Twelve Books in Twelve Months (2018)

For certain unfortunate reasons I don’t wish to detail here, I struggled to keep the blog going last year and, as you might have noticed, there were times when weeks went by without me being able to publish any other post than the weekly quote. Nevertheless, I still did manage to read a few books… so to start the new year off (may it be better than the last), let’s look back on some of last year’s readings.

Books you might enjoy – or you’ll want to avoid! 🙂

January

Delphi: A History of the Centre of the Ancient World by Michael Scott

A very detailed history of Delphi which I particularly recommend to Des – I think you would really enjoy it.

A lucidly written and very informative book – useful for anybody writing their degree thesis on the subject or for avid amateur historians with a particular interest in Delphi. Nevertheless, this is not a book I would recommend to the general public, unless as a sleeping aid. It lived on my bedside table for the entire year as I read it in small doses, usually when having trouble to go to sleep. It worked like a charm in that respect – I usually lasted five to ten pages each time. It’s not that I didn’t  enjoy learning some very interesting facts about Delphi; it’s just I couldn’t help feeling that Scott has stretched his material over too many pages.

February & March

The Honor Harrington Series by David Weber

Last winter I was engaged in re-reading the first part of this military science fiction series and February and March saw me churning through the rest of it, the books I’ve never read before.

You can sum up the series in one sentence: this is C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower and Royal Navy sent into space.

The main series consists of no less than 14 novels, and – as is not unusual in the case of such a long running series – of gradually declining quality. One cannot help but feel that Weber would have done better to kill off his heroine halfway through, as he originally intended. Nevertheless, if you’re remotely fond of the genre, this is one of the best military science fiction series out there (certainly beats the Lost Fleet series by Jack Campbell hands down), enjoyable till the end. It also span numerous side plots with co-authors which I haven’t read but based on the ‘taster’ chapters I wouldn’t particularly recommend.

April

The Samurai by Shusaku Endo

A book I cannot recommend you people enough: a beautiful novel based on the true story of a Japanese diplomatic mission to Spain via Mexico and then on to the Pope in Rome at the beginning of the 17th century. A historical travelogue interspersed with philosophical thoughts: unbeatable.

You can read my more detailed review here.

May

The History of Zen by Thomas Hoover

Not the usual type of book I read but it was free for Kindle and it’s good to leave the well-tread path every now and then to discover new ones. I have little to add to what the title already told you, but Hoover’s book most certainly helped me discover a new author: the early Chinese poet Han-shan, the ‘Master of Cold Mountain’.

Whether you have any interest in the history of Zen or not, I most certainly highly recommend Han-shan’s poetry.

June

Magellan by Stefan Zweig

The story of Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world from the pen of a famous Austrian author, who greatly enjoyed drawing historical portraits. Zweig never pretends to historical impartiality but his novels are well researched and passionately told. To get a taste of his style of writing, you could first try Shooting Stars: Twelve Historical Miniatures, a collection of short stories about pivotal moments in world history.

July

State of Siege by Tom Clancy

My July reading receives the big thumb down. Why? You can find it out here.

August

Old Court Life in Spain by Frances Elliott

An interesting lady, this Mrs Elliott, the self-styled Idle Woman from the 19th century, friend of Dickens, Anthony Trollope and Wilkie Collins; a divorcee and a traveller, altogether a very independent minded female with far more knowledge of ancient history that I can ever hope to boast of.

She spent quite a bit of her life around the Mediterranean and wrote several travelogues and what can be loosely termed as books on history of Mediterranean countries. Old Court Life in Spain is one of the latter: it tells the story of the Visigothic kings and the Moorish invasion, in her typical fanciful style.

If you’re interested in the early history of Spain and aren’t easily frightened off by a flowery style, go for it. It makes for a curious reading.

September

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

An old favourite that I decided to re-read, this book proved just as enjoyable after the passage of thirty-odd years as I remembered it. It’s an absolute classic as well, if you haven’t read it yet, you should.

More about it here.

October

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

No, no, NO. No way. Don’t touch it with a barge pole. Read The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco instead – you can find a comparison of the two here.

November

A History of the Civil War that Nobody’s Going to Like by Juan Eslava Galán

Spanish author Juan Eslava Galán excels in writing tongue-in-cheek books on history and this is the second or third one I’ve finished. Unfortunately for you English speakers, none of his books has been translated into English – at least as far as I can tell.

This is a book on the Spanish civil war of 1936-39 – which as the title very aptly put it, neither side would like. A very interesting book indeed, telling the events mostly through the words of ordinary people who lived it, and certainly warrants a full post of its own (if I ever manage to get round to writing it)!

December

The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth

Strictly speaking, I shouldn’t write about this one as I haven’t finished it yet. But I’m about halfway through and the writing is excellent. Set in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the book tells the story of the rise – and fall? – of the Slovenian Trotta family, the first of whom saves the life of the emperor in the Battle of Solferino. Full of atmosphere, it describes a world that has long ago disappeared.

Shades of The Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann? It’s been too long ago I read that one to be able to make a meaningful comparison…

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Livy on History (Tito Livio sobre la historia)

Titus Livius (59 BC – 17 AD)

Quote of the Week:

Hoc illud est praecipue in cognitione rerum salubre ac frugiferum, omnis te exempli documenta in inlustri posita monumento intueri; inde tibi tuaeque rei publicae quod imitere capias, inde foedum inceptu foedum exitu quod vites.

(Titus Livius: Ab Urbe Condita, Praefatio)

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Aesop’s Fables in Nahuatl

While reading a history of the Latin language recently, I came across one of the fables of Aesop – translated into English from Nahuatl. In case you’ve never heard of Nahuatl, it was the language of the Aztec empire and in consequence the lingua franca of Central-America up to the 16th century; it is still spoken in parts of Mexico.

The book in question is Ad infinitum: A Biography of Latin by Nicholas Ostler and I wouldn’t recommend it to the general public although if you do happen to be interested in historical linguistics and especially in Latin, it’s fine; all the more enjoyable if you can actually know Latin of course (sadly I don’t).

But what has a Nahuatl version of the fables of Aesop – who after all was Greek – got to do with the history of Latin?

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A Sense of History

History (from Greek ἱστορία, historia, meaning inquiry) is the study of the past…

History is asking questions.

?

And answering them.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus here presents his research so that human events do not fade with time. May the great and wonderful deeds – some brought forth by the Hellenes, others by the barbarians – not go unsung as well as the causes that led them to make war on each other.

Herodotus: The Histories, 1:1

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The Moorish King Rides Up And Down

Last Sunday we had an overcast picture of the Alhambra, so today we’ll follow it up with a poem set in Granada. Although reading Spanish poetry in the original is, by and large, beyond me at the moment (Arturo Pérez-Reverte generally drives me to despair with his quotes of Francisco de Quevedo), there is the odd poem that I have no problem understanding (Spanish learners, take note). I was afraid I might have to provide a prose translation myself, but Lord Byron obliged! The Spanish original is below the English translation for those of you who can enjoy it…

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Ten Facts I Learned from Books This Year

I read an article in the New Yorker – I steal my ideas from wherever I can, which, according to Pablo Picasso or Steve Jobs, take your pick, makes me a great artist – in which the author Kathryn Shultz made a list of the ten best facts she learned from books this year.

Immediately this struck me as a good way to finish the year for a young book blog.

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