Saturday, 7 September 2019

Usk Castle

On an impromptu trip to Wales, I came across a castle that felt like it had stepped out of the imagination of Dodie Smith. 'How strange and beautiful it looked in the late afternoon light!' wrote Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture the Castle, a novel in which she chronicles the life of her family amid the crumbling ruins of their castle. It's a mouldy, mouldering place, its vestigial grandeur just intact enough to allow the place to be romanticised. 'I was too young to know much of history and the past,' noted Cassandra, 'for me, the castle was one in a fairy-tale.'

Entering Usk Castle, which sits just up a path with a gateway crowned by lions, past a still-inhabited house with a fine topiary duck in the garden, it was as if I, too, had wandered into a storybook. Around the lush green carpet of lawn rose the grey stone walls, covered in ivy so that they seemed almost to merge into the hills beyond. The place had a charm of its own: a topiary cross to mark the chapel, chickens running free, and a tree with a branch that had grown downwards, bent and twisted, forming a perfect seat. In the derelict banqueting hall, a fireplace was beached halfway up the wall, above the line of the floor, which had long since fallen away, like the disappearing sea.

And in another corner, reached by walking along the top of a wall with rather rickety fencing, stood the round tower, its stone green with moss, its walls roofless and open to the sky and trees. Just the kind of place that Cassandra might have locked up her creatively-blocked father, in order to force him to write his next novel.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

August 2019 reviews for The Times

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard
5 August 2019

First thoughts aren’t always the best. When Sibelius’s Symphony No 5 was premiered in Helsinki in 1915, the audience liked it, but the composer wasn’t happy. Drastic surgery was required. Four years and two revisions later, the bold orchestral work that’s become a concert-hall favourite emerged. So why bother digging out that original, rejected version?

Full review:

National Youth Orchestra of the USA/Antonio Pappano
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Semyon Bychkov
12 August 2019

When Joyce DiDonato was singing Le spectre de la rose from Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été (Prom 32) — her voice so tender, so poignant, so full of meaning — it really was hard to imagine anything more perfect. Every word of French was finessed, every phrase unfurled naturally. Sentimentality could swamp this glimpse of an exquisite dying rose, yet DiDonato made it human and transcendent.

Full review:

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
13 August 2019

There was no time for nerves, second thoughts, or even getting comfortable. As soon as an almost reluctant-looking Martha Argerich had sat down, the orchestra struck up and she was away, whipping up an already heightened Proms atmosphere with the unstoppable striding chords of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto.

Full review:

London Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle
21 August 2019

There aren’t many pieces that can make the capacious Royal Albert Hall feel small, but Varèse’s Amériques is one of them. It’s not simply the huge orchestra; it’s the depth and scale of the head-spinning, modernist urban soundscape, which teeters on the edge of cacophony and feeds off the energy and rhythms of a city that never sleeps. Stories suggest themselves for the deluge of sounds: the wail of a police siren, the squeak of a subway train on metal rails, the clank of a bolt through a steel girder. This is music in which the world is constantly being remade.

Full review:

Saturday, 17 February 2018

January 2018 reading

Lullaby Leila Slimani
Everything I Know About Love Dolly Alderton
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine Gail Honeyman 

Monday, 1 January 2018

Welcome to 2018

Today I went for a swim. A New Year’s Day swim. In a pool with waters clear and icy, sharp on the skin. Cleansing. The earlier heavy rain had turned into blue skies and a lemon sorbet sun. The first length was bracing, the second refreshing. One after the next – touch the end, turn, push – the lengths added up until my fingers and toes seemed to have reached the same temperature as the water and it was time to get out, shower and head into 2018.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

December 2017 reading and listening

To be updated…

Postcards from the Edge Carrie Fisher
Apple of My Eye Helen Hanff
The Dark is Rising Susan Cooper
A Manual for Heartache Cathy Rentzenbrink
The Ship Antonia Honeywell

Last Leaf 
Danish String Quartet

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

November reviews for The Times

After ten good years, my laptop finally decided to give up and head into retirement. And after several months of denial, I've finally given in and accepted that it's not going to come back to life. I'll admit I'm rather enjoying the novelty of actually being able to type, copy, paste on my new computer without it being a complete headache. Time for some blog housekeeping! Here are a few of my recent reviews for The Times. Links included. They are all paywalled (go on, subscribe!) but you can sign up for two free articles a week.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
27 November 2017

Just before the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra arrived in town, its chief conductor Mariss Jansons went on record saying that women conductors weren’t his “cup of tea”. Cue outcry, particularly as the Latvian was also at the Barbican to be awarded the gold medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society. 

Full review:

The Rake's Progress at Wilton's Music Hall
14 November 2017

There may be a more atmospheric and appropriate theatre in which to stage Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, but I wouldn’t bet on it. The intimate Wilton’s Music Hall is right in scale and feel. 

Full review:

The Riot Ensemble
14 November 2017

Less traditional concert, more experimental music laboratory, this BBC Radio 3 Open Ear event showcased the quite new, the new and the made up on the spot. It’s an interesting formula. That I felt the results were mixed is almost part of the point 

Full review:

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla
10 November 2017

Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1 has already become Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s calling card, after he played it to win BBC Young Musician in 2016. This was the second time I’ve heard the 18-year-old cellist play the piece live this year, and if I was secretly expecting a carbon copy, then shame on me. Even in a matter of just a few months, Kanneh-Mason’s interpretation has grown in maturity and stature, and here he gave a thrillingly memorable performance.  

Full review:

London Symphony Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
1 November 2017

It is hard to say who is more of a speed merchant, the pianist Khatia Buniatishvili or the conductor Gianandrea Noseda. Either way, they are kindred hotheads. Luckily, they both have the knack of pushing tempos to their limit and, just at the point of no return, managing to keep the music from free-fall.

Full review:

Monday, 5 June 2017

Helen Dunmore – a small tribute

I got to know Helen Dunmore's writing thanks to my mum. For that reason alone, her name was instantly special. My mum loves reading, I always trust her taste in books. I remember her recommending Zennor in Darkness to a friend when I was a teenager. Yet for some reason I only started reading Helen's books when I was in my twenties, when I had moved to Bristol. One Christmas I gave my mum two books of her poetry, and I was reminded: this was a writer I should really read. I went to the library, the big central library, and took out Burning Bright. And realised that the city she described was my new home, the arty cinema in her novel my new local hangout. But more importantly I felt I had made a discovery: a writer who wrote with wisdom and wit, a cool elegance and a human warmth. Who was not afraid to confront the darkness, nor afraid to embrace the light. I carried on reading.

The story could have stopped there with one happy reader. Then a few years ago I signed up to a French class, and in the first lesson was surprised to see a familiar face. It was the writer from my bookshelves. I was, I'll admit, starstruck. Over the next few years, it was a privilege and a pleasure to share a horror of the subjunctive (perhaps I'm projecting my horror on to Helen) and a delight in the French novels we read each term. I took a year off my lessons last September, and was shocked when I learned she had terminal cancer. I wrote to Helen, and her reply was so kind and generous. I get the impression that was how she was with everyone. She was a brilliant and thoughtful writer and poet and a wonderful human being, someone who I have found inspiring in every way. All of these small musings are simply an inadequate way of saying how sad I am that she has died, to say thank you for the words. My thoughts are with her family and friends. Helen's last book, Birdcage Walk, was also set in Bristol. I can't wait to read it.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Spinning Heart

Country: Ireland
Author: Donal Ryan
Book: The Spinning Heart

This was one of my airport bookshop buys – from Belfast, NI, where I also bought one of my favourite books in translation, Strange Weather in Tokyo, a few years ago. Not the same airport, though, in case you want to be pedantic; though both had a shelf or two dedicated to Irish writers. Perhaps I should have chosen some James Joyce – I've still not read Ulysses, for instance – but with little room in my hand luggage, I needed to opt for something a bit slimmer. Added to that, this is a debut novel – and there's always something intriguing about that –  with enough good reviews to start its own fan club.

And I'd pay my dues. Donal Ryan's story of a rural Ireland struggling after the financial collapse of 2008 makes a strong impression. Each chapter brings in a new resident, each individually interesting yet each adding something to the narrative, centred around the implosion of a property developer. The strength of their voices, the use of colloquial language are what gives this novel is its texture and soul; their individual accounts of poverty, ambition, moral strength and weakness, of acceptance and hatred. It was easy to be absorbed by these rich pen portraits, so easy that, like every day life, it's not until the worst has happened that we can see all the forces conspiring to enable it. Empty promises and empty houses lead to a terrible act.

I loved how vividly the thoughts and feelings of Ryan's characters came across, how he balanced poetry with realism, how strongly this felt like an 'Irish' book – rooted in place and recent history. Next stop, Joyce.

Sunday, 12 February 2017


Country: Yemen
Author: Ali Al-Muqri
Translator: TM Aplin
Book: Hurma

When President Trump announced his travel ban, various bookshops published recommendations of writers from the seven targeted, muslim-majority countries. Unfortunately my local, fairly mainstream Waterstones didn't seem to have much translated fiction from the Arab world – a topic for another day. Blackwell's in the heart of Oxford, where I happened to be spending a weekend, however, had a whole section dedicated to books in translation, three or so shelves of Arab fiction, and one book from Yemen – Ali Al-Muqri's Hurma.

That may not sound like much choice, but it's actually borderline remarkable given how few books are published by native writers in Yemen, a country that only assumed its current form in 1990 and which has seen years of division and conflict. The Yemen Times reported that 20 novels were published by Yemeni authors in 2014; more than twice the number of the year before. The same article – well worth a read, as is this Middle East Monitor piece – reckons that there have only been around 300 Yemeni novels ever published. I haven't found any more recent figures, but I can't imagine they're good: war has torn the country since 2015, and the UN estimates that 19 million of the 26 million-strong population are currently in need of humanitarian aid.

Written in 2012, Hurma predates this latest horrific chapter in Yemen's history. It's by Ali Al-Muqri (b. 1966), a journalist and writer with eight novels to his name, of which this is the first to be translated into English, and it won the French prize for Arabic Literature. Given this was essentially an impulse purchase, I'm not sure what I expected from this slight book, but the yellow-and-black warning colours of the cover should have made me realise that this was not going to be a comfortable read. It was, however, compelling.

This is the story of an unnamed woman, her sexual desire, her attempts to satisfy it and society's attempts to both encourage and shame her for it. That the novel is set in Yemen seems, in many ways, peripheral: we know that she lives in the capital Sanna'a, but there's not much sense of place. But then we learn early on that women aren't allowed out alone or even to make phone calls or speak to neighbours: 'The Islamic Education teacher told us: "A woman's voice is as private as her face, and should not be heard in public, just like her face should not be seen."
The narrator is looking back at her life in a strict Muslim society, the tale punctuated by lyrics from a pop song on a cassette tape a neighbour gave to her, which she plays over and over, switching from side A to side B as she tries to make sense of things. She starts when she was a happy young girl. Her older sister brought in money for the family (no questions asked), her brother was a fervent communist who then became just as fervent about radical Islam. (Interestingly, South Yemen was communist before it joined with North Yemen in 1990.)

Everything happens behind closed doors; repression is the status quo. Early on, our narrator describes her curiosity about life and how it was denied: 'I reasoned that the desire to understand was in fact a type of question, and I had no right to be asking questions.' The consequent implicit acceptance of events gives it a distinctive narrative style, a storyteller's 'and then this happened' approach. It reminds of a Saudi Arabian novel I read a couple of years ago, and I wonder if this is a characteristic of literature from this region. Expert knowledge required…

Sex is the driving force in Hurma – the text is often explicit: she's shown 'cultural films', is regaled with her sister's sexual exploits (which read like erotic fantasy rather than reality), and ends up married to an impotent jihadi, heading to Afghanistan to fight and being arrested in Iran, before returning to her home country. All of this happens almost unthinkingly – there's no damascene moment when she's suddenly radicalised in religious or political terms. The real moment of clarity surrounds the rape of her fellow women travellers. At first she experiences terribly misplaced, naive envy but soon understands what rape really means: 'It is an act of abuse, an act of violence, committed for the pleasure of one party against another.' 

'Hurma' means, as the novel's glossary explains, 'literally "sanctity" – an entity to be protected from violation or dishonour, usually by a male guardian. The term implies ownership of the woman, and a lack of agency.' In its totality, it's a problematic concept from a contemporary liberal Western perspective; it's problematic for the narrator, too, who struggles and wrestles with how to reconcile her desires with reality. And I'll leave the issue of how this story that so powerfully gives public voice to an unheard, unseen woman might have been handled by a female rather than male writer for another day. The ending is unexpected, both bold and ambiguous and raising many more questions than it answers. Perhaps that, though, is how the narrator would have wanted it.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Drawing up the reading list

Right. Time to get organised. I started my Reading the World project in rather laid-back fashion. I've since realised a few things. One: unless I keep focused, it could be rather a long time until I navigate the globe. Two: some countries are going to be a lot harder to cover than others, so that will need a bit of planning. Three: reading is a solitary pursuit but for me this is about learning more about the world. I don't want to read in a bubble. I want to know what books people from far and wide can recommend. So, to start with, I put out a note out on Facebook. Over the past two days, I've had 55 book suggestions. They range from Jilly Cooper to Gogol. Shockingly, I've never read either…

If you've got any book suggestions, please do let me know by commenting or emailing.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Reading the World: bibliograpy

Signs preceding the end of the world Yuri Herrera

The Nakano Thrift Shop Hiromi Kawakami

The Spinning Heart Donal Ryan

Hurma Ali Al-Muqri

A Man Called Ove Fredrik Backman

To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee

Persepolis Marjane Satrapi

Of Love and Other Demons Gabriel García Márquez

Stay With Me Ayòbámi Adébáyò

The Beautiful Summer Cesare Pavese

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Signs preceding the end of the world

Country: Mexico
Author: Yuri Herrera
Translator: Lisa Dillman
Book: Signs preceding the end of the world

When I picked up Yuri Herrera's Signs preceding the end of the world, I probably should have paid more attention to the title. This is a 2009 book about a young Mexican woman, Makina, who illegally crosses from her home country into the US. Topical even when I read it at the end of October, given Donald Trump's promise to build a wall along the US-Mexico border and deport all illegal immigrants. Now, the title seems grimly, ironically prescient.

I actually chose this novel by chance. Well, not quite chance. I was browsing the fiction section for a short book. No more than about a centimetre thick, however many pages that works out as. I wanted one of those novellas where all the words matter and there's something brilliant about its brevity. This certainly fits that bill; its story, too, is fascinating, giving an insight into the human cost involved in such a journey – required reading, I might suggest, for the incoming president.

Signs preceding the end of the world is a realistic tale but with a mythological quality. It opens with a sinkhole swallowing up a man, car and dog. 'I'm dead,' are Makina's first words, who is only just spared a similar fate. As she embarks on a quest to find her brother in America, there's a feeling that this could in fact all be an allegory about passing from life to death. It's certainly about leaving behind a past life for a new one. Interesting, too, that these migrants have to pass across water, so symbolic of rebirth. The physical crossing of the river is fraught, and Makina doesn't make it without falling in: 'the world turned cold and green and filled with invisible water monsters.' But she reaches the USA, where she experiences snow for the first time, strange fried food, and is called scum'by 'a huge redheaded anglo who stank of tobacco'.

One of the most striking things about this novel was Herrera's non-standard vocabulary, which features a rich amalgam of anglo-Mexican and newly coined words. Lisa Dillman explores the challenge of translating this unusual lexicon, particularly how to capture the essence of the neologism 'jarchar', a word that comes from Mozarabic poetry, used all over the place here and meaning 'to leave'. She chooses the word 'verse', to suggest its poetic roots and the idea of motion – traverse, reverse, converse. And of course, it points to the wider universe, encompassing the sense that this one story of one woman in a specific time and place in fact tells us important things about identity, culture and today's world.

So that's the first country and first book from my Reading the World project. Mexico, tick! Next up, Japan.