Having mentioned favourite countries and places in my last post, I thought I’d unearth some historical pictures of a few of my favourite cities. I’ve tried to acknowledge where I found them, but if those sites did not respect copyright issues, I may not have credited the correct place. What strikes me is that these European cities all look quite similar: I don’t know if it’s the grandiose architecture, or the black and white pictures. I’m sure it would be a different story if we looked at a different continent.
I’m not normally a football fan, but I’ve been watching some of the Euros matches with my older son, who has been getting excited about major international football tournaments since 2010. He keeps asking me whom I support in games such as Netherlands vs. Austria (he assumed I’d support Austria, having spent most of my childhood there, but to my own surprise, I found myself in the Dutch camp, and I told him that was because my Dad and I would dress up in orange and cheer them on, way back in their glory days of Gullit, Rijkaard, Van Basten). I was very torn indeed when France played Germany, as I love both countries very much, having many friends there and having lived in both. [In the end, I sided with the Les Bleus, partly because Zoe the French cat was giving me very long, hard stares – and because I still knew most of the team from 2016, when we were still living in France.]
But – and I realise this might make me very unpopular, except I have the feeling the readers of my blog are not rabid football fans – I do not support the England team. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want them to do badly, but it’s not a matter of life and death and me automatically cheering for them against whoever they might play. Maybe if it had been a united British team, I could have got behind them, but I’m very fond of the Welsh team, and I care about the Scots as well. And if England plays against France, well…
So that got me wondering about my current conflicted feelings about Britain and living here.
It’s been almost exactly five years since I woke up, on my birthday of all days, to the news that the UK had voted for Brexit. Shortly before the referendum, I wrote about my disbelief that anyone would vote for more borders and barriers, and fall for meaningless jingoistic tubthumping, even when it goes against their own interests.
Unfortunately, that coincided with my reluctant but unavoidable return to the UK – a country that I had previously considered the closest thing to home, but one that I now struggled to recognise. Social media and a government bereft of any ideas other than blaming others (particularly foreigners) for their own incompetence has amplified the feeling of being a second-class citizen here.
To those who say: ‘Why are you still here, if you don’t like it?’, I could go into self-justification mode and list all the practical reasons.
- When you get divorced, you don’t have as much choice of location as you might think, because if you have a joint custody of whatever percentage, you need to stay in the same country as your ex-husband.
- Your children thought of themselves as English and wanted to do A Levels and go to British universities, in spite of living for many years abroad. (Interestingly enough, they have started being more proud of their diverse heritage and appreciate the rich culture of their ‘third’ country, France, much more in the last year or so)
- The divorce court would be kinder to me about the financial settlement in the UK, or so I thought (that was not quite true).
- It would be difficult to find a job in the Geneva region that paid well enough for me to raise the boys as a single mother, and if I had to move anyway, I might as well move back to the country where I had been paying into my pension for far longer and where the children spoke the language.
I could say all that and then smirk and add: ‘Anyway, I’m not sure I’ll be here for much longer…’
I could describe my well-meaning but far wealthier neighbours, several of them second-generation immigrants, who are devoted Tory voters and care immensely about the Royal Family down the road in Windsor Castle. How back in the days when we could go out, I had to turn down a number of Mums’ outings, birthday parties, posh taster suppers and spa days because I could not afford them (or because I prefer paying for theatre tickets or books instead). How my boys have stopped inviting their friends to our house, because they are embarrassed that my love for interior design does not match our actual interior design (at the very least, that sofa badly needs replacing). I whisper to myself at least once a week: ‘How many more years before the youngest goes off to university and I can sell the house and move out of Theresa May’s constituency?’
So I could play the victim, blow cold and sarcastic, or simply be all practical and clinical about things… but the truth is that British culture still feels like home, even if the country no longer does.
I wonder if this is the case for those who grew up in the former British colonies and went to school learning all about the Tudors, Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. Despite our very diverse backgrounds and nationalities, at the Vienna International School what we all had in common were Enid Blyton’s cream teas with lashings of ginger beer, Wordsworth’s daffodils and the music of Greensleeves. We ended up knowing more about the Victorians than we did about the history of our own countries – not necessarily a good thing – and the history that we learnt was of course schewed to the British interpretation of events.
Luckily, I’ve had the opportunity to live, study and work in other countries as well, so I’ve been exposed to other histories, cultures and interpretations. (An opportunity that is now becoming more and more difficult for the next generation, sadly.) I can see the best and worst that each country has to offer and still love those that are close to my heart, while acknowledging their faults. But when my son scolds me for not supporting Austria more, I suppose what happens is that I remember the xenophobia I encountered there as a child. This is not done consciously: it’s taken me a lot of thought and analysis to come to this conclusion. It is a sudden involuntary tightening round my heart based on tiny past traumas that I didn’t even perceive as traumas at the time (I was a blithely unaware child). Can you imagine how much more this is the case with England, now that I am fully grown and aware?
I love Britain, but, like a loud-mouthed, self-absorbed, drunk and loutish teenager, it does make it very hard for me to hold onto my love at times.
P.S. To return to football, I do like Marcus Rashford and Kalvin Phillips from the England squad though, both thoughtful and modest young footballers, who come from deprived backgrounds, raised by single mothers whom they visibly adore and respect.
At this rate, I’m not sure I will finish 20 books this summer, or at least not read and review them, but I have read two more, and they both are set in Eastern Europe during Communist times.
Sarah Armstrong: The Starlings of Bucharest (Sandstone Press)
Set in Bucharest and Moscow in 1975. This is the story of a somewhat clueless young journalist, Ted Walker, who has escaped from the hardship of fishing life in Harwich and set off for the bright lights of London (albeit, living in an insalubrious bedsit in Plumstead). He is sent by the editor of his second-rate film review magazine to interview a famous Romanian film director in Bucharest and then later to an international film festival in Moscow, and becomes a target for the local security services.
Although it has some tense and dangerous moments, it is far less a spy thriller and more of a coming of age story, as Ted starts to realise what he is and isn’t capable of, and what people want from him. Coming from a humble background, without much education, he has been bruised by the class system in England and the Russians correctly surmise that he might be more sympathetic to their cause. Ted realises that, no matter how much he aspires occasionally to be part of the action, he is in fact far better at ‘watching it all unfold’. Above all, he is flattered by the attention that all of these mysterious bilingual people seem to be paying him: ‘I never knew I had anything to give, anything anyone wanted. It made me want to say yes without asking what it was.’
Quite an enjoyable read, and a more realistic look at the mundane details of the world of spying and the Cold War in the 1970s, more Le Carre than James Bond. However, I’m not quite sure what was the point of setting the first part in Bucharest and even giving the book that title, as most of the action takes place in Moscow. Was it purely to have another setting to describe? At that point in time, the Soviet and Romanian spy networks were definitely NOT collaborating, Romania was viewed with suspicion by the Soviets for its non-alignment with the other Communist states, while Ceausescu was still very much the darling of the Western leaders for opposing the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring, signing agreements with the then European Community, visiting the Queen and Jimmy Carter in 1978 and so on.
From someone coming from Britain in the mid 1970s, with the oil crisis, strikes, unemployment, Bucharest can’t have seemed as grey and poor as all that. The food crisis was not yet as great as in the 1980s, clothes were plentiful and cheap (so the story of Vasile the guide craving Ted’s trousers sounds bizarre), although I agree the architecture of hastily put up blocks of flats was pretty horrible. Sorry to be picky, but if there are readers who point out that the train no. 45823 has a black undercarriage instead of dark blue, I think I can get slightly riled by inaccurate historical details.
Cristina Sandu: The Union of Synchronised Swimmers (Scribe UK)
Originally written in Finnish and translated into English by the author herself, this is a novella describing the starting point of a group of six girls who decide to form a synchronised swimming team, and their subsequent lives after they illegally leave their country during an international competition. The country of the girls is never named (nor officially recognised) other than ‘The Near Side of the River’ after the fall of the Republic, but for anybody familiar with the region, it sounds remarkably like Transnistria, with Moldova being the Far Side of the River, the ‘correct’ side, the place ‘where they can get a new passport and membership to a sports club that is internationally recognised’, sport being the ‘fragile link between two countries looking away from each other’.
I particularly enjoyed the lyricism in the parts of the story describing the girls’ childhood and their determination to become competitive swimmers, to escape from their boring lives and jobs at the cigarette factory, in a country where ‘for most of the year, the men were gone. They grabbed any kind of work they managed to get in a neighbouring country. They sent letters and packages home, and came to visit when they had enough money or their homesickness had become too great. Only the women stayed. They kept life going. They worked the land, fed and slaughtered the animals, raised the children. They ensured that the metal factory filled the sky with red smoke. They prepared the cigarettes… to be shipped far away, by land or by sea, to places they could only dream of.’
These descriptions (written in italics) were interspersed with accounts of the present-day – the experience of the six girls, now grown women, as immigrants in different countries – Finland, France, Italy, California, Saint Martin in the Caribbean – or returning ‘home’ many years later. The exploitation and subtle (or not so subtle) discrimination) they face elsewhere, but the certainty that there is no turning back, that they can no longer fit into the place they left behind either.
Much is implied or left unsaid, so I can understand the frustrations of readers who were expecting this to be more of a novel. It is, in fact, a kaleidoscope of images, impressions, vignettes from the women’s lives, the people they encounter, the conversations that mark them, a novella in flash one might say, and the gaps signify the distance between the six girls who once used to be so close. This worked upon me as a prose poem, although you shouldn’t expect something purely dreamy and lyrical: there is a lot of anger and sharp social observation too. Perhaps if you go in expecting something more like Jenny Offill’s Weather or Dept. of Speculation, you would be less disappointed. I think I know why the author chose to focus on the ‘after-lives’ of all six of the characters – to emphasise some of the univerals of the immigrant experience – but that does feel like we only get to know any of them in a very limited way, in a book that is that short.
You all know my love of French chateaux – I think I may have featured almost every single one of them in past Friday Fun posts. But there are still beautiful houses left in France – the so-called ‘maisons de maitre’ (mansion, estate), which range from the modestly bourgeois to the magnificent. All of the below are for sale on the estate agents’ websites listed below.
- Normandy-type villa near Rouen, from Patrice Besse.
2. Classical style near Bordeaux, from Moulin.nl
3. This should be big enough for the entire family to come visit in Dordogne, from Anthouard Immobilier
4. I can never resist this fearful symmetry, in Lot et Garonne, from Legget Immobilier
5. This errs onto the chateau side of the spectrum, near Bernay, from Ivan Ballini Estates.
6. But I would be quietly content with this more modest endeavour, near Berry, from Terres & Demeures.
[I am not sure I will continue with Friday Fun though, as, in addition to it being resource hogging, this new formatting for the pictures and inability to add text directly is too much of a kerfaffle.]
Kōtarō Isaka: Bullet Train, transl. Sam Malissa
Former assassin Kimura embarks upon the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Morioka (one of the longest direct lines in Japan, over 670 km) with a personal mission of revenge: he wants to shoot schoolboy Satoshi, who bullied his son and made him fall off the rooftop of a building, putting him into a coma in hospital. But the train is full of other paid gangsters, who all seem to be after a suitcase full of money and trying to avoid getting punished by the man mobster boss who hired them. Nanao is the unluckiest criminal in the world, and all too aware of it. Meanwhile, Tangerine and Lemon operate as a pair, look like twins, but are in fact very different, with Tangerine reading serious Russian novels, while Lemon is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine. When things go wrong, they all have to readjust their plans and end up stalking each other.
The plot is utterly ludicrous and the black comedy is over the top, and you can’t help feeling that the book has been written with an eye firmly on a film adaptation (which, sure enough, the filming for an American action thriller based on the book has just wrapped, starring Brad Pitt and creating a few more feminine roles, which the book sadly lacks). At first, I struggled with the translation, which felt too ‘American’, but then I realised that the Japanese original is probably quite Americanised too, heavily influenced by American film-makers such as Quentin Tarantino or the Coen Brothers. Not forgetting, of course, the Thomas the Tank Engine animated series. For those familiar with Japanese popular culture, however, there are also references to the yakuza and to Naoki Urasawa’s manga (later turned into an anime series) Monster, with the angelic-looking teenage master criminal.
With its fast pace and constant switching of points of view, plus a few unexpected twists, this is sheer entertainment, if you don’t examine the far-fetched plot too closely. Perfect for a train ride!
John Boyne: The Echo Chamber
The Cleverleys are privileged and self-obsessed media addicts: George is an Alan Partridge kind of TV chat show host, who has interviewed everyone who is anyone, consider himself a ‘national treasure’ and is angling for a peerage. His wife Beverley writes soppy, predictable bodice-rippers – or rather, she provides the ‘ideas’ and gets ghostwriters to actually write them. Their three children are all still living at home. Nelson (named after Mandela) suffers from social anxiety and only feels slightly more comfortable if he is wearing a uniform. The daughter Elizabeth is an internet troll but dreams of becoming a media influencer. The youngest, Achilles, is still a schoolboy and uses his good looks to seduce and then blackmail older men.
Through this thoroughly unlikable family, there is a lot of satirising of our obsession with media, but Boyne also takes swipes at ‘wokeness’ and ‘anti-wokeness’, implicit and explicit racism, gender identities, fake news and fake outrage, engaging in charity purely as a way to increase your public profile, media pile-ons and cancel culture… and the Ukrainian outlaw and folk hero Ustym Karmaliuk, believe it or not (who is the name of a tortoise consigned into Beverley’s care).
It is all quite hilarious, although the humour is more farce than subtle. It made me snort with laughter a few times, but about halfway in, it starts to feel like a joke that has gone on for too long. Or perhaps the author is trying to hit too many targets at once with his satire, so it ends up looking and sounding like a long Twitter rant or op-ed. Many of the jokes rely on repetition to be funny, and this also gets monotonous (and predictable) after a while. Still, it’s a quick, fun beach read, a great antidote to checking your social media accounts.
In addition to the two above, which were on my planned list of most recent Netgalley reads, I also read an additional (non-list) book with the same sort of dark humour.
Benoit Philippon: Mamie Luger
This French book features an unpredictable 104-year-old woman who is arrested by the police for trying to shoot her neighbour with a Luger dating from the Second World War. In actual fact, she was creating a diversion, to enable a young couple to escape by stealing the neighbour’s car. However, the frail old lady is by no means a saint, as the police inspector discovers while interviewing her. In fact, she turns out to be a serial killer, with a number of corpses buried in her cellar. Of course, she had perfectly good reasons for murdering each of those men, and is not at all filled with remorse. A rollicking feminist yarn, although at times it descends into stereotypical characters or predictable and repetitive situations.
None of the books above are memorable, but they certainly put me in the holiday mood and proved a welcome distraction at a time when work is very, very demanding.
A couple of the readers commenting on last week’s post expressed some misgivings about reading indoors in fine weather, while others admitted they weren’t that keen on reading outdoors. Although in my youth I used to read outdoors (most notably when I was supposed to be looking after my grandmother’s animals – e.g. I read Anna Karenina in the cherry tree, stuffing myself with cherries and losing the cow in the process), I find the insects and the noise of other people’s mowers and barbecues put me off doing so nowadays. However, these gorgeous settings might make me change my mind.
Sadly, the WordPress block editor has decided not to allow me to add any text directly below the image, so I will have to produce a little bit of text in-between images. Can you just quit ‘improving’ things all the time, WordPress?
- Above: cosy reading and writing nook, from Decor Renewal.
2. Of course, it helps if you live in a forest. From Book Bub.
3. This is so bright, you might be able to even read here after sunset. From The Backyard Room.
4. If you’re an Italian prince and want the Rolls Royce of garden loungers, this one from Patio Productions should do the trick.
5. I struggle to read for a long time in a hammock, as my back starts aching, but it’s a lovely feel. From Better Homes and Gardens.
6. If all else fails, a garden bench in the shade will do as well. From The Garden Glove.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Everyone may be rushing to go outside and escape lockdown conditions, but there will always be some of us who don’t mind staying indoors and reading… especially in cosy reading nooks such as these.
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).
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: