At one point I was writing brief reviews on here with my thoughts about various books I’d been reading. I’ve got out of the habit of doing that, and meant to get back in to it. I’ve been keeping track of my reading on Goodreads for years, but a listing and a star rating doesn’t feel like enough. I thought it would be too much to do the whole of this year’s reading, so here’s the last few months of books.

1) Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945– Tony Judt
2) The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them– Elif Batuman
3) My Life in Orange– Tim Guest

4) Fiction Ruined My Family– Jeanne Darst
5) The Phantom Tollbooth– Norton Juster
6) Going Dutch: How England Pludered Holland’s Glory– Lisa Jardine
7) Production for Print– Mark Gatter
8) The Clocks– Agatha Christie
9) 4.50 From Paddington– Agatha Christie
10) The Body in the Library– Agatha Christie
11) The Changeover– Margaret Mahy
12) Affluenza– Oliver James
13) Oryx and Crake– Margaret Atwood
14) The Year of the Flood– Margaret Atwood
15) MaddAddam– Margaret Atwood
16) The Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947– Christopher Munro Clark
16) The Secret Lives of INTPs– Anna Moss
17) Thank You For the Days: A Boy’s Own Adventures in Radio and Beyond– Mark Radcliffe
18) The Pagan House– David Flusfeder

1) Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945– Tony Judt

A comprehensive and readable history of the politics and economics of the postwar period, mostly focusing on France, Italy, Germany and the Soviet Bloc. I read most of this in France, and it felt quite fitting. It also amused me how much the author despises punk music.

2) The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them– Elif Batuman

A funny book about academia and Russian literature. There’s not many of them! Elif Batuman is a university professor of Russian literature, and the book is her anecdotes of peculiar people and situations her work has brought her into contact with, like the Babel convention where the organisers decided to invite some of his relatives, who turn out to be incredibly difficult characters, and the summer the university sent her to Samarkand to learn Uzbek, which would be easy for her as a Turkish speaker, where she was biletted with a very bizarre landlady, and inflicted as a student on various unsuspecting faculty members who were a bit taken aback that anyone had come to learn Uzbek, but did their best to oblige with details of how their poetry has one hundred different words for crying. I haven’t done a very good job here of showing how fun the book is, but it just is, ok?

3) My Life in Orange– Tim Guest

I’ve always been fascinated by books about lives inside cults, mainly because I was lucky enough to not grow up in one. Tim Guest’s mother joined the followers of the Bhagwan Rajneesh, and he grew up in communes in India, the UK and the US in the 70s following his mum around, dressed head to toe in orange, and usually feeling lost, isolated and insecure. The cult follows the typical story of the 60s and 70s where the idealistic initial converts find themselves caught up in more and more bizarre rules and commandments, while the leadership becomes more and more corrupt and paranoid, and then the whole thing implodes. Tim and his mother were then thrown back into mainstream society in London. The whole book was well written and engaging, and well worth a read.

4) Fiction Ruined My Family– Jeanne Darst

A memoir about life as part of a rackety family with pretensions to grandeur and literary stardom. It started out well, but then Jeanne Darst started portraying her adult self as an insufferable brat, and I lost interest.

5) The Phantom Tollbooth– Norton Juster

I downloaded a lovely documentary about the writing of this favourite children’s book, so I thought I would re-read it first before watching. My thoughts are here.

6) Going Dutch: How England Pludered Holland’s Glory– Lisa Jardine

Plundered in the title makes it sound more dramatic than it is in this book. It mainly focuses on historical connections between the UK and the Netherlands, of which there are many (I always find it strange how similar British and Dutch houses look, when French or Belgian ones are so different). I got more interested in William of Orange when I was working at Hampton Court, as that  period of history gets a bit ignored at school, and it was good to find out more about him and the Huygens family, but most of the book was quite dry.

7) Production for Print– Mark Gatter

If you need to know about technical details about offset printing and the like, this book is very useful and informative. If you don’t, it will bore you senseless.

8) The Clocks– Agatha Christie
9) 4.50 From Paddington– Agatha Christie
10) The Body in the Library– Agatha Christie

Whenever I feel ill I read some nice, unchallenging, mindless Agatha Christie mysteries. There are so many of them I can re-read them, and because it’s been a few years since I last read that one, I’ve forgotten who the murderer is. The modern editions do a good job of editing out the worst of the casual racism of the time (they can’t do a lot with most of the character’s snobbish, racist, sexist and anti-semitic attitudes, but that’s most books from the period, really). You can argue either way that preserving them would stand as a monument to how things were in the past, but in the case of Agatha Christie mysteries it’s mostly in terms of characters using throwaway idioms or phrases that are considered completely unacceptable these days but which are totally unrelated to the plot. I made the mistake once of buying a 50s edition from a charity shop, because it had a really nice cover, but I couldn’t bear to read it after a few chapters.

When I lived in Hungary, I came down with pneumonia. The doctor sent me home with a big bag of various prescriptions with strict orders to stay in bed for at least 3 days. On the way home I stopped off at the supermarket and bought another big bag of low-effort food, including a whole armful of packets of jaffa cakes because they were on special offer. In the same shopping centre as the supermarket there was a bookshop, and they had a load of Agatha Christie books in English for very cheap (Hungarian bookshops often tend to have lots of books in other languages, because not everything gets translated into Hungarian). I had never heard of most of them, which surprised me, because I thought I’d read most of them over the years from the library, but they were very cheap, so I grabbed a handful. I didn’t really pay much attention to either purchase, because I was feeling ill and faint and feverish and just wanted to go home. When I got home I discovered I had somehow bought peach flavoured jaffa cakes in bulk by mistake rather than the standard orange, and when I read the books I discovered they were mysteries that Agatha Christie had written when she was really old and senile in the 60s and 70s, and should have retired, and which made no sense whatsoever (and involved a lot of sabre-rattling at Young People These Days). Which explained why I had never heard of them. Some comfort food and reading! I later saw one of the books adapted for the Poirot tv show. Usually they pretty much leave the stories as they are, but they had to radically change it for tv to make it make any kind of sense.

11) The Changeover– Margaret Mahy

I sometimes go off to work on residential courses for teenagers. The company that runs them used to hire a site that was a girl’s school until the mid 90s. They don’t use that building any more, but they somehow ended up being given stock from the school library. Last time I was there, I ended up having a classroom that had bookshelves full of these inherited books. Whole bookshelves of paperbacks from the late 80s and early 90s bought to appeal to 13 year old girls of the time. They’re mostly not of much interest to the current day 15-16 year olds from South America who I teach (who tend to want either modern teenage books or proper literature to practice their English with), so they stayed unread on the shelves. I had a look at the books one afternoon when the students were on a field trip, and I had the day off. Most of them didn’t interest me either, a lot of them I remembered reading myself in the early 90s and didn’t enjoy that much then. Point Horror and the like are not known for their enthralling writing. I saw the Changeover though, and I remembered it being really atmospheric and well written, so I decided to read it again, sat in the sunshine on the lawn. The plot is a pretty standard modern fairy tale type thing, Laura’s little brother is possessed by a creepy old man who runs a junk shop that suddenly appears in her town, and he slowly starts dying. She teams up with a strange, aloof boy from school and becomes a witch to save her brother. The interesting thing though is the setting, 80s New Zealand (contemporary New Zealand at the time of writing) and the high quality of the writing and the exploring of the psychology of Laura hitting puberty and dealing with her parent’s divorce and new relationships.

12) Affluenza– Oliver James

I really hated this book. In fact I gave up on it two or three chapters from the end, which is unheard of for me. It was supposed to be about how how modern affluence is making people sick in the soul using (pop) social science and statistics. The author was an irritating ex-public school boy (ie stereotypical privileged boarding school kid for those outside the UK) with a very narrow experience of life, and the evidence for everything he proposed was very thin and badly presented. He also goes off on a creepy tangent about how Russian women are beautiful because they are denied equality in Russian society, and makes spiteful personal remarks about the appearance of a lot of the people he interviews and also goes off on other weird tangents about how working mothers ruin their children for life and how everyone in Denmark is a creepy suppressed clone because they all went to daycare. I already knew that money doesn’t make you happy, all I gained from this book is astonishment that this man got a book published and is allowed to regularly write for newspapers. The one thing that interested me was the description of the “marketing character” which I felt hit a certain nail on the head, (and whose original work was not Oliver James’ but Erich Fromm’s) but I already knew I disliked people like that.

13) Oryx and Crake– Margaret Atwood
14) The Year of the Flood– Margaret Atwood
15) MaddAddam– Margaret Atwood

I’d read Oryx and Crake years ago, but never got round to The Year of the Flood, so when I saw the new sequel had come out, I decided to read the first two beforehand. The first two books tell the same story, but from different perspectives. The setting is a super-capitalist near future, where giant bioengineering corporations dominate society, and everything is commoditised. The privileged employees of the corporations live in locked compounds, like an exaggerated version of the current workplaces companies like Google provide, and everyone else lives in slums in quickly deteriorating ecological conditions. The stories are split between a post-apocalyptic setting where a virus has wiped out most humans, and the events leading up to the disaster. Oryx and Crake tells the story from the perspective of Jimmy, who grows up in a company bubble with his ambitious friend Glenn (aka Crake), and who tends to be present at all the important moments, but due to his fundamentally weak personality usually manages to get things wrong or miss important clues. The Year of the Flood tells the story from the perspective of Toby and Ren, female members of an ecological resistance group. MaddAddam continues the story of what the survivors do after the disaster, and also tells the story of one of the character’s past, which shows how the society ended up taking the path it did. I was mildly disappointed by MaddAddam, mainly because it wasn’t as gripping as the other two books, but Margaret Atwood is always worth a read.

16) The Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947– Christopher Munro Clark

Prussia as in the NE German kingdom. The book started really well, describing how the Hohenzollern family started out with the flat farmland surrounding Berlin, and gradually accumulated other bits of land over Germany and Poland through canny marriages, ending up being one of the biggest and most influential kingdoms making up the Holy Roman Empire. I’d also never really thought about why princes of some of the regions of Germany were called Electors (because they were the ones who elected which prince was going to be Emperor), and also about how pre-modern ideas of statehood were often more like a Venn diagram than the concrete idea that we have now that one country is one country. For instance I hadn’t realised before that Austria was in both the Habsburg and Holy Roman Empires (but the other constituents of the Austro-Hungarian Empire like Hungary or the modern Czech Republic were only in the one empire). The author seemed to lose interest in the whole thing though once he’d got past Frederick the Great and into the 1800s, and didn’t really explain very well how Prussia came to be the Sparta of Germany. There were some interesting details about how the Nazis deliberately claimed parts of the heritage of Northern Germany and courted the conservative local aristocracy to expand their power from mostly being in Bavaria, but the book petered out really and glossed over important things like the Napoleonic Wars, Reunification of Germany and the First World War in a really odd way. Which is generally not what you want from a history survey.

16) The Secret Lives of INTPs– Anna Moss

This was a quick and easy read. I come out as an INTP on the MBTI test (here is an unnecessarily flattering profile). I’m skeptical about the validity of the actual test/personality system, but it’s fun to see what types your friends come out as, and some of the literature about the personality types and functions can be useful in understanding how people who are very different from you see the world and react how they do. This book was ok. There was some interesting info though, like a study giving people who had joined cults MBTI tests close to their joining, and later on once they were fully absorbed in the cult, finding that their test results became much closer to the leader of their cult’s (surprise, surprise), and funny bits, like a study finding that INTPs were one of the most likely types to smoke, so perhaps cigarette manufacturers should cut down on the rugged Marlboro man type ads and market themselves as the “Philosopher’s Choice”. Overall though, it wasn’t really that useful to me, I felt a lot of the descriptions about things like not being interested in clothes didn’t really apply to me, and mostly it made me feel glad that I hadn’t gone through the US education system, based on the testimonies of the author and other people she interviewed.

17) Thank You For the Days: A Boy’s Own Adventures in Radio and Beyond– Mark Radcliffe

A collection of essays about music and life by radio presenter Mark Radcliffe. They’re fluffy, unchallenging and generally entertaining. I couldn’t help myself reading them out in my head in his very pleasant and genial voice.

18) The Pagan House– David Flusfeder

Edgar visits his grandmother’s house in the summer of 1995, and is caught up in the inheritance fight between his various unpleasant relatives, discovers girls, and investigates his family’s past as part of a free-love Biblical Communism group in the 1840s based strongly on the real life Oneida sect. It was a decent read, but I felt strongly all the way through that it was a pale knock-off of something else I’d read, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what.