Category: books

Sally Rooney’s Normal People

If this is the first review you’ve read, and you can stomach darkness, please stop now and just read Normal People. Most reviews, positive or negative, will probably not lead you to read the book, which I think is a serious and important work.

There is much to dislike about this novel—its bleakness, its tawdriness, its shallowness, its present tense and punctuation. It is painful emotionally, rather too intimate, and the characters can sometimes make themselves hard to like, to say nothing of their half-formed ideas. And yet it cannot be denied that Rooney can write, or that she has written a powerful piece of literature. She has made good use of her considerable talent, to set in aspic certain aspects of this desolate and disconsolate age. What she opts not to evoke from Irish scenery and history is in fact a strength; she describes the contrasts between County Sligo and Dublin, but she could just as easily be writing about the lines dividing Acadiana and New York, or Yorkshire and London.

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An experiment in phonelessness

The plot thus far

In 2017, I lost a new smartphone. In the aftermath of its disappearance I decided not to replace it, a feat which I managed for about a month, with an additional few weeks on an old Nokia phone. During this time I found life more serene, serendipitous, and I was happier. It did somewhat improve my relationship with technology, but when I got a new phone I still resumed most of my mindless habits.

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On writing at speed

Exactly three weeks ago, on 14th January 2019, I began a draft of my first novel. I won’t discuss its contents here, but I thought I’d write about the experience of writing at speed.

Driving that train

First of all, how quickly have I written? As of today, my word count is 42,903 words, written in 21 days. That means I’ve averaged 2,043 words per day. That is above the pace required for National Novel Writing Month (abbreviated NaNoWriMo) which takes place every year in November. To “win” that contest, one must write 50,000 words in 30 days, which works out to 1,667 words per day. I was forgetful (and perhaps fearful) last year so I didn’t participate (I did, however, write a blog post for every day of November on my other blog.). Instead, I set myself a goal to finish 80,000 words in 6 weeks.

My speed is around Stephen King’s, as he describes in his excellent On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, which I just finished reading. In it, he reports writing 2,000 words per day. It is a reasonably high rate among writers. Graham Greene and Hemingway, for example, aimed for 500 per day. Michael Crichton, on the other hand, apparently managed 10,000.

I, however, did not set a single daily word count for the period. Instead I’ve used the excellent Pacemaker Planner, which allows varying the pace, and even reducing it at the weekends. Here’s my graph-to-date:

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Top 10 Books I read in 2018

I’ve just begun my fiftieth book of the year, The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. Like the last book I read, I discovered it via Derek Sivers, who reviewed it on his site. It’s been an interesting read so far, on overcoming one’s own resistance to ambitious endeavours. It’s inspirational, but so far does not promise to be the most inspirational book I read this year (see Sivers’ own, for example, below). I tracked my progress on Goodreads. Here are the ten books I rated five stars from 2018, in reverse order of when I read them.

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The Elephant in the Brain

The Elephant in the Brain (2017) is at times an uncomfortable read, but well-worth it for anyone willing to undertake its introspective incursion.  Programmer Kevin Simler (of the fascinating Melting Asphalt blog) and economist Robin Hanson explore why we are prone to self-deception about our motives, and how this deception can shed light on otherwise inexplicable individual behaviours, as well as institutional inefficiencies. The titular elephant comes from the fact that nobody wants to discuss hidden motives, because they tend not to show humans in the most flattering light. Continue reading

The Reivers

Faulkner’s final novel The Reivers, written in 1962, is something of an uncharacteristic masterpiece.

The narrator, Lucius Priest, is an old man recounting adventures from when he was an eleven-year-old boy, in 1905, just as automobiles first arrived in Jefferson, Mississippi. His grandfather, Boss Priest, who owns one of the few cars then in existence, goes by train to a distant funeral, leaving Lucius to enter into an unspoken pact with his grandfather’s driver (and distant relative), Boon Hogganbeck. They conspire to steal the car and take it to Memphis, Tennessee, where gambling, scams, and prostitution await. To “reive”, by the way, is to steal, hence the “reivers”.

It remain a powerful narrative and worthwhile read for several reasons: Continue reading


Madeline Miller’s Circe is not a bad book, but it is disappointing in a number of ways. It takes for its first-person hero the witch of Aiaiai, Circe, a daughter of the sun-god Helios, turner of men into pigs, and eventual lover of Odysseus. It is a sort of riposte to The Odyssey so it’s unsurprising that it takes the time to dismantle the old heroes and gods one by one: Odysseus, Achilles, Hermes, Athena, Helios, most of the other nymphs, demigods, and gods, are portrayed as frivolous and vain, as well as Jason, Herakles, Ajax, who are depicted (amusingly) as hulking bores. This is all fair enough; the gods are mercurial and immature at the best of times, and quite pathetically petty at their worst, and the heroes are nothing if not unwise. On this level her treatment is welcome, humanising and critical of the often misogynistic and merely vacuous penchants of the gods. Continue reading

12 Rules for Life

You probably shouldn’t read Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. I’m not normally one to discourage reading (or intellectual endeavour), but this is a strange exception. It’s not exactly that Peterson is wrong about anything specific, although he occasionally very much is. It is rather that on many topics, he is right, but his extreme confidence in mixing many correct observations with some incorrect ones, combined with his bleak view of humanity make its potential for harming your worldview outweigh its potential for improving your life. His unwavering certitude is one reason I recommend against reading it: someone impressionable might not be able to distinguish between where his views are mainstream versus where they are highly dubious, to say nothing of how strident and repetitive his writing can be. (Most of the best things he says are said more eloquently elsewhere.) But my primary objection is with a sort of self-contradiction that exists in his ideas. Continue reading