Year 3 / Book 9: No Is Not Enough

9) No is Not Enough by Naomi Klein

For left-leaning, progressive, liberal elite types (such as myself – other cliches are available), Brexit & Trump have now settled in as realities, and it can all become fairly dispiriting and difficult to respond to with ideas and constructive responses. That’s probably why I enjoyed Utopia for Realists so much, because it had a bit of optimism, hope and ideas about it – even if I didn’t agree with or get fully convinced by them all. And, as the title of this book makes clear, I had similarly high hopes for the analysis and proposed solutions of this book by Naomi Klein (hat tip by the way to Robbie Davison, who recommended it).

In the event, I was more taken with the analysis of the problem than the proposed response here. Klein is compelling when talking about the rise of Trump: what’s fascinating is that, particularly with her previous writing on the shock doctrine and the rise of corporate brands, Trump is very much the zenith of both those trends. His entire being is made up of a brand (it rests literally on his name being on buildings) while his entire political success is made up of shock, distraction, and continually shifting sands. Her skewering is as accurate and as pointed as any I’ve seen and, alongside the insight of books like The Unwinding and their chronicling of middle America’s decline, gives one a real sense of why and how we are at a stage where Trump can be president. She is also unsparing in her criticism of the Democrats and the Clintons in its inability to break from the broader establishment, suggest any real radical answers (to address genuine problems) and put forward any really progressive answers. I think she lets Bernie Sanders off the hook on some of his blind spots, but there’s no doubt he demonstrated (as has Corbyn) that more radical and redistributive policies have a wide audience of support.

Where the analysis runs onto stickier ground for me is the sense that this is all part of a wider conspiracy. I don’t disagree with the corporatisation of politics point, nor about the driving force behind wars (eg in Iraq etc) but the chapters here on Rex Tillerson, for example, read oddly given Trump’s recent arbitrary firing of him and also in the light of the reaction of the corporate crowd within the administration to Trump’s recent protectionist policies on steel (Gary Cohn, ex-Goldman Sachs, recently resigned, for example). That isn’t to say there isn’t much to be concerned about, but perhaps the extent to which it is organised I think is more questionable, at least where someone as fickle and unpredictable as Trump is concerned. I’m sure others would say I’m being naive.

The other bit I was mildly underwhelmed by was what the resistance or response looks like. Klein’s main point is that it needs to be a combined response to work – and that requires building coalitions and movements which cut across single issues. This seems entirely sensible, though obviously challenging in the face of an enormously unpredictable, issue-by-issue ‘opponent’. But the women’s march, the recent response to the Florida shooting, Black Lives Matter and a range of other grassroots movements have shown how these can make a difference – if they can successfully join up and mobilise that power as a whole there might be something there that genuinely changes things, particularly if employment, rights and climate change are genuinely factored in. Klein’s attempt at this, personally, was to draw together a broad group of people in Canada and author a joint manifesto: this seems, at least in her writing, to have minorly influenced the Canadian election and there’s plenty I agree with in the document that’s included. But, at the end of so much intelligent analysis and well-placed rage, it seems like something of an anti-climax: to write a document and to try to use it to tentatively influence some of the established political parties. Obviously, easy to critique, so the challenge to those of us operating in the broader social sector is to work out what these practical solutions are, where they should operate (on what geographical scale) and where and how to focus interventions. This book certainly gives you the fuel to be motivated to do so.

Score: 7/10

BUY IT NOW: No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics


Year 3 / Book 8: Blue Light Yokohama

8) Blue Light Yokohama by Nicolas Obregon

I got this in paperback for Christmas after reading about it a while back. I’m a sucker for novels set in Japan, and even more so for detective novels set in Japan, so this seemed an obvious choice along those lines. Recent reads that stick in my mind include the Devotion of Suspect X and Villain both of which have a distinctly Japanese sensibility and, in the case of the latter by Shuichi Yoshida, an eerie unsettling feeling throughout (both highly recommended). Blue Light Yokohama feels a bit closer to a more traditional ‘European’ crime novel, perhaps because it’s written by a European (!), albeit one who lived in Japan for a while. As he details at the end of the book, Obregon was inspired by a real-life Japanese murder story which remains unsolved to this day.

There’s a lot going on here – Detective Iwata is the main character, and he’s coming off the back of some unspecified tragedy with his American wife / girlfriend; he’s taking over from Hideo Akashi who has committed suicide; Iwata inherits a partner called Sakai who is feisty and blunt (and for my money, the most engaging and entertaining character); and in short order, a family is murdered, followed by some more people soon after….and there’s a healthy side-helping of Japanese cults and police corruption as well. Obregon does a decent job of weaving these into a coherent plot and narrative, and Iwata and Sakai are far from paper-thin in terms of characterisation, though some of the strands tie up a bit too neatly.

It’s a tense, involving read and I found myself reaching for it as soon as I sat down on the tube on the way to work – always a good sign that the story has you gripped. So I enjoyed it a fair bit – but couldn’t help think that it probably had a bit too much going on, and that this means it is not quite as successful or as powerful as it might have been. Cutting out a couple of unnecessary back stories and some minor characters (there is a university friend particularly, who may as well be called ‘Basil Exposition’ as he seems to exist purely for plot explanation purposes; a ‘cults’ specialist who pops up at the end is similarly helpful for the narrative) might have led to a sparer, tighter story with a fiercer emotional punch. It’s good but it could have been great. Tuck it away for a holiday read, and keep an eye out for Obregon’s next novel.

Score: 7/10

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Year 3 / Book 7: Option B

7) Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

For the uninitiated, Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook, one of the world’s most powerful and richest women, and also wrote the influential book Lean In, a sort of pragmatic, work-oriented feminist text (which originated from a TED talk). This isn’t a follow-up to Lean In but is a book about personal resilience, written in the shadow of a personal tragedy for her: her husband died suddenly following a cardiac arrest in the gym when they were on holiday. She found him and then had to fly home to tell her children. This book is shaped round the techniques and approaches and research that she explored for herself in trying to deal with this tragic situation; or, as she puts it, when Option A goes to pot, you need to kick the crap out of Option B.

It is a difficult book to review. On the one hand, you can’t help but feel sorry for Sandberg, and she is commendably open about her life, her difficulties and her challenges. She is also more cognisant of her privileged position than she was in Lean In (something which she was criticised for), and draws widely on an array of interesting research – this may in part be due to the presence and sounding board of her co-author, Adam Grant (a psychologist, lecturer and author himself). Some of the personal details she shares are extremely moving.

And yet, and yet. There is something carefully curated (to quote Decca Aitkenhead’s article about interviewing Sandberg) about the whole thing. Strangely, at times, there is a bit of guts or heart or anger missing; there’s also a hell of a lot of Facebook in there – I know it’s her work environment and her job, so it’s bound to feature, but does it have to feature quite this much, this often, in so many ways? And, for all the recognition of her privileged position, she doesn’t hold back on all the various opportunities, counselling, advice, support, camps, networks etc that she and her children are able to draw on (at one point, she and her children cry at a SpaceX launch, itself an example of corporate resilience apparently). I’m aware that some of this may just be a typically British reaction to quite an American book (it took me a couple of minutes to recover from the fact that apparently ‘journalling’ is a verb; not, say, writing a journal), but I think it’s more than that: it is a bit too neat and tied up. Sandberg is a fixer, a do-er and she seeks out research and evidence and examples that can give her certainty in an uncertain world. Acknowledging more of that uncertainty, and that there aren’t answers to some of it, might have made for a more empathetic and honest book.

So, curiously for a book centred around one personal tragic event, the stories that move most are those of other people. Ones that stayed with me were the woman who founded a non-profit working with ex-offenders before her work life and romantic life broke up and collapsed after she made some personal mistakes; and she had then got back up, started again and achieved even more. Or the famous Uruguayan rugby team who got stranded in the Andes mountains – there are some lovely words from some of those who made it out of there, and how they balanced hope with realism. These, and other examples, felt rawer and more real (and more imperfect) than Sandberg’s rigorously researched formula. It is these stories, along with the odd practical nugget of advice and wisdom, that will be what stays with me from the book.

Score: 6.5/10

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Year 3 / Book 6: Things Fall Apart

6) Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

This was recommended to me by our good friend Nina, and although it’s taken a while for me to get to it, I”m really glad she did, and mea culpa on my part for having not got to a novel that has sold over 20 million copies and regularly crops up in the best ever novels in the English language. It is also often heralded as one of the archetypal African novels, and one that was followed (by Achebe and others) with a flowering of African-written literature.

It’s a concise novel, but felt to me wide-sweeping and wide-ranging. Achebe takes time to detail the culture, society and politics of the Umuofia tribe, primarily through the character of Okonkwo whose life provides the narrative thread to the tale. What becomes clear is that the community have relatively sophisticated practices and customs in relation to a whole range of areas: crime and justice, marriage and relationships, worship and prayer and so forth. For example, Okonkwo is banished to another village for 7 years after a particular incident, judged by a group of his peers. There is also, crucially, no one chief or ‘king’ but a system of gaining respect and becoming an elder.

This is all evocatively and beautifully established – and done so because in the final third of the book, the white missionaries arrive with their own religion, ‘one god’, practices and, soon, government and administration. Things fall apart not only for Okonkwo personally, but for the village generally and for the country they live in overall – as their own ways of living and doing things are summarily ignored, superseded and looked down on. In this sense, Achebe’s tale is a powerful rebuttal to colonisation and the arrogance of the European arrival across African at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century. If anything, it is the white missionaries’ approach that appears simplistic and brutal (even savage) rather than those they are seeking to convert.

Reading this was a stark reminder of the dangers of the arrogant, colonial mindset which is far from extinguished today; and I went away with a richer understanding and slightly less ignorant than I went in to reading it. I don’t know whether one should be happy that this still feels pertinent and relevant 60 years or so after it was written, but it’s a testimony to Achebe’s writing that this is a fundamental and essential text on the nature of identity, cultural assimilation and colonisation still.

Score: 8/10

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Year 3 / Book 5: The Lie of the Land

5) The Lie of the Land by Amanda Craig

What a thoroughly enjoyable read this was: another one pulled from the ‘Best Of’ Lists, Amanda Craig’s novel follows a family who move to Devon because they can no longer afford to live in London (and can’t afford their divorce). So they move to the slightly weird Home Farm, where seemingly something odd and slightly chilling has happened….Throw in a local pie factory employing largely people from Poland, an ageing rock star who owns the local estate, and a host more of excellently drawn characters and you have the ingredients for a sumptuous read.

It is brilliantly done – Craig skewers the London arrogance and attitude brilliantly, and uses the vehicle of the husband’s newspaper column (The Questing Vole) to flush out all the cliches and stereotypical views that metropolitans bring about living ‘in the country’. The crime that happened at the house is the thing that spurs the plot and novel forwards, but there are excellent sub-plots about their son Xan on his journey of self-discovery and awareness, about the health visitor trapped in a loveless marriage, and about the main couple themselves trying to work out what their relationship is now.

While the ending lapses into a bit of farce-meets-melodrama, it is a highly entertaining read. Amongst all the laughs, the book manages to meaningfully delve into complex family relationships, poverty and inequality in today’s Britain, and the difference between work and fulfilment. It’s excellent stuff, and highly recommended – for Londoners & Devonians alike.

Score: 8.5/10

BUY IT NOW: The Lie of the Land

Year 3 / Book 4: A Horse Walks Into A Bar

4) A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman

This was so heavily recommended in the end-of-year books of 2017 round-ups that I put it on the Christmas list; Santa delivered, and here we are. It’s a novel about an Israeli stand-up comedian, and is set over the hour and a half or so of his ‘set’ in a club in the run-down city of Netanya. Gradually, as time goes on and his set continues, Dovaleh Greenstein tells fewer jokes and more of his life story, and it becomes apparent that this is far from a standard comedy set. The comedian has also invited a friend from childhood (who went on to become a judge) as a sort of witness, storyteller, foil and prop all in one.

Needless to say, this isn’t just a novel about the personal disintegration of a stand-up comedian, it covers a huge amount of territory about Israel itself: the politics, the history, the geography, the contradictions and the conflicts. Despite this, at times, it is very funny (I read one review that said it wasn’t funny at all which made me question either my or the reviewer’s sense of humour), as well as off-colour, challenging, offensive and needling. Dovaleh is simultaneously unlikeable and deeply sympathetic, which is no small feat on Grossman’s part, and his story is engrossing and engaging. The denouement, revealing the key moments which defined his life, is pretty heart-rending.

The other brilliant thing that Grossman has done is somehow create within the novel the feeling of being enclosed and trapped in; I assume this is partly metaphorical but is also directly evocative of basement comedy clubs with low ceilings, sweat dripping from the ceilings and the feeling that one can’t escape when it’s going awry. The unspoken, unstated interactions between the comedian and various people in the audience raises questions, and there is a broader backdrop of more ‘standard’ comedy club audience members (the heckler, the people who laugh at the things that no-one else does, the people who are easily offended, the people who like the offensive jokes and so forth).

It’s not an easy read – I felt a bit like I’d been holding my breath reading it, especially in the last 20 or 30 pages – and if you are one of those comedy club audience members who are easily offended, it might not be for you. But it’s compelling and troubling, and has left me pondering not only the politics and situation of that region, but also the role of humour as a defence (and attack) mechanism, and how events at an early age can shape the course of people’s lives. Which is not a bad outcome from less than 200 pages.

Score: 8/10

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Year 3 / Book 3: Splinter the Silence

3) Splinter the Silence by Val McDermid

My resolution to read fewer crime novels made it to the third week, and then I’ve lapsed. Val McDermid is a safe bet, and the bet gets no safer than a Carol Jordan and Tony Hill novel. If you’ve read anything involving the duo before, you’ll know that it’s all a bit messed up, damaged and complicated, and this is no different – although much of the book is taken up with their tentative, tetchy reconciliation. It is also taken up with Jordan being reintegrated into the police service – the special unit she is requested to head up seems partly a device to allow McDermid to bypass a few realities and ‘get the gang back together’. It feels a bit like the start of an A Team episode – get the interviewer; the tech and data geek; the psychologist; the old hand; the young buck. OK, ready to roll!

The crime they are solving almost takes a back seat to all the character-led machinations (including a frankly very dodgy ‘let Carol off the hook for drink driving’ charge), but has a distinct flavour of #MeToo and online trolling about it. The killer, motivated by being ‘let down’ by women, is targeting mouthy, opinionated women who get a profile on social media and articulate strong (normally feminist) views. McDermid has always been adept at keeping her novels current and contemporary, and this is neatly (and at times powerfully) done too.

The stand-out for me, actually, was the IT geek / data hacker character Stacey, who forms (for several reasons) an important part of the story. I think the author was revelling in her character’s power and possibilities, and as a result it was a lot of fun whenever she was on the page. If the special team forms the basis of forthcoming novels, I’d anticipate Stacey taking a starring role.

All in all, somewhat standard fare, but McDermid is still one of the best crime writers out there, and it’s entertaining and enjoyable stuff – although this one does rely more on previous knowledge of Jordan and Hill than other more standalone episodes in the series.

Score: 6.5/10

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Year 3 / Book 2: If I Die In A Combat Zone

2) If I Die In A Combat Zone by Tim O’Brien

Many years ago, for reasons that are unclear to me, I bought a book called In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien which I thought was great (I must have been a teenager at the time) but I don’t think I really understood the backdrop to the novel which was the author’s experiences in Vietnam. Being on holiday in Vietnam, and having just visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, I sat down to read his first book, If I Die In A Combat Zone, which is a memoir of his experience of being drafted to serve in Vietnam and his experiences as an infantry soldier in the country. When you realise that the ending of the sentence of the title is If I Die In A Combat Zone….box me up and send me home, then you know this isn’t going to be a laugh a minute.

What I found most interesting was the fact that O’Brien disagreed with the war from the start, going as far as to challenge his seniors and to develop a fairly detailed escape plan (via Sweden), but that some sense of obligation, of following the norm and of what was right and wrong prevented him from pursuing them and trying to get out of the war altogether. He finds a like-minded soul during training (who also likes books, poetry, reading and has a broadly ‘liberal’ sensibility) and they keep each other sane during the nonsensical testosterone of the Fort where they learn how to bayonet and fire guns and polish their shoes.

It is the war scenes which linger, of course. The sheer futility of the exercises and the complete randomness of who gets killed or injured (and how it happens): there is nothing to suggest that being smarter, stronger, more aware or a ‘better’ soldier in any way helps. There is evidence of courage (something O’Brien goes into as a concept in some depth) but as much evidence of cowardice; there are examples of bravery and also thoughtless stupidity. What underpins it all is the constant relentless stomach-churning fear of not knowing if your next step in the mud, in the rice paddy, will be your last – O’Brien categorises all the different types of booby trap and mine here, which felt all too real as I’d just seen them all in the museum. Absolutely terrifying to think that you walk miles towards a target that might not be there, for a goal that is unclear, led by people with no real idea, and might tread on one of these at any moment. People die – good people, bad people, stupid people, smart people, but mostly people in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I’ve watched quite a few Vietnam films (Full Metal Jacket, Born on the Fourth of July, Good Morning Vietnam etc) but this book has an immediacy and a power to it that few of them can truly capture. Futility becomes normality, and death and injury become such a part of life as to be treated like walking out to buy the paper. Such are the things that war do to men, I suppose. What is extraordinary is that O’Brien experiences all this while absolutely disagreeing with the nature of the war and completely understanding both the horror and the pointlessness of it (he arrives in a similar area about a year and a half after the My Lai massacre); this adds an extra layer of poignancy and despair to the different experiences and examples he documents.

It’s the best book on war I’ve read since, I guess, Dispatches by Michael Herr back at university, or the peerless Catch-22. Reading it makes me want to revisit not only these, but also In the Lake of the Woods, which I would now read afresh with a greater level of understanding and, I hope, a little more insight.

Score: 8/10

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Year 3 / Book 1: What the World Will Look Like When the Water Leaves Us

1) What the World Will Look Like When the Water Leaves Us by Laura van den Berg

First book of 2018 and it’s an excellent book of short stories from this American writer. My wife Katie bought me her more recent book of short stories about a year ago (Isle of Youth) which was fabulous, so I ordered this (her first book of stories) and her most recent novel (Find Me, which I’m yet to get to). This was not easy to get, as it’s not in print in the UK, I think – at least I couldn’t find it online in the UK, so this one winged its way from the US of A.

I really enjoyed it: there is a loose connecting theme of water (and water-based monsters) running through the stories, but there’s also huge variety as well. As with the best short stories (for me, anything by Lorrie Moore and Yiyun Li, or a Geoff Dyer episode), these involve and engage and stay with you. In fact, one of the early ones about a young woman raising her brother, working in a dead-end job, and the younger brother exploring a hole in the road is quite stunning, and incredibly memorable. Another, about a woman naturalist meeting a couple obsessed by the Loch Ness monster manages to be troubling and moving. And the title story, about a mother and daughter taking different paths as they grow apart, is evocative and believable.

In all, great stuff – amazing that this is van den Berg’s first set of stories and, while it doesn’t quite reach the high points of Isle of Youth for me, it’s still some of the best short story writing around. Lorrie Moore is the benchmark for me; these aren’t quite as well achieved, and they don’t have the same cutting edge of wit and humour that Moore often has, but they have a different mix of elements: they feel younger, darker and stranger than Moore’s stories. What they have in common is a sense of melancholia underlying things; marriages are ending, children are disowning their parents, and things are complicated and sad. A bit like real life then.

Highly recommended if you can get a copy. I’m looking forward to van den Berg’s first novel, which is sitting alongside Yiyun Li’s Kinder than Solitude. I have high hopes for both.

Score: 8/10

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Year 2 / Book 53: Home Fire

53) Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

A bonus book sneaking under the wire that I finished on New Year’s Eve. Looking back at the year’s reading, I can see that I’ve done better on gender split this year (28 male authored books, 25 female authored books) but well over half are crime, detective or police thrillers. So am aiming for a bit more non-fiction and literary fiction in year 3.

This book fits the bill of the latter, as it’s been heavily recommended in all the ‘end of year’ round-up lists of best books of 2017, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a riveting tale of three siblings (an elder sister and twin brother and sister) who are Muslims living in the UK (and also America). In different ways, they get embroiled in a whole range of political and personal issues and the two clash consistently. Not least because both sisters take a shine to Eamon (or Ayman) who happens to be the son of the new, first ever Muslim Home Secretary. Oh yes.

It’s very cleverly done, and builds to what seems like an inexorable and inevitable climax – I don’t want to give too much away; unfortunately, I’d read that it was a retelling of a classic Greek tragedy, and if you know anything about Greek tragedies then you know someone (possible everyone) is going to die. So I won’t go into too much detail in the plot; suffice to say that it feels incredibly current, live, challenging and insightful…but also has moments of great lyricism. A prescient and compelling book to end 2017 with, and one that accurately reflects our times. Highly recommended.

Score: 8.5/10