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.
(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…
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!
Christian Petzold: Barbara (Germany) – captures the chill factor and claustrophobia of East Germany when the Stasi have their eyes on you
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
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
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)
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?
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.
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
June has always been my favourite month – lots of hours of daylight, my birthday, my younger son’s birthday, my older son’s nameday, and in my childhood it used to mark the end of school (no longer the case nowadays). So we had a lot of cake, and even a few drinks with online friends and even with real, grown-up friends in actual flesh, in my garden, in strategically placed chairs. What more could you want?
I really do believe I might have finally found my reading mojo which had been missing in action for months. I read 13 books this month (well, 12 to be precise, because one of them was a DNF, as mentioned below). Unusually for me, only four of the 13 books were translations, while ten were by women writers. Two were poetry collections, which require more attentive reading and rereading, but are shorter. Of course, I still have to catch up with reviews. But here is what I have reviewed thus far, in case you missed it:
I was very pleased with myself that 11 of those were from my #20Books of Summer list! In fact, the only two exceptions were my Virtual Crime Book Club read (Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton) and a sort of in-memoriam read upon hearing of the death of Carlos Ruiz Zafon. The Shadow of the Wind has been enthusiastically recommended by so many people, and the theme of books and mystery and historical connections made me think I would love it. Sadly, this was the book I did not finish. I did give it a good thorough try: 246 pages, after which I realised I was finding it a bit of a slog, was never keen to get back to to it and I was in danger of losing my reading va-va-voom once more. The first few chapters were fun, but it all became a bit too sentimental, too repetitive, too clicheed and I lost interest in the characters and the big mystery.
Toni Erdmann – In addition to the often very funny cringeworthy moments and the painful father/daughter relationship, I thought this was an astute look at capitalism and corporate culture taking over both individual and national cultures. It felt like Maren Ade did an excellent job in understanding the endless patience, hospitality and desire to please the foreigners (no matter how crazy they might seem) of the Romanian people with which the main German characters interact.
The Past – Having previously been mesmerised (and saddened) by Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, I thought it would be nice to follow it up with another of his films currently available on Mubi. A moving portrayal of relationship breakdown and family dynamics with only a light touch of cross-cultural misunderstandings, I was especially impressed by the child/teen actors.
The Shining – a rewatch with the boys, who don’t like horror films but quite like Stanley Kubrick. I haven’t read the book, but I understand why Kubrick made some changes in the script – and made it more psychological rather than supernatural.
Animal Crackers – struggle with this one, it just wasn’t to my taste. I never quite ‘got’ the humour of the Marx brothers as a child – always preferred Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy or Bourvil. And I clearly still don’t get on with it as a grown-up. There were a handful of witty repartees which I enjoyed, but not quite enough to make the film worthwhile.
Given my new incarnation as a literary translator who is going to be doing more than just the occasional one-off project, it’s not surprising that I’ve been keen to keep up with the very welcoming and utterly fascinating, cosmopolitan translation community. In addition to attending the Borderless Book Club and hearing translators and publishers talk about their choices, I have also attended some events aimed at translator audiences.
Translation Theory Lab – discussion with Kate Briggs, author of This Little Art.
Daniel Hahn, Katy Derbyshire, Arunava Sinha talking about their current projects and changes to their routines during the Covid crisis, hosted by the Society of Authors
The W.G. Sebald Lecture given by David Bellos – in which he dispelled what he called the ‘myths of translation’, which are a combination of wishful thinking and confirmation bias, and ultimately not that helpful to translators.
Plans for July:
I am planning to read a lot of Women in Translation for August, and thought I might start a bit early, to combine with Stu Jallen’s Spanish Literature Month (which includes Latin American literature). I’ve got Ariana Harwicz (Argentina), Lina Meruane (Chile), Liliana Colanzi (Bolivia) and Margarita Garcia Robayo (Colombia) on the TBR pile.
My reading mojo has come back, and this (together with a very lengthy migraine) contributed to a lower number of films that I watched so far in June. Here are some micro-reviews and some books which I associated with these films. Bear in mind that I lack any real film critic vocabulary, so all I can say is what I liked or not about the films below (spoilers: I liked all of them).
Paterson – Adam Driver has that puzzled emo look down pat, so is very well cast as the poet bus-driver. (The Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani who plays his fey but sweet-tempered wife is also very good, but it’s the dog who possibly steals the show). It’s extremely difficult to show the creative process at work, and I had some misgivings about the way the marriage and the town (the only white guy in a community of African-Americans, really Jim Jarmusch?) are portrayed in the film, but overall it did inspire me to start writing again. The book everyone refers to in the film, of course, is the epic poem Paterson by William Carlos Williams. He describes this small town in New Jersey, paying close attention to the everyday and deliberately sticking to simple, even flat language (much like the modern-day poet figure in the film). Williams was giving a sort of riposte to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which he felt was too despondent, abstract and wedded to classical poetry.
Lights in the Dusk – Aki Kaurismäki is great at capturing the mundane life of the downtrodden. With an equal mix of tragedy and farce, he tells the story of loser security guard Koistinen, tricked by a gang and a femme fatale, yet unable to see who really cares for him. The black comedy which leaves a nasty yet thoughtful aftertaste reminds me very much of the Finnish writer Antti Tuomainen’s last few books, such as The Man Who Died or Palm Beach Finland.
Julieta – Almodovar was for a while in the 1990s my favourite director: he seems to have great insight into the female psychology and doesn’t shy away from showing all the complexities and messiness of parent/child relationships as well as couples. This is a bittersweet, at times melodramatic story of an estranged mother and daughter (and what led to their estrangement), with none of the trademark eroticism or crazy humour of his earlier films. The film is based on three inter-linked short stories by Alice Munro: “Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence”.
Olla – This is a very short (27 minutes) film, the debut work of French-Greek actress Ariane Labed as a director, but it packs a lot in. Olla is a mail-order bride, chosen by the rather clumsy Pierre, who lives in his mother’s flat in a miserable industrial town in the north of France and requires a full-time carer for his mother more than a companion for his fumbling sexual advances. Although Olla doesn’t speak a word of French, she quietly but firmly resists being modelled by her husband, who from the start wants to make her fit in: ‘I’ll call you Lola.’ Western men’s patronising attitudes towards the ‘easy prey’ European women is a topic that irritates me greatly and is unfortunately the dominant narrative in the few books set in post-1989 Eastern Europe or Russia, such as Patrick McGuiness’ The Last Hundred Days or A. D. Miller’s Snowdrops.
Mustang – Another film by a woman director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, this coming of age story about five sisters in rural Turkey is delightful in portraying the complicity and exhuberant horsing around of the girls – which might have inspired the latest version of Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig. However, the girls are orphans and are being raised by a very traditionalist uncle and grandmother who are too worried about what the neighbours might think. So getting them married off, ready or not, to avoid any scandalous behaviour (or rumours) becomes the top priority. The girls’ small (and big) rebellions in an effort to lead what we might consider normal lives will inevitably lead to disappointment and heartbreak. Although it has nothing to do with the film, I would recommend Elif Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve, which likewise looks at East vs. West, religion and gender roles.
A Short Film About Killing – Kieslowski’s Dekalog was the first series we saw uncensored on TV after the 1989 Revolution in Romania, and this is one of the two which Kieslowski remade to became feature-length films. It is an extremely disturbing film, that you need to have a strong stomach for. You are almost instantly confronted with cats strung up to die and dogs being poisoned, and it just gets worse from there, with image after image of death, decay and cruelty. An apparently motiveless murder of a (thoroughly unpleasant) taxi driver, a lawyer haunted by the fact that he can’t get the young perpetrator off and a brutal execution scene (in those days Poland still had the death penalty) all make you question everything you believe about violence and punishment. I would recommend the book Kieslowski on Kieslowski published by Faber, based on a series of interviews with the film-maker, his life and how politics has shaped so much of it, whether he liked it or not.
Our Little Sister – Another celebration of sisterhood, this time in Japan and seen through the eyes of a male director Koreeda Hirokazu. After the death of their father, who abandoned them when they were quite young, three sisters living in Kamakura meet their much younger half-sister and convince her to move in with them. What does it say about my suspicious, noir set of mind that I kept waiting for something terrible to happen – for the sisters to cheat each other, fall out, commit suicide or a dramatic denoument with the mother (who also abandoned them)? In fact, it is more of a charming observation of the everyday, small triumphs, many mess-ups and sorrows along the way. The fairy-tale atmosphere and the gentle passing of the season began to make more sense when I realised that the film is based on a manga series called Umimachi Diary, written and illustrated by Yoshida Akimi, serialised between 2006 and 2018 in the josei (young women) manga supplement Monthly Flowers.
The Clouds of Sils Maria – This film by Olivier Assayas is ostensibly all about an aging star Maria Enders, played by Juliette Binoche, returning to the play which made her famous, but now playing the older woman devastated by the consequences of her infatuation with a younger woman. It has echoes of All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard, and there are many references to Binoche’s own career as well as to Kristen Stewart’s scandal-driven career (although not via the character that Kristen plays, but in her reaction to the social media furore over the young actress played by Chloe Grace Moretz). To me, however, it feels much more like the clash between generations: in literature, in film, in real life. Even when the generations respect and befriend each other (which one might argue that Maria does with her assistant played by Stewart), there is a divergence of opinion that seems insurmountable. Although some have criticised the epilogue, to me it made perfect sense: things have moved on, relentlessly; the sympathetic faces of the young fawning starlet and Klaus the director are slipping and becoming less sympathetic, more concerned with their own PR. And then there is that almost throwaway scene, where a young newbie director tries to convince Maria that she is not too old to play in his proposed film. When she suggests he should use the young starlet instead (and echoes some of the admiration that her former assistant had expressed for her), he expresses frustration at a world in which the brash young Chloe Grace Moretz is the norm. A world without subtlety, a world where everything you do is exposed and pounced upon, a world where you have to take sides. I never felt older and more on Binoche’s side than at the end of that film. On the other hand, I loved the landscape, the amazing Majola Snake weather phenomenon in the Engadine Valley and miss my beloved mountains more ferociously than ever.
The Wire Season 2 – Ongoing project to watch the whole 5 seasons of The Wire with the boys. Depressing to watch the end of the docks, the unions and a way of life. Amusing to understand all of the untranslated Greek way before the investigators did.
As for the reading, I’m very proud of myself for sticking, on the whole, to my 50 books or so of summer longlist to choose my 20 books of summer. I have now read eight of them, but only reviewed four, so I have some catching up to do! Additionally, I also read the tense thriller Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton for Virtual Crime Book Club, which, although it does seem to manipulate your emotions at certain points, is a moving experience and extremely nerve-wracking if you’ve ever been a teacher, a parent or (as in my case) both. Following the announcement of the death of Carlos Ruiz Zafon, I decided to pick up the only book of his that I have on my shelf The Shadow of the Wind, which seems to be good fun so far. Although I’m perhaps no longer of the age to become obsessed with historical or literary trails as I was when I read Foucault’s Pendulum or Posession, it is certainly better written and more interesting than Dan Brown’s novels.
Reading has not been going brilliantly this month, but I was reading that epic novel The Eighth Life. Alongside it, I read four other crime novels, all quick and fun reads, and another chunkster, King of the Crows. Harriet Tyce’s Blood Orange was our Virtual Crime Club read for May and we all agreed that while we didn’t ‘enjoy’ it (the subject matter was too grubby and the characters too unpleasant for that), it was well written and kept us turning the pages. Two British Library Classic Crime titles also provided good entertainment: John Dickson Carr’s Castle Skull was atmospheric but with somewhat two-dimensional characters, while The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons was much better on the psychology (especially of the main protagonist). Finally, Boileau-Narcejac’s Vertigo (D’entre les morts) was far more interesting than the Hitchcock film, given the wartime background and a much more sinister ending.
As for Russell Day’s King of the Crows, it’s almost impossible to write about it. Uncannily and uncomfortably accurate about a pandemic that sweeps across Europe, an enforced lockdown and then the gradual breakdown of society, it also brings in elements of horror and zombie apocalypse. Unbearably graphic in parts, with an interesting fragmented style, switching from straightforward narration to interview recordings to witness statements to film scripts and even graffiti and urban dictionaries. It could have been shortened by a good 20% without losing any of the style or plot (or maybe I was just too exhausted after the even longer Eighth Life doorstopper), but it’s certainly memorable.
Still, only 6 books per month – what is the world coming to? At this rate, I won’t do too well in the 20 Books of Summer readalong, will I?
On the other hand, I’ve been watching more films than I’ve ever done since the boys were born, virtually all of them on Mubi or the occasional classic on DVD or television. 18 films in total this month, so roughly one every two days. I’ve continued the Hitchock discovery with the boys, watching Vertigo and Rear Window this month – so far, Rear Window seems to be their favourite Hitchcock, but we’ve still got a few good ones to go. I also got them to watch Ran, which was visually even more stunning than I remembered and they agreed with me that the scene of the attack on the second castle, with its sudden transition from balletic choreography and background music to the grunts, clashes and gore of battle was magnificent. I watched another Japanese one by myself: Fireworks by Kitano Takeshi – a surprisingly spare yet lyrical depiction of grief, guilt and revenge from someone I thought of mostly as a comedian and game-show host.
Mubi seems to have a lot of French (or Italian) films on at the moment featuring Alain Delon. So I got to admire his youthful good looks in Plein Soleil (he is absolutely perfect as the charming psychopath Tom Ripley), L’Eclisse with a vulnerable Monica Vitti and Losey’s Mr Klein, a Kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucratic error (or is it deliberate?) which I found very moving and frightening. Other French language films included: the noir La Bête Humaineby Jean Renoir (I thought I’d watched it, but it turned out to have been the later American remake by Fritz Lang); two excellent Clouzot films Le Corbeau (which got him accused of collaboration with the Nazis) and Quai des Orfèvres, which start out almost as breezily as Hollywood comedies and then turn very dark; Bunuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid with the sulky, sultry Jeanne Moreau. There was one non-French one in the French language selection – namely Ghost Town Anthology by Quebecois director Denis Côté, which was profoundly creepy and unsettling (and beautifully filmed).
Aside from the French, I was depressed by Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband and Joseph Losey’s Accident, with their cynical portrayals of marriages and flawed ways of loving. I was charmed by two classics which I’ve probably seen many, many times before: Top Hat with the fab duo of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, and the crazy trio of Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. The dialogues in both films are so witty and sparkling, it’s not just the dancing in the first and Marilyn’s charms and singing in the second which have made them firm favourites.
But the two wild cards of the month were perhaps the ones that made me think most. Wadjda, a film from Saudi Arabia by a woman director Haifaa al-Mansour, under its playful, charming surface of a story about a schoolgirl dreaming of buying and riding a green bicycle hides a lot of social commentary about the restrictions placed on girls and women in that country. The other one was a documentary by Joost Vandebrug called Bruce Lee and the Outlaw. Filmed over six years on the streets of Bucharest, it is the story of a homeless boy growing up in the infamous underground tunnels near the main railway station, in an underworld where glue-sniffing, prostitution and petty criminality are rife. Bruce Lee is the self-proclaimed King of the Sewers and often in trouble with the police, but to the young boy Nicu, he is a friend and protector, the only person who shows any interest in him. The fragile yet trusting relationship that the film-maker develops with Nicu is incredibly touching yet the ending refuses to be too hopeful or sentimental.
There were two major online literary events this month.
First, the Big Book Weekend 8-10 May. I listened to Maggie O’Farrell talk about Hamnet. I realised to my astonishment that Robert Webb has written a novel (and that we overlapped for a year in Cambridge – just as well I didn’t try out for Footlights then!). I succumbed to Neil Gaiman’s recommendations on what to read next by Ray Bradbury. I was moved by the poetry of Hafsah Aneela Bashir and charmed by the funny yet militant Marian Keyes. Bernardine Evaristo was every bit as inspirational as I expected her to be. The whole set-up on the MyVLF platform, aiming to replicate the look and feel of a real festival, was brilliant.
The Hay Festival’s online offering was in a more traditional webinar format via Crowdcast or YouTube, but with a lot of live sessions as well. Although I didn’t do it deliberately, I ended up seeing mostly women and mostly on non-literary subjects: Gloria Steinem, Elif Shafak, Miriam González Durántez and a few of the writers from the Europa 28 anthology about how women see the future of Europe. I listened (in two different panels) to Kapka Kassabova from Bulgaria, Caroline Muscat from Malta, Zsofia Bán from Hungary, Leïla Slimani from France, Lisa Dwan from Ireland and Hilary Cottam from the UK. I also attended two non-literary talks given by men: World without Work by David Susskind and A.C. Grayling on democracy and the need for a constitution. I was hoping that my older son might be interested in this talk as well, but we’ll see if he did actually register to it (he wasn’t with me at the time but with his father).
I also finally made it to a Virtual Noir at the Bar meeting on a Wednesday. These are weekly readings by an excellent and varied selection of crime authors (roughtly 7-9 at a time) organised by Vic [@vpeanuts on Twitter]. I got to hear Peter Rozovsky, the co-founder of Noir at the Bar, Sam Carrington, Adele Parks, Fiona Cummins and many more. I really do recommend you sign up to the newsletter and attend their sessions – and you get access to the recordings too if you can’t stay till the end.
Last but not least, I’ve had the pleasure of both a more structured Crime Book Club organised by Rebecca Bradley (we discussed Harriet Tyce’s Blood Orange this month), regular writing and feedback sessions (and a literary quiz!) with my Royal Borough Writers Group, as well as an impromptu Zoom chat about books and the difficulties of reading during a pandemic with a few Twitter and blogger friends. Despite all the nastiness and opinion-giving-when-unasked on social media platforms, I have to say that I’ve found my happy bubble of … I wouldn’t call it like-minded people exactly, because we can disagree quite vigorously about a certain author or novel or book cover or film, but simply a group of people who care about these things as much as I do. No tedium of small talk but straight onto the interesting discussions in life! I haven’t had that kind of intellectual sparring or fencing, that enjoyable cultural chit-chat since high school and university. It has always been delightful to have these conversations, but under lockdown it has been a real life-saver.
Attention span bandwith continues to be quite limited, so, although I’ve been on my own this past week (until last night) and therefore had less of a responsibility for cooking, checking schoolwork and entertaining, I’ve not done an awful lot of reading or writing. Instead, I’ve been hopping and skipping between books and films, abandoning anything that doesn’t fully grab me or that feels wrong at this moment in time.
Films and TV
Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate (dir. Kawashima Yūzō) is quite a broad farce, very commedia dell’arte or slapstick in its physicality. Set in a three-storey brothel which is a microcosm of Japanese society in the dying days of the Tokugawa period, it’s ostensibly the story of a lazy good-for-nothing who incurs a huge debt at the said brothel and therefore has to remain there to work it off. In fact, it is a great satire about virtually all of the ‘proud Japanese traditions’ (samurai, geishas, honour, filial piety) that tends to put forward as truly representative of Japan. The film was made in the early 1950s and was no doubt a comment on the ‘proud Japanese traditions’ which had led to the Second World War, as well as the hypocrisy about prostitution, corruption and financial greed. Wonderfully funny, a great palate cleanser in these worrying times.
Bacurau (dir. Mendonca Filho and Dornelles) is a very recent film about Brazil and its corruption at both local and national government levels. This is satire with a very sardonic bite. It has a Hunger Games or Get Out type of premise: foreigners being shipped in to a remote area of Pernambuco, paying for the fun of hunting real people. But they haven’t reckoned with the indomitable fighting spirit of the inhabitants of the village of Bacurau. The gradual reveal of the exhibition housed in the village museum is one of the highlights of the film for me personally, but I felt that more could have been made of the socio-political situation and the repulsive local mayor clamouring for re-election.
Le Cercle Rouge (dir. JP Melville) I’m not a huge fan of heist movies, but there is a bit of a Jean-Pierre Melville retrospective on Mubi and this has been hailed as probably the best French heist movie, although I for one would argue that Rififi deserves to be on at least level pegging. It has been particularly celebrated for its nearly 30 uninterrupted minutes of silent heist sequence, but I personally preferred the build-up at the start of the film.
Autumn Sonata (dir. Ingmar Bergman) – prepare to have your hearts broken, if you’ve ever been a daughter or a mother or both. Flawless performance by the two leads, although I did think that Swedish families are much less likely (perhaps unrealistically so?) to interrupt each other’s introspective speeches. And this quote just killed me:
A mother and a daughter – what a terrible combination of feelings and confusion and destruction. Everything is possible and everything is done in the name of love and solicitude.
Abandoned: Devs; Twins – the high-concept, intriguing premise of the first and the beautiful backdrop of the second were not enough to keep me fully engaged with the rather far-fetched plots.
Still struggling to focus on my reading rather than on Twitter, so I used several different ‘tricks’ to get me to fall in love with books again: I turned to the classics and tried a novel by Henry James which was much easier and frothier than I had expected, I co-read Serena with several other book reviewers to compare reactions and notes and I turned to lighter (not cosy, but more puzzle-type) murder mysteries such as The Iron Chariot by Stein Riverton (hailed as the first Norwegian crime fiction novel) and Peter Swanson’s Rules for Perfect Murders, which is the first novel we will be discussing for our virtual crime book club that is rising up again from the ashes. For more information about the book club organised by crime author Rebecca Bradley and to express your interest in participating, go here.
Abandoned: the rereading of The Ambassadors (one Henry James per month is enough); Maureen Freely: Mother’s Helper (quite fun social observation but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere); Paul Auster’s Timbuktu (maybe some other time, just wasn’t in the mood to read about a pet fretting about his master dying right now); Gerald Murnane’s Tamarisk Row – I’ve heard so many good things about this, but it was a little too depressing for my mood right now.
Today I was going to read and review a third book by an author I met at Quais du Polar, but I simply ran out of time. The author was Craig Johnson, and the book is one in his popular Longmire series (and features a dinosaur, which made it absolutely irresistible). In 2016, Craig Johnson was also part of what some people called the ‘dream panel’, also including Sara Gran, Arnaldur Indridason, Jo Nesbo and Deon Meyer, as well as a French author who was only just starting out back then, Olivier Norek.
So instead I will link back to some of my favourite write-ups about this event from other years.
I first went to the Quais du Polar in 2013 together with my family. And, while they did the murder mystery treasure hunt all over the city and gorged on the food at the Bocuse brasseries, I instantly fell in love with the festival atmosphere, the beautiful venues, the authors and the bookshops. That first year I was quite restrained in my purchases and spoke mainly to French authors – and to the lovely chronicler of Greek society Petros Markaris. This was also the year that I got to see the wonderful late P.D. James, who was presented with the Medal of Honour of the City of Lyon, I got to interview David Khara and Sylvie Granotier, and I reported on the whole event for Crime Fiction Lover.
2015 was a fantastic year – I met Emma for the first time at Quais du Polar (we then attended it together twice more) and I had my portrait drawn by Max Cabanes. The panels (and perhaps I myself) got more political and my niece, who was studying in Annecy at the time, joined me for the festival, we stayed at a superb little boutique hotel on the Quais, ate at all the boucherons we could find and went to a crime festival ball.
2016 was tinged with sadness, for I knew that I would be leaving France soon and that it might be my last Quais du Polar, so I bought a LOT of books, my biggest haul ever. I got to meet some strong, bubbly, fun-loving women writers that year (and one whose book I did not like – and who seemed to live up to the expectations I had of her after reading her book).
Luckily, although I had returned to the UK by the time Quais du Polar 2017 rolled along, I found that it was still cheaper flying there and staying at a hotel than going to Harrogate. I got to meet Romanian author and publisher Bogdan Hrib there (who has now become my business partner) and heard Bogdan Teodorescu talk about his novel Sword (Spada), which had just been translated into French. I got to watch the first episode of Spiral (Engrenages) Series 6 before its release and see the actors in the flesh (they look much more glamorous in real life). Plus I attended panels on German crime fiction and got to meet and hear Ron Rash (whose novel Serena I will be reading and reviewing shortly).
After five years of faithful attendance, I had to stop going there for financial and other reasons. But I make the firm promise right here and now: next year, by hook or by crook, I’ll be there!
In fact, I should be grateful, because for me it hasn’t been too bad. I am not one of the brave and dedicated frontline key workers that I so much admire and whom we all depend on for what semblance of a normal life we still have: medical staff, pharmacists, supermarket workers, delivery drivers, public transport, utilities providers and of course teachers.
All I had to worry about, for the three weeks until the actual lockdown was my children still going to school (one of them on the train), and me bringing the disease back into the house, with my commute to London and having my office in a very public building which only closed down on the 20th of March. Of course, I also worry about my parents right at the other end of Europe, stuck in the capital city rather than in their house in the countryside (on the other hand, the hospitals are closer and better equipped in Bucharest), both with underlying health conditions and both approaching 80 very soon. Like any recently divorced parent with a very acrimonious financial settlement that is still hugely resented by the ex, I do worry about the possible practical consequences of me falling seriously ill. I may need to get in touch with a solicitor friend of mine and make a will.
Other than that: I’m used to food shortages, to curtailment of liberties, to being essentially under house arrest… it brings back memories of my childhood. Not fond ones, no: I have no ‘stiff upper lip and carry on’ nostalgia. But I know that we survived those times (some less gloriously than others), so I’m hopeful we can survive this. My boys are fortunately old enough to keep themselves occupied whether the school assigns a lot of work or not. We have adopted a new feline member of the family, sweet, elderly Barney, and we are busy trying to get our ‘only child’ Zoe to accept him.
However, my reading and writing have both dwindled considerably. Not only because I am extremely busy with work during the week and feel exhausted all the time. Not only because of the bouts of insomnia which continue to plague me (and probably everybody else at the moment). Almost certainly because I am scrolling helplessly and fruitlessly on my phone for far too long, but also because I find it difficult to concentrate on anything for longer than half an hour. Add to that the fact that WordPress has decided now is the right time to make changes to their writing and formatting of blog posts and a general sense of feeling ‘what’s the point’, and you can understand why I’ve not even updated my blog regularly.
If I look back at March, however, there have been some lovely moments which seem to be as far away now as if we were seeing them through the wrong end of a telescope. On the 1st of March, I was fortunate enough to see the kimono exhibition at the V&A and on the 11th of March the exhibition on the portrayal of pregnancy in art at the Foundling Museum. I also attended an immersive adaptation of The Time Machine on the beautiful premises of the London Library and reviewed the show just a week or so before it shut down. I’d probably have delayed going to see all of these if I hadn’t been jolted by others. Moral of the story: never put off things you enjoy doing because you ‘don’t have time right now’.
The London Book Fair was cancelled, but I had a meeting on the 11th with my fellow Corylus Books founders and we discussed plans for publishing and promoting books this year and the next. It is possibly the worst time to launch a new publishing house and bring out books in translation by authors that nobody has heard of (yet). We also have problems with the actual printing and distribution of physical copies. So, much as I hate having to link to Amazon, this is the only way to find the two books we already have out now. Perhaps later in the year we will be able to attend all those crime festivals and organise all those book launches that we had planned.
Last but not least, I did read eleven books, and most of them have been of the lighter, more escapist variety, with quite a bit of armchair travelling.
Will Dean: Black RiverTuva Moodyson is back in forlorn Gavrik in the north of Sweden at the height of Midsommar madness to try and find her missing friend. With a full cast of dodgy characters, including snakes, the author proves that the Swedish forests can be creepy regardless of the season.
Graeme Macrae Burnet: The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau Set in a sleepy provincial town on the Franco-Swiss border, not far from Strasbourg, this too is a creepy tale of loners, outsiders and personal obsessions.
David Young: Stasi 77 A series that I’ve really enjoyed, but somehow missed reading this particular book. The links to the end of the Second World War and hidden Nazis operating within the East German state were particularly harrowing (and historically accurate, although I wasn’t previously aware of it). Perhaps my favourite of the series thus far.
Murder in Midsummer A collection of stories set in holiday locations (not always in summer, despite the title). Mostly famous authors, with lesser known stories. As always with such a collection, some of the stories are better than others, but overall a fun book to dip into.
Rebecca Bradley: A Deeper Song DI Hannah Roberts is back with a bang and a sharp squeal of the brakes. Preoccupied by family problems, she nearly runs over a young man who darts out in front of her car. He is covered in someone else’s blood but cannot tell them anything, as the accident has provoked a temporary (?) amnesia. Soon Hannah herself is in danger and her team need to gather all of their wits and collaborative skills to find her.
Margot Kinberg: A Matter of Motive A start of a new series by American author Margot Kinberg, featuring rookie murder investigator Patricia Stanley. A man is slumped over the steering wheel of his car, apparently the victim of a heart attack. Or was it? Both family and co-workers seem to have plenty of things to hide, although they keep emphasising what a nice guy Ron Clemons was.
Debbie Harry: Face It She does not mince her words, does she? The beautiful, rebellious, cool as anything singer reveals as much as she damn well pleases in this memoir, including her vulnerabilities. Still an icon.
Malorie Blackman: Knife Edge Second book in the Noughts and Crosses series, which I read to coincide with the TV adaptation. Such an interesting concept, although I did find the writing aimed at a younger audience than me.
Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust I was smitten with the original trilogy but only got a chance to read this prequel now. An exciting story, even if we know the final outcome (that baby Lyra did end up safely at Jordan College). Above all, I like the rich descriptive, yet never dull style, which offers something for both adults and younger readers.
Tiffany Tsao: The MajestiesThe story of a rich Indonesian family of Chinese descent, with a mass murder from the outset and a smidgen of science-fiction added into the mix. A wonderful book – about families, the lies we tell each other and tell ourselves, the differences between perceptions of the Chinese in the east and in the west… and about insects.
David Foenkinos: The Mystery of Henri Pick An unexpectedly light and humorous offering by Foenkinos, satirizing the pretentiousness of the Parisian literary society. Could a pizza maker who never was seen reading a book truly have written an almost perfect novel? Erudite, charming, delightful.
Meanwhile, if you find my reading concentration anywhere, do let me know, won’t you? As you can see, I have a whole pile of books planned for April!