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What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve made it through another eleven books this month. I only aim to read about a book a week, but quite a few of these were rather short!


Pale Rider by Laura Spinney

In the couple of years since it was published, Laura Spinney’s history of the 1918 influenza pandemic has been recommended to me by more health protection colleagues than any other book.

Spinney did a great job of weaving together, virology, public health, history and sociology to create a genuinely thrilling volume on a subject that is often treated as a little dry. Spinney brought it to life while also comprehensively covering her brief, and used a light and engaging touch as well as lots anecdotes to illustrate larger points.

It took me a little longer to get through this than my enthusiasm for the book would imply, but only because my days have been filled with coronavirus work lately, and reading about something similar for pleasure seemed a bit masochistic!


A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov

I picked this up because my Goodreads friend Richard Smith called it “marvellous” and it sounded right up my street. I agree with his assessment.

In this book, Bulgakov describes the experience of being newly qualified and the sole doctor attached to a rural hospital in Russia in 1917. I may have started as a junior doctor (in Newcastle upon Tyne) some 91 years later than Bulgakov (and, for that matter, 32 years after Richard—sorry!) but the stories resonated.

The terror and reading up before shifts; the heart-in-mouth adrenaline rush as the DECT phone rings (or the nurse knocks on the doctor’s bedroom door in Bulgakov’s case!); the conspiratorial performance of maintaining the fiction for patients that the doctor knows exactly what they’re doing, even while being gently steered by the nurses. Even the twin comfort and dread brought by heavy snow felt familiar—comfort as fewer patients will turn up and I might have chance to think, but dread as I have to cope with the weather too.

There was an engaging emotional range to the book, from the amusing and absurd to the tragic. I’m fortunate not to have seen any colleagues become addicted to controlled drugs, and count myself very lucky given the statistics not to have had close experience of doctor colleagues ending their own lives… or murdering healthy patients.

The first mention of Leopold Leopoldovitch in the book reminded me that I watched the TV adaptation of this starring Jon Hamm, Daniel Radcliffe and the scene-stealing Vicki Pepperdine in 2012. I remember enjoying it, but don’t remember enough of the content to have any idea of how closely it followed the book.

The version I read was the 1975 translation by Michael Glenny: other (newer) English translations are available, but it’s hard to imagine how they could be any better!


Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

My parents bought me this for Christmas… at my request. It wasn’t a unfestive forced selection, but rather a book I’d wanted to read because the reviews were so good.

Higginbotham gave a brilliantly written and researched account of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster. I found it gripping.

Higginbotham managed not only to explain nuclear physics in a way that I could understand, his characterisations of the key figures in the story were excellent. It’s rare to read someone who is this good at writing about complex science and the human aspect of a story.

Thoroughly recommended.


Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch

I feel sorry for the person who spent ages on the cover design for this book, but this dust-cover-less copy is what the library supplied, and so that’s the picture I’m sticking with. There’s no photoshopping to meet literary beauty standards here!

Because Internet was a study of informal, casual written English, with a particular focus on the internet since, McCulloch argued, the advent of the internet has allowed academics to study informal writing extensively. Prior to the internet, informal writing was generally private (diaries, letters, shopping lists) whereas it is now commonly public (forum posts, tweets, blog posts).

To me, that insight alone was worth the effort of reading this book. I have never pondered the extent to which analyses of written English have been informed only by formal written English, and I’ve never before really thought about how the present generation is the first to publicly express itself in informal English. There’s a lot of food for thought in that.

But McCulloch had much more besides in this volume, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Sometimes, books are so insightful as to explain to the reader why the reader does things which just seem automatic: this is one of those books.

McCulloch managed that very difficult feat of marrying rigorous academic analysis with clear and accessible explanations, a lightness of touch, levity and wit. I thought this book was great.


Mostly Hero by Anna Burns

While this was first published in 2014, the copy I picked up was newer: a part of the 2019 extension to the Faber Stories series I read last year. This volume somewhat stretched the bounds of definition of “short story”: at 127 pages, this was really a novella rather than a short story, and the cover price was consequently higher than the rest of the (much slimmer) volumes in the series.

All of that said, I thought this was a very clever book which I enjoyed reading. Burns presented a sort of literary take on comic book superhero stories, which I’m almost tempted to call “spoof”: it riffed to great effect on common comic book tropes, but Burns also gave the story real depth and meaning. Mostly Hero was inventive and played with language in creative and interesting ways.

At heart, it was a love story featuring a character named “hero” and one named “femme fatale”, but it ranged much wider than that single genre despite its short length. Burns had interesting things to say on societal expectations, gender and the nature of good and evil, all of which were explored under the cover of the absurd cartoonish world she created.


Moral Essays: Volume II by Seneca

When I read the first volume of Seneca’s moral essays translated by John W Basore in 2018, I was completely blown away and read the whole thing pretty quickly.

I’ve read this second volume a section at a time over a much longer period, and don’t think I got quite as much out of it as with the ‘total immersion’ approach of the first volume. The slightly dated language of Basore’s 1932 translation takes some getting used to. The print quality in some parts of my copy wasn’t great, which took me out of the moment a few times.

All of that said, this was still brilliant, and doesn’t feel like it was written millennia ago.


Grandeur and Greed by Giles Smith

Take a journalist best known for writing columns about sport and music, send him to review five of Europe’s great art galleries, and Grandeur and Greed is the result.

In this short volume published in 2019, Smith reviews The Louvre, The Prado, The Rijksmuseum, The Uffizi and The National Gallery. Each enjoys an off beat and lighthearted review from someone with a casual interest in art. Smith even reviews the cafes. I found this short, light, funny and insightful.

I think it’s the other that the physical format of the book was, however, poor: it is very flimsy, and the binding means that a large central portion of the impressive double-page photography is lost in the gutter. Smith’s reviews were originally published online, and I’m not sure that enough thought has been given to the transfer to the physical page.


I Remain in Darkness by Annie Ernaux

This was a moving account of a daughter’s relationship with her mother, as the latter develops and ultimately dies from Alzheimer’s disease. I read the translation by Tanja Leslie.

Reading this book made me reflect that it probably shocks less today than it did when it was published some 23 years ago. Over the last couple of decades, I think societal awareness and understanding of dementia illnesses has increased markedly over what is really quite a short period of time. I think some of the exposition about the illness would be handled differently today.

Nevertheless, this remains a powerful emotional account.


Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton

This newly-released novel was set in a three-hour period during which a school in Somerset was attacked by shooters who also had explosive devices. The book was set in the present day and had a contemporary feel, with Lupton weaving in many of the touchstone issues in the social and political debates of our time (Brexit, Katie Hopkins, Donald Trump, etc). There were also a few decent plot twists along the way.

I enjoyed this, but I felt slightly removed from the action: I felt more of an observer. I think this was partly because some of the plot stretched credibility (would a British rolling news channel really interview someone caught up in this while they were in hiding in the school?) and partly because of the heavy-handed and slightly tiresome way Lupton drew comparisons between her plot and Shakespeare.


Defeated by Brexit by Chris Cook

In this short 2019 book, Chris cook gave a good insight into the Government’s chaotic approach to Brexit. Unfortunately, his analysis ended at a point in time which seems odd in retrospect (a few weeks before Theresa May’s resignation). The text was also a bit too long for an overview, and a little too short to really get stuck into the detail. I think there are probably better books on this topic.

This was published by the same house as the Giles Smith book, and was similarly flimsy.


Dreamerika! by Alan Burns

This 1972 surrealist fantasy was my least favourite book of the month my some considerable distance. I’ve no doubt that Dreamerika! has artistic merit, and it was certainly very clever, but the collage style of cut-out headlines interspersed with paragraphs of discontinuous text was just not my kind of thing.

This was recommended by the London Review Book Shop, and I’m glad I tried it, but it made me realise that I need a good bit of prose to get stuck into a book.

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What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve eleven books to tell you about this month.


Marcovaldo by Italo Calvino

I loved this book. First published in 1963, this was a collection of twenty short stories about Marcovaldo, a poor Italian man who was fond of nature and rural life but lived with his family in a big city. The stories followed a seasonal cycle, so that there were five set in each of spring, summer, autumn and winter.

In each story, Marcovaldo engaged with nature or the physical world in some way, and the outcomes were always unexpected. There was a lot of humour (I could imagine Marcovaldo being reduced to a comedy character on TV), but there was an equal amount of philosophy and some melancholy.

The writing was wonderful, simple and yet poetic. But then I really like Calvino’s style, and know that it isn’t universally loved. The translation I read was by William Weaver.

I enjoyed this so much that I didn’t want it to end, and tried to give myself time to reflect on each story before reading the next.


Tory Heaven or Thunder on the Right by Marghanita Laski

This satire was first published in 1948, but if I didn’t know that, I’d have guessed that it was published last year. (In fact, it was republished by Persephone in 2018.)

The plot followed five people who, having been marooned on a desert island for some years, returned to England in 1945 to find it transformed into “the England of all decent Conservatives’ dreams.”

The country was divided along strict class lines, with every citizen receiving one of five Government-assigned grades, and required to live in accordance with what would be expected of their class. The novel primarily focused on the experiences of the privileged James Leigh-Smith (indistinguishable from Jacob Rees-Mogg), and largely left the reader to fill in the blanks and draw the moral lessons.

This was a really easy and fun read with a clearly enduring underlying message.


Mary Poppins by PL Travers

Wendy loves Mary Poppins, so after 16 years of not entirely voluntary viewings of the Julie Andrews film, the more recent Saving Mr Banks and Mary Poppins Returns, and countless features and documentaries, I decided it was time to engage with the original source material.

Obviously, it was a children’s book, but I was surprised how dark it was—and it was more interesting for it.

Mary Poppins, a truly memorable character, was acid-tongued, cold and vain. Mr and Mrs Banks had little interest in or interaction with their children.

I think many younger children would be scared by the situations into which Poppins lures the children, such as the full moon birthday party in which shes surrounded by snakes.

Neither the book nor the character have the redeeming and nurturing warmth I expected, which left me more intrigued than if this had been the more saccharine tale I imagined.


Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq

I had never read anything by Houellebecq before, but knew of his reputation for gloom. This book lived up to that reputation, mostly in a good way. I read the translation by Shaun Whiteside.

The protagonist was a depressed agricultural advisor to the French government on farming and agricultural matters. He was prescribed a novel antidepressant which increased his serotonin level (hence the title). The novel followed this not entirely likable character as he made increasingly strange life choices.

The high suicide rate among agricultural workers is well known, but this novel made me think a bit more about the myriad causes of this, especially in modern society. It was also good at giving a slightly different perspective on the experience of depression and medication. There was a good dose of dark humour mixed in with the tragedy.

There was a fair amount of gratuitous sex, including bestiality and paedophilia, which seemed like it was there more to shock than to perform any intrinsic function. Also, in one of those bizarre turns of fate, there’s a section in this reflecting on Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories, which I was reading at the same time!


Night Train by Martin Amis

This was a book that started off as a crime procedural narrated by a policewoman called Mike, but turned out not to be a crime procedural at all. It was rather a sort of dark fictional philosophical exploration of suicide.

By pure coincidence, I had Miles Davis playing as I read much of this, and I was struck by how the writing seemed ‘jazzy’: police procedural cliche played with, improvised, turned on its head, and using the same forms to different ends. I enjoyed it.


The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

Contrary to most of the reviews I’ve flicked through, I enjoyed this less than A Study in Scarlet. It felt like there was more padding, and the long narrated resolution at the end felt more tedious than than the second part of the first book.

While I of course accept that the casual racism and pejorative language used by Conan Doyle reflect the social mores of the time it was written, the quantity of it in this volume became a bit wearing.


Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

I picked this up because it was featured in an article about how brilliant ‘young adult’ fiction had become and how we should all be reading more of it. It was a ‘love through secret correspondence’ story with a gay 16-year-old high school student as the protagonist and narrator.

The straightforward plot dealt with issues of contemporary high school life, including traditional tropes like bullying and blackmail, and some more modern concerns, such as emails and blogging.

It felt tightly targeted at its audience: many of the cultural references passed me by somewhat (though I can’t be certain whether that was an age thing or a not-being-American thing). It is narrowly focused on high school life, and it limited itself to the sort of language teenagers use. There is a very teenage dichotomy in which almost everything in the book is either “freaking awesome” or terrible, which felt true to life, but a little wearing. Overall, the writing felt a bit teenage, which is what the author was going for, but doesn’t really have a great deal of interest for me.

All things considered, this seemed like a well-constructed book, but it didn’t really convince me that we should all be reading more young adult fiction.


Murmur by Will Eaves

This was a novel based on the imagined thoughts of Alan Turing as he experienced chemical castration and the associated psychological therapy.

In fact, the main character was a sort of ‘version’ of Turing called Alec Pryor, but having read a biography of Turing relatively recently, I recognised that many of the peripheral characters share the forenames of similar characters in Turing’s life. As if that wasn’t a complicated enough premise, several of the sections were dream sequences imagined by Pryor.

This layer upon layer of narrative complexity allowed Eaves to explore all sorts of interesting territory relevant to Turing’s life, from the morality of his treatment to the nature of consciousness to the development of artificial intelligence.

This was a very clever book which I think would reward multiple close readings. I often found myself a bit disorientated in terms of the plot, and while that sometimes made it a bit of a chore, I mostly found myself carried along by the writing, the fantastically poetic imagery, and the exploration of complex ideas.


The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

A collection of twelve short stories about Sherlock Holmes cases narrated by Dr Watson. Obviously a classic and one where everyone knows what they’re getting!

I personally preferred getting engrossed in the full-length novels earlier in the series than these short stories, but I still enjoyed seeing how the characters developed over the course of the collection.


Journeys: Tortoise Quarterly, 1ed

Tortoise Quarterly is more magazine than book—it features thematic collections of longer articles from the Tortoise website.

In this edition, I particularly enjoyed Matthew D’Ancona’s account of experiencing delirium while he was a patient on a high dependency unit, Ian Ridley’s moving story of his wife’s death from cancer, and Tanyaradzwa Nyenwa’s reflections on working as a cold caller.


Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

I fully recognise that this has a reputation as one of the greatest collections of short science fiction stories ever written, but it was just not for me.

I don’t usually enjoy science fiction but decided to challenge myself with this: it has a reputation for being so accomplished that it appeals to people who don’t usually enjoy science fiction. But I found it a real slog to get through.

I’m not sure what it is that generates such a negative reaction in me. I think it might be something to do with the fantastical nature of much science fiction—I don’t like fantasy stories either, so perhaps my imagination is limited to stuff grounded in reality.

I think it might also be something to do with the writing, which often struck me as inelegant, despite clearly being loved and respected by better informed people than me—to me it often felt more scientific than poetic, and I think I prefer poetic descriptions of emotions (not ‘Neil was consumed with grief after she died, a grief that was excruciating not only because of its intrinsic magnitude, but also because it renewed and emphasised the previous pains of his life.’)

So I’m still not a fan of science fiction.

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What I’ve been reading this month

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

This was a novel charting the course of a marriage between a middle class African American man and woman in the contemporary United States. In particular, it covers the strain placed on that marriage after the man is wrongfully imprisoned. It is told in sections from the points of view of multiple characters.

The main themes were the gap between hopes and reality, the effect of incarceration on people’s lives and families, and the clash between traditional gender roles and those in modern society. The characters were well developed, believable, and entirely as irrational and frustrating as real people can often seem.

This was a slow and closely observed novel on a domestic scale. I found it absorbing and moving.


Stop Reading the News by Rolf Dobelli

This was book about the negative effects of engaging with the news, arguing that we should essentially disengage from daily consumption. I enjoyed this book and found the argument convincing, partly because I’ve been on a similar journey of late.

I would have preferred Dobelli to make the distinction between ‘news’ and ‘journalism’ a little earlier in the book, because I occasionally found myself arguing with his positions until I understood better that he was treating these as distinct entities. But, nonetheless, I found his perspectives throughout worthy of consideration.

Definitely a book I’d recommend, particularly in current times.


My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes

Originally published in 1958, this short novel was narrated by a troubled Hollywood screenwriter. In the novel’s opening, the screenwriter intervened to rescue an actress from the sea at a party, following what might have been an accident or might have been a suicide attempt.

The two almost accidentally fell into a relationship (an extramarital affair for the screenwriter) which took on a progressively darker air as their damaged selves came to the fore.

I found this intense and gripping. It had the concise and precise language of the classic American novels which worked well to heighten the tension.


Car Park Life by Gareth E Rees

This was a personal study of some of the hidden parts the UK’s retail car parks—not a topic that obviously required its own book, but a topic that turned out to be well worth reading about nevertheless.

Car Park Life was great, with exactly the right mix of wit, satire and underlying earnest. Rees mixed a beguiling and flowing combination of humour, psychology, sociology, autobiography and history around this unassuming topic.

This book has definitely changed my perspective on car parks!


A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

I thought I’d read all of Sherlock Holmes as a teenager, and decided to re-read it in 2020. Having read this, though, I’m now pretty sure this is my first reading: I don’t remember any of the mormon-themed second part of this book.

Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed this first in the Sherlock Holmes series. There seems little point saying much more: you know what you’re getting into.


My Twentieth Century Evening and Other Small Breakthroughs by Kazuo Ishiguro

You can watch or read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel lecture for free online, but I didn’t. I bought a small paperback copy which I read over a bowl of soup one lunchtime in Caffé Nero. That is possibly the most planetary resource intensive approach, and I should probably be ashamed… but I enjoyed it.

Ishiguro’s lecture described his lifelong development as a writer, underlined the importance of literature and made a plea for greater intellectual diversity in writing and the arts. I really like Ishiguro’s writing, so was predisposed to like this lecture. I suppose I probably wouldn’t have found it interesting if I didn’t find him interesting, so your mileage may vary!


Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge

I picked this up out of interest having enjoyed the TV series: this is the text of the original one-woman play.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the play and also reflecting on the creative differences between the original text and the TV series. I also enjoyed the text on its own terms: Waller-Bridge has created a memorable and distinctive character.

On the other hand, much of the rest of the stuff in this volume felt like filler to me.


Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

This was a moving, eloquent and personal description of Matt Haig’s experiences with depression which I think helped me to better understand the subjective experience of mental illness.

There were some parts that felt less successful to me, though perhaps others appreciated them—I wasn’t particularly interested in others’ Twitter posts quoted in the book, for example—but I’m glad I picked this up nevertheless.


A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes

Barthes built up a picture of the subjective experience of love through a series of “fragments”, descriptions of individual aspects of the experience drawn from literature or philosophy.

This was an astounding analytical work, in as much as it put into words emotions I’ve felt but never even considered classifying or really dwelt upon, but which certainly form part of being in love. Some of the ‘fragments’ felt like truly revelatory insights into my own life experiences.

On the other hand, if I’m being honest, most of this book was a bit of a slog to get through: it was a bit like reading a reference work of discrete entries. I read it piece by piece over several months because I couldn’t take it all in one go.

It was astounding and hard work to read at the same time.


Christmas with Dull People by Saki

It would probably have made more sense to read this in December, but it didn’t make its way to the top of the pile until this month.

Christmas with Dull People was a 48-page collection of four short, sharp stories satirising Edwardian social norms around Christmas. I don’t think I’ve read any Saki before and enjoyed his cutting wit. I enjoyed the last story, which concerned the writing of thank you letters, the most.


Motherland: Tortoise Quarterly, 2ed

Tortoise Quarterly is more magazine than book—it features thematic collections of longer articles from the Tortoise website.

In this edition, I particularly enjoyed Martin Samuel’s profile of Gary Linekar (who I previously knew almost nothing about), Zelda Perkins’s account of producing a musical with and for David Bowie, Susie Walker’s story of life as a female stand up comedian, and Simon Barnes’s deep dive into the causes of flooding in the UK.


Indistractable by Nir Eyal

It’s important context to know that Eyal is the author of another book on how to make technology addictive. He believes, and frequently argues, that such technologies should not be regulated because we can control our own usage of them.

In Indistractable, Eyal argued that one can maintaining focus despite potential distractions such as—but not limited to—addictive technology. He set out a few commonly described methods by which it is possible to maintain focus (such as planning to complete given tasks at given times). He also set out a few techniques commonly described techniques for reducing technology distractions (such as switching off notifications). He then set out a few commonly described tips on parenting in the age of modern technology (such as making sure children can use devices competently before allowing them unsupervised access). None of the ideas seemed original to me, and none added up to the thesis that these technologies should not be regulated.

Irritatingly, Eyal had a habit of presenting banal information as stunning insights. The most glaring of these was his repeated insistence that “total time spent on email = number of emails × average time spent on each email”. That is not an insight into anything, it is simply basic mathematics.

There was also a depressing assumption of affluence in Eyal’s writing. He suggested that we might encourage ourselves to go to the gym by bargaining with ourselves that if we failed to do so we’d burn a $100 bill. And he assumed an awful lot about availability of cash and time for parenting. All of which serves to undermine the thesis about regulation, which—after all—serves to protect the most vulnerable in society.

All in all, I found this pretty infuriating.

You might have noticed that this looks a little different to usual.

This is the 45th of these posts: they’ve appeared monthly since May 2016 and the formatting has been essentially unchanged since June 2016. This month, I’m playing with a new photography-heavy layout for 2020. I’m also experimenting with going back to publishing these towards the end of each month rather than at the start of a new month.

Both of these changes might be one-offs or might be permanent, largely depending on my whims this time next month.

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What I’ve been reading this month

It feels like Neil Gaiman is having a bit of a career ‘moment’, with his work seemingly everywhere at the moment. Art Matters was a very short book of Gaiman quotations illustrated by Chris Riddell making a convincing argument about the importance of creativity in life. I was surprised to find myself feeling a little moved by this book. The subject matter wasn’t classically emotional, but the passion and power of the argument, particularly with respect to the importance of reading, caught me by surprise—especially for such a short book.

How We Fight For Our Lives was a solid and deeply personal memoir which gave me new insight in what it was like to grow up as a gay black man in the USA. Saeed Jones is the same age as me, but we’ve evidently lived very different lives, and I enjoyed reading a different perspective on modern life.

In Thrust: A Spasmodic Pictorial History of the Codpiece in Art Michael Glover explored the history of the codpiece, from its first appearance as a functional garment bridging the top of two stockings for men, through its brief (ridiculous) celebration as a fashion item, to its sudden demise in all but sporting contexts (where we no longer use the name). The thoroughly delightful book was structured around very short essays connected with particular artworks, which were reproduced alongside. Glover wrote with a heavy dose of humour, but also brought fresh perspectives on both history and contemporary fashion. I really enjoyed this.

Murray Lachlan Young’s lavishly illustrated The Mystery of the Raddlesham Mumps was a Gothic poem clearly targeted at children. It concerned the seven-year-old Crispin de Quincy de Faversham-Clumps who inherited the cursed stately-home-esque Raddlesham Mumps following the sudden death of his parents. This was not my usual kind of thing, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race was better than previous reviews had led me to suspect. The book challenged and changed my perspective on the racism people face in modern Britain. It helped me to better understand that tackling racism requires positive day-to-day action: ‘colourblindness’ and being nice isn’t enough by itself. I did have some reservations: Eddo-Lodge occasionally seemed to be trying to speak for all people who experience racism, and I couldn’t follow the logic of some of her more detailed arguments which occasionally felt a bit self-contradictory.

I can’t work out what I thought about Lionel Shriver’s blockbuster We Need to Talk About Kevin. There were days when I thought that that it was a real imaginative achievement which combined a gradually building atmosphere with a nuanced exploration of the disturbed mind of a killer. Other days, I thought it was an interesting literary exercise in exploring narrative reliability and post-hoc rationalisation or confirmation bias. And still other days, I thought it was depressing domestic horror which fed off an overly simplistic morally dichotomous view of a world with ‘born evil’ which really had nothing new to say. I can’t reconcile those three views in any useful way.

Codename Villanelle has been turned into a TV series I haven’t seen. I found Luke Jennings’s thriller to be somewhat patchy, with writing which varied from ‘average’ to occasionally ‘good’. The central character, Villanelle, was flawed in intriguing ways – she believed herself to be the ‘perfect’ killer, with a view of herself as a sort of psychopath who did not experience interpersonal feelings, but this was shown to be less than fully accurate. The interplay between her self-conception and the real world could make for an interesting bit of character writing, but Jennings never quite explored that path.

As I’ve previously noted, I also finished off the original Faber Stories series this month.

Homeland by Barbara Kingsolver was a portrait of a grandmother who was a fugitive Cherokee, and an exploration of her relationships with her granddaughter and other family members. The plot revolves around a visit to her now unrecognisable ancestral homeland, but the plot didn’t seem to be the point: this seemed to me to be more an accomplished character study.

The Country Funeral by John McGahern was a story of three brothers who traveled from their modern lives in Dublin to rural Ireland to attend an uncle’s funeral. There were passages in this book which did a decent job of capturing some of the complexity of the conflicting emotions associated with funerals, and the way in which different people respond differently. But I didn’t really feel particularly drawn in by this short story as a whole.

I’ve previously read Come Rain or Come Shine in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, but I was glad to revisit it in a standalone volume this month. It was a great little short story about a man being invited to visit a couple who are old university friends. The man of the couple invited him to visit in an effort to save his relationship: the visitor’s lack of success in life, he hoped, would engender a flattering comparison in the mind of his partner. Like most of Ishiguro’s novels, it was full of tenderness, memories, regrets and—in this case—some wonderful humour.

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What I’ve been reading this month

Molly Ringwald’s translation of Lie With Me, by Philippe Besson, was one of those books which totally disrupted my day as I couldn’t help but read it in a single sitting. The short (148 page) book told the story of an intense romance between two teenage boys in France in 1984. It isn’t completely clear whether it is autobiography or fiction. It was completely transporting, evocative and immersive. By the end, I also found it deeply moving. It left me in a bit of a daze.

Find Me was the sequel to André Aciman’s much-acclaimed Call Me By Your Name (I read that volume in February). It was a rather different book, but no less successful. Find Me was narrated in sections by several of the characters from the original novel at five-year intervals, starting a decade on. The sequel had an altogether gentler, more philosophical tone than the original, which was fitting given that it was written from an adult rather than adolescent perspective. The novel intimately explored a series of romantic relationships, with a interesting musical thread weaved through the book. In all, I thought this was as good as the first book, even if it is very different.

Eradication was Nancy Leys Stepan’s comprehensive history of work to eradicate various infectious diseases, with a unifying thread of examining the life and work of Fred Lowe Soper. Stephan gave a great, sobering illustration of how many attempts at disease eradication have failed for essentially the same reasons. She also gave a balanced account of the dangers of eradication programmes, and in particular the opportunity costs. Stepan sometimes lost me in her discussion of the finer details of some of her examples, but nevertheless convinced me of her central thesis that “eradication campaigns should be exceptional and rare”. This was a great read.

Nuclear War in the UK, by Taras Young, was a bit of a niche title describing the public information campaigns the UK government has run in connection with preparing for nuclear war. It gave a fascinating account of the different approaches used over the years, the reasons that the government chose to adopt these, and the public response. Around half of the book was given over to reproductions of pages from various leaflets and information booklets. I would have liked the content to be extended a little to cover the ‘modern’ attempts at communicating similar info in different circumstances (e.g. 2004’s “Preparing for Emergencies” campaign), but that may have diluted the specificity of the book, and I thought this was great nonetheless.

As we’re in the midst of a general election in the UK, I thought it was a timely moment to read Philip Freeman’s new translation of Cicero’s Commentariolum Petitionis, published as How to Win an Election. This was a letter of no-nonsense advice from Quintus Cicero to his brother Marcus Cicero about how to win the consul election in which he was standing, written in 64BC. Reading this was a little cathartic: for all the many failings of our modern politicians, at least none of our candidates has killed and decapitated the corpse of their brother-in-law. That said, the exhortations for campaigning politicians to make promises they can’t possible keep felt depressingly contemporary (“Broken promises are often lost in a cloud of changing circumstances so that anger against you will be minimal … but if you refuse to make a promise, the result is certain and produces immediate anger in a large number of voters”).

I read the Angus Turvill translation of Nagisa Tatsumi’s The Art of Discarding, a guide to changing one’s relationship with physical “stuff” to avoid accumulating too much. This was music to my ears, as I’m already an anti-hoarder with a strong preference for discarding stuff. The book was a little uncomfortably sexist in places, and could have used a little more emphasis on the environmental aspects of discarding, but I thoroughly enjoyed the slightly smug feeling this book engendered in me.

In 2016, Heathcote Williams published Royal Babylon, a 500-stanza poetic rant about the British Monarchy. I picked this up as last month I enjoyed Williams’s (prose) essay on Boris Johnson. There were similarities between the two in that Royal Babylon also serves as an extended character assassination with many astonishing anecdotes. However, a difference between the two was that the logical argument in Royal Babylon wasn’t clear to me. The book dealt mainly with the character flaws of individual members of the royal family which seemed an odd way to argue for the abolition of monarchy; much as it would be odd for the Boris Johnson book to conclude with a clarion call for the abolition of the post of Prime Minister. Nevertheless, this was an entertaining read.

Philippa Perry used her book How to Stay Sane to set out some simple psychotherapy techniques for maintaining mental health. This was something of an accidental purchase, as I expected a discursive and analytical volume, and got an instructional book of ‘exercises’, none of which I actually did. Nevertheless, while this wasn’t my cup of tea, I appreciated the clean and clear style of writing and the advice within seemed pretty reasonable.

The Courage to Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga has, apparently, become something of an Asian sensation. I picked up the English translation, which I think was translated by the original authors, which is the kind of achievement that could make anyone feel inadequate. The book was a sort of philosophical introduction to the psychological teaching of Alfred Adler. I don’t think I’ve read much about Adler’s ideas before, and so I found this exploration interesting. It certainly challenged conventional wisdom, though I can understand why others have rejected it as unhelpfully victim-blaming. The book is presented as a dialogue between a philosopher and a student, and the authors gave a vigorous defense of this approach in the afterword. Nevertheless, I didn’t take to this format, and found it intensely irritating at times. I would have much preferred a more traditional approach with a clearer explanation of the underlying evidence.

No One is Too Small to Make a Difference was an exceptionally poor form of Greta Thunberg’s persuasive arguments on the urgency of tackling climate change. The volume collected eleven short speeches delivered over eight months: as with anyone giving a series of speeches on an identical topics over a short period of time, Thunberg recycled whole paragraphs from speech to speech, making the book highly repetitious. There was no opportunity for Thunberg to air the detail of her arguments, as a short speech will naturally never dive deeper than key headlines. Thunberg is an inspiration; but unfortunately, this book was neither convincing nor satisfying.

I also continued reading the Faber Stories collection of short books this month.

The Shielding of Mrs Forbes was very Alan Bennett, including a rather wonderful line about “a death that might seem to have more to do with narrative tidiness than driving without due care and attention.” It was a story about the complexity of interwoven family secrets which started with a man continuing a clandestine gay affair on his wedding night and only ramped up from there. This was great fun.

The Inner Room was a Robert Aickman short story in which a young girl chose a doll house as a birthday present and creepy things ensure. I’m not quite sure whether I’d class this as “horror” exactly, but it was certainly weird, tense and atmospheric. I enjoyed it, but not sure I’ll remember it twelve months hence.

Thom Jones’s Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine was the atmospheric story of a young boxer’s fight. It concentrated mostly on the boxer’s thoughts in the run-up to the event. It had a driving plot and a cleverly building sense of tension, but it’s not really a story that stayed with me or taught me any great lesson.

Paradise, by Edna O’Brien, was a 62-page story in which a young woman had swimming lessons while on holiday with her much older and wealthier lover. It’s main theme seemed to be around the tension between meeting the expectations of self-entitled wealthy people and being one’s own person. This struck me as a little pedestrian, and the characters and scenery weren’t especially memorable. I don’t think this book lived up to the promise of its theme.

Claire Keegan’s The Forester’s Daughter was a kind of domestic drama set in rural Ireland about a woman who married a farmer “for want of someone better”. A dog features heavily, including a few lines which are somewhat bizarrely narrated from the dog’s point of view, but with a heavy dose of anthropomorphism (“His urge to roll in the cow-dung is almost irresistible but this is the type of house where they might let a dog sleep inside.”) This left me unmoved.

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What I’ve been reading this month

I Never Said I Loved You was an astonishing and unconventional autobiography by the journalist and actor Rhik Samadder, in which he covered topics including his history of childhood sexual abuse, subsequent lifelong struggle with mental illness, and his complicated but loving relationship with his mother. His adult romantic relationships were also discussed in some detail. Samadder’s writing was beautiful, with power, honesty and—perhaps unexpectedly—real humour. This was really very good, and certainly one of my favourite books of the year to date.

I was delighted this month to come across a copy of Archibald Colquhoun’s translation of The Cloven Viscount by Italo Calvino, a book I’ve never read before. I’ve always been a fan of Calvino’s writing, and it’s therefore no surprise that I devoured this macabre yet amusing and insightful fable. The story concerned a Viscount bisected in a battlefield injury whose two halves went on to lead two different lives, one evil and one virtuous, and whose paths eventually crossed. It was just unhinged enough to be both funny and gently thought-provoking.

It was an unusual experience to find myself captivated by a book in which I struggled to orientate myself and untangle the plot. Sarah Winman’s Tin Man was an extraordinarily sensitive story of first love, loss and grief. It was narrated in sections by two middle-aged men reflecting on their lives to date, including their childhood friendship and teenage love for one another. I was completely taken in by the depth of the emotional insight and the delicate treatment of sexual identity, so much so that I didn’t really care that I struggled to follow the wider structure of the plot.

By turns amusing, astonishing and terrifying, Heathcote Williams’s Boris Johnson: The Beast of Brexit was an excellent essay. It was a full-throttle character assassination of a type which is rarely done so well. A powerful, passionate and somewhat persuasive argument.

In The Carer, Deborah Moggach set the scene of a family recruiting a carer, Mandy, for their elderly widowed father. Suspicions about Mandy’s behaviour grow amid an increasingly tense atmosphere, and it felt as though the plot direction was clear. However, a change in events turns this into a much more sensitive novel with far more character development that it first appeared. All things considered, I enjoyed this as a light and easy read, with an unexpected amount of depth and thought.

The Cockroach was Ian McEwan’s satirical novella on Brexit, a sort of reverse version of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in reverse in which a cockroach became Prime Minister. The Brexit-esque policy was ‘reversalism’, in which the flow of money was reversed: people paid to take things from shops, and pay to go to work. I felt it was a bit subpar for McEwan: it was clever, in that many of the phrases and speeches were verbatim quotations of contemporary debate, but it was also a bit mean-spirited. Casting one side of a debate as self-interested insects wasn’t as illuminating as trying to understand their reasoning might have been.

Gotta Get Theroux This was a career-focused memoir by the television journalist Louis Theroux. It included rather thoughtful reflections on the complexity of the human condition, and discussion about the “non-binary” nature of people’s morality. In the current climate, it felt oddly brave to acknowledge that the subjects of Theroux’s documentaries, such as Jimmy Saville, could be both talented and have committed horrendous crimes. I enjoyed the book, but my opinion was probably coloured by my existing admiration for his documentary work.

Gail Honeyman’s novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has become something of a cultural phenomenon. It was a story about loneliness and social isolation in which, contrary to traditional expectations, the protagonist is a young adult with an office job. I was slightly disappointed by this novel, as I found the writing a little glossy and unreal, and somehow lacking depth and complexity despite a rather unconventional psychiatric subplot.

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What I’ve been reading this month

Fintan O’Toole’s book on Brexit, Heroic Failure, was exactly what I expected it to be as a reader of his frequent newspaper columns. He presented some interesting and well-argued perspectives on the drivers behind Brexit, including frequent references to 50 Shades of Grey. I didn’t find all of the arguments convincing, but I enjoyed O’Toole’s passionate argument and wit, and found myself seeing some aspects of the debate from entirely new perspectives.

In Catching Breath, Kathryn Lougheed taught me lots of bits and pieces about tuberculosis. Lougheed described the history of tuberculosis over millennia and made a case for it still being a pressing problem in the modern world, as I know only too well from my day job. Lougheed has the rare gift of being able to write well in a conversational tone, and with an added dash of humour, this whole text became thoroughly readable and engaging.

Kazuo Ishiguro is among my favourite authors, but I struggled to get on with When We Were Orphans. It was a sort of detective novel, where the protagonist goes off to solve the mystery of the disappearance of his own parents when he was a child. Perhaps I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind. I found the narrator thoroughly unlikable and a little irritating, which made the whole book difficult to enjoy.

I didn’t enjoy Jonathan Biss’s Beethoven’s Shadow quite as much as his other books because it seems clear that Biss wasn’t quite as passionate about Beethoven’s works as that of other composers he’s written about. But this was still an excellent essay. I particularly enjoyed his insights into the unexpected ways in which recordings of music have influenced the liver performance of classical music over the last century or so.

I’m not the intended audience for Mario García’s The Story: Volume I: Transformation, but I read it anyway. It was a hassle to buy because it seemed to be mobile only – but there now seems to be a print edition, so who knows what’s going on. It was a very short book in which García, a world-renowned newspaper designer, reflected on various projects he had worked on over many decades. It was interesting to read about his considerations when, for example, first introducing colour to newspapers, or first designing a newspaper for mobile phones. It left me feeling a bit tired and despondent about the future of news, as García’s vision is about as far from my own preference as can be: lots of “content management” and “melon slices” rather than properly absorbing narrative structures.

And I continued the Faber Stories series this month, with Akhil Sharma’s Cosmopolitan. This was a modern, calm, gently funny short story than was also utterly forgettable.

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