If I could live anywhere in Paris, and money were no object, I would choose Montmartre, despite the tourist hordes. The endless steps and steep roads would keep me fit, and there are still many quiet picturesque corners if you know where to look. Plus oh, the historical artistic associations! Of course, in the 19th century Montmartre was anything but posh and expensive: it was a scrappy little suburb full of rebellious smallholders (marking the start of the revolutionary Paris Commune in 1871), poor working class people, bars and cabarets. Artists flocked there because it was cheap and provided an excellent spot for people-spotting.
I shouldn’t have come here really. I had no intention of walking this far. Haven’t got a clue how I’m going to get back home before dark, either. But isn’t this picture-postcard cottage worth the long trek and so much more? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a place as quaint and welcoming as this one. The faded red brick, the white paintwork, the upper windows twinkling in the sunset. The bottom two windows seem to be hugging the front door, while those climbing flowers embrace them all.
What do they call those flowers? Not roses, obviously. I do know those. But I’ve never been very good with more complicated plant names. Aren’t they just the most gorgeous shade of lilac? And don’t they fill the whole earth with the scent of early summer and the promise of things to come?
I can’t wait.
I measure out three steps to one side of the gate, three to the other. Counting calms me down, gives me something to do. I remind myself to stand tall. I have to slow down, keep my distance, remember to breathe. I close my eyes and try to take in all the sounds, the warmth, the aroma of this perfect evening.
So what if I am not wanted here…
While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?
I have always found more comfort in fiction and poetry than in self-help books or true stories. Most of the non-fiction books I own are professional books used during university or business days. If I ever do have a craving for a biography or a memoir, I borrow it from a library. However, since I started book blogging, I have made more of a conscious effort to read at least the occasional non-fiction book. Some of them have been so enlightening and have completely changed my way of thinking about the world.
A lucid analysis and full-frontal attack on the reductionist thinking that has taken over not just the US but most of the Western world in recent years. Ehrenreich looks at the myth of ‘thinking yourself well’ when you have cancer, the Puritan work ethic which has led to the American dream of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps if only you want it badly enough, the ‘attraction’ philosophy of books like The Secret and so on. As someone who has both given and received coaching, I have seen first hand the real power of placebo (which is what positive thinking is to a certain extent), but also the ways in which it can be misinterpreted and lead to a downward spiral when the world refuses to live up to your personal hopes and values. Or how it can be used to justify someone’s unfortunate circumstances (‘he brought his misfortune upon himself, she can’t see the silver lining’).
Above all, this book (published in 2009) shows that critical thinking and reasoned debate have been demoted in the media, which has led to the vicious popularist rhetoric and partisanship which we all deplore at present.
First of all: how can anyone resist this intriguing title? It’s about the culture of consumption of Ancient Athens: food, drink, sex, gambling and political manoeuvring. It makes the ancient world really come to life and it’s the book I always recommend to people who want an ‘anthropological study’ of Classical Greece. It’s a book about gossip, written in an accessible style, but based on careful research. It also shows what remarkably advanced thinkers those Athenians really were (despite some inevitable shortcomings regarding gender and slavery). We could learn something from them today.
This view of wealth as something changeable and fragile and rather separate from the men who owned it and this view of consumption as a warning of an individual’s dangerous appetites rather than as a sign of elite membership… is clearly related to Athens’ peculiar democratic system with its horror of internal division, its symbolic appropriations, its suspicion of riches, its weakened sense of family or clan identity… In Athens politics effectively was society.
I’ve written about this before and I’ve said it before: this is the book I am most jealous of as an anthropologist, the book I wish I had written. It gives voice to the residents of Annawadi, a slum near Mumbai Airport, and it is written in language so vivid, with so much empathy, that it feels like fiction. It does not reduce people to numbers and facts, but neither does it romanticise their virtues and dreams. It is a story of those left behind by India’s economic boom, the exploitation of the weak by those slightly less weak. Much has been made of Boo’s status as an outsider (although she lived with the people she describes for three years), but this seems like a very fair, powerful and morally thoughtful book. Perhaps my favourite non-fiction book of the last decade or more.
There was quite a bit of uproar on Twitter about the extremely worthy and ever-so-slightly pretentious beach reading promoted by The Guardian. Why can’t people admit that they crave chick lit or the latest Harlan Coben instead? They don’t have to be trashy airport novels (although most recently I’ve noticed a vast improvement in terms of variety being offered at airports), but they have to be able to withstand great heat, sun cream, the odd splash of water, and fried holiday brain. Can your expensive hardback of Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir, written by John Banville, with beautiful photography by Paul Joyce, withstand that? Perhaps one to buy and keep at home as a coffee table book, rather than shlepp to distant beaches…
Of course, I won’t actually be going to any beach this summer, but I hope to get a few nice days of sitting in my deck chair in the garden and worrying about nothing else but reading. And I readily admit that I look forward to a nice dose of escapism to mix in with my literary education. So this is what I would really read if I were on a Greek beach.
Michael Stanley: Dying to Live
I’m a great fan of the Detective ‘Kubu’ Bengu series, and the Kalahari Desert setting fits in perfectly with the beach. Also, it’s a really intriguing tale about the death of a Bushman, who appears to be very old, but his internal organs are puzzlingly young. Could a witch doctor be involved?
Linwood Barclay: Too Close to Home
Another author that I would rather read on the beach than alone at night in a large house, as his nerve-wracking twists are prone to making me jump. The strapline on this one goes: What’s more frightening than your next-door neighbours being murdered? Finding out the killers went to the wrong house…
Like many other crime readers, I was very saddened to hear about the recent death of Helen Cadbury. I had read her debut novel in the Sean Denton series reviewed and marked her out as a talent to watch in 2014 on Crime Fiction Lover. This is the second in a series set in Doncaster, which unfortunately never had the chance to grow to its full potential.
Sarah Vaughan: Anatomy of a Scandal
The perfect novel for those who can’t quite take a break from politics: this is the story of an MP whose affair is made public, his wife who tries to stand by him in spite of her doubts, and the barrister who believes he has been guilty of rape. A searing look at privilege, hypocrisy and the social justice system.
Not my usual kind of reading at all, but I like to keep abreast of what my children are reading.
G.P. Taylor: Mariah Mundi – The Midas Box
Mariah is a young orphan, fresh out of school, who is employed to work as an assistant to a magician living in the luxurious Prince Regent Hotel. But the slimy, dripping basement of the hotel hides a dark secret. I’ve heard of the author’s Shadowmancer series, but never read anything by him. Described as the next Harry Potter, this book promises to take the reader into a world of magic and fun.
Peter wakes up from a serious accident and finds himself transformed into a cat. Life as a street cat is tough and he struggle to survive, but luckily stumbles across the scrawny but kindly tabby cat Jennie, who helps him out. Together they embark on a bit of an adventure.
This is not only worthy reading, but highly enjoyable into the bargain! Although seeking out translations from some of the countries on the list is not that easy or cheap.
Hungary – Miklos Banffy: They Were Counted (transl. Patrick Thursdfiel and Katalin Banffy-Jelen)
Satisfies any cravings for family saga and historical romance, as well as looking at a part of the world which is very close to me (Transylvania). Plus a society bent on self-destruction – what more could one want?
Romania – Ileana Vulpescu: Arta Compromisului (The Art of Compromise)
This author’s earlier book The Art of Conversation was an amazing bestseller in the early 1980s in Romania, partly because it went against all the expectations of ‘socialist realism’ of the time and was quite critical of socialist politics (of an earlier period, admittedly). This book, published in 2009, continues the story of the main character, but this time set in the period after the fall of Communism in 1989. Critics have called it a bit of a soap opera, but at the same time an excellent snapshot of contemporary society. Sounds like delightful light reading, with a social critique, perfect for reconnecting with my native tongue.
Another story with a murderous aside by an author I’ve only recently discovered and whose baroque sentences mesmerise me… Every day, María Dolz stops for breakfast at the same café. And every day she enjoys watching a handsome couple who follow the same routine. Then one day they aren’t there, and she feels obscurely bereft. She discovers that the man was murdered in the street – and Maria gets entangled in a very odd relationship with the widow.
Women in Translation Month
Another project which has the merit of being both worthy and great fun. I plan to read several of the Keshiki project of Strangers Press – beautifully produced slim translations of Japanese short stories and novellas. There are plenty of women writers represented: Misumi Kubo, Yoko Tawada, Kyoko Yoshida, Aoko Matsuda and the improbably named Nao-Cola Yamazaki. I expect the strange, unsettling, disquieting and sexually heated… Phew!
I’ve always believed in keeping windows curtainless (so you can admire the view) and doors open (so that friends can come in at any time). Some of the incarnations of doors and windows below take this to a whole new level, but I have to admit I dream about owning something like this…
She lived in the city of Mozart, so rococo was second nature. She chose a sofa so redolent of Baroque features, it rolled out of the warehouse on its many curves and swirls. It came to rest in our living room, all carved curlecues, easy to bang the back of head against when your laughter pealed out. Not that there was much laughter in that house.
Within days the burnt ochre leather caused heartache and questioning. Too bright? What would the neighbours say about the ripeness of that shade? Would they sit and tug and scratch it whenever they came to visit? But very few people ever entered our house.
Better safe than sorry, though. So she covered it in green velvet, tailor-made cover with frills so rich, it could stand up by itself when you took it off for washing. Those frills swept all the way down to the arched wooden legs, even as they yearned away from under the stifle, all tip-toe. So hard to vacuum underneath.
A few months later she realised the velvet might get worn too quickly, that she might require a new cover …oooh, say every ten years or so. In came the casual throw, loosely draped over the pool-table green. Cheap polyester cream with tassles and shiny stripes, too thin to keep its distance when backsides sunk into it. My mother was fanatic about cotton, but hated ironing, so polyester made do. It clung to clothes, turned static, and we spent most conversations not actually seated on the sofa, but straightening out its multiple covers.
But I digress. After decades of discomfort, my father’s weary bones can no longer keep that horror in our house. But it’s an expensive horror and we want to ensure that we get the best possible price for it. For Sale: Baroque Sofa, Nearly New.
WWW Wednesday is a meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.
The three Ws are:
What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?
A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.
Two easy-going crime fiction books, to keep me motivated in my job hunt as the summer holidays beckon. The first is Robert B. Parker’s Bad Business, inspired by a great analysis of the Spenser series at the Captivating Criminality conference I attended. The second is a cosy mystery for review on Crime Fiction Lover, a nice change of pace: Mary Angela’s Passport to Murder. A campus mystery combined with a failed attempt to visit France.
You’ll have seen the review of The Cut by Anthony Cartwright yesterday. This was commissioned as a Brexit novel, but it goes beyond a single issue. It is in fact the portrait of a divided country and a battle of the classes and regions which fail to understand or even listen to each other. My other great pleasure this past week or two has been to reread one of my favourite novels, Jane Austen’s Persuasion. No matter how many times I read it, I always find something new to admire. The control of language and emotions is so admirable! I did a mini-readalong with Janet Emson and Laura Patricia Rose, tweeting favourite phrases and observations as we went along. Great fun, highly recommended way of reading old favourites!
I’ve just borrowed a pile of books from the library that I should be working my way through, and I also planned to contribute to Spanish Reading Month. But I craved something angry and combative instead, so here are my predictions for upcoming reads. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Naomi Alderman’s The Power
Teenage girls now have immense physical power – they can cause agonising pain and even death. And, with this small twist of nature, the world changes utterly.
Dumitru Tsepeneag: Hotel Europa (transl. by Patrick Camiller)
The author-narrator, a sarcastic Romanian émigré with a French wife, tells with great insight and humor the story of a young student’s life and education as he passes from post-Ceausescu Romania through an unwelcoming Western Europe beset with dangerous problems of its own.