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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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What I’ve been reading this month

Sylvia Plath’s Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom packed far more food for thought into 40 pages than many writers manage in 400. The plot involved a young-ish girl sent on an ominous train journey by her parents. It was spine-tinglingly creepy, and the discomfort was only heightened by the clear allegory to the path our up-bringing bringing sets for each of us. I actually read this twice, as I couldn’t help myself from flicking back to the start almost as soon as I’d reached the end.

“It is worse, much worse, than you think” was the opening to David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth: and the next 310 pages proved his point. This book explained the current position of the world with respect to global warming, and how much worse the situation is going to get as a result of damage that has already been done. I found this text both arresting and illuminating. It was one of those rare books that completely changed my understanding and frame of reference on a topic. And yet, it was also a reasonably easy read by virtue of the engaging style of writing.

Lorrie Moore’s Terrific Mother was a short novella in which a 30-something women was caught up in a simple accident which resulted in the death of her friend’s baby. This caused her to spiral into a deep depression, at the nadir of which she decided to marry an academic. She was whisked off to Italy as a spouse on a academic retreat, and fell for her American masseuse. Despite the heavy subject matter, especially at the start, this was written with an oddly true-to-life lightness and a certain sense of wit. It was 76 small-ish widely spaced pages long, very easily read in a single sitting, and that felt like exactly the right length for the story.

Amateur, Thomas Page McBee’s short autobiographical account of training for, and taking part in, a charity boxing match as a transgender man, was thoughtful and reflective. McBee’s exploration of boxing was fascinating: it’s a sport I’ve never engaged with in any meaningful way, yet one on which that I held a passively negative view. McBee’s exploration of boxing and the reasons men fight educated me and allowed me to see more of the nuance behind the sport. The discussion of masculinity was interesting too, particularly given the particular perspective McBee can bring as a transgender man.

A River in Egypt by David Means was a 34-page story covering a father’s thoughts during and after taking his infant son for a sweat test to diagnose Cystic Fibrosis. I thought Means did a great job of capturing the broad tumult of thoughts that people experience in situations like this: the complexity and frequent tangents felt true to life.

In How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, Donald J Robertson gave some historical context to Marcus Aurelius’s writings, and also drew some interesting and insightful comparisons between the practices advocated by the Stoic philosophers and techniques of modern psychotherapy. I appreciated that Robertson discussed differences as well as similarities and that the analysis went beyond superficial description of the longevity of the ideas. I thought that some of the more imaginative parts of the book didn’t quite work, but I enjoyed it nevertheless.

I was a bit disappointed by Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me. It was a story about a the experience of a young couple who buy a human-like robot. I felt that there were too many ideas stuffed into the novel: resurrecting Alan Turing, a counter-factual social history of the 1980s, and technologically advanced and life-like robots. There were lots of interesting ideas hinted at, but none of them particularly well explored. The characterisation was very thin by McEwan’s usual standards – I didn’t really feel that I understood the motivations of the central human characters. It all just came across as bitty and confused to me.

I struggled to the end of Merve Emre’s What’s Your Type? this month, a book which promised to be a history of the cultish Myers-Briggs personality test, but turned out to be an interminably dull biography of Myers and Briggs. I don’t think I took anything useful away from this.

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