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What I’ve been reading this month

Hold up!

See that little date above?

This post was published years ago.

My opinions have changed over time: I think it's quite fun to keep old posts online so that you can see how that has happened. The downside is that there are posts on this site that express views that I now find offensive, or use language in ways I'd never dream of using it today.

I don't believe in airbrushing history, but I do believe that it's important to acknowledge the obvious: some of what I've written in the past has been crap. Some of it was offensive. Some of it was offensively bad. And there's may be some brass among the muck (you can make up your own mind on that).

Some of what I've presented as my own views has been me—wittingly or unwittingly—posturing without having considered all the facts. In a few years, I'll probably think the same about what I'm writing today, and I'm fine with that. Things change. People grow. Society moves forward.

The internet moves on too, which means there might be broken links or embedded content that fails to load. If you're unlucky, that might mean that this post makes no sense at all.

So please consider yourself duly warned: this post is an historical artefact. It's not an exposition of my current views nor a piece of 'content' than necessarily 'works'.

You may now read on... and in most cases, the post you're about to read is considerably shorter than this warning box, so brace for disappointment.

Tim Shipman’s mammoth book about last year’s EU referendum, All Out War, was a completely extraordinary book: the best I’ve read on any modern political event. It was balanced, thoroughly researched, funny, thrilling, and gave deep insight into both sides of the referendum campaign, warts and all. I already knew that Shipman was a talented journalist before reading this book, but his ability to combine a lightness of touch with absolute accuracy of reporting, including pointing out where bits were single-sourced or where there were conflicting accounts, proved truly remarkable.
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The titular character of Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton spends the duration of the book in hospital recovering from an operation and subsequent complications. While she’s there, her somewhat estranged mother comes to visit. The two gossip and reminisce, and Lucy tries to unpick her complex relationships and feelings through her own memories of childhood. There were a number of outstanding, poignant passages, but the whole book didn’t quite hang right to me. The contrasts were a bit heavy handed at times (‘Cookie’, ‘Button’ and ‘Wizzle’ versus morally dubious shootings and AIDS). There was a lot of writing about writing, which I think was meant as some kind of allegory to psychology, but stuck me as unnecessarily self-indulgent in such a short novella. And while I think the reader is supposed to “fill in the gaps” in Lucy’s partially described life story, I found the lack of exposition meant that I didn’t really come to care about her.
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I was disappointed by Steven Pinker’s A Sense of Style. I was under the impression that it was a light and somewhat comedic on writing style. In fact, it was a rather heavy and detailed examination of grammar, diving far deeper than I was interested to venture into the philosophy of categorisation of parts of speech, sentence diagramming, and all sorts of things that go way beyond my level of interest. To my mind, the book would have benefited from more directly actionable advice, and less sniping at grammar sticklers before listing “rules” that the author themselves happens to be a stickler about.
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On the other hand, I was blown away by Julian Barnes’s novelised biography of Shostakovich, The Noise of Time. This tight, quiet and darkly humourous novel explored morality, art and power. It talked quite a lot about the use of irony to undermine power through art, which is something I’ve never really thought about before, and which I found fascinating. Basically, this thoughtful book was chock full of moral ambiguity, difficult personal choices, and imposed boundaries of professionalism. It was right up my street, and I loved it.
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As I write this, I’m struggling to think how best to describe Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice: I’m not sure it was really a novel, and it wasn’t really a collection of short stories. It was a very slim fictional book structured like a verbal reasoning multiple choice exam. It should have been utterly ridiculous and gimmicky, but was somehow completely brilliant. This book made me reflect on how much our own self-editing and the choices we make in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves alter our memories and feelings. It made me think about how opinions can be shifted, and stories can be transformed, by simple changes of single words. And I also gained insight into the recent history of Chile, from the population’s perspective. Goodness only knows how Megan McDowell pulled off a translation of a book with so few words, in which every single one is infused with so many layers of meaning.
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I read books aloud for the use of people with visual problems or other disabilities which prevent them from using printed books. I’ve been doing this for Calibre Audio Library for a few years. I don’t choose the books I record for Calibre; they are assigned to me, which makes the whole enterprise that little bit more fun. This month, I’ve just finished off my recording of Sally Gardner’s The Door That Led to Where, a novel aimed at the teenage or maybe young adult market. It takes quite a novel to stand up to the repeated reading and re-reading that narrating an audiobook requires, and this book certainly meets that standard. This was a fairly complex tale that juxtaposed authentic descriptions of deprived teenage life in 21st century London with those of young men in London in the 1830s. It was noticeable how dominated the book’s action was by male characters, but then most fiction aimed at this market tends to be quite heavily gendered. Nevertheless, this was definitely one of those books that reminded me what wonderful, well-written imaginative fiction there is around for young readers today.
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