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 inPain, 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.
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?
I tidied up my bedside tables and bookshelves, as the new purchases were interfering with my geographical shelving.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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’
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
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.
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.
There I was thinking I hadn’t done all that much reading in August, because my #WITMonth contributions have been a miserly five. However, when I counted them all up, I realised I’ve read 16 books, 7 of them in translation (5 of them Brazilian, to fit in with my August in Brazil reading). 10 books were by women, and I even read two non-fiction books (Sylvia Plath’s diaries and The Secret Barrister’s rather terrifying descriptions of the shortcomings of the English legal system).
I have reviewed The Head of the Saint, Middle England, The End, Lost World, The Tortoise and the Hare, The Pine Islands and Clarice, so only about half of what I read. I still intend to review some of the above, but don’t hold your breath, as out of sight tends to be out of mind! I will not be reviewing Plan B or Guilty Not Guilty, which were quick fun reads but nothing to get worked up about, while Platform Seven is the kind of novel that started out very eerily and got my hopes up, but became a bit too much of a bog-standard thriller about a psychologically abusive relationship. Fatechanger is a YA novel about a Dickensian Boston of thieves and newspaper boys during the First World War and a time-travelling girl who has to pretend to be a boy in order to survive.
Next month I will be focusing on China – and I have a good haul of women writers, including Eileen Chang, Wei Hui, Xiaolu Guo and Yan Ge, so my #WITMonth is set to continue!
It’s been a good month of events as well: a powerful play about immigrants, a writing retreat at my house, a Russian film about life after the collapse of the Soviet Union, an exibition on writing at the British Library, a triumphant GCSE results day, a day trip to Oxford and, last but by no means least, an extremely inspiring conversation between Ali Smith and Nicola Barker, two of the most innovative and daring and poetic writers at work today.
With all of the back to school preparations, we’ve been going shopping and therefore ‘accidentally’ ending up in bookshops (my older son is nearly as addicted to them as I am – hurrah for him, but boo-hoo for my wallet). So this month has been the scene of another massacre of my book-buying ban (it hasn’t really been in place since April).
These two are actually for the boys: one is required for the GCSE (for younger son), the other was older son’s choice as he pursues his plans for world domination. They liked the tactile covers and wordcloud/ quotations on the front.
Speaking of beautiful editions, I just had to get these two favourite Murdochs in the new Vintage editions. Yes, I like stories about cult-like communities and dodgy patriarchal leaders.
Some politically prescient novels and another edition of To the Lighthouse. When I first came to the UK, I only had two medium-sized suitcases but I brought my battered editions of Virginia Woolf’s diaries (5 volumes), A Room of One’s Own and 5 of her novels. I left this particular one at my parents’ house and haven’t been able to find it since, so it was high time I got myself a new copy.
Last night’s haul from the London Review of Books bookshop. The Ali Smith and Nicola Barker ones are now signed, of course, while the very slim Korean novella was devoured in the train on the way home. I so hope I will get to see George Szirtes again to have him sign this book for me – a moving account of his mother and her journey into exile. Last but not least, Deborah Levy’s story of starting over as a middle-aged divorcee, mother and writer.
There are so many things in my life right now just waiting to be complained about, that I decided to thwart them all and take a page out of Meggy’s blog. For those of you who don’t know @choconwaffles blog, she has a Friday positivity wave post, in which she lists all the good things going on in her life, big or small. I can’t promise this will become a regular weekly feature, but it can’t hurt to remind myself of fun things from time to time.
After two weekends away, Zoe is incredibly grateful to have me back. Reading with her purring on me is the cosiest feeling ever!
After a gap of years, if not a decade, I finally went to see a live opera again. The Marriage of Figaro at the Royal Opera House. The prices are prohibitive for what was a vertigo-inducing and not at all comfortable seat. The production itself was a little frantic and over-acted at times (with the large cast of servants etc.), the orchestra’s horns seemed to have a dissonant mind of their own at times. But Joelle Harvey as Susanna was magnetic, especially in her duet with Julia Kleiter as the Countess, and her almost heartbreakingly wistful ‘Deh vieni, non tardar’ aria in the fourth act. All eyes were on the countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim as Cherubino – the traditional casting being a woman – but, I’ll be honest, I didn’t realise it was a man until afterwards.
Mozart is good for the soul and quite possibly a rejuvenator. I was exhausted that evening, as the work week had been horrendous and I’d not been feeling well for several days. On my way back to the train station from Covent Garden, I had an unexpected experience – well, unexpected in this day and age, as it hasn’t happened to me for a good few years now. A man ran after me and tried the pathetic chat-up line: ‘You’ve got such a tremendous aura. You don’t seem to be walking, you are floating.’ Clearly, Mozart gives you wings!
My local friends and fellow mothers, who have been with me through thick and thin, banded together to get me a voucher to buy books at The Second Shelf for my birthday. It’s the first time anyone has ever given me a bookish gift voucher, so I was very touched and pleased! I finally got to visit The Second Shelf this week and came away with lesser-known works by two authors who meant the world to me when I was growing up.
Thank you to Eric (aka Lonesome Reader), who mentions in his latest Booktube an event at LRB bookshop in late August: Ali Smith and Nicola Barker in conversation about writing. I booked my ticket rightaway! In fact, this week I’ve started to commit to my writing again: attended a Write together/Feedback session with my local writing group after a long gap, received detailed notes on my poems from my mentor Rebecca Goss and arranged to attend a writing retreat in 2020 with the writing friends who inspired and supported me so much in the summer of 2016.
Being alone for the Easter holidays had its upside: I got a LOT of reading done this month. Sadly, the (poetry and novel) writing is still missing in action, but I’m dipping my toes into the warm, friendly waters of blogging once more.
Here are some stats for the fans. A total of 20 books, although there was one I abandoned after about 45 pages. 7 books were either in another language or in translation; 11 were written by women (and one was an anthology, so I suppose you could count 12). An unusually high number of non-fiction reads for me: 4. One of them was a radio play, or what I’ve chosen to call an audio book. Above all, an unusually high number of reviews. I reviewed three for the #1965Club, which was really enjoyable: Ion Vinea’s Lunatics, Margaret Forster’s Georgy Girl and Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Monday Starts on Saturday. [I reviewed one that I’d finished much earlier for the #EU27Project, but that shouldn’t be counted.] And I very briefly mentioned and reviewed seven of this month’s books in this post.
However, that still leaves the following to review: Patrick Delperdange’s Si Tous les dieux nous abandonnent (for Belgium for #EU27Project) and Paris Babylon by Rupert Christiansen, The Paris Commune by Donny Gluckstein and Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City for my special project in May (see below).
I won’t be reviewing several books that I read for sheer fun, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy them. Island of the Mad is set in Venice in the early Mussolini years, and is Laurie R. King’s latest instalment in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, which I used to adore a few years back, but have grown out of the habit of reading. As an expat and cultural anthropologist, of course I was amused by Sarah Moss’ account of a year of living in Iceland in Names for the Sea. Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips is a hilarious reimagining of the Greek gods living in a scruffy shared house in present-day London and trying to maintain some kind of control over their powers. Finally, Bats in the Belfry by ECR Lorac is a typical Golden Age crime novel, with some great humour and atmospheric scenes, although somewhat too convoluted to be 100% enjoyable.
I have also conveniently ‘forgotten’ about my book buying ban this month. Not only did I stop and browse and buy at The Second Shelf, I also ordered online the Strugatsky brothers’ book and a book by Swiss author of Romanian origin Raluca Antonescu (who will be appearing at a literary festival in Lausanne – if I can’t be there, at least I can vicariously partake in her fame). Of course, I also made the mistake of looking at those nasty little shelves of remainders and second-hand books that Waterstones Gower Street puts out on the pavement for people to stumble over… and came away with just two small purchases: Meike Ziervogel’s Clara’s Daughter and one of my favourite YA books (although it appeared before YA became a well-established genre): Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. I also borrowed a few books from the library: a volume of plays by Botho Strauss, one of the books in the Patrick Melrose cycle (I haven’t ever read any nor seen the latest series starring Benedict Cumberbatch) and a non-fiction historical title that I have high hopes for: Hallie Rubenhold’s well-researched untold stories of the five victims of Jack the Ripper.
Since I will be going to Newcastle Noir next week (albeit briefly – Friday afternoon and Saturday morning only) and Bristol Crimefest the week after, I don’t have high hopes that I will escape with my wallet unscathed and my bookshelves unencumbered.
Plans for May
My main reading goal for the following month is reading and reviewing books about the Paris Commune (which was mercilessly crushed in May 1871). In addition to the non-fiction I’ve already read in preparation, I am also reading two fictional accounts of the events: Jean Vautrin’s Le Cri du peuple, which I believe started life as a series of graphic novels (BD) but is now available in novel format; and Émile Zola’s The Debacle, penultimate novel in his Rougon-Macquart series and his bestselling one of the series during his lifetime (probably because of the proximity to the events described, although he published it at a safe distance of 21 years). I will be reading the latter together with Emma from Book Around the Corner, who will also be posting her review towards the end of May. I’ll be reading it in French, which will slow me down considerably (hence I’m leaving a whole month for it), but as you can see from the picture, it is easily available in English, if you want to join in with us!