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).
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 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.
So we’ve finally reached the last couple of days of a busy, tiring, troubled year. May 2019 be merciful and kind and offer plenty of good reading at least, to distract us from the state of the world!
I’ve tried to hold off until now before making my ‘best of’ list, just in case some really good books that I read in December outweigh and outdazzle all of the others. In actual fact, only two of the December titles were contenders: two books about the war in Yugoslavia.
This is not a Top Ten or Top Twenty or any other systematic way of making a list. It’s simply a listing of all the books that really stood out and a brief quote or explanation to show why.
How could we have changed so much, if everything was still the same? It all seemed too much the same, in fact. I felt nostalgic for time itself… I was no longer the small child who had gone with his father to collect lime blossom, and yet I still was. Something seemed to be within my grasp, and with the right kind of effort, I felt that I might be able to reach out and take hold of it, like a ripe fruit…
Book I Was Most Obsessive About for a While
Lin Manuel Miranda & Jeremy McCarter: Hamilton The Revolution
Between Christmas 2017 and the time we went to see the Hamilton musical in April 2018, I had the soundtrack playing on repeat every single day, and these witty footnotes to the libretto and additional background on how the show came about was just what I needed. (Although I ostensibly bought the book for my son.)
Best Rediscovered Classic
J. L. Carr: A Month in the Country
I believe I can call this one a classic, although it was only written in the 1980s. Set in the 1920s, it has a very restrained, interwar novel feel about it, with a great deal of respect but no mawkish sentimentality for those who’d experienced the Great War. Also, a story of yearning rather than satisfaction, which reminded me of Brief Encounter.
To my complete surprise, it was not a crime novel which had me almost covering my eyes with fear and reading breathlessly, as if by putting this book down, I could endanger the characters in it, but this small, short story of a frustrated mother and a neglected boy on his birthday.
I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain
In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation – if we are really, that is, to achieve out identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.
Best Regional Curiosity
Ödön von Horváth: Tales from the Vienna Woods
Social and class differences, urban vs. countryside contrasts, and the whole atmosphere of Vienna in the 1920s form the backdrop for this not necessarily terribly original story of love, envy, greed, betrayal, disappointment, but which rises to the universality of human experience like Greek drama.
Most Recognisable Situation
Sarah Moss: Night Waking
Scratch a little deeper beneath the amusing surface of modern family life with lively children and not-quite-there husbands, and you get something much deeper: the tension between academia (or any work involving thought and creativity) and motherhood, tensions within a couple, gender inequalities, class and culture differences.
Because it’s snort-out-loud funny, in the whole Fargo back comedy school of writing which I love. Speaking of which, Antti also features in the list below.
Best Crime Fiction
I had to choose my Top 5 Crime Fiction picks of the year for Crime Fiction Lover. Spoiler alert: one of them wasn’t fiction and one of them wasn’t a novel.
Best Book About the Yugoslav War
A topic that I will always, always find fascinating and emotional, so I saw a play and read two books about it this year. My favourite of those is probably Ivana Bodrožić: The Hotel Tito, because it is both a coming of age novel, as well as the story of displaced children.
Two compete for this category and they both still felt chillingly relevant today:
Olmi had already destroyed me with her piercing understanding of mother/child relationships, with all of its tender but also dysfunctional potential, in her masterpiece Beside the Sea. In this novel she returns to this theme, with a mother who is a housekeeper in a posh Parisian apartment with largely absent owners, and her lonely son who is being bullied at school.
This story of an unravelling marriage and mother is just the right combination of funny, ironic, detached, cruel and devastating. A tour de force, hard to believe it was published in 1962, it still feels so modern. You might also want to read this poignant article about Mortimer’s marriage and life. “The outside world identified me as ‘ex-wife of John Mortimer, mother of six, author of The Pumpkin Eater’ [in that order]—accurate as far as it went, but to me unrecognisable.”
First proper day of Spring, apparently, so I thought I would take part once more in what is in fact a weekly (but to me more like monthly) meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.
It’s nice to have friends who write crime fiction, as you have a never-ending supply of books that you want to read. I always make a point of reading the blog posts of Margot Kinberg and Rebecca Bradley, who are keen crime readers as well as writers, so it is an absolute pleasure to delve into their recent releases.
Rebecca Bradley: Fighting Monsters
This is the third book (plus a novella) in the crime series set in Nottingham and featuring DI Hannah Robbins and it’s fair to say that, as the book opens, Hannah has been through the mill. A colleague was killed in action (something she still blames herself for), she herself was wounded, her relationship with an attractive journalist has ended… and now it appears she may have a leak in her own team. How else would gang leader and cop killer Simon Talbot walk away freely and triumphantly after his trial, and in possession of the name of the witness who spoke out against him?
Margot Kinberg: Downfall
This is the fourth novel featuring ex-cop turned professor of criminal justice Joel Williams. In this book Joel is conducting some research with two friends of his into alternatives to prison for young offenders and come across the organisation Second Chance. In one of their schools a young boy died after sneaking out and climbing up a building on a construction site. But if it was merely an unfortunate accident, why is everyone trying so hard to cover it up?
Two rather emotional but very different reads, one slim and concise, taking place over the course of one night, one long and rangey, taking place over several decades and countries.
Hanne Ørstavik: Love, transl. Martin Aitken
The story of a single mother and her young son, both of them dreamers, both of them slightly naive and wanting to believe the best of people, both of them doomed to be forever disappointed. Over the course of one cold night, they roam around town, and your sense of foreboding gets worse and worse. A book that broke my heart a little.
Victor Del Arbol: A Million Drops, transl. Lisa Dillman
It’s being marketed as a crime novel, but it is more of a historical saga of betrayal and revenge, Fascism and Communism, in both Spain and the Soviet Union, as seen through the eyes of individuals who lived through those troubled times. The atrocious conditions of Nazino Island in Siberia were so vividly described that I thought it must be fiction, only to discover that this place really did exist.
I’ll be going to two countries I like very much (despite their -very different – problems) with my next two books: South Africa and Germany.
Karin Brynard: Weeping Waters, transl. Maya Fowler and Isabel Dixon
A young artist and her adopted daughter are brutally murdered on a farm near the Kalahari. But was this just a typical farm attack, or was it something more personal? Townie Inspector Beeslaar has his hands full trying to get his head around this landscape with its tensions, secrets and hostilities.
Ödön von Horváth: Jugend ohne Gott
I so enjoyed rediscovering Horváth in the German section of the library, that I already have my eye on reading another book by him, this time a novel about a teacher who watches, horrified, as his students become enamoured with racist and Fascist ideology.
Oh, dear, all the subjects seem rather grim as I write them up here. Clearly I’m not much of a believer in uplifting, feel-good literature, right?
Quite easy to summarise the last fortnight of cultural events: there were none! The snow spoiled plans to go and watch tango at Sadler’s Wells (but I managed to change the booking for this coming week). The International Women’s Day event organised by the University of London got postponed because of the UCU strikes. I’ve felt pretty run down and tired this week (also fed up with those everlasting financial disagreements with the ex), so I caught the bug that had been doing the rounds at the office, so I’ve cancelled plans for this weekend.
However, I did go to watch Lady Bird at the cinema just before the Oscars. While it was not the greatest film of all time (but then, how many of them are?), it was a rather delightful coming of age story from a girl’s perspective (we’ve watched so many from a young man’s perspective), with a lot of relatable humour, nuanced observation and characters we all remember from high school (the spoilt popular girl, the elusive poseur, the just-a-shade-too-encouraging married teacher etc.) and a fraught mother/daughter relationship which reminded me a little too much of mine. I even wrote a thread about that on Twitter (and I normally never do threads – or at least not more than 2-3 tweets at a time). Maybe I was overthinking it because of the lack of other cultural events.
I did get quite a batch of books to add to my March reading plans though. While searching for something else at the library, I found Ödön von Horváth’s Tales of the Vienna Woods in both German and English and thought I would do one of my ‘closely observed translation study’ of it. Horváth was a true child of the Austro-Hungarian empire and learnt German only in his teens.
If you ask me what is my native country, I answer: I was born in Fiume, grew up in Belgrade, Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and Munich, and I have a Hungarian passport, but I have no fatherland. I am a very typical mix of old Austria–Hungary: at once Magyar, Croatian, German and Czech; my country is Hungary; my mother tongue is German.
Perhaps I can relate to him just a little… For the rest of his brief life, he would write in German – mainly plays, but also essays and novels. He was a keen observer of the absurdities of life and the rise of totalitarianism through indifference and the subjugation of popular culture, especially in the 1930s Germany and Austria. He fled to Paris after the Anschluss of Austria in 1938 and died that same year in a freak accident on the Champs-Elysées. Tales of the Vienna Woods was not only required reading at school, but I also happened to live on the outskirts of town, just about where those woods began, so it felt like he was writing for me. His work is full of quotable moments of flawed humanity:
Actually I’m quite different. But I so rarely have time to show it.
Based on Ann Morgan’s recommendation (it is she who read her way around the world in 2012), I also ordered Tiphaine Rivière’s Tiphaine Carnet de These, a humorous but realistic look at the life of a Ph.D. student. It is now available in English as well (translation by Francesca Barrie) and is a BD, which I really miss. There are comic books and manga available here in England, but it’s not quite the same.
Another local library find was Keigo Higashino’s Journey under the Midnight Sun, which looks seriously chunky, so I will probably have to renew it indefinitely. But you know I can never resist Japanese fiction!
Last but not least, I was sent an interesting crime novel from South Africa (another of my weaknesses), translated from Afrikaans. It is Karin Brynard’s Weeping Waters, translated by Maya Fowler and Isobel Dixon, and to be published by Europa Editions in April.