#AtoZofBooks – Favourites and Forgotten Books

Simon Thomas from Stuck in a Book started a trend on Twitter a few days ago with an A-Z of favourite books: an author for every letter of the alphabet.

Oh HI book twitter!

I’ve decided I’m going to share 26 brilliant books – an author for every letter of the alphabet. It’ll be a gradual thread. It’ll be fun.

Share your own #AToZofBooks!— Simon Thomas (@stuck_inabook) May 22, 2019

This is such a lovely idea, that I wanted to emulate it on my blog – although I will no doubt curse the thought once I reach X or Z.

A: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, of course, one of the most perfect novels ever written.

B: Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal influenced me hugely in my teens and was probably the catalyst that provoked my own outburst of poetry at that age. I can still recite some of the poems by heart.

C: Another poet, Cavafy, whose collected poems I discovered much later, when I fell in love with a Greek man in my 20s. He had been forced to study Ithaka at school, and moaned about it, but I thought it was a fantastic poem and wanted to read more. The Greek man has since disappeared from my life (well, nearly… any day now… he’s a bit like Theresa May) but the love for Cavafy has remained. I have about 5 different translations of his work and can just about read the original Greek as well.

D: Dazai Osamu – I love all of the books by this nice ‘cheery’ Japanese author, but I have a soft spot for the first one I ever read by him: a collection of short stories which have been translated into English as Run, Melos! and Other Stories. The story from Judas’ point of view impressed me so much that I made my first attempt there and then at translating from Japanese.

E: Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone impressed me very much when I read it at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe.

F: Benjamin Fondane is Romanian-Jewish poet, translator, literary critic and essayist, who wrote in both French and Romanian and sadly was exterminated in Birkenau in 1944 at the age of just 46. His poetry collection Privelisti (Landscapes) is my choice here.

G: A masterpiece of satire and absurdity, the short story The Nose by Nikolai Gogol.

H: A surfeit of good authors with H, but I think I’ll choose the witty (yet gentle) indictment of UN bureaucrats in Shirley Hazzard’s People in Glass Houses.

I: Who else but Eugene Ionesco, my fellow countryman? And because I love anything to do with language learning and the dangers of miscommunication, I choose The Bald Soprano.

J: Shirley Jackson has long been a favourite of mine, mainly on the basis of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which is one of the most chilling yet perfect novellas ever written.

K: Franz Kafka’s Das Schloss (The Castle) – the author was never in doubt, although it’s hard to choose between this, Metamorphosis and The Trial.

L: C. S. Lewis: The Silver Chair – the Narnia chronicles provided me with many, many hours of joy in my childhood, and this one was perhaps my favourite of the lot, because I could relate to Jill and thought Puddleglum was hilarious.

M: Murakami Haruki’s Kafka on the Shore is probably my favourite novel of his, and not just because it features lots of cats.

N: Gellu Naum was a Romanian surrealist poet, but he is best known for his delightful children’s book about the little penguin Apolodor who is trying to find his relatives in Labrador.

O: On my first (and so far only) visit to Canada, I discovered Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals and have been smitten with this author ever since.

P: I could go for obvious choice Proust, but I will opt instead for Barbara Pym. Less than Angels may not be her best-known or most accomplished novel, but she pokes fun at anthropologists in it and I just cannot resist that!

Q: A tricky letter, as you might imagine, but not when you have a favourite called Zazie dans le metro by Raymond Queneau.

R: Which one of Jean Rhys‘ haunting novels to choose? In the end, perhaps After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is the most quietly devastating one.

S: Antoine de Sainte-Exupery’s The Little Prince will forever be one of my favourite books, sorry, cannot be objective about it at all, cry like a leaky faucet whenever I read it.

T: A slight cheating going on here, but I want to make sure that Tove Jansson gets a mention, as she is one of my most favourite writers ever. Plus the title of this book of hers starts with a T too: The True Deceiver.

U: Another avant-garde Romanian poet (we seem to be good at writing about absurdity, perhaps our history has taught us to see the surreal comedy and oxymorons in daily life) is Urmuz, considered a forerunner of Dadaism. His works (short prose and poetry) have been translated into English, if you are curious.

V: Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo gets a few things wrong, so the Colombian storyteller who inspired him decides to tell his own version of events. Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Secret History of Costaguana is a lively rewriting of literary history and Latin America’s riposte to Europe’s limiting vision of their continent.

W: I’m sure you all expect me to choose Virginia Woolf, but I will confound you by going for Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, which I read while visiting Granada as a child and had a lasting effect on me (again, very slightly cheating).

X: I love Qiu Xiaolong‘s Chief Inspector Chen series, set in a rapidly changing Shanghai in the 1990s, starting with Death of a Red Heroine.

Y: Very tempted to choose Richard Yates here, but instead I will mention Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, which should be far better known in the English-speaking world.

Z: Émile Zola is currently very much top of my thoughts, but it’s not The Debacle that I will be referring to here, nor Nana or Germinal, his best-known works, but the novel which supposedly brought about the end of his friendship with Cezanne, L’Oeuvre (The Work of Art), in which he somewhat satirizes the Bohemian art world in Paris at the time.

Do the Hustle: Rearranging My Books

With all of the book-buying binges I’ve been indulging in for the past year (and last week especially), I’ve had to rethink how I arrange my books on the shelves. In other words, I was running out of shelf space, despite the fact that there are bookshelves in my study, both of the boys’ rooms and the living room (although the latter could do with more bookshelves, but stupidly placed radiators prevent it).

So I had a genius moment of inspiration: why don’t I use some of the other furniture to keep books? I have two large bedside tables all to myself and a chest of drawers in my bedroom, plus another chest of drawers for the children’s clothes on the landing. Of course, there had to be a bit of logic to my madness, and this is what I came up with.

The bedside table by the side where I have my reading lamp is dedicated to ‘books to review and other current reads’, books borrowed from the libraries and my three favourite authors: Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen and Tove Jansson. I don’t actually have all of their books here with me – the downside of moving frequently to new countries. But on the day when I will be reunited with all of them, I may have to rethink this strategy, as it’s filling up fast, as you can see! (I still need some space for a cup of coffee.)

On the other bedside table I have the Russians (more of them lurk in Romanian at my parents’ house, but these are the ones I’ve got translated into English), the non-Japanese Asians and Middle Eastern authors (of which I have shamefully few), another favourite writer Shirley Jackson and a few short story or essay collections that I am currently delving into. I also have a small selection of favourite crime fiction authors, so that I can take a peek at them when I get discouraged at the (non-)progress of my novel.

On my chest of drawers I have poetry, because every room needs some poetry in it. The selection was somewhat haphazard, mainly what was overflowing from my poetry bookshelf in the study, but you can’t go wrong with whatever book you open! And I did ensure that Anne Carson, Sharon Olds and Naomi Shihab Nye, three poets who really inspire me, are there.

Out on the landing I have a selection of my Nordics (yes, they are a bit divvied up although lumped together as ‘Nordic’), including my favourite crime fiction series Martin Beck, plus some of my boys’ books that I also want to read and ARCs that I have already reviewed and that I might pass on to friends.

All of this has left no gaps in my proper shelves, but merely means that there is no more double or triple stacking. I can see all the titles at last! And I can also instantly spot the gaps in my world culture. (For example, the Latin Americans are starting to fill up, but Africa and Asia are still woefully underrepresented).

What clever tips and tricks have you got for arranging books or incorporating more shelf space? I’d love to hear from you, especially if you can find a solution for those pesky radiators.

The title is inspired from a song and dance from my parents’ youth: Do the Hustle by disco wonder Van McCoy. (I hasten to add that my parents’ dance was nothing like as complicated as that!) 

 

Reading Questions – from Twitter to Blog

I saw this fun Reading 20 Questions on Twitter. I doubt that 20 people would like it but I really want to do it, so I’m answering it for myself here on my blog. So there!

 

1. Everyone knows that I LOVE reading crime fiction best of all. I discovered it in my early 20s, when my brain was frazzled from doing 5 jobs at once, but I got to think of it as much more than a mere distraction. It is the most accommodating of genres – some of the greatest works of literature are crime novels (Crime and Punishment, Rebecca, The Great Gatsby).

2. Elmet by Fiona Mozeley and it is every bit as wonderful as people said. I would die to be able to write such beautiful sentences and be so observant of nature!

3. Probably the collection of Romanian fairy tales by Petre Ispirescu – Basme. My parents read them to me as a child. My poor father was exhausted and try to skip some pages, but I was wide-awake, knew them by heart and was very keen to correct him.

4. I wish they would hurry up and adapt all of the Narnia series (although I am not 100% happy with what they have done so far), since The Silver Chair and The Horse and His Boy are my favourites.

5. So many! But old loves are the best loves, aren’t they? I will stick to my beloved Pippi Longstocking, who refused to conform to gender or bourgeois expectations.

6. Count Fosco in The Woman in White is rather wonderfully menacing – and deliberately presented as an anti-villain (corpulent yet light-footed, jolly-looking yet sinister). Although perhaps Wilkie Collins is a little too fond of underlining his Italian ways…

7. I write mainly poetry and crime novels. But I have written a small number of stories. You can read the first story I ever wrote here. (with the usual apologies and disclaimers)

8. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Milos Forman captures all the craziness and menace of the original book by Ken Kesey and then some!

9. I’ve read 50 books so far in 2018 and at least 10 of those have been outstanding. One that really haunted me was Love by Hanne Ørstavik, translated by Martin Aitken, which I received as part of the Asymptote Book Club subscription.

10. I will read anything by Tove Jansson and Shirley Jackson. There you go, you get two for the price of one!

11. I used to think that fantasy or YA were my least favourite genres – and they are certainly not my go-to genres of choice. But the ones that I never pick up nowadays are romance novels. Although I did go through a period of adoring Georgette Heyer and Victoria Holt, if they count as romance.

12. Other than my favourite authors, you mean? My real-life friends seldom take my advice, but one author who has never disappointed when they did take it was Dorothy Parker (her short stories).

13. More film adaptations? OK, perhaps The English Patient. I read the book after sobbing my way through the film though. Besides, I was in love with Ralph Fiennes.

14. I used to read all of Jane Austen’s novels every year for about 10-12 years, and I still reread my favourite occasionally: Persuasion. But, much more frequently than that, with my children, The Gruffalo and Where the Wild Things Are. Every night for months, times two. I make that at least 180 times each.

15. Javier Marias: A Heart So Whitesimply because I’d heard that he was a long-winded writer who seems to change course in the middle of a sentence – an infuriating style. Instead, it really resonated with me.

16. Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Completely insane, funny, sharply satirical and delectable.

17. Probably the Diaries of Virginia Woolf and the Letters Home of Sylvia Plath. They both showed me that you can be both a woman and a writer, suffer from depression and yet still be incredibly creative.

18. Hmm, I have the feeling it’s best not to meet your favourite writers, for fear of being disappointed. I think I might be somewhat tongue-tied but glowing in the presence of Simone de Beauvoir. Alternatively, I might be tempted to fatten up Franz Kafka and earn his disapproval forever.

19. Japanese writer Dazai Osamu – although be warned, he is not for the faint-hearted. He was drunk, depressive, treated women appallingly and tried to commit suicide several times (he succeeded at last, in a double love suicide in 1948). And yet nobody surpasses him in the description of the end of an era in Japan in his short stories and few novels such as No Longer Human and Setting Sun.

20. I return to crime with my favourite series of all time being Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series. Well thought out from the beginning – 10 years, 10 books, a critique of society and a method of policing that is much more about painstaking work than fast-paced chasing or technological wizardry. It changed the art of crime writing forever.

 

What Got You Hooked on a Life of Crime, Dee Kirkby?

2012 smallAt our virtual book club, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Dee Kirkby, writer, runner, midwife lecturer, cake-baker, book patron and voracious reader.

Dee writes using the name D.J. Kirkby (for adults) and Dee Kirkby (for children). Although she does not write crime fiction (yet!), Dee is the author of Without Alice, My Dream of You, Realand, Raffie Island and Queendom (The Portal Series for children), Special Deliveries: Life Changing Moments and My Mini Midwife. She can be found online on Twitter or at her websites for children or grown-ups.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

My first memorable experience in crime fiction was when I read one of Sue Grafton’s novels from her Alphabet series. I then quickly went through the rest she had written in the series to date (up to E I think) and then all of the Jonathan Kellerman novels I could find in the library.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I have found that  I am gravitating lately towards the ‘cosy crime’ genre – my reading time is an escape and I no longer want to escape to the life exposed in some of the grittier crime novels.

What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?

I presume you mean the most memorable crime novel? That would be either ‘Itch’ by Simon Mayo or ‘The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie’ by Alan Bradley, which are both what I would class as YA crime novels. However, like most YA, they are suitable for older readers too.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

The Dark Tower series by Stephen King – some of the best and most versatile writing that I have had the pleasure of reading throughout my life. Oh, and if I am allowed two authors then anything by Dr. Seuss (yes, really).

Dee's incredibly tidy desk.
Dee’s incredibly tidy desk.

What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

I am looking forward to reading The Casual Vacancy by J.K.Rowling (because it has been on my TBR pile for a long time), The Bromeliad Trilogy by Terry Pratchett (because I am a patron of reading and like to read books I can recommend to mid grade readers) and After the Snow by S.D. Crocket (because the title intrigues me).

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

This is too eclectic a mix to answer concisely but I do list all the books I read each year on a dedicated page on my website: http://www.djkirkby.co.uk/my-2014-a-z-reading-list/

 

Thank you, Dee, for your forthright answers and I have to agree with you about the delights of Dr. Seuss and the charming Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley. I look forward to chatting to other passionate readers and reviewers about their criminally good reads over the next few weeks. For previous participants in the series, please click here

 

What If Books Disappoint You?

This weekend has been a rare one of reading disappointment, when I expected it to be as comfortable as a cocoon.

Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith (Photo credit: bhlogiston)

I embarked upon Patricia Highsmith’s ‘Found in the Street’ (one of her last novels, published in 1986) with the expectation that I would be intrigued, baffled, amused and chilled to the bone. In the past, I have always found her to be reliably good: slightly sinister, with dark humour and acerbic observations of people.  The sly observant eye and mordant wit were still there, but the story felt tired to me. There was not enough suspense, too many everyday chores described by several characters, too many lengthy descriptions and missed opportunities… By the time a crime was committed, I was past caring. It’s the first time that this author did not meet my expectations, which just goes to show that no one can be uniformly brilliant.

So then I turned to a light-hearted local read ‘Fric en Vrac à Carouge’ by Corinne Jaquet, a Swiss journalist turned crime and children’s novelist, who has a series featuring Commissaire Simon set in different neighbourhoods of Geneva. Even the pleasures of street- and café-spotting could not make me care for the rather slow-moving plot. I abandoned after Chapter 12 (yes, that is a new development this past year: I have been able to leave books unfinished with only a slight pang of guilty conscience).

NakedSingularitySo, if local colour and favourite authors do not provide reliable comfort, where can you turn to, how can you avoid disappointments? In my case, there was a surprising answer. ‘A Naked Singularity’ – a door-stopper of a book by Sergio De La Pava – is a book I had tried to read before a couple of months ago, but got lost. I now opened it again and was immediately captivated. It’s like a radio and merely requires a little re-tuning of the mind. Once you are on the right wavelength, it works beautifully. Early days yet, but let’s hope it continues to please.

Over to you, now. Have you had occasional disappointments with topics or authors which you thought you loved unconditionally? And what are your strategies for dealing with such disappointments?