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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

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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Summer Books: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Cloud AtlasA bit of a change of pace for this week’s Summer Books selection – Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, once featured as part of Richard and Judy‘s Book Club.

Confounding expectations for a book associated with a daytime chat show, Cloud Atlas soars to levels far above many of the books to be featured in this series of reviews. It has a wonderful central message, which is continually revisited and brought together nicely at the end, and the quality and style of the language over hundreds of years is spot-on.

The book is essentially constructed of six smaller books, each interrupted at a crucial moment in their story – one even midsentence – and returned to later. The story spans from the 1800s right through to a distant future, with each of the different small books being about a different time period, and written in the style of that time period. Because of this, the book could have been enormously gimicky, and been very poorly written, but it wasn’t. Mictchell clearly has the amazing talent required to construct such a story of such amazing ambition, and to transcend both styles and genres.

Whilst this is a marvellous book in itself, it reminded me of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller in several respects, especially since both are essentially collections of stories-within-stories. However, whilst Traveller was an excellent novel which pushed the boundaries of the genre, Cloud Atlas is far more accessible, much more populist novel that one can just sit down, read, and enjoy, whilst still maintaining a number of worthy themes and messages. This is accessible literature, without descending to the level of Dan Brown.

Cloud Atlas is a very clever novel; in fact, it is so clever that you end up forgetting just how clever it is, and just run along with the story. There aren’t many writers about who can achieve this delicate balance of being smart whilst resisting the temptation to show off and overshadow their own story. That said, I found the first 100 pages or so quite hard going, as I tried to get used to the format of being cut-off mid-flow with no immediate explanation, and some of the stylistic leaps are large. Still, once you get into this book, you won’t come out until you’ve finished.

I highly recommend this book, and if you haven’t read it yet, this summer might be the perfect time to tackle it.

» Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is available now in the sjhoward.co.uk shop


This review was originally posted here on sjhoward.co.uk in April 2005, and has been re-versioned for the ‘Summer Books’ series of reviews published on sjhoward.co.uk and Gazette Live.

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