The Trick is to Keep Breathing

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Read 22/08/2021-28/08/2021

Rating 5 stars

The Trick is to Keep Breathing is book eight on my summer reading challenge list, part of Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer reading challenge. It is the story of Joy, a Drama teacher whose life is unravelling. It combines narrative with text layout, font weight and insertion of illustrative elements to represent Joy’s unravelling. There’s a feel of concrete poetry to it, and the sort of textual play that Nicola Barker used in her novel H(A)PPY. There’s also a feel of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine to Joy’s story, superficially in the way Joy looks to women’s magazines to distract and instruct, and more seriously in the way her immediate family has treated her, and the damage not having a safety net can do to a person. Continue reading

Frankenstein Unbound

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Read 10/06/2021-28/06/2021

Rating 4 stars

My second read for the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge is Frankenstein Unbound by Brian Aldiss. I’ve known Aldiss’s name in relation to science fiction for a while but never read anything by him. I picked this novel up in Bookmark, a second hand bookshop in Falmouth, drawn by its cover art.

It is simultaneously, as with most science fiction, a reflection on concerns about the contemporaneous era, and a projection of where current science might lead. It is also a meditation on Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece, Frankenstein.

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Random Thoughts: The transitory nature of praise

My reading life is in a minor slump. I’m enjoying Frankenstein Unbound, but not enough to feel compelled to pick it up each day and finish it. Today I read an interview with the actor Rafe Spall that I’d missed when it was published back in May. I wouldn’t have had the same response to it back then, mind you. It was one of those serendipitous stumblings that spoke to me in a particular moment.

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Blood Wedding

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Read 16/05/2021-25/05/2021

Rating 3 stars

Blood Wedding is a psychological crime novel by French writer Pierre Lemaitre. It concerns Sophie, a woman with severe memory loss who, at the start of the book, is looking after a young boy on the days and nights that his busy parents can’t be there. When we meet Sophie, disaster has struck. Continue reading

Permafrost

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Read 21/02/2021-26/02/2021

Rating 5 stars

Permafrost is the first novel by Catalan poet Eva Baltasar. It’s a thing of beauty, visceral and uncompromising. It’s about depression, and being cared about but not loved; it’s the story of someone who tries not to let others in because being self-contained is safer. It’s also deeply, dryly funny.

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Stasiland

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Read 15/11/2020-23/11/2020

Rating 5 stars

Stasiland has the subtitle Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall. In it, Anna Funder shares the experiences of a number of East Germans to build a picture of life under an oppressive regime. Her interviewees range from people who tried to escape, people separated arbitrarily from family overnight, and people who worked for the Stasi. There are amazing people between these pages who survived unimaginable horrors, and there are also the people who supported the use of those horrors. I found it a very moving book. Continue reading

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

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Read 27/09/2020-04/10/2020

Rating 4 stars

Dorthe Nors’ fifth novel examines the crisis of middle age as experienced by a single woman estranged from her sister and trying to work out what she wants from life. It’s a funny and moving book, with a deadpan humour that wrong foots the reader from time to time with its seriousness. Continue reading

His Bloody Project: Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae

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Read 26/04/2020-03/05/2020

Rating 3 stars

I’ve had Graeme Macrae Burnet’s book hanging around on my Kindle for three or so years. A friend’s recent review of Burnet’s debut novel reminded me that I hadn’t got round to reading His Bloody Project.

I was in the mood for some historical fiction after the last book I read, so I charged up my neglected Kindle and opened His Bloody Project up. Continue reading

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

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Read 26/01/2020-14/02/2020

Rating 3 stars

Jonathan Haidt wrote The Righteous Mind in 2012, four years before many of us finally became aware that the political world had tilted on its axis and everything we thought we understood about the democratic process had unravelled. Haidt, it’s true, had pinpointed the change as starting in the 1990s, but for many of us, 2016 was Year Zero. Continue reading

I Who Have Never Known Men

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Read 13/09/2019-20/09/2019

Rating 5 stars

Jacqueline Harpman’s I Who Have Never Known Men is filed under Sci-Fi at my local library. I’m not entirely sure why. There’s a vague hint that the characters, who are incarcerated in an underground bunker for the first part of the novel, are no longer on Earth. It felt more dystopian than Sci-Fi to me, more akin to The Handmaid’s Tale, futuristic and speculative.

The novel was first published in French in 1995. An English translation followed in 1997. Vintage has reissued Ros Schwartz’s translation this year with an excellent introduction to the novel by Sophie Mackintosh. She, too, suggests that it’s a Sci-Fi work, but also relates it to Herland. Mackintosh’s intro draws out the key strands of the story and makes a case for the significance of Harpman’s book far better than I can. We are agreed that it’s a masterpiece. Continue reading