Review articles

Learn from my mistakes.

Hope Without Optimism – Terry Eagleton

This is a collection of writings about hope, not really addressing optimism much other than to disparage it. I was hoping (without optimism) that it would be a bit more technical in nature, but instead it is quite discursive and pulls in references to pretty much everything you could think of and lots you couldn’t. Eagleton is vastly more well-read than I will ever be and I couldn’t really say he wears his learning lightly. Still, I enjoyed reading the book, getting lost in a few rabbit holes while looking up some of his offhand references. There is a lot in it.

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A Swim in a Pond in the Rain — George Saunders

George Saunders has lectured on Russian literature for years. Reading this book is like attending one of his lectures. (I imagine.) The book addresses six stories: each story appears in full, along with extended discussions of its background and meanings. It’s all great stuff, especially if you like the stories to begin with.

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Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone – Benjamin Stevenson

This great whodunnit subverts every expectation. Normally in this genre, subtle clues are scattered throughout the narrative, but in this book the narrator continually breaks the fourth wall to pull the rug out from under me. He lets slip a tiny clue; I get excited and think I can now work out what’s going on; but then I am deflated as the narrator highlights the clue and says it’s not relevant.

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Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

This novel begins as the diary of a gentleman’s adventure on a 19th-century pacific island. It’s all quite eventful until it stops, right in the middle of

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Losing Ourselves – Jay Garfield

This is an exploration of the Buddhist concept of no-self: we don’t exist as a distinct self with an unchanging identity. Instead, we are just the sum of the various thoughts, feelings, emotions and so on that are associated with our body. In other words, there are thoughts, but there is nothing separate that thinks the thoughts.

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The Summer Book – Tove Jansson

This wise and wistful book narrates many episodes in the life of an old woman living with her young granddaughter Sophia on a remote Finnish island. The relationship between the two is sweet, yet unsentimental. Sophia’s father lives with them too, but he is often away and the two are left to themselves in the isolated and harsh environment.

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How To Live. What To Do. — Josh Cohen

A diverting combination of self-help book, literary discussion and psychoanalysis primer. The premise is a bit twee: throughout the books are case notes of famous fictional characters, as if they had gone in for psychoanalysis. These case notes cover a diverse bunch: Young Werther, Alice (the Wonderland one), Jay Gatsby, Mrs Dalloway, Jane Eyre and many more. There are also some characters from more modern novels, such as Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Cohen talks about their backgrounds, motivations and choices, relating them to the lives of real people like you, and indeed me.

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Definitely Maybe – Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

Malianov, an astrophysicist, keeps getting distracted as he is working towards a breakthrough in his current project. He receives mysterious visitors, and his scientist friends are behaving very strangely. Slowly, disturbing signs emerge that there is some sort of conspiracy afoot. Malianov tries to figure out what’s really going on while all around him is confusion and paranoia.

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How To Make Mistakes On Purpose – Laurie Rosenwald

This title pretty much says it all: sometimes making mistakes can be just what you need. This book is fun to read, with a somewhat chaotic layout and style. The overall message is of course that you shouldn’t just always do what you know will work. Try the unexpected sometimes, throw a spanner in your works, and see what happens. Move out of your comfort zone. Try something new. Etc. It’s kind of a hackneyed idea but still a good idea, and good to be reminded of it.

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Noise – Kahneman, Sibony & Sunstein

Human judgement is not infallible – no matter how unbiased we are, our judgement will be affected by unrelated thoughts, whether we are tired or hungry, and a hundred other things. This is “noise”. This book catalogues the different kinds of noise and shows how we can at least be aware of it, and hopefully mitigate it.

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