Our words are trapped in time

House of Names
by Colm Tóibín

I’ve been meaning to read more Tóibín since I enjoyed his book Brooklyn last year, so I was excited to spot his latest novel on NetGalley. It’s a retelling of the Ancient Greek myth of Clytemnestra, which I only loosely knew beforehand. Luckily an epigraph sketches it out, so that you start the book knowing how the story will pan out.

In common with some other myth retellings I’ve read, I initially found the language stilted, keeping me at a distance, but I gradually stopped noticing the old-fashioned style and instead enjoyed the beauty of the language. In the story, Tóibín has managed to be much less old-fashioned, primarily by telling much of it from the women’s perspectives. The opening section is narrated by Clytemnestra. Later her younger daughter Electra picks up the narration. But when Electra’s brother Orestes’ story is told it’s from a third-person perspective.

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Impossible to imagine the daily fear and precariousness of living in such a state

Finding George Orwell in Burma
by Emma Larkin

When I said I was reading Burmese Days by George Orwell a few people recommended I read this next. I started it almost immediately after the Orwell book, but it took me a while to get through. I agree that it’s a fantastic reference work, but is it a good read?

The title is a fairly good description of the book. Emma Larkin – the pseudonym of an American journalist living in Thailand who has travelled to Myanmar (which she tends to call Burma throughout) many times – used researching Orwell’s time in Burma as a structure (or perhaps an excuse) for her year-long travel across Myanmar, speaking to people there who remembered Orwell or British rule in general, but also to people willing to open up about life in Myanmar.

The first point that strikes me is that this book was first published (under a slightly different title) in 2004, and even this edition with an epilogue from 2011 is a little out of date already. While it’s extremely useful as a recent history, I was always aware while reading it that this probably isn’t the current state of affairs in Myanmar.

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The vast, unsentient reality that’s always present

Thin Air
by Michelle Paver

When this was picked for my book club I was pleased because I really enjoyed Paver’s previous novel Dark Matter. However, this was basically the same story in a different setting and not done quite as well. I still enjoyed it, but there was the missed opportunity here to be a little more original.

Dr Stephen Pearce has joined his brother Kit’s mountaineering expedition at the last minute because they need a medic. But this isn’t just any jaunt up a mountain; this is an attempt to be the first to successfully climb Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, straddling the border of Nepal and India.

It’s the early 1930s and rich Europeans are obsessed with racing each other to the extreme points of the world. Kit’s plan is to follow in the footsteps of his hero Edmund Lyell, whose disastrous 1907 expedition came the closest to date to reaching the summit of Kangchenjunga. Stephen dislikes this idea and feels they should strike their own path, especially after an ominous warning from the last survivor of the Lyell expedition, Charles Tennant. But Stephen is not only the newbie to the group, but also the least experienced climber, and as such has no real vote.

Stephen is frustrated that fog obscures the view of Kangchenjunga for weeks before he gets his first glimpse. He’s spooked by Tennant’s warning and any reminder of the Lyell expedition. But there’s something else as well, a shadowy figure on the mountain that at first Stephen dismisses as a trick of the light, but later becomes convinced is a ghost, and not the harmless kind.

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I don’t need to jump off cliffs into oceans to die

All Grown Up
by Jami Attenberg

This book is described in the publisher’s PR as a comedy, and while it has comic moments, that’s not really how I would describe it. Or at least, it’s not how I experienced it. I did, however, really enjoy it.

This is the story of Andrea, a woman living in New York at that point in life (39, turning 40) when she interrogates her life choices – how she stopped pursuing art and took a job in advertising that she dislikes yet is somehow still doing 10 years later; how despite a string of love affairs she is basically single and basically fine with that; how she has fallen away from friends and family who have got married and had children as she has realised that she doesn’t want those things for herself.

“A book is published. It’s a book about being single, written by an extremely attractive woman who is now married, and it is a critical yet wistful remembrance of her uncoupled days. I have no interest in reading this book. I am already single. I have been single a long time. There is nothing this book can teach me about being single that I don’t already know. Regardless, everyone I know tells me about this book. They are like carrier pigeons, fluttering messages, doing the bidding of a wicked media maestro on a rooftop in modern Manhattan. Nothing will prevent them from reaching their destination, me, their presumed target demographic.”

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Fresh from the experience of an invisibility hitherto unknown

Nowhere People
by Paulo Scott
translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn

I’ve subscribed to And Other Stories for a few years now, and I tend to know little or nothing about the books they send me before I read them. I mean, I could read the blurbs, or the e-mail newsletter I get every month, but I’m going to read them anyway so why risk spoilers?

And I’m glad in this case I had so little idea of where it was going. Which leaves me with some difficulty when it comes to writing a review. Not that the plot is hugely twisty turny, but it does cover a large span of time, and much of what happens later is the result of something I don’t want to give away.

The book opens with Paulo, a Brazilian law student and activist, driving along a highway in torrential rain and spotting a poor indigenous girl at the side of the road. Stopping to give 14-year-old Maína a lift sets in motion events that reverberate through two decades of relationships, politics and activism.

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Foreign from centre to circumference

Can-cans, Cats and Cities of Ash
by Mark Twain

This is in the Penguin Great Journeys series, so it’s an abridged version of a longer travelogue, in this case The Innocents Abroad, Twain’s 1869 account of a cruise across the Atlantic and around the Mediterranean.

I love Twain’s writing style – it’s simple language but excitable. He’s super enthusiastic to learn about the places he visits and to see in person places he has elevated to legendary status. His reactions seem to be genuine and honest. Which unfortunately includes some negative thoughts that are kinda racist.

“Elsewhere we have found foreign-looking things and foreign-looking people, but always with things and people intermixed that we were familiar with before, and so the novelty of the situation lost a deal of its force. We wanted something thoroughly and uncompromisingly foreign – foreign from top to bottom – foreign from centre to circumference – foreign inside and outside and all around – nothing any where about it to dilute its foreignness – nothing to remind us of any other people or any other land under the sun. And lo! in Tangier we have found it.”

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In the endless silence of the night you watch your evil garden grow

My Beautiful Shadow
by Radhika Jha

This was an odd read – a well-written book about a character I found it extremely hard to empathise with. Which is not something I generally shy away from in my reading, but it turns out there’s only so much detailed description of shopping and fashion that I can cope with!

Kayo might live in Tokyo, one of the world’s largest cities, but her world is small. She marries her high school boyfriend straight from school, and is immediately plunged into the life of the housewife, only leaving home to shop or get her hair done. When she has her first child a year later, her life gets even more lonely. On her rare outings she feels keenly that she is the harassed unkempt young mother, sharing the streets with glamorous office ladies whom she can never befriend.

Two things step in to change this for her. Kayo’s mother, offended at not having been invited to her daughter’s wedding or told about the birth of her first grandchild, turns up on the doorstep one day and hands Kayo a large cheque in lieu of the wedding kimono a mother would usually buy her daughter. It is understood between the two women that this will be their last meeting. Kayo decides not to tell her husband and uses the money to open her own bank account. She finally has the means to create a little freedom for herself.

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Do not allow your mind to be imprisoned by majority thinking

Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers who Changed the World
by Rachel Ignotofsky

We tend to think that until the latter half of the 20th century, science was done by men. The history books and allocation of awards such as Nobel prizes strongly support that view. But in recent years a slew of books have begun to challenge that version of history. This is the first I’ve read but I’m keen to follow it up with Hidden Figures, The Glass Universe and others.

Ignotofsky both wrote and illustrated this beautiful book, profiling women scientists in a design-heavy layout that simply and effectively tells their stories.

From Hypatia (approx 350–415 AD) to Maryam Mirzakhani (1979–present), this book devotes a double-page spread each to women who have made significant advances in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In each, the left-hand page is an illustration of the woman herself, with a few key facts floating around, while the right-hand page contains a bio of the woman and a few small, light-hearted illustrations. In every case there is a quote either by or about the woman, and these often reference being a woman in a man’s world.

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Free speech is unthinkable

Burmese Days
by George Orwell

I’m always nervous of contemporary books about colonialism but I figured I’d be in safe hands with Orwell. Like A Passage to India, the major theme is the racism inherent to colonialism, but Orwell does a better job than Forster of clearly separating his characters’ racism from his own opinions on the subject.

The first character we meet is U Po Kyin, a middle-ranking Burmese official who has plotted and bribed his way to where he is and continues to plot his way further up. The next step in his plan is to destroy the reputation of Dr Veraswami, the local doctor. The biggest hurdle he faces is that the doctor is friends with Mr Flory – a white British man, in a country where the ruling British are unassailable.

For the most part the rest of the novel follows Flory as he tries to keep a grip on his awkward position in society. They’re in a small town in northern Burma and the Europeans-only Clubhouse has just eight members, most of whom are, like Flory, timber merchants who spend most of their time in the jungle. Aside from Flory they keep themselves apart from the native population and refer to them with racial epithets that are shocking to modern ears, and I suspect even at the time would have been frowned on “back home”. Flory makes clear by his friendship with the doctor that he doesn’t agree with the prevailing opinion, but he rarely opens his mouth to object when racist things are said.

“[Flory said,] ‘I don’t want the Burmans to drive us out of the country. God forbid! I’m here to make money, like everyone else. All I object to is the slimy white man’s burden humbug. The pukka sahib pose. It’s so boring. Even those bloody fools at the Club might be better company if we weren’t all of us living a lie the whole time.’
‘But, my dear friend, what lie are you living?’
‘Why, of course, the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of to rob them. I suppose it’s a natural enough lie. But it corrupts us, it corrupts us in ways you can’t imagine. There’s an everlasting sense of being a sneak and a liar that torments us and drives us to justify ourselves night and day. It’s at the bottom of half our beastliness to the natives.’ ”

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The hands of loss keep touching the memory

All the Rivers
by Dorit Rabinyan
translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen

I remember spotting this book in the Serpent’s Tail catalogue last year and immediately liking the sound of it. It had potential to be brilliant or awful, to deal with complex matters sensitively or insensitively. Thankfully, to my mind, Rabinyan got it just right.

Liat is a translation student spending the academic year in New York City. She is practical and idealistic. Hilmi is a painter struggling for his artistic break. He is passionate and pessimistic. When they meet one day in a coffee shop there is instant attraction, but it also immediately clear that theirs won’t be a straightforward courtship. Besides the fact that Liat has only six months left on her visa, there’s the question of where she will be moving back to. Because she is from Israel and he is from Palestine.

The narrative isn’t quite linear, dealing with different aspects of the relationship in turn. First there’s getting to know each other. Then there’s Hilmi’s burgeoning art career. Then how they act around their friends. And so on. The day of Liat’s departure keeps getting close, only for the story to jump back a few months to fill in fresh detail. It feels very much like the way someone remembering events might structure their thoughts.

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