Friday, December 21, 2012

All the books I read in 2012

Regular readers (hello Mum!) will recall I write a post at the end of each year reviewing all the books I read in the past twelve months (2011, 2010, 2009). It’s an annual tradition up there with the Queen’s speech or X-Factor. For me at least. 

They're not hugely insightful or long or clever reviews, more just quick observational thoughts on each book as I go. If you have questions, ask below!

So, here we go - in chronological order:

Dark Star Safari - Paul Theroux: A great start to the New Year of 2012, as Theroux heads north to south across Africa encountering interesting people and places, moaning and evangelising in equal measure about what he finds on his way. 

His past life in Africa as a lecturer in Uganda helps, as he can access numerous high-ranking people and knows local dialects too. His disdain for many of the aid organisations he meets is also interesting; some don’t like Theroux for his moaning while travelling but I love it - it’s far more realistic than the endlessly upbeat schoolboy excited TV presenters we get these days who find everything and everyone just wonderful.

The Wonderboys - Michael Chabon: I’ve seen the film a couple of times and finding the book for £1 in Brighton thought it was worth a go and I was right. A great tale of drunken lecturers, the difficulty of writing and the idiocy of love. Recommended.

Watching the English - Kate Fox: A nice little observational non-fiction about the peculiar mannerism and social mores of us mad English people. Tad dry in places but interesting mostly.

The Tiny Wife - Andrew Kaufmann: A short, odd novel about a man’s wife shrinking. It was ok.

A Week at the Airport - Alain De Botton: I bloody loved this; a quick, light yet insightful meander around Heathrow airport by the people’s philosopher (yeah right). As someone who wanders through the bright concourses of Heathrow every so often I enjoyed learning a bit more about the people that keep the big ol’ place humming.

A Visit from the Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan: Thought this was a bit overrated but enjoyable. Never a huge fan of 'linking stories' that fuse different characters together, either subtly or obviously, but it was easy to read and better than most stabs at this type of fiction I’ve read.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist - Moshin Hamed: Enjoyed this a lot; a terse, tight novel about the growing disillusionment of a high-flying western financial expert from India who turns his back on it all for, maybe, more nefarious activities.

Jupiter’s Travels - Ted Simon: Around the world on a motorcycle is always a good premise for a book and Ted Simon’s account is excellent as he makes his way here and there across Africa, South America, North America and onto Asia and so forth. The people he meets make the book, as well as some of his excellent descriptions. He repeated the trip again later in life, although I’ve yet to read that. I may, though.

Engleby - Sebastian Faulks: The more I read of Faulks the more I like him, after finding Birdsong quite disappointing. A dark, somewhat comic novel about a disturbed chap going through life and odd events happening around him, OR DO THEY!

The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good - Matthew Crawford: Read this on a previous blog.

A Short History of Tractor Farming in the Ukraine
- Marina Lewcyka: Terribly written story-by-numbers tripe that aspired for comic-thoughtfulness but was just crap. Hey ho.

Americana - Don DeLillo: I started reading this flying back from San Francisco and fell asleep about 30 pages in so it dropped on the floor. When I awoke the woman next to me said “no good then?!” But actually it was very good. The first 100 pages or so are the clear inspiration for Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris but then it veers off into some mad road-trip novel which isn’t as good but the writing is engaging and different and kept me hooked to the end.

Cosmopolis - Don DeLillo: Inspired by the previous novel picked this up (from HMV!) but wasn’t as enjoyable as Americana. They made a film of it with Robert Patterson. Somehow sums up my criticisms.

The Reader - Bernhard Schlink: I really enjoyed this (I’ve not seen the film). A beautifully constructed tale of (too) young love and the inability to escape ones past, it had that rare ability to linger in your mind long after you’ve read it. It did this with simple, plain yet highly engaging language that I found completely beguiling. Highly recommended.

The Stranger - Albert Camus: I didn’t really enjoy this; a bit too short and the main character is a strange lad.

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins: Popular but not all that great. A page turner but dour writing and boring characters. Still, it sold gazillons, so what do I know.

Empire - Niall Ferguson: Ferguson is a contrary character it seems but I really enjoyed this thorough exploration of the Empire from its inception to its demise. It was great to learn so much more about a period of history that looms so large in the past of us Brits but yet we (for the most part) know so little about.

One Day - David Nicholls: Someone lent this to me to read and I can’t deny it had a certain basic charm but why it proved so popular is beyond me. Quite boring characters act idiotically for years on end blatantly in love but without ever acting upon it. I could believe this if we lived in a world without alcohol.

The Crow Road - Iain Banks: My brother lent me this and I really enjoyed it. Lyrical, insightful writing and an engrossing story with nicely realised characters with engaging personalities. I watched the BBC adaption afterwards but it wasn’t as good.

Last Orders - Graham Swift: I bought this book for 20p from the Putney Scouts outdoor stall (oh how we live in south west London) and being a big fan of Swifty I was expecting good things and I wasn’t disappointed. A moving tale of misdirected love and wasted lives. There’s a film but I’ve not seen it yet.

Touching the Void - Joe Simpson: ARGH MY LEG, he screamed as he fell down the mountain. Well, I’m going to die, he thinks. But then the triumph of the human spirit overcomes ridiculous odds and he makes it back to base camp. What a guy.

I, Partridge - Alan Partridge
: Funny throughout although the jokes wears thin after a while. A-HA!

Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck: Lenny you idiot! Poor old boys, struggling for a living; a bleak tale.

When We Were Orphans - Kazuo Ishiguro: A disappointing effort from an author I usually love (The Remains of the Day) which starts off promisingly but ends poorly.

The Revenge of Gaia - James Lovelock: It’s enjoyable to read a proper rant sometimes and this is most definitely that as Lovelock has clearly had enough with our inability to accept the damage we’re doing to our planet and railing against it all.

Lucky Jim - Kingsley Amis: One of the my favourite books of the year with Dixon a truly brilliant character who gets involved in some hilarious scrapes surrounded by a rag-tag bunch of awful people. A treat.

Sunset Park - Paul Auster: Same old Auster - people living on the fringes of society, somehow not wanting for money, and hiding damaged pasts. As always he does a lot of Telling rather than Showing which I always thought was a big no-no in the writer’s world but he gets away with it. I got this from Putney library for free when it would cost you £17 in hardback. Libraries are great.

The Family Arsenal - Paul Theroux: A bleak, grim tale of 1970s London that I struggled to get into until I just sat and read 100 pages plus when at an airport and then suddenly really started to enjoy.

Slaughterhouse-Five - Kurt Vonnegut: A very odd novel but one of the best I’ve read this year. Vonnegut was actually in Dresden when the bombs fell and survived and this novel was his response to that but it also includes time travel, aliens and lots of death. So it goes.

A Week in December - Sebastian Faulks: Didn’t expect to like this as it does that interweaving character thing I don’t usually like (see A Visit From the Goon Squad) but actually I found very enjoyable and when it hit its satirical targets was bang on the money.

London Under - Peter Ackroyd: There’s a whole world beneath our feet in London and Ackroyd does a great job of telling us about it all in lyrical detail.

A Touch of Love - Jonathan Coe: Very odd this as it was written very basically, almost badly, but I think that was the point. It was too short to really care about the characters that much but it kept me hooked.

No Easy Day - Mark Owen: An account of the raid on Osama Bin Laden. The first 150 pages just covers Owen’s (Not his real name) time in the SEALs and other missions leading to the Big One. This was all quite boring but the raid chapters are pretty good and it was interesting to get a first-hand take on the raid. Terribly written, though.

And that’s it: well done if you made it to the end. If not, I don’t blame you; it’s hard to review 33 books in one sitting and make it interesting and insightful throughout. Bring on 2013...

Monday, September 03, 2012


I don't update this blog often enough at all but this excellent quotation seemed worth having as the latest entry for the next likely period of silence:

“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”

- T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Olympic Flame

Well there you go, I saw it - took me an age to find through the thronging crowds but nice to have final seen the thing, even if it was only for 10 seconds.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Boating to work

All this talk about the Olympics causing travel chaos - I decided to take the boat to work. It was bliss. Even get free tea and toast thrown in.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

TV debut talking tablets on the BBC

Yesterday I was very kindly invited to appear on the BBC News Channel to talk about Google’s new Nexus tablet that it unveiled at an event in the US.
It was obviously a combination of fun and fear sitting in the studio waiting for the transmission to start as the interview was going out live and then would be replayed during the evening, and was also edited to run on the website too, as you can see embedded below.

It was my first time on TV, and I enjoyed it, especially how painless the whole process was: turn up, have a cup of tea, sit in video room, talk, leave, done. No faffing with forms or screen tests or make up or anything. Not what I had expected, really.

The funny thing was they told me to make sure I stared directly into the lens and not look up, as there's a monitor relaying what's being broadcast directly above that, which the women who wired me for sound said can often cause people to glance up and looks odd.

As such I stared intently at the lens in front of me, which I think you can sort of tell as my eyes barely move during the entire time (although thankfully most of the transmission feature footage of the device itself, rather than my manic eyes). (Also, yes, I know I need a haircut.)

Onwards and upwards.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A trip to the Euros in Warsaw

Last week I was lucky enough to get sent to Warsaw in Poland to meet up with UEFA and talk technology before heading to the stadium to see Poland v Czech Republic in the quarter-final of the European Championships.

While there I sat on the seats reserved for the coaching staff and the substitutes, so of course I took the opportunity to sit there and gesticulate wildly at the imaginary players on the pitch in front of me. It was fun.

During the match the crowd was dominated by Polish fans who had either pre-bought tickets for the quarter-final assuming their team would make it through, or just wanted to see some more football as it's taking place in their city. This meant chants of "Polski!" were far louder than anything the Czech or Portuguese fans (of which there were about 12) could muster during the game.

Ronaldo won it for his country, after numerous misses, and seeing him in action for the first time - the preening Portuguese winker - it was easy to see why he's so much better than most other players. Firstly, he just looks bigger, and is clearly so much faster than everyone around him. As Hansen loves to say, "it's all about pace and power, if you haven't got that in the modern game, you're toast".

Also, why does Mark Lawrenson hate football so much? To hear him commentate on the BBC you'd think he'd been ordered to serve a lifetime's sentence carrying out a task that brings him as much ennui as possible, with the judge concluding spending all his time being paid to watch football the worst punishment he could imagine.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The art of storytelling

The other day I was listening to a friend tell a story to some other mates – a tale I had heard before – and about half way through I was suddenly struck by the realisation: “this person just cannot tell anecdotes".
Every moment where he should have paused for effect he rushed on, where there was no natural pause, he paused, where he should have added a bemused comic face to match the incredulousness of the story, he instead just kept a passive expression. Come the end everyone laughed, because that’s what you’re supposed to do when someone tells a story that’s begun with the preface that this is a tale for your enjoyment.

But the story could have been so much funnier, I thought, if someone who could tell stories had been in charge. (Not saying I could definitely have done better, but I like to think I could).

When someone tells an anecdote they are usually commanding a group of people’s close attention – perhaps just one other, perhaps 500, usually no more than 10 though, often close friends. Under all these circumstances there is a pressure to deliver a return on the time investment they are giving you.

Yet, using that time and opportunity well is an art and skill that few possess, certainly not in any strong capacity, but we all engage in it, and it’s a social skill that can set you apart.

We all know this: we all know people – friends, family, colleagues – who when they begin a story, comic or otherwise, we starting zoning out, listening merely out of politeness, waiting for the punch line or resolution so we can laugh politely and then get back on with whatever we were doing. 

Others, however, who begin a tale and will command our full attention because we know they will tell it with panache, wit, warmth and verve, so even if it isn’t even that funny or interesting, it will be worthy of our attention because we are lift enlivened by their story telling charm.

I think it should be a job requirement: Tell us an anecdote: I bet you can learn a lot about someone from the story they pick and, more importantly, how they tell it.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Overheard in America

I’ve been in San Francisco for the last three days or so, exploring the various sights and sounds of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, the trams and other postcard sites, and a fine city it is too, far nicer than Las Vegas, the only other US city I’ve visited.

Beyond this, though, I overheard two excellent pieces of conversation that I felt compelled to share (they’ve already appeared on Twitter, as live, and now here in more detail).

Walking out of Chinatown, I passed a chap on crutches, a phone tucked under his chin and wearing a bright green hoodie, the combination of which already made him stand out. As I passed he said, in his response to the other end of the call:

“You talkin’ about Ray Rakey, who played big bass and was my old high school teacher?”

This sentence just sounds so quintessentially American – the name, Ray Rakey, has musical, creativity connotations, like Big Bones Billy, or Sloppy Sue, and then the idea of him playing the big bass, (presumably the double bass?) - "...and Ray Rakey on the big bass!"... - and, more than that, he was this guy’s teacher too. Was he really called Ray Rakey, or was this a sobriquet of wonderful origin in a story of bizarre twists?

The second was not specifically American, but was just hilarious and my favourite overheard for a while: I was sitting in Yerba Buena park enjoying some sun when three dudes wandered past, all in hats and sunglasses, long baggy shorts, colourful t-shirts: a staple look. The one in the centre responded to a comment from a friend, which I didn’t hear, with:

"One review said, 'not that good', but then another review said, 'quite good', so, well, I dunno."

He sounded so forlorn as he reached this conclusion, so confused between the two voices of the ‘experts’ attempting to guide him in his understanding of this - what - film, book, TV show, restaurant? – that it was almost touching. 

What was even better though was the delivery, which started off rapidly, so up until the ‘quite good’ he was chattering away, then as he his the ‘so’ he realised the dilemma he had encountered and was forced to concede that, alas, he didn’t not know what to believe. A situation I am sure we can all identify with.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Working with your hands is great (if you can do it)

I read a great book recently about the world of work and why office life is not the luxurious evolution of years of toil we believe it to be, but is in fact a drab, unstructured place full of vague management speak, unsure ground and a complete lack of answers.

Many would not need a book to tell them this, but in Matthew Crawford’s The Case for Working with Your Hands: or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good he makes the case with allusion to philosophy while comparing it to his own experiences as an electrician, motorbike mechanic and other similar trades, and makes a compelling case that much of work in an office is bad for the soul when compared with the single-minded work of a fixer, builder, craftsman, who is set a task with a single, clear goal: to make it work, and can only be right or wrong.

So, when I bought myself a small, linen clothes bin, that required some self-assembly, I was ready to enjoy the task at hand, to screw a few screws, assemble some wood, pat myself on the back for a job well done. After all, it was only four pieces of wood and some screws: easy but satisfying.

Some 25 minutes later, frustrated, enraged and cursing the self-assembly Gods of Argos, I heard myself say out loud, “Couldn’t this thing just come pre-built!”. I recalled the book and its mantra of building, creating, self-fulfilment through doing, not thinking (as so much of modern work has become: “How do we measure the customer satisfaction of our latest loan insurance policy”? – I have no idea).

So I persevered and, of course, my brain taxed itself enough to actually get the stupid thing built and now I have a place for my dirty clothes – what a fun bank holiday. 

My Dad can build and fix most things, from cars to showers to cookers, while I am utterly bereft of such abilities, (despite many attempts at teaching). Where does this difference come from? Innately or self-taught, or both? Probably both, but then living in the late 20th century, with its flat-packed, self-assembly fittings and pop-up tent camping gear, it’s not surprising I, and so many people my age, are clueless when confronted by anything requiring true craftsmanship or a working knowledge of woodwork, electricity, construction.

Furthermore, as Crawford notes in his book, nowadays designers and firms don’t want people tampering with their stuff. A friends’ Dyson vacuum broke the other day, but there was no way to take it apart as the screw sockets in use were bespoke, not suitable for an of the array of screwdrivers in his Man Box. Even our fleeting attempts at wanting to fix something, or try to understand it, proved impossible, instead being forced to get A Man to fix it.

Anyway, whether you love our office cubicle or feel it’s a prison by another name, I recommend the book, even if some of the philosophy went over my head at times. Not a philosophy, not a builder, not both as Crawford. What a failure!

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

A single piano run and Dire Straits coolness

Are Dire Straits cool? I can never decide what the general world census is on this, so many people’s opinions to take into account. There’s some sort of pervading sense that they’re not, due to headbands, some clunky lyrics, something vague ennui about them that I’ve never quite got.

Is discussing the coolness of Dire Straits relevant in 2012? Probably not. Anyway, I only mention it as lately I’ve been listening to Tunnelof Love quite a lot, mainly due to the lovely guitar solo outro which builds for about two minutes before being topped by a fantastic piano run in the final few seconds of the song, which my brother revealed to me is played by one Roy Bittan, the pianist of from the E Street Band, who regular readers will know I have already professed my appreciation of in a previous blog.

What is it about those fleeting moments in music where everything just swells together into a sheer moment of, well, what, elation? Joy? Genius? I don’t know, it doesn’t happen very often, but there are some songs – all within the ear of the listener on a personal, subjective basis – where you just feel enlivened, invigorated, perhaps even moved. 

It’s below, I think it’s worth the listen.