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What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve four books to mention this month.

Beneath the White Coat edited by Clare Gerada

This is a recently published book about doctors’ mental health, edited by the former Chair and current President of the Royal College of GPs and founder of the Practitioner Health Programme. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Clare Gerada a couple of times and found her to be inspirational, and have also met or worked with an almost frightening proportion of the chapter authors at one point or another!

I read this book and was surprised by how much of myself I recognised in the descriptions of doctors’ personalities, and the aspects of their work they find particularly challenging. I found the practical content on “surviving and thriving in medicine” insightful and helpful. The chapter on burnout in doctors, and how most doctors have periods of burnout in their career, was particularly relevant to me right now, after two exceptionally demanding years of pandemic practice.

There is much to think about in here, and much of immediate practical value. It is brilliant.

These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever

This 2020 first novel by Micah Nemerever was brilliant. Set in 1970s Pittsburgh, the plot follows two precocious college freshmen who are drawn together by their intelligence and slightly offbeat interpretation of the world. But—and this can’t possibly be a spoiler, as it’s the content of the prologue—their obsession (love?) for each other ultimately drives them to committing terrible crimes.

Nemerever does a fantastic job of weaving together the intense emotion of attraction with a sense of growing foreboding. The writing is almost poetic at times, with no wasted words or throwaway lines. The intensity and claustrophobia Nemerever creates is intense enough to feel a little exhausting at times, in the best possible way.

I thoroughly enjoyed this.

Jews Don’t Count by David Baddiel

This short TLS book published about a year ago has been widely praised. It features a combination of lived experience, polemic, and humour used to illustrate that antisemitism has been left out of much of the current present social discourse about racism. I thought it was excellent, and well worth an hour of your time: it helped me to much better understand some of the issues discussed, in particular the feelings experienced in response to the recent issue of antisemitism in the Labour Party. It’s a book which is light on detail and critical analysis, but is most certainly an easy-to-read introduction to some of the key issues.

I was slightly distracted by quite how much of the discussion was rooted on Twitter, a platform that actively promotes outrage and strong negative emotions, though Baddiel did at least acknowledge multiple times that Twitter is not a true proxy for the ‘real world’.

Beach Read by Emily Henry

I can’t remember what made me pick up this bestselling 2020 novel, but I’m afraid it just wasn’t my kind of thing. It seemed like fairly basic romance genre fiction to me: two young adults who are ‘polar opposites’ fall in love. I found the writing uninspiring and the plot predictably leaden.

The book is enormously popular, so it clearly has merit, but it just wasn’t up my street. I came close to giving up on it, and when I decided I may as well finish it, I couldn’t manage more than a chapter per day for the last section of the book.

The two most popular quotations from this book on Goodreads are:

“When I watch you sleep,” he said shakily, “I feel overwhelmed that you exist.”


“I’ve never met someone who is so perfectly my favorite person.”

Both of those strike me as clunky and wooden; clearly, by virtue of their popularity, many other people feel differently. Perhaps if these quotations speak to you, the book will too. Please don’t let my lack of enthusiasm put you off.

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What I’ve been reading this month

I have just four books to tell you about this month.

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Rooney’s 2017 bestselling debut is one of those books that is so wildly popular and widely read that writing about it seems redundant. In fact, I thought I’d read this book some years ago, shortly after I read Normal People. But I think I was confused: I read Rooney’s short story Mr Salary a couple of months after that.

I didn’t especially enjoy Normal People, finding it a bit flat and claustrophobic, and I didn’t think much of Mr Salary either, finding the dialogue unconvincing. Yet, I enjoyed Conversations with Friends.

As you almost certainly already know, the plot concerns two University students (former lovers) who form a friendship with an older married couple, and the complex web of relationships which develops between the four of them.

For what it’s worth, I still think Rooney’s dialogue is astonishingly unrealistic given how widely praised it is: this is a novel where everyone talks in sentences and paragraphs, and can spontaneously express complex thoughts and feelings with immediate precision. But this book did have a lot going for it in terms of characterisation and emotional complexity.

All things considered, I enjoyed this book enough to seek out the newly published Beautiful World, Where Are You.

How to be Perfect by Michael Schur

This is a recently published “popular philosophy” book by the writer of the television comedy series The Good Place. I picked it up mostly because I enjoyed that series.

The book is a guided tour of some schools of thought on ethics and philosophy, along with (mostly humorous) examples of how these relate to everyday life. I found the discussion mostly superficial, which is really a result of the structure and the decision to cram so much into a short book.

The writing style was, for my liking, far too conversational in tone, to the point where I slightly struggled to understand parts and had to go back and mentally “read them aloud” to parse what Schur was trying to say. I found that annoying.

This just wasn’t up my street (which, as you’ll see, is a bit of a theme this month: poor choices abound).

All of that said, the last chapter—concerning apologies—was a cut above the rest. It’s quite disconnected from the rest of the book, and while I still found the writing style a bit painful, I think this chapter could be published and well-received as a separate essay.

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

This 2018 gender-swapped reworking of Pretty Woman is not my usual sort of novel, but I wanted something light and easy after a run of slightly dull books that I’d struggled through.

This fits that bill. While it was never going to be a book I’d love, I appreciated its straightforward plot and implausible but easy-to-follow dialogue. The characters were lightly sketched, as was appropriate for the plot. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help but repeatedly misread the main character’s name, Stella Lane, as Stena Line, which often made me laugh.

This novel has spawned a couple of sequels: this didn’t have enough of an effect on me to consider picking them up, but that’s no real criticism given that I knew it wasn’t my usual kind of novel when I bought it.

Broken People by Sam Lansky

Published in 2020, this Is Sam Lansky’s semi-autobiographical novel about coming to terms with our own past. The plot concerns a character—also called Sam—working with a shaman who offers ‘open-soul surgery’ which fixes ‘everything that it is wrong with you’ in three days.

I thought this was an interesting concept, but the book didn’t quite live up to it. I suppose I was hoping, in the end, for a discussion on how the process didn’t work, and how life and our own interaction with our past is altogether more complex than the conceit suggests. Unfortunately, Lansky delivers the opposite.

The ‘surgery’ consists of drug-fuelled trips into angsty memories, with superficial (and really quite dull) reflections on how they have shaped the present character, somehow leading to a positive and hopeful outcome. I didn’t find myself drawn into the process or the plot more broadly.

This just wasn’t really my cup of tea.

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What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve five books to tell you about this month: one didn’t make it into the photo above, as it was already back at the library!

12 Bytes by Jeanette Winterson

This recently published non-fiction book looks at the future of humanity’s relationship with computers generally and artificial intelligence specifically. Winterson draws lessons from the past, in particular from the industrial revolution, and sketches out how our future might look.

I learned a lot from this book and found Winterson’s absorbing. Her arguments about how the future might look are compelling. As with any great writing, Winterson brushes by fascinating tangential ideas which cause a lot of thought and reflection. Two of these ideas stood out for me in particular.

The first was Winterson’s discussion of effective immortality, or the idea that we could upload our consciousness to a device and continue to think forever. The thought horrifies me: the idea of living forever, of going on and on and on without any sense of progress or completion, totally repulses me. I hadn’t realised how strongly I felt about this until I read this book. And Winterson gently challenges that response, pointing out that it is essentially selfish, denying humanity the benefit of infinite life experience (and perhaps wisdom). A lot to chew on and unpack there!

The second was Winterson’s impassioned plea for science to involve writers. Precision, and perhaps even beauty, is essential in scientific communication, and is a dying art. This chimes with my own ideas about the field of medicine, where clinical guidelines are increasingly poorly and imprecisely expressed, often leading to competing interpretations. This ought to be a key lesson of the pandemic, but I strongly suspect it won’t be learned.

(An aside: I was once involved in writing some national guidance, and suggested a simplified reworking of over-complex advice. Others on the committee felt like it read too much like common sense. I asked what was wrong with guidelines that reiterate common sense if that’s what the evidence supported. I was told quite plainly by the Chair that “common sense” wasn’t the sort of thing this particular national body produced; which raised far more questions than it answered, at least in my mind.)

Additionally, publications in the medical literature are ever-more narrowly targeted as sub-sub-specialities talk to themselves in their own coded language. This has, perhaps, been more broadly recognised, but the response is typically an inelegant press release for public consumption, rather than much-improved writing in the first place.

I think you can probably tell that I thought this book was brilliant, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I put it down.

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood

This 1977 semi-autobiographical novel is chock-full of dark humour. In the post-war period, a teenage girl is sent to convalesce after an illness with her great-grandmother, who she barely knows. Great Granny Webster turns out to be an ice-cold matriarch, seemingly to the point of caricature, at least when seen from the teenager’s viewpoint.

Yet, as the novella progresses, it becomes clear that the titular character is just one among many remarkable and off-beat women in the family, and we begin to understand a little of their background. It may be a “youngest child” thing to find this reminiscent of family conversations about unknown and unplaceable distant relatives—but that’s how it felt to me.

I found this funny, macabre, and strangely moving—it feels like there is a lot in its 108 pages.

Re-educated by Lucy Kellaway

I used to avidly read Lucy Kellaway’s Financial Times column, and even listened to the podcast version after that launched. When she announced in 2016 that she was leaving to become a secondary school teacher, I was surprised and intrigued.

Re-educated is a recently published memoir of this period of Kellaway’s life, in which she also left her husband, moved into an architecturally notable house, and stopped dyeing her hair. As with Kellaway’s columns, she injects wry humour throughout, while also writing with emotion and honesty.

I enjoyed this, but it’s a little difficult to disaggregate my feelings about this book from the fact that I already liked Kellaway and her writing.

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut

Winner of an English PEN Award, and shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, I read the 2020 translation by Adrian Nathan West of this book—novel?—by the Chilean writer Benjamín Labatut.

The book consists of five stories about major scientific discoveries and the many unexpected negative consequences that flowed from them. The first of the five stories is almost entirely factual, and the amount of fiction in each account gradually increases. It is a book about the boundaries of science and thought, and the personal and worldly consequences of pushing them.

People much better-read and more intelligent than I have found much to love about this book. I found its premise intriguing, but the book itself really quite dull. It had some nice imagery, including a great passage about the life cycle of citrus trees (which I don’t know whether was fact or fiction), but I found much of the prose really quite wooden. I was also surprised by how much the integration of fact and fiction annoyed me: I wanted to know which bits were true, and found this a bit of a barrier to immersion in the story.

I think this is perhaps a book that would reward close study far more than my disappointing casual reading of it.

Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce

This is a novel which was published in 2018. I picked it up after reading some press coverage of the release of the sequel: it was explained that Pearce had been inspired to write the novel after gaining insight into the lives of women who lived through the Second World War through her study of women’s magazines of the period.

The protagonist, Emmy Lake, is an aspiring journalist in her early 20s who gets a job typing the ‘agony aunt’ page of such a magazine. Unfortunately, she’s also intensely irritating, though the author seems to see her as sympathetic. Interfering, overbearing and terribly earnest, Emmy is a character I simply couldn’t warm to, which rather spoiled the book.

The writing style also grated, with Unnecessary Capitalisation of Random Words, and a frightfully annoying use of adverbs that came to feel like a parody of BBC radio announcements of the period.

The plot was astonishingly predictable and most of the characters barely have two-dimensions, let alone three.

This was just not up my street.

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