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What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve six books to tell you about this month: three excellent ones, and three weaker ones.

Failures of State by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott

As COVID-19 has consumed almost all of my working life for the past nineteen months, I’ve been somewhat loath to read even more about it in my spare time. Yet, I found this recently published book by two investigative journalists from The Sunday Times extraordinary, gripping and devastating—and the experience of reading it, mildly reassuring.

The book starts with fifty pages on the history of coronavirus outbreaks around the world, and the likely sources of COVID-19. It then launches into 350 pages covering the response of (mostly) the UK Government to the pandemic up to the end of 2020. People often characterise NewsUK journalists as being supportive of Conservative governments, yet this book, which sticks to a mostly straightforward timeline of events, could not be more damaging to the Government’s claim to have handled the pandemic well.

Perhaps most damning of all is the section at the end where the authors explain that the Government’s response to their criticisms was to deny any errors in their handling of the crisis. It was this book’s elucidation of clear errors and lessons for the future that I found oddly reassuring: reflection, learning and continuous improvement is a cornerstone of any medical practice, and a routine part of health protection. Acknowledgement of errors felt like a return to normality—even where those errors have been on an unrecognisable scale.

Calvert and Arbuthnott include harrowing individual patient stories from the pandemic, which are tough to read. It’s also hard—as they themselves acknowledge—to be certain of how representative of the wider response each of these stories can be. Yet, their inclusion feels important to contextualise decisions and illustrate their human impact.

No work of journalism will ever be perfect, or fully reflect the truth of any situation: the blameless can be blamed, decisions made with the best available information at the time can look foolhardy in hindsight, and the real villains can go without mention. Perhaps Arbuthnott and Calvert are entirely wrong on key facts, or on where decisions were made, or on where they place the blame. But, right or wrong, this book feels like the first draft of the history of the UK Government’s response to the first part of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Cure for Good Intentions by Sophie Harrison

Sophie Harrison was an editor at Granta magazine before she decided to retrain as a doctor. She started medical school in 2003—the same year as me—and this memoir of her time at medical school through to her early career as a GP has just been published. I picked this up as I was aware of Harrison’s background and thought it was likely that she would write elegantly about her career, which, I thought, would be quite fun to read. I’ve somehow never really clocked her pieces in the LRB or the Financial Times Weekend, despite regularly reading both.

I thought this book was wonderful: warm and witty, exactly the tone I would like to strike if I had enough talent to write about my own medical training. The fact that Harrison is a contemporary of mine meant that her story brought back many memories from my own training, more-so than the many medical biographies from different eras. Harrison’s background also gives her a literary appreciation for medicine, and there are many references to medicine in literature contrasted with her experiences.

I enjoyed this enormously, more even than I expected. The combination of great writing and the memories it resurfaced as I read made this a real pleasure.

The Bachelor by Andrew Palmer

This recently published debut novel by Andrew Palmer has not received brilliant reviews, yet I very much enjoyed it.

This literary novel is set in the contemporary USA. Its protagonist is a man in his late 20s who has recent split from his “almost-fiancée” and returned to his home town, housesitting for a friend of his mother. The main plot of the book concerns the protagonist’s love life.

Alongside the main plot, the protagonist becomes caught up in watching the reality television series The Bachelor, and also in researching the life of the noted American poet John Berryman. Through these, the book becomes an exploration of the degree to which our perception of the world is real, and—separately—how much of it we believe. For example: is a well-researched biography any more or less ‘true’ than reality TV? And what is it about some aspects of art which allow us to suspend our disbelief and to be constantly questioning others? And why is it that those decisions are rarely rational: we can often end up questioning things we know to be meticulously researched and balanced more than those things which we consciously know to be manipulated.

I have never watched an episode of The Bachelor, though I’m sort of culturally aware of it, and I’m not familiar with the life and work of John Berryman. I can, however, completely relate to getting drawn into reality TV and to becoming deeply interested in a person’s biography. I think that this was perhaps helpful in that I appreciated the context but didn’t get too caught up in the specifics, and allowed me to enjoy the wider points.

Palmer integrates much broader examples into his discussion, including a very interesting bit on the truth of classical music, and the degree to which the composer’s score and the players’ interpretation are in opposition as the ‘reality’ of the music. Having said that, the metaphors do feel occasionally forced, such as the time the protagonist spends living in a house with (literal) glass walls.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed this. It was both gentle in tone and plot, but also clever in the ideas it explored and occasional profound in its expression of those ideas. But I appreciate that this isn’t how many others who have read it feel: perhaps it just happened to be right up my street.

Outraged by Ashley ‘Dotty’ Charles

This brief 2020 book by Ashley ‘Dotty’ Charles argues that outrage on social media is often blown out of proportion, achieves little, and takes attention away from worthier causes and more constructive expressions of disapproval. Charles interviews a couple of people to explore these ideas further: Rachel Dolezal, the campaigner who identifies as black despite being born to white parents, and Katie Hopkins, the controversialist British media personality.

And… that’s it. Perhaps partly because the argument Charles is making seems pretty self-evident to me, I didn’t feel this book added much to the conversation. I enjoyed reading it: in particular, I liked the sense of wit running through it and the juxtaposition of personal anecdote and wider observation. However, I didn’t really feel that I learned much from it, and nor did it really give me any new perspective on the harms associated with social media.

One day, I’m pretty sure we’ll look back on the use of social media by healthcare organisations in the face of accumulating evidence of harm with much the same horror as we today look back on doctors’ promotion of cigarettes—but that’s an argument for another day.

Second Place by Rachel Cusk

This recently published novel by Rachel Cusk appeared on the Booker long-list, so clearly has a lot going for it, but I’m afraid it didn’t really do much for me.

Second Place is a ruminative observational novel. After a strange introduction in which the protagonist is chased around Paris by the devil, the main plot point is the protagonist inviting a renowned artist to come and stay in her guest cottage. This is a study of character and the interrelationships of characters, with a particular focus on gender-related power dynamics. Yet, we only get to know about the characters through first-person, unreliable narration from the protagonist. This makes it slightly difficult to work out what is really going on or what anyone’s motivation is.

In the end, this proved to be a little too high concept for me, and not very engaging. I think this book would probably reward a close read with study and reflection, but didn’t work for me as a casually read novel.

This is Water by David Foster Wallace

Fair warning that this is a bit of a rant.

David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College is something of a cultural touchstone of my generation, with references turning up frequently and in the oddest of places. Despite this, I’d never actually engaged with it. This problem would have been easy to resolve: a quick internet search brings up the complete text, and an audio recording of the speech is freely available (including in many presentations on YouTube).

But that’s not really my style: no, I chose to engage with this when the 2009 Little, Brown & Company edition was recommended when I was buying some books. It was printed in the US, and according to the dust cover, priced at $15, which makes the price I paid a substantial discount.

The content of the address is fine. The basic universal message is to think compassionately of others, but (as you’d expect from a great writer) it is written in a style which defies convention. I can see why it has stuck in people’s minds and become part of the common canon of my generation.

But the specific hardback book is awful. Presumably because the text is short, and the publisher wants to charge a premium, they’ve chosen to bulk out the length by presenting every sentence on a separate page. There are many examples of talented writers playing with form, but this isn’t one of them. This is a speech, where each line builds on the last to create a coherent whole, and someone has made the decision to butcher it into individual sentences. Some pages have two words on them.

I’m irrationally angry about this because it ruins the meter of the speech, it destroys the sense of an argument gradually building, and—frankly—because it is almost the worst possible way I can think of to convert this speech into a book. Not since I read No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, a book in which the publisher has chosen to collect speeches which have large parts repeated from speech-to-speech, have I felt so annoyed by a production decision.

So do read the text: it’s just shy of 4,000 words, it won’t take you long, and it’s worth it (even if it isn’t totally mind-blowing). But don’t buy this book: read one of the many versions online, or listen to the audio on YouTube.

This 2,499th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , .

What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve six books to tell you about this month, almost all of which were really good.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

This 2002 novel by Jeffrey Eugenides won the Pulitzer prize—and in my view, entirely deserved it. I thought this was brilliant.

The plot is focused on Calliope Stephanides, an intersex man who—despite a XY chromosomal pattern—has a genetic disorder which causes him to be born with feminine genitalia, and to be raised as a girl. The condition reveals itself as Calliope reaches puberty.

But this isn’t just a novel about an intersex man, or even just about gender identity: most of the previous paragraph makes up only the final third of the novel. The rest explores Calliope’s family history, commenting on the immigrant experience for his grandparents moving from Greece to Detroit, and telling a compelling set of stories of consanguinity. The narrator is also witty, and this book made me laugh.

I thought this was brilliant, both in terms of its telling of the broad canvas story of immigration and social change, and of the specific plot and the gender issues caught up in it. It is a real page-turner of a story, as well as having a lot to say.

❧ I alternated between an ebook from Scribd’s library and a hardback from The London Library. I then ended up buying the pictured paperback because I enjoyed this so much.

Three O’Clock in the Morning by Gianrico Carofiglio

This is the 2021 translation by Howard Curtis of the 2017 best-selling Italian novel by Gianrico Carofiglio. In terms of describing the plot, can do no better than quoting Curtis’s note at the back of the book:

This is basically a novel about communication, a story of a father and son who, through extraordinary circumstances, are forced to spend time together and, in doing so, to discover truths about each other they might not otherwise have learned. They do this mainly by talking, really talking to each other, for the first time in their lives. Over the course of two sleepless days and nights in Marseilles, the characters discover the power of words to reveal the truth of the human soul.

This was right up my street, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s the first Carofiglio novel I have read, and I very much enjoyed the precise style of writing, particularly for a book which is about such imprecise and shifting qualities in human relationships. 

The son in the book is, for the most part, in his late teens, so this is also something of a coming-of-age novel. The ‘extraordinary circumstances’ which force father and son together are related to a diagnosis of a particular kind of childhood epilepsy, so there’s an interesting parallel between ‘growing up’ in an emotional sense and growing out of childhood conditions.

There was loads to think about in such a short book, and I think it would reward re-reading too.

❧ I bought a hardback and read most of this from there, but did dip into an ebook version from Scribd’s library now and again.

Welcome to the World, Baby Girl! by Fannie Flagg

Fannie Flagg’s 1998 novel about the life and complicated past of an up-and-coming female newsreader in the 1970s is not the sort of thing I’d usually pick up for myself, but it was recommended ages ago by my friend Julie.

While it felt a bit melodramatic, there were some interesting underlying social history themes (it’s hard to be more specific without revealing too much of the plot!) and the writing style and tone were light and fun: perfect for a holiday read. There’s even a dash of romance.

This was a great recommendation: something is never have come across myself, and which I really enjoyed.

❧ I bought and read this in paperback.

The Suicide Shop by Jean Teulé

Translated by Sue Dyson in 2008, this is French author Jean Teulé’s popular 2007 fable about a cartoonish family (not unlike the Addams family) who run a shop selling suicide methods in a future where climate change has ravaged the world. 

In 169 pages, Teulé combines black humour with a moral message which feels highly relevant to our times. It made me laugh out loud a couple of times, and I enjoyed it, but in retrospect I’m not sure if it may have been just a little bit too twee despite the darkness… but perhaps that’s how fables are supposed to make us feel.

❧ I read most of this in ebook form from Scribd’s library, but switched to a paperback sometimes which I bought a while ago.

Disney’s Land by Richard Snow

I’ve never been to the original Disneyland in California, and haven’t really got any strong interest in it, though I have been to the Florida and Paris versions at various points in my life. I passed Anaheim on a train a few years ago, and wasn’t drawn to take the opportunity to pop out for a gander. I couldn’t reliably tell the ‘Matterhorn’ from ‘Big Thunder Mountain’. Yet, I enjoyed this 2019 history of Walt Disney’s personal involvement in the design and building of Disneyland.

This book reminded me in a sense of The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture by Glen Weldon, another book I unexpectedly enjoyed, in that interest in the primary subject matter doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite for gaining insight from the text and getting caught up in the ‘plot’. I suppose, to some degree, that is the mark of a successful non-fiction book. This is as much a sociocultural history as it is a book about a theme park, and it was filled with anecdote and wit, and Snow’s enthusiasm for his topic shines through.

This is a book I’d never have picked up except on recommendation, and yet I enjoyed it from start to finish. I’m not sure I’ll remember many of the details twelve months from now, but it was very diverting while I read it.

❧ I bought a hardback and alternated between it and an ebook version from Scribd’s library.

How to Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie

I picked this up because my friend Rachael recommended it. It is a recently published first novel by Bella Mackie, in which the protagonist, Grace, decides to murder all of the living members of her estranged family in order to secure an inheritance.

I enjoyed this to a point: Grace was a fun character sketched with dark humour rooted in contemporary culture. But to me, she was a bit too fun, and not really dark and calculating enough to convince me that she was capable of multiple brutal murders. It felt like the character lacked an edge.

This was problematic, as there isn’t much carrying this book other than Grace’s character. The plot is essentially little more than a short story collection of vaguely related murders, with a disappointing cop out of an ending which does little to round off the story or round out Grace’s character.

So, in the end, this was a fun read… but really not much more than ‘okay’ overall.

❧ I bought a hardback and read most of this from there, but did dip into an ebook version from Scribd’s library now and again.

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What I’ve been reading this month

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

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

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

The Overstory by Richard Powers

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

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

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

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

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

A Passion for Ignorance by Renata Salecl

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

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

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

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

❧ I read a hardback copy from The London Library.

Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams

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

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

I really enjoyed this.

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

Wonderland by Steven Johnson

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

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

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

❧ I read a hardback copy from Newcastle Libraries.

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

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

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

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

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

The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary

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

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

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

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

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

❧ I read a paperback copy from Newcastle Libraries.

How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell

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

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

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

❧ I read a hardback copy that I bought online.

No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

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

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

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

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

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

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