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What I’ve been reading this month

September has been a very busy month in the world of health protection, so I’ve been reading mostly light stuff to take my mind off things!


Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Another collection of Sedaris’s amusing autobiographical essays, this volume having been first published in 2000. These were easy to read, clever, and very funny: exactly what my brain and soul needed during troubled times!

The first half focused mainly on his youth, the second half more on a period he spent living in France. I found the latter half funnier and more satisfying, but all of it was delightful. Sedaris is someone I enjoy most in small doses, so I tried to limit myself to one essay a day—but with some in this collection being particularly short, that wasn’t always possible.

The essay about his French class desperately trying to explain Easter despite limited vocabulary was a particular highlight.


You by Caroline Kepnes

I picked this up because I fancied a light summer thriller sort of read, and it ticked that box perfectly. It was a first-person narrated story about a bookseller who was also a stalker. It had a wonderfully silly plot and Kepnes perfectly trod the line between thriller and comedy.

I’m not sure I’ll remember anything about this in a fortnight’s time, but it was great fun.


The Monocle Book of Gentle Living

Monocle is a slightly guilty pleasure of mine. I’ve been a fan since the first issue of the magazine, which I came to via Tyler Brûlé, whose Financial Times Fast Lane column (latterly relaunched in a Monocle email newsletter format as Faster Lane) fascinated me for years. For a long time, I believed Tyler to be satirical caricature, and then only grew more interested when I realised he was real.

I’m a Monocle subscriber, but I don’t think I’m the target demographic: I’m never going to spend £435 on a pair of high-end curling boots, nor £750 on a shell jacket, nor £665 on a tweed cardigan, no matter how much they try and push them on readers of their journalism. But I do love reading and listening to their intelligent discussions of UK and world affairs, and I get a little thrill out of knowing that there are people out there who can write hundreds of words of copy on the colour temperature of the lighting on the latest European rolling stock.

So I bought the Monocle Guide to Gentler Living as a bit of COVID escapism, and it was perfect for that. It was essentially a long, themed edition of the magazine, with lavish photography and illustrations, stripped of display-ads and hard-bound. There was very little detail and substance to any of it, but it did sort of come together to make a coherent set of ideas about slowing down in life. (Think: three paragraphs on why train travel is better than flying, followed by one sentence on each of five “best rail journeys”, accompanied by lovely photographs; some blurb on giving up high powered jobs for “the better life”, with accompanying three-paragraph case studies; a section on fashion with a page dedicated to why one should own a t-shirt—any t-shirt—which consists of a stylish photo of a t-shirt and about fifty words of text).

It was light, fluffy, and totally escapist. I took virtually nothing from it, but really enjoyed it nonetheless. So much, in fact, that I’ve picked up another of the Monocle books in a recent sale.


Breath by James Nestor

This was a recently published popular science book about breathing. It was structured around a series of self-experiments conducted by the author. I found this to be a very engaging style, but it did mean that the book was heavy on anecdote and light on proper science. There was also a strong dose of self-help content.

There was a lot of stuff in here that felt like pseudoscientific nonsense. Nevertheless, I found it so engaging that I enjoyed reading it. I even tried some of the described techniques out of curiosity (and got no real benefit).

However, my wife Wendy is a respiratory physician. My top tip to anyone in the same position is to be judicious about sharing passages—there was a fair amount of eye-rolling every time I did, though we did also occasionally descend into fits of giggles, so it was probably worth it.


The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim

This was von Arnim’s 1909 book featuring the ridiculously self-important German Baron Otto Von Ottringel going on a caravanning holiday with his wife Edelgard in England. I was sent it in one of the London Review Book Boxes.

The Baron, who narrated, was quite a character: the holiday was to celebrate what he saw as his silver wedding anniversary. He had been widowered some years before and re-married, but felt that his twenty-five years of marriage ought to be marked nonetheless.

He was astoundingly sexist: “Indeed, the perfect woman does not talk at all. Who wants to hear her? All that we ask of her is that she shall listen intelligently when we want anything. Surely this is not much to ask. Matches, ash-trays, and one’s wife should be, so to speak on every table; and I maintain that the perfect wife copies the conduct of the matches and the ash-trays, and combines being useful with being dumb.”

There was humour in the book derived from the contrast between the Baron’s perception of himself and the evident level of regard in which others held him. There was also historical interest in the portrayal of British/German relations, given the world events just around the corner.

However, I found this a slog. The constant casual sexism and outmoded attitudes, while really the point of the piece, were quite wearing to modern eyes. It felt to me like the same points could have been made in a short story, rather than hammered home in a novel, but of course that’s partly because the satirical points being made are well accepted in modern society, which was not so at the time of publication.

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What I’ve been reading this month

It’s been the busiest July I can remember, but somehow I still managed to get through six books!


Calypso by David Sedaris

This was a collection of Sedaris’s mostly autobiographical stories which was published in 2018. It featured work previously published in several different periodicals (The New Yorker, The Guardian, Condé Nast Traveller). In Sedaris’s usual style, the coverage was eclectic but grounded in everyday life, and very funny throughout. This was perfect reading for relaxation while work is a little more busy and challenging than usual!

While it never felt heavy, there was some particularly reflective and moving material about his estranged sister’s death by suicide. This illustrated Sedaris’s skill in communicating larger ideas by concentrating on (and finding the humour in) the everyday.

I thoroughly enjoyed this; it was one of those serendipitous combinations of finding a great book at the perfect time to read it.


Drugs Without the Hot Air by David Nutt

This was first published in 2012 and has been on my “to read” list ever since. I think, but can’t be certain, that I’ve sat through a talk by the author at some point in that period—though it may have been someone talking about him!

Professor Nutt is best known for having been sacked as chair of the Government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in 2009. In a lecture, he made an evidence-based comparison between the risks of taking ecstasy and the risks of horse-riding. The fact of the comparison was unpalatable to the Government of the time, and he was removed from his post.

Nutt described his disagreements with Government in some detail at the start of this book. Unfortunately, given that it was at the start of the book, I found this a bit unconvincing: it read as though he felt scientific evidence was the only aspect to be considered in policy-making (or at least in the operation of specific policy levers).

However, the bulk of the book was a clear, coherent and evidence-based discussion of the benefits and risks of recreational drug use. This included a section of parental advice on how to discuss drugs with children. Nutt’s text had humour and wit, and the book was easy to read. I learned quite a bit from it!


The Stranger by Albert Camus

Camus’s 1948 classic, which I read via Matthew Ward’s 1989 translation. In retrospect, this was an odd choice, as Ward wrote at some length in his translation note about how his was an American English translation for an American audience… whereas I could have picked any number of British English translations. Never mind.

The novel followed Meursault, a French Algerian, and the sequelae to his societally atypical response to his mother’s death. This made me wonder whether, if Camus wrote this book today, Meursault would have been given a diagnostic label rather than being a quirky character—though I suppose that is only really a modern take on the theme of existentialism and absurdism for which the novel is famous.

I really enjoyed this.


The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker

This novel of Baker’s was first published in 1988, and it was very much of its time. The 135 pages (with many, many footnotes) were essentially a stream of consciousness covering the period during which the narrator rides up an escalator while returning to his office following his lunch break.

I found it both funny and exasperating in equal measure. It wa one of those books which I think I’ll remember for a long time, even though I didn’t really take that much from it.


Fairy Tales by Marianne Moore

This volume contained Marianne Moore’s versions of three tales written by Charles Perrault for the niece of Louis XIV: Puss in Boots, The Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. These were first published in 1963; I read the 2019 Faber Stories 44-page paperback collection.

These versions deviated a little from the commonly received versions: Sleeping Beauty wasn’t awoken with a kiss and Cinderella’s stepsisters weren’t ugly, for example. However, I can’t claim to have taken much from this book. The plots were essentially well-worn and the writing didn’t strike me as especially notable, but perhaps that just makes me an uncultured heathen who doesn’t appreciate Moore’s greatness.


Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends on It by Kamal Ravikant

I read the expanded 240-page hardback edition of this after reading some glowing reviews. It wasn’t for me. I found the autobiographical sections oddly cagey (the book was about his recovery from business failure and I don’t even know from the book what business he was in), and the self-help sections were just not up my street.

I know others have loved this and found it very helpful in their lives, but I’m not going to stare in a mirror and repeatedly profess my love for myself no matter how many times Ravikant emphasises that this is a great thing to do.

This just was just a bad choice of book on my part. Don’t let my bad experience put you off if it sounds good to you.

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What I’ve been reading this month

Like the first two books in the series, it felt like a privilege to be read Ali Smith’s Spring, which are sure to become a classic, at the moment in time in which they’re set. Smith captures the voice of an age. I’ve found the writing in this series dizzyingly brilliant—the language and the fascinating ways in which Smith manipulates it are somehow more important than the plot. The raw anger in this volume in particular was something else. This was astounding.

There are lots of different editions of Italo Clavino’s Difficult Loves: mine had the classic collection of “Difficult Loves” short stories written in the 1950s, followed by the slightly longer stories “Smog” and “A Plunge Into Real Estate”. The overarching themes were love (in its broadest sense) and loneliness. I don’t usually get on with short stories, but this collection was an exception. The everyday tales which beautifully captured universal emotions; the dry humour; the hint of craziness that made me look at the world slightly differently; all allowed Calvino’s prose to take flight. It’s been years since I last read any Calvino, but I won’t let it be so long next time!

Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls was a collection of amusing autobiographical short stories or ramblings about travel, writing, and life in general. As you probably know, Sedaris is an American living in rural England and he draws a lot on differences in US and British culture in this volume. This is the first time I’ve read any of his work, and it made me laugh out loud a few times, which books rarely do – and it was pleasantly cosy and inconsequential. I’ll certainly read more of Sedaris’s collections. 

I found Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall utterly gripping, and finished it in a day. It was a book about a group of undergraduates, guided by an amateur historian (and his wife and child) plus a university professor, going on a camping trip in Northumberland and trying to recreate Iron Age life. There were some beautiful descriptions of the expansive scenery of Northumberland, which meant all the more to me for being local, and some very carefully observed descriptions of the lack of recognition of domestic abuse among victims. This left me with a lot of food for thought.

Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen was a book about how to receive feedback effectively. I found the book baggy and over-long, with rather too many repetitive examples. That said, there was more useful stuff in here than I expected. It shifted my understanding of feedback conversations from being one-way (i.e. passively receiving feedback) to being two-way (i.e. working together to understand the intention behind the feedback and reach a mutual understanding on the next steps). This is an obvious point, but I confess that it’s not one that’s occurred to me in those terms before—perhaps fed by a lifetime of written feedback and evaluative assessment where there’s no opportunity to engage in further discussion.

Heartburn was a short and funny autobiographical novel about the breakdown of Nora Ephron’s marriage to Carl Bernstein. It used a series of relatively frothy vignettes (interspersed with the occasional recipe) to reveal rather deep reflections on life, pain and betrayal. I think I perhaps prefer Ephron’s shorter essays than this longer book, but I found the book so cleverly put together that I might come to think differently about that as I reflect further.

Women and Power was a book based on two speeches by Mary Beard about the way in which women have been systematically denied a public voice. The first took a historical, longitudinal and structural approach to that question, while the second focused more on contemporary examples. I found Beard’s historical account interesting and compelling, but I wish it had gone further. In particular, I would have liked to better understand Beard’s views on how things can change, and what the future may hold – but perhaps that’s not the point of a history book.

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