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What I’ve been reading this month

As the daylight has begun to stretch into the evening, I’ve read seven books this month.


Klara and The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is Ishiguro’s recently published novel set in the near future (or perhaps an alternative present). It is narrated by an “AF” called Klara, a solar powered artificially intelligent robot of sorts who is bought to be a companion for an unwell child, Josie.

Like all of the Ishiguro novels I’ve read, I absolutely loved this. As in Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro makes deft use of science fiction themes to explore universal experiences and emotions, and avoids getting drawn into the “science” bit (we don’t really know what sort of technology powers AFs, for example). This novel explores all sorts of questions: the universal aspects of the life course; the nature of religion; the meaning of service; the lifelong impact of childhood inequality; the fundamentals of the human condition; the meaning of friendship and love. As with his other novels, Ishiguro explores all of this gently rather than forcefully.

Honestly, to me Ishiguro is one of those authors who could spin a thoughtful and spellbinding novel out of a telephone directory. 

This was brilliant.


A Promised Land by Barack Obama

This first part of Obama’s Presidential memoir covers his political life up to the point of election to the Presidency, and his first term through to May 2011. For me, it was a Christmas present from mum and dad.

It is nothing short of exceptional. Obama has a rare talent for prose that is both readable and elegant: quite apart from his extraordinary experience, he is a truly gifted writer. He deftly combines everything from personal anecdote to political theory and from introspective reflection to lessons on statecraft to essentially spin a really gripping yarn, which also provides deep insight into what it is like to be a President of the United States.

Obama’s much-expressed and clearly deeply-felt frustration with the Republican Party and the early ascendency in the political sphere of Trump portends a rather darker second volume. As I will definitely be reading it, I’ll be interested to see whether that can be as inspiring and hopeful as this volume, despite the different circumstances.


Pandemic! by Slavoj Žižek

Published in April last year (which we now know to be fairly early on in our collective experience of COVID-19), this is Žižek’s short (146 pages) philosophical reflection on the pandemic.

It was clearly written quickly, and include things that would usually be very irritating (some long quotes from Wikipedia, for example). However, I really enjoyed looking at something which has consumed my work and personal life for more than a year from a different perspective.

I found it fun and refreshing.


On Connection by Kae Tempest

Published last year, this is an extended reflection (144 pages) by poet Kae Tempest on the importance of “connection” which is defined as “the feeling of landing in the present tense. Fully immersed in whatever occupies you, paying close attention to the details of experience.” This sounds similar to “mindfulness” yet Tempest’s discussion seems to have an added element of human connection to it, and recognises the importance of creativity in bringing people together and finding common ground.

I came across this through some Faber Members marketing, and I found it insightful, perceptive and timely. I hadn’t come across Tempest’s work previously, but will seek it out having read this. It was well worth the small time commitment given its short length, particularly to gain a new perspective on the impact of covid-19.


The Future of Seduction by Mia Levitin

This is the fourth I’ve read in Tortoise Media’s five-book FUTURES series published last year, which is a modern day attempt to follow in the footsteps of the 1920s series of To-Day and To-Morrow essays.

Levitin’s 60-page essay concerns the future of seduction, though is really mostly about dating in the modern world. As Wendy and I have been together for the better part of 17 years, the world of dating apps has really passed both of us by. I remember learning the hard way that it had passed into the mainstream after making a comment to a colleague about it being “geeky” about a decade ago, only to hear that she had met her husband online.

All of which is to say… this book was an education. Whoever knew the difference between Bumble and Tinder? Who knew that most people just chat on these services? Who knew that “progressing to WhatsApp” was a stage of a relationship?

I’m not sure I really needed to know any of this, but it was eye-opening!


Fatherhood by Caleb Klaces

This is Caleb Klaces’s 2019 ‘experimental’ novel combining prose and poetry. It concerns a young couple moving to the countryside following the birth of their first child, with the father taking on much of the childcare responsibility.

To me, the experimental form (shifting between history, biography, poetry, stream of consciousness, memory, and probably other things too) was a bit beyond me, and a bit of a barrier. This is probably in part because this isn’t the sort of thing I usually read. There were bits of observation and philosophy that made me think in this novel, but the whole just wasn’t up my street.


The Magnificent Sons by Justin Myers

I picked up Justin Myers’s novel as it was recommended somewhere or other as a good option for those who enjoyed Exciting Times, which I read and recommended last summer. From my perspective, this was a bad recommendation as I felt the two books had very little in common.

Exciting Times is a literary love story filled with warmth and wit, whose central character happens to be bisexual. The Magnificent Sons is a modern melodramatic Bildungsroman focussed on a bisexual man coming to terms with his sexuality. The very positive reviews for The Magnificent Sons speak to the fact that it is an accomplished work, but it’s really just not up my street.

I was a little distracted by poor editing (the relocation of the Canadian National Tower to Seattle was one of the less forgivable errors) and some of the idioms were a little too wild for me (emotional pain that “hurts harder than Lego underfoot” or a character “retreating to their mental holodeck”). I had also expected more reflection on and development of the fraternal relationship given the title. But the real point is that I probably noticed these “flaws” because this book just wasn’t my kind of thing, rather than them being major issues. This sort of dialogue-driven sentimental story contained mostly within a small friendship group just doesn’t do it for me.

But, by all accounts, if this is the sort of thing you like, you’ll probably like it a lot, so please don’t let this put you off.

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What I’ve been reading this month

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

This was a novel charting the course of a marriage between a middle class African American man and woman in the contemporary United States. In particular, it covers the strain placed on that marriage after the man is wrongfully imprisoned. It is told in sections from the points of view of multiple characters.

The main themes were the gap between hopes and reality, the effect of incarceration on people’s lives and families, and the clash between traditional gender roles and those in modern society. The characters were well developed, believable, and entirely as irrational and frustrating as real people can often seem.

This was a slow and closely observed novel on a domestic scale. I found it absorbing and moving.


Stop Reading the News by Rolf Dobelli

This was book about the negative effects of engaging with the news, arguing that we should essentially disengage from daily consumption. I enjoyed this book and found the argument convincing, partly because I’ve been on a similar journey of late.

I would have preferred Dobelli to make the distinction between ‘news’ and ‘journalism’ a little earlier in the book, because I occasionally found myself arguing with his positions until I understood better that he was treating these as distinct entities. But, nonetheless, I found his perspectives throughout worthy of consideration.

Definitely a book I’d recommend, particularly in current times.


My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes

Originally published in 1958, this short novel was narrated by a troubled Hollywood screenwriter. In the novel’s opening, the screenwriter intervened to rescue an actress from the sea at a party, following what might have been an accident or might have been a suicide attempt.

The two almost accidentally fell into a relationship (an extramarital affair for the screenwriter) which took on a progressively darker air as their damaged selves came to the fore.

I found this intense and gripping. It had the concise and precise language of the classic American novels which worked well to heighten the tension.


Car Park Life by Gareth E Rees

This was a personal study of some of the hidden parts the UK’s retail car parks—not a topic that obviously required its own book, but a topic that turned out to be well worth reading about nevertheless.

Car Park Life was great, with exactly the right mix of wit, satire and underlying earnest. Rees mixed a beguiling and flowing combination of humour, psychology, sociology, autobiography and history around this unassuming topic.

This book has definitely changed my perspective on car parks!


A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

I thought I’d read all of Sherlock Holmes as a teenager, and decided to re-read it in 2020. Having read this, though, I’m now pretty sure this is my first reading: I don’t remember any of the mormon-themed second part of this book.

Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed this first in the Sherlock Holmes series. There seems little point saying much more: you know what you’re getting into.


My Twentieth Century Evening and Other Small Breakthroughs by Kazuo Ishiguro

You can watch or read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel lecture for free online, but I didn’t. I bought a small paperback copy which I read over a bowl of soup one lunchtime in Caffé Nero. That is possibly the most planetary resource intensive approach, and I should probably be ashamed… but I enjoyed it.

Ishiguro’s lecture described his lifelong development as a writer, underlined the importance of literature and made a plea for greater intellectual diversity in writing and the arts. I really like Ishiguro’s writing, so was predisposed to like this lecture. I suppose I probably wouldn’t have found it interesting if I didn’t find him interesting, so your mileage may vary!


Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge

I picked this up out of interest having enjoyed the TV series: this is the text of the original one-woman play.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the play and also reflecting on the creative differences between the original text and the TV series. I also enjoyed the text on its own terms: Waller-Bridge has created a memorable and distinctive character.

On the other hand, much of the rest of the stuff in this volume felt like filler to me.


Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

This was a moving, eloquent and personal description of Matt Haig’s experiences with depression which I think helped me to better understand the subjective experience of mental illness.

There were some parts that felt less successful to me, though perhaps others appreciated them—I wasn’t particularly interested in others’ Twitter posts quoted in the book, for example—but I’m glad I picked this up nevertheless.


A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes

Barthes built up a picture of the subjective experience of love through a series of “fragments”, descriptions of individual aspects of the experience drawn from literature or philosophy.

This was an astounding analytical work, in as much as it put into words emotions I’ve felt but never even considered classifying or really dwelt upon, but which certainly form part of being in love. Some of the ‘fragments’ felt like truly revelatory insights into my own life experiences.

On the other hand, if I’m being honest, most of this book was a bit of a slog to get through: it was a bit like reading a reference work of discrete entries. I read it piece by piece over several months because I couldn’t take it all in one go.

It was astounding and hard work to read at the same time.


Christmas with Dull People by Saki

It would probably have made more sense to read this in December, but it didn’t make its way to the top of the pile until this month.

Christmas with Dull People was a 48-page collection of four short, sharp stories satirising Edwardian social norms around Christmas. I don’t think I’ve read any Saki before and enjoyed his cutting wit. I enjoyed the last story, which concerned the writing of thank you letters, the most.


Motherland: Tortoise Quarterly, 2ed

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

In this edition, I particularly enjoyed Martin Samuel’s profile of Gary Linekar (who I previously knew almost nothing about), Zelda Perkins’s account of producing a musical with and for David Bowie, Susie Walker’s story of life as a female stand up comedian, and Simon Barnes’s deep dive into the causes of flooding in the UK.


Indistractable by Nir Eyal

It’s important context to know that Eyal is the author of another book on how to make technology addictive. He believes, and frequently argues, that such technologies should not be regulated because we can control our own usage of them.

In Indistractable, Eyal argued that one can maintaining focus despite potential distractions such as—but not limited to—addictive technology. He set out a few commonly described methods by which it is possible to maintain focus (such as planning to complete given tasks at given times). He also set out a few techniques commonly described techniques for reducing technology distractions (such as switching off notifications). He then set out a few commonly described tips on parenting in the age of modern technology (such as making sure children can use devices competently before allowing them unsupervised access). None of the ideas seemed original to me, and none added up to the thesis that these technologies should not be regulated.

Irritatingly, Eyal had a habit of presenting banal information as stunning insights. The most glaring of these was his repeated insistence that “total time spent on email = number of emails × average time spent on each email”. That is not an insight into anything, it is simply basic mathematics.

There was also a depressing assumption of affluence in Eyal’s writing. He suggested that we might encourage ourselves to go to the gym by bargaining with ourselves that if we failed to do so we’d burn a $100 bill. And he assumed an awful lot about availability of cash and time for parenting. All of which serves to undermine the thesis about regulation, which—after all—serves to protect the most vulnerable in society.

All in all, I found this pretty infuriating.

You might have noticed that this looks a little different to usual.

This is the 45th of these posts: they’ve appeared monthly since May 2016 and the formatting has been essentially unchanged since June 2016. This month, I’m playing with a new photography-heavy layout for 2020. I’m also experimenting with going back to publishing these towards the end of each month rather than at the start of a new month.

Both of these changes might be one-offs or might be permanent, largely depending on my whims this time next month.

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What I’ve been reading this month

It feels like Neil Gaiman is having a bit of a career ‘moment’, with his work seemingly everywhere at the moment. Art Matters was a very short book of Gaiman quotations illustrated by Chris Riddell making a convincing argument about the importance of creativity in life. I was surprised to find myself feeling a little moved by this book. The subject matter wasn’t classically emotional, but the passion and power of the argument, particularly with respect to the importance of reading, caught me by surprise—especially for such a short book.

How We Fight For Our Lives was a solid and deeply personal memoir which gave me new insight in what it was like to grow up as a gay black man in the USA. Saeed Jones is the same age as me, but we’ve evidently lived very different lives, and I enjoyed reading a different perspective on modern life.

In Thrust: A Spasmodic Pictorial History of the Codpiece in Art Michael Glover explored the history of the codpiece, from its first appearance as a functional garment bridging the top of two stockings for men, through its brief (ridiculous) celebration as a fashion item, to its sudden demise in all but sporting contexts (where we no longer use the name). The thoroughly delightful book was structured around very short essays connected with particular artworks, which were reproduced alongside. Glover wrote with a heavy dose of humour, but also brought fresh perspectives on both history and contemporary fashion. I really enjoyed this.

Murray Lachlan Young’s lavishly illustrated The Mystery of the Raddlesham Mumps was a Gothic poem clearly targeted at children. It concerned the seven-year-old Crispin de Quincy de Faversham-Clumps who inherited the cursed stately-home-esque Raddlesham Mumps following the sudden death of his parents. This was not my usual kind of thing, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race was better than previous reviews had led me to suspect. The book challenged and changed my perspective on the racism people face in modern Britain. It helped me to better understand that tackling racism requires positive day-to-day action: ‘colourblindness’ and being nice isn’t enough by itself. I did have some reservations: Eddo-Lodge occasionally seemed to be trying to speak for all people who experience racism, and I couldn’t follow the logic of some of her more detailed arguments which occasionally felt a bit self-contradictory.

I can’t work out what I thought about Lionel Shriver’s blockbuster We Need to Talk About Kevin. There were days when I thought that that it was a real imaginative achievement which combined a gradually building atmosphere with a nuanced exploration of the disturbed mind of a killer. Other days, I thought it was an interesting literary exercise in exploring narrative reliability and post-hoc rationalisation or confirmation bias. And still other days, I thought it was depressing domestic horror which fed off an overly simplistic morally dichotomous view of a world with ‘born evil’ which really had nothing new to say. I can’t reconcile those three views in any useful way.

Codename Villanelle has been turned into a TV series I haven’t seen. I found Luke Jennings’s thriller to be somewhat patchy, with writing which varied from ‘average’ to occasionally ‘good’. The central character, Villanelle, was flawed in intriguing ways – she believed herself to be the ‘perfect’ killer, with a view of herself as a sort of psychopath who did not experience interpersonal feelings, but this was shown to be less than fully accurate. The interplay between her self-conception and the real world could make for an interesting bit of character writing, but Jennings never quite explored that path.

As I’ve previously noted, I also finished off the original Faber Stories series this month.

Homeland by Barbara Kingsolver was a portrait of a grandmother who was a fugitive Cherokee, and an exploration of her relationships with her granddaughter and other family members. The plot revolves around a visit to her now unrecognisable ancestral homeland, but the plot didn’t seem to be the point: this seemed to me to be more an accomplished character study.

The Country Funeral by John McGahern was a story of three brothers who traveled from their modern lives in Dublin to rural Ireland to attend an uncle’s funeral. There were passages in this book which did a decent job of capturing some of the complexity of the conflicting emotions associated with funerals, and the way in which different people respond differently. But I didn’t really feel particularly drawn in by this short story as a whole.

I’ve previously read Come Rain or Come Shine in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, but I was glad to revisit it in a standalone volume this month. It was a great little short story about a man being invited to visit a couple who are old university friends. The man of the couple invited him to visit in an effort to save his relationship: the visitor’s lack of success in life, he hoped, would engender a flattering comparison in the mind of his partner. Like most of Ishiguro’s novels, it was full of tenderness, memories, regrets and—in this case—some wonderful humour.

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