Literary Weeks Are the Best Weeks…

And bookish friends are the best friends… I had a rather lovely week filled with books and literary discussions, just what the doctor ordered: the perfect nourishment to keep my soul from unravelling.

On Tuesday I had another Skype session with my poetry mentor and it is amazing how excited I get about rewriting some poems that I’d set aside because I felt I’d revised them so much that I was sick of them. It took another poet to read them and ask me what I was trying to achieve to actually regain some of that original spark that gave birth to the poem.

Freddie Bruckstein and Susan Curtis, founder of Istros Books.

On Thursday I attended the book launch of The Trap, two novellas by Romanian Jewish author Ludovic Bruckstein, translated by Alastair Ian Blythe. The author’s son, who has been the driving force behind the publication of his father’s literary estate, was there and gave us a very moving account of his father’s life.

Not many people born in that part of Europe can summarise their lives in simple terms. Their choices have been horribly affected by external events.

Freddie Bruckstein

Ludovic grew up in Sighet in North Maramures, just across the street from where Elie Wiesel used to live, but during the Second World War this thriving Jewish community was rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Ludovic discovered he was almost the sole survivor when he returned home after the war. For a while it seemed like he was going to be active and successful in the post-war writing community, with plays written in both Yiddish and Romanian, but he preferred a quieter life in the north of the country rather than becoming an establishment figure in Bucharest. Of course, he was duly expunged from Romanian literary history when he emigrated to Israel in 1972. But the poignant thing is he continued to write in Romanian for the Romanian community in Israel (most of his work was translated into Hebrew as well). I gave my copy of the book to my friend from Geneva days who came to visit me this weekend, and have promptly bought another one for myself. The brief reading we had from the book was absolutely brilliant and the stories really are a stark warning that passivity and political apathy often lead to the same consequences as deliberate malice.

On Friday my friend from Geneva came over to find me after work and we did non-stop literary things all weekend. First, we visited the Writing in Times of Conflict exhibition at Senate House and I discovered that my friend Jenny (a trained actress) had actually played Anne’s mother in a theatrical adaptation of the diaries, and toured with it around Europe.

I could listen to Kathleen Jamie forever…

We then went to the LRB Bookshop to see Kathleen Jamie in conversation with Philip Hoare, talking about her latest collection of essays entitled Surfacing. I’ve had the pleasure of attending a poetry masterclass with Kathleen and have always admired her sincerity and lack of pretension. She told us how she needed to write something to fill in those fallow periods in-between moments of poetic inspiration and for some reason she thought that essays would be easier and more lucrative than poetry (‘and boy, was I ever wrong!’). She also talked about her process, how she never starts out with a theme she can research, but just lets things accrue until she finally detects a pattern right at the end.

What I really appreciate about her writing is that she bears witness to a disappearing world, muses about the connections between past and present (and future) but refuses to romanticise the past or even nature. She doesn’t consider herself a pure nature writer, because it is the collision between humans and nature that she finds most interesting. Furthermore, because she is not as bound by science as archaelogists are, she can use her imagination much more freely to speculate about the lives and emotions of the people whose objects they are unearthing.

We spent a lazy Saturday in Oxford, talking non-stop about writing and reading, having pie and mash in the Covered Market, but unable to visit any of the colleges because of the graduation ceremonies taking place in the Sheldonian. Except Keble College, where I was overjoyed to see a quince tree against the ornate Victorian Gothic background. In the evening, we watched the rather depressing Marianne and Leonard documentary about Leonard Cohen’s Norwegian muse and their life together on the island of Hydra and wondered about the excuses and sacrifices we make for men who are considered geniuses (and not just them).

On Sunday we went to Henley Literary Festival and, although the weather prevented us from taking full advantage of riverside walks, we enjoyed seeing three indomitable women writers talk about why they find family dynamics so fascinating. The writers were:

  1. Harriet Evans, whose inspiration for her latest novel The Garden of Lost and Found came via a strong visual flash of children running down to the bottom of the garden when she heard someone sing the old song ‘The Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden’
  2. Hannah Beckerman, who said she wrote 24 drafts for her novel If Only I Could Tell You, because the characters usually come to her to lie down on a therapy couch and gradually reveal their stories
  3. Janet Ellis, whose second novel How It Was I have on my Kindle but haven’t read yet, said she gets her inspiration when a voice starts plucking at her sleeve and demanding to be heard.
From left to right: Harriet Evans, Hannah Beckerman and Janet Ellis.

There was a great deal of warmth and humour in their interaction, they were almost interviewing each other, or rather, having a delightful literary conversation that we were allowed to witness. One thing that they said really stuck with me: how we assume that older women just fade and vanish from public life or literature, but maybe some of that is by choice. That it is such a relief not to be at the cutting edge anymore, constantly scrutinised, judged by appearance or have every choice analysed. And also what satisfaction it is to have survived things that if anyone had told us in our youth that we would have to endure, we would probably not have believed ourselves capable of enduring.

I was planning not to buy any more books (I’d received quite a few in the post), not even if I could get them signed by the authors – although I was intrigued by the three of them and will certainly borrow their books from the library. But then Jenny took me into the Oxfam bookshop… and, in short, here is the week’s book haul. Alas.

The Nurturing Power of Inspiring Women

I’m fully aware that I’ve had wonderfully supportive men in my professional and personal life as well, but at this particular point in my life, I am thirsting for that generous nurturing that can come from the women you aspire to become some day.

With thanks to L’Atelier Writers for the image.

I have been fortunate to have great female role models encourage and inspire me at just the right inflection points in my life. The meetings were brief and I doubt that any of them will remember me, but for me they were life-changing. Naomi Shihab Nye encouraged me to start writing poetry (again). Laura Kasischke and Kathleen Jamie engaged with my poetry and made me feel I had something to say after all. Sarah Savitt (then at Faber, now at Virago) loved the beginning of my novel and encouraged me to finish it prestissimo – sorry, Sarah, life intervened, but I WILL finish! Michele Roberts gave me feminist support and solidarity when my marriage was breaking down. Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books is just the most caring and passionate individual I’ve ever met in publishing, she envelopes you like a warm hug and is an absolute tonic when you are down. My triad of charmed and charming women writers who organise the most wholesome, funny and productive writing retreat in the world, L’Atelier Writers (namely, Michelle Bailat Jones, Laura McCune-Poplin and Sara Johnson Allen)… and the participants I met there, who have become my creative sisters.

The three most recent examples are Nicola Barker and Ali Smith, as well as my poetry mentor Rebecca Goss. Here are some of their thoughts that particularly stuck with me.

I admire Nicola Barker’s commitment to remaining ‘ferociously innocent’ (instead of jaded or cynical) and her ability to find joy and playfulness in writing. She is aware that her writing has been described as difficult, and that not a lot of people read her, but she believes that experimental writers are ‘bottom feeders, virtually unseen in the depths of the ocean, but somehow something percolates up towards the top.

Meanwhile, Ali Smith is aware that her ‘Brexit novel series’ will be out of date in just a couple of years, but she feels compelled to witness the times in something other than journalism, and hopes it will give us a snapshot of what it felt like to be at this particular point in history. She described writing these books as ‘being in the middle of a powerful storm, trying to capture the roar’.

Last but not least, it is such a privilege to work with a mentor for poetry. Someone who reads your work very closely, who asks you about your intention and really listens, doesn’t impose her point of view but tries to work with you to make your poem as good as it can possibly be. I came home last night after a busy and difficult day at work, tired from the commute, doubled up in pain from yet another over-abundant period, mentally exhausted with all the back to school prep. Rebecca was generous with her time, praise and thoughts and I left the session with little wings attached Hermes-like to my swollen ankles…

Other Bookish Favourites of 2017 and Plans for 2018

After sharing with you my favourite books in translation, my favourite untranslated books, and the best of both translated and English-language crime fiction, including my Top 5 on Crime Fiction Lover, what is left? Well, all the other favourites, of course, which don’t fit into any of these categories. They fall mainly into the fiction category, with a couple of non-fiction mixed into it. (I will discuss the poetry separately, as I tend not to list the poetry books on Goodreads).

Now, what do you notice about this list? That’s right: it’s all women writers. I believe I’ve read roughly equal amounts of male and female authors, but it’s the women who have really appealed to me in this year of finally living on my own.

Rachel Cusk: Outline

Hard to categorise, I see this as a book of ideas, where essay and stories blend, where the narrator becomes a camera recording other people’s thoughts and reactions. A very Anglo-Saxon way of dealing with grief and separation, slightly detached, masking the heartbreak with cold detachment.

Katie Kitamura: A Separation

In many ways, the mirror image of Outline, but with more abandon. Once again, Greece is the backdrop, almost an excuse for a story about break-up and grief and self-recrimination – to a much more self-excoriating extent than with Cusk. A clear story arc, but also a novel of ideas, of reflection, but inwardly rather than outwardly focused.

Helen Garner: This House of Grief

Perhaps it’s not surprising that stories about separations loomed large in my reading this year, but this true crime account of a man who was suspected of killing his children took me to places where I barely dare to tread. Garner has a talent for unpicking not only the personal tragedy but also the judicial system and the way in which a jury’s mind can be made up.

Fiona Melrose: Midwinter

The farming heritage in me thrilled at this story of hard graft and taciturn farmer families.

Jane Gardam: The Stories

Controlled, ironic, melancholy

Alison Lurie: Real People

Writers’ retreats and big egos are an endless source of satire.

Elizabeth von Arnim: The Enchanted April

Delightful escapism, with a real love of beautiful location and a sharp eye for human foibles.

Winifred Watson: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Just as charming, warm-hearted but keeping the eyes wide open and critical.

Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Quite simply one of the most quietly menacing, tightly written and brooding books ever!

Helen Dunmore: Birdcage Walk

Perhaps it didn’t quite live up to my expectations, but I still found it a beautiful read about an uncomfortable marriage and a bid for freedom.

Kathleen Jamie: Sightlines

Non-fiction of the highest intellectual and poetic order.

Liz Jensen: The Rapture

Eco-thriller with rich prose and unusual characters which deserves to be better known (full review coming soon).

Reading Plans for 2018

It looks like I will be reading quite a bit of translated fiction in 2018 – 12 titles are guaranteed, since I joined the Asymptote Book Club. I can’t wait to start getting involved in the discussions and all the special features (interviews with translators and authors, book selections, reviews, pictures and so on). Don’t forget you can join anytime during the year, for either 3 months or 12 months.

I will be continuing with my #EU27Project and spend more time planning to cover all of the countries rather than handling it haphazardly as I have done in the past year. After all, I want to show those Brexit negotiators what it means to be well prepared…

I also want to take part in the by now classic reading events such as January in Japan, Women in Translation Month and German Literature Month, although I make no promise about how many titles I can cover: at least one, hopefully more. Of course, I will continue reading and reviewing crime fiction: it’s a habit I cannot kick (nor do I want to).

Finally, I want to read and review more poetry and take part more frequently in the dVerse Poets Pub or other prompts, both to limber up my writing muscles and also to see what others are writing – always inspiring! Speaking of dVerse Poets, I am delighted to announce the arrival of an anthology of poetry from over 100 dVerse contributors all over the world. Entitled Chiaroscuro: Darkness and Lightthis surprisingly chunky volume is a testament to our friendship across borders and shared love for the well-chosen word.

Goodbye, November and Top Reads

Yes, yes, November is not quite over yet, but this will be a busy week and I’m not sure I’ll get another chance to write a blog post.

Goodreads seems to be in a bit of a meltdown, mysteriously ‘disappearing’ my read books as if they were protesters against a dictatorial regime. Nevertheless, they assure me that I am about 9 books over my challenge of 120 books read this year. Let’s hope that this is somewhat more credible than the ‘official state news’ of Romania’s ‘booming agricultural harvests’ of the early 1980s, spurred on by Ceausescu’s visits to the fields of wheat and barley.

I’ve been back to a good month of reading in November: 12 books, contributing to several challenges. 3 of those were in German, 2 in French, 5 books by women   6 by men and 1 an anthology containing both, 4 (possibly 5) crime fiction, 1 poetry, 2 short story collections, 1 non-fiction and 1 did-not-finish. I’m happy with the mix.

#1968Club:

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin – magical, poetic language and complex ideas

#GermLitMonth and #EU27Project:

Arthur Schnitzler: Late Fame

Zoran Drvenkar: Sorry

Thomas Willmann: Das finstere Tal (Dark Valley) – a mix of crime fiction, Western, historical fiction – very atmospheric indeed

Nobe Prize Winner (and dnf):

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled – very promising start but could have done with a good editor, too long and self-indulgent

November Masterclass Preparation

Kathleen Jamie: Sightlines – the world dissected with real love, charm and understanding

Kathleen Jamie: The Tree House (poetry) – understated and deceptively simple poetry leaving profound marks

Swiss Reads: (joint review to follow on the blog)

Max Lobe: La trinite bantoue

Alice Rivaz: Sans alcools

Crime fiction:

Murder on Christmas Eve anthology (coming up on CFL)

Ragnar Jonasson: Whiteout (coming up on CFL)

Flynn Berry: Under the Harrow

In other news:

I’m working on launching the Asymptote subscription book club, which will be a dream come true for lovers of translated fiction: a surprise book a month, from an independent publisher, curated by our team of editors based all around the world. The common feature? Outstanding quality of both the original and the translation. I know that’s going to be my Christmas present to myself (and it will last all of 2018 as well).

Topple over, you charming little TBR pile…

Well, yes, thank you very much for asking, my TBR pile is nice and healthy. Growing taller by the day. It’s such a charming creature, in fact, that I cannot help giving it some delicious tidbits although I know it should go on a diet.

So this is what I’ve been feeding the greedy little creature lately:

Geneva-related chocolates

I bought one of Kathleen Jamie‘s older collection of poems The Tree House in preparation for the masterclass in Geneva. Then I made the fatal mistake (or maybe it was deliberate?) of arranging to meet my friend at the well-stocked Payot bookshop at the railway station and indulged in two Swiss Romande women writers I have heard of, but never read: Alice Rivaz – a contemporary of Simone de Beauvoir and equally feminist, with a collection of short stories entitled Sans alcool (Without alcohol); Pascale Kramer’s L’implacable brutalité du réveil (The Relentless Brutality of Awakening) – prize-winning contemporary author with a novel about an expat spouse trying to make sense of motherhood and living abroad in California. Last but not least, I also have a copy of Offshoots 14, the literary journal published every two years by Geneva Writers Group. This edition was edited by Patti Marxsen and I am delighted to have a poem included in it.

Blogger Delights

From the Pandora’s box that is reading other people’s book blogs, I garnered an old copy of Letters from England by Karel Čapek, one of the foremost Czech writers.  Emma from Book Around recommended it as a delightful light read and how right she was! Although it is set in the 1920s, it describes many of the things which puzzles us foreigners about the UK (he also visited Scotland, Wales and Ireland, not just England) even now – and all done with great charm and affection (plus his own illustrations). Kaggsy and Simon Thomas also read this and really enjoyed it.

I can’t remember who mentioned Jonas Lüscher – it could have been Shigekuni, who is my source of wisdom in all things German language, or someone linking up to German Literature Month. Lüscher is a Swiss German writer who won the Swiss Book Prize this year for his second novel Kraft. However, I decided to get his first novel Frühling der Barbaren (Barbarian Spring), about privileged English bankers and a Swiss trust fund man finding themselves in the middle of a financial crisis in the Tunisian desert.

Last but not least, I am a great Shirley Jackson fan and a kind soul on Twitter told me that the excellent recent biography Shirley Jackson. A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin is now out in paperback, so it seemed like the perfect Christmas present for myself.

I Spy With My Little Eye…

I came across these books on the shelves of libraries.

The first one was at Ty Newydd by Welsh author Stuart Evans: The Caves of Alienation. I started reading it there and found it so enticing that I had to buy my own copy (not at all easy to find, incidentally). It’s about a well-known writer, the forces that shaped him, his controversial life and why he comes to a sticky end on an isolated Welsh island. It is very funny and clever, told from a variety of viewpoints (friends, lovers, teachers, documentaries, critics, biographers etc.).

Finally, I saw this children’s book at my local library and just couldn’t resist as a cat-lover. His Royal Whiskers by Sam Gayton is about the heir of the Petrossian Empire, Prince Alexander, who miraculously gets transformed into a fluffy-wuffy kitten… I don’t know if my children will read this – they might be too old for it – but I certainly will! And this proves why open shelf libraries are so essential: you find things you didn’t even know you were looking for. It jolts you out of your everyday and wearisome rote.

Now, greedy little monster, do behave and join your companions over there to digest your food on the night-table!

It is so nice to have a bedroom and two night-tables all to yourself. I have a set of crime fiction books and poetry on the right hand side, and the current books plus library books on the left hand side. These neat little skyscrapers are not so popular with Zoe, who tries to balance precariously on them as she joins me for some evening reading. Maybe she is jealous that the TBR pile gets fed more frequently than she does (or so she thinks). Maybe some day she will learn to jump up at the foot of the bed instead…

 

A Weekend with Kathleen Jamie

Such a pleasure and privilege to be back in Geneva this past weekend for a poetry workshop and masterclass with Kathleen Jamie, organised by the Geneva Writers Group!

I discovered Kathleen Jamie when I was reading Melissa Harrison and Amy Liptrot and wanted to know about more authors who wrote really thoughtful non-fiction about nature. Several of you, my dear readers and blogging friends, suggested Kathleen Jamie and I was captivated by her quiet yet very precise style. Then I discovered her poetry – and it became apparent to me why she was so observant of the world around her.

So, when I heard that Geneva Writers Group was inviting her over for a poetry masterclass, I was the first to apply. And it lived up to all of my expectations (as well as being a great opportunity to go back to my beloved mountains and lake, and see dear friends again).

In person, Kathleen Jamie is as quiet, modest, unshowy yet crystal-sharp as you would expect from her writing. The first day was for a large audience, so it was more of a classroom type environment (not her preferred way of working). However, we are a lively group, the very opposite of quiet, so we all joined in, even those who are not poets.

Nature poetry, Kathleen argued, is all about letting the animal or natural object be – it’s writing around nature rather than writing about it. It’s about the poet dumping the ego, the need to show off, the need to draw attention to oneself and one’s problems. I loved her wry humour: ‘Poets often go off on a silly flight of fancy but forget about the close, careful observation.’ Since this is exactly what I am aiming at now in my own poetry, to move from the confessional rant to a more measured, considered, slant approach, it was the right workshop at the right time.

We brought in an object from the natural world and tried to describe it in third person and in second person (relating to it) and observing the difference. We did close readings of nature poems with a whole range of approaches: from the very cool emotionally detached observation of a whale by Peter Reading to the personal commentary and use of a salmon as a metaphor in Ted Hughes, from the warm and intimate begging for forgiveness that Gillian Allnut addresses to a geranium to the awe-struck tribute to a cactus by James Wright.

The second day was a small group of ten and we sat and discussed the poems we had circulated beforehand. This was so valuable – Kathleen was tough but encouraging at the same time. She said it is not about editing or eliminating (even though she started folding the pages like origami to reduce the poems to the essential stanzas or lines), but rather about nurturing and bringing out the poem that is hiding sometimes inside our work. It’s like being a mother and helping the poems, like children, become what they want and need to be, rather than what we want them to become.

I learnt so much from listening to comments and reading everyone’s work. I’ll also be eternally grateful (and perhaps somewhat smug) that Kathleen liked the specific details and use of the senses in my poem. She also encouraged me to be brave about using foreign words, as she uses Scots in some of her poetry, while acknowledging that it can feel transgressive and fraught with the danger of being misunderstood.

Summary of Reading October 2017 and Plans for November

Well, would you believe it how October galloped away with me! I only read 7 books, in spite of commuting and its inherent delaying tactics. That is perhaps the lowest number since I started recording my reading on the blog and on Goodreads – and probably reflective of starting two new jobs at the same time and also having children on holiday for part of the month.

Out of the 7 I managed to finish, I have to admit that the vast majority were crime novels (5), while the remaining two had criminal elements and themes. Humph – this doesn’t bode well for any railway professionals who might have the temerity to ask for my opinion about their services, especially given the high cost of commuting. 4 books by women, 3 by men, 2 in translation.

Julie T. Wallace as the She-Devil in the BBC adaptation of the book. Ignore the American film, which is terrible.

October Reads

Eva Dolan: This Is How It Ends -standalone from one of my favourite new writers

Lloyd Otis: Deadlands – debut novel about a serial killer in 1970s London, no review forthcoming but an interview with the author will be up on Crime Fiction Lover shortly

Adrian Magson: Rocco and the Nightingale – delighted to finally have a new book in this series set in 1960s rural Picardie, review to come on CFL

Jenny Quintana: The Missing Girl – less thriller, more a carefully nuanced coming of age story, with beautifully observed sibling rivalry and collusion

Peter Høeg: The Susan Effect – an entertaining enough premise – having the ability to make people open up to you and tell you their life stories (I seem to have that to a certain extent, but of course this is exaggerated in the book), but the conspiracy theory and the ending gets a bit silly

Ariana Harwicz: Die, My Love – upsetting insight into a disturbed mind, full of pain and depression, very emotional and riveting

Fay Weldon: The Life and Loves of a She-Devil – a quick reread to cheer on this subversive fantasy revenge story

November Plans

The #1968Club is taking place this week and I intend to (re)read The Wizard of Earthsea, which was published in that year and which meant the world to me when I was a child.

I need to write and update the #EU27Project – must finish it before Brexit is finalised… and I seem to be as slow and muddled about it as our beloved negotiators! But at least I have better and less selfish intentions than them, or so I believe.

I am also ploughing on through two mammoth reads: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled and Miklos Banffy’s They Were Counted. They might take me all month or even last until the end of 2017.

Fingers crossed, I might be able to attend a masterclass with the wonderful Scottish writer and poet Kathleen Jamie in Geneva this coming month (I have applied but have to wait to see if I’ve been accepted). So I am planning to indulge in some of her work, especially poetry

Last, but not least, I have two Nordic literary events coming up (which will probably mean more books added to my groaning shelves). The first of these is the launch of the book Love/War by Swedish writer Ebba Witt-Brattström by Nordisk Books. Described as a feminist story which allows women ‘to see through male dominant behaviour’, and based on the author’s own bitter divorce, how could I resist it? The second launch is the by-now-legendary Orenda Books and Ragnar Jonasson’s latest novel in the Dark Iceland series Whiteout.