Weekly Summary 11th Feb 2018 (Part 2)

This is part 2 of what was threatening to become The Neverending Story in my last post.

The spectre of Communism is haunting Europe…

First of all, an enormous thank you to Kaggsy who wrote about the Red Star over Russia exhibition on her blog and convinced me that I should go to see it. I was initially sceptical, because the Socialist Realist art that I had witnessed in Romania during the Communist era was truly awful, a feast of nauseating kitsch. This exhibition, however, drawn primarily from the collection of British graphic designer David King, focuses on early Soviet art, 1905-1955. This was a period when it was still all about creating a new society and demonstrating that through a new type of art. New fonts, new designs, experimental work and techniques were all employed to show the modernity and success of the Soviet venture. I thought I knew the history behind it reasonably well, but I discovered many new things at this exhibition, for instance the multilingual posters to capture hearts and minds in the Soviet republics. Thank you, curators everywhere, and it always pays to stay humble and learn more!

Was the Soviet artistic enterprise all a lie? Yes, quite a bit of it: success was military rather than economic and came at a great price. Many of the artists were imprisoned or purged by Stalin at a later date. Their designs were imitated at knock-off standards in the decades that followed and by the other Soviet satellite states, cheapening their impact. Yet many avant-garde artists clearly believed at the time that art and architecture could bring out about a more democratic approach to art, render it less elitist, create a new environment where everyone felt empowered to create. All admirable goals (sound familiar to what we are discussing nowadays?). Plus, many of the designs still look fresh and beautiful today – and especially poignant, when you consider the tainted history behind them.

Another part of the exhibition which was painful to see: the self-censorship and mutilation of photographs. Ordinary citizens who had photographs of the Soviet leaders would then cross or cut out those who had fallen out of favour, for fear that someone would examine these photos in their own homes and accuse them of colluding with the traitors. Romania in the 1980s may have had many flaws, but at least we did not have quite this level of terror and paranoia.

Just by way of contrast, here is an example of the disgusting cult of personality and bad art that I grew up in.

The Emma Press is a charming independent press based in Birmingham, publishing mainly poetry (and some short fiction and children’s books). They don’t often organise events in London, so I was delighted to hear that they were launching their latest anthology of Love Poetry at an unusual café Coffee Cakes and Kisses not far from where I work. The café is designed to look like a kitchen (a working kitchen, where people can watch food being prepared), so people pull up chairs or stand around to chat like at the best parties. It was perhaps a bit too small for the large number of people who did turn up to watch the readings by 20 of the 56 poets featured in the anthology. I heard of Emma Press through Jacqueline Saphra, whose poetry I have admired ever since I returned to poetry in 2012, and she was there too. But I also got to meet and listen to new-to-me poets like Kitty Coles, Rachel Plummer, Jack Houston, Lenni Sanders, Paul Haworth, Maya Pieris and Ben Norris. The Emma Press Anthology of Love is a beautiful work of art: beautifully produced and illustrated, with a colourful cover that belies the anything but saccharine poetry inside.

Unsurprisingly, with so many cultural events happening, I did get a bit carried away and bought quite a few books. I was quite proud of myself for not buying all the tempting Russian novelists or books about Russian history at the Tate Modern, but then I lost control at the other events. In addition to the ones I bought to be signed at the Emma Press launch and the Literally Swiss event, there were also a couple I borrowed from the library and one I got gifted. Anyway, here is a selection.

I won the beautiful edition of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan in a Twitter giveaway and it came with a matching tote bag. Both so beautiful and turquoise that my younger son, who is not usually impressed with my book post, exclaimed out loud and kept the bag for himself.

By coincidence my friend gave me a dystopian novel about the consequences of China’s one child policy ‘An Excess Male’ by Maggie Shen King, which I am even more eager to read after speaking to Xiaolu Guo on Friday night.

Unrelated to any cultural events, but espied a while ago in the Waterstones Gower Street, I finally succumbed to the temptation of buying my fifth different translation of The Tale of Genji, this time by Dennis Washburn. I am hoping it will bridge the gap between Seidensticker’s user-friendly translation and Tyler’s rather too literal one.

Finally, I had a good old rummage in the Senate House Library, based upon feedback from my older son’s Parents Evening. They are reading Jekyll and Hyde for GCSE and the teacher suggested that he read other Victorian novels such as The Picture of Dorian Gray. So I borrowed that for him, but of course I can never stop at just one. I thought that HG Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau and Bram Stoker’s Dracula also described scientific experimentation and human monsters rather well, reflecting the darker side of the British Empire. A few years ago he would have run a mile from any book that I recommended to him, but now  I hope he will read them and want to discuss them with me.

Last but not least, I got James Baldwin because the February read for the David Bowie Book Club is James Baldwin’s essay The Fire Next Time.

Next week or fortnight will be much quieter, although I will be taking my older son to a theatre performance at RADA – a great opportunity to see some of the nation’s future stars.

‘Ha! This is what you abandon me for?!’ Zoe is unimpressed with my book haul.

 

Weekly Cultural Wrap-Up

Instead of just doing a reading and book buying wrap up of the week, I thought it might be fun to do a summary of all the cultural highlights. Which I have been fortunate enough to have plenty of, now that I am living near and working in London. So this will include any films, theatre, opera or ballet, book launches, talks or other events which I might have attended, as well as anything I might be aware of which is coming up for the following week, which might be of interest to others in the area. There’s got to be an upside to the downside of commuting (one day this week was particularly hellish, with my total commute taking over 4 hours – instead of 2.5 – in horrible conditions).

On Tuesday I got to see the witty, forthright and beautiful Leïla Slimani in action (and speaking English, much to my surprise!) at a Q&A and book signing at Waterstone’s Gower Street. With her journalistic background and feminist activist credentials, she had lots of opinions about current affairs and the #MeToo movement, but two things she said about her book Chanson Douce (translated as Lullaby in the UK and The Perfect Nanny in the US) particularly resonated with me: 1) how quick readers were to blame the mother Myriam for leaving her children with a stranger to go out and work when she didn’t need to, simply for her personal fulfilment and to go out for dinner with her husband; 2) how differently reviewers reacted to her book in France and in the UK/US. In France they commented mainly on her style and the narrative choices she made, while in the Anglo-Saxon community it is marketed as a thriller and is mainly about plot and unlikable characters. French literature is of course littered with unlikable characters, but so is classic English and American literature, so I don’t understand what this current emphasis is on sympathising with your protagonists. Besides, you can empathise and feel sorry for both Myriam and Louise (the nanny) in the book.

On Friday I saw a ballet double bill at the Coliseum. Roland Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, a very modern tale of depression and suicide (gorgeous Ivan Vasiliev as the young man and the wonderful, ever-young Tamara Rojo as the woman), followed by the very different, classical romantic ballet of La Sylphide, full of men in kilts and the long white tutus of the ghostly sylphides. It was delightful to see the Sylphide played by a junior soloist of the company, the very young, incredibly light and graceful Japanese dancer, Rina Kanehara. Afterwards, we had a wander around the West End to admire the light installations of the Lumiere Festival – although London proved it was not quite the 24 hour city it prides itself on being, with the lights switching off promptly at 22:30!

Westminster Abbey illuminated by French digital artist Patrice Warrener, courtesy of Creative Boom website.

This week I’ve been reading the biography of Shirley Jackson, which has prompted some more purchases of her lesser-known novels Hangsaman and The Sundial. Of course I had to buy the English translation of Slimani’s novel to get it signed by her and I’ve already read it (review will be coming up shortly). And, since I never escape unscathed from a bookshop, I also stumbled across one of those photo-rich trilingual Taschen Bibliotheca Universalis editions about the filming of The Man Who Fell to Earth. As the bookseller said, ‘You can’t go wrong with Bowie.’

In other reading: just finished Hell Bay by Kate Rhodes, set on the Isles of Scilly (review coming up on Crime Fiction Lover) and am currently reading Nadia Dalbuono’s The Extremist set in Rome (review coming up on Shiny New Books). I’m reading Marie Darrieussecq in both English and French and will be posting a review of her disappearing husband book, as well as Hawksmoor on this blog very soon.

On TV, I’ve only watched the mistitled Big Cats documentary (because it refers quite a bit to wildcats which are smaller than my own moggy – who was watching just as carefully as me and probably taking hunting lessons) and my beloved Engrenages series.

Last, but not least, the Winter Issue of Asymptote Journal is out, and it is an anniversary edition, as Asymptote celebrates its 7th birthday. Yes, it first launched in January 2011, before I even became absorbed by writing or moved to France. For this special edition, there are some big names (Ismail Kadare and Daniel Mendelsohn), as well as many new voices and languages, including translations from Montenegrin, Mè’phàà and Amharic. For those of you who like short samplers, there is also a special feature on international microfiction or flash fiction.

Coming up: I would really like to attend (but can’t) the Gower Street Waterstone’s Forgotten Fiction Book Club this coming Tuesday, which will be discussing one of the defining books of my adolescence:  Le Grand Meaulnes by Henri Alain-Fournier. Two art events to catch this coming week (for those who can make it): last week of the Basquiat exhibition at the Barbican and the Hayward Gallery at the South Bank finally reopens after refurbishment with a photography retrospective of the work of Andreas Gursky.

Book Launch: Love/War by Ebba Witt-Brattström

Nordisk Books is a small independent publisher specialising in Nordic literature – trying to demonstrate that there is literary life beyond Scandi crime fiction (fun though that may be). When I heard about the launch of this book by Swedish professor of literature and feminist Ebba Witt-Brattström at Hatchards, in a translation by Kate Lambert, I just had to join in.

Three wonderful women to present: moderator, author, translator.

It is the story of the breakdown of a marriage, and it is stripped to the bare minimum: the dialogue between spouses, in short lines somewhere between prose and poetry. Prosaic verse maybe (prosaic subject, verse-like lines, the pithy a-ha moments of poetry). He said/she said alternate here, often talking past each other, not listening to each other or misunderstanding. It is based upon the author’s own acrimonious divorce, but also on her examination of feminist literature. There are so many elements there which are universal, and will sound very familiar to anyone who has ever been in a relationship with the opposite sex.

She said:
Everything I lived for
believed in
wanted
loved
lies burning around me.
Piles of smoking ash
wherever I look.

He said:
Sorry
but I don’t want therapy
only to live normally
the way I am
with my vanity
or whatever you want to call it.
If you don’t want to
be with me on the ride
any more what can I do?
I am not re-education material
not for my sake
or for anyone else’s.

This dance to the death between the couple, advancing and retreating, challenging and posing, blaming and defending, is like a complicated and furious paso doble. The dark humour of recognition is present – all the women in the audience laughed at certain phrases – but it is also quite visceral and damning, so much so that you need to stop and take a deep breath every now and then.

With this level of intensity, I was expecting Ebba to be loud and dour, but she was delightful: funny, thoughtful and feisty. And when I went to her with the book to be signed, she very sweetly wrote ‘with sisterly good luck’ when I explained the parallels to my own situation. The translator also said she found it hugely relatable but also quite painful to translate. Initially, Ebba said she had written it as a more conventional novel, but then she realised that the real ‘juicy bits’ were in the dialogue, so she left the bare bones or skeleton of the novel.

There were a few brave men who attended the event (and the publisher Duncan Lewis is a man too, so bravo to him for uncovering this book and getting it translated), but I wonder what men make of it when they read it. I hope younger men will be inspired by it to NOT become like their fathers, to learn a different way of relating to women. Anyway, it inspired me to come up with this poem:

Stone Age But Effective

The words chiselled, honed over time,
first the blunt Acheulian handaxe to thrust home the proof.
The flint-knapping tools bring to pin-point precision
an arrowhead bordered by microlith flakes
aimed precisely to inflict maximum organ damage
and blood loss. Yet he kills not just through calculation
but also with thoughtless, sloughing off scales,
absent-mindedly fondling her last open lesion
before driving home anew the blade.

This Will Be a Great Year of Writing… in a Week

2017 will be a great year for writing, I can feel it in my bones. I don’t just mean the rise of writing as political protest more generally, around the world, but for me personally. (Yes, forgive me, I am shallow and self-centred this time round.)

And this week has been a little microcosm of that.

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It’s a long road ahead, but Voltaire is there to guide me… even at a distance.

First of all, as the title of my blog indicates, the greatest challenge I face as a writer is simply finding the bladidah time to write! So I joined the 5 day writing challenge on Prolifiko, a productivity coaching website aimed specifically at procrastinating writers such as myself. The idea being that by sticking to your resolutions for five days, and being held to account over them, you will develop new habits and will want to continue. My resolution has been a very simple one: to write for one hour a day 6 days a week (7 if I can manage it).

It may seem ridiculous that I cannot commit to writing more at this moment in time, when I am not working and while the children are in school from 8:30 to 15:30 every day. But I am also job hunting, doing some freelance work, reviewing, doing tax returns for two countries, doing housework, sorting out tricky financials and having discussions with solicitors etc. etc. By ‘writing’, I do not mean blogging or book reviews or HR articles or cover letters for job applications, but actual creative writing. Poetry, novel, short story.

So far, so good. I set my alarm for 12 noon and then scribble away blissfully for an hour. I find it works best if I have a combination of older work to edit and then allow myself to play around with ideas and words to bring out some fresh stuff. It certainly never feels like a chore, which confirms my impression that I would be the world’s happiest little writer, if only I didn’t have to do all the other boring bits in life.

Secondly, I’ve tried to apply for jobs I might actually enjoy (typically, those that have to do with books) rather than jobs that will merely pay the bills. Hopefully, I will eventually find one which meets both criteria, but in the meantime it has made the application process a little more fun. Organising a Meet the Agents/Publishers event for Geneva Writers Group in February is also highly energising and much more exciting than running workshops on workforce planning or business strategy.

Thirdly, I submitted a translation sample for a competition (German to English) and have also been in touch about translating crime fiction from Romanian into English. Fingers crossed! The next best thing after writing yourself is to be able to present other writers’ work to a new audience.

Fourth, I have three poems featured today on the literary site Clear Poetry (one I have always enjoyed reading and to which I had previously submitted unsuccessfully). The sound of my own voice makes me cringe a little, but there is audio of me reading the poems too, if you can bear to listen. The moral of the tale: if at first you get rejected, do submit again!

Fifth, I attended a fun-packed book launch  and talked to other writers about their writing process and publication journey, and it helped reset my energy and optimism buttons.

Sixth, I have decided to launch the #EU27Project for reading literature from all of the remaining countries of the EU. The response has been fantastic, and I would invite anyone to join in, whether you can read just one or two or all 27. It’s a project very dear to my heart. Call me a sentimental old idealist, but I was really hoping the European dream would come true. Now I see it in danger of going down in flames, it saddens me. I’ve never belonged to any country in particular, but I do belong to one continent: Europe.

To end on a hopeful note...
To end on a hopeful note…

 

 

Book Launch for #DeepDownDead

I started my Christmas reading with Steph Broadribb’s  Deep Down Dead and it gave me a feisty attitude to see me through the tricky holiday period. So I was delighted to attend the official launch for the book at Waterstone’s Piccadilly last night.

I want someone to look at me the way Steph looks at Karen in this picture...
I want someone to look at me the way Steph looks at Karen in this picture…

Karen Sullivan from Orenda Books never does things by half: this was an Americana-themed night, with Bourbon, Hershey’s candy and corn-bread on offer. And, of course, the by now traditional cake (which is not just a pretty icing, immaculately put together, but also delicious).

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Steph herself was in great form, and Martyn Waites got her to share stories of bounty-hunting training in California, exploring theme parks in Florida and how she acquired her shooting skills but needs to update her tasering skills. She also told us about her love of country music and cowboy boots.

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There was such a good turn-out of writers, bloggers, publishers and readers at the event – a testimony to the love and esteem that Steph has built up via her blog at Crime Thriller Girl. Asked whether her reviewing has changed now that she is a published writer herself, Steph said she hoped she hasn’t become either harsher or more lenient, but admitted that she just has far less time to read and review. However, she said book blogging is a wonderful way to get to know people and to push yourself to read more broadly.

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I finally had the chance to catch up with authors such as Quentin Bates, Rod Reynolds, Fiona Cummins, Lisa Hall, Louise Beech, Jane Isaac, Susi Holliday and A.K. Benedict, as well as stalwart bloggers and reviewers such as Barry Forshaw, SonyaLiz Barnsley, Vicky Goldman, Joy Kluver. Plus so many more that I didn’t get a chance to bump into. Ah, well perhaps at a crime festival soon… However, I can foresee it will be harder and harder to keep up with all the releases once I get to know more and more authors, as I feel obliged to read their work so I can make intelligent conversation.

How many writers can you spot in one picture: Quentin Bates, Barry Forshaw, Daniel Pembrey...
How many writers can you spot in one picture: Quentin Bates, Barry Forshaw, Daniel Pembrey…

I tried to dress up for the occasion, but by the end of the evening, hobbling back on the Tube and train, I was somewhat regretting the high-heeled cowboy boots (well, more Spaghetti Western boots).

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Thank you all for a lovely evening, especially Orenda Books for the invitation and Steph for giving us something to celebrate: the book itself!

The Lure of London’s Literary Links

I tried to find more ‘l’ words to add to the alliteration, but this will have to do for now.

Petina Gappah in The Independent.
Petina Gappah in The Independent.

One of the advantages of moving back to the UK and living just a short train hop from London is that I can now attend some of the bookish events which I could previously only dream about and retweet enviously. Let me tell you about a couple I’ve attended and some which I won’t be able to attend, but which sound intriguing.

The Word Factory Salon: Sex and Death and Anais Nin (Waterstones Piccadilly, 10th Sept.)

Michele Roberts in Aesthetica Magazine.
Michele Roberts in Aesthetica Magazine.

An unusual evening, as it covered multiple topics: the launch of a short story anthology Sex and Death, edited by Peter Hobbs and Sarah Hall, with readings from the book; reading from a previously unpublished story by Anais Nin (which caused a little bit of embarrassment); and a lively, informal literary debate about Jane Eyre, squirmishness in writing about sex, and cultural approaches to death. I had the pleasure of seeing two writers formerly associated with the Geneva Writers’ Group at this event: Petina Gappah has lived and worked in Geneva for a number of years, while Michèle Roberts was an unforgettable guest instructor. Petina is one of the funniest panelists I’ve had the pleasure of seeing, while Michèle is thoughtful and perfectly candid at all times.

I have made a note of Word Factory, a national organisation dedicated to studying and celebrating the short story form, and hope to attend more of their events.

Lunch with Zygmunt Miłoszewski (19th Sept.)

Zygmunt explaining to English speakers how to pronounce his surname.
Zygmunt explaining to English speakers how to pronounce his surname.

One of the most promising Polish authors of recent years, Miłoszewski is best known for his gritty crime fiction trilogy featuring prosecutor Teodor Szacki, but he has explored other genres (horror, young adult fantasy) and is currently writing a literary novel about an old couple who get the chance to relive their lives in an alternative post-war Poland. I love the way Zygmunt discusses insidious problems in contemporary Polish society via his crime novels, and getting a chance to talk to him about the ways in which our respective countries have changed since ‘opening up to the West’ was enlightening. This was also an opportunity to meet Zygmunt’s translator, the ebullient Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who taught herself Polish (after studying Russian at university), and several reviewers whose knowledge I hugely admire, such as Barry Forshaw (of Brit Noir and Nordic Noir fame), Karen Robinson from the Sunday Times and Boyd Tonkin, great supporter of translated fiction and founder of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

In case you are wondering what on earth I was doing in such elevated company – I was representing the Crime Fiction Lover website (our editor Garrick Webster lives a bit further away from London and passed on his invitation to me). Thank you, Midas PR, for my first literary lunch!

Launch of Louise Beech’s second book (Waterstones Piccadilly, 22nd Sept.)

I wasn’t actually aware that the launch of Louise Beech’s novel The Mountain in My Shoe was happening that very evening, but I was going to London anyway to attend the event just below. Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books told me about it on Twitter, so I couldn’t resist. Where would I be without my Twitter recommendations?

Crime in the Court (Goldsboro Books, 22nd Sept.)

Did you know that the very first trip I made when I came to London to study was to Cecil Court to see the (now-defunct) Dance Bookshop and leaf through the books at all the other glorious bookshops on that hidden corner of central London? It’s a very special place to me, and so I can’t think of a better venue for a crime writing mingle with many of my favourite authors attending: Sarah Hilary, Alex Marwood, Kate Medina, Stav Sherez, Sarah Ward, Belinda Bauer and many more.

Pictures from last year's event, from Goldsboro Books website.
Pictures from last year’s event, from Goldsboro Books website.

Below are events which I sadly won’t be able to attend, as I also have to earn a living rather than just spend money on train tickets:

First Monday for Crime (City University, 3rd Oct.)

SJ Watson, Antonia Hodgson, Stuart Neville and William Ryan will talk about their books and crime in general, in a panel moderated by Karen Robinson.

London Literature Festival (South Bank, 5-16 October)

In a world which is starting to be frighteningly close to the realm of science fiction, how can the imagination give us access to other worlds which cast light back on our own? And what role can writers play in showing us better worlds to come? That’s the theme of this year’s festival in and around the South Bank, where writers, futurologists and transhumanists (whatever that might be) will come together to celebrate the power of the imagination to take us beyond our expectations as a species. I am trying to convince my older son that he would love the Young Adult Weekender event.

Words at King’s Place

I once attended an excellent event on translation here, during one of my multiple business trips to London. It’s a new cultural venue and has a varied and extremely tempting programme of classical music, jazz and spoken word events. I’ve been wistfully eyeing the Poetry London Autumn Launch, the homage to John Berger, and ‘Up at a Villa’ – about that fateful summer of 1816 when Frankenstein and other monsters were unleashed on the world. And all from the shores of placid Lake Geneva! [This is the next best thing to actually staying in the villa itself.]

Villa Diodati, Geneva
Villa Diodati, Geneva