A Song for Sunday with Arcade Fire

Couldn’t find any interesting new releases this week, so instead, here’s an Arcade Fire track guaranteed to put a spanner into the rhythm of your morning! The band had the idea to write “a happy song with a f—ed – up time signature” and they outdid themselves.

The verse has a regular bar of 5/4 throw against the 4/4 which would be unusual enough, but it’s all the more discombobulating on account of a heavy tom accent that strikes a half beat before each return to 4/4. If you’re able to air-drum along to the first beat of each bar with the tom strike…you’re a better man than I.

In any case, love this track — have a listen:

Book 44: Piranesi – Suzanna Clarke

Susanna Clarke’s 2004 debut ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ was an astonishing piece of writing — an epic, a masterpiece! Many people, including myself, eagerly expected more of the same, but the follow-up novel never came. Years went by. Clarke re-released a collection of short stories a few years ago, but nothing else. Clarke mentioned in 2007 that ill health was slowing her progress on new material but I don’t think anyone expected to have to wait until this year for a new novel announcement to come. On finding out in August that Piranesi was about to be released, I pre-ordered a copy and waited.

When the book finally arrived after nearly two months (nice work, Royal Mail) I held it in my hands with trepidation…15 years builds a strange kind of expectation.

This is fiction so I’m not going to spoil the party. I will say though, that you need to give the book a good 50 pages (even 100) to take shape. Unlike her previous novel, the peculiar setting is not immediately relatable so it needs a little time, even if the style of the writing feels familiar.

I can also say that the book was over far too soon. At about 240 sparse pages, with large, frequent subtitles, I went through this all too fast. Take a look at page one to give you an idea:

In all honesty this read more like a novella than a novel. This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it of course, just that after the epic 1000+ page Johnathan Strange, I had expected, well, more.

With that said, Piranesi is a rewarding read and left me with a smile. It doesn’t have the magisterial sweep of her previous novel, nor enough development or detail to fully immerse the reader but it’s still intriguing and quietly beautiful in its own way — and most importantly it has the author writing/publishing again. We can only hope that this will be the first of many more.

Recommended.

A Tale of Two Cities

This recent opinion piece in the Washington Post made for interesting reading.

In the article, a US national living in Hong Kong describes her experiences of travelling in and out of Hong Kong and New York — two cities of a similar size. As she points out, Hong Kong has a clear, ongoing determination to tackle the virus whereas New York has struggled to mount a coordinated response. The Hong Kong approach would be difficult to implement in the states of course, but it seems that even basic steps would have a big impact.

One thing that wasn’t mentioned was that the whole of Hong Kong has been wearing masks every day for more than 10 months, without complaint…quite an effort you’d have to say.

Book 43 : Benjamin Franklin – Walter Isaacson.

Walter Isaacson did an outstanding job on his biography of Steve Jobs, so when his work on Benjamin Franklin came up on Scribd, I pressed ‘play‘.

Elon Musk Favorite Books - Business Insider

What impressed most about Franklin’s life was the breadth of the man. In today’s world of hyper-specialisation the range of his interests and accomplishments were startling:

He was, during his eighty-four-year-long life, America’s best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, and business strategist, and he was also one of its most practical, though not most profound, political thinkers. He proved by flying a kite that lightning was electricity, and he invented a rod to tame it. He devised bifocal glasses and clean-burning stoves, charts of the Gulf Stream and theories about the contagious nature of the common cold. He launched various civic improvement schemes, such as a lending library, college, volunteer fire corps, insurance association, and matching grant fund-raiser. He helped invent America’s unique style of homespun humor and philosophical pragmatism. In foreign policy, he created an approach that wove together idealism with balance-of-power realism. And in politics, he proposed seminal plans for uniting the colonies and creating a federal model for a national government.

Benjamin Franklin – Walter Isacsson P.2

Unlike many biographies that have a clear arc, the stages of Franklin’s life were so varied and diverse as to almost seem a patchwork of multiple lives. The passage above is only a partial list as well — you can’t help but marvel at the man’s cognitive bandwidth! His set of accomplishments was extended by the uncommonly long life he led (he was 81 when attending the Constitution Convention of 1787) dying in 1790, at 84 years old.

Franklin had little formal education but an incredible capacity for innovation, self improvement and hard work. He was a strong believer in guiding principles — so much so that he developed a list of 13 virtues that he logged on a weekly basis. The virtues were:

  1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
  11. Tranquillity. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

What doesn’t come through in these virtues is the kindness and good humour of the man. He was a great conversationalist and by all accounts interested in people of all stripes. While Isaacson doesn’t sufficiently explore the emotional distance he had from his wife and son, it seems that the great man was well-disposed to almost everybody else.

Full-scale biographies like these require quite an investment of time, but this biography ended up being a worthwhile read. From a historical perspective, Franklin played a crucial role in the establishment of the USA as a country, being the only man to sign all four foundational documents: The Declaration of Independence (1776), The Treaty of Alliance with France (1778), The Treaty of Paris (1783) and The U.S. Constitution (1787), so for those unfamiliar with how the States came to be, Franklin’s story serves as a good primer.

Generally this is a meticulous and well-written portrait of one of America’s founding fathers, a man of considerable gifts and talents, and an obvious role model for those of us who wish to live life to the fullest.

Recommended.

For a suitable musical accompaniment, have a listen to the glass armonica. Franklin invented the instrument in 1762. Both Mozart and Beethoven wrote pieces for the instrument….

Kindle 2.0: The Oasis

Amazon’s Kindle is a miraculous, life-enhancing piece of technology, and the Paperwhite has been a treasured companion of mine since 2014. I was aware there was a range of readers but I had never seen the need to investigate them — that was until a local shop put the full range of Kindle readers out on display. There I got my hands on their flagship offering: The Oasis.

Although slightly more expensive, this model increases the screen size. For me, this is quite a big deal, for the 7″ screen starts to resemble the dimensions of a real book. They’ve added physical buttons and a warm night light as well but for me it’s all about the screen. I spend a lot of time reading on the Kindle so didn’t have to spend too much thinking about whether to upgrade.

It arrived this morning…

Full comparison with the Paperwhite to follow!

Book 42: The Madness of Crowds- Douglas Murray

Douglas Murray is a British academic, journalist and best-selling author who doesn’t shy away from our most controversial topics.

His latest book, ‘The Madness of Crowds’ explores how gender, race and identity have changed the cultural landscape of the 21st century — and not in a positive way:

We are going through a great crowd derangement. In public and in private, both online and off, people are behaving in ways that are increasingly irrational, feverish, herd-like and simply unpleasant. The daily news cycle is filled with the consequences. Yet while we see the symptoms everywhere, we do not see the causes.”

The Madness of Crowds- Douglas Murray

Murray looks to sexuality, gender and race to find the causes, and he divides up the book with fairly equal attention to these topics. This book provides a persuasive overview of these themes, albeit from a conservative point of view. His biases are clear throughout but there’s more than enough here to convince the impartial reader of the fact that the weaponisation of identity is fundamentally interfering with civil, rational discourse. The ‘cancel culture’ we see around us is a clear example of this.

Issues surrounding identity have become among the most important of our time. They receive overwhelming attention in the news and are massively amplified by social media. Navigating their ever-changing nature is an ongoing challenge particularly when open, honest conversation can be so quickly shut down by hostile, interest groups. And without free, and open discussion around these issues, Murray argues that we should expect more tribalism, division and violence in the years to come.

This is a thought-provoking book and a recommended read, particularly given the times we find ourselves in.

Amazon.com: The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity  (9781635579987): Murray, Douglas: Books

‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ Wins

Back in 2008, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a talk at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London, and I went along for a look. Soon after her public talk, I read her best-selling ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’. The book, which had already won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2007, was superb. Telling the story of the Biafran War (1967-70) through a compelling cast of characters, the book brought this harrowing chapter of Nigerian history to a wider audience.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — allie's reading hole

Skip ahead to 2020 — the judges at the ‘Women’s Prize for Fiction’ have just declared the book to be the ‘best of best’:

If you’re searching for an interesting read, give this one a closer look— it’s fantastic.