Books read in 2019

13. The Three-Body Problem- Cixin Liu

I really enjoyed this, even though it was quite impenetrable and difficult to read. There was a lot of science and the story was complicated. It was written in Chinese and I could see that it had a different cultural focus to the usual western perspective. I was a big sci-fi fan in my youth (Heinlein, Asimov) and it was interesting to read something with a similar but different perspective.

12. A moveable feast- Ernest Hemingway

In the age of “me-too” and toxic masculinity its hard to know how to take Ernest Hemingway with his hunting, boozing and bullfighting. I read “For whom the bell tolls” a couple of years back and loved it. I also reread this long read from the New Yorker again this year. Its great and shows how life can play out for you when you love champagne and are Ernest Hemingway. This story was great. It had a real flavour of Paris about it, and a yearning for being young and unencumbered by life.

 

11. Another Kyoto- Alex Kerr

This was an interesting book to read. The format was unlike anything I’ve read before. It had different segments for e.g. walls, mats etc; what they meant culturally and what they looked like as a result of this. It had great pencil illustrations between the pages that brought the concepts to life. The best thing I learned was the concept of shin, gyo and so which deals with the level of detail and abstraction (this is across pottery, painting, bonsai).

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10. Dance, dance, dance- Haruki Murakami

I hadn’t read any Murakami for a few years and this was in the Airbnb we’re staying at. I had to go on a long distance flight so I thought I would treat myself. I loved it. There are always numerous strands of stories that have a magical realism angle to it (but he’s not as miserable as Paul Auster). I like the details of real life; food, drink and music playing that anchor you even if there are sheep men around.

 

9. Man’s search for meaning- Viktor Frankl

This slim book is a fairly harrowing read. It talks about his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps and his quest to understand what kept him (and others) alive during those tough times. The book is split into two parts, the beginning tells of his experiences in the camps and the second half is about his theory of logotherapy (to live meaningfully we need to respond meaningfully to life’s challenges). The second half didn’t resonate as much as the first, but I would wholeheartedly recommend the book.

8. Other voices, other rooms- Truman Capote

This was Truman Capote’s first book (apparently written when he was 23). It’s a coming of age story of a 13 year old boy whose mother dies and he is sent to live with his father in the middle of nowhere. The characters are well sketched, but as a curiosity, not as someone you actually like and empathise with. Entertaining, but not on the “read again” list.

 

8. Tools of titans- Tim Ferriss

I’ve read most of Tim Ferriss’ books since the 4 hour work week and listened to a good few of his podcasts. He is an earnest if somewhat irritating character. This summarised his podcasts and interviews and offered up some pithy insights on how to live your life from various famous people.

A useful summary of what people do:

  • meditate
  • don’t eat breakfast
  • use the chilipad for cooling at night (??!??)
  • some book recommendations (Man’s search for meaning, Influence, Poor Charlie’s almanack)
  • listen to songs on repeat for focus
  • create work on spec and then sell it
  • turn weaknesses into strengths
  • failure is not durable 

7. A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again- David Foster Wallace

I’ve tried to read Infinite Jest a couple of times and got bogged down in his prose. All of the detail and footnotes and breaking down the fourth wall can get a little tiring. I really enjoyed some of the stories in this selection of his articles (specifically the cruise ship and Illinois state fair) and struggled with others (Lynch and television). His writing is amazing and infuriating in equal measures, but I would recommend this. (and I know it may be a cliche, but his This is water commencement speech is inspirational and sad in equal measures, especially as a result of his suicide).

6. Autobiography- Morissey

My 12 year old self would never have forgiven me for not reading this. Unfortunately the older Morrissey is less of the sad songs with bouffant hair with the gladioli in his back pocket and more of a curmudgeonly old racist. It was interesting to dip in and out of it. His tone is one of always being the victim (which is actually quite entertaining) and his fixation on the damage that school caused him was tiring.

5. The Book of Genesis- Robert Crumb

I’ve been a big fan of Robert Crumb’s cartoons for many years. The documentary about his life was very illuminating to show where his vision came from. It was interesting to see one of the most classic books of the bible illustrated in his style. Still slightly pervy (it is Crumb after all) but beautiful illustrations. I wish he had taken a slightly newer translation, all of the people’s names and sons of as well as the language was a bit dry, but still a good read.

4. Music for chameleons- Truman Capote

This was only the second Truman Capote book that I had read (after “In cold blood”, which I really enjoyed). There were a few short stories, and I wholeheartedly recommend this. The central story is another true crime story (which unfortunately may have a little artistic license take with it), but is gripping nonetheless. He has a way with creating characters that are truly alive, and he ends some of these stories without a clear conclusion, but the ending still makes you think and is satisfying.

3. Surely you’re joking Mr Feynman- Richard Feynman

Very interesting autobiography of Renaissance man Richard Feynman: Nobel prize winner, bongo drum player and fan of the ladies. Very inspirational story of his way of approaching a problem. He teaches himself to paint using the same way he approaches science. He is intensely curious, and not afraid to question the status quo.

2. Atomic Habits- James Clear

I thought I would enjoy this book, and I loved it. I’m a big fan of trying to understand habit formation, to try and improve my own habits as well as for Now Novel to help people build a sustained writing practise.

I’m waiting for BJ Fogg to bring out a book on this, his theories of behavioural change and the power of tiny habits are echoed in this book, but this is well worth reading as it gives simple actionable steps to understand habits, decrease bad habits and set new habits in place.

A couple of things that really resonated with me:

  • Behavioural change has 3 layers: outcomes based, processes and identity. Identity is the strongest method, as you don’t want to be lying to yourself (i.e. there is a huge gulf between saying: “I’m trying not to smoke” which is a process vs ” I’m not a smoker” which is your identity). Identity is more powerful
  • Like BJ Fogg he talks about habit stacking. Attaching a new (extremely small) habit to an existing behaviour (e.g. before you brush your teeth, floss one tooth) Easy to do and no one only flosses one tooth once they’ve started. He compounds this by adding rewards (to make it stick) and stacking multiple habits so that it flows together
  • Ensuring that new habits are obvious, easy, attractive and satisfying (it sounds simple, but is more difficult to achieve)

I thought the book was very actionable and the layout was great too, a lot of reiteration of the key methods. Pretty soon I’m going to end up with a morning routine like Mark Wahlberg’s

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  1. Blood, bones & butter- Gabrielle Hamilton

I nearly put this down after reading the first 10 pages (and sporadically throughout the book), however I did end up finishing it.

She describes her unorthodox upbringing and life and how it maps to her love of food. From her childhood foraging with her French ballet dancer mother, through living in France and Greece and summers with her Italian mother-in-law. All of these impact the restaurant Prune she opens.

Her descriptions of what she ate are interesting, the inter-personal interactions less so.