WWWednesday 9th May 2018

I only get around to doing it once a month, but here is a lovely meme you might want to take part in, hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! 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 Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.

Currently reading:

Negar Djavadi: Disoriental, transl. Tina Kover

A saga of 20th century Iran seen through the eyes of a young woman who came to France as a child.

… the truth of memory is strange, isn’t it? Our memories select, eliminate, exaggerate, minimize, glorify, denigrate. They create their own versions of events and serve up their own reality. Disparate, but cohesive, Imperfect yet sincere. In any case, my memory is so crammed with stories and lies and languages and illusions, and lives marked by exile and death, death and exile, that I don’t even really know how to untangle the threads anymore.

Just finished:

Olga Tokarczuk: Flights, transl. Jennifer Croft

Not quite a memoir or travel journal, more like a writer’s notebook crammed full of pithy observations, fragments of stories, snatches of ideas waiting to be developed, and beautiful phrases just made to be quoted.

Describing something is like using it – it destroys: the colours wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end what’s been described begins to fade, to disappear. This applies most of all to places. Enormous damage has been done by travel literature… Guidebooks have conclusively ruined the greater part of the planet… they have debilitated places, pinning them down and naming them, blurring their contours.

Next up:

Eliot Pattison: Savage Liberty

This is a book I’ve been sent on Kindle to review, a historical mystery set during the period of the American Revolutionary War. This is the fifth in a series, but I hope to be able to keep track of things. and find some good escapism along the way. The summary is as follows:

After a ship from London explodes in Boston Harbor, Duncan MacCallum, an exiled Scotsman living in Boston, discovers that the ship was deliberately sabotaged by two French agents who stole a secret ledger being sent to the Sons of Liberty. In his attempt to pursue the truth, Duncan winds up falsely charged with treason and murder and is left with no choice but to find the guilty men and the stolen document, in order to clear his name. Historical figures like Samuel Adams and John Hancock show up along the way.  
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Cultural Events Summary 7 May 2018

I’m greatly enjoying the Bank Holiday weekend with my children: a lazy pub lunch, even lazier attempts at gardening, lashings of ice-cream, visitors and BBQs… and the occasional cultural foray.

This was the weekend of Open Artists’ Studios in our area, under the somewhat misleading name of Henley Arts Trail. Misleading, because we never made it as far as Henley, since there are plenty of artists in our more immediate neighbourhood. But a great initiative overall to get to know local artists, of varying quality of course, but something for every taste.

We only made it as far as two venues, but it was inspiring nevertheless. At The Big Plant Nursery near Twyford we saw animal sculptures made out of bronze, metal and recycled kitchen utensils hidden amongst the foliage, as well as the multilayered, large-scaled pointillist paintings of Sarah Pye. I don’t have a wall big enough in my house to hang one of the paintings up, but I got some postcards to remind me of their colourful, tactile exuberance.

Summer Dreams, Copyright Sarah Pye.

The second venue was a private property which had been opened up to the public and for local artists to display their work in an almost purpose-built extension to the rear. It turned out that the owners had previously housed a graphic design agency there but had now retired and were thinking of organising art classes in the future. The combination of gardens, art, sunshine and coffee and cakes was simply irresistible.

Micklems Farm.

I was particularly taken with the stained, fused, slumped and woven glass of John Eastwood. Despite my financial uncertainties, I couldn’t resist the jewellery of Pink Costello either, or the extremely diverse, East Asian-inspired ceramics of Lucie Lambourn. After all, I know how hard it is to make a living as an artist… And, as if to confirm that, I met a couple at a BBQ later that day who were artists – or rather, they had met as artists, but he had given up his jewellery making to become a systems architect and IT specialist, so that he could support his family and their move to the UK.

Ceramic bowl by Lucie Lambourn.

I was also going to tell you about the books I acquired this week, but I think I will prepare a video to post tomorrow. So let me just finish off with another glorious image of the venue. Nothing beats cake by the pool, with a black cat purring nearby and the scent of clematis filling the air like a haze.

Friday Fun extends all the way into Monday…

Friday Fun: Rural Retreats

Now that the weather has finally brightened up, who doesn’t dream of an outdoors lifestyle in a rural area not too deprived of creature comforts? I can imagine long, long dinners and chats with friends in these locations (perhaps a book club?).

Nordic simplicity and views. From Pinterest.
Anything but modest retreat with terrace, also on Pinterest.
Dining at great heights, from Tumblr.
A cosy corner with a purring cat to rest from all the entertaining, from Marie Claude.

 

French stone house and courtyard, from Naigara Novice Blogspot.
The overgrown path to the simple country cottage, from Pinterest.

50 Poems from Five Decades at Southbank Centre

This April the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room on the South Bank reopened at last after extensive renovations.

I arrived there early, after a lovely lunch and chat with a writer friend, Carmen Bugan, who was over from the US for a series of readings and lectures in Oxford and Liverpool. To my delight, in the foyer I got to tap along to school jazz bands taking part in a national competition.

A school band from Manchester.

As part of these celebrations there was a rather fantastic poetry reading: ten poets reading fifty poems offering a picture of roughly 50 years of life in Britain since the original opening of the music and poetry venue in 1967. Over the years poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Seamus Heaney, Anne Sexton, Anne Carson, Sharon Olds and many others have read in this building. And now it was the turn of established poets such as Fleur Adcock (who has translated a lot of poetry from Romanian, so a big thank you to her), Simon Armitage, Malika Booker, Imtiaz Dharker, Lavinia Greenlaw, Peter Finch, as well as relative youngsters, Jay Bernard and Caleb Femi, whose mellifluous readings belied their hard-hitting words and topics. Additional delight: Welsh poet Ifor ap Glyn and Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi reading in their original languages (with translations being projected on the screen behind them).

The poems were mostly on the lighter and more colourful side of the spectrum, capturing certain moments in time (Imtiaz Dharker – ‘1977 (I am quite sure of this’ or Caleb Femi’s ‘Man of the People: Labour 1997 & 2017’) or the colours, sounds and smells of a particular place (Malika Booker’s ‘Brixton Market’ or Peter Finch’s ‘Spending Money in Soviet Russia’, Fleur Adcock’s ‘Summer in Bucharest’). Best of all, I liked seeing the joy in the other poets’ faces when one of them recited a particularly good verse or finish a challenging poem. Love of words bound all of us and a representation of the multicultural Britain I always admired and believed in.

Of course, I forgot to take a picture of the actual poets at the end, bowing. I was far too busy clapping!

 

April Has Ended: Reading Summary

12 books, 8 countries, 5 women writers, 4 translated books – that is the summary for April 2018. It’s been a good month, with only 1 DNF (Brian Aldiss in non sci-fi mode) and no average reads at all! Perhaps I am getting better at picking books, thanks to all the great recommendations I get from your blogs.

I’ve already mentioned five thrilling crime novels that I read in a row and I had another excellent one to add to that list, although I don’t really consider it crime fiction, namely Sébastien Japrisot’s One Deadly Summer, transl. Alan Sheridan. This last one builds tension up gradually but is quite explosive in subject matter and characterisation. The textbook shifts in points of view show us how much more complex everything is than it first appears. A masterclass in slow-burn, simmering, sultry drama, like the land before a thunderstorm.

The other two books in translation I read were Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, transl. Geraldine Harcourt, and Domenico Starnone’s Trick, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri (courtesy of Asymptote Book Club). There are some similarities between the two books: both are narrated by a reasonably self-centred person who is somehow stuck in a groove or on the brink of an abyss and is trying to find themselves again, partly with the help (sometimes with the hindrance) of a child. Of course, in Territory of Light it is a young mother on the cusp of divorce, while in Trick it is an elderly artistic grandfather. Both of these deserve a more detailed review – if I get round to it.

Two other books were at least partially set abroad, although written in English. George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London still sounds uncomfortably current, while Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You sounds like it should be set in the 19th century, but is unfortunately something which can be seen in contemporary India still (and not only there). A well-educated, artistic and academic young woman is seduced by the intellect of a university professor and marries him, but gradually has all ambition, hope and trust crushed out of her through physical and mental violence. He also seeks to justify his brutality through his socialist ideology, which leads to some horrifying yet funny statements. It is a story which has been told before, but the style is original and the emotions raw. I’ve had this book for a long time, since Naomi Frisby recommended it, but it is now shortlisted for the Women’s Prize in Fiction.

The final book also deserves a more extensive review: Elmet by Fiona Mozley, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Perhaps I will have time to do a vlog review soon for those I haven’t reviewed yet.

If you promise not to laugh, I promise to turn a new leaf in May and not leave it so long after reading a book before I review it. Also, to restart the submission game. Also, to revitalise my #EU27Project, as time is running out…

 

April #DavidBowieBookClub: George Orwell

Judging from David Bowie’s list of favourite books, I suspect he was not only a voracious reader but also very interested in issues of social justice and equality. After James Baldwin in February, April’s book club choice was Orwell’s seminal study of poverty Down and Out in Paris and London. A reread for me and one that I very much enjoyed. And yet another reason to love David Bowie.

Unlike more recent works in this area (very much worth reading too: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America or Polly Toynbee’s Hard Work: Life in Low Pay Britain), this is not a journalist going undercover to research poverty, but an actual memoir of a certain period in Orwell’s life, so more similar to Linda Turado’s memoir Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America.

Working as a dishwasher in the Parisian kitchens (the lowest of the low in the hospitality industry hierarchy) to pay his rent, often going hungry, Orwell not only shares his personal story, but also the stories, hopes and disappointments of the people he meets along the way. This compassion and empathy for others shines through in his work, even when we flinch at some of the anti-semitic terms he uses. However, reading more carefully, this appears to reflect the common attitude at the time (he quotes others making these statements, for instance the joke about ‘Trust a snake before you trust a Jew. Trust a Jew before you trust a Greek. And trust any of those before you trust an Armenian’). Perhaps he is presenting these statements as so much rope for those speaking to hang themselves with. Or perhaps it’s just wishful thinking and he was a child of his time, although far more progressive than most.

In the second part of the book, he is living in homeless shelters in London and speaking to tramps, who had previously been misrepresented in literature. Orwell doesn’t make them stock figures of fun or sentimentalise them (the tramp with the heart of gold), like Dickens is prone to do. He does not see himself as superior or more deserving in any way. He gives them dignity and respect by listening to them and by telling their stories, in clear and fresh language that doesn’t sound at all as if it were written nearly 80 years ago.

The comparisons between squalor in Paris and in London are interesting as well: there are similarities but also differences. There are jobs in Paris, but they are exploitative ones with long hours, while in London it seemed easier to end up on the street. The poor were mainly foreign-born in Paris, while the London ones were natives. Of course, that was all about to change.

It is tempting to wonder what Orwell would have written if he had been living today. And to wonder why we don’t have many journalists writing today, willing to listen, understand, write in depth. Or is it that we don’t have people willing to listen and read?

 

 

Latest Book Haul – and One Book Abandoned

Libraries and bookshops are my downfall. Despite the numerous ARCs I receive for review, I cannot resist adding to my TBR pile every time I enter one or the other building containing books. While it’s understandable that I try to save my already quite depleted wallet by going less frequently to bookshops (I’ve managed to reduce it to no more than 1-2 times a week!), I’ve recently changed my policy about library loans. I was trying to be realistic and not borrow more than I could consume in three weeks, but my local librarian told me that if a book hasn’t been on loan for a year, it gets sent down to the basement of gloom known as ‘Reserve Stacks’. After a few years of gathering mould there, they are killed off. [I’m not sure if they get given to charity shops or pulped, everyone seems coy about that.] Besides, PLR are a source of author revenue. So I now borrow books merrily, try to renew them when I can, or return them unread and borrow them later again.

What have I acquired this week?

I bought Kate Briggs’ This Little Art, a long essay about the art of translation, with many revelatory examples. All of the readers of translated literature in my timeline have been raving about this book, and as an occasional dabbler in translation myself, I had to have a personal copy, so I could underline passages of interest.

I finally acquired Sebald’s The Emigrants (transl. Michael Hulse), which (it won’t surprise those long-term readers of my blog to hear) is one of my favourite books. Exile and loss, displacement and nostalgia – yes, please! I should have got it in German of course (yes, I’m still snobbish about preferring to read books in the original where I possibly can), and I probably will at some point when I am next in Germany. The last book I got is not a translation from German but written by a German who emigrated to England. It was an impulse buy: Fred Uhlman’s Reunion. I’d vaguely heard of Uhlman, but have never read anything by him and I am always, always fascinated by stories about the personal experience of the rise of totalitarianism in Germany in the 1930s.

At my local library, I was pleased to find Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, which I have already devoured. The sentences and the landscape and atmosphere are so perfect, I found myself seething with envy on every page. I also picked up Marina Lewycka’s The Lubetkin Legacy, for a comedic change of pace. I’ve read one or two of her novels in the past and enjoyed the voice of the outsider gently mocking life in England. Last but not least, I got A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven, because American dysfunctional families are so much weirder and deadlier and more fun to read about than European ones.

However, I’ve had to abandon one of the books I recently borrowed from the Senate House Library. I am patient and usually give books a good 50-100 page chance before reluctantly putting it aside, and normally the setting of an international conference would appeal to me. But alas, Brian Aldiss starts off his novel Life in the West far too slowly, with details which not only seem irrelevant, but also of horizontally reclining platitude. For example:

By each place was a name card, a microphone, a folder and pencil, a shining drinking glass with a sanitary paper lid, and a bottle of San Pellegrino mineral water still beaded from the refrigerator. Thomas Squire found his name looking up at him, and sat down, laying his briefcase before him… He opened his folder. In it was a ballpoint pen, clipped to a timetable of the sessions of the conference with a list of speakers. Tucked into the pocket of the folder were some foilwrapped perfumed tissues for refreshing the face and hands, and a map of the city of Ermalpa and surroundings, presented by courtesy of the local  tourist board.

As a former conference convenor, this feels to me more like a checklist for event organisers. Would you read any further? This was a serendipitous pick from the library, but hey ho, you can’t win them all.