Books I Read In... November 2018

Books I Read In... November 2018

We had our first frosts in November. I always think there’s something magical about waking up to the brightness of a frosty morning, and we don’t get a lot of frosts this far south.  Snow is even rarer, so I have to make do with the views of the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees which are spectacular at this time of year.

Here’s the best of what I read in November…

David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants – Malcolm Gladwell

Regular readers of my book reviews will know that I’m a huge fan of Gladwell’s writing, and this book did not disappoint.

It’s a book that sets out to look at why the underdog so often triumphs, sometimes against seemingly unsurmountable odds, and how what we might view as advantages can often turn out to be just the opposite.

Gladwell relates many stories to prove his point, and this is what makes his books so engaging, for me.  His books always make me think. I don’t believe you can be a passive reader of any of his books. He challenges you to think differently, to see connections and to see a side of an argument that you perhaps would never have considered.

I really enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it.

“We have a definition in our heads of what an advantage is—and the definition isn’t right. And what happens as a result? It means that we make mistakes. It means that we misread battles between underdogs and giants. It means that we underestimate how much freedom there can be in what looks like a disadvantage. It’s the Little Pond that maximizes your chances to do whatever you want.” – Malcolm Gladwell

Pour Me: A Life – A. A. Gill

I have a feeling that A. A. Gill is not well known outside of the UK.  He was best known for his acerbic weekly columns in The Sunday Times (as both restaurant and TV critic), but also for his reporting as a foreign correspondent for them. He was also an accomplished cook. He died in 2016, aged 62.

Billed as a memoir, this is really a ‘Before’ and ‘After’ book. ‘Before’ tells the story of his childhood as a dyslexic and his young adulthood as an alcoholic and drug addict. ‘After’ tells the story of his life sober and drug free.

His descriptions of what it is like to be an alcoholic (bearing in mind that he freely admits he has virtually no recollection of a large chunk of this part of his life) illustrate so clearly just how awful it is to live this kind of life, “…you drink for the lightness, we drink for the darkness. You want to feel good, we want to stop feeling so bad. All addictions become not about nirvana, but maintenance. Not reaching for the stars but fixing the roof.”

Yet he can also relate experiences which had me laughing out loud. By far my favourite of these was the morning when he woke up with his face stuck to the kitchen table (not an unusual occurrence) covered in blood, with a sharp knife in his hand (definitely an unusual occurrence). Fearing the worst, as he surveyed his surroundings, he slowly realised what had taken place the night before:

“A grouse on a plate, surrounded by the traditional funeral ornaments of late August – bread sauce, fried breadcrumbs, game chips, redcurrant, a bandolier of bacon, a sprig of watercress for modesty, a dish of congealed buttered cabbage. The floor was aflutter with feathers, evidence of a goblins’ pillow fight. I had plainly plucked, drawn and cooked a grouse, made bread sauce by seething an onion studded with cloves and bay in milk, then added fresh breadcrumbs and a scant teaspoon of dried mustard, white pepper not black, and salt . . . then fried more breadcrumbs in goose fat and put them in the warm oven, peeled and turned waxy potatoes, slivered them fine (I didn’t have a mandolin), dried them on a paper towel and shallow-fried them in yet more goose fat, sprinkled them with salt and a twist of black pepper, shredded a white cabbage, poached it with the diced end of pancetta, tossed it in a walnut of butter with a teaspoon of its own poaching water – the redcurrant jelly I must have bought in a bottle. And I’d done all this – knives, boiling fat, flaming hobs, ovens – dead drunk. In complete blackout. Too shit-faced to eat and too ill with alcoholic gastritis. But all that wasn’t the weird thing, the mad thing. The spooky, unhinged bit was that I’d done it twice. There were two grouse, a brace, with their bread and tatties and cabbage. There was no one else here. Nobody expected . . . no one peckish for an early grouse likely to drop by. Whom did I imagine I was feeding? Whom was I propitiating? Was this a stuffed augury? Some hopeless offering to Bacchus or Pan or Loki? It wasn’t the first time it had happened, I had come round to a Victoria sponge, gazpacho, numerous shoulders, legs and racks of lamb and a tunnel-boned and forcemeat-stuffed chicken in a bain-marie.”

Gill was hugely intelligent, but also prone to overcompensate for his dyslexia by boring people with the myriad of facts he kept in his head, and I found some of the writing in his book a bit over the top at times – too many ‘like a…’ as though he feels the need to show off his vast vocabulary.

That said, it’s a very good read.  Though much of book concentrates on ‘Before’, I was most affected by something he wrote which came from ‘After’, when he was working as a foreign correspondent. He said this about refugees:

“Tom and I covered the wreckage that washes up around the island of Lampedusa, and I wrote then that if you would come face to face with these people you would never turn them away. You could not but help them. We all of us strive to be good, to be decent, to do the right thing. It is only their anonymity that allows us to support policies that turn our backs on them, send them away, bury them in internment camps and embargoes. It is perfectly simple – if you were confronted with their humanity, then simultaneously you would be confronted with your own. I want to write that over and over and over again.”

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World – Steven Johnson

I loved this book – one of my best reads this year. It inspired a recent blog post and is an exhilarating read.

Like Gladwell, Johnson is a great storyteller, and this book is stuffed with them. The book covers six innovations under the titles Glass, Cold, Sound, Clean, Time and Light, and looks at how innovations usually start as an attempt to solve a particular problem but can end up triggering changes down the ages which would have been unpredictable at the time.

It is a truly mind-blowing book. From the exporting of ice to the Caribbean to the raising of the entire city of Chicago by 4 feet to make room for a sewerage system.  Reading this book seemed to be a continual series of ‘I had no idea!’ – including ‘I had no idea this was a BBC series!’. How did I miss that?

I feel as though I inhaled this book, rather than read it. I finished it in just a couple of days but it’s one I’ll read again.

Highly recommended.

The Stars are Fire – Anita Shreve

I’ve forgotten when I first discovered Anita Shreve’s books – the early 2000s I think – but it’s been a long time since I read one. So, when this appeared as a Kindle Daily Deal, I snapped it up.  Until I started writing this review I had no idea that Shreve died earlier this year (or that we share a birthday), so I assume this might be her last novel.

It’s not a long book, and I knew within a few pages that I was going to enjoy it, so I tried to ration my reading of it to make it last longer. Fail. I finished it in a couple of days.

Like a lot of her books, this one is set on the Maine coast. The story revolves around the fires which broke out in 1947, following a summer-long drought.  It also revisits a common theme in her books of ‘what goes on below the surface’. Presenting a version of ourselves to the world, often hiding what is happening behind closed doors.  Shreve’s books frequently centre on the relationship between a husband and wife, as this one does, where all is not quite as rosy as it seems.

Although it’s been years since I read one of her novels, the old (unremembered) feelings soon came flooding back. I feel a sense of claustrophobia when reading her books – of lives being lived from which the protagonist needs to break free.  Some of this is down to the plotlines, but equally I think it is due to the sparseness of her writing which tells you everything you need to know, but where not a single word is wasted.

I love a book which pulls me in and this is one of those. Knowing that there will be no more novels from her, I need to go back and read the ones I haven’t yet read (and re-read some of those I have).  I didn’t realise how much I’d missed reading her, until I read this.

I hope my comments will encourage you to pick up one or two of these books.