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‘Silence’ by Erling Kagge

Erling Kagge, a renowned Norwegian explorer, has ventured into some of the most extraordinary places on Earth, from the North and South poles to the summit of Everest. His book, ‘Silence’, is a compilation of 32 profound reflections on the various facets of silence. These reflections are not just theoretical but are born out of Kagge’s personal encounters with silence, such as the profound stillness he experienced during his solo expedition to the South Pole or the inner calm reminiscent of meditation.

Deep down in the ocean, below the waves and ripples, you can find your internal silence. Standing in the shower, letting the water wash over your head, sitting in front of a crackling fire, swimming across a forest lake or taking a walk over a field: all these can be experiences of perfect stillness too.

The book’s structure of short, self-contained reflections lends the book a slightly unfortunate sense of superficiality, which belies the depth of its insights: many of the ideas are interesting and worthy of deep reflection.

I suspect this book would have been best read one section at a time, allowing reflection and consideration. I didn’t read it like that: I read it in a day. I probably got less out of it than I could have as a result, and this might be a book I dip back into from time to time.

Kagge repeatedly refers to silence as luxurious, an opinion which seems to come up with some regularity in the New York Times. I liked how Kagge expanded this idea, not just pointing out the relationship between access to silence and financial wealth but also encouraging us to see silence as valuable in its own right:

Shutting out the world is not about turning your back on your surroundings, but rather the opposite: it is seeing the world a bit more clearly, staying a course and trying to love your life. Silence in itself is rich. It is exclusive and luxurious. A key to unlock new ways of thinking. I don’t regard it as a renunciation or something spiritual, but rather as a practical resource for living a richer life.

He also talks a couple of times about the value of silence in a relationship, and the pleasure of feeling relaxed enough to sit or walk in silence with those we love most. This felt especially relevant to me; it’s something Wendy and I have often reflected on.

I have already bought Kagge’s follow-up, Walking, and look forward to digging in—in silence!

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

‘Water’ by John Boyne

I’ve read a few of John Boyne’s novels over the years, and enjoyed them all. It was therefore no surprise at all that I enjoyed this short 2023 novel, the first of a promised quartet themed around the elements.

Set on an isolated Irish island, we follow 53-year-old Vanessa Carlin—who changes her name to Willow Hale right at the start—as she spends time coming to terms with the collapse of her family life. The collapse was caused by the actions of her husband, which are gradually revealed across the whole course of the novel, and in which the world assumes her to be complicit.

The arc of the novel, following Carlin/Hale’s retreat from the world, reminded me a lot of the non-fiction book Wintering by Katherine May—there is certainly a degree of thematic similarity between the two. It’s a novel about reflection, regret and recovery, as well as much more besides.

I enjoy Boyne’s writing for its deep interest in people: his characters seem complete and emotionally complex. I find his novels comforting, even while the content is often challenging, as I can be confident in his robust storytelling skill.

However, Boyne sometimes veers towards cliché in his expression of ideas. I’ve sometimes wondered whether this is a deliberate authorial choice to represent the way that real people often make sense of the world, or whether Boyne has a bit of a blind spot for cliché. In this book, a character reflects on the lack of a word for a parent who has lost a child: a clichéd observation that collapses after a moment’s thought about the speed of change in infant mortality rates versus the speed of the development of English. This stood out because I didn’t believe that the character would give in to that sort of cliché, which made me favour my blind spot theory over authorial intent.

But regardless: I thoroughly enjoyed this, and have already bought the second book of the quartet.

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

‘Cluny Brown’ by Margery Sharp

I borrowed this 1944 novel from the library after seeing it featured in the New York Times newsletter Read Like The Wind. I found it to be a funny and gently comforting read.

The book is set in England in the late 1930s, and the titular character is an orphan in her twenties whose self-confident temperament does not fit the social mores of the time. Uninterested in what is ‘right’ and ‘proper’ for a young lady, she ploughs her own furrow with innocent charm.

In an attempt to get her to conform to her social standing, her uncle sends her into ‘service’ as a parlourmaid in a large country house, with amusing consequences. On the surface, this novel is a traditional farce, but scarcely beneath the surface, Sharp uses that comedy to skewer pretty much all contemporary societal norms. The looming war doesn’t escape judgement either.

Sometimes, I read historical novels and find them a bit of an effort, even if that effort is rewarded by what I take away from them. Not so this book: the pages flew by, and the humour was right up my street. It didn’t feel like I was reading something that was eighty years old.

Some highlights:

She had got to the Ritz. She had got as far as Chelsea—put her nose, so to speak, to a couple of doors—and each time been pulled back by Uncle Arn, or Aunt Addie, people who knew what was best for her, only their idea of the best was being shut up in a box—in a series of smaller and smaller boxes until you were safe at last in the smallest box of all, with a nice tombstone on top.

“She likes to see a young lady who doesn’t put stuff on her face,” said Mr. Wilson. “If I may say so, so do I.”

“Well, it wouldn’t do any good,” said Cluny frankly. “I’ve tried it, but I look worse.”

“They all look worse,” said the chemist. “Only they haven’t the sense to know it.”

The bluntness of a friend in pain is never hurtful.

“Please can you lend me a good book?” he asked politely.

Before answering Betty switched on a second light, which thoroughly illumined the whole room. The conjunction of a highly desirable appearance with a great deal of sense had inevitably taught her much that young girls were not commonly supposed to know: for instance, that a strong light is almost as good as a chaperone.

“Darling,” said Andrew, as they finished their coffee, “would you like to marry me next month?”

“No, thank you,” said Betty. “What a fool idea, darling.”

I have so often thought how in all English art the place of women is taken by landscape. Your poetry is full of it, you are a nation of landscape painters. In other countries a man spends his fortune on a mistress; here you marry a fortune to save your estates.

If you had a smattering of education you would realize that perfection of form can give validity to any sentiment, however preposterous.

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‘Cannery Row’ by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck’s 1945 novel has been on my ‘to read’ list for years. I’ve finally got round to it after a friend pressed it into my hands. I had recommended Sombrero Fallout by Richard Brautigan to her, and she said that she felt the two had similarities of style and theme. I agree.

There’s probably little point me rehearsing the plot of such a famous book, but if you’re unfamiliar as I was, Cannery Row is set during the Great Depression and is formed of a series of interlinked short stories about characters who live on a street of sardine canneries. It’s a charming, nostalgic, funny and wise book whose characters live long in the memory.

It’s one of those short classics that I wish I’d read sooner.

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

‘Everything I Know about Life I Learned from PowerPoint’ by Russell Davies

This book combines a history of the development of PowerPoint software, an ode to its functions, advice on presenting well, and—most up my street—an excoriation of poor corporate communication. The prose is written in a personal, conversational style, interspersed with PowerPoint slides—a couple of which I recently shared. It is a riot of a book.

Davies argues powerfully and convincingly that PowerPoint is often wrongly blamed for failures which lie elsewhere—usually in poor decisions about communication. Too often, screeds that should have been documents are pasted onto slides.

I didn’t understand why everyone was so contemptuous of a tool I found so joyous and liberating. I understood that bad presentations were bad. I’d sat through a lot of them. But I couldn’t quite see why everyone blamed the tool itself. It seemed like blaming pulpits for the boringness of sermons or printing for the tedium of books. I started to get a chip on my shoulder about all this PowerPointHate.

The section about presentations before PowerPoint—overhead projectors, transparencies, and those special felt-tipped pens—brought memories of giving presentations at medical school flooding back. Even in my fourth year, by which time PowerPoint was pretty common, we were routinely expected to have a backup on transparencies in case of ‘technical failure’—I remember deciding to buy transparencies that my printer could print onto, at what seemed like enormous expense. I hadn’t thought about that in years.

The second on corporate communication was great, which isn’t surprising: Davies was heavily involved with the creation of gov.uk which has a brilliant style guide. It is a shame that it is not more often followed by government departments. The line that will stay with me for longest is the astute observation that the word ‘key’ can almost always be deleted from any corporate document without consequence.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

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

‘The New Life’ by Tom Crewe

I’m not normally a big fan of historical fiction, preferring to read things set in the present day. However, Tom Crewe’s debut novel was so widely recommended that I thought I’d give it a go.

The novel is fiction, but it is inspired by the story of John Addington Symonds and Henry Havelock Ellis jointly writing one of the first medical texts about human sexuality in the late Victorian era. Both of the male authors portrayed in The New Life are married, though each has particular sexual preferences: one has relationships with men, while the other is aroused by women urinating. Their medical text concerns homosexuality—or ‘inversion’ in the language of the period—and forms part of their wider view that world ought to embrace progressive social change. The arrest of Oscar Wilde reveals a greater level of establishment prejudice than they had perhaps anticipated, and indirectly threatens their work.

I enjoyed reading this, but I found the Victorian dialogue a bit wearing and the claustrophobic, stifling social norms hard work. I know that it could be argued that that’s the point, but I find it quite hard to empathise with people who are buttoned up to quite that extent… which is one reason I don’t really like historical fiction.

I did highlight a few passages:

We must live in the future we hope to make.

‘And you look very fine.’ She tugged playfully at his lapel. ‘A new suit! Is it horribly uncomfortable?’

‘Horribly. Freedom lost for freedom gained.’

‘And what are you? You are not so oblivious as to think there are only two of us. Is the law beyond scrutiny? It is a rotten, filthy law. That is the stain. The point of my conclusion, which you single out for scandal, is that there is a benefit, as you call it, in a proper comprehension of the past. The knowledge that what we punsih with hard labour — a crime for which men used to hang in our fathers’ time — was once praised, understood, practised, by the very men whose thought we teach our sons, whose heroics we pride ourselves on matching, whose marbles we line up for edification; may that knowledge not do some useful work in the world? How can it not?’

‘But Henry,’ she almost shouted, ‘you never did have me to yourself. It was on that basis that we married, that we thought up our marriage. No two people need be everything to each other.’

‘You have become everything.’

She stared at him defiantly. ‘I do not want to be, to anyone.’

Anguish locked in this throat. ‘You are. I am only loneliness without you.’

She stared at him still. ‘Then we should never have married,’ she said, quite plainly, putting down the plates.

A couple married for as long as they had been could know many things without ever talking about them. Sometimes it was the need to speak which signalled trouble.

It had mattered that his father was a doctor. As a child he liked the comings and goings at the house — the front door opening on a patient was like the beginning of a story — and he liked his father for being so wanted and necessary.

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

‘Small Worlds’ by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Wow. Wow. And for the avoidance of doubt: wow. Caleb Azumah Nelson writes astonishingly good prose.

It’s three years since I read his ‘stunning’ first novel, Open Water. I bought this second novel when it first came out, a year ago. I’ve been scared to read it because I didn’t think it could possibly live up to the promise of his first book, and I was braced for disappointment.

But wow.

Nelson writes prose that is also poetry. His turn of phrase, his toying with language, and his perfect elucidation of specific thoughts and feelings are incredible.

Despite that talent, the theme of this book is music and how it traverses the limits of language. It’s so lovely to read a recent novel that is sceptical of the power of language, that is not a peon to the written word. For it to be written in such beautiful language itself is a singular treat.

I can barely tell you the plot of the book because I was so taken with the writing that I almost didn’t notice. That narrator, a young black Londoner born to Ghanian parents comes of age, struggles with his relationship with his parents, and visits his extended family in Ghana. He revels in jazz, dancing—the solution of all of life’s problems—and playing the trumpet. I wasn’t as absorbed by the plot of this book as I was by Open Water, but I didn’t really mind.

The New York Times called Nelson’s writing in this book ‘overwrought or just bizarre’, so I’m more than willing to accept that this isn’t a book for everyone. But it was certainly for me, and I will wait with a combination of excitement and trepidation for whatever he writes next.

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

‘Before the Coffee Gets Cold’ by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

If I had to name one genre that I struggle with more than any other, science fiction would be it. Kawaguchi’s series about a cafe called Funiculi Funicula in Tokyo is plainly science fiction, but it had been recommended so many times that I thought I’d give it a go.

This first in the series was a play in 2010, published as a novel in Japan in 2015, and an English translation by Geoffrey Trousselot was published in 2019.

The conceit is very silly. Funiculi Funicula has a particular seat whose occupants can time travel, though only once in their lifetime. They cannot move from the seat, and they return to the present once they finish their coffee—which they must do before it gets cold. Oh, and most crucially, nothing they do while time travelling can affect the present in any way. In this volume, four people make a journey through time.

For the most part, the tone of the book is warm and light: it has an awareness of the silliness of its premise, and there’s a weary humour about it within the dialogue. But there are passages that are deeply moving, events and moments of realisation that hit with surprising heaviness and melancholy.

This isn’t really a book about time travel: it’s a book about leaving the past behind, making the most of the present and embracing the future. It’s to no-one’s benefit to live in their past and thereby become a ghost in the present.

I thoroughly enjoyed this. There are three sequels which have already been published, and another due in September. I will look out for all of them.

Water flows from high places to low places. That is the nature of gravity. Emotions also seem to act according to gravity. When in the presence of someone with whom you have a bond, and to whom you have entrusted your feelings, it is hard to lie and get away with it. The truth just wants to come flowing out. This is especially the case when you are trying to hide your sadness or vulnerability. It is much easier to conceal sadness from a stranger, or from someone you don’t trust.

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‘How We Are’ by Vincent Deary

I took this out of the library after seeing that the second book in Deary’s intended trilogy, How We Break, had recently been published and positively reviewed.

How We Are was first published in 2014, and it’s a book which blends philosophy with some self-help. It is broadly about habits and the degree to which we live our lives on autopilot. It’s also about how we break out of those habits.

The book is in two ‘acts’, named ‘saming’ and ‘changing’, as in the lyrics to the song These Boots Are Made for Walkin’—‘You keep saming when you ought to be changing’.

And in two words, that’s why I didn’t get on with this book. It is stuffed with pop culture references, particularly to films, which meant absolutely nothing to me. It’s neither fun nor enlightening to read passages about why the action of a character in a movie you’ve never heard of illustrate a key philosophical point.

I suspect this is also the reason other people rave about Deary’s book. I suspect that if you get the references, this genre-bending book is fun and enlightening. I can imagine that it might even be delightful.

But not for someone as ignorant as me.

I still took away some nice quotations:

London Transport, the governing body of the capital’s transport infrastructure, used to have a surprisingly abstract definition of family. On the back of their family ticket, where up to two adults and two children could travel cheaply, they defined family like this: ‘Family are those who stay together for the duration of the journey’

‘A walk in the park’ is a synonym for ease because the park knows how to walk. It does it for us. A good park anticipates our desire. Anticipated desire is the key to leisure. People have been paid and good money has been spent on figuring out what we are going to want to do. They care so that we don’t have to. The good hotel, the theme park, the penny arcade, the pub, the cinema – all of them relieve our consciousness of the burden of worrying about what to do next.

The better the park, the less we have to think what to do next. We place ourselves at the beginning of the path and it walks us, guides us through its sub-routines, its different games. Here for children, there for the scenic stroll, there for tennis, here to sit and enjoy the sun. The path leads, we follow. Many other sets of circumstances, many other social objects, play a similar game with us. The fairground and the playground are the archetypes of these. We want to be taken for a ride, to give over agency, to abdicate will, for a while, to something that will move us without our conscious intercession. That is what we want from leisure, it’s what leisure is — the switching off of choice and doubt.

I am dedicating myself to the perception that, however unlikely, however against nature, improvement happens, people get better. I mean better at living, at being who they are, at handling life with grace, humour and courage. Some people handle life admirably. And other people really don’t. Some get stuck in hideous deforming places and postures and become ever more unbearable versions of themselves.

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

‘The Gentleman from Peru’ by André Aciman

I inhaled this short novel in a single sitting. A group of young American tourists are staying at a hotel on the Amalfi coast as a result of their luxury yacht breaking down. They meet a mysterious gentleman from Peru, and we’re sucked into a beguiling tale about missed connections, unfulfilled potential, lost opportunities, how we can’t escape our past, and—most of all—the tenacity of love.

It’s hard to say much more without spoiling the book. I’ve previously said that no-one can write ‘longing’ quite like Aciman, and he proves that here by taking it to an extreme. The book evokes the Amalfi coast as brilliantly as Aciman’s previous books have evoked their sun-drenched locations. This book has a fair slice of allegorical fantasy to it, but is still firmly grounded in love and philosophy.

I really enjoyed this: reading it was like being taken on an Italian holiday for a couple of hours. It was transporting, delightful, insightful, and emotional. It was great.

Here are some lines I highlighted:

‘Sometimes the best things couldn’t be simpler: the scent of lemon, a few bars from a Beethoven quartet, the shiny broad shoulder of a woman in a bathing suit resting on a beach towel, a seascape by Dufy, or just the smile on someone’s face you love.’

‘Can we add Caol Ila from Scotland to the list?’

What neither realized was that all their bile and venom and their contempt for each other was precisely what allowed instant intimacy to spread between them without their sensing, much less suspecting, that it had already happened.

For this is what life is: a waiting room. But feel for the dead, who take what they’ve waited for to the underworld and continue waiting to come back to earth to be made to live again and wait some more. So, better one hour spent doing things we’ll regret having done than a lifetime waiting for heaven to touch our lives.

We may no longer be the person we once were, but what if this person did not necessarily die but continued his life in the shadowland of our own, so that you could say that our life is filled with shadow-selves who continue to tag along and to beckon us in all directions even as we live our own lives – all these selves clamouring to have their say, their time, their life, if only we listened and gave in to them!

The point is we all go back. We spend more time than we know trying to go back. We call it fantasizing, we call it dreaming, we give it all manner of names. But we’re all crawling back, each in his or her own way. Very few of us know the way, most never find the door, much less the key to the door. We’re just groping in the dark. Some of us may even feel we’re not from planet Earth but have come down from elsewhere and are all pretending to be normal earthlings. And yet not one of us is. to be We might as well come from Mars or, as happens my case, from a very distant place, or planet, called Peru, which may no longer even exist for me. Some know their way back and some won’t ever know.

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

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