Recent reads: winter

Work has been crazy busy and while I have been able to find time to read, I have not been keeping notes or thinking about writing reviews while I read. So here’s some very brief thoughts.

Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty islands I have not visited and never will
by Judith Schalansky
translated from German by Christine Lo

atlas of remote islands

This might just be the most beautiful book ever made. Judith Schalansky was raised in East Germany, and in her early childhood it looked like she would never be able to travel, so maps and atlases held a fascination for her. She has created the most gorgeous object here – every detail is considered, functional, exquisite – typography, art, infographic, end papers, edging.

The bulk of the book is the 50 islands of the title. Each one is given a double-page spread. On the left side are some historical and geographical details and a factual story about the island retold by Schalansky. On the right is her map of the island, rendered in great detail and to scale.

There are amazing facts, and there are stories so strange they ought to be mythical. There’s the abandoned 3COV scientific project on Annobón, which had to be abandoned suddenly in 2003 and the scientists won’t reveal why. There’s Lieutenant Julius Payer leading an expedition to find the Northwest Passage and getting stuck on reaching Rudolf Island. There’s a French island called Tromelin that has four permanent residents but in 1760 was the home to survivors of a shipwrecked slave ship.

I really love this book.

Atlas der abgelegenen Inseln published 2009 by mareverlag.
This edition published 2010 by Penguin Books.

Source: Birthday present from Tim.


waiting for sunriseWaiting for Sunrise
by William Boyd

The cover quotes and blurb call this a “spy thriller” but that’s really only the last third of the book (though in retrospect a lot of the earlier sections of the book become part of the spy stuff). Really this is the story of how an ordinary Englishman becomes a spy. Which is in itself fascinating and unusual. The story begins in 1913 in Vienna, where actor Lysander Rief is frittering away his wealthy stepfather’s money on seeing a psychiatrist and living a generally leisurely life. He’s engaged to an actress back home but when he meets the alluring sculptor Hettie Bull, a romantic entanglement is clearly in their future. This is the first step in a complex web of lies, scandal and deceit.

It’s a fun read. Lysander is a frustrating hero but he is also believable despite having many of the necessary skills to be a really good spy. It takes a while of being a very different book first, but it does become a rollicking adventure with satisfying action and twists. I stayed up far too late reading on. And the prose is excellent too.

“Once again I wonder what machinations have been going on behind the scenes…I think of these three men and their new influence over me and my destiny…Who’s in charge of this show?…Questions build. My life seems to be running on a track I have nothing to do with – I’m a passenger on a train but I have no idea of the route it’s taking or its final destination.”

Published 2012 by Bloomsbury.

Source: Christmas present from my Mum.


Fun Home
by Alison Bechdel


This graphic memoir is already considered something of a classic and deservedly so. Bechdel’s art and words combine to tell her story in the most appropriate way. It’s primarily a father-daughter story, but in the first few pages we learn the details that make it unusual: when she was 20, Bechdel discovered that her father was gay, then two weeks later he died in circumstances she and her mother privately considered to be suicide. It’s a melodramatic opening to a memoir, which Bechdel acknowledges, but from there it becomes a study of a family. An unusual family, but not unbelievably so.

“Fun Home” refers to the family business: a funeral home. But most of all, Bechdel and her father share a love of books. In fact, so many authors and titles are mentioned that you could make a pretty long reading list from this book, albeit one heavily skewed to early 20th century classics and gay literature. This is the only way in which Bechdel ever got to know her father, and for the most part this book is her attempt to understand him.

Published 2006 by Jonathan Cape.

Source: Christmas present from my Dad.