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.

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).

Cultural Summary for February

I’ve only just done a quick summary of recently read books, so this time my round-up for February will involve not only books, but also films and theatre.

Reading

Another month of reading aimlessly (and freely). 11 books, of which 2 books about poets and poetry (Charles Simic and Louise Glück), 3 that qualify for #EU27Project (Menasse for Austria – and Belgium?, Sebastian for Romania and Georgi Tenev for Bulgaria). Then there were some easy reads (perhaps slightly too many): Emil, John Boyne, Penelope Lively and Horowitz. There was one disappointment: The Farm had such an interesting premise (surrogate mothers being ‘farmed’ for rich clients) but took far too long to get started and ended rather too abruptly. And there was one that really stood out: Milkman.

Theatre

Two quite political plays this month. The first was The War of the Worlds performed by the Rhum and Clay company at the New Diorama Theatre – a retelling of the H.G. Wells’ novel and the infamous Orson Welles’ radio adaptiation set in the present-day, when a podcaster decides to explore just why people believe all sorts of fake news. Funny, thoughtful and with a bewildering array of accents and characters from a very talented cast.

Photo credit: New Diorama, What’s On.

The second was a National Theatre Live showing at my local arts centre of the new David Hare play I’m Not Running – about political infighting, spin doctors, male sense of entitlement and single-issue campaigning. Sian Brooke as the main character Pauline was vulnerable and touching but a bit shrill at times, while Alex Hassell as her former lover and now political rival Jack was very well cast, appearing at times to be plausible and handsome, and at other times downright ugly and evil.

Films

In preparation for the Oscars night, I caught up on some films, not all of them nominated, and made the most of my Mubi subscription. I saw Roma, which was moving, but a bit too long and self-indulgent (or do I mean self-exculpatory, sentimental?). I reminded myself of the greatness of Spike Lee and his film Do the Right Thing. I was bemused by the arty-fartiness of Livia Ungur’s Hotel Dallas (great concept, poor execution). I was irritated by Vincent Cassel in Black Tide and amused by Hong Sang-Soo’s send-up of the Cannes world in Claire’s Camera. I had a happy reunion with Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities and a troubled encounter with Beautiful Boy, which makes me worry about parenting with just the right amount of support, love and kick in the back. A film that seems to focus more on the beautiful surroundings and house, oddly enough (perhaps in order to show nobody is immune to addiction?), than on the heartbreak, although Timothee Chalamet is absolutely riveting.

Image from Amazon Studios.

So a busy month of cultural events, which somewhat reduced the pain of migraines and ex-spousal bullying. With spring now in the air, perhaps March will prove kinder in all regards.

October 2018 Wrap-Up

This was a month of two halves: a rather humdrum, exhausting first half despite many cultural events, and a relaxing second half spent on holiday. Sadly, neither of the two halves did wonders for my reading: I was either too tired (first part) or too busy sightseeing and talking to people (second part) to read as much as I had planned.

I read no more than eight books, of which three were what one might call compulosry, i.e. for review for Crime Fiction Lover. Only two of them were in translation, and only two of them were by male authors.

Here are the books that I did manage to finish this October:

Sarah Moss: The Tidal Zone Planning to write a longer blog post on the writing and themes of Sarah Moss, so this will be an ongoing project over the next couple of months, to either read or reread each of her books.

Penelope Mortimer: The Pumpkin Eater – as part of the NYRB Fortnight and to fuel my ongoing fascination with mental health

Margaret Millar: Vanish in an Instant – she is a consistently good author of psychological thrillers, always a pleasure to read and reread her

Alex Beer: The Second Rider – translated  by Tim Mohr. A convoluted crime novel set in the poverty-stricken, decaying Vienna following the First World War, tremendously atmospheric. Review to follow on CFL.

Helen Jukes: A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings  I’ve always been obsessed with beekeeping, ever since my great-uncle used to take me as a child to see his hives. This book is more of a personal memoir and enquiry into historical traditions and the folklore of beekeeping. It is also a description of how a human heart can be opened and become receptive to love more generally through the love of bees. Well-written and very enjoyable if you are at all interested in bees.

Murakami Haruki: Killing Commendatore  A whopper of a novel, which I read in just one weekend. I had a bit of a nostalgic fit about Murakami, whom I used to enjoy reading when I was younger, but who has impressed me less in recent years. While this was not entirely a return to form (far too long and repetitive, could have done with judicious editing), it was fun to read, or else I may be influenced by the Don Giovanni and many other cultural references.

Lisa Gabriele: The Winters  The book started well enough as an ingenious retelling of Du Maurier’s Rebecca, with the Mrs Danvers character transformed into a sulky and vicious teenager. Sadly, I felt it became a bit too predictable at the end, with not that much to distinguish it from the current crop of domestic thrillers. Full review to follow on CFL.

JS Fletcher: The Middle Temple Murder  An early crime novel to while away the evenings on holiday. It does show its age a little, but is nevertheless an enjoyable study of journalistic flair, fraud and courtroom shenanigans.

I’ve got stuck in a few books while on holiday, browsing through my parents’ bookshelves.  And bought far too many, causing my children to exclaim: ‘Can you never enter a bookshop and come out empty-handed?’ (I will do a separate post on new acquisitions, as I’d also ordered a fair few, which all arrived while I was away). Predictable consequence: I had to pay for the few additional kilograms of luggage (not just books, but also honey, jam, wine and quinces – the usual stuff that people bring back from home, right?)

Plans for November include of course German Literature Month. I’ve got 5 books ready and waiting on my bedside table, so all I can do is hope that I will get round to reading as many of those as possible.

September Really Was the Start of New Things

When I wrote the August reading summary post, little did I know that September was going to be a month of such considerable changes in my life and reading. It is still early days to fully assess the impact of these changes upon my reading and writing life, but it is clear that my blogging and tweeting will have to take more of a back seat for the time being.

Personal changes

The first major change was that I finally got a full-time job with my professional HR hat, and a much more interesting one than I had dared hope for in this era where immigration law and payroll specialists reign supreme. The job is in Central London, so that adds a couple of hours to my working day. I hope to learn to use my commuting time and lunch hour productively, but it’s still work in progress.

The second piece of extraordinarily good news is that I have been accepted to work as a Marketing Manager for the ambitious and lively international literary journal Asymptote. Since embarking upon my online literary life in 2012, I had always admired the work it does in the field of translations and bringing the world closer together via literature and the arts, but I hadn’t dared to hope that some day I might be involved with it myself. If you haven’t heard of it and if you have any interest in world literature, I would strongly encourage you to take a look. [Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I, now that it’s part of my job!] It includes fiction, poetry, non-fiction, essays, critical reviews, drama and visual arts. It will be challenging to dedicate a few hours each week to this on top of my job, but it will make up for my disappointment in not being able to find a job in publishing. My sanity saver, in a way.

Please remind me I said this when I start complaining I’m going insane with all the work I have to do!

Reading summary

The number of books is not that high but somewhat misleading. I only wrote down one Margaret Millar novel Beast in View, when in actual fact I reread about 5 of them so I could decide which to include in my reassessment of her work for the Crime Fiction Lover’s Classics in September feature.

Other than spending time in the company of the queen of domestic tensions and noir moods, I also read other mostly equally ‘cheerful’ books set in Sardinia, the English countryside, the Bordeaux wine regions, Colombia and Madrid, Bristol, Finland and Australia. A nearly perfect balance this month: 9 books in total, 4 women writers, 5 men, 5 translated.

Margaret Millar: 2 volumes of her complete works in the Syndicate books new edition.

Grazia Deledda: After the Divorce, transl. Susan Ashe – to be reviewed for #EU27Project, even if she was ages before the EU

Laura Kaye: English Animals

Santiago Gamboa: Return to the Dark Valley

Helen Dunmore: Birdcage Walk

Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noel Balen: Requiem in Yquem (Winemaker Detective), transl. Sally Pane

Antti Tuomainen: The Man Who Died, transl. David Hackston – review to come on Crime Fiction Lover, noir slapstick with a poignant undercurrent, also to review for #EU27Project

Richard Flanagan: First Person – review to come on Crime Fiction Lover, although this is not a crime fiction novel by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a haunting psychological cat and mouse game

Eshkol Nevo: Three Floors Up, transl. Sondra Silverston – life in a contemporary Tel Aviv apartment block, to be reviewed for Necessary Fiction

Gratuitous October picture from last year in Geneva

As for my Goodreads challenge to read 120 books this year (I deliberately set it lower than usual, knowing that I would be busy with job hunting and possibly work), I have now read 110 of 120, so am on track to complete it possibly this coming month.

Hello, October, welcome – I look forward to all the challenges you might bring!

 

Monthly Wrap-Up: January 2017

breachJanuary felt like a slow reading month, as too much of my time was caught up with news. However, now that I’m counting, I did not fare too badly. 12 books read, of which 4 translations and 5 by women. I am far, far behind on reviews, however, so for the time being you will have to make do with a single word or phrase.

For review on Crime Fiction Lover:

BA Paris: The Breakdown – predictable

Marc Elsberg: Blackout – disaster movie type

Federico Axat: Kill the Next One – surreal

David Young: Stasi Wolf – surreal in a different way

For #EU27Project:

This is where I stumbled a little, as I have written zero reviews of any of these. I am also having second thoughts about using Arango and Hiekkapelto for Germany and Finland respectively, as there is little local ‘flavour’ in their work (they take place elsewhere). I have been sadly neglectful of adding any links to the #EU27Project page myself, but thank you to all the other book bloggers who have diligently read and reviewed and linked up. So much better than me! I will do better in February, I promise.

gloriousheresiesOlumide Popoola & Annie Holmes: Breach (Peirene Now!) – the refugee camps of Europe – more necessary reading than ever

Sascha Arango: The Truth and Other Lies (Germany) – macabre fun

Kati Hiekkapelto: The Exiled (Finland) – cross-cultural misunderstandings

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies (Ireland) – inventive delight

For fun (and to reduce TBR pile, especially on Netgalley):

outline1Ian Rankin: Rather Be the Devil – reliably entertaining

Stav Sherez: The Intrusions – slightly panic-inducing

Brian Conaghan: The Bombs that Brought Us Together – timely and fresh

Rachel Cusk: Outline – anthropological storytelling at its best

My favourite crime reads this month were The Intrusions and Rather Be the Devil, while my favourite non-crime were Outline and The Glorious Heresies.