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What I’ve been reading this month

The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti, translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre, was a brilliant Italian novel. The plot concerned Pietro and Bruno, two childhood friends who grew up in a farming community in the mountains of Italy, and followed the development of their relationship over decades. The book reflected on the different things we all get out of relationships: how our relationships with nature, society, friends and family are all so different and hold such different meanings and degrees of importance to each of us. I really enjoyed this.

A little while ago, a friend told me to read Stefan Zweig and to start with his biography of Montaigne. This seemed like such a weirdly esoteric recommendation that it sat on my “to read” list for ages, but I finally got round to reading it this month. It was wonderful! It was a beautifully written and very short biography of a man who lived an astounding life at a pivotal moment in history. Zweig’s prose—almost every line of which felt quotable—seemed to capture the vital essence of someone who lived hundreds of years before him. Montaigne was an eccentric genius, and this was not haigrophy: Zweig was uncompromising about Montaigne’s flaws. But still, this book left me awed.

Another book recommended to me was Conspiracy by Ryan Holiday. I’ve put this off several times because I thought I had no interest in it: I knew it to be a book about the legal actions concerning Hulk Hogan, Peter Thiel and Gawker Media, none of whom I have any real interest in. Yet, this turned out to be a book where none of that really matters. This is a book in which Holiday makes an argument—with some success—that there aren’t enough conspiracies in the world today. He suggested that too many people are willing to complain rather than plot, and that if more people secretly conspired to change the world, then the world would be a better place. Holiday illustrated his argument through a telling of the story of Peter Thiel’s conspiracy to destroy Gawker, a gossip website. Holiday frequently drew comparisons with epic historical or mythological conspiracies, in a way which felt at first absurd and hyperbolic, but which I quickly came to find endearing and somewhat convincing. If nothing else, Holiday’s enthusiasm for his thesis shone through and I ended up really enjoying this. While I wasn’t completely convinced by the central argument, it gave me quite a lot to think about.

Can it be morally right for a journalist profiling an interviewee to lie to them? That’s the question at the heart of Janet Malcolm’s famous book, The Journalist and the Murderer. Malcolm’s inspiration was a specific book about a convicted murderer which was clearly once at the centre of public attention, but I don’t think the fact that I was unfamiliar with the specifics hindered my enjoyment. I enjoyed this because it made me consider questions that are so far removed from anything I usually have cause to think about. It is a reminder of those who strive for lofty ambitions in journalism, and of what society has lost by letting volume, clicks and page views count.

I’m pretty sure I read all of Agatha Chrisie’s Poirot novels and short stories as a teenager, and I certainly read Murder on the Orient Express. I re-read it this month, and was reminded of the gentle pace and broad-brush sterotyping that make the Poirot stories so comfortable and easy to read. The careful plot and pacing, including the neat resolution common to all Poirot, make the whole think feel like a comfortable pair of slippers. No real thought was required, there was nothing especially challenging, and I didn’t gain any new insights into anything from reading this. It was just perfectly relaxing, which is exactly what I was after.

Lullaby by Leïla Slimani, translated by Sam Taylor, is very much the French novel of the moment. At it’s heart, it was a book which explored the reasons why a seemingly perfect nanny would murder her charges despite clearly loving them. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that there is no simple answer, just an accumulation of experiences across a lifetime which lead to the terrible moment described in the opening of the book. I liked the complexity and gritty realism of this book, but somehow didn’t find it particularly engaging. I didn’t come to feel any particular connection with the characters, and while others have described it as “haunting”, I hasn’t really caused me much of a second thought since.

I didn’t realise before I bought it that Eddie Mair’s A Good Face for Radio was a collection of his Radio Times columns: had I known in advance, I wouldn’t have picked it up. I enjoy Mair’s wit, and have occasionally read columns by him, but I never really find that I get much out of reading collections of short articles. They tend to be a little repetitive and, by dint of the format, the ideas and arguments in them aren’t really fully explored.

This 2,336th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

What I’ve been reading this month

Hans Rosling was an amazing man. In Factfulness, which he worked on right up until his death, he distilled his lifetime of learning about global public health into a series of simple lessons readers can all use to improve their understanding of the world. This book was simply brilliant, and I would heartily recommend it to anyone. It was one of those books that has the potential to elegantly and persuasively shift the general frame of reference. I think (and hope) this will become one of those books that defines our time and dominates our collective thinking for years to come.

Sam Guglani’s Histories was a collection of characters’ stories from across a week in an NHS hospital. The stories were intertwined, with several characters mentioned by other characters. Despite being a short book, this felt like a complete world which existed before the period contained in the book and continued afterwards. This felt like a true reflection of life in the NHS. It felt real, current, and somehow strangely complete.

In Less, Andrew Sean Greer painted a less-than-successful American novelist who accepted a string of minor literary engagements around the world in order to avoid attending the wedding of a former lover and also to avoid publicly marking his fiftieth birthday. Of course, the round-the-world trip caused him to reflect on life while the narrator filled in Less’s backstory. There were some marvellous lines in this book – in terms of imagery, philosophy, humour and more besides – and a great deal of wit. It was one of those rare books that actually made me laugh out loud from time to time. It got insidiously under my skin, and I was almost surprised by how much I cared about Less by the end of the novel.

In my lifetime, no human has travelled even 400 miles from Earth’s surface. In 1968, the astronauts of Apollo 8 travelled 250,000 miles from Earth on the first manned mission to the moon. Robert Kurson’s Rocket Men was a compelling narrative of a journey many consider to be the most important in human spaceflight to date. Kurson wove in a lot of American social history as context to the daring of the mission. So much that is written about the Mercury and Apollo programmes focuses narrowly on the US/Soviet ‘space race’, and it was refreshing to read something that talked about the historical context in a broader sense. Fascinating stuff.

Somebody I Used to Know was Wendy Mitchell’s fascinating and poignant autobiographical account of being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease at the age 58. I was interested to read about the stigma faced by the author, including from the NHS (in her roles as both patient and worker). Michell also brought insight into the coping strategies she has developed over the three years since her diagnosis. It was touching, moving and often rather funny.

Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement was an autobiographical account by two academics – Carl Cederström and André Spicer – who spent a year following the advice of self-help gurus, tackling a different area of their lives each month. Much of the outcome seemed to be played for laughs, but the humour wasn’t really up my street. When Caderström and Spicer included more sober reflection on the self-help movement or the effects on their lives, it often struck me as a bit superficial. The tone was very uneven. This book didn’t really do much for me at all.

Jospeh Reid’s Take Off was a far-fetched thriller in the time-worn subgenre of “damaged rogue agent defies the incompetent system to try to save the day”. It had a substantial body count, James Bond-esque antics which went far beyond stretching credibility (people leaping off the roofs of buildings, a gun battle in flight between a Cessna and a helicopter), and a final resolution which raised more questions than it answered. Reid clearly had more novels about the protagnosit Seth Walker in mind, and gave hints about tragedy and heartbreak in the Walker’s backstory in a way that I imagine was supposed to be tantalising, but just felt forced.

This 2,335th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

What I’ve been reading this month

I think everyone has some cultural awareness of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels given the number of adaptations there have been. I think many people also read it in school, though I don’t remember doing so. It was 300 pages of often laugh-out-loud social and political satire disguised as a sort of fantasy. It’s nearly 300-years old but didn’t seem it. The satire was biting and relevant to today’s world. The repeated needling of misogyny, in particular, felt like it could be from a sketch show commenting on today’s gender politics, and the observation that, in England, “ignorance, idleness, and vice, are the proper ingredients for qualifying a legislator” is made as regularly today as it has ever been. I thought this was brilliant.
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“Husband, father, drag queen, sex worker, wife, funeral director, trauma cleaner.” This was quite the collection of roles in life, all of which have been played by Sandra Pankhurst, the remarkable subject of Sarah Krasnostein’s biography The Trauma Cleaner. Krasnostein is a gifted author who brought out the humour in Sandra’s story alongside reflections on the ordinariness of this remarkable life, while also drawing broadly applicable life lessons from the more extraordinary areas of Sandra’s life. There were sections of prose which read like poetry. Krasnostein was up-front about the limits of her confidence regarding the accuracy of Sandra’s story, but even if only half of it were true, Sandra would still be a great subject for a biography.
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Nothing opened my eyes as much this month as The Secret Barrister, a book which flew with wit through the many holes in the English criminal justice system to devastating effect. I had no idea of the degree to which cuts to funding have damaged the criminal justice system. I had no idea that acquitted defendants not entitled to legal aid are no longer able to claim back their legal costs. I had no idea that compensation for wrongful conviction and imprisonment had been eroded to such an extreme degree. I had some idea that the Crown Prosecution Service wasn’t working, but I had no idea of the degree of the problem. I found this educational, shocking, sad and also hilarious.
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Rutger Bregman’s Upoptia for Realists, translated by Elizabeth Manton, argued that our societal development has stalled because nobody in politics promotes “visionary” ideas any more, only different versions of the same basic model of society. I strongly disagree: I think we are living through a time of profound societal change at a pace never before seen in the history of humanity. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book’s discussion of three ideas which probably receive less attention than they deserve: the 15-hour work week, a universal basic income, and a world without borders. This book helped me to look at society from a couple of new perspectives.
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Outliers was Malcolm Gladwell’s book about the effect of cultural and societal norms on individual achievement. It aimed to challenge the notion that exceptional achievements typically result from individual exceptionalism, positing that they instead often result from a combination of social fortune plus a strong dose of luck. My impression is that this is generally taken as given in British society, but is perhaps less so in the US. This means that, as a British reader, bits of this seemed tonally ‘off’ to me. That said, most of the anecdotes and examples in this book were new to me, and I enjoyed reading through them.
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Lies That Bind Us was no more and no less than a perfectly serviceable beach-read thriller by Andrew Hart. It concerned a group of twenty-somethings who went on holiday to Crete, where “things” happened. The group returned to Crete 1,000 days later to find that the “things” came back to haunt them. The central character, a compulsive liar, tried to piece the whole thing together through flashbacks. There was nothing particularly spectacular about the plot or writing, but the pages kept turning. There’s a thread of Greek myth throughout the book which is spoiled by being continually and unnecessarily exposited, but I can forgive that in this sort of “read it with half an eye” novel. It was fine.
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This 2,334th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

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