Archives de catégorie : My Reading

Books read in 2017

I could explain why I haven’t posted much this year. But that would be pretty boring. So, let me just do the usual post of books read in the last year. All things (two babies) considered, I think I got a fair bit done (33), and a good variety of topics. I think my favourite would be ‘The Pike’. Special mention to Simon Fulton – a British author who wrote about his experiences setting up a hotel in southern Senegal, and sadly died in the Spring in a road accident south of Dakar.

  1. Tenth of December, by George Saunders
  2. Persuasion, by Jane Austen
  3. Like a mule bringing ice cream to the sun, by S. L. Manyika
  4. Around the world in 15 friends, by Tynan
  5. At War with Waugh, by W. E. Deedes
  6. The Pike: Gabriele d’Innunzio, by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
  7. Open City, by Teju Cole
  8. The Jesus Candidate, by James Paul Lusk
  9. Shooting milk at chameleons, by Simon Fulton
  10. Chasing hornbills, by Simon Fulton
  11. The Portrait of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
  12. Ties, by Domenica Starnone
  13. Tram 83, by Fiston Mwanza Mujila
  14. Love, Africa, by Jeffrey Gettleman
  15. Letters of John Newton, by John Newton
  16. Deep work, by Cal Newport
  17. True Friendship, by Vaughan Roberts
  18. Making sense of God, by Timothy Keller
  19. Status Anxiety, by Alain de Botton
  20. The Handmaiden’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
  21. The Church, by David Zac Niringiye
  22.  Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari
  23. The Culture Map, by Erin Meyer
  24. The Africa House, by Christina Lamb
  25. Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig
  26. The Oxford History of the French Revolution, by William Doyle
  27. Le Printemps des Pyromanes, by Abel Doualy
  28. Cote d’Ivoire – 128 jours de souffrance et douleur, by Brahima Ouattara
  29. Radio Okapi Kindu, by Jennifer Bakody
  30. Out of Africa, by Karin Blixen
  31. A Mighty Purpose: How Jim Grant sold the world on saving children, by Adam Fifield
  32. Living in the Light, by John Piper
  33. What happens when a man falls from the sky, by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Books read in 2016

There are of course many downsides to spending five months of 2016 living away from family (back in Ivory Coast for the birth of our son). But on the other hand, not many fathers of two children mainly under two, can claim to have broken their personal best for books read in the year. So, here’s this year’s list…

1. A Wilderness of Mirrors, by Mark Meynell
2. Notes from a Small island, by Bill Bryson
3. TOTC Hosea (commentary), by David A. Hubbard
4. The Leopard, by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
5. Diary of a young girl, by Anne Frank
6. Common Sense, by Thomas Paine
7. Out of the saltshaker and into the world, by R. M. Pippert
8. Our turn to eat, by Michaela Wrong
9. The message of 2 Timothy, by John Stott
10. Money Counts, by Graham Beynon
11. Gloria, by Abidemi Sanusi
12. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
13. Peaceland, by Severine Autesserre
14. In the Name of the People, by Lara Pawson
15. The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born, by Ayi Kewi Arman
16. For the Glory: The Life of Eric Liddell, by Duncan Hamilton
17. A Piano in the Pyrenes, by Tony Hawk
18. Neither here nor there, by Bill Bryson
19. Comment investir et gagner à la BRVM, by Euclide Okolou
20. C’est la folie, by Michael Wright
21. Les flamboyants d’Abidjan, by Vincent Hein
22. A Hero of Our Time, by Mikhail Lermontov
23. A Poisonous thorn in our hearts, by James Copnall
24. Growth Groups, by Colin Marshall
25. Decolonising the Mind, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o
26. The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion
27. The Unexpected Christian Century, by Scott Sunquist
28. Money Counts, by Graham Beynon (second time)
29. Aid and Authoritarianism in Africa, by Hagmann and Reyntjens
30. Commitment, by Didier Drogba
31. The Places in between, by Rory Stewart
32. Jim Grant UNICEF visionary, by various
33. War Poems, by Siegried Sassoon
34. Far from the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy
35. The Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by R. L. Stevenson
36. Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome
37. You May All Prophesy, by Steve Thompson
38. Pour Me, by A. A. Gill
39. Cailloux Blancs, by Bernard Dadié


Regular readers will know I like to have several books open at any one time. I currently have three non-fiction books half-finished, plus a Hardy novel. For the non-fiction books, one is by the son of a noble family, who sent him to Eton and whose father was a British diplomat. Another is about the son of a noted public health specialist and the grandson of a medical missionary. The third is about someone who was raised by his uncle who was himself a professional footballer who had been capped for his country, Ivory Coast.

What did these three children go on to become? The first (diplomatic father) is Rory Stewart, who became a British diplomat after graduation and is now UK Minister of State at the Department for International Development. The second (public health specialist father) is Jim Grant, who was the Executive Director of UNICEF for 15 years (1980-1995) and brought about some remarkable successes in global health. The third (adopted by professional footballing uncle) is of course Didier Drogba. The point is rather simple – the fruit does not fall far from the tree. Exceptional careers often come from people whose parents have already excelled in the same field.

Does it mean that Drogba’s children will be professional footballers? Perhaps not. But people who become world-class have often picked up a huge amount just from hanging out with their parents. Powerful counter-examples could of course be cited. But I think we don’t often give enough credit to the family contexts that people come from. In my case, it’s less the career skills, than coming from a wonderfully loving stable home, that can perhaps help me in one of the most important areas – being a good husband and father.

Are my children likely to become professional footballers, medical doctors or government ministers? Quite unlikely. They’re also unlikely to pick up anything about business from me or the creative arts. Perhaps one could bet on some sort of international career, more social science than hard science, and multi-lingual.

Are they born into immense privilege? Absolutely.

Sunday morning thoughts

(This will probably be a rambling blog post following my train of thoughts this morning.)

It’s interesting to look back and think about how we ended up where we ended up. I was just reading my Kindle (a chapter on Ugandan authoritarianism and aid, co-written as it happens, by my master’s thesis supervisor. Yesterday I was thinking about the 11 years since I was at Oxford after seeing matriculation photos of a friend from Freetown who just started a masters there, choosing St Antony’s on my recommendation. I bought the book on aid after reading a review on the LSE Africa blog), switching on the wifi to download my latest book purchase, ‘The Places in Between’ by Rory Stewart.

I’d bought Stewart’s book after reading a blog post by Owen Barder on an event/discussion he’d held with Rory Stewart who is apparently now a minister in the new UK Government. I’d looked up Stewart’s profile on Wikipedia, as I like to see how interesting people get to where they are (perhaps to confirm my suspicions that it’s often a privileged path to the top), and I saw that he’d written a bestselling book about walking across Afghanistan (well from Herat to Kabul). That provoked two thoughts – firstly that in 2014 I was in Herat and Kabul, and that I’d been rather intrigued by the area in between, though sadly a planned trip had fallen through (I think principally because of heavy snow). Secondly, I recall reading a review in the Sunday Times when Stewart’s book came out, which must be over a decade ago, and I’d filed it in my brain as a book I’d like to read sometime.

Some time in my early teens, our family started to get the Sunday Times. I actually have no idea why this happened, but it quickly became a Sunday tradition after church, and each of us would have our favourite parts. It may have been that the first time we ever bought the paper was while on holiday in Switzerland, to get some news of back home, though this could be wrong. I was probably more thorough than most in flicking through every single part (job adverts aside), but my particular favourite bit was the book reviews (which later became a ‘Culture’ section as the paper grew exponentially in size and cost over the years). This led directly to my first book purchases on Amazon, which if my memory serves me correctly were a travel book (by another Stewart (Stanley) about riding across Mongolia on horseback. I recently recommended this book to a British colleague working in our Nigeria office who in August was riding across Mongolia on horseback) and Ryszard Kapuscinki’s Shadow of the Sun, a memoir of the Polish journalist’s time in Africa.

(The days before Amazon were distinctly odd. In my early teens I had an interest in the history of the Spanish Main after many hours spent playing ‘Pirates’ on our Amiga computer. I remember going to our local bookshop, and saying I wanted to buy a book on pirates. The old man fired up the computer and had some odd black and green database which showed up books with the word ‘Pirates’ in them. We chose one and ordered, though we can have had very little idea on whether the book was suitable. I don’t recall being too impressed by it. The two other books pre-Amazon I remember buying were a massive chronicle of the Second World War, which I received as a school prize giving gift (I had to combine several book vouchers from different prizes), and a book called ‘Darwin on Trial’ from an early flirtation with anti-evolution theory. The bookshop has long since closed.)

Shadow of the Sun is one of the books I think of when I wonder how I got this fixation with becoming a journalist in Africa (I read a blog post by ex BBC Angola correspondent Lara Pawson on this theme yesterday). Foreign correspondents often come from families with former colonial district commissioners, just like writers often come from academic/teacher/writer parents. In my case, it was a long time before I met an actual journalist or writer, so I think the encounter with Kapuscinski’s writings was formative. Other elements that I think pushed me in this direction were a Swiss friend I very much admired, who once suggested that he would give up teaching and do missionary work and freelance journalism in Africa (he did the former, I did the latter). I also knew from career books that journalism was one of the things that history graduates did after leaving university (the other main choice seemed to be teaching).

But I also think back to the odd sudden arrival of the Sunday Times in our lives, which actually later expanded into receiving The Times every day of the week (I think we got some extraordinary price for the paper through a mail offer). For several years, I would read the paper cover to cover after getting back from school. It must have pushed me to expand my horizons. Coincidentally this morning I had breakfast to a Tim Ferris podcast in which he was giving advice to parents that in their mid-teens, children would really benefit from becoming better at reading, good writing and public speaking – skills that pay off later on in almost every area of life.

Ramble over.


It’s been a good morning on two fronts (base and elevated) – firstly the bathroom scales displayed 74.6kg, so a month late, I’ve hit my 2015 goal of getting under 75kg. And I had a bit of time free before coming into work, so I finished off an Italian novel; ‘The Leopard’ by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. There’s something special about finishing a novel and still getting into the office by 7am.

I’d never heard of ‘The Leopard’ until about 18 months ago when I read ‘How to be well read’ by John Sutherland, which consists of lots of different pen portraits of the great works of literature (I think he covers about 500). Sutherland was profuse in his praise for ‘The Leopard’, which was interesting as I’d never heard of the book or indeed heard it being referenced. Hearing about an amazing (and yes, short) novel attracted my curiosity. It is an incredible book, telling the story of a noble Sicilian family around the time of the creation of Italy (1860s, Garibaldi et al). It’s witty and very moving.

I haven’t delved much into Italian culture – but from the little I’ve seen (‘The Leopard’, and films like ‘Dolce Vita’ and ‘The Great Beauty’), there seems to be a common set of themes – of past greatness, nostalgia, worship of high culture, the Catholic church, aesthetic/erotic pleasures, and decline. Admittedly my sample size is not large for these generalizations. In other literary cultures, I’d most compare the spirit to the one you find in ‘Brideshead Revisited’ or ‘One hundred years of solitude’.

I’ve spent very little time in Italy: a few brief hops over the border from Switzerland, and a week hitch-hiking from Ancona to Florence in 1999. The beauty of even the most simple dwellings makes it a country I definitely want to spend more time visiting in the future.

I leave you with three quotes from ‘The Leopard’ (I’ve only just figured out Kindle highlights):

« The two young people looked at the picture with complete lack of interest. For both of them death was purely an intellectual concept, a facet of knowledge as it were and no more, not an experience which pierced the marrow of their bones. Death, oh, yes, it existed of course, but was something that happened to others. The thought occurred to Don Fabrizio that it was inner ignorance of this supreme consolation which makes the young feel sorrows much more sharply than the old; the latter are nearer the safety exit. »

« free as he was from the shackles imposed on many other men by honesty, decency and plain good manners, he moved through the forest of life with the confidence of an elephant which advances in a straight line, rooting up trees and trampling down lairs, without even noticing scratches of thorns and moans from the crushed. »

« They were the most moving sight there, two young people in love dancing together, blind to each other’s defects, deaf to the warnings of fate, deluding themselves that the whole course of their lives would be as smooth as the ballroom floor, unknowing actors set to play the parts of Juliet and Romeo by a director who had concealed the fact that tomb and poison were already in the script. Neither was good, each self-interested, turgid with secret aims; yet there was something sweet and touching about them both; those murky but ingenuous ambitions of theirs were obliterated by the words of jesting tenderness he was murmuring in her ear, by the scent of her hair, by the mutual clasp of those bodies destined to die. »

Down and Out

Just finished reading Orwell’s ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’. It’s a quick and easy read, and enjoyable writing too. I do wish the two parts – Paris and London – had been better sown together, though I understand they were written at slightly different times. Still, I would have been personally interested in more comparative discussion.

Otherwise, the book raised a number of interesting points including the humiliation of being the object of charity. Have we yet heard the voice of the Ethiopian or the Central African on what it feels like to be given hand-outs? Would their perspective be the same as that given by Orwell or are cultural outlooks vastly different when it comes to being the recipient of gifts, including with conditionality?

It’s true that Orwell was far from a typical tramp, and indeed perhaps not even a ‘genuine’ tramp. So perhaps in the same way in Africa we need a writer to try to come alongside the poor to be a bridge to these experiences.

Thinking fast and slow

I just finished an interesting book recommended to me by a friend in Nairobi after he read one of the posts here. I later discovered that another friend had previously recommended the book to me in 2013 when I’d added it to my wishlist. It’s ‘Thinking, fast and slow’, by Daniel Kahneman winner of the Noble prize for Economics.

The book is on the long side, but it reveals some interesting facets of human thinking, explaining how the brain works and how that causes us to make rather non-rational choices.

Here’s a quick summary of the various traps we fall into…
– We often form quick impressions/decisions (‘system 1’) but without the hard-thinking of ‘system 2’. We prefer system 1 because it requires a lot less effort, and we’re lazy thinkers.
– We like things that make sense (are coherent), and so we often impose a story on the world priming us to see certain things that aren’t there.
– When thoughts are easy to think, we tend to conclude they are more true. Things that are repeated seem more true, as does familiarity. Mood and ease of reading a text are also factors that make things seem more true.
– We have a tendency to impose causality and will even on events that are entirely random. This is a feature of system 1 which also struggles with statistics and probabilities.
– Our thinking makes jumps to conclusions that may not be justified.
– We often let our system 1 answer a different question to the one that is asked.
– We let system 1 assume that all that we perceive is all there is when understanding something.
– We struggle to cope with ‘regression to the mean’.
– So-called experts are often wrong in making predictions though we like gurus.
– We don’t take into account where we come from, which makes a huge difference to our appreciation of things like losing and gaining money. We accept high risks to avoid losses but prefer a sure outcome when it comes to gaining. We struggle to abandon losers and don’t forget about sunk costs. We sell shares that are doing well and keep hold of shares that are doing badly.
– Our experiencing self is very different from our remembering self. We can actually chose to repeat more painful experiences because our memories are skewered against duration, and weighted towards how the experience ended.

Reading the book certainly makes me more dubious about ‘explanations’, ‘evidence’ and learning lessons. I’ve caught myself internally asking more questions when people say that X undoubtedly happened because Y.

Books read in 2014

It was a record year for book reading, with a goal of 25 books compared to 35 read. Certainly long assignments and a book club in Dubai helped. I also bought rather too many books – my new rule for 2015 is not to have more than four pages of unread books on my Kindle.

1. The witch doctor of Um Suqueim, by Craig Hawes
2. Islam, a short history, by Karen Armstrong
3. 21 Reasons you think you don’t have time to write, by Mette Ivie Harrison
4. The Forty Rules of Love, by Elif Safak
5. Guns, Germs & Steel, by Jared Diamond
6. Symposium, by Plato
7. Akendewa, by Jean-Patrick Ehouman
8. One story of entrepreneurship in Africa, by Ashley Heacock
9. The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, by D. A. Carson
10. The Christian Husband, by Colin Hamer
11. Dark Star Safari, by Paul Theroux
12. Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert
13. The Gnostic gospels of Thomas, Mary & John
14. Kim, by Rudyard Kipling
15. Peoples and Empires, by Anthony Pagden
16. Brideshead revisited, by Eveyln Waugh
17. Stringer, by Anjan Sundaram
18. The Beach, by Alex Garland
19. No Ordinary book, by Philip Saunders
20. The Bible
21. Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
22. Goldfinger, by Ian Fleming
23. Fatherhood, by Tony Payne
24. The Qu’ran
25. La Vie comme elle va, by Israel Yoroba Guebo
26. How to be well-read, by John Sutherland
27. Cross and Crescent, by Colin Chapman
28. The Message of 2 Timothy, by John Stott
29. Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life, by Artur Domosławski
30. The Iraqi Christ, by Hassan Blasim
31. The Gospel for Muslims, by Steve Bell
32. To the letter: A journey through a vanishing world, by Simon Garfield
33. Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson
34. Thinking fast and slow, by Daniel K
35. Le Continent des nuages, by William Tedje Ahouma

Unattainable goals

I read an interesting blog post recently on the Lie of Busy, addressing issues of productivity and work-life balance. Much of the advice I’d read before (the danger of email processing etc), but i still think it’s a good summary. If you’re ‘busy’ just skip down and read the five lies halfway down and then there are nine practical tips on productivity.

I was particularly struck by the first one – the lie of temporary. That’s the idea that we’re working hard for something in the short-term for that ‘one day’ in the future when we can relax. Sort of like the person who works so hard for retirement, and then dies a month later. Much busyness has no goal or finish point – the goalposts move. I’ve been thinking particularly of my targets in fitness and reading. On the fitness, I can work really hard, every day, and even if I sculpt the perfect torso and an amazing level of fitness, it’ll start fading the moment I stop training, and stopping the intensity is inevitable. On reading – I try to read around 30 books a year. But in the US around a million different books are published each year. if I read 30 or 50 books a year makes very little difference. By the end of my life, I’ll have barely made a dent in the world’s canon of great books. We haven’t even begun to talk about the amazing plays and films out there.

So, honestly what’s the point? A key idea in the article is to enjoy the journey, because there’s no destination at the end, so don’t expect the pleasure to come then. If you’re not enjoying getting fit, then forget it. If you’re not enjoying the reading, don’t bother, put the book down. is there a point working for that six pack? Especially if you’re no longer a teenager dreaming of attracting girls? Probably not, or at least be realistic that you can have a nicer body – something your wife might appreciate for a few years, and then let it go when you hit forty. You’ll never be fit enough or well-read enough. And if we got political, the consumer society wants you to keep running on the treadmill until you drop.

Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life, by Artur Domosławski

If there’s one book that pushed me towards Africa, it’s probably the mix of reportage and musings in Ryszard Kapuściński’s ‘Shadow of the Sun‘. It came out just as I started buying books and after reading the review in The Sunday Times, I bought it in hardback, reading in the car on the way to the annual family holiday in Switzerland. I haven’t read it since, though I should return to it. I read everything else he published in English, including ‘The Soccer War’ several times, which I rank as one of my favourite books.

Even back then I remember wondering why the dust jackets spoke of his friendship with Allende, Lumumba and Che, and yet I never came across those stories inside. I always thought that incredible stories of meeting these men must be in some other books of his that I hadn’t yet found. It turns out that for two out of the three, they almost certainly never met.

As this biography reveals and as we all now know, RK was rather fond of the odd embellishment, enhancing the details, not correcting mistakes that made him seem bigger than he was, and casting himself as the hero of every tale. As Domosławski’s work makes clear (which I finished this morning), RK was a man hiding secrets – that he had done some minor work for the Polish intelligence services and that he had been a card carrying member of the Polish ruling party (socialist).

While RK’s reputation is not what it was, I still have a deep respect for his writing, and an ambition to follow some of his style – telling tales from the bottom up, seeking an anti-imperialist perspective, and the literary writing.

Two other things struck me in the book:

i) He was consumed by the need to write. It would eat him up, increasingly so as he got older. Even in his younger days, he would get stressed when not spending time writing, becoming angry at parties that he needed to be back home writing. The book controversially talks about his numerous affairs – often these would be broken up after a few months because he would feel they were taking him away from his writing.
ii) When you hear about Poland in the 50s and 60s, it’s remarkable what a different age it seems. People were debating ideas, fighting for causes, looking for pure principles. Do we even have idealists nowadays? People who believe in ideas and put them at the centre of their lives? Ryzard himself said a similar thing at the end – he lamented how he found the poor in Latin America no longer ambitious for reform and liberation, but simply for their own slice of Coca-cola consumerism.

RK was no model husband or father. His long-suffering wife was always there behind the scenes, but many didn’t even know she existed, and he seems to have thought little about abandoning her for long travels to far-off lands. His relations with his sole daughter make for difficult reading. Why do remarkable men frequently turn out to be terrible fathers and husbands? Is it one or the other?