You’d think with two bank holidays and some empty weekends I would have read a lot in April, but bearing in mind that every other read is a 60-page mini book, I wasn’t especially prolific. However, I did have some lovely days in the Wye Valley with my mum, some good times (and unfortunately a little too much sun) with friends and I did a fair amount of sorting out books for my EU Reading Challenge.
I also watched some great films (I highly recommend Hearts Beat Loud, now on Netflix, and Eagle vs Shark, now on Amazon Prime Video) and great TV (yes, I am up to date with Game of Thrones – thankfully, as overheard conversations at work this week have been spoilerific). It’s a wonder I read any books at all, frankly.
The 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.”
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.
The 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?
Last 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.
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.
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.
Inferior: 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.
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.
Moshi 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.