The book haul was the best part, but still only a part of my lovely afternoon in London yesterday. I went to watch Betrayal at the Harold Pinter Theatre and, like most of the people there, I went because it starred Tom Hiddleston. But I got so much more from the play, which is about adultery and friendship and, of course, betrayal (although it did feel very ‘Hampstead set complaining about their woes’). Hiddleston not only cuts a dashing figure in a well-cut suit, but is very good as a man whose world is coming apart, and nevertheless tries to stay aloof and in control. There was an enormous (and remarkably well-behaved) queue afterwards to get autographs and take selfies with him (which I watched from a distance with anthropological detachment). I was more impressed with the very minimal staging and subtle lighting effects, which really pared down this production to the dialogue and the universal feeling of hurt.
It was a summery day, Piccadilly Circus was full of tourists, so I decided to take a little walk and search for the bookshop The Second Shelf, which I’d supported via Kickstarter before it opened. You’ll have heard other book bloggers raving about it, and sure enough, I met Eric of Lonesome Reader fame there, who fortunately looks exactly the way he does in his videos and his Twitter profile picture.
I was shown Sylvia Plath’s purse with her lucky coin still inside, a three-volume early edition of Sense and Sensibility that belonged to Jane Austen’s friend and confidante Martha Lloyd and so many other treasures. At the more affordable level, I did not leave the shop unscathed, despite my hitherto reasonably well-enforced book-buying ban (I had a slip-up at the British Library, but that was the only time I bought books since January).
I could not resist a pristine Folio edition of the Ripley trilogy (yes, there were two novels published later, cashing in on the popularity of the series, but these are the original three). I still think Patricia Highsmith is one of the top writers of psychological thrillers ever. I’m also a fan of Stevie Smith and May Sarton, and you don’t often find them nowadays, especially not uncollected writings (including short stories and essays) and letters. Last, but not least, I am a huge fan of ballet and Allison Devers (the bookshop owner) has done such a fantastic job of tracing four volumes of this little mini-series of ballets (published in 1945), introduced and retold by Marion Robertson and Sandy Posner, with illustrations by Joyce Millen. You not only have obvious suspects such as Swan Lake and Giselle, but also two that are rarely performed nowadays: Petrouchka and La Boutique Fantasque.
I have to admit that this visit – and the thought that such a bookstore exists – has made me happier than I’ve ever been over the past 2-4 months. I’ve been without the boys this Easter holiday, but instead of focusing on what I am missing, I am having great fun reading all day! Books are my therapy, my indulgence, my luxury, my necessity. Have a lovely Easter break, everyone!
I’ve only just done a quick summary of recently read books, so this time my round-up for February will involve not only books, but also films and theatre.
Another month of reading aimlessly (and freely). 11 books, of which 2 books about poets and poetry (Charles Simic and Louise Glück), 3 that qualify for #EU27Project (Menasse for Austria – and Belgium?, Sebastian for Romania and Georgi Tenev for Bulgaria). Then there were some easy reads (perhaps slightly too many): Emil, John Boyne, Penelope Lively and Horowitz. There was one disappointment: The Farm had such an interesting premise (surrogate mothers being ‘farmed’ for rich clients) but took far too long to get started and ended rather too abruptly. And there was one that really stood out: Milkman.
Two quite political plays this month. The first was The War of the Worlds performed by the Rhum and Clay company at the New Diorama Theatre – a retelling of the H.G. Wells’ novel and the infamous Orson Welles’ radio adaptiation set in the present-day, when a podcaster decides to explore just why people believe all sorts of fake news. Funny, thoughtful and with a bewildering array of accents and characters from a very talented cast.
The second was a National Theatre Live showing at my local arts centre of the new David Hare play I’m Not Running – about political infighting, spin doctors, male sense of entitlement and single-issue campaigning. Sian Brooke as the main character Pauline was vulnerable and touching but a bit shrill at times, while Alex Hassell as her former lover and now political rival Jack was very well cast, appearing at times to be plausible and handsome, and at other times downright ugly and evil.
In preparation for the Oscars night, I caught up on some films, not all of them nominated, and made the most of my Mubi subscription. I saw Roma, which was moving, but a bit too long and self-indulgent (or do I mean self-exculpatory, sentimental?). I reminded myself of the greatness of Spike Lee and his film Do the Right Thing. I was bemused by the arty-fartiness of Livia Ungur’s Hotel Dallas (great concept, poor execution). I was irritated by Vincent Cassel in Black Tide and amused by Hong Sang-Soo’s send-up of the Cannes world in Claire’s Camera. I had a happy reunion with Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities and a troubled encounter with Beautiful Boy, which makes me worry about parenting with just the right amount of support, love and kick in the back. A film that seems to focus more on the beautiful surroundings and house, oddly enough (perhaps in order to show nobody is immune to addiction?), than on the heartbreak, although Timothee Chalamet is absolutely riveting.
So a busy month of cultural events, which somewhat reduced the pain of migraines and ex-spousal bullying. With spring now in the air, perhaps March will prove kinder in all regards.
I’m not quite sure what to call this post, because it is about far more than just reading (although reading plays a huge part). It’s also about writing, translating, attending literary events and far more. So let me just put the extremely broad label of ‘culture’ on it.
If you’ve read some of my posts about the #EU27Project, you will know what will keep me busy until end of March 2019. I have most of the books already sitting and waiting on my bookshelves (a couple maybe from the library, although our library does not do very well on anything foreign that is not a Scandi-thriller). Nevertheless, any tips for Cyprus and Luxembourg would still be gratefully received.
I’ve always had a bit of an obsession with the Paris Commune (perhaps because of its close association with Montmartre (where it started) and Belleville (where it ended), my favourite parts of Paris. So when Emma from Book Around the Corner reviewed a book about this topic (in no flattering terms) and suggested that Zola’s La Débâcle (The Debacle) would provide a better background to it. So Emma and I have decided to read Zola ‘together’ in May 2019 – and you are very welcome to join in if you like. I also have other historical and fictional accounts of the Commune that I want to read that month, so May will my revolutionary month.
There are two rendezvous that I never miss ever since I discovered them: Women in Translation Month in August and #GermanLitMonth in November, so I hope to take part in those this year as well. I also want to read and review critically at least one book of poetry a month – because that helps me rethink my own poetry.
Last but not least, I have to make a serious indent in the books I already own. The stacks my shelves, assorted pieces of furniture, floor are toppling over, while my Kindle hides hundreds of impulse buys. I may not read them all, but I need to triage, discard or read and not buy any new books. Of course, I’ll still visit the library on occasion.
Other than that, I will rely more on reading by whim and happenstance. I’m cutting right down on my reviewing commitments. Although I’ll be very sorry to say goodbye to my long-term association (more than 6 years!) with the wonderful Crime Fiction Lover site, I want to follow in the footsteps of its previous reviewers who became writers, such as Luca Veste and Eva Dolan. And the only way to do that is to hoard my precious time more tightly to my chest!
Although my association with Asymptote Journal of literature in translation and its Book Club has been shorter (a year and a half), I am equally sad to cut my ties with a literary venture whose emphasis on quality (of both literature and translation) is second to none. I will hopefully still serve as a point of contact to help organise events for the Book Club, but am no longer able to keep up the daily second shift until late at night.
I’ll be blogging and tweeting far less. I won’t feel as pressured to review every single book that I read (which was perfectly fine for the first 2-3 years of my blog, but then I started to feel guilty about it). I will work hard on finalising the poems (and perhaps swapping out some old ones with some new ones) for the chapbook I hope to send out soon. I may share some of my progress (or lack thereof) on my novel. I don’t have a daily word target, or even a daily routine, but I will make sure to keep in touch with my own work far more regularly throughout the week, rather than treating it as a welcome but very distant relative who visits once or twice a year.
I still have a few theatrical escapades planned, but am again practising some restraint. Tickets are very expensive (and reviewing takes time, although I might still do it occasionally, as you get to experience shows you might otherwise not have come across). I will see the ballet Manon with the peerless Alina Cojocaru in January (one of my favourite ballets, so dramatic, so sad). In February it will The War of the Worlds with my older son.
Can I just do a proud Mum shout-out here? It is so rewarding to take him to a film or play, as he really dissects it and examines it critically (without being annoyingly nitpicky). We saw Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap yesterday in London for his birthday and we had such fun actually talking all the way back (no messing about with phones) about the play, favourite films of 2018 (Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody scored highly with both of us) and reminiscing about his toddler days. I really enjoyed his company, which is not always the case with children and teenagers, even though you might love them to bits. And I don’t think it has much to do with the way I brought him up, since younger son is not all like this.
No holidays abroad with the children this year and indeed very few holidays at all, but I will treat myself to a trip to the south of France around Easter time (if the planes will still be flying without a hitch after Brexit) to stay once more with the friends in Luberon where I’ve previously been amazingly productive.
I’ve also decided to be extravagant and treat myself to one crime festival this year. After carefully examining dates and pennies, I opted for CrimeFest in Bristol 9-12 May, so do let me know if you are planning to attend, as it’s always fun to meet up with people you know so well online.
The final ‘treat’ will be a working holiday in July, i.e. going to a few university open days with my older son and taking in some of the sights in England along the way. It’s still a bit early to worry about university, but it gives us an excuse to meander and stay in some amazing locations, thanks to the Landmark Trust.
So those are my plans for 2019. Whatever your plans are, whether you make resolutions or not, I hope the year goes well for you, and that the pollution of world news and events does not impinge too much upon your daily lives.
Last night I went to my ‘local’ theatre and watched the final year students at RADA in Penelope Skinner’s play Linda. I had heard that it was a powerful exploration of a woman’s midlife crisis so I took a friend of roughly the same age as me along who has also recently divorced and is juggling full-time work, children and a useless ex. Turns out, the play was so accurate and relevant that we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry!
Linda is a senior brand manager at a cosmetics company who seems to have it all, albeit with the usual compromises. She has won awards for her work and is passionate about changing the world, but is being pushed aside for a younger, dumber, more ruthless version of herself. She has a lovely house and family, but her two daughters feel insufficiently loved by her and her husband is cheating. As the world comes crashing on her from all sides, she refuses to fall silent, to become invisible as women over 50 have been told to do. At times, Linda seems her own worst enemy, but the people around her are anything but understanding or appreciative. Yet the young women in her life (her daughters, her work rival) are trapped themselves in other people’s expectations of them.
It was very funny as well as bitter, with so many lines resonating (I may not be remembering them 100% accurately, so apologies, but here is the gist of them):
‘Now your beauty seems like an asset but when you grow older, you will find yourself wondering if your achievements were because of what you could do, or because of the way you looked.’
‘So what was I in this story between you and my husband? If you were the crazy girl and he was the hero, what was I?’ ‘You were nobody.’
‘My whole life I’ve been watching what I eat, what I I say, how I walk, how I talk, what I wear, because that’s what you’ve got to do when you’re a woman. We do whatever they do, but backwards and in heels. And all this while achieving, climbing, raising children. You feel guilty at work because you’re not with the kids, you feel guilty at home because you’re not at work…’
‘I used to send you reminders about my birthday every year, because I could not bear the thought of you forgetting about it. I put up with doing all the work at work and then all the work at home, because I thought you were loyal and reliable.’
The finale very nearly nosedived into melodrama, but then there was an epilogue: Linda’s prize acceptance speech from ten years ago. All the more devastating, because it is full of optimism, belief in self and others, and in a better future for women. And entirely deluded, as it turns out. Sadly, seeing the backlash about #MeToo, I think we may still have a few decades to go before optimism is justified…
Needless to say, the actors gave such polished performances it’s hard to believe they haven’t quite graduated yet. Queuing up in the ladies’ toilets after the show, we were all shell-shocked and muttering: ‘That was unbearably close to home!’ ‘God, they need to set up a women’s after-show session with stiff drinks to hand!’.
This is always going to make for uncomfortable viewing, especially if you are a man (although it is not deliberately man-bashing: the men in Linda’s life are thoughtless, while the other women are vicious). But if you would like to watch it, it’s on until the 1st of December at RADA in London.
This week was simply working flat out and getting home at 8 p.m. – so much for my relaxation week without the boys! However, there was one event from the previous week, when I was attending a course in Warwick, which I didn’t get to write about. I went up there the evening before, stayed at an absolutely charming AirBnB in Stratford-upon-Avon and went to the RSC’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Although I’ve been to Stratford before (as a bookwormish child, I dragged my mother there on my first trip to England in my early teens; as a bookwormish adult, I dragged my freshly-minted husband there as soon as we signed the papers at the registrars’), I’d never seen a play there and the theatre looked nothing like what I remembered it from nearly two decades ago. I later learnt that it has been extensively refurbished since.
It must be hard to think of a new way in which to present Shakespeare’s best-known plays – although it was rather sweet to hear a young girl say tearfully on the way out ‘I wasn’t expecting that ending’ – but this production certainly went for the modern and diverse approach. The Capulets and Montagues are two rival gangs (although not along racial lines, unlike West Side Story). The cast was very diverse, and so were their accents (although at times that made it even harder to understand the text). I really liked the star-crossed lovers: Romeo was so obviously young and rather naive, quick to anger, even quicker to fall in love, while Juliet was clearly the driving force, fragile and young, but so much more mature. However, I did not like the way Mercutio was played (or is that because Mercutio is one of my favourite characters in Shakespeare?). I had no problems with Mercutio being portrayed as a butch lesbian in leather, but I think the director made the actress exaggerate those traits so much that all of Mercutio’s fey charm, loyalty and quicksilvery nature got lost.
All of my books arrived in one go this week – the poor postman could only stuff two through the front door and just flung the others over the side gate, hoping for the best (which is fine when it’s not rainy).
Felix Francis and Lin Anderson were unsolicited ARCs from publishers, which might be a bit of a waste of hardbacks in my case, as I am unlikely to get around to reviewing them. I finally got The House by the Lake, which has been calling to me for ages. Guy Savage’s recent review tipped me over into ordering it, especially since I have Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, which is also about a house witnessing Germany’s history over the past century. So I will read the two together.
It was on Twitter that I heard about Frangello’s A Life in Men, someone saying it was one of the books that deserved to be better known, so I will persevere with it, although the title alone is enough to set my teeth on edge. It sounds a little bit like Eat Pray Love, but for younger people and with a lot more sex. Last but not least, the two at the top I bought because Influx Press was having a sale. Clare Fisher’s How the Light Gets In is in fact a flash fiction collection about modern Britain, while The Foreign Passion shows us Europe through the eyes of a non-European in equally short vignettes.
A little bit of floor-mopping and fridge-replacement doesn’t stop me from enjoying some cultural events in the interstices. The week before the Flash Fiction Festival, I had two trips to the theatre (booked well before the domestic crises, otherwise I might not have gone).
Park Theatre near Finsbury Park station is a small neighbourhood theatre in a converted office building, specialising in new, more experimental writing. Tickets are humanly priced, every effort is made to represent a diverse community (both in terms of playwrights and actors), aimed at encouraging people into theatre who might not otherwise attend by tackling contemporary themes: what’s not to like?
This time I saw the play Alkaline by Stephanie Martin, about two childhood friends who try to reignite their friendship as both of them are newly engaged to be married. Except one of them has converted to Islam and the other seems to have a drinking problem. It’s a dinner party drama reminiscent of Abigail’s Party, replete with stilted dialogue, people trying to conceal what they really feel, and exposing the hypocritical attitude to multiculturalism and difference. My favourite part of this was when the Muslim boyfriend (who was Muslim in name only, otherwise more of a typically English bloke) started a teasing rant about how Muslims are taking over Britain. Overall, however, I felt that this was more of a personal drama rather than social commentary, so I turned to two other books on my TBR pile that also feature conversions to Islam – albeit, more extreme ones, with protagonists going to Syria to become IS fighters.
Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire doesn’t need much of an introduction: longlisted, shortlisted and finally winning literary prizes. It’s a very timely book, but it’s not just its topicality that marks it out as a winner. It is also dramatically and lyrically written: accessible and yet poetic. Much has been made of it being a retelling of the Ancient Greek story of Antigone, but the similarities become apparent only towards the end and are not, in fact, all that remarkable or relevant. I found myself somewhat unsure of the first third of the book, told from the more neutral point of view of the older sister, Isma, although it provides some much-needed level-headedness compared to the more overblown prose of the second and third part. Still, I ask myself, why is Eamonn, son of the Home Secretary, introduced to the family through her? Is it merely to give another perspective on him, to make the move from ‘trust fund baby’ to ‘distraught lover’ more dramatic? However, each character is fully developed, and there are hints of depth in the Home Secretary and his wife as well, even though they are secondary characters. As for Isma, she may be more neutral, but she is still remarkably sharp-tongued and upset about the treatment of Muslims in both Britain and the States, and she seemed more plausible a character to me than the attractive but overdramatic Aneeka.
The second book on this topic is the more straightforward thriller The Good Sister by Morgan Jones, a former investigator into financial matters and international disputes. Sofia is a young girl who leaves her unhappy family life in London and seeks to find herself in Raqqa, while her father is determined to rescue her from what he perceives as delusion and brainwashing. I’m still in the middle of reading it, but it’s becoming clear that Sofia’s idealism will be sorely tested and that she will find it very difficult to leave, just like Aneeka’s twin in Home Fire.
The final play that I saw that week was a bilingual edition of Tartuffe, on the 14th of July appropriately enough. Paul Anderson plays Tartuffe as a Southern tele-evangelist type con-man who has infiltrated the family of rich businessman Orgon (Sebastian Roche, utterly perfectly bilingual), his wife Elmire (the gorgeous Audrey Fleurot, who seemed frankly a little wasted on the play in parts, merely looking decorative in amazing dresses for quite long stretches) and his children who are mostly English-speaking and have integrated into the decadent LA society. It was an interesting concept, with some good acting, and with clear references to the present day and our tendency to fall for false promises. However, I have to admit that I found both the fast-spoken French and the Southern drawl of the English equally hard to follow, though not as impossible as some reviewers made it out to be (there were surtitles). I went there with the boys and on the whole they quite liked it – so 13 and 15 year olds were much kinder to the play than theatre critics. This negative publicity in the media meant that the theatre was half-empty, so our seats were upgraded to the stalls, so we had excellent views, but it is a shame that audiences are not more open to bilingual productions.
My older son had studied Molière – Les Fourberies de Scapin and Le Médecin malgré lui – at school as a 12-year-old, so he was somewhat familiar with the humour (although the language is still quite difficult even for French speakers, a bit like Shakespeare for English speakers), but I think the modern production helped to make it more accessible to them. For more thoughts on the genius of Molière, here is a very early post I wrote about him.
June has always been my favourite month: not just because it contains my birthday (and now also my younger son’s birthday), but also because in my childhood it meant the end of the school year (with all the resultant parties, shows and sports days). Plus. it’s the month of Midsummer, long days, nice weather even here in the UK, gardens looking their best…
So I’m determined to ignore any negativity currently haunting the fringes of my life in the shape of one single misguided person and keep June light and giddy with joy! As you know by now, joy usually accompanies cultural events in my case, so this is what I’ve been up to lately.
On the 1st of June, I attended a graduation show at RADA 3 Winters by Croatian playwright Tena Štivičić. The play has been described as ‘a family drama that moves between three alternating time periods and four generations of one Croatian family. From the 1945 victory of Tito’s communist supporters, to the 1990 break-up of Yugoslavia, to 2011 and the brink of EU membership – the fortunes of the Kos family are entwined with that of their country as political upheaval mirrors familial struggles. I found the content very moving and the young actors were pretty amazing, it goes without saying, but I also had the pleasure of sitting next to a young woman who was graduating in technical theatre, and specifically in lighting. She was taking notes throughout – that kind of professional dedication just fills me with joy!
I also had a funny experience at the interval. The people behind me were wondering loudly about the historical events mentioned in the play, they didn’t understand the allusions to the Yugoslav War in the early 1990s. It turned out that most of them had been born after that war had started (or even ended). So I couldn’t resist turning around and explaining things to them – a womansplainer, I believe that might be called? To be fair, it was more of a Q&A session, and the young people were genuinely interested (and shocked) and wanted to find out more. Then, at the end of the play, an older lady, who had heard me talk to the audience members at the interval, asked with awe in her voice: ‘Are you the writer?’
On the 11th of June, I had the great pleasure of attending the English National Ballet’s Emerging Dancer competition. Six finalists, three men and three women, showed us their dancing skills in a classical pas de deux followed by a contemporary solo. I thought the women in particular were hard done by with the choice of contemporary pieces, so it was not surprising that a man won: Daniel McCormick. He was, however, very gifted, and his leaps in the Le Corsaire pas de deux reminded me of Nureyev. My favourite ahead of the show was the Romanian ballerina Francesca Velicu (McCormick’s partner in the pas de deux) and she was certainly formidable in both her fast spins and the perfect balance in her slow pirouettes. During the show, I also fell in love with the cheeky charisma of Fernando Coloma (who reminded me of my younger son, so my friend was amused to hear me calling him ‘Cutie Pie’). Above all, it was delightful to see all their friends and colleagues, lots of young dancers, out in force to support them.
I’ve also been busy writing (not my poetry or fiction, unfortunately, but better than lazing around). The story of my inspirational grandmother Troy was published on the Women Who Made Me website. If you haven’t heard of this initiative, I would encourage you to have a mosey on that website, as it’s all about hearing the hidden ‘herstories’ and finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. I could equally well have written about my other grandmother, the one I am named after, matriarch of the family, mother of seven, who had both German and Soviet soldiers during WW2 bayoneting the hay in the barn searching for my grandfather (who happened to be the mayor in the village). I used to lap up their stories when I was a child and think that my own life would seem very tame and boring in comparison to my grandchildren. But then I took part in a revolution… So hey-ho, you never know what life will throw at you.
I’ve also recently reviewed the historical novel Savage Liberty (set in pre-Revolutionary America) and Baby Blue (set in post-austerity Athens) on the Crime Fiction Lover website, and my first batch of #20booksofsummer books on this blog. I’ve written an article for the Asymptote newsletter, comparing translations of one of my favourite books Tales of Genji (I had to cut it to half the original size, as I can waffle on endlessly about this topic and own five copies of the book). If you want to subscribe to the free fortnightly newsletter, you can do so here. Even better, do join the subscription-based Book Club to receive a monthly delivery of high-quality fiction in translation. I think it would make a perfect Father’s Day gift [and that’s the only mention of Father’s Day that you’ll get from me this year].
The celebrations are set to continue over June and July, both via writing (I am writing three features on: German crime writers, Deadly Summers and When Detectives Go on Holiday, all for CFL) and by attending events. Next weekend, my actual birthday weekend, I’ll be partying in Berlin with two of my oldest and dearest friends who live there and who are also celebrating the same milestone birthday this year. I’ll be seeing the gorgeous and talented Aiden Turner in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, going for a gin-tasting with my local friends, chalking the White Horse at Uffington with a former colleague and our ex-boss, seeing a bilingual version of Tartuffe to celebrate the 14th of July, attending the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol (I’ll be volunteering, to keep costs down) and going to a production of Romeo and Juliet at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon on my way to a course in Warwick. Interspersed with lovely meals and conversations and cosy World Cup games viewing with my youngsters and cat – and life couldn’t be better!