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What I’ve been reading this month

A friend at work recommended Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly after I recently visited Copenhagen. This book was the autobiographical tale of a well-off writer and her husband moving from London to rural Denmark, after the latter was offered a job at Lego headquarters. The stories of their experiences were mixed in with some light journalistic investigation as to why Danish people are so often reported to be among the happiest in the world. Russell’s writing was engaging but light, which made this book fun, but maybe less insightful than it could have been. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant, easy read.
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Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending has recently been turned into a film, which – guess what? – I haven’t seen. I found it to be a beautifully written book, which explored ageing and the flaws in memory. So many passages of this book were quotable that it read like poetry. I think that if the ‘revelations’ at the end of the book had been a little more mundane, then the wider observations about the reliability of memory and the incompleteness of the picture anyone holds in mind at any given time would have hit harder. But who am I to argue with a Booker winner?
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Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden was a deeply creepy book about four children hiding their mother’s corpse to avoid being taken into foster care, and then attempting to live independently. The plot was grotesque, but less so than the twisted, psychologically charged atmosphere McEwan built. I understand that this has also been turned into a film that I haven’t seen… Whatever. I found it brilliantly disturbing.
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This 2,318th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






What I’ve been reading this month

Nick Clegg’s Politics was enjoyable mostly for his compelling account (and defence) of his time as Deputy Prime Minister. It provided real insight into what went on ‘behind the scenes’ in coalition government, and Clegg was refreshingly open about the tactical errors he made along the way. He also made a strong and coherent case for the role of liberalism in the world at large.
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The Big Short, Michael Lewis’s famed book (now a film that I haven’t seen) gave a surprisingly understandable account of the causes of the subprime mortgage crisis. Lewis gave the first explanation of ‘short selling’ that I’ve been able to understand and retain for longer than about five minutes. I was slightly disappointed that Lewis didn’t delve more into the underlying psychology of the problem: his repeatedly expressed view that the people involved acted immorally clouds the more interesting question of what drove the immorality. But I enjoyed this nonetheless.
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Yuval Noah Harari’s highly acclaimed Homo Deus didn’t do much for me. It had very well-written prose, with an occasionally astonishing clarity and precision of expression, but the central thesis seemed confused to me. One of Harari’s central theses is that humans (and all animals) are biological algorithms, responding in predictable ways to stimuli. He also spends a lot of the book talking about ethics and morality, particularly around treatment of animals. But how can something be judged ‘immoral’ if the actor is simply following an algorithm?
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Exploring broadly similar themes, I enjoyed Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen’s Human Universe far more than Harari’s book. Cox did a good job of giving enough of the detail of the physics to be interesting, without becoming overwhelming and uninterpretable. In fact, even in the most technical parts, it remained compelling and engaging. This celebratory book left me feeling inspired and full of wonder.
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Edit (on day of publication): I see that I’ve included The Big Short two months in a row… luckily saying much the same both times. I’m not going to correct it, because I’m not bothered enough to re-edit the header image…!

This 2,317th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






What I’ve been reading this month

The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz was a series of case histories collected by a psychoanalyst, with an interwoven theme of coping with loss. While I’ve doubts about the psychoanalytical methods described (and some of the connections between thoughts and experiences were outlandishly fanciful), I was drawn in to reflecting on the conclusions and perspectives Grosz presented. I enjoyed this collection despite myself.
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The same can’t be said for The Road to Character, David Brooks’s best-selling work which argued that the modern world prizes “CV virtues” (essentially listable achievements) above “eulogy virtues” (those people are remembered for). The logical flaw was that Brooks illustrated the apparent importance of “eulogy virtues” by presenting mini-biographies of historical figures remembered for “CV virtues”, demonstrating that CV virtues have, contrary to his central assertion, long been prized. Coupled with a very confused position on religion and a tediously loquacious writing style, this was a slog to get through.
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The Big Short by Michael Lewis is now a major motion picture that I haven’t seen – I’ve mentioned before that I’m rubbish on films. I liked the insight this book gave into the causes of the subprime mortgage crisis, which was rendered understandable even to a fellow like me, with no knowledge of markets or financial instruments. However, I was disappointed that Lewis didn’t delve more into the underlying psychology of the problem. Lewis’s repeatedly expressed view that the people involved acted immorally clouded the more interesting question of what drove the immorality. But that’s a slightly unfair criticism, as I don’t think he ever intended to answer that question, and the book is great nonetheless.
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Sarah Hall’s The Beautiful Indifference was a collection of short stories featuring female protagonists, each of whom had an initially hidden ‘dark side’. I rarely enjoy short stories, and these were no exception. I don’t know why I keep buying short story collections. But the most irritating thing about this collection – and I write this in full acceptance of how pretentious it sounds – was Hall’s punctuation choices, and most particularly of all, the decision not to correctly punctuate direct speech. Combined with her sparing use of any punctuation beyond full stops and commas, the text became leaden and borderline uninterpretable. Rather than finding myself transported by the narrative, I found myself frustrated by having to figure out the literary puzzle of words scattered on a page.
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This 2,316th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






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