100; A Short History of Nearly Everything; Bill Bryson
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Black Swan, 2003
Perhaps the book with the biggest scope on the list, A Short History really is about ‘everything.’
Bryson’s true achievement with A Short History is to ground the mysteries of the cosmos in the kind of language most of us can grasp; Bryson is a great explainer and nowhere has his powers of explanation been put to the test as with this mammoth book.
‘Everything’ pretty much covers it too; from the Big Bang to the ascendancy of mankind, it’s a book about how ‘ we went from there being nothing at all to there being something, and then how a little of that something turned into us, and also what happened in between and since.” Well, exactly.
Bryson outlines the prevalent scientific arguments in fields as diverse as cosmology, evolution and astrophysics, laying off heavy scientific moralising in favour of simply and starkly revealing the facts. This is well played-imagine Michael Moore’s accompanying documentary with its God-awful monologues about scientific controversy after controversy. Bryson understand the secrets of the planet are enough of a marvel-and a marvel we don’t marvel at enough, partly due to a lack of explanation about the beauty which surrounds us. This indictment is confirmed by Bryson’s own admission that his science teachers and school textbooks bored him to death at school; ”It was as if science writers wanted to keep the good stuff secret by making all of it soberly unfathomable.”
The Times Literary Supplement went as far as to say A Short History should be ‘the core science reader on the curriculum.’ In 2004, this book won Bryson the prestigious Aventis Award for best general science book.
99 The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House; Kate Summerscale
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A Victorian murder mystery, a case of infanticide, of closed doors, of privacy rights and scandal.
A Summer’s morn; 1860, Wiltshire, theKentfamily wake to the gruesome murder of a their baby and the shocking revelation that the murderer is amongst them. A true story which stirred a national outcry in Victorian England, suspicion is cast on all the family members.Englandis caught in the rapture of detective-fever.
Jack Whicher, the most famous detective of his day, is sent to find the murderer. Even he is shocked by what he finds; a private family who scarcely know each other; a frenzied press who are engrossed by the notion that such evil could lurk amongst high society and a young girl who seems intolerably cold-hearted and intense. The Suspicions…. is a moving account of of a family falling apart as their suffering is cast into the public limelight. Truly sad.
98 Cloud Atlas; David Mitchell
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Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies. A whirling, whorling seamless nimbus of interlaced narratives makes reading Cloud Atlas something of a dream experience in itself. We get snippets of different characters at various junctures in their life; elegantly interconnected through the chemistry of literary epochs.
Meet Adam Ewing, crossing the Pacific in 1850, an unsalubrious physician, then teleport to a brilliant young British composer in 1931, Robert Frobisher, who composes the Cloud Atlas Sextet “for overlapping soloists” We are then plunged into an entriely new world of noirish, fragmented thrills; Luisa Rey has just discovered the scoop of the century in the form of a corporate nuclear scandal. What comes next would be ludicrous if it wasn’t so compelling; Timothy Cavendish, a 1980sLondonvanity publisher, trapped in an old people’s home nearHull. There are many more characters too.
Each character is connected to the previous one through both direct and indirect links, but always the poetic link betwen the characters and their individual story world is woven in such a way that no constituent is greater than the sum of its parts. Each character is stand alone; personalised, yet ultimately humbled before the power of an ode which stretches through time.
Mitchell shows how boring a single character-driven, linear plot can be and that, elementally, a novel’s capacity to explore its world is only limited by an author’s imagination. An evolution of a novel; a twenty-first century event.
97 Suite Française; Irène Némirovsky, trans. by Sandra Smith
Chatto & Windus, 2006
Discovered 60 years after it was written, Suite Française is a beautiful, poignant tribute to the durability of literature and the heroism of it writers. Success eluded Némirovsky in her own lifetime. She had written a handful of novels which neither theFranceof her adoption or theRussiaof her birth received her well. But in 1940, two years into a world ravaged by war, she began to write an epic five part ode to the misery of war and the treachery of the French elite in sellingFranceshort. Only two of the intended five are with us,Storm in June and Dolce, (Némirovsky would be taken toAuschwitzbefore starting on the third) and we should be thankful that they do. Safeguarded down the family lineage, these two haunting tales reveal the immediacy of the war to a writer experiencing it, not reminiscing from the vantage point of history. Revealed inside are the prevailing attitudes to the German invasion and the tensions within French society. The fall ofFranceis only truly lamented by the rural, working class, Némirovsky suggests, whereas the middle classes are affected by the disruption to status. It is a significant insight into the way the German invasion was perceived by different groups.
Ultimately, it is the story of the books’ survival and the tragedy of the author herself which truly make Suite Française stunning. She composed “Suite Française” in thevillageofIssy-l’Evêque, where she, her husband and two young daughters had settled after fleeingParis. On July 13, 1942, French policemen, arrested Némirovsky as “a stateless person of Jewish descent.” She was taken toAuschwitz, where she died Aug. 17. That means, quite unimaginably, she was writing this ambitious prose as events unfurled around her. That is quite beautiful; that is staggeringly brave.
96 Wolf Hall,Hilary Mantel
Fourth Estate, 2009
‘Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning’ says Thomas More ‘and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.’
Set amongst the tumult ofEnglandin the 1520s, Henry VIII is about to cast out Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. This thrustsEnglandinto the Reformation and the threat of civil war looms large. Henry, Cardinal Wolsey, Cromwell and an enormous party of royal courtiers are braced in a vicious power vacuum. The first half of the novel concerns the overthrow of Wolsey and the machinations of Cromwell’s ascendancy; the second with the rivalry between Cromwell and More. It was a rivalry whose embers would burn for centuries in shapingEngland.
The medieval world has never appeared so Machiavellian; so full of backstairs intrigue, animosity, opportunity and discord. Cromwell is the architect of Henry’s dissolution with the Papacy, and is portrayed as an enlightened, cold-blooded, sociopathic, manipulative, dogged and brutal-his story is wrapped up inEngland’s fate, and the bridge between one man’s ambition and the wider world. In short, Mantel’s Cromwell is brilliant. Won the 2009 Booker Prize and deservedly so.
95 The Shadow of the Wind; Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Part coming-of-age story, part historical fantasy, part murder mystery, The Shadow of the Wind took the book world by storm.
Welcome to the Cemeteryof Forgotten Books, a labyrinthine library of obscure, archaic books which few know about and even less visit. The librarian brings his son, Daniel to this secret crypt for the first time and, as is custom, Daniel is allowed to choose one book as his; ten-year-old Daniel Sempere elects for The Shadow of the Wind and adopts it as his own. So begins an adventure that will unravel another man’s tragedy and solve a mystery that has already taken many lives and will shape his entire future. For Daniel isn’t the only one with an eye for this precious book; there’s a pyromaniac seemingly out to destroy every remaining copy of the Shadow of The Wind.
Zafon’sBarcelonais a city of secrets, change and hope, a city of winding alleys and chasing shadows where the past and future are colliding. At the heart of these collisions Carax’s book lays an anchor- the book, the forgotten books, are what is still precious in Zafon’s Barcelona and the imagination of one brave little boy holds the secret to the soul of the city. What the Da Vinci Code tried, but failed, to be.
94 The Tipping Point
In the words of that now-famous book everybody is reading, it reaches a kind of tipping point and people kind of get it’
BillClinton, White House press conference, 28 June 2000
Social contagion; why do some ideas get big whilst others fall by the wayside? What are the ingredients in the dynamics of social change? How are trends sparked, how do they take hold of people and how do they not let go?
Gladwell asks and answers all these questions and more in the book which itself proved a Tipping Point in making academia cool again amongst the decade’s bestsellers.
Based on extensive research through a wide variety of empirical fields, Gladwell uses anecdotal examples to shows how little things ‘tip’ into national crazes. From the USwar if independence to the power of salesman and children’s cartoons, if you have an idea you want to ‘get big’ you had better read Gladwell’s analysis of what is required. Humorous, intelligent and compelling, it remains the standard-bearer for bringing real brain power into the market. Blink and Outliers confirmed Gladwell as one of the 21st century’s major thinkers.
93 A Thousand Splendid Suns; Khaled Hosseini
“One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.”
Hosseini, author of the beautiful Kite Runner, composes another story of unlikely friendship against the backdrop of a ravaged land. We learn that friendship is possible whatever may lay elsewhere, and Hosseini pulls no punches is romancing the tragedy which has befallen women in modern dayAfghanistan.
The novels begins in 1974 with Mariam; 15 years old, sent toKabulto marry the horrendous and obtuse Rasheed, 30 years her senior. He refuses to allow Mariam leave the house and she is forced to wear the burka at all times. Mariam has a series of miscarriages and Rasheed’s becomes ever more cruel towards her. The story progresses to Laila, a representative of the new breed of Afghan women who have been touched by a relative sense of freedom. Laila, whose house is destroyed in the Russian-Afghan war is rescued by Rasheed who adopts her. Laila is sent to join Mariam’s unhappy household, where, if nothing else, they at least have each other. A beautiful friendship blossoms against the background of war, Taliban oppression, starvation and fear
A Thousand Splendid Suns ‘is a view from inside the burka’ of contemporary Afghan social history and the new breed of fanaticism which has shook the country. The inner dignity of Mariam and Laila, however, are never in doubt.
92 No Country for Old Men; Cormac McCarthy
Llewelyn Moss has stumbled upon the botched aftermath of a drugs exchange in the desert; he finds £2 million in cash. He takes it and makes a run for it. But he is playing with another man’s money and soon he will find out the cost of his theft.
With the Sheriff sensing the scale of the onslaught to come, having seen his county plunge ever further into the criminality in recent years, it is only a matter of time before Llewelyn is tracked down. Anton Chigurh, a freelance hitman with an abiding loyalty to the criminal code has Llewelyn in his sights. No Country For Old Men is the world where something must give, where for Llewelyn and Chigurh can not succeed, where someone must necessarily die
NCFOM, turned into an Award-winning film in 2007 by the Coen brothers, is a resonant, powerful story of lives entangling and self-destructing, where the Sheriff turns up too late to prevent the anguish and the value system of oldTexasherself is raped by the forces of greed and fear. Typical of McCarthy’s efficient, mocking and edgy prose, the book emits a kind of paranoia and an out-of-body experience when reading it; is McCarthy writing about the lost virtues of our generation or just starkly revealing that the borderland is a place of harsh human miseries?
91 Matterhorn Karl Marlantes
30 years in the making-in the writing-Matterhorn took theUS by storm in 2010.
Marlantes was a veteran ofVietnamhimself, a fact which adds layers of pathos, integrity and hidden meaning to the characters he portrays. The sense that Marlantes is recapturing the trauma of his own experiences is never far away in this nerve-jingling novel about friendships, leadership, outrageous logistical exercises, racial problems, courage and the ordeal of an invisible enemy.
Matterhornfollows 21 year old Platoon Commander Waino Mellas and his various missions through the Matterhorn Delta. His first task is to finished fortifying Bravo Company’s position on Matterhorn but soon after he is instructed to abandon it ( the Vietcong take it over and Bravo Company have to attack there own fortifications later in the novel). Mellas is fighting for his very soul against the solitude and idiocy of his surroundings, against the evils that lurk in thephysical and figurative jungle, where the enemy is so camouflaged it hard to discern whether its within, without, Vietnamese or American or imaginary.
The jungle itself is perhaps the major character in the novel-it’s ever-present and ever-mocking the futility of Mellas’ expeditions; expeditions absurdly inflated with a sense of importance as being ‘war-winning’ or ‘critical.’ Each manoeuvre is plagued by leeches, trenchfoot, jungle rot and landmines. There is a passage where Brewer, a black troop subjected to racial abuse, is blown up by an unseen land mine and the remaining platoon, drenched in total darkness, have to negotiate an ascent up a mountain, knowing that each step could be their last. The immediacy of their fear is portrayed brilliantly by Marlantes.
Given the amount of time Marlantes spends depicting the racial tensions within Bravo Company-from fights, taunts and even murder between white and black U.S soldiers- the last pages ofMatterhornare particularly poignant. Indeed, they are amongst the most beautifully penned verse of the millennia so far. Having survived a fierce battle against the Vietcong, Bravo Company’s remaining troops are singing when we leave them and the novel, leaving them to go off on their next insane expedition but not before they send off their comrades, black and white, with a heartfelt lullaby;
If it’ s good enough for Shortround then its good enough for me…
Each of the names evoked a remembered face, an outstretched hand reaching down from a rock or across a rushing stream-or a look of fear as a friend realized that death had come to him
If its good enough for Parker its good enough for me..
Mellas tried to shake off the other images; the burned bodies, the smell, the stiff awkwardness beneath the wet ponchos. He couldn’t. The chanting went on, the musicians giving in to the rhythm of their own being.
90 Harry Thompson; This Thing of Darkness
Headline Review 2005
This Thing Of Darkness is a historical tale about the 19th century voyages of the Beagle. Famous not only for its passenger Charles Darwin who would sail around South America revolutionising the world’s belief system forever more but also for its Captain Robert Fitzroy, a distinguished naval officer who brought four Patagonian Indians back from his travels to be educated in a Walthamstow infant school.
The trip may have madeDarwin’s career but This Thing of Darkness is more interested in Fitzroy. Indeed, Fitzroy’s friend ‘Philos’ (Darwin) is revealed as prickly, unsympathetic and judgmental; his brilliant and shocking scientific notions will cost him Fitzroy’s friendship; Fitzroy’s whose very soul is embedded in an unremitting faith in Christianity. Though Fitzroy is depicted as maniacal and unflinching, he is noble and kind, possessing a sense of duty which transfixes his humanity.
This Thing of Darkness is ultimately about a friendship played out on the high seas and then amongst the more turbulent waters on land. Set in an age of adventure and discovery,Darwin’s theories are radical and radicalising. Fitzroy, the very man who was responsible for taking Darwin on the voyage, questions his own role in the debate over evolution.
Despite his professional and personal success, Fitzroy breaks down, and begins to see Darwin’s work as nothing less than an evil it is his duty to destroy. Fitzroy and Darwin represent the collision of two worlds, religion and science, Both men are torn apart by twin obsessions-leading one to triumph and the other to disaster.
Tragically, Thompson, who had a distinguished career in television died on the year of its publication at the age of 45.