Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Looking Back at 2008 Reading

At the beginning of last year I started keeping a list in the sidebar of all the books I'd finished. More than anything else, this was in order to keep some sort of record of what I read, an oddly slippery thing for someone with a lot of books to keep hold of.

One of thing I've come to realize, looking back, is that my memory of how long it's been since I've read various books is rather fluid. Some of these I feel as if I'd read a very long time ago, while other books I feel as if I read very recently and yet judging from this record I must assume it's been more than a year.

I'm not really sure how many books I expected to find that I read during a year, but twenty seems a moderately respectable total. Though as I look over the list, I feel as if I am not quite as weighty a reader as I sometimes fancy myself to be. Below I break them up according to rough genres:

Light Fiction
The Red Pavilion: A Judge Dee Mystery
The Lacquer Screen: A Chinese Detective Story
van Gulik's early books of Judge Dee stories are translated and only slightly adapted from original Chinese stories, but these are van Gulik's own novels, based on the medieval Chinese detective genre.

Brother Odd
I'd been meaning to try one of Dean Koontz's Odd books for quite some time, though by accident I picked up the third one at the library.

Comrade Don Camillo
Giovanni Guareschi's Don Camillo books are so good that when I picked this up to read one or two of the chapters (which were written as sequential but essentially stand-alone stories) I found myself reading the whole thing in the course of a day or two.

The Foreign Correspondent: A Novel
One of the most recent of Alan Furst's series of espionage novels set in the early years of World War II, this story of Italian anti-fascists in pre-invasion France is enjoyable but not Furst's best. I'm eager to try his more recent The Spies of Warsaw which reviewers have said has him back at his best.

The Horse and His Boy
The Silver Chair
We've been working through the Narnia books with the girls -- our six-year-old being the primary audience -- but between parent hand-offs I tend not to get the whole book unless I go off and read the whole thing on my own, which I did with these two, which are among my favorites.

Quality Fiction
The History Of Our World Beyond The Wave
This was a second or third pass through this peculiar, yet beautiful, novel about the aftermath of a giant wave that cleanses the globe of civilization and most of its people. Anyone expecting a realistic science fiction novel would be deeply disappointed, but for anyone with a love of books and prose style this book is hauntingly evocative.

China Court
JulieD got me started on this Rumer Godden novel through her podcast read alouds, but I found myself so involved in it that I had to go finish reading it the old fashioned way: in print.

A Soldier of the Great War
I continue to owe Kyle an in-depth review of Mark Helprin's novel, but for now I'll just that I strongly recommend it for its evocative imagery and it's prose style, but there were elements of it which I also found mildly frustrating.

One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer
Nathaniel Fick's account of Marine training and fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq is fascinating, and of an even-handedness to interest all but the most ideological on both sides of the war debate.

The Great Pyramid: Ancient Egypt Revisited
Romer's book is the first really serious study of the Great Pyramid to come out in a number of years, and its a fascinating read, covering the history of Egyptian pyramid building, with its culmination in the Great Pyramid, the history of the Great Pyramids surveying and excavation by various teams of archeologists, and a fascinating discussion of what the physical remains at the site tell us about the survey and construction methods. Technical, but very interesting.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
I considered creating a "popular science" category for this, as I didn't really come out considering it serious history, but it was an interesting read for what it was. I enjoyed it enoug to try Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed but I found that much of what had annoyed me about the intrusions of Diamond's opinions and worldview into Guns, Germs, and Steel was present in even greater quantities in his editorializing on collapsed societies of the past and how they might be similar to our own, and it eventually got returned to the library unfinished.

The Bedford Boys: One American Town's Ultimate D-day Sacrifice
A fascinating group biography of Company A, a national guard unit turned army during WW2 and assigned to the first wave on Omaha beach on D-Day.

A Soldier From the Wars Returning
Written by a veteran who fought in the British army in both the Great War and WW2, this account of the Great War and life as a junior officer in it is a fascinating first hand account, and also a somewhat revisionist one as compared to the sometimes overplayed stereotypes built up through the poetry and writings of authors like Sassoon and Graves.

Five Days in London: May 1940
Lukacs' incredibly up-close history covers the first days of Churchill's prime ministership, in which the question of whether Britain would remain in the war or follow France's lead in seeking terms with Germany (and whether the British would have any army left to stay in the war with) remained in question.

Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945
Catherine Merridale's book is as much a social history of the Red Army as a military and political history of the Eastern Front, and both elements are fascinating for anyone with a serious interest in World War II.

Designing the New Kitchen Garden: An American Potager Handbook
Hobby Farm
It's a Long Road to a Tomato
This family being what it is, setting up a household vegetable garden could not be done without extensive reading -- though as it happens most of the reading took place after the plants were safely in the ground. The Potager Handbook was interesting for its attempt to come up with an aesthetic approach to vegetable gardening which produced a garden that was beautiful to look at throughout the year (rather than just your farm-style rows of like pants) while also being timed to produce food for the table during as much of the year as possible. You can tell, however, that this was based on the author's grad school thesis. Long Road to a Tomato was an enjoyable set of essays by a New Yorker who deciced to abandon city life to make his living off an upstate organic farm and the New York City farmers market. Every so often, however, one would be hit with very jarring cultural references that reminded me how far apart the author and I were on nearly very conceivable topic.

The New Rules of Lifting
Big Tex recommended this book and it's companion volume for women to MrsDarwin and me, and thus far its been highly useful, though grueling. If you're serious about getting into shape, it's not a bad way to go.


Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:


Liberal Fascism, Jonah Goldberg

The Empirical Stance, Bas Van Fraasan

The Logic of Life, Tim Harford

Spes Salvi, Benedict XVI

Coincidentally, Father George Rutler

Fatal Misconceptions, Matt Connally

The Dictator's Shadow, Heraldo Munoz

Can Asians Think? Kishore Mahbubani

Spin-Free Economics, Nariman Behravesh

Singapore's Success, Henri

Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky

Who Was Jesus? N.T. Wright


The Price of Everything, Russ Roberts

The Invisible Heart, Russ Roberts

Florence of Arabia, Christopher Buckley

Boomsday, Christopher Buckley

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse

A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller

Men at Arms, Evelyn Waugh

Officers and Gentlemen, Evelyn Waugh

Unconditional Surrender, Evelyn

The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, Evelyn Waugh

Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Travesties, Tom Stoppard

The Time Machine Did It, John Swartzwelder


Dreams of My Father, Barack Obama

While America Aged, Roger Lowenstein

The Inimitable Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse

Jeeves and the Mating Season, P.G. Wodehouse

Economic Facts and Fallacies, Thomas Sowell

What's So Great About Christianity, Dinesh D'Souza

Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker

A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis

mrsdarwin said...


Did you like Florence of Arabia? I've been thinking of reading that. And who read your Wodehouse audio books?

Zach said...

You read a lot!

Even though I don't know you in the traditional sense, you and your wife have been a good example for me, Darwin.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Ivan's War was a first rate work of scholarship although a grim read. I can't think of anything quite like it being done on the experience of the Red Army in WW2 in English before. It reminded me of the observation of a Russian I knew in college. "With our history, you either spend all your time drinking or weeping."

Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

Florence of Arabia was alright. A bit vulgar for my taste in parts, but overall enjoyable. Not as fun as Thank You For Smoking, but far superior to the vile Boomsday.

The Wodehouse books were read by Jonathan Cecil, who was fantastic. Jeeves was really made for the audio format, and I would highly recommend any of the Cecil audios (they appear to be legion).

Darwin said...

Looking at Blackadder's list, I should confess that half a dozen of these were audio books, but I didn't distinguish on my list -- especially as in a couple cases I started on audio and then finished up in print.

I only included books that I finished, which meant I lost credit for the novel Russka, where I read the first 800 pages or so and then ran out of steam and never read the last 150 before the library repossessed it. I quit Neal Bascomb's Red Mutiny half way through because it read too much like politburo propaganda and eventually I couldn't take the aggressive slant anymore. I'm not an active fan of Tsarist Russia, but I prefer some semblance of balance in a history book.

Also not listed are some long term reads that I'm slowly working through but didn't finish this year:

Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth
The Iron Wall
The Stripping of the Altars
Vanity Fair

mrsdarwin said...


Reading over Darwin's shoulder, I found Ivan's War very hard going indeed -- very bleak and full of despair. Along with Anthony Beevor's The Fall of Berlin, it reinforced my long-held notion that there is never a good time in history to live in Russia, and specifically, there's really never a good time in history to live along the Russian-German border.

Anonymous said...

It's a shame too MrsD because the Russians I have met have been wonderful people, and it is hard to me to fathom how the nation they come from could be an ongoing mess for a millenium. Reading Russian history it seems to be just one catastrophe after another, for them or the peoples who have the misfortune to live next to them, all overseen by able or inept tyrants. As a Russian noble said after the assasination of Tsar Paul: Despotism tempered by assasination, that is our Magna Charta.