June is typically a joyous month in my household: two birthdays and a nameday, as well as Midsummer Day to celebrate; summer plans to be hatched; end of school and exams beckoning. This year has been slightly different. The boys have been on holiday but the older one has started a summer job, while the younger one has had induction days for Sixth Form College (partly online) and homework assignments, while I have been busier than ever at work. The weather has been rather changeable, making me almost want to switch the heating back on. Nevertheless, we had a once-in-a-lifetime birthday treat of high tea at Oakley Court Hotel, where the Rocky Horror Picture Show was filmed.
I have read six of my 20 Books of Summer, and a total of 10 books this month. June has been the month of the most recent acquisitions on my Kindle, so the 20 Books of Summer choices are recent releases and include a Japanese thriller and a satire about social media, two books with tenuous links to Romania and two books that capture the millenial experience in Britain in the past few years. I also read a few bonus books linked to these: Mamie Luger by Benoit Philippon, which is certainly unlike anything else I have read before, a chilling story about a child murderer and rehabilitation by Fiona Cummins: When I was Ten, and Lucy Caldwell’s second collection of short stories. For the Virtual Crime Book Club, I had a good time reading Tom Bradby’s Secret Service, which had the interesting (and not all that implausible nowadays) premise that the future PM of the United Kingdom might be a Russian agent.
Films and TV:
Although most of the month has been given over to football watching with my older son – I remember bonding with my father over sports and enjoy doing so with him, even if I am not normally a huge football fan – I have also managed to watch some films and TV series.
The Outsiders was the kind of film I would have loved to watch in my teens and it was fun to see all of the child actors who then went on to become household names, but it was a little too sentimental for my taste (said the person who cries every time she watches West Side Story).
Sound of Metal was a tour de force of acting by Riz Ahmed and the first half was particularly interesting in his denial and fight against identifying with the deaf community, but the film then lost its way a little in the second half.
Billy Liar was every bit as funny, irreverant and poignant as I remembered it, with Tom Courtenay doing an excellent job of appearing at once infuriating and vulnerable.
It was the first time I watched Nightcrawler and I was chilled not just by the subject matter but by the charmingly psychopathic way in which Jake Gyllenhaal spouts inspirational slogans from self-help books – he is capitalism personified, the shameless go-getter we’ve been told the world (or is that just America?) needs.
Days of the Bagnold Summer was rather sweet and very relatable: a single mother having to spend the summer with her grumpy teenager, who had wanted to go and visit his remarried father in Florida. There was nothing grandiose or startling about the film, just a tender and very realistic observation of the mother/son relationship, which I am naturally rather partial to.
If you like sinister, not fully explainable TV series, then I can really recommend the Icelandic quasi-supernatural thriller Katla on Netflix. It has echoes of the French series The Returned, mixed with small-town Icelandic village feel of a Ragnar Jonasson novel The Katla volcano near the South Iceland settlement of Vik has been spewing ash for over a year and most of the inhabitants have been evacuated, but there are some foolhardy people who are staying on there. Then suddenly some strange clones or dead people reappear from underneath the glacier and turns their lives upside down. I found this far better paced and not as far-fetched or graphic as Fortitude. The characters are a lot more relatable and well acted throughout, although they might not have the big names of Fortitude. And the landscapes are just beautifully photographed throughout. You should also know that one of the writers on the show is none other than Icelandic writer Lilja Sigurðardóttir. I’m not a box set binging kind of person, but I watched all eight episodes in just 2-3 days (alongside the football matches).
Restrictions might be easing here in the UK, but my confidence in this government is so ‘high’ that I prefer to watch and wait, rather than rush out to enjoy museums and theatres, although I have missed them very much indeed. So the summary this month continues to be of books, films and TV series, with a handful of online literary events too.
May’s reading was going to be dedicated to Arabic literature, and in particular books from Egypt and Lebanon. Alas, only four of the ten books I read fulfilled that criteria, but I really enjoyed all of them. There was a historical view of Cairo and a very contemporary one. The Civil War in Lebanon and its aftermath were treated in equally poignant fashion but very different styles by Elias Khoury and Hoda Barakat.
The other book I had on my May reading plan because I’d been asked to review it was The Wife Who Wasn’t, a rollicking saga of East Meets West.
However, all the other books were examples of me giving in to temptation once the libraries reopened for browsing. I always enjoy Nicola Upson‘s crime series featuring the author Josephine Tey and this latest one is set on St Michael’s Mount at Christmas (I still have to visit both the English and the French version of this location). I read Flynn Berry‘s first book and liked it well enough to have a look at her second one A Double Life, which is one of those ‘what if’ stories about the Lord Lucan case and how his daughter might feel about the whole situation. Steph Cha‘s Follow Her Home is a very deliberate Chandleresque recreation of LA, albeit set in the present-day and with a mighty Korean-American female main protagonist.
I usually avoid books with all the buzz, and certainly Luster by Raven Leilani has been receiving a lot of that, having been shortlisted for both the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Dylan Thomas Prize in the UK and has won several awards in the author’s home country the United States. Also, I wasn’t sure I could bear yet another so-called millenial novel about damaged, self-destructive young women and their unsatisfactory relationships with men (or men and women). But there it was beckoning to me on top of a book display at the library. After a fireworks of a start, which made me gasp and admire nearly every sentence, I thought it lost its way a little in the middle. It’s about a vulnerable young woman who might have a sharp wit when she talks directly to the reader, but nevertheless never quite loses her desire to be seen, touched and loved. Nevertheless, I found it less cold and manipulative than Sally Rooney’s Conversation with Friends (no, I haven’t read Normal People), funnier than Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times and more consistent and fierce than The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris. So, if you liked any of those, you are almost certain to like this one, which I feel is better than all three. There are parallels with Fleabag, but this is a Fleabag with the burden of race and no safety net of a rich family to fall back on. Perhaps Michaela Coel’s I Will Destroy You comes closest to capturing that flawed, but very striking and unique narrative voice.
Here is a description of publisher’s tickbox exercise of providing diverse reading, which made me roar with laughter:
… a slave narrative about a mixed-race house girl fighting for a piece of her father’s estate; a slave narrative about a runaway’s friendship with the white schoolteacher who selflessly teaches her how to read; a slave narrative about a tragic mulatto who raises the dead with her magic chitlin pies; a domestic drama about a black maid who, like Schrödinger’s cat, is both alive and dead, an unseen, nurturing presence who exists only within the bounds of her employer’s four walls; an ‘urban’ romance wherever everybody dies by gang violence; and a book about a Cantonese restaurant, which may or may not have been written by a white woman from Utah, whose descriptions of her characters rely primarily on rice-based foods.
The most memorable book I read this month was probably The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (which I nicked off my younger son’s shelf), but I also finally got to review one of my favourites from last month, namely Polly Barton‘s Fifty Sounds, about which I could have written a super-long essay. And I also reread and reviewed To the Lighthouse, which was just wondrous. As a way to forget what a chore daily cooking has become since the first lockdown, I also wrote a post about my favourite cookery books.
I’ll be embarking on the 20 Books of Summer for the next three months, and I have to admit I’m already tempted to make some drastic changes to my original plan. For example, would it not be more helpful to publishers posting their books on Netgalley if I actually read and reviewed the most recent ones, rather than the oldest ones? So I might dedicate June to the most recent, then July to my oldest and leave August for Women in Translation (admittedly, four-five of my Women in Translation choices are very recent ones anyway). The most recent list includes Mieko Kawakami (also featured in the August list), so I might swap her out for someone else in June, but a choice of ten to choose 6-7 from might look like this:
Films and TV
I seem to have found my film-watching mojo again. I’ve watched nine films and one TV mini-series this month, a mix of film classics and sheer escapism.
Andrei Rublev: yes, it can take a while to get to the point, but it’s still a visually stunning and inventive commentary on the role of the artist
Hunger: a visceral experience of a slice of recent history that I knew all too little about, although I had heard, of course, of Bobby Sands
When Harry Met Sally: loved it when I was young, have become a curmudgeon who no longer trusts the love story, even if it has its witty moments
Animal Farm: not just about the Soviet system – remains as relevant as the day it was made (and Boxer’s fate will forever make me cry)
Sweet Bean: charming but also thoughtful film about how we treat outsiders – perhaps veers a little into the sentimental
Touchez pas au Grisbi: now I see where Jean-Pierre Melville and Scorsese got their inspiration from – a worldweary performative tour de force from Jean Gabin, aging gangsters treating women badly, but with a hostage/loot exchange scene which almost made me forget to breathe
The Chess Players: The country’s burning and these two men are playing chess – a powerful indictment of both local lords and kings, as well as the British rule in India
The Chalet (French TV series): filmed in Rhone-Alpes, around Chamonix and Annecy, so obviously a winner in my heart, this was essentially a slasher-movie over 6 episodes, full of good-looking young people and grumpy older or depressed older people.
Rocco and His Brothers: Who can resist a young Alain Delon in this story of migration, urbanisation and brotherly rivalry?
The Boys from Fengkuei: Taiwanese film about a bunch of rather roguish young men moving to the city, very similar in content and form to Rocco and His Brothers (they actually watch this very film in the cinema at one point)
After a rather quiet start to the year, May has been a very busy (and expensive) month, full of events and courses (and appliances and dentists). Here is what I did in chronological order:
International Booker Prize: The Shortlisted Translators in Conversation – so fascinating to hear translators talk about the challenges of translating their very different books – especially enjoyed Sasha Dugdale talking about how nervous she felt about translating prose, because she usually translates poetry (I think most people feel it’s harder the other way round)
Produce an irresistible plot in a weekend with Shelley Weiner, Guardian Masterclasses – such an encouraging tutor, and lots of exciting ideas to stimulate the creative juices
Poet’s Cafe – took part in the open mic session, as well as heard Oliver Comins read from his poems old and new
Marlen Haushofer in Context, Institute of Modern Languages Research, SAS – only managed to attend one session, comparing The Wall with Seethaler’s A Whole Life, but I caught up with some of the recorded sessions afterwards
Reading in Translation Conference, University College Cork – again, only managed to listen to one session, the book bloggers, but will catch up with recordings
Olivier Norek and Joseph Knox in conversation with Ayo Onatade about noir fiction, at the French Institute in London, with bilingual readings from their novels
Raven Leilani – Hay Festival – such a thoughtful, articulate and gentle young woman, very impressive and very different from Edie in the novel. I thought it was itneresting that she said she was almost envious of Edie’s freedom, her giving herself entirely over to her impulses (her Id), even though it’s an extremely costly way of going about things. Leilani’s style is so clever, precise and rich, at the level of each sentence and paragraph, that I was curious how many drafts she writes to get that depth. It turns out she cannot move on until she has untangled every sentence, rewriting it at least three or four times, so she is a slow writer (and wishes she could be different).
Deborah Levy – Hay Festival – I’ve loved the previous two books in her ‘living autobiography’ trilogy and her third one Real Estate sounds just my cup of tea, especially when she talked about all the ‘unreal estate’ that live in our heads, all the houses we imagine we could be happy in, the future state that we can never achieve. She also talked about how she learnt to live with ambiguity and contradictory thoughts, and that the whole idea behind the trilogy was about figuring out why an ordinary life is worth examining and writing about.
Caleb Azumah Nelson – Hay Festival – I’ve got his debut novel Open Water on my TBR list (possibly for my June Netgalley binge) and am even more eager to read it after hearing him talk so modestly and passionately about writing from his emotions and being willing to make himself vulnerable (and how south-east London is where his world begins and ends).
Writing and translation
It has been quite an expensive month in terms of submissions to literary magazines and competitions. Not just poems and flash fiction, but I also finally got my act together and sent off the opening chapters and a synopsis of my Romania novel (as opposed to my Switzerland novel). I was also delighted to be accepted onto the BCLT Summer School and can only afford it because it’s virtual this year. I’ll be attending the Multilingual Drama section and am planning to go with Mihail Sebastian’s play The Holiday Game, which I mentioned last month.
15 books read, of which seven are crime fiction or true crime or, in one case, a literary curiosity labelled as crime fiction. This escapism into my favourite genre was counterpointed by some very good literary reads. Of the crime fiction genre, I enjoyed Rebecca Bradley’s start to a new series in Sheffield Blood Stained, Allie Reynold’s addictive Shiver, set in the world of snowboarding competitions, and Margie Orford’s haunting recreation of Cape Town’s older and more recent history Gallows Hill. For the Virtual Crime Book Club, I finally managed to get A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson from the library: I don’t usually read YA, but his one just zips along in a charming voice (think a slightly older Flavia de Luce set in a very contemporary world, where CDs are sooo last century).
The month was dominated by the reading I did for #1936Club and most of it was written by or about Romanian authors. While I did review Horvath’s plays for the #1936Club, I actually read them in March. However, I did read Max Blecher, Karel Capek, Mihail Sebastian and Liviu Rebreanu in April, all more or less fitting the requirements for the year 1936 or thereabouts.
There were three disappointments in this month’s pile though. The true crime book by John Leake The Vienna Woods Killer was written with too much of an American audience in mind, not particularly evocative of the Viennese atmosphere nor showing enough respect for the victims, but instead overly focusing on the investigation and court case. The novel entitled Sebastian by Gelu Diaconu was too much about other people, not enough about Sebastian (or else, did not add anything new to the Sebastian story). Sad to say, The Chateau by Catherine Cooper did not live up to the expectation raised by her first novel The Chalet, which I read last year. In spite of the fact that French chateaux are amongst my favourite things ever, as you well know.
But let’s not focus on the disappointments, because (aside from the books I read for the 1936 mission, which were all excellent) I also read two wonderful books this month. I reread To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (which I liked, but had never been my favourite novel of hers – that would be The Waves – but which certainly has gone up vertiginously in my esteem now). I still hope to review it at some point, although what can you say about a novel that everybody and their dog has opined about? The other novel I picked up because of my passion for Mozart: The Snow Ball by Brigid Brophy: delightful, frothy, yet very intelligent, with the sort of precise, taut writing I hugely admire. (Very much like Mozart – perfectly controlled, it just seems easy like breathing.) I then listened to the Backlisted Podcast episode about it and appreciated it even more. Two perfect little gems for a rather tiring month (aren’t they all – tiring, I mean, not gems obviously).
My patience for box sets has gone out the window. I started the second season of Succession and it was just more of the same: backstabbing amongst rich people behaving badly, so I abandoned it. Fortitude was beautiful for its landscape, but that stifling small community where everyone seems to sleep with everyone and the rather far-fetched storyline palled after 5-6 episodes (plus there were some unnecessarily graphic gory scenes). Even The Sopranos felt a bit ‘take it or leave it, I won’t suffer either way’ after two seasons, so I decided to cancel my NowTV subscription.
After a very ‘film-less’ March, I caught up with my love for films a little more in April. It was perhaps not quite as diverse as previously, quite international nevertheless:
Japan: A Silent Voice – anime about bullying in high school, much harder-hitting than I expected
Spain: Pan’s Labyrinth – fantasy, history, once again – much more powerful (nightmarish almost) than I expected
Romania: Collective – documentary about the nightclub fire in Bucharest in 2015 and its aftermath, revealing government corruption and the power of investigative journalism
France: A Prophet – prison drama, watching Tahar Rahim transform under your very eyes from a naive young man to a criminal wheeler-and-dealer
US: The King of Comedy – a satire that manages to be both fierce and very funny, and deeply disturbing, with a brilliant performance by De Niro.
UK: The Third Man – still one of my favourite films for the black-and-white atmospheric shots of post-war Vienna and a world that has lost in faith in humanity – but yes, my sons are right that the dialogues between Holly Martins and Anna are stilted and old-fasioned
Italy: The Ties – didn’t realise it was based on the Domenico Starnone book, which I had avoided reading because I was still raw about my divorce – so the film turned me inside out a bit, especially the reaction of the children. Felt cynical and glum, at times hammering home the message a little too much.
US: In the Soup – another black comedy mocking both wannabe talents and the criminal world, while also being the story of the relationship between a charismatic older man who teaches a clueless young man how to live. Although I did chuckle, it felt like I’d seen this type of story before – and done better – in Zorba the Greek.
Last minute update: In my last post about Rebreanu, I mention the dance Ciuleandra and I included a film clip. I should also have added (thank you to Calmgrove for reminding me) that there is a fairly good Romanian film adaptation of it dating from 1985. Here is the trailer, which includes the moment when the couple meet at the village dance, with French subtitles.
It is absurdly early to be writing an end of month review but a) I’ve got some online theatre to watch and review over the last few days of February; b) with some translation edits coming in and another planned full day of working on my novel, I don’t think I’ll have time to read and review any more books.
I was quite good at sticking to my February in Canada plan and, although I’d have liked more Quebecois authors in the mix, I remained faithful to my plan to read only what was already available on my bookshelves. I was fairly happy with all of the six Canadian books I read. While the subject matter of the Inger Ash Wolfe crime novel did feel like far too well-trodden territory to me, I was intrigued and inspired by Anne Carson (as ever) and surprised and delighted by Carol Shields and Marian Engel. In fact, I enjoyed Bear so much that I instantly decided to read another Marian Engel book, Lunatic Villas, which was very different to Bear, although the portrayal of harassed motherhood is very similar to Celia Fremlin‘s The Hours Before Dawn, but on the humorous rather than the sinister side of things.
In addition to Celia Fremlin, I also read several more crime novels:
The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman for our Virtual Crime Book Club, which was fun although not quite as good as the hype makes it out to be. I do generally struggle with books written by celebrities, as I feel: a) are they just cashing in on their fame and writing books because everyone thinks it’s an easy thing to do?; b) do they really need any more money, when they have n other sources of very good income? However, to be fair to Osman, it is a witty book, mostly because of the characters and the age group depicted (showing what a variety of types of people you can find in a retirement community, not all old people are boring and cautious etc.). The plot does have some rather too convenient coincidences and a bit of an odd coming-out-of-nowhere conclusion, but I liked it enough to want to read more about these characters on a very occasional basis.
Untraceable by Sergei Lebedev: This is a book of many parts and many tonalities, which might put some readers off, but which really appealed to me. It is a thoughtful analysis of why a scientist would choose to collaborate with an evil regime, how science can be subverted, and how ideals go out the window. It is also a historical picture of the mess and lack of certainties after the fall of the Soviet Union. It is of course also a spy thriller, with a sinister opening and a mounting sense of dread. Yet, in certain parts, when the would-be assassins are embarking on a road-trip to find the rogue scientist, it becomes quite comical, even farcical. All in all, a really enjoyable read.
The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse: February always puts me in the mood for skiing and therefore a mountain setting, so this book set in a Swiss mountaintop hotel seemed irresistible. The claustrophobic setting is indeed the star in this novel, the author clearly knows her Swiss winters, but the plot seemed rather far-fetched and I wasn’t that keen on the characters’ rather histrionic reactions to everything.
Finally, with a lingering glance back towards my January in Japan love, I read a graphic novel adaptation of No Longer Human, which was far more explicit and creepy than the novel, but also diverged from the story in interesting ways. I also read the first volume of Bungo Stray Dogs manga, in which Dazai is a detective with some supernatural powers – I’m not sure how appropriate it is to make fun of Dazai’s suicidal tendencies, although, given he made fun of them himself at times in his work, it’s probably OK. Plus, it features all sorts of other writers, Kunikida Doppo with a very bureaucratic mentality, Edogawa Ranpo who is firmly convinced he has supernatural abilities but in fact is simply very good at questioning and detecting, Akutagawa, who is a skilled adversary and so on. For someone obsessed with Japanese literature and familiar with most of the authors featured here, this is an absolute riot!
So 12 books, of which 2 graphic novels, 6 fitting the Canadian theme, and 4 crime novels. Only three books in translation (or other languages) this month, a low proportion by my standards, and an even gender distribution.
But have I contributed at all to #readindies? Well, hard to tell. Most of the books were bought second-hand and at the time of publication the publishers may have been independent, but have since been bought up (McCleeland and Steward are Penguin Random House now, Fourth Estate is Harper Collins, Pandora Women Crime Writers is Routledge). But I have found a few. My Quebecois writer is published by Editions Druide, a small independent funded by the Canadian and Quebecois governments and the Canadian Arts Council. Bear was published by Nonpareil Books, an imprint of Godine, an independent publisher located in Boston, Massachusetts. And Untraceable is published by New York-based New Vessel Press, which specialises in translated fiction.
I’ve watched mainly TV series this month (Lupin, The Sopranos, My Brilliant Friend), but the few films I watched were very good:
a rewatch of Do the Right Thing, which was a classic film of my teenage years and still stands up so well today (sadly, not much has changed);
High and Low, a Kurosawa with a good deal of social commentary and personal dilemma, about the kidnapping of a child;
Uppercase Print, the latest film by Radu Jude, the case of a young student who was investigated by the security forces during the Ceausescu years – an unusual mix of actors reciting from the security files, interwoven with extracts from TV documentaries of the 1970s and 80s. This was hard for me to watch, because I was so familiar with it all from my childhood, but it’s an interesting piece of history that should be preserved for the next generation (or for those who are not familiar with what it’s like to live in a dictatorship).
With one son not caring very much about films and the other having very fixed ideas about what he wants to watch and generally poo-poohing Mubi, saying they only have films that about five people in the world want to see (despite all the evidence to the contrary), our chances of watching films together are decreasing. Meanwhile, I’m getting a little tired of doing things that don’t interest me simply to fit in with someone else’s taste (I’ve had years of practice with their father – and look how well that turned out!). Maybe the pressures of being together all the time is starting to get to us all…
I have decided to no longer review every book I read this year, since I simply cannot keep up. This month, I’ve read 13 books, including finishing off the chunkster that was The Brothers Karamazov(which was left over from my December Russian reading). 12 of these were translated books, greatly helped by the fact that it was January in Japan and I really enjoyed spending time in one of my favourite countries in the world (9 of the 12 were Japanese). The only one in English in the original was for the Virtual Crime Book Club – and you can catch our discussion of The Chemistry of Death by Simon Becketthere.
Of the 13 you can see in the picture below, you might notice two are different translations of the same book by Dazai Osamu, so let me reassure you that I am not counting that twice, but am including instead an academic work about Suicidal Narrative in Modern Japan: The Case of Dazai Osamu by Alan Stephen Wolfe (but it does not have a pretty cover). To go through my Japanese reading chronologically:
I found out about the fascinating life and work of Higuchi Ichiyo, the first modern Japanese professional woman writer.
I reconnected with my favourite Dazai Osamu, reading his No Longer Humanin a new translation and his shorter, often quite funny more purely autobiographical stories. This is where I also fell down the rabbit hole of reading more of him and about him in a more academic context.
I moved on to another modern classic and old favourite, Yukio Mishima.
I read an enjoyable romp of a crime novel with a deliberately American noir feel, despite its Japanese setting and preoccupation with the consequences of the Vietnam war: The Wrong Goodbye by Toshihiko Yahagi (not reviewed)
Last but not least, it was intriguing and timely to read about the often ignored homeless people of Tokyo Ueno Stationby Yu Miri
Aside from Japan, I also spent some time with Portuguese writer Afonso Cruz and his experimentally structured novelKokoschka’s Doll, as well as with the fast-paced, jazzy improv beat of talented German writer Simone Buchholz: Hotel Cartagena (not reviewed).
For February, I will spend time in Canada, but inevitably some other writing will creep in, especially if it’s winter themed. However, our host Meredith is continuing with the Japanese Lit Challenge until March, and I certainly intend to continue following the reviews that people are posting there.
Elsa the Rose – beautiful love story (although also ever so slightly obsessive) told through interviews with Elsa Triolet and Louis Aragon, in conversation with Agnès Varda.
Ikiru – absolutely adored this film, more reminiscent of Ozu than Kurosawa. It tell the story of a faceless (not very likeable) bureaucrat who, when faced with a death sentence through a cancer diagnosis – becomes concerned about making up for lost time (and looking for fun in all the wrong places initially) and leaving behind a legacy. Particularly poignant and realistic in the post-funeral scene, when you see how others talk about the dead and misunderstand them.
The Godfather and The Sopranos – rewatched the first with my older son, who really likes it. Then, by way of counterpoint and an update into the Mafia families, started watching Season 1 of The Sopranos.
The Long Goodbye – was not entirely convinced by the portrayal of women as either manipulative bitches or decorative hippies high on drugs. However, I really liked Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe: with his dark suit, lanky figure, fluffy hair and constant smoking, it’s clear he must have been the inspiration for the Spike Spiegel in the anime series Cowboy Bebop.
Lovers Rock – described by many as their favourite of the Small Axe films by Steve McQueen. I loved the recreation of the period, the setting, the community and also the charming touches of youthful love (as well as more disturbing aspects of the party culture), but I did feel some of the music passages were too long.
Phoenix – a pared-down approach to acting by Nina Hoss to what could have been quite a melodramatic story of losing one’s identity, betrayal, forgiveness (or not) and moving on (both as an individual and as a country). The final ten minutes or so, when she gets off the train and is reunited with her husband and ‘friends’, are perfectly and heartbreakingly done.
Despite a busy working month, I’ve made a little bit of progress on my novel (I’m nearly two thirds of the way through, but I think it will need at least another edit before I’m happy with it).
However, I’m happy to say that I’ve very nearly finished the edits to my second translated novel: Resilience by Bogdan Hrib. ‘Resilience’ in the context of this novel does not focus on psychological resilience in the face of the unknown (although it does deal with this tangentially), but on geopolitics. It is defined as “the ability of states and societies to adapt and reform, thus withstanding and recovering from internal and external crisis, particularly in a period of unpredictability and volatility”. Of course, that is too academic to be of much interest in a crime novel, so let’s just say that this will be all about social media, fake news and dubious agents (who knows from where?) trying to influence international politics. This should come out end of March with Corylus Books.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: until the very last week, when I finally got a well-deserved holiday, the month of November has been all work and no play. And that shows in my reading: 11 books, virtually all of them external commitments.
I had committed to reading the shortlist for the Young Writer of the Year Award, though, so those five books made up most of my month. I loved the two poetry books, Surge and Tongues of Fire, I was impressed and discomfited by Inferno, and I appreciated the talent of young writers Naoise Dolan and Marina Kemp, although these debut novels didn’t necessarily work that well for me.
I also tried to take part in the German Lit Month event, always one of the highlights of my year. But, although I reviewed Marlen Haushofer this month, I have to admit I read her back in October (together with Dear Oxbridge, which I also reviewed then), and I barely managed to sneak in one other German book, a reread of All Quiet on the Western Front. That book led me to a reread of another book about the First World War on a lesser-known front, so I tried to compare it with The Forest of the Hanged by Liviu Rebreanu.
For the Virtual Crime Book Club, I had the pleasure of discovering the zany but hugely enjoyable crime meets magic series by Ben Aaronovitch, Rivers of London. I was expecting an equally pleasurable experience from rereading Dune in tandem with my older son. I had read the trilogy when I was his age or even a little younger, but could remember next to nothing about it, and was looking forward to the new film release. Unfortunately, this time round, the plodding style distracted me, and neither my son nor I were driven to finish it. It will have to live on as a fond teenage memory, lost in the mists of time.
Crimson Snow is an overhang from last month, so ignore the pretty picture of it, but I have nearly finished Tombland by C.J. Sansom, now that I finally had time to devote to such a massive volume during my week off. Norwich is the one place in England that I am seriously considering as a possible future home (I also have a place in mind in Scotland and in Wales respectively), and knew very little about the Kett Rebellion, so the Shardlake series is always a great opportunity to educate myself as well as enjoy a good murder mystery. As a counterpoint to that detailed, long read, I played around with the short, fun novel set in Lausanne by Muriel Spark The Finishing School. It isn’t one of her best, and I found it difficult to believe that it was as recent as 2004, but her sarcasm is always welcome.
My older son finally convinced me to join Letterboxd as a way to keep track of the films we watch (previously I was doing it on pieces of paper which invariably got lost all over the house). However, although he now follows me there, I am not allowed to follow his reviews, because he finds that ‘stalkerish’! Kids, eh? (OK, maybe my comment on his use of apostrophes might have had something to do with this!)
So I can now report with confidence that I have rewatched 5 films, watched 6 films that were new to me and one TV mini-series.
The mini-series was The Queen’s Gambit, which everyone else seems to be watching this month as well. It was a fine recreation of the period and does a good job for promoting chess, and I also liked the way it refreshes the ‘genius’ trope by making it a female genius. But I can’t help but feel it does rely quite heavily on cliches and feels overrated.
The rewatches I cannot be entirely objective about: there is too much sentimental memory attached to them. Yes, Rocky Horror Picture Show may be flawed, but it’s still one of the most fun films I’ve ever seen. Alien remains one of my favourite sci-fi films, both for its threatening atmosphere and for its smart, brave heroine. Tokyo Story and The Apartment are undoubtedly great works of art, while Minghella’s Talented Mr Ripley captures the attractions of expat lifestyle in Italy so well, even though I tend to lose interest after Tom murders Dickie.
The new films were: Inception (possibly one of the most interesting of the Nolan films), Ivan’s Childhood (an early Tarkovsky that already shows his obsessions and beautiful cinematography), I Vitelloni (an early Fellini which makes for a poignant social study) and L’Enfant d’en Haut (an early and depressing Ursula Meier, set partly in Verbier). The film which I liked least this month was Eric Rohmer’s A Good Marriage – it just didn’t seem to have the wit and humour of some of his other work and the main protagonist annoyed me with her obsessive pursuit of a man who is uninterested in her. The film I liked most was Grave of the Fireflies, although it tugged at every single heartstring I had. An anti-war film that does not have to hammer home its anti-war message, but just shows its impact on children.
In the past two years, I’d grown accustomed to October being a rather lovely month, with half-term holidays in Romania with unforgettable road trips, a quieter time at work so more time to go to the theatre or the London Film Festival or simply read. Of course, this year we’ve stayed put and I’ve also been extremely busy at work, as we are hosting a major event in November. So it has felt like the Neverending Month and I can’t believe that the two reading challenges I took part in… were in October and not half a year ago!
10 books, 7 women writers, 1 non-fiction and only two crime!
I only managed to blog twice for the #1956Club (and I read the children’s books back in September, so that doesn’t count), but I really was smitten with Romain Gary’s Roots of Heaven, a book I will almost certainly want to reread at a more leisurely pace. For the #Fitzgerald2020 challenge, I not only read The Gates of Angels, as we had decided on Twitter, but went on to devour two more of her works.
The book that took up most of the month, although I ended up skim-reading parts of it, was Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which I thought very interesting in terms of structure, but a little uneven in terms of execution. I was also a bit disappointed by The Harpy by Megan Hunter, which demonstrated what an agent once rather cruelly said to me: ‘No one is interested in infidelity and the breakdown of other people’s marriages, they all sound the same!’
To my utter surprise, I only read two crime books this month: a light reprieve after an insanely busy day with short Christmassy crime stories from Crimson Snow, and the continuation of Hercule Poirot stories by Sophie Hannah on audiobook – which was not a resounding success for me (the audio experience, I mean, and this in turn may have coloured my experience of the book).
Finally, I tried to do some anticipatory reading for #GermanLitMonth, since I knew I’d be busy with the Young Writer shortlist as well in November. In the end, I posted the review of my only non-fiction read Dear Oxbridge earlier, because it felt more concerned about elucidating England for a German audience than the other way round. My second Marlen Haushofer book Die Tapetentür was a really good experience, something between a third person narrative and a diary, and I can’t wait to review it properly next week.
I may not have written about these events (not enough time), but I was really inspired by the online poetry masterclass run by Liz Berry (and hearing my fellow poets’ work), even though that feels like a lifetime ago (at the beginning of the month). It was also exhilarating hearing Tayari Jones speak at Cheltenham Literary Festival and listening to the readings of talented and charismatic poets such as Jericho Brown, Rachel Long, Raymond Antrobus & Safiya Sinclair at the Manchester Literary Festival.
This last week has been particularly busy with both work and events. I had the pleasure of hearing my dear friend from Geneva days, Carmen Bugan talk about what happened when she put herself into the mind of the oppressor when she started writing a novel. The annual Holden Lecture organised by the Friends of Senate House Library was entitledBulgarian Tendencies: Stories from the Queer Library of Jonathan Cutbill and refers to the rich collection recently bequeathed by Jonathan Cutbill to the library. I was so intrigued by the talk given by Dr Justin Bengry that I immediately bought one of the books he mentioned, Despised and Rejected by Rose Allatani.
The Virtual Noir at the Bar Halloween Special was a sheer delight, featuring readers I’ve long admired such as Ian Rankin (reading a joyous and poignant Rebus monologue), Matt Wesolowski, CJ Tudor and introducing me to new crime and horror writers such as Max Seeck from Finland and Suzy Aspley. You can catch this edition and earlier ones of VNatB in the archives.
Speaking of Rankin, I was in such a tizzy about seeing him in conversation with Bogdan Teodorescu, the author I translated (and will be translating again). They made some interesting comparisons about how the police is viewed in Romania and Scotland/UK, and how there is no way you could write a long series about someone like Rebus in countries where cops are the bad guys. But I was also intrigued to discover that Ian’s first 8-9 crime novels were not huge successes and that he was seriously considering writing in other genres to make ends meet. You can still catch the conversation online on either the Facebook or the YouTube channel of the Romanian Cultural Institute in London.
Finally, I am proud that despite all the work pressures, I managed to carve out a little bit of time for writing and a poetry workshop run by Cecilia Knapp, Young People’s Laureate for London, at UCL on Friday. I really need to get those little creative cogs and wheels oiled and working again, and she was so lovely, enthusiastic and encouraging.
I like the fact that my older son’s love of film has made me watch more films as well, and that I have someone with whom I can discuss them. To my relief, although he has a different taste to mine, he is not pretentious, so it was a pleasure to hear him criticise The Birth of a Nation and mock Eraserhead, which he watched by himself. We watched Selma together, which proved a useful addition to his curriculum for the Civil Rights Movement in the US. He liked The Social Network slightly more than I did, although we both agreed that Mark Zuckerberg always was and will always remain a complete and utter jerk.
I am not as keen on horror films as I used to be in my early teens, but Halloween oblige, so I attempted two. Both of them were more humorous than scary, although there was plenty of gore involved: the Japanese surreal schlocker House and the camp, witty vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, co-written and directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement from New Zealand. The film that proved far more of a horror – because it depicted so accurately the horrors of the pressures and ruthlessness of the business consultancy world I once belonged to – was The Ground Beneath My Feet, which also touched me because of its Viennese references and the tough depiction of mental illness and its effect on others.
Last but not least, I had a little nostalgia fest with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade. I knew of course that the action takes place mainly in Paris, but I’d forgotten that it started in Megève. Made me miss the mountains all the more – and the witty banter and suave charm of someone like Cary Grant in my life.
Overall, a good month of reading: 11 books, of which four were outstanding (Haushofer, Teffi, Kawakami and Melchor), three were very good (Puhlovski, Michele Roberts and Sarah Moss), two were entertaining and two were fine (just not as good as I expected). Unsurprisingly, with it being Women in Translation Month, I read mostly women, Mark Billingham being the sole male writer sneaking in because of the Virtual Crime Book Club.
If you include the Spanish Literature Challenge reads from July and the Tokarczuk which I read in July but did not get to review until August, I’ve reviewed a total of nine books for #WITMonth and they represent a nice diversity of nationalities.
I also had the best experience that can happen to a book blogger, who can sometimes feel they are writing in the dark, spending all their money buying books, then hours on writing fair reviews, only to discover that a handful of people read them. [Always the same handful, usually, and I am very grateful to my constant readers!] But then… Mieko Kawakami actually read and retweeted my review and thanked me for it: ‘Thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing such an insightful, courageous and wonderful review. I am also touched to know that you wrote it in time for my birthday’. I think that will keep me going for another few years in terms of reviewing motivation, for sure!
In between reading and reviewing these more demanding books (ostensibly – I found most of them on the whole pleasant and easy to read), I had some down time with the non-fiction of Michèle Roberts in Negative Capability, a gentle, contemplative and very evocative book about learning to live with uncertainty and even failure, while still enjoying life, and the hilariously accurate and often poignant observation of people on holiday in Summerwater by Sarah Moss (reviews to follow).
I mentioned some of the films I saw in early August, before the boys joined me for my share of the holidays. Since their return, I have watched some of their film choices, as well as mine. Let’s see if you can spot which is which!
Christian Petzold: Barbara (Germany) – captures the chill factor and claustrophobia of East Germany when the Stasi have their eyes on you
Alejandra Márquez Abella: The Good Girls (Mexico) – what to do when the economy of your country is in meltdown, your currency worthless and you still have to keep up appearances – the original ladies who lunch, viewed with biting satire but also some compassion
Almodovar: Live Flesh (Spain) – I love my early (1980s-90s) Almodovar – complex female characters, good-looking young men, and always elements of the past creeping in and tainting the present
Tarantino: Django Unchained (US) – was not expecting this Western approach to the story of slavery (and yes, he does rather glorify violence, but that is Tarantino every single time)
Alejandro G. Iñárritu: Birdman (US/Mexico) – the long, long single shots worked a treat (only found out afterwards how difficult they were for actors and crew to get right) and Michael Keaton, with his own Batman background, was the perfect actor for this part
I’ve just noticed that I’ve had quite a good dose of Mexico this month in both books and films!
Plans for next month – well, what’s even the point of planning, because I don’t seem to stick to any of my plans?
Reading has not been going brilliantly this month, but I was reading that epic novel The Eighth Life. Alongside it, I read four other crime novels, all quick and fun reads, and another chunkster, King of the Crows. Harriet Tyce’s Blood Orange was our Virtual Crime Club read for May and we all agreed that while we didn’t ‘enjoy’ it (the subject matter was too grubby and the characters too unpleasant for that), it was well written and kept us turning the pages. Two British Library Classic Crime titles also provided good entertainment: John Dickson Carr’s Castle Skull was atmospheric but with somewhat two-dimensional characters, while The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons was much better on the psychology (especially of the main protagonist). Finally, Boileau-Narcejac’s Vertigo (D’entre les morts) was far more interesting than the Hitchcock film, given the wartime background and a much more sinister ending.
As for Russell Day’s King of the Crows, it’s almost impossible to write about it. Uncannily and uncomfortably accurate about a pandemic that sweeps across Europe, an enforced lockdown and then the gradual breakdown of society, it also brings in elements of horror and zombie apocalypse. Unbearably graphic in parts, with an interesting fragmented style, switching from straightforward narration to interview recordings to witness statements to film scripts and even graffiti and urban dictionaries. It could have been shortened by a good 20% without losing any of the style or plot (or maybe I was just too exhausted after the even longer Eighth Life doorstopper), but it’s certainly memorable.
Still, only 6 books per month – what is the world coming to? At this rate, I won’t do too well in the 20 Books of Summer readalong, will I?
On the other hand, I’ve been watching more films than I’ve ever done since the boys were born, virtually all of them on Mubi or the occasional classic on DVD or television. 18 films in total this month, so roughly one every two days. I’ve continued the Hitchock discovery with the boys, watching Vertigo and Rear Window this month – so far, Rear Window seems to be their favourite Hitchcock, but we’ve still got a few good ones to go. I also got them to watch Ran, which was visually even more stunning than I remembered and they agreed with me that the scene of the attack on the second castle, with its sudden transition from balletic choreography and background music to the grunts, clashes and gore of battle was magnificent. I watched another Japanese one by myself: Fireworks by Kitano Takeshi – a surprisingly spare yet lyrical depiction of grief, guilt and revenge from someone I thought of mostly as a comedian and game-show host.
Mubi seems to have a lot of French (or Italian) films on at the moment featuring Alain Delon. So I got to admire his youthful good looks in Plein Soleil (he is absolutely perfect as the charming psychopath Tom Ripley), L’Eclisse with a vulnerable Monica Vitti and Losey’s Mr Klein, a Kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucratic error (or is it deliberate?) which I found very moving and frightening. Other French language films included: the noir La Bête Humaineby Jean Renoir (I thought I’d watched it, but it turned out to have been the later American remake by Fritz Lang); two excellent Clouzot films Le Corbeau (which got him accused of collaboration with the Nazis) and Quai des Orfèvres, which start out almost as breezily as Hollywood comedies and then turn very dark; Bunuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid with the sulky, sultry Jeanne Moreau. There was one non-French one in the French language selection – namely Ghost Town Anthology by Quebecois director Denis Côté, which was profoundly creepy and unsettling (and beautifully filmed).
Aside from the French, I was depressed by Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband and Joseph Losey’s Accident, with their cynical portrayals of marriages and flawed ways of loving. I was charmed by two classics which I’ve probably seen many, many times before: Top Hat with the fab duo of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, and the crazy trio of Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. The dialogues in both films are so witty and sparkling, it’s not just the dancing in the first and Marilyn’s charms and singing in the second which have made them firm favourites.
But the two wild cards of the month were perhaps the ones that made me think most. Wadjda, a film from Saudi Arabia by a woman director Haifaa al-Mansour, under its playful, charming surface of a story about a schoolgirl dreaming of buying and riding a green bicycle hides a lot of social commentary about the restrictions placed on girls and women in that country. The other one was a documentary by Joost Vandebrug called Bruce Lee and the Outlaw. Filmed over six years on the streets of Bucharest, it is the story of a homeless boy growing up in the infamous underground tunnels near the main railway station, in an underworld where glue-sniffing, prostitution and petty criminality are rife. Bruce Lee is the self-proclaimed King of the Sewers and often in trouble with the police, but to the young boy Nicu, he is a friend and protector, the only person who shows any interest in him. The fragile yet trusting relationship that the film-maker develops with Nicu is incredibly touching yet the ending refuses to be too hopeful or sentimental.
There were two major online literary events this month.
First, the Big Book Weekend 8-10 May. I listened to Maggie O’Farrell talk about Hamnet. I realised to my astonishment that Robert Webb has written a novel (and that we overlapped for a year in Cambridge – just as well I didn’t try out for Footlights then!). I succumbed to Neil Gaiman’s recommendations on what to read next by Ray Bradbury. I was moved by the poetry of Hafsah Aneela Bashir and charmed by the funny yet militant Marian Keyes. Bernardine Evaristo was every bit as inspirational as I expected her to be. The whole set-up on the MyVLF platform, aiming to replicate the look and feel of a real festival, was brilliant.
The Hay Festival’s online offering was in a more traditional webinar format via Crowdcast or YouTube, but with a lot of live sessions as well. Although I didn’t do it deliberately, I ended up seeing mostly women and mostly on non-literary subjects: Gloria Steinem, Elif Shafak, Miriam González Durántez and a few of the writers from the Europa 28 anthology about how women see the future of Europe. I listened (in two different panels) to Kapka Kassabova from Bulgaria, Caroline Muscat from Malta, Zsofia Bán from Hungary, Leïla Slimani from France, Lisa Dwan from Ireland and Hilary Cottam from the UK. I also attended two non-literary talks given by men: World without Work by David Susskind and A.C. Grayling on democracy and the need for a constitution. I was hoping that my older son might be interested in this talk as well, but we’ll see if he did actually register to it (he wasn’t with me at the time but with his father).
I also finally made it to a Virtual Noir at the Bar meeting on a Wednesday. These are weekly readings by an excellent and varied selection of crime authors (roughtly 7-9 at a time) organised by Vic [@vpeanuts on Twitter]. I got to hear Peter Rozovsky, the co-founder of Noir at the Bar, Sam Carrington, Adele Parks, Fiona Cummins and many more. I really do recommend you sign up to the newsletter and attend their sessions – and you get access to the recordings too if you can’t stay till the end.
Last but not least, I’ve had the pleasure of both a more structured Crime Book Club organised by Rebecca Bradley (we discussed Harriet Tyce’s Blood Orange this month), regular writing and feedback sessions (and a literary quiz!) with my Royal Borough Writers Group, as well as an impromptu Zoom chat about books and the difficulties of reading during a pandemic with a few Twitter and blogger friends. Despite all the nastiness and opinion-giving-when-unasked on social media platforms, I have to say that I’ve found my happy bubble of … I wouldn’t call it like-minded people exactly, because we can disagree quite vigorously about a certain author or novel or book cover or film, but simply a group of people who care about these things as much as I do. No tedium of small talk but straight onto the interesting discussions in life! I haven’t had that kind of intellectual sparring or fencing, that enjoyable cultural chit-chat since high school and university. It has always been delightful to have these conversations, but under lockdown it has been a real life-saver.
April has felt much shorter than March, partly because we are now getting used to our locked down status and are building new routines for ourselves, partly because we had a few days off over Easter. My passion for reading is still not in 100% functioning order, but I’ve tried to just go with the mood and not force myself to persevere or even touch anything that didn’t intrigue me. The 6 days of holidays meant that I managed to read 10 books this month (where oh where are the days when I would devour 16 per month?).
I read three books inspired by the cancelled and much-missed Quais du Polar, although I only managed to review two of them to coincide with the festival, both of them on the topic of international assassins: Deon Meyer and Ayerdhal, an author who lived in Lyon and was very active in the literary community there. Later on, I read Serena by Ron Rash. Although it’s not strictly speaking a crime novel (despite the fact that it’s littered with corpses), I met the author and bought the book in Lyon.
Half of the books I read or am in the course of reading were either in translation or foreign languages: Afrikaans, French, Japanese, Norwegian and German (with a glimmer of Georgian). This month has been quite male author heavy: 7 out of 9 have been men. But it has to be said that the women have been truly unforgettable: Lucia Berlin, Matsuda Aoko and I am currently reading Nino Haratischwili’s The Eighth Life, which will certainly spill into May.
As usual, I find some solace in crime fiction, six of the books were in that genre this month, although I think I might move to subgenres which I’ve neglected in the past, but which now seem enticing, such as historical or cosy crime. I’ve received a batch of British Library reissued classics, and I couldn’t resist diving into one of them, especially after finishing the well-written but emotionally wringing novel by Chris Whitaker We Begin at the End. I wrote about how well they worked as a contrasting pair. I haven’t reviewed the other fun crime novel I read this month because I was planning to air my views at the Virtual Crime Book Club organised by Rebecca Bradley. Sadly, there was some technical confusion and glitch, so I didn’t make it to that meeting: Peter Swanson’s Rules for the Perfect Murder. I’ve been a bit snotty about Peter Swanson’s writing in the past (I reviewed his first book and was not impressed enough to pick up any more of his), but this one was the perfect book for crime and book lovers, packed to the brim with references to classic crime novels and films, an owner who runs a bookshop complete with a bookshop cat. What more could you want? A caper of a novel which reminded me of 1930s films with fast-talking, wise-cracking protagonists.
It feels like more than a month ago when I read Henry James, which could mean that time does pass slowly in confinement, or simply that the classics operate on a different time dimension.
What I have done a lot of this month is watch films, to make good use of my Mubi subscription I suppose. I’ve written a brief recap of some films I’ve watched in a previous post and reminisced about watching the Three Colours trilogy as well. Since then I’ve watched the following:
Melville’s final film Un Flic, starring Alain Delon as an ambiguous goodie this time (a cop with questionable methods and possibly a heart of stone). Drenched in shades of blue, with an unforgettable silent opening scene of the baddies driving along a deserted street in a small town on the Atlantic coast battered by the wind and rain. Very eerie in the current climate.
Eva by Joseph Losey feels a bit dated, but again wonderfully atmospheric shots of an empty Venice, and with a heavy-lidded, snooty-mouthed Jeanne Moreau at the height of her seductive powers.
Knowing my love of skiing and gender wars, it should come as no surprise that I loved Force Majeure by Swedish director Ruben Östlund – what is it about these Swedes observing so closely all the uncomfortable interactions and silences between people? Squirmingly true to life and corrosively funny in parts, as well as claustrophobic, despite the unrealistically empty mountain slopes. (I’m guessing they couldn’t film it during the school holidays.)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire by Céline Sciamma is just so beautiful, so tender, so well observed, every little detail is perfect. For example, the two women address each other with ‘vous’ in even the most intimate moments. There are only two brief instances when they use ‘tu’ and those become all the more significant because of the contrast. Although the Breton coastal landscape is amazing, the scene that most sticks to my mind, is that of the women singing and clapping in rhythm on the beach at night; the words, although hard to make out, are in Latin ‘fugere non possum’, which to me sounds somewhat fatalistically like ‘we cannot flee/escape’. This is, however, what the director of the film had to say about it, which is far more eloquent about the power of love:
They’re saying, ‘fugere non possum,’ which means ‘they come fly,’” said Sciamma. “It’s an adaptation of a sentence by [Friedrich] Nietzsche, who says basically, ‘The higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.’”