About a year ago I looked back at 2018, admitted it had been a real struggle to keep the blog going and hoped for things to go better in 2019. Well, I can tell you this: they didn’t (if you didn’t work this out already for yourselves by the scarcity of the posts). What can I say? May 2020 be better than 2019 and may I write some good posts this year! 🙂
But while you’re waiting for those posts, let’s have a quick review at some of the books of 2019: books you might enjoy – or you’ll want to avoid! 🙂
By the way, if you ever want to know what I’m reading, you can always take a look at the Reading Log (which I do try to keep reasonably up-to-date).
The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy & sequels by Douglas Adams
A year ago I was busily engaged in re-reading Douglas Adams’s unforgettable Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels – in Spanish. In Spanish because developing my science-fiction vocabulary in Spanish seemed an excellent excuse to re-read some great books. You can read tons of reviews about The Hitch-hiker’s Guide all over the web so I spare you one here. But whether or not you’re a sci-fi fan, if you’ve never read it, you should give it a go – few books better at dispelling the January gloom.
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
The Great Siege of Malta 1565 by Francisco Balbi di Correggio
I found it impossible to choose between these two no matter how long I ruminated on their merits. Although if I take you people into account, then the vote should come down for Omar Khayyam – Francisco Balbi di Correggio is a minority interest but Omar Khayyam speaks to all of us.
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a collection of the quatrains of a Persian poet who lived at the turn of the 11th-12th centuries. The quatrains extoll all the good things in life according Omar Khayyam: good books, red wine, beautiful women and gardens… while recognising the fact that life is short and unpredictable. For this simple insight Omar Khayyam has been hit with any number of -isms over the centuries, not to mention the vile accusation that he was a philosopher. Well, I suppose you could call him a philosopher: you could sum his philosophy up as ‘let us eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we’ll be dead’. He seems to derive a lot joie de vivre out of this philosophy too – read the rubaiyat if you don’t believe me. 🙂
If you want to know more and read some quatrains, I liked Omar Khayyam well enough to dedicate an entire post to him:
The Great Siege of Malta 1565 is the diary of an Italian born soldier, Francisco Balbi, in the service of the Spanish empire who had the (mis)fortune to be in Malta in 1565 when the Turks tried to capture the island. It was published within a year of the siege in Spain and it’s an important historical source of an important moment in history. If you have any interest at all in the history of the Mediterranean or the Ottoman wars, it’s a must.
I have written about the siege of Malta and its significance before; for the first time back in 2015 when I visited Malta and then later again after I finally got to read Balbi’s own account:
Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra
March saw me re-reading more books (mostly science-fiction) from decades ago as well as making some progress in Don Quixote by Cervantes in preparation to visiting La Mancha in Spain. Campo de Criptana, where Don Quixote fought the windmills was an amazing place – read about it here:
1000 Places to See in Spain at least Once in Life (1000 sitios que ver en España al menos una vez en la vida) by Juan Eslava Galán
Unfortunately as far as I could ascertain you can’t find this book in English but if you can speak Spanish and you love to travel around in Spain, it’s certainly a book to keep in your rucksack. Written by Juan Eslava Galán who specialises in writing about Spanish history in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, this is quite literally a brief description of 1000 historic places in Spain that you might want to visit…
King Jesus by Robert Graves
A book that made a great impression on me when I was a teenager and failed to make the same – or any – impression the second time round. Robert Graves is a good writer, he tells a good story… and that’s that. Don’t let that put you off though, it’s an interesting take on the story of Jesus in the form of a historical novel.
Once to Sinai: The Further Pilgrimage of Friar Felix Fabri by H. F. M. Prescott
I started this book with a deep feeling of disappointment: what I really wanted to read was the actual diary of the good friar Felix Fabri. I had been reading his diary about his two pilgrimages to the Holy Land for about a year and finally I reached the point when he left the Holy Land for Egypt… only to find that the rest has never been translated into English. It’s available in Latin via Project Gutenberg but my Latin is sadly lacking.
I was therefore reduced to Prescott’s book – which turned out to be surprisingly good. While in general I prefer an original account to a digested one, there is no denying that Felix Fabri could on occasion go on a bit too long, could be a bit boring. Prescott took the best quotes from the second half of Fabri’s diary and added in some very useful explanations and quotes from other pilgrims of the time. But she always always maintained the focus on Felix, succeeding in showing us the man behind the story. An excellent work of scholarship overall. Prescott also wrote Jerusalem Journey – which I have only leafed through – but which is based on the first part of Felix Fabri’s diary, again enriched by details from other pilgrims. If you’re thinking of reading it, it would make sense to start with Jerusalem Journey.
Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa
A Japanese historical novel about the greatest swordsman Japan has ever known… more about it here.
South from Granada by Gerald Brenan
South from Granada by Gerald Brenan narrowly wins over The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa for September. It’s not that Brenan is a better writer than Vargas Llosa; it’s just the topic is really interesting. Part autobiography, part social history, part travel book, South from Granada describes Brenan’s life in an Andalusian village before the Spanish Civil War. There are some really memorable characters among the villagers and there is some literary names dropping for snobs. 🙂
Moral Letters to Lucilius / Letters from a Stoic by Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Well, it’s the Moral Letters of Seneca. What more can I say? That the letters contain some excellent life advice from 2000 years ago? And that they’re still valid?
The Fencing Master by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
I read two Pérez-Reverte books in November and this was without doubt the better one. (The other was Sidi, a story of El Cid, only just published in September.)
In 19th century Madrid, on the eve of yet another political upheaval, an elderly fencing master is mostly only interested in developing the perfect sword thrust. He leads a quiet life until one day a mysterious and beautiful young woman engages him to teach her… to say more might spoil the story. 🙂 A great yarn.
The Last Days of Pompeii by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
Yes, that’s Bulwer-Lytton of the Bulwer-Lytton award! I came across this book while browsing the bookshelves at my in-laws after Christmas and simply had to borrow it. Especially as it’s a book published in the 1950s, leather bound, with thin soft paper and beautiful typography; they don’t make books like this any more. As for the story and the quality of writing… well, all I can say is that now I understand why they named the Bulwer-Lytton award by him! 🙂