Most Obscure from My Shelves – Anglo Favourites

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

On the top of my centre-right bookshelf I have an odd assortment of old editions by favourite authors (many of which I bought second-hand at school jumble sales). Here are three which I have read many times and probably will reread in the future.

Sylvia Plath: Letters Home

This book represents my ‘way into’ Sylvia Plath, who became one of my favourite poets (she still is, by the way, although I am less interested in her biography by now). I found this rather massive book in the English language bookshop in Vienna when I was about 12 and had no idea who Sylvia Plath was. In fact, I thought it was going to be a bit like Daddy-Long-Legs, which was a book I loved at the time (the film too, with Cyd Charisse). Clearly, my parents had no idea who she was either, or they might not have approved the purchase of it for their overly dramatic, moody, poetically inclined pre-teen. But of course, this is the carefully sanitised version of Sylvia that her mother got to see. Nevertheless, impressive enough to make me scoop up everything else she had ever written or that had ever been written about her.

Elizabeth Goudge: The Herb of Grace

This is one of those books I came across at a book sale. Although the cover was pink and yellow (an uneasy combination of colours), I picked it up because I loved the author, having read The Little White Horse aloud to my mother while she was cooking, and also enjoyed The White Witch, The Middle Window and The Heart of the Family (I laboriously ticked all the other books I’d read on the inside cover). Again, I must have been 12-13 at the time and I’m not sure what I got out of this book about post-war trauma, adultery, forgiveness, love and friendship, other than the many references to The Wind in the Willows. Goudge’s style feels old-fashioned and quaint nowadays, has perhaps not aged as well as Barbara Pym or Elizabeth Taylor, but she was my introduction to that kind of writing, which one might call the ‘furrowed English middlebrow with an ironic raise of the eyebrow’. I don’t mean any contempt, by the way, as I love this writing style, although as I grew up I tended to prefer the more mordant wit of Muriel Spark or Nancy Mitford.

Now that I am reading the Cazalet chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard, I can say that this trilogy reminds me of that better-known series.

Lawrence Durrell: Monsieur

Having adored Gerald Durrell’s evocation of his family’s life in Corfu, which we had read out to us in class while we were doing arts and crafts (I was always far more interested in the book than in the crafty side of things), I borrowed Lawrence Durrell as soon as I could from the library (ah, the charms of benign neglect by parents and librarians!). The baroque prose and evocative landscapes of the Alexandria Quartet enchanted me. I soon graduated to the Avignon Quintet, of which this is one, perhaps my favourite, with its description of Christmas in a crumbling chateau in Provence (yep, the love of chateau and France have been a constant in my life). What would I think of it twenty-odd years later if I were to reread it? I now prefer the more pared down style of writing, so would it give me indigestion from all the riches?

Most Obscure on My Shelves – the Far East

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

I wish I could say I had a large selection of Chinese, Korean and other literature, but who am I kidding? My main contact with the ‘Orient’ has been via Japan. I’ve tried to stay away from my obvious favourite fiction, however, like Dazai Osamu or Genji Monogatari or Mishima Yukio. None of those are obscure enough…

Charles A. Moore (ed.): The Japanese Mind

I was rather smitten with this when I first started studying Japanese, but in the meantime I’ve recognised it for what it is: another brick in the wall of the myth of Japanese uniqueness. This – in a simplistic nutshell – is the propensity for both Western and Japanese historians, anthropologists, literary critics, philosophers and social scientists to claim that Japanese culture is so different from anything else that it is impossible for anyone outside Japan to truly understand it (or make any valid critical study of it). The words ‘enigmatic’ and ‘paradoxical’ appear so many times throughout this book. While I agree that Japan can seem quite alien to those who have grown up in the Western canon, there are so many Korean and Chinese influences, Buddhist influences and similarities of Shintoism to other pagan religions. Besides, can it not be said of any culture that it is quite unique (especially in the way it mixes and matches and borrows from others)?

This is not the cover page of the edition I have, because that one is white and does not come out well against the background.

Fujiwara Teika (ed.): Hyakunin Isshu – transl. and annotated by Iulia Waniek

A Hundred Poets with One Poem Each (the literal translation of the title) is a Japanese anthology of poetry from the early 13th century. Many of the poems, however, are much older, going back to the 7th century, and the reason why we still have them today is thanks to Fujiwara’s tireless enthusiasm in collecting them. It remains to this day one of the most popular poetry  books in Japan – there is even a New Year’s card game based on intimate knowledge of the poems. The edition I own has each poem in Japanese plus translation, and a bit of commentary/history alongside each one. The poems were translated into Romanian by my former sensei at university, a talented Japanologist and now a good friend. For those of you who are not fluent in Romanian – really, how can you NOT be? – you can read the poems in English, with lovely illustrations and explanations on this site.

Theatre performance

Ruxandra Marginean Kohno: The Creative Tradition of Nō Theatre

I can’t resist boasting about another of my talented friends – a former classmate at university, who went on to complete her Ph.D. on the Nō Theatre in Japan, at the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo. Proving, once and for all, that Japanese culture can be understood and interpreted in a fascinating way by a Western scholar. The author goes beyond the ‘obvious suspect’ which is Zeami (one of the greatest actors and creators of Nō), looking especially at ways in which this type of theatre has been adapted and modernised following the massive cultural changes of the Meiji period (1868-1912), when Japan opened up to the Western world. Ruxandra has a special affinity with theatre, since both of her parents are actors, and she effortlessly weaves in references to Eric Hobsbawm, Umberto Eco, Foucault and Gadamer. This is a revised, bilingual version of her Ph.D. thesis (Japanese/Romanian), published in Romania in 2009.

 

 

Why It’s Painful to Watch The Handmaid’s Tale

Watching the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is proving to be a very traumatic experience for me, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to watch it to the end. Let me share a little bit of the reason why, although it is far bigger than the examples I mention below.

It’s not surprising that when the book was published in 1985, it was banned in Romania. This, despite the fact that it was set in America (we liked showing the corruption and failure of capitalist society) and  showed the pitfalls of a society heavily influenced by religion (religion is the opium of the people and us Communists were proudly atheist).

Scene from the recent TV adaptation on Hulu.

It’s obvious, however, that the Republic of Gilead symbolises any totalitarian state which imposes a single way of thinking, is harsh with anyone who dares to be different and brutally suppresses any form of dissent. Above all, it provided a striking parallel to Romania itself, that ‘paradise’ where everybody knew their place and worked for the greater good, and enjoyed the illusory safety of law and order (never mind how it was achieved). It was also one of the few countries of the world at the time where the state controlled women’s reproduction. The reason behind it was to produce enough citizens to lead the socialist revolution and build our glorious communist future.

I was a product of the law, one of the so-called ‘decreței’ (children born following Decree 770 introduced in 1967), banning any form of contraception and abortion. My mother suffered from heart disease and the doctors were not sure it was wise for her to have a child. She had me, but her health deteriorated sufficiently after that, that she was allowed to get away without having any more children. Other women were not so fortunate. There were only a few cases where you might be exempt from the rule:

  • if you were over the age of 45
  • if you already had 4 children (later raised to five)
  • if you had a life-threatening disease and would be unable to bear to term
  • if your pregnancy was the result of rape or incest (but see below about pregnancy tests for 14 year olds)

Contraceptives were not available at all and any doctors or nurses found giving them out (let alone performing abortions) were imprisoned.

Families continued to attempt to obtain black market contraceptives from abroad (there would be day trips to special markets for these in Yugoslavia), but many of them had expired or had potential side-effects, since they were given without any medical supervision. Plus you were always in danger of getting caught smuggling them in. Many women died or were permanently damaged having illegal abortions.

Stadium celebrations for national day under Ceausescu.

It was worse, of course, for those who could not afford children or smuggled contraceptives, since your extra bonus from the state for being a ‘heroine mother’ (additional benefits) only kicked in once you had eight or more children. Many women tried to disguise the pregnancies for as long as possible, wearing tight corsets or drinking strange concoctions to provoke a miscarriage. As a result, there was a high proportion of children born with malformations, health problems, general failure to thrive. Most of them ended up in orphanages, as did the children of women who had illicit affairs with foreign students (any physical contact with foreigners was punishable with imprisonment), especially when it was obvious that the child was mixed race.

From the age of 14 until 45, all women were required to go twice a year to have a gynaecological test. In fact, if you went to the doctor with any other ailment, you were sent to have a check for pregnancy anyway. Of course, if you were pregnant, you were then strictly monitored to make sure that you carried to term. If you suffered a natural miscarriage, you could be taken to court and had to prove your innocence.

Head down, blinkers on, pretend not to see a thing…

So that is the general picture. We all knew someone who had suffered from this law. A family friend who was a nurse was constantly persecuted and questioned, although she had only once referred a woman who fitted the legal criteria for an abortion. The wife of another friend, who was a talented professional singer, died following an infection after an illegal abortion and left behind two young children. (The reason I mention her profession is because there was the mistaken belief that only the poor were subjected to these harsh conditions, but it affected everyone.) Two of my classmates were forced to marry in the final year of high school when she could no longer disguise her pregnancy, but their child was born with severe birth defects and died less than a year later. Their marriage only lasted two years.

So there was suffering by proxy and also the direct experience. I was 14 when I returned to Romania and had barely ever kissed a boy, let alone had sex. Yet there I was, obliged to go through the rough handling by (always male, as far as I can remember) doctors. I will never forget my first time there, which marked the end of any trusting relationship with my mother.

Pioneers and Falcons, the glorious future of the Socialist Republic of Romania, archive image from latrecut.ro

I had scoliosis, but before I could get a referral for physiotherapy, I had to undergo the obligatory gyno-examination. A whole generation of doctors had not used contraceptives for 20 years, so they were very ignorant about anything to do with birth control or even developments in female sanitary products. Sanitary pads and tampons were not available in Romania until after the fall of the Wall, so the brash middle-aged gynaecologist had no idea that I was using Tampax or what effect it might have on the female anatomy. Of course, he didn’t bother to ask any questions, although I was so young.

So, after much prodding and shaking of the head, he turned and said to my mother: ‘So… she’s been a bit of a naughty girl, hasn’t she? No longer a virgin, I can see…’

The most painful part about this is that, despite all my protests, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, my mother (who has an almost grovelling belief in the infallible god-like nature of doctors) believed him and lost faith in me that very day. Everything that followed, all the policing and monitoring, shaming and punishing, reading of diaries and interference in my private life even after I left home has come about as a direct consequence of that day.

It’s very difficult for me to talk about these things, even though I believe we should never forget the mistakes of the past if we want to build a more humane future. Alas, I don’t think I have many illusions left that personal stories give us an insight or change people’s minds. Even celebrity stories are just there for titillation and tut-tutting.

But fiction can. Especially when it is well-written. If the book and the TV series The Handmaid’s Tale can alert those who have not lived through this trauma to fight against such extremism, they will have done their job. Even if I cannot watch it to the end.

I’ve just been made aware there is a documentary about abortion policy in Romania, directed by Florin Iepan. 

http://abortionfilms.org/en/show/3487/das-experiment-770-gebaren-auf-befehl/

 

 

Six Degrees of Separation: From Shopgirl to…

Hosted each month by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, the Six Degrees of Separation meme picks a starting book for participants to go wherever it takes them in six more steps. This month’s starting point was suggested by Annabel.

Shopgirl by Steve Martin. I had no idea that comedian Steve Martin wrote novels, but apparently this one is a bit of a satire about life in LA, as well as a love story.

Lonely, depressed Vermont transplant Mirabelle Buttersfield, who sells expensive evening gloves nobody ever buys at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills and spends her evenings watching television with her two cats. She attempts to forge a relationship with middle-aged, womanizing, Seattle millionaire Ray Porter while being pursued by socially inept and unambitious slacker Jeremy.

So my second pick is purely picked for the title which sounds fairly similar. 1) Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic. I haven’t read this one either and I can think of nothing less likely for me to pick up, as I hated that whole Bridget Jones, Ally McBeal and ditzy single shopaholic chick scene which seemed so prevalent when I first started working in London in the late 1990s.

 

The third book is a bit of a leap, but bear with me… I’ll be taking you to 18th century Geneva and Paris, via the 2) Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is an extraordinarily honest autobiography of one of the greatest minds – but also one of the greatest narcissists – of the Century of Lights. Here he lays out and examines, without too much artifice, his weaknesses and blind spots, his triumphs and mistakes, his way of life often contradicting his principles (abandoning his children when he wrote so eloquently about children’s better nature and the importance of education).

The next choice is obvious, because Rousseau’s greatest rival at the time was 3) Voltaire. The two men started off by admiring each other’s work, but then disagreed on fundamental philosophical and moral issues and became arch-enemies. The turning point was the horrendous earthquake of Lisbon in 1755, when more than 60,000 people died. Rousseau said it should not make us doubt God’s kindness and that people brought it upon themselves by settling in cities with such dense populations. Voltaire was stunned by such heartlessness and produced in return the remarkable story of Candidea young man whose naive optimism and belief in God is sorely tested by earthquakes, syphilis, the Inquisition, murder and banishment. Mindless optimism, Voltaire contends, is stupid, unsustainable, a crime almost.

The two geniuses also fought about establishing a theatre in Geneva (Voltaire was for it, Rousseau against), so my next link is theatrical, a play which is somewhat linked to Candide, in that it presents scenes of life which test our belief in optimism and love.

4) Arthur Schnitzler’s Reigen (aka Liebelei, aka La Ronde) made a profound impression on me at the age of 13, when I saw it performed on stage. It’s brief scenes of ten couples (one of the couple linking to the next, like a daisy chain) before, during and after love-making and it is incredibly revealing about class and lifestyle in decadent, pre-war Vienna.

Speaking of decadence and pre-war jitters, I’ve recently read 5) Christopher Isherwood’s Prater Violet, which also mentions Vienna, although it features the period before a different world war. This slim yet powerful work is brilliant at dissecting how world events are perceived by different people and cultures, depending on how safe you consider yourself to be. It is also a biting satire of the film industry and features a semi-fictional portrait of Isherwood as a hapless scriptwriter.

 

Clearly, my final link has to be the film industry and so we move to LA once more together with 6) Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde, a vivid, poignant, epic reimagining of the story of one of the most idolised yet summarily dismissed and underestimated women of the film world, Marilyn Monroe.

So my journey this month takes me from selling gloves in a department store in LA to becoming an iconic film star in the same city, via London, Geneva, Paris and Vienna. You can follow this meme on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees or create your own blog post. Where will your 6 degrees of separation journey take you?

Most Obscure on My Shelves – the Hardbacks

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

Still on the right-hand side of my home library, I have those fine hardback books or special editions, which are bigger and bolder and more expensive than my usual paperback collections.

Pierre Bourdieu: Outline of a Theory of Practice

Published ages ago in 1972, it was still a required text when I began studying anthropology but has fallen out of favour since, I believe. Yet its chapter on sources of power and ‘Modes of Domination’ still rings true and very prescient. Legitimising the established order is done not just through law, but through education, not just through ideology but also through:

the overt connection between qualifications and jobs as a smokescreen for the connection –  which it records surreptitiously, under cover of formal equality – between the qualifications people obtain and the cultural capital they have inherited.

In other words, meritocracy is fantasy, in a world where the starting positions are already so weighed against certain categories of people. Bourdieu also notes that wealth , the ultimate basis of power, can only exert power durably when it is invested heavily with symbolic capital. The myth of those wonderfully talented bankers who are creating wealth for the nation, which will have a trickle-down effect, for instance.

This probably qualifies for ‘most boring cover’, because of course it is a serious work which cannot deal with such fripperies as design.

Barbara Pym: A Very Private Eye

This is an autobiography in diaries, letters and notebooks written by Barbara Pym., edited by her sister Hilary Pym and her friend Hazel Holt. Pym is one of my favourite English writers of the 20th century, but I knew very little about her life other than that she worked for the International African Institute for many years and had a sardonic view of anthropologists. This book was a present from a dear friend during my time in Cambridge.

Here is a lovely, poignant, feisty quote:

What is wrong with being obsessed with trivia? Some have criticised The Sweet Dove for this. What are the minds of my critics filled with? What nobler and more worthwhile things?

Alison Anderson: The Summer Guest

Alison is a wonderful writer and translator from French, part of the Geneva Writers Group. She has given us the voices of Muriel Barbery, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, Jean-Philippe Blondel, Amelie Nothomb, Anna Gavalda and LeClezio in English. This novel, published in 2016, is inspired by historical events and chronicles a summer in the life of Anton Chekhov and his friendship with a young girl, Zinaida, who is fatally ill. It is also the story of the missing manuscript of a novel that Chekhov is alleged to have written, so moves backwards and forwards in time. So there is a strong literary theme and a translation theme running through it, as well as a meditation on friendship and love which transcends time and place. Perfect summer reading, and I intend to do just that this summer…

Most Obscure on my Shelves – the Viragos

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while others are truly obscure choices bought half a lifetime ago at book sales. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I will spare you my professional books (anthropology, social sciences, business etc.), although I might mention the odd ‘professional’ one which has had a significant impact on me.

I’ll start from the right hand side of my bookshelves to the left, in true Japanese writing fashion. It so happens that all of them are Viragos today.

Gillian Slovo: Every Secret Thing

This is a memoir of Gillian’s remarkable and famous parents, Joe Slovo and Ruth First, South Africa’s pioneering anti-apartheid white activists. It is a wonderful historical picture of a country in turmoil, but also an intimate family portrait, warts and all. What does it feel like to come second to political commitments? What does it feel like to live with two wonderful, difficult, complicated people? As the author says in the introduction: ‘It was written in the heat of my passion to try and work out what my parents meant to me, and what they meant to the country to which they devoted their lives.’

I have a special additional fondness for Gillian, since she was (together with Sarah Dunant) my tutor for a brief but life-changing Faber writing course. So it’s a signed copy and very precious.

Nell Dunn: Up the Junction

When people bemoan the lack of working class voices in fiction, I usually point them in the direction of the Angry Young Men, but it’s true that there have been fewer of those in recent decades. And where were the Angry Young Women? Well, Nell Dunn qualifies as one of them. Although she originally came from a privileged background, she lived in Battersea and South London and came to know at first hand the young girls whose voices she so accurately captures in this collection of short stories, published in 1963. The grimy, less reported side of the Swinging Sixties, the stories feel like eavesdropping on conversations – they’re in equal parts comic and shocking, gritty and resilient. The film based on the book sanitised some of the darker aspects.

I read this book ages ago, borrowing it from the British Council library in Bucharest in my teens. I’ve never found it since, but then came across this battered copy at a charity shop in Manchester a couple of years ago.

Angela Carter (ed.): Wayward Girls and Wicked Women

The third Virago book is this anthology of stories of what one might call today ‘Nasty Women’, extolling those unfeminine virtues of discontent, impatience, sexual disruption and bad manners. These subversive stories by Leonora Carrington, Katherine Mansfield, Colette, Bessie Head, Luo Shuo, Jamaica Kincaid and others are all about being ‘not nice’. We find witches and prostitutes and fraudsters. Some of the stories are dark, some are funny, some are both and might make you squirm. It was one of the first books I bought when I came to London to study for my Ph. D. (about charismatic women in new religions, incidentally). But I’ll leave you with a quote from Angela Carter herself:

And all these disparate women have something else in common – a certain sense of self-esteem, however tattered. They know they are worth more than that which fate has allotted them. They are prepared to plot and scheme; to snatch; to battle; to burrow away from within, in order to get their hands on that little bit extra, be it of love, or money, or vengeance, or pleasure, or respect.

I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

Orenda Roadshow Comes to London Piccadilly

I always knew Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books was a formidable woman and a passionate publisher, but she really outdid herself this evening. Where else can you see 15 excellent and diverse writers, from 7 different countries (8 if you count Scotland), all in the space of two hours on a Wednesday night in central London?

The concept was simple but effective: each writer introduced themselves and their book briefly, then each read a passage. There was a bit of time for Q&A at the end, but time just flew by and I could have listened to them for hours. They are a fun bunch of writers, who have gelled together really well and build upon each other’s words at public events. While it was predominantly a psychological thriller/crime fiction sort of evening, there are also some authors who have written outside that genre: Su Bristow with her poetic retelling of the Selkie myth, Louise Beech with her heartbreaking portrayals of children and Sarah Stovell with the story of an obsessive love which reminded me of Notes on a Scandal.

Four Nations Game. From left to right: Gunnar Staalesen and Kjell Ola Dahl (Norway), Michael Malone (Scotland), Sarah Stovell, Matt Wesolowski, Steph Broadribb (all England), Kati Hiekkapelto (Finland).

This was followed by an enormous and delicious cake, aquavit to celebrate the National Day of Norway alongside more usual beverages, and lots of informal mingling and book signing.

Aren’t they all gorgeous? Sometimes I think Karen picks them for their looks as well as their talent. From left to right: Kati Hiekkapelto, Thomas Enger, Paul Hardisty, Louise Beech, Johanna Gustawson, Antti Tuomainen, Stanley Trollip from the writing duo Michael Stanley, Ragnar Jonasson, Su Bristow and Karen Sullivan.

It was great to also meet some of the others on the Orenda team: editor West Camel, distribution group Turnaround, cover designer Mark Swan. There were familiar faces of bloggers as well. Karen has managed to create a real feeling of community and genuine enthusiasm around her authors and publishing house, which feels more like family than corporate care.

Antti and Ragnar contemplating nautical tomes at Waterstones.
Two more Nordics for you: Ragnar Jonasson and Kjell Ola Dahl.

On the way there I was musing about Orenda’s ‘brand’. Karen makes no apologies about offering entertainment, but it is page-turning, original, good entertainment, rather than one relying on ‘more of the same cliché-churning drivel that is currently making money’, which some of the publishing giants are turning out. I may not love all of the books equally (I am not a huge action thriller fan, for example), but I have not disliked or left any Orenda book unread. I can count on them to entertain and enlighten, make me laugh and cry, while some of them have become huge favourites.

Of course I already owned all of the books, thanks to Orenda’s wonderful habit of involving bloggers and reviewers pre-release, but that didn’t stop me buying a few more to be signed or to give to friends. I also started Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski on the train on the way to the event and was so riveted that I did not stop until I finished it last night (or early this morning, rather).

Matt with his original, inventive debut novel.

The Roadshow will be stopping at Crimefest in Bristol next, so go and see them there if you get a chance. Congratulations to all, and I can’t wait to see what you are all up to next.