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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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What I’ve been reading this month

I Never Said I Loved You was an astonishing and unconventional autobiography by the journalist and actor Rhik Samadder, in which he covered topics including his history of childhood sexual abuse, subsequent lifelong struggle with mental illness, and his complicated but loving relationship with his mother. His adult romantic relationships were also discussed in some detail. Samadder’s writing was beautiful, with power, honesty and—perhaps unexpectedly—real humour. This was really very good, and certainly one of my favourite books of the year to date.

I was delighted this month to come across a copy of Archibald Colquhoun’s translation of The Cloven Viscount by Italo Calvino, a book I’ve never read before. I’ve always been a fan of Calvino’s writing, and it’s therefore no surprise that I devoured this macabre yet amusing and insightful fable. The story concerned a Viscount bisected in a battlefield injury whose two halves went on to lead two different lives, one evil and one virtuous, and whose paths eventually crossed. It was just unhinged enough to be both funny and gently thought-provoking.

It was an unusual experience to find myself captivated by a book in which I struggled to orientate myself and untangle the plot. Sarah Winman’s Tin Man was an extraordinarily sensitive story of first love, loss and grief. It was narrated in sections by two middle-aged men reflecting on their lives to date, including their childhood friendship and teenage love for one another. I was completely taken in by the depth of the emotional insight and the delicate treatment of sexual identity, so much so that I didn’t really care that I struggled to follow the wider structure of the plot.

By turns amusing, astonishing and terrifying, Heathcote Williams’s Boris Johnson: The Beast of Brexit was an excellent essay. It was a full-throttle character assassination of a type which is rarely done so well. A powerful, passionate and somewhat persuasive argument.

In The Carer, Deborah Moggach set the scene of a family recruiting a carer, Mandy, for their elderly widowed father. Suspicions about Mandy’s behaviour grow amid an increasingly tense atmosphere, and it felt as though the plot direction was clear. However, a change in events turns this into a much more sensitive novel with far more character development that it first appeared. All things considered, I enjoyed this as a light and easy read, with an unexpected amount of depth and thought.

The Cockroach was Ian McEwan’s satirical novella on Brexit, a sort of reverse version of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in reverse in which a cockroach became Prime Minister. The Brexit-esque policy was ‘reversalism’, in which the flow of money was reversed: people paid to take things from shops, and pay to go to work. I felt it was a bit subpar for McEwan: it was clever, in that many of the phrases and speeches were verbatim quotations of contemporary debate, but it was also a bit mean-spirited. Casting one side of a debate as self-interested insects wasn’t as illuminating as trying to understand their reasoning might have been.

Gotta Get Theroux This was a career-focused memoir by the television journalist Louis Theroux. It included rather thoughtful reflections on the complexity of the human condition, and discussion about the “non-binary” nature of people’s morality. In the current climate, it felt oddly brave to acknowledge that the subjects of Theroux’s documentaries, such as Jimmy Saville, could be both talented and have committed horrendous crimes. I enjoyed the book, but my opinion was probably coloured by my existing admiration for his documentary work.

Gail Honeyman’s novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has become something of a cultural phenomenon. It was a story about loneliness and social isolation in which, contrary to traditional expectations, the protagonist is a young adult with an office job. I was slightly disappointed by this novel, as I found the writing a little glossy and unreal, and somehow lacking depth and complexity despite a rather unconventional psychiatric subplot.

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