Books I read in 2014
The String Diaries by Stephen Lloyd Jones
21st November 2014
Illuminatus! Part 1: the Eye in the Pyramid by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson
17th November 2014
Into Thin Air: A personal account of the Everest disaster by Jon Krakauer
30th October 2014
Jon Krauker's account of the 1996 Everest Disaster (in which 8 people from two commercial expeditions died) is both compelling and tragic. A member of one of the expeditions caught in the blizzard which claimed the climbers' lives, Krauker was at the time a journalist on assignment from "Outside" magazine to cover the summit attempt and so witnessed many of the events first-hand. However as he freely admits, piecing together the full story will always be impossible: the victims - a number of whom made key decisions on the day - are unable to give any account, and the survivors disagree on many crucial details. Aside from the frailties of human memory, this is also due to the effects of low oxygen levels that climbers experience for extended periods when ascending to the top of Everest (the "thin air" of the book's title): deprived of sufficient oxygen, a person becomes rapidly fatigued, and both memory and decision-making abilities can become severely impaired.
To a great extent it appears from the version of events presented in the book (based on interviews and other information, as well as his own experiences) it appears that the magnitude of the disaster was largely the result of bad luck: the sum of a number of poor but relatively minor decisions all conspiring to make the climbers vulnerable to the freak blizzard that engulfed them. Without an obvious cause, no single decision or person to blame, it seems that Krauker struggled to make sense of his experience - and that he survived when others perished, compounded by the fact that retrospectively he finds himself wondering if he could have done more to help others caught in the storm after he returned from the summit.
It's a difficult question to answer and as Krauker suggests, those on the outside should perhaps reserve judgement. As he says, climbing Everest is inherently a dangerous thing to do for many reasons, and when climbers get into trouble it can create situations in which questions of morality or ethics meet some harsh realities (one of the most difficult things to read are the descriptions of decisions about whether to try and rescue the still-living but severely ill climbers, or leave them to die - and the slopes of Everest are littered with people who have died). Krauker talks about how the commercial nature of the expeditions, which brings different pressures and distorting factors to relationships (for example between guides and clients, and between clients - who are no longer really a "team", each client has paid to get themselves to ) might affect the decisions made and the risks taken. And of course the effects of the thin air probably had an effect on the judgement of otherwise extremely experienced and competent climbers.
As compelling as it was, as a reader I felt a sense of sadness at the end of this book, for both the survivors and the victims - but also a feeling of a lack of closure to the events. Sixteen years after the publication of this edition one wonders whether Krauker has made peace with his experiences, which seemed to elude him at the time of writing.
Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka and Michael Hofmann (translator)
25th October 2014
Myths To Live By by Joseph Campbell
5th October 2014
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
29th September 2014
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
23rd September 2014
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft and S.T. Joshi (editor)
29th August 2014
Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
4th August 2014
Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts
29th June 2014
In "Ocean of Life" marine scientist Callum Roberts lays out the parlous state of the world's oceans as a result of human activity over the last two centuries, and particularly the seismic changes that have occurred - and continue to accelerate - over the last fifty.
Far from being just a big puddle of homogeneous salty water, he describes how the oceans are a complex dynamic system, with various layers and currents that interact with each other in complex ways, many of which are still poorly understood. An astonishing diversity of life has evolved over thousands and millions of years to exist in these different ocean environments, but the changes (including overfishing, habitat destruction - particularly dredging and bottom-trawling - massive pollution, increasing temperatures and acidifications) now threaten their existence.
Much of the book makes frightening and depressing reading. At the start Roberts gives a stark illustration of how fish stocks have declined even since the 1950s, comparing photographs of recreational fish catches to older ones (tiny in modern-day photos compared to those from even just a few decades ago), and contrasting by historical accounts of the abundance of fish with the paucity today. The future is one of an acidic sea full of jellyfish.
He also makes a compelling case for how this directly affects humankind. We have more mouths to feed as global population rises, and fewer fish to feed them with. Those that remain are increasingly toxic due to absorption of pollutants. Changing ocean currents combined with loss of traditional coastal habitats mean that without vastly expensive man-made defences our lands are at increasing risk from erosion, flooding and extreme weather events. As he says, protecting the oceans is often seen as a luxury: in fact, not protecting them is economic and social madness.
While the outlook is bleak Roberts offers some suggestions for how we can turn the tide. Smarter consumer choices over seafood is one option, but the greatest hope is offered by the creation of a network of protected marine areas which allow habitats and life to recover. There are already examples where life is seen returning to such areas that have already been created. At the end Roberts seems to offer a degree of cautious optimism. Some changes have already been set in motion but there is a chance that we can mitigate the worst and give the oceans (and thus ourselves) a fighting chance.
Angelica's Grotto by Russell Hoban
14th June 2014
In spite of the subtitle "a novel about internet sex", this is really nothing of the sort - although both sex and the internet feature to some degree, as this is Russell Hoban it also features the works of Odilon Redon, Gustav Klimt, and the myth of Angelica and Ruggerio.
The story revolves around Harold Klein, who loses his inner voice and so finds himself speaking his thoughts out loud instead. In the course of trying to recover his "internal censor", he finds himself visiting "Angelica's Grotto" (the pornographic website of the title) and from there being drawn into a relationship with the young woman who runs it. Nearing the end of his life, Klein seems to find a new one, but it's not a particularly comfortable or safe journey - and the destination is not a sure one.
I have become a big fan of Hoban's work, and I think this is one of my favourite Hoban books so far. I don't know if the ageing protoganists reflect Hoban's own age when he wrote it, but I always enjoy the complexity of the characters and their relationships, his references to art and music (which are worn very lightly) and how he mixes the ridiculous and fanciful with more serious - often shocking - turns in the plot, and is quietly brilliant. Look forward to rereading one day.
Pondlife: A Swimmer's Journal by Al Alvarez
10th June 2014
Although subtitled "a swimmer's journal", Alvarez's book turns out to be more about getting old, and how this challenges your self-image as your powers fade, you're faced with physical and mental decline and the realisation that - unlike with an illness - things aren't going to get better.
However Alvarez does swim - he was a regular at the Hampstead Heath ponds and swam through the year, particularly relishing the cold water and the restorative effects it seems to have on his physical ills and his emotional state. And like all swimmers who are addicted to their regular doses of swimming, he hates when he misses his swims. It is particularly important to him as someone who'd previously led a very active life: the last refuge from total decrepitude.
Towards the end of the book his health seems to decline very rapidly, along with his mental state - so much so in fact that it's something of a surprise to learn that he's still alive a couple of years on from the last journal entries in 2011. I think a part of me wanted him to get better, while acknowledging that ultimately - as Alvarez himself remarks - ageing is a disease you don't recover from. In my early 40s I found it quite sobering to reflect on that. Not always an easy read but a good one.
Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
1st June 2014
The second time that I've read Jon Kabat-Zinn's book on mindfulness practice (although I listened to the audiobook version extensively over a period a few years ago), and just as with re-reading Joseph Campbell's books it feels like it rewarded me with fresh insights. It's less of an instruction manual and more of a guidebook to mindfulness, and Kabat-Zinn's anecdotes about how he personally brings the practices into his everyday life struggle serve to make those practices seem more relevant than they might otherwise - even more so given that even after many years he still struggles at times to live mindfully.
On reading "Wherever You Go..." again I also realise that my own view of mindfulness has been heavily influenced by what I understand Kabat-Zinn's take on it to be: that mindfulness and meditation practices are not about trying to get anywhere or change anything, but rather to see our present situation more clearly - whether it is good or bad. Of course as he writes, that isn't always easy. But books like this, that you can return to again and again, help us with the challenge of continually renewing our practices, as well as offering ways to deepen them. So I look forward to reading it again sometime in the future.
Food Rules: An Eater's Manual by Michael Pollan
29th May 2014
A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living by Joseph Campbell and Diane Osbon (editor)
24th April 2014
I've just finished reading this for the second time and as with Campbell's Myths To Live By it has been full of fresh insights for me. I think that to some extent with these works, we bring our own experiences to each reading and what feels most relevant to us changes in the light of those experiences. This time one of the themes that I was most struck was that of holding onto things that are past, which can stop us moving into our future, and that it is (in his words) a "refusal of the call" to embark on our own personal journeys. Once again I'm already looking forward to returning to this book again (and again) in the future.
The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney
11th April 2014
Swim: Why We Love the Water by Lynn Sherr
11th April 2014
The Bone People by Kerri Hulme
28th March 2014
Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman by Richard M. Stallman
11th January 2014
The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
4th January 2014