Holiday Book Haul

I had to pay a rather absurd amount for overweight luggage, although it was only my suitcase that was 4 kilos overweight, my older son’s suitcase was 4 kilos underweight and my younger son had no suitcase at all. What can I say except: don’t fly TAROM, as they clearly try to rip you off. So what was in my luggage? Of course all the Romanian delicacies that I miss so much when I am back in England: wine, homemade jam and honey, herbs and tea leaves from my mother’s garden, quinces (shame I cannot bring the tasty organic vegetables or cheese or endless array of milk products – kefir, sana, drinkable yoghurt, buttermilk etc.).
And, naturally, I had to bring back some Romanian books and DVDs. Romanian cinema is not very well known but highly respected in a small niche community. I got a recent film Child’s Pose, winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin in 2013, which covers pretty much all the topics that interest me: domineering mothers, generational and class conflict, as well as corruption in present-day Romania. I also got two older films from the 1960s by one of the best Romanian directors, Lucian Pintilie: The Forest of the Hanged based on one of my favourite Romanian novels, and The Reconstruction. The latter was named ‘the best Romanian film of all time’ by the Romanian film critics’ association, although it was forbidden during the Communist period because it turned out to be too much of a commentary on the viciousness of an abusive, authoritarian society.
There are many beautiful bookshops in Romania nowadays, although not all of my pictures came out well. I certainly lived up to my reputation of not being able to enter any bookshop without buying something! Among the things I bought are Fram and Apolodor, a polar bear and a penguin homesick for their native lands, two children’s books I used to adore and which I am very keen to translate into English and promote for the BookTrust reading scheme for diverse children’s literature In Other Words
I succumbed to the lovely hardback edition of Mihail Sebastian’s diary from 1935 to 1944, such a crucial (and sad) time in Romanian history, especially from a Jewish point of view. I got two titles, both family sagas, by female authors that I already know and admire: Ileana Vulpescu and Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu (the latter is sort of our national Virginia Woolf, although not quite as experimental, but she nevertheless dragged Romanian literature into modernity).
Brasov Bookshop 1
I also bought some new contemporary writers to try out: Radu Pavel Gheo –  Good Night, Kids about emigration and coming back to the ‘home country’, Lavinia Braniste – Internal Zero, a book about young single women in Romania today, Ioana Parvulescu – Life Starts on a Friday, a historical crime novel or time-travelling story. Last but not least, I sneaked back one of my favourite books from my childhood Follow the Footprints by William Mayne. Nobody else seems to have heard of this book or this writer, although he has been described as one of the ‘outstanding and most original children’s authors of the 20th century’. Sadly, in googling him, I discover that he was also imprisoned for two years in 2004 for sexually abusing young girl fans, so that leaves a bitter taste in my fond childhood memory.
Brasov Bookshop 2
While in Romania, I received a fairly large pile of books back home in the UK to my cat sitter’s surprise, some for review, some I’d previously ordered. So here are the things which came thudding through my letter-box.
I went on a bit of a Murakami Haruki binge following the reading of Killing Commendatore. I suppose because the book was enjoyable but not his best work, I wanted to get my hands on some of my favourites by him that I did not yet own: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Sputnik Sweetheart and South of the Border, West of the Sun. Unrelated, and possibly as a result of some Twitter discussion, I went on a Marian Engel binge – a Canadian author I had heard of, but never read. I had to search hard in second-hand stores but found The Honeyman Festival, Lunatic Villas and Bear (I had heard about this last one, the love story between a woman and a bear, and it sounds absolutely bonkers). Meanwhile, I decided I needed to up my game with Chinese women authors, so I bought two Shanghai-based stories of illicit passion, Eileen Chang’s Lust, Caution and Wei Hui’s more contemporary Shanghai Baby. I also read an extract from Anna Dostoevsky’s reminiscences about how she met and fell in love with Dostoevsky on Brainpickings, so I ordered a copy of her out-of-print memoir.
I make no bones about being an unabashed fan of Finnish crime writer Antti Tuomainen, but I realised that one of his books was still missing from my shelves – his first to be translated into English (and possibly his darkest) The Healer. And the final, thick tome to make its home on my bedside table is from the Asymptote Book Club. I am very excited to be reading Ahmet Altan’s first book in the Ottoman Quartet – yet another family saga – Like a Sword Wound. Currently imprisoned in Turkey for his alleged involvement in the 2016 coup attempt, Altan (better known in the West as a crusading journalist, but much loved and respected in his homeland for his fiction) is currently working on the final volume of the quartet in prison. Last, but not least, I also received a copy of Flash Fiction Festival Two, a collection of sixty micro fictions written by participants and presenters from the second Flash Fiction Festival in the UK, which I attended (and loved) in Bristol in July. I am delighted to be there among them with a tale about a kitchen!

Flash Fiction Festival Bristol 2018

In sharp contrast to the previous weekend, which was dedicated to plumbing, mopping, fridge replacement and the like, this weekend was spent in the luscious surroundings of Trinity College Bristol at the second annual Flash Fiction Festival in the UK. This is an event created by the energetic and benevolent Jude Higgins, who is a writing tutor for flash fiction at Bath Spa University and co-runs the Bath Short Story and Flash Fiction Awards.

I took lots of pictures, but they seem to have disappeared on the way from my mobile phone to my One Drive, so you will have to make do with the small amount below and believe me when I say it was the most peaceful environment high on Stoke Hill in an old manor house (now a training seminary for the Church of England) which appeared in a Turner watercolour at some point.

The Flash Fiction community is a tight-knit one, and everyone seemed to know each other, but were also very welcoming to newbies like myself. I volunteered to help out during the festival, so had the privilege of setting out sumptuous lunches such as these.

The workshops were on a variety of topics, reflecting the rich diversity of the form itself. Almost anything goes with flash fiction: from novella-in-flash, to historical flash, to science-fiction and humorous. In contrast to other literary events I’ve attended, I noticed that flash fictioneers always have a very quick comeback, a witty turn of phrase. I struggled to keep up: I was barely warming up in the writing exercises and they would come up with a piece that sounded very polished. Perhaps it’s like sprinting vs. long distance running. Here, it was all about the twist and the word play – perhaps because they have to condense such a lot, that every word counts. It’s also a way of observing the world: minute details yet very elliptical, leaving a lot out. I also noticed a lot of second person being used in the flashes, which probably would have become wearisome in a longer piece.

Peaceful morning hours before the onslaught of flash fictioneers.

Although I found it difficult to produce something immediately based on workshop prompts, they did plant some seeds which I am going to grow and experiment with. The satisfying thing with flash fiction is that it doesn’t take up too much of your time, so you feel free to experiment more than you might with a novel. The workshops I attended were Dreams into Fiction with Jude Higgins (which led to a triptych of flashes about the Ice Queen going to the basement), a comparison between prose poetry and flash fiction with the enthusiastic and funny Carrie Etter and Michael Loveday (which felt a lot more comfortable and familiar to me as a poet), Vanessa Gebbie on the Weird and Wonderful, Writing Funny Fiction with Meg Pokrass and Jude Higgins was hilarious (although it did make me feel slightly inadequate), a visualisation workshop with Karen Jones (which opened me up to some very unexpected ideas and feelings, but also might lead to 1-2 pieces of flash fiction, Extraordinary Points of View with American poets and professors of creative writing John Brantingham and Grant Hier. I ended up with quite a few books, as you might expect, and wished I could have attended more of the parallel sessions, although my brain would not have thanked me for it!

There were also plenty of readings, book launches, and an opportunity to connect with publishers and magazines that were previously only half-known to me, such as V Press, Ellipsis, Molotov Cocktail and the National Flash Fiction Day anthologies.

Meg Pokrass reading from her new collection Alligators at Night.

Although there were lots of breaks in-between sessions, allowing us time to talk, have coffee and cake, wander around the grounds and generally recharge our batteries, I have to admit I felt exhausted by the end of the weekend. And I don’t think it was just because of all the running around that you have to do as a volunteer, but because of the density of information and ideas that you are taking in all the time. However, it was fascinating to connect with people who were so generous with their time and explained patiently the ‘rules’ of flash fiction to me. I am certainly planning to try it out more in the future. And possibly attend again next year!