Posts Tagged ‘Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’

2020: My Year of Reading

December 29, 2020

No need to remind you what a weird year it has been. When lockdown arrived, naturally someone like me thought, “Well, OK, time to hunker down and get on with lots of reading..” Only it didn’t turn out that way. I found myself dithering a great deal, unable to choose what to settle down with. So I ended up reading quite a lot of magazines, and articles I’d saved offline on all kinds of different topics, tidying up my reading loose-ends if you like, but also, I increasingly felt, frittering away useful reading time. Overall this year I have actually completed slightly fewer books than usual. And the tidying up of my library, and the weeding out and disposing of many books that I know I’m never going to open again, has proceeded apace and some 250+ books have made their way to benefit Amnesty International at some point in the future. I think I’m now down to only 1700 or so books now!

You may not be surprised that I went back to Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which I taught once, many years ago; nothing new there, so I didn’t bother with revisiting CamusLa Peste

When I did manage to settle on a book, I found I did quite a bit of re-reading – Sherlock Holmes, Hermann Hesse, Josef Skvorecky, science fiction. I have read 51 books this year, and acquired 25 new ones. After some reflection I have decided I’d like to spend some of 2021 re-reading some of my favourite classics. We’ll see how far I manage to get with that one… but it is somehow comforting to return to a book I have previously enjoyed a number of times. It’s a sort of anchor in a very turbulent world.

Blog report:

Once again, my posts analysing various poems of or about the Great War have been the most visited. A logical deduction is that the poetry appears on examination specifications in various countries and students are perhaps tuning in for some insight, or else coming across the blog in search engine results and opening it by mistake. I do wish I got more feedback from visitors, and once again record my gratitude to those readers who take the time to like my posts and to occasionally comment or engage in discussion.

Other popular posts this year have included (again) Theodore Kröger’s The Forgotten Village, and Alexandra David-Neel’s With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet.

This year’s awards:

My biggest disappointment of the year: re-reading Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine, of which I’d carried positive recollections for quite a few years. It palled, it dragged, it was simplistic and it went on the ‘I don’t need to read this ever again’ pile. Ditto Harry Harrison’s A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

The weirdest book I’ve read this year is definitely the Strugatsky brothers’ One Billion Years to the End of the World.

The best novel of 2020: re-reading Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, which never fails to disappoint in its poignant picture of a long-vanished age.

The best new novel of 2020: not awarded this year as I haven’t read any new novels!

The best non-fiction book of 2020: after a fair amount of hesitation, I decided on Alberto Angela’s Pompeii, which I’d wanted to read for quite a while, after really enjoying another book of his on daily life in the Roman Empire. His formula for telling the story of those dreadful days in 79CE worked really well, and sent me back to the catalogue from the major British Museum exhibition a few years back, the closest I’ve actually got to Pompeii itself (unless you count passing through a train station just south of Naples – Ercolano – many years ago and realising ‘hey, that was Herculaneum!’)

My book of the year award goes to a book I ought to have read years ago, Adam Mickiewicz’s Polish national epic poem Pan Tadeusz, which was a gentle and lyrical revelation and took me closer to my Polish roots.

Travel book of the year: in a year when not a lot of travelling could be done, reading about travelling was a substitute. A review sent me to Sophy RobertsThe Lost Pianos of Siberia, which was a surprisingly thoughtful, interesting and well-written variation on history and travel in Siberia. And I’ve read a good deal of that.

Special mention – because there isn’t really a category for it: Yuri Slezkine’s doorstopper of a book about the inhabitants of a building which housed the ruling elites of the Soviet Union over many years: The House of Government. If you’re interested in a deeper insight into the machinery of how the country worked and its ruling classes, this is the one. It felt like an obligation, but it was worth the effort.

Here’s to 2021: may it be a better year for everyone in every way, and may we all get lots of good reading done!

Usrula LeGuin: A Fisherman of the Inland Sea

October 22, 2014

31+OgXW2LGL._AA160_I’m following on from my post of a couple of days ago, really. LeGuin‘s subject is in many ways a fairly recherché one: what kind of communication, co-operation or collaboration might be possible between different species of humans on other worlds, in the context of the novels and short stories known as her ‘Hainish‘ series. Of course, the cultural and gender issues explored are meant to have us also reflect on ourselves here on Earth and how much we can really know and understand; LeGuin advocates caution, as well as openness, tolerance, understanding and (perhaps) acceptance. We also need to consider how far it might be either prudent or moral to take this…

Various writers have explored contact with alien species and what we might be able to understand: the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris was turned into a demanding, perhaps impenetrable film, as was the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic (Stalker). Even if or when communication were established, what would we actually be able to understand? We are into epistemological and metaphysical territory before we know it…

I’ve always thought that one of the most amazing and worthwhile things that humans do is to explore, and I often feel a thrill at the thought that my lifetime coincides with our beginning to explore cosmos and seek out other life and intelligence. I enjoy the insights offered by scientists such as Professor Brian Cox in his current TV series Human Universe, and then also feel a sadness that although I was in on the beginning of space exploration, I will not be around when we do make contact with other life forms.

LeGuin also has me reflecting on the differences between the novel and the short story, both of which she does wonderfully well. My expectations of the development of plot, character and ideas towards a resolution at the end of a novel are so different from what I find in a short story, where a single track moves relatively swiftly towards closure. I think what I lose in complexity, and in depth of escape from my reality, I perhaps gain in terms of the sharper and more detailed (because uninterrupted) focus on a single idea, character or event. I will need to take my thinking further: after years of ignoring and down-playing the short story in general, I am finding new things.

If you have enjoyed any of LeGuin’s novels or stories, then I think there is something for you in both the collections I’ve read recently. I’m awaiting delivery of another volume.

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