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The Book Trail: Nature

I am beginning this edition of The Book Trail with an excellent book on the naming of birds, by Stephen Moss, of which I have a review coming on Monday.  As ever, I have compiled this list with the help of the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads.

35997821._sx318_1. Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names by Stephen Moss
‘The words we use to name birds are some of the most lyrical and evocative in the English language. They also tell incredible stories: of epic expeditions, fierce battles between rival ornithologists, momentous historical events and touching romantic gestures. Through fascinating encounters with birds, and the rich cast of characters who came up with their names, inMrs Moreau’s Warbler Stephen Moss takes us on a remarkable journey through time. From when humans and birds first shared the earth to our fraught present-day coexistence, Moss shows how these names reveal as much about ourselves and our relationship with the natural world as about the creatures they describe.’

2. Tamed: Ten Species That Changed Our World by Alice Roberts 33952842._sy475_
For hundreds of thousands of years, our ancestors depended on wild plants and animals for survival. They were hunter-gatherers, consummate foraging experts, but taking the world as they found it. Then a revolution occurred – our ancestors’ interaction with other species changed. They began to tame them. The human population boomed; civilization began.  In her new book, Tamed, Alice Roberts uncovers the amazing deep history of ten familiar species with incredible wild pasts: dogs, apples and wheat; cattle; potatoes and chickens; rice, maize, and horses – and, finally, humans. Alice Roberts not only reveals how becoming part of our world changed these animals and plants, but shows how they became our allies, essential to the survival and success of our own species – and to our future.  Enlightening, wide-ranging and endlessly fascinating, Tamed is an epic story, encompassing hundreds of thousands of years of history and archaeology alongside cutting-edge genetics and anthropology. Yet it is also a deeply personal journey that will change how we see ourselves and the species on which we have left our mark.’

39667681._sy475_3. The Glorious Life of the Oak by John Lewis-Stempel
‘The oak is our most beloved and most common tree. It has roots that stretch back to all the old European cultures but Britain has more ancient oaks than all the other European countries put together. More than half the ancient oaks in the world are in Britain.  Many of our ancestors – the Angles, the Saxons, the Norse – came to the British Isles in longships made of oak. For centuries the oak touched every part of a Briton’s life – from cradle to coffin It was oak that made the ‘wooden walls’ of Nelson’s navy, and the navy that allowed Britain to rule the world. Even in the digital Apple age, the real oak has resonance – the word speaks of fortitude, antiquity, pastoralism.  The Glorious Life of the Oak explores our long relationship with this iconic tree; it considers the life-cycle of the oak, the flora and fauna that depend on the oak, the oak as medicine, food and drink, where Britain’s mightiest oaks can be found, and it tells of oak stories from folklore, myth and legend.

4. The Peregrine by J.A. Baker 1071726
From autumn to spring, J.A. Baker set out to track the daily comings and goings of a pair of peregrine falcons across the flat fen lands of eastern England. He followed the birds obsessively, observing them in the air and on the ground, in pursuit of their prey, making a kill, eating, and at rest, activities he describes with an extraordinary fusion of precision and poetry. And as he continued his mysterious private quest, his sense of human self slowly dissolved, to be replaced with the alien and implacable consciousness of a hawk.  It is this extraordinary metamorphosis, magical and terrifying, that these beautifully written pages record.

1344371._sy475_5. Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin
‘In Deakin’s glorious meditation on wood, the “fifth element”as it exists in nature, in our culture, and in our souls the reader accompanies Deakin through the woods of Britain, Europe, Kazakhstan, and Australia in search of what lies behind man’s profound and enduring connection with trees.  Deakin lives in forest shacks, goes “coppicing” in Suffolk, swims beneath the walnut trees of the Haut-Languedoc, and hunts bushplums with Aboriginal women in the outback. Along the way, he ferrets out the mysteries of woods, detailing the life stories of the timber beams composing his Elizabethan house and searching for the origin of the apple.  As the world’s forests are whittled away, Deakin’s sparkling prose evokes woodlands anarchic with life, rendering each tree as an individual, living being. At once a traveler’s tale and a splendid work of natural history, Wildwood reveals, amid the world’s marvelous diversity, that which is universal in human experience.’

6. Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination by Robert Macfarlane 839157
‘Macfarlane is both a mountaineer and a scholar. Consequently we get more than just a chronicle of climbs. He interweaves accounts of his own adventurous ascents with those of pioneers such as George Mallory, and in with an erudite discussion of how mountains became such a preoccupation for the modern western imagination.  The book is organised around a series of features of mountaineering–glaciers, summits, unknown ranges–and each chapter explores the scientific, artistic and cultural discoveries and fashions that accompanied exploration. The contributions of assorted geologists, romantic poets, landscape artists, entrepreneurs, gallant amateurs and military cartographers are described with perceptive clarity. The book climaxes with an account of Mallory’s fateful ascent on Everest in 1924, one of the most famous instances of an obsessive pursuit. Macfarlane is well-placed to describe it since it is one he shares.’

8213557. The Pine Barrens by John McPhee
Most people think of New Jersey as a suburban-industrial corridor that runs between New York and Philadelphia. Yet in the low center of the state is a near wilderness, larger than most national parks, which has been known since the seventeenth century as the Pine Barrens.  The term refers to the predominant trees in the vast forests that cover the area and to the quality of the soils below, which are too sandy and acid to be good for farming. On all sides, however, developments of one kind or another have gradually moved in, so that now the central and integral forest is reduced to about a thousand square miles. Although New Jersey has the heaviest population density of any state, huge segments of the Pine Barrens remain uninhabited. The few people who dwell in the region, the “Pineys,” are little known and often misunderstood. Here McPhee uses his uncanny skills as a journalist to explore the history of the region and describe the people “and their distinctive folklore” who call it home.

8. The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell 11797368
In this wholly original book, biologist David Haskell uses a one-square-meter patch of old-growth Tennessee forest as a window onto the entire natural world. Visiting it almost daily for one year to trace nature’s path through the seasons, he brings the forest and its inhabitants to vivid life.  Each of this book’s short chapters begins with a simple observation: a salamander scuttling across the leaf litter; the first blossom of spring wildflowers. From these, Haskell spins a brilliant web of biology and ecology, explaining the science that binds together the tiniest microbes and the largest mammals and describing the ecosystems that have cycled for thousands—sometimes millions—of years. Each visit to the forest presents a nature story in miniature as Haskell elegantly teases out the intricate relationships that order the creatures and plants that call it home.  Written with remarkable grace and empathy, The Forest Unseen is a grand tour of nature in all its profundity. Haskell is a perfect guide into the world that exists beneath our feet and beyond our backyards.

Which of these have you read?  Which are your favourite books about the natural world?

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The Book Trail: Christmas Edition

First published in 2018.

Here is a lovely festive edition of The Book Trail.  Whilst this is not a traditional edition of the series, in that I have not used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list, it showcases eight fantastic Christmas books which I would highly recommend.  Have you read any of these?  Which is your favourite Christmas book?

295026051. Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson
‘For years Jeanette Winterson has loved writing a new story at Christmas time and here she brings together twelve of her brilliantly imaginative, funny and bold tales. For the Twelve Days of Christmas—a time of celebration, sharing, and giving—she offers these twelve plus one: a personal story of her own Christmas memories. These tales give the reader a portal into the spirit of the season, where time slows down and magic starts to happen. From trees with mysterious powers to a tinsel baby that talks, philosophical fairies to flying dogs, a haunted house and a disappearing train, Winterson’s innovative stories encompass the childlike and spooky wonder of Christmas. Perfect for reading by the fire with loved ones, or while traveling home for the holidays. Enjoy the season of peace and goodwill, mystery, and a little bit of magic courtesy of one of our most fearless and accomplished writers.’

 

2. The Orange Girl by Jostein Gaarder
‘To Georg Røed, his father is no more than a shadow, a distant memory. But then one day his grandmother discovers some pages stuffed into the lining of an old red pushchair. The pages are a letter to Georg, written just before his father died, and a story, ‘The Orange Girl’.  But ‘The Orange Girl’ is no ordinary story – it is a riddle from the past and centres around an incident in his father’s youth. One day he boarded a tram and was captivated by a beautiful girl standing in the aisle, clutching a huge paper bag of luscious-looking oranges. Suddenly the tram gave a jolt and he stumbled forward, sending the oranges flying in all directions. The girl simply hopped off the tram leaving Georg’s father with arms full of oranges. Now, from beyond the grave, he is asking his son to help him finally solve the puzzle of her identity.’

 

3. Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien 7331
‘Every December an envelope bearing a stamp from the North Pole would arrive for J.R.R. Tolkien’s children. Inside would be a letter in a strange, spidery handwriting and a beautiful colored drawing or some sketches.  The letters were from Father Christmas.  They told wonderful tales of life at the North Pole: how the reindeer got loose and scattered presents everywhere; how the accident-prone North Polar Bear climbed the North Pole and fell through the roof of Father Christmas’s house; how he broke the Moon into four pieces and made the Man in it fall into the back garden; how there were wars with the troublesome horde of goblins who lived in the caves beneath the house.  Sometimes the Polar Bear would scrawl a note, and sometimes Ilbereth the Elf would write in his elegant flowing script, adding yet more life and humor to the stories.

 

4. A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas
‘Originally emerging from a piece written for radio, the poem was recorded by Thomas in 1952. The story is an anecdotal retelling of a Christmas from the view of a young child and is a romanticised version of Christmases past, portraying a nostalgic and simpler time. It is one of Thomas’ most popular works.’

 

99195. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote
‘First published in 1956, this much sought-after autobiographical recollection of Truman Capote’s rural Alabama boyhood has become a modern-day classic. We are proud to be reprinting this warm and delicately illustrated edition of A Christmas Memory–“a tiny gem of a holiday story” (School Library Journal, starred review). Seven-year-old Buddy inaugurates the Christmas season by crying out to his cousin, Miss Sook Falk: “It’s fruitcake weather!” Thus begins an unforgettable portrait of an odd but enduring friendship between two innocent souls–one young and one old–and the memories they share of beloved holiday rituals.’

 

6. The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen
‘One of Andersen’s best-beloved tales, The Snow Queen is a story about the strength and endurance of childhood friendship. Gerda’s search for her playmate Kay–who was abducted by the Snow Queen and taken to her frozen palace–is brought to life in delicate and evocative illustrations.’

 

7. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame 5659
‘Meet little Mole, willful Ratty, Badger the perennial bachelor, and petulant Toad. Over one hundred years since their first appearance in 1908, they’ve become emblematic archetypes of eccentricity, folly, and friendship. And their misadventures-in gypsy caravans, stolen sports cars, and their Wild Wood-continue to capture readers’ imaginations and warm their hearts long after they grow up. Begun as a series of letters from Kenneth Grahame to his son, The Wind in the Willows is a timeless tale of animal cunning and human camaraderie. This Penguin Classics edition features an appendix of the letters in which Grahame first related the exploits of Toad.’

 

8. Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson
‘Moomins always sleep through the winter – or they did until the year Moomintroll woke up and went exploring in the silent, snow-covered valley where the river used to scuttle along and all his friends were so busy in summer.’

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The Book Trail: From Hanya Yanigahara to Karin Altenberg

I am beginning this edition of the Book Trail with something a little different; a novel which I have not read as yet, but remember seeing a lot of buzz about when it was released.  Whilst I can’t promise I’ll be able to have read and reviewed it by the time this year ends, it is definitely on my radar, and I will be picking it up at the first opportunity.  As ever, I am using the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to generate this list.

1. The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanigahara 39789318
In 1950, Norton Perina, a young American doctor, joins an anthropological expedition to a remote Micronesian island in search of a rumoured lost tribe. There he encounters a strange group of jungle-dwellers who appear to have attained a form of immortality that preserves the body but not the mind. Perina uncovers their secret and returns with it to America, where he soon finds great success. But his discovery has come at a terrible cost, not only for the islanders, but for Perina himself.

2. Monstress by Lysley Tenorio
A luminous collection of heartbreaking, vivid, startling, and gloriously unique stories set amongst the Filipino-American communities of California and the Philippines. Already the worthy recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Whiting Writer’s Award, and a Stegner Fellowship, Tenorio brilliantly explores the need to find connections, the melancholy of isolation, and the sometimes suffocating ties of family in tales that range from a California army base to a steamy moviehouse in Manilla, to the dangerous false glitter of Hollywood.

129646653. Aerogrammes by Tania James
‘This is a bravura collection of short stories set in locales as varied as London, Sierra Leone, and the American Midwest that captures the yearning and dislocation of young men and women around the world.  In “Lion and Panther in London,” a turn-of-the-century Indian wrestler arrives in London desperate to prove himself champion of the world, only to find the city mysteriously absent of challengers. In “Light & Luminous,” a gifted dance instructor falls victim to her own vanity when a student competition allows her a final encore.  In “The Scriptological Review: A Last Letter from the Editor,” a young man obsessively studies his father’s handwriting in hopes of making sense of his death. And in the marvelous “What to Do with Henry,” a white woman from Ohio takes in the illegitimate child her husband left behind in Sierra Leone, as well as an orphaned chimpanzee who comes to anchor this strange new family.  With exuberance and compassion, Tania James once again draws us into the lives of damaged, driven, and beautifully complicated characters who quietly strive for human connection.
4. Miss Timmins’ School for Girls by Nayana Currimbhoy
A murder at a British boarding school in the hills of western India launches a young teacher on the journey of a lifetime.  In 1974, three weeks before her twenty-first birthday, Charulata Apte arrives at Miss Timmins’ School for Girls in Panchgani. Shy, sheltered, and running from a scandal that disgraced her Brahmin family, Charu finds herself teaching Shakespeare to rich Indian girls in a boarding school still run like an outpost of the British Empire. In this small, foreign universe, Charu is drawn to the charismatic teacher Moira Prince, who introduces her to pot-smoking hippies, rock ‘n’ roll, and freedoms she never knew existed.  Then one monsoon night, a body is found at the bottom of a cliff, and the ordered worlds of school and town are thrown into chaos. When Charu is implicated in the murder—a case three intrepid schoolgirls take it upon themselves to solve—Charu’s real education begins. A love story and a murder mystery, Miss Timmins’ School for Girls is, ultimately, a coming-of-age tale set against the turbulence of the 1970s as it played out in one small corner of India.
5. The Bay of Foxes by Sheila Kohler 13073377
In 1978, Dawit, a young, beautiful, and educated Ethiopian refugee, roams the streets of Paris. By chance, he spots the famous French author M., who at sixty is at the height of her fame. Seduced by Dawit’s grace and his moving story, M. invites him to live with her. He makes himself indispensable, or so he thinks. When M. brings him to her Sardinian villa, beside the Bay of Foxes, Dawit finds love and temptation—and perfects the art of deception.
6. Little Woman in Blue by Jeannine Atkins
May Alcott spends her days sewing blue shirts for Union soldiers, but she dreams of painting a masterpiece—which many say is impossible for a woman—and of finding love, too. When she reads her sister’s wildly popular novel, Little Women, she is stung by Louisa’s portrayal of her as “Amy,” the youngest of four sisters who trades her desire to succeed as an artist for the joys of hearth and home. Determined to prove her talent, May makes plans to move far from Massachusetts and make a life for herself with room for both watercolors and a wedding dress. Can she succeed? And if she does, what price will she have to pay? Based on May Alcott’s letters and diaries, as well as memoirs written by her neighbors, Little Woman in Blue puts May at the center of the story she might have told about sisterhood and rivalry in an extraordinary family.
111858397. The Luminist by David Rocklin
Photography comprises the bright, tensile thread in the sweep of The Luminist, drawing tight a narrative that shifts between the prejudices and passions of Victorian England and those of colonial Ceylon.  It binds the destinies of Catherine Colebrook, the proper wife of a fading diplomat, who rebels against every convention to chase the romance of science through her lens, and Eligius, an Indian teenager thrust into servitude after his father is killed demanding native rights.  The Luminist is a weave of legend and history, science and art, politics and domesticity that are symphonic themes in the main title, the story of an enduring and forbidden friendship. Catherine and Eligius must each struggle with internal forces that inspire them and societal pressures that command them. Rocklin’s is a bold landscape, against which an intimate drama is poignantly played out. Just in this way, our minds recall in every detail the photo snapped at the moment of pain, while all the lovely scenes seem to run together.
8. Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg
A portrait of a marriage, a meditation on faith, and a journey of conquest and self-discovery, Island of Wings is a passionate and atmospheric novel reminiscent of Wuthering Heights.  July, 1830. On the ten-hour sail west from the Hebrides to the islands of St. Kilda, everything lies ahead for Lizzie and Neil McKenzie. Neil is to become the minister to the small community of islanders, and Lizzie, his new wife, is pregnant with their first child. Neil’s journey is evangelical: a testing and strengthening of his own faith against the old pagan ways of the St. Kildans, but it is also a passage to atonement. For Lizzie — bright, beautiful, and devoted — this is an adventure, a voyage into the unknown. She is sure only of her loyalty and love for her husband, but everything that happens from now on will challenge all her certainties.  As the two adjust to life on an exposed archipelago on the edge of civilization, where the natives live in squalor and subsist on a diet of seabirds, and babies perish mysteriously in their first week, their marriage — and their sanity — is threatened. Is Lizzie a willful temptress drawing him away from his faith? Is Neil’s zealous Christianity unhinging into madness? And who, or what, is haunting the moors and cliff-tops?  Exquisitely written and profoundly moving, Island of Wings is more than just an account of a marriage in peril — it is also a richly imagined novel about two people struggling to keep their love, and their family, alive in a place of terrible hardship and tumultuous beauty.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which would you recommend?

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The Book Trail: From ‘Broken April’ to ‘Dolly’

I am beginning this particular Book Trail with one of my favourite Around the World in 80 Books picks so far, Broken April by Ismail Kadare.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature on Goodreads to compile this list.

 

1. Broken April by Ismail Kadare 17902
From the moment that Gjorg’s brother is killed by a neighbour, his own life is forfeit: for the code of Kanun requires Gjorg to kill his brother’s murderer and then in turn be hunted down. After shooting his brother’s killer, young Gjorg is entitled to thirty days’ grace – not enough to see out the month of April.  Then a visiting honeymoon couple cross the path of the fugitive. The bride’s heart goes out to Gjorg, and even these ‘civilised’ strangers from the city risk becoming embroiled in the fatal mechanism of vendetta.

 

2. The Country Where No One Ever Dies by Ornela Vorpsi
A young girl’s father is constantly forcing her to kiss him, and her aunt predicts that she will grow up to be a whore. With Albania’s communist regime crumbling around them, sex, dictatorship, and death are inescapable subjects for the girl and her family;though the protagonist of The Country Where No One Ever Dies always confronts the ridiculousness of her often brutal reality with unflappable irony and a peculiar kind of common sense. Her name and age changing from moment to moment, she is an unforgettable portrait of the imagination under siege, while The Country Where No One Ever Dies is itself a one-of-a-kind atlas to a land where black comedy is simply a way of life.

 

3496543. Hidden Camera by Zoran Zivkovic
From one of Serbia’s greatest contemporary writers, Hidden Camera opens with the narrator finding a mysterious, blank envelope stuck in his apartment door inviting him to a private showing of a movie. Or so he initially thinks. Upon arrival at the theatre, he discovers that there’s only one other person in the audience, a very attractive woman whom he’s seated next to. Then things get a bit more mysterious. The movie he’s been invited to see includes a scene showing him sitting in a park. Believing that he’s an unwitting participant in a complicated hidden camera show, he goes along with the variety of setups he’s faced with, which continue to get more involved and absurd. As the show develops, he becomes more and more paranoid and distrustful, but he keeps up the ruse to its thrilling conclusion.

 

4. The Loop by Jacques Roubaud
Devastated by the death of his young wife, Alix, the author conceives a project that will allow him not only to continue writing, but to continue living – writing a book that leads him to confront his terrible loss as well as examine the lonely world in which he now seems, increasingly, to exist: that of Memory. The Loop finds Roubaud returning to his earliest recollections, as well as considering the nature of memory itself, and the process – both merciful and terrible – of forgetting. By turns playful and despairing, The Loop is a masterpiece of contemporary prose.

 

5. In Partial Disgrace by Charles Newman 14433736
The long-awaited final work and magnum opus of one of the United States’s greatest authors, critics, and tastemakers, In Partial Disgrace is a sprawling self-contained trilogy chronicling the troubled history of a small Central European nation bearing certain similarities to Hungary—and whose rise and fall might be said to parallel the strange contortions taken by Western political and literary thought over the course of the twentieth century.

 

6. Melancholy by Jon Fosse
“Melancholy” takes us deep inside a painter’s fragile consciousness, vulnerable to everything but therefore uniquely able to see its beauty and its light.

 

162848187. Through the Night by Stig Saeterbakken
Dentist Karl Meyer’s worst nightmare comes true when his son, Ole-Jakob, takes his own life. This tragedy is the springboard for a complex novel posing essential questions about human experience: What does sorrow do to a person? How can one live with the pain of unbearable loss? How far can a man be driven by the grief and despair surrounding the death of a child? A dark and harrowing story, drawing on elements from dreams, fairy tales, and horror stories, the better to explore the mysterious depths of sorrow and love, Through the Night is Stig Saterbakken at his best.

 

8. Dolly City by Orly Castel-Bloom
A fable of the comic-horror of modern urban existence seen through the eyes of Doctor Dolly, a woman alone in an alienating city. Dolly mounts a solitary, crazy and comic protest against warmongers and bureaucrats, adopting a son along the way.

 

Which of these have you read?  Have you spotted anything here that takes your fancy?

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The Book Trail: From Stewart to Smith

I am beginning this instalment of The Book Trail with a Mary Stewart novel, which I very much enjoyed reading during January.  As ever, I am using the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed…’ tool on Goodreads to collate this list, and have copied over the blurb for each title.

1. Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart 11031430
When Vanessa March arrived in Vienna she knew all about the white Lipizzan stallions at the Spanish Riding School. But she never expected to get involved with them or, indeed, with suspected murder.

 

2. While Still We Live by Helen MacInnes
It began very innocently. A holiday visit to Poland. But before enojoying the sights and sounds of this fascinating new place, happiness took a violent turn and became a nightmare of terror…when suddenly you’re mistaken for a Nazi spy, and to save your life, you have to prove you are innocent.

 

3. Mrs Tim of the Regiment by D.E. Stevenson 6620855
Vivacious, young Hester Christie tries to run her home like clockwork, as would befit the wife of British Army officer, Tim Christie. However hard Mrs Tim strives for seamless living amidst the other army wives, she is always moving flat-out to remember groceries, rule lively children, side-step village gossip and placate her husband with bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade. Left alone for months at a time whilst her husband is with his regiment, Mrs Tim resolves to keep a diary of events large and small in her family life. Once pen is set to paper no affairs of the head or heart are overlooked.When a move to a new regiment in Scotland uproots the Christie family, Mrs Tim is hurled into a whole new drama of dilemmas; from settling in with a new set whilst her husband is away, to disentangling a dear friend from an unsuitable match. Against the wild landscape of surging rivers, sheer rocks and rolling mists, who should stride into Mrs Tim’s life one day but the dashing Major Morley, hellbent on pursuit of our charming heroine. And Hester will soon find that life holds unexpected crossroads…

 

4. Before Lunch by Angela Thirkell
Middle-aged Catherine Middleton, married to an obtuse but endearing older man, is the still center of a swirl of two generations of gentry on the brink of WW II. The activities of youngsters and contemporaries go on around her and it is only gradually that one sees how, without conscious manipulation, nothing happens without her. The characters are subtly and humorously drawn–keep an eye on the hypochondriac and self-absorbed Miss Starter who displays a shrewd gift for defining the essentials and deflating the fatuous. At the end, youngsters and oldsters are properly sorted out and paired off, mostly as expected, after several false starts. Alistair, the older man who sets off after the ‘ing nue’ is nudged back into place with Catherine’s sister-in-law (his contemporary). She, in turn, sees ‘her young man’ off to seek his dream, leaving her bereft of the companions of her mind and heart — duty and honor intact, with the notion of ‘self-fulfillment at all costs’ decades away.

 

2137755. Fireflies by Shiva Naipaul
Fireflies tells the story of Trinidad’s most venerated Hindu family, the Khojas. Rigidly orthodox, presiding over acres of ill-kept sugarcane and hoards of jewellery enthusiastically guarded by old Mrs. Khoja, they seem to have triumphed more by default than by anything else. Only ‘Baby’ Khoja, who is parcelled off into an arranged marriage with a bus driver, proves an exception to this rule. She is the heroine, and her story the single gleaming thread in Shiva Naipaul’s ferociously comic and profoundly sad first novel.

 

6. The Polyglots by William Gerhardie
The Polyglots is the story of an eccentric Belgian family living in the Far East in the uncertain years after World War I and the Russian Revolution. The tale is recounted by their dryly conceited young English relative, Captain Georges Hamlet Alexander Diabologh, who comes to stay with them during a military mission. Teeming with bizarre characters—depressives, obsessives, paranoiacs, hypochondriacs, and sex maniacs—Gerhardie paints a brilliantly absurd world where the comic and the tragic are profoundly and irrevocably entwined.

 

7. Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell 80989
Beneath the unassuming surface of a progressive women’s college lurks a world of intellectual pride and pomposity awaiting devastation by the pens of two brilliant and appalling wits. Randall Jarrell’s classic novel was originally published to overwhelming critical acclaim in 1954, forging a new standard for campus satire—and instantly yielding comparisons to Dorothy Parker’s razor-sharp barbs. Like his fictional nemesis, Jarrell cuts through the earnest conversations at Benton College—mischievously, but with mischief nowhere more wicked than when crusading against the vitriolic heroine herself.

 

8. Topper Takes a Trip by Thorne Smith
Cosmo Topper, the mild-mannered bank manager who was persuaded to take a walk on the wild side by the ghosts of George and Marion Kerby in Topper, finds himself reunited with his dyspeptic wife for an extended vacation on the Riviera. But he doesn’t have long to enjoy the peace and quiet before the irrepressible Kerbys materialize once again and start causing fracases, confusing the citizenry, alarming the gendarmes, getting naked, and turning every occasion into revelry or melee. Soon Marion decides that Topper as a ghost would be even more laughs than Topper in the flesh. And all she needs to arrange is one simple little murder.

 

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which have piqued your interest?

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The Book Trail: From William Maxwell to Tommaso Landolfi

I begin with a book by one of my favourite, and sadly very underrated, authors today, and use Goodreads as my guide to come up with seven more tomes which ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’.

1. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell 14276
On an Illinois farm in the 1920s, a man is murdered, and in the same moment the tenous friendship between two lonely boys comes to an end. In telling their interconnected stories, American Book Award winner William Maxwell delivers a masterfully restrained and magically evocative meditation on the past.

 

2. Blood Tie by Mary Lee Settle
n a novel that begins with accidental death and ends with deliberate murder, Mary Lee Settle tells the story of an eclectic collection of American and European expatriates who take refuge in an ancient Turkish city and, once there, wreak havoc on the Aegean paradise. At first the characters appear to have little in common, but as the novel progresses their motives and desires cross and blend in a geometry of misunderstanding.

 

3. Ten North Frederick by John O’Hara
796907This is the story of a family of the ‘best’ people, living in Gibbsville, Pa. Three generations of the Chapin family are portrayed with intimacy and uncompromising clarity. Many other people at all levels of the social ladder are portrayed as well, and what they do and say to one another is often shocking.

 

4. A Crown of Feathers by Isaac Bashevis Singer
These richly hypnotic tales enfold the reader into Isaac Bashevis Singer’s special world of imps, demons, lovers, and other mischievous creatures. His world is a world of feelings, driven by lust, lechery, greed, madness, and love. All of his creatures are seen with a clear but loving eye; all seem and are in fact possessed by good and evil, caught in fascinating dilemmas, now terrible, now wryly comic.

 

5. The News from Paraguay by Lily Tuck  77691
The year is 1854. In Paris, Francisco Solano — the future dictator of Paraguay — begins his courtship of the young, beautiful Irish courtesan Ella Lynch with a poncho, a Paraguayan band, and a horse named Mathilde. Ella follows Franco to Asunción and reigns there as his mistress. Isolated and estranged in this new world, she embraces her lover’s ill-fated imperial dream — one fueled by a heedless arrogance that will devastate all of Paraguay.
With the urgency of the narrative, rich and intimate detail, and a wealth of skillfully layered characters, The News from Paraguay recalls the epic novels of Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.

 

6. The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud
Bernard Malamud’s first book of short stories, The Magic Barrel, has been recognized as a classic from the time it was published in 1959. The stories are set in New York and in Italy (where Malamud’s alter ego, the struggling New York Jewish painter, Arthur Fidelman, roams amid the ruins of old Europe in search of his artistic patrimony); they tell of egg candlers and shoemakers, matchmakers, and rabbis, in a voice that blends vigorous urban realism, Yiddish idiom, and a dash of artistic magic.  The Magic Barrel is a book about New York and about the immigrant experience, and it is high point in the modern American short story. Few books of any kind have managed to depict struggle and frustration and heartbreak with such delight, or such artistry.

 

523777. I, etcetera by Susan Sontag
In eight stories, this singular collection of short fiction written over the course of ten years explores the terrain of modern urban life. In reflective, telegraphic prose, Susan Sontag confronts the reader with exposed workings of an impassioned intellect in narratives seamed with many of the themes of her essays—the nature of knowing, our relationship with the past, and the future in an alienated present.

 

8. Gogol’s Wife and Other Stories by Tommaso Landolfi
Much admired in Europe, Landolfi has been called “the Italian Kafka”; he is often linked with the Surrealists, and in the intellectual quality of his fantasy there are certain affinities with Borges; but beyond these superficial comparisons, his is a truly unique—and fascinating—art. It is based in a prodigious imagination, a very curious sense of humor and a rare command of irony.

 

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

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The Book Trail: From ‘A Complicated Kindness’ to ‘By Night the Mountain Burns’

We begin today’s episode of the Book Trail with one which I very much enjoyed, Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness.  As ever, I shall be choosing the books which follow from Goodreads’ ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature.

1. A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews 1019390
Nomi Nickel lives with her father, Ray, in East Village, a small Mennonite town in Manitoba. She dreams of escaping to the big city, but since her mother and sister left home, it’s hard to imagine leaving her father behind. As she begins to piece together the story behind her mother’s disappearance, she finds herself on a direct collision course with the town’s minister. With fierce originality and brilliance, Miriam Toews takes us straight to the centre of Nomi’s world and the complicated kindness at the heart of family life.

 

2. Lullabies for Little Prisoners by Heather O’Neill
Heather O’Neill dazzles with a first novel of extraordinary prescience and power, a subtly understated yet searingly effective story of a young life on the streets—and the strength, wits, and luck necessary for survival.  At thirteen, Baby vacillates between childhood comforts and adult temptation: still young enough to drag her dolls around in a vinyl suitcase yet old enough to know more than she should about urban cruelties. Motherless, she lives with her father, Jules, who takes better care of his heroin habit than he does of his daughter. Baby’s gift is a genius for spinning stories and for cherishing the small crumbs of happiness that fall into her lap. But her blossoming beauty has captured the attention of a charismatic and dangerous local pimp who runs an army of sad, slavishly devoted girls—a volatile situation even the normally oblivious Jules cannot ignore. And when an escape disguised as betrayal threatens to crush Baby’s spirit, she will ultimately realize that the power of salvation rests in her hands alone.

 

4746623. Certainty by Madeleine Thien
Madeleine Thien’s stunning debut novel hauntingly retells a crucial moment in history, through two unforgettable love stories.   Gail Lim, a producer of radio documentaries, is haunted by the mystery of her father’s Asian past. As a child, Gail’s father, Matthew Lim, lived in a Malaysian village occupied by the Japanese. He and his beloved Ani wandered the jungle fringe under the terrifying shadow of war. The war shattered their families, splitting the two apart until a brief reunion years later. Matthew’s profound connection to Ani and the life-changing secrets they shared cast a shadow that, later still, Matthew’s wife, Clara, desperately sought to understand. Gail’s journey to unravel the mystery of her parents’ lives takes her to Amsterdam, where she unearths more about this mysterious other woman. But as Gail approaches the truth, Ani’s story will bring Gail face-to-face, with the untold mysteries of her own life.  Vivid, poignant, and written in understated yet powerful prose, Certainty is a novel about the legacies of loss, the dislocations of war, and the timeless redemption afforded by love.

 

4. Holding Still for As Long As Possible by Zoe Whittall
What is it like to grow into adulthood with the war on terror as your defining political memory, with SARS and Hurricane Katrina as your backdrop? In this robust, elegantly plotted, and ultimately life-affirming novel, Zoe Whittall presents a dazzling portrait of a generation we’ve rarely seen in literature — the twenty-five-year olds who grew up on anti-anxiety meds, text-messaging each other truncated emotional reactions, unsure of what’s public and what’s private.  Zoe Whittall fulfills the promise of her acclaimed first novel, Bottle Rocket Hearts, with this extraordinary novel set in Toronto’s seedy-but-gentrifying Parkdale. Revolving around three interlocking lives, it offers, among other things, a detailed inside look at the work of paramedics, and entertaining celebrity gossip.

 

5. Leaving Earth by Helen Humphreys 1061379
Leaving Earth is a first novel marked by its perceptive, lyrical language and rich, fascinating characters. On August 1, 1933, two young women, the famous aviatrix Grace O’Gorman and the inexperienced Willa Briggs, take off in a tiny moth biplane to break the world flight-endurance record. Their plan is to circle above the city of Toronto for twenty-five days. With each passing day, the women’s ties to humanity fall away and the intensity of their connection becomes as gripping as the perils that besiege them: fatigue, weather, mechanical breakdown, and the lethal efforts of a saboteur. In this extraordinary debut, Humphreys exhibits rare control, restraint, and poetry as she develops the relationship of two unusual women through the magical passage of flight.

 

6. She Of the Mountains by Vivek Shraya
She of the Mountains is a beautifully rendered illustrated novel by Vivek Shraya, the author of the Lambda Literary Award finalist God Loves Hair. Shraya weaves a passionate, contemporary love story between a man and his body, with a re-imagining of Hindu mythology. Both narratives explore the complexities of embodiment and the damaging effects that policing gender and sexuality can have on the human heart.

 

178621897. Corona by Bushra Rehman
Razia Mirza is a Pakistani woman from Corona, Queens, who grew up in a tight Muslim community surrounding the first Sunni masjid built in New York City. When a rebellious streak leads to her ex-communication, she decides to hit the road. Corona moves between Razia’s childhood and the comedic misadventures she encounters on her journey, from a Puritan Colony in Massachusetts to New York City’s Bhangra music scene. With each story, we learn more about the past she’s escaping, a past which leads her to constantly travel in a spiral, always coming closer to but never quite arriving home.

 

8. By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel
By Night The Mountain Burns recounts the narrator’s childhood on a remote island off the West African coast, living with his mysterious grandfather, several mothers and no fathers. We learn of a dark chapter in the island’s history: a bush fire destroys the crops, then hundreds perish in a cholera outbreak. Superstition dominates: now the islanders must sacrifice their possessions to the enraged ocean god. What of their lives will they manage to save?  Whitmanesque in its lyrical evocation of the island, Ávila Laurel’s writing builds quietly, through the oral rhythms of traditional storytelling, into gripping drama worthy of an Achebe or a García Márquez.

 

Have you read any of these books?

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The Book Trail: From ‘Artful’ to Footnotes

For today’s Book Trail post, we begin with one of Ali Smith’s lecture series-cum-incredibly readable book, and weave our way through tomes weird and wonderful.

1. Artful by Ali Smith
15811569In February 2012, the novelist Ali Smith delivered the Weidenfeld lectures on European comparative literature at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. Her lectures took the shape of this set of discursive stories. Refusing to be tied down to either fiction or the essay form, Artful is narrated by a character who is haunted—literally—by a former lover, the writer of a series of lectures about art and literature.  A hypnotic dialogue unfolds, a duet between and a meditation on art and storytelling, a book about love, grief, memory, and revitalization. Smith’s heady powers as a fiction writer harmonize with her keen perceptions as a reader and critic to form a living thing that reminds us that life and art are never separate.  Artful is a book about the things art can do, the things art is full of, and the quicksilver nature of all artfulness. It glances off artists and writers from Michelangelo through Dickens, then all the way past postmodernity, exploring every form, from ancient cave painting to 1960s cinema musicals. This kaleidoscope opens up new, inventive, elastic insights—on the relation of aesthetic form to the human mind, the ways we build our minds from stories, the bridges art builds between us. Artful is a celebration of literature’s worth in and to the world and a meaningful contribution to that worth in itself. There has never been a book quite like it.

 

2. And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos by John Berger
In an extraordinary distillation of his gifts as a novelist, poet, art critic, and social historian, John Berger reveals the ties between love and absence, the ways poetry endows language with the assurance of prayer, and the tensions between the forward movement of sexuality.

 

3. The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer 378529
The Ongoing Moment is Dyer’s unique and idiosyncratic history of photography. Seeking to identify their signature styles Dyer looks at the ways that canonical figures such as Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Kertesz, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus and William Eggleston have photographed the same scenes and objects (benches, hats, hands, roads). In doing so Dyer constructs a narrative in which those photographers – many of whom never met in their lives – constantly come into contact with each other. Great photographs change the way we see the world; The Ongoing Moment changes the way we look at both. It is the most ambitious example to date of a form of writing that Dyer has made his own: the non-fiction work of art.

 

4. Yours Ever: People and Their Letters by Thomas Mallon
Yours Ever explores the offhand masterpieces dispatched through the ages by messenger, postal service, and BlackBerry. Thomas Mallon weaves a remarkable assortment of epistolary riches into his own insightful and eloquent commentary on the circumstances and characters of the world’s most intriguing letter writers. Here are Madame de Sévigné’s devastatingly sharp reports from the court of Louis XIV, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tormented advice to his young daughter, the besotted midlife billets-doux of a suddenly rejuvenated Woodrow Wilson, the casually brilliant spiritual musings of Flannery O’Connor, the lustful boastings of Lord Byron, the cries from prison of Sacco and Vanzetti. Along with the confessions and complaints and revelations sent from battlefields, frontier cabins, and luxury liners, a reader will find Mallon considering travel bulletins, suicide notes, fan letters, and hate mail–forms as varied as the human experiences behind them.  Yours Ever is an exuberant reintroduction to a vast and entertaining literature–a book that will help to revive, in the digital age, this glorious lost art.

 

5. Classics For Pleasure by Michael Dirda
249203In these delightful essays, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Dirda introduces nearly ninety of the world’s most entertaining books. Writing with affection as well as authority, Dirda covers masterpieces of fantasy and science fiction, horror and adventure, as well as epics, history, essay, and children’s literature. Organized thematically, these are works that have shaped our imaginations. Love’s Mysteries moves from Sappho and Arthurian romance to Soren Kierkegaard and Georgette Heyer. In other categories Dirda discusses not only Dracula and Sherlock Holmes but also the Tao Te Ching and Icelandic sagas, Frederick Douglass and Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Whether writing about Petronius or Perelman, Dirda makes literature come alive. Classics for Pleasure is a perfect companion for any reading group or lover of books.

 

6. 500 Great Books by Women, edited by Erika Bauermeister
Here is an articulate guide to more than 500 books written by women, a unique resource that allows readers the joy of discovering new authors as well as revisiting familiar favorites. Organized by such themes as Art, Choices, Families, Growing Old, Growing Up, Places and Homes, Power, and Work, this reference book presents classic and contemporary works, from Lady Nijo’s thirteenth-century diaries to books by authors including Toni Morrison, Alice Hoffman, Nadine Gordimer, and Isabel Allende. With annotated entries that capture the flavor of each book and seven cross-referenced indexes, 500 Great Books by Women is a one-of-a-kind guide for all readers and book lovers that celebrates and recommends some of the very best writing by women.

 

7. The Book of Lost Books by Stuart Kelly 329275
In an age when deleted scenes from Adam Sandler movies are saved, it’s sobering to realize that some of the world’s greatest prose and poetry has gone missing. This witty, wry, and unique new book rectifies that wrong. Part detective story, part history lesson, part exposé, The Book of Lost Books is the first guide to literature’s what-ifs and never-weres.  In compulsively readable fashion, Stuart Kelly reveals details about tantalizing vanished works by the famous, the acclaimed, and the influential, from the time of cave drawings to the late twentieth century. Here are the true stories behind stories, poems, and plays that now exist only in imagination.

 

8. Slightly Chipped: Footnotes in Booklore by Lawrence Goldstone
More than a sequel, Slightly Chipped: Footnotes in Booklore is a companion piece for Used and Rare. A delight for the general reader and book collector alike, it details the Goldstones’ further explorations into the curious world of book collecting. In Slightly Chipped, they get hooked on the correspondence and couplings of Bloomsbury; they track down Bram Stoker’s earliest notes for Dracula; and they are introduced to hyper-moderns. Slightly Chipped is filled with all of the anecdotes and esoterica about the world of book collecting that charmed readers of Used and Rare.

 

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The Book Trail: From the Library to Hollywood

I am beginning this Book Trail with a book by my favourite living author, Ali Smith’s Public Library and Other Stories.  I did try to begin with her 2016 release Autumn, but Goodreads had no recommended fiction to recommend at the time of creating this post.

As always, seven fascinating tomes will follow, all found on consequent ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ pages on Goodreads.  Please let me know if you’ve read any of these, and if you’ve created any of your own Book Trails, I’d love to see them.

1. Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith 9780241974599
A richly inventive new collection of stories from Ali Smith.  Why are books so very powerful?  What do the books we’ve read over our lives – our own personal libraries – make of us?  What does the unravelling of our tradition of public libraries, so hard-won but now in jeopardy, say about us?  The stories in Ali Smith’s new collection are about what we do with books and what they do with us: how they travel with us; how they shock us, change us, challenge us, banish time while making us older, wiser and ageless all at once; how they remind us to pay attention to the world we make.  Public libraries are places of joy, freedom, community and discovery – and right now they are under threat from funding cuts and widespread closures across the UK and further afield. With this brilliantly inventive collection, Ali Smith joins the campaign to save our public libraries and celebrate their true place in our culture and history.

 

75743182. The New York Stories by Elizabeth Hardwick
Elizabeth Hardwick was one of America’s great postwar women of letters, celebrated as a novelist and as an essayist. Until now, however, her slim but remarkable achievement as a writer of short stories has remained largely hidden, with her work tucked away in the pages of the periodicals—such as Partisan Review, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books—in which it originally appeared. This first collection of Hardwick’s short fiction reveals her brilliance as a stylist and as an observer of contemporary life. A young woman returns from New York to her childhood Kentucky home and discovers the world of difference within her. A girl’s boyfriend is not quite good enough, his “silvery eyes, light and cool, revealing nothing except pure possibility, like a coin in hand.” A magazine editor’s life falls strangely to pieces after she loses both her husband and her job. Individual lives and the life of New York, the setting or backdrop for most of these stories, are strikingly and memorably depicted in Hardwick’s beautiful and razor-sharp prose.

 

3. My Fantoms by Theophile Gautier
Romantic provocateur, flamboyant bohemian, precocious novelist, perfect poet—not to mention an inexhaustible journalist, critic, and man-about-town—Théophile Gautier is one of the major figures, and great characters, of French literature.  In My Fantoms Richard Holmes, the celebrated biographer of Shelley and Coleridge, has found a brilliantly effective new way to bring this great bu too-little-known writer into English. My Fantoms assembles seven stories spanning the whole of Gautier’s career into a unified work that captures the essence of his adventurous life and subtle art. From the erotic awakening of “The Adolescent” through “The Poet,” a piercing recollection of the mad genius Gérard de Nerval, the great friend of Gautier’s youth, My Fantoms celebrates the senses and illuminates the strange disguises of the spirit, while taking readers on a tour of modernity at its most mysterious. ”What ever would the Devil find to do in Paris?” Gautier wonders. “He would meet people just as diabolical as he, and find himself taken for some naïve provincial…”  Tapestries, statues, and corpses come to life; young men dream their way into ruin; and Gautier keeps his faith in the power of imagination: “No one is truly dead, until they are no longer loved.”

 

4. Witch Grass by Raymond Queneau 28371
Seated in a Paris café, a man glimpses another man, a shadowy figure hurrying for the train: Who is he? he wonders, How does he live? And instantly the shadow comes to life, precipitating a series of comic run-ins among a range of disreputable and heartwarming characters living on the sleazy outskirts of the city of lights. Witch Grass (previously titled The Bark Tree) is a philosophical farce, an epic comedy, a mesmerizing book about the daily grind that is an enchantment itself.

 

5. Moravagine by Blaise Cendrars
At once truly appalling and appallingly funny, Blaise Cendrars’s Moravagine bears comparison with Naked Lunch—except that it’s a lot more entertaining to read. Heir to an immense aristocratic fortune, mental and physical mutant Moravagine is a monster, a man in pursuit of a theorem that will justify his every desire. Released from a hospital for the criminally insane by his starstruck psychiatrist (the narrator of the book), who foresees a companionship in crime that will also be an unprecedented scientific collaboration, Moravagine travels from Moscow to San Antonio to deepest Amazonia, engaged in schemes and scams as, among other things, terrorist, speculator, gold prospector, and pilot. He also enjoys a busy sideline in rape and murder. At last, the two friends return to Europe—just in time for World War I, when “the whole world was doing a Moravagine.”

 

3959606. Mouchette by Georges Bernanos
One of the great mavericks of French literature, Georges Bernanos combined raw realism with a spiritual focus of visionary intensity. Mouchette stands with his celebrated Diary of a Country Priest as the perfection of his singular art.  “Nothing but a little savage” is how the village school-teacher describes fourteen-year-old Mouchette, and that view is echoed by every right-thinking local citizen. Mouchette herself doesn’t bother to contradict it; ragged, foulmouthed, dirt-poor, a born liar and loser, she knows herself to be, in the words of the story, “alone, completely alone, against everyone.” Hers is a tale of “tragic solitude” in which despair and salvation appear to be inextricably intertwined.   Bernanos uncompromising genius was a powerful inspiration to Flannery O’Connor, and Mouchette was the source of a celebrated movie by Robert Bresson.

 

7. Short Letter, Long Farewell by Peter Handke
Short Letter, Long Farewell is one the most inventive and exhilarating of the great Peter Handke’s novels. Full of seedy noir atmospherics and boasting an air of generalized delirium, the book starts by introducing us to a nameless young German who has just arrived in America, where he hopes to get over the collapse of his marriage. No sooner has he arrived, however, than he discovers that his ex-wife is pursuing him. He flees, she follows, and soon the couple is running circles around each other across the length of America—from Philadelphia to St. Louis to the Arizona desert, and from Portland, Oregon, to L.A. Is it love or vengeance that they want from each other? Everything’s spectacularly unclear in a book that is travelogue, suspense story, domestic comedy, and Western showdown, with a totally unexpected Hollywood twist at the end. Above all, Short Letter, Long Farewell is a love letter to America, its landscapes and popular culture, the invitation and the threat of its newness and wildness and emptiness, with the promise of a new life—or the corpse of an old one—lying just around the corner.

 

8. A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien 439731
The hero of Darcy O’Brien’s A Way of Life, Like Any Other is a child of Hollywood, and once his life was a glittery dream. His father starred in Westerns. His mother was a goddess of the silver screen. The family enjoyed the high life on their estate, Casa Fiesta. But his parents’ careers have crashed since then, and their marriage has broken up too.  Lovesick and sex-crazed, the mother sets out on an intercontinental quest for the right—or wrong—man, while her mild-mannered but manipulative former husband clings to his memories in California. And their teenage son? How he struggles both to keep faith with his family and to get by himself, and what in the end he must do to break free, makes for a classic coming-of-age story—a novel that combines keen insight and devastating wit to hilarious and heartbreaking effect.

 

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The Book Trail: Albert Nobbs to The Pastor’s Wife

Another Book Trail is upon us.  This begins with an underrated novella which I read back in August and very much enjoyed, and takes us through a wealth of fascinating Virago-esque books.

1. Albert Nobbs by George Moore
‘Long out of print, George Moore’s classic novella returns just in time for the major motion picture starring Glenn Close as a woman disguised as a man in nineteenth-century Ireland.Set in a posh hotel in nineteenth-century Dublin, Albert Nobbs is the story of an unassuming waiter hiding a shocking secret. Forced one night to share his bed with an out-of-town laborer, Albert Nobbs’ carefully constructed facade nearly implodes when the stranger disovers his true identity-that he’s actually a woman. Forced by this revelation to look himself in the mirror, Albert sets off in a desperate pursuit of companionship and love, a search he’s unwilling to abandon so long as he’s able to preserve his fragile persona at the same time. A tale of longing and romance, Albert Nobbs is a moving and startlingly frank gender-bending tale about the risks of being true to oneself.’

2. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault 9781844089529
‘Set in 1937, The Friendly Young Ladies is a romantic comedy of off-Bloomsbury bohemia. Sheltered, naïve, and just eighteen, Elsie leaves the stifling environment of her parents’ home in Cornwall to seek out her sister, Leo, who had run away nine years earlier. She finds Leo sharing a houseboat, and a bed, with the beautiful, fair-haired Helen. While Elsie’s arrival seems innocent enough, it is the first of a series of events that will turn Helen and Leo’s contented life inside out. Soon a randy young doctor is chasing after all three women at once, a neighborly friendship begins to show an erotic tinge, and long-quiet ghosts from Leo’s past begin to surface. Before long, no one is sure just who feels what for whom.’

3. Olivia by Dorothy Strachey
‘Considered one of the most subtle and beautifully written lesbian novels of the century, this 1949 classic returns to print in a Cleis Press edition. Dorothy Strachey’s classic Olivia captures the awakening passions of an English adolescent sent away for a year to a small finishing school outside Paris. The innocent but watchful Olivia develops an infatuation for her headmistress, Mlle. Julie, and through this screen of love observes the tense romance between Mlle. Julie and the other head of the school, Mlle. Cara, in its final months.’

97808606834074. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay
‘Banished by her mother to England, Barbara is thrown into the ordered formality of English life. Confused and unhappy, she discovers the wrecked and flowering wastes around St Paul’s, where she finds an echo of the wilderness of Provence and is forced to confront the wilderness within herself.’

5. The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner
‘In memory of the wife who had once dishonored and always despised him, Brian de Retteville founded a 12th-century convent in Norfolk. Two centuries later, the Benedictine community is well established there and, as befits a convent whose origin had such ironic beginnings, the inhabitants are prey to the ambitions, squabbles, jealousies, and pleasures of less spiritual environments. An outbreak of the Black Death, the collapse of the convent spire, the Bishop’s visitation, and a nun’s disappearance are interwoven with the everyday life of the nuns, novices, and prioresses in this marvelous imagined history of a 14th-century nunnery.’

6. The Lost Traveller by Antonia White 9781844083695
‘When Clara returns home from the convent of her childhood to begin life at a local girls’ school, she is at a loss: although she has comparative freedom, she misses the discipline the nuns imposed and worries about keeping her faith in a secular world. Against the background of the First World War, Clara experiences the confusions of adolescence – its promise, its threat of change. She longs for love, yet fears it, and wonders what the future will hold. Then tragedy strikes and her childhood haltingly comes to an end as she realises that neither parents nor her faith can help her.’

7. Cousin Rosamund by Rebecca West
‘Rich in period detail, lyrical in its evocation of the Thames, a novel that reveals both the problems of marriage and the ecstasies of sexual love’

97818440828038. The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim
‘Ingeborg Bullivant decides spontaneously to join a tour to Lucerne-and returns engaged. Yet her new life as a rural Prussian pastor’s wife restricts her as much as her old; and when the dashing artist Ingram appears, musing about wondrous Italy, wanderlust tempts her a second time. Von Arnim’s accomplished and comic novel is based on her own first marriage and life in provincial Germany at the turn of the century.’

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