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What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve six books to write about for April, and most were much better choices than in other recent months!

Companion Piece by Ali Smith

Published this month, this is another quick-turnaround book from Ali Smith in the mold of her incomparable Seasonal Quartet—referenced not just by the matching cover art but also by the main character, Sandy, saying early on “I didn’t care what season it was.”

I loved that series, and I loved this addition. There is something therapeutic about reading Smith’s take on the world’s chaos. The insight and connection she brings fees like it brings closure and clarity.

In this volume, set mostly during the pandemic, Smith blends social commentary with characters having detailed discussions about the analysis of poetry, and with a series of fantastical visitors which we are never quite sure exist.

I would characterise the main theme of this volume as being human connection and companionship (the clue is in one of the title’s meanings). It reflects on the changes wrought by pandemic living, but also the continuity of so many aspects of non-physical human connection, like connection through poetry or ideas or ancestry. It’s also about how it’s nice to be alone sometimes.

Like the whole of the Seasonal Quartet, this was a cut above almost everything else I read, and I’m already sure it will be one of my favourite books of the year.

Cleopatra and Frankenstein by Coco Mellors

This recently published debut novel set in present-day New York focuses on two characters: Cleo, a British artist in her early 20s who is struggling to find her painting form and whose student visa is running out, and Frank, an advertising executive twenty years her senior. Cleo meets Frank in a lift while fleeing a party. The two enjoy a whirlwind romance resulting in a quick, impulsive marriage. Most of the novel deals with the fall-out from their romance, as its consequences ripple through their friendship groups and families. The characters—Cleo especially—mature through the novel, albeit with some profoundly challenging but sensitively portrayed mental illness along the way.

None of the characters in this book are especially likeable, and yet I found myself rooting for all of them. I was immersed in the novel’s world and didn’t want to leave it.

Mellors has a beguilingly rich style of writing, full of imagery and metaphor, which feels like it has fallen out of fashion in recent times. The characters speak sparklingly witty dialogue. It’s hard to believe that this is a literary debut.

Boys Don’t Cry by Fíona Scarlett

This is a 2021 novel about two brothers growing up in modern working-class Dublin: a twelve-year-old call Finn and a seventeen-year-old called Joe. The novel is narrated by the brothers in alternating chapters, though on different timelines (Joe’s story takes place after Finn’s)—this was less confusing than I’ve made it sound.

Joe has secured a scholarship to a prestigious private school, but finds himself teased for being from a different social class, and there is a constant theme of the gravity of his background constantly pulling him down. Society’s expectations of him are not high.

Finn looks up to Joe, and with the naivety of his youth doesn’t fully understand everything that is going on around him, in particular his father’s role as kingpin of a local drug gang.

Both Joe and Finn are very realistically drawn: Joe’s complexity and life challenges in particular drew me into this book, and Finn’s narration always rang true.

Mostly, though, this is a book with real emotional punch, diving deep into themes of teenagers developing their moral frameworks, the struggle to define oneself independently of one’s background, coming to terms with mortality and dealing with grief. It’s heavy stuff—but lightly written enough to be moving rather than maudlin, and with some real wit weaved through the whole book.

This was 238 pages long—I raced through it, but by the end, struggled to understand how Scarlett could possibly have built such a complete world in so few pages. These are characters that will stay with me for some time.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

This is Murakami’s popular account of training for running the New York Marathon in 2005, which I read in Philip Gabriel’s translation. For me to say “I’m not a runner” seems to me to be as accurate and yet absurd as saying “I’m not a pair of trainers.” Yet, this is only in one sense a book about running: there is a lot in this short book for non-runners like me.

This is really a thoughtful and reflective memoir about life in general. I was particularly drawn to Murakami’s frequent comparisons between running and writing: both fundamentally solitary activities, and both requiring total commitment driven by self-motivation. Like Murakami, I’m a person who enjoys time by myself, and “doesn’t find it painful to be alone,” so I felt a bit like a kindred spirit.

Really, this was a book that allowed me to spend time in the mind of a brilliant writer, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It didn’t make me want to start running… thank goodness.

A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo

Published in 2020, this is a novel inspired in part by the book of the same name by Roland Barthes, which it references a few times. Like the Barthes book, this is split into very short titled chapters. Each begins with a piece of dialogue extracted from that chapter, which I felt provided a slightly hypnotic quality.

The plot is, of course, a love story told largely through dialogue. The narrator is a woman who moves from China to the UK (or “Brexit Britain”) to study for a PhD in visual anthropology, and falls for a man of a similar age who specialises in landscape architecture. Despite the slightly unusual structure, I found this effortless to read. It has interesting themes around loneliness, even within a relationship, and the limitations of language: both of the central characters speak more than one language.

This was intriguing, enjoyable, and captured more themes than I imagined it would be.

The Second Child by John Boyne

This 2008 novella, published as part of a series for “emerging adult readers” was a fun, single-sitting affair for me. The plot follows an estranged Irish daughter visiting her parents with her partner—a successful Hollywood actor—while pregnant. As well as being very funny, it captures the complexity of familial relationships and the conflict which can emerge from clashing social expectations of different generations.

This isn’t ground-breaking, but I don’t think it set out to be. It’s just a well-written, very brief story which captures complex and conflicting emotions which can emerge in fairly universal relationships. I often find short stories unsatisfying, but I enjoyed this.

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What I’ve been reading this month

There are seven books that I’ve read in October that I’d like to tell you about.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

The first word that comes to mind to describe Elif Shafak’s recently published novel is ‘magical’. At its heart is a love story in between a Greek Christian (Kostas) and a Turkish Muslim (Defne) on Cyprus in the 1970s, just as the violent coup divided the island along those very lines. But this isn’t only a love story: it’s a story of how history echos for future generations, with the novel moving backwards and forward in time between 1970s Cyprus and 2010s London.

In the 2010s, Kostas and Defne’s teenage daughter Ada is mourning her mother’s recent death and having a difficult time of doing so, partly because of the influence of social media. Ada’s parents have fiercely protected Ada from their traumatic past in Cyprus and brought her up to consider herself to be British. The arrival of Ada’s Cypriot maternal aunt pierces that barrier (and also brings with her a whole load of charming Cypriot aphorisms).

Complex human emotions are obviously in abundance. Shafak’s masterstroke is to make one of the main narrators a fig tree: and what a fig tree! The tree itself was displaced from Cyprus to London along with the family. She (and yes, it is a she) brings her own altered perception of the passage of time, and a warm appreciation for the complex emotional relationships between the characters, and between the characters and their countries.

And the ending was breathtaking.

I’ve only read one other novel by Shafak: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World was one of my favourite books of 2020. The Island of Missing Trees is entirely different, yet certainly one of my favourite books of 2021. I can’t wait to make my way through her back catalogue.

The Echo Chamber by John Boyne

Just out in hardback, this is John Boyne’s new comedic novel, which skewers society’s obsession with social media. The epigraph is from Umberto Eco, and summaries the thesis succinctly:

Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community. Then they were quickly silenced, but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It’s the invasion of the idiots.

The main characters make up the Cleverley family, all five members of whom are irredeemably awful people. George, the patriarch, is the host of a BBC TV chat show which has been running for decades. Beverley, his wife, is nominally a writer of romance novels, though makes extensive use of ghostwriters. Alike with their three young adult children, the two hold themselves in unfathomably high esteem. Each member of the family makes use of social media for self-promotional purposes.

As with Boyne’s last novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, the plot is fairly ridiculous. The previous novel used a mad plot as an opportunity to string together a series of moments of high emotional drama. This novel uses one to string together a series of laugh-out-loud set pieces into one long downward spiral of farcical consequences. This is a very funny book, with lots of satirical contemporary references. (And, to note, Maude Avery—one of my favourite literary characters after her introduction in the previous novel—is referenced several times in this one.)

While this is a skewering of social media, it’s hard not to notice that social media delivers justice in the book, albeit by perverted misguided means. Through that authorial decision, Boyne leaves some interesting questions to ponder, rather than just writing off the whole medium.

I thoroughly enjoyed this.

Sad Little Men by Richard Beard

This recently published polemic against England’s private boarding schools for boys had me riveted from start to finish. This book is a reckoning with the emotional and character damage inflicted on Beard by being sent off to boarding school at the age of eight. It is also a condemnation of the impact of these schools on the country at large, given the astonishing proportion of senior figures in public life who share this background. This includes twenty-eight of the last thirty-two Prime Ministers (an astonishing statistic, even if the school lives of people born in the early 1800s ought to have little relevance to a twenty-first century argument).

This isn’t a balanced book: it is passionate, angry, withering, and all the more readable for it. That said, it is written with enough subtlety to allow us to feel sympathy for the immediate ‘victims’ as children. This is no mean feat given the illustration of the devastating, sometimes deadly, consequences for the rest of us as their adult sense of confidence and entitlement outstrips their competence.

While not discussed in the book at any length, this made me view from a new perspective the frequent political talk about ‘British values’—a soundbite often used but rarely defined. I’ve often thought that it’s essentially a dog whistle for racism. However, Beard’s book made me reflect that it perhaps has a whole other layer, recalling the perverted ‘values’ of class preservation and emotional repression that seem associated with these institutions.

The Coward by Jarred McGinnis

This recently published semi-autobiographical first novel by Jarred McGinnis opens with the main character in his mid-20s waking up in hospital following a car accident. He learns that his passenger has been killed and that he has suffered spinal cord damage which has rendered his legs paralysed. From there, McGinnis follows the story forward, to find out how Jarred learns to live with his disability. In alternating chapters, we also follow Jarred’s childhood in a violent home, and his reaction to his mother’s death early in his life.

What emerges is a portrait of a complex man, flawed in myriad ways and—maybe like us all—affected in profound ways by both his upbringing and life events. In particular, Jarred’s changing relationship with his father is explored: having run away from his alcoholic father and having not spoken for several years, his accident means that he ends up living back in his childhood home with his father caring for him again.

This is a book of complex and ever-changing relationships, filled with characters which feel real and multi-faceted. Somehow, despite the darkness, the book feels somehow up-lifting. It is also hilarious, filled with dry wit and very dark humour.

This was off-beat, moving, tender and laugh-out-loud funny.

Lord by João Gilberto Noll

I read Edgar Garbelotto’s 2008 translation of this short and very strange 2004 novel about a Brazilian writer who comes to the UK at the invitation of a Londoner. The protagonist is confused from the start, and descends into further confusion as the novel progresses. It’s always dangerous to diagnose a fictional character, but this seems to be a portrait of some sort of dementia.

In essence, this is a very readable study of what it is like to lose your sense of person, place and time—involving a surprising and perhaps disturbing number of casual sexual encounters. There are several points where it is unclear whether the narrated events are simply confections of the protagonist’s confused mind, or whether they have some basis in the novel’s reality.

This is precisely the right length, in that it can easily be consumed in a single sitting and doesn’t drag to the point that the confusion just begets reader frustration. Instead, the novel is rather reflective and thought-provoking.

Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux

I read Tanya Leslie’s 1993 translation of Ernaux’s 1991 autobiographical essay about the passion she felt during her affair with a married man. I picked this up after seeing Eric’s Lonesome Reader review.

Choosing to try to translate the overwhelming intensity of feeling into a short book is an interesting enterprise. The autobiographical nature of the work also means that there is a superimposed layer of societal judgement on Ernaux’s essay, which she tries to disregard but perhaps concentrates on more as a result of the attempt.

I particularly liked Ernaux’s honesty in exploring the darker aspects of her passion: even very intense positive feelings have their immediate downsides, as does the longing between encounters. All-consuming feelings consume the positives as well as negatives.

A Perfect Waiter by Alain Claude Sulzer

I read this 2004 novel in its 2008 English translation by John Brownjohn. I had picked this book up having seen several reviews which compared it to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, which is one of my favourite novels.

Sulzer’s novel is mostly set in 1930s Switzerland, where Erneste works as a waiter in a grand hotel. He has a passionate affair with a younger waiter, Jakob, and their perceptions vary as to the significance of the relationship. The novel is narrated from the perspective of Ernest as an older man, looking back on his time with Jakob after the latter has re-established contact after many years.

To me, this book shared few similarities with the Ishiguro novel. The main theme of Ishiguro’s novel is of regret at a life spent in service of the wrong ideals. The main theme of Sulzer’s novel is the limits of the extent to which we can ever know the lives and minds of other people. In theme and emotion, the two are fundamentally different, and I’m not sure the comparison is fair or helpful.

The writing was also less good: Ishiguro’s novel was evocative of its setting and time, whereas I didn’t find Sulzer’s transporting, more because the prose seemed humdrum than because the setting was unremarkable. Ishiguro’s novel clouds deep attachment in the language of restrained period ’Englishness’ whereas Sulzer’s novel reads as just a little oddly detached from his central characters.

This was just a bit disappointing, but perhaps the comparison meant that it was always destined to be.

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What I’ve been reading this month

I haven’t got round to any of my Christmas books yet! Here are the seven books that are first on my “read in 2021” list.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

It takes a certain pluck to choose as an epigraph a quotation from a fictional work ‘written’ by a character you created, as Boyne does for this exceptional 2017 novel. His quote is from Maude Avery who, a novelist and adoptive mother to the protagonist, proved to be a new addition to my list of favourite literary characters.

Characterisation is at the heart of this book. The book follows the life of Charles Avery from his birth in the months after the Second World War, through seven-year intervals to his seventieth year. Charles is Irish, but spends parts of his life in a number of different cities.

This book reminded me a little of opera, in that the plot is faintly ridiculous and jam-packed with slightly absurd co-incidences, but this didn’t really matter. The plot served only as a device to allow for deeper characterisation and to string together moments of high emotional drama, all set against the accelerated pace of change in social values which characterised the second half of the twentieth century.

Boyne deftly moved between very funny passages (even a little slapstick at times) and deeply moving scenes in a way that never jarred.

I feel like I’ve made this sound terribly dry, whereas (more than anything else) it was riotously good fun.

The Imaginary Museum by Ben Eastham

Published in 2020, this is Eastham’s creative essay on the appreciation of contemporary art. It is structured as a tour around Eastham’s imaginary museum, and weaves together elements of his own history with art, discussion of specific pieces, and the big contemporary debates about what ‘counts’ as art and who funds it.

This was a highly readable and enjoyable essay which covered many of the main talking points in contemporary art in a manner which was friendly to me a something of a novice. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Future of Serious Art by Bidisha

This is the first of two books I’ve read this month from of a series of five essays in the FUTURES series published by Tortoise Media in 2020. The series take inspiration from books published in the 1920s which attempted to give a broad and constructive view of the future in different spheres of life, with the aim of generating new ideas and stimulating thought and discussion.

This essay, by Bidisha, considers the future of ‘serious art’ (which isn’t particularly clearly defined). It is a clear and passionate argument about the importance of art. Bidisha reflects on the ‘Cool Britannia’ era of Labour government, and contrasts this with the approach to the arts during austerity and all that has followed.

I enjoyed this mostly for the opportunity of reading an artist’s take on the future, which I suppose is the point of the book!

The Future of Men by Grace Campbell

This is the second in the series of Tortoise Media FUTURES essays I’ve read. This is Grace Campbell, comedian and daughter of Alastair Campbell (who features heavily) on ‘the future of men’.

The book read a little like stand-up comedy, interspersed with three transcribed interviews (one with the author’s father, another with her boyfriend, and another with a gay best friend). The central arguments around feminism and toxic masculinity are agreeable enough, but covered to such a comprehensive extent elsewhere that I didn’t really feel this volume added much.

This was a short and funny read, but the better-known books by Ngozi Adichie and Grayson Perry are, to my mind, better guides to the same territory.

Art Deco Britain by Elain Harwood

Published in 2019, this was the Twentieth Century Society’s book by Elain Harwood on the finest Art Deco buildings in Britain. It was a coffee table format, with each of about a hundred buildings presented in facing pages with a full-page photo on one plate and a few paragraphs of text on the facing plate. The book is arranged into sections according to the original designed purpose of the buildings, starting with residential buildings (which I found least interesting – I would have basically reversed the order of the sections). There was also a good fifteen-page introduction to set the context.

I picked this up because I’ve been a member of the Twentieth Century Society for a while due to a mild interest in late c20 architecture, but didn’t really know anything about the British architecture associated with the earlier part of the century and the interwar period. I picked up quite a bit from this enjoyable introduction: there were quite a few buildings in here which I wouldn’t have recognised as Art Deco without Harwood’s explanatory text.

The 99% Invisible City by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt

This was Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt’s book published earlier this year. It covered frequently overlooked aspects of urban design, based on the 99% Invisible podcast.

The book is structured in short sections, each giving a few paragraphs to a design element. I found these a bit frustrating: they were frequently far too short to include any real analysis. The book was also US-centric to a disappointing degree.

However, perhaps the most frustrating part of the book was the design decision to include line drawings rather than photographs. The elements of design discussed would often have benefitted from photographic illustration, and the line drawings often seemed completely disconnected from the text: they frequently didn’t even show the aspect of design under discussion.

As a result, while there were interesting parts, this book didn’t really work for me.

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

Good grief, Pinker’s 2011 oft-mentioned tome on why violence has declined was a slog and a half. I should have known better: I didn’t enjoy Pinker’s style in, erm, “The Sense of Style”, so I’m not sure what convinced me to embark on 724 pages of his writing (plus 1,955 endnotes for good measure).

The central arguments in this book were interesting, and there were nuggets of gold to be found. But Pinker has an exceptionally irritating habit of citing way more examples to illustrate a point than I really want to wade through.

At the micro level, this is merely eye-rolling (eg listing ten common expressions where a couple would do, or four generic names where ‘Tom, Dick and Harriet’ would be good enough for most writers).

At the macro level, it starts to undermine his case. He uses the original published findings of the Zimbardo prison experiment and the Milgram experiment to illustrate a couple of his points, despite these having been roundly debunked, and it becomes hard to engage in the cognitive dissonance necessary to take the 72 other examples cited for each of these points on trust.

The style was so annoying that it’s taken me months to get through this, reading bits between other things. But I suppose there were enough points of interest to keep me coming back. I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of Pinker’s books, though.

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