Literature is the only thing lighting up our lives at the moment (and music and art etc.), so of course I am here, even though a little bit late, for that fun monthly meme of Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we start with A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, which I haven’t read but which sounds very interesting, about a Russian count placed under house arrest for seditious beliefs.
Another book about someone under arrest is I Will Never See the World Again by Ahmet Altan, one of the many Turkish writers imprisoned by Erdogan’s oppressive regime. I gather the book was smuggled out of his prison cell, as were his notes to the translators of his historical family saga novel series, of which I’ve read the first Like a Sword Wound.
One book with the word sword in the title that we all read at school in my childhood was The Silver Sword by Ian Seraillier, about a family separated by war and involving a dramatic escape across Europe from Poland into Switzerland.
Switzerland is the common thread linking to the next book by someone I met while I lived in Geneva (but whose book I’d been using long before I met him for intercultural training) Diccon Bewes: Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Honey. Revealing, and often very funny.
The same principle applies to Watching the English by Kate Fox, except that Kate is an anthropologist rather than a journalist, so she tries to analyse certain patterns via surveys and fieldwork rather than just through analysis of media, history and personal observation.
My last link is to another author named Kate, namely Kate Atkinson. My favourite book by her (not that I’ve read them all) is her first: Behind the Scenes at the Museum.
So we had a super-fast tour of Moscow, Turkey, Poland, Switzerland, England and Yorkshire (which sometimes feels like a different country). Where will your links take you this month?
What are you currently reading? I do believe this is my first one this year, a lovely meme to help us catch up with ourselves and others, as hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.
The three Ws are:
What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?
I’ve been meaning to read Anna Burns’ Milkman for quite a while now, and it finally became available at the library. Belfast and Northern Ireland have always intrigued me, especially how ordinary people experienced in their daily lives. I remember a journalist once telling me that cities starting with B seem to have a knack for getting into the news for all the wrong reasons (Beirut, Belgrade, Berlin, Belfast, he meant Bucharest too at the time, although nowadays we might say Brussels).
Just in case that becomes too grim, I’ve got a firm childhood favourite to make me smile, Emil and the Three Twins, a sequel to my beloved Emil and the Detectives, which converted me to crime fiction such a long time ago. Translation by Cyrus Brooks in 1935, so hmmm… hope it’s a good one. I’d have liked to let Anthea Bell loose on it.
Mihail Sebastian’s The Accident – not going to lie: I cannot be objective about this book, because half of it takes place in the mountains where I myself learnt to ski. I know every place that the author describes and I feel the same freedom and happiness when I ski that his protagonist does. And yes, I find the male protagonist is not nearly good enough for Nora, and why should she try to ‘cure’ him of his heartbreak? Still, if you know the background to this book, under what hard circumstances it was written, it is very much about a desperate man trying to believe once more in the goodness of human beings and in the beauty of the world.
On Louise Glück: Change What You See is a collection of essays written about the poetry of this US poet laureate (whom I got to know better via Stanley Kunitz and his poetry), including an interview with her.
Robert Menasse: The Capital, transl. Jamie Bulloch, is a satirical novel about Brussels and the European Commission. Menasse has also written political essays on the topic of Europe, but I gather this is funny, with elements of crime, comedy and philosophy all thrown in for good measure. And a wild pig chase!
Goodness, it’s so much fun to read aimlessly, in complete freedom! Do let me know what you have been up to in terms of reading!
The Romanian holiday has receded in the mists of time, as November proved implacable in terms of work load and ‘fun’ events that involved mainly my older son’s GCSE exams and life after those exams.
All this is the lead-in to explain why my reading has not been hugely varied this month. I managed to finish just 11 books (and others have been dragging on forever). 7 of those were written in English, 8 women authors (well, 7 in fact, for one of those authors featured twice – namely Tana French). I’ve also been very bad about reviewing the books.
Books I Loved
Tana French: Broken Harbour – this was the first book of hers that I read but did not review a few years ago, so this is a reread and it moved me all over again. Possibly my favourite among her books. Those ghost town developments, I wonder if they are beginning to recover as the Dublin property market picks up.
Simone Buchholz: Beton Rouge, transl. Rachel Ward – another writer who takes the crime fiction trope and runs away with it. The crime plays second fiddle to a hugely atmospheric portrayal of Hamburg (and Bavaria), and a cool jazzy riff on language and style.
Books That Surprised Me
Prabda Yoon: Moving Parts – Surreal, fantastical, sly and witty stories from Thailand, with lots of word play and mind games and lateral thinking. An unusual delight, showing us a very contemporary and urban world, far removed from the exoticism we might associate with that country. Must have been sooo tricky to translate – and you can read an interview with the translator Mui Poopoksakul here.
Kathy Acker: Essential Writings – I’d read short bits and pieces by Kathy Acker before, but never a selection of what the editors consider her best stuff. Not sure if it does justice to the variety of her work, but she certainly still has the power to shock, jolt, anger and make you think!
Ahmet Altan: Like a Sword Wound, transl. Brendan Freely & Yelda Turedi – historical family sagas are not my cup of tea, but the initial soap opera quality of the book soon gives way to a fresco of a society, a certain time and way of life, much like the Transylvanian Trilogy. Another great Asymptote Book Club choice, just like the Prabda Yoon.
Books I Wish I Hadn’t Bothered With
Not necessarily bad, but just not as interesting or scary or crime-fictiony or funny as I expected. Sadly, quite a few of them this month, which perhaps put me off reading a bit.
Hanna Jameson: The Last– can’t make up its mind if it’s a mystery or a dystopian novel
Lucy Foley: The Hunting Party – giving all those who went to Oxford Uni a bad name
Tana French: The Wych Elm – a character who just dragged on and on and on
Noel Langley: There’s a Porpoise Close Behind Us – a few chapters of this could have been charming and funny, a whole book was just too much
Louise Penny: Kingdom of the Blind– normally this author can do no wrong in my eyes, but although it was nice to revisit Three Pines, I felt this one was a tad repetitive. Maybe it’s time to move on to another subject, another character.
Eva Menasse; Quasikristalle– good in parts, but not quite as clever or innovative as it tried to be
German Literature Month
I only managed to take part with two reviews (although Simone Buchholz fits in this category as well): Eva Menasse and Fred Uhlman’s Reunion, which I read just on the cusp of November. The latter was certainly far more memorable than the former.
Big Plans for Next Few Months
I’ve let my #EU27Project languish for far too long and there are only a few months until they really do become just 27. I was shocked to discover how many French and German books I’ve read, but how few from other countries. So I’ve used my last bit of money to buy some elusive ones, tracked others down from the library and will be focusing mainly on the 13 (thirteen!!!) countries I still have left to read. I’m still searching for books from Cyprus and Luxembourg, so do let me know if you have any recommendations.
What are you currently reading? A lovely meme to help us catch up with ourselves and others, as hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.
The three Ws are:
What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?
You may know by now that I have several books on the go. I’m still rereading The Master and Margarita, a chapter here and there, because it’s amusing and doesn’t demand much effort when you know it well. I’m also reading The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley as a crime fiction light read in the background (which usually ends up with me finishing it off in a frenzy late at night). But my main current read is Ahmet Altan’s Like a Sword Wound, an Asymptote Book Club title that I am really looking forward to reading, about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire seen through the eyes of a disintegrating family.
I’ve just finished reading Eva Menasse’s Quasikristalle for German Literature Month. It could be described as 13 different perspectives on Xane Molin, and not just from the point of view of family and friends, but also casual acquaintances, landlords and doctors. Each story tells you far more about the narrator than it does about Xane, and yet they all add up to tell you the story of this Viennese woman without destroying her mystery. I’ll be reviewing it in more depth shortly.
Coming up next:
I’ve borrowed these two books from the library, so I’d better get cracking on them soon. First, a series of interviews with and essays by Robert Bly Talking All Morning. The list of contents alone seems fascinating: government support for the arts, universal vs. political art, how poetry is a dream that is shared with others, the masculine vs the feminine in poetry and infantilism and adult swiftness (surrealism and automatic writing and the rational mind). The second book is The Essential Acker, selected writings of American firebrand Kathy Acker, whom I know mostly from literary gossip rather than through reading her work. So, time to change that!
I had to pay a rather absurd amount for overweight luggage, although it was only my suitcase that was 4 kilos overweight, my older son’s suitcase was 4 kilos underweight and my younger son had no suitcase at all. What can I say except: don’t fly TAROM, as they clearly try to rip you off. So what was in my luggage? Of course all the Romanian delicacies that I miss so much when I am back in England: wine, homemade jam and honey, herbs and tea leaves from my mother’s garden, quinces (shame I cannot bring the tasty organic vegetables or cheese or endless array of milk products – kefir, sana, drinkable yoghurt, buttermilk etc.).
And, naturally, I had to bring back some Romanian books and DVDs. Romanian cinema is not very well known but highly respected in a small niche community. I got a recent film Child’s Pose, winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin in 2013, which covers pretty much all the topics that interest me: domineering mothers, generational and class conflict, as well as corruption in present-day Romania. I also got two older films from the 1960s by one of the best Romanian directors, Lucian Pintilie: The Forest of the Hanged based on one of my favourite Romanian novels, and The Reconstruction. The latter was named ‘the best Romanian film of all time’ by the Romanian film critics’ association, although it was forbidden during the Communist period because it turned out to be too much of a commentary on the viciousness of an abusive, authoritarian society.
There are many beautiful bookshops in Romania nowadays, although not all of my pictures came out well. I certainly lived up to my reputation of not being able to enter any bookshop without buying something! Among the things I bought are Fram and Apolodor, a polar bear and a penguin homesick for their native lands, two children’s books I used to adore and which I am very keen to translate into English and promote for the BookTrust reading scheme for diverse children’s literature In Other Words
I succumbed to the lovely hardback edition of Mihail Sebastian’s diary from 1935 to 1944, such a crucial (and sad) time in Romanian history, especially from a Jewish point of view. I got two titles, both family sagas, by female authors that I already know and admire: Ileana Vulpescu and Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu (the latter is sort of our national Virginia Woolf, although not quite as experimental, but she nevertheless dragged Romanian literature into modernity).
I also bought some new contemporary writers to try out: Radu Pavel Gheo – Good Night, Kids about emigration and coming back to the ‘home country’, Lavinia Braniste – Internal Zero, a book about young single women in Romania today, Ioana Parvulescu – Life Starts on a Friday, a historical crime novel or time-travelling story. Last but not least, I sneaked back one of my favourite books from my childhood Follow the Footprints by William Mayne. Nobody else seems to have heard of this book or this writer, although he has been described as one of the ‘outstanding and most original children’s authors of the 20th century’. Sadly, in googling him, I discover that he was also imprisoned for two years in 2004 for sexually abusing young girl fans, so that leaves a bitter taste in my fond childhood memory.
While in Romania, I received a fairly large pile of books back home in the UK to my cat sitter’s surprise, some for review, some I’d previously ordered. So here are the things which came thudding through my letter-box.
I went on a bit of a Murakami Haruki binge following the reading of Killing Commendatore. I suppose because the book was enjoyable but not his best work, I wanted to get my hands on some of my favourites by him that I did not yet own: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Sputnik Sweetheart and South of the Border, West of the Sun. Unrelated, and possibly as a result of some Twitter discussion, I went on a Marian Engel binge – a Canadian author I had heard of, but never read. I had to search hard in second-hand stores but found The Honeyman Festival, Lunatic Villas and Bear (I had heard about this last one, the love story between a woman and a bear, and it sounds absolutely bonkers).
Meanwhile, I decided I needed to up my game with Chinese women authors, so I bought two Shanghai-based stories of illicit passion, Eileen Chang’s Lust, Caution and Wei Hui’s more contemporary Shanghai Baby. I also read an extract from Anna Dostoevsky’s reminiscences about how she met and fell in love with Dostoevsky on Brainpickings, so I ordered a copy of her out-of-print memoir.
I make no bones about being an unabashed fan of Finnish crime writer Antti Tuomainen, but I realised that one of his books was still missing from my shelves – his first to be translated into English (and possibly his darkest) The Healer. And the final, thick tome to make its home on my bedside table is from the Asymptote Book Club. I am very excited to be reading Ahmet Altan’s first book in the Ottoman Quartet – yet another family saga – Like a Sword Wound. Currently imprisoned in Turkey for his alleged involvement in the 2016 coup attempt, Altan (better known in the West as a crusading journalist, but much loved and respected in his homeland for his fiction) is currently working on the final volume of the quartet in prison.
Last, but not least, I also received a copy of Flash Fiction Festival Two, a collection of sixty micro fictions written by participants and presenters from the second Flash Fiction Festival in the UK, which I attended (and loved) in Bristol in July. I am delighted to be there among them with a tale about a kitchen!