My New Column: 'Small Island Culture' on Side B

Further to my good news the other day, I am now happy to say that I have more: yesterday saw the publication of my first article for Side B Magazine's online site! 

The column is called 'Small Island Culture', appearing every second Thursday for the foreseeable, covering arts and culture in the UK, my own creative process and comparative pieces comparing and contrasting creative life and practice both in the UK and the US, and the UK and elsewhere. It's gonna be a hoot :)

I'd be thrilled if you'd click through - my first piece could do with some comments...


'The Widow of Charroux' on Inkapture

I have some lovely news. The fabulous and discerning people at Inkapture Magazine have included my short story, 'The Widow of Charroux' in their new issue for Sept 2012.

Click through for a read. I'd love to know what you think.


Review: Anna Karenina (2012)

Anna Karenina 2012 Poster
So, I went to see 'Anna Karenina' at the cinema last week with rather low hopes, as the reviews and book blogger chat hadn't been good. But, you know, must go and see for ones self...

Let's say, I was disappointed. Really disappointed. 

First of all, why all the trickery? If you haven't seen it, the set-up of the first half, in particular, was stage set, with movable set walls and scenes in different parts of the city only separated by screens and movable props. I found it very difficult to forget I was watching a film and it very much distracted me from the story. What's wrong with halls and pavements for scenes of action? They work for everyone else, after all. I imagine the set-up is meant to convey the falseness of the social constructs of the contemporary era, in contrast to Anna's vividly beating heart,  but to me it smacked of insecurity, like 'it wasn't meant to be better, it was meant to be different' or something. I imagine it's quite exposing to try and tell a story well and have the emotional impact of it fall flat, so maybe they were self-sabotaging.

I also felt the story presented a too-modern take on the situation, as Anna was overtly applauded for following her heart and society was presented as very mean indeed for not letting her play with them afterwards. Really, she should be a tragic, dangerous figure who destroys her husband, children and lover, before destroying herself, to say nothing of the injuries that she felt she would have done God and her eternal soul. Karenin speaks of this, but Anna does not, and Karenin's moralising is presented like nagging, not as a voice of the church and the contemporary moral structure.  In this film adaptation, she is just sad because she can't have a divorce when she wants one and no-one will sit at her table.  I know they need to sell tickets, but better that they'd had a little faith in their audience rather than dumbing it down into nothingness. Also, I found the jealousy unconvincing and her suicide anti-climatic (and how can that even be?)
The main flaw for me, the culmination of these various things, is that this film felt like a classic case of style over substance  -  at one point I found myself admiring the dresses, and I wonder, is that really what my mind should be on whilst watching a dramatisation of what is really, the novel of novels? There was no foreboding, no latent, concealed unhappiness.  Où est la mélancolie? one might wonder, or где меланхолии? (Thanks Google Translate.) The beginning practically bounced along with life, contentment and industry, but everyone knows that happy, fulfilled people are not adulterers. Oblonsky was not 'opposite' enough, either, to fully demonstrate the gender hypocrisy, and Dolly was almost farcical in her distress, which is bizarre as Kelly MacDonald is normally such a safe bet.

The acting and characterisation were so weak also: Vronsky was a cream puff with little discernible personality, Keira/Anna was nervy and inconsistent, and Oblonsky was a very, very British (!) blustering fool. I would not leave anyone for any of them, as they were not real people. The brightest acting spot was Karenin, played quietly and steadily by Jude Law.

I was so disappointed by this film, which really has very little to do with Tolstoy or his story-telling, past the names, main plot points and places. 

Jacqueline Bisset and Christopher Reeve in Anna Karenina Sob. 

(I watched the 1985 TV version, with Jacqueline Bisset and Superman (look!), the other day, and that I found wholly engaging and a version I would recommend. Channel 4 in the UK also did an adaptation in 2000 with Helen McCrory which I remember being really good too. )


'Frenchman's Creek' by Daphne du Maurier

I read Daphne du Maurier's 'Frenchman's Creek' ages ago, kinda forgot about it, and then thought of it the other day and was like 'wow, that was such an enjoyable book!'

So, this is not a review; rather, it is the dregs of my memory of a holiday read that taught me a few important life lessons, which are as follows:

  •  Every girls needs, at the low points in her life, a French philosopher-pirate. 
  •  If you're going to be stuck in Cornwall with several small children, without husband or company, don't waste the little free time you have tidying up after everyone and watching rubbish reality TV. Instead, use your imagination to write a story where you are a wild, spirited and beautiful aristocratic rebel who flies in the face of convention and runs off to sea to have androgynous adventures with the afore-mentioned French philosopher-pirate. Anything else would be a waste.
  •  Daphne du Maurier is an insurmountable goddess and we would all do well to emulate her.



Guest Post: 'The Music Behind the Written Word' by Lenore Skomal

Today we have a guest post from Lenore Skomal, whose bio and new novel excerpt can be found at the bottom of this post. Take it away Lenore!

'Words can do exactly what music can: inspire, torture, and bend the human soul. But for me, the written word is often a product of the musical stimulation. And for all of the books I’ve written, I have listened to music while writing them.


Peirene Press 'Sea of Ink' Event

Yesterday I reviewed 'Sea of Ink' by Richard Weihe, a book kindly sent to me by Peirene Press. Even more kindly, they invited me to an event on Wednesday to promote the book, so I thought I'd write a small run-down of that too.

So, on Wednesday evening, my friend Abi and I went to the University of London's Germanic and Romance Studies Department, in the University's Library, to meet a beautifully select group of Peirene staff and supporters, the book's author, University representatives, representatives from the Swiss Embassy (!) and a few other book bloggers and general fans like me.

We mingled and drank wine provided by the Swiss Embassy - the first time the Swiss Embassy has bought me a drink, to the best of my recollection - and I had a lovely time chatting to Meike, Peirene's publisher, and Maddy, the Marketing Director, and it's clear that a whole lot of love, sweat and passion goes into producing each book from this small but talented team.

We were then treated to some dramatic readings of excerpts from the book  by actor Adam Venus, which author Richard Weihe went on to say was the first time he'd ever heard the English translation of his book read out loud. This was followed by Fabian Künzli, a young Swiss composer, responding musically to Adam Venus' readings of the text on the clarinet. Now, I don't know about you, but people do not respond musically often enough to things in my daily life, so I was really quite fascinated by the tender skill by which he played two pieces, 'The Lotus', an improvisation, and 'Petite Fleur', a Sidney Bechet jazz piece, in response to the text. Even to my limited musical mind, the music echoed the sentiments of the readings and illuminated the audience further about the mood and ambience of the work. 

You can actually hear it here, plus an excerpt of Adam Venus reading, Meike Ziervogel's discussion of the book and Richard Weihe discussing his inspiration and several key scenes from the book:

Questions were then taken from the audience, the most interesting of which was probably to do with the sympathetic qualities of the book's main character, Bada Shanren, or not, as the questioner saw it. After some thought, Richard and Meike came to the conclusion that this was never something that Richard thought of whilst writing the story - he just told the story - and postulated that needing a character to be sympathetic to connect to the story is a very 'Anglo-Saxon' thing. I'm not sure of my thoughts on this (are you?) but it was a fascinating thing to contemplate over a glass of wine in a beautiful book-filled room (contact the Research Librarian to find out about hiring it) on a warm and sunny Wednesday night.

Thanks again to Peirene Press for the invitation and see here for their list of upcoming events.


'Sea of Ink' by Richard Weihe

A lovely surprise popped through my letter box a few days ago: 'Sea of Ink' by Richard Weihe from the lovely people at Peirene (pronouced 'Pie-ree-nee') Press.

'Sea of Ink' is the first English translation of 'Meer der Tusche' which was published in Switzerland in 2005 and won the Prix des Auditeurs de la Radio Suisse Romande in the same year, and is about Bada Shanren, a 17th century Chinese painter who starts life as a member of the aristocracy, but goes on to take many guises (and different names!) whilst forging his own path through the creative and contemporary world. He becomes, to name a few, a monk, a madman, a father and a husband, so this book gives you a pretty thorough account of life at the time, although most of it is fiction as you can imagine that 17th century Chinese non-governmental sources are few and far between... Structurally, it is 51 short chapters arranged as a 118 page novella, the idea being across the Peirene range that you can read these little gems in an evening, or the same amount of time you might use to watch a film.

Rather than film time, it took me a bath and a train journey to delve through to the end, and a very calming and enjoyable read it was too.  I don't know if it's because Bada Shanren is a fairly serene figure or because the Chinese landscape is so poetically evoked, but I found this book to be a profound quiet spot in two quite busy days. The language is lovely, the tale is simply told and I loved that Weihe imagined the process of Bada Shanren painting his most famous pictures (I've included some below) and included the pictures also, so you can read the process of Bada Shanren painting his most famous pictures whilst tracing the lines with your eyes on the opposite page. The novella-length feature that is common to the whole Peirene series is inspired - what a nice feeling to zip quietly through a lovely book in two hours, a small interlude in the midst of my mammoth, if wildly satisfying 'A Suitable Boy' Readathon which is going to take me at least a month more yet :)

My only slight criticism might be to do with the translation - some of the sentences feel too short to let the mood really flow - but in large part it's excellent; the poetic eloquence of the story was conveyed very well by the translator, which after all is the most important thing.

As a side thing, it was a real novelty for me to pick up a book and not to have my attention grabbed immediately by the fellow author boosters and recommendations that normally wave from the cover and chatter through the first few pages, as if buying/borrowing a book wasn't even to imply interest and that we might still need convincing. I found it very refreshing to see a book and feel that the publishers had enough confidence in it to leave this off and say, yes, this book is good enough and brave enough to stand on its own. The cover is gorgeous too - taking the sum of its parts, it's a really lovely thing.

This book is actually one of the thematically linked trio of books that Peirene are publishing in 2012 - the others are 'The Murder of Halland' by Pia Juul and 'The Brothers' by Asko Sahlberg, comprising the 'Small Epics' series; 2011's series was 'Male Dilemma' and 2010's 'Female Voice'. All are European novels in translation, and most (if not all) were launched with a variety of literary salons and elegant evenings with the author attached, so Peirene seems to provide a very sophisticated and total experience. I'm excited. I actually own one of the books from the 'Female Voice' series although I have yet to read it, but I think I'll be bumping it up the series so I get to it soon. 

I thoroughly recommend this lovely, poetic book and actually attended a Peirene event last night where I met the author and saw someone respond to the text via the medium of clarinet (!), so check back tomorrow for my write-up of that! 

Title: Sea of Ink
Author: Richard Weihe
Publisher: Peirene Press
Date: September 2012
Format: Paperback, 118 pages, and it was a happily received ARC.

Fish Bada Shanren

Bada Shanren

Birds Bada Shanren

Bada Shanren



'Tolstoy: A Russian Life' by Rosamund Bartlett

'Tolstoy: A Russian Life' by Rosamund Bartlett was a Christmas present of mine that had been sitting around my home since January, looking so rich and informative that I kept passing it over for easier-looking books, probably because my job was requiring so much research of a similar ilk from me at the time. I'm glad I left it until I had some mental-room for it, as this book is very involving and hugely informative, if requiring of a little concentration to read all the way through.

I found Bartlett's writing both very clear and very illustrative of the Russian context, Tolstoy's friends, family and contemporaries, and of the great man himself. The narrative line was also very clear, making sense of Tolstoy's legendarily haphazard, passion-driven life, and it wasn't too difficult to keep track of who's who and how they relate to everyone else.

The most engaging parts for me were the sections in which he was writing Anna Karenina and War and Peace, partly because they're the works of his I know best, and also because Anna Karenina, in particular, gets to the heart of how Tolstoy viewed women and their contemporary role. He was a complicated chap, let's say. I was also thrilled to learnt that Tolstoy made huge, impressive efforts to build and reform educational practices for Russia's serf population, the vast majority of whom were illiterate, and he personally recorded and distributed some of the first statistical information on the living conditions of Russian peasants that was ever published. Of course, his dramatic shedding of possessions at the end of his life is well-known, but I was surprised to find out how early he began on this path, how he struggled and rebelled against the Russian Orthodox church because of it, and how 'Tolstoyans' were acknowledged throughout Russia, Europe and the US as proponents and followers of his neo-religious teachings. I was fascinated by the fact that his social and religious activism was largely suppressed and forgotten until Glasnost allowed its revival and acknowledgement over the last few decades.

As is acknowledged throughout this book, he was a paradoxical man who in many ways seemed to inhabit several lives at once, personifying Russia to an extraordinary degree. In fact, my main thoughts on this book post-read are two-fold: firstly, that Bartlett's achievement is quite momentous, considering the vast depth and breadth of the information to consider, and, secondly, that Tolstoy was rather a difficult man.

It struck me some way through this book that Tolstoy's character and idiosyncrasies bear a  striking resemblance to Charles Dickens's; in particular, his huge energy, socialist reformist missions and sadly, his unkindness to his wife. Both also neglected their families in favour of looking after the fortunes of the country at large, worrying about other people's families and children rather than their own. They could also both be remarkably unfeeling: for instance, Tolstoy's wife Sonya gave birth to 7 children AFTER telling Tolstoy that she'd had enough (by that point I think she'd had 5) (!!) as he refused to allow her an opinion on the subject; Dickens's domestic flaws are well-known enough for me not to have to go into them here. Both, I think it would be fair to say, were essential men for their time, but people you wanted to admire from afar, rather than live close to.

The failing of this book is the dryness of the subject which meant that, at times, it required quite a lot of motivation to keep reading; however, it is made clear that this is Tolstoy's failing, rather than Bartlett's:
'It is no wonder that Tolstoy saw himself in Rousseau [another comparison!], who had also lost his mother at a young age, and followed a number of different paths in his life before finding his metier. Both figures are united by a soaring genius, overweening vanity, a dogged, noble but often misguided sincerity, and a lamentable lack of a sense of humour, the latter being the single thing which sometimes makes the study of Tolstoy's life and works slightly hard-going.' (p76)
 So, the things to glean from this quote are that Tolstoy lacked a sense of humour, hence the dryness, and great male writers and philosophers often have several qualities in common, which I find simultaneously fascinating and depressing.

A good book, but one primarily for dedicated Tolstoy fans.

Title: Tolstoy: A Russian Life
Author: Rosamund Bartlett
Publisher: Profile Books
Date: 2011
Format: Paperback, 454 pages, plus notes and an index, and it was a gift.

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