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What I’ve been reading this month

The final instalment of Jane Gardam’s Old Filth trilogy, Last Friends focused on the life of Veneering, the third leg of the central love triangle. This was beautifully written, and despite covering lots of different stages of life and lots of different eras of the 20th century, powerfully evoked them all. I struggled a bit in parts because it’s a while since I read the first two books, and there was a reliance on recalling quite a lot of detail. So while I very much enjoyed this, I think I would have enjoyed it even more if I’d read the three in quicker succession.
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Tim Marshall’s Worth Dying For gave an entertaining and informative discussion of the history of a number of different flags. Those included were not just nation state flags, but also those of organisations like the UN and the Olympic movement, and those associated ideas, such as the white flag of surrender. I found Marhsall’s discussion of the cultural aspects of flags interesting: for example, the comparisons he drew between the treatment of the US flag by US citizens and the treatment of the Union Flag by UK citizens are not particularly novel, but are used to illustrate differences between the cultures of the nations in a fun, enlightening way. I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography, but it was still a good read.
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Graham Swift’s much-loved Waterland left me bit conflicted. This was a very clever novel spanning centuries of carefully plotted family history and with a wonderfully evocative sense of the history of the Fens… but, on the other hand, there were some very long factually dense passages that were really quite dull. That’s clearly intentional and reflective of the narrator’s character, but it was also a bit of a slog to get through.
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After her election defeat, Hillary Clinton sat down and wrote about What Happened. Unfortunately, I think she did so before she had chance to get some perspective and context, leading to a book that raised more questions than it answered. I ranted a bit more about this on Goodreads. All of that to one side, the book gave an interesting insight as to what it is like to be a candidate in a modern US Presidential election, and was worth reading for that alone.
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What I’ve been reading this month

Geography – let alone geopolitics – isn’t one of my strong points. I didn’t even take GCSE geography. Yet Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography had me completely enthralled. Marshall explained how geography influenced the development of nations and the political relationships between countries. His explanations were based on ten maps – maps which were enlightening in themselves to me. This sounds like it should have been dry and dull, but it was a real page-turner, full of insights and new angles on topics which had me fully engaged throughout. I will look at the world differently and with a much improved understanding as a result of reading this book.
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Ian McEwan’s “masterpiece” – The Child in Time – reflected on the loss a child and the strange flexibility of time. Despite its reputation, this was my least favourite of the McEwan novels I’ve read to date, which shows how little I know. There were sections which were outstandingly brilliant – McEwan’s writing is always absolutely incredible. But the whole thing seemed a bit less than the sum of its parts to me – I found the flashbacks and messing about with time more frustrating than meaningful. I got the intent of reflecting the way time seems to work for all of us, but, as a casual reader, I just found it frustrating.
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How Not to be a Boy was Robert Webb’s autobiography, which had a particular focus on gender roles. Robert Webb came across as remarkably candid, and parts of this book were really quite moving. I was a little struck by the extent to which some of the social commentary seemed to be extrapolating generalisations from a single experience – but that might be a bit unfairly critical given that this is an autobiography. I don’t think it helped that I read this fairly shortly after Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man which seemed to cover similar ground in a similar way, but more successfully and concisely.
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Stephen Talty’s The Secret Agent was a short biography of Erik Erickson, the Swedish oil salesman and later Second World War spy. The book concentrated on Erickson’s contribution to the US war effort, spying on – and thereby directing bombs towards – Germany’s synthetic oil plants. I wasn’t previously aware of Erickson’s remarkable story and valiant war effort. I found this book a bit unsatisfying, though: it’s brevity meant that it was hard to fully understand Erickson’s motivations, and – while it was touched on briefly – it would have been interesting to get more insight into the later psychological impact of having profited from the Nazi regime early on.
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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 adult magazines people consume, as the popular Playboy, along in the many adult services adults use such as Zoom Escorts and others. 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.






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