What we salvage from the debris…

A long, long time ago, back in December 2014, I struggled to think of positives for a year that I thought was a particular low for me. How I laugh now at my innocence! Because, in the intervening years, my personal challenges grew and grew, while the world also seemed determined to go through one major crisis after another.

There are years that ask questions and years that answer‘, Zora Neale Hurston said once. 2020 has once again been the questioning kind: Are you focusing on the right things? If you were to die tomorrow, what would you leave behind? Is this how you want to be remembered? Tick tock!

So let me start by reminding myself of all the ways in which I’ve been fortunate this year. My children have managed to stay healthy, in spite of the start/infect/ stop/isolate/start again rhythm of schools this past term and the impact it might have on exams. But you know what, life and careers depend on so many things other than exams! They have learnt to be careful and think about others, they have been helpful and sweet… and only occasionally made me lose my temper. I asked them to give me Christmas presents that didn’t involve money but some care and thought, so the younger one baked a cake of my choice, while the older one created a symphony of lights for me in the living room.

I think I might leave this up until March…

My parents are safe, in spite of their age and underlying conditions and the huge distance separating us. Even my mother’s pointed arrows have stopped hitting their target as I get more sentimental at the thought that I might lose them.

I’ve kept my job, although universities are in dire financial straits and are asking for voluntary redundancies. I’ve been able to work from home, which seems particularly sweet when I get the occasional notification about train delays or cancellations on my phone. Even though the hours I’ve gained from commuting seem to have been lost to more and more work.

So no, I have not written King Lear, or baked my own bread, or learnt a foreign language or even worked out every day, but I’ve certainly not had a minute’s boredom either.

At our traditional Christmas party for my local writing group (a Zoom pub crawl this year, obviously), we typically reflect on the past year and see whether we’ve achieved our writing goals. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I had done most of the things I had set out for myself.

  1. Submitting more: 25 submissions, of which 19 rejections, 2 acceptances and the rest in limbo.
  2. Invest in self – allow myself time and space to write. I was going to go on a writing retreat or two, but of course they got cancelled. However, I attended a few workshops, which really helped to kickstart my writing. And I started a daily accountability system with a writing buddy, we are now on Day 202!
  3. Start editing the novel. Yes, and loving it!
  4. Put together the poetry collection. Done – and have been sending it out to a few competitions.
  5. Start publishing company: launch three books in the first year, including my first full-length translation. Well, see below…

We started Corylus Books in one of the worst possible years for independent publishing. Despite no festivals, no big names, no budget, no distributor, we’ve managed to publish four books in our first year, while relying solely on word of mouth recommendations and reviews from those wonderful, blessed people known as book bloggers. A huge, huge thanks to you all! I am delighted to say that both Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu, which I translated from Romanian in a few feverish weeks at the start of 2020, and The Fox by Solveig Pálsdóttir, translated by Quentin Bates, have been praised and incorporated into ‘best of the year’ lists by connoisseurs of crime fiction such as Ian Rankin, Barry Forshaw, Sonja van der Westhuizen, Paul Burke, Ewa Sherman and Crime Fiction Lover.

I am as proud of the authors, readers and reviewers as if they were my family and can only hope that 2021, with its additional Brexit red tape and costs, will not prove to be our downfall. I hope Corylus can continue to focus on bringing good crime books from new authors from lesser-known European languages to the English-speaking world.

At the same time, I have to admit that I am anxious and exhausted, and that this year, on top of so many previous difficult years, has knocked the stuffing out of me a little. But that’s probably true for pretty much all of us, other than the entitled, privileged few who can’t or won’t or don’t need to face reality.

I’ve missed all the plays and exibitions, the literary events and crime festivals, the meeting up with friends, proper holidays somewhere further than thirty minutes away from my front door. These were the things that kept me going and gave me hope for the past six years, but were sadly absent this year. Luckily I’ve found some comfort in books, films and two beautiful cats, at least for a while. I’ve missed having a grown-up nearby to hug and talk to, although I’ve caught up with dear friends from all over the world on Zoom. But I’ve managed to sleep reasonably OK, haven’t had to go back on anti-depressants, haven’t been drinking every single day and have even chosen exercise over hibernation on many occasions. So I call that a HUGE win!

Some of my friends and their relatives have not been so lucky, so I hope that your year has been a reasonable one under the circumstances, and wish with all my heart that 2021 is much gentler, kinder and more hopeful.

December Reading and Films

Just because I’ve written my annual summary doesn’t mean that December gets neglected. Although it was busier than I would have liked until the 18th, after that I went on holiday, so had more time to dedicate to reading, writing, family and watching films or TV series. Here is a little round-up of the month.

Reading

Poster for the 2009 Russian TV series of the Brothers Karamazov

This was my Russians in December month. Of course, given the verbosity of some of those Russians, it ended up being nothing more than Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island (which was an eye-opener and which I cannot recommend highly enough as piece of investigative and anthropological writing) and The Brothers Karamazov (in the translation of Ignat Avsey). I’m halfway through the latter and enjoying it far more than I ever did on previous attempts, so this might be the time I actually get to finish it (by the time 31st of December, 23:59 comes along). Review (or rather, random thoughts and jotting in the margins) to follow in the New Year.

Alongside these chunksters, I felt I had to keep things short and reasonably cheerful and/or escapist. For example, I have interspersed these serious reads with easy and reasonably forgettable crime fiction, which I chose mainly because of their settings, like Ruth Ware’s One By One (skiing in the French Alps) or Robert Thorogood’s The Marlow Murder Club (set in the village where my son goes to school – his school gets a mention in the book too). Two other crime novels proved to be a lot more thought-provoking than I had expected, so were enjoyable in a different way: Riku Onda’s The Aosawa Murders (which I’ve already mentioned several times, so you’re probably sick to death of it) and John Vercher’s Three Fifths, which addresses a real moral dilemma about race and friendship, family and crime in the United States.

Oddly enough, the remaining two books have been described as crime novels, but are in fact about middle-aged men going back to either the places they grew up in (Urs Faes’ Twelve Nights) or to a privileged way of life and setting they thought they had left behind (John le Carré’s A Murder of Quality – set in a public school rather similar to Eton or Sherborne, which the author hated). Both books are full of wistfulness and yearning, for what might have been, for the people we did not marry and, above all, the people we did not become.

The last two books of the month are ones that I am skimming through rather than reading. The first is The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly (not because I don’t enjoy it, but because there is no time to finish reading it before the Virtual Crime Book Club tonight). The second is Amanda Craig’s The Golden Rule, which sounded intriguing as a premise – a fun exploration of current social affairs in the UK via a Strangers on the Train scenario – but in practice is a bit plodding and clichéed, and somehow unable to make up its mind if it’s a romance or a satire or a crime novel or a thriller or a social novel… And this from a reader like me who likes genre transgressions!

So eight books in total, if we don’t include the skimmed ones, of which four in translation (two Russians).

Films

With the boys spending the first week of the holidays with me, we got to watch quite a lot of films. 12 films and 2 TV series (or parts of the latter) so far, and I expect to squeeze in a couple more until New Year’s Eve. The first TV series was Season 1 of Succession, which is a great mockery of rich people, and particularly a dysfunctional Rupert Murdoch type family. The other is The West Wing, which I’ve finally embarked upon rewatching with my boys. I think they were not that enamoured with it for the first two episodes, but then they started getting caught up in the banter and political intrigues. Even though it feels at times quaint in its old-fashioned optimism (which has been sucked out of us after the Trump administration), what I like is the highly intelligent, witty, challenging yet also supportive banter among its main characters. I’ve had the pleasure of being surrounded by some such people in a few educational or work settings, and it’s a wonderful thing to experience at least temporarily. We may stop after the first three seasons, though, which are the best.

Half of the films this month were Japanese, I noticed with some surprise. I suppose I get more and more ‘homesick’ for Japanese culture every passing year, and with Christmas making me nostalgic in general, three of those were animes. But not quite the reassuring, sweet kind. Studio Ghibli’s Porco Rosso finally made me realise why they called themselves Ghibli and is an homage to the early aviators, but we also watched two non-Ghibli animations. Made in Abyss (we had started watching the anime series, but this was a standalone film) was much darker than I had expected, about experimenting on children. Meanwhile, Your Name was a teen love story with darker sting in its tail, of destruction of a town (always top of mind in a country prone to earthquakes, typhoons and tsunamis, although in this case it is destroyed by a meteorite), of tradition versus modernity, and missed opportunities.

Of the adult films, there were two Kurosawas that I rewatched and really enjoyed their blending of Japanese samurai traditions with a gentle mockery of cowboy films: Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai. I can understand though why my sons thought they were overlong and that there were not sufficient differentiating features between the various samurai. The last Japanese film I watched on my own, since it was a horror flick: Cure by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira). Not a jump scare or gory horror thriller – more of a gradual ratcheting up of tension and disquiet, with the most menacing small talk I’ve ever seen.

Quite a few of the films were Christmas rewatches, films I’ve seen so often they’ve become part of my personal fabric: Some Like It Hot (probably my favourite comedy), Singin’ in the Rain, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Kind Hearts and Coronets. One of the rewatches was less successful: I had previously only seen Citizen Kane as a child and was not that impressed, but at that time all of the nuances and political commentary were lost on me, so I decided to watch it now. Although it was good, sharp and witty, I feel that calling it the ‘best film of all time’ might be overstating things (but don’t ask me which one I would put in its place).

The final film I watched this month was The Death of Stalin, which I had never watched before. I am torn about this film. Although I found much of the black humour and over-the-top dramatic posturing hilarious, and although we used plenty of such humour to help us cope with the fear and disgust of Communist dictatorship, it nevertheless felt wrong to laugh at things that have caused so much terror and heartbreak to so many people. It is too close to me personally and to people I know. Plus, Kruschev (played with aplomb by Steve Buscemi) was certainly not quite the almost reasonable guy they make him out to be – only the least insane and cruel out of a really bad lot.

Writing

Happy to report that I’ve gone back to daily writing practice (even if it’s only 15 minutes in my diary or a blog post). This is not necessarily because I believe it’s indispensable for writing a novel, but because it makes me feel I have accomplished something on even the busiest, dreariest of days.

The even happier news is that I’ve gone back to my first novel. I found a whole treasure trove of handwritten and printed materials, notes, calendars, inspirational pictures, discarded chapters etc. So I have plenty to work with and am really excited about spending time with those characters once more and exploring their world.

This is the Balea Lake Chalet, up at 2000 metres in the Fagaras mountains. It plays a crucial role in my novel. From CabanaBaleaLac.ro

#YoungWriterAward: Shadow Panel Winner

And the Shadow Panel’s choice for the Winner of the Young Writer of the Year 2020 is:

Well, does that surprise you? I think it did us! And I’ll be honest with you: the fact that we were all based remotely probably had an impact on the decision. It meant that we couldn’t spend a cosy afternoon together in a bookshop or cafe somewhere in London and have an extensive chinwag and try to persuade each other that our personal favourite deserved to win.

So instead of silver-tongued influencing skills, we took the scientific approach and individually awarded points from 5 to 1 (5 being the favourite), then added up the totals. We ignored considerations such as who had won before, what genre it was, worthiness of subject matter and just went for gut feeling. Which one did we enjoy reading and which one did we find most memorable? It was a close race at the very top between three of the shortlisted titles, and then two pulled ahead, with our winner just nudging the win by a tiny margin. I think that shows the high standard of the shortlisted titles – or perhaps the diversity of views of the Shadow Panel!

You can see the official announcement of the Shadow Panel decision here. All I can say is that, even in its remote version, it has been an honour and a pleasure to be part of the Shadow Panel and share our bookish thoughts. Now we all have to wait until the 10th of December to see what the judges will pick!

November Reading and Film Summary

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: until the very last week, when I finally got a well-deserved holiday, the month of November has been all work and no play. And that shows in my reading: 11 books, virtually all of them external commitments.

Books

I had committed to reading the shortlist for the Young Writer of the Year Award, though, so those five books made up most of my month. I loved the two poetry books, Surge and Tongues of Fire, I was impressed and discomfited by Inferno, and I appreciated the talent of young writers Naoise Dolan and Marina Kemp, although these debut novels didn’t necessarily work that well for me.

I also tried to take part in the German Lit Month event, always one of the highlights of my year. But, although I reviewed Marlen Haushofer this month, I have to admit I read her back in October (together with Dear Oxbridge, which I also reviewed then), and I barely managed to sneak in one other German book, a reread of All Quiet on the Western Front. That book led me to a reread of another book about the First World War on a lesser-known front, so I tried to compare it with The Forest of the Hanged by Liviu Rebreanu.

For the Virtual Crime Book Club, I had the pleasure of discovering the zany but hugely enjoyable crime meets magic series by Ben Aaronovitch, Rivers of London. I was expecting an equally pleasurable experience from rereading Dune in tandem with my older son. I had read the trilogy when I was his age or even a little younger, but could remember next to nothing about it, and was looking forward to the new film release. Unfortunately, this time round, the plodding style distracted me, and neither my son nor I were driven to finish it. It will have to live on as a fond teenage memory, lost in the mists of time.

Crimson Snow is an overhang from last month, so ignore the pretty picture of it, but I have nearly finished Tombland by C.J. Sansom, now that I finally had time to devote to such a massive volume during my week off. Norwich is the one place in England that I am seriously considering as a possible future home (I also have a place in mind in Scotland and in Wales respectively), and knew very little about the Kett Rebellion, so the Shardlake series is always a great opportunity to educate myself as well as enjoy a good murder mystery. As a counterpoint to that detailed, long read, I played around with the short, fun novel set in Lausanne by Muriel Spark The Finishing School. It isn’t one of her best, and I found it difficult to believe that it was as recent as 2004, but her sarcasm is always welcome.

Films

My older son finally convinced me to join Letterboxd as a way to keep track of the films we watch (previously I was doing it on pieces of paper which invariably got lost all over the house). However, although he now follows me there, I am not allowed to follow his reviews, because he finds that ‘stalkerish’! Kids, eh? (OK, maybe my comment on his use of apostrophes might have had something to do with this!)

So I can now report with confidence that I have rewatched 5 films, watched 6 films that were new to me and one TV mini-series.

The mini-series was The Queen’s Gambit, which everyone else seems to be watching this month as well. It was a fine recreation of the period and does a good job for promoting chess, and I also liked the way it refreshes the ‘genius’ trope by making it a female genius. But I can’t help but feel it does rely quite heavily on cliches and feels overrated.

The rewatches I cannot be entirely objective about: there is too much sentimental memory attached to them. Yes, Rocky Horror Picture Show may be flawed, but it’s still one of the most fun films I’ve ever seen. Alien remains one of my favourite sci-fi films, both for its threatening atmosphere and for its smart, brave heroine. Tokyo Story and The Apartment are undoubtedly great works of art, while Minghella’s Talented Mr Ripley captures the attractions of expat lifestyle in Italy so well, even though I tend to lose interest after Tom murders Dickie.

The new films were: Inception (possibly one of the most interesting of the Nolan films), Ivan’s Childhood (an early Tarkovsky that already shows his obsessions and beautiful cinematography), I Vitelloni (an early Fellini which makes for a poignant social study) and L’Enfant d’en Haut (an early and depressing Ursula Meier, set partly in Verbier). The film which I liked least this month was Eric Rohmer’s A Good Marriage – it just didn’t seem to have the wit and humour of some of his other work and the main protagonist annoyed me with her obsessive pursuit of a man who is uninterested in her. The film I liked most was Grave of the Fireflies, although it tugged at every single heartstring I had. An anti-war film that does not have to hammer home its anti-war message, but just shows its impact on children.

Shortlist for Young Writer of the Year Award

You may have seen the announcement yesterday about the Shortlist for the Young Writer of the Year Award. Just in case you have missed it (and admittedly, there has been a lot of newsy stuff to push it off the front page), here it is in its full beauty:

I have to admit that I am quite excited about this shortlist. You’ll probably think that I have to say that if I am part of the Shadow Panel, but the truth is I haven’t read any of them, so am curious and very much looking forward to becoming better acquainted with them.

First of all, I always like to see some poetry on a shortlist, and this time we have two volumes of poetry, both of them debut collections. Tongues of Fire by Sean Hewitt has been described as elegiac, moving, perceptive and lifting the spirits with simple language and complex thought. Meanwhile, Surge by Jay Bernard is an exploration in poetry of the New Cross Fire of 1981, linking that tragic event with Grenfell and more generally with the experience of being black in the UK nowadays.

Catherine Cho’s book Inferno is non-fiction, a memoir of the author’s time in a psychiatric ward in America, following a severe case of post-partum psychosis. Motherhood is a topic that endlessly fascinates me, and this book seems to express our deepest, darkest fears about becoming possibly a bad mother and harming our child.

Naoise Dolan is a young Irish writer, so obviously she has been compared with Sally Rooney. This is a novel about a young Irish expat stuck in a dead-end job in Hong Kong, and it has been described as a milennial love story hovering between deadpan and sincerity. I am a sucker for expat stories and cross-cultural observations, so this should do the trick for me.

Finally, Marina Kemp’s Nightingale is also a story about displacement, and sounds rather more conventional, according to the blurb at least. A young nurse is running away from her past and ends up in a remote Languedoc village, looking after a bedridden old bully of a man.

Poetry, motherhood, expat community and France – what more could I wish for? The list is tailor-made for me! I also find it interesting that all of these are debuts. I wonder if this has always been the case with this prize, or if it just happened to be a particularly strong year for debuts in 2020. While I like to think that debut writers are encouraged, I sometimes wonder if it’s been even harder for young writers on their second book to see it disappear without trace in a year of delayed publication dates, closed libraries and bookshops, and no in-person literary festivals.

So, which of these are you most excited about reading and why? Can I tempt you to read along at least one or two of these?

October Reading and Cultural Summary

In the past two years, I’d grown accustomed to October being a rather lovely month, with half-term holidays in Romania with unforgettable road trips, a quieter time at work so more time to go to the theatre or the London Film Festival or simply read. Of course, this year we’ve stayed put and I’ve also been extremely busy at work, as we are hosting a major event in November. So it has felt like the Neverending Month and I can’t believe that the two reading challenges I took part in… were in October and not half a year ago!

Reading

10 books, 7 women writers, 1 non-fiction and only two crime!

I only managed to blog twice for the #1956Club (and I read the children’s books back in September, so that doesn’t count), but I really was smitten with Romain Gary’s Roots of Heaven, a book I will almost certainly want to reread at a more leisurely pace. For the #Fitzgerald2020 challenge, I not only read The Gates of Angels, as we had decided on Twitter, but went on to devour two more of her works.

The book that took up most of the month, although I ended up skim-reading parts of it, was Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which I thought very interesting in terms of structure, but a little uneven in terms of execution. I was also a bit disappointed by The Harpy by Megan Hunter, which demonstrated what an agent once rather cruelly said to me: ‘No one is interested in infidelity and the breakdown of other people’s marriages, they all sound the same!’

To my utter surprise, I only read two crime books this month: a light reprieve after an insanely busy day with short Christmassy crime stories from Crimson Snow, and the continuation of Hercule Poirot stories by Sophie Hannah on audiobook – which was not a resounding success for me (the audio experience, I mean, and this in turn may have coloured my experience of the book).

Finally, I tried to do some anticipatory reading for #GermanLitMonth, since I knew I’d be busy with the Young Writer shortlist as well in November. In the end, I posted the review of my only non-fiction read Dear Oxbridge earlier, because it felt more concerned about elucidating England for a German audience than the other way round. My second Marlen Haushofer book Die Tapetentür was a really good experience, something between a third person narrative and a diary, and I can’t wait to review it properly next week.

Literary Events

I may not have written about these events (not enough time), but I was really inspired by the online poetry masterclass run by Liz Berry (and hearing my fellow poets’ work), even though that feels like a lifetime ago (at the beginning of the month). It was also exhilarating hearing Tayari Jones speak at Cheltenham Literary Festival and listening to the readings of talented and charismatic poets such as Jericho Brown, Rachel Long, Raymond Antrobus & Safiya Sinclair at the Manchester Literary Festival.

This last week has been particularly busy with both work and events. I had the pleasure of hearing my dear friend from Geneva days, Carmen Bugan talk about what happened when she put herself into the mind of the oppressor when she started writing a novel. The annual Holden Lecture organised by the Friends of Senate House Library was entitled Bulgarian Tendencies: Stories from the Queer Library of Jonathan Cutbill and refers to the rich collection recently bequeathed by Jonathan Cutbill to the library. I was so intrigued by the talk given by Dr Justin Bengry that I immediately bought one of the books he mentioned, Despised and Rejected by Rose Allatani.

The Virtual Noir at the Bar Halloween Special was a sheer delight, featuring readers I’ve long admired such as Ian Rankin (reading a joyous and poignant Rebus monologue), Matt Wesolowski, CJ Tudor and introducing me to new crime and horror writers such as Max Seeck from Finland and Suzy Aspley. You can catch this edition and earlier ones of VNatB in the archives.

Speaking of Rankin, I was in such a tizzy about seeing him in conversation with Bogdan Teodorescu, the author I translated (and will be translating again). They made some interesting comparisons about how the police is viewed in Romania and Scotland/UK, and how there is no way you could write a long series about someone like Rebus in countries where cops are the bad guys. But I was also intrigued to discover that Ian’s first 8-9 crime novels were not huge successes and that he was seriously considering writing in other genres to make ends meet. You can still catch the conversation online on either the Facebook or the YouTube channel of the Romanian Cultural Institute in London.

Finally, I am proud that despite all the work pressures, I managed to carve out a little bit of time for writing and a poetry workshop run by Cecilia Knapp, Young People’s Laureate for London, at UCL on Friday. I really need to get those little creative cogs and wheels oiled and working again, and she was so lovely, enthusiastic and encouraging.

Films

I like the fact that my older son’s love of film has made me watch more films as well, and that I have someone with whom I can discuss them. To my relief, although he has a different taste to mine, he is not pretentious, so it was a pleasure to hear him criticise The Birth of a Nation and mock Eraserhead, which he watched by himself. We watched Selma together, which proved a useful addition to his curriculum for the Civil Rights Movement in the US. He liked The Social Network slightly more than I did, although we both agreed that Mark Zuckerberg always was and will always remain a complete and utter jerk.

I am not as keen on horror films as I used to be in my early teens, but Halloween oblige, so I attempted two. Both of them were more humorous than scary, although there was plenty of gore involved: the Japanese surreal schlocker House and the camp, witty vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, co-written and directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement from New Zealand. The film that proved far more of a horror – because it depicted so accurately the horrors of the pressures and ruthlessness of the business consultancy world I once belonged to – was The Ground Beneath My Feet, which also touched me because of its Viennese references and the tough depiction of mental illness and its effect on others.

Last but not least, I had a little nostalgia fest with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade. I knew of course that the action takes place mainly in Paris, but I’d forgotten that it started in Megève. Made me miss the mountains all the more – and the witty banter and suave charm of someone like Cary Grant in my life.

Young Writer of the Year Award: Shadow Panel

I am honoured and delighted to be part of the Shadow Panel for the Young Writer of the Year Award for 2020. Several of my blogging friends have been involved in this in the past, and I was always curious just how easy it is to come to an agreement about the winner.

However you may feel about age limitations on prizes (as someone who is *slightly* over the age of 35, I do feel the pain, I can assure you!), it is nevertheless one of the most exciting annual prizes for British and Irish writing, because it looks across a breadth of genres. It is an annual award of £5,000, co-sponsored by the Sunday Times and the University of Warwick, for an outstanding work of fiction, poetry, non fiction or anything else published in the previous year by a writer under 35.  The list of previous winners is spectacular – from Raymond Antrobus with his poetry collection last year (a personal favourite, who’s just going from strength to strength), Sally Rooney and Max Porter in recent years (after a hiatus between 2010-2015), and Zadie Smith, Sarah Waters, Helen Simpson and Robert MacFarlane in the past. 

You can find more information about the prize and this year’s judges (which include Kit de Waal and Tessa Hadley) on this website. The shortlist will be announced on the 1st of November and I cannot wait to start reading, debating and choosing a winner with my fellow shadow panelists.

And what an exciting bunch of people they are! I think you can take it as a given that we are all obsessed with books and reading, but here are some more details about my fellow panellists.

Aren’t we a lovely, thoughtful-looking group of people?
  • Ova Ceren is a software developer, book lover and collector, who is active both on her blog Excuse My Reading and on Instagram.
  • Charlie Edwards-Freshwater is known as The Book Boy on Instagram, he also works in book sales and is an aspiring novelist.
  • Hope Ndaba works as a publicity assistant in publishing, blogs as Black Book Bitch and is also active on Instagram.
  • Sissi Zhang is a London-based book blogger and is likewise an Bookstagrammer
  • (I think you can tell who is the dunce here, since I don’t have an active Instagram account).

Over the course of November, you can expect a review of each shortlisted title and I will link where possible to reviews from my fellow shadow judges. We will announce the Shadow Panel Winner on the 3rd of December and the Awards Ceremony and Final Winner will be announced (in an online event) on the 10th of December. Well, if that doesn’t brighten up your late autumn days…

Films and TV Watched in Early September

In order to spare you book-length blog posts, I will do my summaries of films watched every month in two sessions: halfway through the month and at the end of the month. The first part of September saw us going out to the cinema (once), transfixed by the saddest season of The Wire and also debating some classics of world cinema. We have now set up a ‘film bowl’, i.e. a mixing bowl in which we’ve put pieces of paper with all of the films we have available to watch (on DVD or on various TV streaming services) and we pick them out of the bowl at the weekend.

Film bowl waiting for the next pick.

Tenet  

I have to admit I went to see this one more as a test run for the cinema experience than for the film itself. The concept of time moving clockwise and anti-clockwise was interesting, but the film was too big, too loud (you couldn’t even hear important conversations above the explosive bangs) and too much of a cross between James Bond and The Night Manager to truly appeal. A lot was made of the locations, but the characters were just not given sufficient depth.

Memento

I was saying to my older son that Christopher Nolan had been much more creative on a smaller budget in his earlier work, Memento, and we had the opportunity to watch it on BBC2 a couple of nights ago. It certainly holds up in terms of clever storytelling, without feeling gimmicky, and still raises questions around the slipperiness of memory, small mistakes which can pass unnoticed but lead to much bigger mistakes, as well as lack of trust.

Fantastic Planet

Older son, the film buff, unearthed this one – an animated film for grown-ups from the 1970s, called La Planète sauvage in the original French, directed by Rene Laloux and co-written by Roland Topor. On a planet called Tgan, the gargantuan blue humanoid Draags keep the relatively tiny humans called Oms  as pets. However, some Oms remain undomesticated, live in the wilderness and rebel on occasion, so they are periodically slaughtered by the Draags. As you can imagine, this is a powerful allegory about slavery, exploitation and repression. The hand-drawn animation and inventive hybrid plants and animals on their island are like something out of Claude Ponti books, while the music is reminiscent of Pink Floyd. Truly psychedelic effect!

Fantastic Mr Fox

I have mixed feelings about Wes Anderson films – I love the meticulous attention to detail and that slightly old-fashioned, arts-and-crafts look and feel of his films, but sometimes it feels like this is done at the expense of the content. However, in this instance, form and function blend together well, Anderson even added what might be called an existential twist to it regarding family relationships and creating your own identity (via the rivalry between Mr and Mrs Fox’s son Ash and the cousin who comes to visit).

Schindler’s List

Although the boys were moved by the film, they were not as shaken by it as I was when I first saw it. I don’t know if this is because the subject is now well-known, or if the memory of the Second World War and the pogrom is starting to recede. OS went to Auschwitz on a class trip and had visited Schindler’s factory in Krakow, so he recognised some of the places, but complained that Amon Goeth was too much of a cartoon villain. I had to gently explain that he was, if anything, even worse than depicted in the film, according to eyewitness accounts.

Rashomon

This was a bit of a disappointment – both to my sons and to me (I hadn’t seen it since the age of twenty, when I was studying Japanese). My sons thought it lacked pacing and was overacted. I tried to explain about the stylised acting of the Kabuki theatre, as well as the silent era of cinema in the West. Kurosawa certainly seems to be saying:’ Why should I explain things in words when facial expressions or music or a shadow flitting across a face can say so much more?’ It does feel as if the people are all acting ‘at’ each other, which I guess is the point in a film that is so much about lies, interpretation and, once again, reliability of memory.

The Wire Season 4

This was the season I expected would appeal most to the boys, and indeed they laughed at some of the classroom scenes. I’m not sure if they felt the indictment of poor parenting as deeply as I did. But the emphasis on testing and stats instead of actual learning, the lack of budgets for schools and the political manoeuvring around education sounded all too familiar. And it was so sad to see most of the boys unable to escape from their social environment and almost preordained career paths as criminals.

Summary of August Reading and Films

Books

Overall, a good month of reading: 11 books, of which four were outstanding (Haushofer, Teffi, Kawakami and Melchor), three were very good (Puhlovski, Michele Roberts and Sarah Moss), two were entertaining and two were fine (just not as good as I expected). Unsurprisingly, with it being Women in Translation Month, I read mostly women, Mark Billingham being the sole male writer sneaking in because of the Virtual Crime Book Club.

If you include the Spanish Literature Challenge reads from July and the Tokarczuk which I read in July but did not get to review until August, I’ve reviewed a total of nine books for #WITMonth and they represent a nice diversity of nationalities.

  1. Liliana Colanzi – Bolivia
  2. Margarita Garcia Robayo – Colombia
  3. Lina Meruane – Chile
  4. Olga Tokarczuk – Poland
  5. Marlen Haushofer – Austria
  6. Teffi – Russia
  7. Marina Šur Puhlovski – Croatia
  8. Mieko Kawakami – Japan
  9. Fernanda Melchor – Mexico

I also had the best experience that can happen to a book blogger, who can sometimes feel they are writing in the dark, spending all their money buying books, then hours on writing fair reviews, only to discover that a handful of people read them. [Always the same handful, usually, and I am very grateful to my constant readers!] But then… Mieko Kawakami actually read and retweeted my review and thanked me for it: ‘Thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing such an insightful, courageous and wonderful review. I am also touched to know that you wrote it in time for my birthday’. I think that will keep me going for another few years in terms of reviewing motivation, for sure!

In between reading and reviewing these more demanding books (ostensibly – I found most of them on the whole pleasant and easy to read), I had some down time with the non-fiction of Michèle Roberts in Negative Capability, a gentle, contemplative and very evocative book about learning to live with uncertainty and even failure, while still enjoying life, and the hilariously accurate and often poignant observation of people on holiday in Summerwater by Sarah Moss (reviews to follow).

Films

I mentioned some of the films I saw in early August, before the boys joined me for my share of the holidays. Since their return, I have watched some of their film choices, as well as mine. Let’s see if you can spot which is which!

  1. Christian Petzold: Barbara (Germany) – captures the chill factor and claustrophobia of East Germany when the Stasi have their eyes on you
  2. Alejandra Márquez Abella: The Good Girls (Mexico) – what to do when the economy of your country is in meltdown, your currency worthless and you still have to keep up appearances – the original ladies who lunch, viewed with biting satire but also some compassion
  3. Almodovar: Live Flesh (Spain) – I love my early (1980s-90s) Almodovar – complex female characters, good-looking young men, and always elements of the past creeping in and tainting the present
  4. Tarantino: Django Unchained (US) – was not expecting this Western approach to the story of slavery (and yes, he does rather glorify violence, but that is Tarantino every single time)
  5. Alejandro G. Iñárritu: Birdman (US/Mexico) – the long, long single shots worked a treat (only found out afterwards how difficult they were for actors and crew to get right) and Michael Keaton, with his own Batman background, was the perfect actor for this part

I’ve just noticed that I’ve had quite a good dose of Mexico this month in both books and films!

Plans for next month – well, what’s even the point of planning, because I don’t seem to stick to any of my plans?

 

 

 

 

Film Watching in July

I haven’t gone quite as crazy watching films nearly every day in July, as I did in the previous few months, mainly because I find my eyes (and head and back) are really fed up of watching screens, regardless of size and position. So I prefer to collapse in bed and read in the evening. However, most of the films I’ve watched have been directed by women. And now that I look back, I notice the vast majority are French. Also, not sure if it proves anything, but quite a number of women film-makers on this list started out as actresses.

Tales of the Unexpected:

Ida Lupino: The Hitchhiker – such a minimalist, brutal noir film, it certainly puts an end to any notion that women directors are all fluffy and domestic. It is a relentless road trip to hell through a parched landscape, with no shelter, and a cast of just three men, all wonderfully expressive (and sinister) actors. A wonderful sense of menace looms over the entire film, although the ending is a little bit too neat and rushed.

Michaela Coel: I May Destroy You – tough to watch at times, but how could it not be, when it deals with the consequences of sexual assault? Nevertheless, it manages to be funny, poignant and militant as well. The main character Arabella is both endearing and infuriating, and it’s very clever that Coel doesn’t make her too likeable – but she does NOT deserve what happens to her. There are so many layers to the story as well: what does constitute rape and assault? who are our real friends and what are the boundaries of friendship? and other weighty themes such as betrayal and forgiveness, race relations, social media and trolling.  And it shows black people having fun as well as suffering, which is so rare… As for that ending… a wonderful surprise!

Coming of Age:

Celine Sciamma: Girlhood (Bande de filles)  –  I cannot believe that I’d forgotten that I’d seen this film when it first came out in France. As soon as I saw those endless concrete footbridges between the blocks of flats, it all came flooding back. This is the feminine version of La Haine, a portrait of black girls living in the banlieues and trying to make the most of their short period of bloom before life, misogynistic men and hopelessness take over. While I cannot condone their shoplifting and bullying, there are real moments of tenderness and ‘rire fou’ (crazy laughter) between the girls (all newcomers to acting at the time) and of course that unforgettable scene of dancing and lipsynching to Rihanna.

Joanna Hogg: The Souvenir – almost the polar opposite of Sciamma’s film, this shows pretentious film students and a very genteel, soft-spoken, well-heeled environment. And yet the well-meaning but naive girl at the centre of the story is as open to emotional abuse as the poor banlieue girls. And, although she has the safety net of her family, she doesn’t have that sense of solidarity and loyalty that the Sciamma girls display.

Midlife reinvention:

Claire Denis: Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur) – Juliette Binoche making stupid choices with lots of creepy men, in an attempt to ward off loneliness and the feeling of ageing, would be my capsule summary of this film. There was little joy or freedom apparent in this film – it smacked of desperation.

Mia Hansen-Love: Things to Come (L’Avenir) – Same theme, nearly: a middle-aged philosophy professor sees her world come crashing down: a husband who suddenly announces he’s having an affair and is moving out, a difficult mother who needs constant care, a cat she inherits although she has an allergy, being turned down by publishers because her books are no longer considered ‘marketable’, being considered old-fashioned by her former pupils. And yet the character played by Isabelle Huppert has the inner strength to keep going and even enjoys her freedom and reaches some form of contentment.

Men behaving badly:

Chantal Akerman: Almayer’s Folly – based on Joseph Conrad’s first novel but set in an unspecified post WW2 time period, this is the story of a white man dreaming of making a fortune in the East, yet ending up penniless in a house overgrown by vegetation, in the middle of a river. He looks down on the natives, although he has a mixed-race daughter. He refuses to admit that his daughter doesn’t fit in the white people’s world and is doomed to eternal disappointment and being wrong about everything. A slow-moving film, with very long shots throughout, bogging you down like the swampland in which he lives.

Eléonore Pourriat: I Am Not an Easy Man (Je ne suis pas un homme facile) – a rom-com with role reversals. The very macho philanderer Damien suffers a major concussion and wakes up in a parallel universe where women are the dominant sex, men have to dress to please them, are mostly in subservient roles and are discriminated against. A very clever and funny premise to demonstrate the absurdity of the expectations we have of women, but I did feel the romance overpowered the satire. I’d have liked to see more of the role reversal in the workplace, too. If you want to see the original 10 minute mini-film made by the same director (which let men experience what life is like for women), you can watch Majorité opprimée on YouTube: https://youtu.be/kpfaza-Mw4I