Books what I read in January

One of my resolutions this year was to write a post a week. We’re a month in and this is the first effort, so that’s a bust.

That said, I am nailing another resolution.  I shall read fifty books this year. Unbidden, here’s a rundown of the first six.

Toast on Toast by Steven Toast


This was an excellently chosen Christmas gift. It was a lean Yuletide for books, but there wasn’t a villain among the brave few that did cross the tundra, seeking the warmth of my bookshelf1. The experience has taught me that I must be more specific in re gift idea requests next year, namely by answering them.

It’s not really by Steven Toast2. People have opinions about such things. As a child3, I would have loved a book authored by Optimus Prime, so you may discern which side of the debate I am on. I am also a fan of that early-to-mid-Noughties trend, the mimetic t-shirt 4. These are likely related fancies.

The best praise one can bestow on a book “like this” is that it stands alone; that one can, even without the refined/perverse palate of a fan, sup of its quality. Toast on Toast may not delight every single person, everywhere, but is likely to satisfy anyone possessed of a passing familiarity with the theatrical.

The book is the written equivalent of its televisual sire; a crude, witty and strange satire of acting, of being English, of ego, nemesis and so on.

Great stuff. Better than, say, ‘Stenders or Berkoff. Not as good as Shakespeare.

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle


Another excellent Christmas pick, this has been on the to-read list for a long time. In an attempt to drop the Universe a hint,  I have bought it as a gift for other people. This strategy finally paid off.

Fair warning, this is a graphic novel. Somehow, that is still vaguely controversial.

You think you’re above that prejudice, don’t you. You are more sophisticated. Now recall that I am counting this comic book as one of my fifty, and reassess.

But. But. But. It doesn’t count? I knew it.

Go back to your Waugh and Burgess, Grandad.

This is a necessary read for anyone with an interest in the World’s favourite hermit kingdom/human rights catastrophe/sideshow.

Delisle captures so much about the tensions supposed, and maybe glimpsed, beneath the surface of this strange utopia5. With the gently critical eye, the author sees the real, actual people inhabiting this bizarre prison of the body and mind. The author’s responses to the perils and quirks of the North Korean experience are those of a human being with both a heart and a job to do, and he rarely preaches or injects politics into his Dantean journey6.

Maybe the message is one that should terrify; that it is easier to choose to remain a prisoner than it is to choose to want to be free.

Maybe the message is that, no matter how thick the walls, hope finds a spoon.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield


If I carried over from Pyongyang any latent anxiety regarding the future of humanity, Colonel Chris Hadfield provided a first-class counterpoint.

Part-biography, part-self-help manual7, this was the most life-affirming book I have read in a long time.

For a omnicompetent, exceptional human being, writing a book like this without coming across as inhuman or arrogant should be impossible. But that’s superficial thinking, leading you astray, isn’t it. It’s not impossible for such a talented person to write a book like this because of the talent, and because of the training, and of the experience.

Chris Hadfield wasn’t born an astronaut. He, with help, “made himself one”. But it’s not the “How?”, or even the “Why?” that are the interesting questions that Hadfield tangles with. It’s the “What next?” and the “What if?” and the “What if not?” that are so stimulating, and that illustrate the author’s ongoing attempts to build an astronaut-making8, practical philosophy machine.

There is much to recommend the book in terms of history and geopolitics and *cough* people management *cough*, but where Hadfield’s book really shines is where he engages with his own emotional and mental growth.

Lifehacks aside, this book may ultimately be an account of a man’s struggle with his ego. It is an utterly compelling read for anyone who asks the “How?”, looking inward. Anyone with a modicum of interest in looking inward at all, or outward, or upward9 should probably read this.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff


This was the first pick of the recently-revived Idle Book Club. I am a huge fan of many podcasts on the Idle Thumbs network, and am also always seeking new mechanisms to drive my reading choice. Hence this.

So, I have opinions about this book. Said thoughts and feelings have been dulled by the passage of time, but let’s see what I can remember.

There’s a kind of “literary fiction” that is both probably popular and probably art. It isn’t great art, but it looks more like great art than, say, Game of Thrones does. Works that fall into this rather American, MFA style certainly start out with more cred than your dense history tome10, your graphic novel or genre fiction. Is this privilege deserved?

That’s not how privilege works. Privilege is just something that’s given to you on the way in, isn’t it?

This is a book that is mostly about privilege, I think. And possibly about women11. But I think mostly privilege.

The author writes semi-convincingly about what it is like to be young, then middle-aged, and what the hell happened in between, but there is too much Dead Poets about the opening chapters, and the male protagonist has superpowers.

The female protagonist is supposed to be more interesting, but the author must have edited that out. Because we are rather told than shown how interesting she is. In retrospect.

I can see how a person, particularly a self-styled book lover, could love this book. But it wasn’t for me, nor was it for me.

The best part of the book was the square brackets, which I thought was a stupid device until I realised who was talking.

Square brackets should not be the best part of any book.

Fatherhood: The Truth by Marcus Berkmann


Another gift, this one.

I was initially skeptical, on the basis that it looked like the kind of book that it looks like. But Marcus Berkmann has also written books about cricket and pub quizzes, so my interest was piqued.

After a weak, laddish start, this book redeems itself.

Berkmann has a solid enough voice, that charms despite its narrow perspective. Maybe “narrow perspective” is harsh. I suppose what I mean by that is that the author isn’t conspiciously attracted to either the self-politically-correcting pole or the damn-your-political-correctness pole that together generate the field in which most contemporary writing vibrates12.

It’s just about about some things and experiences that he’s had.

The author writes from what feels very much like the perspective a real person might have had, once, before the Victimhood Defence Force violated international convention, spreading landmines throughout popular culture.

The book does really feel of its time, a time between the “before times”13 and “now”14. This was a time when The Guardian had only recently invented the Cool Dad, Grace Dent and the Londoner, and everyone still thought they would own a house15.

Berkmann writes, perhaps accurately, as though he is the first explorer to witness some of these sights. Sights like the dad who selects an all-terrain pram with leather handlebar, in racing green. Back then, this represented a newly discovered subspecies of male parent, one who is engaged in the process, to be sure, but largely for the gear and largely to “attract birds”16.

That said, I actually learnt a great deal of useful information about parenthood.

As the book’s blurb attests, this is “crucial information” that is difficult to get hold off elsewhere in a fashion tuned to the experience and anxieties of the father/passenger. I would recommend this book for that reason alone.

Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne


There’s plenty of children-oriented media that also has comedy for adults.

You know, those weird half-reference-based, half-incongruously-taboo gags that, sotto voce, reward the parents for showing up, and give critics the chance to squirt out another gushing paragraph in praise of a “classic”. The practice doubtless boosts box office revenues. Toy Story, for example.

These days, there’s also children-oriented media that is either readily consumed by adults/bronies, or is fairly-blatantly for adults, like Adventure Time17.

But there was a time, a time before the “before time”18, when reality/literature was wholesome, and British. Before this takes an unexpectedly colonial turn, let’s revise that sentence.  When reality was witty, and charming, and intelligent, and those factors had nothing to do with that imagined post-War Arcadia of rationing and ginger beer and pure fun. Fun was never pure. Sometimes it was, and is, cruel, and sometimes it was/is self-effacing, and sometimes politely demented. Like the world of Winnie-the-Pooh.

Winnie-the-Pooh is just excellent literature. The language is both plain and exquisite, the characters and voices so real and charming. The Hundred Acre Wood is such a well-realised little world.

All those genre fiction fans that grow turgid at the whisper of “world-building” should forgo the elaborate straps and frames of “plausible magic systems” and rediscover the unalloyed joy of world-building as a necessary by-product of good writing.

Get a copy with original illustrations. Re-read it, aloud, as an adult. I grinned almost all the way through. When I wasn’t grinning, I was laughing.

  1. WTF?
  2. He’s not real.
  3. And adult
  4. As opposed to diegetic t-shirts. Those are for losers.
  5. οὐ τόπος
  6. Granted, there are more damp tablecloths here than in Dante’s work, but the comparison holds up.
  7. Bear with me.
  8. Or human being-making.
  9. That is to say, at space.
  10. More on that next month.
  11. Hence fates. Hence furies.
  12. Vibrates?
  13. The 90’s.
  14. Post-post-911.
  15. Albeit in South London.
  16. I saw this archetype, still very much at large, only two weeks ago. He was agonising over which model of faux-luxury pram would be the best “ride”. We are awful creatures.
  17. “Bacon Pancaaaakes.” You’re welcome.
  18. The 90’s.

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