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).

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?