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What I’ve been reading this month

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

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain

I decided to read this 2013 French novel after hearing political journalist Charlotte Ivers, on her fourth or fifth read, describe it as “the most charming book”. It’s translated into English by Jane Aitken, Emily Boyce and Louise Rogers Lalaurie.

I can’t disagree with Charlotte: this is an utterly charming book which is just brimming with a pleasant, gentle optimism. Set in the 1980s, the plot begins with a man finding François Mitterrand’s hat. It seems to bring him a small amount of good fortune. After he misplaces the hat, it ends up in the hands of another Parisian character, and so the book continues with four small vignettes of ordinary Parisian lives enhanced by temporary possession of a hat.

It sounds irritatingly twee, but Laurain manages to spin a comforting and engaging tale of it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Some translation decisions were unusual: for examplesommelier, a term frequently used in England, is routinely translated as ‘wine waiter’ yet motoscafo, an unfamiliar term, was left in French. But these are minor niggles, and this book is well worth 200 pages of your attention.

With thanks to Newcastle Libraries for lending me a copy.

A Month in the Country by JL Carr

This novel, first published in 1980, has been much-recommended as a book which is perfect summer reading. It is a rather gentle tale set in Yorkshire in the summer of 1920. Thomas Birkin, the central character, is an ex-serviceman who accepts a job in Oxgodby, Yorkshire, to get out of London for something approximating a period of convalescence. His task is to uncover a Medieval painting which has been whitewashed in the local church.

Birkin becomes drawn into village life, becoming especially close to another ex-serviceman who is digging for a lost grave, a young girl from the village, and the parson’s wife. He develops especially strong feelings for the latter.

There is a lot of gentle hinting in the book at religious themes of damnation, redemption, and forgiveness. It’s a short book, under 100 pages, but is rich in atmosphere and description while maintaining an underlying gentleness. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

With thanks to Newcastle Libraries for lending me a copy.

The Last Days of Roger Federer by Geoff Dyer

I’ve previously read and enjoyed Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It and so was tempted by this new book when I noticed that the library had acquired a copy. Much like the earlier book, it’s an extended and somewhat rambling essay recounting the author’s personal experiences and a wide range of cultural touchstones. This volume concentrates on ‘endings’ and draws on a lot of literature, jazz, art, classical music and other references.

Many of the references are beyond me, but Dyer’s engaging and funny style of writing and the pace of the ’conversation’ keeps things moving on. And there are occasional passages which speak directly to me, or make me see things from a wholly new perspective.

In all, a bit like the earlier book, I’m not really sure why I liked this, especially given that so many of the references were unfamiliar… but I very much did.

With thanks to Newcastle Libraries for lending me a copy.

The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal

I had two reasons for picking this up. Firstly, there has been a lot of recent discussion of the Elkhart of Vidal as the tenth anniversary of his death has just passed, and I thought it would be good to read some of his work. Secondly, I recently read A Ladder to the Sky which features Vidal as a character and includes a few mentions of this specific book, with which it turns out to share some minor themes.

The City and the Pillar caused considerable controversy on its 1948 publication for its portrayal of an ordinary, somewhat sympathetic gay man who served in the military. Clearly, this is much less shocking to modern sensibilities, but the story still holds up as a tale of longing, and as a criticism of prejudice. The writing is in that plain, precise style of the great American writers, which I enjoyed.

I’m glad I read this because it gave me a bit of historical perspective. However, I wouldn’t rush to re-read it; I wasn’t really moved by it, and I’m not really sure that I’ll remember the finer details of the plot six months hence.

With thanks to The London Library for lending me a copy.

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri

I picked up this novel having previously enjoyed Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies.

Lahiri’s previous novels were written in English, while she was living in the USA. She has since relocated to Rome, and wrote and published Whereabouts in Italian in 2018, as Dove Me Trovo. It was translated by the author and re-published in English in 2021.

Whereabouts is a subtle novel. It takes the form of short essays or reflections on the life and inner thoughts of a single woman in her 40s, living alone and working as an academic. It explores the fascinating intersection between solitude and loneliness. This relationship is something which has played on my mind in recent years in connection with older people, but I hadn’t really considered it in younger people who live alone. There isn’t much plot to speak of, but then it’s not that sort of novel.

While I didn’t feel I took quite as much from this book as I did from Interpreter of Maladies, I will certainly be seeking more of Lahiri’s books.

With thanks to The London Library for lending me a copy.

Weather by Jenny Offill

I picked this up because I recently enjoyed Offill’s previous novel, Dept. of Speculation. Weather was published in 2020, and shares the same fragmentary structure of short paragraphs sharing the protagonist’s tangentially connected thoughts and observations. The later novel is even lighter on plot than the earlier one.

Weather contains plenty of thoughts about the turbulent times in which we live: about populism and climate change and ‘the end times’. But it is also about marriage, family, parenthood and addiction, all of which loom large in the university librarian narrator’s life.

I felt like I got a little less from this book than from the earlier novel, but perhaps that is in part because the structure wasn’t so arrestingly novel. The references to the difficult times in which we are living also served to make it a little less escapist. But I’m still glad I read it.

With thanks to Newcastle Libraries for lending me a copy.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Two of my friends on Goodreads gave this short 1911 novel good reviews, which led me to seek a copy. It’s a thoroughly bleak tale of the despair of forbidden love, and of being trapped by circumstance and duty.

In all, this was thoroughly depressing. I appreciate Wharton’s brilliance in creating a complete world which evokes strong emotions in so few pages… but this isn’t the sort of thing I could stand to read regularly!

With thanks to The London Library for lending me a copy.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

I picked this short 2013 Booker shortlisted novel on a complete whim, based on nothing more than the author and the title. It’s a narrative of the last days of Jesus from the perspective of his mother.

Despite this being a very short book, I had a bit of a variable relationship with it. I very nearly gave up on it about halfway through, finding the narrator unlikable and the writing very much in a single, maudlin key. When I picked it up again, I liked it more, though it still felt as though the “strings” were visible, as if this were an essay for a school project, and I wasn’t really emotionally affected by it. The writing felt much clunkier than I expected. I suspect I’ll barely remember that I’ve read this book a year hence.

However, this is a book which has received glowing reviews elsewhere, from people who know much more about these things than me. Don’t set too much store by my negative review. It’s less than 100 pages, so probably just worth reading and making up your own mind.

With thanks to Newcastle Libraries for lending me a copy.

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What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve six books to tell you about this month, most of which were really excellent.

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

This 2018 novel follows the complicated life of novelist from his early 20s onwards. It is divided into three longer sections and two interludes, each of which has a different narrator, with the central character himself narrating the final section.

I’ve previously read three of Boyne’s novels (The Heart’s Invisible Furies, The Echo Chamber and The Second Child) and while I’ve enjoyed them all, the latter two didn’t quite live up to The Heart’s Invisible Furies, which I thought was truly exceptional. This book had a broadly similar biographical structure to The Heart’s Invisible Furies, and similar threads of humour and literary chatter, and even a mention of Maude Avery—a favourite character.

I enjoyed A Ladder to the Sky enormously, but it too didn’t quite live up to its predecessor.

Its recurring themes of ‘ownership’ of stories and differing interpretations of events depending on perspective were pointed out repeatedly and a little heavy-handedly for my liking. There was a lack of subtlety throughout, in a way that reminded me of some of Jeffrey Archer’s fiction. I haven’t quite untangled in my own mind whether that was an authorial choice meant to reflect unsubtle aspects of the protagonist’s character, or something less considered, but I found it a bit wearing at times.

But really, this is nit-picking. Even where plot points were unsubtly telegraphed way in advance, I still raced through the book anticipating each dénouement. I wouldn’t hesitate to read more of Boyne’s novels.

Vladimir by Julia May Jonas

This recently published novel concerns a relationship between an English professor and her recently appointed younger colleague. This is also the story of her troubled relationship with her husband, also a professor, who is under investigation for several historical relationships with his female students, conducted with her knowledge.

Vladimir is beautifully written, dark and exhilarating. It explores many contemporary questions, especially around shame, power and sexual consent. It has a bleak, cynical wit to it, and has a page-turning thriller-ish aspect to it.

I devoured it.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

This 2014 novel has been on my “to read” list for years. It is a short novel (179 pages) which provides a portrait of a marriage: there is some plot, but not a huge amount of it, and it is very much in the background.

Reading the blurb, I had completely misunderstood that this was an epistolary novel consisting of letters between a husband and wife. It isn’t. It is written in an unusual form, consisting of short thoughts and ruminations from the point of view of the unnamed “wife” character. In the second half of the book, the narration shifts to be apparently third-person, though I think this is intended to reflect a shift in how the character sees herself, rather than a genuine change in narrative perspective.

I found this structure interesting, insightful and enjoyable. Experimental forms are sometimes a bit of a slog, but that certainly wasn’t the case here.

This has left me keen to explore more of Offill’s work.

Turbulence by David Szalay

I read Szalay’s Booker-nominated All That Man Is back in 2018, and didn’t really think much of it: it seemed to be nine well-written, thematically connected stories, but it didn’t live up to being anything more than that.

Perhaps because I went into Turbulence, published in 2019, with a more open mind, I enjoyed it much more. It is a similar concept: twelve short stories about people going through “turbulent” times in their lives, their stories interconnected through aeroplane flights. Each of the short stories was immediately evocative of its setting and mood. The ways the stories interacted with one another pulled off that wonderful narrative trick of convincing the reader that the characters’ lives extend before and after the story we’re told.

I didn’t get any wider, grander theme from this book, but unlike All That Man Is, I wasn’t expecting to find one, so didn’t find the absence jarring. I really enjoyed reading this short book, and it makes me wonder whether I should reread the earlier book with different expectations.

Serious Money by Caroline Knowles

This book, based on a sociological research study, was published in May. Knowles walked around the wealthier parts of London and interviewed people who are found there. It was recommended in Tom Rowley’s newsletter as being “packed with sharply-observed insights into how the super-rich make their money and how they spend it. Gently written, with warmth and real curiosity.”

I’d agree with all of that. Knowles went well beyond simply describing the enormous privilege in which the super-rich are surrounded, and tried to genuinely understand the people and their world. One is left with the unavoidable impression that many of the super-rich are simply unaware of the real world, and most of them don’t seem especially kind nor friendly.

I expected the gaping inequality, and so was perhaps a little less shocked by that than the tone suggests I might be. What really depressed me about this book is the lack of imagination, the sheer mundanity of the everyday life of the people described. The sense of “keeping up with the Joneses” and the divisions between the “haves and have yachts” feels essentially grounded in the same envy as at other income levels. So much of the behaviour seemed to be driven by a sense of societal norms—we simply must have a swimming pool / country house / yacht because that’s what people would expect of those with our income.

I suppose I like to think—in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary—that if I had effectively unlimited means, then I’d spend my life trying to do something demonstrably worthwhile and leave the world a better place. I see that, to massive swathes of the world’s population, I do have effectively unlimited means, and yet, here I am, writing fairly shoddy and mostly unread book reviews rather than volunteering at the local soup kitchen. I suppose this book pierced my fantasy that my life would be different if I just had a little more money.

A Class of Their Own by Matt Knott

It was interesting to read this memoir, published in February, at the same time as Serious Money, as the two discuss broadly similar themes in entirely different ways. This book is the less successful of the two.

Matthew Hammett Knott is a Cambridge graduate, and this is his story of spending much of three academic years post-graduation as a private tutor to wealthy clients. The facts are a bit opaque: the blurb talks about “over a decade” spent tutoring—but while the events of the book take place over a decade ago, they cover only three years, and the end of the book leaves the impression of being the end of his tutoring career. The cover calls the author ‘Matt Knott’, while the book’s listing calls him ‘Matthew Hammett Knott’, which might just be a design thing, but—in the context of everything else—feels a bit like an attempt to draw a stronger dividing line between the hardly under-privileged author and his very upper-class clients.

The content is also a little odd. For a book which is notionally about tutoring children, references to sex are surprisingly frequent and occasionally jarring, and there is a surprising amount about the author’s early career as a writer.

The combination of the time that has passed since the events this describes, the strange content decisions and the opaque descriptions in the blurb make me wonder if this was originally written as a broader memoir. It may have been gradually beaten into a marketable shape by committee over many years, not wholly successfully.

This was easy to read, and occasionally very funny, but the overall sense I’m left with is a combination of puzzlement and suspicion, which is not really what I was looking for.

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