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What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve nine books to tell you about for November, some of which were better than others.

Sombrero Fallout by Richard Brautigan

Before picking up this book, I’d never heard of Richard Brautigan, the American author who died the year before I was born. I decided to read this 1976 novel of his after an acquaintance told me that this was the book they used to judge the quality of a bookshop: only shops stocking Sombrero Fallout were worth visiting. I’ve since learned that this is something Jarvis Cocker says in the introduction to the recent Canongate edition, so not quite as quirky and original as I’d imagined.

Yet quirky and original this short novel certainly is, one of the most singular and enjoyable books I’ve read this year. The eccentric plot concerns an American humorist who has recently split up from his Japanese girlfriend. He starts a new absurd story about a sombrero falling from the sky in a small American town, but discards it after a few paragraphs. However, the story takes on an increasingly preposterous life of its own within the waste paper basket. The book interleaves this developing story with chapters about the humorist and chapters about the Japanese girlfriend. The chapters are rarely longer than a couple of pages, and frequently much shorter.

The writing is surreal and very funny. Brautigan makes some quotable and yet delicate observations about the nature of life, love, longing, and loss. The overall effect is utterly beguiling.

There is something about Brautigan’s writing in this book that reminds me of Italo Calvino, whose worked I loved. I’ll be seeking more.

With thanks to The London Library for lending me a copy.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

My sole reason for picking this up was the Booker prize long-listing. Being nominated for a Booker doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll enjoy a book. But, with a book as short as this, and one with themes of ‘compassion’ and a ‘stern rebuke of sins committed in the name of religion’—the sort of thing that’s right up my street—it seemed worth giving it a go. I’m glad I did.

This short book was brilliant. It’s about morality, and in particular the contrast between the morality of the ordinary person contrasted with the morality of the Catholic Church. It excoriates the latter for its treatment of unmarried women.

The novel is mostly set at Christmas, in 1986, in Ireland. The central character is a coal merchant with a wife and five daughters. He knows that he could have expected much less as the son of an unmarried servant, especially one whose mother died young. His own experiences and moral attitudes are brought into sharp contrast with those of the local convent and Magdalen laundry after an experience while making a coal delivery.

The style of writing is beautifully concise and precise, and the novel as a whole packs a punch far beyond that which its page-count would suggest.

I will definitely be seeking more of Keegan’s work.

With thanks to Newcastle Libraries for lending me a copy.

Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn

This much-recommended book by the Scottish investigative journalist, published in 2021, examines areas of the world which have been abandoned by humans for a wide variety of reasons. From this, she tries to imagine the future of Earth post-humanity (or as Flyn sometimes proposes, after the ‘mammalian era’), and also tries to understand how the end of humanity might arrive.

This sounds terribly depressing, but this is actually a book rooted in hope and beauty, celebrating the power of nature to rebound and adapt. There’s also a fair about of interesting public health stuff in Flyn’s discussion: I was particularly struck by her understanding that after the Chernobyl disaster,

Overall, poverty-linked ‘lifestyle diseases’ and poor mental health pose a far greater threat to affected communities than radiation exposure.

I also especially liked this line from her conclusion, which crystallised many vague thoughts I’d had while reading:

Faith, in the end, is what environmentalism boils down to. Faith in the possibility of change, the prospect of a better future – for green shoots from the rubble, fresh water in the desert. And our faith is often tested.

This was beautifully written, hopeful, and taught me a lot that I didn’t previously know on a whole gamut of topics, from supervolcanoes to how feral cows behave. It was superb.

Foster by Claire Keegan

I picked this up as a result of enjoying Small Things Like These by the same author. It’s another very slim, single-sitting novel set in Ireland which explores societal themes. In this case, the main theme is family.

A young girl is sent from her large, struggling family to stay with foster parents for a few months. We see, through the eyes of the child, the differences between the two family settings, and watch as—over the course of a few short months—she grows and matures.

Like the other novel, this is beautifully written with precise language, the author clearly having weighed every word. The plot here is simple and unremarkable, but Keegan’s eye for detail and realism turn it into something extraordinary.

I think I enjoyed Small Things Like These a dash more, but perhaps that’s only because I read it first and so Keegan’s remarkable style was new to me. Foster is definitely to be recommended, too.

With thanks to The London Library for lending me a copy.

Under Pressure by Richard Humphreys

This 2019 memoir of serving onboard a Polaris nuclear submarine has been on my ‘to read’ list since it was published. It was pure prejudice that meant that it languished on the list: I imagined it was going to be an interesting account of an unusual occupation, but probably written from the exhausting point of view of a navy-lifer with a proselytising view of military service. I was wrong.

Humphreys’s account of his training and subsequent service was illuminating and insightful. His reflections on his mental health, and that of fellow servicemen, particularly in the context of unacceptable bullying and humiliating behaviour from those higher up the chain of command are arresting.

Humphreys also writes elegantly about the philosophical aspects of serving on a nuclear submarine, and the duty to carry out actions which would almost certainly lead to the end of humanity. These are fascinating debates in the abstract, but Humphreys personal experience offers a unique, novel perspective.

I never imagined I’d race through any memoir of military service, but this had me hooked.

With thanks to Newcastle Libraries for lending me a copy.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

I chose to read this short novel, published in 2020, because I previously enjoyed Moss’s Ghost Wall. Summerwater is a similarly atmospheric novel, and I think perhaps I enjoyed it slightly more.

The novel is set on a single rainy day on a Scottish caravan park, near a loch. Each chapter follows a different character staying on the park. While each narrative occasionally mentions the other characters and groups, the whole ‘population’ doesn’t come together until the final section. Between each of the chapters is a short section of writing about the surrounding natural world.

Moss’s crisp writing evokes a claustrophobic, oppressive, tense atmosphere, that somehow also felt entirely relatable.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the final five words, as ordinary as they are, sent chills down my spine and will stay with me for a long time.

With thanks to Newcastle Libraries for lending me a copy.

The Prison Doctor by Amanda Brown and Ruth Kelly

This memoir of a GP’s decision to leave her village surgery and pursue a career in prison medicine has been on my ‘to read’ list since it was published. I put off reading it for a few years because too much of my health protection day job had come to involve prison outbreaks, so I thought it might be too close to home. Two sequels have been published in the meantime, which gives some idea of the book’s commercial success.

The book has three parts: the first covers Brown’s decision to leave general practice, and—in some ways—I found this the most interesting section. Although the change was different, the process and feelings Brown described reminded me of my experiences of moving from hospital medicine into public health. The second section discusses Brown’s early prison career in young offender institutes and men’s prisons, including clinical stories of some prisoners alongside her training and career development. The last section concentrates on her time working in a women’s prison, and concentrates almost exclusively on the clinical vignettes.

I was left with mixed feelings. The book had a certain ‘fictive sheen’, with events and stories feeling neatly contained and complete in a way that’s rarely true in medicine. I’m convinced this is a consequence of changing details to anonymise cases and perhaps creating compound characters, but it just felt a little false. The dialogue also felt awkwardly written, without any ring of authenticity.

On the other hand, this neatness of story and writing made this an effortless read, and Brown and Kelly still gave interesting illustrated insights into the lives of prison medics and their patients… so maybe the slightly ‘glossy’ writing is worth it.

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain

This 2014 French novel was translated by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken, two of the three translators of Laurain’s The President’s Hat, which I previously enjoyed.

This novel is in the long tradition of blind love stories. A woman is mugged and left in a coma. A man finds her discarded handbag and, using its contents, tracks her down and falls in love with her, without ever having met her.

I found this a bit inauthentic and twee. It has the warm tome of The President’s Hat, but is a little too humdrum and unimaginative to have the same charm. The plot was too predictable to be truly engaging, and the behaviour of the central character seemed to me to cross the line into being creepy rather than romantic.

With thanks to Newcastle Libraries for lending me a copy.

Bittersweet by Susan Cain

I have long had a theory that melancholy is under-appreciated in modern British society. I feel especially strongly about this in connection with Christmas. I think Christmas is naturally a time which combines happiness and melancholy, but increasingly, the infantilisation of British society sees it treated exclusively with childlike chirpiness.

All of this led me to believe that I’d find much to enjoy in Bittersweet, Susan Cain’s recent book on the place of sorrow and longing in society, especially as I’d enjoyed her previous book, Quiet.

However, I was a bit disappointed. This felt too focused specifically on American cultural norms for me as a British reader, and it felt focused on a particularly narrow slice even of that society. It felt like there was a certain credulity in the author’s quoting of messages shared on retreats and at narrowly focused conferences.

Bittersweet felt like a memoir of a personal journey into understanding various broadly New Age concepts, presented as popular science—and as a result, it just wasn’t up my street.

With thanks to Newcastle Libraries for lending me a copy.

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What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve eight books to tell you about this month.

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain

I decided to read this 2013 French novel after hearing political journalist Charlotte Ivers, on her fourth or fifth read, describe it as “the most charming book”. It’s translated into English by Jane Aitken, Emily Boyce and Louise Rogers Lalaurie.

I can’t disagree with Charlotte: this is an utterly charming book which is just brimming with a pleasant, gentle optimism. Set in the 1980s, the plot begins with a man finding François Mitterrand’s hat. It seems to bring him a small amount of good fortune. After he misplaces the hat, it ends up in the hands of another Parisian character, and so the book continues with four small vignettes of ordinary Parisian lives enhanced by temporary possession of a hat.

It sounds irritatingly twee, but Laurain manages to spin a comforting and engaging tale of it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Some translation decisions were unusual: for examplesommelier, a term frequently used in England, is routinely translated as ‘wine waiter’ yet motoscafo, an unfamiliar term, was left in French. But these are minor niggles, and this book is well worth 200 pages of your attention.

With thanks to Newcastle Libraries for lending me a copy.

A Month in the Country by JL Carr

This novel, first published in 1980, has been much-recommended as a book which is perfect summer reading. It is a rather gentle tale set in Yorkshire in the summer of 1920. Thomas Birkin, the central character, is an ex-serviceman who accepts a job in Oxgodby, Yorkshire, to get out of London for something approximating a period of convalescence. His task is to uncover a Medieval painting which has been whitewashed in the local church.

Birkin becomes drawn into village life, becoming especially close to another ex-serviceman who is digging for a lost grave, a young girl from the village, and the parson’s wife. He develops especially strong feelings for the latter.

There is a lot of gentle hinting in the book at religious themes of damnation, redemption, and forgiveness. It’s a short book, under 100 pages, but is rich in atmosphere and description while maintaining an underlying gentleness. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

With thanks to Newcastle Libraries for lending me a copy.

The Last Days of Roger Federer by Geoff Dyer

I’ve previously read and enjoyed Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It and so was tempted by this new book when I noticed that the library had acquired a copy. Much like the earlier book, it’s an extended and somewhat rambling essay recounting the author’s personal experiences and a wide range of cultural touchstones. This volume concentrates on ‘endings’ and draws on a lot of literature, jazz, art, classical music and other references.

Many of the references are beyond me, but Dyer’s engaging and funny style of writing and the pace of the ’conversation’ keeps things moving on. And there are occasional passages which speak directly to me, or make me see things from a wholly new perspective.

In all, a bit like the earlier book, I’m not really sure why I liked this, especially given that so many of the references were unfamiliar… but I very much did.

With thanks to Newcastle Libraries for lending me a copy.

The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal

I had two reasons for picking this up. Firstly, there has been a lot of recent discussion of the Elkhart of Vidal as the tenth anniversary of his death has just passed, and I thought it would be good to read some of his work. Secondly, I recently read A Ladder to the Sky which features Vidal as a character and includes a few mentions of this specific book, with which it turns out to share some minor themes.

The City and the Pillar caused considerable controversy on its 1948 publication for its portrayal of an ordinary, somewhat sympathetic gay man who served in the military. Clearly, this is much less shocking to modern sensibilities, but the story still holds up as a tale of longing, and as a criticism of prejudice. The writing is in that plain, precise style of the great American writers, which I enjoyed.

I’m glad I read this because it gave me a bit of historical perspective. However, I wouldn’t rush to re-read it; I wasn’t really moved by it, and I’m not really sure that I’ll remember the finer details of the plot six months hence.

With thanks to The London Library for lending me a copy.

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri

I picked up this novel having previously enjoyed Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies.

Lahiri’s previous novels were written in English, while she was living in the USA. She has since relocated to Rome, and wrote and published Whereabouts in Italian in 2018, as Dove Me Trovo. It was translated by the author and re-published in English in 2021.

Whereabouts is a subtle novel. It takes the form of short essays or reflections on the life and inner thoughts of a single woman in her 40s, living alone and working as an academic. It explores the fascinating intersection between solitude and loneliness. This relationship is something which has played on my mind in recent years in connection with older people, but I hadn’t really considered it in younger people who live alone. There isn’t much plot to speak of, but then it’s not that sort of novel.

While I didn’t feel I took quite as much from this book as I did from Interpreter of Maladies, I will certainly be seeking more of Lahiri’s books.

With thanks to The London Library for lending me a copy.

Weather by Jenny Offill

I picked this up because I recently enjoyed Offill’s previous novel, Dept. of Speculation. Weather was published in 2020, and shares the same fragmentary structure of short paragraphs sharing the protagonist’s tangentially connected thoughts and observations. The later novel is even lighter on plot than the earlier one.

Weather contains plenty of thoughts about the turbulent times in which we live: about populism and climate change and ‘the end times’. But it is also about marriage, family, parenthood and addiction, all of which loom large in the university librarian narrator’s life.

I felt like I got a little less from this book than from the earlier novel, but perhaps that is in part because the structure wasn’t so arrestingly novel. The references to the difficult times in which we are living also served to make it a little less escapist. But I’m still glad I read it.

With thanks to Newcastle Libraries for lending me a copy.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Two of my friends on Goodreads gave this short 1911 novel good reviews, which led me to seek a copy. It’s a thoroughly bleak tale of the despair of forbidden love, and of being trapped by circumstance and duty.

In all, this was thoroughly depressing. I appreciate Wharton’s brilliance in creating a complete world which evokes strong emotions in so few pages… but this isn’t the sort of thing I could stand to read regularly!

With thanks to The London Library for lending me a copy.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

I picked this short 2013 Booker shortlisted novel on a complete whim, based on nothing more than the author and the title. It’s a narrative of the last days of Jesus from the perspective of his mother.

Despite this being a very short book, I had a bit of a variable relationship with it. I very nearly gave up on it about halfway through, finding the narrator unlikable and the writing very much in a single, maudlin key. When I picked it up again, I liked it more, though it still felt as though the “strings” were visible, as if this were an essay for a school project, and I wasn’t really emotionally affected by it. The writing felt much clunkier than I expected. I suspect I’ll barely remember that I’ve read this book a year hence.

However, this is a book which has received glowing reviews elsewhere, from people who know much more about these things than me. Don’t set too much store by my negative review. It’s less than 100 pages, so probably just worth reading and making up your own mind.

With thanks to Newcastle Libraries for lending me a copy.

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