Talk to Me by T. C. Boyle (USA)

Book 11 of my #20booksofsummer, Review no 169

AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

Progress has slowed on the blog in recent weeks, as work has ramped up to crazy levels and I’ve been working till late every day, though some time off is in sight.

I finished Talk to Me by T. C. Boyle a while ago, but haven’t had time to write the requisite review until now (I don’t write a post for every book I read, but this is one of my #20booksofsummer, so it needs a short post).

Earlier I’ve mentioned my liking for some of T C. Boyle’s earlier work (particularly the acid-laced novel Outside Looking In), and Talk to Me, published this year, focuses on something that I have had an enduring interest in: chimp communication studies.

When I was at university I studied linguistics, and we briefly focused on efforts to teach language to animals, in particular through chimp studies using American Sign Language, to test the bounds of animal cognition and, even more interestingly, animal consciousness.

Perhaps the most famous study involved a chimp called Nim Chimpsky, a play on name of Noam Chomsky, the well-known linguist and political scientist, who first conceived the idea that humans – uniquely – are born with an innate mechanism for processing and creating highly and regularly structured language, encompassing a broad range of concepts from the literal to the most abstract. Chomsky’s influence featured strongly on my university syllabus, and my tutor Jamal Ouhalla wrote a book building on Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar (and dedicating it to me and my class mates).

Anyhow, the 1970s Nim Chimpsky experiment didn’t work out for the chimp: although the animal appeared to be able to communicate, by the time the study was over he had matured into a strong and potentially very dangerous male, and despite his emotional attachment to his caregivers was at one stage sold to a medical testing facility. A fascinating chimp biopic – both heart-breaking and heart-warming and based on a book about the Project Nim experiment, was released in 2011.

Later during my second degree (in psychology this time), we touched on Jane Goodall’s work with chimp communities – whose savagery can be quite startling – and which inspired William Boyd’s best novel Brazzaville Beach.

Talk to Me focuses on a young university academic and psychologist, Guy Schermerhorn, who raises a chimp, Sam, with the help of volunteers. Sam likes pizza, McDonald’s, gin and a spliff, and forms a strong bond with Guy’s pretty student assistant (and soon girlfriend) Aimee. He learns to communicate fluently with sign language, but things get complicated when funding dries up and Sam is reclaimed by his owner, the cruel eye-patch wearing Dr Moncrieff. From there it all gets a bit Thelma and Louise.

The book is engaging and nicely paced, and lightened by humour, and adds to the small collection of novels out there based on the premise of “chimp as pseudo-family member”, and until now best-represented by We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.

Last Witnesses: Unchildlike Stories by Svetlana Alexievich (Belarus)

Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

EUROPE

Book 10 of my #20booksofsummer, Review no 168, and finished just in time for the beginning of Women In Translation month #WITMonth

First published in Russian in 1985, and published in English translation in 2019 in the UK by Penguin books.

Belarusian writer and oral historian Svetlana Alexievich is renowned for her books of expertly condensed interviews focusing on the female experience of the Second World War in the USSR, and on the legacy of Chernobyl. She won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”.

This recently translated book is composed of the accounts of those who were children in the USSR during the Second World War, when Belarus came under Nazi occupation; 66% of Belarus’s Jewish population died. Alexievich, herself born three years after the end of the Second World War, interviewed her respondents during the 1970s, when these child survivors had reached adulthood. Each individual statement is headed simply, with the person’s name, age when war broke out or when they were first impacted by it, and their current occupation. There is no authorial comment or commentary, but this compendium of oral accounts speaks for itself.

The book is, of course, often devastating reading. How could it not be? I actually found it so viscerally upsetting that I’m not going to discuss the content in any sort of detail. Suffice it to say that I read many poignant, relentlessly distressing accounts, all true stories, recounted in a fragmentary way after a gap of many years, which at times quite literally made my blood run cold.

Alexievich’s respondents become distressed in retelling stories that have often remained buried for many years, and her project raises a few ethical questions. There are frequent ellipses, which creates the impression of accounts broken off amid intense emotion, though it may be more of a device to indicate where edits have been made.

Again and again, amid stories of traumatic bereavement, abject poverty and devastating hunger, are references to toys, or the lack of them.

One respondent, aged 7 when war broke out, remembers her little brother being so hungry that:

he said to Mama, ‘Let’s cook my duckling.’ This duckling was his favourite toy, he had never let anyone touch it. He slept with it.”

Elsewhere, a woman remembers her two dolls being traded for a bag of rice to prevent the family from starving, while another remembers a pitiful lucky find:

I found a doll somewhere, not really a doll, only a doll’s head. I loved it. It was my joy. I carried it around from morning till night. It was my only toy.”

I was horrified to learn that small children who found themselves in Belarusian orphanages were forced to donate blood to help Nazi soldiers, as German doctors at the time believed that the blood of children aged under five would hasten their recovery. There is something so dreadfully vampiric about this idea that is stood out for me even amid graphic accounts of lost lives, and it is an occurrence that is recounted not just once, but repeatedly by these respondents, as they reflect on their stolen childhoods.

This book is hugely important as a historical document recording the inexplicably cruel events of a particular time and place, and of the horrors visited on a generation. But I’m sure most people will, quite justifiably, want to avoid.

Booker Longlist Predictions: How did I do? Plus Review of Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

My forecasts for the Booker longlist, announced yesterday, weren’t too bad: I predicted four out of the 13, which I’m pleased with. I’ll see how many I can get through, though I might give the Lockwood a dodge as her frenetic style makes me feel slightly faint.

I’ve already read two of the books on the longlist. I really liked Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun. I’m a fan of most of his writing, and his deceptively simply prose conceals some deep existential thinking. Like the brilliant Never Let Me Go, Klara and the Sun deals with a naive protagonist who is constitutionally incapable of seeing the full picture. Enjoyably poignant, this tale of humanoid AI consumables adapting to and comprehending (or not) human feelings and failings is much better than Ian McEwans’s Machines Like Me, but not quite the masterpiece that was Never Let Me Go. Klara and the Sun has a really beautiful, textured cover, too, even if we’re not judging the books by them!

Then there is Francis Spufford’s Light Perpetual, which I didn’t tip for the longlist, but which is certainly a thought-provoking and absorbing read. My review, which I originally published in January this year, is reproduced here:

In the novels’s opening chapter, t+0: 1944, the narrative details an imagined rocket attack in chilling, slow-motion detail, as it strikes and instantly kills five children, out shopping in South London on an ordinary Saturday with their families: five-year-olds Alec, Vern, Ben and twins Jo and Val. The vivid unspooling of the catastrophe brought to mind the opening story in Mark Haddon’s powerful short story The Pier Falls in its sense of dispassionate inevitability.

It cannot be run backwards, to summon the dust to rise, any more than you can stir milk back out of tea. Once sundered, forever sundered. Once scattered, forever scattered. It’s irreversible.”

Nevertheless, fiction does have the power to rewind time, and Spufford recreates a future for his tragically snuffed-out characters. Spufford conjures those children back from the dead with the incantatory “Come, other chances. Come, unsounded deep. Come, undivided light. Come, dust.”

We skip forward in time by five years, and the children – untouched – are now 10. We learn things about these normal working class children that will stay with them throughout their re-gifted lives: whether it’s a love of music, a keen intelligence, or a searing sensitivity.

We revisit Alec, Vern, Ben, Jo and Val at intervals, a bit like the ’60s TV series 7 Up, as we watch the ways their lives diverge, their sadnesses and successes, their bad and good decisions, and the way those decisions influence the course of their lives, however outwardly mundane they may be.

The evocation of each decade of the latter part of the 20th century is a feat of pastiche, which, if it occasionally lapses into cliché, is counterpointed by its pinpoint accuracy.

I found sensitive Ben most vividly drawn, diagnosed at a young age with schizophrenia, whose nightmare years are balanced by a period of domestic contentment. This part of the book gives value to the notion of perseverance through the darkest of times, in the hope of a brighter future: and although it could easily seem trite, Ben’s story is so well-handled that it feels genuinely wise and hopeful.

This a deeply humane novel, with light a reoccurring motif, and with a whiff of benevolent religiosity. However, the prose is spiritual rather than hectoring, and at its best both illuminating and luminous. The book opens with the words “the light” – in that case the terrifying, destructive light of the murderous rocket attack – and it closes, too, with light: “The grass grows bright with ordinary light … and the light is very good“.

With its opening pages awash with wish fulfilment and second chances, there are obvious thematic parallels with Kate Atkinson’s instant classic Life after Life, as well as Ian McEwan’s canon-fodder Atonement, but Light Perpetual is far from derivative and holds its ground next to those two novels.

The opening to the novel is based on a real event. In 1944 a V-2 rocket killed 168 people in a branch of Woolworths on New Cross Road in London; 15 of the dead were younger than 11. Light Perpetual does not attempt to unearth or reimagine the histories or thwarted futures of those real children, but the author acknowledges that the novel is “partly written in memory of those South London children, and their lost chance to experience the rest of the twentieth century“.

Frances Spufford has written one previous, extremely well-received novel, the multi-prize-winning work of historical fiction Golden Hill (which I liked well enough but didn’t love), as well as some diverse works of non-fiction: The Child that Books Built (about his childhood love of reading), Unapologetic (about his Christian faith) and Red Plenty (about the USSR in the 1950s). This new work may be his best yet.

Booker Prize 2021: Longlist Predictions

I often try to second-guess the judges of the Booker Prize, and I almost always get it wrong, although I know at least as much about trade books and contemporary literary fiction as most broadsheet books journos. This will be the first time I’ve committed myself to my hunches for the longlist (announced on Tuesday 27th) in writing. I’ve listed books I’ve read, or books I want to read that fit the criteria for entry, but I suspect my list might be a little too mainstream, with lots of big names.

According to the Booker website, the prize “awards any work of long form fiction originally written in English and published in the UK and Ireland in the year of the prize, regardless of the nationality of their author.”  So short stories and memoir are out, but we’ve definitely had a graphic novel on the list before, so that’s a possibility. Entries must be published in the UK – or Ireland – “between 1 October of the year prior, and 30 September of the year of that award”.

I feel the list typically comprises a mix of well-established names, under-the-radar debut writers, and a smattering of names from outside the usual suspects of the UK, Ireland, the USA and Canada and Australia, with Nigeria and India being favourite recent sources of literary nominees. The panel always seem to love a bit of post-colonial angst, and a dystopia or two. Then maybe a surprise high-end crime novel or thriller to throw us out of our smug lit-fic rut (though these books never make the shortlist – see eg Belinda Bauer’s Snap, Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister the Serial Killer or Tom Rob Smith’s excellent Child 44).

I wanted to include Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts on my longlist, but although she normally writes in English, this time she has first written her novel in her adopted language of Italian, before translating it herself into English, so I feel this disqualifies her, although this didn’t stop the books team at The Times for tipping it for the longlist in their latest newsletter…

Given the delays to publishing schedules inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic, I feel this year there will be strong field – I’ve added and then taken off A Burning by Megha Majumdar, the new Elif Shafak and We are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan, and I could have listed about 20 titles …. but I’ve gone for the maximum allowable number of titles, with 13 (rather than 12) predictions.

If I get them all right my husband says I qualify for a prize (he suggest a packet of fruit pastilles, which is a crappy prize). I think instead I might treat myself to a copy of a book 😁.

Here are my choices:

  1. Lean, Fall, Stand by Jon McGregor

2. The Promise by Damon Galgut

3. The Magician by Colm Toibin

4. The Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

5. Talk to Me by T. C. Boyle

6. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

7. Second Place by Rachel Cusk

8. How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

9. The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

10. Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

11. The Manningtree Witches by A. K. Blakemore

12. Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

13. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyazi

Film Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring (South Korea)

I initially had low expectations of this 2003 film, directed by Kim Ki-Duk (who died of COVID-19 last year at the age of just 59). The film, though, is a visual treat, set around a Buddhist monastery floating on a lake in a beautiful forest.

The first part of the film (“spring”) centres on the day-to-day life of a monk and his young pupil, who occupy a kind of innocent idyll, until in adolescence (“summer”) the modern world intrudes, with discombobulating results. We follow the young apprentice’s life as it passes into the later seasons of life, with gaps of roughly 10 to 20 years. Kim Ki-Duk himself played the apprentice in the last stage of life.

I’m intrigued by Buddhist practice, and enjoyed this meditation on the passing of time, the eternity and circularity of the natural world, and the fallibility of human nature. The film was drenched in Buddhist symbolism and imagery, and I’m sure I missed an awful lot, as I’m not well-versed in that. It wasn’t exactly action-packed and the meditative pacing meant my mind wandered at times, as I was, tellingly, tempted by the alternative diversions of social media and my emails, but the movie was lovely to look at, and very moving at times.

The best bits were the cinematography, the beautiful location and the tai chi – which I have only previously seen done badly by pretentious Trustafarians on Clapham Common, but which was truly awe-inspiring when observed in someone who knows what they are doing and does it well.

Shadow of the Crescent Moon by Fatima Bhutto (Pakistan)

Book 9 of my #20booksofsummer, Review no 166

Shadow of the Crescent Moon is the debut novel of Pakistani writer Fatima Bhutto. The novel, published in 2013, is set primarily in the real life town of Mir Ali, a north-western Pakistani town close to the Afghan border, and follows the stories of five young people – three brothers, and two young women important to them – in the post-2001 environment, amid the controversial US military action in the region and the impact of the Taliban.

Oldest brother Aman Erum is an aspirational young man, a budding entrepreneur, recently returned to Mira Lee after seizing the opportunity to study a business studies degree in the USA. The middle brother, Sikandar, is a hospital doctor, whose wife Mina seems to have been unhinged by grief after the death of their young son in a Taliban attack. Finally, youngest brother Hayat is a radical insurgent, as is the beautiful Samara, who also has history as the oldest brother’s long-distance girlfriend.

All are gravely affected by the influence of political Islam, and by the environment of violence and instability. The book’s focus is the events of a single morning, which culminate in act of betrayal, one that can be interpreted in at least two ways.

Bhutto is no stranger to politics and no stranger to violent loss. Her father was the murdered left-wing politician/militant Murtaza Bhutto, her aunt was the assassinated former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her grandfather was the Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was sentenced to death in 1979.

The strengths of the book are its insights into the lives, difficulties and dilemmas of ordinary people living in complicated and often devastating times. It is also adept at highlighting the reasons why young people might be drawn to radical Islam and acts that can often seem incomprehensible, even mad, from a Western viewpoint.

However, the writing itself was not as accomplished: I found there was too much exposition and a distinct lack of nuance, compared with another Pakistani writer that I adore, Kamila Shamsie. Also, although it was essentially a book that unfolds over the space of a single morning, there was so much backstory and flitting around in time that the narrative device simply didn’t work.

If you’re a fan of hot actor Riz Ahmed, by the way, it’s worth noting that he reads the audiobook version of the novel.

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann (Germany)

Translated by Ross Benjamin

Book 8 of my #20booksofsummer, Review no 165

Kehlmann has written across several genres, all with aplomb, with his work encompassing horror and short story and more besides. Shortlisted for the International Booker in 2020, Tyll (published in German in 2017) is a playful work of historical fiction, taking in mysticism, folk tales and the Thirty Years War, which was waged over the Holy Roman Empire in 1618-48. It had sold more than 600,000 copies in Germany by the time of its publication in English in early 2020, and is due to appear as a Netflix TV series.

Set in early 17th century Europe, the novel first provides an origin story for the semi-mythological character of Tyll, a folkloric trickster, part outlaw, part jester, who refuses to give into fate. It skips around in time in later chapters, with a large chunk of the narrative focusing on the multilingual Winter Queen, Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of King James of England and Scotland, and her husband, Frederick, the Bohemian Winter King.

Elizabeth (Liz) is a fan of the theatre, but is not taken with the cultural offerings of her husband’s court:

it was a language that sounded like someone struggling not to choke, like a cow having a coughing fit, like a man with beer coming out of his noise. What was a poet supposed to do with this language?”

The book, though evidently expertly researched, does not get bogged down in historical detail, wearing its erudition lightly. While intermittently emotionally affecting, the writing also humorously demonstrates the ridiculousness of monarchical hierarchies and court protocol. 

I found myself turning to Wikipedia for context at times, although it wasn’t the full Wolf Hall experience (I think I spent as long on Wikipedia as on Wolf Hall while reading that novel). Tyll reminded me more of Rose Tremain’s Restoration or Music and Silence, in its lightness of touch, sly humour and focus on the trials and tribulations of European monarchs.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler (USA): Review no 164

Book 7 of my #20booksofsummer

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was published in 1982, and I must have read it before, probably in my twenties when I lived in North London and didn’t have much money for books. I often made a hungover trip to Wood Green library to choose books on a Saturday afternoon, and remember the lurch of excitement on spotting an Anne Tyler novel that I hadn’t already read. By the end of the 1990s I had read pretty much everything Anne Tyler had written, and I’ve read most of her work since.

Assuming I have read the book before, I remembered nothing of it, although the character of Ezra, the novel’s middle child, seemed faintly familiar, and he’s someone who it is very easy to warm to (unlike his more handsome, charming but unfeeling older brother Cody). I found that the novel took a while to hook me in, but I finished it feeling genuinely awestruck at Anne Tyler’s ability to conjure up a whole cast of such nuanced, flawed but sympathetic characters.

The novel opens in the 1970s in Tyler’s eternal setting, the city of Baltimore, where Pearl, a sick old woman now, is reflecting upon the past. Married to spivvy salesman Beck, she was abandoned in 1944 and left to bring up their three children single-handedly. Self-reliant and proud – and exhausted and bitter – she manages as best she can with the juggle of working in a local grocery store and parenting, while trying to keep up appearances, and maintaining the fiction that her husband is simply working away and will one day return.

Having been initially introduced to children Jenny, Ezra and Cody from Pearl’s perspective, it is a shock to see events reinterpreted from the children’s own points of view, in turn, in later chapters. We understand that Pearl has often been an angry mother, inclined to lashing out both physically and verbally. What parent can’t relate to having responded unfairly to their children at one time or another, especially at a time of deep familial crisis, but Pearl’s words and actions can be desperately cruel, and her tongue particularly harsh.

Jenny, Ezra and Cody all fail in various ways to fulfil Pearl’s dreams for them, although professionally they flourish, really. This is not a perfect family by any measure, but its members are bound together somehow by invisible ties, even when individual members might be absent, disappointing or neglectful. Once grown up, dreamy restaurateur Ezra, itinerant efficiency expert Cody and overworked, domestically chaotic paediatrician Jenny all also make devastating, hurtful decisions at times and weather many storms. That is the book’s great strength really: that we see all its main characters at their worst, and yet retain sympathy for each of them.

Overall then I really enjoyed this very humane novel from a writer who is expert on the profundities of family life. It’s a warm-hearted testament to human resilience, and I think it might be my favourite Anne Tyler novel – though I’ll need to go back and re-read her whole back catalogue now (as Liz is doing) to know for sure. And, as a last-minute aside, I could really relate to Ezra’s desperate wish for a family dinner that doesn’t end in recriminations or arguments – how many times have I sat down with my three children and watched a lovely meal descend into a row!

Poetry by Kei Miller: The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (Jamaica): Review no 163

Book six of my #20booksofsummer

"In the long ago beginning the world was unmapped.
It was nothing really – just a shrug of Jah
something he hadn’t thought all the way through.”

I’ve pledged to read and review 20 books for the blog between the beginning of June and the beginning of September (my #20booksofsummer reading challenge – the brainchild of Cathy at 746books), and to speed things along a little – while broadening my horizons – I swapped the book that I originally had in mind for this slender poetry collection by Jamaican-born poet and essayist Kei Miller, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion. The book won the prestigious Forward Prize for Best Collection in 2014.

The title, which I love, already conjures up (“Tries“) the sense that the cartographer’s task may not be an easy one. The collection presents, often playfully, a debate between a cartographer, armed with his trusty scientific methods of delineating, controlling and mapping place, who comes up against the “rastaman’s” very different understanding of place, and his patient insistence that what is not plotted on any map can sometimes be as important as what is.

"The rastaman thinks, draw me a map of what you see
then I will draw a map of what you never see
and guess me whose map will be bigger than whose?
Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?"

Miller demonstrates an affinity both with the cartographer and the rastaman, and acknowledges the duality that is present in our identities, and how easy it can be to make inaccurate assumptions about other people based on stereotyped beliefs about those identities. Miller has also indicated that in this work he hoped to show how it is wholly possible for two truths to co-exist independently of each other. But he does this with a sense of humour, not through some kind of turgid pontification in verse:

"But the cartographer, it is true,
dismisses too easily the rastaman's view,
has never read his provocative dissertation -
'Kepture Land' as Identity Reclamation
in Postcolonial Jamaica. Hell!
the cartographer did not even know
the rastaman had a PhD (from Glasgow
no less) in which, amongst other things, he cites
Sylvia Wynter's most cryptic essay: On How
We Mistook the Map for the Territory,
and Reimprisoned Ourselves in
An Unbearable Wrongness of Being..."

The collection contains evocative reflections on Jamaica, including the natural life of the island, a celebration of Jamaican Patois and an acknowledgement of a bloody colonial past (including the coming as a settler of the man reputed to be the island’s first serial killer, Scottish-born doctor Lewis Hutchinson, who killed at random and purely for sport).

There are also moving, loosely linked poems on the death of the poet’s mother (My Mother’s Atlas of Dolls), and in memory of a dearly loved friend. There is more humour, too, in poems such as When Considering the Long, Long Journey of 28,000 Rubber Ducks, which references the loss of a large cargo of bath toys in 1992 (“to them who scorned the limits of bathtubs, / refused to join a chorus of rub-a-dub;“), which have since been spotted at a wide variety of locations worldwide, and have consequently come to be monitored by scientists in order to inform their understanding of global currents.

I don’t often read poetry, as I have to slow right down and I struggle with that, finding myself skipping through the text, looking, I suppose for the characters! the plot!. But I had this book sitting in a pile from the library, and really enjoyed reading something totally outside my comfort zone.

June 2021 round up

It’s been a challenging month, with my daughter still recovering at home from extensive orthopaedic surgery, and reluctantly doing some home schooling from the sofa. We’ve been sharing a sofa bed downstairs for two months while she needs care in the night, and at 14 she could really do without her mum sharing a bedroom with her!

Anyway, all that, combined with the usual pressures of work and so on, mean that I have to snatch time to read. I’ve read and reviewed five of my #20booksofsummer: Olga Ravn’s The Employees, Deborah Levy’s Real Estate, Annabel Lyon’s Consent, Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, which had been on my TBR list for more than 20 years!!! I enjoyed them all, but especially the Levy, with Consent coming second.

Aside from selections from my carefully curated 20booksofsummer, I’ve gone off-list by reading Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, which is a beautiful book, and which I absolutely loved. A pitch-perfect pastiche of 80s London, examining the affairs and ambitions of Nick Guest, who is openly gay, somewhat hedonistic, intermittently serious (with an academic interest in Henry James), and desperately social climbing, during the decade that brought the devastation of HIV/AIDS to a generation of young men. Nick’s ingratiatingly close relationship with the glamorous, posh family of his handsome Oxford friend Toby (Tobias) Fedden, and his affair with another former student acquaintance, the gorgeous and closeted Lebanese millionaire Wani Ouradi, form the core of the novel. The story also includes some very funny scenes referencing Margaret ‘The Lady’ Thatcher, with whom patriarch and positively salivating Tory MP Gerald Fedden is captivated. The line of beauty of the title can be read as referring both to the copious lines of coke that are chopped out on various surfaces throughout the novel, and to the architectural ogee, a sinuous line that emulates the curve of a buttock or a muscled back: Nick is a man who has a “love of the world that was shockingly unconditional”, and his head is turned as much by a beautiful work of art as by a sexy young man. Carefully plotted and wonderfully evocative, I absolutely loved this stunningly written book, which was perfect in every way. The Line of Beauty won the Booker Prize in 2004.

I also finished reading Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel The Circle, which is a damning dystopian critique of the perils of social media and of an ever-more-closely connected society and workplace. The story was a bit clunky in places, but the message was powerful and thought-provoking.

Finally I listened to a clunking audiobook of Louise Penny’s Still Life, a crime novel that I wished I hadn’t bothered with, and read Jane Harper’s crime thriller The Dry, which was much better.

TVwise, I watched Bo Burnham’s Inside on Netflix, which was a warped piece of genius, a one-man musical comedy show written and performed during lockdown, which made me laugh uncomfortably and also worry about Burnham’s mental health – and wish I hadn’t watched it with my two teens.

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