Reading List – 2007
On this page, I’m keeping a list of all the books I read this year (since 1 Jan 2007) and some brief thoughts about them.
Governor of the Northern Province, Randy Boyagoda – A very amusing satire about Canadian multiculturalism, politics, and the immigrant experience. It tells the story of an African warlord who escapes to a small northern Ontario town and takes a job as a convenience store clerk. Ultimately, he gets involved in politics, a process which looks particularly warped from his perspective, as he compares it to his earlier experiences. Read it!
Wolves of the Calla, Stephen King –I’ve finally made the push to finish off the fantastic Dark Tower series. It has been eight years since I read the last one (Wizard and Glass) and probably decades since I was enthralled by the first one.
Armada!, Robert Milne-Tyne – A bit of history about the Spanish Armada and how the English defeated it. Short, but a good read. One of the things I found particularly interesting were the accounts of how big a problem disease was on the ships of that era. Fresh sailors could board a ship and be dead within 24 hours. Entire ships had to be abandoned because no amount of cleaning and charcoal burning could get rid of the virulence that had taken root in the very timbers. Amazing.
Song of Susannah, Stephen King – Second to last one in the Dark Tower series.
The Dark Tower, Stephen King – This is it, the end. And what an ending. Probably not what many people expected, but I liked it. It was sad to be finished though. Stephen, write more! Tell us about the early years of Roland’s quest. Maybe I’ll just read them all over again some time. For now I’m enjoying the mini-series that Marvel has been putting out in collaboration with Stephen King.
A Perfect Hell, John Nadler – Tells the history of the formation and experiences of the Special Service Force during WWII. This was a joint Canadian and American unit, initially formed with the intention of conducting irregular warfare in Nazi-occupied Norway. However, when that plan was scrapped, they fought in the Italian campaign instead. The force was disbanded afterwards, but its modern descendants were the Canadian Special Service Force (including the now defunct Airborne Regiment), and the American Green Berets.
The Epic of Gilgamesh – One of the oldest works of literature. It tells the tale of an ancient king of Uruk, who is strong, wise, just, skilled at arms and able to defeat any foe, natural or supernatural. But what he fears most is death, and he undertakes a quest to seek for the secret of immortality. In the end, in spite of all his heroic abilities, he has to accept the inevitability of his own aging and death.
Winning Modern Wars, General Wesley Clark – An excellent critique of the handling of the Iraq war, and the thinking and planning that went into it. In today’s polarized political climate, it’s refreshing to read something that can be sharply critical of the war without resorting to bizarre and childish conspiracy theories. The book benefits from the author’s access to many political and military sources who were privy to the planning process, and he attributes the war to the idealistic pipedreams of the Project for a New American Century, and the outdated strategy of going after state sponsors of terrorism, rather than directly after the much more elusive target of terrorists themselves. Though the book was written in 2003, it’s interesting to see how many of his dire predictions have come true in the years since, as the Iraq war has been a military disaster for the US, but an even bigger diplomatic one.
Night Watch, Sergei Lukyanenko – This is the first of a best-selling trilogy in Russia, which was also made into a movie and released in North America (though I didn’t get to see it). It describes a grim stalemate between supernatural forces of Light and Darkness in contemporary Moscow, a long and bitter truce where both sides grudgingly cooperate to maintain a balance, since neither side is powerful enough to completely crush the other. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting – rather than epic, it is more often banal, as the main character, a rather lowly footsoldier on the side of Light, tries to reconcile the demands of the supernatural conflict with his own humanity. I dug it, and if I can find them, I’ll read the other books and watch the movie.
Life Along the Silk Road, Susan Whitfield – I’ve always been fascinated by the Silk Road, this trade route that extended from China all the way to the Mediterranean, right from the early days of recorded history. People often think that the civilizations of East and West arose in perfect ignorance of each other, but that was anything but the case. A great deal of goods and learning pathed both ways, long before Marco Polo. Anyway, this book details the lives of several hypothetical but typical inhabitants of the towns along the eastern end of the route, areas that are now parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and western China. The subjects included a Tibetan soldier, an Indian monk, a Uighur tribesman, a Kuchean courtesan, etc. Fascinating stuff, these portraits of lives in a region that was at time torn by war, and at other times a fertile melting pot of many cultures.
On Beyond Zebra, Dr. Seuss – Who doesn’t love Dr. Seuss? I think I only ever read this book once as a child, but it stuck in my memory. When Vania and I went to check out Harvard, we hit all the bookstores (of course!), and I happened to find a copy. Luckily, there was still room in my backpack, so I snagged it (by “snagged,” I mean “bought”). It still stands up. This probably isn’t one of his best known works, and its a shame. I think the English Major in me revels in the anarchy of daring to add 26 new letters to the alphabet. Go Dr. S, go!
Reaper’s Gale, Steven Erikson – This guy is one of the most impressive authors I’ve ever encountered. He cranks out thousand-page novels on an annual basis, pretty much like clockwork. And all this quantity is of extraordinary quality as well. Erikson draws on his previous work as an archaeologist (as well as years of Dungeon Mastering!) to create a world with successive layers of civilizations and empires stretching back hundreds of thousands of years. His characters are original, and I find that he has a particular understanding of the desperate, dark and bizarre humour of soldiers. And all of this in prose that is among the best I’ve ever read. This particular volume is the seventh in his Malazan Books of the Fallen series. I can’t wait till next year…
The Children of Hurin, J.R.R. Tolkien – I first read this story, in fragmented form, in Unfinished Tales back in 1987. I was really struck by the poignant tragedy of it, and over time I came to think of it as my favourite story among all Tolkien’s works. So I was delighted when I heard that it was being properly compiled, edited and published in book form this year. The book is great, and I think even people who aren’t hardcore Tolkien fans could appreciate it (though I have to admit there are a buttload of new place names and historical characters in the text, which could be a turnoff for some). But the tale is as good as ever, and Christopher Tolkien has done an excellent job of sorting through the piles of notes and different versions to create a full, coherent volume. If only there were more to look forward to.
The Life of Pi, Yann Martel – People constantly ask me if I’ve read this book. I don’t know why. Do you know why, Blake? Nope, he doesn’t know either. Anyway, I finally read it, and it was good. The writing was great, but as much as I enjoyed it, I spent much of the book wondering just what the writer was… getting at. I mean, the book seemed loaded with symbolism and metaphor… but of what? It all came clear in the end though. And the tiger was ok, so it was a happy ending. Right, Blake?
Nausicca of the Valley of the Winds, Hayao Miyazaki – When I was in Japan, my Japanese tutor showed me a big stack of her manga. Her favourite was Nausicca, and she went on to talk about it at length. Miyazaki is hugely respected in Japan (and here, among the right circles). I finally had a chance to read it this fall. It’s a brilliant work of imagination, with a powerful environmental theme that borders on the spiritual. And Nausicca herself is an amazing character of great inner strength and compassion. It ended all too abruptly though, and now, in a way, I find myself sadly missing her…
Soft Power, Joseph Nye – A great discussion about Soft Power, what it is, where it comes from, and how to make use of it. To summarize, it’s power that comes from the attraction of a country’s culture and principles, rather than military or economic strength. It can come from a lot of different sources, but Nye argues convincingly that the most important thing is to have policies that other nations and peoples see as just and reasonable. Obviously, this is a huge failing of the recent Bush administration (Nye quotes D. Rumsfeld as stating that he doesn’t know what soft power is). A good lesson for international affairs in the 21st century.
Across the Nightingale Floor, Lian Hearn – First in a series set in a fictional, historical, Japan-like setting. Very good, very atmospheric, and it pressed all my buttons, because I love that kind of setting. You can expect the rest of the series to show up on this list in fairly short order.
Grass for His Pillow, Lian Hearn – The second volume in the series mentioned above. I enjoyed it as much as the first one, until I got to the end. The writer had the two main characters make a willfully bad decision that made an enemy of their most important ally. It seemed like the writer had tried to force the plot in a direction that would heighten the tension and set the stage for further conflict, but in doing so she made her two protagonists look like spoiled, stubborn children… and the author look terribly amateurish. Tsk. Still, I’ve bought the next two so I’ll go ahead and read them. Perhaps the writer will redeem herself.
Persian Fire, Tom Holland – A history of the Persian Empire and the Greek city states, and of how they came into conflict with each other. Fascinating stuff, especially the analysis of the internal politics of the Greeks, and how democracy came into being (and was very nearly nipped in the bud by a Persian conquest). The deeper look into the singular culture of the Spartans, and the reasons behind its evolution, were also pretty interesting.
The Volsung Saga – This is an Icelandic version of an old Germanic tale. It tells of Sigurd (also Sigfried) who slew the dragon, Fafnir, and claimed the cursed treasure of the Nibelungs. It covers a few centuries of history in iron-age Europe, when the Roman Empire was collapsing, and the many Germanic tribes were pushing westward and warring with each other, under the pressure of other eastern tribes such as the Goths and the Huns, who were also on the move. It’s part mythology, part history, part geneaology and part tragedy. I really dig these kind of sagas – they’re a window on a much rawer world than our own, full of passion, betrayal and violence.
Seasons of the Heart, by Dave Read – Several years ago, my dad started working on a project, to write a book about his parents – who they were, where they came from and how they lived. When I went home this xmas, he presented me with a finished, hardcover copy. It’s really quite a remarkable read. He starts from our earliest known ancestors, in the 17th and 18th centuries, and works up through the generations to his own parents. At that point, it becomes very rich and detailed, as he covers their lives through two world wars, the Great Depression, and other trials. I was impressed at how much he was able to put together, and the photographs are quite remarkable. For example, who had a camera to take a picture of the family preparing to depart the prairies in the early 40s? Really fascinating stuff. Of course, it has a great deal of significance and interest for me, as these are my ancestors, including a grandfather I never knew (he died before I was born). But even beyond that, it’s quite something to read about how different a life they led from my own, in a time that was really not so long ago. Good job, dad.
Gabriel Dumont, by George Woodcock – I’ve been fascinated by this guy since I was a little kid. He’s one of the most interesting figures in Canadian history, even if many (most?) Canadians have never heard of him. He was a major figure in the the North-West Rebellion, second only to Louis Riel. Whereas Riel always struck me as deluded and somewhat pathetic, Dumont seemed to me to be a figure of great ability and dignity. However, all I had read about him were the brief sort of passages one finds in history books, so it was a real pleasure to read a proper biography of the man. It also made a few things clearer about the plight of the Metis, as the buffalo were disappearing, and the government in Ottawa gradually extending its reach westward. Definitely recommended for anyone with an interest in Canadian history.
The Philosopher and the Druids, by Philip Freeman – Posidonius was a Greek philosopher (of the Stoic school) who travelled through Gaul and Spain in the 1st century BCE, to study the culture of the Celts who lived beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. The book he wrote was apparently very popular, but no copy of it has survived to the present day. However, enough other early writers quoted him, that it was possible for Dr. Freeman to reconstruct some of his travels and experiences. He uses these, and modern archaeological evidence, to describe as much as he can of early Celtic history and culture.
And this wraps up 2007. Whew! Soon I’ll get a new list started for 2008.