Friday Fun: Perched Houses

Is it too early to be dreaming about holiday escapes? Or homes where it feels like you’re on holiday all year round? I rather like perched houses: after all, they provided our ancestors with such refuge. There is a beautiful poem by Romanian poet George Bacovia about the ‘lacustrine’ homes on stilts of long ago. Although, this being Bacovia, it is anything but cheerful… I’ll just translate the first stanza for you below:

De-atitea nopti aud plouind,
Aud materia plingind…
Sunt singur, si mă duce un gând
Spre locuintele lacustre.

So many nights I hear the rain,
hear solid matter cry and drain…
I’m all alone, my thoughts go back again
to the lacustrine dwellings.

floating-house-australiaboredpanda2
Floating House in Australia, from boredpanda.com
And another picture of it, because it is so amazing...
And another picture of it, because it is so amazing…
Amanzi complex, from Decoist.
Amanzi complex, from Decoist.
Villa perched on mountaintop in Canada, from Decoist.
Villa perched on mountaintop in Canada, from Decoist.
Perched high above the skyscrapers. Roofgarden from Domaine Home.
Perched high above the skyscrapers. Roofgarden from Domaine Home.
Perched for creativity: Neil Gaiman's shed. From Shedworking.com
Perched for creativity: Neil Gaiman’s shed. From Shedworking.com
Poised for flight in the Austrian Alps. From Decoist.
Poised for flight in the Austrian Alps. From Decoist.
Hotel Endemico in Mexico. http://www.hotelendemico.com/explore.html
Hotel Endemico in Mexico. http://www.hotelendemico.com/explore.html
Couldn't forget a treehouse, could we? This one is in Solling by Baumraum. From homedsgn.com
This is perhaps closest to what Bacovia had in mind, in Solling by Baumraum. From homedsgn.com

 

 

Expat Bubble (A Poem)

For Open Link Night over at dVerse Poets Pub, I thought I’d attempt a spoken word poem. I’m not going to torture you with my recorded voice (or display my lack of technical ability) but you have to imagine quite a jaunty, jarring, hectic note to this one.
Get out, get out from the suffocating glass bell, I want to yell,
but we’re protected so safe within, we survey the scene
with composure, without compunction, with complacency…
And do we even have the decency
to try and learn the language? Do we, hell! And when
people say ‘Non’ we puff, ‘Well, well…what a country, what a system, how do they survive?’

But to me, they feel alive.
Oh, sure, they moan and cuss, groan and fuss,
there’s no British exclusivity or prior claim, you know…
But, on the whole, they let us be, in our inane inability
to pronounce ‘pain’ properly.
When we gather with high-pitched gazelle squeals at watering holes,
descend from our Landies to gather our children under squawking wings
from rugby and ballet, theatre and tennis, piano and gym,
pointing their little toes, pouting their objections…
When we sigh how our lives are filled way past the brim
yet each day another piece of meaning drops off into emptiness…
I want to take that first person plural pronoun
and smash it in resounding, resolute, smithereenish crashings.
I want to proclaim no allegiance, no herding, not me,
I’m not one of them!
But my passport tells another story.

What I Did Not See in Hamburg

Hamburg is one of the most interesting cities in Germany. A city of contrasts. Still a port town with traditionally a working-class population, mainly fishermen and dockers. It is also increasingly a hub for business and the German town boasting the highest percentage of high-income people (and convertibles, despite the less than stellar weather). Yet decidedly less conservative, ‘chi-chi’ and stiff than Munich or Bonn. Less achingly hip than Berlin, it is nevertheless a city justifiably proud of its rebellious streak, innovative thinking and a distinctive local dialect.

View of Hamburg from hanseballon.de website.
View of Hamburg from hanseballon.de website.

I hadn’t been in Hamburg for over 10 years, so was looking forward to spending half a day just reacquainting myself with the town at the tail end of my business trip there earlier this week. Sadly, the German railway employees decided to strike yesterday, so I preferred to stay at the airport, for fear of missing my flight. So this is what I did NOT see yesterday:

1) One of the most spectacular harbours in the world. I always have what the Germans call ‘Fernweh’ (‘farsickness’, the opposite of homesickness) and harbours even more than airports convey this world of limitless possibilities…

From Wikipedia.
From Wikipedia.

2) The Reeperbahn, also know as ‘the most sinful mile’, is a notorious street in the nightlife district (also red-light district) of Hamburg. The Beatles played the clubs here in the early 1960s, and the area is mentioned in many songs worldwide (including Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, The Police). However, I know it from a book we studied at school Faust auf der Reeperbahn, stories about and by Willi Bredel (a German socialist realist writer, imprisoned by the Nazis, fleeing to Russia and later resident in GDR), in which he describes a performance of Goethe’s Faust performed for the working classes on the Reeperbahn. The audience starts booing Dr. Faustus and try to force him to marry Gretchen after he seduces her. A very funny story and ‘Hoirad’n soll er sie, hoirad’n!’ (he should marry her) is a line that I still use for any simple and obvious solution to a complex problem.

Reeperbahn by night, from virtualtourist.com
Reeperbahn by night, from virtualtourist.com

3) The rebels of St. Pauli. St. Pauli is a neighbourhood of Hamburg (and yes, it’s the one that houses the Reeperbahn). The traditional entertainment district for sailors, it is also home to the local Chinatown and best known for its football club, St. Pauli FC, with its distinctive pirate’s flag. Although it hasn’t always been successful on either the national or world stage (and struggles to stay in the Bundesliga), it’s a club that has achieved cult status for its anti-establishment, left-wing tendencies and for banning any right-wing hooliganism at its sports events.

FC_St_Pauli_skull_and_crossbones.svg

4) Leuchtturm 1917 stationery. This was one of the things I was looking forward to buying: several years’ supplies of the distinctive, high-class notebooks which originated in Hamburg in 1917 and was then re-established there in 1948. Shock, horror! At the airport, I could only find the ubiquitous Moleskine and even asked the newsagents and booksellers why they didn’t stock their local product. Are they not aware of the brand’s international reputation? Or has Moleskine pulled out all the stops to be the sole supplier?

From notedinstyle.co.uk
From notedinstyle.co.uk

This, incidentally, is my 600th post since I started this blog in February 2012. I’m not big into round-figure symbolism or celebrations, but I’m pleased it happened right now with Hamburg. I couldn’t think of a nicer town (that I very nearly saw) to write about…

 

 

What Makes a Book Emotionally Gripping?

I’ve just read two books that left my guts in a tangle, so emotionally wrenching were they. The third, in comparison, although perfectly competent and also in the same ‘genre’, was comparatively easier to read, process and distance myself from. So I started wondering what kind of book gives me more of a vertiginous emotional ride?

The Incredible Hulk rollercoaster, Florida. From culturaltravelguide.com
The Incredible Hulk rollercoaster, Florida. From culturaltravelguide.com

In no particular order, this is what comes to mind instantly:

1) Plot: I like my fair share of twists, but I’m not talking unputdownable five thrills a page plotting here. I’ve read books like that in one night and then forgotten about them the next day. Rather, it’s the subject: something about children suffering will always punch me hard in the stomach. I also commiserate with women going through emotional turmoil, depression, betrayal, isolation and revenge. I always find the plight of immigrants disturbing and fascinating: people who have lost everything or who are willing to risk anything to start over again in a country that doesn’t really want them.

2) Style: There is something about the first person POV and being inside a character’s head which is very compelling. Especially if that person clearly has a lot of ‘issues’ and you’re not sure if they are a reliable narrator or not – but then, who is? We all create our own versions of the story. I also like a more reticent writing style, where not everything is spelled out for you (sometimes several times within a chapter), where you have to read between the lines. I like paragraphs where every single sentence counts, sentences in which each word has its part to play. Nothing is wasted and you are forced to pay attention. I’m not offended by frankness, violence, swearing or sex if it serves the purpose of the story. I really dislike gratuitous and repetitive violence (and all of the above if it serves little purpose).

3) Character: I’ve said before that ‘likeability’ is not my main condition for appreciating a character. I always plump for ’roundness’, being believable, memorable, a world unto themselves, and having a coherent and unique voice. In real life we meet far too many boring, bland people who all merge into the background after a while. In fiction I want to meet those larger than life characters that will stay with me for years.

So, after this intro, which three books am I talking about? Here they are, in order of emotional dizziness (from strongest to most neutral reaction):

thewomanwhofedKristien Hemmerechts: The Woman Who Fed the Dogs (transl. Paul Vincent)

Based on the real-life story of Michelle Martin, the wife and accomplice of notorious Belgian serial killer and rapist of the 1990s Marc Dutroux, this is a fictional recreation of her possible thought processes while in prison (with her release date approaching). This is the kind of book that you cannot really ‘like’ – the word is too weak to describe the powerful feeling of repulsion and pity that it evokes in you.

Gritty and sexually explicit (the CleanReader would have a field day with the text), told in the first person entirely from the woman’s point of view (here renamed Odette) it repulsed and attracted me in equal measure. Which is probably the writer’s intention, as it helps to put us inside the mind of a woman locked in a very disturbing relationship. The title comes from a well-known and disturbing fact in the case: while her husband was imprisoned for a minor offence, Martin fed the dogs at his home, but not the two girls he had locked in his cellar. Was she not aware of their existence, did she believe they were already dead or was she too afraid to go down in the cellar, as she later claimed? And if that is the case, does this woman deserve a second chance or is she an irredeemable monster? The real Michelle Martin was released a couple of years ago (she lives in a convent under close supervision of the nuns), a fact which provoked outrage and bitter recriminations in Belgium.

The Flemish author is known for her provocative writing and this book is no exception. It addresses all our prejudices and facile judgements head on. It does not sugarcoat or excuse behaviour, but it provides an alternative explanation which humanises someone whom it is perhaps too easy to label a monster. Odette becomes obsessed with another case of a female murderer: Genevieve Lhermitte, who killed all her five children with premeditation. Yet Lhermitte was labelled mentally unstable and was greeted with pity rather than being demonised.  Nor has Lhermitte been labelled the ‘most hated woman in Belgium’. This comparison becomes very demoralising throughout the book. In fact, generally I would advise to embark upon this book only when you are in a very strong and resilient mental state.

Little sidenote: World Editions has produced a beautiful edition here, with those rounded corners a particularly nice touch.

letyougoClare Mackintosh: I Let You Go

The first chapter already had me close to tears: a mother walking home from school with her child only to watch him being hit by a car just outside their home, with the driver then speeding away. The police investigation starts and those chapters seemed very authentic, especially regarding timelines and how long it takes to solve cases (I then discovered the author has worked in the police previously). The stresses and external temptations in a policeman’s (or woman’s) marriage were also well described.

But this is also the story of Jenna Gray, who has fled to a remote beach in Wales to recover from the trauma of the accident and try to rebuild her life. These chapters puzzled me: I thought I was reading a romance novel, there was just not enough threat or strangeness there initially, except that Jenna tends to be very secretive and overreact in certain instances. Everybody has admired and talked about the big twist that occurs about halfway through, and there are also subsequent twists to the tale. But that wasn’t what made the book compelling to my mind (although I enjoyed them). This story is more about the menacing atmosphere, the claustrophobia, the psychology of power in relationships. There are a couple of improbable elements though, which detracted slightly from my reading pleasure, but overall an emotionally draining read (in a good way).

veranoDaniel Quirós: Eté rouge (Red Summer) (transl. into French by Roland Faye)

Interesting insight into the complicated and inter-related politics of Central and Latin America, with Nicaragua, Argentina and Costa Rica all making an appearance here. Don Chepe is a former guerilla fighter who ‘helped out’ the Sandinistas in Nicaragua but has now retired to a tropical paradise on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Except the remote fishing village is beset by the relentless heat and dust of the summer… and by the discovery of the body of an Argentinian woman who runs the local bar. She has bequeathed some mysterious documents to her friend Don Chepe and he follows the trail of those documents to discover her murderer.

This is more of a political thriller rather than a straightforward crime fiction, although it starts with a dead body. It is based on real-life events, albeit heavily fictionalised. The suspense element is perhaps less sustained, but it provided me with a window into a country I know very little about. The heat of the dusty summer is almost the main hero of this book, the theme is constantly recurring, and this perhaps creates a certain distance and distaste for politics. Or perhaps it’s because the author (and Don Chepe) refer to the victim as ‘the Argentine’ throughout the entire book, or because Don Chepe himself feels old and disillusioned with politics, or perhaps because it all refers to events which took place a while ago. There is a sense of being a step removed from the action, so ultimately I found it less involving. Perhaps just as well, after the two books above.

What makes a book truly gripping for you? What keeps you turning the pages all night or remember a book long after you finish reading it? What makes you cry (if you do cry at books – I admit ‘The Little Prince’ still gets me every time)?

 

 

 

Tove Jansson: Daughter, Artist, Writer

I was rummaging around on my blog and found the beginning of this post. For some reason I never finished it. It’s about two books that I got for myself as Christmas presents, that I read and loved throughout the winter holidays, and yet I never managed to review them. These two beautifully bound books (collectors’ items) are by and about one of my favourite writers, Swedish-speaking Finnish author Tove Jansson, creator of my beloved Moomins.

Tove at work, picture from The Guardian.
Tove at work, picture from The Guardian.

sculptorsdaughterTove Jansson: Sculptor’s Daughter (transl. Kingsley Hart)

These are semi-autobiographical pieces describing Tove’s childhood, her artistic parents and the great parties they gave, holidays at the seaside, being snowbound in a strange house, being ill with German measles. But in actual fact they are slightly surreal prose poems, exploring the big questions of life, death, beauty and truth, danger and safety, and the importance of art. And all is described through a child’s eyes, with limpid clarity, elegance and understatement. Jansson is a sophisticated stylist, leaving out so much in both her painting and her writing, implying more than saying outright.

tovejanssonTuula Karjalainen: Tove Jansson: Work and Love (transl. David McDuff)

Although I had read somewhere that Moominpappa and Moominmamma were based on Jansson’s own parents, I hadn’t realised just how close she was to her family, nor how many personal difficulties and disappointments she had to face in her own life. She was very versatile: painter, illustrator, writer, stage designer, playwright, poet, political caricaturist, cartoonist – and although she occasionally complained of writer’s block (especially during the war), her output was prodigious. But her biographer can speak much more eloquently on her behalf:

‘Work and love were the things that mattered most to her throughout her life – and in that order. Tove’s life was fascinating. She challenged conventional ways of thinking and moral rules in a country where old prejudices … maintained a strict hold. She was a revolutionary, but never a preacher or a demaogogue. She influenced the values and attitudes of her time, but was no flag-bearer – instead, she was a quiet person who remained uncompromising in her own life choices…. When she was still a little girl she wrote that “freedom is the best thing”. It remained of utmost importance throughout her life.’

I cannot explain just how much this book meant to me. At times inspiring, at times sad and haunting, it is not only the biography of an exceptional woman and artist, but also a powerful meditation on the choices we constantly have to make as daughters, friends, lovers and creators. How to be human. She deserves to be better known for all of her work: above all, for her pared down prose and great sensitivity. But I’ll end with the inevitable:  my favourite characters in her Moomin series.

Two of my favourite characters: Moomintroll and Snufkin. From Rebloggy.com
Two of my favourite characters: Moomintroll and Snufkin. From Rebloggy.com
Moominmamma, rushing around, trying to please everyone as usual. From myanimelist.net
Moominmamma, rushing around, trying to please everyone as usual. From myanimelist.net

 

 

New TBR Reading Challenge – and Rereading

I’ve been following Jacqui’s recent deep-digging into her TBR pile with interest. Her latest blog post, reflecting on the experience of her #TBR20 challenge, was particularly enticing. Writer Eva Stalker launched the idea, and some of my blogging friends, such as Emma and Max, have also been persuaded to join in. So I plan to follow suit, while allowing some wriggle room for those inevitable review copies.

The principle is very simple. With so many books double and triple stacked on my shelves (not to mention stashed away on my e-reader), I really need to stop collecting and start reading some of them. So I plan to reduce the pile by at least 20, for however long it takes, and during this period I will refrain from buying any new books (other than those I am sent for urgent reviewing purposes). You are probably laughing, remembering how disastrous my TBR Double Dare challenge ended up… But this feels more manageable – or perhaps it’s just the right time of year to be doing it.

I do have an initial list of 20 in mind, but will allow myself to be open to the fickleness of moods and interests. I also want to incorporate a good selection of ebooks and real books, French and German books, poetry and non-fiction, crime and translated fiction etc. My Global Reading Challenge seems to be suffering a little here, so I may have to make some changes. I will probably need to do a serious cull of my ebooks at some point in addition to this.

So here are my first thoughts on the topic (the ones marked with denote crime fiction titles, is for woman writer)

1) Books in French:

P1030248All about the challenges and disappointments of everyday life in modern France – quite a contrast to the more luscious depiction of France in fiction written by foreigners.

Marcus Malte: Cannisses – small-town residential area C

Jérémie Guez: Paris la nuit – the alienated youngsters of the Parisian balieues  C

Emmanuel Grand: Terminus Belz – Ukrainian refugee in Breton village, aiming to cross over to Britain  C

Fouad Laroui: L’etrange affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine – Morocco meets France in this collection of bittersweet and often very funny short stories

Dominique Sylvain: Ombres et soleil – finally, a woman writer too! The world of international corporations, dirty money and arms trade – plus the charming humour of the detecting duo Lola and Ingrid.   C W

2) Books in German: 

P1030249

Jakob Arjouni: Ein Mann, ein Mord  – third case for Kayankaya, the Turkish-born detective with a very Frankfurt attitude   C

Alex Capus: Mein Nachbar Urs – stories from small-town Switzerland

Judith Schalansky: Der Hals der Giraffe – the dying of the light in East Germany, a biology teacher who proves to be the last of her species  W

Stefanie de Velasco: Tigermilch – this wasn’t much liked by the IFFP shadow jury, but I was attracted by its Berlin setting and thought it could be the Christiane F. for the new generation  W

Friederike Schmöe: Fliehganzleis – 2nd case for ghostwriter Kea Laverde: I’ve read others in the series and this one is again about East vs. West Germany and some traumatic historical events   C  W

3) Books on ereader

P1030251

Ever Yours – The Letters of Vincent van Gogh – one of my favourite painters, need I say more?

Hadrien Laroche: Orphans – an allegorical tale

John Enright: Blood Jungle Ballet – the return of detective Apelu Soifa and his fight against crime on Samoa  C

Sara Novic: Girl at War – child survivor of Yugoslav war returns to Zagreb ten years later  W

Ansel Elkins: Blue Yodel – debut collection of poetry, winner of the 2014 Yale Series of the Younger Poets prize  W

4) Other:

P1030247

Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts – Romanian writer who died of tuberculosis of the spine at the age of 29 in 1938 (perhaps fortunately so, since he was Jewish)

Sergei Dovlatov: Pushkin Hills – shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award this year, but written back in 1983, it’s all about Mother Russia, the artist’s life and living under censorship

Kishwar Desai: Witness the Night – the first in the Simran Singh series and always very topical about controversial subjects in India C W

Ariel Gore: Atlas of the Human Heart – a younger person’s version of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ (which I didn’t like much), a teenager’s journey of self-discovery and running away from America  W

Wendy Cope: The Funny Side – 101 Humorous Poems (selected and introduced by Cope)  W

Have you read any of these? Are there any you would particularly recommend starting with, or should I swap some over for something else? (They do strike me, on the whole, as a rather sombre pile of books).

The other idea that Jacqui planted into my head was to have a bit of a rereading challenge. I carry my favourite books with me in every place I’ve ever lived in and I look up certain pages, but I never get a chance anymore to reread them properly. (Where, oh where are the days when I used to reread all of the novels of Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen every year or two?) So who would like to join me and Jacqui on a #reread challenge? Perhaps of 6 books in a year, roughly one every 2 months? Would that be feasible?

P1030246

Here are some instant favourites that spring to mind: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender Is the Night'; Virginia Woolf’s ‘Between the Acts’ (her last novel); Jean Rhys’ ‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie'; Muriel Spark’s ‘Loitering with Intent’ and Tillie Olsen’s brilliant collection of essays about life getting in the way of creating ‘Silences’. What would you reread, if you could and would?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday Fun: What Makes Me Happy

An odd rumble-jumble of personal pictures here, of things around us, places we’ve seen, the small and big things which make us happy. For those days when we don’t have the budget for chateaux, treehouses and writing sheds.

Holiday in Greece.
Holiday in Greece.
The Franco-Swiss border in the forest.
The Franco-Swiss border in the forest on my morning running route.
Gardens, shade and sitting down.
Gardens, shade and sitting down.
Spring, the far-too-short season.
Spring, the far-too-short season.
Food, glorious food. Especially sweet things. Oh, and drinks are nice too...
Food, glorious food. Especially sweet things. Oh, and drinks are nice too…
Books and creativity in all their forms.
Books and creativity in all their forms.
My cat rolling for an admiring audience.
My cat rolling for an admiring audience.
And, of course, my boys. Preferably when they are running about outside rather than playing video games.
And, of course, my boys. Preferably when they are running about (not necessarily in botanical gardens) rather than playing video games.

And if you’re wondering why Thursday has become the new Friday for the Friday Fun posts: that’s because today is Ascension and a holiday here in France. The umpteenth one for this month. I can remember a time when days off school made me happy… Tell me what makes you happy, both big things and small!