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What I’ve been reading this month

The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz was a series of case histories collected by a psychoanalyst, with an interwoven theme of coping with loss. While I’ve doubts about the psychoanalytical methods described (and some of the connections between thoughts and experiences were outlandishly fanciful), I was drawn in to reflecting on the conclusions and perspectives Grosz presented. I enjoyed this collection despite myself.
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The same can’t be said for The Road to Character, David Brooks’s best-selling work which argued that the modern world prizes “CV virtues” (essentially listable achievements) above “eulogy virtues” (those people are remembered for). The logical flaw was that Brooks illustrated the apparent importance of “eulogy virtues” by presenting mini-biographies of historical figures remembered for “CV virtues”, demonstrating that CV virtues have, contrary to his central assertion, long been prized. Coupled with a very confused position on religion and a tediously loquacious writing style, this was a slog to get through.
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The Big Short by Michael Lewis is now a major motion picture that I haven’t seen – I’ve mentioned before that I’m rubbish on films. I liked the insight this book gave into the causes of the subprime mortgage crisis, which was rendered understandable even to a fellow like me, with no knowledge of markets or financial instruments. However, I was disappointed that Lewis didn’t delve more into the underlying psychology of the problem. Lewis’s repeatedly expressed view that the people involved acted immorally clouded the more interesting question of what drove the immorality. But that’s a slightly unfair criticism, as I don’t think he ever intended to answer that question, and the book is great nonetheless.
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Sarah Hall’s The Beautiful Indifference was a collection of short stories featuring female protagonists, each of whom had an initially hidden ‘dark side’. I rarely enjoy short stories, and these were no exception. I don’t know why I keep buying short story collections. But the most irritating thing about this collection – and I write this in full acceptance of how pretentious it sounds – was Hall’s punctuation choices, and most particularly of all, the decision not to correctly punctuate direct speech. Combined with her sparing use of any punctuation beyond full stops and commas, the text became leaden and borderline uninterpretable. Rather than finding myself transported by the narrative, I found myself frustrated by having to figure out the literary puzzle of words scattered on a page.
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This 2,316th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






What I’ve been reading this month

Booker Prize winner The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, opened with a black man brought before the Supreme Court accused of reinstating slavery. Flashbacks told of the narrator’s strange childhood as a subject of his father’s socio-racial experiments, and connected these to the narrator’s later work to reintroduce racial segregation. Despite the subject matter, this was a funny book. Beatty skewered racial stereotypes and political correctness, but did so in a way that made me reflect and realise how little I understand of the world, and how much my own prejudices affect my thinking. I found the experience of reading this a little exhausting: Beatty rarely paused for breath, and I found myself getting lost in some of the sub-sub-plots. But nevertheless, this was a memorable read.
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In Susan Hill’s celebrated The Woman in Black, a young solicitor travelled out to a small English town to set in order the affairs of a recently deceased elderly lady who lived in an old house on a causeway, regularly cut off by the tide. Some spooky stuff happens. I’m rarely gripped by horror novels, and this was no exception. The tale was entertaining enough, but this wasn’t really a page-turner. This seemed to me to be a ‘ghost story’ in the classical sense: designed to scare, without much more to say. Since I rarely find myself involved enough by tales of ghoulish things to become scared, there wasn’t really a lot for me in this book, save for the enjoyably tight, precise style of writing.
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Jane Gardham’s The Man in the Wooden Hat was the sequel to Old Filth, which I read last year. Old Filth was a fictional biography of Sir Edward Feathers. The Man in the Wooden Hat was the story of Feathers’s marriage, told largely from the point of view of his wife. It had much the same overarching theme, exploring the tensions and excitement that lie behind a “bland” exterior of socially acceptable relationship in the upper classes in the mid-1900s. I have to admit that I didn’t find this quite as engaging as the first volume, possibly because the story behind relationships is a much more commonly visited literary theme than the story behind a professional exterior. But this was still suffused with Gardham’s gentle humour and fantastic writing, so it was still an enjoyable read.
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This 2,315th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






What I’ve been reading this month

Tim Shipman’s mammoth book about last year’s EU referendum, All Out War, was a completely extraordinary book: the best I’ve read on any modern political event. It was balanced, thoroughly researched, funny, thrilling, and gave deep insight into both sides of the referendum campaign, warts and all. I already knew that Shipman was a talented journalist before reading this book, but his ability to combine a lightness of touch with absolute accuracy of reporting, including pointing out where bits were single-sourced or where there were conflicting accounts, proved truly remarkable.
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The titular character of Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton spends the duration of the book in hospital recovering from an operation and subsequent complications. While she’s there, her somewhat estranged mother comes to visit. The two gossip and reminisce, and Lucy tries to unpick her complex relationships and feelings through her own memories of childhood. There were a number of outstanding, poignant passages, but the whole book didn’t quite hang right to me. The contrasts were a bit heavy handed at times (‘Cookie’, ‘Button’ and ‘Wizzle’ versus morally dubious shootings and AIDS). There was a lot of writing about writing, which I think was meant as some kind of allegory to psychology, but stuck me as unnecessarily self-indulgent in such a short novella. And while I think the reader is supposed to “fill in the gaps” in Lucy’s partially described life story, I found the lack of exposition meant that I didn’t really come to care about her.
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I was disappointed by Steven Pinker’s A Sense of Style. I was under the impression that it was a light and somewhat comedic on writing style. In fact, it was a rather heavy and detailed examination of grammar, diving far deeper than I was interested to venture into the philosophy of categorisation of parts of speech, sentence diagramming, and all sorts of things that go way beyond my level of interest. To my mind, the book would have benefited from more directly actionable advice, and less sniping at grammar sticklers before listing “rules” that the author themselves happens to be a stickler about.
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On the other hand, I was blown away by Julian Barnes’s novelised biography of Shostakovich, The Noise of Time. This tight, quiet and darkly humourous novel explored morality, art and power. It talked quite a lot about the use of irony to undermine power through art, which is something I’ve never really thought about before, and which I found fascinating. Basically, this thoughtful book was chock full of moral ambiguity, difficult personal choices, and imposed boundaries of professionalism. It was right up my street, and I loved it.
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As I write this, I’m struggling to think how best to describe Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice: I’m not sure it was really a novel, and it wasn’t really a collection of short stories. It was a very slim fictional book structured like a verbal reasoning multiple choice exam. It should have been utterly ridiculous and gimmicky, but was somehow completely brilliant. This book made me reflect on how much our own self-editing and the choices we make in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves alter our memories and feelings. It made me think about how opinions can be shifted, and stories can be transformed, by simple changes of single words. And I also gained insight into the recent history of Chile, from the population’s perspective. Goodness only knows how Megan McDowell pulled off a translation of a book with so few words, in which every single one is infused with so many layers of meaning.
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I read books aloud for the use of people with visual problems or other disabilities which prevent them from using printed books. I’ve been doing this for Calibre Audio Library for a few years. I don’t choose the books I record for Calibre; they are assigned to me, which makes the whole enterprise that little bit more fun. This month, I’ve just finished off my recording of Sally Gardner’s The Door That Led to Where, a novel aimed at the teenage or maybe young adult market. It takes quite a novel to stand up to the repeated reading and re-reading that narrating an audiobook requires, and this book certainly meets that standard. This was a fairly complex tale that juxtaposed authentic descriptions of deprived teenage life in 21st century London with those of young men in London in the 1830s. It was noticeable how dominated the book’s action was by male characters, but then most fiction aimed at this market tends to be quite heavily gendered. Nevertheless, this was definitely one of those books that reminded me what wonderful, well-written imaginative fiction there is around for young readers today.
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This 2,314th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.






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