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What I’ve been reading this month

These five books have kept me company in May: three have rather dull covers which perhaps undermine my photo-heavy format.


Time Lived, Without Its Flow by Denise Riley

This short book was originally published in 2012, but I read the 2019 edition with a new introduction by Max Porter. It was extraordinary.

The book concerned Riley’s reaction to her son’s death, but she concentrated on a single element of that experience: the altered perception of time, or perhaps more accurately, the absence of a perception of time, which followed the death. Riley began with forty-one pages of notes written at intervals between two weeks and three years after her son’s death, reflecting on her own experiences and relevant snatches of literature and poetry. This was followed by thirty pages of reflective postscript.

The decision to focus on this single aspect of grief—the perception of time—is brave and brilliant, and Riley’s exploration and reflection altered my own perception of what this must be like. I read parts of this at the same time as the novel Human Traces which has a section covering broadly similar themes from a distinct perspective. The contrast between Faulks’s fiction and Riley’s reality was arresting.

There was one paragraph right at the start of Riley’s book which particularly struck me, and pulled me into the rest of her reflections:

There’s no specific noun for a parent of a dead child; nothing like the terms for other losses such as ‘orphan’ or ‘widower’. No single word exists, either, for an ‘adult child’ – an awkward phrase which could suggest a large floppy-limbed doll. For such a historically common condition as outliving your own child, the vocabulary is curiously thin. The same phrases recur. For instance, many kindly onlookers will instinctively make use of this formula: ‘I can’t imagine what you are feeling’. There’s a paradox in this remark, for it’s an expression of sympathy, yet in the same breath it’s a disavowal of the possibility of empathy. Undoubtedly it’s very well meant, if (understandably) fear-filled. People’s intentions are good; a respect for the severity of what they suppose you’re enduring, and so a wish not to claim to grasp it. Still, I’d like them to try to imagine; it’s not so difficult. Even if it’s inevitable, or at any rate unsurprising, that those with dead children are regarded with concealed horror, they don’t need to be further shepherded into the inhuman remote realms of the ‘unimaginable’. So I want to try, however much against the odds, to convey only the one striking aspect: this curious sense of being pulled right outside of time. as if beached in a clear light.


What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

I picked this up because the sequel, Cleanness, has had a lot of great press reviews lately. What Belongs to You was first published in 2016, though the first third was published as a novella in 2011.

The novel concerned an American professor who moved to Sofia to teach. He was already culturally isolated when he developed a sexual relationship with a male prostitute, Mitko, and became a little uncertain about his own identity. He reflected on the parallels between being an outsider in Sofia and being an outsider as a gay youth in the south of the USA.

There was some exceptionally thoughtful and moving writing in this book, and both the nameless professor and Mitko were fully realised as characters. There was a particularly good subplot involving a diagnosis of syphilis. But somehow, I just didn’t feel particularly engaged by the plot. It may be because I too recently read the James Baldwin classic Giovanni’s Room which covered some of the same territory (albeit in a completely different setting and time period).

I enjoyed What Belongs to You enough that I will pick up the sequel at some point to see what all the fuss is about.


The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

Another eleven short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, including The Final Problem. This collection was first published in 1894; I read a handsome well-thumbed 1959 edition courtesy of Newcastle City Library, and the sensory experience added to my enjoyment.

While I found this collection a little more interesting than The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I still missed being drawn into a full-length novel. Luckily, The Hound of the Baskervilles is next in the series.


The Non-Existent Knight by Italo Calvino

This Calvino novella was first published in Italy in 1959, with an English translation by Archibald Colquhoun published in 1962. I read a lovely 1962 edition from the London Library, which (according to the date labels) had been borrowed more than forty times before I was born.

The story, supposedly recorded by a nun called Sister Theodora, concerned Agilulf and Raimbaud, two paladins of Charlemagne. Agilulf was the eponymous non-existent knight: a sentient empty suit of armour, celebrated for being a perfect knight and meeting all expectations of knighthood. Raimbaud is a younger knight who struggles to balance his passion for humanity against the expectations placed upon him by knighthood.

This allegorical satire which felt relevant to the modern world: how often do we all feel like we are expected to fit a role and be non-existent as personalities? It also made me laugh, especially Sister Theodora’s commentary at the start of many chapters about the difficulty of drafting the story, and the fact that she is mostly making up the events she is recording.

All of that said: I found this slightly trickier to read than The Cloven Viscount, the other one of Calvino’s “Our Ancestors” trilogy that I’ve read to date. I think this is because I haven’t read much about the court of Charlemagne or many classic tales of chivalry, and so was a bit confounded by some basic elements (including the word ‘paladins’ which I had to look up). Readers more versed in that world will find it easier to jump straight in!


The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

This was the 2005 mega-bestseller about a pre-adolescent girl, Liesel Meminger, growing up in Nazi Germany during the Second World War. The book was narrated by Death.

For the first four-fifths of the book, I struggled with the style of narration. Having Death as a narrator in this context is a strong idea, but Zusak didn’t really seem to build on that creative choice in an interesting way, other than by making Death an affably weird character. However, Zusak gave Death an odd style of narration in which the text was filled with bizarre idioms and broken up in affected ways. I found this style tedious. But then, somewhere around the 400-page mark, the style “clicked” for me and I started to find its rhythm and enjoy the quirkiness.

The plot seemed to derive most of its power and interest from the historical context rather than from the events in Liesel’s story specifically, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. For a book in which the proximate cause of a lot of the suffering is the actions of the allied forces in the war, it felt oddly lacking in moral complexity. It all felt a bit sentimental to me.

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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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