Irish writer Boyne in the mix of weekly book picks
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism And A Radical New Way To Make A Difference by William MacAskill - published in paperback by Guardian Faber Publishing
The ice bucket challenge, no make-up selfies and Movember are some of the many popular social media campaigns that reveal just how much the British public like to help a good cause. But are we helping effectively?
This is the question posed by Scottish philosopher William MacAskill. He argues that we can - and should - apply critical thinking to decide which charity our money goes to or what we can do to help so it has the most impact, a movement he calls effective altruism. It is the premise of his groundbreaking book Doing Good Better.
It's very difficult to disagree with him here. Offering a brilliant, smart and refreshing take on the best way to make a difference in the world, MacAskill's wonderfully written vision will strike a chord with anyone who has ever wanted to help a cause.
The principles of effective altruism and how we can apply it in our everyday lives - whether through donating money, volunteering or choosing careers - is explained well and concisely in a down-to-earth and accessible tone.
It's clear MacAskill has many experiences to draw from, being co-founder of non-profit groups Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours, and he makes many insightful points.
Using his own knowledge and numerous case studies, peppered with the odd graphics to illustrate economic points, he makes a solid argument for using our heads over our hearts when it comes to doing good.
This will no doubt be an essential guide for those wanting to make a meaningful contribution to the world.
Mary Ann Pickford
The Other Side Of The World by Stephanie Bishop - published in hardback by Tinder Press
Cambridge, 1963. Charlotte is struggling to reconnect with the woman she was before the birth of her children and has lost the energy to keep up her passion for painting. Her husband Henry cannot bear the thought of another cold English winter and when a brochure for Australia drops through the letterbox offering a 'better life,' his mind is made up. Before Charlotte has enough drive to refuse, the family has relocated to an alien country, to make a new life. Stephanie Bishop expertly expresses the themes of home, nostalgia and motherhood in this emotional novel. As well as coping with a form of postnatal depression, Charlotte never really feels settled in Perth and finds it difficult to form relationships with other adults, after years and years with only her daughters for company. The novel is tenderly written, however, at points, I did find it difficult to sympathise fully with Charlotte, who seemed self-absorbed and painfully impatient with her children. Nevertheless, the dramatic ending will certainly stay with me for a long while.
Beneath The Earth: Dark And Surprising Stories by John Boyne - published in hardback by Doubleday
At least with short stories, if one doesn't wow you, there's always hope the next one might. This collection from The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas author, John Boyne, follows that pattern. However, instead of hoping the tales improve, you just find yourself urging Dublin writer Boyne to unearth a sliver of joy in the darkness he seems so set on imagining. Abuse, grief, murder, prostitution, online shaming, jealousy, punishment and psychopathic tendencies all get cleverly explored - Boy, 19 and the title story are particularly chilling - through lively writing that exposes the gloomy, fractured and seamier sides of Irish society. In fact, the collection spills over with impressive storytelling, to the extent that some plot points create nasty scars on the inside of your brain. But, in the end, it leaves you feeling rather hopeless.
We Don't Know What We're Doing by Thomas Morris - published in hardback by Faber & Faber
This debut collection of short stories tells tales of lives lived in quiet desperation, mostly in the Welsh town of Caerphilly. The characters tend to be on the dole, or about to lose their job, or otherwise stuck in a rut. They are alcoholics, or struggling with age or poverty or a failed relationship, and often just quietly going mad. There are bad parents and childhood traumas bubbling under every surface. Everywhere the attempt to just keep going is undercut by the symptoms of low-key dysfunction. In one story, a video shop assistant who's about to be made redundant embarks on a brief encounter with an older woman, a mother figure and psychotherapist who turns out to have alarming issues of her own. In another, a widowed pensioner does battle with his own senior moments as he tries to entice his neighbour Mrs Morgan to be his date at the summer fair. The best of them, All The Boys, a brilliant description of a riotously blokeish stag do, takes us out of Caerphilly and over to Dublin. Wonderfully observed, it demonstrates Morris's ear for dialogue and his fine turn of phrase. But though pacing and plot throughout are often skilful and subtle, read in quick succession some of the stories start to develop a slightly formulaic air, in both tone and structure. Excellent in parts, this is an uneven compilation overall.
One Hundred Days Of Happiness by Fausto Brizzi - published in hardback by Picador
Italian film director Fausto Brizzi's debut novel has a now-familiar premise: after a terminal cancer diagnosis, Lucio Battistini chooses to spend his final three months winning back his estranged wife and rebuilding their family. Translator Antony Shugaar does a commendable job of conveying Brizzi's humour and wit; the liberal use of English music and film references cause wonder about necessary substitutions, but otherwise the text flows and often provokes laughs. Yet Brizzi's diary-entry writing style emphasises the protagonist's shallow, selfish nature; his wife Paola and two children are barely more than a list of described attributes. A third-act road trip ramps up the action and there is a surprise conclusion, but having Lucio basically ignore 'his friend Fritz' means Brizzi avoids the upsetting, day-to-day repercussions of treating tumours. While this is a valid decision for cancer sufferers, the result is an attempt at an upbeat story that fails to ring true.
A Portrait Of An Idiot As A Young Man: Part Memoir, Part Explanation As To Why Men Are So Rubbish by Jon Holmes - published in paperback by Orion
As one of the hosts of BBC Radio 4's The Now Show and the current Breakfast Show host on XFM, Jon Holmes is known for his quick wit and often controversial sense of humour. The two are paired brilliantly in his autobiography, A Portrait Of An Idiot As A Young Man. Praised by Miranda Hart as 'Caitlin Moran meets The Inbetweeners', it's a masterclass in comedy writing, from a man who's penned jokes for impressionist Jon Culshaw and Graham Norton, worked with Armando Iannucci and won a bevy of Sony and Bafta Awards. The book, heavily steeped in seventies and eighties nostalgia, details everything from Holmes's irrational fear of spiders to the time he got kicked out of an extravagant Tory bash for ranting at Margaret Thatcher (he thinks), all enticingly introduced with chapter titles like, 'SIX: In which I sit in a bin with an erection'. But he also writes poignantly (and hilariously) about becoming a dad for the first time to daughter Isla in 2010 and reveals he was adopted - after his biological mother, just a teenager, left him with a teddy bear and some clothes she'd knitted. A coming-of-age tale, it's an instantly charming and engaging read, which will endear you to the author, as much as it will revolt and amuse you.
Worktown: The Astonishing Story Of The Project That Launched Mass Observation by David Hall - published in hardback by Weidenfeld & Nicholson
In the late 1930s, the Lancashire mill town of Bolton was the subject of a new kind of research to see how its inhabitants worked and lived. An unconventional anthropologist who'd started by studying indigenous tribes in the South Pacific, Tom Harrisson decided to treat the working class in a similar way by studying their habits. The book details how 90 observers (usually upper-class Oxbridge types), recorded minute details of everyday life, like how long it took to drink a pint, how many people walked up and down the street one day, to why people did or didn't vote in the election. The book also details how his experiment grew into the wider Mass Observation study - and his working relationship with Charles Madge, the other architect of the MO project. The social history is fascinating and the impulses that drove Harrisson to record things "objectively" have both scientific and cultural roots. He saw a gap between how he heard working people talking about the King's abdication and how the media reported feelings to be in the country. Class and class issues run throughout the book. There are parallels with today where the voice of the working class seems to be drowned out in any election debate, and the fat cats seem to be getting fatter. It's a timely, readable reminder that while everything changes, everything also stays the same.