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The Book Trail: From ‘The Lark’ to ‘Reuben Sachs’

I am using E. Nesbit’s quite charming novel, The Lark, which I recently reviewed on the blog, as my starting point for this edition of The Book Trail.  As ever, I am using the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to generate this list.  Do let me know which of these books you have read, and if you are interested in reading any of them!

 

1. The Lark by E. Nesbit (1922) 9781911579458
‘It’s 1919 and Jane and her cousin Lucilla leave school to find that their guardian has gambled away their money, leaving them with only a small cottage in the English countryside. In an attempt to earn their living, the orphaned cousins embark on a series of misadventures – cutting flowers from their front garden and selling them to passers-by, inviting paying guests who disappear without paying – all the while endeavouring to stave off the attentions of male admirers, in a bid to secure their independence.’

 

17769932. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes (1947)
‘It’s a summer’s day in 1946. The English village of Wealding is no longer troubled by distant sirens, yet the rustling coils of barbed wire are a reminder that something, some quality of life, has evaporated. Together again after years of separation, Laura and Stephen Marshall and their daughter Victoria are forced to manage without “those anonymous caps and aprons who lived out of sight and pulled the strings.” Their rambling garden refuses to be tamed, the house seems perceptibly to crumble. But alone on a hillside, as evening falls, Laura comes to see what it would have meant if the war had been lost, and looks to the future with a new hope and optimism. First published in 1947, this subtle, finely wrought novel presents a memorable portrait of the aftermath of war, its effect upon a marriage, and the gradual but significant change in the nature of English middle-class life.’

 

3. Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther by Elizabeth von Arnim (1907) 1140708
‘This enchanting novel tells the story of the love affair between Rose-Marie Schmidt and Roger Anstruther. A determined young woman of twenty-five, Rose-Marie is considered a spinster by the inhabitants of the small German town of Jena where she lives with her father, the Professor. To their homes comes Roger, an impoverished but well-born young Englishman who wishes to learn German: Rose-Marie and Roger fall in love. But the course of true love never did run smooth: distance, temperament and fortune divide them. We watch the ebb and flow of love between two very different people and see the witty and wonderful Rose-Marie get exactly what she wants.’

 

71337934. Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge (1935)
Even though she is a renowned painter Lady Kilmichael is diffident and sad. her remote, brilliant husband has no time for her and she feels she only exasperates her delightful, headstrong daughter. So, telling no one where she is going. she embarks on a painting trip to the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslavia – in the Thirties a remote and exotic place. There she takes under her wing Nicholas, a bitterly unhappy young man, forbidden by his family to pursue the painting he loves and which Grace recognises as being of rare quality. Their adventures and searching discussions lead to something much deeper than simple friendship…  This beautiful novel, gloriously evoking the countryside and people of Illyria, has been a favourite since its publication in 1935, both as a sensitive travel book and as [an] unusual and touching love story.’

 

5. Miss Mole by E.H. Young (1930) 1983763
‘When Miss Mole returns to Radstowe, she wins the affection of Ethel and of her nervous sister Ruth and transforms the life of the vicarage. This book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1930.’

 

29218749._sx318_6. Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple (1932)
‘Persephone Books’ bestselling author Dorothy Whipple’s third novel (1932) was the choice of the Book Society in the summer of that year. Hugh Walpole wrote: ‘To put it plainly, in Dorothy Whipple’s picture of a quite ordinary family before and after the war there is some of the best creation of living men and women that we have had for a number of years in the English novel. She is a novelist of true importance.”

 

7. Fidelity by Susan Glaspell (1915) 933516
‘Set in Iowa in 1900 and in 1913, this dramatic and deeply moral novel uses complex but subtle use of flashback to describe a girl named Ruth Holland, bored with her life at home, falling in love with a married man and running off with him; when she comes back more than a decade later we are shown how her actions have affected those around her. Ruth had taken another woman’s husband and as such ‘Freeport’ society thinks she is ‘a human being who selfishly – basely – took her own happiness, leaving misery for others. She outraged society as completely as a woman could outrage it… One who defies it – deceives it – must be shut out from it.’  But, like Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier in ‘The Awakening’ and Nora in ‘A Doll’s House’ Ruth has ‘a diffused longing for an enlarged experience… Her energies having been shut off from the way they had wanted to go, she was all the more zestful for new things from life…’ It is these that are explored in Fidelity.’

 

27022868. Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy (1888)
‘Oscar Wilde wrote of this novel, “Its directness, its uncompromising truths, its depth of feeling, and above all, its absence of any single superfluous word, make Reuben Sachs, in some sort, a classic.” Reuben Sachs, the story of an extended Anglo-Jewish family in London, focuses on the relationship between two cousins, Reuben Sachs and Judith Quixano, and the tensions between their Jewish identities and English society. The novel’s complex and sometimes satirical portrait of Anglo-Jewish life, which was in part a reaction to George Eliot’s romanticized view of Victorian Jews in Daniel Deronda, caused controversy on its first publication.’

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Ten Really Underrated Books

I love perusing Goodreads lists, and although I have made one or two about highly underrated books before, I thought I would pick out another ten titles from this list, entitled ‘Really, Really Underrated Books’.  Each of the books on this list, which is compiled of fiction and non-fiction, has less than 100 ratings.  I have chosen titles which have piqued my interest, and which I’d like to read soon.

 

27963181. 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.’

 

2. The Misses Mallett by E.H. Young 3875872
‘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.’

 

1067212._sx318_3. East of the Sun: The Epic Conquest and Tragic History of Siberia by Benson Bobrick
‘In sweep, color & grandeur, the conquest & settlement of Siberia compares with the winning of the American West. It’s the greatest pioneering story in history, uniquely combining the heroic colonization of an intractable virgin land, the ghastly dangers & high adventure of Arctic exploration, & the grimmest saga of penal servitude. 400 years of continual human striving chart its course, a drama of unremitting extremes & elemental confrontations, pitting man against nature, & man against man. East of the Sun, a work of panoramic scope, is the 1st complete account of this strange & terrible story. To most Westerners, Siberia is a vast & mysterious place. The richest resource area on the face of the earth, its land mass covers 5 million square miles-7.5% of the total land surface of the globe. From the 1st foray in 1581 across the Ural Mountains by a band of Cossack outlaws to the fall of Gorbachev, East of the Sun is history on a grand scale. With vivid immediacy, Bobrick describes the often brutal subjugation of Siberia’s aboriginal tribes & the cultures that were destroyed; the great 18th-century explorations that defined Siberia’s borders & Russia’s attempt to “extend” Siberia further with settlements in Alaska, California & Hawaii; & the transformation of Siberia into a penal colony for criminal & political exiles, an experiment more terrible than Australia’s Botany Bay. There’s the building of the stupendous Trans-Siberian Railway across 7 time zones; Siberia’s key role in the bloody aftermath of the October Revolution in 1917; & Stalin’s dreaded Gulag, which corrupted its very soil. Today, Siberia is the hope of Russia’s future, now that all her appended republic have broken away. Its story has never been more timely.’

 

4. Death in Leamington by David Smith 23499091
Death in Leamington is more than a crime story; it is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Set in the genteel Regency town of Royal Leamington Spa, the murder of an elderly foreign visitor sets off an intricate chain of events, surprising literary encounters and one too many unexplained and gruesome deaths. Inspector Hunter and his new assistant DC Penny Dore race to solve the murders, but as the body count mounts and each new lead evaporates; Hunter becomes more and more convinced that there are darker forces involved.  Death in Leamington will appeal both to those who enjoy solving a crime mystery and those with an interest in history, art and music. The story is a celebration of the literary and folk heritage of this elegant Warwickshire town, incorporating many of the characters from its history, and a few literary ghosts from its past, including quotations from works as diverse as The Faerie Queene, The Scarlett Letter, Alice in Wonderland and even Shakespeare’s Queen Mab puts in an appearance.’

 

10418555. Out of the Woodshed: A Portrait of Stella Gibbons by Reggie Oliver
‘Born into an Irish family in Hampstead where she lived for most of her life, Stella Gibbons is probably best remembered for her book Cold Comfort Farm. Written by her nephew, this biography of the novelist and poet draws on her personal papers including two unpublished novels.’

 

6. The Family Mashber by Der Nister 2376113
The Family Mashber is a protean work: a tale of a divided family and divided souls, a panoramic picture of an Eastern European town, a social satire, a kabbalistic allegory, an innovative fusion of modernist art and traditional storytelling, a tale of weird humor and mounting tragic power, embellished with a host of uncanny and fantastical figures drawn from daily life and the depths of the unconscious. Above all, the book is an account of a world in crisis (in Hebrew, mashber means crisis), torn between the competing claims of family, community, business, politics, the individual conscience, and an elusive God.  At the center of the book are three brothers: the businessman Moshe, at the height of his fortunes as the story begins, but whose luck takes a permanent turn for the worse; the religious seeker Luzi, who, for all his otherworldliness, finds himself ever more caught up in worldly affairs; and the idiot-savant Alter, whose reclusive existence is tortured by fear and sexual desire. The novel is also haunted by the enigmatic figure of Sruli Gol, a drunk, a profaner of sacred things, an outcast, who nonetheless finds his way through every door and may well hold the key to the brothers’ destinies.’

 

932597. Carson McCullers: A Life by Josyane Savigneau
‘In Carson McCullers: A Life, Josyane Savigneau gives us at last a truly popular biography of one of America’s greatest women novelists. Carson McCullers’s life story rivals the plot of any of her novels. A brilliant, sensitive artist who had a painful small-town childhood in the South and early international success, she was crippled by a mysterious disease in early adulthood. A woman who composed the most romantic of letters, she struggled to find lasting happiness with her husband, Reeves, whom she married twice. Carson wrote often of the loneliness of the human condiiton, and yet she surrounded herself with a constellation of witty, always entertaining celebrities: Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Katherine Anne Porter, Richard Wright, John Huston, and Edward Albee, among others.  The first biographer to have the full cooperation of the McCullers esate, Josyane Savigneau has uncovered the private Carson McCullers, a woman who never really grew up yet was always seductive, a woman whose candor and immense emotional needs sometimes overshadowed her great charm, generosity, loyalty, humor, and deep intelligence. Above all, Carson was a life force, a person who needed to write and who did so despite great physical pain, up until the very end. Published to rave reviews in France’

 

9780140050301-us8. A Place Apart by Dervla Murphy
‘At the height of The Troubles, Dervla Murphy cycled to Northern Ireland to try to understand the situation by speaking to people on either side of the divide. She also sought to interrogate her own opinions and emotions. As an Irishwoman and traveller who had only ever spent thirty-six hours of her forty-four years over the border to the north, why had she been so reluctant to engage with the issues? Despite her own family connections to the IRA, she travelled north largely unfettered by sectarian loyalties. Armed instead with an indefatigable curiosity, a fine ear for anecdote, an ability to stand her own at the bar and a penetrating intelligence, she navigated her way through horrifying situations, and sometimes found herself among people stiff with hate and grief. But equally, she discovered an unquenchable thirst for life and peace, a spirit that refused to die.’

 

25473286._sy475_9. My Buried Life by Doreen Finn
‘What happens when you no longer recognise the person you have become?   Eva has managed to spend her twenties successfully hiding from herself in New York.   Attempting to write, but really only writing her epitaph, she returns to Ireland to confront the past that has made her what she is.   In prose that is hauntingly beautiful and delicate, Doreen Finn explores a truly complex and fascinating character with deft style and unflinching honesty.’

 

10. Queen’s Folly by Elswyth Thane 8783728
‘When Queen Elizabeth I rewards an ardent courtier with an old priory in the Cotswolds for his services, it has a profound effect on him and his male descendants as they transfer their devotion to their home in this unusual and romantic novel. Follows this family from the 16th to the 20th century.’

Which of these books have you read?  Which are your favourite underrated books?

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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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