Books I Read in 2021

Old Book Wallpapers - Wallpaper Cave

Last January, I set out to read ten books in 2021. I did – but the extra two were work-related and I shan’t mention them here. Of those listed, three were translated. Regular reading does wonders, not only for learning but general concentration in our dopamine-saturated age. This year, I hope to read another ten – hopefully more.

January

  • Herodotus – The Histories (430 BC). The first book about history. All writings about the Greco-Persian Wars trace back to Herodotus. 5/5

April

  • Witi Ihimaera – Navigating the Stars (2020). A comprehensive book on Māori mythology. Well written and humorous. 4/5

July

  • Paolo Coelho – The Alchemist (1988). An Andalusian shepherd goes on an adventure to see the pyramids. Poignant but somewhat overrated. 4/5.
  • Miguel Cervantes – Don Quixote (1605). Spain’s best book. Hilarious but long. 5/5
  • Ernest Hemingway – The Old Man and the Sea (1952). A Cuban fisherman goes out to sea one last time. Gripping. 5/5


August

  • Larry Mcmutry – Comanche Moon (1997). A horse thief kidnaps a Texas Ranger captain. Full of violence, adventure and melancholy. I devoured it. 5/5.

October

  • Stephen King – On Writing (2000). Part memoir and writer’s handbook. A useful aide. 5/5

See Also:

Uttermost Part of the Earth

UntitledUttermost Part of the Earth (1948), by E. Lucas Bridges, is the definitive story of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. The memoirs of the land’s ‘third white native’, it details his life amongst the indigenous Fuegians, their cultures and the effects of colonisation. Part autobiography, part ethnography, part history book and part adventure novel, Uttermost Part of the Earth is the most detailed account we have on a people now extinct.

Lucas Bridges (1874 – 1948) was the eldest son of Reverend Thomas Bridges, who established the Anglican Mission at Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego. He grew up amongst the coastal Yaghan people and, as a young man, explored the island’s interior, where previously uncontacted tribes lived.

AF Tschifferly, who rode from Argentina to Washington DC on horseback, convinced Bridges (below) to write down his stories. In his 70s, Bridges applied his lifelong energy to writing this book. It describes his later life – service in WW1, adventures in Paraguay and South Africa, only in passing. Tierra del Fuego is the focus.

The book five parts:Lucas Bridges y las creencias religiosas de los selk'nam ...

  • Ushuaia, 1826-1887: European exploration, Bridge’s early life, the Yaghan.
  • Haberton, 1887 – 1899: adventures on the coast, the Manek’enk (Aush), first contact with the Selk’nam.
  • The Road to Najmishk (1900-1902): Selk’nam conflict, adventures in the interior
  • A Hut in Ona Land (1902-1907) Bridges’ sheep farm. Selk’nam culture, Fuegian animals, myths and legends.
  • The Estancia Viamonte, (1907-1910) The story concludes.

Vivid descriptions bring the prehistoric wilderness of Tierra del Fuego to life, its rugged cliffs and islands, snowy forests, mountains, moors and bogs, and the creatures who call it home. Bridges alternates between the main narrative and such descriptions, peppering them with strange and fantastic anecdotes.

While his father dedicated his life to transliterating the Yaghan language, Bridges is most interested in the mysterious tribe beyond the mountains. After making contact, he lives and hunts amongst the Selk’nam hunter-gatherers (whom he calls ‘Ona’, their Yaghan name) for over ten years. He learns their language and customs, makes friends and enemies, and is eventually the only outsider initiated to their lodge. His accounts cover everything from courtship to clothing to secret societies and the Selk’nam’s (lack of) religion. Though the author veers on paternalistic, he treats the Fuegians with genuine respect and is free from the naked racism so common in his time. He tries but does not succeed, to ‘soften the blow of civilization’ and help the Selkn’am adapt. They left no records of their own.

The cast of characters can be bewildering. Many key players have unfamiliar Fuegian names. Bridges does well, however, in describing their backgrounds and personalities, while reminding the reader of past events. Memorable individuals include the insane ‘wizard’ Minkiyolh, the hunter Ahnikin and the gaucho Serafin Aguirre.

The many stories in these pages are fascinating, heartwarming and sad. There are true tales of abduction, murder, hunting trips, shipwrecks, escaped convicts, massacres and suicidal horses woven throughout its pages in simple and matter-of-fact prose.

Overriding the stories, however, is the sobering doom Bridges alludes to from the start. Civilization will triumph. Roads and airstrips will conquer South America’s last frontier, and guns, alcohol and measles will destroy the indigenous way of life.

Bridges does not discuss the Selk’nam genocide at length. That happened in northern Tierra del Fuego in the 1890s, before Bridges made contact. Those he meets are the remainders yet untouched by colonialism. Due to libel, Bridges does not disclose the names of murderous settlers. Their children were still prominent landowners when the book was published.

Obtaining this book was difficult. It went out of print years ago and the only copies online are expensive second-hand ones or third party reprints. I opted for the latter option and paid  $30 to have it delivered from New Delhi. It is a hefty book with well over 500 pages. Unfortunately its many black and white photographs and maps were barely visible. They are one of the books’ main draws.

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This passage on page 336 stands out:

“Talimeoat was a most likeable Indian. I was much in his company. One still evening in autumn, just before business was to take me to Buenos Aires, I was walking with him near Lake Kami. We were just above the upper tree level, and before descending into the valley, rested on a grassy slope. The air was crisp, for already the days were getting short and, with weather so calm and clear, there were bound to be a hard frost before sunrise. A few gilt edged, feather clouds broke the monotony of the pale green sky, and the beech forest that clothed the lake’s steep banks to the water’s edge had not yet completely lost its brilliant autumn colours. The evening light gave the remote ranges a purple tint impossible to describe or to paint.

Across leagues of wooded hills up the forty-mile length of Lake Kami, Talimeoat and I gazed long and silently towards a glorious sunset. I knew that he was searching the distance for any sign of smoke from the camp-fires of friends or foes. After a while his vigilance relaxed and, lying near me, he seemed to become oblivious to my presence. Feeling the chill of evening, I was on the point of suggesting a move, when he heaved a deep sigh and said to himself, as softly as an Ona could say anything:

“Yak haruin.” (“my country”)

See Also:

Books I Read in 2019

Bookshelf PornI read more non-fiction last year and was happy with what I read. Books are dated by the month I finished reading them, click hyperlinks for full posts.

February

  • Mark Twain – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). A boy and a runaway slave go on an adventure down the Mississippi River. A Great American Novel known for writing dialogue in the actual dialect of the time. Not as engrossing as I hoped. 4/5

April

May

  • Larry Gonick – The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part 1: From Columbus to the U.S. Constitution (2006).
  • Nicholas J Wade – Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (2007). About the first migrations out of Africa and the founding of world populations. 4/5
  • Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind (2014). I cannot recommend this book enough. Everyone I know who read it loved it. 5/5

July

  • George RR Martin, Elio M Garvia, JR and Linda Antonson – The World of Ice and Fire (2014). About the fictional history of the Game of Thrones universe. Quite imaginative but I lost interest soon after the show finished. 4/5

August

  • John Mann – Attila: The Barbarian King Who Challenged Rome (2006) Less is known about this figure than we hoped but Man pads the pages with background and his trip to Mongolia. 4/5
  • Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, Alain de Botton and Malcolm Gladwell – Do Humankind’s Best Days Lie Ahead? (2016). A paperback transcript of the 2015 Munk Debates.  Interesting perspectives on an interesting question. Only 100 pages. 4/5.

October

 November

  • Time–Life Books – The March of Islam, AD 600-800 (1988). Discusses the Arab Caliphates, Byzantium, Charlemagne, Tang China, The Khmers and Early Japan. Interesting subject matter but the prose is too flowery at times. 3/5

December

See Also:

Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari ...

‘Seventy thousand years ago, Homo sapiens was still an insignificant animal minding its own business in a corner of Africa. In the following millennia it transformed itself into the master of the entire planet and the terror of the ecosystem. Today it stands on the verge of becoming a god, poised to acquire not only eternal youth, but also the divine abilities of creation and destruction.’

The final paragraph of the final chapter offers a fitting summary to Israeli professor Yuval Noah Harari’s magnum opus. ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ (2014) traces the human story, from our humble beginnings to our exceptional rise, by identifying a series of key biological, social and technological developments that shaped the world we know today. Harari explains why and how homo sapiens are, illustrating the big picture with pertinent and oft amusing historical anecdotes. In the spirit of Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’, it provides a scientific perspective on world history.

Sapiens has four parts:

  • One: The Cognitive Revolution –sentience and self-awareness, language, hunter-gatherers and our role in the Pleistocene Extinction.
  • Two: The Agricultural Revolution – farming, hierarchies and the stories which underpin them, writing, prejudice and injustice.
  • Three: The Unification of Humankind – global civilization, money and commerce, empire, religion and ideology.
  • Four: The Scientific Revolution – the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, capitalism, happiness the state of the modern world and our possible future

Harari’s premise is the impact of ‘shared fictions’: societies’ beliefs and values, the way we view the world, the ideologies we share and the stories and myths which uphold them. A corporation, a nation, a higher power or even money itself, is not real in the tangible sense, yet through shared belief in the system, it holds sway over our daily lives, unifies peoples and upholds social structures. In Harari’s view consumerism and liberal humanism – the dominant ideologies of today –  are just as much ‘religions’ as Buddhism or Islam, for they shape how we view and interact with the world and our fellow man.

Released in 2011 in Hebrew and 2014 in English, Sapiens was immensely successful. It sold over a million copies and catapulted Harari from an insignificant history professor to one of the world’s leading intellectuals. Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Jared Diamond and Mark Zuckerberg are fans. While Sapiens deals with our human past, his newer books Homo Deus (2016) and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018) deal with the future and present, respectively. I have not yet read them.

Despite his heavy-hitting concepts, Harari writes in an eloquent and accessible manner. His prose is thoughtful, punchy and descriptive, his content insightful and often provocative. This book will change how you view the world.

I don’t think I’ve ever had so many ‘aha’ moments in so short a time. It might be the best nonfiction I’ve ever read.

Yuval Noah Harari is a professor of world history at Hebrew University. He lives with his husband on a cooperative farm near Jerusalem and is an ardent vegan. He meditates for two hours every day.

See Also:

Larry Gonick – The Cartoon History of the Universe

The Cartoon History of the Universe is a three part, 19 volume book series by American cartoonist Larry Gonick about the history of mankind up to 1492.  It presents detailed and well researched material in a humorous and accessible black and white comic style. Cartoon History was originally serialised as a comic book series from 1978-1990, when the first book was published.

  • Cartoon History of the Universe I: From the Big Bang to Alexander the Great (1990)
  • Cartoon History of the Universe II: From the Springtime of China to the Fall of Rome (1994)
  • Cartoon History of the Universe III: From the Rise of Arabia to the Rennaisance (2002)

A smaller two part series, Cartoon History of the Modern World takes off where it leaves, but is shorter and slightly more Eurocentric.

In Cartoon History, Gonick’s avatar – a frizzy haired Einstein-esque professor explains the historical narrative while the cartoon panels provide visual representation and gags. The often raunchy and irreverent humour ranges from absurdism to parody, anachronisms and dramatic irony. Running gags, like Byzantines’ penchant for eye gouging and Central Asian nomad’s adversity to vegetables, play a big part. Sometimes the events are funny in their own right. Who would know, for example, that (pre-Islamic) Meccan spies triggered war with Ethiopia by pooping in a church?

August | 2009 | Brad's words (and more than words!)

Despite its accessible style, content is factual and dense. Gonick explores the lives of history’s big personalities and ordinary men and women with an eye for economic trends and cause and effect. Interesting trivia and gory details accompany the main narrative, often as footnotes. Cartoon History’s topical weight and adult appeal distinguish it from less serious kids’ books like Horrible Histories.

Book One surveys the Big Bang, dinosaurs, and human origins in the first third before moving to the ancient Mediterranean civilisations, with a particular focus on Israel and Greece.

Book Two alternates between the great civilisations of Rome, India and China, including the origins of Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese philosophies and Christianity. Jesus is portrayed in historical terms as a wondering Jewish preacher called Jeshua Ben Joesph. Gonick has received criticism for his skeptical attitude.

The Cartoon HIstory of the Universe III by Larry Gonick ...

Book Three covers, amongst many, the rise of Islam, Ethiopia, North Africa, the Turks, Byzantine Empire, Crusades, Mongols, Black Death and the Renaissance. Having owned the book for many years I am biased, but do believe this is the best. Gonick’s artwork and humour are better developed, content is more varied and the time period is most interesting. The first volume ‘No Pictures Please’ is especially pertinent, giving an accurate explanation of the life and times of Muhammad and the origins of the Sunni/Shia split, all without idolatry.

Amazon.com: Larry Gonick: Books, Biography, Blog ...Larry Gonick (1946-) was born in San Francisco and studied Mathematics at Harvard.  From 1977 onwards he wrote a series of ‘cartoon guides’ on a variety of subjects including algebra, physics, computer science and tax reform.  The Cartoon History of the Universe, which he serialised from 1977, was his most successful work, and named one of the top 100 comics of the 20th century by Comic Journal. Jackie Kennedy was an early fan and helped get it published. Carl Sagan described it as “a better way to learn history than 90% of school textbooks”.

Books I Read in 2018

Image result for booksAside from blogging more, my goal was to watch less TV and read more books in 2018. The books are listed by the date I finished reading them.  Some I have done separate posts on, others I have not.

January

February

  • Maitland Edey – Lost World of the Aegean (1976). The archaeology of the Ancient Minoans and Early Greeks. Dated but informative. 3/5

April

  • Robert Bly – Iron John (1990). An allegorical interpretation of an old fairy tale suggesting what the ancient cultures can teach modern man. 3/5

May

  • Aldous Huxley – Island (1962). The utopia to Brave New World’s dystopia. 4/5

June

  • Barbara Kingsolver – The Poisonwood Bible (1998)A family saga of four girls and their missionary father in the Congo.  5/5
  • Thomas Sowell – Ethnic America (1981). Details the history and experiences of 11 American immigrant groups. Good on facts and figures, less so on future projections. 4/5

July

  • Paul M Handley – The King Never Smiles (2006).  A critical analysis of the modern Thai monarchy. Banned in Thailand. 5/5

August

  • Roland Tye – Weekender (2016). Five very different stories about five very different people one weekend in Edinburgh. The connection is revealed only at the very end. 5/5
  • JD Salinger – Catcher in the Rye (1951). Great American Novel about a rebellious teenager in the late ’40s. 5/5

September

  •  Ian Morris – The Greeks: History, Culture and Society (2010). This old textbook is a good survey of ancient Greece if a little dry. 3/5

October

  • Frederick Forsythe – the Dogs of War (1974). A business magnate hires a team of mercenaries to stage a coup in a fictional African country. Good, but not as good as Day of the Jackal. 3/5

December

  • Jared Diamond – Guns Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies (1997). Explains why civilization arose in some parts of the world and not others. An excellent read for history and anthropology buffs. 5/5
  • Frederick Forsythe – Day of the Jackal (1971). About an assassin hired to kill the president of France and the men chasing him. 4/5

See Also: