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What I’ve been reading this month

In recent months, I’ve had a few conversations with people about my reading preferences.

I very much prefer to read paper books, but it’s not always practical, particularly when catching up for a few minutes on the bus or similar. I therefore very often have both physical and electronic copies of books, and switch between the two. This could be an enormously expensive way of reading, except for the fact that I make extensive use of lending libraries.

I have probably not done enough in these monthly posts to make mention of those libraries. I’m going to try to remember to change that from this month forward.


The Overstory by Richard Powers

Richard Powers’s much-acclaimed 2019 novel is broadly about humanity’s relationship with trees, and the way in which deforestation is effectively harming (ending) the human species.

The structure of this book is used in part to reflect its message: Powers makes the point that trees which appear to be separate are essentially all part of one big interacting forest organism. The first section of the book (“Roots”) introduces a set of nine distinct characters in separate chapters, and then sets about demonstrating how they all interact in one big story (“Trunk” onwards).

This is all very well in theory, but I found that first quarter of the book deathly dull—though I note that one of my Goodreads friends found it to be the best bit. I wasn’t really invested in the characters, and contemplated giving up on the book.

However, from “Trunk” onwards, I thought this was exceptional. It had a combination of first-rate prose, a number of driving plots, and an interesting and well-argued thesis about our relationship with nature which Powers drives home. It was so good, in fact, that this has become one of my favourite books of the year so far, despite the rocky start.

❧ I switched back and forth between a hardback copy from Newcastle Libraries and an ebook from The London Library.


A Passion for Ignorance by Renata Salecl

A few years ago, I was chairing an outbreak meeting and the subject of whether to perform certain tests on a venue came up. My view was that the tests shouldn’t be carried out as the results wouldn’t change the management plan. I was challenged in this view by others asking: “But why would you choose ignorance?”

The answer is that both taking the tests and not taking the tests involved ignorance, just in different senses of the word. Not taking the test produced ignorance in the sense of not knowing what the outcome would have been; taking the test produced ignorance in the sense of effectively ignoring the result, given that the course of action wouldn’t change.

Renata Salecl’s 2020 book is a wide-ranging discussion of the rationale for ignorance in all its forms. Two of Salecl’s seven chapters focus on health topics: one on genes and one on denial of illness. I was particularly challenged by Salecl’s point on the ethical knots people can get into when a patient chooses not to know their own diagnosis: how can they then ever give informed consent for treatment?

I really enjoyed this book. At 154 pages, it was just the right length to explore its topic and open up room for thought. It was well-written, in that it had clear definitions of ‘ignorance’ and then applied these to different facets of life, bringing new insights as a result. This gave me a lot to think about.

❧ I read a hardback copy from The London Library.


Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams

Eley Williams’s 2017 debut collection of short stories is themed around language and, perhaps, the limits of language in communicating thought. It is a stellar collection which I enjoyed very much for its playful yet meaningful approach. It was only 176 pages long.

It often feels like authors struggle when writing about writing, and fiction with this theme can often feel a bit self-consciously ‘quirky’. Williams completely avoids this trap, writing elegantly and with a large dose of wit, using the theme of language to explore life more broadly.

I really enjoyed this.

❧ I switched back and forth between a hardback from The London Library and an ebook from Scribd.


Wonderland by Steven Johnson

This 2017 book has been on my ‘to read’ list for quite some time, after I enjoyed Johnson’s previous book How We Got to Now. Similar to that book, this one tracks the history of a number of important technological innovations.

This volume concentrates on developments which have resulted from recreational activities. For example, in one section, Johnson takes the history of music and shows (among many other things) how the development of keyboard instruments eventually informed the development of computer keyboards. Other sections cover fashion and shopping, food (with a particular emphasis on spices), illusions, games, and the establishment of public space.

The pleasure of Johnson’s books is in the engaging quality of his storytelling, and this book is no exception.

❧ I read a hardback copy from Newcastle Libraries.


How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

Thammavongsa’s 2020 collection of short stories has been one of those books which has been hard to avoid, much-celebrated and much-reviewed. It contains 14 short stories in its 179 pages, and they are all focused on the theme of being an immigrant and something of an outsider.

I enjoyed this book, and as I flick through it now many of the story titles bring a smile to my face. However, I recently read Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri which covers broadly similar ground in a broadly similar format, and I think did it a little better.

I would probably be raving more about this book if I had read it at a different time: it really was very good.

❧ I switched back and forth between a hardback I bought online and an ebook from The London Library.


The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary

I felt light reading something relatively light weight and this romantic comedy caught my eye. It is Beth O’Leary’s very popular first novel, published in 2019.

Narration passes between the two protagonists, Tiffy and Leon, chapter by chapter. The premise is that neither can afford to rent a flat in London, but as Leon works nights as a nurse and Tiffy has an office job, they can ‘flat share’ by occupying the flat at mutually exclusive times of day. Thus, they get to know one another through observations and notes left for one another without having met.

The novel was exactly what I was looking for: lightweight fun. There was enough well-written shade to offset the silliness (death and domestic abuse being key themes, both sensitively handled) and to give the book sufficient depth to be interesting.

The writing is good enough to sustain the book. The writing style O’Learly uses for Leon is a little stereotyped and silly, but she draws comedy from this and even had one of the other characters comment on it, which helps to make a joke of the clunkier narration (‘Coldness. Growing low down in stomach. Heart rate ups again. And for all the wrong reasons this time. I’m getting angry again.’)

This wasn’t earth-shattering by any means, but it was exactly what I was looking for, and I think I’ll probably read more of Beth O’Leary’s books as a result.

❧ I read a paperback copy from Newcastle Libraries.


How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell

Jenny Odell’s 2019 book on ‘doing nothing’ reminded me a lot of Carl Honoré’s 2005 book about ‘slowness’, which I suppose makes some kind of logical sense.

Much like Honoré’s book, Odell’s has some interesting arguments and observations about aspects of life, but they didn’t really coalesce into a convincing whole. In the same way as it wasn’t obvious to me what was ‘slow’ about many of Honoré’s examples, so it isn’t obvious to me why many of Odell’s examples—birdwatching, going to the symphony, reading a book, using alternative methods of farming—count as ‘doing nothing’.

The overall effect is therefore of a meandering book of things that Odell thinks are good in the world, some of which were genuinely interesting, coupled with occasional complaints about social media. I was left thinking… so what’s your point?

❧ I read a hardback copy that I bought online.


No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

This is Patricia Lockwood’s first novel published earlier this year. It’s been on my to-read list for a while, because I had read promising things about its reflection of modern culture, and being the first proper ‘social media’ novel.

Unfortunately, I really didn’t enjoy this. The novel is in two halves, both of which are written in a fragmented style, almost like social media posts. 

I consider myself to be reasonably up-to-date with the online zeitgeist, but the first half of this novel completely lost me. This part establishes the protagonist’s commitment to social media (or the ‘portal’ as Lockwood has it) through lots of references to big ‘moments’ on social media in the late 2010s: I got a few of the references, but most of them went completely over my head. The second half involves a significant (real) life event for the protagonist, which felt less moving to me than I would have expected because of the continuation of the fragmented style.

This didn’t work for me, but perhaps you would feel differently.

❧ I switched back and forth between a signed hardback I pre-ordered online months ago and an ebook from The London Library.

This 2,495th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , , .

30 things I learned in June 2020

1: “The reason for the bite is crystal clear: it’s there for scale, so that a small Apple logo still looks like an apple and not a cherry.”


2: How Germany’s contact tracing system for covid-19 works.


3: Economic downturns tend to reduce gender inequality, but the one associated with covid-19 has disproportionately affected women.


4: There are four national anthems without lyrics.


5: Over the last month, I’ve received 3,100 work emails.


6: I heard on the radio this morning that Romans painted eyes on their ships because they believe the gods would protect ships with eyes on them. And it made me think: was this the real reason? Will people in two millennia look back at our time and say that we printed crossed-fingers on all lottery tickets because we believed it brought luck (as opposed to it just being a brand)? There are so many things in life which start as superstition but become traditions which are completely divorced from the original beliefs.


7: The Normal People TV series was better than the book. I know people say you can’t compare the two, but I’m doing it anyway.


8: A loose lock meant that I got to peek through a crack in the door into the southwest tower of the Tyne Bridge:


9: Balancing rocks really seems to have become a trend these days. I know this makes me sound grumpy, but I’m not really a fan: there’s something that feels entitled about taking a shared area of natural landscape and putting a personal ‘project’ on it rather than leaving it how it was found.


10: Citizens of Monaco are called Monegasques.


11: “Uncertainty is a natural state for clinicians and scientists; a reality that politicians seem unable and unwilling to grasp. This contrast plays out sharply when politicians claim to be ‘following the evidence’ in their response to covid-19. How can the evidence be so certain that it should be followed? Isn’t it better to accept uncertainty, communicate that uncertainty clearly to the public, but provide a convincing rationale for policy informed by, not following, the best available science and evidence?”


12: When I’m asked to give talks about antimicrobial resistance, I sometimes mention the issue of incorporating antibiotics into ships’ paint to prevent the formation of a biofilm on the hull which allows barnacles to attach. This initially seems like a ridiculous use of a precious resource, but the issue is actually a bit more subtle than it first appears: barnacles create surprisingly high levels of drag, increasing fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions from the ship far more than you might first imagine. I was therefore delighted to learn of the invention of HullSkater, which is basically Roomba for ship hulls.


13: What’s the difference between music and language?


14: “As disaster strikes, ‘baseball caps appear atop politicians’ heads like mushrooms after a rain,’ Jerry Ianelli wrote, in 2017, for Miami New Times. Ianelli called the disaster hat ‘performative folksiness.'”


15: I missed the news a couple of months ago that Renzi Piano’s replacement for the Ponte Morandi in Genoa has been structurally completed, less than two years after the shocking and tragic collapse.


16: It seems that Instagram’s artificial intelligence can’t reliably distinguish photos of naked people from photos of paintings or statues, even when backed up by 15,000 human reviewers. This is a bit of social media controversy which has been around for years, but has hitherto completely passed me by.


17: Solar panels in space generate more energy than those on Earth because our atmosphere reflects or absorbs over half of the solar energy reaching the planet. This topic popped into my head for no clear reason this morning, and the magic of the internet meant that clarification was only a click away. What a time we live in.


18: “The painful conclusion is that Britain has the wrong sort of government for a pandemic—and, in Boris Johnson, the wrong sort of prime minister. Elected in December with the slogan of “Get Brexit Done”, he did not pay covid-19 enough attention. Ministers were chosen on ideological grounds; talented candidates with the wrong views were left out in the cold. Mr Johnson got the top job because he is a brilliant campaigner and a charismatic entertainer with whom the Conservative Party fell in love. Beating the coronavirus calls for attention to detail, consistency and implementation, but they are not his forte.”


19: The OED defines “suspend” as “to debar temporarily from participation in something.” Today, I’ve seen the BBC using the construction “permanently suspended” for the first time, which seems like a significant moment of change in the use of that word.


20: Food is all about salt, fat, acid, heat… and Samin Nosrat, who is impossibly endearing.


21: “You often cannot innovate before the world is ready.”


22: Grief and paperwork come as a package in the US healthcare system.


23: “My experience of being a person is a continual act of becoming, of creation. If nothing else, you continually have to be another day older. To instead focus on the things that are never going to change—from the day that you are born—is like locking yourself in a room.” That struck a chord with me, which was an interesting and arresting experience because it was said by Lionel Shriver, whose opinions are usually diametrically opposed to my own.


24: What advice on covid-19 social distancing can be given to sex workers?


25: The last episode of The Good Place is almost as good as the last episode of Six Feet Under.


26: “In what may be the first known case of its kind, a faulty facial recognition match led to a Michigan man’s arrest for a crime he did not commit.”


27: Beautifully scented designer alcohol hand gel is a mainstream thing now.


28: This profile of Richard Horton gave me some new insight into his response to covid-19.


29: Midwifery is marginalised in the USA.


30: Fukushima serves as a reminder of the long-term consequences of major incidents on mental health. I worry that the response to covid-19 in the UK suggests we haven’t learned that lesson.

This 2,494th post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Things I've learned, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

What I’ve been reading this month

This is the sixty-second of these monthly posts about what I’ve been reading, and I’ve got seven books to mention.


A Chess Story by Stefan Zweig

This is Zweig’s 1941 novella, only 80 pages in length, which I read in Alexander Starritt’s 2013 translation. Some translations have been published with the original title The Royal Game, which I think I prefer. 

With such a short book, it’s hard to talk much about the plot without giving away key details. The setting is a ship travelling from New York to Buenos Aires. Our narrator discovers that a chess world champion is on board, and a number of matches follow.

Zweig crams more food for thought into 80 pages than most full-length novels. His main theme seems to deal both explicitly and allegorically with Nazism, largely from a psychological perspective. There is a brilliant account of prolonged isolation and it’s psychological effects. And the plot itself moves at a reasonable lick.

This was very easily read in a single sitting, and well worth it.


The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird

My friend Rachael recommended this to me as a book which, despite being very close to home, she’d raced through in a couple of days. Published earlier this year, but written pre-covid, it is a novel set mostly in the UK in the near future concerning a global pandemic. Unlike covid, the pathogen in the book affects only men and has a very high mortality rate.

This was a great recommendation. 

The plot and characterisation are, to be honest, a bit bonkers: for example, one of the main characters is an A&E consultant who loves the ‘certainty’ of medicine (is there any specialty that’s less about certainty and more about balancing risk than emergency medicine?) and who changes to a completely different specialty overnight, with no training. 

The book has a cast of different narrators, and the vast majority of the narration is by female characters. This is a really inspired creative choice, widening the scope of the novel and focussing on those ‘left behind’, and most of the recurring characters were well fleshed-out. The decision to have the occasional standalone chapters widened the field even further. The gender issue feels like it would have attracted more controversy in reverse, though it’s not like the world is short on books written from a male perspective about the deaths of women.

The choice to include ‘newspaper articles’ as chapters was weakened by deciding that those articles should be first-person narrated, in the same style as every other chapter. The writing throughout struck me as pretty pedestrian.

But you know what? For all its faults, I raced through this book much as Rachael did. It feels wrong to call a book about the deaths of millions “fun”, but it really was. And perhaps even a little cathartic.


The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Published in 2011, this is Madeline Miller’s much-acclaimed retelling of the story of the Trojan War, focused on the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. It is narrated from the perspective of Patroclus.

My knowledge of Greek mythology isn’t great, though I think I remember a little bit from school. I was a little nervous of reading this despite all the recommendations because I thought it might be a little too fantastical for me, what with all the gods and centaurs and everything… but at its heart, this is a story about the nature of love and courage, and the context was so well realised by the author (helped, no doubt, by centuries of earlier material for which the author has a clear passion) that I didn’t find it to be a barrier.

This was both a thrilling page-turner and a love story, and I enjoyed both equally.


When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

This is Sedaris’s 2008 collection of humorous autobiographical essays, and I was predisposed to enjoy it given that I’ve enjoyed all of his other similar volumes. 

This one had a fantastic essay about time spent in a Medical Examiner’s office (‘The Monster Mash’) which brought back memories of my medical school elective spent in a Medical Examiner’s office in Calgary. One of the essays also had some examples of strange English phrases spotted in Japan (‘The Smoking Section’) which made me choke on a drink on public transport, resulting in coughing fit which has become entirely socially unacceptable in the pandemic era.


The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

This is Annie Dillard’s 1989 collection of short essays on how she writes, and the process of writing in general. I don’t write for a living (obviously), but much of what Dillard says in this book felt familiar from the times when I have done bits of writing here and there, and I enjoyed the deeper insights of such a well-regarded and talented writer.

This was well worth reading considering its short length.


The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies

Carys Davies’s much-celebrated 2014 collection of seventeen short stories wasn’t really up my street. This isn’t that surprising, and nor should it put you off: I’m not generally a fan of collections of short stories.

The lengths in this collection are highly varied, from a few sentences to thirty or so pages. I didn’t pick up any particular theme running through the collection, though quite a few of the stories contain unexpected twists, and I suppose in retrospect that most of them build up some kind of tension or suspense. I particularly enjoyed the titular story, and also ‘Sybil’, but it was ‘The Quiet’ which was the standout story for me.

However, many of the others in the collection did nothing for me at all, and unfortunately I don’t think that the signal to noise ratio was great enough that I’d want to pick up another of Davies’s collections.


When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön

I picked this book up because I’d heard about it in passing somewhere, and evidently had the wrong end of the stick. I had understood that it was an autobiographical account of personal suffering and challenge and insightful tips on how to cope with life “when things fall apart.” It isn’t really that. First published in 1997, it’s an introduction to several aspects of Buddhist practice, explained in an accessible and relatable way, with lots of personal anecdote thrown in and a warm, caring, personal tone.

While this was interesting and easy to read, I don’t think I would have picked it up had I done my research first, as it’s not really my kind of thing. I won’t be picking up any of Chödrön’s other (many) books—but if this is a topic you want to read about, this book seems like an approachable starting point.

This 2,493rd post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , , .




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