To escape my present chaos, here are the landscapes I’ve recently rediscovered in England and in Romania. As well as some effortlessly elegant houses to which I can but aspire!
I may have been offline for a while, but I was still busy reading towards the end of July (although things have slowed down since). I managed to finish another 4 of my 20 books of summer. I am doubtful, however, that I will manage to finish all 20 of them in the week or so that I have left for this challenge. Besides, I’m also trying to add at least one book for Women in Translation Month and then embark on my Jean Rhys reread. I also have to prepare some Classics in September for Crime Fiction Lover, so all in all, a good reading time ahead, if I can clear my clutter and get my act together.
It’s been such a long time since I finished these books (and I did not take notes at the time, which is VERY BAD practice, I’m sure you’ll agree), that all I can offer here are my unfiltered reactions to them, rather than a proper in-depth book review.
By strange coincidence, I read a lighter-hearted version of a climb of Kanchenjunga in Arthur Ransome’s Swallowdale just a few days later, but this third highest peak in the Himalayas has had its fair share of mountaineering accidents. Above all, it is renowned for a demon or deity resident at the very top, which has meant in practice that all mountaineers have stopped just short of the actual summit, allowing the mountain to remain inviolate.
It’s on this tradition that Michelle Paver plays in this old-fashioned ghost story with plenty of claustrophobia, genuine fear and a sense of adventure. I loved the historical and exotic background, days of the Empire feel to the narrative, the slightly outdated attitude towards the ‘coolies’, the set-up of a story within a story. In short, this was fantastic scene-setting, reminding me of Jules Verne or The Woman in Black or MR James. Finally, when the climb proper starts, you never quite know if it’s altitude sickness or ghosts or fear itself… A great yarn with such a remarkable sense of place and atmosphere that I felt chilled even in this heatwave!
11 – Eleanor Wasserberg: Foxlowe
There was me – my name is Green – and my little sister, Blue. There was October, who we called Toby, and Ellensia, Dylan, Liberty, Pet and Egg. There was Richard, of course, who was one of the Founders. And there was Freya.
We were the Family, but we weren’t just an ordinary family. We were a new, better kind of family.
We didn’t need to go to school, because we had a new, better kind of education. We shared everything.
This book does a very good job of describing the confusion and love/hate relationship that many who grow up in a cult/commune can have with the outside world, but ultimately also with the cult itself. The inward looking language and the child’s way of reasoning and justifying even bad stuff are in equal measure compelling and sinister. What makes this particularly hard to read is because it is all about the death of ideals – how a community which started off with high principles can subvert them and turn sour – a powerful metaphor about many types of human societies and cultures.
12 – Stav Sherez: The Devil’s Playground
This is the debut novel by Stav Sherez, written over 10 years ago. The scene is Amsterdam, which is becoming increasingly gentrified in its tourist centre (‘Disneyland’, as a Dutch writer told me recently), but still has a sleazy underbelly and shadowy demons of an undigested past underneath its veneer of tolerance and friendliness.
A body turns up dead in a park in Amsterdam; he has a book belonging to Londoner Jon Reed in his pocket along with his telephone number. Detective Van Hijn asks Jon to identify the body, who is presumed to be the latest in a series of murders rocking the city. All that Jon knows about the dead man, however, is that he was a homeless person whom he had temporarily taken in, and who seems to have been reconnecting with his Jewish heritage, something Jon has yet to do. The detective and Jon are helped by Suze, an American student in Amsterdam, fascinated by the art of Charlotte Salomon, a Jewish painter who died in a concentration camp aged 26. They uncover that the motive for the murder appears to be the finding of a hidden trove of 49 reels of film from Auschwitz that are up for auction and the hunt is on to find them.
The concentration camp theme is still shocking, although it is well trodden ground by now, but it’s the passages about self-harming and body piercing (or body mutilation) which I found most disturbing. A call for more pain in order to escape the existential pain – it’s just something that doesn’t sit well with me, no matter how much empathy I usually have for people who are very different from myself. If you can stomach this, however, it’s an atmospheric, interesting book, although perhaps it attempts to tackle too many themes at once. The scenes describing Charlotte’s life and art were of particular interest, and have since been reimagined in David Foenkinos’ book Charlotte.
Brenner is an ex-cop who’s become an ambulance driver and his world-weary gaze and washed-up lifestyle (so typical of a middle-aged Viennese man) informs this unusual crime novel. An unusual two-in-one murder witnessed by the ambulance crew arouses his suspicion and what emerges is a scurrilously funny and sarcastic story of rivalry between ambulance services. You probably have to be Viennese to fully appreciate the black humour and dialect, while the intrusive narrator who seems to comment on every single action or decision is an acquired taste. But, if you’re in the mood for it, it’s a wickedly funny read and probably devilishly hard to translate. [Although it has apparently been translated as Come, Sweet Death and published by Melville International Crime.]
I’ve moaned about it whenever I had a fasciculi(?) of internet connection. I’ve gone all dark and dramatic, hinting at technological conspiracies and unfinished business involving trained assassins sent by the French tax authorities. I’ve suffered the slings and arrows of utility companies, local councils, applications for local schools and goods damaged in transit.
So yes, I think you might have gathered that I’ve moved between countries and that I’ve not gone quietly or elegantly.
After 12 international moves and having lived in 20-30 different houses or flats over the years (I’m not counting the places I have lived in for 2 months or less), I have the feeling I never want to move again. Nomadism is for young people, I tell myself. So much easier to do with a couple of suitcases (filled with books and shoes, naturally) than with children, furniture, kitchen ware and everything else.
I know other people’s house moves are deadly boring, but bear with me for one last whinge and I promise afterwards to turn forevermore to reading and other, more interesting and intellectual occupations.
- Leaving a very beautiful location before I was quite ready to let go
- Moving to an older, more decrepit house which requires quite a bit of renovation (for which I don’t have the money). The first time I touched the kitchen drawer, the front came apart in my hands. Finding all sorts of little things wrong with the house after 3 sets of tenants in 5 years.
- Not having phone or internet for 2 weeks or more – and realising that you can’t apply for or order things if you don’t have a phone number
- Not being able to find the most important stuff, while finding pretty much all the useless stuff which you should have thrown out before moving
- Not having enough UK plugs or adaptors. Remembering they are up in the loft somewhere but being unable to find them in the forest of boxes quietly crumbling away up there. Learning to live once more with unmixed taps.
- No storage space to unpack all the boxes and therefore no easy access to clothes and other items. (Those built-in wardrobes in France covered a multitude of sins).
- The first time I plugged in my laptop in the UK, it died. Same thing with my tablet. I also had to get a new phone. So that meant no writing, reading, tweeting or administrating … because yes, I couldn’t remember my passwords and I had to log on from other people’s devices and I must have been driving everyone (including myself) crazy with finding quirky new ways to prove my identity.
- Starting to look for permanent positions in my field and realising that I will be sacrificing either my time and soul or else money (and my children’s welfare) doing work I no longer quite believe in.
- Being really tired all the time and anxious about losing track of something important
But it’s not all noir (despite my fondness for the dark side). There have been some highlights too:
- Our friends in the local area are very excited to have us back and have made us feel very welcome. There are advantages to moving back to a familiar place rather than somewhere completely new.
- We are close to London and I’ve already had a wonderful day there, watching ‘The Threepenny Opera’ at the National Theatre, and mooching around on the South Bank. After years of living in a rural backwater, you can’t help but be energised by London’s cultural life and metropolitan vibe (as long as you avoid rush hour, of course).
- The countryside is close by if you do get tired of the city, and we are fortunate enough to live in quite a pretty area, reminiscent of The Wind in the Willows. Best of both worlds!
- It’s so easy to set up services, complain about things and do all the administrative twaddle in English rather than French. I feel I actually know what I’m talking about!
- Being reunited with old possessions (I am referring, of course, mainly to books, but also my elephant collection or my children’s early artworks and photographs).
- Closer to publishers, literary events, English language bookshops and libraries. My children nearly fainted with excitement at seeing a whole library full of books in English, instead of just the 1-2 shelves they would see in the local libraries in France.
Still, for the time being, this is how I feel most evenings…
The most important part of the moving process (other than the emotional impact on the children and the cat) was the library. How do you weed out the books you simply must take back to the UK? You may think it’s easy. After all, it’s a case of moving from less to more…
But that does not take into account the books I had double-shelved or set in careful piles on the floor and the filing cabinet. ‘You do have a lot of books…’ sighed the removal men (and I don’t think it was wistfulness I detected in their voices).
I did donate some to the local libraries in France, but I ended up with many more than I had originally come with to France. As any book loverwill understand. So somehow, all of the contents of these boxes…
…have to find a home in the new house. Yes, the study might be bigger here…
… but did I mention that I have twice as many books in the loft, waiting to be rehoused together with their more travelled cousins?
After a week or two of utter panic (not finding the legs for the desk, not opening the right boxes, laptop dying and then the e-reader/tablet dying, I finally managed to get things somewhat presentable (though not arranged yet according to subject, language and other esoteric criteria).
Time to be reunited with some old friends from the loft.
Sadly, my copies of ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and ‘Vile Bodies’ seem to have suffered from some warping in their box in the loft. But I have Jean Rhys’ unfinished autobiography ‘Smile Please’ to read for Jean Rhys Reading Week and Barbara Pym’s diaries and letters, as well as Dostoyevsky and other Russians (short story writers) to keep me company. Plus a few of my favourite children’s books, which I brought back with me from Romania: Arthur Ransome, Paul Berna and Eleanor Farjeon’s collection of stories ‘The Little Bookroom’.
There is more digging to be done, as well as more writing and reading, but for now, this was just a post to let you know my books and I are alive and well.
I doubt anyone will even notice I am gone during the next few weeks, but just in case you are not away on holiday or if you have a bit of time on your hands, break the safety glass and get your hands on some of my favourite older posts.
My first book review: The Expats by Chris Pavone
My first Japanese poetic love: Tawara Machi
Rereading one of my favourite books: The Great Gatsby
The first time I finished writing (instead of reading) a novel: This Is the End
One of my snarkiest posts, about Overrated Books
Finally, an unforgettable walk on the Franco-Swiss border
Tomorrow’s post Friday Fun will be scheduled, as I’ll be busy wrangling with boxes, burly removal men and irate neighbours unable to get out of their driveway because of giant lorries.
So next time I post live, it will be from England.
Not my most productive reading month, tempting though it might have been to bury myself in a book instead of dealing with removal minutiae.
Isabel Costello: Paris Mon Amour
Colin Niel: Ce qui reste en foret
GrażynaPlebanek: Illegal Liaisons (transl. by Danusia Stok) – also for WIT month, see below.
Valerie Gilliard: Le Canal – likewise, a candidate for WIT month
This is going more slowly than I expected, mostly because all sorts of other books get in the way.
Fred Vargas: A Climate of Fear
Ragnar Jonasson: Blackout
Anne Korkeakivi: Shining Sea
Michael Stanley: A Death in the Family
K.A. Richardson: I’ve Been Watching You – serial killer, tortured women, evil twins – not my cup of tea
Jaume Cabre: Confessions
Akira Mizubayashi: Une langue venue d’ailleurs
I have a feeling the August reading will be a bit of a mish-mash too, but I’ve deliberately set some books aside for reading during packing and before unpacking at the other end. Tony Malone also kindly reminded me that August is Women in Translation month, so here are some books I have planned for that, even at the risk of it interfering with my #20booksofsummer goals.
The one I look forward to most is the one I’ve been saving up for the summer:
- Clarice Lispector: Near to the Wild Heart (her debut novel – a reread, but it’s been so long ago, that it will feel like a fresh read)
As always, I seem to have a sizeable chunk of French (or Swiss) books:
- Valerie Gilliard: Le Canal
- Madame du Chatelet: Discours sur le bonheur (How to Be Happy)
- Muriel Barbery: The Life of Elves
- Marie Darrieussecq: Men
Two tense, thriller-like books from Eastern Europe:
- Rodica Ojog-Brasoveanu: Cutia cu nasturi (The Box with Buttons)
- Grażyna Plebanek: Illegal Liaisons – no, it wasn’t a thriller, I was wrong about that
And that’s probably ambitious enough already! Once things calm down in September, and the children go to school, I am planning to contribute some articles for Crime Fiction Lover’s Classics in September feature. Early days yet, but I was thinking of something along the lines ‘Classic novels with more than a hint of crime’ and possibly also a re-read of The Moonstone (the novel which supposedly started all this crime fiction madness).