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What I’ve been reading this month

It’s been a strange month in the real world, to say the least. Nevertheless, I’ve got ten books to tell you about, all of which offered a little escapism.


Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks

I picked up this 2005 novel as it was recommended by my friend and esteemed work colleague Julie. In short: it was right up my street and I loved it.

The novel followed the lives of two doctors, from their late 1800s childhoods through their careers as early specialists in psychiatry to their old age. They set up a clinic together despite developing contrasting theories as to the causes of and treatments for mental illness, and their intellectual differences both bound them together and drove them apart.

This novel was perfect for me because Faulks skilfully wove together fictional biography with medicine, psychiatry, travel, the thrill of early scientific discovery, moral complexity, interpersonal relationships, love and philosophy—all things I really enjoy reading about. The sometimes lengthy exposition of early psychiatric theory in the book is often singled out as a point for criticism, but I found it fascinating. I was completely absorbed into the world Faulks created.

The edition I read ran to 786 pages but felt far shorter. This is a book which I will remember for a long time.


Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

This novel was thoroughly depressing and heart-breaking and brilliant. First published in 1957, Giovanni’s Room followed David, a young American who lived in Paris and who awaited the return of his fiancée from her travels in Spain. He fell into an intense romantic relationship with a barman and things went downhill from there.

Really, this was a book about personal identity, guilt and the complexity of living with love. Despite the huge shifts in societal attitudes to sexual identity since the 1950s, the plot didn’t feel at all dated. The themes were universally applicable.

Baldwin’s writing made this feel absolutely complete despite it running to only 157 pages.


Mary Poppins Comes Back by PL Travers

First published in 1935, this was the second in the series of books by PL Travers featuring Mary Poppins. It had a similar structure to the first, with ten chapters each giving a reasonably ‘standalone’ account of some sort of adventure concerning Poppins and the Banks children.

I know this book was written for children, but I really enjoyed it. Poppins was a fascinating antihero of a character, not only possessed of unexplained magical powers (unless it was all in the children’s imagination) but also acid-tongued, cold and vain, with only occasional passing hints at underlying sentimentality and perhaps even love. As with the first book, there were some truly dark scenes in this volume which seem almost tailormade to give children nightmares.

Even after reading only the first two books, I can easily grasp why Travers had such a negative reaction to Disney’s treatment of Mary Poppins as a character: Disney’s saccharine singing source of warmth and comfort is certainly not Travers’s vision. And Travers’s vision is much more interesting.


The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A Norman

This was originally published as “The Psychology of Everyday Things” in 1988; I read the “revised and updated” 2013 edition.

This book made me think differently about what “design” means. I had expected this to be a book about the physical properties of man-made objects, which I suppose it was at heart, but Norman’s scope for the book included all sorts of stuff. For example, there was discussion about the relevance of design to investigation of errors and how best to manage “design” projects.

This book felt in parts more like practical philosophy than a textbook on product design. My job as a public health doctor doesn’t really involve designing anything and yet there was a lot of transferable content in here. Norman also added quite a bit of humour to the subject matter.

I had expected to enjoy this book because it would make me think differently about everyday objects. It achieved that and I took away much more besides.


The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes

I had mixed feelings about this.

Barnes’s latest book was an account of the belle époque centred on three main characters, including the eponymous Samuel Jean Pozzi, who was a pleasingly complex character. The problem with this book—to the extent that there was one—was that I just couldn’t really bring myself to care about this historical period. I’m not a fan of historical fiction, and while this was fact rather than fiction, I struggled to find any real interest in the history.

But Barnes is such a brilliant writer that this almost didn’t matter. I particularly liked his frequent reflections on the process of writing a historical account, which were deftly woven into his narrative. And while I couldn’t summon much enthusiasm for the history, Barnes’s own enthusiasm shone through in every line. Barnes also gives frequent and interesting commentary on portraits of the characters, often playfully contrasting his account with those of the gallery labels.

I suppose I enjoyed reading this book whose main subject matter was not of particular interest… if that makes any sense at all.


My Son the Fanatic by Hanif Kureishi

This short (29 pages) story was first published in the collection Love In A Blue Time in 1996; I read the recent Faber Stories standalone edition.

Kureishi explored the father-son relationship, as Pakistani-American immigrant Parvez struggled to understand his son Ali’s development of a strong attachment to Islam. To begin with, Kureishi played up the generational and East-West clash for comedy, but the characters’ estrangement became more serious and dramatic over time.

I liked this because it provided food for thought in terms of intra-familial culture clashes and the nature of fanaticism, things that I haven’t really had cause to think about a great deal. I’m not sure it’s a book I’ll return to or which will stay with me for a long time, but I appreciated the stimulation it provided.


The Cheater’s Guide to Love by Junot Díaz

This short story was originally published in 2012 as part of a collection called This Is How You Lose Her.

The story in these 56-pages was centred on Yunior, a Dominican-American writer and university professor, who cheated on his fiancée with some fifty other women and then worked through the fallout over a number of years (much of which involved further bad behaviour). The use of second-person narration and Dominican-American dialect gave this short story a real feeling of energy and urgency, which I really enjoyed. And despite its shocking premise, this was really a book about someone discovering the meaning of love.


Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

This novel, first published in 2016, concerned a group three couples of adult friends. It was, I suppose, a character study: it tracked how the characters developed over time as various secrets came to light and events occurred which challenged their friendship.

I picked this up because I know a lot of my friends like Moriarty’s books and my sister gave this five stars on Goodreads. I did not enjoy it, and there were a number of times where I almost gave up on reading it.

It was a long book at 415 pages, and felt longer than that. The novel had a contrived structure which jumped about in the timeline in order to add suspense, but there was no real payoff because the “secrets” were a bit humdrum.

I found almost all of the characters unlikable and the setting claustrophobic: nothing in this book strayed beyond fairly superficial observation of suburban Australian life. There was neither depth of observation nor exploration of a wider set of themes (at least as far as I could derive).

That said, clearly many people love this novel and it has been a major commercial success for Moriarty, so perhaps I’m just a curmudgeon outside of the target audience.


Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy

Published in Hungarian in 1970 and with an English translation by George Szirtes published in 2008, Metropole is considered to be Karinthy’s greatest work, and one of the novels of the century. I read it as it had been selected for inclusion in the London Review Book Box.

Despite that, it didn’t do much for me. The novel’s protagonist was Budai, a linguist who ended up in an unknown city whose language he couldn’t speak. He spent most of the book moaning and acting in a manner that felt a bit dim, all while developing a seemingly non-consensual violent sexual relationship with a young woman he couldn’t communicate with (it was ‘unconventional’ according to the cover blurb, but ‘unacceptable’ according to me).

There were some interesting allegorical ideas and, to my mind, this would make for an interesting short story. It made me reflect in particular on how much the world has changed since the 1970s, how close we all are to destitution, and how hit and miss everyone’s communication can be. It was just dull when spun out to this length.


Ghostly Stories by Celia Fremlin

This volume contained two short horror stories: The New House (first published 1968) and The Hated House (1970). These were very much ‘genre’ short stories, in that they didn’t seem to reach for anything beyond the straightforward ‘ghost story’.

Neither did much for me: while competently written and easy to read, I found them bland and forgettable. The plots were predictable. I don’t think I’ve read anything by Celia Fremlin before, and these stories wouldn’t encourage me to seek out more of her work.

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What I’ve been reading this month

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


Marcovaldo by Italo Calvino

I loved this book. First published in 1963, this was a collection of twenty short stories about Marcovaldo, a poor Italian man who was fond of nature and rural life but lived with his family in a big city. The stories followed a seasonal cycle, so that there were five set in each of spring, summer, autumn and winter.

In each story, Marcovaldo engaged with nature or the physical world in some way, and the outcomes were always unexpected. There was a lot of humour (I could imagine Marcovaldo being reduced to a comedy character on TV), but there was an equal amount of philosophy and some melancholy.

The writing was wonderful, simple and yet poetic. But then I really like Calvino’s style, and know that it isn’t universally loved. The translation I read was by William Weaver.

I enjoyed this so much that I didn’t want it to end, and tried to give myself time to reflect on each story before reading the next.


Tory Heaven or Thunder on the Right by Marghanita Laski

This satire was first published in 1948, but if I didn’t know that, I’d have guessed that it was published last year. (In fact, it was republished by Persephone in 2018.)

The plot followed five people who, having been marooned on a desert island for some years, returned to England in 1945 to find it transformed into “the England of all decent Conservatives’ dreams.”

The country was divided along strict class lines, with every citizen receiving one of five Government-assigned grades, and required to live in accordance with what would be expected of their class. The novel primarily focused on the experiences of the privileged James Leigh-Smith (indistinguishable from Jacob Rees-Mogg), and largely left the reader to fill in the blanks and draw the moral lessons.

This was a really easy and fun read with a clearly enduring underlying message.


Mary Poppins by PL Travers

Wendy loves Mary Poppins, so after 16 years of not entirely voluntary viewings of the Julie Andrews film, the more recent Saving Mr Banks and Mary Poppins Returns, and countless features and documentaries, I decided it was time to engage with the original source material.

Obviously, it was a children’s book, but I was surprised how dark it was—and it was more interesting for it.

Mary Poppins, a truly memorable character, was acid-tongued, cold and vain. Mr and Mrs Banks had little interest in or interaction with their children.

I think many younger children would be scared by the situations into which Poppins lures the children, such as the full moon birthday party in which shes surrounded by snakes.

Neither the book nor the character have the redeeming and nurturing warmth I expected, which left me more intrigued than if this had been the more saccharine tale I imagined.


Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq

I had never read anything by Houellebecq before, but knew of his reputation for gloom. This book lived up to that reputation, mostly in a good way. I read the translation by Shaun Whiteside.

The protagonist was a depressed agricultural advisor to the French government on farming and agricultural matters. He was prescribed a novel antidepressant which increased his serotonin level (hence the title). The novel followed this not entirely likable character as he made increasingly strange life choices.

The high suicide rate among agricultural workers is well known, but this novel made me think a bit more about the myriad causes of this, especially in modern society. It was also good at giving a slightly different perspective on the experience of depression and medication. There was a good dose of dark humour mixed in with the tragedy.

There was a fair amount of gratuitous sex, including bestiality and paedophilia, which seemed like it was there more to shock than to perform any intrinsic function. Also, in one of those bizarre turns of fate, there’s a section in this reflecting on Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories, which I was reading at the same time!


Night Train by Martin Amis

This was a book that started off as a crime procedural narrated by a policewoman called Mike, but turned out not to be a crime procedural at all. It was rather a sort of dark fictional philosophical exploration of suicide.

By pure coincidence, I had Miles Davis playing as I read much of this, and I was struck by how the writing seemed ‘jazzy’: police procedural cliche played with, improvised, turned on its head, and using the same forms to different ends. I enjoyed it.


The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

Contrary to most of the reviews I’ve flicked through, I enjoyed this less than A Study in Scarlet. It felt like there was more padding, and the long narrated resolution at the end felt more tedious than than the second part of the first book.

While I of course accept that the casual racism and pejorative language used by Conan Doyle reflect the social mores of the time it was written, the quantity of it in this volume became a bit wearing.


Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

I picked this up because it was featured in an article about how brilliant ‘young adult’ fiction had become and how we should all be reading more of it. It was a ‘love through secret correspondence’ story with a gay 16-year-old high school student as the protagonist and narrator.

The straightforward plot dealt with issues of contemporary high school life, including traditional tropes like bullying and blackmail, and some more modern concerns, such as emails and blogging.

It felt tightly targeted at its audience: many of the cultural references passed me by somewhat (though I can’t be certain whether that was an age thing or a not-being-American thing). It is narrowly focused on high school life, and it limited itself to the sort of language teenagers use. There is a very teenage dichotomy in which almost everything in the book is either “freaking awesome” or terrible, which felt true to life, but a little wearing. Overall, the writing felt a bit teenage, which is what the author was going for, but doesn’t really have a great deal of interest for me.

All things considered, this seemed like a well-constructed book, but it didn’t really convince me that we should all be reading more young adult fiction.


Murmur by Will Eaves

This was a novel based on the imagined thoughts of Alan Turing as he experienced chemical castration and the associated psychological therapy.

In fact, the main character was a sort of ‘version’ of Turing called Alec Pryor, but having read a biography of Turing relatively recently, I recognised that many of the peripheral characters share the forenames of similar characters in Turing’s life. As if that wasn’t a complicated enough premise, several of the sections were dream sequences imagined by Pryor.

This layer upon layer of narrative complexity allowed Eaves to explore all sorts of interesting territory relevant to Turing’s life, from the morality of his treatment to the nature of consciousness to the development of artificial intelligence.

This was a very clever book which I think would reward multiple close readings. I often found myself a bit disorientated in terms of the plot, and while that sometimes made it a bit of a chore, I mostly found myself carried along by the writing, the fantastically poetic imagery, and the exploration of complex ideas.


The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

A collection of twelve short stories about Sherlock Holmes cases narrated by Dr Watson. Obviously a classic and one where everyone knows what they’re getting!

I personally preferred getting engrossed in the full-length novels earlier in the series than these short stories, but I still enjoyed seeing how the characters developed over the course of the collection.


Journeys: Tortoise Quarterly, 1ed

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

In this edition, I particularly enjoyed Matthew D’Ancona’s account of experiencing delirium while he was a patient on a high dependency unit, Ian Ridley’s moving story of his wife’s death from cancer, and Tanyaradzwa Nyenwa’s reflections on working as a cold caller.


Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

I fully recognise that this has a reputation as one of the greatest collections of short science fiction stories ever written, but it was just not for me.

I don’t usually enjoy science fiction but decided to challenge myself with this: it has a reputation for being so accomplished that it appeals to people who don’t usually enjoy science fiction. But I found it a real slog to get through.

I’m not sure what it is that generates such a negative reaction in me. I think it might be something to do with the fantastical nature of much science fiction—I don’t like fantasy stories either, so perhaps my imagination is limited to stuff grounded in reality.

I think it might also be something to do with the writing, which often struck me as inelegant, despite clearly being loved and respected by better informed people than me—to me it often felt more scientific than poetic, and I think I prefer poetic descriptions of emotions (not ‘Neil was consumed with grief after she died, a grief that was excruciating not only because of its intrinsic magnitude, but also because it renewed and emphasised the previous pains of his life.’)

So I’m still not a fan of science fiction.

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