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What I’ve been reading this month


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.

What I’ve been reading this month


Ian McEwan released his latest novel Nutshell this month. It’s a novel with a crazy premise: the story of a complex parental relationship narrated by a foetus. I found it utterly engaging and infused with humour. For an McEwan novel, there’s also a surprising amount of plot, much of which is fast-paced. McEwan’s masterstroke comes in making the foetus a well educated and utterly pretentious plotter, who sounded to me like a foetal version of Stewie from the Family Guy cartoon series. In what other voice can one read the line, “We wave from the quayside as their little ship of bad intent departs. Bon voyage!” (Amazon | Goodreads)

On the other hand, Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie did nothing for me. I didn’t feel involved with the characters (who all seemed flat and characterless), the humour didn’t tickle me, and the flexible approach to chronology was just a bit wearing. The idea that the school education system is constrained and unworldly is interesting, but the message seemed hammered home rather than developed. Others may consider this a great work of literature, but it just left me a bit cold and bored. (Amazon | Goodreads)

I’m absolutely not a member of the target audience for Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me?. I have no idea who Laverne Cox is, nor whether “her legs are like whoa”. I have never engaged in a “juice cleanse”. And I would have guessed that a “Tria Clearing Blue Light” was a tool used by crime scene investigators. Despite all that, I found some of the anecdotes genuinely funny, and Kaling’s central message was refreshing: most highly successful people invest a huge, usually underestimated, amount of hard work and sacrifice to achieve that success. (Amazon | Goodreads)

Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life was exciting for being one of the first well-researched popular science books on the human microbiome. It contained lots of interesting stuff, much of which was new to me. Unfortunately, the book rambled a bit in places and became hard to follow, became a bit repetitive now and again, and didn’t make a strong distinction between established principles and emerging research. In other words, I enjoyed this book and learned some stuff from it, but think it would have benefited from a bit more editing. (Amazon | Goodreads)

In Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference, William MacAskill argues that when donating time or money to charity, one should maximise the quantifiable benefit to human health and wellbeing, using QALYs or ‘WALYs’ as a measurement. The book contains a lot of good pointers on assessing charity effectiveness, and lists some highly effective underfunded charities. However, MacAskill did very little to address the ‘edge’ questions that this proposition raises, which left his argument feeling underdeveloped and incomplete: How should we compare charities that benefit humans with charities that benefit animals? How should we quantify the benefit of interventions whose longterm outcomes are uncertain? If the aim is to maximise benefit, is there a moral obligation for people to refuse aid if others may benefit more? Is it fair to quantify benefit with measures that implicitly favour the young? Is relief of suffering the only noble aim of charity? Should we all really keep our early career options open rather than pursue eg medicine or law – and if so, what would be the societal impact? (Amazon | Goodreads)

This 2,310th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

What I’ve been reading this month


I often enjoy xkcd cartoons, and was intrigued by the premise of xkcd cartoonist Randall Munroe’s book, What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. As the title suggests, Munroe took absurd questions – “How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic from London to New York?” or “What would happen if everybody on Earth stood as close as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant?” – and offered well researched scientific answers. Munroe’s approach weaved scientific principles with humour and panache, and provided me simultaneously with a good laugh and new insights. However, much like xkcd, it occasionally got too geeky (on science fiction themes) for me to follow the jokes. A few errors of fact in areas I’m familiar with made me worry about the accuracy of content that was new to me: for example, Munroe mixed up the stories of the murders of Alexander Litvinenko and Georgi Markov in a most peculiar way. Nonetheless, this book lived up to its clever conceit. (Amazon | Goodreads)

I continued reading Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter series this month by finishing off Dearly Devoted Dexter, a book with a truly ridiculous body-part-littered plot which was so tightly written and infused with such good humour that I enjoyed it nonetheless. It was a worthy sequel to the first book. (Amazon | Goodreads)

Bill Bailey’s Dodgers blew me away: I’ve never read anything quite like it before. The protagonist, East, was introduced as a 15-year-old boy living in a cardboard box in the basement of his drug addict mother’s house in a deprived area of LA. He ran a team of lookouts defending a drug house. After his team failed to see a drug raid coming, East – who had never left his neighbourhood – was ordered to drive across the country with his 13-year-old half-brother and two other youngsters to shoot a witness in a drug trial. Unsurprisingly, things didn’t go to plan. Dodgers turned out to be a deeply personal coming-of-age novel set against a background of crime, deprivation and America. It was written in the sparingly tight prose of many classic American novelists, but with the detail required to make even the minor characters believable. This was a book that I’ll remember for a long time to come – and will certainly re-read at some point. (Amazon | Goodreads)

On the other hand… Dave Eggers’s The Circle didn’t do much for me at all. It was a dystopian novel set in the near future focusing on Mae, an employee of Google-like tech company. Fertile ground, but unfortunately the book was entirely one-dimensional, essentially consisting of a series of long hardline speeches in which characters espoused the pros or cons (depending on the character) of modern technology. No character ever conceded a single point, and Eggers’s own views were not even thinly veiled. A predictable plot strung the speeches together, and the book was bulked up with a few heavy handed allegories about the effect of monopolies. That the most notable of these centred around a shark eating smaller creatures neatly sums up the degree of novelty, insight and suspense this book had to offer. (Amazon | Goodreads)

Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was an autobiography in which she described how she raised her children using a “Chinese” parenting style. Along the way, she described making some extreme choices: for example, insisting on her children practising musical instruments for hours a day even when away on holiday. But the whole book felt as though Chua has deliberately chosen to focus on the most extreme examples of her parenting. Hints of a more traditional “Western” style were glossed over, such as occasional mentions of “family time” organised by her husband. When I turned the final page, my first thought was “so what?”. It was a moderately interesting and entertaining read, but it didn’t strike me as anything more than that, and certainly not worthy of the media ruckus it appeared to cause on publication. (Amazon | Goodreads)

This 2,309th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

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