Summary of May 2020


Reading has not been going brilliantly this month, but I was reading that epic novel The Eighth Life. Alongside it, I read four other crime novels, all quick and fun reads, and another chunkster, King of the Crows. Harriet Tyce’s Blood Orange was our Virtual Crime Club read for May and we all agreed that while we didn’t ‘enjoy’ it (the subject matter was too grubby and the characters too unpleasant for that), it was well written and kept us turning the pages. Two British Library Classic Crime titles also provided good entertainment: John Dickson Carr’s Castle Skull was atmospheric but with somewhat two-dimensional characters, while The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons was much better on the psychology (especially of the main protagonist). Finally, Boileau-Narcejac’s Vertigo (D’entre les morts) was far more interesting than the Hitchcock film, given the wartime background and a much more sinister ending.

As for Russell Day’s King of the Crows, it’s almost impossible to write about it. Uncannily and uncomfortably accurate about a pandemic that sweeps across Europe, an enforced lockdown and then the gradual breakdown of society, it also brings in elements of horror and zombie apocalypse. Unbearably graphic in parts, with an interesting fragmented style, switching from straightforward narration to interview recordings to witness statements to film scripts and even graffiti and urban dictionaries. It could have been shortened by a good 20% without losing any of the style or plot (or maybe I was just too exhausted after the even longer Eighth Life doorstopper), but it’s certainly memorable.

Still, only 6 books per month – what is the world coming to? At this rate, I won’t do too well in the 20 Books of Summer readalong, will I?

Film Watching

Still from the film Ran by Akira Kurosawa.

On the other hand, I’ve been watching more films than I’ve ever done since the boys were born, virtually all of them on Mubi or the occasional classic on DVD or television. 18 films in total this month, so roughly one every two days. I’ve continued the Hitchock discovery with the boys, watching Vertigo and Rear Window this month – so far, Rear Window seems to be their favourite Hitchcock, but we’ve still got a few good ones to go. I also got them to watch Ran, which was visually even more stunning than I remembered and they agreed with me that the scene of the attack on the second castle, with its sudden transition from balletic choreography and background music to the grunts, clashes and gore of battle was magnificent. I watched another Japanese one by myself: Fireworks by Kitano Takeshi – a surprisingly spare yet lyrical depiction of grief, guilt and revenge from someone I thought of mostly as a comedian and game-show host.

Mubi seems to have a lot of French (or Italian) films on at the moment featuring Alain Delon. So I got to admire his youthful good looks in Plein Soleil (he is absolutely perfect as the charming psychopath Tom Ripley), L’Eclisse with a vulnerable Monica Vitti and Losey’s Mr Klein, a Kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucratic error (or is it deliberate?) which I found very moving and frightening. Other French language films included: the noir La Bête Humaine by Jean Renoir (I thought I’d watched it, but it turned out to have been the later American remake by Fritz Lang); two excellent Clouzot films Le Corbeau (which got him accused of collaboration with the Nazis) and Quai des Orfèvres, which start out almost as breezily as Hollywood comedies and then turn very dark; Bunuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid with the sulky, sultry Jeanne Moreau. There was one non-French one in the French language selection – namely Ghost Town Anthology by Quebecois director Denis Côté, which was profoundly creepy and unsettling (and beautifully filmed).

Aside from the French, I was depressed by Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband and Joseph Losey’s Accident, with their cynical portrayals of marriages and flawed ways of loving. I was charmed by two classics which I’ve probably seen many, many times before: Top Hat with the fab duo of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, and the crazy trio of Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. The dialogues in both films are so witty and sparkling, it’s not just the dancing in the first and Marilyn’s charms and singing  in the second which have made them firm favourites.

But the two wild cards of the month were perhaps the ones that made me think most. Wadjda, a film from Saudi Arabia by a woman director Haifaa al-Mansour, under its playful, charming surface of a story about a schoolgirl dreaming of buying and riding a green bicycle hides a lot of social commentary about the restrictions placed on girls and women in that country. The other one was a documentary by Joost Vandebrug called Bruce Lee and the Outlaw. Filmed over six years on the streets of Bucharest, it is the story of a homeless boy growing up in the infamous underground tunnels near the main railway station, in an underworld where glue-sniffing, prostitution and petty criminality are rife. Bruce Lee is the self-proclaimed King of the Sewers and often in trouble with the police, but to the young boy Nicu, he is a friend and protector, the only person who shows any interest in him. The fragile yet trusting relationship that the film-maker develops with Nicu is incredibly touching yet the ending refuses to be too hopeful or sentimental.

Still from the film Bruce Lee and the Outlaw.

Online Events

There were two major online literary events this month.

First, the Big Book Weekend 8-10 May. I listened to Maggie O’Farrell talk about Hamnet. I realised to my astonishment that Robert Webb has written a novel (and that we overlapped for a year in Cambridge – just as well I didn’t try out for Footlights then!). I succumbed to Neil Gaiman’s recommendations on what to read next by Ray Bradbury. I was moved by the poetry of Hafsah Aneela Bashir and charmed by the funny yet militant Marian Keyes. Bernardine Evaristo was every bit as inspirational as I expected her to be. The whole set-up on the MyVLF platform, aiming to replicate the look and feel of a real festival, was brilliant.

The Hay Festival’s online offering was in a more traditional webinar format via Crowdcast or YouTube, but with a lot of live sessions as well. Although I didn’t do it deliberately, I ended up seeing mostly women and mostly on non-literary subjects: Gloria Steinem, Elif Shafak, Miriam González Durántez and a few of the writers from the Europa 28 anthology about how women see the future of Europe. I listened (in two different panels) to Kapka Kassabova from Bulgaria, Caroline Muscat from Malta, Zsofia Bán from Hungary, Leïla Slimani from France, Lisa Dwan from Ireland and Hilary Cottam from the UK. I also attended two non-literary talks given by men: World without Work by David Susskind and A.C. Grayling on democracy and the need for a constitution. I was hoping that my older son might be interested in this talk as well, but we’ll see if he did actually register to it (he wasn’t with me at the time but with his father).

I also finally made it to a Virtual Noir at the Bar meeting on a Wednesday. These are weekly readings by an excellent and varied selection of crime authors (roughtly 7-9 at a time) organised by Vic [@vpeanuts on Twitter]. I got to hear Peter Rozovsky, the co-founder of Noir at the Bar, Sam Carrington, Adele Parks, Fiona Cummins and many more. I really do recommend you sign up to the newsletter and attend their sessions – and you get access to the recordings too if you can’t stay till the end.

Last but not least, I’ve had the pleasure of both a more structured Crime Book Club organised by Rebecca Bradley (we discussed Harriet Tyce’s Blood Orange this month), regular writing and feedback sessions (and a literary quiz!) with my Royal Borough Writers Group, as well as an impromptu Zoom chat about books and the difficulties of reading during a pandemic with a few Twitter and blogger friends. Despite all the nastiness and opinion-giving-when-unasked on social media platforms, I have to say that I’ve found my happy bubble of … I wouldn’t call it like-minded people exactly, because we can disagree quite vigorously about a certain author or novel or book cover or film, but simply a group of people who care about these things as much as I do. No tedium of small talk but straight onto the interesting discussions in life! I haven’t had that kind of intellectual sparring or fencing, that enjoyable cultural chit-chat since high school and university. It has always been delightful to have these conversations, but under lockdown it has been a real life-saver.



28 thoughts on “Summary of May 2020”

  1. I think that sounds like quite a lot of reading, especially as two were chunksters! I think you’ll sail through 20 books of summer 🙂

    I watched Some Like it Hot on the spur of the moment on Saturday and I’m so glad I did – as you say, just sparkling!

    1. I’m glad that BBC2 has started showing some classic films – was hoping someone would! I grew up with all of these old films, as Austrian TV would show them at 3:30 every weekday, so it was perfect after-school viewing for me (I was usually alone at home).

  2. I agree that feels like an intellectually action packed, well-rounded month absorbing content across multiple mediums and even the gift of discussions, albeit virtual. I’m not surprised books had to make a little space for the other. Loved reading about your month and that beautiful image.

    1. Different times call for different approaches, and some things will become more important, others recede to the background temporarily. Now if only writing would come to the forefront…

    1. She was just nine, but such sensitivity and maturity in her portrayal! Apparently, she is quite the star now in her home country, as she should be.

    1. I haven’t done much else, to be honest. But the films, books and events have been keeping me sane. Otherwise I might explode. Tears seem to be coming very easily as well now.

  3. As another MUBI subscriber, I’ve also watched nine of your films in last few weeks. Ghost Town Anthology was the wild card surprise of the pack for me. As you say, a deeply unsettling film. Those figures that kept popping up were so creepy, etched against the cold, wintry landscape…

    1. Would you like me to invite you? If I send you the invitation to your email address (DM it to me on Twitter), then we both get a free month!

  4. Well that looks like a busy month to me! I think it’s great that we can have some kind of cultural input despite the current situation, and I enjoyed visiting Hay for the first time, virtually! It’s been lovely to make use of zoom too – I could talk about books till the cows come home, basically! 😀

    1. I’m finding that we’re getting better at keeping in touch, because suddenly we realise that technology can indeed bring us closer, instead of just waiting until we meet in person… certainly the case for some of my friends.

  5. Loved your post, Marina! Wonderful books you’ve read and wonderful movies you’ve watched! I was thinking of reading ‘The Eighth Life’, but it looks so big and intimidating! Alain Delon played Tom Ripley in a French movie? I didn’t know that! I want to watch that!

  6. I’m glad you had a good reading month, Marina Sofia (I think you’re spot on about Blood Orange). I always find that it’s easiest to read a more demanding, even grim story when I’m also reading lighter work, so I understand what you mean about the variety of books you’ve read. And you remind me that I’ve been wanting to try Mubi. Haven’t gotten there yet, but a quick look at the website shows all sorts of good films on offer there…

    1. Am not sure if the invitation works if you are in a different geographical region than me, but let me try, Margot. It has a lot of international films, so provides an intriguing mix, and with its library currently open, an even greater mix than normally.

  7. Seems like we swapped. Usually I watch more than I read but you read some really chunky books. I read Blood Orange but did not like it. The beginning yes but then . . .
    I think I should subscribe to Mubi. I haven’t seen Ran yet but must have the DVD somewhere.
    I don’t think your month was bad at all – quality wise.

    1. Yes, with Blood Orange I felt like I’d seen it all before: have had enough of psychological thrillers featuring self-destructive women and husbands as the bad guy…

  8. I agree, sounds like you had a varied and cultured month! And if you read six books a month for the three months of 20 books of summer, that’s 18, so you’ll be almost there…

  9. If it makes you feel any better, I only managed to read 3 books in May and none of those were chunksters. My reading has taken a sharp nosedive since this coronavirus hit. I’m hoping 20 Books Of Summer is going to help me out of it!

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