On Pause Again – and More Books!

Sadly, I didn’t just bring back good memories and new friendships from Bloody Scotland, but also Covid. I started feeling a bit fluey on Tuesday/Wednesday, but thought I had caught a cold from my younger son. However, it appears that his cold is independent, and on Friday I tested positive, after several people who had attended Bloody Scotland had already announced they had fallen ill. It is optimistic to think that we can go back to a normal life in closed venues – it is, in fact, a lottery, and although I wear masks on public transport, I have to admit I did not wear one in the venues and probably not everyone tested for Covid before they attended the event.

So I just had quite a horrible weekend, and am not up to anything more intellectual than showing you pictures of the books I have acquired this month.

First of all, thank you to Stela Brinzeanu and her publisher Legend Press for the beautiful little parcel that arrived with the proper edition of the book Set in Stone (I previously read the ARC), a tote bag and a small jar of honey from Moldova.

I splashed out on quite a few books, although only two at Bloody Scotland (I did not have much room in my luggage and also my broken arm struggled with the tiny suitcase I did have).

The two I bought in Stirling were Last Girl Ghosted by Lisa Unger and The Killing Kind by Jane Casey, after attending their panel. I read them both half in Stirling and half on the train journey home, they were proper page-turners!

After the death of Javier Marias, I felt I wanted to acquire a few of his translated novels which I didn’t have, although for the time being I am reading the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, which was already on my shelves but which I had never quite started properly. I have already read and loved Lolly Willowes, and I borrowed Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin in the original French from my university library. I bought the collection of sci-fi-tinged stories Terminal Boredom after reading a couple of blog reviews, and I got two Tim Winton books after several of you started raving about him on Twitter following an article featuring an interview with him. As you can see, I am so easily led down the book-buying path…

I borrowed the Elizabeth George from the library on Tuesday and thought it would be just the thing for a Covid-stricken brain, but alas, her novels have been getting longer and longer, without any justification, so I very nearly abandoned it. Fish Soup is a Charco Press book that I did not have, but we’ll be reading it for our London Reads the World Book club, and I’ve liked the other Margarita Garcia Robayo book that I read, Holiday Heart. I didn’t get to hear Emma Styles at Bloody Scotland, but I sat next to her on the train back to London and when she described her debut novel set in Australia, No Country for Girls, I knew I had to get it. Think teenage Thelma and Louise in the outback!

Last but not least, the British Library has produced a beautiful illustrated volume of Poems in Progress, showing early drafts and manuscripts of famous poems by poets ancient through to contemporary. I saw my poetry mentor Rebecca Goss tweet that she was in it, and I didn’t need a second invitation.

There is one final purchase for this month (she said optimistically), which hasn’t arrived yet: Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black. I have to admit that I have never been able to get through the Wolf Hall trilogy, although I have much admired Mantel’s earlier novels, but did not own any of them.

All the Summer Reading Challenges

I’ve come to the conclusion that, despite three weeks of ‘holidays’, it’s been a difficult summer personally, and this has been reflected in my reading. I have failed in virtually all my reading challenges (not that I take the word ‘failure’ terribly seriously in this context). I’ve read more than #20BooksofSummer, but few of them were on my original list. I read a couple of books in July for Stu’s Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month, but never got around to reviewing them. I’ve also read quite a few #WomeninTranlation books in August (and generally – this is probably one of my favourite themes in reading) but I have no intention to provide carefully considered, deep reviews of any of them.

I just can’t. I don’t have the mental or physical capacity at the moment. It’s a shame, there will be a gap when I look back on my reading and wish I’d done more. In the meantime, here are some very brief and hopefully pithy remarks (I hesitate to call them reviews) about each of them. I have already shared my escapist reading with you, here are the more ‘serious’ reads.

July Reading

I read 12 books that month, of which three escapist crime novels and four for work purposes (two books in German and two translations from the Catalan). I skimmed through two very interesting but simply far too long ones (for my levels of concentration and busy-ness that month): The Shadowy Third about one of Elizabeth Bowen’s love affairs and the letters exchanged and Devil-Land about 17th century Britain. Which leaves only three books, two of which fit into the Spanish/Portuguese language reading challenge.

Maria Judite de Carvalho: Empty Wardrobes, transl. Margaret Jull Costa, Two Lines Press, 2021.

I interpret the title as the emptiness that many women feel when they realise that the people or the love that they held dear have let them down, that sentiments and trust were illusory, and that they have no one but themselves to rely on. It’s a sombre yet depressingly accurate view of heterosexual relationships, shared by three generations of women in the same family, although not necessarily from a position of solidarity. Written in 1966, in a very Catholic and patriarchal Portugal where women had few choices outside the domestic sphere, there is nevertheless much that is still recognisable today. It also reminds me of Enchi Fumiko’s work, particularly The Waiting Years, although that refers to even more demeaning conditions for women in Meiji Japan.

He would arrive home, give me a peck on the cheek, drink his usual glass of whisky, then tell me all about his day in great detail, and so I thought he really loved and needed me. In fact, I was merely a convenient body beside him, an ever-attentive audience always ready to express unconditional admiration when he told me of yet another professional triumph… he needed that applause at home as well, in order to feel he was lord of a little tailor-made world all his own.

For far more detailed and sensitive reading of this book, do read Jacqui’s blog.

Gabriela Cabezón Cámara: Slum Virgin, transl. Frances Riddle, Charco Press, 2017.

This one is the exact opposite of the quieter, more restrained style of Empty Wardrobes. It is a riot of events, characters, stories and style, with elements of tragedy, melodrama, comedy and farce all jostling for attention within its pages. Cleopatra is a trans prostitute in a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, but renounces her work once she has a revelation from the Virgin Mary. Quity is an ambitious journalist keen to cover the story, but ends up falling for Cleo instead. Told in short chapters alternating between the highly individualistic voices of these two characters, filled with colourful slang, replete with religious references and superstition, we encounter a seamy, corrupt but energetic world reminiscent of Jorge Amado’s The War of the Saints.

In the extract below, Cleo is receiving all sorts of gifts from people in the flooded slum who are hoping for miracle cures:

Then with a practicality that surprised me and continues to surprise me in a person who speaks with celestial beings, Cleo told us that God loved us, that through God we could love each other, and that we should have breakfast. It was time and it was freezing cold, and first things first. We could always pray later.

Shirley Jackson: The Sundial, Penguin Modern Classics (first published in 1958)

No one can portray the suffocating qualities of a family and a house better than Shirley Jackson, a real antithesis to the wholesome image of home and hearth projected in the United States in the 1950s. This novel portrays a very strange family, all living in a sinister home with surrealist traits (like being in an Escher drawing), an ‘end of the world’ prophecy which binds them and excludes everyone outside their property. But are the dangers truly in the outside world or within their ‘safe’ house and ‘in-group’? We know that Jackson was agoraphobic at various points in her life, but we also know that she considered the family home to be the most perilous and vicious place too. I don’t want to put you off by the rather serious subject matter and the magical realism style – it is also very sharp, witty and downright funny.

Shirley Jackson is one of my favourite authors, and occupies pride of place on my bedside table: go and read her, pronto, if you haven’t already done so, whether you start with this or with her more famous (but less funny) novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle or The Haunting of Hill House.

August Reading

This month was less busy but far worse in terms of health, worries and need for distraction. Of the 16 books I read, 13 were escapist literature. Two of the crime novels fitted into the #WITMonth category (one from Turkey, one from Romania), as did two of the more ‘serious’ reads. One was a chunkster, the International Booker Prize Winner Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated (and perhaps annotated/interpreted, as she freely admits) by Daisy Rockwell. I still hope to give it a proper review at some point, and we have a Book Club meeting about it next Monday, so I will leave it for later.

Kawakami Mieko: Ms Ice Sandwich, transl. Louise Heal Kawai, Pushkin Press, 2013.

This is an early work by Kawakami, a slight novella about an adolescent boy starting to learn more about life and people and empathy, through his harmless crush on the unusual looking lady who makes and sells sandwiches at the local supermarket. It is an understated story of loneliness, being ‘different’, feeling unable to stand by your convictions or support the people you love. Far more restrained than Heaven, but conveys a lot in just a few pages. And, it’s a personal preference, but I really like the way Louise Heal Kawai translates Kawakami and wish that we had more of her books featuring this translator! For a more thorough review, please see Tony’s. I do love the cover, though!

Tanya Shadrick: The Cure for Sleep

I picked this one rather randomly, after some recommendations on Twitter. It is the memoir of a woman who nearly died after the birth of her son and resolved thereafter to lead a braver and more creative life, to stop shrinking away from opportunity and hide in routine. It is the most devastatingly honest memoir I have read that does not feature any descriptions of addiction or debilitating health issues. It lays bare all the ambiguities of married life and motherhood, and the eternal conflict between the anchored ‘real’ life and the creative life. I don’t think I could ever be so frank, but that is why I prefer to write fiction rather than memoir.

As someone who constantly feels that I have buried myself too much in domesticity and looking after others, I found this book quite inspiring, although just a tad overwritten at times.

20 Books of Summer

So how did I do in my fabled (and very flexible) 20 Books of Summer challenge? Thanks to my discipline in June, I managed to read 13 books overall (8 in French in June, 2 Spanish/Portuguese ones in July, 3 from the random choices in August). I am currently reading the 14th one from the list, the Berlin-set Schäfchen im Trockenen, but I doubt I will finish it by the 1st of September. Not quite as bad as I expected!

This Way to Escapist Reading!

Over the past two months I’ve been reading a lot of lighter literature, what one might call holiday or escapist literature – and boy, have I needed it! This was partly because I was on holiday and did not have access to all of my books so I relied on my Kindle. Once I returned from holiday, I was laid up with allsorts of ailments for over two weeks, plus I was increasingly anxious about the health of my darling cat Zoe, which meant that my reading had to be less challenging and grim.

My definition of escapist is usually crime fiction rather than ‘uplifting’ or ‘feel good’ literature, so most of the books fall into that category, although there is some historical fiction in there as well. Overall, 16 books fall into the escapist fiction category: only three of them fit into the Women in Translation month category, although I read a few of the latter two (brief reviews to follow in a separate post).

Bride Price by Barbara Nadel

As always it’s a real pleasure to reconnect with Ikem and Suleyman and the rest of the team. Although Ikmen is retired now and a widower, and although my personal favourite the handsome and irresistible InspectorSsuleyman is about to get married, they still seem to find time to solve quite a few mysteries along the way. You gain most from reading these books in order because the characters grow, develop, get old grow, form all sorts of additional ties, experience loss, make mistakes – in other words, their development over the years is as much part of the story as the crimes they resolve. I had somehow missed the previous two books in the series so was surprised to find Mehmet about to marry his rather wild Roma lover, having left him previously in the arms of a different woman.

The books are always set against a well-defined historical and social backdrop: these are not just tourist descriptions of particular areas of Istanbul, we also get to experience some of the political and social changes that have taken place there over the years. In this book there are a number of things going on, perhaps slightly too many: is somebody trying to curse the upcoming wedding? What terrorist organisation is trying to poison innocent customers with ricin? Is there an international art fraud conspiracy taking place?

I then went immediately back to one of my favourites in the series, Land of the Blind, set against the backdrop of the 2013 Gezi Park protests (brutally quashed), where Mehmet is a bit of an arrogant bastard in the background, while Ikmen proves that he is the perfect and thoughtful husband, father and friend.

Divorce Turkish Style by Esmahan Aykol, transl. from Turkish by Ruth Whitehouse

I stuck to Istanbul for this next one. Kati Herschel is half-German, half-Turkish and completely stubborn. She owns the only crime bookshop in Istanbul, and can’t resist dabbling in amateur crime investigations. This case involves the death of beautiful, well-educated wife of a millionaire – but was she killed because she was about to divorce her husband or because she was an ecological activist?

Set in Stone by Stela Brinzeanu

A trip to Moldova next, back in medieval times, when wealthy boieri commanded full loyalty from their vassal lords, only boys could inherit, Roma were slaves and women had few choices but marriage or the convent – or else be accused of witchcraft. Brinzeanu takes one of the oldest and best-known Romanian myths (the Ballad of Master Craftsman Manole) and gives an alternative interpretation, steeped in injustice, malevolence and superstition. There is also a tender love story between social classes at its heart, but distrust and fear threaten to destroy it. There is a YA feel to this story (just like with the other recent historical novel I read set in Romania, The Book of Perilous Dishes), but that is no bad thing, as it ensures lively pacing, vivid descriptions, as well as strong emotions and often impulsive actions of the main protagonists, rather than endless cerebral agonising.

The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer

Another historical romance with some cross-dressing like the previous book, but with far lower stakes (although perpetually threatened by possible accusations of fraud and treason)/ This is set in Georgian England, after the failed Bonnie Prince Charlie uprising, with two siblings disguised as members of the opposite sex to protect their identity. Aside from the misunderstandings one might expect, mayhem ensues when their con-artist father reappears to claim a vast inheritance. Not my favourite Heyer, but a charming and witty way to spend a lazy summer day.

Rocco and the Price of Lies by Adrian Magson

A combination of the historical and criminal: I love this series featuring Inspector Rocco in 1960s Picardie – I find them much more compelling and culturally true than the more overtly tourist-trap Bruno series by Martin Walker, but they sadly don’t seem to be as popular with readers. A cracking story about local and national interests, cover-ups and eccentric characters.

The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill

I always enjoy a book about writers and this is a very clever, slightly metafictional study of the construction of a crime novel. The conceit is that an Australian writer sends chapters of her work in progress to an American fan because her latest work is set in Boston and she needs someone familiar with the place to correct any mistakes. However, the American acquaintance gets more involved than one might expect in the story and starts making suggestions for altering the plot or the characters. At the same time, we are given to understand that one of the four main characters in the fictional book is a killer but that the author herself has not yet decided which one it will be. As we get caught up in the story, we forget that all exists simply in the fictional author’s head, but there is the additional creepy element of stalking and real crimes starting to take place. A great fun read, easily devoured in half a day.

Hinton Hollow Death Trap by Will Carver – if you want to have your brains twisted and start doubting yourself, this sneaky and clever but dark story written by Evil Himself is sure to do the trick!

The Good Turn by Dervla McTiernan – a solid and gripping police procedural set in Galway and Dublin, with at least two very strong characters investigating, want to read more

The House Share by Kate Helm – I remember quite enjoying this as I was reading it, although the luxury communal living premise seemed rather far-fetched, but like fast food – haven’t got any lingering memory of its taste

Anonima de miercuri by Rodica Ojog Brasoveanu (Romanian) – featuring that suave old lady Melania, freshly out of prison for fraud, this is entertaining enough but feels oddly in misstep with the time in which it is supposed to take place (1980s Romania)

Violet by SJI Holliday – set on the Trans-Siberian express all the way through Beijing, Mongolia and then Moscow, this is an unnerving story with slippery characters, very atmospheric – although goodness, I was a much more cautious traveller at their age (wouldn’t make for a good story, though)

Death on the Trans Siberian Express by C J Farrington – another story where the Trans-Siberian train features, this time set in Roslazny – a sleepy Russian town along its route. Olga Pushkin is the railway engineer who witnesses a body being thrown out of the train and who cannot help getting involved in the investigation. This has the hallmarks of cosy historical crime, although it is set in 21st century Russia, but I love the idealism and resilience of fiery Olga.

Red as Blood by Lilja Sigurdardottir (transl. Quentin Bates) – a puzzling kidnapping and ransom case (with a side serving of tax evasion) – the second book in a new series by this prolific and talented Icelandic author, less action packed than her Reykjavik Noir trilogy, but equally fun

How to Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie – funny, completely amoral, highly political, this is Kind Hearts and Coronets for the present-day, another book that scores highly while reading it, but loses its fizz soon afterwards

As you can see, no time for lengthier reviews, but I do hope to be able to do a #WIT summary post too.

Mid-Year Reading Review

I saw a bookish blog post which sounded like an interesting review of the half-year so far, and was not quite as challenging to complete as the Six in Six tag. But I refuse to call it the Mid-Year Book Freakout Tag – too American a term for my taste! It is now July rather than June, but I have too much happening at once.

A gorgeous selection of Shirley Jackson covers, courtesy of Simon from Stuck in a Book.

Best Book You’ve Read so Far

This was quite a hard category, because although I’ve read a lot of good books this year, there wasn’t one that completely saw off the competition. I suppose I will stick to tried and tested old favourites like: Shirley Jackson: The Sundial (which is both very funny and sinister, my favourite combination) and the rather depressing Simone de Beauvoir: The Woman Destroyed

New Release You Haven’t Read Yet but Want To

Tawada Yoko: Scattered All Over the Earth, transl. Margaret Mitsuutani

The reviews for this book are somewhat mixed, but I cannot resist a book about language and cultural identity, and this blurb sounds crazy:

Welcome to the not-too-distant future: Japan, having vanished from the face of the earth, is now remembered as “the land of sushi.” Hiruko, its former citizen and a climate refugee herself, has a job teaching immigrant children in Denmark with her invented language Panska (Pan-Scandinavian): “homemade language. no country to stay in. three countries I experienced. insufficient space in brain. so made new language. homemade language.” As she searches for anyone who can still speak her mother tongue, Hiruko soon makes new friends. Her troupe travels to France, encountering an umami cooking competition; a dead whale; an ultra-nationalist named Breivik; unrequited love; Kakuzo robots; red herrings; uranium; an Andalusian matador.

Biggest Disappointment

This seems a little unkind, as I know it’s considered a classic of Australian literature, but I found Christina Stead: The Man Who Loved Children really hard going. I also really wanted to like Berlin-set Other People’s Clothes by Calla Henkel but found it annoyingly self-absorbed.

Biggest Surprise

From opposite ends of the social class in two very different countries: Princess Martha Bibescu showing subtle understanding and political flair in her war-time Political Journals, while Nakagami Kenji portrays the hard and violent life of Japa’s outcasts in The Cape, transl. Eva Zimmerman.

Favourite New Author

From Romania Doina Rusti: The Book of Perilous Dishes, a delightful historical romp; from Italy, Natalia Ginzburg’s essays The Little Virtues

Book That Made You Cry

I don’t usually cry at books, but, as one might expect, The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman does not leave you indifferent, while Gael Faye’s Petit Pays, based on his experiences of civil war in Burundi and Rwanda, show that humans are incapable of learning the lessons of the past.

Book That Made You Happy

This sounds counterintuitive, perhaps even crass, but I found much gentle optimism and encouragement in Josie George‘s remarkable memoir about living with disability A Still Life, while Ways of Walking: Essays edited by Ann de Forest (appropriate name, that) is a lovely collection of essays about all sorts of walking: in urban and rural areas, across forbidden lines, around airports and on ancient pilgrim routes. A collection to dip into and savour!

Reading and Watching Summary June 2022

Reading

I was not expecting to read that many books for my French in June attempt, partly because I am a much slower reader in French, and partly because I knew it was going to be a pretty busy time. However, two of the nine French books I read were in English (although I read one of them in parallel with the French edition), which helped, and most of them were quite slim, which helped even more. Here are the French authors I read (their books also fulfilled my #20Books of Summer challenge), with links to the reviews:

Five men and four women writers, but I may read a few more women for #WomeninTranslation month in August. And a triumph of no less than nine books of the eleven French titles I had selected for the #20Books of Summer challenge.

In addition to the French authors, I also read:

  • Joseph Knox: True Crime Story for our Virtual Crime Club, which I thought was very cleverly constructed and different from run-of-the-mill stories about girls who disappeared
  • Tirzah Garwood: Long Live Great Bardfield, which made me wonder just how much women artists have had to put their own career second in order to further their husband’s career (Eric Ravilious in this case)
  • Hilma Wolitzer: Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket, a collection of short stories about women’s roles as wives and mothers, dating mostly from the 1960-80s, although there are a couple more recent ones (one written after the death of her husband from Covid was particularly moving). Written with deadpan and occasionally surreal humour, borrowed from the library after listening to the author on the Lost Ladies of Lit podcast.
  • Maud Cairnes: Strange Journey, a body switch story between a middle-class housewife and an aristocratic society lady, with surprisingly sharp observations about class differences and assumptions for the time it was written (1930s)
  • Oscar Wilde: De Profundis – I had read this before, but gained so much additional insight from the Backlisted episode with Stephen Fry as a guest, that I wanted to experience it once more.

Films

You can see that my older son came home twice during this period (for a week or so each time), because I watched quite a lot of films with him around. During his exams, he went on a bit of a Disney/Pixar binge, so we watched The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, The Emperor’s New Groove and The Aristocats. We also watched films by directors that my son tends to admire: Tarantino (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – I still don’t get the point of the Manson gang reference), Wes Anderson (The French Dispatch – the ultimate Anderson self-indulgence), Georges Franju (Eyes without a Face – creepy but not as atmospheric as M, for example), while I got to pick Almodovar (Volver) on my birthday. By myself, I watched the problematic but fun Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, the Shakespearean Iranian tragedy of Chess of the Wind, and the surprisingly minimalist Korean drama The Woman Who Ran.

I went to the cinema with a friend to watch Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, which made us laugh and feel good, and sigh over Daryl McCormack. It felt like a play for two people, and we agreed that Nancy (played so well by Emma Thompson) didn’t seem like the kind of person we would like as a friend in real life.

Literary Events

I attended two real-life events this month. First, the Oxford Translation Day at St Anne’s College, where I got to meet so many lovely translators, do a workshop with Jen Calleja whom I greatly admire, and hear translators talk about their translation motivation and practices. The publisher panel (represented by Heloise Press, Paper Republic and Praspar Press) made me feel better about the teething problems of Corylus – small, independent publishing of translated fiction is clearly a money-pit. As one of the panellists put it: ‘You pay for everything but you’re the last to see any money back, or everyone gets paid except for the publishers.’

The second live event was a play by a very talented young actor/writer/director from Romania (who is now living in the UK) Ioana Goga. The play was called Love (to) Bits and was performed at Baron’s Court Theatre, a small venue in the basement of the Curtains Up pub in West London. It is a highly relatable examination of love, what it is, what it could be, and where it often fails, played with aplomb and great gusto by the three young performers, Ioana Goga, Tomas Howser and Beatrice Bowden. Here is a thoughtful review of it and do check out the energetic talent of their company Eye Opening Productions.

I also ran two Romanian poetry translation workshops for the Stephen Spender Trust in a primary school in Slough – and absolutely loved working with the children. I had forgotten what fun it can be working with that age group (and how tiring).

Online, I attended a session on the recent publication of a comic book Madgermanes, about Mozambican workers who had previously been contracted out to East Germany. It was a conversation between Birgit Weyhe, a German comic book artist, and her translator and publisher Katy Derbyshire at V&Q Books.

The final events I attended were on Sunday 26th of June, two brief snippets from the ambitiously hybrid Kendal Poetry Festival – kudos to the organisers for offering both remote and in-person options, which I know from experience is double the work and the cost.

A Year Older… and Match-Making My Books

It’s my birthday this week and I have been so busy that I haven’t had time to fully prepare for it. I’ll be delivering two translation workshops in schools on my actual birthday, but also going to the hairdresser and having my older son come back home from university. No major treats planned for my birthday weekend (because we will be heading back to Durham on the 1st of July and will celebrate then), but I can tell you it has been a better year than the previous one.

There have been no spectacular changes outwardly, other than having my older son go off to university (and experiencing the bittersweet delight of having him home for the holidays and then saying farewell all over again) – but he seems happy, settled, and still eager to talk to me regularly, so it’s not been a horrible wrench. I have also finally been able to go and see my parents in March, after 2.5 years of enforced distancing. They are much frailer than I’d have liked, and I can foresee I will have to make more frequent trips over there over the next few years.

Other than that: I am still in the same day job, I have not moved house, I have not found a new partner, nor have I suddenly taken up a new sport and dramatically altered my body. I have not won any literary prizes (neither individually nor with my publishing venture Corylus Books). In fact, I’ve had a lot of rejections, both little and big.

What I have done is started proper (online) Italian lessons, in a very small group, and am progressing very well, even if I don’t do lots of homework every day. I did the BCLT Summer School for Multilingual Theatre Translation last July and discovered how much I enjoy translated theatre and that I really want to be involved in it. Best of all, I’ve rediscovered my passion for writing and the topics to match. The burbling fountain (or should that be ‘babbling’?) is back! After a discouraging few years of merely editing and resubmitting previously rejected stuff, it feels good to be writing new things, however raw and in need of revision. The poetry also feels lighter, more playful than before – I seem to be having fun with it. See what you think:

The search is not for love
but for a brief clasp of your fingers
and a jolt of electricity
on a late May evening
in a station where only the slow train stops,
the white lilac teases
with its heady scent above
the crumbling wall.

One thing I have become acutely aware of this year is that, if I am planning to move abroad permanently in about two years’ time, I need to get a handle on my completely out-of-control bookshelves. I am still buying books, but I should also learn to take them promptly off the shelves once I’ve read them, unless they are profoundly significant and will require rereading.

This got me wondering whether it might be a good idea to share some of my recent books which I’ve reviewed but no longer want to keep. I give a huge pile of books to charity shops ever so often, but they have started refusing them recently (they have too many, not enough place to store them). Moreover, these books I was thinking of are not underlined or based-looking second-hand copies. They are all in splendid condition, bought new, read once (with post-its rather than scribbles or turned corners).

Since I am not steeped in wealth (but also don’t want to be profiteering, as I recognise things are tough for everyone right now), I thought I might make a small amount from reselling them – enough to cover the cost of P&P and perhaps a coffee when I go to the post office. How does a flat fee of £5 per book sound? UK only, I’m afraid, as postage to other countries is prohibitively expensive, while custom forms are an additional obstacle.

I will suggest about five or so books every month. Let me know either on Twitter or in the comments below if you have your eye on any of them (you can have more than one, if you like) and we can arrange payment via Paypal or some other means. I am linking to the original reviews on my blog where they exist, but don’t be put off if I haven’t loved a book, as I tend to be horrendously critical and impatient (especially of late).

I feel like I’m doing a bit of a match-making service for these books, so that they find their perfect reader, so here are my first attempts at playing matchmaker.

  1. Alberto Prunetti: Down and Out in England and Italy – inspired by Orwell, an unashamedly frank look at contemporary life on minimum wage is searching for an equally no-holds-barred fan of poetic yet politically charged non-fiction
  2. Italo Svevo: A Perfect Hoax – short, humorous, yet packs a dark punch to the gut. Looking for understanding reader, with a satirical delight in tormented writerly types and their foibles.
  3. Amy Liptrot: The Instant – confused young woman searching for a good home and respite from heartbreak
  4. Oscar Coop-Phane: Tomorrow Berlin – self-absorbed and self-destructive but colourful, seeking a steady, understanding influence and/or lashings of hedonism.
  5. John Dickson Carr: Till Death Do Us Part – a British Library crime classic by one of the best Golden Age crime writers – you get very much what it says on the tin – a good solid few hours of fun and a near-impossible puzzle

#6Degrees June 2022

Always happy to add in an extra blog post for this fun monthly meme: you start with the same book as all the other readers and then let your imagination run wild over the course of six links. For more explanations and an example of how it’s done, see the host of this meme, Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best.

The starting point this month is a book that has had quite a bit of a buzz, Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason. It’s the story of a woman who thinks there might be something wrong with her, but her husband keeps telling her everything’s fine, until the moment when he leaves her. I haven’t read it yet, but (for obvious reasons) it resonates with me and I intend to read it… after the buzz has quietened down.

I will start with another book about women’s mental health and husbands who fail to understand or sympathise (to put it mildly) – The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It’s creepy and terrifying, with no humour or happy ending (which I gather Sorrow and Bliss does have), which makes it all the more unsuitable for the marketing treatment below.

who’s gonna tell them pic.twitter.com/zrCJ7cdLYT— Meaghan O’Connell (@meaghano) June 1, 2022

 

This (and the responses in the thread) made me laugh nearly all of Thursday, and the next link is to another misinterpreted book, namely The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo. We recently rewatched the Disney adaptation and I was struck once more by how much it simplifies and whitewashes characters, while Hugo intended it to be more of a social and cultural critique. Quasimodo is a complex character (who wouldn’t be, given the circumstances of his birth, physical body and upbringing?), certainly not as innocent and childish as in the cartoon, but at least Hugo shows that people with disabilities can be more loving and noble than attractive people like Phoebus.

The book Wonder by R.J. Palacio was ubiquitous when my children were in primary school, as an example of a book designed to reassure children that facial disfigurement does not a lesser person make. My sons were somewhat bemused by the simplistic message, since they had already encountered plenty of classmates who did not ‘fit the norm’ already, but not everyone has those experiences, and I always appreciate books which broaden our horizons.

Very simple link comes next: the word ‘wonder’ in the title. This is a book I’ve been meaning to read for ages, hopefully I will be able to find it at the university library: The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, and the subtitle says it all, really:  The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science.

The next choice is a play about the beauty and terror of science, more specifically physics. Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists is a classic written at the height of the Cold War in 1962, after the Second World War had shown the incredible and destructive power of the atom, and how politicians are unlikely to use such power for good purposes.

In addition to being a playwright, Dürrenmatt also wrote crime fiction, first as potboilers, but then increasingly subverting the genre and introducing his own brand of philosophy about guilt and punishment and social responsibility. Another writer who is better known for his literary works, but also wrote crime novels (under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake), is Cecil Day-Lewis and I will pick his most famous novel The Beast Must Die, which has been adapted at least twice for cinema, including by Claude Chabrol (see the film poster).

A thread heavy on men and/or English language this month, I notice, but that’s where my subconscious took me. I don’t overthink these things, let whim guide me. Where will your whim take you?

Books, Films, Events: Summary for May 2022

Quite a fun month of reading: 16 books, eight of them were in the ‘expats writing’ category, and three were preparatory reading for my French in June challenge. Two were for my book clubs (Good as Dead for the Virtual Crime Book Club, Love in the Big City for London Reads the World). The remaining three were just random fun reads from the library. I knew it was going to be a month with few books in other languages (only four, and all French), as the theme was Anglo expats.

So here are the links to the longer reviews and/or one line comments.

Can I draw any conclusions from this multitude of expat accounts? Virtually all of them had a distinctive tone – equal parts arch and blasé. This worked best when the authors or narrators showed an actual interest in the place and ‘the natives’, rather than use them merely as backdrop for personal drama. I can see how an external observer (supposedly impartial, although not always so) can bring a different perspective to things, but remain unconvinced that these stories might have been better told by the locals. The exceptions are Christopher Isherwood (who is ferocious about the expats and the English as well) and Kirsty Bell, although I did enjoy the fun Berlinski and Rush were having with dismantling dearly held anthropological beliefs and discourse.

I will be reviewing the three French books in June, so here are the rest of the bunch:

  • Susan Walter: Good as Dead – ethical dilemma, Hollywood ending, fun but forgettable
  • Joanna Cannon: A Tidy Ending – in-depth character study and great sleight of hand
  • Sang Young Park: Love in the Big City, transl. Anton Hur – raucous, energetic, poignant, sad, funny and sweet
  • Gillian McAllister: Wrong Time, Wrong Place – great initial idea, but such banal and bland prose
  • Emily Itami: Fault Lines – wasn’t sure about this at first, but now think it fits really well with one of my French books, so will review in tandem with that

Events

My social calendar is starting to fill up, although I try not to go more than once a week into London.

Exhibition Louise Bourgeois

Sixth anniversary of Royal Borough Writers, the writing group to which I belong – a real lifeline when I returned from Geneva, feeling bereft without a writing group; at first sceptical whether it would be entirely helpful, since I was the only one writing poetry or crime fiction, but it has been the most supportive and fun community, and has contributed significantly to my mental balance during lockdown, when we met online

Out of the Wings Theatre in Translation Spring Kindlings meeting – such a great community of translators and theatre fans, combining readings and discussions of what we would like to see in the future (hint: more festivals and communities of translated plays)

Society of Authors New Members lunch – so excited to meet poet Joelle Taylor, winner of the 2021 T.S. Eliot Prize, whom I had previously only known and admired via an online masterclass. Also got to meet Yvonne Bailey-Smith, whose book The Day I Fell Off My Island deserves to be known on its own merit, rather than by the fact that the author is Zadie Smith’s mother.

International Booker Shortlist Readings – it was a bit ambitious to have readings and a brief Q&A with all of the authors and translators in just 1.5 hours, some of them couldn’t make it so were on video, and I do wish the questions had been less obvious, more imaginative – nevertheless, it was wonderful to hear from them all, a really strong shortlist this year. I had already ordered the winner, but haven’t read it yet.

Pandemic Fiction – you can’t go wrong with the two Sarah queens of contemporary literature: Sarah Hall and Sarah Moss, plus I feel very close to Oana Aristide, with whom I share the Romanian and Greek connection (also, slightly, the Swedish one). Their ‘pandemic’ novels were all written at different stages of Covid. Oana had finished writing her novel and was editing (so incorporated some of the obsession with handwashing and disinfecting, which she hadn’t predicted). Sarah Hall started Burntcoat on the first day of the first lockdown, as a way of making sense of the whole situation and coping with uncertainty – filling in the gaps with fiction helped. Sarah Moss started hers in November 2020, when the initial sense of solidarity and helpfulness was falling apart. I especially loved the quote: ‘Readers or publishers tell us it is too soon for pandemic novels – but who’s going to tell us when it is time? Real life is a mess, there is not narrative structure to it, so fiction gives us maps to navigate the chaos and unfairness of it all.’

Films

Only seven films watched (online) this month, all rather living up to my reputation as a lover of grim, cheerless or brutal stuff (as one of my friends claims – she refuses to go to any more films with me unless she picks them). However, I think most of them also have that dark humour which really resonates with me (and which I hope I have in my writing). The only one I found so depressing that I couldn’t watch it to the end was Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st, but I thought his earlier Reprise was funny, satirical and knowing.

I watched no less than three films about enigmatic women – La Collectionneuse, Morvern Callar and Zero Fucks Given – well, enigmatic if you are a man trying to ‘explain’ these women or appropriate their thoughts and feelings. Haydee in the first of these films is simply a young woman out to enjoy herself and not giving a damn about anyone else’s opinion, but the two others are grieving in their own inimitable way. Virtuoso performances!

Le Weekend seemed to me more vicious than heartwarming, despite its ‘happy ending’, but I liked the Bande A Part references (might try to learn the dance myself). The last film was a pastiche of a genre mash-up of Gothic horror, erotica, Hitchcock thriller The Love Witch – profoundly silly but wonderfully cheering on a lonely evening.

20 Books of Summer (More Like 30)

Cathy at 746 Books has been hosting this annual event for several years now: a very simple idea – to burn through your TBR pile by selecting the 20 books you plan to read over June/July/August. Summer in some parts of the world, winter in others. I usually get close to the fateful number twenty, but am easily distracted on my journey.

I have already announced that I will dedicate June to French language literature, July to Spanish language and August to Women in Translation more widely, so I have a huge pile of books to choose from. Since I never know what mood I will be in when the time comes, I am giving myself a large selection of at least ten or twelve every month in each category, so that I can choose the ones I feel most attracted to at the time.

So here goes:

June:

I’ve picked writers I know and love for my birthday month, or else books I’ve been looking forward to reading for a long, long time.

  1. Maylis de Kerangal: Painting Time
  2. Delphine de Vigan: No et moi
  3. Sophie Divry: La condition pavillonnaire
  4. Lola Lafon: Reeling
  5. Dany Laferriere: Je suis un ecrivain japonais
  6. Jean Claude Izzo: L’aride des jours
  7. Romain Gary: L’Homme a la Colombe
  8. Gael Faye: Petit Pays
  9. Pascal Garnier: Nul n’est a l’abri du succes
  10. Janis Otsiemi: La vie est un sale boulot

July:

I am far less well-read in Spanish language literature (or Portuguese – other than Brazilian), although I seem to enjoy it a lot when I do get around to reading it.

  1. Claudia Pineiro: Elena Knows
  2. Gabriela Cabezon Camara: Slum Virgin
  3. Maria Judite de Carvalho: Empty Wardrobes
  4. Rosa Maria Arquimbau: Forty Lost Years (I am including Catalan in the Spanish/Portuguese language challenge)
  5. Juan Pablo Villalobos: I don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me
  6. Enrique Vila-Matas: The Illogic of Kassel
  7. Javier Marias: Your Face Tomorrow (Vol. 1 at least)
  8. Roberto Bolano: The Skating Rink
  9. Javier Cercas: Even the Darkest Night
  10. Rafael Bernal: The Mongolian Conspiracy

August

I am being clever here, or so I think, because I can leave any unread women authors from June and July for this month. In addition to that, I m also taking a look at the rather chunky ones below:

  1. Olga Tokarczuk: The Books of Jacob
  2. Svetlana Alexievich: Second-Hand Time
  3. Esmahan Aykol: Divorce Turkish Style
  4. Magda Szabo: Iza’s Ballad
  5. Anke Stelling: Schäfchen im Trockenen (Higher Ground – because you can never get too many stories of Berlin)

Additional Random Choices:

All by and about women and all of them quite chunky:

  1. Tirzah Garwood: Long Live Great Bardfield
  2. Tessa Hadley: The Past
  3. The Letters of Shirley Jackson
  4. Stela Brinzeanu: Set in Stone
  5. Yvonne Bailey-Smith: The Day I Fell Off My Island

Which of these have you read or do you look forward to reading? Also: am I mad to choose quite a few looooooong books?

#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.