Best of the Decade: A Few of My Favourite Things

I’ve been reading blogs, reviews, online articles voraciously this past decade, far more than ever before. Perhaps also because for most of the time I did not have money to subscribe to any newspapers or magazines – and discovered that when I did subscribe, they ended up mostly unread in a kitchen drawer, fit only to peel vegetables on them.

The same fate has also befallen many of the reviews and articles I’ve written over the past 10 years. While they are mostly online, so not even suitable for vegetable chopping, I’ve sadly lost track of quite a few of them. So I thought I’d try to gather here a few of my favourites, in the hope that I manage to convince myself that this past decade has not been quite as wasted in terms of writing seriously (as I know it has).

Finally, I am also including some essays authored by others, which have really helped me understand myself better.

My current cosy reading nook in my friend’s house

Crime Fiction Lover

It has been my absolute delight and pleasure to be associated for 6 years with the online goldmine of crime-related information and reviewing that is Crime Fiction Lover. I had to take a step back this past year, to focus on my complicated personal life and my own writing, but there are many things published there that I’m still fond of. For starters, the article I wrote about the five books that got me hooked on crime fiction, even though this dates back to 2013 https://crimefictionlover.com/2013/05/marinasofia-the-five-books-that-got-me-hooked-on-crime-fiction/

I finally got to witter on about one of my favourite authors, Shirley Jackson, for a Classics in September feature in 2017 https://crimefictionlover.com/2017/09/cis-we-have-always-lived-in-the-castle/

Another woman writer to rediscover: Margaret Millar https://crimefictionlover.com/2017/09/cis-rediscovering-margaret-millar/

Josephine Tey as an author and a protagonist in crime fiction https://crimefictionlover.com/2014/09/cis-josephine-tey-as-author-and-protagonist/

I’ve always loved those classic stories that have a trace (or more) of crime in them https://crimefictionlover.com/2016/09/cis-10-literary-classics-that-are-also-crime-stories/

A report from the Quais du Polar in Lyon in 2015 – perhaps my favourite of the many years I went there https://crimefictionlover.com/2015/03/live-from-lyon-quais-du-polar-2015-special-report/

And of course a personal tribute to my beloved Maigret series https://crimefictionlover.com/2012/09/cis-revisiting-maigret/

I’m also proud of my explorations of different countries for crime fiction (French and German crime fiction, Latin American, Celtic fringe, unexpected settings, holiday settings) and my Five Women to Watch annual preview of up-and-coming women authors, including foreign ones, which makes it a bit different from the more run of the mill selections. Best of all, I got to interview fabulous writers such as Pierre Lemaitre, Sylvie Granotier, Adrian Magson, Kati Hiekkapelto, Ragnar Jonasson, Michael Stanley, Dolores Redondo and many more.

Other Reviews:

I regret not doing more reviewing for plucky literary journal Necessary Fiction, but one book that really stood out for me and which I find myself regularly recommending for those trying to understand the siege of Sarajevo is Death in the Museum of Modern Art by Alma Lazarevska.

I’ve also not been as prolific as I’d have liked on the Shiny New Books review site, but my two favourite reviews there were Julian Barnes’ reimagining of the hard choices faced by composer Shostakovich under the Soviet regime, and the immersive experience that was reading Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City.

For nearly two years I worked behind the scenes at a literary journal that I had long admired for its commitment to world literature, Asymptote. I was mainly busy with the Book Club, but I also got to contribute a few articles about my first encounter with Asymptote and how I keep on searching for the best but not definitive translation of Genji Monogatari. This latter doesn’t seem to be available online, but I have the original document and will post it on my blog at some point if anyone is interested.

Articles and essays that have inspired me:

The Crane Wife by CJ Hauser from The Paris Review, July 2019 – about having the courage to ask for kindness and appreciation

On Pandering by Claire Vaye Watkins from Tin House, 2015 – about self-censorship and writing to the (male) canon

Writer, Mother, Both, Neither by Belle Boggs from Lithub, June 2016 – about combining career, creativity and motherhood

Still Writing by Dani Shapiro – this is a book, but I am cheating by linking to a summary of some of its most powerful statements about the impulse for writing from BrainPickings.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit – the original article came out in 2008 but it was this version that I read in 2012 in Guernica magazine

Summing Up the Decade: Memorable Books

I have no recollection of which books I read in 2010-2011, because I did not keep a record of them on a blog or a spreadsheet. I know I borrowed a lot from the library during that period, so I can’t even look at my shelves and guess from the purchases I made. So my books of the decade will in fact be the books which most stuck in my mind during the past 8 years. To be even more precise: books that I happened to read in the past 8 years, not necessarily books published during this period.

I didn’t have a set number in mind, but have come up with a list of 30, which seems like a nice round number. I did not include rereads in this category, otherwise it might have been skewed in their favour (you reread things for a reason). Not all of them have comprehensive reviews, but I’ve tried to link even the brief ones where possible.

Minae Mizumura: A True Novel

Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking

Claudia Rankine: Citizen

Sharon Olds: Stag’s Leap

Claire Messud: The Woman Upstairs

Svetlana Alexievich: The Womanly Face of War

Olga Tokarczuk: Flights

Pascal Garnier: How’s the Pain

Jean-Claude Izzo: Marseille Trilogy

Romain Gary: La Promesse de l’aube

Emmanuel Carrere: L’Adversaire

Delphine de Vigan: Nothing Holds Back the Night

Gerhard Jager: All die Nacht uber uns

Jenny Erpenbeck: Gehen ging gegangen

Julia Franck: West

Heather O’Neill: Lullabies for Little Criminals

Javier Marias: A Heart So White

Elena Ferrante: The Days of Abandonment

Mihail Sebastian: Journal

Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts

Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver

Hanne Orstavik: Love

Antti Tuomainen: The Man Who Died

Lauren Beukes: Broken Monsters

John Harvey: Darkness, Darkness

Eva Dolan: Long Way Home

Kathleen Jamie: Sightlines

Denise Mina: Garnethill Trilogy

Chris Whitaker: Tall Oaks

What conclusions might be drawn from the above list? I like rather grim and sad books, clearly, preferably with the words ‘dark’ or ‘night’ in the title. I like world literature: 18 are written in a language other than English, and even the English-speaking authors include a South African, a Canadian and 5 Americans (two Scottish authors – that might count as a distinct category soon). 19 out of 30 are women writers. I much prefer fiction and particularly novels, almost to the exclusion of everything else (only five non-fiction books on this list) Finally, I am attracted to ‘difficult’, controversial subjects – poverty, death, dysfunctional families, social ills, bad physical and mental health, trauma, crime.

So, on that cheery note, here’s to next dystopian decade!

Summing Up the Decade: Blog Posts

I’ll have a separate blog post for my favourite books or cultural events of the decade, but first for something rather personal. It’s been a long, hard old decade for me. I started off with a moribund marriage but tried desperately to keep it alive for another 4 years or so. Then to hide its disintegration from the children for two more years. Then another 3.5 years to finally untangle property and finances. So you can imagine I will not be looking back fondly upon this decade. However, there have been good moments, mostly relating to the five years we spent in my beloved Geneva area.

So I’ll start with my favourite posts from the blog I started in Geneva in February 2012. Not quite 10 years old, but boy, has it accumulated a lot of material! Expect a mammoth post:

My very first book review – because it was a book about expat experience https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2012/03/15/book-review-the-expats-by-chris-pavone/

A rather uncharacteristic short story https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2012/05/26/the-washing-machine-chronicles/

My reaction upon reading Knausgaard for the first time https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/a-man-a-writer-in-love/

A brief essay about motherhood and what ifs https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2014/04/30/my-life-isnt-open-to-revision/

My series of interviews What Got You Hooked on a Life of Crime?

Reading Habits and Resolutions https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2014/09/25/changing-my-reading-habits-part-1/

German Women Writers Fighting Against National Socialism https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2014/11/14/german-women-writers-fighting-against-national-socialism/

Rereading The Tale of Genji https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2015/06/29/the-tale-of-genji-readalong-2/

A political piece and plea for sanity just before the 2016 Referendum https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2016/06/12/i-wasnt-going-to-enter-the-debate/

I visited the Quais du Polar Crime Festival in Lyon several times and wrote a series of posts about it

The most popular post I ever wrote – about The Handmaid’s Tale and what it brings back to me https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2017/06/05/why-its-painful-to-watch-the-handmaids-tale/

Reunited with the books in my loft and rediscovering the most obscure on my bookshelves

Possibly the best holiday I’ve had this decade https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2018/11/04/romanian-road-trip-little-house-in-the-forest/

The Victor and His Family. This is a bit how this decade has felt like for me.

Before I started this blog, I had a professional blog for my business as a coach and trainer for all matters intercultural. Some of the posts were quite business-like, but some wittered on about expat experiences and my family. Here are a few posts that bring back fond memories:

The Racism of St Nicholas – this one is from December 2009, but just about fits into the decade, with a bit of indulgence https://sandaionescu.wordpress.com/2009/12/11/st-nicholas-is-an-unfair-racist/

British Heritage and Stereotypes – oddly prescient that, although it dates from March 2010 https://sandaionescu.wordpress.com/2010/03/05/british-heritage-and-stereotypes/

The Dramas of Being an Expat Light Wife https://sandaionescu.wordpress.com/2010/11/17/the-dramas-of-expat-light/

Remembering my first stint on the border of France/Switzerland (this article first appeared in the expat section of The Telegraph) https://sandaionescu.wordpress.com/2010/11/02/and-now-for-something-completely-different/

Trying to make light of relocation problems https://sandaionescu.wordpress.com/2011/05/24/househunting-abroad-art-science-or-pain/

I wanted to close this post with a picture of the Mont Blanc peak, which has been such a huge part of my decade. But when I did a search for Mont Blanc through my saved pictures, I found this special edition Virginia Woolf pen by Mont Blanc instead…

Through the Decades: Books and Authors that Shaped Me

I recently saw this blog post about ‘Reading through the Decades‘ and was tempted to take part, even though that might disclose the *big* mystery which is my age!

Childhood:

I couldn’t get enough of fairy tales and stories (from all countries: I remember my parents reading 1001 Nights, folktales from Russia, China and Romania, the Greek myths, as well as the usual Grimm, Andersen and Perrault). I went to an English school for a while and my favourite teachers were the ones who would read out loud to us while we did arts and crafts (which I NEVER excelled in), so that I could get lost in the world of Paddington Bear, Olga da Polga, The Wind in the Willows. Luckily, I was always surrounded by international friends, so I grew up with the Moomins, Asterix and Obelix in multiple translations as well as the original, Christiane¬†N√∂stlinger (who very sadly died just a few weeks ago),¬†R√§uber Hotzenplotz (I had great fun playing him with a drawn-on moustache and beard in a school play), Pippi Longstocking, Emil and the Detectives, White Fang and the Chalet school.

My parents say that at the age of 2-3, I would happily examine the dictionary for hours, so they could nip outside for a quick emergency shop. Although ‘examine’ is perhaps not quite the word for my reading exploits back then.

Teens:

In stark contrast to my happy, diverse and very liberal childhood, I hit a wall when I moved back to Romania during the Communist period. My reading was suddenly censored. I tried to sign up for the British Council library, the French cultural institute, the Goethe Institut, to keep up my languages and love of literature, but my visits there were very carefully monitored, so for a long time I had to rely on other people taking books out for me. (It was OK to go to the Schiller Institut, which was the GDR version of the Goethe). But of course teenagers relish challenges, so this made books (particularly foreign language books) even more precious to me.

I even believed I detected a physical similarity between myself and Anne Sexton…

This was the decade of poetry. With typical adolescent dramatics, I dressed in black as soon as I got out of my school uniform and moodily recited French poetry in particular (Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Verlaine). I WAS Sylvia Plath (at least on those days when I wasn’t Anne Sexton or Colette or Virginia Woolf or Marina Tsvetaeva, all women who inspired me with their poetry and their lifestyles). I also fell in love with Romanian poetry (Octavian Goga, Tudor Arghezi, George Bacovia and Lucian Blaga) and the romantic, lyrical and often quite funny writing of Ionel Teodoreanu’s trilogy of nostalgic novels about life in the Romanian countryside before Communism¬†La Medeleni.¬†

Twenties:

This was a busy decade. At university I succumbed to the philosophy and lit crit craze and liberally sprinkled my essays and discussions with references to Derrida, Lacan, Chomsky, Julia Kristeva, Emil Cioran, Eliade… basically, anything that was as far removed from dialectical materialism as possible. I also discovered the joys of Japanese literature and quickly developed a passion for Dazai Osamu, Yosano Akiko and Akutagawa which has never left me since. In our small Japanese group of students, there were two camps: the Kawabata fans and the Mishima fans. I have to admit I was (perhaps the only one?) in the latter camp, although I became a much more critical reader later on.

I also discovered social anthropology in this decade and the works of Levi-Strauss, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Max Weber became as exciting to me as any novels. I came to it just on the cusp of the criticism of the paternalistic attitudes, the role of the anthropologist as an observer and the biases that they bring into the field or how their very presence affects the communities which they claim to observe in a non-interfering way.

Thirties:

You might argue that I was exhausted after all of my studies or too tired after having children, but I have no qualms at all about shifting almost entirely to crime fiction in my 30s. I had always read some crime (obvious contenders like Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Simenon), but now I devoured all of the crime fiction I could find at my local library. I particularly enjoyed books which really captured the atmosphere of a city or country, like Michael Dibdin’s Zen series set in Italy, Ian Rankin’s Rebus of Edinburgh, Martin Beck’s Sweden, Barbara Nadel’s Istanbul, Fred Vargas bringing historical touches to contemporary France, Jakob Arjouni’s beneath-the-surface of boring old Frankfurt, Qiu Xialong’s Shanghai stuck between the past and the present. But I never turned down any of the regional or cosy crime writers either: Veronica Stallwood’s Oxford, for example, or M. C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin.

Forties:

The decade when I rediscovered writing, as well as reading far more widely, reviewing and blogging. I’ve returned to poetry, I still keep up with crime fiction, I still enjoy books set in the whole wide world, opening me up to new cultures, ideas and ways of being. You can discover many of the new authors I got to appreciate in the past few years by looking back at my blog, for example: Jean-Claude Izzo, Pascal Garnier, Romain Gary, to mention just the French (well, I did spend quite a large chunk of time in France). I’ve discovered far too many new crime fiction authors to mention in one post, and I’ve also stretched my wings to take in more world literature (beyond my comfort zone of Europe and Japan).

I would love to hear about your own bookish journey through the decades, either in the comments below or perhaps on your own blog. It’s funny how you start to see certain patterns emerging…