Listen by Michel Faber [6/10]

Michel Faber Listen review

Michel Faber novels (not that I’ve read any, to my regret) have always struck me as bold and subversive, and this impression is more than confirmed by his latest memoir/nonfiction book that tackles a subject close to my heart: rock music appreciation. Listen: On Music, Sound and Us bravely stipulates, from the outset: “I’m not here to change your mind about Dusty Springfield or Shostakovich or Tupac Shakur or synthpop. I’m here to change your mind about your mind.” And the author, writing with refreshing openness and stylishness, proceeds exactly down that path, tackling all manner of listening-related subjects, from volume to genre to atonality to classical music to white bias. The book is a heady brew of energetic essays, each one enjoyable, although it can be difficult to discern a throughline of thought or even, sometimes, the relevance of a given essay to the book’s expressed central aims. The entire reading experience of Listen left me glad of the read but slightly nonplussed. Call it a quirky specialty book, then, one that will find the readers it should find.

The Hunger Habit by Judson Brewer [7/10]

Judson Brewer The Hunger Habit review

A specialized book that will appeal to those genuinely seeking to improve their diets and eating lifestyles (unfortunately even those suffering from poor dietary choices tend to avoid change), The Hunger Habit: Why We Eat When We’re Not Hungry and How to Stop, is a timely and useful blueprint. The author, an American psychiatrist and neuroscientist, has been at the forefront of helping overweight people for decades. Moreover, he is a fluid, clear stylist who maintains a strong forward momentum through the book, so that the read is by no means difficult or technical. Structured as 21 days of aspects of his ideas for change, The Hunger Habit rejects the notion of willpower in dietary change. Instead his processes revolve around curiosity and self-kindness, with the central idea (this is my summary, which may gloss over Brewer’s sophisticated approach) being that if you can observe (aka: note in a mindful sense) yourself as you overeat (or eat badly), eventually your brain will begin to correct your behavior. Properly tackled, this book might well be some readers’ salvations.

The Age of Grievance by Frank Bruni [7/10]

Frank Bruni The Age of Grievance review

Columnist Frank Bruni’s 2022 memoir about vision impairment, The Beauty of Dusk, was gorgeously written, so I snapped up The Age of Grievance as soon as I could. A wide-angled look at the modern phenomenon of grievance politics and culture, this measured, wise everyperson treatise again hums with lovely prose. For example: “The beef that younger generations had with us Boomers was that we’d exploited our turn at the carving station. Now came the divvying-up of gristle and burnt ends.” Bruni emphasizes that grievance per se is a tool for progress, but only if legitimately applied, and he puts the modern, corroding, hate-tinted variety down to this: “There have always been big gaps between how the rich, how the middle class, and how the less fortunate live. Inequality is nothing new. But its present iteration is distinctive, and it’s distinctive in a manner that encourages grievance.” He comes at the subject from myriad angles. A section on the growing presence of dystopian books, movies, and shows, especially zombie-related ones, chimed with me; I had, in my own amateurish fashion, noted how many attractive (for I find myself attracted to them) dystopian items fall into my cultural bucket. He ventures into “cancellation” concerns but with a measured tone: “We’ve let the kind of sensitivity we lacked in the past and very much need in the present morph, in many instances, into a hypersensitivity so strange and even illogical that it’s a kind of insensitivity all its own.” The tumbling of grievance into radicalism hovering on the edge of violence is, naturally, decried: “What’s radicalizing them are grievances puffed up beyond all rationale, swollen by contemporary life and modern politics to the size of a zeppelin.” In two closing chapters, he offers the welcome idea that what is needed is a new humility, humility from politicians, from journalists, from activists, from “ourselves.” Practical suggestions address the U.S. Congress, cities (large and small), employment, education, and social media. The Age of Grievance will, I fear, fail to stand out from the ruck of advice/analysis books currently flooding our bookshops, but it is a superior read of depth and style.

The Best Minds by Jonathan Rosen [10/10]

Jonathan Rosen The Best Minds review

Anyone who has experience of a loved one with mental illness, especially severe mental illness such as schizophrenia, knows the terrain as terrifying and lonely. In The Best Minds: A Story of Friendship, Madness, and the Tragedy of Good Intentions, American author and editor Jonathan Rosen provides us with an unparalleled vantage on the subject, through a deeply personal memoir/biography that centers on his childhood best friend Michael Laudor. Along the way, the author beams a sharp light on the last century or so of psychiatry and the societal care of mental patients. Laudor’s story is portrayed as both heroic and tragic. A supremely “bright” young man, Laudor begins exhibiting hallucinations and madness in his early adult years, comes close to dropping out of society, is resurrected by a supporting community of legal mentors who support him to a legal qualification, has a moment in the sun due to a New York Times article that portrays him as a courageous high-performing schizophrenic, plus a pending movie treatment, and then in 1998 (aged 35) commits a horrifying act of violence. It has taken the author a decade and a half to process his friend’s tumultuous life, and the result is an eloquent, tightly controlled, vehement and passionate account that is both intellectually energizing and emotionally harrowing to read. The Best Minds is a triumph.

My Father’s House by Joseph O’Connor [8/10]

Joseph O'Connor My Father's House review

WWII-based historical novels are all the rage in the current market, especially at the “entertainment” end of the spectrum. Most feel of our times not of those times. Not so My Father’s House, a dramatization of the true story of an Irish priest in the protected Vatican City in 1943-1944 who runs an Escape Line shunting escaped Allied POWs to safety. The label “true story” often consigns novels to boredom, but poet/novelist Joseph O’Connor clearly is a master of resurrecting the true dramas of the past (in the same manner as Peter Morgan achieves with his epic six seasons of The Crown). Masterfully switching between a number of characters’ points of view (using, sometimes, the device of a post-war interview), including that of the monstrous Gestapo commandant of Rome, the author weaves a captivating and thrilling tale. Virtuosic, baroque stylistics turn every scene into a breathless drama, and the settings of the Vatican and Rome are gloriously portrayed. A joy to read, My Father’s House must be one of the most energetic and effective wartime adventure stories of the last decade.

Earth Is a Nuclear Planet by Mike Conley & Tim Maloney [5/10]

Mike Conley Tim Maloney Earth Is a Nuclear Planet review

Penned by two enthusiastic, dedicated technical writers, Earth is a Nuclear Planet: The Environmental Case for Nuclear Power should be a welcome addition to the vital debate about the role of nuclear energy in the decarbonization of the world over the next decades. Both Mike Conley and Tim Maloney have clearly undertaken a massive amount of research, including diving into many numerical analyses, and they write with verve (our current generation of reactors is “big-block V-8s of the nuclear industry”) and, at the paragraph level, quite some clarity. If you are firmly convinced of nuclear’s pivotal importance in our Anthropocene Era, Earth Is a Nuclear Planet is chock-full of interesting factoids and pieces of evidence. If you are, like most of us, hovering in between being a pro-nuclear acolyte and an anti-nuclear partisan, this book is, however, a step in the wrong direction, for it is a mess of feverish, swirling pro-nuclear arguments, analyses, and numerical blotting pages. The authors make no attempt to balance pros and cons: “So please bear with us if we fly off the handle every now and then, or drop the occasional snide remark. It’s a sign of the times.” A large part of their case follows recent scientific moves to place a threshold under which radioactivity does no harm, and by halfway through the book, I had grown tired of hearing yet again, how such a scientific revolution (one that is, as yet at least, a fringe one) means that TMI, Chernobyl, and Fukushima were trivial events that should have been regarded as everyday gloss. Another regular trope of the pro-nuclear discourse—that “nuclear fear” poisons human judgement, that antinukes exploit that, and that additional information (such as this book!) will cure the situation—is rolled out every few pages, ignoring the very obvious (to me at least) understanding that we should be afraid of the power of atomic fission. Although individual strains of argument are often presented with admirable clarity, the overall organization of the book is a dog’s breakfast; I can only imagine how confused a neophyte would be after a read. Overall, Earth Is a Nuclear Planet has its place in the nuclear debate but serves more as propaganda than the reasoned analysis and discussion humanity currently desperately needs.

A Spy Among Friends [9/10]

A Spy Among Friends review

I have not read Ben Macintyre’s 2014 bestselling book but if the 2022 six-episode show, A Spy Among Friends, hews closely to the original, one might be tempted to dismiss it for lack of thrills and spills. After all, it’s a tale of Kim Philby, the most celebrated Soviet spy within the British secret service, a devious man who, after nearly three decades of deadly deception, defected from Istanbul in 1963. We, the viewers, know what happened, what more could the show tell us? Instead. astonishingly, the show’s carefully orchestrated narrative revolves around Philby’s final interrogation by his closest spy friend, Nicholas Elliott, and what post-defection spy games were played by Elliott and the British and American secret services. By inventing a female interrogator, played with superb depth by Lily Thomas, the storyline rapidly builds up a bewildering complexity and tension that lasts over the entire six episodes. Guy Pearce is superb in the role of Philby, but it’s Damian Lewis, as Elliott, who steals the show. Artfully directed, sustained with a fine score, buttressed with a script of delightful dialogue, A Spy Among Friends is a taut near-masterpiece of spy thrillerdom.

All of Us Strangers by Andrew Haigh [9/10]

All of Us Strangers review

British writer/director Andrew Haigh made a powerful impression on me with his streaming show adaptation of The North Water. His new arthouse film, All of Us Strangers, is an unashamedly emotional, yet gritty, exploration of loneliness, grief, and love. Andrew Scott turns on a virtuoso performance as a depressed, awkward screenwriter who stumbles into an erotic relationship with a suave, swaggering co-tenant (played with customary brilliance by Paul Mescale) in his near empty apartment block. Concurrently he revisits his childhood home in the countryside, only to find his dead parents seemingly alive and welcoming. Claire Foy and Jamie Bell excel with subtlety in these two roles. The movie, presented with broad swathes of images and atmospheric music, plays out this psychological exploration of the past against the burgeoning relationship, and in writing that, I’m aware it sounds bland, yet Andrew Haigh manages to infuse every scene with an eerie, almost horror-centric tone that is utterly absorbing. The three themes of gay life in England, the need to resolve ancient grief, and the challenge of committing to love, are artfully and, dare I say it, dramatically played out as the imagined parental reunion scenes grow in poignancy. I found myself powerfully moved by All of Us Strangers but can imagine some viewers would instead find the plot devices jarring. Do check it out.

Eastbound by Maylis de Kerangal [8/10]

Maylis De Kerangal Eastbound review

French author Maylis de Kerangal was unknown to me until Eastbound, a slim (137 pages) novel/novella, set on the epic Trans-Siberian Express, popped up repeatedly on my radar. Any novel with a scene in Krasnoyarsk, a remote cowboy town I once stayed in, begs to be read, right? The premise is both cliche and, when one looks at it, original: a Russian conscript, traveling eastbound on the train for the middle of nowhere, attempts to escape and falls in with an older Frenchwoman in First Class, fleeing her Russian patrician lover. The author, an immersive stylist perfectly captures the pell-mell passage of the train through unceasing whiteness, infusing every page with atmosphere and rushing tension. Not quite a thriller, not quite a literary drama, Eastbound feels like a morsel from a large cake but offers a pleasing, exotic diversion.

Climate Capitalism by Akshat Rathi [8/10]

Akshat Rathi Climate Capitalism review

Scientist-journalist Akshat Rathi performs a vital public service as we near the middle of the 2020s, unfurling Climate Capitalism: Winning the Global Race to Zero Emissions. There are plenty of advocates and apologists for the view that the climate crisis will be solved by technical improvements inevitably generated by global businesses. Under this view, those calling for the sundering of capitalism, or at least the softening of it, are mistaken. Neither side can convince me at present but I was keen to read a status report and Bloomberg journalist Rathi’s concise, clearly told survey is just the ticket. Nearly a dozen chapters cover the near miracles of EV and battery improvements/cost reductions; India’s role wedged between the West and China; the turnaround of the International Energy Agency; Bill Gates’s role (call me skeptical but Rathi does his best); the fiasco (Rathi does not call it that) of carbon capture; an oil company making a real or imagined shift toward renewables; Denmark’s remarkable wind turbine story; business-oriented UK climate activism; and a global manufacturing client going green (again call me dubious). Throughout, just enough detail is provided without excessive padding. Throughout, the author’s tone is level. All in all, Climate Capitalism is very much worth a read.