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What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve eleven books to tell you about this month.


Marcovaldo by Italo Calvino

I loved this book. First published in 1963, this was a collection of twenty short stories about Marcovaldo, a poor Italian man who was fond of nature and rural life but lived with his family in a big city. The stories followed a seasonal cycle, so that there were five set in each of spring, summer, autumn and winter.

In each story, Marcovaldo engaged with nature or the physical world in some way, and the outcomes were always unexpected. There was a lot of humour (I could imagine Marcovaldo being reduced to a comedy character on TV), but there was an equal amount of philosophy and some melancholy.

The writing was wonderful, simple and yet poetic. But then I really like Calvino’s style, and know that it isn’t universally loved. The translation I read was by William Weaver.

I enjoyed this so much that I didn’t want it to end, and tried to give myself time to reflect on each story before reading the next.


Tory Heaven or Thunder on the Right by Marghanita Laski

This satire was first published in 1948, but if I didn’t know that, I’d have guessed that it was published last year. (In fact, it was republished by Persephone in 2018.)

The plot followed five people who, having been marooned on a desert island for some years, returned to England in 1945 to find it transformed into “the England of all decent Conservatives’ dreams.”

The country was divided along strict class lines, with every citizen receiving one of five Government-assigned grades, and required to live in accordance with what would be expected of their class. The novel primarily focused on the experiences of the privileged James Leigh-Smith (indistinguishable from Jacob Rees-Mogg), and largely left the reader to fill in the blanks and draw the moral lessons.

This was a really easy and fun read with a clearly enduring underlying message.


Mary Poppins by PL Travers

Wendy loves Mary Poppins, so after 16 years of not entirely voluntary viewings of the Julie Andrews film, the more recent Saving Mr Banks and Mary Poppins Returns, and countless features and documentaries, I decided it was time to engage with the original source material.

Obviously, it was a children’s book, but I was surprised how dark it was—and it was more interesting for it.

Mary Poppins, a truly memorable character, was acid-tongued, cold and vain. Mr and Mrs Banks had little interest in or interaction with their children.

I think many younger children would be scared by the situations into which Poppins lures the children, such as the full moon birthday party in which shes surrounded by snakes.

Neither the book nor the character have the redeeming and nurturing warmth I expected, which left me more intrigued than if this had been the more saccharine tale I imagined.


Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq

I had never read anything by Houellebecq before, but knew of his reputation for gloom. This book lived up to that reputation, mostly in a good way. I read the translation by Shaun Whiteside.

The protagonist was a depressed agricultural advisor to the French government on farming and agricultural matters. He was prescribed a novel antidepressant which increased his serotonin level (hence the title). The novel followed this not entirely likable character as he made increasingly strange life choices.

The high suicide rate among agricultural workers is well known, but this novel made me think a bit more about the myriad causes of this, especially in modern society. It was also good at giving a slightly different perspective on the experience of depression and medication. There was a good dose of dark humour mixed in with the tragedy.

There was a fair amount of gratuitous sex, including bestiality and paedophilia, which seemed like it was there more to shock than to perform any intrinsic function. Also, in one of those bizarre turns of fate, there’s a section in this reflecting on Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories, which I was reading at the same time!


Night Train by Martin Amis

This was a book that started off as a crime procedural narrated by a policewoman called Mike, but turned out not to be a crime procedural at all. It was rather a sort of dark fictional philosophical exploration of suicide.

By pure coincidence, I had Miles Davis playing as I read much of this, and I was struck by how the writing seemed ‘jazzy’: police procedural cliche played with, improvised, turned on its head, and using the same forms to different ends. I enjoyed it.


The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

Contrary to most of the reviews I’ve flicked through, I enjoyed this less than A Study in Scarlet. It felt like there was more padding, and the long narrated resolution at the end felt more tedious than than the second part of the first book.

While I of course accept that the casual racism and pejorative language used by Conan Doyle reflect the social mores of the time it was written, the quantity of it in this volume became a bit wearing.


Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

I picked this up because it was featured in an article about how brilliant ‘young adult’ fiction had become and how we should all be reading more of it. It was a ‘love through secret correspondence’ story with a gay 16-year-old high school student as the protagonist and narrator.

The straightforward plot dealt with issues of contemporary high school life, including traditional tropes like bullying and blackmail, and some more modern concerns, such as emails and blogging.

It felt tightly targeted at its audience: many of the cultural references passed me by somewhat (though I can’t be certain whether that was an age thing or a not-being-American thing). It is narrowly focused on high school life, and it limited itself to the sort of language teenagers use. There is a very teenage dichotomy in which almost everything in the book is either “freaking awesome” or terrible, which felt true to life, but a little wearing. Overall, the writing felt a bit teenage, which is what the author was going for, but doesn’t really have a great deal of interest for me.

All things considered, this seemed like a well-constructed book, but it didn’t really convince me that we should all be reading more young adult fiction.


Murmur by Will Eaves

This was a novel based on the imagined thoughts of Alan Turing as he experienced chemical castration and the associated psychological therapy.

In fact, the main character was a sort of ‘version’ of Turing called Alec Pryor, but having read a biography of Turing relatively recently, I recognised that many of the peripheral characters share the forenames of similar characters in Turing’s life. As if that wasn’t a complicated enough premise, several of the sections were dream sequences imagined by Pryor.

This layer upon layer of narrative complexity allowed Eaves to explore all sorts of interesting territory relevant to Turing’s life, from the morality of his treatment to the nature of consciousness to the development of artificial intelligence.

This was a very clever book which I think would reward multiple close readings. I often found myself a bit disorientated in terms of the plot, and while that sometimes made it a bit of a chore, I mostly found myself carried along by the writing, the fantastically poetic imagery, and the exploration of complex ideas.


The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

A collection of twelve short stories about Sherlock Holmes cases narrated by Dr Watson. Obviously a classic and one where everyone knows what they’re getting!

I personally preferred getting engrossed in the full-length novels earlier in the series than these short stories, but I still enjoyed seeing how the characters developed over the course of the collection.


Journeys: Tortoise Quarterly, 1ed

Tortoise Quarterly is more magazine than book—it features thematic collections of longer articles from the Tortoise website.

In this edition, I particularly enjoyed Matthew D’Ancona’s account of experiencing delirium while he was a patient on a high dependency unit, Ian Ridley’s moving story of his wife’s death from cancer, and Tanyaradzwa Nyenwa’s reflections on working as a cold caller.


Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

I fully recognise that this has a reputation as one of the greatest collections of short science fiction stories ever written, but it was just not for me.

I don’t usually enjoy science fiction but decided to challenge myself with this: it has a reputation for being so accomplished that it appeals to people who don’t usually enjoy science fiction. But I found it a real slog to get through.

I’m not sure what it is that generates such a negative reaction in me. I think it might be something to do with the fantastical nature of much science fiction—I don’t like fantasy stories either, so perhaps my imagination is limited to stuff grounded in reality.

I think it might also be something to do with the writing, which often struck me as inelegant, despite clearly being loved and respected by better informed people than me—to me it often felt more scientific than poetic, and I think I prefer poetic descriptions of emotions (not ‘Neil was consumed with grief after she died, a grief that was excruciating not only because of its intrinsic magnitude, but also because it renewed and emphasised the previous pains of his life.’)

So I’m still not a fan of science fiction.

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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

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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