Stealing an idea from the excellent Laura McInerney, here is the list of books that I consumed through 2017
A fascinating take on the disaster facing many species around the world as they deal with a contended man-made or “sixth” extinction event currently occurring. Not a cheering read as the impact of human expansion and disinterest in how our species impacts others is laid bare. The predicted loss of between 20% to 50% of all living species on the planet by the end of the 21st Century is hugely sobering. The mix of author travelogue and scientific analysis is very well done.
An unflinching and demanding series of essays that force the reader to consider how immigrants of colour are perceived by mainstream British society and media. The impossible balancing act of trying to please a society that demands assimilation but will forever distinguish ‘otherness’ is highlighted by each author, some focusing on their own stories and family history, others on the wider societal clashes of having to conform to a stereotype not requested by individuals. I’ll admit, some of the essays seemed trite or lacking in weight to me but I hope that was only because of the sheer brilliance of some of the work. “Airports and Auditions” by Riz Ahmed in particular, was breathtaking in laying bare the contradictions we demand.
A kind of road map of the human journey of the future, Harari looks at what humans have found important throughout our history and how those interests will shape our tomorrow. The talent of humans to find meaning in our collective experiences and constructs but also to place importance on the desires of the individual are forces that will drive our progress towards medical advancements in living longer or automation and artificial intelligence. Harari is a clever man but I found the book attempted to cover too much, the themes too big for the message to have any real impact. It reminded me of Gleick’s The Information as the central ideas of the book seemed too big for the author to wrestle under control.
Thomson is one of my favourite writers on film and I loved his previous mix of media and personal history, Moments that Made the Movies (2013). This, unfortunately did not live up to me expectations though as many of the touchstone television series or moments focused on are very American (Lucille Ball for example) and the personal stories seemed more jumbled up. The joining thread in previous books isn’t there and the whole project could have done with a firmer hand by his publisher.
After previously devouring Unbroken (2010), I was on the look out for another book that illustrated the remarkable true stories of survival and perseverance in World War 2. I wasn’t disappointed with Frozen in Time, the truly amazing story of two US planes that crashed into Greenland in 1942, the epic survival of (some of) the crews for 148 days on the glacier and the 2012 mission to locate one of the rescue planes that went looking for the crews only to also crash into the ice. The feats of endurance are remarkable and, while at times it’s difficult to keep track of which crew or rescue or location is being discussed, the narrative is kept driving on for the reader to truly care about each man and their outcome. An astonishing tale of human spirit.
Apparently continuing my need to feel frozen, I then moved onto a novel set in the violent and gruesome 19th Century whaling industry. The novel follows the misadventures of a harpoon ship called the Volunteer and the men abroad each with their own dark histories particularly Sumner the doctor and Drax, a seaman with a heart of darkness. The book is bloody and filthy in places, not scrimping in its descriptions of the work of whaling or the evil actions of its protagonists but, through the horror comes a character that you do end up rooting for. A man willing to put the effort into surviving but also attempting to hold onto a shred of decency and moral goodness through it all. A brutal but worthy read.
As a massive fan of his earlier novels number9dream (2001) and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010), I was looking forward to this almost Neil Gaiman like story. Mixing mundane reality with fantasy and otherworldly aspects such as immortal warriors and psychic abilities is tricky to pull off and I never felt totally comfortable that this novel achieved this. Other readers who might be more enthusiastic fans of fantasy might disagree but, for all the clever jumps in time across the chapters, I could never quite shake off the feeling that this was a little silly.
A wonderful work of historical non-fiction that manages to lead the reader through the Medieval period 1095-1291 and multitude of characters, faiths and empires that battled across the Levant for control of religious sites and trading routes. As well as being a fascinating period of history, The Crusades now have modern connotations placed upon them and Asbridge is excellent at cutting through the noise to describe the motivations of the main players and the historical detail that illuminates the period. Major characters of history such as Saladin and Richard the Lionheart are painted with the precise pen of author who has done the research and is able to humanize these giants of history. The individual motivations of leaders, the internal politics of both the Franks and the numerous Islamic sects and the religious zeal of many of the crusaders is all discussed to paint the complex picture the period deserves.
The book I finish 2017 reading is a novel telling the story of a farmer in 1920’s Alabama caught siphoning off electricity from the grid when a tragic accident occurs. It’s a thin book that failed to grab me like other spare, sparsely written novels. The story seems stretched over its pages, the tale of Roscoe T. Martin, a quiet man, is perhaps too quiet for its own good with too much unsaid for an emotional impact or resonance with this reader.
So that was my 2017 reading, it strikes me that I haven’t actually got through many this year and will have to improve my numbers in 2018.