Reading/Writing Summary for April

I could almost claim 14 books for April – except that one of them has been so massive that I am still reading it, and will be reading it for many months to come! That is, of course, Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji), which I’m reading along with brave Akylina.

greatwarOf the remaining thirteen, I had another epic doorstop of a book: The Great War by Aleksandar Gatalica. You will find the full review on Necessary Fiction website shortly. This website, incidentally, is well worth a look for its thoughtful reviews of lesser-known authors and short story collections, its research and translation notes, and writer-in-residence feature. For now, let me just say this book is an ambitious, sprawling, almost encylopedic collection of stories and characters, from all the different sides fighting the First World War. Touching, humorous and ever so slightly surreal.

Six books were in my preferred genre, crime fiction. If you’ve missed any of the reviews, they are linked below (all except Cry Wolf, which I was not sufficiently enthusiastic about).

Attica Locke: Pleasantville

Rebecca Whitney: The Liar’s Chair

Michael Gregorio: Cry Wolf (Ndrangheta clans penetrating the peaceful areas of Umbria in Italy)

Karin Alvtegen: Betrayal

Tom Rob Smith: Child 44

Sarah Hilary: No Other Darkness

Child44My Crime Fiction Pick of the Month, as hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, is very, very tough, as Child 44, No Other Darkness and Pleasantville are all jostling for position. So this time I think I’ll go for the one that kept me awake all night to finish it, which was Child 44. I saw the film as well this weekend, which simplifies some of the story lines and emphasises perhaps different aspects than I would have (if I’d written the screenplay – the author was not involved in it either). But I enjoyed it, and the actors were really impressive. If you want to see an interesting discussion of book vs. film adaptations, check out Margot’s latest blog post.

Meanwhile, Pleasantville fulfills my North American requirement for the Global Reading Challenge – I don’t often get to read something set in Houston, Texas.

A lot of online poetry this month (after all, it is National Poetry Month for the Americans) and I’ve also started a poetry course organised by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But, surprisingly, I haven’t read any poetry collection.

However, I did read a non-fiction book, the funny yet thoughtful essay collection with the irresistible title 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write.

Three of the books I read this month fit into the historical fiction category, but the one I want to highlight is Fire Flowers by Ben Byrne, which gives such a poignant description of post-war Japan, something few of us know about.

Alongside the two translated books (from Swedish and classical Japanese), I also read four books in French (well above my monthly target of 1-2). These were Yasmina Khadra’s L’attentat, Philippe Besson’s La maison atlantique and Virginie Despentes’ Teen Spirit (which I’ve reviewed all together here). I also read Metin Arditi’s rather chilling description of a Swiss boarding-school for boys Loin des bras.

So, all in all, a good month of reading. Although some books felt a bit average, there were quite a few that impressed me. At least I no longer feel obliged to write lengthy book reviews about those I didn’t quite gel with (or even finish them). And I’m pleased that I am spending some time in Genji’s company again. It helps to slow down my world and see things from a very different angle.

In terms of writing, I’ve been less successful. School holidays and business travel have wreaked their usual havoc. I have, however, solved outstanding plot holes and know very clearly where everything is heading now. I have the post-it note wall to prove it! Although I’m still open to allowing my characters to surprise me a little…

WIP

So, how has your April been in terms of reading and writing? Any must-read books (dare I ask that question, dare I be tempted)? Anything you felt was overrated or overhyped? Let me know below!

 

 

 

 

Friday Fun: Stationery, Glorious Stationery!

Is there any writer out there who doesn’t love stationery? Of course, there are plenty of stationery lovers who are not writers (just hoarders or designers or… procrastinators), so there is no immediate causal link there.

Based on a conversation we started over at dVerse Poets Pub about the tools we really need as poets, I collected a few of my favourite things in this post.

1) Of course I appreciate Moleskine and the reinvention of a brand, but my personal favourite is much simpler and cheaper. Rhodia notebooks have been the smoothest writing experience in France for 80 years now. They have all sorts of ‘nouveautés’ (novelties) every year, but I just stock up on their most basic black or orange note-blocks.

rhodiablack

2) I like high-quality fountain pens. In fact, I have my eye on a Montblanc Virginia Woolf pen when I sign my publishing contract – or perhaps for autographing my books.

Notice the waves pattern?
Notice the waves pattern?

3) However, more realistically and practically, I bulk-buy Pilot G2 gel rollerballs. They work really well with the slippery-smooth Rhodia pages.

PilotG2gel

4) I’ve just discovered these rather funky notebooks from Huck and Pucker. An elastic to keep them closed is always a good idea and of course I’m bookish and proud of it!

huckandpucker

 

5) Finally, a trip to London always means a stopover at Paperchase on Tottenham Court Road: a stationery-lover’s idea of heaven. Sadly, they seem to have discontinued (at least online) my favourite notebook type, so you’ll have to make do with my own pictures. It’s a chunky A5 notebook with elastic, colourful plastic covers, 5 sections (lined, squared and blank) with dividers (with pockets to stuff notes in), plus more plastic covers and a zipped purse at the back. Just the most practical, wonderful notebook ever: I carry my whole life around in it! Paperchase, please, please bring it back!

 

Paperchase

Notebook3

Apparently there is such a thing as National Stationery Week and it’s this week. So, let me know what your ‘cannot live without’ items of stationery are. Do you hoard lots of pretty (and empty) notebooks? Oh, and point me in the direction of your luxury items too, while we are on the subject…

100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write

From The Star.
From The Star.

Sarah Ruhl is a distinguished American playwright, nominated for many prizes, recipient of quite a few (including the MacArthur Fellowship). She is also a wife and mother and in this book of ‘mini-essays’ she talks about theatre and audiences, life, art and the challenge of combining the two. It’s a real book of ‘cabbages and kings’, with topics ranging from the most trivial to the most profound and I was tempted to underline some quote on nearly every page. One of my favourite essays (No. 60) is entitled ‘Is there an objective standard of taste?’ and consists of the single word ‘No.’

The opening essay ‘On Interruptions’ is longer, very funny, but will provoke a wry grimace as well in any parent struggling to be creative. It incorporates actual interruptions:

The child’s need, so pressing, so consuming, for the mother to be there, to be present, and the pressing need of the writer to be half-there, to be there but thinking of other things, caught me —

Sorry. In the act of writing that sentence, my son, William, who is now two, came running into my office crying and asking for a fake knife to cut his fake fruit.

She could be describing my life, even though my children are older now and therefore expressing higher-level demands and being quite vociferous about my ‘neglect’.

In the middle of that sentence my son came in and sat at my elbow and said tenderly, ‘Mom, can I poop here?’ I think of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and how it needs a practical addendum about locks and bolts and soundproofing.

Her conclusion is beautiful, though painful to hear at times for stressed-out parents:

…tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life.

It’s not all about motherhood and the tortured artist, however. There are many astute observations here about the theatre, life and the stage, whether we’ve lost the ability to wait, the dangers of digesting too much ‘surface’ and not diving deeper, living in a culture where ‘the talk about the art often takes up more time than the experience of the art’?

museumI love blogging and Twitter, that’s no secret, but I do hate the mediation of experience through iPhones and the like, so this passage in particular spoke to me:

The age of experience is truly over, we are entering the age of commentary. Everyone at the event was busy texting everyone else… and a general lack of presence was the consequence… We are now supposed to have opinions before we have experiences. We are supposed to blog about our likes and dislikes before a piece of art is over. Will we evolve out of the ability to make art? Will events need to have more violence for audiences to enter them purely, to compete with the gaze of commentary?

This book will be one I dip into again and again, reminding me of that nervous tension and fragile balance between the known and the possibilities, reality and our ideals.

When Is a Synopsis Not a Synopsis?

Just over a month ago I took part in a meeting with agents and editors organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group. We had to submit the 15 first pages of our completed novel and a synopsis for individual consultations. I had been sick and tired of Novel No. 1 for months by now and was raring to get going on Novel No. 2, but I dutifully sent out No. 1. But I had somehow never quite cottoned on to what a synopsis is supposed to be: a chronological description of everything that happens in the book, including giving away the ending. So, instead, what I sent was this:

‘Beyond the Woods’ by Marina Sofia
Synopsis

‘You think Eastern Europe is still part of Europe… but it’s an entirely different world. None of your rules or your notions of right and wrong apply here.’

Matt Johnson is content with his life: he has a promising scientific career ahead of him in London and a glamorous Romanian girlfriend, Cristina, whom he intends to marry as soon as she secures a divorce from her estranged husband back home. But suddenly his world collapses. On her trip home to see her parents, Cristina has a fatal car crash. Her friend, Eli, doesn’t believe it was an accident – she suspects that Cristina’s husband, Luca, now a rising star in Romanian politics, killed her. Matt is disinclined to believe conspiracy theories, but agrees to join Eli in Bucharest and figure out what happened.

As the mismatched pair trace Cristina’s last steps and conversations, Matt finds out things about his girlfriend’s past that he hadn’t known or wanted to believe before. Enlisting the help of a sympathetic local policeman, Matt and Eli begin a game of cat and mouse with Luca, who thwarts their efforts to find proof at every turn.

This is not just a simple whodunit. 1990s Romania is a society on the brink of collapse after the fall of Communism, where uncertainty is rife and no one seems able or willing to give straight answers in a murder investigation. How can you ever hope to uncover the truth or punish the perpetrators in such a place?

The comments I received were that it sounds like a good hook, but it’s not technically a synopsis. However, I now feel free to share it with you, because I have moved on to Novel No. 2 for the foreseeable future. How does it strike you? Would you want to read more? And what has your experience been with synopses?

Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke

Forgive me, readers, for I have sinned… against my TBR pile. I had plenty of good reads waiting for me there. I had plenty of reviews begging to be written. But then I went to the library and saw this book just freshly in:

MindofWinterI remembered the intriguing review of this book that I read over on Caroline’s blog, so I couldn’t resist. I brought it home on Wednesday, started it that very evening, had to lay it aside during the day on Thursday but woke up early this morning to finish it. And I don’t regret it gate crashing my party at all! But it’s going to be quite a lengthy review, so be brave! It got me so busy analysing it from all angles.

It’s the kind of novel where nothing much happens: essentially, it’s about a mother and a daughter alone in a house in a snowstorm. Yet the suspense is so cleverly built up, so well handled, that you find yourself unable to let go. It will haunt you even after you put it down. It’s a bit like a well-made horror film (although there is really no overt horror here, it’s all in the mind – of the protagonists and of the reader). The chill factor is cranked up and, just as you think you can handle it no more, or that it’s nearing an explosion, things revert back to normality. Or a semblance of normality. You start to question everything, because you begin to realise that the narrator, poet and mother Holly Judge, may not be your most reliable witness or interpreter of events.

Cover of hardback edition. Which do you prefer?
Cover of hardback edition. Which do you prefer?

Yet it’s not really a novel to be rushed through. I will probably go back and read it again to really savour the language and the nuances. Every interaction and each sentence seems to be loaded with additional meaning. The author is a poet as well as a novelist, and you can feel her loving attention to details and to the unsayable.

There is so much tension between teenage daughters and their mothers, perhaps even more so when it’s an adopted child. I’ve sometimes stared at my own (biological) children and wondered what strange changelings have taken their place in the cradle. It gets even worse during the adolescent years, hence all the stories of teenage vampires and possessions by poltergeists. Yet the book stays well clear of that, although the reader will always bear that in mind as a possibility.

Holly seems besotted with the beautiful girl they adopted from a Siberian orphanage, but there are hints that all is not well, that there are some resentments, some apportioning of blame. Strange incidents have dogged their lives ever since they came back from Russia. Even though she is quick to say:

Not Baby Tatty!… Not Tatty the Beauty. Gorgeous Russian dancer, howler monkey, sweetheart, wanderer, love of their lives. Not Tatiana.

It does seem like the lady protests too much… After all, what person who has a way with words would call their daughter ‘Tatty’? There are many baffling aspects here, many unanswered questions and gaps. For instance, I would like to find out more about the husband Eric, who is conveniently absent for almost all of the book. He never really comes alive in his own right – we perceive him merely as a reflection of Holly’s own obsessions and needs. There is a hint at some point when she reaches his voicemail and hears something unexpected that she suspects him of being unfaithful. There are a few indications that he does not fully understand his wife nor agree with her:

‘Just sit down and write,’ her husband would say, but Eric would never be able to understand this frustration, her frustration, the clear sense Holly had that there was a secret poem at the center of her brain, and that she’d been born with it, and that she would never, ever, in this life, be able to exhume it, so that to sit down and write was torture. It was to sit down with a collar around her neck growing tighter and tighter the longer she sat.

There are many external circumstances to explain Holly’s anxieties: the early deaths of her mother and her siblings, the genetic flaw which has made her opt for exhaustive surgery and rendered her infertile, the fraught process of adoption from Russia, her writer’s block (which has lasted more than a decade). Although she has made it a tradition to celebrate Christmas at her house, preparing for a large gathering of family and friends, she is also resentful of the fact that she is expected to cater for everyone’s needs. She feels desperately lonely when they all cancel on her because of the blizzard, but at the same time there is a secret sense of relief. Yet the many repetitions (which may annoy some readers, but which come with a subtly different interpretation of events each time) show a mind that is stretched too tight.

French cover. Kasischke seems to be more popular in France than in the US.
French cover. Kasischke seems to be more popular in France than in the US.

It seems to me that what Holly craves is perfection: the perfectly healthy body, the perfect family, the beautiful unblemished child, the idyllic lifestyle complete with chicken and roses… and to be the great poet she had thought she would become. Anything that doesn’t quite live up to the ideal is frowned over, worried over or else deliberately avoided. Holly is very good at self-deceit, at looking away when things become too painful. There is a passage in the book expressing her delight with having learnt in her counselling sessions to suppress her feelings by snapping a rubber band whenever she feels overwhelmed. This is understandable self-preservation, since poets tend to feel everything far too acutely. As Sylvia Plath put it:

My head a moon

Of Japanese paper, my gold beaten skin

Infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive.

Ultimately, it’s Sylvia Plath who comes to mind when reading this book, although the title itself is taken from a rather chilling Wallace Stevens poem. The opening line of Plath’s ‘Munich Mannequins’ is quoted here and makes for a fascinating, possibly creepy contrast to what I said above about the obsession with perfection:

Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children.

Perhaps because the word ‘perfect’ also occurs in the opening line of Plath’s last poem, I rather anticipated the ending of the book, although there were some additional twists which caught me by surprise. However, this is not a book to be read for its suspense alone (although you may find yourself rushing through it as I did) – it’s a book that can be interpreted and appreciated on many different levels.

Oh, and I’ll be watching out for more of Kasischke’s novels and poetry collections!

 

Acceptance Speeches and Gratitude

JK Simmons receiving his Oscar, photo by John Shearer by AP Photo.
JK Simmons receiving his Oscar, photo by John Shearer by AP Photo.

Warning: this post is incredibly loud and extremely personal. Viewers of a more generalist or nervous disposition should skip ahead to the next book review.

I heard that, with small exceptions, the Oscars ceremony on Sunday night was overly long and dull. I was never planning to watch it and was only mildly interested in the winners. [I have only seen 2-3 of the films across all nominated categories, most of them on airplanes, such is my social life]. But I struggled downstairs with a terrible migraine, so got to see live reactions on Twitter to the music, the surprise awards, the speeches.

Ah, the speeches! Some of them were political, rebellious, personal, memorable…  good for them. Typical acceptance speeches, of course, are all about gratitude, acknowledgement and thanks to collaborators and supporters. ‘I thank my parents, my spouse, my children, my dog…’

What to do, however, if those nearest and dearest are not at all supportive? I’ve written about it before. I’ve written a poem about it from the point of view of the supportive (and hitherto neglected) spouse. I’m not going to repeat myself. I don’t want to whine. I’ll just share with you a collection of anecdotes. Some of them are personal, some of them have been told to me by others. I suspect there is a glint of universality in most of them.

I really, really want to become a writer. All my teachers tell me I have talent. — What a waste of your intellectual capacities! You could do so many other things. Do that as a hobby, once you have got a good job under your belt, such as medicine or economics.

I did get to study what I was passionate about: languages and then anthropology. I even briefly got to work as an academic, but … it’s not like social sciences are real sciences, right? Surely an academic job in real science takes precedence. Why don’t you find a nice portable job, that you can take with you wherever you have to go to follow your husband?

This consultancy job is taking off, and you may be paid three times as much as your spouse, but it’s not really conducive to family life, is it? If you want to raise happy children, shouldn’t you find something more part-time, more flexible, even if it’s lower paid?

Patricia Arquette's rousing speech on gender equality. Photo from the Daily Mail.
Patricia Arquette’s rousing speech on gender equality. Photo from the Daily Mail.

Oh, come off it, being a trailing spouse isn’t that bad, is it? So you had to quit your job, but just look at your lifestyle in what is considered one of the most livable cities in the world! You can meet your lady friends for coffee and lunch, you can go to the gym, or, better still, explore the lovely nature surrounding you. You’ve got time on your hands, such a luxury! Lonely – psha! You can Skype your friends and family anytime. Anyone would envy you!

What do you mean, you want to start your own business? But who is going to handle all the organisational things this family needs? After all, you’re the only one who can speak the language…

What do you mean, you want to cut back on your work to focus on your writing? Writing will never pay the bills. If you’re not the next J K Rowling, you might as well not bother. Focus on your real job – just don’t travel so much with it. I can’t handle the kids all day – there’s very little time to do anything while they are in school.

OK, sure, honey, I’m supportive. When are you going to finish that book? Why are you wasting time on poetry? What have you been doing all day, why are you so tired? When are you going to get your book contract? Why should I go to the parents’ evening instead of you, so you can write –  haven’t you had enough time during the day?

Marion Cotillard in 2008. Photo: Digital Spy.
Marion Cotillard in 2008. Photo: Digital Spy.

This past weekend I had good news. After years of unseen labour and cold showers, I had very positive and personalised feedback about my writing from editors and agents at a conference organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group. They encouraged me to keep going, to finish my second novel as quickly as possible and to send it to them. Yes, I know there’s a long, hard road still ahead of me, that there are no guarantees. But it’s that first step, and so much better than I had ever allowed myself to hope for.

I come home in a disbelieving, golden haze, basking in their warm words. I open the door very nearly breathless, eager to celebrate with my loved ones, bring out the bugles, roll out the red carpet, open the champagne. Instead, I don’t even get the question: ‘So, how did it go?’

I’m realistic about the attention span and degree of empathy of little boys. In my exuberance, I pour out my joy regardless… but soon get bogged down in dinner questions, homework completed, cooking, setting the table and preparing schoolbags for the first day back after the holidays. I get to hear about levels completed on Super Mario Galaxy during my absence, while the older ‘child’ barely raises his head from his phone to listen to my anecdotes about the day. I expect to be brought down to earth by family commitments and daily life – but not necessarily a ball and chain weighing me down just as I am soaring.

Finally, at supper, I open a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé that I’ve been keeping for special occasions and say, ‘Here’s to me!’ as we clinked our glasses.

‘Oh,’ replies my supportive spouse, ‘Why you?’

 

This is whom I’m going to mention in my acceptance speech:

P1020409

 

 

Also Read: Dept. of Speculation

OffillJenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation was one of those books that I really expected to like. If I just quote the blurb, you will realise that it sounds exactly like my existentially angsty cup of tea or coffee:

Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage. It is also a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all.

And it is, indeed, beautifully written in parts, certainly thought-provoking, with glimpses of universal recognition. It’s the story of a nameless woman (initially narrating in the first person, then gradually distancing herself to become ‘she’ or ‘the wife’), who dreams of becoming a great writer, but becomes domesticated, married, a mother instead. Maternal love surprises her with its intensity, the pain of being a betrayed wife is ferocious (yet much more civilised and philosophical than the raw cry of abandonment of Elena Ferrante’s heroine). There is something of the tragicomic musings of Jewish introspection of the early Woody Allen movies – or is that just the New York style? A layer of wit to make the pain more bearable. It is a very personal and often funny story of how, little by little, we get snowed under by life’s demands. We compromise and dead-end. In the end, life is made up of these small everyday emergencies such as bedbugs, soul-destroying jobs that pay the rent, a colicky baby, trying to keep up with the organised mothers at school. At some point, however, we stop to ask ourselves: is this what I really want? How did I end up like this? So, in many ways, this book is an extended description of mid-life crisis

There are whole passages that I want to underline or keep in my quotations folders:

My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.

I would give it up for her, everything, the hours alone, the radiant book, the postage stamp in my likeness, but only if she would consent to lie quietly with me until she is eighteen.

Enough already with the terrible hunted eyes of the married people. Did everyone always look this way but she is just now seeing it?

The wife reads about something called ‘the wayward fog’ on the Internet. The one who has the affair becomes enveloped in it. His old life and wife become unbearably irritating. His possible new life seems a shimmering dream… It is during this period that people burn their houses down. At first the flames are beautiful to see. But later when the fog wears off, they come back to find only ashes. ‘What are you reading about?’ the husband asks her from across the room. ‘Weather,’ she tells him.

And yet… and yet…

Much as I admire the courage to experiment in literary fiction (and wish publishers would allow more of these books to reach us readers), I do wonder if a daisy chain or even a string of pearls makes for a satisfying book. I’m probably being too severe here, but, even though there is a narrative arc here, the apparent random clustering of one idea after another just feels slightly lazy to me.

Have you read this book? And what did you make of its style?