As you know, I am always susceptible to book recommendations on Twitter (even though I am rapidly falling out of love with Twitter because of recent changes and furore). I saw Lauren Alwan wax lyrical about Emma Thompson’s diary of the filming of Sense and Sensibility, and I love that film and script, so I thought it would be a good investment.
The following five are all acquisitions from Newcastle Noir. Tony Mott is the author I am currently translating for Corylus (Deadly Autumn Harvest), and she kindly brought other books in her Gigi Alexa series, also featuring seasons in the title (Poisoned Summer and One Last Spring – provisional titles in English). I got talking with author Tom Benjamin who lives in Bologna and has written a series of crime novels set there, featuring an English private investigator, so that he could comment on cultural differences (my cup of tea, as you can imagine!). Passionate about social issues as I am, especially in my crime fiction, I instantly picked up the first in Trevor Wood‘s trilogy featuring a homeless man solving murders almost in order to protect himself. I’ve already read it and it is gritty, moving and quite unlike the run-of-the-mill police procedurals or psychological thrillers that seem to be a dime a dozen. Last but not least, although action thrillers are not my staple reading matter, after hearing author Amen Alonge talk about his book, life choices, stereotyping and the emptiness of vengeance, I had to get his first book in the Pretty Boy series, A Good Day to Die. Experts are saying that literary festivals don’t sell a lot of books anymore, but clearly they have never seen me in action! The only reason I stopped buying was because I had a rather heavy suitcase and a dodgy elbow to contend with on the way back from Newcastle.
I am not immune to book buzz, and I’ve been hearing about the next two books all year, so finally caved in and got them: Stu Hennigan‘s Ghost Signs is an examination of poverty in Britain today, made worse by austerity and the pandemic. And of course everyone has heard of Percival Everett‘s The Trees, shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year.
I have received the first in the 2023 Peirene subscription, History. A Mess. by Icelandic author Sigrun Palsdottir, translated by Lytton Smith, and it sounds intriguing, about an academic who makes a mistake and then is prepared to go to any lengths to hide that.
The next few books are all in German and took quite a while to be shipped over from Germany (and some were quite expensive). I’ve been fascinated with Hilde Spiel since I read her wonderful memoir of returning to post-war Vienna, so I ordered a whole bunch of her fiction in German (she also wrote in English), some of which has not arrived yet, as I hope to pitch her work to various publishers. Same applies to Ödön von Horváth, who is still mostly unknown outside Austria. Meanwhile, the book by Ingrid Noll was once again recommended by someone on Twitter – I’m afraid I can’t even remember by whom!
I’ve read a fair amount of Balzac over the years, but I think I only partially read Lost Illusions (or an abridged version). This is the long winter read for our London Reads the World Book Club, and I hope to find a way to see the latest French adaptation of it as well, because it looks very good (and evergreen topic, don’t you think?).
In addition to the above, there are a few that are still on their way and which might even make it here before 2023: Euphoriaby Elin Cullhed, because I can never resist a book about Sylvia Plath; The Mermaid’s Tale by Lee Wei-Jing, because I’ve always been on the hunt for a worthy ballroom dancing partner; and a self-help book, believe it or not: The Little ACT Workbook by Sinclair & Bedman, as I’ve been looking for an alternative to CBT, which may be effective therapy for most people but doesn’t work for everyone.
Disclosure: I have set up my stall on Bookshop.org and if you go there, you will find not only find all the Corylus books available on that site, but also other lists with translated crime fiction that I particularly enjoy or books that I have recently bought myself or would heartily recommend. If you buy via those links, I get a very small commission myself, at no extra cost to you, and all the pennies will be ploughed back into producing better books for you at our tiny, very part-time publishing venture.
I have already mentioned the stash of books I brought back with me from my trip to Romania earlier this month. I also had a bit more time to read, being on holiday (although, naturally, I did spend a lot of time sorting out paperwork and chatting with my parents, which were the two main reasons for going there). So I also raided my father’s bookshelves. He is as great a reader and book collector as me, although he tends to prefer non-fiction, political biographies and history. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that I’ve managed to read ten Romanian books already this month – with more than a third of the month still to go. Since none of them have been translated into English, I will review them briefly here.
Martha Bibescu: Berlin Journal 1938and War Journal 1939-1941
Princess Martha Bibescu (aka Marthe Bibesco in France) was born in 1886 in a noble family in Romania (Lahovary) and married into another noble, even princely, family (Bibescu). She spoke several languages fluently and knew everyone who was anyone across most of Europe during the early part of the 20th century. She was also a popular writer, a prolific diarist and a cultural and political hostess, often engaging in ‘soft diplomacy’ with those in power.
These two diaries are fascinating for their insights into the political climate of the time. I expected Martha Bibescu to be the typical spoilt socialite complaining about declining service and the lack of respect of the working classes, but she comes across as remarkably empathetic and clear-eyed. Despite her obvious privileges, wealth, many love affairs, she was a shrewd judge of character, especially of politicians and their duplicity. She was a personal friend of Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany and in her Berlin journal, she describes the delusional hope that he and his wife harboured about every becoming essential to German life again. She also met Hermann Göring during that trip, but never succumbed to the Fascist temptation: on the contrary, she describes a handsome young officer in SS uniform as the ‘bait to reel them [Western powers] in’.
She was also profoundly loyal to Romania, although not necessarily to the constantly changing governments of the time and rapid switches in alliances. She was fully aware of the challenges of being a small country surrounded by great empires and I couldn’t help but admire her analytical abilities, how she cut through the bullshit to get to the core of problems. She was a great admirer of British diplomacy and level-headedness, although she had been brought up in a Francophile culture, and sent her grandson to be educated in England, believing that would be the most influential culture in the future.
Lavinia Braniște: Sonia ridică mâna(Sonia Raises Her Hand) and Mă găsești când vrei (You Know Where to Find Me)
Braniște is the epitome of the millennial generation in Romania, I feel, and the three novels she has written to date are excellent at describing the daily grind of life in contemporary Romania from the perspective of a young woman, well-educated but somewhat drifting between jobs, relationships and family, struggling to find a sense of purpose in a society which is still quite prescriptive about what your goals and direction should be. Both of these novels are somewhat similar in style to her first one (the one I am trying to shop around at various publishers), but address different topics: in the first, Sonia is confronting the recent Communist past and how it lives on in the memories of her parents’ and grandparents’ generations; in the second, she explores issues such as domestic violence, force control and lack of self-esteem. Both are topics that are often brushed under the carpet in Romania.
Mihail Sebastian: Ultima oră(Breaking News) and Insula (The Island)
Sadly, Mihail Sebastian only wrote four plays, of which only the first two are frequently performed. These are his two lesser-known ones: Breaking News is a frankly barely believable farce about a mix-up in a printing press. The historical research paper of a university professor accidentally gets published in the local paper, full of misprints, causing mayhem when an oligarch and his pet MPs and ministers believe that it is written in code, threatening to reveal some of their nefarious corrupt or even illegal deeds. Some might describe the comedy as heavy-handed, but the absurdity of censorship reminded me of Communist times (no wonder this was not performed much back then), while the lengths to which politicians are prepared to lie and obfuscate… well, quite frankly, it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched anymore.
The final play, The Island, was never finished – only two acts out of the planned three exist. It was nevertheless performed posthumously in 1947 with an ending by Sebastian’s friend Mircea Ștefănescu, but I only read it in its original state. As if to emphasise the universality of his themes, Sebastian has set this play in an unspecified country (possibly in Latin America), prone to revolution or civil war. Three travellers, Boby, a football player, Nadia, a young painter, and Manuel, a wealthy businessman, are all stuck in the country when an unspecified major war-like event breaks out. There are no ships or trains to take them out of there, banks are frozen, so they have to find some cheap accommodation and sell off their possessions in order to survive. They are so hungry that they eat a pack of aspirins that they manage to find somewhere. Although there is some witty banter, this feels much less like a comedy and more like a serious drama about the plight of refugees – which is understandable, since it was written in 1943-44, when the outcome of the war in Europe was still far from certain. As a Romanian Jew, I have no doubt that Sebastian was both more aware of and more sympathetic to the refugee stories they must have been hearing at the time.
Tony Mott: Toamna se numără cadavrele (Autumn Is the Dead Season) and Bogdan Teodorescu: Băieţi aproape buni (Nearly Good Guys) and Teodora Matei: Himere (Illusions)
I reread the first two and read the third one so I could write an application for a translation grant for Corylus Books. Fingers crossed we get some funding this time, as I think they would both appeal to an English-speaking audience. Tony Mott’s book is set in beautiful Brasov and features an indomitable, fast-talking, no-nonsense female forensic scientist, while Teodorescu’s is a more experimental novel depicting politics and social issues in recent Romanian history, under the guise of a juicy bit of police investigation. Teodora Matei’s book continues with a slightly more light-hearted entry in the police procedural series featuring the older, slightly jaded chief inspector Iordan and his young, charismatic sidekick Matache, investigating an apparently unrelated series of killings of family men all over the country.
Alina Nelega: Ca și cum nimic nu s-ar fi întâmplat(As If Nothing Happened)
At first glance, a story like thousands of others, about growing up during the 1980s in Romania, but the author is a playwright and theatre director, and it shows in the phenomenally fluid way she slips into other people’s voice and stories. The main character here is Cristina, who has to come to terms with her own sexuality as a lesbian, which was completely illegal in Ceauşescu’s Romania and punishable with jail, but there are many other experiences we hear too, in an indirect but extremely lively speech, as if we are following someone filming a speeded up documentary of tragicomic scenes. Although both the author and her main protagonist are roughly a decade older than me, there were so many descriptions of situations, people and places that I could relate to and made me laugh or wince out loud in recognition.
One unforgettable vignette is when Cristina, who lives in a small town in the north of the country, attempts to go to the seaside with her small son and her friend Nana. As they reach Bucharest on the train, she realises she forgot to take the rubbish out and that her house might be full of cockroaches when she gets back from holidays. She can’t phone her friends to take out the rubbish, because most of them don’t have a phone or else aren’t close enough to borrow a set of keys off someone and empty her bin. She can’t go back to do it herself, as the train connections are horrible and it would take her forever. So she decides it would be best to send a telegram from the Central Post and Telephone Office in Bucharest (the only place from which you could send telegrams at the time), but the girl at the counter becomes suspicious that Cristina’s laconic text ‘Please throw rubbish’ could be a code for something political, so she refuses to send it.
I hope this gives you an idea of the great variety of books being published in Romania today – and hopefully at least a couple of them will get translated into English (they seem to be doing better with French or German translations).