Catching up on books read with short reviews…
Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
Translated by Geoffrey Trousselot
A short Japanese novel about time travel set in a café was always going to have to be read by me! It ticks all the boxes on the face of it, and I was hoping for something along the lines of If Cats Disappeared from the World by Genki Kawamura (see here) or Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper + the Professor (see here) perhaps.
The premise is simple – A small café in a Tokyo backstreet offers its customers a unique experience – the chance to travel back in time. But, the customer must sit in a particular seat, they can’t leave the café, and most importantly, they must return before their special cup of coffee gets cold. Four visitors want to return – each with a different aim as the blurb states: “to confront the man who left them, receive a letter from their husband whose memory has been taken by early onset Alzheimer’s, to see their sister one last time, and to meet the daughter they never got the chance to know.”
The set-up is great and the book started well as we meet the recently dumped Fumiko. However as it went on, I found the novel rather repetitive, the time-travel aspect is totally limited to the café’s environs, and I also got terribly confused with so many of the characters having names, beginning with ‘K’. I loved the idea of this novel and the visitors’ causes, but it didn’t move me as it could have. We do get to find out what happens when the coffee gets cold though… (7/10)
Strange Lights Over Bexleyheath by Mike Harding
Most of us (over a certain age) will fondly remember Mike Harding as an entertainer – folk musician, comic, presenter. He doesn’t seem to be on our screens these days, but is still busy. it’s wasn’t surprising to find out that he has also written lots of poetry over the decades and this volume from 2010 was an interesting read.
I particularly enjoyed the prescience of the title poem (right) which takes HG Well’s War of the Worlds and brings it up to date.
In In the Necropolis, he takes a walk through Glasgow, with a biblical sense of Armageddon approaching – “They sleep on / in Cadaver Mansions”. I also loved Nighthawks – which brought to mind Ralph McTell’s Streets of London, not the Hopper painting:
Seven plastic bags about her carry her / Whole world, a supermarket bag / For every decade of her life; her history
This was a surprisingly varied collection in mood if not in form. I didn’t expect the darkness, but enjoyed those poems most, I think. At 128 pages, it was quite long as poetry collections go, and took me a long time to read, a few poems at a time. (7.5/10)
Source: Library. Mike Harding, Strange Lights over Bexleyheath (Luath, 2010) 128 pages. BUY at Amazon UK via affiliate link.
Breaking and Mending by Joanna Cannon
Before she turned to novel writing, Joanna Cannon was a doctor, blagging her way into university to study medicine in her thirties. She recalls her initial interview in an early chapter of this book, when she met the professor who admitted her at her graduation: surely he wouldn’t remember her?
‘Each year, I would pick an outsider. A high risk. That year, I picked you,’ he said. ‘You were my wild card.’
As wild cards go, I was pretty wild.
Subtitled ‘A Junior Doctor’s Stories of Compassion and Burnout’ Cannon’s short memoir of her years at medical school and as a doctor is a told as a series of vignettes, most between three and half a dozen pages long. Each takes a particular aspect of life as a (student) doctor, most a prefaced by quotations from different people in the medical profession, identified only by their positions from Consultant to Mental Health Nurse. Cannon realised fairly early that psychiatry was where she wanted to specialise, upon meeting a junior doctor as a patient. Little did she know then that she would reach that breaking point where she could easily become the patient too.
Cannon writes candidly of her own experience, the book is moving and thought-provoking, her prose is full of compassion. Yet, I found myself less moved by it than Adam Kay’s This is Going to Hurt (see here) which told of the junior doctor’s life through extremes of comedy and pain, or Christie Watson’s The Language of Kindness (see here) which looked at the role of nurses.
Medical memoirs rank highly on my non-fiction reading preferences. Cannon’s was well-written, but perhaps slightly overwrought for me, not covering much new ground. Maybe I’ve read too many over recent years! (7/10)
Source: Rebecca passed on her copy to me – thank you! Joanna Cannon, Breaking & Mending (Wellcome Collection / Profile books, 2019) hardback, 176 pages. BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s via affiliate links.