Shibata is 34-years-old and works in the paper core manufacturing industry (that’s cardboard tubes to you and me). As the only woman in her office, Shibata is eternally put-upon by her chauvinistic colleagues, who expect her to be the coffee maker and general dogsbody. One day, in a fit of pique, she falsely announces that she’s pregnant and therefore too nauseous to deal with dirty coffee cups. In Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi, we’re in for the full nine months, as Shibata learns to love sitting with her feet up, and the lies spiral out of control.
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There comes a time in life, usually around puberty, when you wake up to the fact that your parents are not the infallible heroes you thought they were. Moreover, as Giovanna in The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante discovers, they lie. White little lies to cheer you up and, sometimes, dark, destructive lies that can ruin marriages and lives. Ferrante’s latest book, like her best-selling Neapolitan quartet, is also set in Naples, but this time in a middle-class academic home. The deceptions, passions and betrayals are the same, however, as is Ferrante’s extraordinary ability to inhabit the mind of someone else. My favourite Ferrante book remains The Days of Abandonment, but die-hard Ferrante fans will still want to read this book which has just come out as a film on Netflix.
An amusing journey into the world of Greek gods and semi-gods has been the highlight of my holiday reading this Christmas. Stone Blind by Natalie Hayes is frivolous fun and a welcome distraction from family gatherings and dishwasher emptying. Hayes, a respected classicist whose mission it is to make Greek myths accessible and entertaining, takes a closer look at the infamous snake-headed Medusa and her lethal stare. Was she really as bad as her reputation? Why did her stare turn people into stone? And how did she end up with snakes as hair anyway?
Pottering about in her nicely linoleumed kitchen one day, Dorothy Caliban is startled to be confronted by a green sea-monster named Larry. Half-man, half-frog, he is an escapee from a nearby research institute, on the run and wanted for murder. He is also curiously attractive, and a welcome diversion for the sad and fragile housewife. Billed as an amphibious cult classic, Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls is a clever and captivating read. Seemingly the decidedly uncommon tale of an inter-species love affair, but actually a delicious skewering of the American patriarchy.
This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun is a remarkable, deeply unsettling novel, based on a true story, which has reminded me of the incredible strength humans find in order to survive the darkest of situations. The author Tahar Ben Jelloun traces the experiences of political prisoner Salim, who in 1971 took part in a failed coup to oust King Hassan ll of Morocco. With sixty others, at the whim of the king, Salim was incarcerated in a secret prison complex deep in the Moroccan desert. He was to remain in this hellhole, known as Tazmamart, for nearly twenty years.
The artist Marina Abramovic’s endorsement of Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima piqued my curiosity and, sure enough, this book really is something else. A fast-moving, surreal noir novel originally published in 1968, Life for Sale is about a man who offers his life up for sale. What he expects to be a carefree, albeit lethal, experiment, turns out to be a whole lot more complicated involving gangsters, vampires, hallucinogenic beetle powder and poisoned carrots. Darkly comic and totally twisted, this book will appeal to all fans of surreal fiction and Japanese literature.
In Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux, France’s most celebrated memoirist and newly minted Nobel Laureate, distils her two year long, passionate affair with a married man into a punchy 48 pages. Those familiar with Ernaux’s writing will know she’s the master of dissecting emotions, condensing them into something almost clinical which has the unexpected power to make you cry. I challenge anyone not to recognise some part of themselves in this book. An unashamedly honest portrayal of desire.
There’s a curious contradiction at the heart of I Fear My Pain Interests You by Stephanie LaCava, a novel about pain where the central character is unable to feel it, at least not in a physical sense. Tapping into the ongoing vogue for books about unhappily destructive rich girls, this is Margot’s story. The daughter of a celebrity couple, she has grown up with fame and privilege and an inevitable price to pay for it. A psychotherapist’s dream, Margot’s daddy issues have led to entanglements with unsuitable older men, one of whom attempts to solve the riddle of her congenital insensitivity to pain. Much talked about, this book engaged the brain but left the heart untouched.
It’s 1922. We are in Moscow’s most distinguished hotel and one of its permanent guests, the unrepentant aristocrat Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, has just been sentenced to a life in exile inside the hotel ‘never to set foot outside of The Metropol again.’ So starts A Gentleman in Moscow, a novel that it’s nearly impossible not to fall in love with, a true, yes I will say it, feel good story. It’s not going to change your life, but Amor Towels’ book (also author of Rules of Civility) will entertain and delight with wonderfully crafted characters and enviably elegant writing.
A hero for some and villain for others, Haile Selassie cuts a controversial figure. Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, Selassie stood up to white imperialism, introduced a wide range of reforms and courted Western powers who showered him with foreign aid. He’s considered God by some in the Rastafarian movement. He also ignored millions of starving Ethiopians while spending lavishly on himself and his courtiers, imprisoned or executed his own people on a whim and built up a considerable fortune in Swiss bank accounts. The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski, is a collection of interviews with some of his surviving courtiers, conducted clandestinely after Selassie’s fall. It’s an absorbing study in what power does to people and of a court which makes the courtiers at Buckingham Palace seem like pussycats.