New Year, Final Book Haul

Since I’ll be practically selling my kidneys (and almost certainly my parents’ old age security) in order to buy out the ex’s share of the house, I have to be very, very careful with money for the foreseeable future. So no more book buying for me this year – and this time I mean it!

However, before this frugality kicked in, I had a final splurge of French and Swiss books which I might struggle to find back in the UK, plus some that had been preordered in November or so, but got delayed in the Christmas frenzy post.

The French contingent

I finally bought myself a copy of Montaigne – not one translated into contemporary French but a ‘rejuvenated and refreshed’ edition, based on the 1595 version. I bought an abridged version of The Three Musketeers, in the hope that my younger son would fall for its charm. I got two Goncourt winners (smaller Goncourt prizes – for debut and the one given by high school students, which is often far better than the main one) and wanted to get the 2018 Goncourt winner that Emma rated so highly Les Enfants aupres eux – but they’d sold out and were waiting for the poche edition to appear some time in 2020. Last, but not least, I couldn’t resist this fictionalised biography of Tsvetaeva at a second-hand bookshop. The bookseller said I was the first person there who seemed to have heard of Marina Tsvetaeva, so we had a good long chat about her, how she is my favourite poet, but my Russian friend prefers Akhmatova.

The Swiss contingent

My good friend Michelle Bailat-Jones, whose translation of Ramuz so impressed me, was delighted to take me to a bookshop in Lausanne and recommend some more Ramuz and other Swiss writers. I ended up with Fear in the Mountains and with this trilogy by Agota Kristof, a Hungarian writer who taught herself to write in French. This trilogy has inspired other writers, a film (The Notebook) and even a video game, believe it or not!

Books arriving while I was away

Sadly, Michelle’s second novel Unfurled, which I’d wanted her to sign for me, arrived long after I’d left for Geneva. I had also ordered an Olga Tokarczuk which Tony Malone reminded me had been translated into English: Primeval and Other Times. I’ve been collecting quite a few books about the difficulties of writing and the importance of perseverance lately – Dani Shapiro’s one comes highly recommended. Last but not least, following the death of Alasdair Gray, whom I’ve never read, I wanted to sample some of his writing,but was not sure I could commit to a full novel, so chose these stories instead.

Japanese Literature Challenge

Finally, I have selected a few contenders for the January in Japan challenge. Heaven’s Wind is a dual language anthology of 5 women writers (each represented by one short story, all translated by Angus Turvill) and makes me feel like I almost remember enough Japanese to read it in the original. The translation notes at the back, though, make it clear just how little I am able to grasp the nuances nowadays. Another shortish story about insomnia by Yoshida Kyoko, Spring Sleepers, in that rather lovely publishing initiative by the Keshiki UEA Publishing Project. Then I have Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain), one of the most beautiful collection of supernatural stories in Japanese literature dating from the 18th century, which has inspired many, many later books and films. A classic of Japanese crime fiction and the author with the highest profile currently in Japanese literature consumed in the West make up the rest of my small selection. Now all I have to do is keep up with the reviewing!

Like a painting, Mont Blanc from the train window.

The holidays were nice, and reminded me once more just how much I miss that particular part of the world. They had the potential to be truly spectacular holidays, but alas, not quite! Sadly, you cannot escape all your problems or the nuisance people in your life, even at times of peace and joy to all humankind, even at a distance of a thousand miles. Stroppy teenagers changing their minds about things at the last minute and bringing plague-like flu symptoms with them meant that there was far less writing, skiing, fondue and chocolate eating, wine drinking, snowshoeing, meeting of friends than I’d planned. I am nevertheless incredibly grateful to my friend Jenny for allowing us to use her flat and partake in her impeccable literary tastes.

Friday Fun: A Place We Once Called Home

This is something I wrote a long time ago, on a very different blog.

My whole life seems to consist of being really happy in some wonderful places – and then having to tear myself away from them.   I love exploring new places but I also like settling in, making those places my own, getting that intimate connection with them that can only come from repetition and routine.  When it’s time to move on, I am excited about the new adventures I will have, but I am also sad to leave a certain part of myself behind.  With each encounter with a different country and culture, I become richer in experience, but somehow also poorer when I leave. 

It’s difficult to explain – but it’s like my soul has been bereft to a certain extent.  I keep the experience locked up somewhere tight within and remember it with such delight from time to time.  But the experience is unrepeatable.  Even if I go back to that country, it will never feel the same again.  If you go back as a tourist to a country where you were once resident, it can be exhilarating as long as you don’t think about it too closely.  Or you can feel shut out, a stranger once more.  It will certainly never again feel like home.

Last week, I had the opportunity to return to our village in France and took some pictures to try and describe the charm of the location (bearing in mind that these pictures do not cover all the seasons, only a sunny day in February).

Our home in France for 4 1/2 years.
Our home in France for 4 1/2 years, complete with climbing tree for Zoe cat.

Our close from the main road.
Our close from the main road.

The field we passed on our walk to school, often full of ponys grazing.
The field we passed on our walk to school, often full of ponys grazing.

The orchard where we could pick plums, apples, pears and quince.
The orchard where we could pick plums, apples, pears and quince.

'We live in the countryside,' my boys used to tell visitors, 'You will smell a lot of natural fertiliser.'
‘We live in the countryside,’ my boys used to tell visitors, ‘You will smell a lot of natural fertiliser.’

The view facing the other way, towards the Alps.
The view facing the other way, towards the Alps.

Poetry Immersion in Geneva

What a delight it was to be back in Geneva this past weekend and plunge into the refreshing, healing power of poetry!

Lac Leman on a typical November day...
Lac Leman on a typical November day…

I attended a poetry workshop and masterclass organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group, with guest instructor Laura Kasischke. I’d read and admired Laura’s poetry and novels and was very keen to hear her in person. The workshop was everything I had hoped for and more and you can see some of my initial impressions of it on the GWG blog.

Prose can not quite do it justice, so instead I will attempt a confetti of poetic impressions, like petals gathered from the quotations, ideas and timed writing exercises we listened to over the course of these two days.

Laura Kasischke at Payot Rive.
Laura Kasischke at Payot Rive.

You can’t create compassion with compassion, or emotion with emotion
where is the body, where are your senses?
I have no way to express this in words
so I just sit down with a pen and try to find the words
it’s the very essence of being
but it has to use the language of shared experience

The recipe for writing a poem?
It’s simple.
Nothing to do with subject matter.
It comes from somewhere else, as if your mind
and pen is seized by someone
the poem was coming to him
although he had yet to hear the words
he knew it was already written

wp_20161120_12_55_16_proSharp edges she slices to
control the slopes
feel the reassuring bite
and crunch of bones and dreams beneath her

poetic and creative insights come not haphazardly
but only in those areas in which we are intensively
committed
on which we concentrate our waking, conscious experience

wp_20161120_16_55_21_proa writer who means to outlive the useful rages
and despairs of youth
must somehow learn to endure
the desert of writer’s block

Nothing was in the mind that was not first in the senses.
When our mind is actively thinking about one thing,
we can be writing about something far more interesting
unawares
I throw a lot of stuff away
better start from scratch then spend too many years
on a mediocre poem

wp_20161122_12_51_49_proThere’s plenty more where that came from

The time-maker, the eye-maker, the voice-maker, the maker
of stars, of space, of comic surprises
bent together
over the future

I’d rather be a restaurant that is not to everyone’s liking
than the lowest common denominator
of McDonald’s.

wp_20161121_15_21_29_pro

Happy Conference Times Are Here Again!

Back in February 2012 I had just recently arrived in Geneva and was so busy settling everyone else into the new environment that I forgot to make myself happy. I was lonely, frustrated and feeling uninspired. But then I discovered the Geneva Writers Group and attended their biennial conference. I ‘accidentally’ attended a poetry workshop run by the wonderful Naomi Shihab Nye and suddenly the words were gushing out of me, after a twenty-year absence from poetry, and nearly as many years of not really taking writing of any kind seriously enough. The first poem was a bit gauche and hesitant, but a clear manifesto. And I haven’t stopped writing since (or only temporarily, because finding the time for it is still challenging, although far less than it used to be).

So you bet that I am excited to be attending my third Geneva Writers Conference later this month! We have some wonderful writers/publishers attending as instructors and panelists: Tessa Hadley, Jane Friedman, Carmen Bugan, Ann Hood, Liz Jensen, Shaun McCarthy, Frederick Reiken, Andrea Stuart, Susan Tiberghien, Jason Donald and Wallis Wilde Menozzi. I expect to be challenged, inspired and kicked into action. After all, who understands writers better than other writers?

Conference

Geneva Book Fair and Linwood Barclay

P1020280The Geneva Book and Press Fair took place from 30th April to 4th of May at the Palexpo… and to my great delight it was nearly as crowded as the Geneva Motor Show, which also takes place there every year. There was something for everyone at this very family friendly event: from comic books, to a focus on Japan (including learning to draw manga and a demonstration of the tea ceremony), to travel, education, Arab and African literature, to name just a few of the exhibition areas. Needless to say, the ‘stage’ I was most interested in was the Crime Scene, which featured an early morning relaxed Q&A session with bestselling author Linwood Barclay. Here are some words of insight from this hardworking and humorous journalist turned thriller writer:

My recipe for success? It’s when hard work meets luck. There are lots of fabulous authors who go unnoticed, so luck has to play a part as well.

Linwood Barclay
Linwood Barclay

When you write thrillers, both the publishers and the readers have an expectation of one book per year. Luckily, I find it easy to write at this pace. I start a book in January, get the first draft down by end of March, then I spend another 2-3 months to fix it. But there’s also the challenge that you always want your next book to be your best one, and there is more pressure, more scrutiny, so I spend far more time rewriting now than I used to.

I started off writing comic thrillers about a rather anxious and reluctant investigator, Zac Walker, who is really not equipped to deal with bad people. They got nice reviews, but were never big sellers. Comic crime fiction has a small but devoted following. So if I wanted to reach a wider audience, I had to make my stories darker.

P1020266Lots of writers say they don’t want their editors or agents to suggest any changes, that they want to write what they want to write. But I’m not like that. Editors have always made my work better – just like my 2nd or 3rd draft is always better than my first one –  it’s a mistake not to listen to them. Perhaps it’s because I also worked as a newspaper editor and so I understand that, even if the author does a great job, there is a bigger picture, more of an overview which an editor can have.

I’d love to say that I don’t care about negative reviews, but of course I do. I may get 20 fabulous reviews but the one negative one will be the one I focus on and the one that will spoil my day. At some point, I had the idea of writing a novel about an author who goes round the country killing all those reviewers who give him 1 star on Amazon.

 

For much more balanced reviews of Linwood Barclay’s novels, see here and here on the CFL website. I look forward to cracking open my signed copy of Trust Your Eyes now, a story of brotherly love, schizophrenic obsessions and witnessing a murder via Google Earth.

Chi by Konami Kanata
Chi by Konami Kanata

On a complete tangent, at the Japanese stand I discovered the adorable series Chi’s Sweet Home by Konami Kanata, about a curious little tabby kitten. Since our household is currently rather cat-obsessed, I couldn’t resist this manga, nor the assorted cat figurines or key rings.

 

 

 

 

 

The Japan Stand
The Japan Stand

 

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?