Anna Reid, 2011.
We are living in a revival of the telling of military history: Max Hastings, Antony Beevor, John Keegan and Australia's own Paul Ham. But all of them avoid telling one story: the seige of Leningrad. There are no military lessons, and few morals can be found in the desperation of years of starvation.
Anna Reid tells the story. Starting with the obvious question: why were their any civilians in the city at all? If you suspect Stalin and a bureaucracy too afraid to mention that anything other than victory may be happening, then you can see how an evacuation might not be ordered. It's interesting to reflect on these passages, looking for their fainter shadows in our own times.
The photographs are heartbreaking. Most are sourced from surviving friends of the photographers, so the fate of all people photographed are known. In several no one lived through another year.
Excellent writing. If you have a vivid imagination do not read before bedtime.
I read this when it came out then handed it onto the next person. It was reissued with a better cover a few years ago and K bought it a few weeks ago.. Read it overnight (ouch, getting too old for that). I had forgotten just what a stunning work it is: set in today's world (give or take), with a huge amount of imagination, a ripper plot and just stunning writing.
PS: Read the book, not its Wikipedia page. Some Wikidiot thinks giving away the secrets of the plot is a good idea.
Written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, acted by Eric Portman, Sheila Sim, Dennis Price and John Sweet. 1944.
Upon release this film set in rural Kent on the eve of D-Day was Powell and Pressburger's biggest commercial flop. The audiences of the time didn't care for its message or style.
Today, the film is entrancing and the most appealing of Powell and Pressburger's works -- The red shoes is too full of its own cleverness for my taste. Apart from the opening scene there is none of that in A Canterbury tale, just the simple story of men and women working in unusual times -- the last days of agricultural England and the last days of Fortress Britain. This is a small film, the tone set by the relationship between the characters rather than by the thin plot.
This has been my favorite movie since I saw it at the National Library in a Powell and Pressburger retrospective in the 1980s. If the ABC play it early one morning then it is well worth recording to play back on a listless summer's day, the pace being about the same as a cricket match.
George MacDonald Fraser. 1993, new epilogue 2000.
GMF is, of course, the author of the marvellous Flashman novels. If you read between the lines of those you might suspect that GMF is a old curmudgeon at heart. There is no suspicion after reading this book, and this caused a flurry of criticism upon the release of the book. In the years since the world has caught up with GMF; for example, his criticism of Tony Blair for being a lightweight with no moral centre has become the accepted wisdom, and his thought that we do not take terrorism seriously is amply demonstrated by our failure to come to grips with Osama bin Laden.
What really sets this book apart from most war memoirs is the author's recounting of life at the bottom of the pile -- the light infantry private soldier -- and his honesty about his emotions.
Well worth a read.
Charles Firth. 2006.
One of the Chaser team goes to the USA to live. He sets up a series of identities -- a left wing commentator, a right wing commentator, and so on -- and lets them lose on the nation.
Charles has quite a bit of good fun with the characters, and this makes for a good read. But Charles also needs a decent editor; dropping one hundred pages would have made it a cracker of a book.
An extended-plot comic series -- or graphic novels if you must -- about a group a women making their way through the world of work and love. Nice illustrations, good plotting and a relaxed pace. A fantastic read for a quiet day.
A few of the women, including Jane, are lesbian. But that neither adds nor detracts from the wonderfullness. Ms Braddock does the best lesbian sex illustrations I've ever seen -- she gets the atmosphere just right [and if you are wondering how a man knows what a lesbian sex scene looks like, well I'm not telling tales of my mis-spent youth in share housing].
Found in the "graphic novels" section of the local library. That seems fair -- in Semaphore all women are assumed to be gay upon first acquanitance. I still remember the shock of learning that one of my social friends wasn't gay nor bi, but straightly married with two kids. And the complete shock on the face of a petite lesbian girl whom I kissed after she had been flirting with me terribly, based on her assumption that I was gay and so she would face no consequences (because all "single", muscled, well-dressed, literate men are gay, right?).
Anyway, go read one of these comic books. It's For better or for worse for grown-ups.
Daniel Defoe, 1772.
One of the first novels in English, and still one of the best. Tells the tale of the Bubonic Plague in London in 1665. Surprisingly modern, apart when discussing the origin and spread of the disease.
Defoe's arch style is to die for:
We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days to spread rumours and reports of things, and to improve them by the invention of men, as I have lived to see practised since.
Richard Rhodes, 1986.
Good writing about science and engineering, thick in pages, scientific detail and personal history. A good antidote to juvenile essays about the morals of the atomic bomb too -- the scientists involved had thought it through, weighed their consciences, and decided that at USA with the bomb was better than a defeated USA without the bomb.
From Baskerville Hall to the Valley of Fear, the real forensics behind the great detective's greatest cases. EJ Wagner. 2006.
A fantastic read. Each chapter discusses a field of forensic science, what Doyle and the Victorians thought, and how those thoughts have developed into the forensics of today.
Some of the best "writing science for the general public" I've ever read.
Clive James, 2007.
Short essays purportedly on the lives of thinkers of recent times, but like all "Lives" books really essays on humanity.
The book is well written - the essay on saintliness of Sophie Scholl is heartbreaking. This makes James' blind spot all the more enraging. The book enthuses about an number of obscure Viennese philosophers but, with the exception of Freud, doesn't mention a scientist at all.
How can he be unaware of the insight into the human condition that science brings? The ugly ambition of Watson and Crick, willing to trick and deceive, one of the first to realise that the Nobel Prize was no longer an honour for a life's outstanding work. The simple lack of collegiate feeling between Wilkins-the-hick and Franklin-the-sophisticate that doomed their chances, and how that realisation made Wilkins a forever generous teacher thereafter. And that's just to pick the search for the structure of DNA.
Imagine what moral James could have drawn from the life of Edward Teller or Wernher von Braun.
Frank Warren [and contributors to www.postsecret.blogspot.com]. 2006.
Collection of postcards containing true secrets sent anonymously to Frank's blog. As you might expect the content is rivetting: confessions of adultery and the like, pitiful unrequited love, humour, and sad episodes of abuse. What is totally unexpected is the quality of the art.
Your Essential Guide to the World's Most Miserable, Ugly, Boring and Inbred Destinations. Adam Russ. 2007.
This book is caught in a cleft. It isn't really about the 101 worst places in the world. They are mainly small villages no one has ever heard of in a war zone no one cares about. That doesn't make for pleasant reading, let alone the humorous tone the author uses.
Really this book is an excuse to slag off at well-known travel destinations. And if you accept the book at that level then it isn't too bad. It does seem to miss the worst aspect of some cities though. Sydney's traffic is not bad by global standards, but the sheer size of the city makes traffic a nightmare.
Conn and Hal Iggulden.
Oh dear, I've got a girl. And she is interested in tools and knots and other things in this book. But she'll never read it because the authors of this wonderful text gave it a sexist title. Unthinking pigs.
The authors ask where this sort of adventure is found in the modern world. The Guides spring to mind :-)
Nick Cohen. 2004.
Nick is a journalist of Westminster politics. And he's seen through Blair. Rather than tell this to other journalists at the bar, he's put it into print for all of us. Despite Nick's left wing leanings, he comes to pretty much the same conclusions and my favorite old curmedgeon George MacDonald Fraser (who is also a journalist).
Bella Bathurst. 2005.
Wonderful descriptive writing. Neat technical descriptions with an emphasis on putting the reader at the scene. Naunced measuring of evidence. Good show all round.