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What I’ve been reading this month

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In Yoga for People who Can’t be Bothered to do it, Geoff Dyer staggered through an autobiography of adventures, all of which “really happened, but some of the things only happened in my head”. Essentially, Dyer describes incredible experiences around the world but laces descriptions of them with profound bathos, either by pointing out their intrinsic absurdity or by drawing unflattering comparisons to humdrum daily life. I very much enjoyed this, and found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion. The careful balance between earnestness and knowing humour was very well judged and really tickled me. And every now and then, there were sparklingly brilliant passages. I particularly enjoyed the exhortation: “It’s all about moderation. Everything in moderation. Even moderation itself. From this it follows that you must, from time to time, have excess. And this is going to be one of those occasions.” (Amazon | Goodreads)

Graham Norton, of chat show fame, recently published Holding, a witty and engaging novel describing the aftermath of a body being found in a sleepy Irish village. I wouldn’t have guessed this was by Graham Norton if his name wasn’t on the cover, and I wouldn’t have guessed it was a first novel. The characters were endearing, and the plot was relatively pacey while still allowing space for carefully observed description, in equal parts wry and touching. The resolution of the main plot was a bit disappointingly ‘crime novel by numbers’ and didn’t tonally fit with the rest of the book, but I enjoyed reading this nonetheless. (Amazon | Goodreads)

In Messy, Tim Harford gave a spirited defence of messiness, suggesting that it is undervalued. Each chapter discussed at a different aspect of ‘messiness’, from musical and oratorical improvisation, to workplace design, to email inboxes. I remained unconvinced that these were all facets of the same thing – some of the similarities seemed a bit tenuous – but it seems oddly forgivable for a book about messiness to be a bit messy when it comes to taxonomy. There’s even a section in the book about messy taxonomies. As someone who has previously enjoyed Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying-Up” (or “The Life-Changing Magic of Throwing Out All Your Stuff” as Harford re-christens it), I particularly enjoyed Harford’s skewering of it. I also appreciated that Harford acknowledged that there are places for order and tidiness in the world, including places where it is absolutely required. (Amazon | Goodreads)

On Liberty was Shami Chakrabarti’s autobiography of her professional life, concentrating mainly on her time at campaigning organisation Liberty. In it, she discusses many of the pressures that come with occupying legal posts in the Government and in the third sector, and offers genuine insight into how law is practised in these different settings. I really enjoyed these bits of the book. Overall, though, I was disappointed that the book turned out not to be quite the masterclass I had hoped for. I struggled to see the moral consistency between Chakrabarti’s positions on a number of issues, and felt that the arguments were sometimes overly dismissive of the democracy they claimed to defend. But still, the book made a passionate and detailed case, and was probably worth reading anyway. (Amazon | Goodreads)

Jon Ronson’s The Elephant in the Room was a very funny feature-length article sold as a short book, in which Ronson profiled the Trump presidential campaign. I read this just before the election. I think Ronson’s writing is best when he is discovering hidden absurdity in a world of essential normality, and this account of the Trump campaign doesn’t have any rational, normal characters in it to ground the madness; but maybe that comes with the territory. I’d quite like to see Ronson do something similar about the Trump White House, but it seems doubtful that he’d get access following this artcile! (Amazon | Goodreads)

Jeffrey Archer’s risible seven-book Clifton Chronicles limped to a conclusion with the publication of This Was A Man. Archer reached new heights of absurdity when his own characters rants about his unbelievable dialogue, suggesting “You’d never get away with it in a book”. For future reference, here’s a few other things Archer might want to consider whether he can really “get away with” in a book: small family gatherings routinely breaking into spontaneous applause; taxi drivers repeatedly declining payment because their political views align with those of their passengers; and using your own novel to complain about not being awarded the Booker Prize, which “will never be awarded to a storyteller”. Self-indulgence doesn’t begin to cover it. (Amazon | Goodreads)

This 2,312th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






What I’ve been reading this month

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A little while ago, someone recommended Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, saying that interest in Batman was not prerequisite for enjoying it. I can now vouch for this recommendation: I loved the book despite having never read a Batman comic, having never seen a Batman film all the way through, and having only vague memories the “Bam! Pow! Zap!” Batman series on Saturday morning kids’ TV. Despite my lack of prior knowledge, I was won over by Weldon’s fascinating and funny sociocultural history of the development of Batman character over time. The book also gave one of the most coherent and insightful accounts I’ve read of the development of and influence of the internet on nerd culture. I would never have even considered picking up this book if it hadn’t been recommended to me – and yet I very much enjoyed it. (Amazon | Goodreads)

The same can’t be said for I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes, which was 800+ badly written pages of absurd and frankly boring “thriller” plot mired in xenophobia and sexism of type I thought (or maybe hoped) had died out decades ago. As much as the meandering plot centres on anything, it’s about a Saudi terrorist trying to infect the US with genetically modified smallpox through contamination of flu vaccines. Luckily, there’s an all-American retired brilliant super secret agent on the trail. (Amazon | Goodreads)

Old Filth by Jane Gardam was an expertly crafted novel in which Sir Edward Feathers, a retired judge, reflects on the story of his life. An orphan, he seems to feel he never quite fit in anywhere, and doesn’t seem to realise quite how remarkable the events of his life have been. All the while, his acquaintances tend to assume he’s led a rather dull, uneventful life. This was a moving fictional biography which gives an interesting perspective on assumptions people make of their own experiences, and assumptions we all make of others. (Amazon | Goodreads)

Stephen King’s The Green Mile often appears on people’s “must read” lists, so I picked it up. I’ve never seen the film, and beyond sort of broad cultural references, had no idea that it was about the residents of death row at Cold Mountain Penitentiary in the 1930s awaiting execution by electric chair (with a few supernatural phenomena scattered through). I thought this book was drawing a comparison between imperfect criminal justice and imperfect natural justice: in law, as in life, people don’t always get what they deserve. Sometimes bad people thrive and good people suffer. I really enjoyed it on those terms, but reading through other reviews online, most people seem to have a polar opposite interpretation about “pure evil”, so maybe I missed the point. Either way, it was great. (Amazon | Goodreads)

Following Farage was fairly entertaining account by tabloid journalist Owen Bennett of his time following Nigel Farage during the 2015 General Election. While it was entertaining, it dragged a bit at times, and didn’t give any new insight into UKIP as a party. I was also a bit disappointed that Bennett didn’t really explain his motivation to follow Farage, despite even changing jobs to stay on his tail. (Amazon | Goodreads)

Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vásquez is a critically acclaimed novella about a political cartoonist reaching the end of his career. At an event celebrating his life, he meets a young female journalist who he had previously met as a child, when an event pivotal to the novel’s plot occurred. Revisiting ‘the event’ risks the reputations of many of the novel’s characters. The prose is spellbinding, but I thought it was let down by a plot that was hard to follow, very implausible (seven year olds drinking themselves unconscious?!), and unresolved by the ending. (Amazon | Goodreads)

This 2,311th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






What I’ve been reading this month

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Ian McEwan released his latest novel Nutshell this month. It’s a novel with a crazy premise: the story of a complex parental relationship narrated by a foetus. I found it utterly engaging and infused with humour. For an McEwan novel, there’s also a surprising amount of plot, much of which is fast-paced. McEwan’s masterstroke comes in making the foetus a well educated and utterly pretentious plotter, who sounded to me like a foetal version of Stewie from the Family Guy cartoon series. In what other voice can one read the line, “We wave from the quayside as their little ship of bad intent departs. Bon voyage!” (Amazon | Goodreads)

On the other hand, Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie did nothing for me. I didn’t feel involved with the characters (who all seemed flat and characterless), the humour didn’t tickle me, and the flexible approach to chronology was just a bit wearing. The idea that the school education system is constrained and unworldly is interesting, but the message seemed hammered home rather than developed. Others may consider this a great work of literature, but it just left me a bit cold and bored. (Amazon | Goodreads)

I’m absolutely not a member of the target audience for Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me?. I have no idea who Laverne Cox is, nor whether “her legs are like whoa”. I have never engaged in a “juice cleanse”. And I would have guessed that a “Tria Clearing Blue Light” was a tool used by crime scene investigators. Despite all that, I found some of the anecdotes genuinely funny, and Kaling’s central message was refreshing: most highly successful people invest a huge, usually underestimated, amount of hard work and sacrifice to achieve that success. (Amazon | Goodreads)

Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life was exciting for being one of the first well-researched popular science books on the human microbiome. It contained lots of interesting stuff, much of which was new to me. Unfortunately, the book rambled a bit in places and became hard to follow, became a bit repetitive now and again, and didn’t make a strong distinction between established principles and emerging research. In other words, I enjoyed this book and learned some stuff from it, but think it would have benefited from a bit more editing. (Amazon | Goodreads)

In Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference, William MacAskill argues that when donating time or money to charity, one should maximise the quantifiable benefit to human health and wellbeing, using QALYs or ‘WALYs’ as a measurement. The book contains a lot of good pointers on assessing charity effectiveness, and lists some highly effective underfunded charities. However, MacAskill did very little to address the ‘edge’ questions that this proposition raises, which left his argument feeling underdeveloped and incomplete: How should we compare charities that benefit humans with charities that benefit animals? How should we quantify the benefit of interventions whose longterm outcomes are uncertain? If the aim is to maximise benefit, is there a moral obligation for people to refuse aid if others may benefit more? Is it fair to quantify benefit with measures that implicitly favour the young? Is relief of suffering the only noble aim of charity? Should we all really keep our early career options open rather than pursue eg medicine or law – and if so, what would be the societal impact? (Amazon | Goodreads)

This 2,310th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






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