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What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve six books to write about for April, and most were much better choices than in other recent months!


Companion Piece by Ali Smith

Published this month, this is another quick-turnaround book from Ali Smith in the mold of her incomparable Seasonal Quartet—referenced not just by the matching cover art but also by the main character, Sandy, saying early on “I didn’t care what season it was.”

I loved that series, and I loved this addition. There is something therapeutic about reading Smith’s take on the world’s chaos. The insight and connection she brings fees like it brings closure and clarity.

In this volume, set mostly during the pandemic, Smith blends social commentary with characters having detailed discussions about the analysis of poetry, and with a series of fantastical visitors which we are never quite sure exist.

I would characterise the main theme of this volume as being human connection and companionship (the clue is in one of the title’s meanings). It reflects on the changes wrought by pandemic living, but also the continuity of so many aspects of non-physical human connection, like connection through poetry or ideas or ancestry. It’s also about how it’s nice to be alone sometimes.

Like the whole of the Seasonal Quartet, this was a cut above almost everything else I read, and I’m already sure it will be one of my favourite books of the year.


Cleopatra and Frankenstein by Coco Mellors

This recently published debut novel set in present-day New York focuses on two characters: Cleo, a British artist in her early 20s who is struggling to find her painting form and whose student visa is running out, and Frank, an advertising executive twenty years her senior. Cleo meets Frank in a lift while fleeing a party. The two enjoy a whirlwind romance resulting in a quick, impulsive marriage. Most of the novel deals with the fall-out from their romance, as its consequences ripple through their friendship groups and families. The characters—Cleo especially—mature through the novel, albeit with some profoundly challenging but sensitively portrayed mental illness along the way.

None of the characters in this book are especially likeable, and yet I found myself rooting for all of them. I was immersed in the novel’s world and didn’t want to leave it.

Mellors has a beguilingly rich style of writing, full of imagery and metaphor, which feels like it has fallen out of fashion in recent times. The characters speak sparklingly witty dialogue. It’s hard to believe that this is a literary debut.


Boys Don’t Cry by Fíona Scarlett

This is a 2021 novel about two brothers growing up in modern working-class Dublin: a twelve-year-old call Finn and a seventeen-year-old called Joe. The novel is narrated by the brothers in alternating chapters, though on different timelines (Joe’s story takes place after Finn’s)—this was less confusing than I’ve made it sound.

Joe has secured a scholarship to a prestigious private school, but finds himself teased for being from a different social class, and there is a constant theme of the gravity of his background constantly pulling him down. Society’s expectations of him are not high.

Finn looks up to Joe, and with the naivety of his youth doesn’t fully understand everything that is going on around him, in particular his father’s role as kingpin of a local drug gang.

Both Joe and Finn are very realistically drawn: Joe’s complexity and life challenges in particular drew me into this book, and Finn’s narration always rang true.

Mostly, though, this is a book with real emotional punch, diving deep into themes of teenagers developing their moral frameworks, the struggle to define oneself independently of one’s background, coming to terms with mortality and dealing with grief. It’s heavy stuff—but lightly written enough to be moving rather than maudlin, and with some real wit weaved through the whole book.

This was 238 pages long—I raced through it, but by the end, struggled to understand how Scarlett could possibly have built such a complete world in so few pages. These are characters that will stay with me for some time.


What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

This is Murakami’s popular account of training for running the New York Marathon in 2005, which I read in Philip Gabriel’s translation. For me to say “I’m not a runner” seems to me to be as accurate and yet absurd as saying “I’m not a pair of trainers.” Yet, this is only in one sense a book about running: there is a lot in this short book for non-runners like me.

This is really a thoughtful and reflective memoir about life in general. I was particularly drawn to Murakami’s frequent comparisons between running and writing: both fundamentally solitary activities, and both requiring total commitment driven by self-motivation. Like Murakami, I’m a person who enjoys time by myself, and “doesn’t find it painful to be alone,” so I felt a bit like a kindred spirit.

Really, this was a book that allowed me to spend time in the mind of a brilliant writer, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It didn’t make me want to start running… thank goodness.


A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo

Published in 2020, this is a novel inspired in part by the book of the same name by Roland Barthes, which it references a few times. Like the Barthes book, this is split into very short titled chapters. Each begins with a piece of dialogue extracted from that chapter, which I felt provided a slightly hypnotic quality.

The plot is, of course, a love story told largely through dialogue. The narrator is a woman who moves from China to the UK (or “Brexit Britain”) to study for a PhD in visual anthropology, and falls for a man of a similar age who specialises in landscape architecture. Despite the slightly unusual structure, I found this effortless to read. It has interesting themes around loneliness, even within a relationship, and the limitations of language: both of the central characters speak more than one language.

This was intriguing, enjoyable, and captured more themes than I imagined it would be.


The Second Child by John Boyne

This 2008 novella, published as part of a series for “emerging adult readers” was a fun, single-sitting affair for me. The plot follows an estranged Irish daughter visiting her parents with her partner—a successful Hollywood actor—while pregnant. As well as being very funny, it captures the complexity of familial relationships and the conflict which can emerge from clashing social expectations of different generations.

This isn’t ground-breaking, but I don’t think it set out to be. It’s just a well-written, very brief story which captures complex and conflicting emotions which can emerge in fairly universal relationships. I often find short stories unsatisfying, but I enjoyed this.

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What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve four books to mention this month.


Beneath the White Coat edited by Clare Gerada

This is a recently published book about doctors’ mental health, edited by the former Chair and current President of the Royal College of GPs and founder of the Practitioner Health Programme. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Clare Gerada a couple of times and found her to be inspirational, and have also met or worked with an almost frightening proportion of the chapter authors at one point or another!

I read this book and was surprised by how much of myself I recognised in the descriptions of doctors’ personalities, and the aspects of their work they find particularly challenging. I found the practical content on “surviving and thriving in medicine” insightful and helpful. The chapter on burnout in doctors, and how most doctors have periods of burnout in their career, was particularly relevant to me right now, after two exceptionally demanding years of pandemic practice.

There is much to think about in here, and much of immediate practical value. It is brilliant.


These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever

This 2020 first novel by Micah Nemerever was brilliant. Set in 1970s Pittsburgh, the plot follows two precocious college freshmen who are drawn together by their intelligence and slightly offbeat interpretation of the world. But—and this can’t possibly be a spoiler, as it’s the content of the prologue—their obsession (love?) for each other ultimately drives them to committing terrible crimes.

Nemerever does a fantastic job of weaving together the intense emotion of attraction with a sense of growing foreboding. The writing is almost poetic at times, with no wasted words or throwaway lines. The intensity and claustrophobia Nemerever creates is intense enough to feel a little exhausting at times, in the best possible way.

I thoroughly enjoyed this.


Jews Don’t Count by David Baddiel

This short TLS book published about a year ago has been widely praised. It features a combination of lived experience, polemic, and humour used to illustrate that antisemitism has been left out of much of the current present social discourse about racism. I thought it was excellent, and well worth an hour of your time: it helped me to much better understand some of the issues discussed, in particular the feelings experienced in response to the recent issue of antisemitism in the Labour Party. It’s a book which is light on detail and critical analysis, but is most certainly an easy-to-read introduction to some of the key issues.

I was slightly distracted by quite how much of the discussion was rooted on Twitter, a platform that actively promotes outrage and strong negative emotions, though Baddiel did at least acknowledge multiple times that Twitter is not a true proxy for the ‘real world’.


Beach Read by Emily Henry

I can’t remember what made me pick up this bestselling 2020 novel, but I’m afraid it just wasn’t my kind of thing. It seemed like fairly basic romance genre fiction to me: two young adults who are ‘polar opposites’ fall in love. I found the writing uninspiring and the plot predictably leaden.

The book is enormously popular, so it clearly has merit, but it just wasn’t up my street. I came close to giving up on it, and when I decided I may as well finish it, I couldn’t manage more than a chapter per day for the last section of the book.

The two most popular quotations from this book on Goodreads are:

“When I watch you sleep,” he said shakily, “I feel overwhelmed that you exist.”

and

“I’ve never met someone who is so perfectly my favorite person.”

Both of those strike me as clunky and wooden; clearly, by virtue of their popularity, many other people feel differently. Perhaps if these quotations speak to you, the book will too. Please don’t let my lack of enthusiasm put you off.

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What I’ve been reading this month

I have just four books to tell you about this month.


Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Rooney’s 2017 bestselling debut is one of those books that is so wildly popular and widely read that writing about it seems redundant. In fact, I thought I’d read this book some years ago, shortly after I read Normal People. But I think I was confused: I read Rooney’s short story Mr Salary a couple of months after that.

I didn’t especially enjoy Normal People, finding it a bit flat and claustrophobic, and I didn’t think much of Mr Salary either, finding the dialogue unconvincing. Yet, I enjoyed Conversations with Friends.

As you almost certainly already know, the plot concerns two University students (former lovers) who form a friendship with an older married couple, and the complex web of relationships which develops between the four of them.

For what it’s worth, I still think Rooney’s dialogue is astonishingly unrealistic given how widely praised it is: this is a novel where everyone talks in sentences and paragraphs, and can spontaneously express complex thoughts and feelings with immediate precision. But this book did have a lot going for it in terms of characterisation and emotional complexity.

All things considered, I enjoyed this book enough to seek out the newly published Beautiful World, Where Are You.


How to be Perfect by Michael Schur

This is a recently published “popular philosophy” book by the writer of the television comedy series The Good Place. I picked it up mostly because I enjoyed that series.

The book is a guided tour of some schools of thought on ethics and philosophy, along with (mostly humorous) examples of how these relate to everyday life. I found the discussion mostly superficial, which is really a result of the structure and the decision to cram so much into a short book.

The writing style was, for my liking, far too conversational in tone, to the point where I slightly struggled to understand parts and had to go back and mentally “read them aloud” to parse what Schur was trying to say. I found that annoying.

This just wasn’t up my street (which, as you’ll see, is a bit of a theme this month: poor choices abound).

All of that said, the last chapter—concerning apologies—was a cut above the rest. It’s quite disconnected from the rest of the book, and while I still found the writing style a bit painful, I think this chapter could be published and well-received as a separate essay.


The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

This 2018 gender-swapped reworking of Pretty Woman is not my usual sort of novel, but I wanted something light and easy after a run of slightly dull books that I’d struggled through.

This fits that bill. While it was never going to be a book I’d love, I appreciated its straightforward plot and implausible but easy-to-follow dialogue. The characters were lightly sketched, as was appropriate for the plot. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help but repeatedly misread the main character’s name, Stella Lane, as Stena Line, which often made me laugh.

This novel has spawned a couple of sequels: this didn’t have enough of an effect on me to consider picking them up, but that’s no real criticism given that I knew it wasn’t my usual kind of novel when I bought it.


Broken People by Sam Lansky

Published in 2020, this Is Sam Lansky’s semi-autobiographical novel about coming to terms with our own past. The plot concerns a character—also called Sam—working with a shaman who offers ‘open-soul surgery’ which fixes ‘everything that it is wrong with you’ in three days.

I thought this was an interesting concept, but the book didn’t quite live up to it. I suppose I was hoping, in the end, for a discussion on how the process didn’t work, and how life and our own interaction with our past is altogether more complex than the conceit suggests. Unfortunately, Lansky delivers the opposite.

The ‘surgery’ consists of drug-fuelled trips into angsty memories, with superficial (and really quite dull) reflections on how they have shaped the present character, somehow leading to a positive and hopeful outcome. I didn’t find myself drawn into the process or the plot more broadly.

This just wasn’t really my cup of tea.

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