Apologies to people reading this in the northern hemisphere, but we’re still basking in summer down in our half of the planet. And amongst the festivities and family gatherings, the sunshine, the holidays and the barbecues, there’s been plenty of time for reading. Here’s a look at some of the books I’ve been reading this summer:
Miss Benson’s Beetle, by Rachel Joyce
This one’s a lot of fun. Miss Benson is in a dead end job in a dead end life in 1950s Britain, when she is suddenly inspired to pursue a beetle that may or may not exist, on the other side of the world. Accompanying her is someone who is neither an entomologist nor a guide, but is perhaps the least likely person to be joining this quest. What is Edith Pretty running from?
The two women are the classic odd couple, completely ill-matched, and yet both ultimately dependent on the other to achieve their dreams. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say those dreams are achieved, and in style!
Nine Lives, by Robert Mads Anderson
We see images of those trails of climbers heading up Mt Everest and think it’s easy to do these days. Robert Mads Anderson isn’t a climber who wants to do things the easy way, though. This book is an account of his 9 attempts to climb Everest, each one by a different route. As well as changing routes, he makes things trickier by climbing solo, or going without oxygen.
Things go wrong, not surprisingly, and Anderson uses up those nine lives one by one. Avalanches, falls, sudden changes in weather. Climbing partners die or give up. He keeps trying, one more time.
The Sentinel, by Lee & Andrew Child
Here’s the Jack Reacher thriller where Lee Child hands the baton over to his younger brother Andrew, an established thriller writer in his own right. It’s fair to say I kept my expectations low when I started this. Surely we already know everything we need to about Jack Reacher. Surely Lee Child can’t keep churning out wonderfully absorbing plots. Surely Andrew Child can’t be as good a writer as his brother.
Well, I loved it. Best Jack Reacher I’ve read for some time. (I don’t tend to read them in order, just based on what I pick up at second-hand bookstalls normally. Reading the latest, as on this occasion, is a rarity for me.)
There are elements, particularly to do with IT, that seemed new to the series, and I wondered if this was an Andrew Child touch. All the other elements are still there – Jack Reacher arriving in a new place where some helpless people are being oppressed by big bad guys, and only Reacher can save the day. It absolutely raced along. My low expectations were almost immediately swept aside. More please!
The Map of Knowledge, by Violet Moller
I once read a book called something like, How the Irish saved civilisation, about how Irish monks preserved knowledge from the classical world during the Dark Ages. This book looks at another side of this preservation, focussing on southern Europe and the Middle East in a tale of 7 cities.
Moller follows three works by Galen, Ptolemy and Euclid on medicine, astronomy and geometry respectively, from their genesis in the Greek-dominated city of Alexandria to their rescue by Arab scholars when the Roman Empire’s fall meant the almost complete loss of libraries and learning throughout the former Empire.
She’s great at reconstructing life in those ancient cities – Arabic Baghdad, Moorish Spain, Norman Italy and then finally on to Venice where the respective trails all end up at the printing press. There are some great characters we meet along the way, and some fascinating side-tracks on the journey. A real celebration of the human drive to learn and pass on learning.
Word Drops, by Paul Anthony Jones
This is fun, but best read in small doses as Jones demonstrates his knowledge of words and their histories.
It’s a chain, where each anecdote is linked to the last one, and then leads on to the next. It starts with the aardvark, whose name means ‘earth pig,’ then tells us that the Italian equivalent of ‘when pigs fly’ is ‘when donkeys fly.’ This leads to another word-oriented fact about donkeys, and so on for 240 whimsical, erudite and entertaining pages before finishing up with … aardvarks again.
In between these aardvarks, we find out (selecting a few items completely at random) that ‘dollar’ comes from joachimstaler, a coin made in the Czech town of Joachimstal, that the letter E makes up eleven percent of the English language and that the Oxford English Dictionary’s full entry for the word ‘set’ runs to some 60,000 words, more than twice as long as Animal Farm.
Cities of the Plain, by Cormac McCarthy
This is the New Mexico entrant in my 50 US States reading plan, although it does dip into Texas and, more importantly, Mexico itself.
Two heroes from previous McCarthy novels are 1950s cowboys, living a lifestyle they are deeply suited for, but which we sense isn’t going to survive much longer. We see them at work, sometimes lonely, sometimes in a team, almost always on horseback. And we see them at play, which is where the tragedy begins for the younger of the two cowboys.
On a trip across the river to Mexico, he meets a girl. They fall for each other, but she can’t leave. She is owned by a pimp with an array of knives and bad guys to call in. Oh, and the pimp loves the girl too.
McCarthy has a wonderful ability to help readers sense the emotions and desires of laconic men who rarely talk about either. His dialogue writing can sometimes be obscure, for example when there are several unattributed speakers, or when whole conversations take place in Spanish, but if you take it slow enough – just like a 1950’s cowboy yourself – you’ll get there.
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson
Another oldie, and another of my 50 States reading pile, this time from Iowa. Despite also mainly taking place in the 1950’s, this is pretty much the polar opposite of the McCarthy book above in tone and subject matter, as well as shifting from the sun-baked south to the Midwest farmlands.
I had thought the book was going to be purely autobiographical, but to my surprise found it to be a treasure-trove of information about American, and Iowan in particular, life in the era. I really should have trusted Bryson!
Just as a sample, he tells us how sightseers would head into the Nevada desert to watch nuclear bomb tests, and how residents of nearby towns would enthusiastically check themselves with a Geiger counter afterwards to find out how radioactive they were. He tells how the Postal Service devised a plan to deliver mail via missiles.
If this sounds mad to you, rest assured that aspects of our era will seem just as mad in seventy years’ time. But don’t worry about that, just buckle yourself in for a guided tour of the world of Bryson’s childhood that is affectionate, incredulous and an absolute delight.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami
I’m part-way through this, so won’t say too much about it. Tsukuru’s story is about his tight group of five high-school friends, and how that friendship ended with him being banished from the group. At the time he was too taken aback to find out why this had happened, but now, twenty years later, he tries to track his old friends down and uncover the secret.
I initially found this hard to get into, but now I’m loving it, and waiting for the revelations that I’m sure will come. The only issue for me is the stilted language that regularly occurs. I’ve struck this in another Murakami novel, but don’t know if this is Murakami’s particular style, or an issue with the translations.
My favourite of the lot? Always hard to compare works from different genres, but I think it’s the Bill Bryson book that will stick with me for the longest, narrowly edging Cities of the Plain and Miss Benson’s Beetle.
As always, keen for feedback from others who have read these books. Let me know how you found them!