Flee the Fire

So no, if you scratch me, I will not bleed. If you stab my heart, your knife will splinter on sheer flint. The calamine-soaked bandages sticking to the pus of my burn wounds neither hurt nor soothe me. I’ve been burning since the night I forgot to check on Freddie. Hell is the only place for me and I dare not leave it any time soon.

The forest fires in Canada may no longer be in the news, but they are still raging (although some rain is making the firefighters’ work slightly easier). That will be a post for another day, about the shortlasting visbility of news stories…

Wind in the Willows – stage adaptation

windKenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows was not an integral part of my own childhood. I had read it at some point, probably when I was a little too old to fall under its storytelling magic, but too young to be gripped by nostalgia. I liked it well enough, but I only really understood it and began to love it when I moved close to Cookham, the small village on the River Thames where Grahame had grown up and where he lived with his sickly son Alastair, for whom he wrote The Wind in the Willows. When I had children of my own, we read it together and often visited the River and Rowing Museum in Henley, where there is a loving recreation of the story. My older son knew big chunks of the text by heart at the time.

So you can imagine that, five years later, when he heard that Simply Theatre in Geneva (where he attends weekly drama classes) would be producing a stage version of his beloved book, he was desperately keen to get into it. He had been unsuccessful in all of his previous auditions, and this was his last chance to get into a show before our move back to the UK, so we didn’t hold much hope.

But, in a wonderful instance of karma or poetic justice, he managed to get in! Just a small role and a member of the ensemble, but that was all he needed. Suddenly, my lazy, disorganised, dreamy teenager who moans about having to do homework, that he never gets enough time to play, that he can’t get up in the morning… well, he’s become disciplined, focused and incredibly hard-working. Not a word of complaint about all-day rehearsals at the weekends, going straight from school to 5 hour rehearsals in the evening, missing out on all the fun of playing with his younger brother and his friends.

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Last night was the premiere (which is why I am posting twice today – plus I never know when I will next have access to the internet). The audience consisted mostly of parents, prepared to be indulgent and forgiving, as the young actors had warned us that there were still some glitches to be ironed out. However, huge sigh of relief, I could give my maternal bias a rest…

This is an excellent show! You can bet your life it’s not your average school production. Actress/director Selene Beretta certainly does not make life easy for her cast in this complex and ambitious retelling of the story of Ratty, Mole, Toad and Badger, rabbits and weasels. There is constant movement, countless sound and light cues, so many costume and set changes, a very imaginative recreation of the river bank, Toad’s mansion, the prison, Badger’s home and so on.

Although the adaptation has a funky modern feel to it, it stays close to the original and has captured many of the elements which make the book such a unique reading experience: the wit, larger than life characters, rollicking good story, but also the more lyrical aspects. I particularly loved Mole’s sense of yearning for adventure and Badger’s sage reminder that human civilisations rise and fall, while the rivers and wildlife remain. There were even some scary moments in the Wild Woods, reminding us that nature is not all cutey-wootey. But there are also those perennial moments of relaxation we all aspire to: just messing about in boats, having picnics by the river, chatting to friends…

Ratty-and-Mole-in-Boat-with-Dragonfly

Congratulations to everyone involved in this production! For those of you who are based in Geneva and would like to experience it for yourselves, the show continues until Sunday 29th May and you can book tickets online on the Simply Theatre website. I’ll certainly be going more than once (and not just to pick up my son after the show).

Friday Fun: Home Libraries to Aspire To

Still planning for that perfect study/home library combo, which is just dangling out of my reach, like the proverbial carrot in front of a donkey.

Because everything is better on two floors. From Decoist.com
Because everything is better on two floors. From Decoist.com
A reading gallery may be a bit too noisy for some of us. From Domainehome.com
A reading gallery may be a bit too noisy for some of us. From Domainehome.com
A reading tower in the Dordogne? Don't mind if I do! From Angloinfo.com
A reading tower in the Dordogne? Don’t mind if I do! From Angloinfo.com
Yet another comfy chaislongue and gentlemen's club scene for the lady in me! Frm dovetaildoublestitched.com
Yet another comfy chaise longue and gentlemen’s club scene for the lady in me! From dovetaildoublestitched.com
Never mind the bookshelves, I'll have the cat as well! From mydomaine.com
Never mind the bookshelves, I’ll have the cat as well! From mydomaine.com
For the impoverished student look, from myhousebutprettier on Tumblr.
For the impoverished student look, from myhousebutprettier on Tumblr.
For fans of purpose-built studies, from Neville Johnson.
For fans of purpose-built studies, from Neville Johnson.
And we finish on a doubledecker note again, from projectwhitespace.com
And we finish on a double-decker note again, from projectwhitespace.com

What intrigues me about all of these pictures is that, although they have a lot more shelves and space than me, they seem to have fewer books! Life just isn’t fair, is it?

When Things Fall Off Your Plate…

Are you one of life’s gourmands when it comes to a buffet dinner? Do you eat too much simply because it is displayed there in front of you?

From examiner.com
From examiner.com

In the buffet of life and activities, I certainly tend to be greedy (for fear of missing out on something) and pile my plate up high. I commit to far too many activities, help far too many people, combine things in spectacular fashion (things which are perhaps best left uncombined)…

Not all of it is my own free choice, of course. Some of the things on my plate are the boring administrative details which simply need to be dealt with: the napkins, cutlery and cups of the buffet, perhaps. (Yes, I’m determined to extend this metaphor like a rubber band!) And before people tell me that the housework can wait and cake-baking for the end of year school fair is not compulsory… I’ve given up on those things long ago!

Other goodies on my plate benefit my children – because they too have the right to a happy life and a supportive mother when they are doing exciting things for the first time, such as participating in a professional theatre production (opening night tonight, break a leg!) or doing a fundraising run for charity. If I were to compare it to meat and two vegetables for dinner, I would say the meat is my writing, the potato is my day job and the more exciting vegetable is my family (perhaps asparagus, as they are tall and skinny?). Of course, being both a gourmet (fan of quality) and a gourmand (fan of quantity), I also add liberal lashings of cheese, additional vegetables, fruit, desserts, wine and so much more: blogging, tweeting, voluntary work for Geneva Writers’ Group, keeping up with friends and visiting all the places I know I will miss once I leave this area…

From amazingcircusworkshops.com
From amazingcircusworkshops.com

Most of the time, it just about works and I can carefully balance the plate all the way back to the table, sit down and enjoy it with gusto. However, if just one element of this precarious edifice fails or is missing… if the internet and phone don’t work, if a babysitter cancels, if a child falls ill, if a scheduled workshop date gets postponed… it just takes one minor, tiny, apparently insignificant detail to go wrong, then this happens…

Scarred on the battlefield with internet service providers, your dedicated war correspondent is signing off here before using language which may be too colourful for the time of day you are reading this!

Crime Fiction in Holiday Locations

Everyone loves a little crime in holiday places – as long as we are reading about it and dreaming of a beach, rather than directly affected by it. This must be the reason why there are so many crime novels set in popular holiday destinations – or combining popular holiday activities, such as cruise ships. As it so happens, four of the books I’ve recently read take place in various parts of the Mediterranean. All four of them are what I would call ‘enjoyable holiday reads’, with a few disquieting elements to keep you on your toes, but not the kind that you will remember for years to come.

disappearanceAnnabel Kantaria: The Disappearance  – cruise ship

This barely qualifies as crime fiction, although it has a mystery and a missing person at its heart. It is really a book about family secrets and the dangers of allowing them to fester. It is also a loving recreation of India in the 1970s (where the main protagonist, Audrey, went to work after the death of her parent and met her husband) and Greece in the present day, where Audrey has invited her twin children on a cruise around the Greek islands to celebrate her 70th birthday. But then, on the night of her birthday, Audrey goes missing, suspected of falling overboard.

I first encountered the author online as a fellow expat writing about her experiences of living abroad, and there is plenty of flavour and colour to her descriptions of life as an expat in India. Despite some predictable moments, the book as a whole slid down the reading throat like a nice glass of Bailey’s or Amaretto: rich, indulgent, smooth. Perfect summer reading.

distresssignalsCatherine Ryan Howard : Distress Signals – cruise ship

Adam Dunne is a rather self-absorbed 30 year old who still dreams of becoming a great writer. He has said no to a regular job or a painful climb up a career ladder, a mortgage, a family and kids – so far – and has been encouraged and supported (often financially too) by his girlfriend Sarah. Then he finally manages to sell a script to Hollywood (pending some rewrites), but he has no time to celebrate, because his beloved Sarah – who had gone to Barcelona on a business trip – has vanished into thin air. Her phone is switched off, nobody seems to know about her whereabouts and the hotel she was staying at claims she only stayed there one night. Adam initially keeps trying to calm himself (and Sarah’s parents) down with plausible excuses, but becomes frantic when it becomes likely that she disappeared on board a cruise ship. The author knows the holiday industry pretty well and she has found the perfect fertile ground for crime on board a cruise ship. I had never thought about it before, but the murky borders of jurisdiction, the coming together of an international crowd for a short period of time, the sheer size of those ships making it quite easy to ‘disappear’ people… It has certainly made me more determined than ever to never go on a cruise!

ghostrunnerParker Bilal: Ghost Runner – Egypt

Makana is a former police inspector from Sudan, who has found refuge in Cairo. He lives on a rickety houseboat on the Nile and tries to forget the cruel death of his wife and young daughter back home. He makes a living as a private investigator and, as the story opens, he believes he is involved in a routine surveillance job to appease a jealous and suspicious wife. However, it turns out that the ‘errant’ husband is in fact visiting a badly injured girl in hospital, the victim of a horrific arson attack. This leads to a more wide-ranging and unpleasant investigation involving the girl’s father, who was associated with terrorism, and their home town of Siwa, an oasis in the Sahara Desert. Makana discovers the law means little in this frontier town on the edge of the great desert, nor can he count on the local police for help.

In this part of the world, the past is never quite buried, and has a way of rearing its nasty head and influencing the present. Not exactly a cheery holiday read, this novel blends topical events with a solid mystery and a noir atmosphere despite the relentless, blazing sun.

highsmithPatricia Highsmith: The Two Faces of January – Greece

January is not the name of a girl: it is the month in which the novel is set, but it is also an allusion to the two faces of Janus, and to the two main male characters, who in many ways represent two sides of the same coin. Chester MacFarlane is a con man, with many names and identities: he runs pyramid schemes, investment frauds, and disappears with his clients’ money. He is now on the run in Europe with his beautiful young wife Colette. Rydal Keener is a young American who quarreled with his father when he decided to come to Europe and stay there without doing anything much to build a career for himself. He seems to be drifting through life, but has a thirst for adventure which makes him somewhat foolishly rush in to help Chester when a Greek policeman catches up with the glamorous couple. After that fatal moment, they are fated to stay together, even as temptations abound and tempers fray.

This is not top-notch Highsmith, but even in her more average work, she remains the mistress of the innuendo, the slow psychological burn and strange love/hate competitive relationship between men. It’s not top-notch Highsmith, but it’s an interesting playing around with certain tropes and scenes, almost like a dress rehearsal for Ripley. I enjoyed the Greek setting and the unreliability of each one of the characters. Sometimes it’s completely opaque what motivates them – but isn’t real life like that too? Chester and Rydal are the two faces of the same coin, and you can’t quite decide which one of them is more despicable – and yet there is a ‘can’t live with or without each other’ aspect to their relationship which is deliciously subversive, smart, sinister story in its own right, well worth a read.

 

 

Slick to Swallow

Child, your mother’s hair unwashed for a week

tangles limply on the pillow.

Flattened by overuse, you prop her up, she slips back down.

There is no justice.

You bring in dandelions she has no puff to blow.

She swallows watery gruel and superlatives

with equal indifference,

Spooned out at intervals,

when you remember she is human too.

There is no medicine

if oil tars feathers

and causes the family to mat and separate.

 

Review of Mend the Living – Reparer les vivants

maylisdekerangal
Author photo from Babelio.

Written by Maylis de Kerangal, it has been translated as Mend the Living by Jessica Moore and as The Heart (although I am not sure if that was by a different translator) for the US markets.

The story is incredibly simple: we follow 24 hours in the life of a heart transplant, from 5:50 in the morning until the following morning at dawn. The story certainly does not lack in incidents: we witness an accident – not a surfing one, although that is what we suspect at first – we see the emergency services spring into action, we see everyone rush around the young man in a coma – Simon –  in a desperate manner: doctors, nurses –  including the wonderfully named Cordelia Owl, new to the ICU unit (much more poetically called the ‘reanimation unit’ in French), organ donor coordinators, specialists all over France, the parents, friends and other families affected by this tragedy.

reparer-les-vivants-619588But, of course, the story is not about this febrile activity. It is all about the interior life of all the people involved:  Thomas Remige the organ donor liaison nurse, who grew up on a farm in Normandy and likes to sing in the nude;  Simon’s parents – French mother Marianne, New Zealand father Sean- who are currently living apart; his girlfriend Juliette who is slightly jealous of his surfing buddies;  the recipient of his heart, Claire, who has put her life on hold for the past three years, living in a poky little flat just opposite the hospital in Paris which can do heart transplants, hoping against hope that this moment would come.

Do we need to know all those concerns (in many cases, peripheral) of people whose lives are touched (and in some cases, irrevocably changed) by Simon’s death? Too many descriptions, too many details? Take for example the multiple phone calls and sounds Marianne receives or tries to make, her Simone Signoret eyes, Charlotte Rampling eyes, the roads she drives on en route to the hospital – all this minutiae seems useless. But this accumulation of details slows down time – we feel the second hand ticking – which makes some readers give up, I can fully understand. And perhaps I would have too, if I wasn’t keen to compare the French and English language version and switched from one to the other constantly.

I interpreted this, however as a way of distancing oneself from the subject, avoiding sentimentality. The rapid switches from one protagonist to the next can be disorientating, and we have no time to connect emotionally with some of them, despite the wealth of details we are given – yet this contributes to that sense of urgency. Quick, harvest those kidneys, liver, lungs, heart before they perish… Ultimately, this is about the fragility of life itself, and what it means to be human, what remains of us after we die.

This is another example of a book which demands surrender to its rhythms and oddness and fragmentation. If you allow yourself to be hypnotised by its long sentences, patient accumulation of detail, then it becomes a most moving experience. To know if this is the book for you, just try that waltz of an opening sentence which goes on for 1 ½ pages – spiraling and twirling, up and down movement, all the rhythm of a heart beating, in ¾ time, with emotion and experience, the black box of a healthy 20 year old male body in love with the sea and adventure and surfing and a pretty girl.

‘ce que c’est ce Coeur, ce qui l’a fait bondir, vomir, grossir, valser leger comme un plume ou peser comme une pierre, ce qui l’a etourdi, ce qui l’a fait fondre – l’amour…’

‘What it is, this heart, what has made it leap, swell, sicken, waltz light as a feather or weigh heavy as a stone, what has stunned it, what has made it melt, love…’

mendlivingA translation very close to the eccentric original, yet not afraid to change the order fo things for added musicality in English. The only thing I was unsure of was why Simon’s surname Limbres had to be changed to Limbeau in the English version.