What I read in: March 2019

What I read in: March 2019

Sometimes when I look back at the books I read in the past month, the month feels really long. I can’t believe I read Text Me When You Get Home only a few weeks ago. It feels like months. I have been saying to myself that I need to write each book review right after I finish a book and so far, that has not been happening. That’s my bad. One day, I’ll get it together.

A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

I read this classic because my brother is playing the lead in a play of it next week. I’m heading to Brighton on Friday to watch him and I am so excited! It’s always awesome to watch him act. However, I’m also a little nervous, because, uh, this book is so violent. I’ve read a lot of books about violent or difficult subjects but this was full on, even for me. The first chapter is especially brutal and it works well to set the tone for the rest of the novel.

This book is about a boy, Alex, who is basically a little sociopath and likes to beat up, rape and even murder a number of people for fun with his friends. It is as jarring as it sounds. They also speak in Nadsat, an alternative language, where lots of words have been replaced with their own dialect. The edition I was reading had a glossary at the back, though my knowledge of Polish and general linguistics and putting things in context meant I could figure out most of the words as I read along. I loved the Nadsat, it adds a whole new dimension to the book. I also loved the book as a whole, though the story is not chill. It is a heavy book and I am both scared and excited to watch my brother play a psychopath on stage.

Text Me When You Get Home – Kayleen Schaefer

This book was the inspiration for one of my most popular posts of the month, about a guy who yelled a homophobic slur at me for reading it on the tube. Despite that one unpleasant interaction, this is a wonderful book, discussing the power and experience of female friendship in a sweet and thoughtful way. My closest friends have almost always been women, so I could definitely identify with a lot of the friendships in this book. Schaefer breaks down a number of different types of friendships and discusses how friendships between women have evolved over time, especially in the last fifty years or so. It wasn’t always the case that women were able or encouraged to develop friendships with other women, whether from a misplaced sense of gendered competition or because family should always come first. Now, there is a much greater awareness of the value that friends in general bring to people’s lives – especially as young people postpone marriage – and books like this are a key piece for evaluating and celebrating those relationships. This is a great book for anyone who has or wants a group of girls to share their life with.

Yes We (Still) Can: Politics in the Age of Obama, Twitter and Trump – Dan Pfeiffer

Dan Pfeiffer was Obama’s Communications Director for five years during the Obama administration. This is his first book, part-memoir and part-political analysis, exploring the last decade of politics in America. It’s interesting getting some inside scoop on the Obama government – at least in Pfeiffer’s eyes, Obama is definitely as cool as he seems – and to hear a seasoned Democrat deconstruct the political climate that prompted the USA to pivot so enormously from Obama to Trump. It’s been a lot. Large swathes of the USA – and the world – are still reeling. It’s both comforting and disheartening to see that even those who live in this world are as shocked and horrified as the rest of us.

If you want to know more about Obama, recent American politics, Trump, the effect of the Internet on politics or the career of one of Obama’s closest confidantes, there’s a lot of good stuff in here. Bonus tip: don’t bother with the footnotes. They add nothing and take you out of the narrative.

Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics – Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner

I read Freakonomics years ago and loved it. I got the sequel, Superfreakonomics, for Christmas but decided to re-read the original first as a refresher. As pretty much any review of these books will tell you, they aren’t really about economics. It’s more sociology and data. The authors use data – both gathered by them and by others – to highlight unexpected social occurrences that have been misunderstood by using assumptions rather than data to form conclusions. One of the strongest examples is how abortion caused the fall in crime across the US, some twenty years after Roe v Wade. Each chapter addresses another specific situation, like the efficacy of car seats, the economics of sex work or the cost of fighting climate change. Look, this book isn’t going to teach you about the fundamentals of economics, but it can offer some fascinating examples of how so much of policy has been shaped by assumptions and show you the power of some really good data. Ugh, I’m making it sound boring. It’s eye opening and rooted in powerful evidence, though some chapters are better evidenced than others. The first book is stronger, though if you love the first you’ll probably enjoy the second.

Normal People – Sally Rooney

I get why both of Rooney’s books have become bestsellers. Reading them is like reading a hazily lit indie movie, full of young love and dire communication. This book, Normal People, is about the relationship between Marianne, a fiercely intelligent outcast from a wealthy family, and Connell, a gorgeous, sweet boy who’s the only child of a working-class single mother. The relationship starts in their teens and continues on and off into their early twenties.

I thought the scenes just between the two of them when they were in love were sweet. There are points where they care for each other in a genuine way (though there are also points where they don’t do that). In general though, this is a very surface book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a love story, built on the drama of class differences and dysfunctional families and young adulthood, without actually diving too deep into any of those elements.

Marianne is both forgettable and beautiful. At school, she’s an ostracised recluse, but she’s very popular as soon as she arrives at university. Her brother isn’t really fleshed out, though later scenes with him become pivotal to the book. It doesn’t all follow, if you think too hard about it. It’s an enjoyable enough read, if limited.

It did truly pain me to see Marianne and Connell skim over meaningful conversations time and time again. At one point, they break up and don’t speak for several months over a hugely gentle and tame miscommunication. I mean, does that ever happen? And Marianne is almost annoyingly forgiving, to the point where she seems to selectively forget all the things Connell’s done to hurt her before picking up with him again. They don’t yell, cry, fight or say a single honest thing to one another in times of stress. Even in books, it pains me to see relationships battered by an inability to be honest with each other for even one sentence.

It’s always interesting reading books that are hugely popular and trying to tease out what it is in that story that resonates with so many people. The relationships in this story have their moments, but broadly, everyone should expect better from their partners. Lots of beloved romances are deeply dysfunctional at root and hopefully Marianne and Connell are not being thought of as the standard for real love.

Conversations with Friends – Sally Rooney

My feelings about this book are similar to my feelings about Normal People. It’s a pleasant enough read – I especially enjoyed the scenes with Nick and Frances – but it’s limited in the exploration of its themes and is full of painfully frustrating miscommunication and a pathological desire to avoid discussing your feelings. The characters in Conversations with Friends are altogether less likeable than those in Normal People – this is a book about upper middle class artists with upper middle class artist problems. They spend August in northern France and have affairs and prattle on obnoxiously about political theory. Again, I’m making it sound worse than it is. The writing pulls you along. Frances is likeable, if somewhat self-absorbed (as all the characters are) and I felt for her a lot during her medical issues later in the book. She’s only 21; she’s a kid, and I relate to the feelings of uncertainty over her life and relationship and felt for her as she was thrust into the deep end of a complicated relationship. That being said, if you have no time for petty drama or the kind of problems only wealthy poets find themselves having, then this book will probably drive you up the wall.

The Growth Delusion – David Pilling

I have been super interested in macroeconomics lately, largely as the result of my job, and this book seemed like the perfect next read for starting to untangle the complicated web of factors that make up the global economy and learning a bit more about how capitalism operates. The Growth Delusion is all about how we measure Gross Domestic Product (GDP). We use GDP as a proxy for the overall economic wellbeing of a country, which, Pilling compellingly argues, is misguided. He spends this book explaining why GDP is an extremely flawed metric to use to evaluate the economy. He dives into exactly what goes into calculating GDP, explaining how crime and commutes add to economic activity while caring for your own children and home remain invisible. He discusses the nuances of collecting such a vast array of data and questions the utility of capturing GDP in developing nations. Primarily, he makes clear that many things we consider to be socially negative – environmental destruction, crime, long work hours – are all positive as far GDP is concerned, which can give the impression that a country is improving in an overall sense, even if quality of life is suffering greatly at the expense of short term growth. He discusses the concepts of green GDP and natural capital and shows how some countries cross-reference GDP with various happiness indexes, in order to avoid immediately conflating economic growth with an improvement in standards of living.

This book was eye opening. It is well researched and persuasive, though it makes you wonder what the point is, when we base so much important policy on such deeply inadequate information. Pilling is not advocating for the dismissal of GDP, rather, he wants us all to think more critically about these statistics and offers useful solutions that might make GDP a more useful figure for the modern era. This is exactly the kind of book I want to be reading as I debate getting further education in economics.

Have you read any of these books? Do you want to? What should I read next month?!

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