About me
About me

What I’ve been reading this month

I have nine books to mention for August… and none of them from libraries, which does nothing for my eco credentials!

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

There are lots of biographies of Leonardo da Vinci; this one, Walter Isaacson’s 2017 book based primarily around Leonardo’s notebooks, is the only one I’ve read.

It was fantastic. Isaacson brought Leonardo to life as a complete, fascinating person. I had little idea how many different disciplines Leonardo held an interest in—I had no real idea of his contributions to the study of anatomy, maths, or engineering. I knew nothing of his personal life. I had no idea that he was so reluctant to finish any project he was given. And yet, by the end of Isaacson’s book, I felt like I knew Leonardo.

There were so many bits of this book which will stick in mind for a long time (including the tongue of the woodpecker!) but I was perhaps most amazed by the description of Leonardo’s work on the mechanism of closure of the aortic valve. Leonardo has this figured out in 1510, but it wasn’t until 1960—the same decade as the first heart transplants—that cardiology rejected the traditional understanding that Leonardo had disproved 450 years earlier.

I also enjoyed Isaacson’s occasional commentary on the complexity of writing a biography, and appreciated his clarity on occasions where his own views of circumstances were different to those of other notable biographers of Leonardo.

This was an absorbing and clear biography of a fascinating man.

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

This was Ben Lerner’s 2019 part-autobiographical novel, which was a Christmas present from my parents.

The book, set in the 1990s, was narrated by Adam, a Kansas high school student participating in a national debating competition, and his parents Jane and Jonathan, both psychologists. The narrative was non-linear and also featured short sections outside the main narrated chapters: these featured Darren, a patient of Jonathan and an acquaintance of Adam.

At heart, this was a bildungsroman. It explored modern masculinity in interesting ways, reflecting particularly on modern expectations about physical and linguistic strength in ways that gave me new insight into the well-worn debates about the relative value of muscular versus intellectual prowess.

The writing was dazzling and poetic, and reminded me of Ali Smith’s approach. This felt like a book which would be even more powerful on a second reading.

Loaded by Christos Tsiolkas

This was Tsiolkas’s 1995 novel focusing on twenty-four hours in the life of Ari, a 19-year-old Greek-Australian lad living in Melbourne. This was essentially nothing but teenage nihilism for 152 pages, one big drug-induced sex-filled meditation on the terrible life of adolescents in the modern(ish) world. Despite that, it somehow felt powerful and relevant, which I think was down to the quality of the writing and perhaps the currency of reflections on cultural identity.

Ari’s life couldn’t be further from my own, but the grittiness of the drug-taking and explicit sexual encounters felt true to life and relevant to the characterisation (and occasionally stomach-churning) rather than being gratuitous.

This isn’t really something that I’d usually pick up, but I appreciated it nonetheless.

Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor

This was Kathrine Kressman Taylor’s famous 1938 anti-Nazi epistolary novella, which deals with the relationship between two art dealers, Max Eisenstein and Martin Schulse. Both had moved from Germany to America, and Schulse decides to return in the early 1930s. The story had a great impact at the time of its publication, but perhaps has even greater weight when read today, knowing the events that were to occur in the coming years.

It was very short (19 letters over 66 well spaced pages in my edition) and the plot was rather simple, but it still landed powerful emotional blows and wasn’t an easy read. There was so much horror packed into so little space. A real reminder of the brutal banality of evil.

This was one of those books that I won’t forget in a hurry.

Elly by Maike Wetzel

This was Maike Wetzel’s 2018 novella about a missing child, first translated from German into English by Lyn Marven in 2020.

The plot was straightforward yet intriguing: a young girl had gone missing at the age of eleven. At the age of fifteen, she was found and returned home: but how could anybody be sure that the returnee was the same girl who went missing in the first place? (I mean, sure, a DNA test could resolve matters, but how could anyone bring themselves to require a test to identify a child they had raised for eleven years?)

Really, though, this novella was an extended reflection on how we all change as individuals over time, and how none of us are really the same people as others imagine us to be. The novella was structured in very short chapters (often only a couple of pages) with the narrator switching between all of the principal characters. The narrator was not explicitly stated, which—at least for me—led to some gripping moments of re-evaluation as I realised half way through chapters that I had been misattributing them. The chapters were also non-linear, which is clearly a requirement of the plot, but also helped to emphasise the change in characters over time.

I found this gripping and thought-provoking.

Conspiracy Theories by Quassim Cassam

This was Quassim Cassam’s philosophical analysis of conspiracy theories, first published in 2019. At only 125-pages, it was a relatively brief and light read. Overall, I found it a little unsatisfying: the length dictated that the book could not explore some of its concepts in detail, and I was a little disappointed at some of the obvious omissions.

For example, one section of the book discussed why people believe in conspiracy theories. From a philosophical perspective, the interesting question here is really about the nature of belief, particularly as Cassam asserted that people often claim to simultaneously believe mutually exclusive conspiracy theories (e.g. believe both that Diana was murdered, and that she faked her own death and is still alive). I can see why Cassam didn’t start exploring the philosophy of belief in such a short book, but at the same time, the omission left me wanting.

All of that said, the central message that we need to consider conspiracy theories more in terms of politics and less in terms of intellect was thought-provoking and, I think, pretty well argued.

The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff

This was Lukianoff and Haidt’s 2019 bestselling polemic about psychological safety in American society. I picked this up because it was recommended by my friend Lea, and though I wouldn’t highly rate the book, it was a good recommendation nonetheless. It was one of those books that caused me to think and reflect quite a lot about why I wouldn’t particularly rate the book or its ideas, and in that sense, it was quite a good read.

The authors asserted that there are three “great untruths” increasingly accepted as facts in various facets of US society, and that these “great untruths” counter the basic principles of cognitive behavioural therapy. The “untruths” were that negative experiences are always harmful; that life is a dichotomous battle between good and evil people; and that one should always trust one’s feelings over one’s rationalised thoughts. The authors suggest that a range of negative impacts flow from these “untruths”, from political polarisation to disinvitation of speakers at university events to over-protection of children to the extent that it harms their development.

However, the evidence for the acceptance of the “great untruths” in society is weak and often predicated on extreme examples, and the sequelae they suggest flow from the “great untruths” are much more complex and multifactorial than they acknowledge. Some sections seemed completely disparate from the main thread of the argument about the “great untruths”—over-precautionary parenting did not neatly reflect any of the “untruths”.

There was good stuff: I particularly valued the authors’ insights into the importance of kindness and polite disagreement, as well as their suggestions on how to better foster this sort of discussion in society. I thought the discussion of filter bubbles and their contribution to psychological distress was timely and well-argued.

But all things considered, I thought this book wasn’t terribly cohesive, and it seemed to lack robust critical thought about many of the issues it discussed.

Shanti by Vikram Chandra

This short story was first published in Love and Longing in Bombay in 1997. I read the standalone Faber Stories edition published in 2019 as part of reading the whole Faber Stories series.

This was a story of two people experiencing profound loss: Shiv, grieving his identical twin brother, and Shanti, whose fighter pilot husband was missing. Through a series of stories within stories, the two grew closer.

This short story was just not for me. I found it frustrating and predictable all at once, and while others have praised the language, it just did nothing for me. This will always be the nature of reading a series like Faber Stories: no-one will enjoy everything in the series. Obviously, others have really loved this, so don’t let the fact that I was unmoved put you off reading it.

Giacomo Joyce by James Joyce

I know this is a bit of confession, but I haven’t read any James Joyce. This set of 1914 scribbles which contained some insight into the creation of his later masterpieces was therefore of no interest to me.

Joyce’s biographer called this a work of “small, fragile, enduring perfection” so it’s no doubt great if it’s your sort of thing. As someone coming to Joyce for the first time, it felt like a fragmented, disconnected mess which had some nice lines but felt at times uninterpretable.

Not a book for me, sadly.

This 2,472nd post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , , , , , .

What I’ve been reading this month

It’s been the busiest July I can remember, but somehow I still managed to get through six books!

Calypso by David Sedaris

This was a collection of Sedaris’s mostly autobiographical stories which was published in 2018. It featured work previously published in several different periodicals (The New Yorker, The Guardian, Condé Nast Traveller). In Sedaris’s usual style, the coverage was eclectic but grounded in everyday life, and very funny throughout. This was perfect reading for relaxation while work is a little more busy and challenging than usual!

While it never felt heavy, there was some particularly reflective and moving material about his estranged sister’s death by suicide. This illustrated Sedaris’s skill in communicating larger ideas by concentrating on (and finding the humour in) the everyday.

I thoroughly enjoyed this; it was one of those serendipitous combinations of finding a great book at the perfect time to read it.

Drugs Without the Hot Air by David Nutt

This was first published in 2012 and has been on my “to read” list ever since. I think, but can’t be certain, that I’ve sat through a talk by the author at some point in that period—though it may have been someone talking about him!

Professor Nutt is best known for having been sacked as chair of the Government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in 2009. In a lecture, he made an evidence-based comparison between the risks of taking ecstasy and the risks of horse-riding. The fact of the comparison was unpalatable to the Government of the time, and he was removed from his post.

Nutt described his disagreements with Government in some detail at the start of this book. Unfortunately, given that it was at the start of the book, I found this a bit unconvincing: it read as though he felt scientific evidence was the only aspect to be considered in policy-making (or at least in the operation of specific policy levers).

However, the bulk of the book was a clear, coherent and evidence-based discussion of the benefits and risks of recreational drug use. This included a section of parental advice on how to discuss drugs with children. Nutt’s text had humour and wit, and the book was easy to read. I learned quite a bit from it!

The Stranger by Albert Camus

Camus’s 1948 classic, which I read via Matthew Ward’s 1989 translation. In retrospect, this was an odd choice, as Ward wrote at some length in his translation note about how his was an American English translation for an American audience… whereas I could have picked any number of British English translations. Never mind.

The novel followed Meursault, a French Algerian, and the sequelae to his societally atypical response to his mother’s death. This made me wonder whether, if Camus wrote this book today, Meursault would have been given a diagnostic label rather than being a quirky character—though I suppose that is only really a modern take on the theme of existentialism and absurdism for which the novel is famous.

I really enjoyed this.

The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker

This novel of Baker’s was first published in 1988, and it was very much of its time. The 135 pages (with many, many footnotes) were essentially a stream of consciousness covering the period during which the narrator rides up an escalator while returning to his office following his lunch break.

I found it both funny and exasperating in equal measure. It wa one of those books which I think I’ll remember for a long time, even though I didn’t really take that much from it.

Fairy Tales by Marianne Moore

This volume contained Marianne Moore’s versions of three tales written by Charles Perrault for the niece of Louis XIV: Puss in Boots, The Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. These were first published in 1963; I read the 2019 Faber Stories 44-page paperback collection.

These versions deviated a little from the commonly received versions: Sleeping Beauty wasn’t awoken with a kiss and Cinderella’s stepsisters weren’t ugly, for example. However, I can’t claim to have taken much from this book. The plots were essentially well-worn and the writing didn’t strike me as especially notable, but perhaps that just makes me an uncultured heathen who doesn’t appreciate Moore’s greatness.

Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends on It by Kamal Ravikant

I read the expanded 240-page hardback edition of this after reading some glowing reviews. It wasn’t for me. I found the autobiographical sections oddly cagey (the book was about his recovery from business failure and I don’t even know from the book what business he was in), and the self-help sections were just not up my street.

I know others have loved this and found it very helpful in their lives, but I’m not going to stare in a mirror and repeatedly profess my love for myself no matter how many times Ravikant emphasises that this is a great thing to do.

This just was just a bad choice of book on my part. Don’t let my bad experience put you off if it sounds good to you.

This 2,471st post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , .

What I’ve been reading this month

Six books to mention this month…

I Choose Elena by Lucia Osborne-Crowley

A 2019 essay on the lasting effect of trauma on Osborne-Crowley, exploring the effect that a rape at knifepoint when she was fifteen years old changed her life.

This was a deeply personal and powerful account. Osborne-Crowley reflected on the influence literature had on her recovery, including Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels which the title references. She also reflected on the personal circumstances which she believes underlie the reason the experience had such a profound impact on her life, in a section that knocked me sideways.

This will stay with me.

Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski

This was a newly published book by first-time author Tomasz Jedrowski. It followed a boy growing up, coming to terms with his sexuality, and falling in love against a background of political and social turmoil in late twentieth-century Poland.

I picked this up because I had read that it heavily featured James Baldwin’s classic Giovanni’s Room, which I have only recently read, and I was interested to see how this work would use that one. It turns out that it played a central part in the plot.

Jedrowski is an exceptionally talented writer who brought new emotional insight by referencing themes like social acceptance, shame, guilt, perseverance, and vulnerability in various aspects of the characters’ lives. There were, for example, complex emotional parallels between rebelling against an oppressive political regime and rebelling against a heteronormative society.

I really enjoyed this book and thought I got a lot out of it. The experience of having recently read Giovanni’s Room led to me reflect quite a lot on the different influences the same book can have on different people’s lives. Giovanni’s Room clearly meant something different to someone exploring their nascent sexuality in a country which suppressed homosexuality compared to what it meant to a straight 30-something in the UK in 2020: this made me reflect much more deeply on that point, and how much what we all take from books depends as much on what we bring to them as what is in them.

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

I picked this book up entirely on the strength of the cover, so all credit to designers Sara Wood and Steve Marking.

It was a book about Ava, who left Ireland at the age of twenty-two to teach English in Hong Kong. She befriended a banker, Julian, and then a lawyer, Edith, and much was made of the trio’s diverse backgrounds, financial situations, and approaches to life. At heart, this was a love story. Dolan’s writing was sharp and witty and was the real star of this book.

What could we need more during these strange times than a warm and witty love story? It was modern in a way that will date quite quickly (lots of commentary on iMessage typing indicators and ways of working at Starbucks), but it was still lovely.

Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead by Milan Kundera

I don’t think I’ve read anything by Milan Kundera before. This was forty-three pages first published in English in a collection called Laughable Loves in 1974, and now republished as a standalone volume in the Faber Stories collection. Regrettably, the volume doesn’t credit the translator of the original Czech; from a bit of web searching, I think it was probably Suzanne Rappaport.

The plot concerned a man and a woman who previously had a sexual encounter when he was 20-ish and she 40-ish coincidentally meeting again 15 years on. Narration alternated between the two of them for each of the fourteen chapters.

There was a lot packed in here: the plot may have been straightforward, but the melancholy atmosphere, the lost love, the detail of the imagery, and the reflections on aging and changing and mortality elevated this to something more than a simple narrative. Kundera packed more into these forty-three pages than many authors I’ve read recently fit into a full-length novel.

Intruders by Adrian Tomine

This was an 81-page graphic novel (or, I suppose, graphic short story—but that doesn’t seem like it means the same thing). First published in 2015 in the collection Killing and Dying, I read the 2019 standalone Faber Stories volume.

Graphic novels aren’t really my cup of tea, but I enjoyed this, nonetheless. The book followed an American soldier returning home between his second and third tours of duty. The tale was a clear allegory for war abroad: without the consent of the new occupant, he secretly visited (and ended up defending) an apartment which he previously occupied. This choice made me think a lot about the authorial intent: was this a narrative device to make us think about war differently? Was this a reflection of the mental state of the solider? Was it a bit of both?

The blurb called it a ‘disquieting evocation of a post-traumatic life’, but I’m not sure that fits with how I read it. I found it a little too fantastical to be read as a realistic evocation of anything, but it did make me reflect quite a lot on the psychological impacts of war.

Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

This was Haig’s 2019 book about the effects of various aspects of modern life on mental health. I like Haig’s writing, so I enjoyed this book. Haig mixes his first-hand experiences with discussions of the evidence base which made for an engaging but light book, with quite a bit of wit.

I don’t think I learned a huge amount from this book, but I enjoyed Haig’s take on the topic.

This 2,470th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , .

What I’ve been reading this month

These five books have kept me company in May: three have rather dull covers which perhaps undermine my photo-heavy format.

Time Lived, Without Its Flow by Denise Riley

This short book was originally published in 2012, but I read the 2019 edition with a new introduction by Max Porter. It was extraordinary.

The book concerned Riley’s reaction to her son’s death, but she concentrated on a single element of that experience: the altered perception of time, or perhaps more accurately, the absence of a perception of time, which followed the death. Riley began with forty-one pages of notes written at intervals between two weeks and three years after her son’s death, reflecting on her own experiences and relevant snatches of literature and poetry. This was followed by thirty pages of reflective postscript.

The decision to focus on this single aspect of grief—the perception of time—is brave and brilliant, and Riley’s exploration and reflection altered my own perception of what this must be like. I read parts of this at the same time as the novel Human Traces which has a section covering broadly similar themes from a distinct perspective. The contrast between Faulks’s fiction and Riley’s reality was arresting.

There was one paragraph right at the start of Riley’s book which particularly struck me, and pulled me into the rest of her reflections:

There’s no specific noun for a parent of a dead child; nothing like the terms for other losses such as ‘orphan’ or ‘widower’. No single word exists, either, for an ‘adult child’ – an awkward phrase which could suggest a large floppy-limbed doll. For such a historically common condition as outliving your own child, the vocabulary is curiously thin. The same phrases recur. For instance, many kindly onlookers will instinctively make use of this formula: ‘I can’t imagine what you are feeling’. There’s a paradox in this remark, for it’s an expression of sympathy, yet in the same breath it’s a disavowal of the possibility of empathy. Undoubtedly it’s very well meant, if (understandably) fear-filled. People’s intentions are good; a respect for the severity of what they suppose you’re enduring, and so a wish not to claim to grasp it. Still, I’d like them to try to imagine; it’s not so difficult. Even if it’s inevitable, or at any rate unsurprising, that those with dead children are regarded with concealed horror, they don’t need to be further shepherded into the inhuman remote realms of the ‘unimaginable’. So I want to try, however much against the odds, to convey only the one striking aspect: this curious sense of being pulled right outside of time. as if beached in a clear light.

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

I picked this up because the sequel, Cleanness, has had a lot of great press reviews lately. What Belongs to You was first published in 2016, though the first third was published as a novella in 2011.

The novel concerned an American professor who moved to Sofia to teach. He was already culturally isolated when he developed a sexual relationship with a male prostitute, Mitko, and became a little uncertain about his own identity. He reflected on the parallels between being an outsider in Sofia and being an outsider as a gay youth in the south of the USA.

There was some exceptionally thoughtful and moving writing in this book, and both the nameless professor and Mitko were fully realised as characters. There was a particularly good subplot involving a diagnosis of syphilis. But somehow, I just didn’t feel particularly engaged by the plot. It may be because I too recently read the James Baldwin classic Giovanni’s Room which covered some of the same territory (albeit in a completely different setting and time period).

I enjoyed What Belongs to You enough that I will pick up the sequel at some point to see what all the fuss is about.

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

Another eleven short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, including The Final Problem. This collection was first published in 1894; I read a handsome well-thumbed 1959 edition courtesy of Newcastle City Library, and the sensory experience added to my enjoyment.

While I found this collection a little more interesting than The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I still missed being drawn into a full-length novel. Luckily, The Hound of the Baskervilles is next in the series.

The Non-Existent Knight by Italo Calvino

This Calvino novella was first published in Italy in 1959, with an English translation by Archibald Colquhoun published in 1962. I read a lovely 1962 edition from the London Library, which (according to the date labels) had been borrowed more than forty times before I was born.

The story, supposedly recorded by a nun called Sister Theodora, concerned Agilulf and Raimbaud, two paladins of Charlemagne. Agilulf was the eponymous non-existent knight: a sentient empty suit of armour, celebrated for being a perfect knight and meeting all expectations of knighthood. Raimbaud is a younger knight who struggles to balance his passion for humanity against the expectations placed upon him by knighthood.

This allegorical satire which felt relevant to the modern world: how often do we all feel like we are expected to fit a role and be non-existent as personalities? It also made me laugh, especially Sister Theodora’s commentary at the start of many chapters about the difficulty of drafting the story, and the fact that she is mostly making up the events she is recording.

All of that said: I found this slightly trickier to read than The Cloven Viscount, the other one of Calvino’s “Our Ancestors” trilogy that I’ve read to date. I think this is because I haven’t read much about the court of Charlemagne or many classic tales of chivalry, and so was a bit confounded by some basic elements (including the word ‘paladins’ which I had to look up). Readers more versed in that world will find it easier to jump straight in!

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

This was the 2005 mega-bestseller about a pre-adolescent girl, Liesel Meminger, growing up in Nazi Germany during the Second World War. The book was narrated by Death.

For the first four-fifths of the book, I struggled with the style of narration. Having Death as a narrator in this context is a strong idea, but Zusak didn’t really seem to build on that creative choice in an interesting way, other than by making Death an affably weird character. However, Zusak gave Death an odd style of narration in which the text was filled with bizarre idioms and broken up in affected ways. I found this style tedious. But then, somewhere around the 400-page mark, the style “clicked” for me and I started to find its rhythm and enjoy the quirkiness.

The plot seemed to derive most of its power and interest from the historical context rather than from the events in Liesel’s story specifically, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. For a book in which the proximate cause of a lot of the suffering is the actions of the allied forces in the war, it felt oddly lacking in moral complexity. It all felt a bit sentimental to me.

This 2,469th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , , , .

The content of this site is copyright protected by a Creative Commons License, with some rights reserved. All trademarks, images and logos remain the property of their respective owners. The accuracy of information on this site is in no way guaranteed. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author. No responsibility can be accepted for any loss or damage caused by reliance on the information provided by this site. This site uses cookies - click here for more information.