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TV I’ve been watching lately

Since I started writing about books I’ve read, I’ve found that more and more people come up to me in real life and start talking to me about books. I’m continually amazed that any ‘real people’ take any notice of what I write online; but given that at least some people notice, I thought I should balance those posts with one about veging in front of the TV, which I do at least as often as reading. So here are some TV shows I’ve enjoyed recently.

The Good Wife / The Good Fight

Wendy and I have recently finished an epic marathon of all seven series of The Good Wife, followed by the first season of the sequel series, The Good Fight. The Good Wife is about a politician’s wife whose husband is sent to prison, meaning that she has to return to her former profession as a lawyer after 13 years as a stay-at-home mother. It’s a smart show, with lots of personal drama played out against a background of politics, law and technology. The Good Fight changes the pace and style a little, which was a bit jarring at first, but overall served to freshen the show up well. Wendy and I are both looking forward to the next season!
DVD on Amazon / Stream on Google Play / Stream on iTunes / Stream on Netflix

Mozart in the Jungle

The Amazon Prime series Mozart in the Jungle is a brilliant comedy-drama about passion, professionalism and music. Inspired by Blair Tindall’s autobiography of the same name, the show follows both the appointment of a new conductor to the New York Symphony Orchestra, and the travails of a young oboist trying to break into the orchestral ‘big league’. Wendy and I ran through all three series in a couple of weeks, and are eagerly awaiting the release of series four next month.
Stream on Amazon

The Young Pope

The Young Pope is a beautifully shot ten-parter featuring Jude Law as the first American pope. The plot essentially concerns whether Pope Pius XIII is a megalomaniac intent on the destruction of the Church or an actual Saint capable of performing miracles. Or, I guess, both. This is a series unlike anything else I’ve seen on TV – artistic, dramatic, hilarious, over-the-top, and just plain weird in parts (including the opening shots). I beleive a follow up series is being made next year, and I can’t wait.
DVD on Amazon / Stream on Google Play / Stream on iTunes

The Bridge / Bron / Broen

Despite being years late to the party, I’ve really enjoyed watching the first two series of The Bridge recently. It’s an expertly crafted bi-lingual Scandinavian crime drama. Both series are dramatic and thrilling, but also filled with enough humour and levity to prevent it becoming depressing. Absolutely brilliant – I just wish I’d watched it before I visited Cophenhagen and Malmö last year!
DVD on Amazon / Stream on Google Play / Stream on iTunes

Amanda Knox

The Neflix special Amanda Knox is one of those programmes that feels a bit ethically conflicted, profiting (as it surely does) from the murder of a 21-year-old young woman. But it nonetheless gave an intriguing and thoughtful insight into the events surrounding the crime and provided food for thought and reflection.
Stream on Google Play / Stream on Netflix

American Vandal

The Netflix series American Vandal is a brilliant, hilarious yet strangely dramatic spoof of true crime series, and especially the podcast series Serial. The (scripted, fictional) series follows an amateur investigation into which student at a high school is accused of vandalising 27 staff members’ cars by drawing “phallic images” on them. It’s ridiculous yet brilliant.
Stream on Netflix

This 2,326th post was filed under: Reviews.

What’s in my daily work bag?

Over the last few years, there’s been a growing trend in business publications and productivity websites to ask notable people what they carry in the bag they cart to work each day. These people always seem to have a well-organised kit of polished shiny expensive things, and an astounding absence of junk. I struggle to relate to this. So, to redress the balance, here’s what’s in my bag.

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This is my bag. It’s a Jasper Conran briefcase that Wendy bought me a few years ago. It’s dark brown, and I usually carry it while wearing a black or grey suit, which probably counts as a fashion crime.

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This is my Lenovo N20p Chromebook, which is the laptop I carry most often. I do have a work-issued ThinkPad, but this is faster, lighter, has better battery life, and does most of the things I need to do on the move—even more so since the Office webapps were upgraded. The battery life is so strong that I don’t bother carrying the power cord.

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I usually carry a stack of these cardboard document wallets with papers related to projects or meetings in them. This one is a bit atypical: I usually label them with a sticker in the top-right corner with the title, place, date and time of the meeting they relate to. After the meeting, I typically over-label the sticker and reuse the folder. This is a great system because it is so flexible: it doesn’t feel ridiculous turning up to a meeting with a stuffed folder, or with a folder containing only one sheet. And with top-right labelling, I can see where I should be and when by just flicking through the stack of folders in my bag.

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This is a Moleskine Large Ruled Cahier Journal. This is what I take notes in. I usually have about three of them on the go at any one time so that there’s always one to hand. The paper in them is great quality Moleskine stuff, which is great because I like to write with inky pens. The cardboard cover is just about sturdy enough not to get bent out of shape in my bag. And it’s just about informal enough to doodle in, and still formal enough to scribble down minutes when required. It’s a great product.

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These are some individually wrapped Boots lens wipes. I have these secreted all over the place. There’s nothing worse than having a giant smudge in the middle of your glasses and no easy way of cleaning it off.

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This is an M&S umbrella; I can’t link to it as they don’t sell this model any more. It goes up, it goes down, and it keeps me dry. I’ve never yet seen a profile of someone’s work bag which includes an umbrella, which strikes me as slightly baffling.

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This is a random plastic wotsit I found in the bottom of my bag. I’ve no idea what its function in life is or was. I probably won’t throw it out though, just in case.

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This is an EasyAcc PowerBank which I rarely use, but which occasionally saves my bacon if my phone has run out of juice. When the PowerBank is charged, it seems to hold its charge forever, so it works well as an emergency top-up device that I can just leave rattling round my bag.

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These are pharmaceuticals (paracetamol and ibuprofen), busting the stereotype that men don’t carry this sort of thing. I very rarely have recourse to use them, but I’m always very glad I have them when I need them. These particular ones came from Boots, and are about 20p more expensive than the equivalents in the major supermarkets. I must have been feeling flush when I bought them.

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The Control of Communicable Diseases Manual is a book a refer to constantly, and this is the brand new 20th edition that I bought only last week. I had the good fortune to met its esteemed editor, David Haymann, once—though didn’t find out that it was him until afterwards. I dread to think what smalltalk I subjected him to. Sorry.

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This is an empty flash drive that I carry just in case. This particular one is from Maplin (they don’t seem to sell this variety any more), and was bought in a crisis when I couldn’t find any of my 6,000 other flash drives. My talent for losing these things knows no bounds.

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This is a pair of engraved steel collar stiffeners. I’ve no idea how they got in my bag, but then: who doesn’t have a pair of engraved steel collar stiffeners in the bottom of their bag?

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This is an entanglement of my phone charger and headphones. I rarely listen to anything other than speech through my headphones, so I just use the ones that came with my phone. Apologies to any audiophiles who wince when they see people like me. The phone charger is also the one that came with my phone. It’s a handy one to carry as the earth pin slides down to make the plug more compact. A clever bit of design!

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Confounding stereotypes again: Wet Ones. Another thing I don’t use all that often, but feel very glad that I carry whenever I do need to use them.

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This is a collection and a half of writing instruments. I’d love to have a strong rationale for each on of those, but it really is just a jumble. My preferred pen is the black Uniball Gel Impact—there is one of those in there, but there would usually be two or three. The rest are mainly freebies from here and there. You’ll be pleased to hear that I retrieved the lid for the whiteboard marker just after I took this photo.

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This is a free name badge that MPS gave me and all of my fellow medical-school graduates. I’ve never worn it: it’s another thing I carry just in case. As I write this post, I’m wondering what possible situation could arise where I’d need this… but nevertheless, it stays in the bag.

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And finally… a book. I always carry a book to read on the Metro. I’m about two-thirds of the way through Faceless Killers at the moment. No spoilers please.

This 2,296th post was filed under: Reviews.

The life-changing magic of tidying

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Today, I finished reading a rather unusual book. Marie Kondo’s The life-changing magic of tidying is a book for which I wouldn’t have had even a passing consideration had it not been for a recommendation from Tim Harford in the Financial Times. Tim—an economist—reckoned that a book on tidying had—in his words—”rocked his world”. This I had to read.

Kondo’s book rocked my world, too.

Kondo is a professional tidying coach. Who knew that such a thing existed? Her advice, delivered in a way that can only be described as heartfelt and beguiling, is to bin most of what you own, and form an intimate relationship with what is left. And when I say intimate relationship… this is a lady who believes most strongly in talking to your possessions at length, caressing the spines of your books, and treating every inanimate object in your home as if it is your friend.

Her horror at some of her clients seemingly innocuous actions—balling socks, hanging shirts, keeping shower gel in the shower—is absurd, yet delivered with such passion that it becomes entirely endearing.

I so badly wanted to share so many passages from this short book that it might have come close to plagiarism. But because I really, really want you to buy the book and experience the beguiling madness for yourself, I’ve chosen a single passage from the start of a chapter to give you a flavour of the advice within.

 This is the routine I follow every day when I return from work. First, I unlock the door and announce to my house, ‘I’m home!’ Picking up the pair of shoes I wore yesterday and left out in the hall, I say, ‘Thank you very much for your hard work,’ and put them away in the shoe cupboard. Then I take off the shoes I wore today and place them neatly in the hall. Heading to the kitchen, I put the kettle on and go to my bedroom. There I lay my handbag gently on the soft sheepskin rug and take off my outdoor clothes. I put my jacket and dress on a hangar, say ‘Good job!’ and hang them temporarily from the wardrobe doorknob. I put my tights in a laundry basket that fits into the bottom right corner of my cupboard, open a drawer, select the clothes I feel like wearing indoors and get dressed. I greet the waist-high potted plant by the window and stroke its leaves.

My next task is to empty the contents of my handbag onto the rug and put each item away in its place. First I remove all the receipts. Then I put my purse in its designated box in a drawer under my bed with a word of gratitude. I place my train pass and my business card holder beside it. I put my wristwatch in a pink antique case in the same drawer and place my necklace and earrings on the accessory tray beside it. Before closing the drawer, I say, ‘Thanks for all you did for me today.’

Despite—or, perhaps, because of—the madness, it seems to me that there is actually some really sound advice in this book. And Kondo’s enthusiasm for tidying is contagious. I couldn’t help but do a bit of tidying while reading.

So wonderful craziness with a dash of sense and a heap of motivation. What’s not to love? Trust me, Marie Kondo’s The life-changing magic of tidying is a book you will really enjoy—even if it would usually be the last thing on your reading list.



The picture isn't my house. I'm not that tidy.

This 2,293rd post was filed under: Reviews, .

Thoughts on the Serial podcast

Among my friends, not having an opinion about the Serial podcast is roughly as socially acceptable as not having an opinion on the Cereal Killer cafe. And as someone who listens to a lot of podcasts (most of them actually of radio shows), I feel particularly entitled to have a view.

For those who have been offline over the last few months, Serial was a weekly podcast with a new episode released each week. It was presented and produced by experienced American radio journalist Sarah Koenig. The podcast followed Koenig’s investigation into the 1999 murder of schoolgirl Hae Min Lee, for which her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, had been convicted and imprisoned.

General life and busyness mean that I didn’t quite manage to keep up with the weekly pace of Sarah Koenig and Co’s Serial. A couple of week ago, though, I finally finished the first season; here follow a few jotted thoughts.

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It was very addictive…

Serial displaced everything else on my podcast playlist. I listened to episode after episode, and couldn’t get enough. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and look forward with keen anticipation to the second season.

…but not as innovative as many people suggested.

Blog post after newspaper column after magazine review have suggested that Serial‘s format of a single story told over several weeks is novel, yet Radio 4 has used this structure for decades on hundreds (probably thousands) of dramas, and tens (probably hundreds) of documentary series. The combination of a sort of gonzo journalism and drama was, I concede, a little unusual—but not novel.

Sarah Koenig was the perfect host…

I’ve never listened to anything Koenig has done before. I don’t know if she’s a regular on This American Life because (heresy ahead) I don’t listen to that show. But for this, she was perfect. She has a brilliant radio voice and great way of writing text that pulls in the listener. This listener can’t praise her presentation highly enough.

…but the overall tone was odd.

Jonathan Rothwell wrote a few weeks ago about the weirdness of the show’s slightly jaunty ‘whodunnit’ tone and the way in which this jars with the reality of what is being described. This is a real life brutal murder case; the very existence of the journalist’s investigation implies a reasonable suspicion of a miscarriage of justice, with all the additional harm that carries; yet the story is often treated rather lightly. I found the cognitive dissonance of content and tone unsettling.

The production was fantastic…

The handoffs between Koenig’s presentation and clips of interviews and archive material were seamless. I think this owes much to the writing and the presentation, but also the production and compilation of clips that demonstrated each point was impressive. This is something a lot of Radio 4 productions do really badly, so it’s a joy to hear it done well.

…except for the use of music.

Music is powerful, and especially so in radio drama where the only stimulus is auditory. If you add in music underneath a witness’s recorded testimony, it will change my perception of that testimony. If you are trying to make a balanced review of a case to allow me to reach my own conclusions, then your music is likely to be prejudicial. If you are trying to make drama and argue for one side or another, you probably shouldn’t be playing with people’s lives through a podcast.

I worried about the narration overstating facts…

There were a few episodes in which the characterisations of events in the narration extended beyond the described facts of the case. It is difficult to describe exactly what I mean without giving an example – apologies if this counts as a spoiler.

In episode six, there is a lot of discussion of the ‘neighour-boy’. He is reported as having once said that he had been shown the body, but he did not testify at the trial. This is repeatedly characterised Koenig as the ‘neighbour-boy’ being a witness to the murder. This is evidently false: seeing a body is not equivalent to seeing a murder.

There are a few similar incidents through the series, and I can’t quite decide whether they are mere slips of the tongue, or whether there is a conscious decision to refer to the events in these terms to heighten the drama. Either way, given the import of the situation, it seems plainly to be wrong, and unfair to interviewees as much as to the accused.

…and got a bit claustrophobic in parts.

This may be the public health physician coming out in me, but I felt that the series was very narrowly focused on the case at hand—with a couple of notable exceptions. The series would have benefited from drawing more on similar cases and from aggregated data about many cases. I wanted stats!

I don’t know why it aired before completion…

It isn’t clear to me why Serial started airing before the series was complete. It seems a curious decision, and one with which I’m not entirely comfortable. Hypothetically, if someone had confessed, would the series have continued? Would it have been fair to air a recorded confession prior proper investigation? Would it be fair even to report such a confession? Starting a story which has such a big impact on the lives of all involved without clear knowledge of where it might end strikes me as mildly irresponsible.

I think this changed the nature of the podcast, too—the tone and focus seemed to shift as the podcast went on, in a way which might well be attributable to the media coverage it generated. It started out as an exploration of the limits of reasonable doubt, and ended as an unsolved whodunnit. The former was a more interesting concept, with more interesting stuff to explore, than the latter.

…nor why there were strange gaps in the story.

Relevant questions seemed to go undiscussed in Serial – though it’s possible I just missed them. (Possible spoilers ahead.) It’s not clear to me whether Jay knew where the body was. It’s repeatedly said that Jay was able to show where the victim’s car was, but there’s no discussion of whether he knew the location of the body. This is a bizarre omission given that his story is that he helped to bury the body.

And don’t get me started about that conclusion.

I felt like the podcast got a bit wrapped up in itself by the end. My impression throughout was that the intention was to explore the nature of reasonable doubt. It seemed as though the show caved to externally generated expectation to ‘solve’ the crime in the final episode – an unrealistic expectation which wasn’t met, but was sort of pointed at and talked around. This was a shame. I would’ve liked a much more strident ending that pointed out (spoilers ahead) that – no – we don’t know who committed the murder but – yes – the trial outcome was wrong because of the gulf of doubt. I wanted Koenig to come out fighting about ‘innocent until proven guilty’, not giving a personal reflection on her own personal theories about Syed’s guilt or innocence.

But overall—I can’t wait for Season Two.

There were problems, but—all things considered—I enjoyed Serial. It’s great to hear speech radio done really, really well. I donated towards a second season and will look forward to listening to it. In the meantime, I’m now totally hooked on another This American Life alumnus’s podcast: Alex Blumberg’s Startup (and Reply All, which I actually discovered first). Oh, and This Week in Google, of course. Not forgetting my preferred alarm clock, The Globalist. And More or Less. And… well… all the good stuff.

This 2,291st post was filed under: Media, Reviews, , .

Review: The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston is a book which has been on my ‘to read’ list for years. But, in the light of the recent outbreak, I thought the time to dive in has come.

The book describes an outbreak of Ebola, which occurred in the late 1980s in Washington, DC, a mere stone’s throw from the White House. The outbreak initially spread among imported monkeys and (I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler) then to a small number of humans. The narrative follows the medical, public health, and scientific teams involved in controlling and tackling the outbreak; describing not just their actions, but also their thoughts, feelings, fears, and reflections.

Preston converts this tale into a page-turning thriller. Much of the content isn’t typical thriller material, but Preston does a sterling job of explaining complex scientific concepts and processes in simple (yet accurate) terms; this is quite an achievement. Preston lends his eloquence to horrifying descriptions of Ebola-related deaths, which, I suspect, some readers might find hard to stomach. He also adds heaps of drama and tension that might reflect the atmosphere of a group of experts grappling with an outbreak of a deadly virus.

However, Preston does tend to lean toward the more extreme end of the physical and emotional range. He certainly has a talent for sensationalism. It is important to consider this book for what it is: a mass-market paperback thriller based on real events, not a level-headed factual report.

This book should appeal to many audiences: those with a passing interest in public health and infectious diseases; those with an interest in how major incidents and outbreaks are coordinated and handled; and those who enjoy a horrifying, suspenseful, and thrilling tale of a race against time.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I admire the considerable skill of the author in creating a page-turner that stays true to the facts of the case, and in deftly explaining complex scientific concepts. Yet, I don’t think this is a book that I’ll ever re-read; once is enough. Still, I would absolutely recommend it.


The Hot Zone is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.



With a little help from my friends, this post will also appear on Medium, Goodreads, Amazon and some other places too, shortly after publication here. Recycling is good for the environment, right?

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This 2,275th post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Review: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

You may know that The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro won the Booker Prize in 1989. You may know that it remains one of the 20th century's most critically acclaimed novels. You may know that it was adapted into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, nominated for 8 Academy Awards in 1994.

Somehow, all of this passed me by. Indeed, when I downloaded it onto my Kindle, I thought it was a new release. Despite having read several of Ishiguro's novels in the past, my addled brain had (very) wrongly confused him with Haruki Murakami.

Yet even with my warped preconceptions, The Remains of the Day blew me away.

It is absorbing, beautifully composed, moving, and deep. The way this novel subtly drew me in and toyed with my emotions put me in mind of a Shostakovich piano concerto: the music does the work of capturing attention and emotion, and before you know it, without any particular effort or concentration, you are drawn into and beguiled by a whole new world.

The novel is narrated by an elderly butler on a road trip in the 1950s. He reflects on his life, and his strive for professionalism and 'dignity'. The characterisation is so complete that when I think of the narrator, Stevens, I think of a person rather than a character. The Remains of the Day is a novel about the nature of relationships: professional, personal, and, almost existentially, with oneself. It has glittering moments of humour which made me laugh out loud. And it has moments of remarkable tenderness – which are almost painful to read – and moments of morality and politics which provide genuine food for thought.

The composition is wonderful. The narrator is not entirely reliable, and infuses much of his commentary with predictable (possibly professional?) bias, but he also accurately reports speech in a way which allows the reader to fill in the gaps. This is hardly an original device, but it is rarely used to such profoundly devastating effect as in this work.

It is a matter of some fascination to me that so many other readers and reviewers describe this novel as 'sad'. Certainly, it reflects on a life which some might consider unfulfilled, and certainly, the tale of the narrator is heart-breaking. Yet I found the novel itself rather life-affirming. The Remains of the Day caused me to reflect on my own life – as all the best novels do – and to reflect with some satisfaction.

If I were to summarise this book in a single word, it would be: beguiling. I mean that in the more traditional sense of the word, both enchanting and mildly deceptive. Ishiguro does all the heavy-lifting in this book, guiding the reader through Stevens's world and gently signposting his flaws. Each word is chosen so carefully as to turn the prose into poetry. This is a challenging book, but by no means a challenging read.

I cannot recommend The Remains of the Day highly enough.

Remains of the Day is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.



With a little help from my friends, this post will also appear on Medium, Goodreads, Amazon and some other places too, shortly after publication here. Recycling is good for the environment, right?

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This 2,257th post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Review: One More Thing: Stories and other stories by BJ Novak

I confess that when I bought One More Thing: Stories and other stories, my expectations were low. I braced myself for a comedian's memoir, not unlike the tens of recent precedents. I foresaw a series of anecdotal tales with varying levels of humour and, if I was lucky, a little pith. I knew Novak only from The Office and, regardless of others' plaudits, I never rated his acting. All of which is to say: I was expecting a car crash.

My expectations were confounded. I thoroughly enjoyed this wide-ranging collection of short stories, which deftly covers every aspect of the human condition. Some stories are a couple of sentences; some are considerably longer. Some are funny; others thoughtful; others genuinely moving. Others miss the mark, but this latter category is by far the smallest. He litters the text with some mildly irritating "discussion questions", which have a tendency to point to the obvious or become indulgently self-aware, but they're easily skipped.

While the stories are clever, however, Novak's ear is excellent. At his best, he crafts lines that live long in the memory, and captures characters and dialogue with the deftness of a literary great. I could write about his use of language all day long, but I'll restrain myself to a handful of examples.

While spinning one corporate yarn, Novak uses the pitch-perfect phrase

"more than 140,000 distinct units of social media approval"

This phrase could have been uttered in any one of tens of meetings I've endured over the past twelve months. It captures so perfectly that self-affirming desire of so many corporate shills to name things in ways which are understood by everyone but familiar to no-one.

Novak is also possessed of a poetic ability to use adjectives in a metaphorical, rather than literal, way. This seems to have become rarer in recent years, for reasons that I don't fully understand. But Novak has a teacher "nodding without moving their head", and some "bold, capital numbers" to name but two examples.

I feel obliged to single out some individual stories for comment. If I Had a Nickel was, perhaps, the only story which was far longer than its point required. Closure felt tricksy, rather than clever, and didn't make much of a point. Beyond that, most of the stories are pretty good. Some are brilliant.

Recently, I've given poor reviews (in both senses of that phrase) to books by Paul Carr and Dave Cicirelli which cover much the same ground as Novak's One of these days, we have to do something about Willie. And yet, Novak communicates more and gives more pause for thought about the same topics in a short story than either of those two managed in their respective books combined.

The Man Who Invented the Calendar is one of his "Just So" style stories, which I had previously read in the New Yorker without ever mentally attributing to Novak. Indeed, it is one of the weaker of these stories in the book, but I suspect reading it will provide some indication as to whether one might like the book as a whole.

For my money, this book is great. It is a bold and captivating literary debut, and the most thoughtful and enjoyable book I've read in some months. Novak is a bona fide literary talent, and I'll hunt out his next work.

One More Thing: Stories and other stories is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.



Shortly after publication, this post will also appear on Medium, Goodreads, Amazon and some other places too. Because: why not?

This 2,247th post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

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