<> Books Read - 2002 <>

Last modified: Sunday, 14 August, 2016

+ My recent, current, and forthcoming reading is covered elsewhere, here's what I read in 2002:

* Bernard Cornwell: Excalibur

Stupendous! Cornwell pulls out all the stops in the last volume of his "Warlord Chronicles" trilogy of novels about King Arthur. Thoroughly compelling reading that will not be put down. The story wends its way through the ups and downs of the end of the Arthurian era via a sequence of vividly imagined set pieces of engrossing action and a total lack of sentimentality. By far the most powerful and rewarding of the three books.

* George Smoot and Keay Davidson: Wrinkles in Time

Smoot conveys a good-natured view of his involvement in astrophysics from graduation to announcement of the COBE discoveries of "wrinkles" in the cosmic background radiation. Easy reading that's packed with excellent, non-technical explanations of the science involved and genuine-sounding reminiscences of how it felt to be there at the time. Highly recommended.

* William Shakespeare: The Winter's Tale

Delightful late romance about jealousy, sheep shearing and reconciliation.

* David Hare: Asking Around

Based on the extensive research that Hare did for his major trilogy of "Institutions of Britain" plays: Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges and The Absence of War, this book allows the sources to speak for themselves. Nothing new emerges from the section on the Church of England, which is a shame as Racing Demon was by far the strongest of the plays. The over-long final section suffers (as did The Absence of War) from the essentially defeatist tone of those involved, coupled with Hare's despair at finding an institution he cares deeply about in such straits. The middle section is the gem: showing much more clearly than did Murmuring Judges the background to the frustrations of the police and how their plight illuminates so much that has changed in Britain thanks (if that's the word!) to Thatcherism. Revelatory for anyone interested in the institutions covered.

* P.L. Travers: Mary Poppins in the Park

More stories of the magical goings-on brought into the lives of the Banks children by their unique nanny. Consistently charming. A little more depth seems to be seeping into this fourth book about Mary Poppins.

* Lance Armstrong (with Sally Jenkins): It's Not About the Bike

Autobiography of the four-times winner of the Tour de France and cancer survivour. Jenkins writes with an easily-assimilated style that lets the voice of Armstrong come through. The vivid, powerful cancer-related sections impress more than the bloodless, uninvolving cycling parts. I do feel I know Armstrong a little better for reading this book.

* Peter Ackroyd: The Last testament of Oscar Wilde

Fictionalised account of Oscar Wilde writing his memoirs in Paris after his release from Reading Gaol. Astonishing in its uncanny evocation of Wilde's style. It's sometimes hard to believe that this is a combination of biography and fiction and not a true memoir. Stunning!

* Mark Kurlansky: Cod

Kurlansky hangs a range of historical stories on the framework of man's exploitation and eventual near-annihilation of the North Atlantic cod. From the possibility of Basque fisherman making landfall on the North American coast decades before Columbus sailed, to Britain's "cod wars" with Iceland, this is an engrossing book.

* J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Harry Potter returns in a much more grown up and darker tale than his debut. Emotions, motivations and plot are more complex and the whole effect more satisfying. The characters of Harry and his allies and antagonists drive events and the school-life of Hogwarts recedes a little compared to the first book. Excellent.

* Sandy Toksvig: Flying Under Bridges

Eve Marshall's life falls apart as we watch. Trapped in unwelcome conventionality her attempts to improve her lot unleash chaos and death for all around. Surface jokes notwithstanding, this is a downbeat book, full of bitterness, offering no hope for the nonconformist. A kind of Jude the Obscure for the 21st century (without Hardy's writing prowess). Grim reading.

* Giles Milton: The Riddle and the Knight

Was Sir John Mandeville's 1350s book (untitled but known as The Travels) a fake compiled from other peoples' works and second hand tales, or did he really travel right across Europe and Asia and derive a theory of circumnavigation over a century before Columbus? Maybe it was a bit of both, and maybe this was deliberate. Even though Milton never quite solves the riddle, the story of his efforts to find out the truth is absorbing and wittily told and his final conclusions are provocative.

* William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet

The most famous star-crossed lovers in the English language.

* Bernard Cornwell: Enemy of God

Following directly on from the highly enjoyable The Winter King, this novel provides more of the same as Arthur struggles to resist the Saxon invasion and Merlin follows his own agenda for saving Britain. Powerful and engrossing writing with a finely-tuned sense of pace. Superb.

* Julian Rathbone: Kings of Albion

More jokey and a little less riveting than The Last English King, this book takes an outsider's view of England at the time of the Wars of the Roses as a group of Indian and Middle-Eastern travelers come to England in search of a missing person and tips on waging war. Much is made of the philosophical differences between the travellers and the prevailing spirit of England and a trio of narrators guide us through the complex and rambling plot. Well written and fun to read.

* P.L. Travers: Mary Poppins Opens the Door

The third book about Mary Poppins continues the high standard of its predecessors and a similar mix of adventures for the Banks children in the company of their magical nurse.

* D.M. Thomas: Flying Into Love

Thomas hangs a complex novel on the bare bones of the (JF) Kennedy assassination. Kept alive in the memory of a nun who met JFK just before his murder, Kennedy comes alive for us as a man who was, might have been, and still is a powerful force in the life of America. Complex and demanding reading that rewards careful reflection.

* Neil Gaiman: Don't Panic

Not much new here. Gaiman's biography of Douglas Adams gives us the standard tour of its subject's life and works. It suffers from looking forward from when it was written towards a future that didn't quite turn out that way. Although this is a 1993 updated version of the 1987 original, the book hasn't worn its years well. Douglas deserves a much better biography than this.

* Arthur Wing Pinero: The Magistrate

A self-mocking farce, first performed in 1885, that works better on the stage (where it can be utterly hilarious in the right hands) than it does on the page. In any case, reading the text does give a fun evocation of the play.

* Nicholas Craig: I, An Actor

Under their joint pseudonym of Nicholas Craig, Christopher Douglas and Nigel Planer poke fun at the literary pretensions of Antony Sher, Simon Callow and (I assume) others. Mostly amusing.

* Simon Winchester: The Map that Changed the World

In spite of the irritatingly prolix writing (the book is a good half as long again as it need be) this is a fascinating account of the life and work of William Smith who created the first ever geological map.

* Alexander Games: Backing Into the Limelight

For all that this is an unauthorised biography, decidedly unwelcome to its subject (the playwright Alan Bennett) and a book that had to be written without access to Bennett or his close friends (warned off by Bennett) it's a decidedly warm, appreciative and friendly piece of work by a writer who thinks highly of his subject. In chronology, the whole life and work is covered with enthusiasm and clarity but the author is careful not to intrude too far into private areas that his subject would clearly find inappropriate. For this unashamed Bennett-ophile this is a marvelously entertaining and enlightening book.

* Peter Ackroyd: English Music

A strange novel that alternates straight narrative with dream sequences based on specific books, music and painting of notably British types. An ambitious and free-ranging book. The immediacy and freshness of the writing ensure that you keep reading. The story gradually becomes more and more poignant.

* Michael White and John Gribbin: Stephen Hawking, a life in science

A slightly curious alternation of first-rate popular presentation of the recent history of cosmology and the subject's major role in its evolution with rather feeble "biographical" chapters. The latter parts skate rapidly over anything that the authors feel might be too revelatory for the comfort of their subject and also seem to feel a need to explain the UK school and academic system in words of one syllable, presumably for the benefit of a US audience (e.g. we have "private school" for "public school" throughout). The former, as you might expect from two of Britain's foremost science writers (one of whom, Gribbin, himself played an active part in the development of modern cosmology), is fascinating and well-paced, giving a valuable perspective on the great significance of Hawking's work. Overall, a valuable and helpful addition to the literature of the "Hawking phenomenon".

* J.M. Synge: The Playboy of the Western World

Christy Mahon turns up a stranger in a community on the West coast of Ireland and is promptly proclaimed a local hero because he's murdered his father. When his father later also arrives, still very much alive, Christy's status is undermined but this is as nothing to the consternation and exile he faces when, later still, the locals think he's really killed his father, this time in their midst. Wonderful evocations of the speech and reasoning of the nineteenth century rural Irish.

* Melvin Bragg: Laurence Olivier

Though hardly a full-scale biography, this highly absorbing and thoughtful "essay" (as Lord Bragg rightly describes it) nevertheless covers the whole life and career of its subject. Olivier's greatness as an actor is taken as read but this is far from hagiography and doesn't shy away from the less laudable incidents in his life. Fascinating.

* P.L. Travers: Mary Poppins Comes Back

The second book about Mary Poppins. Very much the mixture as before: lightly written, entertaining and timeless.

* Stephen Baxter: Time

Baxter is touted as an Arthur C. Clarke for the 1990s and you can see why. A grand vision, allegedly grounded in genuine possibilities acknowledged by current physics, coupled to some complex plotting with twists and turns galore. The ideas are certainly impressive and the novel's coherent and gripping but I was left feeling that ideas and plot are really not quite enough.

* Milan Kundera: The Joke

Told from multiple points of view this fascinating tale of life in communist-era Czechoslovakia gradually reveals the many layers of interconnection between its protagonists. Events eventually conspire to free the main character, Ludvik, from his fixation with trying to correct the errors of the past and show him that from any moment in time what matters most is how we move forward into the future. Along the way we learn a lot about how the author's society worked. A subtle and rewarding read.

* Bernard Cornwell: The Winter King

This "novel of Arthur" shares with Julian Rathbone's The Last English King a theme of a soldier's life, close to his king, in the time of a major change in the population of these islands but is less complexly written. The straightforward storytelling lacks the rich resonance of Rathbone but packs lots of excitement and telling detail. Great fun.

* William Shakespeare: Hamlet

Harold Jenkins's 1982 edition for the Arden Shakespeare. Some say this is the greatest play ever written. You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment.

* P.L. Travers: Mary Poppins

Short and sweet and very much of its time. I don't recall noticing, twenty years ago, just how vain Mary Poppins is portrayed as being. Fun in a period piece sort of way, but with no great depth of either characterisation or reflection.

* Ursula K. Le Guin: Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences

A collection of animal-related stories and poems drawing on previously published material from 1971's 'Vaster than Empires and More Slow' to 1987's 'Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight'. As so often with Le Guin, the introductory texts are highly personal and illuminating and make it well worth reading a collection of previously read stories. Deeply satisfying and far too short!

* J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter & the Philosopher's Stone

The book that got kids reading again! A really good read that holds an adult's attention as thoroughly as a child's. The story in the book has a grittier more earthy feel than the glossier film version with an emphasis on good things coming through the exercise of courage and (more interestingly) through the unintentional outcome of would-be evil doers' actions. As Tolkien has it: "oft evil will shall evil mar". So too in Rowling.

* Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse

A poetic, emotional and elliptical novel about a pre-first-world-war family and friends filled with repressed tensions and conflicts. The first section is the most readily understood, the remainder of the book serving largely to illuminate and expand upon what we initially see. In capturing in prose some echoes of how people perceive the world, this is almost an impressionist novel. An intriguing and satisfying read.

* Julian Rathbone: The Last English King

Walt, one of Harold Godwinson's housecurls, tells us (in flashback) what it was like to be caught up in the turbulent events of the 1050s and '60s; from the last years of Edward the Confessor through to the establishment of Norman rule under William. Utterly compelling, insightful and informative writing that continually points up the modern parallels to the events and attitudes of the eleventh century. The kind of book that continues to resonate in the mind long after you finish reading it.

* Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary

First published in 1857, this was a landmark in the development of the French realist novel. Emma Bovary is a bored wife of a provincial doctor and her illusions are shattered when reality catches up with her. Wonderful characterisations and plenty of incident keep this essentially downbeat history from being a depressing read. Translator Alan Russell's prose, while not as laboured over as Flaubert's original, is vivid and compelling.

* Helen Fielding: Bridget Jones's Diary

A Pride and Prejudice for the 21st century. The hilarious chronicle of the iconic Jones's attempts to find love amidst the craziness of the modern world as experienced by single, white, female 30-somethings in London.

* Petr Beckmann: A History of Π (pi)

An opinionated and occasionally rambling account of man's attempts since pre-history to understand what π is and derive an accurate value for it. Without reproducing pages of impenetrable notation, it doesn't lack mathematical rigour and assumes a basic knowledge of trigonometry, algebra and elementary calculus. It's especially interesting as a mirror of the general progress of the history of mathematics and science as ways of understanding the world which frequently come into conflict with the received dogmas of the irrational.

* Ray Bradbury: The Golden Apples of the Sun

A 1953 collection of 16 stories previously published in various magazines from 1945-53 plus six stories first published in this volume. Bradbury is a master story-teller and these tales stand up well half a century on. Wonderful reading!

* Mary Norton: The Borrowers Avenged

More than twenty years after the last of the original four 'Borrowers' books was published, Mary Norton (possibly inspired by the BBC TV adaptation featuring Ian Holm as Pod) gave us a fifth installment in 1982. Continuing the story directly from the end of The Borrowers Aloft this volume brings the Clock family full circle: back to secretly living in a human house, avoiding all contact with humans. Significantly longer than the earlier books, this one has a more fully developed style and the action unfolds gradually, chapter by chapter, maintaining an aura of suspense almost to the last page. An appropriate and worthy concluding volume to round off the series.

* Terry Pratchett: The Last Hero

A shorter Discworld novel, about Cohen the Barbarian's assault on Dunmanifestin (the home of the Discworld gods). Lavishly illustrated by Paul Kidby, this is a beautiful book to linger over and the tale is well up to Pratchett's normal standards. Few laugh out loud gags but a lot of gently humorous and thoughtful action from Cohen, Rincewind, Leonard of Quirm, Corporal Carrot, & co. Delightful!

* Philip K. Dick: The Penultimate Truth

An above average Dick from 1964, telling the tale of the emergence from underground slavery of an underclass hoaxed into believing that World War III still raged on the Earth's surface. Pre-dates The Matrix by 35 years but is based on several of the same themes.

* Virgil: Aeneid

John Dryden's 1697 sonorous and majestic translation of Virgil's latin verse epic, based in its turn on Homer. Its powerful imagery and assertive verse make for wonderful reading.  Cries out to be read aloud.


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