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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?”

This 2,479th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , , , .

What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve eleven books to mention for December. I didn’t realise until I came to write this post quite how varied my reading has been this month!


Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali

This was the 1943 Turkish classic by Sabahattin Ali. 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 concerned a young Turkish man moving to Berlin to learn about the perfumed soap trade. He developed an intense longing for a woman he initially saw in a painting, and a powerful and moving—if somewhat unconventional—relationship developed.

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

This was one of those short books that, despite the page count, somehow managed 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. And all that while the first 40 pages felt slow to get going! It was great.


We Should All be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2014 essay in which she drew on her own life experiences to illustrate why feminism remains important, and how society continues—in ways small and big—to treat men and women inequitably. It seems like this should be self-evident but, as the book pointed out, there are many who wrongly think that these problems are historical and resolved.

The argument was passionate and well-made. This was a slim 50-page volume filled largely with anecdote, and so I don’t think I learned anything new from this, but I enjoyed reading such a powerful and convincing case for feminism.


Facebook by Steven Levy

This was Levy’s 600-page history of Facebook, published earlier this year. Levy has covered Facebook as a technology journalist for many years and clearly has good connections within the company and with those who have left the company along the way. Many reviews I’ve read suggest that Levy was very soft on both Facebook and its founder in this book, but I though he was quietly damning.

For personal context: I joined Facebook in 2005 and left earlier this year, not in any grand protest but just because it had become more aggravating than useful as a service. I still use WhatsApp, another Facebook property, and have an on-again off-again relationship with Instagram.

Levy’s book was interesting for the insight it gave into the way that Facebook had grown and taken decisions, time and again, without fully considering or planning for obvious consequences. 

I happen to have read this book at the same time as Pinker’s Better Angels, so the thing that leapt out to me most was their lack of consideration of factual accuracy and filter bubbles. Pinker argues that one reason for the decline in violence in the last century is the rapid spread of information: we cannot condone violence on the other side of the world when graphic images of it are on the newspaper on our breakfast table. Levy argued that Facebook’s concentration on feeding only our narrow interests necessarily narrows our world view, and presenting lies, gossip and facts in indistinguishable formats only serves to further pervert our understanding.

The final section, in which Levy describes Facebook’s plans for the future, is where the soft damnation appeared: Levy talked of Facebook concentrating on the “fun” offered by new features, while completely ignoring the negative consequences of making filter bubbles completely impenetrable through encryption and disappearing messages.

This was a great dive into the history of a era-defining company which left me with the impression that the company doesn’t yet understand its past mistakes, and is doomed to repeat them.


Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

This was Sayaka Murata’s 2016 bestseller, which I read in Ginny Tapley Takemori’s 2018 translation. This was a short novel centred on Keiko, a 36-year-old woman who had been working in a part time role at a convenience store for half her life. She enjoyed her work and found that the role of ‘convenience store worker’ gave her life meaning, though increasingly came to feel societal pressure to find a “proper” job and a husband. Therein lies a plot, featuring an attempt at living a “normal” life.

If found this a relatively light book with a sharp edge of social commentary. Others on Goodreads seem to have found it side-splitting; I thought it was more wryly amusing, if not a little depressing when it prompts pondering the underlying issues.


Benedictus by John O’Donohue

This 2007 collection of blessings was not my usual kind of book by any means. In it, O’Donohue offered poems for a wide range of life events, mostly (though not completely) excluding reference to gods and/or religion.

O’Donohue’s writing was awe-inspiring for its ability to capture the emotions and actions associated with both ordinary and extraordinary events. This was poetry that often firstly crystallised my understanding of my own emotions in situations and then, by virtue of writing about it, demonstrated that while they felt unique to me, they were universal parts of the human experience. The poems about extraordinary life experiences which I haven’t had helped me to reflect on how those situations must feel to others.

I don’t read much poetry: this book made me think that perhaps I should read more.


The Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett

There are lots of different treatments of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van, including the original LRB essay from 1989, a play from 1999, a very popular 2005 film, and the one I read: the 1990 book.

Written in Bennett’s characteristic warm, funny and engaging style, this short memoir describes Bennett’s interactions with Mary Shepherd, and an eccentric lady who came to live for fifteen years in a dilapidated van on Bennett’s driveway. I thoroughly enjoyed this: it was fun and moving in equal measure, one of those cosy books that restores faith in humanity.


The Clothes They Stood Up In by Alan Bennett

Originally published in the LRB in 1996, this was a typically wonderful Alan Bennett story of extraordinary and comic happenings in British suburbia. 

Mr and Mrs Ransome, a middle-aged middle-class couple, returned from the opera to find that their flat had been burgled to an extraordinary extent, having relieved the place even of its fitted carpets. For Mrs Ransome, this becomes liberating in some unexpected ways.

This was great fun.


The Pharmacist by Justin David

This 2014 novella was featured somewhere—I can’t recall where—as one of a pair of books to read together, the other being Box Hill by Adam Mars-Jones.

The Pharmacist focused on Billy, a man in his 20s, who falls into a friendship with Albert, an older gay man who lived in a flat in the same building. As their friendship developed, Albert introduced Billy to illicit drugs, and their relationship became closer and more complex.

I enjoyed this for the contrast between Billy and Albert, as gay men who had come of age in very different eras. It was a book which made me reflect on how much society’s response to people shapes us all, and moreover how much accepted societal norms have shifted over just a few decades. The rapid change in society’s attitude to homosexuality makes contrasting older and younger gay people an interesting tool for reflecting on progress in society.

This wasn’t a book I’d normally come across or read, but I enjoyed reflecting on it.


Box Hill by Adam Mars-Jones

A short and many-award-willing novel by Mars-Jones’s published earlier this year, recommended somewhere as part of a pairing with Justin David’s The Pharmacist.

Narrated from the perspective of a tube driver in his 40s in contemporary Britain, novel was mostly set in the late 1970s, when the narrator was an 18-year-old gay man who fell into an abusive relationship with a man a few years older. Despite the subject matter, the tone was kept remarkably light and humorous (one sexual encounter is described as “dutiful, like Prince Philip opening a hospital annexe”).

Fairly suddenly, the book transformed unexpectedly into something rather different: a moving meditation on how well we know even those closest to us, and how we only ever really have our own singular perspective on reality.

The recommendation to pair this with The Pharmacist was a good one: the two novellas have mostly similar beats in the plot, but treated completely differently. For my money, Box Hill is the better novella: I think I would have been disappointed if I had read them the other way round.


The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

This was Richard Osman’s recently published first novel, a cosy but complex piece of genre fiction in which a group of four friends in a retirement home banded together to solve a murder. It is the first in a series of books to be published about “The Thursday Murder Club.”

I found much to enjoy in this book. The main characters were well drawn and fun to spend time with; the plot was pleasingly multi-layered; and the frequent clashes between the older protagonists and modernity were handled very well, using humour without being patronising about older people, and including firm but friendly challenge to social views that are no longer mainstream.

But this just isn’t really my kind of thing. It reminded me of nothing so much as a Sunday night television drama, the gently paced inoffensive and unchallenging moving wallpaper that I’m pretty sure Nancy Banks-Smith once compared to death. This book felt like it was a cut above most in the genre, but it still didn’t feel to me like it had anything new to say.

Given it’s popularity, and given that the series will no doubt become part of the cultural conversation, I’m glad I read it… but I won’t be picking up the next in the series.


They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

This 2017 novel is well-loved by many, and clearly has a lot going for it, but was simply not up my street. The premise was that a new technology company called “death cast” could, with absolutely reliability, inform people shortly after midnight that they will die during the day. This premise opened up a Pandora’s box of interesting philosophical questions around how people will respond after receiving the notification, and also how knowing with certainty that one will survive every other day will influence society.

These philosophical questions weren’t tackled at any length in the book, and where the societal response did come up in the plot, it was often inconsistently described. I was looking for complex moral and philosophical knots and new insights into the human psyche, but that clearly wasn’t what Silvera was looking to provide nor what his audience expected.

This book was really a story of a saccharine budding teenage romance, narrated (for the most part) by the two teenagers themselves, on the day of their death. For those who like that sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like, but it wasn’t for me.

This 2,478th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , , , , .

What I’ve been reading this month

Before I sat down to write this post, I didn’t think I’d read many books this month, but it turns out that I have eight to tell you about.


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

I read this essay, published by the Wellcome Collection earlier this year, in one sitting. It was a passionate and beautifully written plea for pluralism, understanding, thoughtfulness, empathy and kindness. Shafak drew on her personal experiences as well as contemporary events, from covid-19 to the death of George Floyd. Shafak reminded me of the dangers of polarisation and echo chambers and the important of dialogue and understanding.

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. I’d thoroughly recommend it.


The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

First published in 1983, and translated into English by Ted Goossen in 2014, this was 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 concerned 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 for being unlike anything I’ve ever read before.


Fake Law by The Secret Barrister

This was the recently published second volume from the Secret Barrister. It concentrated 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 opened 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. I really enjoyed this.


Humankind by Rutger Bregman

This was Rutger Bregman’s recently published follow-up to Utopia for Realists. It was translated by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore.

Bregman set out to argue that most people are inherently good-natured. This struck me as a strange argument to make because it seems self-evident to me: after all, society relies on people being mostly good-natured and doing the right thing. But Bregman had a good go at making the argument that the media and culture more generally acts to convince us that most people are selfish and uncaring, but I didn’t really buy it.

This was a familiar feeling: just as I found Utopia for Realists challenging because I didn’t accept Bregman’s base assumption that societal development had stalled, I found Humankind challenging because I didn’t accept Bregman’s base assumption that most people think ill of most other people.

But just as with Utopia for Realists, I enjoyed Humankind nevertheless. Bregman discussed his ideas optimistically and cheerfully, mixing anecdote and data in a way which was very engaging. Some of the revelations about some of the famous psychological studies such as the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment were new to me and enlightening.

Bregman’s observation about negativity bias and trusting people also struck a chord. If we choose to trust someone, they can undermine that trust, which is an acutely negative experience. On the other hand, if we choose not to trust someone, that decision rarely turns into an acutely negative experience, even if it may have been the worse course of action.

All things considered, I enjoyed this book, and there’s rarely been a time when a dose of optimism has been more welcome.


Will He Go? by Lawrence Douglas

Lawrence Douglas is a Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought who has written a series of interesting articles for The Guardian over the last couple of years about the legal challenges posed by the Trump administration. In this volume, published in the spring, he sketches out ways in which Trump may have attempt to cling on to the presidency, even though the election result was not in his favour.

I read this right at the start of the month, in the run up to election day. Beyond the specifics of the current election, Douglas gave an illustration of how the procedures laid down in the US Constitution and subsequent law are open to abuse by malicious actors. As a British reader, it was interesting to compare the flaws between the codified US system and the haphazard traditions of the UK system for elections, especially as devolution moves the UK ever closer to a federal system with all of the unresolved constitutional questions that raises.

Douglas’s partial argument for the abolition of the Electoral College didn’t win me over: while I appreciate the flaws and insecurities of the system as it stands, I’m not sure it is reasonable in a federal system for the President to be elected by popular vote alone, and so I’m not convinced that abolition, as opposed to reform, is the right approach.

This was a quick and absorbing read, even if the more extreme possibilities it covered didn’t come to pass (or at least haven’t yet).


A Classical Education by Caroline Taggart

Published in 2009, this was Taggart’s short and lighthearted book on Greek and Roman history, with a concentration on bits which are particularly relevant to modern life. After a somewhat slow start rehearsing the meanings of common Latin phrases, I found myself bouyed along by Taggart’s humour and light touch.

I didn’t do much history at school, dropping it well before GCSE. I did study Latin for year, after which the school stopped offering it and I was transferred to Home Economics instead. And I’m not a big reader of the ancient classics.

All of this meant that much of the content of this book was stuff I knew once a long time ago, or have a cultural awareness of without really knowing the background. As a result, I found this light-hearted recap quite fun… but those who are better read than me might well find it very lacking!


The Prime Ministers by Steve Richards

This was Richards’s 2019 book reflecting on the leadership of the nine Prime Ministers from Wilson to May. There is now an extended revised edition also covering Johnson (which is the one I’ve linked to), but I have the original version.

I had mixed feelings about the book. After a lengthy introduction, it was structured chronologically, with roughly forty pages dedicated to each leader. Each profile was readable and interesting, and these struck me as broadly balanced appraisals.

However, I thought that his critical analysis and comparison of the leaders was a little broad-brush: I’m not sure I needed this book to tell me that early elections are dangerous or that Prime Ministers tend to have a honeymoon period where those with a strong idea of what they want to achieve can get a lot done with limited opposition. I had hoped for a little more.


The Art of Rest by Claudia Hammond

This was Claudia Hammond’s 2019 book which chatted through each the ‘top ten’ most restful activities as determined by a large survey of members of the public.

This was light and fun, with plenty of humour and personal anecdote. Hammond gave a spirited argument for taking rest more seriously, which felt timely for me given that the pandemic has left me a bit swamped with work! I liked Hammond’s “whatever works for you” approach to writing about the topic, which was refreshing given that so many books on related topics are so prescriptive. Her discussion of mindfulness was particularly grounded in realism—it works for some people, it’s not for everyone, and other activities can be just as beneficial.

Hammond presents and contributes quite a bit on Radio 4, including presenting “All in the Mind”, and the tone and content of this book reminded me of a typical series of Radio 4 documentaries—interesting, light and witty, but necessarily lacking the depth and rigorous analysis of more formal coverage of the topic.

I enjoyed this book, but didn’t come away from it thinking that I’d covered much new ground.

This 2,475th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , , .




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