The A-Z of You and Me – life unravelling

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James Hannah’s The A-Z of You and Me is a bittersweet look back at a life by a man looking at the rapidly approaching end of his life. At forty, death is coming sooner than he expected it and when we meet him he is struggling to cope with this fact. His main carer at the hospice, the warm, lively Sheila, suggests he play a game to help him pass the time and keep his mind active. He is to go through the A-Z naming his body parts and conjuring a memory of each as he does.

We flit back and forth – childhood, terrible teens, twenties, now. Ivo, our narrator, has had a life that is both colourful and full of missed opportunities. In part, it is a painfully authentic story of friendship – how it can be both comforting and destructive, and the author’s strongest talent is his ability to write what feels real, in all its frustrating, messy glory. We can see where Ivo is headed; we have the benefit of hindsight. We want to shake him: “No, not that way! Don’t do that! For God’s sake, can’t you see you’re going to ruin everything?!” But Hannah also paints those prophetic things in the mundane colours they appear in to all of us at the time. The turning points in our lives are rarely things we recognise as turning points on the day. The bus you get on, the decision to go to that club, to let this person lead you here or there.

Hannah writes sweetly, and sadly, about love, without being maudlin, and he writes excellently about addiction too – or maybe addiction is the wrong word. He writes excellently about habit, and that sickening feeling of doing something you know is wrong but you can’t seem to find the energy to halt your progress somehow, until you feel the consequences, and sometimes even then. I read the book when travelling home on a long journey and I cried in the airport, on the plane, even on the tube (leaking sly little tears behind the cover of the pages).

The author conjures up futility, restlessness and regret in a very human way that never feels overblown, and is never tempted to stray into sounding grand. Ivo was never a hero, and he never becomes a hero, even as you feel perfect sympathy with him and understanding for him and his life. He feels like a real person, with all the weaknesses and shittiness that come along with it and James Hannah writes the unravelling of a life in a way that is both painfully honest and deeply moving.

 

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I Know Where She Is – gritty and gripping

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I Know Where She Is by S.B. Caves is the story of Autumn, a young girl snatched from her mother’s side ten years ago, and Francine, a seemingly fragile drunk, who has never been able to come to terms with her only daughter’s disappearance. While her pompous husband Will has moved on with his life, even starting a new family, Francine remains convinced that Autumn is still out there somewhere. So when a disturbed young runaway approaches her with an outlandish-sounding story about what happened to Autumn, Francine can’t help but be sucked in…

This fast-paced thriller is a real page-turner. First-time author and one to watch, Caves lures you in to a shady world where glittering public lives can hide some very dark secrets indeed. It’s easy to relate to Francine who, when we first meet her, is still drowning in the raw pain of her loss, long after the rest of the world has moved on. It’s easy to feel her frustration when her hope against the odds is dismissed as craziness (especially by her ex-husband Will, who I could cheerfully have throttled at times!). And it’s easy to get sucked in right along with her when it starts to look like the trail to Autumn, long gone cold, might lead somewhere after all…

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Quiet – on the power of the introvert

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Every so often, a book comes along that changes things, and Susan Cain’s Quiet, a study of introverts, their traits and their habits, and an examination of their place in a world run by and for extroverts, is one of them. It wasn’t always this way, she tells us. Before the rise of the Culture of Personality in the early twentieth century, when Dale Carnegie taught us all how to win friends and influence people, there was the Culture of Character, when moral standing in one’s community was the most important thing of all. As people increasingly moved away from small, tight-knit communities where everyone knew everyone else (and their business!), it became more important to make a good first impression, something that often comes more easily to extroverts than introverts – or at least introverts who know how to exhibit extroversion.

Introversion isn’t the same as shyness, says Cain, and that is very true, although many introverts are also shy. Many are also what she calls ‘sensitive’ or ‘high reactive’. She discusses a study of children (from the time they were babies) where the subjects were tested for reactivity by measuring their responses to things like loud popping balloons (babies) and seeing scary-looking strangers in gas masks (young kids). Some babies and children took these surprising new things in their stride and others reacted strongly, but this isn’t a case of one set being deliberately braver than the other; the study showed that some children (and therefore some adults) simply are more sensitive to stimulus than others.

High reactives are not always introverts, and vice versa, but there is a strong correlation between the two types and it makes sense. Low-reactive extroverts need more risk, noise, colour, company and novelty to make a dent on them, whereas sensitive introverts need far less. Being curled up on a sofa quietly reading a book may seem understimulating to the point of deathly boring to one person, while being jostled in a colourful, loud bar, full of new faces is another person’s worst nightmare. That is perfectly natural, and indeed there many of both types of personality (it is estimated that between one third and one half of the world is made up of introverts). So everyone knows plenty of introverts, and yet, Cain argues, in the modern world they often seem invisible, at least in the West.

Cain considers the difference between Eastern cultures, which are often based on community ideals, and the Western culture of the individual. Interestingly, she studies a number of Asian-Americans who are often, and in many ways, caught between two different worlds. She explores the idea of ‘soft power’ and how this can sometimes be more effective than ‘hard power’ and considers how introverts and extroverts can work together in harmony (see Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt), and how each type has its own particular strengths and weaknesses. She discusses how dangerous it can be when a relentless insistence on extroversion leads to groupthink, how the Wall Street crash was wrought in large part by an imbalance of power between introverts and extroverts, and investigates some fascinating outliers – the super-wealthy introvert Warren Buffett, for example.

Cain also considers how far temperament is destiny, how much nature and nurture interact when it comes to temperament, whether it ever makes sense for introverts to borrow extrovert ideals (and vice versa), and crucially, what introverts and extroverts need to be happy, and how you can live in the modern world and stay true to the core of who you really are in terms of temperament.

This is an absolutely fascinating read, whatever your personality style, but if you suspect you might be an introvert, reading this could genuinely change your life. It’s meticulously researched, but written in an appealingly accessible style and will make many people reassess certain things in their lives and how they approach them. Maybe your child likes their own company and you worry they won’t learn the things they need to live in this extroverted world; maybe you’re an outwardly gregarious person in a high-powered job who sometimes shuts yourself away in a bathroom stall for an hour and thinks you’re alone in doing that (you’re very much not); or maybe you’ve always thought there was something a bit weird about the way you think and the way you are inside, and you wish there was a way you could just be allowed to be yourself at work, at home, or wherever. If so, this book comes particularly highly recommended.

Susan Cain’s Quiet is an ingenious, intriguing thesis that turns on its head the prevailing view that introverts are people who are simply not capable of being extroverts, and asks whether we can make the world better by righting its lop-sidedness, and looking at certain things in a different way. It’s worth considering at least, isn’t it?

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The Art of Thinking Clearly – imperfect evolution

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I found Rolf Dobelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly on my bookshelf and I’m not sure where it came from, but it’s a fascinating study of the human mind: specifically, the common thinking errors we make in everyday life. Ever ordered something rank and then forced the food down because you’ve spent good money on it? Then you’ve fallen victim to Sunk Cost Fallacy (after all, the money’s been spent either way). Ever taken credit for a success and then blamed a failure on external circumstances? Well, Rolf Dobelli is here to make you think again about doing these things.

The book has 99 fascinating entries, each only a few pages long, making this the ultimate dip-in read. Dobelli covers everything from Why We Prefer the Wrong Map to No Map At All (Availability Bias) to Why Evil Strikes Harder than Good (Loss Aversion). He invites us to ask ourselves all kinds of odd questions like Would You Wear Hitler’s Jumper? (If not, that’s probably Contagion Bias.) He explains How First Impressions Deceive, Why Those Who Wield Hammers See Only Nails, Why You Shouldn’t Read the News and Why You Have No Idea What You Are Overlooking. There’s so much pause for thought in this little book. With the help of maths (lots of it, but accessibly explained even for those like me who don’t really speak the language) Dobelli explores our species’ imperfect evolution. Like songbirds, who have unknowingly harboured cuckoos’ eggs in their nests for hundreds of thousands of years, we have had bred out of us only those things that really led, in the past, to something terrible. We have been able to get away with error-riddled behaviour and survived, and these errors have therefore survived with us. But many things that once served a purpose in the wild (following the crowd, for example) no longer make sense in a world where innovation pays dividends.

Another reason, Dobelli points out, that we carry on with our thinking errors is that we are wired to persuade others we are right – evolutionarily speaking, that has always been more important than actually being … well, right. And rational. There’s power in persuasion, especially for the purposes of passing on your genes to the next generation. But when it comes to everyday life, Rolf Dobelli makes a convincing case for trying to iron out those thinking errors that naturally plague us all. And he does it in a very entertaining and accessible way. Well worth a read.

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Replay – love, loss and starting all over again

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Replay is one of Mr Literary Kitty’s favourite books, one of those you lend to people hesitantly, knowing that if they hate it you’ll hate them, or at least you’ll question their taste and the worth of their friendship. (See when I introduced Mr LK to La Haine and he thought it was lame.)

Anyway, Mr LK likes books about time travel and this one is about a man called Jeff Winston who dies of a heart attack aged forty-three and wakes up to find that he’s back in college. Once he gets over the shock he vows to live his life differently this time and he does (when he died the first time Jeff was trapped in a bitter, broken marriage) but come age forty-three he finds himself clutching at his desk again as the pain of the heart attack grips him.

Jeff goes through a number of replays, having wildly different experiences, and I won’t detail them here because I don’t want to spoil one of the most moving, original page-turners I have ever read.

Time travel is essentially a sci-fi theme, and this book seems to have been placed in the dustiest of its corners with a dreary cover and no outward indication that it has mass appeal. But this is not primarily a book about magical, fantastical things. It is about a man and his life, and people and their lives, and about what changes when you change one thing, in a way you can’t when you only have one life.

We can make changes to our lives, of course, but we can’t erase things that have already happened, wipe the slate clean and go back to the start. Jeff Winston gets to, over and over again. The results are fascinating, sometimes sharply surprising, sometimes heartbreaking. This is a book I wish I had written, but I don’t know, even if the incredibly interesting premise had been handed to me, whether I could ever have executed a story as gripping as this.

At times, you are envious of Jeff when he’s backing horses he knows will win – at times, you feel his helplessness when he tries to change the course of history and makes a pig’s ear of it, or when, after a number of replays, he yearns to encounter something that is as new to him as it is to everyone else.

You envy him his chances to wipe the slate clean but pity him when everything he’s built and loved this time is swept away in the relentless loop he lives in. This book is perfect, Ken Grimwood has thought of everything. He’s taken a fantastical element and sewn it seamlessly into real life. It’s gripping, it’s fun, it’s sad, it’s exciting, it sweeps all of human life up in its scope. I’m pleased to say, not least because it means Mr LK still thinks I’m cool, that I recommend this book 100%. Now I defy you not to love it.

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This Boy – from poverty to parliament

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I was recommended Alan Johnson’s childhood memoir, This Boy, by Lovely Mum. I was curious as she’s not generally a reader of political biographies. I never think of her as very political at all, in fact, although she’s always drummed it into me that voting is important (i.e. it’s pretty much murderers, thieves and people who don’t vote, in her books). She never liked Tony Blair (smug) and she only liked the Green Party till they got in and started doing terrible things with the bins (apparently). But she liked this book because it reminded her of her childhood, being poor and the child of a single mother in London in the fifties and beyond.

She said she liked the book because it was well-written and ‘not one of those misery memoirs’. She was right on both counts, although Johnson lived in appalling conditions and had a lot to contend with in his young life. In fact, his style of writing reminded me of the way my mum talks about her childhood. She has always been the queen of matter of fact. When I asked her many years ago about her father who sloped off when she was two, about whether it bothered her, she said “I didn’t really think about it much. It was a bit embarrassing, I suppose. I just used to tell people he was dead.”

Like Johnson, she was used to the shame of being sent on begging errands by her mother, being dragged here and there in the search for extended credit or some other favour. They weren’t quite as destitute and there was no violent, gambling husband making a bad thing worse but it was a life of uncertainty, a childhood of thinking about food and electricity. There are possibly no fewer children today like that. Notting Hill, where Johnson grew up, is affluent now, but though Rachman’s slums are gone, other estates rot elsewhere.

One of the most interesting things about this book, which takes Johnson only so far as a job as a postman, is considering where he ended up – the Houses of Parliament. As a child he scavenged for coal on the street and was always, despite the best efforts of his lovable, kind mother and his almost superhumanly strong sister, hungry. A disinterested student with dreams of becoming a rock star, he comes across as a very normal, everyday person. I wonder how many primary school children living on crappy estates right now will end up in politics. It’s hard to imagine many of those biographies somehow. When you watch MPs braying and jeering at each other across the green leather benches, it reminds you that politics is still very much a posh man’s game overall.

Certainly Alan Johnson’s story is very inspiring, in an unassuming kind of way. It would still be a good read whatever he had ended up doing in later life, as it’s open-spirited, funny and honest, with twists and turns that keep you gripped, wondering how things might pan out. But the main thought the book left me with is that Alan Johnson feels like an unusual politician, and perhaps confidence in parliament would be greater if there were more who came across like him.

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Last Man in Tower – darkness looming

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I loved Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger so I was excited when I was bought Last Man in Tower. There’s no doubt that Adiga is a hugely talented author; he has a beautiful way of phrasing things, a way with description that has you fully immersed – Mumbai in this book is a city under construction and you can hear the cacophony of noise, smell the greed in the air.

The residents of the crumbling Vishram Society tower block are made an offer by oily property tycoon Dharmen Shah. He wants to knock down the society and build new luxury apartments. Some residents with dreams of polished wood cupboards or gleaming new cars are ready to jump at the chance but others, like the blind Mrs Pinto and retired teacher Masterji, resist. As the deadline looms closer, relationships in the society fracture, then detonate, and the residents find themselves in situations that were previously unimaginable.

Despite an interesting premise and Adiga’s obvious skill as a writer, this book fell a little flat for me. There are so many characters that it’s hard to truly get to know any of them, except perhaps for Masterji, whose increasingly untenable position in the society, and everything that goes along with it, leads him to a new understanding of himself. At times, this is deeply moving – he has long been inflexible and self-regarding – and he never becomes an unequivocal hero – but he is stripped bare here in a way that is both uncomfortable and fascinating.

There is so much darkness in this book. The message seems to be that people are capable of huge amounts of evil, that even the strongest-seeming friendships can turn out to be worthless, that people are selfish and greedy and morally bankrupt, that dignity is an illusion – I found it quite desperate in tone. But that wasn’t my objection as such. It was more that with so many characters, I couldn’t get inside the book – I felt like I was just watching a sad show as a passive spectator. The White Tiger had me absolutely sucked in, whereas the people from the Vishram Society are already fading for me. I would still read more Adiga, but this story, with its unrelenting bleakness and lack of vivid characterisation, just wasn’t the one for me.

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