‘There is far too much to do around the house!’ I wailed. ‘And who is going to fill up that empty fridge and prepare things for school? There are also many, many blog posts to read, books to review and events to plan…’
And yet, when I heard about Vanity Fair, I had to join in this month’s Six Degrees of Separation meme. Hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best, it works as follows: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and you need to link to six other books to form a chain, each one linking to the next in the chain but not necessarily to the initial book. Vanity Fair was this month’s starting point and it was one of my favourite books as a teenager – all of us women need to be a bit more like Becky Sharp!
The fairground theme is the link to my next book, which has a small but significant scene set in the Prater, Vienna’s fairground and amusement park that was very similar to the Vauxhall Gardens featured in Vanity Fair. I am talking, of course, of The Third Man by Graham Greene, which became one of the most iconic noir films of all time.
Taking the option of Vienna for my next link would be all to easy, as I am such a fool about that city, so instead I will use the link of noir film adaptations. Another book that was beautifully adapted (probably surpassing the original) was The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. The external third person narrative feels a little too cold and impenetrable to me, and I like his Nora and Nick Charles characters far more than Sam Spade.
Another title containing the word ‘falcon‘ is Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a travelogue by Rebecca West, giving a rather chilling picture of Yugoslavia on the brink of invasion by the Fascists in 1937. Interestingly, though, she was as staunchly anti-communist as she was anti-fascist, which meant that she was more of a supporter of the Chetniks (which later led to the revival of Serbian nationalism which led to the Yugoslav War in the 1990s) than of Tito’s partisans during the Second World War.
Speaking of partisans and anti-fascist resistance, I’ve not yet read but am fascinated by this book about Primo Levi exploring the reasons why he got sent to a concentration camp in 1943. Primo Levi’s Resistance: Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy by Sergio Luzzato (transl. Frederika Randall) examines a lesser-known part of Italian history.
It would be too easy to turn to another Primo Levi book as the next chain in the link, so instead I will look at another period in Italian history. A family that fascinated me as a child, the Borgias are the apogee of ambition and ruthlessness, although I feel that poor Lucrezia Borgia was often a pawn in the machinations of her father and brother. Sarah Dunant’s Blood and Beauty: The Borgias tries to sort out fact from fiction.
Sarah Dunant has also written a novel Sacred Hearts about a young woman being sent away to the convent against her will in 16th century Italy, and it’s nuns forming the final link in the chain. Muriel Spark features the most manipulative and ruthless Mother Superior in literature in The Abbess of Crewe, while constantly portraying herself as a good Catholic. A parody of either Watergate or McCarthyanism – or both.
So my links this month have taken me from Vienna to the US to Yugoslavia, Italy and England. Where will your associations take you?
For those of you not interested in Romania or holiday pictures, look away now, as the following few posts will be all about my holiday there. I’ve had a fraught love-hate relationship with my home country all my life (more about the whys in a later post), but this time almost everything clicked to make it a magical experience. Two days of cold and snow (up in the mountains), but the rest of the time we had temperatures in the mid-20s, blue skies and ravishing autumn colours.
I’ll start with the place we stayed in last, as it was the most memorable. Lost in the fertile and beautiful landscapes of the sub-Carpathians in the centre-west of Romania, Pensiunea Dacica was like a place in fairy tale. We had to follow nearly 5 km of unpaved, narrow road alongside a stream, going deeper and deeper into the forest as night was falling. At first I thought the wolves would come to get us (we still have bears, wolves, wolverines, lynx and the like in our mountains), but when we arrived, we found all mod cons awaiting us: running water, heating, electricity, comfortable rooms, good food, lots of books and even Wifi.
Not forgetting, of course, the array of friendly dogs, cats, donkeys and occasional stray cows to give you that authentic countryside experience.
The reason for this seeming miraculous retreat in the depth of the forest? This guesthouse is the brainchild of a team of archaeologists who have been working on the Dacian remains which are abundant in this part of the country. [The Dacians were the native population (related to the Getae and Thrakians of the Balkanic peninsula) before the conquest by the Romans in 105-106 AD, as witnessed in the carvings on Traian’s Column in Rome.] They established a publishing house and foundation for educating children and people more generally about history and traditional culture, not just the Dacians.
They have a library and study room, ideal for a historian or writer wishing to work in peace, a common room for socialising, plenty of outdoor spaces to settle down and read. And, of course, lots of mountain trails and archaeological sites nearby to explore. Sometimes the dogs and cats would accompany us to the top of the hill.
I can’t forget the delicious food – with Ioana, the cook, fussing around my children to find out what they would like best for the evening meal and worrying if they didn’t finish off everything on their plate. In the morning, we had more than 20 jams to choose from, home made on site, including unusual varieties such as lilac flower, watermelon, peony petals and even carrot. In the evening, we could choose between home-made apple or plum brandy, mead or sour cherry liqueur. Everyone working there showed the legendary Romanian hospitality and kindness (which is sometimes more legendary than real in the bigger cities).
We only stayed there two days, but I could easily imagine myself staying there for a proper holiday or even a writing retreat for a month. It was quiet when we were there, as there’s no half-term holiday in Romania and so it was off-peak, but the few people who were there were regulars, who kept coming back every year. I am almost reluctant to share details of this little piece of paradise, as I don’t want it to become trampled by too many tourists.
While there, we went to visit Sarmisegetuza Regia, the ancient capital of the Dacians. It is situated in a nature reserve and it’s the most peaceful, inspiring location, even if you don’t believe in ley lines and building for solstice sun positioning.
The Dacians put up a fierce fight against the Romans. Their last king, Decebal, waged three wars against the Romans, but was finally defeated in 106 AD. Together with a few of his generals, he retreated to the fortified capital tucked away in the mountains and they all committed suicide rather than allow themselves to be captured by the Romans and marched through Rome in chains. Traian had to content himself with only the head and right hand of the dead Decebal. The Romans razed the city to the ground and forbade any access to it, for fear of the growth of cults around the deceased leader or possible rebellions. So, rather like in Sleeping Beauty, the forest grew around it and it was forgotten for over 1500 years, until archaeological interest arose in the early 19th century.
The interpretation of the Dacian legacy since its rediscovery has been very interesting. At first, the Romanians chose to emphasise their civilised Roman ancestry, probably in an effort to underline their Latin origin in contrast to the Slavic populations surrounding them and also to show that they were equal to the Austro-Hungarian empire that one third of the country was part of. From the 1930s onwards, the Dacian roots and the proto-population theories were used for nationalistic purposes. The Dacians were presented as fearless and noble, yet never as aggressors. (The Greek cities on the Black Sea coast, the Boii, Bastarnae and Illyrian tribes might all disagree with that, as they were all conquered or driven out under the first Dacian king to unite all the territories, Burebista.)
Yet, despite the bloody past and biased interpretations, this feels like such a blessed and happy spot. You can imagine people contentedly pursuing their agricultural and animal-rearing occupations here. The stones on the ground all glitter enchantingly, since these hills used to contain gold. Gold treasure hordes have been found in the region as recently as 2014.
You could be forgiven for thinking that people can still live as happily as their ancestors in these spots, albeit with all the mod cons. Pensiunea Dacica certainly makes you believe that all is still well with the world. But you would be wrong. The whole area is under threat from big corporations for fracking, with the government happily issuing licences (so as not to be overly reliant on Russian oil and gas), despite protests by the local population. In an earthquake-prone country, that could be even more of a disaster than in England. And, although this particular area around Sarmisegetuza is a nature reserve, huge swathes of forests everywhere else have been privatised and are being sold off and chopped up for timber or building.
One of the surprising promoters of Romanian tourism with an authentic flair and trying to protect the Romanian ecology is Prince Charles, who has bought a fortified village called Viscri. His foundation has turned this into a guesthouse but he seems to be ploughing the profits of it back into the local communities, attempting to revive local arts and crafts, encouraging the renovation of old houses and using local produce for food.
This was a month of two halves: a rather humdrum, exhausting first half despite many cultural events, and a relaxing second half spent on holiday. Sadly, neither of the two halves did wonders for my reading: I was either too tired (first part) or too busy sightseeing and talking to people (second part) to read as much as I had planned.
I read no more than eight books, of which three were what one might call compulosry, i.e. for review for Crime Fiction Lover. Only two of them were in translation, and only two of them were by male authors.
Here are the books that I did manage to finish this October:
Sarah Moss: The Tidal Zone Planning to write a longer blog post on the writing and themes of Sarah Moss, so this will be an ongoing project over the next couple of months, to either read or reread each of her books.
Alex Beer: The Second Rider – translated by Tim Mohr. A convoluted crime novel set in the poverty-stricken, decaying Vienna following the First World War, tremendously atmospheric. Review to follow on CFL.
Helen Jukes: A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings I’ve always been obsessed with beekeeping, ever since my great-uncle used to take me as a child to see his hives. This book is more of a personal memoir and enquiry into historical traditions and the folklore of beekeeping. It is also a description of how a human heart can be opened and become receptive to love more generally through the love of bees. Well-written and very enjoyable if you are at all interested in bees.
Murakami Haruki: Killing Commendatore A whopper of a novel, which I read in just one weekend. I had a bit of a nostalgic fit about Murakami, whom I used to enjoy reading when I was younger, but who has impressed me less in recent years. While this was not entirely a return to form (far too long and repetitive, could have done with judicious editing), it was fun to read, or else I may be influenced by the Don Giovanni and many other cultural references.
Lisa Gabriele: The Winters The book started well enough as an ingenious retelling of Du Maurier’s Rebecca, with the Mrs Danvers character transformed into a sulky and vicious teenager. Sadly, I felt it became a bit too predictable at the end, with not that much to distinguish it from the current crop of domestic thrillers. Full review to follow on CFL.
JS Fletcher: The Middle Temple Murder An early crime novel to while away the evenings on holiday. It does show its age a little, but is nevertheless an enjoyable study of journalistic flair, fraud and courtroom shenanigans.
I’ve got stuck in a few books while on holiday, browsing through my parents’ bookshelves. And bought far too many, causing my children to exclaim: ‘Can you never enter a bookshop and come out empty-handed?’ (I will do a separate post on new acquisitions, as I’d also ordered a fair few, which all arrived while I was away). Predictable consequence: I had to pay for the few additional kilograms of luggage (not just books, but also honey, jam, wine and quinces – the usual stuff that people bring back from home, right?)
Plans for November include of course German Literature Month. I’ve got 5 books ready and waiting on my bedside table, so all I can do is hope that I will get round to reading as many of those as possible.
Just back from a holiday in Romania, where I am always stunned by the diversity of traditional architecture (and the often disappointing standardisation of modern architecture). Here are a few of my favourites.
I’ve learnt to like (aka ‘put up with’) Halloween for the sake of my children, who enjoy it far more than almost any other seasonal event. Funnily enough, they are the ones who don’t want to watch scary films with me! But I like Gothic books even more than scary films, although I haven’t read that many of them lately. Maybe it is a teenage thing, when your nerves are more rested, younger and bouncier.
Which classic book has scared you the most? It’s a tie between The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, both by Shirley Jackson. She is such a master at the slow build of something strange and ‘off’. Plus, I find mental health issues are far scarier (because I’m more likely to encounter or experience them) than ghosts and the like.
Scariest moment in a book? Both in the book and in the film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story Don’t Look Now, that moment when the little girl in the red coat turns around as John follows her through the canals and cobbled streets of Venice. It still gives me goosebumps merely trying to describe it and it has only got worse since having children myself and trying to imagine what it might be like to lose them.
Classic villain that you love to hate? Count Fosco in The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. He’s just so unexpected, larger than life and completely sinister. Unforgettable.
Creepiest setting in a book? I’d never been to the Yorkshire moors when I read Wuthering Heights, but I imagined it as the most bleak, desolate, creepy landscape with the wind howling all around and thunderstorms raging. Have I mentioned that I used to be deeply disturbed by thunderstorms as a child? I had to dive down under the covers until they were over
Best scary coverever? Not sure if it’s scary or disgusting, but it certainly makes me squirm, the cover of Kiss Kiss collection of Roald Dahl’s short stories (most certainly NOT for children).
Book you’re too scared to read? Jim Thompson’s unflinching exploration into the gut-churning crevices of Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford’s utterly remorseless head in The Killer Inside Me. Generally, I don’t like spending any time in the heads of serial killers.
Spookiest creature in a book? Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Slimy, unpleasant and yet pitiful.
Classic book that haunts you to thisday?Turn of the Screw by Henry James. The author’s verbose and indecisive style is pared down to what is, for him, the minimum, and it fits in well with this ultimate unreliable narrator and the journey we take into her troubled mind. He manipulates our emotions and makes us question our own attitudes towards class and gender, in a way which makes me uncomfortable to this day. For reading it with an insufficiently critical mind the first time round.
Favourite cliffhanger or unexpected twist? I don’t know if it’s entirely unexpected, since we are dealing with the shock horror world of Murakami Ryuu, but his Coin Locker Babies and In the Miso Soup both fit the bill.
Classic book you really, really disliked? Not sure if it can be considered a classic already, but I really did not take to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, although I normally like campus and friendship novels.
Character death that disturbed/upset you the most? Without question, Simon being set upon and killed by the other boys in The Lord of the Flies. His gentle, dreamy, poetic personality made him my favourite character anyway. He has none of the self-righteousness of Piggy or Ralph – and certainly none of the dictatorship instincts of Jack.
List your top 5 Gothic/scary/horror classic reads. As I said, I find the human mind and especially herd instinct to be the scariest things in the universe. So my Top 5 Scary Reads are almost like studies in psychology and sociology:
Anthony Burgess: A Clockwork Orange
George Orwell: 1984
Eugene Ionesco: Rhinoceros
Todd Strasser: The Wave
RL Stevenson: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Share your scariest/creepiest quote, poem or meme.
Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt, Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet The company below, then.
Robert Browning: My Last Duchess
The best frisson comes when the writer leaves so much unsaid that you have to make up the connections in your own head.
This is one of the few posts that I am scheduling ahead of time, because I am currently travelling in Romania and have only occasional access to the internet. I have taken my Kindle and a physical book with me, plus will have access to my parents’ library, which contains many of my own books that I have not yet taken to the UK.
A lovely meme that I get to do about once a month. All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.
The three questions or Ws are:
What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?
I was planning to take The Brothers Karamazov with me on holiday, even though it’s such a chunkster, but I somehow picked up Bulgakov instead from my Russian writers’ shelf. So I am now rereading one of my favourite books of all time The Master and Margarita. The cover is pretty boring, nothing like the brilliant (or awful) choices I once researched.
Lisa Gabriele’s The Winters is a retelling of another of my favourite books, Rebecca. In an article I recently read, the author explains how rereading Rebecca in the time of Trump made her question all her previous memories of the book.
After a whirlwind romance, a young woman returns to the opulent, secluded Long Island mansion of her new fiancé Max Winter—a wealthy politician and recent widower—and a life of luxury she’s never known. But all is not as it appears at the Asherley estate. The house is steeped in the memory of Max’s beautiful first wife Rebekah, who haunts the young woman’s imagination and feeds her uncertainties, while his very alive teenage daughter Dani makes her life a living hell.
Will read next:
I want something not too challenging and entertaining while travelling, so I’ve found a book on my Kindle that I downloaded so long ago that I can’t even remember when or why. Probably because it was free, just when I got my Kindle for the first time. The Middle Temple Murder by JS Fletcher was originally published in 1919. Given my older son’s interest in the legal profession, I might even pick up some odd tips about barristers past and present! I’d never heard of JS Fletcher, but apparently he was a journalist who wrote more than 200 books across all genres, from poetry to crime fiction. As this article about him states: How fame eluded a man of many words