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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)

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