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What I’ve been reading this month

Nathan Filer’s novel The Shock of the Fall gave a first person narrative of mental illness. I struggled a bit with the first quarter or so of the book, because it seemed a bit heavy handed: for example, there are only so many times ‘unreliable narrator’ can be underlined, and only so much foreshadowing a reader can stand. As the book progressed, however, the authenticity of the narrative voice became stronger, and I found myself fully immersed and engaged in the plot. The first person description of the experience of mental illness was brilliant.
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I think I might have read The 39 Steps some years ago, and I’ve certainly seen a stage production, but I nonetheless picked up the first of John Buchan’s Richard Hannay novels this month. It was a short, punchy, thicky-plotted spy thriller, with plenty of implausibly resolved cliff-hangers to keep the pages turning. This series is often criticised on the basis that Hannay has no personality, but I rather enjoyed his 1915 turns of phrase and his dry humour. If nothing else, this book makes me want to bring back phrases like “the deuce of a mess”.
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“Most of what I know about myself, I have learned from playing Schumann… if Schumann had not existed, I would be less than whole.” So said Jonathan Bliss in his love letter to Schumann, A Pianist Under the Influence. His passion for the composer’s works was infectious, even for me – someone who couldn’t recognise a Schumann piece without his name at the top. A lot of the technical talk was beyond me, but Bliss’s enthusiasm for his subject shone through, and made this a very enjoyable read.
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The Descent of Man was Grayson Perry’s relatively light book on the heavy topic of gender, and masculinity in particular. I haven’t read a huge amount in this area beyond the typical weekend newspaper magazine features, and so I found it quite eye-opening (and, indeed, moving) in parts. I found Perry’s reflections on masculinity more interesting than his suggestions on what future masculinity should look like. If nothing else, I’ll never look at the the intricate patterns of camouflage clothing in quite the same way again.
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The Laws of Medicine was Siddhartha Mukherjee’s brief overview of his three personal “laws” of medicine. I particularly enjoyed the first section, where Mukherjee discussed probability in medicine, and gave perhaps the best jargon free explanation I’ve ever read of the importance of pre-test probability, sensitivity and specificity in medical tests.
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What do unpasteurised milk, 15 minute recipes and doctors working extended hours have in common? According to Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slowness, they’re all great examples of the ‘slow’ philosophy. Unfortunately, I never quite understood what the common thread was between all the disparate things Honoré described as ‘slow’. I had the impression that it was a vaguely anti-corporate notion. It evidently has nothing to do with speed – Honoré says as much, and spends many pages praising things which are unusually fast for being ‘slow’ (like 15 minute recipes, and exercise regimes one can do in 15 minutes in office wear). Essentially, I didn’t enjoy this book and I didn’t find its arguments convincing.
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This 2,321st post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






What I’ve been reading this month

Selfie by Will Storr turned out to be my favourite non-fiction book of 2017 to date. I always love Storr’s writing: he’s remarkably talented and woefully underappreciated for his ability to bring clarity to complex socio-scientific fields. I go out of my way to read his journalism because, whatever the topic, his byline guarantees new insights and connections. This book was no exception. Storr wove autobiography, anthropology, history, religion, sociology, psychology, psychiatry and public health into a compelling narrative of humanity’s increasing focus on the self. And he did it with a good dose of dry wit that brought the whole thing alive. The ground covered has big overlaps with Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, but the execution was far better.
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Post Truth by Evan Davis never quite lived up to the promise of its subtitle. I was attracted by the idea that this book might have, as the subtitle suggested, made an argument that the world has reached ‘peak bullshit’ (and hence predicted a decline). That would have been a bold prognostication in the current political climate, but it was one that Davis didn’t really attempt to make. The book was a lot more pedestrian for that. It merely gave an overview of some of the things that drive people to lie, and expressed frustration at those who lie unnecessarily on trade car insurance online quote from one of the different insurance companies online that Insurance Partnership recommends. It was concise and illustrated with interesting examples, but didn’t really say very much that was new, and came across as a bit patronising in parts.
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Luke Kennard’s novel The Transition was set in the near future, and followed a couple in a sort of life-education programme called “The Transition”. The idea of the programme was that members of an older generation take in a couple from a younger generation and teach them how to live in the modern world… though, of course, this being a dystopian novel, it wasn’t quite so straightforward. Kennard’s writing was pretty solid, and the plot moved forward well through the first two-thirds of the book. The ending, though, was strange. The whole book built to a confrontation that just fizzled away. Perhaps that’s a metaphor for something, but it’s also deeply unsatisfying.
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Going Nowhere, by The Spectator‘s Sam Leith, was a very short autobiography structured around six video games he’s been obsessed with at various points in his life. It was far better than than the premise promised. I’ve never played any of the games, and have only vaguely heard of a couple, but that didn’t matter. Leith deftly combined descriptions of gameplay with personal reflection on life’s choices and challenges, the move from relatively “normal” beginnings to the “elite” via an all-paid Eton scholarship, and the philosophical insights of great poets. There was a great deal more Latin than you’d expect in thirty-odd pages on video games, yet it skillfully avoided pretension. I really enjoyed this short book.
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Mark Earnest Pothier’s The First Light of Evening was a sixteen page tale in which a retired divorcee went on his first date after his wife left him. This short story has won awards and much critical acclaim, so the fact that I found it a bit “meh” may say more about me than the book. I found it a reasonably pleasant read, but neither particularly insightful nor particularly absorbing, and full of grammatical errors (or maybe ‘artistic grammatical choices’, who knows?) which distracted from the meaning of the text.
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Guns was Stephen King’s short essay on US gun violence. I found it difficult to wrap my mind around the logic of King’s position—which I’d inadequately summarise as ‘ban the worst guns, protect everyone’s right to have less-bad guns’. The essay was strong on the former, but weak on explaining the rationale for the latter (beyond pragmatism). King hung his position on autobiography, describing his response to a shooter who cited one of King’s fictional works as part motivation, part inspiration for his crime. This was interesting enough, but I think would have benefited from a bit more reflection on how his ability to act was influenced by his uniquely powerful position in publishing.
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The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance was a short autobiographical essay by Harris Sockel about teaching in the “Teach for America” programme. This scheme, much copied around the world, entices young graduates to teach in schools for a couple of years after graduation. Sockel attempted to illustrate the programme’s flaws from the points of view of the teachers, the pupils and the schools, with some success. He also attempted to provide some insight into US public schools more broadly. I was left wondering a little bit about how generalisable Sockel’s experiences were, particularly given his wealthy background which was frequently contrasted with that of the ‘regular’ teachers and his pupils, and—possibly more because of the format than the author—felt that this book left me with more questions than answers.
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This 2,320th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






What I’ve been reading this month

In the short book The Snowden Operation, The Econonmist‘s Edward Lucas presented a short case against Edward Snowden’s leak of classified intelligence material. He also made a case for the leaks being heavily influenced by Russian intelligence services. As someone who has previously been fairly sympathetic to Snowden’s claimed motives, I found this alternative take revealing. Lucas made some great points about the disproportionate harm caused by Snowden’s actions, especially in contrast to the minimum actions he could have taken to achieve the same ends. This book also changed my mind a bit, especially on the secrets of subconscious mind and everything it can do to help you focus, and about the nature of the public debate around the intelligence services (though I don’t totally buy Lucas’s “regulate the use rather than the development of tools” approach).
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I really enjoyed Tim Harford’s latest book, Adapt. Harford gave lots of examples of successes resulting from review and adaptation, and made a good case for embracing, as opposed to rejecting, failure. He made the often overlooked and very important case for allowing variation in systems, and not expecting constant equality: something that health systems in particular are not great at understanding.
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I didn’t get on well with McEwan’s The Innocent. It seemed to be a combination of spy thriller, coming-of-age novel, absurdity-of-war satire, and a reflection on cultural politics. The prose was sublime, almost poetic, as McEwan’s writing always is – but it didn’t quite hang together for me. Maybe I was just in the wrong mood.
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This 2,319th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






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