Six Degrees of Separation: From Shopgirl to…

Hosted each month by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, the Six Degrees of Separation meme picks a starting book for participants to go wherever it takes them in six more steps. This month’s starting point was suggested by Annabel.

Shopgirl by Steve Martin. I had no idea that comedian Steve Martin wrote novels, but apparently this one is a bit of a satire about life in LA, as well as a love story.

Lonely, depressed Vermont transplant Mirabelle Buttersfield, who sells expensive evening gloves nobody ever buys at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills and spends her evenings watching television with her two cats. She attempts to forge a relationship with middle-aged, womanizing, Seattle millionaire Ray Porter while being pursued by socially inept and unambitious slacker Jeremy.

So my second pick is purely picked for the title which sounds fairly similar. 1) Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic. I haven’t read this one either and I can think of nothing less likely for me to pick up, as I hated that whole Bridget Jones, Ally McBeal and ditzy single shopaholic chick scene which seemed so prevalent when I first started working in London in the late 1990s.

 

The third book is a bit of a leap, but bear with me… I’ll be taking you to 18th century Geneva and Paris, via the 2) Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is an extraordinarily honest autobiography of one of the greatest minds – but also one of the greatest narcissists – of the Century of Lights. Here he lays out and examines, without too much artifice, his weaknesses and blind spots, his triumphs and mistakes, his way of life often contradicting his principles (abandoning his children when he wrote so eloquently about children’s better nature and the importance of education).

The next choice is obvious, because Rousseau’s greatest rival at the time was 3) Voltaire. The two men started off by admiring each other’s work, but then disagreed on fundamental philosophical and moral issues and became arch-enemies. The turning point was the horrendous earthquake of Lisbon in 1755, when more than 60,000 people died. Rousseau said it should not make us doubt God’s kindness and that people brought it upon themselves by settling in cities with such dense populations. Voltaire was stunned by such heartlessness and produced in return the remarkable story of Candidea young man whose naive optimism and belief in God is sorely tested by earthquakes, syphilis, the Inquisition, murder and banishment. Mindless optimism, Voltaire contends, is stupid, unsustainable, a crime almost.

The two geniuses also fought about establishing a theatre in Geneva (Voltaire was for it, Rousseau against), so my next link is theatrical, a play which is somewhat linked to Candide, in that it presents scenes of life which test our belief in optimism and love.

4) Arthur Schnitzler’s Reigen (aka Liebelei, aka La Ronde) made a profound impression on me at the age of 13, when I saw it performed on stage. It’s brief scenes of ten couples (one of the couple linking to the next, like a daisy chain) before, during and after love-making and it is incredibly revealing about class and lifestyle in decadent, pre-war Vienna.

Speaking of decadence and pre-war jitters, I’ve recently read 5) Christopher Isherwood’s Prater Violet, which also mentions Vienna, although it features the period before a different world war. This slim yet powerful work is brilliant at dissecting how world events are perceived by different people and cultures, depending on how safe you consider yourself to be. It is also a biting satire of the film industry and features a semi-fictional portrait of Isherwood as a hapless scriptwriter.

 

Clearly, my final link has to be the film industry and so we move to LA once more together with 6) Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde, a vivid, poignant, epic reimagining of the story of one of the most idolised yet summarily dismissed and underestimated women of the film world, Marilyn Monroe.

So my journey this month takes me from selling gloves in a department store in LA to becoming an iconic film star in the same city, via London, Geneva, Paris and Vienna. You can follow this meme on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees or create your own blog post. Where will your 6 degrees of separation journey take you?

Well-Spent Day in London Plus Book Haul

Back in the days when I used to work in London, my office was on Piccadilly, so I used to pop into the exhibitions at the Royal Academy quite frequently. This time I had to plan and travel to see the America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s exhibition (as seen by Emma in Paris and associated with books of the time), which closes on the 4th of June, but I’m glad I did.

First, let me start by saying that it is rather small – only three rooms, making it at £12 entry fee for the exhibition – a high price/per room ratio. I have seen many more artists at the wonderful Phillips Collection in Washington DC. However, if you do not have access to American paintings, it is a good starting point, with a very informative guide in each room.

The exhibition was very popular and full of people of all ages, and I wonder if it is because the 1930s have such a resonance for us nowadays. Certainly I could detect many parallels:

a long drawn out economic depression and the decline of industry

Roustabouts by Joe Jones

admiring the dynamism of city life while bemoaning the loneliness it engenders

New York Movie by Edward Hopper

nostalgia for a glorious past and the ‘simpler’ country life

Cotton Pickers by T.H. Benton. Whose nostalgia?
Daughters of Revolution by Grant Wood, who is also the painter of that iconic American Gothic image. He’s not a man who flatters, is he?

but, above all, unsettling visions of dystopia

Jackson Pollock: Untitled (1928-41)
Death on Ridge Road by Grant Wood, for times of car crashes…
The Eternal City by Peter Blume, with visions of Mussolini smashing Roman art and civilisation into fragments.

Art born out of crisis and insecurity, art (and a nation) searching for its identity: it bears out the belief that art can remain after those troubled times have gone, and can offer a far better insight into all its fears and hopes, dreams and nightmares, than mere historical description can ever hope to capture.

I then had a lovely, protracted lunch with two friends from primary school. We’d not met in 30+ years, but were not short of topics to discuss even after we’d gone through all the ‘remember that horrible teacher?’, ‘remember when that wonderful teacher took us to the ballet?’, ‘remember what ghastly clothes we wore in that class picture?’ etc. etc. It turned out that our lives featured some great parallels (we all went to Cambridge, for instance, although at slightly different times, we all travelled widely and ended up doing something very different from what we originally studied), but above all, we all had a very international, open, tolerant outlook. Which goes to show that exposing children to different cultures when they are very young is the only way to foster diversity, genuine curiosity and willingness to understand.

Vienna International School, from vis.ac.at

Two more brief observations about my day in London.

  1. The Romanian Consulate was absolutely heaving with people renewing their passports and preparing to go home or in another EU country. I’ve applied for mine now but the earliest appointment I could get for passports for my children would be end of August. Hmmm, I wonder why everyone is in such a rush to have a Plan B?
  2. Arranging to meet friends at Waterstones Piccadilly is a dangerous sport. Especially if you are slightly early. This is what happened.

Three Romanian writers (one wrote in German, one mainly in French and one in Romanian), an Italian and an Englishman with international connections. The 1930s theme of menace continues too, not just with Isherwood, but also with Benjamin Fondane, who died in a concentration camp in 1944, Paul Celan’s parents died in labour camps during WW2, and Tabucchi’s book is set in Lisbon in 1938m in the grip of Portugal’s fascist dictatorship.

I already read Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood last night. It’s a charming, if slight story about the time Isherwood was a script consultant for a film directed by an Austrian. Sadly, it does not take place in Vienna, but it describes a period of civil war in Vienna in February 1934, following the protests of socialist workers against Chancellor Dollfuss’ plan to create a one-party state, and huge uncertainty which led to an attempted coup by the Nazis and Dollfuss’ assassination in July 1934. An excellent indictment of British lack of interest in ‘Continental’ affairs at that time, particularly in this passage where an insensitive journalist asks the film director what he thinks of events in Austria and is surprised by the counter-attack of ‘Well, what do you think about it?’:

‘After all, Mr Bergmann… you must remember, it isn’t our affair. I mean, you really can’t expect people in England to care…’

Bergmann’s fist hit the table, so that the knives and forks rang. He turned scarlet in the face. He shouted, ‘I expect everybody to care! Everybody who is not a coward, a moron, a piece of dirt! I expect this whole damned island to care! I will tell you something: if they do not care, they will be made to care. The whole lot of you. You will be bombed and slaughtered and conquered. And do you know what I shall do? I shall sit by and smoke my cigar and laugh. And I shall say, “Yes, it’s terrible; and I do not give a damn. Not one damn.”‘

Patterson at last was looking a bit scared.

‘Don’t get me wrong, Mr Bergmann,’ he said hastily, ‘I quite agree with you… We don’t think enough of the other fellow and that’s a fact… Well, I must be toddling along. Glad to have seen you. We must have a talk, some day…’

Well, as you can see, even a day of leisure and admin in London ends up political at these times. I’m off to water the flowers, breathe in deeply and meditate.

 

 

One Thousand Ways to Say I Love You

What better way to celebrate a thousand blog posts since February 2012 than by sharing memorable thousands I have seen elsewhere?

  1. 1001 Nights – one of the best collection of stories anywhere – the original page-turner
Illustration from 1001 Nights, from Book Drum

2. A burger with Thousand Island dressing (which I pretended to like in my youth, but time is too short for me to ever befriend mayonnaise).

3. Will I finally read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, about an intergenerational friendship between Afghan women, a book about which I’ve heard many good things? (Why oh why am I so reluctant to read bestsellers though?)

4. Certainly not a bestseller, but this looks very interesting: One Thousand White Women: The Journal of May Dodd by Jim Fergus. It’s based on a true story about pioneer women who, under the auspices of the U.S. government, travel to the western prairies in 1875 to intermarry among the Cheyenne Indians, in an effort to assimilate them.

5. Admire the art project with anthropological flair: One Thousand ShacksTracey Snelling has created a multimedia sculptural installation depicting shantytowns from around the world.

6. 1000 Meere (or 1000 Oceans) – a song by German band Tokio Hotel. They’ve recorded this song in both English and German and I love the difference in voice timbre when singing in the two languages.

7. Anne of the Thousand Days – a film I loved in my childhood about the ill-fated second wife of Henry VIII, with Richard Burton and Genevieve Bujold.

8. New film just out: One Thousand Ropes directed by New Zealand-Samoan film director Tusi Tamasese has been presented at the Berlin Film Festival. This seems to be a film for our times, questioning notions of masculinity and toughness in a traditional society.

9. One for One Thousand literary magazine (1:1000) is open for submissions. They are looking for 1,000-word stories or narrative essays inspired by a photo, and will accept literary, genre, and experimental work, as long as the writing is quality.

10. Above all, a thousand thanks and kisses to all of you who have read, shared, commented, reblogged and simply been there for me over the past five years.

From freepik.com

Finally, because today is International Women’s Day, I just wanted to link up to a few posts from previous years celebrating inspirational role models.

2015 post about personal heroines

2016 post about more heroines

Inspiring women and their one weakness

 

 

WWW Wednesday, 1st February

It’s the middle of an awful week: world news and personal news are conspiring to keep me down, while the weather brings additional mopey-ness. So let’s run away from reality and cheer ourselves up with reading! So I’m joining in once more with the WWW Wednesday meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

wwwednesday

What are you currently reading?

Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories

This is the Library of America edition which contains her two great novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, as well as short stories both published and unpublished. This is going to be a reading theme throughout 2017, I think, as I can only bear to read a few of her stories at a time, because she so accurately conveys the demons lurking beneath the facade of noonday respectability and polite small-talk.

clearairMechtild Bormann: To Clear the Air – for #EU27Project – Germany

Blurb: Life comes to an end, but memory is forever. A moving epitaph for a lost loved one, or the menacing taunt of a vengeful killer? When a man is found brutally murdered in the woods, those words come to haunt the small German village of Merklen. And homicide inspector Peter Böhm faces the daunting task of unraveling a mystery with deep and twisted roots—in a town where doors stay closed, people stay silent, and death may have the final word.

What did you recently finish reading?

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies

Tragi-comedy at its finest, as we see five characters trying to battle their way out of the hopelessness of their situation in down-and-out Cork post-Celtic Tiger boom. Like Trainspotting set in Ireland, you watch with horror (and occasional glee) as they make wrong choice after wrong choice. Tough, candid, occasionally shocking, yet ultimately tender.

outlineRachel Cusk: Outline

Blurb: A woman writer goes to Athens in the height of summer to teach a writing course. Though her own circumstances remain indistinct, she becomes the audience to a chain of narratives, as the people she meets tell her one after another the stories of their lives.

My verdict: Based on reviews of this, I’d been expecting something challenging, hard to read, but it was enjoyable and easy. A collection of voices, people’s stories, a bit like an anthropologist’s field notes, it was fascinating and thought-provoking. Plus, a Greek setting is always a bonus!

What do you think you’ll read next?

Kate Hamer: The Doll Funeral

Blurb: My name is Ruby. I live with Barbara and Mick. They’re not my real parents, but they tell me what to do, and what to say. I’m supposed to say that the bruises on my arms and the black eye came from falling down the stairs.
But there are things I won’t say. I won’t tell them I’m going to hunt for my real parents. I don’t say a word about Shadow, who sits on the stairs, or the Wasp Lady I saw on the way to bed.

Hamer did such an excellent job of rendering a child’s voice in The Girl in the Red Coat, that I am curious to see what she can do here.

lastsummerRicharda Huch: The Last Summer (transl. Jamie Bulloch)

Blurb: Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. To counter student unrest, the governor of St Petersburg closes the state university. Soon afterwards he arrives at his summer residence with his family and receives a death threat. His worried wife employs a young bodyguard, Lju, to protect her husband. Little does she know that Lju sides with the students – and the students are plotting an assassination.

So, although this is a German author, I am not sure this qualifies entirely for the #EU27Project in my mind, as it takes place in Russia. Still, it looks like an intriguing read as usual from Peirene Press.

So a bouquet of women writers this time round! Have you read or are you planning to read any of these? Or other books by these authors?

 

Monthly Wrap-Up: January 2017

breachJanuary felt like a slow reading month, as too much of my time was caught up with news. However, now that I’m counting, I did not fare too badly. 12 books read, of which 4 translations and 5 by women. I am far, far behind on reviews, however, so for the time being you will have to make do with a single word or phrase.

For review on Crime Fiction Lover:

BA Paris: The Breakdown – predictable

Marc Elsberg: Blackout – disaster movie type

Federico Axat: Kill the Next One – surreal

David Young: Stasi Wolf – surreal in a different way

For #EU27Project:

This is where I stumbled a little, as I have written zero reviews of any of these. I am also having second thoughts about using Arango and Hiekkapelto for Germany and Finland respectively, as there is little local ‘flavour’ in their work (they take place elsewhere). I have been sadly neglectful of adding any links to the #EU27Project page myself, but thank you to all the other book bloggers who have diligently read and reviewed and linked up. So much better than me! I will do better in February, I promise.

gloriousheresiesOlumide Popoola & Annie Holmes: Breach (Peirene Now!) – the refugee camps of Europe – more necessary reading than ever

Sascha Arango: The Truth and Other Lies (Germany) – macabre fun

Kati Hiekkapelto: The Exiled (Finland) – cross-cultural misunderstandings

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies (Ireland) – inventive delight

For fun (and to reduce TBR pile, especially on Netgalley):

outline1Ian Rankin: Rather Be the Devil – reliably entertaining

Stav Sherez: The Intrusions – slightly panic-inducing

Brian Conaghan: The Bombs that Brought Us Together – timely and fresh

Rachel Cusk: Outline – anthropological storytelling at its best

My favourite crime reads this month were The Intrusions and Rather Be the Devil, while my favourite non-crime were Outline and The Glorious Heresies.

 

WWW Wednesday 18 Jan – What are you reading?

I saw this on Hayley’s book blog  Rather Too Fond of Books and I was so impressed by the quality and quantity of her reading that I thought I would join in for once. (I may not be able to make a habit out of it).

WWW Wednesday is a meme 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.

________________________________________________________________________

Currently Reading:

My reading speed has decreased of late, as all the global news is having a bit too much of an impact on me and sucking up my time. So everything I write about here will probably take me more than a week. However, I usually manage to have more than one book on the go and this week it’s:

exiledKati Hiekkapelto: The Exiled

From the blurb: Anna Fekete returns to the Balkan village of her birth for a relaxing summer holiday. But when her purse is stolen and the thief is found dead on the banks of the river, Anna is pulled into a murder case. Her investigation leads straight to her own family, to closely guarded secrets concealing a horrendous travesty of justice that threatens them all. As layer after layer of corruption, deceit and guilt are revealed, Anna is caught up in the refugee crisis spreading like wildfire across Europe. How long will it take before everything explodes?

My verdict: Interesting to see Anna on her ‘home turf’, which no longer quite feels like home, making comparisons between Finland and Serbia, and also witnessing the refugee crisis first-hand. It’s a much warmer, personal tale rather than the police procedural of the previous books in the series. This was sent to me by Orenda Books quite a while ago (it came out in November), but I hadn’t got around to reading it. Although it’s a Finnish writer, all of the action takes place in Serbia, so I don’t think I can count this towards #EU27Project.

axatFederico Axat: Kill the Next One (transl. David Frye)

From the blurb: Ted McKay had it all: a beautiful wife, two daughters, a high-paying job. But after being diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor he finds himself with a gun to his temple, ready to pull the trigger. Then the doorbell rings. A stranger makes him a proposition: why not kill two deserving men before dying? The first target is a criminal, and the second is a man with terminal cancer who, like Ted, wants to die. After executing these kills, Ted will become someone else’s next target, like a kind of suicidal daisy chain.

My verdict: You can see why I could not resist this premise – very intriguing. Of course, I don’t expect things to go according to plan. It will all get very nasty, I’m sure. Written with dry wit (as far I can tell, I’m only two chapters in). This one will be reviewed on Crime Fiction Lover.

fallinawakeAlice Oswald: Falling Awake

In her seventh collection of poetry, Oswald returns to her classicist training: Orpheus and Tithonius appear in the English landscape, there are surprising encounters with nature on every page, there are riffs on instability and falling (don’t we all feel that at the moment?). These are poems to be read aloud. Which is just as well, since I have this on e-reader and I always struggle with the formatting of the poems on the page, so I am progressing very slowly with this one. But it’s had no end of poetic distinctions: winner of the 2016 Costa Poetry Award, shortlisted for the 2016 T. S. Eliot Award, shortlisted for the 2016 Forward Prize. Part of my plan to read poetry every week.

Recently Finished:

Coincidentally, two books with orange covers.

bombsBrian Conaghan: The Bombs that Brought Us Together

From the blurb: Fourteen-year-old Hamish Law has lived in Little Town, on the border with Old Country, all his life. He knows the rules: no going out after dark; no drinking; no litter; no fighting. You don’t want to get on the wrong side of the people who run Little Town. When he meets Pavel Duda, a refugee from Old Country, the rules start to get broken. Then the bombs come, and the soldiers from Old Country, and Little Town changes for ever.

My verdict: I borrowed this one from the library for my son but took a peek at it, after I heard that it won the Costa Book Award for Children’s Literature. I don’t usually read much YA, I find it a little too twee at times and chasing trends. And although this has the dystopian background that is so prevalent nowadays, it is less about playing dangerous games or fighting in an arena, and feels more like living in Stalinist Russia. More realistic, and a sympathetic look at the plight of refugees.

Stav Sherez: The Intrusions

intrusionsFrom the blurb: Detectives Carrigan and Miller are thrust into a terrifying new world of stalking and obsession when a distressed young woman bursts into the station with a story about her friend being abducted and a man who is threatening to come back and ‘claim her next’.

Taking them from deep inside a Bayswater hostel, where backpackers and foreign students share dorms and failing dreams, to the emerging threat of online intimidation, hacking, and control, The Intrusions pursues disturbing contemporary themes and dark psychology with all the authority and skill that Stav Sherez’s work has been so acclaimed for.

My verdict: For a day or two, I was too terrified to approach my computer again and engaged with extra caution on social media. It’s a plausible and terrifying scenario that Stav Sherez brings to life here. I thought I had grown sick of the serial killer meme in fiction, but this is a very different twist on it. The initially hopeful but ultimately sad, transient population of London really got to me and I love the author’s poetic style. Side note: I would love to read more of Geneva’s own poetry and her mother’s.

Up Next:

For review:

stasiwolfDavid Young: Stasi Wolf

From the blurb: East Germany, 1975. Karin Müller, sidelined from the murder squad in Berlin, jumps at the chance to be sent south to Halle-Neustadt, where a pair of infant twins have gone missing.

But Müller soon finds her problems have followed her. Halle-Neustadt is a new town – the pride of the communist state – and she and her team are forbidden by the Stasi from publicising the disappearances, lest they tarnish the town’s flawless image. Meanwhile, in the eerily nameless streets and tower blocks, a child snatcher lurks, and the clock is ticking to rescue the twins alive . . .

Really enjoyed the first book in the series ‘Stasi Child’, so I can’t wait for this one, even if it brings back some traumatic memories of reprisals.

From my Netgalley reduction imperative:

outlineRachel Cusk: Outline

From the blurb: A woman writer goes to Athens in the height of summer to teach a writing course. Though her own circumstances remain indistinct, she becomes the audience to a chain of narratives, as the people she meets tell her one after another the stories of their lives.

Beginning with the neighbouring passenger on the flight out and his tales of fast boats and failed marriages, the storytellers talk of their loves and ambitions and pains, their anxieties, their perceptions and daily lives. In the stifling heat and noise of the city the sequence of voice begins to weave a complex human tapestry.

I am the one who gets to hear all of the life stories on planes, trains and buses, and the anthropologist in me is fascinated by everyone, so this sounds perfect. I’ve read mostly non-fiction by Cusk, so am curious how this will go.

Finally, for the #EU27Project:

nomenNo Men No Cry – anthology of Lithuanian women’s literature

A collective of women writers, translated for the first time into English, aiming to portray ‘the experience of contemporary woman, experience that is closely related to actual cultural and historical phenomena and which contemplates a woman’s search for identity and highlights a woman’s ironic stance towards traditional female values, such as marriage, childbirth and home-making.’ I know so little of Lithuanian literature (and so little has been translated), so this looks like a good base for exploration.

Friday Fun: Bookchairs

All of us readers are on the look-out for that perfect comfy chair where you can have plenty of books within easy reach, and perhaps a place to put a snack, a coffee, a glass of wine, a bookmark or notebook. None of the ones I’ve found so far quite answer all of my needs.

Ergonomic but slightly unstable looking. From Architecture and Home Design.
Ergonomic but slightly unstable looking. From Architecture and Home Design.
More book capacity here, but the wood looks a bit too hard for my old bones. From Jongform.
More book capacity here, but the wood looks a bit too hard for my old bones. From Jongform.
This looks more comfortable, but it's more suitable for storing magazines. From Furniture Fashion.
This looks more comfortable, but it’s more suitable for storing magazines or folders. From Furniture Fashion.
A rocking chair is an interesting idea - but again, why no cushioning? Don't they know I can read for hours? From homedit.com
A rocking chair is an interesting idea – but again, why no cushioning? Don’t they know I can read for hours? From homedit.com
Promising cushioning, plenty of storage space, but it could do with a footrest. From toxel.com
Promising cushioning, plenty of storage space, but it could do with a footrest. From toxel.com
This one has higher back support, meets my coffee and snacking reads... but why is she working on a laptop instead of reading? That's just wrong! From Trendhunter.com
This one has higher back support, meets my coffee and snacking reads… reminds me a little of a seat on an airline’s business class. But why is she working on a laptop instead of reading? That’s just wrong! From Trendhunter.com

So, in the end, the best solution is clearly a window seat which combines comfort with storage and pretty views.

You could lose me here for days... From freshome.com
You could lose me here for days… From freshome.com