WWWednesday: What Are You Reading on 5th September 2018?

I only get around to doing it approximately once a month, but here is a lovely meme you might want to take part in, hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

Currently:

After reading Tana French’s latest book, I had a craving for more by her, so I went back to The Secret Place, which I had avoided thus far because it had been described as ‘similar to The Secret History by Donna Tartt’. That was NOT an enticement for me. But fortunately, it is about mixed-up teenagers rather than people in their 20s, so it is much more interesting and poignant. A girls’ boarding school, a boy from the neighbouring boys’ school found murdered on the premises, a case that didn’t yield anything the first time round, but reopens a year later as the youngsters have grown and changed.

The other book which I seem to be taking forever to read is Romain Gary’s Au-delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable (Your Ticket Isn’t Valid Beyond This Point). Sorry, Emma! I suppose the subject of male midlife crisis is putting me off somewhat, although when I do get to read a chapter or so of it, it is actually very self-deprecating and enjoyable.

Finished:

Rachel Cusk’s Kudos is the finale to the so-called auto-fiction trilogy and I plan to write a full review at some point, but suffice it to say that it has one of the strangest endings I’ve ever come across: a man urinating in the sea where the narrator is floating.

In one of those strange happenstances that often seem to occur in my reading (clearly my subconscious gets to decide the next read quite often!), the other book I recently finished is also partly auto-fiction. Part -diary, part ideas or observations for writing, and full of memorable stories: Marina Tsvetaeva’s Moscow Diaries

Next:

I’ll be travelling with hand luggage only so I should be sensible and take my Kindle and I have The Trailing Spouse by Jo Furniss on that as a bit of light entertainment. Besides, it’s got a beautiful cover, doesn’t it?

However, I’m also tempted to take Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill with me, since it sounds a bit like Vertigo, one of my favourite Hitchcock movies.

Jean lives in downtown Toronto with her husband and two kids. The proud owner of a thriving bookstore, she doesn’t rattle easily not like she used to. But after two of her customers insist they’ve seen her double, Jean decides to investigate. Curiosity grows to obsession and soon Jean s concerns shift from the identity of the woman, to her very own.

What have you been reading lately? No, you won’t tempt me. Especially since I took a whole bunch of books to Waterstones for the ‘Buy Back Books’ scheme and got the risible sum of £1.53 for those they did accept (that includes 9 p for a signed copy of Jo Nesbo’s Blood on Snow).

 

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Six Degrees of Separation August 2018

Is it that time already? For August’s Six Degrees of Separation, a meme hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, the starting point is Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Ian McEwan: I have loved some of his books and not been overwhelmed by some of his others, so I have felt no compulsion to read all of them. Atonement is one of my less favoured ones – I like his earlier and darker ones better on the whole. But I also know that the author was accused of plagiarism, that a passage in Atonement closely resembled Lucilla Andrews’ autobiography as a nurse during WW2 (whom he acknowledges as a source of inspiration).

Another book which has been accused of plagiarism on several occasions is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. I suppose the authors meant that their conspiracy theory ideas were stolen, rather than the style. Because if it were about the style, I would keep very shtum indeed if I were them. Dan Brown’s book ranks as one of the worst-written, most cliché-ridden piece of work that I’ve ever managed to read to the end (only just).

A much better book about conspiracy theories and historical mysteries and religion is Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. My teenage self simply thrilled at the tragic story of the Knights Templar – although my adult self knows that all the blather about world domination and deep secrets is frankly absurd.

The next hop is a very easy one: I rely on the name of Foucault and look at Michel Foucault, influential French thinker (I like that all-encompassing term, because he was a social historian, philosopher, literary theorist and so much more, even influencing social anthropology – but nothing whatsoever to do with the Pendulum). One of his major works is Discipline and Punish which looks at the history of prisons in the Western world, as well as the philosophy of crime and punishment.

I don’t much enjoy books about prisons, but I do admire Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago about his own experience of the harsh conditions in the Soviet gulags. This is more than just an abstract compassion for the horrors,. I have a personal connection, because it is quite likely that my grandfather died in one of those.

But on to something far more cheerful for the next link: archipelago makes me think of islands, of course, and Eva Ibbotson’s Island of the Aunts (aka Monster Mission) sounds like it might fit the bill. I haven’t actually read this one, but I’ve really enjoyed other books by this author. The premise does sound rather weird: When the kindly old aunts decide that they need help caring for creatures who live on their hidden island, they know that only children can be trusted to keep their secret, so they go ahead and kidnap them.

One of the best fictional aunts is Aunt Augusta in Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt. Mischievous, amoral, often illegal and slightly barmy, this formidable 70 year old certainly helps her nephew come out of his shell as he embarks upon his adventures with her, travelling around Europe and South America. This is possibly Greene’s cheeriest and funniest creation.

So from England on the verge of war to a whirlwind tour of European sights via the fierceness of Siberia and imaginary secret islands… what a journey we’ve been on this month!

 

Through the Decades: Books and Authors that Shaped Me

I recently saw this blog post about ‘Reading through the Decades‘ and was tempted to take part, even though that might disclose the *big* mystery which is my age!

Childhood:

I couldn’t get enough of fairy tales and stories (from all countries: I remember my parents reading 1001 Nights, folktales from Russia, China and Romania, the Greek myths, as well as the usual Grimm, Andersen and Perrault). I went to an English school for a while and my favourite teachers were the ones who would read out loud to us while we did arts and crafts (which I NEVER excelled in), so that I could get lost in the world of Paddington Bear, Olga da Polga, The Wind in the Willows. Luckily, I was always surrounded by international friends, so I grew up with the Moomins, Asterix and Obelix in multiple translations as well as the original, Christiane Nöstlinger (who very sadly died just a few weeks ago), Räuber Hotzenplotz (I had great fun playing him with a drawn-on moustache and beard in a school play), Pippi Longstocking, Emil and the Detectives, White Fang and the Chalet school.

My parents say that at the age of 2-3, I would happily examine the dictionary for hours, so they could nip outside for a quick emergency shop. Although ‘examine’ is perhaps not quite the word for my reading exploits back then.

Teens:

In stark contrast to my happy, diverse and very liberal childhood, I hit a wall when I moved back to Romania during the Communist period. My reading was suddenly censored. I tried to sign up for the British Council library, the French cultural institute, the Goethe Institut, to keep up my languages and love of literature, but my visits there were very carefully monitored, so for a long time I had to rely on other people taking books out for me. (It was OK to go to the Schiller Institut, which was the GDR version of the Goethe). But of course teenagers relish challenges, so this made books (particularly foreign language books) even more precious to me.

I even believed I detected a physical similarity between myself and Anne Sexton…

This was the decade of poetry. With typical adolescent dramatics, I dressed in black as soon as I got out of my school uniform and moodily recited French poetry in particular (Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Verlaine). I WAS Sylvia Plath (at least on those days when I wasn’t Anne Sexton or Colette or Virginia Woolf or Marina Tsvetaeva, all women who inspired me with their poetry and their lifestyles). I also fell in love with Romanian poetry (Octavian Goga, Tudor Arghezi, George Bacovia and Lucian Blaga) and the romantic, lyrical and often quite funny writing of Ionel Teodoreanu’s trilogy of nostalgic novels about life in the Romanian countryside before Communism La Medeleni. 

Twenties:

This was a busy decade. At university I succumbed to the philosophy and lit crit craze and liberally sprinkled my essays and discussions with references to Derrida, Lacan, Chomsky, Julia Kristeva, Emil Cioran, Eliade… basically, anything that was as far removed from dialectical materialism as possible. I also discovered the joys of Japanese literature and quickly developed a passion for Dazai Osamu, Yosano Akiko and Akutagawa which has never left me since. In our small Japanese group of students, there were two camps: the Kawabata fans and the Mishima fans. I have to admit I was (perhaps the only one?) in the latter camp, although I became a much more critical reader later on.

I also discovered social anthropology in this decade and the works of Levi-Strauss, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Max Weber became as exciting to me as any novels. I came to it just on the cusp of the criticism of the paternalistic attitudes, the role of the anthropologist as an observer and the biases that they bring into the field or how their very presence affects the communities which they claim to observe in a non-interfering way.

Thirties:

You might argue that I was exhausted after all of my studies or too tired after having children, but I have no qualms at all about shifting almost entirely to crime fiction in my 30s. I had always read some crime (obvious contenders like Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Simenon), but now I devoured all of the crime fiction I could find at my local library. I particularly enjoyed books which really captured the atmosphere of a city or country, like Michael Dibdin’s Zen series set in Italy, Ian Rankin’s Rebus of Edinburgh, Martin Beck’s Sweden, Barbara Nadel’s Istanbul, Fred Vargas bringing historical touches to contemporary France, Jakob Arjouni’s beneath-the-surface of boring old Frankfurt, Qiu Xialong’s Shanghai stuck between the past and the present. But I never turned down any of the regional or cosy crime writers either: Veronica Stallwood’s Oxford, for example, or M. C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin.

Forties:

The decade when I rediscovered writing, as well as reading far more widely, reviewing and blogging. I’ve returned to poetry, I still keep up with crime fiction, I still enjoy books set in the whole wide world, opening me up to new cultures, ideas and ways of being. You can discover many of the new authors I got to appreciate in the past few years by looking back at my blog, for example: Jean-Claude Izzo, Pascal Garnier, Romain Gary, to mention just the French (well, I did spend quite a large chunk of time in France). I’ve discovered far too many new crime fiction authors to mention in one post, and I’ve also stretched my wings to take in more world literature (beyond my comfort zone of Europe and Japan).

I would love to hear about your own bookish journey through the decades, either in the comments below or perhaps on your own blog. It’s funny how you start to see certain patterns emerging…

 

 

Half Year Mark: Favourite Books So Far

We are halfway through the calendar (well, a little bit over, but who’s counting) and I wanted to take a look back at all I have read and jot down some favourites before I forget them in the end of year scramble. [Instead of the book covers, which I have already used in previous posts about those books, I thought I would include pictures of my two favourite libraries in London instead.]

A noirish picture of Senate House which seems to have stepped out of a Graham Greene novel.

According to my Goodreads counter, I’ve read 75 books so far this year. There have been some periods when I could barely concentrate on reading, when I was too het up with work and personal matters, but on the whole it’s not a bad number, an average of 12.5 books a month. It feels like it’s been a good mix of male and female authors, translated or foreign language books and English language ones, and a broad mix of genres. Here are the books which really stayed with me long after I read them (in chronological order of reading):

César Aira: The Lime Tree

The first Asymptote Book Club title, which I read just in time to ring in the New Year, and gave me a hunger to read more by this author. I love his slapdash style and the way he zooms in on the fine detail, then telescopes out to describe the historical and social issues of his country.

Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson – A Rather Haunted Life

This gave me so much insight into the life of one of my favourite authors. Suddenly, a lot of things became clear to me, and, although it was sad, it was somehow not as depressing as the Blake Bailey biography of Richard Yates. P.S. Why do so many writers I admire have difficult relationships with their mothers?

Senate House Library

Michelle McNamara: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Not usually a fan of true crime, which I always feel slightly icky about because of its voyeuristic qualities and because it focuses so much on the criminal instead of the victims. But this book (which has now deservedly achieved higher visibility because of the finding of the killer she describes) gets the balance just right. Yes, it is the story of a woman’s – and a group’s – obsession with a killer who made life in California hell for several years in the 1970s, but it also is compassionate and respectful towards the victims.

Bibhutibhushan Bopadhyandyaya: Aranyak

Another Asymptote Book Club title, an immersive experience of a lost world. It may not be the most flawless book from the storytelling point of view – in fact, it often feels more like anthropological field notes rather than a novel (and I know not everyone finds the two equally fascinating). But there are beautifully nuanced observations (as well as blind spots) and lyrical descriptions of the forests which I loved.

Senate House Library, the Periodicals room.

Hanne Ørstavik: Love

OK, you’re going to think I’m just doing one long advertisement for the Asymptote Book Club, but I’ve honestly been blown away by their selection of books, most of which have pushed me a little beyond my comfort zone (which I like to think is plenty spacious enough already, but there is always room for more). This quietly devastating story about looking for love in all the wrong places had my heart in my throat all the time while reading it.

Karin Brynard: Weeping Waters

As a crime novel this may not be quite perfect (I guessed the perpetrator fairly early on, although the author does its best to create a list of suspicious characters), but it is a hard-hitting description of rural life in South Africa, the life that so few tourists get to see. It really helps us to understand the Afrikaner mentality a bit better, and tries not to take sides in the tricky matter of land ownership and race in that beautiful but troubled country. It got me doing more research on ‘plaasmord’ and South African history.

My beloved old British Library reading room, back when it was housed in the British Museum

George Orwell: Down and Out in Paris and London

So grateful the David Bowie Book Club made me reread this one, as it seems to be ever more appropriate to the present-day.

Fiona Mozley: Elmet

A debut novel that is the reverse of Cold Comfort Farm, in many ways. Instead of parody of the gloomy, dramatic portrayals of country life, we have a modern take on life in the countryside which seems to not have changed much for the better. Like Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter, this is both a family story and the description of a very tough way of life, which is being encroached upon by big agriculture and developers. The prose was so poetic and accurate, that I was completely won over.

Olga Tokarczuk: Flights

I started reading this under the impression that it was a collection of essays rather than a novel, and I’m still not quite sure what it is. But it doesn’t matter. This constellation novel is a jazz improvisation on the subject of travelling, escaping, finding freedom, and it’s the flights of fancy which charmed me.

What books have inveigled their way into your heart this year? And do you think they will continue to claim their spot in your heart until the end of the year?

The modern British Library

 

#6Degrees July: From Tales of the City…

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. I had to take part in this month’s chain, because it starts with one of the formative books of my student days.

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City is about a group of people living on Barbary Lane in San Francisco, and features a mix of gay and straight characters. Revolutionary for the time and decidedly too hot to handle for Romanian censorship. Who would want to read about those decadent, vice-riddled Imperialist swine? Well, of course, all my classmates and me! So we read bootlegged versions of it in 1988 or so, long after the first book in the series was first published, and after AIDS had started decimating the gay community.

Another banned book in 1980s Romania was Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, presumably because it had been embarrassing for the Soviet Union when Pasternak had been awarded the Nobel Prize for a manuscript which had been smuggled out the country. Yet everyone I knew had read this book, translated into French or English or by some other means.

 

 

The second book in the link is The Accusation, a short story collection written by an anonymous North Korean writer known only as Bandi, because this manuscript was also smuggled out of that secretive country. I haven’t read it yet, and I don’t think it will contain many surprises for anyone who has lived in a dictatorship, and I have heard conflicting reports about its literary qualities. So perhaps more of a book to bear witness than one that creates great literature. Equally important, though, in this case.

My third book has also been pooh-poohed regarding its literary merits, namely The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Its popularity is so huge, that I’m sure the author couldn’t care less if people think she is not entirely original or extremely sophisticated. I’ve tried to read it, but possibly came across it too late to enjoy it, plus I read too many YA novels with a similar premise (well, not too many, it’s a genre that I don’t read that much, but as many as I can take).

One YA book which I recently read and was very much moved by was Sarah Crossan’s Moonrise. Written as a prose-poem, it’s the story of Joe, whose brother is on death row and the summer they get to spend ‘together’ once the date of execution has been announced. It is a searing condemnation of the death penalty, as well as a poignant story of sibling love. Not gimmicky at all, just believable emotions and characters to which you’ll get really attached.

I tried to get my children to read Moonrise as well, but they never pay the slightest attention to my recommendations. Even reverse psychology doesn’t work. Back in the days when they were younger and listened more to me, we read together for bedtime stories the whole Moomin series by Tove Jannson, and they still like revisiting some of those stories now, and saying things like ‘Bless my tail!’ or pointing out that certain mushrooms look like Hattifatteners and so on. The first story we ever read together was Finn Family Moomintroll with the Hobgoblin’s sinister hat.

The final link also features hats and is actually a Spanish children’s title which has not been translated into English yet, as far as I’m aware. 7 hombres con bombin (7 Men in Bowler Hats) by Alex Nogués (illustrated by Silvia Cabestany) was published in 2015. I haven’t read it but the blurb sounds intriguing and it was part of the UK panel’s choice of books for Spanish books to be recommended to publishers for translation in 2017:

‘In my city there were seven men who wore bowler hats. They always went about together. They were serious, stuffy, wore only black and twirled their moustaches. Until one day the wind swept one of the hats far, far away and showed them something new.’ Seven Men in Bowler Hats is a story to make us think, laugh and reflect. It takes us to that place where all of us should go from time to time: to the unknown…

San Francisco, Russia, North Korea, Dystopia, Texas, Finland and Spain – what a journey we’ve been on this month! Where will your links take you?

Not a New Situation

For all those who have been paying attention to the debate about increasing diversity in publishing or Lionel Shriver’s fears that opening up to diverse content might also dilute that content somehow (and she is not the only one who feels the citadelle is under attack), for all those who were surprised by the fact that in 2018 people are still calling for the decolonisation of the curriculum… this is not a new thing by any means. This has been going on since the 1960s at the very least. Why hasn’t it progressed more? Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason has some suggestions.

Shunting ethnic and women’s studies into a minority ghetto was the easiest thing to do. The creation of intellectual ghettos expanded the number of faculty jobs and left the still overwhelmingly white male faculties free to teach history or American literature or sociology as they had always taught it – from a white male viewpoint. One of the dirty little secrets of many white liberal on college campuses for the past thirty years has been that they share Bloom’s contempt for multiculturalism but do not openly voice their disdain. Saul Bellow’s famous remark: ‘Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?’ resonates throughout academia today. In the early nineties, there was grumbling in academia when Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved began to make its way into college English syllabuses with what was considered unseemly speed.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

Jacoby’s book is full of well-evidenced critical insights which apply not only to Americans, and which should make us question our own flawed ways of thinking.

Many Americans simply do not understand the distinction between the definitions of theory in everyday life and in science. For scientists, a theory is a set of principles designed to explain natural phenomena, supported by observation, and subject to proofs and peer review… IN its everyday meaning, however, a theory is nothing more than a guess based on limited information or misinformation – and that is exactly how many Americans view a scientific theory such as Einstein’s theory of relativity or Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Jacoby starts her book in a humorous manner, commenting on the rise of ‘folks’ in public discourse. A few decades ago, the general American public was being addressed as ‘the people’ or ‘ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. But now it’s all about ‘folks’ to denote both exclusion (us folks vs. them terrorists for example) and inclusion (‘I’m down with the lads’ stance of politicians). She clearly attributes this to a dumbing down of culture and explores the multiple reasons behind this.

There are many interesting ideas in this book which explain some of those American traits which irritate foreign observers. The tendency towards fundamentalism and anti-rational discourse, partly as a result of no national curriculum and certain states setting their own ideological agenda in schools. She talks about the harsh life on the frontier which made people throughout American history prefer the harsher religions with more simplistic messages of struggle, sin and repentance (but then, why didn’t Australia develop in this way too?). She quotes from Bill Moyers, who is constantly under attack for his pro-science and pro-rationalist programmes on TV: ‘Theology asserts propositions that cannot be proven true; ideologues hold stoutly to a worldview despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. The offspring of ideology and theology are not always bad, but they are always blind. And that is the danger: voters and politicians alike, oblivious to the facts.’

In the land of politicized anti-rationalism, facts are whatever folks choose to believe.

It is a dense and somewhat depressing book to read – you’ll need to allow plenty of time for it. But let me end on this beautiful 1791 speech by Condorcet (French mathematician, liberal intellectual and revolutionary, who ended badly in the Jacobin bloodbath) about the purpose of public education for the individual, the community and contributing to the public good:

To afford all members of the human race the means of providing for their needs, of securing their welfare, of recognising and fulfilling their duties; to assure for everyone opportunities of perfecting their skill and rendering themselves capable of the social duties to which they have a right to be called; to develop to the utmost the talents with which nature has endowed them and, in so doing, to establish among all citizens a true equality and thus make real the political equality realised by law…

Why is it still so difficult to accept that and work towards it, nearly 230 years later?

 

Reading, Borrowing and Buying Update

You might think that after my splurge last week at Hay on Wye, I would be more careful about buying books. Well, you would think wrong, although that’s only because I received an Amazon voucher which made Homer’s Odyssey in the translation of Emily Wilson affordable (I’d been waiting for it to come out in paperback but was really, really keen to read it.) And, once that purchase was made, the dam was broken and a lot more books starting gushing out.

You may have seen Salt Publishing’s appeal on Twitter #JustOneBook, asking their fans to buy just one book from them as they were on the brink of bankruptcy. Now, however you feel about their sudden closure of their poetry section (I have a few poet friends who were upset about the way they did it), I still want independent publishers to survive, as they are the ones who give us that much-needed variety and more experimental works. So I bought The Black Country by Kerry Hadley-Pryce – anything but cheery. Then that pesky Anthony from Times Flow Stemmed mentioned Jane Bowles, so I had to track down a second-hand copy of Two Serious Ladies. I also happened to pop into the vintage Penguin section of Waterstones Gower Street and found one of my favourite Ngaio Marshes Artists in Crime, plus The Unspeakable Skipton by Pamela Hansford Johnson. This latter author had been mentioned and reviewed recently by Ali, and you know what a weakling I am when it comes to your recommendations.

Other books arrived by prior appointment. Asymptote Book Club’s May offer was Yan Ge’s The Chilli Bean Paste Clan from China – I’m a great fan of both Chinese literature and families (and bean paste, although I prefer it in my desserts usually), so this is a must-read-next. For review, I received a Greek book (perfect description of the surreal post-crisis Athens and homeless lifestyle) Baby Blue by Pol Koutsakis from Bitter Lemon Press. By way of contrast, I also received a noir novel set in rural Lancashire, Mere by Carol Fenlon, from Thunderpoint Publishing. In electronic format I received two jet-setter books (crime with an international setting) Return to Hiroshima by Belgian author Bob van Laerhoven and Dead in the Water by Simon Bower. Last but by no means least, I couldn’t resist getting Roxanne Bouchard’s We were the Salt of the Sea, because: Quebec, Orenda Books, special offer on Kindle!

In terms of borrowing, I’ve reserved Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot at my local library, but will only get to read them after the Women’s Prize for Fiction winner has been announced.

And for my #20booksofsummer update, I’ve taken just 2 days to read the delightfully sunny Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions by German author (of Italian origin) Mario Giordano. It’s like an expat version of Camilleri’s Montalbano, but with a feisty middle-aged woman as the main protagonist. 1 down, 19 to go! Next one I am already halfway through is The Single Mums’ Mansion, which I thought would also be lovely comedic escapism. But alas, it’s a little too much about divorce and bad behaviours, so may not be the best escapism in my current situation!