#6Degrees of Separation: October 2021 starts with one of my favourite writers

Not only is the monthly Six Degrees of Bookish Separation one of my favourite literary memes, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, but this month it starts with a famous short story by one of my very favourite writers! Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ starts out jauntily enough as the description of a traditional event in small-town America but gets more and more disturbing and sinister in every paragraph. When it was published in The New Yorker on June 26th, 1948, it received the highest volume of readers’ letters that the magazine has ever experienced.

Some were baffled, some were outraged, a few thoroughly enjoyed it… and my first link the chain features a controversial story that also appeared in The New Yorker and went viral. Except that this story was published in 2017 and therefore the uproar was mostly on social media rather than via readers’ letters. I am talking, of course, about ‘Cat Person’ by Kristen Roupenian. The other thing it has in common with Jackson’s notorious short story is that it starts off as the description of a mediocre/bad date such as we have all known, but becomes more and more disconcerting as you read it (and perhaps even more uncomfortable in retrospect).

How can I resist a cat as my second link? Which takes me to a masterpiece of observation of unreliable humans and a rapidly changing society through feline eyes, in Natsume Soseki’s I Am A Cat. Yes, it’s a chunky book – and you may be surprised to hear that Soseki intended it to be a short story at first, but was convinced to add more and more stories to it, as it appeared serialised in literary journal Hototogisu in 1905/06.

Rather a leap in my next link: Soseki studied for two years in England, at UCL, and was utterly miserable most of the time. So I thought I would turn to someone else’s more joyful (and satirical) journey around England, namely Karel Capek’s Letters from England, which convey a bemused, not entirely uncritical but on the whole admirative glance at England in the 1920s.

An unimaginative link next: Capek’s book was published in 1925 and so I looked for other books published that year. I ignored two firm favourites, The Great Gatsby and The Trial, and instead turned to Anita Loos and her best-known comic novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Nowadays the book is better known for its film adaptation starring Marilyn Monroe as the blonde and Jane Russell as the brunette. At the time of publication, however, Anita Loos was hugely popular as a scriptwriter, playwright, novelist and actress.

Who can ever forget this iconic scene of ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’

She provides the link to the next book, because she wrote the stage adaptation for Colette’s novella Gigi in 1951. It made a star of Audrey Hepburn, although in the screen version she was replaced by Leslie Caron.

For my final link, I use Audrey Hepburn again. In the film version of the musical My Fair Lady, she in turn replaced Julie Andrews, who starred in the stage version. The musical is of course based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, which is far more of an indictment on the English class system (and accents) than is apparent in the (admittedly, rather lovely) musical.

My little chain has perhaps been less well travelled this time, but it has included a short story, a novella, non-fiction and a play, so I tried to travel through genres this time. Where will your six links take you this month?

#6Degrees of Separation June 2021

This is possibly my favourite monthly link-up, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. A book is chosen as a starting point and all you have to do is link it to six other books to form a chain. You can make it harder on yourself by giving yourself a theme, or try to turn the chain into a circle, or you can just roam wildly, like I do!

This month we start with a book that I haven’t read, nor do I know much about it (always a tricky starting point). The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld won the Stella Prize and has been described as ‘a complex and unsettling story set in the east of Scotland, near the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, and moves between three time frames and three women’ by an Amazon reviewer.

I love to eat fish, so I instantly thought of ‘seabass’ when I saw that title. Another book with a species of fish in the title is Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday, a rather whimsical love story and gently satirical novel, poking fun at politics, civil servants and international relations. It was a huge hit, translated into many languages and adapted for screen. Although the author followed it up with six more novels, that were supposedly well received, I have never heard of the others, so to me he feels like a one-hit wonder.

Another author whose debut novel was hugely successful and adapted for film – but who was a true one-hit wonder (i.e. hasn’t written anything since) is Arthur Golden with his Memoirs of a Geisha. I personally found the book rather shallow – full of description and details, very much designed to titillate a Western audience, but the characters were paper-thin.

There are some similar elements of soap opera, but considerably more subtlety in the portrayal of geishas in Higuchi Ichiyo‘s work, particularly in Takekurabe, a story of adolescents growing up in the Red Light District and realising that it is not that easy to escape what life has in store for them.

Take in Japanese usually means bamboo and one of the oldest Japanese stories, almost a folk tale, is Taketori Monogatari – The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. The bamboo cutter and his wife find Kaguya-hime, a princess from the Moon, as a tiny baby inside a bamboo stalk. This story has been made into an anime (under the name of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya) by Studio Ghibli.

For my next choice, I go with a book that has also been adapted into a Studio Ghibli anime, namely Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. There are quite a few significant differences between the book and the film (beautifully described in this blog), the most annoying one being that Wales simply disappears. Maybe Miyazaki felt that Japanese move-goers wouldn’t know where Wales was?

For my last link I choose a novel with the word ‘castle’ in the title. Although I hesitated a little about whether I should put down Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, that one feels a little too wholesome, so in the end I could not resist going with one of my favourite authors Shirley Jackson and her wonderfully creepy We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Once more we have travelled the world – from Scotland to Yemen, Japan to the magical kingdom of Ingary (and Wales), and finally a far too small town in Vermont. Where will your Six Degrees take you?

Mothers and Sons, Fathers and Daughters

Last month I read two memorable novels about the fraught relationship between parents and children. The first, Ioanna Karystiani’s Back to Delphi (transl. Konstantine Matsoukas), is about mothers and sons trying (and mostly failing) to understand and forgive each other. The second, Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman is at least partly about the damage forceful fathers can wreak on their daughters (although it is also about college cliques and not quite fitting in).

Back to Delphi is the more poetic title in English, but the Greek original is actually ‘Sacks’ and refers to the mental baggage we all carry with us. It is the story of Viv Koleva ‘fifty two years of weariness and seventy-eight kilos of sadness’, who is desperate to reconnect with her son Linus, who is on a brief furlough from prison, where he is serving a life sentence for rape and murder. She takes him on a trip to Delphi, out of a misguided conviction that seeing the beauty of Ancient Greek sculptures and architecture will give him a reason to live, somehow turn him into a better person.

– Archaeology requires and provides knowledge, imagination, inspiration, adventure, it obliges a mind to take a reprieve from reality, to not go moldy inside four walls, she said with zest…

Flashbacks show us Viv’s life as a young woman, how she abandoned her medical studies when she met Linus’ father and got pregnant, how she single-handedly started a successful retail business, while her husband sank deeper and deeper into alcoholism and feelings of inadequacy. When her husband dies prematurely, we understand how she pinned all her expectations on her son, how she wanted to offer him the best possible life. After her son’s crimes are discovered and he is sentenced, she is shunned by neigbours, friends and even family, because ‘in every crime, along with the accused, society also tried the mother.’ She has to move several times, pretend to be someone else, change her job. We start to sympathise with her and feel that the son’s monosyllabic utterances and sulking as they walk around Delphi are a bit exaggerated.

However, about halfway through the book, we are suddenly plunged into the son’s point of view, and at first it feels like a violent shock to the system. However, if you can read past the first few paragraphs, you start to understand how Linus grew up the way he did, how his parents always wanted him to be quiet, never really listened to him or responded to his needs. They were too self-absorbed in their business, their difficult relationship, their hard lives. His godmother, supposedly his mother’s best friend, filled him with fear and loathing. He felt abandoned, orphaned in every sense of the word. In his teens, he is awash with self-loathing and depression, and recognises some of those impulses in his mother, although that doesn’t make him understand or forgive her.

Linus was certain that from time to time, Viv was stewing in the same dark juice, turning her back on opportunities, organizing defeats, practicing her talent for frustration and long-term despondency. Mother and son filled with energy for misery. If only he had one… two… three siblings to help carry the heavy nothingness and the abundant loneliness, more kids should mean smaller portions of orphanhood for each.

The crimes Linus commits are horrific and it is painful to watch how torn his mother is between disgust and guilt as she starts to suspect he is the one committing them. Yet, as we move back to Delphi in the present-day, you cannot help but wish, as a reader, that the two of them will somehow be able to communicate with each other for the first time. However, this is not a Hollywood movie and the journey there is extremely bumpy, with no certainty of arrival. The recognition of past mistakes is a very painful, though necessary first step, but it’s only a small step to rebuilding trust, finding the ability to love and forgive.

… she reconsidered the spoiled part. The truth was her hands didn’t often touch her child, not when he was young and not when he grew up and her lips didn’t kiss his hair much and her eyes didn’t enfold him tenderly and her voice didn’t come out in stories and gentle words. The spoiling was done via her wallet and the deep fryer, a generous allowance and lots of french fries, till he finished high school the deep fryer was working overtime.

This was an extremely difficult book to read as a mother in general, and as a mother of boys in particular, because no matter how well you think you are communicating, no matter how close you think you are, there is still something about the young man in front of you that remains unknowable and slightly frightening. And you know that society places the onus far more on you than on any father figure for the way you raised your child. Any of their flaws and inexplicable impulses are a reflection on you; psychoanalysts and the press, as well as public opinion, will put you on trial. Aside from the particular circumstances between this mother and son couple, the novel also shows the ways in which completely honesty, transparency and understanding is impossible even between those we consider closest – and that perhaps it is even undesirable or unbearable to share every single thought.

Every story has blanks, some are common to all the participants in its plot. Each one, though, has a few that only he has noticed, that don’t add up for him alone no matter how he tries, if he does, which he probably doesn’t. In certain cases, some are well served by such blanks, gray zones which they guard by tooth and claw, terrifed at the possibility that, if they were to be filled, the truth might be intolerable.

Ultimately, perhaps it’s these lies of omission, and the spaces they allow for our own interpretation of events, that enable us to survive and thrive in relationships at all.

Hangsaman proves to be an unexpected companion piece to the troubled male Greek teenager. It is the story of a female American teenager, Natalie Waite, who at first sight seems to be the bright, obedient daughter who mostly humours but frequently despises her stay-at-home, downtrodden mother with her anxious impulses, while simultaneously admiring and sparring intellectually with her demanding writer father. When she goes to college, she proves herself to be too independent of thought and behaviour to really fit in, she is repelled by the hypocrisy she finds at every step, and descends into a deep well of darkness, loneliness and despair.

Such is the elegance and wit of Shirley Jackson’s style that the readers understand long before Natalie realises herself that her father is a manipulative, dictatorial man who takes out his fears of his own mediocrity on his daughter. The letters he writes to her in college are both funny and infuriating. Every scene between father and daughter is filled with real menace – this is deliberate misunderstanding rather than unconscious one. When she finally admits to him that things are not going well, that she needs help, this is his response:

‘I should hate to deprive you prematurely of the glories of the suicidal frame of mind, since I am fairly certain that depriving yourself of the ability to feel this way would be more cruel than any sort of physical torture you might inflict upon yourself, so that I can use “suicidal” as a descriptive adjective without really feeling that it implies any action.’

‘You’re trying to make me say that I want to kill myself,’ Natalie said.

‘You need hardly say anything quite so meaningless… and I would vastly prefer that you confine your statements to pure descriptions of fact. I think better of your vanity, Natalie, than to believe that two months out of seventeen years could destroy you.

Unsurprisingly, Natalie returns to college even more unsure of herself, feeling her identity and her grip on reality slowly slipping away. She does make one friend, Tony, who proves to be as much of an outsider as herself, a sort of alter ego (and quite possibly an imaginary friend, Jackson never likes to make things too clearcut in her writing). Tony has an almost hypnotic effect on Natalie and dares her to go beyond what she ever imagined possible:

…they want to pull us back, and start us all over again just like them and doing the things they want to do and acting the way they want to act and saying and thinking and wanting all the things they live with every day. And… I know a place where we can go and no one can trouble us.

The crimes that take place in Hangsaman are, unlike the ones in Back to Delphi, more crimes of the mind. We are never really sure if they take place or not, but the sense of rising danger is more frightening than anything I read in the more explicit Greek novel. I found myself almost forgetting to breathe for whole scenes at a time. There is, in particular, one passage in which Natalie describes how she might pick up and pull apart the neat little houses she sees scattered around the college campus which sounds like it could have provided the backdrop or inspiration for the lyrics of Blondie’s Rapture. I remain constantly stunned by how much Shirley Jackson was ‘of her time’, describing the claustrophobic environment for housewives and the limited possibilities for women in the 1950s, and yet how utterly contemporary she still feels in style, at once sly and sinister, detached yet capable of getting fully under your skin and never quite letting you go.

P.S. I think the new Penguin Modern Classics covers for Shirley Jackson’s books are little bit bland, but some of the earlier covers were very pulpy. Simon at Stuck in a Book has written a whole blog post about Shirley Jackson covers, which I highly recommend.

Statistics from 2019 and Plans for 2020

According to Goodreads, I read 44,163 pages across 148 books – so went over my target number of 120. There were times during the year, however, when I fell quite a bit behind with my reading, so it didn’t feel like I read so much. The longest book was Sylvia Plath’s Unabridged Journals at 732 pages, the shortest was a novella Christmas at the Chateau, written by Lorraine Wilson. The most popular book that I read was Meg Worlitzer’s The Interestings (which did not quite live up to my expectations) and the least popular was Denise Levertov: In Her Own Province, apparently read by only one other person on Goodreads (but well worth the effort of finding and reading).

I was lucky to have a bit of peace and quiet after the 22nd of December, staying alone at a friend’s flat just outside Geneva, so I read a lot for a week or so (my friend also has an excellent selection of books neatly lined up all over her flat). So that helped bring my total of books read in December to a wopping 17, quite a contrast to some previous months. This was a month of ‘free reading’, whatever catches my fancy. So I read 12 women writers, 5 men.

6 crime fiction novels (although two of those were unusual ones): Attica Locke: Heaven, My Home (nuanced and thought-provoking depiction of race relations, as usual); After She Wrote Him by Sulari Gentill (a clever, joyous metafictional romp); Katherine Bolger Hyde’s Death with Dostoevsky (a cosy crime on campus novel with a literary twist); Will Dean’s Red Snow (an immersive, glacial experience of Sweden’s far northern reaches, and a resolute, brilliant detective); The Raising by Laura Kasischke (another campus novel, looking at the dangers of the Greek societies); Sarah Vaughan’s Little Disasters (a drama which sounds far too plausible to any parents who have had to take their children many times to A&E).

3 non-fiction: Pies and Prejudice by Stuart Maconie (a humorous, heartfelt description of Northern towns, although it feels incredibly dated at times – written in 2008, it refers to Boris Johnson as an aimable clownish politician, for example); Still Writing by Dani Shapiro (inspirational but very down to earth encouragement and advice for writers); Circling to the Center by Susan Tiberghien (the perfect book for when you need to take a step back and use writing, art, psychology to understand yourself and find a spiritual path, whatever way it might take).

2 books of short stories by an old favourite writer of mine, Helen Simpson: Getting a Life (about the slippery slope of motherhood) and Cockfosters (the even slippier slope of aging).

3 books about marriages (and their tensions): Madeleine St John’s The Essence of the Thing (written almost entirely in dialogue – sharp, bitter, spot-on regarding tone); Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson; Alberta Alone by Cora Sandel, although you could argue Helen Simpson’s books talk about that too.

2 seasonal books: one Christmas themed (although I tend to avoid Christmas themed books or films) but this one was in preparation for my Christmas on the Franco-Swiss border – Christmas at the Chateau by Lorraine Wilson (too brief to make much of an impression); and to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Romanian Revolution in 1989 – The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuiness

My favourite this month is probably the book that fits into none of the above categories: All die Nacht über uns (All the Night Above Us) by Austrian writer Gerhard Jäger. An apparently really simple story about a soldier on night guard at a border crossing in an unspecified part of (probably) Germany. As each hour drags on, he remembers scenes from his own life, his grandmother’s experience as a refugee, and struggles with his orders to ‘shoot with live ammunition’ if anyone tries to cross the border clandestinely. This impressive piece of work deserves a full review, once I get back home.

In addition to the books above, I’ve also found an edition of Montaigne’s Essays that I like (there are many, many editions available), some Alexandre Dumas for my boys and an unexpected fictionalised biography of Marina Tsvetaeva by poet and novelist Venus Khoury-Ghata.

However, these new acquisitions will not be my top priority at the start of 2020. I intend to take part in a TBR clearout, whether it’s 20 or hopefully more, and not buy any new books until I’ve significantly reduced that pile (there may still be a few late 2019 orders arriving in January, though). I also intend to continue with my geographical wanderings every month and January is for Japan, as is by now well-established courtesy of Meredith at Dolce Bellezza. I’m not quite sure which ones I’ll pick yet, but as soon as I get home, I will plan at least 3-4 reads or rereads from my fairly large batch of Japanese books.

I still have piles of Spanish and Canadian books waiting quietly for me, as well as Malaysian and Indonesian, so there will be many more countries to visit in the months ahead. Plus, a proper French read is long overdue, right?


The Lighter Side of Shirley Jackson

After reading about the dreams and disappointments of a Brazilian housewife, I simply had to return to Shirley Jackson’s delectable yet barbed stories of domestic bliss. Raising Demons is a sequel to her first series of snapshots of American middle-class family life, Life Among the Savages. That first book proved so popular that she was begged to do more in that vein – and it is such a contrast to her dark, disturbing fiction, you will hardly believe this is the same writer.

It is mostly a light-hearted affair, with a deceptively simple stream of consciousness style, as if a gossipy friend is telling us about her day. Yet I can feel a tension in these cheery accounts of moving house with four children, family trips to New York City, the joys and woes of Little League baseball and a broked-down refrigerator.

Shirley Jackson and her children (and dog) round about the time the book was published.

On the surface, this is the dream that women in the 1950s and 60s were supposed to aspire to… but it must have been difficult for gifted women to achieve those almost impossible standards of married bliss and domesticity (straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting) and still have the energy left to create art or literature or music. Yet many of them craved both – but had been taught to expect only minimal help from their husbands! We hear about these almost schizophrenic impulses nearly tearing creatives apart, from Sylvia Plath to Anne Sexton, Lee Miller to Frida Kahlo.

So there is an undercurrent of anxiety in Jackson’s stories. She alludes to financial worries and her husband’s complaints that they are all going to go bankrupt because of her extravagant shopping. You would never guess that her earnings from writing at the time were far outstripping her husband’s college salary. However, you might guess that he was controlling and tight-fisted when she jokes about the underhand ways in which she has to convince her husband to give her money for food ‘by a series of agile arguments and a tearful description of his children lying at his feet faint from malnutrition.’ Meanwhile, his coin collection grows and grows.

There are other hints of fissures within their marriage, with several sarcastic comments about the pressures of being a male lecturer at a girl’s college, or when he tactlessly announces the visit of an old girlfriend:

I said it was positively touching, the way he kept up with his old friends, and did Sylvia always use pale lavender paper with this kind of rosy ink and what was that I smelled – perfume? My husband said Sylvia was a grand girl. I said I was sure of it. My husband said Sylvia had always been one of the nicest people he knew. I said I hadn’t a doubt. My husband said that he was positive that I was going to love Sylvia on sight. I opened my mouth to speak but stopped myself in time.

My husband laughed self-consciously. ‘I remember,’ he said, and then his voice trailed off and he laughed again.

‘Yes?’ I asked politely.

‘Nothing,’ he said.

There is an even more pointed reference to her husband Stanley Hyman’s infidelities in the story of how he got invited to judge a Miss Vermont beauty contest.

‘Daddy is going to see a lot of girls,’ Sally told Barry. She turned to me. ‘Daddy likes to look at girls, doesn’t he?’

There was a deep, enduring silence, until at last my husband’s eye fell on Jannie.

‘And what did you learn in school today?’ he asked with wild enthusiasm.

This is the Shirley Jackson we know and love, always ready to plunge the knife in stealthily, when you least expect it.

I have no doubts some of the incidents have been exaggerated for comic effect, but many of her exploits and rants will sound very familiar to weary mothers everywhere.

Finally, after a good deal of worry I went out and bought a couple of epicure magazines, and leafed through them all morning looking for something exciting I could serve for dinner, and I found a recipe for a casserole dish based on stuffed cabbage with ground round steak and cashew nuts which I thought I could try… I decided to leave out the onion in the recipe because Sally would not eat anything so highly flavoured… I could not mix the ground round steak with rice because Laurie loathes rice. My husband could not bear tomatoes in any form, Jannie would not touch cabbage, and no one in the family except me cared for sour cream. When I had finished eliminating from the casserole what I had was a hamburger studded with cashew nuts, which was undeniably a novelty, although I am afraid that on the whole my casserole was not a success. Everyone carefully removed the cashew nuts and set them aside, and Laurie asked irritably if we always had to have hamburger for dinner.

These rants seem to be written in an effortless blurting out style, without any technique. But of course that is not the case. Shirley Jackson was a master stylist, carefully deliberating every word, and even if these stories were churned out much faster than her darker stories or novels, they are still full of rhythm and little darts landing in precisely the right spot.

Jackson certainly does not romanticise motherhood, and clearly longs for some time away from her brood. She is an inept housekeeper and pokes fun at herself for that. Behind the fatigue and exasperation, however, we detect a sense of wistfulness, a fear that they are growing up too quickly, and an ear well-tuned to her children’s vocabulary, fears and wishes.

The barbs are fully in place when she describes the ‘joys’ of being a faculty wife. So much so that the college president told her husband off for allowing the publication of the book.

A faculty wife is a person who is married to a faculty. She has frequently read at least one good book lately, she has one ‘nice’ balck dress to wear to student parties, and she is always just the teensiest bit in the way… She is presumed to have pressing and wholly absorbing interests at home… It is considered probable that ten years or so ago she had a face and a personality of her own, but if she has it still, she is expected to keep it decently to herself.

I was not bitter about being a faculty wife, very much, although it did occur to me once or twice that young men who were apt to go on and become college teachers someday ought to be required to show some clearly distinguishable characteristic, or perhaps even wear some large kind of identifying badge, for the protection of innocent young girls who might in that case go ont o be the contented wives of furniture repairmen or disc jockeys or even car salesmen…

I put in four good years at college, and managed to pass almost everything, and got my degree and all, and I think it was a little bit unkind of fate to send me back to college the hard way, but of course there were things I might have done – or, put it, people I might have married – which would have landed me in worse positions. Bluebeard, anyway.

We know that Jackson suffered from depression and agoraphobia later in life, that she and her children felt occasionally ostracised by the small-town community. In these stories, however, she shows us her funny side, the imaginative and quick-witted mother that her children would remember with delight.

December Reading and Writing Plans

After a few months of geographical reading, which I hugely enjoyed and which I intend to continue in 2020, I am having a ‘free-form jazz’ December. I will read whatever I please whenever I please, no plans, no judgements, perhaps no reviews?

I’ve started with Shirley Jackon’s Raising Demons, because I instantly thought of her when I finished the Euridice Gusmao book – the talented woman beset by domestic drama scenario. I will also finish Austrian writer Gerhard Jäger’s All die Nacht über uns (The Night All Around Us). I started it last week for German Literature Month but have only reached page 66 so far (I love it, but it’s a book to be savoured slowly and besides, I had a very full weekend). The only other book that I have lying on my bedside table and fully expect to pick up this month is The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuiness, because it will be 30 years this month since my generation (predominantly) brought down the Communist regime in Romania. As a side note, there’s a conference on this topic in Bucharest on the 21st of December that I’ve been invited to attend, but it’s too much of a logistical challenge. I’ll try to send a filmed contribution instead with the title: Thirty Years On: Illusory Revolutions?

Meanwhile, it’s only two weeks and a bit to go until I will be back in my beloved Genevois area, hunkering down to a lot of reading and writing, eating chocolates and fondue, and meeting some lovely old friends. I will probably buy some more books (on the French side of the border), so am travelling light on my way there, with just my Kindle, which contains a lot of goodies. For example, Will Dean’s Red Snow and Friederike Schmöe’s Drauß’ vom Walde – two crime thrillers set in snowy landscapes (Sweden and Germany respectively). I also have new books (even if they are not that new, but I simply haven’t got around to reading them yet) by authors whose career I like to follow, such as Lily King, Jenny Offill, Attica Locke, Deborah Levy, Valeria Luiselli, Yoko Ogawa… so plenty to keep me busy.

In terms of blogging, well I can’t let the end of the decade go by without at least attempting some personal literary (and perhaps film or theatre) highlights, so expect a few blog posts with ‘best of’ in their title. It’s been quite possibly the worst decade in my life, but even so there have been many happy moments and achievements. Happiness has been skiing, living in mountain country for a while and finally getting a cat, the perfect cat. And my main two achievements have been: returning to writing (after more than a decade in the wilderness) and even having some small things published here and there; and raising two intelligent, opinionated, occasionally lovable scamps.

Stock photo, taken from iii.org insurance website. Creator:yanik88
Credit:Getty Images/iStockphoto

My Most-Owned Authors Book Tag

Susana at A Bag Full of Stories always prods me to join some fun blog posts about my reading habits. When I read her Favourite Books by Most-Owned Authors blog post, I was inspired to examine my own bookshelves. Some of the results might surprise you, they certainly surprised me!

But first: what constitutes a lot? I have very many authors with 3-4 books on my bookshelf. In some cases they died too soon (Sylvia Plath) or they haven’t written more (yet – I’m waiting impatiently, Eva Dolan). In other cases, the rest of their works might still be at my parents’ house (Barbara Pym, Penelope Fitzgerald, Colette, Rilke, Liviu Rebreanu and Arthur Schnitzler take a bow!).

If endless editions of the same book count, then Murasaki Shikibu is also abundant on my bookshelf, with 5 different translations of Genji Monogatari, as is Cavafy with several editions (some electronic) of his poems in translation, including a bilingual one in Greek and English.

So here are the remaining authors who are present with five or more books on my current bookshelves (some of them in e-book form but only where I couldn’t easily access physical volumes).

Old Favourites I Cannot Live Without

Virginia Woolf – When it comes to Virginia, I am a bit of a completist, so although some of her books are still in my parents’s house, I nevertheless have her complete diaries, some of my favourite novels and quite a few of her essays on my bedside table.

Franz Kafka – the plain white Fischer Verlag editions of all of Kafka’s novels, stories, letters and diaries which I bought when I was 13-14 have accompanied me wherever I lived in the world ever since.

Tove Jansson – As with Virginia, I am a completist when it comes to Tove and my latest purchase is a volume of her letters. If I include her biography and all the Moomin cartoons (collected editions) as well as the Moomin books which are currently on my sons’ bookshelves, she is probably the most omnipresent author in my house.

Jane Austen – All her novels, including her juvenilia and the unfinished ones, plus her collected letters

Jean Rhys – not quite as complete as she deserves – four of her novels, a collection of short stories, her autobiography, her letters and a biography by Lilian Pizzichini.

Murakami Haruki – well, he reminds me of my student days. I prefer his earlier work and have pretty much stopped reading him since Kafka on the Shore (although, admittedly, I did fall for the Killing Commendatore hype and pre-ordered it).

Marin Preda – one of the most famous Romanian writers of the post-war period, he became a bit of a national hero when he published his last novel The Most Beloved Human. It was almost instantly withdrawn from sale, when readers interpreted it as a virulent critique against the communist regime. A few weeks later, he died under mysterious circumstances – some say possibly related to this book. I have it in three volumes, but also other novels, including the one we all had to read in school, about the destruction of village life before, during and after WW2, Morometii. I’d kind of forgotten he was so prominent on my bookshelf though…

Serendipitous Purchases

Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö – the whole Martin Beck series, so ten books – bought as a job lot on Book People for a very low price, one of the best purchases I ever made. I absolutely devoured the whole lot in about 1 month and return periodically to them. The parents of the whole Nordic noir genre.

Muriel Spark – Another job lot from the Book People, which includes many of my favourites (Loitering with Intent, A Far Cry from Kensington, Girls of Slender Means). However, it doesn’t have some of her more challenging works (The Mandelbaum Gate or The Abbess of Crewe). So I may have to invest at some point in buying some more (although I’ve borrowed most of them over the course of the years from the library).

More Recent Discoveries

Below are all authors that I’ve discovered in the past 6-7 years (in some cases, even more recently) and have taken into my heart – or at least could not resist buying more of them.

Pascal Garnier – It all started with a request in 2012 to review one of his first books to be translated into English (by Emily Boyce and published by Gallic Books) for Crime Fiction Lover. This was the book How’s the Pain? and I was smitten. I have since reviewed pretty much all of the books that have been translated, as well as hunted him down in French libraries and second-hand bookshops. I even am the proud owner of a book signed by him to a certain Marie Louise (I think Marina Sofia is close enough, don’t you?)

Kathleen Jamie – initially I bought and read her poetry books, because she was doing a poetry masterclass with us back in my Geneva Writers’ Group days, but I soon fell in love with her insightful essays and strong sense of place as well.

Sarah Moss – I’d read a shopping list written by Sarah Moss: I admire the way her mind works. I either own or have borrowed all of her books, but my favourite book might not be the one most people like – it’s Night Waking, because it captures so well the challenges of being a mother and scholar.

Javier Marias – I read A Heart So White in 2016 and was so impressed that I hastily bought several more of his books, including the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow but I haven’t actually gotten around to reading any of them.

Antti Tuomainen – an author I discovered a few books in, once he got published by Orenda, but I’ve bought his (much grimmer) back catalogue since and have particularly enjoyed his recent forays into black comedy.

Old Passions Reignited

Shirley Jackson – an author I’ve always admired but only been able to find in libraries rather than bookshops, at least until recently. Luckily, her books are now back in print courtesy of Penguin Modern Classics, so I have availed myself of several of those, as well as The Library of America collection of her most famous novels and stories. I also have the illuminating biography by Ruth Franklin, and even her stories of the chaos of family life.

Mihail Sebastian – I’d always admired him as a playwright and was particularly fond of his novel The Accident, because so much of it was set in the mountains and referred to skiing. But this past year I’ve read his diaries and much less sentimental, more polemical novel For Two Thousand Years and I fell in love even more with his voice and clear-sightedness.

Jean-Patrick Manchette and Georges Simenon – actually, both of them are present with just 2-3 books each, but in each case one volume contain about 11-12 novels (I’ve gone for Simenon’s ‘romans durs’, although I have a few Maigret volumes as well).

Now all I have to do is to actually work my way through all of these, since not all of them have been read. Plus, I’d quite like to reread many of them!

#AtoZofBooks – Favourites and Forgotten Books

Simon Thomas from Stuck in a Book started a trend on Twitter a few days ago with an A-Z of favourite books: an author for every letter of the alphabet.

Oh HI book twitter!

I’ve decided I’m going to share 26 brilliant books – an author for every letter of the alphabet. It’ll be a gradual thread. It’ll be fun.

Share your own #AToZofBooks!— Simon Thomas (@stuck_inabook) May 22, 2019

This is such a lovely idea, that I wanted to emulate it on my blog – although I will no doubt curse the thought once I reach X or Z.

A: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, of course, one of the most perfect novels ever written.

B: Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal influenced me hugely in my teens and was probably the catalyst that provoked my own outburst of poetry at that age. I can still recite some of the poems by heart.

C: Another poet, Cavafy, whose collected poems I discovered much later, when I fell in love with a Greek man in my 20s. He had been forced to study Ithaka at school, and moaned about it, but I thought it was a fantastic poem and wanted to read more. The Greek man has since disappeared from my life (well, nearly… any day now… he’s a bit like Theresa May) but the love for Cavafy has remained. I have about 5 different translations of his work and can just about read the original Greek as well.

D: Dazai Osamu – I love all of the books by this nice ‘cheery’ Japanese author, but I have a soft spot for the first one I ever read by him: a collection of short stories which have been translated into English as Run, Melos! and Other Stories. The story from Judas’ point of view impressed me so much that I made my first attempt there and then at translating from Japanese.

E: Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone impressed me very much when I read it at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe.

F: Benjamin Fondane is Romanian-Jewish poet, translator, literary critic and essayist, who wrote in both French and Romanian and sadly was exterminated in Birkenau in 1944 at the age of just 46. His poetry collection Privelisti (Landscapes) is my choice here.

G: A masterpiece of satire and absurdity, the short story The Nose by Nikolai Gogol.

H: A surfeit of good authors with H, but I think I’ll choose the witty (yet gentle) indictment of UN bureaucrats in Shirley Hazzard’s People in Glass Houses.

I: Who else but Eugene Ionesco, my fellow countryman? And because I love anything to do with language learning and the dangers of miscommunication, I choose The Bald Soprano.

J: Shirley Jackson has long been a favourite of mine, mainly on the basis of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which is one of the most chilling yet perfect novellas ever written.

K: Franz Kafka’s Das Schloss (The Castle) – the author was never in doubt, although it’s hard to choose between this, Metamorphosis and The Trial.

L: C. S. Lewis: The Silver Chair – the Narnia chronicles provided me with many, many hours of joy in my childhood, and this one was perhaps my favourite of the lot, because I could relate to Jill and thought Puddleglum was hilarious.

M: Murakami Haruki’s Kafka on the Shore is probably my favourite novel of his, and not just because it features lots of cats.

N: Gellu Naum was a Romanian surrealist poet, but he is best known for his delightful children’s book about the little penguin Apolodor who is trying to find his relatives in Labrador.

O: On my first (and so far only) visit to Canada, I discovered Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals and have been smitten with this author ever since.

P: I could go for obvious choice Proust, but I will opt instead for Barbara Pym. Less than Angels may not be her best-known or most accomplished novel, but she pokes fun at anthropologists in it and I just cannot resist that!

Q: A tricky letter, as you might imagine, but not when you have a favourite called Zazie dans le metro by Raymond Queneau.

R: Which one of Jean Rhys‘ haunting novels to choose? In the end, perhaps After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is the most quietly devastating one.

S: Antoine de Sainte-Exupery’s The Little Prince will forever be one of my favourite books, sorry, cannot be objective about it at all, cry like a leaky faucet whenever I read it.

T: A slight cheating going on here, but I want to make sure that Tove Jansson gets a mention, as she is one of my most favourite writers ever. Plus the title of this book of hers starts with a T too: The True Deceiver.

U: Another avant-garde Romanian poet (we seem to be good at writing about absurdity, perhaps our history has taught us to see the surreal comedy and oxymorons in daily life) is Urmuz, considered a forerunner of Dadaism. His works (short prose and poetry) have been translated into English, if you are curious.

V: Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo gets a few things wrong, so the Colombian storyteller who inspired him decides to tell his own version of events. Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Secret History of Costaguana is a lively rewriting of literary history and Latin America’s riposte to Europe’s limiting vision of their continent.

W: I’m sure you all expect me to choose Virginia Woolf, but I will confound you by going for Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, which I read while visiting Granada as a child and had a lasting effect on me (again, very slightly cheating).

X: I love Qiu Xiaolong‘s Chief Inspector Chen series, set in a rapidly changing Shanghai in the 1990s, starting with Death of a Red Heroine.

Y: Very tempted to choose Richard Yates here, but instead I will mention Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, which should be far better known in the English-speaking world.

Z: Émile Zola is currently very much top of my thoughts, but it’s not The Debacle that I will be referring to here, nor Nana or Germinal, his best-known works, but the novel which supposedly brought about the end of his friendship with Cezanne, L’Oeuvre (The Work of Art), in which he somewhat satirizes the Bohemian art world in Paris at the time.

#6degrees April: From Memoirs of a Geisha to…

Only just got back from holiday, but I really want to participate in one of my favourite monthly memes: the Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate in Kew

This month’s starting point is Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, which I read while I was studying Japanese at university, so I was really snobbish and dismissive about it at the time. There is an element of exotification the Oriental Other and a strain of soap opera about it which still doesn’t sit well with me, but it’s been a gateway to Japanese culture and literature for many, many people. Incidentally, if you are looking for a more honest account of life as a geisha in post-war Japan, Iwasaki Mineko (the geisha whom the author based the book on) wrote her side of the story in her autobiography Geisha of Gion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another book that casts a non-judgemental look upon what some call the ‘oldest profession in the world’, but without the glamour and rigid rules that have been associated with it in Japan, is G. B. Shaw’s play Mrs. Warren’s ProfessionHow do you come to terms with your mother being a former prostitute and now a brothel madam, when her money offered you a comfortable lifestyle and supported you through your studies? Well, although I am not a fan of prostitution, I certainly don’t blame women for it, so I think both Shaw and I disapprove of the self-righteous daughter’s shock and rejection of her mother’s way of life.

The mother-daughter relationship is such a rich source of fiction and memoir, so it was quite hard to make a choice for my next link, but Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain is a brilliant story about an ungrateful daughter whose mother has made far too many sacrifices for her. The film version is (dare I say it?) far better though (and I don’t often say that), with Joan Crawford being absolutely devastating in it.

 

One of the best books I’ve ever read on the subject of divorce and how to survive a cheating spouse is a volume of poetry. Sharon Old’s Stag’s Leap is ferociously honest, at once heartwarming and heartbreaking, chronicling the end of a marriage from anger, disbelief, grief to final acceptance and moving on.

…and I saw, again, how blessed my life has been,

first, to have been able to love,

then, to have the parting now behind me,,

and not have lost him when the kids were young,

and the kids now not at all to have lost him,

and not to have lost him when he loved me, and not to have

lost someone who could have loved me for life.

From a leap to a jump, Austin Ratner’s The Jump Artist is a novel/biography of the photographer Philippe Halsman, born in a Latvian Jewish family, accused of murdering his father in 1928 and freed after numerous appeals by friends such as Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann and others. He lived and worked in Paris until France was invaded by the Germans, then moved to the States. He became famous as a portrait photographer who asked many of his subjects to jump, because ‘when you ask a person to jump, his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping and the mask falls so that the real person appears.’

One of the people Halsman photographed jumping is Stanley Hyman, Shirley Jackson’s husband. In the thoughtful biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin, we read that in the first take Hyman jumped so high that the frame only captured his feet. Halsman did not expect a sedentary scholar to be so competitive – and the image he did finally capture shows a person so self-absorbed and demanding (of himself and others), that it does indeed give us an insight into the tough-emotionally-yet-satisfying-intellectually marriage Shirley Jackson must have had with him.

For once, I have stayed largely within the English-speaking realm this month, and on the verge of biographies/real life stories. Where do your Six Degrees take you?

 

 

 

 

 

Ruth Franklin’s biography of Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson has always been one of my favourite writers, although I had only read some of her short stories and her two most famous novels before last year. I now want to read pretty much everything she wrote, even her lighter pieces about being a mother and housewife, and this is in no small part thanks to this magnificent, well-researched and sensitive biography written by Ruth Franklin.

I haven’t quite finished reading this yet, but I’ve been reading it everywhere: during my commute, during my lunch break, in bed and any spare minute, as eagerly as if it were one of my most exciting crime novels. It is fluently written and very accessible despite the innumerable minute details. Yet, at the same time, it is quite sad and ‘haunting.’

Just like I used to imagine parallels between Sylvia Plath and myself when I was a self-dramatising teenager, I now see some similarities between Shirley Jackson and myself as I approach the age at which she died. Needless to say, Shirley outranks me in every category. It’s like a larger than life version of my pallid little life.

Domineering and overly critical mother? Check.

Feeling like an outsider at school because of a family move? Check.

Prone to anxiety and depression? Marrying a clever man because of his brains but then growing to hate him because of  his lack of kindness? Unexpectedly enjoying being a mother but resenting the time it takes away from writing? Enjoying one’s food and putting on weight? Check, check, check.

Now I just wish I could concentrate on my work and write at least a tenth as well as her. That economy of style, every sentence perfectly crafted. That subtle double meaning throughout most of her work. The never-quite-explained ending. Motivations left open to interpretation. The memorable characters. But she wrote and wrote and submitted and got rejected many, many times before she found success. Even when she started selling well, she was probably misinterpreted and misunderstood, as she was rather ahead of her time, as well as of her time (which her biographer demonstrates rather well).

I wrote about rereading Shirley Jackson for Crime Fiction Lover. And I am curious (and rather nervous) about the upcoming film of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But if you are a fan of her writing, then this biography is a superb read.