Very late to my favourite monthly meme, because I’ve had guests for a long weekend and all sorts of other things going on, so it’s all been full on and I wasn’t able to sit down at the computer even once. This month’s starting point for this literary association and linkage game hosted by Kate was Friendaholic by Elizabeth Day.
I haven’t read the book but, like the author, I have a tendency to say yes to anything for my friends, am extremely loyal, and go above and beyond for them… which can lead to exhaustion and occasional frustration. This is why I find most books about friendship a bit lacking, to be honest – but then, I suppose toxic or ambiguous friendships are more interesting to portray in fiction. Perhaps the most familiar portrayal of friendship (and similar to my own experience) is that multi-generational friendship in The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan.
My next link is ‘Joy’ in the title, and the obvious one that comes to mind is the memoir by C. S. Lewis (of Narnia fame)Surprised by Joy – which I always thought was about his marriage to Joy Gresham, but in fact is about his spiritual journey from atheism to Christianity.
Another book that I completely misunderstood (or expected something very different) was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which I thought was a book of fiction with yet another whimsical title, such as has become quite fashionable in the last decade, but is in fact all about the ethics of scientific research.
Speaking of whimsical titles, my next book has it in spades – and that is probably the reason why I will never read it: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cakeby Aimee Bender.
I really need to dig myself out of this whimsical hole now, before I get sick. I will therefore turn to my beloved Dorothy Parker, who as a book reviewer called Constant Reader, said of Winnie-the-Pooh: ‘And it is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings, that makes the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed up.’ Nobody can accuse Dorothy Parker of not being self-aware and arch and the very opposite of whimsical, but I suppose we shouldn’t take the cynicism of her debut volume of poetry Enough Rope literally – she was being a trifle too flippant, to disguise her own pain and suicidal tendencies.
So I will end with a slightly more escapist book, set during the 1920s and 30s when Dorothy Parker was active, namely Villa America by Liza Klaussmann, a fictional account about the real couple, both wealthy and glamorous, yet ultimately tragic, the Murphys, who ‘invented the French Riviera’ and were friends with Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, Cole Porter… and Dorothy Parker.
It’s been a very mixed month, not just in terms of the weather, but also with reading and life events. I read 15 books, of which 12 were by women authors, a record proportion I believe. Although my reading theme this month was the Far East, only four of the books were in translation, as many of the authors from that part of the world write in English. I was entranced by the gentle melancholy of How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart, and invigorated by the energy of Five Star Billionaire. I was charmed by the historical crime novel set in war-time Singapore The Mushroom Tree Mystery, a serendipitous discovery at Bristol CrimeFest. I was less enamoured of Rainbirds, but intrigued by the first novel I read set in Papua New Guinea, The Mountain.
In addition to the Far East, I also visited Mauritius via the powerful, poignant writing of Ananda Devi in Eve Out of Her Ruins, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman. I met another group of young people from very different backgrounds but equally directionless perhaps in Kaska Bryla’s The Ice Divers (Die Eistaucher). I also seemed to encounter quite a few women on the verge of a nervous breakdown (or maybe just beyond that point) in several books. Carlota Gurt’s Alone, translated by Adrian Nathan West, was quite a wild ride, although it started off conventionally enough. Baek Se-hee’s I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokpokki, transl. by Anton Hur, is a very candid exploration of low-level but disabilitating depression and low self-esteem – and also fitted into my Far East reading category.
From the remaining books, I was very impressed with Winter Counts, and of course enjoyed Deborah Levy, although this book felt very similar to her recent non-fiction trilogy, to the point where I got confused as to what I was reading. (It also reminded me a bit of the film Tár). Lost for Words about a bookseller and a bookshop was charming but somewhat predictable, while the remaining three books really rather infuriated me. The Cartographers was at least entertaining, if rather full of plot holes, but I could not finish Missing Pieces, which felt completely manipulative (the author deliberately withholding information to make the dual timeline more exciting). And, with apologies to those who loved Sorrow and Bliss, I was profoundly annoyed by Martha and the portrayal of mental illness in that book – as well as the author’s vague and lazy ‘any similarities to real-life mental health conditions are accidental’ disclaimer. Three turkeys and two average reads make for a surprisingly low-scoring month overall, very unlike most of my reading.
Meanwhile, real life started off with a major scare with Maxi, our new cat, but it seems we got lucky and she does not suffer from a major heart defect (although there does seem to be a slight defect which we need to monitor).
My younger son had his final day at school, and has now started his A Level exams. My older son finished his exams and came home – he had pre-ordered the latest Zelda game and has been mostly playing it ever since he got back.
I (or rather, Corylus) was outbid for a book and author I loved – but who can compare with the Big Five publishers? I can’t blame the author for finding the best possible financial deal and exposure. I had the consolation of seeing one of our lovely Icelandic authors Jónína Leósdóttir in action at Bristol CrimeFest, and also find out more about her truly fascinating life and ideas over lunch. Since I only stayed for a few hours in Bristol that Saturday, I missed all the scandal that ensued later that day and the following day, so all I can say is that I hope literary festivals move on with the times and open their gates to a greater diversity of moderators and panellists. There’s plenty of talent out there instead of having the same old faces over and over!
On the translation front, I had to translate a new play in a weekend to be able to take part in a competition, because the play I had translated didn’t meet the criteria. That will teach me to read the small print a bit sooner! I am very excited about the new play, however, as it’s a young female playwright from Romania, and she writes a lot of things that I like, so let’s hope it’s the start of a wonderful collaboration.
Just as I finally got to start physiotherapy this month after my spinal/neck injury in February, I got a new health scare – a sudden itchy, burning rash on my face. The doctor seemed to think it was more likely to be an extreme reaction to an expired face cream (don’t try to save money, throw away your long-opened pots of cream!) rather than shingles, but the antihistamines, ointments and antibiotics don’t seem to be in a rush to work… and my younger son has also reported a rash on his face, although milder than mine. So who knows what it could be? Scabies comes to mind, which makes me feel like a Victorian slum dweller, although apparently it has nothing to do with poor hygiene.
The abundance of Bank Holidays this month has been nice – although from now on I will always have Mondays and Fridays ‘off’, as I’ll be working part-time, so it was just a taste of what’s to come.
Hope your May has been less troubled by sudden showers, mediocre reads and other interruptions! What has been your favourite book this past month? And which one didn’t quite live up to expectations?
Time for my favourite monthly reading/linking meme, the Six Degrees of Separation as hosted by Kate, and this month we are starting with a book shortlisted for the Stella Prize in Australia, but which has yet to make its way across to this corner of the world. Hydra by Adriane Howell is a bit of a Gothic novel, and there are lots of possible links: Greek mythology or islands, mid-century furniture, haunted houses, careers and marriages imploding…
There is also a neighbouring naval base, I understand, in this novel, so I will choose that to link to C.S. Forester’s Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, the first (and not necessarily the best) in his lengthy and very successful Hornblower series. I can’t really remember which couple of them I’ve read, as they tend to follow a similar pattern of naval exploits set during the Napoleonic Wars.
The mention of Napoleonic Wars makes me instantly think of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, which opens with quite a visceral account of the Battle of Waterloo.
The next book is a bit of a lazy link, perhaps, especially since both of my boys have been reading it recently and talking a lot about it, but it is also French and deals with the consequences of the Napoleonic Wars and the political turmoil and suspicion which followed after the fall of Bonaparte and his supporters, namely The Count of Monte Cristoby Alexandre Dumas.
Dumas notoriously made a fortune from sales of this book, built a chateau and led such an extravagant lifestyle that he lost all the money again and had to sell the chateau a short while later. Another author who went bankrupt (although thanks to bad investments rather than a profligate lifestyle) was Mark Twain, so my next link is to his lesser-known but very funny work A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. A satire about monarchy and the people surrounding the throne, which feels particularly timely this weekend.
My next link has something to do with the monarchy, one of the few books about the late Queen which I actually enjoyed and which presented her in a whimsical, charming light, which is probably not at all warranted: Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader.
I can’t resist books about books, readers and writers, so the final very loose link is with another passionate reader, the title hero of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke, who leads the Bohemian life in Paris (probably based on Rilke himself).
It’s ended up being quite an old-fashioned set of connections, although I have travelled throughout Europe with it. Let’s hope next month I will be more adventurous, right?
It’s that time of year when Cathy announces her #20BooksOfSummer challenge. It’s quite simply the chance to get 20 books off your TBR list and/or shelves over the months of June/July/August. I have participated in the past but not quite succeeded, because I got sidetracked with other reading projects or shiny new things coming in. However, this year I have a double incentive: I need to get some of my bulkier, heavier books off the shelves as I start thinking about moving abroad in 2024/25 and the task of packing endless boxes of books. Read them and then decide whether to keep or donate.
However, I’m going to be busy with the Bristol Translates Summer School in early July and travelling to Japan at the end of August, so I have to take that in consideration and not get overly ambitious. I also want to take part in #WomenInTranslation month in August, but it may be a bridge too far to try and take part in the Spanish and Portuguese Language Challenge.
So, after an enjoyable rummage through my bookshelves, here are the things I’m proposing (slightly more than 20, so that I can choose according to mood).
This is a country I tend to ignore on the whole, but each one of these books was acquired in a sudden fit of greed following a recommendation on Twitter or on a blog or podcast.
M.L.Rio: If We Were Villains – theatre, friendships, murder
Mona Awad: Bunny – MFA, rivalry, horror
Katya Apekina: The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish – dysfunctional families
Robert Jackson Bennett: City of Stairs – murder in a sci-fi world
Stephanie Gayle: Idyll Hands – murder in small-town America
Hilma Wolitzer: An Available Man – a widower starts dating again
Lidia Yuknavitch: The Book of Joan – a dystopian Joan of Arc
Chandler Baker: The Husbands – the Stepford husbands?
Books Lingering for Far Too Long on My Shelves
Once again, all of these have been recommended by people on Twitter or else I’ve been following the authors on Twitter – this is why it’s such a shame that bookish community is being destroyed by the current owner, who couldn’t give a monkeys about books (other than so-called business improvement ones, I bet).
Luke Brown: Theft – Brexit Britain and class differences
Ali Thurm: One Scheme of Happiness – love triangle and beaches
Helon Habila: Travellers – a mosaic of migrant experiences across Europe
Tom Cox: 21st-Century Yokel – mix of nature writing, memoir, humour and social history
All of the previous books are older books too, but these ones were recommended to me not as ‘newly published’, but as ‘modern classics’, while two I acquired a while back in preparation for my Japan trip.
Margaret Grant: Three Eleven – how 5 women experienced the 2011 tsunami in Japan
Michael Booth: Super Sushi Ramen Express – a family journey through Japanese cuisine
Mal Peet: The Murdstone Trilogy – has-been writer makes a Faustian pact
Charles Palliser: Rustication – faux Victorian Gothic and murder mystery
Maggie O’Farrell: Instructions for a Heatwave – many people assure me this is her best novel
For travelling ease, and because I don’t have any books in the lists above for #WomeninTranslation, I’ve also selected a few of my Netgalley/e-book reads, which have really been lurking for far too long on my Kindle.
Yana Vagner: To the Lake, transl. Maria Wiltshire – I actually have the French edition of this in print, but it will be quicker and easier to read it in English on Kindle – a Russian post-apocalyptic novel
Shion Miura: Kamusari Tales Told at Night, transl. Juliet Winters Carpenter – collection of (ghost?) stories, perfect for my Japan trip
Asa Larsson: The Sins of Our Fathers, transl. Laurie Thompson – a Swedish crime novel set in the Arctic circle
Cheon Myeong-kwan: Whale, transl. Chi-Young Kim – Korean novel shortlisted for the International Booker Prize
Ines Pedrosa: In Your Hands, transl. Andrea Rosenberg – Portuguese family saga from the perspective of three women
Marie NDiaye: The Cheffe, trans. Jordan Stump – a culinary life story
Arwa Salih: The Stillborn, transl. Samah Selim – notebooks of a woman from the student-movement in Egypt
25 books to choose from, plus any pitches for Corylus which might come my way, so I think I’ll be pretty busy!
Are you planning to take part, however loosely, in the #20Books challenge and lighten your TBR piles?
When I made reading plans for the first six months of the year, I have to admit I wasn’t aware that in the US May is Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders heritage month. So it is a happy coincidence that I was planning to read literature from Asia and Pacific region anyway, although my definition of Asian may be far broader (and at times even slightly tenuous).
I’m not sure I’ll actually get to read all of them, as three of these are chunksters. Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw is all about the Chinese economic miracle, a sort of Silicon Valley set in Shanghai. Drusilla Modjeska is an Australian writer lived for a long time in Papua New Guinea and her novel The Mountain is set in that country on the brink of independence in 1968. Preeta Samarasan’s Evening Is the Whole Day is a family saga set in postcolonial Malaysia, a country I know very little about.
The remaining two novels are both set in Japan, but the authors are from elsewhere: Clarissa Goenawan is an Indonesia-born Singaporean writer, while Florentyna Leow was born in Malaysia and lived for a while in London before moving to Kyoto.
Not pictured above is the Korean therapy memoir made famous by BTS I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokpokki by Baek Se-hee, translated by Anton Hur. I was hesitating about reading it, as it feels aimed at a younger audience than me, but I bought it in the wake of my niece’s death, as if it might help me to understand her state of mind more. Plus, I really like Anton!
I’m also hoping to get to read some or all of the above:
The Cartographers is our Crime Fiction Book Club’s choice for May (the theme was art crime), and it’s another chunky book, so I’d better get cracking with it!
Lost for Words is a feel-good read (a cosy crime novel) from the library, which I badly need after the second half of April
Kaska Bryla’s Die Eistaucher (The Ice Divers) was a book that we talked about at the launch of the Austrian Riveter and I had it signed by the author herself, who is a cross-culture kid like myself (Poland and Austria in her case)
Carlota Gurt’s Alone is a Catalan novel and was sent to me by the ever-lovely Daniela Petracco at Europa Editions, and it sounds just my cup of tea…
I also have three more books to read and report back on for Corylus, but, of course, those are all top secret until we make up our minds and then acquire any of the titles.
The month started on an absolute high, with a trip to Quais du Polar in Lyon, my favourite crime festival, then a holiday in the south of France, then Orthodox Easter with my kids and the adoption of a beautiful ball of black fluff whom we named Maximilienne (Maxi), and an outing to the London Book Fair where I got to meet many fellow translators, publishers and even strategise a little with our most recently signed-on author.
I also ended up having far, far more books to read than the eleven above might indicate – most of them sent to me by French, German and other publishers for consideration for translation. I loved many of them but sadly had to conclude that not all of them would be suitable for the Anglosphere: some were simply too long (and therefore expensive to produce and distribute), others assumed too much in-depth knowledge of French or German politics, or had an insufficient sense of place or were not ‘crimey’ enough (as I call them).
From the 19th of April onwards, however, the month took a downturn. My cousin’s daughter, who had been working as a journalist in Romania and whom I greatly admired for her writing talent, was found dead in her flat in Bucharest at the age of just 32. The inquest ruled it suicide: she had been struggling for at least four years with mental illness, sent from one hospital to another, one treatment to another, one suicide attempt to the next. She had distanced herself from the family – which is not surprising, given how they’ve behaved since hearing the news, blaming her for her mental health condition – and I feel guilty that I didn’t make more of an effort to keep in touch with her, as I was perhaps one of the few people from the ‘clan’ who understood her struggles. Sadly, given her profession, her death has also been used by the media to score political points and fling mud and accusations at each other. Romania is still very, very bad at handling mental health issues in a balanced, non-sensationalist way.
I managed to push through my guilt and my sadness at the news because of the delights of having a cat in my life once more, especially such an adorable, inquisitive, super-affectionate and confident one. But sadly over the past few days Maxi suddenly fell ill and is now in hospital fighting for her life. The vets are not sure what it is, probably a pulmonary infection. I’m starting to think that I bring bad luck to the poor cats I adopt.
Nevertheless, I managed to read three books for the #1940Club, all quite esoteric and escapist: The Invention of Morel from Argentina, Miss Hargreaves from England, and The Secret of Dr Honigberger from Romania. I was very moved by the observational skills and unnerving feeling of Something in Disguise by Elizabeth Howard. I thought Black Butterflies (now shortlisted for the Women’s Prize) was quite poignant but a bit pedestrian (it’s a subject I never tire of, though, the war in Yugoslavia, in this case Sarajevo).
Eleven books, eight in translation or other languages, three crime novels (possibly five, depending on your definition), four women authors.
Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table was my book of the month, a quite remarkable piece of non-fiction, a sort of memoir with each chapter named after a chemical element. Not all of the stories are autobiographical, some are like little vignettes or folk tales, and for me those worked less well. The encounters with the former concentration camp head chemist was the most unnerving chapter of all, but I’d like to emphasise that this is an author who seems remarkably restrained and forgiving. Unlike his Auschwitz memoir If This Is a Man, which was written right after the war, this collection was published in 1975, so there is a certain distance and even humour to quite painful accounts.
My reading plans for May, if I’ll stick to them, will take me on a tour of the Far East: China, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia. And I still have several books to read for professional reasons too.
Two themes emerged this month. One was planned and deliberate, namely the Northern Climes reading, although I ended up with only four books from that part of the world, two Swedish, one Finnish and one Canadian.
The second theme developed accidentally, as all best reading does. I’ve been diligently practising my ballet (and other dance steps) pretty much every day this year, but I had a few days of enforced rest when I hurt my neck and waited to see an orthopedist to figure out how serious it was. So I had to get my ‘ballet fix’ in some other way, which meant reading books about ballet or set in the highly-strung world of professional ballet dancers.
Two of those books were by Meg Howrey, featuring tricky family dynamics as well as the pain and self-absorption of ballet dancers and choreographers.
The best of me is in my work. Not that I’m selfless there. I use my dancers. I use their talent, their devotion, their endless training and ambition, their desire for approval from the mirror and from me. I mine it all and polish the gems. I make them do what I want, and I try to give them something that says, ‘You are seen. There is only one of you in th eworld. I have never seen anyone exactly like you. Thake this movement, it’s yours alone.’
Meg Howrey: They’re Going to Love You
The Cranes Dance is both more dramatic (with themes of mental illness and suicide), but also funnier, with the protagonist Kate Crane’s acerbic wit bringing the highfaluting ballet vocabulary right down to earth. The synopsis of Swan Lake early on in the book is absolutely hilarious.
The Queen reminds Siegfried with some incomprehensible ballet mime that tomorrow is his twenty-first birthday and he’s got obligations, like choosing a bride and getting married. The Prince sulks a bit at this, and makes the gesture for True Love: one hand to the breast, the other held aloft with the first two fingers extended. (You’re gonna want to scootch down and get that program for the explanatory notes on this action, because otherwise you might think that the Queen is telling her son that he needs to get a manicure and that Siegfried is responding by trying to hail a cab, or test current wind conditions.)
The third ballet book this month is probably the most frightening of them all and is non-fiction, written by a ballet journalist. It examines all of the inequities, dangers, outmoded traditions and cruelties of traditional ballet and asks if things could be done better, without endless injuries (and having to dance through them), starvation, pink tights, male ballet princes and submissive female dancers.
Aside from these two themes, I also managed to squeeze in several entertaining but not memorable crime novels (set in Cornwall, northern Greece and the French Alps), a reinterpretation of the Passion by a Welsh poet, and a book about practising art and writing which I found really inspiring (sometimes you need to hear the obvious but presented far more eloquently than you could do it yourself).
All in all, a quieter reading month, perhaps reflective of the worries I have had about my health and about my job (so far all seems to be trugging along as usual): twelve books, seven by women writers, two non-fiction, three in translation.
For April I will be reading some books published in 1940. Although the #1940Club hosted by Simon and Karen only runs for one week, from 10th to 16th April 2023, I have four books planned (Miss Hargreaves, Darkness at Noon, The Invention of Morel and The Secret of Dr Honigberger), so will probably need the whole month to read them all. Especially if I alternate between these and other random reads!
If you don’t know me by now… you will never, never know the delights of the Six Degrees of Separation meme for books we’ve read, as hosted by Kate from Books Are My Favourite and Best.
This month we start with a self-help or personal development book called Passages by Gail Sheehy, which was apparently all the rage in the 1970s. I don’t think my parents were big into personal development, and the only book that was vaguely in that sphere in our house when I was a child (and which I’m therefore using as the first link in my chain) was The Superwoman Syndrome by Marjorie Shaevitz, with exactly that cover pictured. It has since disappeared from their shelves (perhaps my mother leant it to one of her friends). I’m not sure that we ever discussed it, or that my mother took the advice seriously other than at a very superficial level (‘get plenty of rest and eat organic vegetables’).
My second link is to a very different kind of syndrome, namely the so-called locked-in syndrome which befell journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby after a massive stroke, as he describes in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which he painstakingly wrote (or dictated rather) by blinking his left eyelid. A remarkable and very emotional story, it was also turned into a film in 2007 (which I haven’t seen).
I am quite fond of the French double-first-names like Jean-Dominique or Jean-Claude, so the other French writer I can think of is Jean-Paul Sartre and my favourite work of fiction by him is his play Huis Clos (No Exit), because yes, my own vision of hell is being stuck in a room with people you can’t stand.
No Exit makes me think at once of doors and one of the many books that has used the ‘sliding doors’ scenario. What if one little thing in your life were different, you missed an opportunity or had a stroke of luck, and your life is irrevocably altered? Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life explores all the multiple lives that the main character Ursula might have lived, especially if she made it past childhood. I haven’t read that book, but I heard it is one of the better ones to employ that particular type of narrative.
My next link is an odd one: Life After Life won the Costa Book Award (now sadly deceased) in 2013 and in 2015 the author won again with a sort of sequel to it A God in Ruins. In between the two Atkinson triumphs,How to Be Both by Ali Smith won the Costa Novel Award in 2014 (as well as many other prizes), another highly experimental and daring novel with a dual narrative that can be read in either order.
To finish with another experimental, multiple narrative novel which I haven’t yet read but hope to read soon: Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. Digressive and aggressive annotations on the manuscript of a poem and unreliable narrators who embellish and reveal themselves gradually? Sounds perfect. Have any of you read it and is it indeed as fascinating as it sounds?
So my links this month have included two works of non-fiction (highly unusual), a play, and three novels with quite strange and experimental structures. What chain might you create?
It’s been a busy month, although it started with a delicious little respite in my old ‘stomping ground’ on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. I have 17 books listed on Goodreads for the past month, although two of them were abandoned at the 40% mark. Seven of the books fitted into my #FrenchFebruary personal reading challenge – and in fact, all of them ended up being French from France, as the only Swiss author I attempted (Joel Dicker) ended up being one of the abandoned books. Eleven of the books were written by women writers (and none of them were in the DNF category), 12 were written in another language. Three I read for (Corylus) ‘work’, one was non-fiction, one will be reviewed for #ReadIreland in March, two were Book Club reads (Blood Sugar for the Virtual Crime Book Club, Embers for London Reads the World), and seven can be approximately put into the crime fiction category (although two of those I did not finish). Six of the books I read were from independent publishers, although I didn’t review all of them for the #ReadIndies challenge.
Here’s a quick recap of the books I reviewed (most of which also fell into the #ReadIndies category)
Balzac’s Lost Illusions I read in December and January but reviewed this month
My favourite reads this month were probably Romain Gary and Violette Leduc, but Audrey Magee’s The Colonywas very, very good as well. I’m still not quite sure about Embersby Márai Sándor – on the one hand, I interpret it as a beautiful example of self-delusion, yearning for a mythical past which never existed and the damage caused by bearing pointless grudges (and I can see historical/political parallels in that). It reminded me a lot of Browning’s My Last Duchess. On the other hand, I am not entirely convinced that Márai intended it to be read in this way: he may have actually shared some of Henrik’s beliefs and regrets for the old order. Anyway, I intend to review it together with two other novels about old mansions that I am currently reading.
I watched a few TV series this month: Wednesday with my younger son (which was entertaining enough, but rather predictable and forgettable), Borgen (watched Season 4 with oil in Greenland, then rewatched the first season, which reminded me why I stopped watching it back in 2013, because it was getting a little too close to the problems in my own marriage, despite my distinct lack of prime ministerial qualities and being considerably less busy than Birgitte Nyborg). It was quite eye-opening watching the documentary Fight the Power: How Hip-Hop Changed the World, with many political and social details which were either before my time or which I had forgotten.
For most of February, I barely watched any films, but then my older son came back for the last week and we more than made up for it. I thought Tár and Whiplash complemented each other well in their portrayal of bullying behaviour, problematic geniuses and the idea that art has to come from a place of suffering (it takes great pressure to create a diamond etc.). I can never resist films about artists and creators – and they also worked together well with the novel about ballet (and a lot else) that I read by Meg Abbott: The Turnout, which I really enjoyed. Claire Denis’ Beau Travail is a fascinating rare example of toxic masculinity but also the beauty of the male body perceived by the female gaze – with a breathtaking performance by the always watchable and enigmatic Denis Lavant. I also saw Barry Lyndon (one of my older son’s favourite films) in the cinema at the BFI, which is a very different experience from seeing it on a TV screen.
I don’t want to praise either myself or him, but I just wanted to say how delightful it is to have a grown-up child with whom you can spend a lovely day in London, having lunch in Chinatown, discussing drugs, political philosophy and film music while walking down to the Embankment, trawling the second-hand book stands on the South Bank, going to the Poetry Library mini-exhibition on clothes of women poets, watching Barry Lyndon at the BFI and then reading on the train on the way home in companionable silence.
March is going to be Nordic Reading Month for me, with a fairly broad definition of Nordic: Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Canada. Of course, if I can fit any more into the #ReadIreland tag, I will, but it promises to be an extremely busy and tiring month at work.
Hasn’t this been the longest month ever? Cold, dark, busy at work, but not quite as miserable as the months preceding it because at least we have all been healthy. I’ve mostly snuggled in my burrow and read – even more than usual, now that I’ve decided not to worry about reviewing every book. 18 books this month, of which 7 fit with the January in Japan challenge (although one of the seven was not written by a Japanese author, but was a non-fiction book about the Japanese criminal world). Nine books in translation, three non-fiction books, ten by women writers, four that could fit under the crime fiction label. A good mix that I can live with.
Here are the books that I have reviewed this month (I am putting the Japanese author names in the Japanese order – surname first):
Kawakami Mieko: All the Lovers in the Night, Miura Shion: The Great Passage, Miyashita Natsu: The Forest of Wool and Steel, Lee Wei-Jing: The Mermaid’s Tale in one post on loneliness, alienation and finding connection through a passion for something
And here are very brief thoughts on the others I read:
Charlie Higson: Whatever Gets You Through the Night– entertaining, madcap, quick read, made for the screen – as so many current thriller books seem to be. This one is perhaps slightly funnier and slyer than most, fits a bit into the Knives Out/Glass Onion universe.
Percival Everett: The Trees – this one I regret not reviewing properly, as it is a quite unforgettable, excoriating view of the South of the United States and its history of lynching. By taking an almost absurd premise and bringing in lots of fierce humour, it brings this dark story to a wider audience. A surprising novel, with moments of true poignancy, although perhaps a few too many repetitive descriptions of crime scenes (deliberate, no doubt, and I can understand why).
Robert Thorogood: Death Comes to Marlow – my son goes to school in Marlow, so I go there nearly every day and I can see a big splash being made with this book in the local bookshop. I’m always going to read a book set in a place I know well, although I was disconcerted to discover that I know the real vicar’s wife (the mother of one of my son’s best friends) and she is nothing like the one featured in the book. Although I appreciated having three middle-aged women investigators, I couldn’t help feeling that their quirks are being exaggerated for comic effect, that the secondary characters are rather one-dimensional, so all the book really has going for it is the puzzle element. Of course I will continue to read this series, even if I complain about it, simply because of its familiar location.
Elin Cullhed: Euphoria, transl. Jennifer Hayashida – just like I will always read something about Sylvia Plath. This novel is a fictional account of the last difficult year of Sylvia’s life, sticking quite closely to the known facts and trying to combine elements of Sylvia’s real voice from the letters and diaries with a speculation of what must have really been going on in her mind. I am familiar with this kind of fictional recreation of an artistic life from France, where this is a much more common type of literature, but I am not sure what it adds to our knowledge of Plath. Instead, I see this more as the universal portrait of a marriage and a clash of two very strong and creative personalities, two tremendous artistic egos, particularly at a time when it seemed harder to accept equality within married couples.
He loved me as a motif. He loved the picture of me. He loved the type. The American, the emotional one, the poet. He loved my high demands (and hated them). He loved having a thinking wife. He loved having a wife. He loved that I was thinking and grinding my own thoughts, then there was nothing left of them later in teh writing. He loved that I tried by failed. That I got up and was stabbed, like a goat. That I was not who I wanted to be. He loved my imperfections, and I stood in the middle of it and tried to be perfect.
Fiona Spargo-Mabbs: Talking the Tough Stuff with Teens – trying to educate myself and not talk too much, yet encourage a rather silent teenager to open up. An encouraging, non-judgemental book, with many real-life examples.
Bec Evans & Chris Smith: Written – I’ve been following the authors on their Prolifiko website and subscribing to their newsletters, and this is a book about finding the writing routines and habits that work for you, instead of slavishly imitating others. Encouraging, friendly, with lots of good exercises and suggestions for further exploration.
Sara Gran: The Book of the Most Precious Substance– impossible to categorise this book, no wonder the author struggled to get it published and so created her own publishing house for it. It is not as chilling as Come Closer, but you can see elements of anger and grief here too, as well as the quirkiness and humour of the Claire DeWitt crime series. Although touted as a sex magic book (and it certainly contains elements of eroticism and supernatural), it probably won’t fully satisfy fantasy or erotica fans. I like the underlying ‘normalness’ of it, which keeps it somewhat grounded even when we are off travelling in a world of unimaginable luxury. Basically, it is a story of grief, of clinging to a sense of injustice, of the wisdom (and ability) to move on, and the hunger for power and money.
The trick isn’t to protect yourself. It’s to accept life. Not push it away when it gets messy.
The past is over and done. You have no choice but to live with it. There’s no getting over, there’s no making up for. But there;s a chance to see and create something new. That’s the only chance…
…a wall I’d built around something too broken to trust the world with it. But that wall had never kept me safe. It only locked me in with my pain, leaving it to fester and spoil. I’d locked out all hope, all pleasure, and now, with a force like th eocean, the wall had crumbled, and my protection had gone.
Antoine Wilson: Mouth to Mouth – a story within a story, with a supposedly neutral account of the wild tale told by an acquaintance. Another novel about the hunger for power and money, full of self-justification. Quite clever but nor terribly memorable. On the plane to Switzerland I read another book like it translated from French (not featured above, as I will present it as part of my personal French February reading initiative).
I read Balzac’s Lost Illusions for the winter long read for London Reads the World Book Club, and will review it of course during my French February. I still haven’t seen the film, which apparently is only available to stream in Canada. However, I have watched (and rewatched) quite a few good films this month – more than usual by my standards, partly because my older son the film buff was around for 9 days at the start of the month.
I really enjoyed rewatching My Neighbour Totoro for the nth time (especially after seeing the very innovative, delightful staging of it at the Barbican) and the beautiful, warm Portrait of a Lady on Fire, although I was perhaps somewhat less mesmerised by The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction this time round. I was moved by the Korean film Memories of Murder but even more so by the very recent Aftersun (which cut a little too close to home, so there were floods of tears). Stellar performances by Paul Mescal and young Frankie Corio.
By the way, I’ve had some friends asking who is hosting the #FrenchFebruary initiative – and the answer is no one, I just created this personal challenge for myself because I like alliteration and reading French language books. But if you would like to join in and read some books from France, Switzerland, Belgium, Quebec, French-speaking Africa etc. then please do! The more the merrier! Always happy to expand my understanding in this area.