Friday Fun: Monastic Retreats

When I was in my early teens, I had a craving to become a nun. Not so much for reasons of faith, but because I kept thinking what fun it must be to have plenty of time to read, write, meditate and perhaps do a spot of gardening. Of course, in the meantime, I have realised that modern monastic communities do far more than that. And yet, when I see pictures such as these, I want to go on a retreat there for several weeks, if not months.

St Mary’s Monastery in Perth, Scotland, from TripAdvisor.
Metochi Monastery in Lesvos, Greece, has been rented out as a study centre for the University of Agder in Norway, from lesvos.com
The Swiss monastery of Kappel am Albis is a place where I once ran a training workshop over several days – the food was brilliant too! From Cityseeker.
The Chartreusian monasteries are among the strictest in the world – you are practically locked up in your cell – still, when the cell looks like this, I wouldn’t mind. Photo credit Nico Angleys on Twitter, from the Grand Chartreux Monastery.
The Abbaye de Lerin runs revision sessions for high school students preparing their Baccalaureate. It’s on an island near Cannes, so there is no escape. Photo credit: Jean-Jacques Giordan.
A very modern Benedictine monastery, Mucknell Abbey in Worcestershire was built on the site of an old farm. From Mucknellabbey.org
Combining two of my favourite things: South Africa and Buddhism, this Buddhist retreat near Durban is a dream – and has accommodation ranging from the basic to the luxurious. Photo credit: Chantelle Flores, from Travelstart.co.za

Ten Years of Writing: Where Are We Now?

Ten years ago I started a new personal blog (as opposed to my professional one) and wrote a timid first post, in which I made a promise to myself.

This is where I can be myself, not a mother, not a daughter, not a wife, not a businesswoman.  And not a scribbler, but most definitely a writer.

Morita Rieko: Double-flowered camellia tree.

This was not the first time I resolved to be a writer. Aged six, I had decided age that I was going to win the Nobel Literature Prize for Romania, wrote plays for my friends and me to perform (I also directed, earning me the nickname ‘Bossyboots’), stories and novels, diaries, letters, and above all poetry. Throughout secondary school and university, I wrote and wrote, almost always in English, the strongest of my three childhood languages.

But then I started working, often four jobs at once to make ends meet (at first as a school teacher and secretary, later as a university lecturer, private tutor, copyeditor and translator), and my writing fell by the wayside. I went abroad for postgraduate studies, then got married, started working in a completely different and very demanding field, had children, moved jobs, moved countries, became self-employed and worked crazy hours after the children went to bed to establish my business. I was still dreaming of writing creatively at some point, but that point just receded further and further away. I went into creative hibernation for twenty years.

Then, in the autumn of 2011, we moved to Geneva for the second time. After all of the administrative hassle of renovating and renting out our house in the UK, packing and unpacking, settling the children in at school, doing lots and lots of French admin, I found myself stuck at home with nothing much to do. I had lost many of my clients because of my move abroad and had not yet established myself in the new environment. The time to pursue my writing dream was now or never, I felt, especially after I attended the conference of the Geneva Writers’ Group in early 2012.

I jumped in with both feet, set up a blog and a Twitter account, discovered the storytelling site of Cowbird (now an archive) and started writing something every day. I resolved to never allow life to get in the way of my love of writing again.

But life had other plans for me.

The last five years have been all about survival. With hindsight, I wish I had used the previous five years in Geneva mostly for writing, but I hated being dependant on a man for money. So I worked and travelled to exhaustion, put up with all sorts of corporate (and marital) humiliations, only to then watch that money flow into my husband’s pocket during our acrimonious, long-drawn-out divorce. Because I was travelling so much at the time, I felt guilty about neglecting the children, so tried to give them as many happy memories when we were together as I could. My writing once again came last. And guess what? They don’t remember all that much about the years when I was pretending to be happy and doing so much motherly stuff with them, neither the good nor the bad. I’ve often thought what an outstanding husband, father, career man and writer I could have been, with half the amount of effort I put into things because of my gender.

That’s why it doesn’t feel like I have much to show for the ten years of ‘taking writing seriously’. Other than 165K of tweets (and many lost hours), and over 1 million words of blogging. Enough to have written around eleven average novels, countless short stories or poems, but no book to show for any of that. I’ve seen other bloggers become judges for literary prizes, get invited to speak on radio or at literary festivals, interview famous authors. That is not the reason I started this blog, but it’s only human to feel an occasional pang of envy – or of failure – that all that work has not led to more visibility and has settled down to a pleasing but not astonishing number of 4000-5000 views per month. Many years of book reviewing and volunteering for various literary organisations have not led to any startling insights or superb industry contacts or even a job in publishing, even though I was prepared to take a drop in income so I could do the thing I love.

Yes, yes, I know that it’s too easy to focus on the things you have NOT done, so let me remind myself of the things I have achieved. I have 38 publications in print and online journals, although for about 3-4 years I didn’t submit a single thing. I have co-founded a publishing company Corylus Books which is trying, by hook or by crook, to introduce the English-speaking world to a greater variety of languages and countries in crime fiction. I have translated two crime novels (published) and am working on a third, a play and a poem (although I said I would never translate poetry), and am busy pitching other novels to publishers. When I have the time to do it for longer than frantic ten minute bursts, I enjoy the actual writing as much as when I was a child. I have finished the second draft of my first novel and the first draft of my second. Above all, it’s the quality not the quantity of blog readers that really matters. I have made many excellent literary friends via blogging and social media, but also in real life, and they are often the people I consult most nowadays.

All the time, in the background, that relentless tick-tock, the clock being run down. How much longer can I afford to ignore it? No wonder ‘tick, tick… BOOM!’ resonated with me – although it was quite funny to hear the Jonathan Larson character complain that he is nearly thirty and still hasn’t achieved anything. At thirty I was just establishing my career for the second time in a new country after my Ph.D.

It’s been ten years since I vowed to prioritise writing. I never thought I would still be so close to the starting line after ten years. As Tillie Olsen says in her hugely influential work Silences, do I really want to remain mute and let writing die over and over again in me?

Work interrupted, deferred, postponed, makes blockage — at best, lesser accomplishment. Unused capacities atrophy, cease to be. … The habits of a lifetime when everything else had to come before writing is not easily broken, even when circumstances now often make it possible for writing to be first; habits of years — response to others, distractibility, responsibility for daily matters — mark you, become you.

Forgive the self-indulgenct and self-pitying tone of this post. Two years of Covid have brought the fragility and transience of our human lives to the forefront. Call it foolish or egotistic, I will never not be preoccupied with my legacy. I don’t mean my children – they are their own people, and I was never the kind who felt the biological urge to perpetuate my line. I may not have the talent or the single-mindedness to succeed. But when the camellia falls, what is left behind? A blog that will be archived in some corner of the internet? Half-finished projects? A scattering of publications in journals that disappear as quickly as they appear?

古井戸のくらきに落る椿哉
furuidono kurakini otsuru tsubakikana

an old well
into the darkness
falls a camellia

—Buson

New Blogging Strategy

In February 2022 it will be exactly ten years since I started this blog, hoping that it would force me to write frequently and thoughtfully. I don’t know about the thoughtful bit, but it certainly has turned into quite a demanding hobby. At first, it was more of a place for posting poetry or other odd bits of writing, but it has now transformed into a book blog… and is in danger of killing my appetite for writing (and possibly even reading), instead of feeding it.

So I have resolved to merely review the books that are part of my main reading topic every month (January in Japan, for example). If I read a lot of those, like I did with the Russians in December, I will only review as many as I can comfortably cope with – or the ones that impressed me most. I will then chuck in very brief reviews of the rest when I do the monthly round-up. If I no longer feel the pressure to review nearly everything I read, then I can perhaps provide more considered reviews when I do actually write one. (Although, in my experience, the more passionate I am about a review, the more time I spend on it, the fewer people read it.)

I may (or may not) include some posts on other topics, such as any cultural events I might attend, or books I have acquired within a certain time frame. However, I aim to post at most three blog posts per week: something more bookish or cultural on Monday and Wednesday, and a Friday fun escapism.

The hope is that I will then divert my energies into more productive channels, such as writing, editing the novel, translating… or simply going outside more.

#NovNov: Bessie Head – The Cardinals

A change from all the German-language novellas I have been reading this month. Bessie Head was born in South Africa but had to go into exile in 1964 in Botswana, where she died in 1986 at the far too young age of 49. The novella The Cardinals (115 pages) was written while she was trying to work as a journalist in South Africa in 1960-62, but was never published in her lifetime. Understandable, since it deals with illicit mixed-race relationships, which were considered a punishable crime in South Africa until 1985, but very much frowned upon for a few years after the law was repealed.

Bessie Head herself was the result of just such an illegal unions between a black man and a white woman, therefore never recognised by her family and shunted from one foster home to another during her childhood. This forms the biographical detail for the main character in The Cardinals, Miriam, who is soon nicknamed ‘Mouse’ by her colleagues at the newspaper African Beat. Just like a mouse, she is small, quiet, shy, they barely know she is there, but the name could equally imply drabness as well as a slightly pejorative affection. Mouse is very hesitant about her writing, which she learnt to do almost against all odds. She shows ‘no mean ability’ and soon improves upon the stories that her charismatic older colleague Johnny writes, but she is not the pushy, talkative investigative reporter type. She also seems afraid to open herself up through her writing, to allow her lived experience to seep through.

Writing reveals quite a lot about the writer. This bit here proves to me that you are very much alive inside. What makes you conceal this aliveness behind a mask of death?

The answer is perhaps that this is a frequent response to trauma, to lock your emotions away so that you cannot be hurt again. Mouse seems almost touchingly naive at times, at other times world-weary and cynical, but the reality of newsroom sexism, reports of racial oppression and manipulation of news certainly mature her very quickly.

She is attracted to the bossy and debonair Johnny, whose initial pity for her transforms into a desire to protect her as well as genuine love. He convinces her to move in with him, so that he can help her achieve her full potential as a writer – although it turns out he is not averse to helping her achieve her full potential as a woman too. What neither of them know, however, is that Johnny is in fact her father. The story ends before we find out if the relationship is consummated, or if they ever find out about the taboo they are about to break, but we are made to feel a lot of sympathy for the unwitting protagonists. Readers are left wondering why the author chose to show such a major taboo in a positive light.

The answer is probably because the author is testing our tolerance, while drawing parallels between the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and the incest taboo. If you too were raised in a country where sexual relationships between whites and non-whites were considered disgusting, filthy, impossible, even before they became illegal, where the children of such unions were considered the lowest of the low, if not completely invisible… would you not consider this miscegenation to be as subversive as incest?

The other theme of the novella is the emergence of a writer, both in terms of craft, but also finding the right subject matter, those things that you are best placed to write about. Johnny is an infuriating know-it-all at times, and Mouse struggles to accept his tough medicine and advice to her as a writer and a person. Yet you cannot help but feel that the author thinks many of his principles are sound, even though he conveys them too forcefully at times.

A human life is limited so it has to identify itself with a small corner of this earth. Only then is it able to shape its destiny and present its contribution. This need of a country is basic and instinctive in every living being. I don’t care to admit it but historians may say we were a conquered race. Anyway, we were made to feel like the underdog. You cannot feel like the underdog and at the same time feel you belong to a country. It is the duty of the conqueror to abuse you, and treat you like an outcast and alien, and to impose false standards on you. Maybe we can help throw some of those imposed standards overboard. It is a great responsibility to be a writer at this time.

Writing, the author seems to suggest, is about giving voice to the countless people living a zombie-like existence – far too many hours spent on back-breaking, monotonous labour, living in crushing poverty, nothing to look forward to except an often violent death. In such a brutal existence, we have to grab what fleeting joys we can, as the final paragraph indicates:

Just don’t delude yourself you’re safe. Anything can happen. Life is a treacherous quicksand with no guarantee of safety anywhere. We can only try to grab what happiness we can before we are swept off into oblivion.

Yet, although I understood these sentiments, I was somewhat disappointed with this early work of Head’s. This is very much an apprenticeship work, full of clunky expressions. I also struggled with the characters’ motivations. I found Johnny rude to the point of being aggressive, Mouse far too passive and bland (living up to her nickname), the dialogue often too stilted and the reactions of the newspaper colleagues too over the top. Bessie Head went on to write far more subtly and poetically, but as a historical curiosity, one of the few pieces of fiction she wrote while still in South Africa, and as an example of her evolving craft, it remains nevertheless an interesting work.

Monthly Summary October 2021

This is the month where my abstract anger at the lack of any Covid mitigations in schools in England actually had something concrete to rant against: my son caught Covid from a classmate, I caught it from him, and both of us found out about it from Track’n’Trace long after we had tested positive. Yet, according to the ‘legal requirements’, I could have gone to work in London on the day my son tested positive (because I tested negative) and infected all of my colleagues at work that day, plus an old friend I was supposed to meet at LRB Bookshop/Cafe (plus people working or shopping there), plus the people around me attending the theatre performance I had tickets for that night. Luckily, I ignored government guidelines and self-isolated from the start.

Reading

Although for a few days I thought I might never be able to concentrate enough to read properly ever again, I did in fact finish an extraordinarily large number of books this month. Probably because I struggled to do anything else. 15 books, of which: only 4 by women writers (my lowest ever proportion, I believe!), 9 in translation or foreign language (of which five in Romanian, which was my country focus this month), 7 labelled as crime fiction, one biography, two books for Book Clubs – Constance by Matthew Fitzsimmons and Roxanne Bouchard’s We Were the Salt of the Sea (trans. David Warriner). I also had a record number of historical fiction books this month – or else books written at a time that may almost be labelled historical (8).

Once again, I haven’t quite reviewed all that I’ve read (with the excellent excuse of not feeling quite well enough to do so), but I have written about:

  • David Peace’s Tokyo Redux and compared it to a Golden Age crime novel
  • For the 1976 Club, I was captivated by Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude
  • I had great fun with Antti Tuomainen’s latest, a not quite cosy Polish crime fiction writing duo and a biography of Elizabeth Jane Howard
  • I discovered a promising volume of short stories by Bogdan Suceava
  • Absolutely adored the irrepressible energy and fun of Ioana Parvulescu
  • And I could not stop myself writing about a childhood favourite of mine, the Romanian classic La Medeleni by Ionel Teodoreanu: Part 1 and Part 2

I was intrigued by the premise of Radu Pavel Gheo’s Good Night, Children, which was a blend of childhood reminiscing, the challenges of emigration and then the shock of returning to your home country after a long time away, plus a knowing nod towards satire and supernatural elements like Bulgakov. However, the book just couldn’t make up its mind if it was comic or tragic, tried to fit too much in, and ended up not going being enough in any of its categories.

The other book that disappointed me was Magpie by Elizabeth Day: the publishers probably did the book a disservice by labelling it as a psychological thriller with an unforeseeable twist, because I did foresee the twist quite early on, and even the final denouement (although my expectation was that it would be even darker). Some of the characters were quite flat or clicheed, and the most interesting aspect of the book, the lengths people are prepared to go to have a child of their own, rather got buried under all of the attempts to make the book palatable to a wider audience.

One book that I found very intriguing and that I do want to review was Admiring Silence by the newly-crowned Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah, about a man who comes to England as a refugee, builds a life here without every quite feeling he belongs but upon returning to visit his family back home in Tanzania (Zanzibar to be precise), discovers that he no longer fits there either.

Other Activities

Speaking of the refugee experience, I saw the very powerful and yet somehow sweet and wholesome film about asylum-seekers waiting for their status to be clarified, Limbo by British director Ben Sharrock. There is a lot of humour and close observation of infuriating but also poignant absurdities that alleviate the frankly quite hopeless and tragic situation. I was comparing it on Twitter to the other film about economic migrants that I saw recently Oleg, which was much bleaker, a much more violent, dog eats dog world, while here there is a certain solidarity and friendship between the characters which makes it ultimately ever so slightly hopeful. And the music! Music really occupies a prime spot here, in many different versions.

That was one of the few films I watched this month (other than anime, Squid Game and a rewatch of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with my younger son). I have been too listless to engage with anything more challenging than Strictly Come Dancing or the Great British Bake Off, both of which I completely ignored last year.

I have switched to a new (16 month) diary and so had a chance to tally all of my submissions to literary journals or competitions and see what I’ve done with my writing thus far this year: I have submitted 37 times, had 21 rejections, seven acceptances. So by the end of 2021, I will clearly have beaten my previous record in each of the categories. It may not feel like a huge number compared to others, but I am trying to keep it manageable and protect myself from too much disappointment.

I’ve also had the pleasure of attending one of the best short masterclasses I’ve ever heard, run by Lucy Caldwell for Arvon. I listened to the recording again after the class was over and have learnt so much about voice and the use of tenses – fundamental elements, which you think you already know by now, and yet… there was so much still to discover. I was pleased to hear just a week or two after this class that Lucy Caldwell won the BBC National Short Story Award this year.

I also attended another Arvon class (in collaboration with ClassFestival) on Poetry and the Body with Joelle Taylor, which sparked some new ways of looking at my body and how to use it in my poetry (or even prose), and also made me eager to explore spoken word poetry more (as I was planning to do before Covid struck).

Plans for November

My holiday plans for October were thwarted, but here’s hoping that my third attempt at a proper holiday this year will finally come to fruition in November! I have managed to change the dates for my stay at the Westwood Centre, so I hope I will be fit enough to drive all the way there and, once there, go on plenty of walks to admire the landscape, read lots and write something. (I had an ambitious writing plan before, but I will be happy with whatever I can get this time.)

In terms of reading, I’ll be tackling some German novellas, although I use both terms rather loosely. I have a selection to choose from, let’s see how much of it I manage to go through: Arthur Schnitzler’s Casanova’s Journey Home, Marlen Haushofer’s We Kill Stella, Irmgard Keun’s Child of All Nations, Friedrich Glauser’s The Spoke, Jonas Lüscher’s Barbarian Spring and Katharina Volckmer’s The Appointment.

Monthly Summary, January 2021

Reading

I have decided to no longer review every book I read this year, since I simply cannot keep up. This month, I’ve read 13 books, including finishing off the chunkster that was The Brothers Karamazov (which was left over from my December Russian reading). 12 of these were translated books, greatly helped by the fact that it was January in Japan and I really enjoyed spending time in one of my favourite countries in the world (9 of the 12 were Japanese). The only one in English in the original was for the Virtual Crime Book Club – and you can catch our discussion of The Chemistry of Death by Simon Beckett here.

Of the 13 you can see in the picture below, you might notice two are different translations of the same book by Dazai Osamu, so let me reassure you that I am not counting that twice, but am including instead an academic work about Suicidal Narrative in Modern Japan: The Case of Dazai Osamu by Alan Stephen Wolfe (but it does not have a pretty cover). To go through my Japanese reading chronologically:

  • I found out about the fascinating life and work of Higuchi Ichiyo, the first modern Japanese professional woman writer.
  • I reconnected with my favourite Dazai Osamu, reading his No Longer Human in a new translation and his shorter, often quite funny more purely autobiographical stories. This is where I also fell down the rabbit hole of reading more of him and about him in a more academic context.
  • I moved on to another modern classic and old favourite, Yukio Mishima.
  • I read a short story collection by Yuko Tsushima, Dazai’s daughter, and learnt more about the impact of her father’s death via an example of autofiction.
  • I read an enjoyable romp of a crime novel with a deliberately American noir feel, despite its Japanese setting and preoccupation with the consequences of the Vietnam war: The Wrong Goodbye by Toshihiko Yahagi (not reviewed)
  • Last but not least, it was intriguing and timely to read about the often ignored homeless people of Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri

Aside from Japan, I also spent some time with Portuguese writer Afonso Cruz and his experimentally structured novel Kokoschka’s Doll, as well as with the fast-paced, jazzy improv beat of talented German writer Simone Buchholz: Hotel Cartagena (not reviewed).

For February, I will spend time in Canada, but inevitably some other writing will creep in, especially if it’s winter themed. However, our host Meredith is continuing with the Japanese Lit Challenge until March, and I certainly intend to continue following the reviews that people are posting there.

Films

Elsa the Rose – beautiful love story (although also ever so slightly obsessive) told through interviews with Elsa Triolet and Louis Aragon, in conversation with Agnès Varda.

Ikiru – absolutely adored this film, more reminiscent of Ozu than Kurosawa. It tell the story of a faceless (not very likeable) bureaucrat who, when faced with a death sentence through a cancer diagnosis – becomes concerned about making up for lost time (and looking for fun in all the wrong places initially) and leaving behind a legacy. Particularly poignant and realistic in the post-funeral scene, when you see how others talk about the dead and misunderstand them.

The Godfather and The Sopranos – rewatched the first with my older son, who really likes it. Then, by way of counterpoint and an update into the Mafia families, started watching Season 1 of The Sopranos.

The Long Goodbye – was not entirely convinced by the portrayal of women as either manipulative bitches or decorative hippies high on drugs. However, I really liked Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe: with his dark suit, lanky figure, fluffy hair and constant smoking, it’s clear he must have been the inspiration for the Spike Spiegel in the anime series Cowboy Bebop.

Lovers Rock – described by many as their favourite of the Small Axe films by Steve McQueen. I loved the recreation of the period, the setting, the community and also the charming touches of youthful love (as well as more disturbing aspects of the party culture), but I did feel some of the music passages were too long.

Phoenix – a pared-down approach to acting by Nina Hoss to what could have been quite a melodramatic story of losing one’s identity, betrayal, forgiveness (or not) and moving on (both as an individual and as a country). The final ten minutes or so, when she gets off the train and is reunited with her husband and ‘friends’, are perfectly and heartbreakingly done.

Other News

Despite a busy working month, I’ve made a little bit of progress on my novel (I’m nearly two thirds of the way through, but I think it will need at least another edit before I’m happy with it).

However, I’m happy to say that I’ve very nearly finished the edits to my second translated novel: Resilience by Bogdan Hrib. ‘Resilience’ in the context of this novel does not focus on psychological resilience in the face of the unknown (although it does deal with this tangentially), but on geopolitics. It is defined as “the ability of states and societies to adapt and reform, thus withstanding and recovering from internal and external crisis, particularly in a period of unpredictability and volatility”. Of course, that is too academic to be of much interest in a crime novel, so let’s just say that this will be all about social media, fake news and dubious agents (who knows from where?) trying to influence international politics. This should come out end of March with Corylus Books.

Friday Fun: Location Hunting

I’ve been immersing myself in the world of my novel – and very much enjoying it. It does help that a lot of the locations in the novel (which takes place predominantly in Romania) are so picturesque.

The fatal accident that leads to everything that happens in the novel takes place on this road over the mountains, the Transfăgărășan crossing the Carpathians. From Romania Visitor Center.
Some crucial scenes take place at the Chalet on Lake Balea at the top of the mountain.
Our two main protagonists meet up with former classmates to try and find out more about the deceased here, on top of the National Theatre, at Enache’s Milk Bar. From bucurestiulmeudrag.ro
They make an important ally and friend in Curtea de Arges, not far from the site of the accident, and spend a short while in the grounds of this beautiful monastery. From TouristinRomania.wordpress.com
Eli does some research in the archives at the Central State Library in Bucharest, from Agerpres.ro
Clues lead them to the beautiful Transylvanian city of Sibiu, and they have lunch in the Big Square in the centre, from RomaniaExplore.com

December Reading and Films

Just because I’ve written my annual summary doesn’t mean that December gets neglected. Although it was busier than I would have liked until the 18th, after that I went on holiday, so had more time to dedicate to reading, writing, family and watching films or TV series. Here is a little round-up of the month.

Reading

Poster for the 2009 Russian TV series of the Brothers Karamazov

This was my Russians in December month. Of course, given the verbosity of some of those Russians, it ended up being nothing more than Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island (which was an eye-opener and which I cannot recommend highly enough as piece of investigative and anthropological writing) and The Brothers Karamazov (in the translation of Ignat Avsey). I’m halfway through the latter and enjoying it far more than I ever did on previous attempts, so this might be the time I actually get to finish it (by the time 31st of December, 23:59 comes along). Review (or rather, random thoughts and jotting in the margins) to follow in the New Year.

Alongside these chunksters, I felt I had to keep things short and reasonably cheerful and/or escapist. For example, I have interspersed these serious reads with easy and reasonably forgettable crime fiction, which I chose mainly because of their settings, like Ruth Ware’s One By One (skiing in the French Alps) or Robert Thorogood’s The Marlow Murder Club (set in the village where my son goes to school – his school gets a mention in the book too). Two other crime novels proved to be a lot more thought-provoking than I had expected, so were enjoyable in a different way: Riku Onda’s The Aosawa Murders (which I’ve already mentioned several times, so you’re probably sick to death of it) and John Vercher’s Three Fifths, which addresses a real moral dilemma about race and friendship, family and crime in the United States.

Oddly enough, the remaining two books have been described as crime novels, but are in fact about middle-aged men going back to either the places they grew up in (Urs Faes’ Twelve Nights) or to a privileged way of life and setting they thought they had left behind (John le Carré’s A Murder of Quality – set in a public school rather similar to Eton or Sherborne, which the author hated). Both books are full of wistfulness and yearning, for what might have been, for the people we did not marry and, above all, the people we did not become.

The last two books of the month are ones that I am skimming through rather than reading. The first is The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly (not because I don’t enjoy it, but because there is no time to finish reading it before the Virtual Crime Book Club tonight). The second is Amanda Craig’s The Golden Rule, which sounded intriguing as a premise – a fun exploration of current social affairs in the UK via a Strangers on the Train scenario – but in practice is a bit plodding and clichéed, and somehow unable to make up its mind if it’s a romance or a satire or a crime novel or a thriller or a social novel… And this from a reader like me who likes genre transgressions!

So eight books in total, if we don’t include the skimmed ones, of which four in translation (two Russians).

Films

With the boys spending the first week of the holidays with me, we got to watch quite a lot of films. 12 films and 2 TV series (or parts of the latter) so far, and I expect to squeeze in a couple more until New Year’s Eve. The first TV series was Season 1 of Succession, which is a great mockery of rich people, and particularly a dysfunctional Rupert Murdoch type family. The other is The West Wing, which I’ve finally embarked upon rewatching with my boys. I think they were not that enamoured with it for the first two episodes, but then they started getting caught up in the banter and political intrigues. Even though it feels at times quaint in its old-fashioned optimism (which has been sucked out of us after the Trump administration), what I like is the highly intelligent, witty, challenging yet also supportive banter among its main characters. I’ve had the pleasure of being surrounded by some such people in a few educational or work settings, and it’s a wonderful thing to experience at least temporarily. We may stop after the first three seasons, though, which are the best.

Half of the films this month were Japanese, I noticed with some surprise. I suppose I get more and more ‘homesick’ for Japanese culture every passing year, and with Christmas making me nostalgic in general, three of those were animes. But not quite the reassuring, sweet kind. Studio Ghibli’s Porco Rosso finally made me realise why they called themselves Ghibli and is an homage to the early aviators, but we also watched two non-Ghibli animations. Made in Abyss (we had started watching the anime series, but this was a standalone film) was much darker than I had expected, about experimenting on children. Meanwhile, Your Name was a teen love story with darker sting in its tail, of destruction of a town (always top of mind in a country prone to earthquakes, typhoons and tsunamis, although in this case it is destroyed by a meteorite), of tradition versus modernity, and missed opportunities.

Of the adult films, there were two Kurosawas that I rewatched and really enjoyed their blending of Japanese samurai traditions with a gentle mockery of cowboy films: Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai. I can understand though why my sons thought they were overlong and that there were not sufficient differentiating features between the various samurai. The last Japanese film I watched on my own, since it was a horror flick: Cure by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira). Not a jump scare or gory horror thriller – more of a gradual ratcheting up of tension and disquiet, with the most menacing small talk I’ve ever seen.

Quite a few of the films were Christmas rewatches, films I’ve seen so often they’ve become part of my personal fabric: Some Like It Hot (probably my favourite comedy), Singin’ in the Rain, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Kind Hearts and Coronets. One of the rewatches was less successful: I had previously only seen Citizen Kane as a child and was not that impressed, but at that time all of the nuances and political commentary were lost on me, so I decided to watch it now. Although it was good, sharp and witty, I feel that calling it the ‘best film of all time’ might be overstating things (but don’t ask me which one I would put in its place).

The final film I watched this month was The Death of Stalin, which I had never watched before. I am torn about this film. Although I found much of the black humour and over-the-top dramatic posturing hilarious, and although we used plenty of such humour to help us cope with the fear and disgust of Communist dictatorship, it nevertheless felt wrong to laugh at things that have caused so much terror and heartbreak to so many people. It is too close to me personally and to people I know. Plus, Kruschev (played with aplomb by Steve Buscemi) was certainly not quite the almost reasonable guy they make him out to be – only the least insane and cruel out of a really bad lot.

Writing

Happy to report that I’ve gone back to daily writing practice (even if it’s only 15 minutes in my diary or a blog post). This is not necessarily because I believe it’s indispensable for writing a novel, but because it makes me feel I have accomplished something on even the busiest, dreariest of days.

The even happier news is that I’ve gone back to my first novel. I found a whole treasure trove of handwritten and printed materials, notes, calendars, inspirational pictures, discarded chapters etc. So I have plenty to work with and am really excited about spending time with those characters once more and exploring their world.

This is the Balea Lake Chalet, up at 2000 metres in the Fagaras mountains. It plays a crucial role in my novel. From CabanaBaleaLac.ro

Write-A-Thon Joy and Thanks

What a wonderful day we had! Nine members of our Royal Borough Writers group committed to a full day of writing in the attic room at The Old Court in Windsor, all while raising money for the mental health charity Mind.

Some of us even brought their own printer! Others (me) were more focussed on the Hobnobs.

No conflicting commitments, no distractions, just setting goals for the morning and the afternoon, receiving stickers if we achieved those goals (we all did) and 50 minute writing spurts followed by a 10 minute break to replenish your drinks at the bar downstairs. We kept that up from 10:30 until 18:30 and it was the happiest I’ve been in many, many months.

While I cannot claim quite as many words as some of the other members of the group (6500 in one case, 10 pages of film script, 3 short stories etc.), I did manage to write about 2500 words, edit several poems and completely rewrite one as a ballad. Our total tally was probably over 25,000 words and a total of nearly £800 raised, so something to be proud of.

Thank you so much to all of you who donated so generously to us in cash and via the JustGiving page! In addition to raising funds for Mind, you also reminded me of just how much I love writing. A great way to kickstart my passion for it once more, and a handy reminder that I should stop putting it last, after I do all the tedious urgent chores.

The sweet stickers of success!

Five Things to Laugh or Sing About

There are so many things in my life right now just waiting to be complained about, that I decided to thwart them all and take a page out of Meggy’s blog. For those of you who don’t know @choconwaffles blog, she has a Friday positivity wave post, in which she lists all the good things going on in her life, big or small. I can’t promise this will become a regular weekly feature, but it can’t hurt to remind myself of fun things from time to time.

  • After two weekends away, Zoe is incredibly grateful to have me back. Reading with her purring on me is the cosiest feeling ever!
  • After a gap of years, if not a decade, I finally went to see a live opera again. The Marriage of Figaro at the Royal Opera House. The prices are prohibitive for what was a vertigo-inducing and not at all comfortable seat. The production itself was a little frantic and over-acted at times (with the large cast of servants etc.), the orchestra’s horns seemed to have a dissonant mind of their own at times. But Joelle Harvey as Susanna was magnetic, especially in her duet with Julia Kleiter as the Countess, and her almost heartbreakingly wistful ‘Deh vieni, non tardar’ aria in the fourth act. All eyes were on the countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim as Cherubino – the traditional casting being a woman – but, I’ll be honest, I didn’t realise it was a man until afterwards.
View from my seat.
  • Mozart is good for the soul and quite possibly a rejuvenator. I was exhausted that evening, as the work week had been horrendous and I’d not been feeling well for several days. On my way back to the train station from Covent Garden, I had an unexpected experience – well, unexpected in this day and age, as it hasn’t happened to me for a good few years now. A man ran after me and tried the pathetic chat-up line: ‘You’ve got such a tremendous aura. You don’t seem to be walking, you are floating.’ Clearly, Mozart gives you wings!
  • My local friends and fellow mothers, who have been with me through thick and thin, banded together to get me a voucher to buy books at The Second Shelf for my birthday. It’s the first time anyone has ever given me a bookish gift voucher, so I was very touched and pleased! I finally got to visit The Second Shelf this week and came away with lesser-known works by two authors who meant the world to me when I was growing up.
  • Thank you to Eric (aka Lonesome Reader), who mentions in his latest Booktube an event at LRB bookshop in late August: Ali Smith and Nicola Barker in conversation about writing. I booked my ticket rightaway! In fact, this week I’ve started to commit to my writing again: attended a Write together/Feedback session with my local writing group after a long gap, received detailed notes on my poems from my mentor Rebecca Goss and arranged to attend a writing retreat in 2020 with the writing friends who inspired and supported me so much in the summer of 2016.