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Archive for the tag “reading”

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.

 

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.

 

July Reads and Crime Fiction Pick of the Month

A good month of reading, despite holidays and other distractions. 17 books, of which 4 translations, 2 in foreign languages, 2 poetry collections and 10 crime novels (or psychological/political thrillers).

Crime/thriller

Miyuki Miyabe: All She Was Worth

BlackHousePeter May: The Blackhouse

This was a reread for the virtual Crime Book Club.  I love the atmosphere Peter May has created of the very harsh, rather alien way of life on the Isle of Lewis. The description of the two-week guga hunting trip on the rock is not for those of a squeamish disposition like me. Although, interestingly, the animal rights activists are not presented in a particularly sympathetic light either. An uncompromising look at believable rather than ‘nice’ characters, with lots of back story, but they are all complex and ring true.

Dominique Manotti: Escape

Anna Jaquiery: The Lying-Down Room

Eugenio Fuentes: The Depths of the Forest

Harriet Lane: Her – also reviewed on CFL

Julia Crouch: The Long Fall – also reviewed on CFL

Maurizio de Giovanni: The Crocodile – review forthcoming on Crime Fiction Lover

Michael Arditti: The Breath of Night

An incendiary political thriller and a hunt for clues about a dead missionary who is going to be canonised as a saint.  This book is about the Philippines during the Marcos regime and after, with very vivid, harsh and poignant descriptions of daily life and the contrast between rich and poor, expats and local people. The constant shift between time frames work well, as it shows so clearly ‘plus ça change plus c’est la meme chose ‘ and the afterword is a masterpiece in apologetics.

playdateLouise Millar: The Playdate

Believable tale of motherly angst and struggle to balance work and childcare, a social life and relationships with the other sex, all in an anonymous big city. Three main female characters are all plausible and there is much to sympathise with in each one… until you discover that each one of them has some unsavoury secrets.

Poetry:

101 Sonnets

Adam Wyeth: Silent Music – my poetry tutor and a very talented poet indeed (no, he doesn’t read my blog, so I can praise him without hoping for leniency on the next module). More detailed review will be coming up shortly.

 

Gossip/Groupie Fanfiction

bowieAngela Bowie: Backstage Passes

Pamela Des Barres: I’m With the Band

It was interesting to read these two in quick succession, as they are so similar in subject matter, and yet so different in tone. Angela Bowie’s account is quite bitter and all about point-scoring (perhaps understandably so, as Bowie’s super-stardom and drug-taking in the 1970s cannot have been easy to live with, although it sounds like Angela was keen to give as good as she got). She also sounds extremely self-centered and takes herself far too seriously. Meanwhile, Pamela comes across as very needy and rather silly at times, but also self-deprecating and humorous. Not the kind of life I would recommend as aspirational for young women: gain fame by being linked to famous people. The endless recitals of drug-taking and sex scenes become terribly dull and repetitive after a while, rather than titillating.

German:

Hilde Spiel: Ruckkehr nach Wien

French:

Martin Vidberg: Le Journal d’un remplacant  – wise, wry and funny observations (in cartoon format) about life as a supply teacher at a school for children with special emotional needs.

Other:

Courtney Maum: I’m Having So Much Fun Here Without You

And my Crime Fiction Pick of the Month (a meme hosted by Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise) was a tough choice, as I enjoyed most of the crime I read this month very much. But in the end, I think the political thriller of Dominique Manotti wins out, as it taught me a lot of new things about the Red Brigades, Italian exiles in France and the pomposity of the French literary world. Besides, who can resist this gorgeous cover?

Manotti

 

 

Friday Fun: Places to Read in Summer

You know my love for cosy reading nooks. They are perfect for winter, particularly with a toasty fire somewhere nearby (for burning toes and marshmallows, not books, of course!). But, come summer, you long for something fresher, more airy, to do your reading. If you are not fortunate enough to have a super-comfortable cherry tree like I did during my childhood summers at my grandmother’s house, here are some worthy alternatives. Plain woodwork and white shades are the way to go…

Front porch. Frome Domaine Home.

Front porch. From Domaine Home.

Japanese bath house. From Decoist.

Japanese bath house. From Decoist.

Veranda.  From Vogue Living.

Veranda. From Vogue Living.

Conservatory. Savvy Home.

Conservatory. Savvy Home.

Mykonos San Giorgio Hotel.

Mykonos San Giorgio Hotel.

Garden retreat. With a Pimms, of course! From Pinterest.

Garden retreat. With a Pimms, of course! From Pinterest.

Sunday Showcase: Bumper Crop of Books

Admittedly, this is 2 weeks’ worth of books, as some of the books I’d previously requested or ordered were all approved and/or delivered this week.

Books for review from publishers: Manotti

Dominique Manotti: Escape – political thriller about Italian Red Brigades and an escaped convict settled in Paris who writes a far-too-realistic novel

Julia Crouch: The Long Fall – a Greek holiday has repercussions twenty years later

Louise Penny: The Long Way Home – Inspector Gamache has retired to Three Pines – but of course murder is never far away

 

Books bought for my tablet:

Anna Jaquiery: The Lying Down Room – Paris in summer, a killer who targets elderly women and a detective with a passion for origami

Tarjei Vesaas: The Ice Palace – a deep childhood friendship, a disappearance and the power of memory

Stan Barstow: A Kind of Loving – Northern England in the 1960s, part of the ‘Angry Young Men’ movement

Paul Johnston: The Black Life – when I discovered Sam Alexander was actually Paul Johnston (hey, at least I guessed the author’s gender!) and that he has written a PI series set in Greece, I had to get this

Linda Grant: I Murdered My Library – because I really need to start thinking what I’m going to do with my huge book collection spread across three countries and four sites.

 

Free download:

Faith Bleasdale: Deranged Marriage – a marriage pact gone wrong – it looked fun, although perhaps not my usual reading matter P1020442

Special Intro Pack from The Stinging Fly:

This Irish literary journal specialising in new writers and new writing (not just from Ireland) has an intro pack offer of the current issue, two back issues and two of their books (which you can choose). How could I resist this?

Books from the library:

Martin Vidberg: Le journal d’un remplaçant (comic book – The Diary of a Replacement Teacher) – as a former teacher, I think this will make me laugh and cry in wry recognition. SSsmall Inspired by Pop Culture Junkie and the Story Siren, the aim of Showcase Sunday is to highlight our newest books or book related swag and to see what everyone else received for review, borrowed from libraries, bought in bookshops and downloaded onto eReaders each week. For more information about how this feature works and how to join in, click here. -

And Now for Something Completely Different…

Two very different books for a change (and a break from my usual crime or other gruelling subjects): memoirs and poetry.

Hilde Spiel was a highly versatile Austrian writer and journalist (from a highly integrated Jewish family), who fled to London in 1936 (after the assassination of her beloved university lecturer Moritz Schlick). Her diary of her trip to Vienna in 1946 as a correspondent for the British Armed Forces was originally written in English but was later edited and published in German as ‘Rückkehr nach Wien (Return to Vienna).

This is a very poignant and thoughtful report of a city changed beyond recognition by bombs and defeat… and yet unchanged in many ways (some good, some bad). [All translations my own.]

I must learn everything anew. The cold mouldy stone smell of Viennese houses… the unrelenting stare of the housekeeper… the suspicious, unfriendly smile that was there before the Nazis and will always be there.

hilde spielSpiel refrains from sentimentality. She is clear-sighted and precise in her description of everyday heroism and cowardice, of opportunism and the complicated relationship between the victorious Allies and the local population. She talks to a Count and Countess, who now live in their crumbling little palace in the Russian Sector. They tell her about the day the Russian army descended upon their property, camped in their garden with fifty horses, shattered all their crystal and raped their female servants. The author understands their feeling of helplessness, but cannot help thinking:

Nevertheless, the two of them have lived for seven years side by side with barbarians. Only… their own barbarians were smooth-tongued, able to converse politely about Goethe and Mozart, with good table manners, agreeable hosts and guests, polished, elegant and thoroughly European. Yet they did far worse things behind prison walls and camp fences than the rape of helpless women. It’s only when the barbarians take on their eastern, unvarnished and shameless form that the Count and Countess realise the degeneration of the present day.

This trip is of course also an opportunity for self-reflection. To what extent can we ever go home to that place where we have been happy in the past, when we have changed and the place too has changed in a different way? Who wins in the battle between heart and mind? How much of our true selves do we have to hide or abandon when we become immigrants and have to abide by the rules and cultural mores of our adopted country?

 

I fear that my centre of gravity is somewhere above the skies of Europe, drifting in a cloud above England, Austria, Italy, France, simultaneously attracted and repelled, never really coming down in any of these places… I will have to test again and again where my true home is.

returnViennaSpiel once said that she could never have worked without England, but she couldn’t live without Vienna. Yet, even as she enjoys a few musical performances at the temporarily re-housed Vienna Opera, she wonders:

Is there anything in this city still alive and contemporary, something I can admire unreservedly, that is not soaked up in the past like a sponge …?

Bonus tidbit of information that I discovered while reading the book is that Hilde Spiel spent the first ten years of her childhood on the street next to the one where I spent mine and had a similar near-Catholic experience in the very same little parish church (which is featured on the cover of the English language edition of her book).

For an additional book review and information on how to get hold of this fascinating book, see here.

 

 

sonnetsThe second book is a collection of 101 Sonnets published by Faber and Faber.  Poet, writer and musician Don Paterson curates this eclectic collection of one of the best-loved and most popular verse forms in the Western world, often with witty asides about each poem. For instance, about Elizabeth Daryush’s Still Life:

The best breakfast every described, though the end of the poem you want to go at it with a cricket bat. It’s hard to know exactly where the poet stand on all this, but we can perhaps sense her disapproval in the pampered insularity of the scene. I hope.

I had no idea there were so much breadth and variety of modern sonnets, from Seamus Heaney’s beautifully controlled ‘The Skylight’ to Elizabeth Bishop’s unconventional two-stress lines to Douglas Dunn’s blissful description of a summer of ‘Modern Love’. A volume to treasure and dip into, again and again. (And yes, that explains my own two recent sonnet attempts.)

Two for Sorrow, Two for Joy

There are four books I’ve recently read which were particularly memorable. Two cheery, two rather darker. One was A. saddening and frightening, one was B. shrewdly observational and uncomfortable, one was C. full of acerbic wit yet charming , while the last was D. energising and taking-no-prisoners forthright. I’ll leave you to match the numbers to the letters.

1) Summer Pierre: The Artist in the Office

summerpierreDay after day, this is how it goes: You get up, go to work – and save your ‘real’ self for the cracks and corners of your off time. Even worse when you have family, children, elderly relatives, pets, associations, voluntary work and all the fanfare of the parade on Main Street to contend with.  Where does your capacity for wonder go? For how much longer are you going to postpone your creative urges?

Writer, musician and illustrator Summer Pierre – you can find examples of her comics on her blog – has wise words of advice on how to combine bread-winning with your passion. And, although she doesn’t quite tell you how to deal with all the family priorities too (this may change now that she has a child of her own), there is much to reflect upon in her no-nonsense approach to artistry. This book is about ‘waking up in the life we inhabit now instead of putting off life for later’. There are lots of little tips, suggestions and prompts how to make your working life more fun and meaningful (dancing with a co-worker, little creative projects, lunchtime adventures, using your commute in productive ways). But the real clincher for me was about being honest with myself about my priorities.

There are plenty of reasons to blow up your life: You want adventure; you hate your job; you are bored with your town, your relationship, and/or your whole life. The basic desire: YOU WANT CHANGE. This is all understandable, but ask yourself this before making any huge choices in the name of your creative life: What will be different? What will change besides circumstance?

It took me years to realize that I could do all kinds of drastic acts like quitting jobs, relationships, towns (or all of the above), but what showed up at the next job, relationship and town was still me. In all creative lives, risk is important, but ask yourself, how does it feel to do your art in the life you have right now? If it seems impossible to do now, what will really change with where you are later? If you can’t do your art – even a little – in the life you have now, with the person you are right this second, YOU MAY NEVER DO IT.

As usual, not everything will be applicable to every reader, but it’s a funny and quick read. It’s a slim, slight volume, and the variations in script may make it sometimes feel childish. The thoughts contained therein may be simple but they’re profound. I’d heard all those things before, even coached others about many of the issues, but when it’s someone else forcing you to stop and think, it’s much more powerful.

Broken2) Tamar Cohen: The Broken

How do you cope when you are a couple with children and your best friends (with children of a similar age) go through an acrimonious divorce? How can you avoid taking sides, how can you protect your own life and family when you’re being engulfed by the flames of dispute and revenge? This is the dilemma faced by the very average (yet refreshingly normal) couple Hannah and Josh, when their rather wealthier and more glamorous friends Dan and Sasha separate. Dan is leaving his wife for a younger woman and Sasha seems to fall apart in front of our eyes, with disastrous consequences for all. This makes for some deeply disturbing reading of squirmingly uncomfortable social and family situations, which the author analyses with razor-sharp precision and sly observations about friendships and parenting, gender differences, nurseries, marriage. Great characters, which all seemed perfectly plausible in context, although in retrospect you kept wondering at their passivity or inability to grab the bull by the horns and spell out the truth. (Perhaps a rather English trait.)

It all starts out as a domestic psychological drama of the unravelling of a family and a friendship, which would have been enough excitement in itself. However, there is more tension, with childhood flashbacks which only start to make sense much later in the book and a sinister build-up towards the end. All in all, a really captivating read, which I finished in one go while waiting for my plane.

AllMyPuny3) Miriam Toews: All My Puny Sorrows

It is so hard to avoid melodrama and mawkishness when you are talking about depression, assisted suicide and family members. Yet Toews manages to steer clear of sentimentality in this fiercely honest semi-autobiographical novel. It’s the story of two sisters, who’ve lived through a Mennonite childhood and their father’s suicide. Outwardly, Elf is the successful one: the fêted concert pianist, married to a tremendously supportive husband, well-off… yet suicidal. Meanwhile, Yoli seems to be blundering through life, unable to hold down a steady job or a relationship, not having much authority over her children, always keenly aware of her mother’s disappointment in her. Yet it is Yoli who consistently picks up the pieces, who mediates, who moves between the stubborn, deaf and blind, between the desperate and the angry. She has to deal with her own frustration and fears, while also dealing with everyone else’s demands.

The style is disconcerting to start off with: a lack of clear speech marks, meandering through different time frames and the introduction of so many characters both major and minor. But it’s worth persevering, because it’s in the accumulation of detail that this book reveals its full poignancy. And if I’ve made it sound like an unbearably depressing read, there are actually many funny anecdotes from childhood and witty observations scattered throughout the book.  This is ultimately a story of the power and limitations of sisterly love, as well as surviving grief and loss, coming to terms with the things we have and haven’t done, the paths not taken, a story of forgiveness (of self and others).

4) Lena Divani: Seven Lives and One Great Love (trans. Konstantine Matsoukas)

These are the memoirs of Sugar Zach, a cat who is now in his seventh (and last) life. Yes, in our part of the world in the Balkans, cats only have seven instead of nine lives, which I’m sure posed some challenges for the translator and editor. Admittedly, I may not be the most objective reviewer of this book, since, as regular readers may know, I’ve recently adopted a cat and am completely smitten by it. So of course I loved this blend of humour, wry observation of humans and feline suavery.

Sugar Zach is a beautiful white fluffy cat, a born schemer and social climber who is disparaging about his birth family. He is cunning, selfish and acts cool at all times, peppering his story with his numbered Meows – general observations about human frailty and absurdity. He also prides himself on his literary knowledge (gleaned from previous lives). He can be very harsh about his humans. Hear him describe the partner of his new owner, a writer:

He loved to waste time. In the mornings, he made his coffee, turned on the PC and played Tetris for about an hour, as a warm-up. After that, he played a few games of patience for good luck, answered his emails, made some more coffee because he was done with the first one and then he started thinking about how on earth to begin the first chapter of his first novel. Just as he became lost in contemplation, the rival thought would occur to him that he had a deadline to meet for his first script which meant he needed to stop thinking about his novel at once and start thinking about the script. He experienced a significant bout of stress. To counter that, he played another game of Tetris.

Yet, as the book progresses, as both Sugar and his owners grow older, change, separate, fall ill, the book settles down from its initial sarcastic tone and becomes a touching tribute to the love between cats and humans. Short and sweet, but ironic rather than sentimental – a delight!

Falling Behind on Reviews…

Manchester, Piccadilly Gardens.

Manchester, Piccadilly Gardens.

I’ve been travelling and working (for money rather than love) for the past three weeks. Which, as always, means I get a lot of reading done (dinners for one at hotel restaurants and lonely hotel rooms are conducive to that sort of thing), but my reviewing falls by the wayside. Too tired mentally to string two words together (except perhaps ‘not now’).

I was aiming for entertaining rather than gruelling books, books to divert rather than ravage me. Some have been better than others, some have been slightly disappointing. I will try to do them all justice with longer reviews over the next few days, so this is what you have to look forward to!

Town Hall, Sheffield.

Town Hall, Sheffield.

Better than or as good as expected:

Linwood Barclay: Trust Your Eyes – ‘Rear Window’ suspense with a modern twist

Miriam Toews: All My Puny Sorrows – depression and suicide, not a light read

M.J. McGrath: The Bone Seeker – another fascinating insight into Inuit life

Tamar Cohen: The Broken – captivating if uncomfortable story of marital and friendship breakdown

 

Manchester, up-and-coming urban area.

Manchester, up-and-coming urban area.

Slightly disappointing (perhaps because of the hype):

Sam Alexander: Carnal Acts – too tough and graphic for my taste

Domingo Villar: Water-Blue Eyes – the abrupt ending spoilt an otherwise rather promising book set in Galicia, Spain

Edward Wilson: The Whitehall Mandarin – ambitious and thoughtful spy thriller, but gets a bit silly towards the end

 

More than slightly disappointing:

Lauren Owen: The Quick – an interesting writer stylistically, but stories about vampires are just not, not, NOT my thing (and I really need to read blurbs more attentively in future)

 

Tour de France preparations, Sheffield.

Tour de France preparations, Sheffield.

Charming and quirky reads:

D. S. Nelson: Blake Hetherington Mysteries – middle-aged, finicky hat-maker is an adorable detective, but felt the novella format was too short for the mystery to fully develop and breathe

Lena Divani: Seven Lives and One Great Love – autobiography of a cat – with great observations about life, humans and love – funny but also poignant

And, speaking of places I’ve travelled to, I found that Sheffield surpassed my expectations, while Manchester was a disappointment. I am sure weather, circumstances, time,  having an insider show you around etc. makes all the difference and I am sure that both cities have plenty to offer, but I know which of the two is my favourite. Still, both of them would make good backdrops to crime novels…

Manchester, former fish market.

Manchester, former fish market.

Sheffield, Winter Gardens.

Sheffield, Winter Gardens.

 

 

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