The Darling Buds of March – Reading Plans

I can’t wait for the tender shoots of March to nudge their way out of the snow – my reading buds are certainly coming along nicely and getting me very excited this month!

I have somehow found myself with a number of reading challenges – or opportunities (because I find them a great deal of fun), plus quite a few books to review. More than enough to keep me busy this month. In fact, I am somewhat envious of Bookish Beck’s formidable shelf organising skills and am reluctantly coming to the conclusion that I may need a better TBR filing system than an overflowing armchair or night-table.

Asymptote Book Club:

Hanne Ørstavik: Love, transl. Martin Aitken

I read her first book to be translated into English The Blue Room published by Pereine, Love is the story of a single mother, Vibeke, and her son Jon, who have just moved to a remote small town in the north of Norway. It’s the day before Jon’s birthday, but with concerns of her own, Vibeke has forgotten this. With a man on her mind, she ventures to the local library while Jon goes out to sell lottery tickets for his sports club. As a newly single mother (albeit uninterested in new men), this one may hit me hard, but I’m prepared…

David Bowie Book Club

Spike Milligan: Puckoon

Very topical indeed – a comic novel about set in 1924, it details the troubles brought to the fictional Irish village of Puckoon by the Partition of Ireland. Because of government indecision and incompetence (wow, is that possible?) the new border passes directly through the middle of the village. I’ve managed to find a copy of this in the reserve fiction section (i.e. buried in the  basement) of my local library and I hear there’s a film as well.

Muriel Spark #readingMuriel2018

I still have to review Symposium for Ali’s Reading Muriel initiative , but also planning to read The Comforters – her first novel but already showing a very unusual mind at work. The heroine, Caroline Rose, is plagued by a Typing Ghost and realises she is a character in a novel.


Enough shilly-shallying with this one, I need to get cracking and have also got some non-fiction and poetry planned for a change.

Dubravka Ugresic: Europe in Sepia

Tangerine Sky: Poems from Malta

Film poster for the book

Dan Lungu: Sînt o babă comunistă! (I’m an Old Communist Biddy) – a Romanian satirical book, which has also been adapted for a play and a film, in which the author tackles all that inertia and nostalgia for everyday Communism which some of the older generation inexplicably have (or perhaps not that inexplicable after all)

For Review:

Stuart Turton: The 7 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (71/2 in the US)  – Golden crime meets the film Memento, in a complicated, brain-melting story about trying to prevent a murder and living with guilt.

Death Notice by Zhou Haohui – Chinese crime fiction written, unusually, by a contemporary thriller writer residing in China. Set in Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province, this promises to be a gritty series, which has also been turned into a very popular TV crime drama.

Victor del Arbol: A Million Drops – an ambitious political thriller dissecting the heritage of Communism and Fascism in Spain, and how the past still impacts the present

Murasaki Shikibu: The Tale of Genji, transl. Dennis Washburn – having a quick read through to compare and contrast different translations of one of my favourite books for an essay to appear in Asymptote

Still reading from February:

The Welsh book The Caves of Alienation by Stuart Evans

Tom Hanks: Uncommon Type – a short story collection, and although Hanks is actually quite good with words, the stories themselves are slight slices of life, tolerably amusing, but leaving me with a yawnish ‘so what?’ Probably will not finish or try again later.





#6Degrees of Separation: March 2018

It’s time for #6degrees over on Kate’s blog. Start at the same place as other wonderful readers, add six books, and see where you end up! This month’s starting point is Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, which I read a few years after it came out (while doing my anthropology course). I remember it made me furious at the time – because I saw so much that I knew to be true in it, and it seems to continue to hold true, even after all the balooney about airbrushing and expensive creams have been exposed.

Another book which makes me angry, because I realise how little has changed since it was written is James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native SonI was also fascinated by the differences he notices in the treatment of black people (and how they perceive themselves) in America and in France. There is also a rather sinister chapter set in a remote Swiss mountain village – which I suspect might play out almost identically today. Unless you are rich and throw money around as you go to the spa in Leukerbad, in which case they don’t notice your colour!

The book that spells Switzerland for pretty much all of us who grew up in Europe or saw the animated TV series back in the 1980s(?) is of course Heidi by Johanna Spyri. Full of nostalgia for childhood and for the healthy mountain air and simple life – despite the fact that back then goat herds were probably very poor indeed. It seems to have the opposite thesis to Baldwin’s account: that villagers and simple Alpine folk are much more generous and kind. But Switzerland is full of such contradictions: very rich people who try to appear casual and understated; welcoming to refugees yet very reluctant to integrate them.

My next link is somewhat tenuous – the author’s name is Heidi Julavits: The Folded Clock. It is a fascinating sweep through a woman’s mind, her past and future, her attempts at creativity – it is a strange sort of diary, quite hypnotic. I am fascinated by these recent non-fiction, dream-like, almost poetic sequences, although I don’t quite know what to call them. The cover is just beautiful, and I kept underlining passages of it, even though it didn’t quite hang together for me. A book for dipping into.

A very different diary is featured in the hilarious series by Sue Townsend which began with The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4. Fun though The Diary of a Wimpy Kid is, I believe this English series to be the original and the best. I read them later, when I was quite a bit older than Adrian himself, but I adored his rage against Thatcher and his adolescent pretentiousness (so similar to mine at that age). I haven’t read the last two, but am tempted to look them all up again in the library.

The book was adapted for TV in 1985 and more recently so has the Outlander series based on the books by Diana Gabaldon. Described as historical fiction meets sci-fi meets fantasy meets romance, it is not necessarily my type of book at all, but I have a vague recollection of reading a couple of them in the 1990s and being unable to put them down. I only remember something about the Scottish Highlands and clan wars now.

Books which are definitely my kind of thing and which I cannot put down are crime novels and the most recent one of this type which I’ve read (and which also contains some fantasy elements) is The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. I’ll be reviewing it shortly on Crime Fiction Lover, but it’s interesting to note that in the US Evelyn will be granted an additional half-death, as the title there will be The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. Bizarre!

There you go, I’ve tried to include other genres and something for all tastes in my links this month! Look forward to seeing what you’ve come up with.




Friday Fun: Writers’ Houses from Other Continents

I tried to find Asian writers’ houses and guess what? There aren’t many of those still around. Space being at a premium, the land being earthquake prone, writers not necessarily coming from wealthy families, a climate hostile to conservation, a lack of literary tourism… lots of reasons for the lack of memorial homes. There are literature museums instead. So I tried to see what was happening on other continents.

Australian writer Ethel Turner’s house in Sydney, from








Stefan Zweig’s last home, in Brazil.
Edgar Allen Poe’s house in the Bronx. From Chicago Tribune.
Faulkner’s plantation house, from Lonely Planet.
Karen Blixen house in Nairobi, Kenya.
Pablo Neruda house in Isla Negra, Chile.
Rimbaud’s house (in which he probably only wrote the accounts) in Harar, Ethiopia. From Society of Architectural Historians.
Mazo de la Roche’s house in Canada, an inspiration for the Jalna series.







Finding My Roar

We won’t be seduced by the mildness of your listening.


Too ferocious to be constrained by borders in light and shade

we shimmer in the mirror,

palest by far reflection of light on the threshold.

We know impossible spaces and how to tame them –

those feet of bronze and ivory ashen after all;

when the fog lifts, it takes the mountain with it;

when no one understands, all you can do is speak to yourself.


Once your purple heart was surrounded by green rays

and swayed on its supple stalk.

Watch us now! It’s more painful than it looks to be so

dignified. November fast-freezes

our roots, leaves us taut and tense like a ballerina mid-stretch.

Prickly leaves dry up in our hands

gathered in prayer.

Happy Martisor Day, ladies – hope of spring springs eternal! Photo courtesy of Travel Away.

Reading Summary February 2018

Although February is such a short month, I thought I’d been doing a reasonably good job with my reading, but it’s not quite what I expected. I did read 11 books, but two of those were novellas and four of them were for reviewing purposes. 4 of them are translations, 7 of them are by women writers (one was co-written by a man and a woman) and I have only reviewed two of them on my blog. I think I might have to introduce the pithy weekly reading diary that Elle Thinks has started, otherwise too much is left undigested and unmarked, despite my best intentions.

Crime Fiction

6 of the books I read this month fell into this category and 4 of them have been reviewed or will be reviewed on Crime Fiction Lover.

  1. Michelle McNamara: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark – compassionate rather than voyeuristic true crime; compassion for the victims, I mean, and an excellent recreation of time and place – 1970s/80s California. My favourite of the crimey reads this month, even though I am not usually a true crime fan.
  2. Hari Nykänen: Holy Ceremony, transl. Kristian London. Part of a series about the wonderfully named Finnish-Jewish detective Ariel Kafka.
  3.  Noel Balen & Vanessa Barrot: Minced, Marinated and Murdered, transl. Anne Trager. Enjoyable culinary cosy crime set in one of my favourite cities, Lyon. The mystery is somewhat secondary to the atmosphere and characters.
  4. Johana Gustawsson: Keeper, transl. Maxim Jakubowski. A rather gory and grim follow-up to the hardcore first book in the Anglo-French pair Roy & Castells series. I’ve met Johana in real life and don’t know how such an absolutely lovely lady can invent such terrifying details.
  5. Tammy Cohen: Clean Break – a novella about a couple on the brink of divorce, which takes a stalkerish and sinister turn.
  6. Louise Candlish: Our House – by strange coincidence, I got sent this book just as I was reading Tammy Cohen’s book. It is also about a couple on the brink of divorce and fighting over their house (or at least I thought this was what it was going to be about, but that would have been too boring and common-place – the truth is much more complicated). I read it at once, but it offered me no tips on how to handle negotiations (or even how to murder a spouse).

Reading Recommendations and Challenges

For the David Bowie Book Club: James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time

For the Asymptote Book Club: Aranyak by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay

For the Muriel Spark Centenary: Symposium – a book almost entirely in dialogue form

Modern Classic recommended by many of my favourite book bloggers: J.L. Carr – A Month in the Country – and how right they were!

In fact, all four of these were very worthwhile reads, so perhaps I should stick more to personal recommendations in future.

Following the Herd

Chloe Caldwell: Women – I’d read about this ill-fated lesbian love story and requested it on Netgalley, but I found it rather disappointing. A sort of memoir about a moment of curiosity and madness, or a coming of age story without real maturity at the end. It felt like yet another MFA project designed to be mildly shocking or titillating. Will I never learn not to fall for blurbs or buzz?





David Bowie Book Club #2: James Baldwin

Baldwin and his nephew.

The February read for the David Bowie Book Club was James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, an essay about America’s racial divide which is sadly still all too relevant today. I’d read Giovanni’s Room and Go Tell It on the Mountain, but only fragments of his great body of essays, both personal and political, which are incontrovertibly fused in his work:

One writes out of one thing only – one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from his experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.

The Fire Next Time is a slim volume comprising an essay Down at the Cross and a letter to Baldwin’s nephew on the 100th anniversary of emancipation from slavery which is only a few pages long and acts as a sort of prelude to the other essay.

It’s an amazing and unforgettable polemical read. I was instantly captivated by the blazing passion and fury of the language and the argument. It is heart-breakingly honest and would inspire anyone with ‘fire in the belly’ at the injustice of race relations. In the letter to the nephew, things are spelled out directly and still feel applicable to so many discriminated and vulnerable people within present-day society (the often unconscious white middle class privilege we hear in the media):

You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence; you were expected to make peace with mediocrity… I know your countrymen do not agree with me about this, and I hear them saying, ‘You exaggerate.’

The essay proper is a memoir of the summer when Baldwin turned fourteen and experienced a kind of religious fervour. Why religion? Baldwin is remarkably clear-eyed about using religion as a tool  (or as he calls it ‘a gimmick’) to help him move beyond his background:

I was icily determined … never to make my peace with the ghetto but to die and go to Hell before I would let any white man spit on me… I did not intend to allow the white people of this country to tell me who I was and limit me that way… Every Negro boy… realizes that he … must find, with speed, a “thing”, a gimmick to lift him out, to start him on his way… And it was my career in the church that turned out, precisely, to be my gimmick.

However, it is not all plain sailing. The young boy is clearly caught up in the excitement of church, the music and drama of it, but at the same time he is puzzled at the apparent indifference of a white God to the plight of black people. He sees examples of anything but Faith, Hope and Charity, the principles he believed the Christian world was based on. He finds it absurd that people claim to love God only because they are afraid of going to Hell. He sees the paradox of church ministers becoming rich while their parishioners continue to scrub floors and put their hard-earned dimes into the collection plate. He decides there is no genuine love in the Christian church.

The boy grows up and encounters the Nation of Islam movement and Malcolm X, with their doctrine of a black God. Although he feels the anger of the black movement is justified, he finds himself equally alienated by their hatred of all things white. ‘I love a few people and they love me and some of them are white, and isn’t love more important than colour?’ This leads to a very powerful examination of what equality really means.

People are not terribly anxious to be equal… but they love the idea of being superior…. I am far from convinced that being released from the African witch doctor was worthwhile if I am now – in order to support the moral contradictions and the spiritual aridity of my life – expected to become dependent on the American psychiatrist. It is a bargain I refuse. The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power – and no one holds power forever.

Baldwin sets out the arguments so eloquently that it feels wrong to try and paraphrase them. It is such a brief and powerful piece that I would urge you to read it yourselves. It was previously not that easy to find, though, except in volumes of collected essays by Baldwin, but in 2017 a beautiful new edition was launched and won an award (see cover above). I will just close with a beautiful call to something one might call reconciliation:

In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation – if we are really, that is, to achieve out identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.

Baldwin’s house in St Paul de Vence, France. For more information about the state of the house now and attempts to save it, see this article.

1963 – we are now in 2018, 55 years later. Why is it still so difficult to accept that allowing someone to develop to their full capacity does not take away from any of your own potential? Why do we still have the hunter/gatherers’ mentality of scarce food resources, that if we give away some of our food we will starve? Even when what is often asked of us is not as basic as sharing food, but something like sharing the limelight? Call me naive, but I still think we should unite to save the planet and its weakest souls (animals, children, whatever) rather than fight amongst ourselves.


Weekly Summary of Cultural Events 25 Feb 2018

It hasn’t felt like a quiet week, with so much to catch up on after our short Irish holiday. However, there are only a few things to report on the cultural front.

I forgot to mention that we saw Black Panther while we were in Ireland and were wowed by the beautiful landscapes, costumes and actors and actresses. As an anti-monarchist, I found the macho posturing associated with becoming a king a bit silly, but was delighted that T’Challa was truly great because of all the women surrounding him. There is a ‘Which Black Panther character are you’ quiz doing the rounds at the moment and it didn’t surprise me that I came out as Nakia (although I was secretly hoping for Shuri). As an anthropologist, it was also fascinating to see how they tried to incorporate many different African traditions and cultures in the film, and show the rich diversity of the continent.

I saw another, very different film on Thursday at the Austrian Cultural Forum: Life Guidance by relatively young director Ruth Mader. It is a Black Mirror meets Wim Wenders kind of world, where capitalist consumption has reached its peak. The elite live in immaculate houses decorated mainly in white and beige, the men all wear impeccable suits, the women pastel or white, and everyone is in pursuit of excellence and self-improvement. It is the Communist utopia really (especially when the schoolchildren start singing about ‘fulfilling your full potential’), except it’s capitalist. But when the leading man, Alexander Dworsky, is quite content with his life and doesn’t want to strive to be even better, the private company (outsourced by the government) Life Guidance comes to call to ‘motivate’ him to fit in. This film has just the right level of sinister foreshadowing and is great in concept, but somewhat jerky in execution, with abrupt transitions from one scene to the next, which makes it hard for us to fully sympathise or understand.

In one of the funniest scenes from the film, the businessmen referred to the Life Guidance agency are all learning arts and crafts to develop more holistic skills. As a corporate trainer, this had me in giggling fits.

If you are keen on German language films and other events, the Austrian Cultural Forum offers an excellent selection of free events – and has a little library in its chic Knightsbridge mansion.

A few book acquisitions this week too: Our friends at Alma Press were having a sale on, so I couldn’t resist and bought some much-‘needed’ volumes of Bulgakov: The Diaboliad and Other Stories and Diaries and Selected Letters. Then, since I seemed to be on a Russian binge, I also bought two by Turgenev: A Nest of the Gentry and Fathers and Sons. I was also sent an ARC of Our House by Louise Candlish, which I’ve already read, as it makes a psychologically tense and murderous mockery of divorce and our British obsession with property prices.

Coming up next month, there will be a Women of the World festival at London’s South Bank from March 7th to 11th, including debates, theatre, activism, speed mentoring, workshops and much more.  Meanwhile, the British Film Institute is continuing its in-depth Ingmar Bergman season throughout March. From the 21st of March to the 1st of April BFI Flare will show the best new and classic LGBTQ+ films from around the world. I’ve got my eye on God’s Own Country, a love story between an English farmer and a Romanian migrant worker, starring Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu.