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What I’ve been reading this month

Margareta Magusson, a Swedish grandmother “aged between 80 and 100”, wrote a funny and heartwarming book about The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, or basically tidying up your stuff before you die. This was a delightful book full of humour and sage advice. I really enjoyed it.

The Little Snake by A.L. Kennedy was a modern fairy tale centered on the relationship between a young girl, Mary, and a little snake, Lanmo. I found it a rather charming exploration of life, death, friendship and love. It was apparently inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, and the experience of reading Kennedy’s book has inspired me to add this to my ‘to read’ list.

I really enjoyed Sarah Langford’s book In Your Defence. This was a collection of case studies from a career as a barrister, chosen to illustrate particular points about the law and the legal profession. I recently read The Secret Barrister, and found it interesting to reflect on the different approach to similar subject matter taken by the two different authors. While I really enjoyed The Secret Barrister, I think I preferred Langford’s approach overall.

I found With the End in Mind by Kathryn Mannix to be rather sadder that I initially expected, which was perhaps a bit silly of me given that it was a book about death. It was a book I could only read in small chunks for that reason, though it had a lot of interesting points to make about palliative care and society’s approach to death.

I’m not someone who would be naturally drawn to a book about Prince Charles, but Tom Bower’s Rebel Prince has received such praise from so many corners that I had to see what the fuss was about. Bower concentrated on the period of Charles’s life from his divorce from Diana onwards. Bower portrayed a likable but perhaps fatally flawed Prince, keen to do his best for his country, but held back by impetuousness, and limited intellect and a very thin skin. I felt that this biography left me with a much better understanding of Charles as a man, and ended up feeling a little sorry for him.

This 2,340th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

What I’ve been reading this month

The Gregory Hays translation of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations felt lift-changing for me. As you no doubt know, this was essentially the personal notebook of Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor from the second century AD. This is not something I would ever have dreamed of picking up if I hadn’t previously stumbled across some of Seneca’s essays and thoroughly enjoyed them. Meditations contains no essays, just brief points, observations and reflections on life. For that reason, I expected not to enjoy it as much, as I typically like to read arguments that are developed and explained. Yet it took me ages to get through the 200 tiny pages of this book because of the capacity for one of Aurelius’s points to completely change my perspective on something going on in my day-to-day life. I cannot think of any other book I’ve ever read that has held that power. People may think I’m a complete doofus for not reading and appreciating this sooner, and they may well roll their eyes at my naivety of feeling this strongly about this particular volume, but I can’t think of any book I’ve ever read that has been as profoundly affecting at this one.

Axel Lindén’s On Sheep (or Fårdagboken), translated by Frank Perry, was a short meditative diary of Lindén’s transformation from Stokholm lecturer to rural Swedish shepherd. Despite its length, I found it completely transporting and Lindén seemed wholly endearing. He described his shepherding role in minute detail at times, and reflected profoundly on all sorts of aspects of life and happiness. There was also a good dose of wit. I would never have expected to enjoy a book on Swedish farming nearly this much. This book will live long in the memory.

The Only Story by Julian Barnes knocked me a bit sideways and had a real emotional punch. I had no idea what it was about when I started reading, and perhaps because of that, the progress of the story was very unexpected. It is, in a nutshell, the story of a relationship, told with masterful characterisation and fantastic prose. I really enjoyed this.

TM, by Mark Sinclair, was a large format hardback describing the stories behind the development of 29 famous logos. Some of these stories were new to me whereas others have been repeated often in many formats. There was a bit of a British skew in the logos discussed, including British Rail, British Steel, Tate, V&A, the National Theatre and London Underground – but I found that interesting as it meant the logos were largely familiar to me. This was a beautifully produced book, and some of the stories were quite enlightening.

Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter was a stunning coffee table book containing beautiful photography and page layouts. It provided an annotated libretto for the blockbuster musical Hamilton, along with chapters on the development of the musical and so forth. Of course, the libretto was exceptionally good and drew on a hugely eclectic range historical, literary and pop culture sources to reference. But I knew all of that before I bought the book: I’ve been fortunate enough to see the show and have listened to the cast album many times. And, in nutshell, I didn’t get a whole lot more out of this. It was a wonderful souvenir of the musical, but I don’t think I learned a lot more or gained any particularly new insights from it.

David Szalay’s All That Man Is contained Nine short stories of men away from home having crises of confidence, each a little older than the last. There were lots of thematic connections between the stories, but somehow they still didn’t seem to add up to more than just nine stories, which left me feeling a bit disappointed (even though the writing was really good).

This 2,339th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

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.

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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