The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

I didn't go to Reading, not this year, at least.

Poor pun, that... What a strange, troubling year this has been. Besides worrisome politics and deaths, there has been ill-health, injury and sickness in the family, and the boy was badly bullied in his new school and had to be moved when that school showed little inclination to tackle the issue. It has felt that there was no time to truly relax and unwind. Even books, at every other time a palliative, failed to boost the spirit, except during the brief snatched moments that they could be read. A strange, troubling year.


Considerably and consistently behind the times as usual, I decided to read books by women this year. Various luminaries had encouraged us to do so. Some spent a year practising what they preached. Others created lists for interested readers. My own reading over the decades has generally been dominated by male authors. This is because the default position - in libraries, newspapers, shops, review journals - is the promotion and preponderance of males. To look for books by women is an active choice, and the effort involved is considerable because of the sheer dominance of publications by men.

Over the past few years, I've pretty much given up reading more than one book by the same author. Except for the multi-volume fantasy or science fiction cycles, it seems that there are more authors for me to discover than to explore the variations of any given one. So too this year.

Total books: 105
By women: 81

of which

Fiction: 62
Non-fiction: 19


My attention span continues to dwindle, and my memory of the contents of the average book is fairly fuzzy. So I continue to read smaller books. Not many of the books this year exceeded 200 pages. The ones that did were mainly non-fiction ones.

There were some truly superb pieces of non-fiction. A particular favourite was Marwa al-Sabouni's The Battle for Home: The Memoir of a Syrian Architect. Born and brought up in Homs, al-Sabouni is  an architect, and her book is a thoughtful exploration of the collapse of her native city and the role of alienating architecture in its fission. She intersperses her academic experiences with the horrors of living through wartime, and she beautifully analyses both theoretical and practical considerations in the design of living spaces. An amazing thought-provoking work.

In the vein of wartime stories was the The Diary of Lena Mukhina, a sixteen-year-old girl who survived the Siege of Leningrad. The book begins a month or so before the German invasion and all Mukhina can think of is a boy in her class and why he pays her no attention. Once the war begins, in between accounts of school exams and studies, and which of her girlfriends is really a friend, she is happy to repeat propaganda that the Soviets will triumph. It is after Leningrad is encircled and there is constant bombing and food begins to run out that she suddenly steps up her game: her intelligence and empathy is fascinatingly mature for one so young. In between puppy love and friendship and Communist platitudes are truly beautiful passages describing the lives she, her family and neighbours are leading. The terrors are all too real and the terse text is spellbinding. I couldn't bear to read another page and I couldn't bear not knowing what would happen next.

Again on the theme of war was Lizzie Collingham's magisterial account of the battle for food and the maintenance of its supplies for the soldiers and the home front during World War II: The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food. This is well-written, often fast-paced albeit saturated with statistics. It was clear to the Nazis that they could never produce enough food to feed their armies and the Fatherland, and to this end they were willing to sacrifice any number of lesser beings in Eastern and Southern Europe to repopulate those lands with Germans who would, of course, be the most productive farmers ever. Meanwhile, Churchill was willing to sacrifice the health of the colonies (in particular India) to supply his armed forces, and is directly implicated in the horrors of the Bengal famine. The Japanese left their soldiers to forage as they advanced through Asia, resulting in more  military deaths from starvation than from actual fighting. The Americans, on the other hand, amped up their agricultural production so well that their civilians and soldiers remained the best-fed and healthiest on the planet, and managed to feed many of the Allies as well. At the end of the war, the US was the dominant agricultural and industrial power on the planet, and everybody else was in ruin.

Lest you think I was solely immersed in sanguinary matters, I'd like to highlight the fact that I looked up to the stars as well. Lisa Randall's Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universeis an exciting overview of the search for dark matter and an elucidation of her theory that explains why the Earth faces periodic bombardment from comets (among others leading to the death of the dinosaurs). Of course, nobody has seen dark matter, and nobody has a model that explains all aspects of cosmic evolution and the distribution of the galaxies. And this makes the situation exciting both scientifically and sociologically because there are various theories fighting to overcome each other as the cosmic model. Priyamvada Natarajan, another fine astrophysicist, wrote Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos, a rather good explanation of the latest scientific thinking. 


Parmanu said...

Ah, fascinating and unconventional. I've ordered 'The battle for home...' and added the citrus fruit story to my wish-list.

Through "brief snatched moments" you complete 105 books in a year? I spent long evenings and barely managed a dozen.

Hope 2017 is a better year -- less troubling, more relaxing and successful in ways that matter to you!

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