#WITMonth: Olga Tokarczuk

I was smitten with Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights when I read it and then had the good fortune to see her and her translator Jennifer Croft at the Hay Festival in 2018. I bought Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (this time translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) as soon as it came out, but for some reason I kept putting off reading it. Perhaps because I was sure I would like it, so I was saving it for a rainy day? What rainier day than a plague? But then I got a bit nervous that it might not live up to expectations. A blogger friend who had read it in German translation said it sounded somewhat pedestrian in that language.

Luckily, that was not the case, and my 18th Book of the Summer and first #WITMonth read was as good fun (and serious and thought-provoking and endearing) as I expected. It will certainly make my Top Read of the Year list – and feels remarkably appropriate for this period.

I’ve heard it described as Miss Marple meets Fargo, with a dash of William Blake, feminism and astrology, and that is probably not a bad description. Imagine a middle-aged spinster who lives in a fairly remote village on the border of Poland and the Czech Republic, in the Tartra mountains by the sounds of it. It is the kind of place that is a holiday resort in summer but deserted in winter, but she stays there all year round, looking after people’s second homes. She has a few neighbours, some of them friendly, some of them decidedly not: they view her as nuisance and a nag, with her constant complaints to the police about poaching and cruelty to animals – not that the police do much about it. One night, she and a friendly neighbour she calls Oddball find the body of their less friendly neighbour, nicknamed Big Foot. Convinced that his death was retribution for the way he hunted and killed deer, she sets out to do her own investigation and gets into conflict with the local hunting club, which includes members of the police, the church and pretty much everyone in the rural community.

Still from the film Spoor, photo by Robert Paeka.

That’s all I’m saying about the story, because it’s really not about the plot. It’s above all a fantastic and unforgettable character portrait of a rather formidable woman, who lives quietly but knows when not to be quiet, and who has all sorts of firm, one might even say extreme beliefs: pro-astrology, anti-religion, pro-animal rights, anti-hunting. She is prickly, spiky, yet somehow also endearing. She is mostly alone but not really lonely – although she misses her dogs (she calls them My Girls). She has a few friends who are as eccentric as she is.

Above all, she is full of sharp observations about modern life. Some of them might strike you as absurd, some of them as very perspicacious. She is of course living in the present day and therefore more adapted to modern life, but in many ways there is something timeless about her. The shrewdness of the native peasant, which is a whole branch of literature in Romania (perhaps in Poland too?). She reminded me of both of my grandmothers, larger than life but deliberately not romanticised.

I filled the book with post-it notes, there are so many arch, clever and sometimes downright wicked quotes.

With age, many men come down with a testosterone autism, the symptoms of which are a gradual decline in social intelligence and capacity for interpersonal communication, as well as a reduced capability to formulate thoughts. The Person beset by this Ailment becomes taciturn and appears lost in contemplation. He develops an interest in various Tools and machinery, and he’s drawn to the Second World War and the biographies of famous people, mainly politicians and villains.

I snorted with laughter, remembering a woman author saying how many middle-aged men she came across in the London Library who were writing biographies of Churchill or about planes and trains in the Second World War! The book is full of such darkly humorous observations which had me chortling.

She may have the sharpness of Miss Marple’s observational skills, but this is no mere onlooker. She writes letters, she protests, she argues with people, she does not suffer fools gladly – and she makes friends and has sex. Yes, really, at her age (which is never quite specified, but I suspect she is not as old as one might think). She also has the memorable voice of anger that I heard in Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs:

Anger makes the mind clear and incisive, able to see more. It sweeps up the other emotions and takes control of the body. Without a doubt Anger is the source of all wisdom, for Anger has the power to exceed any limits.

But there are beautiful, almost lyrical and very sad observations about the transience of life, the passing of time, how we are all part of nature, which I then thought about as I was reading my next book, The Wall by Marlen Haushofer. Both of these books are unforgettable and unrepentant in their clear view of the tiny part that humans play in the wider world.

Spring is just a short interlude, after which the mighty armies of death advance; they’re already besieging the city walls. We live in a state of siege. If one takes a close look at each fragment of a moment, one might choke with terror. Within our bodies disintegration inexorably advances: soon we shall fall sick and die. Our loved ones will leave us, the memory of them will dissolve in the tumult; nothing will remain. Just a few clothes in the wardrobe and someone in a photograph, no longer recognized. The most precious memories will dissipate. Everything will sink into darkness and vanish.

I noticed a pregnant girl sitting on a bench, reading a newspaper, and suddenly it occurred to me what a blessing it is to be ignorant. How could one possibly know all this and not miscarry?

Tokarczuk was severely criticised in her native Poland for this book, especially once the film Spoor came out, which is based on this book and was directed by Agnieszka Holland. In an increasingly conservative and Catholic Polish society, it was described as anti-Christian and promoting eco-terrorism. I found this quote by Holland (as reported in The Guardian) very important for understanding both the film and the book:

Holland said the protagonist embodied many disillusioned women of her generation “who are very rational, working as engineers or scientists, who reject the official religion that became very politically corrupt and has little to do with Jesus Christ. But at some point they start to have the need to connect to something like astrology, yoga or zen. It’s the above-55 generation who believed in progress and in the freedom that came with the collapse of communism, and the fact they could take things into their own hands, but who have now lost this hope.”

 

#6Degrees of Separation: August 2020

Welcome to August 2020 edition of Six Degrees of Separation! This is a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. The fun lies in seeing what quirky connections readers can come up with, although it’s by no means a competition!

This month’s starting point is How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell, which I’ve vaguely heard about and which sounds really interesting. It’s all about escaping from the constant demands on our attention in the 24/7 news cycle and social media saturated world we live in. I certainly feel I am spending far too much time on Twitter, the drug of my choice! However, from what I can tell, it’s not so much a self-help book as an anti-capitalism book.

Another anti-capitalism book from a globalised perspective is Capitalism. A Ghost Story by Arundhati Roy, which looks at how multinationals have taken over from the British Empire in exploiting the natural resources and the people of India, and how they have started to infiltrate policy-making and government through their powerful lobbying groups.

Arundhati Roy is of course better known as a novelist, and another novelist who was also a political activist was Nadine Gordimer. Perhaps her most politically explicit novel was July’s People, in which she imagines a bloody civil war putting an end to apartheid in her native South Africa.

Nadine Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, so for my next connection, I choose another Nobel Prize winner from the Southern hemisphere (and incidentally, another politically engaged writer) Pablo Neruda from Chile. His love sonnets were indispensable reading (and quoting) for lovesick teenagers when I was in secondary school.

Another poet I revered in my teens – and who is in fact the ideal moody teen idol for those who would like to rebel but are too nice to do so – is Arthur Rimbaud, especially his A Season in Hell, in which he quite explicitly threatens to abandon poetry, which he did too all too soon, at the tender age of 21.

Speaking of precocious writers, the next link is to Daisy Ashford’s The Visiters, written at the age of nine (and published with all the spelling mistakes intact). Although she continued writing for a short while in her teens, but she stopped once the First World War broke out and afterwards when she got married and had children.

I’ve walked myself into a corner here, as I don’t want to focus on yet another precocious author, so instead I’ll try to find one with a similar title: The Visitor by Irish writer Maeve Brennan. The author was known primarily as a short story writer, but after her death the typescript of this short novel written in her 20s was discovered, and really confirms her exceptional (and very dark) talent.

As usual, I’ve been a bit of a globetrotter in my links and travelled this month to India, South Africa, Chile, France, England and Ireland. Where will your 6 Degrees take you?

Plans for August Reading: #WIT and #20BooksofSummer

August is obviously Women in Translation Month, and I’ve been taking part since 2014, which I believe is the year it was initiated by that indefatigable supporter of women writers from all parts of the world, Meytal Radzinski. Last year I had a bit of a Brazilian theme going on; this year, it’s going to be more of a free for all. I cheated a little by starting my reading in July, to comply with Stu’s initiative of #SpanishLitMonth. So I have reviews for Lina Meruane, Margarita Garcia Robayo and Liliana Colanzi. I am still planning to read Ariana Harwicz’s Feebleminded, but I also have a very tempting stack of books by women writers from other countries.

I’ve recently finished Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and also am nearing the end of Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall. There are definite similarities between the two books (middle aged woman living alone, loving animals, philosophising about the world), aside from the fact that I really enjoyed both of them. But I still have to write the reviews. They will also constitute Books 18 and 19 of my #20BooksofSummer challenge.

I have one more book remaining then for the 20 books challenge, and I think it will be Teffi’s Subtly Worded, which has been sitting on my shelf for far too long. After that, I am free to roam wildly, so I may add Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs to the mix, although she wasn’t on my original list of possible summer reads. Then again, I recently bought a couple of Yuko Tsushima books, so I may choose those instead (or additionally). I’ll also dip into Tove Jansson’s letters, but I suspect that, like Virginia Woolf’s diaries, it will be the kind of book that I want to read every day over a long period of time, in small gulps, and ponder over the creative life and what might apply to me.

I’ve also borrowed quite a few books from the library, so will prioritise those, even if they don’t fall into the WIT category.

Polly Sansom’s A Theatre for Dreamers will transport me to the Greek islands, which are very precious to me, although a bit less accessible to me during and after my divorce. The Murdstone Trilogy by Mal Peet and Come Again by Robert Webb look like light-hearted, fun holiday reads. And of course I will continue with my exploration of Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger and The Paying Guests are beckoning, each in their own creepy way. I have also bought the most recent Susie Steiner, which I’ve been awaiting with impatience, so I doubt I’ll be able to resist that one for too long!

If you are looking for inspiration for Women in Translation Month, here are some of my favourites from the past few years, all of them good fun, not too dark:

(This last one is coming out in translation in September via V&Q Books.)

Friday Fun: Just Sitting and Watching the World Go By

I admitted in my Inside and Out book tag that I don’t actually read all that much outdoors. However, if I had a beautiful porch, deck, terrace, balcony or whatever you choose to call it, that would be my favourite indoor/outdoor compromise for reading. (In fact, that’s exactly what I did back in the days when I visited family in Greece. Saved me having to listen to hours of gossip about people I didn’t know!) If you also add in a fabulous view… well, my inspiration might know no bounds.

A little read, a little chat, drinks at sunset. American mountain cabin, from weheartit.com
Modest balcony overlooking the St Croix river, Keller Architecture, George Heinrich photo.
Mountain lakes are my favourites to look at, not necessarily to swim in. From Georgiana Design on Tumblr.
A less basic seating experience, from Annahepfer.com
Coming back to Greece and my favourite island, Santorini. I really need to go back there soon, although probably not in such luxury, from Insider.com

#20BooksofSummer and #SpanishLitMonth: Lina Meruane

Lina Meruane: Seeing Red, transl. Megan McDowell (Atlantic Books, 2017)

I managed to sneak in one more review for #SpanishLitMonth, initiated by Stu Jallen – although I will probably continue reading Latin Americans for the Women in Translation month coming up. It is also Book No. 17 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge, so great satisfaction all round!

When I saw Lina Meruane speak at Hay Festival in 2018, I was horrified to find out that Seeing Red is actually based on her own experience. She was doing her doctoral studies in the US when her eyes really did begin to bleed and she was in danger of losing her eyesight forever (but she has recovered now). To add to the confusion whether this is an autobiographical account, the main protagonist in the novel is also called Lina (or Lucina), a Chilean doctoral student in New York, who is trying to write a novel.

But Meruane is merely toying with our expectations. Her fictional Lina is much tougher and nastier, perhaps, than the author – or else she is one possible side of the author when facing blindness. She resolutely refuses to be a victim: ‘But I’m not going to just sit in a chair and wait for it to pass.’ She is loud and brash and dominant – with her boyfriend Ignacio (even when she is afraid of losing him), with her parents (both doctors in Santiago de Chile who think initially they might be able to advise her), with doctors, friends and tutors who ask about her writing. She is increasingly cruel. She has to create a new identity for herself as everything she used to be or do is in danger of disappearing. She is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, living in mortal fear, yet doing her best to pep herself up and almost daring anyone to feel sorry for her. Almost punishing the others for not suffering as she does.

The sentences are short, staccato, sometimes ending mid-sentence – the kind of incoherence that fear or anger often produce. Just look at this first paragraph, describing the moment when Lina’s eyes suddenly cloud over at a party:

It was happening. Right then, happening. They’d been warning me for a long time, and yet. I was paralyzed, my sweaty hands clutching at the air while the people in the living room went on talking, roaring with laughter – even their whispers were exaggerated, while I.

You soon get used to the breathless style – and even to the lack of speech marks, which I find deeply tedious in contemporary fiction (making things unnecessarily difficult for readers without adding much to the style). The story barrels along with its long paragraphs, lack of punctuation, quick changes of people speaking. As Lina adjusts to a dark world, all of her other senses become hypersensitive, and she becomes incredibly touchy in her conversations with others. As a reader, you are thrown, like Lina, into a frenetic melee of sounds, impressions, exchange of words and have to try to make sense of it all.

I think the author is also trying to draw some parallels between the fictional Lina’s blindness and the fate of her home country, Chile, and the temporary blindness (or amnesia) of the people about Pinochet. A body collapsing also bears similarities with a country or political system collapsing. She visits her parents while waiting for an operation in the States, and her hometown is both familiar and strange to her. Meanwhile, Ignacio (who is Spanish) has gone to Argentina and spent far too much money there following the economic collapse of 2001 (but really it could be any number of collapses and defaults). Lina mocks him, of course:

… he had done it all with the stupid idea of stopping the collapse. You alone, with just some dollars? Like a second-rate conquistador with glass beads?

There are some disturbing, surely surreal little touches, of Lina actually taking over her/touching/sucking her parents’ or her boyfriend’s eyeballs. I found that a bit shocking and hard going, I have to admit. Overall, I can’t claim that I enjoyed the book, but I appreciated what Lina Meruane was trying to do and would certainly like to see more of her in translation. I understand that her books are often about bodily frailty, and how that resembles family ties.

#20BooksofSummer: No. 16 – Barbellion

W.N.P. Barbellion: The Journal of a Disappointed Man (& A Last Diary)

You will never guess where I first encountered Barbellion (in a roundabout way) and in fact many of my reading recommendations in my early teens.

The novel Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster, which seems to be forgotten nowadays, but which I bought after watching the film adaptation with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron. The book differs quite a bit from the film, but I really enjoyed reading about a young girl going to college and educating herself by reading all sorts of classics – so I copied Judy’s reading list. It was there that I discovered Marie Bashkirtseff in this absolutely brilliant quote:

We’re reading Marie Bashkirtseff’s journal. Isn’t it amazing? Listen to this: ‘Last night I was seized by a fit of despair that found utterance in moans, and that finally drove me to throw the dining-room clock into the sea.’ It makes me almost hope I’m not a genius; they must be very wearing to have about—and awfully destructive to the furniture.

Once I read Bashkirtseff (very appealing to a moody teenager), I then heard comparisons being made to another diary, by Barbellion. Virginia Woolf mentioned him too in her diaries and that was the final trigger. I managed to find him in the very old-fashioned British Council library in Bucharest (I think some of the books there dated from pre-WW2) and was entranced. And he certainly recognises the similarity to Bashkirtseff:

She feels as I feel. We have the same self-absorption, the same vanity and corroding ambition. She is impressionable, volatile, passionate – ill! So am I…She has written down all my thoughts and forestalled me!… To think I am only a replica: how humiliating for a human being to find himself merely a duplicate of another.

Confession time: I’m embarrased to say that I completely misunderstood the author and the book at the time. I assumed that he was a fictional character – that this was an early attempt at what is now known as ‘auto-fiction’. The fact that the author did not actually die at the end of diary (at the time I did not know of the posthumous follow-up) made me think he was exaggerating his illness (MS). So I read this more as the work of a precocious, moody talent, self-absorbed young man,  almost comical in his cynical view of the world. Teenagers are pretty heartless when it comes to others, and I thought his despair was exaggerated for comic effect. I mean, even the title is a wonder of passive-aggressive British understatement – how can you not smile?

And then there are all of those sharp, unvarnished opinions of Victorian and contemporary authors . This was the bit that Virginia Woolf loved: the description of Emily Bronte as Mrs Nietzsche, declaiming ‘No coward soul is mine’ ‘with her fist held to our wincing nose’.

The author in an uncharacteristically jaunty pose in his youth.

This time round, I was a lot more sympathetic to the author and to his illness. He is so desperate to leave behind some sort of legacy, while feeling that he is running out of time. He can be so harsh on himself, too, yet his self-flagellation alternates with moments of robust egotism, and this juxtaposition of pride and shame, coupled with complete honesty, is both poignant and funny. And very relatable. I think he’d have had one hell of a Twitter account! (Although the trolls would have drive him crazy.)

My first impulse is always to credit folk with being nicer, cleverer, more honest and amiable than they are. Then, on reflection, I discover unpleasing characteristics. I detect their little motives and hate myself for not speaking. The fellow is intolerable, why did I not tell him so? Bitter recriminations from my critical self upon my flabby amiable half.

Yet he is not entirely preoccupied only with himself – he is such a keen observer of the people around him, any casual encounters in the street or on public transport. And he has a good sense of societal changes too, of how the war (WW1 in this case) is presented to the general public. Although he is resigned to his own death, he is still able to notice social injustice and rage against it. One of my favourite quotes is this one from October 1914 (by which point the ‘it will all be over by Christmas’ motto was starting to ring hollow):

It is dreadful to think how we have all accommodated ourselves to this War. Christian resignation is a feeble thing. Why won’t this demure widow with a loud voice blashpeme against this iniquitous world that permits this iniquitous war?

By December 1918, he correctly observes that people are all too eager to forget the horrors of war and return to ‘normality’.

See how soldiers deliberately, from a mistaken sense of charity or decency, conceal the horrors of this war. Publishers and Government aid and abet them. Yet a good cinema film of all the worst and most filthy and disgusting side of the war – everyone squeamish and dainty-minded to attend under State compulsion to have their necks scroffed, their sensitive nose-tips pitched into it, and their rest on lawny couches disturbed for a month after – would do as much to prevent future wars as any League of Nations.

A book quite unlike any other, and thank you go Backlisted Pod for being such a champion of it. This is one of those books you keep by your bedside and dip into every so often, confident you will discover a little gem every time.

Reading Summary for July 2020

Posting this a little early, because I haven’t got the mental capacity to write reviews today (and I owe at least three).

I’ve read 10 books this month, despite being very busy at work once again. I’m alternating my #SpanishLitMonth (and anticipating #WomeninTranslation Month as well) with comfort (i.e. holiday) reading. My reading took me all over the world, and most of the books (80%) were written by women, half of the women writers were in translation. I’ve also read quite a few books from my #20BooksofSummer list – 18, but only reviewed 15 of them.

I discovered a new to me author that people on Twitter seem to be raving about: Sarah Waters (I slung down Fingersmith within 24 hours and have already reserved some other books by her from the library). I also discovered the Abir Mukherjee crime series set in 1920s India, which I want to read more of.  I was very happy to be reunited with Eva Dolan, whose crime fiction I adore. I finally got to read Olga Tokarczuk again and she did not disappoint, she is rapidly becoming a firm favourite. I was moved and surprised by The Home-Maker, which still feels remarkably contemporary. I reread Barbellion with less of a giggle and more sympathy for his predicament than I did in my brash teens. I was fascinated by the passionate, experimental fiction of the South American women writers, but disappointed by the ‘society pages/lifestyle magazine’ style of Fleishman Is in Trouble, although it contained some clever observations about marriage and divorce.

Holiday reading:

A Rising Man – set in India

Between Two Evils – set in Peterborough

Fingersmith – London and Marlow (near Maidenhead – surprisingly)

Fleishman Is in Trouble – New York City

Journal of a Disappointed Man – largely London

The Home-Maker – small-town America

Spanish Lit Month:

Liliana Colanzi – Bolivia

Margarita Garcia Robayo – Colombia

Lina Meruane – Chile

Women in Translation Month (anticipating):

Olga Tokarczuk – Poland (and Czech border)

Plans for the month of August – what else but Women in Translation? I am continuing with my Latin Americans – Ariana Harwicz awaits, plus Teffi, Tove Jansson’s Letters, Marlen Haushofer, Svetlana Alexievich and more. I’ve also ordered a few more books from the library for easy reading, so that should keep me out of mischief. Only two more books and I am free of any #20BooksofSummer constraints! Plus, I plan to dedicate a lot more time to writing.

 

 

Film Watching in July

I haven’t gone quite as crazy watching films nearly every day in July, as I did in the previous few months, mainly because I find my eyes (and head and back) are really fed up of watching screens, regardless of size and position. So I prefer to collapse in bed and read in the evening. However, most of the films I’ve watched have been directed by women. And now that I look back, I notice the vast majority are French. Also, not sure if it proves anything, but quite a number of women film-makers on this list started out as actresses.

Tales of the Unexpected:

Ida Lupino: The Hitchhiker – such a minimalist, brutal noir film, it certainly puts an end to any notion that women directors are all fluffy and domestic. It is a relentless road trip to hell through a parched landscape, with no shelter, and a cast of just three men, all wonderfully expressive (and sinister) actors. A wonderful sense of menace looms over the entire film, although the ending is a little bit too neat and rushed.

Michaela Coel: I May Destroy You – tough to watch at times, but how could it not be, when it deals with the consequences of sexual assault? Nevertheless, it manages to be funny, poignant and militant as well. The main character Arabella is both endearing and infuriating, and it’s very clever that Coel doesn’t make her too likeable – but she does NOT deserve what happens to her. There are so many layers to the story as well: what does constitute rape and assault? who are our real friends and what are the boundaries of friendship? and other weighty themes such as betrayal and forgiveness, race relations, social media and trolling.  And it shows black people having fun as well as suffering, which is so rare… As for that ending… a wonderful surprise!

Coming of Age:

Celine Sciamma: Girlhood (Bande de filles)  –  I cannot believe that I’d forgotten that I’d seen this film when it first came out in France. As soon as I saw those endless concrete footbridges between the blocks of flats, it all came flooding back. This is the feminine version of La Haine, a portrait of black girls living in the banlieues and trying to make the most of their short period of bloom before life, misogynistic men and hopelessness take over. While I cannot condone their shoplifting and bullying, there are real moments of tenderness and ‘rire fou’ (crazy laughter) between the girls (all newcomers to acting at the time) and of course that unforgettable scene of dancing and lipsynching to Rihanna.

Joanna Hogg: The Souvenir – almost the polar opposite of Sciamma’s film, this shows pretentious film students and a very genteel, soft-spoken, well-heeled environment. And yet the well-meaning but naive girl at the centre of the story is as open to emotional abuse as the poor banlieue girls. And, although she has the safety net of her family, she doesn’t have that sense of solidarity and loyalty that the Sciamma girls display.

Midlife reinvention:

Claire Denis: Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur) – Juliette Binoche making stupid choices with lots of creepy men, in an attempt to ward off loneliness and the feeling of ageing, would be my capsule summary of this film. There was little joy or freedom apparent in this film – it smacked of desperation.

Mia Hansen-Love: Things to Come (L’Avenir) – Same theme, nearly: a middle-aged philosophy professor sees her world come crashing down: a husband who suddenly announces he’s having an affair and is moving out, a difficult mother who needs constant care, a cat she inherits although she has an allergy, being turned down by publishers because her books are no longer considered ‘marketable’, being considered old-fashioned by her former pupils. And yet the character played by Isabelle Huppert has the inner strength to keep going and even enjoys her freedom and reaches some form of contentment.

Men behaving badly:

Chantal Akerman: Almayer’s Folly – based on Joseph Conrad’s first novel but set in an unspecified post WW2 time period, this is the story of a white man dreaming of making a fortune in the East, yet ending up penniless in a house overgrown by vegetation, in the middle of a river. He looks down on the natives, although he has a mixed-race daughter. He refuses to admit that his daughter doesn’t fit in the white people’s world and is doomed to eternal disappointment and being wrong about everything. A slow-moving film, with very long shots throughout, bogging you down like the swampland in which he lives.

Eléonore Pourriat: I Am Not an Easy Man (Je ne suis pas un homme facile) – a rom-com with role reversals. The very macho philanderer Damien suffers a major concussion and wakes up in a parallel universe where women are the dominant sex, men have to dress to please them, are mostly in subservient roles and are discriminated against. A very clever and funny premise to demonstrate the absurdity of the expectations we have of women, but I did feel the romance overpowered the satire. I’d have liked to see more of the role reversal in the workplace, too. If you want to see the original 10 minute mini-film made by the same director (which let men experience what life is like for women), you can watch Majorité opprimée on YouTube: https://youtu.be/kpfaza-Mw4I

 

 

Friday Fun: Romantic Bedrooms

I’ll be honest: what is being flogged as romantic in most magazines or travel brochures makes my skin crawl: tacky decorations, lots of pink and red, a bathtub at the foot of your bed (all the better to hear the gurgle of water draining, see a spider crawling out of the plughole and have to choose between romance of scum residue or scrubbing the bathtub immediately after use). So I’ve had to create my own definitions of romance.

It might get too hot in summer, but a bed in a greenhouse is the perfect place for reading. From soyvirgo.com
A treehouse is also a great option, although you might have to fight the bugs for bed occupancy. From Airbnb.com
Great views and lots of soothing greenery with this day bed. Plus, who can resist a feline friend? From merchantdesign.blogspot.fr
OK, mood lighting can enhance romance, they’re right about one thing, but I think the view and the sound of waves might also be helpful. From bocadolobo.com
It’s all about the view in this one as well. From bocadolobo.com
However, the most romantic bedrooms, to my mind, are the ones where you also have a comfortable reading chair and plenty of books to hand. From homedesignlover.com

#20BooksofSummer: No. 15 Holiday Heart (vs. Fleishman Is In Trouble)

Margarita Garcia Robayo: Holiday Heart, transl. Charlotte Coombe

This book ticks three boxes: #SpanishLitMonth, #20BooksofSummer and #WomeninTranslation.

I didn’t read this one in time for the Borderless Book Club in June, but I nevertheless enjoyed hearing the discussions around it. I think quite a few struggled with the unlikability of the main characters, but I felt like that was the point of the book. It offers a different perspective on the life of privileged Colombian immigrants to the US. All too often Latinos are perceived as racially inferior, uneducated, relegated to menial jobs or (if they are lucky) entertainment – but what about those immigrants who are wealthy, well-educated and feel superior to those with a darker skin colour than themselves and to those coming from other Latin American countries?

There is a far greater variety among immigrants, even when they come from the same linguistic background or the same continent, than we are typically shown in films or literature. It was this aspect of the story which I found most interesting: the chasing after a new cultural identity, the ambiguous feelings towards the home country, feeling second-rate in a host culture when you were used to feeling first-rate at home. Just because you are an immigrant and discriminated against doesn’t mean that you cannot find others even lower than you, so that you too can discriminate (or merely quietly envy). Snobbery and racism are rife, as well as resentment for the way they are treated in their new environment.

Being brown isn’t an advantage, thinks Pablo, and he thinks about himself, his mother and his sisters, even Lucia. Being black gets you further. A brown man is a watered-down man, stuck halfway between identities. It’s impossible to construct a strong identity if you are brown.

It is also the story of a marriage breaking down, where a sense of common identity is not enough to keep them together. Lucia was forced to move around a lot as a child, following her father’s job with oil companies, so she wants to integrate fully, to raise their children as Americans, and can be quite sarcastic or bored about her origins. Meanwhile, Pablo has a nostalgia about ‘our country’ and resents this uprooting:

‘…one day you’ll realise that a man without roots is a dead man.’ He couldn’t remember Lucia’s response. Something seething and spiteful. Something about how much his argument sounded like a lyric from an Ismael Rivera song.

When Pablo develops a ‘holiday heart’ syndrome (a severe heart condition usually associated with over-indulgence of food, drink, sex and the like during the holidays), the couple’s contrasting attitudes towards life become ever clearer. Pablo is going through a midlife crisis and having several affairs, including one with a pupil of his. Lucia goes off to Miami with the kids and flirts with a celebrity football player who is also there on vacation. These shenanigans got a little bit tedious, but they were revealing of character. There is an emptiness at the heart of this relationship and in their own hearts. When reading this book, I get the same sense of alienation as in watching a film like Antonioni’s The Eclipse.

Almost immediately after reading this book, I read Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (although this was a library book and adjacent to my #20booksofsummer reading plans). It is also about the breakdown of a marriage, but set in the well-heeled milieu of New York doctors, bankers and celebrity agents, with summer homes in the Hamptons and an endless round of private schools, tennis lessons, piano lessons, holiday camps and what not else. I wondered whether the readers who had found the Holiday Heart characters unlikable thought that these ones were more relatable because they were white.

The book was funny in parts, especially when describing the sex-fuelled haze of online dating, or the reactions of other people to the news that a couple is divorcing ‘people pretended to care for him when they were really asking after themselves’). Instead of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, this one reminded me of the TV series Sex and the City. There are some sharp observations about modern life and gender relationships, but I couldn’t help feeling that I was reading a lifestyle article in Vanity Fair or New York Times. I couldn’t care deeply about either Toby or his wife Rachel, or their respective midlife crises, or any of the characters who seem to relish their respective well-furnished prisons even though they complain about them. Although some of the rants were really spot-on, I couldn’t help remembering the critique I got on an excerpt of my novel in progress a few years back – that it was too much of a rant, the whingeing of a privileged white Mum that nobody would be interested in reading. Yes, this is exactly what this book felt like (although we get two for the price of one, rants from both genders).

I watched a couple go by, burrowing into each other… I pitied them… in a few years, that girl would be just some guy’s wife. She would be someone her husband referred to as angry – as angry and a dour and a nag. He would wonder where her worship went; he would wonder where her smiles were. He would wonder why she never broke out in laughter; why she never wore lingerie,; why her underwear, once lacy and dangerous, was now cotton and white; why she ddn’t like it from behind anymore; why she never got on top… The fortress where they kept their secrets would begin to crack, and he would push water through those cracks when he would begin to confide in his friends. He would get enough empathy and nods of understanding so that he would begin to wonder exactly what he had to gain from remaining with someone so bitter, someone who no longer appreciated him for who he was, and life’s too short, man, life’s too short.

Although I flagged quite a few passages that made me nod and smile wryly in recognition, overall I felt I’d heard the story a hundred times before and the style was too pedestrian to rescue it. It was an entertaining enough way to spend a weekend, but I choose Holiday Heart over this one. The Colombian novel gives a more lasting feeling of unease, raises provocative questions, and has a more precise, clearcut style where you feel every word counts (plus, it has been carefully and lovingly translated).