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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.

What I’ve been reading this month

It struck me that Matthew Kneale’s An Atheist’s History of Belief was neither particularly for atheists nor a comprehensive history of belief. Rather, Kneale presented interesting potted histories about the development over thousands of years of soecific aspects of various religions, picked – by Kneale’s own admission – for the fact that they are interesting stories. For example, he tracked beliefs about violence within Christianity from Jesus’s time through witch trials and the crusades to the modern day; and he followed Buddhism from it being a lifestyle through to a fully fledged religion and back again. Kneale clearly has a good eye for a story, and made this book very enjoyable and interesting.
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Anthony Longden’s essay in Slightly Foxed persuaded me to seek out a copy of Ruth Adam’s A House in the Country. It was a gentle story written and set shortly after the Second World War. A group of six friends (and a couple of young children), ground down by wartime urban living, decided to club together to live communally in a large country house in Kent, which they had loved at first sight. Adam described the mostly humorous, but sometimes poignant, series of adventures and disasters which follow. The characters felt absolutely complete and true-to-life in a fashion that is rarely true in a book this short. The most interestsing aspect to me was the natural discussion of the rapid change in social mores over the post-war period, and the impact this had on individuals. I have no idea whether this book was entirely fiction or rather based on Adam’s experiences. This is not the sort of book I would typically pick up, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
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Every Third Thought was an extended reflection on death by Robert McCrum who explored how one’s perspective on death changes with age. This wasn’t a superficial examination of the topic which ended with cheery messages about ‘living every day as if it’s your last’: it was an uncompromisingly depressing examination of the pain and suffering that often accompanies the end of life. There was much in this book to think about and reflect on further.
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I found Nick Clegg’s book on How to Stop Brexit disappoiting and confused. Most of the book was a restatement of reasons why Britain should remain the EU, but this was followed by a logically flawed set of suggestions for stopping Brexit. For example, Clegg argued that the referendum was unfair because the result of a ‘leave’ vote was not clear in advance. In this book, he advocated for a second referendum with a clear ‘leave’ deal on offer, but in which a ‘remain’ vote would result in a commission to re-evaluate and re-negotiate the UK’s place in the EU: therefore, the very same charge about a lack of clarity of sequelae previously associated with the ‘leave’ campaign then becomes problematic for the ‘remain’ campaign. Having enjoyed Clegg’s autobiography, I expected a lot more from this book.
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In Trust Me, I’m Lying, Ryan Holiday shared his angry at how easy it has become to manipulate bloggers into publishing content that is blatantly untrue, and how credulously traditonal media outlets then pick up those posts and re-report them as fact. Holiday drew on his experience in using this technique to court controversy as a marketer for American Apparel. Holiday admitted to seeing no easy solution, but wrote admiringly about subscription-based approaches to journalism as part of the answer. I feel better informed for having read this, but found the snarky tone and strong language distracting.
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I picked up the Lionel Giles translation of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War because it is so often referred to in other things I’ve read. It was a short book of military strategy written 1500 years ago. Much of it seemed pretty obvious, but I suppose that is because it has become received wisdom. What struck me most about this, though, was not really the book at all. Other have suggested that this book contains great lessons for surviving modern life, or for succeeding as a politician, or for informing business strategies, or for managing a team. On reading and realising that this is just a manual for slaughtering adversaries without mercy, it made me feel a little sad that people see so much in this for other parts of life. I hope life isn’t about fighting with others: I hope life is about discussion and mutual respect and compromise and forgiveness and helping people out. So reading this left me with a general sense of pensive melancholy, not so much about the book itself, but about the place many people see it taking in the modern world.
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This 2,332nd post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

What I’ve been reading this month

I’m not someone who would naturally pick up a book written 2000 years ago. I’m no classicist. But there has been so much written online and in magazines in recent years about Seneca’s Moral Essays that I thought I’d pick up a translation to see what all the fuss was about. The volume I selected contained Seneca’s essays On Providence, On Firmness, On Anger and the sliver that survives of On Mercy. These essays were many times better than anything modern I’ve read on character or morality. The John W Basore translations were highly readable and engaging. There were parts that made reference to Seneca’s contemporaries or cultural/religious figures that slightly went over my head, but the down-to-Earth “life advice” was astounding. It also made me reflect that there’s more in this single volume on effective management of people than anything I’ve ever previously read. I was completely blown away.
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A Death in The Family was the first of five parts of Karl Ove Knausgård’s radically honest autobiography. This volume covered Knausgård’s relationship with and the death of his father. The book was extreme in its honesty. Knausgård left nothing to the imagination. He didn’t spare family or friends in his descriptions of them and nor did he spare himself in documenting his darkest inner thoughts. His descriptions were detailed, meticulous and evocative. “Transcendent” seems to be a word commonly associated with this book and that captures my impression. It is a very impressive first volume.
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Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths’s Algorithms to Live By stood at the intersection of computer science and philosophy. The authors explained a number of fundamental algorithms used in computer science (many of which were new to me) and then used tenets of philosophy to explain how these algorithms were also applicable in everyday life.
The premise sounded like a terrible marketing-driven airport paperback ‘What X tells us about Y’ concept. In fact, it was carried off very well. The computer science was quite complex (certainly well beyond my rusty A-Level Computing knowledge), but explained with a clarity that outstripped most ‘popular science’ books. The ‘relevance to everyday life’ was also carried through expertly, delving fairly deep into evidence-based psychology. There was a lucid connection between the two which the authors brought to life with thoughtful examples. This was interdisciplinary thinking done right.
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I picked up Unmasked, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s memoir, because the reviews I read suggested that it was better than one might expect it to be—and that’s exactly how I found it. It would be interesting in any case to have some insight into the creative process of a man who has had musical successes writing everything from Elvis Presley songs to stage musicals to a requiem mass. But—perhaps surprisingly—this book was also very funny. There were bits that were a little cringe-worthy, including a bit where he makes a joke about the size of his penis, but he strikes the right note far more often than the wrong one.
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I struggled a bit to get through Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro, which is saying something considering that it was quite a short novel. In a nutshell, the novel found Quatro’s protagonist attempting to reconcile her Christian faith with a lifetime of sexual encounters. There were interesting ideas to unlock in that premise, but I didn’t really gain any real insight into them. This was partly because Quatro often took approaches which extended beyond my sphere of knowledge without anything like an adequate explanation (a treatise on apophatic theology, anyone?). It was also partly because the writing didn’t lead me to particularly care about any of the characters. Fire Sermon just didn’t quite do it for me.
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What I’ve been reading this month

The complete title of the Geroge Horace Lorimer book I read this month was quite possibly the longest of any book I’ve ever read: Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son: Being the Letters written by John Graham, Head of the House of Graham & Company, Pork-Packers in Chicago, familiarly known on ‘Change as “Old Gorgon Graham,” to his Son, Pierrepont, facetiously known to his intimates as “Piggy.”. As the title suggests, this was a series of fictional letters from the ‘self-made’ owner of a meat-packing business to his son, first published in 1902. The letters, which started at the point that Pierrepont left home for university, dispensed fatherly advice as his studies and career in the family firm steadily progressed. This book was only 76 pages long, yet was packed with quotable lines that could have been lifted from any number of self-help books written in 2018, let alone 1902.

“Putting off an easy thing makes it hard, and putting off a hard one makes it impossible.”

“The easiest way in the world to make enemies is to hire friends.”

“I remember reading once that some fellows use language to conceal thought; but it’s been my experience that a good many more use it instead of thought.”

“What was the use of being a nob if a fellow wasn’t the nobbiest sort of a nob?”

The gender politics was very uncomfortably 1902 –

“I like a woman’s ways too much at home to care very much for them at the office. Instead of hiring women, I try to hire their husbands.”

– as was the casual racism –

“Business is a good deal like a nigger’s wool—it doesn’t look very deep, but there are a heap of kinks and curves in it.”

– but otherwise, it was astonishing how little good advice has changed in the last century. I really enjoyed this book.
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In The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett combined a cheerfully twee tale of the Queen developing an interesting in reading with a complete dismantling of the concept of monarchy. The endearingly naive Queen reaches an epiphany as she realises that, contrary to what her upbringing and surroundings tell her, she is no better than or different from the ‘common reader’, and that her position has caused her to become unpleasantly aloof and uncaring. The message seemed to be that the monarchy can only exist while people (most notably the monarch) are ignorant of ‘other lives’: an appreciation that we are all fundamentally equal renders it untenable. I thought that combining an inoffensive story with a devastating critique of the establishment was masterful.
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Daniel Handler’s All the Dirty Parts was a novella narrated by a sex-obsessed, and very sexually active, 17-year-old. This whole book was constant sex, and much of it stomach-churningly “squelchy”. I think this novella contained more description of bodily fluids than everything else I’ve read in the last five years combined. Despite that, there were some surprisingly touching moments, especially when the narrator was out of his comfort zone, and plenty of gentle humour. This was a great study in watching a narrator squirm. It was also an interesting take on the impact of freely accessible pornography on developing sexuality. From repulsion to awkwardness to tenderness, Handler made me feel exactly what he wanted me to feel on every page of this book, and that deserves respect. As a reader, I was totally wound around his finger.
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I’d been putting off reading Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath as I’d been bitterly disappointed by some of his previous books. This was a mistake: I enjoyed this volume. This book was a collection of stories in which underdogs won. These were told in a compelling manner, recognising the complexity of life and of the situations described. Gladwell’s perspective on the reasons why the underdog won seemed insightful, even if it always basically boiled down to the fact that the underdog was underestimated. While the attempt to form theories based on handpicked stories which fit a particular narrative still rankles, it’s less heavy-handed in this book, and easier to ignore.
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Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall was a milestone in the development of modern satirical literature. I found that it had a pleasingly absurd plot and was very funny in parts. It has plenty of genuinely laugh-out-loud dialogue which could have been lifted from Monty Python. Despite this, I didn’t feel particularly fondly towards the book as a whole. I think it is because Waugh was satirising 1920s social norms, many of which seem patently absurd to modern eyes regardless. Layering even more eccentricity onto characters which are already absurd to modern eyes makes for extreme caricatures that are hard to invest in or care about. So while I’m glad I read it and enjoyed reading much of it, I wasn’t bowled over in quite the way I expected to be.
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I’m afraid I struggled to finish Emma Cline’s The Girls this month. This novel told the story of a 14-year-old girl who gradually gets drawn into a cult. This was an interesting idea, and I could see that Cline was trying to create an atmosphere that gradually transitioned from childhood normality to eeriness to tension and to fear. Unfortunately, I just didn’t feel particularly drawn in, nor did I really feel like I cared about any of the characters. The writing felt like it tried too hard, almost as though the author had replaced every adjective with another found in a thesaurus without really understand the sense of the replacement. All things considered, I was disappointed.
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This 2,330th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

What I’ve been reading this month

Fall Out: A Year of Political Mayhem was another 600-page tour de force of political journalism by Tim Shipman. Picking up where All Out War finished, Fall Out dissected the 2017 General Election – a less historic event, perhaps, but still covered with remarkable access to the Labour and Tory campaigns, and some really stunning revelations about the inner workings of both. I’d very highly recommend this book. (As a side note, having been a bit less than convinced by Michael Wolff’s book about Trump last month, I was struck by the very different portrayal of Trump in Shipman’s book: “Trump showed his serious side … He was on top of any number of quite complex briefs and he’d only been president for a week. That impressed Theresa [May]”
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Manoush Zomorodi’s Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive & Creative Self was an entertaining self-help book about overcoming smartphone addiction. As someone not addicted to his smartphone, I wasn’t really in the target market for this book. Nevertheless, I did take quite a lot away from this in terms of understanding other people’s reliance on smartphones. I hadn’t really grasped the strength of the feeling of attachment that many people have, nor how widespread the attachment is. I was also interested to read about the research into the mechanics that smartphone software developers use to ‘hook’ people. This book also made me reflect on the nature of my relationship with “screens” in the broadest sense, even if that reflection didn’t make me think there was a need for urgent change.
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I picked up The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion after seeing Bill Gates recommend it on his blog. It was a short, charming, romantic comedy which followed an Australian professor of genetics with an autism spectrum disorder on his mission to find a wife – an process he treated much like one of his research projects. As you might expect, blossoming love forced his “project” off track. I really enjoyed this well-observed genuinely funny novel, and even found it a little moving. It did border on being a little too sweet for my taste at times, but nevertheless, I think I’ll pick up the sequel at some point.
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Law professor Joan C Williams wrote White Working Class in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election as US President. This short book tried to elucidate why white working class people in the USA felt marginalised in society, and how this led them to disproportionately support Trump. One of Williams’s central arguments was that because most of the Government assistance this group received was through societal benefits in kind (schools, roads etc) rather than more direct hand outs, they didn’t fully appreciate the support they received, and so voted against increased taxation and higher government spending. This despite the fact they were the group which benefited most from Government support in terms of outcomes, and were net recipients in cash terms. This group therefore voted against its own interests. There was a lot of generalisation about the views and behaviours of groups of people in this book, much of which didn’t ring true. Nonetheless, the book did connect some disparate ideas for me, and made me think a little differently about approaches to similar problems in the UK.
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This 2,328th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve only made it through two books this month, neither of which were particularly brilliant. But I am part-way through a couple of brilliant books, which I’ll fill you in on next month.

Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury was a best-selling gossipy book about the machinations of the Trump White House. This was the sort of book that elided names (“Jarvanka” for Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner) and focused on personalities. It was essentially an unauthorised celebrity biography (with about the level of reliability that genre carries), the gist of which was that Trump and senior White House staff are incompetent, impulsive and petulant. This book made no attempt to analyse. There were no historical comparisons drawn upon, no attempt to examine the wider implications (can the US system of Government function with a dysfunctional Head of State?), and no attempt to address any constitutional issues or lessons for nation builders. Had I known how thin the content was before I started, I wouldn’t have bothered with this.
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I’ve enjoyed the Millennium series so far, but the fifth volume – David Lagercrantz’s The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye – felt a bit “off the boil”. It wove together lots of threads of plot and jumped about in time in a way that seemed unnecessarily confusing. There was also disappointingly little development of any of the central characters in the series (despite presenting more of Salander’s childhood). It all felt a bit flat to me, but I’ll stick pick up the next instalment.
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