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What I’ve been reading this month

My favourite book this month was André Aciman’s Enigma Variations. In five parts, this novel related the five great “loves” in the life of Paul, who grew up in a small Italian town and later moved to New York. Having also recently read Call Me By Your Name, I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that no contemporary writer can do lustful longing quite like Aciman – and there was a lot of that in this book. The first section, which concerned Paul’s boyhood infatuation with a carpenter, was the most affecting and memorable for me. Paul’s fluid (and unlabeled) sexuality across his life-course and the complexity of his social relationships felt at once very “modern” and very true to life in my generation. But the real power in this book was in the emotional weight – and particularly the weight of that desperate, aching, lustful longing that Aciman writes so well.

I saw the movie of Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal some 13 years or so ago, and finally got round to reading the book this month. Unreliably narrated by a bitter history teacher, it told the story of a young pottery teacher’s affair with an underage school child. It was a complex and layered novel which I think had loneliness as its central theme. I found it thought provoking, and also enjoyed the dark humour laced throughout. I found most of the character simultaneously thoroughly unlikable and utterly endearing.

Rarely in my life am I prompted to consider the nature of art, so Grayson Perry’s Playing to the Gallery was a little off the beaten track for me. It was an examination of what constitutes art and how artists (and to some extent, art markets) function in the modern world. It was written in Perry’s usual wryly irreverent style, which is very funny at times – and is full of his cartoonist sketches to illustrate particular points. I found it though-provoking, and it seemed to pack in more content and ideas than its 134 pages would suggest, without ever feeling crammed in.

The Iceberg was Marion Coutt’s memoir of how her husband’s diagnosis with a brain tumour, and his subsequent death, affected her family’s life. It had a deeply moving poetic style, yet also a straightforward linear narrative which dealt with the practicalities of daily life in an extraordinary period. It was an honest, unflinchingly intimate portrait of love and grief. Reading it made me feel very sad. It made me reflect on how I would feel and cope in similar circumstances, and at times it was hard to continue reading, which reflects the power of the account.

Fredrick Backman’s A Man Called Ove was a heartwarming, cosy, comic fireside read about a grumpy Swedish widower, which follows exactly the plot you’d expect from a comic tale with that starting point. It relied quite heavily on stereotype, as books like this usually do, and all of the characters were hence pretty two-dimensional. I enjoyed this while it lasted, but I wouldn’t run out to read any more of it. Henning Koch’s translation made for an easy read.

The decision to publish one of Ivan Rogers’s speeches as a 90-page book raised eyebrows this month. Nonetheless, I found the Nine Lessons in Brexit offered by the Britain’s former EU Permanent Representative to be commendably clear explanations of why much of what is said by people on both sides of the Brexit debate is nonsensical. Rogers didn’t pull punches: this contained a blistering attack on the Government’s approach to Brexit negotiations, which have resulted in “an obviously bad deal”. But there is plenty of light offered alongside the heat. I think Rogers argument that we need more honesty with the public is true not just about Brexit but about a whole range of policy issues.

The two key messages of Ryan Holiday’s Perennial Seller, in which he tried to derive the formula behind projects with a lasting cultural impact, were that lasting successes take really hard work and need to be targeted at a specific audience. Because I’m not really a “creator”, in as much as I’m not really someone who tries to sell stuff, much of the content of this book was completely irrelevant to me. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading a book which extolled the virtue of hard graft rather than quick tricks to success.

I found Gerald Maslbary’s translation of Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture to be dense, way over my head, and consequently really quite boring. It is apparently a very important work in its field, but it was just too much for this reader.

This post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

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