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What I’ve been reading this month

It feels like Neil Gaiman is having a bit of a career ‘moment’, with his work seemingly everywhere at the moment. Art Matters was a very short book of Gaiman quotations illustrated by Chris Riddell making a convincing argument about the importance of creativity in life. I was surprised to find myself feeling a little moved by this book. The subject matter wasn’t classically emotional, but the passion and power of the argument, particularly with respect to the importance of reading, caught me by surprise—especially for such a short book.

How We Fight For Our Lives was a solid and deeply personal memoir which gave me new insight in what it was like to grow up as a gay black man in the USA. Saeed Jones is the same age as me, but we’ve evidently lived very different lives, and I enjoyed reading a different perspective on modern life.

In Thrust: A Spasmodic Pictorial History of the Codpiece in Art Michael Glover explored the history of the codpiece, from its first appearance as a functional garment bridging the top of two stockings for men, through its brief (ridiculous) celebration as a fashion item, to its sudden demise in all but sporting contexts (where we no longer use the name). The thoroughly delightful book was structured around very short essays connected with particular artworks, which were reproduced alongside. Glover wrote with a heavy dose of humour, but also brought fresh perspectives on both history and contemporary fashion. I really enjoyed this.

Murray Lachlan Young’s lavishly illustrated The Mystery of the Raddlesham Mumps was a Gothic poem clearly targeted at children. It concerned the seven-year-old Crispin de Quincy de Faversham-Clumps who inherited the cursed stately-home-esque Raddlesham Mumps following the sudden death of his parents. This was not my usual kind of thing, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race was better than previous reviews had led me to suspect. The book challenged and changed my perspective on the racism people face in modern Britain. It helped me to better understand that tackling racism requires positive day-to-day action: ‘colourblindness’ and being nice isn’t enough by itself. I did have some reservations: Eddo-Lodge occasionally seemed to be trying to speak for all people who experience racism, and I couldn’t follow the logic of some of her more detailed arguments which occasionally felt a bit self-contradictory.

I can’t work out what I thought about Lionel Shriver’s blockbuster We Need to Talk About Kevin. There were days when I thought that that it was a real imaginative achievement which combined a gradually building atmosphere with a nuanced exploration of the disturbed mind of a killer. Other days, I thought it was an interesting literary exercise in exploring narrative reliability and post-hoc rationalisation or confirmation bias. And still other days, I thought it was depressing domestic horror which fed off an overly simplistic morally dichotomous view of a world with ‘born evil’ which really had nothing new to say. I can’t reconcile those three views in any useful way.

Codename Villanelle has been turned into a TV series I haven’t seen. I found Luke Jennings’s thriller to be somewhat patchy, with writing which varied from ‘average’ to occasionally ‘good’. The central character, Villanelle, was flawed in intriguing ways – she believed herself to be the ‘perfect’ killer, with a view of herself as a sort of psychopath who did not experience interpersonal feelings, but this was shown to be less than fully accurate. The interplay between her self-conception and the real world could make for an interesting bit of character writing, but Jennings never quite explored that path.

As I’ve previously noted, I also finished off the original Faber Stories series this month.

Homeland by Barbara Kingsolver was a portrait of a grandmother who was a fugitive Cherokee, and an exploration of her relationships with her granddaughter and other family members. The plot revolves around a visit to her now unrecognisable ancestral homeland, but the plot didn’t seem to be the point: this seemed to me to be more an accomplished character study.

The Country Funeral by John McGahern was a story of three brothers who traveled from their modern lives in Dublin to rural Ireland to attend an uncle’s funeral. There were passages in this book which did a decent job of capturing some of the complexity of the conflicting emotions associated with funerals, and the way in which different people respond differently. But I didn’t really feel particularly drawn in by this short story as a whole.

I’ve previously read Come Rain or Come Shine in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, but I was glad to revisit it in a standalone volume this month. It was a great little short story about a man being invited to visit a couple who are old university friends. The man of the couple invited him to visit in an effort to save his relationship: the visitor’s lack of success in life, he hoped, would engender a flattering comparison in the mind of his partner. Like most of Ishiguro’s novels, it was full of tenderness, memories, regrets and—in this case—some wonderful humour.

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Faber Stories

I’ve long told myself that I don’t enjoy short stories.

When I mentioned this in a review I wrote in May, it set me wondering: why?

On reflection, there was plenty of evidence to the contrary. For every The Beautiful Indifference I’d struggled through, there’s was a Difficult Loves or a One More Thing that were memorably enjoyable. I came to the conclusion that I had formed an utterly irrational prejudice against the short story.


Later that month, I came across Faber Stories, a collection of twenty tiny handsome books published in celebration of Faber & Faber’s 90th anniversary. Each minature volume contained a short story from Faber & Faber’s archive.

I was intrigued. Here was an opportunity to challenge my prejudice while also getting a set of lovely little books to decorate my bookshelves. Somewhat rashly, I bought the lot.

Over the last seven months, I’ve read all twenty.

In a nod to a bit of quantitative analysis, the mean number of stars I’ve given the books on Goodreads (out of a possible five) is 3.05. My average for all the books I read in 2018 was 3.80, so it seems that this set didn’t reach my usual level of enjoyment.

Of course, this isn’t surprising: I usually pick books I like the look of. In this case, I took the whole job lot of a series, whether I liked the look of each individual volume or not. It is to be expected that the average score would be lower. And there were some real stinkers: I gave eight of the books one- or two-star reviews.

On the other hand, I gave seven of the books four- or five-star reviews:

Five of these were written by authors I’d never read before. That’s a pretty good outcome in terms of discovering new writers whose work I enjoy.

I’ve also been reminded, partly the single story format, of the joy of reading a complete work in a single sitting. I’ve come to better appreciate the precision and concision required to tell a story in short form.


In short, I think I’ve been cured of my prejudice. I’m no longer someone who doesn’t like short stories. So much so, in fact, that I’ve already ordered the additional ten volumes that Faber & Faber announced over the summer.

But now I’m asking myself: what other literary prejudices shall I tackle? I’m no fan of science fiction or historical fiction, so perhaps I should look out for some examples of either of those to challenge myself.


The picture in this post is my own photo – as you can tell. If the spines are making you wonder about the jacket designs, there’s a great article on the Faber & Faber blog about that.

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What I’ve been reading this month

Long-time readers will know that I think Will Storr is one of my favourite writers. His latest book, The Science of Storytelling, was really aimed at other writers: it gave advice backed by psychology on the creation of works of fiction. I found myself completely absorbed in Storr’s discussion of storytelling theory. I really enjoyed the way that he connected science and art (as he always does), and I was very much taken with the examples he chose to present throughout his book, some of which were among my own favourite books. Because I’m not the target audience, some of the content was of less interest – for example, the appendix on story frameworks – but I devoured and enjoyed the whole book nevertheless.

A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind by Shoukei Matsumoto, a Buddhist monk, was a short book reflecting on the psychological benefits of cleaning. The passion of the argument was more than sufficient to carry the length of this short book, and so I really enjoyed it. It was neither particularly deep and philosophical nor a great source of practical cleaning tips; it’s just an enjoyable, well-written and concise explanation of a passionately held point of view.

Emily Maitlis’s much-lauded Airhead, a series of anecdotes about conducting television interviews, left me a little disappointed. Many of the anecdotes were about things that have gone wrong and Maitlis had enough wit to make these genuinely funny. Some were more thoughtful – Maitlis reflects interestingly on the shift from volunteering on the morning following the Grenfell fire to presenting an edition of Newsnight the same evening. But there wasn’t much more to this book than a series of anecdotes: no reflections on the changing media landscape, nothing about Maitlis’s personal development over time, and no grand argument which she was trying to prove. I enjoyed this book, but left it thinking: “So what?”

Another wildly popular book that did little for me: Normal People by Sally Rooney. This was a book about two people – Marianne and Connell – who grew up together and remain friends into adulthood. Their level of closeness varied over time. The two main characters have been widely praised for being very lifelike, but didn’t seem that way to me. This was partly, I think, because the dialogue between them was rather oddly stilted and formal considering their closeness, and partly because the other characters were so lightly described as to be hardly there, which made their world feel thin. I didn’t quite understand what the fuss was about: but this was on the Booker Prize long-list, so the problem is more likely to be me than the book!

Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She Devil, first published in 1995, was a much-lauded darkly comic novel of a woman scorned and going to extreme lengths to reinvent herself and exact revenge. There were some great lines, but the whole thing felt pretty dated to me, especially in terms of gender politics/ stereotypes. The comedy felt a bit thin to me: revenge can be entertaining, but revenge seemed to be the only note this book was willing to play.

I often complain that I don’t really like short stories: but in truth, I wonder if I’ve just always picked bad ones. So I’ve decided to challenge myself to read the twenty short stories picked by Faber for their 90th anniversary ‘Faber Stories’ collection over the next… well, I haven’t set myself a deadline.

The first of these I picked up was Julia O’Faolain’s Daughters of Passion, a short story in which an increasingly delusional IRA hunger-striker reflects on the childhood friendship which led to her involvement with the IRA. I enjoyed this: O’Foalain played with language in creative ways to reflect different mental states, and drew subtle connectiosn between delusion, misunderstanding and terrorism. All in 49 pages.

The second was A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor. I found this a bit pedestrian. The story concerned an American family crossing paths with a criminal while on a road trip. Most of the character development is focused on the grandmother. There are a lot of themes hinted at – most prominently the nature of moral good (or perhaps moral evil) in the context of modern American Christianity, but none of the themes were really developed into anything… perhaps because the story was so short.

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