The Books of July:
- Home Game. I love Michael Lewis’ books, and this one was cheap on Kindle. It is a bunch of essays he wrote on fatherhood – and man, it sounds terrible. I read it just before Alice’s brothers visited with their wives and small children, and in looking at the children, and then the parents, it was…terrifying. First, these little creatures just dominate everything in your life, and are helpless, and cry at 5 a.m. and force you to just deal with them. Then, intelligent, intellectual adults suddenly find it perfectly acceptable to make gibberish noises to communicate with small animals who don’t really understand what you’re saying anyway, and to be happy about it? Back to the book: it’s hilarious.
- The Road. Continuing the fatherhood theme. The copy I have challenges people to put it down, and that was about what I experienced; I think it took me under 24 hours to get through. A masterpiece, although I’m not sure I could read another of his books anytime soon.
- Sex At Dawn. This was recommended by my friend Sunny, who is one of the smartest, wisest people I’ve ever met. I made it through solely based on his glowing recommendation. I thought it was absolutely horrible. Summary: people like sex, and other than the fact that it is so common in human society, we don’t have any evidence that monogamy is natural. There, I saved you seven hours.
- Total Recall. I spent the majority of my reading time this month on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography, which was surprisingly engaging, well-written, and occasionally honest. It was fascinating to hear about his business ventures, his career, and the directions he has taken through life, but based on the omissions – a few of which, like the child he fathered with his housekeeper, he has to end up admitting later in the book, a few chapters after he promises California’s voters that he isn’t a philandering pig – one has to face the fact that autobiographies are inherently fictitious, because we only hear what the writer wants us to hear, and we all have very selective memories, and attribute things like success not to luck or chance but to our own skills, abilities, and virtues. I enjoyed it, but it was a good reminder that everybody lies. Including superheroes.
- The Hard Thing about Hard Things. Another book someone recommended highly; I’d been looking forward to reading it. It doesn’t apply to me much just yet, but it was good to read it and think about what I may end up needing to deal with in the future, if I’m lucky skillful, able, and virtuous.
And that brings me to an even fifty books read this year. I’m still trying to focus on quality, and utility; I don’t think I’ll hit 100 for the year, but I’m comfortable as long as I get quality thoughts into my brain.
Again, Alice’s brothers and their families visited this month. It was amazing to realize that we’ve moved from a one-bedroom place barely big enough for the two of us to a four-bed place that can comfortably house eight people and two dogs (and maybe even more, if we got the sofa bed out). It was also a good test of our hosting; August is going to pick up, what with the festival.
Then Carl and Gene visited. They were recording in Abbey Road Studios again, and came up before heading back to America. On their last night in town, we climbed Calton Hill and met a family from Illinois, visiting for a day. They were talking about where they’d been and what they’d seen, and we traded some stories. I’m always a bit hesitant to engage other Americans, for some reason – it’s as if I can feel special so long as I’m here, surrounded by Scots, but when I hear an American accent, or see a logo of a real American university (as opposed to the fake ones that pop up in European fashion shops), that illusion of specialness, of uniqueness, is shattered, and so my mouth clamps shut and I scurry away. Sometimes, if people seem to be lost, I’ll reach out – actually, that happens almost daily – but much of the time I find myself trying to avoid fraternising with my compatriots and sticking to the people of this adopted land.
The Illinois family was a bit of a middle ground. Gene thought the daughter was cute, so Carl talked to the father and I tried to talk to the mother. They were normal Americans – careers in business development for an insurance company, and a housewife, two children, a suburb of Chicago, community events, annual vacations. When they asked us what we did, I felt just like Jake Barnes when he and Bill were on the train in The Sun Also Rises, talking to the family who was visiting France, the two parents and a little boy who loved swimming. I don’t have a life they could really identify with. It was a bit embarrassing to say I lived around the corner with my English wife; I wanted to come up with a story that felt less indulgent, like I was a race car driver on a European tour, or an American Football quarterback on an off-season trip to my homeland, or a lawyer from Cleveland just taking a week to see Scotland. But I was half a flask of Lagavulin in, and I could only come up with the truth.
On the last Friday of the month, Alice surprised me by bringing me to see Sir Ranulph Fiennes speak at Usher Hall. I’d never heard of him before, but he’s apparently a bit of a legend here in Britain – known, at least in this country, as the greatest living explorer. He spoke for almost two hours on his adventures on seven continents and two poles; it was incredible to see him, see his fingers that he cut off himself because of frostbite, and hear his stories.
He had an incredible wit, as well, although it was marred at times by a sharp, blatant bigotry against…well, virtually everyone that wasn’t white, male and English. He’s a big UKIP supporter and Brexit fan, so perhaps that shouldn’t have been a surprise, but his jokes at the expense of others – particularly the Norwegians, the French, and women – cast an uncomfortable pall over the evening for much of the audience. It was a shame, really, as so much of his talk was otherwise fascinating, engaging, and inspiring.
The next day, we flew to Bristol, then drove deep into Somerset. We passed through farmland, and visited an incredible cider farm, and had tea and chocolate cake and played with pottery and felt. Fiennes’ talk, and his chauvinism, were still on my mind as we flew, and then we broke through the clouds towards the airport. As much as I thought that his bigotry was unnecessary, I thought: wow, his pride in country is absolutely justified. This is really a beautiful, extraordinary island; loving it could be no vice.
And while it seems to be struggling a bit with the modern world, like many countries, I suspect that it is actually doing better than most, because it has such a deep connection to its own history. At one point, we were looking over the fields below the Mendip hills, and I thought: five hundred years ago, and even a hundred years ago, the highlight of the year would have been the annual trip across the valley to a market town, to sell produce and cattle and horses, to drink potent foreign brews, and to flirt with people you’d never seen before and perhaps find a match, for the night or for life. And the local power brokers, with direction from the King or Queen, would have had the burden of deciding lives: judgment of crimes, divvying up proceeds from sales, collecting taxes, allocating land. And even if telephone wires are strung across the fields, and we’re on the verge of getting driverless cars to zip us around, the landscape here is still ordered by those ancient traditions; land is still bordered by walls and shrubs older than any generation alive today, cows still bred from elderly lines, and trees that were planted as windbreaks for hovels now protect newly built mansions of Londoners who only come down for the weekend to enjoy the country life.
The absolute highlight of the trip was visiting a cider farm. There were two barrels of sweet cider and two barrels of dry; the sweet barrels tasted different from each other. When we asked the owner, Roger Wilkins, he said that they didn’t use any artificial yeast – they just let the cider ferment with the yeast on the skins, so no two barrels would ever be the same. It was extraordinary to think that cider had been made in this way for a thousand years, and we were participating in that tradition.
We ended up spending the last day in Wells. It was stunning, but I couldn’t wait to get back to Edinburgh. We have been here a year this month. Last year, were were fresh off of our six-month tour around the world. I was just starting CodeClan, learning Ruby. We were renting a tiny flat and didn’t know anyone in the city; we were trying to learn the geography, trying to get used to cooking in our new place, waiting for a shipment of our basic living necessities to arrive by Seven Seas. I didn’t even know where North was, or how to buy a train ticket, and I wasn’t sure what I was doing with my life.
I’m still not sure, really. But a year on, we have so much to be grateful for.