Messy – Tim Harford

As one of the BBC’s top statistics correspondents, Harford is not the person I would expet to write a book subtitled “How to be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World”.  But this is not a book on tidying, but on how the human brain requires opportunity to be creative, new constraints to seek new solutions and move outside our comfort zones.

Now in the spirit of “forced improvisation”, a quote from a page picked at random:

As Bezos [of Amazon] liked to say during the crunches of 1998 and 1999, ‘If you are planning more than twenty minutes ahead in this environment, you are wasting your time.’ He was a man in a hurry. No wonder he created such an almighty mess.

This was from a chapter titled “Winning” and describes how some successful military and business tactics involve making “good enough” decisions so fast that your opponents are unable to react. This is also descibed as Trump’s tactic as getting inside his opponents’ OODA loop such that they are incapable of reacting before he has moved onto his next tactic.

Overall this is a fascinating look at how to keep yourself on your toes, and the benefits that can come from doing so. I’m still going to keep my tidy desk though!

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

The premise of this book, that Death is telling a story is often forgotten throughout this book, only reaching in when Death touches Liesel’s life directly. Otherwise we see the world as a generic third-party narrator, following Liesel directly.

But it is a compelling tale, speaking of bravery, learning and compassion in a small town during the rise of Nazi Germany. Leisel relearns love and friendship in her foster home, as well as poverty and cruelty. And throughout the common theme is the stealing of books, and what that give to her.

Whilst the cover and the description did not make me pick this up with any degree of urgency, once I was a chapter in I needed to keep reading to find out Liesel’s fate.

A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler

This has been on the bookshelf for ages – it was actually chosen by my son to give to my husband for Christmas. But it looked interesting so once he’d read it it was snagged into my “to read” pile. Not a compelling plot, but a slow reflection on life and the changes that took place through the twentieth century.

I read this whilst on a ski holiday in the Alps, drinking in the worms-eye view on the sweeping change that came with the development of cable cars and ski holidays, and ultimately year-round tourism. Plus the depth of grief, along with the sense of space in the mountains, which drive the development of Egger’s character.

I have ordered this in the original German to read in that as well.

Human Universe – Professor Brian Cox & Andrew Cohen

Cox calls this book a love letter to mankind, but it is more than that. It is a humanist manifesto for the future.

We learn about how the universe came to be, and how we came to be in it. This includes a fly-through of physics from the classical view of the world to general relativity and beyond. All described in language which feels accessible (although having failed Gen. Relativity at final year degree level, my starting point might be higher than expected). Then we cover biology, and the whole thing is wrapped up with basic statistics, and especially that our high level of unlikeliness is irrelevant, because to be asking that question we had to have happened.

Of course, being Cox he wants to see us in space, an idea I support, given the whole universe out there.

It is a desire to reach out to others, to attempt contact even when the chances are vanishingly small; a wish not to be alone. The golden disks are futile and yet filled with hope.

(on the Voyager space probes)

He has an infectious enthusiasm for what humanity is capable of, given how little we’ve changed since we walked out of the Rift Valley, and inspires a belief in the idea that we can do more.

Being in the midst of rereading The Sense of Style, I really appreciated the Classic Style writing in this book, it is beautifully written, and flows fantastically. I however appreciated less the thought experiment as to how I could tell I wasn’t on an aeroplane. Pro tip: works better if you aren’t really on an aeroplane at the time.

The Fractal Prince – Hannu Rajaniemi

I’d forgotten what a colourful romp The Quantum Thief was until I spotted The Fractal Prince in a bookshop and remembered I’d planned to look out for the sequel.

This is the sequel Quantum Thief deserves. Fast-paced, complex and laden with future tech. It did require a careful reread of both together to understand what was going on and catch up with the contexts again. There are all the twists and setups that can be expected, with characters delighting in their own cleverness.

In addition a new race (or species?) is introduced with their own history, culture and practices to preserve themselves. This adds new intricacies to the dance for power, and a refreshing narrative to weave throughout this book.

Why We Run: A Natural History – Bernd Heinrich

I’m not quite sure what I expected from Why We Run, but how it opened up wasn’t it. The structure of the book is very much of why/how Heinrich decided to train as an Ultramarathon runner. So we start with how he started doing cross-county running as a chilld and how he dealt with injuries.

But as the chapters slip by we benefit more and more from Heinrich’s academic knowledge as a zoologist, looking at styles of running and movement across nature. We find out how antelopes run, and how humans can catch them if they have the intelligence to co-ordinate and the stamina to run for longer than antelopes, even if we can’t beat them in a sprint.

He then moves away from the mammals to look at migrating species and how they sustain swift movement for days at a time in terms of energy and muscle usage.

There is definitely some psuedo-science in here, with a use of E=mc² to describe eating, weight and running speed which is not quite the speed or mass that are referred to! But he is open about being a zooligist, but should probably have stayed away from special relativity!

He then explores how he trialled different training styles, diets and lifestyles to understand what works for him as a runner, and how he turns that into racing strategy, and what that means in terms of racing results.

I may never be even a conventional marathon runner, but this exploration of our bodies’ running capability definitely inspires me to keep heading out for a run in the country.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce

This year’s summer holiday was a tour of Europe in our camper van. The most important part of packing for this was obviously a trip to the local bookshop and I had travelling on the mind.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage is less light than the cover suggests, but still a long way from heavy literature.

Harold receives a letter from a woman he knew decades previously who is now dying. He then feels an urge to make a journey, or pilgrimage, across England. We then explore how this affects those around him and his reflections on how his life ended up how it has.

He also understands the different ways of travelling, what equipment is necessary, his needs in terms of companionship and what just doesn’t matter for the purpose of his journey.

We also travel through the perspective of his wife, the woman left behind, and the shame and uncertainty of being in that position

There are a couple of twists at the end, both of which are well set-up, but I certainly found one to be unnecessary and setting the ending up to be a disappointment.