Monday 12 August 2019

Book Club 2

I tried this out at around this time last year, and seeing as I restarted birding at the weekend yet only saw a Chiffchaff this strikes me as a perfect time at which to have another go. I have been reading a lot recently - I am in the voracious phase and have read most of these in the last six weeks. Clockwise from the top left a visit to a friend provided the first two, a trip to Daunt Books provided the third which in turn recommended the fourth, and Mrs L passed me the fifth and sixth saying I would enjoy them. She was not wrong. Books are one of the great pleasures in life - I read on the tube in the morning and evening, in bed at night, and very frequently on airplanes. I just wish I could develop a habit of sitting down in the daytime at home and reading - I have a lovely armchair with a nice view which would be just perfect for this - but unfortunately I am totally unable to sit still as there are just too many jobs to be done. I have not read as much as I would like this year - a lot of my spare sitting time was spent catching up on my travel journal which I let slip for the best part of a year. That is now finally done and I can turn my attentions towards what others have written which is a lot more interesting. So here are this summer's reads.

Travels with a Tangerine - Tim Mackintosh-Smith
This book explores the remarkable travels of Ibn Battutah, a fourteenth century muslim native of Tangiers who set off on a pilgrimage to Mecca which ended up taking him most of his life and across huge swathes of what was then the known world. Like me he kept a journal, he can be said to be one of the first travel writers. His experiences however were incredibly interesting, and so with "The Travels" in hand the author (fluent in Arabic) sets off to try and trace Ibn Battutah's medieval journeys and to see if he can find what he saw. A lot of this involves religious shrines of one sort or another, but don't let this deter you from what is a cracking read and truly excellent travel writing.

A Little History of the World - E. H. Gombrich
If like me your knowledge of entire eras is a little sketchy then this is an ideal book to try and fill in the gaps. It was written for children, and is brilliantly done, no wonder it is a classic. In a six week period the author somehow covered the entirety of human history from 2500 BC to the end of the First World War. The language is a bit facile in places as you would expect, but if you are in need of a crash course of almost the events that have shaped the world as it was known up until the advent of Facism, this is a book for you.

Sicily through Writers Eyes - Horatio Clare
In a rare outing to London Mrs L dragged me to Daunt Books - a heavenly place. We have a family holiday to Sicily coming up, and so I went off to have a look at the Italian section and pulled out both this and Sicilian Carousel by Lawrence Durrell. This book is an exploration of Sicily throughout the ages, from its earliest beginnings to the modern-day Casa Nostra. The islands has been through more hands than almost any other place, and the Sicily of today is therefore a tapestry of Phonecian, Carthagian, Roman, Greek, Norman and Italian to name but a few. Like the book above it is presented chronologically, with the author using the prose of others to navigate through the centuries. In truth I found some of the earlier parts of the book hard work, ancient battles and campaigns chronicled by Homer, Herodotus, Plutarch and Cicero felt like something I had to get through, but the extract from the Travels of Ibn Jubayr (who preceded Ibn Battutah by 140 years) was a particular highlight, as was the chapter taken from Il Gattopardo by Lampedusa. So good in fact that I bought the entire book straight away and absolutely raced through it.

The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) - Giuseppe di Lampedusa
What a book. You can never really do wrong reading the classics. It desribes the life of a Sicilian noble, Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, and his extended family, set at the time of Garibaldi and the Risorgimento (the unification of Italy). The Prince forsees that he is the last in his decadent upper class line, and that a new vulgar order will take over and could destroy all traces of the past unless the old order somehow accepts the new. An unenthusiastic and unsuccessful attempt to change the unfaltering path of history then follows. I only wish that I could have read this book in Italian, for what I found hugely enjoyable would probably be doubly so in the original text.

One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I don't know how to describe this book. It is both comedy and tragedy, magical farce and bitter historical violence. A hundred years of multiple generations of the Buendia family (almost all called Aureliano - confusion is inevitable, even the family tree at the start barely helps - I am sure this intentional) from the founding of their town of Macondo to it's utter ruin after war, famine and flood, a microcosm of Colombian history and national ethnicity. It inspired Louis de Bernieres' South American trilogy set in the city of Cochedebajo de los Gatos, and I am glad I have finally read "the original", another modern classic. 30 million people were always unlikely to be wrong.

The Sixth Extinction - Elizabeth Kolbert
I am only halfway through this one but it is riveting. There have been five main extinction events, the most recent being that which ushered the Cretaceous period out. Humans are now creating the sixth, condemning many thousands of species to death before we had even worked out a word for "extinction". It is a sobering read, and in the context of the daily news around climate change and people like Trump and Bolsonaro, an important one. In short post-industrial revolution humans are creating an event that is geological and catastrophic in terms of scale, and that will be recorded in the sediment in the same way as the gigantic meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs.


I have lots more to come. As I think I have mentioned I go through intense periods of reading followed by intense periods of doing other things. It was ever thus. So I have an extensive backlog of books that I want to read. They are gifts from others, or indeed gifts from me to me, loans from friends and hand-me-downs from family, and it is quite exciting to think that so much discovery awaits me. Some of them I am in the middle of already, but have put them down to read something else. The scramble for Africa is 680 pages of european incursion and robbery that has set the scene for post-independence dictatorships and civil wars that have lasted longer than the original colony. It is a tough read and there is only so much of it I can take in one sitting, but I am learning a massive amount about a continent that I have barely visited yet know many of the countries, place names and areas through my love of plants. 

There is another book about Sicily, a book that combines birding and travel, a book about espionage, a Jamaican microcosm and a book about the use of Pigeons in WW2. A rich and varied pile, I have no idea which one I should read next! Do let me know if you have any particular suggestions regarding reading order, or indeed your thoughts on any of the ones I have already read.


  1. Great post, Jonathan. The Leopard is an unbelievably fine novel. For some reason, though, I just couldn't get on with Marquez, although the one I tried was Love in the Time of Cholera. If you haven't read it (you probably have), there's a wonderful birding memoir called Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman. As for a novel, try American Pastoral by Phillip Roth. For me, it's the best novel about the decline of America and its loss of innocence since the heady optimism of the Fifties. I agree with you that books are indeed one of the great pleasures of life.


    1. Hi Malcolm, Kingbird Highway is a great read, one of my favourite books on birding. I'll look up Roth, thanks for the suggestion!