Reading and Events Summary for January 2020

In addition to my Japanese reading extravaganza past and present, I had a very enjoyable month of reading, which almost made up for the fact that this month must have been at least seven weeks long, filled with school evenings, financial and other administrative matters, anxiety on our close about an attempted burglary and other dreary stuff. I read a total of 12 books, 4 for the January in Japan challenge (of which I only reviewed three), 5 which might be labelled crime fiction (or psychological thrillers, although I am starting to dislike the latter label, which has been overused recently), 5 in translation and 5 off my Netgalley list (I am sooo behind with my reviews there).

Other than books, I also had some more pleasant encounters this month than the ones with my mortgage advisor or bank manager. Here’s a quick summary:

Stranger Things Secret Cinema – It’s become a tradition that for my older son’s birthday on the 1st of January my present is an experience rather than an object. It may or may not be precisely on his birthday but it will fall in his birthday month, to make it slightly more bearable. We really liked watching Stranger Things on Netflix together, especially the first series, so this year we went to an immersive Stranger Things experience with some of his friends, dressed up as a rocker (him) and a New Romantic (me), enjoying 80s music, following a trail of clues and scenes from the series with actor look-alikes, all finishing with a sort of summary of the three series on giant screens.

The Irishman and Little Women – My older son has also become quite a film buff and is forever sharing his list of Top 50 films with me (subject to constant revision, of course, because there are so many of the classics he hasn’t seen yet). He liked both of the films above, but we agreed that Goodfellas is better than The Irishman (and shorter). Personally, although I loved the interpretation of Jo, and the beautiful, painterly backdrops and colours of Little Women, I didn’t fall quite as much in love with it as I was expecting.

Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter Theatre was a marvellous mix of frustration, seething resentments, luxuriously decaying scenery and excellent actors. Toby Jones was surprisingly good as Vanya (not because he is not a wonderful actor, but because I had a more louche, younger-looking Vanya in mind), while Aimee Lou Wood as Sonya broke my heart a little with her wide-eyed, coltish naivety. Above all, I liked the way the humour and bad behaviour was brought to the forefront, which is not always the case. Most adaptations of Chekhov are unbearably gloomy. Another thing which felt fresh was the prominence given to the doctor’s discourse about the loss of the forest, not just the demise of an old way of life but an actual environmental disaster.

Poetry Class – I trekked over to Chiswick to attend a Coffee House Poetry class with Anne-Marie Fyfe on the topic of homes and houses. Having lived in something like 20-30 houses throughout my life, you can imagine that I have a huge untapped reservoir there for poetic inspiration. The class (first of two, second to follow shortly) was full of talented and supportive people, and we were given challenging but interesting homework until next time. Now all I need to do is actually write… if I can find time for it…. What was the name of my blog again? Nothing’s improved in the past 8 years, then!

Meeting old school friends

At some point during our time there, the English School Vienna became the Vienna International School. For most of us, it was one of the happiest times of our lives, so of course we love meeting up after so long! Three of us girls were The Three Musketeers, while the others were the ‘annoying’ younger sisters or the ‘annoying boy’ who wanted to hang around with us. All very much loved and appreciated now, of course.

Making new blogging friends – I got to go to Uncle Vanya thanks to the lovely Aliki Chapple, whom I’d been chatting with occasionally on Twitter, so it was a great pleasure to meet her in real life. We share some common Greek experiences, as well as a passion for theatre (although in her case it is far more professional than mine). I also got to meet an old Twitter acquaintance Amateur Reader Tom, who was visiting London with his wife, an academic interested in both French and German history and literature. I introduced them to my favourite Greek restaurant near work and we chatted about France, Britain and the Quais du Polar (Tom lived in Lyon for a while). In future, I should make all my friends via Twitter or blogging, because after a few years of exchanging ideas about books, films and cultural events, you have so much more in common than you do with people you encounter randomly as neighbours or parents at school.

One other thing that has taken up virtually all of my ‘spare’ time this month, which has been as urgent as my admin (but nothing like as dreary) has been translation work. But more about that in a short while! Lots of exciting news coming up in this respect!

Plans for next month? What country should I ‘attack’ next? Since I am so busy translating myself, I actually want to read things written in English (because I seem to have forgotten all the slang and natural sounding expressions in English while translating), so I think I will opt for some English, Scottish, Irish and perhaps American memoirs and essays. I’ve already started with Deborah Orr’s Motherwell, while Janice Galloway, Kathleen Jamie, Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers and Maggie Gee have been waiting far too long on my shelves.

November 2019 Summary

November has not been the best month for a happy reading frame of mind. Budgets and hassles and events to put on at work. French exchange student to host and ferry around. Court case stress, a settlement that leaves me teetering on the edge of poverty and a growing realisation that a financial settlement does not mean an end to bullying by the ex. So I might be excused for finishing just five books this month, of which only one was a #GermanLitMonth (or Germans in November) read, and abandoning a couple of others.

I needed a change from my usual rather dark reading fare and escaped in the pages of two ‘feel-good’ reads: The Star of Lancaster from Jean Plaidy’s series on the Plantagenets (featuring mostly Henry IV and V) and the sly irony of The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao by Martha Batalha (review to follow imminently).

For German Lit Month, I read the moving blend of History and herstory which is Julia Franck’s Mittagsfrau. I then got a chance to see the author in a lively event at the British Library celebrating the launch of the Riveting Germans magazine and 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The remaining two books were by the same author; I read them with a professional editorial eye, to see which might be most suitable for translating and publishing in the UK and the US. Two very different books by the talented and versatile author Bogdan Teodorescu: a domestic noir entitled Liberty and a political thriller about the sudden death of an investigative journalist Nearly Good Lads (English titles to be confirmed).

There was one further literary event this month, which filled me with a rosy glow of contentment for at least a few days, namely the charity Write-A-Thon in Windsor, which allowed me to spend a whole day reminding myself just why I love writing so much, in the company of other passionate writers.

Finally, in the last two days of the month, I managed to squeeze in two plays. Stray Dogs at the Park Theatre is a drama about the choices faced by Anna Akhmatova during Stalinist times – will she collaborate with the ruthless autocrat in order to save her son? Sadly, Akhmatova’s son never forgave her, believing that she cared more about her poetry than for him and that she had not worked hard enough for his release.

The poster for the 1979 Maximilian Schell film rather predicts the finale…

The second play is another not so cheery but reliable stalwart from my Viennese life: Tales from the Vienna Woods by Horvath, performed by this year’s final year students at RADA. The jaunty background music and farcical moments contrast with the rather stark messages around women trying to survive in a patriarchal, Catholic world.

October Reading Summary

I’ve had quite a few days of holiday this month, but somehow my plans to spend them mostly reading didn’t quite work. Nevertheless, this is the month that I’ve reached (and overtaken) my Goodreads challenge of 120 books, so it’s not all bad.

9 books read, 7 of them were for a particular purpose, while two were just to relax. Only three of them by women, and a total of six in translation. Here were the reading targets I set for myself:

1930Club – a reread of a classic of Romanian literature and a sobering look at the First World War – Camil Petrescu

Orentober – Orenda Book authors, with two dark and twisted tales from Antti Tuomainen and Will Carver

Swiss in October – my own attempt to read thematically by geography every month, with three Francophone writers and one Allophone writer. From physical bank robbers in Basel to corrupt businesses in Lausanne, from feeling alien in LA to reacting to ‘aliens’ in canton Vaud.

Finally, the two that were just for relaxation, commuting or travelling by plane were: How It Was by Janet Ellis – a rather piercing portrait of family dynamics in the 1970s and rivalry between mother and daughter; and Tammy Cohen’s They All Fall Down, set in a psychiatric clinic, yet miles away from All Dogs Are Blue, for instance.

November is German Literature Month, so instead of allowing Indonesia, the Middle East or Canada to beckon to me, I will probably linger in Europe for just a little longer.

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).