Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

“My heart clutched – it was one of those moments when you feel time is a rug that’s been yanked out from under you; everything around you has changed so gradually that it is only all at one you look up and realize how different your life has become.”

5/5 stars.
ebook, 432 pages.
Read from September 13, 2021 to September 17, 2021.

Okay crew, I am officially 20 books behind on my reviews and have some serious catching up to do. It’s been a shit show over here in Hong Kong the last two months and my schedule has been turned upside, yet again, for what feels like the millionth time. I’ve got some time so I am going to try my best to get through my backlog even if it means writing shorter reviews.

If someone had told me I would read a fictional story about Hilary Clinton and love it I would have called them bluff. Enter Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld…

What if Hilary Rodham didn’t marry Bill Clinton? How would the world of politics fare? What would have changed and would it have been for the better? These are the questions that author Curtis Sittenfeld answers in writing this book as she reimagines Hilary’s life and career after opting not to marry Bill. This isn’t Sittenfeld’s first time writing a political-alternative narrative as in 2008 she wrote a book called American Wife that echos the life of the First Lady that is reminiscent of Laura Bush’s time in the Whitehouse.

Sittenfeld clearly did her homework when writing this book in order to get the wider picture of both Hilary and Bill. The first part of the book encompasses Hilary and her family and how she meets Bill while at Yale. The ensuing sex scenes feel awkward at first since you know that these people aren’t just merely characters in a book but actual people with a real romantic history. There is a sexy naked saxophone scene that I will forever remember, for better or for worse. While the sex scenes themselves lose their awkwardness you become enthralled with the inner workings of Hilary and her ambitions. The writing is concise, exciting, and introduces you to this intricate world of politics and the scandals behind them.

Sittenfeld carefully shaped this story around real quotes and real historical situations and made Hilary’s alternative life seem so real. The book is meant to dismantle the misogyny that the real Hilary has faced her whole life and attempts to show reasons why Hilary may have stayed with Bill after his infidelities.

Some of my favourite parts of the book include cameos from Donald Trump and how he would have fit into this alternative narrative. The way Sittenfeld wrote Trump and his dialogue felt so comically accurate. The ending of the novel was also immensely satisfying and moving.

Sittenfeld has clearly found her niche as I could not put this book down. If someone can make me read a book about political figures and love it, they must have some serious talent. A highly recommended read for anyone looking for something different and thought-provoking.

Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes

“The dreamer in her
Had fallen in love with me and she did not know it.
That moment the dreamer in me
Fell in love with her and I knew it.”

3/5 stars.
Paperback, 198 pages.
Read from August 31, 2021 to September 12, 2021.

If you’re not aware of the Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath saga please read a quick rundown before embarking on this book as it’s extremely important in understanding this selection of poetry.

Birthday Letters was published 35 years after Plath’s suicide and was written over a 25 year period. It was published in March 1998 which was only a few months before Hughes would pass away. Hughes had previously published nothing about their relationship. Hughes and Plath’s marriage was a difficult one with Hughes being unfaithful and eventually moving in with his mistress. While Plath’s works were hailed as masterpieces of modern feminism, Hughes was vilified for his part in Plath’s suicide as she spiralled further into a depression after he left. Hughes also destroyed some of Plath’s works after she died, presumably because it cast him in a bad light since Plath’s poetry often referred to her relationships, including Hughes and her father. This furthered public resentment from Plath fans. This collection was Hughes’ response to Plath’s poetry and possible redemption from her untimely death. Ted Hughes was the United Kingdom’s Poet Laureate from December 1984 until his death.

The world is still very much fascinated with these two poetic geniuses and their lives. It’s part of the reason why they’re still read today. Birthday Letters is Hughes intimate and autobiographical account of his relationship with Plath, his side of their story and his reaction to her passing. Almost every poem in this collection references one of Plath’s poems, like a direct reply to her work, with his own words, impressions and feelings. Birthday Letters is one of the most intimate collections of poetry I’ve ever read as it reveals a haunted and hurt man, a side not seen by Hughes previously. While the poems in this collection are phenomenally written if you’re not familiar with Plath’s poetry it can make them hard to decipher. I think my biggest regret with this book is that I should have read it slower and taken the time to read Plath in tandem with it. The prose in this book is not meant to be taken in too quickly as the words themselves took Hughes many years to write. While I didn’t always connect with the poems in this collection its prose is very clearly one of the best pieces of poetry to come out of the 20th century.

If you have read this book, please read the previously unpublished poem “Last Letter“. This poem is Hughes most vulnerable poem on Plath’s death but why it wasn’t included in this collection is a mystery. Last Letters provides a sense of closure on Hughes feelings on their relationship and tragic outcome that clearly haunted him his whole life.

This books is a must-read for any poetry lover or if you’re at all interested in the dynamic and tragic relationship of Hughes and Plath.

After the Quake by Haruki Murakami

“I want to write about people who dream and wait for the night to end, who long for the light so they can hold the ones they love.”

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 132 pages.
Read from August 12, 2021 – August 19, 2021.

On January 17 1995, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake rocked Hyōgo Prefecture in Japan. This earthquake was the first-ever recorded earthquake to top the charts of the Japan Meteorological Agency. Nearly 6500 people lost their lives that day, around 4600 of them from the city of Kobe. Around 200,000 buildings collapsed that day. Even now, the Kobe earthquake still holds as one of Japan’s deadliest earthquakes. A few months later, Japan with hit with another tragedy with the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway. These two events altered the Japanese people and will forever be imprinted in people’s minds and history books.

A damaged highway in Kobe as a result of the earthquake. Photo from the Wall Street Journal.

I picked up this novel shortly after reading Underground by Murakami, which is suiting considering how close these real events occurred. While Underground is a non-fiction work from Murakami, After the Quake is a collaboration of six fictional short stories that all relate to the Kobe earthquake event. Murakami lived abroad until 1995 and it was after these events that made him decide to move back to Japan. Japan is a geological terror of a location as it is an epicentre for earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons. It’s not a matter of if, with Japan, it’s a matter of when the next big event will happen (enter massive tsunami in 2011) and with climate change making matters worse, Japan sits in a precarious situation.

This novel contains six short stories, each of them set in the months following the earthquake and the sarin attack, with each story evoking a similar atmosphere of emotions created by the disaster. The first story follows a man whose wife abruptly left him after the earthquake. After taking some leave from work he is asked to deliver a mysterious package to one of his co-worker’s sisters. In the fourth, a woman is on a trip to Thailand when she realises she needs to let go of the resentment she has towards her ex-husband. The fifth is probably the most interesting of all the stories in that a man returns home from work to find a human-sized talking frog in his kitchen pleading with him that he needs his help to defeat a super worm in order to prevent a giant earthquake. While some stories carry more realism than others, each carries a heavy tone of longing, hope, sadness, regret, and relief.

Murakami uses these stories to capture the voice of Japan after the quake as well as using it as means to come to his own terms with the tragedy. The earthquake event is prolific in each story, though not always in the same manner. From news reports of the event, a disrupted relationship, to prophetic and metaphorical fights of giant frogs and worms. Murakami’s writing is, as always, poetic and mystical while engrossing readers with a unique story and feel.

A solid choice for Murakami fans who have not read this book yet and a good introductory to a tragic piece of Japanese history.

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