Year 2 / Book 43: Utopia for Realists

43) Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman

In amongst a steady stream of police procedurals, I’ve managed to slot in this slightly more brain-expanding book by Rutger Bregman. It’s incredibly inspiring, in the middle of Brexit-depression, to read someone who is so passionate and creative and optimistic about our future. And about the fact that we can and will make change: and it is an encouraging read, and one that challenges your own personal shibboleths about everything from earning a wage, working hours and, well, work and the entire purpose of your life.

Much of the substance focuses on the ‘universal basic income’ and Bregman has become known as ‘Mr Basic Income’, and his promotion of the idea has seen it gain currency and led to some new pilots. I hadn’t realised how close America had come at various times, particularly under Richard Nixon, to putting something similar into law – a fascinating glimpse into a radical alternative American past and future. Bregman is compelling on the topic, marshalling evidence to his case and also pointing out how poorly previous evidence has been interpreted. I don’t think I’m 100% convinced, particularly of unintended outcomes, but I’ll be interested to see how the various test-beds play out.

There’s also much here that’s very familiar – progress is decoupled from economic progress; GDP growth doesn’t result in growth in life satisfaction; inequality is rising – but Bregman has a fine turn of phrase which bring things to life, and cuts through the jargon. Take this on how the best minds of our generation are using their brainpower to get more of us to click ads for things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like (I’ve stolen that from him too):

Even now, a vast amount of talent is going wasted. If Ivy League grads once went on to jobs in science, public service, and education, these days they’re far more likely to opt for banking, law, or ad proliferators like Google and Facebook. Stop for a moment to ponder the billions of tax dollars being pumped into training society’s best brains, all so they can learn how to exploit other people as efficiently as possible, and it makes your head spin. Imagine how different things might be if our generation’s best and brightest were to double down on the greatest challenges of our times. Climate change, for example, and the aging population, and inequality … Now that would be real innovation.

I ended that paragraph with an internalised “Hell, yeah!” As I did when he writes, “The reality is that it takes fewer and fewer people to create a successful business, meaning that when a business succeeds, fewer and fewer people benefit.” This sentence gets to the problem at the heart of tech for good, the future of employment, business ownership, Uber-isation and much more besides; and highlights another reason why simply using GDP as the indicator of success is increasingly pointless. We won’t be celebrating that Peter Thiel and Mark Zuckerberg have got inordinately richer through better AI and robots….or that the benefits of our economic progress have actually been exported to four houses in Silicon Valley. Bregman quotes someone else, who says “Goals for more growth should specify more growth of what and for what.” Who said that? Simon Kuznets, the man who came up with GDP….

It’s not a balanced book – Bregman is unashamedly progressive and on the ‘left’ (if such a thing exists anymore), even if some of his ideas stem more from the ‘right’ and libertarian-type values. And there will be things you disagree with or that disagree with you (he has a great chapter on our own ability to find the evidence and examples to support the case we already agree with, in which he questions himself as well). But it’s a heartening blast of optimism – and sets a challenge to us all: be part of building a better future, get on with it, and don’t be doomed by the naysayers. At the moment, that feels an important message to grab hold of and to try and imagine a more utopian world.

Score: 8/10

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Year 2 / Book 42: The House at Sea’s End

42) The House at Sea’s End by Elly Griffiths

I’ve been back on the police procedural / thriller front of late, and this is a series I stumbled across reading a review of a different book. It features Ruth Galloway who is a forensic archaeologist meets pathologist, and she’s a great character: flawed, struggling to get everything done, a bit lovestruck by the police detective (for reasons that become clear) and a bit all over the place – but not in the sense of being made up of police detective cliches (drink problem, love of jazz, smoking habit, divorce) but in a way that felt real, at least to me.

The plot is a touch far-fetched but enjoyable in a sort of Dads Army meets Silent Witness kind of way, revolving as it does around a potential German invasion by sea that may have happened, and the ramifications that ensued. Slightly preposterous, but entertaining nonetheless with a sort of UKIP-py country house owner, a dashing German professor and a friendly care worker in the cast of characters. But Galloway is the centre of it, and enormously likeable – likeable enough to forgive the worst plot extravagances and the a bit-too-neat denouement.

I’ve added this to the list of series to come back to and revisit for a bit of modern British crime escapism. Recommended.

Score: 7/10

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Year 2 / Book 41: Conclave

41) Conclave by Robert Harris

If you’re going to read a literary thriller, you can do a lot worse than Robert Harris, in my opinion. Fatherland is top notch, of course, and I hugely enjoyed The Fear Index and, to a lesser extent, The Ghost as well. And the Roman ones – and we are back in Rome here. Conclave isn’t as good as any of those, but it is entirely disposable, readable tosh all the same. Set entirely in the Vatican City, it details the election process for the next Pope as intrigue and scandal and terrorism threatens the Catholic Church, all in the space of a few days.

It’s incredibly insubstantial, as if Harris came up with the premise, sold it to his publisher and then had to write it: you don’t really feel like he even believes in it. But it’s entertaining nonetheless, simply because of his ability to keep the pages turning and keep the narrative moving along at a good pace. He has also effectively translated what feels like a pseudo-election process (from say the UK) to the Vatican: at one point, he even describes one of the other priests as being like someone’s campaign manager. All of this makes it instantly accessible and easy to whip through.

But it’s papal intrigue by numbers: if you were drawing up a list of four main papal candidates, you’d probably have one from the Americas, one from Africa, a traditionalist (Italian) and a maverick who comes out of nowhere. Check! You’d mix in a bit of sex, a bit of deceit, and a bit of voting drama and you would stir and wait till it came to the boil. Well that’s what Harris has done here, but it never really reaches boiling point: instead it’s all a bit lukewarm and tepid, despite the odd bit that gets bubbling. One to read on the beach, and to leave on the beach….

Score: 5.5/10

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Year 2 / Book 40: Dear Ijeawele

40) Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is a short book, written as a letter to a friend who has just given birth to a daughter and who has asked for help on how to bring her up as a feminist. It is a follow-up, I assume to Ngozi Adichie’s excellent We Should All Be Feminists which is based on the text of an equally worth catching TED talk. This short book is structured in fifteen pieces of very practical advice that go to the centre of sexual politics in the current age. Suffice to say that this has seemed all too relevant in recent weeks.

At its heart, the content is about simply equality and raising a daughter with the “solid unbending belief…that I matter. I matter equally”. This is then followed by suggestions which speak to work, relationships, and trusting what they think. There is nothing here, I’d imagine, that would surprise a feminist from the 60s and 70s but there’s no doubting the requirement that it still needs saying (and particularly to new generations). And Adichie has a gift for clarity and power of communications. 

As a writer, she is by turns honest, compelling and funny, with an adept turn of phrase that cuts through: “knowledge of cooking is not pre-installed in a vagina”, for example. There is something about it being the format of a letter, and it being such an honest and personal voice, that means it cuts through with an urgency and a passion that more academic or literary styles might not. For me, it is a no-brainer of a way to spend an hour or so; and a book  (indeed both books) we should be passing on to those raising daughters and sons; and, indeed, those who are not.

Score: 8/10

BUY IT NOW: Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions

Year 2 / Book 39: Lincoln in the Bardo

39) Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Fortuitously, I found myself finishing this off as it was announced as this year’s Booker Prize winner. I’m a fan of George Saunders: if you haven’t read any of his short stories, you are in for a treat: they are moving, incisive and extremely funny by turns. So of the shortlist, this one had leapt out at me, particularly as it is his first novel.

It is a book unlike anything I’ve previously read: hugely inventive in its form, with the text largely made up of quotes and references from old texts and publications (some made up, some real, I assume) and dialogue from the participants of the story: of whom there are *many*. The story is based around the (real) fact that Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie died when he was very young, and that this deeply affected Lincoln at the time. The ‘Bardo’ of the title is a sort of intermediate state between life and death (and a staging post before heaven and hell), and the main characters of the story are all stuck in this limbo-world. 

The book isn’t as naturally and instantly engaging as Saunders’ short stories, and takes a little while to get into. But soon I was loving the waterfall of quotes and references, contradicting each other and building layers of detail and perspective: in this sense, many of these contextual chapters are constantly reminding us of the fluidity of history and the blurring between one person’s truth and another’s lie. It’s a simple but clever way of pushing the narrative along without bogging the reader down in historical research-type paragraphs and making a point about stories and fictions and how we interpret them and read them.

The characters in the bardo are equally intriguing, representing the full spectrum of America at that time, in all its conflicts, classes and crimes. Paedophiles, murderers and rapists stand next to priests and housewives and shopkeepers – all living in a society infused with the supernatural and a perpetual feeling of anxiety. As the book goes on, more of this world is revealed to the reader, and it becomes more and more affecting.

I won’t pretend this is the easiest read, but nor is it a chore. I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as his short story collections, but it has more depth, more invention and greater meaning than can be achieved in that shorter form. I don’t know what it all means, but I do know it’s set me thinking in myriad ways, and has stayed with me well beyond finishing it – on how we respond to adversity, on the nature of truth (and falsehood), on humanity and spirituality. For these reasons and more, I’d very much recommend it.

Score: 8/10


Year 2 / Book 38: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

38) By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart

So this is about as far from my typical read as it’s possible to get: I picked it up at the trusty Acton Central community bookshelf, partly because the title rang a bell from past studies, and partly because it was thin and short (look, this book a week thing isn’t always a bowl of cherries…). The background to the book is that Elizabeth Smart fell in love with the poet George Barker (first through his poetry and later very much in person), had children with him and what I believe the tabloids would describe as a ‘torrid’ love affair. Affair because, unhappily for Smart, Barker was already married. 

This short book, in poetic prose, reads like a spilling out of incredibly visceral feelings on the page, moving in an instant from the lyrical and high-minded and poetic to the heartfelt and agonised and again on to more literal grounded details. One can’t help feel the rush of emotion coming the reader’s way, and heartfelt doesn’t really do it justice – this is a woman howling into the void, crying loudly at the world and, for a brief period in the middle of the book (corresponding to the height of their affair) in the most passionate and ecstatic reverie.

Of course, whether you get to that point depends on whether the ‘poetic prose’ is to your taste: I found it pretty challenging to wade through at first (it felt a bit like someone from the 1960s suddenly deciding to write like one of the Romantic poets), and some of the sentences are quite special (a few involving cats, caves and sex spring to mind), and it all goes a bit dream catcher and healing crystals for my tastes at times.  And yet, for all that, I found myself responding to the emotion on display as it built up and built up, and there are passages that are incredibly powerful. A little like if you swim through a pool or a river, then you come out having been immersed and changed.

If you like a bit of poetry and florid language along with your heartbreak, this is recommended. If you have just broken up with someone or normally read quite staid non-fiction, then not so much.

Score: 6.5/10

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Year 2 / Book 37: A Dark Redemption

37) A Dark Redemption by Stav Sherez

I’ve been running behind on reviews, as work has been a bit busy, but am catching up gradually on books I’ve read. This is a really good police procedural by Stav Sherez, a British crime writer I hadn’t heard of until stumbling across on the Guardian books pages (hat tip Laura Wilson, as ever). The duo of Carrigan and Miller come together in this first book in a series (I’m downloading the others soon), and it’s a really fascinating tale, weaving convincing back stories with excellent characterisation and a plot with enough to keep you guessing.

The depth and interest that raises this above more standard fare comes from the centrality of African politics to it, and how that plays out (murderously, of course) in today’s London – and doing so without lapsing into stereotype and simplicity. So a girl studying in London who’s looking into child soldiers and civil wars is found dead, and from there a web of links spins out connecting factions, the Foreign Office, the detectives and more besides.

Carrigan and Miller as a partnership work for me, although they venture a bit near cliche at times (Carrigan, emotional and hotheaded; Miller, more reserved and cerebral), and I can see that the ‘will they, won’t they’ romance will irritate unless it’s done well. But they are both rounded enough with enough back story to give character as well as plot interest. I’m looking forward to the next.

Score: 7/10

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Year 2 / Book 36: Grit

36) Grit by Angela Duckworth

So this is an interesting book. I was biased towards it from the start, having long been of the view that most of the good stuff takes perseverance, something I’ve written about a few times in different ways. This book, based on years of research, puts some evidence and substance behind that common-sensical observation. In short, Grit is passion + perseverance in the pursuit of a larger purpose. Which is what the book is all about – talent can only take you so far, but talent and effort (ideally, deliberate practice), with a sense of purpose and what you want to achieve, can go a lot further.

More interestingly, from my perspective, is how much having ‘grit’ is a predictor of success in life, career, work: much more so than, say, intelligence or IQ tests. Some of that (as with many of these books) feels like common sense, but there is something liberating about realising that, as the book says, “a high level of performance…is an accretion of mundane acts” and the importance of keeping “putting one foot in front of the other”. Obsessing about ‘talent’, in a blue-chip McKinsey kind of way, “distracts us from that simple truth”. At one point, Duckworth refers to an article called “The Mundanity of Excellence” which would have made a great subtitle for the book.

The second half of the book waned a bit for me: there’s only so many times you can be introduced to a ‘grit paragon’, even if several of them seem to be American Football players (a personal love). Indeed, the book may ‘jump the shark’ at the point when the author meets [famous San Francisco 49er quarterback] Steve Young and finds out that his dad was nicknamed ‘Grit’. There are also chapters on being a gritty parent and all that sort of stuff which felt a bit like 50-odd pages of saying the same things in different ways. And there’s also a fair bit that’s familiar to anyone who reads this sort of book (like ‘deliberate practice’ which has become known as the 10,000 hour rule, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell et al).

Nevertheless, there’s so much of interest here: for anyone really. Whether you are starting something up, trying to get better at your job, looking to find your passion in life (‘discover, develop, deepen’), thinking about who you hire, or how you find the energy to carry on, Grit has something for you. And, given that, it comes highly recommended.

Score: 8/10

BUY IT HERE:  Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Year 2 / Book 35: The Thirst

35) The Thirst by Jo Nesbo

I’m mid-way through a book on the Booker longlist and a business book based on scientific research…but there are times when you just have to reach for some Scandinavian crime: pure, instant escapism. Jo Nesbo is the publisher-acclaimed Scandi noir king, and a massive bestseller with his series of Harry Hole novels. This, The Thirst, is the latest and we are on classic, fairly familiar, serial killer territory.

It’s a bit bagggy in places: there’s always that feeling that as a writer becomes more famous, their editor(s) become less keen to tell them in no uncertain terms where they should cut, re-order and re-write. [This is known as the ‘Rowling effect’]. So The Thirst is pretty massive and sags as much in the middle as my bag did when carrying it round.  It is also, even by the standards of the genre, preposterous – vampirism, metal teeth, tattoos, blood, moles, 30 year crushes, buying bars, and a ridiculous ending are entertaining, but even as someone having read all his previous books, I struggled to suspend disbelief.

The characters fare a bit better – Harry is Harry, but Oleg (his step-son) is becoming more interesting, and Katrine Bratt is arguably the central figure for large chunks of the book, taking on the leadership role of the team and developing into someone a bit more three-dimensional. Others are a bit archetypal, but most are a bit more than plot-device cardboard.

It passed the time, and took my mind off work…so in that sense mission accomplished. And, especially as you get to the last 75 pages, the pace picks up and you want badly to know if your guesses (of which I had many) have been correct. However, it certainly wouldn’t be the place I would start: other earlier Hole novels are much more coherent, and some of the shorter non-Hole novels (Headhunters, The Son) are better, wittier and sharper. One to take on holiday – and leave behind.

Score: 5.5/10

BUY THIS:  The Thirst: Harry Hole 11

Year 2 / Book 34: A Beautiful Young Wife

34) A Beautiful Young Wife by Tommy Wieringa

Tommy Wieringa is a Dutch writer, and this slim novel(la) is the first I’ve read by him: I can’t remember where I ran across his name but he’s been on the Wish List for months, and I took the plunge a few weeks back. And I’m very glad I did. It’s a wonderful little read, and not a little heartbreaking. It is the short story told in clear, spare prose of a husband detailing the (spoiler alert) breakdown of his marriage and life, partly as the result of a child and his own imperfections.

Edward, the protagonist, is an eminent virologist and is very successful – he sees and falls in love with a beautiful blonde called Ruth who becomes his wife in short order. From the start, the cracks appear – from differences of opinion about science, morality and capitalism – and Edward soon slips off into mistakes and infidelity to prop up his insecure masculinity.

What follows is disconcerting, depressing and utterly believable in equal measure – and done with precision, but also an empathy and understanding for all the people involved. It is a short, honest narrative that spirals but also reveals a huge amount as it goes. And the translation is brilliant in its unobtrusiveness.

Highly recommended; I will be seeking out his other work.

Score: 9/10

BUY IT NOW:  A Beautiful Young Wife