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.
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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.
It has been a cold winter in Egypt, one of my work colleagues tells me, and an unseasonably warm one in many parts of Europe. There has been more snow for skiing in Aberdeen than in Switzerland. So here I am wishing for snow to fall in places where everyone can cope with the snowfall, where people’s livelihoods depend upon it falling, and where it looks as pretty as in the pictures below.
This author’s work spanned most of the 20th century (born 1909, died 1992) and he is considered one of the classics of Japanese crime fiction. The blurb on the Penguin Classics edition of the book entitled Ten to Sen in Japanese (literal translation: Points and Lines) says ‘His exploration of human psychology and Japanese post-war malaise, coupled with the creation of twisting, dark mysetires, made him one of the most acclaimed and best-selling writers in Japan’. But I didn’t see much psychology in this book – on the contrary, it is the type of mystery that relies very much on tiny details and an encyclopedic knowledge of train timetables to break an alibi, more reminiscent of the work of Freeman Wills Croft (who was a railroad engineer before he started writing crime novels). It comes as no surprise to hear that the author holed up in Room 209 of the Tokyo Station Hotel with the train timetables while writing this in 1958.
Needless to say, this kind of story heavily reliant on accurate train times (with four minute gaps and consecrated platforms for each train) could only work in that particular place and time. Can you imagine trying to replicate that in the current chaos of train travel that has become the norm in the UK? (Let alone how expensive it would be to take a train to commit a murder – you’re better off hiring a contract killer!) It turns out that there is a whole subgenre of Japanese literature based on crimes occurring near or on trains (most recent examples: Bullet Train), or else where alibis rely on a timetable. Although commercial domestic flights had begun in Japan in the 1950s, it was not a widespread form of transportation yet.
The death of a young couple on a beach in Fukuoka is instantly classified as a double love suicide, which was still quite common at the time in Japan (Dazai Osamu died in this fashion less than ten years before this book was published). Interesting and rather sad sidenote: double suicide (or homicide-suicide) for couples is now far more common among the elderly in Japan, for economic or health reasons. A wily old local detective doesn’t quite buy it, and his Tokyo counterpart becomes equally obsessed with proving that there is something more behind it, possibly linked to government corruption. But all of their efforts to find evidence to support their theories seem to hit a brick wall, at least at first (and for most of the book). I thought it was an interesting look at the sheer drudgery of police work, checking and double-checking every minute detail, especially before the age of computers.
What spoilt the mystery element of it for me, however, was that the very first chapter pretty much gives away the whodunit and why, although not the details of how. We also gain next to no insight into the private lives of the two detectives, nor get a glimpse into the psyche of any of the characters, perpetrators or victims. Tthe entire focus of the book is on the puzzle – how all of the pieces fit together.
By way of contrast, Onda’s book is all about psychology, about observing and outwitting each other, about digging deep into the past, into trauma and guilt. In fact, we are not even sure if a crime has been committed, or if it was an accident, although the two main protagonists blame each other for it.
Hiro and Aki, a man and a woman, have packed up all of their belongings and are sitting for one last night in their shared flat before going their separate ways. Their relationship has broken down, they no longer trust each other after going on an excursion in the mountains a year ago, where their guide had a fatal accident. They buy food and drink to last them through the night, and see this as an opportunity for a ‘face-off’, i.e. get the other to confess that they were responsible for the death of their guide. Along the way, of course, they unravel all sorts of feelings of guilt and resentment about their own unconventional love story.
Just like with the Aosawa Murders by the same author, this is not the kind of book you read for the crime element. Although it is a suspenseful game of cat and mouse, it is above all a sad story about loneliness and the need for connection. The fish metaphor of the title hints that there are hidden depths here, and that we can only ever hope to catch glimpses of the true nature of people and the essence of a relationship, but those are things that will always ultimately escape us.
If I were younger, I might have been able to let the emotions of the moment carry me along, and throw everything away. Or I might have been capable of ending our relationship with a single stroke and leaving on the spot. But the older one gets, the harder it is to do that kind of thing. All manner of compromises and caluclations must be taken into account, and above all the fear of loneliness is real. If a few sad memories and hurt feelings are the sole price, then closing one’s eyes to the other’s faults and curling up in retreat is easy enough to do.
The backstory feels a little far-fetched to me, but the author does a good job of drip-feeding us more details, with the chapters alternating between the two narrators, Aki and Hiro, which allows us to see differences in their approaches and ways of thinking. While not quite as ambiguous and clever as The Aosawa Murders, this is perhaps a more comfortable entry point for Onda’s work.
So this book was all psychological depth but no proper investigation, while Tokyo Express was all investigation and no psychological depth. If you want to read a book that combines both, I would recommend Higashino Keigo’s A Death in Tokyo, which made my best of the year list in 2022.
A very summery starting point to the monthly Six Degrees of Separation reading meme, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. We start with the same book, add six linked ones and see where we end up!
January’s starting point is Beach Read by Emily Henry – which features writers struggling to complete their novels (a theme I usually cannot resist), but also romance (which I am less keen to read). I haven’t read this book, and I tend to read quite heavy-going books on the beach anyway, so am struggling to find a first link. Iin the end I thought I would go with other genres that I tend to bypass nowadays, although I loved them as a teenager. This is not because of any snobbery, but simply that I enjoy these kinds of books less or feel I have less time to read things outside my favourite genres. So, the other genre you will seldom see on my list of books and practically never on my shelves is horror. However, The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham is a classic of the genre which I really enjoyed reading (and which properly creeped me out) when I was a teen. The spooky telepathic child villains are the stuff of nightmares.
A similar theme is explored inThe Uninvitedby Liz Jensen, but this time there is a global epidemic of child violence. I had the pleasure of meeting Liz at a Geneva Writers’ Group conference and she was very warm and kind, but a consummate storyteller and fascinated by ‘what ifs’.
The third book is also by an author I met at the Geneva Writers’ Conference: Laura Kasischke’s Be Mine. This precedes the recent Vladimir by Julia May Jonas by well over a decade, but is likewise a story about a middle-aged academic embarking upon a love affair with a younger man. It is not as satirical about academic pretensions, but a good deal more menacing and disquieting.
A huge leap to a very different kind of ‘mine’ in the next book in my chain, The Mineby Antti Tuomainen, transl. David Hackston. You may know Tuomainen as the writer of black crime comedies, but previously he wrote some quite dark books, and this might be called an ecological thriller, as an investigative reporter tries to uncover the truth about a mining company’s illegal activities.
The publication year 2016 is the common thread between The Mine and my next choice, Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, was one of my favourite books published that year, weaving personal experience with biographical details of famous artists in their New York solitude.
It would be too easy to find a book with the word ‘City’ in its title as the final link in the chain, so I will make it more difficult for myself by choosing one such book written by another author whose name was Olivia, namely Olivia Manning’s The Spoilt City, the second in her Balkan Trilogy, describing an increasingly fraught marriage and city of Bucharest in 1940. High time I reread both of her trilogies.
So my travels this January have taken me from a small English village to a global phenomenon, a small university town in the States to a mine in the north of Finland, the bright lights of New York City and the war-dimmed lights of Bucharest. Where will your literary links take you this month?
Apologies, the pictures below are not fun or escapist by any stretch of the imagination, but I felt compelled to include them as a reminder of how far we have come and that one of the key missions of the EU was to prevent future wars in Europe (which it has not always succeeded in). This week Ireland and Denmark are celebrating 50 years since joining the EC (now EU). The UK also acceded to the EC on the same date, but, of course, has nothing to celebrate anymore.
If 2022 taught me anything, it was that it’s not feasible to keep on working at the pace that I have. The thinner I stretch myself, the more likely that I (or at the very least my health) will snap. The New Year started with a bit of a migraine, and a sluggish start for both the car battery and the gas boiler – let’s hope they don’t collude to make my life difficult and demand to be replaced.
So it’s clear that I need to prioritise things more successfully in 2023, and allow for some ‘slack’ instead of always working at 100% capacity, so that when stressful periods arrive, as they invariably do, I have the energy and mental space to cope with them.
Looking back at 2022, I read 166 books, watched 102 films (a lot more than I expected, as there have been months when I just watched two or three). I have written 135 blog posts, adding up to 95 thousand words. Again, I could have written a novel instead. Especially since it has become obvious, looking at the stats, that the heyday of my blog was in 2015-2017, when I had far more comments and likes. Nowadays, it seems to be the same 7-10 good friends commenting. My posts have got longer and longer, but, although the visitor figures have risen overall, there are fewer views per visitor (in other words, it might be mostly bots and spam that raise the figures). And, although I love putting together the escapist Friday Fun posts, it is a bit grating that these are by far my most popular posts (since they require the least amount of effort) this year. None of the posts I actually wrote in 2022 were the most popular this past year. The three top ones were all older (Dazai Osamu – which warms the cockles of my heart – dates from January 2021, as does my advice about how to finish The Brothers Karamazov, while my disappointment about The Secret History by Donna Tartt was written in 2014.
After ten years of blogging, the all-time greatest views are still mostly linked to my Friday Fun posts, followed by some high scorers such as a review of Americanah (2014), my real-life experience of The Handmaid’s Tale (2017), and one of my oldest posts about Japanese poet Tawara Machi, all of which barely went over the 2000 views mark.
Perhaps my strategy of at most three blog posts per week (of which one is the frivolous Friday Fun) is still too ambitious.
By way of contrast, although I had a creative writing spurt in April-June, I have written very little new stuff since, have only had one piece of flash fiction published, still haven’t finished my novel or the translation of the novel I am currently preparing for Corylus. I do have one small piece of translation forthcoming in Firmament, the literary magazine of Sublunary Editions, and I did get a ‘highly commended’ for the John Dryden Translation Prize for my take on Mihail Sebastian’s play. But clearly, this shows me that I am neglecting my more meaningful long-term work for the sake of quick feedback and likes. Understandable perhaps in a year where I felt quite fragile and there was only so much rejection I could take (there was, as always, plenty of it).
Therefore, this year, I will seriously reduce my blogging and social media consumption in favour of my writing, translating, editing and publishing. Twitter has become creaky and unpleasant anyway. Instead of posting reviews on a regular basis and trying to fit in all the good books I read, I will only respond to the challenges I choose to participate in (such as January in Japan, or the 1940 Book Club, or Women in Translation), and perhaps a monthly summary of the most notable ‘others’.
I like having tentative reading plans too (allowing enough wriggle room for wherever the mood might take me), so here are my geographical plans for the first six months of the year: January in Japan; February in France; March in Northern Climes; April 1940 Club; May: China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Korea (I know that’s a vast territory, but an additional challenge is to read mostly what is already on my shelves, rather than buying new books); June: the Balkans.
The only escapist pictures included today are those of my books read in December and a pile of musical books I acquired yesterday, so apologies if you were expecting charming castles or cosy libraries.
I’ve already done my annual summary, or rather a four-part review of my year, covering Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn, with the most memorable books for each season. I’m not making this a competition in any way, as I don’t value quantity over quality, but I read 166 books (although about 4 of those were DNFs), which sounds like a lot but has to do with the fact that it wasn’t a very nice year personally, so I found my refuge in books. It is not the highest number of books I’ve read in a year: 2014-2016 were rather rotten years and that’s when I read more than 175 books each year.
December was the month I finished the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias, which greatly impressed me, although I was not entirely sure about it at first. For the other books (with the exception of Lysistrata, which was a book club read), I simply followed my whims. I did not finish the Michel Bussi or the Luca D’Andrea crime novels, because the stories simply did not grab me and the locations didn’t make up for that, so the actual number of books I read this month was 15. Eight of those were crime fiction, which I suppose is the easiest, most entertaining kind of read, that I invariably turn to when I want to relax.
Ghost Signs was the only non-fiction book I read, a timely reminder of those first few months of the pandemic and an indictment of the poverty experienced in cities all over England. The only children’s book I read was Marlen Haushofer’s Bartl, about the youthful adventures of a much-loved family cat. I quite enjoyed the spooky atmosphere of The Retreat, and of course the satire about artistic retreats (just like I loved the satire about writers’ egos, MFA courses, the publishing industry and stealing plots in The Plot and Yellowface). I know many readers cannot bear those self-absorbed books by writers about writers, but I find them irresistible, even if they aren’t entirely memorable. Tessa Hadley’s book The Past was beautifully written and an in-depth observation of family tensions… but after reading Javier Marias, it all felt a little too well-bred, too cautious, too bloodless.
Yesterday I went to visit my beloved primary school teacher from the English School in Vienna from when I was in Year 2 (6 years old). She not only encouraged my love of writing and storytelling, improved my English (which was not great when I started school – Romanian was my first language, German my second), but also opened me up to the world of classical music, opera, ballet and folk dancing. All the things that my parents (who hailed from poor smallholders in the countryside and were first in their families to go to university) had never had the opportunity to experience until they were adults, and therefore could not really pass on to me.
You know how much I have benefited from the wisdom and generosity of older women, so it was lovely to catch up with her. She still seems to be in splendid spirits, still goes dancing every week, but insisted that I take as many of her music books as I could, since she wants them to go to a good home, where they will be appreciated. They will indeed – just look at the wonders below, from libretti, to music criticism, to biographies and letters.
This is the final post of the year – so I would like to wish you a very happy slip-slide or nudge into 2023 (a Rutsch, as the Germans would say), may it be a good year for all of us!
Javier Marias: Your Face Tomorrow (Fever and Spear, Dance and Dream, Poison, Shadow and Farewell), transl. Margaret Jull Costa, Vintage Books.
I spent most of November reading Solenoid, which I then somewhat laughingly called my December Diva, but I have also spent the past three months reading Javier Marias’ trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, roughly one volume per month, and even before finishing the last volume, I had decided this was going to make my ‘best of the year’ list. Yet it was tough getting going with it.
I had attempted the first volume once before, about a year or two ago, and abandoned it. After the death of Marias, I decided to give it another go, especially since Jacqui warned in her review that it started slowly. I believe the only way to enjoy Marias’ notoriously long sentences and repetitions is to submerge yourself in the text like plunging into the sea, allow the waves of his thoughts and prose to wash over you. But you have to be in the mood for this. Luckily, this time round I was, and volumes 2 and 3 got better and better, as you can see from the number of little post-its I used.
The first-person narrator is Jacques Deza, who is separated from his wife and children, living in England while they are back in his native Madrid. The rather shady Bertram Tupra approaches him and convinces him to work for a mysterious organisation, since he appears to have a particular talent for examining people’s faces and behaviours, understanding an individual’s true nature and predicting what they might be capable of in the future. That is basically the entire story arc of the trilogy, but there are numerous incidents and complications along the way, Jacques starts to question just what is required of him and why, but gradually succumbs to the ideology of ‘pre-emptive strike’, and ends up applying it in his personal life, with all that it entails: surveillance, lies, manipulation, aggression and torture.
The build-up is so gradual, each incident is described in such detail (not forgetting the endless divagations and spirally returns to a scene – each time with an additional piece of information), that when we get those moments when the underlying menace suddenly burst out as real violence, for example when Tupra threatens to cut someone’s head off with a sword, it is profoundly shocking. The hypnotic long sentences, the descriptions of paintings, James Bond books and Hollywood stars, the references to the Spanish Civil War all lull us into a false sense of security: this is a civilised world, a world of Oxford academics and cocktail parties and absurd, conceited little diplomats. Yet all that multilingual politeness is but a thin veneer, and there is an abyss of vindictive or, even worse, indifferent cruelty just below that.
We discover all this at the same pace as Jacques, a slow pace, since he tends to overthink every little gesture, word or happening. How reliable a narrator is he really? Does it matter? The author sets out his stall quite quite early on:
A very thin line separates facts from imaginings, even desires from their fulfilment, and the fictitious from what actually happened, because imaginings are already facts, and desires are their own fulfilment, and the fictitious does happen, although not in the eyes of commons sense and of the law… But consciousness knows nothing of the law and common sense neither interests nor concerns it, each consciousness has its own sense, and that very thin line is, in my experience, often blurred and, once it has disappeared, separates nothing, which is why I have learned to fear anything that passes through the mind and even what the mind does not as yet know…’
It’s this intimate understanding of even the most tentative and secret impulses of human nature which fascinate me so much about Javier Marias. Just like Cărtărescu does in Solenoid, Marias cannot resist chasing down rabbit holes, bringing in so many apparently tangential topics, ruminating or speculating about human nature so broadly, that we wonder what on earth will finally get the story to move on. Yet, although we can hardly call this propulsive forward motion, I have the feeling that each parenthesis does have its purpose and evidences something deeper about the characters and situations.
Or perhaps I simply do not care how much he deviates from the main subject, as long as he can come up with perfectly-formed aphorisms such as these (almost Cioran-like):
There is nothing worse than looking for meaning or believeing there is one. Or if there is one… believing that the meaning of something… could depend on us and on our actions, on our intention or our function…
There are, as you know, always reasons a posteriori for any action, even for the most gratutious and most unspeakable actions, reasons can always be found, ridiculous, improbable and ill-founded sometimes and which deceive no on or only the person who invents them. But you can always find a reason.
In another language you cannot help but feel that you are always acting or even translating (however well you know the language), as if the words you pronounce and hear belonged to some absent person…
It’s always safer to betray an individual… than some vague, abstract idea that anyone can claim to represent… that’s the bad thing about ideas, their self-declared representatives keep crawling out of the woodwork, and anyone can take up an idea to suit their needs or interests and proclaim that they’ll defend it by whatever means necessary, bayonet or betrayal, persecution or tank…
This is the kind of profoundly unsettling work that leaves you with more questions than answers, where whole paragraphs or concepts will burrow themselves under your skin, and you will want to go back and read in smaller gulps again and again. Marias is an author who is not afraid to tackle big subjects, who manages to effortlessly weave cultural specificity (and occasionally mischievous observations about other cultures) with universal fears about baser human instincts. I
It’s dreadful to have ideas put in your head, however unlikely or ridiculous and however unsustainable and improbable…any scrap of information registered by the brain stays there until it achieves oblivion… and however much you clean and scrub and erase, that rim is the kind that will never come out; it’s understandable really that people should hate knowledge and deny what is there before their eyes and prefer to know nothing, and to repudiate the facts…
This describes what Marias does to me, but I will always prefer to know and to explore, which is possibly why I find him quite addictive. If some of our Book Club members said that there were whole passages of Tomb of Sand where they felt they did not understand what was going on, and could not follow the flow of the sentences, and if I occasionally considered Solenoid too meandering and self-indulgent, I was never bored with this trilogy, especially in volumes 2 and 3. I almost wanted more of it (and luckily have a few more books by Marias on my shelves).
Of course, this is in no small part thanks to Margaret Jull Costa’s impeccable translation: she seems to understand Marias better than anyone else (although she has admitted that he was not always easy to work with) and has managed to capture that Latin flow in the sentences, while remaining clear and precise in English.
Just when I thought the bad summer months had passed and I was about to turn things around with a quiet writing holiday at last… things continued to not work out according to hopes and plans. However, this did lead to some major reading therapy, so the year finished strong at least in that respect.
My second brush with Covid led once again to a weakened immune system, and thus infections with all the viruses life could throw at me, plus more severe symptoms as soon as I caught something for the rest of the autumn.
The week-long October holiday in the beautiful Yorkshire countryside would have been the perfect rest, combining creativity with long walks and visits to Shibden Hall and Hebden Bridge… but alas, I was plagued by a vicious migraine and nausea for most of my stay there, and could barely make it out of bed. I hobbled down to Slaithwaite one morning, and managed to translate about 3000 words, but that was all I had to show for my much longed-for writing retreat.
Things got worse when I came back home. My younger son, whose nickname used to be the Duracell Bunny for his endless energy and sunny disposition, which made him a firm favourite whenever we visited family back in Greece or Romania, suddenly admitted he was deeply depressed and expressed suicidal thoughts.
I can take any amount of bad things happening to me, but bad things happening to my loved ones are much harder to face. I’ve spent these past few months trying to reassure him, get help, keep talking to him without becoming the pushy, prying mum… Above all, find a way to kickstart his engine and reawaken his joie de vivre and natural curiosity. Although I’ve experienced similar feelings myself in the past, although I have been a trained volunteer for the Samaritans, it’s horrible to see how all that becomes inconsequential when it’s your own child. It’s like treading on eggshells all the time. I am aware that it’s not a situation that can be fixed quickly or fully, so we take each day as it comes. I also feel very alone in all of this, as he won’t allow me to mention his fears and depression to his father or brother (for good reason, I suspect, as his father was very dismissive and unhelpful when I was depressed). Luckily, his school has been very supportive and we are collaborating on this quite well. But he has his A Levels this year, so things are… complicated.
Given the emotional and physical lows of that month, my reading was very escapist and not entirely memorable. The crime book I enjoyed most was The Shadows of Men by Abir Mukherjee, the latest book in his delectable series set in pre-independence India, and I probably related a little too much with the treacherous middle-aged academic in Vladimir by Julia May Jonas (not pictured above because I like neither the US nor the UK cover).
Winter in Sokcho and Mateiu Caragiale were perhaps rather melancholy choices for the month, but they were both beautifully written – at opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum, simple and unadorned to ornate and baroque. However, I have to admit it was a struggle to read Diamela Eltit’s Never Did the Fire during this period, because of the grim subject matter, and I might not have been able to finish it if I’d not had Daniel Hahn’s translation diary alongside it. And, much as I love Marlen Haushofer’s writing style, her novella The Loft or her biography were not exactly light reading matter either. Luckily, my other reading choices for German Literature Month were somewhat lighter: Isabel Bogdan’s The Peacock was delightfully farcical but not silly, while Franz Schuh’s Laughing and Dying may sound grim but is actually a collection of essays and anecdotes, poems and little plays exploring what it means to be Viennese (review to follow in the Austrian Riveter in early 2023).
In November, my older son came home for what was going to be a delightful week-long stay to impress us with his newfound cooking and cleaning skills. However, his sore throat and cough got worse, morphed into glandular fever and ended up requiring multiple calls to NHS 111, emergency out-of-hours service and finally the A&E at hospital. He passed on at least part of the virus to us two as well, so November passed by in an interminable blur of collective ill health.
Perhaps not the best backdrop to read challenging journeys through someone’s convoluted brain and memories, such as Solenoidby Mircea Cărtărescu or Javier Marias’ trilogy Your Face Tomorrow (which I’ve been reading at the rate of one a month, and still have to review). Even the speculative crime novel In the Blink of an Eye by Jo Callaghan, fascinating though it was as a premise (who is less biased and better able to solve a case, a live detective or an AI one?), had a theme of suicide and ill health, so was not quite as escapist as I’d hoped.
However, December dawned more hopeful: a lovely trip to Newcastle Noir with two of our Corylus authors, Tony Mott from the prettiest town in Romania, Brașov, and Óskar Guðmundsson from Iceland. In celebration, I read several good crime novels to end the year: Ian Rankin’s latest, featuring a retired but still very rebellious Rebus, Trevor Wood’s first in a trilogy featuring an ‘invisible’ homeless man solving crimes he witnesses on the streets, and Keigo Higashino’s entertaining mix of police procedural and psychological depth.
Older son recovered fully and enjoyed a ski trip in France, coming back full of nostalgic stories about French food and books, pistes we had both loved, and oodles of Swiss chocolate (he flew via Geneva). I am looking forward to some cosy film-watching with both of them (we started with Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio yesterday, on the first day of holidays), lots of reading, favourite Christmassy foods… and will ignore gas bills, ongoing concerns about family members, several substantial literary and translation rejections, or my own precarious health.
Hope really does spring eternal – and in 2023 I resolve to be more physically active, take better care of myself as well as others, and not take on too many additional projects.
I will probably post a few more book reviews between Christmas and New Year, but I will sign off for a few days (other than the usual Friday Fun post) and may your holiday period be as unstressful as possible!