Can’t resist joining in again this month because: a) this is one of my favourite bookish memes of random (or not) literary association, organised monthly by Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best; b) I love Carrie Fisher, so the book we are starting with this month appeals to me.
I think Carrie Fisher was even better as a writer than as an actress. I know she is part of many a childhood fantasy, but I honestly appreciate her more for her wit and candour, which is perfectly displayed in the semi-autobiographical book Postcards from the Edge, which is our starting point this month. She adapted it for the screen herself and the film starred Meryl Streep as the ‘narrator’ and Shirley MacLaine as her mother.
My first book in the chain is another book adapted for film and starring Meryl Streep, namely Out of Africa by Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen), which is also autobiographical. Although the author’s struggles to keep her farm going all by herself sounds quite admirable, I found the book itself somewhat problematic, with its rose-tinted portrayal of Kenya as a white settler’s paradise. Nevertheless, she was ahead of her time in treating the workers on her farm in a respectful way and being genuinely curious about their backgrounds and cultural differences.
Of course I have to sneak in an anthropological book as the next in the chain – a really formative one that I used extensively when preparing my Ph.D. Victor Turner’s The Ritual Process examines the rituals of the Ndembu in Zambia. He is the one who identified the concepts of ‘communitas’ and ‘liminality’ (that in-between space, when rites of passage transition you from one state to another, to take up your place in society).
Airports and airplanes are of course perfect liminal spaces, and one of the books that best describes the thrill but also the dangers of flight is Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Night Flight (Vol de nuit). The author was famously a pilot himself, so certainly knew what he was writing about.
The fourth link is to another book written by an author who had a different day job, which may have influenced his writing, namely Mikhail Bulgakov, who was a doctor. It’s no secret that I am a big fan of his masterpiece The Master and Margarita, but to change things up I will link here to his first book The White Guard, which I have still to read.
I’ve found a double link to the next book: the word ‘white’ in the title, and another book that I only know by reputation rather than through reading. A third link, even: written by another ‘Michael’. Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White is a saga about the social climbing of a prostitute in Victorian London.
Any social climbing literature has to make way for the most ‘hustling’ novel of them all: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. Becky Sharp is ruthless and manipulative, far too intelligent and restless for her time and place in society. Above all, she is brutally honest with herself: was only a question of money and fortune which made the difference between her and an honest woman.”I have a gentleman for my husband … But am I much better now than when I wheedled the grocer round the corner for sugar?’
It’s this puncturing of hypocrisy and pretentions that Becky Sharp seems to have in common with Carrie Fisher, so that provides the perfect endpoint for my links this month. I’ve travelled to Kenya, Zambia, Argentina (via France), Russia, Victorian and pre-Victorian London this time. Where will your travels take you?
I was planning to write the second part of ‘What is indie on my bookshelf’, with a focus on poetry presses, but I saw this bookish tag on Eleanor Franzen’s blog and thought it looked like too much fun to miss out. I’ve long since stopped tagging people, like I used to do in my early days of blogging, because I know so many people hate it. But if you would like to join in, I would love to read your posts!
Last Book I Gave Up On: I feel a bit mean saying this, as it wasn’t bad, but it was Amanda Craig’s The Golden Rule. I suppose it’s because I was reading it as a respite from The Brothers Karamazov in December, and it just felt too long and like too much of a trudge to be a real respite.
Last Book I Re-Read: Dazai Osamu’s No Longer Human in a new translation, but also reread big chunks of the old translation for comparison. It was great to reconnect with an old favourite – remind me to reread things more often!
Last Book I Bought: Just yesterday I ordered Appius and Virginia by G.E. Trevelyan, because someone on Twitter recommended it after I said I’d finished reading Bear by Marian Engel. It’s about a woman who adopts and raises an orang-utan as a human baby. I didn’t read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves when it came out a few years back and was the subject of avid debates, but this seems in a similar (albeit earlier) vein.
Last Book I Said I Read But Didn’t: I don’t usually do this, as I feel no shame in not having read something (after all, I read so much already, and have other things to do as well). But if I would do it, it would probably be one of those latest bestsellers like The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. (I do have it on my Kindle though, and I will be reading it for our Virtual Crime Book Club this month.)
Last Book I Wrote In The Margins Of: I haven’t done that in years – I use little post-it flags or highlight text on my Kindle. But a lot of my anthropology textbooks feature my scribbles and underlinings, including Ritual, Politics and Power by David Kertzer, which I still remember fondly.
Last Book That I Had Signed: I’m not sure, but I can remember one book which I failed to get signed at the last live event I attended on the 27th of February 2020, a literary event organised by the LRB Review and Bookshop in London: Anne Enright talking about her latest novel Actress. It was a really fun evening – Enright is hugely entertaining and acerbic in public – but there was too much of a queue for the signing and I was with a friend, so we decided to leave.
Last Book I Lost: You can imagine that with so many international moves and having personal libraries in at least 5 different locations across three different countries at one point, things have got lost. I’m trying to resist the temptation to replace all of my Japanese authors library, which I so painstakingly brought over from Japan in my luggage, because I still believe that my parents will have kept them. However, I do know that they gave away a whole chunk of my Japanese language courses, dictionaries and other materials a few years back.
Last Book I Had To Replace: See above about what the dangers of having left behind an entire library in a different country does to you. I finally decided that I couldn’t wait until my parents found and shipped over To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf to me (I had her complete works and diaries, and most of them have followed me wherever I went in my adult life, but somehow this one stayed behind). In fact, I missed it so much that I bought it twice, so now I have two handsome editions of it on my bedside table where my favourite authors live.
Last Book I Argued Over: I wouldn’t exactly call it an argument, because I enjoy hearing what other people think about books, whether they disagree with me or not. One book that seemed to divide opinion among our Shadow Young Writer of the Year panel was Marina Kemp’s Nightingale. Several of my fellow judges loved the French village setting, while I was a bit harsher and found it quite superficially done.
Last Book You Couldn’t Find: I have heard there is an old, out of print Anthology of Romanian Short Fiction, and I have submitted it as a ‘Want’ on Abebooks, but without any luck so far. I wanted to see what short stories were available in English, so that I could share them and finally contribute to Jonathan Gibbs’ lovely personal anthology project.
Time once more for my favourite set of bookish links, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we start with Redhead by the Side of the Road, the latest Anne Tyler book. I have read Anne Tyler previously and, although I generally admire her understated style, close observation and ability to show us the depths in even the most average-seeming of people, she has not stuck in my mind or become one of my favourite writers.
The link to the first book in my chain today is ‘redhead’ and one of the most famous literary redheads of them all Edna O’Brien. Thanks to my customised monthly book subscription at a very nearly local bookshop, my good Twitter and blogging friend Jacqui has sent me this author’s Selected Stories. It’s been a long time since I read the Country Girls trilogy, but I remember loving that Irish firebrand.
It would be too easy to use Ireland as the link to my next book, so instead I will use the word ‘Country’ in the title. And, since my recent trip to Japan via reading was so enjoyable, I will stick to a famous Japanese novel by their first Nobel Prize winner, Yukiguni – Snow Country by Kawabata. While it is wistful and yearning and poetic, I did find the (at least latent) misogyny and class distinctions a bit hard to stomach, and it is not my favourite novel by him.
Another novel that is considered the most famous by a certain author but which is not my favourite of theirs is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. It is, of course, iconic and I’ve always enjoyed it a lot, but there was something slightly too Gothic about it and the more day-time, claustrophobic setting of Villette always appealed to me more.
Both Villette and Jane Eyre are at least partially set in a school, so that is the link to my next choice. After the death of John le Carré, I felt compelled to read some of his novels that I hadn’t come across before and his second one A Murder of Quality is set in a snobbish public boys’ boarding-school probably modelled on Eton and the author’s own much-hated school Sherborne.
Famously, John le Carré was a pseudonym, so the next link is to another author who uses a pseudonym, although she manages to keep her anonymity rather more successfully hidden. I am referring of course to Elena Ferrante, whose Neapolitan Novels have been such a resounding success worldwide. I enjoyed them well enough (although perhaps not as deeply impressed as some others have been), and am also keen to catch up with the second part the TV series, which thus far has been excellent in both acting and period detail.
My final link is to another book (or series of books) which has had a recent TV adaptation that I quite enjoyed (although I think I like the books more than the adaptation): Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. I remember at the time when all of my colleagues at work were talking about Harry Potter, I was far more entranced by this trilogy.
So my literary travels this month have included Ireland, Japan, Yorkshire and Dorset, Naples and Oxford (plus a few parallel worlds). Where will your six links take you?
This is not a review of one of the best-known books in the literary canon. Instead, it’s my reaction to it, how I finally tamed the monster.
We all have at least one of the great classics lurking in our subconscious, taunting us with its impregnable unread status. My Achilles heel has been The Brothers Karamazov and I considered myself beaten after abandoning it no less than five times in three decades. It wasn’t even that I didn’t like Dostoevsky – he is, in fact, one of my favourite Russian authors and I lapped up all of his other work, even the gloomiest ones. Nor was it the length that put me off. I managed to get through Remembrance of Things Past (where far less exciting stuff happens) and War and Peace (although the war scenes did not enthrall me) relatively unscathed, while Genji Monogatari is one of my favourite books of all time.
So it was with some trepidation that I picked it up in December to read straight after the hugely enjoyable Sakhalin Island by Chekhov. To my astonishment, I not only managed to finish it in less than a month, but I actually enjoyed it this time! What made it different this time? Here are some top tips for vanquishing the beast (some of them tongue-in-cheek, some of them perfectly serious).
Clear your schedule:
I knew I had the Christmas holidays coming up, and that I wasn’t likely to go anywhere very soon, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to lie in bed for an hour or two in the morning and another couple of hours in the evening. I’d often find myself gravitating towards it during the day as well for a few pages.
Pick a good translation:
I had tried reading the book in Romanian, German and English translations, but none of them stuck. This one by Ignat Avsey (Oxford University Press World’s Classics) felt very fresh natural, really conveyed the feel of the spoken language of rural Russia, without sounding old-fashioned or ‘too exotic’.
Alternate with lighter reads:
When the going got tough, when bad news was forthcoming and I just couldn’t stomach any more Russian gloom and drama, I would switch to something lighter and more escapist, for example crime fiction like Ruth Ware’s skiing holiday from hell One by One, or John le Carre’s A Murder of Quality or the cosier puzzle mystery of The Marlow Murder Club by Robert Thorogood. I also watched plenty of lighter films over the holidays, and they too helped to lift the mood.
Skim read the bits that bore you rigid:
This will not be a popular piece of advice with the purists, but it’s what got me through. Classic though he is, Dostoevsky does tend to go on and on upon the slightest provocation. Alyosha and Ivan go to a tavern together and Ivan launches into several chapters’ worth of lengthy explanations about his world view and doubts and metaphorical tales. It sometimes feels like every single character has far too much of a back story, and that the unnamed narrator has to share all the gossip. As for the scenes in the monastery – that’s where I abandoned the book in the past. Father Zosima’s life and sayings were just a step too far for me – especially since he then disappears from the book without too much of an impact on the actions of any of the other characters (other than Alyosha). Even the sub-plot with the schoolboys befriended by Alyosha was not really all that necessary to the main story, although I personally quite liked it.
So yes, Dostoevsky tries to bring pretty much everything into this story: all of human philosophy, faith, psychology, as well as a good deal of discussion about the unique Russian traits (if those exist). At times it is simply too much, and he could have done with a good editor, but if you find some bits less enthralling than the others, read them a bit diagonally instead of giving up, because there will be plenty of good bits to follow.
Make notes as you go along:
I half-filled the book with post-it flags. There were so many interesting quotes and paragraphs that I wanted to reread, to remember, to return to. Perhaps, with so much currently going on in the news, and so much anger and sadness at the state of the world, the quotes that particularly struck me were the ones that seemed to show that human nature has not really changed over the years and has certainly not kept pace with any technological improvements.
Everyone says they hate wickedness but deep down they all love it.
Miracles never bother a realist. A true realist, if he is a non-believer, will always find within himself the strength and the ability not to believe in miracles. And if he believes, it’s because he wants to believe.
He prided himself on his ability to judge by appearances, a pardonable weakness in one who was 50, an age when an intelligent, well-to-do man starts to take himself seriously, sometimes even against his better judgement.
He who is false to himself is also the most likely to get offended. After all, it is sometimes very gratifying to feel offended… blow it out of all proportion so as to attract attention.
One can love one’s neighbour in the abstract and sometimes even at a distance, but close up almost never.
What is horrifying is that such dreadful crimes have ceased to shock us. What should horrify us is not that a certain individual commits an atrocity, but that we take these atrocities for granted.
We can be enthused by the noblest of ideals, only on condition that we don’t have to expend any effort, make any sacrifices, above all, that we needn’t pay anything. Paying is something we really resent…receiving, that’s really up our street.
The real world not only bestows rights but itself imposes enormous obligations… if we want to behave like civilised human beings… we must act rationally… not to harm our fellow man.
Additionally, I shared my enthusiasm by tweeting the shorter quotes, which sometimes led to people commenting. This helped to create a sense of community, even though I wasn’t reading it at the same time as anyone else.
Don’t expect to like the characters or identify with them:
Let’s be honest: the Karamazov family is pretty vile, as are many of the people around them. Dostoevsky seems to be playing with animal stereotypes there. The father is a greedy, selfish pig. Dmitry is a vain, flighty, spendthrift peacock. Ivan is a self-absorbed, supercilious fox. Smerdyakov is a secretive, nasty, double-crossing rat, while Grushenka and Katya are both volatile, extravagant and catty. Even my dear Alyosha is too much of an idealist, a bit of a rabbit or deer caught in the headlights and often used by those who are bolder than him. What struck me most is how operatic and over the top the whole story is, with lots of melodramatic set-pieces.
There was perhaps only one character in the whole book that I could somewhat identify with, and she is a very minor one: the mother of one of the schoolboys, Kolya Krasotkin, a single mother with a gentle but cheerful character, who does so much for her only son that he gets teased about it at school.
It always seemed to her that Kolya was aloof towards her, and on occasion she would weep hysterically and begin to reproach him for his aloofness. The boy did not like this, and the more anyone tried to elicit expressions of sentiment from him the more stubborn he became, as if on purpose. However he behaved thus not deliverately but involuntarily – such was his nature. His mother was mistaken; he loved her dearly, what he hated was ‘all this soppiness’…
These little observations, the psychological depth and understanding the author often shows for even his secondary characters, the subtleties of language or rich hidden meanings make this book feel both hugely specific and yet truly universal. What to make of that strange narrator, for instance, who seems to know far more than he really should, but is not an objective omniscient point of view at all, and even claims he cannot remember details from the trial.
Appreciate the humour:
Amid all the serious philosophical debate about the presence or absence of God, about the flaws of mankind and the absurdity of existence, I had forgotten that Dostoevsky can also be very funny. There are several scenes that have great comic potential, for example the clash between the Poles and the Russians, the misunderstanding between Dmitry and Mrs Khokhlaķova when it comes to her giving him money (and how she insists she is giving him far more than that, she is offering him the possibility to get involved in mining). But my favourite is the scene when the devil appears at Ivan’s side in the guise of a fairly polite, former serf-owner who has now become a mere hanger-on, and mocks all of his assumptions and beliefs. I could imagine him as a rather ridiculous looking Jacob Rees-Mogg, apparently all reasonable and cultured, but actually deeply vicious and immoral.
I’m a much maligned person… I’m blessed with a kind and cheerful disposition; I’ve turned my hand to vaudeville and that sort of thing. You seem determined to cast me as a grey-haired Khlestakov, but I’m destined for far greater things. I was singled out by some sort of prehistoric decree, which I’ve never been able to understand, as epitomising ‘negation’, but in fact I am genuinely kind and just not suited for negation. But no, I have to go forth and negate; without negation there would be no staire, and what’s the good of a magazine without a critics’ section… they made me the scapegoat and forced me to contribute to the critics’ section.
What torments? Oh, don’t ask, we used to have all sorts, but now we’ve gone over to moral torments, ‘pangs of conscience’ and all that rubbish. We owe that to you too, to your ‘relaxation of moral standards’. And who has benefited? Only the unscrupulous, because what are pangs of conscience to those who have no conscience?
I’m very sensitive and impressionable when it comes to artistic effects. But common sense… kept me within the proper bounds… purely out of a sense of duty and because of my social position, I felt bound to repress my virtuous impulse and to stick to nefarious deeds. All the credit for virtue goes to someone else, and I’m left with just a handful of dirty tricks.
Yes, if I were Dostoevsky’s editor in the present-day, I would advise him to start with the crime and the trial instead of the long lectures in the first half of the book, which made me abandon ship so many times. Nevertheless, I am not only glad I persevered with it, but I truly liked it this time round. There is a reason why some books are classics, why they still have so much to say even hundreds of years after they were first published. I have no idea how Shakespeare or Dostoevsky or Stendhal or Flaubert or Chekhov managed to gain such deep insights into human psychology, but their characters are unforgettable, and both modern and timeless.
I am honoured and delighted to be part of the Shadow Panel for the Young Writer of the Year Award for 2020. Several of my blogging friends have been involved in this in the past, and I was always curious just how easy it is to come to an agreement about the winner.
However you may feel about age limitations on prizes (as someone who is *slightly* over the age of 35, I do feel the pain, I can assure you!), it is nevertheless one of the most exciting annual prizes for British and Irish writing, because it looks across a breadth of genres. It is an annual award of £5,000, co-sponsored by the Sunday Times and the University of Warwick, for an outstanding work of fiction, poetry, non fiction or anything else published in the previous year by a writer under 35. The list of previous winners is spectacular – from Raymond Antrobus with his poetry collection last year (a personal favourite, who’s just going from strength to strength), Sally Rooney and Max Porter in recent years (after a hiatus between 2010-2015), and Zadie Smith, Sarah Waters, Helen Simpson and Robert MacFarlane in the past.
You can find more information about the prize and this year’s judges (which include Kit de Waal and Tessa Hadley) on this website. The shortlist will be announced on the 1st of November and I cannot wait to start reading, debating and choosing a winner with my fellow shadow panelists.
And what an exciting bunch of people they are! I think you can take it as a given that we are all obsessed with books and reading, but here are some more details about my fellow panellists.
(I think you can tell who is the dunce here, since I don’t have an active Instagram account).
Over the course of November, you can expect a review of each shortlisted title and I will link where possible to reviews from my fellow shadow judges. We will announce the Shadow Panel Winner on the 3rd of December and the Awards Ceremony and Final Winner will be announced (in an online event) on the 10th of December. Well, if that doesn’t brighten up your late autumn days…
Overall, a good month of reading: 11 books, of which four were outstanding (Haushofer, Teffi, Kawakami and Melchor), three were very good (Puhlovski, Michele Roberts and Sarah Moss), two were entertaining and two were fine (just not as good as I expected). Unsurprisingly, with it being Women in Translation Month, I read mostly women, Mark Billingham being the sole male writer sneaking in because of the Virtual Crime Book Club.
If you include the Spanish Literature Challenge reads from July and the Tokarczuk which I read in July but did not get to review until August, I’ve reviewed a total of nine books for #WITMonth and they represent a nice diversity of nationalities.
I also had the best experience that can happen to a book blogger, who can sometimes feel they are writing in the dark, spending all their money buying books, then hours on writing fair reviews, only to discover that a handful of people read them. [Always the same handful, usually, and I am very grateful to my constant readers!] But then… Mieko Kawakami actually read and retweeted my review and thanked me for it: ‘Thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing such an insightful, courageous and wonderful review. I am also touched to know that you wrote it in time for my birthday’. I think that will keep me going for another few years in terms of reviewing motivation, for sure!
In between reading and reviewing these more demanding books (ostensibly – I found most of them on the whole pleasant and easy to read), I had some down time with the non-fiction of Michèle Roberts in Negative Capability, a gentle, contemplative and very evocative book about learning to live with uncertainty and even failure, while still enjoying life, and the hilariously accurate and often poignant observation of people on holiday in Summerwater by Sarah Moss (reviews to follow).
I mentioned some of the films I saw in early August, before the boys joined me for my share of the holidays. Since their return, I have watched some of their film choices, as well as mine. Let’s see if you can spot which is which!
Christian Petzold: Barbara (Germany) – captures the chill factor and claustrophobia of East Germany when the Stasi have their eyes on you
Alejandra Márquez Abella: The Good Girls (Mexico) – what to do when the economy of your country is in meltdown, your currency worthless and you still have to keep up appearances – the original ladies who lunch, viewed with biting satire but also some compassion
Almodovar: Live Flesh (Spain) – I love my early (1980s-90s) Almodovar – complex female characters, good-looking young men, and always elements of the past creeping in and tainting the present
Tarantino: Django Unchained (US) – was not expecting this Western approach to the story of slavery (and yes, he does rather glorify violence, but that is Tarantino every single time)
Alejandro G. Iñárritu: Birdman (US/Mexico) – the long, long single shots worked a treat (only found out afterwards how difficult they were for actors and crew to get right) and Michael Keaton, with his own Batman background, was the perfect actor for this part
I’ve just noticed that I’ve had quite a good dose of Mexico this month in both books and films!
Plans for next month – well, what’s even the point of planning, because I don’t seem to stick to any of my plans?
My reading mojo has come back, and this (together with a very lengthy migraine) contributed to a lower number of films that I watched so far in June. Here are some micro-reviews and some books which I associated with these films. Bear in mind that I lack any real film critic vocabulary, so all I can say is what I liked or not about the films below (spoilers: I liked all of them).
Paterson – Adam Driver has that puzzled emo look down pat, so is very well cast as the poet bus-driver. (The Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani who plays his fey but sweet-tempered wife is also very good, but it’s the dog who possibly steals the show). It’s extremely difficult to show the creative process at work, and I had some misgivings about the way the marriage and the town (the only white guy in a community of African-Americans, really Jim Jarmusch?) are portrayed in the film, but overall it did inspire me to start writing again. The book everyone refers to in the film, of course, is the epic poem Paterson by William Carlos Williams. He describes this small town in New Jersey, paying close attention to the everyday and deliberately sticking to simple, even flat language (much like the modern-day poet figure in the film). Williams was giving a sort of riposte to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which he felt was too despondent, abstract and wedded to classical poetry.
Lights in the Dusk – Aki Kaurismäki is great at capturing the mundane life of the downtrodden. With an equal mix of tragedy and farce, he tells the story of loser security guard Koistinen, tricked by a gang and a femme fatale, yet unable to see who really cares for him. The black comedy which leaves a nasty yet thoughtful aftertaste reminds me very much of the Finnish writer Antti Tuomainen’s last few books, such as The Man Who Died or Palm Beach Finland.
Julieta – Almodovar was for a while in the 1990s my favourite director: he seems to have great insight into the female psychology and doesn’t shy away from showing all the complexities and messiness of parent/child relationships as well as couples. This is a bittersweet, at times melodramatic story of an estranged mother and daughter (and what led to their estrangement), with none of the trademark eroticism or crazy humour of his earlier films. The film is based on three inter-linked short stories by Alice Munro: “Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence”.
Olla – This is a very short (27 minutes) film, the debut work of French-Greek actress Ariane Labed as a director, but it packs a lot in. Olla is a mail-order bride, chosen by the rather clumsy Pierre, who lives in his mother’s flat in a miserable industrial town in the north of France and requires a full-time carer for his mother more than a companion for his fumbling sexual advances. Although Olla doesn’t speak a word of French, she quietly but firmly resists being modelled by her husband, who from the start wants to make her fit in: ‘I’ll call you Lola.’ Western men’s patronising attitudes towards the ‘easy prey’ European women is a topic that irritates me greatly and is unfortunately the dominant narrative in the few books set in post-1989 Eastern Europe or Russia, such as Patrick McGuiness’ The Last Hundred Days or A. D. Miller’s Snowdrops.
Mustang – Another film by a woman director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, this coming of age story about five sisters in rural Turkey is delightful in portraying the complicity and exhuberant horsing around of the girls – which might have inspired the latest version of Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig. However, the girls are orphans and are being raised by a very traditionalist uncle and grandmother who are too worried about what the neighbours might think. So getting them married off, ready or not, to avoid any scandalous behaviour (or rumours) becomes the top priority. The girls’ small (and big) rebellions in an effort to lead what we might consider normal lives will inevitably lead to disappointment and heartbreak. Although it has nothing to do with the film, I would recommend Elif Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve, which likewise looks at East vs. West, religion and gender roles.
A Short Film About Killing – Kieslowski’s Dekalog was the first series we saw uncensored on TV after the 1989 Revolution in Romania, and this is one of the two which Kieslowski remade to became feature-length films. It is an extremely disturbing film, that you need to have a strong stomach for. You are almost instantly confronted with cats strung up to die and dogs being poisoned, and it just gets worse from there, with image after image of death, decay and cruelty. An apparently motiveless murder of a (thoroughly unpleasant) taxi driver, a lawyer haunted by the fact that he can’t get the young perpetrator off and a brutal execution scene (in those days Poland still had the death penalty) all make you question everything you believe about violence and punishment. I would recommend the book Kieslowski on Kieslowski published by Faber, based on a series of interviews with the film-maker, his life and how politics has shaped so much of it, whether he liked it or not.
Our Little Sister – Another celebration of sisterhood, this time in Japan and seen through the eyes of a male director Koreeda Hirokazu. After the death of their father, who abandoned them when they were quite young, three sisters living in Kamakura meet their much younger half-sister and convince her to move in with them. What does it say about my suspicious, noir set of mind that I kept waiting for something terrible to happen – for the sisters to cheat each other, fall out, commit suicide or a dramatic denoument with the mother (who also abandoned them)? In fact, it is more of a charming observation of the everyday, small triumphs, many mess-ups and sorrows along the way. The fairy-tale atmosphere and the gentle passing of the season began to make more sense when I realised that the film is based on a manga series called Umimachi Diary, written and illustrated by Yoshida Akimi, serialised between 2006 and 2018 in the josei (young women) manga supplement Monthly Flowers.
The Clouds of Sils Maria – This film by Olivier Assayas is ostensibly all about an aging star Maria Enders, played by Juliette Binoche, returning to the play which made her famous, but now playing the older woman devastated by the consequences of her infatuation with a younger woman. It has echoes of All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard, and there are many references to Binoche’s own career as well as to Kristen Stewart’s scandal-driven career (although not via the character that Kristen plays, but in her reaction to the social media furore over the young actress played by Chloe Grace Moretz). To me, however, it feels much more like the clash between generations: in literature, in film, in real life. Even when the generations respect and befriend each other (which one might argue that Maria does with her assistant played by Stewart), there is a divergence of opinion that seems insurmountable. Although some have criticised the epilogue, to me it made perfect sense: things have moved on, relentlessly; the sympathetic faces of the young fawning starlet and Klaus the director are slipping and becoming less sympathetic, more concerned with their own PR. And then there is that almost throwaway scene, where a young newbie director tries to convince Maria that she is not too old to play in his proposed film. When she suggests he should use the young starlet instead (and echoes some of the admiration that her former assistant had expressed for her), he expresses frustration at a world in which the brash young Chloe Grace Moretz is the norm. A world without subtlety, a world where everything you do is exposed and pounced upon, a world where you have to take sides. I never felt older and more on Binoche’s side than at the end of that film. On the other hand, I loved the landscape, the amazing Majola Snake weather phenomenon in the Engadine Valley and miss my beloved mountains more ferociously than ever.
The Wire Season 2 – Ongoing project to watch the whole 5 seasons of The Wire with the boys. Depressing to watch the end of the docks, the unions and a way of life. Amusing to understand all of the untranslated Greek way before the investigators did.
As for the reading, I’m very proud of myself for sticking, on the whole, to my 50 books or so of summer longlist to choose my 20 books of summer. I have now read eight of them, but only reviewed four, so I have some catching up to do! Additionally, I also read the tense thriller Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton for Virtual Crime Book Club, which, although it does seem to manipulate your emotions at certain points, is a moving experience and extremely nerve-wracking if you’ve ever been a teacher, a parent or (as in my case) both. Following the announcement of the death of Carlos Ruiz Zafon, I decided to pick up the only book of his that I have on my shelf The Shadow of the Wind, which seems to be good fun so far. Although I’m perhaps no longer of the age to become obsessed with historical or literary trails as I was when I read Foucault’s Pendulum or Posession, it is certainly better written and more interesting than Dan Brown’s novels.
Reading has not been going brilliantly this month, but I was reading that epic novel The Eighth Life. Alongside it, I read four other crime novels, all quick and fun reads, and another chunkster, King of the Crows. Harriet Tyce’s Blood Orange was our Virtual Crime Club read for May and we all agreed that while we didn’t ‘enjoy’ it (the subject matter was too grubby and the characters too unpleasant for that), it was well written and kept us turning the pages. Two British Library Classic Crime titles also provided good entertainment: John Dickson Carr’s Castle Skull was atmospheric but with somewhat two-dimensional characters, while The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons was much better on the psychology (especially of the main protagonist). Finally, Boileau-Narcejac’s Vertigo (D’entre les morts) was far more interesting than the Hitchcock film, given the wartime background and a much more sinister ending.
As for Russell Day’s King of the Crows, it’s almost impossible to write about it. Uncannily and uncomfortably accurate about a pandemic that sweeps across Europe, an enforced lockdown and then the gradual breakdown of society, it also brings in elements of horror and zombie apocalypse. Unbearably graphic in parts, with an interesting fragmented style, switching from straightforward narration to interview recordings to witness statements to film scripts and even graffiti and urban dictionaries. It could have been shortened by a good 20% without losing any of the style or plot (or maybe I was just too exhausted after the even longer Eighth Life doorstopper), but it’s certainly memorable.
Still, only 6 books per month – what is the world coming to? At this rate, I won’t do too well in the 20 Books of Summer readalong, will I?
On the other hand, I’ve been watching more films than I’ve ever done since the boys were born, virtually all of them on Mubi or the occasional classic on DVD or television. 18 films in total this month, so roughly one every two days. I’ve continued the Hitchock discovery with the boys, watching Vertigo and Rear Window this month – so far, Rear Window seems to be their favourite Hitchcock, but we’ve still got a few good ones to go. I also got them to watch Ran, which was visually even more stunning than I remembered and they agreed with me that the scene of the attack on the second castle, with its sudden transition from balletic choreography and background music to the grunts, clashes and gore of battle was magnificent. I watched another Japanese one by myself: Fireworks by Kitano Takeshi – a surprisingly spare yet lyrical depiction of grief, guilt and revenge from someone I thought of mostly as a comedian and game-show host.
Mubi seems to have a lot of French (or Italian) films on at the moment featuring Alain Delon. So I got to admire his youthful good looks in Plein Soleil (he is absolutely perfect as the charming psychopath Tom Ripley), L’Eclisse with a vulnerable Monica Vitti and Losey’s Mr Klein, a Kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucratic error (or is it deliberate?) which I found very moving and frightening. Other French language films included: the noir La Bête Humaineby Jean Renoir (I thought I’d watched it, but it turned out to have been the later American remake by Fritz Lang); two excellent Clouzot films Le Corbeau (which got him accused of collaboration with the Nazis) and Quai des Orfèvres, which start out almost as breezily as Hollywood comedies and then turn very dark; Bunuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid with the sulky, sultry Jeanne Moreau. There was one non-French one in the French language selection – namely Ghost Town Anthology by Quebecois director Denis Côté, which was profoundly creepy and unsettling (and beautifully filmed).
Aside from the French, I was depressed by Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband and Joseph Losey’s Accident, with their cynical portrayals of marriages and flawed ways of loving. I was charmed by two classics which I’ve probably seen many, many times before: Top Hat with the fab duo of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, and the crazy trio of Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. The dialogues in both films are so witty and sparkling, it’s not just the dancing in the first and Marilyn’s charms and singing in the second which have made them firm favourites.
But the two wild cards of the month were perhaps the ones that made me think most. Wadjda, a film from Saudi Arabia by a woman director Haifaa al-Mansour, under its playful, charming surface of a story about a schoolgirl dreaming of buying and riding a green bicycle hides a lot of social commentary about the restrictions placed on girls and women in that country. The other one was a documentary by Joost Vandebrug called Bruce Lee and the Outlaw. Filmed over six years on the streets of Bucharest, it is the story of a homeless boy growing up in the infamous underground tunnels near the main railway station, in an underworld where glue-sniffing, prostitution and petty criminality are rife. Bruce Lee is the self-proclaimed King of the Sewers and often in trouble with the police, but to the young boy Nicu, he is a friend and protector, the only person who shows any interest in him. The fragile yet trusting relationship that the film-maker develops with Nicu is incredibly touching yet the ending refuses to be too hopeful or sentimental.
There were two major online literary events this month.
First, the Big Book Weekend 8-10 May. I listened to Maggie O’Farrell talk about Hamnet. I realised to my astonishment that Robert Webb has written a novel (and that we overlapped for a year in Cambridge – just as well I didn’t try out for Footlights then!). I succumbed to Neil Gaiman’s recommendations on what to read next by Ray Bradbury. I was moved by the poetry of Hafsah Aneela Bashir and charmed by the funny yet militant Marian Keyes. Bernardine Evaristo was every bit as inspirational as I expected her to be. The whole set-up on the MyVLF platform, aiming to replicate the look and feel of a real festival, was brilliant.
The Hay Festival’s online offering was in a more traditional webinar format via Crowdcast or YouTube, but with a lot of live sessions as well. Although I didn’t do it deliberately, I ended up seeing mostly women and mostly on non-literary subjects: Gloria Steinem, Elif Shafak, Miriam González Durántez and a few of the writers from the Europa 28 anthology about how women see the future of Europe. I listened (in two different panels) to Kapka Kassabova from Bulgaria, Caroline Muscat from Malta, Zsofia Bán from Hungary, Leïla Slimani from France, Lisa Dwan from Ireland and Hilary Cottam from the UK. I also attended two non-literary talks given by men: World without Work by David Susskind and A.C. Grayling on democracy and the need for a constitution. I was hoping that my older son might be interested in this talk as well, but we’ll see if he did actually register to it (he wasn’t with me at the time but with his father).
I also finally made it to a Virtual Noir at the Bar meeting on a Wednesday. These are weekly readings by an excellent and varied selection of crime authors (roughtly 7-9 at a time) organised by Vic [@vpeanuts on Twitter]. I got to hear Peter Rozovsky, the co-founder of Noir at the Bar, Sam Carrington, Adele Parks, Fiona Cummins and many more. I really do recommend you sign up to the newsletter and attend their sessions – and you get access to the recordings too if you can’t stay till the end.
Last but not least, I’ve had the pleasure of both a more structured Crime Book Club organised by Rebecca Bradley (we discussed Harriet Tyce’s Blood Orange this month), regular writing and feedback sessions (and a literary quiz!) with my Royal Borough Writers Group, as well as an impromptu Zoom chat about books and the difficulties of reading during a pandemic with a few Twitter and blogger friends. Despite all the nastiness and opinion-giving-when-unasked on social media platforms, I have to say that I’ve found my happy bubble of … I wouldn’t call it like-minded people exactly, because we can disagree quite vigorously about a certain author or novel or book cover or film, but simply a group of people who care about these things as much as I do. No tedium of small talk but straight onto the interesting discussions in life! I haven’t had that kind of intellectual sparring or fencing, that enjoyable cultural chit-chat since high school and university. It has always been delightful to have these conversations, but under lockdown it has been a real life-saver.
Well, well, who’d have thought that this bleak novel would feel oddly appropriate for the times we are living through? McCarthy’s tale of a father and son trekking through a post-apocalyptic landscape is the starting point for this month’s Six Degrees of Separation, a reading meme hosted by Kate and one that I always look forward to. We all start with the same book but our thought processes and associations are so different, we all have hugely divergent and entertaining journeys!
Despite the dark, dark story and patient accumulation of sordid details, I found The Road ultimately uplifting. Another book which perks me up even though everyone else seems to find it truly bleak is The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. We read it in our English class in Romania in Communist times and interpreted it as a condemnation of colonialism, so it felt strange to me to see it being condemned as a racist book. Yes, he tends to see ‘the natives’ as an indistinguishable but much-oppressed mass, but that just shows (whether he was doing it deliberately or not) the imperialist attitude of the past and present.
Conrad of course, famously, was not writing in his native language – although, goodness knows, he certainly made English his own! Another author who writes in his second language, but so fluently that he had to pretend at first that he was being translated from his Rusian mothertongue, is Andrei Makine. His best known work Dreams of My Russian Summers explores this relationship with bilingualism and biculturalism, and draws on autobiographical elements. It’s the story of a young boy who grows up in the Soviet Union with a French grandmother and tells the story of the grandmother’s life as well.
Summers with grandmothers are the main feature of one of my favourite books The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. The perfect little book, an understated expression of the love between a granddaughter and grandmother, the grief of losing a mother and daughter, as well as the freedom they both experience in a remote place in the middle of nature.
It would be far too easy to continue the rich vein of summer stories for the next link. Instead, I will focus on remote locations and the book that instantly springs to mind is Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, her memoir of finding salvation in wild nature and isolation in the Orkneys.
While I had some reservations about that book and the urge to find the perfect isolated spot with good Wifi, I have no reservations about recommending the nature writing and immaculately detailed and thoughtful observations of Kathleen Jamie in Sightlines. One of the most unforgettable essays in that book is The Hvalsalen, set in the whale museum of Bergen, so whales provide the link to my next and last book.
I’ll steer clear of the obvious choice, Moby Dick or Pinocchio, and instead opt for a book I haven’t read but which sounds both fascinating and emotional: The Lost Whale by Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm. It is based on a true story from 2004 about a young Orca whale who lost his pod and tried to strike up a friendship with humans. Publishers Weekly deemed that it ‘brings a thorny dilemma to the table–what should humanity’s role toward nature be?–and the book does a surprisingly good job of showing the range of emotions behind that question.’
So a thread which travelled from the US to the Congo to Russia to Finland to Scotland to Norway and finally Vancouver Island. Doing my best to travel while staying indoors! Where will your 6 links take you this month?
April has felt much shorter than March, partly because we are now getting used to our locked down status and are building new routines for ourselves, partly because we had a few days off over Easter. My passion for reading is still not in 100% functioning order, but I’ve tried to just go with the mood and not force myself to persevere or even touch anything that didn’t intrigue me. The 6 days of holidays meant that I managed to read 10 books this month (where oh where are the days when I would devour 16 per month?).
I read three books inspired by the cancelled and much-missed Quais du Polar, although I only managed to review two of them to coincide with the festival, both of them on the topic of international assassins: Deon Meyer and Ayerdhal, an author who lived in Lyon and was very active in the literary community there. Later on, I read Serena by Ron Rash. Although it’s not strictly speaking a crime novel (despite the fact that it’s littered with corpses), I met the author and bought the book in Lyon.
Half of the books I read or am in the course of reading were either in translation or foreign languages: Afrikaans, French, Japanese, Norwegian and German (with a glimmer of Georgian). This month has been quite male author heavy: 7 out of 9 have been men. But it has to be said that the women have been truly unforgettable: Lucia Berlin, Matsuda Aoko and I am currently reading Nino Haratischwili’s The Eighth Life, which will certainly spill into May.
As usual, I find some solace in crime fiction, six of the books were in that genre this month, although I think I might move to subgenres which I’ve neglected in the past, but which now seem enticing, such as historical or cosy crime. I’ve received a batch of British Library reissued classics, and I couldn’t resist diving into one of them, especially after finishing the well-written but emotionally wringing novel by Chris Whitaker We Begin at the End. I wrote about how well they worked as a contrasting pair. I haven’t reviewed the other fun crime novel I read this month because I was planning to air my views at the Virtual Crime Book Club organised by Rebecca Bradley. Sadly, there was some technical confusion and glitch, so I didn’t make it to that meeting: Peter Swanson’s Rules for the Perfect Murder. I’ve been a bit snotty about Peter Swanson’s writing in the past (I reviewed his first book and was not impressed enough to pick up any more of his), but this one was the perfect book for crime and book lovers, packed to the brim with references to classic crime novels and films, an owner who runs a bookshop complete with a bookshop cat. What more could you want? A caper of a novel which reminded me of 1930s films with fast-talking, wise-cracking protagonists.
It feels like more than a month ago when I read Henry James, which could mean that time does pass slowly in confinement, or simply that the classics operate on a different time dimension.
What I have done a lot of this month is watch films, to make good use of my Mubi subscription I suppose. I’ve written a brief recap of some films I’ve watched in a previous post and reminisced about watching the Three Colours trilogy as well. Since then I’ve watched the following:
Melville’s final film Un Flic, starring Alain Delon as an ambiguous goodie this time (a cop with questionable methods and possibly a heart of stone). Drenched in shades of blue, with an unforgettable silent opening scene of the baddies driving along a deserted street in a small town on the Atlantic coast battered by the wind and rain. Very eerie in the current climate.
Eva by Joseph Losey feels a bit dated, but again wonderfully atmospheric shots of an empty Venice, and with a heavy-lidded, snooty-mouthed Jeanne Moreau at the height of her seductive powers.
Knowing my love of skiing and gender wars, it should come as no surprise that I loved Force Majeure by Swedish director Ruben Östlund – what is it about these Swedes observing so closely all the uncomfortable interactions and silences between people? Squirmingly true to life and corrosively funny in parts, as well as claustrophobic, despite the unrealistically empty mountain slopes. (I’m guessing they couldn’t film it during the school holidays.)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire by Céline Sciamma is just so beautiful, so tender, so well observed, every little detail is perfect. For example, the two women address each other with ‘vous’ in even the most intimate moments. There are only two brief instances when they use ‘tu’ and those become all the more significant because of the contrast. Although the Breton coastal landscape is amazing, the scene that most sticks to my mind, is that of the women singing and clapping in rhythm on the beach at night; the words, although hard to make out, are in Latin ‘fugere non possum’, which to me sounds somewhat fatalistically like ‘we cannot flee/escape’. This is, however, what the director of the film had to say about it, which is far more eloquent about the power of love:
They’re saying, ‘fugere non possum,’ which means ‘they come fly,’” said Sciamma. “It’s an adaptation of a sentence by [Friedrich] Nietzsche, who says basically, ‘The higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.’”