A plume with a hue

Archive for the month “May, 2022”

My reading week: 21/52

Currently Reading

I’m reading Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason, as part of my challenge to read the 2022 Women’s Prize shortlist.

I’m still listening to The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. This is a long one and it’s going to take me some time. I should probably be reading it instead.

My current classic is Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, and here I’m doing a mix of listening and reading.

My non-fiction read is Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman.

Recently Completed

I finished reading Things We Left Unsaid by Zoya Pirzad.

Deep in an Iranian suburb, made rich by the booming oil industry, Clarice Ayvazian lives a comfortable life surrounded by the gentle bickering of her children and her gossiping friends and relatives. Happy being at the heart of her family, she devotes herself to their every need. But when an enigmatic Armenian family move in across the street, something begins to gnaw at Clarice’s contentment: a feeling that there may be more to life – and to her – than this. Dizzy with the sweltering heat and simmering emotions, Clarice begins to feel herself come alive to possibilities previously unimaginable.

This was sold as being for fans of Anne Tyler (which I am), and I agree that it is in the vein of the ordinary workings of a ‘normal’ family and what I would call a quiet novel. I enjoyed the playing out of the family dynamics and the underlying tensions, and the sense of mystery created by the new family that moves into the neighbourhood. It’s told in short chapters, which always makes a novel quick and easy to read.

However, I was more or less able to predict events and there were no surprises, and the whole novel felt inconclusive. I would have preferred a deeper insight into the psychology of the characters, particularly the main character as it was told via first person narration. She didn’t seem to have much self-awareness, and I struggled to make sense of her. Having made this criticism, I feel this could have been intentional on the part of the writer: Clarice begins questioning the way she lives her life, its purpose and whether she is fulfilled. She can’t come up with answers and so how can the reader know? I found this as frustrating a situation as Clarice probably did, as when she ponders what she will do as her children grow up and become more independent.

Then I will finally have time for things I want to do, I thought. My critical streak started in, ‘Like what things?’ …’I don’t know.’ It was a depressing thought.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel but was left with the feeling that, like Clarice, I wanted something more. Does this make it a clever novel?

This fulfils prompt 42 of the 52 Book Club Reading Challenge: An indie read (it’s published by OneWorld).

I also read it for prompt 1 of the Asian Readathon: A book written by an Asian author.

The second book I completed was Take Me With You When You Go by David Levithan and Jennifer Niven.

Ezra wakes one day to find his sister gone. No note, no sign, nothing but an email address hidden somewhere only he would find it.

Escaping their toxic home life, Bea finds herself alone in a new city – without friends, without a real plan – chasing someone who might not even want to be found.

As things unravel at home for Ezra, Bea confronts secrets about their past that will forever change the way they think about their family. Separated by distance but connected by love, this brother and sister must learn to trust themselves before they can find a way back to each other.

This young adult novel is an unusual choice for me and I discovered it when searching the teenage section of the library in a bid to find the kind of books available to young people these days. I’m an English and maths tutor and because so many of my students have an aversion to reading, I want to be able to recommend books that I think they will enjoy. My aim was to experience something that I felt would appeal to them. I chose this one because it’s got a beautiful cover, I’ve heard of David Levithan, it has both male and female main characters, and it’s written in email form.

I wasn’t expecting to like it but I enjoyed it immensely! It’s gripping from the start and, through the emails, events are gradually revealed so that the reader is constantly putting the pieces of the jigsaw together to ascertain what has happened in the past and to predict what will happen in the future. However, because of the form, we only ever saw other characters through the siblings’ eyes, and I desperately wanted to know more about the motivations, thoughts and feelings of the other characters; in particular, I was desperate to learn more about their mother. I liked the siblings and had a lot of sympathy for them, even when they weren’t acting at their best. The novel deals with gritty issues, such as abuse, homosexuality, relationship breakdowns, friendships, the challenges of navigating the teenage years, and loss, in a way that I feel young people will be able to relate to. I have to confess I couldn’t put it down and completed it in two days. I would definitely recommend it to teenagers and within its pages there are important messages:

It’s wonderful when someone else sees you, the real you but…maybe the most important thing is seeing yourself.

I’m going to stretch this one and use it for prompt 50: a person of colour as the main character (one of the central characters fulfils this requirement)

Finally, I read Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li.

Written over two years while the author battled depression, Dear Friend is a painful and yet richly affirming examination of what makes life worth living. Interweaving personal memoir with a wide-ranging celebration of writers and books, this is a journey of recovery through literature.

From William Trevor and Katherine Mansfield to Kierkegaard and Larkin, Yiyun Li traces the themes of time and transformation, presence and absence. Drawing on personal experiences from her difficult childhood in China, she constructs a beautiful, interior exploration of selfhood and what is required to choose life.

This memoir of Chinese author, Yiyun Li, is divided into eight sections and got off to a very promising start with reflections on time, memory, emotions, dreams, and battles. Then I struggled with it and at a little over half way through I was questioning why I couldn’t grasp the thread that should hold it together and it became much harder for me to understand. I desperately wanted to enjoy it but I couldn’t say that I was and felt I was limping towards the end to the point where, desiring not to give up but to finish it, I resolved to read just ten pages a day to achieve this. Much to my surprise, my interest was piqued during the final three sections, which felt much more coherent to me. I wonder if my experience with the memoir mirrored the writer’s experience with depression, if indeed the sections were written in chronological order.

I found many thought-provoking ideas, even when I wasn’t enjoying it so much, and it is possibly the most underlined book I possess. It’s hard to pick just one so I opened the book at random and found this tragic statement, which sums up the Yiyun Li’s despair:

Often I think that writing is a futile effort; so is reading; so is living.

I read this for Prompt 2 of the Asian Readathon: A book featuring an Asian female/older woman.

I will also use it for prompt 33 of the 52 Book Club Reading Challenge: A bilingual character – one of the topics the writer explores is her experience of moving, not only physically to another country but to another language, and how language is linked to our identify:

What happened during my transition from one language to another did not become memory.

Reading Next

I have three exciting library books waiting to be read:

  • Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller – I’ve read two books by this author and like the unusual scenarios she creates
  • Should We Stay or Should We Go by Lionel Shriver – Having recently read We Need To Talk About Kevin, I’m impressed by Shriver’s writing and the ideas she conveys
  • Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafron – I couldn’t resist a novel that bears my name!

A new experience: The Online Silent Book Club

Photo by Vincenzo Malagoli on

Always up for a different experience, I was intrigued when I came across the Online Silent Book Club and had to give it a go.

The session started with a brief introduction by the host, followed by introductions by the attendees who gave information about what they would be reading during the session. It was an eclectic mix: from Jane Austen to a non-fiction on start-ups, from Emily Henry’s latest novel to a biography on Roosevelt, from a book on the Beatles to a Neil Gaiman novel.

We then read for an hour before reconvening to feedback on our reading experience. It was very interesting to hear people talking about their books and what they’d managed to do in the sixty minutes.

This is a ridiculously simple idea and, let’s face it, anyone can block an hour off in their diary and sit and read if they want to. You don’t need to go online and do it with others. However, it can be so easy to get distracted by other demands and I found that setting aside the time in this way meant I focussed for the hour and managed to read the first 50 pages of Things We Left Unsaid by Zoya Pirzad. Knowing I was going to be speaking about it to the group meant I thought about what I’d read in more depth. It was also a great way to get into a novel and I think that an extended session when starting a new book is a very helpful way to quickly feel more comfortable with it.

All-in-all, this was a positive and fun experience.

Find out more about the Online Silent Book Club here.

My reading week: 20/52

Currently Reading

In an attempt to broaden my reading experience, I have consciously decided to have four books running simultaneously: one novel, one audiobook, one non-fiction book, and a classic. Despite having a degree in literature, I’m not a lover of pre-20th century fiction and am ashamed to say that there are many novels that I should have read but haven’t. To rectify this deficiency, I’ve decided to work my way slowly through one classic work of fiction over a period of several weeks (or maybe even months, if necessary!).

The first classic is one I did in fact read at school and I thought it would be a good place to start, particularly as I am visiting Bath next month: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. The volume, which I picked up in a charity shop, also contains Persuasion, which I haven’t read but saw at the theatre this year.

For non-fiction and the Asian Readathon, I’m reading Dear Friend, From My Life, I Write to You in Your Life, a memoir by Yiyun Li.

I’m listening to The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. This is also for the Asian Readathon, although it is long and I doubt I’ll finish it by the end of the month.

Unusually, I haven’t started on my next fiction book yet and am still deciding what to choose.

Recently Completed

I finished two books this week, the first being How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino. This is on A Day of Small Things’ list for the Asian Readathon (as is Dear Friend) and as I’m interested in comparing my thoughts with hers, I decided to read it as well.

The streets of Tokyo swarm below fifteen year-old Copper as he gazes out into the city of his childhood. Struck by the thought of the infinite people whose lives play out alongside his own, he begins to wonder, how do you live?

Considering life’s biggest questions for the first time, Copper turns to his dear uncle for heart-warming wisdom. As the old man guides the boy on a journey of philosophical discovery, a timeless tale unfolds, offering a poignant reflection on what it means to be human.

I hadn’t realised that this novel was originally written for Japanese schoolchildren as the final book in a series of sixteen. I enjoyed the narrative style, which alternates between the story of Copper and extracts from his uncle’s notebook. It was quick and easy to read and had a feel-good quality about it, full of optimism and hope. However, at times, it did feel a little too didactic and sentimental, and I needed it to go deeper into the points it was making. Having said that, it was written for children so perhaps that desire was unrealistic. Overall, it brought to mind Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, although I think the latter was more philosophical.

I’m using this for Prompt 48 of the 52 Book Club Reading Challenge: Redo one of this year’s prompts but with a different genre (redoing prompt 24: Addresses a specific topic – here children’s fiction on what it means to be human; originally non-fiction watercolour painting)

The other novel I finished this week was Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt.

Fresh from Minnesota and hungry for all New York has to offer, twenty-three-year-old S.H. embarks on a year that proves both exhilarating and frightening – from bruising encounters with men to the increasingly ominous monologues of the woman next door.

Forty years on, those pivotal months come back to vibrant life when S.H. discovers the notebook in which she recorded her adventures alongside drafts of a novel. Measuring what she remembers against what she wrote, she regards her younger self with curiosity and often amusement. Anger too, for how much has really changed in a world where the female presidential candidate is called an abomination?

This novel deals with my favourite themes: time, memory and how we tell the story of our lives. Not only that, but part of the novel is written in the form of a journal, interspersed with reflections from the present, and extracts from the novel the narrator is working on. I find this form of narrative style particularly appealing and it worked well here as it moved backwards and forwards in time. I enjoyed its metafiction element and we were constantly aware that we were reading a story with imagined characters. The narrator also eavesdrops on her neighbour and records her conversations, from which she puts together the pieces of her life, and these parts were entertaining, concerning and create uncertainty as to how much the narrator has fabricated and how much is true. Although the narrator’s novel should have provided an interesting respite from the main narration, the fact that I was consumed by the events of her life made me frustrated to have to switch into the text of her novel. There are also a vast number of characters and it was difficult to predict which ones were going to play a major role in the story and which would be mentioned only briefly in passing. Overall, I really enjoyed the way the plot developed and found it an intriguing read.

Prompt 21: Published by Simon and Schuster (this novel was originally published by them)

Reading Next

I have to confess to being undecided at the present time!

This week’s quotation comes from Memories of the Future:

…we wish backward, too, not only forward, and thereby rebuild the curious, crumbling architecture of memory into structures that are more habitable.

Siri Hustvedt

London theatre trips this year

Going to the theatre is one of my passions and, being only a 30 minute train ride from central London, I have a wealth of excellent productions available. Of course, the price of tickets can be extortionate and as I would prefer to see more shows rather than pay for the best seats, I choose tickets balancing the cost against the seat location. I was interested to see how much I’m spending as I don’t think London theatre has to be expensive. I’m seeing more productions this year as I’ve missed out over the past couple of years.

Here are the trips I’ve booked so far:

25th Feb: A Number (Old Vic Theatre) – £13.50 (slightly restricted but more than acceptable side view)

11th Mar: Persuasion (Rose Theatre in suburbs) – £15 (side view but excellent seat)

18th Mar: To Kill a Mockingbird (Gielgud Theatre) – £15 (centre stalls with excellent view – originally the ticket was £50 so I passed on it; then I got a one-day flash sale offer)

6th Apr: The Human Voice (Harold Pinter) – £38.65 (rear stalls – sold as restricted view but wasn’t) – I rarely choose a play based on who’s in it but this one starred Ruth Wilson of Luther fame so I paid a bit more than usual.

20th May: Middle (National Theatre) – £20 (restricted view – interested to see in what way)

28th May: Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare’s Globe) – £6 (standing – if this is all right, I’ll go more often!)

3rd Jun: Grease (Dominion Theatre) – £24

2nd Jul: The Seagull (Harold Pinter Theatre) – £49 (restricted view – interested to see in what way) – This one was cancelled from 2020 because of you know what and stars Emilia Clarke of Game of Thrones fame. I think I went for the cheapest ticket but as I love Chekhov and I like her, I paid more than I would have wanted to.

That comes to a total of £181.15, an average of £22.64 per ticket. If you take out the two extravagant tickets where a premium has been added because of the pull of the actresses, the average comes down to £15.58 per ticket. I don’t think that’s bad at all for first class London theatre, where, for example, the most expensive ticket for Grease is £150.

London might have a reputation for being an expensive city but it is possible to have a great time on a budget.

My reading week: 19/52

Currently Reading

I’ve almost finished listening to The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura and I’ve just started reading How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino, both of which I’m using for the Asian Readathon.

Recently Completed

I finished reading Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller.

From the attic of a dilapidated English country house, she sees them – Cara first: dark and beautiful, clinging to a marble fountain of Cupid, and Peter, an Apollo. It is 1969 and they are spending the summer in the rooms below hers while Frances writes a report on the follies in the garden for the absent American owner. But she is distracted. Beneath a floorboard in her bathroom, she discovers a peephole which gives her access to her neighbours’ private lives.

To Frances’ surprise, Cara and Peter are keen to spend time with her. It is the first occasion that she has had anybody to call a friend, and before long they are spending every day together: eating lavish dinners, drinking bottle after bottle of wine, and smoking cigarettes till the ash piles up on the crumbling furniture. Frances is dazzled.

But as the hot summer rolls lazily on, it becomes clear that not everything is right between Cara and Peter. The stories that Cara tells don’t quite add up – and as Frances becomes increasingly entangled in the lives of the glamorous, hedonistic couple, the boundaries between truth and lies, right and wrong, begin to blur. Amid the decadence of that summer, a small crime brings on a bigger one: a crime so terrible that it will brand all their lives forever.

I previously read Our Endless Numbered Days by this author, which I enjoyed, so I was optimistic about this one – and I was right to be so. Fuller certainly knows how to create unique and engaging plot lines, and this novel has the wonderful combination of being thought-provoking, a page-turner, and beautifully written. The house and grounds are evoked in a way that I felt I was there, and are a character in themselves, reminiscent of Mandalay in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Hundreds Hall in Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. There are gothic and supernatural elements, interesting (if not necessarily likeable) characters, mysteries that keep the reader guessing, and gradual revelations. It also poses some interesting questions: ‘Who wouldn’t want to rewrite their past, if it means it will change their future?’

At the midway point, I was rating it at 3.5 stars, mainly because I was struggling to care about the characters; after chapter 20 of 24, I upgraded this to 4 stars; by the end, it was a 4.5 star read. I save 5 stars for novels I would choose to read again and although this is brilliant, I don’t think I would. Having said that, in view of the way the story unfolds, it would be an interesting exercise. I’m now planning on reading more of Fuller’s work.

This will fulfil prompt 35 of the 52 Book Club Reading Challenge: From the villain’s perspective – or will it? Maybe, maybe not! I can’t decide if the character is a villain or a victim.

My other completion this week was a re-read of Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa.

Palestine, 1948. A mother clutches her six-month-old son as Israeli soldiers march through the village of Ein Hod. In a split second, her son is snatched from her arms and the fate of the Abulheja family is changed forever. Forced into a refugee camp in Jenin and exiled from the ancient village that is their lifeblood, the family struggles to rebuild their world. Their stories unfold through the eyes of the youngest sibling, Amal, the daughter born in the camp who will eventually find herself alone in the United States; the eldest son who loses everything in the struggle for freedom; the stolen son who grows up as an Israeli, becoming an enemy soldier to his own brother. 

This was chosen for my May bookclub and although I only read it last year, I decided that to do it justice, I needed to read it again. I didn’t enjoy it so much the second time around, perhaps because I remembered the events, and I’m afraid it dropped from a 4 to a 3 star read. Why?

I found there was too much crammed into it so it felt a bit lacking in depth and I was irritated by the prevalence of telling rather than showing that resulted from this. I don’t feel I know the characters at more than a surface level and I kept getting confused where I was time-wise (the latter could be my fault). Also I found some of the narrative a little cloying and sentimental.

However, I did ‘enjoy’ learning about the situation in Palestine/Israel, particularly through the two extracts from other writers, and have a much clearer understanding of the conflict and its background. One of the strengths of this novel for me is the question it raises as to how people who have been brutally mistreated can go on to inflict atrocious suffering on others? This is something I reflected on a lot as I read.

This is Abulhawa’s first novel and I would hesitate before reading another as I fear I might get more of the same, namely too much telling. I wouldn’t completely rule it out though.

Prompt 26: Has an author’s note

I will also use it for prompt 3 of the Asian Readathon: A book by an Asian author that has a universe you would want to experience OR that is totally different to yours. Naturally, the latter applies here.

Reading Next

I think I might go for Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt.

My quotation this week comes from Bitter Orange and comments on one of my favourite themes: stories and our narrative.

Dead is dead…And if we’re unlucky we’ll make it into a history book, but even then it won’t be us, it’ll be a made-up version, someone else’s interpretation. It can’t be the full story of who we are. That’s only in our own heads and in the memories of the people who have loved us.’

Claire Fuller

My reading week: 18/52

Currently Reading

I’m reading Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller and listening to The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura.

Recently Completed

I’ve finished The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundara.

Casting light on the most serious of problems and at the same time saying not one serious sentence; being fascinated by the reality of the contemporary world and at the same time completely avoiding realism-that’s The Festival of Insignificance. Readers who know Kundera’s earlier books know that the wish to incorporate an element of the “unserious” in a novel is not at all unexpected of him. In Immortality, Goethe and Hemingway stroll through several chapters together talking and laughing. And in Slowness, Vera, the author’s wife, says to her husband: “you’ve often told me you meant to write a book one day that would have not a single serious word in it… I warn you: watch out. Your enemies are lying in wait.” Now, far from watching out, Kundera is finally and fully realising his old aesthetic dream in this novel that we could easily view as a summation of his whole work. A strange sort of summation. Strange sort of epilogue. Strange sort of laughter, inspired by our time, which is comical because it has lost all sense of humour. What more can we say? Nothing. Just read.

The is the first Kundera book I’ve read: I wasn’t sure what to expect and I’m not quite sure what I got! To sum it up, I would say: snippets from the lives of four friends with some philosophical musings thrown in for good measure. Overall, I came away with the sense that whilst our lives might appear of paramount importance to us, on the whole they are generally insignificant. I think it’s a novella that would benefit from a deeper exploration.

Prompt 32 of the 52 Book Club Reading Challenge: A book that intimidates you

I also finished reading The Stranger in the Lifeboat by Mitch Albom.

Adrift in a raft after a terrible shipwreck, ten strangers try to survive while they wait for rescue. After three days, short on water, food and hope, they spot a man floating in the waves. They pull him on board – and the survivor claims he can save them. But should they put their trust in him? Will any of them see home again? And why did the ship really sink?

A good few years ago, I read and enjoyed Tuesdays with Morrie and For One More Day, the latter being particularly moving. Then more recently, I wasn’t that struck by The Timekeeper and The First Phone Call from Heaven. Consequently, I was in two minds whether to read this one.

It was better than expected in that I didn’t find it too cloying. I also liked the structure, with short sections switching between events at sea, the investigation on land, and media reports. It was easy to pick up and read, and quick to get through. I found myself eager to turn the pages to discover what the outcome would be. However, there seemed to be many missed opportunities for deeper philosophical exploration so although I enjoyed the story, it wasn’t the thought-provoking read it could have been.

Prompt 16: A book you’ve seen someone reading in a public place (in my case, on a blog)

Finally, I finished listening to Songbirds by Christy Lefteri.

She walks unseen through our world. Cares for our children, cleans our homes. She has a story to tell. Will you listen?

Nisha has crossed oceans to give her child a future. By day she cares for Petra’s daughter; at night she mothers her own little girl by the light of a phone. Nisha’s lover, Yiannis, is a poacher, hunting the tiny songbirds on their way to Africa each winter. His dreams of a new life, and of marrying Nisha, are shattered when she vanishes. No one cares about the disappearance of a domestic worker, except Petra and Yiannis. As they set out to search for her, they realise how little they know about Nisha. What they uncover will change them all.

I loved The Beekeeper of Aleppo so had high hopes for this novel. Whilst it is undoubtedly good, I think I would have enjoyed the experience more had I read it rather than listening to it. I think it would have been more powerful. Having said that, it is a moving and thought-provoking story, based on real life events. Both Petra and her maid, Nisha, have lost their husbands; the difference is that economic circumstances force Nisha to leave behind her Sri Lankan homeland and her child in order to care for Petra’s daughter. In Cyprus, she becomes invisible to all but Yiannis. Petra has to confront her situation and her guilt at the lack of consideration she has given Nisha, taking her help for granted and forgetting that she too is a human being struggling with her own challenges. I think Lefteri is adept at highlighting the plight of the forgotten and dismissed in society (migrants in The Beekeeper and domestic workers in this novel) and does so in a way that confronts the reader with the inhumanity experienced by these dehumanised citizens.

Prompt 22: An unlikely detective

I’m also using this novel for the Asian Readathon.

My quotation comes from The Festival of Insignificance:

Only from the heights of an infinite good mood can you observe below you the eternal stupidity of men, and laugh over it.

Milan Kundera

Asian Readathon

I’ve only just discovered this challenge, taking place in May, which I heard about here, on one of my favourite book blogs (the writer is very intentional and inspiring with her reading).

Here are the five categories with my choices so far:

  1. A book written by an Asian author:
  2. A book featuring an Asian female and/or older woman: Songbirds by Christy Lefteri (character is Sri Lankan)
  3. A book by an Asian author that has a universe you would want to experience OR that is totally different to yours: Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa (set in Palestine in 1948), which I’m rereading for my bookclub
  4. A book by an Asian author that has a cover worthy of googly eyes: The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura (Japanese) – (the cover is strikingly colourful)
  5. A book by an Asian author that has a high rating or was highly recommended by someone:

I am still to decide on what to read to fulfil categories 1 and 5. I’ll have a look on my next trip to the library or perhaps choose something from my TBR pile.

However, before I fully complete the reading of my choices, I’m going to read the books that I haven’t read before, which Nicole Fu has chosen for her list as it will be interesting to compare my thoughts with hers. Her choices are:

  1. My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk (Turkish) – I read this in December 2020
  2. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (South Korean) – I’ve had my eye on this one for a while
  3. How Do You Live by Yoshino Genzaburo (Japanese) – This will further my exploration of Japanese literature
  4. Dear Friend from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li (Chinese) – This sounds fascinating
  5. On Earth We are Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (Vietnamese) – I read this in October 2020

I’m excited to find this challenge and am looking forward to focusing my reading on these particular writers.

My reading week: 17/52

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

I’m late with my review of reading week 17 so I’ll just focus on the novels I completed.

The first one I finished was The Doll by Ismail Kadare, a leading literary figure in Albania, who won the first Man Booker International Prize for his body of work.

Young Ismail’s world centres around his mother. Naive and fragile as a paper doll, she is an unlikely presence in her husband’s imposing house, with its hidden rooms and infamous dungeon. Yet despite her youthful nature, she is not without her own enigmas. Most of all, she fears that her intellectual, radical son will exchange her for a superior mother when he becomes a famous writer.

This was in the fiction section of the library, and is classified as fiction on its back cover, but it’s a bit of a blurred line as it’s also referred to as being part-autobiographical. Whilst I was excited to read an unknown-to-me, highly acclaimed Albanian writer, I wasn’t so enamoured by the prospect of a memoir.

I can understand why categorising it is difficult. It doesn’t exactly read as a memoir and yet neither does it seem entirely fictional. ‘The Doll’ of the title refers to the narrator’s mother, an impenetrable figure behind a ‘kabuki mask’, and his relationship with her. However, she also appears to be a metaphor for his motherland, Albania. We learn a bit about Albanian culture, but not much; a bit about their relationship, but not much; a bit about him as a writer, but not much; and a bit about his marriage, but again not much. This made it difficult for me to find a thread to follow and although there’s a lot in its 167 pages, I just couldn’t seem to grasp it. As a result, I’m left wondering whether this is down to a clunky translation. Overall, I was a little disappointed but perhaps I should read something else of Kadare’s before I dismiss him completely.

For prompt 17 of the 52 Book Club Reading Challenge: A book picked based on its spine.

I also read Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, which I’d been pondering on reading for some time. Surprisingly, I found it in my small local library.

The novel tells the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, who, from her place in the store, watches carefully the behaviour of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass in the street outside. She remains hopeful a customer will soon choose her, but when the possibility emerges that her circumstances may change for ever, Klara is warned not to invest too much in the promises of humans.

I first read Ishiguro at university (The Remains of the Day), which I found somewhat tedious, being written in butler-speak: a cold, detached tone. However, the ending turned it into a brilliant novel and so I also read his two earlier works. At some later point, I read Never Let Me Go but it didn’t do much for me and so I’d stayed away from Ishiguro until now. I was a bit hesitant to read a novel about artificial friends as I find them a bit sinister (I’m thinking here of Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me) and they make me feel somewhat uncomfortable.

My fears were ungrounded: this is an intriguing novel that raises a lot of thought-provoking questions that it never answers, leaving the reader to speculate on what has happened. Although there is often a tendency to present future technology of this nature as malignant, here the artificial friend, Klara, is a benevolent and unthreatening character. Rather than being all-knowing and dangerous, she appears naive and vulnerable as she attempts to make sense of the world around her. It’s a very engaging work of speculative fiction that I was keen to pick up and Ishiguro has left enough unsaid to provide material for another novel in the way that Margaret Atwood did in her Maddaddam trilogy. It was far more enjoyable than I anticipated.

I’m using this one for prompt 40: A book with photographs inside (whilst it doesn’t have photographs per se, one of the characters takes photographs)

My quotation this week comes from Klara and the Sun. Here the mother is addressing Klara:

It must be nice sometimes to have no feelings. I envy you.

Kazuo Ishiguro

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