Review articles

Learn from my mistakes.

A Children’s Bible – Lydia Millet

One of the blurbs describe this as a “funny dystopia” and I can see why, though I feel that would be a misleading way to describe the book. The setup is not dystopian – it seems to be the present day, with a large group of families taking an extended holiday in a country house. Maybe the children would consider it a dystopia though – the adults seem to be various combinations of stupid, selfish and feckless. They seem a bit cartoonish and unrealistic to me, but maybe I’m just lucky to have mostly avoided such people in my life.

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The Gift of the Gab – David Crystal

This is a pretty good guide to effective public speaking – its centrepiece is a very detailed analysis of Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” speech from 2008. Actually I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would – somehow I was expecting something less prosaic from the author of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, “the most exciting, readable and comprehensive book on language ever written”. Still, this book does have lots of good advice and some useful tips if you are giving speeches or making presentations. But if you’re not, maybe just dip into The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language instead.

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War and Peace — Leo Tolstoy

The War is Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, which disrupts the Peace of Russian high society in Moscow, Petersburg and various country estates. We follow several aristocratic families as the war begins, gets worse, turns around and finally ends. Lots of characters, but mostly in the upper classes so everything is viewed through that lens.

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The Anomaly – Hervé Le Tellier

This speculative fiction is set in the present day just as we know it now. One day, an inexplicable and apparently impossible event happens; this novel is about how this affects the people involved, but also governments, media and everyone else. I thought it was all handled plausibly, which is essential in this kind of story. I could nitpick a few plot points, and especially the response to the final twist, but still I enjoyed this book. I could definitely see a sequel or even a multi-season TV show.

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The Situation is Hopeless, But Not Serious – Paul Watzlawick

The situation is hopeless – but not serious.

I just love this phrase. It does seem true to me that it applies to many situations in life, big and small. Sometimes yes, the situation you are faced with is hopeless. But often, it doesn’t really matter that much. I find it helpful to remember that.

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How Free Are You? — Ted Honderich

Science tells us that determinism (or near-determinism) is very likely to be true. Yet we feel as if we have free will. How can these be reconciled?

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How to Lie with Statistics – Darrell Huff

This book explains the many ways that people can misuse statistics to mislead you. Maybe a more descriptive title would be, “How to Tell When People are Lying to You with Statistics”. It’s a bit like being shown how a magician does a trick – except that at least with the magic trick, you already know you’re being fooled.

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Making Money – Terry Pratchett

Brilliant. This book took me some time to finish: many times I found myself re-reading sentences just because they were so clever and funny. I had several chuckles on each page, to the amusement of my family.

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The Night of All Souls – Philippa Swan

Several different narratives, two interwoven tales of deception and intrigue, and a few good tips on landscape architecture. Maybe overcooked in parts but overall a fun read.

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A Mathematician Plays the Market – John Allen Paulos

Back in the dot-com bubble of 20-odd years ago, WorldCom was one of the many companies that crashed and burned, taking investors’ money with it. John Allen Paulos was one of these investors, obsessively throwing good money after bad, long after the point when he should have cut and run. In this book he tries to explain why he succumbed to the madness of crowds like that, and in the process explains a lot about how the stock market works. He also discusses lots of interesting mathematical details, and also the benefits and pitfalls of various investment approaches.

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Human Croquet – Kate Atkinson

Book cover of Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson

This story has a dizzying start: it takes “begin at the beginning” to the extreme, and starts off at the Big Bang with an apparently omniscient narrator. Soon it settles down into a family saga where the narrative moves between a present and various times in the past. The characters are lively and well-drawn but mostly pretty stereotyped. And there is a good amount of mysterious goings-on and dramatic irony.

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Angrynomics – Lonergan and Blyth

People are always angry about something. These days they are either angry about vaccination, or angry about people who are angry about vaccination. But until recently, they were angry about things like worsening financial inequality, immigration, and lack of action on climate change. These things are affected by economic policies and events, and this book puts forth analyses and ideas to address some of the anger.

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Pond – Claire-Louise Bennett

“I only wish you could just spend five minutes beneath my skin and feel what it’s like. Feel the savage swarming magic I feel.”

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Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter — Mario Vargas Llosa

La Habanera dances in the streets
And like every night
Pedro Comacho sells peanuts
Outside the Tropicana Club

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No One Is Talking About This — Patricia Lockwood

No One is Talking About This

The first half of the book is dizzying — stupid — hilarious — it’s a series of seemingly random impressions, vignettes, observations and ideas of a narrator who is an Internet celebrity and is steeped in Internet culture.

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X + Y — Eugenia Cheng

X + Y: A mathematician's manifesto for rethinking gender, by Eugenia Cheng

It seems to me that the world is set up in such a way as to give men an unfair advantage. (Lucky me.) And not just because they are men — more because the world is set up so that certain kinds of behaviour are favoured, and those behaviours are more common in men than in women. There are behaviours that are thought of as typically masculine or feminine, but talking about them in those terms just reinforces the stereotypes that we should try to abolish. As soon as we say “men are like this”, someone else will reasonably say “not all men!” and we end up with an argument instead of progress.

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At the Existentialist Cafe — Susan Bakewell

At The Existentialist Cafe by Susan Bakewell

This is an excellent and wide-ranging description of the genesis of existentialism. It includes descriptions of all the major figures you have heard of, like Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus, and further back to the likes of Heidegger and Nietzsche and many many more. After reading this I feel I have a much better idea of these people as people, rather than abstract ideas or buzzwords. Although mostly, I would rather just know their ideas since it seems they weren’t all the nicest people. It’s interesting to read about the long and fraught relationships that (maybe) helped shape their thought.

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The Deficit Myth — Stephanie Kelton

Why can’t the government just print more money?

That’s a pretty obvious question, and I feel it’s not often answered satisfactorily. This book discusses the way money works from the viewpoint of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), which seems to make a lot of sense. As I understand it, here’s how things should work.

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Free Speech — Timothy Garton Ash

This is a considered and level-headed approach to free speech. Ash avoids the platitudes and black-and-white dogmatism of the more extreme woke and anti-woke thinking. Instead, he tries to go back to first principles: about what is good and bad about free speech and what happens when it gets pushed too far in various directions. He discusses what the rules concerning free speech should be, and also the laws (they aren’t necessarily the same). In the end he distills it down to ten principles:

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Lolita — Vladimir Nabokov

Book cover: The Annotated Lolita. This is a boring clip art image since I read an ebook and so have no nice photo of my own.

This is the fictional autobiography of one Humbert Humbert, written in his jail cell near the end of his life. He is very erudite and quite engaging despite being unhealthily obsessed with young girls. He falls in love with the title character (his landlady’s young daughter) and ends up taking her on an extended road trip across the USA. They purport to be father and daughter but are actually lovers. At the beginning Lolita seems reasonably willing to go along with everything, but Humbert gradually reveals how controlling he is and how unhappy Lolita really is. He slowly loses his grip and eventually loses Lolita, and commits the crime that finally lands him in jail. The writing throughout is clever, inventive and endlessly rewarding to read, despite the bleak and tawdry subject matter.

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The Big Shift — Deirdre Kent

This slim volume sets out some pretty radical proposals for fixing New Zealand’s monetary and financial systems. These systems are not working as well as they should, and Kent’s ideas could improve society and help deal with climate change. I can’t see them happening anytime soon, but the future is a very long time… 

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Rain — Kirsty Gunn

Did you ever read a book or watch a film where you could just tell that something awful was going to happen? You dreaded the turn of every page in anticipation of the imminent horror. And yet you just had to keep reading, to find out what actually happens.

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Hello World — Hannah Fry

“Algorithms” will save the world, or possibly destroy it. This book is a good survey of how computerised algorithms are used and misused, and how they can be harnessed so their power can be used for good rather than evil.

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Introducing Critical Theory — Stuart Sim

This is a dizzying whirlwind tour of Marxism, feminism, postmodernism, and so many other isms, theorists, philosophers and various thinkers. It can’t do much more than give the briefest summaries of these ideas, but it does help to see how they fit together historically. Sadly there is nothing on critical race theory, which seems to have become a thing recently. Still there is a lot to chew on and a lot of launching points for further reading, if only I had a spare decade or so.

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The Lies that Bind — Kwame Anthony Appiah

This is an enlightening discussion of what identity is and how it works, both in history and in the present day. Appiah weaves explanations together with history, anecdotes and analysis. He also adds some personal stories and perspectives from his own quite interesting background. 

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Replay – Ken Grimwood

I do love a good time-travel story. A middle-aged man has a heart attack and dies – and then wakes up again as a young man back in his college days. Once he figures out what has happened, he sets about figuring out how to deal with it. He’s got an amazing opportunity to replay his life, fixing all the mistakes and maybe becoming rich too. (If it happened to me I would definitely be buying quite a lot of Bitcoin.)

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The Myth of Choice — Kent Greenfield

When you need to make a decision, having more choices isn’t necessarily better: what really matters is ending up with a good result. Greenfield cites an old Burger King advert: “Choices don’t mean a thing when there’s nothing good to choose.”

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Hate Inc. — Matt Taibbi

The news is a consumer product.

That’s the one thing that Matt Taibbi wants us to learn from this book. He lays out in great detail why the media has become such a monster: conflict is good for ratings, so it’s in the interests of TV shows, websites and newspapers to emphasise conflict, and manufacture it if necessary. 

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Alice in Puzzle-Land — Raymond Smullyan

This Alice In Wonderland-inspired puzzle book is a fun setting for lots of logic puzzles. They are mostly the “Liar and Truther” type, like this one:

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5000 B.C. and Other Philosophical Fantasies — Raymond Smullyan

This random grab bag of philosophical ideas covers religion, ethics, metaphysics, logic and quite a lot more. It’s not really cohesive but it is interesting all the way through.

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