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Having fun, writing about the stuff I like

Holiday Reading

Oscar Foulkes January 13, 2012 Books No comments

For me, holidays are a prime opportunity to pack in a LOT of reading. In previous years I’ve kicked off by diving into a Robert Goddard, or something similar. You know, a plot into which one escapes for a day, or so, and by the time you emerge from the book the daily grind has magically vanished.

This year, I dived straight into the more serious stuff:

The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, by Daniel Yergin
If you think the title of this book is daunting, wait until you encounter the book itself. Well, I didn’t because I read it on iPad, but it must be quite a tome in physical form. Yergin won a Pullitzer Prize for his 1992 book The Prize (about oil), and he is something of a one-man energy think-tank. I won’t deny that reading the book requires a fairly substantial commitment; apart from its length, Yergin is not the most polished writer around (and, there are irritating errors, like “amuck” instead of “amok”)

The Quest is a bit like a semester course on oil, gas, coal, nuclear, geo-politics, prospecting, renewables, conservation, electricity, cars, and environmental issues. There is quite a large technical component to the book, but Yergin keeps it all interesting by incorporating some fascinating history (and a suprising cast of characters).

Energy, in its various forms, is something we consume – usually without even thinking about it – every second of every day. The world couldn’t be what it is without electricity and our various forms of vehicular transport, all of which require energy.

I give The Quest a definite thumbs-up. It’s worth making the effort to read this fascinating book.

The 52 Seductions, by Betty Herbert
This book is listed in chronological order of reading; there is absolutely nothing that ties 52 Seductions to The Quest. For starters, Herbert is a good – and funny – writer. Secondly, while the title and plot line suggest that sex is the subject, the book is actually about long term relationship, and marriage in particular.

The (real life) story is based upon a pact made by the author and her husband when they realise after 10 years of marriage that they seldom have sex. It’s not as if love has departed the relationship, far from it. No, desire is the missing ingredient. So they agree to take weekly turns at ‘seducing’ each other. Yes, it is a bit of date night with a twist (not all of them have what you might euphimistically call ‘happy endings’), but it’s really about marriage from the woman’s perspective, which is always a good thing for men to know about.

This is a light and easy read, which I’d also recommend.

Even Silence Has an End, by Ingrid Betancourt
By the time I’d finished this book I’d had a rather intense dose of woman-focused literature. Betancourt was a Colombian politician when she was captured by FARC rebels. It’s not that they were targeting her, but once they had serendipitously netted her they weren’t about to release this valuable bit of political capital. This book is about the six-and-a-half years she was in the jungle as their hostage.

She suffered all kinds of abuse – including being chained to a tree by her neck – and deprivations, which at times included a prohibition from speaking, or being spoken to. What preserves her throughout the ordeal is the realisation that, while she is a captive, she remains free to choose how she is going to respond, and what kind of person she is going to be. This is pretty much the same conclusion reached by Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, which deals with his experiences in Nazi concentration camps.

There were so many FARC hostages in various parts of the jungle that one of the radio stations would broadcast messages recorded by friends and family, which they were able to listen to, sometimes covertly. This component made me think of the fixation we’ve developed with various forms of social media, which enable all kinds of conversations to happen. Betancourt was not only deprived of her liberty, but was restricted to receiving one-way communication only.

Betancourt has written a powerful and thought-provoking book, which I definitely recommend.

Chasing the Devil, by Tim Butcher
Butcher has previously reported from Liberia and Sierra Leone. He returns in order to – literally – follow in the footsteps of Graham Greene, who trekked in 1935 from Freetown, through Sierra Leone, into Liberia, then through Guinea, back into Liberia, and then by boat from Buchanan to Monrovia.

When Greene made the trip he was disenchanted with Europeans. He went in search of a kind of simplicity or purity, which he found in the jungle-dwelling Africans. Butcher has a somewhat different interest, in that he is trying to make sense of the extreme brutality and murderousness which characterised the various internecine wars that have taken place in the region over the past couple of decades.

Butcher observes that the jungle is a harsh environment in which to live. The locals’ best chance at survival is to stick together, which usually means towing the ‘bush’ line. Young men are trained – and indoctrinated – by highly secretive bush societies, or cults. In this context, the local tribe will carry far more sway than a distant government administration which makes no positive contribution to people’s lives, and which may in fact make their lives worse, through corruption and discrimination. He makes the (depressing) observation that, in Africa, Africans survive. In order to thrive they need to go elsewhere.

The presence of valuable natural resources has not improved their lives; if anything, minerals have resulted in more misery, as aggressors seek to control the assets.

Butcher is not only a deep an observant thinker, but also an excellent writer. I’ll be making to effort to read his other book, Blood River, soon.

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