Category Archives: Adult Books

Review of Ten Lessons in Public Health by Alfred Sommer

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This is a charmingly written memoir of the career of Alfred Sommer, the man who developed epidemiology into a vital tool for global health policy. In each of the ten ‘lessons’, we travel with him to a country suffering a health crisis, and learn how it was resolved. It is humble in tone, which I found misleading – it becomes clear that the author is downplaying great personal gifts of insight and persuasion, and also his personal bravery as he ventures into areas of political instability and infectious disease. A lesser man simply would not have achieved what he did, I feel. The text is dotted heavily with mostly irrelevant personal anecdotes, which distract from the message of each epidemiological technique, but are undoubtedly sometimes fun to read. My favourite anecdote is the one about a friend’s wife smuggling her pet cat out of country soon to become a warzone by sedating it and wearing it as a stole around her neck on the aeroplane. My favourite ‘lesson’ is the one about discovering how best to administer Vitamin A to children to prevent blindness. I feel, however, that this rather short book is a bit too light for its content.

Dworkin’s Religion Without God

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At first I expected a book with such a title to endorse Richard Dawkin’s views about appreciating the wonders of nature without invoking a divine creator. But in fact, if I understand correctly, Ronald Dworkin’s (strangely similar name) thesis is that the Universe has intrinsic value, whether or not we recognise it. I have to say I fundamentally disagree – such value is ascribed by humans, and as far as we know, humans only. However, I gather that Dworkins strayed from his usual legal ethics topics in his final book (see The Guardian) and possibly I will appreciate his other works more, should I get around to reading them.

The Nostalgia Factory by Douwe Draaisma

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I picked up this book hoping to get a sense of the state of the art in the science of understanding memory. So I was a bit disappointed. It does cover (and utterly debunk) the myth that doing brain exercises (such as sudoku) will stave off memory loss or dementia, which is sad but useful to know (if one is not fond of sudoku). There are chapters on homesickness and nostalgia, which are heartwrenching to read…more an account of the suffering that memory can bring, rather than comfort. No hope is offered on the subject of dementia, despite an anecdote revealing that with the correct stimulus and support, some memories can be revived temporarily. There is a long, dull interview with Oliver Sachs, the salient points of which I do not recall. The most interesting chapters were on the window of retained memory that most people seem to experience in their twenties. Draaisma speculates that this is because new experiences are being captured or that there’s something about our brain development at that time, but nobody knows. What is becoming clearer is that old people remember that period of their lives the most clearly. By far…the decades of interesting life after that blur and fade. The book is written with empathy and gentle humour, and is easy to read.

The Good Life by Hugh Mackay

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To sum up, Mackay argues that ‘the good life’ is defined by service to others. This book appeals to our apparently innate moral sense: our natural wish to help and our awareness of ourselves as cooperative social animals. Though, a person living ‘the good life’ would not be expecting anything in return for his or her help, not even a thankyou. An act performed in the expectation of anything in return (even a pleasant sense of worthiness) loses its ‘goodness’ instantly, this author argues.

He points out that Western society glorifies both individual realization and the pursuit of happiness, in case we had not noticed. But, according to him, these are the Wrong Goals. Nor does he promise that if we should lead the good life, we will achieve happiness. I must admit, I had, prior to reading his book, assumed that happiness was indeed my goal, for myself and my friends and family, and particularly for my daughter. Instead, Mackay describes ‘wholeness’ as a better goal than happiness. A ‘whole’ person experiences the complete range of emotions at appropriate moments (fear when something frightening happens, irritation when something annoying happens) to an appropriate degree (not brooding on a small rejection), learning all the while. Indeed, this idea is central to the Traditional Chinese Medicine concept of being ‘in balance’, and I admit I had not previously considered that this may be incompatible with a constant striving for personal happiness and fulfilment.

His book is dotted with anecdotes, quotes and case histories (each, I think, invented to illustrate a point, rather than about people he knows), which do indeed provide human interest to his rather judgemental, stern tone. (For example, he scorns those middle-aged people who continue to wear blue jeans as clinging inappropriately to their lost youth!) The book is quite readable, even when the author criticizes the self-obsessed behaviour he observes in many people. And I think we can all agree (with him) that most of us could benefit ourselves and others by being quite a lot more community-spirited and much kinder to everyone we come in contact with.

Yet, even after reading the whole book and following the development of his argument, I do not feel it is obvious that his premise is correct (service to others should be our life’s goal and there’s no call to aim for happiness per se). Nor is his advocated lifestyle possible in all societies. In a very unequal society, it is not easy to exchange favours. Mackay also seems to take no account of the role of reciprocity and hierarchy as stabilizing factors in animal societies.

It should be a thought-provoking book, but (I think) on the whole, I’m left with good intentions to be a bit more compassionate, a source of balm for whenever I don’t feel I’ve been personally ambitious enough, and not much more.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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Wonderful! Even better than her Jackson Brodie private investigator ‘frilogy’ (four books, see), which I had not thought possible. It’s always nice when a favourite author ups her game without losing my interest.

Tracking important moments in the rewound-and-lived-again lives of Ursula (usually moments when a circumstance or choice results in her untimely demise, approximately every five years or so), the story is of all the lives she could have lived. It’s as different as it could be from a ‘choose your own adventure’ storybook, given that those imply a degree of control and conscious choice over what might happen next, whereas Ursula’s fates seem merely to be adjacent frills in the everfolded Multiverse, each equally likely. Some reviewers feel that the book shows how she learns from previous truncated lives to make a final difference (spoiler: possibly assassinating Hitler!) in her last life. But although some of the Ursulas do seem to retain a dim awareness of previous lives, I do not think the book is an exercise in ‘getting it right’ by reliving moments of choice. I think it underscores the precious uniqueness of each life, the potential of each path not yet walked down, and the horrible randomness of the deaths depicted.

Some of the Ursulas are happier than others, some learn more skills or live in different places. Some marry, some have a child, one is murdered by her husband. But somehow, thanks entirely to the masterful storytelling (I imagine the author required an enormous mindmap detailing the different paths of Ursula’s many lives, enabling her to drop in references to the distinguishing characteristics of each life) and some unchanging elements in all the Ursula’s lives (such as her calm, kind father and sister), it all hangs together and Ursula’s personality remains recognisable throughout.

Extra interesting for me was that Ursula was born in almost the same year (1910) that my grandmother was, so some of her lives span both world wars. Those of Ursula’s lives ended by the Blitz are particularly fascinating and moving. How lucky we are to live in times of peace. There is a surreal episode set in Germany, where Ursula is befriended by Eva Braun (a bit contrived, that). Ursula’s German lives seem designed to build a more compassionate understanding in the reader of the Germany in which Hitler rose to power. And her early lives depict a serene, privileged pre-war countryside lifestyle presumably now gone forever.

I intend to reread as soon as I can bear to.

Ode to Flowers: A Celebration of the Poetry of Flowers by Samuel Carr

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Well, this book is very pretty. Samuel Carr has collected around fifty poems whose uniting feature is a floral theme, or at least a floral mention. If you think that’s a good enough reason to assemble some poems, then you may enjoy reading this book. The poems are written by famous names from Chaucer to Seamus Heaney, whose best work this collection does not usually represent, and some not-at-all-famous names, too, about whose poetry all I can safely say is that they all mention flowers. But enough of the poetry (or more about it, if you prefer dog poetry)! The reason I shall keep this book is its beautiful illustrations. There are more pictures than poems, happily, and although they range in style from watercolour to silkscreen to William Morris, they somehow coherently present the glorious, multifaceted
ecstasy of an enormous bouquet. It is unfortunate (and surely unfair to the artists and designers) that the picture credits merely list the archives from which the illustrations were sourced. I guess that Transport For London may have produced the delightful stylised cover picture, but it is not made clear.

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

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I am not quite sure what to take from this novel. Its protagonist is hard to relate to, even though she seems to share her every thought and feeling (and every thought about her feelings) in lucid, agonising detail. Yet the satisfaction of absorbing each perfectly balanced sentence somehow outweighs the frustrations of the almost plotless tale. It could have been subtitled “Lee goes to a much posher high school than her parents intended and grows up a bit over four years”. As beautifully written coming-of-age narratives go, I much preferred The Secret History, with its elements of the thriller and its hints of the bygone mysteries of classical Greece. Mention has also been made of Catcher in the Rye, and given the quality of the self-analysis, perhaps even fair mention. I was hardly ever bored while reading it, yet I don’t feel in any special hurry to read her other novels, which to be fair, all sound a lot more interesting plotwise. After reading some glittering reviews of Sittenfeld’s work, I wanted to read her weakest novel first, and perhaps I have.

The Moonspinners by Mary Stewart

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Ah, Mary Stewart’s light mystery romances. Always almost as good as going on holiday to nice warm places in southern Europe, with a little excitement thrown in. In this one, our heroine goes to a remote Cretan fishing village on her hols, there to be accidentally embroiled in a thrilling tale of a jewel heist turned murderous, with conveniently placed male fellow tourist to fall for. In some ways very dated, the story is nevertheless very enjoyable, time after time. I realise this author has also written quite a heavy-duty trilogy about Merlin and King Arthur, but I prefer her holiday escapism.

Dog Songs by Mary Oliver

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Now, I’m definitely more of a cat person than a dog person. Mainly because I hear dogs require far more time and attention than does a cat. (Those who say so have not met my cat.) But this collection of canine poetry made me feel that the deficiency is mine in not appreciating the fidelity, charm and adoration of dogs as they deserve. These lovely, heartwrenching poems, seemingly mostly about the loss of beloved, loving dogs actually made me cry (admittedly I was in a nice warm bath with a glass of red wine at the time). And one made me laugh (about the dog wheedling extra breakfast out of the author). But the recurring themes are love and all-too-speedy loss, because compared to humans, dogs live such a short time, less than ten years of youth and vigour, usually. The descriptions of Mary Oliver’s interactions with her dogs (the dogs are clearly her own, with particular personalities) often take the form of their unspoken conversations, transcribed here to move and delight us.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

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OK, I should have attended my book club meeting for this one. Definitely. It might have shed some light in the darkness. Because I have to admit I didn’t really get it. I quite enjoyed it…it was no hardship trucking through the 700 or so pages with the likeable protagonist, Shadow. I managed to spot many of the thinly disguised gods that pepper the pages, sometimes extremely incidentally. I got the (anti)christ allusion, what with Shadow inexplicably agreeing to be hung on the world tree for the sake of his father Odin. I got the ‘road trip’ structure. I foresaw the sacrificed children, though I don’t see why the whole Lakeside subplot needed to be there. There were a lot of overly symbolic dreams and otherworld visits that managed to be both tiresome and scary. Nobody ever seemed to stay dead. Though Shadow’s wife’s resurrection certainly didn’t seem to take the plot anywhere. The initial premise that forgotten gods fade and die (even when exported by immigrants to America) and that we have some new ones based on trains and TV and such called things like Media (ho ho, yes I got the nod to the classics there), making a Final Battle inevitable, eventually gets supplanted with the idea that the whole battle was a con set up by Odin and Loki to supply some fresh blood. I think. Shadow stops it. I think. Or was it The Land (aka an underground buffalo)? And there were also a lot of coin tricks.