Despite a very busy week at work (this is going to be my refrain over the next month or so), I managed to cram in a few extracurricular activities. I took my older son (or should that be: he took me?) to the Manga exhibition at the British Museum and this time it was not quite as busy as when I went with the younger one, so I managed to take some pictures.
With more than 5000 manga artists active in Japan today, and with hundreds if not thousands of series appearing in weekly or monthly formats, it was impossible to cover all of my children’s favourites, so they were inevitably somewhat disappointed. However, as an exhibition exploring the origins of the manga (in the Heian scrolls, for instance) and showing the breadth of manga topics (from sports to adventure to love to classic novels or non-fiction), it was an excellent introduction to a Japanese art and literary form that has conquered the world.
After a short stop in Portsmouth for a conference…
… I warmed up for my birthday weekend with a trip to the theatre, to watch the charismatic Andrew Scott (aka Sexy Priest in Fleabag) in a Noel Coward play Present Laughter at the Old Vic. This was actually a preview performance, but the cast seemed to slip effortlessly into that blend of physical farce and caustic wit which is signature Coward. It is about an ageing matinee idol who seems unable to let go of his selfish ways and giant-sized ego. A stylish and very funny production, with one significant change to the original: a gender inversion, so that the main character Garry Essendine’s business partner is a woman and he finds himself having a one-night stand with her husband (in the original play the business partner is a man and he slips up with the wife). It felt quite natural and perhaps closer to what we know of Noel Coward and his entourage.
The play was written in 1939 and meant to provide a little light relief from the sombre storm clouds gathering over Europe. It went into rehearsals but the war broke out, so it wasn’t performed until 1942. At a time of not quite as severe uncertainty and gloom, it still provides a wonderful evening of escapist entertainment and belly laughs.
In terms of reading this week, I’ve been cracking on with my selection of American authors: David Vann’s Aquarium very nearly broke me (I just cannot cope with sad children). Cara Black’s Murder in Bel Air was suitably entertaining, although I think of it as more French than American. I am also currently reading Sam Shepard’s miniature pieces in Cruising Paradise, which is very Dakota -American Midwest. By way of contrast, I had a craving to reread Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley – where American penchant for action and the self-made man meet European lifestyle and indolence.
I’m not quite sure what to call this post, because it is about far more than just reading (although reading plays a huge part). It’s also about writing, translating, attending literary events and far more. So let me just put the extremely broad label of ‘culture’ on it.
If you’ve read some of my posts about the #EU27Project, you will know what will keep me busy until end of March 2019. I have most of the books already sitting and waiting on my bookshelves (a couple maybe from the library, although our library does not do very well on anything foreign that is not a Scandi-thriller). Nevertheless, any tips for Cyprus and Luxembourg would still be gratefully received.
I’ve always had a bit of an obsession with the Paris Commune (perhaps because of its close association with Montmartre (where it started) and Belleville (where it ended), my favourite parts of Paris. So when Emma from Book Around the Corner reviewed a book about this topic (in no flattering terms) and suggested that Zola’s La Débâcle (The Debacle) would provide a better background to it. So Emma and I have decided to read Zola ‘together’ in May 2019 – and you are very welcome to join in if you like. I also have other historical and fictional accounts of the Commune that I want to read that month, so May will my revolutionary month.
There are two rendezvous that I never miss ever since I discovered them: Women in Translation Month in August and #GermanLitMonth in November, so I hope to take part in those this year as well. I also want to read and review critically at least one book of poetry a month – because that helps me rethink my own poetry.
Last but not least, I have to make a serious indent in the books I already own. The stacks my shelves, assorted pieces of furniture, floor are toppling over, while my Kindle hides hundreds of impulse buys. I may not read them all, but I need to triage, discard or read and not buy any new books. Of course, I’ll still visit the library on occasion.
Other than that, I will rely more on reading by whim and happenstance. I’m cutting right down on my reviewing commitments. Although I’ll be very sorry to say goodbye to my long-term association (more than 6 years!) with the wonderful Crime Fiction Lover site, I want to follow in the footsteps of its previous reviewers who became writers, such as Luca Veste and Eva Dolan. And the only way to do that is to hoard my precious time more tightly to my chest!
Although my association with Asymptote Journal of literature in translation and its Book Club has been shorter (a year and a half), I am equally sad to cut my ties with a literary venture whose emphasis on quality (of both literature and translation) is second to none. I will hopefully still serve as a point of contact to help organise events for the Book Club, but am no longer able to keep up the daily second shift until late at night.
I’ll be blogging and tweeting far less. I won’t feel as pressured to review every single book that I read (which was perfectly fine for the first 2-3 years of my blog, but then I started to feel guilty about it). I will work hard on finalising the poems (and perhaps swapping out some old ones with some new ones) for the chapbook I hope to send out soon. I may share some of my progress (or lack thereof) on my novel. I don’t have a daily word target, or even a daily routine, but I will make sure to keep in touch with my own work far more regularly throughout the week, rather than treating it as a welcome but very distant relative who visits once or twice a year.
I still have a few theatrical escapades planned, but am again practising some restraint. Tickets are very expensive (and reviewing takes time, although I might still do it occasionally, as you get to experience shows you might otherwise not have come across). I will see the ballet Manon with the peerless Alina Cojocaru in January (one of my favourite ballets, so dramatic, so sad). In February it will The War of the Worlds with my older son.
Can I just do a proud Mum shout-out here? It is so rewarding to take him to a film or play, as he really dissects it and examines it critically (without being annoyingly nitpicky). We saw Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap yesterday in London for his birthday and we had such fun actually talking all the way back (no messing about with phones) about the play, favourite films of 2018 (Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody scored highly with both of us) and reminiscing about his toddler days. I really enjoyed his company, which is not always the case with children and teenagers, even though you might love them to bits. And I don’t think it has much to do with the way I brought him up, since younger son is not all like this.
No holidays abroad with the children this year and indeed very few holidays at all, but I will treat myself to a trip to the south of France around Easter time (if the planes will still be flying without a hitch after Brexit) to stay once more with the friends in Luberon where I’ve previously been amazingly productive.
I’ve also decided to be extravagant and treat myself to one crime festival this year. After carefully examining dates and pennies, I opted for CrimeFest in Bristol 9-12 May, so do let me know if you are planning to attend, as it’s always fun to meet up with people you know so well online.
The final ‘treat’ will be a working holiday in July, i.e. going to a few university open days with my older son and taking in some of the sights in England along the way. It’s still a bit early to worry about university, but it gives us an excuse to meander and stay in some amazing locations, thanks to the Landmark Trust.
So those are my plans for 2019. Whatever your plans are, whether you make resolutions or not, I hope the year goes well for you, and that the pollution of world news and events does not impinge too much upon your daily lives.
The week started with an X-ray (no bones broken, luckily) and an ankle which got steadily better but still got painful and swollen at the end of the day, especially after a hectic commute or a long car ride. So I cancelled some of my plans, most notably the Winchester Poetry Festival, which I had been looking forward to for months. I bought the tickets back in April and was looking forward to seeing Kathleen Jamie, Pascale Petit and Rebecca Goss again, as well as listening to World Voices
There was another reason why I cancelled my trip to Winchester (which would have been an all day trip). Motherly guilt played a part.
At the time of booking, I thought it would be one of the weekends when the children would be with their father, but plans had changed. I’ve been going out quite a bit lately and not seeing them at all even on weekdays. I’d also just attended a parents’ evening about GCSE revision and felt I’d neglected my older son’s exam preparation. Although he is reasonably conscientious, he does need the occasional reminder or a check of his work. So in the end we spent Saturday going through all the exam topics and setting a timetable for revisions, especially with his mocks coming up at the end of November.
One event I did attend this week was at a small community theatre in Islington, The Pleasance, where I saw Aid Memoir by Glenda Cooper – a satire about international aid and TV appeals, making us question our own often patronising attitudes towards humanitarian crises and the ‘deserving’ recipients of aid. A short but really powerful piece of work (which chimed with my personal experience at both the giving and receiving end of the equation). You can read my full review here.
Well, if I couldn’t go out much, then the books came to me. A modest haul by my standards this week (and about time too, I can hear you think!). I received my Asymptote Book Club title for September, which is a short story collection from the Asian continent (I will say more once everyone has received their copy). I also got a French edition of Finisterra by Carlos de Oliveira, following the enthusiastic review on The Untranslated blog. My supportive community of L’Atelier Writers recommended Sandra Scofield’s The Last Draft to encourage me to finally finish my darn novels. Let’s hope that it does the trick! And Raven Books have sent me an ARC of The Flower Girls by Alice Clark-Platts, out in 2019.
I have also selected two NYRB titles to take part in #NYRBFortnight, as seen on Lizzy Siddal’s Twitter feed. Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater is proving horribly timely, ferocious and funny so far. Meanwhile, Jakob Wasserman’s My Marriage (the man’s side of the story) may have to wait until November, when I will inevitably take part in German Literature Month, as hosted by Lizzy and Caroline. Other authors I may use for that month (from my Berlin haul): Eva Menasse, Marlen Haushofer, Fred Uhlman and Martin Suter.
I started off writing a weekly summary of events for this post and then realised that it is the end of September, so a monthly summary might also be appropriate. But first the weekly bit.
Two rather lovely events this week. First, a literary evening as part of the Festival America events across London, with Canadian writers Heather O’Neill and Michael Redhill at the very beautiful Canada House in Trafalgar Square. They even had a throne under lock and key, made specially for George V when he visited Canada.
Both of them are prize-winning authors in Canada, less well-known over here, but there is such a contrast between the two of them. Heather O’Neill has been on my radar since I stumbled almost accidentally across her debut novel Lullabies for Little Criminals in the McGill University bookshop while I was on a business trip to Montreal. I was so moved by that story that I automatically wanted to read everything else written by O’Neill. Yet when I got to The Lonely Hearts Hotel, I was equally entranced and repulsed by it. Hearing about Heather’s crazy childhood and parents who ‘had no idea how to function in the real world’, it is understandable that her view of the world is a combination of hardcore cynicism and childish wonder. She is extremely entertaining when she talks about her horrific experiences as a child, but she has clearly turned to fiction as a way to process trauma. As she said ‘Children have no language to express the bad things that have happened to them. My fiction tries to give them that language without taking away any of the nuances.’
She also had interesting things to say about literary prizes, having been a judge on the Giller Prize (the Canadian equivalent of the Man Booker) this year. She said that most of the books she felt strongly about none of the other judges liked – ever the rebel!
Michael Redhill is a poet and novelist, and seems at first glance to fit very much into the mainstream straight white male cannon. I didn’t quite get what he tried to achieve with Bellevue Square, but I thought it was an interesting and brave attempt, like Paul Auster’s New York trilogy. Then you find out that he has also published crime fiction under the pseudonym Inger Ash Wolfe – now I look forward to reading some of those. And there was quite a bit of subversion in the way he talked about literature and literary prizes – in his opinion the books that win most years are the second place vote for everybody. In other words, the book that all the judges mind least if it wins. He said that for him Bellevue Square is a clearing house for humanity, with such an assortment of characters from all walks of life, and he particularly admired how Heather gave such depth of character to the people in her novels – people that we would normally dismiss or avoid or run away from.
On Friday I had the unexpected good fortune to go to an evening of ballet at the Peacock Theatre. The New English Ballet Theatre, who are a young, energetic company very much open to innovation, had a double bill of Remembrance/The Four Seasons and I reviewed it for View from the Cheap Seat.
September has gone by even faster than the previous months, so what have been the highlights?
We started off the month in one of my favourite places in England, Cambridge, then continued with another mother-and-sons trip down memory lane to Vienna. Although it is always bittersweet to go back to the places where you were once so happy, I hope that I’ve inspired a future generation to take advantage of opportunities and expand their horizons.
I had the bestest of times singing and dancing along to one of my living heroines, Janelle Monae. I did a short workshop with Isabel Costello and Voula Tsoflias about developing your resilience as a writer, which made me decide to focus more of my energy on submissions once more. I saw another of my writing heroines, Sarah Moss, and was inspired by the Poetry Book and Magazine Fair. And, alongside all that, I’ve been learning a new (and very counter-intuitive) events management system at work and helping roll out a new initiative, getting the boys settled into their new school year and starting contemporary dance classes.
October is set to be just as busy, so let’s hope that this sprained ankle which has laid me low this weekend is nothing more serious (X-ray to follow tomorrow) and won’t slow me down at all.
When I said that I’d be cutting back on cultural events for financial reasons, I may have forgotten to mention that I’d already pre-booked myself pretty solid until mid-October. So there is still plenty to keep you and me entertained until then. Plus, I keep forgetting about my healthy resolution, as attested by this picture of all the poetry books I bought at the Poetry Book and Magazine Fair on Saturday.
But before I write about the Poetry Fair, let me mention the delightful evening with Sarah Moss at Waterstones Gower Street on Thursday night. Sarah Moss is one of my favourite living writers in the UK at the moment and I’ve become a completist about her. In fact, I’d just ordered the only book in her back catalogue which I haven’t read, Names for the Sea, but it didn’t arrive in time to get it signed. [I have yet to buy and read her latest one, Ghost Wall, but I am pacing myself, because what will I do when I finish all she has written to date?]
Sarah is every bit as intelligent, humorous, quirky and modest as you would expect from reading her books. I won’t say any more at this point, because I want to write a proper article about her books and include the things I learnt that evening. But let me just say that we all gasped out loud when she said that her process for writing a novel was to write the first draft then delete it and empty the trash folderso that she isn’t tempted to dig it out again, before embarking on ‘doing it again properly’.
On Saturday I trekked back to my workplace to take part in a workshop on how to put together a poetry pamphlet for publication with the lovely Rachel Piercey, who was until recently at Emma Press. It was a very informative, hands-on session, and I greatly enjoyed it, but it did mean that the afternoon wasn’t quite long enough to visit all of the stands, nor did I get to go to any of the poetry readings.
I was there as a multiple personality: 1) reader who loves poetry; 2) poet who wants to get a pamphlet out soon; 3) collaborator at a literary journal seeking to connect with other literary journals or find new translations/translators. I think I did well especially in the first category, because I soon ran out of both cash and space in my backpack. Here are some of my discoveries.
It was lovely to see how many people were at the fair, although I suspect most of them were poets themselves. The poetry world is a world fuelled by passion and hard work rather than money, so it’s important to support other poets. And I think it can be said that I certainly did that! I also want to start reviewing poetry more frequently on the blog, as well.
Back to work, school and literary life! I do love September and its routines, although this week has been very tentative about routines so far.
I was still recovering from my trip to Vienna at the start of the week and pleased that my older son is now a Mozart fan as well (thank you, Amadeus the film, despite all your inaccuracies!). On Wednesday night I was blown away by Janelle Monae live. On Thursday I trialled a contemporary dance class and enjoyed running low and artistically from one corner of the gym to another (yep, I’ll be going regularly). On Saturday I attended a workshop organised by The Word Factory and run by Isabel Costello and Voula Tsoflias on developing your resilience as a writer. A very necessary and helpful session, which I hope will act as a kickstarter for me, as I’ve stopped submitting for about a year now, when the double dollop of rejection from writing and job applications got too much. Good news, however, about the one piece I did submit – one of the pieces I wrote during the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol this July, was accepted!
Another news item which made me very happy was that two Asymptote Book Club titles are on the first-ever longlist for the National Book Award for translated literature in the US. That is a HUGE achievement in just 9 months of existence of the Book Club. We clearly have a very wise team of editors who know how to pick the right titles (I can be immodest because it is not me that is involved in the final choice). We are going to be expanding the membership to the EU countries shortly and also organising some events, so plenty of exciting work ahead! If you are thinking of joining or renewing your membership, we have a flash sale going on this weekend. To ring in our milestone 30th issue, sign up for a three-month subscription by 2359hrs today (in your timezone) and get 10% off. And if you are wondering how you can fit in 12 additional books from all over the world to add to your tottering TBR pile, there is also an ‘every other month’ subscription option if you sign up for a whole year (with the corresponding price reduction, of course).
Last but not least, here are the three books which will be joining my bedside table pile this week.
Asymptote Book Club’s August title is Brice Matthieussent’s Revenge of the Translator, translated by Emma Ramadan, which sounds like a postmodern confection of utter delight (a translator tries to justify the changes he makes to the novel’s plot and then blurs the lines between reality and text).
Endo Shusaku’s Scandal, transl. Van C. Gessel, is also about a novelist, keeping up appearances and disturbing sexual appetites (it will make an interesting comparison with Leila Slimani’s Dans le jardin de l’ogre, which I’ve just reread for a review).
Patricia Laurent: Santiago’s Way, transl. Geoff Hargreaves. A huge hit and prizewinner in Mexico, this one was translated a while ago but hasn’t received much attention here. The blurb makes me think of Zero by Gine Cornelia Pedersen. “Imagine that all your life you’ve been guided by someone else. Someone who’s steered you away from trouble, taken you across the world, brought you success. He’s called Santiago and he lives in your head—and now he’s turned against you.”
No big events or travels this week, but I did get to see four films – unheard of record! These are not serious or lengthy reviews, merely my initial reaction to them.
I so much wanted to love this, and it was indeed an entertaining, frothy caper, but it felt rushed. There was too much focus on the heist itself and not enough on the relationship between the women, so it really was a bit of a waste having so many talented women together in the same room (literally and metaphorically).
Superlative acting by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, a film that really takes its time and explores nuances. It’s almost a play – very few characters, mainly composed of the dialogue between the couple. The way the wife puts up with all the grumpiness and eccentricities of her husband (aside from the drama that befalls their marriage). One scene that critics have not commented upon but which really struck a chord with me was that scene with Kate helping out on a tourist tour on the Norfolk broads – and all the visitors are old women. So many people stay in an unsatisfactory marriage for fear of being alone in old age – and yet for most women that will be the case anyway. Made me glad that I only wasted 20 years on a marriage instead of 45…
Luminous performance by the two young leads – Elle Fanning and Douglas Booth, but full of historical and biographical inaccuracies which irritated me. I can see the point of some of them, how they were used to heighten dramatic structure. For instance, Mary did not meet Shelley in Scotland and knew from the start that he was married, since he came to dinner with his wife at her father’s house. She had more than one child who died in infancy. Others elements were excluded because they were inconvenient truths – even nowadays. Her relationship with her half-sister, Claire Claremont, was not quite as loving and caring as portrayed and there was a lot of jealousy there (plus, there was another half-sister on her mother’s side who also fell in love with Shelley and committed suicide). Shelley’s first wife had two children with him and fell pregnant at the same time as he was embarking upon his relationship with Mary.
Other film choices are harder to understand. Why use a boring generic manor house instead of the actual Villa Diodata on Lake Geneva? Lord Byron was camp rather than charismatic – Tom Sturridge has the looks and acting chops to make him more subtly menacing and attractive, but the part was not designed that way. Also, the group did actually get to read their stories in the evening in 1816 and also got caught in a storm on the lake which is like a premonition of Shelley’s untimely death. Most annoying: the interpretation of Frankenstein as being about a woman feeling abandoned is a bit simplistic. There is a lot more depth there: social commentary about how we treat outsiders, science vs. humanism, the dangers of trying to play God etc.
Mamma Mia – Here We Go Again
Question: with so many Skarsgård offspring in the acting profession, why couldn’t any of them have played their father as a young man? A missed opportunity there. Other than that – well, it’s incoherent, milking the franchise, but a jolly bit of musical fun.
No more room to tell you about my book haul this week, so I’ll post about it tomorrow!