Most Obscure on My Bookshelves – Romanian Prose

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

I’ve had to break this down into two posts, one for poetry, one for prose, for fear of it becoming a post as long as a novella. I have the sneaking suspicion that anything that I mention here will be obscure, as Romanian novels are not widely translated and very little known beyond the borders. There are some contemporary writers that are starting to find some recognition: Mircea Cartarescu, Dumitru Tsepeneag, Dan Lungu, but there are many more that have failed to penetrate foreign markets (especially the English-speaking ones, they seem to do better in French, German, Italian etc.) I am focusing on the classics rather than on contemporary writers for this post. Once again, I’ve tried to find ones that are available in translation.

Prose

I. L. Caragiale – A Lost Letter – election time comedy – for a taster 

I have mentioned Caragiale before in a writing exercise: I am awestruck and intimidated by his impeccable comedic timing, exquisite precision with language and ability to convey characters with just a few of their stock words and phrases. Think Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Chekhov all rolled into one. His short stories/flash fictions paint a discomfiting picture of all the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of Romanian society in the late 19th century. He was a razor-sharp, merciless journalist with a cruel tongue. Above all, his plays are masterclasses in combining farcical situations with a serious message. For instance, A Lost  Letter is ostensibly a comedy about adultery, a missing letter and misunderstandings, but there is a lot of political satire here, very much like Beaumarchais with his Figaro plays. Back in high school we had a group of friends nicknamed after the main characters here. And in fact my cat is partly named after the main female character here: Zoe.

You may not be able to understand the following brief fragment, but it’s a typical political scenario. The head of the committee is making a speech and summarising (once he finds the right page): ‘If you allow me, we need to decide one or the other…. In conclusion, either we are going to revise this decision completely, I agree, but then nothing must change. Or else we don’t revise it, I agree, but then we should make a few changes here and there, in the essential parts.’

Liviu Rebreanu – The Forest of the Hanged 

I keep repeating myself, for I’ve mentioned this writer and this book before. It is one of the most moving accounts of the First World War that I have ever read, based partially on the true story of Rebreanu’s brother, who was conscripted into the Imperial Austro-Hungarian Army in Transylvania and forced to fight against his fellow Romanians from across the Carpathians. This is not just a war novel, but a brilliant psychological thriller. Rebreanu also wrote one of the defining novels about Romanian peasants and the love of the land Ion, which might remind you of Hardy but with a lot more Latin passion.

Mateiu Caragiale – The Gallants of the Old Court

The son of I.L. Caragiale was also a writer, but in very different style from his father. He was much more wedded to nostalgia, heraldry and a glorious past, which his father saw as something to despise or make fun of. Influenced by Proust, this is a richly descriptive paen to the fast disappearing oriental influence and decadence on Bucharest in the years before the First World War. Full of sensual descriptions, virtually plotless, by turns gothic and Mediterranean, it has all the indolence and voluptuous charm of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. It is perhaps too rich to enjoy all in one go, but tremendously evocative, very much like a prose poem. It’s a bit of a cult book, with some readers passionate about it and writing fan fiction, while others find it very slow going.

So there you have it, three writers representing all the different aspects of Romanian literary (and perhaps national) style: wit and sarcasm, drama and psychological torment, poetic fantasy.

 

Most Obscure on My Bookshelves – the Slavs

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

I was going to dedicate a whole post to the Russians, but I don’t actually have many obscure ones in that pile, merely the obvious suspects (Dostoevsky being one of my favourites), so I have added the Poles, Czechs, Bulgarians, Serbs – all the Slavic languages that I have on my shelves. I will do a separate category for the Romanians, and have perhaps far too few Greeks and Hungarians to create a separate category for them (other than a wishlist).

Kieslowski on Kieslowski (edited and translated by Danusia Stok)

Nowadays Kieslowski is best known for the films he made in France- The Double Life of Veronique and Three Colours trilogy (Blue  with Juliette Binoche is my favourite of the three, in case you are wondering). However, to those of us who lived in Eastern Europe during Communist times, he is above all the director of the TV series The Decalogue and his quasi-documentary films about life under an oppressive and uncaring regime, like Personnel, The Scar and No End. The films were banned in Poland after martial law was imposed in 1980, and they were difficult but not impossible to find on video in Romania in the late 1980s, as long as you knew a pilot, cabin crew or truck driver who could smuggle them into the country.

He was notoriously reticent in interviews (perhaps unsurprising, considering how he was hounded by the Polish authorities for a while), but in this book published in 1993 he muses at length about his life, his creative process, his country and censorship. I bought this when I first came to England and there are whole passages heavily underlined. They ring even truer today.

Communism is like AIDS. That is, you have to die with it. You can’t be cured. And that applies to anyone who’s had anything to do with Communism, regardless of what side they were on… If they’ve been exposed to the system as long as they have been in Poland… then Communism, its way of thinking, its way of life, its hierarchy of values, remains with them and there’s no way of expelling it from their system. They can expel it from their minds, of course, they can say they’re no longer sick. They can even say they’ve been cured. But it’s not true. It stays inside…. It doesn’t particularly trouble me. I just know I’ve got it and know that I’ll die with it, that’s all. Not die of it, die with it. It only disappears when you disappear.

He also has excellent insights into the differences in film-making in Eastern and Western Europe:

The fact that we had censorship in Poland didn’t necessarily entail tremendous restrictions of freedom since, all in all, it was easier to make films there then it is under the economic censorship here in the West. Economic censorship means censorship imposed by people who think that they know what the audience wants.

Tamara Karsavina in The Firebird, one of her pivotal roles

Tamara Karsavina: Theatre Street

Tamara Karsavina was one of the leading ballerinas at the Marinsky Theatre in St Petersburg before the Russian Revolution. In 1918 she moved to England, danced with Diaghilev’s company and the Ballet Rambert, and became a famous teacher and Vice President of the Royal Academy of Dancing. This is her charming autobiography, recreating the tough training regime at the Imperial Ballet School on Theatre Street, the pranks she and her fellow students would get up to, her debut at the Marinsky, the relentless pace of touring, escaping from Russia during the revolution, but above all the many charismatic legendary dance figures she encountered: Nijinsky, Diaghilev, Lydia Lopokova (who later married the economist John Maynard Keynes), Isadora Duncan and many more. A book recommended to me by my favourite primary school teacher, Miss Mason, who introduced me to opera and ballet.

Olga Slavnikova: La Tête légère (transl. Raphaëlle Pache) – Lightheaded

This is a recent acquisition from this year’s Quais du Polar in Lyon – it hasn’t been translated into English yet. I was captivated by the absurdist premise: Maxime Ermakov is a talented publicist but has a very strange head. Secret service agents show up at the door of his Moscow apartment to tell him that his head is upsetting the harmony of the world, so he should commit suicide and thereby save millions of lives. But Maxime has no intention of doing that, and so he becomes public enemy no. 1 and the villainous star of a video game about killing Ermakov. I haven’t read it yet, but I look forward to reading it – perhaps this month for WIT?

 

Most Obscure on My Bookshelves – Craft Books

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

Like any good little writer-in-the-bud, I amassed a solid collection of ‘how to hone your writing craft’ books and dissected them, instead of actually sitting down and writing. Far from obscure, some of them have become classics and bestsellers in their own right: Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! for screenwriters and not only them; Natalie Goldberg’s poetic Writing Down the Bones; the energetic and legendary agent Carole Blake’s From Pitch to Publication and Stephen King’s memoir-interlaced-with-writing-advice On Writing. I love all of those, but here are some less well known ones which have inspired me just as much.

John Gardner: On Becoming a Novelist

This is, in some ways, the anti-craft book, because most of what Gardner talks about is the innate nature of a writer: the sensitivity and love for language, the observant eye, the storytelling intelligence and demonic compulsiveness. My eye-opening moment when I first read him was this passage:

A psychological wound is helpful, if it can be kept in partial control, to keep the novelist driven. Some fatal childhood accident for which one feels responsible and can never fully forgive oneself; a sense that one never quite earned one’s parents’ love; shame about one’s origins… or embarrassment about one’s own physical appearance: all these are promising signs.

Perhaps I should add here that John’s younger brother Gilbert was killed in a freak farming accident as a child and that John himself was driving the tractor. But he never mentions that in the book.

Instead, he warns of the dangers of over-relying on writing courses and MFAs ‘The world has far more writing teachers than it needs’ and there is a danger that only certain kinds of writing are appreciated and emulated, so the whole experience becomes ‘workshoppy’. Yet he understands that each writer can become better through practice, through feedback and through faith in his or her own abilities.

Finally, the true novelist is the one who doesn’t quit. Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or way, an alternative to ordinary ‘life in the world’. Its benefits are quasi-religious – a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand – and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.

Stanley Kunitz: The Wild Braid

In a series of conversations with poet Genine Lentine and adorned with gorgeous photos by Marnie Crawford Samuelson, the late great American poet muses about his garden and his poetry. A beautiful complex metaphor about creativity, this book deserves constant underlining. It was recommended to me by Naomi Shihab Nye, at the very first poetry workshop I ever attended.

In so many instances, the poem is muddied by too much explanation, too much exposure. What one is aiming for is the indication of an energy, or a spirit, below the surface, in the secret vaults of the self, that somehow withers under too much exposition or explanation. That’s why I’ve always believed that so much of the energy of the poems comes from the secrets it folds into what we would call, in a flower, its crown… The rose when it is just about ready to unfold is at its most beautiful.

Twyla Tharp: The Creative Habit

This is more of a typical self-help book, but it’s not aimed at writers. Twyla Tharp is a dancer and choreographer, but her straight talking and variety of creative exercises are suitable for many different artistic disciplines. I’ve written about this book before, but here are some quotes which impress me every time:

A plan is like a scaffolding around a building. When you’re putting up the exterior shell, the scaffolding is vital. But once the shell is in place and you start work on the interior, the scaffolding disappears. That’s how I think of planning. It has to be sufficiently thoughtful and solid to get the work up and standing straight, but it cannot take over as you toil away on the interior guts of a piece. Transforming your ideas rarely goes according to plan.

And the next quotation is even more relevant to my procrastinating self:

I used to bask in the notion that all my obstacles to creative efficienty would vanish if only I had exactly the right resources: my own studio, my own dancers, my own theater, and enough money to pay the dancers all year long and to hire the best collaborators. But I’ve learned that the opposite is true: Limits are a secret blessing, and bounty can be a curse. I’ve been on enough big-budget film sets to appreciate the malignant influence of abundance and bloat.

 

 

 

Most Obscure on My Bookshelves – the French

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

After a total of 7 years spent in France over the past 11 years, I have quite a substantial French bookshelf. Indeed, it is a whole Billy full of books by or about French (or Swiss Romande) authors, some of them translated. Many of them are unread, because I acquired them at a rapid pace, often on the basis of hearing them speak at the Quais du Polar in Lyon. Not many of these authors are truly obscure, or else I may have mentioned them before on my blog, so that excludes Pascal Garnier, Jean-Claude Izzo and other new acquaintances who became firm favourites.

Appropriately enough, I mention my French authors the week that we have some friends from France visiting.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: Pilote de guerre

Of course he is anything but obscure: who hasn’t heard of The Little Prince, possibly my favourite children’s book of all times? (Yes, I still cry whenever I read the ending, much to the embarrassment of my children.)

This slim volume not only describes his war-time experiences as a pilot, but also his entire philosophy of life and a powerful critique of the society of his time (so similar to our own in the present-day). The book condenses months of flights into a single terrifying mission over the town of Arras.  Within the first few days of the German invasion of France in May 1940, 17 of the 23 crews in his unit were sacrificed recklessly “like glasses of water thrown onto a forest fire”. Starting from the idea that soldiers are expected to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, for an abstract concept of ‘Fatherland’, ‘Our Neighbour’, ‘Love’, he ponders on just what it is he feels he is sacrificing himself for. He criticizes the fact that we have substituted materialism for ideas, objects for culture and have lost ‘Man with a capital M’ in the pursuit of individualism. Here follows a passage in my approximate translation (and I apologise for the masculine pronouns):

What is good for the Community, these [new leaders] find that in plain arithmetic, and it’s arithmetic which governs their thoughts. And so they fail to become something greater than the sum of themselves. They hate all those who are different from themselves, because they have nothing greater to aspire to. All foreign customs, races, thoughts become a danger to them. They cannot absorb them, they seek to amputate Man, instead of giving a sense of purpose to his aspirations and a space for his energy… A cathedral gives meaning to a pile of stones. But the stones absorb nothing and end up crushing you…

Toril Moi: Simone de Beauvoir

This is my favourite book about one of my favourite writers: a detailed analysis of Beauvoir’s work as a feminist and a writer, but also a close look at her real life, the woman behind the icon. Beauvoir was a complex woman, not immune to suffering and jealousy over her famously open relationship with Sartre. Moi looks at the challenges of succeeding as an intellectual in a world which still relegated her to second place. When I first read this book, I was somewhat saddened: this was not the role model that I had adored in my teens and set out to emulate. But perhaps the fact that she achieved all that she did in spite of not being superwoman should be cause for admiration and celebration. As Angela Carter once put it: ‘Why is a nice girl like Simone wasting her time sucking up to a boring old fart like J-P? Her memoirs will be mostly about him; he will scarcely speak of her.’

This is the story of a woman who became a feminist almost in spite of herself. She initially expected to compete as a human amongst humans, not as a woman amongst men, pure brains pitted against other pure brains and talent. To her frustration, she found that not to be the case, and this remains true even now:

I should have been surprised and even irritated if, when I was thirty, someone had told me that I would be concerning myself with women’s problems and that my most serious public would be made up of women. I don’t regret that it has been so. Divided, torn, disadvantaged: for women the stakes are higher,; there are more victories and more defeats for them than for men.

Joseph Incardona: Derrière les panneaux, il y a des hommes 

15th of August is one of the busiest days of the years on the French motorways. The title of the book ‘Behind the road signs, there are humans’ refers to the signs at the edge of the motorways whenever there are road works, warning drivers to watch out for the men (it is usually men) in their hi-viz jackets working on the side of the road.

I’ve read and reviewed other books by Swiss author Incardona, but this is perhaps his best one. It’s the story of Pierre, who lives in his car at a service station on the motorway, where his daughter disappeared six months earlier. It’s not just a thriller but also a portrait of a transient and desperate people who don’t often get mentioned in fiction. I haven’t read it yet, but it seems to have torn readers’ opinions in France and Switzerland, receiving either 1 star or 5 stars. Not yet translated into English, but perhaps it should be.

 

Most Obscure on My Shelves – Non-Fiction

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

I have always found more comfort in fiction and poetry than in self-help books or true stories. Most of the non-fiction books I own are professional books used during university or business days. If I ever do have a craving for a biography or a memoir, I borrow it from a library. However, since I started book blogging, I have made more of a conscious effort to read at least the occasional non-fiction book. Some of them have been so enlightening and have completely changed my way of thinking about the world.

Barbara Ehrenreich: Smile or Die (published in US under the title of Bright-Sided)

A lucid analysis and full-frontal attack on the reductionist thinking that has taken over not just the US but most of the Western world in recent years. Ehrenreich looks at the myth of ‘thinking yourself well’ when you have cancer, the Puritan work ethic which has led to the American dream of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps if only you want it badly enough, the ‘attraction’ philosophy of books like The Secret and so on. As someone who has both given and received coaching, I have seen first hand the real power of placebo (which is what positive thinking is to a certain extent), but also the ways in which it can be misinterpreted and lead to a downward spiral when the world refuses to live up to your personal hopes and values. Or how it can be used to justify someone’s unfortunate circumstances (‘he brought his misfortune upon himself, she can’t see the silver lining’).

Above all, this book (published in 2009) shows that critical thinking and reasoned debate have been demoted in the media, which has led to the vicious popularist rhetoric and partisanship which we all deplore at present.

James Davidson: Courtesans and Fishcakes

First of all: how can anyone resist this intriguing title? It’s about the culture of consumption of Ancient Athens: food, drink, sex, gambling and political manoeuvring. It makes the ancient world really come to life and it’s the book I always recommend to people who want an ‘anthropological study’ of Classical Greece. It’s a book about gossip, written in an accessible style, but based on careful research. It also shows what remarkably advanced thinkers those Athenians really were (despite some inevitable shortcomings regarding gender and slavery). We could learn something from them today.

This view of wealth as something changeable and fragile and rather separate from the men who owned it and this view of consumption as a warning of an individual’s dangerous appetites rather than as a sign of elite membership… is clearly related to Athens’ peculiar democratic system with its horror of internal division, its symbolic appropriations, its suspicion of riches, its weakened sense of family or clan identity… In Athens politics effectively was society.

Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

I’ve written about this before and I’ve said it before: this is the book I am most jealous of as an anthropologist, the book I wish I had written. It gives voice to the residents of Annawadi, a slum near Mumbai Airport, and it is written in language so vivid, with so much empathy, that it feels like fiction. It does not reduce people to numbers and facts, but neither does it romanticise their virtues and dreams. It is a story of those left behind by India’s economic boom, the exploitation of the weak by those slightly less weak. Much has been made of Boo’s status as an outsider (although she lived with the people she describes for three years), but this seems like a very fair, powerful and morally thoughtful book. Perhaps my favourite non-fiction book of the last decade or more.

 

Most Obscure on My Shelves – Poetry

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

You might argue that poetry is fairly obscure in itself, as many people don’t seem to have much of it on their shelves beyond the anthologies they had to study at school. I have many of the obvious suspects (Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath) and many signed copies from contemporary poets. I enjoy exploring new styles and discovering new poets as well as going back constantly to the classics. I am referring here mainly to English language poetry, as those in other languages (or translations) have been shelved with their respective countries. I have reviewed many of my recent favourites on this blog, but here are a few that mean something special to me.

Rosemary Tonks: Bedouin of the London Evening

There is something odd and disquieting about the life and career of poet (and novelist) Rosemary Tonks. After publishing two poetry collections in the 1960s, she then disappeared from public view, reinvented herself, changed her name and never wrote again, somewhat like Rimbaud. There is something very boho chic about her poetry, speaking very eloquently of that particular period of time and the first cool Britannia moment. There is a seething anger and disappointment that sexual and artistic freedom is not quite what she expected. Yet she has a jaded, cynical view which transcends time and place, she is the Jean Rhys of poetry.

Brenda Shaugnessy: Our Andromeda

I had the pleasure of meeting Brenda at a Geneva Writers Conference back in 2014, but I read this volume of poetry long before that. In fact, I was reading it as I was queuing at the border control at Washington Dulles airport and encountered the border guard dissolved in helpless tears. I tried to explain to him that it was because of this amazing, heartfelt poem about the alternative world that a mother and her child create together a parallel galaxy where they can both thrive: the baby who suffers injury at childbirth and the mother who feels anguished guilt: ‘It was my job to get you into this world safely. And I failed.’ But it’s not all emotional distress, there are plenty of playful language games, as well as ferocious honesty about the body and the conflicting feelings of the mother and the artist. It is a rich, candid, uncompromisingly clear-eyed way of expressing things.

T.S. Eliot: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats

T.S. Eliot is one of my favourite poets, but this is his lighter side. I adore it not only because I am a cat lover, but also because back in 1988/89, just before the fall of Communism, us students in the English Department of Bucharest University performed our own version of the musical Cats, although none of us had ever seen the show. It was a huge success (although it was censored in certain locations), and we all had huge fun inventing ways of presenting it, while making subtle political references. We were perhaps even more creative than the stage show I saw later on in London. So it reminds me of my youth, although this particular copy of it also is bittersweet. I bought it and gave it as a present to my newly-wed husband in 1998, when he left to go to Italy for a post-doc. (I could not follow him because of visa issues.) We had watched the show together and the dedication reads: ‘To remind you of your favourite show and your favourite cat while you are in Italy.’ Clearly, it did not do its job, since that was the first time he cheated on me.

Nevertheless, if anything can make me perk up and let bygones be bygones, it is Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat, with his no-nonsense librarian air:

He will watch you without winking and he sees what you are thinking

And it’s certain that he doesn’t approve

Of hilarity and riot, so the folk are very quiet

When Skimble is about and on the move.

You can play no pranks with Skimbleshanks!

He’s a Cat who cannot be ignored;

So nothing goes wrong on the Northern Mail

When Skimbleshanks is aboard.

Most Obscure from My Shelves – the Latinos

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

For someone who proclaims to be mad about Brazil and keen to learn more about Latin American culture in general, I don’t actually own a lot of books from that part of the world. During my years of Ph.D. study, I was fortunate enough to be in an office right next door to the Department Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, so I borrowed heavily from their library and became enamoured of Clarice Lispector, Jorge Amado, Borges, Cortazar and many more. The ones I do own are not really obscure, but I did manage to find some that are special to me for various reasons.

Mario Vargas Llosa: Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (transl. Helen R. Lane)

Appropriately enough, my first choice is the Nobel Prize winning Peruvian author who lectured briefly at the very department where I was completing my informal Latin American literature education. Vargas Llosa is well-known for his serious political books, but the one I chose here is a racy, humorous, deliberately madcap account of him falling in love with and courting his aunt-by-marriage, Julia, much to the horror of the rest of the family. She became his first wife, and they went together to Europe, where he embarked upon his literary career. She later wrote her own version of the story, because she claimed that Vargas Llosa minimised the part she played in assisting him in his literary efforts. Nevertheless, despite its biased view of events, it is a brilliant example of the vitality and verve that I particularly love about Latin American literature. It is this closeness to popular culture, the use of vernacular, the candid expressions of sexuality and everyday street life that I enjoy much more than the more ethereal magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or heavy symbolism of Paulo Coelho.

Diego Trelles Paz: Bioy

Unintentionally, my second choice is also Peruvian. Although I haven’t read it yet, it is the translation (in French, by Julien Berree) of a political thriller, exploring the troubled 1980s in Peru under the increasingly dictatorial regime of Fujimori. It’s a book that my kind-hearted niece, who had accompanied me once to the Quais du Polar in Lyon and knew my passion for crime fiction, bought for my birthday. She met the author in Paris and got him to sign it for me in French and Spanish: ‘This super-special edition of my novel is dedicated to Marina Sofia for her birthday. I hope you like it and that it scares you! Happy birthday, good health and rock’n’roll!’ Oddly enough, although all of my friends know how crazy I am about books and reading, it’s the only present of this nature that I have ever received. I really don’t know why I haven’t got stuck into it yet…

James Woodall: A Simple Brazilian Song

This is not a novel, but a journey through the music of Brazil, especially the music of Rio, with a particular emphasis on Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso, two of my very favourite musicians. Part musical analysis, part biography, part travel memoir, it is a book which does its best to capture the hypnotic, insistent beat of the samba and bossa nova. Through its music, this journalist also tries to convey the complexity of this beautiful, contradictory, often infuriating yet always colourful and enticing country.

This book is precious to me because it reminds me of my youth, when I thought the world was my oyster and that I was going to do anthropological research in the favelas of Rio or Bahia. I bought this at the time when I first came to London and was being mistaken for a Brazilian because of my long hair, love of dancing and uninhibited manner. I thought I was going to learn capoeira and celebrate carnival with the samba schools in London. I even briefly contemplated going to Brazil for a post-doc position. I gave up on that, but I insisted on going to Brazil for my honeymoon and my love for the country has outlasted my love for the husband.