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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.






What I’ve been reading this month

coversaugust

I often enjoy xkcd cartoons, and was intrigued by the premise of xkcd cartoonist Randall Munroe’s book, What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. As the title suggests, Munroe took absurd questions – “How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic from London to New York?” or “What would happen if everybody on Earth stood as close as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant?” – and offered well researched scientific answers. Munroe’s approach weaved scientific principles with humour and panache, and provided me simultaneously with a good laugh and new insights. However, much like xkcd, it occasionally got too geeky (on science fiction themes) for me to follow the jokes. A few errors of fact in areas I’m familiar with made me worry about the accuracy of content that was new to me: for example, Munroe mixed up the stories of the murders of Alexander Litvinenko and Georgi Markov in a most peculiar way. Nonetheless, this book lived up to its clever conceit. (Amazon | Goodreads)

I continued reading Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter series this month by finishing off Dearly Devoted Dexter, a book with a truly ridiculous body-part-littered plot which was so tightly written and infused with such good humour that I enjoyed it nonetheless. It was a worthy sequel to the first book. (Amazon | Goodreads)

Bill Bailey’s Dodgers blew me away: I’ve never read anything quite like it before. The protagonist, East, was introduced as a 15-year-old boy living in a cardboard box in the basement of his drug addict mother’s house in a deprived area of LA. He ran a team of lookouts defending a drug house. After his team failed to see a drug raid coming, East – who had never left his neighbourhood – was ordered to drive across the country with his 13-year-old half-brother and two other youngsters to shoot a witness in a drug trial. Unsurprisingly, things didn’t go to plan. Dodgers turned out to be a deeply personal coming-of-age novel set against a background of crime, deprivation and America. It was written in the sparingly tight prose of many classic American novelists, but with the detail required to make even the minor characters believable. This was a book that I’ll remember for a long time to come – and will certainly re-read at some point. (Amazon | Goodreads)

On the other hand… Dave Eggers’s The Circle didn’t do much for me at all. It was a dystopian novel set in the near future focusing on Mae, an employee of Google-like tech company. Fertile ground, but unfortunately the book was entirely one-dimensional, essentially consisting of a series of long hardline speeches in which characters espoused the pros or cons (depending on the character) of modern technology. No character ever conceded a single point, and Eggers’s own views were not even thinly veiled. A predictable plot strung the speeches together, and the book was bulked up with a few heavy handed allegories about the effect of monopolies. That the most notable of these centred around a shark eating smaller creatures neatly sums up the degree of novelty, insight and suspense this book had to offer. (Amazon | Goodreads)

Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was an autobiography in which she described how she raised her children using a “Chinese” parenting style. Along the way, she described making some extreme choices: for example, insisting on her children practising musical instruments for hours a day even when away on holiday. But the whole book felt as though Chua has deliberately chosen to focus on the most extreme examples of her parenting. Hints of a more traditional “Western” style were glossed over, such as occasional mentions of “family time” organised by her husband. When I turned the final page, my first thought was “so what?”. It was a moderately interesting and entertaining read, but it didn’t strike me as anything more than that, and certainly not worthy of the media ruckus it appeared to cause on publication. (Amazon | Goodreads)

This 2,309th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






What I’ve been reading this month

books

A lot of my friends have been strongly recommending Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, and this month I found out why. It was the extraordinary, deeply moving memoir of a neurosurgeon dying of lung cancer as he reached the end of his specialty training. The similarities between Kalanithi’s life and my own made this hit close to home, and I shared many of his reflections on life and death. The writing was brilliant. This was an unforgettable book which I will certainly read again. (Amazon | Goodreads)

I read Charles Glass’s Syria Burning in a day. It was an astonishing account of recent events in Syria set in some historical and political context. As the foreword said, “The war in Syria has long needed a good book to explain what and why it is happening. Few events in recent history have been subjected to so much inadequate reporting” – and this book set that right. I’m sure that the relative brevity meant that some of the political nuance was lost, but for a newcomer to the wider picture (like me), it was well pitched. It’s hard to have any reaction other than “what a tragic mess”. The statistic that will stick long in my mind was that 92% of Syria’s ambulances were no longer functional – it’s a weird measure in a way, but it gave a picture of the extraordinary scale of loss in a country that was once the region’s medical leader. (Amazon | Goodreads)

I’ve never been able to get along with history books, but reviews of Mary Beard’s SPQR have been so positive that I thought I’d give it a go. It was brilliantly lightly written, underpinned by a clear wealth of knowledge, and explained eloquently how conclusions about many aspects of Roman life have been reached from archaeological findings and surviving written accounts. I found the many discussions of bias in historical accounts interesting, both in terms of the sources of bias and ways in which historians can work out where the truth lies. The Prologue and Epilogue also made some especially powerful points about the place of history in modern society. But despite all of that, I struggled to finish this book. There was a bit in the Prologue where Beard said that “history is what you ask of it”; all too often, the question appears to have been “Can you give a chronological list of Roman Consuls and Emperors?” I just couldn’t bring myself to care. (Amazon | Goodreads)

Roy Porter’s Blood & Guts may also have been unduly affected by my general dislike of history books: while there were some interesting historical stories and some great pictures, the haphazard arrangement into topics meant that it lacked any overarching narrative. Combined with its brevity, it came across as a bit like a bullet pointed list of interesting things, which made for a less than riveting read. (Amazon | Goodreads)

Now I come to think of it, Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now was also a history book, and one that I actually enjoyed. Johnson took six innovations and followed them through human history, demonstrating their wide-reaching effects. The six innovations Johnson chose (“Glass,” “Cold,” “Sound,” “Clean,” “Time” and “Light.”) are probably arguable, as the subsequent developments clearly require other innovations along the way, but he spun such a convincing and engaging narrative that this seemed forgivable. In the manner of many popular science books, Johnson had a slight tendency toward using unnecessary jargon, referring repeatedly to “long zoom history” and “the adjacent possible” as though to reveal some profound insight. Nonetheless, this was a light, enjoyable and engaging bit of thematic scientific and social history. (Amazon | Goodreads)

This 2,308th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






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