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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 2,323rd 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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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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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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What I’ve been reading this month

Selfie by Will Storr turned out to be my favourite non-fiction book of 2017 to date. I always love Storr’s writing: he’s remarkably talented and woefully underappreciated for his ability to bring clarity to complex socio-scientific fields. I go out of my way to read his journalism because, whatever the topic, his byline guarantees new insights and connections. This book was no exception. Storr wove autobiography, anthropology, history, religion, sociology, psychology, psychiatry and public health into a compelling narrative of humanity’s increasing focus on the self. And he did it with a good dose of dry wit that brought the whole thing alive. The ground covered has big overlaps with Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, but the execution was far better.
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Post Truth by Evan Davis never quite lived up to the promise of its subtitle. I was attracted by the idea that this book might have, as the subtitle suggested, made an argument that the world has reached ‘peak bullshit’ (and hence predicted a decline). That would have been a bold prognostication in the current political climate, but it was one that Davis didn’t really attempt to make. The book was a lot more pedestrian for that. It merely gave an overview of some of the things that drive people to lie, and expressed frustration at those who lie unnecessarily. It was concise and illustrated with interesting examples, but didn’t really say very much that was new, and came across as a bit patronising in parts.
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Luke Kennard’s novel The Transition was set in the near future, and followed a couple in a sort of life-education programme called “The Transition”. The idea of the programme was that members of an older generation take in a couple from a younger generation and teach them how to live in the modern world… though, of course, this being a dystopian novel, it wasn’t quite so straightforward. Kennard’s writing was pretty solid, and the plot moved forward well through the first two-thirds of the book. The ending, though, was strange. The whole book built to a confrontation that just fizzled away. Perhaps that’s a metaphor for something, but it’s also deeply unsatisfying.
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Going Nowhere, by The Spectator‘s Sam Leith, was a very short autobiography structured around six video games he’s been obsessed with at various points in his life. It was far better than than the premise promised. I’ve never played any of the games, and have only vaguely heard of a couple, but that didn’t matter. Leith deftly combined descriptions of gameplay with personal reflection on life’s choices and challenges, the move from relatively “normal” beginnings to the “elite” via an all-paid Eton scholarship, and the philosophical insights of great poets. There was a great deal more Latin than you’d expect in thirty-odd pages on video games, yet it skillfully avoided pretension. I really enjoyed this short book.
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Mark Earnest Pothier’s The First Light of Evening was a sixteen page tale in which a retired divorcee went on his first date after his wife left him. This short story has won awards and much critical acclaim, so the fact that I found it a bit “meh” may say more about me than the book. I found it a reasonably pleasant read, but neither particularly insightful nor particularly absorbing, and full of grammatical errors (or maybe ‘artistic grammatical choices’, who knows?) which distracted from the meaning of the text.
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Guns was Stephen King’s short essay on US gun violence. I found it difficult to wrap my mind around the logic of King’s position—which I’d inadequately summarise as ‘ban the worst guns, protect everyone’s right to have less-bad guns’. The essay was strong on the former, but weak on explaining the rationale for the latter (beyond pragmatism). King hung his position on autobiography, describing his response to a shooter who cited one of King’s fictional works as part motivation, part inspiration for his crime. This was interesting enough, but I think would have benefited from a bit more reflection on how his ability to act was influenced by his uniquely powerful position in publishing.
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The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance was a short autobiographical essay by Harris Sockel about teaching in the “Teach for America” programme. This scheme, much copied around the world, entices young graduates to teach in schools for a couple of years after graduation. Sockel attempted to illustrate the programme’s flaws from the points of view of the teachers, the pupils and the schools, with some success. He also attempted to provide some insight into US public schools more broadly. I was left wondering a little bit about how generalisable Sockel’s experiences were, particularly given his wealthy background which was frequently contrasted with that of the ‘regular’ teachers and his pupils, and—possibly more because of the format than the author—felt that this book left me with more questions than answers.
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This 2,319th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

What I’ve been reading this month

In the short book The Snowden Operation, The Econonmist‘s Edward Lucas presented a short case against Edward Snowden’s leak of classified intelligence material. He also made a case for the leaks being heavily influenced by Russian intelligence services. As someone who has previously been fairly sympathetic to Snowden’s claimed motives, I found this alternative take revealing. Lucas made some great points about the disproportionate harm caused by Snowden’s actions, especially in contrast to the minimum actions he could have taken to achieve the same ends. This book also changed my mind a bit about the nature of the public debate around the intelligence services (though I don’t totally buy Lucas’s “regulate the use rather than the development of tools” approach).
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I really enjoyed Tim Harford’s latest book, Adapt. Harford gave lots of examples of successes resulting from review and adaptation, and made a good case for embracing, as opposed to rejecting, failure. He made the often overlooked and very important case for allowing variation in systems, and not expecting constant equality: something that health systems in particular are not great at understanding.
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I didn’t get on well with McEwan’s The Innocent. It seemed to be a combination of spy thriller, coming-of-age novel, absurdity-of-war satire, and a reflection on cultural politics. The prose was sublime, almost poetic, as McEwan’s writing always is – but it didn’t quite hang together for me. Maybe I was just in the wrong mood.
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This 2,318th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

What I’ve been reading this month

A friend at work recommended Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly after I recently visited Copenhagen. This book was the autobiographical tale of a well-off writer and her husband moving from London to rural Denmark, after the latter was offered a job at Lego headquarters. The stories of their experiences were mixed in with some light journalistic investigation as to why Danish people are so often reported to be among the happiest in the world. Russell’s writing was engaging but light, which made this book fun, but maybe less insightful than it could have been. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant, easy read.
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Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending has recently been turned into a film, which – guess what? – I haven’t seen. I found it to be a beautifully written book, which explored ageing and the flaws in memory. So many passages of this book were quotable that it read like poetry. I think that if the ‘revelations’ at the end of the book had been a little more mundane, then the wider observations about the reliability of memory and the incompleteness of the picture anyone holds in mind at any given time would have hit harder. But who am I to argue with a Booker winner?
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Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden was a deeply creepy book about four children hiding their mother’s corpse to avoid being taken into foster care, and then attempting to live independently. The plot was grotesque, but less so than the twisted, psychologically charged atmosphere McEwan built. I understand that this has also been turned into a film that I haven’t seen… Whatever. I found it brilliantly disturbing.
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This 2,317th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

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