Another year and another list of books I read in the year. I only read 9 books in 2016, but am happy to have finally read ‘The Canterbury Tales’. As usual these aren’t proper reviews, instead they are a nice handy way of keeping a list of the books I have read easily accessible.
On War by Carl von Clausewitz (Oxford World’s Classics)
- Finished December 2016
After reading this book I can see why it has stayed in print. The social, political and psychological insights that Clausewitz provides are fascinating. The book is full of quotable material with the best known being:
War is merely the continuation of policy by other means. Below are a few of my favourite passages:
An army that maintains its cohesion under the most murderous fire; that cannot be shaken by imaginary fears and resists wellfounded ones with all its might; that, proud of its victories, will not lose the strength to obey orders and its respect and trust for its officers even in defeat; whose physical powers, like the muscles of an athlete, has been steeled by training in privation and effort; a force that regards such efforts as a means to victory rather than a curse on its cause; that is mindful of all these duties and qualities by virtue of the single powerful idea of the honour of its arms - such an army is imbued with the true military spirit.
There are only two sources for this spirit, and they must interact in order to create it. The first is a series of victorious wars; the second, frequent exertions of the army to the utmost limits of its strength. Nothing else will show a soldier the full extent of his capacities. The more a general is accustomed to place heavy demands on his soldiers, the more he can depend on their response. A soldier is just as proud of the hardships he has overcome as of the dangers he has faced. In short, the seed will grow only in the soil of constant activity and exertion, warmed by the sun of victory. Once it has grown into a strong tree, it will survive the wildest storms of misfortune and defeat, and even the indolent inertia of peace, at least for a while. Thus, this spirit can be created only in war and by great generals, though admittedly it may endure, for several generations at least, even under generals of average ability and through long periods of peace.
The point at which the concept of strategic reserve begins to be self-contradictory is not difficult to determine: it comes when the decisive stage of the battle has been reached. All forces must be used to achieve it, and any idea of reserves, of available combat units that are not meant to be used until after this decision, is an absurdity.
So in order to state the relationship precisely, we must say that the defensive form of warfare is intrinsically stronger than the offensive. This is the point we have been trying to make, for although it is implicit in the nature of the matter and experience has confirmed it again and again, it is at odds with prevalent opinion, which proves how ideas can be confused by superficial writers.
The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke
- Finished November 2016
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes this as ‘Probably his most perfect work’ and I have to agree. The story centres around Alvin a citizen of a city called Diaspar that is enclosed in protective dome to shut out the world outside. He and everyone else in Diaspar grow up fearing leaving the city and believing that there is no one living outside of it. However, Alvin can’t accept this and is driven to find out what is outside and beyond. His discoveries overturn everything they believe about themselves and lead them to pursue a radically different course.
I found this work much easier to get into that many of his others and the story gripped me from start to finish.
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer - Edited by Jill Man (Penguin Classics)
- Finished October 2016
I spent quite a long time finding the right edition of this book as lots of them are translated into modern English or rely on the original being on the verso page with a translation on the recto page. This addition however uses only the original Middle-English and has a glossary at the end of each page to explain unfamiliar words. This makes it much quicker to read and helps you maintain the rhythm of the poetry. The change of language itself is one of the most fascinating things about this book and I enjoyed seeing how words and phrases have changed meaning from what they were understood to mean then. I found that with the glossary the work was generally accessible, but the number of homographs does make the language feel quite confusing and imprecise at times.
As the group of pilgrims make their journey to Canterbury they exchange stories which gives a fascinating insight into what people thought about at that time and how they lived. It is clear from the stories that sex and Church corruption are very much on their minds.
Overall I enjoyed this book. It was hard going at times and I was relieved when I came to the end, but the poetry was wonderful and the themes enlightening.
The Grownup by Gillian Flynn
- Finished June 2016
The style flows well but does feel like it was written by someone who has taken a creative writing course and used what they learnt in quite a formulaic and consistent way. However, it is a good short story with a couple of interesting twists and an ending that leaves you thinking.
Winds of Crete by David MacNeil Doren
- Finished May 2016
This is a travelogue/memoir of an American Man and his Swedish girlfriend as they move to Crete in the 1960s. They try in integrate into the local communities and have a preference for the smaller, more rustic areas. While living there they see the good and the bad of the Cretan’s character and try to treat them with good humoured equanimity. I was given this book and put off reading it for quite a while, but I’m glad I did. The story was both charming and insightful, Doren captures really well the lives of people who’s life has probably changed very little for centuries.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
- Finished March 2016
This is a detective story told by a boy that is presumably autistic as he tries to figure out who killed a neighbours dog and is led to discover mysteries in his own life. The is made all the more poignant because he finds many of the behaviours and actions of other people difficult to relate to and therefore understand, so much of his daily life is a mystery.
The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke
- Finished February 2016
I don’t know what to make of this book. I enjoyed the book, but despite it’s subject, an inter-planetary space elevator, it all seemed very hum-drum.
What the Dormouse Said by John Markoff
- Finished February 2016
I’m not sure the premise of the book, that the 60s/70s counter-culture led to the personal computer revolution. I think the book did demonstrate how this influenced SAIL and how the Augment lab innovations led to the work at Xerox on the Alto and in turn became an influence for Apple and Microsoft.
Where I think the connection is weaker is around the ‘homebrew computer club’, although I accept that Fred More set this up. In particular there doesn’t seem to be much of a connection with MITS, the creator of the Altair. I think the Altair was clearly designed for expansion and to therefore be a fully functional personal computer. This is demonstrated by its early adoption of CP/M.
Whether or not the premise is convincing the stories of the personalities involved were fascinating and are woven together with great skill. I particularly found it interesting how the events related to the wider situation in America such as the Vietnam war and the resistance to the draft.
War Torn by Andy McNab
- Finished January 2016
Well-paced story of the life of soldiers at a base in Afghanistan and their families at home. The characters are engaging and the action at times gripping. The book finishes with one of the most satisfying endings I have read for a long time.