#6Degrees of Separation: May 2022

What a pleasure it is to let the mind wander this weekend to form bookish associations in the monthly Six Degrees of Separation meme, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we start with an Australian classic (has it really been that long?): True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. I read it when it first came out and I remember I found it pretty hard going (the vernacular, the lack of punctuation, the toxic masculinity and violence), but it would be too easy to make my first link another novel I struggled with (there are too many!). So instead, I will refer to the fact that it took a long time – nearly twenty years – for the book to be adapted for film (I haven’t watched the film yet but hear it’s quite impressive). So what other book took ages before it was adapted?

Well, there is a notorious one, which is still under development and seems to have been for the past 2-3 years, although it is labelled a TV mini-series: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, which was published in the same year as Peter Carey’s novel above. So twenty-two years and counting…

A simple connection for the next one – the word ‘clay’ in the title – and the long-awaited novel Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak. After the huge international success of his Book Thief, everyone was waiting with bated breath for his next move… and it took him nearly 12 years to complete it. In an interview, he said something like: ‘I’m a completely different person than the person who wrote The Book Thief but also a different person to the one who started Bridge of Clay 8-9 years ago … If I don’t get it done soon, I’ll probably have to set it aside.’ Wise words of advice to me as a budding novelist, I think!

Bridge of Clay features five brothers in Australia, but the most famous ‘band of brothers’ are the Dostoevsky’s Karamazovs in Tsarist Russia. Pleasure and duty, rationality and faith, free will versus fate, everything is up for discussion in this story of family ties gone very wrong. It also features a lengthy trial scene, and this is the link to my next book.

In L’Étranger by Albert Camus we have a courtroom scene where the accused Meursault refuses to conform to expectations, justify his actions or show remorse. A cold, clinical look at crime and punishment which is in marked contrast to Dostoevsky – Meursault is a man alienated from society and from himself.

Of course, I cannot mention the Camus novel without thinking of the very powerful response to it, the much more recent Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud (translated by John Cullen in 2015), a retelling of the story from the point of view of the brother of the Arab victim who didn’t even have a name in the Camus novel.

This retelling of a famous story from the point of view of what one might call a ‘secondary character’ is what brings me to the final link in this chain: the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard is probably one of my favourite examples of witty, sophisticated and successful retellings of a classic (in this case, Hamlet). I don’t think I’ve ever read the script, but I’ve seen it performed several times and always come away with something new to marvel at.

I’ve just realised that my chain has been all male writers this month – and I wonder if my subconscious reverted to this because of the outlaw and masculinity issues arising from the starting point book. Next month the starting point is another Australian writer, but a woman, Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss, which sounds much more like my kind of thing and which I might even read by June.

Reading Summary April 2022

I know it’s a bit early to summarise the month, but since I only post on Mondays and Wednesdays (and the more pictorial Friday Funs), this is my last chance to summarise the month before we embark upon May. As such, I have not quite finished two of the books I feature on my list (Nostalgia and the escapist Georgette Heyer) but expect to do so by the weekend. I also intend to review in more detail the two surrealist pieces of literature (Ehin and Urmuz) on Monday 2nd of May, when we will be discussing the Estonian book at our London Reads the World Book Club.

Eighteen books. Bit of a record reading month in terms of quantity, partly because I had so much time off – on holiday until the 11th, then university closure around Easter – and partly because I was racing through some rereads for translation funding applications for Corylus. 12 of those books were in Romanian, and I’ve already written about some of them. I have already expressed some of my dissatisfaction with the translation of Nostalgia and my mixed feelings about Jhumpa Lahiri’s memoir of learning Italian.

There were two non-Romanian books that I read for book clubs – the highly unusual supernatural crime novel The Dying Squad by Adam Simcox and the even more unusual vignettes/short stories by Estonian author Kristiina Ehin, translated by Ilmar Lehtpere. I alternated my serious reads with two escapist, nearly-but-not-quite romance books from the library: Clare Chambers’ The Editor’s Wife (entertaining if rather predictable) and one of Heyer’s Regency novels The Reluctant Widow (which seems more of a crime caper than a romance, a bit of a colour by numbers effort from the author, but one of the few of her books available at the library).

My reading plans for the next few months are:

Anglos Abroad in May – American and English writers who have set their books in other countries, whether it’s fiction or a memoir, depicting some sort of culture clash – and quite a few of them will be about Berlin.

June: French literature – for no other reason than remembering how much I adored these verses by Rimbaud and the lime trees on the promenade.

On n’est pas sérieux, quand on a dix-sept ans

On va sous les tilleuls verts de la promenade.
Les tilleuls sentent bon dans les bons soirs de juin !

July – Spanish Lit Month – and I intend to focus on Latin America mostly

August – Women in Translation Month – not that I don’t love reading women in translation all year round.

Incoming Books (March & April 2022)

I travelled to Romania with a rather small suitcase, so I could not bring back all of the books of contemporary Romanian literature which I had ordered and had delivered to my parents’ address. Besides, I also had to bring back some wine, honey, tea and spices, didn’t I? The remaining books will have to wait until my next visit in summer (when I will have my sons’ additional suitcases to play with). Here are the ones that I prioritised this time round:

As you might know, Mihail Sebastian is one of my favourite Romanian writers, and this volume contains all of his plays, including The Holiday Game, which I’ve translated, Star with No Name, which Gabi Reigh has translated for Aurora Press, and two lesser-known works written during WW2, both of them still extremely topical: Breaking News (about fake news and political corruption) and the unfinished The Island (about war and refugees). There is a play by a contemporary of Sebastian’s, Gib Mihaiescu, which reminds me a lot of the Garcia Llorca. I have also brought back books by contemporary playwrights, as I hope to translate more theatre – and maybe even see it performed at some point: Octavian Soviany, Mircea Ionescu, Edith Negulici and Catalina Buzoianu’s adaptation of a hugely popular Romanian novel called Wasted Morning (Dimineaţă pierdută).

Tony Mott is a Romanian crime author, her books feature the indomitable forensic scientist Gigi Alexa and are set in the beautiful city of Brasov ‘where nothing much ever happens’ – except murder, of course. We hope to publish her work for Corylus soon.

I am also hoping to drum up some interest among publishers for Lavinia Braniste, one of the most interesting women writers working in Romania today. Her description of millenials trying to find their feet in a rapidly changing social and economic environment seem to me (sorry!) far more interesting than the rather banal ramblings of some English-speaking writers of the same age group.

Also with a view to possible future translation, an old favourite of mine: Urmuz, an avantgarde writer who was born in the same town that my parents now live in, Curtea de Arges, with a tiny output (he died young) but a huge influence on later writers. Some of his work has been translated, but I don’t think very well – besides, it should be a fun challenge to have a stab at it.

Simona Popescu and Bogdan Suceava might not remember me, but I know them personally, albeit tangentially. Simona is primarily a poet (although this book is a novel) and used to take part in one of the literary circles I also attended at university (‘cenaclu literar’ we used to call them), and I have reviewed some of Bogdan’s work before.

Last but by no means least, I have added Stela Brinzeanu’s new novel to this list, because it arrived while I was away, because she is originally from Moldova although she writes in English, and because this piece of historical fiction is based on a legend that lies at the heart of the construction of the fine monastery in Curtea de Arges.

Missing from the picture: two volumes of poetry by really young and adventurous women poets Ofelia Prodan and Deniz Otay; and the first novel by a highly-regarded playwright Alina Nelega.

Needless to say, these weren’t the only books I acquired over the past month and a half.

Impulse buys from the second-hand shelves just outside the Gower Street Waterstones: Christpher Isherwood, Max Beerbohm’s hilarious and surreal Zuleika Dobson and a crime novel by Cyril Hare. I ordered the memoir of living in Berlin by Kirsty Bell from Fitzcarraldo after reading a review at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. As for Percival Everett, I was so taken by the enthusiasm displayed for his book I Am Not Sidney Poitier on Late to It podcast, that I had to buy two of his books. He seems a very interesting and versatile writer, to say the least.

I fell a victim of my own research, when I reviewed Frank Moorhouse’s novel about the League of Nations and included some other books about international organisations. I think I might have read Fieldwork, but I had to get both Mischa Berlinsky books about anthropologists and NGOs, while Mating by Norman Rush was a suggestion by my friend Jennifer Bew Orr. With friends like these depleting your pockets, who needs enemies, right? 😉

Continuing the ‘moving to Berlin’ theme (can you guess what I might be planning in the nearish future?), I had to get Amy Liptrot’s latest book, as I cannot imagine a greater contrast than Orkney Islands to Berlin Mitte. Meanwhile, Clare Chambers’ The Editor’s Wife was a direct consequence of listening to Clare talk about her writing challenges and failures on Francesca Steele’s podcast Write Off. Finally, The Seven Deadly Sins is a collection of essays on the traditional sins by contemporary Catalan authors, all translated by Mara Faye Lethem and published by Fum d’Estampa Press.

Do any of the above tempt you? Which would you like me to read and review first? Which would you like to get for yourself?

February Summary of Literary Things

With all of the bad news coming out of Ukraine (with whom Romania shares a considerable land border), plus the usual workplace stresses and household breakages, I have been in a bit of an anxious state this month, so I am simply plodding along, taking it one day at a time. As usual, books have provided me with much-needed distraction, beauty, connection and escapism.

It’s more than just reading, it’s also attending various literary events or writing or film watching – all the things that make my life worthwhile (it has all been virtual this month – and, to be honest, if all Covid protections are completely removed, I’m not sure I’ll venture out much in the future, except for unavoidable things like work and my much-postponed but hopefully still viable trip to Romania).

Reading

I read eleven books, including two chunksters (Frank Moorhouse and Christina Stead). Two were re-reads (Mihail Sebastian for my London Reads the World Book Club on 7th of March, and Maus because of all the uproar about it being banned in certain US schools). Seven were by women authors, one non-binary and only three male authors. One non-fiction (Josie George), one collection of short stories or vignettes (Wilder Winds), one graphic novel, two crime novels (just about) and the rest novels.

I declared this an Oz Feb month, to make up for my embarrassing ignorance regarding Australian literature, but relied on books that I already had on my bookshelves. I managed to read and review five of these. Naturally, this means that my proportion of works in other languages or in translation was lower: only three books.

In retrospect, there were perhaps some better choices I could have made for the Australian authors (I also had Elizabeth Harrower and Gerald Murnane on my shelves), but if I could draw any conclusions based on the diverse writers I did read, it’s that Australian authors seem to be much more frank and direct than their English cousins, they don’t shy away from difficult subjects, their opinions can be quite unvarnished, and there is far less squeamishness about physicality: sex or the body and its biological functions.

  • Shirley Hazzard: The Evening of the Holiday – elegant and understated, she is the most similar to an English author, but with a far more international outlook
  • Miles Franklin: My Brilliant Career – irrepressible, energetic, ahead of its time
  • Christina Stead: The Man Who Loved Children – unique baroque style, striking observations, but relentless subject matter
  • Frank Moorhouse: Grand Days – great combination of the personal and historical
  • Romy Ash: Floundering – a less unique but quite visceral account of deprived childhood and bad parenting, and also my only full contribution to #ReadIndies

Although I love Louise Penny and her Armand Gamache series, this particular one was not one of her best. It was almost too topical (and slightly optimistic about the end of the pandemic), especially in regards to the ‘who should die’ debate. I also felt somewhat manipulated by the author, trying to stretch out the drip-feeding of the information very, very slowly to increase the tension.

Bel Olid’s Wilder Winds from the fantastic Fum D’Estampa Press is one of my contributions to #ReadIndies (although I don’t have time for a full review). This translation from the Catalan proves that a slim volume of very brief, almost lightning flash stories can be more powerful than many a lengthy tome. Every word, every image is packed with meaning, and there are a great variety of voices: a young girl in a refugee camp, women of all ages, coming of age, migrants, revolutionaries, workers, mothers, voyeurs, women being catcalled on the street and more. I particularly enjoyed hearing the author and translator Laura McGloughlin talk about their collaboration at the Borderless Book Club, saying these are dark tales but with a tiny glimmer of hope. Extremely poetic and thought-provoking.

Another very brief review for my final #ReadIndie contender: The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-Mo, transl. Chi-Young Kim, published by Edinburgh-based Canongate. Ostensibly the story of Hornclaw, an ageing female assassin (or ‘disease control specialist’, as she calls herself) stalked by a colleague who is out for revenge, it is in fact an unexpectedly moving story of loneliness, tenderness and regrets about past life choices. With a descent into a bloodbath at one point that I am beginning to expect after watching Korean films and TV series, the story is nevertheless more subtle than it might appear at first, and the characterisation of the contrary, stubborn, occasionally baffled Hornclaw, who can fool everyone, including herself, is spot on.

Events

Aside from the Borderless Book Club event, I also attended a panel discussion organised by the German House in New York around the anthology Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum / Your Homeland Is Our Nightmare, with authors representing various ‘minorities’ and marginalised groups in present-day Germany, as a response to the creation of a Ministry of ‘Heimat’. Let’s face it, vast swathes of Germany are very traditionalist, and one quote that really made me laugh was: ‘But how can we Germans be homophobic? We’ve got Berlin!’ The translators of the anthology explain things far better than me:

Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum [Your Homeland is our Nightmare] is the title of our collective work: essays by fourteen German-language authors, framed at the beginning of 2019 as a sort of answer to these developments. Because as one can imagine, this concept of homeland is a nightmare for marginalized groups in our society. But not just for them. That’s the reason why two words on the original cover of the book (Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum) are colored the same shade of purple as the book cover itself. Because it is not the editors and authors of this book who decide where “we” ends and “you” begins. Every reader decides this for themselves: Do I want to live in a society oriented around völkisch, racist, antisemitic, sexist, heteronormative, and trans-antagonistic structures? Or would I rather be a part of a society in which every individual—whether black and/or Jewish and/or Muslim and/or woman and/or queer and/or non-binary and/or poor and/or differently abled—is treated equally?

I also attended a couple of translation events organised by the Society of Authors, including the 2021 Translation Prizes and social, all of which finally gave me the push to join the society. Having translated 271, 340 words over the past two years, more than half of which have been published, it would be nice to think that at some point I might actually get paid for translating, even if not for the writing!

I also watched the NT Live showing of Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard at the local arts centre, not only because one of the performers was the son of a friend, but also because it shows both the charm and rot of Vienna and its persistent anti-semitism over the first half of the 20th century through the story of one extended family. Brilliantly acted throughout, it manages to be both tragic and humorous, surprising despite its predictable, all too well-known story, and posing uncomfortable questions for present-day audiences.

Films

I tend to watch more films either when Younger Son is with his father (he prefers to watch either The Apprentice or anime with me) or when Older Son the film fanatic is around. Well, this month both of these conditions were met: YS stayed for longer than expected with his father, who tested positive for Covid while he was there for the weekend (it was a mild form and YS did not catch it), while OS came back home from university for just over a week, while his lecturers were on strike. So I had a very good month of films, not a lemon among all of these. The one thing I would NOT recommend is the TV series Kitz on Netflix, which I idly watched for two episodes in the hope that it would feature mountains, snow and skiing for some restful escapism after long working days. It was all about partying, drug-taking, sexual exploits and spoilt rich kids, with clunky dialogue, exaggerated and implausible scenario, I just couldn’t bear it.

It was funny how the films seemed to come in contrasting pairs. Olivier Assayas was the director for both the light-hearted satire of Non-Fiction and the pain of grief and inability to let go of the past in Personal Shopper. The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson was at the ornate, highly stylised end of the cinematography and storytelling spectrum, while Petite Maman by Celine Sciamma was simple, almost simplistic, pared down to the bone. Both A Cat in Paris and The House were unconventional and beautiful examples of animation art, as far removed from Disney as one might imagine, but the former was an adventure story with a heart-warming ending, while the latter was a descent into the horror of house building, maintenance and ownership in Britain. The third animated film was The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s final film for Ghibli (allegedly), and I felt more ambiguous about that: although the artwork is beautiful as always, there is perhaps a bit too much whitewashing of the life of aviation engineer Horikoshi Jiro, creator of the Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighter planes used by the Kamikaze pilots in the final part of WW2. He must have known what his military planes were going to be used for, yet he seems to have suffered no remorse after the war and retired as a highly-awarded professor at Tokyo University, justifying himself by saying: ‘All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful’. The final two films were both melancholy depictions of migration, loss and identity: the Quebecois Monsieur Lazhar directed by Philippe Falardeau is about an Algerian refugee teaching a class of ten-year-olds whose teacher committed suicide; while Preparations to be Together… directed by Lili Horvát is about an eminent female neurosurgeon returning to her native Hungary for the love of another doctor she met briefly at a congress in the States. A haunting story of self-delusion and hope, becoming a victim of your own dreams vs. the power of yearnings.

Writing and Translating

I have nearly finished the first draft of translation of a very long Romanian crime novel, and continued pitching another novel (by Lavinia Braniște) to publishers. You can catch me reading a small fragment from it on the Translators Aloud YouTube channel. I also entered an extract of my translation of the play The Holiday Game by Mihail Sebastian for a competition, so fingers crossed. And I have submitted my own writing as well several times this month.

I am also working hard behind the scenes of Corylus Books: launching a monthly newsletter, editing current translations in progress and considering possible future acquisitions, applying for funding, trying to find someone who can teach us how to use Amazon Ads wisely (apparently they are becoming more and more cut-throat, leading to bidding wars). I am probably neglecting my own son and health, and certainly my house, in the process – and occasionally that springs up to bite me! I sometimes wonder whether there is any point in continuing to write, translate, publish, when the world seems intent on destroying itself.

Still, I can’t help but remind myself how lucky I am, every morning when I wake up to a cold but safe house, when I switch the heating on (even if I can’t afford to heat it as much or as often as I’d like), when I sit down free to explore the internet at leisure, have access to any source of information. As the Romanian expression goes: ‘Let’s not anger God by taking this for granted!’

I’d like to conclude with a quote from Ukrainian author Andrei Kurkov. The whole lecture that he gave in 2018 in Hong Kong is worth reading (and available for free now), but this particularly stuck with me.

Even if you were born in a civilised European or other state to take your rights for granted is dangerous. We do not pay attention to the air that we breath until it becomes unsuitable for breathing due to pollution. We do not pay attention to our body while it is healthy, but we are frightened as soon as we face the first serious problems with our heart or lungs. Our rights are not violated only if we understand them and make sure that they are not violated. Forget about them, and the consequences can be most deplorable.

Incoming Books and Their Sources (6)

I thought I had the perfect excuse for justifying the vast amount of books that recently joined my household: it’s two months’ worth of incomings. But actually, it’s more like 6 weeks. Time to hit the pause button, I think, especially with the cost of everything going up so much and me contemplating a more part-time role (i.e. lower pay) so that I have more time to write, translate and promote Corylus. In the meantime, however, it’s been inspiration (or greed) galore. And, if I’m honest, book addiction is my way of escaping from all the anxiety that the current news cycle provokes in me.

From blogs and podcasts

I’m naming the culprits here (my daily walks while listening to podcasts are proving terribly injurious to my bank balance):

  • Backlisted Pod: for O Caledonia (mentioned in passing) and Stephen Sondheim (a full episode)
  • Slightly Foxed for Red Comet (full episode with biographer), although I vowed I had enough books about and by Sylvia Plath
  • Late to It for Hilma Wolitzer (although not this particular book) and Kirsty Gunn’s Infidelities
  • Book reviews by favourite bloggers such as Jacqui and Susana (who read it in the original Portuguese of course) and in Asymptote Journal for Empty Wardrobes
  • Dorian Stuber and his guest Niccie Panetta for the 2021 books of the year round-up which included Blue Remembered Hills and Olga Zilbergourg for mentioning The Man Between about legendary translator Michael Henry Heim.
Sent by the publisher

Someone at Penguin Classics heard my boisterous declarations of love for Mishima’s work, for which I am profoundly grateful. Meanwhile, Clare O’Dea is a Switzerland-based expat writer whom I briefly encountered at Geneva Writers Group and she asked her publisher to send me this fictional account of the very recent (1959) Swiss referendum about women’s suffrage. Finally, I’d been a keen reader of Daniel Hahn’s diary of translating Damiela Elit’s Never Did the Fire for Charco Press, and commented on some of his blog posts, so was kindly sent a copy of the final diary published in book form.

Book clubs and discussions with friends

I have several books of poetry and prose by my friend and fellow Romanian writer who writes in English, Carmen Bugan, but realised that I did not have this collected version of her poems. I had been covetously eyeing Hannah Lowe’s The Kids and finally got the nudge to buy it after it won the Costa Award. I can’t remember exactly whom I had a conversation with on Twitter about the Bloomsbury Group, but I thought it was high time I read Angelica Garnett’s memoir, which puts them all in a less golden light. Meander Spiral Explode has been recommended to me for its exploration of the writing craft for those who are no longer content with the Three Act or linear structure. Finally, for our London Reads the World Book Club in March, we will be reading a Romanian book at last and it’s one of my favourite writers, Mihail Sebastian. I thought it might be helpful to have the English translation to hand, rather than rely solely on the Romanian version I have, and I might end up having OPINIONS about the translation.

From the library

I’ve heard so many good things about this memoir of living with disability A Still Life, shortlisted for the Barbellion Prize, and I’ve been on the waiting list for it at the library for ages. When I finally went to pick up my reservation, I came across this collection of short stories by Dostoevsky and I’ve never been able to ignore anything by him, even when he infuriates me.

Spontaneous purchases

I happened to be in the lovely Marlow Bookshop in real life, and was intrigued about Gail Simmons’ journey across the Chiltern Hills, which recreates Robert Louis Stevenson’s three-day journey across the same landscape nearly 150 years earlier. With HS2 speed railway threatening to destroy this landscape forever, it’s an attempt to capture a place and time before it disappears. I also picked up a British Library anthology there, because crime fiction and books are an irresistible combination. The quest to diversity my bookcase continues with the academic study of London as a migrant city, a science-fiction take on office life by Chinese American author Ling Ma, and two crime novels by Adam Macqueen introducing Tommy Wildeblood, rent boy turned sleuth, against a backdrop of London’s recent history (1970s-80s).

Catnip topics

Communist dictatorships in the former East Bloc countries and the United Nations (or other international organisations) are very triggering for me: in other words, as soon as I see or hear something about these topics, my online buying finger gets activated. The Stasi Poetry Circle is the true story of an attempt to set up a ‘propaganda poetry writing group’ in the German Democratic Republic. As for Romain Gary’s book: as I mentioned in the blog post about Frank Moorhouse’s book, it is a satire about the United Nations (thank you, Emma, for first drawing my attention to it), which Gary initially published under a pseudonym. I managed to find it second-hand on a French website and it got here relatively quickly.

An afterthought

Last, but not least, an online conversation with the same Emma as above, following her brilliant review of the Marseille Trilogy reminded me how much I love Jean-Claude Izzo and how difficult his books are to find over here. But lo and behold, a quick online search produced these two at reasonable prices. They’re both set mainly in Marseille too.

#6Degrees of Separation February 2022

I’m always a few days late to the monthly Six Degrees of Separation meme hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and My Best – it’s the fun bookish linking game, and this month we are starting with Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, an exploration of life lived in the social media age. I don’t think I’d be very interested in reading this, but I remember it came out at roughly the same time as another book written by a young American author on the same topic, Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, which I haven’t read either. That’s perhaps why I struggle to tell them apart, so Oyler’s book was the obvious first choice in my set of links.

‘Fake’ is what connects this to my next book, Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Under Ground. It is the second in her riveting anti-hero Ripley series, and this time Ripley is involved in an art fraud rather than identity theft. Of course, he is perfectly to commit a few murders along the way to keep his involvement in the fraud a secret and his hard-won reputation safe.

From a book by Patricia Highsmith, to a book in which she plays the starring role, namely Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer. This is a work of fiction rather than a biography, but the author has done meticulous research and ends up producing an affectionate, but disturbing portrait of the famous writer.

Jill Dawson was originally a poet before she ventured into novel-writing, and there seems to be quite a trend for crime writers to also have a poetic sideline (or at least to have started out in poetry). Another famous example of that is Sophie Hannah and I am picking her most recent book in which she continues the Hercule Poirot legacy, The Killings at Kingfisher Hill.

With his monocle, hat, gloves and impeccable moustache, Hercule Poirot reminds me of Arsène Lupin by Maurice Leblanc, although I am sure the Belgian detective would shudder to be compared to the French gentleman thief and master of disguises.

Although Emile Gaboriau is generally credited as being the first French crime writer, Maurice Leblanc is certainly among the first wave and achieved huge success with his literary creation. I was trying to find an equivalent in Romanian literature, but the early writers were either merely imitating imported models, or else considered themselves writers of literary fiction who used murders to make psychological or social and political points. Liviu Rebreanu in the early part of the 20th century was the author most preoccupied with crime, guilt and punishment, and his late novel Both of Them, about a double murder in the provincial town of Pitesti, is the one that most closely resembles detective fiction, featuring an ambitious young prosecutor investigating the case.

US, England, France and Romania – not quite as frenetic a travel schedule this month as some we have seen in the past. It has also been a rather unintentionally criminal chain! Where will your six links take you?

January Summary: Japan and Beyond

This has felt like an endless month, although I only went back to work on the 10th of January. It is still too dark, too cold, too Omicron to do anything other than hibernate. And read, as you can tell by the good number of books I’ve devoured. As always, reading Japanese literature marks a good start to my year. It remains a passion of mine, even though I can no longer read anything but basic, short texts in the original. Luckily, there are many talented translators springing up, particularly female ones. I managed to read and review six of them (one is not in the picture below, because I read it in December). It was a pleasure to reread Yosano Akiko in a different translation, great to expand my knowledge of Endō Shūsaku, Murakami Haruki and Tanizaki Junichiro with lesser-known books by them, and great to discover a new to me author Nakagami Kenji, who shows an aspect of Japanese life that is seldom present in literature. I was somewhat less impressed by the style of contemporary writer Hirano Keiichiro, although I felt the themes he addressed were quite interesting. In retrospect, I realise that should have read more women authors – a spread of five men to one woman was not a good choice!

Many of the remaining books of the month provided some light relief or entertainment. They had me turning the pages late into the night, but have not particularly stuck with me. I would include the following in this category:

  • Nicci French: The Lying Room – have loved previous standalone pyschological thrillers by this author duo, but this one felt a bit implausible and dull
  • Janice Hallett: The Appeal – the format of the story (emails and other correspondance) was far more interesting than the substance
  • Samantha Downing: For Your Own Good – for Virtual Crime Club – the story of a manipulative teacher, but I read it a week or so ago and can remember next to nothing
  • Bella Ellis: The Red Monarch – I know there is only so much crime that the Brontë siblings can detect in Haworth and its surroundings, but the London location was less successful to my mind
  • Jill Dawson: The Crime Writer – quite a charming yet unsettling riff on the unsettling writer Patricia Highsmith, slippery like an eel, hard to tell what is real and what is imagination or paranoia

Two of the books were truly noir and therefore quite difficult to read at times. Swiss writer Joseph Incardona’s Derrière les panneaux il y a des hommes is about a serial killer targeting young girls at service stations on the French autoroutes, but also offers a cross-cut of society through the multitude of individuals who congregate in such liminal spaces. Willy Vlautin’s The Night Always Comes was an excellent description of the American dream of house ownership turning into a nightmare, with characters trapped in poverty and endless disappointment, although those lengthy expositions via dialogue were a strange stylistic choice (a bit like a Greek chorus).

I tried to get one book to fit in with Annabel’s Nordic FINDS project, and I did get around to reading (but not reviewing) Jacob Sundberg’s We’ll Call You, a collection of short stories about job interviews. A sharp, funny little book, translated from Swedish by Duncan Lewis, full of the absurdities of the corporate world and our own apparently endless capacity for self-deception.

My favourite books of the month were the two I was reading on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, so as to start the year right: Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know and Real Estate, the first and last volume of her ‘sort of memoir trilogy’. I have marked almost every third sentence in those slim volumes, they all speak to me so much (although it was the second one that I read a couple of years ago which addressed my own situation most closely).

I have also watched some Japanese films in honour of January in Japan month (to add to the constant roll of Japanese anime in our household). I put up with the overly sentimental but beautifully drawn Violet Evergarden movie for the sake of my younger son (although he too agreed that the series was better). We loved the adorable Ponyo (although I think I still prefer Tottoro) and thought A Whisker Away was a bit strange but charming, especially if you like cats.

Of the more grown-up films, I watched two by the same director, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, who is mostly known for his horror films. However, Tokyo Sonata is a smaller-scale domestic drama, with the fine yet understated psychological insight of his predecessor Ozu, while Wife of a Spy was a stylish mystery thriller set in war-time Japan, with echoes of Vertigo or The Third Man.

February will be dedicated to Australian writers, and I will attempt to read more women this time, to redress the balance. Sadly, my choices are limited by the books I can find over here in the UK, which is not much (and most of it second-hand).

Monthly Summary and Reading Plans for Start of 2022

You can see that December included holidays, a mood of hibernation and about 10 days without the children, because I read an inordinate amount of books and saw many films as well. I also managed to do some translating (about 28000 words, which brings me to just over a third of the way through the novel I’m working on). It was all rather cosy, but I hope to get more physically active in the New Year, as well as work on my own writing (no submissions at all this month).

Reading

18 books (although one was a DNF), of which:

  • 8 were for the Russians in the Snow theme of the month. I particularly enjoyed a return to the classics, such as Gogol and Turgenev, but I also enjoyed discovering new authors such as Victor Pelevin and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. I’ve failed to review the Bulgakov short stories or the memoirs about Marina Tsvetaeva by her daughter. And who would have thought I’d also find a retro-detective crime series set in St Petersburg and written by a Russian?
  • Two books were for the Virtual Crime Fiction Book Club: Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, which I found rather harsh on the emotions, and John Banville’s Snow, which was not as cosy as I expected and just a tad overwritten.
  • There were several other books with a rather grim subject matter: In the Dream House (about an abusive lesbian relationship), Godspeed (about losing your youthful dreams and wasting your life chasing the impossible), mothers and sons and coping with lockdown in The Fell, and A Man (trying to disappear from your old life and forge a new identity). With the exception of the last of these, which felt rather stiff and pedestrian in its prose (not sure if that is the author himself or the translation), they were all very well written, which made the dark subject matter worth reading about
  • I tried to counterbalance this with lighter, escapist reading, such as Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee, The Diabolical Bones by Bella Ellis, The Pact by Sharon Bolton and The Battle of the Villa Fiorita by Rumer Godden.

Overall, I read 170 books this year, which is perhaps understandable since I had nowhere much to go and a couple of weeks without the children. However, it’s not even in the Top 3 of my years of reading (since I started keeping track of the books on Goodreads in 2013). Top place goes to 2014 (189 books), followed by 2015 (179) and 2016 (175). Unsurprising, perhaps, since those were the three years of marriage breakdown and lots of anxiety about the future, so I was looking for escape in books. This year also had its fair share of escapist reading, but felt much more grounded in good literature, in books that I truly enjoyed or authors I wanted to explore.

Reviewing, Blogging, Writing

Needless to say, with so much reading, I was unable to keep up with the reviewing, especially since I went a little wild with no less than six different categories for Best of the Year summaries: Modern Classics, Rereading, New Releases, Newly Discovered Authors, Deep Dives into Favourite Authors, and Page Turners.

Nevertheless, I managed an astounding 180 blog posts this year, writing nearly 150,000 words in the process. As a friend of mine says: ‘Why do you waste so much time crafting blog posts instead of working on your novel?’ I suppose it’s the instant gratification of receiving likes and comments. That is partly the reason why I submitted various shorter pieces (poetry and flash fiction) – you win a few, you lose a lot, but at least you get feedback a bit more quickly than when you work on a novel in isolation for years and years. In February 2022 I will be coming up to ten years of blogging and maybe it’s time I thought more carefully about what I want to achieve with it and if it’s worth continuing (at this pace).

I submitted about 40-45 times this year, got 24 rejections and 8 acceptances, but I got very discouraged when my novel didn’t get long or shortlisted at any of the various competitions I entered, so stopped working on it for several months. I hope to come back to it in 2022 – and make it a crunch year. Either I complete the novel to my satisfaction and start submitting it to agents, or else I ditch it and get started on something else.

I’m also working on another translation from Romanian and find that it helps my own writing, because I keep trying to figure out sentence structures and how to make them sound more natural in English. Plus I keep wanting to edit other people’s work, as if I could do any better! 😉

Films

I can’t even begin to review all the films I watched this month – no less than 19 (and there might be 1-2 more before New Year). Some of them were rewatches, typical of the Christmas holidays, like My Fair Lady, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, L’Avventura and Desperately Seeking Susan. Others were family films to watch with the boys – a very few Christmassy themed, like Tokyo Godfathers or Klaus, but mostly just films that have become classics, such as Fargo or The Usual Suspects. I also had fun watching Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse or Vivo or Inside Out or Tick Tick… Boom! (I was not a huge fan of the music of Rent, but I liked what Rent set out to show, and the film itself about the constantly thwarted creative artist or whether art serves any purpose nowadays rang a lot of bells, of course!)

The two that surprised me most were:

1) West Side Story, the new version, which I had initially dismissed as an unnecessary remake and probably doomed to failure. However, I really liked the way it stuck to some of the most loved aspects of the original yet also brought in some new elements quite successfully.

2) Winter Nomads – a documentary about shepherds who practice transhumance over the winter months, when the fields lie fallow, in the Valais and Vaud region of Switzerland.

Reading Plans

I will continue my eclectic mix of approximate planning, yet leaving plenty of room for serendipity. I also plan to focus a lot more on what I currently have on my bookshelves, as I prepare to move abroad (and have a thorough clearout of my books) in a couple of years.

January will be dedicated largely to Japanese literature, as usual. I have already started reading in preparation for that (A Man by Keiichiro Hirano) and it will be a mix of old and new, perhaps a reread or two: Tanizaki Junichiro, Endo Shusaku, Nakagami Kenji, Yosano Akiko, Miura Shion, Murakami Haruki and Natsume Soseki.

February I am thinking of going to the southern hemisphere and reading mostly Australian literature (or NZ or Indonesia if I have anything from there). The list of authors is still to be determined, but at first glance I see I have one unread Shirley Hazzard there, plus Elizabeth Harrower, Romy Ash, Miles Franklin and Frank Moorhouse. It’s a part of the world about which I know very little, so it’s bound to be a surprise.

In March I will explore Italian literature – although I am learning Italian and love the country, language and culture very much indeed, I haven’t read all that much Italian literature. I have built up a small collection of modern classics and contemporary literature that I can’t wait to try: Massimo Cuomo, Claudia Durastanti, Andrea Bajani and Alberto Prunetti, as well as better-known ones such as Italo Svevo, Natalia Ginzburg, Cesare Pavese and Curzio Malaparte.

Finally, I want to read more poetry and weave it throughout everything else I do. Random opening of volumes of poetry, using favourite poets to ‘fortune-tell’ what my day or week might be like, close reading of an unfamiliar poem and discovering new poets: I want it all.

Best of the Year: Sheer Entertainment

I have read quite a lot of escapist fiction this year – escapist in my case means crime fiction that keeps you turning page after page, or a book that immerses you in a particular time and place. A sense of humour also helps – I do like black, absurdist comedy; it must be my ‘living under a dictatorship’ heritage.

The problem with escapist literature is that you have to choose it well: some things sound far better in theory than in practice, or the blurb is misleading, and even the same author is no guarantee of success. See below which ones did not work for me and which I recommend in their stead.

  1. Instead of Sarah Pearse: The Sanatorium – try Allie Reynolds: Shiver

I am a sucker for books featuring winter in the mountains, especially when the setting is France or Switzerland, where the skiing terrain is familiar to me. Although The Sanatorium is atmospheric, the whole story feels implausible and the characters are stilted. I enjoyed Shiver, the tale of snowboarding rivalry, far more and read it in a single sitting. And you don’t need to be a snowboarding fanatic to cope with the terminology.

2. Instead of Catherine Cooper: The Chateau – try Stella Benson: The Swiss Summer

I read a previous book by Catherine Cooper, The Chalet, last year and thought this might be equally fun, especially since it was about an expat couple trying to renovate a dilapidated chateau in France (you all know how obsessed I am with chateaux). However, the plot was so preposterous and the people so awful (and flatly awful at that), that I struggled to finish this. I appreciated Benson’s far more nuanced approach to different types of expats and the relationship between then and the locals in her admittedly not thrillerish at all but enchanting Swiss Summer.

3. Instead of Valerie Perrin: Fresh Water for Flowers – try Margaret Kennedy: The Feast

The French author’s story of loss, grief and unspoken love touched many hearts, I know, so you will be cross with me for admitting that to me it felt kitsch, like wading through treacle. I much preferred the allegorical tale by Margaret Kennedy, which was full of witty social observations, as well as some really entertaining characters.

4. Instead of John Leake: The Vienna Woods Killer – try Catherine Ryan Howard: The Nothing Man

It’s perhaps a little unfair to compare a true crime account with a work of fiction that only purports to include true crime elements, but I really wanted to like the book about the Vienna Woods Killer, because it features one of those hard-to-believe cases about a serial killer who was a darling of the Viennese literary society. It is meticulously researched, but oddly lacking in any Viennese atmosphere (or proper interpretation of Austrian society) unfortunately. The Nothing Man did a much better job at bringing to the fore the trauma suffered by the victims as well as the narcisstic personality of the serial killer.

5. Instead of Tahmima Anam: The Startup Wife – try Nickolas Butler: Godspeed

A novel about a female co-founder of a tech start-up being manipulated and tricked out of her rightful place and a novel about a bunch of construction workers being bullied into delivering on an impossible deadline might not seem to have much in common at first glance, but they both skewer the American dream and its materialistic ambitions. I wanted to like the Start-Up Wife more, but it felt both predictable and lower in stakes, as well as more clunky writing, compared to the downward spiral story of the three male friends building a house – perhaps because a house feels like the solid kind of legacy that we all can understand (and it feels even more of a waste when it fails).

Further recommended reads:

All of these are perfect escapist reads, for whatever mood you might be in:

  • If you’re going on a train journey soon, then Kōtarō Isaka’s Bullet Train is a very entertaining, quite un-Japanese type of thriller, with echoes of Fargo.
  • If you miss theme parks (or adventure parks, rather), then Antti Tuomainen’s The Rabbit Factor, with its unique, darkly humorous take on the Finnish mafia, is perfect.
  • If you like the Brontës or historical crime fiction more generally, then the series by Bella Ellis, starting with The Vanished Bride, featuring the siblings as detectives will warm the cockles of your heart (and also bring a little chill).
  • If you enjoy historical crime fiction set outside England, then Maryla SzymiczkowaKarolina or the Torn Curtain set in late 19th century Krakow was both educational and entertaining.
  • If you enjoy satire about writers and literary festivals, and think the publishing world needs a good hard look at itself, then Dan Rhodes’ Sour Grapes will deliver in spades, although at times the farce is a little too puerile.
  • If you like stories about friendships going off the rails and how one bad choice in your youth can have serious consequences years later, but without the artificial construction of dual timelines and ‘that day that I will not divulge to you until the very end of this thriller’, then I really recommend Sharon Bolton’s The Pact.

Incoming Books and Their Sources (4)

I didn’t think I acquired lots of books this month, but surprise, surprise, it’s still quite a chunky pile!

Zoe seems quite smitten with my latest pile of books in the TBR trolley. Some of the others mentioned are in e-book format.

Yorkshire-inspired reading

Bella Ellis: The Vanished Bride and The Diabolical Bones. Bella Ellis is the pen name for Rowan Coleman – a series of murdery mysteries featuring the Bronte sisters – I had never heard of this series before, but it was a must after visiting the Parsonage. – discovered in the charming Wave of Nostalgia shop on Haworth Main Street, with its theme of ‘strong women’. The third volume has just come out: Rowan Coleman was at the shop recently to sign the book, but I thought I should start at the beginning. I’ve already devoured the first one and could of course imagine every room in the house and the surrounding landscape.

E.C.R. Lorac: These Names Make Clues – a present from the lovely Janet Emson, when we met at Sculpture Park, already done and dusted, short review to follow.

Margaret Kennedy: The Feast This one was actually inspired by a review from Jacqui, but it fits in well with an idea I had for a crime novel featuring disparate guests arriving for various reasons at a Buddhist retreat centre in Yorkshire (which might bear some coincidental similarities to the Christian retreat centre I stayed at).

Inspired by other readers

Shirley Hazzard: The Evening of the Holiday American author Lily King said in a recent article on LitHub that ‘one of the greatest loves of my life has been the short novel The Evening of the Holiday by Shirley Hazzard. I have kept a copy of it on the desk where I write for more than twenty-five years. I reach for it when I am stuck, scared, or bored, when I am at loose ends or bound up tight. I raise it like a sacred text, let it fall open where it will.’ It doesn’t take much to persuade me to pick up a Shirley Hazzard book, since I identify strongly with her wandering lifestyle and cross-cultural observations, but this ringing endorsement activated my trigger-happy finger instantly (I found a second-hand copy of it).

Abir Mukherjee: A Necessary Evil I read the first in this wonderful series set in Raj-era India for the Virtual Crime Book Club and then found another (out of order) at the library). Then other books came along and jostled for priority, but a recent review of Mukherjee’s latest by Mary Picken made me want to go back to it and attempt a bit of a chronological order (which is more important in historical fiction than in other crime series), so I borrowed this second one in the series from the library. Short review to follow soon, but highly recommended.

Annamarie Jagose: In Translation You can blame Lisa Hill from ANZ Lit Lovers blog once again for this hard-to-find book. A translator of Japanese literature, a love triangle and a potential fraud: could this book be any more me than that?? It is out of print (dates from 1994), but I managed to find it second-hand.

Inspired by Twitter

Alberto Prunetti: Down and Out in England and Italy An obvious reference to Orwell’s account of precarious work in Paris and London, I became aware of this book thanks to tweets by Tanya Shadrick and the Working Class Festival. The gig economy is so prevalent nowadays, so a very timely read.

Cristina A. Bejan: Intellectuals and Fascism in Interwar Romania. I’ve been following Cristina for a while on Twitter, she is a poet and an academic of Romanian origin, now living in the US. When I saw that her research into the interwar period in Romania (which some see as the ‘golden age of intellectuals and literature’) had been published, I instantly asked her to send me a copy, which she kindly signed for me. It features the world of Mihail Sebastian and his ‘friends’ – need I say more?

Joanna Cannon: A Tidy Ending. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep was possibly one of the first books I downloaded from Netgalley back in 2015/16, but I didn’t get to read it until this year (and quite enjoyed it). I also like following the exploits of Joanna and her lovely, goofy German Shepherd Lewis on Twitter, so when I heard she has a new book out and read the blurb, I wanted to read it. I hope it’s not going to be mediocre psychological thriller territory – there have been far too many of those in recent years, they’ve all blended into mush in my mind.

Polly Atkin: Recovering Dorothy I met Polly on a poetry writing retreat in Wales a few years ago and have been following her work ever since. She has been very busy despite lockdown and other issues, and she has recently published not only a new collection of poetry but also a book examining Dorothy Wordsworth’s legacy (despite struggling with poor health and looking after her brother).

Inspired by literary festivals

Natasha Brown and Claudia Rankine discussing their work with Alex Clark.

Claudia Rankine: Just Us

Natasha Brown: Assembly

Although I felt pretty run-down and ill over the weekend (thank you, older son, for coming all the way from Durham to give me and your brother your tonsillitis and other flu bugs), I attended some of the sessions of the Cambridge Literary Festival (Winter Edition) – luckily, they are all recorded and available to watch until the 28th of November, so I still have time to catch up. I was particularly struck by the mutual admiration and thoughtfulness of the session featuring Natasha Brown and Claudia Rankine, so I ordered their books at once (I have several other Rankine books, but not her latest, and have heard excellent things about Brown’s debut novel).

Fatima Manji: Hidden Heritage

I expected to like the panel above, but what is lovely with these all-access festivals is that you stumble across unexpected delights, such as Fatima Manji describing how she researched the origin of various objects in British museums or forgotten papers in archives, to show the long history of Britain’s fascination with the ‘Orient’. I found out that Queen Victoria spoke and wrote Urdu, that Elizabeth I was corresponding with the women in the Ottoman Sultan’s harem in Topkapi Palace, that coffee houses were bemoaned as dens of iniquity by the ale-houses (for being Turkish temptresses) and so much more.

Publisher initiatives

Olga Tokarczuk: The Books of Jacob, transl. Jennifer Croft I’ve wanted this book ever since I heard the author and translator mention it at the Hay Festival in 2018, just after they won the Man Booker International Prize for Flights. In the meantime, many of the bloggers I love have been looking forward to it, and I hope we will exchange views on it even if we don’t do a readalong. I couldn’t quite afford the limited edition of it though, but the Fitzcarraldo newsletter mentioned that they had copies signed by the author at Foyles, so… it was a no-brainer.

Josep Maria Esquirol: The Intimate Resistance, transl, Douglas Suttle Thank you, Fum d’Estampa Press, for keeping me on their mailing list, although I still haven’t reviewed any of the three books they have sent me. I am very interested in this one, however, because it is a work of philosophy, which has now become an area of vivacious debate between my older son and me. He will no doubt have a very long reading list over the holidays, but maybe he will read this one too, and we can compare notes.

Willem Frederick Hermans: The Darkroom of Damocles, Beyond Sleep and An Untouched House, transl. David Colmer. I receive the Pushkin Press newsletter; when they mentioned that they are publishing a new book by Hermans, and would therefore be reducing prices on his three previous books in virtual format, I thought it was too good an opportunity to miss to read work by one of the most respected Dutch writers of the 20th century. Maybe I should have stuck to just one, to see if I liked his style, but as you can see, I don’t do things by halves!

Serendipity

Christine Mangan: Palace of the Drowned. Such serendipity, aka random pick, typically occurs in a library. While picking up my reservations, I saw this recently-published novel by Christine Mangan on display. Although I hadn’t read her previous one, Tangerine, I had hear good things about it, and the blurb for this one: ageing novelist, Venice setting in the 1960s, an over-eager young admirer… yes, it might sound a bit like Death in Venice or The Talented Mr Ripley, but it’s just the sort of thing I cannot resist.

What do all these different sources prove (other than that I am very easily led astray when it comes to books?)

  1. Publisher newsletters or special offers still work a treat
  2. Recommendations from other readers and bloggers are my default option
  3. If I know and like people on Twitter, I will follow their work with interest
  4. I nearly always buy books by friends
  5. Festivals sell books
  6. I love reading books set in a specific location, especially if I know it personally or want to visit that location
  7. Libraries are the best!