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Two Reviews: ‘Romantic Moderns’ and ‘Exit West’

Today, I am reviewing two incredibly different, but nonetheless fantastic, books.  The first is Alexandra HarrisRomantic Moderns, and the second Mohsin Hamid‘s newest effort, Exit West.

Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper by Alexandra Harris ****
9780500289723I had had my eye on Alexandra Harris’ Romantic Moderns for quite a while before picking it up, both as a generally interesting piece of writing, and an aid to my PhD thesis.  Physically, it is a gorgeous tome, with heavy cream paper, and lavish colour illustrations throughout.  In her book, Harris discusses the ‘modern English renaissance’ which occurred during the 1930s and 1940s in quite staggering detail.  She unpicks the period, looking at art, architecture, the nature of possessions, literature, and reclaiming heritage, amongst others.  Whilst a lot of the art did not personally appeal to me, I found the wording and things which Harris touched upon fascinating on the whole.  I particularly enjoyed the chapters on the modernisation of cookery, and weather.  I am also fascinated by the English village, and found the chapter which deals with its preservation far-reaching and insightful.  Harris writes wonderfully; her style is at times academic, but feels readily accessible to a wider audience.  Romantic Moderns does a lot, but it does it all so well.

 

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid ****
9780241290088Exit West very much intrigued me, particularly after very much enjoying Mohsin Hamid’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist when I read it for the first time a couple of weeks beforehand.  His newest effort has been rather hyped, with the seeming majority of my Goodreads and Instagram friends reading it in a kind of frenzy.  Part of me wanted to know what all of the hype was about before reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist; after doing so, I was sure that when I picked it up, I would be in the company of a clever and original storyteller once more.

Contrary to The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which very much presents a realist monologue, Hamid has chosen to use magical realism in Exit West.  In the novel, which centres around the refugee crisis, black doors begin to spring up.  These doors have the power to transport those who walk through them to different places around the globe; many have no choice but to flee through them in order to escape wars and persecution, but others try their luck simply because they do not see what could be worse than their current existence.  Our protagonists, Nadia and Saeed, live in the same city somewhere in the Middle East; it is never explicitly named.  It is alarming, in a way, to think that the constant bombardment which they live under could happen almost anywhere.

The startling beauty of Hamid’s writing makes the more gory and horrid details seem like short, sharp shocks.  His prose pulls one in immediately, and makes the entire novel feel almost timeless.  Exit West is beautifully descriptive, well plotted, and quite original.  The novel is startling, sad, and so very important.

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Really Underrated Books (Part One)

Welcome to another week where I showcase fifty more Really Underrated Books. These is an enjoyable post for me to put together; it makes a nice break from researching, and still feels constructive, but also brings some books I’ve never heard of to my attention.  What could be better?

1. Totempole by Sanford Friedman 9781590177617
Totempole is Sanford Friedman’s radical coming-of-age novel, featuring Stephen Wolfe, a young Jewish boy growing up in New York City and its environs during the Depression and war years. In eight discrete chapters, which trace Stephen’s evolution from a two-year-old boy to a twenty-two-year-old man, Friedman describes with psychological acuity and great empathy Stephen’s intellectual, moral, and sexual maturation. Taught to abhor his body for the sake of his soul, Stephen finds salvation in the eventual unification of the two, the recognition that body and soul should not be partitioned but treated as one being, one complete man.

 

2. Mascara by Ariel Dorfman
Mascara delves into the dark terrain of identity and disguise when the lives of three people collide. A nameless man with a face no one remembers has the devastating ability to see and capture on film the brutal truths lurking inside each person he encounters. Oriana, a beautiful woman with the memory of an innocent child, is relentlessly pursued by mysterious figures from her past. Doctor Mavirelli is a brilliant and power-hungry plastic surgeon who controls society’s most prominent figures by shaping their faces. The twining of these three fates plays out in a climactic unmasking.

 

97805780705993. Burnings by Ocean Vuong
“I was born because someone was starving…” ends one of Ocean Vuong’s poems, and in that poem, as in every other of his poems, Ocean manages to imbue the desperation of his being alive, with a savage beauty. It is not just that Ocean can render pain as a kind of loveliness, but that his poetic line will not let you forget the hurt or the garish brilliance of your triumph; will not let you look away. These poems shatter us detail by detail because Ocean leaves nothing unturned, because every lived thing in his poems demands to be fed by you; to nourish you in turn. You will not leave these poems dissatisfied. They will fill you utterly.

 

4. The Illustrated Virago Book of Women Travellers, edited by Mary Morris
In this newly illustrated edition, 300 years of wanderlust are captured as women travel the world for pleasure and peril. Among the extraordinary women whose writing is included here are Gertrude Bell, Rose Macaulay, Mary McCarthy, Vita Sackville-West, Freya Stark, Edith Wharton, and Mary Wollstonecraft. Whether it is curiosity about the world, a thirst for adventure, or escape from personal tragedy, all these women are united in approaching their journeys with wit, intelligence, and compassion for those encountered along the way.

 

5. A Voice from the South by Anna Julia Cooper 9780195063233
At the close of the 19th century, a black woman of the South presents womanhood as a vital element in the regeneration and progress of her race.

 

6. Red Juice: Poems by Hoa Nguyen
Red Juice represents a decade of poems written roughly between 1998 and 2008, previously only available in small-run handmade chapbooks, journals, and out-of-print books. This collection of early poems by Vietnamese American poet Hoa Nguyen showcases her feminist ecopoetics and unique style, all lyrical in the post-modern tradition.

 

91226537. Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper by Alexandra Harris
‘n the 1930s and 1940s, while the battles for modern art and modern society were being fought in Paris and Spain, it seemed to some a betrayal that John Betjeman and John Piper were in love with a provincial world of old churches and tea shops.  Alexandra Harris tells a different story: eclectically, passionately,wittily, urgently, English artists were exploring what it meant to be alive at that moment and in England. They showed that “the modern”
need not be at war with the past: constructivists and conservatives could work together, and even the Bauhaus émigré László Moholy-Nagy was beguiled into taking photos for Betjeman’s nostalgic An Oxford University Chest.  A rich network of personal and cultural encounters was the backdrop for a modern English renaissance. This great imaginative project was shared by writers, painters, gardeners, architects, critics, and composers. Piper abandoned purist abstracts to make collages on the blustery coast; Virginia Woolf wrote in her last novel about a village pageant on a showery summer day. Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen, and the Sitwells are also part of the story, along with Bill Brandt and Graham Sutherland, Eric Ravilious and Cecil Beaton.’

 

8. Of Africa by Wole Soyinka
A member of the unique generation of African writers and intellectuals who came of age in the last days of colonialism, Wole Soyinka has witnessed the promise of independence and lived through postcolonial failure. He deeply comprehends the pressing problems of Africa, and, an irrepressible essayist and a staunch critic of the oppressive boot, he unhesitatingly speaks out.  In this magnificent new work, Soyinka offers a wide-ranging inquiry into Africa’s culture, religion, history, imagination, and identity. He seeks to understand how the continent’s history is entwined with the histories of others, while exploring Africa’s truest assets: “its humanity, the quality and valuation of its own existence, and modes of managing its environment—both physical and intangible (which includes the spiritual).

 

9. The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, edited by Colm Toibin 1980450
This extraordinary volume presents the entire canon of Irish fiction in English from Jonathan Swift, born in 1667, to Emma Donoghue, born in 1969. In between are selections from almost 100 renowned writers including Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Iris Murdoch, William Trevor, and Roddy Doyle. Colm Tóibín-one of Ireland’s most accomplished writers-has carefully chosen the selections and gives fascinating background information in a provocative introduction. His commentary combines with the inspired selections from Ireland’s greatest writers to provide an authoritative and enlightening exploration of Irish fiction.

 

10. The Embroidered Shoes by Can Xue
Written by the true heir to Kafka, Borges, and Angela Carter, The Embroidered Shoes is a magical collection of hallucinatory tales set in a world where anything can happen, and everything does. Constructed like a set of graduated Chinese boxes, these postmodern ghost stories build into philosophical and psychological conundrums that leave the reader pondering long past the last page.

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