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What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve finished six books this December, some of which were considerably better than others.

Problems by Jade Sharma

This 2016 debut novel is appropriately titled: the protagonist, Maya, is a married New York bookseller writing an MA thesis, while also having an affair with her former college professor, living with an addiction to heroin, and making questionable life choices in pursuit of money to fund her habit.

This book is gritty and explicit, with some bits which are stomach-churningly disgusting. It is also full of dark humour, which occasionally made me laugh out loud. The dialogue is especially sharp.

Sharma’s writing made this book feel true. Her close observation and vivid description feel real. I was particularly taken with the description of the protagonist’s shifting perceptions of.a psychiatric hospital.

The overall effect—despite the dark subject matter—was strangely uplifting, though it was certainly not a ‘light’ read.

Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

Rachel Ingalls’s 1982 novella in which the titular character falls in love with a giant man/frog/monster called Larry has recently been reissued with a lovely Faber Editions cover. It is a book with an engaging surface plot, which very funny in places, but whose subtext deals with a whole range of sociocultural issues.

There is a load of gender politics in here, which I expected from a sort of background cultural awareness of the book. Ingalls also has interesting observations to make about psychiatric illness, both for Mrs Caliban and for Larry. The latter aspect resonates with a lot of the themes explored in Frankenstein.

The writing is also sublime. At a little over a hundred pages, this could be comfortably read in a single sitting, and it is well worth that short time investment.

Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

I confess that I went into this much-recommended recently published book with some trepidation and quite a lot of cynicism. Everything about it screamed “self-help” including the cringeworthy subtitle (“Embrace your limits. Change your life.”)

Nevertheless, Burkeman won me over. This isn’t really self-help, this is engaging philosophy which happens to be relevant to the moment. Burkeman argues that life is short and our time ought to be lived, not seen as a resource to be ‘used’. We should recognise and make peace with the fact that there will never be time to do everything that we want to do, nor everything that is demanded of us. Being more productive will not substantially alter that fundamental fact, but the effort might distract us from living.

I really enjoyed this, and will search out Burkeman’s other books.

JFK: Volume One by Fredrik Logevall

This 2020 biography was a Christmas present last year, and I’ve been reading it in chunks through the year. It is an exceptionally detailed account of JFK’s life, up to the point where he decided to run for President.

Unfortunately, this is one of those astoundingly well-researched biographies that contains so much detail that it feels like it loses its thread. It is only 654 pages long, but feels much longer, and it felt a little like the sense of the subject’s character got lost among the weeds.

At one point, Kennedy is invited to a house to watch some film footage he is to narrate. Logevall insists on telling us that this was a “twenty-room beachfront home” which was “built in 1936 for film industry titan Louis B. Mayer”—details that add precisely nothing to a visit that lasts one sentence, beyond exhibiting the research.

I’m uncertain whether I’ll read the second volume.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli

Earlier this year, I thoroughly enjoyed Rovelli’s collection of essays, There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness. This led me to pick up Seven Brief Lessons, Rovelli’s best-selling and most famous work.

First published in Italian in 2014, I read Allen Lane’s 2015 translation. The book consists of six numbered brief lessons on aspects of physics, followed by a somewhat philosophical closing section called ‘Ourselves’, which serves as the seventh lesson.

Somewhere into the third lesson, I came to the shuddering realisation that I simply wasn’t all that interested in physics. Rovelli writes with lyrical clarity about complex subjects. I used to very much enjoy reading popular science, yet I found myself struggling to be astounded that general relativity and quantum mechanics sometimes disagree. Nor was I moved to really care whether black holes are hot or cold. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood.

The final section was a little more absorbing, partly because it involved Rovelli introducing his physicist’s perspective to wider questions such as the future of our species, which, I think, is what I enjoyed about There Are Places…

Essentially, overall, this was beautiful writing about a complex subject that doesn’t really interest me. There is enjoyment and value in that, but perhaps less than I was expecting to find.

The Comfort Book by Matt Haig

This 2021 bestseller was a bad purchasing decision on my part, and one driven by online shopping during lockdown. I enjoyed Haig’s previous books, Notes on a Nervous Planet and Reasons to Stay Alive, though as I noted at the time, I preferred his personal reflections on his experiences rather than the aphorisms and superficial psychology.

I think others may have had exactly the opposite opinion, as The Comfort Book is essentially a compendium of short ‘inspiring’ texts, some extending to only a few words, others to a couple of pages. None of this is up my street, and had I flicked through the book in a physical shop before I bought it, then I would have known that.

I’m confident this will book will bring a lot of comfort to many people, but it wasn’t my sort of thing.

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31 things I learned in January 2020

1: Alan Bennett had open-heart surgery in Spring 2019 and the news completely passed me by.

2: A paucity of Papal patience provides problematic publicity for a Pontiff preaching peaceful pacifism to pious pilgrims.

3: Norovirus probably causes about two-thirds of care home outbreaks of gastrointestinal disease.

4: Fewer than 20% of schools in Texas teach children about safe sex. Texas is among the States with the highest teen pregnancy rate. Any connection is disputed by conservatives.

5: I’m reading Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive at the moment, and there’s a line advocating for greater ‘mood literacy’ which I found a rather lovely turn of phrase. It reminded me of this blog post advocating examination of one’s own response to the outside world to better understand one’s mood. Both taught me something about self-examination.

6: One of the room booking systems at work requires me to “invite” a given room to attend a meeting. I’ve now learned through bitter experience that rooms can decline invitations… which felt a little humiliating, even if it does open up a whole new seam of entertaining insults (e.g. “that meeting sounds so pointless that even the room declined the invitation”).

7: Populist ‘knee-jerk’ reactions in politics are commonly discussed and clearly dangerous. I’ve been reminded today by an article on the lack of legislation around in vitro fertilisation research in the USA that the opposite—a complete failure to react because issues are complex and divisive—can be just as dangerous.

8: Merely possessing a placebo analgesic, without even opening it, has been shown to reduce pain intensity.

9: The average age of a BBC One viewer is 61. If one considers that a problem, as the BBC seemigly does, then I suppose one might conclude that removing children’s programmes from the channel was not the right approach.

10: The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is only a short walk from the city centre and is a great place for a winter stroll. The uphill walk back to the city centre is a touch more tiring.

11: Over the past decade, the proportion of the UK’s electricity generated from wind and solar power has increased from 2.4% to 20.5%. The proportion from coal has fallen from 31% to 2.9%. (As reported in Positive News, though the specific article isn’t online.)

12: Aspiring comedians often go on ‘introduction to stand up’ courses. I’d never thought about these sorts of courses existing, but of course they do.

13: More than half of Luxembourgers speak four languages. The best-selling newspapers in Luxembourg have articles in two languages. This makes me feel inadequate.

14: In the 1990s, John Major mooted renaming Heathrow airport after Churchill, while Lindsay Hoyle and William Hague fancied naming it after Diana.

15: I have long known the North East is an outlier for antibiotic prescribing in primary care, but hadn’t fully realised until a meeting today that the North East isn’t an outlier for antibiotic prescribing in secondary care.

16: I was surprised to read that a survey suggested that only one in three people on the UK knows the standard VAT rate is 20%, and one in ten knows the basic rate of national insurance is 12%. But then, on reflection, my own surprise surprised me, because I don’t really know how or why I know those figures myself. I’m sure there are plenty of similar figures on which I’d have no idea myself!

17: Since last September, Monday to Friday, the City of London Magistrates’ Court has been filled by Extinction Rebellion defendants from around the country.

18: The developers of Morecambe’s Central Retail Park have “put an extraordinary amount of effort into stylising the car park” including quirky themed artworks, sculpted steel waves and effigies of seabirds diving for fish.

19: In the US, a broadly similar amount is spent on treatment for back pain ($88bn) and treatment for cancer ($115bn).

20: Office for National Statistics Travel to Work Areas are an interesting way of dividing up the country.

21: Civil servants in China cannot ordinarily be dismissed. One wonders what Dominic Cummings makes of that.

22: Over 70% of 12- to 14-year-olds in China are short-sighted. The Communist Party has set targets for reducing that, leading to some slightly strange practices in schools, including compulsory twice-daily eye massages and dressings-down for those whose sight worsens over time.

23: It’s not a public health emergency of international concern.

24: Blinded trials are not always best. I remember having to write an essay or answer an exam question on this topic at some point in the past, but haven’t really thought critically about it in years.

25: The attendance fee for the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos is 27,000CHF (£21,400). I will never complain about medical conference registration fees again!

26: Luxury branded homes—as in, “I live in a Bulgari residence” or “I’m in the Porsche apartments”—are now a thing. Is it possible that this is a global conspiracy to see how far the definition of “gauche” can be pushed?

27: “We fill our days with doing laundry, replacing our brake pads at the auto shop, or making a teeth-cleaning appointment with the dentist, in the expectation that everything will be fine. But it won’t. There will be a day that kills you or someone you love.”

28: “To err is manatee. A manatee might mistake a swimmer’s long hair for shoal grass and start munching away, oblivious to the attached figure. To err is baby elephant, tripping over her trunk. To err is egg-eater and moonrat and turnstone and spaghetti eel, and whales, who eat sweatpants.

29: Pulmonary tuberculosis can be detected in babies by doing PCR tests on faecal specimens. Sensitivity of the test varies according to the exact methods used, and this is an active area of research.

30: It’s a public health emergency of international concern.

31: The TV series Love Island has an unexpectedly innovative business model which involves selling items seen on the show via the app which viewers download to vote for contestants.

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What I’ve been reading this month

Six books to mention this month…

I Choose Elena by Lucia Osborne-Crowley

A 2019 essay on the lasting effect of trauma on Osborne-Crowley, exploring the effect that a rape at knifepoint when she was fifteen years old changed her life.

This was a deeply personal and powerful account. Osborne-Crowley reflected on the influence literature had on her recovery, including Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels which the title references. She also reflected on the personal circumstances which she believes underlie the reason the experience had such a profound impact on her life, in a section that knocked me sideways.

This will stay with me.

Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski

This was a newly published book by first-time author Tomasz Jedrowski. It followed a boy growing up, coming to terms with his sexuality, and falling in love against a background of political and social turmoil in late twentieth-century Poland.

I picked this up because I had read that it heavily featured James Baldwin’s classic Giovanni’s Room, which I have only recently read, and I was interested to see how this work would use that one. It turns out that it played a central part in the plot.

Jedrowski is an exceptionally talented writer who brought new emotional insight by referencing themes like social acceptance, shame, guilt, perseverance, and vulnerability in various aspects of the characters’ lives. There were, for example, complex emotional parallels between rebelling against an oppressive political regime and rebelling against a heteronormative society.

I really enjoyed this book and thought I got a lot out of it. The experience of having recently read Giovanni’s Room led to me reflect quite a lot on the different influences the same book can have on different people’s lives. Giovanni’s Room clearly meant something different to someone exploring their nascent sexuality in a country which suppressed homosexuality compared to what it meant to a straight 30-something in the UK in 2020: this made me reflect much more deeply on that point, and how much what we all take from books depends as much on what we bring to them as what is in them.

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

I picked this book up entirely on the strength of the cover, so all credit to designers Sara Wood and Steve Marking.

It was a book about Ava, who left Ireland at the age of twenty-two to teach English in Hong Kong. She befriended a banker, Julian, and then a lawyer, Edith, and much was made of the trio’s diverse backgrounds, financial situations, and approaches to life. At heart, this was a love story. Dolan’s writing was sharp and witty and was the real star of this book.

What could we need more during these strange times than a warm and witty love story? It was modern in a way that will date quite quickly (lots of commentary on iMessage typing indicators and ways of working at Starbucks), but it was still lovely.

Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead by Milan Kundera

I don’t think I’ve read anything by Milan Kundera before. This was forty-three pages first published in English in a collection called Laughable Loves in 1974, and now republished as a standalone volume in the Faber Stories collection. Regrettably, the volume doesn’t credit the translator of the original Czech; from a bit of web searching, I think it was probably Suzanne Rappaport.

The plot concerned a man and a woman who previously had a sexual encounter when he was 20-ish and she 40-ish coincidentally meeting again 15 years on. Narration alternated between the two of them for each of the fourteen chapters.

There was a lot packed in here: the plot may have been straightforward, but the melancholy atmosphere, the lost love, the detail of the imagery, and the reflections on aging and changing and mortality elevated this to something more than a simple narrative. Kundera packed more into these forty-three pages than many authors I’ve read recently fit into a full-length novel.

Intruders by Adrian Tomine

This was an 81-page graphic novel (or, I suppose, graphic short story—but that doesn’t seem like it means the same thing). First published in 2015 in the collection Killing and Dying, I read the 2019 standalone Faber Stories volume.

Graphic novels aren’t really my cup of tea, but I enjoyed this, nonetheless. The book followed an American soldier returning home between his second and third tours of duty. The tale was a clear allegory for war abroad: without the consent of the new occupant, he secretly visited (and ended up defending) an apartment which he previously occupied. This choice made me think a lot about the authorial intent: was this a narrative device to make us think about war differently? Was this a reflection of the mental state of the solider? Was it a bit of both?

The blurb called it a ‘disquieting evocation of a post-traumatic life’, but I’m not sure that fits with how I read it. I found it a little too fantastical to be read as a realistic evocation of anything, but it did make me reflect quite a lot on the psychological impacts of war.

Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

This was Haig’s 2019 book about the effects of various aspects of modern life on mental health. I like Haig’s writing, so I enjoyed this book. Haig mixes his first-hand experiences with discussions of the evidence base which made for an engaging but light book, with quite a bit of wit.

I don’t think I learned a huge amount from this book, but I enjoyed Haig’s take on the topic.

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