To avert one’s eyes would be nothing short of cowardice

melancholy of resistance book coverThe Melancholy of Resistance
by László Krasznahorkai
translated from Hungarian by George Szirtes

Here we are, my first book for the EU Reading Challenge. I started with Hungary, a country about which I know shockingly little. That is despite Hungarian folk music having played a key role in my childhood.

For several years I performed competitive gymnastics, and for most of that time the music for my floor routine was a piece I knew only as “Czárdás”. This is the name for a particular style of music and dance from Hungary. It’s usually a short piece including both slow and very fast passages – i.e. perfect for gymnastics. Here’s a rather impressive one on YouTube. Sadly the cassette with my 90-second snippet has been lost to the mists of time, but for a few key years in my youth, I heard that tune a LOT. You’d think an intellectually curious young woman like me would have investigated where that music came from, but maybe I was too young to understand that music can have a much bigger role in culture and history than the few minutes it takes to listen to it.

In this novel, Krasznahorkai tells the tale of a small Hungarian town where a foreign circus has arrived, along with a ragtag crowd of followers. The newcomers, and the circus’s advertised claim to have a stuffed blue whale in its enormous truck, add a nervous sense of distrust to a town already on edge. But is the danger anything to do with the circus at all?

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Witches had to go to extraordinary lengths to acquire powers

Last Rituals book coverLast Rituals
by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
translated from Icelandic by Bernard Scudder

I remember learning about Yrsa Sigurðardóttir from the much-missed The Readers podcast, back when it was hosted by Gavin Pugh and Simon Savidge. They discussed her crime novels in such glowing terms that I immediately added this title, the first in her ongoing series, to my wishlist. But then I stumbled across a later book in the series in a charity shop, read that first and wasn’t blown away, so I settled for following Sigurðardóttir on Twitter (she gives good Twitter).

A few weeks back, I decided that I wanted to give crime another try (after the failure of one of my March reads) and this was on offer on the Kindle Store. Cue my second venture into the world of lawyer Thóra Guðmundsdóttir.

The crime that opens the book is the murder of German postgrad history student Harald Guntlieb at the University of Iceland. Some gruesome things have been done to the body that appear to be linked to his research into witchcraft. His family in Germany are not happy with the police investigation, so they ask their family lawyer Matthew to team up with an Icelandic lawyer – Thóra – to dig deeper.

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K-drama review: Romance is a Bonus Book

romance is a bonus book poster

You can just tell from the title that this is going to be a ridiculous show, but it’s also a 2019 offering co-produced by Netflix, so I figured it might have some of the modernity of Hello, My Twenties (still my favourite K-drama). Romance is a Bonus Book is really enjoyable and fairly modern, but it does get cheesy and a little over-earnest at times.

The show is set in a small-ish literary publisher in Seoul, which had obvious appeal for me. There’s some fairly realistic stuff about how books are published – including a heartbreaking scene of lorry-loads of remaindered books getting pulped – and plenty of passionate speeches about the importance of books. I really liked most of the workplace stuff, but it’s still a K-drama so of course at heart this is a romance.

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EU reading challenge

Flag of Europe

I have spent almost three years feeling pretty low about Britain voting to leave the EU, but I have decided that in this bonus time created by the latest extension, I want to do something to celebrate the EU. So I’m going to try to read a book from every one of the 28 EU countries (yes, that’s including the UK).

Ideally, I’d like every book in the challenge to be written by an author from the designated country and set in that country. But if that’s not possible for every country, then I’ll take one or the other where I need to. I already have several books to get started with, but I’m going to need to do some research/get some recommendations to complete this.

I started by making a pile of books from my TBR that are by EU authors. There are some duplicate countries in here, so I have some decisions to make (again, recommendations will be welcomed). And I’ve only included one book from the UK – the collection of Welsh legends known collectively as The Mabinogion.

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Women’s inventions have been neglected by evolutionary researchers

Inferior book coverInferior: the True Power of Women and the Science That Shows It
by Angela Saini

This is such an important book. It’s not the first on this topic but it’s the one that has managed to take off and get the message out there (partly thanks to the brilliant Jess Wade, who has been campaigning to get this book into school libraries).

Saini interrogates the claims of scientists about the differences between the sexes. She explains what we do and don’t know about whether men and women’s different positions in society are the result of physical biological differences, or hard-wired differences in ability, or if they’re the result of hundreds, if not thousands, of years of society and culture being skewed.

Are men’s and women’s brains really wired differently? It’s a very complicated area of science, and despite some excitable newspaper headlines, we don’t yet know for sure. It appears that there is more variety within each sex than there is between them. And importantly, even if there are physical differences, we have to be extremely careful about extrapolating reasons for those differences.

Can we learn about our ancestors from anthropologists’ studies of 20th-century hunter-gatherers? A limited amount, yes, but the surviving hunter-gatherer communities are all very different from each other. The only real conclusion we can reach is the variety of what human beings – and women particularly – are capable of.

But that hasn’t prevented more than a century of evolutionary research being skewed to ancient hunting habits (because men were presumed to have done most of the hunting) and often ignoring or downplaying other human activities such as gathering food and childcare (which were assumed to be wholly female activities). Which has knock-on effects including that theories about the development of human language are largely based around hunting and it is only recently that scientists have begun to question whether a more likely scenario for language development is the need to pass information from mother to child.

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March 2019 reading round-up

ukiyo-e by Gigado Ashiyuki
1827 print of actors in a play about a courtesan by Gigado Ashiyuki.

We ended this month visiting Bristol City Museum for the second part of their Japanese prints exhibition. I love ukiyo-e, and this collection on the theme of “life in the city” is definitely worth a trip if you’re anywhere near Bristol before 12 May.

My reading has been up and down – possibly because I have been really trying to get through The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov for six weeks now, but I’m just not enjoying it. I think it might be time to give up. I also read a couple of badly written books, which I wouldn’t usually stick with. Thankfully I also read some gems, including Inferior by Angela Saini, which I genuinely recommend to everybody. I bought my Mum a copy for Mother’s Day. That will not be the only copy I give as a gift.

I also started running again this month after a five-month break. It’s been tough getting back into it but I am starting to feel the benefits. Now I just have to…keep it up.

How was your March?

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I can sense the border between when time dribbles on and stretches

moshi moshiMoshi Moshi
by Banana Yoshimoto
translated from Japanese by Asa Yoneda

This is an odd book. I loved some things about it, but I didn’t love it. Which is a shame as it sounded so thoroughly up my alley.

Yoshie is in her early 20s when her semi-famous musician father dies in bizarre circumstances. Finding the family home overwhelming in her grief, she moves to the small, hip neighbourhood Shimokitazawa. She loves her quirky, arty new locale and her new job at a cafe there. But just as she is settling in, her mother shows up and insists on moving in with her.

Yoshie is having nightmares about her father, while her mother claims that their family home is haunted by him. The dead father is a constant presence through the book, necessarily so, as the whole arc of the story is the mother and daughter’s shared grief. (The significance of the title is that “Moshi moshi” is how you answer the phone in Japanese, and one of the plot threads is about the father’s mobile phone.)

The depiction of Shimokitazawa is wonderful – it really came alive for me and made me want to go there. There is an element of middle-class folk from a fancy neighbourhood playing at being poor and romanticising “the simple life”, but there is also something very enticing in Yoshimoto’s descriptions of the local shops and restaurants.

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Dorama review: Atelier

Atelier

This Japanese drama series, also known as Underwear, is a 2015 Netflix and Fuji TV co-production set in an exclusive lingerie boutique in Tokyo. The trailer looked a little ridiculous, but I was pleasantly surprised once I started watching.

A bit like ER, Atelier opens with a new employee’s first day, but she doesn’t remain the lead character in every episode. The newbie is Takita Mayuko (Mao Daichi), a recent textiles graduate who is excited to be in the very fancy Ginza district for her first day. But she isn’t an obvious fit for the fashion world, being more interested in fabric development than haute couture.

Mayu’s comfortable shoes and ill-fitted suit, not to mention her tendency to speak her mind, particularly stand out against the elegance of Emotion, the boutique that hired her as a general assistant, and its renowned chief designer/owner Nanjo Mayumi (Mirei Kiritani). Nanjo-san initially seems cold and modelled on Anna Wintour (on day one she tells Mayu that she is not beautiful, which considering Daichi is a model is clearly ridiculous) but she and Mayu develop genuine respect for each other.

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The fundamental sadness of humans

The last family in england book coverThe Last Family in England
by Matt Haig

I’ve put off reviewing this novel for a while now. I love Matt Haig and this is a lovely book, but I feel like maybe the author – who has spoken publicly about his anxiety and depression – was in a bad place when he wrote it. It’s sad and bleak and I think the ending broke me a little bit.

It’s the story of the Hunters – an ordinary family in an ordinary British suburb, but who are on the brink of disintegrating. And it’s narrated by Prince, the family dog, which sounds like a terrible idea but actually works really well.

Adam and Kate are happily married, their children Hal and Charlotte are typical teenagers. On the surface. But the marriage is brittle. Hal is fragile. Charlotte is always angry. One small spark is all it will take to destroy them.

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He was a mystery to me till the bitter end

never tell book coverNever Tell
by Lisa Gardner

I picked up this crime novel in need of an engrossing, compelling read to get me back into reading. It worked on that level, but it definitely has flaws, primarily that I found the conclusion offensive. So I can’t in honesty recommend this book. If you’re interested in my specific objection, read beyond the spoiler warning below.

For the most part, I liked the characters and the set-up of the crime. The leads are all women and they’re not all broken and/or alcoholics – particularly not the police professionals, which was refreshing. The chapters alternate between three characters: the prime suspect, Evie, a high-school teacher pregnant with her first child; the lead detective, D.D. Warren, who is a recurring character of Gardner’s; and Flora, who is a survivor of a past crime turned police informant and victim-support worker.

The book opens with Evie arriving home to find her husband Conrad dead. She takes the gun from his lap and fires it, and seconds later is found by the police still holding the gun, which makes it hard for them to believe her statement that she didn’t kill Conrad. D.D. recognises Evie from one of her first cases as a police officer, when Evie was a teenager who had accidentally shot and killed her father (or had she?). To make matters even more complicated, when news of the murder is televised, Flora recognises Conrad as an associate of the man who kidnapped and serially raped her.

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