Cultural Summary for February

I’ve only just done a quick summary of recently read books, so this time my round-up for February will involve not only books, but also films and theatre.

Reading

Another month of reading aimlessly (and freely). 11 books, of which 2 books about poets and poetry (Charles Simic and Louise Glück), 3 that qualify for #EU27Project (Menasse for Austria – and Belgium?, Sebastian for Romania and Georgi Tenev for Bulgaria). Then there were some easy reads (perhaps slightly too many): Emil, John Boyne, Penelope Lively and Horowitz. There was one disappointment: The Farm had such an interesting premise (surrogate mothers being ‘farmed’ for rich clients) but took far too long to get started and ended rather too abruptly. And there was one that really stood out: Milkman.

Theatre

Two quite political plays this month. The first was The War of the Worlds performed by the Rhum and Clay company at the New Diorama Theatre – a retelling of the H.G. Wells’ novel and the infamous Orson Welles’ radio adaptiation set in the present-day, when a podcaster decides to explore just why people believe all sorts of fake news. Funny, thoughtful and with a bewildering array of accents and characters from a very talented cast.

Photo credit: New Diorama, What’s On.

The second was a National Theatre Live showing at my local arts centre of the new David Hare play I’m Not Running – about political infighting, spin doctors, male sense of entitlement and single-issue campaigning. Sian Brooke as the main character Pauline was vulnerable and touching but a bit shrill at times, while Alex Hassell as her former lover and now political rival Jack was very well cast, appearing at times to be plausible and handsome, and at other times downright ugly and evil.

Films

In preparation for the Oscars night, I caught up on some films, not all of them nominated, and made the most of my Mubi subscription. I saw Roma, which was moving, but a bit too long and self-indulgent (or do I mean self-exculpatory, sentimental?). I reminded myself of the greatness of Spike Lee and his film Do the Right Thing. I was bemused by the arty-fartiness of Livia Ungur’s Hotel Dallas (great concept, poor execution). I was irritated by Vincent Cassel in Black Tide and amused by Hong Sang-Soo’s send-up of the Cannes world in Claire’s Camera. I had a happy reunion with Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities and a troubled encounter with Beautiful Boy, which makes me worry about parenting with just the right amount of support, love and kick in the back. A film that seems to focus more on the beautiful surroundings and house, oddly enough (perhaps in order to show nobody is immune to addiction?), than on the heartbreak, although Timothee Chalamet is absolutely riveting.

Image from Amazon Studios.

So a busy month of cultural events, which somewhat reduced the pain of migraines and ex-spousal bullying. With spring now in the air, perhaps March will prove kinder in all regards.

January Reading Summary

So what has my first month of reading freedom brought me? By freedom, I mean of course not having to read any books for review, following my own whims and jumping into rabbit holes. There was only one book that I had already promised to review, and that was the controversial story of child killers The Flower Girls by Alice Clark-Platts. But other than that, I was free as a bird or a butterfly, so which flowers have I alighted on?

11 books, no less, and some of these were massive 500+ books, so great in terms of quantity, but also of quality.

First and foremost, January has got me obsessed with Romanian playwright, novelist and essayist Mihail Sebastian. I read his polemical novel about being Jewish in Romania, his essay in response to the outrage he experienced upon publication of that novel, and his diaries which pick up the story from where he left it off in the novel. I am also now rereading his novels and trying to get hold of his plays (in Romanian, of course, but some of his work has been translated into English, with more forthcoming).

Traditional uniform of Hungarian Hussars.

I’ve become equally absorbed with the work of Miklos Banffy, as I read the second and third books in his Transylvanian trilogy after a year’s break following the first volume. I was so reluctant to reemerge into the real world after bathing in that beautiful description of a vanished world, although I was slightly disappointed that the story stops with the outbreak of the war (and Balint’s family all gaily setting off as Hussars in the army). I will be reviewing the trilogy shortly for my #EU27Project, and beware! It might end up being a bit of a mammoth post.

The third obsession this month has been poets talking about poetry, where they find inspiration, the craft of poetry, what a poet’s role is in society etc. I’ve started with Denise Levertov and Maxine Kumin, but have a few others planned for next month.

Idyllic landscape of Rwanda today, hiding the scars of yesterday, from Africa.com

I read a lot of women this month too. In addition to the two poets, I also read Scholastique Mukasonga’s remarkable account of a rapidly disappearing traditional way of Tutsi life in Rwanda just prior to the genocide The Barefoot Woman. Another woman’s account of war was Pat Barker‘s The Silence of the Girls, a very different book, not based on personal experience, more shouty than understated.

I’ve also read Jana Benova‘s Seeing People Off, a Slovakian entry to my #EU27Project. I still have to write the full review of this short, snappy novel, a series of vignettes offering an often hilarious, satirical account of post-Communist life in the artistic milieu in Bratislava.

Another short but biting satire was Fernando Sdrigotti’s Shitstorm, forcing us to take a good hard look at ourselves and how we conduct our lives and debates online, moving quickly onto the next scandal that we can be indignant about, without really being fully implicated. I can’t help but wonder what Sebastian would have made of it all. I think this may become my theme when looking at any present-day news: ‘What would Orwell and Sebastian say about this?’, although Sebastian, with his gentler, more forgiving approach, is perhaps closer to me in spirit.

So much happier now that I’m following my own interests in reading, with no qualms about abandoning books that promise to be average or not quite captivating. This month I didn’t finish The Binding for example, a new book just out which sounded great in concept, but failed to set my heart alight. I’m sure it will do well commercially though, it has The Miniaturist success written all over it.

Wrapping Up November 2018

The Romanian holiday has receded in the mists of time, as November proved implacable in terms of work load and ‘fun’ events that involved mainly my older son’s GCSE exams and life after those exams.

All this is the lead-in to explain why my reading has not been hugely varied this month. I managed to finish just 11 books (and others have been dragging on forever). 7 of those were written in English, 8 women authors (well, 7 in fact, for one of those authors featured twice – namely Tana French). I’ve also been very bad about reviewing the books.

Broken Harbour is missing from this selection, but it was a great reread.

Books I Loved

Tana French: Broken Harbour – this was the first book of hers that I read but did not review a few years ago, so this is a reread and it moved me all over again. Possibly my favourite among her books. Those ghost town developments, I wonder if they are beginning to recover as the Dublin property market picks up.

Simone Buchholz: Beton Rouge, transl. Rachel Ward – another writer who takes the crime fiction trope and runs away with it. The crime plays second fiddle to a hugely atmospheric portrayal of Hamburg (and Bavaria), and a cool jazzy riff on language and style.

 Books That Surprised Me

Prabda Yoon: Moving Parts – Surreal, fantastical, sly and witty stories from Thailand, with lots of word play and mind games and lateral thinking. An unusual delight, showing us a very contemporary and urban world, far removed from the exoticism we might associate with that country. Must have been sooo tricky to translate – and you can read an interview with the translator Mui Poopoksakul here.

Kathy Acker: Essential Writings – I’d read short bits and pieces by Kathy Acker before, but never a selection of what the editors consider her best stuff. Not sure if it does justice to the variety of her work, but she certainly still has the power to shock, jolt, anger and make you think!

Ahmet Altan: Like a Sword Wound, transl. Brendan Freely & Yelda Turedi – historical family sagas are not my cup of tea, but the initial soap opera quality of the book soon gives way to a fresco of a society, a certain time and way of life, much like the Transylvanian Trilogy. Another great Asymptote Book Club choice, just like the Prabda Yoon.

Books I Wish I Hadn’t Bothered With

Not necessarily bad, but just not as interesting or scary or crime-fictiony or funny as I expected. Sadly, quite a few of them this month, which perhaps put me off reading a bit.

Hanna Jameson: The Last – can’t make up its mind if it’s a mystery or a dystopian novel

Lucy Foley: The Hunting Party – giving all those who went to Oxford Uni a bad name

Tana French: The Wych Elm – a character who just dragged on and on and on

Noel Langley: There’s a Porpoise Close Behind Us – a few chapters of this could have been charming and funny, a whole book was just too much

Meh

Louise Penny: Kingdom of the Blind – normally this author can do no wrong in my eyes, but although it was nice to revisit Three Pines, I felt this one was a tad repetitive. Maybe it’s time to move on to another subject, another character.

Eva Menasse; Quasikristalle – good in parts, but not quite as clever or innovative as it tried to be

German Literature Month

I only managed to take part with two reviews (although Simone Buchholz fits in this category as well): Eva Menasse and Fred Uhlman’s Reunion, which I read just on the cusp of November. The latter was certainly far more memorable than the former.

Big Plans for Next Few Months

I’ve let my #EU27Project languish for far too long and there are only a few months until they really do become just 27. I was shocked to discover how many French and German books I’ve read, but how few from other countries. So I’ve used my last bit of money to buy some elusive ones, tracked others down from the library and will be focusing mainly on the 13 (thirteen!!!) countries I still have left to read. I’m still searching for books from Cyprus and Luxembourg, so do let me know if you have any recommendations.

October 2018 Wrap-Up

This was a month of two halves: a rather humdrum, exhausting first half despite many cultural events, and a relaxing second half spent on holiday. Sadly, neither of the two halves did wonders for my reading: I was either too tired (first part) or too busy sightseeing and talking to people (second part) to read as much as I had planned.

I read no more than eight books, of which three were what one might call compulosry, i.e. for review for Crime Fiction Lover. Only two of them were in translation, and only two of them were by male authors.

Here are the books that I did manage to finish this October:

Sarah Moss: The Tidal Zone Planning to write a longer blog post on the writing and themes of Sarah Moss, so this will be an ongoing project over the next couple of months, to either read or reread each of her books.

Penelope Mortimer: The Pumpkin Eater – as part of the NYRB Fortnight and to fuel my ongoing fascination with mental health

Margaret Millar: Vanish in an Instant – she is a consistently good author of psychological thrillers, always a pleasure to read and reread her

Alex Beer: The Second Rider – translated  by Tim Mohr. A convoluted crime novel set in the poverty-stricken, decaying Vienna following the First World War, tremendously atmospheric. Review to follow on CFL.

Helen Jukes: A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings  I’ve always been obsessed with beekeeping, ever since my great-uncle used to take me as a child to see his hives. This book is more of a personal memoir and enquiry into historical traditions and the folklore of beekeeping. It is also a description of how a human heart can be opened and become receptive to love more generally through the love of bees. Well-written and very enjoyable if you are at all interested in bees.

Murakami Haruki: Killing Commendatore  A whopper of a novel, which I read in just one weekend. I had a bit of a nostalgic fit about Murakami, whom I used to enjoy reading when I was younger, but who has impressed me less in recent years. While this was not entirely a return to form (far too long and repetitive, could have done with judicious editing), it was fun to read, or else I may be influenced by the Don Giovanni and many other cultural references.

Lisa Gabriele: The Winters  The book started well enough as an ingenious retelling of Du Maurier’s Rebecca, with the Mrs Danvers character transformed into a sulky and vicious teenager. Sadly, I felt it became a bit too predictable at the end, with not that much to distinguish it from the current crop of domestic thrillers. Full review to follow on CFL.

JS Fletcher: The Middle Temple Murder  An early crime novel to while away the evenings on holiday. It does show its age a little, but is nevertheless an enjoyable study of journalistic flair, fraud and courtroom shenanigans.

I’ve got stuck in a few books while on holiday, browsing through my parents’ bookshelves.  And bought far too many, causing my children to exclaim: ‘Can you never enter a bookshop and come out empty-handed?’ (I will do a separate post on new acquisitions, as I’d also ordered a fair few, which all arrived while I was away). Predictable consequence: I had to pay for the few additional kilograms of luggage (not just books, but also honey, jam, wine and quinces – the usual stuff that people bring back from home, right?)

Plans for November include of course German Literature Month. I’ve got 5 books ready and waiting on my bedside table, so all I can do is hope that I will get round to reading as many of those as possible.

Reading Summary for August 2018

13 books this month. Not surprising that a certain proportion of them were women in translation, given that it is #WITMonth, but I also felt tempted to read more women in general, which is reflected in the ratio of women to men: 8 women, 5 men this month. I was also keen to read more foreign authors in general: 11 are either in another language or in translation. My favourite genre remains crime fiction, obviously, with no less than 7 books in this area, but I have also read short stories, diaries and essays this month.

Women in Translation – done a good job of reviewing nearly everything

Lucy Fricke: Daughters  – in German

Teresa Solana: The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and other stories

Beatriz Bracher: I Didn’t Talk 

Anne Holt: Dead Joker 

Lilja Sigurdardottir: Trap

Marina Tsvetaeva: Earthly Signs – Moscow Diaries 1917-22

Veronique Olmi: La Nuit en vérité – in French, review to come possibly at the weekend

Crime Fiction

Tana French: The Trespassers – one of my favourites of the Dublin Squad series because of the prickly, larger than life voice of Antoinette Conway, the main protagonist

Michael Stanley: Dead of Night – standalone about the rhino horn trade in South Africa

Pierre Lemaitre: Inhuman Resources – the most extreme assessment centre you can imagine and the despair of the unemployed, review to come soon on CFL

Antti Tuomainen: Palm Beach Finland – comic noir, review to come soon on CFL

Other Random Reads

Mircea Eliade: The Old Man and the Bureaucrats – an elderly teacher ends up on the wrong side of a totalitarian state when he tries to find an old pupil of his

Norman Manea: The Fifth Impossibility – essays about censorship, the difficulties of translation, living in exile, as well as many Romanian and other authors.

April Has Ended: Reading Summary

12 books, 8 countries, 5 women writers, 4 translated books – that is the summary for April 2018. It’s been a good month, with only 1 DNF (Brian Aldiss in non sci-fi mode) and no average reads at all! Perhaps I am getting better at picking books, thanks to all the great recommendations I get from your blogs.

I’ve already mentioned five thrilling crime novels that I read in a row and I had another excellent one to add to that list, although I don’t really consider it crime fiction, namely Sébastien Japrisot’s One Deadly Summer, transl. Alan Sheridan. This last one builds tension up gradually but is quite explosive in subject matter and characterisation. The textbook shifts in points of view show us how much more complex everything is than it first appears. A masterclass in slow-burn, simmering, sultry drama, like the land before a thunderstorm.

The other two books in translation I read were Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, transl. Geraldine Harcourt, and Domenico Starnone’s Trick, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri (courtesy of Asymptote Book Club). There are some similarities between the two books: both are narrated by a reasonably self-centred person who is somehow stuck in a groove or on the brink of an abyss and is trying to find themselves again, partly with the help (sometimes with the hindrance) of a child. Of course, in Territory of Light it is a young mother on the cusp of divorce, while in Trick it is an elderly artistic grandfather. Both of these deserve a more detailed review – if I get round to it.

Two other books were at least partially set abroad, although written in English. George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London still sounds uncomfortably current, while Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You sounds like it should be set in the 19th century, but is unfortunately something which can be seen in contemporary India still (and not only there). A well-educated, artistic and academic young woman is seduced by the intellect of a university professor and marries him, but gradually has all ambition, hope and trust crushed out of her through physical and mental violence. He also seeks to justify his brutality through his socialist ideology, which leads to some horrifying yet funny statements. It is a story which has been told before, but the style is original and the emotions raw. I’ve had this book for a long time, since Naomi Frisby recommended it, but it is now shortlisted for the Women’s Prize in Fiction.

The final book also deserves a more extensive review: Elmet by Fiona Mozley, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Perhaps I will have time to do a vlog review soon for those I haven’t reviewed yet.

If you promise not to laugh, I promise to turn a new leaf in May and not leave it so long after reading a book before I review it. Also, to restart the submission game. Also, to revitalise my #EU27Project, as time is running out…

 

Reading Summary for May 2017

May seems to have sped by like a runaway train, and I can’t believe that I’m already doing another monthly reading summary. This month seems to have been all about what is somewhat annoyingly described as ‘self-care’, which brings to mind a candle-lit bath and a warm cocoon of a towel. In my case, however, it means reading books in which I can lose myself, preferably without crying.

A rather productive reading month, 15 books read (one of them a re-read), only one turkey, and quite a few winners. 9 books by women writers, 6 by men, 5 in translation.

Mood boosters

Matt Haig: The Humans

Funny, humane, instantly recognisable and imaginative. Reminded me in parts of The Man Who Fell to Earth, except it shows more love for humans in spite of all of our flaws. Some moments had me laughing out loud, while others are almost in danger of descending into sentimentality. But, as the author says,
‘Sentimentality is another human flaw. A distortion. Another twisted by-product of love, serving no rational purpose. And yet, there was a force behind it as authentic as any other.’ Perfect mood-boosting book for all who have felt a little out of step with life and the others.

Muriel Spark: A Far Cry from Kensington

Rereading this zany look into the world of publishing, with all of Spark’s trademark humour, precise wording, wit, and just a tinge of cruelty.

Vivienne Tufnell: Away with the Fairies 

Pantheistic approach to nature, life, creation and love.

Jane Gardam: The Stories

Elegant, witty yet very empathetic account of marginalised, ignored, insignificant little people. Some may be annoying, some inspire pity or sadness, but all are presented with a lot of heart.

Elizabeth Jane Howard: The Light Years

Searched for this at the library after reading Sarah Perry’s loving tribute to the Cazalet series in the Foxed Quarterly. I knew I had read one or two of the books, out of order, but couldn’t remember which ones or much else, so I started at the beginning. Perfect comfort reading for these turbulent times, although it actually depicts a Britain with odd similarities to the present-day, just before WW2, considerable uncertainty and fear, conflicting attitudes towards war and Hitler. All the little details of life are here, with recognisable concerns and characters, even though the main characters are all rich and privileged, have servants and seemingly endless baths and meals.

Crime busters

Andrée Michaud: Boundary

Susie Steiner: Persons Unknown

Tina Seskis: The Honeymoon

Matt Wesolowski: Six Stories

Antti Tuomainen: The Mine

Perfectly captures the chilly beauty and sinister quality of the Finnish winter. This book pushes the boundaries of a conventional thriller – yes, we have a hitman and quite a few murders along the way, we have a conspiracy about a mining project which has gone wrong, but it is really about family, having principles and values, feeling conflicted between finding out the truth and protecting your loved ones. Fully realised characters and an unobtrusive, limpid, muscular storytelling style (without ever being garishly macho, like in most action thrillers).

Clever Observation in Prime Location

Delia Ephron: Siracusa

All the pretentiousness of rich Americans and Brooklynites abroad mercilessly exposed in this tale of marital break-down, selfish adults and abundant self-delusions. Review to appear shortly on Shiny New Books.

Sarah Stovell: Exquisite

Not so much a psychological thriller, as a carefully orchestrated duet and a welcome respite from the relentless insistence on implausible twists for the sake of twists in recent books. From my review on Crime Fiction Lover:

‘The fun of the book lies in the inevitable downward spiral into obsession, jealousy and revenge. You might be tempted to read Exquisite quickly, breathlessly, but I would advise you to take your time and savour the journey. The author is completely in control of pace and characters, like a fine piano tuner able to make the most minute adjustments to the tension in each string, each chapter, each interaction. Allow yourself to be played. Enjoy the music.’

Andrzej Stasiuk: On the Road to Babadag

Wolfgang Herrndorf: Sand

Bogdan Teodorescu: Spada

When I heard that this was about a serial killer targeting criminals of gypsy origins in Romania, I expected it to be a police procedural with some political echoes. In fact, it is an unusual political thriller which examines how inflammatory rhetoric, extremist discourse and racial hatred are peddled by politicians for their own purposes and the devastating consequences it can have. Highly relevant for our times, not just in Romania.