Holiday Book Haul

I had to pay a rather absurd amount for overweight luggage, although it was only my suitcase that was 4 kilos overweight, my older son’s suitcase was 4 kilos underweight and my younger son had no suitcase at all. What can I say except: don’t fly TAROM, as they clearly try to rip you off. So what was in my luggage? Of course all the Romanian delicacies that I miss so much when I am back in England: wine, homemade jam and honey, herbs and tea leaves from my mother’s garden, quinces (shame I cannot bring the tasty organic vegetables or cheese or endless array of milk products – kefir, sana, drinkable yoghurt, buttermilk etc.).
And, naturally, I had to bring back some Romanian books and DVDs. Romanian cinema is not very well known but highly respected in a small niche community. I got a recent film Child’s Pose, winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin in 2013, which covers pretty much all the topics that interest me: domineering mothers, generational and class conflict, as well as corruption in present-day Romania. I also got two older films from the 1960s by one of the best Romanian directors, Lucian Pintilie: The Forest of the Hanged based on one of my favourite Romanian novels, and The Reconstruction. The latter was named ‘the best Romanian film of all time’ by the Romanian film critics’ association, although it was forbidden during the Communist period because it turned out to be too much of a commentary on the viciousness of an abusive, authoritarian society.
There are many beautiful bookshops in Romania nowadays, although not all of my pictures came out well. I certainly lived up to my reputation of not being able to enter any bookshop without buying something! Among the things I bought are Fram and Apolodor, a polar bear and a penguin homesick for their native lands, two children’s books I used to adore and which I am very keen to translate into English and promote for the BookTrust reading scheme for diverse children’s literature In Other Words
I succumbed to the lovely hardback edition of Mihail Sebastian’s diary from 1935 to 1944, such a crucial (and sad) time in Romanian history, especially from a Jewish point of view. I got two titles, both family sagas, by female authors that I already know and admire: Ileana Vulpescu and Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu (the latter is sort of our national Virginia Woolf, although not quite as experimental, but she nevertheless dragged Romanian literature into modernity).
Brasov Bookshop 1
I also bought some new contemporary writers to try out: Radu Pavel Gheo –  Good Night, Kids about emigration and coming back to the ‘home country’, Lavinia Braniste – Internal Zero, a book about young single women in Romania today, Ioana Parvulescu – Life Starts on a Friday, a historical crime novel or time-travelling story. Last but not least, I sneaked back one of my favourite books from my childhood Follow the Footprints by William Mayne. Nobody else seems to have heard of this book or this writer, although he has been described as one of the ‘outstanding and most original children’s authors of the 20th century’. Sadly, in googling him, I discover that he was also imprisoned for two years in 2004 for sexually abusing young girl fans, so that leaves a bitter taste in my fond childhood memory.
Brasov Bookshop 2
While in Romania, I received a fairly large pile of books back home in the UK to my cat sitter’s surprise, some for review, some I’d previously ordered. So here are the things which came thudding through my letter-box.
I went on a bit of a Murakami Haruki binge following the reading of Killing Commendatore. I suppose because the book was enjoyable but not his best work, I wanted to get my hands on some of my favourites by him that I did not yet own: The Wind-Up Bird ChronicleSputnik Sweetheart and South of the Border, West of the Sun. Unrelated, and possibly as a result of some Twitter discussion, I went on a Marian Engel binge – a Canadian author I had heard of, but never read. I had to search hard in second-hand stores but found The Honeyman Festival, Lunatic Villas and Bear (I had heard about this last one, the love story between a woman and a bear, and it sounds absolutely bonkers). Meanwhile, I decided I needed to up my game with Chinese women authors, so I bought two Shanghai-based stories of illicit passion, Eileen Chang’s Lust, Caution and Wei Hui’s more contemporary Shanghai Baby. I also read an extract from Anna Dostoevsky’s reminiscences about how she met and fell in love with Dostoevsky on Brainpickings, so I ordered a copy of her out-of-print memoir.
I make no bones about being an unabashed fan of Finnish crime writer Antti Tuomainen, but I realised that one of his books was still missing from my shelves – his first to be translated into English (and possibly his darkest) The Healer. And the final, thick tome to make its home on my bedside table is from the Asymptote Book Club. I am very excited to be reading Ahmet Altan’s first book in the Ottoman Quartet – yet another family saga – Like a Sword Wound. Currently imprisoned in Turkey for his alleged involvement in the 2016 coup attempt, Altan (better known in the West as a crusading journalist, but much loved and respected in his homeland for his fiction) is currently working on the final volume of the quartet in prison. Last, but not least, I also received a copy of Flash Fiction Festival Two, a collection of sixty micro fictions written by participants and presenters from the second Flash Fiction Festival in the UK, which I attended (and loved) in Bristol in July. I am delighted to be there among them with a tale about a kitchen!
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#SixDegrees October: Starting with Vanity Fair

‘There is far too much to do around the house!’ I wailed. ‘And who is going to fill up that empty fridge and prepare things for school? There are also many, many blog posts to read, books to review and events to plan…’

And yet, when I heard about Vanity Fair, I had to join in this month’s Six Degrees of Separation meme. Hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best, it works as follows: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and you need to link to six other books to form a chain, each one linking to the next in the chain but not necessarily to the initial book. Vanity Fair was this month’s starting point and it was one of my favourite books as a teenager – all of us women need to be a bit more like Becky Sharp!

The fairground theme is the link to my next book, which has a small but significant scene set in the Prater, Vienna’s fairground and amusement park that was very similar to the Vauxhall Gardens featured in Vanity Fair. I am talking, of course, of The Third Man by Graham Greene, which became one of the most iconic noir films of all time.

Taking the option of Vienna for my next link would be all to easy, as I am such a fool about that city, so instead I will use the link of noir film adaptations. Another book that was beautifully adapted (probably surpassing the original) was The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. The external third person narrative feels a little too cold and impenetrable to me, and I like his Nora and Nick Charles characters far more than Sam Spade.

Another title containing the word ‘falcon‘ is Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a travelogue by Rebecca West, giving a rather chilling picture of Yugoslavia on the brink of invasion by the Fascists in 1937. Interestingly, though, she was as staunchly anti-communist as she was anti-fascist, which meant that she was more of a supporter of the Chetniks (which later led to the revival of Serbian nationalism which led to the Yugoslav War in the 1990s) than of Tito’s partisans during the Second World War.

Speaking of partisans and anti-fascist resistance, I’ve not yet read but am fascinated by this book about Primo Levi exploring the reasons why he got sent to a concentration camp in 1943. Primo Levi’s Resistance: Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy by Sergio Luzzato (transl. Frederika Randall) examines a lesser-known part of Italian history.

It would be too easy to turn to another Primo Levi book as the next chain in the link, so instead I will look at another period in Italian history. A family that fascinated me as a child, the Borgias are the apogee of ambition and ruthlessness, although I feel that poor Lucrezia Borgia was often a pawn in the machinations of her father and brother. Sarah Dunant’s Blood and Beauty: The Borgias tries to sort out fact from fiction.

Sarah Dunant has also written a novel Sacred Hearts about a young woman being sent away to the convent against her will in 16th century Italy, and it’s nuns forming the final link in the chain. Muriel Spark features the most manipulative and ruthless Mother Superior in literature in The Abbess of Crewe, while constantly portraying herself as a good Catholic. A parody of either Watergate or McCarthyanism – or both. 

So my links this month have taken me from Vienna to the US to Yugoslavia, Italy and England. Where will your associations take you?

WWWednesday: What Are You Reading?

This is one of the few posts that I am scheduling ahead of time, because I am currently travelling in Romania and have only occasional access to the internet. I have taken my Kindle and a physical book with me, plus will have access to my parents’ library, which contains many of my own books that I have not yet taken to the UK.

A lovely meme that I get to do about once a month. All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three questions or Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

 Currently reading: 

I was planning to take The Brothers Karamazov with me on holiday, even though it’s such a chunkster, but I somehow picked up Bulgakov instead from my Russian writers’ shelf. So I am now rereading one of my favourite books of all time The Master and Margarita. The cover is pretty boring, nothing like the brilliant (or awful) choices I once researched.

Just finished:

Lisa Gabriele’s The Winters is a retelling of another of my favourite books, Rebecca. In an article I recently read, the author explains how rereading Rebecca in the time of Trump made her question all her previous memories of the book.

 
After a whirlwind romance, a young woman returns to the opulent, secluded Long Island mansion of her new fiancé Max Winter—a wealthy politician and recent widower—and a life of luxury she’s never known. But all is not as it appears at the Asherley estate. The house is steeped in the memory of Max’s beautiful first wife Rebekah, who haunts the young woman’s imagination and feeds her uncertainties, while his very alive teenage daughter Dani makes her life a living hell. 

Will read next: 

I want something not too challenging and entertaining while travelling, so I’ve found a book on my Kindle that I downloaded so long ago that I can’t even remember when or why. Probably because it was free, just when I got my Kindle for the first time. The Middle Temple Murder by JS Fletcher was originally published in 1919. Given my older son’s interest in the legal profession, I might even pick up some odd tips about barristers past and present! I’d never heard of JS Fletcher, but apparently he was a journalist who wrote more than 200 books across all genres, from poetry to crime fiction. As this article about him states:  How fame eluded a man of many words

Six Degrees of Separation: From the Outsiders…

Six Degrees of Separation is one of the few memes I join in on a regular basis, as it is always a joy to see how our minds work so differently… Hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best, it works as follows: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and you need to link to six other books to form a chain, each one linking to the next in the chain but not necessarily to the initial book. 

This month we are starting with The Outsiders by SE Hinton. To my shame, I’ve not read it, but I know it’s a classic about teenage misfits rebelling. I used to watch films about teenagers more at that age than read books about them (I liked to pretend I was older than my years in my reading and that’s why I cannot understand the passion for YA literature nowadays.

One book about confused teenagerhood that I did read and hugely enjoyed was Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. As a matter of fact, everything by Judy Blume was relevant and daring to me in my early teens.

Another book about God that I read very seriously in my teens was St. Augustine’s Confessions. It is an incredible work for its time – describing with much gusto the sinfulness of his early years and how he converted to Christianity, including all of his doubts and lapses. 

From a real-life saint to a nickname in my third choice, namely Simon Templar, the Saint of the long-running series by Leslie Charteris. A James Bond like figure, halfway between a villain and a hero, he is described as a Robin Hood type of conman and avenger, hitting at the rich, venal and corrupt.

Speaking of Robin Hood, Sir Walter Scott was one of the authors who most contributed to popularising this hero in Ivanhoe. Another novel by Sir Walter Scott that I enjoyed a great deal was The Bride of Lammermoor, which famously provided the basis for Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor.

There have been quite a few books or stories turned into operas, and one of the most moving adaptations is Madama Butterfly by Puccini, partially based on Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysanthème. How much of it was autobiographical is unclear, but Loti was certainly a naval officer and travelled extensively throughout the world and wrote evocatively if somewhat voyeuristically about ‘exotic’ places.

My final choice is also set in Japan but not at all ‘exoticising’ matters. It is Fog Island Mountains by my friend and very talented writer Michelle Bailat-Jones. Set in a small town awaiting a typhoon in the Kirishima mountain range, which play an important part in Japanese mythology (and are the legendary birthplace of the Japanese Imperial lineage), it is an evocative, poetic story of marriage, grief, betrayal and anger.

So three continents and three languages in this month’s selection of links. Do join in and see where this free association might take you…

Reading Summary for September

It’s always a bit of a surprise when I sit down at the end of the month to do a proper count of the number and types of books I’ve read. This month, I only managed to read 8 books, which might in part be explained by the fact that it has been a month full of travelling and other cultural events, as well as the back to school rigmarole.

More surprising and disappointing, by far, is the fact that of those 8, only 2 were in translation, both from Spanish, both winners of the biggest literary prize in Spain, the Planeta Prize. These were Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett’s subversive Naked Men and Dolores Redondo’s gripping (although at times long-winded) psychological thriller All This I Will Give to You

So perhaps NOT the best month in terms of diversity. I found myself reaching for authors where I know what to expect, such as Rachel Cusk, Tana French or Sarah Moss, whose Night Waking brings back many, many memories of failed attempts at being a good scholar and a good mother simultaneously. And, if the author wasn’t known to me, I stuck to situations that would be familiar, such as expat life (Singapore is only slightly more of a police state than Switzerland) in Jo Furniss’ The Trailing Spouse. I cannot stop myself from reading these sort of books, but I do wonder why in so many books about expats, the main female character is often annoyingly self-absorbed, entitled and thoughtless (even when the writers are women, such as Janice Y.K. Lee, Nell Zink, Jill Alexander Essbaum, or more recently Louise Mangos with Strangers on a Bridge.) Nice cover, though!

The only two male authors I read this month were Michael Redhill: Bellevue Square, which left me somewhat perplexed, and Leye Adenle’s When Trouble Sleeps, which left me depressed about corruption, politics and vote rigging, although it takes place in Nigeria rather than in the UK. I’ll be reviewing the book and interviewing the author for Crime Fiction Lover very soon.

Other Events and the Books They Inspired

A little bit of floor-mopping and fridge-replacement doesn’t stop me from enjoying some cultural events in the interstices. The week before the Flash Fiction Festival, I had two trips to the theatre (booked well before the domestic crises, otherwise I might not have gone).

Park Theatre near Finsbury Park station is a small neighbourhood theatre in a converted office building, specialising in new, more experimental writing. Tickets are humanly priced, every effort is made to represent a diverse community (both in terms of playwrights and actors), aimed at encouraging people into theatre who might not otherwise attend by tackling contemporary themes: what’s not to like?

This time I saw the play Alkaline by Stephanie Martin, about two childhood friends who try to reignite their friendship as both of them are newly engaged to be married. Except one of them has converted to Islam and the other seems to have a drinking problem. It’s a dinner party drama reminiscent of Abigail’s Party, replete with stilted dialogue, people trying to conceal what they really feel, and exposing the hypocritical attitude to multiculturalism and difference. My favourite part of this was when the Muslim boyfriend (who was Muslim in name only, otherwise more of a typically English bloke) started a teasing rant about how Muslims are taking over Britain. Overall, however, I felt that this was more of a personal drama rather than social commentary, so I turned to two other books on my TBR pile that also feature conversions to Islam – albeit, more extreme ones, with protagonists going to Syria to become IS fighters.

Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire doesn’t need much of an introduction: longlisted, shortlisted and finally winning literary prizes. It’s a very timely book, but it’s not just its topicality that marks it out as a winner. It is also dramatically and lyrically written: accessible and yet poetic. Much has been made of it being a retelling of the Ancient Greek story of Antigone, but the similarities become apparent only towards the end and are not, in fact, all that remarkable or relevant. I found myself somewhat unsure of the first third of the book, told from the more neutral point of view of the older sister, Isma, although it provides some much-needed level-headedness compared to the more overblown prose of the second and third part. Still, I ask myself, why is Eamonn, son of the Home Secretary, introduced to the family through her? Is it merely to give another perspective on him, to make the move from ‘trust fund baby’ to ‘distraught lover’ more dramatic? However, each character is fully developed, and there are hints of depth in the Home Secretary and his wife as well, even though they are secondary characters. As for Isma, she may be more neutral, but she is still remarkably sharp-tongued and upset about the treatment of Muslims in both Britain and the States, and she seemed more plausible a character to me than the attractive but overdramatic Aneeka.

The second book on this topic is the more straightforward thriller The Good Sister by Morgan Jones, a former investigator into financial matters and international disputes. Sofia is a young girl who leaves her unhappy family life in London and seeks to find herself in Raqqa, while her father is determined to rescue her from what he perceives as delusion and brainwashing. I’m still in the middle of reading it, but it’s becoming clear that Sofia’s idealism will be sorely tested and that she will find it very difficult to leave, just like Aneeka’s twin in Home Fire.

The final play that I saw that week was a bilingual edition of Tartuffe, on the 14th of July appropriately enough. Paul Anderson plays Tartuffe as a Southern tele-evangelist type con-man who has infiltrated the family of rich businessman Orgon (Sebastian Roche, utterly perfectly bilingual), his wife Elmire (the gorgeous Audrey Fleurot, who seemed frankly a little wasted on the play in parts, merely looking decorative in amazing dresses for quite long stretches) and his children who are mostly English-speaking and have integrated into the decadent LA society. It was an interesting concept, with some good acting, and with clear references to the present day and our tendency to fall for false promises. However, I have to admit that I found both the fast-spoken French and the Southern drawl of the English equally hard to follow, though not as impossible as some reviewers made it out to be (there were surtitles). I went there with the boys and on the whole they quite liked it – so 13 and 15 year olds were much kinder to the play than theatre critics. This negative publicity in the media meant that the theatre was half-empty, so our seats were upgraded to the stalls, so we had excellent views, but it is a shame that audiences are not more open to bilingual productions.

Paul Anderson and Audrey Fleurot in Tartuffe, from The Times.

My older son had studied Molière – Les Fourberies de Scapin and Le Médecin malgré lui – at school as a 12-year-old, so he was somewhat familiar with the humour (although the language is still quite difficult even for French speakers, a bit like Shakespeare for English speakers), but I think the modern production helped to make it more accessible to them. For more thoughts on the genius of Molière, here is a very early post I wrote about him.

WWWednesday: What are you reading on 13 June 2018

I only get around to doing it once a month, but here is a lovely meme you might want to take part in, hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.

Current:

For review:

Carol Fenlon: Mere

Not ‘mere’ as in ‘mother’ but as in Windermere, it is a cross-genre novel set in rural Lancashire. Part family story, part crime, with elements of ghost story, it is about the destruction of the landscape, death of farming and the revenge of nature as well as about the human beings living there.

For leisure:

Ali Smith: Autumn – progress on this one has been slow, as I put it down to read something else and haven’t really returned to it. I rather like it, but clearly it does not grip me.

Finished:

For review:

John Berger: G.

Winner of the Booker Prize in 1972, I’ll be doing a brief write-up of it for Shiny New Books Golden Booker special. It will never be a popular or highly readable book, but I found this retelling of Casanova or Don Juan set at the turn of the 19th to 20th century a lot more fun than I expected.

For leisure:

Marian Keyes: The Break

I was in the mood for a little mid-life crisis and man-bashing, and Keyes is always brilliant at observing couples or parent-child dynamics. However, it did feel rather long and unedited, a bit self-indulgent for both the writer and the reader.

Next:

For David Bowie Book Club:

Susan Jacoby: The Age of American Unreason – halfway through June and I still haven’t read the choice for May – don’t know why I hesitate about picking up this book, perhaps fear that it will make me rant about politics once more?

For leisure (and next on my #20booksofsummer list):

Belinda Bauer: Snap

Not sure if maternal abandonment is a subject that will cheer me up, but at least this book should have me reading well into the night, knowing the author. Not many books have done that lately!