December 2018 reading round-up

Lego Christmas train and Christmas books
Lego Christmas train and Christmas books.

I love Christmas and New Year, but I really don’t enjoy the long build-up and the pressure that comes with it. Which is why running away to Japan last year was both perfect and a little bit sad.

This year we spent just a few days at my Dad’s and didn’t do any of the country walks we usually would. We’ll have to go back for another visit soon to remedy that.

I did, as always, get lots of books for Christmas, which I’ll blog about soon. I want to read them all right away.

Books read

The Dialogues: Conversations About the Nature of the Universe by Clifford V Johnson

This graphic novel imagines a series of conversations about aspects of physics, in a teacher–pupil set-up that educates the reader as much as the fictional pupil. The pairs of people vary from a couple on a date, to a brother and sister, to strangers on a train. It sounds like all the aspects of Totally Random by Tanya and Jeffrey Bub that I didn’t like, and yet here it really worked for me.

I think partly it’s the artwork. Clifford V Johnson’s style is one that I really like, and the details are clearly carefully considered. It’s also the choice of subjects. Johnson’s dialogues tend to the philosophy and structure of science. There’s the basics of conducting a scientific experiment. There’s the concept of a beautiful equation. Even immortality gets a look-in. These are big questions discussed in a thought-provoking manner that is easy to access without being at all condescending.

Published 2017 by MIT Press.

Wally Funk’s Race for Space: the Extraordinary Story of a Female Aviation Pioneer by Sue Nelson

This book introduced me to a chunk of scientific history that I wasn’t familiar with. I had mixed feelings about the eponymous heroine – a woman who in her youth applied for astronaut training and was accepted into the “Mercury 13”. These 13 women were tested in all the same ways as the men in the “Mercury 7”, but the funding for their programme was cut before their official training began. Wally Funk has spent the rest of her life trying to prove that she could have been a great astronaut and promoting science education.

Which is all awesome, but she’s also a prickly person who I found difficult to like at first, until Sue Nelson pointed out that this is an 80-year-old woman whose hearing is failing and who has been waiting for decades for the promise of commercial spaceflight. Nelson is an entertaining writer, including the interesting and often comical details of travelling with and befriending Funk.

Published 2018 by The Westbourne Press.

White by Marie Darrieussecq

This French novel about a pan-European research station in Antarctica is beautiful, funny and profound. Following a pair of engineers who have come to the base for the first time, it is narrated by the ghosts of their pasts, in a daring format that took a little getting used to. Marie Darrieussecq writes incredibly vividly about the discomforts of travelling to and living at the South Pole, and the effect of the vast emptiness on the people who live there.

Published 2005 by Faber and Faber.

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

This is the story of a Malay-Chinese woman who recovers from the scars (physical and psychological) of having been a prisoner of the Japanese during the Second World War by learning how to create the perfect Japanese garden. Her relationship with a Japanese gardener, and her Dutch friend who escaped South Africa following the Boer War, as well as their living through the pushback against Communism and the independence of Malaysia, touches on some of the most horrific human actions of the early 20th century. And yet the centrality of nature and gardens makes this a peaceful, hopeful read.

I adore this novel and fully intend to write in more detail about it.

Published 2012 by Myrmidon.