Bonnie Garmus – Lessons in Chemistry

Bonnie Garmus – Lessons in Chemistry

Elizabeth Zott is a famous cooking show host in the 1960s. People love the way she beings cooking to their homes which is quite different from what everybody else does. She explains the chemistry behind the food and the processes she operates in the kitchen because, well, cooking is simply chemistry. But this is not what the mother of 10-year-old Madeline had in mind. She wanted to work in a lab and do serious research. However, she was ahead of her time, women were supposed to marry and take care of the home and children but not taken seriously as scientists. Only Calvin Evans, one of her colleagues who is as passionate about chemistry as Elisabeth, recognises her potential and treats her as an equal. They quickly become much more than colleagues. As lovers, they are soulmates and have found the other part they have always missed. Fate, however, had other plans for them.

Bonnie Garmus‘ novel is a rollercoaster of emotions which first and foremost lives from the outstanding protagonist who is unique and exceptional in all respects, a feminist long before the word existed in the common knowledge, stubborn and intelligent at the same time. Life is so unfair to her that I wanted to shout at times, but, on the other hand, “Lessons in Chemistry” also highlights what a change a single person can make.

Elizabeth has chosen a highly misogynist environment, science labs in the 1950s were no places for women, except for the secretaries. Already the idea that she could have an equal – not to speak of a superior – mind as her male colleague seems unimaginable. But not only does she encounter men who look down on her, harassment and even assaults are normal parts of a woman’s professional life. When she encounters Calvin, things seem to have the potential to change, but he, too, despite being a prodigies and highly regarded, cannot influence his colleagues’ attitudes that much.

A female fighter who only briefly after the birth of her daughter goes down, but stands up again. She uses her cooking show to inspire others, to send out her messages ignorant of conventions and the risk of losing her job. She knows that things must change and that women need the same chances as their male colleagues. The fight she has chosen seems unwinnable und futile, but for her, it is worth every setback.

A wonderful novel, funny and tragic, oscillating between the emotional extremes, with amazing female characters who even today can inspire and motivate readers since the battle of equality still has not been won.

Natasha Brown – Assembly [Dt. Zusammenkunft]

Natasha Brown – Assembly (Zusammenkunft)

Eine junge Frau aus bescheidenen Verhältnissen. Arbeite hart, mehr als die anderen, pass dich an. Das haben ihr ihre Eltern mitgegeben. Sie hat fleißig gelernt, einen guten Abschluss an einer renommierten Universität gemacht, einen Job im Finanzsektor ergattert und doch besteht ihr Alltag hauptsächlich aus Diskriminierungserfahrungen. Weil sie eine Frau ist. Weil sie die falsche Hautfarbe hat. Weil sie der falschen Klasse entstammt. Im Privaten? Nicht viel besser. Die Familie ihres Freundes toleriert sie, sie ist nur eine Phase, aber ganz sicher keine standesgemäße Partie, die als heiratstauglich angesehen werden könnte. Sie hat alles getan, um dazuzugehören und hat doch keinen Platz erhalten.

Natasha Browns Debütroman „Assembly“ (dt. Zusammenkunft) ist mit begeisterten Stimmen aufgenommen und vom Feuilleton gefeiert worden. Rassismus, Klassismus, Misogynie – sie bringt die großen Themen auf kaum mehr als 100 Seiten zusammen und verdeutlicht damit, dass Großbritannien nichts von all dem überkommen hat, was seit Jahrzehnten beklagt wird. Wichtige Aspekte, Themen, über die gesprochen werden sollte, aber: das hat man schon besser gelesen. Die Protagonistin kann sich kaum entwickeln, da ist der Roman – oder ehe: die Novelle – schon wieder zu Ende. Themen anreißen, ja, aber wichtiger wäre noch eine gewisse Tiefe.

Mir fehlt in der Geschichte ein wenig die Kohärenz, eher episodenhaft werden Szenen präsentiert, in denen die Hauptfigur Diskriminierungserfahrungen macht, sei es aufgrund ihres Geschlechts, ihrer Klasse oder ihrer Hauptfarbe. Sie versucht sich anzupassen, was nur leidlich gelingen kann und immer wieder wird sie zur Projektionsfläche derer, die gescheitert sind und sie dafür verantwortlich machen – als Frau, als Ausländerin, da werden ihr die Jobs ja geradezu nachgeworfen, nur um Diversität zu fördern.

Sie ergibt sich, schweigt, spielt mit – im Gegensatz zu ihrer Freundin Rach, die lauthals für die Gleichberechtigung einsteht. Die Protagonistin schafft es hingegen nicht einmal vor Schulkindern ehrlich von ihren Erlebnissen zu berichten. Der Kampf wäre auch nicht einfach möglich, zu schwer wirkt die Intersektionalität; es ist eben nicht der eine Grund, der sich zum Opfer von Diffamierung macht und sie daran hindert, sich mit einer bestimmten Gruppe zu identifizieren.

Trotz all dem, was in der kurzen Geschichte steckt, für mich waren hier Bernardine Evaristo mit ihrem Roman „Girl, Woman, Other“ oder auch mit ihrem Sachbuch „Manifesto“ ebenso wie Michaela Coels „Misfits“ viel greifbarer und ausgereifter in der Thematik.

Emma Brodie – Songs in Ursa Major

Emma Brodie – Songs in Ursa Major

The annual Folk Fest is the biggest event on Bayleen Island in 1969. The atmosphere is pulsating while the audience is waiting for Jesse Reid, latest superstar with his guitar and extraordinary voice. On his way to the show, he has an accident which unexpectedly bring the local band Breakers on stage. It only takes minutes for Jane Quinn, their singer and songwriter, to win the people over with her charismatic performance. It is the birth of a star, the Breakers are invited record an album and to tour with Jesse’s band. Quite naturally, the two musicians fall for each other, but it is not an easy love, neither Jesse nor Jane is the carefree new star, they suffer from bad experiences and the demons that haunt them. Additionally, Jane fights with the music industry’s sexism and a feeling of being considered just Jesse’s accessory. For some time, they ignore all this, but closing their eyes does not prevent them forever from having to face some truths.

Emma Brodie’s novel perfectly captures the vibes of the time. Her protagonists are highly gifted musicians who live for the music and the moment. “Songs in Ursa Major” is an emotionally overwhelming novel which draws you in its world immediately. Especially Jane is a vividly drawn character whom you come to love immediately despite the stubbornness which comes with her musical genius and perfectionism. She is a role model of a strong-minded feminist who sticks to her ideals and is even willing to sacrifice her career and love in order not to give in to the industry’s conception of a female singer.

The thin line between genius and madness had often been mentioned in connection with creative artists. This also holds true for both, Jesse and Jane, who are far from being mentally stable. Together, they can push each other even further in their genius while heading at the abyss at the same time. Following their creative process translating into songs is a wonderful journey which triggers the emotions in the same way listening to music would.

The villains of the music industry with their unconcealed misogyny make you angry at times but seeing how cleverly Jane can also win some fights can make some amends here. As authentic as this aspect is Jane’s emotional state and the way she tries to cope with her family’s situation and her very personal heritage of creativity and madness alike.

A brilliantly written, intense novel perfect for the summer festival season which brings you back to the time of iconic musicians.

Scott Johnston – Campusland

Scott Johnston – Campusland

Devon is a small New England campus where things run at their unhurried pace as they always have. Eph Russell has been teaching English literature for quite some time and also this winter’s course seems to like him and his way of addressing the 19th century classics. When a minor incident in his classroom occurs – a student claiming trigger warning as Mark Twain uses offensive language in her view – suddenly, Eph’s world crumbles and things fall totally apart. Before the term is over, minority groups have gotten the upper hand on campus accusing staff of racism, sexism and all other kinds of –isms that can be found. Plus, Eph is at the centre of the revolt accused not only of being a white supremacist due to his reading of books written by white men but also of having assaulted and violated one of his students. This student however, Lulu, sees a chance of gaining her fifteen minutes of fame and she is determined not to let this chance pass by.

Scott Johnston’s debut novel surely will not remain without any effect on the reader, in fact, it provokes strong emotions ranging from aversion to frustration, from laughing out loud to total desperation. It is hilarious at times and oftentimes simply infuriates you, most of all because you can imagine all the plot to be totally true. It is a chain of events set in motion, not even intentionally, but unstoppable and the way the characters react to it is more than authentic.

There are many noteworthy and controversial aspects in this highly entertaining novel. First of all, the debate of “trigger warnings” in university that has been going on for some time. Wrapping students up in cotton wool in order not to confront them with reality has been an attitude that I always struggled with. Especially when it comes to literature which reflects the time of its origin, this is hard to understand. Therefore, the beginning of the novel when Eph Russell is accused of only reading white men – who else was there to be published in this period? – this is merely funny and can be dismissed as stupid somehow. The next step is the discussion of which gender somebody identifies himself/herself – or as in the novel: themselves. It goes without saying that LGBTI rights are a great achievement and that minorities should be respected in the same way as majorities. Yet, accusing somebody of misogyny because he is holding the door open definitely ridicules the earnest cause – unfortunately, this is all too real in a strange understanding of feminism and the like and something one sees quite often.

The most striking point is surely Russell’s accusation of sexual assault. Without any doubt, the way the female characters in the novel act is not only convincing, but seems totally authentic. Putting unrelated aspects in a certain context, interpreting them along one single line of interpretation and thus narrating a coherent story that fits well in the world view one has – this can destroy a perfectly innocent life. When you read what happens to the professor, you cannot believe it, yet, you see how the mechanisms work and how Russell cannot do anything about it.

I am sure some reader might find “Campusland” offensive, yet, in my opinion, the way the author satirizes and exaggerates is necessary to put straight some positions that somehow went a bit too far or have taken questionable developments. For me, it was a fantastic read and I would surely say that this is one of the most relevant literary contributions to a lot of current discussions – and, on top, it is wonderfully narrated.