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What I’ve been reading this month

Here’s what I’ve been reading in April.


Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

“You two are in something. I don’t know what it is, but you guys are in something. Some people call it a relationship, some call it a friendship, some call it love, but you two, you two are in something.”

It’s rare to find a book that grabs hold of you from the first page and just doesn’t let go. Yet the exquisite, intense, poetic writing of Caleb Azumah Nelson’s first novel, published only a few weeks ago, does exactly that. It’s hard to believe that it is only 145 pages long.

The plot, narrated in the second person, centres on two young Black British artists, one a photographer and one a dancer, trying to find their way through London and through life, while falling in love: real love, strong and fragile, comforting and tormenting, easy and hard.

This was stunning, in every sense of that word.


Writers & Lovers by Lily King

I can’t remember what made me pick up this 2020 novel by Lily King, and I initially found it slightly hard to get into. But I ended up enjoying it.

Set in the US in 1997, the protagonist is a woman, Casey, in her early thirties who works at a restaurant while trying to find her way as a novelist. She is also dealing with the grief associated with her mother’s recent death. She begins to date two men, both also writers, and tries to decide which she wishes to enter a longer term relationship with.

I enjoyed this for its light discussion of the process of writing, and also enjoyed the development of the protagonist over the course of the novel. The relationships were well-written and closely observed.

The ending of the book felt tonally different to the rest of the novel, and it left me feeling a little disappointed. I suppose this means this is a rare example of a book where I enjoyed the middle but didn’t especially enjoy the beginning or the end!


Concretopia by John Grindrod

Published in 2013, and on my to-read list for some considerable time, this is John Grindrod’s tour of post-modern British architecture. Grindrod’s evidently abundant enthusiasm for the topic shines through, and carries interesting but detailed discussions of topics that might seem superficially rather dry—approaches to town planning and battles with Local Authorities, for example!

I was slow to read this book as it often had me hurrying off to search the web for some of the developments discussed. That was partly because Grindrod’s introductions interested me, but also partly because in the paperback edition I have the pictures are a little small and sometimes hard to make out.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this, learning more about developments that I’m somewhat familiar with, and plenty that were new to me.


Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink

Published last year, this is Cathy Rentzenbrink’s book which reflects on the effect books have had on her own life, as a reader, bookseller and writer. It includes a great many recommendations of books she has enjoyed.

This was short enough to read through in a day. I found it surprisingly heartwarming: the premise seemed a little off-putting—I often find that people who define themselves as “readers” are not particularly good or engaging writer—but the book came on recommendation, and I enjoyed it. The insights into bookselling were particularly fun.


The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

My read-through of all the Sherlock Holmes stories has reached The Hound of the Baskervilles, first serialised in 1901-2–and I was fortunate enough to read this 1902 edition courtesy of The London Library. This is the third novel in the series, coming after two volumes of short stories.

I note that in my review a year ago of the previous book in the series (The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes) I commented that I was looking forward to getting engrossed in a proper full-length novel again, but I’m afraid this left me disappointed. The plot seemed absurdly far-fetched and there seemed to me to be very little new characterisation.

I know many people love this book, but I didn’t particularly enjoy it. Given that none of the volumes so far have bowled me over, I think perhaps that my plan to read all the volumes might have been a little hasty.


Pandemic 2 by Slavoj Žižek

I picked this up because I enjoyed the first volume a few weeks ago. Like that, this book consists of Žižek writing angry philosophical reflections on the pandemic.

Despite the similar premise, I enjoyed this volume much less than the first. This volume is much longer than the first, and doesn’t have the same sense of capturing a moment: the first was published just as the pandemic was taking hold and the first lockdowns in Europe were being implemented. This second volume tries to take a longer view about “time lost” but isn’t very successful as it was published last autumn, which we now know to really have been in the ‘middle’ of the pandemic rather than at the end. It isn’t helped by large passages on why Trump will win re-election.

Žižek also goes much deeper into pop culture references in this volume: I know that’s his usual style, but my pop culture knowledge is a little lacking, so much of it went over my head. I preferred the lighter touch of the first volume.

I still think that the first short volume was fun and worth reading, but I’d advise skipping this second one.


The Future of British Politics by Frankie Boyle

This is the last book I’ve read in Tortoise Media’s 2020 FUTURES series, and for good reason: I didn’t think I’d be very interest in comedian Frankie Boyle’s view of The Future of British Politics. I wouldn’t have bought this had it not been part of the five-piece set.

It turned out to be a book which wasn’t really about the future of British politics at all, but a 59-page comedic essay about British politics as it currently is. Clearly, the Goodreads average score shows that this has brought a lot of joy to a lot of people, but this style of offence-as-humour just isn’t my cup of tea, and I took nothing from it.

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What I’ve been reading this month

As the daylight has begun to stretch into the evening, I’ve read seven books this month.


Klara and The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is Ishiguro’s recently published novel set in the near future (or perhaps an alternative present). It is narrated by an “AF” called Klara, a solar powered artificially intelligent robot of sorts who is bought to be a companion for an unwell child, Josie.

Like all of the Ishiguro novels I’ve read, I absolutely loved this. As in Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro makes deft use of science fiction themes to explore universal experiences and emotions, and avoids getting drawn into the “science” bit (we don’t really know what sort of technology powers AFs, for example). This novel explores all sorts of questions: the universal aspects of the life course; the nature of religion; the meaning of service; the lifelong impact of childhood inequality; the fundamentals of the human condition; the meaning of friendship and love. As with his other novels, Ishiguro explores all of this gently rather than forcefully.

Honestly, to me Ishiguro is one of those authors who could spin a thoughtful and spellbinding novel out of a telephone directory. 

This was brilliant.


A Promised Land by Barack Obama

This first part of Obama’s Presidential memoir covers his political life up to the point of election to the Presidency, and his first term through to May 2011. For me, it was a Christmas present from mum and dad.

It is nothing short of exceptional. Obama has a rare talent for prose that is both readable and elegant: quite apart from his extraordinary experience, he is a truly gifted writer. He deftly combines everything from personal anecdote to political theory and from introspective reflection to lessons on statecraft to essentially spin a really gripping yarn, which also provides deep insight into what it is like to be a President of the United States.

Obama’s much-expressed and clearly deeply-felt frustration with the Republican Party and the early ascendency in the political sphere of Trump portends a rather darker second volume. As I will definitely be reading it, I’ll be interested to see whether that can be as inspiring and hopeful as this volume, despite the different circumstances.


Pandemic! by Slavoj Žižek

Published in April last year (which we now know to be fairly early on in our collective experience of COVID-19), this is Žižek’s short (146 pages) philosophical reflection on the pandemic.

It was clearly written quickly, and include things that would usually be very irritating (some long quotes from Wikipedia, for example). However, I really enjoyed looking at something which has consumed my work and personal life for more than a year from a different perspective.

I found it fun and refreshing.


On Connection by Kae Tempest

Published last year, this is an extended reflection (144 pages) by poet Kae Tempest on the importance of “connection” which is defined as “the feeling of landing in the present tense. Fully immersed in whatever occupies you, paying close attention to the details of experience.” This sounds similar to “mindfulness” yet Tempest’s discussion seems to have an added element of human connection to it, and recognises the importance of creativity in bringing people together and finding common ground.

I came across this through some Faber Members marketing, and I found it insightful, perceptive and timely. I hadn’t come across Tempest’s work previously, but will seek it out having read this. It was well worth the small time commitment given its short length, particularly to gain a new perspective on the impact of covid-19.


The Future of Seduction by Mia Levitin

This is the fourth I’ve read in Tortoise Media’s five-book FUTURES series published last year, which is a modern day attempt to follow in the footsteps of the 1920s series of To-Day and To-Morrow essays.

Levitin’s 60-page essay concerns the future of seduction, though is really mostly about dating in the modern world. As Wendy and I have been together for the better part of 17 years, the world of dating apps has really passed both of us by. I remember learning the hard way that it had passed into the mainstream after making a comment to a colleague about it being “geeky” about a decade ago, only to hear that she had met her husband online.

All of which is to say… this book was an education. Whoever knew the difference between Bumble and Tinder? Who knew that most people just chat on these services? Who knew that “progressing to WhatsApp” was a stage of a relationship?

I’m not sure I really needed to know any of this, but it was eye-opening!


Fatherhood by Caleb Klaces

This is Caleb Klaces’s 2019 ‘experimental’ novel combining prose and poetry. It concerns a young couple moving to the countryside following the birth of their first child, with the father taking on much of the childcare responsibility.

To me, the experimental form (shifting between history, biography, poetry, stream of consciousness, memory, and probably other things too) was a bit beyond me, and a bit of a barrier. This is probably in part because this isn’t the sort of thing I usually read. There were bits of observation and philosophy that made me think in this novel, but the whole just wasn’t up my street.


The Magnificent Sons by Justin Myers

I picked up Justin Myers’s novel as it was recommended somewhere or other as a good option for those who enjoyed Exciting Times, which I read and recommended last summer. From my perspective, this was a bad recommendation as I felt the two books had very little in common.

Exciting Times is a literary love story filled with warmth and wit, whose central character happens to be bisexual. The Magnificent Sons is a modern melodramatic Bildungsroman focussed on a bisexual man coming to terms with his sexuality. The very positive reviews for The Magnificent Sons speak to the fact that it is an accomplished work, but it’s really just not up my street.

I was a little distracted by poor editing (the relocation of the Canadian National Tower to Seattle was one of the less forgivable errors) and some of the idioms were a little too wild for me (emotional pain that “hurts harder than Lego underfoot” or a character “retreating to their mental holodeck”). I had also expected more reflection on and development of the fraternal relationship given the title. But the real point is that I probably noticed these “flaws” because this book just wasn’t my kind of thing, rather than them being major issues. This sort of dialogue-driven sentimental story contained mostly within a small friendship group just doesn’t do it for me.

But, by all accounts, if this is the sort of thing you like, you’ll probably like it a lot, so please don’t let this put you off.

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What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve read some really good books this month, and also some I liked a little less…


Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

The 2020 Booker Prize winner was, for me, a Christmas present from Wendy. It is one of those books so universally praised that it doesn’t really matter what I write about it, because the tonne of critical and popular opinion far outweighs the thoughts of a person on the internet.

For what it’s worth, I thought it was brilliant. It is the story of the relationship between young Shuggie Bain and his alcoholic mother Agnes. It follows them while Shuggie is growing up, from the age of five to fifteen, against the backdrop of impoverished Glasgow in the 1980s.

It has everything: deep characterisation, moving plot, social commentary, beautifully lyrical writing, profound insight, and more. It is superb.

I’m reminded of Jeffrey Archer whinging through one of his characters that literary prizes are never given to “storytellers”: this book conclusively proves him wrong.


There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness by Carlo Rovelli

Published in English last year, this is physicist Carlo Rovelli’s collection of newspaper and magazine articles, mostly from Italian publications over the last decade and translated here by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell. As the author says in his preface,

the pieces collected here are like brief diary entries recording the intellectual adventures of a physicist who is interested in many things and who is searching for new ideas—for a wide but coherent perspective.

I thoroughly enjoyed this, from the columns on (what seem to me to be) minutiae of physics to the wider social and cultural commentaries, though the latter held more appeal for me. Rovelli writes engagingly and insightfully on everything from the covid pandemic to activism, and from his experiences taking LSD to his atheism. There is always something interesting about hearing people with a huge amount of knowledge and understanding of one area of life applying their perspective and approach to something different… though the three-part essay on black holes also sparkles and his tribute to Stephen Hawking moves.

I haven’t read any of Rovelli’s books before now (despite them selling in their millions), but the quality of his writing and the clarify of his imagery has got me adding them to my “to read” list.


Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

This is Julian Barnes’s 2013 genre-defying short book. It consists of three essays which are thematically connected in myriad unexpected ways: ‘The Sin of Height’ is a biography of the first aerial photographer, Nadar; ‘On the Level’ is a fictional romance between adventurer Fred Burnaby and actress Sarah Burnhardt; and ‘The Loss of Depth’ is memoir, dealing with Barnes’s experience of grief following the death of his wife.

Altogether, this makes for an exceptional portrait of love and grief. It is deeply moving and feels at times painfully honest, and even has the occasional sparkle of humour. It feels both raw, yet also thoughtful and considered. It deepened my understanding of both love and grief.

It’s no secret that Barnes can write, but it is almost impossible to grasp how he covers such expansive territory with such emotional depth in only 128 pages. Exceptional.


Banking On It by Anne Boden

Anne Boden, founder of Starling Bank, recently published this book about the experience of launching her own bank. Through the press, I’ve followed the story of Starling and it’s competition with rival Monzo over a number of years: indeed, I am a Starling customer. I picked up this book as I was keen to learn more.

This turned out to be a real page-turner, giving a lot of insight into what it is like to develop a seed of an idea into a huge business. Boden, a woman in her 50s from Wales, is not the typical model of a financial technology entrepreneur, and faces a number of challenges as a result of her “outsider” status and her desire to challenge the status quo of the banking world. The book opens with the story of her taking her final job in traditional banking as Chief Operating Officer of AIB, and her decision to take on a job which she knows will be unpleasant yet extremely challenging sets up many of her persistent character traits.

Boden reflects at length on the transition from working as a senior banker in traditional firms to setting up her own business. Boden openly discusses her strength and weakness, and the missteps she has made along the way. It was also interesting to have some insight into the regulatory processes that accompany setting up a new bank, all of which were new to me.

Boden talks in some detail about the events which led co-founder Tom Blomfield, along with other senior members of staff, to leave Starling and form a rival bank, Monzo. Clearly, Boden can only ever give her own side of the story, she couldn’t avoid discussing this pivotal point in the story of her bank, and she couldn’t have foreseen future events; but equally, in early 2021, it is a little uncomfortable to consider Boden’s one-sided and unflattering portrait of Blomfield in the light of his post-publication resignation from Monzo and disclosures in recent weeks about his mental health. I suppose this is something of an occupational hazard when writing about fairly recent events involving real people.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed this peek into a professional world which is so far removed from my own, and Boden’s humour combined with the pacy plot kept me racing through the pages.


The Future of Stuff by Vinjay Gupta

This is the third essay I’ve read in the Tortoise Media FUTURES series, and my favourite so far. Written by Vinjay Gupta, the violinist (and social activist), it is a hopeful account of how our behaviour around purchasing and consumption is likely to change as we become more aware of the systems that support products.

Gupta’s central argument is that we can’t just buy a widget, for example: we are supporting a much broader system which produces said widget, which might well include supporting disgraceful labour practices on the other side of the world. As the world moves towards greater information flow and transparency, and—crucially—as we get better at managing and processing that information, our perspective on purchasing is likely to change.

As a basic example: if an online supermarket were to introduce a simple site-wide filter allowing customers to opt to see only “vegan” products, that would be enormously helpful to individuals and drive sales of those products. As our social conscience moves forward, perhaps there will be similar filters for ethically produced products and so on. And as data on product provenance becomes more widely available and codified, the same data can be used for better advert targeting, and so on and so forth.

I found the argument convincing, and it’s nice to be convinced by something so hopeful these days!


Naked by David Sedaris

I’m still on a bit of a Sedaris binge, having read many of his books over the last few months. This is the earliest collection of his essays that I’ve read, published in 1997. 

I found the essays in this volume to be a little more hit-and-miss than the later collections, as though he was still trying to find his style, but I still laughed frequently.


Daddy by Emma Cline

Published last year, this is a collection of ten short stories by Emma Cline. Seven of the ten have been previously published in either the New Yorker, Granta or The Paris Review.

I have previously read the author’s first novel, The Girls, which was a best-seller but left me a bit cold. I enjoyed this collection more than the novel, though the stories all shared a similar structure, consisting mostly of characterisation around an unspoken central event or situation. There’s also a theme of gender running throughout, particularly a theme of unpleasant men. Having a similar structure and a similar theme to all of the stories struck me sometimes as interesting (different facets into similar issues) and sometime as a bit dull, I think largely depending on my own mood.

The final story, A/S/L was my personal favourite, perhaps because the unspoken nature of the central fact fitted into the setting the author created so naturally. I think, though, that this collection might be better read as individual stories than as a single collection.


Why Don’t We Learn From History? by BH Liddell Hart

I was lucky enough to read this famous essay in an original 1944 edition. 

It starts off well: Liddell Hart gives a lot of interesting theories for why we seem not to learn from history, with a central tenet being that we aren’t very good at truthfully recording events in the first place. 

He then lost me for the second half of the essay by going into some detail about the Second World War and perceived problems with the Christian church, which I’m sure would be interesting to many people, but don’t seem obviously related to the titular question.

It’s only short—58 pages in my edition—so I got my effort’s worth from it anyway.


Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li

This 2019 novel by Yiyun Li imagines a series of conversations between a mother and her teenage son, who she has recently lost to suicide. It is a short book at 192 pages.

My first impression of this was strong. The imagined conversations are true to life (or perhaps true to death) and interesting philosophical. The mother character writes novels, while the son was a budding poet, and there’s a lot of ‘philosophy as language’ in here: the conversation is often taken deeper through discussed reflection on the etymology of chosen words, for example.

However, my interest in this waned over time despite the short length. It felt a little emotionally flat to me, and there wasn’t a great deal of progress in the conversation. Perhaps that is intended to reflect something of the lived experience of the aftermath of a child’s suicide; I’m not sure. 

It came to feel to me that the desire to dissect language as a way into the emotion was limiting rather than enlightening. Perhaps others will feel differently.


I Hate Men by Pauline Harmange

Published in English for the first time this month, this is Harmange’s 2020 essay on hating men. 

Lest we think the title is just a rhetorical device, Harmange is emphatic:

I hate men. All of them, really? Yes, the whole lot of them … Hating men as a social group, and as individuals too, brings me so much joy.

Even her nearest and dearest are hated:

We need to be vigilant, we have to keep an eye on the genuinely decent ones, because anyone can stray off course, and all the more so if he’s cis, white, wealthy, able-bodied and heterosexual.

I’m a man. It’s fairly clear therefore that Harmange hates me, even though I followed her advice:

The very least a man can do when faced with a woman who expresses misandrist ideas is to shut up and listen. He’d learn a great deal and emerge a better person.

I really don’t know what to do with this book. It’s full of justifiable and passionately expressed anger. But if anger begets only hate, where does that leave us? 

I’m not sure I learned a great deal, and I’m not sure I emerged a better person. I emerged mostly as a slightly sadder person, and one that’s a little less hopeful for the future of humanity now that I know that books that actively promote hatred on the basis of unchangeable innate characteristics can become bestsellers in the twenty-first century.

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