Everything I read in June

This has been a hectic month (lots of work + my new cat needing a lot of attention + trying to find somewhere to live) but I got through 15 books in my own time, plus about a dozen work related ones which I won't cover here. Here's a summary of the best of them.


Norwegian Wood - Haruki Murakami. I turn 20 in 3 months so this was the perfect time to read this book; a time when the character’s confusion surrounding adulthood mirrors my own. I read most of it in one sitting, alone in a dark bar with whiskey because that felt like the most appropriate setting. On the whole, Norwegian Wood is about the slow, introspective unfolding of the protagonist (Toru Watanabe) as he experiences a succession of sort of mundane events; friendships and the ends of friendships, relationships and the ends of friendships, movement and stillness, travel and finding a home. The only criticism I have is that four suicides is a bit excessive, and it seemed to be used as a convenient way to get certain characters out of the picture.

Siddartha - Herman Hesse. - Herman Hesse. A beautiful, simply written book set in ancient India at the time of the Buddha, wherein Siddhartha (the son of a Brahmin) sets off from home looking for enlightenment. He travels the countryside, meets different religious groups whose teachings he ends up rejecting, falls in love, has a son who abandons him, becomes rich then gives everything away, becomes a ferryman and eventually sort of understands the meaning of life. The society in which it is set is an alien one, yet I think the appeal of this book lies in the universal resonance of Siddhartha’s search for meaning and the many mistakes he makes along the way. His ultimate revelations have a sense of elegant wisdom:

“I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices, so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment, and sorrow, just in order to become a child again and begin anew. I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide, in order to experience grace.”

And:

“I will no longer mutilate and destroy myself in order to find a secret behind the ruins.”

The Third Policeman - Flann O’Brien. Reread. I'm not sure how many times I read this book in June (probably three or four.) It probably ranks as my favorite fictional book. Although the exact plot is impossible to define in any meaningful way, the book takes place in a strange, surreal world which has its own peculiar logic. None of it makes much sense if taken out of context. Space and time are subverted, eternity can be reached via a lift, a color exists which sense people mad if they see it, bicycles are sentient, death is predicted by the color of the wind when someone is born. It is a book which demands to be read again and again because it is somehow too indistinct to feel like the same story each time. I was lent it by my friend Corrie who asked me to underline the passages which I found meaningful. She asks each person who reads it to do that in a different pen, to see if eventually every part of the book is underlined. The whole thing is so wonderful that I expect this will happen. It's hard to summarize the plot, so just read it.

A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole.  Also a recommendation from Corrie and one of the funniest books I have read. The humor lies in the ridiculous characters. The protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, is surely the most obnoxious figure conceivable and the characters who animate the various subplots are all brilliant. The book mostly revolves around Ignatius’ attempts to hold down a job, which involves him attempting to rally factory workers into a rebellion, using a hot dog stand to store illegal porn, getting arrested a lot and never managing to make any money.

Of course, the whole thing is tinged with sadness on account of Toole’s suicide prior to the book’s publication. We all have a tendency to glorify dead authors, to see their depression as having contributed to their creativity. I avoid that view. It is tragic that Toole wasn’t able to write more novels and it is tragic that publishers failed to see the genius of this one. It reminds of Jack London’s Martin Eden, in which a young writer becomes rich and famous on account of work he wrote years before whilst in a state of abject poverty. London’s character cannot enjoy the success:

“Why didn’t you dare it before?...When I hadn’t a job? When I was starving? When I was just as I am now, as a man, as an artist, the same Martin Eden? That’s the question. I’ve been asking myself for many a day. My brain is the same old brain. And what is puzzling me is why they want me now. Surely they don’t want me for myself, for myself the same old self they did not want. They must want me for something else, for something that is outside of me, for something that is not I. Shall I tell you what that something is? It is for the recognition I have received. That recognition is not I. Then again for the money I have earned and am earning. But money is not I. And is it for the recognition and money, that you now want me?”

I Will Teach You To Be Rich - Ramit Sethi. This is the first personal finance book I have ever read, and it proved to be exactly what I have been looking for; a logical, clearly explain step by step guide to managing money. Sethi covers the high leverage stuff, urging people to forget about saving money on lattes and focus on automated systems. The key messages are to automate, then “Spend extravagantly on the things you love, and cut costs mercilessly on the things you don’t.” I am still in the process of implementing the systems writes about and hopefully it will let me sidestep quite a few financial mistakes.

The Art Of Communicating - Thich Nhat Hanh. We spend a huge part of our lives communicating with others, yet we rarely stop to think about how and why we do it.  Thich Nhat Hanh reflects on a lifetime of experience as a monk and educator with a focus on communication. Most interestingly (for me) is his thoughts on the way we fail to communicate with ourselves:

“Many of us spend a lot of time in meetings or e-mailing with others, and not a lot of time communicating with ourselves. The result is that we don’t know what is going on within us. It may be a mess inside. How, then, can we communicate with another person?”

And on anger:

“Usually when anger manifests, we want to confront the person we think is the source of our anger. We’re more interested in setting that person straight than in taking care of the more urgent matter, which is our own anger. We are like the person whose house is on fire who goes chasing after the arsonist instead of going home to put out the fire. Meanwhile, the house continues to burn.”

Tiny Beautiful Things - Cheryl Strayed. I cried a lot at this book. I cried so much that I had to ration it out bit by bit because I have a rule about only crying once a week, maximum. For the uninitiated, Tiny Beautiful Things is a collect of agony aunt columns written by Cheryl Strayed. She answers letters from people grappling with love, loss and finding meaning - more often than not by reflecting on her own life. I read the letter where she describes rescuing two kittens on the night I brought Patti home and cried a bit more:

“It was an odd thing that happened to me during a sad and uncertain time in my life that I hoped would tell readers something deep about my ex-husband and me. About how in love we were and also how lost. About how we were like those kittens who’d been trapped and starving for weeks. Or maybe not about the kittens at all. Maybe the meaning was in how we heard the sound but did nothing about it until it was so loud we had no choice. I could’ve sanded it down. I could have fit it in.

But I took it out because of you, Ruler. I realized it was a story you needed to hear instead. Not how the kittens suffered during those weeks they were wandering inside the dark building with no way out—though surely there’s something there too—but how they saved themselves. How frightened those kittens were, and yet how they persisted. How when two strangers offered up their palms, they stepped in.”

This Modern Love- Will Darbyshire. I’m not normally a fan of crowdsourced books. Still, this one works because of (not in spite of) its scattered mixture of stories. Darbyshire collected letters from hundreds of different people, each addressed to either a crush, current partner or ex-partner. Some are sweet. Some are full of bitterness. Some are heartbreaking.  A few are breathtaking.

The Hard Life - Flann O'Brien. Having loved The Third Policeman for over a year, I don’t know why it has taken me this long to read any of O’Brien’s other books. Set in turn of the century Dublin, this book is mostly comprised of dialogue between Mr. Collopy (who the unnamed protagonist lives with) and a priest called Father Fahrt, as the pair get drunk and talk about religion and women. It does end up feeling a bit like an elongated short story though.

Smarter Faster Better - Charles Duhigg. The Power of Habit (Duhigg’s previous book) changed my life and although this one lacks the same sort of clear focus - it is more of an essay collection - there are a lot of gems regarding productivity and creativity. Duhigg has a knack for telling stories, then pulling them together to make a research-backed point. I particularly liked the final chapter, where he explains how he used the described techniques when writing the book. Yes, the ideas are not new and many are obvious, but the structure makes them memorable. Like a lot of non-fiction books on similar topics, it is longer than it needs to be and there’s a distinct whiff of confirmation bias. I’m still looking forward to his next book.

The Humans - Matt Haig. I needed something lighthearted to finish off this month. An alien comes to earth and takes on the form of a professor, in order to prevent humanity from solving the Riemann hypothesis and becoming too good at maths.

It’s less sci-fi, more a satirical look at what makes us human and what makes life on this planet worth living (spoiler: mostly love, peanut butter, music, books, and dogs.) There’s some sage advice too:

“The key rule is, if you want to appear sane on Earth you have to be in the right place, wearing the right clothes, saying the right things, and only stepping on the right kind of grass.”

Also:

“A paradox: The things you don’t need to live—books, art, cinema, wine, and so on—are the things you need to live.”

My current bookshelf situation.