As well as making some new book acquisitions in August, I had the opportunity to have books signed by Yann Martel, Justin Cronin and AC Grayling!
I had no new additions in July. Followers may recall my family and I moved house when I posted on the great book reorganisation that involved. All the time, effort and disposable income the month afforded was spent on the move. Even after, I had an exam to study for and deferred any thoughts of book shopping until after that effort. In fact, it was immediately after sitting and passing my exam that the shopping began.
I stopped at a couple of discount book stores in the city after my exam and picked up a few new additions; The Egg and Sperm Race by Matthew Cobb, Fatherland by Robert Harris and Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut.
I’ve been aware of biologist Matthew Cobb for a little while now, as he is a regular contributor on Jerry Coyne’s blog, and I have my sights on getting his newest book Life’s Greatest Secret. It’s surprising to think of how quickly we’ve advanced in biology. Even in Darwin’s time, people commonly believed that maggots were spontaneously created in rotting meat, that mice were spontaneously created in old sheets. By then though, most scientists had realised reproduction occurs by other mechanisms. The Egg and Sperm Race is the story of those discoveries. Followers will know of my passion for the history of science and this book will make a welcome addition to my collection.
In recent years I have been neglecting trashy pop fiction and have instead been reading classics, literary fiction and non-fiction almost exclusively. But I think I need to make some more time for an undeniably entertaining genre. Robert Harris is someone I have singled out to get my pop fiction fix from. As well as Fatherland, I think I’d like to try The Ghost Writer, and his recently completed Cicero trilogy.
Arctic Summer is a book I have been umming and ahhing about for a while. I get the impression that most people who have read Damon Galgut believe him to be a fine writer. The subject matter of this book – EM Forster at the time of writing A Passage to India – is fascinating as well. Yet I’ve heard both good things and bad things about this novel. In the end, it is the fascinating subject that makes it too difficult to pass by.
Before I went home from my exam I stopped by a chain store for a special purchase. Followers may recall my self-imposed dilemma concerning the evolving cover designs of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy. Well, I’ve made a decision and I bought Flood of Fire with the latest design. I will be reading the Ibis Trilogy next year and if I love it as much as I hope I will, then I may look to get a matching set of covers. Otherwise, I guess I will live with my mismatched set.
I was not planning on making any other book purchases in August but when a local store had a sale I spotted a couple I would gladly take home at a discount. The first was A Brief Candle in the Dark, the second part to Richard Dawkins’ autobiography. The title refers to the famous metaphor from Carl Sagan’s book. The second was Ian Kershaw’s Hitler. Kershaw had written his well-received biography of Hitler in two parts. This volume combines his impressive achievement in one volume.
It’s Melbourne Writer’s Festival time again! As in previous years I have managed to get tickets to a few author appearances and to get my books signed.
First up was Yann Martel, most famous as the author of Life of Pi. It was a very interesting, interview-style session. He talked about his upbringing, his spiritual awakening in India, the theological themes of his novels. He said of the film adaptation of Life of Pi, that while it was visually stunning, the screenplay was weak and that none of the directors took his suggestion of reversing the story of the novel and put the human story first and the animal story second. Martel did one thing I would have thought many authors dislike doing; he voluntarily provided a dissection and analysis of his latest novel The High Mountains of Portugal. One final point of interest; he said he is currently working on a novel inspired by The Iliad, which he only read for the first time relatively recently.
After the session I got my aging copy of Life of Pi signed by Martel. I’ve read it twice and always liked its easy enjoyability. It is also the book that turned me onto contemporary literature and literary prizes, where previously I stuck to the classics.
Sitting next to Yann Martel at the signing table was Justin Cronin, bestselling author of The Passage Trilogy. I haven’t read it yet, I only bought the second novel a few months back. But here he was. Should I buy the third novel, here and now, at a higher price and in a different format to the other two I have, and get it signed? I caved, I did.
The other author I came to see was AC Grayling, professor of philosophy and prolific writer of books on the history of ideas. The format of the session was for Grayling to talk about his latest book, The Age of Genius – The Seventeenth Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind, before an interview with a professor from the University of Melbourne and question time from the audience. But when Grayling talked, he did not stop! It was an extraordinary hour of Grayling riffing on the events, ideas and people of the seventeenth century that made the modern world. I just thought, ‘damn, I’m going to have to read this book too!’.
I’ll only share one anecdote that Grayling offered early on to show how rapidly and profoundly thinking was changing in the seventeenth century. Grayling pointed out that Shakespeare’s Macbeth was deliberately written to be topical at the time, coming the year after the Gunpowder Plot and during the reign of a Scottish King, James I. At the time, to kill a king was not just an act of murder and treason, but was considered an unthinkable act of blasphemy as kings were deemed to be divinely authorised to rule. And yet, a few decades later Charles I was executed, at Whitehall where Macbeth had been performed and some of those in the crowd may well have seen Macbeth performed where they were now prepared to kill their king.
There was no time after his excellent talk for an interview and only two innocuous questions were asked before the hour was up and it was time for signings. I did manage to ask him a question as he signed the two books I brought with me. He mentioned at one time in his talk that Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy was brilliant but also flawed and inaccurate. I asked him why that was and he chuckled and said Russell wrote very well on philosophers he liked, but was a little casually dismissive of the ones he did not. ‘But it’s still worth reading?’, I asked. ‘Oh absolutely’, he said.