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What I’ve been reading this month

Tim Shipman’s mammoth book about last year’s EU referendum, All Out War, was a completely extraordinary book: the best I’ve learn faster on any modern political event. It was balanced, thoroughly researched, funny, thrilling, and gave deep insight into both sides of the referendum campaign, warts and all. I already knew that Shipman was a talented journalist before reading this book, but his ability to combine a lightness of touch with absolute accuracy of reporting, including pointing out where bits were single-sourced or where there were conflicting accounts, proved truly remarkable.
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The titular character of Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton spends the duration of the book in hospital recovering from an operation and subsequent complications. While she’s there, her somewhat estranged mother comes to visit. The two gossip and reminisce, and Lucy tries to unpick her complex relationships and feelings through her own memories of childhood. There were a number of outstanding, poignant passages, but the whole book didn’t quite hang right to me. The contrasts were a bit heavy handed at times (‘Cookie’, ‘Button’ and ‘Wizzle’ versus morally dubious shootings and AIDS). There was a lot of writing about writing, which I think was meant as some kind of allegory to psychology, but stuck me as unnecessarily self-indulgent in such a short novella. And while I think the reader is supposed to “fill in the gaps” in Lucy’s partially described life story, I found the lack of exposition meant that I didn’t really come to care about her.
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I was disappointed by Steven Pinker’s A Sense of Style. I was under the impression that it was a light and somewhat comedic on writing style. In fact, it was a rather heavy and detailed examination of grammar, diving far deeper than I was interested to venture into the philosophy of categorisation of parts of speech, sentence diagramming, and all sorts of things that go way beyond my level of interest. To my mind, the book would have benefited from more directly actionable advice, and less sniping at grammar sticklers before listing “rules” that the author themselves happens to be a stickler about.
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On the other hand, I was blown away by Julian Barnes’s novelised biography of Shostakovich, The Noise of Time. This tight, quiet and darkly humourous novel explored morality, art and power. It talked quite a lot about the use of irony to undermine power through art, which is something I’ve never really thought about before, and which I found fascinating. Basically, this thoughtful book was chock full of moral ambiguity, difficult personal choices, and imposed boundaries of professionalism. It was right up my street, and I loved it.
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As I write this, I’m struggling to think how best to describe Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice: I’m not sure it was really a novel, and it wasn’t really a collection of short stories. It was a very slim fictional book structured like a verbal reasoning multiple choice exam. It should have been utterly ridiculous and gimmicky, but was somehow completely brilliant. This book made me reflect on how much our own self-editing and the choices we make in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves alter our memories and feelings. It made me think about how opinions can be shifted, and stories can be transformed, by simple changes of single words. And I also gained insight into the recent history of Chile, from the population’s perspective. Goodness only knows how Megan McDowell pulled off a translation of a book with so few words, in which every single one is infused with so many layers of meaning.
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I read books aloud for the use of people with visual problems or other disabilities which prevent them from using printed books. I’ve been doing this for Calibre Audio Library for a few years. I don’t choose the books I record for Calibre; they are assigned to me, which makes the whole enterprise that little bit more fun. This month, I’ve just finished off my recording of Sally Gardner’s The Door That Led to Where, a novel aimed at the teenage or maybe young adult market. It takes quite a novel to stand up to the repeated reading and re-reading that narrating an audiobook requires, and this book certainly meets that standard. This was a fairly complex tale that juxtaposed authentic descriptions of deprived teenage life in 21st century London with those of young men in London in the 1830s. It was noticeable how dominated the book’s action was by male characters, but then most fiction aimed at this market tends to be quite heavily gendered. Nevertheless, this was definitely one of those books that reminded me what wonderful, well-written imaginative fiction there is around for young readers today.
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This 2,314th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






What I’ve been reading this month

Conclave, by Robert Harris, was a political thriller set among the College of Cardinals as they elected a new Pope. A real page-turner with plenty of twists and turns, this novel also had lots of complex layers underlying the surface plot, and a good dose of moral ambiguity. I especially enjoyed the well-written dialogue, in particular the set piece speeches. I’ve no idea how true to life this description of events might be, but this felt like a real insight into the political machinations of the Catholic Church.
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Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan, was a charmingly woven tale of a 24-hour bookstore, the relationship between its owner and newest nighttime clerk, a mysterious secret society, typography, and – oddly enough – Google’s desire to digitise information. The ideas were so eclectic and the plot so fantastical that it really shouldn’t have worked; and yet its warmth and charm held it together perfectly. I’d have liked to see more of the ending played out rather than relegated to the brief unsatisfying epilogue, but testifies to how beguiling I found the characters and their contexts, many of which will live long in my memory.
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In Cockpit Confidential, commercial pilot Patrick Smith gave his personal take on modern commercial passenger aviation. The book was structured around common questions about flying and occasional longer essays on a variety of aviation topics, often with a historical bent. The questions are varied enough to keep the book interesting throughout (from logistics to customer service to the science of flight). I’m confident that those with a deep interest in the topic will find much to disagree with, but this was pitched perfectly for me as a general reader. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help but laugh at occasional appearances of a comical US bias (“Most people have never heard of Tenerife… “), but given that this was written for the American mass market, that was probably a little cruel.
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In The Memory Illusion, South Bank University’s Julia Shaw gave an accessible account of the neuroscience of memory, with a particular focus on false memories. The book had just the right pace to maintain interest, and just the right amount of detail. Unlike many other popsci writers, Shaw commendably pointed the limitations of her analogies and simplifications, shielding the casual reader from over-interpretation and false conclusions. Before reading this book, I thought I had a terrible memory. After reading it, I think everyone else does too!
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Marc Levinson’s acclaimed book The Box provided a fascinating insight into the history of the shipping container and how it transformed the world economy. I gained a new appreciation for the wider impact of logistics in general and transport logistics in particular, but felt that this book was a bit too long and detailed for my passing interest and, as a result, a little bit dull in parts. For example, I could have managed without the detailed expositions of the exact measurements of competing standard box sizes!
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In 1980, Frank Abignale published his reportedly autobiographical tome Catch Me If You Can… and 36 years later, I got round to reading it. Abignale’s exploits seemed utterly unbelievable: successfully impersonating a wide range of professionals (including a pilot, a doctor and a lawyer) for prolonged periods while cashing fake cheques, but after he got caught he needed an actual Winnipeg dui lawyer to defend his case. While his adventures happened a long time ago now, and it’s possibly unfair to judge with 21st-century eyes, the book seemed absent of anything that weighed in favour of its veracity. I felt like Abagnale was trying to con me. In addition, I felt there was far too little insight into Abagnale’s motivation: his oft-repeated line was that this was a fun challenge. But there are tangential references to people losing their jobs and livelihoods over his activities, which one might reasonably expect to at least give him pause. The degree to which this book is interesting and enjoyable seemed to hinge completely on its believability, and I didn’t buy a word of it.
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This 2,313th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






What I’ve been reading this month

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In Yoga for People who Can’t be Bothered to do it, Geoff Dyer staggered through an autobiography of adventures, all of which “really happened, but some of the things only happened in my head”. Essentially, Dyer describes incredible experiences around the world but laces descriptions of them with profound bathos, either by pointing out their intrinsic absurdity or by drawing unflattering comparisons to humdrum daily life. I very much enjoyed this, and found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion. The careful balance between earnestness and knowing humour was very well judged and really tickled me. And every now and then, there were sparklingly brilliant passages. I particularly enjoyed the exhortation: “It’s all about moderation. Everything in moderation. Even moderation itself. From this it follows that you must, from time to time, have excess. And this is going to be one of those occasions.” (Amazon | Goodreads)

Graham Norton, of chat show fame, recently published Holding, a witty and engaging novel describing the aftermath of a body being found in a sleepy Irish village. I wouldn’t have guessed this was by Graham Norton if his name wasn’t on the cover, and I wouldn’t have guessed it was a first novel. The characters were endearing, and the plot was relatively pacey while still allowing space for carefully observed description, in equal parts wry and touching. The resolution of the main plot was a bit disappointingly ‘crime novel by numbers’ and didn’t tonally fit with the rest of the book, but I enjoyed reading this nonetheless. (Amazon | Goodreads)

In Messy, Tim Harford gave a spirited defence of messiness, suggesting that it is undervalued. Each chapter discussed at a different aspect of ‘messiness’, from musical and oratorical improvisation, to workplace design, to email inboxes. I remained unconvinced that these were all facets of the same thing – some of the similarities seemed a bit tenuous – but it seems oddly forgivable for a book about messiness to be a bit messy when it comes to taxonomy. There’s even a section in the book about messy taxonomies. As someone who has previously enjoyed Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying-Up” (or “The Life-Changing Magic of Throwing Out All Your Stuff” as Harford re-christens it), I particularly enjoyed Harford’s skewering of it. I also appreciated that Harford acknowledged that there are places for order and tidiness in the world, including places where it is absolutely required. (Amazon | Goodreads)

On Liberty was Shami Chakrabarti’s autobiography of her professional life, concentrating mainly on her time at campaigning organisation Liberty. In it, she discusses many of the pressures that come with occupying legal posts in the Government and in the third sector, and offers genuine insight into how law is practised in these different settings. I really enjoyed these bits of the book. Overall, though, I was disappointed that the book turned out not to be quite the masterclass I had hoped for. I struggled to see the moral consistency between Chakrabarti’s positions on a number of issues, and felt that the arguments were sometimes overly dismissive of the democracy they claimed to defend. But still, the book made a passionate and detailed case, and was probably worth reading anyway. (Amazon | Goodreads)

Jon Ronson’s The Elephant in the Room was a very funny feature-length article sold as a short book, in which Ronson profiled the Trump presidential campaign. I read this just before the election. I think Ronson’s writing is best when he is discovering hidden absurdity in a world of essential normality, and this account of the Trump campaign doesn’t have any rational, normal characters in it to ground the madness; but maybe that comes with the territory. I’d quite like to see Ronson do something similar about the Trump White House, but it seems doubtful that he’d get access following this artcile! (Amazon | Goodreads)

Jeffrey Archer’s risible seven-book Clifton Chronicles limped to a conclusion with the publication of This Was A Man. Archer reached new heights of absurdity when his own characters rants about his unbelievable dialogue, suggesting “You’d never get away with it in a book”. For future reference, here’s a few other things Archer might want to consider whether he can really “get away with” in a book: small family gatherings routinely breaking into spontaneous applause; taxi drivers repeatedly declining payment because their political views align with those of their passengers; and using your own novel to complain about not being awarded the Booker Prize, which “will never be awarded to a storyteller”. Self-indulgence doesn’t begin to cover it. (Amazon | Goodreads)

This 2,312th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






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