Reading Summary Sept 2019

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…

August Reading, Events and Book Haul

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.

Reading & Events Summary July 2019

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 Envy by 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.

Monthly Reading Summary: June in the United States

June was the first month that I experimented with my new geographical reading initiative, which means reading mostly (but not exclusively) authors from a particular country – or potentially books set in a specific country. I started off with the United States, because it is a country I often ignore in my reading. And it worked so well that I am certainly planning to continue doing this geographically themed reading at least until the end of year.

I read 8 novels by American authors, plus a biographical study of American women by an American woman – so a total of 9 books. Six women authors, including big names of the past such as Patricia Highsmith and Jane Bowles, popular contemporary authors such as Laura Lippman and Meg Wolitzer, and less well-known authors such as Laura Kasischke and Diana Souhami. The last of these, Wild Girls (review to come), is a book about the relationship and love life of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, two wealthy American expats and artists living in Paris in the early 20th century. I first came across the chromatically restrained art of Romaine Brooks at the Barbican exhibition about artistic couples and wanted to know more about her.

The three male authors I read were Kent Haruf, Sam Shepard and David Vann, who all proved to be a very welcome respite from the rather self-absorbed American authors I have read previously (who may have put me off reading American books). Surprisingly, they all write about marginalised, impoverished or rural communities that we tend to think of as ‘typically’ American landscapes, filled with macho behaviour. Yet each of these authors demonstrate great sensitivity and empathy for human frailty.

So, all in all, quite a diverse and happy American reading experience, although I was perhaps less impressed with those particular books by Meg Wolitzer and Laura Lippman (compared with some of their others).

In addition to my focus on the US, I also had a bit of a Bristol CrimeFest hangover and read some more of the books I bought there. All three were enjoyable and very quick reads: Kate Rhodes’ atmospheric, closed island community in Ruin Beach, Charlie Gallagher’s almost viscerally painful He Will Kill You about domestic violence and Cara Black’s latest instalment in the Aimee Leduc series, Murder in Bel Air, which tackles France’s colonial past and present.

Last but not least, two books about betrayed women from very different decades: Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance set in the 1950s, while Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie is very much of the present moment and set in London. While the former remains stoic and resourceful, the latter is prone to self-destructive or self-belittling behaviour. Both books can be quite painful to read, although Queenie is also very funny in parts.

So, 14 books in total, 10 by women authors, zero in translation, which is quite unusual for me (reflects the geographical emphasis, I suppose).

May Summary

May was quite a busy and happy month culturally speaking, and thus marked a return to blogging. I attended two crime fiction festivals and wrote copiously about them. I saw one art exhibition, one film in cinemas and one play. And I read lots of books.

The exhibition was the Spanish crowd-pleasing artist Sorolla, who seemed to enjoy a charmed life back in the early 1900s: his paintings were selling well, he was commissioned to do interesting work, he was married to the love of his life who modelled for him regularly, he had three children he adored. No tortured artist’s existence for him. He also had a remarkable facility for painting in different styles (from social realism to impressionism to Velasquez like portraits). In my youth I might have been a little sniffy and dismissive of such an obviously bourgeois painter, but I actually enjoyed his work a lot. Nothing wrong with being ‘pretty’. His use of colour (especially the different nuances of white) and light is spectacular.

From the programme for Sorolla at the National Gallery.

The play I saw was part of the RADA showcases as their third-year acting students finish their degree. I saw Love and Money, written by Dennis Kelly in 2006 but very prescient about the financial crisis of 2008 and bad debts. It was, like all the best plays are, both funny and rather dark, the story of a marriage floundering in a sea of trying to keep up with the Joneses and getting out of consumer debt. All of the performers were good, but Stacy Abalogun and Bea Svistunenko stood out for me. It was the second time I’d seen Bea after her riveting performance in Linda: we are going to hear great things about her, mark my words.

Now that I no longer have books to review regularly, I am reading with more of a theme. In May the theme was the Paris Commune, because it was in May that it came to a very bloody end in 1871. I was wise enough to read two historical accounts about the Commune back in April, because the novel by Emile Zola The Debacle ended up taking most of the month. Not just because it was long (and in French, which always means slightly slower reading for me), but because it was also emotionally quite a challenge to read. I’ve written two blog posts about it, here and here.

Sadly, this meant that I didn’t manage to read another book in French about the Commune, Jean Vautrin’s Le Cri du peuple, but I think I will persevere with it over the summer, as I continue to be fascinated with this period in French history. I’ve managed to talk Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings into buying an English translation of this book, so we might engage in a joint read during the holidays.

I took a break from this very serious topic with a lot of crime fiction and one true crime, The Five, the very moving accounts of the lives of the five victims of Jack the Ripper. Not perhaps the most obvious choices for ‘lighter’ subject matter, but a change of pace from Zola anyway. But what could I do? I turned to Martin Suter’s Elefant for a nice cosy read and instead it featured homeless people and ruthless experimentation on animals. But yes, also an adorable pint-sized, pink glow-in-the-dark baby elephant.

So I felt entirely justified in picking up Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, because no matter how serious and shocking the subject matter is, Moss also manages to be witty about it. Her description of teenage grumpiness and rebellious undercurrent are spot on. Of course, this is a dig at those who are overly nostalgic about the past, as well as a study in how easy it is to get caught up in mass hysteria.

Finally, The Exiles Return by Elisabeth De Waal is beautifully evocative of 1950s Vienna, with the different occupied forces still very much present in the city. Although it has a bit of a rushed and violent ending, it is also a superb meditation on whether it is ever possible to return and reintegrate after you’ve been exiled from the place you once considered home. Is it possible to forgive and forget?

14 books read, 6 by women, 8 by men. Only two books in foreign languages this month (probably because it took me so long to read one of them).

Plans for the upcoming months?

A Twitter exchange with Barcodezebra about Brazilian fiction led to an impromptu spending spree (so much for my book buying ban, but I am trying to contain it all in the merry month of May and then go back to austerity). It’s been a long time since my last obsession with Brazilian literature, back when I was doing my Ph.D. right next to (or above) the Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies. I would saunter in and explore all the writers I’d never heard of before: Jorge Amado, Clarice Lispector, Machado de Assis and many more. So I thought it was high time I caught up with some of their more contemporary authors and ordered a whole bunch from Abe Books. I will certainly read some during the Women in Translation Month in August (Patricia Melo, Socorro Acioli and Clarice Lispector’s short stories), but I’m tempted to soak up some Latin American atmosphere before then. However, I also plan to keep going with my #EU27Project. I am very close to finishing it!

I also intend to read a lot more poetry over the summer, as I try to regain my poetry writing groove. This will be mostly random rummaging through my rather hefty poetry bookshelves, just seeing what appeals to me in the moment, although I may have ordered Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic online, as I couldn’t wait anymore for it to come out in the UK. There is as much buzz around it as there was around Claudia Rankine’s Citizen a few years ago, so I hope I will love it as much as I loved that one. (Poetry book buzz seems to be more reliable than bestseller book buzz.)

Hmmm, sounds like quite a lot of plans. Have I bitten off more than I can chew, as usual?

April Summary and Plans for May

Being alone for the Easter holidays had its upside: I got a LOT of reading done this month. Sadly, the (poetry and novel) writing is still missing in action, but I’m dipping my toes into the warm, friendly waters of blogging once more.

Stats

Here are some stats for the fans. A total of 20 books, although there was one I abandoned after about 45 pages. 7 books were either in another language or in translation; 11 were written by women (and one was an anthology, so I suppose you could count 12). An unusually high number of non-fiction reads for me: 4. One of them was a radio play, or what I’ve chosen to call an audio book. Above all, an unusually high number of reviews. I reviewed three for the #1965Club, which was really enjoyable: Ion Vinea’s Lunatics, Margaret Forster’s Georgy Girl and Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Monday Starts on Saturday. [I reviewed one that I’d finished much earlier for the #EU27Project, but that shouldn’t be counted.] And I very briefly mentioned and reviewed seven of this month’s books in this post.

However, that still leaves the following to review: Patrick Delperdange’s Si Tous les dieux nous abandonnent (for Belgium for #EU27Project) and Paris Babylon by Rupert Christiansen, The Paris Commune by Donny Gluckstein and Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City for my special project in May (see below).

I won’t be reviewing several books that I read for sheer fun, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy them. Island of the Mad is set in Venice in the early Mussolini years, and is Laurie R. King’s latest instalment in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, which I used to adore a few years back, but have grown out of the habit of reading. As an expat and cultural anthropologist, of course I was amused by Sarah Moss’ account of a year of living in Iceland in Names for the Sea. Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips is a hilarious reimagining of the Greek gods living in a scruffy shared house in present-day London and trying to maintain some kind of control over their powers. Finally, Bats in the Belfry by ECR Lorac is a typical Golden Age crime novel, with some great humour and atmospheric scenes, although somewhat too convoluted to be 100% enjoyable.

Book Hauls

I have also conveniently ‘forgotten’ about my book buying ban this month. Not only did I stop and browse and buy at The Second Shelf, I also ordered online the Strugatsky brothers’ book and a book by Swiss author of Romanian origin Raluca Antonescu (who will be appearing at a literary festival in Lausanne – if I can’t be there, at least I can vicariously partake in her fame). Of course, I also made the mistake of looking at those nasty little shelves of remainders and second-hand books that Waterstones Gower Street puts out on the pavement for people to stumble over… and came away with just two small purchases: Meike Ziervogel’s Clara’s Daughter and one of my favourite YA books (although it appeared before YA became a well-established genre): Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. I also borrowed a few books from the library: a volume of plays by Botho Strauss, one of the books in the Patrick Melrose cycle (I haven’t ever read any nor seen the latest series starring Benedict Cumberbatch) and a non-fiction historical title that I have high hopes for: Hallie Rubenhold’s well-researched untold stories of the five victims of Jack the Ripper.

Since I will be going to Newcastle Noir next week (albeit briefly – Friday afternoon and Saturday morning only) and Bristol Crimefest the week after, I don’t have high hopes that I will escape with my wallet unscathed and my bookshelves unencumbered.

Plans for May

My main reading goal for the following month is reading and reviewing books about the Paris Commune (which was mercilessly crushed in May 1871). In addition to the non-fiction I’ve already read in preparation, I am also reading two fictional accounts of the events: Jean Vautrin’s Le Cri du peuple, which I believe started life as a series of graphic novels (BD) but is now available in novel format; and Émile Zola’s The Debacle, penultimate novel in his Rougon-Macquart series and his bestselling one of the series during his lifetime (probably because of the proximity to the events described, although he published it at a safe distance of 21 years). I will be reading the latter together with Emma from Book Around the Corner, who will also be posting her review towards the end of May. I’ll be reading it in French, which will slow me down considerably (hence I’m leaving a whole month for it), but as you can see from the picture, it is easily available in English, if you want to join in with us!

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.