Reading Bingo 2015

reading-bingo-small (1)

Thank you, Cleo, for making me spend far too long on this – but hey, it’s my day off and if I choose to spend it reviewing my year’s reading, then so be it!

More than 500 pages

Not the edition mentioned in the text, but the translation I prefer, by Seidensticker.

Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (transl. Royall Tyler)

Masterpiece of Japanese literature, world literature, medieval literature and anything else you can think of. Poetry, romance, heartbreak and sumptuous description of clothes, festivals and the Imperial Court. I did struggle with this far too literal translation (and footnotes), though, and it took me about 6 weeks to read its 1000+ pages.

Forgotten Classic

Jean-Patrick Manchette: Fatale (transl. Donald Nicholson-Smith)

Violent, twisted, hardcore, with a compassionate streak. Not for fans of poetic descriptions or deep psychological insights – it’s all very dark and externalised.

Became a Movie

Film poster from
Film poster from

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Read the book, met the author and saw the movie within a few weeks of each other. I liked all three: the book had far more filmworthy scenes which never made it to the screen; the film did not have the preposterous coincidence at the end. And the author ain’t bad-looking either! (He’s also written the screenplay for the current TV mystery series ‘London Spy’).

Published This Year

Girl at War by Sara Novic

Quite a bit of jostling in this category, although less than last year. I’ve stuck to my plan for reading beyond the obvious latest releases. This is a touching, if somewhat uneven description of life during and after the Yugoslav war.

Number in Title

De zece ori pe buze (10 Times on the Lips) by Adina Rosetti

Since Child 44 was already taken for another category, this was all I could come up with – a collection of stories about life in Romania before and after the fall of Communism.

GuezAuthor Under 30

Paris la Nuit by Jeremie Guez

At first I thought I wouldn’t be able to find anything in this category, but then I realised that Jeremie (who has written 5 novels by now) is still only 27 years old. This, his debut novel, was published in 2010, when he was just 22.

Non-Human Characters

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Again, a difficult category, but I think this counts:  a sentient sea on a strange planet, who makes all the characters revisit all the things they fear most or feel most guilty about counts as a very unusual.


Wendy Cope (editor): The Funny Side

Poems that challenge our perception of poetry as far too serious, elitist and abstract. A delight – and it’s not just limericks!

Female Author

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

And a topic that goes straight to the heart of women’s suffering – just so powerful and emotionally draining. I’ve read a lot by female authors this year, but this is the one that I automatically think of when I hear ‘women’s writing’, whatever that might mean.


And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

I read so many crime novels, yet I was really stumped for this category, as I felt I wanted to include a writer that wouldn’t fit in any of the other categories. In the end, I will dispense with originality and go with a classic that has been so influential in film and writing since its publication.


One-Word Title

Silences by Tillie Olsen

A book that has been so influential on me as a woman and a writer – talking about all the artists who have been silenced by history, circumstances, gender or jobs, written by one of the first generation of American feminists.

Short Stories

Meisternovellen by Stefan Zweig

I haven’t read many short stories this year, but Zweig’s novellas and short stories are always worth a reread- thank you German Literature Month for making me revisit them.

Joker – Poetry

When I Grow Up I Want to Be Mary Beard by Megan Beech

Outspoken, hopeful and charmingly humorous as only young people can be: my first volume of spoken word poetry (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms).

Different Continent

Ru by Kim Thuy

Not just one, but two different continents: Vietnam, Malaysia and Canada.


100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write by Sarah Ruhl

For anyone who has ever been overwhelmed by motherhood and artistic impulse, To Do lists and reality, and whose creativity has to take the back seat on occasion.

First Book by Favourite Author

lullabiesLullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill

Or is it too much to claim a favourite author if this is the only book I have read by her? I have just bought her latest book, though, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, and hope to read it over the holidays.

Heard About Online

Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli

This one had so many lovely reviews from bloggers whose opinion I trust, such as Stu, Jacqui, Bibliobio, Tony, Naomi Frisby, Poppy Peacock, that I just had to try it for myself.


Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson

I’m pretty sure it’s a bestseller, as it’s been No. 1 on Amazon for ages and Orenda are busy doing a second print run. Well deserved, an intriguing blend of Icelandic chill and Agatha Christie puzzle.

True Story

L’Adversaire by Emmanuel Carrere

Made all the more chilling because it involves the death of children and took place 500 metres down my road.

Bottom of TBR

Morgue Drawer Four by Jutta Profijt

Free download when I first bought my husband a Kindle 4 years ago. I was clearing out the books I had on his Kindle and it fitted in well with German Literature Month. Let’s put it this way: I wouldn’t have died if I’d forgotten about it.

Loved by a Friend

people-in-glass-houses-novel-shirley-hazzard-paperback-cover-artPeople in Glass Houses by Shirley Hazzard

Not sure I can claim Petina Gappah as a friend, but we do know each other from the Geneva Writers’ Group and she recommended this book when she spoke on a panel in Morges, saying it was the best portrayal of the UN and ‘organisation man’ that she’d ever come across.


The Woman Who Fed the Dogs by Kristien Hemmerechts

Blood-chilling portrayal of the accomplice of a serial killer of young girls – it gave me nightmares.

10+ Years

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys

Still one of my favourite authors and books – this will break your heart, but oh, how well written.

2nd Book in a Series

The Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto

This Finnish police procedural with a touch of immigrant blues about it is getting better and better – so looking forward to the next.

barracudaBlue Cover

Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

Actually, a lot of the books I read have blue covers – either it’s a publishing trend at the moment, or else I am subconsciously drawn to my favourite colour.

Friday Fun: Winter Is Coming – Cosy Chalet Time!

Nothing beats a cosy chalet at the foot of the ski pistes, with an open fireplace, good food, old friends and excellent books to surround you! The snow is not quite enough for skiing yet, the chalet remains to be booked (or paid for) but I do feel I have friends and books, so thank you all so much.

A photo shoot by photographer Andrew Borthwick of Chalet Solaise in Villars, Switzerland. Suisse Art of Bespoke website.
A photo shoot by photographer Andrew Borthwick of Chalet Solaise in Villars, Switzerland. Suisse Art of Bespoke website.
It's always about the views! From
It’s always about the views! From
For lovers of traditional, wood-heavy decor. From
For lovers of traditional, wood-heavy decor. From
A more modern take on wooden interiors. From
A more modern take on wooden interiors. From
Chalet in Courchevel. Can be yours for a week for an exorbitant price, from
Chalet in Courchevel. Can be yours for a week for an exorbitant price, from
Or you could rent this one facing Mont Blanc, from
Or you could rent this one facing Mont Blanc, from
I am captivated by the central stove in this one, also for rent. From
I am captivated by the central stove in this one, also for rent. From
Or what about this chalet in Aspen? Featured in Architectural Digest.
Or what about this chalet in Aspen? Featured in Architectural Digest.



A Few Reviews Behind…

The following books all fall into the category: enjoyable but not enough time to review them fully (perhaps not outstandingly ‘different’ and memorable enough to make me find the time for complete reviews).

fallofmanDavid Lagercrantz: Fall of Man in Wilmslow

Alan Turing dies in Wilmslow, just outside Manchester, by eating a cyanide-laced apple. Was it suicide or murder? This odd mix of detective story and spy thriller speculates on his demise. It’s not badly written and evokes that atmosphere of suspicion and one-upmanship of the 1950s Cold War very well, but I don’t quite see the point of it. The Turing story is by now quite well-known, so it’s really more about the interior journey of one man – the policeman Leonard Corell – who becomes fascinated with Turing and saddened by his life and death. He initially recoils from homosexuality but ultimately can relate to Turing’s misfit status. It does read at times like a treatise on maths and computer science, and the ending is a bit of a nonentity. I then saw the film with Cumberbatch as Turing and was a bit disappointed at the portrayal of Turing as a geek. Difficult he may have been, but there was far more to him than an almost autistic devotion to science and a lack of humour.

fridayNicci French: Friday on My Mind

The fifth in the Frieda Klein series and I still enjoy Frieda’s moodiness and the descriptions of hidden London (including its underground rivers). But she does do some reckless and silly things which in real life would lead to her being instantly charged and imprisoned. So it was a welcome addition to the investigative team to have a new female detective to view Frieda a little more objectively (and coldly). Above all, I liked the way the authors tackled head-on the ambiguity of grief and the guilt of losing someone one once loved but no longer does.

Image from Tarkovsky film, from
Image from Tarkovsky film, from

Stanislaw Lem: Solaris

Not my usual reading matter at all, although I do like the more unusual science fiction of Asimov, John Wyndham, Ursula Le Guin and Iain M. Banks. This is a hypnotic and disturbing book about the limits of human comprehension, the tricks our mind can play on us, about whether it’s ever possible to understand and accept the ‘other’, how misunderstandings can lead to escalation of conflict. So, all worthy themes, but too many didactic bits, physics explanations etc. to really grab me. I think I prefer the Tarkovsky version, which apparently Lem described as ‘got it all wrong – it’s not a Love Story set in Space’.
Glad to see it translated properly and accurately into English now, though, rather than via a French translation.

prettybabyMary Kubica: Pretty Baby

A typical suburban family suddenly finds itself careening out of control as they take in a young runaway girl and her baby. This novel speaks to the fears and contradictions in all of us: wanting a comfortable lifestyle vs. wanting to help, trusting vs. being suspicious, frustrations of parenting vs. frustrations of married life and much more. Clever characterisation, with viewpoints shifting from one character to another, until I felt sorry for all of them. Readers who say that the characters are unsympathetic must score very highly on self-esteem, as I recognise many of the thoughts and anxieties of the people in the book – albeit heightened, of course, that’s why it’s a thriller! I did foresee some but not all of the developments, but more than anything it’s a study in disappointment and frustration rather than a straightforward thriller, despite its explosive finale. I’ve tipped Mary Kubica as a woman author to watch on the CFL website and certainly look forward to reading more by her.

Stefan Zweig: Novellas and Short Stories


Some upcoming deadlines means that this may well be my last contribution to German literature month. I have enjoyed it greatly and will continue to read the reviews by other participants (and, of course, I will continue to read German literature throughout the year – in fact, I’ve just ordered two books for Christmas).

Stefan Zweig is an old favourite, but it’s been nearly two decades since I last read any of his work. I reread the ‘Chess’ novella and ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’, but I think it was the first time I read ‘Incident on Lake Geneva’ and ‘The Invisible Collection’. It’s these four I want to talk about.

The novella has been filmed many times. This is a German version from 1960, from
The novella has been filmed many times. This is a German version from 1960, from

Chess‘ is famous for being the only work openly addressing the interrogation methods and political persecution by the Gestapo. It has an interesting structure of a story within a story – or rather two stories within a story, as we also find out more about the background of the reigning world champion in chess, Czentowic – which serves perhaps to create a bit of distance and make the grim tale somewhat more bearable. (It did remind me of the structure of ‘Wuthering Heights’.) It was also the last complete work Zweig wrote before committing suicide and perhaps best conveys his feeling of hopelessness, his loss of idealism and how he felt the world of materialism (in the person of Czentowic) was winning over. Zweig commented at some point how he felt ‘so much of human dignity has gone lost during this century’. Most surprising of all, Zweig himself was not a good chess player at all – but clearly a keen observer of other players.

Joan Fontaine in the film version, from
Joan Fontaine in the film version, from

By way of contrast, ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman‘ struck me as a bit overblown and sentimental. It throws everything at us: passionate love, undying devotion, a child’s death and self-sacrifice. Yet the end rang true: that the writer to whom this is all addressed (the writer who is supposed to be such a sensitive, empathetic person) still cannot remember the woman whose life he has so dramatically influenced.

Incident on Lake Geneva’ is a very short tale which can be read allegorically. A naked man is fished out of Lake Geneva: he turns out to be a Russian POW who has escaped from camp. He is wild and unkempt, can barely make himself understood, but a hotel-owner who speaks some Russian finally manages to communicate with him. He was trying to swim eastwards towards Russia, which he thought was at the other end of the lake. When he is told that Russia is much farther away, that the country he was fighting for no longer exists, the Tsar is dead, the war not quite over and that he is not free to return home until he completes a lengthy bureaucratic process, he chooses to drown. A heartbreaking story of losing one’s identity and sense of belonging.

unsichbaresammlungThe last one I read was my favourite ‘The Invisible Collection‘: an art dealer visits the home of an old man, his father’s best client, in the hope of getting some valuable sketches and prints from his notable collection. But it turns out that the old man’s wife and daughter have sold the priceless sketches in order to cope with rampant inflation, relying on the fact that the collector is now blind and can no longer tell the real from the fake. A beautiful, moving scene follows, in which the collector leafs through his collection and describes each of his beloved pieces in detail, while the art dealer sees the feeble copies but tries to keep the illusion intact. This is a wonderful story about the power of imagination and passion, the joy that is within us rather than in anything we possess. Ultimately, an uplifting and hopeful story.


Thank you very much…

… for your encouragement and support. I was very moved by all the kind words and offers of help.  I hesitated for a long time before I posted my self-indulgent rant on Sunday, but you have made feel much less alone.

Please forgive me if I don’t reply to each of your lovely comments individually. I was slightly overwhelmed at the number and quality of all your comments and find it difficult (and embarrassing) to respond. But know that I read and appreciated each one of them. [And I’ve made another appointment with my doctor.]

Thank you again.


On Depression, Privilege and Staying Strong

I finally worked up my courage to write this post after reading Matt Haig’s outstanding book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ and David Mark’s article a few days ago about access to mental health services in the UK.

Image from
Image from

‘Well, the blood tests seem fine. It’s just age – you’re not getting any younger, you know.’

And my French family doctor smiles ruefully, as if to apologise for being so ridiculously young and glamorous in the face of my galloping infirmity. I had been complaining of weight gain, migraines, insomnia, lack of energy, occasional palpitations. She suspects menopause or a shade of hypochondria.

I cannot complain that she is not helpful. After all, I am not entirely honest with her as a patient. I am reluctant to share my whole story, and not just because I fear breaking down in tears and using up all of the tissues from the box she has so thoughtfully placed on her desk. I also fear being labelled, once and for all, as mentally deficient or unstable or somehow missing that even keel that most people seem to be able to find. If most people can balance on choppy waters and tack against strong winds, why can’t I?

My mother tells me off each time we speak on the phone: ‘You’re just too bloody sensitive. It’s all in your head. Stop dwelling on things.’ This comes amidst many other helpful suggestions on how to fight obesity, be a better parent, earn more money and be more docile, loving wife. Unsurprisingly, our telephone conversations often end in shouting matches, so are becoming less and less frequent. But I fear she may be right (about the sensitivity bit) and I chide myself for being so weak, so helpless.

The other thing I fear is being given pills to dull my senses and make me gain even more weight. Pills speak of lifelong dependency rather than a temporary measure: it’s about acknowledging a long-term condition rather than a momentary blip in the system. Visions of 1984 hover in the sidelines. Fears of being sanitised and lobotomised swim towards me like shark fins. How will I be able to keep up with my children’s sprightly chatter and constant requests if I am dull as a cow laid out in pastures with grass too high for her to comprehend?

When I was younger, the periods of grim depression beset me mainly in winter, and were offset by manic bursts of activity for the rest of the year. As I get older, those moments of frenetic energy have become too strenuous and it’s greyness evermore. Everything is slowed down to the point of unbearable. I cannot think of more than one thing at a time and I’m forever forgetting what I was supposed to be searching for, where I left my papers, whether I’ve paid a bill or not. I leave everything for later because it is too difficult to do immediately or today or tomorrow or … soon. I get caught out without winter tyres when the snow begins to fall, so my car lurches and sloshes from kerb to ditch.

A sunny day makes me want to crawl under the duvet. You don’t even want to know or imagine what a rainy day makes me feel like. Above all, I want to dig my nails into my flesh, to escape this inner pain which seems to find no release, day after day after day.

When the self-pity has had its play with me, guilt and sneering take their turn. Middle-class ‘woman of leisure’ problems! The world is burning and this here woman can think of naught else but combing her hair! There are hundreds of people starving or dying or losing their homes all over the world at this very moment, while I’m boo-hooing about getting old, failing to live out my childish dreams of being a writer and an academic, being stuck to a faithless husband who doesn’t understand me – the oldest cliché in the book -, children grunting their way towards their teens, a family life which seems as alien to me as if I’d been parachuted somewhere in Papua New Guinea. Only the cargo cults don’t worship me – they despise and can’t wait for my ship to sail away.

My shepherd ancestors – tough cookies one and all – would despise my whingeing. They witnessed the rise and fall of empires, tyrants, wars, forced collectivisation, betrayals in the name of the fatherland or the Communist ideal or simply greed for one’s neighbour’s land or herd. ‘Life is hard, yes, but grit your teeth and carry on! Don’t expect anyone to help, love or understand you. Go up the mountains, all by yourself, find some peace and a mountain stream.’

But I’ve always been a weak urban sapling. The mountains I climbed, the streams that I found, I wanted to rejoice in them with others. I needed to believe that someone cared, that I could be my anxious, failing self and still be respected and loveable. Now I know that all love is conditional. And compassion is not an endlessly renewable source of water. Sharing is a weakness and each one of us is alone – that is the only thing we can count on in life.

‘My therapy is writing and reading,’ I used to say in my twenties with a faraway look in my eyes, hoping I resembled Emily Dickinson rather than Sylvia Plath, Jane Austen rather than Virginia Woolf. But, in truth, it has become more reading than writing now. How can I give voice to my grief and doubts without becoming annoyed with my privileged, spoilt self? How can I deal with the confetti of time left after anxieties, night sweats, endless To Do lists, yet another last-minute catch-up for work, yet another change of plan regarding parents’ evening? What words (other than swear words) will come when I tremble with fury after yet another point-scoring conversation drowning in logical circles? I cannot trust my own thoughts, my own words. I have to feed on the words (and pain and grapplings) of others. It gives me perspective, it makes me feel less alone.

Meanwhile, other than my compulsive reading, all I can do is flounder and flail. Now I understand my childhood nightmare of drowning. It was in fact not water but ash and sand in my mouth. The struggle to appear normal and smiley. The need to carry on.


Friday Fun: Homes of French Writers

Grandiloquent gestures and symbols do not sit well with me. I express my love of my current home, France, in simpler ways – not just today, but always.

Madame de Chatelet's chateau in Cirey-sur-Blaise, where she lived in domestic bliss with Voltaire. From
Madame de Chatelet’s chateau in Cirey-sur-Blaise, where she lived in domestic bliss with Voltaire. From

Madame de Chatelet was a respected author, mathematician and physicist, who translated Newton into French. Voltaire was her lover, friend and intellectual collaborator for 15 years, until her untimely death in childbirth at the age of 42. Voltaire wrote of her:

Seldom has so fine a mind and so much taste been united with so much ardour for learning; but she also loved the world and all the amusements of her age and sex. Nevertheless she left all this to go and bury herself in a dilapidated house on the frontiers of Champagne and Lorraine, where the land was very fertile and very ugly.

Madame de Stael's Swiss chateau at Coppet, from
Madame de Stael’s Swiss chateau at Coppet, from


Madame de Staël was one of the most vocal opponents of Napoleon and had to flee across the border to Switzerland to escape persecution. She felt restless and lonely in rural Coppet, missed the intellectual verve of Paris.

The voice of conscience is so delicate that it is easy to stifle it; but it is also so clear that it is impossible to mistake it. (Madame de Staël)

Francois Mauriac's home Malagar. From
Francois Mauriac’s home Malagar. From

Mauriac was one of the 3 Great ‘M’s to originate in Bordeaux (the others being Montaigne and Montesquieu) – a novelist, dramatist and journalist who won the Nobel Prize in 1952.

I believe that only poetry counts … A great novelist is first of all a great poet. (Mauriac)

Emile Zola's house in Medan, not far from Paris. From
Emile Zola’s house in Medan, not far from Paris. From

Thanks to the success of L’Assommoir, Zola bought a small house in Medan and extended it so that he could receive his friends, Guy de Maupassant, Cézanne, Manet, Alphonse Daudet and so on. How I’d have liked to be a fly on the wall there!

Victor Hugo's handsome pile at Villequier in Normandy, from
Victor Hugo’s handsome pile at Villequier in Normandy, from

Hugo and his family spent a lot of time in this house and village on the river Seine, but their time here was marked by tragedy too. His favourite daughter Leopoldine and her husband (they had just married, despite some family opposition) drowned in the river there.

By contrast, Flaubert's modest pavillion in Normandy, from
By contrast, Flaubert’s modest pavilion in Normandy, from

This is the only building left of a much larger manor house and property belonging to Flaubert’s father. The writer adored this house and wrote all of his work here.

Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world. (Flaubert)

Marguerite Duras' house at Neauphle-le-Chateau is clearly not a chateau either, from
Marguerite Duras’ house at Neauphle-le-Chateau is clearly not a chateau either, from

The solitude of writing is a solitude without which writing could not be produced, or would crumble, drained bloodless by the search for something else to write. (Duras)

However, Alexandre Dumas' Chateau de Monte-Cristo in Yvelines shows just how much of a bestseller he really was. From
However, Alexandre Dumas’ Chateau de Monte-Cristo in Yvelines shows just how much of a bestseller he really was. From

Cautionary note as to the last, however: Dumas designed and built the chateau from scratch and moved in the grandiose custom-built venue in 1847. By 1850 he was bankrupt and had to sell all the furniture, the house itself and find refuge from his creditors in Belgium.