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2 January 2016

Another Reading List

Tag(s): Languages & Culture
I began my weekly blogs last year with recommendations of the books I had enjoyed most the previous year. This was triggered by my recollection of a head-hunter who had the pleasant custom of sending his successful candidates a copy of the book he had most enjoyed reading in the year as a Christmas present. Through this happy routine I was introduced to a number of new authors including the extraordinary Oliver Sachs whose The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat was one year’s selection. Judging by my postbag this was well-received and I hope those of you who followed some of my recommendations enjoyed them as much as I did. So here again as a way of wishing everyone a Happy New Year are some of the books I most enjoyed reading last year.

1.       The Secret Life of Trees, how they live and why they matter by Colin Judge.  I love to read popular science books, particularly those that take a big theme and simplify it for us mere mortals. This one fits right in the oeuvre. It celebrates trees and while always entertaining explains how they are fundamental to our own lives. They provide our countryside, our ancestors evolved in them; they gave us air to breathe and for much of our history our energy. The author started his first tree nursery in his garden at the age of eleven and has travelled the world in a quest to understand and explain trees, how and why they live so long, how they talk to each other and why they came to exist in the first place.
2.       The Chimp Paradox by Prof. Steve Peters. I shared a conference platform with Steve Peters a couple of years ago. He is the remarkable psychologist credited with the phenomenal success of the British Olympic cycling team. Sir Chris Hoy, Britain’s most successful Olympian says Steve Peters’ ‘mind programme… helped me win my Olympic Golds’ while Victoria Pendleton, winner of nine word titles at cycling, says ‘Steve Peters is the most important person in my career.’ He is not first a sports psychologist but rather a Consultant Psychologist who specialises in optimising the functioning of the mind. He takes our understanding of the seven major areas of your psyche and simplifies it by concentrating on three. Thus in his Chimp Management Model three of the seven brains we have - frontal, limbic and parietal - combine to form the ‘Psychological Mind’. These are referred to as the Human, the Chimp and the Computer. The frontal (Human) and limbic (Chimp: an emotional machine), developed independently in the womb and then introduced themselves to each other by forming connections. The problem is that they found that they were not in agreement about most things. The Chimp thinks independently from us. It is not good or bad, it is just a Chimp. But it can be bad, think of ‘road rage’ when our Chimp takes over. This was simply the best book I have read this year and one I commend to all.
3.       Catastrophe: Europe Goes To War 1914 by Max Hastings As we continue to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War so I continue to find the best possible new books on the theme. Max Hastings is one of my favourite war historians, I have read several of his previous works, and this lives up to his usual high standard. His style is to look both top-down and bottom-up, i.e. he studies both the statesmen and the peasants, the generals and the privates in the front line. The result is an engrossing and deeply moving book offering at least some answers to the huge question of what happened to Europe in 1914.
4.       Reagan: The Life by H.W. Brands. I have a fondness for political biography, particularly of British prime ministers and American presidents. I am currently reading Charles Moore’s second volume on Margaret Thatcher and her relationship with Ronald Reagan took the special relationship to its highest level since the Second World War and led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan was a great president, much misunderstood by those who think that just because he started as an actor he was just a puppet. They fail to realise that he had a very long career in politics before he rose to fame as Governor of California and then presidential candidate. Just as Theodore Roosevelt exploited the mass circulation newspaper press to become the first president to be a national celebrity and Franklin Roosevelt turned radio to his New Deal purposes and held audiences of fifty million with his Fireside Chats, so Reagan would become to television what Franklin Roosevelt was to radio. He learned this craft as spokesman and series host for General Electric, covering the country speaking to employees and local businessmen about the blessings of big industry and its essential role in the American dream. This biography draws on archives not available to other writers as well as numerous interviews and is a story-telling triumph.
5.       City of London: the History by David Kynaston. David Kynaston is another of my favourite historians and I an enjoying his series on post-war Britain. I wanted a better understanding of the City of London as I spend so much of my time there in my role as Senior Warden and now Master Elect of the Worshipful Company of Marketors. But that has more to do with the Civic City rather than the Commercial City which is the focus of this work. Technically this is a bit of a cheat because Kynaston’s original work was published in four volumes between 1994 and 2001 and is a modern classic. This single volume has been skilfully edited by David Milner covering the story from the rise to prominence of the City as a financial powerhouse with the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. It shows the City’s role in major world events, it describes the key part played by four individuals -Nathan Rothschild, Ernest Cassel, Montagu Norman and Siegmund Warburg, and it wallows in the frequency of scandal from which almost no house seemed immune, witness Barings in 1995.
6.       The Trouble with Europe by Roger Bootle. Wherever you stand on the question of whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union you should read this book.  If you are looking for material to help you come to a view you will generally find the ravings of extremists on both sides of the debate, wads of incomprehensible statistics or oodles of impenetrable euro-speak. Roger Bootle is a serious economist who examines the deep flaws in the European project and reaches the conclusion that the UK would be better served by leaving. He does not say this is without risk but concludes that the risks of staying in are far greater because the European Union is determined to follow a series of policies that are doomed to economic stagnation and worse.
7.       The Rotten State of Britain by Eamonn Butler. This book came out in 2009 and is mainly an attack on New Labour, but when placed in an historical context shows that long term decline has continued. In the 1995 book The State We’re In Will Hutton summed up the Thatcher/Major years as over-centralised government, a politicised civil service, a feeble Parliament and Cabinet, rights eroded, bullying police and public officials, a mountain of public and private debt, international isolation, a proud country brought to its knees. Dr Eamonn Butler is Director of the Adam Smith Insitute and has been a Westminster insider for thirty years. He draws on a decade of media stories about political sleaze, lying, spin, the stifling of free speech, the erosion of liberties, nannying, debt, overspending, job losses, bankruptcies and public service failures. He stands back from the detail to show just what an ugly picture emerged, particularly in the Brown years – a Britain run by a self-serving political class who believed their own lies and where justice, democracy and rights existed only in name. I am not at all sure that the five years of Coalition Government did much to correct this.
8.       The Most Good that You Can Do by Peter Singer. I met Peter Singer at the RSA last summer and subsequently blogged on his theme of Effective Altruism. (See my blog Effective Altruism 27 June 2015.) The book shows how effective altruism is changing ideas about living ethically. He is arguably the most prominent ethicist of our time and challenges our complacency.

Last year I only offered two works of fiction as I thought it harder to recommend fiction because it’s more personal. However, I had favourable feedback on these recommendations so this time I offer four, two from the same authors as last year, and two more.

9.       Our Kind Of Traitor by John Le Carré This came out in 2010 and has taken me a little longer than usual with this author to catch up with it. As I said last year I have read most of Le Carré’s works in his fifty year plus career and he has become increasingly polemical. This one’s about a Russian money launderer seeking to defect to the UK after a close friend of his had been killed by the new leadership of his own criminal brotherhood. It’s now been made into a film which is due for release in May this year starring Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgård, Damian Lewis and Naomie Harris.
10.   The Litigators by John Grisham. Again this is not the latest from John Grisham, it came out in 2011, his 25th work of fiction overall. It’s about a two-partner Chicago law firm attempting to strike it rich in a class action lawsuit over a cholesterol reduction drug sold by a major pharmaceutical firm. The protagonist is a Harvard Law School graduate big law firm burnout who stumbles upon the boutique and joins it only to find himself litigating against his old law firm in this case. The book is more humorous than most of his other novels. In one interview Grisham claimed that his submitted drafts usually contained humour, most of which was edited out. This time it survived but there’s still plenty of his customary edge.
11.   Lamentation by C.J. Sansom. This is the sixth in Sansom’s outstanding Shardlake series so if you haven’t read the others start at the beginning, a book called Dissolution. Matthew Shardlake is a hunchbacked lawyer who, while not holding any political position, finds himself involved in matters of state during the reign of Henry VIII. Sansom’s gift is to conjure up a realistic and engrossing picture of how things must have been while still writing an exciting page-turning thriller. They are long books of around 750 pages so ideal for a beach holiday or a cruise.
12.   The Private Patient by P.D. James. I had the pleasure of having lunch with Phyllis James during my time at Sony. She was charming and immensely cultured. She died just over a year ago aged 94. She rose to fame with her crime novels, particularly those featuring police commander and poet Adam Dalgliesh. The last of these, The Private Patient, came out in 2008 and I enjoyed it as much as all the others.

Happy reading and Happy New Year!

Copyright David C Pearson 2016 All rights reserved

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