Last updated 2006-12-31
I really enjoy a good read. A sentence constructed with obvious thought, or a surprise ending that keeps the reader in suspense until the last minute has very few equals in my mind as a form of entertainment.
I've included a few of my favourite short narratives on this Site. I've also included a few of my own recent attempts. There are a few books that have fascinated me. One or two are recent encounters, while others have been on my Hit Parade year after year. I've included a few examples below, grouped by category.
Church Adrift, by David Matthew
Marshall Pickering 1985, ISBN 0-551-01275-7
I first read this book in the late Eighties and thoroughly enjoyed it. It takes a good look at Church history. It style is sometimes somewhat irreverent, but it did leave me with the overriding feeling that there is room for improvement in the current state of the church! I enjoyed the opportunity to trace the history of the Church without having to wade through a series of scholarly tomes. I later became better acquainted with David when he and his wife Faith spent some years in South Africa. We did a fair amount of road running together and I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to rub shoulders with someone who is a seasoned thinker in a field in which I am but a dabbler. Most of David's books are now out of print, due to a fire that destroyed the publisher's warehouse, but most of the titles, including this one, can be downloaded from his Web site.
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William L. Shirer
Pan 1964, ISBN 0-330-70001-4
Shirer takes a very thorough look at the subject. He provides a first-hand view, as he was a foreign correspondent in Germany when Hitler rose through the ranks in the Party and roused the masses in the beer halls and throughout most of the early part of the War. He was married to a German speaker and had reasonable command of the language. I've been greatly interested in the subject, given South Africa's rather peculiar position on both sides of the fence during WWII. I speak both languages well enough to have been able to listen to both sides of the story and spent significant time listening on both sides of the Channel. I was none the wiser. Shirer's incisive analysis and background made many pieces of the puzzle fall into place. You need to set some time aside, though; the book spans more than 1400 pages.
The Boer War, by Thomas Pakenham
Jonathan Ball 1979, ISBN 0-86850-046-1
One of the most amazing feats of historical journalism ever. Pakenham convincingly contradicts several aspects of the official British accounts of the Anglo-Boer War. His defence of Buller is particularly unconventional. I was attracted to the book because of my familiarity with earlier works by the same author and my desire to read an outsider's view of this war. It wrestled me to the ground; I spent several weeks doing nothing but going to work and reading this book! The small print and lavish footnotes contain a vast amount of information. Pakenham went beyond the normal archives; he learnt Dutch and Afrikaans to get access to the Boer side of the story and quotes a bewildering array of sources, including official correspondence, diaries from both sides and personal interviews with a few of the last survivors from both sides. The mind boggles at the process that Pakenham must have followed to knock his sources into a coherent whole; especially as this tome pre-dates the advent of personal computers. There is a pictorial version from which around two-thirds of the text has been stripped. Perhaps the reader with less than a fanatical interest might find that version more accessible!
Chickenhawk, by Robert Mason
Corgi 1983, ISBN 0-552-12419-2 (British edition)
Mason joined the US Army as a young man to learn to fly choppers. He had no intention of getting involved in a struggle in South East Asia, or in any war for that matter. Just a few months later, he had to leave his young family behind and face hostile fire. His descriptions of helicopter flying are so graphic that one cannot but be enthralled, but the signs of a gradual degeneration in his outlook are unmistakeable, as he questions the legitimacy of his country's involvement in a war at the other end of the earth.
You Just Don't Understand, by Deborah Tannen
Ballantine 1990, ISBN 0-345-37205-0
Tannen calls herself a socio-linguist, emphasising the social aspects of language. This book deals with the specific social differences between the sexes and what motivates them to phrase ideas in a specific way. And, of course, to understand meanings in very different ways! This book pre-dates the wildly popular Mars/Venus books significantly, yet to my mind provides a far more lucid treatment of the subject. I have found the discussion of underlying objectives with communication very helpful, especially to allow me to defer reaction to things that didn't at first glance appear to make any sense at all...
The Language Instinct, by Steven Pinker
Penguin 1995, ISBN 0-14-017529-6 (British edition)
Pinker makes the science of language accessible to us mere mortals who have a keen interest but no professional background. He poses many questions about the nature of language and specifically about the ability to acquire language. It seems that the structure is already there in an infant; all that needs to be done is for enough samples of a language to be provided to extract all the details of word order, grammar etc. What's even more remarkable is that the ability disappears when it is no longer likely to be needed. What I found most remarkable were his thoughts on thinking in the absence of language; his contention is that no language is needed to construct thoughts. I'll have to think about that one...
The Definitive Biography of PDQ Bach, by Peter Schikele
Random House New York 1976, ISBN 0-394-734092
I saw this book once, around 1981. Unfortunately, it was out of print for more than a decade.
I finally found a used copy on an Internet bookshop around 2004, but it has recently been reprinted and is readily available. I have had the opportunity to discover many layers of subtlety that my limited knowledge of music and German had not allowed me to appreciate as a sixteen-year-old.
It is a mock-serious description of the life and times of a fictitious composer, the "last and definitely the least of JS Bach's many children". If one didn't know a little about music, history, German and a few other subjects, the book would probably pass as a scholarly work about a serious composer. However, there are features of the snippets of sheet music that are decidedly unconventional and the historical "facts" don't all quite tie up. Many of the titles of his supposed compositions are slightly distorted versions of others from "more mainstream" composers. The Erotica Symphony and Eine kleine Nichtmusik spring to mind.
I've heard several albums of PDQ's music. Most of the titles are slightly modified versions of existing compositions, too. Perhaps someone who doesn't know the original might actually think that "Eine kleine Nichtmusik" has a certain familiarity to it...
One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, by Geraldine McCaughrean
Oxford University Press 1982, ISBN 0-19-275013-5
I stumbled across this book while looking for a copy of the 1001 Nights to be able to tell my daughter and a friend about the background to Rimsky-Korsakoff's Sheherezade. However, it's turned out to be a wonderful find, far beyond what I'd hoped for. McCaughrean has a wonderful tongue-in-cheek narrative style, that keeps the reader fascinated. In the end, re-reading the stories of Sindbad, Ali-al-Din and Ali Baba became almost incidental! I've subsequently noticed that she has re-told a large number of traditional tales. Judging by this one, they should all be well worth while.
First Light, by Richard Preston
Corgi Books 1987, revised 1996, ISBN 0-552-99784-6. Original edition published by Atlantic Monthly Press and Plume.
Most would construe the subject matter as dull. Writing a book about the Palomar telescope, still probably the premier earth-based optical telescope, sounds like a non-starter for a non-geek audience. However, Preston almost makes the telescope come to life with his descriptions of its history and its operation and especially of the people behind it. Perhaps the most famous names belong to the Shoemakers, who use the telescope regularly and then go back to their home in Arizona to study the photographs they've taken. However, there's a string of grotesque characters that build high technology devices from scrap collected on a dump, to others that fall asleep in prime focus and flick their cigarette butts onto the priceless mirror. As some of the propaganda in the front cover says, it's probably the best book that's ever been written about astronomers and what they do.
Some special authors
There are a few authors whose writings I've greatly enjoyed. Many titles are available from each of them and the treasures greatly outnumber the few duds. Give them a try!
Herman Charles Bosman is a South African short story teller. Although he was Afrikaans, he wrote most of his stories in English. He is perhaps the most accessible Afrikaans author for those outside the country. Bosman often used a narrator to tell the story. His favourite character, Schalk Lourens, is a simple man of simple tastes, who tells the stories from his simple perspective. However, the reader soon realises that there is a sly humour that belies the simplicity. Many of the stories are incisive comments on the South Africa of his day. If you've spent time in South Africa, you will not be left untouched by his humour or the poignancy of his stories. Perhaps my favourite is the story Mafeking Road; the story has one of the most gut-wrenching surprise conclusions that I've encountered anywhere.
Dave Barry is a widely-syndicated columnist from Florida in the USA. I was introduced to his writing during a 1995 visit to the US. Since then, I have picked up his books whenever I've had the opportunity. In addition to a number of compilations of newspaper columns and a few books on specific subjects, Barry has recently produced his first novel. All the books share a keen eye for detail and an ability to state those details in a way that any pseudo-intellectual must envy.
PJ O'Rourke shares Barry's journalism background. He tackles a range of serious topics in an extremely irreverend way. Like Barry, his observations appear grotesque at first glance, but it's often hard to tell exactly what's wrong with them...
Return to Chris R. Burger's Home Page