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January Reads

2020 certainly put the breaks on my reading with Covid combined with the purgatory of trying to move house during lockdown. I read about 33 books in total, including an overdue reread of The Lord of the Rings. For 2021, I aim to read 52 books. Here is January’s haul from the library.

The Oak Papers by James Canton

James Canton spent two years sitting with and studying the Honywood Oak. A colossus of a tree, it would have been a sapling when the Magna Carta was signed. Inevitably he needs to slow down in order to appreciate it fully, to tune in to its slower time frame, to connect with the ecosystem that lives around it, inside it and beneath it. He examines our long-standing dependency on oak trees, and how that has developed and morphed into myth and legend. We no longer build our houses and boats from them, use them to fuel our fires or grind their acorns into flour in times of famine; physically we don’t need them in the same way now. Or do we? 

It was a book which resonated with me. Trees, young and old have their own character, and the really old specimens do feel like a magical portal when you start to realise how much of our own history it has witnessed. This is the author’s personal journey, and held simulates to many of the characters in Richard Powers evocative Overstory. Some readers may not get it, and the prose can a times become quite repetitive. Canton dips into the history, mythology and cultural works which has nurtured our fondness for the oak, but never in enough detail. This is a book which propels you to go in search yourself, be it in books or amongst the oak trees themselves.  

Black Tudors: The Untold Story – Miranda Kaufmann

A black porter publicly whips a white Englishman in the hall of a Gloucestershire manor house. A Moroccan woman is baptised in a London church. Henry VIII dispatches a Mauritanian diver to salvage lost treasures from the Mary Rose . From long-forgotten records emerge the remarkable stories of Africans who lived free in Tudor England…

They were present at some of the defining moments of the age. They were christened, married and buried by the Church. They were paid wages like any other Tudors. The untold stories of the Black Tudors, dazzlingly brought to life by Kaufmann, will transform how we see this most intriguing period of history.

This is an interesting and eyeopening book. The biggest letdown is unfortunately the historical records are limited in places, therefore the book is padded out with generic history from the Tudor period. That isn’t necessary a bad thing, but readers expecting more may be disappointed. However, improvements in science continue to shed light on the era. For example, scientific advancements has discovered the diversity of the skeletal remains found on the wreck of the Mary Rose. 

The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World—and Globalisation Began – Valerie Hansen

When did globalisation begin? Most observers have settled on 1492, the year Columbus discovered America. But as celebrated Yale professor Valerie Hansen shows, it was the year 1000, when for the first time new trade routes linked the entire globe, so an object could in theory circumnavigate the world. This was the ‘big bang’ of globalisation, which ushered in a new era of exploration and trade, and which paved the way for Europeans to dominate after Columbus reached America.

In the year 1000, explorers were already travelling the globe. The likes of Columbus just tapped into those already well worn routes. It’s another factually compelling goldmine, but with any book attempting to cover such a vast subject, you feel you want a little more. However, I see that as a good thing. I love books which make you think and make you want to discover more. As with Black Tudors, sometimes the historical remains throw up more questions than answers, such as the depiction of blond hair and blue eyed people in a Mayan mural. We know the vikings discovered North America, did they also travel to the south? Wouldn’t that make a great novel!

Lancaster: The Making of a Very British Legend – John Nichol

From John Nichol, the Sunday Times bestselling author of Spitfire , comes a passionate and profoundly moving tribute to the Lancaster bomber, its heroic crews and the men and women who kept her airborne during the country’s greatest hour of need. 

I am not one to cry watching movies or reading books, but this one got me bloody close. My grandfather was a draftsman for Avro, the company who made the Lancaster bomber. I lap up history books, but not enough modern history so in a bid to learn more, and connect with a generation of my family now lost, I picked up this book. 

The RAF were envied by the Army and Navy. Bomber Command flew from England and came straight back home to Blighty. Men in the trenches had a four-week life expectancy. In Bomber Command was only two. The story of the Lancaster is retold through the stories told by her crew. As someone who is into ancestry, the one regret is never asking questions to the older generations in the family while they were still alive. Too many life stories are lost and I’m so glad this book shared these stories before these brave people passed. It’s informative, funny, harrowing, and, importantly, very human. One of those books which will linger in my mind weeks after I have read it.

What have you been reading this January?

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