Like a poisonous vine, a complicated network of lies wound its way

The Empress and the Cake
by Linda Stift
translated from German by Jamie Bulloch

I read this as part of Women in Translation Month. This is one of those strange psychological thrillers where it is never entirely clear how much of what’s happening is real and how much is in the narrator’s head. I like that.

The narrator is walking past a cake shop in Vienna when an old lady asks her to share a Gugelhupf (a yeasted cake common in Austria), because the shop only sells them whole. This turns into an invitation to the home of Frau Hohenembs, where she is quite forcefully encouraged to help eat the cake. At first the narrator’s unwillingness to partake seems like the usual misgivings of a woman watching her figure. Then she goes home and eats her half of the cake then makes herself throw up.

Yes, it’s a story about bulimia. And it doesn’t romanticise or shy away from the details. It turns out that the narrator has been keeping her illness at bay for years, but now that she has been triggered, she spirals downward. Soon, the only other thing in her life is her growing relationship with Frau Hohenembs and her housekeeper Ida. And it’s a weird relationship, with some weird people.

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Braiding the parallel rays into a dappled pattern

Snow Crash
by Neal Stephenson

Since its publication in 1992, this book has come to be considered a modern classic. I remember Tim reading it around 12 years ago and loving it – indeed, he still remembers it in remarkable detail. So in my ongoing science-fiction education, this seemed like a natural step.

This book has a fascinating setting that, though complex enough to be slowly revealed over 470 pages, is at heart simple enough to not require masses of exposition at the start. Instead, Stephenson opens with an action-packed sequence that introduces our main character – the aptly named Hiro Protagonist – and his foil, YT.

Hiro is a freelance hacker. His home is a storage unit that he shares with an up-and-coming rock star, a cramped situation that suits him fine because he spends most of his time in the Metaverse anyway – an alternative space that anyone with virtual-reality goggles and what is effectively an Internet connection by another name can plug into. In the Metaverse, your avatar can own property, socialise and explore in the vast space created many years ago by Da5id – superstar hacker and old friend of Hiro’s. In the Metaverse, Hiro is a sword-fighting expert, but in Reality (always written with a capital R) he delivers pizza to pay the bills.

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Reading in August: to plan or not plan

Every month there are bookish challenges around and August is no different. My Twitter feed is full of Austen in August and Women in Translation Month, both of which tempt me for different reasons.

I’ve read three Jane Austen books and so far not been blown away, but I keep wondering if she’s a writer I’ll appreciate more as I get older. She’s certainly not flowery, which I have less and less patience for. And she’s smart, which I do like. It’s hard to talk myself into reading a book that I suspect I’m not going to enjoy. But I have heard good things about Mansfield Park, so maybe I’ll give that a go.

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It was her doom that came in that day

The Other Boleyn Girl
by Philippa Gregory

I used to read Philippa Gregory a fair bit, back in my teens and early 20s, but until last week I hadn’t picked up one of her books in 14, 15 years. I associate her with a certain type of easy-reading historical romance that appealed to young me, particularly in my teens, with risqué sex scenes that I suspect I wasn’t emotionally ready for.

It probably didn’t help my opinion of Gregory that I tended to confuse her with Philippa Carr, another writer of historical romances that I loved as a teenager. My Mum introduced me to Carr (historical family sagas with lots of romance), along with her alter egos Victoria Holt (gothic romance) and Jean Plaidy (more serious historical fiction, which young me wasn’t a fan of). Carr’s Daughters of England series ambitiously traced the women of one family line from the early 16th century to the 20th century in 20 books, of which I think I read and adored the first 10 before I outgrew them. Perhaps I am judging them harshly in hindsight, but when I was 19 or 20 I decided they weren’t that good and stopped buying them.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that I tried and probably failed to come to this book with an open mind. I had also already seen the film, not to mention studied the Tudor period of British history multiple times at school (it’s not a running joke for nothing). So maybe I’m not objective, but I didn’t think was a great book.

“Her hand, when she gave it to him to kiss, was steady as a rock. Her voice was sweet and perfectly modulated. She greeted the cardinal with pleasant courtesy. No-one would ever have known from her behaviour that it was her doom that came in that day, along with the sulky ambassador and the smiling cardinal. She knew at that moment that her friends and her family were powerless to stop her. She was horribly, vulnerably, completely alone.”

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We were there, the ones who one day had to renounce our aspirations

I’ll Sell You a Dog
by Juan Pablo Villalobos
translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey

As I subscribe to And Other Stories, I receive their books through the post four times a year and, most of the time I know nothing about them aside from the title. But I’m going to read them all anyway, so I choose to keep it that way, which makes each and every one a wonderful surprise.

I really liked this farce about an old man living in a block of flats reserved for retirees in Mexico City. Teo (not his real name) enjoys standing apart from the other residents, refusing to join their daily book group and accusing them of snobbery about his having been a taco seller all his life. He’s a drunk and also suffers from dementia, so it’s hard to know whether to believe him when he insists to his neighbour Francesca (not her real name) that he’s not writing a novel.

“All Mexico’s artistic geniuses of the 20th century passed through its doors…And the rest of us passed through, too: the cannon fodder, the filler, the extras, the gatecrashers, the ones who didn’t have the combination that gives you a ticket to the history of art. We were there, the ones who one day had to renounce our aspirations, forced by circumstances or by accepting our own limitations. Then there were the ones who pressed on through mediocrity, made art their profession and condemned themselves to a life of ridicule. And on top of that were those who couldn’t do anything but keep on painting, no matter what, and who ended up mad or ill, or died when they were young, martyrs of art.”

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July 2017 reading round-up

Time is precious

July was a quieter month than June was or than August promises to be. Which meant I finally got to spend a few lazy days reading for hours on end, which I often miss out on in the summer. I think our next free weekend is in September, and no doubt that will get booked up soon!

One thing we did do in July was go to see Raghu Dixit live. Tim and I were complete newbies but a friend had persuaded us to join her and I’m so glad she did. He and his band are hugely talented and super upbeat. It was a really good time, and an interesting experience being at a gig where I didn’t understand the lyrics to any of the songs (well, except one line in one song that was in English). But we did still have a stab at singing along when Dixit encouraged us to.

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Rainy weekend reads in brief

Last weekend we had lots of fun plans but we were feeling a little under the weather, so when it pretty much rained non-stop we took advantage and just stayed at home. For Tim that meant playing computer games (mostly Elite: Dangerous). For me it meant reading. I got through four and a half books. Which sounds like a lot for two days, but it includes two graphic novels and a very slim collection of short stories, so I think that reveals how much time we actually spent watching TV (mostly Legion, which is nightmarish but also excellent, and confusing). As reading lots in quick succession makes it harder to write in-depth reviews, I’ll do brief ones instead.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
by Elena Ferrante
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

This is the third of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which began with My Brilliant Friend, and that means I now only have one instalment left to read in the saga of Elena and Lila. With recent(ish) revelations about the true identity of Ferrante (a nom de plume) it’s more tempting than ever to confuse her with narrator Elena, who begins this book as a successful author about to get married. Her childhood best friend Lila, meanwhile, is at a very low ebb, working her hands to shreds in a sausage factory owned by a rich friend of the Solara brothers, who have terrorised the neighbourhood since they were boys. As with every part of their story, Elena and Lila switch fortunes and switch from close, regular contact to spending long months apart.

The writing is, as ever, beautiful. I marked so many great quotes as I read. This book explores marriage, motherhood, family and whether or not anyone can, or should, escape their roots. Elena is torn between the cultured elegance of her new in-laws and the promise of a life far from Naples, and the importance of telling the truth and siding politically with the family and friends of her childhood. Lila is, as ever, fierce and demanding, making life decisions that Elena sometimes struggles to understand. I am looking forward to, and also sad already about, reading the final book in the series.

“How many who had been girls with us were no longer alive, had disappeared from the face of the earth because of illness, because their nervous systems had been unable to endure the sandpaper of torments, because their blood had been spilled…The old neighbourhood, unlike us, had remained the same. The low grey houses endured, the courtyard of our games, the dark mouths of the tunnel, and the violence. But the landscape around it had changed. The greenish stretch of the ponds was no longer there, the old canning factory had vanished. In their place was the gleam of glass skyscrapers, once signs of a radiant future that no-one had ever believed in.”

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Gedanken fictions

Just a quick post to say that my review of Thought X: Fictions and Hypotheticals, edited by Rob Appleby and Ra Page, has been published over on the Physics World website. It’s a collection of short stories and essays about thought experiments in physics and philosophy, and I found it fascinating. The fiction authors include Zoe Gilbert and Robin Ince, while the accompanying essays are by scientists including Seth Bullock and Tara Shears.

To see what else I thought, hop on over to Physics World.

A single sentence could render either of us insane

How to Stop Time
by Matt Haig

I love Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive and his essays on mental health, plus he gives good Twitter, but I had put off reading his fiction. Why did I do that? Of course I was going to like it.

The narrator of How to Stop Time, Tom Hazard, was born in 16th century France. Now, in the 21st century, he’s working as a history teacher at a London comprehensive school. He’s not a time traveller, he has a medical condition that makes him age really really slowly. So slowly that he still looks to be in his 40s, not his 400s.

It’s science fiction that wears the science lightly but doesn’t avoid it. An explanation is given, and some details added, but the bulk of the story is about the emotional effect of the condition.

“Forever, Emily Dickinson said, is composed of nows. But how do you inhabit the now you are in? How do you stop the ghosts of all the other nows from getting in? How, in short, do you live?”

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Holiday in Scotland

We spent the last week of June in Scotland, in the small town of Oban on the west coast. It was beautiful, and relaxing, and did I mention beautiful? Our hotel room looked out over the water and we watched some stunning sunsets from there. We went for walks, read our books, took thousands of photos (literally thousands) and enjoyed the fantastic scenery.

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