Tuesday, 4 September 2018

What I've been reading

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All Quiet on the Western Front
by Erich Maria Remarque

narrated by Tom Lawrence
"The story is told by a young German soldier in the trenches of Flanders during the First World War. Through his eyes we see all the realities of war: under fire, on patrol, waiting in the trenches, at home on leave, and in hospitals and dressing stations."
I am ashamed. I am ashamed many times over. That I had not appreciated that this common phrase originated in this astonishing work, that I waited so late in my life to read it, that it is fiction but told so powerfully that every word rings true. And more prosaic yet more shaming - that I paid so little attention at the start that I did not realise until about a third of the way through that the young soldiers I was accompanying on their horrific journey were German. The narration is by a young voice and worked so well, and the audio format allowed them the liberty of playing the Last Post at the end. I was in tears.

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The Mulberry Empire
by Philip Hensher
"The courtship, betrayal and invasion of Afghanistan in the 1830s by the emissaries of Her Majesty's Empire, followed by the expulsion of Brits from Kabul following an Afghani revolt."
A account of historical events disguised as a novel, this was rather indigestible. I could tell the author was trying quite hard to tell a story rather than laying out the facts, but it was too dry for my taste. It also seeded a number of parallel stories that didn't converge, making the ending unsatisfactory. I think my most common criticism of all these books I avidly start reading is that they so often end poorly.

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by Sinclair Lewis

narrated by Grover Gardner
"On the surface, everything is all right with Babbitt's world of the solid, successful businessman. But in reality, George F. Babbitt is a lonely, middle-aged man. He doesn't understand his family, has an unsuccessful attempt at an affair, and puts his real estate business in jeopardy when he dares to voice sympathy for some striking workers."
Another author I'd never heard of from my list of 'Classics', this book is set in 1922 during the Prohibition era, which is probably the most interesting thing about it. But the ending is quite good.

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The Language of the Genes
by Steve Jones
"A tale of curious mutations, molecular clocks, and genetic bottlenecks; it illustrates biological principles with memorable examples from everyday life."
I've a strong suspicion that I've read this before, because I have a bias against Steve Jones that I can't put down to any recent experience. This book starts well with genes and inheritance as expected, but makes a detour into anthropology that I find excessively tedious. I don't know why I'm not interested in the spread of language or population across the world, but there it is, and there was quite a lot to get through. It's also an edition of an old-ish book from 1993 that's had one revision in 2000, so not very up-to-date in this most fast-moving field of biology. On balance, though, I'm going to keep it on the basis of the first half of the book.

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The Examined Life: how we lose and find ourselves
by Stephen Grosz
"Simple stories of encounter between a psychoanalyst and his patients, stories about our everyday lives: they are about the people we love and the lies that we tell; the changes we bear, and the grief."
A quick read - just a day during the festival weekend, but very interesting short summaries of cases of psychoanalysis. Maybe a bit too short - problem, solution, end of chapter. It would have been interesting to get a bit more depth, feel a bit more connected to the problems being outlined.

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
by Gail Honeyman

narrated by Cathleen McCarron
"Meet Eleanor Oliphant: She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she's thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding social interactions, where weekends contain frozen pizza, vodka, and weekly chats with Mummy. But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and unhygienic IT guy from her office."
An excellent book, beautifully read, and very recently written too. All the things that I have been finding so irritating are completely avoided in this book - just the right pace, all the content was relevant, it finished well and gave me plenty to think about in between chapters. Maybe I can tolerate modern books after all - they just have to be the right ones.

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