#SixDegrees October: Starting with Vanity Fair

‘There is far too much to do around the house!’ I wailed. ‘And who is going to fill up that empty fridge and prepare things for school? There are also many, many blog posts to read, books to review and events to plan…’

And yet, when I heard about Vanity Fair, I had to join in this month’s Six Degrees of Separation meme. Hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best, it works as follows: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and you need to link to six other books to form a chain, each one linking to the next in the chain but not necessarily to the initial book. Vanity Fair was this month’s starting point and it was one of my favourite books as a teenager – all of us women need to be a bit more like Becky Sharp!

The fairground theme is the link to my next book, which has a small but significant scene set in the Prater, Vienna’s fairground and amusement park that was very similar to the Vauxhall Gardens featured in Vanity Fair. I am talking, of course, of The Third Man by Graham Greene, which became one of the most iconic noir films of all time.

Taking the option of Vienna for my next link would be all to easy, as I am such a fool about that city, so instead I will use the link of noir film adaptations. Another book that was beautifully adapted (probably surpassing the original) was The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. The external third person narrative feels a little too cold and impenetrable to me, and I like his Nora and Nick Charles characters far more than Sam Spade.

Another title containing the word ‘falcon‘ is Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a travelogue by Rebecca West, giving a rather chilling picture of Yugoslavia on the brink of invasion by the Fascists in 1937. Interestingly, though, she was as staunchly anti-communist as she was anti-fascist, which meant that she was more of a supporter of the Chetniks (which later led to the revival of Serbian nationalism which led to the Yugoslav War in the 1990s) than of Tito’s partisans during the Second World War.

Speaking of partisans and anti-fascist resistance, I’ve not yet read but am fascinated by this book about Primo Levi exploring the reasons why he got sent to a concentration camp in 1943. Primo Levi’s Resistance: Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy by Sergio Luzzato (transl. Frederika Randall) examines a lesser-known part of Italian history.

It would be too easy to turn to another Primo Levi book as the next chain in the link, so instead I will look at another period in Italian history. A family that fascinated me as a child, the Borgias are the apogee of ambition and ruthlessness, although I feel that poor Lucrezia Borgia was often a pawn in the machinations of her father and brother. Sarah Dunant’s Blood and Beauty: The Borgias tries to sort out fact from fiction.

Sarah Dunant has also written a novel Sacred Hearts about a young woman being sent away to the convent against her will in 16th century Italy, and it’s nuns forming the final link in the chain. Muriel Spark features the most manipulative and ruthless Mother Superior in literature in The Abbess of Crewe, while constantly portraying herself as a good Catholic. A parody of either Watergate or McCarthyanism – or both. 

So my links this month have taken me from Vienna to the US to Yugoslavia, Italy and England. Where will your associations take you?

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Gothic Book Tag for Halloween

I’ve learnt to like (aka ‘put up with’) Halloween for the sake of my children, who enjoy it far more than almost any other seasonal event. Funnily enough, they are the ones who don’t want to watch scary films with me! But I like Gothic books even more than scary films, although I haven’t read that many of them lately. Maybe it is a teenage thing, when your nerves are more rested, younger and bouncier.

So I thought I’d take part in the Gothic Book Tag, as seen over on Brona’s Books. You will find the rules on Classics Club Gothic Books Tag.

  • Which classic book has scared you the most? It’s a tie between The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, both by Shirley Jackson. She is such a master at the slow build of something strange and ‘off’. Plus, I find mental health issues are far scarier (because I’m more likely to encounter or experience them) than ghosts and the like.
  • Scariest moment in a book? Both in the book and in the film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story Don’t Look Now, that moment when the little girl in the red coat turns around as John follows her through the canals and cobbled streets of Venice. It still gives me goosebumps merely trying to describe it and it has only got worse since having children myself and trying to imagine what it might be like to lose them.
  • Classic villain that you love to hate? Count Fosco in The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. He’s just so unexpected, larger than life and completely sinister. Unforgettable.
  • Creepiest setting in a book? I’d never been to the Yorkshire moors when I read Wuthering Heights, but I imagined it as the most bleak, desolate, creepy landscape with the wind howling all around and thunderstorms raging. Have I mentioned that I used to be deeply disturbed by thunderstorms as a child? I had to dive down under the covers until they were over
Still from “Don’t Look Now” via Paramount Pictures. That classic red coat – once seen, never forgotten!

Best scary cover ever? Not sure if it’s scary or disgusting, but it certainly makes me squirm, the cover of Kiss Kiss collection of Roald Dahl’s short stories (most certainly NOT for children).


Book you’re too scared to read? Jim Thompson’s unflinching exploration into the gut-churning crevices of Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford’s utterly remorseless head in The Killer Inside Me. Generally, I don’t like spending any time in the heads of serial killers.


Spookiest creature in a book? Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Slimy, unpleasant and yet pitiful.

Classic book that haunts you to this day? Turn of the Screw by Henry James. The author’s verbose and indecisive style is pared down to what is, for him, the minimum, and it fits in well with this ultimate unreliable narrator and the journey we take into her troubled mind. He manipulates our emotions and makes us question our own attitudes towards class and gender, in a way which makes me uncomfortable to this day. For reading it with an insufficiently critical mind the first time round. 

Favourite cliffhanger or unexpected twist? I don’t know if it’s entirely unexpected, since we are dealing with the shock horror world of Murakami Ryuu, but his Coin Locker Babies and In the Miso Soup both fit the bill.


Classic book you really, really disliked? Not sure if it can be considered a classic already, but I really did not take to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, although I normally like campus and friendship novels.


Character death that disturbed/upset you the most? Without question, Simon being set upon and killed by the other boys in The Lord of the Flies. His gentle, dreamy, poetic personality made him my favourite character anyway. He has none of the self-righteousness of Piggy or Ralph – and certainly none of the dictatorship instincts of Jack.


List your top 5 Gothic/scary/horror classic reads. As I said, I find the human mind and especially herd instinct to be the scariest things in the universe. So my Top 5 Scary Reads are almost like studies in psychology and sociology:

  • Anthony Burgess: A Clockwork Orange
  • George Orwell: 1984
  • Eugene Ionesco: Rhinoceros
  • Todd Strasser: The Wave
  • RL Stevenson: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Share your scariest/creepiest quote, poem or meme.

Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then.

Robert Browning: My Last Duchess

The best frisson comes when the writer leaves so much unsaid that you have to make up the connections in your own head.



WWWednesday: What Are You Reading?

This is one of the few posts that I am scheduling ahead of time, because I am currently travelling in Romania and have only occasional access to the internet. I have taken my Kindle and a physical book with me, plus will have access to my parents’ library, which contains many of my own books that I have not yet taken to the UK.

A lovely meme that I get to do about once a month. All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three questions or Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

 Currently reading: 

I was planning to take The Brothers Karamazov with me on holiday, even though it’s such a chunkster, but I somehow picked up Bulgakov instead from my Russian writers’ shelf. So I am now rereading one of my favourite books of all time The Master and Margarita. The cover is pretty boring, nothing like the brilliant (or awful) choices I once researched.

Just finished:

Lisa Gabriele’s The Winters is a retelling of another of my favourite books, Rebecca. In an article I recently read, the author explains how rereading Rebecca in the time of Trump made her question all her previous memories of the book.

 
After a whirlwind romance, a young woman returns to the opulent, secluded Long Island mansion of her new fiancé Max Winter—a wealthy politician and recent widower—and a life of luxury she’s never known. But all is not as it appears at the Asherley estate. The house is steeped in the memory of Max’s beautiful first wife Rebekah, who haunts the young woman’s imagination and feeds her uncertainties, while his very alive teenage daughter Dani makes her life a living hell. 

Will read next: 

I want something not too challenging and entertaining while travelling, so I’ve found a book on my Kindle that I downloaded so long ago that I can’t even remember when or why. Probably because it was free, just when I got my Kindle for the first time. The Middle Temple Murder by JS Fletcher was originally published in 1919. Given my older son’s interest in the legal profession, I might even pick up some odd tips about barristers past and present! I’d never heard of JS Fletcher, but apparently he was a journalist who wrote more than 200 books across all genres, from poetry to crime fiction. As this article about him states:  How fame eluded a man of many words

Reading Summary for August 2018

13 books this month. Not surprising that a certain proportion of them were women in translation, given that it is #WITMonth, but I also felt tempted to read more women in general, which is reflected in the ratio of women to men: 8 women, 5 men this month. I was also keen to read more foreign authors in general: 11 are either in another language or in translation. My favourite genre remains crime fiction, obviously, with no less than 7 books in this area, but I have also read short stories, diaries and essays this month.

Women in Translation – done a good job of reviewing nearly everything

Lucy Fricke: Daughters  – in German

Teresa Solana: The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and other stories

Beatriz Bracher: I Didn’t Talk 

Anne Holt: Dead Joker 

Lilja Sigurdardottir: Trap

Marina Tsvetaeva: Earthly Signs – Moscow Diaries 1917-22

Veronique Olmi: La Nuit en vérité – in French, review to come possibly at the weekend

Crime Fiction

Tana French: The Trespassers – one of my favourites of the Dublin Squad series because of the prickly, larger than life voice of Antoinette Conway, the main protagonist

Michael Stanley: Dead of Night – standalone about the rhino horn trade in South Africa

Pierre Lemaitre: Inhuman Resources – the most extreme assessment centre you can imagine and the despair of the unemployed, review to come soon on CFL

Antti Tuomainen: Palm Beach Finland – comic noir, review to come soon on CFL

Other Random Reads

Mircea Eliade: The Old Man and the Bureaucrats – an elderly teacher ends up on the wrong side of a totalitarian state when he tries to find an old pupil of his

Norman Manea: The Fifth Impossibility – essays about censorship, the difficulties of translation, living in exile, as well as many Romanian and other authors.

WWWednesday: What are you reading on 8 Aug 2018?

I only get around to doing it approximately once a month, but here is a lovely meme you might want to take part in, hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.

Current:

For review:

Antti Tuomainen: Palm Beach Finland

From being a very dark, existentialist writer, Finnish author Tuomainen has evolved to become one of the funniest noir writers around – yes, black humour, sometimes even slapstick. The thought of Finland’s beaches becoming the next hot tourist destination doesn’t seem so far-fetched this long hot summer, the writing is sharp and there are plenty of dead bodies, but also inept criminals, entrepreneurs who’ve seen too much Baywatch and groaningly recognisable house renovation situations to keep you entertained along the way.

For #WITMonth:

Marina Tsvetaeva: Moscow Diaries 1917-22

How do you stay sane when the world you knew is collapsing around you, when you are struggling to survive and feed your children, when there seems to be no point in producing literature anymore?

Recently Read:

Beatriz Bracher: I Didn’t Talk

Asymptote Book Club title for July was perfectly timed to arrive just before #WITMonth. Gustavo, a former school principal and university lecturer, is ‘downsizing’. The family house is being sold and he is moving out of Sao Paolo. As he goes through the paperwork, old memories resurface: of his family, his friendships, his pedagogical beliefs and how all of these fared under the military junta in Brazil. I’m planning to review this one very shortly, perhaps tomorrow.

Next:

I’ve got a craving to read something in a different language. I’ve recently finished reading a German book (which will also be reviewed shortly for #WITMonth), but I’d like to settle down with a French one. I’ve got a Veronique Olmi that I haven’t touched yet, or some Swiss Romande authors.

And Melissa Beck, classicist and avid reader, who blogs as The Bookbinder’s Daughter, has very nearly convinced me I should The Brothers Karamazov another go. This is my lasting shame: I love Dostoevsky and yet I’ve never been able to finish this book. Perhaps a different translation might do the trick. Fifth time lucky? It really gets going after the first 500 pages or so, I understand.

 

 

 

Bookish Summary for July 2018, Plans for August

Only 10 books this month (of which two were flash fiction collections, so much easier to read in bits and pieces). I’ve really struggled to read, and I’m not quite sure if it was because I was busy and tired, or going out too much, or just too hot to be able to concentrate properly.

6 written by women, one anthology, and 3 written by men. 3 in translation.  Penance and Vernon Subutex were the only two of #20booksofsummer which I read this month, which means that I am only up to 6 out of 20. It’s not going to happen, is it?

 

I don’t know if my lack of reading enthusiasm influenced my appreciation of the books, or whether the lack of brilliant books led to a slump in my reading, but I have a confession to make. Quite a few of the books were not particularly exciting – mildly disappointing, in fact. I expected more, for instance, from Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends but overall I thought it pretty average, while Home Fire was reasonably good but didn’t bowl me over for all its prize winning. Vernon Subutex was the most disappointing, simply because I have high expectations of Virginie Despentes and have enjoyed her provocative, satirical writing in the past.

However, there were also some successes. I really liked Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Tidings of the Trees and Hometown, Carrie Etter’s collection of flash fiction dedicated to typical small-town America and life lived at its more precarious margins. I discovered the first thanks to Asymptote Book Club and the latter thanks to the Flash Fiction Festival. Which just goes to show that sometimes you need to allow someone knowledgeable to guide you into a new reading direction rather than rely on your favourite genres or media recommendations. American by Day was a fun crime read, contrasting Norwegian and American cultures and policing styles, although the mystery part of it was perhaps not really all that mysterious or satisfactory.

I’ve got some excellent books lined up for Women in Translation month though,  all of which I have just recently received in the post:

  1. Gine Cornelia Pedersen: Zero, transl. Rosie Hedger (which the translator very kindly sent to me) is the story of a young girl with mental health problems and has been described as ‘punk rock’
  2. Teresa Solana: The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories, transl. Peter Bush – a collection of dark, crime-seeped stories set in Solana’s native Barcelona (thanks to publisher Bitter Lemon Press)
  3. Lilja Sigurdardottir: Trap, transl. Quentin Bates – 2nd book in the series about a single mother trying to escape her drug-mule past (thank you to Orenda Books)
  4. Beatriz Bracher: I Didn’t Talk, transl. Adam Morris – powerful story about people caught up in Brazil’s military dictatorship (Asymptote Book Club’s July title)
  5. Marina Tsvetaeva: Moscow Diaries 1917-1922, transl. Jamey Gambrell – diaries and essays written by one of my favourite poets during one of the most turbulent periods in Russian history (taking advantage of NYRB book sale)
  6. Lucy Fricke: Töchter (Daughters) – two middle-aged friends take the seriously ill father of one of them to a Swiss clinic, but things don’t quite turn out as planned. Described as a sort of Thelma and Louise road trip, it’s supposed to be both hilarious and thoughtful, and was recommended by a couple of my favourite German book bloggers.

Other books for August will be all the ones I have to review (a long, long list, as I’ve been even more lax in my reviewing than in my reading): Michael Stanley: Dead of Night; Antti Tuomainen: Palm Beach Finland; Pierre Lemaitre: Inhuman Resources; Roberto Saviano: The Piranhas. I also have three library books that I would really like to finally get around to reading, although I’ve renewed them repeatedly: Romain Gary; Eliade: The Old Man and the Bureaucrats; Norman Manea: The Fifth Impossibility (Essays on Exile and Language).

Half Year Mark: Favourite Books So Far

We are halfway through the calendar (well, a little bit over, but who’s counting) and I wanted to take a look back at all I have read and jot down some favourites before I forget them in the end of year scramble. [Instead of the book covers, which I have already used in previous posts about those books, I thought I would include pictures of my two favourite libraries in London instead.]

A noirish picture of Senate House which seems to have stepped out of a Graham Greene novel.

According to my Goodreads counter, I’ve read 75 books so far this year. There have been some periods when I could barely concentrate on reading, when I was too het up with work and personal matters, but on the whole it’s not a bad number, an average of 12.5 books a month. It feels like it’s been a good mix of male and female authors, translated or foreign language books and English language ones, and a broad mix of genres. Here are the books which really stayed with me long after I read them (in chronological order of reading):

César Aira: The Lime Tree

The first Asymptote Book Club title, which I read just in time to ring in the New Year, and gave me a hunger to read more by this author. I love his slapdash style and the way he zooms in on the fine detail, then telescopes out to describe the historical and social issues of his country.

Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson – A Rather Haunted Life

This gave me so much insight into the life of one of my favourite authors. Suddenly, a lot of things became clear to me, and, although it was sad, it was somehow not as depressing as the Blake Bailey biography of Richard Yates. P.S. Why do so many writers I admire have difficult relationships with their mothers?

Senate House Library

Michelle McNamara: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Not usually a fan of true crime, which I always feel slightly icky about because of its voyeuristic qualities and because it focuses so much on the criminal instead of the victims. But this book (which has now deservedly achieved higher visibility because of the finding of the killer she describes) gets the balance just right. Yes, it is the story of a woman’s – and a group’s – obsession with a killer who made life in California hell for several years in the 1970s, but it also is compassionate and respectful towards the victims.

Bibhutibhushan Bopadhyandyaya: Aranyak

Another Asymptote Book Club title, an immersive experience of a lost world. It may not be the most flawless book from the storytelling point of view – in fact, it often feels more like anthropological field notes rather than a novel (and I know not everyone finds the two equally fascinating). But there are beautifully nuanced observations (as well as blind spots) and lyrical descriptions of the forests which I loved.

Senate House Library, the Periodicals room.

Hanne Ørstavik: Love

OK, you’re going to think I’m just doing one long advertisement for the Asymptote Book Club, but I’ve honestly been blown away by their selection of books, most of which have pushed me a little beyond my comfort zone (which I like to think is plenty spacious enough already, but there is always room for more). This quietly devastating story about looking for love in all the wrong places had my heart in my throat all the time while reading it.

Karin Brynard: Weeping Waters

As a crime novel this may not be quite perfect (I guessed the perpetrator fairly early on, although the author does its best to create a list of suspicious characters), but it is a hard-hitting description of rural life in South Africa, the life that so few tourists get to see. It really helps us to understand the Afrikaner mentality a bit better, and tries not to take sides in the tricky matter of land ownership and race in that beautiful but troubled country. It got me doing more research on ‘plaasmord’ and South African history.

My beloved old British Library reading room, back when it was housed in the British Museum

George Orwell: Down and Out in Paris and London

So grateful the David Bowie Book Club made me reread this one, as it seems to be ever more appropriate to the present-day.

Fiona Mozley: Elmet

A debut novel that is the reverse of Cold Comfort Farm, in many ways. Instead of parody of the gloomy, dramatic portrayals of country life, we have a modern take on life in the countryside which seems to not have changed much for the better. Like Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter, this is both a family story and the description of a very tough way of life, which is being encroached upon by big agriculture and developers. The prose was so poetic and accurate, that I was completely won over.

Olga Tokarczuk: Flights

I started reading this under the impression that it was a collection of essays rather than a novel, and I’m still not quite sure what it is. But it doesn’t matter. This constellation novel is a jazz improvisation on the subject of travelling, escaping, finding freedom, and it’s the flights of fancy which charmed me.

What books have inveigled their way into your heart this year? And do you think they will continue to claim their spot in your heart until the end of the year?

The modern British Library