10 books and some excellent ones amongst them this month. I read 4 authors for China in September: the rude and rowdy The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, the fascinating speculative fiction of Maggie Shen King, the disappointing Shanghai Baby and the sophisticated, subtle work of Eileen Chang. The settings were in the east, south-west and north of China, and the authors were as diverse as those regions.
These were all women writers, as were in fact 8 of the 10 authors I read this month. The other four were: Joyce Porter from the 1960s, creator of the obnoxious Inspector Dover and writing a fairly enjoyable (occasionally dated) comic detective fiction genre; Deborah Levy’s excellent memoir The Cost of Living (review to follow); Nicola Barker’s witty reinvention of the novel I Am Sovereign (review to follow); and Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne.
The two male authors I read this month were as different as they could possibly be from each other: the earnest political novel It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (review to follow) and the easy escapism (and night frightener) A Noise Downstairs by Linwood Barclay.
So, after some of the largest countries of the world: US, Russia, Brazil, China, maybe it’s time to tackle a small but diverse country in October. Or at least, diverse in terms of languages, because it’s almost exclusively male authors. It’s Switzerland and Pascale Kramer is the only woman amongst the others: Alex Capus, Pascale Kramer, Jonas Lüscher, Pascal Mercier, Sebastien Meier and Joseph Incardona. Let’s see how many of these I manage to read…
There I was thinking I hadn’t done all that much reading in August, because my #WITMonth contributions have been a miserly five. However, when I counted them all up, I realised I’ve read 16 books, 7 of them in translation (5 of them Brazilian, to fit in with my August in Brazil reading). 10 books were by women, and I even read two non-fiction books (Sylvia Plath’s diaries and The Secret Barrister’s rather terrifying descriptions of the shortcomings of the English legal system).
I have reviewed The Head of the Saint, Middle England, The End, Lost World, The Tortoise and the Hare, The Pine Islands and Clarice, so only about half of what I read. I still intend to review some of the above, but don’t hold your breath, as out of sight tends to be out of mind! I will not be reviewing Plan B or Guilty Not Guilty, which were quick fun reads but nothing to get worked up about, while Platform Seven is the kind of novel that started out very eerily and got my hopes up, but became a bit too much of a bog-standard thriller about a psychologically abusive relationship. Fatechanger is a YA novel about a Dickensian Boston of thieves and newspaper boys during the First World War and a time-travelling girl who has to pretend to be a boy in order to survive.
Next month I will be focusing on China – and I have a good haul of women writers, including Eileen Chang, Wei Hui, Xiaolu Guo and Yan Ge, so my #WITMonth is set to continue!
It’s been a good month of events as well: a powerful play about immigrants, a writing retreat at my house, a Russian film about life after the collapse of the Soviet Union, an exibition on writing at the British Library, a triumphant GCSE results day, a day trip to Oxford and, last but by no means least, an extremely inspiring conversation between Ali Smith and Nicola Barker, two of the most innovative and daring and poetic writers at work today.
With all of the back to school preparations, we’ve been going shopping and therefore ‘accidentally’ ending up in bookshops (my older son is nearly as addicted to them as I am – hurrah for him, but boo-hoo for my wallet). So this month has been the scene of another massacre of my book-buying ban (it hasn’t really been in place since April).
These two are actually for the boys: one is required for the GCSE (for younger son), the other was older son’s choice as he pursues his plans for world domination. They liked the tactile covers and wordcloud/ quotations on the front.
Speaking of beautiful editions, I just had to get these two favourite Murdochs in the new Vintage editions. Yes, I like stories about cult-like communities and dodgy patriarchal leaders.
Some politically prescient novels and another edition of To the Lighthouse. When I first came to the UK, I only had two medium-sized suitcases but I brought my battered editions of Virginia Woolf’s diaries (5 volumes), A Room of One’s Own and 5 of her novels. I left this particular one at my parents’ house and haven’t been able to find it since, so it was high time I got myself a new copy.
Last night’s haul from the London Review of Books bookshop. The Ali Smith and Nicola Barker ones are now signed, of course, while the very slim Korean novella was devoured in the train on the way home. I so hope I will get to see George Szirtes again to have him sign this book for me – a moving account of his mother and her journey into exile. Last but not least, Deborah Levy’s story of starting over as a middle-aged divorcee, mother and writer.
Not a lot of summer holidays for me this year, so my reading hasn’t been copious this month. [This may change over the next 3 weeks, when the boys are with their father in Greece.] Only 9 books completed, but most of them have been quite outstanding – and that is all thanks to the Russians. Their political leaders may be problematic, but boy, can their authors write!
I started off with a short, sharp satire Envyby Yuri (Yury?) Olesha. Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories were a rambunctious delight, but with a disquieting undercurrent running throughout. The Strugatskys were in top form with Roadside Picnic, while Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov captured a moment of tremendous change in recent history with great poignancy and lyricism. I haven’t yet reviewed Light-Headed by Olga Slavnikova (which I read in the French translation), but it’s another great piece of satire, although perhaps it could have been a bit shorter without losing any of its punch.
The Russians were excellent company. I will miss them and, yes, there were some communalities to all these authors (or perhaps I sub-consciously chose works that were of similar nature). Their humour is always rather dark and biting, their stories a mix of laugh-out-loud absurdity and profound sadness. The big questions of life are addressed, even though mostly in a roundabout way that decades if not centuries of censorship have cultivated to perfection. And I find their dash of surrealism not just tolerable but necessary and fun, unlike some works in the magical realism tradition.
In-between these hard-hitting books, I found my brain craved less demanding fare. I was either rereading either old favourites like the second book in the Ripley series by Patricia Highsmith (the one with the art forgeries) or else Adrian Mole (however, the trials and tribulations of a middle-aged Mole made me shudder rather than laugh). I also read two contemporary books focused on friendships, marriages, gender expectations and growing older.
I will probably compare and contrast Anna Hope’s Expectation with William Nicholson’s Adventures in Modern Marriage at some point, but although they were fun and easy to read (I deliberately avoided making too many comparisons with my own marriage or ageing), they were rather underwhelming. In any other month of reading, they might have scored higher, but when I put them up against the Russians, they seemed rather anemic.
5 women authors, 4 books in translation (Olga Grushin wrote her book directly in English). Next month will be all about women in translation and I am heading off to Brazil. My selection includes: Clarice Lispector’s short stories, Patricia Melo’s tale of revenge Lost World, Fernanda Torres’ account of old macho beach bums The End and, to balance things out, The Head of the Saint by Socorro Acioli.
If I get a chance to read any other women in translation, it will be Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands (set in my beloved Japan but written in German) and History. A Mess. by Sigrun Palsdottir (the latest Asymptote Book Club title, from Iceland). I might also read some Brazilian men, for balance. And, of course, I should read the books I borrowed from the library: Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage and Jonathan Coe’s Middle England, as well as dip in and out of Sylvia Plath’s Unabridged Diaries.
Beyond the reading, this month has been quite tiring: a lot of deadlines at work, both boys doing their Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, plus a lot of visiting of universities (which has its fun moments but involves a lot of driving and organising). I’ve done three things that go beyond the routine: went to the opera, attended an immersive theatre experience of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in Oxford and sat in the public gallery at a criminal trial at the Old Bailey.
How has your month been? Do tell me about your holiday plans! I’m not going anywhere on holiday just yet, but this song always puts me in a holiday mood. Thank you, Caroline, for sharing your flash fiction based on this song with me. Do check it out here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 Levertovand Maxine Kumin, but have a few others planned for next month.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.