Wandering with the bassets this week my mind kept turning over Charles Dickens’ opening to The Tale of Two Cities. You know:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. . . .”
Setting aside Dickens’ talent for melodrama he was an incisive social commentator and showed you ways to think about the world that you might not otherwise do on your own. His words sum up far better than I can the paradoxes not just of the modern world but for time immemorial. The mind-spout of Dickens is without doubt a symptom of being immersed in books about history, novels set in earlier times or books that pick apart the recesses of the human mind. It’s an awkward yet comforting feeling that modern humans are as infallible and primal as our forebears.
Reeling off my list of recent reading/audio book listening to a friend yesterday I realised I probably need to change gear with my reading to break my writing slump. It’s hard to uplifting stories of living the dream life when you’re feeding your brain with such literary and historical gravitas. Don’t feel too downhearted though, I wholeheartedly recommend you read/listen to the following. You might want to pace yourself and perhaps throw in some easy reads to balance out the fun.
The Hare With Amber Eyes – a thought provoking biography by Edmund De Waal about a collection of Japanese Netuske and his family that owned them. This is a tale about the Jewish Ephrussi family from 1870’s to today that charts how their wealth allowed them to collect the netsuke from Japan and how changes in the world impacts each generation as these miniature art works of remained the same. It’s as much about the story of European jews as is a personal family tale which obviously gets pretty harrowing as it charts the world wars. Nevertheless it’s a beautifully written book and gives you a peek into Japanese history and culture which I particularly enjoyed learning about.
Stoner by John Williams became a 2013’s bookselling sensation, fifty years after it was first published. On the face of it this is a grim, sad, depressing tale about an academic whose life is pretty wretched but turned out to be one of the most remarkable books I have read since Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety (see my thoughts here). It’s a real page turner if only to lap up the language that builds deep intimacy with the life of William Stoner and the world in which he lived. The ending is exhausting as it builds to a poignant end. Those last paragraphs will live in my mind for a long time.
You might not think that stories about being a neurosurgeon would be that readable but I’ve been fascinated with all manner of tumours and operating techniques not to mention the outburst of grumpiness towards NHS bureaucracy. Do No Harm by Henry Marsh is a lively memoir that brings sharp focus to how neurosurgeon’s hold life in their hands and the personal, professional and ethical dilemmas that this presents. Reading this book is like walking a tightrope not knowing if there is a safety net to catch you or not. Although heart-warming it is sobering stuff and a bit biologically gruesome at times.
The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer was a bundled with Do No Harm as a birthday gift, which goes to show that although your sister-in-law might have an eclectic taste in birthday gifts she knows how to pick a good book. Another popular winner in 2013, Filer’s first novel speaks of acute mental illness in a heart-wrenching yet hilariously funny way. The book is full of grief, madness and the perceived insanity of mental health services by those that have to use them. It’s a dark book shot through with flashes of optimistic and comedic brightness. At first it was hard to make sense of the structure of the book but then the penny dropped and I relaxed into reading although there were times I started to a feel a little manic in tune with the central character of the book.
For a little light relief I’m listening to Food: A Culinary History by Ken Albala, part of my DIY programme of studying gastronomy. It’s a powerful romp through all the ages of history and how food and cuisines became shaped over time. It’s a fascinating insight into the biological, ecological, economic, religious, technological, political and commercial perspectives of history and how food as an essential to human life drives development of the world across time. The interspersed in the lectures are renditions of ancient recipes showing people have being paying attention to the nutritional and pleasurable properties of food for centuries. Also, how class and power structures within societies shape food consumption and social etiquette with cuisines being adopted and adapted from one nationality, religious groups and geography. Gripping stuff if you like history and/or food.
All this reading/listening is a necessary respite from work and working on a new project that is also a distraction from the disciplines of blogging. More on that soon.
Would love to know what you’ve been reading recently and how it shapes your view of the world.