Tag Archives: books

Sweet Caress

I rate William Boyd as one of my favourite authors, so when I say that “Sweet Caress” isn’t his best work you have to calibrate it appropriately.

As a structure, it’s almost identical to “Any Human Heart.” It’s a journal or memoir of an interesting character, covering pretty much their entire life. In this one, Amory Clay is born early in the twentieth century and lives a full life as a photographer in Europe, North America and Asia. The timing allows her to see the World Wars, the rise of fascism, the Vietnam war and much more besides. It covers her successes and failures, and the consequences of them both.

What makes it work is that Clay is entirely believable. She’s fun and brave, impulsive and flawed. Lacking any of those qualities might have made it less of an entertaining read or less plausible.

Boyd is a great writer. He has the characters, the structure and the story all wrapped up in a way that appears effortless. There are surprises and twists. Even the ending is satisfying.

The plan was to read more fiction this year. This was a good start.

Sex Power Money

This book isn’t what I was expecting. I know Sara Pascoe’s standup and thought this might be some fun, light reading.

To be fair, the writing does have fun bits but the subject matter? Not so much. Relationships, power dynamics, tesosterone, prostitution. Heavy stuff! She’s clearly done reseach and quotes interviews1 she’s conducted. This is no “memoir” as many comedians have done. But nor is it an academic treatise. There are still personal bits, as she discusses the struggles she had grappling with some of the more challenging concepts or how her opinions had changed over time. It’s a refreshing approach as most authors push the solution rather that the journey to it. Sometimes the route is more interesting than the destination.

Overall it’s thought-provoking stuff and worth a read for that reason alone. You may not agree with all of it but you might have the odd snigger reaching that conclusion.


  1. She has a podcast series with some of them. ↩︎

Facebook: The inside story

I’m not a big fan of Facebook. And the odd thing is that it feels like Steven Levy isn’t either.

I’ve read most of Levy’s previous books and, while he’s never been uncritical, there has always been a mostly positive spin. From Apple, to Google, to the “hacker culture” (including Stallman) I don’t recall any of his previous works quite being so down on their subjects.

It’s to the credit of Zuckerberg and his crew, then, that they were so involved in its creation. All the big names were interviewed on the record and, frankly, few come off well. Zuckerberg himself comes across as petty, jealous, arrogant and not terribly likeable. Even Steve Jobs had a fun, mischievous side.

That’s not to say the Levy doesn’t give credit where it’s due. The coverage comes across as fair, so maybe it’s more fair to say that reality is skewed against Facebook than this book!

It covers everything from Zuckerberg’s pre-Facebook projects, through to its founding, move to California, early growth and the last decade of being practically ubiquitous.

Most of the early phases have been well documented elsewhere (including in the Social Network movie), which made the discussion of some of Facebooks biggest missteps, and the threads that connect them, the highlight. The focus on growth at all costs, the organisational split between Zuckerberg and Sandberg, and the belief that connecting people is an unalloyed good seem to be the key to most failings and, disturbingly, they don’t seem to have learned that lesson.

Overall, it’s a fascinating, well written book about a troubling company. If we can’t avoid the company, we should at least try to understand it.

How to be right

Sometimes I can’t help being a bit of a liberal caricature. James O’Brien is one too, and he knows it.

In his book “How to be right… in a world gone wrong” he goes through a bunch of topics, from Islam to Political Correctness, and debunks the common arguments, often using transcripts from his radio show. The chapter on The Age Gap is, perhaps, the one that made me think the most.

If you live in the same bubble that I do, you’ll probably find that it’s not essential reading. Which is not to say that it’s badly written or poorly argued or difficult to read. It isn’t. It’s a quick, enjoyable read. There’s just not a lot that’s new.

Bounce

Matthew Syed’s “Bounce” is a pop-science book that I borrowed from the library on a whim. It’s about the the “science of success” and starts with the idea that experts have at least 10 000 hours worth of experience in their field.

It’s… fine. I think I believed the thesis before I started but, while it was easy to read, I’m not sure how much it added.

The third chapter — about deliberate practice — almost had me for a minute, until I realised I’d seen it many times before. You see people at work who claim n years of experience but it doesn’t take long to understand that they just have the same year repeated over and over again; they didn’t grow or learn.

This is also the chapter where I agree with one statement in principle but not in practice. He says that while most of his examples show sportsmen improving their performance, the benefit could also be applied to society as a whole (agree) and that the economic advantage would be shared by everyone (disagree). We’ve seen productivity across countries improve for the last thirty years yet a disproportionate amount of the proceeds have gone to the rich. I’m not sure how we fix that.

He did lose me towards the end. Not that I disagree with where he was going in the last chapters about the reasons behind the success of black athletes1, but I’m not entirely clear that it needed to be in this book. Did he have to hit a word-count? Did he just want to include something he was interested in even though it was only tangentially related to the rest of the book? (Kind of like I did in the last paragraph about inequality.)

Anyway, it was an easy read. I think it reinforced what I already believe but didn’t significantly challenge or ultimately dramatically increase my understanding. Perhaps the 10 000 hours theory has so thoroughly permeated society that this book has been rendered surplus to requirements.


  1. Spoiler alert: it has little to do with their skin colour. ↩︎