The Reading/Writing Year in Review

The year is not quite over, so it is slightly annoying to see all of the ‘Best books of 2018’, as if there is no possibility of reading something amazing over Christmas. I, for one, am firmly convinced I will find a few corkers to keep me busy, entertained and enthralled over the holidays. However, I can share some stats about how I’ve fared this year in reading and writing, as not much is likely to change in that respect in the remaining 2 weeks. I will do a separate post on the exceptional books that I’ve enjoyed most, but closer to the very end of the year.

From Goodreads, I gather that I’ve read 128 books so far (and am likely to reach approximately 135 by the end of the year). That’s about 36,000 pages, with the shortest book being A Month in the Country (absolutely beautiful) and the longest Killing Commendatore (could have been much shorter). The most popular book I read (i.e. the one that most other people read) was I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara (gripping and moving true crime account), while only one other person ever bothered to read Die Stille der Gletscher by Austrian writer Ulrike Schmitz.

There have been a few innovations for me in reading this year:

  • I joined the Asymptote Book Club and so was exposed to more diverse reading in translation. One example of a book that I might not have come across independently is Aranyak by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. I also followed the David Bowie Book Club for a while, which also introduced me to new books, but it seemed to peter out in May or so, or else I was unable to keep up.
  • I’ve tried to cut back on reviewing and read more outside my preferred genre. In addition to my usual crime fiction, poetry and literary fiction, I’ve also read historical fiction (Ahmet Altan’s Like a Sword Wound), biography (Shirley Jackson‘s was particularly memorable), romance or women’s midlife crisis fiction (Marian Keyes), plays (Tales from the Vienna Woods), political essay (James Baldwin and Susan Jacoby), true crime (Michelle McNamara) and reportage (George Orwell).
  • I’ve discovered new publishers like Charco Press and Two Lines Press, as well as countless ambitious poetry publishers doing wonderful work with chapbooks, such as V. Press, SAD Press, Ignition Press and Midsummer Night’s Dream Press.
  • I discovered many new writers; quite a few of them have become names I will now look out for: Argentinian Cesar Aira, South African  Karin Brynard, Japanese Yuko Tsushima, Polish Olga Tokarczuk, German Wolfgang Hilbig, English Fiona Mozley.

However, when you read a lot, you also get a lot of dross. I’ve read more than my share of average books this year, if I’m being honest. Some proved disappointing, simply because I have high expectations of the author or the premise and reviews were too complimentary (Killing Commendatore, Conversations with Friends, Vernon Subutex). Others were quickly consumed and perfectly entertaining while reading them, but failed to make a lasting impression or stand out in a crowded field (most, though by no means all, were titles for review). I reckon about 35-40 of 130 books fall into this category, which is quite a high percentage. A couple of these quick reads every now and then is fine, but with such limited time, am I not better off reading books that will enhance my own writing or teach me something new or give me a frisson of pleasure?

Writing was nowhere near as fast, furious or voluminous as the reading. I did attempt flash fiction in an effort to get the creative juices flowing again. I’ve made a half-hearted attempt to put together a chapbook collection of my poems but haven’t sent it out yet. And I haven’t touched the novel with a barge pole. I’ve submitted less than a handful of poems (or anything, really), so it’s not surprising that I only have one publication in 2018.

Meanwhile, I’ve created over 200 posts and written over 103,000 words on this blog alone. If I were to add all the reviews I’ve done in other place, plus letters and marketing copy that I’ve created for Asymptote… I’ve been productive, yes, but not really on the things that matter most to me personally.

Even better than a triptych…

So there is one major lesson to be learnt from this year (even if it comes in a triptych format): time to focus on my own writing, time to read only things that nourish me and give me joy, time to cut down on my other commitments.

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Anni Albers Exhibition at the Tate Modern

When my friend from Hamburg visited me last weekend, she was adamant she wanted to see the Anni Albers exhibition. I – forgive me for my brash assumption – was somewhat less enthusiastic, thought it would be merely pretty carpets or something that my grandmother might have woven in days gone by. But I’m very happy to report that my friend was right, I am an ignominious philistine (if I can pronounce it!) and the exhibition at the Tate Modern is very much worth your time and money. 

Six Prayers was a commission from the Jewish Museum in New York to create a memorial to represent the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. The threads create a scriptural effect, bringing to mind the Torah scrolls.

Anni Albers was born in a middle-class German family (she later said her Jewish descent was only visible to the Nazis, they were so well integrated that she was even baptised Protestant) and studied art at the famous Bauhaus school in Weimar and then Dessau. Connected with big names such as Gropius, Paul Klee, Kandinsky, Mies van der Rohe, this radical new school of art gave equal weight to architecture, painting and all crafts, including bookbinding, carpentry, metalwork and weaving. Anni wanted to study art, but was encouraged to switch to weaving (‘unenthusiastically’, she admits), which was seen as the ‘women’s domain’. But she very soon made it her own.

In 1933 she and  her husband, fellow artist Josef Albers, emigrated to the US, where they both taught for a while at the equally experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina. What is fascinating about Anni’s work, however, is not merely that she recreates abstract art in her woven wall hangings, but that she constantly experiments with new weaving methods, new textures and materials (including found materials), creating both pattern weaving works and pictorial works. Many of her works are multi-layered and create a 3-D effect.

She never ceased learning and incorporating new ideas: textile as text in pre-Columbian art, floating weft technique, tactile sensibility, knots which she associated with mathematics. Later in life, when weaving became too physically strenuous, she turned to printmaking, embossing, etching, lithography. The woman just had creativity pouring out of her!

Let me end with a beautiful Anni Albers quote: ‘What I’m trying to get across is that material is a means of communication. That listening to it, not dominating it, makes us truly active. That is: to be active, be passive.’

Heartily recommend this exhibition, especially as an example of #Womensart, which to my shame I very nearly didn’t take seriously on this occasion. Bravo, Hamburg friend! The exhibition is on until 27th January 2019.

Friday Fun: Urban Gardens

After attending my beekeeping classes, I’ve realised just how important even the tiniest of urban gardens are (as well as big trees in parks) for keeping the bee population alive and thriving in our cities. In many cases, the bees are better off in the urban environment, because there are fewer pesticides than in the countryside. 

Balcony on Ile St Louis, Paris, from guestpartment.com
Quick, cheerful and cheap option, from deco-cool.fr
Garden in Rome, from SimonMetz.com
Penthouse garden in NYC, from Laurel B. Interiors
The more DIY approach to rooftop gardens from Germany, from diana212blogspot.com
Why not a house surrounded by a garden and koi pond, like this Nagasaki home, from Pinterest.
Disuses railway lines have been transformed into promenades in a number of cities, including the Highline Promenade in NYC.

Last But One Book Haul of 2018

I still have some books that are winging their way towards me, and I may still be swayed by one or two reviews or recommendations before I close up book-buying-shop next year. Of course, I will still have the Asymptote Book Club subscription to stave off my hunger pangs. And a couple of hundred of unread books on my shelves…

So, with that caveat, what are my most recent acquisitions?

First of all, #EU27Project noblesse oblige, I had to find a book for Bulgaria and Slovakia. Well, strictly speaking, I’d already found a book for Slovakia but then I  met a translator from Slovakian, Julia Sherwood, at the Asymptote Book Club meeting, and so I had to buy one of the books she translated. This is Pavel Vilikovsky’s Fleeting Snow, a gentle set of reminiscences about a long marriage as the wife of the narrator gradually starts to lose her memory. A very different novel about the fall of Communism in Bulgaria, Party Headquarters by Georgi Tenev seems to not have found many fans abroad, but that rather incited me to read it and make up my own mind.

From publishers, I received two crime novels to review. Bitter Lemon Press sent Petra Hammersfahr’s novel The Sinner formed the basis for the recent TV series, although the setting has been changed from Germany to the US. Many of the links are more obvious in the book than in the TV series, so it’s interesting to compare the two. Meanwhile, Simon and Schuster sent RJ Bailey’s  Winner Kills All, featuring female Personal Protection Officer Sam Wylde. In the wake of the huge success of the TV series The Bodyguard, this book series may do very well indeed!

Most of the other new arrivals were the result of reading other people’s blogs. So hereby I am naming and shaming them! Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings is responsible for Portraits without Frames: Poems by Lev Ozerov, essentially a group portrait of Russian writers of the 1920s and 30s in free verse form. Jacquiwine’s Journal needs to take a bow for Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, although it may take a while until I summon up the courage to read this very sad tale. Melissa Beck, who blogs at Bookbinder’s Daughter, is the one who first drew my attention to Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel, translated by Boris Dralyuk (who also is one of the main translators of Ozerov). Last but not least, Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, with her #6Degrees link for December made me stumble across Black Run by Antonio Manzini, and I remembered I’d come across it before, mentioned by another Italian writer, and my ordering finger was once again hyper-active.

Who needs divorce lawyers sucking you dry, when your online friends also make sure they finish off your budget through their recommendations?

#EU27Project: Slovenia

Goran Vojnovic: Yugoslavia, My Fatherland, transl. Noah Charney

Goran Vojnović is a Slovenian scriptwriter, film-maker, journalist and writer. As far as I can tell from the scant biographical details available in English, he was born and grew up in Ljubljana, but encountered other immigrants from former Yugoslavia in a ghetto estate in his home town. Their plight (and the prejudice against them) impressed him so much that he wrote a novel about it Southern Scum, Go Home! which drew some unflattering attention from the Slovene police. With his second and third novel all winning the most prestigious literary prize in Slovenia, he seems to be a versatile writer at the top of his game.

That first novel hasn’t been translated, alas, into English but his second novel Yugoslavia, My Fatherland has, with partial funding from the EU as part of the ‘Stories that Can Change the World’ initiative. And indeed, this one does change the world.

I was shocked recently to hear people of my age who could barely remember the Yugoslav War. Although I didn’t live there, it marked my youth decisively and tainted my joy at the fall of Communism. When people say that the EU has allowed the continent of Europe to live in peace for so many decades, I always feel uncomfortable. It feels disrespectful somehow, as if they are forgetting this cruel war which showed us that our old, civilised continent had not outgrown its barbaric feuds. Simply because it took place ‘on the outskirts’, in the Balkans, where it’s always been messy anyway. 

The novel follows two timelines: Vladan in the present-day, a young man who discovers that the Serb father he believed dead is in fact still alive and most likely a war criminal. The second timeline tells the story of how his parents met, their contented lives in Pula before the outbreak of the war, how his father (an army officer) had to go to fight and how Vladan the little boy fled with his Slovenian mother to the relative safety of Ljubljana.

As Vladan searches for his father, who he believes lives in hiding somewhere in Serbia, he also relives some of the most distressing moments of his childhood. His mother sinks into a deep depression once they moved to a hotel in Belgrade as refugees, waiting for news from his father. 

Lying there on the floor of room 211, I suddenly felt that I had neither a father nor a mother anymore, that I was without friends, that everyone in the hotel had forgotten about me, and that no one in the world would be interested in me anymore. So I kept on lying there, waiting for Dusha [his mother] to emerge from the bathroom. I felt so unwanted, so lonely, that I promised myself that the Bristol Hotel would be the last hotel I would ever set foot in.

He meets old friends of his father and family members who are still numbed by the war and trying to understand how it could have happened. 

They all used to be Yugoslavs. And they were all communists…we who defended Yugoslavia stood side-by-side, in the same uniform,with those who demolished it. We sang the same anthem and bore the same coat-of-arms. But what was mine to me wasn’t theirs to them… The country fell apart because it didn’t mean more to any of them than their own arseholes… The Yugoslavs disappeared overnight, as if they’d never existed… I’m only sorry about my old man, who built this country with his bare hands. I’m glad he died before he could seethe scum he’d built all those bridges, schools and hospitals for. The scum he left all this to. They lived among us all those years, smiled at us in our Tito’s Pioneers uniforms, waved flag but, in the end, they could’t wait for it all to end, so they could fight with each other.


Vladan is always in-between cultures, and therefore never fully buys the rhetoric of any of different nationalities that used to make up the Yugoslav Republic. He is profoundly distrustful of sentimentalising the past, which can be used all too quickly to stoke up nationalistic resentments. He calls it the ‘Infantile Balkan Sentiment Syndrome’, an important ingredient in the periodic fratricide that afflicts that region. The war in Bosnia, he explains to his patient Slovenian girlfriend, who grew up untainted by the war, was ‘one big nightmare of yearning, one big bloody orgy of mental pain. The revenge of the lovesick, of the twisted and the eternally immature.’

The dual narrative allows the grown-up narrator to cast a new light on the defining moments of his childhood. In contrast to The Hotel Tito, which is most determinedly a coming of age novel, and all is narrated by the young protagonist in the present tense, here the author slips fluidly across timelines, adding depth and poignancy to each.

Author picture, courtesy of Istros Books.

The tricky issue of culpability of the older generation and how the younger generation accuse them of blindness and self-interest has also been addressed in German literature, but I found this strand of the story slightly less compelling. I myself longed for more of the child refugee narrative, which is perhaps the part which resonates most with the utter puzzlement expressed by my friends from Yugoslavia. For example, as soon as Vladan starts school in Slovenia, he is made aware of ethnic differences, and a Bosnian refugee called Daniel tells him what’s what:

I was a Serb, because Nedelko was a Serbian name, and so was Vladan, and that it didn’t matter that my mother was Dusha, because nationality was determined by the father. He was a Muslim because his father was Muslim… [in their class] there were seven Slovenians, two Croats, three Muslims, eight Serbs, one Macedonian, one Albanian and a few fags who wouldn’t say what their fathers were called, and so were hiding what they were so they wouldn’t be teased.

All this was new to me because, in Pula, we only knew that some people had ‘nonnas’ and some had ‘grandmothers’ and some had ‘grannies’, and none of us realized that this meant something, but we certainly didn’t ask people what their father’s names were, in order to draw conclusions based on something so bizarre.

Aerial view of Pula. A lost world for our narrator.

For his secondary education, Vladan ends up in a grammar school, with the most ‘carefree’ children in the world. Suddenly, none of his past experiences seem to matter anymore. He finds it hard to believe that these children once were part of the same country.

Kids from high school skied in France; they played tennis; visited European capitals; skated and tried pot. They were kind and clever and they listened to professors during lessons… They couldn’t care less about Serbs, Croats and Muslims, and most of them didn’t even distinguish between them. They didn’t ask eac other about their fathers’ names, and didn’t fight about who started the war in Bosnia. They didn’t  have cousins who had been drafted into the army, uncles who were left without legs, grandmothers and grandfathers who were exiled, or aunts killed by grenades.

So will Vladan find his father in the end and will his father have a good explanation for why he did what he did during the war? Will they be reconciled? You’ll have to read this and see. But don’t make those questions your end goal. This book is worth reading for the attempt to paint a fresco of a country which has disappeared, and a people who are still trying to make sense of it all.

Finally, I can imagine that Vojnović, heavily critical as he is of all sides in the war, must be quite a controversial figure in Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia, where everyone prefers a single (heavily edited) explanation or answer. I would love to hear what local reviewers made of this novel.

Friday Fun: Hallways to Feel Welcome

When I looked at staircases a couple of weeks ago, I started wondering whether some of those hallways were truly welcoming or simply statement pieces. In this week’s batch of inspiration, it’s not the staircase that is the star, but the way you feel as you walk in through the door.

Elegant in black and white in France, from Elle Decoration.
Sober period piece with charming tiles, in Bordeaux. From FusionD.fr
Laid back and slightly cluttered, from Australia. From Domino.com
Making the most of the rather dark space through amazing tiling. From Instagram.
That door, those tiles… to die for! From Livingetc.com
Most of the above have been traditional hallways, but here we finally have a modern, colourful take on it. From Modernhomefurniture.co.uk
Last but not least, the country look, from outlook.live.com

Reviving the #EU27Project

114 days or 17 weeks until the 29th of March, which is my self-imposed deadline for the #EU27Project. Yes, by then I want to have read at least one book from each of the EU member countries with the exception of the one flouncing off. I started this project quite a while ago, even before Britain triggered Article 50 in 2017. And, just like Britain, I was not quite prepared and spent a lot of time faffing about and procrastinating. Or doing the same thing over and over, like reading books from France and Germany.

So let’s do some arithmetic, shall we? I still have 15 countries to go through, for which I’ve read absolutely nothing. In the case of some countries (Cyprus and Luxembourg), I am struggling to find anything in translation. And I am likely to want to ‘redo’ some of the countries, for which I didn’t find quite the most satisfactory books (Romania, Greece or Italy, for example). That means at least one book a week from this category. Eminently doable, until you factor in all the review copies and other things that crop up. However, this will be my top priority over the next few months – my way of saying goodbye (sniff!) to the rest of Europe.

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

Here are some books that I have already sourced and will be ready to start shortly:

Bulgaria: Georgi Tenev – Party Headquarters (transl. Angela Rodel)

Hungary: Miklos Banffy – well, I need to finish that trilogy, don’t I? (Especially in the centenary year of the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire)

Slovenia: Goran Vojnovic – Yugoslavia, My Fatherland, transl. Noah Charney – struggled to find something from this country, but this seems to fit the bill: the author, like the protagonist is Serbian/Slovenian and  this novel about discovering your father is a war criminal will fit in nicely with my Croatian read.

Croatia: Ivana Bodrozic – The Hotel Tito, transl. Ellen Elias-Bursac – another author and protagonist who experienced the war as a child, considered one of the finest works of fiction about the Yugoslav war.

Estonia: Rein Raud – The Death of the Perfect Sentence, transl. Matthew Hyde, described as a spy and love story set in the dying days of the Soviet Empire

Latvia: Inga Abele – High Tide, transl. Kaija Straumanis – experimental and anti-chronological story of a woman’s life

Lithuania: Ruta Sepetys: Between Shades of Gray – this is not a book in translation, as Ruta grew up in Michigan as the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, but the book is very much based on her family’s tory at a crucial and tragic time in Lithuanian history

Slovakia: Jana Benova – Seeing People Off, transl. Janet Livingstone – winner of the European Union Prize for Literature

But then I met Julia Sherwood at the Asymptote Book Club meeting, and she has translated Pavel Vilikovsky’s Fleeting Snow from the Slovakian, so I had to get that one as well. So two for Slovakia.

Malta: Very difficult to find anything, so I’ll have to rely on Tangerine Sky, an anthology of poems from Malta, edited by Terence Portelli.

Belgium: Patrick Delperdange: Si tous les dieux nous abandonnent  – bought a few years back at Quais du Polar in Lyon, highly recommended by French readers

Denmark: Peter Høeg: The Elephant Keepers’ Children, transl. Martin Aitken – one of the most experimental and strange modern writers – I can see some resemblances to Heather O’Neill, whom I also really like, but they are not everyone’s cup of tea – this one I found at the local library, so yay, finally saving some money! But it is quite a chunkster, so… it might be impractical.

Greece: Ersi Sotiropoulos: What’s Left of the Night, transl. Karen Emmerich – because Cavafy is one of my favourite poets

So, have you read any of the above? Or can you recommend something else that won’t break the bank? (I’m going to try not to buy any more books in 2019, which may be an obstacle to reading my way through the remaining countries, as libraries do not stock them readily).

Cycle route 6 in Franche-Comte, with my beloved Montbeliard cows sipping Doubs water.

Final point: I do not intend to stop reading books in translation from all of these countries after the UK leaves the EU, by any means. In fact, I’m thinking of doing the EUVelo 6 cycle route from Nantes on the Atlantic to the Danube Delta across all of Europe and reading my way through each of the countries en route (10 of them). Maybe when the boys leave home, if my joints will still allow me to…