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What I’ve been reading this month

Six books to mention this month… though in truth, I was reading Wolf Hall much of last month as well!


Summer by Ali Smith

This was the recently published brilliant finale to Smith’s astonishing seasonal quartet.

If one was setting out to publish a novel a year reflecting the times in which we live, one could hardly have picked a better four years to work with than the last four. Smith’s ability to capture and reflect on the age of Brexit, coronavirus and George Floyd with such a publication schedule, while the rest of us are struggling just to keep up with events, is pure genius. This volume revisits some of the characters from the earlier novels, and I slightly worried that I’d struggle to recall them, given the time that has passed since I read the first of the novels – but they all came flooding back.

I feel a bit lost knowing that this series is now complete – it has been the series that I’ve most enjoyed and most anticipated in recent years. I’ll miss it.


10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak

This was the 2019 bestseller which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I picked it up on a whim when I saw it in a bookshop and vaguely thought I’d heard good things about it. It turned out to be an extraordinary book.

The book comprised three parts. Part One followed Tequila Leila’s lifetime of reminisces over the first few minutes following her death, covering everything from her own birth into a polygamous family to her murder as a sex worker. Each memory focused on a specific friend whose life was also explored. Part Two followed these closes friends in the day following Leila’s murder. And the brief Part Three followed her soul into the afterlife.

I found this emotionally exhausting. The characterisation and storytelling were so strong that I sometimes forgot this was fiction. Despite the tragedy and emotional weight of the story, it was leavened with moments of humour. It felt to me like this book was as much about Istanbul as it was about the human characters.

Definitely a book I’d recommend.


Ramble Book by Adam Buxton

This was Adam Buxton’s recently published autobiography. I first came across Adam with his friend Joe Cornish in their Adam and Joe Show days, when I was in my early teens, and have followed them ever since. Adam now hosts a successful podcast in which he hosts essentially long form interviews with a huge variety of cultural figures, but which also gives insight into his life in rural Norfolk.

This book’s central thread was the relationship between Adam and his travel-writer father, although he also talked at length about his school days, his career, and his love for David Bowie. I found the section on his father’s last illness particularly moving. I read this shortly after listening to Buxton’s recent podcast recorded the day after his mother’s funeral, in which and Joe reflected movingly and at length on the challenges of parent-child relationships in later life.

I was pre-disposed to like this book because I like Adam. It’s one of those books which I’m not sure would appeal to people who aren’t already familiar with him and his career, but I really enjoyed it.


Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

The 2009 blockbuster Booker winner – a book on which my opinion really couldn’t matter less!

I don’t usually read historical fiction, but this was recommended to me so often that I thought I had to give it a go. It was my redoubtable friend Julie who tipped me over into reading it, by telling me it wasn’t really a historical novel.

I have mixed feelings. I found the plot confusing and often lost the thread (not helped by my complete historical ignorance). On the other hand, the writing was brilliant, filled with witty turns of phrase and clever language. I wouldn’t hesitate to read more of the trilogy, and would consider re-reading this volume at some point—I suspect it would all make a bit more sense second time around, and I’d enjoy revisiting the wonderful prose.


Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

If you regularly follow what I’m reading on this blog, you’ll know I’m having a bit of David Sedaris moment, enjoying his light and humorous approach to life during a time when life feels rather heavier than it might. This was another collection of his essays, most of which were originally published elsewhere, and most of which are very funny.

This 2004 volume, even more than the others I’ve read, was focused on David’s family and his relationships with his parents and siblings both as a child and as an adult. I really enjoyed it.


Windscale 1957 by Lorna Arnold

First published in 1991, this was a very detailed account of the nuclear accident at the Windscale site which occurred in 1957. I read only the 160-page main text, and didn’t delve into the many appendices of official reports.

While well-explained by Arnold, some of the physics was a little beyond my level of casual interest. However, the broader themes of what went wrong in this incident were fascinating in their familiarity: a service over-stretched as a result of Government pressure to deliver more than the expert workforce could adequately oversee, rapid recruitment of non-expert staff to essentially “make up the numbers”, and a resulting lack of expert oversight of activity whose complexity was routinely under-estimated created the conditions for things to go wrong. 

Some official reports of the incident then blamed the pressured staff for the incident, although it was rapid local decision-making (including crucial decisions in the absence of robust scientific evidence about discarding milk) that contributed most to protecting the population after the accident.

There are so many lines in this book which could apply directly to much more recent incidents across the public sector (especially covid-19) that it is difficult to conclude that the broad lessons were ever truly learned.

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What I’ve been reading this month

September has been a very busy month in the world of health protection, so I’ve been reading mostly light stuff to take my mind off things!


Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Another collection of Sedaris’s amusing autobiographical essays, this volume having been first published in 2000. These were easy to read, clever, and very funny: exactly what my brain and soul needed during troubled times!

The first half focused mainly on his youth, the second half more on a period he spent living in France. I found the latter half funnier and more satisfying, but all of it was delightful. Sedaris is someone I enjoy most in small doses, so I tried to limit myself to one essay a day—but with some in this collection being particularly short, that wasn’t always possible.

The essay about his French class desperately trying to explain Easter despite limited vocabulary was a particular highlight.


You by Caroline Kepnes

I picked this up because I fancied a light summer thriller sort of read, and it ticked that box perfectly. It was a first-person narrated story about a bookseller who was also a stalker. It had a wonderfully silly plot and Kepnes perfectly trod the line between thriller and comedy.

I’m not sure I’ll remember anything about this in a fortnight’s time, but it was great fun.


The Monocle Book of Gentle Living

Monocle is a slightly guilty pleasure of mine. I’ve been a fan since the first issue of the magazine, which I came to via Tyler Brûlé, whose Financial Times Fast Lane column (latterly relaunched in a Monocle email newsletter format as Faster Lane) fascinated me for years. For a long time, I believed Tyler to be satirical caricature, and then only grew more interested when I realised he was real.

I’m a Monocle subscriber, but I don’t think I’m the target demographic: I’m never going to spend £435 on a pair of high-end curling boots, nor £750 on a shell jacket, nor £665 on a tweed cardigan, no matter how much they try and push them on readers of their journalism. But I do love reading and listening to their intelligent discussions of UK and world affairs, and I get a little thrill out of knowing that there are people out there who can write hundreds of words of copy on the colour temperature of the lighting on the latest European rolling stock.

So I bought the Monocle Guide to Gentler Living as a bit of COVID escapism, and it was perfect for that. It was essentially a long, themed edition of the magazine, with lavish photography and illustrations, stripped of display-ads and hard-bound. There was very little detail and substance to any of it, but it did sort of come together to make a coherent set of ideas about slowing down in life. (Think: three paragraphs on why train travel is better than flying, followed by one sentence on each of five “best rail journeys”, accompanied by lovely photographs; some blurb on giving up high powered jobs for “the better life”, with accompanying three-paragraph case studies; a section on fashion with a page dedicated to why one should own a t-shirt—any t-shirt—which consists of a stylish photo of a t-shirt and about fifty words of text).

It was light, fluffy, and totally escapist. I took virtually nothing from it, but really enjoyed it nonetheless. So much, in fact, that I’ve picked up another of the Monocle books in a recent sale.


Breath by James Nestor

This was a recently published popular science book about breathing. It was structured around a series of self-experiments conducted by the author. I found this to be a very engaging style, but it did mean that the book was heavy on anecdote and light on proper science. There was also a strong dose of self-help content.

There was a lot of stuff in here that felt like pseudoscientific nonsense. Nevertheless, I found it so engaging that I enjoyed reading it. I even tried some of the described techniques out of curiosity (and got no real benefit).

However, my wife Wendy is a respiratory physician. My top tip to anyone in the same position is to be judicious about sharing passages—there was a fair amount of eye-rolling every time I did, though we did also occasionally descend into fits of giggles, so it was probably worth it.


The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim

This was von Arnim’s 1909 book featuring the ridiculously self-important German Baron Otto Von Ottringel going on a caravanning holiday with his wife Edelgard in England. I was sent it in one of the London Review Book Boxes.

The Baron, who narrated, was quite a character: the holiday was to celebrate what he saw as his silver wedding anniversary. He had been widowered some years before and re-married, but felt that his twenty-five years of marriage ought to be marked nonetheless.

He was astoundingly sexist: “Indeed, the perfect woman does not talk at all. Who wants to hear her? All that we ask of her is that she shall listen intelligently when we want anything. Surely this is not much to ask. Matches, ash-trays, and one’s wife should be, so to speak on every table; and I maintain that the perfect wife copies the conduct of the matches and the ash-trays, and combines being useful with being dumb.”

There was humour in the book derived from the contrast between the Baron’s perception of himself and the evident level of regard in which others held him. There was also historical interest in the portrayal of British/German relations, given the world events just around the corner.

However, I found this a slog. The constant casual sexism and outmoded attitudes, while really the point of the piece, were quite wearing to modern eyes. It felt to me like the same points could have been made in a short story, rather than hammered home in a novel, but of course that’s partly because the satirical points being made are well accepted in modern society, which was not so at the time of publication.

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What I’ve been reading this month

I have nine books to mention for August… and none of them from libraries, which does nothing for my eco credentials!


Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

There are lots of biographies of Leonardo da Vinci; this one, Walter Isaacson’s 2017 book based primarily around Leonardo’s notebooks, is the only one I’ve read.

It was fantastic. Isaacson brought Leonardo to life as a complete, fascinating person. I had little idea how many different disciplines Leonardo held an interest in—I had no real idea of his contributions to the study of anatomy, maths, or engineering. I knew nothing of his personal life. I had no idea that he was so reluctant to finish any project he was given. And yet, by the end of Isaacson’s book, I felt like I knew Leonardo.

There were so many bits of this book which will stick in mind for a long time (including the tongue of the woodpecker!) but I was perhaps most amazed by the description of Leonardo’s work on the mechanism of closure of the aortic valve. Leonardo has this figured out in 1510, but it wasn’t until 1960—the same decade as the first heart transplants—that cardiology rejected the traditional understanding that Leonardo had disproved 450 years earlier.

I also enjoyed Isaacson’s occasional commentary on the complexity of writing a biography, and appreciated his clarity on occasions where his own views of circumstances were different to those of other notable biographers of Leonardo.

This was an absorbing and clear biography of a fascinating man.


The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

This was Ben Lerner’s 2019 part-autobiographical novel, which was a Christmas present from my parents.

The book, set in the 1990s, was narrated by Adam, a Kansas high school student participating in a national debating competition, and his parents Jane and Jonathan, both psychologists. The narrative was non-linear and also featured short sections outside the main narrated chapters: these featured Darren, a patient of Jonathan and an acquaintance of Adam.

At heart, this was a bildungsroman. It explored modern masculinity in interesting ways, reflecting particularly on modern expectations about physical and linguistic strength in ways that gave me new insight into the well-worn debates about the relative value of muscular versus intellectual prowess.

The writing was dazzling and poetic, and reminded me of Ali Smith’s approach. This felt like a book which would be even more powerful on a second reading.


Loaded by Christos Tsiolkas

This was Tsiolkas’s 1995 novel focusing on twenty-four hours in the life of Ari, a 19-year-old Greek-Australian lad living in Melbourne. This was essentially nothing but teenage nihilism for 152 pages, one big drug-induced sex-filled meditation on the terrible life of adolescents in the modern(ish) world. Despite that, it somehow felt powerful and relevant, which I think was down to the quality of the writing and perhaps the currency of reflections on cultural identity.

Ari’s life couldn’t be further from my own, but the grittiness of the drug-taking and explicit sexual encounters felt true to life and relevant to the characterisation (and occasionally stomach-churning) rather than being gratuitous.

This isn’t really something that I’d usually pick up, but I appreciated it nonetheless.


Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor

This was Kathrine Kressman Taylor’s famous 1938 anti-Nazi epistolary novella, which deals with the relationship between two art dealers, Max Eisenstein and Martin Schulse. Both had moved from Germany to America, and Schulse decides to return in the early 1930s. The story had a great impact at the time of its publication, but perhaps has even greater weight when read today, knowing the events that were to occur in the coming years.

It was very short (19 letters over 66 well spaced pages in my edition) and the plot was rather simple, but it still landed powerful emotional blows and wasn’t an easy read. There was so much horror packed into so little space. A real reminder of the brutal banality of evil.

This was one of those books that I won’t forget in a hurry.


Elly by Maike Wetzel

This was Maike Wetzel’s 2018 novella about a missing child, first translated from German into English by Lyn Marven in 2020.

The plot was straightforward yet intriguing: a young girl had gone missing at the age of eleven. At the age of fifteen, she was found and returned home: but how could anybody be sure that the returnee was the same girl who went missing in the first place? (I mean, sure, a DNA test could resolve matters, but how could anyone bring themselves to require a test to identify a child they had raised for eleven years?)

Really, though, this novella was an extended reflection on how we all change as individuals over time, and how none of us are really the same people as others imagine us to be. The novella was structured in very short chapters (often only a couple of pages) with the narrator switching between all of the principal characters. The narrator was not explicitly stated, which—at least for me—led to some gripping moments of re-evaluation as I realised half way through chapters that I had been misattributing them. The chapters were also non-linear, which is clearly a requirement of the plot, but also helped to emphasise the change in characters over time.

I found this gripping and thought-provoking.


Conspiracy Theories by Quassim Cassam

This was Quassim Cassam’s philosophical analysis of conspiracy theories, first published in 2019. At only 125-pages, it was a relatively brief and light read. Overall, I found it a little unsatisfying: the length dictated that the book could not explore some of its concepts in detail, and I was a little disappointed at some of the obvious omissions.

For example, one section of the book discussed why people believe in conspiracy theories. From a philosophical perspective, the interesting question here is really about the nature of belief, particularly as Cassam asserted that people often claim to simultaneously believe mutually exclusive conspiracy theories (e.g. believe both that Diana was murdered, and that she faked her own death and is still alive). I can see why Cassam didn’t start exploring the philosophy of belief in such a short book, but at the same time, the omission left me wanting.

All of that said, the central message that we need to consider conspiracy theories more in terms of politics and less in terms of intellect was thought-provoking and, I think, pretty well argued.


The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff

This was Lukianoff and Haidt’s 2019 bestselling polemic about psychological safety in American society. I picked this up because it was recommended by my friend Lea, and though I wouldn’t highly rate the book, it was a good recommendation nonetheless. It was one of those books that caused me to think and reflect quite a lot about why I wouldn’t particularly rate the book or its ideas, and in that sense, it was quite a good read.

The authors asserted that there are three “great untruths” increasingly accepted as facts in various facets of US society, and that these “great untruths” counter the basic principles of cognitive behavioural therapy. The “untruths” were that negative experiences are always harmful; that life is a dichotomous battle between good and evil people; and that one should always trust one’s feelings over one’s rationalised thoughts. The authors suggest that a range of negative impacts flow from these “untruths”, from political polarisation to disinvitation of speakers at university events to over-protection of children to the extent that it harms their development.

However, the evidence for the acceptance of the “great untruths” in society is weak and often predicated on extreme examples, and the sequelae they suggest flow from the “great untruths” are much more complex and multifactorial than they acknowledge. Some sections seemed completely disparate from the main thread of the argument about the “great untruths”—over-precautionary parenting did not neatly reflect any of the “untruths”.

There was good stuff: I particularly valued the authors’ insights into the importance of kindness and polite disagreement, as well as their suggestions on how to better foster this sort of discussion in society. I thought the discussion of filter bubbles and their contribution to psychological distress was timely and well-argued.

But all things considered, I thought this book wasn’t terribly cohesive, and it seemed to lack robust critical thought about many of the issues it discussed.


Shanti by Vikram Chandra

This short story was first published in Love and Longing in Bombay in 1997. I read the standalone Faber Stories edition published in 2019 as part of reading the whole Faber Stories series.

This was a story of two people experiencing profound loss: Shiv, grieving his identical twin brother, and Shanti, whose fighter pilot husband was missing. Through a series of stories within stories, the two grew closer.

This short story was just not for me. I found it frustrating and predictable all at once, and while others have praised the language, it just did nothing for me. This will always be the nature of reading a series like Faber Stories: no-one will enjoy everything in the series. Obviously, others have really loved this, so don’t let the fact that I was unmoved put you off reading it.


Giacomo Joyce by James Joyce

I know this is a bit of confession, but I haven’t read any James Joyce. This set of 1914 scribbles which contained some insight into the creation of his later masterpieces was therefore of no interest to me.

Joyce’s biographer called this a work of “small, fragile, enduring perfection” so it’s no doubt great if it’s your sort of thing. As someone coming to Joyce for the first time, it felt like a fragmented, disconnected mess which had some nice lines but felt at times uninterpretable.

Not a book for me, sadly.

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What I’ve been reading this month

It’s been the busiest July I can remember, but somehow I still managed to get through six books!


Calypso by David Sedaris

This was a collection of Sedaris’s mostly autobiographical stories which was published in 2018. It featured work previously published in several different periodicals (The New Yorker, The Guardian, Condé Nast Traveller). In Sedaris’s usual style, the coverage was eclectic but grounded in everyday life, and very funny throughout. This was perfect reading for relaxation while work is a little more busy and challenging than usual!

While it never felt heavy, there was some particularly reflective and moving material about his estranged sister’s death by suicide. This illustrated Sedaris’s skill in communicating larger ideas by concentrating on (and finding the humour in) the everyday.

I thoroughly enjoyed this; it was one of those serendipitous combinations of finding a great book at the perfect time to read it.


Drugs Without the Hot Air by David Nutt

This was first published in 2012 and has been on my “to read” list ever since. I think, but can’t be certain, that I’ve sat through a talk by the author at some point in that period—though it may have been someone talking about him!

Professor Nutt is best known for having been sacked as chair of the Government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in 2009. In a lecture, he made an evidence-based comparison between the risks of taking ecstasy and the risks of horse-riding. The fact of the comparison was unpalatable to the Government of the time, and he was removed from his post.

Nutt described his disagreements with Government in some detail at the start of this book. Unfortunately, given that it was at the start of the book, I found this a bit unconvincing: it read as though he felt scientific evidence was the only aspect to be considered in policy-making (or at least in the operation of specific policy levers).

However, the bulk of the book was a clear, coherent and evidence-based discussion of the benefits and risks of recreational drug use. This included a section of parental advice on how to discuss drugs with children. Nutt’s text had humour and wit, and the book was easy to read. I learned quite a bit from it!


The Stranger by Albert Camus

Camus’s 1948 classic, which I read via Matthew Ward’s 1989 translation. In retrospect, this was an odd choice, as Ward wrote at some length in his translation note about how his was an American English translation for an American audience… whereas I could have picked any number of British English translations. Never mind.

The novel followed Meursault, a French Algerian, and the sequelae to his societally atypical response to his mother’s death. This made me wonder whether, if Camus wrote this book today, Meursault would have been given a diagnostic label rather than being a quirky character—though I suppose that is only really a modern take on the theme of existentialism and absurdism for which the novel is famous.

I really enjoyed this.


The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker

This novel of Baker’s was first published in 1988, and it was very much of its time. The 135 pages (with many, many footnotes) were essentially a stream of consciousness covering the period during which the narrator rides up an escalator while returning to his office following his lunch break.

I found it both funny and exasperating in equal measure. It wa one of those books which I think I’ll remember for a long time, even though I didn’t really take that much from it.


Fairy Tales by Marianne Moore

This volume contained Marianne Moore’s versions of three tales written by Charles Perrault for the niece of Louis XIV: Puss in Boots, The Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. These were first published in 1963; I read the 2019 Faber Stories 44-page paperback collection.

These versions deviated a little from the commonly received versions: Sleeping Beauty wasn’t awoken with a kiss and Cinderella’s stepsisters weren’t ugly, for example. However, I can’t claim to have taken much from this book. The plots were essentially well-worn and the writing didn’t strike me as especially notable, but perhaps that just makes me an uncultured heathen who doesn’t appreciate Moore’s greatness.


Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends on It by Kamal Ravikant

I read the expanded 240-page hardback edition of this after reading some glowing reviews. It wasn’t for me. I found the autobiographical sections oddly cagey (the book was about his recovery from business failure and I don’t even know from the book what business he was in), and the self-help sections were just not up my street.

I know others have loved this and found it very helpful in their lives, but I’m not going to stare in a mirror and repeatedly profess my love for myself no matter how many times Ravikant emphasises that this is a great thing to do.

This just was just a bad choice of book on my part. Don’t let my bad experience put you off if it sounds good to you.

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