October: cultural plans and TBR

Over the past few weeks writing (and reading!) posts has fallen by the wayside, as life has intervened: not only work, but helping get my eldest ready for university, some minor health woes and a very lovely trip to Venice with my mum.

October is gearing up to be another busy month, but I’m determined to get my act together this month, catch up and write up what I have seen, watched and read over the last few weeks, as it keeps it fresh in my mind, as well as hopefully giving others some ideas and helping to progress my project overall (to experience books, art, film, TV, food and music) from all over the world – for every country that it is feasible for me to do so: progress to date is mapped here.

Current reads are:

  • Dust by Kenyan author Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (2014 novel).
  • Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (1932 memoir of living through the First World War).
  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (2020 – read to complement my reading of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing.
    • A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka (2006 novel that I’m not enjoying at all – it’s not funny and it’s faintly offensive but I’ve got so far through it I may as well finish).
  • Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969).

Books on my TBR for October:

  • Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (to read ahead of watching the new movie adaptation).
  • Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald.
  • Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (my daughter is doing this for GCSE, and I’ve meant to read it for years).
  • Small Things Like These by Clare Keegan (Booker shortlist and for book club).
  • The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit.
  • Kibogo by Scholastique Mukasonga (a Rwandan author I have read and reviewed in the past, and I’ve kindly been sent a review copy of her newly published novel by the people at Archipelago).

Other:

  • A trip to the Baltic Film Festival in London.
  • A cinema trip to see the new Bowie movie, Moonage Daydream.
  • A trip to the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square to see the new work by Malawi-born artist Samson Kambulu.

Review of Olga (Swiss film)

I’ve been so focused on getting through my book reviews lately that other cultural experiences were temporarily shelved, so it’s time to get back on track and catch up. This blog was, after all, set up to showcase international culture and in an attempt to experience and document examples the full gamut of culture – books, art, film and TV, music and food – from every country of the world.

Earlier this year I went to see a screening of the prize-winning 2021 Swiss film Olga, which stars 20-year-old Ukrainian gymnast Anastasia Budiashkina (a previous member of the Ukrainian national team), and was directed by female director Elie Grappe (my blog tries to shine a spotlight on female directors in what remains a male-dominated industry).

Olga is a successful gymnast who, owing to her late father’s Swiss nationality, has the chance to leave Ukraine to train in Switzerland, in the hope of securing a place on the Swiss national team. Despite her athletic successes, however, she feels cut off from her friends and her mum, especially when the Euromaidan revolution breaks out back home in Kyiv.

Olga is stubbornly resilient but refuses to plaster on a smile when she doesn’t feel like smiling, and has a difficult time bonding with some of her other team members. Despite her tough and even unsympathetic exterior though, in private she is desperately homesick, and anxieties rise as her family and friends at home become caught up in the protests, especially given her mother’s work as an investigative journalist has brought her into constant confrontation with the Russian-backed authorities in place at the time.

The Ukraine-set parts of the film were in Ukrainian, subtitled in English, whereas once the action moved to Switzerland the language largely switched to French (with subtitles). Unfortunately, the subtitling in my showing broke down around halfway through the film. Given I theoretically have degree-level French, I stayed put and watched the rest of the film, but inevitably had to do a bit of guesswork, so I may have missed some later nuance!

Given the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, this film was a bittersweet watch, but it was also a really involving coming-of-age story. Life imitates art, given that Budiashkina is now based in Switzerland, having fled Ukraine at the beginning of the war.

Review of the Kevin Barry book ‘Night Boat to Tangier’ (Ireland)

I’m rounding off my 20 books of summer with a late review, this one being of book number 15, a short novel by Irish writer Kevin Barry, which was longlisted for the 2019 Booker prize.

Ostensibly, not much happens. Two old gangster frenemies, Maurice and Charlie, are waiting at the Spanish port of Algeciras, hoping to intercept Dilly, Maurice’s young adult daughter. She left Ireland after the untimely death of her mother, and has been living a crusty itinerant lifestyle. The old lags’ banter, often very entertaining, manages to be lyrical too, and combined with the protagonists’ state of stasis, I found myself thinking of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

The men are former drug dealers, with a history of violence (sometimes against each other), and the present-day (2018) narrative is intercut with reflections on the past, the joys and horrors of class A drug use, treachery, loyalty, violence and grief.

Maurice and Charlie have done dreadful things in their lives. They are really truly reprehensible human beings. But Barry makes them sympathetic characters somehow too, and I warmed to them even as I knew I would never want to meet them.

We Had to Remove this Post by Hanna Bervoets (Netherlands)

Translated by Emma Rault

This Dutch novella (the first of Bervoets’ novels to be translated into English) was a late substitution to my 20 books of summer list, and is review no 14. I quite like a tech-orientated dystopian novel (though I have zero interest in tech itself and would quite happily never replace a phone or computer if they didn’t insist on breaking).

The book itself is almost laughably slim, considering it’s currently selling at £12.99 in hardback, but it’d had so much heat in the press that I duly handed over my hard-earned cash to a large online book store (the one that rhymes with Bamazon).

Kayleigh is desperate for money, and lands a job with a team of content moderators for an Instagram-style social media product. It was interesting to reflect on what life must be like for people whose entire working day is spent sifting through and evaluating disturbing online content to figure out whether a line has been crossed and, if it has, which particular line that is (in the book, the moderators do this with the help of a permanently out of date manual).

A video of people kissing in bed is allowed as long as we don’t see any genitalia or female nipples; male nipples are allowed at all times. A hand-drawn penis in a vagina is allowed; digital drawings of vulvas are not allowed … Death threats against a paedophile are allowed; death threats against a politician are not; a video of a religious zealot blowing themselves up in a daycare centre should be removed, on the grounds that it’s terrorist propaganda, not because it depicts violence or child abuse.”

Kayleigh finds herself in a same sex relationship with a colleague, but their relationship rapidly comes under strain, as their working life starts to have a psychological impact. This book had a fabulous premise, but I don’t think it used this potential to maximum effect, and the narrative could be disjointed and the dialogue unconvincing. However, I loved the great, twisty ending.

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (Lebanon)

Rabih Alameddine is one of those authors that I have been meaning to read for a long time, and I bought his 2014 novel An Unnecessary Woman back in March 2020 but had never got round to reading it. I assume that the book’s context, that of a woman living shuttered from the world, resonated with me at the beginning of the COVID pandemic and the first lockdown.

The novel (book 13 of my 20 books of summer) is an introspective, loosely structured account of an ageing woman’s life, disappointed by family relationships and a disastrous short marriage, and emotionally scarred by Lebanon’s violent history.

The reclusive Aaliya starts each year by carefully selecting a work of literature, which she reads in the English and the French, before translating it into Arabic. Over the course of 50 years alone, boxes of painstakingly translated, handwritten bundles of paper accumulate in her apartment, without anyone’s knowledge. Literature has been her whole world for almost all her adult life.

The book is full of brilliantly cynical one-liners and wise epithets, tinged with regret, and ignores many of the conventions of novel writing – notably the need for plotting – but is expertly rendered and I really liked it.

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood and three other mini book reviews

I’ve been on holiday in Berlin for a week, and I’m catching up with my 20 books of summer posts before I head off again for a few nights: these were books 9, 10, 11 and 12 of my 20, by three British authors and one Irish writer. I’ve gone off-grid a bit from my original list of 20 books.

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood.

I felt I needed to read this 1930s, Berlin-set novel, given our last-minute trip to Berlin. It’s a pacy, often funny novel (“I must have been already drunk when I arrived at the Troika, because I remember getting a shock when I looked into the cloakroom mirror and found that I was wearing a false nose”), which takes a darker and more sinister turn. The implacable William Bradshaw, who is loosely based on the author himself (who lived in the city as an English teacher and sometime sex tourist), meets the ebullient, campily mysterious Mr Norris on a train. Bradshaw finds himself sucked into a decadent and amoral world, against the sinister backdrop of the decline of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis.

Milk Teeth by Jessica Andrews

This is a new release, which I bought in hardback because of the beautiful, poetic writing in the opening pages. It’s about a young woman who falls in love, but, dealing with past traumas, is uncertain whether to give herself fully to the new relationship. She has a difficult relationship with food and her own body, a tendency towards self-destruct, and a compulsion to refuse herself sensual pleasures. This was a lush coming-of-age novel, set partly in Spain as well as areas of London that I am very familiar with, but I found the protagonist’s endless over-thinking a bit … tedious. I just couldn’t summon up patience or interest in a navel-gazing 20-something now I’m a bit of an old bag.

Odd Girl Out by Laura James

This is a memoir written by a woman diagnosed with “high-functioning” autism in mid-life. It was interesting to read of Laura’s challenges and successes and to increase my understanding of ASD, given a recent family diagnosis, and given so many of my friends also have family with ASD, though the writing was sometimes a bit too flat to sustain a full-length book.

Look Here by Ana Kinsella

New in paperback, a psychogeography of London from the perspective of Irish journalist Kinsella, interspersed with interviews with colourful Londoners and ‘field notes’: brief sketches of people seen or overheard. Surely inspired by Lauren Elkin’s Flaneuse, this was an enjoyable but rather slight exploration of London life.

The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leone)

I’ve read 11 books so far this summer, and this review of Aminatta Forna’s 2010 The Memory of Love is review number 8.

Forna was born in Scotland to a Scottish mother and Sierra Leonean father. However, she spent much of her childhood in Sierra Leone, where her activist father was murdered by the authorities when she was 11 (and which she has written about in her memoir, The Devil that Danced on the Water).

Forna’s novels are often interested in how people deal with trauma (I’ve previously read her 2018 novel, Happiness), and The Memory of Love, published in 2010, is no exception, set in an unnamed Sierra Leone, against a background of lives marked by unrest and civil conflict.

The story has a dual timeline, each featuring an intense love triangle. The first thread of the story focuses on the memories of a dying man, Elias Cole, who was employed as a university historian in the late 1960s. Cole becomes infatuated with the wife of his charismatic senior colleague Julius, and Cole’s rivalrous relationship with Julius and obsessive pursuit of Saffia ultimately has an enduring and devastating impact on all their lives.

Cole willingly pours out his narrative to a visiting English psychiatrist, Adrian Lockheart, who is ambitiously, if rather naively, seeking to heal the post-war traumas of his Sierra Leonean patients, in a country where he is eventually told “99 per cent of people are suffering post-traumatic stress disorder” – and where those people, in contrast to Cole, have largely adopted silence as a survival technique.

Cole is not necessarily a reliable narrator, but nor is Lockheart: he has abandoned his wife and daughter to pursue his ambitions, in what increasingly feels like an attempt to run away from life in the UK. The contemporary section forms the book’s second thread, in which Lockheart experiences his own tumultuous relationships while in Sierra Leone, developing close connections both with troubled orthopaedic surgeon Kai and an attractive young woman, Mamakay.

I found this to be a compelling novel, which is thoughtful and neatly plotted, as it examines the stories people tell themselves in order to survive, the painful legacy of war, and the nature of love.

The Memory of Love won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize Best Book Award 2011.

They by Kay Dick (UK)

I read They by Kay Dick (published in 1977) as one of my 20 books of summer (this is no 7, and I’ve nearly finished books 8 and 9, though that still leaves a lot of reading for August!).

I’m quite fond of dystopian fiction, and this novella has been ‘rediscovered’ after being out of print for many years. I found it completely impenetrable, however, though it was mercifully short (I feel I write these words too often!). I was expecting a coherent novel, which would hang together as a single narrative, but this isn’t what we get: instead it’s more like a loosely themed bunch of short stories.

There are weird similarities with the Russian novel We that I co-incidentally read earlier this summer (not as part of an intentional dystopian theme). They shares the unspoken sense of menace, the characters have a similar lack of agency and, again, there is that constant looming threat of consciousnesses being hijacked and memories removed by a repressive ‘Other’. Dick was gay, so it’s hard not to read it as a response to the repressiveness of English society at the time.

The characters are constantly in fear of the arrival of a nebulous, murderous anti-intellectual mob. ‘They’ hate single people and people who live alone, they hate artists, they hate writers and they really hate needlecrafts.

However, the sentences were so staccato and so drained of description that I couldn’t get a handle on any character or any of the locations or action. The characters epitomize the English middle-class of the time (and don’t actually seem all that intellectual or bohemian, though that’s the look they’re going for): they drink tea and eat cake A LOT and go for walks and sometimes spot ‘them’: the menacing, murderous, encroaching anti-culture mob. (It reminded me a bit of Brexit!) Onwards and upwards…

Your Ad Could Go Here by Oksana Zabuzhko (Ukraine)

Translated by Halyna Hryn/Askold Melnyczuk/Nina Murray/Marco Carnnyk/Marta Horban.

This is a collection of short stories from Ukraine, published in 2020, and many published elsewhere separately from 1998 (the majority since 2017), which no doubt explains the long list of different translators. It was book 6 of the 20 books I’ve set myself the challenge of reading this summer.

Short stories aren’t my favourite form of fiction, and I found most of these quite difficult to engage with. Zabuzhko’ sentences are long, sometimes bewilderingly long – several Kindle pages long! Many of the stories feel like fables or fairy tales, written in purple prose, and dealing with female familial rivalries and insecurities – mums and daughters misunderstand each other, sisters fight over men.

There was a good story (An Album for Gustav) on the Maidan protests in 2014, the first sign to most in the West of Ukraine’s definitive break with the Russian political sphere of influence. This story was written in an ironic style, flagging up the ignorance of Western commentators and the patronising diplomats in their views on this hitherto fairly little-known ex-Soviet state, the people of which were regarded as some kind of “Albanian-Belarusians”. It also captured the excitement and fervour of revolution (although, as you can see, with Zabuzhko even text in parentheses can go on and on – I cut off the quote long before the end bracket!):

“…and then suddenly you hit this current, a massive underwater gulfstream, and it grabs you and carries you with impossible speed, with a thunderous, might roar (The sound! That’s what’s missing from these pictures, damn it! The round-the-clock hum of the crowd, the clapping thunder of chants that echoed from the buildings’ walls and reverberated to the far shore of the Dnieper and, after several days of insomnia, began to rumble inside your own head…”

The title story, alluding to the merciless obliteration of the past by encroaching capitalism and simple human greed, is also great. But mainly I found this book a bit of a plod, though I had been very keen to like it: Zabuzhko was awarded the Shevchenko National Prize in 2019, Ukraine’s most significant state prize for works for art and culture. 

Claudine’s House by Colette (France)

Translated by Andrew Brown

Claudine’s House was book 5 of my 20 books of summer. Published in 1922, it form part of my side project to read books from 1922 throughout 2022. Historically, 1922 was a momentous year. I recently read Nick Rennison’s 1922: Scenes from a Turbulent year, published this year, which gives a brilliant overview: this is the year the USSR was formed, the Ottoman Empire fell, the post-Spanish flu pandemic ‘roaring ’20s’ got under way and, in publishing, ‘peak modernism’ was reached. Books published in 1922 include both Ulysses (which I keep eyeing warily) and the Waste Land. And this engaging sort-of memoir by Colette.

Lots of people have pointed to the book’s charm, as it evokes Colette’s childhood summers in a French country house, replete with puppies and kittens and hair fastened with ribbons. Through a series of short vignettes, life with her fluttering mother Sidonie, her one-legged army captain father and her three eccentric siblings is vividly conjured up.

There is nothing of world events in the book, though amid the charm there is some sadness. Sidonie is devastated by her estrangement from Colette’s emotionally intense older sister following her marriage (Colette’s family were unable to honour their financial commitments under the marriage contract), and that cast a long shadow over the book for me. Especially when I learnt from Wikipedia that the sister committed suicide at the age of 48.

The most enjoyable bits, for me, focus on the animal life:

Nonoche the tortoiseshell had given birth to kittens two days previously, and Bijou, her daughter, the following night … Filled with happiness, I sorted out these nursing mothers and their well-licked nurslings, fragrant with hay and fresh milk and well-tended fur, and I discovered that Bijou, four times a mother in three years, bringing to her teats a chaplet of newborns, was herself sucking, with the clumsy noise of her over-large tongue and the purring of a chimney fire, the milk of old Nonoche lying inertly there, taking her ease with one paw over her eyes.”

I can read French, but read this in English through deeply ingrained laziness. I have to say though that the cover of my secondhand Hesperus Modern Voices edition from 2006 is rubbish: it shows a girl with a face of abject misery gazing out balefully from a step, and screams misery memoir rather than bucolic bliss.

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