Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide

by Michael Kinsley (read by Danny Campbell)

Random House Audio

3.5/5 stars

In the right hands, even death and Parkinson’s disease can be amusing. And Vanity Fair columnist, Slate founder and current-affairs commentator Michael Kinsley delivers what he promises, a funny book largely about the latter, “a subject that does not lend itself to humour” as it ushers in the former. This pithy volume is also addressed to the post-war baby boomer generation, born between 1946 and 1964, as they begin “life’s last chapter”. But perhaps Kinsley, 65, a boomer himself and therefore part of the largest and richest demographic in American history, is just trying to beat the anticipated avalanche he envisages of books about The End from every other boomer journalist. Kinsley was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1993 and in the book’s eight collected essays he is sardonic about his own small standing in the great scheme of things; he also throws out a challenge to his generation to formulate a legacy not predicated simply on the accumulation of more stuff. Meanwhile, boomers, he believes, should be aspiring to continuous good health, not dull materialism. Danny Campbell’s narration brings to mind the warm textural comfort of a favourite leather armchair – which seems somehow fitting,

In Gratitude

by Jenny Diski

Bloomsbury (e-book)

4/5 stars

Jenny Diski was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in 2014 and died in April this year – a week after publishing this typically unalloyed memoir. One of the most fearless, frank and controversial authors, Diski wrote the columns collected inthis volume for the London Review of Books, overcoming the dread of imagining herself another clichéd cancer chronicler to describe the ordeal of living with a death sentence. But the book that has emerged is so much more. Diski longed to be a writer and a chance acquaintanceship led to her unofficial adoption at 15 by literary eminence Doris Lessing, in a period that followed the “psychologically poisoned atmosphere” of Diski’s childhood, a period described here in all its trials and triumphs. Diski felt “guilt at being an arbitrary recipient of good fortune” – not surprising, after the con man father, the overdose, the psychiatric hospitals, the foster care and separation from her mother. All that eventually helped make her an opinionated dissector of everything from South Africa to depression to the 1960s Aldermaston marches. Lessing looms over In Gratitude, but Diski was decidedly her own writer – as the short stories, novels, essays and travel books attest.

Algorithms to Live By: the Computer Science of Human Decisions

by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths

Henry Holt and Co. (e-book)

3.5/5 stars

Imagine there was a formula that could tell you when you should buy a flat; or the point at which you should cease all interviews and appoint a new staff member; or the moment you should stop casting your net for a mate and throw in your lot with a potential best bet. All such scenarios are examples of optimal stopping problems and are governed by algorithms – sets of rules making calculations and other problem-solving functions possible, usually for computers. Drawing some surprising parallels between computer science and human behaviour, author Brian Christian and cognitive scientist Tom Griffiths show how one sphere affects the other, not simply in abstract theoretical terms but in everyday decision making. And given that the book is all about finding solutions to personal dilemmas, it also considers, among others, the theories of sorting, scheduling and caching, for those arranging their offices, apportioning their time and filling their wardrobes, respectively. An intriguing volume, thankfully with no computer code and not much in the way of overt mathematics, it might even unite techies and arty types, showing each how the other half thinks.