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The Book Trail: From the Unit to California

This edition of The Book Trail begins with a dystopian novel which I received for my birthday, and very much enjoyed.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

 

1. The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist 71wd5kifoul
‘Ninni Holmqvist’s uncanny dystopian novel envisions a society in the not-so-distant future, where women over fifty and men over sixty who are unmarried and childless are sent to a retirement community called the Unit. They’re given lavish apartments set amongst beautiful gardens and state-of-the-art facilities; they’re fed elaborate gourmet meals, surrounded by others just like them. It’s an idyllic place, but there’s a catch: the residents–known as dispensables–must donate their organs, one by one, until the final donation. When Dorrit Weger arrives at the Unit, she resigns herself to this fate, seeking only peace in her final days. But she soon falls in love, and this unexpected, improbable happiness throws the future into doubt.  Clinical and haunting, The Unit is a modern-day classic and a chilling cautionary tale about the value of human life.’

 

2744237._sy475_2. Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall
‘In her stunning novel, Hall imagines a new dystopia set in the not-too-distant future.   England is in a state of environmental crisis and economic collapse. There has been a census, and all citizens have been herded into urban centers. Reproduction has become a lottery, with contraceptive coils fitted to every female of childbearing age. A girl who will become known only as “Sister” escapes the confines of her repressive marriage to find an isolated group of women living as “un-officials” in Carhullan, a remote northern farm, where she must find out whether she has it in herself to become a rebel fighter. Provocative and timely, Daughters of the North poses questions about the lengths women will go to resist their oppressors, and under what circumstances might an ordinary person become a terrorist.’

 

3. Distant View of a Minaret and Other Stories by Alifa Rifaat 206228
‘”More convincingly than any other woman writing in Arabic today, Alifa Rifaat lifts the vil on what it means to be a women living within a traditional Muslim society.” So states the translator’s foreword to this collection of the Egyptian author’s best short stories. Rifaat (1930-1996) did not go to university, spoke only Arabic, and seldom traveled abroad. This virtual immunity from Western influence lends a special authenticity to her direct yet sincere accounts of death, sexual fulfillment, the lives of women in purdah, and the frustrations of everyday life in a male-dominated Islamic environment.  Translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies, the collection admits the reader into a hidden private world, regulated by the call of the mosque, but often full of profound anguish and personal isolation. Badriyya’s despariting anger at her deceitful husband, for example, or the hauntingly melancholy of “At the Time of the Jasmine,” are treated with a sensitivity to the discipline and order of Islam.’

 

11392114. The Tiller of Waters by Hoda Barakat
‘This spellbinding novel narrates the many-layered recollections of a hallucinating man in devastated Beirut. The desolate, almost surreal, urban landscape is enriched by the unfolding of the family sagas of Niqula Mitri and his beloved Shamsa, the Kurdish maid. Mitri reminisces about his Egyptian mother and his father who came back to settle in Beirut after a long stay in Egypt. Both Mitri and his father are textile merchants and see the world through the code of cloth, from the intimacy of linen, velvet, and silk to the most impersonal of synthetics. Shamsa in turn relates her story, the myriad adventures of her parents and grandparents who moved from Iraqi Kurdistan to Beirut. Haunting scenes of pastoral Kurds are juxtaposed against the sedentary decadence of metropolitan residents. Barakat weaves into her sophisticated narrative shreds of scientific discourse about herbal plants and textile crafts, customs and manners of Arabs, Armenians, and Kurds, mythological figures from ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, and Arabia, the theosophy of the African Dogons and the medieval Byzantines, and historical accounts of the Crusades in the Holy Land and the silk route to China.’

 

5. Without a Name and Under the Tongue by Yvonne Vera 420461
‘Yvonne Vera’s novels chronicle the lives of Zimbabwean women with extraordinary power and beauty. Without a Name and Under the Tongue, her two earliest novels, are set in the seventies during the guerrilla war against the white government.  In Without a Name (1994), Mazvita, a young woman from the country, travels to Harare to escape the war and begin a new life. But her dreams of independence are short-lived. She begins a relationship of convenience and becomes pregnant.  In Under the Tongue (1996), the adolescent Zhizha has lost the will to speak. In lyrical fragments, Vera relates the story of Zhizha’s parents, and the horrifying events that led to her mother’s imprisonment and her father’s death. With this novel Vera became the first Zimbabwean writer ever to deal frankly with incest. With these surprising, at times shocking novels Vera shows herself to be a writer of great potential.’

 

18061536. Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon by Nicole Brossard
‘Carla Carlson is at the Hotel Clarendon in Quebec City trying to finish a novel. Nearby, a woman, preoccupied with sadness and infatuated with her boss, catalogues antiquities at the Museum of Civilization. Every night, the two women meet at the hotel bar and talk – about childhood and parents and landscapes, about time and art, about Descartes and Francis Bacon and writing.  When Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon appeared in French (as Hier), the media called it the pinnacle of Brossard’s remarkable forty-year literary career. From its intersection of four women emerges a kind of art installation, a lively read in which life and death and the vertigo of ruins tangle themselves together to say something about history and desire and art.’

 

7. Defiance by Carole Maso 153596
‘Bernadette O’Brien: misfit…child prodigy…professor of mathematics at Harvard…sentenced to die in the electric chair for the shocking murder of two male students. In her journal, her death book Bernadette takes a dark look back at the unfolding events that led to the extraordinary crime for which she was convicted.In the incandescent, erotically charged prose for which she is known, Maso probes the depths of a female psyche inextricably embedded in a uniquely American matrix of sexuality, violence, and the clash of class difference. A raw and fearless performance by an author of fierce vision, Defiance stays with readers long after they put the book down.’

 

97044818. Lola, California by Edie Meidav
‘The year is 2008, the place California. Vic Mahler, famous for having inspired cult followers in the seventies, serves time on death row, now facing a countdown of ten days. For years, his daughter, Lana, has been in hiding. Meanwhile, her friend Rose, a lawyer, is determined to bring the two together.  When Rose succeeds in tracking down Lana at a California health spa, the two friends must negotiate land mines of memory in order to find their future. In sharp episodes infused with pathos and wit, Edie Meidav brings her acclaimed insight and poetry to friendship, parenthood, dystopia, and the legacy of the seventies.   Lola, California speaks to our contemporary crisis of faith, asking: can we survive too much choice?’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which pique your interest?

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The Book Trail: From Heartburn to Varieties of Exile

I am beginning this edition of The Book Trail with a fabulous novel about pregnancy and its pitfalls.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.
2253431. Heartburn by Nora Ephron
Is it possible to write a sidesplitting novel about the breakup of the perfect marriage? If the writer is Nora Ephron, the answer is a resounding yes. For in this inspired confection of adultery, revenge, group therapy, and pot roast, the creator of Sleepless in Seattle reminds us that comedy depends on anguish as surely as a proper gravy depends on flour and butter.  Seven months into her pregnancy, Rachel Samstat discovers that her husband, Mark, is in love with another woman. The fact that the other woman has “a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb and you should see her legs” is no consolation. Food sometimes is, though, since Rachel writes cookbooks for a living. And in between trying to win Mark back and loudly wishing him dead, Ephron’s irrepressible heroine offers some of her favorite recipes. Heartburn is a sinfully delicious novel, as soul-satisfying as mashed potatoes and as airy as a perfect soufflé.
2. Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall
England is in a state of environmental crisis and economic collapse. There has been a census, and all citizens have been herded into urban centers. Reproduction has become a lottery, with contraceptive coils fitted to every female of childbearing age. A girl who will become known only as “Sister” escapes the confines of her repressive marriage to find an isolated group of women living as “un-officials” in Carhullan, a remote northern farm, where she must find out whether she has it in herself to become a rebel fighter. Provocative and timely, Daughters of the North poses questions about the lengths women will go to resist their oppressors, and under what circumstances might an ordinary person become a terrorist.
3. Distant View of a Miaret and Other Stories by Alifa Rifaat 19433013
“More convincingly than any other woman writing in Arabic today, Alifa Rifaat lifts the vil on what it means to be a women living within a traditional Muslim society.” So states the translator’s foreword to this collection of the Egyptian author’s best short stories. Rifaat (1930-1996) did not go to university, spoke only Arabic, and seldom traveled abroad. This virtual immunity from Western influence lends a special authenticity to her direct yet sincere accounts of death, sexual fulfillment, the lives of women in purdah, and the frustrations of everyday life in a male-dominated Islamic environment.  Translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies, the collection admits the reader into a hidden private world, regulated by the call of the mosque, but often full of profound anguish and personal isolation. Badriyya’s despariting anger at her deceitful husband, for example, or the hauntingly melancholy of “At the Time of the Jasmine,” are treated with a sensitivity to the discipline and order of Islam.
4. The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta
Nnu Ego is a woman who gives all her energy, money and everything she has to raising her children – leaving her little time to make friends.

802135. Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe
Chris, Ikem and Beatrice are like-minded friends working under the military regime of His Excellency, the Sandhurst-educated President of Kangan. In the pressurized atmosphere of oppression and intimidation they are simply trying to live and love – and remain friends. But in a world where each day brings a new betrayal, hope is hard to cling on to. Anthills of the Savannah (1987), Achebe’s candid vision of contemporary African politics, is a powerful fusion of angry voices. It continues the journey that Achebe began with his earlier novels, tracing the history of modern Africa through colonialism and beyond, and is a work ultimately filled with hope.

6. The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye
At the beginning of this masterpiece of African literature, Clarence, a white man, has been shipwrecked on the coast of Africa. Flush with self-importance, he demands to see the king, but the king has just left for the south of his realm. Traveling through an increasingly phantasmagoric landscape in the company of a beggar and two roguish boys, Clarence is gradually stripped of his pretensions, until he is sold to the royal harem as a slave. But in the end Clarence’s bewildering journey is the occasion of a revelation, as he discovers the image, both shameful and beautiful, of his own humanity in the alien splendor of the king.

7. Tropic Moon by Georges Simenon 139054
A young Frenchman, Joseph Timar, travels to Gabon carrying a letter of introduction from an influential uncle. He wants work experience; he wants to see the world. But in the oppressive heat and glare of the equator, Timar doesn’t know what to do with himself, and no one seems inclined to help except Adèle, the hotel owner’s wife, who takes him to bed one day and rebuffs him the next, leaving him sick with desire. But then, in the course of a single night, Adèle’s husband dies and a black servant is shot, and Timar is sure that Adèle is involved. He’ll cover for the crime if she’ll do what he wants. The fix is in. But Timar can’t even begin to imagine how deep.

8. Varieties of Exile by Mavis Gallant
Mavis Gallant is the modern master of what Henry James called the international story, the fine-grained evocation of the quandaries of people who must make their way in the world without any place to call their own. The irreducible complexity of the very idea of home is especially at issue in the stories Gallant has written about Montreal, where she was born, although she has lived in Paris for more than half a century.  Varieties of Exile, Russell Banks’s extensive new selection from Gallant’s work, demonstrates anew the remarkable reach of this writer’s singular art. Among its contents are three previously uncollected stories, as well as the celebrated semi-autobiographical sequence about Linnet Muir—stories that are wise, funny, and full of insight into the perils and promise of growing up and breaking loose.

Have you read any of these books?

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