Surely you haven’t got bored of me showing you magnificent home libraries and bookshelf possibilities? Here are a few recent favourites. I do hope I am not repeating myself.
… or just generally feeling very poorly and brain-foggy, struggling to concentrate. The answer seems to be: a tale about a giant rabbit, a biography and historical crime fiction set in Cracow.
I will spare you the long rant about how my younger son and I got Covid from his school, and how run-down we have both been feeling over the past week or so. Initially, I tried to console myself that, although my plans for a writing holiday somewhere else than within my own four walls had come to nothing, I would at least recline gracefully in various strategic places around the house and read all day.
Alas, turns out that pounding headaches and severe nausea are not conducive to long bouts of reading, certainly nothing too serious or challenging. Here are the books that worked for me in this situation, and which might work for you if ever need a balance of page-turning yet educational, lightness and darkness.
Antti Tuomainen: The Rabbit Factor, trans. David Hackston
I have said before, many times, how much I enjoy Tuomainen’s blend of comedy and pathos, his insight into the lives of ordinary, ‘loser-type’ people who are then confronted with rather extraordinary events. In this book, we are with the first person narrator, Henri, a financial actuary who is a whizz with figures but not so great with human relationships – and certainly no fan of the absurdities of corporate life. He is fired from his job for being a ‘dinosaur’, i.e. refusing to play along with the latest corporate fad. The author has great fun skewering office life, and, in a time when so many of us have been working from home and therefore have started questioning the absurdity of enforced mingling and teamwork, his words cannot help but resonate with us:
… I didn’t like our open-plan office. It was noisy, full of distractions, interruptions, banalities. But more than anything, it was full of people. I didn’t like the things so many others seemed to like: spontaneous conversations, the continual asking for and giving of advice, the constant cheap banter. I didn’t see what it had to do with demanding probability calculations.
Funnily enough, just as I started reading this book, I caught up over Zoom with an old mathematician friend of mine who now works as a financial risk modeller or actuary or something, and he expressed many of the same sentiments about corporate speak, so clearly Henri is extremely well observed. He is painfully honest and earnest, the kind of person who could be infuriating in real life, but ends up being rather endearing in fiction.
Henri unexpectedly inherits an adventure park from his brother, who seems to have been mixed up in some unsavoury affairs. Nothing could be further from Henri’s mind than to run an adventure park and make it thrive against all the odds, yet he finds himself doing unbelievable things to keep his employees happy, the park solvent and the loan sharks breathing down his neck less dangerous. Along the way, he makes many mistakes, demonstrates naivety but also an unexpected amount of cunning; he also discovers he has a heart after all, even if it refuses to delve in sentimentality.
This has the trademark Tuomainen deadpan humour, as well as nailbiting moments and a big, big heart. There is also the joy of a cat named Schopenhauer, which gives the author an opportunity to riff on the notoriously pessimistic philosopher’s assertion that our is the ‘the worst of all possible worlds’.
Life isn’t a loan; it is a payment fraud. It is a project, lasting on average seventy-five years, whose sole aim is to maximise our own stupidity. And yet, that’s exactly what we seem to crave. Look at the choices we make. If we are healthy, we make ourselves ill by smokng cigarettes, drinking alcohol and over-eating. If we want to bring about societal change, we vote for options that make our situation worse. When we should be thinking about what is rational, people start talking about how they feel… The most successful people are those who talk the least sense and blame everybody else for it.
The frequent rants against so many facets of contemporary life (like fine dining, for instance) reminded me a little of John Boyne’s recent The Echo Chamber. However, The Rabbit Factor is much, much better, because it really has a plot, the humour seems effortless and never reaches the level of desperately farcical, and the rants are never overblown, exaggerated or repetitive. They are Finnishly restrained, and all the more powerful for it.
Artemis Cooper: Elizabeth Jane Howard – A Dangerous Innocence
I vaguely knew Howard’s biographical details, particularly of her marriage to Kingsley Amis, but, having recently read the Cazalet Chronicles, I was interested in finding out more. I was astounded to discover what a tumultuous life she had and how many of those details she incorporated into her novels. What is particularly interesting is that she was obviously such a bundle of contradictions: an impulsive beauty with acting aspirations, a shy observer of social interactions who aspires to make notes and use it all in her writing, an anxious, somewhat idealistic young woman with an intense home-making instinct who longs for lasting love and friendship, that she had to divide out all of her thoughts and experiences among at least three different characters in her Cazalet series (Louise, Clary and Polly respectively).
I find it hard to reconcile her self-aware, witty writing and deep insight into human nature with her apparent oblivion in real life to the nuances of human behaviour. As her stepson Martin Amis is quoted as saying in this book: ‘I’ve always thought that was one of the mysteries about Jane: the penetrating sanity on the page, but when she’s off the page, she’s actually not that clever with people.’ She seemed to have a desperate fear of being abandoned or unloved, an incredible neediness, which made her life choices at times very questionable indeed. Yet she was able to analyse them with such clear eyes in her writing.
Maryla Szymiczkowa: Karolina or the Torn Curtain, trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones.
Cracow in 1895/96 is a city desperate to pretend it’s not provincial, but an important cultural capital within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Zofia Turbotynska, wife of an anatomy professor at the Jagiellonian University, is an exemplary housekeeper but her restless mind is never content with just accepting facts at face value. When her servant Karolina is found dead, violated and stabbed, on the riverbanks just outside Cracow, she wants to find the true perpetrator and chivvies the police along to perform their duties. Not content with their lacklustre obvious findings, she doggedly pursues the case and learns a lot about poverty and prostitution, human trafficking and corruption in the process. Above all, she learns about herself and sees society with different eyes.
I love that about Zofia: she is a bolshy, inquisitive Miss Marple type, but she is a character that is still unfolding and developing. She has hitherto unquestioningly accepted some of the ideologies and beliefs of her age (about socialists or fallen women or Jews), but she is beginning to realise that the truth is much more complicated than portrayed in the newspapers or society gossip.
There is a lot of gentle humour about Zofia’s social pretensions and attempts to keep up with the good society of Cracow, but there is educational historical detail too, and many parallels to be drawn with the present day (particularly with East European girls being trafficked to Western Europe). Coincidentally, I have also been watching the TV series Paris Police 1900, which is a much starker, more violent recreation of the ‘good old days’ but presents a similarly darker underbelly underneath an affluent, apparently respectable society. There is an added link to the TV series, which features the historical Alphonse Bertillon, police inspector and forensics specialist, who introduced anthropometry and mugshots to identify criminals. In this book, both Zofia and a police commissioner Jednorog are enthusiastic about the scientific advances in detection thanks to Bertillon’s methods, which were spreading beyond the French borders at the time.
What is particularly invigorating, of course, is the modern eye of the two authors, and their tongue-in-cheek accounts of Zofia’s frame of mind on occasion make her very relatable indeed to a contemporary audience, yet without ever making her feel too far out of step with her century: a clever balancing act.
It occurred to Zofia that she had had quite enough of all these self-pitying men by now, blaming everyone but themselves for thier problems. It was usual to say that women become hysterical… but meanwhile Zofia found that it was chiefly the men in her environment who were prone to this affliction.
The two (male) authors who write under the Maryla pseudonym are Jacek Dehnel, a wrier, poet and translator, and Piotr Tarczynski, a translator and historian, which explains that happy marriage between plot, language and historical detail. It was an instant love affair for me and I look forward to many more books in this series.
There is something very familiar to me in the language, landscape and characters described by Bogdan Suceavă. Unsurprising, really, because he is of the same generation as me, growing up under Communism but then having the opportunity to go and study abroad in the 1990s. He got his Ph.D. in Mathematics at Michigan State University (coincidentally, one that I was seriously considering for a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at the time) and has been teaching the subject at university level in California ever since. Nevertheless, alongside his passion for geometry, he has always been equally diligent in writing and publishing, initially prize-winning short stories and novellas, but then moving on to novels. A few of his works have been translated into English by Alistair Ian Blythe. For a good dose of traditional Romanian atmosphere, I would suggest Miruna, a Tale. Or, if you want to see just how tricky a time the early 1990s were in Romania after the fall of Communism, you might want to try Coming from an Off-Key Time. He is also a contributor to the anthology of Bucharest Tales, published by New Europe Writers in 2010.
I have to admit prior acquaintance with his work: I edited the translation of one of his novellas for the online multilingual literary journal Respiro back in the early 2000s, so I have signed copies of two of his short story collections, including the one I am currently reviewing: Bunicul s-a întors la franceză (Grandpa Goes Back to French).
You may wonder at the strangeness of that title, but the short story that lends its name to the entire anthology is about a grandfather who is trying to remember his youthful, mostly bookish knowledge of the French language. It is a very moving tale of a grandson trying to get his eighty-year-old grandfather to eat and take his medication, when all the old man wants to do is write his memoirs and get them published, so that the present generation will know the truth about Romania after the Second World War and the anti-Communist resistance movement. He sends off his lengthy manuscript to a newspaper editor, who somewhat jokingly tells him he’s be better off writing all that in French. The grandfather takes this seriously and rewrites the entire volume, trying to assuage his guilt at not having followed his former army comrades into the mountains. An incredibly sad scene takes place in the park, when the grandfather proclaims loudly, in a mix of Romanian and French, that ‘everyone needs to hear the truth’, and his grandson has to disillusion him:
‘There’s nothing new, Grandpa, in all of this. They know it all. And they don’t care. It’s the past, nobody cares about it anymore.’
This feels very true and is in stark contrast to the endless tomes written about the Second World War in Britain. I remember an author telling me that nearly every middle-aged man she met at the London Library was writing a book about WW2. It makes me wonder if it is better to live in a country that tries to bury its past or one that tries to glorify it. Of course, one approach does not exclude the other…
Other stories bring in a dose of humour, such as The Story of Al Waqbah, in which the narrator tells us about his cousin Matei, whose childhood naughtiness persists even in adulthood, when he becomes a respected mechanic in the tank division of the Romanian army and gets sent to the (First) Gulf War. A mix of British, American, French, Polish and other forces all get involved in Matei’s complicated plan to build a home-made distillery to make fig brandy in a country where alcohol is prohibited (with predictably bad consequences).
One of the stories takes place on an American university campus, but it feels to me like the author is at his best when he sticks to the time and places he knows in his bones. When Night Falls in Bucharest borders on the melodramatic, but gives an interesting insight into the compromises you had to be prepared to make as a second-tier Communist party bureaucrat aspiring to become a minister under Ceaușescu. The Disintegration of the Fatherland into Elementary Particles looks at more recent Romanian society (future, actually, 2006, when in fact the book came out in 2003) and the more violent, disorderly ways in which people might channel their discontent and anger at the prevailing corruption and dysfunctional political system.
Not all of the stories have a political slant. The author is having fun experimenting with genres and styles. He has an excellent ear for dialogue and an ease of switching from a more lyrical to a factual style. There is a pseudo-scientific and historical style in Greetings from Prague. Your World: Rock Music and Guava Perfume is the story of a lifelong friendship between a boy and a girl, that somehow never quite turned into love, a universal tale of missed opportunities and miscommunication, a yearning for what might have been. There is a short, experimental bit of prose about a man walking the streets while desperately trying to solve a Rubik’s cube.
An interesting collection of short stories of an author still testing the ground and honing his craft. One or two of them will certainly stay with me, and I am now curious to read his novels. Next time I go to Romania (if I go to Romania any time soon), I will search out more of his work.
I was supposed to be setting off next week on a (self-made) writing retreat in the north of England. [This is beginning to look increasingly unlikely, but I am still hoping against all hope.] My first time away from home since Christmas 2019, a much-desired change of scenery and a chance to work peacefully on some new writing ideas. I’ve realised that most writing retreats seem to be monastic-style cells, with minimum of distractions, set in a pretty landscape, and perhaps with a comfortable communal area (and someone else preparing your food, ideally). Here are some which caught my eye.
By strange serendipity, the last two books I read both start out with a supposed railway accident, i.e. a mangled body on a railway line, but they then set off in diametrically opposed directions. Nevertheless, I enjoyed them both.
Freeman Wills Crofts: The Groote Park Murder (1923)
I had read some of Freeman Wills Crofts’ crime stories, but I don’t think I’ve read any of his Inspector French novels reissued by the British Library Crime Classics. So when I found this little-known standalone crime novel in my local library, and discovered that it was partly set in South Africa, I wanted to give it a whirl.
The body of salesman Albert Smith is found mutilated in a railway tunnel near Groote Park in an imaginary South African town of Middeldorp about 1000 miles away from Cape Town. An open-and-shut case of an accident as he was crossing the railway line? But it turns out that he was not the most likeable of people, and what was he doing meeting someone late at night in a potting shed in the botanical gardens? This first part of the novel is a systematic police procedural, where we follow doggedly determined Inspector Vandam’s enquiries, assist in all of his interviews, and pretty much have access to all of his logical reasoning. However, the person who is finally put on trial, Stewart Crawley, a manager in the same company that Smith worked for, is not found guilty in the end, although his engagement to the boss’s daughter comes to an end because of the whole affair.
The second part of the book takes place in Scotland and after a gap of two years, which is somewhat unusual. Stewart Crawley has moved there in an attempt to rebuild his life. It’s not so much that his past comes haunting him, but that he actively seeks it, as he accidentally reunites with his former fiancee. This part of the novel is a bit more action-based, with some ‘against the clock’ races and personal peril, while the criminal is rather easy to spot (as is the way in which he planned the crime).
Probably not the best book by this author (although I haven’t read enough to compare), but it was a fun, quick read, a good palate cleanser perhaps between two rather more challenging reads (Bohumil Hrabal and David Peace), which both involved spending quite a claustrophobic amount of time in someone else’s head.
David Peace: Tokyo Redux (2021)
This one too starts with a mutilated body on a railway line, except the victim is not an average little salesman, but Shimoyama, the Head of the National Railways of Japan, who went missing for a day or two in July 1949 before being found dead. This was a real case, and a notorious one in Japan. It was never resolved and has led to much ink being shed, as well as many political conspiracy theories arising, the equivalent of the JFK assassination in the US, or the Aldo Moro kidnapping in Italy.
This is the last volume in the rather loosely connected Tokyo trilogy by David Peace, and it took him far longer to write than the previous two, because there was so much material to sift through. The two detectives in his previous volumes, Minami from Tokyo Year Zero, and the ‘occult detective’ in Occupied City, make a reappearance in this book as well, and all three books are based on real cases that profoundly marked post-war Japanese society. In Tokyo Redux, the detective is an American Harry Sweeney from the occupying forces, so he has a bit of an outsider perspective – but he fails to resolve the case, and we only get an idea of what might have happened and who was to blame after reading Part Two (which takes place in 1964 as the city prepares for the Olympics, with a Japanese PI as the main character) and Part Three (1988/89, as Emperor Hirohito lies dying, featuring retired American scholar and translator Donald Reichenbach – hard not to associate him with Donald Keene and Edward Seidensticker, probably an amalgamation of the two).
David Peace’s ambitions are huge, he wants to portray an entire society at a time of tumultuous change, but also ask general questions about political influence and interference. What is the cost or value of an individual life against the needs (or vices) of an entire society? His style is quite idiosyncratic, and has been compared to James Ellroy, although the latter is more telegrammatic, while Peace is more rhythmically hypnotic. It all made sense to me when I heard him read his own work at the Quais du Polar in Lyon. He is writing something that resembles a prose poem, he is like Virginia Woolf or James Joyce on meth with their streams of consciousness technique. He is almost certainly a very Marmite type of author, and, even though I love him overall, even I can get a little fatigued by his style if I read too much of it in one day. At other times, however, I cannot get enough of it and simply allow myself to float away on the sounds. He uses a lot of onomapoeia, just like the Japanese (a culture he has immersed himself in over decades, and that he truly loves and understands, although he is modest about his reading skills). He doesn’t use speech marks, which I usually find pretentious and irritating (as well as confusing).
Here is the disenchanted Harry Sweeney meditating about life and death, questioning his purpose as a policeman in someone else’s country, on the banks of the Sumida River:
A yellow train was pulling out of the station, the yellow train crossing an iron bridge. The bridge across the river, a bridge to the other side. Going east, going north. Out of the city, away from the city. Men disappearing, men vanishing. In the city, from the city. On its streets, in its stations. Their names and their lives. Disappearing, vanishing. Starting afresh, starting again. A new name, a new life. A different name, a different life. Never going home, never coming back. The train disappearing, the train vanishing.
Harry Sweeney looked away from the bridge, stared back down at the river… so still and so black, so soft and so warm. Inviting and welcoming, tempting, so tempting. No more names and no more lives. Memories or visions, insects or specters. So tempting, very tempting. An end to it all, an end to it all. The pattern of the crime precedes the crime.
You can see how easy it is to mock this style or the solemnity of the author. But he manages to convey a sense of the melancholy complexity and unresolvedness of life which always grips and fascinates me. This is Tokyo in black-and-white film setting, a Kurosawa film with a jazz improv soundtrack, a world-weary Cowboy Bebop space cowboy vibe (it’s hard to believe that David Peace won’t have been influenced by that classic anime), and I have to admit I rather love it and admire his willingness to experiment and go his own path.
It’s time for that lovely, lovely biannual reading event organised by Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen aka Kaggsy59. This time we are reading books from 1976. The 1970s is not my favourite decade, probably because I still vaguely remember it as a child, consider it my parents’ decade and find most of the fashion and music slightly embarrassing (with the exception of David Bowie, of course).
I only have time to review one book, and it’s a slim one, but a real masterpiece: Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude (transl. Michael Henry Heim). I have read other books by Hrabal, but never this one (maybe it was censored when I was young – it was certainly only available in 1976 via samizdat publishing in Czechoslovakia and other East Bloc countries).
The first-person narrator is Haňťa, a bit of a recluse, who has been compacting wastepaper and books for thirty five years (as he reminds us at the start of each chapter). He saves the books that catch his eye (some of them banned, some of them simply unwanted or full of errors) and his head is full of quotations and random bits of knowledge. Nothing much happens in the book, other than us witnessing his thought processes, but he remembers some poignant and often embarrassing moments in his life – faeces come up with startling frequency – and he begins to realise that he will be replaced by far more efficient, gigantic automatic press.
It’s really hard to review or describe this book, other than just give quote after quote, for this is without a doubt a very quotable book, especially for lovers of philosophy and literature. Haňťa is treated almost like an idiot by his boss, yet he has an encyclopedic knowledge and a genuine love for the written word and for learning.
Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.
…when I start reading I’m somewhere completely different, I’m in the text, it’s amazing, I have to admit I’ve been dreaming, dreaming in a land of great beauty, I’ve been in the very heart of truth.
Although Hrabal is not overtly political in this book, there are plenty of political allusions, which were clearly perceived as such by the authorities, hence the publishing interdiction. But it’s all described in that slanted, metaphorical way that is so typical of literature written under dictatorships. Much of the action takes place in cellars, underground, there is a lot of dirt and danger, there is even sacrifice, for example the small mice that regularly get compacted together with the paper. But there is also indifference to that sacrifice. The author repeatedly refers to the sewers of Prague, the scene of a senseless war between two armies of rats. He often shows university-educated men who are doing back-breaking manual labour, even refers to them as ‘Prague’s fallen angels… who have lost a battle they never fought’ (although some of them of course did try to fight a battle in 1968). There are more overt statements such as ‘somebody had to decide that the book was unfit to read, and somebody had to order it pulped’. The narrator looks at the ‘new men’ with dismay: they represent the Communist ideal, nicely tanned, working tirelessly, guzzling down their milk or soft drinks uncomplainingly, completely indifferent to what they are pulping:
… not at all upset at the thought of going to Hellas knowing next to nothing about Aristotle, or Plato… They just went on working, pulling covers off books and tossing the bristling, horrified pages on the conveyor belt with the utmost calm and indifference, with no feeling for what the book might mean…
The book has a dreamy quality, and is much more serious than Closely Observed/ Watched Trains, but here too we find some farcical moments, such as Manca, the girl that the narrator falls in love with, who twice has shit-filled mishaps that are profoundly traumatic for her. There is a third incident involving dog turd, but this one turns completely surreal, because Haňťa later sees a man at a flea market trying to sell a sandal and purple sock for the right foot, which he suspects might be his.
I stood there dumbfounded at that man’s faith, faith that a right-legged uniped in search of sandal and purple sock would happen by, that somewhere there was a cripple, size nine and a half, determined to make the journey to Stetin to buy a sock -and-sandal combination guaranteed to make him handsome. Beyond that man of great faith stood only an old woman selling two bay leaves, which she held up between two fingers.
This passage really struck me, because it reminded me of that sad, frenetic period in the early to mid 1990s in Russia, when people were selling anything and everything from their house out on the streets, desperate to survive.
In summary, a book that contains so many layers that I will no doubt have to reread it several times to uncover all of its nuances. I was also pondering why I found it so much easier to read and engage with than Piranesi, which is similarly about a lonely man living a confined existence and which also takes place mostly in someone’s head.
When I wrote a blog post last week about the books I had recently bought and how I got to hear about them, I thought this might be a fun series of blog posts to do every month or even every two months. I certainly did not expect to have another large pile of books to write about only a week later! But here we are, what’s done is done and cannot be undone, and here is the pile:
Admittedly, the one on the top is more of a necessity than an impulse buy – a brief compendium of Italian grammar, so that I can keep up with my Italian lessons, which I am enjoying tremendously.
Some of them I have been sent by publishers – although I should probably admit I begged for them. I am a huge fan of Finnish writer Antti Tuomainen, and his latest book The Rabbit Factor (transl. David Hackston) is not out until at least the end of October, so I may have cried a little on Orenda Mamma’s (aka Karen Sullivan) shoulder until she took pity on me. I think it will wreak havoc with my carefully laid plans for October reading. Maclehose Press sent me the ARC for Even the Darkest Night (transl. Anne McLean) which isn’t out until 22 February, 2022. I may not have read a lot of literature from Spain (as opposed to the South Americans), but from what I have read, Javier Cercas (‘the other Javier?’) is one of my favourite authors, and this is the first in a series of crime novels set in Barcelona (clearly a far more crime-riddled place than Madrid, according to authors at least). Finally, Kaya Days by Carl de Souza (transl. Jeffrey Zuckerman) is my first book from Mauritius, thanks to Two Line Press and the Asymptote Book Club.
Each of these books has a little story to them, which made them irresistible in my eyes. I had already heard of Singapore-based author Clarissa Goenawan whose novels are set in Japan and who won the Bath Novel Award in 2015, but when I heard that her debut novel Rainbirds was going to be adapted for a TV series, I thought it high time I actually got hold of it.
Publisher And Other Stories had a sale and I had always heard such good things about Mexican author Yuri Herrera and yet never read any of his works, so I couldn’t resist this three-novels-in-one edition (containing Signs Preceding the End of the World, Kingdom Cons, The Transmigration of Bodies, all translated by Lisa Dillman).
I have read and reviewed Swiss author Joseph Incardona before, and met him at a couple of literary festivals. The newest book, La Soustraction des Possibles, sounds very promising: a heist novel set at the end of the 1980s in Geneva, a tale of dodgy rich bankers, ladies who lunch, and two outsiders hungry for a piece of the action.
I read a review of A Forest on Many Stems, a collection of essays on the poet’s novel, in Full Stop Magazine, sounded extremely compelling, although I am none the clearer what a poet’s novel actually is. Clarifying that is not the intention of the editor Laynie Browne, the reviewer admits: ‘Instead of drawing straight lines and arranging everything in boxes, this collection traces the many-varied shapes of the works at hand, creating a map around the larger notion of what a “poet’s novel” can be.’
The last two books on my pile I got from Senate House Library. I happened to be at work in London on the day the Nobel Prize in Literature was announced. As you already know by now, it caught almost everyone by complete surprise, and unlike with Louise Glück last year or Patrick Modiano a few years back, I could not boast prior knowledge either. So I behaved as if I were booking tickets for a superstar concert, immediately checked if there were any books available at the library, and then ran upstairs to grab them before they were all gone. Needless to say, the stacks were not overflowing with queues of people eager to read him! I sometimes forget in quite what a bookish mental bubble I live. I borrowed only one book by Abdulrazak Gurnah: Admiring Silence, but they have 2-3 more so I will go back if I like his work. Right next to him, I also found Bessie Head, a South African writer whom I had heard of in the past (she had to go into exile for her militant attitude), so I borrowed The Cardinals, a collection of her early short stories, the only ones set in her country of birth, published posthumously.
Now, all that’s left to do is find enough time to read, read, read…
I have recently acquired a new mattress – after my back started telling me in no uncertain terms that the old one was knackered. I am somewhat sceptical still about the benefits of the much-lauded (and expensive) ‘mattress in a box’ Emma, but just think how much more expensive it might be to have one of the bedrooms below!
In the UK we celebrate National Poetry Day on the 7th of October and the theme this year is choice. I feel I have to celebrate somehow, because poetry – because it has done so much for my mental health in the past few years, both the reading and the writing of it (however infrequently the latter might have shown up). Here is a very rough first draft written in a spurt of creativity (32 poems in 5 days) during an unforgettable journey to Provence. OK, admittedly it’s not a very celebratory poem, but it’s been so long since I last posted one, I’ve forgotten how to do it properly!
Cialdini’s Science of Persuasion: The Principle of Consistency
Ask for small commitments first, then, when the large requests come, they will find it impossible to say no.
Last week I cleared out boxes
loft-bound for the longest time.
cards and letters
from the days when e-mail felt transient
international phone calls expensive.
Too few of yours: even then
you favoured silence as a method.
Sheet after sheet of colourful stationery
with my giggly, high-pitched scrawl,
careful to place no demands at all
while reasonable placed a noose around my neck.
Frog in water, you settle to boil
concession by shrug
you end up with a life adjacent
paths choked by weeds.
I never saw a destination without
wondering at the journey towards it.
Genuflection along the road to Calvary.
I think you all know by now that I am very weak-willed when it comes to books. I have periods of almost feverish book acquisition, followed by periods of… more moderate consumption. Abstention is rarely, if ever, possible. So I thought it would be interesting (at least for myself, if for no one else) to see what are the reasons for recent acquisitions. What are the drivers for my book choices? Alas, in many cases, I read a review and then rush so quickly over to buy the said book that, by the time the book arrives in the post, I have forgotten just where I first saw it mentioned, but I suspect most of the initial impulse came from Twitter.
Barbara Demick: Her latest book, Eat the Buddha, about life in Tibet under Chinese rule, has been out since summer of 2020, but I only recently came across a review of it in Asia Nikkei. When I heard about her previous books (about North Korea and Sarajevo), I thought she sounded exactly like the kind of anthropologist I wanted to become, delving deeper beneath the headlines but investigating people’s current problems and lives. Perhaps investigative journalists are the anthropologists of today, if they have the luxury of spending time in those communities. So I went on a bit of a spending spree and got all three of her books: Besieged (about Sarajevo), Nothing to Envy (about North Korea) and Eat the Buddha.
Yulia Yaklova: Punishment of a Hunter – I saw Poppy Stimpson, the publicist from Pushkin Press, talk about this one on Twitter (or maybe I saw it on the translator Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp’s feed) and was intrigued by the 1930 Stalinist Russia setting in Leningrad (written however by a contemporary Russian writer). So I immediately asked Poppy for an ARC, and she kindly sent me one. I love the Pushkin Vertigo series, as well as a lot of their other publications.
Catherine Fox: Angels and Men – This one comes a little more out of the left field. I was jubilating on Twitter about my older son going off to study at Durham, and one of my friends, Con Martin, who blogs as Staircase Wit, mentioned this book, which is set in a northern cathedral town (obviously Durham). I have only passed through the town twice, once as a tourist, once for university open day, so want to get more of a feel for the place, and what better way to do it than through fiction.
Joy Williams: Breaking and Entering – The American writer Joy Williams has a new book out Harrow, which is all post-apocalyptic and dark. I read some contradictory reviews about it, but I also read that most people thought some of her earlier work was well worth reading, and quite a few raved about this particular one: ‘Two young married drifters break into vacation homes in Florida. Ferocious and perfect.’
Francine Prose: Reading Like a Writer – This is quite a funny story. I had read many enthusiastic reviews and recommendations about this from fellow writers, so much so that I was convinced that I had bought it. I went to search for it on my bookshelves recently and discovered that no, I did not own it. Mad scramble to get hold of a copy, as it has that wonderful approach to ‘writing craft’ that Lucy Caldwell also advises: ‘When you cannot figure out how to do something in writing, read examples from writers who do it well and try and figure out how they make it work. Then develop your own solution.’
H.P. Lovecraft: The Dunwich Horror – To my utter surprise, this was a request from my younger son. He hasn’t been much of a reader in recent years (perhaps GCSE English didn’t help), but he read Orwell’s 1984 over the holidays and then tried The Call of the Cthulhu by Lovecraft and was eager to read more. I found this edition in Waterstones Gower Street, which is snugly and fortuitously placed halfway between my place of work and the Tube station.
Maryla Szymiczkowa: Karolina or The Torn Curtain – I have mentioned this before: as part of Noirwich, I attended the interview with the two (male) Polish authors and their translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones, and was so intrigued by the concept and the charisma of the authors, that I had to get my own copy.
Ann Quin: Berg – I first heard Quin mentioned on Backlisted podcast, made a note of the name and planned to search for her in the Senate House library. Then I saw several people whom I follow on Twitter also mention her: Charlus Kinbote aka TotheHappyNone recently bought several of her books, David Hering has been doing a Quin readathon in September, and there was a review of about her books being reissued in the Sydney Review of Books.
Not visible on the pile above are the books I downloaded on my Kindle recently. Quite a few of them are because I know the authors in real life and want to follow their latest releases. That is the case for the following:
- Rebecca J. Bradley: Seconds to Die (Rebecca is the organiser of our Virtual Crime Book Club and I’ve been following her blog and her work for 7-8 years now)
- Nikki Dudley: Volta – I attended a writing for Mums workshop with Nikki, and she was a wonderfully encouraging tutor for experimental fiction, but this is a bit of a departure for her, as it’s a psychological thriller.
- Claire Dyer: The Significant Others of Odie May. I met Claire virtually during lockdown, as she is one of the organisers of the Poets’ Cafe in Reading (which went online for a while). I have always appreciated her poetry, but this book is crime fiction.
- Matt Wesolowski: Deity. I’ve met Matt at several Orenda events or crime festivals, and have read all the books in the Six Stories series, with the exception of this one.
Last but not least, I do try to get books from the library as well. I am currently reading (and very much enjoying) Tokyo Redux by David Peace. I have also requested (and am on the waiting list) for Magpie by Elizabeth Day and hope to read the most recent Louise Penny soon. After spending September binge-reading the Cazalet Chronicles, I wanted to find out more about their author, Elizabeth Jane Howard, so I just borrowed a biography written by Artemis Cooper. The best thing about libraries, however, is the haphazard finds while browsing the shelves, and I came across a book by Freeman Wills Crofts: The Groote Park Murder. A Golden Age crime author who appears in the British Library Crime Classics series (especially in anthologies), he has also been favourably reviewed by trustworthy blogger friends such as Fiction Fan (with one exception), Booker Talk and Classic Mystery Blog.
Clearly, most if not all of my impulsive physical book purchases are a result of recommendations by people whose opinion I trust, i.e. bookish Twitter and blogger friends. Articles in literary journals only serve to reaffirm (and justify) my decision.
I also want to support writer friends and acquaintances, and although I don’t much like Amazon and don’t want to order physical products from them, I know that buying e-books at least helps their Amazon ranking. (I should also make more of a habit of leaving reviews on Amazon, rather than just Goodreads or my blog)
Finally, when it comes to libraries, I can afford to be more adventurous and rely on serendipity, knowing that if I hate a certain book, I can just return it without any fuss or expenditure. Sadly, the local libraries are getting less and less adventurous, with a tendency to spend their limited budget only the sure-fire bestsellers or literary prize winners. Still, I suppose that saves me from having to buy any of those… More money left for the smaller, quieter, quirkier books, authors and publishers.