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My Reading Year

The highlight of my reading year is Underland by Robert Macfarlane, closely followed by Horizon by Barry Lopez. Both men are pre-eminent writers about landscape and the human heart—matters on which they write with great urgency because they observe homo sapiens destroying the planet on which we all live. Lopez writes with an extra urgency because, at 74, he has a very serious cancer diagnosis. Horizon is an attempt to describe his experience of six regions: Oregon’s Cape Foulweather, where Captain Cook first set foot in North America and where he observes virgin forest on a mountainside being clear-felled; the Galapagos, where he frees sea lions caught in a net; the Arctic, where he once wrote Arctic Dreams and consults the Inuit for their traditional ecological knowledge; Botany Bay—Captain Cook again—and Port Arthur; western Kenya’s Turkana uplands; and the ice shelves of Antarctica, where he searches for meteorites—and flies a kite. Lopez is a man of many parts: ecologist, geologist, archaeologist and photographer. He calls Horizon an ‘autobiographical reflection’ in which he tries to explain his driven need to explore the world’s most rugged and inhospitable corners. In a footnote he directs the reader to an article in Harper’s in which he describes being sexually abused in childhood by a family ‘friend’. One wonders if this explains, partly at least, his restless urge to explore. This book is Lopez’s crowning achievement: a long, challenging, sorrowful and beautiful work on which he laboured for 35 years.
 Underland is all about Robert’s Adventures Underground, most of them so difficult and dangerous that my heart was in my mouth just reading about them. In a cave system in the Mendips his belay rope becomes entangled and it’s touch-and-go for him until he’s able to climb out. He spends three days in the catacombs under Paris, where he’s trapped in a narrow crevice and, for an achingly long spell, can go neither forward nor back. In northern Italy he ventures for a thousand feet ‘into an immense rotunda of stone, cut by a buried river and filled with dunes of black sand’. He visits a Finnish underground nuclear waste dump, supposedly ‘the most secure place on earth’. He began writing this book in 2010, while the Deepwater Horizon disaster was unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, and finished it in 2018 as the Thai soccer team and their coach were being rescued from the cave system into which they’d unwisely ventured. He spends time with some remarkable people, including a mycologist called Merlin, who introduced him to the ‘wood wide web’ of the fungal network by which trees transmit nutrients and even send messages to each other. My favourite is Bjørnar Nicolaisen, the fisherman who spent three years fighting a proposal for oil-drilling which would have largely destroyed Norway’s pristine Arctic cod fisheries. Macfarlane’s time is one of ‘burial and unburial and deep time’: in the north of Russia some buried reindeer infected with anthrax spores reappear as the permafrost melts, resulting in the infection of 23 people and the death of a child, and in Greenland a US army base buried with a load of chemical contaminants during the Cold War is now coming to light again. Meanwhile the miners are waiting avidly for the melt to be complete so they can dig up the minerals and rare earths that we need for our smartphones and other gewgaws, paying no heed to the dangers posed to coastal cities as the ice caps melt. Macfarlane’s sobering conclusion is that by now we’ve become too addicted to the extractive industries to be able to stop easily, and that the climatic consequences of past human actions have gone well beyond our control. In a lyrical and moving final chapter, he takes his four-year-old son Will to a place a mile from their home where ‘nine springs flow clear from the bedrock’. Lopez’s Horizon and Macfarlane’s Underland are definite Must Reads.

It’s a bittersweet experience reading Metropolis by the late Philip Kerr, because it’s the very last outing of everyone’s favourite detective, Bernie Gunther. Kerr takes us back to 1928, during the Weimar Republic, just as the Nazi Party is beginning to take hold, anti-Semitism has become the prevailing sentiment, and inflation and unemployment are forcing numerous women to become prostitutes. Bernie’s task is to find who has killed four prostitutes, murdered and scalped in as many weeks. Another challenge is a murderer who specialises in the crippled war veterans begging in the streets. Bernie wonders if it’s the same perpetrator in both cases. A notable crime boss whose daughter was murdered then puts pressure on Bernie to solve the case. As a last resort his boss asks him to go on the street under cover and impersonate a crippled vet. Beautifully written, with memorable one-liners, interesting characters and a fascinating setting, this is one not to miss. Sonia