findingtimetowrite

Thinking, writing, thinking about writing…

Poetry Anthology for a Great Cause

I don’t often trumpet publishing news  or ask you to buy my books (perhaps because I don’t often have anything to trumpet about!), but this book is for such a good cause that I have to share with you.

product_thumbnailOne of my poems has been included in The Wait Poetry Anthology, which is now available in paperback from Lulu. [I've ordered mine and it looks gorgeous - a satisfyingly chunky collection of poems.] Of course, it’s not just my poetry: you will find such a wide variety of poems, on all topics, in all styles, from writers all over the UK and the world, debutants to established poets.

All proceeds from the sale of this volume will go to Cancer Research UK. So let me tell you my very personal reason for wanting to take part in this initiative (and why I am so delighted that my poem was selected for inclusion in the anthology). It’s the same reason why I’ve done the Moonwalk in Edinburgh a few years back (fundraising for Breast Cancer Research).

My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 36 years old. It was quite advanced so she had her left breast completely removed, plus months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy to follow. It completely destroyed her looks: she was not only forever scarred physically but also never wore a swimsuit or went to the beach again. She lost her lustrous locks (she used to have hair down to her knees when she was in her teens) and had early menopause. The cancer was vanquished and she is still alive today, but the consequences of such aggressive interventions have stayed with her, resulting in all sorts of health problems.

Edwardian Rapunzel from Etsy.com. Needless to say, this is NOT my mother in her youth!

Edwardian Rapunzel from Etsy.com. Needless to say, this is NOT my mother in her youth, but close…

I know her greatest fear at the time was of leaving me motherless at such a young age, potentially at the mercy of a cruel stepmother (she was not very optimistic about my father’s choice in female companions). Yet, although I was about 7-8 years old then and an only child, I never got to feel the full impact of her illness or her terrors. I have a difficult relationship with my mother – we have very different concepts of life and people – but I will be forever grateful to her and admire her for the way she held herself and my life together at that time. Fundraising for cancer is one of the few ways in which I can show her that.

An e-book will also be available at some point, but for the time being, here is another link with information about how to purchase the book online. Dead easy.  Thank you very much… and let me know what you think of my poem and those of others!

All About that Bass: ‘Feminist’ Songs and Crime Fiction?

Over the past few weeks, there’s been no avoiding the infectious, 50s inspired (musically speaking) song ‘I’m All About that Bass’, sung by the talented singer/songwriter Meghan Trainor. She has made chart history in the UK by being the first act to make the Top 40 based on her internet streaming presence alone. [Just as an aside: this twenty year old has been writing music since she was 11 and has released two albums already, plus worked as a songwriter and producer for others.] I love the witty anti-Barbie doll video and ‘any body is OK’ rhetoric, but it has given rise to some controversy, with some saying that the singer is either ‘thinny bashing’ or that she does not go far enough in her feminism. Anyway, here is the song itself, make up your own mind (but be warned, it is quite addictive, so you may find yourself singing it all day).

The song did get me wondering about whether there is such a thing as ‘feminist crime fiction’. This is a trend which perhaps dates back to Modesty Blaise and the first VI Warshawski novel, and was then continued with characters such as Kinsey Millhone, Lisbeth Salander and Zoe Sharp’s Charlie Fox. Most of these heroines are what is known in American circles as ‘kick-ass’, i.e. they usually pack a revolver and have advanced knowledge of at least one or two martial arts.

But what about those who are more ‘everywoman’ than ‘superwoman’? I’m thinking of women who excel at their jobs (policewomen, forensic pathologists, psychologists, whatever they are) but are also ordinary and vulnerable, one of us, in short: Kay Scarpetta, Ruth Galloway, Jane Rizzoli, Lacey Flint, Geraldine Steel, Kate Daniels. I’m sure you can think of many more from TV series. Has it almost become a cliché to feature the ‘strong female detective’ (or investigator with some links to the police) with a commitment problem and demons from the past constantly haunting her?

Two recently read books highlighted this similarity – and it goes beyond the English-speaking world. Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Hummingbird introduces Anna Fekete, member of the Hungarian minority in former Yugoslavia, whose family came as refugees to Finland when she was a child. She is embarking on her first non-uniform criminal investigation position in the north of Finland and has to contend not just with a violent and seemingly unsolvable case of serial killings, but also sexism, racism and tense relationships with members of her family. Meanwhile, back in London, Kate Rhodes introduces Alice Quentin, psychologist who sometimes works with the Metropolitan police, who has escaped an unhappy and abusive childhood and now seems to have a knack for stumbling upon murder victims. Both women receive threatening messages, both find release in running and both seem somewhat oblivious to personal danger.

I am always excited to encounter a new female investigator, and can even cope with the clichés of lonely single life, damaged childhoods and obsession with the job or case in hand. After all, some of us non-investigators are cat owners who come home to empty fridges on occasion. But it would be a shame if this became the ‘shorthand’ for strong women and, implicitly, of feminist crime fiction. Because these women are not strong – they are still vulnerable, even though they are resilient and have overcome their past (to a certain extent). Strength is also about being content, being happy, having nothing ‘missing’, but ‘all the right junk in all the right places’ and celebrating that! Which is why I am currently in love with Cathy Ace’s middle-aged gourmand no-nonsense Welsh heroine Cait Morgan.

Friday Fun: Time for Some Chateaux Again!

I know you’ve all missed my ever-so-useful posts about acquiring the chateau of your dreams in France or thereabouts. Fear not: I’ve continued avidly collecting information and pictures (my future as an estate agent seems secure!).

Chateau in Figeac, right about in the middle of France.

Chateau in Figeac, right about in the middle of nowhere. Sorry, I mean France.

Same property as above. I'd be content with this little outhouse!

Same property as above. I’d be content with this little outhouse!

chateauRochechouart

Chateau in Rochechouart, Limousin, near a famous crater. No, it won’t fall in!

Inside the Rochechouart castle, you can find all the medieval comforts you might expect...

Inside the Rochechouart castle, you can find all the medieval comforts you might expect…

... and a few you might not. I would die for that library!

… and a few modern ones you might not. I would die for that library!

Price available on request – need not apply if you have less than 21 million euros at your disposal!

And, finally, one that is not for sale. It’s been converted into a hotel and restaurant, it’s not that far away from where I currently live… so I still dream of having a civilised supper with friends on the terrace at some point…

Chateau de Divonne.

Chateau de Divonne, divonnelesbains.com

Credits for all of the pictures above, excepting Divonne, is from the property website http://www.avendrelouer.fr.

 

 

My 150th book: Grégoire Delacourt

lalistedemesenviesToday I reached my reading target for the year: 150 books. So everything else from here on is a bonus. But what a book to finish my challenge on!

It’s the story of a family haunted by coldness, lack of communication, lack of love and overflow of sadness entitled (ironically) ‘On ne voyait que le bonheur’ (All you could see was the happiness) by Grégoire Delacourt, which has just been published this rentrée littéraire (the autumn publishing frenzy in France, just ahead of all the literary prizes). Delacourt is a PR specialist/copywriter who started writing at the age of 50. He achieved considerable success in France with his second novel ‘La Liste de mes envies’ (The List of My Desires) – which has since been adapted for the theatre and film – about a lottery-winner, and some notoriety with his third novel ‘La Premiere chose qu’on regard’, featuring a Scarlett Johansson double, which the American actress did not appreciate and for which she took the French publisher to court.

This fourth book is fiction, but you might be forgiven at first for thinking that it’s a misery memoir. It’s the story of a seemingly boring insurance expert nearing middle age, Antoine, who muses about his unhappy childhood and the impact it has had on his own life and parenting skills. But misery memoirs are miserable only when they are badly written; when deftly handled and improved by the lack of constraints of fiction, they transcend the specific details and allow the reader to identify with the universal emotions and truths expressed therein.

DelacourtIt starts off deceptively low-key. Antoine sounds like a pessimistic sod, but perhaps for good reason. His job is to investigate insurance claims and car accidents, making sure that the payout is minimal for the insurance company he works for. In the process, he has to ignore people’s heartbreak and suffering. He berates himself for being a coward, for not having any integrity, for not standing up for the oppressed little man. Bit by bit, through slivers of pictures and scenes from the more distant and more recent past, we discover his unhappy childhood. His parents were terribly mismatched: a cold, clinical father who never shared his heart or secrets or games with his children. A Madame Bovary type of mother, clinging to her illusions, cigarettes and Sagan novels. Twin sisters five years younger than him, much more his parents’ darling than he ever was – until the day when one of them dies in her sleep. The other twin then develops a strange speech impediment, losing half of her words, while the mother abandons the family, never getting in touch again. Antoine and his little sister cling to each other in a touching story of sibling love and protection.

So far so plausibly grim, you might think. In the first part of the book the first person narrator (Antoine) is addressing his son Leon, trying to explain how he ended up being the kind of father he was, how he met his future wife and Leon’s mother, how they tried to play at happy families for a while. There is a lot in the book about the gap between appearances and reality, between façade and the unhappiness or darkness lurking underneath. But then the book descends into the shocking, the unthinkable, and it becomes deeply disturbing. Especially to a parent. Most especially to a parent who feels not entirely confident that they are always providing their children with all the love, opportunities, attention and balance that they deserve. (So that would be all of us, then.) There are a lot of loving details in the memories Antoine has of his mother and yet:

Un jour, je lui ai demandé si elle m’aimait et elle a repondu à quoi ça sert. Aucun enfant ne devrait entendre ça. Ca m’a tué. Je veux dire, c’est ce qui a commencé à me tuer.

On day I asked her if she loved me and she replied: what’s the use. No child should have to hear that. It killed me. Or rather, that’s what started to kill me. (my translation)

Gregoire-Delacourt_1705The second part of the book is more about Antoine’s gradual redemption abroad, in an isolated and very poor part of the world, while the third part is written by his daughter Josephine. It’s a very powerful story about the fear of loving and the need to feel loved, but also about forgiveness, about understanding the reasons for extreme behaviours which we usually condemn. It was an emotionally wrenching read, but also strangely fascinating. I found myself unable to concentrate on much else until I had finished the book.

One final word on the author’s predilection for list-making. At many points in the book, you find whole pages of phrases or sentences repeating certain rhythms, words or structures. Of the type (my translation and slight cutting):

In the photos,  you can’t see how overcooked the fish was. You can’t see the false compliments: yes, it was perfect. You can see our new car. You can see me, stupidly proud, next to the car. You can see the Barbie tricycle. You can see Josephine and Nathalie in the bathtub. You can see Anna and her husband Thomas in our tiny garden, next to a faded hyacinth. You can’t see my mother. You can’t see the lies. You can’t see the baby that Nathalie hadn’t wanted to keep the year before because she wasn’t sure she loved me anymore. You can’t see my tears at the time. My nights spent on the couch. My insomnia. The beast that was awakening. All you could see was the happiness.

And there are many, many more like that throughout the book. Is Delacourt just being stylistically lazy, or does the gradual piling up of details and the repetitions add to the layering on of emotions? It’s certainly an effective way of presenting the disparate, almost pointillistic thoughts that both Antoine and his daughter have – reminding me of Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness technique.

In summary, a haunting, compelling, gut-squeezing read, an opportunity to end my reading challenge with a bang, not a whimper!

completed

 

 

 

 

 

Myths Ancient and Modern

Over at dVerse Poets Pub, we are sharing our retelling of myths with a modern slant. I took a biblical story from the Old Testament which I’ve always had problems with (blind obedience does not sit well with me) and gave it a contemporary reading.

deckchairsSo Abraham took Isaac’s hand and led him to the barren hilltop

with view unimpeded,

deckchair aligned for a demanding god

to witness ultimate devotion.

Higher and higher they mounted:

in altitude

in death toll

in bare-faced wails and covered eyes

He was bound – he did not ask to be martyred.

Your son is not my son.

How easy to sever limbs you’ve proclaimed not your own!

Yet our sinews are joined,

through our arteries the same venom pulsates.

One cut and history bleeds out unchecked.

‘I was only obeying orders.’

Where is the word to halt, the hand to tremble?

Have they not proved enough to this rancorous Master?

Best of the September Reading Crop

20140817_140126Well, it’s harvest time, with some of my favourite fruit now in season: grapes, apples, plums, peaches… I am full and replete with the joys of eating, but what about my reading this month?

It’s been a month of heavy English-language domination for some reason. Out of the 10 books I read (I’m not counting the re-reads for the moment), 6 have been written by English-speaking authors, of which 2 Americans, 2 Scottish and 2 English (I am nothing if not fair and neutral about the referendum on Scottish independence). Israel, Egypt, Switzerland and Swiss/China have been my other sources of books.  Unusually, only half (five) of the books I read this month were crime fiction.

1) Anne Fine: Taking the Devil’s Advice - who’d have thought that a writer I knew predominantly for her children’s books can write such dark and humorous fiction for adults too?

Kerry Hudson, photo from The Guardian.

Kerry Hudson, photo from The Guardian.

2) Kerry Hudson: Thirst – love moves in mysterious ways: a very clear-eyed picture of modern London, immigrants and hope in the midst of squalour – highly recommended

3) Derek B. Miller: Norwegian by Night – there is much to like in this book about an octogenarian and a little boy on the run from Kosovan criminals in a country where they don’t speak the language… but I didn’t quite love it as much as other readers

bratfarrar4) Josephine Tey: Brat Farrar – I reread all of Tey’s crime novels for this feature for Classics in September for Crime Fiction Lover (CFL). The Franchise Affair, The Daughter of Time and Miss Pym Disposes are the best known of her novels, but I had not previously read Brat Farrar, the story of a planned scam to defraud a family of an inheritance. Although (in my opinion) it has aged slightly less well than her other novels, it is still a delightful read, excellent characterisation – and, as always with Tey, with much deeper moral dilemmas than is obvious at first sight.

5) D. A. Mishani: A Possibility of Violence – I’ll also be writing a review and conducting an interview with the author for CFL

6) Joan Smith: What Men Say – a reminder that reading tastes change in 20 years: I previously enjoyed Loretta Lawson and her investigations coloured by feminism. I found this book too much ranting and not enough plotting, mystery or suspense.

7) Naguib Mahfouz: The Beginning and the End – essential for understanding a certain period of Egyptian history, this is also a very dramatic family saga

8) M.L. Longworth: Murder on the Ile Sordou – an island off the coast of France, near Marseilles, a newly opened hotel with a disparate group of guests and staff of varying levels of experience (and with the obligatory secrets). A murder occurs and the island is not quite sealed off, but certainly under investigation to find the murderer – a familiar set-up for crime fiction fans. I can never resist a French location and I’ll review this very soon on CFL.

9) Joseph Incardona: Banana Spleen – I’ll post a more detailed review of this perhaps as part of a theme ‘Men Without Their Women’. A downward spiral for the 30+ something male protagonist, showing that despair and aimlessness is possible even in such well-regulated cities as Geneva.

seaofink_0_220_33010) Richard Weihe: Sea of Ink – This is also written by a Swiss author (of German language, while Incardona is Franco-Italian Swiss) and also deserves a more detailed review. Based on the few details known about the life of one of China’s most prominent calligraphers and artists, this is a prose-poem about creativity, inspiration and discipline, mastering the Way of Tao, finding both reality and self in great art.

So what was my top read of the month? Overall, it was Kerry Hudson‘s poignant novel ‘Thirst’ – it really struck a chord with me. My crime fiction pick of the month would be Mishani’s A Possibility of Violence – my first experience of Israeli crime fiction and thus feeling rather fresh and unusual.

 

Open Link Night: Autumnal Poetry

P1020461My garden teems with cucumbers, roses’ droop, heavily scented figs.

My floppy bag sufficient to fit all the harvest:

in it I also gather eggshells discarded by chicks.

I lay your boots and spade neatly to rest inside the shed.

Played the gardener enough for today – this week – this month.

So easy to forget in today’s sun-stillness:

those moments I flare in nervous thrall –

when is the shift to sandstorm season?

It’s there in the echo of last cuckoo-call.

 

Musing about the change of seasons with a little help from Sappho tonight. Please join us over at dVerse Poets Pub, where we are celebrating that wonderful free-forming, room-for-all event that is Open Link Night.

Changing My Reading Habits (Part 2)

Walk2This continues yesterday’s ruminations about reading: duty versus pleasure, and where blogging/reviewing fits into all of this. How can I hack/cut my own path through the jungle of publishing PR, excited recommendations and friendly requests? How can I bring quality and fun back into reading, rather than making it a race about quantity and deadlines?

I’ve got a list of New School Year Resolutions, but I’ll start with the most obvious remark. I am NOT a professional reviewer. I do not get paid to read, edit, market, hold a writer’s hand or write reviews – not even for the Crime Fiction Lover website. It’s all a labour of love. I may be a fast reader, but I am a slow reviewer. I want my review to be well-balanced, fair, taking into account that different people might find different aspects of the book appealing. I like to think about larger patterns or themes emerging from my reading. I like to compare writers or different cultures. But all of this takes time – at least a couple of hours per review (pure writing time, without counting the reading and researching).

It’s time I cannot afford to spend anymore on blogging. Much as I love reviewing books, participating in challenges, interacting with you all, reading your thoughts and blogs, responding to comments and commenting on your posts, I just cannot sustain this pace whilst also focusing on my family and my day-job. My writing, above all, has suffered in the process. Which is ironic, because the reason I started blogging in the first place was so I could write something everyday, improve my writing skills, track my progress. Call me a wimp, a wuss, a ‘beer glass of reduced volumic capacity’ (good old Romanian saying), but I have days when I am unable to write anything else after I’ve finished a book review. And, since my mission in life is to write poetry and crime fiction (rather than becoming the most revered or feared book reviewer or the blogger with the most followers and freshly pressed articles), it is clear that things need to change.

Walk1Resolutions:

1) Thou shalt not buy, beg or borrow any more books

… until I’ve finished everything I already own. Or give away the books that do not appeal to me. That means: tie up (or otherwise disable) my trigger-happy finger which keeps clicking the ‘buy’ button on online bookshops (and it’s not just Amazon that makes it very easy to order with one click), or the ‘request/send’ button on sites such as Netgalley.

I am very grateful to publishers who send me free books – even more grateful to those who ask me first which ones appeal to me rather than just randomly selecting some of their latest releases. But I also have to be able to say ‘No’, to be clearer about my reading preferences, and not feel obliged to review everything I’ve been sent (when it’s not been requested by me). I also need to give away those ‘scattergun’ books much, much sooner, and stop hoarding them on the ‘off-chance’ that someday I may change my mind. (It can happen, but far too infrequently and I don’t have the space.)

Walk32) Thou can live without all the books you have ever liked or been interested in

I’ve had to move abroad quite a few times and many of my favourite books got left behind in the process. I still have an attic full of books in the UK – and yes, sometimes I would like to re-read a passage which I am sure I have somewhere up there, but on the whole I can live without them or look them up elsewhere. I have to be more selective about keeping only non-negotiable favourites whom I consult all the time, or rare/unusual/hard to find editions. Even if they were expensive.

And I can also learn to wait before reading the ‘latest buzzes’ – which means I am more likely to find them at the library and need not feel guilty about abandoning them half-way through if they do not meet my expectations.

3) Thou shalt have fun with your reading

… and bring serendipity back into the game. Pick up a random title, author, genre on the bookshelf, something just a little beyond your usual line of sight. I want to read lesser known authors, re-read some of my old favourites from school and university, discover little quiet gems instead of the big brash brass-bands of new releases. Not so much for the sake of standing out from the crowd, but because you get to hear all of that hype anyway, in all kinds of media. Do you really need my take on ‘Gone Girl’ when you can read hundreds of reviews elsewhere? There are so many other good books out there deserving a mention, perhaps ones which have been published a while ago but got very little exposure, or authors who have fallen out of favour.

Walk44) Thou shalt be brave and honest

I won’t like all books that I’ve been sent, that I’ve borrowed or bought. A perfectly decent cover, blurb and opening paragraph may suddenly turn into the nightmare read from hell halfway through the book. I know some reviewers who make it a policy to not review a book unless they loved it and can recommend it to others. I can understand this all too well: so much time and effort (blood, sweat, caffeine and tears) has gone into writing and publishing a book that anyone with a writer’s heart will feel uncomfortable criticising it. But if we were all to follow this rule, there would be no warning signs at all on books and we’d soon get very disappointed as a reader, feeling we’d been conned into buying books we simply cannot care about.

This is especially hard when you are reviewing books by people you consider friends (whether you’ve met them in person or only online). I have a huge sense of loyalty to anyone who’s ever been nice to me. When it’s a debut that I did not get on with, I’ve been known to email the author and say: ‘Would you rather I didn’t review it at all, because I can only give it 1-2 stars?’ Because I do believe that debut authors deserve some encouragement, a second chance. I’ve also been known to revert to what the French call the ‘wooden language’ of diplomacy. It’s useful to know perhaps that ‘fast-paced page-turner’ means ‘not much substance’, while ‘an assortment of quirky characters’ usually means ‘far too long cast list of flat stereotypes’.

From now on, I will be honest. Still fair and balanced, still bearing in mind that we are all different and like a huge variety of things, but no more beating around the bush if a book did not appeal to me. Although I may let any author friend know in private rather than posting a scathing review without informing them. And there will be no sarcasm for the sake of showing off my superior critical abilities – when I haven’t even finished writing my first novel!

Walk55) Thou shalt be guided by mood, the colour of the sky and the call of the wild

… but it will not be all aimless wandering. When you reach a certain age, it’s all too easy to turn into a curmudgeon and say ‘I know what I want and like, so that’s what I’ll read’. I want to continue to broaden my reading tastes, in a gentle rather than a forced way. I want to explore new countries, new authors.

So here are some concrete changes you will notice on my blog:

  • I won’t review everything I read, just the books which stand out for me, or which fit into a theme, and probably not more frequently than 1-2 review per week. And that includes the 1-2 books a month which I will be reviewing for other sites.
  • I won’t boast anymore about my latest bookhauls. Although I love hearing what other people are getting and reading, in far too many cases it turns out to be a sort of free book promotion for publishers and authors. I’d rather tweet about that, rather than dedicate a blog post to it.
  • I won’t be jumping on the bandwagon anymore with the latest releases. You may find I review things a couple of years later, after the hoopla has died down. Or talk about authors you’ve only vaguely heard of. Or introduce you to authors I’d like to see translated into English. But rules are made to be broken, so I can’t promise that I won’t fall for a bit of hype from time to time!
  • Post less frequently but more substantially (although I may still succumb to the temptation of pictures of libraries, bookshelves, writers’ studies and interior design). Write more poetry, prose and other posts about writing in general. And sorry, but I cannot stick to a set weekly routine of posts… It will be haphazard as ever, following the call of the wild…

 

Thank you all for your kind tweets and comments on Part 1 of this post yesterday, and for your patience for my long, self-indulgent rant today. It seems that this conundrum resonates with many of you, so please share your own strategies and coping mechanisms.

 

 

Changing My Reading Habits (Part 1)

BookPile2This post follows a few days of intense thinking after reading this very enlightening post by Simon Savidge, a book reviewer I hugely respect. I also realised that this coming weekend I will probably reach my reading target of 150 books for the year – with three months still to go! No, that did not fill me with pride, but with horror, as I expected it to be a stretch goal. It’s all very well to read fast – but does that mean I am perhaps reading too fast, or opting for ‘easy’ reads, not challenging myself, not really spending time with the kind of books I want to be reading? So here are some of my thoughts about how I got into the predicament I am now with my reading, reviewing and writing.

I was never the world’s most disciplined and systematic reader. I would meander through bookshops, libraries, friends’ bookshelves, life in general, picking up whatever I fancied, experimenting, rebelling against the imposed and eager to partake of the forbidden. Many books were censored by the government of the time, so unsurprisingly that made them all the more desirable to the citizens of my country, so we made do with photocopied versions or ancient paperbacks that had been smuggled in and fallen apart in the process. My parents had a good selection of books across all genres and in several languages, all accessible to me from an early age (there was no attempt to guide or force my reading, other than a vague ‘What’s that you’re reading now? Oh, I seem to remember that’s excellent…’). I was always allowed to buy more books, no matter how hard up we were financially (and books were cheap back then), but I always borrowed far more than I bought. From my parents I learnt, above all, a huge respect for books, especially those of good quality, which did not peddle the ‘party line’ in order to get published.

P1020734So my reading habits back in my childhood and teens could be described as ‘omnivorous’ and relying very heavily on ‘happenstance’. I would fall in love with a new author and become mildly obsessed with him/her, reading everything by and about them that I could lay my hands on. Same with historical figures, certain topics or schools of thought. I spent a winter with the Dadaists, a summer with Sylvia Plath (probably just as well, as Sylvia Plath in winter may have driven me to the depths of despair). The main thing is: I read for pleasure, without any care about impressing others or worrying about whether I was learning anything from other writers.

Then I studied Japanese and English at university, so my reading became much more ‘specialist’. Not only did I have a set syllabus (oh, Chomsky’s transformational grammar and Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost! Bane of my life!), but I also discovered competitive reading. All of my classmates were budding writers, literary critics, great readers and often book snobs. So I had to keep up with the herd. I had to be comfortable discussing Saussure, Lacan, Foucault and Barthes, as no essay could be written without at least a passing reference to them and other structuralists. I had to hide away my Agatha Christie and other ‘lighter’ fiction in favour of the classics and ‘trendy’ books of the time. (In our isolated socialist society, we were probably a bit behind the times, but I seem to remember collective obsessions with John Fowles, Bernard Malamud and Mircea Cărtărescu).

Then came the Fall of the Wall and suddenly the whole world was our oyster. So much richness, so much choice! I went a little mad and joined all the foreign libraries and borrowed ten books at a time, went abroad and returned with suitcases full of books (the customs officer could not believe that I had returned from Japan with books instead of electronic gadgets). I recently found a diary of those years and this is a typical example of what I might read in a week:

Beryl Bainbridge: Watson’s Apology; Kafka’s Letters to Milena; Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano; Patrick White: The Burnt Ones; Rosamond Lehmann: Dusty Answer; Natsume Soseki: I Am a Cat; R. Wiggershaus: Die Frankfurter Schule (nope, I don’t remember much about that last one).

And I kept up this eclectic approach when I went abroad, from country to country, reading in the original language where I could,  becoming more and more enamoured with crime fiction and noir, relying heavily on inter-library loans when I found a new writer I could be passionate about. Joy, fun and lack of snobbishness were once again on the agenda. But reading was once more a solitary activity – few of my friends enjoyed the same books I did, and I tried a couple of book clubs without much success. I was too wary of rejoining a herd, listening to received opinions, reading the same books that everyone else was reading. How did Murakami put it so nicely in his book ‘Norwegian Wood’?

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.

I decided I was an eccentric, a rebel, a crime fiction addict with a hard literary core.

Fast forward to 2012 when I started writing seriously once more. Blogging was initially a way to hold myself accountable for writing regularly, rediscovering poetry, experimenting and chronicling my favourite reading. Through this blog and Twitter I connected with some wonderful writers, publishers, reviewers and – after answering a quiz about crime fiction – I became part of the Crime Fiction Lover team. This led to other requests for reviews and I began reading more and more to keep up with demand. It was wonderful to share my bookish delights with others once more… and even more wonderful to receive review copies from publishers for free.

P1020733Yes, I admit I was greedy. Not very discriminating. I just couldn’t say No to a book – even if it wasn’t in my preferred genre, even if I wasn’t the perfect reviewer for that book (not being the target audience). Call it years of deprivation, of having to make do with nearly illegible pirate copies, or having to survive on books that were considered ‘compatible with socialist mores’… Call it the hunger for English language books when you are living in a rural corner of France, where there are next to no bookshops, although thankfully a fair few libraries (the English language section, however, is quite limited)… Call it making friends with fellow authors and wanting to support them by buying and reading their books… Call it reading too many book blogs that make a compelling case for just one more book…  Or just call it plain old avarice.

Anyway, so I have ended up with far, far too many books. Both on my groaning bookshelves and on my Tablet (which my husband bought me in the mistaken belief that it would eliminate our book flow problem). But the worst thing is… that I now have to read with a purpose – usually for reviewing, or for engaging in a dialogue with other bookish people around the world. And, while there is nothing nicer than sharing our love for books, or shouting from the rooftops when we’ve found a book that we believe everyone else MUST read AT ONCE, it has also put pressure on me to read certain books at specific times, just before or after their release dates. I’ve also had to plough through books which have not been quite to my taste, or perhaps I was not in the mood for them just then – but there was no time to set them aside and try again later.

It's all about the meeting of minds.

It’s all about the meeting of minds.

Don’t get me wrong. I am very grateful indeed to all the publishers and PR folk who keep me in the loop with their latest releases. Of course I get a buzz from discovering a new author to love – perhaps ahead of the rest of world. But it has got slightly out of hand. Instead of finding sustenance and sheer joy in books, I sometimes read them with the dagger of duty in my heart. I feel like I am back at university, with a required reading list whether I am in the mood for it or not and seeking to impress my peers. So how can I recover my sense of wonder and delight, how can I continue to explore while still allowing time to think and reread? Am I still a rebel, an eccentric, or am I just a faceless member of the herd?

But this post is already long and rambling enough as it is, so I won’t try your patience any further today. I will continue tomorrow with my thoughts on how to ‘turn over a new page’. [Oh, yes, I've got bookish puns aplenty!] Thanks again to Simon for helping me crystallise my own thinking on this.

Reading Both Sides: Egyptian and Israeli Literature

I’ve recently read my first Egyptian novel and my first Israeli crime novel, although this was coincidence rather than a deliberate attempt to read across both sides of a long-standing conflict in the Middle East. Unlike the works of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, however, neither of the two books were political, although they both paint portraits of rapidly changing societies with many cracks beneath the surface.

mahfouz_postcardNaguib Mahfouz: The Beginning and the End

Mahfouz is the only Arabic-speaking winner of the Nobel Literature Prize (in 1988). He almost single-handedly modernised Egyptian literature, introducing themes such as politics, existentialism, the voice of the dispossessed, as well as cinematic techniques to his storytelling. This novel is the story of the downfall of a Cairo family in the 1930s, an account of their struggle to survive and make ends meet following the death of the father, a petty government bureaucrat. Although the children are almost fully grown, their efforts to earn money and help the rest of them rise from poverty are beset with difficulties every step of the way.

I was not overly impressed with the book, which reads like a soap opera, until I considered how revolutionary it must have been for its period. The author gives us an unvarnished picture of Egyptian society at a particular point in time: the 1930s and 1940s. We see the corruption and machinations of the Egyptian bureaucracy, its education system, the plotting to marry off daughters, the dangers of women losing their virginity. Yet, although all this societal constraints seem to be suffocating the protagonists, Mahfouz makes no bones about laying an equal share of the blame upon them. Their weaknesses, lack of restraint, selfish behaviours, self-justifications all contribute to the tragic outcomes.

I have not read his other books, but I understand that Mahfouz is highly regarded precisely not only for modernising the language of fiction but also for his detailed examination of daily events in the life of middle-class families, in a society which has undergone major changes over the course of a few decades. It’s this translation of major political events into small everyday happenings and interpretations, this fresco of a vanishing way of life, which makes his work so valuable within his own cultural context. But his family sagas of greed, lies, misguided idealism and disappointments also touch universal themes.

MishaniD. A. Mishani: A Possibility of Violence

A bomb planted in a suitcase in present-day Tel Aviv – this has all of the hallmarks of a political thriller, but it turns out to be a much more personal story of revenge, confusion, parental love and fear. The style could not be more different from Mahfouz: almost clinically detached, sober, simple and precise language. Emotion is still there, but well concealed and tightly controlled throughout.

Mishani is a former editor and specialist of crime fiction, and he uses all the usual crime tropes well in his work. This is clearly a book designed to entertain rather than create a polemical debate. Yet this is not a typical police procedural: we catch glimpses of the complex environment that the police have to operate under in Israel today. Apparently, the police are universally reviled by all ethnic groups living within the borders of Israel, even by those citizens who revere the army. Although the author eschews political views in this book, there are echoes of the tensions between different subgroups within society, rumblings about the way in which Filipino care workers are treated and regarded in this country made up almost entirely of immigrants.

 

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