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What I’ve been reading this month

I have just four books to tell you about this month.


Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Rooney’s 2017 bestselling debut is one of those books that is so wildly popular and widely read that writing about it seems redundant. In fact, I thought I’d read this book some years ago, shortly after I read Normal People. But I think I was confused: I read Rooney’s short story Mr Salary a couple of months after that.

I didn’t especially enjoy Normal People, finding it a bit flat and claustrophobic, and I didn’t think much of Mr Salary either, finding the dialogue unconvincing. Yet, I enjoyed Conversations with Friends.

As you almost certainly already know, the plot concerns two University students (former lovers) who form a friendship with an older married couple, and the complex web of relationships which develops between the four of them.

For what it’s worth, I still think Rooney’s dialogue is astonishingly unrealistic given how widely praised it is: this is a novel where everyone talks in sentences and paragraphs, and can spontaneously express complex thoughts and feelings with immediate precision. But this book did have a lot going for it in terms of characterisation and emotional complexity.

All things considered, I enjoyed this book enough to seek out the newly published Beautiful World, Where Are You.


How to be Perfect by Michael Schur

This is a recently published “popular philosophy” book by the writer of the television comedy series The Good Place. I picked it up mostly because I enjoyed that series.

The book is a guided tour of some schools of thought on ethics and philosophy, along with (mostly humorous) examples of how these relate to everyday life. I found the discussion mostly superficial, which is really a result of the structure and the decision to cram so much into a short book.

The writing style was, for my liking, far too conversational in tone, to the point where I slightly struggled to understand parts and had to go back and mentally “read them aloud” to parse what Schur was trying to say. I found that annoying.

This just wasn’t up my street (which, as you’ll see, is a bit of a theme this month: poor choices abound).

All of that said, the last chapter—concerning apologies—was a cut above the rest. It’s quite disconnected from the rest of the book, and while I still found the writing style a bit painful, I think this chapter could be published and well-received as a separate essay.


The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

This 2018 gender-swapped reworking of Pretty Woman is not my usual sort of novel, but I wanted something light and easy after a run of slightly dull books that I’d struggled through.

This fits that bill. While it was never going to be a book I’d love, I appreciated its straightforward plot and implausible but easy-to-follow dialogue. The characters were lightly sketched, as was appropriate for the plot. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help but repeatedly misread the main character’s name, Stella Lane, as Stena Line, which often made me laugh.

This novel has spawned a couple of sequels: this didn’t have enough of an effect on me to consider picking them up, but that’s no real criticism given that I knew it wasn’t my usual kind of novel when I bought it.


Broken People by Sam Lansky

Published in 2020, this Is Sam Lansky’s semi-autobiographical novel about coming to terms with our own past. The plot concerns a character—also called Sam—working with a shaman who offers ‘open-soul surgery’ which fixes ‘everything that it is wrong with you’ in three days.

I thought this was an interesting concept, but the book didn’t quite live up to it. I suppose I was hoping, in the end, for a discussion on how the process didn’t work, and how life and our own interaction with our past is altogether more complex than the conceit suggests. Unfortunately, Lansky delivers the opposite.

The ‘surgery’ consists of drug-fuelled trips into angsty memories, with superficial (and really quite dull) reflections on how they have shaped the present character, somehow leading to a positive and hopeful outcome. I didn’t find myself drawn into the process or the plot more broadly.

This just wasn’t really my cup of tea.

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30 things I learned in June 2020

1: “The reason for the bite is crystal clear: it’s there for scale, so that a small Apple logo still looks like an apple and not a cherry.”


2: How Germany’s contact tracing system for covid-19 works.


3: Economic downturns tend to reduce gender inequality, but the one associated with covid-19 has disproportionately affected women.


4: There are four national anthems without lyrics.


5: Over the last month, I’ve received 3,100 work emails.


6: I heard on the radio this morning that Romans painted eyes on their ships because they believe the gods would protect ships with eyes on them. And it made me think: was this the real reason? Will people in two millennia look back at our time and say that we printed crossed-fingers on all lottery tickets because we believed it brought luck (as opposed to it just being a brand)? There are so many things in life which start as superstition but become traditions which are completely divorced from the original beliefs.


7: The Normal People TV series was better than the book. I know people say you can’t compare the two, but I’m doing it anyway.


8: A loose lock meant that I got to peek through a crack in the door into the southwest tower of the Tyne Bridge:


9: Balancing rocks really seems to have become a trend these days. I know this makes me sound grumpy, but I’m not really a fan: there’s something that feels entitled about taking a shared area of natural landscape and putting a personal ‘project’ on it rather than leaving it how it was found.


10: Citizens of Monaco are called Monegasques.


11: “Uncertainty is a natural state for clinicians and scientists; a reality that politicians seem unable and unwilling to grasp. This contrast plays out sharply when politicians claim to be ‘following the evidence’ in their response to covid-19. How can the evidence be so certain that it should be followed? Isn’t it better to accept uncertainty, communicate that uncertainty clearly to the public, but provide a convincing rationale for policy informed by, not following, the best available science and evidence?”


12: When I’m asked to give talks about antimicrobial resistance, I sometimes mention the issue of incorporating antibiotics into ships’ paint to prevent the formation of a biofilm on the hull which allows barnacles to attach. This initially seems like a ridiculous use of a precious resource, but the issue is actually a bit more subtle than it first appears: barnacles create surprisingly high levels of drag, increasing fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions from the ship far more than you might first imagine. I was therefore delighted to learn of the invention of HullSkater, which is basically Roomba for ship hulls.


13: What’s the difference between music and language?


14: “As disaster strikes, ‘baseball caps appear atop politicians’ heads like mushrooms after a rain,’ Jerry Ianelli wrote, in 2017, for Miami New Times. Ianelli called the disaster hat ‘performative folksiness.'”


15: I missed the news a couple of months ago that Renzi Piano’s replacement for the Ponte Morandi in Genoa has been structurally completed, less than two years after the shocking and tragic collapse.


16: It seems that Instagram’s artificial intelligence can’t reliably distinguish photos of naked people from photos of paintings or statues, even when backed up by 15,000 human reviewers. This is a bit of social media controversy which has been around for years, but has hitherto completely passed me by.


17: Solar panels in space generate more energy than those on Earth because our atmosphere reflects or absorbs over half of the solar energy reaching the planet. This topic popped into my head for no clear reason this morning, and the magic of the internet meant that clarification was only a click away. What a time we live in.


18: “The painful conclusion is that Britain has the wrong sort of government for a pandemic—and, in Boris Johnson, the wrong sort of prime minister. Elected in December with the slogan of “Get Brexit Done”, he did not pay covid-19 enough attention. Ministers were chosen on ideological grounds; talented candidates with the wrong views were left out in the cold. Mr Johnson got the top job because he is a brilliant campaigner and a charismatic entertainer with whom the Conservative Party fell in love. Beating the coronavirus calls for attention to detail, consistency and implementation, but they are not his forte.”


19: The OED defines “suspend” as “to debar temporarily from participation in something.” Today, I’ve seen the BBC using the construction “permanently suspended” for the first time, which seems like a significant moment of change in the use of that word.


20: Food is all about salt, fat, acid, heat… and Samin Nosrat, who is impossibly endearing.


21: “You often cannot innovate before the world is ready.”


22: Grief and paperwork come as a package in the US healthcare system.


23: “My experience of being a person is a continual act of becoming, of creation. If nothing else, you continually have to be another day older. To instead focus on the things that are never going to change—from the day that you are born—is like locking yourself in a room.” That struck a chord with me, which was an interesting and arresting experience because it was said by Lionel Shriver, whose opinions are usually diametrically opposed to my own.


24: What advice on covid-19 social distancing can be given to sex workers?


25: The last episode of The Good Place is almost as good as the last episode of Six Feet Under.


26: “In what may be the first known case of its kind, a faulty facial recognition match led to a Michigan man’s arrest for a crime he did not commit.”


27: Beautifully scented designer alcohol hand gel is a mainstream thing now.


28: This profile of Richard Horton gave me some new insight into his response to covid-19.


29: Midwifery is marginalised in the USA.


30: Fukushima serves as a reminder of the long-term consequences of major incidents on mental health. I worry that the response to covid-19 in the UK suggests we haven’t learned that lesson.

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What I’ve been reading this month

Jeanete Winterson’s Frankissstein blew me away this month. It was an astonishingly imaginative modern-day re-exploration of questions raised by Frankenstein. Frankissstein told an imaginative story of Mary Shelley’s 19th century creation of Frankenstein, woven together with the 21st century story of a fictional transgender doctor, Ry Shelley, who explored the surprisingly intersecting worlds of artificial intelligence and cryogenics. But really, Frankissstein was a book which revisited the questions about ethics and humanity raised by Shelley two centuries ago and asked them again in the context of modern scientific progress. I found this completely breathtakingly brilliant, and it left me with a lot of food for thought.

Good friends bought a copy of Sam Savage’s Firmin for my birthday earlier in the year: if they hadn’t, I would never have picked it up for myself, and yet I thoroughly enjoyed it. I suppose that makes it the perfect present! It was a short novel narrated the eponymous rat who lived in a book shop in 1960s Boston. Born to an alcoholic mother, Firmin taught himself to read and ultimately became well versed in human culture despite an obvious inability to communicate with people. This may sound like the premise for a children’s book, but in fact it made for a charming commentary on the human condition. It was rather moving in it’s own way – and also had plenty of wit. I enjoy authors who employ just a dash of madness to illuminate different ways of looking at the world, and this is most certainly along those lines.

Graeme Simsion’s “Don Tillman” trilogy, concerning a scientist with a probable diagnosis of autism, concludes with The Rosie Result, which I enjoyed this month. The final volume concentrates on Don’s relationship with his son, and was a rather heart-warming way to wrap up the series.

10% Happier was a memoir by lovably self-important American newsreader and reporter Dan Harris, who suffered a panic attack while reading the news on TV. In his capacity as a religion correspondent, he got to meet a lot of people with interesting viewpoints on life, and he ultimately came to find that meditation helped him to become a calmer and more compassionate person. There was nothing earth-shattering in the book, but I did find it witty and occasionally somewhat insightful. It was a fun, light read.

The Swimming Pool Library, written by Alan Hollinghurst and first published in 1989, focused on the relationship between a pair of gay male aristocrats in the 1980s. The older man asked the younger to write his autobiography, and in so-doing caused the younger to reflect on the differences in the lives of gay men in the periods in which they both lived. The novel felt very dated to me, and the way in which both characters were obsessed with sex felt reductive. The descriptions of sexual acts, no doubt deeply shocking in the 1980s, had somewhat lost their impact in 2019. All things considered, I didn’t particularly enjoy this book: I think this is possibly just the wrong historical moment to read it, when the 1980s are too recent in memory for this to seem like a truly historical account, but too far away for the book to feel current and relevant.

I picked up Mark Manson’s bestselling The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and rather regretted it. I’d read that it was better than the title suggested, but it seemed to me to be nothing more than half-baked misinterpretations of ancient philosophy written in a snarky tone and filled with unnecessary swearing. It wasn’t for me.

I also continued reading the Faber Stories collection this month.

The Lydia Steptoe Stories by Djuna Barnes contained three short stories published in the 1920s, all of which took the form of diary entries about rejected love. All three made me laugh out loud, with some brilliant turns of phrase.

Petina Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly was a story of a Zimbabwean community uprooted as part of the effort to clean up a township in advance of a visit from the Queen. The story focused on a woman who had “lost her wits and gained a pregnancy”. Gappah created a vivid world with so much packed into it that I was a little disappointed that the story ran to only 41 pages.

Mrs Fox by Sarah Hall was a short story told from the perspective of a man whose wife unaccountably turned into a fox. This was far too magical and unreal for my taste, and I found it difficult to understand the characters’ lack of emotional reaction to this quite extraordinary event. I suppose it was an allegory for something, but I’m afraid the meaning passed me by.

Sally Ronney’s Mr Salary was the story of a woman in her 20s, her dying father and her older lover. It was told mostly through dialogue, which felt flat and false to me, and the whole story left me unmoved. But people who know much more about literature than me constantly praise Rooney’s ear for dialogue, so perhaps I’m just on the wrong wavelength or something.

In The Victim, PD James tells the story of a man plotting and carrying out the murder of the new husband of his ex-wife. This felt weirdly pedestrian to me given the subject matter. Maybe there is talent in that, but it made for a surprisingly dull story.

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