Incoming Books and Their Sources (5)

December was a month of book acquisition frenzy – as if I had to buy up everything before the shops closed for one or two days on Christmas Day. (Well, I knew no one was going to buy books for me as a present, and I was right!) I was planning to calm down in the New Year, but a couple of things have slipped through the net since. Plus all of you horrendously well-read bloggers tempt with various tidbits which are sometimes available at the local library… My book trolley is groaning under the weight. But the time has now come to put all of these new books in their rightful place on my shelves, so that they can patiently wait to be read.

The Turgenev Hangover

After reading my first novel by Turgenev as part of my Russians in the Snow, I wanted to explore more by this writer, so I got one of his earlier and one of his later books. Not necessarily the ones people recommended on Twitter, but the ones that sounded most appealing to me from the blurb (dangerous strategy, I know!).

The Brophy Bunch

A few days before Christmas, just as I started my holidays, Brigid Brophy’s daughter Kate Levey tweeted a little quiz about Brophy’s novels and life. My results were pretty woeful so I thought I should remedy that by reading two of her novels which come highly recommended: Jacqui liked both of them but it was her review of The King of a Rainy Country which made me choose that one, while Melissa was very pleasantly surprised by her first encounter with Brophy in Flesh.

My Hometown Buddies

As I was reading some German-language reviews of Marlen Haushofer, I came across the comment that she will always appeal to a niche audience, rather like Ilse Aichinger and Gerhard Fritsch, and will never have the acclaim (or controversy) of fellow Austrian writers Thomas Bernhard or Peter Handke or Elfriede Jelinek or Ingeborg Bachmann. I had read Aichinger before, but not much of Fritsch (who committed suicide at quite a young age). Plus, both of them are Viennese, so I consider them my ‘local’ people. As for Erich Kästner, he lived for a while in the city I hope to move to in the future, Berlin, but I came across his journal Notabene 45 about Germany during the dying days of WW2 and straight after in a review in the daily Viennese newsletter to which I subscribe – so again a connection to the city of my childhood.

Zoe approves of this book, clearly.

I was having a conversation with one of my colleagues at work, who is of Nigerian descent but has lived in a very white middle-class neighbourhood in London and gone to a grammer school in Kent. She recommended this book The Scramble for Africa to me, which she read to understand a bit more about her own background. I have always been fascinated by the way the great powers carved up a continent for its riches, not unlike Eastern Europe, I suppose, being at the mercy of constantly shifting borders and alliances.

Still in Africa

I attended a LRB session with the Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah being interviewed by Kamila Shamsie, after I very much enjoyed reading his novel Admiring Silence. So I was delighted to order a signed copy of his latest novel, After Lives, as well as finding a second-hand copy of his By the Sea.

The review copies, much loved by Zoe

Lola Lafon trained to be a dancer for quite a while, as well as spending a good portion of her childhood in Romania, so I have a bit of an affinity for her work. I am therefore really pleased that Europa Editions have sent me the ARC for her latest novel to be translated into English, Reeling (which does have a ballet theme). Meanwhile, Fum d’Estampa has a new book of short fiction out by Catalan author Bel Olid, while Canongate has a quirky Korean novel about a sixty-five year old female contract killer entitled The Old Woman with the Knife.

Vlogger’s Delight

The two books above (in this slightly shaky picture) winged their way towards me after hearing Liv Hooper, bookseller and one of my favourite bookish YouTubers, talk about them. Little Scratch is experimental fiction about an averag day in the life of an average woman, while The Least We Can Do is a manifesto about inclusivity and ethics, freedom of speech and moral discourse in the bookselling and publishing industry.

Rumer has it…

There was so much love for Rumer Godden from quite a range of bloggers in the past few years, especially HeavenAli, Harriet Devine and Fiction Fan, while Peter Leyland on Twitter said how much he had enjoyed listening to a radio adaptation of The Battle of Villa Fiorita, so I thought I’d expand my horizons beyond The Greengage Summer and The Black Narcissus. I’ve already read Villa Fiorita, which was good, but much sadder than I expected.

The American contingent

After the death of bell hooks, I just had to remind myself of her inspiring work, while various bloggers are to blame for the other temptations: Kaggsy was responsible for Gentleman Overboard, a neglected and strange little book; Guy Savage assured me I would love The Husbands; and I think I got Shelter after reading an interview with the author Jung Yun about her latest novel O Beautiful, which sounded less interesting to me.

The library books

I am now fully invested in the Brontë Sisters mystery series, so I got the latest (third one) from the library and am more than halfway through. For Your Own Good is our next Virtual Crime Book Club read, so I hope to finish it by the 31st of January, when we have our next meeting (I just picked it up today). As for The Appeal, yes, I admit, I succumbed to all the buzz about this and Janice Hallett’s even more recent one, The Twyford Code. It had better not be a disappointment, or I will blast all of my Twitterati!

Incoming Books and Their Sources (4)

I didn’t think I acquired lots of books this month, but surprise, surprise, it’s still quite a chunky pile!

Zoe seems quite smitten with my latest pile of books in the TBR trolley. Some of the others mentioned are in e-book format.

Yorkshire-inspired reading

Bella Ellis: The Vanished Bride and The Diabolical Bones. Bella Ellis is the pen name for Rowan Coleman – a series of murdery mysteries featuring the Bronte sisters – I had never heard of this series before, but it was a must after visiting the Parsonage. – discovered in the charming Wave of Nostalgia shop on Haworth Main Street, with its theme of ‘strong women’. The third volume has just come out: Rowan Coleman was at the shop recently to sign the book, but I thought I should start at the beginning. I’ve already devoured the first one and could of course imagine every room in the house and the surrounding landscape.

E.C.R. Lorac: These Names Make Clues – a present from the lovely Janet Emson, when we met at Sculpture Park, already done and dusted, short review to follow.

Margaret Kennedy: The Feast This one was actually inspired by a review from Jacqui, but it fits in well with an idea I had for a crime novel featuring disparate guests arriving for various reasons at a Buddhist retreat centre in Yorkshire (which might bear some coincidental similarities to the Christian retreat centre I stayed at).

Inspired by other readers

Shirley Hazzard: The Evening of the Holiday American author Lily King said in a recent article on LitHub that ‘one of the greatest loves of my life has been the short novel The Evening of the Holiday by Shirley Hazzard. I have kept a copy of it on the desk where I write for more than twenty-five years. I reach for it when I am stuck, scared, or bored, when I am at loose ends or bound up tight. I raise it like a sacred text, let it fall open where it will.’ It doesn’t take much to persuade me to pick up a Shirley Hazzard book, since I identify strongly with her wandering lifestyle and cross-cultural observations, but this ringing endorsement activated my trigger-happy finger instantly (I found a second-hand copy of it).

Abir Mukherjee: A Necessary Evil I read the first in this wonderful series set in Raj-era India for the Virtual Crime Book Club and then found another (out of order) at the library). Then other books came along and jostled for priority, but a recent review of Mukherjee’s latest by Mary Picken made me want to go back to it and attempt a bit of a chronological order (which is more important in historical fiction than in other crime series), so I borrowed this second one in the series from the library. Short review to follow soon, but highly recommended.

Annamarie Jagose: In Translation You can blame Lisa Hill from ANZ Lit Lovers blog once again for this hard-to-find book. A translator of Japanese literature, a love triangle and a potential fraud: could this book be any more me than that?? It is out of print (dates from 1994), but I managed to find it second-hand.

Inspired by Twitter

Alberto Prunetti: Down and Out in England and Italy An obvious reference to Orwell’s account of precarious work in Paris and London, I became aware of this book thanks to tweets by Tanya Shadrick and the Working Class Festival. The gig economy is so prevalent nowadays, so a very timely read.

Cristina A. Bejan: Intellectuals and Fascism in Interwar Romania. I’ve been following Cristina for a while on Twitter, she is a poet and an academic of Romanian origin, now living in the US. When I saw that her research into the interwar period in Romania (which some see as the ‘golden age of intellectuals and literature’) had been published, I instantly asked her to send me a copy, which she kindly signed for me. It features the world of Mihail Sebastian and his ‘friends’ – need I say more?

Joanna Cannon: A Tidy Ending. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep was possibly one of the first books I downloaded from Netgalley back in 2015/16, but I didn’t get to read it until this year (and quite enjoyed it). I also like following the exploits of Joanna and her lovely, goofy German Shepherd Lewis on Twitter, so when I heard she has a new book out and read the blurb, I wanted to read it. I hope it’s not going to be mediocre psychological thriller territory – there have been far too many of those in recent years, they’ve all blended into mush in my mind.

Polly Atkin: Recovering Dorothy I met Polly on a poetry writing retreat in Wales a few years ago and have been following her work ever since. She has been very busy despite lockdown and other issues, and she has recently published not only a new collection of poetry but also a book examining Dorothy Wordsworth’s legacy (despite struggling with poor health and looking after her brother).

Inspired by literary festivals

Natasha Brown and Claudia Rankine discussing their work with Alex Clark.

Claudia Rankine: Just Us

Natasha Brown: Assembly

Although I felt pretty run-down and ill over the weekend (thank you, older son, for coming all the way from Durham to give me and your brother your tonsillitis and other flu bugs), I attended some of the sessions of the Cambridge Literary Festival (Winter Edition) – luckily, they are all recorded and available to watch until the 28th of November, so I still have time to catch up. I was particularly struck by the mutual admiration and thoughtfulness of the session featuring Natasha Brown and Claudia Rankine, so I ordered their books at once (I have several other Rankine books, but not her latest, and have heard excellent things about Brown’s debut novel).

Fatima Manji: Hidden Heritage

I expected to like the panel above, but what is lovely with these all-access festivals is that you stumble across unexpected delights, such as Fatima Manji describing how she researched the origin of various objects in British museums or forgotten papers in archives, to show the long history of Britain’s fascination with the ‘Orient’. I found out that Queen Victoria spoke and wrote Urdu, that Elizabeth I was corresponding with the women in the Ottoman Sultan’s harem in Topkapi Palace, that coffee houses were bemoaned as dens of iniquity by the ale-houses (for being Turkish temptresses) and so much more.

Publisher initiatives

Olga Tokarczuk: The Books of Jacob, transl. Jennifer Croft I’ve wanted this book ever since I heard the author and translator mention it at the Hay Festival in 2018, just after they won the Man Booker International Prize for Flights. In the meantime, many of the bloggers I love have been looking forward to it, and I hope we will exchange views on it even if we don’t do a readalong. I couldn’t quite afford the limited edition of it though, but the Fitzcarraldo newsletter mentioned that they had copies signed by the author at Foyles, so… it was a no-brainer.

Josep Maria Esquirol: The Intimate Resistance, transl, Douglas Suttle Thank you, Fum d’Estampa Press, for keeping me on their mailing list, although I still haven’t reviewed any of the three books they have sent me. I am very interested in this one, however, because it is a work of philosophy, which has now become an area of vivacious debate between my older son and me. He will no doubt have a very long reading list over the holidays, but maybe he will read this one too, and we can compare notes.

Willem Frederick Hermans: The Darkroom of Damocles, Beyond Sleep and An Untouched House, transl. David Colmer. I receive the Pushkin Press newsletter; when they mentioned that they are publishing a new book by Hermans, and would therefore be reducing prices on his three previous books in virtual format, I thought it was too good an opportunity to miss to read work by one of the most respected Dutch writers of the 20th century. Maybe I should have stuck to just one, to see if I liked his style, but as you can see, I don’t do things by halves!

Serendipity

Christine Mangan: Palace of the Drowned. Such serendipity, aka random pick, typically occurs in a library. While picking up my reservations, I saw this recently-published novel by Christine Mangan on display. Although I hadn’t read her previous one, Tangerine, I had hear good things about it, and the blurb for this one: ageing novelist, Venice setting in the 1960s, an over-eager young admirer… yes, it might sound a bit like Death in Venice or The Talented Mr Ripley, but it’s just the sort of thing I cannot resist.

What do all these different sources prove (other than that I am very easily led astray when it comes to books?)

  1. Publisher newsletters or special offers still work a treat
  2. Recommendations from other readers and bloggers are my default option
  3. If I know and like people on Twitter, I will follow their work with interest
  4. I nearly always buy books by friends
  5. Festivals sell books
  6. I love reading books set in a specific location, especially if I know it personally or want to visit that location
  7. Libraries are the best!

Incoming Books and Their Sources (3)

When my credit card bill came in mid-October, I realised I might have exaggerated with my book purchases – but of course they managed to hide quite comfortably behind the major purchases such as the sofa and the mattress. Nevertheless, I have continued my merry bookish dissolute ways!

The #1976Club is to blame for the impulse buy of The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore – several of the participants read and reviewed this book about… well a woman’s mid-life crisis, I suppose. I initially looked for it at my local library and they didn’t have it, but they had another book with the same title by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, published in 1864. This also talks about adultery, death and the ‘spectacle of female recrimination and suffering’, so I thought it might be interesting to compare the two. Another library reservation also showed up at last: Dan Rhodes’ Sour Grapes, a satire of the literary festival world. I can never resist a book gently mocking the writing and publishing world, so as soon as I heard what it was about, it went on my wishlist. I hope it won’t be as disappointing as that other reservation I had to wait for, Magpie.

I am a big fan of tiny but innovative Emma Press, especially of its poetry books (now that my children are too old to enjoy their children’s literature). They work with local illustrators as well, and send everything with much love and care. This small poetry pamphlet by Julia Bird has just come out and promises to be full of childish reminiscence about growing up in a small English seaside town – with a tinge of the surreal.

One single online event led to three book purchases, such is the strength of my willpower. The event was part of the Durham Book Festival and it featured two American authors: Willy Vlautin in conversation with Nickolas Butler. They were not only on the same wavelength with their own writing and world views, but they both expressed admiration for Sara Gran (whom I also admire), so I ended up buying Vlautin’s latest The Night Always Comes, Butler’s Godspeed (the author is new to me, but the theme of impossible deadlines in building works just intrigued me) and Come Closer, one of the non Clara DeWitt books by Sara Gran, which makes for perfect Halloween reading.

The next batch of three books were all recommended on Twitter and blogs: Janet Emson reviewed The Writer’s Cats by Muriel Barbery, while Lisa of ANZ LitLovers waxed lyrical about Frank Moorhouse when we were still speculating about the Nobel Prize winners, so I ordered the first in his ‘Edith’ trilogy, Grand Days, because I cannot resist books about working for international organisations (as my own father did) and because I am woefully ignorant about Australian literature. I cannot remember who was the triggering person who made me order Men to Avoid in Art and Life, but I had enjoyed Nicole Tersigni’s satire on Twitter for quite a while. Here is an example of what she does below. Several of my friends have already asked to borrow it.

I hardly ever get review copies anymore, but Europa Editions is still good enough to have me on their list, and Shukri Mabkhout’s The Italian, transl. from the Arabic by Karen McNeil and Miled Faiza, sounds fascinating, about trying to love and live amid the dangers and political/social turmoil of late 1980s Tunisia. I also support Nordisk Books, so get sent every new book that they publish, and I love this bilingual edition of Danish poetry by Michael Strunge, Speed of Life.

I couldn’t go out on Independent Bookshop Day on the 9th of October, but I ordered a book from my nearest independent shop, the lovely, very well-stocked Marlow Bookshop, namely Simon Armitage’s collected public lectures from when he was Oxford University Professor of Poetry, A Vertical Art. Of course, immediately after they told me they had received the book, I entered a period of self-isolation, so I have only been able to pick it up a few days ago. Naturally, since I happened to be in a bookshop, I stumbled across The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, which I’ve heard so many good things about, so… another impulse buy, I’m afraid.

At times I feel that there is no more room for me at the table of literary translation from Romanian, because a) so little gets translated from that language anyway; b) there are much more qualified/highly regarded people doing it. Jozefina Komporaly falls into the second category: she lectures at the University of the Arts in London and is very well known in theatrical circles for her translations of plays from Romanian and Hungarian. I have only just started theatre translation, so when I heard Methuen Drama has just brought out this collection of contemporary Romanian plays, I had to get it, even though the prices are more ‘academic’ rather than ‘literary’.

Lovely though it is to join the translation community, one victim of this is my bank account. As I get to know and appreciate more translators, I am tempted to buy all of the books that they translate. I have some favourites I will follow pretty much anywhere, such as Alison Anderson and Tina Kover (from French), Katy Derbyshire, Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin (from German), Polly Barton and Ginny Tapley Takemori (from Japanese). One such translator is Anton Hur from Korean and hits translation of Sang Young Park’s Love in the Big City has just come out from Tilted Axis Press, so I preordered it a few weeks back, and it’s just arrived in time to take its place amongst my bumper crop of books.

Incoming Books (and Their Sources)

I think you all know by now that I am very weak-willed when it comes to books. I have periods of almost feverish book acquisition, followed by periods of… more moderate consumption. Abstention is rarely, if ever, possible. So I thought it would be interesting (at least for myself, if for no one else) to see what are the reasons for recent acquisitions. What are the drivers for my book choices? Alas, in many cases, I read a review and then rush so quickly over to buy the said book that, by the time the book arrives in the post, I have forgotten just where I first saw it mentioned, but I suspect most of the initial impulse came from Twitter.

Barbara Demick: Her latest book, Eat the Buddha, about life in Tibet under Chinese rule, has been out since summer of 2020, but I only recently came across a review of it in Asia Nikkei. When I heard about her previous books (about North Korea and Sarajevo), I thought she sounded exactly like the kind of anthropologist I wanted to become, delving deeper beneath the headlines but investigating people’s current problems and lives. Perhaps investigative journalists are the anthropologists of today, if they have the luxury of spending time in those communities. So I went on a bit of a spending spree and got all three of her books: Besieged (about Sarajevo), Nothing to Envy (about North Korea) and Eat the Buddha.

Yulia Yaklova: Punishment of a Hunter – I saw Poppy Stimpson, the publicist from Pushkin Press, talk about this one on Twitter (or maybe I saw it on the translator Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp’s feed) and was intrigued by the 1930 Stalinist Russia setting in Leningrad (written however by a contemporary Russian writer). So I immediately asked Poppy for an ARC, and she kindly sent me one. I love the Pushkin Vertigo series, as well as a lot of their other publications.

Catherine Fox: Angels and Men – This one comes a little more out of the left field. I was jubilating on Twitter about my older son going off to study at Durham, and one of my friends, Con Martin, who blogs as Staircase Wit, mentioned this book, which is set in a northern cathedral town (obviously Durham). I have only passed through the town twice, once as a tourist, once for university open day, so want to get more of a feel for the place, and what better way to do it than through fiction.

Joy Williams: Breaking and Entering – The American writer Joy Williams has a new book out Harrow, which is all post-apocalyptic and dark. I read some contradictory reviews about it, but I also read that most people thought some of her earlier work was well worth reading, and quite a few raved about this particular one: ‘Two young married drifters break into vacation homes in Florida. Ferocious and perfect.’

Francine Prose: Reading Like a Writer – This is quite a funny story. I had read many enthusiastic reviews and recommendations about this from fellow writers, so much so that I was convinced that I had bought it. I went to search for it on my bookshelves recently and discovered that no, I did not own it. Mad scramble to get hold of a copy, as it has that wonderful approach to ‘writing craft’ that Lucy Caldwell also advises: ‘When you cannot figure out how to do something in writing, read examples from writers who do it well and try and figure out how they make it work. Then develop your own solution.’

H.P. Lovecraft: The Dunwich Horror – To my utter surprise, this was a request from my younger son. He hasn’t been much of a reader in recent years (perhaps GCSE English didn’t help), but he read Orwell’s 1984 over the holidays and then tried The Call of the Cthulhu by Lovecraft and was eager to read more. I found this edition in Waterstones Gower Street, which is snugly and fortuitously placed halfway between my place of work and the Tube station.

Maryla Szymiczkowa: Karolina or The Torn Curtain – I have mentioned this before: as part of Noirwich, I attended the interview with the two (male) Polish authors and their translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones, and was so intrigued by the concept and the charisma of the authors, that I had to get my own copy.

Ann Quin: Berg – I first heard Quin mentioned on Backlisted podcast, made a note of the name and planned to search for her in the Senate House library. Then I saw several people whom I follow on Twitter also mention her: Charlus Kinbote aka TotheHappyNone recently bought several of her books, David Hering has been doing a Quin readathon in September, and there was a review of about her books being reissued in the Sydney Review of Books.

Not visible on the pile above are the books I downloaded on my Kindle recently. Quite a few of them are because I know the authors in real life and want to follow their latest releases. That is the case for the following:

  • Rebecca J. Bradley: Seconds to Die (Rebecca is the organiser of our Virtual Crime Book Club and I’ve been following her blog and her work for 7-8 years now)
  • Nikki Dudley: Volta – I attended a writing for Mums workshop with Nikki, and she was a wonderfully encouraging tutor for experimental fiction, but this is a bit of a departure for her, as it’s a psychological thriller.
  • Claire Dyer: The Significant Others of Odie May. I met Claire virtually during lockdown, as she is one of the organisers of the Poets’ Cafe in Reading (which went online for a while). I have always appreciated her poetry, but this book is crime fiction.
  • Matt Wesolowski: Deity. I’ve met Matt at several Orenda events or crime festivals, and have read all the books in the Six Stories series, with the exception of this one.

Last but not least, I do try to get books from the library as well. I am currently reading (and very much enjoying) Tokyo Redux by David Peace. I have also requested (and am on the waiting list) for Magpie by Elizabeth Day and hope to read the most recent Louise Penny soon. After spending September binge-reading the Cazalet Chronicles, I wanted to find out more about their author, Elizabeth Jane Howard, so I just borrowed a biography written by Artemis Cooper. The best thing about libraries, however, is the haphazard finds while browsing the shelves, and I came across a book by Freeman Wills Crofts: The Groote Park Murder. A Golden Age crime author who appears in the British Library Crime Classics series (especially in anthologies), he has also been favourably reviewed by trustworthy blogger friends such as Fiction Fan (with one exception), Booker Talk and Classic Mystery Blog.

Clearly, most if not all of my impulsive physical book purchases are a result of recommendations by people whose opinion I trust, i.e. bookish Twitter and blogger friends. Articles in literary journals only serve to reaffirm (and justify) my decision.

I also want to support writer friends and acquaintances, and although I don’t much like Amazon and don’t want to order physical products from them, I know that buying e-books at least helps their Amazon ranking. (I should also make more of a habit of leaving reviews on Amazon, rather than just Goodreads or my blog)

Finally, when it comes to libraries, I can afford to be more adventurous and rely on serendipity, knowing that if I hate a certain book, I can just return it without any fuss or expenditure. Sadly, the local libraries are getting less and less adventurous, with a tendency to spend their limited budget only the sure-fire bestsellers or literary prize winners. Still, I suppose that saves me from having to buy any of those… More money left for the smaller, quieter, quirkier books, authors and publishers.

Back to Central London

Yesterday I ventured back to work in central London for the first time since the 16th of March, 2020. Obviously, the student-facing or facilities management staff have been going in fairly regularly already, but from September this year, all of us in professional services as well are required to spend at least 40% of our working hours in the office. I will not quibble about the wisdom of that, other than to say that most of the courses I support and deliver are still online, which I can support better from home, while the other half of my work is content creation, which again benefits from quiet focus. However, I have missed the leafy, academic atmosphere of Bloomsbury and the iconic building where I work. With sunshine and relatively quiet streets before the students return (and ignoring the building works), it was very pleasant indeed to be back.

Senate House Library kindly waived my enormous fine for overdue books. They are celebrating 150 years since the foundation of the library this year, and will have a virtual exhibition of 150 of its most interesting books and artefacts. These include one of the first printed edition of Copernicus’ work, a manuscript of Don Juan by Lord Byron, a first edition of one of the first slave autobiographies, the Nazi Black Book for the British Isles and much more.

https://london.ac.uk/senate-house-library/exhibitions-and-events/exhibitions/senate-house-library-150

Guess where? Yes, the back entrance to the British Museum.
The old building for Faber & Faber, back when T. S. Eliot was working for them. Poor Vivienne, his first wife, would come looking for him here, but when he refused to see her, she apparently dumped rubbish through the letter box. The building is now part of SOAS.
The insect hotel in Russell Square seemed a bit empty – hopefully, that just means the insects were all out and about, enjoying the sunshine.
This quaint sunken garden has on occasion been used for summer parties by the university, but is currently locked and only used as a play area for the French school nearby.
This lovely little ‘cabbies’ cafe’ in Russell Square is one of the few remaining ones in London. Serves excellent bacon batties, at affordable prices.
Shakespeare welcomed us back inside the building.
It wasn’t exactly heaving with people inside the office…
It would have been rude not to stop at Waterstones Gower Street on the way back. (I still call it Dillons from my own university days.)
And I did not come away empty-handed. (Even better, they cost me nothing, because I had enough points on my loyalty card.) I have yet to read Magda Szabo and this one promises to be an interesting look at the conflict between generations, while Sybille Bedford seems to be one of those global citizens that I know so much about.

Although it was quiet, cool and very safe inside the building, and it was nice to wander around the streets nearby and discover my favourite Greek deli The Life Goddess was still making excellent traditional Greek desserts, the commute was as bad as I had remembered: busy, maskless, insufficient number of coaches on the train, long waits on the Underground. Add to that a very long day (so that I could avoid rush hour). the ‘novely’ of wearing respectable shoes and carrying a heavy backpack with a laptop while going up and down stairs, and you will understand why I collapsed for 45 minutes on my bed when I got back home.

In time, it will no doubt become more manageable. In the meantime, I have one very contented customer who is delighted that I am working from home still on most days.

Addendum to the #20BooksofSummer

I admit it: I am a terrible cheat! But no sooner had I listed my 41 choices for the 20 books of summer, when I received a couple of new books in the post and a few more jumped out at me from the bookshelves. Positively assaulted me and clung to me, I’m telling you! So I’ve added to the inchoate pile on the carpet, ready for me to honour them with my final selection. I feel quite excited about this latest bunch, so I’m more likely to start with them than with some of the ones mentioned earlier.

 

The reason I like them is because, with two crime fiction exceptions, they are all pushing me a little outside my comfort zone. City of Stairs is a sci-fi/fantasy novel, a genre I very rarely read (although many of my favourite films are in that genre). Petit Pays and Evening Is the Whole Day are about the immigrant experience but from cultures that I know very little about (Burundi, India and Malaysia).

David Peace is always challenging stylistically and never more so to me than when he is talking about Japan in the immedate aftermath of the Second World War. Marian Engel’s Bear is more talked about (in prurient fashion) than read, since it talks about a woman having sexual fantasies about a bear. Shirley Hazzard is excellent at making expats squirm in recognition, while Olga Tokarczuk may have won the Nobel but has not endeared herself to the Polish government for her outspoken stance against right-wing views. Her book (and the film based on it) has been denounced as ‘deeply anti-Christian film… promoting eco-terrorism’ and I’ve been saving it for far too long for ‘a rainy day’.

That rainy day is now.

Lugging Books Home from Romania

I brought 14 books back from Romania (had to leave about 5 behind), which is not bad going for merely a week away and not too much time spent in bookshops. Here is a picture of what I managed to squeeze into my luggage. All of them are in Romanian, of course, and I don’t think any of them have been translated (yet).

So here’s a little more information about the book haul.

I brought back four books by Bogdan Teodorescu, a sociologist and journalist, who has been involved in political campaigning and opinion polls, but is above all a storyteller. He has published many novels of the noirish or political thriller variety, one of which, Spada, has been translated into French and has been well received there. I’m involved in a little conspiracy to bring more Romanian literature to the English-speaking world, and Bogdan Teodorescu is probably going to be one of our first authors, so I’m trying to make up my mind which book would be most suitable as a ‘starter for ten’. The books I have are: two political thrillers Spada and Nearly Good Boys, a domestic noir unlike any you’ll have read in recent years, Liberty, and his latest, We’ll All Perish in Pain, a story that is both thriller and social commentary, featuring an investor, a tourist and a refugee in a country not unlike present-day Romania.

I also got crime fiction by three more authors to investigate for possible future translation. Lucian Dragos Bogdan’s Spiderweb is a police procedural about people being killed off at a crime festival in the Romanian Carpathians. Daniel Timariu’s PI investigates crimes in a city that exists on two planes: the human world and the underworld, a bit like The City and the City by China Mieville. Rodica Ojog-Brasoveanu was a classic crime writer from before the fall of Communism.

Last but not least, I also got two books of crime stories: a collection of stories all set in Bucharest, Bucharest Noir, and a series of linked stories written by six different authors Domino 2.

In addition to all that crime fiction, I got some literary fiction: Mircea Cartarescu’s Solenoid, a massive tome of surrealist and semi-autobiographical writing. You can read an excellent detailed review of the book (in Spanish translation) on the much-missed The Untranslated blog. Since I am slightly obsessed with Mihail Sebastian, I bought a 630 page novel written by Gelu Diaconu about Sebastian’s life in the 1930s, which somehow has dual timeline with post-Communist 1990s Romania. The Innocents by Ioana Parvulescu is the history of a house in Brasov, the story of a young girl and a woman remembering the past, as well as the history of a country that has had way too much history to digest.

Last but not least, two non-fiction books. The same Ioana Parvulescu has published a book about everyday life in Bucharest between the two world wars, a period often viewed (probably mistakenly) as ‘golden’ in the history of Romania. The last one is even more interesting: the memoirs of Elena Ceausescu’s personal interpreter, Violeta Nastasescu, a rather lovely lady whom I met personally because she tested my English just before my university entrance exam.

Five Things to Sing About

Really struggling to find enough things to be positive about this past week, which has been marred by headaches and insomnia. But as long as I have books, plays and music, it cannot be all bad, right?

  1. I tidied up my bedside tables and bookshelves, as the new purchases were interfering with my geographical shelving.
My Russians are now next to Persephone, for some reason…
This is the bedside table I use on a daily basis. It usually looks a lot more cluttered than this, but I tidied it up for the photo. It contains my current reading and library loans, my journal and my all-time favourite authors (Tove, Jane, Virginia, Shirley, Jean)

2. I donated a massive bag full of books to the local library, but I also bought books this week, so my balance is probably zero.

The Malorie Blackman is for my younger son, and I wonder if my older son might be interested in Jean Plaidy – he is currently on a bit of a medieval history reading spree.
You might spot Kaggsy’s nefarious influence here… plus a highly-regarded Greek author about a mother/son relationship (currently a bit of an obsession of mine)

3. Speaking of mother/son relationships, I watched yet another emotionally gruelling play Mother of Him by Evan Placey at the Park Theatre. A play to make the audience think, laugh, cry and gasp out loud! It’s about a family (and especially the mother, who is being judged by everyone) going to pieces when the older son is accused of raping three girls in one night. It should come with a flashing red warning for single mothers of teenage boys – especially when the actor who plays the 17 year old son has the skinny body type of my own 16 year old!

4. ROH Live Encore at my local culture centre: Mozart’s Don Giovanni. One of my favourite operas, can never get enough of it and have watched many a wacky production. This beautiful Jack Furness revival of the Kasper Holten production featured a charismatic Erwin Schrott in the title role, a Don Ottavio I could finally empathise with (Daniel Behle) and an amazing if rather discombobulating set with video projections. It hasn’t quite dethroned my current favourite version: this ‘hipster edition’ live recording from the Festival international d’Art lyrique d’Aix-en-Provence in July 2017.

5. Sadly, I didn’t make it to this month’s writing group meeting, but I’ll be taking part in the Charity Write-a-thon we are organising in Windsor on the 16th of November. All the money we raise will go to Mind. If you do feel inspired to sponsor me, please visit my fundraising page here.

Films and Books

Despite having a houseful of children for most of this past week, I have been able to partake in some cultural events as well, both inside and outside the house.

Pain and Glory – Almodovar’s latest film shows the master has mellowed in middle age. The story of a lonely middle-aged film director struggling with lost creativity and ill health is not new, but Antonio Banderas turns in a beautifully nuanced, subtle performance. The flashbacks to the protagonist’s childhood are rich in colour and emotion, but what stayed with me most is how we select and package our memories to attempt a coherent narration of our lives… and yet the truth is always more complex than that.

Marriage Story – Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are believably flawed yet appealing as a couple struggling through divorce. It was a little too close to the battlegrounds I am currently experiencing myself, so I’m afraid I embarrassed myself with tears. Filmed in a minimalist way, with close-ups of the actors’ faces engaged in monologues or dialogues, this had the feeling of an indie, mumblecore type of film. There was one particular scene I found all too familiar: where the attempt at having a conversation away from the lawyers descends into a screaming match, with all of the long-hidden resentments and accusations bursting out like an overflowing dam.

Lara – ice-cold in Berlin*. Another carefully observed film, full of significant details, but one where nearly all emotion has been drained. Lara is a domineering mother whose dreams of becoming a concert pianist were dashed in her youth and now feels proud yet nervous about her pianist son’s major concert, which takes place on her 60th birthday. We never see the drama of what led to the estrangement between mother and son, but there are hints of bad behaviour and nervous breakdown. Emotions are very tightly held in check for the most part, yet there are unexpectedly candid (if frosty) conversations between Lara and the people she encounters on her birthday.

*As a child, I firmly believed that ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ was a film version of Berlin Alexanderplatz

Since I had a few hours to kill between the two films at the London Film Festival on Friday, I meandered down Charing Cross Road, mourned the loss of so many second-hand bookshops (when I first came to London, I remember it used to take my hours to go down that road, there were so many bookshops, now turned into cafes or clothes shops – boo!). Nevertheless, I did stop at the few remaining bookshops, at Foyles, then at Second Shelf (again!) and at Waterstones Piccadilly and emerged with the pile below.

7 books for £30 total, of which only one was a new one and cost £10.99

However, I’d also been busy ordering some books online, especially while sitting around waiting for the Nobel Prize for Literature to be announced. I ordered a couple of Russians, especially since I thought Ludmila Ulitskaya might be a contender…

And two Orenda books arrived on cue for my #Orentober reading. I’ve already devoured Little Siberia, which is less slapstick than Tuomainen’s last two books (I absolutely loved the black comedy, don’t get me wrong!) but not quite as bleak as his earlier books. I think it would be fair to say that the set-up is ridiculous and richly comic: a suicidal racing car driver has a meteorite drop into his passenger seat. A pastor with experience of fighting in Afghanistan is guarding the local museum where nearly everyone wants to steal the precious piece of rock. He gets plenty of opportunity to question his own faith and choices in life, as well as being exposed to the venality and self-serving excuses of others.

Last but not least, I’ve also watched some TV. Helen Mirren is commanding yet deliciously vulnerable as Catherine the Great (and, although she is almost certainly too old for the part, I cannot help but rejoice that an older woman is shown as both powerful and intransigent, yet also having sexual fun on our screens). And, of course, I’m excited to see the new series of Engrenages (Spiral), the first in a long while without Anne Landois as show runner.

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.