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.

September Reading Summary

Once again, I am jumping the gun a little with my September reading summary, as I don’t think I’ll have time to squeeze anything more in that isn’t intended for next month.

My reading got a little aimless and desultory during September, after a few really good months with very high-quality books. I struggled to really immerse myself in these books, which might explain why I’ve judged them more harshly than usual. There were two that really stood out for me, however, and for very different reasons. Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year was stark, gripping and revelatory, while Alison Anderson’s The Summer Guest was wistful, dreamy and transported me to a better time and place.

On paper, I have read ten books, but two of those were very short indeed: a children’s book (Little Old Mrs Pepperpot, which I’m reading for the #1956Club) and a book of cartoons about the challenges of wearing a hijab in a Western country Yes, I’m Hot in This by Huda Fahmy. So, in reality, I have read eight books, of which two in translation. The Englightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar was interesting in its ‘stories within stories’ structure and truly beautifully written in parts, but rather hard reading in terms of subject matter. Also, I’ve never been a huge fan of magical realism, but I can certainly see the point of it to describe – and make bearable – the atrocities perpetuated here. Book burning, rape, torture, death and ghosts everywhere you look.

I was searching for comfort reads this month above all, but in truth found even the tried and tested categories of crime/suspense fiction a bit hard to click with. Stina Jackson’s The Silver Road seemed to howl with dreary loneliness and isolation. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters had far too many pages about that boring English class system to make up for the few genuine moments of ghostly frisson. Even Doug Johnstone, who’s proved a reliable writer for me in the past, did not quite win me over with A Dark Matter – probably because I was expecting it to be black comedy in the style of Antti Tuomainen. While I enjoyed Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land probably far more than Jonathan Coe’s Middle England as a depiction of current English society (it was stuffed to the gills with sharp, witty observations of gender relations and family tensions), it did all go unnecessarily bonkers towards the end with the murder mystery part of it.

So that leaves Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession, which so many assured me was the perfect sweet, gentle book for these troubled times. I have to admit I was reading it the weekend Barney died, and it was probably the only book I could possibly have read during that time. It was indeed a placid, even-tempered book with decent characters and touching interactions, people being kind and helpful, or at the very least apologising when they get things wrong. A little too sweet for my taste, perhaps, as I was constantly expecting someone to go amok, commit fraud or murder someone, but I liked its humour and the non-judgemental relationship between the two friends. It almost makes you believe in a nicer world – and don’t we all need a hope like that?

So I apologise for my general grumpiness this month. It’s been a very busy one at work, an emotionally gruelling one, an anxious one with the boys going back to school and no seeming respite from grim news worldwide. Next month, with Penelope Fitzgerald and Romain Gary to steady my ship, I hope to have a more pleasant tale to tell.

 

 

Last of the Summer Reading: Summerwater and The Summer Guest

I read two books with summer in their title to ease me into autumn. I’m not quite ready for autumn yet, when I feel I haven’t really had a summer (or at least the nice bits of summer, only the heat). Luckily, we have a few summer days to look forward to this coming week. Both of these books were both fun, but also thoughtful, lyrical, filled with characters I wanted to get to know better,and very evocative in their setting.

Sarah Moss: Summerwater

Sarah Moss is one of the authors I will read without questioning: her work is always interesting and tries to push the boundaries, even if it’s not always 100% successful. This latest book is more in the vein of what one might call the ‘exasperated humour’ of contemporary family life of Night Waking rather than her historical fiction, such as Bodies of Light or Signs for Lost Children. 

A random assortment of families or couples are spending their summer cooped up in log cabins in a Scottish holiday park. Of course it is raining. ‘It can’t keep up like that all day, there can’t be that much water up there’, people are reassuring themselves, but for most of the day it does. The author seems to be having fun finding different ways to describe the relentless, never-ending downpour. ‘Rain is God’s way of stopping Scots having sinful levels of fun’. Or ”the Scottish sky is better at obscenity than any human voice’.

Understandably, tempers are frayed, especially since there is a foreign family having parties until late at night in one of the cabins (they are variously – and carelessly – described as Romanians, Bulgarians, Polish, although in fact they are from the Ukraine, with that typical lack of curiosity about geographical precision that comes from people who would be very miffed if you confused their Yorkshire accent with a Brummie one, or Minnesota with Michigan).

We get to see fitness fanatic Justine, bored of her rather judgemental husband, using running as an excuse to escape the children for a couple of hours and despising anyone who isn’t as driven as she is. Elderly David, a retired doctor, and his wife Mary – the chapter from her point of view, being one of the most moving portrayals of gradual sinking into dementia, grasping at notions and words. Young couple Josh and Milly, who are planning to get married and are doing a test run of domestic life with sex-fuelled days, and some lacklustre cooking and conversation. Lola and Jack, young kids bored with their parents – an overly anxious mother and a father who’s taken his work with him on holiday, so they wander around looking for someone to play with – or bully. A family with utterly fed up teenagers, each embarking on potentially dangerous activities.  A family with even younger children, struggling so much to find ways to keep them entertained that they forget to look after themselves.

There are a lot of amusing and recognisable vignettes of family life, across a range of ages and political beliefs, but I believe the author intends to do more than that. This is designed to be a ‘state of the nation’ novel, albeit on a small scale, and that’s why she also brings in descriptions of nature, of the environment, the climate and how humans link to it, what will stay behind once the humans have left. I accept all that and found it worked for me on the whole, really enjoyed the book most of the way through. But then, for some reason, it seems to stop abruptly, with a sudden dramatic event. It felt too rushed: I’d have liked to hear more from each of the different voices, perhaps their reactions to the event, or some kind of conclusion.

Alison Anderson: The Summer Guest

I’ve known Alison Anderson as a translator from French into English (Muriel Barbery, Le ClĂ©zio, AmĂ©lie Nothomb), but she also speaks excellent Russian, and she uses her knowledge of the country, its literature and culture, to evoke the late 19th century in the Ukraine, as well as the present (the novel was published in 2016 and is set in 2014). In the modern day we have Katya, a London publisher of Russian origin, who is hoping that the recently unearthed diary of Zinaida Lintvaryova will resurrect her fortunes, as well as the translator Ana, who falls in love with Zinaida’s voice and of course with her famous guest.

Who is the famous summer guest? Well, Zinaida kept a diary of the three years in the late 1880s, during which she and her family hosted on their rural estate in north-eastern Ukraine the writer Chekhov and his family for the summer. Zinaida had qualified as a doctor, but had to stop practising, as she was blinded by a fatal illness. Chekhov forms a great bond with her, based partly on their shared profession, but above all on her great listening skills and unsentimental, uncomplaining approach to life. He ends up entrusting her with the manuscript of a novel that he has been trying to write. Ana gets overexcited at the thought that there might be a lost Chekhov novel and that she might be the one to translate it.

Not only do we have lush descriptions of country life and family squabbles, love interests and disappointments, but also what Chekhov describes as ‘living well, inspecting each moment for honesty and fullness and awareness’. I just loved the fascinating discussions about literature and human psychology between Anton Pavlovich (who was just starting to gain fame as a writer at that time) and Zinaida. For instance, this revealing passage about Anna Karenina, in which Chekhov states:

… if we all had Anna’s desperate soul, the world would descend into a chaos of tragedy. That was Tolstoy’s vision for the novel, based on a true incident – so such things do happen. But most often… banality. Which is why I prefer to err on the side of comedy. Otherwise life would be altogether too hard to bear, don’t you think? If love always led to train platforms? All this passion tearing people apart, sending decent women out into the night without so much as a bonnet on their head?

But the present-day story also has its merits, with thoughts on translation and mediating between cultures, and displacement more generally, as well as love and its loss, and even the protests on the Maidan in Kiev in 2014. There is even a bit of a mystery attached to it. Overall, an enchanting, dreamy book, one I wish I’d read much sooner.

 

Most Obscure on My Shelves – the Hardbacks

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

Still on the right-hand side of my home library, I have those fine hardback books or special editions, which are bigger and bolder and more expensive than my usual paperback collections.

Pierre Bourdieu: Outline of a Theory of Practice

Published ages ago in 1972, it was still a required text when I began studying anthropology but has fallen out of favour since, I believe. Yet its chapter on sources of power and ‘Modes of Domination’ still rings true and very prescient. Legitimising the established order is done not just through law, but through education, not just through ideology but also through:

the overt connection between qualifications and jobs as a smokescreen for the connection –  which it records surreptitiously, under cover of formal equality – between the qualifications people obtain and the cultural capital they have inherited.

In other words, meritocracy is fantasy, in a world where the starting positions are already so weighed against certain categories of people. Bourdieu also notes that wealth , the ultimate basis of power, can only exert power durably when it is invested heavily with symbolic capital. The myth of those wonderfully talented bankers who are creating wealth for the nation, which will have a trickle-down effect, for instance.

This probably qualifies for ‘most boring cover’, because of course it is a serious work which cannot deal with such fripperies as design.

Barbara Pym: A Very Private Eye

This is an autobiography in diaries, letters and notebooks written by Barbara Pym., edited by her sister Hilary Pym and her friend Hazel Holt. Pym is one of my favourite English writers of the 20th century, but I knew very little about her life other than that she worked for the International African Institute for many years and had a sardonic view of anthropologists. This book was a present from a dear friend during my time in Cambridge.

Here is a lovely, poignant, feisty quote:

What is wrong with being obsessed with trivia? Some have criticised The Sweet Dove for this. What are the minds of my critics filled with? What nobler and more worthwhile things?

Alison Anderson: The Summer Guest

Alison is a wonderful writer and translator from French, part of the Geneva Writers Group. She has given us the voices of Muriel Barbery, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, Jean-Philippe Blondel, Amelie Nothomb, Anna Gavalda and LeClezio in English. This novel, published in 2016, is inspired by historical events and chronicles a summer in the life of Anton Chekhov and his friendship with a young girl, Zinaida, who is fatally ill. It is also the story of the missing manuscript of a novel that Chekhov is alleged to have written, so moves backwards and forwards in time. So there is a strong literary theme and a translation theme running through it, as well as a meditation on friendship and love which transcends time and place. Perfect summer reading, and I intend to do just that this summer…