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What I’ve been reading this month

This has felt like a month where I haven’t read much, but the above photo suggests otherwise. I think it is just that this has been a very long month: it seems like a very long time since I read some of these!


Florence Nightingale by Cecil Woodham-Smith

This 1950 biography was first recommended to me in a conversation seven years ago, and has cropped up with some regularity since. The recommendation has always been accompanied by the comment that this book is hard to get hold of as it is out of print. Copies do now seem to be available on Amazon, but I read a copy from The London Library.

It is astonishingly good.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the subject of this biography was clearly remarkable. I hadn’t previously appreciated the full breadth of Nightingale’s achievements or the strength of her character, and I was blown away.

Secondly, this is brilliantly written. The prose is exact, the subject matter is well-organised and clearly explained, and the depth of the underlying research almost drips off the page. It feels like it could have been published today, and yet is a little over seventy years old. This is one of those biographies that gives real insight into the character of the subject, and draws out clear lessons from their life: it is so much more than a list of facts. I can scarcely believe that this was Woodham-Smith’s first history book: hers was clearly a remarkable talent.

Perhaps those who know a little more about Nightingale’s life would take less from this than I did, but this is one of my favourite books of the year.


The Status Game by Will Storr

I’ve raved about Will Storr for a long time: his talent as a writer and a journalist is truly remarkable, and he deserves every accolade. His byline on one of his signature long-form newspaper or magazine articles guarantees a fascinating read and new insights, even if the subject at hand isn’t something that appears immediately interesting.

It’s therefore no surprise at all that I loved this recently published book of his about social status and how it drives human psychology. His argument is that the acquisition of social status drives everything we do, without our realisation, and even when we believe we are acting altruistically. We all want to be heroes.

As in all of his writing, Storr takes a broad view of his topic. His discussion encompasses serial killers, social media ‘celebrities’, the history of religion, and (slightly less convincingly) the rise of the Nazis. He writes very interestingly on psychology, and how each person’s perception of the world differs markedly. Storr’s storytelling style holds the text together, with an appreciable dash of wry humour.

Storr’s insights always live long in my memory, perhaps because I enjoy his writing so much, and perhaps because of his memorable storytelling style.

While I loved this book, I’m not sure whether it’s the first I’d recommend to people new to Storr’s writing as his central thesis (while convincing to me) might prove a bit of a barrier: I’d perhaps suggest that Selfie is the best starting point (or his reams of journalism).


Spider Woman by Lady Hale

This recently published autobiography by the former President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom was absorbing and inspiring.

This is Lady Hale’s account of her professional life, from her time at school and through her legal career. Her passion for her subject shines through on every page: there are not many people who could be so excited by an exam question as for it to feature in their autobiography, but it happens in here. Her enthusiasm is infectious. It is clear, too, especially from Hale’s accounts of complex family law cases, how much she is interested in the effects of the law on “real people’s lives”.

Beyond her childhood, Hale touches only very lightly on her personal life, though I was moved by the deeply personal “afterthoughts”.

Mostly, though, I found this book inspiring. Hale’s dedication to her profession, and her strength and stamina—even in the face of endless sexism—are remarkable.


A Redbird Christmas by Fannie Flagg

This 2004 short novel was another recommendation from my friend Julie, who previously recommended Flagg’s Welcome to the World, Baby Girl! which I enjoyed earlier this year.

This is an inconsequential but heartwarming story about a dying man moving from a city to a small rural town in the southern United States. It’s a book that all about generating warm feelings with a gentle pace, straightforward plot and a cast of entirely good-natured characters (one of whom is a redbird).

This isn’t a book with any great life lessons or new insights into character; rather, it’s a lovely, heartwarming yarn which I found to be a very relaxing read.


Theft by Finding by David Sedaris

This is the American humourist’s first volume of diary extracts, published in 2017 and covering 1977 to 2002. If you are familiar with Sedaris’s work, you’ll know what to expect: wry but insightful observations on growing up in the USA, plus life in Paris and the UK.

As you might expect, I found Sedaris’s earlier writing (before he began writing professionally) less engaging than his later work, but I enjoyed this nevertheless.


Pandemonium by Armando Iannucci

Published this month, this is Iannucci’s parody of an epic poem telling the story of the UK Government’s response to the covid-19 pandemic. It is brief, and yet by turns silly, quotable, depressing and very funny. Andy Riley’s illustrations are quite brilliant, fitting the tone and content of the book while also adding their own dimension.

However, I think the fact that every day at work Is still dominated by the pandemic means that I don’t have the psychological distance from recent events to enjoy this to the full.


The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

This recent publication is one of six novels by Korelitz, and the only one I’ve read. The novel follows Jacob ‘Finch’ Bonner, a down-on-his-luck author who we first meet as a teacher on a writing programme.

An irritatingly over-confident student of Bonner’s has a plot for a book which he considers to be guaranteed massive literary success. The student outlines the plot to Bonner, and then dies before finishing his work, only a few pages of which Bonner has seen. Bonner then appropriates the student’s plot without attribution, has an incredible hit, and begins receiving threatening messages from someone who knows his ‘terrible secret’. This is standard thriller territory.

I picked this up because of reading endless rave reviews. I was familiar with the outline of the plot, and thought it would be fun to read a book which, through its own premise, would have to cleverly work its way around revealing the plot of the book concerned. After all, it wouldn’t be possible to write a convincing novel about a spectacular, world-altering book and also reveal the contents of that book. I assumed it would need to be tightly constructed, probably with a dose of humour, to build tension around something that could never be convincingly revealed.

It turns out that the book isn’t nearly that clever. The character’s plot is explored at length, and we even get extracts from the character’s book. The plot of the character’s book is also pretty standard thriller fare, which means that it doesn’t really support the superstructure the novel builds around it.

Korelitz also introduces some discussion about the morality of retelling stories, comparing this with cultural appropriation in a way which seems to misunderstand the long tradition of the former and the ethical challenge of the latter.

This was a good holiday thriller, but wasn’t nearly the complex, layered, literary novel the reviews (and perhaps my preconceptions) had led me to expect.


All In It Together by Alwyn Turner

This is a recently published history of UK politics in the years 2000 to (roughly) 2015, told mostly from the perspective of the newspaper coverage of the time. Turner tries to place the politics in a context though plentiful references to popular media.

I was surprised that I found this a bit of a slog. For example, Turner devotes many more pages to Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown than to the 2005 London bombings, which is a curious approach. For all the strange choices, Turner never reaches broader conclusions nor draws out the hidden themes behind the history of the times. As a result, this ended up feeling like an eclectic collection of stories with little unifying thread, and I was left wondering what point (if any) Turner was trying to make.


Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

I read this famous 1951 fictional memoir in the 1954 translation by Grace Frick, in a London Library volume which has been borrowed more than two dozen times before I was born. It takes the form of a letter written by Hadrian to Marcus Aurelius, reflecting on his life.

This book has been recommended to me several times, is well-loved by friends, and highly rated on Goodreads. It’s therefore a bit awkward to admit that I didn’t really enjoy it.

There is much to like: I took numerous quotations from the book and enjoyed its reflective and somewhat melancholy tone, especially towards the end. However, for reasons I can quite put my finger on, I was never quite able to suspend my disbelief and become absorbed in this book. I kept questioning what was fact and what was fiction, and whether Hadrian really would have seen things in the way Yourcenar suggests. This is partly because my knowledge of Roman history is weak.

The overall effect was that I felt like I read this at a remove, rather than becoming emotionally involved. The result of that was that it felt more like studying a text than becoming immersed in a novel. While that’s not an experience I’m totally averse to, it isn’t what I expected or hoped for from this book.

I often think that we only connect with books if they find us in the right mood. Perhaps I just read it at the wrong time.


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What I’ve been reading this month

This is the sixty-second of these monthly posts about what I’ve been reading, and I’ve got seven books to mention.


A Chess Story by Stefan Zweig

This is Zweig’s 1941 novella, only 80 pages in length, which I read in Alexander Starritt’s 2013 translation. Some translations have been published with the original title The Royal Game, which I think I prefer. 

With such a short book, it’s hard to talk much about the plot without giving away key details. The setting is a ship travelling from New York to Buenos Aires. Our narrator discovers that a chess world champion is on board, and a number of matches follow.

Zweig crams more food for thought into 80 pages than most full-length novels. His main theme seems to deal both explicitly and allegorically with Nazism, largely from a psychological perspective. There is a brilliant account of prolonged isolation and it’s psychological effects. And the plot itself moves at a reasonable lick.

This was very easily read in a single sitting, and well worth it.


The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird

My friend Rachael recommended this to me as a book which, despite being very close to home, she’d raced through in a couple of days. Published earlier this year, but written pre-covid, it is a novel set mostly in the UK in the near future concerning a global pandemic. Unlike covid, the pathogen in the book affects only men and has a very high mortality rate.

This was a great recommendation. 

The plot and characterisation are, to be honest, a bit bonkers: for example, one of the main characters is an A&E consultant who loves the ‘certainty’ of medicine (is there any specialty that’s less about certainty and more about balancing risk than emergency medicine?) and who changes to a completely different specialty overnight, with no training. 

The book has a cast of different narrators, and the vast majority of the narration is by female characters. This is a really inspired creative choice, widening the scope of the novel and focussing on those ‘left behind’, and most of the recurring characters were well fleshed-out. The decision to have the occasional standalone chapters widened the field even further. The gender issue feels like it would have attracted more controversy in reverse, though it’s not like the world is short on books written from a male perspective about the deaths of women.

The choice to include ‘newspaper articles’ as chapters was weakened by deciding that those articles should be first-person narrated, in the same style as every other chapter. The writing throughout struck me as pretty pedestrian.

But you know what? For all its faults, I raced through this book much as Rachael did. It feels wrong to call a book about the deaths of millions “fun”, but it really was. And perhaps even a little cathartic.


The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Published in 2011, this is Madeline Miller’s much-acclaimed retelling of the story of the Trojan War, focused on the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. It is narrated from the perspective of Patroclus.

My knowledge of Greek mythology isn’t great, though I think I remember a little bit from school. I was a little nervous of reading this despite all the recommendations because I thought it might be a little too fantastical for me, what with all the gods and centaurs and everything… but at its heart, this is a story about the nature of love and courage, and the context was so well realised by the author (helped, no doubt, by centuries of earlier material for which the author has a clear passion) that I didn’t find it to be a barrier.

This was both a thrilling page-turner and a love story, and I enjoyed both equally.


When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

This is Sedaris’s 2008 collection of humorous autobiographical essays, and I was predisposed to enjoy it given that I’ve enjoyed all of his other similar volumes. 

This one had a fantastic essay about time spent in a Medical Examiner’s office (‘The Monster Mash’) which brought back memories of my medical school elective spent in a Medical Examiner’s office in Calgary. One of the essays also had some examples of strange English phrases spotted in Japan (‘The Smoking Section’) which made me choke on a drink on public transport, resulting in coughing fit which has become entirely socially unacceptable in the pandemic era.


The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

This is Annie Dillard’s 1989 collection of short essays on how she writes, and the process of writing in general. I don’t write for a living (obviously), but much of what Dillard says in this book felt familiar from the times when I have done bits of writing here and there, and I enjoyed the deeper insights of such a well-regarded and talented writer.

This was well worth reading considering its short length.


The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies

Carys Davies’s much-celebrated 2014 collection of seventeen short stories wasn’t really up my street. This isn’t that surprising, and nor should it put you off: I’m not generally a fan of collections of short stories.

The lengths in this collection are highly varied, from a few sentences to thirty or so pages. I didn’t pick up any particular theme running through the collection, though quite a few of the stories contain unexpected twists, and I suppose in retrospect that most of them build up some kind of tension or suspense. I particularly enjoyed the titular story, and also ‘Sybil’, but it was ‘The Quiet’ which was the standout story for me.

However, many of the others in the collection did nothing for me at all, and unfortunately I don’t think that the signal to noise ratio was great enough that I’d want to pick up another of Davies’s collections.


When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön

I picked this book up because I’d heard about it in passing somewhere, and evidently had the wrong end of the stick. I had understood that it was an autobiographical account of personal suffering and challenge and insightful tips on how to cope with life “when things fall apart.” It isn’t really that. First published in 1997, it’s an introduction to several aspects of Buddhist practice, explained in an accessible and relatable way, with lots of personal anecdote thrown in and a warm, caring, personal tone.

While this was interesting and easy to read, I don’t think I would have picked it up had I done my research first, as it’s not really my kind of thing. I won’t be picking up any of Chödrön’s other (many) books—but if this is a topic you want to read about, this book seems like an approachable starting point.

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What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve read some really good books this month, and also some I liked a little less…


Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

The 2020 Booker Prize winner was, for me, a Christmas present from Wendy. It is one of those books so universally praised that it doesn’t really matter what I write about it, because the tonne of critical and popular opinion far outweighs the thoughts of a person on the internet.

For what it’s worth, I thought it was brilliant. It is the story of the relationship between young Shuggie Bain and his alcoholic mother Agnes. It follows them while Shuggie is growing up, from the age of five to fifteen, against the backdrop of impoverished Glasgow in the 1980s.

It has everything: deep characterisation, moving plot, social commentary, beautifully lyrical writing, profound insight, and more. It is superb.

I’m reminded of Jeffrey Archer whinging through one of his characters that literary prizes are never given to “storytellers”: this book conclusively proves him wrong.


There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness by Carlo Rovelli

Published in English last year, this is physicist Carlo Rovelli’s collection of newspaper and magazine articles, mostly from Italian publications over the last decade and translated here by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell. As the author says in his preface,

the pieces collected here are like brief diary entries recording the intellectual adventures of a physicist who is interested in many things and who is searching for new ideas—for a wide but coherent perspective.

I thoroughly enjoyed this, from the columns on (what seem to me to be) minutiae of physics to the wider social and cultural commentaries, though the latter held more appeal for me. Rovelli writes engagingly and insightfully on everything from the covid pandemic to activism, and from his experiences taking LSD to his atheism. There is always something interesting about hearing people with a huge amount of knowledge and understanding of one area of life applying their perspective and approach to something different… though the three-part essay on black holes also sparkles and his tribute to Stephen Hawking moves.

I haven’t read any of Rovelli’s books before now (despite them selling in their millions), but the quality of his writing and the clarify of his imagery has got me adding them to my “to read” list.


Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

This is Julian Barnes’s 2013 genre-defying short book. It consists of three essays which are thematically connected in myriad unexpected ways: ‘The Sin of Height’ is a biography of the first aerial photographer, Nadar; ‘On the Level’ is a fictional romance between adventurer Fred Burnaby and actress Sarah Burnhardt; and ‘The Loss of Depth’ is memoir, dealing with Barnes’s experience of grief following the death of his wife.

Altogether, this makes for an exceptional portrait of love and grief. It is deeply moving and feels at times painfully honest, and even has the occasional sparkle of humour. It feels both raw, yet also thoughtful and considered. It deepened my understanding of both love and grief.

It’s no secret that Barnes can write, but it is almost impossible to grasp how he covers such expansive territory with such emotional depth in only 128 pages. Exceptional.


Banking On It by Anne Boden

Anne Boden, founder of Starling Bank, recently published this book about the experience of launching her own bank. Through the press, I’ve followed the story of Starling and it’s competition with rival Monzo over a number of years: indeed, I am a Starling customer. I picked up this book as I was keen to learn more.

This turned out to be a real page-turner, giving a lot of insight into what it is like to develop a seed of an idea into a huge business. Boden, a woman in her 50s from Wales, is not the typical model of a financial technology entrepreneur, and faces a number of challenges as a result of her “outsider” status and her desire to challenge the status quo of the banking world. The book opens with the story of her taking her final job in traditional banking as Chief Operating Officer of AIB, and her decision to take on a job which she knows will be unpleasant yet extremely challenging sets up many of her persistent character traits.

Boden reflects at length on the transition from working as a senior banker in traditional firms to setting up her own business. Boden openly discusses her strength and weakness, and the missteps she has made along the way. It was also interesting to have some insight into the regulatory processes that accompany setting up a new bank, all of which were new to me.

Boden talks in some detail about the events which led co-founder Tom Blomfield, along with other senior members of staff, to leave Starling and form a rival bank, Monzo. Clearly, Boden can only ever give her own side of the story, she couldn’t avoid discussing this pivotal point in the story of her bank, and she couldn’t have foreseen future events; but equally, in early 2021, it is a little uncomfortable to consider Boden’s one-sided and unflattering portrait of Blomfield in the light of his post-publication resignation from Monzo and disclosures in recent weeks about his mental health. I suppose this is something of an occupational hazard when writing about fairly recent events involving real people.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed this peek into a professional world which is so far removed from my own, and Boden’s humour combined with the pacy plot kept me racing through the pages.


The Future of Stuff by Vinjay Gupta

This is the third essay I’ve read in the Tortoise Media FUTURES series, and my favourite so far. Written by Vinjay Gupta, the violinist (and social activist), it is a hopeful account of how our behaviour around purchasing and consumption is likely to change as we become more aware of the systems that support products.

Gupta’s central argument is that we can’t just buy a widget, for example: we are supporting a much broader system which produces said widget, which might well include supporting disgraceful labour practices on the other side of the world. As the world moves towards greater information flow and transparency, and—crucially—as we get better at managing and processing that information, our perspective on purchasing is likely to change.

As a basic example: if an online supermarket were to introduce a simple site-wide filter allowing customers to opt to see only “vegan” products, that would be enormously helpful to individuals and drive sales of those products. As our social conscience moves forward, perhaps there will be similar filters for ethically produced products and so on. And as data on product provenance becomes more widely available and codified, the same data can be used for better advert targeting, and so on and so forth.

I found the argument convincing, and it’s nice to be convinced by something so hopeful these days!


Naked by David Sedaris

I’m still on a bit of a Sedaris binge, having read many of his books over the last few months. This is the earliest collection of his essays that I’ve read, published in 1997. 

I found the essays in this volume to be a little more hit-and-miss than the later collections, as though he was still trying to find his style, but I still laughed frequently.


Daddy by Emma Cline

Published last year, this is a collection of ten short stories by Emma Cline. Seven of the ten have been previously published in either the New Yorker, Granta or The Paris Review.

I have previously read the author’s first novel, The Girls, which was a best-seller but left me a bit cold. I enjoyed this collection more than the novel, though the stories all shared a similar structure, consisting mostly of characterisation around an unspoken central event or situation. There’s also a theme of gender running throughout, particularly a theme of unpleasant men. Having a similar structure and a similar theme to all of the stories struck me sometimes as interesting (different facets into similar issues) and sometime as a bit dull, I think largely depending on my own mood.

The final story, A/S/L was my personal favourite, perhaps because the unspoken nature of the central fact fitted into the setting the author created so naturally. I think, though, that this collection might be better read as individual stories than as a single collection.


Why Don’t We Learn From History? by BH Liddell Hart

I was lucky enough to read this famous essay in an original 1944 edition. 

It starts off well: Liddell Hart gives a lot of interesting theories for why we seem not to learn from history, with a central tenet being that we aren’t very good at truthfully recording events in the first place. 

He then lost me for the second half of the essay by going into some detail about the Second World War and perceived problems with the Christian church, which I’m sure would be interesting to many people, but don’t seem obviously related to the titular question.

It’s only short—58 pages in my edition—so I got my effort’s worth from it anyway.


Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li

This 2019 novel by Yiyun Li imagines a series of conversations between a mother and her teenage son, who she has recently lost to suicide. It is a short book at 192 pages.

My first impression of this was strong. The imagined conversations are true to life (or perhaps true to death) and interesting philosophical. The mother character writes novels, while the son was a budding poet, and there’s a lot of ‘philosophy as language’ in here: the conversation is often taken deeper through discussed reflection on the etymology of chosen words, for example.

However, my interest in this waned over time despite the short length. It felt a little emotionally flat to me, and there wasn’t a great deal of progress in the conversation. Perhaps that is intended to reflect something of the lived experience of the aftermath of a child’s suicide; I’m not sure. 

It came to feel to me that the desire to dissect language as a way into the emotion was limiting rather than enlightening. Perhaps others will feel differently.


I Hate Men by Pauline Harmange

Published in English for the first time this month, this is Harmange’s 2020 essay on hating men. 

Lest we think the title is just a rhetorical device, Harmange is emphatic:

I hate men. All of them, really? Yes, the whole lot of them … Hating men as a social group, and as individuals too, brings me so much joy.

Even her nearest and dearest are hated:

We need to be vigilant, we have to keep an eye on the genuinely decent ones, because anyone can stray off course, and all the more so if he’s cis, white, wealthy, able-bodied and heterosexual.

I’m a man. It’s fairly clear therefore that Harmange hates me, even though I followed her advice:

The very least a man can do when faced with a woman who expresses misandrist ideas is to shut up and listen. He’d learn a great deal and emerge a better person.

I really don’t know what to do with this book. It’s full of justifiable and passionately expressed anger. But if anger begets only hate, where does that leave us? 

I’m not sure I learned a great deal, and I’m not sure I emerged a better person. I emerged mostly as a slightly sadder person, and one that’s a little less hopeful for the future of humanity now that I know that books that actively promote hatred on the basis of unchangeable innate characteristics can become bestsellers in the twenty-first century.

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