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I'm definitely slipping. All through the first series of The Bridge I could tell when they were speaking Swedish and when they were speaking Danish. Not what they were saying, but I could definitely tell the sound of one language from the other.

This time round, I couldn't, except when they were talking about work, in which Danish uses the German verb "arbeit" and Swedish uses "jobbe" as a verb.

I suspect I need a big dose of Swedish Wallander (Krister Henriksen version please). Allegedly BBC4 has more coming this year.

Also allegedly the makers of The Bridge are working on a third series, and can't wait to see how they write themselves out of the ending of the second series. There are many plausible scenarios in which Martin doesn't go to jail, but not a lot in which he emerges with his career intact.

BBC4's latest Saturday night Euro-crime is Salamander, a Belgian number. It is neither as good as the best Scandinavian efforts nor as bad as the Radio Times made out (so far). I was hoping more of it would be in French so I'd be less tied to the TV and the subtitles[1], but it's 99.9% in Flemish. Which I thought I didn't speak At All, but it turns out is more generically Germanic than I thought. If anything, it sounds more like the Scandinavian languages than German. I'm also left wondering how it is that I've been exposed to so little spoken Dutch/Flemish.

[1] Having said that, my French vocabulary expanded markedly from watching Spiral. Previously, touristy general getting-by language aside, my vocabulary tended heavily towards history, archaeology and literary criticism
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42.  The Man Who Smiled by Henning Mankell

The fourth Wallander book.  (I've read the third, The White Lioness, before).  I'm not intentionally reading them in order, but the library has been especially obliging - I'm just going with whatever's on the shelf when I'm there.

This one starts out a bit slow, with Wallander on long term sick leave after having to kill someone in self defence at the end of the last book, and contemplating giving up the police altogether.  But then an old acquaintance is killed, after having come to Wallander to ask for help investigating his father's suspect "suicide", and he just can't resist.  The last 2/3 are un-put-downable.

43. Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War 1937-1948 by Madeleine Albright

She was on The Daily Show promoting this, and I'd had a few drinks so instead of sensibly sticking it on my wish list, I ordered it as soon as the closing credits rolled.

Albright is Czech by birth, and her father was in the Czechoslovakian government in exile in London during WWII.  He was the voice of the government in exile, and the Resistance, broadcasting regularly on the BBC.  Before and after the war he was the Czechoslovak ambassador to Yugoslavia.  She herself was a child at the time, but when he died she inherited a garage full of his papers, plus as US Secretary of State she had made a lot of contacts in modern Czechoslovakia, such as Vaclav Havel.

This is in part a potted history of Czechoslovakia in the period 1937-1948, and part a memoir of her family's experiences in that time, not only her own immediate family in exile in London, but also those who stayed behind, who mostly died in Terezin and in the deportations to points east.

(Albright did not know until she was nearly 60 that her family was Jewish.  Before the war, in England, her parents, who were completely non-religious, converted to Roman Catholicism for reasons she is never able to get to grips with, but comments interestingly that such an act would have been unthinkable after the war).

Unfortunately I got halfway through the book but it was too heavy to take on holiday with me, so my experience of it was kind of disjointed.  While it wasn't as completely awesome as she made it sound - from the interview, I'd been expecting a lot more of her own commentary on events described in the book from the point of view of someone who had been in difficult political situations herself - I still found it interesting.  I knew very little about Czechoslovakia in that period and she tells the story well.  A lot of the reviewers on Amazon (I know, don't read the comments.  Anywhere.  Ever.) were put off by the personal stuff, but I found that added to the story rather than detracting from it. 

Definitely worthwhile.

44. In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World by Tom Holland

I've only got round to reading one of Holland's books before, Persian Fire, and although I can't recall a think about it, I remembered that it had been informative and good reading, so when I heard about this one I ordered it from the library right away.

Holland explains the rise of Islam in the context of the two empires bordering Arabia at the time - the late Roman (Byzantine) and the Sasanian Persians.  He demonstrates that Islam did not arise in a vacuum (the Koran demonstrably was not written in or near Mecca, but somewhere much nearer Palestine).  There's some really fascinating parallels between the first two centuries of Christianity and the first two centuries of Islam.

Most of the material about the late Roman world is not news to me, what with my Masters being in the early medieval period, but the stuff about the Sasanians was new and fascinating.

Basically, both empires imploded because of the bubonic plague pandemic that started in 540 and had recurrent outbreaks for the next 150 years, so there is an argument that this is what made the spread of militant Islam possible.

I did know that the first major outbreak of plague that we know about was in late antiquity, but somehow, in all my reading about the Black Death, didn't know any more than that.  The effects were similar to the 14th century in that labour became scarce, causing social mobility and rising wages, but even more political instability than the late medieval version.

I'm no longer in a position to know how accurate this all is, but I found it fascinating and raided the bibliography in a big way.  I am regretting getting it from the library and will probably buy a copy when it comes out in paperback (I assume it will, his stuff is generally popular enough that it does). 

July reading

7 books, 2 non-fiction, 5 fiction - about par for the course.
All but 2 came from the library, and I acquired 2 books in that time, so not helping with the to-read pile at all.
Which is threatening to take over the bedroom.
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47. Dead Beat by Jim Butcher

Yet another really enjoyable Dresden Files book. Harry's surprise weapon at the end was hilarious yet clever, again.

48. The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

The author, a Cambridge academic, sets out to find out if there are any truly "wild" places left in Britain and Ireland. It starts out with the whiny city-dweller "isn't nature so much better than this" tone that pisses me off, but I'm glad I persisted because that goes by the wayside quickly, and he comes to some surprising conclusions.

Most of his adventures are reasonably interesting. He also pulls a couple of truly stupid stunts, like night time mountain walking in the Lake District during a blizzard. He at least admits that his goal to sleep at the top of a hill on the northern tip of Scotland in a gale might have been a bit unrealistic.

The chapter that came as news to me is that the counties of southern England where the underlying rock is softer are full of ancient roads which over the centuries sank up to a couple of metres below the adjoining land, which Macfarlane calls the Holloways. Some of these have been filled in, but others are still there and completely forgotten but largely impassable as they're full of trees and brambles.

I'm keeping this, because I got quite a bit out of it even though I was probably in the wrong mental place for it, and there's an interesting bibliography.

49.Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier

I was suckered into this because the cover proclaimed "if you like Zafon's Shadow of the Wind you'll love this" and Isabel Allende endorses it. I love Shadow of the Wind. A lot.

It's about a boring, set-in-his ways, Swiss teacher of ancient languages who, though a chance encounter and in the middle of a mid-life crisis, buys a book of philosophical musings by a Portuguese doctor in the throes of a mid-life crisis, drops everything and travels to Lisbon to find out more about the author. In the process he has to examine a lot about his life.

It took me ages to get into this (Shadow of the Wind it is not), but I got there eventually. The pseudo-philosophical ramblings of the book-within-the-book are nonsensical and stupid, but it turns out the author had an interesting life, having been in the Resistance against the Salazar dictatorship. It's a gentle, thoughtful book that is a good counterweight to the action-packed Dresden Files books I've mostly been reading lately.

This is another book that I was almost certainly in the wrong mental space to be appreciating, so I'm going to keep it as I may be in a better place to appreciate it at another time.

50. Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason

Got this cheap on a fundraising stall at a National Trust property. I saw the film recently so there wasn't a great deal of surprise plot-wise, but I wanted to know whether I was interested in the rest of the series.

If anything, it's even grimmer than the film, despite the fact that Erlendur does not at any point eat a boiled sheep's head in the book. The prose is very sparse and odd. I'd blame this on the translation, but if what little I remember about medieval Icelandic has any bearing here, I'd say that the translator has gone a long way to make it accessible to English-speakers. There's not a lot to it, but it's quite gripping in places. The verdict is that I will look out for the rest of the series at some point, but I think I'll get them from the library.


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