Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
I haven’t found myself reaching for the dictionary as much as I have until this book by Marilynne Robinson.
Eloquent and lovingly expressive, Housekeeping tells the story of sisters Ruthie and Lucille, who have been passed around a succession of family members, until they end up in the care of their estranged and enigmatic aunt Sylvie.
Although slow for me to get into, the story opens itself up in wonderful and revealing ways, leaving me to want to live in the seemingly strange and bleak town of Fingerbone.
The writing is remarkable, and almost a handbook for creative writing students; I read passages of nothing but beautiful glimpses into the lives of these characters, and Robinson showers attention onto every little detail of Fingerbone. Even as the weather is slowly warming up in London, I feel the cold almost biting at the tips of my fingers, the way she describes heating up bricks on a hot stove to warm up, or skating on the lake frozen over.
Let’s be honest for a second. This story, and its plot, and the characters within it, it has all been done before, over and over, tirelessly published and bought off the shelves. And I usually steer clear from that. But I will say this – there is such a beauty in her prose that even so, it’s worth the read.
Of Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson
See that guys, it’s a succulent plant that ISN’T DEAD (yet). It’s still alive. It lived longer than my last kid – at this point my old one was leaking water and crying out for help.
Anyway, Of Things Gone Astray is like the type of book I would one day like to write. It’s imaginative, and comforting, and I don’t feel overwhelmed by any type of plot being forced in my face.
The basic premise is that a group of individuals wake one morning to find something important to them missing: the front of their house (yes, really), their sense of direction, their status, their looks, material and immaterial possessions. Told in the form of drabbles, this collection of perspectives is wonderfully unique and funny, and puts a smile on my face when I have shit days (note: every day is a shit day).
At the end of it I’m not even 100% sure what I’ve just read but it’s made me think about all the things I’ve lost, of all the things I hope to gain. It’s realistic in a sense that it’s not realistic at all but just enough for me to feel like, if I don’t hold on tight to the things that matter to me, they could be gone the next minute.
Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami
I struggled writing this review, not because I think the book is terrible but perhaps because this is just one of those novels with a very Japanese aesthetic, and one of the problems I have while reading foreign translations of things. Sometimes I’m not sure whether I’m reading something the way the author intends, but that’s very minor and arbitrary.
Strange Weather is a beautiful, shy kind of love story between a young woman in her thirties and her Sensei who taught her Japanese in high school. And honestly, it doesn’t read as a love story in case you hate that soppy stuff (which I do). The back and forth interactions between Tsukiko and her Sensei, and the slow development of their relationship is delicate in places and amusing in others.
The only part I was trying to get over was the great age difference between Tsukiko and Sensei, which is about thirty-odd years. It’s a May-December relationship that takes some getting used to, or maybe that’s just me.
You’re drawn into these characters with differences between them (but not exact polar-opposites) and now and then you remember that Sensei is old – he’s very much old – and Tsukiko is in limbo; she never had a ‘successful’ relationship or learned to love. I think that’s what ultimately makes you root for these two people, stranded in the same lonely presence of each other, to fall in love.
Kawakami doesn’t dance around the fact that this is essentially a love story though, and the way that it’s told is so refreshing to readers like me with piss poor attention span. Each ‘chapter’ almost qualifies as a short story, snapshots of the growing relationship between both protagonists.
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
Every now and then I separate one of these books from their unfortunate family and have a read through some chapters, for want of reminiscing my childhood – years made slightly happier by the adventures that happen within the pages of these books.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is probably one of the most unique series I’ve come across (in my kid-days). They were the first Gothic novels I ever read, but adding to the fact that it’s a peculiar genre for kids, Handler’s writing style and gift of story-telling is darkly humorous, sarcastic, and witty.
For a child, these are all the things you dream of reading, or imagine adult books are littered with. It just so happens Handler does it phenomenally.
These books, if not anything else, taught me from a very young age that adults should not be trusted. Adults are crappy human beings who will never believe what children say. As an adult-in-practice, I’m inclined to believe the lessons I learned are true. Just how many times can you explain to your guardians that there is a bad man, an evil man, a villainous man who is after your parents’ entire family fortune and would do anything to get his hands on it, including murder?
Read these as a kid, or read these as an adult, it doesn’t matter. The unfortunate adventures in this series is worth your time.
If you’re lazy, watch the Netflix show for the kooky and stunning cinematography.
The Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell
Having watched one and a half episodes of The Last Kingdom on BBC iPlayer, I decided that I needed these books in my life. Not just the first (which would have been a more sensible approach to reading) but the first five, which I found on sale (and as a bargain-lover, I just had to buy them).
I’ve never been particularly absorbed in historical fiction and have often found it hard to focus on books of this genre, but Cornwell just happens to be a God among God-writers when it comes to drawing readers in to his tales.
The Saxon Stories (or Chronicles) follows the life of Uhtred (son of Uhtred, son of Uhtred, who is, surprise surprise, son of another Uhtred) of Bebbanburg, born a Saxon but raised a Dane by the great Earl Ragnar. His fate is entwined with that of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, the first King to dream of a United Kingdom with hopes of merging Wessex, East Anglia, and Mercia.
To Alfred, Uhtred swears an oath that changes his life forever, and we learn that fate is inexorable. Uhtred’s destiny is set out for him, and he must decide between the life he loves, and the life he is sworn to serve (and just so you all know, that last bit is taken from the back of the book because book blurbs like to remind me every damn time what’s up with Uhtred.)
It’s not only the historical accuracy of the Anglo-Saxon period that Cornwell gets absolutely spot on. His vivid descriptions of battle (I’m just done reading about the Battle of Ethandun), and his rich knowledge of Vikings and Saxons brings the story to life and makes me feel like I want to fight in a shield wall and spill someone’s guts out with an axe (It’s all very harrowing stuff.)
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
The Vegetarian is like no other book I’ve encountered so far in all my reading life. A story told in three parts maps the journey that Yeong-Hye goes through as she decides to quit eating meat and become a vegetarian. Why does she do this? She had a dream. Yes, a dream. Her decision unravels a slew of consequences that threaten the relationships within her family.
In a disturbing account of the repercussions of one woman’s choice to give up meat, Kang weaves a tale on the sexualisation of the female body and social isolation. She boldly touches on mental illness and cultural/societal norms. A short and fascinating story.
While Han Kang is Korean, the writing style and storytelling is very reminiscent of Japanese fiction I’ve read. I’m a fan of foreign translations, but not accustomed to reading any of this particular genre. Perhaps this story is going nowhere, but for the most part, it’s enthralling.
The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank
A short and charming novel on growing up, learning to love, and dealing with workplace culture. Bank has written something sweet; a series of vignettes that describe the life of Jane, our heroine, who navigates through life by asking questions I often ask myself on a regular basis such as, Why does this person at work hate me so much? and Is this what I want to do with my life?
The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing is quirky with a format that is easy to read and get into. Humour touches all the right places and Jane herself is a compelling character whose fears and hopes and thoughts I see mirrored in my own life.
All in all a welcome break from reading about Vikings, Saxons, battle strategies, horror, and gore (not all in one book though how cool would that be?)
Succulent plant added for reference – I killed the last one by over-watering it (overbearingly over-watered) so fingers crossed this one makes it out alive.