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Ikigai

Ikigai

Hector Garcia Puigcerver

2016


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.

4/5. Finished 11 April 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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

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.

4/5. Finished 11 March 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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

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.

2/5. Finished 04 March 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England

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.

4/5. Finished 27 February 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Munros in Winter

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.

2/5. Finished 23 February 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)