Cultural Plans for 2019

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.

Reading

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!

I’ll still be following the Asymptote Blog, with its frequent interviews with translators and writers, and literary news from around the world.

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.

Writing

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.

Other Plans

Manon publicity shot by Jason Bell, English National Ballet.

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.

One example of a Landmark Trust property which has caught my eye.

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.

The Reading/Writing Year in Review

The year is not quite over, so it is slightly annoying to see all of the ‘Best books of 2018’, as if there is no possibility of reading something amazing over Christmas. I, for one, am firmly convinced I will find a few corkers to keep me busy, entertained and enthralled over the holidays. However, I can share some stats about how I’ve fared this year in reading and writing, as not much is likely to change in that respect in the remaining 2 weeks. I will do a separate post on the exceptional books that I’ve enjoyed most, but closer to the very end of the year.

From Goodreads, I gather that I’ve read 128 books so far (and am likely to reach approximately 135 by the end of the year). That’s about 36,000 pages, with the shortest book being A Month in the Country (absolutely beautiful) and the longest Killing Commendatore (could have been much shorter). The most popular book I read (i.e. the one that most other people read) was I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara (gripping and moving true crime account), while only one other person ever bothered to read Die Stille der Gletscher by Austrian writer Ulrike Schmitz.

There have been a few innovations for me in reading this year:

  • I joined the Asymptote Book Club and so was exposed to more diverse reading in translation. One example of a book that I might not have come across independently is Aranyak by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. I also followed the David Bowie Book Club for a while, which also introduced me to new books, but it seemed to peter out in May or so, or else I was unable to keep up.
  • I’ve tried to cut back on reviewing and read more outside my preferred genre. In addition to my usual crime fiction, poetry and literary fiction, I’ve also read historical fiction (Ahmet Altan’s Like a Sword Wound), biography (Shirley Jackson‘s was particularly memorable), romance or women’s midlife crisis fiction (Marian Keyes), plays (Tales from the Vienna Woods), political essay (James Baldwin and Susan Jacoby), true crime (Michelle McNamara) and reportage (George Orwell).
  • I’ve discovered new publishers like Charco Press and Two Lines Press, as well as countless ambitious poetry publishers doing wonderful work with chapbooks, such as V. Press, SAD Press, Ignition Press and Midsummer Night’s Dream Press.
  • I discovered many new writers; quite a few of them have become names I will now look out for: Argentinian Cesar Aira, South African  Karin Brynard, Japanese Yuko Tsushima, Polish Olga Tokarczuk, German Wolfgang Hilbig, English Fiona Mozley.

However, when you read a lot, you also get a lot of dross. I’ve read more than my share of average books this year, if I’m being honest. Some proved disappointing, simply because I have high expectations of the author or the premise and reviews were too complimentary (Killing Commendatore, Conversations with Friends, Vernon Subutex). Others were quickly consumed and perfectly entertaining while reading them, but failed to make a lasting impression or stand out in a crowded field (most, though by no means all, were titles for review). I reckon about 35-40 of 130 books fall into this category, which is quite a high percentage. A couple of these quick reads every now and then is fine, but with such limited time, am I not better off reading books that will enhance my own writing or teach me something new or give me a frisson of pleasure?

Writing was nowhere near as fast, furious or voluminous as the reading. I did attempt flash fiction in an effort to get the creative juices flowing again. I’ve made a half-hearted attempt to put together a chapbook collection of my poems but haven’t sent it out yet. And I haven’t touched the novel with a barge pole. I’ve submitted less than a handful of poems (or anything, really), so it’s not surprising that I only have one publication in 2018.

Meanwhile, I’ve created over 200 posts and written over 103,000 words on this blog alone. If I were to add all the reviews I’ve done in other place, plus letters and marketing copy that I’ve created for Asymptote… I’ve been productive, yes, but not really on the things that matter most to me personally.

Even better than a triptych…

So there is one major lesson to be learnt from this year (even if it comes in a triptych format): time to focus on my own writing, time to read only things that nourish me and give me joy, time to cut down on my other commitments.

Who You Gonna Call? Writing Myths Busters!

Over the past few days, I’ve come across several items of received wisdom about authors and writing which made me cock my head to one side and wonder… I can’t claim to be an expert in publishing, but I’m an obsessive reader. So all I can do is give my slightly-keener-than-average reader opinion on writing myths which might be holding some potential writers back or causing publishers to underestimate the markets for a certain type of work.

Productivity is expected.

Photo credit: Robert Bye on Unsplash.

Gillian McAllister, a respected crime fiction author, asked recently on Twitter: ‘I’m thinking a lot about longevity of writing careers and those authors who have amazing staying power at the moment. And so here’s a question to you, readers of twitter: if you’ve stopped reading an author, why? And on the contrary, if you’ve stuck by an author, why?’

There were some excellent responses to this question (you can catch the thread on Twitter), but my honest reaction was that if they start producing at a rate of 1-2 books a year, I feel I cannot keep up anymore. I read between 120-150 books a year, but I also want to discover new authors, read widely, participate in challenges etc. So I’m far from waiting hungrily for the next book in the series. This has happened even with favourite authors such as Ian Rankin, Nicci French, Andrea Camilleri. I am always glad to see a new book by them and will usually add it quickly to my TBR pile (at least mentally), but I may leave them to dangle there for months or even years. I just don’t have the time to be quite so committed to a single author, and it’s getting worse with old age, unless I’m writing a dissertation (or feature article) on them. So perhaps less is more, contrary to what publishers seem to think. And may give the author a much-needed break to invent to replenish the well and invent new things.

Reliable vs. surprising.

Photo credit: Yvonne Lee Harijanto, Unsplash.

I call it ‘comfort food reading’ – those days when you want to revert to an author whose stories you almost always like, because they follow a predictable pattern. But it doesn’t quite satisfy your hunger. Once you’ve wolfed down these books, not much of it stays in your mind. Formulaic can certainly wear thin after a while. I am changing and developing all the time (or I like to think I am) and the authors I enjoy most always seem to grow and develop as well. Perhaps not always in the same direction as me, but in ways which will surprise me. And one direction which we will always have in common: we are all getting older. Louise Penny understands this well, and I’m always willing to follow her blend of the expected (the village of Three Pines) and the unexpected (books that are more about art and grief and belief than about crime).

So please, publishers, allow your authors to experiment, play with genres, take a break from a series, even fail on occasion. Yes, the sales might go down a bit, but who knows, they might also gain the respect of new readers!

It’s tough out there for white male authors right now. 

This is partly in reaction to the recent article in Quillette (a publication that seems to delight in stirring up controversy and boasts about its increased readership as a result of this article) in which a soon-to-be-published white male author complains just how difficult it is to be published right now if you are … you guessed it, white and male. He claims that political correctness, left-wing liberalism and diversity have gone too far, despite all the recent evidence to the contrary, demonstrating that publishing is still not as diverse as it could and should be. Both racism and inflated egos are at work here.

I’ve organised agent and editor meetings for writing groups and have seen first-hand the breathtaking self-confidence of the mediocre writer who does NOT agree with the agent’s opinion of their work. I’ve not seen many flaunting their sense of entitlement quite so blatantly and quoting from their own (clunky) work without any sense of irony. However, I’ve heard others moaning that all the literary prizes are going to the outsiders right now, that you don’t stand a chance if you’re mainstream (by which they mean white and male, in most cases). You know what? That is fine with me! After centuries of dominance by the same old, same old, don’t you think it’s time for others to shine? It’s not like their work is of inferior quality (yes, I know that’s what those complaints are getting at, but it’s simply not true).

Flash Fiction: Pied Piper

A piece of flash fiction for a change. One that I was going to submit for Crimefest Bristol’s competition, but they didn’t have one this year. I want to spend more time exploring this genre, which, like poetry, feels slightly more manageable and portable at this moment in time.

She kicked off her high heels as soon as she got home.

They were well-organised, she had to give them that. They’d been correct in every detail but one. The venue, the target, the weapon. What a shame about the timing! Security details were vague the world over. She was to stay behind the front row, cotton gloves neatly buttoned, the pie hidden by her large handbag. It had been prepared with care, Hamelin vertical fluting on the edges. It looked almost too appetising to waste.

Security ploy or not, his arrival was more than a little delayed. The cream was in danger of turning in the heat, her right hand had started to tremble under the weight. A tiny bead of sweat ran down her forehead and salted her eye.

Then he finally emerged from the limo, all portly disdain, though few would have guessed it. High-colour in his cheeks, a genial smile, shaking hands, relieved at the lack of kissable babies. She had to be patient a little longer. No point in rushing things and getting custard all over his suit and possibly her own.

She lunged forward in the only possible split-second and aimed straight at his face.

Of course she was promptly restrained and escorted off the premises. She knew they feared her yelling out any awkward questions in front of reporters. They were only too happy to see the back of her.  No matter.  She’d seen his surreptitious lick at the corners of his mouth. The greedy rat! She’d seen him wipe off the viscous slow-acting poisonous mixture with bare hands.

She sat down to do her mission report and invoices.

Custard pie, from Kraft Recipes.

Let the WB Chronicles Begin!

The greatest dilemma of separation has to do with vocabulary.

‘Stop calling him “your husband” – he isn’t that anymore!’ chides my hairdresser.

‘Not-quite-ex-yet-officially doesn’t have a snappy ring to it, does it?’ complains a friend.

‘My children’s father is a bit of a mouthful…’, I admit quietly to myself.

‘Why don’t you use his first name?’ ask my work colleagues. That last one is easily answered: because the first name feels more intimate than giving him a quick label like ‘ex’ or ‘husband’. In front of my children I can call him ‘Baba’ (Greek for Dad), which is what they have called him all their lives. Nothing to do with me.

But what can I call this man with whom I spent 20+ years of my life?

Well, don’t laugh, but I think the best solution might be: WB. Not for Warner Brothers, or his initials. But for ‘Wet Blanket’. Hear me out: I am not being unnecessarily cruel or name-calling. I am simply describing the effect he has had on me for the last ten years or so, possibly longer.

All the things he had once claimed to love about me began to irritate him. How ‘educated’ and ‘cultured’ I was compared to him, how opinionated, how I could debate with him for hours about the state of the world, how vivacious and loud and full of laughter I was when out with friends, what a social butterfly at times, what a recluse at other times, my reading, my book acquisition, even my love of elephants no longer seemed lovable but annoying. I had to be corrected (often in public), put in my place, hidden away from work colleagues for fear of being an embarrassment. All my attributes which did not put him in first place (even ahead of the children) had to be complained about until I made efforts to change them. Meanwhile, woe betide I try to change anything about himself – ‘I never pretended to be anything I was not, you knew whom you married’.

Yes, more fool I! I thought people grew and developed all life long. I didn’t exactly want to change him, I had no illusions about some of his less stellar qualities, but I was the incurable optimist, hopeful that life, family, children and growing older would mature him and reduce some of that selfishness. After all, I was a self-centred teenager myself once and I’ve grown so much less selfish since having children.

So yes, I suppose we were each other’s mutual wet blankets. He dampened my enthusiasm, intellect and friendliness. Meanwhile, I acted as a wet blanket on his selfishness, becoming quite the nag. Whenever I accused him of it, he would reply: ‘Why don’t you become more selfish too? Stop saying you are doing so much for the family!’

The Three Witches from the Orson Welles’ vision of Macbeth, which scared me to death when I was a child.

Partly based on the thoughts I had while reviewing Meena Kandasamy yesterday and partly because I work things out emotionally so much better when I fictionalise things in writing, I intend to embark upon a series of vignettes, poems, flash fiction, rap battles and who knows what else, loosely assembled under the title ‘The WB Chronicles’. I also will attempt a longer (perhaps radio?) play based upon the Three Witches in Macbeth, except they will be three men having their midlife crises, meeting in the pub to complain about the unfairness in their lives.

When shall we three meet again?
To watch FA Cup Final or Champions’ League?
When we’re done with bathtime fatigue
And can be Monarchs of the Glen…

I haven’t quite figured out the details, but one could be whingeing about how his wife wants to take half his money after the divorce, another could be protesting at being accused of sexual harassment at work, and the third could be complaining about the expectations his much younger girlfriend has of him. Meanwhile, in the background, there could be some kind of Greek chorus bringing in alternative points of view (especially with the dryness of legal documents). It would be a comedy, because how are we to survive if we cannot laugh at the lemons in our lives!

How Do You Have Time for It All?

This is a question I often get asked when I mention all my reading and writing ambitions, my children, my job, my commute.

Well, the first truth is, I don’t have time for it all. I am probably not getting my priorities right and not spending enough time on my creative writing. Hence the name of my blog. Ironically, this name was picked back in 2012 when I did have more time. The moral of the story is: never complain about not having enough time for something, because there is always room for less time.

 

The second truth is that I have changed my lifelong habits of pernickety tidiness and cleanliness and become a sloppy housekeeper. I couldn’t do this when the children were smaller, for fear of germs, but nowadays I am more relaxed about unironed clothes and untidy rooms. And if things get a little too desperate, they can always chip in.

The third truth is that a cuddly cat is a lot less demanding, affectionate and non-judgmental than a husband, so I making the most of my new-found freedom to enjoy my own hobbies.

These secrets aside, what does a typical day look like for me?

Wake up at 6:50, shower, dress, make up, breakfast, prepare lunch and snacks for kids, wake them, take out laundry or prepare PE kit. Leave house before 8, otherwise I get stuck in traffic and miss my train or cannot find a parking place. Come back just after 19:00, often stopping to get some milk etc on the way. Read and check email or Twitter on train on the way into work and back, despite having to change from train to Tube. Once home, I cook supper after washing a pot or two or three that have been sitting on the counter looking at me reproachfully for the past few days, dancing and singing along to my current favourite music (Janelle Monae and Hamilton musical still). I chat to the boys about their day, perhaps check their homework or ask them about tests, friends, film reviews, what they are reading, holiday plans or hot items of news. After supper, it’s Family TV time, we all sit down (including the cat) to watch 1-2 episodes of anime  – that’s our unwinding and bonding time. Some anime leads to good discussions about general topics: for instance, the latest, Stein’s Gate, has lots of overlap with the current fears about ‘incel’ (involuntary celibates) and online loser communities and hikikomori type people.

 

I used to be the person who had to clean up everything in the kitchen, living room, do the laundry and ironing before sitting down to relax. But no more. Minimal clearing and wiping, laundry but ironing only about once a month.

 

Second shift starts when the boys have their shower: book reviews, blog posts, copywriting for Asymptote campaigns, any admin or more in-depth responses to email or booking cultural events. Another big change is that I seldom watch TV now – unless it’s Engrenages or The Bridge or other promising (usually foreign) crime series on BBC4 or Blue Planet or something like that. So I often go to bed soon after the boys, certainly no later than 22:00 – I don’t watch the news anymore, but read books instead, write a few lines of poetry, cuddle up with Zoe. I still occasionally wake up at 4 a.m. but am no longer plagued by chronic insomnia, so I just read for a bit and then sleep once more until the alarm rings.

 

Every fortnight, the children are with their father from Thursday night to Sunday evening, so I try to organise any going out on those three nights. I’m lucky to be working in central London, so it’s easy to find plenty of events to attend, some of them free. And I tend to meet friends for lunch during the week, thanks to my central location once again.

 

Of course some things fall by the wayside. I don’t watch whole box sets, because I never have the time beyond the first 1-2 episodes. I don’t get to play as much with the children as I used to, but they are probably at the age when they don’t want to spend too much time with me anyway. We do try to meet with friends once a month for Games Night or go at weekends to play table tennis etc. I have to learn to live with the constant sensation of being inadequate: as a mother, reviewer, writer, marketer, worker. I’ve completely neglected exercise and it’s only a matter of time before my body starts creaking.

 

The truth is, I have more energy and hope than I’ve had over the past 5 years at least. I no longer experience daily frustrations at home and I enjoy the people at work and the type of work I do professionally and in my spare time. I love Crime Fiction Lover and Asymptote and Shiny New Books and Necessary Fiction. At some point, I will have to focus more on my own writing. And I will. But it’s taken me a long time to surface from the bog. Let me enjoy it a little longer.

A Weekend with Kathleen Jamie

Such a pleasure and privilege to be back in Geneva this past weekend for a poetry workshop and masterclass with Kathleen Jamie, organised by the Geneva Writers Group!

I discovered Kathleen Jamie when I was reading Melissa Harrison and Amy Liptrot and wanted to know about more authors who wrote really thoughtful non-fiction about nature. Several of you, my dear readers and blogging friends, suggested Kathleen Jamie and I was captivated by her quiet yet very precise style. Then I discovered her poetry – and it became apparent to me why she was so observant of the world around her.

So, when I heard that Geneva Writers Group was inviting her over for a poetry masterclass, I was the first to apply. And it lived up to all of my expectations (as well as being a great opportunity to go back to my beloved mountains and lake, and see dear friends again).

In person, Kathleen Jamie is as quiet, modest, unshowy yet crystal-sharp as you would expect from her writing. The first day was for a large audience, so it was more of a classroom type environment (not her preferred way of working). However, we are a lively group, the very opposite of quiet, so we all joined in, even those who are not poets.

Nature poetry, Kathleen argued, is all about letting the animal or natural object be – it’s writing around nature rather than writing about it. It’s about the poet dumping the ego, the need to show off, the need to draw attention to oneself and one’s problems. I loved her wry humour: ‘Poets often go off on a silly flight of fancy but forget about the close, careful observation.’ Since this is exactly what I am aiming at now in my own poetry, to move from the confessional rant to a more measured, considered, slant approach, it was the right workshop at the right time.

We brought in an object from the natural world and tried to describe it in third person and in second person (relating to it) and observing the difference. We did close readings of nature poems with a whole range of approaches: from the very cool emotionally detached observation of a whale by Peter Reading to the personal commentary and use of a salmon as a metaphor in Ted Hughes, from the warm and intimate begging for forgiveness that Gillian Allnut addresses to a geranium to the awe-struck tribute to a cactus by James Wright.

The second day was a small group of ten and we sat and discussed the poems we had circulated beforehand. This was so valuable – Kathleen was tough but encouraging at the same time. She said it is not about editing or eliminating (even though she started folding the pages like origami to reduce the poems to the essential stanzas or lines), but rather about nurturing and bringing out the poem that is hiding sometimes inside our work. It’s like being a mother and helping the poems, like children, become what they want and need to be, rather than what we want them to become.

I learnt so much from listening to comments and reading everyone’s work. I’ll also be eternally grateful (and perhaps somewhat smug) that Kathleen liked the specific details and use of the senses in my poem. She also encouraged me to be brave about using foreign words, as she uses Scots in some of her poetry, while acknowledging that it can feel transgressive and fraught with the danger of being misunderstood.