The Year in Reading 2019

It’s that time of the year again where I reflect on my reading over the course of the year. It wasn’t the most productive year of reading proper books (the web has cannibalised that for good for me I’m afraid) but a late spurt in November and December brought some redemption. For a more wide-ranging review of the year in books, check out the coverage at The Millions here. My previous attempts are linked here.

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I have Justin Brierley to thank for turning me on to N.T. (Tom) Wright, his (Justin’s) two excellent podcasts – Unbelievable and Ask NT Wright growing into staples in my weekly media consumption, as well as becoming important voices in my ongoing journey of evolving faith. Thanks to this I had N.T. Wright’s Paul: A Biography in my hands as 2018 became 2019, its weight something that I found both comforting and grounding. A lot of the ideas in the book are ones that have been reiterated on the Ask N.T. Wright podcast – Paul’s Christianity as an expansion on and culmination of his Judaism rather than a tearing up and beginning again, the focus of his ministry as being the establishment of a new way of doing community to bring heaven to earth rather than a desire to insulate oneself from the real world and hope to be taken away to name a few – as such it is a book I intend to revisit again, this time with pen, paper and time.

A desire to evolve a productivity system that works for me drew me to a number of books on the subject of habits and behaviour change. Drew Dyck’s Your Future Self Will Thank You, a more ‘spiritual’ take on the subject and James Clear’s Atomic Habits both boiled down to the same ideas, ie that change happens in the (small, daily) details and no amount of posturing and signalling of intent will lead to change. Only by building systems and routines will our larger goals be actualised. These were themes also reinforced to some extent by the other book in a similar genre I read this year, Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck.

Rediscovering my local library had the unintended consequence of enabling me to reacquaint myself with Zadie Smith via three books this year. I found Grand Union a difficult read, one that I was unable to get fully into (which given how much of a fanboy I tell myself I am was surprising). Thankfully, The Embassy of Cambodia and Feel Free brought redemption which suggests to me that it was the problem was the short story format of Grand Union not Zadie’s preternatural brilliance.

Besides Zadie Smith’s Grand Union, the only other piece of fiction I read was Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38Seconds in This Strange World, which I found fascinating both for its subject – the hidden lives of people on the outskirts of society – and its narrative perspective, the final memories that course through a brain in the final throes of death.

One of my goals for the year was to become proficient with Python, for which I couldn’t think of a better project than to apply machine learning techniques to predict the outcome of football matches. The Numbers Game and Football Hackers were two books I read along the way to aid my understanding of the current state of play of football stats. Though great reads, they were unable to help me towards my expected outcome. Real life didn’t help either, which leaves me still far away from developing that killer algorithm.

Alongside machine learning, Chaos Theory was an interest which bubbled to the fore for me this year. James Gleick’s Chaos: The Making of A Science was my attempt to wrap my head around the basics of the subject. A good if sometimes dense read, it left me fascinated enough by the subject to listen to several hours worth of Steven Strogatz lectures on YouTube. Alan Jacob’s How To Think and Nassim Taleb’s Skin In The Game, read at different times during the year, also challenged me mentally, particularly given my love-hate relationship with Twitter.

Questions for Ada, I’m Lying But I’m Telling The Truth and the 2018 iteration of the Best American Essays made up the rest of my 2019 reading and precipitated one uncomfortable conversation on a flight to Heathrow. If there is any value to reading, it should be in its real world impacts, on the basis of the uncomfortable conversations and soul searching my year of reading spawned, it has been a good year of sorts.

My Year in Reading 2018

It is that time of the year when others – more (or better) read than I – share the highlights of their reading from the year. As with last year, I’ve commissioned myself -unbidden, besides perhaps a desire to record the key themes that drove and/or came out of my reading – to weigh in with the highlights of my own reading.So here goes.

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Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury was all the rage on the airwaves at the turn of the year, which is how I ended up grabbing a copy for myself and digging in. As I plodded through it, I found the mix of fly-on-the-wall behind the scenes reporting and qualified conjecture curiously engaging, drawn by the lurid details behind public events and happenings in what at the time had been a Trump presidency that seemingly lurched from one PR disaster to the other. A few themes ran through Fire and Fury – the Trump team being surprised by the election win and thus poorly prepared to lead, the hold of Stephen Bannon and the alt-Right and infighting amongst various factions of the administration. Despite strenuous denials at the time, the events of the year – multiple firings, leaks, indictments, evidence of Russian activities and prison sentences – would seem to give credence to the viewpoint of the book, more so as the year draws to an end.

After that maelstrom, John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead seemed the perfect riposte given its subject which was life across (regular) America. Of the essays included, Upon This Rock resonated strongly, bringing back back memories of growing up within the Christian Youth subculture and bingeing on the music of its stars such as Relient K, DC Talk, Audi Adrenaline and Petra. Elsewhere in the collection of essays, there was reflection on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Darwin before Darwin (Constantine Samuel Rafinesque) and one of the more nuanced assessments of Michael Jackson – warts and all – I have read. This Christian subculture, amongst other things, also featured in Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, his description of growing up in South Africa including a reflection on the centrality of church in all its various guises. Other themes of interest touched on included the dysfunctional malehood of his step father, school and navigating the evolving racial landscape, all themes which have shaped is journey and his perspectives as he hosts The Daily Show.

Since reading Colm Tóibín’s 2014 essay, The Literature of Grief, at a time I was wrestling with my own grief and loss, each year I have returned to something related – sometimes tangentially – to his work. Last year was finally watching the movie Brooklyn, this year it was reading The Testament of Mary, a somewhat contrarian retelling of the latter part of Mary’s life as she jostles with the gospel writers who try to recast Jesus as the son of God, remarkably relevant to this age of fake news I suspect.

For new and emerging technology I read Soonish, a fly-by-the-seat-of-the pants look at upcoming technology with a focus on potentially transformative technology and the issues which need to be resolved to bring them to fruition. Quantum computing, rockets, scramjets, asteroid mining, fusion power and origami rooms all showed their heads in this wide ranging book. Jim Al-Kalili’s Quantum: A Guide For The Perplexed, was a fascinating review of the older scientific underpinnings of technology. His BBC podcast, The Life Scientific is one I have enjoyed over the years, and still do.

I found Austin Kleon from a retweet by Alan Jacobs, which led to my signing up to his weekly newsletter and reading his book, Steal Like an Artist. From the newsletter, I found Merlin Coverley’s The Art of Wandering, a reflection on the writer as a walker both in history and in modern times. It, the writer and/or his/her protagonist as a walker and observer, is a theme I have found myself drawn to over the years, influenced primarily by the works of the likes of WG Sebald and Teju Cole.

The two biographies I read this year; Jonathan Eig’s Ali: A Life and David Leeming’s James Baldwin, A Biography offered two perspectives on race relations in 1960/70’s America. Where Ali’s basis for fame was his brute strength -some would say his essential skill was the finesse with which he boxed- Baldwin’s was largely intellectual. The common thread in both their lives was dealing with the weight of their fame, and the expectation from all sides of the race debate – the establishment, white liberal America and the various Black empowerment factions to carry the flag for their various causes.Both biographies were deeply personal, making a strong effort to show the persons behind the huge reputations, full marks were achieved by both books in my opinion.

As a/an (armchair) Liverpool FC fan, John Barnes comes to mind as the most successful black footballer to have worn the Liverbird with distinction, it was fascinating to read of a black footballer from another time, Howard Gayle, who had the distinction of being the first black player to be part of the first team at Liverpool FC. He tells his story in 61 Minutes in Munich, which in addition to sharing his experience of coming on as a substitute against Bayern Munich in the 1981 European Cup final (the precursor to the UEFA Champions League) also delved into Liverpool – the city’s – slave trading legacy and the racism black footballers of that era had to deal with. Incredibly, in a year in which France won the World Cup, and a fairly diverse England team reached the Semi’s, racism in football is back on the front pages.

The Best American Essays collection has become a staple of my year. 2017’s version, edited by Leslie Jamison featured a number of noteworthy reads for me, Rachel Ghansah’s The Weight of Baldwin being one of the triggers for reading the fuller Baldwin biography this year. Jason Arment’s Two Shallow Graves, Emily Maloney’s The Cost of Living and Rachel Kushner’s We Are Orphans here were others I found noteworthy/ deeply personal for a various reasons.

The fate of book stores and libraries is a subject persons invested in them have strong opinions on, which was how I stumbled on to The Library Book, a collection of essays on the subject of libraries from famous names including amongst others Seth Godin, Stephen Fry and Zadie Smith.

In other reading, I finally managed to read Dinaw Mengestu’s highly praised The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, Gabrielle Union’s We’re Going to Need More Wine (a much lighter read) and Skye Jethani’s What’s Wrong With Religion, another one I picked up from listening to his (and Phil Vischer’s) podcast.

31 Days of Journaling, Day 14: Something Consumed



For Day 14

Currently on my reading list is David Leeming’s tell all biography of James Baldwin. Whilst it is a hefty read – and I have spent the most of the last month plodding through it between doing life and work – a few themes have stood out, including the influence of church, the civil rights movement and his struggle with his sexuality.

The more I read this, the clearer just how great an intellect he was is under scored in my mind. I’ll never read Go Tell It On The Mountain  or Giovanni’s Room the same way again.

3 Day Quote Challenge – 2

Image Source

Not all who wander are lost

For the second day of the challenge for which Mrs T nominated me, this J. R. R. Tolkien quote comes to mind. A line in a poem in the first volume of Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings,  it refers to the Rangers who although often considered vagabonds are actually protectors and bulwarks against evil in Middle Earth.

For me it speaks of hope, a reminder that despite times and seasons in which life conspires to rock my faith and unresolved questions bubble to the surface, I am not lost. Just wondering, pondering and finding my way home in the end.

The Year in Reading 2017

After many years of having thoroughly enjoyed the annual parade of opinions of books over at The Millions, I decided to have a go myself this year. Far from being a celebration of a year in which I read deeply and widely, it is a light reflection on all the things I managed to read this year. Enjoy!

Of the myriad of things I most deeply wanted to achieve this year, two loomed large in the personal development domain; to read more and write more, which was why I entered the year clutching my copy of Patty Dann‘s The Butterfly Hours close to my chest. In my head, writing more  – and by extension, better – required tools for tuning my craft, which was why this book, with its promise of personal memoir married to prompts, seemed the perfect fit. It helped that all nineteen reviews on Amazon were 5*. I did enjoy the book, albeit more an an example of easy reading memoir than a collection of prompts. I suspect that had a lot more to do with me than the book.  If it is any consolation, I returned to it several times over the course of the year, it along with Dinty Moore‘s Crafting The Personal Essay being fine examples of the sort of creative non-fiction I would like to churn out.

Next up was Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, which I finally finished at this third time of asking. On my two previous attempts, I had found myself bogged down in the tedious beginning, but ploughing through this time brought me to the delights of the end. What I never quite managed to suss out was just how autobiographical the novel was, given that like the Sais Taiye has dual Nigerian and Ghanian roots and is also a twin. So thoroughly did I enjoy this that I went hunting for her seminal essay from 2005, Bye Bye Babar. Well worth the read, if I say so myself.

The grudging, reluctant engagement with books which dogged my interactions with both books was something I found recurred over the course of the year. The list of unfinished books is extensive with Andrea Lucado’s English Lessons and Adam Gopnik’s At The Strangers’ Gate  being the more notable.  The books I did finish fell mainly into four main categories; ones I read as guides for my #100DaysOfCreating project (Felix Feneon’s Novels in Three Lines and Robert Smartwood’s Hint Fiction), annual anthologies which have become regular fixtures on my reading list (such as the Jonathan Franzen edited 2016 edition of The Best American Essays), personal essay collections (such as David SedarisLet’s Explore Diabetes with Owls and Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things) and books inspired by media I consumed during the course of the year (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes a useful counterpoint to binge watching all five seasons of Elementary, and Walk On – Steve Stockman’s attempt at providing insights into the faith that underpins U2’s oeuvre).

I had a late spurt of three books to thank for reaching fifteen books this year. All three were really good reads:  Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson’s We Have No Idea (a reminder that for all we know about quarks, leptons, and the material universe, the vast majority of what is around us is unknown), Dame Elizabeth Anionwu’s Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union (a deeply personal story of growing up mixed race in the United Kingdom of the 50’s and 60’s and eventually connecting with her Nigerian heritage) and Diego Torres‘s The Special One: The Secret World of Jose Mourinho (a no-holds barred look at the behind the scenes behaviour of Mourinho, particularly his Real Madrid sojourn and how super agent Jorge Mendes towered over his transfer dealings).

All told reading more widely  – and more consistently – has to be one of the objectives for the new year. Braced for the challenge.

Nine Fridays of Summer

aberdeen summer

For the first time in a very long time,  I have four day work weeks to look forward to. The theory behind getting these nine Fridays off is that they have been earned by working an extra thirty minutes each work day. How productive those extra minutes have been remains to be seen, but I suspect their value to our employer lies more in promoting a sense of being cared for in us than anything more tangible. The first of these was spent down south, catching up with friends and reacquainting myself with Stratford and the Olympic park.

Being a creature of routine has its perks – one wakes up, does the needful and shows up at work to deal with whatever is thrown one’s way that day – but without the requirement to go into work, I suddenly have the hassle of trying to find stuff to do. The big rocks are in place already – a trip to London to catch Erwin McManus and Carl Lentz amongst others at the Hillsong Conference Europe is all planned up and good to go, as is an extended weekend in Vienna in August. It is what to do with the rest of these summer Fridays that is the problem. Of course summers in Scotland have a reputation for being wet and windy with dry, sunny spells the exception.

Doing a lot of traveling comes to mind as something to do, particularly given getting to know the West Coast of Scotland is something I’ve wanted to do for a while.  Besides the time spent in train stations and airport waiting areas this requires, it is also likely to require a significant outlay in cash. A lot needs to be worked out from a logistical perspective to make this happen but I suspect the dividends – pretty interesting pictures and pretend travelouges – might make this a compelling option.

Another option is to spend the time catching up on all that reading I’ve failed dismally at this year. In addition to the books I have on the go, Teju Cole has an eagerly anticipated collection of essays out in August which I am sure I would be keen to read. Laziness though is the greatest obstacle to this objective, one will have to see how this pans out.

I have toyed with the idea of spending my Fridays cranking out a podcast about nothing especially important. The working title for this – which is likely to only be a spoken version of the things I whine about on here – is A Bloke’s Life. Although I do have a penchant for waffling on things of interest only to me, I also happen to know a number of interesting gentlemen who – logistics permitting – I might be able to convince to come on such a show. Don’t hold your breaths on this one though. What is more likely is a return to the online radio station I’ve previously appeared on.

Movies appear to be the easiest, safest option, particularly as I still have a stash of discounted Cineworld tickets to hand, and the beach cinema is less than 10 minutes away from my house by foot. The significantly reduced movie time since May does  lend its support to this argument, not least because a rash of movies are due out in the next few weeks.

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Star Trek Beyond – which I managed to see after a couple of hours at work – was the first of these, after habit had drawn me into work for a couple of hours first. Simon Pegg’s performances in these Star Trek movies have always intrigued me – given his attempts at affecting a ‘Scottish’ accent, and his English heritage. To his credit, he manages to throw enough Scottish colloquialisms in to make his parody recognisable. My ears have however not evolved enough to be able to say definitively that he has it nailed down. I suppose the nod to Scotland on the big screen – spot on or not – has to be celebrated and accepted?

#61 – The February Wrap – Of Life, and Steady Habits

#61-whatwerepeatedlydo-@allielefevere

What has quickly become apparent – as this year of living earnestly evolves – is that far from being the wild, giddy, excited life I half expected when my thoughts began to initially crystallise, it is one that is lived in increments; steady habits being the under-girding behaviours which hold everything together. That sense – of slow, steady if ponderous, progress – is one that has been consistently underlined and reinforced all year; by the book I am currently reading (Donald Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life),  the ongoing series at Passion City on Habits and various conversations, the last of which occurred over the weekend with the older guy friend/ mentor O.  The general gist of the book and the series is that change is only possible if there is an overarching vision of the future that frames the daily actions that we take, providing an incentive that keeps us plugging away at them.

Discipline without direction equals drudgery, Whitney says; Giglio’s line is that who we become is all about the habits that we create and the habits that we curate.

I made steady progress in January but fell off the wagon massively in February, distracted by pressures at work and all. March though is an opportunity to get back on track, repeat the February habit as well as the March one and take it from there. Roll on the steady habits, shall we say?

Currently Listening to: When the Rain Comes – Third Day (from the 2003 Grammy Award winning album Come Together)

The Year in Reading 2015

Trying to get a lot more structured with reading – 25 books in total spread across 5 categories – Christian Classics, Literary Classics, Popular Fiction, Modern Christian Writing and Productivity, Personal Development & Non-fiction.

Completed:

  1. Moonwalking with Einstein – Joshua Foer
  2. The Pioneer Detectives -Konstantin Kakaes
  3. The Best American Essays 2014 – JJ Sullivan (ed)
  4. The Land of Steady Habits – Ted Thompson
  5. Sexual Detox – Tim Challies
  6. NW – Zadie Smith
  7. Crafting the Personal Essay – Dinty W Moore
  8. What’s so Amazing About Grace – Phillip Yancey
  9. How To Be Alone – Jonathan Franzen
  10. The Best American Essays 2013 – Cheryl Strayed (ed)
  11. The Seven Good Years – Etgar Keret
  12. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez – Richard Rodriguez
  13. The Children Act – Ian McEwan
  14. The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien
  15. Something to Answer For – P.H. Newby