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.

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.