#6Degrees of Separation: February 2023

Hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, this is your chance to make free associations (or weird and wonderful ones) between books: we all start in the same place but usually end miles/continents apart. This month we start with Trust by Hernan Diaz.

I haven’t read it but it features wealthy families in the 1920s, which instantly makes me think of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. One of my favourite books, as my older son never ceases to remind me – luckily, he thought it was pretty good too, even though he did not do English Literature for his A Levels (or maybe because of that).

Next link is a book (ok, a play) that I did study for my university entrance exam and therefore did not like as much as I might have done otherwise: Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. I suppose in Communist times it was regarded as an indictment of the American Dream and therefore Capitalism – and so it should be! Incidentally, this is a further link with The Great Gatsby, since that book also shows the feet of clay of the American Dream.

Willy Loman is the disappointed salesman in Miller’s play, so my next jump is to another character called Willy, namely Willy Wonka from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. I loved this story as a child, and my children enjoyed it too, although it turns out that the author was not that nice as a person. I think we can catch glimpses of that in his work too – but then, children are often not very nice either, so they chortle at naughtiness and evil deeds in their fiction.

Chocolate forms my next link to Chocolat by Joanne Harris. I saw the film quite a while back but never read the book until a few years ago and… no, it’s not my kind of book, but I do like its description of small-minded, small-town France (although it could describe small-town mentalities anywhere, but just with better food and weather).

It is tempting to use France as the lynchpin for my next book, especially since I am doing a #FrenchFebruary reading challenge, but instead I will turn to a writer from neighbouring Switzerland who is a master at describing the rural villages of the Vaud canton on Lake Geneva: C.F Ramuz: Beauty on Earth, which I have read and reviewed a while ago (and, which appropriately enough was translated into English by the very friend in whose house I was staying last week).

A tenuous final link: for the longest time, I got Ramuz confused with FrĂ©dĂ©ric Mistral, born and built in Provence, who wrote in Occitan and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905. [Ramuz partly overlapped with Mistral but wrote in French/Suisse romande and did not win the Nobel Prize. As you can see from their portrait photos below, they don’t look that alike either, although they both seem to appreciate a hat.] Mireille/ Mireio is considered Mistral’s most important work, a long narrative poem, a sort of Romeo and Juliet for the region. I don’t know how many people still read him today, outside his native region?

Ramuz

So my literary travels have taken me from America to England, from France to Switzerland and back again. Can’t wait to see where the others went with their literary links!

Mistral

Friday Fun: Studies for Writing Retreats

I am very fortunate this week to have the use of a friend’s flat in one of my favourite locations in the world (the mountains above Lac Leman in Switzerland) and even two furry friends, a dog and a cat, to help me with my writing/editing/translating prowess. So this time I am not envious at all of the dreamy study spaces below.

Room to write, read and collect books, from Houzz.uk
At this time of year (winter in the northern hemisphere), I do have a tendency to retreat to dark, womb-like spaces. Hibernation delight in this study from EcheMartinez.com
If you prefer it lighter and airier, then perhaps this room from LocalArchitectsDirect.com will do the trick. Note the comfy steps for reaching the highest shelves!
For the classical design fans among you, I rather like this vivid shade of green. From Homes and Gardens (where else?)
A more achievable dream, I feel, one that I regret not implementing in my current study. From Fisher Noble.
The reason I did not implement the previous design was because I was hankering after a less achievable space like this (in the loft). From Neville Johnson.
And if you just want to read (or write while lying down), there is always the private library of Nuria Amat in Barcelona to inspire you. Photo credit: Ana Viladomiu.

#FrenchFebruary: Balzac’s Lost Illusions

Honore de Balzac: Lost Illusions, transl. Herbert J. Hunt, Penguin Classics.

It took me two months to read this, so most of December and January, but I will review it this month since I decreed that this will be a #FrenchFebruary (simply because I love the alliteration, and not excluding any French-speaking writers from other parts of the globe).

The book was initially published in three parts from 1837-1843 rather than in the weekly installments that Dickens would have used. So a mighty long wait for Balzac’s readers to hear the end of the story (and one might argue that it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger anyway) and possibly the reason I found the writing uneven and some parts far more interesting than others.

While Dumas was largely interested in entertaining the reading public, Balzac was a very strong believer in educating them (and perhaps moralising as well). Of course, encyclopedias, looking something up on the internet or even libraries were not as easily accessible to vast swathes of people then, so he forces knowledge down their throats, whether it helps to understand the story better or not. In other words, he will share his personal obsessions and research with his readers – and he was very much concerned about social, political and economic changes during his time. Since Balzac himself tried initially to be a publisher and printer, and he was all too familiar with money-lenders and banks (having been in debt most of his life – which explains his prodigious productivity), he incorporates those worlds into the story.

Balzac is certainly not enamoured of his hero Lucien, although at times Lucien seems naive rather than deliberately cruel. Some of the clearest insights about his character come from his friends rather than his family:

He is of the kind who like to reap without sowing… he loves to shine and society will intensify his desire, which no amount of money will be able to satisfy. … You’ve got him into the habit of thinking he’s a great man, but society, before recognizing any sort of superiority, expects it to be strikingly successful. Now literary success is only achieved in solitude and through unremitting labour.

Your Lucien has poetry in him but is no real poet. He’s a dreamer not a thinker, he makes a great to-do but is not creative. He will never take to crime, he’s too weak-minded. But he would accept a ready-made crime and share the profits without having shared the dangers… He will despise himself but he would do the same again when the need arose for he lacks will-power and will always take the bait when pleasure or the satisfaction of the most trifling whims are in question. He’s lazy and thinks he’s clever enough to juggle difficulties away instead of overcoming them…

He is not the only literary type that Balzac mocks. Here he is poking fun at the ‘sensitive reader and wannabe salon lioness’ Madame de Bargeton, who becomes Lucien’s patroness in the provinces.

Mme de B took up the lyre on the slightest occasion, making no difference between poems of personal inspiration and poems for public consumption. There are in fact feelings which others cannot understand and which one should keep to oneself… She was wonderfully prodigal of superlatives and weighted her conversation with them, so that the most trivial things assumed gigantic proprotions… Her mind moreover suffered from the same inflammation as her language. Her feelings were as dithyrambic as her utterance. She had palpitations, went into ecstasies, waxed enthusiastic over every occurrence.

The author is ruthless when it comes to exposing the mercenary nature of newspapers and publishing – having been at their mercy most of his life. Sadly, his diatribes against those worlds still ring true today. As a shoestring publisher myself, I have to admit I had a tiny bit of sympathy for some of their cries of despair (although in most cases they were fraudulent, as it turns out)

You don’t understand business, Monsieur. When an editor publishes an author’s first novel he has to risk 16 hundred francs for printing and paper. It’s easier to write a novel than to find such a sum. I have a hundred manuscripts in my drawers, but less than a hundred and sixty thousand francs in my till. I have not made such a sum during the twenty years I have been a publisher. You can see then that the trade of printing novels doesn’t bring in a fortune.

The key to success in literature is not to work oneself, but to exploit others’ work. Newspaper proprietors are contractors; we’re their masons… the more mediocre a man is, the sooner he arrives at success; he can swallow insults, put with anything, flatter the mean and petty passions of the literary sultans.

I don’t publish books for fun. I don’t risk 2000 francs just to get 2000 francs back. I’m a speculator in literature… It costs as much effort to get a new name accepted as to promote the success of works such as Masterpieces of Foreign Drama, French Victories and Conquests… and there’s a fortune in them. I’m not here to be a springboard for future reputations, but to make money for myself and provide some for the celebrities.


The newspaper has become a political party weapon; now it is becoming merely a trade, and like all trades, it has neither faith nor principles. Every newspaper is a shop which sells to the public whatever shades of opinion it wants… A journal is no longer concerned to enlighten, but to flatter public opinion… In corporate crimes no one is implicated. A newspaper can behave in the most atrocious manner and no one on the staff considers that his own hands are soiled.

Lucien ends up selling his soul to a devil in disguise – one of the greatest villains in all of literature – at the end of the book, story to be continued in the next massive tome by Balzac The Splendours and Miseries of Courtesans – that’s what I meant about a cliffhanger ending. Yet in spite of his many faults, we cannot help but feel some sympathy for the eternal story of wide-eyed youth determined to make their mark in the cultural world of the capital city and how they lose their youthful enthusiasm and dreams.

It’s hard to keep one’s illusions about anything in Paris. Everything is taxed, everything is sold, everything is manufactured, even success.

One of the most famous of Balzac’s novels, but not my personal favourite, although I greatly enjoyed about two thirds of it. It is probably quite a personal book, expressing the author’s own disappointment with the literary world, although there is a slight glimmer of hope in the form of the ‘CĂ©nacle’ group of friends, all writers, historians or philosophers, who debate ideas graciously rather than aggressively and support each other and rejoice in each other’s successes. If only Lucien had stuck with them… but would he have been talented or self-abnegating enough to truly succeed?

Sadly, I haven’t been able to watch the latest French film adaptation of the book, which looks very promising indeed, but is apparently only available on Netflix in Canada or something absurd like that.

January 2023 Summary

Hasn’t this been the longest month ever? Cold, dark, busy at work, but not quite as miserable as the months preceding it because at least we have all been healthy. I’ve mostly snuggled in my burrow and read – even more than usual, now that I’ve decided not to worry about reviewing every book. 18 books this month, of which 7 fit with the January in Japan challenge (although one of the seven was not written by a Japanese author, but was a non-fiction book about the Japanese criminal world). Nine books in translation, three non-fiction books, ten by women writers, four that could fit under the crime fiction label. A good mix that I can live with.

Here are the books that I have reviewed this month (I am putting the Japanese author names in the Japanese order – surname first):

And here are very brief thoughts on the others I read:

Charlie Higson: Whatever Gets You Through the Night – entertaining, madcap, quick read, made for the screen – as so many current thriller books seem to be. This one is perhaps slightly funnier and slyer than most, fits a bit into the Knives Out/Glass Onion universe.

Percival Everett: The Trees – this one I regret not reviewing properly, as it is a quite unforgettable, excoriating view of the South of the United States and its history of lynching. By taking an almost absurd premise and bringing in lots of fierce humour, it brings this dark story to a wider audience. A surprising novel, with moments of true poignancy, although perhaps a few too many repetitive descriptions of crime scenes (deliberate, no doubt, and I can understand why).

Robert Thorogood: Death Comes to Marlow – my son goes to school in Marlow, so I go there nearly every day and I can see a big splash being made with this book in the local bookshop. I’m always going to read a book set in a place I know well, although I was disconcerted to discover that I know the real vicar’s wife (the mother of one of my son’s best friends) and she is nothing like the one featured in the book. Although I appreciated having three middle-aged women investigators, I couldn’t help feeling that their quirks are being exaggerated for comic effect, that the secondary characters are rather one-dimensional, so all the book really has going for it is the puzzle element. Of course I will continue to read this series, even if I complain about it, simply because of its familiar location.

Elin Cullhed: Euphoria, transl. Jennifer Hayashida – just like I will always read something about Sylvia Plath. This novel is a fictional account of the last difficult year of Sylvia’s life, sticking quite closely to the known facts and trying to combine elements of Sylvia’s real voice from the letters and diaries with a speculation of what must have really been going on in her mind. I am familiar with this kind of fictional recreation of an artistic life from France, where this is a much more common type of literature, but I am not sure what it adds to our knowledge of Plath. Instead, I see this more as the universal portrait of a marriage and a clash of two very strong and creative personalities, two tremendous artistic egos, particularly at a time when it seemed harder to accept equality within married couples.

He loved me as a motif. He loved the picture of me. He loved the type. The American, the emotional one, the poet. He loved my high demands (and hated them). He loved having a thinking wife. He loved having a wife. He loved that I was thinking and grinding my own thoughts, then there was nothing left of them later in teh writing. He loved that I tried by failed. That I got up and was stabbed, like a goat. That I was not who I wanted to be. He loved my imperfections, and I stood in the middle of it and tried to be perfect.

Fiona Spargo-Mabbs: Talking the Tough Stuff with Teens – trying to educate myself and not talk too much, yet encourage a rather silent teenager to open up. An encouraging, non-judgemental book, with many real-life examples.

Bec Evans & Chris Smith: Written – I’ve been following the authors on their Prolifiko website and subscribing to their newsletters, and this is a book about finding the writing routines and habits that work for you, instead of slavishly imitating others. Encouraging, friendly, with lots of good exercises and suggestions for further exploration.

Sara Gran: The Book of the Most Precious Substance – impossible to categorise this book, no wonder the author struggled to get it published and so created her own publishing house for it. It is not as chilling as Come Closer, but you can see elements of anger and grief here too, as well as the quirkiness and humour of the Claire DeWitt crime series. Although touted as a sex magic book (and it certainly contains elements of eroticism and supernatural), it probably won’t fully satisfy fantasy or erotica fans. I like the underlying ‘normalness’ of it, which keeps it somewhat grounded even when we are off travelling in a world of unimaginable luxury. Basically, it is a story of grief, of clinging to a sense of injustice, of the wisdom (and ability) to move on, and the hunger for power and money.

The trick isn’t to protect yourself. It’s to accept life. Not push it away when it gets messy.

The past is over and done. You have no choice but to live with it. There’s no getting over, there’s no making up for. But there;s a chance to see and create something new. That’s the only chance…

…a wall I’d built around something too broken to trust the world with it. But that wall had never kept me safe. It only locked me in with my pain, leaving it to fester and spoil. I’d locked out all hope, all pleasure, and now, with a force like th eocean, the wall had crumbled, and my protection had gone.

Antoine Wilson: Mouth to Mouth – a story within a story, with a supposedly neutral account of the wild tale told by an acquaintance. Another novel about the hunger for power and money, full of self-justification. Quite clever but nor terribly memorable. On the plane to Switzerland I read another book like it translated from French (not featured above, as I will present it as part of my personal French February reading initiative).

I read Balzac’s Lost Illusions for the winter long read for London Reads the World Book Club, and will review it of course during my French February. I still haven’t seen the film, which apparently is only available to stream in Canada. However, I have watched (and rewatched) quite a few good films this month – more than usual by my standards, partly because my older son the film buff was around for 9 days at the start of the month.

I really enjoyed rewatching My Neighbour Totoro for the nth time (especially after seeing the very innovative, delightful staging of it at the Barbican) and the beautiful, warm Portrait of a Lady on Fire, although I was perhaps somewhat less mesmerised by The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction this time round. I was moved by the Korean film Memories of Murder but even more so by the very recent Aftersun (which cut a little too close to home, so there were floods of tears). Stellar performances by Paul Mescal and young Frankie Corio.

By the way, I’ve had some friends asking who is hosting the #FrenchFebruary initiative – and the answer is no one, I just created this personal challenge for myself because I like alliteration and reading French language books. But if you would like to join in and read some books from France, Switzerland, Belgium, Quebec, French-speaking Africa etc. then please do! The more the merrier! Always happy to expand my understanding in this area.

Friday Fun: Use that Empty Space

Whenever I worry that I have too many books, I remind myself that there are still lots of ‘dead’ spaces that are wasted in a house, when they could contain perfectly adequate shelves and books. Here are some eloquent examples.

Around the windows, for example. From This Photographer’s Life.
Under and along the staircase. From OakelyMoore.com
Around door frames. From Marymadethis.blogspot.com
This works even if you have grander doors. From Elle Decor.
Oddly-shaped corners around windows and French doors. From ItalianBark.com
Another door surrounding, but this feels like it could be in a hallway too. From nwrugs.com

#JanuaryInJapan: Dazai Osamu Rewriting Fairytales

Dazai Osamu: Otogizoshi: The Fairy Tale Book of Dazai Osamu, transl. Ralf F. McCarthy, Kurodahan Press, 2011.

How can I have a January in Japan/Japanese Literature Challenge 16 without sneaking in at least one book by my favourite Japanese author Dazai Osamu? I may have mentioned him once or twice before… Anyway, this year I dug out this slim volume of ‘retold’ fairy tales by Dazai, which was pretty much the only way that he could publish during the Second World War. In1945, as the air raids were destroying much of Tokyo (including his own house), he played around with four of the best-known Japanese folk tales, retelling them not just for children, but particularly for grown ups.

There aren’t any overt criticisms of the Japanese war strategy, or even much mention of the dire situation the country was in by that point. However, the war is included, because the stories start off with a short prologue in which the author/narrator (always a tricky matter to distinguish the two with Dazai) starts telling stories to his children while they are seeking refuge in an air raid shelter. Additionally, the narrator keeps interrupting the flow of his narrative to comment that he cannot ascertain a particular detail because he doesn’t have a dictionary or encyclopedia handy, or that he cannot recount the most famous story of them all Momotaro (which had been used for propaganda purposes by the Japanese government), because ‘an author who has never been number one in Japan – or even number two or three – can hardly be expected to produce an adequate picture of Japan’s foremost young man’. His sarcasm extends to samurai warriors and their ideology, to landed gentry (such as his own family) and the heroic interpretations of Japanese history.

Traditional representations of Urashima Taro.

For example, here he is having a pop at Urashima TarĹŤ, who is rewarded for rescuing a turtle by being taken to the Dragon Palace deep underneath the sea and meeting the Sea Princess, and generally having a great time there. When he returns on land, he discovers he has been away for a hundred years. The story is so well known that it has been a set text for elementary school in Japan for over a hundred years. Urashima TarĹŤ is generally portrayed as a simple fisherman devoted to his mother, but in Dazai’s eponymous story he becomes the eldest son of an old and respected family with many servants.

Among second and third sons one often finds that variety of prodigal who overindulges in liquor and pursues women of lowly birth, muddying his own family’s name in the process, but the number one son… comes naturally to acquire a certain steadfast stodginess…

You can’t help but feel he is remembering some of his altercations with his older brothers! His rather cynical views of married life and suffocating families also find their way in other tales, such as the farcical ‘The Stolen Wen’ (aka ‘How an old man lost his wen/boil/lump’). The old man in the folktale is not a drunkard, but Dazai was, so he can’t resist giving him this trait.

In short, this family of Oji-san is nothing if not respectable and upstanding. And yet the fact remains that he is depressed. He wants to be considerate of his family but feels he cannot help but drink.

Throughout, there are a few digs at people’s behaviour, uttered by some of the characters, for instance, the tendency to gossip about one’s neighbors (which I can imagine a lot of people had been doing about Dazai all his life). Here is another husband complaining to his wife in ‘The sparrow who lost her tongue’:

Who do you think made me such a taciturn man chatting and laughing about what over dinner? I’ll tell you what – their neighbors. Criticizing. Tearing others down. Nothing but backbiting, malicious gossip…The only thing people like you can see is other people’s faults and you’re oblivious to the horror in your own hearts. You people terrify me.

It’s hard to demonstrate Dazai’s humour unless you know the original folk tales, for he takes great pleasure in subverting them, adding a running commentary as the storyteller. His Oni ogres are anything but terrifying, and he makes the link with the literary world of his time:

We use the word [Oni] to describe hateful people, murderers and even vampire, and one might therefore feel safe in assuming that these beings possess, in general, fairly despicable personality traits. But then one spies in the New Books column of the newspaper a headline reading ‘The Latest Masterpiece from the Ogre-like Genius of So-and-So-sensei’ and one is perplexed. One wonders if the article is an attempt to alert the public to So-and-So-sensei’s wicked influence or evil machinations… One would think that the great sensei himself would react angrily to being called such nasty and insulting names, but apparently that isn’t the case. One even hears rumors to the effect that he secretly encourages their use…

‘Monstre sacre’ indeed, as the French would say!

If you want to discover the lighter side of Dazai Osamu, the brilliant conversationalist he undoubtedly was (despite donning the mantle of grumpiness whenever it suited him), then I would recommend starting with his short stories, and these retold folk tales fall into that category, showing how much he could achieve even working within formal constraints. It’s not easy to find though…

#JanuaryInJapan: Reading and Watching Tokyo Vice

Something completely different now for January in Japan – not really a Japanese literature challenge as such, but an account of Japanese vice and crime written by someone in the know – and the TV adaptation of it, which incorporates a lot of actual Japanese language and perceptions.

Jake Adelstein: Tokyo Vice, Corsair, 2010

I met Jake in person at Quais du Polar in Lyon in 2016 and we chatted a bit about Japan, so I felt compelled to buy his book, although it was ‘true crime’, a genre I don’t read that much. However, he described the book in the following intriguing way (in interviews):

You could also say it’s about a sleazy Harry Potter finding that he can oust yakuza Voldemort from power but only at a great cost. And Voldemort lives.

Over the next six years, I read certain passages from it, but not the whole book (it contains all sorts of stories from Adelstein’s time as a reporter for Yomiuri, one of the biggest newspapers in Japan)… until I heard that a TV series was coming out. Although the series was initially only available on HBO, I was finally able to watch it on BBC iPlayer throughout December and January. I like to watch one episode at a time instead of bingeing, but I watched it on consecutive nights, as it was quite thrilling.

So I was able to compare the two – and what month better to do so than in January in Japan?

In the book, there are many different anecdotes and characters – after all, the book covers approximately 12 years of crime reporting. The book has far more explanations and subtleties (far more shades of grey) – but it does not hide the fact that some investigations took years to develop and were often never satisfactorily resolved. In the TV series, some of the incidents and interactions were repeated verbatim, but other scenes or characters were conflated, woven together, and certainly made to seem concurrent or happening over a very short period of time to heighten the dramatic tension. I think those changes are justified most of the time – and charismatic performances from several of the Japanese actors meant that there was less of the ‘white saviour’ narrative here than there might have been in the book.

Actually, I am not accusing the book of that either. Yes, perhaps the author is a little proud of the corruption and horrendous stories he uncovered (he was involved in investigative journalism in the Lucie Blackman case, for example) and it is undeniable that the yakuza, the Japanese government and the media often have a cosy ‘understanding’ which makes it difficult to surface such stories. But I don’t think he is glorifying himself: on the contrary, I found his candour in admitting his mistakes, his cultural misunderstandings, and his disillusionment to be quite refreshing. In some ways, it reminded me of Lost Illusions by Balzac, which I am also currently reading. You go into journalism with the idea that you are chasing after the ultimate truth and that you will change the world… and then find yourself having to compromise and making very little real difference.

And yet the senior reporters and mentors at Yomiuri greet the budding journalist with an idealistic speech about the value of the work they do:

It’s not about learning – it’s about unlearning. It’s about cutting off ties, cutting out things, getting rid of preconceptions, losing everything you thought you knew… You learn to let go of what you want to be the truth and find out what is the truth, and you report it as it is, not as you wish it was. Journalists are the one thing in this country that keeps the forces in power in check.

Ah well, only if they do their job properly and are not funded by various individuals with particular political preferences…

Tokyo Vice – TV series

Of course everybody is very good-looking in the TV series. I’m not a huge fan of Ansel Elgort, and he is far taller and blonder than the real-life Jake Adelstein. However, that makes him stand out even more as a gaijin (foreigner). What surprised me is that the TV Jake is not necessarily presented all that sympathetically – he is stubborn, makes mistakes, is selfish, treats others badly at times. I was wondering how the real Jake felt about that – but when I read the book, I realised that the author is quite hard on himself too.

Meanwhile, I fell in love with the young Japanese actor Sho Kasamatsu, who plays a yakuza underling who gets a little too friendly with Jake and a foreign girl, and develops too much of a conscience.

But it’s not just the actors who are pretty: the production values and cinematography are quite good-looking too, even when we go off exploring the seedy underbelly of Tokyo. I particularly liked the bilingualism of the show – the American actors did their best to learn Japanese, while the Japanese actors learnt some English, and the dialogues incorporate both.

The first season ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger, but I understand a second season is forthcoming. Of course, having read the book, I have my suspicions about how some of the storylines are going to end…

Friday Fun: Inspiring Stationery

For some reason, book people are also often quite fond of stationery products – and of course, as a writer, one can never have too many notebooks or pens. It’s quite funny to see how popular expensive stationery is, when we are writing less and less by hand! I will be including some Japanese products as well, for January in Japan, and because they are masters of paper production!

This is the Japanese stationery we are familiar with nowadays – all cute and ‘kawaii’. I think my (now nearly fully grown) sons like this sort of stuff even more than me! From Ali Express.
The Japanese produce a huge variety of paper, from thin tissue to parchment style. This fragile type is called chiyogami, is typically used for origami, and features patterns from traditional kimonos, from LC Paper Co.
Some day I will find the time to take up Japanese calligraphy properly, especially with a set like this, from Art Lot.
This transportable leather stationery set would have been my favourite thing ever as a teenager, from Candle & Blue.
Some people are so good at having a tidy desk with plenty of delicious stationery, like @annimint on Twitter.
I often tidy up my stationery, but it somehow never stays tidy like this for long! From Creative Boom.
To be honest, I am more of a fan of the dark, sleek type of stationery – what one might call the ‘masculine’ look, from homegrown.co.in
And this is my current favourite as a notebook, Tsubame from Japan: beautiful quality of paper, the pen just slides on it perfectly, opens up flat, and it’s light, easy to carry with you everywhere.

Brief Thoughts on Lessons in Chemistry

Bonnie Garmus: Lessons in Chemistry

I’d almost forgotten I had reserved this book from the library, as it took so long for it to become available. I also have to return it quickly, as there are 20 reservations on it! So it would be fair to say that it was one of the ‘buzziest’ titles published in 2021, a magnificent feat for an author in her 60s. I usually avoid hyped books like the plague, but I really enjoyed this one and gulped it down in a day. I won’t write a full-length review, however, because (a) I don’t have the time; (b) it clearly doesn’t need my approval to sell bucketloads. But here are a few observations and quotes, to give you a taste of it.

  1. The cover is a bit misleading – all cosy 1950s domestic scenes like in Rockwell paintings. Although the ending of the book is perhaps a bit Disney and wishful thinking, the book as a whole is much darker than I was expecting. Also, I couldn’t help thinking that it was highly unlikely that America would ever whole-heartedly embrace Elizabeth Zott (even with the small exceptions addressed in the book, particularly the religious beliefs aspects). Not when you see the ridiculous divisive debates going on there in the present day – and remember that this is set in the McCarthy era.
  2. I’m getting a little bit tired of the ‘quirky’ protagonist who lacks social skills and is perhaps somewhere on the autism spectrum. There has been a spate of such books lately (the four I recently reviewed for January in Japan can be said to fall into this category) – but it can be well done and badly done. In Nita Prose’s The Maid, I felt we were laughing too much AT the main character, while in this case, I feel Elizabeth Zott inspires admiration rather than pity.
  3. I’ve already mentioned the rather too neat and satisfying ending, but perhaps it would be wrong to call this the Disneyfication of a story. Perhaps the story more closely resembles Charles Dickens – pile a lot of suffering and constant battles onto your heroine, and then somehow find a solution. As in Dickens, we have a lot of secondary characters we can have fun with, not least a super-intelligent dog called Six-Thirty. Actually, what this book reminded me most of was the Japanese anime (and manga) series ‘Spy x Family’, which is charming and funny, but also contains some high-stakes Cold War issues (albeit toned down for a young audience).
  4. There is a lot of feminine anger in this book, as much as in some other books that I’ve read recently, but presented in a palatable way, injected with lots of humour and with a whiff of magical realism. Perhaps, as with the film ‘Hidden Figures’, the beautifully recreated 1959s/60s setting helps to make it seem like a charming ‘period piece’, and thus muffles the cries of anger? For what could we possibly have to be angry about in the present day?
  5. You can see that Bonnie Garmus has worked as a copywriter and speechwriter – her style is breezy, her sentences perfectly tuned and always veering off into the unexpcted, this will keep you reading as if it were a suspense novel, even when you think you know where it’s going. Don’t overthink it, just enjoy!

Yes, living with Mr Sloane was revolting, but Harriet was not completely repelled by his physical defects – she shed herself. Rather, it was his low-grade stupidiy she abhorred – his dull, opinionated, know-nothing charmless complexion; his ignorance, bigotry, vulgarity, insensitivity; and above all, his wholly undeserved faith in himself. Like most stupid people, Mr Sloane wasn’t smart enough to know just how stupid he was.

Yet here she was, a single mother, the lead scientist on what had to be the most unscientific experiment of all time: the raising of another human being. Every day she found parenthood like taking a test for which she had not studied. The questions were daunting and there wasn’t nearly enough multiple choice. Occasionally she woke up damp with sweat, having imagined a knock at the door and some sort of authority figure with an empty bab-sized basekt saying: “We’ve just reviewed your last parental performance report and there’s really no nice way to put this. You’re fired.”

She only ever seemed to bring out the worst in men. They either wanted to control her, touch her, dominate her, silence her, correct her, or tell her what to do. She didn’t understand why they couldn’t just treat her as a fellow human being, as a colleague, a friend, an equal, or even a stranger on the street, someone to whom one is automatically respectful until you find out they’ve buried a bunch of bodies in the backyard.

#JanuaryInJapan: Loneliness and Finding Your Passion

I was going to write separate reviews, or at least talk about them two by two, but in the end they all seem to speak to each other. So I have attempted something new: an audio review (podcast seems a bit too ambitious a term).

They are all books about misfits, quirky outsiders who seem to struggle to socialise with other people, who all have a passion for something, who put up with many disappointments and ultimately find some kind of resilience or escape. They are all written by women, but in two of the books the main protagonists are men, which allows for an interesting contrast. I discuss several common themes that run through all the books: the lonely, socially inept main protagonist who explores ways in which to live their life via their craft or hobbies; the yearning for human connection, perhaps even love; the mentor character; the pragmatic character who provides a strong contrast to our dreamy protagonist; finally, some thoughts about style and appeal.

https://anchor.fm/sanda-ionescu/embed/episodes/Four-Novels-about-Loneliness-and-Finding-Your-Passion-e1tgul1

Kawakami Mieko: All the Lovers in the Night, transl. Sam Bett and David Boyd

Miura Shion: The Great Passage, transl. Juliet Winters Carpenter

Miyashita Natsu: The Forest of Wool and Steel, transl. Philip Gabriel

Plus a Taiwanese novel that also fits this theme:

Lee Wei-Jing: The Mermaid’s Tale, transl. Darryl Sterk

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. However, you can also set up a link to your favourite independent bookshop and they too will get a share of the sale price.

You may be surprised to discover that The Great Passage has been adapted for an animated TV series. Here are the characters from the book in their anime form.