Poetry Café Poem-A-Thon

The Poetry Society’s newly refurbished Poetry Café in the heart of Covent Garden is reopening. I’d been there a couple of times in the past, when it was a bit run-down but nevertheless full of poetic passion and open mic sessions. It is much more streamlined, clean and bright now.

I attended an amazing Poem-A-Thon fundraiser on Saturday 22nd July to help with the final details of the refurbishment. More than sixty poets read or recited their poetry for a solid ten hours (ten minutes for each poet, audience could come and go as they pleased).

There were also tombola tickets for every entry (and I won some gorgeous posters of Poems on the Underground as well as a book of poetry by an American poet I had not heard of before, Nick Flynn). There were many poets I wanted to see, including Anthony Anaxagorou and Raymond Antrobus in the evening, but I could only stay for an hour and a half in the afternoon around the time that the poet I ‘sponsored’ was reading.

This was the very talented Rebecca Goss, whose poetry volume Her Birth is one of the most moving portrayals of the love and grief of parenthood, describing the loss of her infant daughter to a rare and incurable heart condition. She read much more cheerful poems on this occasion, and was every bit as enchanting as I expected her to be, but it’s those heartbreaking poems from her book that I remember above all:

Assure me I will be ripe
and stretching, my belly full

but still have space
for her first days, last days.

Assure me I will keep her toes
accurate as maths, her smell

precise, her voice heard above birds.
Assure me I will not howl her name

during birth, that I will place
newborn fingers in my mouth,

taste only newness.
Then, I will consider another.

However, I was lucky enough to also hear Marc Brightside’s poems about his difficult relationship with his father, some very funny and topical poems with a political slant from George Szirtes (I will be attending a poetry course with him in the not too distant future) and Rishi Dastidar, as well as a good mix of seriousness and humour from Kavita Jindal, Ruth Smith and Mohib Khurram (who writes in both Urdu and English). A great introduction to both famous and emerging poets, of many different backgrounds! I only wish I could have stayed longer but will certainly be back for other events.

You can still donate to this campaign if you wish, but what I would really recommend is to attend the open mic sessions on the first Thursday of each month at 3:00 p.m. if you possibly can.

 

Most Obscure on My Bookshelves – the French

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

After a total of 7 years spent in France over the past 11 years, I have quite a substantial French bookshelf. Indeed, it is a whole Billy full of books by or about French (or Swiss Romande) authors, some of them translated. Many of them are unread, because I acquired them at a rapid pace, often on the basis of hearing them speak at the Quais du Polar in Lyon. Not many of these authors are truly obscure, or else I may have mentioned them before on my blog, so that excludes Pascal Garnier, Jean-Claude Izzo and other new acquaintances who became firm favourites.

Appropriately enough, I mention my French authors the week that we have some friends from France visiting.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: Pilote de guerre

Of course he is anything but obscure: who hasn’t heard of The Little Prince, possibly my favourite children’s book of all times? (Yes, I still cry whenever I read the ending, much to the embarrassment of my children.)

This slim volume not only describes his war-time experiences as a pilot, but also his entire philosophy of life and a powerful critique of the society of his time (so similar to our own in the present-day). The book condenses months of flights into a single terrifying mission over the town of Arras.  Within the first few days of the German invasion of France in May 1940, 17 of the 23 crews in his unit were sacrificed recklessly “like glasses of water thrown onto a forest fire”. Starting from the idea that soldiers are expected to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, for an abstract concept of ‘Fatherland’, ‘Our Neighbour’, ‘Love’, he ponders on just what it is he feels he is sacrificing himself for. He criticizes the fact that we have substituted materialism for ideas, objects for culture and have lost ‘Man with a capital M’ in the pursuit of individualism. Here follows a passage in my approximate translation (and I apologise for the masculine pronouns):

What is good for the Community, these [new leaders] find that in plain arithmetic, and it’s arithmetic which governs their thoughts. And so they fail to become something greater than the sum of themselves. They hate all those who are different from themselves, because they have nothing greater to aspire to. All foreign customs, races, thoughts become a danger to them. They cannot absorb them, they seek to amputate Man, instead of giving a sense of purpose to his aspirations and a space for his energy… A cathedral gives meaning to a pile of stones. But the stones absorb nothing and end up crushing you…

Toril Moi: Simone de Beauvoir

This is my favourite book about one of my favourite writers: a detailed analysis of Beauvoir’s work as a feminist and a writer, but also a close look at her real life, the woman behind the icon. Beauvoir was a complex woman, not immune to suffering and jealousy over her famously open relationship with Sartre. Moi looks at the challenges of succeeding as an intellectual in a world which still relegated her to second place. When I first read this book, I was somewhat saddened: this was not the role model that I had adored in my teens and set out to emulate. But perhaps the fact that she achieved all that she did in spite of not being superwoman should be cause for admiration and celebration. As Angela Carter once put it: ‘Why is a nice girl like Simone wasting her time sucking up to a boring old fart like J-P? Her memoirs will be mostly about him; he will scarcely speak of her.’

This is the story of a woman who became a feminist almost in spite of herself. She initially expected to compete as a human amongst humans, not as a woman amongst men, pure brains pitted against other pure brains and talent. To her frustration, she found that not to be the case, and this remains true even now:

I should have been surprised and even irritated if, when I was thirty, someone had told me that I would be concerning myself with women’s problems and that my most serious public would be made up of women. I don’t regret that it has been so. Divided, torn, disadvantaged: for women the stakes are higher,; there are more victories and more defeats for them than for men.

Joseph Incardona: Derrière les panneaux, il y a des hommes 

15th of August is one of the busiest days of the years on the French motorways. The title of the book ‘Behind the road signs, there are humans’ refers to the signs at the edge of the motorways whenever there are road works, warning drivers to watch out for the men (it is usually men) in their hi-viz jackets working on the side of the road.

I’ve read and reviewed other books by Swiss author Incardona, but this is perhaps his best one. It’s the story of Pierre, who lives in his car at a service station on the motorway, where his daughter disappeared six months earlier. It’s not just a thriller but also a portrait of a transient and desperate people who don’t often get mentioned in fiction. I haven’t read it yet, but it seems to have torn readers’ opinions in France and Switzerland, receiving either 1 star or 5 stars. Not yet translated into English, but perhaps it should be.

 

Another Little Book Splurge

Repeat after me: summertime, and the living is easy… And, if it is not, we like to pretend it is. What better way to do so than with some new books? All recommended by online or writing friends.

  1. After rereading Persuasion, Janet Emson decided to give Mansfield Park another go, which made me want to reread all the Austen novels, as I used to do once a year in my so-called less busy 20s (when I was juggling three jobs at at a time). So the perfect excuse to acquire these pretty new Vintage Classics editions of my two least favourite Jane Austen novels, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park. (I still like them a lot and these editions will make me like them more.)
  2. Rebecca Watts: The Met Office Advises Caution grabbed my attention on Kaggsy’s blog. A debut collection of poetry which combines observations of nature, wit, science and human drama.
  3. Meena Kandasamy: When I Hit You or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife caught my eye in this smart review, A List of People Who Should Read this book. I want to learn more about present-day India and anything about the struggle between marriage and art is bound to attract me…
  4. Rae Armantrout: Entanglements is a tiny volume of poetry, but it’s apparently described as making poetry of physics. I did at one point want to study physics and most of my physicist friends (other than my husband) are also very fond of poetry. There seems to be a hidden connection there (as with maths and music). Furthermore, at our poetry masterclass, Laura Kasischke said that my poetry reminded her of Rae Armantrout’s (whom I have never read).
  5. Charles Forsdick & Christian Hogsbjerg: Toussaint Louverture – A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions. This book was mentioned on the Repeating Islands website, which focuses on Caribbean art, culture, history and literature. The Haitian slave who became a military leader and governor, led the only successful slave revolt in history and founded the first free colonial society which explicitly rejected race as the basis of social ranking is a fascinating character. I had heard of him from my Haitian salsa teacher in France. After a year or two of having mainly girls as a partner, I gave up on salsa but I was impressed by the dancing skills and revolutionary spirit of my teacher (although he was less impressed with Voltaire than me).

Friday Fun: Old Montmartre in Photos and Paintings

If I could live anywhere in Paris, and money were no object, I would choose Montmartre, despite the tourist hordes. The endless steps and steep roads would keep me fit, and there are still many quiet picturesque corners if you know where to look. Plus oh, the historical artistic associations! Of course, in the 19th century Montmartre was anything but posh and expensive: it was a scrappy little suburb full of rebellious smallholders (marking the start of the revolutionary Paris Commune in 1871), poor working class people, bars and cabarets. Artists flocked there because it was cheap and provided an excellent spot for people-spotting.

Moulin de la Galette in Montmartre.
Van Gogh’s representation of it.
Impasse Girardon in real life.
Utrillo’s version of Impasse Girardon.
The infamously steep road Impasse Trainee.
Impasse Trainee in winter, by Utrillo.
Rue St Vincent and the cabaret-bar Lapin Agile.
Yet another Utrillo rendition of the same spot.
Place du Tertre, which is now filled with portrait painters and souvenir stalls.
Antoine Blanchard’s rainsodden version.
The vineyards in Montmartre have existed since Roman times, but almost fell victim to property developers in the early 20th century.
Not quite the same angle, but Van Gogh was fascinated with these orchards and vineyards too.
The vines are flourishing now and celebrate an annual harvest festival. From montmartre-addict.com

Not Roses, Obviously

I shouldn’t have come here really. I had no intention of walking this far. Haven’t got a clue how I’m going to get back home before dark, either. But isn’t this picture-postcard cottage worth the long trek and so much more? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a place as quaint and welcoming as this one. The faded red brick, the white paintwork, the upper windows twinkling in the sunset. The bottom two windows seem to be hugging the front door, while those climbing flowers embrace them all.

What do they call those flowers? Not roses, obviously. I do know those.  But I’ve never been very good with more complicated plant names. Aren’t they just the most gorgeous shade of lilac? And don’t they fill the whole earth with the scent of early summer and the promise of things to come?

I can’t wait.

I measure out three steps to one side of the gate, three to the other. Counting calms me down, gives me something to do. I remind myself to stand tall. I have to slow down, keep my distance, remember to breathe. I close my eyes and try to take in all the sounds, the warmth, the aroma of this perfect evening.

So what if I am not wanted here…

Most Obscure on My Shelves – Non-Fiction

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

I have always found more comfort in fiction and poetry than in self-help books or true stories. Most of the non-fiction books I own are professional books used during university or business days. If I ever do have a craving for a biography or a memoir, I borrow it from a library. However, since I started book blogging, I have made more of a conscious effort to read at least the occasional non-fiction book. Some of them have been so enlightening and have completely changed my way of thinking about the world.

Barbara Ehrenreich: Smile or Die (published in US under the title of Bright-Sided)

A lucid analysis and full-frontal attack on the reductionist thinking that has taken over not just the US but most of the Western world in recent years. Ehrenreich looks at the myth of ‘thinking yourself well’ when you have cancer, the Puritan work ethic which has led to the American dream of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps if only you want it badly enough, the ‘attraction’ philosophy of books like The Secret and so on. As someone who has both given and received coaching, I have seen first hand the real power of placebo (which is what positive thinking is to a certain extent), but also the ways in which it can be misinterpreted and lead to a downward spiral when the world refuses to live up to your personal hopes and values. Or how it can be used to justify someone’s unfortunate circumstances (‘he brought his misfortune upon himself, she can’t see the silver lining’).

Above all, this book (published in 2009) shows that critical thinking and reasoned debate have been demoted in the media, which has led to the vicious popularist rhetoric and partisanship which we all deplore at present.

James Davidson: Courtesans and Fishcakes

First of all: how can anyone resist this intriguing title? It’s about the culture of consumption of Ancient Athens: food, drink, sex, gambling and political manoeuvring. It makes the ancient world really come to life and it’s the book I always recommend to people who want an ‘anthropological study’ of Classical Greece. It’s a book about gossip, written in an accessible style, but based on careful research. It also shows what remarkably advanced thinkers those Athenians really were (despite some inevitable shortcomings regarding gender and slavery). We could learn something from them today.

This view of wealth as something changeable and fragile and rather separate from the men who owned it and this view of consumption as a warning of an individual’s dangerous appetites rather than as a sign of elite membership… is clearly related to Athens’ peculiar democratic system with its horror of internal division, its symbolic appropriations, its suspicion of riches, its weakened sense of family or clan identity… In Athens politics effectively was society.

Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

I’ve written about this before and I’ve said it before: this is the book I am most jealous of as an anthropologist, the book I wish I had written. It gives voice to the residents of Annawadi, a slum near Mumbai Airport, and it is written in language so vivid, with so much empathy, that it feels like fiction. It does not reduce people to numbers and facts, but neither does it romanticise their virtues and dreams. It is a story of those left behind by India’s economic boom, the exploitation of the weak by those slightly less weak. Much has been made of Boo’s status as an outsider (although she lived with the people she describes for three years), but this seems like a very fair, powerful and morally thoughtful book. Perhaps my favourite non-fiction book of the last decade or more.

 

What I Really Read on the Beach – Summer Reads

There was quite a bit of uproar on Twitter about the extremely worthy and ever-so-slightly pretentious beach reading promoted by The Guardian. Why can’t people admit that they crave chick lit or the latest Harlan Coben instead? They don’t have to be trashy airport novels (although most recently I’ve noticed a vast improvement in terms of variety being offered at airports), but they have to be able to withstand great heat, sun cream, the odd splash of water, and fried holiday brain. Can your expensive hardback of Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir, written by John Banville, with beautiful photography by Paul Joyce, withstand that? Perhaps one to buy and keep at home as a coffee table book, rather than shlepp to distant beaches…

Of course, I won’t actually be going to any beach this summer, but I hope to get a few nice days of sitting in my deck chair in the garden and worrying about nothing else but reading. And I readily admit that I look forward to a nice dose of escapism to mix in with my literary education. So this is what I would really read if I were on a Greek beach.

Image from olimpia.rs

Crime

Michael Stanley: Dying to Live

I’m a great fan of the Detective ‘Kubu’ Bengu series, and the Kalahari Desert setting fits in perfectly with the beach. Also, it’s a really intriguing tale about the death of a Bushman, who appears to be very old, but his internal organs are puzzlingly young. Could a witch doctor be involved?

Linwood Barclay: Too Close to Home

Another author that I would rather read on the beach than alone at night in a large house, as his nerve-wracking twists are prone to making me jump. The strapline on this one goes: What’s more frightening than your next-door neighbours being murdered? Finding out the killers went to the wrong house…

Helen Cadbury: Bones in the Nest

Like many other crime readers, I was very saddened to hear about the recent death of Helen Cadbury. I had read her debut novel in the Sean Denton series reviewed and marked her out as a talent to watch in 2014 on Crime Fiction Lover. This is the second in a series set in Doncaster, which unfortunately never had the chance to grow to its full potential.

Sarah Vaughan: Anatomy of a Scandal

The perfect novel for those who can’t quite take a break from politics: this is the story of an MP whose affair is made public, his wife who tries to stand by him in spite of her doubts, and the barrister who believes he has been guilty of rape. A searing look at privilege, hypocrisy and the social justice system.

YA literature

Not my usual kind of reading at all, but I like to keep abreast of what my children are reading.

G.P. Taylor: Mariah Mundi – The Midas Box

Mariah is a young orphan, fresh out of school, who is employed to work as an assistant to a magician living in the luxurious Prince Regent Hotel. But the slimy, dripping basement of the hotel hides a dark secret. I’ve heard of the author’s Shadowmancer series, but never read anything by him. Described as the next Harry Potter, this book promises to take the reader into a world of magic and fun.

Paul Gallico: Jennie

Peter wakes up from a serious accident and finds himself transformed into a cat. Life as a street cat is tough and he struggle to survive, but luckily stumbles across the scrawny but kindly tabby cat Jennie, who helps him out. Together they embark on a bit of an adventure.

#EU27Project

This is not only worthy reading, but highly enjoyable into the bargain! Although seeking out translations from some of the countries on the list is not that easy or cheap.

Hungary – Miklos Banffy: They Were Counted (transl. Patrick Thursdfiel and Katalin Banffy-Jelen)

Satisfies any cravings for family saga and historical romance, as well as looking at a part of the world which is very close to me (Transylvania). Plus a society bent on self-destruction – what more could one want?

Romania – Ileana Vulpescu: Arta Compromisului (The Art of Compromise)

This author’s earlier book The Art of Conversation was an amazing bestseller in the early 1980s in Romania, partly because it went against all the expectations of ‘socialist realism’ of the time and was quite critical of socialist politics (of an earlier period, admittedly). This book, published in 2009, continues the story of the main character, but this time set in the period after the fall of Communism in 1989. Critics have called it a bit of a soap opera, but at the same time an excellent snapshot of contemporary society. Sounds like delightful light reading, with a social critique, perfect for reconnecting with my native tongue.

Spain – Javier Marias: The Infatuations (transl. Margaret Jull Costa)

Another story with a murderous aside by an author I’ve only recently discovered and whose baroque sentences mesmerise me… Every day, María Dolz stops for breakfast at the same café. And every day she enjoys watching a handsome couple who follow the same routine. Then one day they aren’t there, and she feels obscurely bereft. She discovers that the man was murdered in the street – and Maria gets entangled in a very odd relationship with the widow.

Women in Translation Month

Another project which has the merit of being both worthy and great fun. I plan to read several of the Keshiki project of Strangers Press – beautifully produced slim translations of Japanese short stories and novellas. There are plenty of women writers represented: Misumi Kubo, Yoko Tawada, Kyoko Yoshida, Aoko Matsuda and the improbably named Nao-Cola Yamazaki. I expect the strange, unsettling, disquieting and sexually heated… Phew!