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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.






What I’ve been reading this month

Ribbet collage

Will Storr is one of my favourite journalists. He writes for outlets like Wired and The Guardian, usually on science stories, and often on health-related stuff. His is a byline that almost guarantees I’ll enjoy the article. This month, I finally got round to reading Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science. This is an illustrated discussion of cognitive bias, backed up by astounding and revealing investigative journalism. Storr takes no prisoners, dissecting the claims of ‘skeptics’ as forensically as those of with outlandish beliefs. Heretics is entertaining, thoughtful, and genuinely insightful. It is one of my favourite books of the year so far. (Amazon | Goodreads)

Ian McEwan is one of my favourite authors. Saturday, which I read this month, ranks among my favourite of his books. Like all the McEwan novels I’ve read, it is heavy on keenly observed description and close examination of human nature. Saturday tells the story of a particularly eventful day in the life of middle-aged neurosurgeon. It is particularly notable for the astonishingly accurate portrayal of the surgical world – I think this book captures surgical patter and medical thought patterns with more authenticity than any other fiction I’ve ever read. (Amazon | Goodreads)

I’ve been having a bit of a Jon Ronson moment lately, having been particularly impressed with some of his newer books. This month, I caught up with Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries – a compendium of articles from periodicals and other relatively short-form bits of investigative journalism – and The Men Who Stare at Goats – the book that really put Ronson on the map. While both of these were perfectly good reads, I didn’t enjoy either of them quite as much as the later books. Reading Lost at Sea through from cover to cover is probably not the best way to treat it, as there are only so many consecutive short stories I can take. The Men Who Stare at Goats felt like a collection of amusing anecdotes of military absurdity that didn’t dive deeply enough into the underlying reasons for that absurdity prevailing. (Lost at Sea: Amazon | Goodreads; The Men Who Stare at Goats: Amazon | Goodreads)

Luke Harding’s extraordinary investigation into the Linvinenko affair, A Very Expensive Poison, is one of the most arresting non-fiction books I’ve ever read. Harding gives a clear, detailed and compelling account of murder by the Russian state – including all of the cack-handed bungling which humanises the story and makes it that much more horrific. He also dives deeply into the investigation of the murder, and the judgement of the subsequent public enquiry. A must read. (Amazon | Goodreads)

I’ve long thought that the premise of the Dexter TV show had promise – an exploration of ‘just’ murder through a serial killer with a conscience – but I couldn’t ever really get into it (not least because Michael C Hall will always be David Fisher to me). I picked up Darkly Dreaming Dexter on a whim to see if Jeff Lindsay’s source material was more engaging, and really enjoyed it. The plot was silly (psychic visions abound), but it was tightly written, and had a dash of dark humour that brought much needed levity. It was a fun read for a couple of hours or so, and I’ll certainly pick up the next in the series. (Amazon | Goodreads)

Nemesis is the fourth book in Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series, which I started reading in January. It’s a pacey, multi-layered instalment which I raced through. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as The Redbreast: I thought the historical portions of The Redbreast added something extra, and the series of false revelations at the end of Nemesis was a bit wearing after a while. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed it, and look forward to picking up The Devil’s Star some time soon. (Amazon | Goodreads)

This 2,307th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






What I’ve been reading this month

There seems to be a bit of a trend at the moment for people writing little blog posts each month talking briefly about books they have been reading. I always enjoy reading these posts, and often pick up interesting book recommendations from them – so here’s my own attempt for May.

Amanda Ripley’s The Unthinkable is a book about disasters, like plane crashes or hotel fires, profiling those who survive. It’s a bit heavy-handed with emotional anecdotes and fairly vague theories of what makes a “survivor”, but I really enjoyed it nonetheless. It offers some genuine and unexpected insights, and makes a compelling argument for Governments and officials to worry less about public panic. (Amazon | Goodreads)

A lot of my friends have previously read and recommended Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, but I’ve held off until now. This is a book profiling the rise of “public shaming” in the context of social media. There’s been so much written about ‘cyber-bullying’ and the perils of social media that I thought I’d struggle to get through a whole book regurgitating the same stuff. I should have known better. Like most of Jon Ronson’s writing, it’s really about people and the human condition, but viewed through the lens of a particular topic. As always, Jon Ronson brings interesting fresh perspective and insight to the topic by approaching it on the human level. Like most of my friends – I found it eye-opening and totally absorbing. (Amazon | Goodreads)

On that basis, I also read Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test this month. Jon Ronson’s book about psychiatry and psychiatric services is another I’ve avoided for a long time: I was put off by the title, which suggested to me that the book was going to be very light-touch on science. Disappointingly, I was right. I enjoyed reading the stories, but extremes were too often discussed as though they were reflective of norms. I think many people would come away from reading this book with a very distorted view of psychiatry, which is a bit of a shame. The particular cases discussed are, though, very engaging. (Amazon | Goodreads)

I’ve always enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s columns, but have never quite got round to reading his books. So this month, I thought I’d try Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell’s book about the power of snap decisions taken within two seconds. I was a bit disappointed. It was weirdly superficial and inconsistent: the main message seemed to be that snap judgements based on training and experience are often right (except when they’re wrong), and that those based on emotion and prejudice are often wrong (except when they’re right). There’s no denying that Malcolm Gladwell writes fantastic prose, but – to my mind – this book just didn’t hang together as a coherent whole. (Amazon | Goodreads)

William Boyd’s Booker-prize nominated Any Human Heart didn’t do much for me – given the esteem within which Any Human Heart is held by many, this may say more about me than the book. I just found most of it dull, and the narrator deeply unlikeable. But then, I rarely enjoy this sort of historical fiction, so maybe I should have known to give this one a miss. (Amazon | Goodreads)

I’ve been reading Jo Nesbo’s series of Harry Hole books this year, and this month reached The Redbreast. This is the third in the series, and the first in the famed Oslo Sequence of books (the first two were set in Australia and Thailand respectively). Harry Hole is the classic troubled police officer with unorthodox methods. In The Redbreast, he attempts to prevent an assassination attempt which has its roots in the Second World War. This was a really gripping, page-turning read – and a big step up in clarity and pace from the first two in the series. I really enjoyed this. (Amazon | Goodreads)

This 2,306th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






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