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My favourite books of 2016

At this time of year, lots of people and publications start putting out lists of their favourite books of the year. Because I’m a bit contrarian, I thought I’d do something a bit different: share my favourite books from three years ago.

My rationale is that if a book I read three years ago has stayed with me, it surely must have been a good. And so, I logged onto my Goodreads account and downloaded a list of books I read in 2016. I manually sorted them in order of favourites as I remember them, without any reference to what I thought at the time. And in this post, I share my top few.

Because I evidently read a lot of novels in 2016, I decided to divide my list into “novels” and “not novels”, and have listed the top five in each category below. As I also tend to go through phases with particular writer, I’ve limited myself to including only the top-ranked work by any single author in each list; otherwise, the top five novels would mostly be Ian McEwan, and that doesn’t make for an interesting blog post.

So here are my thoughts on my favouite books of 2016.


My five favourite novels of 2016

5: Dodgers by Bill Beverly

This was a coming-of-age novel about a group of black American teenagers going on a road trip across America.

Steeped in a culture and viewpoint which is unfamiliar to me, this was unlike anything I’d read before (or since). I think this book taught me to think rather differently about the challenges of up as a deprived black kid in America and about the pervasive nature of gang culture.

More generally, this book made me reflect about becoming better at understanding that people’s life decisions can be perfectly logical within their own frame of reference, even if they make little sense from my point of view. I remember the central resonant theme was really about breaking away from one’s own past and upbringing.

At the time I read this, I gave it five out of five:
“I’ve never read anything quite like this before. East is a 15-year-old boy living in a cardboard box in the basement of his drug addict mother’s house in a deprived area of LA. He runs a team of lookouts defending a drug house. After his team fails to see a drug raid coming, East—who has never left his neighbourhood—is ordered to drive across the country with his 13-year-old half-brother and two other youngsters to shoot a witness in a drug trial. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go to plan.
“So Dodgers turns out to be a deeply personal coming-of-age novel, with East at its centre, against a background of crime, deprivation and America. It’s written in the sparingly tight prose of many classic American novels, but with the detail required to make even the minor characters believable. This is a book that I’ll remember for a long time to come—and will definitely read again at some point.”

4: Conclave by Robert Harris

I have a slight (and possibly irrational) aversion to historical fiction, so I’ve read less of Robert Harris’s work than might be assumed.

Conclave, however, had a contemporary setting, and concerned the election of a new Pope. This book had lots of great colour about the process of entering the conclave, and wider observations of the machinations of the Vatican.

This book became a somewhat unlikely (but nonetheless brilliant) political thriller, yet the philosophical and theological questions the plot confronted made this still more intriguing, and provided plenty of food for thought.

There was also a quote from this book which I’ve thought about a lot since reading it:

No one who ever follows their conscience ever does wrong. The consequences may not turn out as we intended; it may prove that we made a mistake. But that is not the same as being wrong.

It was a really good book.

At the time I read this, I rated it four out of five:
“A political thriller set among the College of Cardinals as they elect a new Pope. This was great: a real page-turner with plenty of twists and turns, but with lots of complex layers underlying the surface plot, and a good dose of moral ambiguity. The dialogue, in particular the set piece speeches, was very well written. I’ve no idea how true to life this description of events might be, but felt like a real insight into the machinations of the Catholic Church.”

3: Holding by Graham Norton

Holding was a witty, closely observed and genuinely intriguing murder mystery set in Ireland. I remember thinking that it wasn’t the sort of novel I’d associate with the chat show host, and that I could barely believe it was someone’s first novel. It was atmospheric and evocative.

In 2016, I rated this four out of five:
“A witty and engaging novel describing the aftermath of a body being found in a sleepy Irish village. I wouldn’t have guessed this was by Graham Norton if his name wasn’t on the cover, and I wouldn’t have guessed it was a first novel.
“The characters are endearing, and the plot is relatively pacey while still allowing space for carefully observed description. The resolution of the main plot is a bit disappointingly ‘crime novel by numbers’ and doesn’t fit tonally with the rest of the book, but I enjoyed reading this nonetheless.”

2: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

I love Ian McEwan, so it’s no surprise to see one of his novels towards the top of my list. In fact, I loved On Chesil Beach so much that I even managed to get Wendy to read some of it, and she usually hates novels.

On Chesil Beach was the story of the wedding night of a young and sexually inexperienced couple in the 1960s. The short book was set entirely in that one evening, lending it a sense of detailed immediacy.

For such a short book, this had considerable emotional heft. I found it very moving. I took a few quotes from this book that often pop up in my Readwise emails, several of which give away the ending, but this one doesn’t:

He was discovering that being in love was not a steady state, but a matter of fresh surges or waves, and he was experiencing one now.

Since I read this book, it has been adapted into a film starring Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle. I haven’t seen it because I’m too worried that it will spoil my fond memory of the novel.

I didn’t review On Chesil Beach at the time, so I’ve nothing to compare my retrospective view with. I did give it a start rating though: five out of five.

1: Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

Reputations made me reflect rather a lot on the difficulty of political journalism in countries with particularly tubulent politics. This is perhaps because of the degree to which political journalism has become a challenge in the UK in the context of divisions over Brexit: many people see bias everywhere, there’s no consensus on basic facts, and impartiality has become ever more difficult to achieve.

Reputations concerned a Colombian political cartoonist reflecting on his career and his choices along the way. I remember being absorbed by the questions (often also pertinent in Ishiguro’s novels) about reliability of memory and the interaction between memory and regret.

This book was also jam-packed with great quotations, presumably thanks in large part to Anne McLean’s wonderful work as translator. Three choice examples:

Not knowing is not hell. The hellish thing is not knowing whether I want to know.


There are no political cartoons that don’t sting, and none without honey.


People already know what they think. People already have their prejudices well formed. They only want someone in authority to confirm their prejudices, even if its the mendacious authority of newspapers.

Just brilliant, and so on the money for the times we’re living through.

I am amazed to see that, when I read this, I only gave it two out of five stars—what a contrast with how I think of it in retrospect!
“This is a novella about a political cartoonist reaching the end of his career. At an event celebrating his life, he meets a young female journalist who he had previously met as a child, when an event pivotal to the novel’s plot occurred. Revisiting ‘the event’ risks the reputations of many of the novel’s characters.
“The writing is tight, and even in translation remains eminently quotable.
“But—I found the plot hard to follow, very implausible in places (seven year olds drinking themselves unconscious?!), and unresolved by the ending. With fantastic prose but so much else letting it down, I’m slightly baffled as to why this has been so critically praised.”


My five favourite non-novels of 2016

5: Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It by Geoff Dyer

This was a fantastic romp of a book, a sort of self-discovery travelogue of things that acutally happened, “even if some of them only happened in my head”. I haven’t read anything quite like this before or since: it was absurd and deep and hilarious and philosophical and though-provoking all at the same time, often in the same sentence.

There are so many quotes from this book that I love, and which pop into my head spontaneously from time to time:

‘It’s all about moderation,’ he said in the Greenhouse on Friday night, after a deliciously inauthentic Thai meal. ‘Everything in moderation. Even moderation itself. From this it follows that you must, from time to time, have excess. And this is going to be one of those occasions.’


‘It fucked up my life but I wasn’t upset. You know, they kept talking about “undergoing” surgery, “undergoing” chemo. It really bugged me. I never saw it that way. I was just living my life. I wasn’t “undergoing” it.’


I became convinced that buildings don’t just fall into ruin – something in them aspires to ruination. It’s the same with people. The purpose of architecture – even the most baroque, especially baroque – and medicine is simply to thwart the urge to collapse. (Maybe that should read ‘disguise’, not ‘thwart’.) All we can do is keep applying the creosote, propping ourselves up with health and success, trying to keep the rain and the damp and the rot at bay for a little longer, trying to postpone the moment of complete collapse and abandonment for the same reason that one waits as long as possible for the first alcoholic drink of the day: because the longer you leave it, the better it will feel.

This was just a rollercoaster of hilarity and genius all mixed in togeher.

I gave this only four of five stars when I read it in 2016:
“Geoff Dyer staggers through an autobiography of adventures, all of which “really happened, but some of the things only happened in my head”. Essentially, Dyer has incredible experiences around the world but laces descriptions of them with profound bathos, either by pointing out their intrinsic absurdity or by drawing unflattering comparisons to humdrum daily life.
“I very much enjoyed this, and found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion. The careful balance between earnestness and knowing humour is very well judged and really tickled me. And every now and then, there are sparklingly brilliant passages.”

4: Heretics by Will Storr

I think Will Storr is criminally under-rated, and it is no surprise that one of his books should be so high up on my list.

Heretics was Storr’s book about cognitive bias, in which he unpicks why people who hold views which run counter to conventional science continue to hold those views in spite of all the evidence. It was a sympathetic and interesting portrait, and changed my view on some of the relevant challenges in public health, such as people who oppose vaccinations.

This book taught me that it is important to understand their perspective to understand why their decisions may be rationale, even if they are completely wrong from an objective standpoint.

We tell ourselves a story, we cast the monster and then become vulnerable to our own delusional narrative of heroism. This kind of binary thinking insists upon extremes: heroes and villains, black and white, in-tribes and out. This corrosive instinct is evidence in the so-called ‘culture wars’. For many Skeptics, evidence-based truth has been sacralised. It has caused them to become irrational in their judgements of the motives of those with whom they do not agree.

This is a book that had a real impact on my public health practice, despite superficially having nothing to do with public health.

Heretics got the full five stars in 2016:
“One of my favourite books of the year so far. From the blurb, I was expecting this to be an enjoyable (if slightly sneering) debunking of pseudo-science. It’s not that. It’s a fascinating illustrated discussion of cognitive bias, backed up by astounding and revealing investigative journalism. Storr examines the claims and motives of ‘heretics’ and ‘skeptics’ alike in forensic detail – he doesn’t pull any punches in his discussion of the latter, which is refreshing and offers new insights.
“I’ve long been a fan of Will Storr’s magazine features – I will read almost anything with his byline on it, because his name is almost a guarantee that I’ll enjoy this article – but this is the first of his books I’ve read. It won’t be the last.”

3: The Caped Crusade by Glen Weldon

This was one of the most surprising books I read in 2016. It was a deep dive into ‘nerd culture’, and specifically the culture around the character Batman. I knew virtually nothing about Batman before I read this book, and I picked it up only reluctantly because I didn’t think I wanted to know anything about Batman.

It turned out that this was an illuminating social history about how the character has changed over the years in response to societal pressure, and how ‘nerd culture’ has developed around these superhero characters. It even became quite philosophical at points, considering the importance of authorial intent to the interpretation of characters.

It really didn’t matter that I didn’t know or care about Batman: this was just a really well-written deep dive into a topic that the author was clearly passionate about, which illuminated lots of other topics.

Essentially, this was unexpectedly brilliant.

When I read this in 2016, I gave it four out of five stars:
“Someone (I can’t remember who) recommended this book, and saying that interest in Batman was not prerequisite for enjoying it. I am the perfect test case for this: I’ve never read a Batman comic, never seen a Batman film all the way through, and only sketchily remember seeing the “Bam! Pow! Zap!” Adam West Batman series when it used to be on Saturday morning kids’ TV. Before reading this book, I would’ve sworn that Batman was able to fly.
“And I loved this book. It’s a fascinating history of how the Batman character has changed over time, and the sociocultural pressures that have caused the changes. There is a lot of discussion of how people’s own experiences colour their understanding of the character at pretty profound levels. And the whole book is infused with endearing lightheartedness, warmth and humour.
“This is also a deep exploration of how much an author’s intentions matter (or don’t matter) in creating a character. Before reading this book, I would have said with confidence that an author’s vision of a character is the “correct” interpretation of that character. Now I’m not so sure: I can see a valid argument that each reader’s interpretation is equally valid. Why can’t one audience enjoy Batman as a gay character and another audience attribute their enjoyment of the same production to his hypermasculine heterosexuality? Why limit interpretations to the artist’s intentions?
“On top of all of that, this book gives one of the most coherent and readable accounts I’ve read of the development of nerd culture, and the influence of the spread of the internet on nerd subcultures.
“I didn’t expect to make it all the way through this book – but, in fact, I raced through it and I’m raving about it. It’s great!”

2: A Very Expensive Poison by Luke Harding

This was a brilliant book about the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, and the subsequent investigations into his murder. This included a detailed account of the public health response alongside the political and criminal investigations. A Very Expensive Poison was written with great precision and a driving plot, almost like a thriller. I remember being absolutely hooked.

I gave this the full five stars when I first read it:
“One of the most arresting non-fiction books I’ve ever read. A clear, detailed and compelling account of Alexander Litvinenko’s murder by the Russian state – including all of the cack-handed bungling, which only serves to humanise the story and hence make it that much more horrific. Fascinating detail on the investigation, too.”

1: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This was a deeply moving memoir by an American neurosurgeon facing his own terminal cancer diagnosis. Reading this was a deeply emotional experience, partly I think because of the quality of Kalanithi’s writing, but also partly because our broadly similar early career paths kept making me put myself in his shoes. I can still remember the intense emotion of finishing this book.

I also gave this book five stars in 2016:
“An extraordinary memoir of a doctor dying of lung cancer as he reaches the end of his specialty training, reflecting on what is important in life and death. Deeply moving.
“The similarities between Kalanithi’s life and my own made this hit close to home. The writing is brilliant – as a single example among many, Kalanithi describes someone being “found by his supervisor, covered in blood and failure” – a sensation that was so familiar I had to put the book down for a while to reflect.
“An unforgettable book which I will certainly read again.”


Reflections

I have really enjoyed this exercise of comparing what I thought when I first read these books to what I think today. I’m particularly surprised by Reputations—I can scarcely believe how negative my contemporary review was compared to how this lives in my memory.

Perhaps I’ll try and do 2017 review next year!

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What I’ve been reading this month

Long-time readers will know that I think Will Storr is one of my favourite writers. His latest book, The Science of Storytelling, was really aimed at other writers: it gave advice backed by psychology on the creation of works of fiction. I found myself completely absorbed in Storr’s discussion of storytelling theory. I really enjoyed the way that he connected science and art (as he always does), and I was very much taken with the examples he chose to present throughout his book, some of which were among my own favourite books. Because I’m not the target audience, some of the content was of less interest – for example, the appendix on story frameworks – but I devoured and enjoyed the whole book nevertheless.

A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind by Shoukei Matsumoto, a Buddhist monk, was a short book reflecting on the psychological benefits of cleaning. The passion of the argument was more than sufficient to carry the length of this short book, and so I really enjoyed it. It was neither particularly deep and philosophical nor a great source of practical cleaning tips; it’s just an enjoyable, well-written and concise explanation of a passionately held point of view.

Emily Maitlis’s much-lauded Airhead, a series of anecdotes about conducting television interviews, left me a little disappointed. Many of the anecdotes were about things that have gone wrong and Maitlis had enough wit to make these genuinely funny. Some were more thoughtful – Maitlis reflects interestingly on the shift from volunteering on the morning following the Grenfell fire to presenting an edition of Newsnight the same evening. But there wasn’t much more to this book than a series of anecdotes: no reflections on the changing media landscape, nothing about Maitlis’s personal development over time, and no grand argument which she was trying to prove. I enjoyed this book, but left it thinking: “So what?”

Another wildly popular book that did little for me: Normal People by Sally Rooney. This was a book about two people – Marianne and Connell – who grew up together and remain friends into adulthood. Their level of closeness varied over time. The two main characters have been widely praised for being very lifelike, but didn’t seem that way to me. This was partly, I think, because the dialogue between them was rather oddly stilted and formal considering their closeness, and partly because the other characters were so lightly described as to be hardly there, which made their world feel thin. I didn’t quite understand what the fuss was about: but this was on the Booker Prize long-list, so the problem is more likely to be me than the book!

Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She Devil, first published in 1995, was a much-lauded darkly comic novel of a woman scorned and going to extreme lengths to reinvent herself and exact revenge. There were some great lines, but the whole thing felt pretty dated to me, especially in terms of gender politics/ stereotypes. The comedy felt a bit thin to me: revenge can be entertaining, but revenge seemed to be the only note this book was willing to play.

I often complain that I don’t really like short stories: but in truth, I wonder if I’ve just always picked bad ones. So I’ve decided to challenge myself to read the twenty short stories picked by Faber for their 90th anniversary ‘Faber Stories’ collection over the next… well, I haven’t set myself a deadline.

The first of these I picked up was Julia O’Faolain’s Daughters of Passion, a short story in which an increasingly delusional IRA hunger-striker reflects on the childhood friendship which led to her involvement with the IRA. I enjoyed this: O’Foalain played with language in creative ways to reflect different mental states, and drew subtle connectiosn between delusion, misunderstanding and terrorism. All in 49 pages.

The second was A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor. I found this a bit pedestrian. The story concerned an American family crossing paths with a criminal while on a road trip. Most of the character development is focused on the grandmother. There are a lot of themes hinted at – most prominently the nature of moral good (or perhaps moral evil) in the context of modern American Christianity, but none of the themes were really developed into anything… perhaps because the story was so short.

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Some thoughts on print newspapers

When people who otherwise know me and Wendy very well come round to our house, they not infrequently express surprise at newspapers lying around the place. But, whatever others might think, both Wendy and I like a print newspaper. For both of us, the serendipity of newsprint is inspiring: we often find our views challenged by a newspaper presenting something that we hadn’t previously considered, or highlighting an alternative angle on something we thought we knew. This is the newspaper playing the role of an anti-Facebook: not presenting us with stuff we are likely to like, but instead presenting us with stuff which is well outside our field of knowledge and experience.

On top of this, there happens to be a large overlap in the Venn diagram of good journalists and journalists employed by print news organisations. So as well as reading print newspapers, I also subscribe to a number of digital versions of newspapers from the UK and the USA, often to follow specific journalists. There are some journalists whose byline on an article means it’s worth reading, even if it’s about something I would never normally be interested in: Will Storr is an example. There are some journalists who are so expert and well-connected in their field that their byline means an article will provide new insight into a topic: Tim Shipman is an example. There are some journalists who understand the value of explaining the significance of a story, don’t cry wolf, and aren’t afraid to explain that the frontpage splash is really not a big deal in the grand scheme of things: Matt Chorley is an example. And, at the other end of the spectrum, one quickly gets to know the bylines to avoid, the journalists who will almost certainly have failed to understand the material they are covered, whose work will almost inevitably contain at least one major error of fact: it seems rude to give an example.

Another advantage of traditional print is that it is slow. Breaking news frequently demands our attention but is rarely worthy of it. The implications of news are rarely understood at the moment it breaks, not least as so little is generally known. Speculation is often worse than unhelpful, separating fact from fiction is rarely possible in the moment, and vacuous commentary often precedes facts. Farhad Manjoo’s article for the New York Times this week discussed relying solely on print newspapers for news and was particularly clear on this. Delayed Gratification is even better than newspapers for this: it presents news on a three-month delay, allowing much fuller analysis and discussion than anyone could hope to achieve in the first three minutes.

Of course, both me and Wendy also regularly read news online and on our phones. We don’t exclusively read newspapers. But I think, for both of us, they form an important part of our news ‘diet’.

I was set thinking about all of this after seeing a data story by Kirby Swales in April’s Prospect. Swales’s suggestion is that the BBC News website has essentially cannibalised the tabloid newspaper market (perhaps the reason the BBC feels it necessary to write full articles on a reality star’s Instagram post and ‘listicles’ about Twitter storms). To me, the biggest surprise in that data is that less than half the adult population of the UK regularly reads news online.

I don’t really have a point to make in this post. I suppose I’m just musing without conclusion that I like newspapers, their circulation is falling, and with ever-more news available online, the proportion of people engaging with it is really quite small. Maybe society is disengaging from journalism. Or maybe habits are changing in less dramatic ways. I don’t know.


The picture at the top is from Jeff Eaton on Flickr and is used here under Creative Commons licence.

This 2,427th post was filed under: News and Comment, Posts delayed by 12 months, , , , , , , , , , .

Weekend read: The rape of men

This week’s recommended read is a deeply troubling report by The Guardian‘s Will Storr published a couple of years ago. It discusses – in some graphic detail – the appalling rapes suffered by many thousands of men during wars in Africa and elsewhere.

The article quotes Chris Dolan, British directory of Makerere University’s Refugee Law Project:

The organisations working on sexual and gender-based violence don’t talk about it. It’s systematically silenced. If you’re very, very lucky they’ll give it a tangential mention at the end of a report. You might get five seconds of: ‘Oh and men can also be the victims of sexual violence.’ But there’s no data, no discussion.

Storr also talks to a victim of male rape, who at the time of his attack was studying electronic engineering at a university in the Congo:

Eleven rebels waited in a queue and raped Jean Paul in turn. When he was too exhausted to hold himself up, the next attacker would wrap his arm under Jean Paul’s hips and lift him by the stomach. He bled freely: “Many, many, many bleeding,” he says, “I could feel it like water.” Each of the male prisoners was raped 11 times that night and every night that followed.

This article is undeniably disturbing and reading it feels a little uncomfortable – but perhaps it is altogether more disturbing that we hear so little about topic, and that there is seemingly so little support for victims. It is certainly thought-provoking.

This 2,048th post was filed under: Weekend Reads, , .

Weekend read: Alexander Litvinenko, radiation, and poisoning

I usually try to select weekend reads that are free to access, but this week I’m breaking that rule. My choice this week was written by the sickeningly talented Will Storr, edited by the Pulitzer honour Deborah Plum, and published by the startup I helped to fund, Matter. It tells the story of Alexander Litvinenko’s death, from the events in his life which lead up to it, to the extensive investigation and decontamination programme which followed it. This is one of the most absorbing bits of longform journalism I’ve read in absolutely ages, and I have no hesitation in recommending it.

It isn’t free, but it is cheap – and worth several times the price. I highly recommend it, and I’m very proud to see my name at the bottom of it!

This 2,013th post was filed under: Weekend Reads, , , .

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