What a Great Time to Read

This is the first instalment of what will be a weekly column about books. I suspect that most of us are going to get a lot of reading done in the next year or so. Books might turn out to be the best part about self-isolating. Well, that and something else I won’t mention.

So, each week I’m going to give you a handful of books to read. Some of these will be books I’ve reviewed for The Times or other papers, while others will be novels I’ve read recently. I read A LOT. But, one warning at the very beginning: I have to read so serious stuff much for my job that when I read purely for enjoyment I apply one simple rule: does it entertain me? As a result, some of the books included in this series might seem a bit low-brow — especially for a high-powered intellectual like me (I’m joking). Frankly, I don’t care. I do occasionally read novels that win prizes, but for the most part I go for a book that has a solid plot and grips me from page one.

I’m going to begin, appropriately, with Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s my favourite apocalypse novel, and I’ve read quite a few. I love it because it offers so much more than that genre usually manages to deliver. In fact, you almost forget that it’s about a plague-driven apocalypse.

I’m going to need to read it again, now that we’re in the middle of our own pandemic. The beginning will seem quite familiar, particularly if you’ve read Stephen King. An devastatingly fatal — and contagious — disease descends. Around 97 per cent of the earth’s population get it and they die very quickly. This means that everything shuts down and, virtually overnight, the world is plunged into dystopia.

Now that might sound too bleak for the world we’re enduring now. But this isn’t a bleak book at all; it’s a book about the power of the human spirit and the supremacy of beauty at the worst of times. (We’ve all seen that over the last couple of weeks.) A collection of idiosyncratic actors come together to form a travelling troupe — as in mediaeval times — driven by a mission to ensure that culture and civilisation will survive. They take Shakespeare on the road, to encampments of frightened and rudderless survivors.

It’s also an adventure story with very powerful female heroes who throw knives and shoot arrows with devastating accuracy. The overarching message of the book brings to mind that Faulkner quote I mentioned yesterday: ‘I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.’ Station Eleven is uplifting, gripping and elegiac. Read it and then read it again.

This one did win prizes — lots of them. It’s a book that defies classification. It’s often lumped under the crime novel category, but it’s not that at all. Like Station Eleven, it’s a book about endurance and survival, about the will to survive. Just the thing we need today.

The book centres on a young boy named Rice from the Los Angeles slums. He’s mixed up in the drug trade and on the fringes of gangland life. He and three other young boys, one of them only thirteen, are sent across country to murder a key witness in a drug trial. So there’s no real mystery here, just the acting out of inevitabilities — the inexorable advance of horrible fate. It’s like gangland meets road trip meets bildungsroman. I was reminded of Manchild in a Promised Land, a memoir of youth in the slums that I read in high school. You find yourself rooting for Rice despite the terrible nature of his mission. Like Station Eleven, dystopia is turned into something uplifting and rather beautiful.

This is the best book I’ve read on the Battle of Okinawa. Finally, a military historian has written a book which gives humanity to the Japanese, without taking anything away from what the Americans endured and achieved on that island.

I’ve read a lot of military history over the course of my career. Too often wars are sanitised; they’re reduced to lines on a map, statistics and the decisions of supreme commanders. I saw that recently when reading Victor Davis Hanson’s The Second World Wars, a book in which no one seems to die, no one suffers. There’s none of the mud, piss or shit, the shattered limbs, the spattered brains, the screams for mother during the slow agony of death.  I really wish people wouldn’t write about war in that way. It’s misleading and irresponsible.

Saul David is the opposite. He gets down into the foxholes with soldiers, into the cockpits with kamikaze pilots speeding toward their fiery death. ‘We were in the depths of the abyss’, one American soldier wrote of that battle, ‘the ultimate horror of war … Men struggled and fought and bled in an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell’s own cesspool.’

David restores a human dimension to this battle – both sides are brave, stoic, frightened, barbaric and occasionally cowardly.  This is narrative history at its most visceral as battles unfold almost in real time.  Kamikaze pilots gather together before a big mission and tell bawdy jokes, boasting of sexual experiences they don’t actually have.    At one point, a fierce fight on Sugar Loaf Hill is interrupted when an American ‘war dog’ escapes his lead, charges an Okinawan mutt, mounts her in no-man’s land, then obediently returns.  The battlefield falls briefly silent while dogs copulate, and then annihilation resumes.

David fits perfectly into the fine tradition of war books by Max Hastings and Anthony Beevor. It’s war at its most beautiful and most horrible. You can read my review here.

And now for something completely different. There’s going to be a lot of sex going on in the age of quarantine — or at least I think so. Here’s something to read when you’re not, well you know …

My editor at The Times calls me his ‘sex and war correspondent’. I’m not sure what to think about that. I certainly would prefer more of the former than the latter, but war, unfortunately, sells. As a historian, I’ve read a lot of histories of sex over the years and I’ve always been struck by the ability of authors to make sex seem boring. I suppose that’s because, as academics and intellectuals, they’re frightened of being entertaining or — god forbid — funny.

But sex is very often funny. The funniest things in life play at the gap between aspiration and achievement, and that’s precisely why sex is hilarious, because in no other endeavour is that gap so consistently wide. We all aspire to be Idris Elba, but most of us end up performing like Mr. Bean.

Buckle your trousers, fasten your seatbelts, here comes Kate Lister.  Her Curious History of Sex is a wild ride, made all the more enjoyable by her wonderfully irreverent approach.  If she ever tires of being a serious academic historian, she might try stand-up comedy.  I’ve never had so much fun learning stuff.  You’ll learn of gland larceny (the theft of testicles), depilatory creams made of ants’ eggs and arsenic, and sharp toothed urethral rings designed to cure boys of their mania for masturbation.   When discussing sex, Lister refuses to beat around the bush.  ‘As far as offensive language goes’, she writes, ‘you are now entering a hard hat area.’  This is not a book for prudes.

Curious History is fun, informative and delightfully feminist. So many of the hang-ups and phobias about sex have a common origin, namely male fear of female passion.  And that explains why this book needed to be written by a woman.  Had a man attempted what Lister has achieved so perfectly, it would have been at best mansplaining and at worst rather creepy.  It would probably also have been deadly dull.  Bravo to Kate Lister for her honesty, authority, candour and especially her humour.  ‘We must keep talking about sex’, she concludes.  Yes, please do.

As she writes, ‘This is not a comprehensive study of every sexual quirk, kink and ritual across all cultures throughout time, as that would entail writing an encyclopaedia. Rather, this is a drop in the ocean, a paddle in the shallow end of sex history, but I hope you will get pleasantly wet nonetheless.’ Brilliant. You can read my full review here.

Coming next week:


Published by DeGroovy

I am a journalist, historian, and professor at the University of St Andrews. I was born in the United States, but have lived in Scotland since 1980. I am a voracious reader, keen gardener, carpenter, cook and Mr. Fix-it.

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