November Reading and Film Summary

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: until the very last week, when I finally got a well-deserved holiday, the month of November has been all work and no play. And that shows in my reading: 11 books, virtually all of them external commitments.

Books

I had committed to reading the shortlist for the Young Writer of the Year Award, though, so those five books made up most of my month. I loved the two poetry books, Surge and Tongues of Fire, I was impressed and discomfited by Inferno, and I appreciated the talent of young writers Naoise Dolan and Marina Kemp, although these debut novels didn’t necessarily work that well for me.

I also tried to take part in the German Lit Month event, always one of the highlights of my year. But, although I reviewed Marlen Haushofer this month, I have to admit I read her back in October (together with Dear Oxbridge, which I also reviewed then), and I barely managed to sneak in one other German book, a reread of All Quiet on the Western Front. That book led me to a reread of another book about the First World War on a lesser-known front, so I tried to compare it with The Forest of the Hanged by Liviu Rebreanu.

For the Virtual Crime Book Club, I had the pleasure of discovering the zany but hugely enjoyable crime meets magic series by Ben Aaronovitch, Rivers of London. I was expecting an equally pleasurable experience from rereading Dune in tandem with my older son. I had read the trilogy when I was his age or even a little younger, but could remember next to nothing about it, and was looking forward to the new film release. Unfortunately, this time round, the plodding style distracted me, and neither my son nor I were driven to finish it. It will have to live on as a fond teenage memory, lost in the mists of time.

Crimson Snow is an overhang from last month, so ignore the pretty picture of it, but I have nearly finished Tombland by C.J. Sansom, now that I finally had time to devote to such a massive volume during my week off. Norwich is the one place in England that I am seriously considering as a possible future home (I also have a place in mind in Scotland and in Wales respectively), and knew very little about the Kett Rebellion, so the Shardlake series is always a great opportunity to educate myself as well as enjoy a good murder mystery. As a counterpoint to that detailed, long read, I played around with the short, fun novel set in Lausanne by Muriel Spark The Finishing School. It isn’t one of her best, and I found it difficult to believe that it was as recent as 2004, but her sarcasm is always welcome.

Films

My older son finally convinced me to join Letterboxd as a way to keep track of the films we watch (previously I was doing it on pieces of paper which invariably got lost all over the house). However, although he now follows me there, I am not allowed to follow his reviews, because he finds that ‘stalkerish’! Kids, eh? (OK, maybe my comment on his use of apostrophes might have had something to do with this!)

So I can now report with confidence that I have rewatched 5 films, watched 6 films that were new to me and one TV mini-series.

The mini-series was The Queen’s Gambit, which everyone else seems to be watching this month as well. It was a fine recreation of the period and does a good job for promoting chess, and I also liked the way it refreshes the ‘genius’ trope by making it a female genius. But I can’t help but feel it does rely quite heavily on cliches and feels overrated.

The rewatches I cannot be entirely objective about: there is too much sentimental memory attached to them. Yes, Rocky Horror Picture Show may be flawed, but it’s still one of the most fun films I’ve ever seen. Alien remains one of my favourite sci-fi films, both for its threatening atmosphere and for its smart, brave heroine. Tokyo Story and The Apartment are undoubtedly great works of art, while Minghella’s Talented Mr Ripley captures the attractions of expat lifestyle in Italy so well, even though I tend to lose interest after Tom murders Dickie.

The new films were: Inception (possibly one of the most interesting of the Nolan films), Ivan’s Childhood (an early Tarkovsky that already shows his obsessions and beautiful cinematography), I Vitelloni (an early Fellini which makes for a poignant social study) and L’Enfant d’en Haut (an early and depressing Ursula Meier, set partly in Verbier). The film which I liked least this month was Eric Rohmer’s A Good Marriage – it just didn’t seem to have the wit and humour of some of his other work and the main protagonist annoyed me with her obsessive pursuit of a man who is uninterested in her. The film I liked most was Grave of the Fireflies, although it tugged at every single heartstring I had. An anti-war film that does not have to hammer home its anti-war message, but just shows its impact on children.

#YoungWriterAward: Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt

There are two ways in which I judge poetry.

First, if it it feels like the top of my head were taken off at first reading (to quote Emily Dickinson). In other words, does it produce a moment of epiphany, of feeling ‘that is what I’ve always thought but never quite found the words to express’ or ‘wow, I didn’t even realise that?’. There are quite a few timely, urgent, angry poems being written now which fulfil that first criteria.

Secondly, are these poems that I will return to again and again, reread, bathe in the sounds and colours, images and smells evoked, and find new meanings every time? Those poetry collections tend to be rarer – there may be one or two poems that I treasure in a collection, but not necessarily all of them.

Author photo copyright: Brid O’Donovan

Seán Hewitt’s debut collection meets both of my criteria. It is not a showy piece of work, but it’s not self-effacing either. Each poem releases little hooks at first reading, which then sink into you and never quite let you go, merely bury themselves deeper and deeper. Because of the beauty of the images, the closeness to nature and the musicality of the language, it is a pleasurable experience… and yet you realise there is a lot of grief, a lot of pain in this poetry as well.

The book is composed of three different parts: the first part is closer to what one might call ‘pure’ nature poetry, although the poet is always mindful how the natural cycle mimics the human life cycle. The natural landscape is also the landscape of the mind. The darkness and stillness of nature and then its rebirth in spring has strong parallels to sinking into disease and depression, and then finding hope and recovery.

I turn home, and all across the floor

the spiked white flowers

light the way. The world is dark

but the wood is full of stars.

Throughout, we also have parallels between the beauty of the natural world and the beauty of the human body, an exploration and celebration of sexuality, particularly queer sexuality, which has been considered ‘unnatural’ for so long.

The second part of the book is a retelling of the story of Suibhne (or Sweeney), a legendary Irish king, who was cursed, became a mad poet and was doomed to wander forevermore, never quite finding rest. This was a myth I was less familiar with, but the tension between transience and permanence, between loneliness and finding a place to call home with loved ones resonated with me, particularly in a year when we have all struggled with not seeing loved ones. Also, the recognition that to love is to open yourself up to the possibility of loss and of being hurt.

There was a time when I thought

the sound of a dove cooing and flitting

over a pond was sweeter than the voices

of friends. There was a time when

I preferred the blackbird and the boom

of a stag belling in a storm. I used to think

that the chanting of the mountain grouse

at dawn had more music than your voice,

but things are different now. Still,

it would be hard to say I wouldn’t rather

live above the bright lake, and eat watercress

in the wood, and be away from sorrow.

The poems in the final part of the book were written mainly in the last few months in the life of the poet’s father, who was suddenly diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and died before the volume was published. There is so much tenderness here, as well as the feeling of being lost without a much loved person.

But hush. No one is coming.

We are handed our lives

by a fierce work. Onto which

blank space will I lock my gaze

when my father

is gone? How am I to wear

his love’s burning mantle?

The language feels very simple, unadorned, but always uncannily ‘right’ in context. There is a lot of restraint here, plenty of breathing space, which makes the impact all the more powerful. This might be called confessional poetry, and certainly there seems to be plenty of autobiographical detail in these poems, but it’s a delicate, elliptical emotion, recollected in tranquillity. The poet himself recognises that this quieter, more personal type of poetry may feel too much like a retreat to an ivory tower at this particular moment. In an interview with the Irish Times, he says:

The lyric poem – its patterning, its rhyme, its insistent “I” – has for me a beauty that is perhaps unfashionable, and might seem to make it isolated from the political imperative. But it is my wager that in speaking of ourselves, we will find readers who share something of that emotion, that experience, that flash of strange perspective. In other words, it is my contention that no poem is ever isolated, if it is done right.

I certainly agree with that. The cover of the book features a rust fungus (also called Tongues of Fire): it is basically a cancer eating at the heart of the juniper bush. Despite its yellow beauty, it is lethal. And that is precisely the effect this volume of poetry has had on me. At a time when so many people have died of a disease we barely see or understand, it feels like an elegy, a way of coping with the unspeakable.

I think you can tell that this was my favourite of the shortlisted titles for the Young Writer of the Year Award. But was it the favourite title overall of the Shadow Panel and did we pick it as our winner? Ah, well, you will have to wait and see…

#YoungWriterAward: Surge by Jay Bernard

I was fortunate enough to hear Jay Bernard perform several of the poems in this collection and have never forgotten them. It was an excellent introduction, because many of them gain immeasurably from being heard, particularly Songbook, whose almost jaunty sing-song rhythm belies the underlying horror.

Make no mistake, this book is as much of a punch in the gut as one of the other books on the shortlist (Inferno by Catherine Cho). Except it isn’t a memoir. It’s a poet’s exploration of historical facts. In 2016 Jay Bernard was a writer in residence at the George Padmore Institute, an archive and research centre for radical black history in Britain. During the course of the residency, Bernard examined the documents pertaining to the New Cross Fire of 1981 and the indifference with which the deaths of thirteen young black people was treated in the media, by the authorities and the general public. A short while after engaging with these historical records, in 2017, the Grenfell Fire took place and the poet felt as if history was repeating itself.

Surge is not a political manifesto, but an emotional response to these disasters and their aftermaths. Of course it expresses sorrow and anger, it calls for justice, and therefore might be called political. There are also some harrowing scenes of retrieving the charred bodies, of parents having to identify the remains, of private and public grieving. But it feels like it’s teaching us a way to come to terms with almost unimaginable pain.

Going in when the firefighters left

was like standing on a black beach

with the sea suspended in the walls,

soot suds like a conglomerate of flies. […]

The black is coming in from the cold,

rolling up the beach walls, looking for light.

It is also the story of the Windrush generation and their descendants. It warns of the dangers of believing yourself at home in a community, and of feeling a homesickness for a place or for people who may no longer exist anywhere except in our memories.

don’t let me die in England I said to the pavement –

to the sea-black rain –

and never tell my grandmother why I never called –

never called to say that I thought of her daily –

that I suffered with the weight of what she had freely given

Author portrait copyright: Joshua Virasami

But it’s also an intimate, touching portrait of growing up black and queer in South London, of feeling part of and apart from several different cultures. Personal sorrows and fears blend with those of the larger community, small joys and triumphs are a source of almost guilty pleasure.

Some day when we can all go to in-person theatre again, I would like to see this book in an immersive experience format, with film projection, audio recordings, something to be felt with all the senses, painful thought it might be. As it was, I felt the words and images fairly jumped off the page, as the poet ably combines pictures, witness statements, newspaper articles and video archives. Jay Bernard shows a remarkable craft and tonal range, far beyond their years: from the auditive delights of spoken word poetry to lyrical minimalism. It was often the quieter, more elegiac moments where the emotion gripped me most:

Will anybody speak of this

the way the flowers do,

the way the common speaks

of the fearless dying leaves?

Will anybody speak of this

the coming of the cold,

the queit it will bring

the fire we beheld?

Will anybody speak of this

the fire we beheld

the garlands at the gate,

the way the flowers do?

#YoungWriterAward: Marina Kemp – Nightingale

When I first saw the shortlist for the Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, I thought that Nightingale by Marina Kemp sounded like the closest to what we might think of as a traditional novel, and that has certainly proven to be the case now that I’ve read it. I don’t say that in any disparaging way: in fact, I’ve often wished that some so-called auto-fictions or experimental novels had erred on the side of tradition and a coherent narrative and overarching structure.

From the beautiful cover, to the blurb promising dysfunctional families, secrets and lies, to the setting in the sleepy south-west of France, it has all the hallmarks of the perfect summer holiday read. It is the story of Marguerite, a young Parisian raised in a well-to-do family, who has trained as a palliative nurse and who has been hired to look after grumpy, wealthy Jérôme Lanvier, once the most powerful and feared men in the village. Marguerite’s past and the reason why she might be working in such an ‘unprestigious’ job become a source of speculation and gossip in the village. Yet the patient and the nurse very slowly, very cautiously develop some sort of understanding and even a grudging respect.

However much Marguerite may wish to keep to herself, she cannot help but become involved with some of the villagers: bolshy Brigitte who has been tasked with checking up on Jérôme’s nursing companions; her gentle farmer husband Henri; the old man’s sons who make a brief appearance from their successful Parisian careers and seem to care more about the inheritance than about their father; and Suki, whose family fled from Iran, and who feels the eternal outsider in a community of ‘mediocrities’.

So we have an intriguing cast of characters, and we have hints (actually quite broad hints – more like public road signs) of past pain and secrets that certain of the characters would do anything to protect. We also have trips to the boulangerie, drinking wine among the olive groves and picking ripe tomatoes on the vine. We have careful observation of gestures and dialogue, a gradual reveal of motivations and tensions, good pacing generally. There are also passages of lyrical, yearning intensity that are simply beautifully written. Yet, overall, the book failed to win me entirely over.

Firstly, despite all of its cultural references, I did not feel fully immersed in a stifling French village atmosphere with sinister overtones, as described so accurately by French authors such as Sylvie Granotier, Sébastien Japrisot or Pascal Garnier. Nor did it have the almost overwhelming charm and specificity of the novels of Joanne Harris or Martin Walker’s Bruno Chief of Police series. Yet Marina Kemp is one of a long line of English-speaking authors to choose to set her novel in France, so I have no quarrel with that.

Secondly, there were quite a few instances when the author was not merely content to show us an emotion or interaction between her characters, but she also had to tell it. It felt like everything had to be underlined, emphasised, dwelled upon, to make sure that we don’t miss it as a reader. In French novels and films, so much is left unsaid, so much is merely implied, which is why the contrast struck me all the more forcibly. Finally, some of the secrets were dealt with in a rather melodramatic fashion which might have made more sense if the book had been set a few decades ago.

Having made all of the critical remarks above, I have to admit that I read the book in just a couple of days and found it an enjoyable experience. However, I don’t think it will be the most memorable book from the shortlist for me.

#YoungWriterAward: Inferno by Catherine Cho

I’ve now finished reading all of the shortlisted titles for the Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, but for most of the month the day job has been so demanding that I haven’t had time to review any beyond the first one I read. So you can expect a flurry of reviews coming up between now and the end of the month, as we prepare to announce the Shadow Panel winner on the 3rd of December. The judges will announce their winner on the 10th of December.

Catherine Cho’s Inferno is a memoir (it says so on the title page, as if it would be any less powerful if it were fiction). It is an account of the post-partum psychosis that the author experienced shortly after the birth of her first child, while she was visiting her family in the States together with her English husband and their baby son. The experience was so severe, her mental state so profoundly altered, that she ended up being hospitalised in an involuntary psych ward.

The book moves between scenes from the ward, references to the author’s Korean family traditions and stories, a doomed previous relationship, and the story of how she fell in love with her husband, their marriage and their road trip across the States. At first I found these switches of perspective unnerving, even irritating, but then I realised that Cho is trying to make sense of something that struck her so suddenly and seemingly made no sense at all.

Her psychotic brain was seeing patterns where there were none, but now she wants to recollect those moments at a distance, calmly, and see if there was any rhyme or reason to it.

There are certainly elements of Girl, Interrupted or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the ward scenes, but it’s the passages of lyrical, almost manic poetic intensity that try to replicate the ‘brain on fire’ phenomenon of psychosis which I found particularly moving. I have seldom seen the dangerous temptation of allowing oneself to sink into the abyss described so well (although Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater and Leonora Carrington’s Down Below do come to mind).

It was strangely exhilarating to see these patterns, like putting together a story when there were only pieces before. And through my dread and my fear, I saw the beauty in them, the patterns in the universe. I could tell it was dangerous, this raw energy, this coursing feeling, and for a moment, I wished I could tumble in, tumble into the madness. I felt like I’d caught a glimpse of another dimension, of the void, of the truth, of possibility. This feeling was beautiful; it was terrifying. I would never be able to harness it, I knew, I would never be able to control it. I felt like Icarus, gaspin in what was awesome, transcending fear.

This is undeniably an extremely brave, raw and hard-hitting book, so honest that it almost flays the skin off the reader. I cannot help wondering how her husband, but above all her son will feel in the coming years to see these painful moments openly exposed. Does the ‘sharing the experience so that others can see they are not alone in feeling it’ justify this? Or is it a work written as catharsis? Or perhaps the author is trying to untangle the threads, understand the reasons behind this situation and perhaps cast a protective spell, to ensure that this won’t happen again?

In an attempt to be all these things and more, although I loved individual parts of the book, I have to admit that the parts did not really coalesce into a fully satisfactory whole for me.

Whatever its intent, it is certainly a memorable exploration of identity, love and family, one that I am not likely to forget in a hurry… but also one that I had to read in small chunks, to prevent overdosing. I’d perhaps also add, since the title for the award is Young Writer of the Year, that, while Exciting Times did feel like it was written by a young person, Inferno gave the impression of a much older, wiser author.

#YoungWriterAward: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

When I saw the shortlisted titles for the Times/Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, I have to admit that Exciting Times by Irish writer Naoise Dolan was the only one I had heard of. She had been praised as the ‘next Sally Rooney’, which was not the happiest of comparisons for me, since I wasn’t bowled over by Rooney. But I thought I would start there nevertheless, mostly because it was set in Hong Kong and I’ve always been keen on reading about different geographical locations and the culture shock that expats might experience.

At first all went well. The staccato style and deadpan, deadly sentences were amusing at first, especially when they make fun of rich people.

He’d said everything very slowly that night, so I’d assumed he was drunk – but he still did it sober, so I gathered he was rich.

[…]

Periodically she touched her Celine trapeze bag. I thought: it’s still there, Victoria. It’s not going anywhere. The cow’s dead.

Ava, the main protagonist, is well educated but comes from a less privileged background in Dublin and is now teaching English to children of wealthy Chinese families in Hong Kong. I failed to care about her lukewarm relationship with wealthy banker Julian, and was only marginally more invested in her burgeoning love for the dainty, Cambridge-educated Edith (Chinese name: Mei Ling), perhaps because Ava herself was so confused, cold and self-involved. This was not the charming confusion or deep despair of first love we might encounter in Le Grand Meaulnes or Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart. It is not even the scheming machinations that ends in tragedy of Bonjour Tristesse. It is clinical and detached, at the mercies of modern technology: the one poignant moment was Ava watching the three blue dots that are a sign that someone is typing a message you are eagerly awaiting on the phone.

Next, I was disappointed in the lack of atmosphere. Although the book dutifully dropped Hong Kong place names and mention of local holidays, there was no sense of being immersed in that particular culture or location. The book might have been set anywhere else (in fact, it felt like a very London-based book, with so many of the characters being British). Perhaps that is typical of the Anglo expat experience in Hong Kong (I have certainly seen this replicated in Geneva), but it felt like a missed opportunity.

There were some things I did enjoy about the book. I enjoyed the acerbic observations about the ‘only correct form of English’ being British English.

‘Tings’ was incorrect, you needed to breathe and say ‘things’, but if you breathed for ‘what’ then that was quaint. If the Irish didn’t aspirate and the English did then they were right, but if we did and the English didn’t then they were still right. The English taught us English to teach us they were right. I was teaching my students the same thing about white people. If I said things one way and their live-in Filipino nanny said them another, they were meant to defer to me.

And there was a fair amount of English-bashing which seemed to bring Ava and Edith closer, and which certainly made me guffaw:

We both found it hilarious that Brits thought their international image was one of flaccid tea-loving Hugh Grantish butterfingery. If they’d been a bit more indirect during the Opium Wars, or a bit more self-effacing on Bloody Sunday, then our countries would have been most appreciative. ‘That’s why they can’t accept that they did colonialism,’ Edith said. ‘They see themselves as people who can’t even get a dog put down.’

However, after a while, these clever remarks started to sound a bit too much like the class clown trying to impress everybody with their cynicism. And it turned out that in terms of cultural differences, this book was more revealing about the differences between English upper middle classes and Irish working classes.

He was a rich Irish person, preferred having wealth in common with Victoria to Ireland in common with me, and was annoyed at us both for disabusing him that Victoria saw it that way. His moth said it was great to see another Mick out foreign, and his eyes said: don’t fuck this up for me.

Each of these quotes taken in isolation are rather brilliant, and I certainly appreciated certain passages. Perhaps I’d have enjoyed this more as a sharp, short novella. But the overall sensation I had after reading the book was that I’d been frozen by Ava’s icy temperament, and that I had been slashed and cut by too many razor-sharp remarks, without encountering any effort to thaw or heal me.

We will see what my fellow Shadow Judges made of it, but for me personally, it doesn’t feel like the winner of The Young Writers’ Award. However, the two next reviews will be of the poetry books, and I loved both of those!

Friday Fun: More Living in Miniature

The temptation to live off-grid somewhere in a tiny (but well-insulated) house is becoming well-nigh overwhelming. No, this is not a comment on current politics or fears; this is a worry-free, escapist zone.

Small but mighty, this creation by BF Architects.
Palatial ambitions for this little house, from Buzzfeed.
Very different style, a beach hut feel to this one, from Instagram.
This one is actually a miniature model, but I can’t wait for someone to build me one to my human proportions. From iseeblue.typepad.com.
I may claim to be a simple girl at heart, but I rather like the more grandiose structures! From myincrediblewebsite.com
If in doubt, stick to a well-appointed garden shed – and what a garden! From owecraft.com
For the ultimate fantasy escape, this fairytale lodge from thisoldhouse.com

#GermanLitMonth: Marlen Haushofer

This is a good year to be reading Marlen Haushofer: 100 years since her birth and 50 years since her death. I wasn’t aware of these anniversaries but finally got to read her best-known work The Wall a few months ago and was blown away by its mix of vivid description, eerie atmosphere and philosophical/ecological musings. I’ve been keen to read anything and everything by Haushofer since, but was disappointed to find that, although her output for adults is reasonably small, it is not exactly easy to find even in German. I think her biographer Daniela Strigl is quite right to criticise the publishers for falling asleep on the job and missing this opportunity.

The truth is that, beyond her tales for children, which were frequently read in Austrian schools when I was a child, her work has always been a minority taste. She was very much admired but not widely read, although she enjoyed a brief renaissance as a feminist icon in the 1970s/80s. Her current book covers don’t do her any favours either, as they make it look like romantic (which many people misread as sentimental) fiction for and about women. Not that there is anything wrong with that kind of fiction, but it puts off a wider audience.

So I should say that Haushofer is in fact the anti-romantic writer. She depicts human loneliness (yes, particularly for women, but more generally as well) like no other writer I know. The loneliness can be physical (as it is in The Wall), but, equally, it can be the devastating loneliness of being in a relationship, or living in a crowded city, or being in a group of friends and still feeling misunderstood.

Die Tapetentür (translated as The Jib Door, but I have no idea what that means so I translated it as The Wallpaper Door – a concealed door in the wallpaper) is the story of Annette, a quiet, introverted, solitary librarian. She has had some relationships with men, but is quite relieved when things go nowhere or the men move away. She enjoys her life and routine, has one good friend and a few acquaintances whom she either respects or secretly mocks.

She is shaken out of her contentment when she meets the lawyer Gregor, who is temperamentally almost her exact opposite – extroverted, a womaniser, a bit of a macho man, who doesn’t enjoy reading or being quiet. In spite of her misgivings, she marries Gregor and expects a child. She is not entirely convinced she will be a good mother, but she is both fascinated and repulsed by the animal response and change in her body. She seems resigned to the traditional division of labour and gender roles in the household, even though she resents Gregor for cheating on her and not being more tender and understanding.

The narrative switches between close third person POV and Annette’s diary entries, so we get to see both her behaviour in social situations, but also see her anxieties and doubts reflected in her journal. She also muses about life more generally and makes some witty observations about society, single and married people, even wealth and poverty. The concealed door that Annette suddenly sees in the wallpaper (she is the only one that notices the door, so it probably is a metaphorical rather than a literal one) represents perhaps the wall that Annette has put up between herself and others, and a door that she is unable or unwilling to walk through in the battle of the sexes.

Shortlist for Young Writer of the Year Award

You may have seen the announcement yesterday about the Shortlist for the Young Writer of the Year Award. Just in case you have missed it (and admittedly, there has been a lot of newsy stuff to push it off the front page), here it is in its full beauty:

I have to admit that I am quite excited about this shortlist. You’ll probably think that I have to say that if I am part of the Shadow Panel, but the truth is I haven’t read any of them, so am curious and very much looking forward to becoming better acquainted with them.

First of all, I always like to see some poetry on a shortlist, and this time we have two volumes of poetry, both of them debut collections. Tongues of Fire by Sean Hewitt has been described as elegiac, moving, perceptive and lifting the spirits with simple language and complex thought. Meanwhile, Surge by Jay Bernard is an exploration in poetry of the New Cross Fire of 1981, linking that tragic event with Grenfell and more generally with the experience of being black in the UK nowadays.

Catherine Cho’s book Inferno is non-fiction, a memoir of the author’s time in a psychiatric ward in America, following a severe case of post-partum psychosis. Motherhood is a topic that endlessly fascinates me, and this book seems to express our deepest, darkest fears about becoming possibly a bad mother and harming our child.

Naoise Dolan is a young Irish writer, so obviously she has been compared with Sally Rooney. This is a novel about a young Irish expat stuck in a dead-end job in Hong Kong, and it has been described as a milennial love story hovering between deadpan and sincerity. I am a sucker for expat stories and cross-cultural observations, so this should do the trick for me.

Finally, Marina Kemp’s Nightingale is also a story about displacement, and sounds rather more conventional, according to the blurb at least. A young nurse is running away from her past and ends up in a remote Languedoc village, looking after a bedridden old bully of a man.

Poetry, motherhood, expat community and France – what more could I wish for? The list is tailor-made for me! I also find it interesting that all of these are debuts. I wonder if this has always been the case with this prize, or if it just happened to be a particularly strong year for debuts in 2020. While I like to think that debut writers are encouraged, I sometimes wonder if it’s been even harder for young writers on their second book to see it disappear without trace in a year of delayed publication dates, closed libraries and bookshops, and no in-person literary festivals.

So, which of these are you most excited about reading and why? Can I tempt you to read along at least one or two of these?

October Reading and Cultural Summary

In the past two years, I’d grown accustomed to October being a rather lovely month, with half-term holidays in Romania with unforgettable road trips, a quieter time at work so more time to go to the theatre or the London Film Festival or simply read. Of course, this year we’ve stayed put and I’ve also been extremely busy at work, as we are hosting a major event in November. So it has felt like the Neverending Month and I can’t believe that the two reading challenges I took part in… were in October and not half a year ago!

Reading

10 books, 7 women writers, 1 non-fiction and only two crime!

I only managed to blog twice for the #1956Club (and I read the children’s books back in September, so that doesn’t count), but I really was smitten with Romain Gary’s Roots of Heaven, a book I will almost certainly want to reread at a more leisurely pace. For the #Fitzgerald2020 challenge, I not only read The Gates of Angels, as we had decided on Twitter, but went on to devour two more of her works.

The book that took up most of the month, although I ended up skim-reading parts of it, was Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which I thought very interesting in terms of structure, but a little uneven in terms of execution. I was also a bit disappointed by The Harpy by Megan Hunter, which demonstrated what an agent once rather cruelly said to me: ‘No one is interested in infidelity and the breakdown of other people’s marriages, they all sound the same!’

To my utter surprise, I only read two crime books this month: a light reprieve after an insanely busy day with short Christmassy crime stories from Crimson Snow, and the continuation of Hercule Poirot stories by Sophie Hannah on audiobook – which was not a resounding success for me (the audio experience, I mean, and this in turn may have coloured my experience of the book).

Finally, I tried to do some anticipatory reading for #GermanLitMonth, since I knew I’d be busy with the Young Writer shortlist as well in November. In the end, I posted the review of my only non-fiction read Dear Oxbridge earlier, because it felt more concerned about elucidating England for a German audience than the other way round. My second Marlen Haushofer book Die Tapetentür was a really good experience, something between a third person narrative and a diary, and I can’t wait to review it properly next week.

Literary Events

I may not have written about these events (not enough time), but I was really inspired by the online poetry masterclass run by Liz Berry (and hearing my fellow poets’ work), even though that feels like a lifetime ago (at the beginning of the month). It was also exhilarating hearing Tayari Jones speak at Cheltenham Literary Festival and listening to the readings of talented and charismatic poets such as Jericho Brown, Rachel Long, Raymond Antrobus & Safiya Sinclair at the Manchester Literary Festival.

This last week has been particularly busy with both work and events. I had the pleasure of hearing my dear friend from Geneva days, Carmen Bugan talk about what happened when she put herself into the mind of the oppressor when she started writing a novel. The annual Holden Lecture organised by the Friends of Senate House Library was entitled Bulgarian Tendencies: Stories from the Queer Library of Jonathan Cutbill and refers to the rich collection recently bequeathed by Jonathan Cutbill to the library. I was so intrigued by the talk given by Dr Justin Bengry that I immediately bought one of the books he mentioned, Despised and Rejected by Rose Allatani.

The Virtual Noir at the Bar Halloween Special was a sheer delight, featuring readers I’ve long admired such as Ian Rankin (reading a joyous and poignant Rebus monologue), Matt Wesolowski, CJ Tudor and introducing me to new crime and horror writers such as Max Seeck from Finland and Suzy Aspley. You can catch this edition and earlier ones of VNatB in the archives.

Speaking of Rankin, I was in such a tizzy about seeing him in conversation with Bogdan Teodorescu, the author I translated (and will be translating again). They made some interesting comparisons about how the police is viewed in Romania and Scotland/UK, and how there is no way you could write a long series about someone like Rebus in countries where cops are the bad guys. But I was also intrigued to discover that Ian’s first 8-9 crime novels were not huge successes and that he was seriously considering writing in other genres to make ends meet. You can still catch the conversation online on either the Facebook or the YouTube channel of the Romanian Cultural Institute in London.

Finally, I am proud that despite all the work pressures, I managed to carve out a little bit of time for writing and a poetry workshop run by Cecilia Knapp, Young People’s Laureate for London, at UCL on Friday. I really need to get those little creative cogs and wheels oiled and working again, and she was so lovely, enthusiastic and encouraging.

Films

I like the fact that my older son’s love of film has made me watch more films as well, and that I have someone with whom I can discuss them. To my relief, although he has a different taste to mine, he is not pretentious, so it was a pleasure to hear him criticise The Birth of a Nation and mock Eraserhead, which he watched by himself. We watched Selma together, which proved a useful addition to his curriculum for the Civil Rights Movement in the US. He liked The Social Network slightly more than I did, although we both agreed that Mark Zuckerberg always was and will always remain a complete and utter jerk.

I am not as keen on horror films as I used to be in my early teens, but Halloween oblige, so I attempted two. Both of them were more humorous than scary, although there was plenty of gore involved: the Japanese surreal schlocker House and the camp, witty vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, co-written and directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement from New Zealand. The film that proved far more of a horror – because it depicted so accurately the horrors of the pressures and ruthlessness of the business consultancy world I once belonged to – was The Ground Beneath My Feet, which also touched me because of its Viennese references and the tough depiction of mental illness and its effect on others.

Last but not least, I had a little nostalgia fest with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade. I knew of course that the action takes place mainly in Paris, but I’d forgotten that it started in Megève. Made me miss the mountains all the more – and the witty banter and suave charm of someone like Cary Grant in my life.