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

What I’ve been reading this month

The final instalment of Jane Gardam’s Old Filth trilogy, Last Friends focused on the life of Veneering, the third leg of the central love triangle. This was beautifully written, and despite covering lots of different stages of life and lots of different eras of the 20th century, powerfully evoked them all. I struggled a bit in parts because it’s a while since I read the first two books, and there was a reliance on recalling quite a lot of detail. So while I very much enjoyed this, I think I would have enjoyed it even more if I’d read the three in quicker succession.
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Tim Marshall’s Worth Dying For gave an entertaining and informative discussion of the history of a number of different flags. Those included were not just nation state flags, but also those of organisations like the UN and the Olympic movement, and those associated ideas, such as the white flag of surrender. I found Marhsall’s discussion of the cultural aspects of flags interesting: for example, the comparisons he drew between the treatment of the US flag by US citizens and the treatment of the Union Flag by UK citizens are not particularly novel, but are used to illustrate differences between the cultures of the nations in a fun, enlightening way. I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography, but it was still a good read.
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Graham Swift’s much-loved Waterland left me bit conflicted. This was a very clever novel spanning centuries of carefully plotted family history and with a wonderfully evocative sense of the history of the Fens… but, on the other hand, there were some very long factually dense passages that were really quite dull. That’s clearly intentional and reflective of the narrator’s character, but it was also a bit of a slog to get through.
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After her election defeat, Hillary Clinton sat down and wrote about What Happened. Unfortunately, I think she did so before she had chance to get some perspective and context, leading to a book that raised more questions than it answered. I ranted a bit more about this on Goodreads. All of that to one side, the book gave an interesting insight as to what it is like to be a candidate in a modern US Presidential election, and was worth reading for that alone.
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This 2,323rd post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

What I’ve been reading this month

Geography – let alone geopolitics – isn’t one of my strong points. I didn’t even take GCSE geography. Yet Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography had me completely enthralled. Marshall explained how geography influenced the development of nations and the political relationships between countries. His explanations were based on ten maps – maps which were enlightening in themselves to me. This sounds like it should have been dry and dull, but it was a real page-turner, full of insights and new angles on topics which had me fully engaged throughout. I will look at the world differently and with a much improved understanding as a result of reading this book.
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Ian McEwan’s “masterpiece” – The Child in Time – reflected on the loss a child and the strange flexibility of time. Despite its reputation, this was my least favourite of the McEwan novels I’ve read to date, which shows how little I know. There were sections which were outstandingly brilliant – McEwan’s writing is always absolutely incredible. But the whole thing seemed a bit less than the sum of its parts to me – I found the flashbacks and messing about with time more frustrating than meaningful. I got the intent of reflecting the way time seems to work for all of us, but, as a casual reader, I just found it frustrating.
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How Not to be a Boy was Robert Webb’s autobiography, which had a particular focus on gender roles. Robert Webb came across as remarkably candid, and parts of this book were really quite moving. I was a little struck by the extent to which some of the social commentary seemed to be extrapolating generalisations from a single experience – but that might be a bit unfairly critical given that this is an autobiography. I don’t think it helped that I read this fairly shortly after Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man which seemed to cover similar ground in a similar way, but more successfully and concisely.
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Stephen Talty’s The Secret Agent was a short biography of Erik Erickson, the Swedish oil salesman and later Second World War spy. The book concentrated on Erickson’s contribution to the US war effort, spying on – and thereby directing bombs towards – Germany’s synthetic oil plants. I wasn’t previously aware of Erickson’s remarkable story and valiant war effort. I found this book a bit unsatisfying, though: it’s brevity meant that it was hard to fully understand Erickson’s motivations, and – while it was touched on briefly – it would have been interesting to get more insight into the later psychological impact of having profited from the Nazi regime early on.
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This 2,322nd post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

What I’ve been reading this month

Nathan Filer’s novel The Shock of the Fall gave a first person narrative of mental illness. I struggled a bit with the first quarter or so of the book, because it seemed a bit heavy handed: for example, there are only so many times ‘unreliable narrator’ can be underlined, and only so much foreshadowing a reader can stand. As the book progressed, however, the authenticity of the narrative voice became stronger, and I found myself fully immersed and engaged in the plot. The first person description of the experience of mental illness was brilliant.
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I think I might have read The 39 Steps some years ago, and I’ve certainly seen a stage production, but I nonetheless picked up the first of John Buchan’s Richard Hannay novels this month. It was a short, punchy, thicky-plotted spy thriller, with plenty of implausibly resolved cliff-hangers to keep the pages turning. This series is often criticised on the basis that Hannay has no personality, but I rather enjoyed his 1915 turns of phrase and his dry humour. If nothing else, this book makes me want to bring back phrases like “the deuce of a mess”.
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“Most of what I know about myself, I have learned from playing Schumann… if Schumann had not existed, I would be less than whole.” So said Jonathan Bliss in his love letter to Schumann, A Pianist Under the Influence. His passion for the composer’s works was infectious, even for me – someone who couldn’t recognise a Schumann piece without his name at the top. A lot of the technical talk was beyond me, but Bliss’s enthusiasm for his subject shone through, and made this a very enjoyable read.
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The Descent of Man was Grayson Perry’s relatively light book on the heavy topic of gender, and masculinity in particular. I haven’t read a huge amount in this area beyond the typical weekend newspaper magazine features, and so I found it quite eye-opening (and, indeed, moving) in parts. I found Perry’s reflections on masculinity more interesting than his suggestions on what future masculinity should look like. If nothing else, I’ll never look at the the intricate patterns of camouflage clothing in quite the same way again.
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The Laws of Medicine was Siddhartha Mukherjee’s brief overview of his three personal “laws” of medicine. I particularly enjoyed the first section, where Mukherjee discussed probability in medicine, and gave perhaps the best jargon free explanation I’ve ever read of the importance of pre-test probability, sensitivity and specificity in medical tests.
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What do unpasteurised milk, 15 minute recipes and doctors working extended hours have in common? According to Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slowness, they’re all great examples of the ‘slow’ philosophy. Unfortunately, I never quite understood what the common thread was between all the disparate things Honoré described as ‘slow’. I had the impression that it was a vaguely anti-corporate notion. It evidently has nothing to do with speed – Honoré says as much, and spends many pages praising things which are unusually fast for being ‘slow’ (like 15 minute recipes, and exercise regimes one can do in 15 minutes in office wear). Essentially, I didn’t enjoy this book and I didn’t find its arguments convincing.
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This 2,321st post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

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