“The Man I Think I Know” by Mike Gayle (2018)

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“You’re stopping my dole money?”

Mike Gayle has long been one of my favourite writers. With a tone that always sounds like he’s just telling you a story over a pint, and a sharp turn of phrase, his books are lined up for a re-read sometime soon, as only a couple of them are on the blog so far, which means it’s been a long time since I read his earlier books, and I think they’re all worth talking about. Let’s focus today, however, on his newest book, The Man I Think I Know.

Danny and James haven’t seen each other for many years – not since their time together at one of Britain’s most prestigious boarding schools. Every student who attends ends up curing a disease, serving in government, making big headlines, or generally just being a complete success in whatever field they chose. And yet our heroes are entirely at odds with this. Danny has just had his dole money cut off after failing to find work yet again, and James has had to move back home with his parents after The Incident that changed his whole way of life.

When James’s parents go on a much needed holiday, James is booked into a care centre for the duration, where he meets Danny who now works as a carer. Trouble is, when he introduces himself, Danny says he doesn’t recognise him. This is a lie. The two men form a strange bond. In James, Danny finds someone who doesn’t think he’s a hopeless waste of space. In Danny, James finds someone who treats him like the man he used to be before The Incident, and not as a fragile patient. Desperate to get out from his parents’ home, James offers Danny the chance to move in with as his live-in carer. What happens next will change both of their lives for the better.

In my experience, media focuses far more on romantic relationships than any other, with family coming second, and platonic friendships a long way down the list. Even rarer are stories about male friendship. Mike Gayle is one of the few writers who has tapped into this market and writes brilliant stories about men growing up and trying to maintain friendships. This is perhaps his most tender, with the relationship between James and Danny front and centre of the story. They are both single thirty-somethings who have been dealt an unfair hand by life, although in very different ways.

Gayle sympathetically writes about ABIs (acquired brain injuries), which is what James is now suffering from, and it’s clear he’s done his research into this world. In the chapters narrated by James, it is clear from his way of speaking that The Incident had a profound affect on him, and while we aren’t treated to any scenes of him before his ABI, indications of who he was do slip through. James is a great figure as he also destroys the harmful stereotypes some people have about those with mental illness. As James reminds us throughout, people treat him differently because he has difficulty walking and talking, but inside he is still intelligent, ambitious, and capable of telling jokes. This is an important thing to never lose sight of in the real world, as too often we judge on appearances. Danny is also very compelling. Perhaps at first it’s easy to write him off as someone unworthy of our sympathy as most of his problems seem to have been caused by his own failings, but as the story unfolds, we learn the tragedy at the heart of his existence and cheer him on as he picks himself up and finds some direction in life.

Gayle’s usual warmth, wit and charm are all present in this book and I’m far from the first to heap praise on it this year, but I’m more than happy to add my name to the list of fans. A very engaging read.

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“Kill Your Boss” by Shane Kuhn (2014)

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“If you’re reading this, you’re a new employee at Human Resources, Inc.”

I remember reading once that you’re more likely to die prematurely being a character in a soap opera than you are in a war. In literature, it seems that the odds are stacked even more against you. There are so few books that don’t involve the two constants somewhere in their narrative – love and death. And in literature, we meet not only the victims and those tracking down the killers, but we get to know quite a lot of the killers too. John Lago, for example.

John Lago is a hitman for Human Resources, Inc. They are a large company of trained assassins who will take on any job for the right money and scrub someone off the face of the Earth before you can blink. They specialise in crooked white-collar workers by using assassins in their early twenties who pose as interns in their companies. Interns, it seems, are easily forgotten, can seemlessly blend into their surroundings and never draw attention to themselves, making them perfect sleeper agents. John is twenty-five and on his last assignment, taking on a role at Bendini, Lambert & Locke, an enormous New York law firm. One of the top men is selling witness protection data, and they need to find out which one it is and take him out.

John begins to blend into his office as usual, but things are complicated when he meets and falls for Alice who works for the same company and is clearly into him. Distracted by such hindrances as romance and emotions, John is finding it a little harder than usual to find a way to his target, and matters are complicated further when he hacks into Alice’s computer and discovers that she’s an undercover FBI agent investigating the very man he’s trying to kill. John will need all of his wits about him as he tackles his final challenge. Once he’s done this, he can retire with sacks of money, have plastic surgery and disappear for good. That is, if he survives…

The book is written as a guide to new recruits to HR Inc., and indeed in the USA it was published as The Intern’s Handbook, which is also the name John gives his book in-universe. He is a desperately unpleasant character, which may seem obvious given that he’s a hitman, but I’ve read about them before and some of them are much more likeable, oddly. While there are redeeming features and much is made of his horrific, abusive and neglectful childhood shunted around between foster homes and the care system, there’s no way of getting around the fact he committed his first murder aged eight and is recruited by Bob at HR Inc. when he’s twelve. Unpleasant perhaps, but not without humour. John is quite funny, as is the book in general, and the concept of planting faceless interns into companies to bring down criminals is a really good one.

However, all in all, while it had some interesting moments and a cast of rather fascinating characters, it lacked any really satisfying payoff and by the time you’re there it’s almost impossible to work out what was true and what wasn’t after all. Not in the sense of “it was all a dream” which would be unforgivable, but just in that when you’re dealing with secret agencies, there are always more lies being spread around than you might realise. Naturally as one might expect of the theme, there are a lot of very violent scenes and complicated fights that are described in painstaking detail. One or two are fine, but you become somewhat desensitised to it towards the end and the suspension of disbelief that John is surviving all these attacks threatens to fail. It was an interesting concept and I enjoyed it, but it feels like one of those that I wouldn’t be able to tell you much about six months down the line.

A fun, quick read, and perhaps deserving of cult classic status one day.

“Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman (2007)

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“‘Later!’ The word, the voice, the attitude.”

I’ve been away at a wedding this weekend, and a trip away always requires at least two books to be packed. As it was (and as I think I expected) I had hardly any time to read, so most of this was completed once I was back. It felt right to take a romance with me to a wedding, and this one ties into the fact it’s Pride Month, too. Where better to spend a few days at this time of year than the Italian Riviera. Come with me, let’s go.

It’s the late eighties, and seventeen-year-old Elio has just met the man who’ll be staying with his family for the summer. His parents take in a lodger every summer, someone who is working on a book and needs time and space to write. This year, it’s Oliver. He’s twenty-four, intelligent, effortlessly cool, and utterly beautiful. Elio is smitten from almost the moment Oliver gets out of his taxi and becomes conflicted about whether he should make his feelings known. Oliver is at times friendly and perhaps encouraging, but at others distant and determinedly ignores Elio, who begins to wonder if he should start a relationship with the local girl Marzia instead.

As the weeks progress, the two young men grow closer and become more entangled in one another’s lives and emotions. The six weeks of the summer may not mark a particularly long time on the calendar, but they will forever change Elio and Oliver as they seek out true intimacy for the first time, and maybe the last.

At its heart, the book is simply about the difference between sex and intimacy and how they can easily be confused. Pure intimacy is perhaps the rarest relationship one can have with another human, and while at times you could argue that Elio tries to force it here, there’s no denying that they do have something pretty special, if at times somewhat bizarre. Although the sex scenes with them together are kept discreet and half-hidden, there are still enough scenes of Elio pleasuring himself – often in fetishistic and unusual ways – to counterbalance.

Anyone of any sexual stripe will be familiar with this sense of lust; a longing for someone that you can’t be sure returns the feeling. This being literary fiction, however, the characters are not necessarily people we know, even if their emotions are. Elio is precocious at seventeen, transcribing music and blending artists together for his own compositions. Oliver teaches at Colombia and spends most of his time in Italy working hard on his new book. The characters around them all have an other-worldly sheen, too, as if the Riviera polishes everyone to a high gleam and makes even their faults look more acceptable.

As for the prose itself, like much literary fiction, the book is awfully fond of itself and its use of extensive paragraphs that detail very little action at all. Elio spends much of his time fretting and while he’s not unpleasant as a person, some may find him beginning to grate after a while. Fortunately, the book’s wise words and descriptions of life are rather good. It’s also notable that despite being a book about two gay lovers, I don’t think the words “gay” or “love” make a single appearance. The book is open and aware of bisexuality, which is a novelty, and does its very best to avoid labels. Love is love, after all.

A warming and thoughtful novel, which can make even the hardest heart believe in the worth and power of intimacy.

“Mendelssohn Is On The Roof” by Jiří Weil (1960)

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“Antonin Becvar and Josef Stankovsky were on the roof, walking around the statues.”

As a general rule, I try and avoid books that heavily feature the Holocaust and the dark days of the Second World War, but there are exceptions, of course. It’s a part of our history that I simply cannot fathom and I find the whole area so depressing to think about that I decided a while ago to not read fiction about it. Of course it’s an important historical event and I’m not suggesting otherwise, but with so much awful stuff going on in the world, it’s not unreasonable I feel to want to read things that are a bit more upbeat. I was duped, however, when I saw this book on a friend’s shelf and, intrigued by the title and blurb, bought myself a copy.

Mendelssohn is on the Roof takes place in Nazi-occupied Prague during in 1942. The city has been ravaged, with Jews kicked out and either sent to ghettos or killed. An official concert is due to be performed soon, but the Nazis have discovered that one of the statues on the concert hall is of Felix Mendelssohn, a Jewish composer. The order is given to have the statue removed, but none of the Nazis know which one he is. They decide to go for the one with the biggest nose – unfortunately, that’s Wagner…

While the Nazis try to find a scholarly Jew left in the city, elsewhere other events have begun to unfold. A man has an incurable disease that is slowly tuning him to stone. Two children are hidden away behind a wardrobe so they can’t sent off. An architect is commissioned to design a set of gallows for an upcoming execution. The Gestapo continue to torment and torture anyone they see fit, never having to take responsibility for their actions. As the world descends into chaos, there seems little hope left for anyone.

What makes the book all the more haunting, of course, is that Weil was there. Born in 1900, he was assigned to work at the Jewish Museum in Prague, and when he was summoned to go and live in the ghetto, he instead staged his death and spent the rest of the war hiding in apartments and, in one case, a hospital. This is almost certainly what makes the book’s horror so visceral. Although billed as a “darkly comic” novel, the emphasis is most certainly on the first of those words. While the set up and first few chapters are quite humorous as we see the Germans struggle to comply with their orders, it quickly descends from farce to tragedy, and by the end there is nothing but doom, gloom and the horrific events of one of the darkest moments in our history.

Perhaps overwhelmed by the awful events that befall the characters, I admit that I got a bit lost throughout it and was never quite able to keep everyone’s names straight, meaning it would often be a couple of paragraphs before I realised which character we’d gone back to. The story lines weave together at random, with occasional overlap. There’s a certain amount of ambiguity surrounding many of them, and there’s not really a happy ending for anyone here. The true abhorrence of the Nazi party’s “final solution” and way of dealing with the “Jewish problem” are writ large and it makes for very difficult reading.

Of course it’s an important book, and it’s artfully done, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s enjoyable. Nonetheless, it’s fascinating to read these accounts from someone who was actually there. A few of them remain, but it won’t be long before this chapter of humanity is consigned entirely to the history books. We cannot let its important diminish.

“Jonathan Livingston Seagull” by Richard Bach (1979)

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“It was morning, and the new sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a gentle sea.”

Many books like to show us the world from the point of view of an animal. Obviously there’s Animal Farm, or The Animals of Farthing Wood, The Book of Chameleons by José Eduardo Agualusa that gives a lizard-eye view of the world, or The Last Family in England from Matt Haig which shows us life through the eyes of a pet dog. In this instance, the book appears to have more in common with the likes of Br’er Rabbit in that it’s a fable intent on teaching us something about ourselves through the actions of a seagull.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull isn’t like the other gulls in the Flock. While they’re focused on finding food and surviving, Jonathan is far more interested in the act of flying, spending all his time studying the art and learning how to become the best flyer he can. His actions upset the Elders, however, and he becomes an Outcast for going against the societal conventions and so leaves to better practice his skills.

While away, however, he finds that perhaps he isn’t so alone as he thought. There are others he can learn from, other gulls who have been cast out of their flocks for their love of flying. Jonathan can now be free, and help the next generation of outcasts perfect their abilities. This edition of the book also comes with the rediscovered “Part Four”, which sees Jonathan’s legacy live on as time passes and he becomes something of a mythological figure to the gulls, rather than something more tangible.

It’s a short read, but beautiful in its brevity. The main takeaway is about self-perfection, and how we don’t have to follow the crowd. Those that go their own way and do things differently often achieve greatness unimagined by the others. There is much to learn here about individuality, creativity and passion. The fourth part, which was only published for the first time in 2013, has distinct parallels to organised religion and questions its nature. Bach was inspired to finish it after surviving a car crash and seeing in it truths he’d written years before without knowing they would become relevant.

I didn’t really know what I was expecting from this book, but I got more from it than I could ever have imagined. It’s the kind of book that’s so full of gorgeous lines that I could paper my bedroom in them. I’ll limit myself to just one, here:

“Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding. Find out what you already know and you will see the way to fly.”

“Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier (2009)

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“Lightning struck me all my life.”

History, as we all know, has given women a rough ride of it. One could read through numerous history books and believe that, aside from the occasional queen or witch, women hadn’t appeared until the 1920s. This inequality is the reason that Watson and Crick are considered the discoverers of DNA leaving out Rosalind Franklin who did most of the preliminary research, or why Charles Babbage is hailed as the first computer scientist, leaving Ada Lovelace often ignored. Fortunately, we are now righting these wrongs, and one of the women who, after her death, achieved great notoriety is the fossil hunter Mary Anning, whose discoveries shook the scientific community to its core. Tracy Chevalier explores her life in this novel.

Anning shares the duty of narration with Elizabeth Philpot, another fossil hunter who specialises in fossil fish (and was also a real person, but whose story has been eclipsed by that of Anning). When Elizabeth’s brother marries, she and her sisters Louise and Margaret are sent to live in Lyme Regis, a quiet coastal town, because that’s what happened in the early 1800s. There, Elizabeth discovers she has a love for finding fossils on the beach, but her skills are nothing compared to that of young Mary Anning who, despite the age gap of twenty years, she strikes up a curious friendship with.

As the two women grow, they make more discoveries and when Mary’s brother encounters a fossil of a creature unlike anything anyone has ever seen, it becomes the talk of the world and centuries of religious doctrine begin to look a little shaky. Is it possible that animals can go extinct? Did God make some creatures only to kill them off? Is it possible that God made a mistake? The ideas are sacrilege to many, but Elizabeth and Mary are determined that the world should see their fossils and hear the theories. Unfortunately, they’re women, but their passion and loyalty to the fossils ensure that the truth will out.

As they grow, they find much more than just fossils, learning about their places in the world, the meaning of heartbreak and how friendships can be as brittle as any of their findings.

I knew a little of Mary Anning before beginning the book – her face and her fossils are all over the Natural History Museum – but Elizabeth Philpot unfortunately was new to me, although no less interesting. Neither she or Mary ever married, and instead dedicated their lives to their fossil hunting even though, because of their sex, they would never be welcomed into the Royal Society or be allowed to write scientific papers. Philpot, in fact, discovered fossilised ink sacs inside belemnite fossils and even worked out how to revive the ink for use. Anning had the harder life, arguably, being from a very poor background and losing her father at a young age. She however became the first person to find skeletons of both ichthyosaur and plesiosaur skeletons, and the first pterosaur skeleton in Britain. Her legacy is one that should be heralded for what it did to science and the advancement of knowledge.

The story itself adds much colour to both ladies, as well as the scientific men around them, and Chevalier freely admits that she has embellished much of what happened in their private lives, but that’s not a fault, as it just gives the women more depth. Parts of the story do drag a little, I can’t deny that, but in general it’s an interesting read featuring two remarkable women. Chevalier has a good eye for metaphor and the two narrators are wonderfully distinct in their styles.

A fascinating and thoughtful look at some figures many may not have heard of, but should have.

“The Queen And I” by Sue Townsend (1992)

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“The Queen was in bed watching television with Harris.”

It’s no good pretending otherwise. Despite my left-leaning political views and modern ways of thinking, I can’t help but retain a lot of admiration for the Queen. Her family, sure, but there’s something about her. What she’s really like as a person, we’re unlikely to know, but the snatches we see suggest an intelligent woman with a good sense of humour, a love of her family, and a firm understanding of her responsibilities. She was taught that above all, the crown comes first, and I find it impossible not to admire her as she has carried on her duties without public complaint for over sixty years. She never expected to become monarch, especially not at such a young age. Despite me having no real issues with her lot carrying on, one does sometimes wonder, what would this country be like if it became a republican nation? In 1992, Sue Townsend, more famous for creating Adrian Mole, gave us a suggestion.

Following on from the 1992 election, a republication party led by Jack Barker gets into power with plans to give everyone in Britain a fair and equal existence, and the first step of that is simple – remove the Royal Family. Given just a few days to clear their belongings out of their palaces, and with the Crown Jewels sold off to the Japanese, the Queen and her family find themselves suddenly living on a rough council estate in the Midlands. Their new home – dubbed by the neighbours as Hell Close – is far from the luxury they are used to and they now find themselves with the most deprived of society, with no money and no servants.

The Queen gets to know her neighbours who are instantly interested in the posh new residents – although new laws forbid them from treating the former royals as better than them – and enters into a world of difficulty. She’s never even had to put her own bra on, or open a door. Suddenly, she’s lost and alone, as Prince Philip refuses to leave his bed and the Queen Mother begins to lose her marbles in her bungalow. Some of the others, however, take to it slightly better. Prince Charles feels freed of his responsibilities to focus on his garden, William and Harry soon join the local children in terrorising the estate, and Princess Anne is so captivated by her new world that within minutes she’s unloaded the van and is plumbing in her own washing machine.

But the country, it seems, is having difficulty adjusting, and Prime Minister Barker’s plans require emptying the vaults of the Bank of England to make them a reality. With Philip becoming weaker and weaker, and Charles facing jail for attacking a policeman, the Queen struggles to retain the composure and dignity that she has been trained from birth to possess.

Sue Townsend, who died four years ago this week, was and remains one of the greatest comic writers the world, and Britain especially, has ever seen. Like Victoria Wood, she was naturally funny but her work contained so much pathos that everything seemed bittersweet. You feel for her characters and their struggle, and this has never been truer than here. The Royals, the Queen particularly, are portrayed with affection and even the jokes at their expense are still tinged with reality and you don’t feel any of it is acerbic. It’s just gently comical. Jibes are made about the fact that the Queen Mother has never had to open her own curtains, they have to have antique furniture destroyed to fit it into their new houses, and the Queen and Philip are horrified at having to share a bed. They are shown to be real humans and despite their sheltered upbringings, have retained compassion, some degree of understanding, and a sense of duty. In turn, the poor and downtrodden residents of Hell Close are shown to be loving and community-driven, even if their ways of expressing these ideals are not what many would expect.

Because the book is twenty-six years old, the Queen and her family are much younger than we know them now. There are also a few characters present who have long since disappeared – namely the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and, of course, Princess Diana. Later that year in real world history, Charles and Diana would of course separate, but here they remain married, although it’s clear their marriage is on the rocks. A number of other characters are absent. Prince Andrew is mentioned in one throwaway line, and Prince Edward is hardly present either, currently working for a theatre in New Zealand. It’s also unclear what happens to the other minor royals and all other members of the aristocracy, as Barker’s vision for Britain is one of total equality.

Whatever you think of the Royal Family, this book is surely worth a read. Townsend portrays both ends of the social spectrum of Britain with charm, warmth and realism. Whether one day the British public will tire of being led by characters who seem to belong in a fairy tale remains to be seen, but personally I can’t see it ever happening.

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