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What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve six books to tell you about this month, most of which were really excellent.

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

This 2018 novel follows the complicated life of novelist from his early 20s onwards. It is divided into three longer sections and two interludes, each of which has a different narrator, with the central character himself narrating the final section.

I’ve previously read three of Boyne’s novels (The Heart’s Invisible Furies, The Echo Chamber and The Second Child) and while I’ve enjoyed them all, the latter two didn’t quite live up to The Heart’s Invisible Furies, which I thought was truly exceptional. This book had a broadly similar biographical structure to The Heart’s Invisible Furies, and similar threads of humour and literary chatter, and even a mention of Maude Avery—a favourite character.

I enjoyed A Ladder to the Sky enormously, but it too didn’t quite live up to its predecessor.

Its recurring themes of ‘ownership’ of stories and differing interpretations of events depending on perspective were pointed out repeatedly and a little heavy-handedly for my liking. There was a lack of subtlety throughout, in a way that reminded me of some of Jeffrey Archer’s fiction. I haven’t quite untangled in my own mind whether that was an authorial choice meant to reflect unsubtle aspects of the protagonist’s character, or something less considered, but I found it a bit wearing at times.

But really, this is nit-picking. Even where plot points were unsubtly telegraphed way in advance, I still raced through the book anticipating each dénouement. I wouldn’t hesitate to read more of Boyne’s novels.

Vladimir by Julia May Jonas

This recently published novel concerns a relationship between an English professor and her recently appointed younger colleague. This is also the story of her troubled relationship with her husband, also a professor, who is under investigation for several historical relationships with his female students, conducted with her knowledge.

Vladimir is beautifully written, dark and exhilarating. It explores many contemporary questions, especially around shame, power and sexual consent. It has a bleak, cynical wit to it, and has a page-turning thriller-ish aspect to it.

I devoured it.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

This 2014 novel has been on my “to read” list for years. It is a short novel (179 pages) which provides a portrait of a marriage: there is some plot, but not a huge amount of it, and it is very much in the background.

Reading the blurb, I had completely misunderstood that this was an epistolary novel consisting of letters between a husband and wife. It isn’t. It is written in an unusual form, consisting of short thoughts and ruminations from the point of view of the unnamed “wife” character. In the second half of the book, the narration shifts to be apparently third-person, though I think this is intended to reflect a shift in how the character sees herself, rather than a genuine change in narrative perspective.

I found this structure interesting, insightful and enjoyable. Experimental forms are sometimes a bit of a slog, but that certainly wasn’t the case here.

This has left me keen to explore more of Offill’s work.

Turbulence by David Szalay

I read Szalay’s Booker-nominated All That Man Is back in 2018, and didn’t really think much of it: it seemed to be nine well-written, thematically connected stories, but it didn’t live up to being anything more than that.

Perhaps because I went into Turbulence, published in 2019, with a more open mind, I enjoyed it much more. It is a similar concept: twelve short stories about people going through “turbulent” times in their lives, their stories interconnected through aeroplane flights. Each of the short stories was immediately evocative of its setting and mood. The ways the stories interacted with one another pulled off that wonderful narrative trick of convincing the reader that the characters’ lives extend before and after the story we’re told.

I didn’t get any wider, grander theme from this book, but unlike All That Man Is, I wasn’t expecting to find one, so didn’t find the absence jarring. I really enjoyed reading this short book, and it makes me wonder whether I should reread the earlier book with different expectations.

Serious Money by Caroline Knowles

This book, based on a sociological research study, was published in May. Knowles walked around the wealthier parts of London and interviewed people who are found there. It was recommended in Tom Rowley’s newsletter as being “packed with sharply-observed insights into how the super-rich make their money and how they spend it. Gently written, with warmth and real curiosity.”

I’d agree with all of that. Knowles went well beyond simply describing the enormous privilege in which the super-rich are surrounded, and tried to genuinely understand the people and their world. One is left with the unavoidable impression that many of the super-rich are simply unaware of the real world, and most of them don’t seem especially kind nor friendly.

I expected the gaping inequality, and so was perhaps a little less shocked by that than the tone suggests I might be. What really depressed me about this book is the lack of imagination, the sheer mundanity of the everyday life of the people described. The sense of “keeping up with the Joneses” and the divisions between the “haves and have yachts” feels essentially grounded in the same envy as at other income levels. So much of the behaviour seemed to be driven by a sense of societal norms—we simply must have a swimming pool / country house / yacht because that’s what people would expect of those with our income.

I suppose I like to think—in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary—that if I had effectively unlimited means, then I’d spend my life trying to do something demonstrably worthwhile and leave the world a better place. I see that, to massive swathes of the world’s population, I do have effectively unlimited means, and yet, here I am, writing fairly shoddy and mostly unread book reviews rather than volunteering at the local soup kitchen. I suppose this book pierced my fantasy that my life would be different if I just had a little more money.

A Class of Their Own by Matt Knott

It was interesting to read this memoir, published in February, at the same time as Serious Money, as the two discuss broadly similar themes in entirely different ways. This book is the less successful of the two.

Matthew Hammett Knott is a Cambridge graduate, and this is his story of spending much of three academic years post-graduation as a private tutor to wealthy clients. The facts are a bit opaque: the blurb talks about “over a decade” spent tutoring—but while the events of the book take place over a decade ago, they cover only three years, and the end of the book leaves the impression of being the end of his tutoring career. The cover calls the author ‘Matt Knott’, while the book’s listing calls him ‘Matthew Hammett Knott’, which might just be a design thing, but—in the context of everything else—feels a bit like an attempt to draw a stronger dividing line between the hardly under-privileged author and his very upper-class clients.

The content is also a little odd. For a book which is notionally about tutoring children, references to sex are surprisingly frequent and occasionally jarring, and there is a surprising amount about the author’s early career as a writer.

The combination of the time that has passed since the events this describes, the strange content decisions and the opaque descriptions in the blurb make me wonder if this was originally written as a broader memoir. It may have been gradually beaten into a marketable shape by committee over many years, not wholly successfully.

This was easy to read, and occasionally very funny, but the overall sense I’m left with is a combination of puzzlement and suspicion, which is not really what I was looking for.

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

Weeknotes 2022.34

A few things I’ve been thinking about this week. The thirty-fourth post of a series.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts introduced me to the Italian word for jewellery box: portagioie, which can be literally translated as “joy box”. This initially struck me as beautiful, but became more and more depressing the more I thought about it.

In the TLS, Ysenda Maxtone Graham says

I always feel sorry for the poor consumptives of history, who would probably far rather have stayed in their home bedroom in England, but were dragged off in some bone-shaking vehicle in search of better air in the south of France, where they died anyway.

Now I do, too.

Also from the TLS, I leaned that the bestselling author James Patterson used to be the CEO of Toys’R’Us and also wrote its jingle… and that his autobiography is called James Patterson by James Patterson: Stories of My Life by James Patterson.

Your email signature should reflect the role in which you are sending the email. That is its main function. People who have a list of different roles in their signature, such as professorships and editorships, are basically show-offs who don’t understand basic principles of governance.

Julian Barnes’s piece in the LRB comparing Ingres’s Madame Moitessier and Picasso’s Woman with a Book was fantastic, and made me look at both paintings more closely than I’ve looked at any painting in years.

In the depths of lockdown, Wendy and I said that we’d make an effort to go to more galleries and exhibitions of art in a post-lockdown world, but we’ve somehow still not quite got round to it.

Having only recently watched My Octopus Teacher (without me), Wendy was distressed to see octopus toasties on a menu this week.

It also got us trying to remember the correct plural of ‘octopus’—Wendy thought ‘octopuses’, I thought ‘octopodes’, and we both thought ’octopi’ was wrong. The OED lists all three options, with ‘octopuses’ first… though the 1989 edition didn’t include ‘octopi’ and had ‘octopodes’ as the first option. The right answer is clearly to never have more than one: they are fairly solitary creatures in any case.

The images in this post are all AI-generated images for the prompt “digital art of an octopus reading a dictionary and emerging from a jewellery box” created by OpenAI’s D-ALLE 2.

This post was filed under: Weeknotes.

Weeknotes 2022.33

A few things I’ve been thinking about this week. The thirty-third post of a series.

I’ve been reading Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment this week, and the introduction introduced me to the lovely word ‘palimpsest’:

We have written ourselves into the DNA of this planet, laced human history into the very earth. Every environment bears a palimpsest of its past. Every woodland is a memoir made of leaves and microbes that catalogue its ‘ecological memory’. We can learn, if we want, to read it—to observe in the world around us the story of how it came to be.

It looks like it comes from the Latin palimpsēstus which has almost exactly the same meaning as the modern word (a parchment on which the original text has been overwritten by another).

On my walk to work each morning recently, I’ve been passed by a push-bike with a trailer which has “catering for Manchester by bike” written on it. I assume no-one is really cycling 140-miles to cater for Manchester, but then I suppose stranger things have happened.

The public information sign lying that “The Government and NHS are well prepared to deal with this virus” has finally been taken down from the men’s toilet wall at work, two-and-a-half years on. The poster advertising a long-closed staff survey for an employer which previously occupied our office remains.

I feel seen.

The images in this post are all AI-generated images for the prompt “a drawing on parchment of a person cycling past a toilet.” created by OpenAI’s D-ALLE 2.

This post was filed under: Weeknotes.

Weeknotes 2022.32

A few things I’ve been thinking about this week. The thirty-second post of a series.

Walking past a coffee shop on a university campus this week, I heard a student regaling a small group of friends. As I walked past, I caught the exclamation: “I was in the middle of a crematorium with fire alarms going off, what would you expect!?”

This week, I’ve been reading some Gore Vidal. In one of his novels, a character mentions a “streptococcic infection.”

I deal with cases of streptococcal infection all the time, but have never come across that alternative form of the adjective. Google Books Ngrams shows that “streptococcal” has always been the commoner form, but that “streptococcic” was used a little in the first half of the twentieth century.

Wendy and I have wanted to replace the wall lights in our living room for years, but have never spotted ones that were quite right. We did this week, though… and despite imagining that it would be difficult, the DIY job of replacing them only took me about 15 minutes. By sheer fluke, the brackets already attached to the wall for the old lamps were identical to the brackets for the new ones, so didn’t require removal and replacement.

I’ve been irritated this week by the Tory leadership candidates talking about “NHS efficiency”. I think there are scarcely any people who want an efficient NHS; I think most people want a gloriously, wonderfully inefficient NHS.

I think people want an NHS where staff have the time to sit and hold the hands of those dying alone. I think people want an NHS where staff have the time to give tea and sympathy to the bereaved. I think people want an NHS where staff have time for a little chat with the lonely patient without any visitors.

Of course, efficiency should be a consideration, but it shouldn’t be the top priority. I’d much rather be looked after by a caring service than an efficient one, and I’d much rather pay for the former too.

Wendy and I went to our first wedding of the year this week. Either fewer people are getting married or we’re getting old… or both. We saw the Perseid meteor shower as we walked home.

The images in this post are all AI-generated images for the prompt “a painting of a group of friends drinking coffee at a wedding with a wall light in the background” created by OpenAI’s D-ALLE 2.

This post was filed under: Weeknotes.

Weeknotes 2022.31

A few things I’ve been thinking about this week. The thirty-first post of a series.

I’ve moaned more than enough on here about ridiculous imprecise business jargon, but I’m being invited to a rash of “birdtable meetings” at the moment. This phrase manages to be both linguistically excruciating as well as grammatically irritating. I can accept “birdtable” as a non-standard compound adjective in the phrase “birdtable meeting”—but the moment people use “birdtable” as a noun, and continue to omit the space, it really makes my teeth itch.

I’m fully aware that this makes me a ludicrous human being, that the rules of grammar aren’t fixed in any case, that I make much worse grammatical errors all the time, and that I should just breathe through it: but it still irritates me.

I’ve been reading Caroline Knowles’s Serious Money this week. She mentions that when wealthy people dig out multi-storey basements below their central London houses, the digger used is often left in situ, because to extract it again is uneconomic. I think I’d heard that before, but I’d never really pondered the details.

Presumably, one has to be quite careful about removing all the fuel to prevent a fire hazard. Does the digger get walled in, or is an access point left just in case? If the latter, do you finish the room where the digger is, or is it just a dark and dusty dug-out dungeon? Do people try and make a feature of it, like some of the London Underground tunnelling machinery? So many questions…

I’ve long been irritated by self-censorship in the news which leads to scripts referring to “the n-word” or “the p-word” or whatever. It irritates me because it omits a key fact from the story and fails to educate the reader or listener that the term under discussion is inappropriate. Language changes over time and these are “teachable” moments—and no-one can be reasonably offended by an appropriately couched single mention. I’m not calling for offensive advice words in banner headlines.

This has reached a fresh nadir this week, with BBC News publishing an article about the removal of a word from some lyrics. The only clues given are that the word “has been used to demean people with spastic cerebral palsy” and that it has a variety of other meanings. I can think of multiple words that fit those criteria—words I wouldn’t use—but what if this is a new usage of a word I would normally use?

Even The Guardian, which has a specific policy of stating words “when necessary to the facts of the piece”—which is surely the case here—kept it secret.

This could have been an article that helped me to be more sensitive to others’ perceptions of language. Instead, because they haven’t told me which word is offensive, it’s essentially just noise.

This week, an expansion to the Guggenheim in Bilbao has been approved, with two extensions on sites 5km apart connected by a greenway, and connected to the main museum—40km away—through a brand new tunnel bored through a mountain.

Having never even been to Bilbao, and having seen only a couple of paragraphs about the plan in the press, I’m really not at all qualified to have an opinion. Nevertheless, I got a little thrill at the sheer audacity of the plan when I first read about it this week. I felt a little boosted by the confidence the plan projects about the world… even though, on the face of it, it doesn’t sound environmentally ideal, and even though we all know that few such grand projects ever reach fruition.

Also from Serious Money comes the revelation that there are more people employed in domestic service in the UK now than there were during the Victorian era.

The largest and most elaborate houses employ cleaners, waiters, maintenance staff, housekeepers, security staff, drivers, gardeners, chefs, nannies, tutors, PAs and, sometimes, multiple butlers. The twenty-first century domestic service labour force is as complex and specialised in its own way as its nineteenth-century predecessor.

Of course, the population has grown by 2-5 times (depending on what we’re calling “the Victorian era”, but even so… I wouldn’t have expected that.

The images in this post are all AI-generated images for the prompt “brightly coloured painting of a bird on a bird table with money” created by OpenAI’s D-ALLE.

This post was filed under: Weeknotes.

On book reviews

Last week, I posted my regular “What I’ve been reading this month” post and was surprised to note that all the books were by female authors. I noted that this hadn’t happened before, and by flicking back through the series, I could see that the last time all the books were by one gender was in February 2019.

This made me wonder what other secrets were hiding in the archive of book reviews on this blog. I decided to make a spreadsheet of all the books I’ve ever reviewed on here, and the posts in which they first appeared.

This was a bigger task than I anticipated: it turns out that I’ve reviewed 561 books over a period of 17 and a half years.

My first review was of Dan Brown’s most famous novel, in January 2005. Since then, there have been 74 other posts reviewing single books (plus a few slightly edited repeats, which I didn’t count) and a total of 75 “what I’ve been reading this month” posts (plus a few ‘favourite books this year’ repeats, which I didn’t count).

The authors I’ve reviewed the most are Ian McEwan (7 books) and David Sedaris (7), followed by Ali Smith (6), Jon Ronson (6), Julian Barnes (6) and Kazuo Ishiguro (6).

Just over half—53%—of the books have been fiction.

Diversity hasn’t historically been a strong point for me: more than two-thirds of the books I’ve read are by men, with only 12% being non-fiction books written by female authors. Less than one-in-ten of the books were first published in a language other than English, with French (9 books) and Italian (9) the most common non-English original languages.

However, I’m getting better: over the last year, exactly half of the books I’ve read have been written by women, and nearly 20% of the books I’ve read have been translations from one of eight different languages. I’ve also been reading more fiction, which accounts for 68% of books I’ve read over the last year, but still less than 30% of the non-fiction I’ve read has been written by female authors.

I appreciate that this is mostly of interest to me, as the reader of the books and the writer of the reviews… but I’m compulsively sharing nonetheless.

The images in this post are all AI-generated images for the prompt “cubist painting of piles of books on balance scales in a library” created by OpenAI’s D-ALLE.

This post was filed under: Blogging, Reviews.

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