Books I've read this year and think were good...
“I think I've already climbed out of the window a few times in life. My perspective is that we live only once, I cannot be sure but that is what I believe. I think that if you've once asked yourself: 'Should I...' then the answer should be: 'Yes!' Otherwise, how would you ever know if you shouldn't?” - The author on being asked if he would climb out of the window on his 100th birthday, and if so what adventure would he have?
A road-journey farcical comedy romp with Tom Holt-ish predicaments and a narrative style that recalls Forrest Gump but has Candide traipsing around as an archetype in the background somewhere. The 100 year old in question invented the atom bomb, accidentally gave the secret to the Russians, crossed the Himalaya with Iranian communists, survived the gulags, sat Kim Jong-il on his lap and was a personal friend to Truman, Mao, Stalin, Churchill. In an act of seemingly gratuitous cruelty, the author neutered the protagonist at an early age. Why? It seemed that liberation from the carnal drive to procreate was what facilitated the grand adventure of his life. That and his staunch refusal to adhere to any politics or religion. Funny book.
Amazing bravado and chutzpah - the Gospel According to Timothy (St Paul's sidekick on his conversion tour of the Middle East). Brilliant parody of 'the greatest story never told' – better than Life of Brian! 'The Hacker' is wiping the history tapes, deleting the gospels one by one, so a TV Exec goes back in time as a hologram and gives Timothy a battery powered TV and a mission - to write the true gospel. What follows is pure satirical genius.
Contemporary fiction of the Booker variety about a girl who can sense the buried emotions of people when she eats the food they cook. A bit weird – her brother 'becomes' a chair, but her father's fear of hospitals is a good touch and the writing is good.
“Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.”
A fine critique of the more than often unpleasant outcomes of being too religious. It's obviously a little too easy a target sometimes (fish in a barrel spring to mind), but that's hardly his fault. He marshals his facts well and as a champion of critical/free thinking and enlightenment values, his sharp wit and laudable principles shine through.
“To be an unbeliever is not to be merely “open-minded.” It is, rather, a decisive admission of uncertainty that is dialectically connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well as in politics.”
"We also suffer from `Amenomania' [literally-wind-madness]. This disease may be exhibited in two forms: Either one is morbidly anxious about the wind direction and gibbers continually about it, or else a sort of lunacy is produced by listening to the other Amenomaniacs. The second form is more trying to hear. I have had both."
I read this whilst watching the acclaimed documentary over and over again to see what was happening in the parts I was reading. Remarkable adventure by any standards before or since, and the documentary evidence they managed to save is equally remarkable.
“Women wear small pants because they think they’re sexy. But, in this respect, women have communally lost all reason. Ladies! On how many occasions in the last year have you needed to wear a tiny pair of skimpy pants? In other words, to break this right down, how many times have you suddenly, unexpectedly, had sex in a brightly lit room, with a hard-to-please erotic connoisseur? Exactly. On those kind of odds, you might just as well be keeping a backgammon board down there, to entertain a group of elderly ladies in the event of emergencies. It’s more likely to happen.”
Everybody should read this memoir by one of our smarter and funnier writers, for the giggles and the fun and to finally embrace the smarter sides of feminism. Stand up on your chair and shot it proud...
“An economy predicated on the perpetual expansion of debt-driven materialistic consumption is unsustainable ecologically, problematic socially and unstable economically.”
A sharp assessment of where we're at and how things might be a little better if we started making decisions based in the real world instead of economic fantasy land. The time of the ineffectual hippy-green idealist is thankfully over, clearing the way for common sense arguments, economic or social, that might win the day for change, presuming we can overcome the seemingly intractable problem of political short-termism. Thankfully while the politicians in Europe are grunting like dinosaurs about growth, people like Mr Jackson are working towards solutions that might actually work.
“When people queue up, they space themselves out equally from each other and often adopt the same postures. People in rocking chairs unintentionally end up rocking in synchrony when they watch each other.”
Starts great and some really interesting stuff about how our brains work, why we do some things without being aware of why, and why it's so hard to pin down a 'me' in there, with some bonkers experiments detailed, but wanders around a bit and gets fuzzy towards the end.
“In Titus Andronicus, two men kill another man, rape his bride, cut out her tongue, and amputate her hands. Her father kills the rapists, cooks them in a pie, and feeds them to their mother, whom he then kills before killing his own daughter for having gotten raped in the first place; then he is killed, and his killer is killed.”
TV tells us the world is full of violence. People regard the 20th century as the bloodiest of them all. This lengthy tome, replete with proper number-crunching (bit statty) makes the case incredibly clear – we're much nicer people now than we were before the Leviathon reared up and took us under its wing! Hitler never used chemical weapons in WW2, even though he had shed loads – the unexpected power of taboos. When Saddam used them, the world turned on him. His description of crucifixion and torture in the middle ages is a bit Urgh, but he does it to drive the truth about medieval times into the readers mind. If the graphs and numbers don't wear down your attention, it's a great book for countermanding occasional slides into cynicism. Comparative analysis of the content of fiction strikes me as a bit tenuous though.
Decent summary of the 'crisis' for anybody who still doesn't get the sub-prime derivatives debacle.
I read an article in The Guardian recently by a middle-aged woman who found herself reading a novel and thinking to herself 'This isn't real! A man went into a bar and... he's not there! The bar is not real!'. Non-fiction tends to become more compelling than fiction with age, and the real world is generally more bonkers than the made up one. The 'crisis' is no exception and this book makes the convoluted nonsense that led to the banks taking all of 'our' money into a readable narrative. Everybody should know this story.
“One who desires unending praise and attention is like a butterfly trying to find the edge of the sky.”
Clever intro to Buddhism from the writer of Travellers and Magicians. Bhuddism in Bhutan is a strange beast, in so far as it has many Gods and many superstitions that would have Siddhartha turning in his wheel of life. The original man was a revolutionary atheist who turned his back on the inherent ills of of social religious structures, specifically Brahmin-controlled Hinduism with the repugnant caste system that condemns entire swathes of a population to a life of crap-sweeping from birth. And he told people not to believe him, that they should find their own path. But it seems we are programmed in some way to make edifices of belief, and up sprung Buddhism. But this book is clever in avoiding a definition of what a Buddhist is, and instead focussing on what a Buddhist is not, which is the right way to go about it.
Churchill – Ashley Jackson
On being advised his fly buttons were undone: ‘Dead birds don’t fall out of their nests.’
Gave up on this. Sorry Mr Jackson.
“No one can advise and help you, no one. There is only one way. Withdraw into yourself. Explore the reason that bids you write, find out if it has spread out its roots in the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die, if writing should be denied to you. Above all, ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night, "Must I write?" Dig deep into yourself for an answer. And if this answer should be in the affirmative, if you can meet this solemn question with a simple strong "I must," then build up your life according to this necessity. Your life right down to its most indifferent and unimportant hour must be a token and a witness to this compulsion. Then approach nature. Try to express what you see and experience and love and lose as if you were the first man alive.”
This somehow passed me by in early life which is a terrible shame. What a thoughtful and considerate human being he was, clever too, and a great advocate of the value of solitude. If you can't be content alone, you aren't going to be much use in company. Too much can make you bonkers though ;-)
“President Bush had evidently forewarned himself of the air piracy [of September 11th] in order that he should seize the chance to look like a craven, whey-faced ignoramus on worldwide TV.”
Memoir of Christopher Hitchens, tracing the well-trodden arc from reactionary, to revolutionary, to liberal to free-thinker, except he lived it... he was in Prague in '68, he was in Cuba, he was in Northern Ireland, he was with the Kurds... wherever totalitarianism was, he went as a witness and a writer. He's got his faults, but they pale in comparison to the achievement of the example he set in his writing and his life. RIP