Book Notes, 2018


  1. SPQR by Mary Beard — You can only learn things by attaching them to what you’ve already learned, and I hadn’t learned much about a thousand years of Roman history. That said, I got more out of it than expected because Beard’s writing is fun and the book is rarely dry.

    One thing I do know about is the wood tablets at the fort of Vindolanda at Hadrian’s Wall, because I’ve been to see them at the museum there. When the first tablets were peeled apart and the ink writing discovered, they were rushed to the university at Durham but oxidised before they could be transcribed. The message was thought lost but at the medical school they found they could still read it in the infrared. And they’ve been able to protect many of the rest dug up so you can see them yourself. The tablets include the oldest surviving writing in Latin by a woman, an invitation to a birthday party. I recommend a visit.

  2. The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy — I always picture Jack Ryan as Alec Baldwin.

  3. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri ★ — A sweeping but intimate novel that starts in 1960s Calcutta with two young brothers, Subhash and Udayan. Their lives fork, an impulsive Udayan caught up in the Naxalite movement at home and a studious Subhash setting out for university and a life in New England. It’s about staying and leaving, about parenthood, loss, guilt and responsibility, through four generations of a family.

  4. Endurance by Alfred Lansing ★ — Lansing wrote this authoritative account of the Endurance expedition, having got hold of most of the diaries kept on the voyage and then interviewed the surviving crew. The mission of the great explorer to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic went awry when the tallship got stuck in the icepack of the Weddell Sea, was crushed and sank leaving the crew without a hope.

    There’s no way to condense the ordeals and suffering the book details. It is unfathomable that they survived. After all that they’d endured over a year, Shackleton took a few men in the tiny open boat James Caird and navigated 800 miles over the most deadly ocean on the planet to hit their only hope of rescue, the speck of South Georgia island. Once there, they had to climb over the sawtooth mountains and glaciers of the interior to get to the whaling station, that itself a route nobody had survived attempting. Shackleton then went back to rescue every one of his crew.

    Frank Hurley shot early colour photographs and got the film home. They are beautiful.

  5. Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

  6. The Carter of La Providence by Georges Simenon (Maigret #4) — Simenon is great at writing canals, as most other things.

  7. The Innovators by Walter Isaacson — A history of the people who invented computers, microprocessors, software and the web, from Ada Lovelace to Larry Page. Each character in the story is met only briefly, because many people contributed.

    And that’s really the theme of the book. We still have this notion of looking for lone genius inventors when in fact innovation since the last century has driven by brilliant thinkers in collaboration and many incremental advances.

  8. Christianity by Linda Woodhead — It’s strange when I read histories of Christianity having spent my childhood in one branch of it. Things I think I know well seen from a different angle. In fact though she covers most churches, Woodhead doesn’t mention JWs.

    Most interesting in this brief review was to read about the early divide in church versus biblical Christianity. Also the role of mystical Christianity and the Catholic church’s successful absorption of the monastic movement to bring it under its own control.

  9. Deep Work by Cal Newport ★ — This book felt important, and I just counted the number of passages I’ve added to my notes from it: 94, which is maybe a record. This is close enough to the central thesis:

    The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

    And this from a section on life satisfaction:

    Most people assumed (and still do) that relaxation makes them happy. We want to work less and spend more time in the hammock. But the results from Csikszentmihalyi’s ESM studies reveal that most people have this wrong. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

  10. The Yellow Dog (Maigret #6) by Georges Simenon — A typical Maigret setting of a murder and a conspiratorial group of men in a small French town, this time Concarneau. Maigret sorts it all out with a few frothy beers of course.

  11. Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy — The last in the Border Trilogy brings John Grady Cole and Billy Parham together soon after the Second World War, in work on a ranch. The Old Testament Cities of the Plain were Sodom and Gomorrah, so we know the old world is in fire and brimstone. They make the crossing of the Rio Grande once more to find the last of it. As always McCarthy writes horses better than women.

    The man smiled at him a sly smile. As if they knew a secret between them, these two. Something of age and youth and their claims and the justice of those claims. And of their claims upon them. The world past, the world to come. Their common transciencies. Above all a knowing deep in the bone that beauty and loss are one.

    Also this, from the New York Times review:

    That brief moment between a culture’s existence and extinction – this is the border that McCarthy’s characters keep crossing and recrossing, and the one story, as he’s forever writing, that contains all others. Throughout the trilogy, we keep encountering witnesses – former revolutionaries, priests, gypsies – in whose testimony alone human history survives. As in Proust, the storytellers are inseparable from their tales.

  12. The Spanish Civil War by Helen Graham — I’m putting together a reading pile on the Spanish Civil War, and I like these short intros for a place to start. I’d never considered that there’s no Civil War museum, though maybe in Barcelona soon. Francoists “always referred to the war as a ‘crusade’ or ‘fight for national liberation’”. A reminder how quickly people can turn to killing their own neighbours, even relatives, when scared and told these people are the danger. Britain’s non-intervention.

    The military coup unleashed what was in effect a series of culture wars: urban culture and cosmopolitan lifestyles versus rural tradition, secular against religious; authoritarianism against liberal political cultures; centre versus periphery; traditional gender roles versus the ‘new woman’; even youth against age, since generational conflicts were also present.

    New culture war, same as the old culture war.

  13. Men Without Women by Ernest Hemingway — This second set of stories was published in 1927. It’s the one with Hills Like White Elephants and The Killers. The stories flow through the gaps, and you know he’s reporting life where he’s seen it, whether bullfighting in The Undefeated, boxing in Fifty Grand or war on the Italian Front in Now I Lay Me and In Another Country.

    In an interview, later:

    I can remember feeling so awful about the first war that I couldn’t write about it for ten years,” he said, suddenly very angry. “The wound combat makes in you, as a writer, is a very slow-healing one. I wrote three stories about it in the old days—‘In Another Country,’ ‘A Way You’ll Never Be,’ and ‘Now I Lay Me.’

  14. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt ★ — This and The Secret History are two of the most enjoyable novels I can remember reading in a long time. Recommended by everyone, and now by me.

    Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only–if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it? And isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty?

  15. Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry — Saint-Ex wrote this memoir of his daring adventures as an early aviator for the French Aéropostale, expanding into his thoughts on friendship, death and living a meaningful life. He was a pioneer of the mail routes over the Sahara and the Andes. In undependable aircraft, over mountain terrain with navigation by landmarks on the ground or the stars at night, this was a perilous occupation.

    Nothing, in truth, can ever replace a lost companion. Old comrades cannot be manufactured. There is nothing that can equal the treasure of so many shared memories, so many bad times endured together, so many quarrels, reconciliations, heartfelt impulses. Friendships like that cannot be reconstructed. If you plant an oak, you will hope in vain to sit soon under its shade. For such is life. We grow rich as we plant through the early years, but then come the years when time undoes our work and cuts down our trees. One by one our comrades deprive us of their shade, and within our mourning we always feel now the secret grief of growing old.

  16. Open by Andre Agassi — The interesting thing about Agassi’s story is he hated his sport. Emmanuel Agassi, an Iranian Olympic boxer migrated to Las Vegas, decided his son would be a tennis pro before he was born. Rigged up a machine to fire balls at a toddler thousands of times a day and sent him on to academies. In Andre’s telling, by the time he got to decide what he wanted to do he only had one option, one he didn’t want. Even when that job got him rich, famous and married to Brooke Shields.

    Only when things fell apart, he got a ban for crystal meth and dropped to the bottom did Agassi get to enjoy tennis. The rise from there back to world number one late in his career is the real sporting life.

  17. Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn — Finn moves for six months to the marathon capital of the world, a town in Kenya called Iten. He hopes to find out what makes the locals worldbeaters at distance running. Running miles to school every day? Running barefoot? Ugali? Altitude? Attitude? And of course it’s a bit of all of that. Except the barefoot running, Kenyans wear trainers.

  18. Hidden City by Karl Whitney — I got this book about Dublin from Daunt before visiting in August, but it’s more a book for locals seeking out obscure bits of their city. Whitney explores underground rivers, ghost towns hit by the financial crash, sewage systems and bus networks. Luckily I can happily read about infrastructure all day, I don’t know why.

  19. The Green Road by Anne Enright — Picked up from the great Irish fiction section of Chapters in Dublin. We have a family on the west coast of Ireland, Rosaleen and her children.

    He did not seem happy, he seemed a bit impatient but, That is because I am well, Constance thought, I have been wasting his time with my robust good health, I have been wasting everyone’s time! Her clever body had been doing a great job. Complex. Microscopic. Quiet. The map of light that was her left breast was not frightful but beautiful, and the marbled black and white of its sonic depths was lovely too.

    Constance stays and the others go off to New York and Mali. We hear the separate stories of them, and then they’re brought back together.

    She had not thought it would be dark, not yet, the way the Atlantic sky held the light for so long after the sun was down, something to do with the height of the heavens out here on the green road. The west was still open and clear, but the ground under her feet was tricky enough. All the colour was going from things and nothing was easy to see. You could not tell grey from grey.

  20. A Crime in Holland by Georges Simenon

  21. The Grand Banks Café by Georges Simenon

  22. The Undercover Economist Strikes Back by Tim Harford — The sequel to his tour of microeconomics, this one covers macro, with a bit of the life of Bill Phillips and his MONIAC hydraulic computer.

    We learn about failures of supply like the ‘prison-camp recession’ and failures of demand like the ‘babysitting co-op recession’, and that in practice it’s hard to tell which is happening. So in response, short-run Keynes, long-run classical is a rule of thumb. It then covers inflation, printing money, GDP, and there’s a chapter explaining how independent central banks committed to low inflation work as Dr Strangelove-like doomsday devices. Having them should mean we don’t have to use them, but it was the ECB’s device that went off in Greece.

  23. A History of the World by Andrew Marr — I don’t know why after SPQR I’ve gone for another history book covering such a mad amount of time but I liked the style of Marr’s History of Modern Britain so thought I’d like this one too. The time spent on non-European histories was most useful for me, particularly what was going on in China relative to what was happening with Christianity and Islam in Europe and the Middle East. Also the Americas and Russia. I should read some Tolstoy.

    Marr makes no apology for it being a history of significant individuals but doesn’t always convince me that someone else would not have come along with the same idea. Watt and his steam engine for one example, or Ghandi’s Salt March. In some cases it is clear that one person moved the world in a certain direction, like Zimmermann with his Telegram and most significantly Genghis Khan.

  24. The Vital Question by Nick Lane ★ — Lane takes us through a radical, wide-ranging new theory on the origins of life and then complex life. The theory puts energy right at the centre of the problem with the sort of derivation from first principles you get in physics. So I enjoyed that.

    The energy we gain from burning food in respiration is used to pump protons across a membrane, forming a reservoir on one side of the membrane. The flow of protons back from this reservoir can be used to power work in the same way as a turbine in a hydroelectric dam.

    It starts with a search for the sort of consistent energy gradients needed to kick things off. He rules out lightning (not enough) and UV radiation (too destructive) but reveals one candidate on Earth with the right conditions: those hydrothermal vents in the deep ocean.

    Exactly the kind of dissipative structures that we seek: continuous flow, far-from-equilibrium electrochemical reactors.

    Once simple life is sorted we find out how, after two billion years with nothing but bacteria and archea, eukaryotes (complex life like animals and plants) branched off with one extremely rare event when a bacterium got inside an archea (the rare thing is that they didn’t both immediately die) and formed a nucleus with a mitochondria power plant. Why that was so revolutionary: single-cell organisms have a limit on how big they can get while bringing in enough energy to support themselves, because the energy throughput of the membrane is limited by surface area, which increases squared as the volume increases cubed.

    The rest of the book takes the idea on to why complex life is like it is: sex, ageing, disease, death. There’s a lot of biology terms through the book, which left me needing the glossary or lost in an argument. He’s good at recapping though so I stopped being bothered about that, just skipping on to catch up.

  25. The Marches by Rory Stewart — A journal of long walks in the borderlands between England and Scotland. The first, along Hadrian’s Wall, he takes with his 89-year-old father, comparing the end of Roman Empire with retreat of British Empire, which in the Malayan Civil Service and MI6 his father saw firsthand. The second is a meandering walk from Cumbria to Crieffe, investigating what it means to live in the middleland, and how firm the boundaries really are.

    While the people hereabouts (and a good way north) have over the past 2,000 years spoken Cumbrian, Welsh, Latin, Northumbrian, Norman French and Borders English, they have never spoken Scottish Gaelic and never called this place Alba.

  26. Grave New World by Stephen D. King — A look at the retreat of globalisation and return of nationalists over the last couple of years, and where this could take us.

  27. Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann ★ — This is a shocking, tragic crime history from 1920s Oklahoma. The sisters in a family of the Osage tribe of Native Americans, rich from oil strikes on the rocky land they’d been shoved onto, started dying off. The surviving family have to pay for the new federal Bureau of Investigation to pull together a band to find the murderers and the conspiracy protecting them.