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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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What I’ve been reading this month

Six books to mention this month…

I Choose Elena by Lucia Osborne-Crowley

A 2019 essay on the lasting effect of trauma on Osborne-Crowley, exploring the effect that a rape at knifepoint when she was fifteen years old changed her life.

This was a deeply personal and powerful account. Osborne-Crowley reflected on the influence literature had on her recovery, including Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels which the title references. She also reflected on the personal circumstances which she believes underlie the reason the experience had such a profound impact on her life, in a section that knocked me sideways.

This will stay with me.

Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski

This was a newly published book by first-time author Tomasz Jedrowski. It followed a boy growing up, coming to terms with his sexuality, and falling in love against a background of political and social turmoil in late twentieth-century Poland.

I picked this up because I had read that it heavily featured James Baldwin’s classic Giovanni’s Room, which I have only recently read, and I was interested to see how this work would use that one. It turns out that it played a central part in the plot.

Jedrowski is an exceptionally talented writer who brought new emotional insight by referencing themes like social acceptance, shame, guilt, perseverance, and vulnerability in various aspects of the characters’ lives. There were, for example, complex emotional parallels between rebelling against an oppressive political regime and rebelling against a heteronormative society.

I really enjoyed this book and thought I got a lot out of it. The experience of having recently read Giovanni’s Room led to me reflect quite a lot on the different influences the same book can have on different people’s lives. Giovanni’s Room clearly meant something different to someone exploring their nascent sexuality in a country which suppressed homosexuality compared to what it meant to a straight 30-something in the UK in 2020: this made me reflect much more deeply on that point, and how much what we all take from books depends as much on what we bring to them as what is in them.

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

I picked this book up entirely on the strength of the cover, so all credit to designers Sara Wood and Steve Marking.

It was a book about Ava, who left Ireland at the age of twenty-two to teach English in Hong Kong. She befriended a banker, Julian, and then a lawyer, Edith, and much was made of the trio’s diverse backgrounds, financial situations, and approaches to life. At heart, this was a love story. Dolan’s writing was sharp and witty and was the real star of this book.

What could we need more during these strange times than a warm and witty love story? It was modern in a way that will date quite quickly (lots of commentary on iMessage typing indicators and ways of working at Starbucks), but it was still lovely.

Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead by Milan Kundera

I don’t think I’ve read anything by Milan Kundera before. This was forty-three pages first published in English in a collection called Laughable Loves in 1974, and now republished as a standalone volume in the Faber Stories collection. Regrettably, the volume doesn’t credit the translator of the original Czech; from a bit of web searching, I think it was probably Suzanne Rappaport.

The plot concerned a man and a woman who previously had a sexual encounter when he was 20-ish and she 40-ish coincidentally meeting again 15 years on. Narration alternated between the two of them for each of the fourteen chapters.

There was a lot packed in here: the plot may have been straightforward, but the melancholy atmosphere, the lost love, the detail of the imagery, and the reflections on aging and changing and mortality elevated this to something more than a simple narrative. Kundera packed more into these forty-three pages than many authors I’ve read recently fit into a full-length novel.

Intruders by Adrian Tomine

This was an 81-page graphic novel (or, I suppose, graphic short story—but that doesn’t seem like it means the same thing). First published in 2015 in the collection Killing and Dying, I read the 2019 standalone Faber Stories volume.

Graphic novels aren’t really my cup of tea, but I enjoyed this, nonetheless. The book followed an American soldier returning home between his second and third tours of duty. The tale was a clear allegory for war abroad: without the consent of the new occupant, he secretly visited (and ended up defending) an apartment which he previously occupied. This choice made me think a lot about the authorial intent: was this a narrative device to make us think about war differently? Was this a reflection of the mental state of the solider? Was it a bit of both?

The blurb called it a ‘disquieting evocation of a post-traumatic life’, but I’m not sure that fits with how I read it. I found it a little too fantastical to be read as a realistic evocation of anything, but it did make me reflect quite a lot on the psychological impacts of war.

Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

This was Haig’s 2019 book about the effects of various aspects of modern life on mental health. I like Haig’s writing, so I enjoyed this book. Haig mixes his first-hand experiences with discussions of the evidence base which made for an engaging but light book, with quite a bit of wit.

I don’t think I learned a huge amount from this book, but I enjoyed Haig’s take on the topic.

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