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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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What I’ve been reading this month

This is the sixty-second of these monthly posts about what I’ve been reading, and I’ve got seven books to mention.


A Chess Story by Stefan Zweig

This is Zweig’s 1941 novella, only 80 pages in length, which I read in Alexander Starritt’s 2013 translation. Some translations have been published with the original title The Royal Game, which I think I prefer. 

With such a short book, it’s hard to talk much about the plot without giving away key details. The setting is a ship travelling from New York to Buenos Aires. Our narrator discovers that a chess world champion is on board, and a number of matches follow.

Zweig crams more food for thought into 80 pages than most full-length novels. His main theme seems to deal both explicitly and allegorically with Nazism, largely from a psychological perspective. There is a brilliant account of prolonged isolation and it’s psychological effects. And the plot itself moves at a reasonable lick.

This was very easily read in a single sitting, and well worth it.


The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird

My friend Rachael recommended this to me as a book which, despite being very close to home, she’d raced through in a couple of days. Published earlier this year, but written pre-covid, it is a novel set mostly in the UK in the near future concerning a global pandemic. Unlike covid, the pathogen in the book affects only men and has a very high mortality rate.

This was a great recommendation. 

The plot and characterisation are, to be honest, a bit bonkers: for example, one of the main characters is an A&E consultant who loves the ‘certainty’ of medicine (is there any specialty that’s less about certainty and more about balancing risk than emergency medicine?) and who changes to a completely different specialty overnight, with no training. 

The book has a cast of different narrators, and the vast majority of the narration is by female characters. This is a really inspired creative choice, widening the scope of the novel and focussing on those ‘left behind’, and most of the recurring characters were well fleshed-out. The decision to have the occasional standalone chapters widened the field even further. The gender issue feels like it would have attracted more controversy in reverse, though it’s not like the world is short on books written from a male perspective about the deaths of women.

The choice to include ‘newspaper articles’ as chapters was weakened by deciding that those articles should be first-person narrated, in the same style as every other chapter. The writing throughout struck me as pretty pedestrian.

But you know what? For all its faults, I raced through this book much as Rachael did. It feels wrong to call a book about the deaths of millions “fun”, but it really was. And perhaps even a little cathartic.


The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Published in 2011, this is Madeline Miller’s much-acclaimed retelling of the story of the Trojan War, focused on the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. It is narrated from the perspective of Patroclus.

My knowledge of Greek mythology isn’t great, though I think I remember a little bit from school. I was a little nervous of reading this despite all the recommendations because I thought it might be a little too fantastical for me, what with all the gods and centaurs and everything… but at its heart, this is a story about the nature of love and courage, and the context was so well realised by the author (helped, no doubt, by centuries of earlier material for which the author has a clear passion) that I didn’t find it to be a barrier.

This was both a thrilling page-turner and a love story, and I enjoyed both equally.


When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

This is Sedaris’s 2008 collection of humorous autobiographical essays, and I was predisposed to enjoy it given that I’ve enjoyed all of his other similar volumes. 

This one had a fantastic essay about time spent in a Medical Examiner’s office (‘The Monster Mash’) which brought back memories of my medical school elective spent in a Medical Examiner’s office in Calgary. One of the essays also had some examples of strange English phrases spotted in Japan (‘The Smoking Section’) which made me choke on a drink on public transport, resulting in coughing fit which has become entirely socially unacceptable in the pandemic era.


The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

This is Annie Dillard’s 1989 collection of short essays on how she writes, and the process of writing in general. I don’t write for a living (obviously), but much of what Dillard says in this book felt familiar from the times when I have done bits of writing here and there, and I enjoyed the deeper insights of such a well-regarded and talented writer.

This was well worth reading considering its short length.


The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies

Carys Davies’s much-celebrated 2014 collection of seventeen short stories wasn’t really up my street. This isn’t that surprising, and nor should it put you off: I’m not generally a fan of collections of short stories.

The lengths in this collection are highly varied, from a few sentences to thirty or so pages. I didn’t pick up any particular theme running through the collection, though quite a few of the stories contain unexpected twists, and I suppose in retrospect that most of them build up some kind of tension or suspense. I particularly enjoyed the titular story, and also ‘Sybil’, but it was ‘The Quiet’ which was the standout story for me.

However, many of the others in the collection did nothing for me at all, and unfortunately I don’t think that the signal to noise ratio was great enough that I’d want to pick up another of Davies’s collections.


When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön

I picked this book up because I’d heard about it in passing somewhere, and evidently had the wrong end of the stick. I had understood that it was an autobiographical account of personal suffering and challenge and insightful tips on how to cope with life “when things fall apart.” It isn’t really that. First published in 1997, it’s an introduction to several aspects of Buddhist practice, explained in an accessible and relatable way, with lots of personal anecdote thrown in and a warm, caring, personal tone.

While this was interesting and easy to read, I don’t think I would have picked it up had I done my research first, as it’s not really my kind of thing. I won’t be picking up any of Chödrön’s other (many) books—but if this is a topic you want to read about, this book seems like an approachable starting point.

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What I’ve been reading this month

May has been one of those months where it feels like I haven’t read very much at all, until I come to write this post and realise I’ve racked up nine books… of variable quality.


Medical Nemesis by Ivan Illich

I dug this 1976 book out of the library in response to my Goodreads friend Richard Smith re-posting his 2002 piece about it. I’d never heard of it before, but blimey its force of argument blew me away.

Illich’s central argument is that “the medical establishment has become a major threat to health … A vast amount of contemporary clinical care is incidental to the curing of disease, but the damage done by medicine to the health of individuals and populations is very significant.”

Some of the specific arguments and statistics Illich uses show their age, but it is hard to substantially disagree with most of his central points. Illich’s lengthy arguments about the various forms of iatrogenic harm lead him to argue for keeping most of the population away from the medical establishment and instead bolstering the ability of communities to maintain their health and cope with ill-health. “The level of public health corresponds to the degree to which the means and responsibility for coping with illness are distributed among the total population … A world of optimal and widespread health is obviously a world of minimal and only occasional medical intervention. Healthy people are those who live in healthy homes on a healthy diet in an environment equally fit for birth, growth, work, healing, and dying.”

For me personally, this book has come at the perfect time. I have been worrying about the extent to which the response to the covid-19 pandemic has emphasised a professional / medical model of healthcare to an extent that I have never before seen in my medical career. Even at the ‘slightest symptom’ the population is encouraged to engage with the ‘establishment’ via formal testing. I worry that we will struggle to put the genie back in the bottle. 

The age-adjusted mortality rate for the most deprived quintile of the UK is a multiple of that for the least deprived quintile, yet—at least from what we have heard to date—the mainstay of the plan for future pandemics appears to be to beef up the medically driven response (people like me) rather than doing anything meaningful to tackle the underlying social issues.

This book was a timely reminder of the limits of the medical approach to health that articulated much of what I’ve been worrying about. I’m not sure I would go as far as Illich in arguing against medicine, but having a polemic like this certainly stimulates thought.


Interpreter of Maladies by by Jhumpa Lahiri

This is Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut collection of nine short stories of about 20 pages each about experiences resulting from a meeting of Indian and (mostly) American culture. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000.

I picked it up mostly on a whim because I fancied reading some short stories and this caught my eye, and I’ve ended up very much enjoying it. I liked every one of the nine stories, and found them all engaging and surprisingly powerful. Lhari grounds each of the stories in everyday life, and the power comes from the close observation of common experiences. The prose style feels spare, simple and exact.

I also felt that I gained new insight into what it is like to be a cultural outsider on a day-to-day level, and the internal conflicts and misunderstandings it can create. This element of the book felt relevant and current.

I’d certainly recommend this one.


Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn

I’ve read a lot of praise for the Patrick Melrose series recently, so thought I would give it a ago. This first book, published in 1992, introduces Patrick as a five-year-old. Set over a single day in Provence, it follows his parents and their friends as they prepare for a dinner party.

It is a book of layers. It presents with great humour Patrick’s absurd aristocratic cruelty borne of a deeply held sense of entitlement and privilege. At the same time, it shows us the deviating impact of that attitude to life, piercing the idea that eccentric cruelty is harmless and tolerable.

This may have been written decades ago, but it feels highly relevant in the current political context, where we’re perhaps beginning to see a greater awareness of the dangers of allowing those with great privilege to act in ways which aren’t generally acceptable. We perhaps shouldn’t be so forgiving of the ‘bumbling toff’ stereotype which so often masks a local of morality.


Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

I’m not usually a fan of war novels, but having loved Human Traces last year, I thought I’d give Faulks’s most famous novel a try. 

Birdsong was first published in 1993, and follows two main characters: Stephen, who we first meet in 1910 and later follow through the misery of the front line in the First World War, and his granddaughter Elizabeth, who we meet in 1978 as she tries to research her grandfather’s past. The novel jumps about between these time periods across seven sections. 

The main themes of the novel were love (romantic and otherwise) and trauma, and the impossibility of truly understanding a person’s own experience of either of those things from a distance. We can never truly know what another person has experienced, and the distance of time from historical events makes understanding ever more difficult.

I thought this was a brilliant novel, and one with a lot of layers to it. It was a book in which the plot would draw me in, and I’d find myself reflecting on some of the deeper insights hours later: I’m not sure the plot will last as long in my memory as those insights and reflections.


The Social Photo by Nathan Jurgenson

I thoroughly enjoyed this essay by Nathan Jurgenson, published in 2019. It is in two parts.

The first part considers the way in which the nature of photography has changed in recent times, with the vast majority of photos taken today being intended as communications forming a specific part of conversations, rather than as images designed to stand on their own merit. Jurgenson made these point through a lively account of the history of photography, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

The second part was more wide-ranging. While still based primarily around photography, it considered broad questions about the impact of social media on society and our behaviour. As Jurgenson acknowledges, there are a lot of books which cover this ground, often from clear pre-conceived positions (for example, arguing for ‘digital detoxes’). Jurgenson’s treatment is much more balanced and insightful, and makes a good argument that even when we are away from social media, it has altered our social behaviour to such an extent that there really isn’t a hard offline/online border of the type others try to describe. I found this a strong and convincing argument, albeit one that I wasn’t really expect this book to cover.


The Sanest Guy in the Room by Don Black

Published last year, this is the autobiography of the lyricist Don Black.

“I have never been a fan of autobiographies,” he says in the very first paragraph, justifying his decision to concentrate on interesting anecdotes spanning both his career and his 60-year marriage. This results in a book that’s quite light in tone, but an awful lot of fun.

There are—as you might expect—a lot of lyrics in the book, which only served to remind me quite how diverse Black’s career in lyrics has been.


Grief is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is Max Porter’s exceptionally popular 2015 essay, which combines prose and poetry, fantastical allegory and deep reflection, to discuss the process of grieving. The book centres on a family of four who are bereft by the untimely death of the mother, and are helped through their grief by a crow.

Some of Porter’s writing and close observations in this short book are brilliant, but I don’t really rate the totality of the book. It just isn’t really up my streeet: a bit to abstract (and at times confusing) and a bit too fantastical for my taste. But your mileage may vary, as they say.


Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo

First published in 1955, some consider this to be one of the great works of 20th century literature. I read the 1993 English translation by Margaret Sayers Peden.

The narrative is split across 68 short dream-like fragments in which the title characters searches for his father following the death of his mother. It’s never quite clear what is real and what is hallucination, who is alive and who is dead. I enjoyed this for about the first half of the book, then started to get increasingly frustrated by the structure. 

I’ve no doubt this book has a lot to offer, and it is reputed to be quite beautiful in its original Spanish, but I’m not sure it has quite the same amount to offer a casual reader of the English translation.


Cool Dawn by Dido Harding

Published in 1999, this is Dido Harding’s book about her favourite horse, Cool Dawn. I am not the target audience for this book: it’s very clearly aimed at the hunting / racing set, and I know very little of either, making this my least favourite book of the year so far by a furlong.

Most of the book is made up of descriptions of horse races, which held little interest for me. The bits in between, about the practicalities of owning a race horse, were more interesting, but felt emotionally flat to me. I struggle to empathise with the apparent emotional turmoil of being on a family skiing holiday in Canada while the horse I own is undergoing intensive physiotherapy for a trapped nerve back in England. Perhaps that’s not surprising given that the very existence of horse physiotherapy was news to me.

Similarly, the lack of reflection on the ethics of horse racing and hunting surprised me, but I think that reflect my naivety more than the book itself. Injuries seem to be considered more from the impact of the racing life / financial impact than concern for the welfare of the animals, which feels callous to me but is presumably the reality of the lifestyle

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