All That Man Is – David Szalay

Shakespearean in scope but with thanks to RyanAir for its characterisation, Szalay’s nine short stories featured nine men, all in Europe’s secondary cities.

Never the sun-striped romantic cliches of Rome, Paris or Barcelona but drizzly rain and flat tyres on a foggy autostrada, or lost outside Ghent, or in a rugged Croatian port, or a Cypriot resort of concrete and rusty showers. Each man tries but largely failing to connect with the opposite sex; or if they do, it is in ways completely different from what they expected or wanted.

Each story pleases in its own way, with plot lines diverging unexpectedly. With only a couple of exceptions, the bemused characters managed to elicit sympathy. Male readers will inevitably empathise with some parts of the book; female readers may, or may not, have some pity for the poor critters.

My Bloody Project – Graeme Macrae Burnet

As a child, wandering home from school and innocent in the dark complexity of the world, I occasionally confronted myself with this statement: “Surely any murderer is insane and cannot be tried; for murder is such a an incredible act that no sane person can execute it.”

My Bloody Project take this question and dumps it in a rugged, cold, deprived landscape of Highland Clearances Scotland. A story of murder is recounted; it then develops into a teasing historical patchwork of documents, diaries, reports and confession.

We start by seeing the portrait of the accused living in a tiny, poor settlement held rigid by cruel landlords and unlovable Calvinism. We see events and hardships and frustrations; and then we see simple agricultural tools reinvented for skull-crushing activities.

In the background, philosophical outlines are painted in. Concepts of crime, inequality, science, guilt and truth layer over each section of the book like a long chain of bare moors, where lonely sheep huddle next to leaveless bushes of thorn.

Weapons of Math Destruction – Cathy O’Neil (non-fiction)

Liberated from the moral and financial vertigo of working as a ‘quant’ mathematician on Wall Street, Cathy O’Neil breaks loose.

She demonstrates how the appalling application of quantitative evaluation in many sectors of life – in education, job hiring, justice and, tellingly, in democracy itself – marginalise those already on the outside, creating even greater wedges in society.

Those in the public and private sector increasingly to turn to ‘big data’ companies to assess, for example, who they should hire, or where crime is likely to take place, or whether teacher is performing well. Often the data itself is flawed, drawn from inaccurate, too-small samples.

But it’s not just the data; it’s the mindset. Too often, the Weapons of Math Destruction she criticises offer no flexibility, no redemption, no understanding to the humans who are converted into tiny numbers on a grid.

A simple, recurring example – if you’ve committed a crime, big data algorithms assume you are more likely to commit a crime again, and the manager / policeman / school head makes decisions based on these calculations without ever meeting you.

The conclusion I need to read again. Can big data ever ethically be used? Or is it doomed to simplifications that will end up just mirroring current social fissures?

It’s a book with a social conscience and a strong feeling of the hurt caused by inequality; it’s the kind of conscience, and concern for poverty and inequality, you never see in the American mainstream.

EpiGenetics – Nessa Carey (non-fiction)

I love the idea of epigenetics. It offers a much needed intellectual meeting point in the endless nature vs nurture debate, a seemingly fixed binary opposition that underpins recurring arguments about science vs society, free will vs determinism, humanism vs scientism.

Epigenetics proposes that genes switch themselves off and on according to external stimulation, and that those external influences can even be passed down generations. Ie Humans are shaped by both their genes and their surroundings. The social consequences could be huge.

An example Carey cites: in the Dutch Hunger Year of 1944-5 pregnant, undernourished women from Rotterdam gave birth, unsurprisingly, to children smaller than average.

However, what research did indicate do be surprising was that these children (despite living in affluent, post-war Rotterdam) also gave birth to children under the average weight. The genes, the study suggested, had been influence by societal conditions.

I thought, and hoped, that the book would be full of such gems, in the way that Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene can explain animal behaviour with recourse to evolutionary theory.

But no, and it shows that epigenetics has a long way to go before it can have the persuasive intellectual platform that evolutionary theory has. This was still very much a book about biology, about working out the extent and the power of epigenetics at a scientific level. Much more work needs to be done before we can extrapolate with the necessary precision about how everyday human life is affected.

The book focuses on cells, genes and proteins interact, and how also about the (inevitably brilliant) scientists that discover these locks, keys and patterns. For those new to the topic, it is a whirlwind of biological concepts, and far from straightforward. Grasping the jumps and leaps and separations and marriages that the cells in our bodies make is not done on the first reading.

Fascinating, but opaque.

Hot Milk – Deborah Levy

Hot Milk promises much – maternal passive-aggression, the deadening binds of familial responsibility, with the inevitable shadows of guilt and failure; the distant thunder of economic disaster; a motley collection of Euro-characters; a Mediterranean backdrop with its hot sun, melting tarmac, glistening sand even a woman whose yellow bikini falls off.

But, oh, the lead character (Sofia), a dreamy soul, sounds like a teenager lost in her own world – the novel unfolds like therapy session played out between the covers of a book. And unfortunately, you, the reader, are the reluctant analyst, listening her to dribbling on without getting to the point (although there is a kind of closure at the last page).

Actually, if you want, you can play the sensitive analyst, listening carefully to the word-games Sofia repeats, to her acting out freedom in ludicrous, floaty, slightly senseless ways.

But you have to work hard, you have to care for all her thoughts, all her compressed pains and her roundabout ways, and listen to them carefully no matter how dreamy or indulgent they sound. In short, you almost have to be a proper mother to her, which is the one thing she lacks.

But most of us don’t have the time to be mothers to daughters we are reading about in a book. Thus, I found it difficult to believe that a woman of 25 could sound like a teenage girl, that a woman of 25 would not mention social media once, that an anthropology PhD would only reference the outdated Margaret Mead and no-one else, that a a PhD would never mention any other books.

Sofia’s voice struck me as a confused 17 year old, and not someone who had the analytical skills to embark on a complex anthropology study. Come back in eight years, Sofia.