Thoughts: Grey is the Colour of Hope, by Irina Ratushinskaya, translated by Alonya Kojevnikov (with poems translated by David McDuff, Richard McKane and Helen Szamuely)

Grey is the Colour of Hope is Irina Ratushinskaya’s prison memoir, written in 1987 after her release from the Small Zone in the Barashevo camp, but before the dissolution of the USSR. This gives it both a very particular angle on history, and strangely a sense of timelessness too. In the limbo in which it was written, it resonates with a more general ongoing repression – maybe if I’d read it before 2014 it wouldn’t pierce so deeply, but of course I didn’t, and Russia is once again up to its old tricks, the cast of characters barely changed.

Even more so now that even as I write this I find myself in one of those little limbos – Salman Rushdie has been stabbed, his fate unknown. By the time you read this, it too might be oddly specifically dated.

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European microstates and special territories, ranked by their suitability for dinosaur smuggling

(Based on images by Nikolai Karaneschev and Nobu Tamura. CC BY SA)

(exceptionally mild spoilers for Jurassic World Dominion, a movie I myself have not seen, follow)

In the latest Jurassic World movie, genetically-modified dinosaurs – having escaped the island – are sold at a black market bazaar to depraved billionaires who want to gamble on them, eat them, or use them as weapons. The bazaar is coded as being Middle Eastern – it’s even graded with the “yellow filter” that Hollywood often uses to make non-Western countries seem dirtier and more threatening – but, technically, it’s not. It is, according to the script, in Malta.

Malta is an interesting country – a small Mediterranean island between Libya and Italy, speaking a language that is closely related to Arabic but with a vocabulary borrowing heavily from Italian/Sicilian (Maltese is the only semitic language written in the Latin alphabet) – but what Hollywood cares about here is that it has some of the aesthetic trappings of the Arab world while being European and majority white, meaning that if anyone says “Wasn’t that bazaar scene a bit racist?” they can say “Uh, nuh uh, this just a white European bazaar”.

But this got me thinking: if you wanted to smuggle dinosaurs into Europe (meaning in this case, primarily the EU, plus the UK and Switzerland), how would you do it? What would be the best place to set up your military-grade dino dealing fair? Here is every microstate, dependency and special territory (outlying bits of EU countries where customs and some other bits of EU law don’t apply), ranked by how good a place it would be for a Jurassic black market.

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Thoughts: Der Hundertjährige, der zurückkam, um die Welt zu retten, by Jonas Jonasson, translated by Wibke Kuhn

This was our latest German Skype session reading, and now we have only one more Jonas Jonasson left to read, so I guess he’d better get cracking on the typewriter before we run out!

Not a huge amount new to say since the last time I talked about Jonasson – he’s still light and funny and dry and slapstick. He still sometimes skates a little too easily over politics, but in a way that fits his general irreverence in the face of life and death. Maybe I’m just too British, and used to political-flavoured humour with an undertone of anger (think Pratchett)? Either way, I wouldn’t say it’s a dealbreaker for me, just something I noticed.

It was a weirdly comforting read though in the pandemic, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh out loud multiple times. Jonasson can still bring these crazy threads together and have them pay off in delightfully madcap ways.

In some ways these books are really good for learning with, because they alternate stretches of easy, colloquial German with dense world politics interludes in a way I greatly appreciate, and though of course Jonasson takes a liberty or two I still find myself learning stuff.

Where the first Hundred Year Old Man book skipped through a hundred years of history, this one is very much situated in the very recent past – Brexit, Merkel, Putin, Trump, Kim Jong-Un, and Allan Karlsson lurching between them all, briefcase full of uranium in tow. So that was a weird experience too, reading something so recent that still feels so far away because so much has changed in such a short time! Not just the pandemic either, just so much has happened. Trump is gone, Merkel has gone, Brexit has receded into the background drumbeat of ugh, Putin’s been pretty busy*… Not to mention the pandemic.

I can’t help but wonder if it’s all going to provoke Jonasson into trying to keep up with the world for a little longer before he lets Allan rest for good. I won’t lie, I’d be happy to follow him as far as he gets…

*I originally drafted this post at the end of January and this reads absurdly now. I can’t even remember what I was thinking of in particular. What could he possibly have been doing that could be considered “busy” before starting an illegal war?

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Bookthoughts Roundup 2021!

OK, so I spent most of last year not writing up the books I read. But I also didn’t do as much reading as usual, so I’m going to do a speedy roundup instead. Sorry! Or you’re welcome!

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Thoughts: The Bride Price, by Buchi Emecheta

I’ve read a little spread of postcolonial African literature, including some set in Nigeria, but I’ve never read anything like The Bride Price. Partly because the older ones were in French and some nuance was inevitably lost as I read in a second language, but still. The Bride Price, published in 1976, addresses feminist issues in post-WW2 Nigeria, specifically in Igboland, and it feels, not dated as in “outdated” but dated as in “of a past time”, certainly.

Spoilers ahead!

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Thoughts: Falling Awake, by Alice Oswald

This was a slightly strange reading experience, devoured from beginning to end in a hospital waiting room before an appointment I was pretty nervous about, heavily pregnant, wearing a mask for three hours and hating it. So a moment very stuck in time, in short. I wish I could do justice to this book, but my brain is just not in smart mode right now, and it wasn’t really then either.

Strange, lovely poetry entwined with nature and somehow timelessness, shot through with light and bedrocked in myth. Particular favourites were Tithonus and Dunt: a poem for a dried up river, but honestly I savoured every poem in the book, enjoying the imagery and language.

The Kindle edition is nice, though the font was small. It might have been images of the pages rather than the usual way they do text, for formatting reasons (especially Tithonus) I’m not sure if that can be changed, I’m not very tech-savvy and it didn’t bother me too much so I didn’t really try…

I honestly wish I had more to say, but instead pretty much all I can say is that I highly recommend it, and will be revisiting it regularly and looking for more of Oswald’s work.

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Thoughts: Zennor in Darkness, by Helen Dunmore

I absolutely picked this one because of the title, because “Zennor” is a pleasing word to me. I didn’t realise it was a real place in Cornwall! I also didn’t really have any idea what the book was about.

It’s one of those books where it’s quite hard to say what it is about, or at least give an overview of the plot. It’s quite slice of life, except it’s WW1 British civilian life, which is something I don’t think I’ve seen very often. The soldiers are very much on the fringe of things, and we only get secondhand interpretations of their experiences.

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Thoughts: The Dinner, by Herman Koch, translated by Sam Garrett

We saw the film of this at Sneak, and because it was in 2017 I only had a vague impression of bitchy people having dinner who didn’t like each other. I also remember even at the time wondering whether the book would be as good as I’d heard, the author underrated in the English-speaking world but respected in the Netherlands.

You know what? Somehow he pulled it off.

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Thoughts: Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson

Well, I was complaining that The Return wasn’t immersive enough as historical fiction, so Johnson came along to smoosh my face into the oppressive tropical climate of Vietnam.

Before we begin – this is a book about the Vietnam War, and as such contains the sort of violence, racist and sexist language and attitudes (and those specific violences) you’d expect. If that’s not your bag, then you can happily stay away from this one.

I…liked it though. Is that the right word? I read it avidly and chewed it over.

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Thoughts: The Return, by Victoria Hislop

First finished book of 2022 and the site is back up and running, so let’s get back into the habit. There’s a 2021 roundup post in the works, but I wanted to get back into regular posting while books are fresh to avoid putting pressure on myself, and also now I have a baby (!) it’s going to be a case of posting in the in-between moments, so you’ll have to forgive the non-linear chronology. I have a little backlog of draft reviews for my 2022 books lined up, so will be posting those on a hopefully regular basis.

Oh man. So I read the blurb of The Return after I finished How to Survive a Plague (and thought yes, this is exactly what I need. Immersive award-winning historical fiction, past and present threads woven together, history I’m unfamiliar with, gimme.

And… eh. Mild spoilers ahead!

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