What we salvage from the debris…

A long, long time ago, back in December 2014, I struggled to think of positives for a year that I thought was a particular low for me. How I laugh now at my innocence! Because, in the intervening years, my personal challenges grew and grew, while the world also seemed determined to go through one major crisis after another.

There are years that ask questions and years that answer‘, Zora Neale Hurston said once. 2020 has once again been the questioning kind: Are you focusing on the right things? If you were to die tomorrow, what would you leave behind? Is this how you want to be remembered? Tick tock!

So let me start by reminding myself of all the ways in which I’ve been fortunate this year. My children have managed to stay healthy, in spite of the start/infect/ stop/isolate/start again rhythm of schools this past term and the impact it might have on exams. But you know what, life and careers depend on so many things other than exams! They have learnt to be careful and think about others, they have been helpful and sweet… and only occasionally made me lose my temper. I asked them to give me Christmas presents that didn’t involve money but some care and thought, so the younger one baked a cake of my choice, while the older one created a symphony of lights for me in the living room.

I think I might leave this up until March…

My parents are safe, in spite of their age and underlying conditions and the huge distance separating us. Even my mother’s pointed arrows have stopped hitting their target as I get more sentimental at the thought that I might lose them.

I’ve kept my job, although universities are in dire financial straits and are asking for voluntary redundancies. I’ve been able to work from home, which seems particularly sweet when I get the occasional notification about train delays or cancellations on my phone. Even though the hours I’ve gained from commuting seem to have been lost to more and more work.

So no, I have not written King Lear, or baked my own bread, or learnt a foreign language or even worked out every day, but I’ve certainly not had a minute’s boredom either.

At our traditional Christmas party for my local writing group (a Zoom pub crawl this year, obviously), we typically reflect on the past year and see whether we’ve achieved our writing goals. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I had done most of the things I had set out for myself.

  1. Submitting more: 25 submissions, of which 19 rejections, 2 acceptances and the rest in limbo.
  2. Invest in self – allow myself time and space to write. I was going to go on a writing retreat or two, but of course they got cancelled. However, I attended a few workshops, which really helped to kickstart my writing. And I started a daily accountability system with a writing buddy, we are now on Day 202!
  3. Start editing the novel. Yes, and loving it!
  4. Put together the poetry collection. Done – and have been sending it out to a few competitions.
  5. Start publishing company: launch three books in the first year, including my first full-length translation. Well, see below…

We started Corylus Books in one of the worst possible years for independent publishing. Despite no festivals, no big names, no budget, no distributor, we’ve managed to publish four books in our first year, while relying solely on word of mouth recommendations and reviews from those wonderful, blessed people known as book bloggers. A huge, huge thanks to you all! I am delighted to say that both Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu, which I translated from Romanian in a few feverish weeks at the start of 2020, and The Fox by Solveig Pálsdóttir, translated by Quentin Bates, have been praised and incorporated into ‘best of the year’ lists by connoisseurs of crime fiction such as Ian Rankin, Barry Forshaw, Sonja van der Westhuizen, Paul Burke, Ewa Sherman and Crime Fiction Lover.

I am as proud of the authors, readers and reviewers as if they were my family and can only hope that 2021, with its additional Brexit red tape and costs, will not prove to be our downfall. I hope Corylus can continue to focus on bringing good crime books from new authors from lesser-known European languages to the English-speaking world.

At the same time, I have to admit that I am anxious and exhausted, and that this year, on top of so many previous difficult years, has knocked the stuffing out of me a little. But that’s probably true for pretty much all of us, other than the entitled, privileged few who can’t or won’t or don’t need to face reality.

I’ve missed all the plays and exibitions, the literary events and crime festivals, the meeting up with friends, proper holidays somewhere further than thirty minutes away from my front door. These were the things that kept me going and gave me hope for the past six years, but were sadly absent this year. Luckily I’ve found some comfort in books, films and two beautiful cats, at least for a while. I’ve missed having a grown-up nearby to hug and talk to, although I’ve caught up with dear friends from all over the world on Zoom. But I’ve managed to sleep reasonably OK, haven’t had to go back on anti-depressants, haven’t been drinking every single day and have even chosen exercise over hibernation on many occasions. So I call that a HUGE win!

Some of my friends and their relatives have not been so lucky, so I hope that your year has been a reasonable one under the circumstances, and wish with all my heart that 2021 is much gentler, kinder and more hopeful.

December Reading and Films

Just because I’ve written my annual summary doesn’t mean that December gets neglected. Although it was busier than I would have liked until the 18th, after that I went on holiday, so had more time to dedicate to reading, writing, family and watching films or TV series. Here is a little round-up of the month.

Reading

Poster for the 2009 Russian TV series of the Brothers Karamazov

This was my Russians in December month. Of course, given the verbosity of some of those Russians, it ended up being nothing more than Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island (which was an eye-opener and which I cannot recommend highly enough as piece of investigative and anthropological writing) and The Brothers Karamazov (in the translation of Ignat Avsey). I’m halfway through the latter and enjoying it far more than I ever did on previous attempts, so this might be the time I actually get to finish it (by the time 31st of December, 23:59 comes along). Review (or rather, random thoughts and jotting in the margins) to follow in the New Year.

Alongside these chunksters, I felt I had to keep things short and reasonably cheerful and/or escapist. For example, I have interspersed these serious reads with easy and reasonably forgettable crime fiction, which I chose mainly because of their settings, like Ruth Ware’s One By One (skiing in the French Alps) or Robert Thorogood’s The Marlow Murder Club (set in the village where my son goes to school – his school gets a mention in the book too). Two other crime novels proved to be a lot more thought-provoking than I had expected, so were enjoyable in a different way: Riku Onda’s The Aosawa Murders (which I’ve already mentioned several times, so you’re probably sick to death of it) and John Vercher’s Three Fifths, which addresses a real moral dilemma about race and friendship, family and crime in the United States.

Oddly enough, the remaining two books have been described as crime novels, but are in fact about middle-aged men going back to either the places they grew up in (Urs Faes’ Twelve Nights) or to a privileged way of life and setting they thought they had left behind (John le Carré’s A Murder of Quality – set in a public school rather similar to Eton or Sherborne, which the author hated). Both books are full of wistfulness and yearning, for what might have been, for the people we did not marry and, above all, the people we did not become.

The last two books of the month are ones that I am skimming through rather than reading. The first is The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly (not because I don’t enjoy it, but because there is no time to finish reading it before the Virtual Crime Book Club tonight). The second is Amanda Craig’s The Golden Rule, which sounded intriguing as a premise – a fun exploration of current social affairs in the UK via a Strangers on the Train scenario – but in practice is a bit plodding and clichéed, and somehow unable to make up its mind if it’s a romance or a satire or a crime novel or a thriller or a social novel… And this from a reader like me who likes genre transgressions!

So eight books in total, if we don’t include the skimmed ones, of which four in translation (two Russians).

Films

With the boys spending the first week of the holidays with me, we got to watch quite a lot of films. 12 films and 2 TV series (or parts of the latter) so far, and I expect to squeeze in a couple more until New Year’s Eve. The first TV series was Season 1 of Succession, which is a great mockery of rich people, and particularly a dysfunctional Rupert Murdoch type family. The other is The West Wing, which I’ve finally embarked upon rewatching with my boys. I think they were not that enamoured with it for the first two episodes, but then they started getting caught up in the banter and political intrigues. Even though it feels at times quaint in its old-fashioned optimism (which has been sucked out of us after the Trump administration), what I like is the highly intelligent, witty, challenging yet also supportive banter among its main characters. I’ve had the pleasure of being surrounded by some such people in a few educational or work settings, and it’s a wonderful thing to experience at least temporarily. We may stop after the first three seasons, though, which are the best.

Half of the films this month were Japanese, I noticed with some surprise. I suppose I get more and more ‘homesick’ for Japanese culture every passing year, and with Christmas making me nostalgic in general, three of those were animes. But not quite the reassuring, sweet kind. Studio Ghibli’s Porco Rosso finally made me realise why they called themselves Ghibli and is an homage to the early aviators, but we also watched two non-Ghibli animations. Made in Abyss (we had started watching the anime series, but this was a standalone film) was much darker than I had expected, about experimenting on children. Meanwhile, Your Name was a teen love story with darker sting in its tail, of destruction of a town (always top of mind in a country prone to earthquakes, typhoons and tsunamis, although in this case it is destroyed by a meteorite), of tradition versus modernity, and missed opportunities.

Of the adult films, there were two Kurosawas that I rewatched and really enjoyed their blending of Japanese samurai traditions with a gentle mockery of cowboy films: Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai. I can understand though why my sons thought they were overlong and that there were not sufficient differentiating features between the various samurai. The last Japanese film I watched on my own, since it was a horror flick: Cure by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira). Not a jump scare or gory horror thriller – more of a gradual ratcheting up of tension and disquiet, with the most menacing small talk I’ve ever seen.

Quite a few of the films were Christmas rewatches, films I’ve seen so often they’ve become part of my personal fabric: Some Like It Hot (probably my favourite comedy), Singin’ in the Rain, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Kind Hearts and Coronets. One of the rewatches was less successful: I had previously only seen Citizen Kane as a child and was not that impressed, but at that time all of the nuances and political commentary were lost on me, so I decided to watch it now. Although it was good, sharp and witty, I feel that calling it the ‘best film of all time’ might be overstating things (but don’t ask me which one I would put in its place).

The final film I watched this month was The Death of Stalin, which I had never watched before. I am torn about this film. Although I found much of the black humour and over-the-top dramatic posturing hilarious, and although we used plenty of such humour to help us cope with the fear and disgust of Communist dictatorship, it nevertheless felt wrong to laugh at things that have caused so much terror and heartbreak to so many people. It is too close to me personally and to people I know. Plus, Kruschev (played with aplomb by Steve Buscemi) was certainly not quite the almost reasonable guy they make him out to be – only the least insane and cruel out of a really bad lot.

Writing

Happy to report that I’ve gone back to daily writing practice (even if it’s only 15 minutes in my diary or a blog post). This is not necessarily because I believe it’s indispensable for writing a novel, but because it makes me feel I have accomplished something on even the busiest, dreariest of days.

The even happier news is that I’ve gone back to my first novel. I found a whole treasure trove of handwritten and printed materials, notes, calendars, inspirational pictures, discarded chapters etc. So I have plenty to work with and am really excited about spending time with those characters once more and exploring their world.

This is the Balea Lake Chalet, up at 2000 metres in the Fagaras mountains. It plays a crucial role in my novel. From CabanaBaleaLac.ro

Annual Summary: Contemporary Writing

This post was going to be named Contemporary Fiction, but I actually had a very good year of reading poetry and non-fiction, so I wanted to include those, and didn’t know if I (or you) would have the patience for separate blog posts for every single category. So these are books published recently (not just this year, but in the past few years), some of them have been reissued or have only just been translated. There are 59 books that would fit in this category out of my total of 127, so roughly half of the books I read. A higher proportion than I expected, driven partly by my desire to help small independent publishers and bookshops in this difficult year.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Here are the ones that stayed with me:

Fiction

Aoko Matsuda: Where the Wild Ladies Are – a clever, ferocious, fun subversion of Japanese ghost stories and folk tales, made all the more interesting by getting a chance to hear the translator Polly Barton talk about it at the Borderless Book Club organised by Peirene after lockdown in March

Lucia Berlin: A Manual for Cleaning Women – another short story collection with a wry look at the gender gap (I seemed to find short stories more accessible and suitable for my attention span, particularly during the first lockdown). Although these stories were written during the 1950s and 60s, they have been collected and reissued recently… and still have a lot to say about today’s world.

Ludovic Bruckstein: The Trap – two novellas about life as a Jew in the increasingly intolerant Romanian society of the 1930s (and the Second World War) – fascinating initially because of its subject matter, the writing turned out to be truly evocative of its time and place, with a dry, dark sense of humour

Nino Haratischwili (or Haratishvili): The Eighth Life – a mammoth of a family saga, which captivated even me, a reluctant convert to the family saga genre, always balancing between the personal and the historical, the well-trodden and the barely known.

Maggie O’Farrell: Hamnet – this book was a case of right time, right subject matter for me, not just as a Shakespeare fan, but also because I read it at a time when I was so worried about the health of my own children; perhaps slightly over-written, but with moments of real beauty, lyricism and psychological depth.

Olga Tokarczuk: Drive Your Plow… – so clever, such a beguiling voice, a great insight into a person, a way of life and a rural society, both tragic and comic all at once

Sarah Waters: Fingersmith – finally understood what all the fuss was about, just could NOT stop reading this thrilling example of master storytelling; sadly, was not quite as enamoured of the other books by the author that I then borrowed post-haste from the library

Mieko Kawakami: Breasts and Eggs – a strange novel, composed of two parts that don’t really have much to do with each other, and yet I loved the way it explored women, bodies, sisterhood, families and the meaning of parenthood in contemporary Japan

Fernanda Melchor: Hurricane Season – one of the most breathlessly enthralling and difficult stories I’ve read this year or perhaps in any other year, with voices that will leave you shattered – one of those life-changing books

Alison Anderson: The Summer Guest – by way of contrast, a gentle, subtle, utterly charming book about an exceptional man and author, Chekhov – a fictional account of his summers in the Ukraine

Poetry

I read a lot of poetry this year, but as usual haven’t reviewed much. The two that I have reviewed, however, both shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award – and one the winner of this award – were truly unforgettable: Jay Bernard’s Surge and Sean Hewitt: Tongues of Fire. But this year I also discovered Jericho Brown, Safiya Sinclair, Caroline Bird, Dahlia Ravikovitch, Nina Boutsikaris and a new translation of Cavafy by Evan Jones, so it’s been an excellent year.

Non-Fiction

Deborah Orr: Motherwell – not just a family history – and the gap between generations – but also the history of a community, which helped me to understand a lot more about the UK and its working class history

Francesca Wade: Square Haunting – reminded me of just how much I loved certain women authors and introduced me to a couple of new women to admire – a thoughtful recreation of a period and women’s aspiration to be independent of thought (and financially too, if possible). Perhaps forced together into the Mecklenburgh Square concept, but it worked for me and I really regret not writing a proper review of it

Beth Ann Fennelly: Heating and Cooling – micro-memoirs, witty, charming, sharp-tongued, experimental – a delight that I discovered thanks to the recommendation of Anne-Marie Fyfe, whose poetry workshop was one of the last things I was able to attend live in 2020

Kate Briggs: This Little Art – an absolute must for literary translators, but for all readers, this is both an insight into the science and art of translation, and throws up all sorts of knotty problems for debate – another of those ‘life-changing’ books, especially since I just started being a literary translator this year.

Annual Summary: Classic Reads

This year I felt the need to find comfort in the classics, some of them new, some of them rereads, and some classics I had previously attempted and abandoned. My definition of classics is quite broad, so you will find both 19th and 20th century books in here, and from all countries. 28 of my 127 books were classics of some description (29 if you count The Karamazov Brothers, which I’m currently reading and hope to finish by the start of January), and 17 of those will be mentioned below – which just goes to show that the ‘success rate’ is much higher with the classics.

Ueda Akinari: Ugetsu Monogatari – it’s been a pleasure reacquainting myself with these very Japanese ghost stories, even though some of them made me furious at the classist and sexist assumptions of the time.

Marghanita Laski: Little Boy Lost – utterly heartbreaking and very thoughtful story of parenthood but also a moving portrait of post-war France, one of my favourite Persephones so far

Thomas Bernhard: Woodcutters – I sometimes find Bernhard a bit much to take in, too grumpy, but this book is so good at poking holes in the Viennese literary and artistic pretentiousness, that I laughed nearly all the way through

Henry James: The American – one of the few James that I’d never read, an earlier one, and much lighter, frothier and funnier than I remembered him

Machado de Assis: Dom Casmurro – another grumpy old man reminiscing about his life, like Bernhard, and another tragicomic masterpiece

Shirley Hazzard: The Bay of Noon – another portrait of a post-war European city, and a strange little love story, full of subtle, skilled observations

Elizabeth von Arnim: The Caravaners – if ever there was a book to distract you from lockdown, this is the one. Hilarious, sarcastic, and reminding you that a bad holiday is worse than no holiday at all!

Dorothy Canfield Fisher: The Home-Maker – an ingenious role reversal story from Persephone, thought-provoking and surprisingly modern

Barbellion: Journal of a Disappointed Man – courtesy of Backlisted Podcast, I reacquainted myself with this diary of a complex character, struggling to be courageous, often self-pitying, and usually ferociously funny

Marlen Haushofer: The Wall – simply blew me away – again, perfect novel about and for solitary confinement

Teffi: Subtly Worded – ranging from the sublime to the absurd, from angry to sarcastic to lyrical, tackling all subjects and different cultures, a great collection of journalistic and fictional pieces

Defoe: Journal of the Plague Year – such frightening parallels to the present-day – a great work of what one might call creative non-fiction

Romain Gary: Les Racines du ciel – not just for those passionate about elephants or conservationism, this is the story of delusions and idealism, colonialism and crushed dreams, appropriation of stories and people for your own purposes

Penelope Fitzgerald: The Gate of Angels – both very funny and yet with an underlying sense of seriousness, of wonder – and of course set in my beloved Cambridge

Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front – even more heartbreaking when you reread it at this age

Liviu Rebreanu: The Forest of the Hanged – Dostoevsky meets Remarque meets Wilfred Owen, a book which never fails to send shivers down my spine

Anton Chekhov: Sakhalin Island – possibly the greatest revelation of the year, alongside Defoe. Stunning, engaged writing, and so much compassion.

What strikes me looking at all of the above is how many of these books that I naturally gravitated towards this year are all about showing compassion and helping others, about the bond with the natural world, about not allowing yourself to despair at the horrors that human beings bring upon themselves. I’ve been thinking about that mysterious gate in the wall of the college, and how it opened at just the right time – and that’s what all these books have allowed me to do. They’ve provided me with the perfect escape and encouragement whenever I needed them most. If you’ve missed my crime fiction round-up, it is here. I will also do a contemporary fiction round-up after Boxing Day.

I wish all of you who celebrate Christmas as happy a time as possible under the circumstances. I’ll be back before the start of the New Year with some further reading and film summaries, but until then, stay safe and healthy, all my love from me to you!

Annual Summary: Crime Fiction

I have so many annual round-ups and best of lists to share with you, that I’m planning to divide them up by subject matter and bore you to death with posts from now until the New Year! The first topic is Crime Fiction. I have read probably somewhat less crime than in previous years: only 40 of the 127 books I read this year were crime fiction, so somewhat less than a third, while in previous years it would have been more like half. The following titles were particularly appealing and/or memorable.

Simone Buchholz: Mexico Street: Romeo and Juliet against the backdrop of immigrant communities and hardnosed port towns like Hamburg and Bremen, with Buchholz’s unmistakable witty yet also lyrical style.

Elizabeth George: A Banquet of Consequences – I was utterly absorbed by the book while reading it, but can no longer remember a single thing about it now. Don’t know if that says things about how long this year has felt (I read it in February), or about my memory, or about the book itself. I am giving George the benefit of the doubt in memory of the good old days when I adored her work.

Chris Whitaker: We Begin at the End – very intense and moving, more of a character study (and description of a location and a way of life) than a standard procedural. Duchess is firmly in my heart, a truly memorable creation.

Rosamund Lupton: Three Hours – one of our Virtual Crime Book Club reads, this was a heart-stopping, heart-racing race against the clock set against a backdrop of a school shooting.

Barbara Nadel: Incorruptible – a reunion with my old friends Ikmen and Suleyman, and an interesting story of Catholic vs. Muslim heritage in an increasingly totalitarian Turkish state

Eva Dolan: Between Two Evils – another ecstatic reunion with one my favourite recent crime authors and her uncompromising look at contemporary British society

Abir Mukherjee: A Rising Man – an excellent incursion into historical fiction, learning so much about the British Empire in India, another Virtual Crime Club read

Riku Onda: The Aosawa Murders – unusual, puzzling, thought-provoking, my favourite Japanese crime novel of the year

John Vercher: Three Fifths – more of a psychological thriller and moral dilemma, an indictment of perception of race in the US, in equal measure poignant and infuriating

If I was really pushed to give a gold medal to any of the above for this year, I’d say The Aosawa Murders, and here is the Japanese cover of it (in the original, the title is Eugenia).

Above all, I want to thank Rebecca Bradley and her Virtual Crime Book Club for getting me to read sub-genres and books that I might not normally have discovered on my own.

#SakhalinIsland: The Humanity of Chekhov

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know and appreciate Chekhov. We had an actress family friend who performed in The Seagull, so I saw that at a very tender age. I then went through a spell of imagining myself performing in each one of his plays. Of course, I also appreciated his short stories and I knew some biographical details about his life as a doctor and how he supported his family.

I didn’t, however, realise the full extent of his compassion and humanitarian commitment, until I read his non-fiction book Sakhalin Island as part of a #ChekhovTogether readalong with Yelena Furman, Alok Ranjan, Todd, Elisabeth van der Meer and Herb Randall. This also fits in with my Russians in December reading plan. The next one I’ll be tackling will be The Brothers Karamazov, the only Dostoevsky that I’ve not been able to read so far.

Nobody is quite sure why Chekhov at the age of thirty decided to go on a lengthy trip to the penal colony of Sakhalin in 1890. He was not really a militant journalist and he did not go there in any official capacity as a health expert either, yet the book is both a triumph of social (and medical) anthropology and a remarkable piece of investigative journalism. It almost certainly accelerated the progression of his tuberculosis and robbed him of a few months of life, but it was perhaps partly motivated by the recent death of his brother and the fact that he had recently been diagnosed himself with the same dreaded disease.

What Chekhov has given us here is a clear-eyed, empathetic but by no means sentimental account of daily life in the colony, based on his own statistical and qualitative research. As an anthropologist, you can imagine how much I enjoyed this combination of the general and the very specific examples and personal stories. According to Sakhalin officials, Chekhov possessed a remarkable gift for gaining the prisoners’ confidence. It’s equally undeniable that he was moved (and shocked) by what he saw there, so he continued to study documents about Sakhalin’s history, particularly under the Russian administration, and made recommendations for improving living and working conditions for both convicts and settlers (most often composed of freed exiles). The Tsarist bureaucratic machine obviously feared too much negative publicity and therefore assigned ‘helpers’ to him as he went about his interviewing (under the pretext of census-taking). Chekhov himself was aware of the danger of seeing only what he was allowed to see and described it as ‘seeing everything but missing the elephant’. He sought to be balanced and thoughtful in his approach, but he was quite critical both about the system (and its policies):

It seemed to me that I was seeing the extreme and utmost degree of human degradation, lower than which it is simply impossible to go…

Penalties which humiliate and embitter a criminal, long since acknowledged as injurious to the free population, have been retained for convicts, as if a population of exiles is in less danger of becoming hardened and embittered.

And about the people who implement the policies on the ground: the prison wardens, governors and officials in Sakhalin:

In the labour camps served people who were unscrupulous, unsqueamish, difficult to get on with, to whom it was all the same where they served, as long as they could eat, drink, sleep and play cards.

He really would have made a terrific, empathetic anthropologist. He describes the native populations of the islands as well – or what remained of them – the Gilyaks and the Ainu, and is not complimentary about the way they have been treated by either the Japanese or the Russians in this disputed territory:

General K told me that he wished to Russify the Gilyaks. Why this should be necessary I do not know… proximity to a prison will not Russify, but only totally corrupt…

After claiming that the Russians freed the Ainu from the quasi-serfdom they suffered under the Japanese, he then describes at some length the brutalisation of the Ainu by Cossack Lt. Chorny, who boasts: ‘That’s how we do things in Russia!’

Unsurprisingly, Chekhov is not only able to see the monstrous behaviour in people placed in positions of power, but he is always able to view with compassion the weaknesses of marginalised people, or those labelled by society as ‘monsters’.

I was told that at one time there had been benches standing on the path to the lighthouse, but they had been forced to take them away because, while out strolling, the convicts and settled exiles had written on them and had carved with their knives filthy lampoons and all sorts of obscenities. There are a lot of free lovers of this so-called “wall literature” too, but, in penal servitude, the cynicism surpasses all limits and absolutely no comparison may be made with it. Here, not only benches and the walls of backyards, but even the love letters, are revolting. It is remarkable that a man will write and carve various abominations on a bench while at the same time he is feeling lost, abandoned and profoundly unhappy.

Given the rather grim subject matter, I wasn’t expecting much humour in this book, but there are plenty of wry asides, especially about the inclement weather and unforgiving landscape:

What they say about Sakhalin is that there is no climate here, just bad weather… most inclement spot in Russia… When Nature created Sakhalin the last thing she had in mind was mankind and his benefit.

Yet there are also instances when the writer in Chekhov seems to be awestruck and inspired by the endless solitude:

All around there is not a single living soul, not a bird, not a fly, and it is beyond comprehension who the waves are roaring for, who listens to them at nights here… who they would roar for when I was gone..

Sadly, I understand this remote landscape is no longer quite so pristine, but echoing constantly to the drills of oil and gas companies, both on land and offshore.

Sakhalin-2 Offshore, Gasprom/Shell.

I read this book in a beautiful edition from Alma Classics, with a new translation by Brian Reeve, invaluable annotations/endnotes by both the author and the translator, and further enhanced by the presence of related documents, such as impressions of his trip through Siberia, as well as letters to relatives and friends.

Friday Fun: Fireplaces and Christmas

There is something a bit samey about Christmas decorations especially in the English-speaking world in the northern hemisphere. But I might allow myself to be converted if there is a fireplace. I can imagine myself sitting in front of it and reading all the lovely new books I have bought for myself for Christmas (and the rest of the year).

Plenty of warmth and reading by candlelight in this Ideal Home picture.
American Christmas ideas, from Good Housekeeping.
That bench in front of the fire would be ideal for dividing up the books into piles, don’t you think? From Grandin Road.
A move away from the traditional colour scheme, the wood panelling adds some cosiness despite the lack of a rug. From Veranda.
Finally a household that understands a good reading chair is a must in front of a roaring fire. From Christmas.365greetings.com

Friday Fun: Cosy Backgrounds

Now that the nights are drawing in and I’m hibernating in the house with no chance of going skiing (I am not overly fond of going running in the rain), I’ve noticed that all my Teams and Zoom meeting backgrounds are starting to look remarkably chalet-like. So here are some cosy rooms with fireplaces that my colleagues almost started envying…

The white tulips make you think of spring, but the open fireplace says Christmas stockings to me. From OneKinDesign.com
Isn’t that leather chaiselongue just made for reading? From cabinlife.com
In summer I like it bright and airy, but there’s nothing like some glowing fire and candlelight in the dark in winter. From BrotherTedd.com
This rustic one is for rent on location-france.fr, with or without guitars.
The grandest and least cosy, but I’m sure there is a fireplace in there somewhere – and the view! From OneKinDesign.com

Japanese Crime Fiction: The Aosawa Murders

The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda, transl. Alison Watts (Bitter Lemon Press)

I ‘accidentally’ borrowed this book from the library just before the second lockdown (i.e. it jumped into my arms from the ‘new acquisitions’ shelf when I went to the library to pick up my reserved books), and I have to return it soon, so I cannot wait until January in Japan to review it. All I can tell you is that it’s a really interesting, really fascinating read and I want to recommend it to everyone who has even a passing interest in Japan.

It is a very Japanese approach to crime and guilt, in that the focus is more on psychology and different (conflicting) versions of the story, rather than pure detection. I am thinking of books such as those by Natsuo Kirino or Kanae Minato with their tortured, twisted protagonists, but even the more ‘conventional’ police procedurals of Keigo Higashino, Tetsuya Honda or Hideo Yokoyama have elements of long-held grudges or unusual (one might almost say supernatural) coincidences. And of course we have the classic Rashomon to remind us to never take stories at their face value, that the truth may always elude us. If you are comfortable with ambiguity, with not quite being able to make up your mind what the definitive answer to the puzzle is, then this is the book for you.

The Aosawas are a wealthy family, owners of a local hospital which is located within their large villa in a coastal town in Japan. On a hot summer day in the 1970s they are celebrating three family birthdays but the joyful event turns to tragedy when 17 members of the family and servants die from poison in drinks which had been delivered to their house supposedly from a doctor in another town. There are only two survivors: the housekeeper who only touched a drop of the drink and was severely ill as a result, and the blind daughter of the house Hisako.

Although the prime suspect (the man who delivered the drinks) committed suicide, and the case was closed, there are many people connected to the case who are not satisfied with this so-called admission of guilt. Eleven years after the events, one of the people somewhat connected to the family publishes a bestselling book about the tragedy (although it doesn’t seem to point the finger of blame at anybody specifically). Thirty years after the murders, the case is investigated once more, this time unofficially by one of the people who read the bestselling book and who is now re-interviewing survivors and witnesses.

Each chapter is told from a different point of view, most of them in interview style, but some of them are chapters from the book or excerpts from police files. Some of the characters seem quite tangential to the story (the son of the owner of the neighbourhood stationery shop, for example, or the editor of the bestselling book), but each story adds another layer of complexity. At the time of reading, you may not realise the significance of certain scenes or descriptions or words, but at the end of the book, you go back and reread certain passages and things seem much clearer.

I was entranced with how different each of the chapters was stylistically. No danger of getting confused because all of the narrative voices sound ‘samey’. I can imagine the gender, regional and educational differences would be even more marked in the original Japanese, so the translator did an excellent job of managing to convey that with more limited resources available in English.

The book was originally published in Japan in 2006 under the name Eugenia, and the author won the Mystery Writers of Japan Award for it. Riku Onda is a prolific and prize-winning author in Japan, with many film and TV adaptations of her work. She has written a few other ‘crime’ style books, and also across many other genres, including speculative and literary fiction. I hope the success of this book in English means that more of her work will become available to those of us who cannot read Japanese.

#6Degrees of Separation: From Judy Blume to…

I was too busy to take part in this favourite bookish thread last month but am delighted to be back now. Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best nudges us into position every month with a ‘starter book for ten’ and we link it one by one to another six books. Everyone’s chain is very different, and I think it’s fascinating to see how our minds work!

This month’s starter is Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume, an author whose books we would surreptitiously pass from one girl to another under the desks in class, while we were supposed to be reading A Tale of Two Cities or something equally respectable. We were a British international school, as opposed to the American International school that was our main rival in town. But we did have quite a few American pupils and they introduced us to Judy Blume.

Another book that I distinctly remember discovering at that school, although this time it was officially part of the curriculum in our German class, was a short story collection by Swiss writer Peter Bichsel. The poignant, surreal story A Table Is a Table impressed me so much that I have never forgotten it. It’s all about loneliness, being misunderstood, not finding a common language to communicate, or dementia, or all sorts of things that children may not really understand at a conscious level, but instinctively grasp with their heart. You can read it here in Lydia Davis’ translation.

I have to admit to my shame that for the longest time I mixed up Lydia Davis with Lindsey Davis, whose novels of crime and mayhem set in Imperial Rome and featuring informer Marcus Didius Falco I discovered and loved so much in my early twenties. I chanced upon them in my library, so The Iron Hand of Mars was the first one I read, although it is the fourth or fifth in the series chronologically.

Mars is the link to the next book, namely Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. Again, a book I devoured in my youth – with the Cold War at its demented peak, it all seemed more than a little plausible at the time.

Of course, the most obvious author describing the Cold War period is John Le Carré and I’m particularly fond of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, which captures perfectly the constant paranoia, distrust and sheer danger of East Germany and the world of espionage during the period just after the Berlin Wall went up.

A book set in Berlin (but at a very different point in time – party town Berlin in 2008) sits patiently waiting on my shelves to be read: French writer Oscar Coop-Phane’s Tomorrow Berlin, transl. George Miller.

Of course, if I were to make the last link in the chain any one of the hundreds of unread books in my library, that would be far too open a field. So instead I will focus on another book that I have in English rather than in the original language, although I can read the original language. It is Nostalgia by Mircea Cartarescu, transl. Julian Semilian, which will be published by Penguin Classics in 2021 (and who kindly sent me an ARC).

So quite a variety of genres and locations this month: YA set in the US, Swiss short stories, historical crime fiction in Ancient Rome, science fiction on Mars, spy thriller in Berlin and London, youth drug and club culture in Berlin and Paris, and experimental literary fiction set in Romania.

Where will your literary connections take you this month?