Film Watching in July

I haven’t gone quite as crazy watching films nearly every day in July, as I did in the previous few months, mainly because I find my eyes (and head and back) are really fed up of watching screens, regardless of size and position. So I prefer to collapse in bed and read in the evening. However, most of the films I’ve watched have been directed by women. And now that I look back, I notice the vast majority are French. Also, not sure if it proves anything, but quite a number of women film-makers on this list started out as actresses.

Tales of the Unexpected:

Ida Lupino: The Hitchhiker – such a minimalist, brutal noir film, it certainly puts an end to any notion that women directors are all fluffy and domestic. It is a relentless road trip to hell through a parched landscape, with no shelter, and a cast of just three men, all wonderfully expressive (and sinister) actors. A wonderful sense of menace looms over the entire film, although the ending is a little bit too neat and rushed.

Michaela Coel: I May Destroy You – tough to watch at times, but how could it not be, when it deals with the consequences of sexual assault? Nevertheless, it manages to be funny, poignant and militant as well. The main character Arabella is both endearing and infuriating, and it’s very clever that Coel doesn’t make her too likeable – but she does NOT deserve what happens to her. There are so many layers to the story as well: what does constitute rape and assault? who are our real friends and what are the boundaries of friendship? and other weighty themes such as betrayal and forgiveness, race relations, social media and trolling.  And it shows black people having fun as well as suffering, which is so rare… As for that ending… a wonderful surprise!

Coming of Age:

Celine Sciamma: Girlhood (Bande de filles)  –  I cannot believe that I’d forgotten that I’d seen this film when it first came out in France. As soon as I saw those endless concrete footbridges between the blocks of flats, it all came flooding back. This is the feminine version of La Haine, a portrait of black girls living in the banlieues and trying to make the most of their short period of bloom before life, misogynistic men and hopelessness take over. While I cannot condone their shoplifting and bullying, there are real moments of tenderness and ‘rire fou’ (crazy laughter) between the girls (all newcomers to acting at the time) and of course that unforgettable scene of dancing and lipsynching to Rihanna.

Joanna Hogg: The Souvenir – almost the polar opposite of Sciamma’s film, this shows pretentious film students and a very genteel, soft-spoken, well-heeled environment. And yet the well-meaning but naive girl at the centre of the story is as open to emotional abuse as the poor banlieue girls. And, although she has the safety net of her family, she doesn’t have that sense of solidarity and loyalty that the Sciamma girls display.

Midlife reinvention:

Claire Denis: Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur) – Juliette Binoche making stupid choices with lots of creepy men, in an attempt to ward off loneliness and the feeling of ageing, would be my capsule summary of this film. There was little joy or freedom apparent in this film – it smacked of desperation.

Mia Hansen-Love: Things to Come (L’Avenir) – Same theme, nearly: a middle-aged philosophy professor sees her world come crashing down: a husband who suddenly announces he’s having an affair and is moving out, a difficult mother who needs constant care, a cat she inherits although she has an allergy, being turned down by publishers because her books are no longer considered ‘marketable’, being considered old-fashioned by her former pupils. And yet the character played by Isabelle Huppert has the inner strength to keep going and even enjoys her freedom and reaches some form of contentment.

Men behaving badly:

Chantal Akerman: Almayer’s Folly – based on Joseph Conrad’s first novel but set in an unspecified post WW2 time period, this is the story of a white man dreaming of making a fortune in the East, yet ending up penniless in a house overgrown by vegetation, in the middle of a river. He looks down on the natives, although he has a mixed-race daughter. He refuses to admit that his daughter doesn’t fit in the white people’s world and is doomed to eternal disappointment and being wrong about everything. A slow-moving film, with very long shots throughout, bogging you down like the swampland in which he lives.

Eléonore Pourriat: I Am Not an Easy Man (Je ne suis pas un homme facile) – a rom-com with role reversals. The very macho philanderer Damien suffers a major concussion and wakes up in a parallel universe where women are the dominant sex, men have to dress to please them, are mostly in subservient roles and are discriminated against. A very clever and funny premise to demonstrate the absurdity of the expectations we have of women, but I did feel the romance overpowered the satire. I’d have liked to see more of the role reversal in the workplace, too. If you want to see the original 10 minute mini-film made by the same director (which let men experience what life is like for women), you can watch Majorité opprimée on YouTube: https://youtu.be/kpfaza-Mw4I

 

 

Summary of June Reading And Other Good Things

June has always been my favourite month – lots of hours of daylight, my birthday, my younger son’s birthday, my older son’s nameday, and in my childhood it used to mark the end of school (no longer the case nowadays). So we had a lot of cake, and even a few drinks with online friends and even with real, grown-up friends in actual flesh, in my garden, in strategically placed chairs. What more could you want?

Books

I really do believe I might have finally found my reading mojo which had been missing in action for months. I read 13 books this month (well, 12 to be precise, because one of them was a DNF, as mentioned below). Unusually for me, only four of the 13 books were translations, while ten were by women writers. Two were poetry collections, which require more attentive reading and rereading, but are shorter.  Of course, I still have to catch up with reviews. But here is what I have reviewed thus far, in case you missed it:

I was very pleased with myself that 11 of those were from my #20Books of Summer list! In fact, the only two exceptions were my Virtual Crime Book Club read (Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton) and a sort of in-memoriam read upon hearing of the death of Carlos Ruiz Zafon. The Shadow of the Wind has been enthusiastically recommended by so many people, and the theme of books and mystery and historical connections made me think I would love it. Sadly, this was the book I did not finish. I did give it a good thorough try: 246 pages, after which I realised I was finding it a bit of a slog, was never keen to get back to to it and I was in danger of losing my reading va-va-voom once more. The first few chapters were fun, but it all became a bit too sentimental, too repetitive, too clicheed and I lost interest in the characters and the big mystery.

Films

Since my last round-up of films, I’ve watched a few more, all coincidentally with a ‘fish out of water’ theme.

Toni Erdmann – In addition to the often very funny cringeworthy moments and the painful father/daughter relationship, I thought this was an astute look at capitalism and corporate culture taking over both individual and national cultures. It felt like Maren Ade did an excellent job in understanding the endless patience, hospitality and desire to please the foreigners (no matter how crazy they might seem) of the Romanian people with which the main German characters interact.

The Past – Having previously been mesmerised (and saddened) by Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, I thought it would be nice to follow it up with another of his films currently available on Mubi. A moving portrayal of relationship breakdown and family dynamics with only a light touch of cross-cultural misunderstandings, I was especially impressed by the child/teen actors.

The Shining – a rewatch with the boys, who don’t like horror films but quite like Stanley Kubrick. I haven’t read the book, but I understand why Kubrick made some changes in the script – and made it more psychological rather than supernatural.

Animal Crackers – struggle with this one, it just wasn’t to my taste. I never quite ‘got’ the humour of the Marx brothers as a child – always preferred Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy or Bourvil. And I clearly still don’t get on with it as a grown-up. There were a handful of witty repartees which I enjoyed, but not quite enough to make the film worthwhile.

Other Events:

Given my new incarnation as a literary translator who is going to be doing more than just the occasional one-off project, it’s not surprising that I’ve been keen to keep up with the very welcoming and utterly fascinating, cosmopolitan translation community. In addition to attending the Borderless Book Club and hearing translators and publishers talk about their choices, I have also attended some events aimed at translator audiences.

Translation Theory Lab – discussion with Kate Briggs, author of This Little Art. 

Daniel Hahn, Katy Derbyshire, Arunava Sinha talking about their current projects and changes to their routines during the Covid crisis, hosted by the Society of Authors

The W.G. Sebald Lecture given by David Bellos – in which he dispelled what he called the ‘myths of translation’, which are a combination of wishful thinking and confirmation bias, and ultimately not that helpful to translators.

Plans for July:

I am planning to read a lot of Women in Translation for August, and thought I might start a bit early, to combine with Stu Jallen’s Spanish Literature Month (which includes Latin American literature). I’ve got Ariana Harwicz (Argentina), Lina Meruane (Chile), Liliana Colanzi (Bolivia) and Margarita Garcia Robayo (Colombia) on the TBR pile.

 

Films and Some Additional Reading

My reading mojo has come back, and this (together with a very lengthy migraine) contributed to a lower number of films that I watched so far in June. Here are some micro-reviews and some books which I associated with these films. Bear in mind that I lack any real film critic vocabulary, so all I can say is what I liked or not about the films below (spoilers: I liked all of them).

Paterson – Adam Driver has that puzzled emo look down pat, so is very well cast as the poet bus-driver. (The Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani who plays his fey but sweet-tempered wife is also very good, but it’s the dog who possibly steals the show). It’s extremely difficult to show the creative process at work, and I had some misgivings about the way the marriage and the town (the only white guy in a community of African-Americans, really Jim Jarmusch?) are portrayed in the film, but overall it did inspire me to start writing again. The book everyone refers to in the film, of course, is the epic poem Paterson by William Carlos Williams. He describes this small town in New Jersey, paying close attention to the everyday and deliberately sticking to simple, even flat language (much like the modern-day poet figure in the film). Williams was giving a sort of riposte to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which he felt was too despondent, abstract and wedded to classical poetry.

Lights in the Dusk – Aki Kaurismäki is great at capturing the mundane life of the downtrodden. With an equal mix of tragedy and farce, he tells the story of loser security guard Koistinen, tricked by a gang and a femme fatale, yet unable to see who really cares for him. The black comedy which leaves a nasty yet thoughtful aftertaste reminds me very much of the Finnish writer Antti Tuomainen’s last few books, such as The Man Who Died or Palm Beach Finland.

Julieta – Almodovar was for a while in the 1990s my favourite director: he seems to have great insight into the female psychology and doesn’t shy away from showing all the complexities and messiness of parent/child relationships as well as couples. This is a bittersweet, at times melodramatic story of an estranged mother and daughter (and what led to their estrangement), with none of the trademark eroticism or crazy humour of his earlier films. The film is based on three inter-linked short stories by Alice Munro: “Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence”.

Olla – This is a very short (27 minutes) film, the debut work of French-Greek actress Ariane Labed as a director, but it packs a lot in. Olla is a mail-order bride, chosen by the rather clumsy Pierre, who lives in his mother’s flat in a miserable industrial town in the north of France and requires a full-time carer for his mother more than a companion for his fumbling sexual advances. Although Olla doesn’t speak a word of French, she quietly but firmly resists being modelled by her husband, who from the start wants to make her fit in: ‘I’ll call you Lola.’ Western men’s patronising attitudes towards the ‘easy prey’ European women is a topic that irritates me greatly and is unfortunately the dominant narrative in the few books set in post-1989 Eastern Europe or Russia, such as Patrick McGuiness’ The Last Hundred Days or A. D. Miller’s Snowdrops.

Mustang – Another film by a woman director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, this coming of age story about five sisters in rural Turkey is delightful in portraying the complicity and exhuberant horsing around of the girls – which might have inspired the latest version of Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig. However, the girls are orphans and are being raised by a very traditionalist uncle and grandmother who are too worried about what the neighbours might think. So getting them married off, ready or not, to avoid any scandalous behaviour (or rumours) becomes the top priority. The girls’ small (and big) rebellions in an effort to lead what we might consider normal lives will inevitably lead to disappointment and heartbreak. Although it has nothing to do with the film, I would recommend Elif Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve, which likewise looks at East vs. West, religion and gender roles.

A Short Film About Killing – Kieslowski’s Dekalog was the first series we saw uncensored on TV after the 1989 Revolution in Romania, and this is one of the two which Kieslowski remade to became feature-length films. It is an extremely disturbing film, that you need to have a strong stomach for. You are almost instantly confronted with cats strung up to die and dogs being poisoned, and it just gets worse from there, with image after image of death, decay and cruelty. An apparently motiveless murder of a (thoroughly unpleasant) taxi driver, a lawyer haunted by the fact that he can’t get the young perpetrator off and a brutal execution scene (in those days Poland still had the death penalty) all make you question everything you believe about violence and punishment. I would recommend the book Kieslowski on Kieslowski published by Faber, based on a series of interviews with the film-maker, his life and how politics has shaped so much of it, whether he liked it or not.

Our Little Sister – Another celebration of sisterhood, this time in Japan and seen through the eyes of a male director Koreeda Hirokazu. After the death of their father, who abandoned them when they were quite young, three sisters living in Kamakura meet their much younger half-sister and convince her to move in with them. What does it say about my suspicious, noir set of mind that I kept waiting for something terrible to happen – for the sisters to cheat each other, fall out, commit suicide or a dramatic denoument with the mother (who also abandoned them)? In fact, it is more of a charming observation of the everyday, small triumphs, many mess-ups and sorrows along the way. The fairy-tale atmosphere and the gentle passing of the season began to make more sense when I realised that the film is based on a manga series called Umimachi Diary, written and illustrated by Yoshida Akimi, serialised between 2006 and 2018 in the josei (young women) manga supplement Monthly Flowers.

The Clouds of Sils Maria – This film by Olivier Assayas is ostensibly all about an aging star Maria Enders, played by Juliette Binoche, returning to the play which made her famous, but now playing the older woman devastated by the consequences of her infatuation with a younger woman. It has echoes of All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard, and there are many references to Binoche’s own career as well as to Kristen Stewart’s scandal-driven career (although not via the character that Kristen plays, but in her reaction to the social media furore over the young actress played by Chloe Grace Moretz). To me, however, it feels much more like the clash between generations: in literature, in film, in real life. Even when the generations respect and befriend each other (which one might argue that Maria does with her assistant played by Stewart), there is a divergence of opinion that seems insurmountable. Although some have criticised the epilogue, to me it made perfect sense: things have moved on, relentlessly; the sympathetic faces of the young fawning starlet and Klaus the director are slipping and becoming less sympathetic, more concerned with their own PR. And then there is that almost throwaway scene, where a young newbie director tries to convince Maria that she is not too old to play in his proposed film. When she suggests he should use the young starlet instead (and echoes some of the admiration that her former assistant had expressed for her), he expresses frustration at a world in which the brash young Chloe Grace Moretz is the norm. A world without subtlety, a world where everything you do is exposed and pounced upon, a world where you have to take sides. I never felt older and more on Binoche’s side than at the end of that film. On the other hand, I loved the landscape, the amazing Majola Snake weather phenomenon in the Engadine Valley and miss my beloved mountains more ferociously than ever.

The Wire Season 2 – Ongoing project to watch the whole 5 seasons of The Wire with the boys. Depressing to watch the end of the docks, the unions and a way of life. Amusing to understand all of the untranslated Greek way before the investigators did.

As for the reading, I’m very proud of myself for sticking, on the whole, to my 50 books or so of summer longlist to choose my 20 books of summer. I have now read eight of them, but only reviewed four, so I have some catching up to do! Additionally, I also read the tense thriller Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton for Virtual Crime Book Club, which, although it does seem to manipulate your emotions at certain points, is a moving experience and extremely nerve-wracking if you’ve ever been a teacher, a parent or (as in my case) both. Following the announcement of the death of Carlos Ruiz Zafon, I decided to pick up the only book of his that I have on my shelf The Shadow of the Wind, which seems to be good fun so far. Although I’m perhaps no longer of the age to become obsessed with historical or literary trails as I was when I read Foucault’s Pendulum or Posession, it is certainly better written and more interesting than Dan Brown’s novels.

 

 

Summary of May 2020

Reading

Reading has not been going brilliantly this month, but I was reading that epic novel The Eighth Life. Alongside it, I read four other crime novels, all quick and fun reads, and another chunkster, King of the Crows. Harriet Tyce’s Blood Orange was our Virtual Crime Club read for May and we all agreed that while we didn’t ‘enjoy’ it (the subject matter was too grubby and the characters too unpleasant for that), it was well written and kept us turning the pages. Two British Library Classic Crime titles also provided good entertainment: John Dickson Carr’s Castle Skull was atmospheric but with somewhat two-dimensional characters, while The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons was much better on the psychology (especially of the main protagonist). Finally, Boileau-Narcejac’s Vertigo (D’entre les morts) was far more interesting than the Hitchcock film, given the wartime background and a much more sinister ending.

As for Russell Day’s King of the Crows, it’s almost impossible to write about it. Uncannily and uncomfortably accurate about a pandemic that sweeps across Europe, an enforced lockdown and then the gradual breakdown of society, it also brings in elements of horror and zombie apocalypse. Unbearably graphic in parts, with an interesting fragmented style, switching from straightforward narration to interview recordings to witness statements to film scripts and even graffiti and urban dictionaries. It could have been shortened by a good 20% without losing any of the style or plot (or maybe I was just too exhausted after the even longer Eighth Life doorstopper), but it’s certainly memorable.

Still, only 6 books per month – what is the world coming to? At this rate, I won’t do too well in the 20 Books of Summer readalong, will I?

Film Watching

Still from the film Ran by Akira Kurosawa.

On the other hand, I’ve been watching more films than I’ve ever done since the boys were born, virtually all of them on Mubi or the occasional classic on DVD or television. 18 films in total this month, so roughly one every two days. I’ve continued the Hitchock discovery with the boys, watching Vertigo and Rear Window this month – so far, Rear Window seems to be their favourite Hitchcock, but we’ve still got a few good ones to go. I also got them to watch Ran, which was visually even more stunning than I remembered and they agreed with me that the scene of the attack on the second castle, with its sudden transition from balletic choreography and background music to the grunts, clashes and gore of battle was magnificent. I watched another Japanese one by myself: Fireworks by Kitano Takeshi – a surprisingly spare yet lyrical depiction of grief, guilt and revenge from someone I thought of mostly as a comedian and game-show host.

Mubi seems to have a lot of French (or Italian) films on at the moment featuring Alain Delon. So I got to admire his youthful good looks in Plein Soleil (he is absolutely perfect as the charming psychopath Tom Ripley), L’Eclisse with a vulnerable Monica Vitti and Losey’s Mr Klein, a Kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucratic error (or is it deliberate?) which I found very moving and frightening. Other French language films included: the noir La Bête Humaine by Jean Renoir (I thought I’d watched it, but it turned out to have been the later American remake by Fritz Lang); two excellent Clouzot films Le Corbeau (which got him accused of collaboration with the Nazis) and Quai des Orfèvres, which start out almost as breezily as Hollywood comedies and then turn very dark; Bunuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid with the sulky, sultry Jeanne Moreau. There was one non-French one in the French language selection – namely Ghost Town Anthology by Quebecois director Denis Côté, which was profoundly creepy and unsettling (and beautifully filmed).

Aside from the French, I was depressed by Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband and Joseph Losey’s Accident, with their cynical portrayals of marriages and flawed ways of loving. I was charmed by two classics which I’ve probably seen many, many times before: Top Hat with the fab duo of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, and the crazy trio of Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. The dialogues in both films are so witty and sparkling, it’s not just the dancing in the first and Marilyn’s charms and singing  in the second which have made them firm favourites.

But the two wild cards of the month were perhaps the ones that made me think most. Wadjda, a film from Saudi Arabia by a woman director Haifaa al-Mansour, under its playful, charming surface of a story about a schoolgirl dreaming of buying and riding a green bicycle hides a lot of social commentary about the restrictions placed on girls and women in that country. The other one was a documentary by Joost Vandebrug called Bruce Lee and the Outlaw. Filmed over six years on the streets of Bucharest, it is the story of a homeless boy growing up in the infamous underground tunnels near the main railway station, in an underworld where glue-sniffing, prostitution and petty criminality are rife. Bruce Lee is the self-proclaimed King of the Sewers and often in trouble with the police, but to the young boy Nicu, he is a friend and protector, the only person who shows any interest in him. The fragile yet trusting relationship that the film-maker develops with Nicu is incredibly touching yet the ending refuses to be too hopeful or sentimental.

Still from the film Bruce Lee and the Outlaw.

Online Events

There were two major online literary events this month.

First, the Big Book Weekend 8-10 May. I listened to Maggie O’Farrell talk about Hamnet. I realised to my astonishment that Robert Webb has written a novel (and that we overlapped for a year in Cambridge – just as well I didn’t try out for Footlights then!). I succumbed to Neil Gaiman’s recommendations on what to read next by Ray Bradbury. I was moved by the poetry of Hafsah Aneela Bashir and charmed by the funny yet militant Marian Keyes. Bernardine Evaristo was every bit as inspirational as I expected her to be. The whole set-up on the MyVLF platform, aiming to replicate the look and feel of a real festival, was brilliant.

The Hay Festival’s online offering was in a more traditional webinar format via Crowdcast or YouTube, but with a lot of live sessions as well. Although I didn’t do it deliberately, I ended up seeing mostly women and mostly on non-literary subjects: Gloria Steinem, Elif Shafak, Miriam González Durántez and a few of the writers from the Europa 28 anthology about how women see the future of Europe. I listened (in two different panels) to Kapka Kassabova from Bulgaria, Caroline Muscat from Malta, Zsofia Bán from Hungary, Leïla Slimani from France, Lisa Dwan from Ireland and Hilary Cottam from the UK. I also attended two non-literary talks given by men: World without Work by David Susskind and A.C. Grayling on democracy and the need for a constitution. I was hoping that my older son might be interested in this talk as well, but we’ll see if he did actually register to it (he wasn’t with me at the time but with his father).

I also finally made it to a Virtual Noir at the Bar meeting on a Wednesday. These are weekly readings by an excellent and varied selection of crime authors (roughtly 7-9 at a time) organised by Vic [@vpeanuts on Twitter]. I got to hear Peter Rozovsky, the co-founder of Noir at the Bar, Sam Carrington, Adele Parks, Fiona Cummins and many more. I really do recommend you sign up to the newsletter and attend their sessions – and you get access to the recordings too if you can’t stay till the end.

Last but not least, I’ve had the pleasure of both a more structured Crime Book Club organised by Rebecca Bradley (we discussed Harriet Tyce’s Blood Orange this month), regular writing and feedback sessions (and a literary quiz!) with my Royal Borough Writers Group, as well as an impromptu Zoom chat about books and the difficulties of reading during a pandemic with a few Twitter and blogger friends. Despite all the nastiness and opinion-giving-when-unasked on social media platforms, I have to say that I’ve found my happy bubble of … I wouldn’t call it like-minded people exactly, because we can disagree quite vigorously about a certain author or novel or book cover or film, but simply a group of people who care about these things as much as I do. No tedium of small talk but straight onto the interesting discussions in life! I haven’t had that kind of intellectual sparring or fencing, that enjoyable cultural chit-chat since high school and university. It has always been delightful to have these conversations, but under lockdown it has been a real life-saver.

 

 

Reading and Film Summary for April

April has felt much shorter than March, partly because we are now getting used to our locked down status and are building new routines for ourselves, partly because we had a few days off over Easter. My passion for reading is still not in 100% functioning order, but I’ve tried to just go with the mood and not force myself to persevere or even touch anything that didn’t intrigue me. The 6 days of holidays meant that I managed to read 10 books this month (where oh where are the days when I would devour 16 per month?).

I read three books inspired by the cancelled and much-missed Quais du Polar, although I only managed to review two of them to coincide with the festival, both of them on the topic of international assassins: Deon Meyer and Ayerdhal, an author who lived in Lyon and was very active in the literary community there. Later on, I read Serena by Ron Rash. Although it’s not strictly speaking a crime novel (despite the fact that it’s littered with corpses), I met the author and bought the book in Lyon.

Half of the books I read or am in the course of reading were either in translation or foreign languages: Afrikaans, French, Japanese, Norwegian and German (with a glimmer of Georgian). This month has been quite male author heavy: 7 out of 9 have been men. But it has to be said that the women have been truly unforgettable: Lucia Berlin, Matsuda Aoko and I am currently reading Nino Haratischwili’s The Eighth Life, which will certainly spill into May.

As usual, I find some solace in crime fiction, six of the books were in that genre this month, although I think I might move to subgenres which I’ve neglected in the past, but which now seem enticing, such as historical or cosy crime. I’ve received a batch of British Library reissued classics, and I couldn’t resist diving into one of them, especially after finishing the well-written but emotionally wringing novel by Chris Whitaker We Begin at the End. I wrote about how well they worked as a contrasting pair.  I haven’t reviewed the other fun crime novel I read this month because I was planning to air my views at the Virtual Crime Book Club organised by Rebecca Bradley. Sadly, there was some technical confusion and glitch, so I didn’t make it to that meeting: Peter Swanson’s Rules for the Perfect Murder. I’ve been a bit snotty about Peter Swanson’s writing in the past (I reviewed his first book and was not impressed enough to pick up any more of his), but this one was the perfect book for crime and book lovers, packed to the brim with references to classic crime novels and films, an owner who runs a bookshop complete with a bookshop cat. What more could you want? A caper of a novel which reminded me of 1930s films with fast-talking, wise-cracking protagonists.

It feels like more than a month ago when I read Henry James, which could mean that time does pass slowly in confinement, or simply that the classics operate on a different time dimension.

What I have done a lot of this month is watch films, to make good use of my Mubi subscription I suppose. I’ve written a brief recap of some films I’ve watched in a previous post and reminisced about watching the Three Colours trilogy as well.  Since then I’ve watched the following:

  • Melville’s final film Un Flic, starring Alain Delon as an ambiguous goodie this time (a cop with questionable methods and possibly a heart of stone). Drenched in shades of blue, with an unforgettable silent opening scene of the baddies driving along a deserted street in a small town on the Atlantic coast battered by the wind and rain. Very eerie in the current climate.
  • Eva by Joseph Losey feels a bit dated, but again wonderfully atmospheric shots of an empty Venice, and with a heavy-lidded, snooty-mouthed Jeanne Moreau at the height of her seductive powers.
  • Knowing my love of skiing and gender wars, it should come as no surprise that I loved Force Majeure by Swedish director Ruben Östlund – what is it about these Swedes observing so closely all the uncomfortable interactions and silences between people? Squirmingly true to life and corrosively funny in parts, as well as claustrophobic, despite the unrealistically empty mountain slopes. (I’m guessing they couldn’t film it during the school holidays.)
  • Portrait of a Lady on Fire by Céline Sciamma is just so beautiful, so tender, so well observed, every little detail is perfect. For example, the two women address each other with ‘vous’ in even the most intimate moments. There are only two brief instances when they use ‘tu’ and those become all the more significant because of the contrast. Although the Breton coastal landscape is amazing, the scene that most sticks to my mind, is that of the women singing and clapping in rhythm on the beach at night; the words, although hard to make out, are in Latin ‘fugere non possum’, which to me sounds somewhat fatalistically like ‘we cannot flee/escape’. This is, however, what the director of the film had to say about it, which is far more eloquent about the power of love:

They’re saying, ‘fugere non possum,’ which means ‘they come fly,’” said Sciamma. “It’s an adaptation of a sentence by [Friedrich] Nietzsche, who says basically, ‘The higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.’”

 

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.

 

 

Rewatching #ThreeColours and Other Films

Even before the lockdown, I’d started an extensive programme of film viewing with my older son. However, he is a bit of a stickler about his planning and is proving truculent about watching films which are not on his current list of ‘must watch in 2020’, even if they are classics or might be very much to his taste. So I end up watching and rewatching quite a lot of films on my own too.

One trilogy I am very glad I rewatched was Kieslowski’s Three Colourswhich arose quite spontaneously from a Twitter exchange with @jacquiwine and @messy_tony. Quite a few others joined in and we even created a hashtag with the British spelling #threecolours.

My favourite remains Blue, with its amazing music and such a poignant description of grief. I had forgotten details such as finding a nest of mice in the Paris flat, but I had remembered the scene where Julie trails the back of her hand against the rough stone wall and wounds herself. I found Olivier rather creepy and difficult to stomach this time round and wish Julie had chosen differently at the end. White continues to be difficult for me to watch, as I remember the lawless, difficult post-Communist years and feeling like a second-hand citizen in the West all too well. This time round I found it difficult to empathise at all with the Delpy character – she seemed like such a blank (perhaps deliberately so – the nail upon which Eastern Europe hangs all of their hopes, desires, ideals), while actor Zbigniew Zamachowski’s expressive eyes made me almost ready to forgive him even as he becomes as much of an asshole as his ex-wife. With Red, I was surprised that I’d forgotten it was set in Geneva – although at the time I had no connection to Geneva at all, so the location seemed less important and I just assumed it was France. The parallel storyline of Auguste and his personalised weather forecaster seemed almost a nuisance, despite its resonance upon the judge’s story, while the ending felt rather melodramatic and forced. I found the gradual unfolding of the prickly friendship between Valentine and the judge far more interesting, with Valentine being the most sympathetic (though not necessarily the most interesting) character in the whole trilogy. She is, after all, the only one who helps the recurring character of a frail, hunch-backed elderly person trying to push a bottle into the bottle-bank.

Another rewatch, this time with the boys, was the first series of The Wire (I watched it in fits and starts when it first came out, since I never had Sky or other paid for channels, so it felt quite fresh to me as well). The sense of hopelessness felt much more palpable to me now (or is it because I am older) and my favourite character remains Kima, although I might have annoyed my kids by exclaiming nearly every time I saw Dominic West or Idris Elba ‘Look how young they were back then!’

I have also resubscribed to Mubi and have enjoyed quite a few films there over the past month. The most noteworthy were Bong Joon-Ho’s stunning and moving Mother; Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love which is visually one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen (and a real tear-jerker); Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy, viscerally disturbing but very powerful, charismatic acting from the two main characters; and a 1950s gem from Japan Our Town, featuring a larger than life main character struggling with the modernisation of Japan after the war. Lest you think I’ve turned completely Asian, I was also impressed with Melville’s Army of Shadows about the French Resistance, where the violence is buried only slightly deeper below the surface than in the Korean films. The historical facts add more depth and gravitas to the noirish direction we’re used to from his gangster films. Lourdes by Jessica Hausner was full of tiny satirical details about miracle healings at the pilgrimage site of Lourdes and yet ultimately made you question your lack of faith, and the Polish film Idadirected by Pawel Pawlikowski, has a young would-be nun discovering her family’s Jewish origin and their fate during the war.

 

Five Things to Sing About

It’s easy to get caught up in the panicky bad news cycle, scrolling blindly on Twitter to see if London Book Fair is still on, what the latest spread of the virus is, speak to the phone with worried elderly parents (and be secretly relieved that they’ve decided to cancel their trip to the UK next week, as they would fall into the vulnerable categories), try and plan summer holidays for the boys with an ex who tries to sabotage you every step of the way. More than ever, we need to remind ourselves of all that is good and lovely or even just OK in our lives. So here are five things which gave me joy this last week or so.

This kimono looks like something out of Genji Monogatari

Anne Enright in conversation with Andrew O’Hagan about her new book Actress (which has just been longlisted for the Women’s Prize)

I’ve only read a few books by Anne Enright, and haven’t read this one yet (but am eager to, it sounds exactly my sort of thing – tricky mother/daughter relationship, the dangers of celebrity culture, theatre world etc.) The author in person was very funny, very opinionated, not at all shy and does not suffer fools gladly. I think quite a few people would describe her as spiky and remorseless and are slightly afraid of her. At which she rather brilliantly replied: ‘Why are writers described as ruthless? We just sit (and observe) and write.’ Another thing she said also struck me: that England is currently going through that nationalist rhetoric and identity trumpeting that Ireland went through in the past century… and we all know what that led to.

The perfect kimono for a crime writer, translator and publisher

Watching and debating films with my boys (OK, mainly the older boy who is getting very ambitious about his viewing of classic films, but the younger one occasionally participates too) – this weekend it was La Haine (which the older one is studying for A Level French) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (which instantly made his top 10 list). The frightening thing about La Haine (made in 1995) is how little things have changed for the banlieue and its inhabitants since then, although the French PM at the time made his entire cabinet watch it. I’d love to see Johnson getting his cabinet to watch a Ken Loach film!

A kimono combining two of my greatest loves: the silk manufacturers of Lyon produced the material, which was given as a present by the French ambassador to a local daimyo after the opening of Japan in the Meiji era.

Analysing The Great Gatsby with my older son while working out at the gym. He borrowed it from my bookcase on Friday afternoon, had read it by Saturday evening and, knowing that it’s one of my favourite novels of all time, was keen to discuss it with me while we were puffing away side-by-side on our cross trainers. I have to admit that this comes pretty close to how I thought parenthood might look like ideally before I had children! (It has seldom lived up to that level of expectation.)

Not to neglect the younger son, who also suprised me very pleasantly. Just as I was moaning about him not doing enough reading and that I wish he would read anything, comics, non-fiction, I’m not fussy, as long as he reads rather than just plays computer games all the time etc. etc., the doorbell rang and it was a delivery for him from Amazon (well, we’ll work on the buying from independent bookshops angle later) of a trilogy of books Bakemonogatari (Tales of Monsters) by Japanese author Nisioisin. He’s been busy devouring these ever since and I am tempted to read them myself.

Wedding kimonos – the white at the start of the ceremony, the red outer kimono at the end.

The Kimono Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert – there are no words to describe how happy this made me! I studied Japanese, taught Japanese anthropology, cultural history and literature for a while and have spent several (sadly, far too short) periods in Japan at summer schools etc. I always meant to buy a kimono but could never afford a proper one. I could have spent hours analysing every single pattern, weave, material, detail. I photographed nearly every single one of them and two thirds of the pictures are utter rubbish, but I’ve used some of them, no matter how rubbish, to illustrate this blog post.

My kind of kimono: I rather like monochromes and this has the elegance and modern look I would wear regularly.

Finishing the translation of Sword – I still have to get a third-party edit and proofreading sorted, but I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out. This is going to be such an exciting political thriller, unlike any other the English-speaking world has seen so far!

Reading and Events Summary for January 2020

In addition to my Japanese reading extravaganza past and present, I had a very enjoyable month of reading, which almost made up for the fact that this month must have been at least seven weeks long, filled with school evenings, financial and other administrative matters, anxiety on our close about an attempted burglary and other dreary stuff. I read a total of 12 books, 4 for the January in Japan challenge (of which I only reviewed three), 5 which might be labelled crime fiction (or psychological thrillers, although I am starting to dislike the latter label, which has been overused recently), 5 in translation and 5 off my Netgalley list (I am sooo behind with my reviews there).

Other than books, I also had some more pleasant encounters this month than the ones with my mortgage advisor or bank manager. Here’s a quick summary:

Stranger Things Secret Cinema – It’s become a tradition that for my older son’s birthday on the 1st of January my present is an experience rather than an object. It may or may not be precisely on his birthday but it will fall in his birthday month, to make it slightly more bearable. We really liked watching Stranger Things on Netflix together, especially the first series, so this year we went to an immersive Stranger Things experience with some of his friends, dressed up as a rocker (him) and a New Romantic (me), enjoying 80s music, following a trail of clues and scenes from the series with actor look-alikes, all finishing with a sort of summary of the three series on giant screens.

The Irishman and Little Women – My older son has also become quite a film buff and is forever sharing his list of Top 50 films with me (subject to constant revision, of course, because there are so many of the classics he hasn’t seen yet). He liked both of the films above, but we agreed that Goodfellas is better than The Irishman (and shorter). Personally, although I loved the interpretation of Jo, and the beautiful, painterly backdrops and colours of Little Women, I didn’t fall quite as much in love with it as I was expecting.

Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter Theatre was a marvellous mix of frustration, seething resentments, luxuriously decaying scenery and excellent actors. Toby Jones was surprisingly good as Vanya (not because he is not a wonderful actor, but because I had a more louche, younger-looking Vanya in mind), while Aimee Lou Wood as Sonya broke my heart a little with her wide-eyed, coltish naivety. Above all, I liked the way the humour and bad behaviour was brought to the forefront, which is not always the case. Most adaptations of Chekhov are unbearably gloomy. Another thing which felt fresh was the prominence given to the doctor’s discourse about the loss of the forest, not just the demise of an old way of life but an actual environmental disaster.

Poetry Class – I trekked over to Chiswick to attend a Coffee House Poetry class with Anne-Marie Fyfe on the topic of homes and houses. Having lived in something like 20-30 houses throughout my life, you can imagine that I have a huge untapped reservoir there for poetic inspiration. The class (first of two, second to follow shortly) was full of talented and supportive people, and we were given challenging but interesting homework until next time. Now all I need to do is actually write… if I can find time for it…. What was the name of my blog again? Nothing’s improved in the past 8 years, then!

Meeting old school friends

At some point during our time there, the English School Vienna became the Vienna International School. For most of us, it was one of the happiest times of our lives, so of course we love meeting up after so long! Three of us girls were The Three Musketeers, while the others were the ‘annoying’ younger sisters or the ‘annoying boy’ who wanted to hang around with us. All very much loved and appreciated now, of course.

Making new blogging friends – I got to go to Uncle Vanya thanks to the lovely Aliki Chapple, whom I’d been chatting with occasionally on Twitter, so it was a great pleasure to meet her in real life. We share some common Greek experiences, as well as a passion for theatre (although in her case it is far more professional than mine). I also got to meet an old Twitter acquaintance Amateur Reader Tom, who was visiting London with his wife, an academic interested in both French and German history and literature. I introduced them to my favourite Greek restaurant near work and we chatted about France, Britain and the Quais du Polar (Tom lived in Lyon for a while). In future, I should make all my friends via Twitter or blogging, because after a few years of exchanging ideas about books, films and cultural events, you have so much more in common than you do with people you encounter randomly as neighbours or parents at school.

One other thing that has taken up virtually all of my ‘spare’ time this month, which has been as urgent as my admin (but nothing like as dreary) has been translation work. But more about that in a short while! Lots of exciting news coming up in this respect!

Plans for next month? What country should I ‘attack’ next? Since I am so busy translating myself, I actually want to read things written in English (because I seem to have forgotten all the slang and natural sounding expressions in English while translating), so I think I will opt for some English, Scottish, Irish and perhaps American memoirs and essays. I’ve already started with Deborah Orr’s Motherwell, while Janice Galloway, Kathleen Jamie, Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers and Maggie Gee have been waiting far too long on my shelves.

Films and Books

Despite having a houseful of children for most of this past week, I have been able to partake in some cultural events as well, both inside and outside the house.

Pain and Glory – Almodovar’s latest film shows the master has mellowed in middle age. The story of a lonely middle-aged film director struggling with lost creativity and ill health is not new, but Antonio Banderas turns in a beautifully nuanced, subtle performance. The flashbacks to the protagonist’s childhood are rich in colour and emotion, but what stayed with me most is how we select and package our memories to attempt a coherent narration of our lives… and yet the truth is always more complex than that.

Marriage Story – Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are believably flawed yet appealing as a couple struggling through divorce. It was a little too close to the battlegrounds I am currently experiencing myself, so I’m afraid I embarrassed myself with tears. Filmed in a minimalist way, with close-ups of the actors’ faces engaged in monologues or dialogues, this had the feeling of an indie, mumblecore type of film. There was one particular scene I found all too familiar: where the attempt at having a conversation away from the lawyers descends into a screaming match, with all of the long-hidden resentments and accusations bursting out like an overflowing dam.

Lara – ice-cold in Berlin*. Another carefully observed film, full of significant details, but one where nearly all emotion has been drained. Lara is a domineering mother whose dreams of becoming a concert pianist were dashed in her youth and now feels proud yet nervous about her pianist son’s major concert, which takes place on her 60th birthday. We never see the drama of what led to the estrangement between mother and son, but there are hints of bad behaviour and nervous breakdown. Emotions are very tightly held in check for the most part, yet there are unexpectedly candid (if frosty) conversations between Lara and the people she encounters on her birthday.

*As a child, I firmly believed that ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ was a film version of Berlin Alexanderplatz

Since I had a few hours to kill between the two films at the London Film Festival on Friday, I meandered down Charing Cross Road, mourned the loss of so many second-hand bookshops (when I first came to London, I remember it used to take my hours to go down that road, there were so many bookshops, now turned into cafes or clothes shops – boo!). Nevertheless, I did stop at the few remaining bookshops, at Foyles, then at Second Shelf (again!) and at Waterstones Piccadilly and emerged with the pile below.

7 books for £30 total, of which only one was a new one and cost £10.99

However, I’d also been busy ordering some books online, especially while sitting around waiting for the Nobel Prize for Literature to be announced. I ordered a couple of Russians, especially since I thought Ludmila Ulitskaya might be a contender…

And two Orenda books arrived on cue for my #Orentober reading. I’ve already devoured Little Siberia, which is less slapstick than Tuomainen’s last two books (I absolutely loved the black comedy, don’t get me wrong!) but not quite as bleak as his earlier books. I think it would be fair to say that the set-up is ridiculous and richly comic: a suicidal racing car driver has a meteorite drop into his passenger seat. A pastor with experience of fighting in Afghanistan is guarding the local museum where nearly everyone wants to steal the precious piece of rock. He gets plenty of opportunity to question his own faith and choices in life, as well as being exposed to the venality and self-serving excuses of others.

Last but not least, I’ve also watched some TV. Helen Mirren is commanding yet deliciously vulnerable as Catherine the Great (and, although she is almost certainly too old for the part, I cannot help but rejoice that an older woman is shown as both powerful and intransigent, yet also having sexual fun on our screens). And, of course, I’m excited to see the new series of Engrenages (Spiral), the first in a long while without Anne Landois as show runner.