WWWednesday 18th April, 2018

Let’s try once more to do the spring season then and hope that this time it’s here to stay. My April turn to take part in the meme 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?

A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.

I seem to be travelling quite extensively in this week’s selection of books: Germany, France, Japan and Iran.

Current:

Philip Kerr: Prussian Blue

I’d forgotten how much fun Berliner Bernie Gunther is, especially across two timelines – on the brink of war in 1939 in Berchtesgaden and in 1956 France. Second World War and Cold War collide in spectacular fashion, with each crime having endless ramifications. 1939: A sniper assassinates a construction engineer on the very terrace of Hitler’s villa on the mountaintop in Bavaria. 1956: Bernie is on the run as he refuses to collaborate with the Stasi and fears for his life. Good old-fashioned suspense, wit, well-developed characters and attention to period detail – I will miss Kerr!

Just read: 

Yuko Tsushima: Territory of Light, transl. Geraldine Harcourt

A book initially published in monthly instalments in a literary magazine in 1978-79, which explains why in the story it is still so difficult for a woman to demand a divorce and live successfully as a single mother (especially in conservative Japan). There is no story as such, merely a succession of thematic snapshots of coming to terms with a new way of life. Light crops up both as an actual detail (they live on the top floor of an apartment block, bathed in light, which is what attracted the narrator to the location), and of course metaphorically.

Next: 

Négar Djavadi: Disoriental, transl. Tina Kover

In the waiting room of a Parisian fertility clinic Kimiâ Sadr is preparing for fertility treatment. She is the only one there without a partner, but she has more than enough family (both immediate and extended, alive and remembered over generations) surrounding and influencing her, and she tells the saga of her family like a modern-day Scheherazade, as she straddles that uncomfortable border between her ‘homeland’ Iran and her feeling of ‘disorientalisation’ as she grew up in France.

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#6degrees April: From Memoirs of a Geisha to…

Only just got back from holiday, but I really want to participate in one of my favourite monthly memes: the Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate in Kew

This month’s starting point is Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, which I read while I was studying Japanese at university, so I was really snobbish and dismissive about it at the time. There is an element of exotification the Oriental Other and a strain of soap opera about it which still doesn’t sit well with me, but it’s been a gateway to Japanese culture and literature for many, many people. Incidentally, if you are looking for a more honest account of life as a geisha in post-war Japan, Iwasaki Mineko (the geisha whom the author based the book on) wrote her side of the story in her autobiography Geisha of Gion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another book that casts a non-judgemental look upon what some call the ‘oldest profession in the world’, but without the glamour and rigid rules that have been associated with it in Japan, is G. B. Shaw’s play Mrs. Warren’s ProfessionHow do you come to terms with your mother being a former prostitute and now a brothel madam, when her money offered you a comfortable lifestyle and supported you through your studies? Well, although I am not a fan of prostitution, I certainly don’t blame women for it, so I think both Shaw and I disapprove of the self-righteous daughter’s shock and rejection of her mother’s way of life.

The mother-daughter relationship is such a rich source of fiction and memoir, so it was quite hard to make a choice for my next link, but Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain is a brilliant story about an ungrateful daughter whose mother has made far too many sacrifices for her. The film version is (dare I say it?) far better though (and I don’t often say that), with Joan Crawford being absolutely devastating in it.

 

One of the best books I’ve ever read on the subject of divorce and how to survive a cheating spouse is a volume of poetry. Sharon Old’s Stag’s Leap is ferociously honest, at once heartwarming and heartbreaking, chronicling the end of a marriage from anger, disbelief, grief to final acceptance and moving on.

…and I saw, again, how blessed my life has been,

first, to have been able to love,

then, to have the parting now behind me,,

and not have lost him when the kids were young,

and the kids now not at all to have lost him,

and not to have lost him when he loved me, and not to have

lost someone who could have loved me for life.

From a leap to a jump, Austin Ratner’s The Jump Artist is a novel/biography of the photographer Philippe Halsman, born in a Latvian Jewish family, accused of murdering his father in 1928 and freed after numerous appeals by friends such as Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann and others. He lived and worked in Paris until France was invaded by the Germans, then moved to the States. He became famous as a portrait photographer who asked many of his subjects to jump, because ‘when you ask a person to jump, his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping and the mask falls so that the real person appears.’

One of the people Halsman photographed jumping is Stanley Hyman, Shirley Jackson’s husband. In the thoughtful biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin, we read that in the first take Hyman jumped so high that the frame only captured his feet. Halsman did not expect a sedentary scholar to be so competitive – and the image he did finally capture shows a person so self-absorbed and demanding (of himself and others), that it does indeed give us an insight into the tough-emotionally-yet-satisfying-intellectually marriage Shirley Jackson must have had with him.

For once, I have stayed largely within the English-speaking realm this month, and on the verge of biographies/real life stories. Where do your Six Degrees take you?

 

 

 

 

 

WWWednesday 21 March 2018

First proper day of Spring, apparently, so I thought I would take part once more in what is in fact a weekly (but to me more like monthly) meme 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?

A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.

Current:

It’s nice to have friends who write crime fiction, as you have a never-ending supply of books that you want to read. I always make a point of reading the blog posts of Margot Kinberg and Rebecca Bradley, who are keen crime readers as well as writers, so it is an absolute pleasure to delve into their recent releases.

Rebecca Bradley: Fighting Monsters

This is the third book (plus a novella) in the crime series set in Nottingham and featuring DI Hannah Robbins and it’s fair to say that, as the book opens, Hannah has been through the mill. A colleague was killed in action (something she still blames herself for), she herself was wounded, her relationship with an attractive journalist has ended… and now it appears she may have a leak in her own team. How else would gang leader and cop killer Simon Talbot walk away freely and triumphantly after his trial, and in possession of the name of the witness who spoke out against him?

Margot Kinberg: Downfall

This is the fourth novel featuring ex-cop turned professor of criminal justice Joel Williams. In this book Joel is conducting some research with two friends of his into alternatives to prison for young offenders and come across the organisation Second Chance. In one of their schools a young boy died after sneaking out and climbing up a building on a construction site. But if it was merely an unfortunate accident, why is everyone trying so hard to cover it up?

Just read:

Two rather emotional but very different reads, one slim and concise, taking place over the course of one night, one long and rangey, taking place over several decades and countries.

Hanne Ørstavik: Love, transl. Martin Aitken

The story of a single mother and her young son, both of them dreamers, both of them slightly naive and wanting to believe the best of people, both of them doomed to be forever disappointed. Over the course of one cold night, they roam around town, and your sense of foreboding gets worse and worse. A book that broke my heart a little.

Victor Del Arbol: A Million Drops, transl. Lisa Dillman

It’s being marketed as a crime novel, but it is more of a historical saga of betrayal and revenge, Fascism and Communism, in both Spain and the Soviet Union, as seen through the eyes of individuals who lived through those troubled times. The atrocious conditions of Nazino Island in Siberia were so vividly described that I thought it must be fiction, only to discover that this place really did exist.

Next:

I’ll be going to two countries I like very much (despite their -very different – problems) with my next two books: South Africa and Germany.

Karin Brynard: Weeping Waters, transl. Maya Fowler and Isabel Dixon

A young artist and her adopted daughter are brutally murdered on a farm near the Kalahari. But was this just a typical farm attack, or was it something more personal? Townie Inspector Beeslaar has his hands full trying to get his head around this landscape with its tensions, secrets and hostilities.

Ödön von Horváth: Jugend ohne Gott

I so enjoyed rediscovering Horváth in the German section of the library, that I already have my eye on reading another book by him, this time a novel about a teacher who watches, horrified, as his students become enamoured with racist and Fascist ideology.

Oh, dear, all the subjects seem rather grim as I write them up here. Clearly I’m not much of a believer in uplifting, feel-good literature, right?

International Women’s Day: Never Too Many Heroines

I’ve written in the past about women who have inspired me, for International Women’s Day in 2015, 2016 and on other occasions. But we can never hear too much about women who have been sidelined, neglected or even remembered for the wrong reasons, can we? Here are a few more to remember on this day.

Ono no Komachi

Later portrait of Ono no Komachi.

You know that I am a big fan of Murasaki Shikibu, the author of The Tale of Genji, but the Heian period in Japan was full of gifted women writers and poets. Although very few biographical details are available, we do know that Ono no Komachi undoubtedly existed, was a court lady famous for her beauty and one of the ‘Six Poetic Geniuses’ cited by Ki no Tsurayki, included in the most famous Japanese collection of classical poetry: Hyakunin Isshu. Her waka poems about love, loss, aging are beautiful and timeless, and she became a heroine of numerous Noh plays as well.

I had thought to pluck
the flower of forgetfulness
only to find it
already blossoming in his heart.

Colette

I’ve mentioned her before, I’m sure. I love the sensual phrasing and pitch-perfect, slightly ironic observation of humans by this French writer. She started out in theatre and her writing/storytelling talent was exploited by her husband Willy, but she then became so much more famous than him. She lived as she pleased, scandalously bisexual, a bit of a cougar, and certainly a cat person.

It’s so curious: one can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief. But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer… and everything collapses.

There are no ordinary cats.

Sylvie Guillem

One of the most beautiful and powerful dancers I have ever had the pleasure of watching. Those were the days, when I first came to London and could watch her and Darcey Bussell alternating in the same roles on cheap student tickets (and occasionally Viviana Durante and Miyako Yoshida. Darcey was perhaps a tad more lyrical and ingenue, but Sylvie was spectacular, athletic, almost miraculous in her stretches and jumps, much more willing to explore new forms and go beyond classical ballet. She did not suffer fools gladly, spoke her own mind relentlessly and, in a world of silent, obedient ballerinas, became known as the spiky Mademoiselle Non.

Having limits to push against is how you find out what you can do. I have always been full of contradictions. I am shy but I love the freedom of the stage. I need reassurance but at the same time I don’t want it. I hate being afraid but I can’t help wanting to frighten myself. That is how you grow.

Marina Tsvetaeva

Tsvetaeva by Magda Nachman-Acharya.

One of my favourite poets in any language, she experienced just about the most troubled times imaginable in Russian history, with grim repercussions for her own family. One daughter died of starvation in the famine which followed the First World War and Civil War, she and her family were exiled for their anti-Bolshevik stance but when her husband developed pro-Soviet sympathies and they returned home, he was executed as a spy and her second daughter was imprisoned, while her son died later on the front in WW2. Not surprising that she decided to end her life in 1941.

And I won’t be seduced by the thought of my native language, its milky call.
How can it matter in what tongue I am misunderstood by whoever I meet.
For my country has taken so little care of me that even the sharpest spy could
Go over my whole spirit and would detect no native stain there.
Houses are alien, churches are empty, everything is the same.
But if by the side of the path one particular bush rises, the rowanberry…

 

#6Degrees of Separation: March 2018

It’s time for #6degrees over on Kate’s blog. Start at the same place as other wonderful readers, add six books, and see where you end up! This month’s starting point is Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, which I read a few years after it came out (while doing my anthropology course). I remember it made me furious at the time – because I saw so much that I knew to be true in it, and it seems to continue to hold true, even after all the balooney about airbrushing and expensive creams have been exposed.

Another book which makes me angry, because I realise how little has changed since it was written is James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native SonI was also fascinated by the differences he notices in the treatment of black people (and how they perceive themselves) in America and in France. There is also a rather sinister chapter set in a remote Swiss mountain village – which I suspect might play out almost identically today. Unless you are rich and throw money around as you go to the spa in Leukerbad, in which case they don’t notice your colour!

The book that spells Switzerland for pretty much all of us who grew up in Europe or saw the animated TV series back in the 1980s(?) is of course Heidi by Johanna Spyri. Full of nostalgia for childhood and for the healthy mountain air and simple life – despite the fact that back then goat herds were probably very poor indeed. It seems to have the opposite thesis to Baldwin’s account: that villagers and simple Alpine folk are much more generous and kind. But Switzerland is full of such contradictions: very rich people who try to appear casual and understated; welcoming to refugees yet very reluctant to integrate them.

My next link is somewhat tenuous – the author’s name is Heidi Julavits: The Folded Clock. It is a fascinating sweep through a woman’s mind, her past and future, her attempts at creativity – it is a strange sort of diary, quite hypnotic. I am fascinated by these recent non-fiction, dream-like, almost poetic sequences, although I don’t quite know what to call them. The cover is just beautiful, and I kept underlining passages of it, even though it didn’t quite hang together for me. A book for dipping into.

A very different diary is featured in the hilarious series by Sue Townsend which began with The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4. Fun though The Diary of a Wimpy Kid is, I believe this English series to be the original and the best. I read them later, when I was quite a bit older than Adrian himself, but I adored his rage against Thatcher and his adolescent pretentiousness (so similar to mine at that age). I haven’t read the last two, but am tempted to look them all up again in the library.

The book was adapted for TV in 1985 and more recently so has the Outlander series based on the books by Diana Gabaldon. Described as historical fiction meets sci-fi meets fantasy meets romance, it is not necessarily my type of book at all, but I have a vague recollection of reading a couple of them in the 1990s and being unable to put them down. I only remember something about the Scottish Highlands and clan wars now.

Books which are definitely my kind of thing and which I cannot put down are crime novels and the most recent one of this type which I’ve read (and which also contains some fantasy elements) is The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. I’ll be reviewing it shortly on Crime Fiction Lover, but it’s interesting to note that in the US Evelyn will be granted an additional half-death, as the title there will be The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. Bizarre!

There you go, I’ve tried to include other genres and something for all tastes in my links this month! Look forward to seeing what you’ve come up with.

 

 

 

David Bowie Book Club #2: James Baldwin

Baldwin and his nephew.

The February read for the David Bowie Book Club was James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, an essay about America’s racial divide which is sadly still all too relevant today. I’d read Giovanni’s Room and Go Tell It on the Mountain, but only fragments of his great body of essays, both personal and political, which are incontrovertibly fused in his work:

One writes out of one thing only – one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from his experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.

The Fire Next Time is a slim volume comprising an essay Down at the Cross and a letter to Baldwin’s nephew on the 100th anniversary of emancipation from slavery which is only a few pages long and acts as a sort of prelude to the other essay.

It’s an amazing and unforgettable polemical read. I was instantly captivated by the blazing passion and fury of the language and the argument. It is heart-breakingly honest and would inspire anyone with ‘fire in the belly’ at the injustice of race relations. In the letter to the nephew, things are spelled out directly and still feel applicable to so many discriminated and vulnerable people within present-day society (the often unconscious white middle class privilege we hear in the media):

You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence; you were expected to make peace with mediocrity… I know your countrymen do not agree with me about this, and I hear them saying, ‘You exaggerate.’

The essay proper is a memoir of the summer when Baldwin turned fourteen and experienced a kind of religious fervour. Why religion? Baldwin is remarkably clear-eyed about using religion as a tool  (or as he calls it ‘a gimmick’) to help him move beyond his background:

I was icily determined … never to make my peace with the ghetto but to die and go to Hell before I would let any white man spit on me… I did not intend to allow the white people of this country to tell me who I was and limit me that way… Every Negro boy… realizes that he … must find, with speed, a “thing”, a gimmick to lift him out, to start him on his way… And it was my career in the church that turned out, precisely, to be my gimmick.

However, it is not all plain sailing. The young boy is clearly caught up in the excitement of church, the music and drama of it, but at the same time he is puzzled at the apparent indifference of a white God to the plight of black people. He sees examples of anything but Faith, Hope and Charity, the principles he believed the Christian world was based on. He finds it absurd that people claim to love God only because they are afraid of going to Hell. He sees the paradox of church ministers becoming rich while their parishioners continue to scrub floors and put their hard-earned dimes into the collection plate. He decides there is no genuine love in the Christian church.

The boy grows up and encounters the Nation of Islam movement and Malcolm X, with their doctrine of a black God. Although he feels the anger of the black movement is justified, he finds himself equally alienated by their hatred of all things white. ‘I love a few people and they love me and some of them are white, and isn’t love more important than colour?’ This leads to a very powerful examination of what equality really means.

People are not terribly anxious to be equal… but they love the idea of being superior…. I am far from convinced that being released from the African witch doctor was worthwhile if I am now – in order to support the moral contradictions and the spiritual aridity of my life – expected to become dependent on the American psychiatrist. It is a bargain I refuse. The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power – and no one holds power forever.

Baldwin sets out the arguments so eloquently that it feels wrong to try and paraphrase them. It is such a brief and powerful piece that I would urge you to read it yourselves. It was previously not that easy to find, though, except in volumes of collected essays by Baldwin, but in 2017 a beautiful new edition was launched and won an award (see cover above). I will just close with a beautiful call to something one might call reconciliation:

In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation – if we are really, that is, to achieve out identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.

Baldwin’s house in St Paul de Vence, France. For more information about the state of the house now and attempts to save it, see this article.

1963 – we are now in 2018, 55 years later. Why is it still so difficult to accept that allowing someone to develop to their full capacity does not take away from any of your own potential? Why do we still have the hunter/gatherers’ mentality of scarce food resources, that if we give away some of our food we will starve? Even when what is often asked of us is not as basic as sharing food, but something like sharing the limelight? Call me naive, but I still think we should unite to save the planet and its weakest souls (animals, children, whatever) rather than fight amongst ourselves.

 

From Lincoln in the Bardo #6degrees

Kate has another challenge for us in linking books starting from Lincoln in the Bardo this month in Six Degrees of Separation. I haven’t read the book by George Saunders yet, but I do have it lined up somewhere in the cloud waiting for my new Kindle to arrive. (Yes, I can’t find my previous one, so had to give in and order a new one)

The book famously deals with American president Abraham Lincoln and his grief at losing his son. Another American almost-president who lost a son is Alexander Hamilton and I’ve been relishing the book about the making of the stage show Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda. (Congratulations, Lin-Manuel on the birth of your second child a couple of days ago!)

The degree to which Hamilton is viewed with envy by Aaron Burr and the way the story is narrated reminded me very much of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, where Salieri also grumbles and can’t quite believe that God wasted all his gifts on such an unworthy recipient (to his mind), yet finally realises his own mediocrity.

There are plenty of books with musical connections, but one which particularly stuck with me in recent years was The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes, showing three key moments in the life of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, his fear of the Soviet regime and his giving in to it (but forever haunted by that).

Of course, the book about censorship and destruction of culture is Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which terrified me when I first read it as a child. Perhaps because I was living in conditions which reminded me a bit of those extremes. Ah, those photocopied forbidden books, and badly dubbed bootlegged copies of forbidden films!

Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer also has a number in its title and is a tense thriller set in one of my favourite places on earth, Cape Town, and one of my favourite scruffy but reliable detectives, Benny Griessel. Not perhaps a glowing advertisement for visiting South Africa (as a young American tourist is hunted through the streets of the city), but a great sense of atmosphere.

For my final link, I will stick to another South African writer who I think deserves to be far, far better known, but whose downfall is perhaps that she writes across all genres. Lauren Beukes is one of the most creative minds in modern fiction and has achieved some recognition for The Shining Girls about a time-travelling serial killer (now that I’ve read Hawksmoor, it reminds me a little of that). But I would like to link here an earlier book of hers, Moxyland, a political thriller about race, discrimination and being controlled by technology.

So from 19th and 18th century America to Vienna to the Soviet Union and South Africa, as well as a couple of dystopian unnamed societies. Where will your bookish travels take you this month?