I have read over 150 books this year, and there is no way I am going to be able to select just ten for a ‘Best Of’ list, especially since I enjoy so many different genres of books. So I am dividing it into categories and this second category consists of modern classics (written in the last 1`00 years or so but before I was born). They have been among my favourite reads this year. No ifs, no buts. I love older classics too, but the 20th century is where my heart lies.
Wonderful opportunity to read this book for the #1936Club. I was by turns amused and disturbed by this book. The satire, to my mind, is fierce – so accurate, so funny, even though it tries to attack too many targets at once. At the same time, the book left me quite despondent, because it still sounds remarkably current. We humans have not resolved any of these issues, we still behave like that, and we still don’t seem able to take a good long critical look at ourselves.
I compared three English translations of this book to the original in Romanian, which I also read for the #1936Club. Although I took issue with some of the translations, I loved Blecher’s impossible to define work.
Blecher was ahead of his time in many ways, and will probably always be an acquired taste. This book will never become a bestseller, but it is remarkable for its unflinching look at the increasingly slippery borders between the real world and the interior (or, nowadays, the virtual) world. How the real world holds us back, imprisons us, never quite lives up to our imagination, how we forever sense there is something beyond its ‘petty passion for precision’. How the imaginary world can seduce us with its infinite promise, but is ultimately empty.
Naguib Mahfouz: Palace Walk, transl. William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny
The kind of family saga that I adore, as it also contains political and social issues, a portrait of a country at a time of great changes.
The omniscient narrator who tells rather than shows us a character and the ‘head-hopping’ between different points of view in the same scene are techniques that are frowned upon nowadays in the English-speaking publishing world, but it simply reminded me of 19th century novelists… Balzac or Tolstoy in the detailed description of the domestic and the social, with a large cast of interesting, complex characters. Of course, it has a languorous pace and style all its own.
A disquieting, beautifully paced book, which could have been written by Shirley Jackson (no higher praise, in my eyes), although the thriller and detection part of it does rely on a spot of coincidence that feels implausible. One of the best descriptions of unequal domestic division of labour that I’ve ever read, and, as the author says herself:
Although I am assured by some that nowadays everything is quite different and that modern young couples share and share alike when it comes to child-raising problems, I am not convinced. My own observation tells me that there are still many, many couples who believe, and certainly act, as if the babies and young children are the mother’s responsibility entirely.
How could I not love this book, with its references to my favourite composer and opera (Mozart and Don Giovanni), as well as a masked ball, and a very sexy battle of the wits? A polyphony of joy, yet with a tinge of melancholy, like all the best things in life.
Last Six Degrees chain of the year, so let’s make it a memorable one. This is my favourite bookish meme, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, and this month it starts with Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. A book I have read, but such a long time ago (when I was about 16), that I would need to reread it to be able to say anything intelligent about it.
So my first link is to another book that I read a very, very long time ago, loved back then but haven’t reread since, namely The Wings of the Dove by Henry James. I found my teenage diary and this is what I had to say about it when I was 15: ‘He so calms me, this man. He is quiet, takes such small steps, little by little he lets us advance into the story. To fully appreciate him, you must read slowly, tasting every word, chewing, swallowing, and then digesting his ideas as well. Although he moves so slowly, as if he had all the time in the world, you are never bored.’ 😂
The book is about a rich but ill heiress, who is treated rather badly by a self-interested couple. My next link is to a rich heir with a disability (rather than a terminal illness) who is loved by someone who is not interested in his huge wealth: the huge bestseller Me Before You by Jojo Moyes.
I haven’t read the book, merely seen the film, and that is my next link: Millenium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson. I am currently watching the Swedish language version of the three films on BBC4 (half a film every week), but I gave up reading the books after finishing the first one The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I thought them violent, overlong and quite frankly dull at times, could have done with some stringent editing. The films are pretty violent too, it has to be said.
Lisbeth Salander is a pretty enigmatic sort of character, so for my next link I have chosen another young woman who is so enigmatic that she gives the book its title: Enigma Otiliei (The Enigma/Riddle of Otilia) by George Calinescu. It is a classic Romanian novel about the young Felix Sima who comes to Bucharest to study medicine and falls in love with his tutor’s daughter, Otilia, who seems to behave in a rather capricious way. In fact, it might be that Felix never actually gets to see the real Otilia, that he develops this ideal image of her, or makes her into what he would like a girl to be. As a not exactly flattering portrait of the early 20th century bourgeois society in Bucharest, and as an attempt for Romanian literature to catch up with the great 19th century Balzac-style novels, it is quite a landmark achievement.
I will next turn to another author whose name was George (or at least her pseudonym was): the first book by George Sand I ever read was A Winter in Majorca, which I bought when visiting Valdemosssa on a summer holiday with my father on the island (I must have been in my very early teens and was quite a Chopin fan at the time). It is a sort of memoir and travel journal, describing their stay on the island in the forlorn hope that Chopin’s health would improve.
My final book is simply called An Island by Karen Jennings, a recent book which was a surprise apparition on the Booker Prize longlist. I am always glad to see a South African writer there (and of course a South African won it this year), and this is the kind of quiet, low-profile novel that might have gone unnoticed. I haven’t read it yet, but I have bought it and stored it safely on my shelves.
So my journey this month has taken us from London to Venice, from small-town Britain to Sweden, from Bucharest in the early 1900s, to Majorca in the late 1830s and, finally, a timeless unnamed place. I wonder where 2022 will take me – hopefully on some real journeys, not just imaginary ones!
I should in theory wait until tomorrow or the 1st of December to write my monthly summary, but I have other plans for this week, so will wrap up a little earlier. It has felt like a very long month, with the exception of my 4-5 days in Yorkshire, which simply flew by. With the exception of those few days of real holiday, my first in two years, I have been mostly ill (in fact, I had a headache for two of my days in Yorkshire too). I don’t know if my tussle with Covid in October left my body drained and my immune system struggling, but I seem to have caught every single one of the bugs from school and university, with at most a day or two of feeling fine in-between.
So, for anyone wondering where I got all my energy from – wonder no more, for my batteries have well and truly gone this month! I have just about managed to keep the day job going, spent most of my weekends in bed, and have resigned myself that I will be missing out on various projects I wanted to be involved in that have a 30th November deadline.
The only event I was able to attend (on one of the few days when I felt fine) was the Corylus event at the Romanian Cultural Institute in London on the 16th of November, where I got to speak together with the two Bogdans that I’ve been translating: Bogdan Teodorescu and Bogdan Hrib in a debate about BalkanNoir: Is Romania the Wild Wild East of Crime Fiction. The discussion was recorded and I hope we can share the link with you very soon.
Enforced bed rest and a wet mush of a brain might not be conducive to writing or translating, but it worked fine for reading, although admittedly some books were chosed for ease of reading – rather like porridge with honey to soothe a sore throat. I read no less than 18 books, helped by the fact that many of them were novellas. I have even reviewed quite a few of them.
My German Literature Month reads were all novellas, with one exception, so I managed to participate in #NovNov as well.
Alan Johnson: The Late Train to Gipsy Hill – imagine a fun spy novel, more goofy than seriously chilling, despite the rather serious subject matter
Christine Mangan: Palace of the Drowned – which did not live up to the blurb and premise – Venice in winter, an author suffering from writers’ block and waning popularity, a creepy old palazzo, an over-eager young fan. Let’s just say that it was verbose rather than truly atmospheric, neither Death in Venice nor The Talented Mr Ripley.
Margaret Kennedy: The Feast – review to come, hopefully
Surprisingly, only a third of the books I read this month were foreign language books – all of them German. Ten of the eighteen were by women writers and five were in the crime genre (a very low percentage by my standards).
Reading plans for December will be all about snow and frozen climes: Russians and Scandinavians will have pride of place, so that I can snuggle indoors under many blankets while the blizzard rages outside.
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.