<> Books Read - 2003 <>

Last modified: Sunday, 14 August, 2016

+ My recent, current, and forthcoming reading is covered elsewhere, here's what I read in 2003:

* Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: A Study in Scarlet

First of the book-length Holmes stories. Watson and Holmes begin their long association and the fundamental elements of Holmes's craft and the mode of Watson's reportage are established from the outset. Easy to read and fascinating throughout.

* Neile Graham: Blood Memory

Seattle-based Canadian poet Graham's third major collection is a cycle of dramatic monologues and lyrics that celebrates women's stories. The writing is concentrated and intense, the forms very varied: each poem needs to be savoured and contemplated before moving on.

* Oscar Wilde: Stories

The volume of prose fiction from Folio's three-volume Collected Works. Half of the volume is taken up with 'The Picture of Dorian Grey' which, to me, is Wilde's prose masterpiece. Much of the rest comes over as quaint and overly portentous.

* William Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor

High-spirited fun featuring the philandering Falstaff.

* Ursula Le Guin: The Other Wind

"The new Earthsea novel." Eleven years on, we get a sequel to the wonderful Tehanu: "The last book of Earthsea". Le Guin's prose is compelling, as ever. The characters and plot have a naturalness about them that's the mark of the master writer. Delightful and satisfying.

* John Cleese & Connie Booth: The Complete Faulty Towers

All twelve scripts are as fun to read as the programmes were to watch. Hilarious!

* P.G. Wodehouse: Leave it to Psmith

Psmith is a comic creation of the first order. Intrepid and unflappable, he's given a lot to negotiate in this wondrously satirical counterpart to Jane Austen and Agatha Christie. Uplifting and invigorating.

* Isabelle Allende: The City of Beasts

I had no idea what this was about when I started it (I read it under orders) and I'm no wiser having finished it. On the face of it, it seems to be a juvenile coming of age story written with a level of sophistication matching the age of the teenage protagonists. The writing appears to vary between almost unreadably superficial and superficially interesting. We're told what happens and what people feel but it all seems rather unengaged.

* Terry Pratchett: Hogfather

Death dresses up as Father Christmas in a desperate attempt to stem the tide of disbelief. Possibly one of the lesser entries in the Discworld canon.

* Benjamin Hoff: The Te of Piglet

Even more so than in his (more famous) The Tao of Pooh, Hoff succeeds in exemplifying the types of western humanity through the characters of A.A. Milne. In proposing that we are in desperate need of more Te (or virtue, as exhibited by Piglet), Hoff combines incisive retellings of Taoist stories with occasionally rambling polemic to form a powerful indictment of modern western attitudes. It's a shame that a book such as this is doomed to be read and appreciated only by those who already reject the status quo.

* George & Weedon Grossmith: The Diary of a Nobody

The more than merely 'interesting' diary of Victorian clerk Charles Pooter is a classic. A study of a life at once banal and fascinating it's a kind of literary soap opera. Laugh-out-loud funny in places and never less than entertaining, there's an affection for Pooter that generates sympathy as well as laughter.

* Satyendra Srivastava: Talking Sanskrit to Fallen Leaves

Dr Srivastava taught at the Faculty of Oriental Studies in Cambridge, which is how I came to make his acquaintance. The poems in this English language collection are very varied in their tone and subject matter but there's a benevolence and respect for humanity that underlies them all. Beautiful and thought-provoking.

* Jim Lovell & Jeffery Kluger: Apollo 13

To an unashamed space exploration fan like me this is an irresistible book! The inside story of the astounding rescue of the Apollo 13 crew is utterly compelling. We get healthy doses of Jim Lovell's biography too and a believable picture emerges of how NASA used to work and how it used to be capable of great achievements. For those of us who lived through those tense days, this is modern history at its best.

* Oscar Wilde: De Profundis

Extraordinary outpourings written while incarcerated in Reading gaol after the infamous trials that destroyed Wilde. Tedious at times but laced with threads of diamond-like perception. One is left with a terrifying sense of the powerlessness of the creative genius to counter the machinations of the crass and vindictive moneyed classes, ignorant of what they trample as they pursue their petty jealousies.

* Yann Martel: Life of Pi

Martel transforms a barbaric narrative of murder and cannibalism into a fable. The book poses the question: what is it that allows us to understand better through fable than through bald factual narrative? Pi and his tiger alter ego give us a lot to think about in this cleverly crafted and beautifully written tale.

* Graham Swift: Last Orders

Touching account of a day trip to the seaside undertaken so that four friends can scatter the ashes of a fifth on the water. The history that emerges from their reflections during the day is complex and tragic. Early in the book, it's not always easy to keep track of who's who in the cast but, as their personalities are gradually given more depth, the characters become more and more real. Haunting.

* William Shakespeare: Henry V

Hal goes rampaging in France.

* Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes

The final volume of Holmes short-stories. A couple of stories are written from Holmes's own point of view.

* Simon Singh: Fermat's Last Theorem

Unlike many other popular histories of science, this substantial volume is sprinkled with equations and presents a good deal of mathematics during the long preamble to Andrew Wilkes' ultimately successful assault on Fermat's great tantalising assertion. A closely-written book that rewards careful and reflective reading and yet conveys a compelling sense of excitement and desperation as Wilkes tries to plug the gap in his "proof".

* Terry Pratchett with Gray Joliffe: The Unadulterated Cat

Hilarious text by Pratchett is allied to stylish drawings by Joliffe to reveal all about sharing one's life with a cat. As full of crazy insight as you'd expect from Pratchett, this book rings deeply true for any owner of an unadulterated cat.

* Ken Crosswell: The Alchemy of the Heavens

A straightforward and readable account of what we know about the Milky Way and how we came to know it. The last couple of chapters lose the plot somewhat but until then this is a solid and even-handed survey of a big subject and its long history.

* Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary

Eleanor Marx Aveling's translation of Flaubert's 1857 masterpiece of realism. 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.

* Silvia Nasar: A Beautiful Mind

A thoroughly researched biography that goes far beyond the recent film in showing us the life of John Forbes Nash. In spite of its painstaking approach (almost every sentence has an endnote) it remains readable and often conveys some vivid images. The attempts to explain Nash's mathematical work to those of us outside the charmed circles of US academe are well judged and may well be successful. Overall, a long but thoroughly worthwhile read.

* Kitty Ferguson: Measuring the Universe

Step by step we follow the development of human ability to get the measure of the cosmos. from the ancient Greeks to the 1990s, Ferguson pinpoints the individuals who changed the way we think about the Universe. The stories become less personal and the efforts less individual as we work our way through the twentieth century, but there's no doubt that the author knows her stuff and can communicate clearly and graphically. Impressive.

* Colm Toíbín: The Blackwater Lightship

A moving and deeply felt novel about a family in 1990s Ireland whose internal divisions are thrown into stark relief by the discovery that one of their number is dying of AIDS. Three generations of women finally learn enough about themselves and each other to find peace.

* Giles Milton: Big Chief Elizabeth

The early days of the colonization of North America by the British are brought vividly to life in this enthusiastic account of the Elizabethan adventurers who struggled to gain and retain a sustainable foothold on the New World.

* J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The third Harry potter story sees another major advance in the complexity and depth of the material. In a Pratchettesque way Rowling relies on our engagement with the major characters, through previous exposure, to conjure empathy in just a few words. Harry and his friends become embroiled in their most ambiguous and subtle brush with the dark side of human nature. They emerge more adult, and we emerge more understanding from the multi-way confrontation that Rowling sets up. She seems to write with a confidence that stems directly from her deep understanding of the psychology of her protagonists. An extremely rewarding read.

* Richard P. Feynman: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

A 1999 collection of short works edited by Jeffrey Robbins.The lecture and interview transcripts don't work as well on the page as they would spoken by Feynman but the written pieces (and his minority report on the Challenger accident in particular) work exceptionally well. Amidst a great deal of repetition, a consistent picture of the great man emerges. An interesting, if far from essential, addition to the Feynman bibliography.

* David Gentleman: Artwork

A survey of his own career by possibly Britain's foremost commercial artist. Gentleman's prose is as considered and incisive as his design and the sumptuously reproduced examples of his work are spectacular. Especially famous for his highly successful stamp designs (produced over a 40-year period) we see here that this is only one facet of his multifarious talent.

* Hanif Kureishi: The Buddha of Suburbia

An Absolute Beginners for the mid-seventies. Written with great energy and wicked insight, we live the life of the narrator Karim as he leaves the wreck of his family and the despised suburbs to make his way in London just as punk is blasting apart the comfortably numb post-hippy generation's world. Hugely entertaining.

* Michael White: Leonardo, the First Scientist

So little is really known about the aims and motivations of Leonardo da Vinci that there's plenty of scope for a book such as this. White canters through the facts (such as are known) of Leonardo's life, carefully sidestepping any engagement with the few examples of his subject's fine art that have come down to us, and hangs a lot of words on a slender thesis that Leonardo's study of anatomy and flight was his true vocation. Fortunately, Leonardo's enigmatic life is so fascinating and White's writing style so easily assimilated that, repetitious as it is and annoying as is his frequent misuse of the word "epicentre", I couldn't put this unfailingly interesting book down in spite of my reservations.

* Douglas Adams: The Salmon of Doubt

Sub-titled "Hitch-hiking the Galaxy one Last Time" this book is actually built around ten chapters of the unfinished third Dirk Gently novel, packaged with a range of Adams's other writings and speech scripts. The scraps of the novel are unsatisfyingly disconnected and unpolished but, for the dedicated fan, worth having all the same.

* P.L. Travers: Mary Poppins and the House Next Door

The sixth and final book about Mary Poppins was written in 1988 and is every bit as slim as its immediate predecessor. It returns, at least on the surface, to a more familiar treatment of events in Cherry Tree Lane. The enigmatic nanny works gentle magic to resolve conflict and restore order.

* P.L. Travers: Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane

A surreal and mysterious episode in the Park occupies this slim volume. Written in 1982, 48 years after the first Mary Poppins book, the familiar characters here seem to be acting out an allegorical fable. Strange but nonetheless enjoyable.

* Andre Previn: No Minor Chords

Agreeable and humorous memoirs of Previn's time in Hollywood. Battalions of big names from the movie world troop through its pages and there are jokes aplenty but the real pleasure here is the glimpses of the studio composers and arrangers at work.


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