June Summary

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.

We were lucky with the weather, too: it was the one day of the week when there was no rain or gusty wind.

Reading:

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.

Books

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)

Literary Events

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

Reading

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).

Films

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.

Reading

Poster for the 2009 Russian TV series of the Brothers Karamazov

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).

Films

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.

Writing

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.

This is the Balea Lake Chalet, up at 2000 metres in the Fagaras mountains. It plays a crucial role in my novel. From CabanaBaleaLac.ro

That’s Entertainment: Books and Films

I never thought I would complain about the excessive heat in the UK, but I am. Partly because it’s humid and muggy, while the heat in Greece and Romania is much drier, so I sweat just by breathing. Partly because my house is not designed to cope with either heat or cold (and yes, I tried additional insulation in the loft and double-glazed windows – houses built in the 1980s in Britain are a bit rubbish).

So this is a long introduction to just say: I cannot be bothered to write a proper thoughtful review of my final #20BooksofSummer read, Teffi’s wonderful Subtly Worded. If it cools down by the end of the week, you might get a review then. Instead, I’d like to share with you some of the things that have been keeping me entertained this past fortnight or so. Books and films, what else?

In addition to #WomeninTranslation, I have also been reading some relaxing crime fiction (well, it’s relaxing for me, at any rate).

Mark Billingham’s Their Little Secrets was a read for the Virtual Crime Club run by crime author Rebecca Bradley – a solid police procedural, involving a killer duo where the woman is the manipulator rather than the man. I have read many books in the Tom Thorne series before, but annoyingly not the previous one to this – and there were a lot of references to it in this book, which whetted my appetite. Best of all, Rebecca invited Mark to answer some questions at the start of the session and we were stunned to discover that he doesn’t plot his novels at all – or even the longer-term story arcs and character development for Tom and his team. He likes to keep himself surprised, even at the risk that he sometimes finds himself painted into a corner (and has to rewrite things extensively). You can hear a recording of the session on Rebecca’s site. (But be warned there are plenty of spoilers, if you haven’t read the book yet!)

Susie Steiner’s Remain Silent is the third in the Manon Bradshaw series, and I simply can’t get enough of the lovable, very real middle-aged female detective trying to navigate police work with a not quite fairytale marriage, a toddler, a teenager, an potentially terminally ill husband. Her acerbic comments on modern life are a real delight. The story of (perfectly legal) immigrants lured by the thought of forging a good future for themselves and their families back home, and instead being exploited for grim work in unsavoury conditions is hugely topical, of course, but does occasionally feel a little telegraphed in, what with the short chapters and moving rapidly from one point of view to the next. I know the author has had serious health problems lately, and I sincerely hope she proves doctors wrong and recovers very soon and gets to write many more in the series (or whatever else she wants).

I can’t remember the last time I watched anything live on telly, but police anti-corruption investigation series Line of Duty is back on, so I am catching up with Series 1, which I never got to see. It’s like watching a prequel to something very familiar, so of course you can’t help exclaiming ‘how young they were!’ but also noticing how some of the character tics (of Superintendent Hastings, for instance) became emphasised in later series, probably as a result of audience reactions and amusement.

I’ve watched far fewer films than I expected while the boys were away – perhaps because I really cannot bear to spend any more time in the study in the evening in front of my desktop, where I sit and work all day (I cannot use Mubi or NowTV or anything like that on my work laptop). However, I did watch two Italian ones from very different periods and yet another French one, and I am continuing my love affair with women directors too.

Fellini’s 8 1/2 is a sly portrayal of midlife crisis and creative block. Marcello Mastroianni is of course a charmer and we might think Fellini sympathises with the dilemma of creative burnout, but it soon dawns on us that the film director he portrays is behaving like a real mascalzone (to quote the film). The dream harem sequence in particular really pokes fun at him. When he banishes the women over a certain age upstairs (out of his sight), they start rebelling: ‘Are we lemons to be squeezed and thrown away?’ and ‘Down with Bluebeard!’ and he has to take out the whip. Completely outrageous and over the top, but does he get his comeuppance?

Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders is set in the Tuscan countryside and there’s a strange timeless quality about it. It’s an unromantic view of subsistence agriculture, beekeeping and small-scale production of honey, seen through the eyes of a somewhat naive 12 year old (very sensitive and mature performance by the 13 year old Maria Alexandra Lungu, who I’m proud to say is of Romanian origin). Yet it also mourns the loss of a way of life as the farming community succumbs to gentrification and becomes a tourist attraction thanks to a rather ridiculous TV show. There is a surreal Fellini-like moment when the children catch a glimpse of Monica Bellucci resplendent in a silver dress and with long white locks in the middle of an Etruscan necropolis.

Katell Quillévéré’s Heal the Living is based on the novel about a heart transplant by Maylis de Kerangal which I loved back in 2016. In the novel, the boy whose organs are donated (after initial shock and reluctance by the parents) is 20, but in the film he is 17, the same age as my older son. Additionally, the person waiting for a heart transplant is a single mother of two sons, one of them more dutiful, the other more wayward. So, with all of this too uncomfortably close to my own biographical details, you can imagine that I pretty much cried all the way through – a new record for me! However, what was impressive was how earnest, respectful and gentle the medical staff were throughout with the patients and their families, regardless of their own personal circumstances. The moment of ‘closure’ before they take out the heart – I defy anyone not to have tears in their eyes at that scene.

Phew, so maybe not quite so escapist after all, this entertainment malarkey!

 

 

Inside and Out Book Tag

If Annabel, Kaggsy59 and Calmgrove are all doing a bookish meme, then surely it must be a good one? It certainly looks like fun! All about bookish habits – the more visible ones… and a few hidden ones.

My deckchair is not visible in this picture, but isn’t this just the most magical place? My little piece of paradise.

1. Inside flap/back of the book summaries: Too much info? Or not enough?

I quite like reading the flaps, although a lot of the blurbs seem to sound quite samey nowadays. Or else they can be misleading – trying to sell the book as the next [insert current popular XXX]. I’m not hugely upset by spoilers, so I might even read a few reviews of a book I am thinking of buying. If my trusted book bloggers think it’s an intriguing/interesting/unusual book, then that’s good enough for me (they don’t have to like it).

2. New book: What form do you want it in? Be honest: Audiobook, eBook, Paperback or Hardcover?

I really can’t get into audiobooks for some reason – which is ironic, because I used to love reading books out loud to my mother and then to my children. Not terribly keen on ebooks either unless I really have no other choice. I wish I could afford glorious hardbacks, but they are too expensive and take up too much space on my shelves. So paperbacks it is…

3. Scribble while you read? Do you like to write in your books; take notes, make comments, or do you keep your books clean, clean, clean?

Confession time: in secondary school and university, I used to underline or write some key words in my books (not just textbooks, but philosophy and fiction as well). My father has done that all his life, so I just assumed that was something that grownups did! I now much prefer to have colourful little post-it flags on any particularly striking passages.

4. Does it matter to you whether the author is male or female when you’re deciding on a book? What if you’re unsure of the author’s gender?

Not really. Although if I go through a phase of reading mostly male authors, I really feel the need to compensate with a long phase of female authors. And I’m pretty sure I’ve read books by authors with ambiguous names, certain they were women and then discovering they were men (Evelyn Waugh?) or vice versa (it took me over a decade to discover Ayn Rand was a woman – possibly because I didn’t think a woman could be the the mouthpiece for such radical egoism (and so much lauded by certain men I know). So there you go: you really can’t tell if it’s a male or female writer most of the time.

5. Ever read ahead? Or have you ever read the last page way before you got there?

Something that I used to do in my youth. As I said, I don’t mind spoilers and I really, really wanted to make sure that my favourite character doesn’t come to a bad end. But I soon discovered that authors are too clever to say ‘and then Gatsby was shot by the pool’ in the very last paragraph, so I stopped.

6. Organized bookshelves or outrageous bookshelves?

Super-organised in principle, but now that I’m seriously running out of space (this month alone, I discovered to my dismay, I ordered 50 books, so lockdown has been ruinous for my purse), there is a lot of double-stacking going on. Also, piles on every available flat surface in the house.

MY US shelf is looking decidedly crowded nowadays. I will probably need to flow over somewhere else…

7. Have you ever bought a book based on the cover (alone)?

Not unless I’m pretty sure I’d like the content too. Does buying several copies of the same book because of beautiful covers count? I have several copies of To the Lighthouse, but I do try to restrain myself. Which is why I have some really quite awful Pan Classics covers from the 1970s that my parents bought way back when. They are still in good condition and I can’t justify to myself buying a more aesthetically pleasing edition of Villette, Pride and Prejudice or Moll Flanders (and have to donate the old editions to charity shops). Of course, if someone were to give them to me as a present…

8. Take it outside to read, or stay in?

The best place to read is in the conservatory (see picture above). When I raise the blinds, I can see the garden but am not bothered by creepy crawlies. I have a comfortable deckchair, I don’t get sunstroke, I have my cold drink to hand, and the cats often jump on my lap and purr. It’s just a shame that at times it gets either too hot or too cold in there. Reading in bed is always an attractive option – as long as I don’t doze off too soon.

Five Bad Reading Habits

I saw this post about bad reading habits over on Amy’s blog and it made me eager to discover my own. Of course, ‘bad’ is in the eye of the beholder, but I could certainly relate to several of her reading habits.

  1. Buying (or borrowing) new books even though I have no hope on earth of ever finishing the ones I still have unread on my shelves. Apparently, this is such a common failing among book lovers that the Japanese have a word for it: ‘tsundoku’  積ん読 (piling up of reading) and it’s been recognised as a problem since at least the Meiji Era (1868-1912). I go on occasional book buying bans starting on 1st of January (my only New Year resolutions) and I usually last until April. This year I was planning to last longer, but now I feel it is my moral duty to support authors and publishers in the Covid 19 crisis.
  2. Reading books that are too similar and getting them mixed up. This derives from what some might call my other bad habit of reading several books at once. I don’t personally consider that a bad habit at all, since I am often in a very different mood in the morning and the evening, or else I need a respite from a more challenging text or a gruesome murder or a half-mastered language. Occasionally, I seem to gravitate towards a certain topic or else the blurb was slightly misleading and I end up with two books that are quite similar in terms of plot or setting or characters. There’s a real danger that they start to blur and blend in my mind. When I realise that is about to happen, I usually put one of the books aside until later, or else try to read in different languages, which seems to help in keeping things apart.
  3. Avoiding books because they are praised too much. And I don’t mean just the buzz around launch time (which I know a lot of you don’t like and therefore plan to read the book later, when things have quietened down). I often purposely avoid books on bestseller lists, prize winners, those that get great reviews or get lots of recommendations in the Top 10 or Top 100 lists etc. Call it being a literary snob, but I tend to opt for lesser-known works which give me a feeling of personal discovery, or else books recommended by those whose opinion I really value (and that would typically be you, my dear blogger friends).
  4. Reading in bed at night. That is one of my favourite times and places to read, so it’s not a problem… unless I leave it too late and end up being too tired and my eyes close on the third page, which I end up reading five times before I finally give up and switch off the light. The converse of that is that when I suffer from insomnia (which is often – although strangely enough I seem to be sleeping better lately, probably because I’m so exhausted all the time) and wake up at 3:30 am, I get so wrapped up in the book I’m reading that I’m usually still at it at 6 am. And then suffer the bleary consequences that day.
  5. Not taking notes as I go along. This is for books which I intend to review rather than the ones I just read for relaxation. I do have little stick-it flags which I use to mark certain quotable passages, but I rely over-much on my memory and don’t write down why that particular passage resonated with me… and sometimes I’m wondering what on earth that was all about after I finish the book. Or else I mark far too many of them and can’t possibly choose which one to include. Or else I don’t have my little flags to hand (this happens especially when commuting), so brilliant ideas and quotes get lost. Anyway, that’s why so often my reviews are on the emotional side. I can remember the feelings the book arose in me, but I don’t have the evidence to back it.

I’d love to hear what habits, good, bad or otherwise, you have when it comes to reading. Can you relate to any of mine or do they shock you? I’m pretty willing to bet that you all have at least the first one in common with me.

Best of the Year Books (Crime and Current Releases)

From now on, I will ignore both annoying politicians and ex-husbands, and focus only on books. I still have a few books to review, but I’m also starting my annual round-up. Perhaps I’ll even get around to a decade’s round-up.

I’ve found a very clever way around the limitations of the ‘Top Ten Books of the Year’ list. I will compile my choices by categories. In this first instalment, I’m featuring my favourite crime fiction books and the 2019 releases (never mind that these two lists might overlap, I will ignore that).

Second instalment will contain Non-Fiction and Classics, while the final one will be about new discoveries or new books by authors I already admire. And, since I’m an optimist about still finding memorable books in the 20 days still left of 2019, I will leave the last instalment open for late additions and only publish it on the very last day of the year.

The ones I own; the others were library loans. And Ghost Wall is at a friend’s house currently.

Crime Fiction:

Will Carver: Nothing Important Happened Today – if I say social critique and suicide cults, it will sound incredibly depressing, but this is a very unusual and highly readable mystery

Antti Tuomainen: Little Siberia – action-packed noir with a philosophical slant and surreal, even slapstick humour, this is a story about losing your faith and what it might take to regain it

Doug Johnstone: Breakers – heartbreaking, yet avoids sentimentality, this story of brotherly love and deprived childhoods

Helen Fitzgerald: Worst Case Scenario – at once a condemnation of the stretched resources within our probation services, as well as a menopausal woman’s roar of rebellion

G.D. Abson: Motherland – a fresh and timely setting for this first book in a crime series set in Putin’s Russia

Bogdan Teodorescu: Baieti aproape buni – sharp, scathing critique of political corruption and media cover-up

New Releases:

I notice that all of the below are rather dark, although they also ooze humour (maybe that’s just me and my love of black comedy)

Sarah Moss: Ghost Wall – misplaced nostalgia for a more heroic past and a domestic tyrant you will love to hate

Nicola Barker: I Am Sovereign – an ill-fated house viewing, where everyone seems to shed their multiple masks and either reveal or question their identity

Robert Menasse: The Capital – the almost surreal absurdity of a pan-European organisation and the people within it, a satirical yet also compassionate portrait of contemporary Europe and Brussels

Guy Gunaratne: In Our Mad and Furious City – an angry tribute to a city that devours its children

Anna Burns: Milkman – technically, published in 2018 but became more widely available in 2019 – such an evocative look at the claustrophobia of living in a divided, small-town society

Mood-Boosting Books in the Library

A couple of years ago I discovered that there is a trend now to promote ‘mood-boosting books’ in our local libraries (and perhaps nationally). Perhaps this is to counteract the trauma caused by the daily, weekly, monthly news cycle, or perhaps it’s a bread and circuses distraction so that the population stays calm and carries on. Whatever the reason behind it, it was something I welcomed, even as an inveterate and unrepentant reader of noir literature.

However, the selection is somewhat controversial, to say the least. No disrespect to the librarians who made the selection from what were probably limited resources, but I cannot resist suggesting some alternatives to the more blatant discrepancies between stated purpose and actual effect on the reader.

Completely gratuitous image of Aidan Turner as Poldark – and no, not the torso…

The choice of the Poldark series may have more to do with the phwoar appeal of Aidan Turner’s torso than with the actual storyline, which is often full of cruelty, grim poverty and sadness. If you were aiming for a family saga in which you can sink in, forgetting about your own worries for a minute, then I would recommend Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance or the Jalna series by Mazo de la Roche.

I recently borrowed The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, which was also on that mood-boosting shelf, expecting a book about a cat adopting a youngish couple to be charming and tender. Well, yes it was, but also rather wistful and sad, connected to the end of an era (Showa) and perhaps an end of a certain way of life in Japan. For a cheerier account of cats as saviours, try A Streetcat Named Bob or The Good, the Bad and the Furry. And if you want a satire of a changing Japan, then Natsume Soseki’s I Am a Cat is a classic.

Portrait of Natsume Soseki with his cat, by Okamoto Ippei.

I’ve laughed before how Alice Munro was mysteriously shelved under Happiness with her stark and unflinching short stories. I could say the same about The Miniaturist, or Chekhov’s short stories, or Louis Sachar’s Holes or A Month in the Country or even The Camomile Lawn. I suppose the idea is to read something about triumph in the face of adversity, but some of the titles seem to wilfully misinterpret what could make people happy. Maybe reading about other people’s suffering makes us more content with our own life?

There are, of course, some excellent choices that I cannot help but agree with: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, the irrepressible Adrian Mole, The Enchanted April, Matt Haig’s The Humans and even Deborah Moggach’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (aka These Foolish Things, although I have problems at times with the ‘white tourists going to exotic locations and poking gentle fun at them’.

What other books would you recommend to people who need escapism or cheering up? Top of my list would be Pippi Longstocking, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt, Paul Berna’s A Hundred Million Francs. What would be top of your list?