1) Operation Mincemeat– Ben Macintyre 2) The Pyramid– Ismail Kadare 3) The Mirror Maker– Primo Levi 4) The Third Miss Symons– F.M. Mayor 5) The Making of the British Landscape– Francis Pryor 6) The Years of Rice and Salt– Kim Stanley Robinson 7) The Moving Toyshop– Edmund Crispin 8) Travels with a Typewriter– Michael Frayn 9) Mail Order Mysteries: Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads– Kirk Demarais 10) How to Build a Girl– Caitlin Moran 11) Fannie’s Last Supper– Chris Kimball 12) The Gallery of Regrettable Food– James Lileks 13) A Winter Book– Tove Jansson
1) Operation Mincemeat– Ben Macintyre
An account of the WWII spy operation to fool the Germans into thinking the Allies would invade via Greece rather than the obvious Sicily by planting fake documents on the body of a man, thought up by Ian Fleming and put into operation by a team of eccentrics. It was a very intricate plan which could go wrong at any minute, and the book keeps up the suspense well, even when you know from the outset that the plan worked.
The first problem was the very iffy ethics of getting hold of a body. In the end they went for a homeless man called Glyndwr Michael whose family hadn’t claimed the body, but had to keep it very quiet. The idea was to give him a paper trail of a fake military identity (along with fake love letters written by the office staff), and leave him in the water as drowned, with important papers fastened to a case around his wrist. The body would be left off the coast of Spain, which was officially neutral and so would have to give the body to the British embassy, but was unofficially allied with Germany. It was obvious that someone along the line would open the case and look at the papers. The whole plan relied on the case looking unopened when handed in, but actually having been opened, and the intelligence being believed by the Germans. There are a lot of twists and turns along the way too though with too honest Spanish Navy commanders who won’t open the box, a German spy chief in Madrid desperate to get great results so no one mentions his Jewish grandmother, a head of intelligence in Berlin who is secretly an anti-Nazi saboteur, Joan Pujol Garcia who invented a whole gang of imaginary spies to fool the Germans and was believed (and paid for years) and an epic submarine journey to plant the body. It was a really interesting history book.
There was the interesting point too that the Germans actually found it quite difficult to get decent spies. The Russians could get dedicated Communists, the other Allies a wide selection of people who were against Fascism, but the Germans had to rely on either dedicated Fascists, who were too often known to the authorities or in jail, or bribable people, who are not the most reliable of agents. The writer clearly has a big crush on Ewen Montagu, the head of the operation as well, which was quite cute.
2) The Pyramid– Ismail Kadare
I think this is the first book by an Albanian author I’ve ever read. I first heard his name in a book about translation a while back, and his work sounded really interesting. The book is similar in style to Italo Calvino or Jorge Luis Borges, using a story about the building of the Great Pyramid at Giza told in a flat, folktale like way to create a portrait of state paranoia and oppression. It was a really good read, and the real history of Enver Hoxha’s regime in Albania is also very interesting in itself.
3) The Mirror Maker- Primo Levi
A collection of short stories and newspaper columns. I had to make a stab at If This is a Man in Italian at university. It was a weird experience reading a book in a language I barely knew yet could understand without trying too hard (I was on a sort of Italian bootcamp course for French or Spanish speakers). I ploughed through it though, and then read the rest of Primo Levi’s harrowing books in English. This collection is much lighter, mostly not covering the topic of his time in Auschwitz. I really enjoyed the interviews with various animals in particular, although I didn’t get much out of the old newspaper columns, (for much the same reason I mostly don’t enjoy collections of old columns) because detached from their original news context and time they don’t feel very relevant.
4) The Third Miss Symons– F.M. Mayor
A novella following the life of a drab British spinster in the High Victorian period, exploring the suffocating inertia forced on respectable women of the time. I really enjoyed this, and the author’s sharp prose and commitment to portraying the main character warts and all.
5) The Making of the British Landscape– Francis Pryor
Does what it says on the tin. A history of how the British landscape has affected society, and how people have changed the landscape. Even the wild looking parts of the country are shaped by millennia of farming and settlement. With these grand survey books, you can always tell what period is the historian’s personal favourite. In this case it was the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. In fact I found the chapters about ritual landscape, people using the barrows and henges as their story and history in the absence of writing, I took myself off to the British Museum to sketch some of the artefacts from the period (also some of the few artefacts there without very dodgy histories of acquisition).
6) The Years of Rice and Salt– Kim Stanley Robinson
I found out about this book from the excellent art history site People of Colour in Medieval Art, which has grown outwards from the original brief to cover every time period, using pieces of artwork to combat the idea that Europe was monolithically white in the past and that diversity is only a modern thing, and also showing portrayals of Europeans from other civilisations. As well as art, every so often they recommend interesting books.
This is an alternative history novel, using the premise of the Black Death being much more virulent than was the case in reality, virtually wiping out large swathes of Europe, and leaving the Ottomans and China (and later India) to become the dominant powers. The story starts out in the 1400s and continues to the present day, with the history becoming more and more different as time goes along. There is a group of characters who reincarnate again and again in different lives. K’s first two lives are terrible, so they are determined to change things for the better and smash injustice. B wants everyone to be at peace but always prepared to back K up, and I is curious, always a scientist or inventor or explorer. From reincarnation to reincarnation their gender, nationality and social status vary enormously, but in every life they are always friends, sometimes relatives or couples in different combinations.
In this version of history, only West Coast of North America and the Inca empire are colonised (by China), leaving the Iroquois League ruling the inland areas after having picked up smallpox inoculation off Chinese traders. The Reconquista never happens, leaving al-Andalus to expand further into a sparsely populated post-plague Europe, absorbing the survivors. The main area of international friction is in Central Asia, where the Islamic countries border China. The equivalent of the First World War drags on for a couple of decades and results in the tip of Mt Everest getting blown up.
It’s a really enjoyable book, although if you don’t have a good grasp of history or don’t like asides into philosophy, or are one of those weird people who get so offended at something not being centred on Europe (like the people who send abusive emails to the woman who runs POCIMA because she showed a statue of St Maurice from 15th century Prague or something) then this isn’t the book for you. I really enjoyed it though. I think my favourite bits were when the main characters were a group of alchemists in Samarkand in the 1600s, and when they’re Surplus Women scientists living in a boarding house in the equivalent of the 1920s in St Nazaire.
7) The Moving Toyshop– Edmund Crispin
A 1930s murder mystery set in Oxford, (but not obnoxiously so). It’s one of those detective stories which are enormous fun even if the characters and mystery are actually a bit thin. It’s the quality of the writing, and the surprise elements like the dolorous D.H. Lawrence loving lorry driver who keeps cropping up that make it so much fun. I’ll read the others in the series too.
8) Travels with a Typewriter– Michael Frayn
This is a collection of Michael Frayn’s travel journalism from Guardian in the 60s and 70s. Rather than being outdated like another collection of pieces from the time might be, these are finely written articles which give a real picture of those places as they were at the time. He travels to Cuba, Israel, Japan, Notting Hill, Moscow, France, Sweden and Austria. I really enjoyed this book.
9) Mail Order Mysteries: Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads- Kirk Demarais
This is basically a collection of the mail order novelties like x-ray specs and sea monkeys that used to be advertised in the back of children’s comics. The author’s dad could always see through the misleading marketing spiel, and wouldn’t let his son waste his pocket money sending off for the things, increasing their glamour in his mind. As an adult he came across some of the old ads and wondered what the toys had actually been like, and if his younger self would have been disappointed with them, so he set out to find out. The book has the original ads, and photographs of the (usually disappointing) real toy bought from ebay or found in toy museums with a funny review of the toy. Lots of fun.
10) How to Build a Girl– Caitlin Moran
I always want to like Caitlin Moran, but her tendency to constantly put her foot in it by saying ignorant things and refusing to back down or learn stops me. She’s about 8 or 9 years older than me, and when I was in my early teens way back in the Triassic age/the mid 90s my school friend Esterina gave me a copy of the book Caitlin Moran had written when she was about our age. I really enjoyed it at the time. It was also autobiographical, but played the large homeschooled family in Wolverhampton setting purely for laughs. From reading her other writing I knew the reality was a bit darker, so I was interested to read her adult autobiographical novel. It just doesn’t really work though, she keeps pushing the “oh Johanna is so cute and oblivious and barely knows anything about music” angle while at the same time having a national music magazine be happy to pay her for writing and not get complaints from their readers, and the John Kite musician character she falls for just comes off as a flaky creep rather than the fascinating yet flawed man I think she was aiming for (??). It comes across as something the irritating immature 19 year old Caitlin Moran featured in this newspaper article would think was moving and clever, rather than the current 40ish edition, who perhaps should have learnt something. I actually stopped bothering to read it about 70% through, which I almost never do with books. There was a tv show version of the same idea she wrote with her sister, Raised by Wolves, which I enjoyed much more.
11) Fannie’s Last Supper– Chris Kimball
The writer recreates recipes from a Victorian cookbook using historical equipment and talks about the history of food in Boston. It was good for a casual read when I had the flu, but the author is basically Niles Crane without the jokes.
12) The Gallery of Regrettable Food- James Lileks
No fantastic aristocratic confections here. Lots of horrible jello mayo salads from the 50s and weird advertising cookbooks trying to persuade you to use their product in all kinds of dubious places and James Lileks’ acidic commentary. When I first got internet at home, probably around 98 or 99, I was trying to find things to look at. Searching for “funny stuff” didn’t get me very far, although I did somehow find the Lileks website, (possibly from those categories Yahoo used to have?) where the stuff for this book lived. The website is still around, and still full of all kinds of weird vintage book and magazine scans.
13) A Winter Book– Tove Jansson
I was disappointed with this book. Tove Jansson is one of my favourites, but this was a hastily put together collection of lesser known stories and extracts from the Sculptor’s Daughter that don’t really go together, slapped into a cover and title designed to make you think it was something to do with her classic novel the Summer Book. The stories are mostly not even set in Winter. The main bit I enjoyed was the story based on the mountain of reader’s letters she received. Better off sticking with her many other books.