May 2021 Reading and Watching

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.

Books

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)

Literary Events

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.

February 2021 Summary

Books

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.

Films

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…

Annual Summary: Classic Reads

This year I felt the need to find comfort in the classics, some of them new, some of them rereads, and some classics I had previously attempted and abandoned. My definition of classics is quite broad, so you will find both 19th and 20th century books in here, and from all countries. 28 of my 127 books were classics of some description (29 if you count The Karamazov Brothers, which I’m currently reading and hope to finish by the start of January), and 17 of those will be mentioned below – which just goes to show that the ‘success rate’ is much higher with the classics.

Ueda Akinari: Ugetsu Monogatari – it’s been a pleasure reacquainting myself with these very Japanese ghost stories, even though some of them made me furious at the classist and sexist assumptions of the time.

Marghanita Laski: Little Boy Lost – utterly heartbreaking and very thoughtful story of parenthood but also a moving portrait of post-war France, one of my favourite Persephones so far

Thomas Bernhard: Woodcutters – I sometimes find Bernhard a bit much to take in, too grumpy, but this book is so good at poking holes in the Viennese literary and artistic pretentiousness, that I laughed nearly all the way through

Henry James: The American – one of the few James that I’d never read, an earlier one, and much lighter, frothier and funnier than I remembered him

Machado de Assis: Dom Casmurro – another grumpy old man reminiscing about his life, like Bernhard, and another tragicomic masterpiece

Shirley Hazzard: The Bay of Noon – another portrait of a post-war European city, and a strange little love story, full of subtle, skilled observations

Elizabeth von Arnim: The Caravaners – if ever there was a book to distract you from lockdown, this is the one. Hilarious, sarcastic, and reminding you that a bad holiday is worse than no holiday at all!

Dorothy Canfield Fisher: The Home-Maker – an ingenious role reversal story from Persephone, thought-provoking and surprisingly modern

Barbellion: Journal of a Disappointed Man – courtesy of Backlisted Podcast, I reacquainted myself with this diary of a complex character, struggling to be courageous, often self-pitying, and usually ferociously funny

Marlen Haushofer: The Wall – simply blew me away – again, perfect novel about and for solitary confinement

Teffi: Subtly Worded – ranging from the sublime to the absurd, from angry to sarcastic to lyrical, tackling all subjects and different cultures, a great collection of journalistic and fictional pieces

Defoe: Journal of the Plague Year – such frightening parallels to the present-day – a great work of what one might call creative non-fiction

Romain Gary: Les Racines du ciel – not just for those passionate about elephants or conservationism, this is the story of delusions and idealism, colonialism and crushed dreams, appropriation of stories and people for your own purposes

Penelope Fitzgerald: The Gate of Angels – both very funny and yet with an underlying sense of seriousness, of wonder – and of course set in my beloved Cambridge

Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front – even more heartbreaking when you reread it at this age

Liviu Rebreanu: The Forest of the Hanged – Dostoevsky meets Remarque meets Wilfred Owen, a book which never fails to send shivers down my spine

Anton Chekhov: Sakhalin Island – possibly the greatest revelation of the year, alongside Defoe. Stunning, engaged writing, and so much compassion.

What strikes me looking at all of the above is how many of these books that I naturally gravitated towards this year are all about showing compassion and helping others, about the bond with the natural world, about not allowing yourself to despair at the horrors that human beings bring upon themselves. I’ve been thinking about that mysterious gate in the wall of the college, and how it opened at just the right time – and that’s what all these books have allowed me to do. They’ve provided me with the perfect escape and encouragement whenever I needed them most. If you’ve missed my crime fiction round-up, it is here. I will also do a contemporary fiction round-up after Boxing Day.

I wish all of you who celebrate Christmas as happy a time as possible under the circumstances. I’ll be back before the start of the New Year with some further reading and film summaries, but until then, stay safe and healthy, all my love from me to you!

November Reading and Film Summary

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.

Books

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.

Films

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.

October Reading and Cultural Summary

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!

Reading

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.

Literary Events

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 entitled Bulgarian 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.

Films

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.

September Reading Summary

Once again, I am jumping the gun a little with my September reading summary, as I don’t think I’ll have time to squeeze anything more in that isn’t intended for next month.

My reading got a little aimless and desultory during September, after a few really good months with very high-quality books. I struggled to really immerse myself in these books, which might explain why I’ve judged them more harshly than usual. There were two that really stood out for me, however, and for very different reasons. Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year was stark, gripping and revelatory, while Alison Anderson’s The Summer Guest was wistful, dreamy and transported me to a better time and place.

On paper, I have read ten books, but two of those were very short indeed: a children’s book (Little Old Mrs Pepperpot, which I’m reading for the #1956Club) and a book of cartoons about the challenges of wearing a hijab in a Western country Yes, I’m Hot in This by Huda Fahmy. So, in reality, I have read eight books, of which two in translation. The Englightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar was interesting in its ‘stories within stories’ structure and truly beautifully written in parts, but rather hard reading in terms of subject matter. Also, I’ve never been a huge fan of magical realism, but I can certainly see the point of it to describe – and make bearable – the atrocities perpetuated here. Book burning, rape, torture, death and ghosts everywhere you look.

I was searching for comfort reads this month above all, but in truth found even the tried and tested categories of crime/suspense fiction a bit hard to click with. Stina Jackson’s The Silver Road seemed to howl with dreary loneliness and isolation. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters had far too many pages about that boring English class system to make up for the few genuine moments of ghostly frisson. Even Doug Johnstone, who’s proved a reliable writer for me in the past, did not quite win me over with A Dark Matter – probably because I was expecting it to be black comedy in the style of Antti Tuomainen. While I enjoyed Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land probably far more than Jonathan Coe’s Middle England as a depiction of current English society (it was stuffed to the gills with sharp, witty observations of gender relations and family tensions), it did all go unnecessarily bonkers towards the end with the murder mystery part of it.

So that leaves Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession, which so many assured me was the perfect sweet, gentle book for these troubled times. I have to admit I was reading it the weekend Barney died, and it was probably the only book I could possibly have read during that time. It was indeed a placid, even-tempered book with decent characters and touching interactions, people being kind and helpful, or at the very least apologising when they get things wrong. A little too sweet for my taste, perhaps, as I was constantly expecting someone to go amok, commit fraud or murder someone, but I liked its humour and the non-judgemental relationship between the two friends. It almost makes you believe in a nicer world – and don’t we all need a hope like that?

So I apologise for my general grumpiness this month. It’s been a very busy one at work, an emotionally gruelling one, an anxious one with the boys going back to school and no seeming respite from grim news worldwide. Next month, with Penelope Fitzgerald and Romain Gary to steady my ship, I hope to have a more pleasant tale to tell.

 

 

Reading Summary for July 2020

Posting this a little early, because I haven’t got the mental capacity to write reviews today (and I owe at least three).

I’ve read 10 books this month, despite being very busy at work once again. I’m alternating my #SpanishLitMonth (and anticipating #WomeninTranslation Month as well) with comfort (i.e. holiday) reading. My reading took me all over the world, and most of the books (80%) were written by women, half of the women writers were in translation. I’ve also read quite a few books from my #20BooksofSummer list – 18, but only reviewed 15 of them.

I discovered a new to me author that people on Twitter seem to be raving about: Sarah Waters (I slung down Fingersmith within 24 hours and have already reserved some other books by her from the library). I also discovered the Abir Mukherjee crime series set in 1920s India, which I want to read more of.  I was very happy to be reunited with Eva Dolan, whose crime fiction I adore. I finally got to read Olga Tokarczuk again and she did not disappoint, she is rapidly becoming a firm favourite. I was moved and surprised by The Home-Maker, which still feels remarkably contemporary. I reread Barbellion with less of a giggle and more sympathy for his predicament than I did in my brash teens. I was fascinated by the passionate, experimental fiction of the South American women writers, but disappointed by the ‘society pages/lifestyle magazine’ style of Fleishman Is in Trouble, although it contained some clever observations about marriage and divorce.

Holiday reading:

A Rising Man – set in India

Between Two Evils – set in Peterborough

Fingersmith – London and Marlow (near Maidenhead – surprisingly)

Fleishman Is in Trouble – New York City

Journal of a Disappointed Man – largely London

The Home-Maker – small-town America

Spanish Lit Month:

Liliana Colanzi – Bolivia

Margarita Garcia Robayo – Colombia

Lina Meruane – Chile

Women in Translation Month (anticipating):

Olga Tokarczuk – Poland (and Czech border)

Plans for the month of August – what else but Women in Translation? I am continuing with my Latin Americans – Ariana Harwicz awaits, plus Teffi, Tove Jansson’s Letters, Marlen Haushofer, Svetlana Alexievich and more. I’ve also ordered a few more books from the library for easy reading, so that should keep me out of mischief. Only two more books and I am free of any #20BooksofSummer constraints! Plus, I plan to dedicate a lot more time to writing.

 

 

Summary of June Reading And Other Good Things

June has always been my favourite month – lots of hours of daylight, my birthday, my younger son’s birthday, my older son’s nameday, and in my childhood it used to mark the end of school (no longer the case nowadays). So we had a lot of cake, and even a few drinks with online friends and even with real, grown-up friends in actual flesh, in my garden, in strategically placed chairs. What more could you want?

Books

I really do believe I might have finally found my reading mojo which had been missing in action for months. I read 13 books this month (well, 12 to be precise, because one of them was a DNF, as mentioned below). Unusually for me, only four of the 13 books were translations, while ten were by women writers. Two were poetry collections, which require more attentive reading and rereading, but are shorter.  Of course, I still have to catch up with reviews. But here is what I have reviewed thus far, in case you missed it:

I was very pleased with myself that 11 of those were from my #20Books of Summer list! In fact, the only two exceptions were my Virtual Crime Book Club read (Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton) and a sort of in-memoriam read upon hearing of the death of Carlos Ruiz Zafon. The Shadow of the Wind has been enthusiastically recommended by so many people, and the theme of books and mystery and historical connections made me think I would love it. Sadly, this was the book I did not finish. I did give it a good thorough try: 246 pages, after which I realised I was finding it a bit of a slog, was never keen to get back to to it and I was in danger of losing my reading va-va-voom once more. The first few chapters were fun, but it all became a bit too sentimental, too repetitive, too clicheed and I lost interest in the characters and the big mystery.

Films

Since my last round-up of films, I’ve watched a few more, all coincidentally with a ‘fish out of water’ theme.

Toni Erdmann – In addition to the often very funny cringeworthy moments and the painful father/daughter relationship, I thought this was an astute look at capitalism and corporate culture taking over both individual and national cultures. It felt like Maren Ade did an excellent job in understanding the endless patience, hospitality and desire to please the foreigners (no matter how crazy they might seem) of the Romanian people with which the main German characters interact.

The Past – Having previously been mesmerised (and saddened) by Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, I thought it would be nice to follow it up with another of his films currently available on Mubi. A moving portrayal of relationship breakdown and family dynamics with only a light touch of cross-cultural misunderstandings, I was especially impressed by the child/teen actors.

The Shining – a rewatch with the boys, who don’t like horror films but quite like Stanley Kubrick. I haven’t read the book, but I understand why Kubrick made some changes in the script – and made it more psychological rather than supernatural.

Animal Crackers – struggle with this one, it just wasn’t to my taste. I never quite ‘got’ the humour of the Marx brothers as a child – always preferred Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy or Bourvil. And I clearly still don’t get on with it as a grown-up. There were a handful of witty repartees which I enjoyed, but not quite enough to make the film worthwhile.

Other Events:

Given my new incarnation as a literary translator who is going to be doing more than just the occasional one-off project, it’s not surprising that I’ve been keen to keep up with the very welcoming and utterly fascinating, cosmopolitan translation community. In addition to attending the Borderless Book Club and hearing translators and publishers talk about their choices, I have also attended some events aimed at translator audiences.

Translation Theory Lab – discussion with Kate Briggs, author of This Little Art. 

Daniel Hahn, Katy Derbyshire, Arunava Sinha talking about their current projects and changes to their routines during the Covid crisis, hosted by the Society of Authors

The W.G. Sebald Lecture given by David Bellos – in which he dispelled what he called the ‘myths of translation’, which are a combination of wishful thinking and confirmation bias, and ultimately not that helpful to translators.

Plans for July:

I am planning to read a lot of Women in Translation for August, and thought I might start a bit early, to combine with Stu Jallen’s Spanish Literature Month (which includes Latin American literature). I’ve got Ariana Harwicz (Argentina), Lina Meruane (Chile), Liliana Colanzi (Bolivia) and Margarita Garcia Robayo (Colombia) on the TBR pile.

 

Weekly Summary of Books and Films

Attention span bandwith continues to be quite limited, so, although I’ve been on my own this past week (until last night) and therefore had less of a responsibility for cooking, checking schoolwork and entertaining, I’ve not done an awful lot of reading or writing. Instead, I’ve been hopping and skipping between books and films, abandoning anything that doesn’t fully grab me or that feels wrong at this moment in time.

Films and TV

  1. Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate (dir. Kawashima Yūzō) is quite a broad farce, very commedia dell’arte or slapstick in its physicality. Set in a three-storey brothel which is a microcosm of Japanese society in the dying days of the Tokugawa period, it’s ostensibly the story of a lazy good-for-nothing who incurs a huge debt at the said brothel and therefore has to remain there to work it off. In fact, it is a great satire about virtually all of the ‘proud Japanese traditions’ (samurai, geishas, honour, filial piety) that tends to put forward as truly representative of Japan. The film was made in the early 1950s and was no doubt a comment on the ‘proud Japanese traditions’ which had led to the Second World War, as well as the hypocrisy about prostitution, corruption and financial greed. Wonderfully funny, a great palate cleanser in these worrying times.
  2. Bacurau (dir. Mendonca Filho and Dornelles) is a very recent film about Brazil and its corruption at both local and national government levels. This is satire with a very sardonic bite. It has a Hunger Games or Get Out type of premise: foreigners being shipped in to a remote area of Pernambuco, paying  for the fun of hunting real people. But they haven’t reckoned with the indomitable fighting spirit of the inhabitants of the village of Bacurau. The gradual reveal of the exhibition housed in the village museum is one of the highlights of the film for me personally, but I felt that more could have been made of the socio-political situation and the repulsive local mayor clamouring for re-election.
  3. Le Cercle Rouge (dir. JP Melville) I’m not a huge fan of heist movies, but there is a bit of a Jean-Pierre Melville retrospective on Mubi and this has been hailed as probably the best French heist movie, although I for one would argue that Rififi deserves to be on at least level pegging. It has been particularly celebrated for its nearly 30 uninterrupted minutes of silent heist sequence, but I personally preferred the build-up at the start of the film.
  4. Autumn Sonata (dir. Ingmar Bergman) – prepare to have your hearts broken, if you’ve ever been a daughter or a mother or both. Flawless performance by the two leads, although I did think that Swedish families are much less likely (perhaps unrealistically so?) to interrupt each other’s introspective speeches. And this quote just killed me:

A mother and a daughter – what a terrible combination of feelings and confusion and destruction. Everything is possible and everything is done in the name of love and solicitude.

Abandoned: Devs; Twins – the high-concept, intriguing premise of the first and the beautiful backdrop of the second were not enough to keep me fully engaged with the rather far-fetched plots.

Books

Still struggling to focus on my reading rather than on Twitter, so I used several different ‘tricks’ to get me to fall in love with books again: I turned to the classics and tried a novel by Henry James which was much easier and frothier than I had expected, I co-read Serena with several other book reviewers to compare reactions and notes and I turned to lighter (not cosy, but more puzzle-type) murder mysteries such as The Iron Chariot by Stein Riverton (hailed as the first Norwegian crime fiction novel) and Peter Swanson’s Rules for Perfect Murders, which is the first novel we will be discussing for our virtual crime book club that is rising up again from the ashes. For more information about the book club organised by crime author Rebecca Bradley and to express your interest in participating, go here.

Abandoned: the rereading of The Ambassadors (one Henry James per month is enough); Maureen Freely: Mother’s Helper (quite fun social observation but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere); Paul Auster’s Timbuktu (maybe some other time, just wasn’t in the mood to read about a pet fretting about his master dying right now); Gerald Murnane’s Tamarisk Row – I’ve heard so many good things about this, but it was a little too depressing for my mood right now.

 

 

March 2020 Summary

Miserable. That’s it. The one word summary.

In fact, I should be grateful, because for me it hasn’t been too bad. I am not one of the brave and dedicated frontline key workers that I so much admire and whom we all depend on for what semblance of a normal life we still have: medical staff, pharmacists, supermarket workers, delivery drivers, public transport, utilities providers and of course teachers.

All I had to worry about, for the three weeks until the actual lockdown was my children still going to school (one of them on the train), and me bringing the disease back into the house, with my commute to London and having my office in a very public building which only closed down on the 20th of March. Of course, I also worry about my parents right at the other end of Europe, stuck in the capital city rather than in their house in the countryside (on the other hand, the hospitals are closer and better equipped in Bucharest), both with underlying health conditions and both approaching 80 very soon. Like any recently divorced parent with a very acrimonious financial settlement that is still hugely resented by the ex, I do worry about the possible practical consequences of me falling seriously ill. I may need to get in touch with a solicitor friend of mine and make a will.

Other than that: I’m used to food shortages, to curtailment of liberties, to being essentially under house arrest… it brings back memories of my childhood. Not fond ones, no: I have no ‘stiff upper lip and carry on’ nostalgia. But I know that we survived those times (some less gloriously than others), so I’m hopeful we can survive this. My boys are fortunately old enough to keep themselves occupied whether the school assigns a lot of work or not. We have adopted a new feline member of the family, sweet, elderly Barney, and we are busy trying to get our ‘only child’ Zoe to accept him.

However, my reading and writing have both dwindled considerably. Not only because I am extremely busy with work during the week and feel exhausted all the time. Not only because of the bouts of insomnia which continue to plague me (and probably everybody else at the moment). Almost certainly because I am scrolling helplessly and fruitlessly on my phone for far too long, but also because I find it difficult to concentrate on anything for longer than half an hour. Add to that the fact that WordPress has decided now is the right time to make changes to their writing and formatting of blog posts and a general sense of feeling ‘what’s the point’, and you can understand why I’ve not even updated my blog regularly.

If I look back at March, however, there have been some lovely moments which seem to be as far away now as if we were seeing them through the wrong end of a telescope. On the 1st of March, I was fortunate enough to see the kimono exhibition at the V&A and on the 11th of March the exhibition on the portrayal of pregnancy in art at the Foundling Museum. I also attended an immersive adaptation of The Time Machine on the beautiful premises of the London Library and reviewed the show just a week or so before it shut down. I’d probably have delayed going to see all of these if I hadn’t been jolted by others. Moral of the story: never put off things you enjoy doing because you ‘don’t have time right now’.

The London Book Fair was cancelled, but I had a meeting on the 11th with my fellow Corylus Books founders and we discussed plans for publishing and promoting books this year and the next. It is possibly the worst time to launch a new publishing house and bring out books in translation by authors that nobody has heard of (yet). We also have problems with the actual printing and distribution of physical copies. So, much as I hate having to link to Amazon, this is the only way to find the two books we already have out now. Perhaps later in the year we will be able to attend all those crime festivals and organise all those book launches that we had planned.

Zodiac by Anamaria Ionescu
Living Candles by Teodora Matei

 

Last but not least, I did read eleven books, and most of them have been of the lighter, more escapist variety, with quite a bit of armchair travelling.

Crime fiction:

Will Dean: Black River Tuva Moodyson is back in forlorn Gavrik in the north of Sweden at the height of Midsommar madness to try and find her missing friend. With a full cast of dodgy characters, including snakes, the author proves that the Swedish forests can be creepy regardless of the season.

Graeme Macrae Burnet: The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau Set in a sleepy provincial town on the Franco-Swiss border, not far from Strasbourg, this too is a creepy tale of loners, outsiders and personal obsessions.

David Young: Stasi 77 A series that I’ve really enjoyed, but somehow missed reading this particular book. The links to the end of the Second World War and hidden Nazis operating within the East German state were particularly harrowing (and historically accurate, although I wasn’t previously aware of it). Perhaps my favourite of the series thus far.

Murder in Midsummer  A collection of stories set in holiday locations (not always in summer, despite the title). Mostly famous authors, with lesser known stories. As always with such a collection, some of the stories are better than others, but overall a fun book to dip into.

Rebecca Bradley: A Deeper Song  DI Hannah Roberts is back with a bang and a sharp squeal of the brakes. Preoccupied by family problems, she nearly runs over a young man who darts out in front of her car. He is covered in someone else’s blood but cannot tell them anything, as the accident has provoked a temporary (?) amnesia. Soon Hannah herself is in danger and her team need to gather all of their wits and collaborative skills to find her.

Margot Kinberg: A Matter of Motive  A start of a new series by American author Margot Kinberg, featuring rookie murder investigator Patricia Stanley. A man is slumped over the steering wheel of his car, apparently the victim of a heart attack. Or was it? Both family and co-workers seem to have plenty of things to hide, although they keep emphasising what a nice guy Ron Clemons was.

Other:

Debbie Harry: Face It  She does not mince her words, does she? The beautiful, rebellious, cool as anything singer reveals as much as she damn well pleases in this memoir, including her vulnerabilities. Still an icon.

Malorie Blackman: Knife Edge  Second book in the Noughts and Crosses series, which I read to coincide with the TV adaptation. Such an interesting concept, although I did find the writing aimed at a younger audience than me.

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust  I was smitten with the original trilogy but only got a chance to read this prequel now. An exciting story, even if we know the final outcome (that baby Lyra did end up safely at Jordan College). Above all, I like the rich descriptive, yet never dull style, which offers something for both adults and younger readers.

Tiffany Tsao: The Majesties  The story of a rich Indonesian family of Chinese descent, with a mass murder from the outset and a smidgen of science-fiction added into the mix. A wonderful book – about families, the lies we tell each other and tell ourselves, the differences between perceptions of the Chinese in the east and in the west… and about insects.

David Foenkinos: The Mystery of Henri Pick  An unexpectedly light and humorous offering by Foenkinos, satirizing the pretentiousness of the Parisian literary society. Could a pizza maker who never was seen reading a book truly have written an almost perfect novel? Erudite, charming, delightful.

Meanwhile, if you find my reading concentration anywhere, do let me know, won’t you? As you can see, I have a whole pile of books planned for April!