The best reads of 2017 – so far

If you’re looking for reading recommendations or simply want to see what we’ve read this year (I know I like to compare reading lists) here’s a summary of the best books we’ve read so far this year. Comments, criticisms and future reading suggestions are welcome!

Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates – Fi

Both of us hit 29 this year and since both the characters of this novel are the same age as us, I thought it worth a read. I hoped that the book might hold a key to understanding life at this age, and I definitely feel that it had a warning to readers in their twenties. The main characters, Frank and April, live with their two children in the suburbs of America, lamenting the banal, normal life they lead. Soon, April decides that the only way to break away from their ordinary life is to move to Europe, in particular to Paris.

If this brief synopsis sounds dull, I assure you the book is anything but. The novel shows, perhaps in the best way I’ve read, the far-reaching and at times damaging effects parents can have on their children. The way they have shaped their life, the reason adults act in certain ways and make certain decisions, often unknowingly even to them, is explained through their relationships with their parents. I’ll leave you to decide which character rebelled and which embraced the life of their parents.

And, perhaps more obviously, and what the novel is most famous for, is a comment on the suburban life, still relevant today (hands up who grew in the suburbs) and our continued belief that there is only one way of living, and we will crush anyone who tries to do differently. I loved this book. I dare you to hate it.

If being crazy means living life as if it matters, then I don’t mind being completely insane.” – April Wheeler.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, Olivia Laing – Fi

I bought this book not really knowing what to expect, so let me give you my general impression. Imagine a book that’s part autobiographical, but each chapter focuses on providing you with a biography of the loneliness felt by a different artist. The genre swings from their to art history and psychology. You’ll come to find out more about super famous artists such as Andy Warhol and Edward Hopper, but also learn to feel for photographers and writers you’ve never heard before, such as David Wojnarowicz and Valerie Solanas, who prove to be even more interesting. You’ll learn a lot more about the shocking effects of loneliness on a person and it will make you feel guilty for not reaching out and connecting to people more.

As a side note, this book looked like awesome fun to write – the author pretty much went from museum to museum, looking at art works and writings in archives and generally just having a nosy about.

But humans are social creatures too, and also tend to cast out individuals who do not fit easily into the group. People who are not socially fluent, who have not been given a loving training in how to play and engage, how to join in and situate themselves, are farm more likely to elicit instances of rejection” – Olivia Laing

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A Mind for Numbers, by Barbara Oakley – Jonny

Don’t let the title of this book deceive you – it’s connections to numbers are minimal. Really it should take the title of the Coursera course, also lead by Oakley, which led me to it: ‘Learning to Learn’. While written primarily for the undergraduate of a problem based course (such as the hard sciences or maths) this book has a broad applicability to attempting to learn any subject. This is because it clearly, but authoritatively, explains current understanding of how the mind works when learning and what techniques you can use to help your brain do the heavy lifting.

Central to the message of the book are two key notions: the power of not focusing, and the active steps you can take to force your brain to change its structure. I have so far used what I have learnt to develop my understanding of working with students with Specific Learning Differences and Autism Spectrum Disorder. With this I have been applying the problem learning methodologies it suggests with much more complex issues such as: “Your tutee, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD, Depression, and with a history of being ostracised at school, comes out to you as gay, how do you respond?” I have found that the methodologies in the book have allowed me to recall and link different areas of relevant knowledge very effectively.

I wish I had had this book years ago!

Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake – Jonny

This was actually a re-read but it had a curious effect on me. Dreams have always played a significant role in my life, often being clear indicators of my emotional state. I have seen vast rainbow coloured snowflakes shimmering like electricity falling all around me, and things too horrific to repeat. But throughout 2016 my dreams had actually begun to fade somewhat, and I was remembering them less frequently. Then in February this year I re-read Titus Groan (after a gap of maybe ten years) and, throughout that week and since, a sluice gate was opened and the dreams returned with a vengeance.

The deep magic of Peake’s writing – which is given free reign in his Gormenghast trilogy, but more subtle in his other writings like Mr Pye – is that more than any other writer in English I’ve encountered, he captures in words what is normally only captured in art: that is the rich emotional, spiritual, and intellectual significance of things. It is in description therefore that you dwell in reading this novel, description as twisting and frightening, beautiful and ragged, as the crumbling castle that he describes.

Literature can be said to exist on two levels – narrative and writing. Peake at times brings the two together in ways rarely seen in prose (Henry James springs to mind as having an equivalent, though quite different, expertise). The narrative itself can at times wander and verge on the highly symbolic, and descriptions of character’s internal lives can leave you hungry for a depiction of columns, but it never leaves you unmoved. For, behind it all, the Gormenghast trilogy is a tale about sadly human figures trapped inside grossly unfeeling ritualistic patterns of life – that surface layer which, like the heroes and heroines of Revolutionary Road, resists alteration with all its deadly might.

“Across the stoniness of his eyes a strange light would pass for a moment, as though the moon were flaring on the gristle, and his lips would open and the gash of his mouth would widen in a dead, climbing curve” Describing the Lord Sepulchrave, Earl of Groan

The Player’s Handbook (Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition) – Jonny

A final quick word from me, but –  I never thought I would play D&D in my life, however we found some people to play with, in Chongqing of all places. I bought this book, read this book, and am now playing the funniest, most engaging game I have ever played in my life. Try watching some people play on YouTube (This is a fun and short one: https://youtu.be/Tr8l_VnRfvA) and start wondering, who do I know who might want to become a Half-Orc Warlock for an afternoon?

-Fi and Jonny

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