About me
Archive
About me

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.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

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.
Out of print | View on Goodreads

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.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

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.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

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.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

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.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

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.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

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.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

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.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

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.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

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.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

This 2,331st post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

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.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

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.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

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.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

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.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

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.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

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.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

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]”
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

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.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

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.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

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.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

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.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

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.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

This 2,327th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

What I’ve been reading this month

Misbehaving was the autobiography of the professional life of Richard Thaler, recently awarded the Nobel Prize for economics. I found it completely thrilling! Thaler talked about he and his colleagues changed the ‘standard’ view of economics. It began with early career insights, where Thaler realised there was something ‘not quite right’ with standard economic theories. The book then described the whole process of developing those insights into formal theories, debating and refining them with the help of peers, publishing them (and dealing with critical responses to publication), and ultimately putting his by-now largely accepted theories into practice through developing government policy. Transforming a field and then using those new insights for the public good would be a dream come true for many of us – and this book was the easy-read description of how Thaler did exactly that. I couldn’t have asked for more!
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

Despite being a fan of Jeff Wayne’s musical version, I’ve always avoided reading H. G. Wells’s original The War of the Worlds on the basis that I rarely enjoy science fiction. It is one of those books which is so notable and worthy of reading that my opinions on it seem a little extraneous, but for what it’s worth, I wish I’d come round to it sooner. Much of it struck me as being an allegory for major social change, with the major characters having reasonably stereotypical responses – but reading it like that makes the end a little more depressing than I think the author intended.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

Last month, I really enjoyed reading Ali Smith’s Autumn, so this month, I read the next book in the series: Winter. Winter tells the story of Sohpia, a former lover of Daniel, Autumn’s main character. Winter explores many of the same themes, including the passage of time and reality versus perception. It continues with the same revealing juxtaposition of art and events in the contemporary real world, this time including the election of Trump and the Grenfell Tower fire. Like Autumn, this is a book in which every page forces the reader to look at something from an unusual and intriguing new perspective. I very much enjoyed it, and look forward to re-reading both books some time, as I’m sure there’s much in them that passed me by at first reading.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

Tim Harford’s Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy provided an enjoyable set of brief stories about the varied impact of inventions on economies. The book sometimes felt a bit superficial, but I suppose the “50 Things” format will always suffer from that. Many of the stories are well known and familiar, but the breadth of stuff covered is very impressive, and Harford occasionally takes the discussion of an invention in an unexpectedly illuminating direction. I particularly enjoyed the Epilogue’s description of the decreasing cost of artificial light over the last few centuries which, as Harford says, is such a huge change that it goes beyond intuition.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads (which has the book with the US title pictured above)

When people ask me what my favourite book is, I often mention Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley. It had been a few years since I last read it, so I cracked it open again this month. I’d quite forgotten it’s Genevan roots, which were especially apt since I co-incidentally visited Geneva this month. Frankenstein is essentially a book about ethics, and a rather ponderous one at that – and that’s exactly why I love it. On this particularly re-reading, I was struck by the fact that Frankenstein’s creature was explicitly vegetarian (underlining his ethical benevolence). I’d never particularly noticed this before, but it makes for an interesting counterpoint to the many ‘bloody-thirsty’ popular interpretations of the character.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

Given that it was Christmas, I thought I’d also re-read Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. This re-reading was, in fact, inspired by the homage in the first line of Ali Smith’s Winter: “God was dead: to begin with.”. On this particular re-reading, I was reminded how genuinely laugh-out-loud funny the book is from time-to-time.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

This 2,325th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

What I’ve been reading this month

Adam Kay’s This is Going to Hurt was a short-ish book of sharply observed anecdotes of life as a junior doctor, which ended with a poignant and moving description of the events which led Kay to leave the profession. Kay’s description of medicine taking over his entire life certainly rang true, and his observations about the degree to which patients dehumanise doctors were interesting too. Funny and insightful, this book deserves all the acclaim it has received since publication.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

Along similar lines in some ways, Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm is an autobiography describing the professional life of a neurosurgeon. Despite a lot of interesting insights into his branch of practice, my over-riding feeling was that Marsh was an unpleasant character. He hurled instruments around his operating theatre, yelled at his colleagues, knowingly and intentionally humiliated his juniors as a teaching technique, refused ever to have students in his clinics. Since I posted that on Goodreads, though, a couple of people have been in touch to say he’s actually a very nice man. This has made me wonder whether it’s brutal honesty and a hard assessment of his own flaws which made him come across as he did.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

Murder in the Yoga Store by Peter Ross Range has been heavily pushed at me by Amazon over the last few months, so I thought I’d give it a go. It was a fairly straightforward factual description of a murder investigation, obscured by poor writing packed with subclauses upon subclauses of extraneous detail. I didn’t take much from it.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

Naked Statistics is Charles Wheelan appealed to me because I occasionally find myself in situations where I have to explain statistics to a general audience, and appreciate the opportunity to see how others manage it! Compared to similar books by people like Michael Blastland, Andrew Dilnot and David Speigelhalter, Wheelan went much further in the statistical concepts he explored, including a section on multiple regression analysis alongside the more typical explanations of averages, p values, and simple hypothesis tests. Unfortunately for me, his examples were heavily drawn from US cultural touchstones, and I found some of these difficult to follow – I know nothing about American sports! Mainly for that reason, I prefer other authors’ attempts in this field, but nonetheless enjoyed Wheelan’s version.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

Ali Smith’s Autumn was a novel exploring time and people’s perception of it, and how that perception shifts over a lifetime. It also explored truth, and the difference between reality and perceptions of it, featuring the Brexit referendum as an example. There are some books where I find myself longing to read another little bit. Most of the time, that’s because of a driving plot. In this book, it was because every bit I read made me look at something a little bit differently. This was one of my favourite books of 2017.
Buy on Amazon | View on Goodreads

This 2,324th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

The content of this site is copyright protected by a Creative Commons License, with some rights reserved. All trademarks, images and logos remain the property of their respective owners. The accuracy of information on this site is in no way guaranteed. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author. No responsibility can be accepted for any loss or damage caused by reliance on the information provided by this site. This site uses cookies - click here for more information.