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What I’ve been reading this month

Fintan O’Toole’s book on Brexit, Heroic Failure, was exactly what I expected it to be as a reader of his frequent newspaper columns. He presented some interesting and well-argued perspectives on the drivers behind Brexit, including frequent references to 50 Shades of Grey. I didn’t find all of the arguments convincing, but I enjoyed O’Toole’s passionate argument and wit, and found myself seeing some aspects of the debate from entirely new perspectives.

In Catching Breath, Kathryn Lougheed taught me lots of bits and pieces about tuberculosis. Lougheed described the history of tuberculosis over millennia and made a case for it still being a pressing problem in the modern world, as I know only too well from my day job. Lougheed has the rare gift of being able to write well in a conversational tone, and with an added dash of humour, this whole text became thoroughly readable and engaging.

Kazuo Ishiguro is among my favourite authors, but I struggled to get on with When We Were Orphans. It was a sort of detective novel, where the protagonist goes off to solve the mystery of the disappearance of his own parents when he was a child. Perhaps I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind. I found the narrator thoroughly unlikable and a little irritating, which made the whole book difficult to enjoy.

I didn’t enjoy Jonathan Biss’s Beethoven’s Shadow quite as much as his other books because it seems clear that Biss wasn’t quite as passionate about Beethoven’s works as that of other composers he’s written about. But this was still an excellent essay. I particularly enjoyed his insights into the unexpected ways in which recordings of music have influenced the liver performance of classical music over the last century or so.

I’m not the intended audience for Mario García’s The Story: Volume I: Transformation, but I read it anyway. It was a hassle to buy because it seemed to be mobile only – but there now seems to be a print edition, so who knows what’s going on. It was a very short book in which García, a world-renowned newspaper designer, reflected on various projects he had worked on over many decades. It was interesting to read about his considerations when, for example, first introducing colour to newspapers, or first designing a newspaper for mobile phones. It left me feeling a bit tired and despondent about the future of news, as García’s vision is about as far from my own preference as can be: lots of “content management” and “melon slices” rather than properly absorbing narrative structures.

And I continued the Faber Stories series this month, with Akhil Sharma’s Cosmopolitan. This was a modern, calm, gently funny short story than was also utterly forgettable.

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What I’ve been reading this month

Maybe I’ve not been in the right frame of mind for reading this month, or maybe I’ve made some bad selections. Either way, nothing has really blown me away.

The blockbuster book of the summer, David Nicolls’s new book Sweet Sorrow, was a beautifully written story of teenage first love, set against a background of an interestingly complex family breakdown, and a (slightly tiresome) summer children’s production of Romeo & Juliet. Despite the evocative and often funny writing, it all felt a bit too long to me, and perhaps a little too saccharine, even by Nicholls’s standards. I didn’t feel as absorbed by the world of this novel as I have by most of Nicholls’s other books.

Hannah Fry’s Hello World was an enjoyable a well-written lay summary of the strengths and limitations of computerised algorithms as applied in real-world settings. I particularly enjoyed the concise clarity of the book combined with occasional wit. I didn’t personally feel like this book gave me much new insight to the topic, but I think that is a reflection of having read a reasonable amount in this area before, and this book being aimed at an audience perhaps newer to the topic.

Lots of friends have been praising Zen Cho’s The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo recently, so I thought I would give it a go. It was a fun romantic novella set in the late 1920s told from the point of view of a straight-talking young woman from Malaysia crashing up against the buttoned-up sensibility of folk in England. The central character was great fun, a really entertaining and endearing creation, but I found some of the language a bit uneven and perhaps a little anachronistic—or, at least, not in keeping with my expectations of the language of that era as someone who knows very little about it.

It’s hard not to feel a bit fed up of politics at the moment, but I nonetheless picked up Isabel Hardman’s Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. This was a sympathetic portrait of the work of MPs, arguing that they do a poor job of legislating partly because they spend so much time on casework clearing up the fallout of previous poor legislation. Sometimes, Hardman overdid the sympathy—”MPs do not needs the complex motor skills of a surgeon”, so it’s fine for them to drink taxpayer subsidised alcohol over lunchtime—and it made me wonder a little about her motivations. All things considered, I found this to be less analytical and solution-focused than I’d hoped.

In Brotopia, Emily Chang related deeply shocking experiences that women have had in Silicon Valley jobs, and made a compelling case for change. I would have liked there to have been more discussion of the underlying societal drivers for the appalling behaviour. I also felt that Chang’s concentration on viewing the lack of diversity in tech companies through the sole lens of sexism occasionally produced odd results. For example, there is a section where she talks about horribly racist groups on social networking sites, and her conclusion is that this would have been less likely to have been tolerated if there were more women in the company… which may be true, but perhaps other types of diversity in the workforce might have helped more. This book opened my eyes to a problem that I’ve probably paid too little attention to in the past; but I don’t think it was necessarily the best form of the argument.

I seem to be on a bit of a musical thread to my reading at the moment. I picked up Jonathan Biss’s Coda, a 30-odd page essay on his relationship with composers’ “late” works. I’d forgotten how well Biss writes, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading his clear and enthusiastic account, with some really inventive turns of phrase.

I found Stephen Johnson’s How Shostakovich Changed My Mind somewhat less engaging, but then it’s a very different type of book to Biss’s. This was a memoir that wove a tale of the influence of Shostakovich on Johnson’s life, from helping him through mental illness to getting him into music journalism. I felt I missed out largely because I’m not very familiar with either Shostakovich’s work or Johnson’s journalism, and there wasn’t much that this book could do to make up for that lack of background.

I also read one more book in the Faber Stories collection this month: Three Types of Solitude by Brian W Aldiss. I’m afraid this came across to me as three pretty forgettable bits of science fiction, which isn’t really my favourite genre to begin with.

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