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Books About Bulgaria

My boyfriend took me on a surprise birthday trip to Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital city, at the end of May.  We had the most excellent time, but I could not help think that I have hardly read any literature set within the country.  I am aiming to remedy that, and have chosen ten Bulgarian books (those either written by Bulgarian authors, or set within the country) to feed into my reading as and when I can find them.  I have copied their blurbs, and will ask of you two questions; firstly, which of them have you read, and secondly, which is your favourite book set in Bulgaria

110762441. East of the West by Miroslav Penkov
‘A brilliant debut from a rising talent praised by Salman Rushdie, among others.  A grandson tries to buy the corpse of Lenin on eBay for his Communist grandfather. A failed wunderkind steals a golden cross from an orthodox church. A boy meets his cousin (the love of his life) once every five years in the waters of the river that divides their village into East and West. These are some of the strange, unexpectedly moving events in talented newcomer Miroslav Penkov’s vision of his home country, Bulgaria, and they are the stories that make up his extraordinary debut collection.  In East of the West Penkov writes with great empathy about 800 years of tumult in troubled Eastern Europe; his characters mourn the way things were and long for things that will never be. But even as the characters wrestle with the weight of history, the debt to family, and the pangs of exile, the stories themselves are light and deft, animated by Penkov’s unmatched eye for the absurd. In 2008, Salman Rushdie chose Penkov’s story “Buying Lenin” (which appears in this collection) for that year’s Best American Short Stories, citing its heart and humour. East of the West reveals the full realization of the brilliant potential that Rushdie recognized.’

 

2. Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria by Kapka Kassabova
Kassabova was born in Sofia, Bulgaria and grew up under the drab, muddy, grey mantle of one of communism’s most mindlessly authoritarian regimes. Escaping with her family as soon as possible after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, she lived in Britain, New Zealand, and Argentina, and several other places. But when Bulgaria was formally inducted to the European Union she decided it was time to return to the home she had spent most of her life trying to escape. What she found was a country languishing under the strain of transition. This two-part memoir of Kapka’s childhood and return explains life on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

 

3. Natural Novel by Georgi Gospodinov 599370
Gospodinov flits and buzzes among various subjects — from graffiti in public toilets to the movies of Quentin Tarantino — in this tale of a young Bulgarian writer who decides to create his own version of a “natural novel” assembled from the bits and pieces of everyday life. At its center is a poignant story about the narrator’s divorce and the fact that he isn’t “the author” of his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s pregnancy. Maybe he’s suffering from attention deficit disorder; maybe he’s just stuck with a skewed if stoic appreciation of life’s messy flux. Whatever the cause, his monologue turns into a quirky, compulsively readable book that deftly hints at the emptiness and sadness at its core.

 

4. The Elusive Mrs Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman
While waiting for a view of her night-blooming cereus, the mild-seeming Mrs. Pollifax received urgent orders for a daring mission to aid an escape. Soon, the unlikely-looking international spy was sporting a beautiful new hat that hid eight forged passports….

 

81846255. Solo by Rana Dasgupta
With an imaginative audacity and lyrical brilliance that puts him in the company of David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon, Rana Dasgupta paints a portrait of a century though the story of a hundred-year-old blind Bulgarian man in a first novel that announces the arrival of an exhilarating new voice in fiction.  In the first movement of Solo we meet Ulrich, the son of a railroad engineer, who has two great passions: the violin and chemistry. Denied the first by his father, he leaves for the Berlin of Einstein and Fritz Haber to study the latter. His studies are cut short when his father’s fortune evaporates, and he must return to Sofia to look after his parents. He never leaves Bulgaria again. Except in his daydreams—and it is those dreams we enter in the volatile second half of the book. In a radical leap from past to present, from life lived to life imagined, Dasgupta follows Ulrich’s fantasy children, born of communism but making their way into a post-communist world of celebrity and violence.  Intertwining science and heartbreak, the old world and the new, the real and imagined, Solo is a virtuoso work.

 

6. Night Soldiers by Alan Furst
Bulgaria, 1934. A young man is murdered by the local fascists. His brother, Khristo Stoianev, is recruited into the NKVD, the Soviet secret intelligence service, and sent to Spain to serve in its civil war. Warned that he is about to become a victim of Stalin’s purges, Khristo flees to Paris. Night Soldiers masterfully re-creates the European world of 1934–45: the struggle between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia for Eastern Europe, the last desperate gaiety of the beau monde in 1937 Paris, and guerrilla operations with the French underground in 1944. Night Soldiers is a scrupulously researched panoramic novel, a work on a grand scale.

 

7. The Making of June by Annie Ward 1536476
At first, June appears to be the ideal California girl-blond hair, blue eyes, a production assistant at a film company, and married to a hot property about to get his doctorate-but she abandons her home and job to follow her husband to Bulgaria. Within a month of their arrival, June turns thirty and her husband leaves her for a young local girl. As difficult as it is for her to be without him and virtually friendless in a country on the verge of civil war, June doesn’t run home. She drinks too much, falls into the arms of a Mafia kingpin, gets caught up in the revolution, and little by little revels in her new vision of the world outside the American periscope. She survives and learns that loss can be an opportunity and that loneliness gives a person time to change her life.  More than just a compelling story, The Making of June offers an authentic portrait of the Eastern European political landscape by an author who lived in Bulgaria for several years.

 

8. Wunderkind by Nikolai Grozni
Life in Sofia, Bulgaria, in the late 1980s is bleak and controlled. The oppressive Communist regime bears down on all aspects of people’s lives much like the granite sky overhead. In the crumbling old building that hosts the Sofia Music School for the Gifted, inflexible and unsentimental apparatchiks drill the students like soldiers—as if the music they are teaching did not have the power to set these young souls on fire.   Fifteen-year-old Konstantin is a brash, brilliant pianist of exceptional sensitivity, struggling toward adulthood in a society where honest expression often comes at a terrible cost. Confined to the Music School for most of each day and a good part of the night, Konstantin exults in his small rebellions—smoking, drinking, and mocking Party pomp and cant at every opportunity. Intelligent and arrogant, funny and despairing, compassionate and cruel, he is driven simultaneously by a desire to be the best and an almost irresistible urge to fail. His isolation, buttressed by the grim conventions of a loveless society, prevents him from getting close to the mercurial violin virtuoso Irina, but also from understanding himself.

 

136683209. A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov
After deciding to take a semester off their studies to think about future plans, long-time friends Maya, Sirma, and Spartacus decide to hitchhike to the sea. Boril Krustev, former rock star and middle-aged widower who is driving aimlessly to outrun his grief, picks them up and accompanies them on their journey. It doesn’t take them long to figure out they’re connected to each other by more than their need to travel—specifically through Boril’s daughter, whose actions damaged each of the characters in this novel.

 

10. And Other Stories by Georgi Gospodinov
Wildly imaginative and endlessly entertaining, Georgi Gospodinov’s short stories provide a hint of the narrative complexity of Borges and a whiff of the gritty realism of pre- and post-Communist life in Eastern Europe. These stories within stories and contemporary fables-whether a tongue-in-cheek crime story or the Christmas tale of a pig, a language game leading to an unexpected epiphany or an inward-looking tale built on the complexity of a puzzle box-come together in unique and surprising ways, offering readers a kaleidoscopic experience from one of Bulgaria’s most critically acclaimed authors.

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Reading the World: ‘The Longest Night’ by Otto de Kat **

I was lucky enough to travel to beautiful Amsterdam in February, and whilst Otto de Kat’s The Longest Night is set largely in its sister city, Rotterdam, I felt that it would be a good choice to read before I set off.  Published in the Netherlands in 2015, it has been translated into English by Laura Watkinson.  I had heard of de Kat before selecting this tome, but hadn’t read any of his work before.

The Longest Night begins in an intriguing manner, which makes one want to read on: ‘Emma knew exactly what day it was, and what time, and what was going to happen.  Her questions were a smoke screen, she wanted the nurse to think she was already quite far gone’.  Our protagonist is Emma Verweij, is now ninety-six, and is suffering from memory problems.  Whilst she is unable to remember anything which has happened to her recently, her past memories are vivid to her, and thus, a structure unfolds in which we travel back with her – first to Berlin, and then to the Netherlands – through a series of fragmented chapters.  Interestingly, whilst she feels alive only when searching the recesses of her mind for past memories, Emma is aware that she is reaching the end of her mortality.  In this sense, the retrospective positioning of the omniscient narrator works well; we really get an idea of how muddled her mind is as the novel goes on: ‘Her life had shattered into fragments, crystal clear, light and dark, an endless flow.  Time turned upside down, and inside out.’ 9780857056085

Essentially, then, we can see The Longest Night as a reflection of Emma’s life, and how she lived it.  De Kat has handled the sense of historical significance very well indeed; the past comes to life through a series of descriptions of place and weather.  During the Second World War, Emma’s husband, Carl, who works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is arrested, and she has no option but to flee to safety.  She ends up in the Netherlands.  This is de Kat’s starting point; Emma then goes forward in regard to her memories, and those whom she conjures up from the annals of her past existence are vivid.  There is, however, little chronological pattern between the memories.  This technique serves to make Emma’s story more believable; we as readers are encountering the past as she remembers it.

Watkinson’s translation has been deftly worked; the prose is fluid and as vivid as I imagine the original is.  De Kat’s approach is relatively simple, but it has been well executed.  Despite all of the positives, what really let the book down as far as I am concerned is the dialogue.  Only the minority of conversational patterns appeared as though they could realistically be uttered; for the most part, sentences were awkward and almost robotic.  I’m loath to believe that this is a translation issue.  Regardless, it did put me off rather, and I found myself enjoying the story less as it went on.  In terms of the plot too, there are definite lulls as one reaches the Netherlands alongside Emma.

There are some profound, and almost quite moving, musings upon life and death within The Longest Night, but the loss of momentum really made the whole suffer.  When I began, I was fully expecting to give the book a four-star rating.  As I neared the quarter point, however, my mind changed; I became far less interested in both story and characters, and I found myself even disliking some of the chapters.  There was an odd and rather jarring repetition to it at times too.  I have opted for a three star review, as the beginning was so engaging; there sadly just wasn’t much of the consistency which I was expecting of it, and I will thus be less keen to pick up another of de Kat’s novels in future.

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‘The Virago Book of Women Travellers’, edited by Mary Morris and Larry O’Connor ****

9781860492129‘Some of the extraordinary women whose writings are including in this collection are observers of the world in which they wander; their prose rich in description, remarkable in detail. Mary McCarthy conveys the vitality of Florence while Willa Cather’s essay on Lavandou foreshadows her descriptions of the French countryside in later novels. Others are more active participants in the culture they are visiting, such as Leila Philip, as she harvests rice with chiding Japanese women, or Emily Carr, as she wins the respect and trust of the female chieftain of an Indian village in Northern Canada. Whether it is curiosity about the world, a thirst for adventure or escape from personal tragedy, all of these women are united in that they approached their journeys with wit, intelligence, compassion and empathy for the lives of those they encountered along the way. Features writing from Gertrude Bell, Edith Wharton, Isabella Bird, Kate O’Brien, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and many others.’

I am an enormous fan of Virago, as anyone who knows even a little of my reading habits can probably discern.  To my delight, I spotted The Virago Book of Women Travellers online at a ridiculously low price, and decided to treat myself (another of my favourite things in life is travelling, after all!).  I had originally intended to read it over the Christmas holidays, but true to form at such busy times, I did not really get a chance to do so.  I thus picked it up in February, just before a wonderful trip to The Netherlands.

The selection of extracts here is extensive and varied, and encompasses an incredible scope of geographical locations.  Societally and historically it is most interesting, and some extracts – Beryl Markham’s about elephant hunting, for instance – are very of their time (thankfully so, in this case!).  Some of my favourite authors were collected here – Vita Sackville-West, and Rebecca West, as well as Rose Macaulay.  As ever with such collections, there were several entries which I did not quite enjoy as much as the rest, but each was undoubtedly fascinating in its own way.  I very much enjoyed the ‘can do’ attitude which every single one of the writers had, regardless of circumstance or destination, and very much liked the way in which this singular thread bound all of them together.  The chronological ordering made for a splendid reading experience.

The Virago Book of Women Travellers is a marvellous volume in which to dip here and there, to reconnect with old favourites, and to discover new writers to find, and new women to admire.  I adore the idea of thematic travelogues, and there is something really rather special and inspiring about this one.  It has brought some marvellous women, both in terms of personality and writing ablity, to my attention, and I can only conclude this review by saying that it is a joy for any women traveller to read.

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The Book Trail: From Hours to Ours

I reread Michael Cunningham’s phenomenal novel, The Hours, back in February, and thought it would be a good place to start for a Book Trail.  As ever, all of these books have been found via Goodreads’ ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature.

1. The Hours by Michael Cunningham 3076525
Passionate, profound, and deeply moving, “The Hours” is the story of three women: Clarissa Vaughan, who one New York morning goes about planning a party in honor of a beloved friend; Laura Brown, who in a 1950s Los Angeles suburb slowly begins to feel the constraints of a perfect family and home; and Virginia Woolf, recuperating with her husband in a London suburb, and beginning to write “Mrs. Dalloway.” By the end of the novel, the stories have intertwined, and finally come together in an act of subtle and haunting grace, demonstrating Michael Cunnningham’s deep empathy for his characters as well as the extraordinary resonance of his prose.

 

8059692. The Collected Stories by Jean Stafford
These Pulitzer Prize-winning stories represent the major short works of fiction by one of the most distinctively American stylists of her day. Jean Stafford communicates the small details of loneliness and connection, the search for freedom and the desire to belong, that not only illuminate whole lives but also convey with an elegant economy of words the sense of the place and time in which her protagonists find themselves. This volume also includes the acclaimed story “An Influx of Poets,” which has never before appeared in book form.

 

3. Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (another of my favourites!) 27908523
Brilliant, evocative, poetic, savage, this Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel (1934) written when Josephine Winslow Johnson was only 24, depicts a white, middle-class urban family that is turned into dirt-poor farmers by the Depression and the great drought of the thirties. The novel moves through a single year and, at the same time, a decade of years, from the spring arrival of the family at their mortgaged farm to the winter 10 years later, when the ravages of drought, fire, and personal anguish have led to the deaths of two of the five. Like Ethan Frome, the relatively brief, intense story evokes the torment possible among people isolated and driven by strong feelings of love and hate that, unexpressed, lead inevitably to doom. Reviewers in the thirties praised the novel, calling its prose “profoundly moving music,” expressing incredulity “that this mature style and this mature point of view are those of a young women in her twenties,” comparing the book to “the luminous work of Willa Cather,” and, with prescience, suggesting that it “has that rare quality of timelessness which is the mark of first-rate fiction.”

 

2669784. The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1965, The Keepers of the House is Shirley Ann Grau’s masterwork, a many-layered indictment of racism and rage that is as terrifying as it is wise.  Entrenched on the same land since the early 1800s, the Howlands have, for seven generations, been pillars of their Southern community. Extraordinary family lore has been passed down to Abigail Howland, but not all of it. When shocking facts come to light about her late grandfather William’s relationship with Margaret Carmichael, a black housekeeper, the community is outraged, and quickly gathers to vent its fury on Abigail. Alone in the house the Howlands built, she is at once shaken by those who have betrayed her, and determined to punish the town that has persecuted her and her kin.   Morally intricate, graceful and suspenseful, The Keepers of the House has become a modern classic.

 

5. A Fable by William Faulkner 2010541
This novel won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1955. An allegorical story of World War I, set in the trenches in France and dealing ostensibly with a mutiny in a French regiment, it was originally considered a sharp departure for Faulkner. Recently it has come to be recognized as one of his major works and an essential part of the Faulkner oeuvre. Faulkner himself fought in the war, and his descriptions of it “rise to magnificence,” according to The New York Times, and include, in Malcolm Cowley’s words, “some of the most powerful scenes he ever conceived.”

 

2213276. Early Autumn by Louis Bromfield
Bromfield takes a close look at the Pentlands- a fictional rich family in New England- exposing the hypocrisy and ignorance behind their luxurious facade. Bromfield’s eloquence when describing both his characters and their surroundings is breathtaking, and his accuracy in describing the characters’ complicated emotions makes it apparent that he knows human nature very well. A fascinating study on the struggle of one woman to escape the stifling influence of her husband and in-laws.

 

7. Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington 2634040
Alice Adams, the daughter of middle-class parents, wants desperately to belong with the people of “high society” who live in her town. Ultimately, her ambitions are tempered by the realities of her situation, which she learns to accept with grace and style. Alice’s resiliency of spirit makes her one of Booth Tarkington’s most compelling characters. A fascinating story that won the Pulitzer Prize. This publication from Boomer Books is specially designed and typeset for comfortable reading.

 

8197098. One of Ours by Willa Cather
One of Ours is Willa Cather’s 1923 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the making of an American soldier. Claude Wheeler, the sensitive but aspiring protagonist, has ready access to his family’s fortune but refuses to settle for it. Alienated from his uncaring father and pious mother, and rejected by a wife whose only love is missionary work, Claude is an idealist without ideals to cling to. Only when his country enters the Great War does he find the meaning of his life.

 

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

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Showcasing the TBR

As I’m sure a few of you will remember, I ran a project during 2016 to cull my TBR list to just one or two tomes.  I managed it alongside reads for my Master’s course, but the number of unread books on my shelves has crept up steadily since, and is now consistently at around the fifty mark (oops…).  I thought that I would take this opportunity to showcase ten of my unread tomes which I am most looking forward to.

1. Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell 18176595
The decision to invite his Southern relatives to stay proves a fateful one for Austin King. By the time they leave, his reputation and his marriage have suffered irreparable damage.  Against the perfectly-drawn background of small-town Illinois at the turn of the twentieth century, Maxwell uncovers the seeds of potential tragedy at the heart of a happily-established family.

 

2. Madame Solario by Gladys Huntington
A novel of period and place, of mood and manners, tells its story in three parts:- the first and third, through Bernard Middleton, a young Englishman on tour, which sees the beginning and the end of Madame Solario’s stay at Cadenabbia, on Lake Como; and the second through the unrelenting questioning of Madame Solario by her brother, Eugene Harden.   It is 1906 and Cadenabbia’s visitors are ending the summer. Their many nationalities, titles, money, and idle chatter make a new world for Bernard, while Count Kavonski’s pursuit of Madame Solario gives him a chance to protect the woman who has infatuated him. The antagonism between the two is dissolved when Eugene appears, and envelops Madame in his plans for an opportunist alliance with wealth.

 

12552113. The Harsh Voice by Rebecca West
In these four short novels set in America, England and Paris, Rebecca West explores the lives and relationships of rich women and men who are ruled by ‘the harsh voice we hear when money talks, or hate‘. There is Josie, a flower of American girlhood with boundless ambition for wealth. There is Etienne de Sefavenac, a dilettante French aristocrat whose courtly stratagems are intended to ensnare Nancy Sarle – a plain American businesswoman. There is Alice Pemberton, a sensible Englishwoman – the very salt of the earth – in her own estimation. And lastly there is Sam Hartley, an American businessman who has fought his way to riches with his wife at his side, but whose life is now haunted by visions of beautiful young women.

 

4. Selected Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner
In the selection of her stories from 1932 to 1977, the author casts a kind but piercing eye on human quirks and passions, as well as chronicling the events of Elfland. A brother and sister, shattered by the horrors of war, find solace in a tender, incestuous ‘marriage’. A wife, bored and rancorous, stitches a widow’s quilt. An old level-crossing keeper watches over his speechless, disfigured niece. In this magnificent selection of her stories, ranging from 1932 to 1977, Sylvia Townsend Warner casts a compassionate but piercing eye on the oddities of love. There’s the joyously farcical story of the mouse and the four-poster bed, the strange fugue of a sad woman and her doppelganger cat, the composer unexpectedly spending an afternoon ‘living for others’. And finally, there’s the skein of stories reporting on the events of Elfland, precise, witty and strange. Readers who know this author’s work will be delighted, while newcomers will find the perfect introduction to a writer of incomparable style and substance.

 

5. Strait is the Gate by Andre Gide 716381
A delicate boy growing up in Paris, Jerome Palissier spends many summers at his uncle’s house in the Normandy countryside, where the whole world seems ‘steeped in azure’. There he falls deeply in love with his cousin Alissa and she with him. But gradually Alissa becomes convinced that Jerome’s love for her is endangering his soul. In the interests of his salvation, she decides to suppress everything that is beautiful in herself – in both mind and body.

 

6. Therese by Francois Mauriac
From the moment she walks from court having been charged with attempting to poison her husband, to her banishment, escape to Paris, and final years of solitude and waiting, the life of Thérèse Desqueyroux is passionate and tortured. The victim of a hostile fate, Thérèse, as Mauriac said of her ‘belongs to that class of human beings … for whom night can end only when life itself ends. All that is asked of them is that they should not resign themselves to night’s darkness.’ Thérèse’s moving and powerful story affirms the vitality of the human spirit, making her an unforgettable heroine.

 

12199497. The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng
Set in Penang, 1939, this book presents a story of betrayal, barbaric cruelty, steadfast courage and enduring love.  The recipient of extraordinary acclaim from critics and the bookselling community, Tan Twan Eng’s debut novel casts a powerful spell. Set during the tumult of World War II, on the lush Malayan island of Penang, The Gift of Rain tells a riveting and poignant tale about a young man caught in the tangle of wartime loyalties and deceits.

 

8. The Innocent Mrs Duff and The Blank Wall by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (omnibus edition)
Two novels of suspense in one volume. Long out of print, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding wrote popular suspense novels in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Raymond Chandler was among her fans. The Innocent Mrs. Duff is from 1946, The Blank Wall from 1947.

 

9. A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse 7998632
Ivan, a one-time world traveler, and Francesca, a ravishing Italian heiress, are the owners of a bookstore that is anything but ordinary. Rebelling against the business of bestsellers and in search of an ideal place where their literary dreams can come true, Ivan and Francesca open a store where the passion for literature is given free reign. Tucked away in a corner of Paris, the store offers its clientele a selection of literary masterpieces chosen by a top-secret committee of likeminded literary connoisseurs. To their amazement, after only a few months, the little dream store proves a success. And that is precisely when their troubles begin. At first, both owners shrug off the anonymous threats that come their way and the venomous comments concerning their store circulating on the Internet, but when three members of the supposedly secret committee are attacked, they decide to call the police. One by one, the pieces of this puzzle fall ominously into place, as it becomes increasingly evident that Ivan and Francesca’s dreams will be answered with pettiness, envy and violence.

 

10. The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule by Joanna Kavenna
A legend, a land once seen and then lost forever, Thule was a place beyond the edge of the maps, a mystery for thousands of years. And to the Nazis, Thule was an icy Eden, birthplace of Nordic “purity.” In this exquisitely written narrative, Joanna Kavenna wanders in search of Thule, to Shetland, Iceland, Norway, Estonia, Greenland, and Svalbard, unearthing the philosophers, poets, and explorers who claimed Thule for themselves, from Richard Francis Burton to Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen. Marked by breathtaking snowscapes, haunting literature, and the cold specter of past tragedies, this is a wondrous blend of travel writing and detective work that is impossible to set down.

 

If you’re interested, you can see my working TBR, which consists of physical books and those which I have purchased on my Kindle, on Goodreads.

How many books are on your TBR?  Which are you most looking forward to reading?

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Really Underrated Books (Part One)

My Really Underrated Books week which ran in November last year proved to be quite popular, and I received a lot of kind comments about how much you enjoyed the series.  What better, then, to champion fifty other underrated books, which look of interest, and are certainly worthy of one seeking them out?  Each day this week, I will be finding ten interesting books which have fewer than five hundred ratings on Goodreads, bringing them to your attention, and hopefully to a wider readership.

1. They Were Counted (The Transylvania Trilogy, #1) by Miklos Banffy 9781910050903
Painting an unrivalled portrait of the vanished world of pre-1914 Hungary, this story is told through the eyes of two young Transylvanian cousins, Count Balint Abády and Count László Gyeroffy. Shooting parties in great country houses, turbulent scenes in parliament, and the luxury of life in Budapest provide the backdrop for this gripping, prescient novel, forming a chilling indictment of upper-class frivolity and political folly, in which good manners cloak indifference and brutality. Abády becomes aware of the plight of a group of Romanian mountain peasants and champions their cause, while Gyeroffy dissipates his resources at the gaming tables, mirroring the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire itself.’

 

2. The Book of Hrabal by Peter Esterhazy
An elegant homage to the great Czech storyteller Bohumil Hrabal, The Book of Hrabal is also a glowing paean to blues music, saxophones, and the mixed blessings of domestic life. It is also a farewell to the years of communism in Eastern Europe. And it is a treatise on the ongoing relationship between God and humankind as reflected in the lives of a Hungarian writer and his wife. The novel centers on Anna, the blues-singing housewife and mother of three (soon to be four) who suffers through her husband’s often impossible writing experiments. She addresses her reminiscences and reflections to Hrabal, his current subject. Her thoughts swing from domestic matters to the injustices suffered by her family during the Stalinist 1950s, the police harassment in subsequent years, and the many strains on her marriage. Her husband, in turn, is so hopelessly entangled in his project celebrating Hrabal that he is incapable of actually writing it. The story develops into a literary love triangle, as Hrabal becomes Anna’s confidant and an invisible participant in the marriage. Meanwhile two angels shadow the house, disguised as secret policemen and speaking with God via walkie-talkie in a surprising blend of celestial and urban slang. Their mission: to prevent Anna from aborting her fourth child. When this outcome is in doubt, God himself (aka Bruno) enters the scene; he chats with Hrabal, takes saxophone lessons from an irreverent Charlie Parker, and plays the sax for Anna to try to dissuade her from ending the pregnancy. Unfortunately the Lord is tone deaf, and his love for jazz and blues is matched only by his utter lack of musical talent. A brilliant stylist, Esterhazy creates a complex and playful novel through deft manipulation of language, tone, and perspective.

 

97818739823033. The Opal and Other Stories by Gustav Meyrink
Meyrink’s short stories epitomised the non-plus-ultra of all modern writing. Their magnificent colour, their spine-chilling and bizarre inventiveness, their aggression, their succinctness of style, their overwhelming originality of ideas, which is so evident in every sentence and phrase that there seems to be no lacunae; all this captivated me, and seemed to me to provide the proper antidote to all the adjectival prose and shallow, false romanticism of the immediate preceding generation.

 

4. Goose of Hermogenes by Ithell Colquhoun
The heroine of this story (described only as “I”) is compelled to visit a mysterious uncle who turns out to be a black magician who lords over a kind of Prospero’s Island that exists out of time and space. Startled by his bizarre behavior and odd nocturnal movements, she eventually learns that he is searching for the philosopher’s stone. When his sinister attentions fall upon the priceless jewel heirloom in her possession, bewilderment turns into stark terror and she realizes she must find a way off the island. An esoteric dreamworld fantasy composed of uncorrelated scenes and imagery mostly derived from medieval occult sources, Goose of Hermogenes might be described as a gothic novel, an occult picaresque, or a surrealist fantasy. However one wants to approach this obscure tale, it remains today as vividly unforgettable and disturbing as when it was first published by Peter Owen in 1961.

 

5. The Devastating Boys by Elizabeth Taylor 9780860683605
Here is the collection of Elizabeth Taylor’s greatest short stories. Varied in their settings and characters, they are nevertheless the quintessence of all that is most distinguished, and witty, in her art. We meet women, children and men, often ostensibly ordinary, who follow their paths of ruthlessness and ambition, each in pursuit of happiness, love, or power – each a classic creation.

 

6. The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism by Nicola Humble
“Middlebrow” has always been a dirty word, used disparagingly since its coinage in the mid-1920s for the sort of literature thought to be too easy, insular and smug. Aiming to rehabilitate the feminine middlebrow, Nicola Humble argues that the novels of writers such as Rosamund Lehmann, Elizabeth Taylor, Stella Gibbons, Nancy Mitford, played a powerful role in establishing and consolidating, but also in resisting, new class and gender identities in this period of volatile change for both women and the middle classes.

 

97818784487437. Trutor & the Balloonist by Debbie Lee Wesselmann
Trutor and the Balloonist has it all: mystery, Victorian riddles, contemporary issues, art mirroring a most unusual life, eccentric and lovable characters, suspected and surprise villains, domestic strife, and conflicted romance. Michelle Trutor accepts the task of compiling the biography of deceased Caroline Wharton, sifting through shocking materials forbidden to the Balloonist and his family in the will, and guarded by an overly zealous attorney. Readers are invited into the sleuthing as Caroline’s riddles are revealed – as if she planned the visits with Michelle’s all along.

 

8. Bright Day by J.B. Priestley
The novel was written towards the end of World War II. J.B. Priestley disclaimed any autobiographical roots in the work, but it is nontheless resonent with his early youth and coincided with JBP’s recoil from the commercial film world. Bright Day was the only serious novel that he wrote in the first person.  Gregory Dawson, the novel’s hero, is a middle-aged film script writer who goes off to Cornwall to complete a script. At his hotel he spots Lord and Lady Harndean, and realizes that they are the Malcolm and Eleanor Nixey he knew when he worked as a clerk in a Bruddersford wool firm. They represent the beginning of the break-up of the bright day which had preceded the year 1914, and thus the story starts to unfold…

 

9. The Misses Mallett by E.H. Young the-misses-mallett-e-h-young1
She sat there, vividly conscious of herself, and sometimes she saw the whole room as a picture and she was part of it; sometimes she saw only those three whose lives, she felt, were practically over, for even Aunt Rose was comparatively old. She pitied them because their romance was past, while hers waited for her outside; she wondered at their happiness, their interest in their appearance, their pleasure in parties; but she felt most sorry for Aunt Rose, midway between what should have been the resignation of her stepsisters and the glowing anticipation of her niece.

 

10. The Tudor Wench by Elswyth Thane
A novel of the young Queen Elizabeth I, first published in 1932, subsequently a play in London. Beginning with six year old Elizabeth puzzled by Anne Boleyn’s life and death, rocky relationship with her father, King Henry VIII, and her own instinctive, evolving regal role. Four sections: child, maid, princess and woman. Imaginative early years of the Elizabethan force based on extensive historical research, actual letters and compelling writing.

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‘Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, 1840-1945’ – edited by Jeffrey L. Geller and Maxine Harris ****

Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, 1840-1945 has proved a difficult book to get hold of.  I eventually sourced an inter-library loan which came all the way to my University’s library from Cardiff.  Jeffrey L. Geller and Maxine Harris have presented one of the first books of its kind here, bringing together the voice of women who were incarcerated in American institutions against their will over a 105-year period, and giving them ‘the opportunity to speak for themselves’.  Twenty-six first person case studies have been included in all, offering a ‘rare privilege’ to the reader.  ‘As a whole,’ the editors write in their introduction, ‘these narratives offer a clear picture of women’s lives from both within and outside the asylums in which they lived.  Individually, they provide some of the most harrowing tales of the abuses of the psychiatric system’.44099

Women of the Asylum has been split into four separate, distinct sections to cover the rather vast historical period – 1840 to 1865, 1866 to 1890, 1891 to 1920, and 1921 to 1945 – which all loosely relate to particular periods in treatment, or important turning points within political discourse. Geller and Harris also discuss their decision to split the period up into smaller chunks due to shifting moral and social conditions in the United States.  They write that ‘the nineteenth-century women of the asylum are morally purposeful, philosophical, often religious.  Their frame of reference, and their use of language, are romantic – Christian and Victorian.  They write like abolitionists, transcendentalists, suffragists.  The twentieth-century women are keen observers of human nature and asylum abuse – but they have no universal frame of reference.  They face “madness” and institutional abuse alone, without God, ideology, or each other.’

The women focused upon here, some of which you will have heard of (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, for instance), and others who were publicly unknown, all ‘wanted to right the wrongs they saw being perpetuated by what they perceived to be autocratic families, domineering physicians, unfeeling attendants, and misguided lawmakers’ in one way or another.  Regardless of their social class, whilst trapped within the asylums, none of the women were ‘treated with any kindness, sympathy, or medical or spiritual expertise’.   Each account here was written once the woman in question had been handed her freedom once more, and many were later published as warnings to others about the horrors which the asylum held, or as a process of self-healing.  Some of the women took direct action afterwards, campaigning for change, and others faded into relative obscurity.

As one would expect, I’m sure, some incredibly shocking accounts are presented here; for instance, the way in which ‘any sign of economic independence or simple human pride in a woman could be used against her, both legally and psychiatrically.’  There was also the fear that an individual would be driven to become mad solely due to her incarceration, or that she would remain in an asylum indefinitely, with no hope of ever escaping.

Some incredibly interesting questions have been posed throughout – for instance, whether such firsthand accounts can be trusted due to the mental imbalance which their authors may be suffering from, or the possible delusional aspect of their condition.  Each of these women, regardless of her circumstance or the amount of time in which she was locked away – and the periods vary drastically, from two months per year as a ‘rest cure’ of sorts, to the horrific stretch of twenty-eight years, such as Adriana P. Brinckle had to face – has legitimacy; each has her own story to tell.

In Women of the Asylum, Geller and Harris have presented a far-reaching and well-researched account, which has been introduced in a wise and lucid manner by Phyllis Chesler.  The concluding message seems to be this: ‘Whether they were rebels, social misfits, visionaries or madwomen is left for the reader to decide’.  If you can get your hands on this important and invaluable piece of literary gold dust, I would urge you to read it.