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What I’ve been reading this month

Before I sat down to write this post, I didn’t think I’d read many books this month, but it turns out that I have eight to tell you about.


How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division by Elif Shafak

I read this essay, published by the Wellcome Collection earlier this year, in one sitting. It was a passionate and beautifully written plea for pluralism, understanding, thoughtfulness, empathy and kindness. Shafak drew on her personal experiences as well as contemporary events, from covid-19 to the death of George Floyd. Shafak reminded me of the dangers of polarisation and echo chambers and the important of dialogue and understanding.

Coming at a time when all of the above seem in short supply in the world, I found myself getting a little emotional reading this. I’d thoroughly recommend it.


The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

First published in 1983, and translated into English by Ted Goossen in 2014, this was a beguilingly strange short novel, perfect for reading in a single sitting. It’s a reflection of the book’s weirdness that there seems to be no popular agreement on whether this book is aimed at adults or children. It defies classification.

The plot concerned a young boy who visited his local City Library only to be kidnapped in the basement by an old man who wants to eat his brain. Had I known of that synopsis before I opened the book, I’d have passed on it: it sounds ridiculous and not at all like the sort of book I’d enjoy. And yet, Murakami’s writing combined with the beautiful production of the hardback lends the tale a hypnotic quality. It starts to feel like allegory—but for what?—while also being pure fantasy told in language which is entirely grounded in reality, but also somehow poetic.

This was a very short read, taking less than an hour, but was nevertheless memorable for being unlike anything I’ve ever read before.


Fake Law by The Secret Barrister

This was the recently published second volume from the Secret Barrister. It concentrated on the gap between political discourse and the reality of legislation, and the gap between media coverage of court cases and the arguments and principles actually under consideration.

I am one of those strange individuals who occasionally downloads court judgements in high profile cases, particularly those that pertain to healthcare. I enjoy diving into the gritty detail and reveling in the clarity of expression in the writing of most judgements from higher courts.

This book was right up my street. Each chapter opened with the arguments concerning a case or piece of legislation as made out by Ministers or the media. The Secret Barrister then set out the legal reality of the situation, broadened the discussion with other exemplar cases, and rounded off with a summary of the fundamental principles underlying the relevant area of law.

The book was engaging and easy to read. The Secret Barrister was very witty and persuasive in their arguments. I really enjoyed this.


Humankind by Rutger Bregman

This was Rutger Bregman’s recently published follow-up to Utopia for Realists. It was translated by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore.

Bregman set out to argue that most people are inherently good-natured. This struck me as a strange argument to make because it seems self-evident to me: after all, society relies on people being mostly good-natured and doing the right thing. But Bregman had a good go at making the argument that the media and culture more generally acts to convince us that most people are selfish and uncaring, but I didn’t really buy it.

This was a familiar feeling: just as I found Utopia for Realists challenging because I didn’t accept Bregman’s base assumption that societal development had stalled, I found Humankind challenging because I didn’t accept Bregman’s base assumption that most people think ill of most other people.

But just as with Utopia for Realists, I enjoyed Humankind nevertheless. Bregman discussed his ideas optimistically and cheerfully, mixing anecdote and data in a way which was very engaging. Some of the revelations about some of the famous psychological studies such as the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment were new to me and enlightening.

Bregman’s observation about negativity bias and trusting people also struck a chord. If we choose to trust someone, they can undermine that trust, which is an acutely negative experience. On the other hand, if we choose not to trust someone, that decision rarely turns into an acutely negative experience, even if it may have been the worse course of action.

All things considered, I enjoyed this book, and there’s rarely been a time when a dose of optimism has been more welcome.


Will He Go? by Lawrence Douglas

Lawrence Douglas is a Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought who has written a series of interesting articles for The Guardian over the last couple of years about the legal challenges posed by the Trump administration. In this volume, published in the spring, he sketches out ways in which Trump may have attempt to cling on to the presidency, even though the election result was not in his favour.

I read this right at the start of the month, in the run up to election day. Beyond the specifics of the current election, Douglas gave an illustration of how the procedures laid down in the US Constitution and subsequent law are open to abuse by malicious actors. As a British reader, it was interesting to compare the flaws between the codified US system and the haphazard traditions of the UK system for elections, especially as devolution moves the UK ever closer to a federal system with all of the unresolved constitutional questions that raises.

Douglas’s partial argument for the abolition of the Electoral College didn’t win me over: while I appreciate the flaws and insecurities of the system as it stands, I’m not sure it is reasonable in a federal system for the President to be elected by popular vote alone, and so I’m not convinced that abolition, as opposed to reform, is the right approach.

This was a quick and absorbing read, even if the more extreme possibilities it covered didn’t come to pass (or at least haven’t yet).


A Classical Education by Caroline Taggart

Published in 2009, this was Taggart’s short and lighthearted book on Greek and Roman history, with a concentration on bits which are particularly relevant to modern life. After a somewhat slow start rehearsing the meanings of common Latin phrases, I found myself bouyed along by Taggart’s humour and light touch.

I didn’t do much history at school, dropping it well before GCSE. I did study Latin for year, after which the school stopped offering it and I was transferred to Home Economics instead. And I’m not a big reader of the ancient classics.

All of this meant that much of the content of this book was stuff I knew once a long time ago, or have a cultural awareness of without really knowing the background. As a result, I found this light-hearted recap quite fun… but those who are better read than me might well find it very lacking!


The Prime Ministers by Steve Richards

This was Richards’s 2019 book reflecting on the leadership of the nine Prime Ministers from Wilson to May. There is now an extended revised edition also covering Johnson (which is the one I’ve linked to), but I have the original version.

I had mixed feelings about the book. After a lengthy introduction, it was structured chronologically, with roughly forty pages dedicated to each leader. Each profile was readable and interesting, and these struck me as broadly balanced appraisals.

However, I thought that his critical analysis and comparison of the leaders was a little broad-brush: I’m not sure I needed this book to tell me that early elections are dangerous or that Prime Ministers tend to have a honeymoon period where those with a strong idea of what they want to achieve can get a lot done with limited opposition. I had hoped for a little more.


The Art of Rest by Claudia Hammond

This was Claudia Hammond’s 2019 book which chatted through each the ‘top ten’ most restful activities as determined by a large survey of members of the public.

This was light and fun, with plenty of humour and personal anecdote. Hammond gave a spirited argument for taking rest more seriously, which felt timely for me given that the pandemic has left me a bit swamped with work! I liked Hammond’s “whatever works for you” approach to writing about the topic, which was refreshing given that so many books on related topics are so prescriptive. Her discussion of mindfulness was particularly grounded in realism—it works for some people, it’s not for everyone, and other activities can be just as beneficial.

Hammond presents and contributes quite a bit on Radio 4, including presenting “All in the Mind”, and the tone and content of this book reminded me of a typical series of Radio 4 documentaries—interesting, light and witty, but necessarily lacking the depth and rigorous analysis of more formal coverage of the topic.

I enjoyed this book, but didn’t come away from it thinking that I’d covered much new ground.

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What I’ve been reading this month

Six books to mention this month… though in truth, I was reading Wolf Hall much of last month as well!


Summer by Ali Smith

This was the recently published brilliant finale to Smith’s astonishing seasonal quartet.

If one was setting out to publish a novel a year reflecting the times in which we live, one could hardly have picked a better four years to work with than the last four. Smith’s ability to capture and reflect on the age of Brexit, coronavirus and George Floyd with such a publication schedule, while the rest of us are struggling just to keep up with events, is pure genius. This volume revisits some of the characters from the earlier novels, and I slightly worried that I’d struggle to recall them, given the time that has passed since I read the first of the novels – but they all came flooding back.

I feel a bit lost knowing that this series is now complete – it has been the series that I’ve most enjoyed and most anticipated in recent years. I’ll miss it.


10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak

This was the 2019 bestseller which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I picked it up on a whim when I saw it in a bookshop and vaguely thought I’d heard good things about it. It turned out to be an extraordinary book.

The book comprised three parts. Part One followed Tequila Leila’s lifetime of reminisces over the first few minutes following her death, covering everything from her own birth into a polygamous family to her murder as a sex worker. Each memory focused on a specific friend whose life was also explored. Part Two followed these closes friends in the day following Leila’s murder. And the brief Part Three followed her soul into the afterlife.

I found this emotionally exhausting. The characterisation and storytelling were so strong that I sometimes forgot this was fiction. Despite the tragedy and emotional weight of the story, it was leavened with moments of humour. It felt to me like this book was as much about Istanbul as it was about the human characters.

Definitely a book I’d recommend.


Ramble Book by Adam Buxton

This was Adam Buxton’s recently published autobiography. I first came across Adam with his friend Joe Cornish in their Adam and Joe Show days, when I was in my early teens, and have followed them ever since. Adam now hosts a successful podcast in which he hosts essentially long form interviews with a huge variety of cultural figures, but which also gives insight into his life in rural Norfolk.

This book’s central thread was the relationship between Adam and his travel-writer father, although he also talked at length about his school days, his career, and his love for David Bowie. I found the section on his father’s last illness particularly moving. I read this shortly after listening to Buxton’s recent podcast recorded the day after his mother’s funeral, in which and Joe reflected movingly and at length on the challenges of parent-child relationships in later life.

I was pre-disposed to like this book because I like Adam. It’s one of those books which I’m not sure would appeal to people who aren’t already familiar with him and his career, but I really enjoyed it.


Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

The 2009 blockbuster Booker winner – a book on which my opinion really couldn’t matter less!

I don’t usually read historical fiction, but this was recommended to me so often that I thought I had to give it a go. It was my redoubtable friend Julie who tipped me over into reading it, by telling me it wasn’t really a historical novel.

I have mixed feelings. I found the plot confusing and often lost the thread (not helped by my complete historical ignorance). On the other hand, the writing was brilliant, filled with witty turns of phrase and clever language. I wouldn’t hesitate to read more of the trilogy, and would consider re-reading this volume at some point—I suspect it would all make a bit more sense second time around, and I’d enjoy revisiting the wonderful prose.


Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

If you regularly follow what I’m reading on this blog, you’ll know I’m having a bit of David Sedaris moment, enjoying his light and humorous approach to life during a time when life feels rather heavier than it might. This was another collection of his essays, most of which were originally published elsewhere, and most of which are very funny.

This 2004 volume, even more than the others I’ve read, was focused on David’s family and his relationships with his parents and siblings both as a child and as an adult. I really enjoyed it.


Windscale 1957 by Lorna Arnold

First published in 1991, this was a very detailed account of the nuclear accident at the Windscale site which occurred in 1957. I read only the 160-page main text, and didn’t delve into the many appendices of official reports.

While well-explained by Arnold, some of the physics was a little beyond my level of casual interest. However, the broader themes of what went wrong in this incident were fascinating in their familiarity: a service over-stretched as a result of Government pressure to deliver more than the expert workforce could adequately oversee, rapid recruitment of non-expert staff to essentially “make up the numbers”, and a resulting lack of expert oversight of activity whose complexity was routinely under-estimated created the conditions for things to go wrong. 

Some official reports of the incident then blamed the pressured staff for the incident, although it was rapid local decision-making (including crucial decisions in the absence of robust scientific evidence about discarding milk) that contributed most to protecting the population after the accident.

There are so many lines in this book which could apply directly to much more recent incidents across the public sector (especially covid-19) that it is difficult to conclude that the broad lessons were ever truly learned.

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What I’ve been reading this month

September has been a very busy month in the world of health protection, so I’ve been reading mostly light stuff to take my mind off things!


Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Another collection of Sedaris’s amusing autobiographical essays, this volume having been first published in 2000. These were easy to read, clever, and very funny: exactly what my brain and soul needed during troubled times!

The first half focused mainly on his youth, the second half more on a period he spent living in France. I found the latter half funnier and more satisfying, but all of it was delightful. Sedaris is someone I enjoy most in small doses, so I tried to limit myself to one essay a day—but with some in this collection being particularly short, that wasn’t always possible.

The essay about his French class desperately trying to explain Easter despite limited vocabulary was a particular highlight.


You by Caroline Kepnes

I picked this up because I fancied a light summer thriller sort of read, and it ticked that box perfectly. It was a first-person narrated story about a bookseller who was also a stalker. It had a wonderfully silly plot and Kepnes perfectly trod the line between thriller and comedy.

I’m not sure I’ll remember anything about this in a fortnight’s time, but it was great fun.


The Monocle Book of Gentle Living

Monocle is a slightly guilty pleasure of mine. I’ve been a fan since the first issue of the magazine, which I came to via Tyler Brûlé, whose Financial Times Fast Lane column (latterly relaunched in a Monocle email newsletter format as Faster Lane) fascinated me for years. For a long time, I believed Tyler to be satirical caricature, and then only grew more interested when I realised he was real.

I’m a Monocle subscriber, but I don’t think I’m the target demographic: I’m never going to spend £435 on a pair of high-end curling boots, nor £750 on a shell jacket, nor £665 on a tweed cardigan, no matter how much they try and push them on readers of their journalism. But I do love reading and listening to their intelligent discussions of UK and world affairs, and I get a little thrill out of knowing that there are people out there who can write hundreds of words of copy on the colour temperature of the lighting on the latest European rolling stock.

So I bought the Monocle Guide to Gentler Living as a bit of COVID escapism, and it was perfect for that. It was essentially a long, themed edition of the magazine, with lavish photography and illustrations, stripped of display-ads and hard-bound. There was very little detail and substance to any of it, but it did sort of come together to make a coherent set of ideas about slowing down in life. (Think: three paragraphs on why train travel is better than flying, followed by one sentence on each of five “best rail journeys”, accompanied by lovely photographs; some blurb on giving up high powered jobs for “the better life”, with accompanying three-paragraph case studies; a section on fashion with a page dedicated to why one should own a t-shirt—any t-shirt—which consists of a stylish photo of a t-shirt and about fifty words of text).

It was light, fluffy, and totally escapist. I took virtually nothing from it, but really enjoyed it nonetheless. So much, in fact, that I’ve picked up another of the Monocle books in a recent sale.


Breath by James Nestor

This was a recently published popular science book about breathing. It was structured around a series of self-experiments conducted by the author. I found this to be a very engaging style, but it did mean that the book was heavy on anecdote and light on proper science. There was also a strong dose of self-help content.

There was a lot of stuff in here that felt like pseudoscientific nonsense. Nevertheless, I found it so engaging that I enjoyed reading it. I even tried some of the described techniques out of curiosity (and got no real benefit).

However, my wife Wendy is a respiratory physician. My top tip to anyone in the same position is to be judicious about sharing passages—there was a fair amount of eye-rolling every time I did, though we did also occasionally descend into fits of giggles, so it was probably worth it.


The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim

This was von Arnim’s 1909 book featuring the ridiculously self-important German Baron Otto Von Ottringel going on a caravanning holiday with his wife Edelgard in England. I was sent it in one of the London Review Book Boxes.

The Baron, who narrated, was quite a character: the holiday was to celebrate what he saw as his silver wedding anniversary. He had been widowered some years before and re-married, but felt that his twenty-five years of marriage ought to be marked nonetheless.

He was astoundingly sexist: “Indeed, the perfect woman does not talk at all. Who wants to hear her? All that we ask of her is that she shall listen intelligently when we want anything. Surely this is not much to ask. Matches, ash-trays, and one’s wife should be, so to speak on every table; and I maintain that the perfect wife copies the conduct of the matches and the ash-trays, and combines being useful with being dumb.”

There was humour in the book derived from the contrast between the Baron’s perception of himself and the evident level of regard in which others held him. There was also historical interest in the portrayal of British/German relations, given the world events just around the corner.

However, I found this a slog. The constant casual sexism and outmoded attitudes, while really the point of the piece, were quite wearing to modern eyes. It felt to me like the same points could have been made in a short story, rather than hammered home in a novel, but of course that’s partly because the satirical points being made are well accepted in modern society, which was not so at the time of publication.

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