Friday Fun: Bookshops in Romania

There is a beautiful new bookshop that just opened up last week in the centre of Bucharest, in a recently renovated, gracious old mansion. I’m very excited about this and can hardly wait to go there to ‘visit’ (code word for ‘buy lots of books’).

Bookshop Carturesti Carusel, just opened in the Chrisoveloni House in Bucharest.
Bookshop Carturesti Carusel, just opened in the Chrissoveloni House in Bucharest.
It will be the largest bookshop in the country, extending over 6 floors.
It will be the largest bookshop in the country, extending over 6 floors.
The building was nationalised during Communist times and served as HQ for a bank at one point.
The building was nationalised during Communist times and served as HQ for a bank at one point.

 

 

But there are plenty of other wonderful bookshops round about Bucharest and Romania.

The library in the Institut Francais in Bucharest.
The bookshop in the Institut Francais in Bucharest.
bookaholicHabitus
Habitus bookshop in Sibiu, from bookaholic.ro.
Carturesti bookshop in Brasov.
Carturesti bookshop in Brasov.

Advance warning: there will be a second blog post later on today, for the 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion initiative! It’s not too late: if you want to take part, find out more about it here.

 

Also Read: Dept. of Speculation

OffillJenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation was one of those books that I really expected to like. If I just quote the blurb, you will realise that it sounds exactly like my existentially angsty cup of tea or coffee:

Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage. It is also a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all.

And it is, indeed, beautifully written in parts, certainly thought-provoking, with glimpses of universal recognition. It’s the story of a nameless woman (initially narrating in the first person, then gradually distancing herself to become ‘she’ or ‘the wife’), who dreams of becoming a great writer, but becomes domesticated, married, a mother instead. Maternal love surprises her with its intensity, the pain of being a betrayed wife is ferocious (yet much more civilised and philosophical than the raw cry of abandonment of Elena Ferrante’s heroine). There is something of the tragicomic musings of Jewish introspection of the early Woody Allen movies – or is that just the New York style? A layer of wit to make the pain more bearable. It is a very personal and often funny story of how, little by little, we get snowed under by life’s demands. We compromise and dead-end. In the end, life is made up of these small everyday emergencies such as bedbugs, soul-destroying jobs that pay the rent, a colicky baby, trying to keep up with the organised mothers at school. At some point, however, we stop to ask ourselves: is this what I really want? How did I end up like this? So, in many ways, this book is an extended description of mid-life crisis

There are whole passages that I want to underline or keep in my quotations folders:

My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.

I would give it up for her, everything, the hours alone, the radiant book, the postage stamp in my likeness, but only if she would consent to lie quietly with me until she is eighteen.

Enough already with the terrible hunted eyes of the married people. Did everyone always look this way but she is just now seeing it?

The wife reads about something called ‘the wayward fog’ on the Internet. The one who has the affair becomes enveloped in it. His old life and wife become unbearably irritating. His possible new life seems a shimmering dream… It is during this period that people burn their houses down. At first the flames are beautiful to see. But later when the fog wears off, they come back to find only ashes. ‘What are you reading about?’ the husband asks her from across the room. ‘Weather,’ she tells him.

And yet… and yet…

Much as I admire the courage to experiment in literary fiction (and wish publishers would allow more of these books to reach us readers), I do wonder if a daisy chain or even a string of pearls makes for a satisfying book. I’m probably being too severe here, but, even though there is a narrative arc here, the apparent random clustering of one idea after another just feels slightly lazy to me.

Have you read this book? And what did you make of its style?

 

 

Letter from the Future

I wish I could tell you it’s all sunshine.

But you’d never believe or take joy in that.

You need cloud cover to hide the pockmarks on your path.

 

You should be here.

 

You should see

how all you feared came to pass

 

and you lived anyway.

 

How lessons took too long to be learnt

smarted with salt-rub on blistered skin

then washed in emulsion of sepia tints.

 

You should if you could…

but you wouldn’t and you won’t…

keep your eyes unfocused, looking beyond the prize,

capture all the slapdash details

which add up to a beautiful life.

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Over at dVerse Poets Pub tonight, we are imagining receiving a letter or poem from our future self. What will we know/have learnt/be willing to share? What does the future look like?

Holiday Reading (and Snowy Pictures)

A rather unusual Monday post for me – as I’ve just come back from completely offline holidays, so have had no time to plan or prepare a thorough post. My ‘What got you hooked’ feature will have to wait until next week, and my more in-depth, ‘impeccably researched’ reviews (at least to my mind, although I inevitably think of the best things AFTER I publish the review) will appear later during the course of this week. Children’s additional week of holidays permitting.

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It was great to disconnect completely and to worry only about physical things. Will I be warm enough? Have I forgotten any goggles, gloves, boots, socks, hood, ski-helmets? Will my knees hold out for a full day’s skiing? Can I bear to carry those heavy skis a step further? And I promise you: there is nothing better than the sound of silence when you are the first down a piste, when you can feel the cold air on your face and hear the swoosh-swoosh of your skis turning in the fresh snow.

 

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There may not have been an open fireplace in the evening to savour a hot chocolate with a dash of Chartreuse (the local speciality)… but turning in early in the evening and reading in bed was equally delightful.

My reading matter could hardly have contrasted more with the view outside. I was reading Eva Dolan’s two novels about present-day Peterborough, rife with poverty, immigration problems, prostitution and crime. Eva deftly describes a small town overcome by its social problems, and the resulting picture is grim, dark, with few glimmers of hope. Perhaps best read when you can look up from the page and see a sunny landscape, where the shadows are only picturesque.

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You may think this sounds similar to J.K. Rowling’s ‘The Casual Vacancy’, which has just been adapted for TV. But it’s far better than that. First of all, both of Dolan’s books are proper crime novels, with suspense, pacing, mystery and enough twisty turns to keep any fan busy guessing. Secondly, they are pitch-perfect in describing the difficult social mix in present-day England: the tensions between the older and newer waves of immigrants; the anxiety about the overburdening of the social services, schools and hospitals; blatant and hidden xenophobia, as well as an increasingly nasty discourse about the undeserving poor and scroungers. It expresses all the fears that are beginning to haunt those of us who have not been born in the UK but have come there because of its reputation for tolerance and fair-mindedness.

tellNoTalesYet the immigrants described by Dolan are by no means all angels or innocent victims. Horrendous things happen to some of them (especially in the first novel ‘The Long Way Home’, which looks at unscrupulous companies employing foreign workers in inhumane conditions). But fear, distrust of the police force, misplaced national loyalties and the sheer desperation of survival makes them all act in dangerous ways, often not helping themselves at all in the process. So the characters are complex and flawed, and their views of the English are often quite funny (and not very complimentary).

The two investigating detectives are fascinating characters as well. Zigic was born and bred in England, but is of Croatian descent. He is usually the rational voice of the enquiry, patient, compassionate, a man sensitive to psychological and cultural nuances. And happily married, even though he wishes his wife weren’t quite so keen on an upwardly mobile lifestyle. His partner is the volatile, sparky Mel Ferreira, who came to the UK aged seven and whose Portuguese family run a pub in the local area. She relies heavily on gut instinct, is quick to flare up and take offence, yet it’s impossible not to fall in love a little with her ardent desire for social justice.

 

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But what I love best about Dolan’s books is the depth of her writing. A multitude of voices – often voices that are never heard in English fiction – are present here. Every sentence is rich with nuance, with multiple layers of meaning. It’s like hearing a complex piece of music with many instruments, after the rather monotonous strumming of simple bands.

One small descriptive passage is enough to set up all the background and contrasts of Peterborough: the cathedral town visited by tourists and the rather more scummy underbelly.

There were pop-up stores selling cheap clothes and pound shops all with the same plastic tat outside them, four different gold-cashing places which would have been based in council flats in Bretton a couple of years ago. Now they were respectable, or near enough, fences with business cards and backstreet accountants, legitimised by austerity.

She turned into the Wheelyard, a few morning drinkers sheltering under the budding cherry blossoms ont he corner, then turned along a cobbled alleyway into the cathedral precincts, high stone walls rising above her, spackled with moss and noxious yellow lichen. A loud woman with a Home Counties accent was leading a group of tourists across the cathedral green…

DolanLongThese two books should be required reading for those who laugh at UKIP and other nationalist parties, believing that they could never come to power today. They should also be read by those who fear the unknown and who find themselves sympathising with hard-core immigration policies. They are not comfort reads, but extremely thought-provoking and realistic, in their unsettling depth and refusal to find easy, neat solutions.

In the last two years, there are only a handful of writers I encountered on the page for the first time got me so excited with their perfect blend of subject matter and style: Stav Sherez, Denise Mina, Louise Penny. Now I can add Eva Dolan to this group. And one more gratuitous picture to remind me of the perfect downhill descent.

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Sometimes You Gotta Bend the Rules…

I’ve had such good intentions for this TBR Double Dare challenge and have a whole pile of books lined up on my night-table, ready to be read (not to mention my tablet).

But something always comes up and sidetracks me. I blame mostly myself and my inability to turn down a book. But the following institutions or websites or people or publishers are also partly responsible. Yes, I’m naming and shaming them. And no, they do not pay me for the publicity, but I feel they deserve it when they go above and beyond the call of duty.

Dolan1) Eva Dolan: Tell No Tales

Eva Dolan was once a fellow reviewer at Crime Fiction Lover and I always enjoyed her book recommendations (or at least hotly debated them with her). She was going to send me her well-received first novel, but somehow publicists got mixed up, it ended up in the wrong place, others were keen to get their paws on it… so I bought it myself on Kindle. When the second one came out, she was adamant that this time I would get a review copy. As time passed and there were still no signs of it being sent to me, Eva took matters into her own capable hands and posted one to me herself, with a lovely note. And, bless her, I haven’t even got around to reading the first one yet! So of course I’m leaving everything else to one side and will be binge-reading her two books these upcoming holidays.

Will I be slightly biased? You bet! But her topics of immigration and grittiness sound just up my street…

Hardisty2) Paul Hardisty: The Abrupt Physics of Dying

Some publishers are just so tireless on behalf of their authors that they carry you along with them on the crest of their enthusiasm. Karen Sullivan is such a woman. Previously a managing editor at Arcadia, where she introduced me to Tore Renberg, Jaume Cabre, Dominique Manotti and Domingo Villar, she left the company in 2014 to set up her own publishing house Orenda, following a strategic review which led to a severely slashed 2015 list of books at Arcadia. With a particular fondness for crime thrillers and literature in translation, Karen is a warm, loud and personable defender of each and every one of her titles, and she is great at building a loyal following of book bloggers and reviewers. She sent me a copy of this book, even though I warned her that I would not be able to participate in a blog tour at this moment in time. I may keep this one to read in April, but it looks like an interesting eco-thriller meets big business meets international action (and frighteningly plausible).

3) Charlotte Otter: Balthasar’s Gift

This book was reviewed over at Smithereen’s blog . This is a blog I’ve enjoyed for a couple of years now and, since the author lives in France too, we’ve exchanged a few personal messages. So I mentioned that it looked interesting and, hey presto, she kindly sent a copy to me, saying that she had got two by accident. Such a lovely gesture – and just goes to show what good friendships we can build online. Another one that I will leave until April/May, though!

Camille4) Pierre Lemaitre: Camille

I’ve reviewed both of Lemaitre’s previous novels and interviewed the author for Crime Fiction Lover, so it’s not surprising that the publisher Quercus automatically sent me the final volume in the trilogy. I am really looking forward to this one. I have a weakness for this author: he always manages to surprise me: a consummate storyteller, despite his rather graphic content. I also really enjoyed his WW1 novel. So this one will be read and reviewed before the end of February.

5) Michel Bussi: After the Crash

Michel Bussi is a huge bestseller in France, but I’d never read any of his books. However, when I heard that he would be published for the first time in English by Orion Books in March, and would I like to take a look at this book and perhaps interview the author, how could I refuse? Strictly speaking, it doesn’t count for my TBR challenge, as it’s a review (i.e. ‘work’) book. And besides, I’m always a fan of translated fiction, especially French fiction, especially crime fiction. I’m currently reading this and will review it by the end of February on Crime Fiction Lover.

6) Netgalley and Book Bloggers:

Yes, I apportion the blame equally: on book bloggers such as Lonesome Reader and Crime Reader Blog for making these books sound so enticing, and on Netgalley for making it so easy to access these latest releases. So now I have added SJ Watson’s Second Life and Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go to my TBR pile…

One of my local libraries.
One of my local libraries.

7) Library:

How dare these village libraries stock so many tempting titles, both in French and in English? They have no business enticing me through their doorway under the pretext of returning the children’s books and then whacking me over the head with irresistible stuff such as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian or Karim Miské’s Arab Jazz. Both books dispell the myth of successful racial and cultural integration (at least on a larger societal level, rather than the individual one) – and they do it with wit, verve and sadness.

 

 

Friday Fun: Fitting Books into Awkward Spaces

You know my motto: there’s always room for a bookshelf or three. But what if your home simply refuses to cooperate? Fear not, the Bookshelf Doctor is here with some imaginative solutions for all those awkward spaces!

www.buddingbibliophiles.com
http://www.buddingbibliophiles.com

Oversized staircase getting you down (or up, as the case may be)? Rather than keeping your vacuum cleaner and spare suitcases in there, make it a book haven. Some of those ornaments may just have to go, though.

www.dezeen.com
http://www.dezeen.com

Narrow hallway threatening to close you in? Stuff your boots and brollies under the bench, then sit down and enjoy your wall-to-wall covering of books and magazines.

From Westwing.com
From Westwing.com

Need a decorative item for the living room, to disguise your book-binging habits? Make it look effortless and minimalistic with this floating shelf.

www.theenglishroom.com
http://www.theenglishroom.com

Oddly-shaped space between windows? Don’t hide it! Draw attention to it with a vividly-coloured bookshelf and a picture of the villa of your dreams.

From Huffington Post.
From Huffington Post.

Living in an old manor house with beams? Try…

Nah, if you live in this manor house and have matchy-matchy book covers, you can probably afford to have a custom-made bookshelf built for you.

Happy weekend reading, everyone, and see you after I come back from here.

www.igluski.com
http://www.igluski.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Euphoria of Anthropology

euphoriaThis is a long overdue review of Lily King’s ‘Euphoria’, a novel based on the life and loves of Margaret Mead and her two anthropologist husbands, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson. It is also a life-lesson for me: don’t leave it too long before you review a book you liked, just because you think you’ll be able to write something wiser, wittier, more in-depth about it.

You won’t. And you’ll have forgotten most of the reasons why you loved it in the first place.

Margaret Mead’s autobiography ‘Blackberry Winter’ is one of the reasons I decided to become an anthropologist. She was one of the superstars of anthropology and, no matter how much subsequent debate there has been about her conclusions, no one doubts her passion and unabashed curiosity for other people and cultures.  Outspoken and candid in most personal matters, she is nevertheless coy about the few months she spent in what must have been a tense relationship triangle with Bateson and Fortune in 1933 in New Guinea. I was somewhat worried that Lily King would romanticise and sensationalise the situation to the detriment of the real people and the anthropology. Would I love a book that reimagined my childhood heroes beyond all recognition?

But love it I did, although I struggled to find my bearings in the opening chapter. Who is doing the observing and the talking? The woman is not named at first, and there are two other women to add to the confusion. Are these characters heading out or coming back? Perhaps this is a deliberate construct, to give the reader an example of what it is like for an anthropologist going into an unknown culture, where none of the usual rules or landmarks make sense.

After that, however, the narrative settled down, and the action is perceived largely through the eyes of Andrew Bankson (the Bateson character), including what he imagines Nell Stone’s (the Margaret Mead character) life in the field to be like, interspersed with extracts from her diary. The rather repulsive husband Fen (the Fortune character) is only ever described by these two main protagonists, so does not get his say. He appears to be struggling to make a lasting impression in anthropology, is envious of his wife’s fame and constantly belittles her work ethic. ‘Got your Novel Prize yet, Nellie?’ he asks whenever she receives her long-delayed mail, and hurts her in rather symbolic ways (damaging her glasses, her typewriter, her body).

Bateson, Mead and Fortune in 1933. Library of Congress.
Bateson, Mead and Fortune in 1933. Library of Congress.

Atlhough the author imagines a completely different resolution to the story of this explosive trio, I was surprised how closely she stuck to some of the biographical elements. The characteristics of the tribes they visited are accurately described; the Ruth Benedict and Franz Boas mentor characters reappear as Helen and  himself respectively. Bateson was indeed as much affected by the death of his two older brothers as the fictional Bankson is in the book.

The four-fold scheme of cultural ‘temperaments’ were indeed formulated by Margaret and Bateson at the time, based on the manuscript of Benedict’s work ‘Patterns of Culture’, which they received in the field. Although this theoretical model has since been discredited (partly because of the misuse the Nazis made of such models), King does a great job of describing the excitement, the beauty of frenzy, which overcomes researchers when they think they might be on the brink of a great discovery. This is the ‘euphoria’ of the title, although it is also described elsewhere in the book as the moment, typically two months into fieldwork, when a culture suddenly begins to make sense.

It’s a delusion — you’ve only been there eight weeks — and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.

Another aspect of the novel which I enjoyed was the implied contemporary reassessment of the way anthropology was conducted back in the 1930s. Although they mean well, there is an unspoken ‘white man’ arrogance about the way in which the researchers descend upon a village with all of their belongings, rope people into building a treehouse for them, attempt to impose a schedule on them for interviews and observations etc.

The balance between love affair and professional fulfillment is just about right. The author manages to make anthropology – or perhaps just intellectual quest for excellence and meaning – sexy, despite the flies, the malaria, the self-doubts and the lack of plumbing.

lilykingThe ending, however, diverges sharply from the real life stories – and the love story between Nell and Andrew is perhaps all the more beautiful for it. Back in the real world, Bateson married his princess, and they did do some successful fieldwork together in Bali and they had a daughter (who also became an anthropologist). However, they got divorced ten years later and their grand unifying construct of cultural patterns amounted to nothing.

Fiction! It trumps reality every single time.