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What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve eight books to tell you about this month.

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain

I decided to read this 2013 French novel after hearing political journalist Charlotte Ivers, on her fourth or fifth read, describe it as “the most charming book”. It’s translated into English by Jane Aitken, Emily Boyce and Louise Rogers Lalaurie.

I can’t disagree with Charlotte: this is an utterly charming book which is just brimming with a pleasant, gentle optimism. Set in the 1980s, the plot begins with a man finding François Mitterrand’s hat. It seems to bring him a small amount of good fortune. After he misplaces the hat, it ends up in the hands of another Parisian character, and so the book continues with four small vignettes of ordinary Parisian lives enhanced by temporary possession of a hat.

It sounds irritatingly twee, but Laurain manages to spin a comforting and engaging tale of it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Some translation decisions were unusual: for examplesommelier, a term frequently used in England, is routinely translated as ‘wine waiter’ yet motoscafo, an unfamiliar term, was left in French. But these are minor niggles, and this book is well worth 200 pages of your attention.

With thanks to Newcastle Libraries for lending me a copy.

A Month in the Country by JL Carr

This novel, first published in 1980, has been much-recommended as a book which is perfect summer reading. It is a rather gentle tale set in Yorkshire in the summer of 1920. Thomas Birkin, the central character, is an ex-serviceman who accepts a job in Oxgodby, Yorkshire, to get out of London for something approximating a period of convalescence. His task is to uncover a Medieval painting which has been whitewashed in the local church.

Birkin becomes drawn into village life, becoming especially close to another ex-serviceman who is digging for a lost grave, a young girl from the village, and the parson’s wife. He develops especially strong feelings for the latter.

There is a lot of gentle hinting in the book at religious themes of damnation, redemption, and forgiveness. It’s a short book, under 100 pages, but is rich in atmosphere and description while maintaining an underlying gentleness. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

With thanks to Newcastle Libraries for lending me a copy.

The Last Days of Roger Federer by Geoff Dyer

I’ve previously read and enjoyed Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It and so was tempted by this new book when I noticed that the library had acquired a copy. Much like the earlier book, it’s an extended and somewhat rambling essay recounting the author’s personal experiences and a wide range of cultural touchstones. This volume concentrates on ‘endings’ and draws on a lot of literature, jazz, art, classical music and other references.

Many of the references are beyond me, but Dyer’s engaging and funny style of writing and the pace of the ’conversation’ keeps things moving on. And there are occasional passages which speak directly to me, or make me see things from a wholly new perspective.

In all, a bit like the earlier book, I’m not really sure why I liked this, especially given that so many of the references were unfamiliar… but I very much did.

With thanks to Newcastle Libraries for lending me a copy.

The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal

I had two reasons for picking this up. Firstly, there has been a lot of recent discussion of the Elkhart of Vidal as the tenth anniversary of his death has just passed, and I thought it would be good to read some of his work. Secondly, I recently read A Ladder to the Sky which features Vidal as a character and includes a few mentions of this specific book, with which it turns out to share some minor themes.

The City and the Pillar caused considerable controversy on its 1948 publication for its portrayal of an ordinary, somewhat sympathetic gay man who served in the military. Clearly, this is much less shocking to modern sensibilities, but the story still holds up as a tale of longing, and as a criticism of prejudice. The writing is in that plain, precise style of the great American writers, which I enjoyed.

I’m glad I read this because it gave me a bit of historical perspective. However, I wouldn’t rush to re-read it; I wasn’t really moved by it, and I’m not really sure that I’ll remember the finer details of the plot six months hence.

With thanks to The London Library for lending me a copy.

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri

I picked up this novel having previously enjoyed Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies.

Lahiri’s previous novels were written in English, while she was living in the USA. She has since relocated to Rome, and wrote and published Whereabouts in Italian in 2018, as Dove Me Trovo. It was translated by the author and re-published in English in 2021.

Whereabouts is a subtle novel. It takes the form of short essays or reflections on the life and inner thoughts of a single woman in her 40s, living alone and working as an academic. It explores the fascinating intersection between solitude and loneliness. This relationship is something which has played on my mind in recent years in connection with older people, but I hadn’t really considered it in younger people who live alone. There isn’t much plot to speak of, but then it’s not that sort of novel.

While I didn’t feel I took quite as much from this book as I did from Interpreter of Maladies, I will certainly be seeking more of Lahiri’s books.

With thanks to The London Library for lending me a copy.

Weather by Jenny Offill

I picked this up because I recently enjoyed Offill’s previous novel, Dept. of Speculation. Weather was published in 2020, and shares the same fragmentary structure of short paragraphs sharing the protagonist’s tangentially connected thoughts and observations. The later novel is even lighter on plot than the earlier one.

Weather contains plenty of thoughts about the turbulent times in which we live: about populism and climate change and ‘the end times’. But it is also about marriage, family, parenthood and addiction, all of which loom large in the university librarian narrator’s life.

I felt like I got a little less from this book than from the earlier novel, but perhaps that is in part because the structure wasn’t so arrestingly novel. The references to the difficult times in which we are living also served to make it a little less escapist. But I’m still glad I read it.

With thanks to Newcastle Libraries for lending me a copy.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Two of my friends on Goodreads gave this short 1911 novel good reviews, which led me to seek a copy. It’s a thoroughly bleak tale of the despair of forbidden love, and of being trapped by circumstance and duty.

In all, this was thoroughly depressing. I appreciate Wharton’s brilliance in creating a complete world which evokes strong emotions in so few pages… but this isn’t the sort of thing I could stand to read regularly!

With thanks to The London Library for lending me a copy.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

I picked this short 2013 Booker shortlisted novel on a complete whim, based on nothing more than the author and the title. It’s a narrative of the last days of Jesus from the perspective of his mother.

Despite this being a very short book, I had a bit of a variable relationship with it. I very nearly gave up on it about halfway through, finding the narrator unlikable and the writing very much in a single, maudlin key. When I picked it up again, I liked it more, though it still felt as though the “strings” were visible, as if this were an essay for a school project, and I wasn’t really emotionally affected by it. The writing felt much clunkier than I expected. I suspect I’ll barely remember that I’ve read this book a year hence.

However, this is a book which has received glowing reviews elsewhere, from people who know much more about these things than me. Don’t set too much store by my negative review. It’s less than 100 pages, so probably just worth reading and making up your own mind.

With thanks to Newcastle Libraries for lending me a copy.

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Weeknotes 2022.38

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

Nobody tell “pro-growth” Liz Truss, but my taxpayer funded job is terrible for this country’s Gross Domestic Product.

By preventing people from catching serious infections or being harmed by chemical, radiological or biological hazards, I’m sucking millions out of the economy. I’m denying the country all the economic activity which could have been generated from decades of expensive medical treatments, or hugely costly spells in hospital or eye-wateringly costly stays in intensive care or isolation units. All those private companies whose drugs will sell slightly less well, or whose facilities management will have one less bed space to clean, or whose disability aids will have lost a potential customer must be raging at me.

And—which may be worse—I’m reducing productivity by making business focus on protecting their staff and customers from harm, instead of freeing them up to spend more time making widgets.

My entire job is based on the outdated socialist ideology that people’s health is worth something, even while reducing those all-important GDP figures: I’m the scourge of modern capitalist Conservatism, and yet the Treasury pays my wages.

That. Is. A. Disgrace.

Our local Councillors like to shove newsletters through our door every so often. One of the topics they frequently cover is recycling, and specifically, what residents may or may not put in their recycling bin. Their missives often end with the exhortation, “if in doubt, leave it out.”

For years, I’ve wondered whether they meant “if in doubt, leave it out for collection” or “if in doubt, leave it out of your recycling bin”. Both options seem reasonable: one increases the proportion of waste that is collected for recycling rather than landfill; the other protects the purity of the recycling stream.

This week, for no particular reason, I thought I’d search online to try to solve the puzzle. It appears that this is a commonly used slogan across different parts of the UK and is meant to communicate the latter message.

I guess this is proof that slogans don’t need to be clear to be catchy.

The previously mentioned closed branch of Barclays on my route to work is now plastered in Barclays notices headlined “Here to help”—despite that being demonstrably false. Bizarrely, they even say “pop in and arrange a time to talk”.

The small print shows that they’re advertising a seven hour per week service at a local cricket club.

Wendy and I finished watching the ten-part series The First Lady, a historical drama interweaving the lives of Michelle Obama, Betty Ford and Eleanor Roosevelt. I struggled to get into it at first: it’s difficult to get over the barrier of other people playing characters as familiar as the Obamas, and Kiefer Sutherland as Theodore Roosevelt was… a stretch.

But there is some fantastic acting in there, and we both found that the series gradually got under our skin. It’s worth sticking with.

The images in this post are all AI-generated images for the prompt “a physician and a First Lady of the United States, photographed from behind, sorting mixed recycling in an old-fashioned banking hall” created by OpenAI’s D-ALLE 2. Interesting that the physician is dressed in traditionally male clothing in all cases.

This post was filed under: Weeknotes.

Weeknotes 2022.37

A few things I’ve been thinking about this week. The thirty-seventh post of a series, and the second during this national period of mourning.

An incomplete list of unexpected places I’ve been offered written condolences on the Queen’s death: a billboard over the A167(M); the Amazon app; the Apple App Store; the Argos app; the ASOS app; the British Airways Executive Club app; every screen in the window and interior of Charles Clinkard; the Costa Coffee app; a signature on the bottom of an email from a local Council officer; the CrossCountry Trains website; the Deliveroo app; the EasyJet app; screens in Eldon Square; every single notice in several estate agents’ windows, because there’s nothing as disrespectful as advertising a house for sale; the window of Fenwick; the GoPuff grocery delivery app; the menu board in Greggs; Haymarket Metro station; the window of HMV; the window of HSBC, in a notice featuring the Queen wearing an outfit in the bank’s black and red colour scheme, because mourning presents an opportunity for brand reinforcement; the IKEA website; the John Lewis app, as well as their shop window; the LNER app; an email from The London Library; the M&S app and shop window; Matt Goodwin’s Substack; the Newcastle City Council website; one (and only one) of the entrances to Newcastle City Library; the Next app; an email from the Royal Society of Medicine, though maybe I should have expected that one given the name; a wall inside a Samsung Experience Store; the Selfridges website; the window of Skipton Building Society; the window of Specsavers, in surprisingly small writing; the Superdrug app; a broken screen in the window of TSB which I think was offering condolences, but for all the text I could read may have been suggesting the overthrow of the monarchy; screens in the window of Vision Express showing photos of the Queen wearing glasses, because mourning presents an opportunity for a sales pitch; a little A5 sign on the Waitrose deli counter; the window of WHSmith; emails from no fewer than four people above me in the management chain at work, no doubt time well spent; the Yeo Valley website; the window of the Yorkshire Building Society.

So, where was I (last week) when I heard? I’d been in the office, and aware from news websites of the concerning update from Buckingham Palace regarding the health of the monarch. Without really any knowledge to back it up, I half-expected an announcement at 5pm, which didn’t come.

As I walked home from work, assuming I’d be unable to stomach whatever Radio 4’s was offering, I listened to John Pieneaar and Stig Abell on Times Radio. They were delivering a pitch-perfect live programme reflecting on the life of the Queen. The hour I heard was focused on the response around the world to the concern about Her Majesty’s health. Correspondents from a string of countries reported on how their national news media was covering the story and shared insights into those countries’ longstanding relationships with the Queen.

As 6pm drew near, Pineaar and Abel prepared listeners for an expected ‘significant update’, cueing up 6pm with a well-chosen clip of the Queen’s “we’ll meet again” speech. There was some palpable filling after the top-of-the-hour when the expected news didn’t come, with the usually prompt headline sequence following only minutes later.

As I arrived home, Wendy had BBC News on the TV. At 6.30pm, I spotted a Press Association update on the web, which announced the death. Wendy and I sat together, anticipating the BBC’s announcement. Once Huw Edwards had broken the news a few minutes later, we got on with dinner.

Shortly afterwards, my on-call phone rang with news of a multiagency Tactical Command Group called that evening by a local police force as the North East elements of Operation London Bridge began to be implemented. And the world kept turning.

I’m loath to criticise anyone for over-reaching with days of continuous coverage of a single story to fill, but some may have pushed it a little far. I’m not convinced that we can infer much about King Charles’s approach to kingship from his haircut, as one weekly newspaper suggested. While technically true, I’m not certain that it’s all that illuminating to discuss our new monarch as an ‘orphan’, as one news channel did. And I’m not confident that the King’s response to a leaky pen really gives us quite the insight into his psyche that so many media outlets proposed.

This post was filed under: Weeknotes.

Weeknotes 2022.36

A few things I’ve been thinking about this week. The thirty-sixth post of a series, and the first in a period of national mourning.

The eighth Prime Minister of my lifetime was appointed this week. The first four served over my first 25 years on the planet. Prime Minister Truss must serve until 2035 if the second four are to match that record. This seems unlikely.

The second monarch of my lifetime ascended the throne this week. The first reigned over my first 37 years on the planet. The King must reign until he is 110 years old to match that record. This seems unlikely.

The Government has announced a tenth Bank Holiday in 2022. There have never been so many in a single year in my lifetime. There must be two huge national events in the same year for this to happen again, or fewer if one or more new standing Bank Holiday(s) are introduced. Neither contingency seems unlikely, but history suggests that both probably are.

This post was filed under: Weeknotes.

Weeknotes 2022.35

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

I’ve been reading Geoff Dyer’s The Last Days of Roger Federer this week, and, while describing someone’s house, he mentions in passing that

the previous time I was there, I’d held a human brain in my hands (a visiting neuroscientist happened to have one in the trunk of his car).

This was one of those arresting moments: of course, I (and many of my friends) have held human brains while studying anatomy at medical school. It’s so normal among us as to be unremarkable, but in the wider scheme of human existence, it’s a bit… weird.

In our anatomy exams, bits of cadavers would be presented to us with flagged pins stuck in them, like miniature golf flags. The task was to ‘name the structure first pierced by Pin A’, for example, with the classic easy example of the ’beautiful tortuous splenic artery’, as we were all accustomed to calling it.

When it came to the brain, we were often presented with slices of brain with pins in them, much like thick slices of strangely shaped ham with seemingly random placed markers. This was meant to be important because this is typically how the brain is imaged, in CT scans for example. I was hopeless at this bit. In retrospect, I think this was related to my (relative lack of) colour vision: the slices looked uniform colours to me, whereas Wendy tells me there were shades to them. Anyway, my total lack of ability in this clearly wasn’t enough to prevent me from qualifying in the end.

I started reading Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror this week, and was particularly struck by this passage:

I have become acutely conscious of the way my brain degrades when I strap it in to receive the full barrage of the internet—these unlimited channels, all constantly reloading with new information: births, deaths, boasts, bombings, jokes, job announcements, ads, warnings, complaints, confessions, and political disasters blitzing our frayed neurons in huge waves of information that pummel us and then are instantly replaced. This is an awful way to live, and it is wearing us down quickly.

It’s reminiscent of Bo Burnham’s Welcome to the Internet distilled into a paragraph, and it’s hard to disagree.

This week, I’ve seen young couples turning up to a hotel breakfast with an iPad, which they’ve propped up on the table so that they can jointly and collaboratively fill in a crossword. This happened on several days with different couples each time. I’ve never seen that before.

The images in this post are all AI-generated images for the prompt “a Vermeer style painting of a man holding a human brain” created by OpenAI’s D-ALLE 2.

This post was filed under: Weeknotes.

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