This Week Is For Living

What a tumultuous week it’s been! I’ve been somewhat paralyzed, like a deer in the headlights, unable to quite tear myself from the news and ranting about it to uncomprehending children…

This coming week will be different. For one thing, I will be posting less on the blog, you’ll be relieved to hear. ‘Why, oh why deprive us of your phenomenal reviews and musings, Marina?’ I hear you say (no snickering at the back, I can see you!). Well, because this will be a week of waving bye-bye to old housemates, living hard and trying out new things! Oh, and also because I am not organised enough to write posts and schedule them well in advance.

So what are the specifics? Aside from vet’s and dentist’s appointments, the usual job hunting malarkey and tax self-assessment (those are the less fun parts of the week), I will also be trying out several new physical activities, courtesy of the Fit for Life Week being organised in my local area. I will explore Tai Chi (I tried it a decade or so ago and loved it), a Ramblers’ walk, table tennis and running. So I’ll be reconnecting with all of the things I loved in my youth (other than skiing), because I hate going to the gym and am too uncoordinated for aerobics and zumba classes. Everybody always tells you how important physical exercise is when you are suffering from SAD or depression, but it can be so difficult to motivate yourself to do it regularly. Especially when you don’t have much time or would rather be writing instead.

They never show you the reality of running in the run on muddy paths, do they?
They never show you the reality of running in the run on muddy paths, do they?

On Wednesday I’ll be going to London to see Eugen Chirovici in discussion with Joe Haddow at Goldsboro Books. I’m really eager to read his book, the first that this Romanian author has written in English. What I didn’t know was that he was based in Reading while writing it, so quite close to where I live now.  At the time, however, I was in Geneva, so any dreams of creating our own two-person dynamic writing duo would have come to naught. And, as luck would have it, he is now based in Brussels.

Chirovici’s book has been translated into French and he’s been invited to my favourite crime festival, Quais du Polar, which will take place between 31st March – 2nd April this year in Lyon. I am trying to make up my mind whether I can afford to attend. Or if I can afford NOT to attend, as the line-up of crime-writing talent is magnificent, as usual: Ragnar Jonasson, Val McDermid, Clare Mackintosh, Arnaldur Indridason, David Vann, David Young, Sebastian Fitzek, Qiu Xialong, Zygmunt Miłoszewski , to name but a few of the international contingent.

From Quais du Polar website.
From Quais du Polar website.

On Thursday I’ll be traipsing to London once more to watch Amadeus at the National Theatre. One of my favourite plays and films of all time, and I’ve heard Lucian Msamati makes a compelling Salieri. If you can’t get tickets or go to London to see it, there will be a live broadcast on the 2nd of February. I’m tempted to see it again with my older son, the theatre buff. Or perhaps I should show him the film instead.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Universal History Archive/REX (4421088a) From BBC.com 'Amadeus' a 1984 period drama film starring F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce and Elizabeth Berridge. VARIOUS
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Universal History Archive/REX (4421088a) From BBC.com

Finally, it will be the first weekend that the boys will be spending at their father’s house after he moved out this past weekend. I’m not quite sure how empty the house will feel without them, but I do know that I won’t be going with them to the cinema to watch Sing. I would have liked to watch Hidden Figures, but, sadly, our local cinema focuses on latest blockbusters rather than smaller or independent or foreign language films. I might aim instead for Silence (based on Endo Shusaku’s novel) or T2 Trainspotting, although both of them sound dark rather than uplifting.

Any cultural events you are looking forward to this coming week or month? Let me know, especially if you are planning to come to London at any point. Perhaps we can meet up, if you still crave the sublimity of my book reviews or wish to hear me recite my poems out loud! I promise not to rant about politics.

 

 

Friday Fun: Famous Writers and their Studies

There is an enduring fascination with the writing spaces and rituals of famous writers. Perhaps by mimicking some of their surroundings or habits, some of the talent might rub off on us!

Charles Dickesn in his purpose-built Swiss Chalet, the garden shed to crown all garden sheds. From Nicolebianchi.com
Charles Dickens in his purpose-built Swiss Chalet, the garden shed to crown all garden sheds. From Nicolebianchi.com
Rudyard Kipling was likewise not a struggling writer, clearly... From Art of Manliness.
Rudyard Kipling was likewise not a struggling writer, clearly… From Art of Manliness.
Hnery Miller did not even use his study much, other than for posing. From Booktique.com
Henry Miller did not even use his study much, other than for posing. From Booktique.com
Ernest Hemingway's study in Key West. From earthxplorer.com
Ernest Hemingway’s colourful study in Key West. From earthxplorer.com
Pablo Neruda looked out on a beautiful view, just as I imagined. From Pinterest.
Pablo Neruda looked out on a beautiful view, just as I imagined. From Pinterest.
While Anne Sexton looked at the camera, giving us plenty of attitude. From This Recording.
While Anne Sexton looked at the camera, giving us plenty of attitude. From This Recording.
Finally, Norman Mailer had such a fancy library-like house over two storeys, that he could not work there. He would go to write in a bare little studio a block away. From Art of Manliness.
Finally, Norman Mailer had such a fancy library-like house over two storeys, that he could not work there. He would go to write in a bare little studio a block away. From Art of Manliness.

Good fortune and good writing spaces are clearly wasted on some people…

In my next Friday Fun, I will show living authors and some more non-English ones.

WWW Wednesday 18 Jan – What are you reading?

I saw this on Hayley’s book blog  Rather Too Fond of Books and I was so impressed by the quality and quantity of her reading that I thought I would join in for once. (I may not be able to make a habit out of it).

WWW Wednesday is a meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.

________________________________________________________________________

Currently Reading:

My reading speed has decreased of late, as all the global news is having a bit too much of an impact on me and sucking up my time. So everything I write about here will probably take me more than a week. However, I usually manage to have more than one book on the go and this week it’s:

exiledKati Hiekkapelto: The Exiled

From the blurb: Anna Fekete returns to the Balkan village of her birth for a relaxing summer holiday. But when her purse is stolen and the thief is found dead on the banks of the river, Anna is pulled into a murder case. Her investigation leads straight to her own family, to closely guarded secrets concealing a horrendous travesty of justice that threatens them all. As layer after layer of corruption, deceit and guilt are revealed, Anna is caught up in the refugee crisis spreading like wildfire across Europe. How long will it take before everything explodes?

My verdict: Interesting to see Anna on her ‘home turf’, which no longer quite feels like home, making comparisons between Finland and Serbia, and also witnessing the refugee crisis first-hand. It’s a much warmer, personal tale rather than the police procedural of the previous books in the series. This was sent to me by Orenda Books quite a while ago (it came out in November), but I hadn’t got around to reading it. Although it’s a Finnish writer, all of the action takes place in Serbia, so I don’t think I can count this towards #EU27Project.

axatFederico Axat: Kill the Next One (transl. David Frye)

From the blurb: Ted McKay had it all: a beautiful wife, two daughters, a high-paying job. But after being diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor he finds himself with a gun to his temple, ready to pull the trigger. Then the doorbell rings. A stranger makes him a proposition: why not kill two deserving men before dying? The first target is a criminal, and the second is a man with terminal cancer who, like Ted, wants to die. After executing these kills, Ted will become someone else’s next target, like a kind of suicidal daisy chain.

My verdict: You can see why I could not resist this premise – very intriguing. Of course, I don’t expect things to go according to plan. It will all get very nasty, I’m sure. Written with dry wit (as far I can tell, I’m only two chapters in). This one will be reviewed on Crime Fiction Lover.

fallinawakeAlice Oswald: Falling Awake

In her seventh collection of poetry, Oswald returns to her classicist training: Orpheus and Tithonius appear in the English landscape, there are surprising encounters with nature on every page, there are riffs on instability and falling (don’t we all feel that at the moment?). These are poems to be read aloud. Which is just as well, since I have this on e-reader and I always struggle with the formatting of the poems on the page, so I am progressing very slowly with this one. But it’s had no end of poetic distinctions: winner of the 2016 Costa Poetry Award, shortlisted for the 2016 T. S. Eliot Award, shortlisted for the 2016 Forward Prize. Part of my plan to read poetry every week.

Recently Finished:

Coincidentally, two books with orange covers.

bombsBrian Conaghan: The Bombs that Brought Us Together

From the blurb: Fourteen-year-old Hamish Law has lived in Little Town, on the border with Old Country, all his life. He knows the rules: no going out after dark; no drinking; no litter; no fighting. You don’t want to get on the wrong side of the people who run Little Town. When he meets Pavel Duda, a refugee from Old Country, the rules start to get broken. Then the bombs come, and the soldiers from Old Country, and Little Town changes for ever.

My verdict: I borrowed this one from the library for my son but took a peek at it, after I heard that it won the Costa Book Award for Children’s Literature. I don’t usually read much YA, I find it a little too twee at times and chasing trends. And although this has the dystopian background that is so prevalent nowadays, it is less about playing dangerous games or fighting in an arena, and feels more like living in Stalinist Russia. More realistic, and a sympathetic look at the plight of refugees.

Stav Sherez: The Intrusions

intrusionsFrom the blurb: Detectives Carrigan and Miller are thrust into a terrifying new world of stalking and obsession when a distressed young woman bursts into the station with a story about her friend being abducted and a man who is threatening to come back and ‘claim her next’.

Taking them from deep inside a Bayswater hostel, where backpackers and foreign students share dorms and failing dreams, to the emerging threat of online intimidation, hacking, and control, The Intrusions pursues disturbing contemporary themes and dark psychology with all the authority and skill that Stav Sherez’s work has been so acclaimed for.

My verdict: For a day or two, I was too terrified to approach my computer again and engaged with extra caution on social media. It’s a plausible and terrifying scenario that Stav Sherez brings to life here. I thought I had grown sick of the serial killer meme in fiction, but this is a very different twist on it. The initially hopeful but ultimately sad, transient population of London really got to me and I love the author’s poetic style. Side note: I would love to read more of Geneva’s own poetry and her mother’s.

Up Next:

For review:

stasiwolfDavid Young: Stasi Wolf

From the blurb: East Germany, 1975. Karin Müller, sidelined from the murder squad in Berlin, jumps at the chance to be sent south to Halle-Neustadt, where a pair of infant twins have gone missing.

But Müller soon finds her problems have followed her. Halle-Neustadt is a new town – the pride of the communist state – and she and her team are forbidden by the Stasi from publicising the disappearances, lest they tarnish the town’s flawless image. Meanwhile, in the eerily nameless streets and tower blocks, a child snatcher lurks, and the clock is ticking to rescue the twins alive . . .

Really enjoyed the first book in the series ‘Stasi Child’, so I can’t wait for this one, even if it brings back some traumatic memories of reprisals.

From my Netgalley reduction imperative:

outlineRachel Cusk: Outline

From the blurb: A woman writer goes to Athens in the height of summer to teach a writing course. Though her own circumstances remain indistinct, she becomes the audience to a chain of narratives, as the people she meets tell her one after another the stories of their lives.

Beginning with the neighbouring passenger on the flight out and his tales of fast boats and failed marriages, the storytellers talk of their loves and ambitions and pains, their anxieties, their perceptions and daily lives. In the stifling heat and noise of the city the sequence of voice begins to weave a complex human tapestry.

I am the one who gets to hear all of the life stories on planes, trains and buses, and the anthropologist in me is fascinated by everyone, so this sounds perfect. I’ve read mostly non-fiction by Cusk, so am curious how this will go.

Finally, for the #EU27Project:

nomenNo Men No Cry – anthology of Lithuanian women’s literature

A collective of women writers, translated for the first time into English, aiming to portray ‘the experience of contemporary woman, experience that is closely related to actual cultural and historical phenomena and which contemplates a woman’s search for identity and highlights a woman’s ironic stance towards traditional female values, such as marriage, childbirth and home-making.’ I know so little of Lithuanian literature (and so little has been translated), so this looks like a good base for exploration.

The Seas in a Whisper (Quadrille)

Today is Quadrille Monday at dVerse Poets Pub. De (Whimsygizmo) is our word prompter and wishes us to write a quadrille (exactly 44 words, title not included) using the word “whisper” or variants – whispered, whispering, whispers. The hush-shushing sounds reminded me of that beloved British institution: the Shipping Forecast.

forecastmap
High winds: birds convene to Lundy to rest
grooves and gaps
wait out Fair Isle tempest
in dwindle of hay nests
reflect polished beaks
in cloudless brown of preys’ eyes.
When Malin gaze darkens
let’s muster the courage to beacon
our Viking coast.

The Nostalgia of La La Land

It seems that everyone and their dog has been to see La La Land this past weekend and I was no exception. Oh, yes, I succumb to herd instinct just as well as anyone, although the Golden Globe wins very nearly put me off (I perversely don’t like films that make a clean sweep of things). But I wanted to make up my own mind and I rather like musicals: West Side Story, An American in Paris and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg are among my favourite films ever.

So here’s my verdict (spoilers ahead, so don’t read now if you are planning on seeing it): sweet and very nostalgic, a piece of escapism for hard times, but a bit too self-congratulatory for my taste.  And by that, I don’t mean the endless film references, which I quite enjoyed.

Scene from Lala Land, from Indiewire.
Scene from Lala Land, from Indiewire.

First of all, the good bits. The music was very enjoyable, even though I would describe the singing of the male and female leads as brave rather than impressive. Even the white mansplaining of jazz did not disturb me as much as it did other viewers, because I am all about promoting the love of jazz in whatever form. Admittedly, I would agree with the character played by John Legend, who says the best way to keep jazz alive is not to enshrine it in a museum, but to keep on experimenting with it and updating it. The love story had both a floaty-happy feel to it, but was not overly sentimental, there was a hint of realism (and of the screwball comedies of the 1930s).

However, what irritated me was the supposed highlight of the film, when Mia auditions for the role of her life, to be filmed in Paris. She talks/sings about following your dream, being creative and different, trying your best – and this is Hollywood at its most cloying self-delusional state. This is Hollywood as it would like to believe it is: pushing the boundaries, open to new things. They think they want the eccentrics and misfits and true originals, when in fact most of the time they are focused on the box office results and keep remaking old successes (Beauty and the Beast, Ghostbusters) or sequel after sequel of tried and tested favourites, like X-Men 234 or Fast and Furious 32 or whatever number they’ve reached.

Some random film poster of the type we see so many of lately...
Some random film poster of the type we see so many of lately…

Also, if the message of the film was that you can’t have it all: the outstanding career, fame, success and the soulmate of your dreams, it nevertheless reiterated the idea of ‘follow your passion’, ‘don’t give up’, ‘you can excel at some thing’. But what about those of us who have only average talents, who end up with middling lives, a so-so relationship, a family they sometimes love to pieces but occasionally resent, a career that doesn’t live up to expectations but pays most of the bills, perhaps express some of their talent as hobbies at weekends? About 85% of people (rough estimate) end up like that (and that’s the best case scenario, for others will struggle to make ends meet or develop any talents at all). Well, I suppose life would become unbearable if we didn’t believe ourselves capable of moving outside that 85%? And if we are already resigned to it, then we probably head off to see La La Land and other cosy nostalgic fare with occasional flashes of inspiration. A mug of tea which reminds us of the ballerina or astronaut or Nobel Prize Winner we knew we were going to become.

Nostalgia, of course, does well in times of uncertainty and anxiety about world events. Comfort reading and comfort viewing will thrive in the era of melancholy that ‘nothing is as good as it used to be’, combined with the ‘Weltschmerz’ of directionless panic, the sensation of trying to build on quicksand and having doors slammed in your face. So I don’t blame La La Land for playing the nostalgia card.

But perhaps it’s worth remembering that nostalgia was a term coined in the late 17th century by Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer, to refer to the seeming depression displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting far away from home. It was more than homesickness, and returning home did not always cure them – sometimes it even killed them. As any expat returning ‘home’ knows: home has moved on. Nostalgia is not the longing for a specific place, but for a different time, an idealised time which most likely never existed, when things were simpler, choices more clear-cut.

Nostalgia, from soberistas.wordpress.com
Nostalgia, from soberistas.wordpress.com

The alternative dream of Sebastian and Mia in La La Land remains beautiful and precious because it was never given a chance. In reality, it may well have descended into incompatible aspirations, rancour and petty arguments. I had my own Sebastian in high school, the only person who ever held me to account over my writing ambitions and who believed I had the talent. I used to wonder how much we might have achieved together, but the truth is…

Life and the relentless day-to-day of it makes mincemeat of us all. Uncertainty and mess is all that we’ve got. The desire for rest and order and beauty is our only weapon against it. Call it nostalgia, if you will.

 

Gender, Sex and Identity in Recent Fiction

I love the serendipity of reading two or more books on similar topics in quick succession. It must be the subconscious at work rather than deliberate choice, but through this enforced proximity the books always end up illuminating and enhancing each other.

watchdisappearEva Dolan: Watch Her Disappear

You know by now how fond I am of Eva Dolan’s work, which is a sophisticated mix of police procedural and social commentary via the Hate Crimes Unit in Peterborough. Her writing style in the first two books was very rich, of such literary quality that almost every sentence begged to be read twice, to become fully aware of all the implications. Since then, perhaps because of editorial pressure, her style has become a little more down-to-earth. Although I miss the earlier style, I have to admit that this does make for much faster reading, without ever becoming pedestrian.

The plot: middle-aged but attractive Corinne Sawyer is attacked and killed while out jogging by the river. At first the police suspect it might be a serial rapist escalating his crimes, but when it turns out that Corinne was Colin until a few years ago, the Hate Crime unit gets called in. Zigic and Ferreira soon discover that she was not the first trans woman who has been violently attacked in the local area. As usual with this hate-crime-fighting duo, they encounter deep-seated prejudice, accusations of being bigoted themselves, and families where resentment and bad feelings rule supreme.

The author has the knack to take on really difficult and topical subjects, and make us question our assumptions about them. We get to see not only the unhappiness and fear of transgender and transvestite people, the lack of understanding and support which they experience, but we also come to see the impact it has on their friends and families. These are complex situation which deserve sensitive treatment and our loyalty is often conflicted, our sympathies lying with both sides. There is just the right balance between compassion and judgement, sadness and justice.

Dolan seems to have covered now nearly all aspects of hate crimes with her series set in Peterborough: migrant labour, white supremacists, disability and now the trans community. There are hints that their unit might be wound up and I wonder if that is because the author fear she may be running out of topics to write about without repeating herself. Sadly, the hate crimes themselves seem to be here to stay.

guapaSaleem Haddad: Guapa

If Dolan’s book makes you think it’s hard being a transvestite or transgender in England, you should try being that – or gay – in a Middle Eastern city (unspecified country, although there were bits which reminded me of Lebanon, Egypt, Syria). A fish out of water regardless of where he goes, both in the US and in his home town, Rasa describes 24 hours of his life after he has been discovered having sex with a man by his grandmother. Politics, hypocrisy, corruption, violence and shame all jostle in a world where nothing is quite what it seems but the truth seems far too dangerous to discuss openly.

Rasa is an interpreter for Western journalists by day, an occasional protestor during the Arab Spring and, at night, he parties at Guapa (which means ‘beautiful’ in Spanish), an underground club catering for the ‘hidden’ LGBT community in the city. He is also desperately in love with Taymour, who is about to get married to a girl in order to please his family. After Rasa’s grandmother makes her shocking discovery, one of Rasa’s friends, the drag queen Majid, is arrested by the police for political protest.

Within the space of 24 hours, the novel gives us a generous slice of Rasa’s world, showing an increasing alienation from both Western culture and his own, as he tries to untangle his own ‘betwixt and between’ identity. The author himself is a mix of Lebanese-Palestinian and Iraqi-German, has grown up in Jordan, Canada and Britain, and worked for Médecins Sans Frontières, so he knows what he is talking about.

The prose is slightly pedestrian at times, and there are occasional instances of information dumping. Some readers might be put off by the polemical discussions between Rasa and his friends about what constitutes eib (shame, unclean), or between Rasa and his fellow students in the US about Islam. It can sound more like a treatise than fiction at times. However, for me it was quite eye-opening: being a double outsider in a world where so much is forbidden, and even more is swept under the carpet. A nuanced insight into a world that to us in the West is often presented as a straightforward dichotomy: black and white, extreme poverty and obscene wealth, inner city rubble or luxurious hotels and oil sheikhs in fast cars.

 

 

Friday Fun: Mansion Rescue

Mansions in decay, abandoned for years, taken over by vegetation… are they not calling out to you, to be rescued?

Deserted wooden mansion in the American Midwest, from Red Dead Wiki
Deserted wooden mansion in the American Midwest, from Red Dead Wiki
Another American Beauty: the Bannerman Mansion in New York, from Kuriositas.
Another American Beauty: the Bannerman Mansion in New York, from Kuriositas. Explosives and a fire put an end to this building.
Back in Europe, Kasteel van Mesen in Belgium is reported to harbour ghosts. From Ghosthunter.nl
Back in Europe, Kasteel van Mesen in Belgium is reported to harbour ghosts. From Ghosthunter.nl
Small but oho! Villa de Veche on Lake Como, from Ghostsmedia.
Small but oho! Villa de Veche on Lake Como, from Ghostsmedia.
Pidhirtsi Castle in Ukraine, from Strange Abandoned Places.
Pidhirtsi Castle in Ukraine, from Strange Abandoned Places. Although the castle was looted and damaged by the Russians during WW1, it wasn’t until the 1950s that it burnt down. Restoration work is progressing very slowly, owing to lack of funds.
The Sobanski Palace in Poland, from Pinterest.
The Sobanski Palace in Poland, from Pinterest.
The staircase of Prince Said Halim's Palace in Cairo, from Urban Ghosts Media
The staircase of Prince Said Halim’s Palace in Cairo, from Urban Ghosts Media
The FCC Mansion in Cambodia is being reopened for art and culture events. From fcccambodia.com
The FCC Mansion in Cambodia is being reopened for art and culture events. From fcccambodia.com
Beautifully integrated in the landscape: the Talisay Mansion in the Philippines, from Matador Network,
Beautifully integrated in the landscape: the Talisay Mansion in the Philippines, from Matador Network.

One of the saddest stories of decaying buildings is The Grande Hotel Beira in Mozambique – although its fate is the very opposite of abandonment. Once the most opulent and largest hotel on the African continent, it operated for less than a decade and closed down, citing a lack of visitors. Civil war led to a steady stream of refugees squatting in the building – and they have stayed there even after the peace settlement. It’s estimated that between 1200-2000 people live there in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. I didn’t have the heart to show any pictures, but a documentary was made about it in 2007, entitled Night Lodgers.