Reading Summary Sept 2019

10 books and some excellent ones amongst them this month. I read 4 authors for China in September: the rude and rowdy The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, the fascinating speculative fiction of Maggie Shen King, the disappointing Shanghai Baby and the sophisticated, subtle work of Eileen Chang. The settings were in the east, south-west and north of China, and the authors were as diverse as those regions.

These were all women writers, as were in fact 8 of the 10 authors I read this month. The other four were: Joyce Porter from the 1960s, creator of the obnoxious Inspector Dover and writing a fairly enjoyable (occasionally dated) comic detective fiction genre; Deborah Levy’s excellent memoir The Cost of Living (review to follow); Nicola Barker’s witty reinvention of the novel I Am Sovereign (review to follow); and Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne.

The two male authors I read this month were as different as they could possibly be from each other: the earnest political novel It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (review to follow) and the easy escapism (and night frightener) A Noise Downstairs by Linwood Barclay.

So, after some of the largest countries of the world: US, Russia, Brazil, China, maybe it’s time to tackle a small but diverse country in October. Or at least, diverse in terms of languages, because it’s almost exclusively male authors. It’s Switzerland and Pascale Kramer is the only woman amongst the others: Alex Capus, Pascale Kramer, Jonas Lüscher, Pascal Mercier, Sebastien Meier and Joseph Incardona. Let’s see how many of these I manage to read…

Literary Weeks Are the Best Weeks…

And bookish friends are the best friends… I had a rather lovely week filled with books and literary discussions, just what the doctor ordered: the perfect nourishment to keep my soul from unravelling.

On Tuesday I had another Skype session with my poetry mentor and it is amazing how excited I get about rewriting some poems that I’d set aside because I felt I’d revised them so much that I was sick of them. It took another poet to read them and ask me what I was trying to achieve to actually regain some of that original spark that gave birth to the poem.

Freddie Bruckstein and Susan Curtis, founder of Istros Books.

On Thursday I attended the book launch of The Trap, two novellas by Romanian Jewish author Ludovic Bruckstein, translated by Alastair Ian Blythe. The author’s son, who has been the driving force behind the publication of his father’s literary estate, was there and gave us a very moving account of his father’s life.

Not many people born in that part of Europe can summarise their lives in simple terms. Their choices have been horribly affected by external events.

Freddie Bruckstein

Ludovic grew up in Sighet in North Maramures, just across the street from where Elie Wiesel used to live, but during the Second World War this thriving Jewish community was rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Ludovic discovered he was almost the sole survivor when he returned home after the war. For a while it seemed like he was going to be active and successful in the post-war writing community, with plays written in both Yiddish and Romanian, but he preferred a quieter life in the north of the country rather than becoming an establishment figure in Bucharest. Of course, he was duly expunged from Romanian literary history when he emigrated to Israel in 1972. But the poignant thing is he continued to write in Romanian for the Romanian community in Israel (most of his work was translated into Hebrew as well). I gave my copy of the book to my friend from Geneva days who came to visit me this weekend, and have promptly bought another one for myself. The brief reading we had from the book was absolutely brilliant and the stories really are a stark warning that passivity and political apathy often lead to the same consequences as deliberate malice.

On Friday my friend from Geneva came over to find me after work and we did non-stop literary things all weekend. First, we visited the Writing in Times of Conflict exhibition at Senate House and I discovered that my friend Jenny (a trained actress) had actually played Anne’s mother in a theatrical adaptation of the diaries, and toured with it around Europe.

I could listen to Kathleen Jamie forever…

We then went to the LRB Bookshop to see Kathleen Jamie in conversation with Philip Hoare, talking about her latest collection of essays entitled Surfacing. I’ve had the pleasure of attending a poetry masterclass with Kathleen and have always admired her sincerity and lack of pretension. She told us how she needed to write something to fill in those fallow periods in-between moments of poetic inspiration and for some reason she thought that essays would be easier and more lucrative than poetry (‘and boy, was I ever wrong!’). She also talked about her process, how she never starts out with a theme she can research, but just lets things accrue until she finally detects a pattern right at the end.

What I really appreciate about her writing is that she bears witness to a disappearing world, muses about the connections between past and present (and future) but refuses to romanticise the past or even nature. She doesn’t consider herself a pure nature writer, because it is the collision between humans and nature that she finds most interesting. Furthermore, because she is not as bound by science as archaelogists are, she can use her imagination much more freely to speculate about the lives and emotions of the people whose objects they are unearthing.

We spent a lazy Saturday in Oxford, talking non-stop about writing and reading, having pie and mash in the Covered Market, but unable to visit any of the colleges because of the graduation ceremonies taking place in the Sheldonian. Except Keble College, where I was overjoyed to see a quince tree against the ornate Victorian Gothic background. In the evening, we watched the rather depressing Marianne and Leonard documentary about Leonard Cohen’s Norwegian muse and their life together on the island of Hydra and wondered about the excuses and sacrifices we make for men who are considered geniuses (and not just them).

On Sunday we went to Henley Literary Festival and, although the weather prevented us from taking full advantage of riverside walks, we enjoyed seeing three indomitable women writers talk about why they find family dynamics so fascinating. The writers were:

  1. Harriet Evans, whose inspiration for her latest novel The Garden of Lost and Found came via a strong visual flash of children running down to the bottom of the garden when she heard someone sing the old song ‘The Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden’
  2. Hannah Beckerman, who said she wrote 24 drafts for her novel If Only I Could Tell You, because the characters usually come to her to lie down on a therapy couch and gradually reveal their stories
  3. Janet Ellis, whose second novel How It Was I have on my Kindle but haven’t read yet, said she gets her inspiration when a voice starts plucking at her sleeve and demanding to be heard.
From left to right: Harriet Evans, Hannah Beckerman and Janet Ellis.

There was a great deal of warmth and humour in their interaction, they were almost interviewing each other, or rather, having a delightful literary conversation that we were allowed to witness. One thing that they said really stuck with me: how we assume that older women just fade and vanish from public life or literature, but maybe some of that is by choice. That it is such a relief not to be at the cutting edge anymore, constantly scrutinised, judged by appearance or have every choice analysed. And also what satisfaction it is to have survived things that if anyone had told us in our youth that we would have to endure, we would probably not have believed ourselves capable of enduring.

I was planning not to buy any more books (I’d received quite a few in the post), not even if I could get them signed by the authors – although I was intrigued by the three of them and will certainly borrow their books from the library. But then Jenny took me into the Oxfam bookshop… and, in short, here is the week’s book haul. Alas.

China in September: Chilli Bean Paste and Noisy Families

A Chinese friend once told me: ‘We Chinese families are very noisy, you know.’ and I certainly spotted the contrast between people on streets in China (jostling, laughing, chatting you up) and Japan (carefully respecting the distance – at least, if you are a foreigner). Yan Ge’s The Chilli Bean Past Clan certainly dials up the volume on this story about a dysfunctional family in a small provincial town in Sichuan, a landlocked province in the south-west of China, renowned for its extremely spicy food.

The Xue-Duan family runs a chilli bean paste factory in this town and the main character (known as Dad, because it is his daughter who is telling the story, although it is in fact more like a third person narrative) is a bon viveur, who likes to smoke, eat, drink and mess around with women. He is also foul-mouthed, selfish and not very considerate of the women in his life (his mother Gran, his wife Mum, his mistress Jasmine and his daughter). Yet, despite the comfortable life he has created for himself, he is still envious of his siblings who managed to escape from their humdrum home town and the eagle eyes of their mother.

As the family starts preparing for their matriarch’s 80th birthday, and his siblings return home, Dad’s life gets less and less comfortable and old bitterness and memories start to resurface. By the end of the book, Dad gets a sort of come-uppance and the reader realises just what a sad creature he really is. (Although no doubt some women will feel that he hasn’t been punished enough.)

Interestingly, when the novel was first published in China, many readers were very surprised that the author was a woman, because they felt it was describing all too well the world in which men can get away with anything. Here is what the author has to say about that:

I wrote this book because, as a young female writer, I have encountered many, many men who have behaved in such an ugly way. I can think of many scenarios in my early twenties where, as a writer, I was thrilled — this was great material, it revealed the richness, the unspeakable darkness of human nature — but as a woman, I was absolutely traumatized. People often are surprised that this book is written by a woman. Actually, this book is a traumatized woman wanting to get back at those men by writing a story like this. It is venting, an expression of my anger, a therapeutic experience.

At first I was very angry. But it is important not to hold any moral judgement when you’re writing a novel. When I was writing this book, I passed no judgements on my characters, and I was actually surprised to feel the anger when I reread it. But I think my anger vanished as I wrote on. In the end I truly liked Xue Shengqiang. He is a misogynist, but once you get over it, you can see the other sides of him, his loyalty to his family and friends, his cowardice and kindness. In the end, I reconciled with him.

The book is full of local dialect and slang, so it must have been truly tricky to translate. I’m sure the ‘dude talk’ that the translator Nicky Harman has introduced is probably the closest stylistic approximation of this, but it does sound irritating (and perhaps too Western) at times.

It was fun, operatic, over the top – a sort of soap opera set in a rapidly changing town and society. Not my favourite of the Chinese reads this month (that would be Eileen Chang), but certainly more interesting than Shanghai Baby. One final little tidbit of information: the author now lives in Ireland with her Irish husband and has started writing in English. However, she says she refuses to write about China in English.

Friday Fun: A Romanian Landscape Photographer

Autumn is spectacular in the Romanian mountains and, as if to alleviate my homesickness, I’ve discovered the amazing photographs of the very talented Alex Robciuc. Here are just a few examples, but you can follow all his work on alexrobciuc.wixsite.com/photo or check him out on Facebook. He was the award winner for Romania in the Sony World Photography Awards 2019. No filter required!

The first glimpses of autumn.
Autumnal village in Maramures.
Almost like a toy landscape in Transylvania.
Makes me want to move there immediately…

Rediscovering Montaigne

I say rediscovering, but I doubt that I ever discovered him properly the first time round. I vaguely read his essays in my omnivorous teens, jotted down a few quotes, but probably confused him quite a bit with Montesquieu (well, they both start with M and are roughly categorised as philosophers) and de Tocqueville (I know, no excuses there!).

In 2015 we holidayed in Aquitaine and I kept stumbling across Montaigne in Bordeaux (he was mayor of the city from 1580 to 1585). I borrowed his essays from the library when we returned to our then-home in Prevessin, but once again failed to read them in great depth. I had simply too many other books to review.

Then I recently came across this sort-of-biography of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell. Entitled How to Live: A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer, it is nothing less than a declaration of love for Montaigne the man and the writer, for his tolerant spirit and for not being judgemental (rare during those times of religious wars in France), his openness to new things, his love of the good life but also desire for solitude. Montaigne feels very modern, very akin to us, even to the point where he claims to despise in-depth scholarship.

I leaf through now one book, now another, without order and without plan, by disconnected fragments… If I encounter difficulties in reading, I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there. I do nothing without gaiety.

He also endeared himself to me by preferring his books and travels to family life. Had he been free to choose, he would not have been the marrying kind at all, yet he reached a kind of contentment within it:

Of my own choice, I would have voided marrying Wisdom herself, if she had wanted me. But say what we will, the custom and practice of ordinary life bears us along.

Yet he was by no means a hermit. He enjoyed company and cultivated friendships, highly praised kind-spirited and friendly conversations – about anything, no subject was taboo in his household. He was also one of the first to establish a rapport with animals and think of them as sentient beings.

He is also ahead of his time regarding women: he was very conscious of the double standard used to judge male and female behaviour, and believed that by nature males and females are cast in the same mould.

Women are not wrong at all when they reject the rules of life that have been introduced into the world, inasmuch as it is the men who have made these without them.

Above all, I can relate to his glorious laziness. Looking after his estate was an onerous task, and he was useless around the house because he had other interests. He hated doing the things that bored him – a dereliction of duty which was shocking for his time, but which we can empathise with nowadays.

I stand up well under hard work; but I do so only if I go to it of my own will, and as much as my desire leads me to it… Extremely idle, extremely independent, both by nature and by art.

As Sarah Bakewell notes, he ‘knew there was a price to be paid’ for this unwillingness to be a micro-manager, that people would take advantage of his ignorance. ‘Yet it seemed to him better to lose money occasionally that to waste time tracking every penny and watching his servants’ tiniest movements.’ Of course, this comes from a position of privilege, where he could afford not to track the pennies.

Finally, perhaps his most endearing quality is his acceptance of everything that happens and everything you have done and been. His was not the Christian doctrine of repentance, but nor did he try to airbrush his past. He knew that some of the things he’d done a long time ago no longer made sense to him now, but he is forgiving to himself and to others for their mistakes. We are all made up of what we’ve done throughout our lives and what we’ve learnt from that.

We are all patchwork; and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game… our being is cemented with sickly qualities… Whoever should remove the seeds of these qualities from man would destroy the fundamental conditions of our life.

Yet the author also points out, that for all his individualistic modernity, Montaigne also has much to teach people in the 21st century about moderation, being courteous, that no utopia or fantasist vision of the future can ever justify hurting others in the present or outweigh the tiniest of selves in the real world.

Coincidentally, a French writer friend Lou Sarabadzic has just been busy curating an exhibition about Montaigne at the library Abbé-Grégoire in Blois, as part of her travelling and writing residency there. And I can now understand her passion for this author and wish I’d discussed him with her sooner! If you want to see the author Sarah Bakewell talk about Montaigne, here is the link to a video from the LRB Bookshop.

I will certainly add him to my list of favourite classic French writers : Voltaire and Molière.

China in September: An Excess Male

Maggie Shen King grew up in Taiwan but is now living in the US and writing in English. Nevertheless, since her novel An Excess Male takes place in a 2030 China that has to grapple with the consequences of its one child policy, I thought it was more than appropriate to include her in the China in September reading plans.

This was a really excellent, enjoyable read set in a recognisable near-future, a companion piece in some ways to The Handmaid’s Tale. Labelled as science fiction, I would consider it speculative fiction, the ‘what if’ scenario with the focus far more on the characters and their relationships, the technology only slightly more advanced than what we have nowadays but still chillingly plausible.

The premise itself is simple: China’s long-running one-child policy (revoked since the book was published in 2017), combined with the cultural preference for male heirs, has led to a severe shortage of women in this imagined 2030 scenario. Polyandry is therefore common, with men having to save up for years if not decades for a dowry, but many are left on the sidelines, at the mercy of state intervention. They are allowed to engage in regulated war games to let off any pent-up frustrations, are assigned a Helpmate to engage in monthly (or so) sex, and are periodically checked for sexual cleanliness in the most intrusive manner. They are also regarded with suspicion – could they be Willfully Sterile (i.e. homosexual), which is against the law, or perhaps one of the Lost Boys (introverted personality with no social skills and perhaps some mental health conditions), in which case they should not marry, for fear they might pass on their condition to their children.

Wei-guo is a personal trainer with a touching belief that as long as he continues to work hard, live by the rules and save money, his chance at marriage will come. He’s finally saved up enough money and goes to a matchmaker to find a suitable family – albeit only for the least prestigious of husband roles, namely the third husband (only recently allowed by law). The family he meets is not at all prepossessing at first: Hann, the first husband, is an imposing but cold businessman, the second husband is his younger brother, a taciturn computer specialist and inveterate gamer who wants to be known as XX. Yet Wei-guo feels an instant attraction to the wife May-ling, and even seems to get on well with her boisterous toddler son BeiBei, shunned by everyone at the playground.

However, it turns out this is a family with dangerous secrets. May-ling comes from a family of ‘daughter breeders’, who sell off their prized assets to the highest bidder. So the parents of Hann and XX, who long suspected their sons were not ‘normal’, paid very well to protect them by giving them the semblance of a normal family life. It turns out that Hann is gay and XX is what might be called an incel nowadays, and all of them would be severely punished if the state found out about their true situation. Can they trust Wei-guo to keep their secrets, especially in a state where surveillance is a given and none of your colleagues, friends or neighbours can be trusted?

The first part of this novel – in actual fact, three quarters of it – is all about the gradual burgeoining of the relationships between the four main characters, and is told from their alternating viewpoints. The world-building is subtle, rather than the main focus. Science-fiction or action fans will perhaps be disappointed that the fighting climax and rebellion come very late in the book. But this is precisely what I liked about it: it’s an exploration of the complexities of love, family, sense of belonging, about being allowed to show your true colours. It is also about the claustrophobia of living in a state that so heavily regulates your personal life, which needless to say resonated with me.

A book that throws up many interesting questions, with well-developed characters that I found myself truly caring for. I’m not sure why this hasn’t achieved the same buzz as The Power or The Last, for example, because it is absolutely deserving of it.

Friday Fun: 5 Things to Sing About

It took some deep digging these past two exhausting weeks, but I finally found five things to rejoice about.

On a Poetry Roll

I’ve been working hard at editing and in some cases rewriting my poems. Maybe I’m regaining my groove!

Unexpected Fleabag Treat

A friend of mine couldn’t make it to the NTLive screening of Phoebe Waller Bridge’s Fleabag theatre performance, so I was the lucky recipient of her ticket. I loved the TV series, but I thought the stage show demonstrated the range of her acting talent, as well as her writing talent. She is far more moving, able to switch (you as an audience) from laughter to tears in a few seconds.

A Painting I Thought About for a Year

I visited local artist (and friend of a friend) Inge du Plessis last year at the local art trail and open house. I bought a small portrait of one of my heroines Sophie Scholl, but I couldn’t forget another picture that grabbed my attention that time. It was entitled The Suburbs and reminded me of the books of Richard Yates – the everyday blandness but also darkness and loneliness of life there. This year, I visited again and there were plenty of new paintings, but no sign of The Suburbs. So I asked about it – and it turns out it hadn’t been sold and Inge was thinking of painting over it! Luckily, I rescued it from its ignoble fate and am now the proud owner of it. Taking pictures of painting is very tricky – but I hope you can catch a glimpse of why I fell in love with it.

Discovering Norwich and UEA

I was utterly charmed by the town and the university, despite the grey concrete of the latter. I’m trying not to influence my son, but wouldn’t mind if he went there to study. And, if I do stay in the UK after they leave home, I’m seriously considering moving there!

Iconic architecture, the Ziggurat accommodation seems to be the party hub of the campus.
The Sainsbury’s Centre for Visual Arts is not just a gallery but also Avengers HQ (especially in the earlier films).
Norwich Cathedral is just so beautiful and full of friendly people… and a cathedral cat.
Less Gothic, more Norman – a very interesting interior
Strangers Court, so-called because Norwich provided shelter for refugees from the Low Countries in the 16th century. By the late 1570s, one person in four in Norwich was a refugee who had come into the city within the previous ten years.

Going to the Gym with My Son

My older son and I have signed up with the local gym and are egging each other on. A much-needed break from hunching over books and computers!