When I wrote the August reading summary post, little did I know that September was going to be a month of such considerable changes in my life and reading. It is still early days to fully assess the impact of these changes upon my reading and writing life, but it is clear that my blogging and tweeting will have to take more of a back seat for the time being.
The first major change was that I finally got a full-time job with my professional HR hat, and a much more interesting one than I had dared hope for in this era where immigration law and payroll specialists reign supreme. The job is in Central London, so that adds a couple of hours to my working day. I hope to learn to use my commuting time and lunch hour productively, but it’s still work in progress.
The second piece of extraordinarily good news is that I have been accepted to work as a Marketing Manager for the ambitious and lively international literary journal Asymptote. Since embarking upon my online literary life in 2012, I had always admired the work it does in the field of translations and bringing the world closer together via literature and the arts, but I hadn’t dared to hope that some day I might be involved with it myself. If you haven’t heard of it and if you have any interest in world literature, I would strongly encourage you to take a look. [Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I, now that it’s part of my job!] It includes fiction, poetry, non-fiction, essays, critical reviews, drama and visual arts. It will be challenging to dedicate a few hours each week to this on top of my job, but it will make up for my disappointment in not being able to find a job in publishing. My sanity saver, in a way.
Please remind me I said this when I start complaining I’m going insane with all the work I have to do!
The number of books is not that high but somewhat misleading. I only wrote down one Margaret Millar novel Beast in View, when in actual fact I reread about 5 of them so I could decide which to include in my reassessment of her work for the Crime Fiction Lover’s Classics in September feature.
Other than spending time in the company of the queen of domestic tensions and noir moods, I also read other mostly equally ‘cheerful’ books set in Sardinia, the English countryside, the Bordeaux wine regions, Colombia and Madrid, Bristol, Finland and Australia. A nearly perfect balance this month: 9 books in total, 4 women writers, 5 men, 5 translated.
Margaret Millar: 2 volumes of her complete works in the Syndicate books new edition.
Grazia Deledda: After the Divorce, transl. Susan Ashe – to be reviewed for #EU27Project, even if she was ages before the EU
Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noel Balen: Requiem in Yquem (Winemaker Detective), transl. Sally Pane
Antti Tuomainen: The Man Who Died, transl. David Hackston – review to come on Crime Fiction Lover, noir slapstick with a poignant undercurrent, also to review for #EU27Project
Richard Flanagan: First Person – review to come on Crime Fiction Lover, although this is not a crime fiction novel by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a haunting psychological cat and mouse game
Eshkol Nevo: Three Floors Up, transl. Sondra Silverston – life in a contemporary Tel Aviv apartment block, to be reviewed for Necessary Fiction
As for my Goodreads challenge to read 120 books this year (I deliberately set it lower than usual, knowing that I would be busy with job hunting and possibly work), I have now read 110 of 120, so am on track to complete it possibly this coming month.
Hello, October, welcome – I look forward to all the challenges you might bring!
It must be expensive to maintain manor houses and I’m sure we’ve all got better things to spend our money on, but my heart still cries out for these abandoned beauties. Like gracious old ladies, forgotten by family and friends.
It’s National Poetry Day today and unfortunately I will not have the time to go to either the Poetry Library or the Poetry Cafe. But I wanted to do a quick poll to see who your favourite poets are – if you like poetry at all…
I have far too many favourites, old and new, but my way into poetry is very conventional indeed.
I loved learning poems by heart and reciting them and my first such ‘show’ was Hilaire Belloc’s ‘Matilda told such frightful lies, it made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes’. Then I went through the obligatory Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl and ee cummings (‘anyone lived in a pretty how town…’). I can still recite many of those childhood favourites from memory. And, for some reason, I still remember huge chunks of ‘The Lady of Shalott’ by Tennyson.
Then I discovered the French and German poets (initially somewhat reluctantly, at school): Paul Eluard ‘J’écris ton nom. Liberté.’, Hälfte des Lebens by Hölderlin, Schiller, which led to adolescent exploration and obsession (with Rimbaud and Baudelaire and other bad boys…). In Romania we had to analyse in minute detail the poems of Eminescu, which perhaps led to my feeling I had overdosed on him, especially his epic historical poems, but when I fell in love I could not get enough of the romantic and melodious enchantment of Blaga, Labiș, Nichita Stănescu.
And then I was hooked. But it was the fun children’s poetry which paved the way to John Donne, T. S. Eliot, Rilke, Paul Celan, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Marina Tsvetaeva, Louise Labé and so many more.
I still love reading poetry out loud for the sheer delight of the sound of it, the way it feels in my mouth. I love listening to it, even when I don’t understand the language. It paints pictures in my head.
Sadly, I have lost my ability to instantly remember any poem I hear a couple of times…
So tell me how you discovered poetry? Did you have to learn poems by heart and recite them at school? Did you have to over-analyse them at school, which destroyed any feeling you might have had for them?
Sadly, I have little time to write leisurely reviews, so I thought I’d better write these short impressions, before too much time lapses since I read the books.
Helen Dunmore: Birdcage Walk
Having previously enjoyed Dunmore’s novels and having mourned her death earlier this year, I read her last novel with a rather biased view and excessive attention to detail. The strange, uncomfortable marriage of John Diner and Lizzie Fawkes seems to me to be a metaphor for death, and our own twisted relationship with it: longing for it, fearing it, trying to make sense of it, blinding ourselves deliberately to it at times. Above all, there is the dread of being forgotten, of leaving nothing behind – like the unmarked headstone of John’s first wife or the lost works of Lizzie’s writer mother Julia.
This is a slow-moving novel, far too slow perhaps for many readers. It relies upon gradual building of layer upon layer of atmosphere and characterisation. Sometimes the reader jumps ahead with conclusions (certainly in one scene, if they can read French), but the author won’t be rushed along. I won’t lie: initially it was a book that I returned to willingly but not with particular impatience. By the end, however, I grew to love it and it left me with a sense of uncertain chill but also profound satisfaction. If we slow down to the pace of the narrator, we can more fully appreciate the poetic language and allow ourselves to be fully attuned to the story. I enjoyed the beginning of The Essex Serpent more, but I enjoyed the ending of this one more.
Santiago Gamboa: Return to the Dark Valley (transl. Howard Curtis)
I haven’t read Colombian author Gamboa’s previous novel Night Prayers, where two of the characters in this novel first make their appearance. But the novel stands up very well on its own: if you can accept a rather zany stop-and-start beginning, where we move from one point of view to the next. It’s like putting your eye to an old-fashioned kaleidoscopic tube and waiting for the bright colours to resolve themselves into a pattern, but then they morph into something different. We meet troubled Manuela trying to make her way out of poverty and abuse into a life of poetry and love – and being thoroughly let down along the way. A fastidious consul searching for his beloved Juana, whom he wants to rescue from a life of prostitution. Tertuliano, a fiery Argentinian preacher with pronounced racist tendencies. Last but not least, and somewhat surprisingly, the poet Rimbaud, restless lifelong seeker, a devil with the face of an angel. Somehow, all these stories mingle against a backdrop of terrorists holding hostages in the Irish Embassy in Madrid and a newly prosperous Colombia trying to forget its vicious paramilitary past. This tale of learning how to hate and demand revenge is often surprising and has some memorable scenes set in a rather cruel (and uncomfortably familiar) world. It has conviction, but lacks coherence, to my mind.
Laura Kaye: English Animals
At times satirical, at times sad, this is a fearsome and fierce, but not savage depiction of cultural differences. Mirka is a young Slovakian girl who takes on a job as a housekeeper/trainee taxidermist in an English country home. Her bosses Richard and Sophie are by turns generous, chaotic and self-absorbed. Their marriage is a bit of an unknowable mess and puzzles Mirka, and she gets involved more than she should. Some of the secondary characters are completely outrageous, but Richard and Sophie are more like Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby: ‘careless people, who smash up things and creatures’ – only in this case they hunt and stuff them. It’s the carelessness which grates more than anything. I suspect that if this book had been written by a non-English person, it would have been far more vicious, and perhaps all the worse for it (but perhaps also better for it, it’s hard to know). I’m thinking of A.M. Bakalar’s corrosive depiction of cultural differences in Madame Mephisto.
One week into my new job and daily commute into London and I can say two things with certainty: the job is really interesting and I will be surrounded by lovely people; and the railway service has deteriorated dramatically in the 15 years or so since I last had to commute regularly.
Perhaps a third certainty is that it will be difficult to not deplete my wallet when I have to pass by Waterstone’s Gower Street every day.
The reading time on my commute is a bonus, although it is not quite as long as I had envisaged. It is not uninterrupted time, as I have to change from train to Tube – and in the latter I am so squished, it is often impossible to find a bar to clutch on to and to take out a book. But even in the train, I have found myself using Wifi to check emails and Twitter rather than reading. If I were kind with myself, I would say it’s just to save time and not have to check on these things when I get home to my boys (and because I don’t check them during the day at work).
But the truth is somewhat more complex.
I wonder if all this frantic scrolling down the timeline for a joke, some wit, some precious gem of information is all about searching for something to fill a yearning abyss inside of me that I deny in my moments of strength and dare not measure in my moments of weakness.
Instead of abseiling down the abyss to explore further – too dangerous – or expressing its beautiful unknowability through poetry – too difficult, the chances of succeeding are too slender – I look away from it. I seek to distract myself, or look for someone else who might have expressed it for me. But I am far more likely to find that directly in books rather than mediated via social media. At its worst, I sometimes think Twitter is a lot of noise about art instead of that inner and outer quiet necessary for interacting with the art itself. [I almost said ‘communing with the art’, but that sounds terribly old-fashioned.]
What do you think? Do you feel that social media helps you avoid those complex, potentially unpleasant or dangerous thoughts?