Recent reading ramble

Another unbusy day so I have splurged a blog post containing recent thoughts about some books.

They are:

NW – Zadie Smith
Swimming Home – Deborah Levy
The Man Who Forgot His Wife – John O’Farrell
Incognito: The Secret Life of The Brain – David Eagleman.


I couldn’t wait to get my hands on NW by Zadie Smith.  I had adored its predecessor On Beauty some seven years ago.  Having bought it in transit in Hong Kong Airport, it was a travel partner around Sweden and Finland, before finishing it in a cosy, candlelit Estonian café while the rain fell heavily outside.  Rarely before or since had I felt such an emotional attachment to a set of lovable and humanely flawed characters.  I felt confident this new effort, particularly after so long, could not disappoint.  I was wrong.

It told stories, or parts of stories, of characters living in the urban North West (NW) region of London.  Except many of them weren’t really stories.  Just moments and things that happened, a few of them mildly interesting.

There were flashes of the younger Smith, but it was deeply disappointing (spoiler alert) that she decided to kill off the most interesting and compelling character just as he was really developing in the mid-section.  That was the bright spot.  Around it was ok, difficult, hard work, piecemeal in form.  Short sharp slabs of text and paragraphs for the majority of the final third made it hard to grasp, easy to put up and put down again.  Mainly put down.  It felt lazy, like she was weirdly unsure of herself, a pupil submitting homework to a teacher which had been semi-masticated by a dog.  I have this bit and this bit and this bit.  But I don’t really know how they go together.

There was none of the assurance and pace and momentum of On Beauty.   Apparently Smith has said before that she struggles with plot, which I can personally identify with – what can you do that hasn’t been done already?  Here that uncertainty told; it told hard.

Pushing myself to the last pages felt like a titanic, Olympian effort, and the relief when I finally, underwhelmingly got there, felt immense.

Swimming Home

When I’d borrowed NW from my brother’s wife, a brainy academic sort of woman who knows a thing or two about books n that, she mentioned she’d just begun reading booker shortlisted Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy.  It was fairly cheap in the Kindle store so I gave it a punt, usually trusting the judges’ verdict about the shortlisted few.

On finishing it I was disgusted, almost outraged, and sort of depressed.  How had..?  How..   I had no words..  It seemed to cash in on the zeitgeisty trendy topic of mental health, which was a sell-in.  A family arriving at a holiday home in the south of France in the mid-90s (though enforced, the timeframe was largely incidental), were imposed upon on by a young girl, a fan of the family’s father, a poet.  Ok, alright, go on then, interest me.  Please interest me.  Engage me, give me characters.  Let me get inside their heads, feel who they are.  Instead: this sort of thing..

“..his pen scratched these words aggressively across the page while he watched a white butterfly hover above the pool.  It was like breath.  It was a miracle.  A wonder.  He and his wife knew things it was impossible to know.  They had both seen life snuffed out.  Isabel recorded and witnessed catastrophes to try and make people remember.  He tried to make himself forget.”

Swimming Home, Deborah Levy, Faber & Faber

V-O-M-I-T.  Urgh.

Perhaps I missed a lot.  Perhaps in all this flouncy ‘poetic’ description there were some ‘well deep’ metaphors which I failed to grasp, because I am simple and not great at reading metaphors.  It just didn’t feel like it at the time.  It felt like bilge.

At the end when mental health was described easily in the context of historic events, like it was an easily explicable black and white issue, that was a tiny bit irksome too.  Almost as simplistic as: oh, so it was the butler what did it in the drawing room.   Some World War 2 holocaust-related stuff – unsteady upbringing = bit of a loony.  Bosh. Case closed.  Alastair Campbell’s debut novel All In The Mind gives a much stronger insight into characters going through significant mental health crises.  This felt so cosmetic and superficial.  I neither knew nor cared what was really going through the mind of any of the characters.

Characters, as well as authors, with cutesy double-consonant-y first names always get my back up.  Poppy, Molly, Izzy.  You never seem to meet many in real life, maybe unless you work in publishing.  Anyway, here a Kitty was central.  Kitty.  Who has ever known a Kitty?


On a related note, my girlfriend’s sister, wife of a serviceman, forced this book onto her.  Makes me feel queasy to even post this image.

“How far would you go to save the one you love?”

Poppy Day is a compelling love story that sees Poppy, the young wife of a soldier serving in Afghanistan set off on a journey to try and save the man she loves. Along the way, she faces an impossible dilemma that results in huge personal sacrifice to get what she wants and with no guarantee of success. The book is both moving and funny, taking the reader through the full range of emotions as they follow Poppy’s progress.

Poppy Day! – dyou see what they did there?  And apparently she travels to Afghanistan to save him.  Really.  I know.  Fuck me.  Makes you feel like crying already?  It’s sponsored by the Royal British Legion and all for a great cause and probably does serve some kind of purpose and everything.  But I don’t think I’ll read it.

The Man Who Forgot His Wife

At the time of buying Swimming Home I also bought another affordable booker shortlisted novel by a female author with, on a lazily quick glance, a loosely similar premise, The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore.  My confidence was dented though.  I wanted to read something I would enjoy, not something that would be hard work or make me angry.  I do generally read more male authors than female ones.  It’s not usually a conscious decision, but the last two in a row didn’t leave me in good shape.

This book was one which had been on my wanted list for a while.  I liked the author, John O’Farrell, had read one or two of his previous fictional works and felt bad about not properly trying his politically / historically slanted non-fiction.  I also liked the premise of a man suffering amnesia, or more precisely a fugue which wiped his memory entirely.  Amnesia novels are often interesting, and might enjoy more success after the runaway hit of Before I Go To Sleep.

Much less of a thriller, this was told in a refreshingly accessible, human, warm and witty style.  It was full of gags, most of which worked brilliantly and the characters felt real, almost as well shaped as On Beauty.  It kept my attention throughout, unexpectedly moved me in parts and was above everything else hugely enjoyable to read.  No poetic pretensions and a properly structured, easy to get along with novel.  I’m not sure what sort of reception it had or what sales have been like, but if Swimming Home was good enough for a booker shortlist, it probably deserves more recognition than it’s getting.

Incognito: Secret Lives of The Brain

David Eagleman was interviewed about his book by Richard Bacon on a Five Live podcast back in the summer sometime.  I can’t recall what it was that reminded me of the fascinating interview, but whatever it was combined with a bumper lot of birthday Amazon vouchers meant it was my next purchase.

I don’t usually get along well with non-fiction.  I’m distracted, it’s not a story, I find all the footnotes overwhelming and don’t know how to read it.  Cover to cover feels like hard work, but how do you know which parts are interesting?

On Kindle it seems that footnotes don’t really exist – they’re pushed to the back of the ebook, which is very welcome.  Also this book is extremely well written, particularly given the literally mindboggling subject matter.  Why do we behave as we do, when we do?  Those common myths and arguments like whether what you say when you’re drunk is what you truly mean, the reasons relationships fade (4 years is more than enough time to procreate), the negative result of keeping secrets: the whole entire parliament system of the brain – not just one side against another.  It’s a rich and compelling education about something which is often spoken of frivolously.  With quickly graspable analogies, the brain learning doesn’t seem hard, and nor does the reading.  I just hope some of it sticks in mine.

This week has seen broad coverage given to the idea that with the advent of technology, humans are getting more stupid.  Maybe so, but as long as Eagleman and his peers are churning out these books, I aint bothered.

To end, the quote which starts Incognito.

“Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.”

Blaise Pascal, Pensées