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I’ve been reading ‘So Late in the Day’ by Claire Keegan

This is a newly published book, but not a newly published story: it was published in The New Yorker last year, and even translated into French and published as a hardback. For Faber, this feels a bit like a cash-in on Keegan’s Booker shortlisting, like money for old rope, admittedly with the odd word changed. It’s 6,000 words or thereabouts: it would be hard not to read it in a single sitting.

None of which says anything at all about the work itself, which happens to be brilliant. I’ve previously enjoyed Foster and Small Things Like These by the same author, though was left unmoved by The Forester’s Daughter, so my praise for Keegan hasn’t been universal. But I thought So Late in the Day was exceptional. The tone reminded me a bit of the pervasive regret of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels.

It’s hard to write anything meaningful about such a slight novel without giving everything away. Its French title was Misogynie. Our narrator is Cathal, an Irish Civil Servant, and we find him contemplating the history of his relationship with his ex-fiancee. The prose is understated and precisely written.

I would highly recommend it.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, What I've Been Reading, .

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

Molly Ringwald’s translation of Lie With Me, by Philippe Besson, was one of those books which totally disrupted my day as I couldn’t help but read it in a single sitting. The short (148 page) book told the story of an intense romance between two teenage boys in France in 1984. It isn’t completely clear whether it is autobiography or fiction. It was completely transporting, evocative and immersive. By the end, I also found it deeply moving. It left me in a bit of a daze.

Find Me was the sequel to André Aciman’s much-acclaimed Call Me By Your Name (I read that volume in February). It was a rather different book, but no less successful. Find Me was narrated in sections by several of the characters from the original novel at five-year intervals, starting a decade on. The sequel had an altogether gentler, more philosophical tone than the original, which was fitting given that it was written from an adult rather than adolescent perspective. The novel intimately explored a series of romantic relationships, with a interesting musical thread weaved through the book. In all, I thought this was as good as the first book, even if it is very different.

Eradication was Nancy Leys Stepan’s comprehensive history of work to eradicate various infectious diseases, with a unifying thread of examining the life and work of Fred Lowe Soper. Stephan gave a great, sobering illustration of how many attempts at disease eradication have failed for essentially the same reasons. She also gave a balanced account of the dangers of eradication programmes, and in particular the opportunity costs. Stepan sometimes lost me in her discussion of the finer details of some of her examples, but nevertheless convinced me of her central thesis that “eradication campaigns should be exceptional and rare”. This was a great read.

Nuclear War in the UK, by Taras Young, was a bit of a niche title describing the public information campaigns the UK government has run in connection with preparing for nuclear war. It gave a fascinating account of the different approaches used over the years, the reasons that the government chose to adopt these, and the public response. Around half of the book was given over to reproductions of pages from various leaflets and information booklets. I would have liked the content to be extended a little to cover the ‘modern’ attempts at communicating similar info in different circumstances (e.g. 2004’s “Preparing for Emergencies” campaign), but that may have diluted the specificity of the book, and I thought this was great nonetheless.

As we’re in the midst of a general election in the UK, I thought it was a timely moment to read Philip Freeman’s new translation of Cicero’s Commentariolum Petitionis, published as How to Win an Election. This was a letter of no-nonsense advice from Quintus Cicero to his brother Marcus Cicero about how to win the consul election in which he was standing, written in 64BC. Reading this was a little cathartic: for all the many failings of our modern politicians, at least none of our candidates has killed and decapitated the corpse of their brother-in-law. That said, the exhortations for campaigning politicians to make promises they can’t possible keep felt depressingly contemporary (“Broken promises are often lost in a cloud of changing circumstances so that anger against you will be minimal … but if you refuse to make a promise, the result is certain and produces immediate anger in a large number of voters”).

I read the Angus Turvill translation of Nagisa Tatsumi’s The Art of Discarding, a guide to changing one’s relationship with physical “stuff” to avoid accumulating too much. This was music to my ears, as I’m already an anti-hoarder with a strong preference for discarding stuff. The book was a little uncomfortably sexist in places, and could have used a little more emphasis on the environmental aspects of discarding, but I thoroughly enjoyed the slightly smug feeling this book engendered in me.

In 2016, Heathcote Williams published Royal Babylon, a 500-stanza poetic rant about the British Monarchy. I picked this up as last month I enjoyed Williams’s (prose) essay on Boris Johnson. There were similarities between the two in that Royal Babylon also serves as an extended character assassination with many astonishing anecdotes. However, a difference between the two was that the logical argument in Royal Babylon wasn’t clear to me. The book dealt mainly with the character flaws of individual members of the royal family which seemed an odd way to argue for the abolition of monarchy; much as it would be odd for the Boris Johnson book to conclude with a clarion call for the abolition of the post of Prime Minister. Nevertheless, this was an entertaining read.

Philippa Perry used her book How to Stay Sane to set out some simple psychotherapy techniques for maintaining mental health. This was something of an accidental purchase, as I expected a discursive and analytical volume, and got an instructional book of ‘exercises’, none of which I actually did. Nevertheless, while this wasn’t my cup of tea, I appreciated the clean and clear style of writing and the advice within seemed pretty reasonable.

The Courage to Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga has, apparently, become something of an Asian sensation. I picked up the English translation, which I think was translated by the original authors, which is the kind of achievement that could make anyone feel inadequate. The book was a sort of philosophical introduction to the psychological teaching of Alfred Adler. I don’t think I’ve read much about Adler’s ideas before, and so I found this exploration interesting. It certainly challenged conventional wisdom, though I can understand why others have rejected it as unhelpfully victim-blaming. The book is presented as a dialogue between a philosopher and a student, and the authors gave a vigorous defense of this approach in the afterword. Nevertheless, I didn’t take to this format, and found it intensely irritating at times. I would have much preferred a more traditional approach with a clearer explanation of the underlying evidence.

No One is Too Small to Make a Difference was an exceptionally poor form of Greta Thunberg’s persuasive arguments on the urgency of tackling climate change. The volume collected eleven short speeches delivered over eight months: as with anyone giving a series of speeches on an identical topics over a short period of time, Thunberg recycled whole paragraphs from speech to speech, making the book highly repetitious. There was no opportunity for Thunberg to air the detail of her arguments, as a short speech will naturally never dive deeper than key headlines. Thunberg is an inspiration; but unfortunately, this book was neither convincing nor satisfying.

I also continued reading the Faber Stories collection of short books this month.

The Shielding of Mrs Forbes was very Alan Bennett, including a rather wonderful line about “a death that might seem to have more to do with narrative tidiness than driving without due care and attention.” It was a story about the complexity of interwoven family secrets which started with a man continuing a clandestine gay affair on his wedding night and only ramped up from there. This was great fun.

The Inner Room was a Robert Aickman short story in which a young girl chose a doll house as a birthday present and creepy things ensure. I’m not quite sure whether I’d class this as “horror” exactly, but it was certainly weird, tense and atmospheric. I enjoyed it, but not sure I’ll remember it twelve months hence.

Thom Jones’s Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine was the atmospheric story of a young boxer’s fight. It concentrated mostly on the boxer’s thoughts in the run-up to the event. It had a driving plot and a cleverly building sense of tension, but it’s not really a story that stayed with me or taught me any great lesson.

Paradise, by Edna O’Brien, was a 62-page story in which a young woman had swimming lessons while on holiday with her much older and wealthier lover. It’s main theme seemed to be around the tension between meeting the expectations of self-entitled wealthy people and being one’s own person. This struck me as a little pedestrian, and the characters and scenery weren’t especially memorable. I don’t think this book lived up to the promise of its theme.

Claire Keegan’s The Forester’s Daughter was a kind of domestic drama set in rural Ireland about a woman who married a farmer “for want of someone better”. A dog features heavily, including a few lines which are somewhat bizarrely narrated from the dog’s point of view, but with a heavy dose of anthropomorphism (“His urge to roll in the cow-dung is almost irresistible but this is the type of house where they might let a dog sleep inside.”) This left me unmoved.

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