Friday Fun: Iconic Writers and Their Cats

Literary Hub recently had a feature on Four Iconic Writers and the Felines Who Loved Them. Needless to say, all four were male writers and Alessandra Asteriti responded to my RT of that article: ‘Is the assumption that all women love cats because you know ‘women’, or are there no iconic female writers, or what?’ So I decided to redress the balance with a few pictures of iconic women writers and their cats.

Colette favoured Chartreux cats and helped to revive interest in the decimated species after WW2, from thegreatcat.org
Barbara Pym, from The Awl.
Patricia Highsmith had cats throughout her life and her many house moves. Not just Siamese, if I understood correctly. From wwnorton on tumblr.
Ursula Le Guin with her friend, from Pinterest.
Tove Jansson favoured black cats and even took them on the island in summer, from mtv.fi
Muriel Spark, copyright Alan Riding for New York Times.

Incidentally, Muriel Spark has written one of the funniest and most accurate descriptions of the love between writers and cats in A Far Cry from Kensington. Thank you to Alessandra for reminding me of it:

…if you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work, I explained, the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk-lamp… The cat will settle down and be serene with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will come to affect you… so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost…

Three years later the Brigadier sent me a copy of his war memoirs… On the jacket cover was a picture of himself at his desk with a large alley-cat sitting inscrutably beside the lamp. He had inscribed it ‘To Mrs Hawkins, without whose friendly advice these memoirs would never have been written – and thanks for introducing me to Grumpy.’ The book itself was exceedingly dull. But I had advised him only that a cat helps concentration, not that the cat writes the book for you.’

Francoise Sagan never seemed to mind if her cat took a lively interest in her writing, from Le Narrateur.
Doris Lessing, from The Guardian.
PD James, yet another fan of black cats. From The Guardian.

Last but not least, although I failed to find a picture of her cats: Shirley Jackson always had six or more cats all of the same color—usually black, sometimes gray—and she happily allowed people to believe the cats were her familiars to enhance her witch-like reputation. The truth was at once funnier and sadder than that: her cats looked all the same so that her husband, who was short-sighted and not at all fond of cats, would not be able to tell exactly how many cats she had.

Writing Update Spring 2017

It’s been quite a while since I have had anything to report about my writing. There was an outburst of poetic creativity in October/November, followed by a more regular one hour a day minimum writing commitment for about 6 weeks in January/February. Then work, life, rejections and low mood got in the way and writing anything other than reviews or the occasional doggerel verse (aka poetry which is not worth submitting) became too much of an ask.

However, I firmly hope and believe that things are looking up now. I’ve found myself an accountability partner and we share writing ideas, progress, goals and rants on a daily or weekly basis. She is based in California and writes screenplays, but the time and genre difference works in our favour. Plus, we have known each other nearly all our lives, so we can be brutally honest with each other. We were at university together (she studied Mandarin, I studied Japanese) and our lives have moved, oddly enough, on parallel tracks ever since.

California beach, a picture sent by my friend.

So here are some concrete achievements I can mention:

  1. Geneva Writers’ Group literary journal Offshoots 14 will publish my poem To Love and to Cherish (Sept 2017)
  2. Alexa, What Is One Plus One? is featured on Poetry Breakfast today 24 April, 2017
  3. A Mother’s Advice will appear in The Dying Dahlia Review, 2 May, 2017
  4. Two of my poems will appear in a dVerse Poets anthology. Although I’ve had to cut back on my involvement in that poetry community over the past year or so, I have learnt so much from its dedicated, inventive, talented and generous members.
  5. My review of Katie Kitamura’s A Separation has appeared in Shiny New Books, which is one of my favourite go-to sites for reviews of a broad range of books.
  6. I wrote a feature on crime fiction from the Celtic fringe which have a link to ancient myths and legends for Crime Fiction Lover.
  7. I’m quite proud of writing some blog posts which go beyond poetry and book reviews, require quite a lot of thought and editing (even if they don’t always translate into high number of views, but you should know by now that it’s not millions of views that I am chasing): on the differences between the French and Anglo-Saxon attitudes towards creative writing courses (the very topic which was then coincidentally discussed a few days later in Ploughshares), a meditation on how to cope with being in limbo or purgatory, celebrating my 1000th blog post and what Max Weber and Emile Durkheim would have thought about our age of oversharing.

So here is an entirely gratuitous celebration gif with one of my current footballing favourites, Antoine Griezmann (because his diminutive size and cute little face reminds me of my younger son).

Finally, my new resolution is to return to my first WIP. The second WIP had ground to a standstill when life started imitating art (all except the murders, one hopes) and it became too painful to carry on. The first novel has the first draft fully written and is temporarily entitled Beyond the Woods (a translation of Trans-Sylvania, which is where most of the action takes place – NOT a vampire novel, I hasten to add). So all (all?!?) I need to do is edit.

Book Haul April 2017: Making Up for Lost Time

For the first three months of the year, I was on a book-buying ban, loosely participating in the TBR Double Dog Dare challenge on James Reads Books blog. I didn’t quite get to read that many from my TBR pile because a lot of ARCs came in for review, but by and large I managed to resist book buying temptations, with the exception of Lyon. However, since that was right on the last day of March, I consider that a success!

From griffith.edu.au

Since then, I may have succumbed *a little* to book splurges. I blame FictionFan for not bestowing her Queen of Willpower Medal on me! I blame Tony for sharing a picture on Twitter of his lovely Japanese novellas from Strangers Press, based at Norwich University. You too can get them here: Keshiki – New Voices from Japan. I also blame the other Tony for his rant about the Best Translated Book Award shortlist for ordering Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson (Brazil, Open Letter Books). Neither of these two orders have arrived yet, so I can fool myself that there will still be room on the shelves for them.

However, when I tell you that the 25 vintage Penguin classics which I ordered from World of Rare Books are still patiently lined up by the desk, awaiting shelving, you will realise that I may have overdosed on books recently.

But how could I resist a special offer on the Penguins – a surprise bundle of 25 titles? It was mostly the orange fiction series (John Wyndham, Somerset Maugham, Nancy Mitford, Charlotte Bronte), but there were also a few greens (crime fiction by Christianna Brand, Holly Roth and Erle Stanley Gardner) and some unusual finds, such as Passages from Arabia Deserta, a sort of travelogue/anthropological study by Victorian travelling gentleman Charles M. Doughty; a biography of G. K. Chesterton by Maisie Ward;a strange little genre-straddling memoir by Richard Jefferies The Story of My Heart, which looks like a prose poem with wood engravings by Gertrude Hermes; two novels about the British Empire in India by now-forgotten novelist (and former colonel) John Masters; and a book by Peter Wildeblood Against the Law, ‘a first-hand account of what it means to be a homosexual and to be tried in a controversial case and imprisoned’, published in 1955.

The final two books I felt obliged to buy attracted me for different reasons. The first, Rumba Under Fire, edited by Irina Dumitrescu (Punctum Books), was because of its content. It is a collection of essays, poems, prose, interviews about what it means to do ‘art’ in times of crisis. Can art and intellectual work really function as a resistance to power? How do works created during times of extremes of human endurance fit into our theories of knowledge and creativity – can we even attempt to understand them from our privileged and comfy positions? There is quite broad geographical representations here: Bosnia, Romania, Congo, Turkey, Afghanistan, World War 2 concentration camps, India and Pakistan.

The collaboration between poet Derek Walcott and painter Peter Doig Morning, Paramin (Faber & Faber) is pure indulgence. Each double page spread features a poem and a painting, calling out to each other, answering and completing each other. The one to blame here is Melissa Beck, who reviewed this so magnificently on her blog.

While commenting on the review, we connected with Anthony Anaxagorou on Twitter, who asked if we would be interested in reviewing two books of poetry from Outspoken Press, which he promptly sent along. The first is To Sweeten Bitter by Raymond Antrobus, the second Dogtooth by Fran Lock. You can expect to read reviews of both of these very soon.

Friday Fun: More Writers with Magnificent Homes

We can never get enough of the homes and workplaces which inspired famous writers, can we? Here are some truly enviable ones from all over the world.

Tennessee Williams stayed at this windmill on the Stony Brook campus and wrote a play. From Long Island Press.
Nietzche House in Sils Maria, Switzerland, from NietzcheGesellschaft.de
Rimbaud’s house in Harar, Ethiopia. After he gave up writing. Maybe he had a point, after all. From 3roadblog.wordpress.com
Gogol’s stately home in Moscow, from freefortourists.com
Tolstoy’s country estate Yasnaya Polyana, from Pinterest.
Gore Vidal’s legendary clifftop house on the Amalfi Coast, Italy. From Architectural Digest.
Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford House, on the Scottish Borders. From e-architect.com

 

New Take on Unforgettable (Poetry)

Like honey melting on your tongue… the delicious sounds of Nat King Cole singing Unforgettable.

With apologies for subverting those lovely words and heavenly voice, here is a poem which I wrote with that music (and that landscape) in the background. I’m linking it up to dVerse Poets for the Open Link Night.

Fallen trees, from creeklife.com

Incompatible…

… that’s what we are…

We never danced in rhythm, it’s true,
no ballroom twirls or tango glottal stops for you
suffering in brief acquiescence
for the rewards at the end.

You were fast and harsh, I fell for you
out of nostalgia for my previous dance partner
the tall, dark, unattainable one.
So we came together
went out together
grew apart together.

All the art you didn’t see, all the music you made me switch off.
All the books you didn’t read, all the video games I had to watch.

No one ever changes, they say,
but I know I sprout daily
in all directions.
It would only be a matter of time
before we entwined once more into fresh landscapes
I whispered to myself, oh wistful, oh longing.

But now…

all the forks in forest paths we didn’t take,
all the branches we didn’t climb
all the logs we hid behind
until we jumped over them and stopped caring.

You squeezed the music out of heavenly spheres,
you sapped neutrinos of their poetry.
robbed dark matter of its mystery,
tested me on the law of gravity.

Twenty years I’ve listened to you drone
like the exhaust of those Bugattis you admire so much.

And now I sit and ogle at men twenty years younger.

As if life ever gave one second chances.

Spring Reading Tag

I saw this book tag on Eleanor Franzen’s blog and thought it sounded fun. I have no intention whatsoever of forcing you to watch me vlogging about it, but there are some great Booktube videos out there, such as Victoria’s from Eve’s Alexandria. We all need some spring-like sunshine and plenty of books to take our mind off things, don’t we?

What books are you most excited to read over the next few months?

I want to be more systematic about reading books for my #EU27Project. I really enjoy them when I get around to them, but urgent book reviews or other priorities keep getting in the way. Three books I am particularly looking forward to are:

  • Wolfgang Herrndorf: Sand (for Germany) – a thriller set in North Africa, with an international cast, written by a German writer who died far too young
  • Andrzej Stasiuk: On the Road to Babadag (for Poland) – a road trip through Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia, Albania, Moldova and the Ukraine after the fall of Communism
  • Miklós Bánffy: They Were Counted (for Hungary) – pre-1914 Transylvanian counts in the declining years of the Austro-Hungarian empire
The RHS Wisley garden borders are pretty much my ideal. From their site.

What book most makes you think of Spring, for whatever reason?

It must be The Secret Garden by F. H. Burnett. Anyone who knows me will tell you what a hopeless and lazy gardener I am, but I do love flowers, particularly in spring, and the abstract idea of gardening (I even have books with pictures about the perfect English country garden). When I read that book as a child, I was sure that at some point, if I ever were to live in England, I would have that marvellous garden with minimal effort on my part.

The days are getting longer – what is the longest book you’ve read?

One volume Quarto Gallimard edition of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past in French – 2401 pages before it says FIN. Well, to be honest, I read it in separate volumes a long time ago, but I couldn’t resist buying it so I have it all in one place to reread. At some point. When I have time. Hah!

What books would you recommend to brighten someone’s day?

My gallows humour would probably not appeal to most people, but I do have some favourite books which are funny and sunny. I really enjoyed The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. The thought of the Queen discussing Jean Genet with the French President just cracks me up every single time. I also admire Oscar Wilde’s plays: every line is a gem.

Spring brings new life in nature – think up a book that doesn’t exist but you wish it did. (eg by a favourite author, on a certain theme or issue etc)

I wish there could have been more books written by Jane Austen or a novel by Dorothy Parker. As for a theme, I wouldn’t mind seeing a novel about a menopausal woman having inappropriate thoughts about younger man all day long and grappling with her fading writing muse – as a counterpoint to all those middle-aged male protagonists out there facing their midlife crisis. Now that I think about it, Dorothy Parker could have written the perfect novel on this theme.

Spring is also a time of growth – how has your reading changed over the years?

I was such a good reader during my teens: constantly trying out new genres, obscure authors, quite challenging books of science and philosophy and history, which I hardly ever attempt now.

According to my diary at the time, just before my 16th birthday I was reading and pondering about Spinoza, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Rimbaud, The Cherry Orchard, Mademoiselle Julie, Meredith’s The Egoist and K. A. Porter’s Flowering Judas.

Yes, I was a bit pretentious and know-it-all, but also voracious and not as set in my ways as I am now. I am much more of a moody reader now, have to find the book to suit me at any given point in time. However, for the past 4-5 years I’ve kept better track of my reading, with Goodreads lists and with reviews.

We’re a couple of months into the new year – how’s your reading going?

I had a rather slow start to the reading year in the first two months, but things improved in March and April. I am now at 47 books read mark, 12 ahead of my schedule (target is 120 books for the year and I was somewhat behind the target in February). There’s been the usual mix of good, mediocre and memorable books, but no truly horrendous books yet. Or perhaps I’ve just got better at avoiding them.

Any plans you’re looking forward to over the next few months?

Sadly, I won’t be going to Crimefest or Harrogate or Hay-on-Wye or Bloody Scotland this year, as my personal circumstances are still quite muddy. I do love literary festivals though, find them inspirational and motivational, so I might try to attend more local ones, such as Henley or Noirwich in Norwich, where I can go there and back in a day.

The other ‘top-secret’ plan is to get more involved in bringing East European crime fiction to the attention of English-speaking audiences. I’ll be writing a feature on this topic for Crime Fiction Lover, and hope to translate Romanian crime fiction for a collaborative project very soon. Watch this space!