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What I’ve been reading this month

Long-time readers will know that I think Will Storr is one of my favourite writers. His latest book, The Science of Storytelling, was really aimed at other writers: it gave advice backed by psychology on the creation of works of fiction. I found myself completely absorbed in Storr’s discussion of storytelling theory. I really enjoyed the way that he connected science and art (as he always does), and I was very much taken with the examples he chose to present throughout his book, some of which were among my own favourite books. Because I’m not the target audience, some of the content was of less interest – for example, the appendix on story frameworks – but I devoured and enjoyed the whole book nevertheless.

A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind by Shoukei Matsumoto, a Buddhist monk, was a short book reflecting on the psychological benefits of cleaning. The passion of the argument was more than sufficient to carry the length of this short book, and so I really enjoyed it. It was neither particularly deep and philosophical nor a great source of practical cleaning tips; it’s just an enjoyable, well-written and concise explanation of a passionately held point of view.

Emily Maitlis’s much-lauded Airhead, a series of anecdotes about conducting television interviews, left me a little disappointed. Many of the anecdotes were about things that have gone wrong and Maitlis had enough wit to make these genuinely funny. Some were more thoughtful – Maitlis reflects interestingly on the shift from volunteering on the morning following the Grenfell fire to presenting an edition of Newsnight the same evening. But there wasn’t much more to this book than a series of anecdotes: no reflections on the changing media landscape, nothing about Maitlis’s personal development over time, and no grand argument which she was trying to prove. I enjoyed this book, but left it thinking: “So what?”

Another wildly popular book that did little for me: Normal People by Sally Rooney. This was a book about two people – Marianne and Connell – who grew up together and remain friends into adulthood. Their level of closeness varied over time. The two main characters have been widely praised for being very lifelike, but didn’t seem that way to me. This was partly, I think, because the dialogue between them was rather oddly stilted and formal considering their closeness, and partly because the other characters were so lightly described as to be hardly there, which made their world feel thin. I didn’t quite understand what the fuss was about: but this was on the Booker Prize long-list, so the problem is more likely to be me than the book!

Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She Devil, first published in 1995, was a much-lauded darkly comic novel of a woman scorned and going to extreme lengths to reinvent herself and exact revenge. There were some great lines, but the whole thing felt pretty dated to me, especially in terms of gender politics/ stereotypes. The comedy felt a bit thin to me: revenge can be entertaining, but revenge seemed to be the only note this book was willing to play.

I often complain that I don’t really like short stories: but in truth, I wonder if I’ve just always picked bad ones. So I’ve decided to challenge myself to read the twenty short stories picked by Faber for their 90th anniversary ‘Faber Stories’ collection over the next… well, I haven’t set myself a deadline.

The first of these I picked up was Julia O’Faolain’s Daughters of Passion, a short story in which an increasingly delusional IRA hunger-striker reflects on the childhood friendship which led to her involvement with the IRA. I enjoyed this: O’Foalain played with language in creative ways to reflect different mental states, and drew subtle connectiosn between delusion, misunderstanding and terrorism. All in 49 pages.

The second was A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor. I found this a bit pedestrian. The story concerned an American family crossing paths with a criminal while on a road trip. Most of the character development is focused on the grandmother. There are a lot of themes hinted at – most prominently the nature of moral good (or perhaps moral evil) in the context of modern American Christianity, but none of the themes were really developed into anything… perhaps because the story was so short.

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What I’ve been reading this month

Like the first two books in the series, it felt like a privilege to be read Ali Smith’s Spring, which are sure to become a classic, at the moment in time in which they’re set. Smith captures the voice of an age. I’ve found the writing in this series dizzyingly brilliant—the language and the fascinating ways in which Smith manipulates it are somehow more important than the plot. The raw anger in this volume in particular was something else. This was astounding.

There are lots of different editions of Italo Clavino’s Difficult Loves: mine had the classic collection of “Difficult Loves” short stories written in the 1950s, followed by the slightly longer stories “Smog” and “A Plunge Into Real Estate”. The overarching themes were love (in its broadest sense) and loneliness. I don’t usually get on with short stories, but this collection was an exception. The everyday tales which beautifully captured universal emotions; the dry humour; the hint of craziness that made me look at the world slightly differently; all allowed Calvino’s prose to take flight. It’s been years since I last read any Calvino, but I won’t let it be so long next time!

Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls was a collection of amusing autobiographical short stories or ramblings about travel, writing, and life in general. As you probably know, Sedaris is an American living in rural England and he draws a lot on differences in US and British culture in this volume. This is the first time I’ve read any of his work, and it made me laugh out loud a few times, which books rarely do – and it was pleasantly cosy and inconsequential. I’ll certainly read more of Sedaris’s collections. 

I found Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall utterly gripping, and finished it in a day. It was a book about a group of undergraduates, guided by an amateur historian (and his wife and child) plus a university professor, going on a camping trip in Northumberland and trying to recreate Iron Age life. There were some beautiful descriptions of the expansive scenery of Northumberland, which meant all the more to me for being local, and some very carefully observed descriptions of the lack of recognition of domestic abuse among victims. This left me with a lot of food for thought.

Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen was a book about how to receive feedback effectively. I found the book baggy and over-long, with rather too many repetitive examples. That said, there was more useful stuff in here than I expected. It shifted my understanding of feedback conversations from being one-way (i.e. passively receiving feedback) to being two-way (i.e. working together to understand the intention behind the feedback and reach a mutual understanding on the next steps). This is an obvious point, but I confess that it’s not one that’s occurred to me in those terms before—perhaps fed by a lifetime of written feedback and evaluative assessment where there’s no opportunity to engage in further discussion.

Heartburn was a short and funny autobiographical novel about the breakdown of Nora Ephron’s marriage to Carl Bernstein. It used a series of relatively frothy vignettes (interspersed with the occasional recipe) to reveal rather deep reflections on life, pain and betrayal. I think I perhaps prefer Ephron’s shorter essays than this longer book, but I found the book so cleverly put together that I might come to think differently about that as I reflect further.

Women and Power was a book based on two speeches by Mary Beard about the way in which women have been systematically denied a public voice. The first took a historical, longitudinal and structural approach to that question, while the second focused more on contemporary examples. I found Beard’s historical account interesting and compelling, but I wish it had gone further. In particular, I would have liked to better understand Beard’s views on how things can change, and what the future may hold – but perhaps that’s not the point of a history book.

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What I’ve been reading this month

Educated, by Tara Westover, was extraordinary: but given the universal praise the book has received, you probably didn’t need me to tell you that. It was a powerful memoir describing the impact of growing up in a violent religious cult-ish rural Idaho family home with no formal education (not even formal registration of birth!) and going on to earn a Cambridge PhD. There was some pretty harrowing physical and emotional violence, but I found the overall tone to be hopeful. It spurred all sorts of ideas and thoughts that I’ll mull upon for some time to come.

In Skyfaring, commercial pilot Mark Vanhoenacker offered thoughtful reflections on a lifetime of travel and flying. This absorbing book combined autobiography, lessons on flight mechanics, a history of human flight and poetic reflections on aviation. I read this in chunks between other books as I found that there was only so much of it I could take at oncebut I looked forward to coming back to it each time.

Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette was described in a newspaper book review column as “hilarious and uplifting”, but I found the cartoonish characterisations a bit grating at times. The novel was an easy holiday read about the relationships between two professionally successful but socially flawed parents and their teenage daughter. It was partly conventionally narrated by the teenager, and partly epistolary. I didn’t find it as funny as the newspaper reviewer, but the writing was a cut above what I’ve come to expect from this sort of book, and there was some welcome and unexpected depth to some of the social commentary.

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport changed my view on ‘healthy’ use of smartphones and social media. I expected it to be an anti-technology diatribe that might be quite fun. In fact, Newport was explicitly pro-technology, but made the point that technology is best used with a specific end in mind. Using technology as a mindless distraction without a clear goal is not particularly beneficial and may be harmful: at the very least, it has an associated opportunity cost. I didn’t try any of the self-help ‘exercises’, but nonetheless found the discussion around them insightful. Some of the language was irritating (‘detox’ etc), but the enjoyment and insight I gained from this book outweighed my nitpicking.

Jodie Jackson’s You Are What You Read was a very well-researched and well-referenced discussion of the psychological and social effects of news reporting that focuses excessively on negative stories, with little counterbalance from “solutions-focused” journalism. I enjoyed the book and found Jackon’s perspective insightful, but I wasn’t completely persuaded by all of the arguments (or the advice that flows from them).

True Love, the much-celebrated volume by Thich Nhat Hanh, was recommended to me by someone who’d seen my earlier review of The Tao of Pooh. It was a very short book, and while many of the ideas resonated with me, I didn’t find the book terribly affecting, and I’ve no particular desire to re-read it.

I struggled through the Ann Goldstein translation of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, drifting in and out of caring about the characters. The whole thing seemed a bit repetitive and boring to me. The descriptions of the Neapolitan setting were captivating; shame about the plot.

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What I’ve been reading this month

My favourite book this month was André Aciman’s Enigma Variations. In five parts, this novel related the five great “loves” in the life of Paul, who grew up in a small Italian town and later moved to New York. Having also recently read Call Me By Your Name, I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that no contemporary writer can do lustful longing quite like Aciman – and there was a lot of that in this book. The first section, which concerned Paul’s boyhood infatuation with a carpenter, was the most affecting and memorable for me. Paul’s fluid (and unlabeled) sexuality across his life-course and the complexity of his social relationships felt at once very “modern” and very true to life in my generation. But the real power in this book was in the emotional weight – and particularly the weight of that desperate, aching, lustful longing that Aciman writes so well.

I saw the movie of Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal some 13 years or so ago, and finally got round to reading the book this month. Unreliably narrated by a bitter history teacher, it told the story of a young pottery teacher’s affair with an underage school child. It was a complex and layered novel which I think had loneliness as its central theme. I found it thought provoking, and also enjoyed the dark humour laced throughout. I found most of the character simultaneously thoroughly unlikable and utterly endearing.

Rarely in my life am I prompted to consider the nature of art, so Grayson Perry’s Playing to the Gallery was a little off the beaten track for me. It was an examination of what constitutes art and how artists (and to some extent, art markets) function in the modern world. It was written in Perry’s usual wryly irreverent style, which is very funny at times – and is full of his cartoonist sketches to illustrate particular points. I found it though-provoking, and it seemed to pack in more content and ideas than its 134 pages would suggest, without ever feeling crammed in.

The Iceberg was Marion Coutt’s memoir of how her husband’s diagnosis with a brain tumour, and his subsequent death, affected her family’s life. It had a deeply moving poetic style, yet also a straightforward linear narrative which dealt with the practicalities of daily life in an extraordinary period. It was an honest, unflinchingly intimate portrait of love and grief. Reading it made me feel very sad. It made me reflect on how I would feel and cope in similar circumstances, and at times it was hard to continue reading, which reflects the power of the account.

Fredrick Backman’s A Man Called Ove was a heartwarming, cosy, comic fireside read about a grumpy Swedish widower, which follows exactly the plot you’d expect from a comic tale with that starting point. It relied quite heavily on stereotype, as books like this usually do, and all of the characters were hence pretty two-dimensional. I enjoyed this while it lasted, but I wouldn’t run out to read any more of it. Henning Koch’s translation made for an easy read.

The decision to publish one of Ivan Rogers’s speeches as a 90-page book raised eyebrows this month. Nonetheless, I found the Nine Lessons in Brexit offered by the Britain’s former EU Permanent Representative to be commendably clear explanations of why much of what is said by people on both sides of the Brexit debate is nonsensical. Rogers didn’t pull punches: this contained a blistering attack on the Government’s approach to Brexit negotiations, which have resulted in “an obviously bad deal”. But there is plenty of light offered alongside the heat. I think Rogers argument that we need more honesty with the public is true not just about Brexit but about a whole range of policy issues.

The two key messages of Ryan Holiday’s Perennial Seller, in which he tried to derive the formula behind projects with a lasting cultural impact, were that lasting successes take really hard work and need to be targeted at a specific audience. Because I’m not really a “creator”, in as much as I’m not really someone who tries to sell stuff, much of the content of this book was completely irrelevant to me. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading a book which extolled the virtue of hard graft rather than quick tricks to success.

I found Gerald Maslbary’s translation of Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture to be dense, way over my head, and consequently really quite boring. It is apparently a very important work in its field, but it was just too much for this reader.

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What I’ve been reading this month

André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name was an emotionally intense book about adolescent lust: a deeply passionate summer crush, perhaps love, between a teenager and a slightly older lodger. I found this moving, both for the sheer force of emotion in the early part of the story (which was so intense as to be a little exhausting at times), and for the more reflective, contemplative later parts. The characters in this book will remain in mind for a long time to come. I can’t imagine how anyone made a movie about this given that it’s mostly about thought and emotion rather than anything visual – almost makes me curious enough to watch it and find out.

I was predisposed to like Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills because I liked the other books of his I’ve read, but it turned out that I felt a little less certain about this one. Like his other books, this was all about life’s choices, how relationships change over time, and things that people live to regret. However, I found that the ending of this one left me with just too many unanswered questions, like a murder mystery left unsolved. I nevertheless enjoyed Ishiguro’s masterful prose as always.

The Richard Howard translation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince was a pleasant enough fairy tale about a young alien visiting Earth. This was one of those books so frequently referenced in popular culture that I knew much of the imagery and plot before I opened it, and didn’t get a huge amount more out of it for having actually read it. It reminded me a little of Gulliver’s Travels, but with earnestness replacing a lot of the wit.

Benjamin Hoff’s 1980s classic, The Tao of Pooh, described Taoism through Winnie the Pooh and friends. My overall feeling was that this was “nice” – a bit too cutesy in parts, and I didn’t feel I learned much more about either Taoism or Pooh beyond reinforcing my general level of general cultural awareness of both. It was fine – but I can’t say that I fully understand why this has become a perennial bestseller!

The Beast, by Alexander Starritt, was a satire set in the offices of a caricature of a self-important British tabloid newspaper: The Daily Mail in all but name. I struggled with it. It was full of stock characters and cliché, the predictable plot played out far too slowly, the prose is pretty clunky, and – worst of all – it just isn’t very funny. The insight of the degree to which fear can often lie behind irrational hate was well-observed, but that wasn’t nearly enough to sustain the book.

I was disappointed by Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. I found the arguments mostly unconvincing: there was lots of comparison between targeted social media advertising and mass media ads, made the classic popsci error of setting up falsely dichotomous groups. There has been advertising that is targeted and manipulative and actively harmful for a very long time, from tricks to convince gamblers into voluntary financial ruin to hooking people on addictive substances to pyramid schemes to timeshares. All of this context was missing and it made for a very thin set of arguments. The author used a lot of language which seemed to be intended to shock, from “shitposts” to “assholes” to branding particular sorts of websites as “bummer”, but (perhaps with the exception of the latter) without adequate definitions. So while I agree with some of Lanier’s conclusions – particularly around supported investigative journalism – this book really wasn’t for me.

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What I’ve been reading this month

Margareta Magusson, a Swedish grandmother “aged between 80 and 100”, wrote a funny and heartwarming book about The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, or basically tidying up your stuff before you die. This was a delightful book full of humour and sage advice. I really enjoyed it.

The Little Snake by A.L. Kennedy was a modern fairy tale centered on the relationship between a young girl, Mary, and a little snake, Lanmo. I found it a rather charming exploration of life, death, friendship and love. It was apparently inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, and the experience of reading Kennedy’s book has inspired me to add this to my ‘to read’ list.

I really enjoyed Sarah Langford’s book In Your Defence. This was a collection of case studies from a career as a barrister, chosen to illustrate particular points about the law and the legal profession. I recently read The Secret Barrister, and found it interesting to reflect on the different approach to similar subject matter taken by the two different authors. While I really enjoyed The Secret Barrister, I think I preferred Langford’s approach overall.

I found With the End in Mind by Kathryn Mannix to be rather sadder that I initially expected, which was perhaps a bit silly of me given that it was a book about death. It was a book I could only read in small chunks for that reason, though it had a lot of interesting points to make about palliative care and society’s approach to death.

I’m not someone who would be naturally drawn to a book about Prince Charles, but Tom Bower’s Rebel Prince has received such praise from so many corners that I had to see what the fuss was about. Bower concentrated on the period of Charles’s life from his divorce from Diana onwards. Bower portrayed a likable but perhaps fatally flawed Prince, keen to do his best for his country, but held back by impetuousness, and limited intellect and a very thin skin. I felt that this biography left me with a much better understanding of Charles as a man, and ended up feeling a little sorry for him.

This 2,339th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

What I’ve been reading this month

The Gregory Hays translation of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations felt lift-changing for me. As you no doubt know, this was essentially the personal notebook of Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor from the second century AD. This is not something I would ever have dreamed of picking up if I hadn’t previously stumbled across some of Seneca’s essays and thoroughly enjoyed them. Meditations contains no essays, just brief points, observations and reflections on life. For that reason, I expected not to enjoy it as much, as I typically like to read arguments that are developed and explained. Yet it took me ages to get through the 200 tiny pages of this book because of the capacity for one of Aurelius’s points to completely change my perspective on something going on in my day-to-day life. I cannot think of any other book I’ve ever read that has held that power. People may think I’m a complete doofus for not reading and appreciating this sooner, and they may well roll their eyes at my naivety of feeling this strongly about this particular volume, but I can’t think of any book I’ve ever read that has been as profoundly affecting at this one.

Axel Lindén’s On Sheep (or Fårdagboken), translated by Frank Perry, was a short meditative diary of Lindén’s transformation from Stokholm lecturer to rural Swedish shepherd. Despite its length, I found it completely transporting and Lindén seemed wholly endearing. He described his shepherding role in minute detail at times, and reflected profoundly on all sorts of aspects of life and happiness. There was also a good dose of wit. I would never have expected to enjoy a book on Swedish farming nearly this much. This book will live long in the memory.

The Only Story by Julian Barnes knocked me a bit sideways and had a real emotional punch. I had no idea what it was about when I started reading, and perhaps because of that, the progress of the story was very unexpected. It is, in a nutshell, the story of a relationship, told with masterful characterisation and fantastic prose. I really enjoyed this.

TM, by Mark Sinclair, was a large format hardback describing the stories behind the development of 29 famous logos. Some of these stories were new to me whereas others have been repeated often in many formats. There was a bit of a British skew in the logos discussed, including British Rail, British Steel, Tate, V&A, the National Theatre and London Underground – but I found that interesting as it meant the logos were largely familiar to me. This was a beautifully produced book, and some of the stories were quite enlightening.

Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter was a stunning coffee table book containing beautiful photography and page layouts. It provided an annotated libretto for the blockbuster musical Hamilton, along with chapters on the development of the musical and so forth. Of course, the libretto was exceptionally good and drew on a hugely eclectic range historical, literary and pop culture sources to reference. But I knew all of that before I bought the book: I’ve been fortunate enough to see the show and have listened to the cast album many times. And, in nutshell, I didn’t get a whole lot more out of this. It was a wonderful souvenir of the musical, but I don’t think I learned a lot more or gained any particularly new insights from it.

David Szalay’s All That Man Is contained Nine short stories of men away from home having crises of confidence, each a little older than the last. There were lots of thematic connections between the stories, but somehow they still didn’t seem to add up to more than just nine stories, which left me feeling a bit disappointed (even though the writing was really good).

This 2,338th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

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