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What I’ve been reading this month

In The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, Tennessee Williams wove a complex tale with lots of moral uncertainty from a relatively straightforward (and short) plot. The plot concerned the relationships between an aging actress whose career has just ended in a somewhat hubristic flop and a cast of other characters, including her recently deceased husband, the wealthy Contessa, a beautiful gigolo and an equally, if not more, beautiful but possibly homeless male stalker. I found it filled with a deliciously cruel and cynical wit, and it made me reflect on far more than a novella typically would: the nature of aging, how people find their role in life after major changes happen, the meaning of beauty, how well we understand others motivations (and how often we are in self-denial about them), the insecurities of inter-generational romances, and more besides. I think this one is going to stick with me for a while.

Another short book – really no more than an extended essay – I read this month was Lying by Sam Harris. Harris’s thesis was that lying is almost never the morally correct course of action, and that ‘white lies’ in particular can be far more damaging than they seem. It was an interesting argument made with conviction, and it too has caused me to think and reflect quite a lot.

Matthew Walker’s mega best-seller Why We Sleep was both great and disappointing. It made me think differently about sleep and convinced me that sufficient high quality sleep is required to maintain optimal health. It described a lot of interesting and ingenious sleep studies, and the writing style was engaging. But Walker’s misuse of statistics – quoting only relative risks, and sometimes even relative risks before correction for confounders – really riled me, and left me uncertain as to whether the dramatic claim that sleep deprivation ‘is the greatest public health challenge we face in the twenty-first century in developed nations’ was a reasoned conclusion or an exaggeration intended to sell books.

The Wisdom of Insecurity, Alan W Watts’s almost 70-year-old best-selling and much-loved book on modern philosophy did nothing for me. I felt that it lack any cohesive structure and meandered between disparate ideas without ever really diving in to examine any of them. The central argument is something along the lines of “we live in a world filled with insecurity, so live only for the present moment”. Even the prose felt clunky to me. Had it not been so short, I would have given up on it.

This 2,338th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

What I’ve been reading this month

All That Remains by Professor Dame Sue Black was a gripping read. Black essentially described her lifelong relationship with death, from deaths which affected her personally, deaths she investigated in her role as a world-leading forensic anthropologist, and even her thoughts about her own death. Not remotely morbid or maudlin, Black’s enthusiasm for anatomy and forensic pathology shone though, as did her wicked sense of humour. I really enjoyed this book.

I read Jane Austen’s Emma after work colleagues expressed shock that I’ve never read any of her work. I was left pretty conflicted. I raced through it, and I think I enjoyed reading it. However, I loathed almost all of the characters, and the manipulative snob of a protagonist in particular. This left a bitter taste.

I enjoyed Graeme Simsion’s follow up to The Rosie Project, The Rosie Effect, but not quite as much as the original. It was noticeably longer than the first volume, but someone felt as though it covered less ground, and naturally felt less original. I’ll still pick up the third volume when it’s published.

A Station on the Path to Somewhere Better was a wonderfully atmospheric thriller full of pleasingly complex characters. It was narrated by a man in his 30s, retelling horrific events which occurred during a visit to Leeds with his father when he was 12 years old. There was a good dash of horror in there, but at heart, this was an interesting reflection on the nature of parent-child relationships.

I’m sure I’ve read F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby before, and I read it again this month. I could barely remember any of it, and on re-reading, I’m not surprised. I’m not sure why, but I just didn’t feel any great connection to this book. It just sort of passed before my eyes, leaving no real impression at all (neither good nor bad).

John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism left me a bit conflicted. There were passages which made me see aspects of religion and atheism differently and changed my thinking. There were others that went above my head, I’m afraid: as someone with no particular background in philosophy or religion, some of it was just too technical for me. I left this book unable to give even a thumbnail sketch of the different types of Atheism despite each having its own chapter, which I guess says something about the book. But there were some great bits.

This 2,337th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

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.

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