Review articles

Learn from my mistakes.

Agnes Grey — Anne Brontë

agnes-greyThis short novel is neat and satisfying. It’s the story of a girl who decides to become a governess; Agnes is positively saintly, but with a quite amusing wryness in her descriptions of the people she meets. She certainly doesn’t make governessing sound like much fun; doubly so since Brontë based the story partly on her own experiences.

Inevitably, there is a romantic interest. He seems quite unpromising when first introduced, though I identified him immediately as The One; it’s that kind of story. Later, when she describes his appearance, the words are an exact — exact! — description of Colin Firth as Mr Darcy.

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — Robert Pirsig

zenA man is on a motorcycle road trip with his son and a couple of friends. As they travel through roads and towns across the USA, he pontificates about life, philosophy, and yes, motorcycle maintenance. He doesn’t say a lot about Zen, actually, but what he does say fits in well with the rest of his ideas. He’s trying to develop a train of thought that he thinks might be able to solve the malaise affecting the affluent West in these decadent times.

As the narrator talks more about his own history, it becomes clearer where his ideas came from and how bound up they are to his personal life. You can tell that there are some troubles below the surface and these build tension throughout the story leading to… well, the end of the story, which was reasonably satisfying.

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The News — Alain de Botton

the-newsA thoughtful analysis of what is wrong with the mass media and how to put it right. It goes far beyond obvious ideas like reducing the bias towards bad news. I could see some of his ideas gaining traction, in the print media at least. It seems less likely on TV — maybe in a public broadcaster. If that happened I might occasionally watch TV.

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The House of Mirth — Edith Wharton

The House of MirthThis is a wonderful book. It immerses you into New York society a hundred or so years ago, a world where every social interaction is governed by intricate codes and strict, yet unwritten, rules. Lily Bart, the protagonist, is a consummate master of these rules, but will her extravagant tastes get the better of her and condemn her to a fate as an impoverished old maid? (Actually, I don’t know the answer yet: I’m only halfway through.)

It all sounds a bit Jane Austen, but Wharton’s prose seems to me to have a bit more steel in it, and her heroine is more morally ambiguous than, say, Elizabeth Bennet. There are many apposite metaphors, and a lot of insightful musing on human nature, apart from the engrossing plot.

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The Last Days of the National Costume — Anne Kennedy

national-costumeAnne Kennedy’s book starts out as a fussy woman’s internal monologue, before expanding to take in a pivotal series of events in her otherwise quiet life. It also will make me think twice before taking clothing in to be repaired.

The extended power outage in Auckland in 1999 apparently made minor headlines throughout the world. (I wasn’t living there at the time.) This is a story of the little madnesses that went on during that time in the life of Megan Sligo, a part-time clothing repairer. As people bring their clothes to her to be repaired, they tell her about the shameful and wonderful secrets behind the damaged items. She maintains her professionalism until one woman brings her an Irish dancing dress with a torn sleeve. Somehow this draws her into its own story.

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Essays in Love — Alain de Botton

Essays in LoveThis is a love affair narrated in almost excruciating detail by a man who thinks too much, or at least a lot more than most. As he tells the story of going about his life, meeting a woman and becoming a couple, he digresses onto diverse topics, related and unrelated. There is a lot of wisdom and understanding in what he says, and the story seems quite realistic and all too believable. It’s fun to read, in the way that all de Botton’s books are.

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Smart Moves — Carla Hannaford

Smart MovesThis is an eye-opening discussion of the varieties of people’s learning styles and the inadequacies of the traditional three-R’s style of education. Ideas like this have gained a lot of currency since this book was published, which I think is a great thing. Smart Moves puts a scientific basis behind common-sense notions like letting kids run around a bit before class, but really digs deeply into the physiology of the brain. I get the feeling that some of the author’s recommendations are more theoretical than evidence-based, but there’s still a lot of good information and a lot of new ideas to try out. Many of the exercises and techniques are applicable to everyone, not just children.

One of my favourite techniques, though, is one for parents: The Time Game. If your child asks for something, say you’ll do it — in three minutes. Then set a timer and allow the child to watch and wait for the time to count down. This is a great way to develop a time sense (which many children sorely lack) and patience.

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The Ant and the Ferrari — Kerry Spackman

The Ant and the FerrariThis is a readable, impassioned book about the big questions in life. Spackman explains the big bang and evolution in a very accessible way, probably the best such explanations I have ever seen. He explains how science conflicts with religion on these and other topics, but he does so in a much nicer way than the likes of Richard Dawkins or especially Christopher Hitchens. I could imagine that a religious fundamentalist could read this book and actually understand why so many people are convinced that Genesis is all just made up. It’s hard to imagine any such person getting much out of, say, Hitchens’s God Is Not Great other than the impulse to burn it.

Spackman meditates thoughtfully on the meaning of life before offering a few suggestions on improving our individual lives, and society in general. I really like his ideas — they could plant the seeds for big changes for the better. I could imagine some of them being implemented by enlightened governments in a few decades. The chances of these kinds of policy change may seem remote, but books like this will definitely help. It’s clear and easy to understand, and if enough people read it it could change the world.

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On Numbers and Games — John H Conway

On Numbers and GamesThis amazing book sets out a mathematical framework for describing and constructing numbers, and then generalises this to a way of analysing certain games. You probably need a postgraduate degree in mathematics to really understand all of it. I am not quite that qualified, but I know enough to be awed by what can be done by simply starting with nothing. Literally nothing: Conway starts with just an empty set, and proceeds to show how to spin this out into integers, rational numbers, real numbers, infinite numbers, infinitesimal numbers, and (believe it or not) more.

The whole class of numbers he constructs is called the Surreal numbers, and that’s a fair evocation of the way this book stretches my mind. I can generally understand the steps in the various derivations, but it takes some time and effort to develop the intuition to really understand the later constructions and to see where they are heading. Conway obviously had this intuition: after working on the ideas for some years, he wrote this book in just a week.

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The Ego Trick — Julian Baggini

The Ego Trick by Julian BagginiThis is a pretty good exposition of the “bundle theory” of consciousness. The idea is that “consciousness” does not exist: all there are are discrete conscious experiences, which combine to form the illusion of an integrated cohesive mind. This is the “ego trick” that we all play on ourselves.

These days I feel that this is something like the truth, but I will need to do a lot more thinking and read a lot more books like this one before I am fully comfortable with the idea.

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A Visit from the Goon Squad — Jennifer Egan

a-visit-from-the-goon-squad-cover
This is a fun story of life in, around, and tangentially related to the music industry in the USA, a few years ago before the Internet changed everything. It’s told in a series of (initially) separate narratives of different characters, but as you go through the book the narratives join up as a minor character in one story appears as the protagonist of a later story. It is evocative of the messy complexities of Life — after reading the book I actually started to draw up a schematic of the relationships between the characters. I gave up before long — maybe there’s little to be gained in neatly resolving life’s messy complexities anyway.

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Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim — David Sedaris

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimThese stories are clever and funny. The book makes me think of a grown-up version of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, without the pictures. Actually that probably makes it sound far less good than it really is.

There is a lot of pain, humour and understanding here, and it makes me want to read more. (To be honest, it makes me want to finish this book: I only read half of somebody else’s copy.)

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Roots of Empathy — Mary Gordon

Roots of EmpthyRoots of Empathy is a program that tries to teach schoolchildren empathy. Empathy is a crucially important quality: it can help overcome the problem of the “ethical fade“. And it seems obvious that empathic people are probably just nicer people.

Roots of Empathy works through regular class visits from a newborn baby and parent. Over the year of the Roots of Empathy program, the schoolchildren are able to see the baby grow and develop, and experience first-hand the bond between parent and baby. It seems to be quite successful in instilling worthwhile values, even in children that are hard to reach any other way. This books describes the program and tells its story.

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The Fall Of Light — Sarah Laing

The Fall Of LightI like this book. It has a story to make you happy and sad, pictures to make you wonder, and themes to make you think.

Sarah Laing is a cartoonist as well as a writer — I knew of her work from magazines and from her blog Let Me Be Frank. I read a review of The Fall of Light somewhere and thought it sounded interesting. Sometime later I realised that the cartoonist/blogger was also the novelist, so I went out and bought the book.

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How Children Succeed — Paul Tough

How Children SucceedHow do you rate for the following personal qualities?

  • Grit
  • Self-control
  • Zest
  • Social intelligence
  • Gratitude
  • Optimism
  • Curiosity

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There But For The — Ali Smith

Have you ever been at some awful social gathering and just wanted to get up and walk out? Have you ever been at a stranger’s lovely house and wished you lived there instead of your own hovel?

That’s what happens in the central event of There But For The — a man, Miles, gets up in the middle of an excruciating dinner party, goes upstairs, and barricades himself into the spare bedroom. He stays there for many weeks, eventually becoming a local celebrity.

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Redirect — Timothy Wilson

Redirect lays out a set of techniques for achieving real, lasting change in our behaviour and improving our lives. Actually, this book doesn’t really tell you what to do — it isn’t a self-help book — instead, it describes why these techniques work so well (and also points out that many other ideas don’t).

Story-editing is a way to change behaviour indirectly, by changing the narratives we all have about the kinds of people we are, and the way we interpret the thing that happen to us. This is important because flawed concepts of ourselves and others leads us to all kinds of damaging cognitive errors (see also, for example, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) and Blind Spots). All of us fall prey to these errors. Yes, that includes you. (Also, me.) Wilson also talks about story-prompting, subtle ways to influence behaviour for the better (or otherwise, as the advertising industry has discovered). This is covered thoroughly by another book, Nudge, which I have read but somehow forgot to write about.

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Life After Life — Kate Atkinson

Cover of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson“What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?” This plot micro-summary was enough to make me pick up this book. That and Kate Atkinson’s reputation. I had planned to read her first novel when it was released; then her second and third, but somehow I never managed to read any of them. I probably will now.

So I wondered, suppose you did get the chance to live your life again and again. How would you know that you were getting repeat chances? And how would you know when you finally got it right? And then what would happen? Atkinson manages to convincingly address these questions, but without letting the technical issues dominate an affecting story of an engaging and (necessarily) resilient protagonist living through two world wars. The story is about her inner life, her family life, and society during these unimaginably difficult times.

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Blind Spots — Bazerman & Tenbrunsel

This book is all about the field of Behavioural Ethics — how what we do is affected by the way we think about what we do. And vice versa. (Perhaps I could have explained that better.) Probably the most important concept is the idea of Ethical Fade, which happens when a problem with a strong ethical dimension is recast as a different kind of problem. For example, company executives trying to decide how much to charge for some drug might think of it as purely a business decision; the ethical element fades away, leading to a decision that may benefit the company’s profits but is actually at odds with what the executives would normally wish to do.

This is related to the hoops that our minds jump through in trying to reduce feelings of cognitive dissonance. This idea is developed more in an earlier book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me).

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The Meaning of Things — A. C. Grayling

This book of thoughtful mini-essays on life’s big topics is a pleasure to read. But maybe I only think that because I agree with a lot of what Grayling has to say. But maybe I only agree with him because he’s right. You’ll have to read it and decide for yourself.

Most of the essays are only a page or two, so this is a good book to delve into at random. (In fact that’s what Grayling recommends. I always ignore recommendations like that though — I’m a “begin-at-the-beginning” kind of guy.) They are grouped into three categories: Virtues and Attributes (such as Fear, Death, and Blame); Foes and Fallacies (Racism, Christianity, Capitalism); and Amenities and Goods (Education, Reading, Age). The essays originally appeared as newspaper columns, so there is some repetition and a few rough edges — the book could do with a bit of editing.

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Thinking, fast and slow — Daniel Kahneman

My friend David lent me this book after telling me that it had been blowing his mind. I’m not sure if it has blown my mind, but it definitely helped me to understand it a bit better.

Kahneman suggests thinking of the mind as composed of two notional systems: the fast-thinking, intuitive System 1; and the slow, deliberate, accurate but lazy System 2. The interplay between these two results in the amazing, yet often incomprehensible, behaviour of our minds.

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A Technique for Producing Ideas — James Webb Young

This classic book lays out, as you might expect, a technique for producing ideas. It’s very short and simple. In a nutshell, you must maintain a good supply of general knowledge, steep yourself in specialist knowledge about your problem, and then forget about it and go and do something else. The ideas will come as if by magic.

This book is almost 50 years old, but its technique is still good today. I’ve read these ideas in various other current books and on the web, so it seems that many people are discovering it even today. It does seem to make sense, and for me at least it works.

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The Fall — Albert Camus

This short, intense monologue offers an unblinking view of the hypocrisy at the root of all human existence. Its protagonist is perhaps the most genuinely cynical character I have ever come across.

The Guardian called The Fall “the most perfect of his meditations on human isolation and bewilderment before an enigmatic universe.” Yet for all that, I really enjoyed it. It even made me laugh in some places. Well, smile at least. Grimly.

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Fight Club — Chuck Palahniuk

The characters in Fight Club have a cruel self-destructiveness that I would hate to encounter in real life, but seems strangely appealing on the page. It’s the only way they can exert control over their lives, and it grows into Fight Club and spirals out of control in quite a satisfying way.

I wasn’t excited by this book when it first appeared, even when the movie version duly arrived. But I loved the Dust Brothers’ single “This is Your Life”, which consisted of a collection of rants by the character Tyler Durden with electronic accompaniment. I loved the result, which sounds like some twisted motivational speech or a dystopian self-help tape. (“This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.” “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake!” etc.) I made a mental note to read the book. And now, barely 12 years later, I finally have. It’s not for the squeamish though — the descriptions of the fights are graphic enough to discourage me from watching the film version. I think I’ll listen to the Dust Brothers again.

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The Torchlight List — Jim Flynn

Some books are so good that you can’t put them down — you have to keep reading them, even if it means reading by torchlight in the middle of the night. Jim Flynn has read a lot of good books — The Torchlight List describes 200 of the best.

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The Broken Book — Fiona Farrell

I love this book. Fiona Farrell started out writing a travel book about walking in different countries and places, but the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010-11 imposed themselves on the writing. As she says, “The quake sent a jagged tear right through my text.”

The result is a book of stories and observations from many years of living and walking in various places. But it’s shot through with stories, essays and poems about the Christchurch earthquakes, and earthquakes through history.

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Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)

I have always found it exasperating the way politicians rarely admit being wrong. They should simply say “sorry, I made a mistake, but I learned from it and won’t make that mistake again.” Instead, they evade, they prevaricate, and they spout spurious justifications. Why do they do this, even when (as described in this book) owning up to mistakes will often actually make them more popular? Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) offers an answer.

When we make a mistake, our self-image (I am smart and moral) conflicts with the facts (I just did a stupid and bad thing). This leads to feelings of cognitive dissonance, which our minds find intolerable. To reduce the dissonance, we should change our self-image (I am smart but sometimes I do stupid things). But instead, we try to change the facts (it wasn’t really a bad thing because it was for their own good and only I was smart enough to realise that).

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The 10pm Question — Kate De Goldi

I don’t know how many books have been written about neurotic 12-year-olds, but I doubt many of them are as good as The 10pm Question. The central character, Frankie, is a portrait of a boy struggling with (he feels) the weight of the world on his shoulders. He’s so serious, yet still a kid and a very human character. Pretty much all the other characters are weird or colourful in their own way, but never too cartoonish (with the possible exception of the Aunties — but they are so likeable I don’t really mind).

The book’s official site has a little essay written by the author, describing the ideas that went into the book and how it was written. Don’t read it until you’ve read the book though.

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The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life

I never seem to have enough time to read all the books I want to read. So I grabbed this book, which promises to put more books in your life (including itself, I suppose).

The thing I really liked is the idea of maintaining a Library of Candidates, a fancy name for the pile of books you own but have not yet read. Having lots of unread books has always seemed like a bad thing to me. I have thought of it like a large pile of clothes that have to be ironed, as if reading books were an arduous chore instead of a pleasure. Instead, I should revel in the number of unread books on my shelf, secure in the knowledge that I won’t run out. I will keep all such books together on my shelves, so I can easily choose one during those happy moments when I have time to start a new book.

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100 Ways to Happy Children

100 Ways to Happy Children: A guide for busy parents by Dr Timothy Sharp

What parent, busy or otherwise, doesn’t want happy children? This book is a good list of reminders for all these things that parents know they should do, but sometimes forget.

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