#6Degrees of Separation January 2023: From Beach Read to…

A very summery starting point to the monthly Six Degrees of Separation reading meme, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. We start with the same book, add six linked ones and see where we end up!

January’s starting point is Beach Read by Emily Henry – which features writers struggling to complete their novels (a theme I usually cannot resist), but also romance (which I am less keen to read). I haven’t read this book, and I tend to read quite heavy-going books on the beach anyway, so am struggling to find a first link. Iin the end I thought I would go with other genres that I tend to bypass nowadays, although I loved them as a teenager. This is not because of any snobbery, but simply that I enjoy these kinds of books less or feel I have less time to read things outside my favourite genres. So, the other genre you will seldom see on my list of books and practically never on my shelves is horror. However, The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham is a classic of the genre which I really enjoyed reading (and which properly creeped me out) when I was a teen. The spooky telepathic child villains are the stuff of nightmares.

A similar theme is explored in The Uninvited by Liz Jensen, but this time there is a global epidemic of child violence. I had the pleasure of meeting Liz at a Geneva Writers’ Group conference and she was very warm and kind, but a consummate storyteller and fascinated by ‘what ifs’.

The third book is also by an author I met at the Geneva Writers’ Conference: Laura Kasischke’s Be Mine. This precedes the recent Vladimir by Julia May Jonas by well over a decade, but is likewise a story about a middle-aged academic embarking upon a love affair with a younger man. It is not as satirical about academic pretensions, but a good deal more menacing and disquieting.

A huge leap to a very different kind of ‘mine’ in the next book in my chain, The Mine by Antti Tuomainen, transl. David Hackston. You may know Tuomainen as the writer of black crime comedies, but previously he wrote some quite dark books, and this might be called an ecological thriller, as an investigative reporter tries to uncover the truth about a mining company’s illegal activities.

The publication year 2016 is the common thread between The Mine and my next choice, Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, was one of my favourite books published that year, weaving personal experience with biographical details of famous artists in their New York solitude.

It would be too easy to find a book with the word ‘City’ in its title as the final link in the chain, so I will make it more difficult for myself by choosing one such book written by another author whose name was Olivia, namely Olivia Manning’s The Spoilt City, the second in her Balkan Trilogy, describing an increasingly fraught marriage and city of Bucharest in 1940. High time I reread both of her trilogies.

So my travels this January have taken me from a small English village to a global phenomenon, a small university town in the States to a mine in the north of Finland, the bright lights of New York City and the war-dimmed lights of Bucharest. Where will your literary links take you this month?

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

If 2022 taught me anything, it was that it’s not feasible to keep on working at the pace that I have. The thinner I stretch myself, the more likely that I (or at the very least my health) will snap. The New Year started with a bit of a migraine, and a sluggish start for both the car battery and the gas boiler – let’s hope they don’t collude to make my life difficult and demand to be replaced.

So it’s clear that I need to prioritise things more successfully in 2023, and allow for some ‘slack’ instead of always working at 100% capacity, so that when stressful periods arrive, as they invariably do, I have the energy and mental space to cope with them.

Image credit: Clipart Library.

Looking back at 2022, I read 166 books, watched 102 films (a lot more than I expected, as there have been months when I just watched two or three). I have written 135 blog posts, adding up to 95 thousand words. Again, I could have written a novel instead. Especially since it has become obvious, looking at the stats, that the heyday of my blog was in 2015-2017, when I had far more comments and likes. Nowadays, it seems to be the same 7-10 good friends commenting. My posts have got longer and longer, but, although the visitor figures have risen overall, there are fewer views per visitor (in other words, it might be mostly bots and spam that raise the figures). And, although I love putting together the escapist Friday Fun posts, it is a bit grating that these are by far my most popular posts (since they require the least amount of effort) this year. None of the posts I actually wrote in 2022 were the most popular this past year. The three top ones were all older (Dazai Osamu – which warms the cockles of my heart – dates from January 2021, as does my advice about how to finish The Brothers Karamazov, while my disappointment about The Secret History by Donna Tartt was written in 2014.

After ten years of blogging, the all-time greatest views are still mostly linked to my Friday Fun posts, followed by some high scorers such as a review of Americanah (2014), my real-life experience of The Handmaid’s Tale (2017), and one of my oldest posts about Japanese poet Tawara Machi, all of which barely went over the 2000 views mark.

Perhaps my strategy of at most three blog posts per week (of which one is the frivolous Friday Fun) is still too ambitious.

By way of contrast, although I had a creative writing spurt in April-June, I have written very little new stuff since, have only had one piece of flash fiction published, still haven’t finished my novel or the translation of the novel I am currently preparing for Corylus. I do have one small piece of translation forthcoming in Firmament, the literary magazine of Sublunary Editions, and I did get a ‘highly commended’ for the John Dryden Translation Prize for my take on Mihail Sebastian’s play. But clearly, this shows me that I am neglecting my more meaningful long-term work for the sake of quick feedback and likes. Understandable perhaps in a year where I felt quite fragile and there was only so much rejection I could take (there was, as always, plenty of it).

Therefore, this year, I will seriously reduce my blogging and social media consumption in favour of my writing, translating, editing and publishing. Twitter has become creaky and unpleasant anyway. Instead of posting reviews on a regular basis and trying to fit in all the good books I read, I will only respond to the challenges I choose to participate in (such as January in Japan, or the 1940 Book Club, or Women in Translation), and perhaps a monthly summary of the most notable ‘others’.

I like having tentative reading plans too (allowing enough wriggle room for wherever the mood might take me), so here are my geographical plans for the first six months of the year: January in Japan; February in France; March in Northern Climes; April 1940 Club; May: China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Korea (I know that’s a vast territory, but an additional challenge is to read mostly what is already on my shelves, rather than buying new books); June: the Balkans.

Winding Down and Wrapping Up (4)

Just when I thought the bad summer months had passed and I was about to turn things around with a quiet writing holiday at last… things continued to not work out according to hopes and plans. However, this did lead to some major reading therapy, so the year finished strong at least in that respect.

My second brush with Covid led once again to a weakened immune system, and thus infections with all the viruses life could throw at me, plus more severe symptoms as soon as I caught something for the rest of the autumn.

The week-long October holiday in the beautiful Yorkshire countryside would have been the perfect rest, combining creativity with long walks and visits to Shibden Hall and Hebden Bridge… but alas, I was plagued by a vicious migraine and nausea for most of my stay there, and could barely make it out of bed. I hobbled down to Slaithwaite one morning, and managed to translate about 3000 words, but that was all I had to show for my much longed-for writing retreat.

Things got worse when I came back home. My younger son, whose nickname used to be the Duracell Bunny for his endless energy and sunny disposition, which made him a firm favourite whenever we visited family back in Greece or Romania, suddenly admitted he was deeply depressed and expressed suicidal thoughts.

I can take any amount of bad things happening to me, but bad things happening to my loved ones are much harder to face. I’ve spent these past few months trying to reassure him, get help, keep talking to him without becoming the pushy, prying mum… Above all, find a way to kickstart his engine and reawaken his joie de vivre and natural curiosity. Although I’ve experienced similar feelings myself in the past, although I have been a trained volunteer for the Samaritans, it’s horrible to see how all that becomes inconsequential when it’s your own child. It’s like treading on eggshells all the time. I am aware that it’s not a situation that can be fixed quickly or fully, so we take each day as it comes. I also feel very alone in all of this, as he won’t allow me to mention his fears and depression to his father or brother (for good reason, I suspect, as his father was very dismissive and unhelpful when I was depressed). Luckily, his school has been very supportive and we are collaborating on this quite well. But he has his A Levels this year, so things are… complicated.

Given the emotional and physical lows of that month, my reading was very escapist and not entirely memorable. The crime book I enjoyed most was The Shadows of Men by Abir Mukherjee, the latest book in his delectable series set in pre-independence India, and I probably related a little too much with the treacherous middle-aged academic in Vladimir by Julia May Jonas (not pictured above because I like neither the US nor the UK cover).

Winter in Sokcho and Mateiu Caragiale were perhaps rather melancholy choices for the month, but they were both beautifully written – at opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum, simple and unadorned to ornate and baroque. However, I have to admit it was a struggle to read Diamela Eltit’s Never Did the Fire during this period, because of the grim subject matter, and I might not have been able to finish it if I’d not had Daniel Hahn’s translation diary alongside it. And, much as I love Marlen Haushofer’s writing style, her novella The Loft or her biography were not exactly light reading matter either. Luckily, my other reading choices for German Literature Month were somewhat lighter: Isabel Bogdan’s The Peacock was delightfully farcical but not silly, while Franz Schuh’s Laughing and Dying may sound grim but is actually a collection of essays and anecdotes, poems and little plays exploring what it means to be Viennese (review to follow in the Austrian Riveter in early 2023).

In November, my older son came home for what was going to be a delightful week-long stay to impress us with his newfound cooking and cleaning skills. However, his sore throat and cough got worse, morphed into glandular fever and ended up requiring multiple calls to NHS 111, emergency out-of-hours service and finally the A&E at hospital. He passed on at least part of the virus to us two as well, so November passed by in an interminable blur of collective ill health.

Perhaps not the best backdrop to read challenging journeys through someone’s convoluted brain and memories, such as Solenoid by Mircea Cărtărescu or Javier Marias’ trilogy Your Face Tomorrow (which I’ve been reading at the rate of one a month, and still have to review). Even the speculative crime novel In the Blink of an Eye by Jo Callaghan, fascinating though it was as a premise (who is less biased and better able to solve a case, a live detective or an AI one?), had a theme of suicide and ill health, so was not quite as escapist as I’d hoped.

However, December dawned more hopeful: a lovely trip to Newcastle Noir with two of our Corylus authors, Tony Mott from the prettiest town in Romania, Brașov, and Óskar Guðmundsson from Iceland. In celebration, I read several good crime novels to end the year: Ian Rankin’s latest, featuring a retired but still very rebellious Rebus, Trevor Wood’s first in a trilogy featuring an ‘invisible’ homeless man solving crimes he witnesses on the streets, and Keigo Higashino’s entertaining mix of police procedural and psychological depth.

Older son recovered fully and enjoyed a ski trip in France, coming back full of nostalgic stories about French food and books, pistes we had both loved, and oodles of Swiss chocolate (he flew via Geneva). I am looking forward to some cosy film-watching with both of them (we started with Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio yesterday, on the first day of holidays), lots of reading, favourite Christmassy foods… and will ignore gas bills, ongoing concerns about family members, several substantial literary and translation rejections, or my own precarious health.

Hope really does spring eternal – and in 2023 I resolve to be more physically active, take better care of myself as well as others, and not take on too many additional projects.

I will probably post a few more book reviews between Christmas and New Year, but I will sign off for a few days (other than the usual Friday Fun post) and may your holiday period be as unstressful as possible!

Last Few Acquisitions of 2022

And when I say ‘few’, I don’t really mean it!

Let’s take it from left to right, shall we?

As you know, I am always susceptible to book recommendations on Twitter (even though I am rapidly falling out of love with Twitter because of recent changes and furore). I saw Lauren Alwan wax lyrical about Emma Thompson’s diary of the filming of Sense and Sensibility, and I love that film and script, so I thought it would be a good investment.

The following five are all acquisitions from Newcastle Noir. Tony Mott is the author I am currently translating for Corylus (Deadly Autumn Harvest), and she kindly brought other books in her Gigi Alexa series, also featuring seasons in the title (Poisoned Summer and One Last Spring – provisional titles in English). I got talking with author Tom Benjamin who lives in Bologna and has written a series of crime novels set there, featuring an English private investigator, so that he could comment on cultural differences (my cup of tea, as you can imagine!). Passionate about social issues as I am, especially in my crime fiction, I instantly picked up the first in Trevor Wood‘s trilogy featuring a homeless man solving murders almost in order to protect himself. I’ve already read it and it is gritty, moving and quite unlike the run-of-the-mill police procedurals or psychological thrillers that seem to be a dime a dozen. Last but not least, although action thrillers are not my staple reading matter, after hearing author Amen Alonge talk about his book, life choices, stereotyping and the emptiness of vengeance, I had to get his first book in the Pretty Boy series, A Good Day to Die. Experts are saying that literary festivals don’t sell a lot of books anymore, but clearly they have never seen me in action! The only reason I stopped buying was because I had a rather heavy suitcase and a dodgy elbow to contend with on the way back from Newcastle.

I am not immune to book buzz, and I’ve been hearing about the next two books all year, so finally caved in and got them: Stu Hennigan‘s Ghost Signs is an examination of poverty in Britain today, made worse by austerity and the pandemic. And of course everyone has heard of Percival Everett‘s The Trees, shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year.

I have received the first in the 2023 Peirene subscription, History. A Mess. by Icelandic author Sigrun Palsdottir, translated by Lytton Smith, and it sounds intriguing, about an academic who makes a mistake and then is prepared to go to any lengths to hide that.

The next few books are all in German and took quite a while to be shipped over from Germany (and some were quite expensive). I’ve been fascinated with Hilde Spiel since I read her wonderful memoir of returning to post-war Vienna, so I ordered a whole bunch of her fiction in German (she also wrote in English), some of which has not arrived yet, as I hope to pitch her work to various publishers. Same applies to Ödön von Horváth, who is still mostly unknown outside Austria. Meanwhile, the book by Ingrid Noll was once again recommended by someone on Twitter – I’m afraid I can’t even remember by whom!

I’ve read a fair amount of Balzac over the years, but I think I only partially read Lost Illusions (or an abridged version). This is the long winter read for our London Reads the World Book Club, and I hope to find a way to see the latest French adaptation of it as well, because it looks very good (and evergreen topic, don’t you think?).

In addition to the above, there are a few that are still on their way and which might even make it here before 2023: Euphoria by Elin Cullhed, because I can never resist a book about Sylvia Plath; The Mermaid’s Tale by Lee Wei-Jing, because I’ve always been on the hunt for a worthy ballroom dancing partner; and a self-help book, believe it or not: The Little ACT Workbook by Sinclair & Bedman, as I’ve been looking for an alternative to CBT, which may be effective therapy for most people but doesn’t work for everyone.

Disclosure: I have set up my stall on Bookshop.org and if you go there, you will find not only find all the Corylus books available on that site, but also other lists with translated crime fiction that I particularly enjoy or books that I have recently bought myself or would heartily recommend. If you buy via those links, I get a very small commission myself, at no extra cost to you, and all the pennies will be ploughed back into producing better books for you at our tiny, very part-time publishing venture.

Winding Down and Wrapping Up (Part 3)

If there was a glimmer of hope and joy in the late spring and early summer, the third trimester of the year was when things started to go seriously wrong in my personal life. Rading, as always, helped me through that but it veered mostly on the escapist side, with very little reviewing. Unsurprising, perhaps, that the dominant colour for this period was blue.

July was not that bad, as the boys and I went to Romania for the second half of the month, but there was a lot of work to complete before going on holiday, as well as desperately trying to find someone to look after Mademoiselle Zoe, who had just been diagnosed with a tumour in her intestines and was undergoing chemotherapy. I looked into changing flights so that I could spend more time with her, but that would have been far too expensive, and my parents were impatient to see their grandsons after nearly 3 years. The holidays themselves involved a lot of travelling around and meeting family and friends, which is never restful though lovely. Sadly, I also realised that my mother’s dementia is progressing faster than we had initially expected. As an only child, I worry about how I can best help her while living at a distance (and our relationship has always been delicate even at best) and how to support my father as well.

July was meant to be the month of Spanish and Portuguese Language reading, but in fact I read very few books translated from those languages. One that did really stick with me from that month was Empty Wardrobes by Maria Judite de Carvalho, so concise and yet so memorable. This book also fitted well with a film I watched during this period in the hope that it might amuse me, but which ended being quite grim, since it deals with domestic violence, cheating and macho culture, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. I also tackled a less well-known work by a favourite author, Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial, and checked out several other authors for a potential fit with Corylus Books.

Almost immediately after coming back from holiday, I fell and broke my elbow and wrist on my right (writing) arm, then very nearly developed an ulcer from all the painkillers I was swallowing. Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t review much. August is traditionally Women in Translation month, but once again I fell somewhat short on that topic and relied instead on a lot of very escapist, very light literature. I did read the International Booker Winner Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, which I found exhilarating and deeply moving, although I probably missed quite a lot of the cultural references and found it a bit overlong. I reviewed it in September together with the rather deliciously subversive Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner (not pictured here because I didn’t like any of the covers).

Another highlight in translation was a coming-of-age novella by Mieko Kawakami Ms Ice Sandwich, while my own bout of ill health and Zoe’s sudden decline and death made me connect even more with the book by Tanya Shadrick about creativity, motherhood, facing up to illness and mortality, The Cure for Sleep. The only book I could read during those painful last days with Zoe was (unsurprisingly) Paul Gallico’s Jennie.

I had a brief moment of joy in September when I went to Bloody Scotland in Stirling, but that did not go unpunished, as I came back with Covid, which once again laid me low and meant my immune system has struggled to cope with things ever since. I was also delighted to find that my translation of Mihail Sebastian’s play The Holiday Game was highly commended for the John Dryden Translation Prize – a great honour, although that doesn’t make it any more likely to be performed or published. Rejections followed thick and fast for other writing or translation pitches, while my day job remained busy, so I was struggling to make it through the remaining weeks until my much-awaited writing retreat holiday in Yorkshire in October (which did not quite live up to expectations). In the meantime I was delighted, however, to reconnect with Istanbul and my beloved detective duo of Ikmen and Suleyman created by Barbara Nadel, plus discover a new series by an author I have enjoyed in the past, Vaseem Khan’s Midnight at Malabar House, while the historical fiction of Set in Stone by my friend (and near compatriot) Stela Brinzeanu was a welcome change of pace from crime fiction.

You can find the first and second part of the annual reading review on my blog, but you’ll have to wait for the final part while I do some more reading.

Winding Down and Wrapping Up (Part 2)

It’s amazing how the colours on the covers of the most memorable books I read in the second part of the year also match my mood during that period: much more colourful, even pinkish and coy, although normally I am not a fan of pink. Yes, this was the most optimistic part of the year.

In my teens I was (sort of) diagnosed with bipolar disorder: for me (everyone is slightly different) this typically manifests itself as periods of intense activity, almost manic energy and optimism which has no bearing to reality (the ‘up’ periods), to be followed by far longer periods of utter hopelessness and despondency (the ‘depressive’ periods). I was given lithium to even out these wild mood swings, but that made me feel like it was benumbing me, so I lost all of the positives of being on a high and only very slightly had the edge taken off my depression. Over the next few decades, I learnt to manage my moods with a cocktail of home-made and medical remedies, and over the past decade, I thought I had moved more into depression (partly sparked by external circumstances).

However, this year the manic period reasserted itself with a vengeance, perhaps because I travelled to see my parents for the first time in 2.5 years, or perhaps because I briefly thought I might like to have a relationship again. It was kind of lovely having the energy back, even though I knew about its dangers and limitations. For a couple of months, I felt invincible: I survived on very little sleep, had so many new ideas, wrote love poetry (which I had not done since high school) and so many other things, submitted regularly, took my boys on a trip to Brighton, went to plays and exhibitions, joined the Society of Authors, attended the Translation Day in Oxford, reconnected with old friends, investigated a possible collaboration with a theatre in London and so much more. Helped by the wonderful weather and by better news on the creative front, I was able to handle the growing anxiety about my mother’s incipient dementia or my cat Zoe’s state of health (she had started vomiting far too frequently, but we had not yet diagnosed her with cancer).

All this is reflected in my top reading choices. In April, I chose to focus on Romanian writers, because I spent two weeks in Romania, although some of the reading was entirely serendipitous since I just happened to come across Martha Bibescu’s journals set just before and during the Second World War in my parents’ house. I was also smitten with the two plays by Mihail Sebastian that I had not previously read (one was seldom performed during Communist times, perhaps because it talked about lies being published in newspapers, while the other was unfinished at the time of his death). I also reconnected with the work of surrealist, absurdist writer Urmuz, whose work was published largely posthumously when he committed suicide at the age of 40 and translated a couple of his short pieces (they are all very short, more like flash fiction, even a novella in flash). One of them, I am happy to say, will appear in Firmament, the literary journal issued by Sublunary Editions.

May was all about life in Berlin, often written by expats. The only one that impressed me and which gave me a bit of insight into the history and society of Berlin was The Undercurrents by Kirsty Bell, but I was intrigued by a different kind of expat, namely the anthropologist, in Mischa Berlinski’s rather epic, occasionally uneven but fascinating look at the ‘outsider going native’ Fieldwork.

June was my month for catching up with French writing, and I’d forgotten how eloquent and impressive Simone de Beauvoir can be in describing women’s experiences. Gael Faye’s Petit Pays taught me so much about Rwanda and Burundi and trying to integrate into French life. I also enjoyed books that fell outside my original reading plan (I’ve always been flexible about allowing others in): I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed the relatively simple story about a love affair set in Japan, Emily Itami’s Fault Lines and yearning for love and companionship in Seoul in Sang Young Park’s Love in the Big City.

As I said, I might have been susceptible to love stories that trimester, even though mine never got off the ground (with the wisdom of hindsight, I’m inclined to say: thank goodness it didn’t!).

Finally, one crime novel that stuck with me because it was so post-modern and different and sly: True Crime Story by Joseph Knox. The danger with these seasonal summaries (rather than those done by genre, for example), is that crime fiction often gets sidelined. So, several crime novels might have made my ‘best of the year’ list among others of its genre, but they might struggle to compete with Simone de Beauvoir or Mihail Sebastian.

Winding Down and Wrapping Up (Part 1)

I don’t like to start my ‘best of the year’ reading summaries too early, especially when I have some seriously promising books planned for December. However, this year I thought I would copy A Life in Books Susan’s approach to summarising the year, i.e. remembering the monthly highlights, with a post for each season. By the time I reach the October to December slot, I should have completed most of my December reading – that’s the plan, at least!

2022 started pretty much in the same way as it is about to end: in hibernation. I had just suffered a long period of falling ill constantly from September to Christmas 2021, so I stayed indoors quite a bit. However, it was productive hibernation. I wrote and submitted a lot, I translated and pitched (unsuccessfully, but it’s the intention that counts). I taught translation in classrooms with the Stephen Spender Trust (it was lovely to work with primary school children once more, although tiring!). Above all, I spent time in Japan – or at least immersed in Japanese literature and films for #JanuaryInJapan. My favourite Japanese book that month was Tanizaki’s charming A Cat, a Man and Two Women, which became all the more poignant after my beloved Zoe fell ill a few months later.

Two other books I greatly enjoyed in January were Deborah Levy’s Things I don’t Want to Know and Real Estate, the first and third respectively in her memoir trilogy. While they weren’t quite as immediately relevant to me as the second one, The Cost of Living, which I read a few years ago, they were thoughtful explorations of what it means to be a woman, a writer, middle-aged, a mother, and a rational yet also idealistic thinker. They are less self-effacing than Rachel Cusk’s trilogy, but all the warmer and more personal for it.

In February I tried to escape from my not-terrible but time-consuming day job, as I wanted to spend more time on my writing, publishing and translation ventures, even if it meant a loss of income (this was before it became clear that the cost of living crisis was getting worse and worse throughout the UK). I was interviewed for a children’s literature publisher and a bookselling job, but neither of them led to anything. So I escaped instead via reading to warmer climates, namely Australia, a country I have not explored much at all, to my shame. Two books stood out for me: the surprisingly fresh and candid My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin and the fascinating fictional perspective on the League of Nations in Geneva in Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days.

In March I devoured Italian literature, partly inspired by my ongoing Italian lessons via Zoom. We have a very small group (all with Italian partners, save for me) and a lovely teacher, so I have decided to continue this coming year as well. I don’t think I am able to read books in the original yet, but I managed to cope with the bilingual edition of Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words. It was an interesting exploration of translation and finding the language of your heart, but not quite as memorable as Polly Barton’s Fifty Sounds, which I read a couple of years back. Of the Italian authors, I was intrigued but not enamoured by Italo Svevo’s A Perfect Hoax and really loved Natalia Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues.

Aside from the Italians, I was also impressed by the exuberance of Doina Rusti’s The Book of Perilous Dishes and the darkness at the heart of the unforgettable story by Dorothy B Hughes In a Lonely Place.

Quite an orangey-brownish-rusty collection of book covers, as I noticed when I put them together below. Mirroring my own state of mind, a stagnant pool, during the first three months of the year.

Little Glimpses of Reading

There just aren’t enough hours in the week to review all the books I read, and some of them I don’t even feel compelled to review. This weekend I also had two DNF experiences one after the other! However, the ones below fall into the interesting category, so I will share some snippets from them to give you flavour.

Jane Campbell: Cat Brushing

This collection of short stories has a viewpoint that is seldom seen in Western literature: the desires of older women. In the title story, the narrator finds similarities with the once-beautiful, now elderly cat that she brushes, reflecting upon her own sensuous past and how both of them are now unnecessary and ‘on sufferance’ in her son’s household. Several of the stories reflecting on past loves and missed opportunities, but some are also about making the most of the present, even if you are in a care home.

‘All the old people here have exercises recommended for them by our inhouse staff.’

A great wave of hatred surged through me. Was I, having struggled over long years through the heartbreak of lovers deserting me, good fortune eluding me, children disappearing, money slipping from my grasp, of having survived all the random acts of cruelty that life can inflict upon an ordinary person, was I to be denied the luxury of wallowing in a bit of giref and sadness and melancholy if I wanted to?

Aristophanes: Lysistrata, transl. Patric Dickinson

A classic Ancient Greek comedy, and an anti-war pamphlet too. The women of Athens and Sparta (and other Greek cities) resolve to deny their men any sexual fulfillment until they put an end to the civil war ravaging the country. All the more remarkable for the portrayal of militant women, when we know that their status in Ancient Greece was very low, they were not considered full citizens. Amazing also, how current the political statements still are!

Like the raw fleece in the wash tub, first

you must cleanse the city of dirt.

As we beat out the muck and pick out the burrs,

you must pluck out the pace-seekers, sack the spongers

out of their sinecure offices, rip off their heads –

then the common skein of good sense:

blend the good aliens, the allies, the strangers,

even the debtors, into one ball;

consider the colonies scattered threads,

pick up their ends and gather them quick,

make one magnificent bobbin and weave

a garment of government fit for the people!

Javier Marias: Your Face Tomorrow, 2: Dance and Dream, transl. Margaret Jull Costa.

I will almost certainly review the entire trilogy once I finish it, but I’m taking my time to savour reading this. There are so many times that I nod along in recognition when I read those hypnotic, spiralling sentences. He really does get me, this author, and it would be a shame not share at least a fragment of one of those endless sentences as I go along.

No, you are never what you are – not entirely, not exactly – when you’re alone and living abroad and ceaselessly speaking a language not your own or not your first language… the word ‘absence’ loses meaning, depth and force with each hour that passes and that you pass far away from home – and then the expression ‘far away’ also loses meaning, depth and force – the time of our absence accumulates gradually like a strange parenthesis that does not really count and which shelters us only as it might commutable, insubstantial ghosts, and for which, thereferoe, we need render an account to no one, not even to ourselves…

#6Degrees December 2022

A very appropriate starting point for our Six Degrees of Separation game this month, hosted as always by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. A wintry book set in Alaska, entitled The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, based upon the Russian folk tale Snegurochka. I’m ashamed to say that, although it is probably one of the first books I ever got on the Kindle after receiving the device as a birthday present way back in 2012, I still haven’t read it.

So my logical starting point will be another book that has been the longest on my Kindle – this time a Netgalley download. Not quite as long as The Snow Child, but The Cartel by Don Winslow has been waiting patiently since June 2015. I’ve heard very good things about it, perhaps I was waiting for the appropriate happier time when the hardcore drug wars on the Mexican/American border wouldn’t feel too depressing… and those happier times just never seemed to come!

From the oldest to the most recent Netgalley download: Haruki Murakami’s essay collection Novelist as a Vocation. I enjoyed his book about running (and writing) very much at a time when I was doing both, so let’s see if this inspires me to start writing more regularly.

My next link is to a book about a novelist that I have just read recently: Yellowface by R. F. Kuang – except that in that novel the novelist is less concerned about craft, and more about fame – and will do anything to achieve it, including stealing someone else’s work and pretending to be of Chinese heritage.

A very simple link next, another title with the word ‘yellow’ in it: Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley, his debut novel in fact and a satire of the 1920s English society and country house lifestyle. With the exception of Brave New World, Huxley seems to have fallen out of fashion recently, but I have always enjoyed this novel which is very much based upon several real-life characters who also intersected with the Bloomsbury Group (Lady Ottoline Morrell, Bertrand Russell, Dora Carrington and so on).

Another person who was on the fringes of the Bloomsbury Group (and supposedly the only living writer that Virginia Woolf was jealous of) was Katherine Mansfield. Perhaps her best-known short story collection is The Garden Party, but my favourite one (and the one I am linking to here) is Bliss and Other Stories. One of the stories in that collection, Je ne parle pas français, a strange little cross-cultural love triangle with homoerotic undertones, links to my final book today.

David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day is a collection of essays and memoir pieces, not all of them equally appealing to me, but I do want to put a good word in for the title one, which is about the author taking French classes in Paris and the way he and his fellow classmates struggle with the language. As an expat in France, and someone who is currently murdering the Italian language with my classmates on Zoom, I find that particular story very relatable and funny.

So my six degrees have taken me from Alaska to the Mexican border, Japan to Washington DC, England and Paris. Where will your literary travels take you this month?

Reading Summary Nov 2022

Although at times I felt like I wouldn’t be able to read anything at all this month, and although I was also engaged in the epic chunkster that is Solenoid, I did actually have a reasonably good and varied reading month. 10 books, of which five fit in the German Literature Month category and two in the Novella in November category. I even managed to review all four German-language books I read – including the biography of the woman who is fast becoming my favourite Austrian writer. Seven books by foreign authors, one collection of short stories (which tends to be a rarity), two non-fiction titles (again, a bit unusual for me, one of them a biography). Only three crime fiction titles, of which one was a translation from German.

My favourite this month was probably the Marlen Haushofer novella The Loft (Die Mansarde). The most escapist was The Peacock by Isabel Bogdan.

I had also planned to attend several literary and theatrical events this month: Iceland Noir, a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, several trips to the cinema, a RADA performance, an online performance of Shakespeare by cues only, a musical at Sonning Mill. In the end, I only managed to see two of our Icelandic Corylus authors in an online discussion with Dr Noir for Barnet Libraries on the very first day of November, plus the rather forgettable One Piece Red anime film and a disappointing Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (muddled storytelling, some lovely cinematography) in the cinema.

Reading plans for the final month of the year? I usually like books set in snowy landscapes for December, but this year I will stick to whatever suits my mood while finishing some of the chunksters I had planned: volumes 2 and 3 of Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias, Tessa Hadley’s The Past. Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time. A few lighter reads will no doubt make their way there as well, as I need to forget the rather gloomy second half of this year and turn with renewed optimism to face the New Year.