#6Degrees of Separation July 2021

Hurray, it’s time for another monthly Six Degrees of Separation journey! Hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, you start at the same place as other imaginative readers around the world, add six books that link in various ways with each other, and see where you end up.

This month’s starting point is Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, a book for grammar and punctuation fiends. As a former English teacher, you can imagine that this is a subject dear to my heart and I can be quite severe about it. But at the same time I don’t want to discourage young people from writing, which is why my first link is Kate Clanchy, who is also a teacher, one of the most inspiring kind. Her book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me is so compassionate and humane, all about approaching children with love, patience and poetry, and demonstrates that education can indeed change lives.

You’re going to laugh at my next link (and I’ve probably used it before) but I loved school as a child and dreamt of going to a boarding school like the Chalet School. (Since I grew up in Vienna, the setting didn’t seem at all far-fetched to me.) The first book in the series by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer that I came across at the school library was The Princess of the Chalet School, which had a double resonance for me, since Princess Elisaveta was from a small Balkan state (as well as the Austrian school setting), so I completely identified with her. (Never mind the ‘royal’ part!)

I really do not like royalty or monarchies as a form of government in general: an antiquated concept that has no place in the modern world. But I will stick to it for my next link, because it is about the Meiji Emperor of Japan, who was the ruler at the time of the opening of Japan to foreign powers and the extremely rapid modernisation that followed. Donald Keene is an eminent scholar of Japanese history and literature, and his biography Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912 is probably the only exhaustive study on this topic that we have in the English language.

Keene was so devoted to Japan that he moved there after the tsunami in 2011 and became a Japanese citizen. He was also a prolific translator of Japanese literature, both classical and modern pieces. One of my favourites is The Narrow Road to the Deep North/Oku (Oku no Hosomichi), the travel journal of haiku poet Bashō from 1689.

These kind of poetic travel journals are like catnip to me – both for the places they describe and the insights they give you into the mind of a talented and observant creator. Rebecca West‘s travel journal Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is far less interior meditation and far more a description of a particular time and place (Yugoslavia in 1937, shortly before the outbreak of World War Two), but it is very interesting for all that – although MUCH longer than Bashō’s.

The final link is via ovine creatures – from lambs to sheep. Famously, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick was the basis for the film Blade Runner (a loose adaptation which has rather overshadowed the book). There really is an electric sheep in the book, but what the main protagonist aspires to is a living animal as a pet for his wife to help with her depression.

We have once more travelled all around the world this month: from Britain to the Austrian Alps, from Japan to Yugoslavia, and finally to a dystopian San Francisco of the future (not so futuristic nowadays, since the adjusted date was 2021, I believe). Where will your six links take you?

June Summary

June is typically a joyous month in my household: two birthdays and a nameday, as well as Midsummer Day to celebrate; summer plans to be hatched; end of school and exams beckoning. This year has been slightly different. The boys have been on holiday but the older one has started a summer job, while the younger one has had induction days for Sixth Form College (partly online) and homework assignments, while I have been busier than ever at work. The weather has been rather changeable, making me almost want to switch the heating back on. Nevertheless, we had a once-in-a-lifetime birthday treat of high tea at Oakley Court Hotel, where the Rocky Horror Picture Show was filmed.

We were lucky with the weather, too: it was the one day of the week when there was no rain or gusty wind.

Reading:

I have read six of my 20 Books of Summer, and a total of 10 books this month. June has been the month of the most recent acquisitions on my Kindle, so the 20 Books of Summer choices are recent releases and include a Japanese thriller and a satire about social media, two books with tenuous links to Romania and two books that capture the millenial experience in Britain in the past few years. I also read a few bonus books linked to these: Mamie Luger by Benoit Philippon, which is certainly unlike anything else I have read before, a chilling story about a child murderer and rehabilitation by Fiona Cummins: When I was Ten, and Lucy Caldwell’s second collection of short stories. For the Virtual Crime Book Club, I had a good time reading Tom Bradby’s Secret Service, which had the interesting (and not all that implausible nowadays) premise that the future PM of the United Kingdom might be a Russian agent.

Films and TV:

Although most of the month has been given over to football watching with my older son – I remember bonding with my father over sports and enjoy doing so with him, even if I am not normally a huge football fan – I have also managed to watch some films and TV series.

The Outsiders was the kind of film I would have loved to watch in my teens and it was fun to see all of the child actors who then went on to become household names, but it was a little too sentimental for my taste (said the person who cries every time she watches West Side Story).

Sound of Metal was a tour de force of acting by Riz Ahmed and the first half was particularly interesting in his denial and fight against identifying with the deaf community, but the film then lost its way a little in the second half.

Billy Liar was every bit as funny, irreverant and poignant as I remembered it, with Tom Courtenay doing an excellent job of appearing at once infuriating and vulnerable.

It was the first time I watched Nightcrawler and I was chilled not just by the subject matter but by the charmingly psychopathic way in which Jake Gyllenhaal spouts inspirational slogans from self-help books – he is capitalism personified, the shameless go-getter we’ve been told the world (or is that just America?) needs.

Days of the Bagnold Summer was rather sweet and very relatable: a single mother having to spend the summer with her grumpy teenager, who had wanted to go and visit his remarried father in Florida. There was nothing grandiose or startling about the film, just a tender and very realistic observation of the mother/son relationship, which I am naturally rather partial to.

If you like sinister, not fully explainable TV series, then I can really recommend the Icelandic quasi-supernatural thriller Katla on Netflix. It has echoes of the French series The Returned, mixed with small-town Icelandic village feel of a Ragnar Jonasson novel The Katla volcano near the South Iceland settlement of Vik has been spewing ash for over a year and most of the inhabitants have been evacuated, but there are some foolhardy people who are staying on there. Then suddenly some strange clones or dead people reappear from underneath the glacier and turns their lives upside down. I found this far better paced and not as far-fetched or graphic as Fortitude. The characters are a lot more relatable and well acted throughout, although they might not have the big names of Fortitude. And the landscapes are just beautifully photographed throughout. You should also know that one of the writers on the show is none other than Icelandic writer Lilja Sigurðardóttir. I’m not a box set binging kind of person, but I watched all eight episodes in just 2-3 days (alongside the football matches).

Five Books, Five Decades (1970-2010)

I blatantly stole this idea from book blogger Gordon at Grab This Book, who invites crime authors every week to share five books, one from each of the last five decades, which they think should really be in everyone’s library. I thought that no one will invite me to do such a thing (at least not for the foreseeable future), so I might as well create my own post. Besides, it fits in rather nicely with my own five decades of life. I won’t stick to crime fiction, but will try to limit to books that I have on my shelves.

1970s

This is a toss-up between two books which actually have a lot in common: Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva (1972) and Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights (1979). Both are very short, both are a sort of stream of consciousness or philosophising about the minutiae of everyday life and the artist, especially the woman artist, and the sacrifices she still had to make to be able to create freely (and possibly still has, even now, fifty years later). Lispector’s novel was translated by Stefan Tobler in 2012.

1980s

I haven’t dared to reread this book, but back then it really changed my world; it was a sort of sexual awakening for me, all the more so because it weaved politics into love, and was forbidden in Romania for most of that decade. Which always makes a book irresistible: Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984). Translation: Michael Henry Heim.

1990s

Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseille trilogy was all published during the 1990s, with my favourite, the middle volume Chourmo appearing in 1996. This is the dirty, smelly, criminal Marseille before its facelift (and City of Culture status) – yet full of colour, rhythms, diverse cultures, fully alive. Howard Curtis translated this work for Europa Editions, reissued a couple of years ago.

2000s

Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel (2002) is one of those romantic novels which I supposedly don’t enjoy. I loved this very loose adaptation of Wuthering Heights set in Japan, which skilfully blends a social fresco of post-war Japan with a timeless love story. I most certainly want to reread it. Translation: Juliet Winters Carpenter.

2010s

This is the decade that I started blogging and reviewing for other sites, so I discovered a lot of new authors and read more new releases than ever before. One author who really bowled me over when I first read her, even before she won the Nobel Prize, was Olga Tokarczuk, but the two books that have been published in English translation were both published in the original in the previous decade, so I cannot use that. I will therefore alight upon Jenny Erpenbeck’s Gehen, Ging, Gegangen (2015), which describes so well the fear of refugees flooding one’s country and the consequences of that, which have pretty much marked (and scarred) this past decade. You can find it translated as Go Went Gone by Susan Bernofsky for Granta.

As I prepared this post, I realised two things:

A. I cannot resist cheating, so I snuck in six books rather than five (or even more, if you count the trilogy as three separate books).

B. A lot of my favourites are older than the 1970s, so I will probably create another one for the 1920-1960 period.

#6Degrees of Separation June 2021

This is possibly my favourite monthly link-up, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. A book is chosen as a starting point and all you have to do is link it to six other books to form a chain. You can make it harder on yourself by giving yourself a theme, or try to turn the chain into a circle, or you can just roam wildly, like I do!

This month we start with a book that I haven’t read, nor do I know much about it (always a tricky starting point). The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld won the Stella Prize and has been described as ‘a complex and unsettling story set in the east of Scotland, near the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, and moves between three time frames and three women’ by an Amazon reviewer.

I love to eat fish, so I instantly thought of ‘seabass’ when I saw that title. Another book with a species of fish in the title is Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday, a rather whimsical love story and gently satirical novel, poking fun at politics, civil servants and international relations. It was a huge hit, translated into many languages and adapted for screen. Although the author followed it up with six more novels, that were supposedly well received, I have never heard of the others, so to me he feels like a one-hit wonder.

Another author whose debut novel was hugely successful and adapted for film – but who was a true one-hit wonder (i.e. hasn’t written anything since) is Arthur Golden with his Memoirs of a Geisha. I personally found the book rather shallow – full of description and details, very much designed to titillate a Western audience, but the characters were paper-thin.

There are some similar elements of soap opera, but considerably more subtlety in the portrayal of geishas in Higuchi Ichiyo‘s work, particularly in Takekurabe, a story of adolescents growing up in the Red Light District and realising that it is not that easy to escape what life has in store for them.

Take in Japanese usually means bamboo and one of the oldest Japanese stories, almost a folk tale, is Taketori Monogatari – The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. The bamboo cutter and his wife find Kaguya-hime, a princess from the Moon, as a tiny baby inside a bamboo stalk. This story has been made into an anime (under the name of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya) by Studio Ghibli.

For my next choice, I go with a book that has also been adapted into a Studio Ghibli anime, namely Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. There are quite a few significant differences between the book and the film (beautifully described in this blog), the most annoying one being that Wales simply disappears. Maybe Miyazaki felt that Japanese move-goers wouldn’t know where Wales was?

For my last link I choose a novel with the word ‘castle’ in the title. Although I hesitated a little about whether I should put down Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, that one feels a little too wholesome, so in the end I could not resist going with one of my favourite authors Shirley Jackson and her wonderfully creepy We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Once more we have travelled the world – from Scotland to Yemen, Japan to the magical kingdom of Ingary (and Wales), and finally a far too small town in Vermont. Where will your Six Degrees take you?

Romantic Or Not?

I am quite an omnivorous reader, but one genre that I very seldom touch is ‘romance’. Except that, of course, love is a perennial subject in literature, so you can’t really avoid it. I suppose a very broadbrush way to distinguish romance as a genre is that in ‘literary’ fiction (or crime) the love usually ends badly (or leads to endless ruminations and shame and guilt), while in romantic novels there is usually a happy end.

Perhaps I don’t believe in happy ends? You will say, no doubt, that this comes from bitter personal experience. And yet… I can’t wait to attend the Silver Wedding Anniversary of some friends from my student days, which will be organised over Zoom next weekend by their four children, who have been collecting pictures, anecdotes etc. from their friends scattered all over the world!

A funny incident over the Bank Holiday weekend provided me with the occasion to wonder at what point I got cynical about long-lasting happy relationships. Some friends of mine invited me to a BBQ and, unbeknownst to me, also invited a divorced father of roughly my age as well, possibly in the hope that they might act as matchmakers. Not only did the penny not drop until I was on my way home, but I also realised that I simply do not have it in me to make polite conversation and show an interest in a man’s job, hobbies, outlook on life, when he just drones on about himself and doesn’t even pretend to ask any questions in exchange. My years of gently drawing out, encouraging and smiling in all the right places, and trying not to rebuke self-centred egoists are over. Of course, not all men are like that: I’ve had many a fascinating conversation with happily married men, or younger men, or gay men. Men, in other words, who are more interested in my brains and wit rather than my looks.

Of course, as a teenager, I was very passionate and had several boyfriends on the go at once (and was madly in love with every one of them – for different reasons). But even back then, I did not like the books or films that ended in picturesque weddings. I adored love poetry, especially the suffering and sighing bits, like any self-respecting emo teen (although there was a cheery streak in me which got bored with all the pining after a while). I suppose what I considered romantic back then was something full of lust and overwrought emotions, but so wrong, so doomed to failure. Works such as Wuthering Heights, Anna Karenina, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Lady of the Camellias. But it wasn’t just the classics I read – aged about 10-14 I was obsessed with the slightly fictionalised historical novels of Jean Plaidy, or the Gothic romances of her alter ego Victoria Holt, as well as Jane Austen and her ‘lighter cousin’ Georgette Heyer. But, with the exception of Jane Austen, I haven’t reread any of them since.

It occurs to me that the ‘happy ending, feel-good’ romances do not seem to occur very often in the literatures I like to read (or maybe they just do not get translated much). Japanese love stories are twisted and strange for the most part; Romanian, Italian Brazilian and Spanish writers seem to be full of romantic gestures at first sight, but there’s a manipulative machismo underlying it; while the French seem to be as cynical and jaded as me. (That also seems to be the case for many of the films from the above-mentioned countries).

Mills and Boon, Modern Romance Collection. Is it me, or do all the covers look very similar?

I am probably far too ignorant of the genre, but it feels to me like the Harlequin Romance/Mills and Boon type of novels are very much a product of the English-speaking world. And, while they are translated and read elsewhere, the rest of the world seems to prefer the grittiness of soap operas, with affairs, betrayals and illegitimate children galore. Another quick observation here: foreign soap operas tend to feature wealthy people, so there’s a good dose of escapism and oogling at beautiful homes. So I don’t quite understand the success of East Enders and Coronation Street here in the UK, I have to admit.

Of the books I’ve read over the past few years, are there any love stories that are believable, do not end badly and do not bring the cynic out in me? Here are some books that struck me as very romantic, although perhaps not in the conventional sense of the word:

May 2021 Reading and Watching

Restrictions might be easing here in the UK, but my confidence in this government is so ‘high’ that I prefer to watch and wait, rather than rush out to enjoy museums and theatres, although I have missed them very much indeed. So the summary this month continues to be of books, films and TV series, with a handful of online literary events too.

Books

May’s reading was going to be dedicated to Arabic literature, and in particular books from Egypt and Lebanon. Alas, only four of the ten books I read fulfilled that criteria, but I really enjoyed all of them. There was a historical view of Cairo and a very contemporary one. The Civil War in Lebanon and its aftermath were treated in equally poignant fashion but very different styles by Elias Khoury and Hoda Barakat.

The other book I had on my May reading plan because I’d been asked to review it was The Wife Who Wasn’t, a rollicking saga of East Meets West.

However, all the other books were examples of me giving in to temptation once the libraries reopened for browsing. I always enjoy Nicola Upson‘s crime series featuring the author Josephine Tey and this latest one is set on St Michael’s Mount at Christmas (I still have to visit both the English and the French version of this location). I read Flynn Berry‘s first book and liked it well enough to have a look at her second one A Double Life, which is one of those ‘what if’ stories about the Lord Lucan case and how his daughter might feel about the whole situation. Steph Cha‘s Follow Her Home is a very deliberate Chandleresque recreation of LA, albeit set in the present-day and with a mighty Korean-American female main protagonist.

I usually avoid books with all the buzz, and certainly Luster by Raven Leilani has been receiving a lot of that, having been shortlisted for both the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Dylan Thomas Prize in the UK and has won several awards in the author’s home country the United States. Also, I wasn’t sure I could bear yet another so-called millenial novel about damaged, self-destructive young women and their unsatisfactory relationships with men (or men and women). But there it was beckoning to me on top of a book display at the library. After a fireworks of a start, which made me gasp and admire nearly every sentence, I thought it lost its way a little in the middle. It’s about a vulnerable young woman who might have a sharp wit when she talks directly to the reader, but nevertheless never quite loses her desire to be seen, touched and loved. Nevertheless, I found it less cold and manipulative than Sally Rooney’s Conversation with Friends (no, I haven’t read Normal People), funnier than Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times and more consistent and fierce than The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris. So, if you liked any of those, you are almost certain to like this one, which I feel is better than all three. There are parallels with Fleabag, but this is a Fleabag with the burden of race and no safety net of a rich family to fall back on. Perhaps Michaela Coel’s I Will Destroy You comes closest to capturing that flawed, but very striking and unique narrative voice.

Here is a description of publisher’s tickbox exercise of providing diverse reading, which made me roar with laughter:

… a slave narrative about a mixed-race house girl fighting for a piece of her father’s estate; a slave narrative about a runaway’s friendship with the white schoolteacher who selflessly teaches her how to read; a slave narrative about a tragic mulatto who raises the dead with her magic chitlin pies; a domestic drama about a black maid who, like Schrödinger’s cat, is both alive and dead, an unseen, nurturing presence who exists only within the bounds of her employer’s four walls; an ‘urban’ romance wherever everybody dies by gang violence; and a book about a Cantonese restaurant, which may or may not have been written by a white woman from Utah, whose descriptions of her characters rely primarily on rice-based foods.

The most memorable book I read this month was probably The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (which I nicked off my younger son’s shelf), but I also finally got to review one of my favourites from last month, namely Polly Barton‘s Fifty Sounds, about which I could have written a super-long essay. And I also reread and reviewed To the Lighthouse, which was just wondrous. As a way to forget what a chore daily cooking has become since the first lockdown, I also wrote a post about my favourite cookery books.

I’ll be embarking on the 20 Books of Summer for the next three months, and I have to admit I’m already tempted to make some drastic changes to my original plan. For example, would it not be more helpful to publishers posting their books on Netgalley if I actually read and reviewed the most recent ones, rather than the oldest ones? So I might dedicate June to the most recent, then July to my oldest and leave August for Women in Translation (admittedly, four-five of my Women in Translation choices are very recent ones anyway). The most recent list includes Mieko Kawakami (also featured in the August list), so I might swap her out for someone else in June, but a choice of ten to choose 6-7 from might look like this:

Films and TV

I seem to have found my film-watching mojo again. I’ve watched nine films and one TV mini-series this month, a mix of film classics and sheer escapism.

  • Andrei Rublev: yes, it can take a while to get to the point, but it’s still a visually stunning and inventive commentary on the role of the artist
  • Hunger: a visceral experience of a slice of recent history that I knew all too little about, although I had heard, of course, of Bobby Sands
  • When Harry Met Sally: loved it when I was young, have become a curmudgeon who no longer trusts the love story, even if it has its witty moments
  • Animal Farm: not just about the Soviet system – remains as relevant as the day it was made (and Boxer’s fate will forever make me cry)
  • Sweet Bean: charming but also thoughtful film about how we treat outsiders – perhaps veers a little into the sentimental
  • Touchez pas au Grisbi: now I see where Jean-Pierre Melville and Scorsese got their inspiration from – a worldweary performative tour de force from Jean Gabin, aging gangsters treating women badly, but with a hostage/loot exchange scene which almost made me forget to breathe
  • The Chess Players: The country’s burning and these two men are playing chess – a powerful indictment of both local lords and kings, as well as the British rule in India
  • The Chalet (French TV series): filmed in Rhone-Alpes, around Chamonix and Annecy, so obviously a winner in my heart, this was essentially a slasher-movie over 6 episodes, full of good-looking young people and grumpy older or depressed older people.
  • Rocco and His Brothers: Who can resist a young Alain Delon in this story of migration, urbanisation and brotherly rivalry?
  • The Boys from Fengkuei: Taiwanese film about a bunch of rather roguish young men moving to the city, very similar in content and form to Rocco and His Brothers (they actually watch this very film in the cinema at one point)

Literary Events

After a rather quiet start to the year, May has been a very busy (and expensive) month, full of events and courses (and appliances and dentists). Here is what I did in chronological order:

International Booker Prize: The Shortlisted Translators in Conversation – so fascinating to hear translators talk about the challenges of translating their very different books – especially enjoyed Sasha Dugdale talking about how nervous she felt about translating prose, because she usually translates poetry (I think most people feel it’s harder the other way round)

Produce an irresistible plot in a weekend with Shelley Weiner, Guardian Masterclasses – such an encouraging tutor, and lots of exciting ideas to stimulate the creative juices

Poet’s Cafe – took part in the open mic session, as well as heard Oliver Comins read from his poems old and new

Marlen Haushofer in Context, Institute of Modern Languages Research, SAS – only managed to attend one session, comparing The Wall with Seethaler’s A Whole Life, but I caught up with some of the recorded sessions afterwards

Reading in Translation Conference, University College Cork – again, only managed to listen to one session, the book bloggers, but will catch up with recordings

Olivier Norek and Joseph Knox in conversation with Ayo Onatade about noir fiction, at the French Institute in London, with bilingual readings from their novels

Raven Leilani – Hay Festival – such a thoughtful, articulate and gentle young woman, very impressive and very different from Edie in the novel. I thought it was itneresting that she said she was almost envious of Edie’s freedom, her giving herself entirely over to her impulses (her Id), even though it’s an extremely costly way of going about things. Leilani’s style is so clever, precise and rich, at the level of each sentence and paragraph, that I was curious how many drafts she writes to get that depth. It turns out she cannot move on until she has untangled every sentence, rewriting it at least three or four times, so she is a slow writer (and wishes she could be different).

Deborah Levy – Hay Festival – I’ve loved the previous two books in her ‘living autobiography’ trilogy and her third one Real Estate sounds just my cup of tea, especially when she talked about all the ‘unreal estate’ that live in our heads, all the houses we imagine we could be happy in, the future state that we can never achieve. She also talked about how she learnt to live with ambiguity and contradictory thoughts, and that the whole idea behind the trilogy was about figuring out why an ordinary life is worth examining and writing about.

Caleb Azumah Nelson – Hay Festival – I’ve got his debut novel Open Water on my TBR list (possibly for my June Netgalley binge) and am even more eager to read it after hearing him talk so modestly and passionately about writing from his emotions and being willing to make himself vulnerable (and how south-east London is where his world begins and ends).

Writing and translation

It has been quite an expensive month in terms of submissions to literary magazines and competitions. Not just poems and flash fiction, but I also finally got my act together and sent off the opening chapters and a synopsis of my Romania novel (as opposed to my Switzerland novel). I was also delighted to be accepted onto the BCLT Summer School and can only afford it because it’s virtual this year. I’ll be attending the Multilingual Drama section and am planning to go with Mihail Sebastian’s play The Holiday Game, which I mentioned last month.

Book Subscription Packages

I’ve had three book subscription packages so far in my life (I tend to do a lot of impulse book buying anyway), and I wanted to share you pictures of my latest one-off box, as well as talk about two longer-term subscriptions which I have really enjoyed.

A month or so ago, I saw Janet Emson review a Books That Matter subscription box and knew that I wanted to try out the box for the following month, which was all about refugees and displaced people. The May box arrived today and it is a beautiful and thoughtful delight.

Beautifully wrapped in an appropriately coloured tissue for Love. 10% of the proceeds from the sale of this month’s box go to Choose Love, a charity supporting people fleeing war, persecution and climate change.

Quite a few of these boxes that I’ve seen in the past contain items that have nothing to do with the actual book (tea and scented candles or socks or some such stuff). Books That Matter is a feminist subscription box and, although this month’s content was not quite as rich and varied as Janet’s one last month, it was very much geared towards the book therein. The book is a winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction by author Hoda Barakat, translated by Marilyn Booth, and fits perfectly with my reading Lebanese literature this month – finally a female author, too! A keyring, a cookie, several postcards and bookmarks with Choose Love logos…

And of course the indispensable tote bag! I do have a collection of bags from publishers and festivals that should see me through to the end of my life! The one-off box costs £17, so a bit pricey, although the price does come progressively down if you have a 3 month, 6 month or 12 month subscription.

The ongoing book subscription I currently have is with Chiltern Bookshops: an entirely bespoked service, in which you chat with the bookseller to tell them about your preferences, and then they send you a book each month. Since I knew the bookseller, Jacqui, quite well via our blogs (and then we met a couple of times in person), she has a very good idea of my reading taste, so each book has been a complete hit. But what was an unexpected bonus was that I got a children’s subscription as a Christmas present for my younger son, who is not a great reader. At first he muttered and grumbled, but he was won over after having a conversation with Debbie, the children’s books specialist, and receiving some very intriguing and unusual books (certainly not babyish ones, as his older brother teased him he might receive). The adult subscription is £45 for 3 months, the children’s one £40, and, while there might not be any flamboyant extras other than a bookmark, they arrive beautifully and ecologically packed.

The first book subscription I ever got was ironically one that I had to pack and ship myself to all of our other subscribers, namely the Asymptote Book Club when it first launched. I greatly enjoyed the variety of countries and types of books on offer, and also the special q&A feature with the translators, but I had to stop for financial reasons. It is £140 a year, which is not at all bad for 12 months’ worth of well-curated titles in translation, but a bit of a chunk when my pension contributions are going up dramatically and all my domestic appliances keep breaking down. I do hope I can restart it at some point, and I gather that they are moving into the ‘virtual book club’ discussions now, which was something I was always planning to do back in the days when I was volunteering for Asymptote.

I know there are some other lovely book subscriptions out there: I am tempted by the Republic of Consciousness Prize, which works with a variety of UK small independent publishers, or some of the single publisher ones (looking at you, NYRB Classics Book Club, or Archipelago Books, but sadly both of you are in the US and the shipping is slow and costly). Closer to home, there are personal favourites like Peirene Press, Fitzcarraldo Editions, And Other Stories or Persephone Books, although you already know in advance what books you are getting, so the element of surprise is gone.

#20BooksofSummer – the Planning Starts Now!

Cathy is once again encouraging us to blast through our TBR piles with her annual 20 Books of Summer Challenge (winter if you are in the southern hemisphere). Her rules are fairly relaxed, so it should be do-able for anyone. You can find out more about it on Cathy’s blog. The challenge runs from 1st June to 1st September, and I always try to incorporate the Women in Translation Month (August) into the challenge as well.

However, I have to admit that each year I succeed (if I suceed) only thanks to some very creative accounting, i.e. cheating. I pick a huge list of books to choose from, or I swap halfway through. This year I have set myself the additional challenge of clearing my very large pile of Netgalley requests. So all of my 20 books will be e-books. Bear in mind that I don’t like reading on a Kindle very much, so I may intersperse the 20 books with other physical books.

Anyway, here is the plan (I give myself roughly 10 per month, so I have plenty to choose from):

June – the oldest books on my list

A lot of crime fiction that I thought I couldn’t live without at the time, as well as books everyone was talking about back in 2014/15.

  • Miljenko Jergovic: The Walnut Mansion
  • Jean Teule: The Poisoning Angel
  • Sarah Jasmon: The Summer of Secrets
  • Sarah Leipciger: The Mountain Can Wait
  • Claire Fuller: Our Endless Numbered Days
  • Karl Kraus: The Last Days of Mankind
  • Maxime Chattam: Carnage
  • Stuart Neville: Those We Left Behind
  • Caro Ramsay: The Tears of Angels
  • John Banville: The Blue Guitar

July – most quirky books on the list

Well, they might not be quirky for anybody else, but they are not my usual reading matter (or, in the case of poetry, not the sort of thing I would read on a Kindle). This could be a bit of a hit or miss month of reading, but at least I have plenty to choose from.

  • Essential Poems (10 American poets, including May Sarton, Nancy Willard, Alice Walker)
  • Joyce Carol Oates: The Doll Master and Other Tales of Terror (unusual for me, because I don’t usually read horror)
  • Rudyard Kipling: Brazilian Sketches (travelogue)
  • Odafe Atogun: Taduno’s Song (because I don’t read enough fiction from the African continent)
  • Zana Fraillon: The Bone Sparrow (children’s book, about refugees)
  • Melissa Lee Houghton: Sunshine (poetry)
  • Jeffrey Sweet: What Playwrights Talk About When They Talk About Writing
  • Petina Gappah: Rotten Row (short stories, which I don’t read very often, and set in Zimbabwe)
  • Rachael Lucas: The State of Grace (children’s books, about autism)
  • Sue Moorcroft: Just for the Holidays (romance)

August – Women in Translation

  • Minae Mizumura: An I Novel (Japan)
  • Mieko Kawakami: Heaven (Japan)
  • Daniela Krien: Love in Five Acts (Germany)
  • Dulce Maria Cardoso: Violeta Among the Stars (Portugal)
  • Marie NDiaye: The Cheffe (France)
  • Valérie Perrin: Fresh Water for Flowers (France)
  • Samanta Schweblin: Fever Dream (Argentina)
  • Şebnem İşigüzel: The Girl in the Tree (Turkey)
  • Niviaq Korneliussen: Crimson (Greenland)

Will I stick to this plan? I can already see some books on my shelves really tempting me for the Women in Translation Month especially. However, if I can make at least a bit of an inroad in my 215 Netgalley collection (don’t you just hate how easy they are to count – at least with my shelved books I live in blissful ignorance of the true number of unread ones).

April 2021 Reading and Film Summary

Reading

15 books read, of which seven are crime fiction or true crime or, in one case, a literary curiosity labelled as crime fiction. This escapism into my favourite genre was counterpointed by some very good literary reads. Of the crime fiction genre, I enjoyed Rebecca Bradley’s start to a new series in Sheffield Blood Stained, Allie Reynold’s addictive Shiver, set in the world of snowboarding competitions, and Margie Orford’s haunting recreation of Cape Town’s older and more recent history Gallows Hill. For the Virtual Crime Book Club, I finally managed to get A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson from the library: I don’t usually read YA, but his one just zips along in a charming voice (think a slightly older Flavia de Luce set in a very contemporary world, where CDs are sooo last century).

The month was dominated by the reading I did for #1936Club and most of it was written by or about Romanian authors. While I did review Horvath’s plays for the #1936Club, I actually read them in March. However, I did read Max Blecher, Karel Capek, Mihail Sebastian and Liviu Rebreanu in April, all more or less fitting the requirements for the year 1936 or thereabouts.

There were three disappointments in this month’s pile though. The true crime book by John Leake The Vienna Woods Killer was written with too much of an American audience in mind, not particularly evocative of the Viennese atmosphere nor showing enough respect for the victims, but instead overly focusing on the investigation and court case. The novel entitled Sebastian by Gelu Diaconu was too much about other people, not enough about Sebastian (or else, did not add anything new to the Sebastian story). Sad to say, The Chateau by Catherine Cooper did not live up to the expectation raised by her first novel The Chalet, which I read last year. In spite of the fact that French chateaux are amongst my favourite things ever, as you well know.

But let’s not focus on the disappointments, because (aside from the books I read for the 1936 mission, which were all excellent) I also read two wonderful books this month. I reread To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (which I liked, but had never been my favourite novel of hers – that would be The Waves – but which certainly has gone up vertiginously in my esteem now). I still hope to review it at some point, although what can you say about a novel that everybody and their dog has opined about? The other novel I picked up because of my passion for Mozart: The Snow Ball by Brigid Brophy: delightful, frothy, yet very intelligent, with the sort of precise, taut writing I hugely admire. (Very much like Mozart – perfectly controlled, it just seems easy like breathing.) I then listened to the Backlisted Podcast episode about it and appreciated it even more. Two perfect little gems for a rather tiring month (aren’t they all – tiring, I mean, not gems obviously).

Films

My patience for box sets has gone out the window. I started the second season of Succession and it was just more of the same: backstabbing amongst rich people behaving badly, so I abandoned it. Fortitude was beautiful for its landscape, but that stifling small community where everyone seems to sleep with everyone and the rather far-fetched storyline palled after 5-6 episodes (plus there were some unnecessarily graphic gory scenes). Even The Sopranos felt a bit ‘take it or leave it, I won’t suffer either way’ after two seasons, so I decided to cancel my NowTV subscription.

After a very ‘film-less’ March, I caught up with my love for films a little more in April. It was perhaps not quite as diverse as previously, quite international nevertheless:

  • Japan: A Silent Voice – anime about bullying in high school, much harder-hitting than I expected
  • Spain: Pan’s Labyrinth – fantasy, history, once again – much more powerful (nightmarish almost) than I expected
  • Romania: Collective – documentary about the nightclub fire in Bucharest in 2015 and its aftermath, revealing government corruption and the power of investigative journalism
  • France: A Prophet – prison drama, watching Tahar Rahim transform under your very eyes from a naive young man to a criminal wheeler-and-dealer
  • US: The King of Comedy – a satire that manages to be both fierce and very funny, and deeply disturbing, with a brilliant performance by De Niro.
  • UK: The Third Man – still one of my favourite films for the black-and-white atmospheric shots of post-war Vienna and a world that has lost in faith in humanity – but yes, my sons are right that the dialogues between Holly Martins and Anna are stilted and old-fasioned
  • Italy: The Ties – didn’t realise it was based on the Domenico Starnone book, which I had avoided reading because I was still raw about my divorce – so the film turned me inside out a bit, especially the reaction of the children. Felt cynical and glum, at times hammering home the message a little too much.
  • US: In the Soup – another black comedy mocking both wannabe talents and the criminal world, while also being the story of the relationship between a charismatic older man who teaches a clueless young man how to live. Although I did chuckle, it felt like I’d seen this type of story before – and done better – in Zorba the Greek.

Last minute update: In my last post about Rebreanu, I mention the dance Ciuleandra and I included a film clip. I should also have added (thank you to Calmgrove for reminding me) that there is a fairly good Romanian film adaptation of it dating from 1985. Here is the trailer, which includes the moment when the couple meet at the village dance, with French subtitles.

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!