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!
The book haul was the best part, but still only a part of my lovely afternoon in London yesterday. I went to watch Betrayal at the Harold Pinter Theatre and, like most of the people there, I went because it starred Tom Hiddleston. But I got so much more from the play, which is about adultery and friendship and, of course, betrayal (although it did feel very ‘Hampstead set complaining about their woes’). Hiddleston not only cuts a dashing figure in a well-cut suit, but is very good as a man whose world is coming apart, and nevertheless tries to stay aloof and in control. There was an enormous (and remarkably well-behaved) queue afterwards to get autographs and take selfies with him (which I watched from a distance with anthropological detachment). I was more impressed with the very minimal staging and subtle lighting effects, which really pared down this production to the dialogue and the universal feeling of hurt.
It was a summery day, Piccadilly Circus was full of tourists, so I decided to take a little walk and search for the bookshop The Second Shelf, which I’d supported via Kickstarter before it opened. You’ll have heard other book bloggers raving about it, and sure enough, I met Eric of Lonesome Reader fame there, who fortunately looks exactly the way he does in his videos and his Twitter profile picture.
I was shown Sylvia Plath’s purse with her lucky coin still inside, a three-volume early edition of Sense and Sensibility that belonged to Jane Austen’s friend and confidante Martha Lloyd and so many other treasures. At the more affordable level, I did not leave the shop unscathed, despite my hitherto reasonably well-enforced book-buying ban (I had a slip-up at the British Library, but that was the only time I bought books since January).
I could not resist a pristine Folio edition of the Ripley trilogy (yes, there were two novels published later, cashing in on the popularity of the series, but these are the original three). I still think Patricia Highsmith is one of the top writers of psychological thrillers ever. I’m also a fan of Stevie Smith and May Sarton, and you don’t often find them nowadays, especially not uncollected writings (including short stories and essays) and letters. Last, but not least, I am a huge fan of ballet and Allison Devers (the bookshop owner) has done such a fantastic job of tracing four volumes of this little mini-series of ballets (published in 1945), introduced and retold by Marion Robertson and Sandy Posner, with illustrations by Joyce Millen. You not only have obvious suspects such as Swan Lake and Giselle, but also two that are rarely performed nowadays: Petrouchka and La Boutique Fantasque.
I have to admit that this visit – and the thought that such a bookstore exists – has made me happier than I’ve ever been over the past 2-4 months. I’ve been without the boys this Easter holiday, but instead of focusing on what I am missing, I am having great fun reading all day! Books are my therapy, my indulgence, my luxury, my necessity. Have a lovely Easter break, everyone!
It’s not as bad as it looks, because some of these books are from the library (the thickest ones). I am clearly hoping for a quiet Christmas holiday period, with lots of reading. But I have to admit that I’ve also been tempted to spend more than usual on books this month, because in January my self-imposed book ban kicks in.
Christmas presents for the boys:
They love manga and graphic novels, but I’m trying to get them to broaden their tastes, so I bought The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman and one volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s monumnetal History of Showa Japan (the Second World War). That’s because my older son is quite keen on history. Keeping the Japanese theme going (given my own background and the fact that we are planning a trip to Japan in 2021), a beautifully illustrated volume entitled How to Live Japanese by Yutaka Yazawa. Another passion that unites us all is the love for our cat, Zoe, and the little book Test Your Cat should provide hours of entertainment. Two further books – the first ones I bought for them before I became a little too indulgent – are Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe for the future engineer, and Inventing Ourselves. The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain by Sarah=Jayne Blakemore for the argumentative future lawyer. Last but not least – although not strictly speaking a book – I also bought some sheet music for my older son, who’s recently started playing the keyboard: The Very Best of John Williams (a compromise between the classical music I like and the stuff that would be too complicated for him to play).
Christmas presents for myself:
I’ve renewed my subscription for another year with the Asymptote Book Club, as I get so much out of it, even when I sometimes struggle to keep up with the reading (it shouldn’t be the case, it’s only one book a month, right?). So the Christmas delivery is finally a book from Africa (come on, publishers, do translate more from that continent!). The Barefoot Womanby Scholastique Mukasonga is going to be an emotional read, I can foresee, based on the author’s mother’s story of trying to save children during the genocide in Rwanda.
On my last day at work I also finally made a trip to the nearby Persephone Bookshop, that so many of you have praised to the skies (or warned me about, depending on your level of concern for my financial health). I came away with 4 books that I wrapped up and gave to myself as Christmas presents. No one ever gives me books as a present because: a) I allegedly have too many already; b) I’ve read everything already; c) they don’t know what I like. To which my answers are: a) I can always squeeze in a few more and regularly give away to charity; b) no; c) pretty much omnivorous.
So my Persephone choices were:
Noel Streatfield: Saplings – simply because I grew up with Ballet Shoes and Curtain Up and White Boots and loved all the brave and talented young girls in her books. I know this is one for adults, but it’s about children suffering as a result of evacuation during the war.
Dorothy Whipple: Someone at a Distance – my first Whipple, the last novel she wrote, an author warmly recommended by the likes of Ali Hope , Jacqui and Simon Thomas. Plus, it’s about adultery and the breakdown of a marriage, a subject I feel rather an expert in!
Elisabeth De Waal: The Exiles Return – Edmund De Waal’s mother was born in Vienna and grew up there until they had to flee in the 1930s. She never got a chance to return, but in this novel her protagonists return from exile. Can you ever fit back into a place that pushed you out?
Dorothy Canfield Fisher: The Home-Maker – written in the 1920s but still surprisingly relevant today, about the frustration of stay at home mothers, and the challenges (and satisfaction) of role reversals among parents.
Little Bits Inspired by Twitter:
Uwe Johnson: Jahrestage (Anniversaries)
Readers whose opinions I respect were just going on and on about the recently translated 4 volume masterpiece and I’m such a herd animal that I had to check it out for myself. I found a second-hand Suhrkamp box-set edition dating from 1988 on a German bookshop website and ordered it. It may not be pretty, but it was affordable and should keep me busy for the next several years!
Fernando Sdrigotti: Shitstorm
I’ve been following Argentinian writer and editor of online literary journal Minor Literatures for a while now on Twitter. This novelette is about a wealthy nobody who goes viral when he slays a protected lion on the plains of Africa (remind you of any recent story?). Described as a sharp and perceptive chronicle dissecting the murky waters of viral news.
Katya Apekina: The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish
I think this one might have been mentioned on one of those ‘under the radar’ books of 2018. It sounds like a pretty hard-hitting story: two young girls who are sent to live with their estranged father after their mother’s suicide attempt. Besides, I’m always fascinated by people who write in languages other than their mothertongue (same applies for Sdrigotti, above).
I’ve read Hazzard’s satire about the United Nations bureaucracy in People in Glass Houses and her look at Anglo expat life in Italy in The Bay of Noon. She has a great eye for human foibles, but above all such stylish and precise sentences! She was mentioned in The Paris Review’s annual round-up of favourite reads and I realised that I’d quite like to read her book about two Australian sisters coming to live in England.
Ralph Dutli: Soutines letzte Fahrt (Soutine’s Last Journey)
When I wrote about seeing a Soutine exhibition at the Courtauld roughly a year ago, one of my blogger friends Shigekuni (aka Marcel Imhoff) drew my attention to this novel about the last few weeks of Soutine’s life, as he goes back to occupied Paris in 1943 for a potentially life-saving operation. On the way, in a morphine-induced haze, he remembers his childhood and life in exile.
From the Library:
C.J. Sansom: Lamentation
Would you be shocked to hear that I’ve never read any of C.J. Sansom’s historical fiction? I read Dominion, his alternate take on post-war Britain as a satellite state of Nazi Germany (and was not that fond of it). However, so many people whose opinion I respect have raved about his most recent novel Tombland and just generally about the Shardlake series, that I felt I had to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Elif Batuman: The Idiot
I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since I saw it shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK and for the Pulitzer Prize in the US. But mostly because it’s about a foreigner attending college in the US and trying to adapt to another culture. I cannot resist those ‘intercultural dialogues and misunderstandings’ themes. In the meantime, 180 pages in I realised that most of it was so dull that it didn’t make up for the few flashes of insight. So I abandoned it.
Claire Fuller: Bitter Orange
Simmering resentments and darkness, atmospheric, and the story of friendships knitted in the late 1960s – a good companion piece, perhaps to Sigrid Nunez The Last of Her Kind. I’ll read the two of them together.
I hardly dare to add up the total number of unread books lurking on my shelves, chests of drawers, bedside tables, in artistic piles on the floor etc. Suffice it to say that I think I might have a book to see me through every single day of 2019! So let’s get cracking!
I still have some books that are winging their way towards me, and I may still be swayed by one or two reviews or recommendations before I close up book-buying-shop next year. Of course, I will still have the Asymptote Book Club subscription to stave off my hunger pangs. And a couple of hundred of unread books on my shelves…
So, with that caveat, what are my most recent acquisitions?
First of all, #EU27Project noblesse oblige, I had to find a book for Bulgaria and Slovakia. Well, strictly speaking, I’d already found a book for Slovakia but then I met a translator from Slovakian, Julia Sherwood, at the Asymptote Book Club meeting, and so I had to buy one of the books she translated. This is Pavel Vilikovsky’s Fleeting Snow, a gentle set of reminiscences about a long marriage as the wife of the narrator gradually starts to lose her memory. A very different novel about the fall of Communism in Bulgaria, Party Headquarters by Georgi Tenev seems to not have found many fans abroad, but that rather incited me to read it and make up my own mind.
From publishers, I received two crime novels to review. Bitter Lemon Press sent Petra Hammersfahr’s novel The Sinner formed the basis for the recent TV series, although the setting has been changed from Germany to the US. Many of the links are more obvious in the book than in the TV series, so it’s interesting to compare the two. Meanwhile, Simon and Schuster sent RJ Bailey’s Winner Kills All, featuring female Personal Protection Officer Sam Wylde. In the wake of the huge success of the TV series The Bodyguard, this book series may do very well indeed!
Most of the other new arrivals were the result of reading other people’s blogs. So hereby I am naming and shaming them! Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings is responsible for Portraits without Frames: Poems by Lev Ozerov, essentially a group portrait of Russian writers of the 1920s and 30s in free verse form. Jacquiwine’s Journal needs to take a bow for Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, although it may take a while until I summon up the courage to read this very sad tale. Melissa Beck, who blogs at Bookbinder’s Daughter, is the one who first drew my attention to Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel, translated by Boris Dralyuk (who also is one of the main translators of Ozerov). Last but not least, Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, with her #6Degrees link for December made me stumble across Black Run by Antonio Manzini, and I remembered I’d come across it before, mentioned by another Italian writer, and my ordering finger was once again hyper-active.
Who needs divorce lawyers sucking you dry, when your online friends also make sure they finish off your budget through their recommendations?
I was going to start a self-imposed book buying ban, but am postponing it to the New Year. So I am making the most of these last few weeks before it kicks in! So what have I acquired this week?
Orenda Books very kindly sent me Beton Rouge by Simone Buchholz to review. I somehow missed out on reading this German author’s first book translated by Rachel Ward, but dived straightaway into this second one. I was instantly smitten. It is to crime thriller what jazz music is to classical music. An unconventional, refreshing voice, one that I haven’t heard in German crime fiction since Arjouni, and I don’t mind at all crime taking second place in this novel. Full review coming up on Crime Fiction Lover, but I can’t resist sharing one of those little throwaway sarcasms which litter the book:
It always strikes me that tourists in Hamburg look completely different from tourists in Munich or Berlin… Perhaps they think Hamburg is already on the North Sea, although that’s a good thirty to fifty years off yet.
The next two are books I purchased following some Twitter and blogging discussions. Several of the bookbloggers I admire mentioned that Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved was one of their favourite reads, so I found a second-hand copy of it to see what all the fuss was about.
Karen, from Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings, is already extremely knowledgeable about the Russian Revolution, but she asked for some reading recommendations to get up to speed about French revolutions (they had several, although we are mostly familiar with the 1789 one). My personal favourite revolution – can one have such a thing? (other than the one I lived through in 1989, about which I am conflicted anyway)- is the 1870 Paris Commune. So I starting reminiscing about what I had read on the topic and ended up ordering two books, one of which has already arrived. Donny Gluckstein’s The Paris Commune: A Revolution in Democracy is the Marxist interpretation of it, but, after years of indoctrination, I like to think that I know how to read beyond the ideology to the actual history. The book which is still on its way is Paris Babylon by Rupert Christiansen, which looks much more about the conditions which led to the Franco-Prussian war and the decadence and poverty which led to the Paris Commune.
While waiting for my friend to show up to go to the RADA show on Friday, I popped into Waterstones in Gower Street and couldn’t resist two of those tiny Penguin Modern Classics. Fernando Pessoa’s poetry in I Have More Souls Than One, which led to a discussion with the bookseller if he should embark upon Pessoa (my answer: ‘Absolutely, but dip in and out rather than read it all in one go.’) and four short pieces by Anais Nin in The Veiled Woman.
The final book was an impulse buy from the Vintage Penguins which are strategically placed just opposite the cheap and cheerful Modern Classics. The title comes of course from Alice in Wonderland, the Mock Turtle’s song, and is used as an epigraph for the book:
“‘ Will you walk a little faster?’ said a whiting to a snail,
‘There’s a porpoise close behnd us, and he’s treading on my tail.'”
It’s a broad comedy about London theatrical life and trying to navigate your way through it. I’ve never heard of Noel Langley, but it appears he had several plays produced in the West End in the 1930s and later moved to the US, where he wrote screenplays, most notably for The Wizard of Oz. He moved from South Africa to England in the mid 1930s and I can’t help wondering if his experience as an ‘outsider peeking in and trying to fit in’ informed this book about two young and innocent drama students let loose in the big bad theatre world of the time. A light read for dark days!