Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

IMG_0916.PNG

#menaretrash is currently trending in South Africa so reading this book is a sad, sad reminder that the gender violence it depicts is certainly still present in society. The domestic abuse, attempted murder and institutional indifference are truly horrifying.

This seems pretty weighty for a celebrity biography- I didn’t expect a laser sharp commentary on race, class, and sexual politics. But then this celebrity is Trevor Noah so it is actually his day-job too. Plus it’s pretty hilarious too.

Not all comedians have such a rich seam of life experience either. Born a Crime details Noah’s unique life as a mixed-race child in Apartheid and Post-Apartheid South Africa. Not part of just one race or class, he navigates his way between private schools and Townships, educated multilingualism and a pirate CD business.

He’s outspoken, that’s for sure. I can’t really hold him to account though; as a comedian and provocateur, this is his story. And his mothers. One of the loveliest things about this book is the deep and abiding love Trevor and his mother have for one another, under the most trying of circumstances.

Read: To find out more about that guy on The Daily Show. And South Africa in general.

Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

IMG_0687.PNG

I’m a classic millennial. I’m constantly on my phone interacting with an online community and my priority is travelling to far-flung destinations. So to me, geopolitics is quaint and outdated. Why do maps, mountains and seas matter nowadays? Time for a Geography lesson.

Tim Marshall shows us that they very much do. These are his ten maps that tell you all you need to know about global politics. Some of his hypotheses: the decline of America is over-stated because of its prime real estate, Russia’s tense relationships stem from its shape, and the arctic is the battleground of the future.

A great premise but the book’s real secret weapon is that it reads wonderfully. It’s clear and compelling, like having something explained to you by a passionate teacher. This is the best type of learning and incidentally great material if, god forbid, someone insists on talking about the EU for too long.

It’s maybe not all you need to know- there are some parts of the world or events crying out for a chapter. I’d love a follow up post-Trump and Brexit. I want to see how these massive world events are rooted in geography. Marshall does state that leaders and history have influence too but that they exist within the land itself.

Ultimately, you can have all the wireless in the world but we are still grounded in the reality of the physical world.

Read: When you wonder what Putin’s up to now

Wild Swans by Jung Chang

img_0180

Although incredibly famous, the doorstep size puts some people off. So I must reiterate that Wild Swans is a book we should all read. It documents the turbulence of 19th century China through the story of three generations of women caught on the tide of history.

Jung Chang’s grandmother was a concubine for a Chinese warlord. Her daughter grew up to be a leading light of the Communist party. Then in turn we hear of Chang’s own upbringing in Communist society, her own disillusionment with Mao, and move to the West. The generational gap is vast: in a similar vein, I sometimes think about my Grandad who had to deal with both wartime rationing and iPads in his lifetime.

By focussing on the rich, tightly-told tales of these individual women, Chang makes the macro-scale of historical change comprehensible on a human level. You could listen in class about the vast number of people impacted by the Cultural Revolution but the figure is abstract until you meet Chang’s relatives, friends, and community.

Necessarily sad and tragic at times, Chang’s story is uplifted by the love that keeps their family together, a redeeming hope in the pretty bleak landscape of history.

Read: If you find the scale of China, or indeed history, unfathomable.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

img_0154

Shame is one of the most powerful human emotions. When I feel ashamed I get a physiological reaction: my heart revs, a wave of heat envelops my body and I feel a strong pressure on my throat and chest.

So the psychology and sociology of shame in Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is fascinating. He frames it within a very modern lens, that of social media shamings. Amongst others, Ronson tells the story of the PR executive tweeting the spectacularly unfunny about AIDS on her way to South Africa. I remember this so clearly and thinking ‘what an idiot’.

Ronson digs deeper into what it means to be digitally shamed on social media; what was previously confined to a friendship circle now goes viral as strangers hurl abusive tweets at you. Yikes. My worst nightmare. He delves into the shamers, shamees (is that a word?), motivations, methods and madness.

I find some of the science and psychology behind this book a little fast or too convenient at times. First and foremost, Ronson is a journalist and writes at a reporter’s pace. To be fair to him though, this is a fascinating feature story.

Read: If you’ve embarrassed yourself at work this week.

The Hunt for Vulcan by Thomas Levenson

IMG_0054.JPG

I thought this was either going to be a new age snooze about how Mars is in the ascendant therefore I shouldn’t trust strangers or Star Trek fan fiction.

Actually it’s a book about how people thought there used to be a mysterious planet called Vulcan, according to Newtonian theory, and how this was debunked by the one and only Albert Einstein. This is the scientific history of the birth of astrophysics. Much more interesting than it sounds, I promise.

From Newton to Einstein and all the scientists in between, the book examines what it means to be right and wrong. It looks at proof, belief, the principles of science and how politics and ego can make these fallible. It’s the history of scientific thought.

Some of the physics was light years away from me. I understood about 60% of the science at best. No disrespect to Levenson though. It is, after all, astrophysics and I’m not sure my physics GCSE ten years ago cuts it. Instead, the book’s true cleverness is using the Vulcan story as a great hook to make complex scientific concepts more accessible for idiots like me.

Read: To understand how thinking evolves. And when you’re very sure you’re right and everyone else is wrong.

The Plantagenets by Dan Jones

image

I hate it when my dad is right. He’s been telling me to read Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets for ages. I put it off.

It looked stuffy and boring. Textbook-style title, footnotes, that sort of thing. But it doesn’t read like a traditional history book. Dan Jones is a new breed of historian who manages to create more interesting nuance and narrative out of, well, history.

I’m not inherently interested in The Plantagenets per se. They all used to blur into one for me. So it’s real credit to Jones’s eye for what interests a modern audience. The beginning of the book starts with a royal booze cruise. The heir to the English throne and all onboard get so drunk that the ship sinks, they drown and thus the course of history changes.

Each king and queen has something compelling about them- I can feel the force of their personalities through the ages; feisty Eleanor of Aquitaine, cliquey Edward II with his dubious favourites, pious but antisemitic Henry III.

Sure, you could call this history journalist style, but you need some scandal and intrigue to bring these dead monarchs to life.

Read: to be able to tell the difference between Henry I, II and III

Rebooting India by Nandan Nilekani and Viral Shah

image.jpg

Post hacking scandal and Yahoo data breach, I’m tempered to take a tech detox. Surely it was an easier time before the birth of these tech platforms?

If you want a glimpse into how technology is a force for good, this is it. Rebooting India is a book about people far cleverer than me. Nilekani and Shah have created Aadhaar, a unique identifying number linked to an individual’s biometric data. This is the start of their proposals to reboot the Indian state through the application of technology.

For example, Aadhaar allows people previously invisible to the Indian state to prove their identity, the first stepping stone to financial inclusion, voting, and other markers of citizenship. Through this platform, people can use micro-ATMs and fingerprint scanners to access cash far from a bank. Amazing.

As they move away from real life examples, it gets more conceptual and less concrete, and therefore harder to grasp for a layman like me. Bafflingly specific and process orientated, the chapter on the Indian tax system is particularly…taxing.

The larger challenges they propose to tackle are themes like education, health and energy. So while their focus is India, the lessons around innovation are universal.

Read: for cutting edge technological advancement in the real world

The Shift by Professor Lynda Gratton

image.jpg

Want to know what work will be like in 15 years time? Yup, so do I.

This is where Professor Lynda Gratton comes in. She takes past data and current trends to postulate the future. Gratton uses personas as case studies; Jill who works in increments of 15 minutes with remote global teams but never builds personal relationships or Xui Li the artisan using technology to create a hyper efficient production model.

Some of it is logical, like populations working and living longer or urbanisation. Some of it is more unusual like virtual avatars in the workplace or robot freelance agencies.

It’s all very well proffering clear, original visions of the future but Gratton is more vague as to how to meet these challenges. She suggests key ‘shifts’ we have to make: to become a serial master, to innovate collaboratively, and working for passionate personal fulfilment.

But I look to do these things anyway- this is already what I aspire to. How will I thrive in a virtual, fragmented, global-warmed world using my collaborative conference calling skills? Yikes.

I guess no one, not even Gratton, has all the answers. But at least The Shift gives you food for thought.

Read: to motivate you on that training course at work

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

image.jpg

Morbid? Certainly. Insistently, even. I’ve never read a book quite so explicitly preoccupied with dying before.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is an autobiography of Caitlin Doughty’s experience working in Westwind Crematorium and Burial. After a childhood of morbid curiosity but little actual experience of death, 23 year old Doughty gets the job to exorcise her demons.

And she does. The main characters are her colleagues, her corpses that she prepares and cremates, and their respective families. She ponders different aspects of death and dying through her own experience. Most of it is gruesome (melting human fat) and galling (dying alone, discovered weeks later).

Which is very much the intention of the book- by pondering how society treats death and the death rites of various cultures, it makes us confront the reality of human condition and our own mortality.

This makes it sound too depressing and dark. It is, but some of it is very funny. Sure, Doughty’s sarcastic, jokey Valley girl style isn’t for everyone, but you can’t help but admire her ability to find hilarity amongst death.

Read: After eating, not before. Also to get you thinking about death in a positive way.

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

image

Humboldt Bay. The Humboldt current. The Humboldt glacier. The Humboldt Squid (Yes. Really).

For a guy with lots of stuff named after him, poor Alexander von Humboldt has dropped off the map compared to bigwigs like Darwin. This biography seeks to correct and show how modern thinking stands on the shoulders of Humboldt’s work.

The famous explorer, botanist, geologist, naturalist, geographer and general renaissance man was the first to come up with the theory of an interacting, dynamic ecosystem-style universe, or Kosmos. A generally acknowledged concept today but groundbreaking at the time.

He’s a fascinating character. Hugely influential on scientists and artists alike, Humboldt seems to transcend disciplines and span the world. We follow him through the jungles of the Amazon, up volcanoes and the Andes, and through interactions with Goethe and Simon Bolivar.

Some bits are a little like an English essay. I think it’s a stretch (of credulity and reader attention) to go into detailed literary analysis of Humboldt’s language compared to Coleridge in a biography. Saying that, this book is a lovely melting pot of subjects where philosophy overlays science and factual writing can be as beautiful a poetry.

Read: if you have any interest in science or the natural world