Books I read in 2010
Thinking Aloud: Talks on Teaching the Alexander Technique by Walter Carrington
30th December 2010
For 60 years Walter Carrington was a leading figure in the teaching and development of the Alexander Technique in the UK (up to his death in 2005). This book is a collection of short lectures that he gave to students on the Alexander teacher training course at Holland Park, London, from the 1970's, 80's and 90's, which touches on various aspects of the Technique, by turns revisiting, interpreting and expanding upon F.M. Alexander's writings and ideas.
The lectures are short and tend to focus on a single idea (usually summarised by the title, for example "Allowing time to say no", or "Non-doing"), and within them Carrington expresses his thoughts with the clarity and deceptive simplicity which is characteristic of all great teachers. While the chapters about breathing, directing the head and neck, and riding (Carrington was a keen horse rider, but it seems to me that his comments could equally apply to other kinds of athletic activity) felt particularly significant to me, there was something of value in every chapter of the book.
This isn't a book for newcomers to Alexander: originally intended for trainee teachers, the lectures implicitly assume a familiarity with both the language and the ideas of the Technique, such as inhibition, direction, primary control and so on. However having had lessons for the last two years I found many of the lectures extremely illuminating and thought-provoking, and has given me a fresh perspective and renewed interest. I'm sure that given the shortness of the chapters (and the lack of a discernible order to the material), this will be a rewarding book to return to frequently over time, and I look forward to re-reading it in parts and as a whole in the coming years. Excellent.
(You can read more about Walter Carrington's life and work here: http://waltercarrington.com/.)
Salt by Jeremy Page
20th December 2010
"Salt" tells the story of three generations living in the salt marshes of Norfolk: Goose (who rescues downed German airman Hands during World War II), her daughter "Lil' Mardler" (who marries local boy "Shrimp", brother of "Kipper"), and her mute son Pip. It's Pip who recounts the story, as he tries to unlock the secrets of his family from the tales told by his mother and grandmother, his own childhood memories, and the rumours and gossip he hears from others - including his uncle Kipper and childhood friend Elsie.
As Pip grows older and learns about his family's past and its secrets, the more he questions the versions of events that he has been told, and even his own recollections have to re-interpreted with a more adult understanding of the events that took place between his father and mother, their neighbours, his uncle and his friend.
There is a very enjoyable - and very English - sense of magical realism throughout "Salt", almost comically so in the initial stories of Goose and Hands (having been pulled from the mud by Goose, Hands fathers Lil' Mardler and then sails away at the moment of her birth, using an enormous quilt for a sail and navigating using a map won at cards from the local pub). As the story progresses - and perhaps as Pip's understanding of the world becomes more adult - these magical elements become more subtle (the descriptions of Stanley Spencer-esque depictions of Biblical stories by a local artist is particularly memorable), or manifest themselves in dreams (which are sometimes difficult to distinguish from reality).
On some level "Salt" is perhaps about how people tell stories about their own lives, and because these are stories they aren't - for whatever reason - necessarily the way things actually happened. By accident or intention the truth is distorted or lost, and can't be recovered - ultimately it seems unknowable. Just as Pip begins to distrust what he's been told (for example, we're led to believe that Hands sailed back to Germany, but later wonder if in fact he never made it), so the reader begins to distrust Pip's version of events too.
I really enjoyed reading this book. There is a richness which at times made it feel like a collection of well-told fairy stories - or maybe even a riddle - with the repeated motifs of the "rag clouds" heralding storms, the maze of waterways around the marshes, and beached and broken boats (and whales). At the same time there is also a deft lightness of touch with the characters, who in spite of the more fantastical elements of the story still feel like real people. Overall it's been a great pleasure to read a work of magical realism in a very English setting. Brilliant and highly recommended.
Habit Busting: A 10-Step Plan That Will Change Your Life by Pete Cohen with Sten Cummins
15th November 2010
Having borrowed this from the library more times than I care to remember (and not wanting to finally return it today unread) I zipped through "Habit Busting" at an unholy pace in a few hours this afternoon. While this was undoubtedly not the best way to address the material in the book I found it both valuable and interesting to read.
In essence the 10 step plan starts by identifying the habits that you want to change (in my case there are number related to low confidence), and then uses a series of visualisation exercises to create motivation (both positive: imagining yourself in the future free of the habit, and negative: imagining the consequences of not changing), then builds confidence that change is possible, and then helps to make the changes.
Just as the bad habits (whether they are procrastination, over-eating, smoking or whatever) have built up through constant repetition, so breaking them requires constant repetition of the visualisation exercises. It's important to "focus on what you want, not what you don't want", by building new positive habits to replace the negative ones, and many of the exercises concentrate on maximising positive thoughts and feelings at the expense of negative emotions. There is also a nice emphasis on laughter, enjoyment and fun.
I'm not sure how much of this will sink in for me now that I've returned the book but I plan to remind myself of the key points (as well as various notes, I also made recordings of some of the exercises to listen back to over the coming weeks). I think that while success or failure depends largely on the amount of effort that the individual is prepared to put in, "Habit Busting" provides an excellent set of tools for the person who is ready to try.
Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
16th October 2010
Riddley Walker lives in a distant and bleak post-apocalytic future, where the inhabitants of former southern England scrape a grim living in a dark-age-like collection of isolated settlements. The technological achievements of our own times ("pictures on the wind" and "boats that fly") have been reduced to myths and legends, recounted by the "Eusa men" - government-sanctioned show people who travel between the settlements telling the story of how disaster (presumably a nuclear war) befell "back way back".
Against this backdrop Riddley narrates the story of how he flees the security of his village and becomes caught up in the schemes of different factions who either want to recover the lost knowledge and power of the former times, or suppress it - while at the same time trying to gain a greater understanding of the wider world he suddenly finds himself in.
Riddley writes in a corrupted dialect of English which is difficult at first to understand, and similarly the legends about the past (that is, our own world today) are also distorted - although unlike Riddley the reader is able to understand to a degree what the legends might refer to (even if like him we don't recognise the artefacts that he encounters). Without such an understanding, the characters attempts to recreate the wonders of our science are reduced to the repetition of literal rituals that we suspect are depressingly doomed never to work. At the same time however there is a sense that Riddley might lead a way to break with the dead-ended traditions - a dangerous path in his world, but offering a glimmer of hope for the future.
I first heard about "Riddley Walker" after reading an article about David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, the central section of which (also set in a distant post-apocalyptic future and narrated in a corrupted dialect of English) inevitably invited comparison with Hoban's book. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two worlds however is that in Hoban's imagined future, even the familiar has been rendered unsettlingly alien - something that I found disturbing, almost frightening so.
"Riddley Walker" is a powerful book which I found deeply affecting, depressing and just a little hopeful. Well worth reading.
The Accidental by Ali Smith
5th October 2010
You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers
16th September 2010
After the death of their friend Jack, a young American called Will persuades another friend (the unlikely-sounding Hand) to accompany him on a week-long round-the-world trip, with the aim of giving away a $38,000 inheritance to deserving people that they meet on the way. Almost immediately their original plans are thwarted by the realities of international travel, and so instead their journey is dictated essentially by chance.
As with a lot of fiction I wondered at times if I'm missing some deeper significance - for example, could the names "Will" and "Hand" somehow indicate respectively the intention to act and the means of doing so? But their misadventures feel a bit too messy to be a metaphor, too much like real life - in reality things seldom turn out as perfectly as we might have planned in our imaginations.
This is especially true when other people are involved and we need them to play a particular part in our fantasy - in Will's case he often seems to feel frustrated when the impoverished foreigners he and Hand choose to bestow their gifts are lacking in "dignity"; instead of being poor but noble, they often try to hustle him for his money or are simply baffled by what the two Americans are doing.
In spite of this they work hard to try and realise their schemes (in one episode, having buried some money they then make an elaborate treasure map which they plan to have discovered by children who they hope will dig it up months later), and occasionally Will at least (who seems haunted by his memories) seems to achieve moments of transcendence, even peace (in one surprisingly touching scene with an Estonian prostitute towards the end of the book).
I think elsewhere this has been compared with "On the Road", and I suppose that like Kerouac's book "You Shall Know..." is concerned with continually moving. (Also Will's joy at meeting a small girl and her family in Mexico at the end reminded me of my favourite part of "On the Road".) Unexpectedly I enjoyed this book much more than I thought I might.
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell
30th August 2010
In "Blink", Malcolm Gladwell considers the concept of "thin slicing" - essentially the process (or more accurately processes) by which people make instantaneous judgements based on apparently minimal evidence. These gut reactions can on occasions be surprisingly accurate; equally they can also be shockingly poor, with devastating results.
The book takes the usual approach, with each chapter built around specific anecdotes that are then used to examine a different aspect of the thin-slicing process. He begins with the tale of the Getty museum's acquisition of a 'kouros' (an ancient Greek statue): although the museum had a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest that it was genuine, many experts who saw it instantly felt that it was a fake - though they struggled to articulate why. Subsequent examples include researchers analysing video tapes of married couples to determine whether they'll get divorced, the apparently "psychic" abilities of experienced firefighters to get out of a burning building just before it collapses, and the surprisingly deep influence of our unconscious prejudices on our supposedly conscious decision-making process. The killing of an unarmed man by New York police officers in 1999 (illustrating an extreme case of thin-slicing going wrong) is probably the most memorable.
Ultimately Gladwell tries to understand how the process of thin slicing might work well, and in what circumstances it can go wrong. The suggestion is that it operates at an unconscious level, with the brain picking up on cues that the conscious mind is unaware of (as for example in the chapter describing the connection between facial expressions and emotional states).
There are a couple of problems with the book though. At times I felt it suffered from a lack of clarity, as if the point that he's trying to make gets a bit lost in the details - the worst example for me being the chapter on the Millenium Challenge war games in 2002. Also as with previous books, I didn't always feel satisfied that the conclusions he drew were necessarily as strongly supported by the evidence presented as he might suggest - in fact at times I felt infuriated! So I'm not completely convinced. Nevertheless it's a thought-provoking idea, Gladwell remains a fantastic story-teller with great enthusiasm, and the anecdotes he's assembled are consistently readable - worth a look just to make up your own mind.
I Don't Want Any More Cheese, I Just Want out of the Trap by Richard Templar
25th August 2010
I thought at first that the title of this book (essentially about packing in "regular" employment to go freelancing) might be a sidesways reference to the more famous Who Moved My Cheese? (a classic - for better or worse - for dealing with change in the workplace).
Like "Who Moved...", this is a quick read and is generally quite low on real detail - it's more like a pep talk, getting you to think about whether you want to continue in a normal job (the "trap", where you're working for "cheese") or break out and pursue a dream (which will most likely involve working freelance in some way - the author draws on his own experiences of becoming a freelance writer).
Of course there is nothing wrong per se with working for cheese, if you're happy, and for me the most concrete part was an exercise near the start that measured the stress levels in various aspects of your working life, like "work-life balance" and "responsibilities". The results I got were eye-opening. But beyond that much of the book is more like an outline for how you go about making the transition successfully - research and planning being key.
Sometimes you need a book that tells you everything in immense detail, and sometimes it's enough to get an overview of the major issues, just to get you started. This is the latter type of book, but I found it an enjoyable, humorous introduction. I also found the exhortation at the end to be oddly inspiring: "Go for it, run little mouse, run, escape, be happy." No more cheese then, but definitely food for thought.
The Rapture by Liz Jensen
14th August 2010
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor
10th August 2010
Cradle to Cradle by Michael Braungart and William McDonough
4th August 2010
An Island Parish: A Summer on Scilly by Nigel Farrell
31st July 2010
Based on a BBC TV programme (which I'd never heard of before), in this book Nigel Farrell paints a portrait of life on the Isles of Scilly (a group of islands about 30 miles off the coast of Cornwall) by interleaving the stories of daily life for some of the islands inhabitants with more major events - both tragic and upbeat - during his time there in 2004.
This was the closest thing to a guidebook to the Scillies that I could find in my local library before my own trip to the islands in July, and I'd read all but the last few chapters by the time I left. Obviously it doesn't really work as a guide to the places to see and things to do on the islands for the tourist; but having been there I think that it as good a guidebook as any for capturing the spirit of the islanders and conveying the realities of life there. (In fact there are some similarities with Hawaii, in that despite the apparent idyllic surroundings, the islanders have to work hard just to make a living - and those that can't almost inevitably end up having to go to the mainland.)
Farrell has an easy-to-read style and an eye for humourous details, which often lends a vaguely comic sense to the stories and makes it easy to forget that these are the lives of real people. Also - and perhaps tellingly - many of the people he focuses on are relative newcomers from the mainland, or like new island vet Heike from even further afield - and the other islanders are like bit-part characters. Maybe given the nature of island gossip maybe that's how many of them prefer it. Most of the time however he gets the balance about right though, and I think that reading it helped give me a flavour of what the islands would be like before my own trip - so I'd recommend it to anyone thinking about going there.
Come Dance With Me by Russell Hoban
4th July 2010
Still not being able to locate Riddley Walker after Her Name Was Lola, I thought that I would try the only other Hoban book on offer in the library, "Come Dance With Me" and if anything I think I enjoyed this more than the first. The story itself concerns a romance between two people: one is a singer in a rock band called "Mobile Mortuary" while the other is a doctor specialising in diabetes. What makes it interesting is that she is in her mid-fifties and he's in his sixties.
Many of the things that I liked about Hoban's writing from his other books are also present here - while the story is full of detail, its told with a light touch and the reader slowly learns the background of the characters - and there was unexpected personal significance with a connection to Hawaii (specifically the island of Maui), which also contributed to my enjoyment as I could picture some of the places that Hoban describes, such as the I'ao Needle (interestingly Hoban writes in the acknowledgements that he's never visited these places himself). But most of all I think I enjoyed the book's sense of general uplift, quiet hopefulness and finding that life can still surprise you. Brilliant book.
Das Boot by Lothar-Günther Buchheim
22nd June 2010
A Model World by Michael Chabon
10th June 2010
I'm not an enormous fan of short story fiction - for me, it often seems to tend towards exaggerated characters or situations, and I frequently feel I fail to connect with the point (if any) that the author might be trying to make - but I was swayed by the wonderful cover, and by Chabon's name.
The stories are divided into two parts within the book. Those in the first part are all separate from each other, and I found them something of a mixed bag, and some - the opening story about a man at a relative's wedding, and another about a washed-up baseball player attending the funeral of a distant friend - left me a bit cold. However these were outweighed by the ones I really enjoyed, especially "Millionaires" (which tells the story of two friends falling out over a woman) and another (the name of which I've forgotten) about two university friends attending the dinner of a professor. In both cases the stories are a little longer and seem to have more space to breathe, and are full of whimsical details.
The stories in the second part of the book are a loosely connected episodes about a boy growing up against the backdrop of his parents' divorce and remarriages, and I enjoyed this section as a whole - again because the stories seemed to have more space to develop.
After "A Model World" I'm still not convinced by short stories, but there were some here that were memorable and enjoyable enough for me to want to read again some time - which I'd call a small victory for Chabon.
Teach Yourself Consulting by Anna Hipkiss
7th June 2010
A bit of background reading (having recently worked as a software contractor), I wasn't sure about this book when I picked it up at the library - my previous experience with the "Teach Yourself" series had been a pretty poor Java book - but Anna Hipkiss seems to have a substantial background in consulting and has talked to a lot of respected figures, including the late John Harvey-Jones (of "Troubleshooter" fame).
It's fascinating stuff. Right from the start Hipkiss establishes that in choosing a consultant, clients value the qualities of integrity, reliability and credibility ahead of expertise: essentially they have to feel that they can trust you and that you'll get the job done. So while practical points such as report-writing, giving presentations or running a business are covered, much of the book is concerned with cultivating woking relationships and negoitating potential pitfalls.
As well as her own advice and anecdotes, and those provided by well-established consultants, Hipkiss also presents many example scenarios to illustrate her points, and it was these that particularly impressed me - these most often felt like difficult situations that you could imagine encountering for real. It also made me re-evaluate my own experiences, especially with regard to working with others in a collaborative environment. So while I don't imagine that this is the definitive guide to consulting work, I think it is at the very least an excellent overview with some valuable insights.
Her Name was Lola by Russell Hoban
30th May 2010
I found this in the library while looking for Riddley Walker (which wasn't there). Not familiar with Hoban's writing, but also not wishing to leave empty-handed, I thought that I'd give this a try - in spite of the title appearing to be a song reference (previously, neither Girlfriend in a Coma nor Venus As A Boy had really impressed).
In fact the song reference is marginal, and Hoban's writing is deceptively straightforward and enjoyable to read, which coupled with the short chapters meant that I whipped through this in a weekend. The story concerns Max Lesser, who falls for two woman at the same time, and then loses them both - as well as his memory, following a visitation from the Hindu demon Apasmara at the beginning of the book. As Max regains his memories we find out more about his relationships with the women (Lola and Lula-Mae), while in a parallel thread we also learn about Lola's own personal journey through mysticism.
It was certainly a quick and very pleasurable read, and I enjoyed the references to Hindu mythology. I also liked the way that Hoban doesn't really make much of an effort to explain everything about the characters. The story wraps up quite neatly at the end, and as with a lot of fiction I did find myself wondering if I'd missed some greater meaning. But maybe it's enough sometimes just to be entertained. Recommended.
Crow Country by Mark Cocker
20th May 2010
Nature writer Mark Cocker describes how he became obsessed with rooks (a member of the crow family) almost out of necessity, after moving to a rather isolated part of Norfolk where more exotic species were harder to come by. Not seen as particularly interesting by most birdwatchers due to its ubiquity, he begins to realise that far less is known about the rooks' habits than might be supposed. Rooks are intelligent and social birds exhibiting some complex behaviours, which Cocker attempts to understand through painstaking observation - as his daily schedule begins to follow the rhythms of the rooks' lives, he counts them crowded in fields at twilight; attempts to follow their routes as they fly en masse between roosts; becomes a keen spotter of rookeries as he travels around the county and beyond; and delves into the rich folklore surrounding the birds.
I really wanted to enjoy this book and I felt a bit disappointed that it turned out to be just okay. The author clearly loves his subject and wants to communicate what he finds so magical about rooks, but I felt that the writing was often a bit too dry and precious to convey his excitement. Still I did get a real sense of how crows and their kin form a part of the fabric of Britain, especially when Cocker talked about how many of the rookery sites have existed for hundreds of years - and when I suddenly recognised the distinctive cawing one morning (while visiting a more rural place than the one I live in), I felt a little excitement that perhaps mirrored Mark Cocker's great enthuasism for this surprisingly enigmatic common bird.
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
8th May 2010
Another re-read, of the three Pynchon novels that I've read this is my favourite - it's also the thinnest, and apparently also the one that Pynchon himself thinks the least of (I don't know if these things are related). Ostensibly it's about a woman (Oedipa Maas) who having been appointed as the executor of a wealthy ex-boyfriend's estate, is drawn into a conspiracy that appears to involve a secret underground version of the U.S. postal service. Along the way there are various strange characters and happenings, and the sense that it might in fact all be a massive hoax.
I do love the hallucinatory quality of the story and all the incidental details, such as the references to the Jacobean tragedies and the link to the medieval Thurn and Taxis postal system from Europe (rather like Oedipa, after a while the reader also has problems distinguishing the facts from Pynchon's fiction). In fact with its quick pacing, it could almost be mistaken for a literate, post-modern take on "The DiVinci Code". Maybe that's why the author was so dismissive - but I still think it's great stuff.
Mockingbird by Walter Tevis
18th April 2010
My friend Graeme lent this to me and I felt obliged to read it, in spite of a long-standing aversion to books with very obviously "sci-fi" covers. In fact as part of Gollancz's "SF Masterworks" series this is a cut above: for me, "Mockingbird" is science fiction at its best, as a medium for exploring ideas - in this case, about how should we live, how our relationship with the technology we make also shapes us, and indeed even what it means to be "human".
In Tevis's vision of the future (which to me had an almost 50's feel which belies the original 1980 publication date), the world is largely run by dumb machines, ostensibly servicing the needs of a society where most people have been brought up to enjoy what we might think of as merely superficial pleasures. Unfortunately the machinery is slowly deteriorating: in one episode (which greatly amused my friend) a man comes across a factory which, due to a small jam in one machine, has for years been continually building defective toasters. As each toaster fails the quality check, it is recycled back into its constituent parts to be made back into another defective toaster.
I felt that the comparison that one review made with Huxley's "Brave New World" is quite apt. You might even wish to draw parallels with the present day (for example a world of people hooked on ephemeral pleasures delivered by technology most don't understand in a self-sustaining cycle of consumerism, or else maybe the increasing complexity of inter-related software systems). Well, maybe that's going a bit far - but I suppose its a tribute to the ideas in "Mockingbird" that it encourages those kinds of thoughts.
Meet the Wife by Clive Sinclair
14th April 2010
I decided to re-read this on a whim after finishing Nielsen's book on software usability - I'd originally read "Meet the Wife" in 2003 and while I didn't remember much of the story, I did remember it being a lot of fun to read (I also remain fascinated by the Theda Bara-esque photo on the cover of my copy).
In fact the book is made up of two stories, which appear to share various thematic elements, and I think re-reading it gave me the same feelings as I'd had before: I enjoyed the various references to classical mythology (Odysseus appears in the first story and Pluto, god of the Underworld, in the second), and the mixing of modern settings, historical details and fantastical elements. Overall it felt almost like a lurid dream.
Now as before I can't help feeling though that I've missed something, some connection between the two stories or between them and the source material. I used to feel the same way about T.S. Eliot's poetry, and I'd wonder if I'd missed the point. But maybe not - maybe it's enough just to enjoy the mad fantasy and also Clive Sinclair's writing (I imagine if he rewrote the phone book I would still find it a joy to read). In fact thinking about it now I'm reminded a little of Angela Carter's Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman, and I think that like Carter's book this is now one of my favourites, and one that I look forward to reading again one day.
Usability Engineering by Jakob Nielsen
9th April 2010
Jakob Nielsen is probably best known now for his work on web usability, however as this book (from 1993!) predates the explosion of the world-wide web, it's more concerned with improving the usability of application software. Given the amount of time that has passed (and the attendent changes in software applications and interaction methods) since its original publication date, one might be forgiven for wondering how relevant a 17-year old book might be to the usability issues of today's systems.
In fact much of it turns out to very relevant indeed. Possibly this is in part because actually the mechanism for most human-computer interactions are largely still the same (i.e. screen, keyboard and mouse). However more likely it's because Nielson makes very few assumptions about the specifics of those interactions or the capabilities of the software and hardware, and instead presents general methodologies for detecting usability issues (researching existing software, consulting usability experts, application of "usability heuristics" by the software developers, and user testing of prototype or productive versions).
In spite of the textbook feel it's actually quite an engaging read (it reminded me in some ways of Grubb and Takang's Software Maintenance: Concepts and Practice, particularly with the introductory overview of computer systems and definitions of the components of "usability"), and I think that much if not all of it still applies equally to more recent technology (such as touch screen devices) as well as complementing usability approaches such as "personas". So I think this still provides an excellent introduction to the foundations of making software more usable.
Flotsametrics and the Floating World by Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano
28th February 2010
What a fascinating book. "Flotsametrics..." is an autobiographical account along the lines of Alexandra Morton's Listening to Whales, in which the author's life and career is intimately entwined with advances in human knowledge. In Morton's case it was our understanding of killer whales, and in Ebbesmeyer's it is our knowledge of how the oceans of the world move and behave.
I remember first hearing about Ebbesmeyer in connection with the news story about the flotilla of plastic ducks that were accidentally dumped at sea and periodically wash up en-masse on beaches around the world (for a UK-related example see this 2007 article from the Daily Mail), and much of his career has been involved in tracking these and other floating objects - including container ship spills of hockey gloves and Nike sneakers, as well as glass fishing floats and "MIBs" (messages in bottles) - as they travel across (or perhaps more accurately orbit around) the world's oceans. The book is filled with colourful stories and anecdotes - both historical and personally from Ebbesmeyer's own career about the different kinds of drifters and how data on them is collected (including networks of volunteer and hobbist beachcombers around the world). It's also fascinating how many diverse areas Ebbesmeyer touches on along the way (from Edgar Allen Poe, through the founding of the first Icelandic cities, and whether the Japanese pre-dated the Polynesians in Hawaii). Many of the stories can also be found on The Beachcombers Alert website.
What becomes clear through the book is how poorly understood the oceans and their movements are, even with the work of Ebbesmeyer and others. Vast as the oceans are it seems we're only now acquiring an appreciation of how the various oceanic "gyres" (essentially, the many circulating ocean currents) fit together, how they have influenced both the natural world and human history, and how fragile they may be and susceptible to changes in the Earth's climate.
It's both inspiring and a little depressing. However Ebbesmeyer's enthuasism for the subject continually shines through, and the authors excel at making the various discoveries accessible to a lay audience - ultimately making this a really joyful read which I'd thoroughly recommend.
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen
22nd February 2010
I'd dipped into productivity guru David Allen's book a few times since I bought a couple of years ago but had been put off on those occasions by the various flow diagrams and by the sense that ultimately "Getting Things Done" was about implementing some complicated system that I'd probably give up on after a week. I suppose it just looked like a lot of work. Having read the book cover to cover I have to say I was still not entirely convinced - there certainly seemed to be a lot of organising to keep up with (such as having multiple to-do lists based on whether you're "at phone", "at computer", "at the shops" and so on).
But in a way those things could be considered "implementation details", and underneath there are some simple but potentially powerful core ideas. Basically Allen's key assertion is that your brain is very bad at remembering all the things that you want or need to do, and it's also very bad at reminding you about them at the appropriate time. The aim of "Getting Things Done" is to free you from "thinking of stuff" (the remembering part) so that you can be "thinking about stuff" (the doing part), and this is achieved by collecting together absolutely everything that you need to do - no matter how small or big - and then putting it into a system that you absolutely trust to remind you of those things at the appropriate time.
It's simple, but not necessary easy - so to help Allen introduces some other suporting ideas in addition to the "collection habit" (the most useful one for me so far is the "two minute rule": if something can be done in two minutes or less then just do it then and there). So I think that there are some valuable things in here that can be used without buying into the whole concept right away. And I'm interested enough to follow one of the book's final suggestions - I've put a reminder in my calendar (another one of Allen's useful habits) to come back to the book again in 3 months time.
Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse
16th February 2010
I decided to re-read this on a whim, I think it's the third time I've read it now. I've always found it to be an extremely engaging and easy read, a thought-provoking and very humorous antidote to taking yourself - and indeed life in general - too seriously. For someone like me, perhaps a little prone to over-thinking and over-seriousness, I think that its genius lies in tricking you into identifying with Harry Haller (the eponymous Steppenwolf), before revealing him to be somewhat pompous and self-important - and then micheviously pricks the balloon of his world view and watches it deflate pathetically. I think that the message I always take away from it is essentially to "lighten up, professor".
There are also some great quotes. I think my favourite this time comes from an exchange when Harry claims that he's tired of life before admitting to Hermine that he's never learned to dance, at which point she remonstrates with him: "Fine views of life, you have. You have always done the difficult and complicated things and the simple ones you haven't even learnt ... to do as you do and then say you've tested life to the bottom and found nothing in it is going a bit too far."
Part of the pleasure of re-reading "Steppenwolf" is in encountering familiar episodes (for example, the "great automobile hunt" that Harry finds in the magic theatre) while also being surprised by things that I'd forgotten, and finding fresh insights in both. So I'm looking forward to reading again sometime.
A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living by Joseph Campbell and Diane Osbon (editor)
31st January 2010
It seems like I've had this book forever. I'm something of a fan of Joseph Campbell from the two other books of his that I've read, particularly Myths to Live By, but on the previous occasion that I started to read this I think I got stuck after the first few pages. This time it was a joy to read, and on reflection I suppose it might simply be that returning to it at a very significant time in my own life I was more open to absorb the ideas in the book when I hadn't been before - something that might have appealed to Campbell himself.
Like "Myths to Live By" this is a collection of Campbell's thoughts about how a person might live in the modern world, based on his understanding of world mythologies and belief systems. However unlike "Myths..." (where the material I think was based on a series of public lectures that Campbell gave), I felt that "Reflections on the Art of Living" speaks more directly (and often more humorously) to the reader as an intellectual equal. The ideas are explored more deeply and Campbell often relates them back to incidents from his own life (as an aside, I also found many of the autobiographical details to be fascinating in themselves).
I think that one of the key things that I've taken from all of Campbell's books is a sense that once we strip away the details of mythology and religion which are no longer appropriate to the world we live in now, we find there are still fundamental and very relevant truths about what it means to be human and to be alive. I've always felt that "Myths to Live By" rewarded each re-reading with fresh insights that I'd missed previously, and I'm lokking forward to similar rewards from returning to "Reflections on the Art of Living" in the future.
Trickster Makes This World by Lewis Hyde
20th January 2010
This book is a fascinating cultural history about the universal "trickster" figure who appears in various guises in mythologies around the world and across the ages. Hyde focuses on Hermes as one of the tricksters from Greek mythology, but he includes many others including Eshu from the Yoruba people of Nigeria, the North American Coyote and Raven, and the Norse God Loki.
In all cases the Trickster is a disruptive figure, and if read rather literally he can appear by turns both incredibly cunning (in the myth of Hermes) and bewilderingly stupid (in the stories about Coyote). Often though his role is to mediate between the eternal world of "the gods" (or maybe of nature) and the more messy world that people inhabit; but also the Trickster's antics seem to be about breaking the current order of things so that something new can appear - whether this is stealing fire from Heaven to give to mankind (in the case of Prometheus), or inventing the fishing net (in the case of Loki).
The Trickster is not necessarily a benign figure (as a child I remember feeling quite disturbed by the perverse motives of Loki, and his lack of interest in the consequences of his rather random and sometimes violent actions), and maybe this reflects the unpredictable nature of change - whether artistic, social or technological. But change is a fundamental part of our Western cultural, the idea that the world has to be constantly remade in order to "progress" (it is worth noting that not all cultures share this view).
The book is full of many other ideas aside from these (for example, considering cultural figures such as Picasso who have played a Trickster role), and it's to Hyde's credit that I found it so enjoyably readable. Like the work of Joseph Campbell, the stories that Hyde quotes are often of themselves quite fascinating and memorable. I still feel like there's more juice to be had out of this book.
The Confidence Plan by Sarah Litvinoff
17th January 2010
I've had this book for a long time - it was a spin-off from a BBC TV programme, but I never actually saw the show and that I actually bought it after seeing someone else reading it on a train once (my copy has a distinctive orange cover). However for some reason (as with so many of the other self-help books that I bought around the same time) I never actually made the effort to read it.
Since then my impression with advice books is that ultimately getting better at something - whether it be becoming more confident, losing weight, or improving your swimming stroke - is not really rocket science; it's more a case of understanding some basic principles and then applying yourself to them (which unfortunately is the hard part). So what I think really distinguishes one book from another is how that information is presented, and whether you can connect with the advice the author is giving you - which is definitely what happened for me while reading "The Confidence Plan".
Typically it begins by asking what this elusive thing called "confidence" is, and recognises that even "unconfident" people have areas in their lives which they feel confident about (with the reverse also being true for many "confident" people). The reader is then encouraged to identify a few areas in which they feel they most lack confidence before the book begins in earnest with the observation that taking action is the key to feeling confident (told you it was simple!).
What I enjoyed and found useful were the various tricks and suggestions for how to make the move from paralysis to action (the one that has stuck most deeply for me is to "act until it's real", a.k.a. fake it until you make it, but there's lots of other valuable stuff in there). Litvinoff's style is direct and practical but also sympathetic, and I felt that she had direct experience of much of the advice that she was giving. I also felt that she was good at recognising that following the advice isn't always easy and that you need to be kind to yourself on those occasions that it doesn't work out.
Overall I really enjoyed this book as well as finding the advice useful, and my only problem was not feeling like I'd retained as many of the ideas as I wished I had. So I think I will be returning to the Confidence Plan again soon, to see what else I can learn.
Leviathan, or The Whale by Philip Hoare
3rd January 2010
I've had an interest in whales since reading Listening to Whales by Alexandra Morton last year, but this book wasn't quite what I was expecting. Hoare's interest in whales comes from his fascination with Herman Melville's "Moby Dick", in which the eponymous great white whale is arguably a largely peripheral character - indeed almost a cipher, a mysterious and alien force of nature.
So it is also with much of "Leviathan", which in mirroring "Moby Dick", places much of its focus is on man's relationship (largely in the form of the whaling industry) with whales, rather than on the creatures themselves. Whales are therefore understood somewhat indirectly, through the lens of human experience, not as intelligent and mysterious sea-dwellers but as dangerous monsters whose bodies provided the component parts for food and industry. It's only really towards the end of the book that Hoare seems to focus on whales as beings in their own right (it concludes with his pictures from a whale-watching expedition, of a whale's enormous fluke rising out of and falling into the ocean).
Compared to Morton's book - which tells the story of an increasing understanding of cetecean intelligence - "Leviathan" speaks of how little we still understand or even know about whales remain to us, even as they provided the raw materials (in the form of their meat, blubber, bone and oil) for the foundations of the modern world. Ultimately it's about the largely forgotten shared hidden history between man and whale, and how much we still have to learn.