It’s May and it’s just a little too chilly for me. And I know that irritating saying and I don’t need to hear it again thanks. I have many jumpers available still. Here’s to a warmer June!
What’s been on the reading pile this month?
Sister, Mother, Husband, Dog (Etc) – Delia Ephron
Regular readers of this blog will know of my love for Nora Ephron, writer of smart comedies and pithy columns in newspapers. Her sister Delia, sometime film-collaborator with Nora, but also a writer in her own right, has a new book out talking about her husband’s death, her own cancer diagnosis and her second chance at happiness with a new husband. This is not that book but is a series of essays written after Nora died, and they tackle their family, her thoughts on missing Nora, and all sorts of things about modern life. Being brought up with Nora and their own parents’ somewhat brutal style of parenting, there is a similar frank voice here. I enjoyed this very much indeed.
The Good Year – Polis Loizou
This is another in the Fairlight Moderns series and is by a Nottingham-based author Polis Loizou. It is a tale that combines Cypriot folklore, secrets and forbidden love, told over the Christmas period in 1925 with each day bringing a new chapter. The story focuses on a young couple Despo and Loukas whose marriage is not quite what it should be, despite Despo expecting their first child. It is the season of the kalikantzari, creatures who come up from hell to wreak havoc and, as Despo tries every trick to protect her child and husband, it is Loukas who has troubles, irresistibly drawn to a newcomer, an Englishman. It reads like a fairytale, and has the same ambiguity and darkness behind it.
All at Sea – Decca Aitkenhead
I remember a lot of press about this when it first came out, and wanted to read it then but here we are, six years later and I finally get to it. I picked this up at the library on Saturday morning, started reading it mid-afternoon and finished it on Sunday. It’s an astonishing book. In short, Aitkenhead was a happily married journalist, whose marriage started to disintegrate and she then got involved with Tony, a drug dealing, drug taking married care leaver who had served prison time. Part of the book is where she describes how they got together – her family’s horror at her choice, her own confusion over how to handle the realities of his behaviour – and how he then made huge efforts to change following her pregnancy with their first son. But the most part of the book is her account of Tony’s death. On holiday with their two boys in Jamaica, Tony goes to rescue their son who gets into trouble in the water, and Tony then drowns before her eyes. The book is about her grief, her guilt, trying to manage the boys’ feelings and the myriad of confusion that comes with a sudden death. It’s a raw, honest memoir that tries to capture a whole person, flaws and all, and the behaviour that comes with the loss of someone you love. It’s so very human, capturing all the mess of human life but so much of the kindness and variety of it too.
Lessons in Chemistry – Bonnie Garmin
There is a lot of hype about this at the moment and I was going to wait and buy it in paperback but then Sainsbury’s were selling the hardback for £6, which I’m sure is the book equivalent of streaming services but seemed too good to pass up. Anyway, I’m still not entirely convinced about the hype. I enjoyed the book, it had some good moments and I rather liked the protagonist but…
It’s ok. Set in the early 1960s, it’s about Elizabeth Zott, who wants to become a chemist but faces a whole load of barriers from the sexist science university circles she studies and works in. Essentially she encounters everything from microaggressions to rape, but then she is ‘rescued’ by Calvin Evans, a brilliant scientist who falls in love with her and also respects her chemical mind. When Calvin dies (this happens early on, it’s not a spoiler) Elizabeth finds she’s pregnant and has to find her way through life without him. Chemistry is her answer, chemistry and bullheadedness. When she is asked to present an afternoon cookery show, she seizes the chance to do things her way, and present an alternative to the women of the USA. So look, aside from the chemistry, it should have ticked all my boxes. However, it did also have an anthromorphised dog and, on reflection, although I enjoyed it, I do feel perhaps the publishing industry’s hype machine has gone into overdrive.
Meredith Alone – Claire Alexander
Out next month – review to follow.
A Chip Shop in Poznan – Ben Aitken
I bought this as part of Waterstones’ Read for Ukraine promo and thought it might be an interesting look at Poland. Ben Aitken, at the time of the EU referendum, sees the concerns about Polish people coming to Britain to work and decides to do the reverse, is to go to Poland and work. What could have been entertaining and insightful is, I’m afraid, here just a bit rubbish. The book is mainly his diary and rather immature. It contains no charm or insight about Poland or Polish people and I didn’t finish it. A missed opportunity.
Kiss Myself Goodbye – Ferdinand Mount
I heard about this on Radio 4’s A Good Read (one of their best programmes) and ordered it from the library. What a story! It’s a family history of Mount’s Aunt Munca who, if you wrote her as a fictional character would be rejected on the grounds of implausibility. From the slums of Sheffield to hobnobbing with the Windsors, from bigamy and lies to causing huge amounts of damage to her family, especially her adopted daughter – and no apparent remorse. Someone in the A Good Read comments on Instagram described Munca as a ‘hoot’ but I imagine them to have an odd sense of humour. She was a total bitch. Fabulous read as Mount unearths all the family skeletons – and manages to capture some pathos too.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold – Toshikazu Kawaguchi
I’m a bit late to this – the hype was last year, I think, but am glad I’m here now. I’m not sure what you’d call the genre that appears to exist in Japanese fiction of very sweet, quirky books that feature ‘sort of’ supernatural things occuring but that teach us something about human nature. The Phone Box at the End of the World was one, The Memory Police was another, and this is another. They’re sort of like anime films in book form – gentle, human centred books that are charming and kooky. The plot, such as it is, takes place in a cafe where one seat can transport you to the past. But there are rules: you cannot change anything, you can only sit there once the seat’s usual occupant has vacated it, and you must come back before your coffee gets cold. How this affects the lives of the cafe’s owners, friends and customers is told through four main chapters. It’s rather lovely, though a little confusing as three of the characters have names beginning with K.
We’ll Always Have Casablanca – Noah Isenberg
A close exploration of one of the best films ever – my favourite. Essentially a movie about refugees by refugees, Casablanca has a timeless quality that ensures it is loved across generations despite its flaws (some of the lines are a bit clunky, and so on) and this book explores the appeal, while also looking behind the scenes. The evolution of the script is given a thorough examination, as is the impact on the cast of being in the film. I really enjoyed this and immediately went back to rewatch the film. It never gets old. Here’s looking at you, kid…
Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng
This has been out for a while and I enjoyed her first book so when I spotted this in the library the other week, I picked it up. It’s a story of the perfect American neighbourhood where everything is planned and perfect and the council come and bother you if your door is painted the wrong colour or your lawn is left too long. The Richardson family rent out an apartment to single mother Mia and her daughter Pearl, and from then on their lives are changed. Their four children all get involved with the renters in different ways and as is the way of these things, feelings get tangled, secrets emerge and life rears its way out onto the manicured lawns in all its messiness. I enjoyed this, though I am unsure of why she started with a prologue chapter that showed what we were leading to at the end. It felt unnecessary and I can only guess that her editors suggest that without this tantalising glimpse, people may not want to read on. I would and did – and with so many books that help you spy on others who have odd lives and beliefs, I rather enjoyed it. But I wouldn’t want to live there.
Moments of Pleasure
Earlier in the month I went to London for a conference and although the travelling was a faff, I did get to wander the streets for a while and remembered just how much of a flaneuse I am. I love walking in cities, and I love walking in London, the dash and the energy and the people and the buildings and weird tiny streets and big underpasses and all the dirt. It was a rush, despite the appalling pollution that caused me to dash into Boots to grab some Benadryl. Backing Sadiq Khan’s plans to reduce pollution all the way here.
One of the reasons I walked in London was to nip to the Lego shop at lunchtime to complete my Muppet minifigure collection. As a woman in my forties, I no longer apologise for liking the stuff I like and it is an absolute thrill to have a complete set. The guys in the shop are literally paid to recognise each figure from how it feels in the packets so all power to their thumbs and fingers for 100% accuracy. Dedication to duty very much appreciated here.