#6Degrees of Separation, September 2019

Literature is the only thing lighting up our lives at the moment (and music and art etc.), so of course I am here, even though a little bit late, for that fun monthly meme of Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we start with A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, which I haven’t read but which sounds very interesting, about a Russian count placed under house arrest for seditious beliefs.

Another book about someone under arrest is I Will Never See the World Again by Ahmet Altan, one of the many Turkish writers imprisoned by Erdogan’s oppressive regime. I gather the book was smuggled out of his prison cell, as were his notes to the translators of his historical family saga novel series, of which I’ve read the first Like a Sword Wound.

One book with the word sword in the title that we all read at school in my childhood was The Silver Sword by Ian Seraillier, about a family separated by war and involving a dramatic escape across Europe from Poland into Switzerland.

Switzerland is the common thread linking to the next book by someone I met while I lived in Geneva (but whose book I’d been using long before I met him for intercultural training) Diccon Bewes: Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Honey. Revealing, and often very funny.

The same principle applies to Watching the English by Kate Fox, except that Kate is an anthropologist rather than a journalist, so she tries to analyse certain patterns via surveys and fieldwork rather than just through analysis of media, history and personal observation.

My last link is to another author named Kate, namely Kate Atkinson. My favourite book by her (not that I’ve read them all) is her first: Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

So we had a super-fast tour of Moscow, Turkey, Poland, Switzerland, England and Yorkshire (which sometimes feels like a different country). Where will your links take you this month?

Six Degrees of Separation: August Wild Card

I only take part intermittently in the Six Degrees of Separation meme, but it’s one of my favourite monthly reading challenges. This month the starting point for the logical chain of six books is the last book you posted in the July chain. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to take part in the July chain, although I loved, loved, loved reading Where the Wild Things Are to my children (complete with singing, howling and dancing for the wild rumpus). So I will start instead with the last one in June, which was I, Claudius by Robert Graves.

Robert Graves was great friends (and possibly more) with Siegfried Sassoon, when they were both officers in the same regiment during the First World War. So for my first link I picked Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, which I read and hugely enjoyed in my youth, when I was craving to come to England to study and dreamt that I would be riding all day (thanks, pony books) and sailing (thanks, Swallow and Amazons), while visiting friends in amazing country piles (yep, Brideshead Revisited). Of course, the real England was nothing like that when I did move over here, but I can completely see the nostalgia element and appeal in Sassoon’s work (a bit like Le Grand Meaulnes).

The fantastic Quentin Blake illustrating Roald Dahl

Of course, fox-hunting is horrible, so my next pick is a fox that gets its revenge on humans: Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl. Dahl himself was a difficult man, but I loved his books when I was a child, he certainly got my own children reading and we all loved visiting his house at Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire.

Another Buckinghamshire literary light was John Milton, who lived in Chalfont St Giles for a short while (trying to escape the plague in London) and completed Paradise Lost there. I’ve tried and tried to read Milton, but have never been able to struggle through the whole of his paradises.

Another book I’ve never been able to read all the way through, although I hugely enjoyed parts of it, is Don Quixote by Cervantes. Yes, I know, it’s a damning confession to make. I do like the ballet choreographed by Marius Petipa, though, if that counts.

Petipa also, more famously, choreographed (or helped Lev Ivanov to do so) The Nutcracker, which is based on a short story by ETA Hoffmann. Although the ballet is regularly performed as a feel-good Christmas special, in Hoffmann’s hands it was much darker (like all of his ambiguous stories).

Finally, as we all know, Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is a sad tale of a woman being betrayed by a man and yet sacrificing herself for him. Far removed indeed from the Disney version – and I have the feeling the upcoming live action remake is not going to touch these darker aspects either.

So this month we’ve undertaken a journey from Ancient Rome to Buckinghamshire, from paradise to Spain, Russia (or thereabouts) to Denmark. A great pleasure, as always, to take part in this. Where will your 6 connections take you?

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.

Busy Week of Events

Another very busy week, both at work and at home. I’ve decided to take things one week at a time, while still planning a little ahead, because otherwise I might get overwhelmed. However, it’s been a week full of pleasant events.

Nahnatchka Khan (director), Ali Wong, Randall Park (co-creators and main actors) and Keanu Reeves

I managed to see two fun films: The Favourite, on DVD from the library, because I’d missed in cinemas (it was only very briefly on, despite the Oscar win of Olivia Colman), and Always Be My Maybe on Netflix. The latter cheered me up no end: a rom com with a difference; hugely believable and charming cast (and I don’t mean just that hilarious Keanu Reeves cameo); plus, it made me realise that Asian families are more relatable to Romanian families (especially when they are immigrants) than American ones (like The Ice Storm or The Royal Tenenbaums).

The Favourite is an over-the-top All About Eve in period costume but written for a modern audience. It manages to be both funny and heartbreaking, as is Olivia Colman herself as a sickly, fearful Queen Anne, never quite sure that anyone loves her for herself rather than for her power. Rachel Weisz was majestic, imperious and domineering (but also vulnerable) as Sarah Churchill, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by Emma Stone, although perhaps her blank look was deliberate, to convey both initial innocence and subsequent manipulation.

What is really important about both these films is that they are educational while being entertaining: they show Asian stories and women without men stories can be just as powerful, exciting, witty and nuanced as the more monotone mainstream stories we have become accustomed to. And with shows like Fleabag, Killing Eve and Gentleman Jack on TV, I’m delighted that it’s becoming more visible. Is it just a niche fashion, while in real life racism and homophobia run rampant? Well, let me at least try to believe that is not so for a short period while I watch these.

Reading updates: I’ve embarked on my American authors binge. I’ve read Laura Kasischke’s disquieting slow-burning psychological thriller Be Mine, Jane Bowle’s wacky misfit of a novel Two Serious Ladies and Kent Haruf’s plainly-written but powerful Plainsong. Reviews will be coming up shortly.

This week was also my younger son’s birthday – he’s turned an amazingly mature 14 and all the usual ‘when did that happen’ squeals apply here. So, as a birthday treat, while older brother was revising for his final GCSE week, I took the no-longer-quite-so-little-one to London for the Manga Exhibition at the British Museum. I will write more about the Manga Exhibition on another occasion, because I will go back to see it a second time with the other son. But then we followed it up with the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party at the Sanderson Hotel in Fitzrovia. The hotel is a very non-descript 1960s type block, but they’ve been very clever at creating a little oasis in the courtyard and serving an expensive but utterly delicious and spectacular afternoon tea inspired by Alice in Wonderland.

The courtyard cafe.
The amazing spread.
The choice of teas. We opted for Alice and Cheshire Cat.
An extra treat for the birthday boy, a nice little gesture from the cafe.
The tactic of leaving the best for last does not work when there is so much food…
My favourite thing were these cute little Drink Me smoothies.

#6Degrees of Separation: June 2019

It is always a pleasure to participate in the Six Degrees monthly link-up organised by Kate. The starting point this month is a book I haven’t read but which recently won the Wellcome Book Prize, Murmur by Will Eaves. I am interested in the subject matter but need to work up my courage to read this one, since it is a reimagining of the strain and suffering that Alan Turing must have gone through in the last few years of his life.

The title of the book, however, made me initially think it was about a heart murmur, perhaps a heart transplant. The best book (or perhaps the only book) I’ve read on that topic is Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living (published as The Heart in the US).

This book won the Prix Orange in France back in 2014. Another winner of the same prize (in 2018) is Haitian author Louis-Philippe Dalembert’s Avant que les ombres s’effacent (Before the Shadows Fade). A novel based on the real fact (that I was not at all aware of) that the Haitian state passed a decree in 1939 granting Jewish refugees passports and safe passage to Haiti.

The Haitian state was born out of slave rebellion and its hero was the beautifully named Toussaint Louverture, born a slave but, as he declared himself, ‘nature gave me the soul of a free man’. Much has been written about him, especially in French, but I have an English language biography and reassessment of his legacy written by Charles Forsdick and Christian Hogsbjerg on my bookshelves, which I have yet to read.

Since we are talking about revolutions, and with the Paris Commune on my mind quite a bit this past month, let’s turn to another book, a novel set during a very tricky revolutionary time: The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov, one of my favourite Russian writers. It’s the story of a family in Kiev (somewhat similar to Bulgakov’s own) having to live through the consequences of the Russian Revolution, and all the warring factions of the Ukrainian War of Independence – the Whites, the Reds, the Imperial German Army, and Ukrainian nationalists. Although this book was banned for decades, the stage version of the book was apparently one of Stalin’s favourite ways to relax.

Many plays were banned, of course, in Communist times in Romania. One play that censorship consistently fought over with the theatre directors (and censorship usually won) was Caligula by Albert Camus. I’m not quite sure why it was seen as so inappropriate that even the filming of the performance was stopped (and the film destroyed), except that it perhaps shows the descent of a hitherto kindly despot into absolute mad tyranny.

And so we end with one of the classics of historical novels: I, Claudius, written by Robert Graves in first person, as if it were the memoir of Emperor Claudius, who was despised and marginalised by his family because of his stutter… and therefore managds to survive to become emperor and tell the tale.

From Turing to France to Haiti to the Ukraine, with a short stopover of sorts in Romania, and a slightly lengthier stint in the Roman Empire. It’s been quite a journey in time and space this month. Where will your links take you?

WWWednesday 13th February, 2019

What are you currently reading? I do believe this is my first one this year, a lovely meme to help us catch up with ourselves and others, as hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. 

The three Ws are:

  • What are you currently reading?
  • What did you recently finish reading?
  • What do you think you’ll read next?

Current:

I’ve been meaning to read Anna Burns’ Milkman for quite a while now, and it finally became available at the library. Belfast and Northern Ireland have always intrigued me, especially how ordinary people experienced in their daily lives. I remember a journalist once telling me that cities starting with B seem to have a knack for getting into the news for all the wrong reasons (Beirut, Belgrade, Berlin, Belfast, he meant Bucharest too at the time, although nowadays we might say Brussels).

Just in case that becomes too grim, I’ve got a firm childhood favourite to make me smile, Emil and the Three Twins, a sequel to my beloved Emil and the Detectives, which converted me to crime fiction such a long time ago. Translation by Cyrus Brooks in 1935, so hmmm… hope it’s a good one. I’d have liked to let Anthea Bell loose on it.

Just finished:

Mihail Sebastian’s The Accident – not going to lie: I cannot be objective about this book, because half of it takes place in the mountains where I myself learnt to ski. I know every place that the author describes and I feel the same freedom and happiness when I ski that his protagonist does. And yes, I find the male protagonist is not nearly good enough for Nora, and why should she try to ‘cure’ him of his heartbreak? Still, if you know the background to this book, under what hard circumstances it was written, it is very much about a desperate man trying to believe once more in the goodness of human beings and in the beauty of the world.

Up next:

On Louise Glück: Change What You See is a collection of essays written about the poetry of this US poet laureate (whom I got to know better via Stanley Kunitz and his poetry), including an interview with her.

Robert Menasse: The Capital, transl. Jamie Bulloch, is a satirical novel about Brussels and the European Commission. Menasse has also written political essays on the topic of Europe, but I gather this is funny, with elements of crime, comedy and philosophy all thrown in for good measure. And a wild pig chase!

Goodness, it’s so much fun to read aimlessly, in complete freedom! Do let me know what you have been up to in terms of reading!

Cultural Plans for 2019

I’m not quite sure what to call this post, because it is about far more than just reading (although reading plays a huge part). It’s also about writing, translating, attending literary events and far more. So let me just put the extremely broad label of ‘culture’ on it.

Reading

If you’ve read some of my posts about the #EU27Project, you will know what will keep me busy until end of March 2019. I have most of the books already sitting and waiting on my bookshelves (a couple maybe from the library, although our library does not do very well on anything foreign that is not a Scandi-thriller). Nevertheless, any tips for Cyprus and Luxembourg would still be gratefully received.

I’ve always had a bit of an obsession with the Paris Commune (perhaps because of its close association with Montmartre (where it started) and Belleville (where it ended), my favourite parts of Paris. So when Emma from Book Around the Corner reviewed a book about this topic (in no flattering terms) and suggested that Zola’s La Débâcle (The Debacle) would provide a better background to it. So Emma and I have decided to read Zola ‘together’ in May 2019 – and you are very welcome to join in if you like. I also have other historical and fictional accounts of the Commune that I want to read that month, so May will my revolutionary month.

There are two rendezvous that I never miss ever since I discovered them: Women in Translation Month in August and #GermanLitMonth in November, so I hope to take part in those this year as well. I also want to read and review critically at least one book of poetry a month – because that helps me rethink my own poetry.

Last but not least, I have to make a serious indent in the books I already own. The stacks my shelves, assorted pieces of furniture, floor are toppling over, while my Kindle hides hundreds of impulse buys. I may not read them all, but I need to triage, discard or read and not buy any new books. Of course, I’ll still visit the library on occasion.

Other than that, I will rely more on reading by whim and happenstance. I’m cutting right down on my reviewing commitments. Although I’ll be very sorry to say goodbye to my long-term association (more than 6 years!) with the wonderful Crime Fiction Lover site, I want to follow in the footsteps of its previous reviewers who became writers, such as Luca Veste and Eva Dolan. And the only way to do that is to hoard my precious time more tightly to my chest!

I’ll still be following the Asymptote Blog, with its frequent interviews with translators and writers, and literary news from around the world.

Although my association with Asymptote Journal of literature in translation and its Book Club has been shorter (a year and a half), I am equally sad to cut my ties with a literary venture whose emphasis on quality (of both literature and translation) is second to none. I will hopefully still serve as a point of contact to help organise events for the Book Club, but am no longer able to keep up the daily second shift until late at night.

Writing

I’ll be blogging and tweeting far less. I won’t feel as pressured to review every single book that I read (which was perfectly fine for the first 2-3 years of my blog, but then I started to feel guilty about it). I will work hard on finalising the poems (and perhaps swapping out some old ones with some new ones) for the chapbook I hope to send out soon. I may share some of my progress (or lack thereof) on my novel. I don’t have a daily word target, or even a daily routine, but I will make sure to keep in touch with my own work far more regularly throughout the week, rather than treating it as a welcome but very distant relative who visits once or twice a year.

Other Plans

Manon publicity shot by Jason Bell, English National Ballet.

I still have a few theatrical escapades planned, but am again practising some restraint. Tickets are very expensive (and reviewing takes time, although I might still do it occasionally, as you get to experience shows you might otherwise not have come across). I will see the ballet Manon with the peerless Alina Cojocaru in January (one of my favourite ballets, so dramatic, so sad). In February it will The War of the Worlds with my older son.

Can I just do a proud Mum shout-out here? It is so rewarding to take him to a film or play, as he really dissects it and examines it critically (without being annoyingly nitpicky). We saw Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap yesterday in London for his birthday and we had such fun actually talking all the way back (no messing about with phones) about the play, favourite films of 2018 (Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody scored highly with both of us) and reminiscing about his toddler days. I really enjoyed his company, which is not always the case with children and teenagers, even though you might love them to bits. And I don’t think it has much to do with the way I brought him up, since younger son is not all like this.

No holidays abroad with the children this year and indeed very few holidays at all, but I will treat myself to a trip to the south of France around Easter time (if the planes will still be flying without a hitch after Brexit) to stay once more with the friends in Luberon where I’ve previously been amazingly productive.

I’ve also decided to be extravagant and treat myself to one crime festival this year. After carefully examining dates and pennies, I opted for CrimeFest in Bristol 9-12 May, so do let me know if you are planning to attend, as it’s always fun to meet up with people you know so well online.

One example of a Landmark Trust property which has caught my eye.

The final ‘treat’ will be a working holiday in July, i.e. going to a few university open days with my older son and taking in some of the sights in England along the way. It’s still a bit early to worry about university, but it gives us an excuse to meander and stay in some amazing locations, thanks to the Landmark Trust.

So those are my plans for 2019. Whatever your plans are, whether you make resolutions or not, I hope the year goes well for you, and that the pollution of world news and events does not impinge too much upon your daily lives.