Cultural Summary 12 Aug 2018

No big events or travels this week, but I did get to see four films – unheard of record! These are not serious or lengthy reviews, merely my initial reaction to them.

Ocean’s 8

I so much wanted to love this, and it was indeed an entertaining, frothy caper, but it felt rushed. There was too much focus on the heist itself and not enough on the relationship between the women, so it really was a bit of a waste having so many talented women together in the same room (literally and metaphorically).

45 Years

Superlative acting by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, a film that really takes its time and explores nuances. It’s almost a play – very few characters, mainly composed of the dialogue between the couple. The way the wife puts up with all the grumpiness and eccentricities of her husband (aside from the drama that befalls their marriage). One scene that critics have not commented upon but which really struck a chord with me was that scene with Kate helping out on a tourist tour on the Norfolk broads – and all the visitors are old women. So many people stay in an unsatisfactory marriage for fear of being alone in old age – and yet for most women that will be the case anyway. Made me glad that I only wasted 20 years on a marriage instead of 45…

Mary Shelley

Luminous performance by the two young leads – Elle Fanning and Douglas Booth, but full of historical and biographical inaccuracies which irritated me. I can see the point of some of them, how they were used to heighten dramatic structure. For instance, Mary did not meet Shelley in Scotland and knew from the start that he was married, since he came to dinner with his wife at her father’s house. She had more than one child who died in infancy. Others elements were excluded because they were inconvenient truths – even nowadays. Her relationship with her half-sister, Claire Claremont, was not quite as loving and caring as portrayed and there was a lot of jealousy there (plus, there was another half-sister on her mother’s side who also fell in love with Shelley and committed suicide). Shelley’s first wife had two children with him and fell pregnant at the same time as he was embarking upon his relationship with Mary.

Other film choices are harder to understand. Why use a boring generic manor house instead of the actual Villa Diodata on Lake Geneva? Lord Byron was camp rather than charismatic – Tom Sturridge has the looks and acting chops to make him more subtly menacing and attractive, but the part was not designed that way. Also, the group did actually get to read their stories in the evening in 1816 and also got caught in a storm on the lake which is like a premonition of Shelley’s untimely death.  Most annoying: the interpretation of Frankenstein as being about a woman feeling abandoned is a bit simplistic. There is a lot more depth there: social commentary about how we treat outsiders, science vs. humanism, the dangers of trying to play God etc.

Mamma Mia – Here We Go Again

Question: with so many Skarsgård offspring in the acting profession, why couldn’t any of them have played their father as a young man? A missed opportunity there. Other than that – well, it’s incoherent, milking the franchise, but a jolly bit of musical fun.

No more room to tell you about my book haul this week, so I’ll post about it tomorrow!

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Cultural Events and Book Haul Summary 5th August 2018

Not quite sure what the tower is for, but it certainly makes it easier to spot the theatre from wherever you are in Stratford.

This week was simply working flat out and getting home at 8 p.m. – so much for my relaxation week without the boys! However, there was one event from the previous week, when I was attending a course in Warwick, which I didn’t get to write about. I went up there the evening before, stayed at an absolutely charming AirBnB in Stratford-upon-Avon and went to the RSC’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Although I’ve been to Stratford before (as a bookwormish child, I dragged my mother there on my first trip to England in my early teens; as a bookwormish adult, I dragged my freshly-minted husband there as soon as we signed the papers at the registrars’), I’d never seen a play there and the theatre looked nothing like what I remembered it from nearly two decades ago. I later learnt that it has been extensively refurbished since.

Portrait of the Man Himself in Lego bricks

It must be hard to think of a new way in which to present Shakespeare’s best-known plays – although it was rather sweet to hear a young girl say tearfully on the way out ‘I wasn’t expecting that ending’ – but this production certainly went for the modern and diverse approach. The Capulets and Montagues are two rival gangs (although not along racial lines, unlike West Side Story). The cast was very diverse, and so were their accents (although at times that made it even harder to understand the text). I really liked the star-crossed lovers: Romeo was so obviously young and rather naive, quick to anger, even quicker to fall in love, while Juliet was clearly the driving force, fragile and young, but so much more mature. However, I did not like the way Mercutio was played (or is that because Mercutio is one of my favourite characters in Shakespeare?). I had no problems with Mercutio being portrayed as a butch lesbian in leather, but I think the director made the actress exaggerate those traits so much that all of Mercutio’s fey charm, loyalty and quicksilvery nature got lost.

All of my books arrived in one go this week – the poor postman could only stuff two through the front door and just flung the others over the side gate, hoping for the best (which is fine when it’s not rainy).

Felix Francis and Lin Anderson were unsolicited ARCs from publishers, which might be a bit of a waste of hardbacks in my case, as I am unlikely to get around to reviewing them. I finally got The House by the Lake, which has been calling to me for ages. Guy Savage’s recent review tipped me over into ordering it, especially since I have Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, which is also about a house witnessing Germany’s history over the past century. So I will read the two together.

It was on Twitter that I heard about Frangello’s A Life in Men, someone saying it was one of the books that deserved to be better known, so I will persevere with it, although the title alone is enough to set my teeth on edge. It sounds a little bit like Eat Pray Love, but for younger people and with a lot more sex. Last but not least, the two at the top I bought because Influx Press was having a sale. Clare Fisher’s How the Light Gets In is in fact a flash fiction collection about modern Britain, while The Foreign Passion shows us Europe through the eyes of a non-European in equally short vignettes.

Other Events and the Books They Inspired

A little bit of floor-mopping and fridge-replacement doesn’t stop me from enjoying some cultural events in the interstices. The week before the Flash Fiction Festival, I had two trips to the theatre (booked well before the domestic crises, otherwise I might not have gone).

Park Theatre near Finsbury Park station is a small neighbourhood theatre in a converted office building, specialising in new, more experimental writing. Tickets are humanly priced, every effort is made to represent a diverse community (both in terms of playwrights and actors), aimed at encouraging people into theatre who might not otherwise attend by tackling contemporary themes: what’s not to like?

This time I saw the play Alkaline by Stephanie Martin, about two childhood friends who try to reignite their friendship as both of them are newly engaged to be married. Except one of them has converted to Islam and the other seems to have a drinking problem. It’s a dinner party drama reminiscent of Abigail’s Party, replete with stilted dialogue, people trying to conceal what they really feel, and exposing the hypocritical attitude to multiculturalism and difference. My favourite part of this was when the Muslim boyfriend (who was Muslim in name only, otherwise more of a typically English bloke) started a teasing rant about how Muslims are taking over Britain. Overall, however, I felt that this was more of a personal drama rather than social commentary, so I turned to two other books on my TBR pile that also feature conversions to Islam – albeit, more extreme ones, with protagonists going to Syria to become IS fighters.

Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire doesn’t need much of an introduction: longlisted, shortlisted and finally winning literary prizes. It’s a very timely book, but it’s not just its topicality that marks it out as a winner. It is also dramatically and lyrically written: accessible and yet poetic. Much has been made of it being a retelling of the Ancient Greek story of Antigone, but the similarities become apparent only towards the end and are not, in fact, all that remarkable or relevant. I found myself somewhat unsure of the first third of the book, told from the more neutral point of view of the older sister, Isma, although it provides some much-needed level-headedness compared to the more overblown prose of the second and third part. Still, I ask myself, why is Eamonn, son of the Home Secretary, introduced to the family through her? Is it merely to give another perspective on him, to make the move from ‘trust fund baby’ to ‘distraught lover’ more dramatic? However, each character is fully developed, and there are hints of depth in the Home Secretary and his wife as well, even though they are secondary characters. As for Isma, she may be more neutral, but she is still remarkably sharp-tongued and upset about the treatment of Muslims in both Britain and the States, and she seemed more plausible a character to me than the attractive but overdramatic Aneeka.

The second book on this topic is the more straightforward thriller The Good Sister by Morgan Jones, a former investigator into financial matters and international disputes. Sofia is a young girl who leaves her unhappy family life in London and seeks to find herself in Raqqa, while her father is determined to rescue her from what he perceives as delusion and brainwashing. I’m still in the middle of reading it, but it’s becoming clear that Sofia’s idealism will be sorely tested and that she will find it very difficult to leave, just like Aneeka’s twin in Home Fire.

The final play that I saw that week was a bilingual edition of Tartuffe, on the 14th of July appropriately enough. Paul Anderson plays Tartuffe as a Southern tele-evangelist type con-man who has infiltrated the family of rich businessman Orgon (Sebastian Roche, utterly perfectly bilingual), his wife Elmire (the gorgeous Audrey Fleurot, who seemed frankly a little wasted on the play in parts, merely looking decorative in amazing dresses for quite long stretches) and his children who are mostly English-speaking and have integrated into the decadent LA society. It was an interesting concept, with some good acting, and with clear references to the present day and our tendency to fall for false promises. However, I have to admit that I found both the fast-spoken French and the Southern drawl of the English equally hard to follow, though not as impossible as some reviewers made it out to be (there were surtitles). I went there with the boys and on the whole they quite liked it – so 13 and 15 year olds were much kinder to the play than theatre critics. This negative publicity in the media meant that the theatre was half-empty, so our seats were upgraded to the stalls, so we had excellent views, but it is a shame that audiences are not more open to bilingual productions.

Paul Anderson and Audrey Fleurot in Tartuffe, from The Times.

My older son had studied Molière – Les Fourberies de Scapin and Le Médecin malgré lui – at school as a 12-year-old, so he was somewhat familiar with the humour (although the language is still quite difficult even for French speakers, a bit like Shakespeare for English speakers), but I think the modern production helped to make it more accessible to them. For more thoughts on the genius of Molière, here is a very early post I wrote about him.

Flash Fiction Festival Bristol 2018

In sharp contrast to the previous weekend, which was dedicated to plumbing, mopping, fridge replacement and the like, this weekend was spent in the luscious surroundings of Trinity College Bristol at the second annual Flash Fiction Festival in the UK. This is an event created by the energetic and benevolent Jude Higgins, who is a writing tutor for flash fiction at Bath Spa University and co-runs the Bath Short Story and Flash Fiction Awards.

I took lots of pictures, but they seem to have disappeared on the way from my mobile phone to my One Drive, so you will have to make do with the small amount below and believe me when I say it was the most peaceful environment high on Stoke Hill in an old manor house (now a training seminary for the Church of England) which appeared in a Turner watercolour at some point.

The Flash Fiction community is a tight-knit one, and everyone seemed to know each other, but were also very welcoming to newbies like myself. I volunteered to help out during the festival, so had the privilege of setting out sumptuous lunches such as these.

The workshops were on a variety of topics, reflecting the rich diversity of the form itself. Almost anything goes with flash fiction: from novella-in-flash, to historical flash, to science-fiction and humorous. In contrast to other literary events I’ve attended, I noticed that flash fictioneers always have a very quick comeback, a witty turn of phrase. I struggled to keep up: I was barely warming up in the writing exercises and they would come up with a piece that sounded very polished. Perhaps it’s like sprinting vs. long distance running. Here, it was all about the twist and the word play – perhaps because they have to condense such a lot, that every word counts. It’s also a way of observing the world: minute details yet very elliptical, leaving a lot out. I also noticed a lot of second person being used in the flashes, which probably would have become wearisome in a longer piece.

Peaceful morning hours before the onslaught of flash fictioneers.

Although I found it difficult to produce something immediately based on workshop prompts, they did plant some seeds which I am going to grow and experiment with. The satisfying thing with flash fiction is that it doesn’t take up too much of your time, so you feel free to experiment more than you might with a novel. The workshops I attended were Dreams into Fiction with Jude Higgins (which led to a triptych of flashes about the Ice Queen going to the basement), a comparison between prose poetry and flash fiction with the enthusiastic and funny Carrie Etter and Michael Loveday (which felt a lot more comfortable and familiar to me as a poet), Vanessa Gebbie on the Weird and Wonderful, Writing Funny Fiction with Meg Pokrass and Jude Higgins was hilarious (although it did make me feel slightly inadequate), a visualisation workshop with Karen Jones (which opened me up to some very unexpected ideas and feelings, but also might lead to 1-2 pieces of flash fiction, Extraordinary Points of View with American poets and professors of creative writing John Brantingham and Grant Hier. I ended up with quite a few books, as you might expect, and wished I could have attended more of the parallel sessions, although my brain would not have thanked me for it!

There were also plenty of readings, book launches, and an opportunity to connect with publishers and magazines that were previously only half-known to me, such as V Press, Ellipsis, Molotov Cocktail and the National Flash Fiction Day anthologies.

Meg Pokrass reading from her new collection Alligators at Night.

Although there were lots of breaks in-between sessions, allowing us time to talk, have coffee and cake, wander around the grounds and generally recharge our batteries, I have to admit I felt exhausted by the end of the weekend. And I don’t think it was just because of all the running around that you have to do as a volunteer, but because of the density of information and ideas that you are taking in all the time. However, it was fascinating to connect with people who were so generous with their time and explained patiently the ‘rules’ of flash fiction to me. I am certainly planning to try it out more in the future. And possibly attend again next year!

Summary of Cultural Events 10 July 2018

Although national and international events risk making all my personal events seem insignificant or obsolete, I wanted to write up some of the events of the previous week before they escape my memory.

On Friday I went to see The Lieutenant of Inishmore, a dark comedy by Martin McDonagh (writerwith plays such as The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Beauty Queen of Leenane, as well as the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to his credit). I have to admit I went mostly for Aidan Turner, who is pretty much exactly my type of romantic male interest, but it turned out to be much more than just a showcase for him and his pecs. This is a play designed for a strong ensemble cast, and it certainly had it, including a young RADA graduate Chris Walley, who was by turns a grumpy teenager, intimidated, sensitive, very proud of his long hair, but also terribly dim and therefore hilarious. On paper, the story seems grim. Northern Ireland in 1993. Mad Padraic is deemed too brutal for the IRA, but he is getting impatient with the splinter group he’s in and thinking of starting his own splinter group. He has some torturing business to resolve and leaves his beloved cat Wee Thomas in the care of his father. The cat dies and his family and friends back home try to cover the fact, for fear of what he might do… And he does! This is a bitingly funny satire about twisted ideals and violence, sentimentality coexisting with ferocious brutality. Written in 1993, when this was still anything but funny, its black Irish humour was only appreciated in 2001, when it was first performed. Highly recommended, if you can get tickets! Also, a good chance to hear Aidan Turner speak with an Irish accent rather than a fake Cornish one.

Image from Delfont Mackintosh Theatres.

After a fun evening out with the girls (or Fellow Mums, as we call each other, for we all met through our babies) on Saturday, I went chalking on Sunday. The White Horse of Uffington needs to be periodically maintained, so the National Trust has asked for volunteers to help rechalk it. You spend an enjoyable hour or two in the scorching sun bashing at chalk with a hammer and smoothing it into place, very therapeutic. My friend and I did part of the lower front leg. It’s much steeper than it looks in the picture…

The White Horse, from Oxford Mail.

It was also a great opportunity to catch up with my friend, who has sold her house and lives in a camper van, driving around the country and doing whatever takes her fancy. She had just spent a week in Snowdonia, another in Dorset and was off to the Latitude Festival. A part of me was slightly envious, and another part terrified of this kind of lifestyle, which takes nomadic to the most extreme!

Upcoming events include watching some Wimbledon, some World Cup, and celebrating 14th July with Tartuffe in London. But if you are in London and free on Wednesday 11th, you should go to the Hayward Gallery at the Southbank, which will be celebrating its 50th birthday with entry fees of only 50p that day.

P.S. Late entry – my friend took a picture of me chalking like someone who loves crime fiction!

 

Launch for #OrendaBooks: Feel the Community!

It’s been a long time since I was last able to attend a book launch, but last night I had the pleasure of attending a double book launch organised by Orenda Books: for Doug Johnstone’s Faultlines (sci-fi thriller) and Louise Voss’ The Old You (a thriller where the domestic becomes political). The venue was rather unusual for a literary event: the solicitors’ firm Colyer Bristow, with an art exhibition by recent graduates on the lower ground floor.

Thomas Enger all the way from Norway

What is so amazing about Karen Sullivan, the dynamo behind Orenda, is how she has created a real community around her authors and books. Team Orenda is a reality and is full of enthusiastic, supportive people including authors, production and sales teams, reviewers, bloggers, readers. For example, Thomas Enger, one of Orenda’s authors, came all the way from Norway simply to support his fellow writers. And Karen never forgets anything about anyone’s family, aspirations and interests!

Doug and Louise introduced by West Camel

West Camel, editor at Orenda, introduced Doug Johnstone and Louise Voss as ‘seasoned’ authors, but they seemed lively and cheery to us. Both of them have been published elsewhere and remarked what a great experience it was to become part of Team Orenda.

Glamorous Johana Gustawsson with blogger Joy Kluver

Innocent-looking mother of twins Johana Gustawsson is one of the darkest and goriest minds at work in French or English crime fiction at this moment in time.

Legendary cupcakes

Of course, we cannot forget the cupcakes that Orenda has justly become famous for!

Barry Forshaw and Jen Lucas

Barry Forshaw, expert on noir fiction in all its guises, and blogger Jen Lucas were just two of my online bookish friends whom I always enjoy meeting and chatting to in real life. But there was so much more! I finally got to meet Meggy Roussel, who gave me a quick comparison between internships at French and English independent publishers. I tasted Vicky Goldman’s notoriously addictive toffee vodka. Susi Holliday, Steph Broadribb, Katerina Diamond and Daniel Pembrey all shared some tidbits of what they are currently working on. And I met Roz Morris, author, writing coach, ghost writer and owner of a fabulous hat (who has links with a Zürich writing group that I know via Geneva Writers Group – it’s a small world out there, folks!).

June Is All About Celebration!

June has always been my favourite month: not just because it contains my birthday (and now also my younger son’s birthday), but also because in my childhood it meant the end of the school year (with all the resultant parties, shows and sports days). Plus. it’s the month of Midsummer, long days, nice weather even here in the UK, gardens looking their best…

So I’m determined to ignore any negativity currently haunting the fringes of my life in the shape of one single misguided person and keep June light and giddy with joy! As you know by now, joy usually accompanies cultural events in my case, so this is what I’ve been up to lately.

On the 1st of June, I attended a graduation show at RADA 3 Winters  by Croatian playwright Tena Štivičić. The play has been described as ‘a  family drama that moves between three alternating time periods and four generations of one Croatian family. From the 1945 victory of Tito’s communist supporters, to the 1990 break-up of Yugoslavia, to 2011 and the brink of EU membership – the fortunes of the Kos family are entwined with that of their country as political upheaval mirrors familial struggles. I found the content very moving and the young actors were pretty amazing, it goes without saying, but I also had the pleasure of sitting next to a young woman who was graduating in technical theatre, and specifically in lighting. She was taking notes throughout – that kind of professional dedication just fills me with joy!

I also had a funny experience at the interval. The people behind me were wondering loudly about the historical events mentioned in the play, they didn’t understand the allusions to the Yugoslav War in the early 1990s. It turned out that most of them had been born after that war had started (or even ended). So I couldn’t resist turning around and explaining things to them – a womansplainer, I believe that might be called? To be fair, it was more of a Q&A session, and the young people were genuinely interested (and shocked) and wanted to find out more. Then, at the end of the play, an older lady, who had heard me talk to the audience members at the interval, asked with awe in her voice: ‘Are you the writer?’

On the 11th of June, I had the great pleasure of attending the English National Ballet’s Emerging Dancer competition. Six finalists, three men and three women, showed us their dancing skills in a classical pas de deux followed by a contemporary solo. I thought the women in particular were hard done by with the choice of contemporary pieces, so it was not surprising that a man won: Daniel McCormick. He was, however, very gifted, and his leaps in the Le Corsaire pas de deux reminded me of Nureyev. My favourite ahead of the show was the Romanian ballerina Francesca Velicu (McCormick’s partner in the pas de deux) and she was certainly formidable in both her fast spins and the perfect balance in her slow pirouettes. During the show, I also fell in love with the cheeky charisma of Fernando Coloma (who reminded me of my younger son, so my friend was amused to hear me calling him ‘Cutie Pie’). Above all, it was delightful to see all their friends and colleagues, lots of young dancers, out in force to support them.

I’ve also been busy writing (not my poetry or fiction, unfortunately, but better than lazing around). The story of my inspirational grandmother Troy was published on the Women Who Made Me website.  If you haven’t heard of this initiative, I would encourage you to have a mosey on that website, as it’s all about hearing the hidden ‘herstories’ and finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. I could equally well have written about my other grandmother, the one I am named after, matriarch of the family, mother of seven, who had both German and Soviet soldiers  during WW2 bayoneting the hay in the barn searching for my grandfather (who happened to be the mayor in the village). I used to lap up their stories when I was a child and think that my own life would seem very tame and boring in comparison to my grandchildren. But then I took part in a revolution… So hey-ho, you never know what life will throw at you.

My beloved grandmother in one of my favourite places on earth, the Vienna Woods.

I’ve also recently reviewed the historical novel Savage Liberty (set in pre-Revolutionary America) and Baby Blue (set in post-austerity Athens) on the Crime Fiction Lover website, and my first batch of #20booksofsummer books on this blog. I’ve written an article for the Asymptote newsletter, comparing translations of one of my favourite books Tales of Genji (I had to cut it to half the original size, as I can waffle on endlessly about this topic and own five copies of the book). If you want to subscribe to the free fortnightly newsletter, you can do so here. Even better, do join the subscription-based Book Club to receive a monthly delivery of high-quality fiction in translation. I think it would make a perfect Father’s Day gift [and that’s the only mention of Father’s Day that you’ll get from me this year].

Entirely gratuitous headshot of Aiden Turner here – to turn heads.

The celebrations are set to continue over June and July, both via writing (I am writing three features on: German crime writers, Deadly Summers and When Detectives Go on Holiday, all for CFL) and by attending events. Next weekend, my actual birthday weekend, I’ll be partying in Berlin with two of my oldest and dearest friends who live there and who are also celebrating the same milestone birthday this year. I’ll be seeing the gorgeous and talented Aiden Turner in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, going for a gin-tasting with my local friends, chalking the White Horse at Uffington with a former colleague and our ex-boss, seeing a bilingual version of Tartuffe to celebrate the 14th of July, attending the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol (I’ll be volunteering, to keep costs down) and going to a production of Romeo and Juliet at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon on my way to a course in Warwick. Interspersed with lovely meals and conversations and cosy World Cup games viewing with my youngsters and cat – and life couldn’t be better!