6

The TED Reading List

I recently came across this very interesting reading list, published by TED in 2018.  It is wonderfully varied, and certainly contains quite a few niche genres which I certainly have not read before.  Although the list specifies that these choices are aimed at summer reading, I thought that I would look through it and pick out ten titles which I would like to get to over the next year or two.

 

1. A Lucky Man: Stories by Jamel Brinkley 412vb-c3-l._sx336_bo1204203200_
‘In the nine expansive, searching stories of A Lucky Man, fathers and sons attempt to salvage relationships with friends and family members and confront mistakes made in the past. An imaginative young boy from the Bronx goes swimming with his group from day camp at a backyard pool in the suburbs, and faces the effects of power and privilege in ways he can barely grasp. A teen intent on proving himself a man through the all-night revel of J’Ouvert can’t help but look out for his impressionable younger brother. A pair of college boys on the prowl follow two girls home from a party and have to own the uncomfortable truth of their desires. And at a capoeira conference, two brothers grapple with how to tell the story of their family, caught in the dance of their painful, fractured history.  Jamel Brinkley’s stories, in a debut that announces the arrival of a significant new voice, reflect the tenderness and vulnerability of black men and boys whose hopes sometimes betray them, especially in a world shaped by race, gender, and class–where luck may be the greatest fiction of all.’

 

51xf8lggsll2. Sophie’s Misfortunes by Comtesse de Ségur
Les Malheur de Sophie (Sophie’s Misfortunes) describes the life of Sophie before the events of Les Petites Filles Modèles, when she still lives with her parents in the French countryside. She is a lively, adventurous child who keeps getting into mischief with the critical complicity of her cousin Paul. Each chapter, with a few exceptions, follow a similar pattern: Sophie does something bad or stupid; she is found out or confesses her mischief; and she gets punished –or not – by her mother Mme de Réan, who uses each incident to teach a moral lesson.’

 

3. Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World by Eileen McNamara 41gx2bnlk4el._sx327_bo1204203200_
‘A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist examines the life and times of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, arguing she left behind the Kennedy family’s most profound political legacy.  While Joe Kennedy was grooming his sons for the White House and the Senate, his Stanford-educated daughter Eunice was tapping her father’s fortune and her brothers’ political power to engineer one of the great civil rights movements of our time on behalf of millions of children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Now, in Eunice, Pulitzer Prize winner Eileen McNamara finally brings Eunice Kennedy Shriver out from her brothers’ shadow to show an officious, cigar-smoking, indefatigable woman of unladylike determination and deep compassion born of rage: at the medical establishment that had no answers for her sister Rosemary; at the revered but dismissive father whose vision for his family did not extend beyond his sons; and at the government that failed to deliver on America’s promise of equality.  Granted access to never-before-seen private papers—from the scrapbooks Eunice kept as a schoolgirl in prewar London to her thoughts on motherhood and feminism—McNamara paints a vivid portrait of a woman both ahead of her time and out of step with it: the visionary founder of the Special Olympics, a devout Catholic in a secular age, and a formidable woman whose impact on American society was longer lasting than that of any of the Kennedy men.’

 

41ipnhudval._sx326_bo1204203200_4. The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
‘Poet and essayist Nina Riggs was just thirty-seven years old when initially diagnosed with breast cancer–one small spot. Within a year, she received the devastating news that her cancer was terminal.  How does a dying person learn to live each day “unattached to outcome”? How does one approach the moments, big and small, with both love and honesty? How does a young mother and wife prepare her two young children and adored husband for a loss that will shape the rest of their lives? How do we want to be remembered?  Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, Nina asks: What makes a meaningful life when one has limited time? “Profound and poignant” (O, The Oprah Magazine), The Bright Hour is about how to make the most of all the days, even the painful ones. It’s about the way literature, especially Nina’s direct ancestor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and her other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm and a form of prayer.’

 

5. The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown 51uu9frdkhl._sx324_bo1204203200_
‘For readers of Unbroken, out of the depths of the Depression comes an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times–the improbable, intimate account of how nine working-class boys from the American West showed the world at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin what true grit really meant.  It was an unlikely quest from the start. With a team composed of the sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the University of Washington’s eight-oar crew team was never expected to defeat the elite teams of the East Coast and Great Britain, yet they did, going on to shock the world by defeating the German team rowing for Adolf Hitler. The emotional heart of the tale lies with Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not only to regain his shattered self-regard but also to find a real place for himself in the world. Drawing on the boys’ own journals and vivid memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream, Brown has created an unforgettable portrait of an era, a celebration of a remarkable achievement, and a chronicle of one extraordinary young man’s personal quest.’

 

51epm2wuoil._sx327_bo1204203200_6. The Overstory by Richard Powers
‘An Air Force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. These four, and five other strangers-each summoned in different ways by trees-are brought together in a last and violent stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest. In his twelfth novel, National Book Award winner Richard Powers delivers a sweeping, impassioned novel of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of-and paean to-the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond, exploring the essential conflict on this planet: the one taking place between humans and nonhumans. There is a world alongside ours-vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe. The Overstory is a book for all readers who despair of humanity’s self-imposed separation from the rest of creation and who hope for the transformative, regenerating possibility of a homecoming. If the trees of this earth could speak, what would they tell us? “Listen. There’s something you need to hear.”‘

 

7. No Pity by Joe Shapiro 41gldpjfgsl._sx321_bo1204203200_
‘In No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement, Joe Shapiro of U.S. News & World Report tells of a political awakening few nondisabled Americans have even imagined. There are over 43 million disabled people in this country alone; for decades most of them have been thought incapable of working, caring for themselves, or contributing to society. But during the last twenty-live years, they, along with their parents and families, have begun to recognize that paraplegia, retardation, deafness, blindness, AIDS, autism, or any of the hundreds of other chronic illnesses and disabilities that differentiate them from the able-bodied are not tragic. The real tragedy is prejudice, our society’s and the medical establishment’s refusal to recognize that the disabled person is entitled to every right and privilege America can offer. No Pity‘s chronicle of disabled people’s struggle for inclusion, from the seventeenth-century deaf communities on Martha’s Vineyard to the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1992, is only part of the story. Joe Shapiro’s five years of in-depth reporting have uncovered many personal stories as well. ‘

 

8. A Kind of Mirraculus Paradise by Sandra Allen 51hyyhwsbql._sx338_bo1204203200_
‘Writer Sandra Allen did not know their uncle Bob very well. As a child, Sandy had been told Bob was “crazy,” that he had spent time in mental hospitals while growing up in Berkeley in the 60s and 70s. But Bob had lived a hermetic life in a remote part of California for longer than Sandy had been alive, and what little Sandy knew of him came from rare family reunions or odd, infrequent phone calls. Then in 2009 Bob mailed Sandy his autobiography. Typewritten in all caps, a stream of error-riddled sentences over sixty, single-spaced pages, the often-incomprehensible manuscript proclaimed to be a “true story” about being “labeled a psychotic paranoid schizophrenic,” and arrived with a plea to help him get his story out to the world.  In A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story about Schizophrenia, Sandy translates Bob’s autobiography, artfully creating a gripping coming-of-age story while sticking faithfully to the facts as he shared them. Lacing Bob’s narrative with chapters providing greater contextualization, Sandy also shares background information about their family, the culturally explosive time and place of their uncle’s formative years, and the vitally important questions surrounding schizophrenia and mental healthcare in America more broadly. The result is a heartbreaking and sometimes hilarious portrait of a young man striving for stability in his life as well as his mind, and an utterly unique lens into an experience that, to most people, remains unimaginable.’

 

9. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien 61u61td7s2bl._sx331_bo1204203200_
‘Master storyteller Madeleine Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations–those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. At the center of this epic story are two young women, Marie and Ai-Ming. Through their relationship Marie strives to piece together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking answers in the fragile layers of their collective story. Her quest will unveil how Kai, her enigmatic father, a talented pianist, and Ai-Ming’s father, the shy and brilliant composer, Sparrow, along with the violin prodigy Zhuli were forced to reimagine their artistic and private selves during China’s political campaigns and how their fates reverberate through the years with lasting consequences. With maturity and sophistication, humor and beauty, Thien has crafted a novel that is at once intimate and grandly political, rooted in the details of life inside China yet transcendent in its universality.’

 

51ni9lnyfdl._sx325_bo1204203200_10. Sorry, Not Sorry by Haji Mohamed Dawjee
‘Why don’t white people understand that Converse tekkies are not just cool but a political statement to people of colour? Why is it that South Africans of colour don’t really ‘write what we like’? What’s the deal with people pretending to be ‘woke’? Is Islam really as antifeminist as is claimed? What does it feel like to be a brown woman in a white media corporation? And what life lessons can we learn from Bollywood movies? In Sorry, Not Sorry, Haji Mohamed Dawjee explores the often maddening experience of moving through post-apartheid South Africa as a woman of colour. In characteristically candid style, she pulls no punches when examining the social landscape: from arguing why she’d rather deal with an open racist than some liberal white people, to drawing on her own experience to convince readers that joining a cult is never a good idea. In the provocative voice that has made Mohamed Dawjee one of our country’s most talked-about columnists, she offers observations laced with acerbic wit. Sorry, Not Sorry will make readers laugh, wince, nod, introspect and argue.’

 

 

Which of these books take your fancy?  Have you read any of them?

8

Most Popular Books Published in 2020

I love a good book list.  Although I have tried my best not to look at any for quite some time as my TBR lists are bursting at the seams, I could not resist perusing the Goodreads list of the most popular books published during 2020.  Although I read a lot of contemporary fiction, I had read just three of the 149 which appear here at the time of compiling this list.  Rather than write about those, all of which I found underwhelming (My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, One of Us is Next by Karen M. McManus, and Mr Nobody by Catherine Steadman), I thought I would pick out ten books which pique my interest.

1. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett 51791252._sx318_sy475_
The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?  Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.  As with her New York Times-bestselling debut The Mothers, Brit Bennett offers an engrossing page-turner about family and relationships that is immersive and provocative, compassionate and wise.

438349092. Long Bright River by Liz Moore
In a Philadelphia neighborhood rocked by the opioid crisis, two once-inseparable sisters find themselves at odds. One, Kacey, lives on the streets in the vise of addiction. The other, Mickey, walks those same blocks on her police beat. They don’t speak anymore, but Mickey never stops worrying about her sibling.  Then Kacey disappears, suddenly, at the same time that a mysterious string of murders begins in Mickey’s district, and Mickey becomes dangerously obsessed with finding the culprit–and her sister–before it’s too late.  Alternating its present-day mystery with the story of the sisters’ childhood and adolescence, Long Bright River is at once heart-pounding and heart-wrenching: a gripping suspense novel that is also a moving story of sisters, addiction, and the formidable ties that persist between place, family, and fate.’

3. The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James 45885644
The secrets lurking in a rundown roadside motel ensnare a young woman, just as they did her aunt thirty-five years before, in this new atmospheric suspense novel from the national bestselling and award-winning author of The Broken Girls.  Upstate NY, 1982. Every small town like Fell, New York, has a place like the Sun Down Motel. Some customers are from out of town, passing through on their way to someplace better. Some are locals, trying to hide their secrets. Viv Delaney works as the night clerk to pay for her move to New York City. But something isn’t right at the Sun Down, and before long she’s determined to uncover all of the secrets hidden…’

51907346._sy475_4. All Adults Here by Emma Straub
When Astrid Strick witnesses a school bus accident in the center of town, it jostles loose a repressed memory from her young parenting days decades earlier. Suddenly, Astrid realizes she was not quite the parent she thought she’d been to her three, now-grown children. But to what consequence?  Astrid’s youngest son is drifting and unfocused, making parenting mistakes of his own. Her daughter is intentionally pregnant yet struggling to give up her own adolescence. And her eldest seems to measure his adult life according to standards no one else shares. But who gets to decide, so many years later, which long-ago lapses were the ones that mattered? Who decides which apologies really count? It might be that only Astrid’s thirteen-year-old granddaughter and her new friend really understand the courage it takes to tell the truth to the people you love the most.  In All Adults Here, Emma Straub’s unique alchemy of wisdom, humor, and insight come together in a deeply satisfying story about adult siblings, aging parents, high school boyfriends, middle school mean girls, the lifelong effects of birth order, and all the other things that follow us into adulthood, whether we like them to or not.’

5. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia 53152636._sx318_sy475_
After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find—her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.   Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.  Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.   And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.’

375062286. Weather by Jenny Offill
Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: she is a fake shrink. For years she has tended to her God-haunted mother and her recovering addict brother. They have both stabilized for the moment, but Lizzie has little chance to spend her new free time with husband and son before her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. She’s become famous for her prescient podcast, Hell and High Water, and wants to hire Lizzie to answer the mail she receives: from left-wingers worried about climate change and right-wingers worried about the decline of western civilization. As Lizzie dives into this polarized world, she begins to wonder what it means to keep tending your own garden once you’ve seen the flames beyond its walls. When her brother becomes a father and Sylvia a recluse, Lizzie is forced to address the limits of her own experience–but still she tries to save everyone, using everything she’s learned about empathy and despair, conscience and collusion, from her years of wandering the library stacks . . . And all the while the voices of the city keep floating in–funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.

7. Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas 51934838
‘Catherine House is a school of higher learning like no other. Hidden deep in the woods of rural Pennsylvania, this crucible of reformist liberal arts study with its experimental curriculum, wildly selective admissions policy, and formidable endowment, has produced some of the world’s best minds: prize-winning authors, artists, inventors, Supreme Court justices, presidents. For those lucky few selected, tuition, room, and board are free. But acceptance comes with a price. Students are required to give the House three years—summers included—completely removed from the outside world. Family, friends, television, music, even their clothing must be left behind. In return, the school promises its graduates a future of sublime power and prestige, and that they can become anything or anyone they desire.  Among this year’s incoming class is Ines, who expects to trade blurry nights of parties, pills, cruel friends, and dangerous men for rigorous intellectual discipline—only to discover an environment of sanctioned revelry. The school’s enigmatic director, Viktória, encourages the students to explore, to expand their minds, to find themselves and their place within the formidable black iron gates of Catherine.  For Ines, Catherine is the closest thing to a home she’s ever had, and her serious, timid roommate, Baby, soon becomes an unlikely friend. Yet the House’s strange protocols make this refuge, with its worn velvet and weathered leather, feel increasingly like a gilded prison. And when Baby’s obsessive desire for acceptance ends in tragedy, Ines begins to suspect that the school—in all its shabby splendor, hallowed history, advanced theories, and controlled decadence—might be hiding a dangerous agenda that is connected to a secretive, tightly knit group of students selected to study its most promising and mysterious curriculum.  Combining the haunting sophistication and dusky, atmospheric style of Sarah Waters with the unsettling isolation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Catherine House is a devious, deliciously steamy, and suspenseful page-turner with shocking twists and sharp edges that is sure to leave readers breathless.’

459927178. The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
England, May 1536. Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Thomas Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen before Jane dies giving birth to the male heir he most craves.  Cromwell is a man with only his wits to rely on; he has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to the breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. But can a nation, or a person, shed the past like a skin? Do the dead continually unbury themselves? What will you do, the Spanish ambassador asks Cromwell, when the king turns on you, as sooner or later he turns on everyone close to him?  With The Mirror & the Light, Hilary Mantel brings to a triumphant close the trilogy she began with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She traces the final years of Thomas Cromwell, the boy from nowhere who climbs to the heights of power, offering a defining portrait of predator and prey, of a ferocious contest between present and past, between royal will and a common man’s vision: of a modern nation making itself through conflict, passion, and courage.’

9. If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha 52696537._sy475_
Kyuri is a heartbreakingly beautiful woman with a hard-won job at a “room salon,” an exclusive bar where she entertains businessmen while they drink. Though she prides herself on her cold, clear-eyed approach to life, an impulsive mistake with a client may come to threaten her livelihood.  Her roomate, Miho, is a talented artist who grew up in an orphanage but won a scholarship to study art in New York. Returning to Korea after college, she finds herself in a precarious relationship with the super-wealthy heir to one of Korea’s biggest companies.  Down the hall in their apartment building lives Ara, a hair stylist for whom two preoccupations sustain her: obsession with a boy-band pop star, and a best friend who is saving up for the extreme plastic surgery that is commonplace.  And Wonna, one floor below, is a newlywed trying to get pregnant with a child that she and her husband have no idea how they can afford to raise and educate in the cutthroat economy.  Together, their stories tell a gripping tale that’s seemingly unfamiliar, yet unmistakably universal in the way that their tentative friendships may have to be their saving grace.’

5017541910. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
Ava moved to Hong Kong to find happiness, but so far, it isn’t working out. Since she left Dublin, she’s been spending her days teaching English to rich children—she’s been assigned the grammar classes because she lacks warmth—and her nights avoiding petulant roommates in her cramped apartment.  When Ava befriends Julian, a witty British banker, he offers a shortcut into a lavish life her meager salary could never allow. Ignoring her feminist leanings and her better instincts, Ava finds herself moving into Julian’s apartment, letting him buy her clothes, and, eventually, striking up a sexual relationship with him. When Julian’s job takes him back to London, she stays put, unsure where their relationship stands.  Enter Edith. A Hong Kong–born lawyer, striking and ambitious, Edith takes Ava to the theater and leaves her tulips in the hallway. Ava wants to be her—and wants her. Ava has been carefully pretending that Julian is nothing more than an absentee roommate, so when Julian announces that he’s returning to Hong Kong, she faces a fork in the road. Should she return to the easy compatibility of her life with Julian or take a leap into the unknown with Edith?  Politically alert, heartbreakingly raw, and dryly funny, Exciting Times is thrillingly attuned to the great freedoms and greater uncertainties of modern love. In stylish, uncluttered prose, Naoise Dolan dissects the personal and financial transactions that make up a life—and announces herself as a singular new voice.

Which of these books have you read, and which 2020 release was your favourite?

2

Five Books About Troubled Women

One of my favourite tropes in literature is that of the troubled woman.  She can come from any walk of life; she can be poor or privileged; she can have First World Problems or existential crises.  I seek out these fictional characters, and am often surprised by how realistic they and their problems feel.  I have collected together five books in which I think the troubled woman is shown in all of her complexity, and which I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

 

1. The New Me by Halle Butler **** 36342706._sy475_
Thirty-year-old Millie just can’t pull it together. Misanthropic and morose, she spends her days killing time at a thankless temp job until she can return home to her empty apartment, where she oscillates wildly between self-recrimination and mild delusion, fixating on all the little ways she might change her life. Then she watches TV until she drops off to sleep, and the cycle begins again.  When the possibility of a full-time job offer arises, it seems to bring the better life she’s envisioning – one that involves nicer clothes, fresh produce, maybe even financial independence – within reach. But with it also comes the paralyzing realization, lurking just beneath the surface, of just how hollow that vision has become. Darkly hilarious and devastating, The New Me is a dizzying descent into the mind of a young woman trapped in the funhouse of American consumer culture.

 

40611121._sy475_2. Expectation by Anna Hope *****
Hannah, Cate and Lissa are young, vibrant and inseparable. Living on the edge of a common in East London, their shared world is ablaze with art and activism, romance and revelry – and the promise of everything to come. They are electric. They are the best of friends.  Ten years on, they are not where they hoped to be. Amidst flailing careers and faltering marriages, each hungers for what the others have. And each wrestles with the same question: what does it take to lead a meaningful life?  Expectation is a novel of the highs and lows of friendship – how it can dip, dive and rise again. It is also about finding your way: as a mother, a daughter, a wife, a rebel. Most of all, it explores that liminal space between expectation and reality, the place – full of dreams, desires and pain – in which we all live our lives.

 

3. Tennis Lessons by Susannah Dickey **** 53095648._sx318_sy475_
You know you’re strange and wrong. You’ve known it from the beginning.   This is the voice that rings in your ears. That worries you never say the right thing and you’re probably a disappointment to your parents. That you’re a far cry from pretty – and your thoughts are ugly too. It says no one will ever like you just as you are.  But you know what it is to laugh with your best friend until your stomach hurts, to feel the first delicious tingles of attraction, to take exquisite pleasure in the goriness of your ingrowing toenail.  There is a place for you out there. You just need to find it.  Tennis Lessons is the unflinchingly honest story of one misfit and her uncertain journey to something like happiness. Stopping by each year along the way, she navigates disastrous dates, dead pets, crashed cars, best friends and lost loves. Susannah Dickey reminds us that we’re all a bit weird. And that’s just fine.

 

40648401._sy475_4. Normal People by Sally Rooney *****
At school Connell and Marianne pretend not to know each other. He’s popular and well-adjusted, star of the school soccer team while she is lonely, proud, and intensely private. But when Connell comes to pick his mother up from her housekeeping job at Marianne’s house, a strange and indelible connection grows between the two teenagers – one they are determined to conceal.  A year later, they’re both studying at Trinity College in Dublin. Marianne has found her feet in a new social world while Connell hangs at the sidelines, shy and uncertain. Throughout their years in college, Marianne and Connell circle one another, straying toward other people and possibilities but always magnetically, irresistibly drawn back together. Then, as she veers into self-destruction and he begins to search for meaning elsewhere, each must confront how far they are willing to go to save the other.  Sally Rooney brings her brilliant psychological acuity and perfectly spare prose to a story that explores the subtleties of class, the electricity of first love, and the complex entanglements of family and friendship.

 

5. Disobedience by Naomi Alderman *** 202677._sy475_
A small, close-knit Orthodox Jewish community in London is the setting for a revealing look at religion and sexuality in Alderman’s frank yet heartfelt debut novel, Disobedience. The story begins with the death of the community’s esteemed rabbi, which sets in motion plans for a memorial service and the search for a replacement. The rabbi’s nephew and likely successor, Dovid, calls his cousin Ronit in New York to tell her that her father has died. Ronit, who left the community long ago to build a life for herself as a career woman, returns home when she hears the news, and her reappearance exposes tears in the fabric of the community.  Steeped in Jewish philosophy and teachings, Disobedience is a perceptive and thoughtful exploration of the laws and practices that have governed Judaism for centuries, and continue to hold sway today. Throughout the novel, Alderman retells stories from the Torah — Judaism’s fundamental source — and the interplay between these tales and the struggles of the novel’s unique characters wields enormous power and wisdom, and will surely move readers to tears.

5

Five Great Memoirs

I have always delighted in learning about the lives of others, and have tried to incorporate as many memoirs into my reading as is possible.  I enjoy reading about individuals, particularly women, whose lives are very different to my own, and always find this a highly enriching experience.  With this in mind, I have gathered together five wonderful memoirs of women which I have read of late, and which I would highly recommend.  There are illness narratives, translated books, works set during wartime, and quiet meditations in the list, and I dearly hope that you find something new to pick up.

34104392._sy475_1. The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs *****
An exquisite memoir about how to live–and love–every day with “death in the room,” from poet Nina Riggs, mother of two young sons and the direct descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the tradition of When Breath Becomes Air.  Nina Riggs was just thirty-seven years old when initially diagnosed with breast cancer–one small spot. Within a year, the mother of two sons, ages seven and nine, and married sixteen years to her best friend, received the devastating news that her cancer was terminal.  How does one live each day, “unattached to outcome”? How does one approach the moments, big and small, with both love and honesty?  Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, even as she wrestles with the legacy of her great-great-great grandfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nina Riggs’s breathtaking memoir continues the urgent conversation that Paul Kalanithi began in his gorgeous When Breath Becomes Air. She asks, what makes a meaningful life when one has limited time?  Brilliantly written, disarmingly funny, and deeply moving, The Bright Hour is about how to love all the days, even the bad ones, and it’s about the way literature, especially Emerson, and Nina’s other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm and a form of prayer. It’s a book about looking death squarely in the face and saying “this is what will be.”  Especially poignant in these uncertain times, The Bright Hour urges us to live well and not lose sight of what makes us human: love, art, music, words.

2. When a Toy Dog Became a Wolf and the Moon Broke Curfew by Hendrika de Vries 45480725._sy475_****
Born in the Netherlands at a time when girls are to be housewives and mothers and nothing else, Hendrika de Vries is a “daddy’s girl” until her father is deported from Nazi-occupied Amsterdam to a POW camp in Germany and her mother joins the Resistance. In the aftermath of her father’s departure, Hendrika watches as freedoms formerly taken for granted are eroded with escalating brutality by men with swastika armbands who aim to exterminate those they deem “inferior” and those who do not obey.  As time goes on, Hendrika absorbs her mother’s strength and faith, and learns about moral choice and forced silence. She sees her hidden Jewish “stepsister” betrayed, and her mother interrogated at gunpoint. She and her mother suffer near starvation, and they narrowly escape death on the day of liberation. But they survive it all—and through these harrowing experiences, Hendrika discovers the woman she wants to become.

50403465._sy475_3. The Book Collectors: A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War by Delphine Minoui ****
Award-winning journalist Delphine Minoui recounts the true story of a band of young rebels in a besieged Syrian town, who find hope and connection making an underground library from the rubble of war.  Day in, day out, bombs fall on Daraya, a town outside Damascus, the very spot where the Syrian Civil War began. In the midst of chaos and bloodshed, a group searching for survivors stumbles on a cache of books. They collect the books, then look for more. In a week they have six thousand volumes. In a month, fifteen thousand. A sanctuary is born: a library where the people of Daraya can explore beyond the blockade.  Long a site of peaceful resistance to the Assad regimes, Daraya was under siege for four years. No one entered or left, and international aid was blocked.  In 2015, French-Iranian journalist Delphine Minoui saw a post on Facebook about this secret library and tracked down one of its founders, twenty-three-year-old Ahmad, an aspiring photojournalist himself. Over WhatsApp and Facebook, Minoui learned about the young men who gathered in the library, exchanged ideas, learned English, and imagined how to shape the future, even as bombs fell above. They devoured a marvelous range of books–from American self-help like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to international bestsellers like The Alchemist, from Arabic poetry by Mahmoud Darwish to Shakespearean plays to stories of war in other times and places, such as the siege of Sarajevo. They also shared photos and stories of their lives before and during the war, planned how to build a democracy, and began to sustain a community in shell-shocked soil.  As these everyday heroes struggle to hold their ground, they become as much an inspiration as the books they read. And in the course of telling their stories, Delphine Minoui makes this far-off, complicated war immediate. In the vein of classic tales of the triumph of the human spirit–like All the Beautiful Forevers, A Long Way Gone, and Reading Lolita in TehranThe Book Collectors will inspire readers and encourage them to imagine the wider world.

4. These Silent Mansions: A Life in Graveyards by Jean Sprackland **** 49569565._sy475_
Graveyards are oases: places of escape, of peace and reflection. Each is a garden or nature reserve, but also a site of commemoration, where the past is close enough to touch: a liminal place, at the border of the living world.  Jean Sprackland’s prize-winning book, Strands, brought to life the histories of objects found on a beach. These Silent Mansions is also an uncovering of individual stories: vivid, touching and intimately told. Sprackland travels back through her own life, revisiting graveyards in the ordinary towns and cities she has called home, seeking out others who lived, died and are remembered or forgotten there. With her poet’s eye, she makes chance discoveries among the stones and inscriptions: a notorious smuggler tucked up in a sleepy churchyard; ancient coins unearthed on a secret burial ground; a slow-worm basking in the sun.  These Silent Mansions is an elegant, exhilarating meditation on the relationship between the living and the dead, the nature of time and loss, and how – in this restless, accelerated world – we can connect the here with the elsewhere, the present with the past.

49114654._sx318_5. Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul by Taran N. Khan ****
For most Indians, Kabul is a city that is near, yet far-familiar, yet unknown. When Taran N. Khan arrived in Kabul in the spring of 2006, five years after the overthrow of the Taliban regime, she was earnestly cautioned never to walk. Her instincts compelled her to do the opposite: to take that precarious first step and enter the life of the city with the unique, tactile intimacy that comes from being a walker. She didn’t stop until 2013, when she returned to India.  In Shadow City, Taran N. Khan paints a lyrical, personal, and meditative portrait of a city we know primarily in terms of conflict and peace. As a Muslim woman raised in a small town in India, Taran discovered that she had access to parts of Kabul uncharted by travellers before her. The result reads like an elegiac prose map of the city, rich with surprises-from the glitter of wedding halls that shine like a bizarre version of Las Vegas; to the mental health hospital where women are abandoned and isolated but exist in a rare space of freedom and solitude; to the bookseller behind The Bookseller of Kabul, who sued Åsne Seierstad for her portrayal of him and then published the rebuttal which he displays proudly in his shop window.

11

Alternate Histories

Following my review of David Gillham’s Annelies: A Novel of Anne Frank, in which it is imagined that Anne survived her time in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and returned to Amsterdam, I wanted to make a list of alternate history books.  The first book on the list, Stephen Fry’s Making History, is one of my absolute favourite novels, and the others are ones which I would like to get to sooner rather than later.  I have not purposely chosen alternate histories set around the Second World War, but these seem to be amongst the most prevalent, and all really appeal to me as a reader.

 

3174571. Making History by Stephen Fry
In Making History, Stephen Fry has bitten off a rather meaty chunk by tackling an at first deceptively simple premise: What if Hitler had never been born? An unquestionable improvement, one would reason–and so an earnest history grad student and an aging German physicist idealistically undertake to bring this about by preventing Adolf’s conception. And with their success is launched a brave new world that is in some ways better than ours–but in most ways even worse. Fry’s experiment in history makes for his most ambitious novel yet, and his most affecting. His first book to be set mostly in America, it is a thriller with a funny streak, a futuristic fantasy based on one of mankind’s darkest realities. It is, in every sense, a story of our times.’

 

2. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick 216363
It’s America in 1962. Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In San Francisco, the I Ching is as common as the Yellow Pages. All because some twenty years earlier the United States lost a war — and is now occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan.  This harrowing, Hugo Award-winning novel is the work that established Philip K. Dick as an innovator in science fiction while breaking the barrier between science fiction and the serious novel of ideas. In it Dick offers a haunting vision of history as a nightmare from which it may just be possible to wake.

 

184905333. Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente
Severin Unck’s father is a famous director of Gothic romances in an alternate 1986 in which talking movies are still a daring innovation due to the patent-hoarding Edison family. Rebelling against her father’s films of passion, intrigue, and spirits from beyond, Severin starts making documentaries, traveling through space and investigating the levitator cults of Neptune and the lawless saloons of Mars. For this is not our solar system, but one drawn from classic science fiction in which all the planets are inhabited and we travel through space on beautiful rockets. Severin is a realist in a fantastic universe.  But her latest film, which investigates the disappearance of a diving colony on a watery Venus populated by island-sized alien creatures, will be her last. Though her crew limps home to earth and her story is preserved by the colony’s last survivor, Severin will never return.  Aesthetically recalling A Trip to the Moon and House of Leaves, and told using techniques from reality TV, classic film, gossip magazines, and meta-fictional narrative, Radiance is a solar system-spanning story of love, exploration, family, loss, quantum physics, and silent film.’

 

4. Dominion by C.J. Sansom 15770927
1952. Twelve years have passed since Churchill lost to the appeasers, and Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany after Dunkirk. As the long German war against Russia rages on in the east, the British people find themselves under dark authoritarian rule: the press, radio and television are controlled; the streets patrolled by violent auxiliary police and British Jews face ever greater constraints. There are terrible rumours too about what is happening in the basement of the German Embassy at Senate House. Defiance, though, is growing.  In Britain, Winston Churchill’s Resistance organisation is increasingly a thorn in the government’s side. And in a Birmingham mental hospital an incarcerated scientist, Frank Muncaster, may hold a secret that could change the balance of the world struggle forever. Civil Servant David Fitzgerald, secretly acting as a spy for the Resistance, is given by them the mission to rescue his old friend Frank and get him out of the country. Before long he, together with a disparate group of Resistance activists, will find themselves fugitives in the midst of London’s Great Smog; as David’s wife Sarah finds herself drawn into a world more terrifying than she ever could have imagined. And hard on their heels is Gestapo Sturmbannfuhrer Gunther Hoth, brilliant, implacable hunter of men…’

 

703._sy475_5. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
In an astonishing feat of narrative invention, our most ambitious novelist imagines an alternate version of American history. In 1940 Charles A. Lindbergh, heroic aviator and rabid isolationist, is elected President. Shortly thereafter, he negotiates a cordial “understanding” with Adolf Hitler, while the new government embarks on a program of folksy anti-Semitism.  For one boy growing up in Newark, Lindbergh’s election is the first in a series of ruptures that threatens to destroy his small, safe corner of America – and with it, his mother, his father, and his older brother.’

 

6. The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville 41017647._sy475_
It’s 1941. In the chaos of wartime Marseille, American engineer – and occult disciple – Jack Parsons stumbles onto a clandestine anti-Nazi group, including surrealist theorist André Breton. In the strange games of the dissident diplomats, exiled revolutionaries, and avant-garde artists, Parsons finds and channels hope. But what he unwittingly unleashes is the power of dreams and nightmares, changing the war and the world forever.  It’s 1950. A lone surrealist fighter, Thibaut, walks a new, hallucinogenic Paris, where Nazis and the Resistance are trapped in unending conflict, and the streets are stalked by living images and texts – and by the forces of hell. To escape the city, he must join forces with Sam, an American photographer intent on recording the ruins, and make common cause with a powerful, enigmatic figure of chance and rebellion: the exquisite corpse.  But Sam is being hunted. And new secrets will emerge that will test all their loyalties – to each other, to Paris old and new, and to reality itself.’

 

6506307._sy475_7. Blackout by Connie Willis
Oxford in 2060 is a chaotic place, with scores of time-traveling historians being sent into the past. Michael Davies is prepping to go to Pearl Harbor. Merope Ward is coping with a bunch of bratty 1940 evacuees and trying to talk her thesis adviser into letting her go to VE-Day. Polly Churchill’s next assignment will be as a shopgirl in the middle of London’s Blitz. But now the time-travel lab is suddenly canceling assignments and switching around everyone’s schedules. And when Michael, Merope, and Polly finally get to World War II, things just get worse. For there they face air raids, blackouts, and dive-bombing Stukas–to say nothing of a growing feeling that not only their assignments but the war and history itself are spiraling out of control. Because suddenly the once-reliable mechanisms of time travel are showing significant glitches, and our heroes are beginning to question their most firmly held belief: that no historian can possibly change the past.

 

8. It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis 11371
The only one of Sinclair Lewis’s later novels to match the power of Main Street, Babbitt, and Arrowsmith, It Can’t Happen Here is a cautionary tale about the fragility of democracy, an alarming, eerily timeless look at how fascism could take hold in America. Written during the Great Depression when America was largely oblivious to Hitler’s aggression, it juxtaposes sharp political satire with the chillingly realistic rise of a President who becomes a dictator to save the nation from welfare cheats, rampant promiscuity, crime, and a liberal press. Now finally back in print, It Can’t Happen Here remains uniquely important, a shockingly prescient novel that’s as fresh and contemporary as today’s news.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which are your favourite alternate history books?

4

One From the Archive: Books About Gardens

First published in 2017.

I stumbled upon a Goodreads list – as any user inevitably does at one point or another whilst browsing the vast site – and thought that it would be a perfect one to transcribe for the blog. Whilst I haven’t read many of these books (those which I have read are followed by my star rating), they all sound wonderful, and are undoubtedly perfect choices for this time of year.  The following are about the garden rather than the practice of gardening; they evoke old England, and the charm of admiring what one has planted.  I have focused only upon the first fifteen (and therefore the most popular) books voted for on this list; you can see the rest of it here.  For each, I have added the blurb as shown on Goodreads.

1. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett ***** 231815
When orphaned Mary Lennox comes to live at her uncle’s great house on the Yorkshire Moors, she finds it full of secrets. The mansion has nearly one hundred rooms, and her uncle keeps himself locked up. And at night, she hears the sound of crying down one of the long corridors.  The gardens surrounding the large property are Mary’s only escape. Then, Mary discovers a secret garden, surrounded by walls and locked with a missing key. One day, with the help of two unexpected companions, she discovers a way in. Is everything in the garden dead, or can Mary bring it back to life?

 

2. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton *****
A foundling, an old book of dark fairy tales, a secret garden, an aristocratic family, a love denied, and a mystery. The Forgotten Garden is a captivating, atmospheric and compulsively readable story of the past, secrets, family and memory from the international best-selling author Kate Morton.  Cassandra is lost, alone and grieving. Her much loved grandmother, Nell, has just died and Cassandra, her life already shaken by a tragic accident ten years ago, feels like she has lost everything dear to her. But an unexpected and mysterious bequest from Nell turns Cassandra’s life upside down and ends up challenging everything she thought she knew about herself and her family.  Inheriting a book of dark and intriguing fairytales written by Eliza Makepeace—the Victorian authoress who disappeared mysteriously in the early twentieth century—Cassandra takes her courage in both hands to follow in the footsteps of Nell on a quest to find out the truth about their history, their family and their past; little knowing that in the process, she will also discover a new life for herself.

 

14702453. Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce ***
Lying awake at night, Tom hears the old grandfather clock downstairs strike . . . eleven . . . twelve . . . thirteen . . . Thirteen! When Tom gets up to investigate, he discovers a magical garden. A garden that everyone told him doesn’t exist. A garden that only he can enter . . .

 

4. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
Voodoo. Decadent socialites packing Lugars. Cotillions. With towns like Savannah, Georgia, who needs Fellini? Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil takes two narrative strands–each worthy of its own book–and weaves them together to make a single fascinating tale. The first is author John Berendt’s loving depiction of the characters and rascals that prowled Savannah in the eight years it was his home-away-from-home. “Eccentrics thrive in Savannah,” he writes, and proves the point by introducing Luther Diggers, a thwarted inventor who just might be plotting to poison the town’s water supply; Joe Odom, a jovial jackleg lawyer and squatter nonpareil; and, most memorably, the Lady Chablis, whom you really should meet for yourself. Then, on May 2, 1981, the book’s second story line commences, when Jim Williams, a wealthy antique dealer and Savannah’s host with the most, kills his “friend” Danny Hansford. (If those quotes make you suspect something, you should.) Was it self-defense, as Williams claimed–or murder? The book sketches four separate trials, during which the dark side of this genteel party town is well and truly plumbed.

 

5. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen *** 11758562
Taken from the poverty of her parents’ home, Fanny Price is brought up with her rich cousins at Mansfield Park, acutely aware of her humble rank and with only her cousin Edmund as an ally. When Fanny’s uncle is absent in Antigua, Mary Crawford and her brother Henry arrive in the neighbourhood, bringing with them London glamour and a reckless taste for flirtation. As her female cousins vie for Henry’s attention, and even Edmund falls for Mary’s dazzling charms, only Fanny remains doubtful about the Crawfords’ influence and finds herself more isolated than ever. A subtle examination of social position and moral integrity, Mansfield Park is one of Jane Austen’s most profound works.

 

6. Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen ***
The women of the Waverley family — whether they like it or not — are heirs to an unusual legacy, one that grows in a fenced plot behind their Queen Anne home on Pendland Street in Bascom, North Carolina. There, an apple tree bearing fruit of magical properties looms over a garden filled with herbs and edible flowers that possess the power to affect in curious ways anyone who eats them.   For nearly a decade, 34-year-old Claire Waverley, at peace with her family inheritance, has lived in the house alone, embracing the spirit of the grandmother who raised her, ruing her mother’s unfortunate destiny and seemingly unconcerned about the fate of her rebellious sister, Sydney, who freed herself long ago from their small town’s constraints. Using her grandmother’s mystical culinary traditions, Claire has built a successful catering business — and a carefully controlled, utterly predictable life — upon the family’s peculiar gift for making life-altering delicacies: lilac jelly to engender humility, for instance, or rose geranium wine to call up fond memories. Garden Spells reveals what happens when Sydney returns to Bascom with her young daughter, turning Claire’s routine existence upside down. With Sydney’s homecoming, the magic that the quiet caterer has measured into recipes to shape the thoughts and moods of others begins to influence Claire’s own emotions in terrifying and delightful ways.  As the sisters reconnect and learn to support one another, each finds romance where she least expects it, while Sydney’s child, Bay, discovers both the safe home she has longed for and her own surprising gifts. With the help of their elderly cousin Evanelle, endowed with her own uncanny skills, the Waverley women redeem the past, embrace the present, and take a joyful leap into the future.

 

113172897. Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim *****
“Elizabeth and Her German Garden,” a novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, was popular and frequently reprinted during the early years of the 20th century. “Elizabeth and Her German Garden” is a year’s diary written by Elizabeth about her experiences learning gardening and interacting with her friends. It includes commentary on the beauty of nature and on society, but is primarily humorous due to Elizabeth’s frequent mistakes and her idiosyncratic outlook on life. The story is full of sweet, endearing moments. Elizabeth was an avid reader and has interesting comments on where certain authors are best read; she tells charming stories of her children and has a sometimes sharp sense of humor in regards to the people who will come and disrupt her solitary lifestyle.

 

8. A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson
All the joys and sorrows, fears and fantasies of an imaginative solitary child are brought together in this edition of a much-loved classic. Stevenson’s timeless verses bear witness to a happy childhood and create a treasure garden for every child to explore.

 

9. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh ***** 10032672
A mesmerizing, moving, and elegantly written debut novel, The Language of Flowers beautifully weaves past and present, creating a vivid portrait of an unforgettable woman whose gift for flowers helps her change the lives of others even as she struggles to overcome her own troubled past.  The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating grief, mistrust, and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings.  Now eighteen and emancipated from the system, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. Soon a local florist discovers her talents, and Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But a mysterious vendor at the flower market has her questioning what’s been missing in her life, and when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.

 

10. The Constant Gardener by John Le Carre
The Constant Gardener is a magnificent exploration of the new world order by one of the most compelling and elegant storytellers of our time. The novel opens in northern Kenya with the gruesome murder of Tessa Quayle–young, beautiful, and dearly beloved to husband Justin. When Justin sets out on a personal odyssey to uncover the mystery of her death, what he finds could make him not only a suspect among his own colleagues, but a target for Tessa’s killers as well.   A master chronicler of the betrayals of ordinary people caught in political conflict, John le Carre portrays the dark side of unbridled capitalism as only he can. In The Constant Gardener he tells a compelling, complex story of a man elevated through tragedy as Justin Quayle–amateur gardener, aging widower, and ineffectual bureaucrat–discovers his own natural resources and the extraordinary courage of the woman he barely had time to love.

 

1383911. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan
Every schoolchild learns about the mutually beneficial dance of honeybees and flowers: The bee collects nectar and pollen to make honey and, in the process, spreads the flowers’ genes far and wide. In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan ingeniously demonstrates how people and domesticated plants have formed a similarly reciprocal relationship. He masterfully links four fundamental human desires—sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control—with the plants that satisfy them: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. In telling the stories of four familiar species, Pollan illustrates how the plants have evolved to satisfy humankind’s most basic yearnings. And just as we’ve benefited from these plants, we have also done well by them. So who is really domesticating whom?

 

12. The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama
A 20-year-old Chinese painter named Stephen is sent to his family’s summer home in a Japanese coastal village to recover from a bout with tuberculosis. Here he is cared for by Matsu, a reticent housekeeper and a master gardener. Over the course of a remarkable year, Stephen learns Matsu’s secret and gains not only physical strength, but also profound spiritual insight. Matsu is a samurai of the soul, a man devoted to doing good and finding beauty in a cruel and arbitrary world, and Stephen is a noble student, learning to appreciate Matsu’s generous and nurturing way of life and to love Matsu’s soul-mate, gentle Sachi, a woman afflicted with leprosy.

 

13. The Virgin in the Garden by A.S. Byatt 253300
The Virgin in the Garden is a wonderfully erudite entertainment in which enlightenment and sexuality, Elizabethan drama and contemporary comedy, intersect richly and unpredictably.

 

14. The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield *****
Written during the final stages of her illness, “The Garden Party and Other Stories” is full of a sense of urgency and was Katherine Mansfield’s last collection to be published during her lifetime. The fifteen stories, many of them set in her native New Zealand, vary in length and tone from the opening story, “At the Bay, ” a vivid impressionistic evocation of family life, to the short, sharp sketch “Mrs. Brill, ” in which a lonely woman’s precarious sense of self is brutally destroyed when she overhears two young lovers mocking her. Sensitive revelations of human behaviour, these stories reveal Mansfield’s supreme talent as an innovator who freed the story from its conventions and gave it a new strength and prestige.

 

3117315. Villette by Charlotte Bronte *****
Arguably Brontë’s most refined and deeply felt work, Villette draws on her profound loneliness following the deaths of her three siblings. Lucy Snowe, the narrator of Villette,flees from an unhappy past in England to begin a new life as a teacher at a French boarding school in the great cosmopolitan capital of Villette. Soon Lucy’s struggle for independence is overshadowed by both her friendship with a worldly English doctor and her feelings for an autocratic schoolmaster. Brontë’s strikingly modern heroine must decide if there is any man in her society with whom she can live and still be free.

 

How many of these have you read?  Do any of them pique your interest?

4

Escapist Reading: Recommendations

The world feels like a very strange and unsettling place to be right now, and like many others, I have been using long stretches of my time indoors to read.  I have been increasingly drawn to historical fiction, and thought that it would be a good idea to put together a list of books which I have really enjoyed of late.  These stories encompass many different time periods, and whilst largely novels aimed at adults, there are a couple of children’s reads here too.  I hope you find something here to divert your attention, and that you find these differing worlds as absorbing as I have.

 

258610941. Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett (review forthcoming)
‘An impassioned, charming, and hilarious debut novel about a young woman’s coming-of-age, during one of the harshest whaling seasons in the history of New South Wales, Australia.  1908: It’s the year that proves to be life-changing for our teenage narrator, Mary Davidson, tasked with providing support to her father’s boisterous whaling crews while caring for five brothers and sisters in the wake of their mother’s death. But when the handsome John Beck-a former Methodist preacher turned novice whaler with a mysterious past-arrives at the Davidson’s door pleading to join her father’s crews, suddenly Mary’s world is upended.  As her family struggles to survive the scarcity of whales and the vagaries of weather, and as she navigates sibling rivalries and an all-consuming first love for the newcomer John, nineteen-year-old Mary will soon discover a darker side to these men who hunt the seas, and the truth of her place among them.   Swinging from Mary’s own hopes and disappointments to the challenges that have beset her family’s whaling operation, RUSH OH! is an enchanting blend of fact and fiction that’s as much the story of its gutsy narrator’s coming-of-age as it is the celebration of an extraordinary episode in history.’

 

2. Annelies: A Novel of Anne Frank by David Gillham (review forthcoming) 45161414._sy475_
‘A breathtaking new novel that asks the question: what if Anne Frank survived the Holocaust?  In 1945, aged sixteen, Anne Frank walks out of the liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and into a new life as a survivor of the Holocaust. Returning to Amsterdam, she is reunited with her beloved father. Yet Anne feels like a ghost. In the city where she and her family were betrayed, Anne struggles to let go of the horrors she witnessed, to forget the cruel death of her mother and her sister Margot. She dreams of being a writer, but how do you carry on when you’ve lost everything you once were?  To create a new life for herself, a life of freedom as a woman and a writer, she knows she must transform her story of trauma into a story of redemption and hope.’

 

41473945._sy475_3. Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange
‘Growing up in a lighthouse, 11-year-old Pet’s world has been one of storms, secret tunnels, and stories about sea monsters. But now the country is at war and the clifftops are a terrifying battleground. Pet will need to muster all her bravery to uncover why her family is being torn apart.  This is the story of a girl who is afraid and unnoticed. A girl who freezes with fear at the enemy planes ripping through the skies overheard. A girl who is somehow destined to become part of the strange, ancient legend of the Daughters of Stone.’

 

4. The Holiday Friend by Pamela Hansford Johnson (review forthcoming) 41160614
‘Gavin and Hannah Eastwood are a happy couple, holidaying with their overprotected eleven-year-old son Giles in a beautiful village on the coast of Belgium.  Melissa is a student of Gavin’s, also in the village, having followed Gavin there. A hopeless romantic living in a fantasy, she obsessively follows the family, going out of her way to bump into the couple repeatedly – soon becoming inescapable.  While Gavin pities her, Hannah finds her presence alarming; and while they’re distracted by her appearances, they miss Giles secretly pursuing his own sinister friendship…’

 

12757335. Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther (review forthcoming)
‘Shortly before the Second World War, a column by ‘Mrs Miniver’ appeared in The Times, the first of many recounting the everyday events of a middle=class London family: Mrs Miniver’s thrill at the sight of October chrysanthemums, her sense of doom when the faithful but rackety car is replaced, the escapades of her unpredictable young children, and, as war becomes a reality, the strange experience of acquiring gas masks and the camaraderie of those early days.  Published in book form in 1939, and later an enormously successful film, Mrs Miniver became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, with Churchill exclaiming that it had done more for the Allied cause than a flotilla of battleships.’

 

6. The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor 35663223._sy475_
‘1917: When two young cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright from Cottingley, England, announce they have photographed fairies at the bottom of the garden, their parents are astonished. But when the great novelist, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, endorses the photographs’ authenticity, the girls become a sensation; their discovery offering something to believe in amid a world ravaged by war.  One hundred years later… When Olivia Kavanagh finds an old manuscript and a photograph in her late grandfather’s bookshop she becomes fascinated by the story of the two young girls who mystified the world. As Olivia is drawn into events a century ago, she becomes aware of the past and the present intertwining, blurring her understanding of what is real and what is imagined. As she begins to understand why a nation once believed in fairies, will Olivia find a way to believe in herself?’

 

28430665._sy475_7. The Lark by E. Nesbit (review forthcoming)
‘It’s 1919 and Jane and her cousin Lucilla leave school to find that their guardian has gambled away their money, leaving them with only a small cottage in the English countryside. In an attempt to earn their living, the orphaned cousins embark on a series of misadventures – cutting flowers from their front garden and selling them to passers-by, inviting paying guests who disappear without paying – all the while endeavouring to stave off the attentions of male admirers, in a bid to secure their independence.’

 

8. A Lost Lady by Willa Cather 48200
Marian Forrester is the symbolic flower of the Old American West. She draws her strength from that solid foundation, bringing delight and beauty to her elderly husband, to the small town of Sweet Water where they live, to the prairie land itself, and to the young narrator of her story, Neil Herbert. All are bewitched by her brilliance and grace, and all are ultimately betrayed. For Marian longs for “life on any terms,” and in fulfilling herself, she loses all she loved and all who loved her. This, Willa Cather’s most perfect novel, is not only a portrait of a troubling beauty, but also a haunting evocation of a noble age slipping irrevocably into the past.’

 

What have you been reading lately?  I hope you’re all staying safe, and managing to fill your days with things that you make you feel a little better.

0

Book List: Australian Literature

I have been meaning to pick up a lot more Australian authors since I spent some time in Sydney in 2015-2016.  I found a great list (here) on Goodreads of Best Modern Australian Literature, and thought that I would pick out ten books which really pique my interest, and which I would like to get to soon.

 

1. On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta 2999475
‘Taylor is leader of the boarders at the Jellicoe School. She has to keep the upper hand in the territory wars and deal with Jonah Griggs—the enigmatic leader of the cadets, and someone she thought she would never see again.  And now Hannah, the person Taylor had come to rely on, has disappeared. Taylor’s only clue is a manuscript about five kids who lived in Jellicoe eighteen years ago. She needs to find out more, but this means confronting her own story, making sense of her strange, recurring dream, and finding her mother—who abandoned her on the Jellicoe Road.  The moving, joyous and brilliantly compelling new novel from the best-selling, multi-award-winning author of Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca.’

 

142362. Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan
‘Once upon a time that was called 1828, before all the living things on the land and the fishes in the sea were destroyed, there was a man named William Buelow Gould, a convict in Van Dieman’s Land who fell in love with a black woman and discovered too late that to love is not safe. Silly Billy Gould, invader of Australia, liar, murderer, forger, fantasist, condemned to live in the most brutal penal colony in the British Empire, and there ordered to paint a book of fish. Once upon a time, miraculous things happened…’

 

3. Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White 827327
‘Patrick White’s brilliant 1961 novel, set in an Australian suburb, intertwines four deeply different lives. An Aborigine artist, a Holocaust survivor, a beatific washerwoman, and a childlike heiress are each blessed—and stricken—with visionary experiences that may or may not allow them to transcend the machinations of their fellow men. Tender and lacerating, pure and profane, subtle and sweeping, Riders in the Chariot is one of the Nobel Prize winner’s boldest books.’

 

127384. The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard
‘Caro, gallant and adventurous, is one of two Australian sisters who have come to post-war England to seek their fortunes. Courted long and hopelessly by young scientist, Ted Tice, she is to find that love brings passion, sorrow, betrayal and finally hope. The milder Grace seeks fulfilment in an apparently happy marriage. But as the decades pass and the characters weave in and out of each other’s lives, love, death and two slow-burning secrets wait in ambush for them.’

 

5. The Boat by Nam Le 2599523
‘A stunningly inventive, deeply moving fiction debut: stories that take us from the slums of Colombia to the streets of Tehran; from New York City to Iowa City; from a tiny fishing village in Australia to a foundering vessel in the South China Sea, in a masterly display of literary virtuosity and feeling.  In the magnificent opening story, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” a young writer is urged by his friends to mine his father’s experiences in Vietnam–and what seems at first a satire of turning one’s life into literary commerce becomes a transcendent exploration of homeland, and the ties between father and son. “Cartagena” provides a visceral glimpse of life in Colombia as it enters the mind of a fourteen-year-old hit man facing the ultimate test. In “Meeting Elise,” an aging New York painter mourns his body’s decline as he prepares to meet his daughter on the eve of her Carnegie Hall debut. And with graceful symmetry, the final, title story returns to Vietnam, to a fishing trawler crowded with refugees, where a young woman’s bond with a mother and her small son forces both women to a shattering decision.  Brilliant, daring, and demonstrating a jaw-dropping versatility of voice and point of view, “The Boat” is an extraordinary work of fiction that takes us to the heart of what it means to be human, and announces a writer of astonishing gifts.’

 

56358496. To the Islands by Randolph Stow
‘A work of mesmerising power, against a background of black-white fear and violence, To The Islands journeys towards the strange country of one man’s soul. Set in the desolate outback landscape of Australia’s north-west, the novel tracks the last days of a worn-out Anglican missionary. Fleeing his mission after an agonising confrontation, he immerses himself in the wilderness, searching for the islands of death and mystery.’

 

7. Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park 17179385
‘The game is called Beatie Bow and the children play it for the thrill of scaring themselves. But when Abigail is drawn in, the game is quickly transformed into an extraordinary, sometimes horrifying, adventure as she finds herself transported to a place that is foreign yet strangely familiar . . .’

 

206003748. Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson
One of Australia’s most celebrated novels: one woman’s journey from Australia to London.  Nora Porteous, a witty, ambitious woman from Brisbane, returns to her childhood home at age seventy. Her life has taken her from a failed marriage in Sydney to freedom in London; she forged a modest career as a seamstress and lived with two dear friends through the happiest years of her adult life.  At home, the neighborhood children she remembers have grown into compassionate adults. They help to nurse her back from pneumonia, and slowly let her in on the dark secrets of the neighborhood in the years that have lapsed.  With grace and humor, Nora recounts her desire to escape, the way her marriage went wrong, the vanity that drove her to get a facelift, and one romantic sea voyage that has kept her afloat during her dark years. Her memory is imperfect, but the strength and resilience she shows over the years is nothing short of extraordinary. A book about the sweetness of escape, and the mix of pain and acceptance that comes with returning home.’

 

9. Past the Shallows by Favel Parrett 10762662
‘Brothers Joe, Harry and Miles live with their father, an abalone fisherman, on the south-east coast of Tasmania. Everyday their dad battles the unpredictable ocean to make a living. He is a hard man, a bitter drinker who harbours a devastating secret that is destroying him. Unlike Joe, Harry and Miles are too young to leave home and so are forced to live under the dark cloud of their father’s mood, trying to stay as invisible as possible whenever he is home. Harry, the youngest, is the most vulnerable and it seems he bears the brunt of his father’s anger…’

 

697478510. The Children by Charlotte Wood
‘When their father is critically injured, foreign correspondent Mandy and her siblings return home, bringing with them the remnants and patterns of childhood. Mandy has lived away from the country for many years. Her head is filled with images of terror and war, and her homecoming to the quiet country town – not to mention her family and marriage – only heightens her disconnection from ordinary life.  Cathy, her younger sister, has stayed in regular contact with her parents, trying also to keep tabs on her brother Stephen who, for reasons nobody understands, has held himself apart from the family for years. In the intensive care unit the children sit, trapped between their bewildered mother and one another; between old wounds and forgiveness, struggling to connect with their emotions, their past and each other. But as they wait and watch over their father, there’s someone else watching too: a young wardsman, Tony, who’s been waiting for Mandy to come home. As he insinuates himself into the family, the pressure, and the threat, intensify and build to a climax of devastating force.  This acutely observed novel exposes the tenacious grip of childhood, the way siblings seem to grow apart but never do, and explores the price paid for bearing witness to the suffering of others – whether far away or uncomfortably close to home.’

 

Have you read any of these?  Which titles are you interested in?  What is your favourite piece of Australian literature?

Purchase from The Book Depository

11

Great Cat Books

I have grown up with cats, and despite not having a furry feline to call my own at present (boo, rented accommodation and its ‘no pets’ rules), I still very much enjoy reading about them.  Imagine my delight, then, when I came across a list on Goodreads, quite at random, entitled ‘Great Cat Books’.  I’ve chosen ten books which I haven’t yet read, and which really appeal to me.  You can see the full list here.

 

32571361. Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron
‘How much of an impact can an animal have? How many lives can one cat touch? How is it possible for an abandoned kitten to transform a small library, save a classic American town, and eventually become famous around the world? You can’t even begin to answer those questions until you hear the charming story of Dewey Readmore Books, the beloved library cat of Spencer, Iowa.  Dewey’s story starts in the worst possible way. Only a few weeks old, on the coldest night of the year, he was stuffed into the returned book slot at the Spencer Public Library. He was found the next working by library director Vicki Myron, a single mother who had survived the loss of her family farm, a breast cancer scare, and an alcoholic husband. Dewey won her heart, and the hearts of the staff, by pulling himself up and hobbling on frostbitten feet to nudge each of hem in a gesture of thanks and love. For the next nineteen years, he never stopped charming the people of Spencer with this enthusiasm, warmth, humility (for a cat), and, above all, his sixth sense about who needed him most.  As his fame grew from town to town, then state to state, and finally, amazingly, worldwide, Dewey became more than just a friend; he became a source of pride for an extraordinary Heartland farming town pulling its way slowly back from the greatest crisis in its long history.’

 

2. The Fur Person by May Sarton
‘This enchanting story and classic of cat literature is drawn 20663754
from the true adventures of Tom Jones, May Sarton’s own
cat. Prior to making the author’s acquaintance, he is a fiercely
independent, nameless Cat About Town. Growing tired of
his vagabond lifestyle, however, he concludes that there
might be some appeal in giving up his freedom for a home.
Finally, a house materializes that does seem acceptable and
so do the voices that inhabit it. It is here that he begins his
transformation into a genuine Fur Person. Sarton’s book is
one of the most beloved stories ever written about the joys
and tribulations inherent in sharing one’s life with a cat. It is
now reissued in a gorgeous edition featuring David Canright’s
beautiful illustrations.’

 

627723. I Am a Cat by Soseki Natsume
‘”I am a cat. As yet I have no name.”So begins one of the most original and unforgettable works in Japanese literature.  Richly allegorical and delightfully readable, I Am a Cat is the chronicle of an unloved, unwanted, wandering kitten who spends all his time observing human nature – from the dramas of businessmen and schoolteachers to the foibles of priests and potentates. From this unique perspective, author Sōseki Natsume offers a biting commentary – shaped by his training in Chinese philosophy – on the social upheaval of the Meiji era.  I Am a Cat first appeared in ten installments in the literary magazine Hotoguisu (Cuckoo), between 1905 and 1906. Sōseki had not intended to write more than the short story that makes up the first chapter of this book. After its great critical and popular success, he expanded it into this epic novel, which is universally recognised as a classic of world literature.

 

4. On Cats by Doris Lessing 4794097
‘Doris Lessing’s love affair with cats began at a young age, when she became intrigued with the semiferal creatures on the African farm where she grew up. Her fascination with the handsome, domesticated creatures that have shared her flats and her life in London remained undiminished, and grew into real love with the awkwardly lovable El Magnifico, the last cat to share her home.  On Cats is a celebrated classic, a memoir in which we meet the cats that have slunk and bullied and charmed their way into Doris Lessing’s life. She tells their stories—their exploits, rivalries, terrors, affections, ancient gestures, and learned behaviors—with vivid simplicity. And she tells the story of herself in relation to cats: the way animals affect her and she them, and the communication that grows possible between them—a language of gesture and mood and desire as eloquent as the spoken word. No other writer conveys so truthfully the real interdependence of humans and cats or convinces us with such stunning recognition of the reasons why cats really matter.’

 

112755. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
‘Japan’s most highly regarded novelist now vaults into the first ranks of international fiction writers with this heroically imaginative novel, which is at once a detective story, an account of a disintegrating marriage, and an excavation of the buried secrets of World War II.  In a Tokyo suburb a young man named Toru Okada searches for his wife’s missing cat. Soon he finds himself looking for his wife as well in a netherworld that lies beneath the placid surface of Tokyo. As these searches intersect, Okada encounters a bizarre group of allies and antagonists: a psychic prostitute; a malevolent yet mediagenic politician; a cheerfully morbid sixteen-year-old-girl; and an aging war veteran who has been permanently changed by the hideous things he witnessed during Japan’s forgotten campaign in Manchuria.  Gripping, prophetic, suffused with comedy and menace, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a tour de force equal in scope to the masterpieces of Mishima and Pynchon.’

 

6. The Tribe of Tiger: Cats and Their Culture by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas 64807
‘From the plains of Africa to her very own backyard, noted author and anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas explores the world of cats, both large and small in this classic bestseller. Inspired by her own feline’s instinct to hunt and supported by her studies abroad, Thomas examines the life actions, as well as the similarities and differences of these majestic creatures. Lions, tigers, pumas and housecats: Her observations shed light on their social lives, thought processes, eating habits, and communication techniques, and reveal how they survive and coexist with each other and with humans.’

 

7643047. The Hotel Cat by Esther Averill
‘One wintry day a lonely stray cat wandered into the Royal Hotel. He chased mice so well that he was given the job of Hotel Cat. Tired of always spending time in the cellar Tom ventured upstairs and met the gentle Mrs. Wilkins, a longtime hotel resident who had the ability to communicate with cats. She encouraged Tom to keep an open mind about the hotel guests.  One night, during the winter of New York City’s Big Freeze, Tom detected three cats in one of the rooms. It turned out that due to a boiler breakdown in his house, Captain Tinker had brought Jenny Linsky and her brothers Edward and Checkers to stay at the hotel until the boiler was fixed. Other homes experienced boiler breakdowns too and soon other members of the Cat Club could be found staying in rooms at the Royal Hotel. Before long, plans were underway for the Cat Club Stardust Ball, with the help of Tom, who had proved himself helpful and considerate after all. Soon he became a “friend for ever” of Jenny and her pals.

 

8. Mrs Chippy’s Last Expedition: The Remarkable Journal of Shackleton’s Polar- 128731Bound Cat by Caroline Alexander
‘When Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance became trapped in the Antarctic ice, all twenty-nine members of the crew were pushed to their limits of survival, including Mrs. Chippy, the ship’s estimable cat. Fortunately for posterity, Mrs. Chippy left a diary of the ordeal.  Closely based on the true events of Shackleton’s heroic journey, and illustrated with authentic photographs taken by Frank Hurley, expedition photographer, Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition is a firsthand account of one of the greatest adventures in history–from a unique point of view.’

 

173165859. The Big New Yorker Book of Cats
Look what The New Yorker dragged in! It’s the purr-fect gathering of talent celebrating our feline companions. This bountiful collection, beautifully illustrated in full color, features articles, fiction, humor, poems, cartoons, cover art, drafts, and drawings from the magazine’s archives. Among the contributors are Margaret Atwood, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Roald Dahl, Wolcott Gibbs, Robert Graves, Emily Hahn, Ted Hughes, Jamaica Kincaid, Steven Millhauser, Haruki Murakami, Amy Ozols, Robert Pinsky, Jean Rhys, James Thurber, John Updike, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and E. B. White. Including a Foreword by Anthony Lane, this gorgeous keepsake will be a treasured gift for all cat lovers.’

 

10. The Tiger in the House: A Cultural History of the Cat by Carl Van Vechten 328186
‘“A god, a companion to sorceresses at the Witches’ Sabbath, a beast who is royal in Siam, who in Japan is called ‘the tiger that eats from the hand,’ the adored of Mohammed, Laura’s rival with Petrarch, the friend of Richelieu, the favorite of poets”—such are just a few of the feline distinctions that Carl Van Vechten records in this glorious historical overview of humanity’s long love affair with the cat. As delightful as it is learned, Tiger in the House explores science, art, and history to assemble a treasury of cat lore, while Van Vechten’s sumptuous baroque prose makes every page an inexhaustible pleasure. ‘

 

Which are your favourite books featuring cats?  Do any of these catch your interest?

10

Best Indian Fiction Books

One of my favourite places to read about is India.  I find that literature set within the vast and wondrous expanse of the country appeals to all of my senses, and instills in me a lot of wanderlust.  I have yet to visit India, but I feel as though I continue to learn a lot about it through reading novels set there.  Here are ten books set in India which I have not yet read, and which really appeal to me.

 

52111. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
‘With a compassionate realism and narrative sweep that recall the work of Charles Dickens, this magnificent novel captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism, of India.  The time is 1975. The place is an unnamed city by the sea. The government has just declared a State of Emergency, in whose upheavals four strangers–a spirited widow, a young student uprooted from his idyllic hill station, and two tailors who have fled the caste violence of their native village–will be thrust together, forced to share one cramped apartment and an uncertain future. As the characters move from distrust to friendship and from friendship to love, A Fine Balance creates an enduring panorama of the human spirit in an inhuman state.’

 

2. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth 50365
‘Vikram Seth’s novel is, at its core, a love story: Lata and her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, are both trying to find—through love or through exacting maternal appraisal—a suitable boy for Lata to marry. Set in the early 1950s, in an India newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis, A Suitable Boy takes us into the richly imagined world of four large extended families and spins a compulsively readable tale of their lives and loves. A sweeping panoramic portrait of a complex, multiethnic society in flux, A Suitable Boy remains the story of ordinary people caught up in a web of love and ambition, humor and sadness, prejudice and reconciliation, the most delicate social etiquette and the most appalling violence.’

 

140823. Malgudi Days by R.K. Narayan
‘Introducing this collection of stories, R. K. Narayan describes how in India “the writer has only to look out of the window to pick up a character and thereby a story.” Composed of powerful, magical portraits of all kinds of people, and comprising stories written over almost forty years, Malgudi Days presents Narayan’s imaginary city in full color, revealing the essence of India and of human experience. This edition includes an introduction by Pulitzer Prize- winning author Jhumpa Lahiri.’

 

4. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verges 3591262
‘A sweeping, emotionally riveting first novel—an enthralling family saga of Africa and America, doctors and patients, exile and home.  Marion and Shiva Stone are twin brothers born of a secret union between a beautiful Indian nun and a brash British surgeon at a mission hospital in Addis Ababa. Orphaned by their mother’s death in childbirth and their father’s disappearance, bound together by a preternatural connection and a shared fascination with medicine, the twins come of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution. Yet it will be love, not politics—their passion for the same woman—that will tear them apart and force Marion, fresh out of medical school, to flee his homeland. He makes his way to America, finding refuge in his work as an intern at an underfunded, overcrowded New York City hospital. When the past catches up to him—nearly destroying him—Marion must entrust his life to the two men he thought he trusted least in the world: the surgeon father who abandoned him and the brother who betrayed him.  An unforgettable journey into one man’s remarkable life, and an epic story about the power, intimacy, and curious beauty of the work of healing others.’

 

2183575. The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar
Set in modern-day India, it is the story of two compelling and achingly real women: Sera Dubash, an upper-middle-class Parsi housewife whose opulent surroundings hide the shame and disappointment of her abusive marriage, and Bhima, a stoic illiterate hardened by a life of despair and loss, who has worked in the Dubash household for more than twenty years.’

 

6. Sister of My Heart by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni 16235
‘Anju is the daughter of an upper-caste Calcutta family; her cousin Sudha is the daughter of the black sheep of the family. Sudha is as beautiful, tenderhearted, and serious as Anju is plain, whip-smart, and defiant. yet since the day they were born, Sudha and Anju have been bonded in ways even their mothers cannot comprehend.  The cousins’ bond is shattered, however, when Sudha learns a dark family secret. Urged into arranged marriages, their lives take sudden, opposite turns: Sudha becomes the dutiful daughter-in-law of a rigid small-town household, while Anju goes to America with her new husband and learns to live her own life of secrets. Then tragedy strikes them both, and the women discover that, despite the distance that has grown between them, they have only each other to turn to. Set in the two worlds of India and America, this is an exceptionally moving novel of love, friendship, and compelling courage.’

 

58497. A House for Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
‘Mohun Biswas has spent his 46 years of life striving for independence. Shuttled from one residence to another after the drowning of his father, he yearns for a place he can call home. He marries into the Tulsi family, on whom he becomes dependent, but rebels and takes on a succession of occupations in a struggle to weaken their hold over him.’

 

8. The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell 256280
‘India, 1857–the year of the Great Mutiny, when Muslim soldiers turned in bloody rebellion on their British overlords. This time of convulsion is the subject of J. G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, widely considered one of the finest British novels of the last fifty years.  Farrell’s story is set in an isolated Victorian outpost on the subcontinent. Rumors of strife filter in from afar, and yet the members of the colonial community remain confident of their military and, above all, moral superiority. But when they find themselves under actual siege, the true character of their dominion–at once brutal, blundering, and wistful–is soon revealed.  The Siege of Krishnapur is a companion to Troubles, about the Easter 1916 rebellion in Ireland, and The Singapore Grip, which takes place just before World War II, as the sun begins to set upon the British Empire. Together these three novels offer an unequaled picture of the follies of empire.’

 

2717349. Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai
‘A wonderful novel in two parts, moving from the heart of a close-knit Indian household, with its restrictions and prejuices, its noisy warmth and sensual appreciation of food, to the cool centre of an American family, with its freedom and strangely self-denying attitudes to eating. In both it is ultimately the women who suffer, whether, paradoxically, from a surfeit of feasting and family life in India, or from self-denial and starvation in the US. or both. Uma, the plain, older daughter still lives at home, frustrated in her attempts to escape and make a life for herself. Her Indian family is difficult , demanding but mostly, good hearted. Despite her disappointments, Uma comes through as the survivor, avoiding an unfulfilling marriage, liek her sister’s or a suicidal one, like that arranged for her pretty cousin. And in America, where young Arun goes as a student, men in the suburbs char hunks of bleeding meat while the women don’t appear to cook or eat at all – seems bewildering and terriying to the young Indian adolescent far from home.’

 

10. Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard by Kiran Desai 109335
‘Sampath Chawla was born in a time of drought that ended with a vengeance the night of his birth. All signs being auspicious, the villagers triumphantly assured Sampath’s proud parents that their son was destined for greatness.  Twenty years of failure later, that unfortunately does not appear to be the case. A sullen government worker, Sampath is inspired only when in search of a quiet place to take his nap. “But the world is round,” his grandmother says. “Wait and see Even if it appears he is going downhill, he will come up the other side. Yes, on top of the world. He is just taking a longer route.” No one believes her until, one day, Sampath climbs into a guava tree and becomes unintentionally famous as a holy man, setting off a series of events that spin increasingly out of control. A delightfully sweet comic novel that ends in a raucous bang, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard is as surprising and entertaining as it is beautifully wrought.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which are your favourite novels set in India?