Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland

Patrick Radden Keefe (2018)

As good a narrative history of the Troubles as any you’ll find. It skips the broad brush in favour of the effects on three groups of people: the children of Jean McConville, the best-known of the “disappeared”; the coterie around Gerry Adams and Dolours Price; and the authors and interviewers of the Boston College project that captured (and partially revealed) the activities of many of the protagonists on both sides of the divide.

From one perspective this is the right level. The terror campaign – Republican and Loyalist – has had a lot of exposure in terms of the events, but less in terms of the victims (and perpetrators). It’s important to realise how many of those intimately involved came to regard “the struggle” as purposeless in retrospect, and to renounce the violence they had once embraced. Martin McGuinness is the best-known example of this, but there are surprisingly many more.

From another perspective, however, it’s less satisfactory in that there’s a lack of closure, a continuing lack of agreement about who did what, knew what, and decided what. It will probably need another twenty years before there’s a consensus, and in the meantime this is the most illuminating exploration.

4/5. Finished Friday 3 April, 2020.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)


Simon Winchester (2018)

An engaging history of engineering through the the lens of ever-increasing precision. starting with more efficient steam engines and ending with spacecraft and microprocessors.

Until about two-thirds of the way through I had a criticism that the book focused on precision solely as a means to mass production the need to components that are exactly the same to facilitate easy replacement, as contrasted against craft-made items. I was contrasting this against one-off, hand-made, but nonetheless precise artefacts such as the turbulence experiment described by James Gleick in Chaos: Making a New Science: a tiny fluid chamber with embedded sensors, still regarded as one of the finest experiments ever crafted. But the discussions of watches more than remedied the omission.

The chapter on Japan as a contrast to the “cult” of precision feels a bit forced. Yes, the Japanese have a sensitivity (wabi sabi) for the imperfect in art while maintaining a reverence for high-precision machines – but so do other cultures and art forms, not least jazz and abstract impressionism, that render the contrast a bit superficial.

4/5. Finished Sunday 29 March, 2020.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Secret Life of Books: Why They Mean More Than Words

Tom Mole (2019)

3/5. Finished Sunday 8 March, 2020.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence

Michael Pollan (2018)

Almost enough to make one want to try them, this is a fine description of the history, biochemistry, and cultural significance of psychedelics. It walks a fine line between the materialistic and the spiritual: what do psychedelic trips signify, are they “just” drug experiences or do they connect with something else?

It’s a book that’s worth reading for any of its component parts. The history sheds light both on the counterculture of the 60’s and on the genesis and evolution of moral panics of the sort that resulted in LSD being proscribed. The biochemistry does its best to reflect the latest scientific thinking, but also shows how much of neuroscience is still tied up with speculative and metaphorical models of what’s happening in the brain. And the personal history of the author’s own trips – carefully supervised and with plenty of trepidation on his part – go some way to showing how influential and persistent the effects of the drugs can be.

The book could do with some better copy-editing: it’s repetitive in places. But well worth a read.

4/5. Finished Sunday 23 February, 2020.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Atrocity Archives (Laundry Files, #1)

Charles Stross (2004)

What happens when it turns out the HP Lovecraft was right, and that the monsters from without can be summoned and (to some extent) controlled by a perfectly rational experimental science? That’s the premise of this book, the first of the “Laundry files” series, that combines horror, science fiction, comedy, and an exploration of the social hierarchies and deep plotting that turn up in civil service institutions.

5/5. Finished Wednesday 12 February, 2020.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)