This was the week that was…

Despite a very busy week at work (this is going to be my refrain over the next month or so), I managed to cram in a few extracurricular activities. I took my older son (or should that be: he took me?) to the Manga exhibition at the British Museum and this time it was not quite as busy as when I went with the younger one, so I managed to take some pictures.

Pikachu and Pokemon is what most of us know in the West, but there was so much more on offer…
My boys are rather partial to Josuke from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventures. He is so vain about his hair that he will pick a fight with anyone who comments about it.
Personally, I am more interested in exploring the Saint Young Men manga, which features Jesus Christ and Buddha as flatmates.
Scultpture made out of onomatopeia appearing in manga in Japanese katakana script

With more than 5000 manga artists active in Japan today, and with hundreds if not thousands of series appearing in weekly or monthly formats, it was impossible to cover all of my children’s favourites, so they were inevitably somewhat disappointed. However, as an exhibition exploring the origins of the manga (in the Heian scrolls, for instance) and showing the breadth of manga topics (from sports to adventure to love to classic novels or non-fiction), it was an excellent introduction to a Japanese art and literary form that has conquered the world.

After a short stop in Portsmouth for a conference…

The first time I saw the City Hall tower instead of the Spinnaker Tower…

… I warmed up for my birthday weekend with a trip to the theatre, to watch the charismatic Andrew Scott (aka Sexy Priest in Fleabag) in a Noel Coward play Present Laughter at the Old Vic. This was actually a preview performance, but the cast seemed to slip effortlessly into that blend of physical farce and caustic wit which is signature Coward. It is about an ageing matinee idol who seems unable to let go of his selfish ways and giant-sized ego. A stylish and very funny production, with one significant change to the original: a gender inversion, so that the main character Garry Essendine’s business partner is a woman and he finds himself having a one-night stand with her husband (in the original play the business partner is a man and he slips up with the wife). It felt quite natural and perhaps closer to what we know of Noel Coward and his entourage.

The play was written in 1939 and meant to provide a little light relief from the sombre storm clouds gathering over Europe. It went into rehearsals but the war broke out, so it wasn’t performed until 1942. At a time of not quite as severe uncertainty and gloom, it still provides a wonderful evening of escapist entertainment and belly laughs.

Andrew Scott proves himself a master of comic timing and exaggeration, but also imbues the character with a fundamental sense of loneliness. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan, Evening Standard.

In terms of reading this week, I’ve been cracking on with my selection of American authors: David Vann’s Aquarium very nearly broke me (I just cannot cope with sad children). Cara Black’s Murder in Bel Air was suitably entertaining, although I think of it as more French than American. I am also currently reading Sam Shepard’s miniature pieces in Cruising Paradise, which is very Dakota -American Midwest. By way of contrast, I had a craving to reread Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley – where American penchant for action and the self-made man meet European lifestyle and indolence.

Friday Fun: The Power of White

The White House in a certain country may have become a laughing stock but white houses have undeniable decorative cachet.

Hidden in the woods, from architecturelove.net
Super modern or sci-fi spaceship like, from Casa Dupli by J. Mayer H. Architects
Indoors can be stylish white and yet not feel like magnolia, from homebunch.com
Art Nouveau style in Sydney, from designsponge.com
Restyled Texan villa, from contemporist.com
The first house that Le Corbusier built: for his parents in his home town in the Swiss Jura. Bet you weren’t expecting such a ‘traditional’ style!

Being Interesting in America

Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings is a book I hesitated over. On the one hand, it had a telescopic view of life, with more than thirty years of sheer life squeezed into its pages – this is a feat I am rather in awe of, as I find it a challenge to skip even a couple of years in my writing. On the other hand, it had the potentially rather annoying elitist vibe of ‘the chosen ones’ that I so disliked in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

But plunge in I finally did, and I gradually warmed to it. It’s the story of six teenagers who meet at an expensive camp for ‘artistic’ kids, who try desperately hard to be cool, to stay interesting and to follow their dreams in NYC. As we follow them over the years, we see of course that they’ve had to abandon their dreams (in some cases), that they meander down the wrong paths, take many a false turn, but in the end, most of them find their way back. Only three of the six are fully developed: geeky, talented animator Ethan, golden girl from a rich family Ash and the ‘gatecrasher’ Julie, an awkward girl from the wrong side of the tracks, who desperately wants to fit in with this privileged crowd. The other three are viewed mainly through the others’ eyes: Goodman, Ash’s brother, the charismatic leader of the pack, until his life goes badly off the rails; Cathy the dancer with the far too womanly body; and Jonah, the famous folk singer’s son, who remains friends with the main triumvirate but abandons his music. Jonah does get his own chapters and the readers has some insights into his way of thinking, but somehow he never becomes quite as alive as the first three, although in many ways he is a more tragic character than any of them.

For about the first quarter of the book, I found the privileged characters and their hangers-on pretentious and snobbish. I very nearly threw in the towel. As they grow older, however, we see the way life knocks their stuffing out of them and how they persevere, regardless, how they still support each other even though they may have grown apart.

There are similarities to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, but luckily without the extremely harrowing scenes which appeared fairly regularly in that book. The friends may have subtle (or not so subtle) rivalries, may vie for attention or affection, may silently undermine each other, may feel envious of the success and money that the others have, but overall they remain supportive and invested in each other.

Ultimately, I read on, not because the Interestings themselves were so interesting, but for the observation skills of the author. This is not quite the major disappointment and death of ambition of Richard Yates: the character’s lives are full of successes as well as disappointments. The author is great at capturing those shades of envy that can creep into even the closest of friendships, and there are astute observations throughout about men and women, what makes marriages work , about growing older and abandoning your dreams (or adjusting your dreams and becoming more realistic). I enjoyed the last quarter of the book far more, especially when they try to recapture some of the magic of youth and realise that it never works. I would have liked perhaps more critique or more satire of a society that, for all of its supposed opportunities for all, is far more class-conscious than it likes to believe.

Here are some quotes that I enjoyed:

I know we live in a very sexist world, and a lot of boys do nothing except get in trouble, until one day they grow up and dominate every aspect of society. But girls, at least while they’re still girls and perform well, seem to do everything better for a while. Seem to get the attention. I always did. (Ash)

… meeting in childhood can seem like it’s the best thing – everyone’s equal and you form bonds based only on how much you like each other. But later on, having met in childhood can turn out to have been the worst thing, because you and your friends might have nothing to say to each other anymore, except, “Wasn’t it funny that time in tenth grade when your parents came home and we were so wasted.” If you didn’t feel sentimental about the past, you wouldn’t keep it up. (Jules)

Novelist Meg Wolitzer at her home in New York, March 16, 2018. (An Rong Xu/The New York Times)

The camp would go on in its own fashion, and teenagers would continue to be shepherded through the gates, and then shepherded back out again at the end of the summer, weeping, stronger. They would blow glass and dance and sing for as long as they could, and then the ones who weren’t very good at it would likely stop doing it, or only keep doing it once in a while, and maybe only for themselves. The ones who kept up with it – or maybe the one who kept up with it – would be the exception. Exuberance burned away, and the small, hot glowing bulb of talent remained, and was raised high in the air to show the world.

#EU27Project: Belgium – Patrick Delperdange

When I went to Quais du Polar in Lyon in 2016, I was asking the booksellers what editions of Pascal Garnier and Jean-Claude Izzo they had (I was stocking up for my imminent departure from France). One of them told me: ‘If you like those writers, you might want to try this new novel by a Belgian author, Patrick Delperdange.’ It’s a sort of rural noir and its title indicates the bleakness of the subject matter: ‘If all the gods were to abandon us’.

Three years later, I finally read the book and it is indeed a very dark yet beguiling tale set in a tiny Belgian village close to the French border. There aren’t very many parts of Belgium that aren’t overpopulated, but this area seems to be remote and devoid of inhabitants. So much so that one of the main characters, a young girl Céline, escaping a violent relationship, walks down the road for miles without seeing another soul. She is somewhat relieved when she hitches a ride with a kindly but fairly taciturn old man Léopold, who offers her a place in his house overnight ‘if you don’t mind ghosts’.

Typical horror story trope, you might think, but in fact Léopold is a widower and the old farmhouse is still full of his wife’s presence. It is also rather primitive, without a proper bathroom, so Céline is grateful for his hospitality but also understandably eager to move on. She leaves the house to continue her solitary journey, but it starts snowing and she gets bitten by two fierce dogs and collapses in the snow. Luckily, Léopold finds her, brings her home and calls in a doctor to tend to her wounds. The dogs belong to Maurice, a bad-tempered local man, and when he finds out that one of his dogs has been wounded, he is furious.

The young girl and the old man start living together in his house, at least until she is able to walk without a crutch again,providing each other some much-needed comfort, without asking too many questions. But of course their situation gives rise to local gossip. One of the people who doesn’t know what to make of the stories is Josselin, Maurice’s younger brother. Regarded as somewhat simple-minded by his brother and by the village community, he is a bit creepy about women (and about Maurice’s former wife, who ran off with a waiter), but nevertheless an excellent observer of all the little human foibles.

The story is told in short chapters alternating between the points of view of Céline, Léopold and Josselin. None of them is quite what they appear to be at first sight, none of them are particularly likeable. They each have a darker back story and this meshing of stories is heightened by the closed-off, suspicious, very drab and grey community that they are living in. Things soon take a turn for the worse, and it does seem indeed as though there is no hope, no salvation, no well-disposed god for these three (very fallible, very pitiful) human beings.

There are indeed elements of Pascal Garnier here: eccentric, ambiguous characters (who turn out to be quite different than you might expect at first), the sombre atmosphere of storm clouds gathering and then the flashes of violence that seem to come out of nowhere, a sense of inexorable fate about the unfolding of the story. There are differences, however. Everything is told in the first person – and, although in many cases the protagonists are lying to themselves, that does make for a more personal and passionate take on things. The ending is also quite ambiguous, as if the author had decided that he wanted to offer a glimmer of hope to the readers after all.

Above all, it is a perfect portrayal of the flat, wooded Belgian countryside, which becomes another main character, without ever being described in great detail: neither beautiful nor ugly, neither welcoming nor hostile, a landscape that is only charming to visitors, a place that seems to promise sanctuary but ends up poisoning you. This is the landscape adjacent to the First World War battlefields, after all.

The book has not been translated into English, but I think it would certainly appeal to readers of Garnier. It would also make for a good film.

The Muddy Waters of Fathers’ Day

Warning: personal content follows. Skip if you expect a book review or pictures of houses.

I grew up in a culture with no Valentine’s Day, no Mothers’ Day, no Fathers’ Day… We celebrated the start of spring on the 1st of March with Mărțișor and Women’s Day on the 8th of March (recognising that women are seldom given the credit they deserve, so they need an extra day to boost awareness of all that they do). The former was somewhat commercial, the latter somewhat state-sponsored, but all in all it was a rather nice way to leave winter behind and look forward to spring. Nobody needed to feel left out.

Am I the only one who feels these Western holidays, that are supposed to focus on celebration of lovers, mothers and fathers, manage to make some people feel quite excluded? What if I don’t have a lover – or would rather they were thoughtful and considerate all year round instead of giving me garage flowers, chocolates or tacky underwear once a year? What if you have lost your parents and it’s a painful reminder of that on those days? What if you have been trying desperately to conceive? What if my children are confused by the proliferation of different mothers’ days (UK, Swiss, French, US) and so don’t bother to treat me on any?

Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash

Above all, based on personal experience, I’m getting more and more upset about Fathers’ Day. About all the advertisements bombarding me about how wonderful dads are and how to spoil them on their day, when I know for a fact the father of my children was spoilt every single day of his existence and only cares about himself. Oh, of course he plays the Super-Dad, and of course the children lap it up! Easy enough to do when you only have them for weekends and holidays and keep taking them to theme parks and feeding them KFC. When it is the mother who is doing all the feeding and washing, pre-exam nerve soothing, panic attack calming, sensible eating monitoring, school liaison form filling, chauffering around to events, nagging about homework, making sure they have the stationery and uniforms for school and equipment for expeditions, thinking about the future and researching universities etc. etc. etc.

Meanwhile, Super-Dad only cares about living a good life in the present (and, to a lesser extent, about punishing me for disrupting his pleasant family life where he had to put in nearly zero effort). To hell with the children’s home or schooling or funding possible university studies.

And you know what? He’s probably right. Come the time when our sons graduate from university or get married, they will invite both of us to the ceremony. Do you think they will give differentiated speeches for the mother who sacrificed far too much for them and the father who sacrificed next to nothing? But the reason he is right, the reason he gets away with it, the reason his mantra can be ‘don’t expect us to be grateful’ is because somebody else is putting in all the hard work.

Yes, I know, not all fathers are like that, some genuinely care, some deserve to be celebrated, some have raised their children single-handedly etc. etc. But my solicitor can tell you that far, far more have avoided the burden of fatherhood in pretty much any way they could. So forgive me if I feel more than somewhat ambiguous about Fathers’ Day. I actually actively hate it – or rather hate the commercial and media fuss associated with it.

What about my own father? That is a complicated story for another day. He too behaved occasionally like a rotter, but he has done repentance for his sins. He supports my mother and takes care of her even when she doesn’t deserve it. He has been more encouraging of my feminist tendencies than my mother ever was. He hasn’t understood all of my life choices, but he hasn’t complained about them every single time we spoke on the phone. He doesn’t care about Fathers’ Day, but he is happy that I never, ever forget his name day and his birthday, and that we speak on average once a week. Here is an old poem I wrote about him.

Friday Fun: Sit on the Porch and Read

And why wouldn’t you, with porches like these?

Apparently, they sit on the porch a lot in Alabama, from Country Living.
Another Southern beauty, from blesserhouse.com
More of a floating mooring deck than a porch, but aren’t the surroundings just divine? From fairyqueentravel.com
A classical feel to this completely closed off extra room porch, from mobilebaymag.com
OK, I admit this Ontario porch is more of a veranda, from House Beautiful.
More of a conservatory than a porch, but whose conservatory has ever looked like this? From planetedeco.fr
For those with smaller budgets, a little scandibloglovin.

Rural America: Kent Haruf’s Plainsong

So many people have recommended Kent Haruf to me, for his pared down style and description of what one might call ‘heartland’ America in the fictional town of Holt in the prairies of East Colorado.

Holt County, the country all flat and sandy again, the stunted stands of trees at the isolated farmhouses, the gravel section roads running exactly north and south like lines drawn in a child’s picture book and the four-strand fences rimming the barrow ditches, and now there were cows with fresh calves in the pastures behind the barbed-wire fences and here and there a red mare with a new-foaled colt, and far away on the horizon to the south the low sandhills that looked as blue as plums.

I personally hate flat, wide-open country. It feels more suffocating to me than mountains, and it’s this suffocation in the small town in the middle of nowhere that Haruf captures so well in his trilogy. He also uses flat, plain, unadorned language which fits well with this landscape (and with the simple church music that the title Plainsong refers to).

I started with his first novel to be written in his distinctive utilitarian style (although he published a couple of novels before that with the same kind of setting). Plainsong describes the lives of several individuals and families in a small farming community: aging brother farmers, who understand each other almost without words; a pregnant teenager kicked out by her mother who is taken in by the old farmers although they don’t know much about women; young boys whose mother suffers from depression and leaves home, leaving them with their baffled schoolteacher dad; another schoolteacher who helps the pregnant girl, although her own father is proving a handful with his dementia.

The stories build up gradually, patiently, layer after layer, from small details, everyday observations and the different points of view. No insight into the characters’ inner feelings other than what they say or do. Yet by the end you feel you know them well.

At times the style can grate on you and feel drab and repetitive. To think that I was afraid my sentences were too long! Here is a typical one:

He went out into the hall again past the closed door and on into the bathroom and shaved and rinsed his face and went back to the bedroom at the front of the house whose high windows overlooked Railroad Street and brought out shirt and pants from the closet and laid them out on the bed and took off his robe and got dressed.

But the advantage with this minute observational style is that it keeps both the writer and the reader at arm’s length, prevents the story from descending into melodrama and sentimentality. There are plenty of elements here that could have veered into cliche territory in the hands of another writer. Here, it feels like a universal and timeless story. Or at least, a universal story for the American rural community, that ferocious mix of cruelty and kindness, of stubbornness and innocence. Life is hard, unsparing for pretty much everyone, but it is what it is. And those patient, uncomplaining people make the best of it. It’s the small examples of humanity and the survival instinct of the pioneers who headed west that inspire Haruf’s work, although a few of his characters fall by the wayside.

There are also moments of almost reluctantly poetic descriptions too, but nothing is overdone:

The empty house… The broken –down neglected locust trees, shaggy barked, the overgrown yard, the dead sunflowers grown up everywhere with their heads loaded and drooping, everything dry and brown now in the late fall, dust-coated, and the sunken house itself diminished and weathered.

I have a sneaking suspicion that if I read more of Kent Haruf, I will feel that his trilogy could be the quintessential Great American Novel.