February 2023 Wrap-Up

The Facemaker [2022] by Lindsey Fitzharris★★★★★

In this non-fiction, Lindsey Fitzharris (The Butchering Art [2017]) spotlights the achievements made by New Zealand-born, Cambridge-educated and golf-loving surgeon Harold Gillies (1882- 1960), who was one of the prominent contributors to the advances made in plastic maxillofacial surgery during the World War I. Facial disfigurement, the “rudest blow that war can deal”, often causes “loss of identity”, psychological damage, and social exclusion, and Gillies was one of the pioneers of reconstructive facial surgery who recognised the transformative, multi-disciplinary nature of this field, as well as the need for slow, step-by-step procedures to achieve successful results. Fitzharris writes with much passion and clarity, thrusting her reader into the midst of all the events, while providing an overview of the state of medicine at that time. Non-fiction has never felt as engaging or as exciting to read, and we are provided with many first-hand accounts, as well as with fascinating details regarding the brutalities of the battle-field and the stoic life on hospital wards. The overall result is one eye-opening and moving book about an important topic that deserved more attention, and one unsung hero in need of greater recognition.

Traps [1956] by Friedrich Dürrenmatt★★★★1/2

After enjoying Dürrenmatt’s short story The Tunnel and his play The Visit, I am obviously seeking to read more from this brilliant Swiss author. In this short story/novella, Alfredo Traps, a textile business representative, suffers the inconvenience of his car breaking down on the way home from a foreign city, and is forced to seek a night stay at one local villa. It so happens that, on that particular evening, there is to be held some gathering of men there, and his host, an old man, invites Traps, to join them for dinner. Traps is far from suspecting what an unusual evening lies in store for him as the three eccentric men inform him that, each evening, they like to play a game of their “old professions”: one man was formerly a judge, another – a prosecutor and the final man – a public defender. Needless to say, a defendant is missing this evening, and Alfredo happily steps into the role. Traps, also known by the titles A Dangerous Game (UK) and The Accident (Russia), reminded me of satirical plays of Dario Fo (Accidental Death of an Anarchist) and equally ingenious plays of Ira Levin (Veronica’s Room, Deathtrap). All these mingle the real and the imaginary, facts and make-believe, while showcasing limitless human self-indulgence. Traps is a delightfully ironic and entertainingly unexpected tragicomedy.

The Meteor [1966] by by Friedrich Dürrenmatt★★★★1/2

When a story starts with the absurd, it almost writes itself. This play by Dürrenmatt focuses on Nobel Prize author Wolfgang Schwitter, who escapes a hospital ward while presumed to be very much dead. He seeks and enters his old room, painter Nyffenschwander’s studio, and there eagerly prepares for his final hours, burning his money and manuscripts. The thing is, though, he does not die, and, in the meantime, has visitors, who themselves start to experience life on the edge. This is black humour at its finest, heightened by all the exaggerated farce.

The Human Voice [1930] by Jean Cocteau – ★★★★

In this one-person play by Jean Cocteau, a French master of drama, who wrote plays, poems, novellas, film scripts and criticism, a girl is having a telephone conversation with a man who has just ditched her for another woman. We hear only her voice as she battles through a crowded telephone line connection to speak to the only man who has ever mattered something to her. Though at first it appears to be an amicable break-up and the girl reassures her ex-lover that everything is ok, it slowly transpires that she does not feel fine after all, as we witness her trauma resurfacing. “A good thing that you aren’t too clever and you love me. If you didn’t love me but were clever, the telephone would become a terrifying weapon,” she confesses to her interlocutor as their conversation grows more and more uncomfortable. This avant-garde play impresses with its dramatic content and eccentric form, highlighting the secluded and isolating nature of grief, while also presenting a study of love no longer requited.

A Strangeness in My Mind [2014] by Orhan Pamuk★★★★

This family saga by Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk is an interesting one, though overlong. It is about a street vendor named Mevlut, whose life mirrors the changes experienced by his adoptive city of Istanbul (see full review).

The Trees [2021] by Percival Everett ★★★

“Small town America”-crime mysteries are almost always exciting reads, and The Booker Prize-shortlisted The Trees is no exception. It tells of a series of gruesome, ritualistic murders committed first in Money, Mississippi, and then seemingly all over the US. The mysterious aspect is that, with each body found, there is also another body found at a scene, which then starts “to disappear”. The local Sheriff’s department, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations and even the FBI are soon on the case, and some start to suspect that the murders may be connected to the lynching of black men that happened decades prior. This straight-talking story generates much urgency and some interest, but also soon hits the wall and becomes repetitive (especially with dialogues), as we learn of more similar crimes in the surrounding states. The characters are mostly flat, and Everett often resorts to either “name trickery” (Hot Mama Yeller, Helvetica Quip) or shock (a sexual element of the crimes) to keep the reader’s attention. The story works neither as a crime thriller (too unrealistically and stereotypically presented), nor as a narrative statement on race and violence (too tasteless and the race issues presented are too on the nose (Billie Holiday’s song, Beale Street)), nor as a convincing satire, for that matter. It is true that The Trees is a punchy page-turner, but it also reads like a film script inspired by the Coen brothers’ filmography, and not a very good one.

This month I also read three sci-fi horror stories about “monster” orchids.


10 thoughts on “February 2023 Wrap-Up

  1. I’m happy to hear you enjoyed Dürrenmatt! Although I have to confess that I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by him, I’ve seen quite a few of his plays on stage and always love them! They provide exactly the kind of dark, satirical, and uncomfortable look at humanity that I’m a huge fan of! 😅

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember you haven’t had good experiences with new releases recently. Sorry to hear about The Trees (don’t know if if still counts as a new release). It has been on my radar since it was longlisted for the Booker Prize – when done well, these more literary crime novels can be very engaging.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, they can be engaging, and The Trees was a page-turner, alright. The thing though is that my enthusiasm for it waned in the second half, and, to be honest, despite the Booker short list and the fact that Everett is Professor of English, I struggled to find much literary merit there. Like a film script, it did not have character depth or atmosphere, but, like a film script (especially that of Tarantino or the Coen brothers), it was very simply written, full of dialogues, and of people coming to the scenes of crime or ordering food. It felt it needed actors and decorations to give it “life”.

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  3. I too loved The Facemaker. Fitzharris certainly has a gift for engaging her readers. It was rather sad to hear how Gillies ended up though. Shame about The Trees, it sounded tempting, but maybe not – I do have his I am Not Sidney Poitier in my TBR though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is great to hear you also loved The Facemaker. Few non-fiction books grip me as much as her writing. I don’t know how she does it – it is like magic. I know I am in the minority when it comes to The Trees, but I guess I like my fiction to be something more than one hundred four paragraph’ chapters and no atmosphere or character insight.

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