About me
Archive
About me

What I’ve been reading this month

Maybe I’ve not been in the right frame of mind for reading this month, or maybe I’ve made some bad selections. Either way, nothing has really blown me away.

The blockbuster book of the summer, David Nicolls’s new book Sweet Sorrow, was a beautifully written story of teenage first love, set against a background of an interestingly complex family breakdown, and a (slightly tiresome) summer children’s production of Romeo & Juliet. Despite the evocative and often funny writing, it all felt a bit too long to me, and perhaps a little too saccharine, even by Nicholls’s standards. I didn’t feel as absorbed by the world of this novel as I have by most of Nicholls’s other books.

Hannah Fry’s Hello World was an enjoyable a well-written lay summary of the strengths and limitations of computerised algorithms as applied in real-world settings. I particularly enjoyed the concise clarity of the book combined with occasional wit. I didn’t personally feel like this book gave me much new insight to the topic, but I think that is a reflection of having read a reasonable amount in this area before, and this book being aimed at an audience perhaps newer to the topic.

Lots of friends have been praising Zen Cho’s The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo recently, so I thought I would give it a go. It was a fun romantic novella set in the late 1920s told from the point of view of a straight-talking young woman from Malaysia crashing up against the buttoned-up sensibility of folk in England. The central character was great fun, a really entertaining and endearing creation, but I found some of the language a bit uneven and perhaps a little anachronistic—or, at least, not in keeping with my expectations of the language of that era as someone who knows very little about it.

It’s hard not to feel a bit fed up of politics at the moment, but I nonetheless picked up Isabel Hardman’s Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. This was a sympathetic portrait of the work of MPs, arguing that they do a poor job of legislating partly because they spend so much time on casework clearing up the fallout of previous poor legislation. Sometimes, Hardman overdid the sympathy—”MPs do not needs the complex motor skills of a surgeon”, so it’s fine for them to drink taxpayer subsidised alcohol over lunchtime—and it made me wonder a little about her motivations. All things considered, I found this to be less analytical and solution-focused than I’d hoped.

In Brotopia, Emily Chang related deeply shocking experiences that women have had in Silicon Valley jobs, and made a compelling case for change. I would have liked there to have been more discussion of the underlying societal drivers for the appalling behaviour. I also felt that Chang’s concentration on viewing the lack of diversity in tech companies through the sole lens of sexism occasionally produced odd results. For example, there is a section where she talks about horribly racist groups on social networking sites, and her conclusion is that this would have been less likely to have been tolerated if there were more women in the company… which may be true, but perhaps other types of diversity in the workforce might have helped more. This book opened my eyes to a problem that I’ve probably paid too little attention to in the past; but I don’t think it was necessarily the best form of the argument.

I seem to be on a bit of a musical thread to my reading at the moment. I picked up Jonathan Biss’s Coda, a 30-odd page essay on his relationship with composers’ “late” works. I’d forgotten how well Biss writes, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading his clear and enthusiastic account, with some really inventive turns of phrase.

I found Stephen Johnson’s How Shostakovich Changed My Mind somewhat less engaging, but then it’s a very different type of book to Biss’s. This was a memoir that wove a tale of the influence of Shostakovich on Johnson’s life, from helping him through mental illness to getting him into music journalism. I felt I missed out largely because I’m not very familiar with either Shostakovich’s work or Johnson’s journalism, and there wasn’t much that this book could do to make up for that lack of background.

I also read one more book in the Faber Stories collection this month: Three Types of Solitude by Brian W Aldiss. I’m afraid this came across to me as three pretty forgettable bits of science fiction, which isn’t really my favourite genre to begin with.

This 2,454th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , , .

What I’ve been reading this month

Jeanete Winterson’s Frankissstein blew me away this month. It was an astonishingly imaginative modern-day re-exploration of questions raised by Frankenstein. Frankissstein told an imaginative story of Mary Shelley’s 19th century creation of Frankenstein, woven together with the 21st century story of a fictional transgender doctor, Ry Shelley, who explored the surprisingly intersecting worlds of artificial intelligence and cryogenics. But really, Frankissstein was a book which revisited the questions about ethics and humanity raised by Shelley two centuries ago and asked them again in the context of modern scientific progress. I found this completely breathtakingly brilliant, and it left me with a lot of food for thought.

Good friends bought a copy of Sam Savage’s Firmin for my birthday earlier in the year: if they hadn’t, I would never have picked it up for myself, and yet I thoroughly enjoyed it. I suppose that makes it the perfect present! It was a short novel narrated the eponymous rat who lived in a book shop in 1960s Boston. Born to an alcoholic mother, Firmin taught himself to read and ultimately became well versed in human culture despite an obvious inability to communicate with people. This may sound like the premise for a children’s book, but in fact it made for a charming commentary on the human condition. It was rather moving in it’s own way – and also had plenty of wit. I enjoy authors who employ just a dash of madness to illuminate different ways of looking at the world, and this is most certainly along those lines.

Graeme Simsion’s “Don Tillman” trilogy, concerning a scientist with a probable diagnosis of autism, concludes with The Rosie Result, which I enjoyed this month. The final volume concentrates on Don’s relationship with his son, and was a rather heart-warming way to wrap up the series.

10% Happier was a memoir by lovably self-important American newsreader and reporter Dan Harris, who suffered a panic attack while reading the news on TV. In his capacity as a religion correspondent, he got to meet a lot of people with interesting viewpoints on life, and he ultimately came to find that meditation helped him to become a calmer and more compassionate person. There was nothing earth-shattering in the book, but I did find it witty and occasionally somewhat insightful. It was a fun, light read.

The Swimming Pool Library, written by Alan Hollinghurst and first published in 1989, focused on the relationship between a pair of gay male aristocrats in the 1980s. The older man asked the younger to write his autobiography, and in so-doing caused the younger to reflect on the differences in the lives of gay men in the periods in which they both lived. The novel felt very dated to me, and the way in which both characters were obsessed with sex felt reductive. The descriptions of sexual acts, no doubt deeply shocking in the 1980s, had somewhat lost their impact in 2019. All things considered, I didn’t particularly enjoy this book: I think this is possibly just the wrong historical moment to read it, when the 1980s are too recent in memory for this to seem like a truly historical account, but too far away for the book to feel current and relevant.

I picked up Mark Manson’s bestselling The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and rather regretted it. I’d read that it was better than the title suggested, but it seemed to me to be nothing more than half-baked misinterpretations of ancient philosophy written in a snarky tone and filled with unnecessary swearing. It wasn’t for me.

I also continued reading the Faber Stories collection this month.

The Lydia Steptoe Stories by Djuna Barnes contained three short stories published in the 1920s, all of which took the form of diary entries about rejected love. All three made me laugh out loud, with some brilliant turns of phrase.

Petina Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly was a story of a Zimbabwean community uprooted as part of the effort to clean up a township in advance of a visit from the Queen. The story focused on a woman who had “lost her wits and gained a pregnancy”. Gappah created a vivid world with so much packed into it that I was a little disappointed that the story ran to only 41 pages.

Mrs Fox by Sarah Hall was a short story told from the perspective of a man whose wife unaccountably turned into a fox. This was far too magical and unreal for my taste, and I found it difficult to understand the characters’ lack of emotional reaction to this quite extraordinary event. I suppose it was an allegory for something, but I’m afraid the meaning passed me by.

Sally Ronney’s Mr Salary was the story of a woman in her 20s, her dying father and her older lover. It was told mostly through dialogue, which felt flat and false to me, and the whole story left me unmoved. But people who know much more about literature than me constantly praise Rooney’s ear for dialogue, so perhaps I’m just on the wrong wavelength or something.

In The Victim, PD James tells the story of a man plotting and carrying out the murder of the new husband of his ex-wife. This felt weirdly pedestrian to me given the subject matter. Maybe there is talent in that, but it made for a surprisingly dull story.

This 2,453rd post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , , , , , .

What I’ve been reading this month

Sylvia Plath’s Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom packed far more food for thought into 40 pages than many writers manage in 400. The plot involved a young-ish girl sent on an ominous train journey by her parents. It was spine-tinglingly creepy, and the discomfort was only heightened by the clear allegory to the path our up-bringing bringing sets for each of us. I actually read this twice, as I couldn’t help myself from flicking back to the start almost as soon as I’d reached the end.

“It is worse, much worse, than you think” was the opening to David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth: and the next 310 pages proved his point. This book explained the current position of the world with respect to global warming, and how much worse the situation is going to get as a result of damage that has already been done. I found this text both arresting and illuminating. It was one of those rare books that completely changed my understanding and frame of reference on a topic. And yet, it was also a reasonably easy read by virtue of the engaging style of writing.

Lorrie Moore’s Terrific Mother was a short novella in which a 30-something women was caught up in a simple accident which resulted in the death of her friend’s baby. This caused her to spiral into a deep depression, at the nadir of which she decided to marry an academic. She was whisked off to Italy as a spouse on a academic retreat, and fell for her American masseuse. Despite the heavy subject matter, especially at the start, this was written with an oddly true-to-life lightness and a certain sense of wit. It was 76 small-ish widely spaced pages long, very easily read in a single sitting, and that felt like exactly the right length for the story.

Amateur, Thomas Page McBee’s short autobiographical account of training for, and taking part in, a charity boxing match as a transgender man, was thoughtful and reflective. McBee’s exploration of boxing was fascinating: it’s a sport I’ve never engaged with in any meaningful way, yet one on which that I held a passively negative view. McBee’s exploration of boxing and the reasons men fight educated me and allowed me to see more of the nuance behind the sport. The discussion of masculinity was interesting too, particularly given the particular perspective McBee can bring as a transgender man.

A River in Egypt by David Means was a 34-page story covering a father’s thoughts during and after taking his infant son for a sweat test to diagnose Cystic Fibrosis. I thought Means did a great job of capturing the broad tumult of thoughts that people experience in situations like this: the complexity and frequent tangents felt true to life.

In How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, Donald J Robertson gave some historical context to Marcus Aurelius’s writings, and also drew some interesting and insightful comparisons between the practices advocated by the Stoic philosophers and techniques of modern psychotherapy. I appreciated that Robertson discussed differences as well as similarities and that the analysis went beyond superficial description of the longevity of the ideas. I thought that some of the more imaginative parts of the book didn’t quite work, but I enjoyed it nevertheless.

I was a bit disappointed by Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me. It was a story about a the experience of a young couple who buy a human-like robot. I felt that there were too many ideas stuffed into the novel: resurrecting Alan Turing, a counter-factual social history of the 1980s, and technologically advanced and life-like robots. There were lots of interesting ideas hinted at, but none of them particularly well explored. The characterisation was very thin by McEwan’s usual standards – I didn’t really feel that I understood the motivations of the central human characters. It all just came across as bitty and confused to me.

I struggled to the end of Merve Emre’s What’s Your Type? this month, a book which promised to be a history of the cultish Myers-Briggs personality test, but turned out to be an interminably dull biography of Myers and Briggs. I don’t think I took anything useful away from this.

This 2,451st post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , , .

What I’ve been reading this month

Long-time readers will know that I think Will Storr is one of my favourite writers. His latest book, The Science of Storytelling, was really aimed at other writers: it gave advice backed by psychology on the creation of works of fiction. I found myself completely absorbed in Storr’s discussion of storytelling theory. I really enjoyed the way that he connected science and art (as he always does), and I was very much taken with the examples he chose to present throughout his book, some of which were among my own favourite books. Because I’m not the target audience, some of the content was of less interest – for example, the appendix on story frameworks – but I devoured and enjoyed the whole book nevertheless.

A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind by Shoukei Matsumoto, a Buddhist monk, was a short book reflecting on the psychological benefits of cleaning. The passion of the argument was more than sufficient to carry the length of this short book, and so I really enjoyed it. It was neither particularly deep and philosophical nor a great source of practical cleaning tips; it’s just an enjoyable, well-written and concise explanation of a passionately held point of view.

Emily Maitlis’s much-lauded Airhead, a series of anecdotes about conducting television interviews, left me a little disappointed. Many of the anecdotes were about things that have gone wrong and Maitlis had enough wit to make these genuinely funny. Some were more thoughtful – Maitlis reflects interestingly on the shift from volunteering on the morning following the Grenfell fire to presenting an edition of Newsnight the same evening. But there wasn’t much more to this book than a series of anecdotes: no reflections on the changing media landscape, nothing about Maitlis’s personal development over time, and no grand argument which she was trying to prove. I enjoyed this book, but left it thinking: “So what?”

Another wildly popular book that did little for me: Normal People by Sally Rooney. This was a book about two people – Marianne and Connell – who grew up together and remain friends into adulthood. Their level of closeness varied over time. The two main characters have been widely praised for being very lifelike, but didn’t seem that way to me. This was partly, I think, because the dialogue between them was rather oddly stilted and formal considering their closeness, and partly because the other characters were so lightly described as to be hardly there, which made their world feel thin. I didn’t quite understand what the fuss was about: but this was on the Booker Prize long-list, so the problem is more likely to be me than the book!

Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She Devil, first published in 1995, was a much-lauded darkly comic novel of a woman scorned and going to extreme lengths to reinvent herself and exact revenge. There were some great lines, but the whole thing felt pretty dated to me, especially in terms of gender politics/ stereotypes. The comedy felt a bit thin to me: revenge can be entertaining, but revenge seemed to be the only note this book was willing to play.

I often complain that I don’t really like short stories: but in truth, I wonder if I’ve just always picked bad ones. So I’ve decided to challenge myself to read the twenty short stories picked by Faber for their 90th anniversary ‘Faber Stories’ collection over the next… well, I haven’t set myself a deadline.

The first of these I picked up was Julia O’Faolain’s Daughters of Passion, a short story in which an increasingly delusional IRA hunger-striker reflects on the childhood friendship which led to her involvement with the IRA. I enjoyed this: O’Foalain played with language in creative ways to reflect different mental states, and drew subtle connectiosn between delusion, misunderstanding and terrorism. All in 49 pages.

The second was A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor. I found this a bit pedestrian. The story concerned an American family crossing paths with a criminal while on a road trip. Most of the character development is focused on the grandmother. There are a lot of themes hinted at – most prominently the nature of moral good (or perhaps moral evil) in the context of modern American Christianity, but none of the themes were really developed into anything… perhaps because the story was so short.

This 2,449th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , , , .

What I’ve been reading this month

Like the first two books in the series, it felt like a privilege to be read Ali Smith’s Spring, which are sure to become a classic, at the moment in time in which they’re set. Smith captures the voice of an age. I’ve found the writing in this series dizzyingly brilliant—the language and the fascinating ways in which Smith manipulates it are somehow more important than the plot. The raw anger in this volume in particular was something else. This was astounding.

There are lots of different editions of Italo Clavino’s Difficult Loves: mine had the classic collection of “Difficult Loves” short stories written in the 1950s, followed by the slightly longer stories “Smog” and “A Plunge Into Real Estate”. The overarching themes were love (in its broadest sense) and loneliness. I don’t usually get on with short stories, but this collection was an exception. The everyday tales which beautifully captured universal emotions; the dry humour; the hint of craziness that made me look at the world slightly differently; all allowed Calvino’s prose to take flight. It’s been years since I last read any Calvino, but I won’t let it be so long next time!

Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls was a collection of amusing autobiographical short stories or ramblings about travel, writing, and life in general. As you probably know, Sedaris is an American living in rural England and he draws a lot on differences in US and British culture in this volume. This is the first time I’ve read any of his work, and it made me laugh out loud a few times, which books rarely do – and it was pleasantly cosy and inconsequential. I’ll certainly read more of Sedaris’s collections. 

I found Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall utterly gripping, and finished it in a day. It was a book about a group of undergraduates, guided by an amateur historian (and his wife and child) plus a university professor, going on a camping trip in Northumberland and trying to recreate Iron Age life. There were some beautiful descriptions of the expansive scenery of Northumberland, which meant all the more to me for being local, and some very carefully observed descriptions of the lack of recognition of domestic abuse among victims. This left me with a lot of food for thought.

Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen was a book about how to receive feedback effectively. I found the book baggy and over-long, with rather too many repetitive examples. That said, there was more useful stuff in here than I expected. It shifted my understanding of feedback conversations from being one-way (i.e. passively receiving feedback) to being two-way (i.e. working together to understand the intention behind the feedback and reach a mutual understanding on the next steps). This is an obvious point, but I confess that it’s not one that’s occurred to me in those terms before—perhaps fed by a lifetime of written feedback and evaluative assessment where there’s no opportunity to engage in further discussion.

Heartburn was a short and funny autobiographical novel about the breakdown of Nora Ephron’s marriage to Carl Bernstein. It used a series of relatively frothy vignettes (interspersed with the occasional recipe) to reveal rather deep reflections on life, pain and betrayal. I think I perhaps prefer Ephron’s shorter essays than this longer book, but I found the book so cleverly put together that I might come to think differently about that as I reflect further.

Women and Power was a book based on two speeches by Mary Beard about the way in which women have been systematically denied a public voice. The first took a historical, longitudinal and structural approach to that question, while the second focused more on contemporary examples. I found Beard’s historical account interesting and compelling, but I wish it had gone further. In particular, I would have liked to better understand Beard’s views on how things can change, and what the future may hold – but perhaps that’s not the point of a history book.

This 2,440th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , , , .

What I’ve been reading this month

Educated, by Tara Westover, was extraordinary: but given the universal praise the book has received, you probably didn’t need me to tell you that. It was a powerful memoir describing the impact of growing up in a violent religious cult-ish rural Idaho family home with no formal education (not even formal registration of birth!) and going on to earn a Cambridge PhD. There was some pretty harrowing physical and emotional violence, but I found the overall tone to be hopeful. It spurred all sorts of ideas and thoughts that I’ll mull upon for some time to come.

In Skyfaring, commercial pilot Mark Vanhoenacker offered thoughtful reflections on a lifetime of travel and flying. This absorbing book combined autobiography, lessons on flight mechanics, a history of human flight and poetic reflections on aviation. I read this in chunks between other books as I found that there was only so much of it I could take at oncebut I looked forward to coming back to it each time.

Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette was described in a newspaper book review column as “hilarious and uplifting”, but I found the cartoonish characterisations a bit grating at times. The novel was an easy holiday read about the relationships between two professionally successful but socially flawed parents and their teenage daughter. It was partly conventionally narrated by the teenager, and partly epistolary. I didn’t find it as funny as the newspaper reviewer, but the writing was a cut above what I’ve come to expect from this sort of book, and there was some welcome and unexpected depth to some of the social commentary.

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport changed my view on ‘healthy’ use of smartphones and social media. I expected it to be an anti-technology diatribe that might be quite fun. In fact, Newport was explicitly pro-technology, but made the point that technology is best used with a specific end in mind. Using technology as a mindless distraction without a clear goal is not particularly beneficial and may be harmful: at the very least, it has an associated opportunity cost. I didn’t try any of the self-help ‘exercises’, but nonetheless found the discussion around them insightful. Some of the language was irritating (‘detox’ etc), but the enjoyment and insight I gained from this book outweighed my nitpicking.

Jodie Jackson’s You Are What You Read was a very well-researched and well-referenced discussion of the psychological and social effects of news reporting that focuses excessively on negative stories, with little counterbalance from “solutions-focused” journalism. I enjoyed the book and found Jackon’s perspective insightful, but I wasn’t completely persuaded by all of the arguments (or the advice that flows from them).

True Love, the much-celebrated volume by Thich Nhat Hanh, was recommended to me by someone who’d seen my earlier review of The Tao of Pooh. It was a very short book, and while many of the ideas resonated with me, I didn’t find the book terribly affecting, and I’ve no particular desire to re-read it.

I struggled through the Ann Goldstein translation of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, drifting in and out of caring about the characters. The whole thing seemed a bit repetitive and boring to me. The descriptions of the Neapolitan setting were captivating; shame about the plot.

This 2,424th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , , , .

What I’ve been reading this month

My favourite book this month was André Aciman’s Enigma Variations. In five parts, this novel related the five great “loves” in the life of Paul, who grew up in a small Italian town and later moved to New York. Having also recently read Call Me By Your Name, I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that no contemporary writer can do lustful longing quite like Aciman – and there was a lot of that in this book. The first section, which concerned Paul’s boyhood infatuation with a carpenter, was the most affecting and memorable for me. Paul’s fluid (and unlabeled) sexuality across his life-course and the complexity of his social relationships felt at once very “modern” and very true to life in my generation. But the real power in this book was in the emotional weight – and particularly the weight of that desperate, aching, lustful longing that Aciman writes so well.

I saw the movie of Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal some 13 years or so ago, and finally got round to reading the book this month. Unreliably narrated by a bitter history teacher, it told the story of a young pottery teacher’s affair with an underage school child. It was a complex and layered novel which I think had loneliness as its central theme. I found it thought provoking, and also enjoyed the dark humour laced throughout. I found most of the character simultaneously thoroughly unlikable and utterly endearing.

Rarely in my life am I prompted to consider the nature of art, so Grayson Perry’s Playing to the Gallery was a little off the beaten track for me. It was an examination of what constitutes art and how artists (and to some extent, art markets) function in the modern world. It was written in Perry’s usual wryly irreverent style, which is very funny at times – and is full of his cartoonist sketches to illustrate particular points. I found it though-provoking, and it seemed to pack in more content and ideas than its 134 pages would suggest, without ever feeling crammed in.

The Iceberg was Marion Coutt’s memoir of how her husband’s diagnosis with a brain tumour, and his subsequent death, affected her family’s life. It had a deeply moving poetic style, yet also a straightforward linear narrative which dealt with the practicalities of daily life in an extraordinary period. It was an honest, unflinchingly intimate portrait of love and grief. Reading it made me feel very sad. It made me reflect on how I would feel and cope in similar circumstances, and at times it was hard to continue reading, which reflects the power of the account.

Fredrick Backman’s A Man Called Ove was a heartwarming, cosy, comic fireside read about a grumpy Swedish widower, which follows exactly the plot you’d expect from a comic tale with that starting point. It relied quite heavily on stereotype, as books like this usually do, and all of the characters were hence pretty two-dimensional. I enjoyed this while it lasted, but I wouldn’t run out to read any more of it. Henning Koch’s translation made for an easy read.

The decision to publish one of Ivan Rogers’s speeches as a 90-page book raised eyebrows this month. Nonetheless, I found the Nine Lessons in Brexit offered by the Britain’s former EU Permanent Representative to be commendably clear explanations of why much of what is said by people on both sides of the Brexit debate is nonsensical. Rogers didn’t pull punches: this contained a blistering attack on the Government’s approach to Brexit negotiations, which have resulted in “an obviously bad deal”. But there is plenty of light offered alongside the heat. I think Rogers argument that we need more honesty with the public is true not just about Brexit but about a whole range of policy issues.

The two key messages of Ryan Holiday’s Perennial Seller, in which he tried to derive the formula behind projects with a lasting cultural impact, were that lasting successes take really hard work and need to be targeted at a specific audience. Because I’m not really a “creator”, in as much as I’m not really someone who tries to sell stuff, much of the content of this book was completely irrelevant to me. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading a book which extolled the virtue of hard graft rather than quick tricks to success.

I found Gerald Maslbary’s translation of Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture to be dense, way over my head, and consequently really quite boring. It is apparently a very important work in its field, but it was just too much for this reader.

This 2,394th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

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