Six Degrees of Separation is one of the few memes I join in on a regular basis, as it is always a joy to see how our minds work so differently… Hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best, it works as follows: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and you need to link to six other books to form a chain, each one linking to the next in the chain but not necessarily to the initial book.
This month we are starting with The Outsiders by SE Hinton. To my shame, I’ve not read it, but I know it’s a classic about teenage misfits rebelling. I used to watch films about teenagers more at that age than read books about them (I liked to pretend I was older than my years in my reading and that’s why I cannot understand the passion for YA literature nowadays.
One book about confused teenagerhood that I did read and hugely enjoyed was Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. As a matter of fact, everything by Judy Blume was relevant and daring to me in my early teens.
Another book about God that I read very seriously in my teens was St. Augustine’s Confessions. It is an incredible work for its time – describing with much gusto the sinfulness of his early years and how he converted to Christianity, including all of his doubts and lapses.
From a real-life saint to a nickname in my third choice, namely Simon Templar, the Saint of the long-running series by Leslie Charteris. A James Bond like figure, halfway between a villain and a hero, he is described as a Robin Hood type of conman and avenger, hitting at the rich, venal and corrupt.
Speaking of Robin Hood, Sir Walter Scott was one of the authors who most contributed to popularising this hero in Ivanhoe. Another novel by Sir Walter Scott that I enjoyed a great deal was The Bride of Lammermoor, which famously provided the basis for Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor.
There have been quite a few books or stories turned into operas, and one of the most moving adaptations is Madama Butterfly by Puccini, partially based on Pierre Loti’s MadameChrysanthème. How much of it was autobiographical is unclear, but Loti was certainly a naval officer and travelled extensively throughout the world and wrote evocatively if somewhat voyeuristically about ‘exotic’ places.
My final choice is also set in Japan but not at all ‘exoticising’ matters. It is Fog Island Mountains by my friend and very talented writer Michelle Bailat-Jones. Set in a small town awaiting a typhoon in the Kirishima mountain range, which play an important part in Japanese mythology (and are the legendary birthplace of the Japanese Imperial lineage), it is an evocative, poetic story of marriage, grief, betrayal and anger.
So three continents and three languages in this month’s selection of links. Do join in and see where this free association might take you…
It’s always a bit of a surprise when I sit down at the end of the month to do a proper count of the number and types of books I’ve read. This month, I only managed to read 8 books, which might in part be explained by the fact that it has been a month full of travelling and other cultural events, as well as the back to school rigmarole.
More surprising and disappointing, by far, is the fact that of those 8, only 2 were in translation, both from Spanish, both winners of the biggest literary prize in Spain, the Planeta Prize. These were Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett’s subversive Naked Men and Dolores Redondo’s gripping (although at times long-winded) psychological thriller All This I Will Give to You.
So perhaps NOT the best month in terms of diversity. I found myself reaching for authors where I know what to expect, such as Rachel Cusk, Tana French or Sarah Moss, whose Night Waking brings back many, many memories of failed attempts at being a good scholar and a good mother simultaneously. And, if the author wasn’t known to me, I stuck to situations that would be familiar, such as expat life (Singapore is only slightly more of a police state than Switzerland) in Jo Furniss’ The Trailing Spouse. I cannot stop myself from reading these sort of books, but I do wonder why in so many books about expats, the main female character is often annoyingly self-absorbed, entitled and thoughtless (even when the writers are women, such as Janice Y.K. Lee, Nell Zink, Jill Alexander Essbaum, or more recently Louise Mangos with Strangers on a Bridge.) Nice cover, though!
The only two male authors I read this month were Michael Redhill: Bellevue Square, which left me somewhat perplexed, and Leye Adenle’s When Trouble Sleeps, which left me depressed about corruption, politics and vote rigging, although it takes place in Nigeria rather than in the UK. I’ll be reviewing the book and interviewing the author for Crime Fiction Lover very soon.
A little bit of floor-mopping and fridge-replacement doesn’t stop me from enjoying some cultural events in the interstices. The week before the Flash Fiction Festival, I had two trips to the theatre (booked well before the domestic crises, otherwise I might not have gone).
Park Theatre near Finsbury Park station is a small neighbourhood theatre in a converted office building, specialising in new, more experimental writing. Tickets are humanly priced, every effort is made to represent a diverse community (both in terms of playwrights and actors), aimed at encouraging people into theatre who might not otherwise attend by tackling contemporary themes: what’s not to like?
This time I saw the play Alkaline by Stephanie Martin, about two childhood friends who try to reignite their friendship as both of them are newly engaged to be married. Except one of them has converted to Islam and the other seems to have a drinking problem. It’s a dinner party drama reminiscent of Abigail’s Party, replete with stilted dialogue, people trying to conceal what they really feel, and exposing the hypocritical attitude to multiculturalism and difference. My favourite part of this was when the Muslim boyfriend (who was Muslim in name only, otherwise more of a typically English bloke) started a teasing rant about how Muslims are taking over Britain. Overall, however, I felt that this was more of a personal drama rather than social commentary, so I turned to two other books on my TBR pile that also feature conversions to Islam – albeit, more extreme ones, with protagonists going to Syria to become IS fighters.
Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire doesn’t need much of an introduction: longlisted, shortlisted and finally winning literary prizes. It’s a very timely book, but it’s not just its topicality that marks it out as a winner. It is also dramatically and lyrically written: accessible and yet poetic. Much has been made of it being a retelling of the Ancient Greek story of Antigone, but the similarities become apparent only towards the end and are not, in fact, all that remarkable or relevant. I found myself somewhat unsure of the first third of the book, told from the more neutral point of view of the older sister, Isma, although it provides some much-needed level-headedness compared to the more overblown prose of the second and third part. Still, I ask myself, why is Eamonn, son of the Home Secretary, introduced to the family through her? Is it merely to give another perspective on him, to make the move from ‘trust fund baby’ to ‘distraught lover’ more dramatic? However, each character is fully developed, and there are hints of depth in the Home Secretary and his wife as well, even though they are secondary characters. As for Isma, she may be more neutral, but she is still remarkably sharp-tongued and upset about the treatment of Muslims in both Britain and the States, and she seemed more plausible a character to me than the attractive but overdramatic Aneeka.
The second book on this topic is the more straightforward thriller The Good Sister by Morgan Jones, a former investigator into financial matters and international disputes. Sofia is a young girl who leaves her unhappy family life in London and seeks to find herself in Raqqa, while her father is determined to rescue her from what he perceives as delusion and brainwashing. I’m still in the middle of reading it, but it’s becoming clear that Sofia’s idealism will be sorely tested and that she will find it very difficult to leave, just like Aneeka’s twin in Home Fire.
The final play that I saw that week was a bilingual edition of Tartuffe, on the 14th of July appropriately enough. Paul Anderson plays Tartuffe as a Southern tele-evangelist type con-man who has infiltrated the family of rich businessman Orgon (Sebastian Roche, utterly perfectly bilingual), his wife Elmire (the gorgeous Audrey Fleurot, who seemed frankly a little wasted on the play in parts, merely looking decorative in amazing dresses for quite long stretches) and his children who are mostly English-speaking and have integrated into the decadent LA society. It was an interesting concept, with some good acting, and with clear references to the present day and our tendency to fall for false promises. However, I have to admit that I found both the fast-spoken French and the Southern drawl of the English equally hard to follow, though not as impossible as some reviewers made it out to be (there were surtitles). I went there with the boys and on the whole they quite liked it – so 13 and 15 year olds were much kinder to the play than theatre critics. This negative publicity in the media meant that the theatre was half-empty, so our seats were upgraded to the stalls, so we had excellent views, but it is a shame that audiences are not more open to bilingual productions.
My older son had studied Molière – Les Fourberies de Scapin and Le Médecin malgré lui – at school as a 12-year-old, so he was somewhat familiar with the humour (although the language is still quite difficult even for French speakers, a bit like Shakespeare for English speakers), but I think the modern production helped to make it more accessible to them. For more thoughts on the genius of Molière, here is a very early post I wrote about him.
I only get around to doing it once a month, but here is a lovely meme you might want to take part in, hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.
Not ‘mere’ as in ‘mother’ but as in Windermere, it is a cross-genre novel set in rural Lancashire. Part family story, part crime, with elements of ghost story, it is about the destruction of the landscape, death of farming and the revenge of nature as well as about the human beings living there.
Ali Smith: Autumn – progress on this one has been slow, as I put it down to read something else and haven’t really returned to it. I rather like it, but clearly it does not grip me.
John Berger: G.
Winner of the Booker Prize in 1972, I’ll be doing a brief write-up of it for Shiny New Books Golden Booker special. It will never be a popular or highly readable book, but I found this retelling of Casanova or Don Juan set at the turn of the 19th to 20th century a lot more fun than I expected.
Marian Keyes: The Break
I was in the mood for a little mid-life crisis and man-bashing, and Keyes is always brilliant at observing couples or parent-child dynamics. However, it did feel rather long and unedited, a bit self-indulgent for both the writer and the reader.
For David Bowie Book Club:
Susan Jacoby: The Age of American Unreason – halfway through June and I still haven’t read the choice for May – don’t know why I hesitate about picking up this book, perhaps fear that it will make me rant about politics once more?
For leisure (and next on my #20booksofsummer list):
Belinda Bauer: Snap
Not sure if maternal abandonment is a subject that will cheer me up, but at least this book should have me reading well into the night, knowing the author. Not many books have done that lately!
With all of the book-buying binges I’ve been indulging in for the past year (and last week especially), I’ve had to rethink how I arrange my books on the shelves. In other words, I was running out of shelf space, despite the fact that there are bookshelves in my study, both of the boys’ rooms and the living room (although the latter could do with more bookshelves, but stupidly placed radiators prevent it).
So I had a genius moment of inspiration: why don’t I use some of the other furniture to keep books? I have two large bedside tables all to myself and a chest of drawers in my bedroom, plus another chest of drawers for the children’s clothes on the landing. Of course, there had to be a bit of logic to my madness, and this is what I came up with.
The bedside table by the side where I have my reading lamp is dedicated to ‘books to review and other current reads’, books borrowed from the libraries and my three favourite authors: Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen and Tove Jansson. I don’t actually have all of their books here with me – the downside of moving frequently to new countries. But on the day when I will be reunited with all of them, I may have to rethink this strategy, as it’s filling up fast, as you can see! (I still need some space for a cup of coffee.)
On the other bedside table I have the Russians (more of them lurk in Romanian at my parents’ house, but these are the ones I’ve got translated into English), the non-Japanese Asians and Middle Eastern authors (of which I have shamefully few), another favourite writer Shirley Jackson and a few short story or essay collections that I am currently delving into. I also have a small selection of favourite crime fiction authors, so that I can take a peek at them when I get discouraged at the (non-)progress of my novel.
On my chest of drawers I have poetry, because every room needs some poetry in it. The selection was somewhat haphazard, mainly what was overflowing from my poetry bookshelf in the study, but you can’t go wrong with whatever book you open! And I did ensure that Anne Carson, Sharon Olds and Naomi Shihab Nye, three poets who really inspire me, are there.
Out on the landing I have a selection of my Nordics (yes, they are a bit divvied up although lumped together as ‘Nordic’), including my favourite crime fiction series Martin Beck, plus some of my boys’ books that I also want to read and ARCs that I have already reviewed and that I might pass on to friends.
All of this has left no gaps in my proper shelves, but merely means that there is no more double or triple stacking. I can see all the titles at last! And I can also instantly spot the gaps in my world culture. (For example, the Latin Americans are starting to fill up, but Africa and Asia are still woefully underrepresented).
What clever tips and tricks have you got for arranging books or incorporating more shelf space? I’d love to hear from you, especially if you can find a solution for those pesky radiators.
The title is inspired from a song and dance from my parents’ youth: Do the Hustle by disco wonder Van McCoy. (I hasten to add that my parents’ dance was nothing like as complicated as that!)
A non-fiction title as the starting point to this month’s 6 Degrees of Separation run by the lovely Kate.
Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point has become part of the modern business and sociological vocabulary, although I suspect that more people have read reviews about it rather than actually read it. Perhaps more have read another book of his, Outliers, which became notorious for bursting the myth about creative genius. Success is not just about innate ability, but a combination of hard work (those oft-quoted 10,000 hours to gain mastery), your cultural legacy (what you are born into) and sheer dumb luck.
My second book in the link is also non-fiction, but also relies on sweeping generalisations, although it also includes some close anthropological observation. This is Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox and it is full of very funny observations. Here is something that I notice at the train station every single morning.
There is something quintessentially English about ‘Typical!’ It manages simultaneously to convey huffy indignation and a sense of passive, resigned acceptance, an acknowledgement that things will invariably go wrong, that life is full of little frustrations and difficulties (and wars and terrorists) and that one must simply put up with it… a sort of grumpy, cynical stoicism.
The idealised image of the English and their countryside is the link for the next book, one in the popular Miss Read series: Thrush Green. Set in the Cotswolds in the 1950s, before the influx of commuters and second homers, this is the Little Britain that Brexiters perhaps believe they can revert to, but charming nevertheless.
Of course, only a small proportion of people ever lived in this rural bliss and for much more realistic and horrifying look at the rape of the countryside you only need to read Fiona Mozley’s Elmet. The harshness of life on the land, albeit a hundred years or so ago and in a different country, is also very much present in Romanian author Liviu Rebreanu’s Răscoala (The Revolt), which describes the circumstances leading to the Peasants’ Revolts of 1907 in Romania and its aftermath.
Finally, and this is a bit of weird side-jump, but the word ‘răscoala’ reminds me of Raskolnikov, so my last link is to Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, one of the books that got me hooked on the kind of writing that comfortably straddles the border between crime and literary genres, and which shows that labelling really doesn’t matter.
So from what is essentially a self-help book for businesses and marketers to urban poverty and despair, via a detour in the countryside… I really do know how to keep things cheery and relaxed, don’t I? Where will your six links take you?
I hope you have all been enjoying the nice weather this week. I’ve been mostly stuck inside, as we’ve been busy at work with two conferences, a workshop, becoming GDPR compliant and budget forecasts. However, sunshine is always good for the soul, and especially at the weekend. And I’ve managed to sneak in a couple of cultural events too…
On Thursday I watched the film 120 BPM (beats per minute), runner-up at the Cannes Festival last year. Filmed as a sort of faux-documentary of life as an activist member of ACTUP Paris in the early 1990s, it captures that frenetic spirit of being young (but not only), fighting for your life as well as for justice, fighting Big Pharma, public ignorance and apathy, government failure to debate, inform or provide any coherent policies. It is also a love story and, inevitably, as with any story about AIDS, there is grieving. But this is no Philadelphia or Longtime Companion, unashamed tear-jerkers, with (usually not gay) actors fading away eloquently and elegantly. This is about anger and survival, doing anything you can to feel alive, about strategy and protest and disagreements within the group, but also about coming together, solidarity and changing the world. ‘Paris were frankly a bunch of complete maniacs’, a former ACTUP London member said, and I had to laugh as I tried to imagine those protest or virulent discussions transposed in a British environment. The two male leads are extremely charismatic: Arnaud Valois from Lyon and Nahuel Pérez Biscayart from Argentina (who, as far as I can tell, are both gay, which makes it all the more realistic) make that very serious struggle look like fun.
The film transported me back to 1989-1992 when I too was young and politically engaged, although in our case it was regime change and democracy that we were fighting for. In spite of the disillusionment or flaws or failures (and the pain of watching friends die), it was an exhilarating movement to be part of (both mine and ACTUP) – and this is perfectly captured in this film. It’s all too easy to say that the world has moved on since then regarding attitudes towards AIDS and the LGBTQ+ community, but sadly, it hasn’t really progressed that much. The film is forbidden in several countries (where homosexuality is illegal) and in my own home country, alas, there was a church-organised protest when it was first screened.
A very different atmosphere on Friday when I attended an early morning viewing of the Rodin Exhibition at the British Museum. This beautifully curated, reasonably small show demonstrates that you don’t need to overwhelm museum-goers with information or exhibits if you stick to a narrow topic and present it well. Rodin was obsessed with ancient sculptures, and collected many of them himself, so it was refreshing to see to what extent they inspired his own work. There were plenty of original plaster, bronze and marble examples of many of Rodin’s sculptures on loan from the Musée Rodin in Paris, as well as the Parthenon marbles that are already (controversially) in the British Museum.
I also got to hear that Lord Elgin originally wanted sculptor Antonio Canova to ‘renovate’ the Ancient Greek fragments and complete them. Luckily, Canova was wise enough to not meddle with the beauty of the original. Rodin himself was so taken by the incomplete statues, that he deliberately sculpted many of his own like that.
The links with literature were never far away. Not only was Rainer Maria Rilke briefly Rodin’s secretary, but I was not aware that Rodin had illustrated Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal (one of my favourite volumes of poetry, especially back when I was in my teens). And that he intended to reproduce it in sculpture as well.
A wonderful, calming way to start the day with art, not forgetting the quotes from Rodin about the sculptor’s ability to capture motion.
For next week, I have a very special recommendation for you: experience a piece of literature in an all-immersive annual event at Senate House on 23rd May. To celebrate 200 years since the first creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the School of Advanced Studies will present a Living Frankenstein evening, with pop-up activities, talks, films, performances and ghost stories. The full programme is here.
Finally, no weekly summary would be complete without a few books begged, borrowed, stolen or bought.
From the library I borrowed Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, the May read for the David Bowie Book Club. Written in 2007-8, it is sadly more timely than ever. I was also looking for some Richard Yates novels which I haven’t read yet, but found instead a very bulky biography by Blake Bailey A Tragic Honesty. Nicely cheery, then…
I also got Ali Smith’s Autumn, the so-called Brexit novel, and Louise Penny’s A Great Reckoning. I’ve already finished the latter: this author is one of my favourite comfort reads, and Three Pines is where I would love to retire if only it existed. I also came across a strange little volume called Alberta Alone by Cora Sandel, an early Norwegian feminist compared to Colette and Jean Rhys.
Last but not least, Europa Editions are producing new editions of Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseille trilogy and have sent me the first volume, Total Chaos. Little do they know that it is one of my favourite French novels (or trilogies) ever and that I bribed a second-hand bookshop in Lyon to find me all three volumes in French. You can expect a close read of the book in French and in translation coming up soon. (Although my personal favourite is Chourmo, the second in the trilogy, coming out in August 2018.)