September Reading and Watching Summary

September used to be a rather lovely month in my calendar, as I always enjoyed the still warm but not excessively hot days and the return to school fervour. But for the past two years, it has not been a happy occasion. School in Covid times has proved an anxious and challenging enterprise, while both last year and this year, September brought rather devastating personal losses: the death of Barney (our gentleman cat) in 2020 and of my dear friend Csaba in 2021.

Reading

So I have been once again mostly in search of easy, comforting reading, and the two books I was reading for two different book clubs were not quite hitting the spot. Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, which I read for the Virtual Crime Book Club, is rather gruelling in its subject matter, a car crash you can foresee but not quite stop. Meanwhile, Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees, which I read for London Reads the World Book Club (although unfortunately, I had to pull out of the meeting at short notice) is about life in the ‘grey zone’ between two warring factions in the Donbass region of the Ukraine. Although there is nothing too graphic or horrible in the novel, there is an unsettling, ever-present underlying rumble of threat of death, torture, fighting.

So it was with a real sense of relief that I turned to a rather uncharacteristic read for me: Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, which I understand was originally intended to be a four-book series, but then had a fifth volume added to it much later. This went down so well (as you’ll have seen from my recent review) that I have now embarked upon the Romanian equivalent of the nostalgic family saga: the Medeleni trilogy (often published as four volumes, because the last book is very long). This one takes place just before and after the First World War, rather than the Second, and was written much closer in time to the events described in the book (he wrote the entire series in record time 1925-27). Yet it too describes a vanished world in minute and loving detail. I am tempted to continue rereading all the volumes and to write a thorough review and comparison.

Watching

I’ve been in the mood for less dark and gruesome films as well, so there have been quite a few with deadpan humour and slightly surreal experiences, such as the Icelandic film about an escalation of neighbourly conflict Under the Tree, or the challenges of young love on holiday in All Hands on Deck (filmed in my beloved Rhone-Alpes), the irresistible Lea Seydoux and Tahar Rahim doing their best to seem utterly unglamorous in the tale of life of nuclear plant workers in Grand Central, the impressive Japanese animation Akira, which looks as fresh as if it had been created yesterday, not back in 1988, and my first acquaintance with a Hal Hartley film, with its fantastic and slightly ridiculous dialogue, Amateur. I also had a tender moment with Ghibli Studios’ Whisper of the Heart but failed to impress the boys with Tarkovsky’s Solaris.

Whimsical scene from Whisper of the Heart

Going Out

Although I have missed theatres and live music performances so, so much, I am less and less comfortable about going out, because it appears that all social distancing or other safety measures have been dropped, and people are closely packed together in public transport or at cultural venues. I ventured to the Royal Albert Hall to see the Classic FM Live concert with my older son (who is now nearly as keen on classical music as I am), as our last ‘treat’ before he went off to university. I assumed it would be a good experience, as they sent several emails beforehand about the Covid-secure measures they were taking, that they recommended wearing masks and that we would have to bring either a proof of vaccination or negative test to be allowed into the venue. Imagine my surprise and discontent when I discovered that nobody checked us at all at the entrance, that no one worse a facemask in the auditorium, and that there were huge queues of people jostling into each other at very close quarters both for the toilets and the bar. It felt like hypochondria, but I felt quite unwell for several days after this, and actually had to do a PCR test to make sure I hadn’t fallen ill.

Translation and Other Literary Pursuits

Since I wasn’t quite ready to go out, I brought the events to me – fortunately, there are still lots of literary and other events being livestreamed. I attended a workshop on writing for the theatre run by the Young People’s London Poet Laureate Cecilia Knapp, based around her play Losing the Night, which was going to be performed and toured starting in March 2020. I also attended several of the Noirwich events: David Peace talking about the final volume in his Tokyo trilogy, Megan Abbott speaking about the current enthusiasm for true crime shows, as well as Maryla Szymiczkowa – the pen name of charismatic Polish crime writing duo, Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczynski and their translator Antonia Lloyd Jones, about their semi-cosy feminist historical crime fiction set in late 19th century Krakow. I have recently resubscribed to the Asymptote Book Club and attended a Q&A with the author and translator of the August book club title, Jonas Eika’s After the Sun, transl. Sherilyn Nicolette Hellberg.

I also had the novel experience of being interviewed together with Romanian author Bogdan Hrib about the recently published novel Resilience by Dr Noir (aka Jacky Collins). I don’t think I am cut out for being filmed on Zoom, as I move around too much, nod and smile inappropriately and constantly, but it was great fun having to think carefully about the work of translation and to justify some of the choices I made.

I’m also very excited about another translation-related work I will be involved in this year. The Stephen Spender Trust is a champion of multilingual poetry and storytelling, and they run an annual programme for creative translations in schools. I will be working together with a primary school to encourage children to have a go at translating seasonal and other poems from Romanian. I briefly worked as a language teacher in primary school and also helped out regularly at my sons’ schools when they were small, so it will be lovely to go back into that environment and feed children’s curiosity about other cultures before they grow too old or jaded to care.

Last but not least, as part of the events surrounding International Translation Day (30th of September, the Feast of St Jerome, patron saint of translators, because he translated the Bible into Latin, although this particular event took place on the 28th), I had the pleasure of seeing one of my fellow ‘classmates’ from the BCLT Summer School, Sebastián Gutiérrez, among the three translators talking about the power of theatre and translation for exploring identity and equality.

Learning to Go Out Again

After a particularly fraught and busy period at work, I had been looking forward to this week of annual leave. I was going to do so much (Cardiff, writing, day trips to London, editing translations, reviewing, major cleaning blitzes around the house) – but I should have realised that all my poor battered body and brain wanted to do was relax.

My older son vetoed Cardiff last weekend, because he wanted to watch the Euros Final in England rather than Wales. I’d been having second thoughts about travelling anyway, with the rising cases of Covid and the possibility of being pinged about going into self-isolation (which happened to a friend of mine when she went away for a mini-writing retreat in Eastbourne the week before). So we cancelled the hotel and instead wandered a little closer to home. Savill Gardens in Windsor Great Park no longer had the glorious rhododendrons, but there was still plenty to admire there.

On Wednesday we braved a trip to London – the first time I’ve been into town since 16th March 2020. It felt like a good time to go, before the breakdown of any and all restrictions on 19th July. Needless to say, GWR lived up to my bad impression of it: there was no accurate or up-todate information about how busy the trains were, nor about changing trains and platforms. I booked tickets and was told I had to reserve seats for part of the journey, which I initially thought was reassuring. If you reserve seats, you at least know that it’s not going to be crowded, right? Wrong! Turns out that every single seat had been sold – so there was no social distancing. Although on some of the trains there were big signs saying not to sit facing other passengers, we had to sit facing other passengers, including those who did not wear masks.

We went to visit the newly-opened Japan House on Kensington High Street, so we could walk there from Paddington via Kensington Gardens. In the morning, the park was quite quiet, partly because of the cloud cover. In the afternoon, however, when the sun came out, it was a typical London summer day: dog walkers, sports activities, children playing. The streets and shops were busy too (perhaps not like Oxford Street in the pre-Christmas frenzy, but busy enough). I struggled to see what people were complaining about in terms of restrictions or having their personal liberties curtailed.

The Japan House itself was slightly disappointing – or perhaps our expectations for it had been too high. According to the website, it is one of only three such centres around the world, set over three floors, housing exhibitions, a library, a restaurant and all sorts of other things. You had to book in advance for the library, but we ended up having the whole place to ourselves, which was just as well, since it was just one small room: interesting books, but simply not enough of them (and not enough variety – mostly design or visual arts). The ground floor exhibition/shop was beautiful, but a bit too heavily curated, upmarket and expensive. The afternoon tea we had at the restaurant was delicious, but expensive and not very filling (especially with two teenage boys – they had to buy sandwiches to eat immediately before and after).

Of course, for a Japanophile such as myself, it was still very interesting and I discovered some fascinating historical Japanese photos. But do not plan to spend the whole day there, as we thought we would. There simply isn’t enough to do and the chairs in the library are not that comfortable. Still, it was not a wasted afternoon, because we managed to do some clothes shopping, which is nearly impossible to do in our town, which has only a smallish M&S and a SportsDirect. We did not go into any bookshops, although I later found out there is a Waterstone’s a little further away on High Street Kensington.

Sunset over Hammersmith Bridge.

The very next day, I ventured into London again, this time in a friend’s car to the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, to see Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. I don’t think I was too popular with my friend for choosing such a pared-down, depressing play which feels very apposite for the loneliness of lockdown. But I rather enjoyed its bleakness, and the multitude of ways in which it could be interpreted: the humiliation of old age and impotence or amnesia, the burden of caring responsibilities, the grinding down of personality in a long and not very happy marriage, the need to be seen and appreciated.

Who wouldn’t want to run on such a beautiful path?

Most of the rest of my holiday was relatively humdrum. I slept nearly eight hours most days (a record for me), read a lot of undemanding books (which is not to say badly-written – just not heavy topics), only logged onto my work email once to check if I still needed to help out a colleague with a Zoom call. I had quite a bit of school and car-related admin to do, ordered a new sofa, gave the porch a thorough clean and even went to the gym and for a run. I also tried not to get angry about news and politics and news, about not losing a gramme of weight in spite of my best efforts to eat healthily and follow an intermittent fasting programme. I have watched just two films this week, mostly because my son’s laptop (which we connect to the TV to watch things) is on its dying legs: The Battle of Algiers, a powerful documentary-style Italian film about French colonialism and the war in Algeria, and Midsommar, about which I might write a whole blog post re: the misappropriation and misinterpretation of religious cults and folklore.

Instead of feeling guilty about ‘vegetating’, I call this a ‘fallow field’ period, which, as all farmers know, is so necessary to improve the yield of future crops. As part of my ‘three field rotation’ programme, next week I start the BCLT translation summer school, after which I probably will require another week of annual leave to recover. There is no doubt that I would rather be doing that than the day job (aka ‘main crop’), though!

June Summary

June is typically a joyous month in my household: two birthdays and a nameday, as well as Midsummer Day to celebrate; summer plans to be hatched; end of school and exams beckoning. This year has been slightly different. The boys have been on holiday but the older one has started a summer job, while the younger one has had induction days for Sixth Form College (partly online) and homework assignments, while I have been busier than ever at work. The weather has been rather changeable, making me almost want to switch the heating back on. Nevertheless, we had a once-in-a-lifetime birthday treat of high tea at Oakley Court Hotel, where the Rocky Horror Picture Show was filmed.

We were lucky with the weather, too: it was the one day of the week when there was no rain or gusty wind.

Reading:

I have read six of my 20 Books of Summer, and a total of 10 books this month. June has been the month of the most recent acquisitions on my Kindle, so the 20 Books of Summer choices are recent releases and include a Japanese thriller and a satire about social media, two books with tenuous links to Romania and two books that capture the millenial experience in Britain in the past few years. I also read a few bonus books linked to these: Mamie Luger by Benoit Philippon, which is certainly unlike anything else I have read before, a chilling story about a child murderer and rehabilitation by Fiona Cummins: When I was Ten, and Lucy Caldwell’s second collection of short stories. For the Virtual Crime Book Club, I had a good time reading Tom Bradby’s Secret Service, which had the interesting (and not all that implausible nowadays) premise that the future PM of the United Kingdom might be a Russian agent.

Films and TV:

Although most of the month has been given over to football watching with my older son – I remember bonding with my father over sports and enjoy doing so with him, even if I am not normally a huge football fan – I have also managed to watch some films and TV series.

The Outsiders was the kind of film I would have loved to watch in my teens and it was fun to see all of the child actors who then went on to become household names, but it was a little too sentimental for my taste (said the person who cries every time she watches West Side Story).

Sound of Metal was a tour de force of acting by Riz Ahmed and the first half was particularly interesting in his denial and fight against identifying with the deaf community, but the film then lost its way a little in the second half.

Billy Liar was every bit as funny, irreverant and poignant as I remembered it, with Tom Courtenay doing an excellent job of appearing at once infuriating and vulnerable.

It was the first time I watched Nightcrawler and I was chilled not just by the subject matter but by the charmingly psychopathic way in which Jake Gyllenhaal spouts inspirational slogans from self-help books – he is capitalism personified, the shameless go-getter we’ve been told the world (or is that just America?) needs.

Days of the Bagnold Summer was rather sweet and very relatable: a single mother having to spend the summer with her grumpy teenager, who had wanted to go and visit his remarried father in Florida. There was nothing grandiose or startling about the film, just a tender and very realistic observation of the mother/son relationship, which I am naturally rather partial to.

If you like sinister, not fully explainable TV series, then I can really recommend the Icelandic quasi-supernatural thriller Katla on Netflix. It has echoes of the French series The Returned, mixed with small-town Icelandic village feel of a Ragnar Jonasson novel The Katla volcano near the South Iceland settlement of Vik has been spewing ash for over a year and most of the inhabitants have been evacuated, but there are some foolhardy people who are staying on there. Then suddenly some strange clones or dead people reappear from underneath the glacier and turns their lives upside down. I found this far better paced and not as far-fetched or graphic as Fortitude. The characters are a lot more relatable and well acted throughout, although they might not have the big names of Fortitude. And the landscapes are just beautifully photographed throughout. You should also know that one of the writers on the show is none other than Icelandic writer Lilja Sigurðardóttir. I’m not a box set binging kind of person, but I watched all eight episodes in just 2-3 days (alongside the football matches).

May 2021 Reading and Watching

Restrictions might be easing here in the UK, but my confidence in this government is so ‘high’ that I prefer to watch and wait, rather than rush out to enjoy museums and theatres, although I have missed them very much indeed. So the summary this month continues to be of books, films and TV series, with a handful of online literary events too.

Books

May’s reading was going to be dedicated to Arabic literature, and in particular books from Egypt and Lebanon. Alas, only four of the ten books I read fulfilled that criteria, but I really enjoyed all of them. There was a historical view of Cairo and a very contemporary one. The Civil War in Lebanon and its aftermath were treated in equally poignant fashion but very different styles by Elias Khoury and Hoda Barakat.

The other book I had on my May reading plan because I’d been asked to review it was The Wife Who Wasn’t, a rollicking saga of East Meets West.

However, all the other books were examples of me giving in to temptation once the libraries reopened for browsing. I always enjoy Nicola Upson‘s crime series featuring the author Josephine Tey and this latest one is set on St Michael’s Mount at Christmas (I still have to visit both the English and the French version of this location). I read Flynn Berry‘s first book and liked it well enough to have a look at her second one A Double Life, which is one of those ‘what if’ stories about the Lord Lucan case and how his daughter might feel about the whole situation. Steph Cha‘s Follow Her Home is a very deliberate Chandleresque recreation of LA, albeit set in the present-day and with a mighty Korean-American female main protagonist.

I usually avoid books with all the buzz, and certainly Luster by Raven Leilani has been receiving a lot of that, having been shortlisted for both the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Dylan Thomas Prize in the UK and has won several awards in the author’s home country the United States. Also, I wasn’t sure I could bear yet another so-called millenial novel about damaged, self-destructive young women and their unsatisfactory relationships with men (or men and women). But there it was beckoning to me on top of a book display at the library. After a fireworks of a start, which made me gasp and admire nearly every sentence, I thought it lost its way a little in the middle. It’s about a vulnerable young woman who might have a sharp wit when she talks directly to the reader, but nevertheless never quite loses her desire to be seen, touched and loved. Nevertheless, I found it less cold and manipulative than Sally Rooney’s Conversation with Friends (no, I haven’t read Normal People), funnier than Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times and more consistent and fierce than The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris. So, if you liked any of those, you are almost certain to like this one, which I feel is better than all three. There are parallels with Fleabag, but this is a Fleabag with the burden of race and no safety net of a rich family to fall back on. Perhaps Michaela Coel’s I Will Destroy You comes closest to capturing that flawed, but very striking and unique narrative voice.

Here is a description of publisher’s tickbox exercise of providing diverse reading, which made me roar with laughter:

… a slave narrative about a mixed-race house girl fighting for a piece of her father’s estate; a slave narrative about a runaway’s friendship with the white schoolteacher who selflessly teaches her how to read; a slave narrative about a tragic mulatto who raises the dead with her magic chitlin pies; a domestic drama about a black maid who, like Schrödinger’s cat, is both alive and dead, an unseen, nurturing presence who exists only within the bounds of her employer’s four walls; an ‘urban’ romance wherever everybody dies by gang violence; and a book about a Cantonese restaurant, which may or may not have been written by a white woman from Utah, whose descriptions of her characters rely primarily on rice-based foods.

The most memorable book I read this month was probably The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (which I nicked off my younger son’s shelf), but I also finally got to review one of my favourites from last month, namely Polly Barton‘s Fifty Sounds, about which I could have written a super-long essay. And I also reread and reviewed To the Lighthouse, which was just wondrous. As a way to forget what a chore daily cooking has become since the first lockdown, I also wrote a post about my favourite cookery books.

I’ll be embarking on the 20 Books of Summer for the next three months, and I have to admit I’m already tempted to make some drastic changes to my original plan. For example, would it not be more helpful to publishers posting their books on Netgalley if I actually read and reviewed the most recent ones, rather than the oldest ones? So I might dedicate June to the most recent, then July to my oldest and leave August for Women in Translation (admittedly, four-five of my Women in Translation choices are very recent ones anyway). The most recent list includes Mieko Kawakami (also featured in the August list), so I might swap her out for someone else in June, but a choice of ten to choose 6-7 from might look like this:

Films and TV

I seem to have found my film-watching mojo again. I’ve watched nine films and one TV mini-series this month, a mix of film classics and sheer escapism.

  • Andrei Rublev: yes, it can take a while to get to the point, but it’s still a visually stunning and inventive commentary on the role of the artist
  • Hunger: a visceral experience of a slice of recent history that I knew all too little about, although I had heard, of course, of Bobby Sands
  • When Harry Met Sally: loved it when I was young, have become a curmudgeon who no longer trusts the love story, even if it has its witty moments
  • Animal Farm: not just about the Soviet system – remains as relevant as the day it was made (and Boxer’s fate will forever make me cry)
  • Sweet Bean: charming but also thoughtful film about how we treat outsiders – perhaps veers a little into the sentimental
  • Touchez pas au Grisbi: now I see where Jean-Pierre Melville and Scorsese got their inspiration from – a worldweary performative tour de force from Jean Gabin, aging gangsters treating women badly, but with a hostage/loot exchange scene which almost made me forget to breathe
  • The Chess Players: The country’s burning and these two men are playing chess – a powerful indictment of both local lords and kings, as well as the British rule in India
  • The Chalet (French TV series): filmed in Rhone-Alpes, around Chamonix and Annecy, so obviously a winner in my heart, this was essentially a slasher-movie over 6 episodes, full of good-looking young people and grumpy older or depressed older people.
  • Rocco and His Brothers: Who can resist a young Alain Delon in this story of migration, urbanisation and brotherly rivalry?
  • The Boys from Fengkuei: Taiwanese film about a bunch of rather roguish young men moving to the city, very similar in content and form to Rocco and His Brothers (they actually watch this very film in the cinema at one point)

Literary Events

After a rather quiet start to the year, May has been a very busy (and expensive) month, full of events and courses (and appliances and dentists). Here is what I did in chronological order:

International Booker Prize: The Shortlisted Translators in Conversation – so fascinating to hear translators talk about the challenges of translating their very different books – especially enjoyed Sasha Dugdale talking about how nervous she felt about translating prose, because she usually translates poetry (I think most people feel it’s harder the other way round)

Produce an irresistible plot in a weekend with Shelley Weiner, Guardian Masterclasses – such an encouraging tutor, and lots of exciting ideas to stimulate the creative juices

Poet’s Cafe – took part in the open mic session, as well as heard Oliver Comins read from his poems old and new

Marlen Haushofer in Context, Institute of Modern Languages Research, SAS – only managed to attend one session, comparing The Wall with Seethaler’s A Whole Life, but I caught up with some of the recorded sessions afterwards

Reading in Translation Conference, University College Cork – again, only managed to listen to one session, the book bloggers, but will catch up with recordings

Olivier Norek and Joseph Knox in conversation with Ayo Onatade about noir fiction, at the French Institute in London, with bilingual readings from their novels

Raven Leilani – Hay Festival – such a thoughtful, articulate and gentle young woman, very impressive and very different from Edie in the novel. I thought it was itneresting that she said she was almost envious of Edie’s freedom, her giving herself entirely over to her impulses (her Id), even though it’s an extremely costly way of going about things. Leilani’s style is so clever, precise and rich, at the level of each sentence and paragraph, that I was curious how many drafts she writes to get that depth. It turns out she cannot move on until she has untangled every sentence, rewriting it at least three or four times, so she is a slow writer (and wishes she could be different).

Deborah Levy – Hay Festival – I’ve loved the previous two books in her ‘living autobiography’ trilogy and her third one Real Estate sounds just my cup of tea, especially when she talked about all the ‘unreal estate’ that live in our heads, all the houses we imagine we could be happy in, the future state that we can never achieve. She also talked about how she learnt to live with ambiguity and contradictory thoughts, and that the whole idea behind the trilogy was about figuring out why an ordinary life is worth examining and writing about.

Caleb Azumah Nelson – Hay Festival – I’ve got his debut novel Open Water on my TBR list (possibly for my June Netgalley binge) and am even more eager to read it after hearing him talk so modestly and passionately about writing from his emotions and being willing to make himself vulnerable (and how south-east London is where his world begins and ends).

Writing and translation

It has been quite an expensive month in terms of submissions to literary magazines and competitions. Not just poems and flash fiction, but I also finally got my act together and sent off the opening chapters and a synopsis of my Romania novel (as opposed to my Switzerland novel). I was also delighted to be accepted onto the BCLT Summer School and can only afford it because it’s virtual this year. I’ll be attending the Multilingual Drama section and am planning to go with Mihail Sebastian’s play The Holiday Game, which I mentioned last month.

Theatre Review: Grimm Tales for Fragile Times and Broken People

I discovered Creation Theatre’s innovative shows a couple of years ago and have always hugely enjoyed them. In fact, their performance of The Time Machine at the London Library was the last live theatre I attended in February 2020.

I wasn’t sure how their brand of immersive theatre would work in the virtual environment – and the truth is, it is a very different beast. It’s not the kind of online show where the audience is expected to interact, to type something in or read something out loud, like the very experimental show I saw back in April/May 2020 courtesy of New Diorama Theatre. Instead, it was recommended that we dim the lights, light a candle and sit back to watch and listen (preferably without any young children).

Production images: Creation Theatre.

Although this was an adaptation of the Grimm brothers’ stories, it was much closer in spirit to the original, often quite horrific folk tales rather than the sanitised fairy tale versions we habitually offer to children. Each of the five stories was chosen because of its links and resonance with the current lockdown situation. Death, mental and physical cruelty, a sense of being imprisoned, all make their appearance. Two of the stories are very well-known: ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ (although in a modern, cynical retelling), and ‘Hansel and Gretel’. But ‘Malinka or the Juniper Tree’, ‘The Moon’ and ‘The Physician and Godfather Death’ will be far less familiar to most readers.

Each story is told by a different narrator/actor, all extravagantly costumed and made up, yet with nowhere to go. Literally hiding in a box or a dark room. The extreme close-up on their faces at times, the missing or rotten teeth, the shadows falling on their excessive make-up added to the sense of creepiness. The stories are left unfinished and then we move onto the next, in a pattern that I initially thought was like Chinese boxes, but which was actually more like a braid. Themes disappear and reappear, sometimes just a few sentences spoken by each actor, woven into something that is bigger than the mere individual strands. Some of the sound effects were a bit overpowering at times, which made one or two of the actors harder to understand.

Production images: Creation Theatre.

Yet the show managed to capture the immediacy and excitement of sitting by the camp fire, scaring each other silly with ghost stories, taking us back to our ancestral love of storytelling. Perhaps a bit gimmicky, yet it all seems to come together at the end in a rather moving candlelit finale and the message of ‘You are not alone in the wild woods.’

Grimm Tales is available now on-demand from the Creation Theatre website until the 13th of March.

Theatre Review: #Typical by Ryan Calais Cameron

BY RYAN CALAIS CAMERON
DIRECTED BY ANASTASIA OSEI-KUFFOUR
STARRING RICHARD BLACKWOOD

A powerful exploration of racism and how British society stereotypes Black masculinity. I have to admit that I went into this (online) show without knowing the story of Christopher Alder, but it is a heartbreaking example of the institutional racism and police brutality which recent events and Black Lives Matter have brought to the fore.

In 1998, Christopher Alder, a former British army paratrooper, was injured during a fight outside of a night club in Hull and taken to hospital for treatment to a head injury. He was arrested by two police officers for a breach of the peace after apparently becoming aggressive and taken to the police station. CCTV footage from the custody suite shows him being dragged in by officers and left lying face down on the floor, motionless, with his trousers around his ankles. Officers stand around laughing while he lies there, dying, for 10 minutes. A post-mortem failed to establish the cause of Christopher’s death, but a later inquest returned a verdict of ‘unlawful killing’. Five Humberside police officers were put on trial for the manslaughter of Christopher, but the case later collapsed, and all officers were cleared. In 2011, the Government publicly apologised for breaching Christopher’s right to life, right not to be tortured or treated inhumanely, and the right not to be discriminated against.

Photo credit: Franklyn Rogers, from Soho Theatre.

This roughly one-hour one-man show is a real tour-de-force for Richard Blackwood, who manages to convincingly portray both Christopher himself and the characters he encounters over the course of his fateful last evening against a very plain, minimalistic decor. The story is told through music, lighting and Blackwood’s face and body, which seem to effortlessly shapeshift from middle-aged, slightly overweight, to tall and debonair, to somewhat shy and awkward, from aggressive punter in a nightclub to drunk girl on a night out.

The show starts with the oldest cliché in the book: a man waking up and getting ready to go out, while musing about his circumstances. And yet, in this context, the cliché works – because we find out this is a man like any other, his race doesn’t matter at all. At least not while he is at home. We discover he is middle-aged, divorced, looking for a career change, looking forward to spending time with his two boys the next weekend, feeling rather lonely, starting to worry about aging, not doing too great a job of looking after himself with food and exercise. He sounds like so many people we know, and yet completely himself and unique at the same time, with the rhythm and lilt of his delivery. There is wit and self-deprecation in there a-plenty, as well as word associations and clever one-liners, such as ‘I scare myself half to life’ when looking in the mirror, or ‘Marriage is the process of finding out the type of man your wife prefers to you’. Not knowing what to expect, I almost had the feeling I was watching a comedy show – and that innocence is perhaps the best attitude to have when sitting down to watch this show, because what follows comes as a complete shock.

Christopher goes out with his friends, commenting that they are ‘just old men talking about old shit’. Even though his friends seem to have sunk into domesticity and blandness, he is nevertheless determined to enjoy himself. As he queues to get into the nightclub, as he dances inside, as he chats up a girl, he encounters numerous micro-aggressions, which end up not being all that micro. Every time, he talks himself down from losing his temper and reacting violently. He keeps repeating: ‘They need me to be the bad guy. I know the cost. Leave me alone.’

The scenes at the hospital and the police station are brutal but incredibly effective. They are also, mercifully, much shorter than the humorous scenes establishing the character in the first half, or the growing discomfort we experience as witnesses to both the overt and hidden discrimination he experiences as he goes about a very normal Saturday evening in a city centre somewhere in England. There is a crescendo of abuse, but above all there is a complete unwillingness to listen or to see the person in front of them as anything other than the stereotype of aggressive black guy. Holding his hand to his head wound, Christopher keeps repeating: ‘I am the victim here. I just want to be heard. Nobody’s hearing me.’ The final scenes, with the repetition of the words ‘I can’t breathe’ and the shaky camerawork, have an added poignancy after the death of George Floyd. Blackwood’s face fills the whole screen and forces us to look into his eyes. It is impossible to look away, it is impossible to remain unmoved.

First performed in 2019 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, before transferring to Soho Theatre for a sell-out run, this exciting hybrid of theatre and film was shot during the pandemic on location at Soho Theatre. It certainly deserves to be seen, shared and discussed far more widely, so it’s good to know that it is now available as Theatre on Demand from Soho Theatre and Nouveau Riche productions.

Highly recommended for all of you who have missed theatre as much as I have.

Photo credit: Franklyn Rogers.

February 2021 Summary

Books

It is absurdly early to be writing an end of month review but a) I’ve got some online theatre to watch and review over the last few days of February; b) with some translation edits coming in and another planned full day of working on my novel, I don’t think I’ll have time to read and review any more books.

I was quite good at sticking to my February in Canada plan and, although I’d have liked more Quebecois authors in the mix, I remained faithful to my plan to read only what was already available on my bookshelves. I was fairly happy with all of the six Canadian books I read. While the subject matter of the Inger Ash Wolfe crime novel did feel like far too well-trodden territory to me, I was intrigued and inspired by Anne Carson (as ever) and surprised and delighted by Carol Shields and Marian Engel. In fact, I enjoyed Bear so much that I instantly decided to read another Marian Engel book, Lunatic Villas, which was very different to Bear, although the portrayal of harassed motherhood is very similar to Celia Fremlin‘s The Hours Before Dawn, but on the humorous rather than the sinister side of things.

In addition to Celia Fremlin, I also read several more crime novels:

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman for our Virtual Crime Book Club, which was fun although not quite as good as the hype makes it out to be. I do generally struggle with books written by celebrities, as I feel: a) are they just cashing in on their fame and writing books because everyone thinks it’s an easy thing to do?; b) do they really need any more money, when they have n other sources of very good income? However, to be fair to Osman, it is a witty book, mostly because of the characters and the age group depicted (showing what a variety of types of people you can find in a retirement community, not all old people are boring and cautious etc.). The plot does have some rather too convenient coincidences and a bit of an odd coming-out-of-nowhere conclusion, but I liked it enough to want to read more about these characters on a very occasional basis.

Untraceable by Sergei Lebedev: This is a book of many parts and many tonalities, which might put some readers off, but which really appealed to me. It is a thoughtful analysis of why a scientist would choose to collaborate with an evil regime, how science can be subverted, and how ideals go out the window. It is also a historical picture of the mess and lack of certainties after the fall of the Soviet Union. It is of course also a spy thriller, with a sinister opening and a mounting sense of dread. Yet, in certain parts, when the would-be assassins are embarking on a road-trip to find the rogue scientist, it becomes quite comical, even farcical. All in all, a really enjoyable read.

The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse: February always puts me in the mood for skiing and therefore a mountain setting, so this book set in a Swiss mountaintop hotel seemed irresistible. The claustrophobic setting is indeed the star in this novel, the author clearly knows her Swiss winters, but the plot seemed rather far-fetched and I wasn’t that keen on the characters’ rather histrionic reactions to everything.

Finally, with a lingering glance back towards my January in Japan love, I read a graphic novel adaptation of No Longer Human, which was far more explicit and creepy than the novel, but also diverged from the story in interesting ways. I also read the first volume of Bungo Stray Dogs manga, in which Dazai is a detective with some supernatural powers – I’m not sure how appropriate it is to make fun of Dazai’s suicidal tendencies, although, given he made fun of them himself at times in his work, it’s probably OK. Plus, it features all sorts of other writers, Kunikida Doppo with a very bureaucratic mentality, Edogawa Ranpo who is firmly convinced he has supernatural abilities but in fact is simply very good at questioning and detecting, Akutagawa, who is a skilled adversary and so on. For someone obsessed with Japanese literature and familiar with most of the authors featured here, this is an absolute riot!

So 12 books, of which 2 graphic novels, 6 fitting the Canadian theme, and 4 crime novels. Only three books in translation (or other languages) this month, a low proportion by my standards, and an even gender distribution.

But have I contributed at all to #readindies? Well, hard to tell. Most of the books were bought second-hand and at the time of publication the publishers may have been independent, but have since been bought up (McCleeland and Steward are Penguin Random House now, Fourth Estate is Harper Collins, Pandora Women Crime Writers is Routledge). But I have found a few. My Quebecois writer is published by Editions Druide, a small independent funded by the Canadian and Quebecois governments and the Canadian Arts Council. Bear was published by Nonpareil Books, an imprint of Godine, an independent publisher located in Boston, Massachusetts. And Untraceable is published by New York-based New Vessel Press, which specialises in translated fiction.

Films

I’ve watched mainly TV series this month (Lupin, The Sopranos, My Brilliant Friend), but the few films I watched were very good:

  • a rewatch of Do the Right Thing, which was a classic film of my teenage years and still stands up so well today (sadly, not much has changed);
  • High and Low, a Kurosawa with a good deal of social commentary and personal dilemma, about the kidnapping of a child;
  • Uppercase Print, the latest film by Radu Jude, the case of a young student who was investigated by the security forces during the Ceausescu years – an unusual mix of actors reciting from the security files, interwoven with extracts from TV documentaries of the 1970s and 80s. This was hard for me to watch, because I was so familiar with it all from my childhood, but it’s an interesting piece of history that should be preserved for the next generation (or for those who are not familiar with what it’s like to live in a dictatorship).

With one son not caring very much about films and the other having very fixed ideas about what he wants to watch and generally poo-poohing Mubi, saying they only have films that about five people in the world want to see (despite all the evidence to the contrary), our chances of watching films together are decreasing. Meanwhile, I’m getting a little tired of doing things that don’t interest me simply to fit in with someone else’s taste (I’ve had years of practice with their father – and look how well that turned out!). Maybe the pressures of being together all the time is starting to get to us all…

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!