Tara Westover (2018)

A study of the effects of education as both liberating and disconnecting.

The family that the author describes is both harrowingly dysfunctional and strangely close-knit, which goes a long way to explaining how hard she found to draw herself away from it. She followed a charmed academic trajectory that many academics would kill for – Brigham Young University, then a scholarship and PhD from Cambridge, then a fellowship at Harvard – and I think it’s a fair question as to whether she’d’ve been able to break away had she had a less exceptional start.

The overriding themes are easy to see, revolving around a desire (indeed, a need) for male relatives to control female behaviour. There are plenty of echoes of works like Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, but one thing that’s distinctive about Westover’s experience is that the fundamentalist position that her family adopts doesn’t go far back: even her grandparents disagree with it, and it seems to be as much a product of her father’s mental illness and mother’s subservience as anything inherent in a strongly religious tradition. It’s definitely one of the most challenging personal backgrounds I know of to have been successfully overcome.

5/5. Finished Wednesday 22 May, 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past, #1)

Liu Cixin (2006)

Quite an astonishing book, combining science fiction with social commentary and Chinese history in a seamless and rather stunning way.

This book has some really quite visionary passages, drawing deeply on cultural history and the farther reaches of mathematical physics. It also has some resonances from the SF classics, especially (and perhaps surprisingly) The Forever War, with its central problem of how to fight a war in the face of travel times long enough to render your weaponry obsolete? Liu’s solution is brilliant: find a way to stall your enemy’s scientific progress, using both scientific and social weapons, with the latter also having eerie resonances in modern social-media commentaries. An excellent and thought-provoking start to a trilogy.

4/5. Finished Thursday 16 May, 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Devil’s Disciples : The Life and Times of Hitler’s Inner Circle

Anthony Read (2003)

A history of Nazi Germany from the different perspective of the first tier of Hitler’s followers, mainly focussing on Goebbels, Goering, and Himmler. That’s actually a slight limitation, in that there are huge contributions from other, second-tier Nazis that remain to be explored, and that might have made this book even more distinctive. But it still manages to put a lot of detail into the personal lives and deeds of its chosen subjects which are often missed in more “standard” histories, and this sheds a lot of light onto many of their motivations and key decisions. A very useful addition to the literature.

4/5. Finished Monday 13 May, 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Manchester Ship Canal: The Big Ditch

Cyril J. Wood (2005)

A detailed history of the Manchester Ship Canal, lavishly illustrated from across the years.

I grew up alongside the canal, and there’s plenty here I didn’t know. It would have been better to have more depth in a lot of places, especially in terms of construction techniques and the history of some of the areas such as Old Quay docks in Runcorn and Dock Office in Manchester. (The latter had a mainframe computer for running the payroll, I remember.) It’s a great reminder of the ways in which these huge industrial projects shaped the North-West, and I share the author’s happiness that the canal system is gradually being restored and put back to work.

4/5. Finished Sunday 28 April, 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Why We Sleep

Matthew Walker (2017)

An enthusiastic paean to sleep and all it can do for us, from the perspective of a sleep scientist. If there was ever any doubt of the benefits of sleep – and the damage done by denying oneself or others of it – then this is it.

It’s a refreshingly un-preachy book, presenting both the latest science and some prescriptions for those who find sleep difficult. Along the way there are some side-swipes at those to claim to do well on only four hours a night (the science clearly says otherwise), as well as at the educational system for forcing early hours onto teenage brains working to a different rhythm. While I suspect the situation is better in the UK and Europe than in the US, there still seems to be a good argument for changes in timetabling even at university level to accommodate the physiological limitations of younger students,

4/5. Finished Thursday 25 April, 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)