Articles about books

A book is a present you can open again and again.

The Forrests — Emily Perkins

The ForrestsThis novel is Dorothy Forrest’s life story, and her complicated family life too. After reading it I felt that I knew her quite well…

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By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept — Elizabeth Smart

This is an amazing prose poem spanning the author’s love affair with an older married man. The language is raw and rich and really takes you to another place, and usually not a happy one — when she isn’t miserable, she’s obsessively ecstatic. But wow, what a ride:

Under the redwood tree my grave was laid, and I beguiled my true love to lie down. The stream of our kiss put a waterway around the world, where love like a refugee sailed in the last ship. My hair made a shroud, and kept the coyotes at bay while we wrote our cyphers with anatomy. The winds boomed triumph, our spines seemed overburdened, and our bones groaned like old trees, but a smile like a cobweb was fastened across the mouth of the cave of fate.

Fear will be a terrible fox at my vitals under my tunic of behaviour.

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Religion for Atheists — Alain de Botton

Religion for AtheistsMost religions make metaphysical claims that are hard to believe, if they make any sense at all. But even if you don’t believe that the world rests on an elephant standing on turtles, or that omnipotent beings scrutinise our every move, religious traditions have a lot of ideas worth keeping. Religions place great importance on things like community and ritual, acknowledging our needs and our foibles too. This is what de Botton points out in this book.

I have long thought that some sort of secular church might be a good idea: a place to go to every week with a bunch of other people, hear a sermon, chat, and just be part of a varied community. There are such places — pubs, sports events — but they’re not as inclusive as a church would be. Religion for Atheists has a few proposals along these lines. Like his book The News, these suggestions would reorganise society in a way that he thinks would improve our lives. I agree.

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23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism

23 Things They Don't Tell You About CapitalismThe title describes the book: 23 things, some counterintuitive, some perhaps contentious, they you may not have realised about the economic system that the world runs on.

The presentation and organisation of this book is inspired partly by Dr Seuss, which is almost reason enough to buy it. There’s also a rather clever and useful section suggesting how to read the book with particular issues in mind: for example, if you don’t know what capitalism is, or if you think politics is a waste of time.

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The Well of Loneliness — Radclyffe Hall

The Well Of LonelinessThis story is about a tomboyish girl called Stephen. It traces her life from her birth and upbringing in a wealthy and genteel English family in the late 1800s, through the first world war and on to a successful career. She never feels quite comfortable conforming to the model of a well-brought-up young woman, and it takes many years to realise what the reader already knows, that she is (in her own words) an “invert”. Of course, such things were not discussed back then, at a time when the authorities did not even acknowledge lesbianism’s existence, and would have made it illegal if they had. The book was banned (and burned) on publication in 1928 in England.

Initially I couldn’t warm to Stephen because she is so privileged in many ways. She’s rich, physically masterful, intelligent, and has a very supportive and understanding father and other carers. She’s also a brilliant equestrian, fencer and writer. But I realised that this just throws her problems into stark relief — nobody will explain or even acknowledge her feelings of not belonging; hence she does spend a lot of time in the “well of loneliness” of the title. She rails against the unfair fact that she will never be able to acknowledge her partner as such, or even to grieve her properly if she dies, without suffering awful societal consequences. It reminded me of the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, where (spoiler alert) even at Gareth’s funeral, Matthew, his loving partner of many years, could be referred to only as “his closest friend”.

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Why Don’t Students Like School? — Daniel Willingham

Why Don't Students Like School?The reason children don’t like going to school is that it interrupts their education.
Jay Griffith at the RSA

That quote could serve as a summary of this book. It’s a guide for teachers to make their classroom time more effective, so that students will be engaged and will learn useful things in their time in school. Continue reading

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The Undercover Economist — Tim Harford

The Undercover EconomistThe Undercover Economist is full of useful explanations of many orthodox economic concepts. It explains why free markets are so powerful and what economic efficiency means. It also contains the most accessible explanation of the subprime mortgage crisis as I have ever read. But when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. For Mr Harford, like many others, markets are that hammer. He does a decent job of trying to address possible difficulties with market-based solutions, but he ignores some fundamental problems.

Economists call free markets “efficient”. This just means that nobody can be made better off without also making somebody else worse off. For example, 10 billionaires having all the money while a million paupers starve to death could be an efficient system, since we can’t give a crust of bread to a pauper without making a billionaire worse off (by the price of a crust of bread). Obviously, this sort of efficiency doesn’t say anything about whether the economy is at all desirable. Hartford briefly points out that we tend to value things like fairness too.

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The Homework Myth — Alfie Kohn

The Homework MythAlfie Kohn says that homework is worthless. According to his book, there is no evidence that typical homework is beneficial in any way for junior schoolkids, and minimal evidence that it’s worthwhile for any students at all. In fact, there is evidence that it can be harmful to the kids’ attitudes to learning and stress levels. Homework also has opportunity costs, given that homework takes time that could be used doing something else like physical play, reading or family activities. This book lays out Kohn’s case against homework as currently practised.

Kohn’s website has a wealth of related essays following up the points in the book. For example, he argues that homework does not offer academic benefits.

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The Way the World Works — Nicholson Baker

The Way the World WorksThis is a collection of essays on topics that have caught Baker’s eye. There are reports of his (in)famous efforts to preserve library newspaper collections, as well as thoughts on pacifism and video games, and a fascinating story of his brief immersion in the world of Wikipedia editing. As always, he comes across as intelligent and thoughtful, perhaps excessively so. But he has a nice turn of phrase and a strong social conscience.

This book is a follow-up, of sorts, to his The Size of Thoughts from 15 or so years ago, which I bought because I liked the cover. Baker’s non-fiction is a nice contrast with his very discursive novel Room Temperature, and worlds away from the low-key perversities of Vox and The Fermata.

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Flourish — Martin Seligman

FlourishHuman well-being consists of more than just happiness. In this book, Martin Seligman presents one way of breaking down well-being into its components, so we can try to improve all of them and enable ourselves to flourish. PERMA is the acronym for the five components he identifies:

  • Positive emotion
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Achievement

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