As my previous post of Six Books I Read But Did Not Review remains popular, it’s time to share some more books I have read since beginning my blog but did not review.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
A few years ago, after I had moved to Australia but before I had shipped my library over from New Zealand, I was running low on books of my own on hand to read. So I picked up one of my wife’s; The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Admittedly I had low expectations. Book stores and bestseller lists are full of books on science and history written by non-academics who have fumbled in dealing with their subject’s complexity and nuance. I expected this book to suffer similar deficiencies.
My expectations were proved very, very wrong. This is an excellent book. Readability and accessibility should not be as high a priority in non-fiction as the ability to deal with the subject adequately but it must be said that this is a very readable and accessible book for a rather complex subject. What impressed me the most was, since this is a book of two halves – one dealing with the scientific history and importance of the HeLa cells, the other dealing with the biography of an individual, Henrietta Lacks, her family and the author’s interactions with them – neither half infects the other. The story of the science and history is dealt with objectively and the story of Henrietta, her family and the author’s journey is told subjectively but sensitively.
The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
I can’t say I read many short story collections nor can I say I have read many Pulitzer Prize winners. I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies as part of my mission to read books on India or by Indian writers and I had fairly high expectations. My impression was that these stories were well-crafted, some were even moving, but overall I had very little to say about them and am a little surprised it won a Pulitzer. That being said, I am planning on reading some of her novels.
The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer
A lesson I frequently have to relearn is that it is best to review books soon after you finish reading them when your impressions are still fresh in your mind. This year I reread Paul Scott’s A Division of the Spoils in large part because too much time had passed since I first read it for me to write a proper review (this was before I started writing notes as I read) and because my blog could not really do without a review having read and reviewed the first three novels of his quartet. A similar thing happened with The Canterbury Tales. I read it. I enjoyed much of it. I took notes. But then I procrastinated on writing the review and now I am unsure I could do it justice.
There is one point I do want to share however. Like a lot of keen readers, I appreciate the difficulty presented by translation. It is vexing to know that, inevitably, much will be lost in the process which leaves you with a world of art that you can’t truly appreciate because of the inability to experience it in its original form. The same is true with translations from ancient or medieval times. I was sceptical about this Nevill Coghill modern prose version of The Canterbury Tales and flirted with the idea of trying to slog my way through a version closer to the original. But I think I have to accept that such considerations are impractical and admittedly this more readable version is excellent and enjoyable. You can appreciate both the original and the skill in producing the modern version.
Dune by Frank Herbert
I am not a great reader of so-called genre fiction – crime, romance, science-fiction, fantasy, etc – though I’m certainly open to reading some, especially if they have achieved classic status. Dune is certainly one of those that have and it came as no surprise to me that I enjoyed it immensely. I do wonder if it were published today, in our current climate of accusing authors of ‘cultural appropriation’, how would it be received. Because Herbert’s imagination of alien cultures, clearly inspired by Earthly ones, was one aspect I enjoyed the most. I would certainly be keen to read more of Herbert’s Dune novels and even attempt the film.
This is Not a Book by Michael Picard
Reading philosophy is one of those things I’m eager to do but it is difficult to pursue when so much of it is so unenjoyable to read. I bought and read This is Not a Book which promises to be a layman’s introduction to the subject. It is everything you would think an introduction to philosophy should be – it defines the various fields (epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, logic, etc), introduces important philosophers, presents examples of problems, illusions, paradoxes and puzzles. Yet it is far from an engrossing read which was disappointing. Admittedly, I have not yet read any books by modern professors of philosophy (I have a few on my shelves like AC Grayling and Dan Dennett). It will be interesting to see if, like modern science writers, they can be both educational and engrossing.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
Finally, a big omission. Back in 2013, when my first blog was up and running, I read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I was so impressed by the end that I felt I needed time to catch my breath and reflect. Big mistake. As I have already alluded to, I struggle to compose my thoughts when I let too much time lapse and other things take over. It is truly deserving of all its many accolades, I certainly agree with its Booker of Bookers status. Maybe someday soon I can find the space to read it again.