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.

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Favourite Reads of the Year

So we’ve finally reached the last couple of days of a busy, tiring, troubled year. May 2019 be merciful and kind and offer plenty of good reading at least, to distract us from the state of the world!

I’ve tried to hold off until now before making my ‘best of’ list, just in case some really good books that I read in December outweigh and outdazzle all of the others. In actual fact, only two of the December titles were contenders: two books about the war in Yugoslavia.

This is not a Top Ten or Top Twenty or any other systematic way of making a list. It’s simply a listing of all the books that really stood out and a brief quote or explanation to show why.

Library designed for Andrew Solomon, from Architectural Digest. I think that’s roughly the amount of shelf space I need.

Most Pleasant New Author Discovery

Cesar Aira: The Lime Tree

How could we have changed so much, if everything was still the same? It all seemed too much the same, in fact. I felt nostalgic for time itself… I was no longer the small child who had gone with his father to collect lime blossom, and yet I still was. Something seemed to be within my grasp, and with the right kind of effort, I felt that I might be able to reach out and take hold of it, like a ripe fruit…


Book I Was Most Obsessive About for a While

Lin Manuel Miranda & Jeremy McCarter: Hamilton The Revolution

Between Christmas 2017 and the time we went to see the Hamilton musical in April 2018, I had the soundtrack playing on repeat every single day, and these witty footnotes to the libretto and additional background on how the show came about was just what I needed. (Although I ostensibly bought the book for my son.)

Best Rediscovered Classic

J. L. Carr: A Month in the Country

I believe I can call this one a classic, although it was only written in the 1980s. Set in the 1920s, it has a very restrained, interwar novel feel about it, with a great deal of respect but no mawkish sentimentality for those who’d experienced the Great War. Also, a story of yearning rather than satisfaction, which reminded me of Brief Encounter.

Best Suspense Novel

Hanne Ørstavik: Love

To my complete surprise, it was not a crime novel which had me almost covering my eyes with fear and reading breathlessly, as if by putting this book down, I could endanger the characters in it, but this small, short story of a frustrated mother and a neglected boy on his birthday.

Best Biography

Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson. A Rather Haunted Life

Not that I read an awful lot of biographies this year, but this one would stand out any year.

Best Political Rallying Call

James Baldwin: The Fire Next Time

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain

In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation – if we are really, that is, to achieve out identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.

Best Regional Curiosity

Ödön von Horváth: Tales from the Vienna Woods

Social and class differences, urban vs. countryside contrasts, and the whole atmosphere of Vienna in the 1920s form the backdrop for this not necessarily terribly original story of love, envy, greed, betrayal, disappointment, but which rises to the universality of human experience like Greek drama.

Most Recognisable Situation

Sarah Moss: Night Waking

Scratch a little deeper beneath the amusing surface of modern family life with lively children and not-quite-there husbands, and you get something much deeper: the tension between academia (or any work involving thought and creativity) and motherhood, tensions within a couple, gender inequalities, class and culture differences.

Most Inspiring

Marina Tsvetaeva: Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922

Because she continued writing even in the direst of circumstances. [I chose the pseudonym Marina partly as an ‘homage’ to her.]

Best Escapism

Antti Tuomainen: Palm Beach Finland

Because it’s snort-out-loud funny, in the whole Fargo back comedy school of writing which I love. Speaking of which, Antti also features in the list below.

Best Crime Fiction

I had to choose my Top 5 Crime Fiction picks of the year for Crime Fiction Lover. Spoiler alert: one of them wasn’t fiction and one of them wasn’t a novel.

Best Book About the Yugoslav War

A topic that I will always, always find fascinating and emotional, so I saw a play and read two books about it this year. My favourite of those is probably Ivana Bodrožić: The Hotel Tito, because it is both a coming of age novel, as well as the story of displaced children.

Best Reread

Two compete for this category and they both still felt chillingly relevant today:

Tana French: Broken Harbour

George Orwell: Down and Out in Paris and London

Most Heartbreaking

Veronique Olmi: La Nuit en vérité

Olmi had already destroyed me with her piercing understanding of mother/child relationships, with all of its tender but also dysfunctional potential, in her masterpiece Beside the Sea. In this novel she returns to this theme, with a mother who is a housekeeper in a posh Parisian apartment with largely absent owners, and her lonely son who is being bullied at school.

Penelope Mortimer: The Pumpkin Eater

This story of an unravelling marriage and mother is just the right combination of funny, ironic, detached, cruel and devastating. A tour de force, hard to believe it was published in 1962, it still feels so modern. You might also want to read this poignant article about Mortimer’s marriage and life. “The outside world identified me as ‘ex-wife of John Mortimer, mother of six, author of The Pumpkin Eater’ [in that order]—accurate as far as it went, but to me unrecognisable.”

WWWednesday 19 December, 2018

A lovely meme to help us catch up with ourselves and others, as hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. I only get a chance to join in once a month, and what a difference a month makes!

The three Ws are:

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

Currently reading:

Lou Sarabadzic: La vie verticale

I met Lou at the Asymptote Book Club meeting last month and completely fell in love with her wit, erudition and style. Then I discovered that we both lived in virtually the same place (not at the same time) in France. Her novel, available in e-book format from her French publisher, Publienet, is about overcoming OCD and depression, and about rebuilding your life abroad.

Rein Raud: The Death of the Perfect Sentence, transl. Matthew Hyde

My Estonian contribution for the #EU27Project is an experimental spy thriller, if you can imagine such a thing, set in the dying days of the Soviet empire and the rise of the Estonian independence movement. Fascinating, oddly familiar and yet also completely new insights. Very funny too in parts.

Just finished:

S.J.I. Holliday: The Lingering

An idealistic, isolated community, suspicious villagers, an abandoned hospital teeming with ghosts, a couple trying to run away from their troubles… Wicker Man meets The Turn of the Screw with elements of The Lovely Bones thrown in for good measure. 

Petra Hammesfahr: The Sinner, transl. John Brownjohn

After seeing the first two episodes of this US crime series (1st season), I was very curious to read the original German novel that it was based on. There are significant differences between book and TV adaptation, but both are excellent at keeping your adrenaline on high alert. You can read my full review on Crime Fiction Lover.

Up next:

I don’t usually like Christmassy reads, but am quite fond of wintry scenes, so here are a couple of escapist books I am considering for my next read:

Antonio Manzini: Black Run

Well, who doesn’t dream of perfect snow conditions on the perfect black run? The Aosta Valley in Italy sounds idyllic, it’s just on the other side of my beloved Mont Blanc, and anything to do with skiing makes me happy, especially since I know I won’t be doing any skiing this year. I suppose I can also use it for Italy for #EU27Project.

Sigrid Nunez: The Last of Her Kind

I’d been reading about The Friend, the latest book by Sigrid Nunez, which won the National Book Award in the US this year. But I thought I’d start with this earlier book by the same author, about a complicated college friendship between two young women of very different social backgrounds (against the backdrop of 1968, the 1970s and then decades later).

I’d love to hear what you’ve got planned for reading over Christmas. Above all, I hope you get some time to read!

The Reading/Writing Year in Review

The year is not quite over, so it is slightly annoying to see all of the ‘Best books of 2018’, as if there is no possibility of reading something amazing over Christmas. I, for one, am firmly convinced I will find a few corkers to keep me busy, entertained and enthralled over the holidays. However, I can share some stats about how I’ve fared this year in reading and writing, as not much is likely to change in that respect in the remaining 2 weeks. I will do a separate post on the exceptional books that I’ve enjoyed most, but closer to the very end of the year.

From Goodreads, I gather that I’ve read 128 books so far (and am likely to reach approximately 135 by the end of the year). That’s about 36,000 pages, with the shortest book being A Month in the Country (absolutely beautiful) and the longest Killing Commendatore (could have been much shorter). The most popular book I read (i.e. the one that most other people read) was I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara (gripping and moving true crime account), while only one other person ever bothered to read Die Stille der Gletscher by Austrian writer Ulrike Schmitz.

There have been a few innovations for me in reading this year:

  • I joined the Asymptote Book Club and so was exposed to more diverse reading in translation. One example of a book that I might not have come across independently is Aranyak by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. I also followed the David Bowie Book Club for a while, which also introduced me to new books, but it seemed to peter out in May or so, or else I was unable to keep up.
  • I’ve tried to cut back on reviewing and read more outside my preferred genre. In addition to my usual crime fiction, poetry and literary fiction, I’ve also read historical fiction (Ahmet Altan’s Like a Sword Wound), biography (Shirley Jackson‘s was particularly memorable), romance or women’s midlife crisis fiction (Marian Keyes), plays (Tales from the Vienna Woods), political essay (James Baldwin and Susan Jacoby), true crime (Michelle McNamara) and reportage (George Orwell).
  • I’ve discovered new publishers like Charco Press and Two Lines Press, as well as countless ambitious poetry publishers doing wonderful work with chapbooks, such as V. Press, SAD Press, Ignition Press and Midsummer Night’s Dream Press.
  • I discovered many new writers; quite a few of them have become names I will now look out for: Argentinian Cesar Aira, South African  Karin Brynard, Japanese Yuko Tsushima, Polish Olga Tokarczuk, German Wolfgang Hilbig, English Fiona Mozley.

However, when you read a lot, you also get a lot of dross. I’ve read more than my share of average books this year, if I’m being honest. Some proved disappointing, simply because I have high expectations of the author or the premise and reviews were too complimentary (Killing Commendatore, Conversations with Friends, Vernon Subutex). Others were quickly consumed and perfectly entertaining while reading them, but failed to make a lasting impression or stand out in a crowded field (most, though by no means all, were titles for review). I reckon about 35-40 of 130 books fall into this category, which is quite a high percentage. A couple of these quick reads every now and then is fine, but with such limited time, am I not better off reading books that will enhance my own writing or teach me something new or give me a frisson of pleasure?

Writing was nowhere near as fast, furious or voluminous as the reading. I did attempt flash fiction in an effort to get the creative juices flowing again. I’ve made a half-hearted attempt to put together a chapbook collection of my poems but haven’t sent it out yet. And I haven’t touched the novel with a barge pole. I’ve submitted less than a handful of poems (or anything, really), so it’s not surprising that I only have one publication in 2018.

Meanwhile, I’ve created over 200 posts and written over 103,000 words on this blog alone. If I were to add all the reviews I’ve done in other place, plus letters and marketing copy that I’ve created for Asymptote… I’ve been productive, yes, but not really on the things that matter most to me personally.

Even better than a triptych…

So there is one major lesson to be learnt from this year (even if it comes in a triptych format): time to focus on my own writing, time to read only things that nourish me and give me joy, time to cut down on my other commitments.

Wrapping Up November 2018

The Romanian holiday has receded in the mists of time, as November proved implacable in terms of work load and ‘fun’ events that involved mainly my older son’s GCSE exams and life after those exams.

All this is the lead-in to explain why my reading has not been hugely varied this month. I managed to finish just 11 books (and others have been dragging on forever). 7 of those were written in English, 8 women authors (well, 7 in fact, for one of those authors featured twice – namely Tana French). I’ve also been very bad about reviewing the books.

Broken Harbour is missing from this selection, but it was a great reread.

Books I Loved

Tana French: Broken Harbour – this was the first book of hers that I read but did not review a few years ago, so this is a reread and it moved me all over again. Possibly my favourite among her books. Those ghost town developments, I wonder if they are beginning to recover as the Dublin property market picks up.

Simone Buchholz: Beton Rouge, transl. Rachel Ward – another writer who takes the crime fiction trope and runs away with it. The crime plays second fiddle to a hugely atmospheric portrayal of Hamburg (and Bavaria), and a cool jazzy riff on language and style.

 Books That Surprised Me

Prabda Yoon: Moving Parts – Surreal, fantastical, sly and witty stories from Thailand, with lots of word play and mind games and lateral thinking. An unusual delight, showing us a very contemporary and urban world, far removed from the exoticism we might associate with that country. Must have been sooo tricky to translate – and you can read an interview with the translator Mui Poopoksakul here.

Kathy Acker: Essential Writings – I’d read short bits and pieces by Kathy Acker before, but never a selection of what the editors consider her best stuff. Not sure if it does justice to the variety of her work, but she certainly still has the power to shock, jolt, anger and make you think!

Ahmet Altan: Like a Sword Wound, transl. Brendan Freely & Yelda Turedi – historical family sagas are not my cup of tea, but the initial soap opera quality of the book soon gives way to a fresco of a society, a certain time and way of life, much like the Transylvanian Trilogy. Another great Asymptote Book Club choice, just like the Prabda Yoon.

Books I Wish I Hadn’t Bothered With

Not necessarily bad, but just not as interesting or scary or crime-fictiony or funny as I expected. Sadly, quite a few of them this month, which perhaps put me off reading a bit.

Hanna Jameson: The Last – can’t make up its mind if it’s a mystery or a dystopian novel

Lucy Foley: The Hunting Party – giving all those who went to Oxford Uni a bad name

Tana French: The Wych Elm – a character who just dragged on and on and on

Noel Langley: There’s a Porpoise Close Behind Us – a few chapters of this could have been charming and funny, a whole book was just too much

Meh

Louise Penny: Kingdom of the Blind – normally this author can do no wrong in my eyes, but although it was nice to revisit Three Pines, I felt this one was a tad repetitive. Maybe it’s time to move on to another subject, another character.

Eva Menasse; Quasikristalle – good in parts, but not quite as clever or innovative as it tried to be

German Literature Month

I only managed to take part with two reviews (although Simone Buchholz fits in this category as well): Eva Menasse and Fred Uhlman’s Reunion, which I read just on the cusp of November. The latter was certainly far more memorable than the former.

Big Plans for Next Few Months

I’ve let my #EU27Project languish for far too long and there are only a few months until they really do become just 27. I was shocked to discover how many French and German books I’ve read, but how few from other countries. So I’ve used my last bit of money to buy some elusive ones, tracked others down from the library and will be focusing mainly on the 13 (thirteen!!!) countries I still have left to read. I’m still searching for books from Cyprus and Luxembourg, so do let me know if you have any recommendations.

Incoming! Books Added to TBR

I was going to start a self-imposed book buying ban, but am postponing it to the New Year. So I am making the most of these last few weeks before it kicks in! So what have I acquired this week?

Orenda Books very kindly sent me Beton Rouge by Simone Buchholz to review. I somehow missed out on reading this German author’s first book translated by Rachel Ward, but dived straightaway into this second one. I was instantly smitten. It is to crime thriller what jazz music is to classical music. An unconventional, refreshing voice, one that I haven’t heard in German crime fiction since Arjouni, and I don’t mind at all crime taking second place in this novel. Full review coming up on Crime Fiction Lover, but I can’t resist sharing one of those little throwaway sarcasms which litter the book:

It always strikes me that tourists in Hamburg look completely different from tourists in Munich or Berlin… Perhaps they think Hamburg is already on the North Sea, although that’s a good thirty to fifty years off yet.

The next two are books I purchased following some Twitter and blogging discussions. Several of the bookbloggers I admire mentioned that Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved was one of their favourite reads, so I found a second-hand copy of it to see what all the fuss was about. 

Karen, from Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings, is already extremely knowledgeable about the Russian Revolution, but she asked for some reading recommendations to get up to speed about French revolutions (they had several, although we are mostly familiar with the 1789 one). My personal favourite revolution – can one have such a thing? (other than the one I lived through in 1989, about which I am conflicted anyway)- is the 1870 Paris Commune. So I starting reminiscing about what I had read on the topic and ended up ordering two books, one of which has already arrived. Donny Gluckstein’s The Paris Commune: A Revolution in Democracy is the Marxist interpretation of it, but, after years of indoctrination, I like to think that I know how to read beyond the ideology to the actual history. The book which is still on its way is Paris Babylon by Rupert Christiansen, which looks much more about the conditions which led to the Franco-Prussian war and the decadence and poverty which led to the Paris Commune.

Can’t resist an archive photo from the Commune de Paris, the barricade at Rue de Castiglione in one of the poshest central locations in Paris.

While waiting for my friend to show up to go to the RADA show on Friday, I popped into Waterstones in Gower Street and couldn’t resist two of those tiny Penguin Modern Classics. Fernando Pessoa’s poetry in I Have More Souls Than One, which led to a discussion with the bookseller if he should embark upon Pessoa (my answer: ‘Absolutely, but dip in and out rather than read it all in one go.’) and four short pieces by Anais Nin in The Veiled Woman.

The final book was an impulse buy from the Vintage Penguins which are strategically placed just opposite the cheap and cheerful Modern Classics. The title comes of course from Alice in Wonderland, the Mock Turtle’s song, and is used as an epigraph for the book:

“‘ Will you walk a little faster?’ said a whiting to a snail,

‘There’s a porpoise close behnd us, and he’s treading on my tail.'”

It’s a broad comedy about London theatrical life and trying to navigate your way through it. I’ve never heard of Noel Langley, but it appears he had several plays produced in the West End in the 1930s and later moved to the US, where he wrote screenplays, most notably for The Wizard of Oz. He moved from South Africa to England in the mid 1930s and I can’t help wondering if his experience as an ‘outsider peeking in and trying to fit in’ informed this book about two young and innocent drama students let loose in the big bad theatre world of the time. A light read for dark days!

WWWednesday 21 November, 2018

What are you currently reading? 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?

You may know by now that I have several books on the go. I’m still rereading The Master and Margarita, a chapter here and there, because it’s amusing and doesn’t demand much effort when you know it well. I’m also reading The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley as a crime fiction light read in the background (which usually ends up with me finishing it off in a frenzy late at night). But my main current read is Ahmet Altan’s Like a Sword Wound, an Asymptote Book Club title that I am really looking forward to reading, about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire seen through the eyes of a disintegrating family.

Just finished:

I’ve just finished reading Eva Menasse’s Quasikristalle for German Literature Month. It could be described as 13 different perspectives on Xane Molin, and not just from the point of view of family and friends, but also casual acquaintances, landlords and doctors. Each story tells you far more about the narrator than it does about Xane, and yet they all add up to tell you the story of this Viennese woman without destroying her mystery. I’ll be reviewing it in more depth shortly.

Coming up next:

I’ve borrowed these two books from the library, so I’d better get cracking on them soon. First, a series of interviews with and essays by Robert Bly Talking All Morning. The list of contents alone seems fascinating: government support for the arts, universal vs. political art, how poetry is a dream that is shared with others, the masculine vs the feminine in poetry and infantilism and adult swiftness (surrealism and automatic writing and the rational mind). The second book is The Essential Acker, selected writings of American firebrand Kathy Acker, whom I know mostly from literary gossip rather than through reading her work. So, time to change that!