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New Year’s Goal: Reading

I think I was a little bit ambitious when I set my goal of reading 10 new books. To date, I have read four. However, I loved all of them.

I read two history books. They’re both massive, so I think they should probably count for more.

The first book of the year that I read was The Inheritance of Rome. A fantastic history of early medieval Europe. It’s pretty dense, and I found the most interesting chapters to be the ones based on geographical areas I knew better. So, for me, the chapters on the UK and Italy were the most interesting. I found the Spanish chapter to be a bit slow going but that’s because I know next to nothing about Spanish history. I’m glad I stuck it out though!

More recently, I read another European history book, Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half- Forgotten Europe. This is another book that’s broken up into distinct chapters, each one focused on a former and almost unknown state. For some reason, the chapter on Byzantium was about 5 pages (a big disappointment) and the chapter on Aragon (in Spain) went on for what seemed like forever. Again, I’m glad I stuck it out though. The author cleverly references earlier chapters later on when discussing related kingdoms or states. (A teacher never misses an opportunity!) These books with distinct chapters are really good for commuting. I can usually get to a natural stopping point before I have to change trains.

I read one book on the Tube (whilst on the Tube). (This may come as a surprise.) Called Underground, Overground: A Passenger’s History of the Tube, it is a fairly new addition to the great body of varied quality literature on London Underground. I really liked it and found it to be a fast read. Broken up by line, it covers its interesting history with some anecdote thrown in. I learned a lot of new facts, which can be quite a feat to achieve. This is not to say that I’m an expert,but that most books on such subjects, because they’re so popular, tend to say the same things.

Finally, I read a book on murders in Paris. Crime Album Stories is a strange mix of fact and fiction. Based on a small archive of early police photos of murders in Paris, the author wrote a somewhat factual story about each one. Full of gory photos, it also has some great, albeit heartbreaking stories about the sad lives of murdered and murderer. I would recommend taking it slow to avoid the paranoia that comes with reading about murders/serial killers/ etc. or watching too much CSI.

And for the record, which might bring my goal a bit closer, I’ve read a lot of travel books for reasons that will soon become clear, in fact I will be officially on holiday as of tomorrow. See you upon my return.

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Book Review – London: A Biography

This review is a long time in the making. I started reading London: A Biography almost a year ago. I think it took me so long because it’s over 900 pages long and as one of the definitive histories of London, it can be rather dense. Peter Ackroyd (or his editors) made a really good decision by making each chapter a manageable length and just enough to read before bed. Reading a chapter before bed of a 900 page book meant that it takes ages to finish.

London: A Biography has been called a definitive history of London and I think that’s a fair description. In both scope and time periods covered, I don’t know of too many other books written on London or anything else  that attempt such a range. It covers London from prehistory to very near the present day. (London without the Shard already feels dated.) It also fairly comprehensively discusses both ‘high’ historical concepts as well as the social history of the city. It is very much a popular history book though and the emphasis is very much on entertainment.

Sometimes when an author attempts to cover too much, the results can be very simplistic with sweeping generalisations that are desperately trying to create a narrative out of what is essentially a list of facts written into prose. The length of this book renders that a general impossibility, however Akroyd does have an agenda and his own generalisation about London. He emphasises the continuity of London ranging from dubious claims of the same social activity perpetually occurring in certain geographical locations to short histories of the building activity on a certain modern footprint (like St. Pauls Cathedral).

The social history of the book is very much written from a privileged position. There is a token chapter on women and children and one on the east and the south of the city. These chapters felt awkward and the topics worked better when included in the main body of the text (to which an attempt was made). Ackroyd also at points seems to justify the timeless nature of the homeless in London as inevitable and just the price to pay for progress. London seems to romaticise and condone the inhuman way Londoners treat each other, that is to say ignoring them. It seems to collectively clear the conscious of London and absolve Londoners of any responsibility towards their fellow citizens.

For a popular history book, I think London: A Biography straddles general appeal and good history very well. There are shortfalls, but I think it’s worth the investment of time to read. It aims to entertain and generally achieves this. Who knows, you might just learn something too!

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Book Review: The Wind-up Bird Chronicle

It’s been said in a lot of other reviews that a summary of this book is really difficult to write and once it has been written, the book loses its entire meaning and most of its appeal. Murakami reaches the height (along with Kafka on the Shore) of his zen-like philosophy and narrative ambiguity, blending reality and fantasy into a beautiful and bizarre love story.

Typical of Murakami, the main character is the most boring man. Middle-aged and very average, his life up to this point has been painfully ordinary. Then he quits his very ordinary job and things get weird. After the disappearance of his cat, he starts getting bizarre phone calls, his wife leaves him and he meets his 16 year old neighbour who is obsessed with death. A friend of  a (fortune-teller) friend brings another vein to the story – that of the Japanese conflict in Manchuria. This mixes with the story of his saviours, also psychics of some sort and they too are connected with the Japanese army in Manchuria during the Second World War. Their grisly tales somehow blend their way into the story and give Toru clues to finding his wife and bringing her and their cat home.

Overall, this book, I think, has a very clear narrative (despite the number of separate story-lines being developed simultaneously), but it does have a pretty vague outcome. There is a huge emphasis on dreams and mixing realities in this novel that can’t be really explained in ‘real-world’ terms. Murakami frequently explores the idea many realities and many, equally valid, truths. Could Cinnamon know for a fact what her father saw in the zoo in Manchuria while she was on a boat far away? And does it really matter? Does any of this actually have to do with finding the cat? And does that matter? Indeed, the book itself is an exercise in exploring this concept. It forces you to try to find what the one ending to the novel is, if there is one. You’re left with questions that you have to figure out for yourself, though not as many as at the end of Kafta on the Shore.

Personally, I really like that. I loved this book. I loved the fact that it’s a love story underneath it all. And I love Murakami’s style that you have to just give into and just have to accept whatever the book throws at you. I love that by reading the book, you are made to explore different realities and practice the surreal philosophy that is exemplified in the book. However if you are one of those people who like clear-cut, obvious endings or even story lines you may be frustrated early on.

 

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Walk the Lines: Review and Personal Challenge

At the end of last year, I heard about a book written by a guy  (Mark Mason, as it were) who walked all of the Tube lines, called Walk the Lines, The London Underground, Overground. Everyone that knows me quickly finds out about my obsession with the London Underground (responses range from bemusement to suspicions of insanity.) With promises of Underground trivia and a crazy challenge, I had to have it.

 

I read the whole book very quickly and it generally kept my interest. I have to say though, maybe I hyped it up too much in my head, but I was a little disappointed. The interviews with notable Londoners, such as a trainee cabbie and the Kray’s biographer, were interesting and could have almost made a whole book by themselves.  I can’t stop thinking about the massive wall map he made from individual maps bought in THE map store in Covent Garden and how he drew the paths of his walks for each Underground line. (I can think of no better wall paper. Geography + Memory + Time). The trivia wasn’t as good as I expected (this might be more of a ‘beginners’ London Underground book). Some of the observations and ‘facts’ were actually wrong and I think overall the book needed better editing.

However its shortfalls, I knew I had to walk the lines as well. I’ve not gotten very far since December (but very quickly learned to wear proper trainers rather than pretty ones). I’ve walked the Bakerloo and Victoria Lines in their entirety and am about 2/3 of the way through the Northern Line. (Special thanks to Lenny Carter’s patience for putting up with this Mad American and being my walking buddy.)

You may recognise this as my ‘teaser’ image. It’s of Blackhorse Road station, nearing the end of the Victoria Line.

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