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Category: Books

The Five Best Books I Read In 2008

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

It’s the time of year for reviewing things, and after pondering the books I read in 2008 (48 of them - it was a good reading year), I’ve come up with my favourites. Here, listed in the order I read them, are the five books which were most memorable for me in 2008:

Book covers

1. Going To Extremes: mud, sweat and frozen tears by Nick Middleton
The author - a rather adventurous guy - describes his visits to the world’s hottest, coldest, wettest, and driest inhabited places. It was an enjoyable mixture of travel, adventure and science: fascinating to learn how people have adapted to living in hostile climates, both physically and psychologically, and why they bother. Oymyakon in Siberia is now on my travel wish-list.

2. The Pillars Of The Earth by Ken Follett
I never imagined myself enjoying a historical novel, but my quest to read all of Ken Follett’s books led me to this one. Centred around the building of a cathedral in a 12th century English village, this epic tale is one of Follett’s most popular. After more than 1100 pages, and a story spanning several decades, I found myself totally absorbed in the characters and also the well-researched medieval setting.

3. In Praise Of Slow: how a worldwide movement is challenging the cult of speed by Carl Honore
The book’s blurb says “The Slow movement is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace; it is about living better in the hectic modern world by striking a balance between fast and slow.” Honore challenges our culture’s assumption that faster is better, and shares examples of the many ways people have slowed down, and lived better because of it. I’ve often thought that an obsession with speed was counterproductive, so it was reassuring to read a book that explains why.

4. To The Poles (without a beard) by Catharine Hartley
Catharine Hartley was a 34 year old Chardonnay-sipping London girl with no previous polar experience, who wondered if an amateur like herself could walk to the south pole. Not only did she do it, becoming the first British woman to walk to the South Pole, but she followed it up by trekking to the north pole as well. Reading this humorous account of what can be achieved with willpower was inspiring, as you’d expect. The candid way she shared what was going on in her mind and heart made it delightfully different from all the other polar exploration stories I’ve read, which were written by men (with beards).

5. Dirt Music by Tim Winton
This was the first novel I’d read by acclaimed West Australian author Tim Winton, and I found it hard to get into. The style was easy enough to read; it was just very different from other authors I’ve read. But it was worth persisting, and the vivid way Winton describes characters and landscapes made me feel like I’d been to the fictional coastal town much of the story is set in. Some of the impressions from this novel lingered long after I finished reading, a bit like the aftertaste from an intense and really good espresso


The Five Best Books I Read In 2007

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

For me 2007 was a bumper year for reading, with 44 books read. Ranking the best is a subjective thing, but “top five” lists are popular with blog writers, so here are the five books most significant for me in 2007 (in no particular order):

1 - What Color Is Your Parachute? : A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers by Richard Bolles

This has been one of the best selling job-hunting and career-changing manuals for decades (updated every year), and for good reason. It’s practical and thorough, and I particularly appreciated the focus on finding meaningful work, with self-evaluation exercises to help identify what sort of work might be most suitable.

book-itsnotcts.jpg2 - It’s not carpal tunnel syndrome! : RSI theory and therapy for computer professionals by Suparna Damany

All about the often misunderstood range of conditions suffered by many who over-use computers - RSI, occupational overuse syndrome, or whatever the latest label may be. The writers have a great understanding of what is often mis-diagnosed as carpal tunnel syndrome, having successfully treated many in their medical practice. They clearly explain the mechanical and physiological causes, the personality types who are more prone to it, and what can be done about it.

For anyone suffering aches and pains from working with computers too intensively, it is an enlightening read. Those not yet feeling symptoms, or RSI skeptics (as I once was), may benefit from an early understanding of the risks.

3 - Surviving the Extremes : A Doctor’s Journey to the Limits of Human Endurance by Dr Kenneth Kamler

book-walkinwoods.jpgA fascinating account of the human body’s amazing ability to survive in extreme environments. I blogged about this book previously - see “Extreme Survival - A Good Read“.

4 - A Walk In The Woods : Rediscovering America On The Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson

I’ve always enjoyed the humorous travel writings of Bill Bryson, and this book is a delightfully amusing account of his extensive hikes on the Appalachian Trail. It provided some of the motivation for my own much shorter hike on the Bibbulmun Track in june.

5 - Hammer of Eden by Ken Follett

book-hammer.jpgYes, I do also read fiction! I’ve been working my way through the novels of Ken Follett, who writes in genres varying from thriller to adventure and historical. In Hammer of Eden, the leader of a group of ageing hippies devises a method of triggering earthquakes to fight the threat of being evicted from their remote Californian commune. It’s a sort of crime thriller with a touch of science fiction and terrorism blended in. However you describe it, I found it an absorbing read, with many late nights the result of me being compelled to read “just one more chapter”.

Special mention also goes to the Holy Bible, which I finished reading in 2007 - for significance, it’s in a class of its own. I also read a number of course text books, but these certainly don’t deserve any special mention!


Tips For Reading The Bible (It’s Like Eating An Elephant)

Friday, December 21, 2007

I’ve just finished reading the bible in its entirety, and I’m feeling pleased. Like eating an elephant, the bible is best consumed one small bite at a time, spread over a long period to aid digestion. For me this meant a three year plan of short daily readings.

biblemeal.jpgI enjoyed it and learned a lot from it, although I confess to finding the meaning of some parts less clear than others. Anyone who says the bible is full of lists of things we shouldn’t do, or boring repetition (eg “Rupert begat Olga, and Fred begat Britney…”), clearly hasn’t read much of it. The action, drama, wisdom and positively encouraging bits far outweighed any seemingly mundane bits. It was also interesting to see what the bible doesn’t say - many assumptions about what the bible tells us don’t appear to be based on what is actually in it.

Here are some things I learned about the challenging but rewarding task of reading through the whole bible:

1. Some form of reading schedule is almost essential

Not many people have the self-discipline to read the whole bible by just reading bits whenever the motivation strikes, like reading a novel, and ticking off when each book is read. I tried that, but after 20 years had only managed 75% of it, in a very stop-start fashion. To get through the whole thing in a reasonable time, a reading plan with an end-date provides the necessary structure and motivation.

2. A daily reading habit is easier to stick to than one less regular

There are many bible reading plans on the internet - most involve reading every day, but some schedule readings for 6 days each week, or weekdays only, or you could set your own interval. For most people a reading habit is easier to form and maintain if it is repeated every day rather than on some days but not others. Of course there will always be days when it just doesn’t happen, but by making it part of a daily routine it’s less likely to be forgetten. Reading during breakfast worked well for me - I was a captive audience while eating, and breakfast is something I remember to do each day!

3. A three year plan may be more realistic than a one year plan for many people

Most bible reading plans are designed to be completed in one year. While it’s great to aim high, I’ve heard many stories of people starting a one year reading schedule, falling behind and failing to catch up, then giving up. The bible’s 1189 chapters mean an average of 3.25 chapters per day over one year - it may not sound like much, but if you miss a few days the backlog can quickly mount up. Also the bible is full of meaning and subtleties which deserve much more than a quick scan. Over three years, the average of about one chapter per day is easier to keep up with (or catch up with), and the more relaxed pace makes it easier to savour each bite.

Various reading plans can be found by typing “bible reading plan” into Google, perhaps adding “3 year” to the search if you want to follow the long but very achievable route. Some plans use a mixture of old and new testament readings each day (for variety), while others finish one part before starting another (like the one I’m using, here). Some take you through in chronological order (which differs from the printed sequence), while others follow different sequences for different purposes. If you don’t have a bible, you can read it online, or have daily readings e-mailed to you. The choices are many!

Like any good book, a repeat reading reveals things that were missed the first time, and so I’ll be starting all over again on January 1st with a different translation, read in a different order. It’s the time of year for making new resolutions, so why not join me?


Extreme Survival - A Good Read

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Have you ever heard an amazing survival story, and wondered how some people are able to endure extreme environments? I have, and a book I’ve just read explains in absorbing detail how the human body can adapt to hostile conditions … and what goes wrong if it doesn’t.

The book is “Surviving the Extremes” by Dr Kenneth Kamler, an American surgeon, explorer and climber. This skill combination has led him to practise emergency medicine on expeditions to Mt Everest, the Amazon jungle, the depths of the ocean, and other places that must cause his family to worry about him.

book-survextreme.jpgIn the book he describes the threats to life found in tropical jungles, deserts, the ocean’s surface and its depths, high mountains, and space. Such delights as extreme cold, heat stroke, starvation, dehydration, pain, inadequate oxygen, zero gravity, and radiation.

Many captivating accounts of survival - and failure to survive - are mingled with the author’s own adventures. His experiences of trying to save the lives of nearly-dead climbers near the summit of Mt Everest in a severe storm are related vividly and with feeling. I almost felt like I was there, while inwardly feeling very glad I wasn’t.

What made this book a stand-out for me was the fascinating insights into how the human body adapts to accomodate threatening circumstances. Using his medical knowledge, the author descripes in gory but compelling detail the effects that something like extreme cold or lack of water has on its victim, and how the body tries to minimise the effects. He explains how a boy in the jungle can slash through his arm with a machete and not feel much pain, how Sherpas can hike through snow in bare feet without getting frostbite, and other feats best not tried at home.

This sort of thing interests me because of my love of cold and mountainous places. I’ve often noticed how exposure to cold leads to reduced circulation in the arms and legs, an automatic response which helps retain warmth in the essential bits (I measured this in my “lunch in the fridge” experiment, blogged about here). The body’s built-in ability to adjust to cold impressed me, but that was nothing compared to all the adaptations Kenneth Kamler explains in his book. My appreciation of how well designed our bodies are took a great leap.

In cases where some have survived while others in similar peril haven’t, Dr Kamler highlights both physical preparation and the will to live as vital factors. Interestingly, he admits that other factors may exist which science and medicine may never adequately explain. Faith is one factor he hints at.

Of the forty or so book I’ve read so far this year, Surviving the Extremes is one of the best. Fascinating and enjoyable to read, even if it did make me think twice about my desire to climb Mt Kilimanjaro.


Cheesed Off With The World?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Have you ever been irritated or annoyed by the culture you live in, or felt discontent with human society in general? If so, it could be a sign that you are sane and well-adjusted! That’s what is suggested by these three quotes from very diverse sources:

  • “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” - Jiddu Krishnamurti, philosopher

  • “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. … Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”- Bible, Romans 12:2 (MSG Version)

  • “If you aren’t grumpy, that means you are content with the world.
    And who the *#@!* could be that!” - Bob Geldoff

The Bob Geldof quote is from the book “Grumpy Old Men“, based on the BBC TV series of the same name. When I read the book recently (a great laugh, by the way) his words reminded me of the other quote and also the Bible verse. What I liked about them is that each, in its own way, points to the same idea: that our cultures and societies are far from perfect, and that it’s not a good thing to be satisfied with this imperfection or try to fit into it.

What sort of people would we be, if we saw that the world was going down the toilet but didn’t think there was anything wrong with that?

So if you feel a bit cheesed off with the world around you, don’t feel ashamed; a little grumpiness is to be expected among thinking, discerning people in a faulty world. The trick is to not become over-critical and judgemental whingers, and to this end there are plenty of good things in the world we can choose to appreciate, if we look for them among the irritations.


Making a Difference … Without Knowing It

Monday, March 5, 2007

Things we do can make a difference in the lives of others - but we don’t necessarily get to see, or hear or know about it. This truth is pointed out in a book I’m reading:

… we need also to unlearn the idea that our unique mission must consist of some achievement which all the world will see - and learn instead that as the stone does not always know what ripples it has caused in the pond whose surface it impacts, so neither we nor those who watch our life will always know what we have achieved by our life and by our mission. It may be that by the grace of God we helped bring about a profound change for the better in the lives of other souls around us, but it also may be that this takes place beyond our sight, or after we have gone on. And we may never know what we have accomplished, until we see him face-to-face after this life is past.

Book cover: What Color Is Your ParachuteThis is from the epilogue of “What Colour Is Your Parachute” by Richard Bolles, a classic book about career change and finding the right occupation. In this bit the author is talking about finding our mission in life - our purpose for being on the earth, rather than merely what job we do. He makes the point that we should not be discouraged if what we are doing does not appear to be achieving anything or helping anyone. Doing something worthwhile may not consist of any particular activity or accomplishment that others can see. We should do and be what we are made to do and be, enjoying any recognition and feedback that might come … but not depending on it.

There’s a story in the Bible (Luke 17:12-19) of Jesus healing ten lepers and sending them away; only one bothered to return and thank him. The other nine had just as much reason to be thankful, but Jesus got no feedback from them. Nothing much has changed: few people, when helped by someone, go to the efforts of thanking the person who helped them and explaining how they were helped. But lack of feedback doesn’t necessarily mean people haven’t been, or won’t (later on), be impacted by what you’ve done … like unseen ripples in a pond.


The White Silence

Monday, February 5, 2007

It’s not often I read fiction that really stirs me up like this did. It’s from “The White Silence“, a short story by Jack London. He refers to the extreme cold and profound silence he encountered in the Klondike winter …

Nature has many tricks wherewith she convinces man of his finity - the ceaseless flow of the tides, the fury of the storm, the shock of the earthquake, the long roll of heaven’s artillery - but the most tremendous, the most stupefying of all, is the passive phase of the White Silence. All movement ceases, the sky clears, the heavens are as brass; the slightest whisper seems sacrilege, and man becomes timid, affrighted at the sound of his own voice. Sole speck of life journeying across the ghostly wastes of a dead world, he trembles at his audacity, realizes that his is a maggot’s life, nothing more.
Strange thoughts arise unsummoned, and the mystery of all things strives for utterance.
And the fear of death, of God, of the universe, comes over him - the hope of the Resurrection and the Life, the yearning for immortality, the vain striving of the imprisoned essence - it is then, if ever, man walks alone with God.

I haven’t experienced the Arctic North like Jack London did, but I’ve had a taste of what he was writing about. It was on the main range of Australia’s Snowy Mountains in the winter of 2001. My main campsite is pictured here, see my Snowy Mountains page for other photos.

wnksg11.jpgSnow-camping above the tree line - all vegetation and life buried under a blanket of snow, even the rocks plastered with ice. Under a clear sky, with stars blazing in the dry cold air, the temperature plummeted and the silence became overwhelming. With not even an insect to disturb the air, the sound of my blood circulating became audible in a feeble attempt to fill the sound vacuum. I’ve experienced the quietness of calm nights at home, but the still calm of the snowy wilderness took peaceful silence to a new level.

Hiking to Mt Kosciusko with snow shoes on a calm day brought another profound white silence. As the only speck of life in a sterile soundness expanse, I felt small and vulnerable … but in a refreshing and cleansing sort of way. The absence of sound and colour, plus the hypnotic rhythm of walking, certainly got the thoughts working in ways not possible in a more noisy world. As Jack London says, “it is then, if ever, man walks alone with God” - and I felt like I was.

Reading of Jack London’s white silence made me want to ride a dog sled up the frozen Klondike, but we can’t all visit the Arctic, or the Snowy Mountains, or a desert. Fortunately, however, some of the mental and spiritual benefits can also be gained by a walk in the bush (without an iPod!) or a stroll along an empty beach.


How much is enough?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Affluenza_cover.jpgI read a number of books while on holiday in New Zealand. Most were novels for relaxation, but this one made me think - Affluenza: when too much is never enough by Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss. Authors’ website here.

It is written from an Australian perspective, and poses the question “if the economy has been doing so well, why are we not becoming happier?”. The authors describe how the Western world is in the grip of a consumption binge that is unique in history. We (as a society) have bigger houses, better cars, more appliances, and more money to spend — yet rates of stress, depression and obesity are rising, we are working longer hours and going further into debt. The more we have, the more deprived we may feel - despite being one of the world’s richest countries, with real incomes better than ever, 62% of Australians believe they cannot afford to buy everything they really need (thats need, not want).

The book contains a lot of well researched information on consumption, debt, overwork, waste, sickness, and how we pursue happiness. And how we don’t achieve fulfilment through spending money on things we don’t need. Serious stuff, but it is well written and an enjoyable read. It ends with discussion on ignoring advertisers, reducing consumer spending, and recapturing time for things that really matter.

I think we all know deep down that happiness doesn’t come through buying lots of stuff. Yet it was fascinating to read the results of current research which graphically illustrates this. It also validates the wise words spoken by Jesus in the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:15):

Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”