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Books read 2010 - so far

Tim Harford - The Undercover Economist (2006) Cheerful trot round basic economics, very useful and entertaining introduction or refresher. Recommended reading, despite his saying that a new Depression is not on the cards!

Ursula LeGuin – Voices and Powers – I was very struck by Gifts, the first volume of the Annals of the Western Shore (I read it in March 2006 – how time flies!) which seemed to me to respond again, and very powerfully, to the ideas LeGuin used in the original Earthsea trilogy. These two subsequent two volumes of the Annals also continue her re-examination of her idea of the fantastic, but feel like slighter works. They offer thoughtful stories, but are less innovative in idea and less powerful in execution (I felt, though maybe it is just my age).
Voices tells the story of a half-breed daughter of rape in an occupied city. Powers follows a privileged slave boy as he eventually understands the limits to his freedom. Both confirm the power and necessity of story, and of having stories available in the form of books, and the skills to use books. Both follow Gifts in offering forms of redemption for their characters that are more complicated and realistic than fantasy often allows. Both are recommended, but perhaps not as strongly as I would like to recommend books by LeGuin.

Nalo Hopkinson – The New Moon’s Arms – This certainly wasn’t the first book I have ever read where the main character was a middle-aged person of colour – in this case an inhabitant of a very-near-this-real-world Caribbean island. But it may be the first book I have ever read where the protagonist is a woman undergoing the menopause. (Or is it just the first I’ve noticed - helped by it being made explicit as well as implicit in the story)?
I was really enjoying this, getting to know its landscape and its characters, deeply engaged with the protagonist and enjoying her company and that of her friends and family, when, whoosh, all of a sudden (did Nalo get a reminder that the deadline was next week? Or that she was well over planned word count?) the book speeds up and sprints to its conclusion with altogether excessive haste. The conclusion is entirely satisfactory, clearly as planned from the beginning, and all its necessary ingredients are there; but the final events are so abbreviated and whistle by so fast they lose much of the emotional impact and sympathy I had expected to enjoy. A shame that an otherwise enjoyable and engaging book was flawed so.

Diana Wynne Jones – Enchanted Glass – Slightly unusual (for Diana) in having an adult male protagonist, but very familiar in preoccupation and plot. Bemused Andrew, not yet aware that he is to become a magician, inherits magical responsibilities and problems from his aged grandfather, and resolves them with the help of a friends including a resolute woman and a plucky boy. There are some lovely comical set-pieces - I find myself wishing that Diana would follow Nicholas Stuart Gray and adapt some of her books as plays, because this would make a lovely play for children. (Someone should suggest it to the National Theatre.) Enjoyed it.

Doris Lessing – Under My Skin – This is Volume 1 of Lessing’s autobiography and deals with her life from her birth in Persia (now Iran) in 1919, through childhood and young adulthood in Southern Rhodesia, until she left Africa for London in 1949. I shall be reading Volume 2 as soon as I get hold of a copy.
I don’t read much biography, and can’t really approach this critically. Like many writers her fiction is very autobiographical. Lessing’s early life was extraordinarily interesting, because during this period of her young adulthood she was fully engaged in the world in a way that many writers are not. She grew up in the African bush between the world wars, but lived as an adult in Salisbury, the capital of Southern Rhodesia, during World War II. She married twice, and had two children by her first husband and another by her second. She held a number of jobs. She was politically, socially and sexually active. She read the literature of her age (and among more usual fare for her class and era she mentions books by Stapledon and Wells as having specific impacts). She wrote poetry, short stories and books. She talked with men and women; old and young; black and white; farmers, lawyers, artists and politicians; British, Europeans and Africans. She tells us explicitly who and what went into which of her stories. She goes further than that, indeed, and comments somewhere here that fiction is much more satisfactory than biography as a way of telling the truth.
Lessing was of course Guest of Honour at the World Science Fiction Convention in Brighton in 1987, and was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 2007. This book explains what made her. Recommended.

Alain de Botton – The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work – Photo-essay in which de Botton talks with a number of people – an artist, an accountant, an electrical transmission engineer, and others - about their work. Fascinating and thought-provoking. Recommended.


Caroline M

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