Skipping

When they told you to stop skipping

noisily down corridors and dangerously up the stairs,

did you question your skipping abilities?

Did you wonder if said skip was high enough

impressive enough,

in time, lively, energetic, contained?

Did you ponder in the dark, dawn-questioned hours

in grim solitude, just you and your mind?

Did you compare your skips with those of others?

Did you worry your skip may not find an audience,

interpret each passing smile or twitched eyebrow as snigger

and twitch at every word heading your way?

 

Did you stop skipping?

 

I thought not.

 

The Art of Science

When they uncovered the last of the bones

they placed them so gently

alongside the rest,

and brushed with soft caresses

the mould blooming in cavernous skulls.

 

When they found paths of eerie beauty

where particles had met

and shuddered to a halt,

they held up mirrors of foggy fascination

to conjure up bold dances to music overload.

 

When the lab mice get injected

to thrill to slightest sound,

vibrate in nervous tension,

they travel through synapses at speeds you cannot measure –

those words blushing with excitement at waking up on stage.

Happy Bastille Day!

 

Not far from where I live is the Chateau de Voltaire, where the great man lived for about 20 years, when he was banished from Paris and Geneva for his inability to put up and shut up.  Voltaire was also imprisoned twice in the Bastille, so today’s celebrations of the Fall of the Bastille would have gladdened his heart.  I hope the weather holds and the fireworks, dancing, music and theatre will take place as planned in the grounds of his estate.  He would have rejoiced to see children playing, couples flirting and sipping champagne, poetry being recited down the shadey paths. After all, he is not only the champion of social justice, tolerance and anti-mumbo-jumbo, but also the man who said:

Let us read and let us dance – two amusements that will never do any harm to the world.

 

If you are an admirer of French philosophy and literature and want to celebrate the 14th of July with fiction, here are some recently-released English translations or  novels set in France which you might enjoy. It has often been said that French literature and French films are an acquired taste for English-speaking audiences, but the mix below is a really painless introduction:

1) Sylvie Granotier: The Paris Lawyer

Sylvie Granotier is a former actress now turned full-time writer of thrillers, well-respected in France.  You can find a full review of this interesting, atypical crime fiction novel on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

2) Fred Vargas

This is the pseudonym of a French historian and archaelogist and I have probably mentioned her before (and will do again).  Her crime fiction books are always surprising, unusual, with historical and supernatural element, always unsettling me (in a good way).  She has two series – the Commissaire Adamsberg that more closely resemble police procedurals, and the Three Evangelists, about three friends who share a house. If you don’t mind reading books out of order, then ‘Seeking Whom He May Devour’ and ‘Have Mercy on Us All’ are probably good ones to start with.

 

3) Cathy Ace: The Corpse with the Silver Tongue

A debut novel by a Welsh/Canadian writer but set on the Côte d’Azure, this is a delightful cosy mystery and romp through pâté de foie gras and champagne for breakfast, cross-cultural misunderstandings and glamorous locations.  I will have a full review of it next week on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

4) Janet Hubbard: Champagne- The Farewell

Another one for foodie and drink fans, this is essentially manor house mystery set in the Champagne region of France. When an attractive French magistrate and a dynamic NYPD detective find themselves thrown together to solve a murder at a mutual friend’s wedding, sparks are bound to fly!

5) Muriel Barbery: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

This has been a runaway bestseller in France since it first came out in 2006, but the English translation has not done as well.  It is a controversial book, with not much in the way of plot, except the friendship between the concierge of an apartment building and a twelve-year old girl, both alienated, over-sensitive souls.  It’s the kind of book you either love or you hate, full of literary and philosophical allusions, yet not pretentious.  Definitely worth a try!

 

Let the Battle Commence!

Enough marinading – time to start grilling!

Almost a month ago exactly, I wrote ‘The End’ on the first draft of my novel.   I printed it out and set it aside – yes, literally in a drawer – to marinade in its juices until I felt ready to tackle it again.   Meanwhile, the end of school revelries, birthdays, professional obligations, family demands swept over me, pulling me under, all but drowning me in waves of joy and salt, of midsummer madness and unknowable sadness.

But now it’s just me and those 150+ pages of single-spaced writing eyeballing each other.  I already know I have to take out some scenes, add others, move things around.  I know I will wince when I see redundant adjectives and adverbs, will frown at repetitions, will fiercely attack typos and careless grammar.  I am sure so much will escape me still…

And in the meantime, I continue to read and review crime fiction.  Many writers say that they stop reading in their genre when they are writing a book, but I’ve been writing this book for 12 years now!  Still, the reason for avoidance – to steer clear of contagion and envy – is becoming obvious.  Gone are the days when I could read a thriller purely for fun.  Now, if it’s a bestseller, like Simon Kernick or JoNesbø, I wish I could have that pace in plotting (even if they are light years removed from my own style).  If it’s the wit and prose that win me over, like Stav Sherez or Patricia Highsmith, I flame up in desire to achieve that standard.  And if it’s poorly written, I wallow in pools of self-pity: that I am unlikely to get published, when there is so much crime fiction already out there.

Yet none of these writers, admired or envied, are there with me.  None of my friends, online or off, can be there with me.  I step into the ring of fire, all alone.  I know nothing about grilling except for the eating. I probably have the wrong weapons with me: my glasses, my pens and my notebooks.  This time, it’s a battle to the death – and only one of us can emerge victorious.

Bon appétit!

 

Writing Exercise

This was a 5 minute writing exercise that I was set in a writing group, based on a photo prompt.  I’ve been unable to find this picture again, so you will have to take my word for it: it was a beautiful black-and-white photograph of a Cuban woman in white traditional dress, smoking a cigar, looking out of the window.  She is flashing an insolent smile straight at the camera.  Some makeshift flowerpots are teetering precariously on her windowsill.

The thyme is doing well this year.  Grown all over, in a hurry like a virgin about to be married, all ready to jump into the nearest pot.  Majoram, now that was a tricky one, hasn’t sprung the smallest green shoot. Rowdy waste of time. But who said aloe vera would never make it in a tin? Just bore’em and stuff’em, I always say.  Look at it now: it’s tall, it’s spiky, it sucks up my smoke like a greedy suitor.

Speaking of suitors, it’s nearly time for him to pass by again for the day.  He can’t keep away.  He thinks he’s so irresistable in his shuffling walk-by, with his fancy hat, his spit-polished shoes, his thin moustache. I’m sure he can dance and gaze into my eyes for days.  All he needs is a little feeding, watering, to grow into the man he could become. Do me proud, like my plants, every day.

This time there will be a pause in his shuffle.  This time he will look up. And learn to linger.

The Sceptic

There’s no fun in joining in

but what’s the point of staying out?

Every cliché in the book

has been tossed, bandied about.

Every shadow, every smile

which has flitted on her face

he’ll remember and attempt

on his heart’s parchment to trace.

She spelled wonder, enchantment, light,

the earthly pull of love divine.

But arms enchain, roots entangle,

metal corrodes on every sign.

Better safe, better far,

diminish your attention span.

She promised so much:

He ventured forth leonine man,

Came back worn to bone

Insignificant also-ran.

Kindred Spirits

One of the pleasures of dedicating myself to writing (once more) is that I am rediscovering old friends whom I haven’t seen in years, and whose creative talents have matured like good wine.  Our lives have taken such different paths, we are scattered all over the world, we may struggle with small talk and yet…

Our love of words unites us: in some ways, we are perhaps closer now, sharing the best of of our thoughts, than we were when we were living together side by side.

Let me introduce you to just three of these.  First, Paul Doru Mugur, a friend from high school, the only one who kept pushing me (sometimes ruthlessly) to write.  Here is a beautiful and rich essay of his about time, published in an online journal which he co-edits. He also translates Romanian poetry into English, has published several volumes of short stories and poetry, and is generally very active in the arts world – all while holding down a demanding job as a physician in New York.

Secondly, I have a niece who used to pull my hair as a baby, but whom I have barely seen since. She is now all grown-up, has just graduated from university, writes searing prose in Romanian and occasionally in English.  We barely speak to each other at the big family reunions, but have grown close through our online love of writing.  A facet of ourselves well-hidden from the rest of the family.  Here is a poem in English, but I think her real talent lies in flash fiction or polemical pieces.  Here is a lovely example called Tutus and Cigarettes.

Finally, a friend from university who writes like an angel.  Her blog House of Happy has made me just that: profoundly happy.  I think she has a direct window into my heart and head at times. Here is one of my favourite recent entries. I wanted to reblog it, but our different platforms means I will cut and paste instead (oddly appropriate for this poem):

The Game

Get some paper
Chop it up into small squares (a hundred freckles-wide by exactly four snails)
Retrieve bits of your life and write down trigger-words on the shell-and-freckle paper: trigger words are those words that drag behind them large, live memories, the type you can still see, feel, count, smell (but not always spell…); the kind that roll off the shelf, jump out of the bottle and burn your eyes.
Put them all in a hat, shake well.
Watch them settle inside, now still but still whispering their burnished secrets, a lake of life inside a hat.
Go fishing.
Clutch the trigger word you caught tightly inside your fist.
(eat it up if you must – chew well, swallow carefully; this may be helpful but remains entirely optional)
In any case, hold that word, smell it, consume it or, better still, let it consume you.
Then write about it. Write as if your next breath depended on it.
Prose, verse, a picture, anything that would help you understand
why your heart still roars
although your life, bruised burden
and time itself
stand still.

Oh, all right then, here is a terrible picture from those days, to counteract all these lovely words!  And no, I’m not sharing which one of the wild-haired people was me!