Ikigai

Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles


A short and focused excursion into the Japanese notion of ikigai, meaning something akin to "a sense of purpose".

The authors' interest in the idea comes from studying the residents of an Okinawan village that's thought to be the home of more centenarians than anywhere else, even in such a traditionally long-lived country as Japan. Studying their habits, the authors don't fall into the common trap of identifying the "one secret thing" that can transform anyone's life – although frugality, physical movement, and community clearly all help. The most potentially transformative observation, however, is how the long-lived never retire in any real sense. They've found their ikigai, and as such they keep practicing it as a part of what they are rather than as something they simply do (to get paid). This a commonality here with the lives of many scientists, writers, and academics, whose work and lives are so bound together that they never stop working as long as they live – and it's this that plays a large role in keeping them healthy and alert. It also chimes with a lot of modern advice to follow your passions, and is something that's eminently practical for everyone.

Finished on Sat, 19 Mar 2022 09:20:37 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News and the Future of Conflict

Nina Jankowicz

2020


Very topical (I'm writing this during the 2022 invasion of Ukraine), an exploration of how the information space has become a theatre of conflict, whether in a hot or a cold war. The author works in communications, and has a detailed grasp of the ways in which readers and viewers can be manipulated using media. Her central thesis is that the existing fractures in a society can be widened and exploited by a clever and resourceful aggressor, and used to shape belief and behaviour – but also, more importantly, to destroy individuals' trust in information itself, and to diminish their participation in their own society. This in turn opens-up the way for tiny fringe groups to achieve outsized influence, by suppressing the participation of the majority. It's a frustrating dynamic, not least because the remedies are elusive: one can't adopt the tactics of the disruptors without further contributing to collapsing trust, but approaches based on evidence seem doomed to fail when they can be attacked without limit.

Jankowicz is especially revealing about the importance of locally-grown elements to propaganda managed from abroad, whether by knowing agents or (more effectively) by "useful idiots" who spread the disruptive talking points. Reading this book sharpens your sensitivity to these things, and I've seen it happening even with respected figures during the current conflict.

Finished on Fri, 11 Mar 2022 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 4/5.

The Eye of the World (The Wheel of Time, #1)

Robert Jordan

1990


A book I wanted to like, but didn't. I found it slow and mired in stereotypes despite the protagonists including several very strong and powerful women and societies of women. It didn't work as well as it could have done.

There's also a stylistic element that I found frustrating. The story, and the history of the world, are revealed as they're learned by the young-adult central characters, who are sufficiently rural and provincial to not have know much of it before. As a style it means that the reader shares their ignorance (and emerging knowledge) – but also means that events often only make sense in retrospect (or not at all). Perhaps this is a semi-realistic take on how the "quest" narrative would actually be experienced from the inside, but it doesn't enhance the storytelling.

Finished on Fri, 04 Mar 2022 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 2/5.

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England

Dan Jones

2012


A sweeping and entertaining history of the Plantagenet kings and their often equally impressive queens. There is a lot of ground to cover, and Jones does it in the same style as his previous books about similar periods, notably Crusaders: The Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands – and with several overlapping characters.

A lot of the history of this period isn't widely known. That the boundaries of countries change is obvious, but perhaps less obvious is the idea that particular regions have clearly-identified "national" identities isn't a concept that translates well to the eleventh century, when Normandy and the Normans weren't in any way considered French and the relationships between barons and kings were far ore conditional and fluid than one might expect. Jones has a clear eye for where these expectations will trip-up a modern, non-expert reader, and that's part of the book's quality, along with his equally clear eye for fascinating characters and foibles.

Finished on Sun, 27 Feb 2022 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 4/5.

The Munros in Winter

Martin Moran

1986


This book tells part of the amazing story of an amazing man, who came back from serious injury to first climb all the Scottish Munros in a single winter season. It's a stunning accomplishment by any measure, and set Moran up for a future as a mountaineering guide before his tragic death.

I'm sorry that it's not a better book. The prose is quite wooden, lacking all the flourish and power that one finds in, for example, Savage Arena. As just one example amongst many:

"Only with sadness did we leave the lovely Etive, thinking with regret of those roads and glens of Argyll that our journey would not traverse again."

It's a shame that the writing doesn't live up either to the country being described or the challenge being successfully attempted.

Finished on Wed, 23 Feb 2022 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 2/5.

A Book of Silence

Sara Maitland

2008


An exploration of the power of silence, and a progressively ore extended periods in more remote locations. It's an attractive journey for any introvert to hear about. It's unfortunate that, in this telling, it gets wrapped-up on explorations of religion and linguistics.

Is the modern world uniquely hostile to silence? It certainly favours extroversion, but it also allows people to undertake solitary existences without having to give up much of its conveniences (as we've all discovered over two years of pandemic semi-isolation).

I'm unconvinced by some of the close-read arguments and religious ties. That fact that, in the Jewish-Christian tradition, God made the world with the Word doesn't convince me that there's an overwhelming and ancient bias against silence, as something that has morally to be broken. I'm also unconvinced by the other religious, philosophical, and psychological speculations that to my mind get in the way of reporting the more interesting first-person experiences. Perhaps that sort of reportage is a book remaining to be written.

Finished on Sat, 12 Feb 2022 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 3/5.

Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell

John Preston

2021


As biographies of monsters go, this is one of the best. It sets out the whole sweep of Robert Maxwell's complex and in the end perplexing personality: someone who courageously fought the Nazis, but committed (and admitted to) war crimes, who made and lost fortunes but never escaped the need to aggrandise. He transformed academic publishing – something I, as an academic, was unaware of – but engaged in outlandish stunts and competitions in tabloid journalism. His death was as dramatic and inexplicable as many of the events of his life.

It would be an easy story to sensationalise, and while there's some of that in this book, overall it reads as a balances account by someone without too much of a stake in the outcome. It's perhaps inevitable that the story has been overshadowed by the later tribulations of Ghislaine, Robert Maxwell's daughter, but these events are in many ways foreshadowed by her earlier history. They're certainly all of a piece with the story told here.

Finished on Thu, 10 Feb 2022 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 4/5.

Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Churchill and the Road to War

Tim Bouverie

2019


The history of the not-out-finest-hour that preceded our finest hour.

This is a very balanced treatment of a period that it's difficult to treat fairly. It manages this by keeping a clear focus on what the protagonists know and believe at the time, without losing sight of whether those beliefs were reasonable: often they weren't, and in the final analysis the idea that appeasement could ever have succeeded is well and truly exploded.

The use of extensive quotes from private correspondence is extremely revealing of the inner motivations of many, not least Chamberlain. But it also reveals something that I'd not noticed before: the subtle change in the meaning of the word appeasement over the course of the period. In the early years it comes across as simply a way of re-introducing equity into international relations, and only later acquires the sub-text of surrender and cowardice that it now has.

My only minor criticism is that there are a few places where a little more clarity as to the deceptions going on could have been welcome. The "Polish provocations" used by the Nazis to ramp-up the tensions prior to the attack, for example, were almost entirely imagined propaganda, culminating in the staged "incidents" used as the final justification.

Finished on Sun, 30 Jan 2022 06:34:01 -0800.   Rating 5/5.

The Covent Garden Ladies

Hallie Rubenhold

2005


An entertaining dive into a part of 18th-century society that's too often only considered voyeuristically. The survival of "Harris' List" provides a starting point, but it's the detailed archival study and the willingness to dig into the histories of the three main protagonists that really sets this book apart. In doing so it also gets to uncover some of the grimier realities of living on (or close to) the streets in a period when money was all that really counted in terms of life chances.

Rubenhold is very sympathetic to the Covent Garden ladies. "Prostitutes" (or "harlots" in the TV adaptation) is a too-harsh judgement: many adopted sex work only because society gave them no other options, or adopted it only periodically when forced to by poverty, or as a semi-acceptable companion to stage-work. She is also unforgiving of the male customers, who avoided most social sanctions or consequences.

The fact that "Harris' List" ran for nearly four decades (and that we have examples of most of them) also makes it a revealing social document as the mores and morals of society change across the 18th century. The descriptions become less straightforward, more ornate and (one would imagine) less useful as time goes by and the publishers become more susceptible to legal action for obscenity (even as the underlying social conditions remain largely unaddressed).

Finished on Sat, 22 Jan 2022 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 4/5.

Cosmogramma

Courttia Newland

2017


A great collection of new science fiction. Some new premises, and older ones deftly handled.

Finished on Sat, 15 Jan 2022 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 3/5.