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.”

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All he has is an uncomfortable, dangerous virtue which is hard to satisfy

Zorba the GreekZorba the Greek
by Nikos Kazantzakis
translated from Greek by Carl Wildman

This is my Greece book for the EU Reading Challenge. It was recommended to me by fellow Bristol blogger Joanna Booth. It also counts towards my Classics Club list.

The novel’s narrator (a thinly fictionalised version of the author) is a young scholar who decides to go to a remote part of Crete to try his hand at running a lignite mine. As he’s about to set off from Piraeus he’s approached by a man called Alexis Zorba, a jack-of-all-trades who has some mining experience and offers to be the narrator’s second-in-command. The narrator is immediately entranced by the older man and agrees to all terms, despite all the evidence that suggests Zorba is neither reliable nor loyal. Over the months that follow they become firm friends and help each other to cope with the accidents and tragedies that come their way.

The narrator is clearly a man of some means, throwing himself into his new business and hiring a team of men without really knowing what he’s doing. He has a vague idea that he might stumble across something more valuable than lignite – presumably gems of some kind – but his main purpose is a more politically motivated one. As a socialist, he wants to get to know some working class men. The problem is, he sees all the local villagers as ignorant and foul, and he makes no effort to actually get to know anyone other than Zorba.

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The pursuit of evidence is the most pressing moral imperative of our time

Galileos Middle Finger book coverGalileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists and the Search for Justice in Science
by Alice Dreger

This is a troubling book in many ways. It made me punch the air triumphantly and it made me angry. I was impressed by Dreger and I was annoyed by her. I think it’s an important part of the story of how science and activism interact, but it’s not the whole story.

Dreger is a science historian who got involved in intersex activism after studying the history of how intersex conditions were treated medically. She was able to occupy a middle ground between intersex people and medics, and use that position to investigate the current situation (in the 1990s and 2000s) and campaign for evidence-based change to treatment.

“Science and social justice require each other to be healthy, and both are critically important to human freedom. Without a just system, you cannot be free to do science, including science designed to better understand human identity; without science, and especially scientific understandings of human behaviours, you cannot know how to create a sustainably just system…The pursuit of evidence is probably the most pressing moral imperative of our time [but] we’ve built up a system in which scientists and social justice advocates are fighting in ways that poison the soil on which both depend.”

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Dorama review: You’re My Pet

Kimi wa Petto poster

At some point I will have to stop calling the set-ups of these Japanese and Korean dramas odd. I’m sure a lot of my preferred English-language TV sounds just as strange when you summarise the basics. Maybe that’s just my taste in TV generally. But I did find the tone of Kimi Wa Petto (Fuji TV 2017) quite strange to begin with.

This show is based on Yayoi Ogawa‘s Japanese manga Kimi wa Pet serialized from 2000 to 2005. The comic won the 2003 Kodanisha Manga Award. It’s a largely predictable, slightly cheesy romantic drama, but enjoyable all the same.

Our heroine Iwaya Sumire (Noriko Iriyama) seems very serious and capable, but she is struggling to maintain a professional front after being dumped by her boyfriend of five years and then demoted after rejecting advances from her boss. Drunkenly stumbling home, she finds a young man (Jun Shison) on her doorstep who reminds her of her childhood pet Momo and offers to adopt him. He is homeless and has just been beaten up, so he gladly accepts.

Their relationship is initially cringeworthy (Sumire gets “Momo” to beg for food and other dog-like tricks) but when she learns that he is in fact Goda Takeshi, a ballet dancer of some renown, their relationship changes to…roommates? Friends? Siblings? They quickly become very affectionate and comfortable together.

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Now he had a decanted version of his thoughts, organised by gravity

The chalk circle man book coverThe Chalk Circle Man
by Fred Vargas
translated from French by Siân Reynolds

This is my France selection for the EU Reading Challenge. It’s a detective novel set in Paris that was recommended years ago on The Readers podcast (RIP). I do tend to prefer crime novels written by women (Fred is short for Frédérique in Vargas’ case) and I think that crime/detective fiction is often especially strong on setting/sense of place. I’m grateful for the recommendation, even if it has taken me a long time to follow up on it.

This is the first in a series of novels following Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. He is already an established, successful public figure thanks to solving some big, media-friendly cases in the Pyrenees. New to Paris and the 5th arrondissement, he is not trying particularly hard to fit into his new team. He’s quiet, contemplative, often seeming to ignore his colleagues. He doesn’t seem to be the right temperament at all for detective work.

Adamsberg trusts his intuition more than seems advisable for someone in charge of major crime investigations, and he talks a lot about trusting these gut feelings and not logic. But I think this is to some extent a mask, as he is in fact extremely observant and has an excellent memory. He also has a high tolerance for other people’s quirks, for example quickly adapting to the discovery that his second-in-command, Danglard, is an alcoholic who is only just managing to hold it together as a single father to five children. He sees through the alcoholism to Danglard’s intelligence and abilities, and judges when to stay Danglard’s hand and when to let him drink.

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Emptiness would move in, first into her favourite places

Next World NovellaNext World Novella
by Matthias Politycki
translated from German by Anthea Bell

I’ve had this book on my wishlist since it was published, as it got great reviews from people I trust. I did enjoy it, but it didn’t quite live up to my high expectations. This is my Germany selection for the EU Reading Challenge.

The story is simple but completely original. Hinrich Schepp wakes up one morning to find his wife Doro dead at her desk. Rather than call a doctor or undertaker, he decides he must read the papers she had been working on, as a goodbye gesture. So begins a process of memory, re-evaluation and inter-textual analysis that’s both sweet and…creepy.

Doro had dug out an old short story of Hinrich’s and annotated it. They’re both scholars of Chinese; this is Hinrich’s only attempt at fiction and he knows it isn’t good. (We’re treated to the full story, in chunks, to judge just how clunky his writing is.) But it isn’t the writing quality that Doro is commenting on. She appears to have been convinced that Hinrich was fictionalising an episode from their life together, one that has caused them both pain for many years.

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K-drama review: Secret Garden

Secret Garden banner

Like everyone else, I was devastated (in a good way) by the ending of Fleabag. Unlike (I’m guessing) everyone else, my reaction was to seek out the most cliched happy-ending romance I could find. And where better to find that than K-drama? This was one of the titles recommended to me early on as a K-drama classic, so I figured it would have the necessary ingredients.

Oh my. This was the most addictive K-drama for me since Boys Over Flowers. It’s from about the same time and covers much of the same territory, so that makes sense. In Secret Garden (SBS 2010) our leads are stuntwoman Gil Ra-im (played by Ha Ji-won) and CEO Kim Joo-won (Hyun Bin). As these tales always begin, she is poor but badass; he is rich and a total douche.

They cross paths when Joo-won steps in to help his cousin U-yeong (Yoon Sang-hyun) – who is a Hallyu star better known as Oska – escape a thorny romantic entanglement with an actress. When Joo-won tries to collect the actress from a film set, he accidentally ends up with her body double – Ra-im. The two immediately have a sparky, catty back-and-forth and it’s clear that hate will turn to love.

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From outside there came to us the air-raid orchestra

Blitz Writing book coverBlitz Writing
by Inez Holden

The latest title from Handheld Press combines two short works by early 20th-century writer Holden – the novella Night Shift and her war-time diaries previously published as It Was Different at the Time. Together, they are a record of life in London during the Blitz the like of which I have never read before.

Night Shift is about workers at a London factory making camera parts for war planes during a week in the middle of the Blitz. They are mostly women, mostly working class and are just getting on with daily (or rather, nightly) life. The war is almost in the background but at the same time it’s ever-present. There’s lots of talk about the Home Guard and volunteers. Sometimes they’re late to work because buses can’t get through the rubble. They hear air-raid sirens and bombs but keep on working.

“The thump-hum-drum of the machinery was only the foundation of noise. From time to time there was also the sudden violent hissing of the stream jets which were used for cleaning out the bits of work, and the clattering sound of someone dropping or tripping over some castings…From outside there came to us the air-raid orchestra of airplane hum, anti-aircraft shell bursts, ambulance and fire bells. Sometimes bomb concussion caused the floor to give a sudden shiver.”

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Dorama review: Kantaro the Sweet Tooth Salaryman

Kantaro the Sweet Tooth Salaryman poster

I am in two minds whether I can really call this a dorama, as it’s barely a drama at all. This TV series (a 2017 co-production of TV Tokyo and Netflix) is in essence a travel food show, with a thin veneer of comedic storyline to tie it together. It’s very entertaining, but also very weird. And it definitely made me want to go back to Tokyo.

The lead character, Kantaro Ametani (played by Onoe Matsuya) is not an endearing man. He is the prototypical salaryman – always serious, focused, hardworking, rejecting colleagues’ invitations to socialise. But he has a secret – he plans his working day around opportunities to “bunk off” for half an hour at select dessert restaurants and then blog about them under the pseudonym Amablo. In fact, he even switched jobs (a relatively big deal in Japan, where it’s common to stick with one company for life) so that he could live and work in Tokyo, closer to all those delicious sweets.

As part of his new job is sales visits to bookshops (cue lots of scenes in Tokyo’s many many bookstores), this is relatively easy. The bulk of each episode is devoted to one particular dessert or sweet at one particular real-life shop or restaurant. The dessert is described in loving detail with high-def slow-mo photography of it being made. And the restaurant also gets an introduction that has clearly been written by its owner or PR person.

So far, so entertaining and lots of note-taking about where to go when we save our pennies for another Japan holiday. But then it gets weird.

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A monk’s thoughts must be like a town defended by a sturdy wall

Apothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St Olaf's Church book coverApothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St Olaf’s Church
by Indrek Hargla
translated from Estonian by Adam Cullen

This is my fourth book completed for the EU Reading Challenge, and the first one that came from a recommendation I received after my initial blog post. So thank you to Kätlin (who is Estonian but lives in the UK) for suggesting this book. I’ve learned a little about the history of Tallinn and enjoyed a satisfying murder mystery to boot.

The setting is 1409 Tallinn, which at the time was not strictly part of Estonia, but a recent addition to the Holy Roman Empire. A preface sets the scene: Tallinn is a small coastal town finally enjoying growth and prosperity after a terrible band of pirates have been caught and punished. Christianity is central to everything. As well as having multiple churches of its own, a new castle on the hill overlooking Tallinn houses monks and holy knights.

It is in this castle, Toompea, that the story opens, with a drunken knight stumbling towards his gruesome murder (I should add that only the barest of details are given – this is not a grossout/medically-detailed crime novel). When the body is discovered, Tallinn’s town magistrate, Dorn, is called upon to catch the murderer quickly. He in turn asks his friend, the town apothecary, to help him investigate.

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