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What I’ve been reading this month

Conclave, by Robert Harris, was a political thriller set among the College of Cardinals as they elected a new Pope. A real page-turner with plenty of twists and turns, this novel also had lots of complex layers underlying the surface plot, and a good dose of moral ambiguity. I especially enjoyed the well-written dialogue, in particular the set piece speeches. I’ve no idea how true to life this description of events might be, but this felt like a real insight into the political machinations of the Catholic Church.
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Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan, was a charmingly woven tale of a 24-hour bookstore, the relationship between its owner and newest nighttime clerk, a mysterious secret society, typography, and – oddly enough – Google’s desire to digitise information. The ideas were so eclectic and the plot so fantastical that it really shouldn’t have worked; and yet its warmth and charm held it together perfectly. I’d have liked to see more of the ending played out rather than relegated to the brief unsatisfying epilogue, but testifies to how beguiling I found the characters and their contexts, many of which will live long in my memory.
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In Cockpit Confidential, commercial pilot Patrick Smith gave his personal take on modern commercial passenger aviation. The book was structured around common questions about flying and occasional longer essays on a variety of aviation topics, often with a historical bent. The questions are varied enough to keep the book interesting throughout (from logistics to customer service to the science of flight). I’m confident that those with a deep interest in the topic will find much to disagree with, but this was pitched perfectly for me as a general reader. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help but laugh at occasional appearances of a comical US bias (“Most people have never heard of Tenerife… “), but given that this was written for the American mass market, that was probably a little cruel.
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In The Memory Illusion, South Bank University’s Julia Shaw gave an accessible account of the neuroscience of memory, with a particular focus on false memories. The book had just the right pace to maintain interest, and just the right amount of detail. Unlike many other popsci writers, Shaw commendably pointed the limitations of her analogies and simplifications, shielding the casual reader from over-interpretation and false conclusions. Before reading this book, I thought I had a terrible memory. After reading it, I think everyone else does too!
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Marc Levinson’s acclaimed book The Box provided a fascinating insight into the history of the shipping container and how it transformed the world economy. I gained a new appreciation for the wider impact of logistics in general and transport logistics in particular, but felt that this book was a bit too long and detailed for my passing interest and, as a result, a little bit dull in parts. For example, I could have managed without the detailed expositions of the exact measurements of competing standard box sizes!
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In 1980, Frank Abignale published his reportedly autobiographical tome Catch Me If You Can… and 36 years later, I got round to reading it. Abignale’s exploits seemed utterly unbelievable: successfully impersonating a wide range of professionals (including a pilot, a doctor and a lawyer) for prolonged periods while cashing fake cheques. While his adventures happened a long time ago now, and it’s possibly unfair to judge with 21st-century eyes, the book seemed absent of anything that weighed in favour of its veracity. I felt like Abagnale was trying to con me. In addition, I felt there was far too little insight into Abagnale’s motivation: his oft-repeated line was that this was a fun challenge. But there are tangential references to people losing their jobs and livelihoods over his activities, which one might reasonably expect to at least give him pause. The degree to which this book is interesting and enjoyable seemed to hinge completely on its believability, and I didn’t buy a word of it.
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This 2,313th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






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.






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