30/04/2021

Reading - April 2021

Somebody To Love by Matt Richards & Mark Langthorne (2016)
I was listening to the entertaining podcast QueenPod while decorating - thanks Brian! - and it was ideal accompaniment; engaging and long enough to keep me company, but not too demanding. At some point they mentioned this book, so I had to read it. While concentrating mostly on Mercury's story, it also uses it to provide a parallel story of AIDS and did so in a way that didn't feel like it was too much at odds with the main biography. I definitely learned something (for example, I hadn't realised how early AIDS had developed originally, in Africa). The book could have been better edited; there are occasional contradictions (in particular about Gaëtan Dugas) and duplicate statements across different chapters, which makes it seem like perhaps the two authors took specific sections each. However, it's a good read overall.
The Guitar Magazine (May 2021 / Issue 392)
Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline (2020)
Bless B, he bought this for my birthday two months early (when it came out) and not only didn't let on at all, but resisted reading it even though he really wanted to. So I feel a bit guilty about taking this long to get to it. And now I additionally guilty because it's a teensy bit disappointing. It's essentially a replay of the (fantastic) first novel, and as a result feels a bit forced (as William Goldman observed, about films and possibly a little unkindly: "sequels are whore's movies"). Not that it's not fun; I enjoyed the section set in a whole world devoted to Prince, although the part in Middle Earth left me cold. But towards the end there are a few too many conveniences - the kind of twists that could be prefixed with "by a strange coincidence ...". They make the plot less believable even on its own terms and so spoil it somewhat. Still, a great present!
If Only They Didn't Speak English by Jon Sopel (2018)
I was keen to read this when B brought it home from the library, even though I suspected - correctly - that it would just depress and annoy me in equal measure. Sopel paints a more nuanced, balanced picture of US culture than I've read for a while, but that picture is more alien than I expected. And that's his point: if we weren't so familiar with superficial aspects of the US, primarily because of our shared language (and hence films and TV), we'd stop thinking of them as basically like Britain, only with some odd foibles. For example, I'd previously been largely unable to explain the US's odd and disturbing fetishization of guns, but Sopel puts it in the context of a country that prizes self-reliance. Yes, of course it's more complex than that (and so is the discussion in this book), but it's an example of how well-observed this book is. Inevitably, Trump features (although not at much as you'd expect from a book with the subtitle of "Notes from Trump's America") and when he does, it's always a marvel not just that a man so obviously unsuited to political power managed to achieve it, but that millions of people voted for him again. Truly, a foreign country.
The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1955)
The third book in a row to be inspired by B, who brought this classic home from the library (although I dug out my own copy and read that!). I first read this at school, if I remember rightly. I am not sure when I first figured out (spoiler alert) that it was set in a post-nuclear-apocalypse world, but I do remember feeling very pleased with myself for doing so. Perhaps that's why I still like it - it's been decades since I last read it, but it still strikes me as a superbly realised and crafted novel. Since it's all explained from the point of view of people living there now, it's never made explicit what's happened but Wyndham nevertheless manages to make it clear, in an admirably concise, eminently believable world. Highly recommended.
The Science of Discworld II: The Globe by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen (2002)
I don't feel capable of giving a very measured overview of this. I made the mistake of reading it at bedtimes and, since I usually go to sleep pretty quickly, I rarely got through more than a couple of pages at a time. As a result, I can't say what it was actually about. The wizards are stranded on Roundworld - or "Earth", as we know it - trying to fix history. And the authors are using this as a jumping off point for a lot of discussion about perception, stories and the development of the human mind - I think. I blitzed the last hundred pages in a determination to finish it but I'll have to revisit this some time to understand it properly.
Airhead by Emily Maitlis (2019)
Obviously I know who Emily Maitlis is, but only in a general way and I wouldn't have read this had I not just finished Jon Sopel's book also. This is a very different read; about thirty short behind-the-scenes anecdotes of her most famous, notable or interesting encounters. It's pretty warts-and-all, an acknowledgement of the shortcomings inherent in attempting to cover current affairs (as indeed the subtitle says: "The Imperfect Art of Making News"). It's also very well written and very engaging. Maitlis makes the life sound exciting but there's an undercurrent of the ruthlessness required to get the story that makes me slightly uncomfortable.
Moneyball by Michael Lewis (2003)
Oddly compelling, even though not much happens and frankly, what does, I didn't really follow anyway. In fact, I can't review this any better than Nick Hornby (quoted at the front of the book): "I understood about one in four words of Moneyball, and it's still the best and most engrossing sports book I've read for years." In fairness, I don't read many books about sports but the sentiment is correct. It's just fascinating. What's a bit depressing is the new afterword, reflecting on the way that the book made so many baseball professionals so cross, although the real comeback is that so many teams have now used the approach successfully. I'd been waiting for this book at the library for ages and I have to say, it was worth the wait - a classic.

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