International Women’s Day: Never Too Many Heroines

I’ve written in the past about women who have inspired me, for International Women’s Day in 2015, 2016 and on other occasions. But we can never hear too much about women who have been sidelined, neglected or even remembered for the wrong reasons, can we? Here are a few more to remember on this day.

Ono no Komachi

Later portrait of Ono no Komachi.

You know that I am a big fan of Murasaki Shikibu, the author of The Tale of Genji, but the Heian period in Japan was full of gifted women writers and poets. Although very few biographical details are available, we do know that Ono no Komachi undoubtedly existed, was a court lady famous for her beauty and one of the ‘Six Poetic Geniuses’ cited by Ki no Tsurayki, included in the most famous Japanese collection of classical poetry: Hyakunin Isshu. Her waka poems about love, loss, aging are beautiful and timeless, and she became a heroine of numerous Noh plays as well.

I had thought to pluck
the flower of forgetfulness
only to find it
already blossoming in his heart.

Colette

I’ve mentioned her before, I’m sure. I love the sensual phrasing and pitch-perfect, slightly ironic observation of humans by this French writer. She started out in theatre and her writing/storytelling talent was exploited by her husband Willy, but she then became so much more famous than him. She lived as she pleased, scandalously bisexual, a bit of a cougar, and certainly a cat person.

It’s so curious: one can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief. But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer… and everything collapses.

There are no ordinary cats.

Sylvie Guillem

One of the most beautiful and powerful dancers I have ever had the pleasure of watching. Those were the days, when I first came to London and could watch her and Darcey Bussell alternating in the same roles on cheap student tickets (and occasionally Viviana Durante and Miyako Yoshida. Darcey was perhaps a tad more lyrical and ingenue, but Sylvie was spectacular, athletic, almost miraculous in her stretches and jumps, much more willing to explore new forms and go beyond classical ballet. She did not suffer fools gladly, spoke her own mind relentlessly and, in a world of silent, obedient ballerinas, became known as the spiky Mademoiselle Non.

Having limits to push against is how you find out what you can do. I have always been full of contradictions. I am shy but I love the freedom of the stage. I need reassurance but at the same time I don’t want it. I hate being afraid but I can’t help wanting to frighten myself. That is how you grow.

Marina Tsvetaeva

Tsvetaeva by Magda Nachman-Acharya.

One of my favourite poets in any language, she experienced just about the most troubled times imaginable in Russian history, with grim repercussions for her own family. One daughter died of starvation in the famine which followed the First World War and Civil War, she and her family were exiled for their anti-Bolshevik stance but when her husband developed pro-Soviet sympathies and they returned home, he was executed as a spy and her second daughter was imprisoned, while her son died later on the front in WW2. Not surprising that she decided to end her life in 1941.

And I won’t be seduced by the thought of my native language, its milky call.
How can it matter in what tongue I am misunderstood by whoever I meet.
For my country has taken so little care of me that even the sharpest spy could
Go over my whole spirit and would detect no native stain there.
Houses are alien, churches are empty, everything is the same.
But if by the side of the path one particular bush rises, the rowanberry…

 

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July Reads and Pick of the Month

I haven’t read only crime fiction this month (although, as usual, it does form the bulk of my reading).  The reason for that is only partly because there were so many interesting books in other genres on my To Read list.  The other reason, of course, is that I am trying to distance myself a little bit from the genre while I am editing my own crime fiction novel.  Otherwise I risk including every clever plot device or brilliant scene from each novel I read into my own piecemeal effort – making it even more of a dog’s dinner than it already is!  (Can you tell I am going through my ‘down’ phase, where I think every sentence is horrible?)

So here are the books I have read this month.  I have included links if I have already reviewed them, here or elsewhere, and I am also linking to Mysteries in Paradise and their Pick of the Month.

1) So far, so French (or Franco-Swiss), at least in terms of setting.

Sylvie Granotier: The Paris Lawyer

Simenon: Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets

Simenon: Maigret et l’inspecteur Malgracieux (I am planning a special on Maigret for September)

Cathy Ace: The Corpse with the Silver Tongue

Estelle Monbrun: Meurtre chez Colette (I really wanted to like this one, because I am a Colette fan, but it was disappointing)

Anita Brookner: Hotel du Lac. Precise, elegant, poignant.  Midlife crisis handled with English poise – heartbreaking.

2) The holiday locations continue with:

Jeffrey Siger: Murder on Mykonos.  Excellent description of the island, of Greek politics and lifestyle in general, good use of suspense, although the ending did feel a bit random.  I especially loved the idea of the local policemen Googling information about serial killers.

Natsuo Kirino: Out (Japan). A shocker – not for the faint-hearted.  I will write a post in late August or early September about contemporary Japanese fiction, as this is one of my favourite topics.

Carlos Zanón: The Barcelona Brothers  (review of this will appear shortly on the Crime Fiction Lover website)

Carlos Ruiz Zafon: Marina (also set in Barcelona). Mix of genres and stories – this is mystery, ghost story, love story, sci-fi, historical romance. Beautiful imagery and recaptures a vanished world of ruined Barcelona mansions. Reminded me of the nostalgia and luscious detail of ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’.

3) Then we have the familiar stomping ground of London or Cambridge:

Stav Sherez: A Dark Redemption

Robin Webster: The Blues Man. Fast pace, intricate plot, some nice references to blues music and an uncompromising look at the seedy underbelly of London’s drug-dealing and prostitution world.  Promised much but under-delivered, I fear.

Alison Bruce: Cambridge Blue.  Loved the setting, loved the young and atypical detective, loved his grandmother (I hope she continues to appear in the next books of the series).

Barbara Pym: Excellent Women.  Not my favourite Pym novel, but her usual wry humour is evident here.

4) And finally, a few American ladies with no criminal tendencies whatsoever:

Alice Sebold: The Lovely Bones

Barbara Ehrenreich: Smile or Die (I believe it’s called ‘Bright-Sided’ in the US) – non-fiction, about the relentless promotion of positive thinking in the United States

Alice Baudat: The Wooden Bowl – a review and interview with the author will appear on this blog in September

And the winner is: Stav Sherez.  You can find a detailed review here and an author interview with him here (neither written by me – because the question I would have asked is: what on earth is Stav short for?).  As far as my own thoughts go, I found this book very atmospheric: the author captures the heat and dust of Africa just as well as the grime and rain of London (particularly its lesser known and sleazier parts). Well written, evocative yet parsimonious use of language. And I like the way the two main detectives have complicated backgrounds, yet manage to steer clear of clichéed representation.  If the first of the series is so good, I can hardly wait to see what the rest of them will be like!

And what, you may well ask, has that picture got to do with my July reading?  Nothing, except that I felt as snug as a cat because I got the chance to read so many books this month (not likely to happen again any time soon).