Okay, so I didn’t really get a winter vacation. I had three days off over Christmas, and I just spent five days in Spain. Apart from that, I worked right through. But, after my earlier post – How I Spent My Summer Vacation – covering the first half of at the year, I thought I should cover the second half.
For the last four years, I’ve aimed to read 25 books a year. Unfortunately, I slightly miscalculated in 2017, and ended up at 24. Darn. While you would think that I would have had far more time to read in 2017 – not working full time for six months of it – that didn’t end up being the case. Between moving across the world, traveling extensively, trying to find a job, meeting new friends and generally stressing over my new life, I ran out of time.
Anyway, I still got through a fair few interesting books.. I hope these might inspire you to read something a little bit different!
The Reader – Bernhard Schlink
I picked up this book from a bookshop in Vienna, where there was only one shelf of English language books. Although I’d seen the movie, I found the premise interesting enough to read the book – how does society deal with those people who remain after the fall of an Empire, having carried out terrible deeds? It specifically deals with second generation issues concerning moral guilt for the Holocaust. I didn’t realise the author was form Vienna, and it is a very easy read, despite some sections of it dragging on a little bit longer than necessary.
The Guest Cat – Takashi Hiraide
2017 was the year I discovered that Japanese fiction is incredibly easy to read, and very relaxing. The description for this book reads that ‘it is a subtly moving and exceptionally beautiful novel about the transient nature of life and idiosyncratic but deeply felt ways of living’. In this book, very little happens. But the manner in which it written, which includes a poetic description of the world surrounding the main characters, is very rewarding. This book embodies the Japanese concept of wabi perfectly, focusing on the beauty of the aesthetic.
Lenin’s Tomb – the Last Days of the Soviet Empire – David Remnick
This book is heavy. I carted it with me on many trips this year – including to Russia – and it felt like I was carrying a doorstop. It is also dense material, peppered with names and historical figures that fell from grace. However, despite the heavy subject matter, its a fascinating read. The book covers the collapse of the Soviet Union from a journalistic eyewitness view. It features interviews with ordinary – and extraordinary people – that saw the fall of the Union, and I was surprised at how horrific the conditions were at the end. A recommended read for anyone who better wants to understand the collapse.
All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
I started reading a copy of this I found in my AirBnB in Warsaw, and then bought a copy to read myself. The New York Times bestseller is about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II. It is beautifully simple, and for those that cannot handle non-fiction, it paints a very strong picture of the suffering experienced by both sides of the war. I felt it was a little too long – there is a story of a German jewel expert that I felt could have been left out almost entirely.. but aside from that, it is a good, albeit sad, read.
Some Thoughts on the Common Toad – George Orwell
I loved Animal Farm and 1984. I’m pretty fond of essay collections. I thought I would enjoy this. However, I was blindsided by those stylish, letterpressed toads on the cover. I should really have checked the content of the other essays. While I loved the first one – about the aforementioned toad – the rest covered a range of odd topics, including some rather weird ones on Salvador Dali and Jonathan Swift. Unless you have an actual interest in the topics at hand… maybe give this one a miss.
H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald
This is the story of how, after her father passed away, the author decided “you know what? I’m going to buy a hawk.” The (presumably single) recorded her journey in training the hawk – including being mauled by the bird – in gory detail. I was hoping it would be more about the author coping with the loss of her father, but it was still worthwhile reading. I like birds, but I can’t begin to understand how the heck someone keeps a a goshawk in their small flat. Great mood killer to have them chow down on a dead chicken in the lounge.
Fate is the Hunter – Ernest K. Gann
This was a good read. While it is still a little bit poetic for my liking, it is a much easier aviation read than Wind, Sand and Stars. This classic memoir is a pilots account of the treacherous early days of commercial aviation. The book hits home exactly how dangerous the pioneers of the field were, with many of the authors friends passing away on the job over his career. I guess the main thing I felt the story lacked was any sort of personal insight into the life of the author – it felt like he wanted to keep his cards very close to his heart.
White Nights – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
I picked up this short story for a few hundred roubles in St. Petersburg from Singer House. Published in 1848 and set in the city, it is a story of a young man fighting his inner restlessness. It is a bit of a strange read, to be honest. The main character is absolutely all over the show, full of torment and guilt of unrequited love. It wasn’t terrible, but it didn’t exactly make me want to read anything else by Dostoyevsky. It did, however, make me understand the whole ‘melancholy St Petersburg’ claim a little bit more.
Men Without Women – Haruki Murakami
This was actually the first fiction book I have read by Haruki Murakami. I am late to the authors vast collection of works. I have actually read one of his other books – Underground – but it is a non-fiction account of the 1995 Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo Metro. I loved this book. It is a strange series of stories, all quite random, some of them not saying much at all really. Again, I believe this is the nature of Japanese fiction. It is calming to read and very easy to digest. I am not sure if Haruki Murakami has any other collections of essays, but I’d like to check them out if he does.
Tales of Iceland – Stephen Markley
This book is terrible. I have no idea how this guy got published. When I read it, it made me think that pretty much anyone must be able to publish a book – myself included. It sounds like a half drunk frat boy wrote it. I’m sure there are many great books about Iceland. This is not one of them.
Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women Who Helped Launch Our Nation into Space – Margot Lee Shetterly
I watched the movie of Hidden Figures on one of my flights earlier in the year, and was surprised at both the story, and how good it was. The book is just as good, if not better. The backstories of the four African-American female mathematicians who helped achieve some of the greatest moments in the space race are fascinating. It is beyond my comprehension how those women were able to perform the complex calculations they did. I can barely do the five times table.
Imperium – Ryszard Kapuściński
This is an incredible read, similar to Lenin’s Tomb, on the fall of the Soviet Union. Written by a Polish journalist, it describes his journey across desolate Siberia and the republics of Central Asia in the 1950s and 60s, to his wanderings over the vast Soviet lands – from Poland to the Pacific, the Arctic Circle to Afghanistan – in the years of the USSR’s decline and final disintegration in 1991. Like Lenin’s Tomb, it provides an incredible insight into the absolute mess the Soviet Union ended up in.
That’s all for now. I’m currently reading Abundance, Becoming Wise, Altered Pasts, Lenin on the Train and The Wind Up Bird Chronicle.