Books 15 to 18

Further adventures in book reading.

15. Bad Science – Ben Goldacre

If I say that this reads like a better-written, more thoroughly researched version of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science website, that’s not in any way a criticism. Goldacre is witty, perceptive, mercilessly rational, and clearly explains counter-intuitive material. He’s sometimes very funny, particularly when deconstructing pseudo-science celebs like Gillian McKeith (“or, to give her full medical title: Gillian McKeith”), but the book isn’t mainly about debunking individual quacks. He’s equally critical of mainstream medicine, ‘big pharma’ and the media (at whose door he firmly lays the MMR scare), and he’s fascinated by the genuinely useful applications of the placebo effect. He also takes time to explain some of the ways in which mere human beings like ourselves tend to misunderstand statistics, risks and probabilities. A really good read.

16. The Carhullan Army – Sarah Hall

An atmospheric SF novel (‘mundane SF’, I suppose) about a near future dystopia in which shortages of resources and climate change have caused Britain to slide inexorably and believably into a V for Vendetta style police state where reproduction is controlled the the state. Sister, whose original name we never learn, steals away from her husband one night and joins a commune of independent women living in the northern Lake District, some of whom have more radical ideas about freedom.

The Lake District setting made this very evocative for me, since it’s a place I know fairly well from my childhood. It’s a novel with clear feminist themes, one in which women are every bit as strong, complex and indeed brutal as men, but it’s not judgemental and the few men in the book are not caricatures. It’s a nuanced book, blending darkness and hope. While the future world is of a familiar type, the story and the insights into identity, radicalisation and revolution are clear-eyed and fresh. In some ways this feels like a novella in that it’s short, tautly structured and makes its points sparely and efficiently. It’s all the better for it.

17. Tricks of the Mind – Derren Brown

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this. On TV Derren Brown has a scary but self-deprecating persona, a far cry from the pomposity of David Blaine, and is someone I respect because he claims no supernatural abilities. In print Brown is much the same, only less scary: an engaging, amusing writer who clearly loves to ironically play with language. He’s also disarmingly honest about his own insecurities. (“In those days I thought I had an old-world dapper charm, when in fact I looked like a gay time-traveller.”)

The book is a bit of a curate’s egg, with sections on magic, memory, hypnosis, body language, and ‘bad thinking’. The early sections are the strongest — he has some fascinating observations about the principles of misdirection, and the section on memory was revelatory for someone with a crap memory like me. In contrast the section on ‘bad thinking’, despite being informed by Brown’s past as a born-again Christian (I kid you not), would have been more interesting had I not read it on the heels of both The God Delusion and Bad Science, which make similar points in much greater detail. It’s also the one section in which his playfulness deserts him. This section reveals the book’s main weakness, which is that it’s so scattershot as to be mainly a primer for other, more detailed works (which Brown helpfully signposts). Nonetheless Brown is a deep-thinker when it comes to his craft, and the book is lifted by his undoubted experience.

18. The Blind Watchmaker – Richard Dawkins

This is a seminal popular science book on evolution written way back in 1986. Aside from how impressed Dawkins seems to be that his computer has a whole 64k of memory, it hasn’t dated a bit. It forms a useful companion piece to the following decade’s Climbing Mount Improbable (which is narrower in sweep but expands and updates some of the examples used here, such as the evolution of the eye). The opening is worryingly dry and pedantic, but once Dawkins gets up a full head of steam he provides a really fascinating, accessible account of what should by rights be very technical subject matter. He has a knack for explaining the staggering implications of the simple rules of natural selection in a way that opens up the richness (and, indeed, improbability) of the living world around us. This is science with a ‘sense of wonder’.

Hard to believe, but this brings me to twice the number of books I read in the whole of last year. Next: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.

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