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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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What I’ve been reading this month

I haven’t got round to any of my Christmas books yet! Here are the seven books that are first on my “read in 2021” list.


The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

It takes a certain pluck to choose as an epigraph a quotation from a fictional work ‘written’ by a character you created, as Boyne does for this exceptional 2017 novel. His quote is from Maude Avery who, a novelist and adoptive mother to the protagonist, proved to be a new addition to my list of favourite literary characters.

Characterisation is at the heart of this book. The book follows the life of Charles Avery from his birth in the months after the Second World War, through seven-year intervals to his seventieth year. Charles is Irish, but spends parts of his life in a number of different cities.

This book reminded me a little of opera, in that the plot is faintly ridiculous and jam-packed with slightly absurd co-incidences, but this didn’t really matter. The plot served only as a device to allow for deeper characterisation and to string together moments of high emotional drama, all set against the accelerated pace of change in social values which characterised the second half of the twentieth century.

Boyne deftly moved between very funny passages (even a little slapstick at times) and deeply moving scenes in a way that never jarred.

I feel like I’ve made this sound terribly dry, whereas (more than anything else) it was riotously good fun.


The Imaginary Museum by Ben Eastham

Published in 2020, this is Eastham’s creative essay on the appreciation of contemporary art. It is structured as a tour around Eastham’s imaginary museum, and weaves together elements of his own history with art, discussion of specific pieces, and the big contemporary debates about what ‘counts’ as art and who funds it.

This was a highly readable and enjoyable essay which covered many of the main talking points in contemporary art in a manner which was friendly to me a something of a novice. I thoroughly enjoyed it.


The Future of Serious Art by Bidisha

This is the first of two books I’ve read this month from of a series of five essays in the FUTURES series published by Tortoise Media in 2020. The series take inspiration from books published in the 1920s which attempted to give a broad and constructive view of the future in different spheres of life, with the aim of generating new ideas and stimulating thought and discussion.

This essay, by Bidisha, considers the future of ‘serious art’ (which isn’t particularly clearly defined). It is a clear and passionate argument about the importance of art. Bidisha reflects on the ‘Cool Britannia’ era of Labour government, and contrasts this with the approach to the arts during austerity and all that has followed.

I enjoyed this mostly for the opportunity of reading an artist’s take on the future, which I suppose is the point of the book!


The Future of Men by Grace Campbell

This is the second in the series of Tortoise Media FUTURES essays I’ve read. This is Grace Campbell, comedian and daughter of Alastair Campbell (who features heavily) on ‘the future of men’.

The book read a little like stand-up comedy, interspersed with three transcribed interviews (one with the author’s father, another with her boyfriend, and another with a gay best friend). The central arguments around feminism and toxic masculinity are agreeable enough, but covered to such a comprehensive extent elsewhere that I didn’t really feel this volume added much.

This was a short and funny read, but the better-known books by Ngozi Adichie and Grayson Perry are, to my mind, better guides to the same territory.


Art Deco Britain by Elain Harwood

Published in 2019, this was the Twentieth Century Society’s book by Elain Harwood on the finest Art Deco buildings in Britain. It was a coffee table format, with each of about a hundred buildings presented in facing pages with a full-page photo on one plate and a few paragraphs of text on the facing plate. The book is arranged into sections according to the original designed purpose of the buildings, starting with residential buildings (which I found least interesting – I would have basically reversed the order of the sections). There was also a good fifteen-page introduction to set the context.

I picked this up because I’ve been a member of the Twentieth Century Society for a while due to a mild interest in late c20 architecture, but didn’t really know anything about the British architecture associated with the earlier part of the century and the interwar period. I picked up quite a bit from this enjoyable introduction: there were quite a few buildings in here which I wouldn’t have recognised as Art Deco without Harwood’s explanatory text.


The 99% Invisible City by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt

This was Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt’s book published earlier this year. It covered frequently overlooked aspects of urban design, based on the 99% Invisible podcast.

The book is structured in short sections, each giving a few paragraphs to a design element. I found these a bit frustrating: they were frequently far too short to include any real analysis. The book was also US-centric to a disappointing degree.

However, perhaps the most frustrating part of the book was the design decision to include line drawings rather than photographs. The elements of design discussed would often have benefitted from photographic illustration, and the line drawings often seemed completely disconnected from the text: they frequently didn’t even show the aspect of design under discussion.

As a result, while there were interesting parts, this book didn’t really work for me.


The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

Good grief, Pinker’s 2011 oft-mentioned tome on why violence has declined was a slog and a half. I should have known better: I didn’t enjoy Pinker’s style in, erm, “The Sense of Style”, so I’m not sure what convinced me to embark on 724 pages of his writing (plus 1,955 endnotes for good measure).

The central arguments in this book were interesting, and there were nuggets of gold to be found. But Pinker has an exceptionally irritating habit of citing way more examples to illustrate a point than I really want to wade through.

At the micro level, this is merely eye-rolling (eg listing ten common expressions where a couple would do, or four generic names where ‘Tom, Dick and Harriet’ would be good enough for most writers).

At the macro level, it starts to undermine his case. He uses the original published findings of the Zimbardo prison experiment and the Milgram experiment to illustrate a couple of his points, despite these having been roundly debunked, and it becomes hard to engage in the cognitive dissonance necessary to take the 72 other examples cited for each of these points on trust.

The style was so annoying that it’s taken me months to get through this, reading bits between other things. But I suppose there were enough points of interest to keep me coming back. I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of Pinker’s books, though.

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My favourite books of 2020

According to Goodreads, I’ve read 101 books this year, which is three fewer than in 2019. I’ve given ten of those books “five stars” on Goodreads, which seems a reasonable standard by which to deem that they were my favourite of the year.


Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

There are lots of biographies of Leonardo da Vinci; this one, Walter Isaacson’s 2017 book based primarily around Leonardo’s notebooks, is the only one I’ve read.

It was fantastic. Isaacson brought Leonardo to life as a complete, fascinating person. I had little idea how many different disciplines Leonardo held an interest in—I had no real idea of his contributions to the study of anatomy, maths, or engineering. I knew nothing of his personal life. I had no idea that he was so reluctant to finish any project he was given. And yet, by the end of Isaacson’s book, I felt like I knew Leonardo.

There were so many bits of this book which will stick in mind for a long time (including the tongue of the woodpecker!) but I was perhaps most amazed by the description of Leonardo’s work on the mechanism of closure of the aortic valve. Leonardo has this figured out in 1510, but it wasn’t until 1960—the same decade as the first heart transplants—that cardiology rejected the traditional understanding that Leonardo had disproved 450 years earlier.

I also enjoyed Isaacson’s occasional commentary on the complexity of writing a biography, and appreciated his clarity on occasions where his own views of circumstances were different to those of other notable biographers of Leonardo.

This was an absorbing and clear biography of a fascinating man and a true genius.

“Above all, Leonardo’s relentless curiosity and experimentation should remind us of the importance of instilling, in both ourselves and our children, not just received knowledge but a willingness to question it—to be imaginative and, like talented misfits and rebels in any era, to think different.”

“There have been, of course, many other insatiable polymaths, and even the Renaissance produced other Renaissance Men. But none painted the Mona Lisa, much less did so at the same time as producing unsurpassed anatomy drawings based on multiple dissections, coming up with schemes to divert rivers, explaining the reflection of light from the earth to the moon, opening the still-beating heart of a butchered pig to show how ventricles work, designing musical instruments, choreographing pageants, using fossils to dispute the biblical account of the deluge, and then drawing the deluge. Leonardo was a genius, but more: he was the epitome of the universal mind, one who sought to understand all of creation, including how we fit into it.”

“The tongue of a woodpecker can extend more than three times the length of its bill. When not in use, it retracts into the skull and its cartilage-like structure continues past the jaw to wrap around the bird’s head and then curve down to its nostril. In addition to digging out grubs from a tree, the long tongue protects the woodpecker’s brain. When the bird smashes its beak repeatedly into tree bark, the force exerted on its head is ten times what would kill a human. But its bizarre tongue and supporting structure act as a cushion, shielding the brain from shock.

“There is no reason you actually need to know any of this. It is information that has no real utility for your life, just as it had none for Leonardo. But I thought maybe, after reading this book, that you, like Leonardo, who one day put ‘Describe the tongue of the woodpecker’ on one of his eclectic and oddly inspiring to-do lists, would want to know. Just out of curiosity.”

“Pure curiosity.”


Summer by Ali Smith

Having now completed the seasonal quartet, I can confirm without hesitation that it is my favourite series of novels. And far from going out with a whimper, Summer was extraordinary.

If one was setting out to publish a novel a year reflecting the times in which we live, one could hardly have picked a better four years to work with than the last four. Smith’s ability to capture and reflect on the age of Brexit, coronavirus and George Floyd with such a publication schedule, while the rest of us are struggling just to keep up with events, is pure genius. This volume revisits some of the characters from the earlier novels, and I slightly worried that I’d struggle to recall them, given the time that has passed since I read the first of the novels—but they all came flooding back.

I feel a bit lost knowing that this series is now complete – it has been the series that I’ve most enjoyed and most anticipated in recent years. I’ll miss it.

“Everybody said: so?

“As in so what? As in shoulder shrug, or what do you expect me to do about it? or I so don’t really give a fuck, or actually I approve of it, it’s fine by me.

“Okay, not everybody said it. I’m speaking colloquially, like in that phrase everybody’s doing it. What I mean is, it was a clear marker, just then, of that particular time; a kind of litmus, this dismissive note. It got fashionable around then to act like you didn’t care. It got fashionable, too, to insist the people who did care, or said they cared, were either hopeless losers or were just showing off.

“It’s like a lifetime ago.

“But it isn’t – it’s literally only a few months since a time when people who’d lived in this country all their lives or most of their lives started to get arrested and threatened with deportation or deported: so?

“And when a government shut down its own parliament because it couldn’t get the result it wanted: so?

“When so many people voted people into power who looked them straight in the eye and lied to them: so?

“When a continent burned and another melted: so?

“When people in power across the world started picking off groups of people by religion, ethnicity, sexuality, intellectual or political dissent: so?

“But no. True. Not everybody said it.

“Not by a country mile.

“Millions of people didn’t say it.

“Millions and millions, all across the country and all across the world, saw the lying, and the mistreatments of people and the planet, and were vocal about it, on marches, in protests, by writing, by voting, by talking, by activism, on the radio, on TV, via social media, tweet after tweet, page after page.

“To which the people who knew the power of saying so? said, on the radio, on TV, via social media, tweet after tweet, page after page: so?

“I mean, I could spend my whole life listing things about, and talking about, and demonstrating with sources and graphs and examples and statistics, what history’s made it clear happens when we’re indifferent, and what the consequences are of the political cultivation of indifference, which whoever wants to disavow will dismiss in an instant with their own punchy little

so?

“So.”

“Then she’d told Iris—foolishly, her selfish self knows now—about Art and herself going to visit the detainees in the SA4A Immigration Removal Centre and how a clever and thoughtful young virologist being held indefinitely there had taken pains to explain to them, and this was back in early February when nobody much was taking the virus seriously in England, about the dangerous-sounding virus that was beginning to take hold in various countries and had reached England via the airport right next to the Immigration Removal Centre they were sitting in now, from which the planes that took off over their heads made the room they were sitting in literally shake every few minutes, and the virus was apparently now also present in the city just down the road from here where they were about to go and stay for the night.

“He told them that if the virus happened to get into this centre he was being held in then all the detainees would catch it because the windows are made of a combination of perspex and metal bars, none of them openable to the outside world, the only air in there the recycled old air filtering through the place’s ventilation system.”

“We’re always looking for the full open leaf, the open warmth, the promise that we’ll one day soon surely be able to lie back and have summer done to us; one day soon we’ll be treated well by the world.”


Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks

Goodreads tells me that, on page count, this 2005 novel is the longest book I’ve read this year. It’s also the longest I’ve ever had a library book: nearing twelve months now, as the library from which I borrowed it hasn’t been accepting returns since the start of Lockdown I. The current due date is June 2021.

I borrowed this as it was recommended by my friend and esteemed work colleague Julie, and I loved it. It follows the lives of two doctors in nineteenth century Austria, from their childhoods through their careers as specialists in psychiatry to their old age. They set up a clinic together despite developing contrasting theories as to the causes of and treatments for mental illness, and their intellectual differences both bind them together and drive them apart.

Faulks skilfully weaves together fictional biography with medicine, psychiatry, travel, the thrill of early scientific discovery, moral complexity, interpersonal relationships, love and philosophy – all things I really enjoy reading about. The sometime lengthy exposition of early psychiatric theory in the book is often singled out as a point for criticism, but I found it fascinating. I was completely absorbed into the world Faulks created.

It may have run to 786 pages but it felt far shorter. I’m thrilled to hear that a not-quite-a-sequel is coming in 2021.

“‘So the Bible is not so sad in the end?’

“‘Yes, it is the saddest book in the world. We are asked to believe that God has played an infantile trick on us: he has made himself unobservable, as an eternal test of “faith”. What I read, though, is the story of a species cursed by gifts and delusions that it cannot understand. I read of exile, abandonment and the terrible grief of beings who have lost something real—not of a people being put to a childish test, but of those who have lost their guide and parent, friend and only governing instructor and are left to wander in the silent darkness for all eternity. Imagine. And that is why all religion is about absence. Because once, the gods were there. And that is why all poetry and music strike us with this awful longing for what once was ours – because it begins in regions of the brain where once the gods made themselves heard.’”

“Happiness creeps up on you, does it not? You never see it arrive, but one day you hesitate and you are aware that there is something… additional.”

“Psychosis, ladies and gentlemen, is the price we pay for being what we are. And how unfair, how bitterly unfair it is that the price is not shared around but paid by one man in a hundred for the other ninety-nine.”


I Choose Elena by Lucia Osborne-Crowley

Lucia Osborne-Crowley’s 2019 essay on the lasting effect of trauma in her life, exploring the effect that a rape at knifepoint when she was fifteen years old changed her life. 

This is a deeply personal account which I found to be very powerful. Osborne-Crowley reflects on the influence literature had on her recovery, including Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels which the title references. 

She also reflects on why her experience had such a profound impact on her life, in a section that knocked me sideways. This will stay with me.

“I have spent ten years wishing I could disappear. I have tried every imaginable way to appraise my life, to outrun myself, to make a sacrifice out myself, always searching for the most profound and permanent act of disappearance. But I cannot, and I will not. Because to be invisible is to give up the only tangible thing I have to offer: this cautionary tale.”

“I intend to survive. It is this line that made me realise the true significance of the term ‘survivors’. It does not refer only to surviving the traumatic incident itself, but the everyday terror that follows. The days and weeks and years of indignity that follow. Some days I think that part came closer to killing me than the man with a knife did. But I intend to survive.”


How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division by Elif Shafak

The Turkish writer Elif Shafak is the only one to appear twice in this list, a fact made more surprising by the fact that one book is fiction and one non-fiction.

This fairly short essay is a passionate and beautifully written plea for pluralism, understanding, thoughtfulness, empathy and kindness. Shafak draws on her personal experiences as well as contemporary events, from covid-19 to the death of George Floyd. Shafak reminds us of the dangers of polarisation and echo chambers and the important of dialogue and understanding.

My enjoyment of this book was, in part, one of those serendipitous times when you pick up the perfect book for the moment. Coming at a time when all of the above seem in short supply in the world, I found myself getting a little emotional reading this.

“The moment we stop listening to diverse opinions is also when we stop learning. Because the truth is we don’t learn much from sameness and monotony. We usually learn from differences.”

“Sometimes, where you genetically or ethnically seem to fit in most is where you least belong. Sometimes you are at your loneliest among people who physically resemble you and seem to speak the same language. There are many citizens across the world today – and their number is growing – who have a hard time recognising their countries, walking like strangers in their own homelands.”

“Do not be afraid of complexity. Be afraid of people who promise an easy shortcut to simplicity. Nor should you be afraid of emotions. Whether it is angst or anger or hurt or sadness or loneliness. As human beings—regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, geography—we are emotional creatures, even those of us who like to pretend not to be, especially them. Analyse, understand and reflect upon where negative emotions come from, embrace them candidly, but also notice if and when they become repetitive, restrictive, ritualistic and destructive.”


10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

This is Shafak’s Booker-shortlisted 2019 bestseller. I picked it up on a whim when I saw it in a bookshop and vaguely thought I’d heard good things about it. It turned out to be an extraordinary book.

The book comprises three parts. Part One follows Tequila Leila’s lifetime of reminisces over the few minutes following her death, covering everything from her own birth into a polygamous family to her murder as a sex worker. Each memory focuses on a specific friend and the life of each of them is also explored. Part Two follows these close friends in the day following Leila’s murder. And the brief Part Three follows her soul into the afterlife.

I found this emotionally exhausting. The characterisation and storytelling were so strong that I sometimes forgot this was fiction. Despite the tragedy and emotional weight of the story, it is leavened with moments of laugh-out-loud humour. It felt to me like this book was as much about Istanbul as it was about the human characters. Definitely a favourite.

“The only professed atheist among Leila’s friends, Nalan saw the flesh—and not some abstract concept of the soul—as eternal. Molecules mixed with soil, providing nutrition for plants, those plants were then devoured by animals, and animals by humans, and so, contrary to the assumptions of the majority, the human body was immortal, on a never-ending journey through the cycles of nature. What more could one possibly want from the hereafter?”

“Nalan thought that one of the endless tragedies of human history was that pessimists were better at surviving than optimists, which meant that, logically speaking, humanity carried the genes of people who did not believe in humanity.”

“Until the year 1990, Article 438 of the Turkish Penal Code was used to reduce the sentence given to rapists by one-third if they could prove that their victim was a prostitute. Legislators defended the article with the argument that ‘a prostitute’s mental or physical health could not be negatively affected by rape’. In 1990, in the face of an increasing number of attacks against sex workers, passionate protests were held in different parts of the country. Owing to this strong reaction from civil society, Article 438 was repealed. But there have been few, if any, legal amendments in the country since then towards gender equality, or specifically towards improving the conditions of sex workers.”


Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali

This is the book on this list that I read most recently. It’s also the third on the list by a Turkish author, which I would never have guessed this time last year!

This is the 1943 Turkish classic by Sabahattin Ali, which has had a huge revival in Turkey, becoming the bestselling book for several consecutive years. I read the Penguin Classics 2016 translation by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe in a day (it was only 168 pages) and loved it.

The 1920s plot concerns a young Turkish man moving to Berlin to learn about the perfumed soap trade. He develops an intense longing for a woman he initially saw in a painting, and a powerful and moving—if somewhat unconventional—relationship develops.

This is a book about social changes in the first part of the twentieth century, and particularly morphing gender roles, but it is also full of profound longing. It oozes atmosphere.

Despite the small page count, Ali somehow manages to create complete characters who will live long in the mind, and to completely immerse the reader in a time and place, and to make larger observations about social change. It was great.

“The essence of life is in solitude – wouldn’t you agree? All unions are built on falsehood. People can only get to know each other up to a point.”

“Love is nothing like the simple compassion you describe, and neither is it a passion that comes and goes. It is something altogether different, something that defies analysis. And we are never to know where it comes from, or where it goes on the day it disappears. Whereas friendship is constant and built on understanding. We can see where it started and know why it falls apart. But love gives no reasons.”

“For our lives were governed by trivial details. Indeed, trivial details were what true life was made of.”


Marcovaldo by Italo Calvino

This isn’t in the photo at the top for the simple reason that I’ve returned it to the library! Like the rest of us, libraries have not had an easy time of 2020; I look forward to the day when we’re all able to browse them once again.

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

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

The writing was wonderful, simple and yet poetic. 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.

“Once you begin rejecting your present state, there is no knowing where you can arrive.”

“He would go out to take a walk downtown, in the morning. The streets opened before him, broad and endless, drained of cars and deserted; the façades of the buildings, a gray fence of lowered iron shutters and the countless slats of the blinds, were sealed, like ramparts. For the whole year Marcovaldo had dreamed of being able to use the streets as streets, that is, walking in the middle of them: now he could do it, and he could also cross on the red light, and jay-walk, and stop in the center of squares. But he realized that the pleasure didn’t come so much from doing these unaccustomed things as from seeing a whole different world: streets like the floors of valleys, or dry river-beds, houses like blocks of steep mountains, or the walls of a cliff.”

“If your cart is empty and the others are full, you can only hold out so long: then you’re overwhelmed by envy, heartbreak, and you can’t stand it.”


The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

This is one of four short books on this list. Given that a couple of years ago I would have said I didn’t like short stories, I would have been amazed to know that in 2020 I’d have four short books on my list of favourites, plus a collection of short stories in Marcovaldo.

First published in 1983, and translated into English by Ted Goossen in 2014, The Strange Library is a beguilingly strange short novel, perfect for reading in a single sitting. It’s a reflection of the book’s weirdness that there seems to be no popular agreement on whether this book is aimed at adults or children. It defies classification.

The plot concerns a young boy who visited his local City Library only to be kidnapped in the basement by an old man who wants to eat his brain. Had I known of that synopsis before I opened the book, I’d have passed on it: it sounds ridiculous and not at all like the sort of book I’d enjoy. And yet, Murakami’s writing combined with the beautiful production of the hardback lends the tale a hypnotic quality. It starts to feel like allegory—but for what?—while also being pure fantasy told in language which is entirely grounded in reality, but also somehow poetic.

This was a very short read, taking less than an hour, but was nevertheless memorable (and deserves a place on this list) for being unlike anything I’ve ever read before.

“Why do I act like this, agreeing when I really disagree, letting people force me to do things I don’t want to do?”

“‘Okay, kid. Then I’ll give it to you straight. The top of your head’ll be sawed off and all your brains’ll get slurped right up.’

“I was too shocked for words.

“‘You mean,’ I said, when I had recovered, ‘you mean that old man’s going to eat my brains?’

“‘Yep, I’m really sorry, but that’s the way it has to be,” the sheep man said, reluctantly.’”

“At the same time, my anxiety had turned into an anxiety quite lacking in anxiousness. And any anxiety that is not especially anxious is, in the end, an anxiety hardly worth mentioning.”


Fake Law by The Secret Barrister

I enjoyed this so much that I ended up buying another copy for my dad.

One of the four books on this list to have been published this year, this is the second volume from the Secret Barrister. It concentrates on the gap between political discourse and the reality of legislation, and the gap between media coverage of court cases and the arguments and principles actually under consideration.

I am one of those strange individuals who occasionally downloads court judgements in high profile cases, particularly those that pertain to healthcare. I enjoy diving into the gritty detail and reveling in the clarity of expression in the writing of most judgements from higher courts.

This book was right up my street. Each chapter opens with the arguments concerning a case or piece of legislation as made out by Ministers or the media. The Secret Barrister then set out the legal reality of the situation, broadened the discussion with other exemplar cases, and rounded off with a summary of the fundamental principles underlying the relevant area of law.

The book was engaging and easy to read. The Secret Barrister was very witty and persuasive in their arguments. This book definitely earns its place rounding off this list.

“At the heart of the concept of the rule of law is the idea that society is governed by law. Parliament exists primarily in order to make laws for society in this country. Democratic procedures exist primarily in order to ensure that the Parliament which makes those laws includes Members of Parliament who are chosen by the people of this country and are accountable to them. Courts exist in order to ensure that the laws made by Parliament, and the common law created by the courts themselves, are applied and enforced. That role includes ensuring that the executive branch of government carries out its functions in accordance with the law. In order for the courts to perform that role, people must in principle have unimpeded access to them. Without such access, laws are liable to become a dead letter, the work done by Parliament may be rendered nugatory, and the democratic election of Members of Parliament may become a meaningless charade. That is why the courts do not merely provide a public service like any other.”

“Until it bites us, until we hear about our friend being abused by her co-workers for wearing a hijab, or see our ashen-faced husband come home, laid off without notice and with no idea where to turn, or learn that our teenage daughter is being paid below minimum wage and denied holiday pay by her leering, groping pub landlord, we can dismiss the true meaning of the protections we’ve spent decades constructing.”

“If we are being misled, or misinformed, or even directly lied to, to what end is this being done? Whose interests are really being served?”

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