SPQR by Mary Beard
A History of Ancient Rome. You can only learn things by attaching them to what you’ve already learned, and I hadn’t learned much about a thousand years of Roman history. That said, I got more out of it than expected because Beard’s writing is fun and the book is rarely dry.
One thing I do know about is the wood tablets at the fort of Vindolanda at Hadrian’s Wall, because I’ve been to see them at the museum there. When the first tablets were peeled apart and the ink writing discovered, they were rushed to the university at Durham but oxidised before they could be transcribed. The message was thought lost but at the medical school they found they could still read it in the infrared. And they’ve been able to protect many of the rest dug up so you can see them yourself. The tablets include the oldest surviving writing in Latin by a woman, an invitation to a birthday party. I recommend a visit.
The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy
I always picture Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan.
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
A sweeping but intimate novel that starts in 1960s Calcutta with two young brothers, Subhash and Udayan. Their lives fork, an impulsive Udayan caught up in the Naxalite movement at home and a studious Subhash setting out for university and a life in New England. It’s about staying and leaving, about parenthood, loss, guilt and responsibility, through four generations of a family.
Endurance by Alfred Lansing
Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. Lansing wrote this authoritative account of the Endurance expedition, having got hold of most of the diaries kept on the voyage and then interviewed the surviving crew. The mission of the great explorer to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic went awry when the tallship got stuck in the icepack of the Weddell Sea, was crushed and sank leaving the crew without a hope.
There’s no way to condense the ordeals and suffering the book details. It is unfathomable that they survived. After all that they’d endured over a year, Shackleton took a few men in the tiny open boat James Caird and navigated 800 miles over the most deadly ocean on the planet to hit their only hope of rescue, the speck of South Georgia island. Once there, they had to climb over the sawtooth mountains and glaciers of the interior to get to the whaling station, that itself a route nobody had survived attempting. Shackleton then went back to rescue every one of his crew.
Frank Hurley shot early colour photographs and got the film home. They are beautiful.
Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
‘Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast.’
The Carter of La Providence by Georges Simenon
Inspector Maigret #4. Simenon is great at canals, as most other things.
The Innovators by Walter Isaacson
How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. A history of the people who invented computers, microprocessors, software and the web, from Ada Lovelace to Larry Page. Each character in the story is met only briefly, because many people contributed.
And that’s really the theme of the book. We still have this notion of looking for lone genius inventors when in fact innovation since the last century has driven by brilliant thinkers in collaboration and many incremental advances.