Weekly Summary of Cultural Events 25 Feb 2018

It hasn’t felt like a quiet week, with so much to catch up on after our short Irish holiday. However, there are only a few things to report on the cultural front.

I forgot to mention that we saw Black Panther while we were in Ireland and were wowed by the beautiful landscapes, costumes and actors and actresses. As an anti-monarchist, I found the macho posturing associated with becoming a king a bit silly, but was delighted that T’Challa was truly great because of all the women surrounding him. There is a ‘Which Black Panther character are you’ quiz doing the rounds at the moment and it didn’t surprise me that I came out as Nakia (although I was secretly hoping for Shuri). As an anthropologist, it was also fascinating to see how they tried to incorporate many different African traditions and cultures in the film, and show the rich diversity of the continent.

I saw another, very different film on Thursday at the Austrian Cultural Forum: Life Guidance by relatively young director Ruth Mader. It is a Black Mirror meets Wim Wenders kind of world, where capitalist consumption has reached its peak. The elite live in immaculate houses decorated mainly in white and beige, the men all wear impeccable suits, the women pastel or white, and everyone is in pursuit of excellence and self-improvement. It is the Communist utopia really (especially when the schoolchildren start singing about ‘fulfilling your full potential’), except it’s capitalist. But when the leading man, Alexander Dworsky, is quite content with his life and doesn’t want to strive to be even better, the private company (outsourced by the government) Life Guidance comes to call to ‘motivate’ him to fit in. This film has just the right level of sinister foreshadowing and is great in concept, but somewhat jerky in execution, with abrupt transitions from one scene to the next, which makes it hard for us to fully sympathise or understand.

In one of the funniest scenes from the film, the businessmen referred to the Life Guidance agency are all learning arts and crafts to develop more holistic skills. As a corporate trainer, this had me in giggling fits.

If you are keen on German language films and other events, the Austrian Cultural Forum offers an excellent selection of free events – and has a little library in its chic Knightsbridge mansion.

A few book acquisitions this week too: Our friends at Alma Press were having a sale on, so I couldn’t resist and bought some much-‘needed’ volumes of Bulgakov: The Diaboliad and Other Stories and Diaries and Selected Letters. Then, since I seemed to be on a Russian binge, I also bought two by Turgenev: A Nest of the Gentry and Fathers and Sons. I was also sent an ARC of Our House by Louise Candlish, which I’ve already read, as it makes a psychologically tense and murderous mockery of divorce and our British obsession with property prices.

Coming up next month, there will be a Women of the World festival at London’s South Bank from March 7th to 11th, including debates, theatre, activism, speed mentoring, workshops and much more.  Meanwhile, the British Film Institute is continuing its in-depth Ingmar Bergman season throughout March. From the 21st of March to the 1st of April BFI Flare will show the best new and classic LGBTQ+ films from around the world. I’ve got my eye on God’s Own Country, a love story between an English farmer and a Romanian migrant worker, starring Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu.

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Weekly Summary 11th Feb 2018 (Part 2)

This is part 2 of what was threatening to become The Neverending Story in my last post.

The spectre of Communism is haunting Europe…

First of all, an enormous thank you to Kaggsy who wrote about the Red Star over Russia exhibition on her blog and convinced me that I should go to see it. I was initially sceptical, because the Socialist Realist art that I had witnessed in Romania during the Communist era was truly awful, a feast of nauseating kitsch. This exhibition, however, drawn primarily from the collection of British graphic designer David King, focuses on early Soviet art, 1905-1955. This was a period when it was still all about creating a new society and demonstrating that through a new type of art. New fonts, new designs, experimental work and techniques were all employed to show the modernity and success of the Soviet venture. I thought I knew the history behind it reasonably well, but I discovered many new things at this exhibition, for instance the multilingual posters to capture hearts and minds in the Soviet republics. Thank you, curators everywhere, and it always pays to stay humble and learn more!

Was the Soviet artistic enterprise all a lie? Yes, quite a bit of it: success was military rather than economic and came at a great price. Many of the artists were imprisoned or purged by Stalin at a later date. Their designs were imitated at knock-off standards in the decades that followed and by the other Soviet satellite states, cheapening their impact. Yet many avant-garde artists clearly believed at the time that art and architecture could bring out about a more democratic approach to art, render it less elitist, create a new environment where everyone felt empowered to create. All admirable goals (sound familiar to what we are discussing nowadays?). Plus, many of the designs still look fresh and beautiful today – and especially poignant, when you consider the tainted history behind them.

Another part of the exhibition which was painful to see: the self-censorship and mutilation of photographs. Ordinary citizens who had photographs of the Soviet leaders would then cross or cut out those who had fallen out of favour, for fear that someone would examine these photos in their own homes and accuse them of colluding with the traitors. Romania in the 1980s may have had many flaws, but at least we did not have quite this level of terror and paranoia.

Just by way of contrast, here is an example of the disgusting cult of personality and bad art that I grew up in.

The Emma Press is a charming independent press based in Birmingham, publishing mainly poetry (and some short fiction and children’s books). They don’t often organise events in London, so I was delighted to hear that they were launching their latest anthology of Love Poetry at an unusual café Coffee Cakes and Kisses not far from where I work. The café is designed to look like a kitchen (a working kitchen, where people can watch food being prepared), so people pull up chairs or stand around to chat like at the best parties. It was perhaps a bit too small for the large number of people who did turn up to watch the readings by 20 of the 56 poets featured in the anthology. I heard of Emma Press through Jacqueline Saphra, whose poetry I have admired ever since I returned to poetry in 2012, and she was there too. But I also got to meet and listen to new-to-me poets like Kitty Coles, Rachel Plummer, Jack Houston, Lenni Sanders, Paul Haworth, Maya Pieris and Ben Norris. The Emma Press Anthology of Love is a beautiful work of art: beautifully produced and illustrated, with a colourful cover that belies the anything but saccharine poetry inside.

Unsurprisingly, with so many cultural events happening, I did get a bit carried away and bought quite a few books. I was quite proud of myself for not buying all the tempting Russian novelists or books about Russian history at the Tate Modern, but then I lost control at the other events. In addition to the ones I bought to be signed at the Emma Press launch and the Literally Swiss event, there were also a couple I borrowed from the library and one I got gifted. Anyway, here is a selection.

I won the beautiful edition of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan in a Twitter giveaway and it came with a matching tote bag. Both so beautiful and turquoise that my younger son, who is not usually impressed with my book post, exclaimed out loud and kept the bag for himself.

By coincidence my friend gave me a dystopian novel about the consequences of China’s one child policy ‘An Excess Male’ by Maggie Shen King, which I am even more eager to read after speaking to Xiaolu Guo on Friday night.

Unrelated to any cultural events, but espied a while ago in the Waterstones Gower Street, I finally succumbed to the temptation of buying my fifth different translation of The Tale of Genji, this time by Dennis Washburn. I am hoping it will bridge the gap between Seidensticker’s user-friendly translation and Tyler’s rather too literal one.

Finally, I had a good old rummage in the Senate House Library, based upon feedback from my older son’s Parents Evening. They are reading Jekyll and Hyde for GCSE and the teacher suggested that he read other Victorian novels such as The Picture of Dorian Gray. So I borrowed that for him, but of course I can never stop at just one. I thought that HG Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau and Bram Stoker’s Dracula also described scientific experimentation and human monsters rather well, reflecting the darker side of the British Empire. A few years ago he would have run a mile from any book that I recommended to him, but now  I hope he will read them and want to discuss them with me.

Last but not least, I got James Baldwin because the February read for the David Bowie Book Club is James Baldwin’s essay The Fire Next Time.

Next week or fortnight will be much quieter, although I will be taking my older son to a theatre performance at RADA – a great opportunity to see some of the nation’s future stars.

‘Ha! This is what you abandon me for?!’ Zoe is unimpressed with my book haul.

 

WWWednesday What Are You Reading? 7 February 2018

It has been a few months since I last joined in with this weekly meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

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

Current:

Muriel Spark was born on the 1st of February 1918, so what better time to celebrate the #murielspark100 than this month? I have embarked the brief Symposium, one of her later novels – one that I hadn’t read before. It seems to be tour de force of characterisation through dialogue, something Spark does so well.

Just read:

The Asymptote Book Club’s January title Aranyak by the incredibly beautifully named writer Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, one of the greatest writers of modern Bengali literature. It is truly ahead of its time: a 1930s ecological novel, although it seems to stem from an older man’s regret for the events which he has witnessed and played a part in bringing about (the deforestation of Bihar to make way for agriculture and the disappearance of a traditional way of life).

To be read:

I will read two simultaneously, as is my wont. The two I’ve got my eyes on are from Croatia and Wales, respectively. Dubravka Ugresic’s Europe in Sepia is a collection of what one might call travel essays (not just about Europe), full of sharp observations about populism and the hunger for imagined past glories. Meanwhile, Stuart Evans’ The Caves of Alienation has been waiting for me since I reached Chapter 3 during my residence at Ty Newydd, but couldn’t  find the book anywhere outside Wales. I’ve got a rather mangled former library copy at long last and will probably have to restart it.

So, what are you reading this week? Anything that might tempt me? (Luckily, you know I have a will of iron, don’t you?)

Weekly Cultural Wrap-Up

Instead of just doing a reading and book buying wrap up of the week, I thought it might be fun to do a summary of all the cultural highlights. Which I have been fortunate enough to have plenty of, now that I am living near and working in London. So this will include any films, theatre, opera or ballet, book launches, talks or other events which I might have attended, as well as anything I might be aware of which is coming up for the following week, which might be of interest to others in the area. There’s got to be an upside to the downside of commuting (one day this week was particularly hellish, with my total commute taking over 4 hours – instead of 2.5 – in horrible conditions).

On Tuesday I got to see the witty, forthright and beautiful Leïla Slimani in action (and speaking English, much to my surprise!) at a Q&A and book signing at Waterstone’s Gower Street. With her journalistic background and feminist activist credentials, she had lots of opinions about current affairs and the #MeToo movement, but two things she said about her book Chanson Douce (translated as Lullaby in the UK and The Perfect Nanny in the US) particularly resonated with me: 1) how quick readers were to blame the mother Myriam for leaving her children with a stranger to go out and work when she didn’t need to, simply for her personal fulfilment and to go out for dinner with her husband; 2) how differently reviewers reacted to her book in France and in the UK/US. In France they commented mainly on her style and the narrative choices she made, while in the Anglo-Saxon community it is marketed as a thriller and is mainly about plot and unlikable characters. French literature is of course littered with unlikable characters, but so is classic English and American literature, so I don’t understand what this current emphasis is on sympathising with your protagonists. Besides, you can empathise and feel sorry for both Myriam and Louise (the nanny) in the book.

On Friday I saw a ballet double bill at the Coliseum. Roland Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, a very modern tale of depression and suicide (gorgeous Ivan Vasiliev as the young man and the wonderful, ever-young Tamara Rojo as the woman), followed by the very different, classical romantic ballet of La Sylphide, full of men in kilts and the long white tutus of the ghostly sylphides. It was delightful to see the Sylphide played by a junior soloist of the company, the very young, incredibly light and graceful Japanese dancer, Rina Kanehara. Afterwards, we had a wander around the West End to admire the light installations of the Lumiere Festival – although London proved it was not quite the 24 hour city it prides itself on being, with the lights switching off promptly at 22:30!

Westminster Abbey illuminated by French digital artist Patrice Warrener, courtesy of Creative Boom website.

This week I’ve been reading the biography of Shirley Jackson, which has prompted some more purchases of her lesser-known novels Hangsaman and The Sundial. Of course I had to buy the English translation of Slimani’s novel to get it signed by her and I’ve already read it (review will be coming up shortly). And, since I never escape unscathed from a bookshop, I also stumbled across one of those photo-rich trilingual Taschen Bibliotheca Universalis editions about the filming of The Man Who Fell to Earth. As the bookseller said, ‘You can’t go wrong with Bowie.’

In other reading: just finished Hell Bay by Kate Rhodes, set on the Isles of Scilly (review coming up on Crime Fiction Lover) and am currently reading Nadia Dalbuono’s The Extremist set in Rome (review coming up on Shiny New Books). I’m reading Marie Darrieussecq in both English and French and will be posting a review of her disappearing husband book, as well as Hawksmoor on this blog very soon.

On TV, I’ve only watched the mistitled Big Cats documentary (because it refers quite a bit to wildcats which are smaller than my own moggy – who was watching just as carefully as me and probably taking hunting lessons) and my beloved Engrenages series.

Last, but not least, the Winter Issue of Asymptote Journal is out, and it is an anniversary edition, as Asymptote celebrates its 7th birthday. Yes, it first launched in January 2011, before I even became absorbed by writing or moved to France. For this special edition, there are some big names (Ismail Kadare and Daniel Mendelsohn), as well as many new voices and languages, including translations from Montenegrin, Mè’phàà and Amharic. For those of you who like short samplers, there is also a special feature on international microfiction or flash fiction.

Coming up: I would really like to attend (but can’t) the Gower Street Waterstone’s Forgotten Fiction Book Club this coming Tuesday, which will be discussing one of the defining books of my adolescence:  Le Grand Meaulnes by Henri Alain-Fournier. Two art events to catch this coming week (for those who can make it): last week of the Basquiat exhibition at the Barbican and the Hayward Gallery at the South Bank finally reopens after refurbishment with a photography retrospective of the work of Andreas Gursky.

Week in Review with a Book Haul

Honestly, sincerely, believe me I meant it… when I said I would start digging into my TBR pile and stop buying books this year. But accidents do happen! And this is how my week panned out…

First of all, I realised that it has been weeks since I last saw my Kindle. I have searched for it everywhere but cannot locate it. So this means no more acquisitions via Netgalley, but also no more reading of the long, long list of books I have there, including some rather pressing reviews. I would buy a new one, but I am fairly sure that the instant I order it, the old one will resurface from some cavernous depth of my house (I don’t often take it out unless I am travelling, and I have already searched my suitcase).

Secondly, I have enjoyed reviewing my first Asymptote Book Club read, Cesar Aira. A new author to me, but I enjoyed him so much that I read two other novellas by him in quick succession. He is remarkably prolific, so he might be a bit hit and miss, but so far I really like him.

Thirdly, I had a busy week at work, but it was creative, strategic work which I enjoyed, made all the better by listening to Hamilton, which I now have uploaded onto my laptop. Initially I loved all the big, obvious songs like My Shot or The Room Where It Happens, but now I am more drawn to Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story and the optimism of The Story of Tonight. ‘Raise a glass to the four of us, tomorrow there will be more of us.’

Finally, yes, OK, I admit I did get some new books this week. What?! You expect me to pile ashes on my head and put the hair shirt on? I only bought three, of which two were second-hand, and I received two more for review.

Alison Lurie: Women and Ghosts

Collection of short stories, sometimes comic, sometimes, haunting, where people’s lives are disrupted by supernatural occurrences. Not normally a fan of ghost stories, but I know that Lurie is such a keen observer of human foibles, so I think this could be good.

Jodie Hollander: My Dark Horses

A debut poetry collection that traces the troubled relationship of the poet with her mother, as well as the charms and vicissitudes of growing up in a family of obsessive musicians. I have to admit to a selfish reason for ordering this one via Waterstones: it was recommended to me by a fellow poet after she read my poems about my mother.

Nice cover, but isn’t that dress from post WW2?

Paula McLain: The Paris Wife

I’ve been meaning to read this forever, ever since it came out in 2010. I really enjoyed Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, with its portrait of bohemian expat artist life in Paris in the 1920s, but that is just Hemingway’s side of the story. And, as we all know, he wasn’t really good to the women in his life.

 

Thomas Enger: Killed

Orenda Books shares my passion for Norway and has kindly sent me the dark, suspenseful finale of this series about crime reporter Henning Juul.

Kate Rhodes: Hell Bay

This is the start of a new series by Kate Rhodes, set on the Scilly Islands (which I now want to visit). I read a sample of it after going to the Simon & Schuster launch evening last year and have been eagerly awaiting the rest of the story ever since.

Topple over, you charming little TBR pile…

Well, yes, thank you very much for asking, my TBR pile is nice and healthy. Growing taller by the day. It’s such a charming creature, in fact, that I cannot help giving it some delicious tidbits although I know it should go on a diet.

So this is what I’ve been feeding the greedy little creature lately:

Geneva-related chocolates

I bought one of Kathleen Jamie‘s older collection of poems The Tree House in preparation for the masterclass in Geneva. Then I made the fatal mistake (or maybe it was deliberate?) of arranging to meet my friend at the well-stocked Payot bookshop at the railway station and indulged in two Swiss Romande women writers I have heard of, but never read: Alice Rivaz – a contemporary of Simone de Beauvoir and equally feminist, with a collection of short stories entitled Sans alcool (Without alcohol); Pascale Kramer’s L’implacable brutalité du réveil (The Relentless Brutality of Awakening) – prize-winning contemporary author with a novel about an expat spouse trying to make sense of motherhood and living abroad in California. Last but not least, I also have a copy of Offshoots 14, the literary journal published every two years by Geneva Writers Group. This edition was edited by Patti Marxsen and I am delighted to have a poem included in it.

Blogger Delights

From the Pandora’s box that is reading other people’s book blogs, I garnered an old copy of Letters from England by Karel Čapek, one of the foremost Czech writers.  Emma from Book Around recommended it as a delightful light read and how right she was! Although it is set in the 1920s, it describes many of the things which puzzles us foreigners about the UK (he also visited Scotland, Wales and Ireland, not just England) even now – and all done with great charm and affection (plus his own illustrations). Kaggsy and Simon Thomas also read this and really enjoyed it.

I can’t remember who mentioned Jonas Lüscher – it could have been Shigekuni, who is my source of wisdom in all things German language, or someone linking up to German Literature Month. Lüscher is a Swiss German writer who won the Swiss Book Prize this year for his second novel Kraft. However, I decided to get his first novel Frühling der Barbaren (Barbarian Spring), about privileged English bankers and a Swiss trust fund man finding themselves in the middle of a financial crisis in the Tunisian desert.

Last but not least, I am a great Shirley Jackson fan and a kind soul on Twitter told me that the excellent recent biography Shirley Jackson. A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin is now out in paperback, so it seemed like the perfect Christmas present for myself.

I Spy With My Little Eye…

I came across these books on the shelves of libraries.

The first one was at Ty Newydd by Welsh author Stuart Evans: The Caves of Alienation. I started reading it there and found it so enticing that I had to buy my own copy (not at all easy to find, incidentally). It’s about a well-known writer, the forces that shaped him, his controversial life and why he comes to a sticky end on an isolated Welsh island. It is very funny and clever, told from a variety of viewpoints (friends, lovers, teachers, documentaries, critics, biographers etc.).

Finally, I saw this children’s book at my local library and just couldn’t resist as a cat-lover. His Royal Whiskers by Sam Gayton is about the heir of the Petrossian Empire, Prince Alexander, who miraculously gets transformed into a fluffy-wuffy kitten… I don’t know if my children will read this – they might be too old for it – but I certainly will! And this proves why open shelf libraries are so essential: you find things you didn’t even know you were looking for. It jolts you out of your everyday and wearisome rote.

Now, greedy little monster, do behave and join your companions over there to digest your food on the night-table!

It is so nice to have a bedroom and two night-tables all to yourself. I have a set of crime fiction books and poetry on the right hand side, and the current books plus library books on the left hand side. These neat little skyscrapers are not so popular with Zoe, who tries to balance precariously on them as she joins me for some evening reading. Maybe she is jealous that the TBR pile gets fed more frequently than she does (or so she thinks). Maybe some day she will learn to jump up at the foot of the bed instead…

 

Incoming Books – Week of 16-22 October

My iron willpower may not match that of the legendary Fiction Fan, but I have tried to limit my spending on books, since I realised that my income is now a stable monthly affair, and cannot be supplemented by a few extra days of work.

So this week most of the books I’ve acquired have been sent for review or borrowed from the library. So there, ye doubters! I did have one momentary lapse of reason when I entered that fatal Waterstone’s near work and found their second-hand vintage Penguin section. I spent many a happy minute (hour?) in the sea of orange and emerged victorious with High Rising by Angela Thirkell. I’ve never read anything by this author, who was very popular in the 1930s/40s, but this book in particular has been discussed by several bloggers whose opinion I value, including Jacqui, Heaven Ali and Booker Talk (the last not very complimentary).

Plus, you can see why the premise of a single mother trying to make a living as a novelist in order to educate her sons might appeal to me…

Although I’m trying to pretend Christmas is still miles away, I was sent a Christmas anthology Murder on Christmas Eve by Profile Books. Classic Christmas-themed mysteries always make for popular presents for booklovers whose tastes you don’t quite know, so this should do a roaring trade. It includes stories by Ian Rankin, Ellis Peters, G. K. Chesterton, Val McDermid, Margery Allingham and many more. And you can’t fault the cover either for what it promises!

One I received this week and have already read (gasp! yes, I am occasionally speedy!) was Jenny Quintana’s The Missing GirlI was very touched by the fact that Emma Draude, the publicist for the book, actually sent me her own personal copy, as she had just run out of preview copies. So it’s a much-loved proof! And I found it very compelling – although perhaps the label of crime fiction does it an injustice. This is not the kind of book which you read for unfathomable twists (in fact, I figured out what was going on pretty early on). Instead, I enjoyed it for the pitch-perfect evocation of the 1980s, excellent writing and the psychological depth of sisterly love, family secrets and the lonely surliness of growing up.

My local library finally found a book I had reserved as soon as I heard that Kazuo Ishiguro had won the Nobel Prize, namely The Unconsoledone of the few which I haven’t read. I can feel another bout of Artist of the Floating World coming along, that is my favourite book by him, probably because of the obvious Japanese connection.

Last but not least, I ‘happened’ to pass by the Senate House Library at lunchtime and got lost in the Latin American section. I couldn’t resist Vlad by Carlos Fuentes, translated by E. Shaskan Bumas and Alejandro Branger. A Mexican take on the Romanian Vlad the Impaler? Yes, please! In this book, Vlad is upset by the shortage of blood in modern-day Eastern Europe and is looking for a new place to establish his kingdom. What country or city on earth could offer him a lot of people crowded in one place, where a few human disappearances wouldn’t even be noticed? Well, Mexico City, of course! And so begins this satire of the Mexican bourgeoisie…

I notice that, by some strange coincidence, all of the cover pictures above seem to be going for the monochrome look tinged with red. Luckily, the bright orange Penguin spoils that sober elegance!

So what lovely reads have you begged, borrowed, stolen or bought this week? Do tempt me if you can…