I have discovered a new thought that seems important

Cover of The Memoirs of MoominpappaThe Memoirs of Moominpappa
by Tove Jansson
translated from Swedish by Thomas Warburton

This is the third book I have completed for my EU Reading Challenge. I know it’s a little bit of a cheat because it’s a children’s book and it’s not strictly set in Finland, but I think you learn at least something about Finland from the Moomins.

This book is a little bit special, as it’s the first time this particular title has been published in the UK. This story started life as the much shorter Exploits of Moominpappa, which Jansson revised and added large chunks to 18 years later to create The Memoirs of Moominpappa. It was published in the US in 1994 but it did not include all of Jansson’s revisions, such as the prologue, which is a real shame as the prologue is particularly funny.

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A depressing forest of loneliness growing below everything else

Polyglot LoversThe Polyglot Lovers
by Lina Wolff
translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel

This is my second book for my EU Reading Challenge, this time tackling Sweden (though the book is set in three countries and includes lines from several more languages, as befits its title). It’s a strange, compelling tale told with a sense of humour.

The book starts brilliantly, with 30-something-year-old Ellinor recounting her dabbles in Internet dating, which lead her from small-town southern Sweden to Copenhagen to Stockholm. I loved Ellinor and her voice, her self-awareness. There is both strangeness and ordinariness in her story. The bulk of it is about a date that turns into a creepy, potentially dangerous situation. It manages to be both upsetting and empowering, following how Ellinor deals with the situation.

“Sometimes he read people’s messages to each other. And it would make him so sad he’d be useless for the rest of the day. As though his heart was enlarged and misshapen, its edges jutting into his chest, and all he wanted to do was cry…You see how one person writes to lots of others, keeps writing, gets cancelled on, breaks down…Hopeless, the guy who worked there said it was. Damn hopeless. And he said an undergrowth emerges, a depressing forest of loneliness growing below everything else.”

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Computing the amount of precious time that had been lost to him for ever

Last of Cheri book coverThe Last of Chéri
by Colette
translated from French by Roger Senhouse

Ah, Chéri, the spoiled beautiful boy who thought he was being terribly grown up by getting married to the first girl he liked who was his own age. Thankfully Colette revisited that scenario and reassured us that no, Chéri is not happy living a respectable life.

Since his introduction in Chéri, Chéri has fought in the First World War and returned to a Paris changed irrevocably. His wife has found purpose running a hospital for war veterans, which holds zero interest for Chéri. There is no longer a glittering whirl of parties to occupy his time. He’s depressed, but he doesn’t understand that.

“The apparition of the large, flat, half-veiled moon among the scuppering vaporous clouds, which she seemed to be pursuing and tearing asunder, did not divert him from working out an arithmetical fantasy: he was computing – in years, months, hours and days – the amount of precious time that had been lost to him for ever.”

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K-drama review: Legend of the Blue Sea

Legend of the Blue Sea poster

Yes, yes, I think I am addicted. I wanted to give Lee Min-ho another chance after the awfulness that was The Heirs, because it was his acting (and maybe also his looks) that got me hooked on K-drama in the first place. Legend of the Blue Sea (SBS 2016/17) had been recommended to me as a K-drama with an awesome female lead, and also happens to star Lee Min-ho.

This is a bit of a mix of genres. You could boil down the plot summary to: mermaid comes ashore for the first time, bumps into attractive man and much hilarity ensues. It’s a literal fish-out-water story. It’s Splash. But it’s also a historical drama (there are two timelines: one in Joseon era and one modern day), a crime drama, a family drama and of course a romance. And all of those genres appear in both comic and serious guises. Which could have been a hot mess, but it actually works pretty well.

The series opens with a crime caper: Heo Joon-jae (Lee Min-ho) is part of a team of conmen ripping off a rich woman. Joon-jae uses hypnosis and suggestion as his contribution to the team, while Jo Nam-doo (Lee Hee-joon) leads the team and Tae Oh (Shin Won-ho) handles the computer wizardry. After the con they need to lay low for a while, so Joon-jae goes to Spain.

Here we meet our mermaid Shi Cheong (Jun Ji-hyun) who comes ashore (her tail automatically turns into legs on shore) and is at first completely clueless – but she does have supernatural strength and the ability to erase memories. She takes a shine to Joon-jae and follows him around wordlessly until he caves and takes her under his wing.

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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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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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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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