This unusual trio of topics represent some recent(ish) non-fiction reading for me. I sometimes find non-fiction tricky to write about, because you should probably include all sorts of information from the book – particularly in a biography, where a review usually gives an overview of the person’s life. So I’ve grouped these three into one post where I give a mini-mini-mini-review of each. Sound good? Fab.
Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (2015) by Rob Brotherton
I’ve always been interested in conspiracy theories – without a single moment’s credulity, to make my position clear – and I was drawn to Brotherton’s look at the psychology of conspiracy theorists. I love pop psychology, and – while Brotherton doesn’t quite have the warmth of my great love Oliver Sacks – he is witty and thoughtful, and not at all quick to judge. This looks a little at some high-profile conspiracy theories – 9/11, JFK, Princess Diana – but mostly at the psychology that helps explain why some people are more likely than others to believe conspiracy theories.
Apparently there is no significant difference on the lines of gender, age, or political allegiance – obviously certain theories (the Obama birth certificate nonsense, anyone?) appeal to certain places on the political spectrum, but there’s no difference in propensity to believe. Brotherton does a great job of detailing many experiments from many other scientists which, pieced together, give a good picture. Did you know, for instance, that most people shake dice more rigorously for higher numbers? Or that you’re less likely to buy into a conspiracy theory if you’ve just done some tidying? This is such an interesting book.
When Breath Becomes Air (2016) by Paul Kalanithi
Everybody seemed to be reading this last year, and my friend and colleague Kate lent it to me… ages ago, tbh, but I finally got around to reading it recently. For those who don’t know, this was written by a young neurosurgeon who discovered that he had terminal lung cancer – indeed he died before the book was published.
The scene of diagnosis is very close to the beginning – after that, Kalanithi jumps back to his student days. He actually started life as an English major, and that helps explain why his writing is good (and why he peppers it so well with apt literary quotation). We are taken through the challenging life of somebody becoming a neurologist – I did end up skimming the fairly graphic sections on operations – until we come full circle to the diagnosis. And the second half of the book is beautiful and heart-breaking: the ups and downs of life after being told that you will die, though without knowing when. It is reflective, thoughtful, and the end made me cry on the bus.
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
I read this agggges ago, for Shiny New Books, but I had terrible RSI when it came to the review-writing stage, and had to give it a miss. I always hoped to follow up with a proper review, but it’s now been too long and I don’t remember enough about it…
It’s a very long book, and filled with all the interesting details you could want to know about Jackson’s childhood, marriage, and career. I was surprised by how autobiographical many of her novels turned out to be – and Franklin does a brilliant job at showing us the contrasts between the family life Jackson projects in her amusing domestic memoirs and her less happy reality. My problems (outweighed by how fascinating I found it) were chiefly that we had so much detail about her husband’s life – including before they met each other – which felt unnecessary, and made the book too long. And Jackson’s mother is mentioned an awful lot – and only twice (I counted!) does it not come with a comment from Franklin on what a terrible mother she was. It began to feel surreal. (But it’s still a really enjoyable and interesting biography!)
There you have it – a little pile of non-fiction, covering probably about as diverse a spectrum of interests as I have. Let me know if you’ve read any, or want to!