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Two Reviews: ‘The Wheel Spins’ by Ethel Lina White, and ‘Triumph and Disaster’ by Stefan Zweig

The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White *****
I adore ‘The Lady Vanishes’; it is easily one of my favourite films. I also love discovering 7210forgotten authors who have fallen by the wayside for one reason or another. Imagine my delight then when I found a Kindle copy of Ethel Lina White’s collected works, including The Wheel Spins, the novel which Hitchcock’s film was based upon.

The Wheel Spins is remarkably slick. White moves from one character to the next so fluidly, and her writing is strong. I was immediately pulled in. Whilst Hitchcock’s film adaptation follows White’s plot relatively well, there is so much depth within the novel; the backstories of many of the secondary characters are given. The Wheel Spins has a wonderful mystery at its heart, and is both entertaining and perfectly paced. I highly recommend it for fans of Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Edmund Crispin.

 

Triumph and Disaster by Stefan Zweig **** 9781782272748
Triumph and Disaster added something a little different to my October TBR list.  I have read quite a bit of Zweig’s fiction, and very much enjoyed it, but this volume leans more toward non-fiction, presenting as it does a series of five historical figures at pivotal moments in their lives.  Zweig’s content of historical miniatures is varied, even eclectic; here, he discusses Napoleon, Captain Scott, the conquest of Byzantium, Lenin in April 1917, and the Treaty of Versailles.

Zweig’s accounts are beautifully written, and have been splendidly translated.  They are fanciful at times; poetic licence has certainly been used, and accounts are not always factually accurate.  What Zweig does, however, is immediately engage his reader, giving an awareness of rich and fascinating pieces of history.

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‘A Misalliance’ by Anita Brookner ***

I have read rather a lot of Anita Brookner’s novels over the last year or two, and have got to the stage where they are all starting to feel very similar.  A lot of her books focus upon single, or troubled, women, who are trying to find their place in the world, as well as yearning to know themselves.  I had three of her tomes outstanding on my bookshelf, and chose A Misalliance, which was published in 1986, at random.  I read several rather mixed reports of it before I began to read, and the word which stood out most for me was ‘bleak’.

9781400095223Blanche Vernon, our protagonist, was abandoned by her husband of twenty years in favour of a ‘bubbling yuppie in her twenties’.  The childless woman spends her days visiting museums around her home city of London, so as not to feel the loneliness which can hit her when in her flat.  The novel opens in the following way: ‘Blanche Vernon occupied her time most usefully in keeping feelings at bay.  In this uneasy month of the year – cold April, long chilly evenings – she considered it a matter of honour to be busy and amused until darkness fell and released her from her obligations’.  Blanche is very much occupied with saving face, and appearing as cheery as she did when she was married to the outside world.  Indeed, from her perspective, her marriage was a very happy one, and she was left shocked when Bertie walked out on her.  ‘It was her husband,’ writes Brookner, in rather a tongue in cheek manner, ‘who had fashioned her into the woman she was now, so independent, so dignified, so able to manage on her own.’

Indeed, A Misalliance does follow extremely similar tropes to a lot of Brookner’s other works; it is an introspective study of a woman who suddenly has to live alone, and adjust accordingly, through no fault of her own.  We learn a lot about Blanche’s thoughts and feelings, and the drawing of her relationship is almost a psychological one when taken together.  Blanche struck me as rather a pathetic character; she is incredibly gullible, and seems not to have the faintest inkling of when she is being used, or taken for granted.  Brookner’s portrayal of her takes any sympathy away, and she appears as a not very likeable protagonist.  The lease of life which she is given is a little unlikely in places, and did not strike me as an overly realistic occurrence in consequence.  Thematically, almost all of the Brookner novels which I have read to date – Falling Slowly, Providence, and Family and Friends to name but three – follow this formula; clearly it is one which worked for the author, but it leaves little to the imagination for her readers.

A Misalliance is certainly readable and intelligent, but it does seem a little as though Brookner has recycled characters, both primary and secondary, from her other books, and squashed them all together here.  The secondary characters are often far more interesting than Blanche herself, and part of me would have liked to learn more about them, or for the focus to shift between Blanche and one another.  This approach would have appeared as relatively refreshing, and I am almost certain that I would have ended up liking the novel a lot more than I did.

Vogue says that the novel ‘has the old-fashioned virtue of being easy to read while remaining bracingly intelligent’, and the Times Literary Supplement that it provides ‘a civilised look at contemporary disorder, and a wonderfully poised and pointed examination of the wrong turning’.  I ended up concluding that A Misalliance is a very middle-of-the-road, and sadly almost nondescript, book.  Yes, it has virtue, but it is one of Brookner’s weaker and less memorable tomes.  If you like Brookner already, then there’s no harm at all in reading this, but if you are new to her work, I would not suggest this as a fruitful starting point to her oeuvre.

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Reading the World: ‘Therese Desqueyroux’ by Francois Mauriac ****

Therese Desqueyroux is my first Francois Mauriac title.  I read, not the edition pictured, but an older Penguin Classics compilation of the titular story, Therese Desqueyroux (1927) as well as three other tales which follow Therese’s life – ‘Therese and the Doctor’ (1928), ‘Therese at the Hotel’ (1928), and ‘The End of the Night’ (1935).  The dates mentioned relate to their original French publication; the years in which they were first translated into English are 1928 for the original, and 1947 for the three others.  Gerald Hopkins is the translator for both Penguin editions.

9780141394053The two novellas, and two short stories, which follow Mauriac’s most famous literary creation, are set in Bordeaux and Paris.  They chart her ‘passionate, tortured life…  Her story, brilliantly and unforgettably told, affirms the beauty and vitality of the human spirit in “the eternal radiance of death”‘.  Of Mauriac’s writing, Justin O’Brien tells the following in the New York Times: ‘Both his subject and his style frequently recall Racine and Baudelaire; and indeed we often feel that we are dealing here with a poem, so rich is the symbolism and so fleet is the arrangement of themes.’  Martin Seymour-Smith says that: ‘His books are bewitchingly readable.’

The author’s foreword, directed as it is toward Therese, ends: ‘I take my leave of you upon a city’s pavements, hoping, at least, that you will not for ever be utterly alone.’  The title story begins with Therese walking from court, ‘having been charged with attempting to poison her husband’.  We then follow Therese as she is banished from her home, escapes to Paris, and spends her final years of solitude waiting.  Mauriac’s depiction of the Paris cityscape is nothing short of stunning: ‘It is not the bricks and mortar that I love, nor even the lectures and museums, but the living human forest that fills the streets, the creatures torn by passions more violent than any storm.’

There are so many small yet unusual details which render Therese a believable, and markedly human, character: ‘She took off her left-hand glove and began picking at the moss which grew between the old stones of the walls they passed’, and ‘Once more she breathed in the damp night air like someone threatened with suffocation.’  Mauriac clearly believes that he has built her up to such a realistic position; he writes: ‘But compared with her own terrible existence all inventions of the novelist would have seemed thin and colourless.’  His depiction of Therese’s motherhood is often startlingly beautiful: ‘There, in the darkness, the young mother would hear the even breathing of her slumbering child, would lean above the bed and drink down, like a draught of cool, refreshing water, the small sleeping life.’

In Therese Desqueyroux, Therese tries desperately to remember why she married her husband; she loves him, both for himself, and what he stands for – property, family, security – but the passion which she would have imagined she had felt is unavailable to her.  Soon after their marriage, Mauriac shows that things began to go sour, particularly for her husband, Bernard: ‘… their being together no longer gave him any happiness.  He was bored to death away from his guns, his dogs, and the inn…  His wife was so cold, so mocking.  She never showed pleasure even if she felt any, would never talk about what interested him.’  As for Therese: ‘She was like a transported criminal, sick to her soul of transit prisons, and anxious only to see the Convict Island where she would have to spend the rest of her life.’

Therese Desqueyroux has been both beautifully written and translated.  Therese’s story is incredibly sad, and demonstrates how one can be overruled and shunned in terms of their character and choices. One cannot help but feel for Therese; she is a fascinating character to study.  I did not quite love the collection, but the title story particularly was so interesting to read.

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‘Pepita’ by Vita Sackville-West **

Vita Sackville-West was a prolific author indeed, writing fiction (novels and short stories), poetry, biographical works, travel literature, and a column on gardening, amongst other things.  Vita Sackville-West’s Pepita, a biography which portrays the lives of both her grandmother, Josefa, whom she never met, and her mother Victoria, was first published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s The Hogarth Press in 1937.  The edition which I read was sadly not an original, but it did include rather a lovely introduction written by Alison Hennegan.

Josefa, lovingly known as Pepita to those around her, was ‘the half-gypsy daughter of an 9781784871161old-clothes pedlar from Malaga’, who made her fortune as a dancer, first in Madrid, and then as the ‘toast of all Europe’.  In May 1852, when she was just twenty-two years old, she arrived in London, already having been married and separated.  She soon met and became the ‘contented though severely ostracized mistress of Lionel Sackville-West, an English aristocrat and diplomat’. and bore him five illegitimate children, of whom Sackville-West’s mother was the second eldest.

After Pepita’s death, her nine-year-old daughter Victoria was sent to live in a convent, where she stayed until she was eighteen.  At this juncture, she was summoned to Washington to become ‘mistress’ of her diplomat father’s household.  She goes on to find herself ‘the volatile and wayward mistress of Knole’ in what is termed in Pepita‘s blurb as an ‘unlikely inheritance’.

In her introduction, Hennegan states: ‘For what appears to be a straightforward joint biography of her grandmother and mother becomes the means whereby Vita explores and makes sense for herself of those warring elements in her own past and temperament which most exercised and perplexed her.’  She goes on to say that for Vita, it was her ‘”Spanishness” which enabled her to accept her lesbianism comparatively easily, her “Englishness” which forbade anything as “vulgar” as a public acknowledgement of it.’  Sackville-West herself saw Pepita as a ‘gift to herself of the mother she almost had… [and] an extended love letter to the woman she wanted her mother to be.’  She writes: ‘Pepita, can I re-create you?  Come to me.  Make yourself alive again.  Vitality such as yours cannot perish.  I know so much about you: I have talked to old men who knew you, and they have all told me the same legend of your beauty’ of the section on her grandmother.  She extends this rule of exploration, and the hearsay she has been told, when she writes about, and tries to understand, her mother.

Despite Sackville-West’s proclamation in her own introduction to the book that everything which she has written is true, it seems rather fanciful and unrealistic at times.  Due to the style which Sackville-West has adopted, Pepita reads more like a novel than a work of biography.  The historical context has been used well, and does give one a feel for the backdrop which both Pepita and Victoria lived against.  Sackville-West does recognise that her portrayal of both her mother and grandmother are heavily biased as, of course, one would expect: ‘The one person who never speaks in this whole history, is Pepita herself.  We see her always objectively, never subjectively…  Pepita herself is never explicit.  In order to understand her at all, we have to find a piece from a different part of the puzzle, and fit it in.’

What I found most interesting about this account was the effect which Pepita had upon Lionel.  Sackville-West writes: ‘I mean no disrespect to my grandfather, but I do not think he was the man ever to enjoy dealing with a difficult situation: he far preferred to go away if he decently could and leave it to somebody else.  Hitherto, Pepita had ordered his life, and now [after her death] there was to be an uncomfortable period of transition until Pepita’s eldest daughter was of an age to assume the same responsibility.’  The psychological effects of the First World War which Sackville-West presents are also fascinating.

There is a lot of Vita herself within the book, and not just in the fact that she is writing about her ancestry.   She measures herself against her mother and grandmother at junctures, and is always passing her own opinion about their characters, or the decisions which they made.  Of course she has a strong connection with both of her subjects, but there is nothing objective about this biography; there is not the level of detachment and feeling of truthfulness which I expect of works of this kind.  Sackville-West does not remove her own self from the book enough for it to be anything like a full and far-reaching biography.

Pepita is a relatively entertaining book, but I feel as though it pales in comparison to much of Sackville-West’s other work.  It is difficult to take Pepita at face value, and it lacks that engagement which I have come to expect from Sackville-West’s books.  It is clear that her relationship with her mother was turbulent, but it feels at times as though episodes have been suppressed, or skimmed over.  There is no real explanation as to their relationship which lasts long enough to be entirely satisfying.  Overall, Pepita did not quite live up to my expectations.

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‘Black Lake’ by Johanna Lane **

Loving stories about old houses, and the families which live in them, Black Lake by Johanna Lane piqued my interest as soon as I spotted its blurb on my local library catalogue.  Despite Ireland being a country that I love to visit, I have found of late that barely any Irish literature has made its way onto my yearly reading lists.  Of course, I wanted to rectify this, and again, Black Lake ticked that box.

The Irish Examiner calls the novel: ‘A complex and beautifully structured story’, and the Irish Independent writes: ‘Lane’s prose is graceful, textured and her elegant style reflects the Campbells’ glazed retrograde world.’  John Burnside also praises the novel highly, 9780755396320deeming it: ‘A beautiful portrait of a family faced with unbearable loss.’

The Campbell family have lived on a sprawling estate named Dulough, the Irish for ‘black lake’, on the Irish coast of Donegal, for generations.  Like many families whose homes have been handed down, the Campbells have run out of money, and have little choice but to let the government take over the care and upkeep of the house, making it into a ‘tourist attraction’ in the process.  The family have to therefore move into a ‘small, damp caretaker’s cottage’ on the estate.  The ‘upheaval of this move strains the already tenuous threads that bind the family, and when a tragic accident befalls them, long-simmering resentments and unanswered yearnings are forced to the surface.’

Black Lake opens in autumn, when the family have opened up the house to the public, and moved into their new cottage.  The tragic accident described in the blurb has taken place at this point, and the family’s mother struggles to cope; she ends up taking her daughter, twelve-year-old Kate, from her boarding school, and locking her into the abandoned ballroom with her for long stretches of time.  At first unnamed, and without voices of their own, the initial chapter gives an insightful glimpse into the Campbell’s family dynamic.  As winter approaches, Lane describes the way in which, in her beautifully sculpted prologue: ‘The girl remembers when the snow began, flakes settling into the windowpane, muffling everything outside, even the wind.  The tourists were gone by then and it was just the sound of her father and the housekeeper moving about below, shutting up the house, covering the beds in dust sheets, rolling up the rugs, stowing away quilts no one ever slept under.  The girl missed the sound of the visitors, the guide herding them from room to room, story to story.  Surely, when the house was finally locked for winter, the father would say that they had to leave, too?’

Lane takes notice of incredibly small details; of the removal men, she writes, from the perspective of the Campbell’s eight-year-old son: ‘The men were older than his father; they had deep lines in their faces, like valleys, Philip thought.  He imagined tiny glaciers settling into their skin, the ice cracking and expanding.’

Whilst Black Lake is well structured, with different chapters following each of the characters in turn, there is a sense of detachment to the whole, which is exacerbated by the loose third person narrative voice.  I do not feel that Black Lake reached its potential; it was rather run-of-the-mill for a familial saga, and the writing was nowhere near as poetic as I expected after reading its prologue.  Unfortunately, Black Lake quite failed to hold my interest; it is not a bad book, but simply did not stand out enough for my personal liking.

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The Book Trail: The Awfully Long Titles Edition

I have decided to begin this edition of The Book Trail with one of my favourite non-fiction picks of 2016.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature on Goodreads to come up with the following list of intriguing non-fiction books, all of which have rather elaborate titles.  As ever, let me know which pique your interest!

1. Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh 22907030
What is it like to be a brain surgeon?  How does it feel to hold someone’s life in your hands, to cut into the stuff that creates thought, feeling and reason?  How do you live with the consequences of performing a potentially life-saving operation when it all goes wrong?  In neurosurgery, more than in any other branch of medicine, the doctor’s oath to ‘do no harm’ holds a bitter irony. Operations on the brain carry grave risks. Every day, Henry Marsh must make agonising decisions, often in the face of great urgency and uncertainty.  If you believe that brain surgery is a precise and exquisite craft, practised by calm and detached surgeons, this gripping, brutally honest account will make you think again. With astonishing compassion and candour, one of the country’s leading neurosurgeons reveals the fierce joy of operating, the profoundly moving triumphs, the harrowing disasters, the haunting regrets and the moments of black humour that characterise a brain surgeon’s life.  Do No Harm is an unforgettable insight into the countless human dramas that take place in a busy modern hospital. Above all, it is a lesson in the need for hope when faced with life’s most difficult decisions.’

 

2. Adventures in Human Being: A Grand Tour from the Cranium to the Calcaneum by Gavin Francis
We assume we know our bodies intimately, but for many of us they remain uncharted territory. How many of us understand the way seizures affect the brain, how the heart is connected to wellbeing, or the why the foot carries the key to our humanity? In Adventures in Human Being, award-winning author Gavin Francis leads readers on a journey into the hidden pathways of the human body, offering a guide to its inner workings and a celebration of its marvels.  Drawing on his experiences as a surgeon, ER specialist, and family physician, Francis blends stories from the clinic with episodes from medical history, philosophy, and literature to describe the body in sickness and in health, in living and in dying. At its heart, Adventures in Human Being is a meditation on what it means to be human. Poetic, eloquent, and profoundly perceptive, this book will transform the way you view your body.

 

3. Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World by 13330695William R. Leach
A product of William Leach’s lifelong love of butterflies, this engaging and elegantly illustrated history shows how Americans from all walks of life passionately pursued butterflies, and how through their discoveries and observations they transformed the character of natural history. Leach focuses on the correspondence and scientific writings of half a dozen pioneering lepidopterists who traveled across the country and throughout the world, collecting and studying unknown and exotic species. In a book as full of life as the subjects themselves and foregrounding a collecting culture now on the brink of vanishing, Leach reveals how the beauty of butterflies led Americans into a deeper understanding of the natural world. He shows, too, that the country’s enthusiasm for butterflies occurred at the very moment that another form of beauty—the technological and industrial objects being displayed at world’s fairs and commercial shows—was emerging, and that Americans’ attraction to this new beauty would eventually, and at great cost, take precedence over nature in general and butterflies in particular.

 

4. The Snoring Bird: My Family’s Journey Through a Century of Biology by Bernd Heinrich
From Bernd Heinrich, the bestselling author of Winter World, comes the remarkable story of his father’s life, his family’s past, and how the forces of history and nature have shaped his own life. Although Bernd Heinrich’s father, Gerd, a devoted naturalist, specialized in wasps, Bernd tried to distance himself from his “old-fashioned” father, becoming a hybrid: a modern, experimental biologist with a naturalist’s sensibilities.  In this remarkable memoir, the award-winning author shares the ways in which his relationship with his father, combined with his unique childhood, molded him into the scientist, and man, he is today. From Gerd’s days as a soldier in Europe to the family’s daring escape from the Red Army in 1945 to the rustic Maine farm they came to call home, Heinrich relates it all in his trademark style, making science accessible and awe-inspiring.

 

96341915. Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson
Feathers are an evolutionary marvel: aerodynamic, insulating, beguiling. They date back more than 100 million years. Yet their story has never been fully told. In Feathers, biologist Thor Hanson details a sweeping natural history, as feathers have been used to fly, protect, attract, and adorn through time and place. Applying the research of paleontologists, ornithologists, biologists, engineers, and even art historians, Hanson asks: What are feathers? How did they evolve? What do they mean to us? Engineers call feathers the most efficient insulating material ever discovered, and they are at the root of biology’s most enduring debate. They silence the flight of owls and keep penguins dry below the ice. They have decorated queens, jesters, and priests. And they have inked documents from the Constitution to the novels of Jane Austen. Feathers is a captivating and beautiful exploration of this most enchanting object.

 

6. Poseidon’s Steed: The Story of Seahorses, from Myth to Reality by Helen Scales
Poseidon’s Steed trails the seahorse through secluded waters across the globe in a kaleidoscopic history that mirrors man?s centuries-old fascination with the animal, sweeping from the reefs of Indonesia, through the back streets of Hong Kong, and back in time to ancient Greece and Rome. Over time, seahorses have surfaced in some unlikely places. We see them immortalized in the decorative arts; in tribal folklore, literature, and ancient myth; and even on the pages of the earliest medical texts, prescribed to treat everything from skin complaints to baldness to flagging libido. Marine biologist Helen Scales eloquently shows that seahorses are indeed fish, though scientists have long puzzled over their exotic anatomy, and their very strange sex lives?male seahorses are the only males in the animal world that experience childbirth!  Our first seahorse imaginings appeared six thousand years ago on cave walls in Australia. The ancient Greeks called the seahorse hippocampus (half-horse, half-fish) and sent it galloping through the oceans of mythology, pulling the sea god Poseidon?s golden chariot. The seahorse has even been the center of a modern-day international art scandal: A two-thousand-year-old winged seahorse brooch was plundered by Turkish tomb raiders and sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  A book that is as charming as the seahorse itself, Poseidon’s Steed brings to life an aquatic treasure.’

 

7. Voyage of the Turtle: In Pursuit of the Earth’s Last Dinosaur by Carl Safina 40789
Though nature is indifferent to the struggles of her creatures, the human effect on them is often premeditated. The distressing decline of sea turtles in Pacific waters and their surprising recovery in the Atlantic illuminate what can go both wrong and right from our interventions, and teach us the lessons that can be applied to restore health to the world’s oceans and its creatures. As Carl Safina’s compelling natural history adventure makes clear, the fate of the astonishing leatherback turtle, whose ancestry can be traced back 125 million years, is in our hands.  Writing with verve and color, Safina describes how he and his colleagues track giant pelagic turtles across the world’s oceans and onto remote beaches of every continent. As scientists apply lessons learned in the Atlantic and Caribbean to other endangered seas, Safina follows leatherback migrations, including a thrilling journey from Monterey, California, to nesting grounds on the most remote beaches of Papua, New Guinea. The only surviving species of its genus, family, and suborder, the leatherback is an evolutionary marvel: a “reptile” that behaves like a warm-blooded dinosaur, an ocean animal able to withstand colder water than most fishes and dive deeper than any whale.

 

8. The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff
Beginning with Linnaeus, a colorful band of explorers made it their mission to travel to the most perilous corners of the planet and bring back astonishing new life forms. They attracted followers ranging from Thomas Jefferson, who laid out mastodon bones on the White House floor, to twentieth-century doctors who used their knowledge of new species to conquer epidemic diseases. Acclaimed science writer Richard Conniff brings these daredevil “species seekers” to vivid life. Alongside their globe-spanning tales of adventure, he recounts some of the most dramatic shifts in the history of human thought. At the start, everyone accepted that the Earth had been created for our benefit. We weren’t sure where vegetable ended and animal began, we couldn’t classify species, and we didn’t understand the causes of disease. But all that changed as the species seekers introduced us to the pantheon of life on Earth—and our place within it.

 

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