My reading has hugely decreased since starting the PhD, but I’m trying to get back into the habit again. I read nothing in June, Heartburn in July, then the other three in one glorious bank holiday weekend.
Heartburn by Nora Ephron (novel)
This was a good book for getting back into reading – it’s short, quick to read, and has a really strong voice. It was enjoyable enough, but felt kind of one note. The strength of the book lies in the strength of the voice, but there was no depth to hold it up. The part about different types of potatoes for different times stayed with me (particularly that you most need mashed potatoes when you have the least energy to make them), but otherwise it was fairly forgettable.
Town is By The Sea by Joanne Schwartz & Sydney Smith (children’s picture book)
This is a beautiful and sad story that’s simply a boy living in a mining town by the sea in the 1950s telling you about his day. Each section starts with the boy telling you “it goes like this” and, though it’s bright and almost idyllic, the repetition of the words and his days gives the story an inevitability that links with him inevitably following his father and grandfather into the mines. The watercolour illustrations by Sydney Smith are beautiful, particularly the sparkling double spreads of the sea, and the contrast between that and the darkness in the mine underneath. I suspect this is one of those books that reads differently to adults and children, so I’d be interested to know if it’s a sad story for children too.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (novel)
This novel is a modern retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone, which I’m not familiar with at all. I’ve heard it’s a good retelling, so I’m sure I missed a layer of subtext, though there is something interesting in how all the characters are trying to break free of stories/futures that others have told for them, which is impossible because it’s a retelling so their stories literally already have been told for them. It’s surprisingly easy to read given the themes are essentially about complexity – the complexity of family relationships, and the different ways people deal with prejudice, interpret religion, and see the ‘best thing’ to do. I found the ending a bit disappointing. It felt like a single-moment film ending – [spoiler thing happens], credits roll. But it would have been more interesting with more complexity woven in. (Though I don’t know how Antigone ends so it may be related to that). I liked it, but my expectations were a little too high given I’ve mostly seen positive reviews, and only gushing reviews of the ending which I thought was the weakest point.
Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal, tr. by Jessica Moore (novel, French in translation)
This novel follows a heart from organ donor to recipient, and the stories of the people around them. The writing shifts between stream of consciousness and more straightforward prose, depending on what’s happening, which makes for really interesting changes in pace and emotion. Some of the details in a few of the characters’ backstories felt a bit too tangential and detracted from the flow, but generally the different viewpoints worked. Simon donates many of his organs, but there’s something emotive about following a heart, rather than a kidney, as an organ that’s often used a symbol of love and that you can see and feel beat from outside the body. My copy also had a translator’s note at the end, which I always appreciate as translation is an act of co-creation so it’s always interesting to see how the particularly translator approaches the particular text.