Tag Archives: reading2021

Talking to Strangers

I met a man once. He was tall and dark, with straight hair in parting on his left side. His smooth, fair skin contrasted with his choice of a dark, tailored suit. He rarely wore a tie, but in a small concession to whimsy his cuff links bore small images of Daffy Duck. When anyone noticed, he’d laugh it off, saying they were a gift from his youngest.

Sat in his office on the fifteenth floor of an anonymous office block in the City of London he had a realisation, one that would change his life forever.

The man is entirely fictional. But the last two paragraphs are real. So is this one. And you had to read them to get to the forth paragraph which is where, if you’re lucky, I might finally get to the point.

And the point is this.

There are a lot of words and not a lot to say. And that is my problem with Malcolm Gladwell’s “Talking to Strangers.”

It’s not that it’s bad. It’s easy to follow and read. It’s well written. There are some good ideas.

The difficulty is that it’s several hundred pages long, yet there are not several hundred pages worth of ideas. Each chapter uncovers a concept and then beats all the fun out of it by giving the life story of various people by way of an example.

It’s a fine structure but, wow, the ratio of words to ideas is way out of whack.

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.