Tiredness is starting to catch up with me, so no more imaginative titles or deep research for this Friday Fun post. It simply does what it says on the tin: good places to just sit or lie down and read.
On Pause Again – and More Books!
Sadly, I didn’t just bring back good memories and new friendships from Bloody Scotland, but also Covid. I started feeling a bit fluey on Tuesday/Wednesday, but thought I had caught a cold from my younger son. However, it appears that his cold is independent, and on Friday I tested positive, after several people who had attended Bloody Scotland had already announced they had fallen ill. It is optimistic to think that we can go back to a normal life in closed venues – it is, in fact, a lottery, and although I wear masks on public transport, I have to admit I did not wear one in the venues and probably not everyone tested for Covid before they attended the event.
So I just had quite a horrible weekend, and am not up to anything more intellectual than showing you pictures of the books I have acquired this month.
First of all, thank you to Stela Brinzeanu and her publisher Legend Press for the beautiful little parcel that arrived with the proper edition of the book Set in Stone (I previously read the ARC), a tote bag and a small jar of honey from Moldova.
I splashed out on quite a few books, although only two at Bloody Scotland (I did not have much room in my luggage and also my broken arm struggled with the tiny suitcase I did have).
The two I bought in Stirling were Last Girl Ghosted by Lisa Unger and The Killing Kind by Jane Casey, after attending their panel. I read them both half in Stirling and half on the train journey home, they were proper page-turners!
After the death of Javier Marias, I felt I wanted to acquire a few of his translated novels which I didn’t have, although for the time being I am reading the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, which was already on my shelves but which I had never quite started properly. I have already read and loved Lolly Willowes, and I borrowed Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin in the original French from my university library. I bought the collection of sci-fi-tinged stories Terminal Boredom after reading a couple of blog reviews, and I got two Tim Winton books after several of you started raving about him on Twitter following an article featuring an interview with him. As you can see, I am so easily led down the book-buying path…
I borrowed the Elizabeth George from the library on Tuesday and thought it would be just the thing for a Covid-stricken brain, but alas, her novels have been getting longer and longer, without any justification, so I very nearly abandoned it. Fish Soup is a Charco Press book that I did not have, but we’ll be reading it for our London Reads the World Book club, and I’ve liked the other Margarita Garcia Robayo book that I read, Holiday Heart. I didn’t get to hear Emma Styles at Bloody Scotland, but I sat next to her on the train back to London and when she described her debut novel set in Australia, No Country for Girls, I knew I had to get it. Think teenage Thelma and Louise in the outback!
Last but not least, the British Library has produced a beautiful illustrated volume of Poems in Progress, showing early drafts and manuscripts of famous poems by poets ancient through to contemporary. I saw my poetry mentor Rebecca Goss tweet that she was in it, and I didn’t need a second invitation.
There is one final purchase for this month (she said optimistically), which hasn’t arrived yet: Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black. I have to admit that I have never been able to get through the Wolf Hall trilogy, although I have much admired Mantel’s earlier novels, but did not own any of them.
A Year Older… and Match-Making My Books
It’s my birthday this week and I have been so busy that I haven’t had time to fully prepare for it. I’ll be delivering two translation workshops in schools on my actual birthday, but also going to the hairdresser and having my older son come back home from university. No major treats planned for my birthday weekend (because we will be heading back to Durham on the 1st of July and will celebrate then), but I can tell you it has been a better year than the previous one.
There have been no spectacular changes outwardly, other than having my older son go off to university (and experiencing the bittersweet delight of having him home for the holidays and then saying farewell all over again) – but he seems happy, settled, and still eager to talk to me regularly, so it’s not been a horrible wrench. I have also finally been able to go and see my parents in March, after 2.5 years of enforced distancing. They are much frailer than I’d have liked, and I can foresee I will have to make more frequent trips over there over the next few years.
Other than that: I am still in the same day job, I have not moved house, I have not found a new partner, nor have I suddenly taken up a new sport and dramatically altered my body. I have not won any literary prizes (neither individually nor with my publishing venture Corylus Books). In fact, I’ve had a lot of rejections, both little and big.
What I have done is started proper (online) Italian lessons, in a very small group, and am progressing very well, even if I don’t do lots of homework every day. I did the BCLT Summer School for Multilingual Theatre Translation last July and discovered how much I enjoy translated theatre and that I really want to be involved in it. Best of all, I’ve rediscovered my passion for writing and the topics to match. The burbling fountain (or should that be ‘babbling’?) is back! After a discouraging few years of merely editing and resubmitting previously rejected stuff, it feels good to be writing new things, however raw and in need of revision. The poetry also feels lighter, more playful than before – I seem to be having fun with it. See what you think:
The search is not for love
but for a brief clasp of your fingers
and a jolt of electricity
on a late May evening
in a station where only the slow train stops,
the white lilac teases
with its heady scent above
the crumbling wall.
One thing I have become acutely aware of this year is that, if I am planning to move abroad permanently in about two years’ time, I need to get a handle on my completely out-of-control bookshelves. I am still buying books, but I should also learn to take them promptly off the shelves once I’ve read them, unless they are profoundly significant and will require rereading.
This got me wondering whether it might be a good idea to share some of my recent books which I’ve reviewed but no longer want to keep. I give a huge pile of books to charity shops ever so often, but they have started refusing them recently (they have too many, not enough place to store them). Moreover, these books I was thinking of are not underlined or based-looking second-hand copies. They are all in splendid condition, bought new, read once (with post-its rather than scribbles or turned corners).
Since I am not steeped in wealth (but also don’t want to be profiteering, as I recognise things are tough for everyone right now), I thought I might make a small amount from reselling them – enough to cover the cost of P&P and perhaps a coffee when I go to the post office. How does a flat fee of £5 per book sound? UK only, I’m afraid, as postage to other countries is prohibitively expensive, while custom forms are an additional obstacle.
I will suggest about five or so books every month. Let me know either on Twitter or in the comments below if you have your eye on any of them (you can have more than one, if you like) and we can arrange payment via Paypal or some other means. I am linking to the original reviews on my blog where they exist, but don’t be put off if I haven’t loved a book, as I tend to be horrendously critical and impatient (especially of late).
I feel like I’m doing a bit of a match-making service for these books, so that they find their perfect reader, so here are my first attempts at playing matchmaker.
- Alberto Prunetti: Down and Out in England and Italy – inspired by Orwell, an unashamedly frank look at contemporary life on minimum wage is searching for an equally no-holds-barred fan of poetic yet politically charged non-fiction
- Italo Svevo: A Perfect Hoax – short, humorous, yet packs a dark punch to the gut. Looking for understanding reader, with a satirical delight in tormented writerly types and their foibles.
- Amy Liptrot: The Instant – confused young woman searching for a good home and respite from heartbreak
- Oscar Coop-Phane: Tomorrow Berlin – self-absorbed and self-destructive but colourful, seeking a steady, understanding influence and/or lashings of hedonism.
- John Dickson Carr: Till Death Do Us Part – a British Library crime classic by one of the best Golden Age crime writers – you get very much what it says on the tin – a good solid few hours of fun and a near-impossible puzzle
Friday Fun: Something Old, Something New…
Some of these libraries are actually old, but most of them are ‘faux’. Some of them only slightly pretend to be classical. Never mind – I could happily put up with any of them!
Friday Fun: Let the Architects Loose on your Books!
Ah, to be a city council or a homeowner with the budget to allow an architect to design your library! Some of the examples below might be less practical than others, but they all undeniably have the wow factor.
June is typically a joyous month in my household: two birthdays and a nameday, as well as Midsummer Day to celebrate; summer plans to be hatched; end of school and exams beckoning. This year has been slightly different. The boys have been on holiday but the older one has started a summer job, while the younger one has had induction days for Sixth Form College (partly online) and homework assignments, while I have been busier than ever at work. The weather has been rather changeable, making me almost want to switch the heating back on. Nevertheless, we had a once-in-a-lifetime birthday treat of high tea at Oakley Court Hotel, where the Rocky Horror Picture Show was filmed.
I have read six of my 20 Books of Summer, and a total of 10 books this month. June has been the month of the most recent acquisitions on my Kindle, so the 20 Books of Summer choices are recent releases and include a Japanese thriller and a satire about social media, two books with tenuous links to Romania and two books that capture the millenial experience in Britain in the past few years. I also read a few bonus books linked to these: Mamie Luger by Benoit Philippon, which is certainly unlike anything else I have read before, a chilling story about a child murderer and rehabilitation by Fiona Cummins: When I was Ten, and Lucy Caldwell’s second collection of short stories. For the Virtual Crime Book Club, I had a good time reading Tom Bradby’s Secret Service, which had the interesting (and not all that implausible nowadays) premise that the future PM of the United Kingdom might be a Russian agent.
Films and TV:
Although most of the month has been given over to football watching with my older son – I remember bonding with my father over sports and enjoy doing so with him, even if I am not normally a huge football fan – I have also managed to watch some films and TV series.
The Outsiders was the kind of film I would have loved to watch in my teens and it was fun to see all of the child actors who then went on to become household names, but it was a little too sentimental for my taste (said the person who cries every time she watches West Side Story).
Sound of Metal was a tour de force of acting by Riz Ahmed and the first half was particularly interesting in his denial and fight against identifying with the deaf community, but the film then lost its way a little in the second half.
Billy Liar was every bit as funny, irreverant and poignant as I remembered it, with Tom Courtenay doing an excellent job of appearing at once infuriating and vulnerable.
It was the first time I watched Nightcrawler and I was chilled not just by the subject matter but by the charmingly psychopathic way in which Jake Gyllenhaal spouts inspirational slogans from self-help books – he is capitalism personified, the shameless go-getter we’ve been told the world (or is that just America?) needs.
Days of the Bagnold Summer was rather sweet and very relatable: a single mother having to spend the summer with her grumpy teenager, who had wanted to go and visit his remarried father in Florida. There was nothing grandiose or startling about the film, just a tender and very realistic observation of the mother/son relationship, which I am naturally rather partial to.
If you like sinister, not fully explainable TV series, then I can really recommend the Icelandic quasi-supernatural thriller Katla on Netflix. It has echoes of the French series The Returned, mixed with small-town Icelandic village feel of a Ragnar Jonasson novel The Katla volcano near the South Iceland settlement of Vik has been spewing ash for over a year and most of the inhabitants have been evacuated, but there are some foolhardy people who are staying on there. Then suddenly some strange clones or dead people reappear from underneath the glacier and turns their lives upside down. I found this far better paced and not as far-fetched or graphic as Fortitude. The characters are a lot more relatable and well acted throughout, although they might not have the big names of Fortitude. And the landscapes are just beautifully photographed throughout. You should also know that one of the writers on the show is none other than Icelandic writer Lilja Sigurðardóttir. I’m not a box set binging kind of person, but I watched all eight episodes in just 2-3 days (alongside the football matches).
May 2021 Reading and Watching
Restrictions might be easing here in the UK, but my confidence in this government is so ‘high’ that I prefer to watch and wait, rather than rush out to enjoy museums and theatres, although I have missed them very much indeed. So the summary this month continues to be of books, films and TV series, with a handful of online literary events too.
May’s reading was going to be dedicated to Arabic literature, and in particular books from Egypt and Lebanon. Alas, only four of the ten books I read fulfilled that criteria, but I really enjoyed all of them. There was a historical view of Cairo and a very contemporary one. The Civil War in Lebanon and its aftermath were treated in equally poignant fashion but very different styles by Elias Khoury and Hoda Barakat.
The other book I had on my May reading plan because I’d been asked to review it was The Wife Who Wasn’t, a rollicking saga of East Meets West.
However, all the other books were examples of me giving in to temptation once the libraries reopened for browsing. I always enjoy Nicola Upson‘s crime series featuring the author Josephine Tey and this latest one is set on St Michael’s Mount at Christmas (I still have to visit both the English and the French version of this location). I read Flynn Berry‘s first book and liked it well enough to have a look at her second one A Double Life, which is one of those ‘what if’ stories about the Lord Lucan case and how his daughter might feel about the whole situation. Steph Cha‘s Follow Her Home is a very deliberate Chandleresque recreation of LA, albeit set in the present-day and with a mighty Korean-American female main protagonist.
I usually avoid books with all the buzz, and certainly Luster by Raven Leilani has been receiving a lot of that, having been shortlisted for both the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Dylan Thomas Prize in the UK and has won several awards in the author’s home country the United States. Also, I wasn’t sure I could bear yet another so-called millenial novel about damaged, self-destructive young women and their unsatisfactory relationships with men (or men and women). But there it was beckoning to me on top of a book display at the library. After a fireworks of a start, which made me gasp and admire nearly every sentence, I thought it lost its way a little in the middle. It’s about a vulnerable young woman who might have a sharp wit when she talks directly to the reader, but nevertheless never quite loses her desire to be seen, touched and loved. Nevertheless, I found it less cold and manipulative than Sally Rooney’s Conversation with Friends (no, I haven’t read Normal People), funnier than Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times and more consistent and fierce than The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris. So, if you liked any of those, you are almost certain to like this one, which I feel is better than all three. There are parallels with Fleabag, but this is a Fleabag with the burden of race and no safety net of a rich family to fall back on. Perhaps Michaela Coel’s I Will Destroy You comes closest to capturing that flawed, but very striking and unique narrative voice.
Here is a description of publisher’s tickbox exercise of providing diverse reading, which made me roar with laughter:
… a slave narrative about a mixed-race house girl fighting for a piece of her father’s estate; a slave narrative about a runaway’s friendship with the white schoolteacher who selflessly teaches her how to read; a slave narrative about a tragic mulatto who raises the dead with her magic chitlin pies; a domestic drama about a black maid who, like Schrödinger’s cat, is both alive and dead, an unseen, nurturing presence who exists only within the bounds of her employer’s four walls; an ‘urban’ romance wherever everybody dies by gang violence; and a book about a Cantonese restaurant, which may or may not have been written by a white woman from Utah, whose descriptions of her characters rely primarily on rice-based foods.
The most memorable book I read this month was probably The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (which I nicked off my younger son’s shelf), but I also finally got to review one of my favourites from last month, namely Polly Barton‘s Fifty Sounds, about which I could have written a super-long essay. And I also reread and reviewed To the Lighthouse, which was just wondrous. As a way to forget what a chore daily cooking has become since the first lockdown, I also wrote a post about my favourite cookery books.
I’ll be embarking on the 20 Books of Summer for the next three months, and I have to admit I’m already tempted to make some drastic changes to my original plan. For example, would it not be more helpful to publishers posting their books on Netgalley if I actually read and reviewed the most recent ones, rather than the oldest ones? So I might dedicate June to the most recent, then July to my oldest and leave August for Women in Translation (admittedly, four-five of my Women in Translation choices are very recent ones anyway). The most recent list includes Mieko Kawakami (also featured in the August list), so I might swap her out for someone else in June, but a choice of ten to choose 6-7 from might look like this:
Films and TV
I seem to have found my film-watching mojo again. I’ve watched nine films and one TV mini-series this month, a mix of film classics and sheer escapism.
- Andrei Rublev: yes, it can take a while to get to the point, but it’s still a visually stunning and inventive commentary on the role of the artist
- Hunger: a visceral experience of a slice of recent history that I knew all too little about, although I had heard, of course, of Bobby Sands
- When Harry Met Sally: loved it when I was young, have become a curmudgeon who no longer trusts the love story, even if it has its witty moments
- Animal Farm: not just about the Soviet system – remains as relevant as the day it was made (and Boxer’s fate will forever make me cry)
- Sweet Bean: charming but also thoughtful film about how we treat outsiders – perhaps veers a little into the sentimental
- Touchez pas au Grisbi: now I see where Jean-Pierre Melville and Scorsese got their inspiration from – a worldweary performative tour de force from Jean Gabin, aging gangsters treating women badly, but with a hostage/loot exchange scene which almost made me forget to breathe
- The Chess Players: The country’s burning and these two men are playing chess – a powerful indictment of both local lords and kings, as well as the British rule in India
- The Chalet (French TV series): filmed in Rhone-Alpes, around Chamonix and Annecy, so obviously a winner in my heart, this was essentially a slasher-movie over 6 episodes, full of good-looking young people and grumpy older or depressed older people.
- Rocco and His Brothers: Who can resist a young Alain Delon in this story of migration, urbanisation and brotherly rivalry?
- The Boys from Fengkuei: Taiwanese film about a bunch of rather roguish young men moving to the city, very similar in content and form to Rocco and His Brothers (they actually watch this very film in the cinema at one point)
After a rather quiet start to the year, May has been a very busy (and expensive) month, full of events and courses (and appliances and dentists). Here is what I did in chronological order:
International Booker Prize: The Shortlisted Translators in Conversation – so fascinating to hear translators talk about the challenges of translating their very different books – especially enjoyed Sasha Dugdale talking about how nervous she felt about translating prose, because she usually translates poetry (I think most people feel it’s harder the other way round)
Produce an irresistible plot in a weekend with Shelley Weiner, Guardian Masterclasses – such an encouraging tutor, and lots of exciting ideas to stimulate the creative juices
Poet’s Cafe – took part in the open mic session, as well as heard Oliver Comins read from his poems old and new
Marlen Haushofer in Context, Institute of Modern Languages Research, SAS – only managed to attend one session, comparing The Wall with Seethaler’s A Whole Life, but I caught up with some of the recorded sessions afterwards
Reading in Translation Conference, University College Cork – again, only managed to listen to one session, the book bloggers, but will catch up with recordings
Olivier Norek and Joseph Knox in conversation with Ayo Onatade about noir fiction, at the French Institute in London, with bilingual readings from their novels
Raven Leilani – Hay Festival – such a thoughtful, articulate and gentle young woman, very impressive and very different from Edie in the novel. I thought it was itneresting that she said she was almost envious of Edie’s freedom, her giving herself entirely over to her impulses (her Id), even though it’s an extremely costly way of going about things. Leilani’s style is so clever, precise and rich, at the level of each sentence and paragraph, that I was curious how many drafts she writes to get that depth. It turns out she cannot move on until she has untangled every sentence, rewriting it at least three or four times, so she is a slow writer (and wishes she could be different).
Deborah Levy – Hay Festival – I’ve loved the previous two books in her ‘living autobiography’ trilogy and her third one Real Estate sounds just my cup of tea, especially when she talked about all the ‘unreal estate’ that live in our heads, all the houses we imagine we could be happy in, the future state that we can never achieve. She also talked about how she learnt to live with ambiguity and contradictory thoughts, and that the whole idea behind the trilogy was about figuring out why an ordinary life is worth examining and writing about.
Caleb Azumah Nelson – Hay Festival – I’ve got his debut novel Open Water on my TBR list (possibly for my June Netgalley binge) and am even more eager to read it after hearing him talk so modestly and passionately about writing from his emotions and being willing to make himself vulnerable (and how south-east London is where his world begins and ends).
Writing and translation
It has been quite an expensive month in terms of submissions to literary magazines and competitions. Not just poems and flash fiction, but I also finally got my act together and sent off the opening chapters and a synopsis of my Romania novel (as opposed to my Switzerland novel). I was also delighted to be accepted onto the BCLT Summer School and can only afford it because it’s virtual this year. I’ll be attending the Multilingual Drama section and am planning to go with Mihail Sebastian’s play The Holiday Game, which I mentioned last month.
April 2021 Reading and Film Summary
15 books read, of which seven are crime fiction or true crime or, in one case, a literary curiosity labelled as crime fiction. This escapism into my favourite genre was counterpointed by some very good literary reads. Of the crime fiction genre, I enjoyed Rebecca Bradley’s start to a new series in Sheffield Blood Stained, Allie Reynold’s addictive Shiver, set in the world of snowboarding competitions, and Margie Orford’s haunting recreation of Cape Town’s older and more recent history Gallows Hill. For the Virtual Crime Book Club, I finally managed to get A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson from the library: I don’t usually read YA, but his one just zips along in a charming voice (think a slightly older Flavia de Luce set in a very contemporary world, where CDs are sooo last century).
The month was dominated by the reading I did for #1936Club and most of it was written by or about Romanian authors. While I did review Horvath’s plays for the #1936Club, I actually read them in March. However, I did read Max Blecher, Karel Capek, Mihail Sebastian and Liviu Rebreanu in April, all more or less fitting the requirements for the year 1936 or thereabouts.
There were three disappointments in this month’s pile though. The true crime book by John Leake The Vienna Woods Killer was written with too much of an American audience in mind, not particularly evocative of the Viennese atmosphere nor showing enough respect for the victims, but instead overly focusing on the investigation and court case. The novel entitled Sebastian by Gelu Diaconu was too much about other people, not enough about Sebastian (or else, did not add anything new to the Sebastian story). Sad to say, The Chateau by Catherine Cooper did not live up to the expectation raised by her first novel The Chalet, which I read last year. In spite of the fact that French chateaux are amongst my favourite things ever, as you well know.
But let’s not focus on the disappointments, because (aside from the books I read for the 1936 mission, which were all excellent) I also read two wonderful books this month. I reread To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (which I liked, but had never been my favourite novel of hers – that would be The Waves – but which certainly has gone up vertiginously in my esteem now). I still hope to review it at some point, although what can you say about a novel that everybody and their dog has opined about? The other novel I picked up because of my passion for Mozart: The Snow Ball by Brigid Brophy: delightful, frothy, yet very intelligent, with the sort of precise, taut writing I hugely admire. (Very much like Mozart – perfectly controlled, it just seems easy like breathing.) I then listened to the Backlisted Podcast episode about it and appreciated it even more. Two perfect little gems for a rather tiring month (aren’t they all – tiring, I mean, not gems obviously).
My patience for box sets has gone out the window. I started the second season of Succession and it was just more of the same: backstabbing amongst rich people behaving badly, so I abandoned it. Fortitude was beautiful for its landscape, but that stifling small community where everyone seems to sleep with everyone and the rather far-fetched storyline palled after 5-6 episodes (plus there were some unnecessarily graphic gory scenes). Even The Sopranos felt a bit ‘take it or leave it, I won’t suffer either way’ after two seasons, so I decided to cancel my NowTV subscription.
After a very ‘film-less’ March, I caught up with my love for films a little more in April. It was perhaps not quite as diverse as previously, quite international nevertheless:
- Japan: A Silent Voice – anime about bullying in high school, much harder-hitting than I expected
- Spain: Pan’s Labyrinth – fantasy, history, once again – much more powerful (nightmarish almost) than I expected
- Romania: Collective – documentary about the nightclub fire in Bucharest in 2015 and its aftermath, revealing government corruption and the power of investigative journalism
- France: A Prophet – prison drama, watching Tahar Rahim transform under your very eyes from a naive young man to a criminal wheeler-and-dealer
- US: The King of Comedy – a satire that manages to be both fierce and very funny, and deeply disturbing, with a brilliant performance by De Niro.
- UK: The Third Man – still one of my favourite films for the black-and-white atmospheric shots of post-war Vienna and a world that has lost in faith in humanity – but yes, my sons are right that the dialogues between Holly Martins and Anna are stilted and old-fasioned
- Italy: The Ties – didn’t realise it was based on the Domenico Starnone book, which I had avoided reading because I was still raw about my divorce – so the film turned me inside out a bit, especially the reaction of the children. Felt cynical and glum, at times hammering home the message a little too much.
- US: In the Soup – another black comedy mocking both wannabe talents and the criminal world, while also being the story of the relationship between a charismatic older man who teaches a clueless young man how to live. Although I did chuckle, it felt like I’d seen this type of story before – and done better – in Zorba the Greek.
Last minute update: In my last post about Rebreanu, I mention the dance Ciuleandra and I included a film clip. I should also have added (thank you to Calmgrove for reminding me) that there is a fairly good Romanian film adaptation of it dating from 1985. Here is the trailer, which includes the moment when the couple meet at the village dance, with French subtitles.
#6Degrees April 2021
Time for another random bookish chain, where we all start with the same book but end up on very different journeys, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we start with the Booker Prize winning Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, which I have considered reading but fear I might find too depressing. Books about bad parenting get me all flustered.
I mean, the book Back to Delphi by Ioanna Karystiani (transl. Konstantine Matsoukas) was disquieting enough, and the mother in that is not necessarily a bad one, just a tad self-absorbed and trying to hide her suffering from her son… which of course gets misinterpreted. The two of them end up incapable of communicating with each other – and the son goes on to become a rapist and a murderer. He is granted a brief furlough from prison and she takes him to Delphi in an attempt to reconnect with him, and to try and find out where she went wrong.
The next book in the chain is another Ioana, a Romanian one this time: Ioana Parvulescu’s Life Begins on Friday, a time-travelling mystery and love letter to the city of Bucharest, winner of the European Union Prize for Literature in 2013. It has been translated into English by Alastair Ian Blyth for Istros Books, and deserves to be better known.
I used to be more of a fan of time-travelling novels in my youth, not so much now. The last memorable one I read was Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls, about a time-travelling serial killer. It is not an easy book to describe, perfectly bonkers, but as always with Lauren Beukes, utterly compelling.
However, I preferred another of her novels, Moxyland, set in an alternative future Cape Town, where people are increasingly controlled by their mobile phones and apps, leading to a sort of corporate apartheid dictatorship.
I haven’t yet read Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (transl. Stephen Snyder) but it seems to have a similar premise, except here the authoritarian regime seems bent on destroying people’s memories. This was written more than twenty years ago. Perhaps if it had been written more recently the internet and mobile phones might have played a bigger part, as they do in Moxyland.
Of course, the concept of erasing memories or of accepting only one official version of history is something that all dictatorships have in common, and one of the best examples of this is the description of the ‘retouched’ photograph, a frequent occurence in an attempt to get rid of someone who became politically undesirable, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera.
Scotland, Greece, Romania, Chicago, South Africa, Japan and Czechoslovakia – a well-travelled series of links this month. Where will your spontaneous bookishness take you?
December Reading and Films
Just because I’ve written my annual summary doesn’t mean that December gets neglected. Although it was busier than I would have liked until the 18th, after that I went on holiday, so had more time to dedicate to reading, writing, family and watching films or TV series. Here is a little round-up of the month.
This was my Russians in December month. Of course, given the verbosity of some of those Russians, it ended up being nothing more than Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island (which was an eye-opener and which I cannot recommend highly enough as piece of investigative and anthropological writing) and The Brothers Karamazov (in the translation of Ignat Avsey). I’m halfway through the latter and enjoying it far more than I ever did on previous attempts, so this might be the time I actually get to finish it (by the time 31st of December, 23:59 comes along). Review (or rather, random thoughts and jotting in the margins) to follow in the New Year.
Alongside these chunksters, I felt I had to keep things short and reasonably cheerful and/or escapist. For example, I have interspersed these serious reads with easy and reasonably forgettable crime fiction, which I chose mainly because of their settings, like Ruth Ware’s One By One (skiing in the French Alps) or Robert Thorogood’s The Marlow Murder Club (set in the village where my son goes to school – his school gets a mention in the book too). Two other crime novels proved to be a lot more thought-provoking than I had expected, so were enjoyable in a different way: Riku Onda’s The Aosawa Murders (which I’ve already mentioned several times, so you’re probably sick to death of it) and John Vercher’s Three Fifths, which addresses a real moral dilemma about race and friendship, family and crime in the United States.
Oddly enough, the remaining two books have been described as crime novels, but are in fact about middle-aged men going back to either the places they grew up in (Urs Faes’ Twelve Nights) or to a privileged way of life and setting they thought they had left behind (John le Carré’s A Murder of Quality – set in a public school rather similar to Eton or Sherborne, which the author hated). Both books are full of wistfulness and yearning, for what might have been, for the people we did not marry and, above all, the people we did not become.
The last two books of the month are ones that I am skimming through rather than reading. The first is The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly (not because I don’t enjoy it, but because there is no time to finish reading it before the Virtual Crime Book Club tonight). The second is Amanda Craig’s The Golden Rule, which sounded intriguing as a premise – a fun exploration of current social affairs in the UK via a Strangers on the Train scenario – but in practice is a bit plodding and clichéed, and somehow unable to make up its mind if it’s a romance or a satire or a crime novel or a thriller or a social novel… And this from a reader like me who likes genre transgressions!
So eight books in total, if we don’t include the skimmed ones, of which four in translation (two Russians).
With the boys spending the first week of the holidays with me, we got to watch quite a lot of films. 12 films and 2 TV series (or parts of the latter) so far, and I expect to squeeze in a couple more until New Year’s Eve. The first TV series was Season 1 of Succession, which is a great mockery of rich people, and particularly a dysfunctional Rupert Murdoch type family. The other is The West Wing, which I’ve finally embarked upon rewatching with my boys. I think they were not that enamoured with it for the first two episodes, but then they started getting caught up in the banter and political intrigues. Even though it feels at times quaint in its old-fashioned optimism (which has been sucked out of us after the Trump administration), what I like is the highly intelligent, witty, challenging yet also supportive banter among its main characters. I’ve had the pleasure of being surrounded by some such people in a few educational or work settings, and it’s a wonderful thing to experience at least temporarily. We may stop after the first three seasons, though, which are the best.
Half of the films this month were Japanese, I noticed with some surprise. I suppose I get more and more ‘homesick’ for Japanese culture every passing year, and with Christmas making me nostalgic in general, three of those were animes. But not quite the reassuring, sweet kind. Studio Ghibli’s Porco Rosso finally made me realise why they called themselves Ghibli and is an homage to the early aviators, but we also watched two non-Ghibli animations. Made in Abyss (we had started watching the anime series, but this was a standalone film) was much darker than I had expected, about experimenting on children. Meanwhile, Your Name was a teen love story with darker sting in its tail, of destruction of a town (always top of mind in a country prone to earthquakes, typhoons and tsunamis, although in this case it is destroyed by a meteorite), of tradition versus modernity, and missed opportunities.
Of the adult films, there were two Kurosawas that I rewatched and really enjoyed their blending of Japanese samurai traditions with a gentle mockery of cowboy films: Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai. I can understand though why my sons thought they were overlong and that there were not sufficient differentiating features between the various samurai. The last Japanese film I watched on my own, since it was a horror flick: Cure by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira). Not a jump scare or gory horror thriller – more of a gradual ratcheting up of tension and disquiet, with the most menacing small talk I’ve ever seen.
Quite a few of the films were Christmas rewatches, films I’ve seen so often they’ve become part of my personal fabric: Some Like It Hot (probably my favourite comedy), Singin’ in the Rain, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Kind Hearts and Coronets. One of the rewatches was less successful: I had previously only seen Citizen Kane as a child and was not that impressed, but at that time all of the nuances and political commentary were lost on me, so I decided to watch it now. Although it was good, sharp and witty, I feel that calling it the ‘best film of all time’ might be overstating things (but don’t ask me which one I would put in its place).
The final film I watched this month was The Death of Stalin, which I had never watched before. I am torn about this film. Although I found much of the black humour and over-the-top dramatic posturing hilarious, and although we used plenty of such humour to help us cope with the fear and disgust of Communist dictatorship, it nevertheless felt wrong to laugh at things that have caused so much terror and heartbreak to so many people. It is too close to me personally and to people I know. Plus, Kruschev (played with aplomb by Steve Buscemi) was certainly not quite the almost reasonable guy they make him out to be – only the least insane and cruel out of a really bad lot.
Happy to report that I’ve gone back to daily writing practice (even if it’s only 15 minutes in my diary or a blog post). This is not necessarily because I believe it’s indispensable for writing a novel, but because it makes me feel I have accomplished something on even the busiest, dreariest of days.
The even happier news is that I’ve gone back to my first novel. I found a whole treasure trove of handwritten and printed materials, notes, calendars, inspirational pictures, discarded chapters etc. So I have plenty to work with and am really excited about spending time with those characters once more and exploring their world.