The male and female together make the world

One Part Woman coverOne Part Woman
by Perumal Murugan
translated from Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan

This novel is set in early 20th century India, focusing on a couple who are farmers in a rural area, steeped in religion and superstition. So it is perhaps surprising to find that it is one of the most relatable stories I have read in a while.

Kali and Ponna have been married for 12 years. They love each other and their little corner of Tamil Nadu, but their inability to conceive a child has come to overwhelm everything else. Ponna is excluded from the community, and even family flinch if she touches a child. Kali is alternately mocked and advised to take a second wife. They’re not sure they even want a child, but it seems to be all that the rest of the world cares about.

Their simple lifestyle means that the exact date when this is set was unclear to me, though references to British rule give at least some clue. (There are mentions of certain politicians and events that apparently reveal to those with better historical knowledge than mine that this is the 1940s.) So fertility treatment is limited even for those who have money and access to doctors.

For Kali and Ponna there are no doctors to help. Their only recourse is religion. They endlessly pray, visit shrines and temples, perform rituals. They search their family histories for wrongs done by their ancestors that they can put right. They spend their meagre income on offerings to deities. Hundreds of deities.

Continue reading “The male and female together make the world”

K-drama review: Don’t Dare to Dream

Don't Dare to Dream poster

I loved this show so much. It’s not groundbreaking or original, but what it does, it does well. Don’t Dare to Dream, also known as Jealousy Incarnate (SBS 2016) is about TV news, family, love, jealousy and…cancer. It’s well acted, hits both light humour and real emotional moments in every episode and the credits feature cartoon aliens. It truly has everything.

Pyo Na-ri (played by Gong Hyo-jin) is a weather broadcaster who is frustrated by her TV station refusing to give her a permanent job and treating her as a general dogsbody, but can’t risk quitting as she needs to earn good money to support her younger brother Chi-yeol, who is still in high school. At work she is always professional, but at home she’s a bit of a mess, constantly behind on rent and shouting at Chi-yeol.

She jumps at an opportunity to work on a shoot with news reporter Lee Hwa-sin (Jo Jung-suk, who was the lead man in Oh My Ghost another K-drama that I rate highly), who she used to have a crush on. She had hoped this was finally her chance with him, but instead meets another man who takes Hwa-sin’s place in her affections – businessman Go Jeung-won (played by Go Kyung-po, who I swear looks like Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is Hwa-sin’s childhood best friend. Na-ri and Jeung-won begin dating, much to the despair of his mother, who is hoping to use his marriage as a business deal.

Continue reading “K-drama review: Don’t Dare to Dream”

Gladly will I oppose my body to his

The Mabinogion illustration by Alan Lee
The Mabinogion illustration by Alan Lee.

The Mabinogion
Translated from Middle Welsh by Lady Charlotte Guest

This was the first book I started for the EU Reading Challenge, but ended up being the 10th book I completed. Perhaps I should have searched out a more modern translation when I first started to struggle. These are ancient tales, widely considered the oldest surviving British literature in prose form. They were almost certainly oral tales for a century or more before their earliest known recording in 1350–1410. Lady Charlotte Guest translated the tales into both modern Welsh and English in the late 19th century. Which I thought made them an interesting inclusion on my EU list.

The 11 stories in this volume have different authors, all unknown, and in fact only the first four are strictly the Mabinogi. The rest are medieval romances; some early Arthurian knight tales; and the tale of Taliesin the bard. My particular edition of The Mabinogion includes full-page illustrations by Alan Lee, who is now better known for his Lord of the Rings illustrations. It is a beautiful object.

There is a bit of a theme in these tales of women with magical powers, many of whom have pretty awful fates. For instance, the first of the Mabinogi is “Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed” and tells the story of Pwyll’s attempts to romance Rhiannon, an Otherworld woman who runs rings around him rhetorically and literally (she’s pretty awesome), but eventually falls in love with Pwyll and marries him. However, when their son Pryderi disappears on the night of his birth, she is accused of matricide and imprisoned.

The story has a happy ending, but not before Rhiannon has spent years in prison. And she’s not the only wrongfully treated woman here. I can’t decide if this is fear of magic and witchcraft, or misogyny, or both. There’s plenty of magic, used for good and evil, but even when used for good it does tend to end badly.

Continue reading “Gladly will I oppose my body to his”

Dorama review: Mischievous Kiss – Love in Tokyo

Mischievous Kiss Love in Tokyo poster

Mischievous Kiss – Love in Tokyo (Fuji TV 2013) seemed like it was almost a carbon copy of Good Morning Call to begin with. And I enjoyed Good Morning Call. But where that show stayed just the right side of irritating cliches, Mischievous Kiss rode those cliches all the way through two seasons. It’s really not great on the gender politics front, but so light and fluffy that I kept on watching, hoping for improvement. It is based on the Japanese manga Itazura Na Kiss written by Tada Kaoru.

This show depicted everything that annoys me about gender stereotypes in Japanese culture. The man is rich, intelligent, calm, collected, cold and cruel but apparently handsome enough for everyone to desire him. (Does that really happen with cold men in real life? In my experience the friendlier, chattier men get all the romantic attention, but then I don’t live in Japan.) The woman is poor, not at all clever, giggles and daydreams through her days, is popular and a good friend, pretty but not beautiful. And for some reason the woman is hopelessly in unrequited love with the man. Man treats woman with total contempt until another man expresses interest and then jealousy prompts realisation of actual feelings. But this doesn’t result in man actually treating woman well, no no no. It means he gives her just enough attention to string her along while continuing to be a total asshole.

The style of Mischievous Kiss is very camp, overwrought and comedic (which is perhaps why it took me most of season one to realise that those gender roles were not getting any better). The acting is laughably bad, as is the set-up.

Continue reading “Dorama review: Mischievous Kiss – Love in Tokyo”

July 2019 reading round-up

Janelle Monae

July was a good month in many ways, but most importantly because we saw Janelle Monáe! In the real life! We went to Manchester for the first four days of the Manchester International Festival and it was excellent. She is amazing and I love her.

I also went to see Amélie the Musical and survived the UK’s mini heatwave. In the world of books, I read 12, which is loads! Quite a variety of types of book, as well. My favourite was probably The Night Circus by Uršuľa Kovalyk.

Our August will end with a weekend away, but for now we’re going to enjoy the summer in Bristol.

Continue reading “July 2019 reading round-up”

The chemistry and physics on which we fed were the antidote to Fascism

The Periodic Table book coverThe Periodic Table
by Primo Levi
translated from Italian by Raymond Rosenthal

This is my Italy book for my EU Reading Challenge and is also on my Classics Club list. It seemed appropriate right now in multiple ways. I’ve seen a few people recommending we all read Primo Levi this year to remind us what Fascism and Second World War concentration camps were like (to refute the argument that the US detainment camps aren’t really concentration camps). Plus, 2019 is the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements, as designated by UNESCO.

This is a difficult book to describe. Not quite a memoir, but not quite popular-science either, and certainly more than just a loose collection of tales. Each of its 21 chapters is framed around one element – sometimes abstractly, sometimes very directly. Levi was a professional chemist and himself describes this book as “events, mine and otherwise…to convey to the layman the strong and bitter flavour of our trade…stories of the solitary chemistry…which with few exceptions has been mine: but it has also been the chemistry of our founders…who confronted matter without aids, with their brains and hands, reason and imagination.”

Levi begins with his ancestors and a dissection of the language he spoke as a child, a product of the Jewish community in the Piedmont region that combined Italian, Piedmontese and Hebrew. I’ll admit that the link is a little tenuous between the inert gas argon and Levi’s assessment of his ancestors’ general character, but I do love a bit of etymology and Levi has a knack for turning anything into a great story.

Continue reading “The chemistry and physics on which we fed were the antidote to Fascism”

Theatre review: Amélie the Musical

Watermill Theatre Company
Bristol Old Vic, 20 July 2019

Amelie: the musical photo by pamela-raith-photography
Courtesy: Pamela Raith Photography

I first watched the film Amélie (or Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain) fairly soon after it became available to rent in the UK – I think it was late-2002. I later bought the DVD and for a few years watched it often. I loved it, and its star Audrey Tautou, and its whimsical take on love and the responsibility we have to live our lives. And then I largely forgot about it.

Fast forward to this year when a friend invited me to see Amélie: the Musical. I knew nothing about this play’s Broadway background or how it would be staged, but I was pretty sure I wanted to see it. And I’m so glad I did.

This production is a joy from start to finish. The set is spectacular, the songs are beautiful (think Once but more upbeat), every member of the cast is an outstanding musician, and it all perfectly captures the tone and feel of the film without being an exact replica of the story.

Continue reading “Theatre review: Amélie the Musical”

K-drama review: Memories of the Alhambra

Memories of the Alhambra poster

For a while Memories of the Alhambra (a 2019 joint production of tvN and Netflix) was being heavily trailed on Netflix (at least, it was being advertised at me, but I guess I’m the target audience). It got lots of online hype (and apparently a petition for a second season), which I’m a bit bemused by. Honestly, this was beautifully filmed, well acted, had an original sci-fi thriller concept and unexpected plot twists, but I wound up disappointed overall.

It starts out well. Park Shin-hye (Doctors, Pinocchio, Heirs) plays Jung Hee-joo, a woman running a hostel for Koreans in Granada with her grandmother. She supports her younger sister Min-joo (who is still at school) and her brother Se-joo (a freelance game developer) by working two other jobs in addition to the hostel management. She has a Korean best friend who’s in love with her and a secret talent for playing classical guitar. It’s all very cosy and lovely.

Then along comes Yoo Jin-woo (played by Hyun Bin of Secret Garden) – the CEO of a tech company called J-One. He receives a mysterious phone call begging him to go to a certain hostel in Granada to discuss a business deal. When he gets there, he finds no sign of the man he was supposed to meet (who turns out to be Se-joo), but he does have an e-mail with a game attached to it – a game designed to work with J-One’s augmented-reality contact lenses. A game that could be worth billions.

The bulk of the first two episodes is establishing the game – in which users walk around real Granada collecting virtual weapons and fighting virtual warriors (think Pokémon Go but with almost realistic graphics). It’s pretty impressive, makes good use of the Granada setting and provides a source of some comedy as the camera view switches between Jin-woo’s point-of-view and what the rest of the world sees (i.e. some tourist flailing his arms around mysteriously and pulling strange faces).

There’s also some mystery about Se-joo, namely why both he and his business partner Marco have disappeared. There’s a fight over buying the rights to the game from Se-joo’s family between Jin-woo and his biggest rival (and former best friend) Cha Hyeong-seok. There are ex-wives and hapless assistants (including the adorable Seo Jung-hoon, played by Min Jin-woong). While there’s lots of ominous music and hints of something dark and terrible, for the most part it feels like a typical set-up of love triangles and business rivalry.

Then after just a couple of episodes, everything changes. A death in the game becomes a death in real life. The tone suddenly makes sense. This show is genuinely exciting, thrilling and even at times quite scary, with some good fighting scenes and special effects.

Continue reading “K-drama review: Memories of the Alhambra”

A dead woman was spewing blood over the car

Now you see me book coverNow You See Me
by Sharon Bolton

I like Sharon Bolton’s thrillers as a general rule. This is the first in her series about rookie detective Lacey Flint (the other books of Bolton’s I have read were one-off stories). I hungrily consumed this and immediately bought its sequels. And yet, I do have some reservations.

Lacey is young, capable and eager. She frequently ignores orders, thinking she knows better, and puts herself in danger. She’s also not the most reliable of narrators, which plays perfectly into the mystery that Bolton weaves around her.

When we meet Lacey, a woman is dying in her arms, bloodily and messily. She’s stumbled into the middle of a murder scene and is both sole witness and, briefly, primary suspect. She’s not meant to be working murder cases at all (her intention is to work as a rape specialist), but she can’t seem to shake herself loose from this one. Particularly not when the police receive a letter addressed to Lacey claiming to be from the killer – who is planning to strike again.

Continue reading “A dead woman was spewing blood over the car”

The echo of her steps is drowned out by the savage rhythm of walking people

The Night CircusThe Night Circus
by Uršuľa Kovalyk
translated from Slovakian by Julia and Peter Sherwood

This is my Slovakia book for the EU Reading Challenge. It is a short story collection that was sent to me by the publisher after a contact heard about my challenge. I am so grateful to both contact and publisher for helping me with my challenge and for introducing me to a fantastic author I would otherwise not have heard of.

The stories are on the short side – mostly four or five pages – and all have female protagonists, often unnamed. While they have real-world settings, the tone is always slightly weird or off kilter. For instance, in the title story, Eleanora stumbles across a circus tent, and on entry finds herself the star of a very weird show with no audience. It’s a dark exploration of pain, psychology and blame, and it’s completely absorbing.

“Eleanora is irritated by the noise people make as they walk down the street. The sound coming from beneath their shoes is chaotic, restless. It strikes her ears with a vengeance and makes her feel anxious. At times like these Eleanora can’t hear herself. The echo of her steps is drowned out by the savage rhythm of walking people. It makes her feel like she doesn’t exist. Like she’s just a ghost. A fiction. She’s losing her outlines.”

Continue reading “The echo of her steps is drowned out by the savage rhythm of walking people”