Category Archives: Reading list

Books on my bedside table: Q4 2019 and Q1 2020

Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light - hardback book cover on floor boards

It’s been a strange few months for reading. I finished the first draft of my new book, Islands of Abandonment, at the start of February, after months of nocturnal living and occasional minor breakdowns. Then – well – the pandemic happened. Suffice to say, I’ve felt my capacity for recreational reading to be lower than normal. Still, somehow I managed to read a fair number of books that I loved and wholeheartedly recommend, so here goes:

Outline and Transit // Rachel Cusk: The first two books of the highly-acclaimed Outline trilogy. Each takes the form of a series of conversations – with a colleague, a stranger on a plane, a difficult neighbour, her hairdresser – as the protagonist is largely present as a negative, bar her sharp, analytic comments in response to her interlocutor’s offerings. Despite its cool affect and barely-there plot (or perhaps because of it) the books are spellbinding, and powerful in their own understated manner. So acutely intelligent, so readable.

Weather // Jenny Offill: I came nervously to this, because her last novel Dept. of Speculation is one of my favourite books of all time. Was delighted to find that same unpretentious profundity, that quick wit, that macabre obsession. So easily digestible, in its fragmentary form. I read it in an afternoon, then reread it the next day. Who knew the end days could be so dryly amusing? I didn’t feel it to have the same gut-punch emotional intensity of the previous book, but I loved it nevertheless.

The Plague // Albert Camus: Completely coincidentally, I got onto a ‘plague fiction’ reading jag last year before Covid-19 swept the world. I know Camus’ The Plague to be allegorical, yet I still haven’t been able to get the opening section out of my head: the way the city residents grab at life, filling the bars and restaurants in the early days of the quarantine. How, as boredom sets in, they sit smoking at cafe tables, complaining about their lost loves. And all the time, out of sight, the death toll rises…

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Books on my bedside table, Q2 and Q3 2019


My new year’s resolution to post quarterly about my reading diet went forgotten in June (as were most of my resolutions). However, I did keep track, so here’s a list to cover my reading-for-pleasure since March.

Some of the below were consumed as audio, after I made a decision to cut down on podcasts-listening in favour of audiobooks. Some people might quibble over whether that counts as ‘reading,’ but I think: sure, why not? There are no rules. Where the audiobooks were in themselves notable, I’ve mentioned that below.

I enjoy writing these notes, as I find it helps me digest and retain what I’ve read. I also love to chat about books. If we’ve crossed literary paths, or if you have a recommendation, then please drop me a line on Twitter.

The Peregrine // J A Baker: A true classic of British nature writing, which I’ve only just gotten around to reading. Beautiful, meditative, meandering – slashed through with the fresh violence of the hunt:

Their rapid, shifting, dancing motion had been so deft and graceful that it was difficult to believe that hunger was the cause of it and death the end… as thought the hawk had suddenly gone mad and had killed the thing it loved. The striving of birds to kill, or to save themselves from death, is beautiful to see. The greater the beauty the more terrible the death.

The Peregrine condenses ten years of sightings into a single year’s diary entries, a glittering work of synaesthetic descriptive bravura. The sky is “peeled white”, sparrows rise in “warning puffs”… Just great.

Trick Mirror // Jia Tolentino: This debut book of essays from the New Yorker writer was ubiquitous on social media and internet literary publications for a time, and happily it lived up to the hype. Very of the moment, and I think it transcends the moment too. Really it’s a book about the media’s reflection and refraction of the human condition. One or two essays fell flatter than others (I’m thinking, particularly, of her discussion of female protagonists in fiction), but her dissections of her own ambivalence about, and complicity in, our age of personal branding and ‘self-optimisation’ (see extract here), were outstanding. Continue reading

Books on my bedside table, Q1 2019


Just before Christmas, I wrote a list of my favourite books I’d read in 2018 for Five Books. I really enjoyed the opportunity it gave me to reflect on what I’d consumed – so much so that I thought I’d make a habit of recording it as I go. So: here is my first instalment, recording the books I’ve read in the first quarter of 2019, with a few brief thoughts on each.

For work/research I read a lot of scraps of nonfiction, wherein I am filleting the texts for hard facts; this isn’t reading-for-reading’s-sake, and many of these titles are not written to be read from cover to cover, so I don’t include them in the list below. (They’ll be recorded in the references/bibliography of my book when the time comes.)

If I’m honest, reading is source of both joy and anxiety. The inflow of new titles into our house is greater than my capacity to read them, so a towering pile of guilt builds up over months until I crack and either shelf them unread, or donate them.  I’m also very promiscuous in my reading habits, apt to start but not finish many books, something that really doesn’t reflect the books’ quality so much as the mood I happen to be in. Once I lose momentum, I hate to plough on – and I see no shame in abandoning a book part-way.

As a result, the books that I do make it through tend to be ones I’ve really enjoyed. Now that I’ve written them down, I see that it does add up quite quickly – which makes me feel better. Anyway: I love to discuss/debate/dissect books with others who have read them, both in terms of content and in craft. So drop me a line if our reading paths have crossed! I’m @calflyn on Twitter.


The Writing Life / Annie Dillard – I loved, loved Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and this is more of the same. She’s lyrical but unpretentious, dryly funny and incredibly wise. She’s perhaps my favourite author right now, and – as a writer myself – I can’t tell you how reassuring I found this book, and how beneficial it is to demystify the creative process. She calculates that Thomas Mann produced a publishable page a day, and as a result was “one of the most prolific writers who ever lived”; if you can produce “a usable fifth of a page a day” you are on track to produce a book every five years, which is a good rate for literary writers. So we must be realistic and not constantly berate ourselves for slowness.

Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life / Peter Godfrey-Smith – I have a fascination with the link between brain and being, having studied experimental psychology (which encompassed neurophysiology and animal behaviour) as an undergraduate. So this book is right up my street and could not be more fascinating. Godfrey-Smith uses the evolution of the octopus as a prism through which to examine subjective experience and intelligent thought from a non-anthropocentric viewpoint, and ask mind-bending questions about what it really means to ‘feel’ and to ‘think’. Plus, it’s packed with enchanting tales from his interactions with octopuses and cuttlefish while diving.

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