September Reading Summary

Once again, I am jumping the gun a little with my September reading summary, as I don’t think I’ll have time to squeeze anything more in that isn’t intended for next month.

My reading got a little aimless and desultory during September, after a few really good months with very high-quality books. I struggled to really immerse myself in these books, which might explain why I’ve judged them more harshly than usual. There were two that really stood out for me, however, and for very different reasons. Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year was stark, gripping and revelatory, while Alison Anderson’s The Summer Guest was wistful, dreamy and transported me to a better time and place.

On paper, I have read ten books, but two of those were very short indeed: a children’s book (Little Old Mrs Pepperpot, which I’m reading for the #1956Club) and a book of cartoons about the challenges of wearing a hijab in a Western country Yes, I’m Hot in This by Huda Fahmy. So, in reality, I have read eight books, of which two in translation. The Englightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar was interesting in its ‘stories within stories’ structure and truly beautifully written in parts, but rather hard reading in terms of subject matter. Also, I’ve never been a huge fan of magical realism, but I can certainly see the point of it to describe – and make bearable – the atrocities perpetuated here. Book burning, rape, torture, death and ghosts everywhere you look.

I was searching for comfort reads this month above all, but in truth found even the tried and tested categories of crime/suspense fiction a bit hard to click with. Stina Jackson’s The Silver Road seemed to howl with dreary loneliness and isolation. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters had far too many pages about that boring English class system to make up for the few genuine moments of ghostly frisson. Even Doug Johnstone, who’s proved a reliable writer for me in the past, did not quite win me over with A Dark Matter – probably because I was expecting it to be black comedy in the style of Antti Tuomainen. While I enjoyed Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land probably far more than Jonathan Coe’s Middle England as a depiction of current English society (it was stuffed to the gills with sharp, witty observations of gender relations and family tensions), it did all go unnecessarily bonkers towards the end with the murder mystery part of it.

So that leaves Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession, which so many assured me was the perfect sweet, gentle book for these troubled times. I have to admit I was reading it the weekend Barney died, and it was probably the only book I could possibly have read during that time. It was indeed a placid, even-tempered book with decent characters and touching interactions, people being kind and helpful, or at the very least apologising when they get things wrong. A little too sweet for my taste, perhaps, as I was constantly expecting someone to go amok, commit fraud or murder someone, but I liked its humour and the non-judgemental relationship between the two friends. It almost makes you believe in a nicer world – and don’t we all need a hope like that?

So I apologise for my general grumpiness this month. It’s been a very busy one at work, an emotionally gruelling one, an anxious one with the boys going back to school and no seeming respite from grim news worldwide. Next month, with Penelope Fitzgerald and Romain Gary to steady my ship, I hope to have a more pleasant tale to tell.

 

 

Living in the Pleasure of Anticipation: Reading Plans for Autumn/Winter

One of my favourite bookish Twitter people Alok Ranjan said: ‘Sometimes just the anticipation of books to come is even more pleasing than the actual reading of them’. And in times of uncertainty, with no doubt a tough autumn and winter ahead, you take your small pleasures where you can. So I’ve been spending a few joyful hours luxuriating in planning my reading and joining in with some like-minded online friends.

October

There are two reading challenges in October that I cannot resist. First, Paper Pills is planning a group read of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels starting on the 1st of October, which got me looking through my shelves for other Fitzgerald books, so I’ll also be attempting her short story collection The Means of Escape and rereading The Bookshop and The Blue Flower.

Secondly, the week of 5-11 October is also the #1956Club organised by Simon Thomas and Karen aka Kaggsy. I have bought books in anticipation of that year and will be reading: Romain Gary’s Les racines du ciel, plus two books I remember fondly from my childhood Little Old Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Pryosen and The Silver Sword by Ian Seraillier. If I have time after all of the above, I may also attempt Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz, but might not make it in time for the 1956 week, lucky if I squeeze it in before the end of October.

November

It’s been quite a few years now that November has been equivalent with German Literature Month for me, so this year will be no different. I’m in the mood for rereading Kafka’s Das Schloss (especially since my son recently read The Trial and I didn’t have my German language edition to read it in parallel with him). I was so enamoured of Marlen Haushofer that I will read another of her novels, a very short one this time Die Tapetentür (which I’ve seen translated as The Jib Door, an English expression I am unfamiliar with). I can’t stay away from Berlin, so I’ll be reading Gabriele Tergit’s Käsebier erobert den Kurfürstendamm (Käsebier takes Berlin). I’m also planning to read a book of essays about Vienna and its very dualistic nature: Joachim Riedl’s Das Geniale. Das Gemeine (Genius and Filth/Rottenness) and another non-fiction book, a sort of memoir of studying in England by Nele Pollatscheck entitled Dear Oxbridge (it’s in German, despite the title).

Since taking the picture above, I’ve also decided to reread the book I borrowed from my university library just before lockdown in March, namely Remarque’s Nothing New on the Western Front.

December

Alok is once again to blame for his persuasive skills, as he’s managed to convince a group of us, including Chekhov obsessive Yelena Furman to read Sakhalin Island in December. Of course, winter seems to lend itself to lengthy Russians, so I’ll also be attempting The Brothers Karamazov (my fifth attempt, despite the fact that I am a huge Dostoevsky fan, so fingers crossed!). If I have any brain or time left over at all after these two massive adventures, I’d also like to read the memoir of living with Dostoevsky written by his wife and the memoir about Marina Tsvetaeva written by her daughter.

I also have a rather nice bilingual edition of Eugene Onegin by Pushkin from Alma Press, so I might put that into the mix as well, let’s see how it goes.

January

Meredith, another Twitter friend, has been organising January in Japan reading events for years now, and I always try to get at least 1-2 books in. This coming January I might focus exclusively on Japanese authors or books about Japan, as I have a lot of newly bought ones that are crying out loud for a read.I have a new translation of Dazai Osamu’s Ningen Shikkaku (A Shameful Life instead of No Longer Human) by Mark Gibeau, I’d also like to read more by Tsushima Yuko (who, coincidentally was Dazai Osamu’s daughter), the short story collection The Shooting Gallery. Inspired by Kawakami Mieko (who mentioned her name as one of the writers who most influenced her), I will be reading In the Shade of the Spring Leaves, a biography of Highuchi Ichiyo which also contains nine of her best short stories. Last but not least, I’m planning to read about Yosano Akiko (one of my favourite Japanese poets) and her lifelong obsession with The Tale of Genji, an academic study written by G. G. Rowley and published by the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan. (Once upon a time, I dreamt of studying there for my Ph.D.)

Saving the best for last, I have a beautiful volume of The Passenger: Japan edition, which is something like a hybrid between a magazine and a book, focusing on writing and photography from a different country with each issue. While I’d have liked more essays by Japanese writers themselves (there are only 3 Japanese writers among the 11 long-form pieces represented  here), there is nevertheless much to admire here.

Ambitious plans for the next few months, but they feel right after a month or so of aimless meandering in my reading. Let’s just hope the weather, i.e. news, outside isn’t too frightful!

Weekly Summary of Books and Films

Attention span bandwith continues to be quite limited, so, although I’ve been on my own this past week (until last night) and therefore had less of a responsibility for cooking, checking schoolwork and entertaining, I’ve not done an awful lot of reading or writing. Instead, I’ve been hopping and skipping between books and films, abandoning anything that doesn’t fully grab me or that feels wrong at this moment in time.

Films and TV

  1. Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate (dir. Kawashima Yūzō) is quite a broad farce, very commedia dell’arte or slapstick in its physicality. Set in a three-storey brothel which is a microcosm of Japanese society in the dying days of the Tokugawa period, it’s ostensibly the story of a lazy good-for-nothing who incurs a huge debt at the said brothel and therefore has to remain there to work it off. In fact, it is a great satire about virtually all of the ‘proud Japanese traditions’ (samurai, geishas, honour, filial piety) that tends to put forward as truly representative of Japan. The film was made in the early 1950s and was no doubt a comment on the ‘proud Japanese traditions’ which had led to the Second World War, as well as the hypocrisy about prostitution, corruption and financial greed. Wonderfully funny, a great palate cleanser in these worrying times.
  2. Bacurau (dir. Mendonca Filho and Dornelles) is a very recent film about Brazil and its corruption at both local and national government levels. This is satire with a very sardonic bite. It has a Hunger Games or Get Out type of premise: foreigners being shipped in to a remote area of Pernambuco, paying  for the fun of hunting real people. But they haven’t reckoned with the indomitable fighting spirit of the inhabitants of the village of Bacurau. The gradual reveal of the exhibition housed in the village museum is one of the highlights of the film for me personally, but I felt that more could have been made of the socio-political situation and the repulsive local mayor clamouring for re-election.
  3. Le Cercle Rouge (dir. JP Melville) I’m not a huge fan of heist movies, but there is a bit of a Jean-Pierre Melville retrospective on Mubi and this has been hailed as probably the best French heist movie, although I for one would argue that Rififi deserves to be on at least level pegging. It has been particularly celebrated for its nearly 30 uninterrupted minutes of silent heist sequence, but I personally preferred the build-up at the start of the film.
  4. Autumn Sonata (dir. Ingmar Bergman) – prepare to have your hearts broken, if you’ve ever been a daughter or a mother or both. Flawless performance by the two leads, although I did think that Swedish families are much less likely (perhaps unrealistically so?) to interrupt each other’s introspective speeches. And this quote just killed me:

A mother and a daughter – what a terrible combination of feelings and confusion and destruction. Everything is possible and everything is done in the name of love and solicitude.

Abandoned: Devs; Twins – the high-concept, intriguing premise of the first and the beautiful backdrop of the second were not enough to keep me fully engaged with the rather far-fetched plots.

Books

Still struggling to focus on my reading rather than on Twitter, so I used several different ‘tricks’ to get me to fall in love with books again: I turned to the classics and tried a novel by Henry James which was much easier and frothier than I had expected, I co-read Serena with several other book reviewers to compare reactions and notes and I turned to lighter (not cosy, but more puzzle-type) murder mysteries such as The Iron Chariot by Stein Riverton (hailed as the first Norwegian crime fiction novel) and Peter Swanson’s Rules for Perfect Murders, which is the first novel we will be discussing for our virtual crime book club that is rising up again from the ashes. For more information about the book club organised by crime author Rebecca Bradley and to express your interest in participating, go here.

Abandoned: the rereading of The Ambassadors (one Henry James per month is enough); Maureen Freely: Mother’s Helper (quite fun social observation but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere); Paul Auster’s Timbuktu (maybe some other time, just wasn’t in the mood to read about a pet fretting about his master dying right now); Gerald Murnane’s Tamarisk Row – I’ve heard so many good things about this, but it was a little too depressing for my mood right now.

 

 

Monthly Summary – Comfort Reading

I know February has got 29 days this year, but I’m ready to end this month early. It’s been soggy and dark and with far too few signs of spring. All the more reason to indulge in escapist reading, not just Mary Stewart but also things such as:

Seishi Yokomizu: The Inugami Curse (aka The Inugami Clan, which would be closer to the original in Japanese) – a sort of And Then There Were None but all in the family, thanks to a rather strange and spiteful will. Much more about psychology than closed room puzzles and therefore more enjoyable to me than last month’s Japanese mystery.

Elizabeth George: A Banquet of Consequences – I used to pounce on each new novel by E. George as soon as it came out, but I somehow lost the plot a little after Careless in Red and have struggled – not very hard – to get back in. I’d previously put up with the suspension of disbelief that class still matters in the Metropolitan Police and the sometimes slightly touristy view of Britain (like Martha Grimes), also with the great length of the novels (because they made for interesting character development). But lately I’d been feeling they were getting too baggy and ever so slightly repetitive. While this one is not perfect (the Havers finding her groove sub-plot seems a little tagged on, for instance), the description of one of the most manipulative mothers in fiction and a truly dysfunctional family meant that I just couldn’t put this down and read it straight in two days.

Louise Penny: The Nature of the Beast – Purists might be shocked that I’ve read Louise Penny all out of order. I just read whichever book I can get my hands on and always enjoy a trip to Three Pines and becoming reacquainted with Gamache and his family and friends. This one came out in 2015/16 and I have a suspicion I had too many other things going on in my life at the time to be fully on the ball. It strikes me that there is a deep, deep sadness at the heart of Penny’s work, which contrasts with the cosy village atmosphere.

Brian Bilston: Diary of a Somebody – Many of you will have enjoyed Brian’s irreverent Twitter poetry. This is his first novel, about a hapless, bumbling middle-aged poet trying to navigate work, divorce and sharing custody of his son, book club and poetry club, and his arch-nemesis, the pretentious rival poet with the completely opaque poetry. It was trying a bit too hard to go for the laughs, so it gets a bit repetitive after all, but in small doses, it is very amusing.

Nicola Upson: London Rain – The mystery series featuring Josephine Tey has always been one of my (not so secret) pleasures, another one that I’ve read out of order. This one is set at the time of the coronation of George VI and features the BBC at the start of its glory period. Not my favourite of the series to date, but the recreation of the period feels very authentic.

Nick Bradley: The Cat and the City – a quirky, strange book with a series of interconnected characters and stories, all showing a rapidly changing Tokyo on the eve of the 2020 Olympic Games. On the whole, it manages to avoid most of the cliches about Japan that foreign authors are prone to fall into and does a good job of conveying the loneliness of the huge, anonymous city. It left me thoughtful and dreamy for a few days after finishing it. But be warned: there is a distressing scene involving a cat getting hurt!

In a way, I’ve continued the Japanese reading challenge theme – although sadly I won’t have time to reread The Makioka sisters with Meredith. If you do get a chance to read it, I’d really, really recommend it: imagine Chekhov’s Three Sisters blended with an unforgettable portrait of a rapidly modernising Japan in the early 20th century.

Helen Phillips: The Need – not strictly speaking the most comforting read, especially when you are a single mother with two children alone in a creaky house (luckily, my children are a bit older than the ones in this book). Less of a ghost or horror story than a sort of postmodern feminist tale, which will probably up your anxiety levels… about almost anything really!

To summarise: I read 16 books this month, of which 7 fall roughly into the memoir theme I had envisaged (if we count Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard and Kate Brigg’s This Little Art as quasi-memoirs too). I took part in #Fitzcarraldo Fortnight with just one book – the beautiful essay on translation as the ‘little art’ – and in the Paul Auster reading week with his early memoir The Invention of Solitude. 9 of the books I read this month were pure escapism, comfort reads, reflecting a much needed break for my poor brain after lots of translation and editing work. 11 of the books were by women authors, and only 2 were in translation (a deliberate choice, so that my head would be full of native English speakers and writers while I was trying to render a Romanian text into colloquial English).

Plans for next month? I’ll have finished editing the translation so can continue with my geographically themed reading. I’m thinking possibly Spain…

Easy Reading for Dark Days

You know what I hate about winter?  Not the cold, not the snow, but the darkness! It makes me crave comfort food and comfort reading. And, while I agree with the need for difficult books and enjoy experimental reading by and large, with the anxiety-inducing news that seems to be lapping (or do I mean nipping?) at our feet constantly, we all need some soothing. So, for the past couple of week, I’ve gone with the undemanding stuff: favourite authors, lots of crime fiction and perhaps even something funny.

Prabda Yoon: Moving Parts, transl. Mui Poopoksakul

An unusual collection of surreal stories based around body parts, which I probably wouldn’t have come across without the help of the Asymptote Book Club. A finger shouting out ‘yuck’ at inappropriate times, a teenager who gets to keep the hand of the girl he fancies but makes a mess of it, a young woman who fears that her lack of a real human tail will damage her love prospects… You get the point: these are all such unlikely, borderline absurd scenarios that you cannot help but chuckle as you read them. This Thai author has previously been described as ‘virtually untranslatable’ because of the word games and puns, the way he likes to experiment with language. He certainly presents a picture of contemporary Thailand quite far removed from the tourist sights or even the more sleazy settings of crime fiction.

Louise Penny:Kingdom of the Blind

In the afterword to this latest novel set in the almost mythical community of Three Pines, I was very moved to read that the author had seriously thought she had nothing more to write about Armand Gamache, her much loved detective, head of the Sûreté du Québec, and staunch family man. The reason for that was the death of her husband, who had been a partial inspiration for Gamache. Much to the relief of her vast legions of fans, she did come up with a new story involving all of the colourful characters surrounding Gamache, as well as the extreme harshness of a Canadian winter. The storyline of political shenanigans to discredit Gamache is starting to wear a little thin, I thought, but otherwise it is a fun story of family rivalry, a feud about inheritance, and institutional and individual corruption.

Hanna Jameson: The Last

Such a promising premise for this one: what if nuclear war broke out while you were at a conference in a remote location in the Swiss Alps? What if you find a murder has been committed and that one of the survivors camping out with you in that hotel must have done it? Yet this novel, described inevitably as And Then There Were None meets The Road, really doesn’t live up to that promise. There is very little murder mystery in there, much more of an exploration of the psychology of survivors and the minutiae of their daily lives. There is some fun to be had about the differences of opinions between Europeans and Americans, and the ‘hazing’ of someone whom we might consider a Trump supporter, but every theme appears to be mentioned, gone into briefly, and then dropped. Besides, I just couldn’t get over the fact that the Swiss, with their abundance of obligatory bunkers fully equipped with food and other necessities, will be the ones most likely to survive the apocalypse in comfort. And the author doesn’t take this into account at all!

Tana French: The Witch Elm

Another difficult white cover – is there a trend right now that I hadn’t previously noticed? A standalone by one of the best crime authors currently at work – I could hardly wait to read this one. And yet, it was disappointing. Far too much background  – the story only gets going about halfway through, and even then there is too much dithering. While I normally enjoy French’s slow build-up to horrifying conclusions (Broken Harbour is the perfect example of that), in this case I didn’t feel that the build-up was warranted. And although I normally quite like unlikeable characters, I just couldn’t care about the narrator in this instance.

So in the end, easy reading doesn’t always make for the most satisfying reading. Out of the four, I would say the short story collection, i.e. The most unexpected and experimental one, was the one that pleased me most, even if I didn’t love every story and even though I feel it is disloyal to Louise Penny. Onwards and upwards!

Seeking Comfort in Crime Fiction (1): Susie Steiner

In times of unrest, I always find comfort in a few well-chosen and lovingly recommended books. I turn to favourite authors and locations like the Quebec of Louise Penny, or I try out something completely new that I’ve seen other authors enthuse about, like Susie Steiner’s Manon Bradshaw series. Of course, poetry is always there to nourish and enlighten me. This is the first of three posts about comfort reading.

Susie Steiner: Missing, Presumed

From the blurb: Over the airwaves come reports of a missing woman – door ajar, keys and phone left behind, a spatter of blood on the kitchen floor. Manon knows the first 72 hours are critical: you find her, or you look for a body. And as soon as she sees a picture of Edith Hind, a Cambridge post-graduate from a well-connected family, she knows this case will be big.

Is Edith alive or dead? Was her ‘complex love life’ at the heart of her disappearance, as a senior officer tells the increasingly hungry press? And when a body is found, is it the end or only the beginning?

When I first read the blurb of this book, I thought: ‘Not for me. Sounds far too similar to far too many recent releases, nothing special to attract me.’ How wrong I was! Luckily, I got intrigued enough by an exchange of tweets between Sarah Perry, Adele Geras and others to give the author a chance – and I am so glad I did.

It breaks all the rules of crime fiction with which agents and publishers hit us around the head. It does not start with a dead body, in the heart of the action. It has multiple viewpoints, not all of which take the story forward, but merely add nuances to it. It focuses on the characters and the private lives of the investigators more than on the plot. The plot ‘twist’ is not that surprising and the villains are not that hateful. And yet, and yet…

It is great fun to read: clever, humorous, sarcastic at times, sharply observant of human nature with all its foibles. It is Jane Austen writing crime thrillers – and not at all of the cosy sort. The main detective, Manon Bradshaw, is immediately relatable – not dysfunctional, not a drunk, not heavily traumatised, but just starting to feel the pangs of middle age and the fear of loneliness. Her dating mishaps are both sad but also hilariously cringe-worthy. And the author pokes fun at the pretentiousness of Cambridge students or London professionals with connections.

It’s an unusual police procedural, because it really takes its time to discuss department funding and interactions between team members, rather than rely on clichéed shortcuts. It felt more like the TV series Happy Valley or Scott and Bailey. Having given up on the book Tennison recently (although I loved Prime Suspect), because it had too many irrelevant details, I really connected with this one instead and stayed up all night to finish it. Not because it was full of ‘unguessable’ twists, but because it was so life-like, caring and well-written. I can’t wait to see what happens next with Manon and Fly and, luckily, I won’t have long to wait. The second book in the series Persons Unknown is due out in May 2017.