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What I’ve been reading this month

There are seven books that I’ve read in October that I’d like to tell you about.


The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

The first word that comes to mind to describe Elif Shafak’s recently published novel is ‘magical’. At its heart is a love story in between a Greek Christian (Kostas) and a Turkish Muslim (Defne) on Cyprus in the 1970s, just as the violent coup divided the island along those very lines. But this isn’t only a love story: it’s a story of how history echos for future generations, with the novel moving backwards and forward in time between 1970s Cyprus and 2010s London.

In the 2010s, Kostas and Defne’s teenage daughter Ada is mourning her mother’s recent death and having a difficult time of doing so, partly because of the influence of social media. Ada’s parents have fiercely protected Ada from their traumatic past in Cyprus and brought her up to consider herself to be British. The arrival of Ada’s Cypriot maternal aunt pierces that barrier (and also brings with her a whole load of charming Cypriot aphorisms).

Complex human emotions are obviously in abundance. Shafak’s masterstroke is to make one of the main narrators a fig tree: and what a fig tree! The tree itself was displaced from Cyprus to London along with the family. She (and yes, it is a she) brings her own altered perception of the passage of time, and a warm appreciation for the complex emotional relationships between the characters, and between the characters and their countries.

And the ending was breathtaking.

I’ve only read one other novel by Shafak: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World was one of my favourite books of 2020. The Island of Missing Trees is entirely different, yet certainly one of my favourite books of 2021. I can’t wait to make my way through her back catalogue.


The Echo Chamber by John Boyne

Just out in hardback, this is John Boyne’s new comedic novel, which skewers society’s obsession with social media. The epigraph is from Umberto Eco, and summaries the thesis succinctly:

Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community. Then they were quickly silenced, but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It’s the invasion of the idiots.

The main characters make up the Cleverley family, all five members of whom are irredeemably awful people. George, the patriarch, is the host of a BBC TV chat show which has been running for decades. Beverley, his wife, is nominally a writer of romance novels, though makes extensive use of ghostwriters. Alike with their three young adult children, the two hold themselves in unfathomably high esteem. Each member of the family makes use of social media for self-promotional purposes.

As with Boyne’s last novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, the plot is fairly ridiculous. The previous novel used a mad plot as an opportunity to string together a series of moments of high emotional drama. This novel uses one to string together a series of laugh-out-loud set pieces into one long downward spiral of farcical consequences. This is a very funny book, with lots of satirical contemporary references. (And, to note, Maude Avery—one of my favourite literary characters after her introduction in the previous novel—is referenced several times in this one.)

While this is a skewering of social media, it’s hard not to notice that social media delivers justice in the book, albeit by perverted misguided means. Through that authorial decision, Boyne leaves some interesting questions to ponder, rather than just writing off the whole medium.

I thoroughly enjoyed this.


Sad Little Men by Richard Beard

This recently published polemic against England’s private boarding schools for boys had me riveted from start to finish. This book is a reckoning with the emotional and character damage inflicted on Beard by being sent off to boarding school at the age of eight. It is also a condemnation of the impact of these schools on the country at large, given the astonishing proportion of senior figures in public life who share this background. This includes twenty-eight of the last thirty-two Prime Ministers (an astonishing statistic, even if the school lives of people born in the early 1800s ought to have little relevance to a twenty-first century argument).

This isn’t a balanced book: it is passionate, angry, withering, and all the more readable for it. That said, it is written with enough subtlety to allow us to feel sympathy for the immediate ‘victims’ as children. This is no mean feat given the illustration of the devastating, sometimes deadly, consequences for the rest of us as their adult sense of confidence and entitlement outstrips their competence.

While not discussed in the book at any length, this made me view from a new perspective the frequent political talk about ‘British values’—a soundbite often used but rarely defined. I’ve often thought that it’s essentially a dog whistle for racism. However, Beard’s book made me reflect that it perhaps has a whole other layer, recalling the perverted ‘values’ of class preservation and emotional repression that seem associated with these institutions.


The Coward by Jarred McGinnis

This recently published semi-autobiographical first novel by Jarred McGinnis opens with the main character in his mid-20s waking up in hospital following a car accident. He learns that his passenger has been killed and that he has suffered spinal cord damage which has rendered his legs paralysed. From there, McGinnis follows the story forward, to find out how Jarred learns to live with his disability. In alternating chapters, we also follow Jarred’s childhood in a violent home, and his reaction to his mother’s death early in his life.

What emerges is a portrait of a complex man, flawed in myriad ways and—maybe like us all—affected in profound ways by both his upbringing and life events. In particular, Jarred’s changing relationship with his father is explored: having run away from his alcoholic father and having not spoken for several years, his accident means that he ends up living back in his childhood home with his father caring for him again.

This is a book of complex and ever-changing relationships, filled with characters which feel real and multi-faceted. Somehow, despite the darkness, the book feels somehow up-lifting. It is also hilarious, filled with dry wit and very dark humour.

This was off-beat, moving, tender and laugh-out-loud funny.


Lord by João Gilberto Noll

I read Edgar Garbelotto’s 2008 translation of this short and very strange 2004 novel about a Brazilian writer who comes to the UK at the invitation of a Londoner. The protagonist is confused from the start, and descends into further confusion as the novel progresses. It’s always dangerous to diagnose a fictional character, but this seems to be a portrait of some sort of dementia.

In essence, this is a very readable study of what it is like to lose your sense of person, place and time—involving a surprising and perhaps disturbing number of casual sexual encounters. There are several points where it is unclear whether the narrated events are simply confections of the protagonist’s confused mind, or whether they have some basis in the novel’s reality.

This is precisely the right length, in that it can easily be consumed in a single sitting and doesn’t drag to the point that the confusion just begets reader frustration. Instead, the novel is rather reflective and thought-provoking.


Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux

I read Tanya Leslie’s 1993 translation of Ernaux’s 1991 autobiographical essay about the passion she felt during her affair with a married man. I picked this up after seeing Eric’s Lonesome Reader review.

Choosing to try to translate the overwhelming intensity of feeling into a short book is an interesting enterprise. The autobiographical nature of the work also means that there is a superimposed layer of societal judgement on Ernaux’s essay, which she tries to disregard but perhaps concentrates on more as a result of the attempt.

I particularly liked Ernaux’s honesty in exploring the darker aspects of her passion: even very intense positive feelings have their immediate downsides, as does the longing between encounters. All-consuming feelings consume the positives as well as negatives.


A Perfect Waiter by Alain Claude Sulzer

I read this 2004 novel in its 2008 English translation by John Brownjohn. I had picked this book up having seen several reviews which compared it to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, which is one of my favourite novels.

Sulzer’s novel is mostly set in 1930s Switzerland, where Erneste works as a waiter in a grand hotel. He has a passionate affair with a younger waiter, Jakob, and their perceptions vary as to the significance of the relationship. The novel is narrated from the perspective of Ernest as an older man, looking back on his time with Jakob after the latter has re-established contact after many years.

To me, this book shared few similarities with the Ishiguro novel. The main theme of Ishiguro’s novel is of regret at a life spent in service of the wrong ideals. The main theme of Sulzer’s novel is the limits of the extent to which we can ever know the lives and minds of other people. In theme and emotion, the two are fundamentally different, and I’m not sure the comparison is fair or helpful.

The writing was also less good: Ishiguro’s novel was evocative of its setting and time, whereas I didn’t find Sulzer’s transporting, more because the prose seemed humdrum than because the setting was unremarkable. Ishiguro’s novel clouds deep attachment in the language of restrained period ’Englishness’ whereas Sulzer’s novel reads as just a little oddly detached from his central characters.

This was just a bit disappointing, but perhaps the comparison meant that it was always destined to be.

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What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve made it through another eleven books this month. I only aim to read about a book a week, but quite a few of these were rather short!


Pale Rider by Laura Spinney

In the couple of years since it was published, Laura Spinney’s history of the 1918 influenza pandemic has been recommended to me by more health protection colleagues than any other book.

Spinney did a great job of weaving together, virology, public health, history and sociology to create a genuinely thrilling volume on a subject that is often treated as a little dry. Spinney brought it to life while also comprehensively covering her brief, and used a light and engaging touch as well as lots anecdotes to illustrate larger points.

It took me a little longer to get through this than my enthusiasm for the book would imply, but only because my days have been filled with coronavirus work lately, and reading about something similar for pleasure seemed a bit masochistic!


A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov

I picked this up because my Goodreads friend Richard Smith called it “marvellous” and it sounded right up my street. I agree with his assessment.

In this book, Bulgakov describes the experience of being newly qualified and the sole doctor attached to a rural hospital in Russia in 1917. I may have started as a junior doctor (in Newcastle upon Tyne) some 91 years later than Bulgakov (and, for that matter, 32 years after Richard—sorry!) but the stories resonated.

The terror and reading up before shifts; the heart-in-mouth adrenaline rush as the DECT phone rings (or the nurse knocks on the doctor’s bedroom door in Bulgakov’s case!); the conspiratorial performance of maintaining the fiction for patients that the doctor knows exactly what they’re doing, even while being gently steered by the nurses. Even the twin comfort and dread brought by heavy snow felt familiar—comfort as fewer patients will turn up and I might have chance to think, but dread as I have to cope with the weather too.

There was an engaging emotional range to the book, from the amusing and absurd to the tragic. I’m fortunate not to have seen any colleagues become addicted to controlled drugs, and count myself very lucky given the statistics not to have had close experience of doctor colleagues ending their own lives… or murdering healthy patients.

The first mention of Leopold Leopoldovitch in the book reminded me that I watched the TV adaptation of this starring Jon Hamm, Daniel Radcliffe and the scene-stealing Vicki Pepperdine in 2012. I remember enjoying it, but don’t remember enough of the content to have any idea of how closely it followed the book.

The version I read was the 1975 translation by Michael Glenny: other (newer) English translations are available, but it’s hard to imagine how they could be any better!


Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

My parents bought me this for Christmas… at my request. It wasn’t a unfestive forced selection, but rather a book I’d wanted to read because the reviews were so good.

Higginbotham gave a brilliantly written and researched account of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster. I found it gripping.

Higginbotham managed not only to explain nuclear physics in a way that I could understand, his characterisations of the key figures in the story were excellent. It’s rare to read someone who is this good at writing about complex science and the human aspect of a story.

Thoroughly recommended.


Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch

I feel sorry for the person who spent ages on the cover design for this book, but this dust-cover-less copy is what the library supplied, and so that’s the picture I’m sticking with. There’s no photoshopping to meet literary beauty standards here!

Because Internet was a study of informal, casual written English, with a particular focus on the internet since, McCulloch argued, the advent of the internet has allowed academics to study informal writing extensively. Prior to the internet, informal writing was generally private (diaries, letters, shopping lists) whereas it is now commonly public (forum posts, tweets, blog posts).

To me, that insight alone was worth the effort of reading this book. I have never pondered the extent to which analyses of written English have been informed only by formal written English, and I’ve never before really thought about how the present generation is the first to publicly express itself in informal English. There’s a lot of food for thought in that.

But McCulloch had much more besides in this volume, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Sometimes, books are so insightful as to explain to the reader why the reader does things which just seem automatic: this is one of those books.

McCulloch managed that very difficult feat of marrying rigorous academic analysis with clear and accessible explanations, a lightness of touch, levity and wit. I thought this book was great.


Mostly Hero by Anna Burns

While this was first published in 2014, the copy I picked up was newer: a part of the 2019 extension to the Faber Stories series I read last year. This volume somewhat stretched the bounds of definition of “short story”: at 127 pages, this was really a novella rather than a short story, and the cover price was consequently higher than the rest of the (much slimmer) volumes in the series.

All of that said, I thought this was a very clever book which I enjoyed reading. Burns presented a sort of literary take on comic book superhero stories, which I’m almost tempted to call “spoof”: it riffed to great effect on common comic book tropes, but Burns also gave the story real depth and meaning. Mostly Hero was inventive and played with language in creative and interesting ways.

At heart, it was a love story featuring a character named “hero” and one named “femme fatale”, but it ranged much wider than that single genre despite its short length. Burns had interesting things to say on societal expectations, gender and the nature of good and evil, all of which were explored under the cover of the absurd cartoonish world she created.


Moral Essays: Volume II by Seneca

When I read the first volume of Seneca’s moral essays translated by John W Basore in 2018, I was completely blown away and read the whole thing pretty quickly.

I’ve read this second volume a section at a time over a much longer period, and don’t think I got quite as much out of it as with the ‘total immersion’ approach of the first volume. The slightly dated language of Basore’s 1932 translation takes some getting used to. The print quality in some parts of my copy wasn’t great, which took me out of the moment a few times.

All of that said, this was still brilliant, and doesn’t feel like it was written millennia ago.


Grandeur and Greed by Giles Smith

Take a journalist best known for writing columns about sport and music, send him to review five of Europe’s great art galleries, and Grandeur and Greed is the result.

In this short volume published in 2019, Smith reviews The Louvre, The Prado, The Rijksmuseum, The Uffizi and The National Gallery. Each enjoys an off beat and lighthearted review from someone with a casual interest in art. Smith even reviews the cafes. I found this short, light, funny and insightful.

I think it’s the other that the physical format of the book was, however, poor: it is very flimsy, and the binding means that a large central portion of the impressive double-page photography is lost in the gutter. Smith’s reviews were originally published online, and I’m not sure that enough thought has been given to the transfer to the physical page.


I Remain in Darkness by Annie Ernaux

This was a moving account of a daughter’s relationship with her mother, as the latter develops and ultimately dies from Alzheimer’s disease. I read the translation by Tanja Leslie.

Reading this book made me reflect that it probably shocks less today than it did when it was published some 23 years ago. Over the last couple of decades, I think societal awareness and understanding of dementia illnesses has increased markedly over what is really quite a short period of time. I think some of the exposition about the illness would be handled differently today.

Nevertheless, this remains a powerful emotional account.


Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton

This newly-released novel was set in a three-hour period during which a school in Somerset was attacked by shooters who also had explosive devices. The book was set in the present day and had a contemporary feel, with Lupton weaving in many of the touchstone issues in the social and political debates of our time (Brexit, Katie Hopkins, Donald Trump, etc). There were also a few decent plot twists along the way.

I enjoyed this, but I felt slightly removed from the action: I felt more of an observer. I think this was partly because some of the plot stretched credibility (would a British rolling news channel really interview someone caught up in this while they were in hiding in the school?) and partly because of the heavy-handed and slightly tiresome way Lupton drew comparisons between her plot and Shakespeare.


Defeated by Brexit by Chris Cook

In this short 2019 book, Chris cook gave a good insight into the Government’s chaotic approach to Brexit. Unfortunately, his analysis ended at a point in time which seems odd in retrospect (a few weeks before Theresa May’s resignation). The text was also a bit too long for an overview, and a little too short to really get stuck into the detail. I think there are probably better books on this topic.

This was published by the same house as the Giles Smith book, and was similarly flimsy.


Dreamerika! by Alan Burns

This 1972 surrealist fantasy was my least favourite book of the month my some considerable distance. I’ve no doubt that Dreamerika! has artistic merit, and it was certainly very clever, but the collage style of cut-out headlines interspersed with paragraphs of discontinuous text was just not my kind of thing.

This was recommended by the London Review Book Shop, and I’m glad I tried it, but it made me realise that I need a good bit of prose to get stuck into a book.

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