great arches of a cathedral roof”, “ and then in the midline the Great Vein of Galen, dark blue and glittering in the light of the microscope”.
Marsh writes with near-existential subtlety about the very fact of operating within a brain, supposed repository of the soul and with myriad capacities for emotion, memory, belief, speech and, maybe, soul: but also, mainly, jelly and blood. He has been 4mm away, often, even with microtelescopes, from catastrophe. Catastrophe in neuro-surgical terms means death at best, or a lifetime comatose and utterly disabled in a nursing home as the only other option.
A part of Marsh’s professional life was spent in Ukraine on work funded by a charity he established. His partner in Ukraine, a local surgeon named Igor, ran a chaotic under-resourced hospital with no waiting lists. Appalling conditions are documented. Igor was in a never-ending war with authority despite having no political ‘protection’ as was apparently standard for many, and Marsh clearly admires and fears Igor, a risk-taker to his core.
Back in England, Marsh, whilst not a risk-taker in his surgery, is clearly a man of principal, and takes the risk of running a caustic commentary on the current bureaucracy-muddled woes of the English National Health Service throughout his account. The never-ending shortage of beds with patients being shunted at 3am, not between wards but between hospitals, sometimes 150 miles apart. Ludicrously expensive and inoperable IT systems. Political correctness run amock – it reminded me very much of Brave New World. Not quite the Ukraine maybe, but he documents idiocies that could give it a run for its money. It indeed gives one a chill to the bone when one considers the enormous waste of public funds and expert service that actually could be delivered to the public, if only the bureaucrats would get out of the way.
I’m not English, but I see parallels in my own country of Australia, where government increasingly reaches it bureaucrat hands into domains in which they have no expertise. Tax-payer funded jobs for an army of indifferent 9 to 5-fixated bureaucrat managers rules. Marsh points out as one example, that in England the Government has cut working hours for medical staff to the extent that junior surgeons have little experience in the operating theatre. This fine, passionate surgeon looks at the present with enough disillusion to half-welcome his retirement, but he hopes the NHS will allow him the freedom to be a “roof” to junior surgeons, taking some responsibility from their shoulders so that they will continue to dream and dare as he once did.
I have a medical as well as business background so it was a given that I’d love this book, but I strongly recommend it as a wonderful read, with insight into the daily grind and struggle of those who deliver and those who need & receive medical care. And ‘chapeaux’ to Mr Marsh for his service and his honest reflections.
Consolations of the Forest. Alone in a Cabin in the Middle Taiga. Sylvain Tesson.
One of my all time favourite reads in 2014. Sylvain Tesson is a French writer, journalist and traveller of high adventure and renown. This book won him the Prix Medicis in 2011 and happily for me, has now been translated into English.
Tesson took himself to live in a log cabin for 6 months on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia, to fulfill a dream he long held to ‘go to ground’ in a forest, surrounding himself with silence & escaping the ‘ugliness, traffic & telephone’. There being no access roads, 75 miles from the nearest neighbours, freezing temperatures and bears, Tesson took along the support of books, cigars and vodka. Plenty of it. He says “In that desert, I created a beautiful and temperate life for myself, experiencing an existence centred on simple gestures ….. I knew winter and spring, happiness, despair, and in the end, peace”. Every day he recorded his thoughts in a notebook, and it is these observations, philosophical musing, beautiful descriptions, and often hilarious comments that form the book. This is not the work of a troubled soul, but the observations and thoughts of a highly articulate, well-balanced and humorous man.
I found it be a gob-smackingly beautiful book in terms of the sheer beauty of descriptive phrases, and the peaceful equivalent of listening to beautiful music. Equally funny and meditative, for me, it was an escape into beauty and wonder as much as being in Siberia was an escape for Tesson.
This is a book to linger over, to see through Tesson’s eyes the minute detail of this wildly beautiful and unspoiled environment in Siberia. Tesson is trying to rearrange his relationship with time. Being alone, miles from anywhere, encourages him to sit still and watch things. He looks at birds. He’s constantly aware of animals. Bears, wolves. He ponders the Russian, and also the Slavic, soul. “Compared to us cheese-paring, bean-counting Westerners, Russians are, in some ways, awesome. It’s ‘a nation that sends rockets into space and where people fight off wolves with stones’.
Some observations or phrases that I loved were:
He comes across Anatoli & Lena miles and miles distant at a defunct weather-station hamlet in an equally remote area “They recently separated and live in two neighbouring izbas, like a set of porcelain dogs at the end of the world”.
Or, when ruminating on Man’s need for transcendence and belief in a greater being. “Why believe in God outside His own creation? The crackling of the ice, the gentleness of the titmice, and the puissance of the mountains stir me more than any idea of the master of these ceremonies. They are enough for me. If I were a God, I would atomize myself into billions of facets so I could dwell in ice crystals, cedar needles, the sweat of women, the scales of spotted char, and the eyes of the lynx. More exhilarating than floating about in infinite space, watching from afar as the blue planet self-destructs”.
By recording his impressions in the face of silence, his struggles in a hostile environment, his hopes, doubts, and moments of pure joy in communion with nature, Tesson makes a decidedly out-of-the-ordinary experience relatable. The awe and joy are contagious, and one comes away with the comforting knowledge that “as long as there is a cabin deep in the woods, nothing is completely lost.”
Dancing to the Precipice. Lucie de la Tour du Pin and the French Revolution. Caroline Morehead
“Amid all these pleasures, we were laughing and dancing our way to the precipice”
Love French history? Or don’t know much about French history, as was/is the case for me? Wherever you come from, don’t by-pass this brilliant biography! I have treasured it in my library for a few years now and have read it twice, and undoubtedly will do so a few more times yet. It is an immensely readable account by a great biographer- reading the book is like have a chat with a friend and sitting in at a jolly good ‘goss’. Good photos too.
The book is a first-hand account by Lucie de la Tour du Pin, a French liberal aristocrat with many links to Versailles and the court of Louis XV+ and Marie Antoinette (indeed Lucie grew up in this court). An outstanding diarist, Lucie witnessed one of the most the dramatic and brutal periods in history, in which she was a participant and observer and later, commentator. Incredibly, this intelligent and brave woman was in the right place at the right time in terms of actually ‘living’ history. Her memoirs are said to be one the finest of the age, ‘full of humour, and shrewdness & affection’.
Lucie survived the French Revolution unlike many family and friends, and escaped at one stage to America where she bought and managed a farm and concerned herself with the injustices of slavery. I was over-awed at how this refined young French female aristocrat put her hand to farming the fledgling country of America. Returning to France, she lived through the eras of Napoleon (whom she knew well and with whom she clearly enjoyed mutual admiration), and the restoration of the French kings Louis XV111, Charles X, and Louis-Philippe.
Her friends included Talleyrand, Wellington, Mme de Stael, Lafayette, and Josephine Bonaparte. The ‘name-dropping’ (from me, not her) and places/events she saw goes on and on. What is also evident in this biography and through Lucie’s own observations, is the brave, indomitable and generous character that Lucie was. She suffered many tragedies, but her courage and resilience, along with good humour, shines through.
I used the loathe history when I was at school – I now know that history isn’t just a string of dates to be learned by rote, but the stories and reflections of real people, facing life’s circumstances as best they can. This book for me is a ‘Desert Island’ book – that is, one I would put in my haversack if forced to be stranded on a desert island. Read it and love it!