Reading Plans for May and June

Yes, you might call this an excessive amount of forward thinking, but I am rather enjoying having a plan that gives me a theme and a purpose, but is flexible enough to allow for additional recreational reading of whatever takes my fancy.

May Day dancing, painting by Maurice Prendergast.

May

I don’t seem to have read a lot of Arabic literature, so I will attempt to remedy that in May. I will ‘visit’ two countries very close to my heart, Egypt (my second-oldest friend from primary school comes from there) and Lebanon (one of my dearest Mum friends still has most of her family living there; incidentally, she is one of the most talented home cooks I know). For Egypt, I have The Book of Cairo from Comma Press; the book which I never got around to reading for the #1956Club Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz; and The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany. For Lebanon, there is a bit of a common theme going on: I have Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Game about two brothers who find themselves on opposing sides during the civil war; Elias Khoury’s White Masks is another take on the civil war, based upon a true event, the murder of a journalist; while Pierre Jarawan’s The Storyteller tells the story of a young man who has grown up in Germany returning to the country of his birth to search for his father.

June – Netgalley Blast

Horrendous how many books have been lurking there for years and years, even though they seemed irresistible at the time. And I really need to improve my feedback ratio (currently only 52%).

Karl Kraus: The Last Days of Mankind – to continue a bit with the 1936 theme – although the book was published in 1922, Kraus himself died in 1936, and I have been waiting six years to read this one

Claire Fuller: Our Endless Numbered Days – has also been on my Kindle since 2015 – in honour of her being longlisted for the Women’s Prize with her latest book, I feel I owe it to her to read her first (I believe)

Valeria Luiselli: Lost Children Archive – this one has only been lurking on the virtual shelf for about two years

More recent ones too: Salena Godden: Mrs Death Misses Death; Lissa Evans: V for Victory; Catherine Ryan Howard: The Nothing Man; David Young: The Stasi Game; Joy Kluver: Last Seen; Minae Mizumura: An I Novel; Kotaro Isaka: Bullet Train (I just can’t seem able to stay away from those Japanese, right?)

Well, that all sounds like an ambitious plan and might end up spilling over into July and August as well. But it’s a nice combination of easy, quick reads and more challenging ones. After that… well, Women in Translation will no doubt loom large over the summer!

#6Degrees March 2021: From Phosphorescence to…

6 Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. You start with a different book each month and link it to six others to form a chain, the more imaginative the link, the better. I hesitated a little about participating in it this month, because I had not read the first book (it’s not available yet in the UK) and because it doesn’t sound like my kind of thing. 

Phosphorescence by Julia Baird has a beautiful cover and the subtitle ‘On awe, wonder and things that sustain you’, which sounds a little too American self-helpy for my taste. But Kate herself rates this book highly, as being comforting and illuminating, as well as well-written, so never say never about reading this.

Another book that I was convinced I wouldn’t like and yet it pleasantly surprised me was Rules for Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson. I have to admit that I reviewed Peter Swanson’s first crime novel back in the days when I was reviewing for Crime Fiction Lover and was not entirely convinced. I said there was ‘a breathless cinematic quality to it: an exciting thriller’ but ‘a little déjà vu’. So I (perhaps somewhat unfairly) never requested another of his books since. However, I came across this book at the library and, with lockdown looming, I thought I’d give it a go. I don’t think Swanson will ever be one of my favourite authors, but it was a fun read, with all of the allusions to other famous crime writers and their most famous books.

Bit of an obvious next link, the Swanson that instantly comes to mind is the inimitable Gloria Swanson, screen siren and muse, but also a woman who did not suffer fools gladly. I haven’t read this book Swanson on Swanson, but it looks very intriguing and candid, and apparently does not sugarcoat the Hollywood studio industry at all.

I’ve chosen another unusual, fragmented autobiography for my next link, namely Jean Rhys’ Smile Please – a collection of vignettes about her childhood in Dominica, her youth in theatre in London and Paris. This is the material she so successfully mined in her novels and stories, but it’s always worth bearing in mind that fiction and biography may not be quite as closely linked even in her case, and that she said: ‘A novel has to have shape, and life doesn’t have any.’

Tenuous link next, with a male author whose name is also Jean – namely French regional author Jean Giono. Regional not in any disparaging sense of the term, but because he is most associated with the Provence region in which he lived. He was much admired by Marcel Pagnol, who also wrote novels set in that beautiful area of France. He is best known for his historical novel Le hussard sur le toit (The Horseman on the Roof), which people outside France might know from the film adaptation starring Olivier Martinez and Juliette Binoche, and which seems very topical now, as it deals with a cholera outbreak in the 1830s.

Juliette Binoche is the link to the next book, Chocolat by Joanne Harris, which became a worldwide bestseller following the film adaptation with her in the starring role. It is also set in a French village (like Jean Giono’s book) and slightly historical, although the past there is far more recent, set as it is in the more traditional 1950s/60s.

For the final book in the chain, I’ve chosen another novel which was published in 1999, the same year as Chocolat and which is also set in a small village, but this time Holt, a fictional town in the American prairies. Kent Haruf’s Plainsong is a book which had been recommended to me by many fellow book bloggers, and they were absolutely right. I certainly enjoyed the pared down, detached style and close observation of a small group of characters.

Once again I’ve travelled far on my monthly Six Degrees journey: from Australia to LA to Dominica to France and Colorado. Where will your associations and links take you?

Last Ten Books Tag

I was planning to write the second part of ‘What is indie on my bookshelf’, with a focus on poetry presses, but I saw this bookish tag on Eleanor Franzen’s blog and thought it looked like too much fun to miss out. I’ve long since stopped tagging people, like I used to do in my early days of blogging, because I know so many people hate it. But if you would like to join in, I would love to read your posts!

Last Book I Gave Up On: I feel a bit mean saying this, as it wasn’t bad, but it was Amanda Craig’s The Golden Rule. I suppose it’s because I was reading it as a respite from The Brothers Karamazov in December, and it just felt too long and like too much of a trudge to be a real respite.

Last Book I Re-Read: Dazai Osamu’s No Longer Human in a new translation, but also reread big chunks of the old translation for comparison. It was great to reconnect with an old favourite – remind me to reread things more often!

Last Book I Bought: Just yesterday I ordered Appius and Virginia by G.E. Trevelyan, because someone on Twitter recommended it after I said I’d finished reading Bear by Marian Engel. It’s about a woman who adopts and raises an orang-utan as a human baby. I didn’t read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves when it came out a few years back and was the subject of avid debates, but this seems in a similar (albeit earlier) vein.

Last Book I Said I Read But Didn’t: I don’t usually do this, as I feel no shame in not having read something (after all, I read so much already, and have other things to do as well). But if I would do it, it would probably be one of those latest bestsellers like The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. (I do have it on my Kindle though, and I will be reading it for our Virtual Crime Book Club this month.)

Last Book I Wrote In The Margins Of: I haven’t done that in years – I use little post-it flags or highlight text on my Kindle. But a lot of my anthropology textbooks feature my scribbles and underlinings, including Ritual, Politics and Power by David Kertzer, which I still remember fondly.

Last Book That I Had Signed: I’m not sure, but I can remember one book which I failed to get signed at the last live event I attended on the 27th of February 2020, a literary event organised by the LRB Review and Bookshop in London: Anne Enright talking about her latest novel Actress. It was a really fun evening – Enright is hugely entertaining and acerbic in public – but there was too much of a queue for the signing and I was with a friend, so we decided to leave.

Last Book I Lost: You can imagine that with so many international moves and having personal libraries in at least 5 different locations across three different countries at one point, things have got lost. I’m trying to resist the temptation to replace all of my Japanese authors library, which I so painstakingly brought over from Japan in my luggage, because I still believe that my parents will have kept them. However, I do know that they gave away a whole chunk of my Japanese language courses, dictionaries and other materials a few years back.

Last Book I Had To Replace: See above about what the dangers of having left behind an entire library in a different country does to you. I finally decided that I couldn’t wait until my parents found and shipped over To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf to me (I had her complete works and diaries, and most of them have followed me wherever I went in my adult life, but somehow this one stayed behind). In fact, I missed it so much that I bought it twice, so now I have two handsome editions of it on my bedside table where my favourite authors live.

Last Book I Argued Over: I wouldn’t exactly call it an argument, because I enjoy hearing what other people think about books, whether they disagree with me or not. One book that seemed to divide opinion among our Shadow Young Writer of the Year panel was Marina Kemp’s Nightingale. Several of my fellow judges loved the French village setting, while I was a bit harsher and found it quite superficially done.

Last Book You Couldn’t Find: I have heard there is an old, out of print Anthology of Romanian Short Fiction, and I have submitted it as a ‘Want’ on Abebooks, but without any luck so far. I wanted to see what short stories were available in English, so that I could share them and finally contribute to Jonathan Gibbs’ lovely personal anthology project.

#ReadIndies: What is indie on my shelf?

I may be pottering around Canada this month, but I wanted to take part somehow in the Read Indies month co-hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambles. So I decided to have a look through my shelves and see which independent publishers have most caught my eye and made me take out my credit card. There are plenty of newer publishers that I haven’t yet explored – this is a list of those that I have in plentiful quantities. Please bear in mind also that I have a lot of books in other languages, and that the criteria for being an independent publisher is quite different elsewhere, so I will stick to the UK based publishers I own.

Translated Fiction:

Peirene Press – for short, concentrated bursts of brilliance from Central and Northern Europe (originally, although the selection has broadened in recent years). One of my all-time favourites was The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke. They were also the first to introduce an annual subscription model (as far as I know).

Istros Books – for SE European literature – or, to be precise – literature from countries bordering the River Danube. A recent favourite was Ludovic Bruckstein’s The Trap, and there is a new translation of Bruckstein’s work coming out now.

Alma Books – particularly for their translations of classics, from the Russian for me and all sorts of other languages for my son. Most recently enjoyed the detailed annotations and translation notes of Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island.

A good selection of Alma titles that I acquired in their annual book sale.

Tilted Axis – predominantly Asian selection of countries, forever grateful for introducing me to Thai literature via Prabda Yoon’s Moving Parts or daring Bengali author Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay.

Strangers Press – a very small outfit, linked to the UEA Publishing Programme and Norwich Writers’ Centre. I’ve been particularly interested in their Keshiki New Voices from Japan series, as you might expect, but they also have a series on Korean literature and another on Dutch literature.

Nordisk Books – contemporary Nordic fiction aimed at proving that there is more to Scandinavia than just crime fiction. Was particularly struck by Zero by Gine Cornelia Pedersen and Love/War by Ebba Witt-Brattström.

Bitter Lemon Press – I like to travel while reading crime fiction, so the mission of Bitter Lemon to cover the dark side of foreign places really appeals to me. They introduced me to Argentinian writer Claudia Pineiro and Spanish writer Teresa Solana, and The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda is the most recent book which really struck a chord.

Charco Press – an emphasis on striking, even challenging contemporary Latin American literature, with equally striking covers in a rainbow array of colours. Recommended titles include: Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love (the first I read from them and still a favourite) and Fish Soup by Margarita Garcia Robayo.

Since I arrange my books by countries, publishers like Charco mess up my system a little, since I cannot bear to not keep all their books together, so I’ve created a Latin American bookcase.

Fitzcarraldo Editions – this publisher straddles two worlds, with their blue-covered translations/fiction titles and white-covered essays/non-fiction. I discovered Olga Tokarczuk thanks to them and most recently was bowled over by Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season.

English Language:

Comma Press – another publisher which straddles two categories, their focus being on short stories, whether in English or in translation. I particularly enjoy their city series, such as The Book of Tokyo or The Book of Shanghai, and of course their Europa 28 (Writing by Women on the Future of Europe).

Persephone Books – how I miss the dinky little Persephone bookshop, which was dangerously close to my workplace! This publisher does reprints of largely forgotten titles by early to mid-twentieth century women authors. I’ve been smitten by Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski and The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, and I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into the autobiography of Tirzah Garwood, who was the wife of painter Eric Ravilious and an artist in her own right.

Orenda Books – there are far too few independent publishers of crime fiction, and Orenda does a great job of providing readers with both translated and English crime novels. Not only do I admire the publisher’s ability to create a real sense of community around her books and authors, but she is also happy to let her authors experiment with cross-genre fiction, which the bigger publishers are seldom prepared to do. Some of the authors I particularly like are: Antti Tuomainen, Helen Fitzgerald, Will Carver, Agnes Ravatn and Simone Buchholz.

Silver Press – a small, recently-founded feminist publisher, with a very promising list of authors including Leonora Carrington, Chantal Akerman, Nell Dunn and Audre Lorde. This is the new Virago in a way. For many years, I was an avid Virago fan, and I still am, but they do not count as independent (they are currently part of Hachette).

This post is getting rather long, so I will leave the poetry publishers for next week.

But before I go, I will just very gently remind you of Corylus Books as well: translated crime fiction with a social edge from countries and languages that tend to get fewer translations. We are currently in the process of reconfiguring our website so that it will work both in the UK and abroad. Our best reviewed books from our first year of operation were Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu and The Fox by Sólveig Pálsdóttir.

Monthly Summary, January 2021

Reading

I have decided to no longer review every book I read this year, since I simply cannot keep up. This month, I’ve read 13 books, including finishing off the chunkster that was The Brothers Karamazov (which was left over from my December Russian reading). 12 of these were translated books, greatly helped by the fact that it was January in Japan and I really enjoyed spending time in one of my favourite countries in the world (9 of the 12 were Japanese). The only one in English in the original was for the Virtual Crime Book Club – and you can catch our discussion of The Chemistry of Death by Simon Beckett here.

Of the 13 you can see in the picture below, you might notice two are different translations of the same book by Dazai Osamu, so let me reassure you that I am not counting that twice, but am including instead an academic work about Suicidal Narrative in Modern Japan: The Case of Dazai Osamu by Alan Stephen Wolfe (but it does not have a pretty cover). To go through my Japanese reading chronologically:

  • I found out about the fascinating life and work of Higuchi Ichiyo, the first modern Japanese professional woman writer.
  • I reconnected with my favourite Dazai Osamu, reading his No Longer Human in a new translation and his shorter, often quite funny more purely autobiographical stories. This is where I also fell down the rabbit hole of reading more of him and about him in a more academic context.
  • I moved on to another modern classic and old favourite, Yukio Mishima.
  • I read a short story collection by Yuko Tsushima, Dazai’s daughter, and learnt more about the impact of her father’s death via an example of autofiction.
  • I read an enjoyable romp of a crime novel with a deliberately American noir feel, despite its Japanese setting and preoccupation with the consequences of the Vietnam war: The Wrong Goodbye by Toshihiko Yahagi (not reviewed)
  • Last but not least, it was intriguing and timely to read about the often ignored homeless people of Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri

Aside from Japan, I also spent some time with Portuguese writer Afonso Cruz and his experimentally structured novel Kokoschka’s Doll, as well as with the fast-paced, jazzy improv beat of talented German writer Simone Buchholz: Hotel Cartagena (not reviewed).

For February, I will spend time in Canada, but inevitably some other writing will creep in, especially if it’s winter themed. However, our host Meredith is continuing with the Japanese Lit Challenge until March, and I certainly intend to continue following the reviews that people are posting there.

Films

Elsa the Rose – beautiful love story (although also ever so slightly obsessive) told through interviews with Elsa Triolet and Louis Aragon, in conversation with Agnès Varda.

Ikiru – absolutely adored this film, more reminiscent of Ozu than Kurosawa. It tell the story of a faceless (not very likeable) bureaucrat who, when faced with a death sentence through a cancer diagnosis – becomes concerned about making up for lost time (and looking for fun in all the wrong places initially) and leaving behind a legacy. Particularly poignant and realistic in the post-funeral scene, when you see how others talk about the dead and misunderstand them.

The Godfather and The Sopranos – rewatched the first with my older son, who really likes it. Then, by way of counterpoint and an update into the Mafia families, started watching Season 1 of The Sopranos.

The Long Goodbye – was not entirely convinced by the portrayal of women as either manipulative bitches or decorative hippies high on drugs. However, I really liked Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe: with his dark suit, lanky figure, fluffy hair and constant smoking, it’s clear he must have been the inspiration for the Spike Spiegel in the anime series Cowboy Bebop.

Lovers Rock – described by many as their favourite of the Small Axe films by Steve McQueen. I loved the recreation of the period, the setting, the community and also the charming touches of youthful love (as well as more disturbing aspects of the party culture), but I did feel some of the music passages were too long.

Phoenix – a pared-down approach to acting by Nina Hoss to what could have been quite a melodramatic story of losing one’s identity, betrayal, forgiveness (or not) and moving on (both as an individual and as a country). The final ten minutes or so, when she gets off the train and is reunited with her husband and ‘friends’, are perfectly and heartbreakingly done.

Other News

Despite a busy working month, I’ve made a little bit of progress on my novel (I’m nearly two thirds of the way through, but I think it will need at least another edit before I’m happy with it).

However, I’m happy to say that I’ve very nearly finished the edits to my second translated novel: Resilience by Bogdan Hrib. ‘Resilience’ in the context of this novel does not focus on psychological resilience in the face of the unknown (although it does deal with this tangentially), but on geopolitics. It is defined as “the ability of states and societies to adapt and reform, thus withstanding and recovering from internal and external crisis, particularly in a period of unpredictability and volatility”. Of course, that is too academic to be of much interest in a crime novel, so let’s just say that this will be all about social media, fake news and dubious agents (who knows from where?) trying to influence international politics. This should come out end of March with Corylus Books.

Reading Plans for First Third of 2021

While it is true that I didn’t get to read as much as I planned in the September-December time-frame, I found that having a bit of a plan for the final quarter of the year (or third, to be precise) did give me additional motivation. 2021 doesn’t look like it will be any less busy, but I will repeat this reading planning model for January-April. Of course, I keep it fairly flexible, allowing myself to add random books that capture my fancy, or offer me the thrill of transgression without being too constrained by the rules. Most of these books are on my shelves already, so that gets rid of my ‘far too many unread books’ concerns.

January = January in Japan

I have already read Tokyo Ueno Station but intend to reread parts of it for reviewing. I also plan two further rereads: two of my favourite Japanese books of all time – Dazai Osamu’s Ningen Shikkaku in a new translation and Mishima Yukio’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (it was the first novel that I read in the original Japanese all the way through back in my student days). I also intend to read some more by Tshushima Yuko (Dazai’s daughter). The Shooting Gallery is a collection of her short stories. I’ll also read short stories by Higuchi Ichiyo, one of the first professional women writers of Japan, who described the plight of the working classes.

February = Canada

In Canada it will still be lovely and wintry weather in February – real winter, with pure white snow and skiing. Perhaps nicer to read about than to live through it. So I have a nice selection of Canadian authors to hand. Dorian Stuber has been trying to get all his bookish Twitter friends to read Marian Engel’s Bear, so I’ll finally do him the favour! Carol Shields’ Mary Swann is about a latter-day Emily Dickinson who is killed soon after handing her manuscripts over to an editor – and becomes a bit of a posthumous sensation. I love Anne Carson as a poet and look forward to reading some of her essays as well in Plainwater. Inger Ash Wolfe is the crime writing pseudonym of author Michael Redhill, in case I feel the need for a bit of lighter reading. Last but not least, the only French language writer I seem to have from Canada on my shelves is Mathieu Boutin L’Oreille absolue, about two violonists, one young and ambitious, the other midlle-aged and depressed.

March = Drama All the Way

Scene from a production of The Holiday Game at the Maria Filotti Theatre in Braila, Sebastian’s home town.

This month will pave the ground for the next month, so I will be reading plays. Something I very rarely do nowadays, although I was very keen on reading (and performing) plays back in my late teens. I will reread The Holiday Game by Mihail Sebastian (which I am hoping to translate at some point if a friendly publisher decides it’s worth pursuing), as well as two Austrian favourites Arthur Schnitzler and Ödön von Horvath. Last but not least, something by Noel Coward, who also falls roughly into that time period. Which time period, you ask? Why, the one that I will be immersed in for April… If there is time, I might revisit Oscar Wilde’s plays, all of which I adored as a teenager, even Salome, which is less well-known.

April = #1936Club

The reading club dedicated to one specific year of publishing only lasts a week, but I intend to extend my reading to the whole month. The eagle-eyed amongst you may have spotted that Mihail Sebastian’s play was written that year (although not performed until 1938 – very briefly), and that Horvath also had two plays that appeared that year. Additionally, I also intend to read Max Blecher’s Occurence in the Immediate Unreality, Karel Capek’s War with the Newts and Mircea Eliade’s Miss Cristina, all published in 1936 and all East European. If I have time, I’d also like to read a book about Mihail Sebastian (a novel rather than a biography) by Gelu Diaconu, entitled simply Sebastian.

December Reading and Films

Just because I’ve written my annual summary doesn’t mean that December gets neglected. Although it was busier than I would have liked until the 18th, after that I went on holiday, so had more time to dedicate to reading, writing, family and watching films or TV series. Here is a little round-up of the month.

Reading

Poster for the 2009 Russian TV series of the Brothers Karamazov

This was my Russians in December month. Of course, given the verbosity of some of those Russians, it ended up being nothing more than Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island (which was an eye-opener and which I cannot recommend highly enough as piece of investigative and anthropological writing) and The Brothers Karamazov (in the translation of Ignat Avsey). I’m halfway through the latter and enjoying it far more than I ever did on previous attempts, so this might be the time I actually get to finish it (by the time 31st of December, 23:59 comes along). Review (or rather, random thoughts and jotting in the margins) to follow in the New Year.

Alongside these chunksters, I felt I had to keep things short and reasonably cheerful and/or escapist. For example, I have interspersed these serious reads with easy and reasonably forgettable crime fiction, which I chose mainly because of their settings, like Ruth Ware’s One By One (skiing in the French Alps) or Robert Thorogood’s The Marlow Murder Club (set in the village where my son goes to school – his school gets a mention in the book too). Two other crime novels proved to be a lot more thought-provoking than I had expected, so were enjoyable in a different way: Riku Onda’s The Aosawa Murders (which I’ve already mentioned several times, so you’re probably sick to death of it) and John Vercher’s Three Fifths, which addresses a real moral dilemma about race and friendship, family and crime in the United States.

Oddly enough, the remaining two books have been described as crime novels, but are in fact about middle-aged men going back to either the places they grew up in (Urs Faes’ Twelve Nights) or to a privileged way of life and setting they thought they had left behind (John le Carré’s A Murder of Quality – set in a public school rather similar to Eton or Sherborne, which the author hated). Both books are full of wistfulness and yearning, for what might have been, for the people we did not marry and, above all, the people we did not become.

The last two books of the month are ones that I am skimming through rather than reading. The first is The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly (not because I don’t enjoy it, but because there is no time to finish reading it before the Virtual Crime Book Club tonight). The second is Amanda Craig’s The Golden Rule, which sounded intriguing as a premise – a fun exploration of current social affairs in the UK via a Strangers on the Train scenario – but in practice is a bit plodding and clichéed, and somehow unable to make up its mind if it’s a romance or a satire or a crime novel or a thriller or a social novel… And this from a reader like me who likes genre transgressions!

So eight books in total, if we don’t include the skimmed ones, of which four in translation (two Russians).

Films

With the boys spending the first week of the holidays with me, we got to watch quite a lot of films. 12 films and 2 TV series (or parts of the latter) so far, and I expect to squeeze in a couple more until New Year’s Eve. The first TV series was Season 1 of Succession, which is a great mockery of rich people, and particularly a dysfunctional Rupert Murdoch type family. The other is The West Wing, which I’ve finally embarked upon rewatching with my boys. I think they were not that enamoured with it for the first two episodes, but then they started getting caught up in the banter and political intrigues. Even though it feels at times quaint in its old-fashioned optimism (which has been sucked out of us after the Trump administration), what I like is the highly intelligent, witty, challenging yet also supportive banter among its main characters. I’ve had the pleasure of being surrounded by some such people in a few educational or work settings, and it’s a wonderful thing to experience at least temporarily. We may stop after the first three seasons, though, which are the best.

Half of the films this month were Japanese, I noticed with some surprise. I suppose I get more and more ‘homesick’ for Japanese culture every passing year, and with Christmas making me nostalgic in general, three of those were animes. But not quite the reassuring, sweet kind. Studio Ghibli’s Porco Rosso finally made me realise why they called themselves Ghibli and is an homage to the early aviators, but we also watched two non-Ghibli animations. Made in Abyss (we had started watching the anime series, but this was a standalone film) was much darker than I had expected, about experimenting on children. Meanwhile, Your Name was a teen love story with darker sting in its tail, of destruction of a town (always top of mind in a country prone to earthquakes, typhoons and tsunamis, although in this case it is destroyed by a meteorite), of tradition versus modernity, and missed opportunities.

Of the adult films, there were two Kurosawas that I rewatched and really enjoyed their blending of Japanese samurai traditions with a gentle mockery of cowboy films: Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai. I can understand though why my sons thought they were overlong and that there were not sufficient differentiating features between the various samurai. The last Japanese film I watched on my own, since it was a horror flick: Cure by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira). Not a jump scare or gory horror thriller – more of a gradual ratcheting up of tension and disquiet, with the most menacing small talk I’ve ever seen.

Quite a few of the films were Christmas rewatches, films I’ve seen so often they’ve become part of my personal fabric: Some Like It Hot (probably my favourite comedy), Singin’ in the Rain, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Kind Hearts and Coronets. One of the rewatches was less successful: I had previously only seen Citizen Kane as a child and was not that impressed, but at that time all of the nuances and political commentary were lost on me, so I decided to watch it now. Although it was good, sharp and witty, I feel that calling it the ‘best film of all time’ might be overstating things (but don’t ask me which one I would put in its place).

The final film I watched this month was The Death of Stalin, which I had never watched before. I am torn about this film. Although I found much of the black humour and over-the-top dramatic posturing hilarious, and although we used plenty of such humour to help us cope with the fear and disgust of Communist dictatorship, it nevertheless felt wrong to laugh at things that have caused so much terror and heartbreak to so many people. It is too close to me personally and to people I know. Plus, Kruschev (played with aplomb by Steve Buscemi) was certainly not quite the almost reasonable guy they make him out to be – only the least insane and cruel out of a really bad lot.

Writing

Happy to report that I’ve gone back to daily writing practice (even if it’s only 15 minutes in my diary or a blog post). This is not necessarily because I believe it’s indispensable for writing a novel, but because it makes me feel I have accomplished something on even the busiest, dreariest of days.

The even happier news is that I’ve gone back to my first novel. I found a whole treasure trove of handwritten and printed materials, notes, calendars, inspirational pictures, discarded chapters etc. So I have plenty to work with and am really excited about spending time with those characters once more and exploring their world.

This is the Balea Lake Chalet, up at 2000 metres in the Fagaras mountains. It plays a crucial role in my novel. From CabanaBaleaLac.ro

Annual Summary: Classic Reads

This year I felt the need to find comfort in the classics, some of them new, some of them rereads, and some classics I had previously attempted and abandoned. My definition of classics is quite broad, so you will find both 19th and 20th century books in here, and from all countries. 28 of my 127 books were classics of some description (29 if you count The Karamazov Brothers, which I’m currently reading and hope to finish by the start of January), and 17 of those will be mentioned below – which just goes to show that the ‘success rate’ is much higher with the classics.

Ueda Akinari: Ugetsu Monogatari – it’s been a pleasure reacquainting myself with these very Japanese ghost stories, even though some of them made me furious at the classist and sexist assumptions of the time.

Marghanita Laski: Little Boy Lost – utterly heartbreaking and very thoughtful story of parenthood but also a moving portrait of post-war France, one of my favourite Persephones so far

Thomas Bernhard: Woodcutters – I sometimes find Bernhard a bit much to take in, too grumpy, but this book is so good at poking holes in the Viennese literary and artistic pretentiousness, that I laughed nearly all the way through

Henry James: The American – one of the few James that I’d never read, an earlier one, and much lighter, frothier and funnier than I remembered him

Machado de Assis: Dom Casmurro – another grumpy old man reminiscing about his life, like Bernhard, and another tragicomic masterpiece

Shirley Hazzard: The Bay of Noon – another portrait of a post-war European city, and a strange little love story, full of subtle, skilled observations

Elizabeth von Arnim: The Caravaners – if ever there was a book to distract you from lockdown, this is the one. Hilarious, sarcastic, and reminding you that a bad holiday is worse than no holiday at all!

Dorothy Canfield Fisher: The Home-Maker – an ingenious role reversal story from Persephone, thought-provoking and surprisingly modern

Barbellion: Journal of a Disappointed Man – courtesy of Backlisted Podcast, I reacquainted myself with this diary of a complex character, struggling to be courageous, often self-pitying, and usually ferociously funny

Marlen Haushofer: The Wall – simply blew me away – again, perfect novel about and for solitary confinement

Teffi: Subtly Worded – ranging from the sublime to the absurd, from angry to sarcastic to lyrical, tackling all subjects and different cultures, a great collection of journalistic and fictional pieces

Defoe: Journal of the Plague Year – such frightening parallels to the present-day – a great work of what one might call creative non-fiction

Romain Gary: Les Racines du ciel – not just for those passionate about elephants or conservationism, this is the story of delusions and idealism, colonialism and crushed dreams, appropriation of stories and people for your own purposes

Penelope Fitzgerald: The Gate of Angels – both very funny and yet with an underlying sense of seriousness, of wonder – and of course set in my beloved Cambridge

Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front – even more heartbreaking when you reread it at this age

Liviu Rebreanu: The Forest of the Hanged – Dostoevsky meets Remarque meets Wilfred Owen, a book which never fails to send shivers down my spine

Anton Chekhov: Sakhalin Island – possibly the greatest revelation of the year, alongside Defoe. Stunning, engaged writing, and so much compassion.

What strikes me looking at all of the above is how many of these books that I naturally gravitated towards this year are all about showing compassion and helping others, about the bond with the natural world, about not allowing yourself to despair at the horrors that human beings bring upon themselves. I’ve been thinking about that mysterious gate in the wall of the college, and how it opened at just the right time – and that’s what all these books have allowed me to do. They’ve provided me with the perfect escape and encouragement whenever I needed them most. If you’ve missed my crime fiction round-up, it is here. I will also do a contemporary fiction round-up after Boxing Day.

I wish all of you who celebrate Christmas as happy a time as possible under the circumstances. I’ll be back before the start of the New Year with some further reading and film summaries, but until then, stay safe and healthy, all my love from me to you!

Annual Summary: Crime Fiction

I have so many annual round-ups and best of lists to share with you, that I’m planning to divide them up by subject matter and bore you to death with posts from now until the New Year! The first topic is Crime Fiction. I have read probably somewhat less crime than in previous years: only 40 of the 127 books I read this year were crime fiction, so somewhat less than a third, while in previous years it would have been more like half. The following titles were particularly appealing and/or memorable.

Simone Buchholz: Mexico Street: Romeo and Juliet against the backdrop of immigrant communities and hardnosed port towns like Hamburg and Bremen, with Buchholz’s unmistakable witty yet also lyrical style.

Elizabeth George: A Banquet of Consequences – I was utterly absorbed by the book while reading it, but can no longer remember a single thing about it now. Don’t know if that says things about how long this year has felt (I read it in February), or about my memory, or about the book itself. I am giving George the benefit of the doubt in memory of the good old days when I adored her work.

Chris Whitaker: We Begin at the End – very intense and moving, more of a character study (and description of a location and a way of life) than a standard procedural. Duchess is firmly in my heart, a truly memorable creation.

Rosamund Lupton: Three Hours – one of our Virtual Crime Book Club reads, this was a heart-stopping, heart-racing race against the clock set against a backdrop of a school shooting.

Barbara Nadel: Incorruptible – a reunion with my old friends Ikmen and Suleyman, and an interesting story of Catholic vs. Muslim heritage in an increasingly totalitarian Turkish state

Eva Dolan: Between Two Evils – another ecstatic reunion with one my favourite recent crime authors and her uncompromising look at contemporary British society

Abir Mukherjee: A Rising Man – an excellent incursion into historical fiction, learning so much about the British Empire in India, another Virtual Crime Club read

Riku Onda: The Aosawa Murders – unusual, puzzling, thought-provoking, my favourite Japanese crime novel of the year

John Vercher: Three Fifths – more of a psychological thriller and moral dilemma, an indictment of perception of race in the US, in equal measure poignant and infuriating

If I was really pushed to give a gold medal to any of the above for this year, I’d say The Aosawa Murders, and here is the Japanese cover of it (in the original, the title is Eugenia).

Above all, I want to thank Rebecca Bradley and her Virtual Crime Book Club for getting me to read sub-genres and books that I might not normally have discovered on my own.

#6Degrees of Separation: From Judy Blume to…

I was too busy to take part in this favourite bookish thread last month but am delighted to be back now. Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best nudges us into position every month with a ‘starter book for ten’ and we link it one by one to another six books. Everyone’s chain is very different, and I think it’s fascinating to see how our minds work!

This month’s starter is Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume, an author whose books we would surreptitiously pass from one girl to another under the desks in class, while we were supposed to be reading A Tale of Two Cities or something equally respectable. We were a British international school, as opposed to the American International school that was our main rival in town. But we did have quite a few American pupils and they introduced us to Judy Blume.

Another book that I distinctly remember discovering at that school, although this time it was officially part of the curriculum in our German class, was a short story collection by Swiss writer Peter Bichsel. The poignant, surreal story A Table Is a Table impressed me so much that I have never forgotten it. It’s all about loneliness, being misunderstood, not finding a common language to communicate, or dementia, or all sorts of things that children may not really understand at a conscious level, but instinctively grasp with their heart. You can read it here in Lydia Davis’ translation.

I have to admit to my shame that for the longest time I mixed up Lydia Davis with Lindsey Davis, whose novels of crime and mayhem set in Imperial Rome and featuring informer Marcus Didius Falco I discovered and loved so much in my early twenties. I chanced upon them in my library, so The Iron Hand of Mars was the first one I read, although it is the fourth or fifth in the series chronologically.

Mars is the link to the next book, namely Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. Again, a book I devoured in my youth – with the Cold War at its demented peak, it all seemed more than a little plausible at the time.

Of course, the most obvious author describing the Cold War period is John Le Carré and I’m particularly fond of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, which captures perfectly the constant paranoia, distrust and sheer danger of East Germany and the world of espionage during the period just after the Berlin Wall went up.

A book set in Berlin (but at a very different point in time – party town Berlin in 2008) sits patiently waiting on my shelves to be read: French writer Oscar Coop-Phane’s Tomorrow Berlin, transl. George Miller.

Of course, if I were to make the last link in the chain any one of the hundreds of unread books in my library, that would be far too open a field. So instead I will focus on another book that I have in English rather than in the original language, although I can read the original language. It is Nostalgia by Mircea Cartarescu, transl. Julian Semilian, which will be published by Penguin Classics in 2021 (and who kindly sent me an ARC).

So quite a variety of genres and locations this month: YA set in the US, Swiss short stories, historical crime fiction in Ancient Rome, science fiction on Mars, spy thriller in Berlin and London, youth drug and club culture in Berlin and Paris, and experimental literary fiction set in Romania.

Where will your literary connections take you this month?