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What I’ve been reading this month

Before I sat down to write this post, I didn’t think I’d read many books this month, but it turns out that I have eight to tell you about.

How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division by Elif Shafak

I read this essay, published by the Wellcome Collection earlier this year, in one sitting. It was a passionate and beautifully written plea for pluralism, understanding, thoughtfulness, empathy and kindness. Shafak drew on her personal experiences as well as contemporary events, from covid-19 to the death of George Floyd. Shafak reminded me of the dangers of polarisation and echo chambers and the important of dialogue and understanding.

Coming at a time when all of the above seem in short supply in the world, I found myself getting a little emotional reading this. I’d thoroughly recommend it.

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

First published in 1983, and translated into English by Ted Goossen in 2014, this was a beguilingly strange short novel, perfect for reading in a single sitting. It’s a reflection of the book’s weirdness that there seems to be no popular agreement on whether this book is aimed at adults or children. It defies classification.

The plot concerned a young boy who visited his local City Library only to be kidnapped in the basement by an old man who wants to eat his brain. Had I known of that synopsis before I opened the book, I’d have passed on it: it sounds ridiculous and not at all like the sort of book I’d enjoy. And yet, Murakami’s writing combined with the beautiful production of the hardback lends the tale a hypnotic quality. It starts to feel like allegory—but for what?—while also being pure fantasy told in language which is entirely grounded in reality, but also somehow poetic.

This was a very short read, taking less than an hour, but was nevertheless memorable for being unlike anything I’ve ever read before.

Fake Law by The Secret Barrister

This was the recently published second volume from the Secret Barrister. It concentrated on the gap between political discourse and the reality of legislation, and the gap between media coverage of court cases and the arguments and principles actually under consideration.

I am one of those strange individuals who occasionally downloads court judgements in high profile cases, particularly those that pertain to healthcare. I enjoy diving into the gritty detail and reveling in the clarity of expression in the writing of most judgements from higher courts.

This book was right up my street. Each chapter opened with the arguments concerning a case or piece of legislation as made out by Ministers or the media. The Secret Barrister then set out the legal reality of the situation, broadened the discussion with other exemplar cases, and rounded off with a summary of the fundamental principles underlying the relevant area of law.

The book was engaging and easy to read. The Secret Barrister was very witty and persuasive in their arguments. I really enjoyed this.

Humankind by Rutger Bregman

This was Rutger Bregman’s recently published follow-up to Utopia for Realists. It was translated by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore.

Bregman set out to argue that most people are inherently good-natured. This struck me as a strange argument to make because it seems self-evident to me: after all, society relies on people being mostly good-natured and doing the right thing. But Bregman had a good go at making the argument that the media and culture more generally acts to convince us that most people are selfish and uncaring, but I didn’t really buy it.

This was a familiar feeling: just as I found Utopia for Realists challenging because I didn’t accept Bregman’s base assumption that societal development had stalled, I found Humankind challenging because I didn’t accept Bregman’s base assumption that most people think ill of most other people.

But just as with Utopia for Realists, I enjoyed Humankind nevertheless. Bregman discussed his ideas optimistically and cheerfully, mixing anecdote and data in a way which was very engaging. Some of the revelations about some of the famous psychological studies such as the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment were new to me and enlightening.

Bregman’s observation about negativity bias and trusting people also struck a chord. If we choose to trust someone, they can undermine that trust, which is an acutely negative experience. On the other hand, if we choose not to trust someone, that decision rarely turns into an acutely negative experience, even if it may have been the worse course of action.

All things considered, I enjoyed this book, and there’s rarely been a time when a dose of optimism has been more welcome.

Will He Go? by Lawrence Douglas

Lawrence Douglas is a Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought who has written a series of interesting articles for The Guardian over the last couple of years about the legal challenges posed by the Trump administration. In this volume, published in the spring, he sketches out ways in which Trump may have attempt to cling on to the presidency, even though the election result was not in his favour.

I read this right at the start of the month, in the run up to election day. Beyond the specifics of the current election, Douglas gave an illustration of how the procedures laid down in the US Constitution and subsequent law are open to abuse by malicious actors. As a British reader, it was interesting to compare the flaws between the codified US system and the haphazard traditions of the UK system for elections, especially as devolution moves the UK ever closer to a federal system with all of the unresolved constitutional questions that raises.

Douglas’s partial argument for the abolition of the Electoral College didn’t win me over: while I appreciate the flaws and insecurities of the system as it stands, I’m not sure it is reasonable in a federal system for the President to be elected by popular vote alone, and so I’m not convinced that abolition, as opposed to reform, is the right approach.

This was a quick and absorbing read, even if the more extreme possibilities it covered didn’t come to pass (or at least haven’t yet).

A Classical Education by Caroline Taggart

Published in 2009, this was Taggart’s short and lighthearted book on Greek and Roman history, with a concentration on bits which are particularly relevant to modern life. After a somewhat slow start rehearsing the meanings of common Latin phrases, I found myself bouyed along by Taggart’s humour and light touch.

I didn’t do much history at school, dropping it well before GCSE. I did study Latin for year, after which the school stopped offering it and I was transferred to Home Economics instead. And I’m not a big reader of the ancient classics.

All of this meant that much of the content of this book was stuff I knew once a long time ago, or have a cultural awareness of without really knowing the background. As a result, I found this light-hearted recap quite fun… but those who are better read than me might well find it very lacking!

The Prime Ministers by Steve Richards

This was Richards’s 2019 book reflecting on the leadership of the nine Prime Ministers from Wilson to May. There is now an extended revised edition also covering Johnson (which is the one I’ve linked to), but I have the original version.

I had mixed feelings about the book. After a lengthy introduction, it was structured chronologically, with roughly forty pages dedicated to each leader. Each profile was readable and interesting, and these struck me as broadly balanced appraisals.

However, I thought that his critical analysis and comparison of the leaders was a little broad-brush: I’m not sure I needed this book to tell me that early elections are dangerous or that Prime Ministers tend to have a honeymoon period where those with a strong idea of what they want to achieve can get a lot done with limited opposition. I had hoped for a little more.

The Art of Rest by Claudia Hammond

This was Claudia Hammond’s 2019 book which chatted through each the ‘top ten’ most restful activities as determined by a large survey of members of the public.

This was light and fun, with plenty of humour and personal anecdote. Hammond gave a spirited argument for taking rest more seriously, which felt timely for me given that the pandemic has left me a bit swamped with work! I liked Hammond’s “whatever works for you” approach to writing about the topic, which was refreshing given that so many books on related topics are so prescriptive. Her discussion of mindfulness was particularly grounded in realism—it works for some people, it’s not for everyone, and other activities can be just as beneficial.

Hammond presents and contributes quite a bit on Radio 4, including presenting “All in the Mind”, and the tone and content of this book reminded me of a typical series of Radio 4 documentaries—interesting, light and witty, but necessarily lacking the depth and rigorous analysis of more formal coverage of the topic.

I enjoyed this book, but didn’t come away from it thinking that I’d covered much new ground.

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What I’ve been reading this month

Six books to mention this month… though in truth, I was reading Wolf Hall much of last month as well!

Summer by Ali Smith

This was the recently published brilliant finale to Smith’s astonishing seasonal quartet.

If one was setting out to publish a novel a year reflecting the times in which we live, one could hardly have picked a better four years to work with than the last four. Smith’s ability to capture and reflect on the age of Brexit, coronavirus and George Floyd with such a publication schedule, while the rest of us are struggling just to keep up with events, is pure genius. This volume revisits some of the characters from the earlier novels, and I slightly worried that I’d struggle to recall them, given the time that has passed since I read the first of the novels – but they all came flooding back.

I feel a bit lost knowing that this series is now complete – it has been the series that I’ve most enjoyed and most anticipated in recent years. I’ll miss it.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak

This was the 2019 bestseller which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I picked it up on a whim when I saw it in a bookshop and vaguely thought I’d heard good things about it. It turned out to be an extraordinary book.

The book comprised three parts. Part One followed Tequila Leila’s lifetime of reminisces over the first few minutes following her death, covering everything from her own birth into a polygamous family to her murder as a sex worker. Each memory focused on a specific friend whose life was also explored. Part Two followed these closes friends in the day following Leila’s murder. And the brief Part Three followed her soul into the afterlife.

I found this emotionally exhausting. The characterisation and storytelling were so strong that I sometimes forgot this was fiction. Despite the tragedy and emotional weight of the story, it was leavened with moments of humour. It felt to me like this book was as much about Istanbul as it was about the human characters.

Definitely a book I’d recommend.

Ramble Book by Adam Buxton

This was Adam Buxton’s recently published autobiography. I first came across Adam with his friend Joe Cornish in their Adam and Joe Show days, when I was in my early teens, and have followed them ever since. Adam now hosts a successful podcast in which he hosts essentially long form interviews with a huge variety of cultural figures, but which also gives insight into his life in rural Norfolk.

This book’s central thread was the relationship between Adam and his travel-writer father, although he also talked at length about his school days, his career, and his love for David Bowie. I found the section on his father’s last illness particularly moving. I read this shortly after listening to Buxton’s recent podcast recorded the day after his mother’s funeral, in which and Joe reflected movingly and at length on the challenges of parent-child relationships in later life.

I was pre-disposed to like this book because I like Adam. It’s one of those books which I’m not sure would appeal to people who aren’t already familiar with him and his career, but I really enjoyed it.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

The 2009 blockbuster Booker winner – a book on which my opinion really couldn’t matter less!

I don’t usually read historical fiction, but this was recommended to me so often that I thought I had to give it a go. It was my redoubtable friend Julie who tipped me over into reading it, by telling me it wasn’t really a historical novel.

I have mixed feelings. I found the plot confusing and often lost the thread (not helped by my complete historical ignorance). On the other hand, the writing was brilliant, filled with witty turns of phrase and clever language. I wouldn’t hesitate to read more of the trilogy, and would consider re-reading this volume at some point—I suspect it would all make a bit more sense second time around, and I’d enjoy revisiting the wonderful prose.

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

If you regularly follow what I’m reading on this blog, you’ll know I’m having a bit of David Sedaris moment, enjoying his light and humorous approach to life during a time when life feels rather heavier than it might. This was another collection of his essays, most of which were originally published elsewhere, and most of which are very funny.

This 2004 volume, even more than the others I’ve read, was focused on David’s family and his relationships with his parents and siblings both as a child and as an adult. I really enjoyed it.

Windscale 1957 by Lorna Arnold

First published in 1991, this was a very detailed account of the nuclear accident at the Windscale site which occurred in 1957. I read only the 160-page main text, and didn’t delve into the many appendices of official reports.

While well-explained by Arnold, some of the physics was a little beyond my level of casual interest. However, the broader themes of what went wrong in this incident were fascinating in their familiarity: a service over-stretched as a result of Government pressure to deliver more than the expert workforce could adequately oversee, rapid recruitment of non-expert staff to essentially “make up the numbers”, and a resulting lack of expert oversight of activity whose complexity was routinely under-estimated created the conditions for things to go wrong. 

Some official reports of the incident then blamed the pressured staff for the incident, although it was rapid local decision-making (including crucial decisions in the absence of robust scientific evidence about discarding milk) that contributed most to protecting the population after the accident.

There are so many lines in this book which could apply directly to much more recent incidents across the public sector (especially covid-19) that it is difficult to conclude that the broad lessons were ever truly learned.

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