Dec 13, 2023Liked by Henry Oliver

I do a history podcast (some other episodes too) so I have mostly read history books. There have been some great reads but maybe my favourite was The Lion House by Christopher de Bellaigue. It tells the story of the early years of Suleiman the Magnificent’s reign. Narrated in the present tense (a bit like Wolf Hall) Bellaigue told me the aim was to have a narrator that knew everything except the future. The effect is a real immediacy you associate with fiction. I’m not sure I want too much of this style but it works brilliantly here.

Anyway here is the episode and there are lots of other good ones!


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I read "The Colony" on your advice, and thought it was absolutely excellent (also, I'm learning Irish at the moment). I just finished "Arboreality" by Rebecca Campbell, which recently won the Ursula K Le Guin Prize for fiction.

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Best book read this year for me was ‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt, such good writing and a story which kept me gripped throughout its 700+ pages. High in my top ten would also be ‘Never Let Me Go’ by Kazuo Ishiguro, and ‘Embassytown’ by China Miéville.

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The new fiction (not re-reads of favorites) I read this year that I liked very much were:

The Guest by Emma Cline

A Calling For Charlie Barnes by Joshua Ferris

The Sea of Tranquility by Emily St.John Mandel

The Portrait of a Mirror by A. Natasha Joukowsky (a fellow Substack writer)

These are the books that, while I was reading them, life was better because I always had something to look forward to. And when I finished them, life was a bit worse, because there was no more.

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I've got Zadie Smith's 'The Fraud' lined up for reading in the quiet days after Christmas. I've always liked the cut of Smith's jib (in interviews and shorter articles) but for some reason have never read her novels. Looking forward to it.

Books I enjoyed this year: 'Hamnet', Ophelia Field's 'The Favourite'. Anna Keay's 'Restless Republic' was absolutely brilliant; I didn't think there was much new to be said about Cromwell's Republic but I was extremely wrong. Failed to finish Barbara Tuchman's 'A Distant Mirror' for about the fourth time - just feels a bit too much like an encyclopaedia, not enough of a narrative through-line for me.

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I’m midway through Tobias Wolf’s Old School which is pretty special and also contains some wonderful and credible cameos from a few literary figures (Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, Hemingway) as well. This was also the year I discovered Penelope Fitzgerald after all your evangelising, so thank you!

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I always like to start the year laying down my earnest reading intentions for the new year after the flimflam of the holiday period. This year it was War & Peace. A joy, but the pure length at times made it feel a slog. As an avid reader of history, I particularly enjoyed the digression chapters where the Tolstoy voice seeks to dismiss the Great Man Theory. This led me to my own digression by dipping into The Fox and the Hedgehog essay on just this subject by Isiah Berlin which is a great companion read to Tolstoy’s epic. Next year’s opening earnest read will be Middlemarch, which I couldn’t help having an early dip into and the first few chapters have me excited for Christmas to be over already.

I tend to be a thematic reader and, following Tolstoy, I plucked up the courage to undertake a long planned reading journey from the French Revolution up to the post-war era, accompanying some 20 historians or so on the ride. I began last year with Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution, chosen to get a specifically leftist interpretation of both the French and Industrial Revolutions. Fascinating, very readable and this determined that the rest of his “Age Of” series will be stations on this journey. To fully prepare myself, I also dipped into a few essay books on the nature of history: Tuchman’s Practicing History, E H Carr’s What is History, and Will Durrant’s The Lessons of History. All were fascinating, sweeping introductions of how to approach reading and understanding history.

I like to have some lighter reading going on alongside the more challenging and following the Napoleonic theme of W & P, I read the first of the Hornblower books and enjoyed it so much that I read all eleven. A welcome vacation from the battle with W&P and the 11 books took a fraction of the time committed to the Tolstoy.

In the lighter reading category I also got great pleasure from Bradbury’s Dandelion Days (not sci-fi but a nostalgic dip into small town America in the early-ish c20…just wonderful to consume outside on a summer’s day), and the last of the Delderfield’s that I have not read, in The Avenue Series, again a great vision of a C20 world that now feels almost ancient and increasingly beyond reach.

In a similar vein to the Delderfield, I read one of the books in the 24 book series, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight by Henry Williamson, which I do every year and recommend them wholeheartedly. One of my English teacher’s used to read Tarka as poetry and have the class learn sections by heart and the love of his language and joy in nature has stuck. He is largely now only known for Tarka which is a sin. Anthony Burgess included the Sunlight Chronicle in his book list 99 Novels The Best of English since 1939, alongside luminaries such as Orwell, Baldwin, Barth, Bellow etc etc and I feel we should not dispute the great man.

Other literary works that left a great mark during the year were Golding’s The Inheritors,( a re-read and has lost none of its power), Dostoevsky’s Notes of the Underground ( mind expanding stuff), as was Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow which I absolutely loved, if at times 20 or so pages could go past where I was somewhat lost and would perhaps establish he had left the inner thoughts of one character, and jumped to another without the grace to have informed me…but ultimately his obvious genius led me to forgive him this oversight.

In brief, other great reads included: Mary Renault - Fire in Heaven, Stephen Greenblatt – The Swerve, E M Forster – A Passage to India (great but not Howard’s End), Cormac McCarthy – Suttree, Ursula LeGuin – The Word for World is Forest, Herbert’s – Dune (again a re-read and even better than when I read it as a teenager…of course).

There were a number of other reads that were good but not worthy of note here but a couple of disappointments are worth mentioning: Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life (amazing achievements in the face of the worst of disabilities but no insight into how this was achieved or the trials and tribulations of the journey), and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (Her views on the environment are uplifting and ahead of her time but the references and focus of concerns felt too outdated to make this worth the while for the modern reader).

But….I saved the best for last. T E Lawrence – The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Why is this not better known or thought of? I know some accuse him of exaggerating his own involvement and importance but who cares when he writes so lyrically and with such literary precision and learning. I beg you all to dig in and read this autobiographical segment of th life of a legend of the middle east, which provides historical, geographical and historical insights about a somewhat forgotten theatre of the first world war and the formation of the modern middle east, alongside the inner thoughts of a complex and intriguing character.

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Dec 14, 2023·edited Dec 14, 2023Liked by Henry Oliver

Lots of great reading for our 19th Century book club!

Outside of that, some books I read this year and loved:

- Virginia Woolf: To The Lighthouse & various essays

- Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre

- Henry James: The Aspern Papers

- Katherine Rundell: Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne

- Haruki Murakami: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, and The T-shirts I Love (which can be read in a single sitting

- Toni Morrison: Beloved

- Ross Douthat: The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery

- Jeffrey Toobin: American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst - has some good Stochastic Resonance for today's world (in Alan Jacobs' sense of the term https://blog.ayjay.org/stochastic-resonance-in-reading/ )

- Don Norman: The Design of Everyday Things

- Patrick O'Brian: Master and Commander

- Anthony Hope: The Prisoner of Zenda

- Denis Johnson: Jesus' Son

- Bill Watterson and John Kascht: The Mysteries

There's a category of reading that I do a lot of but I never know how to deal with it in this kind of list: books that spend time with but don't read cover to cover. Essay collections, poetry collections, big art books, anything that you can dip in and out of without the same need for continuity and momentum. Some of the best books in that category that I spent time with, which this year skewed towards cinema:

- Molly Haskell: Holding My Own in No Man's Land: Women and Men and Film and Feminists

- Tadao Satō: Currents in Japanese Cinema: Essays

- John Kisch: Separate Cinema: The First 100 Years of Black Poster Art

- Hans Helmut Prinzler: Sirens & Sinners: A Visual History of Weimar Film, 1918-1933

- Mark A. Vieira: George Hurrell's Hollywood: Glamour Portraits 1925-1992

- Emily King: A Century of Movie Posters: From Silent to Art House

- Abbas Kiarostami: In the Shadow of Trees: The Collected Poetry of Abbas Kiarostami

- Claude McKay: Harlem Shadows: The Poems of Claude McKay (I discovered McKay from Hollis Robbin's excellent book Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition)

- Emily Dickinson's poetry (supplemented by commentaries from Camille Paglia, Helen Vendler, and Marta McDowell's book Emily Dickinson's Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Iconic Poet)

- Stephan Koja: Gustav Klimt: Landscapes (which includes lovely paintings of the Attersee, where my wife and I honeymooned)

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Dec 13, 2023Liked by Henry Oliver

I loved The Restless Republic - brilliantly written and structured. The classic I finally read this year was Louis MacNeice's Autumn Journal which I found very powerful- it felt particularly resonant in these uncertain times. I've also enjoyed discovering the novels of Elizabeth Taylor, especially A View of the Harbour.

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This year I read Diving into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich, which was some of the best poetry I've read in my entire life. Also marked down Kindred, All the Light We Cannot See, and East of Eden among my favorites. Currently reading The Good Wife of Bath by Karen Brooks- historical fiction based off off the Canterbury Tale.

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Dec 13, 2023Liked by Henry Oliver

Reading Auden's A Christmas Oratorio. About halfway through Middlemarch too. Origin of the Species still has me under a spell so I've peppered in some Stephen Jay Gould and other related content. Hark the Harold Bloom seems to always be within arm's reach...

My family is making a trip to Dublin this coming June if anyone has anything to recommend for Ireland

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Dec 13, 2023·edited Dec 13, 2023Liked by Henry Oliver

I just finished "A Heart So White" from Javier Marías, and it is such a beautiful book that I just started another one from his, "The Infatuations". I highly recommend the former, Marías died just last year and he was (and is) considered one of the best Spanish writers from the last century.

Also, planning to start Stuart Mill's autobiography (you sold it so well) and Chesterton's Orthodoxy

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Dec 13, 2023Liked by Henry Oliver

Books I read in the last months:

Madame Bovary by Flaubert

The lion and the Dragon by Lawrence James

Nomonhan 1939 by Stuart Goldman

Orwell: Life and art by Jeffrey Meyers

2+2=5 Orwell and Russia by Masha Karp

Reading now:

Israelophgobia by Jake Wallis Simons

in the queue :

The pathetic symphony by Klaus Mann

Sparks by Ian Johnson

The Weimar Years by Frank McDonough

This is it for now.

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Dec 18, 2023Liked by Henry Oliver

I loved two Booker award winners: Paul Beatty's "The Sellout" and D. B. P. Pierre's "Vernon God Little".

Liked another Booker shortlist, Percival Everett's "The Trees", especially the first half (so good, so funny), but the second half went sideways with a "full woke" resolution unbecoming a brilliant start.

If you're from the southern USA, "Vernon God Little" is a must read - so very funny. The dialogue is pure south Texas.

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This was a year of Discovering, I think. Discovering Martha Gellhorn's work was probably my personal highlight of 2023. She has a keen-edged handling of words and people, combined with such a vivid thirst for living life fully that comes through in her work. I'm nearly done with Caroline Morehead's Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn, which has added wonderful depth to my appreciation of her work.

Anthony Trollope was another author I fell in love with, and I made it through a few of his Barsetshire books over the course of the year. I particularly enjoyed his clear-sighted approach to community and friendship and all that goes on between our conscious intention and the received action.

This year I started the Bradbury Challenge, and began reading from poetry, essays and short stories before bed each night. That has involved some pleasant discoveries, such as the fact that I have matured enough to revel in Leaves of Grass, a book that I have often visited but never appreciated enough to stick with. Now every line finds an echo within myself.

Marilynne Robinson's essays have been timely, humbling and world-expanding. I've enjoyed them so much that reading her fiction will need to be a key part of my 2024 reading.

I had not read any Robert Sheckley before, but his short stories frequently left me with a surprised grin. I'd avoided Edgar Allan Poe for most of my life, but I am at last in a place where I can revel in his beautiful way with words.

My Year Long Piece was War and Peace, and I am so glad to have finally read this. Such an incomparable work! Tolstoy reminded me of Trollope in his ability to see on through his characters to their true motivations, but as an author he sees the world quite differently tham Trollope does and that showed in his work.

For 2024, I want to read Josef Pieper and Plutarch's Lives, but my fiction reading goals will involve The Expanse, more Sir Walter Scott and some Elizabeth Gaskell and Anthony Trollope.

One book that I struggled through was The Sword of Truth, by Terry Goodkind. It has been frequently recommended to me by those who discover I am a fan of Robert Jordan, but I am frustrated by the incompatibility of the "wisdom" offered vs the behaviours. It seems to me that the big point of the book was that everything you hear could be wrong and shouldn't be accepted at face value, and yet the characters spent the whole book acting as if what they had heard most recently was true. Information was not confirmed l, beyond the hearing if it, before being acted upon. The Seeker claimed to mistrust the knowledge of others, yet did not distrust himself even though his own knowledge was coming from others. It was quite strange, and I'm not sure how committed to the rest of the series I am. If I had hope that Me. Goodkind realized this blindness of his characters and was walking them out of this, I would keep going. But nothing about his writing so far has led me to believe that he is even aware of these inconsistencies.

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Dec 14, 2023Liked by Henry Oliver

Currently reading The Offing by Benjamin Myers, a new to me author. Enjoyed Pod by Laline Paull. Salvage The Bones by Jesmyn Ward was good. I plan to read Let Us Descend by the same author. Jesmyn Ward is coming to my city in 2024 and I will be in the audience. Another book queued up for 2024 is The Future by Naomi Alderman.

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