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The Book Trail: From Flowers to Politics

We begin with one of my favourite novels here, and find some fascinating books along the way!  As always, this list has been collated from the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool, which I find invaluable for ensuring that I will never get through my TBR lists, even if I should live to the age of 150 or thereabouts.

1. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
13366104The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating mistrust and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings. Now eighteen and emancipated from the system with nowhere to go, Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But an unexpected encounter with a mysterious stranger has her questioning what’s been missing in her life. And when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.

 

2. The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar 7107515
Thrity Umrigar, acclaimed author of The Space Between Us and The Weight of Heaven, returns with a breathtaking new novel—a skillfully wrought, emotionally resonant story of four women and the indelible friendship they share.

 

3. The Folded Earth by Anuradha Roy
Roy has returned with another masterpiece that is already earning international prize attention, an evocative and deeply moving tale of a young woman making a new life for herself amid the foothills of the Himalaya. Desperate to leave a private tragedy behind, Maya abandons herself to the rhythms of the 12869231little village, where people coexist peacefully with nature. But all is not as it seems, and she soon learns that no refuge is remote enough to keep out the modern world. When power-hungry politicians threaten her beloved mountain community, Maya finds herself caught between the life she left behind and the new home she is determined to protect.   Elegiac, witty, and profound by turns, and with a tender love story at its core, The Folded Earth brims with the same genius and love of language that made An Atlas of Impossible Longing an international success and confirms Anuradha Roy as a major new literary talent.

 

4. The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai 11346464
A triptych of beautifully crafted novellas make up Anita Desai’s exquisite new book. Set in modern India, but where history still casts a long shadow, the stories move beyond the cities to places still haunted by the past, and to characters who are, each in their own way, masters of self-effacement.    In ‘The Museum of Final Journeys’ an unnamed government official is called upon to inspect a faded mansion of forgotten treasures, each sent home by the absent, itinerant master. As he is taken through the estate, wondering whether to save these precious relics, he reaches the final – greatest – gift of all, looming out of the shadows.  In ‘Translator, Translated’, middle-aged Prema meets her successful publisher friend Tara at a school reunion. Tara hires her as a translator, but Prema, buoyed by her work and the sense of purpose it brings, begins deliberately to blur the line between writer and translator, and in so doing risks unravelling her desires and achievements.  The final story is of Ravi, living hermit-like in the burnt-out shell of his family home high up in the Himalayan mountains. He cultivates not only silence and solitude but a secret hidden away in the woods, concealed from sight. When a film crew from Delhi intrude upon his seclusion, it compels him to withdraw even further until he magically and elusively disappears…  Rich and evocative, remarkable in their clarity and sensuous in their telling, these stories remind us of the extraordinary yet delicate power of this pre-eminent writer.

 

5. All About H. Hatterr by G.V. Desani
1252537Wildly funny and wonderfully bizarre, All About H. Hatterr is one of the most perfectly eccentric and strangely absorbing works modern English has produced. H. Hatterr is the son of a European merchant officer and a lady from Penang who has been raised and educated in missionary schools in Calcutta. His story is of his search for enlightenment as, in the course of visiting seven Oriental cities, he consults with seven sages, each of whom specializes in a different aspect of “Living.” Each teacher delivers himself of a great “Generality,” each great Generality launches a new great “Adventure,” from each of which Hatter escapes not so much greatly edified as by the skin of his teeth. The book is a comic extravaganza, but as Anthony Burgess writes in his introduction, “it is the language that makes the book. . . . It is not pure English; it is like Shakespeare, Joyce, and Kipling, gloriously impure.”

 

6. Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists by Rudolf Wittkower 204770
Born Under Saturn is a classic work of scholarship written with a light and winning touch. Margot and Rudolf Wittkower explore the history of the familiar idea that artistic inspiration is a form of madness, a madness directly expressed in artists’ unhappy and eccentric lives. This idea of the alienated artist, the Wittkowers demonstrate, comes into its own in the Renaissance, as part of the new bid by visual artists to distinguish themselves from craftsmen, with whom they were then lumped together. Where the skilled artisan had worked under the sign of light-fingered Mercury, the ambitious artist identified himself with the mysterious and brooding Saturn. Alienation, in effect, was a rung by which artists sought to climb the social ladder.  As to the reputed madness of artists; well, some have been as mad as hatters, some as tough-minded as the shrewdest businessmen, and many others wildly and willfully eccentric but hardly crazy. What is certain is that no book presents such a splendid compendium of information about artists’ lives, from the early Renaissance to the beginning of the Romantic era, as Born Under Saturn. The Wittkowers have read everything and have countless anecdotes to relate: about artists famous and infamous; about suicide, celibacy, wantonness, weird hobbies, and whatnot. These make Born Under Saturn a comprehensive, quirky, and endlessly diverting resource for students of history and lovers of the arts.

 

7. The New York Stories by Elizabeth Hardwick
7574318Elizabeth 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.

 

8. The Middle of the Journey by Lionel Trilling 544060
Published in 1947, as the cold war was heating up, Lionel Trilling’s only novel was a prophetic reckoning with the bitter ideological disputes that were to come to a head in the McCarthy era. The Middle of the Journey revolves around a political turncoat and the anger his action awakens among a group of intellectuals summering in Connecticut. The story, however, is less concerned with the rights and wrongs of left and right than with an absence of integrity at the very heart of the debate. Certainly the hero, John Laskell, staging a slow recovery from the death of his lover and a near-fatal illness of his own, comes to suspect that the conflicts and commitments involved are little more than a distraction from the real responsibilities, and terrors, of the common world.  A detailed, sometimes slyly humorous, picture of the manners and mores of the intelligentsia, as well as a work of surprising tenderness and ultimately tragic import, The Middle of the Journey is a novel of ideas whose quiet resonance has only grown with time. This is a deeply troubling examination of America by one of its greatest critics.

 

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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: From Beryl to Renata

We shall begin with an intense psychological character study which I read back in September, and work our way through some wonderfully weird sounding, and important, tomes.

1. Harriet Said… by Beryl Bainbridge 9781844088607
‘Beryl Bainbridge’s evocation of childhood in a rundown northern holiday resort.  A girl returns from boarding school to her sleepy Merseyside hometown and waits to be reunited with her childhood friend, Harriet, chief architect of all their past mischief. She roams listlessly along the shoreline and the woods still pitted with wartime trenches, and encounters ‘the Tsar’ – almost old, unhappily married, both dangerously fascinating and repulsive.  Pretty, malevolent Harriet finally arrives – and over the course of the long holidays draws her friend into a scheme to beguile then humiliate the Tsar, with disastrous, shocking consequences. A gripping portrayal of adolescent transgression, Beryl Bainbridge’s classic first novel remains as subversive today as when it was written.’

 

2. The Phantom Carriage by Selma Lagerlof
‘Written in 1912, Selma Lagerlof’s The Phantom Carriage is a powerful combination of ghost story and social realism, partly played out among the slums and partly in the transitional sphere between life and death. The vengeful and alcoholic David Holm is led to atonement and salvation by the love of a dying Salvation Army slum sister under the guidance of the driver of the death-cart that gathers in the souls of the dying poor. Inspired by Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, The Phantom Carriage remained one of Lagerlof’s own favourites, and Victor Sjostrom’s 1921 film version of the story is one of the greatest achievements of the Swedish silent cinema.’

 

97800609355593. One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner by Jay Parini
‘William Faulkner was a literary genius, and one of America’s most important and influential writers. Drawing on previously unavailable sources — including letters, memoirs, and interviews with Faulkner’s daughter and lovers — Jay Parini has crafted a biography that delves into the mystery of this gifted and troubled writer. His Faulkner is an extremely talented, obsessive artist plagued by alcoholism and a bad marriage who somehow transcends his limitations. Parini weaves the tragedies and triumphs of Faulkner’s life in with his novels, serving up a biography that’s as engaging as it is insightful.’

 

4. Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World by Claudia Roth Pierpont
‘With a masterful ability to connect their social contexts to well-chosen and telling details of their personal lives, Claudia Roth Pierpont gives us portraits of twelve amazingly diverse and influential literary women of the twentieth century, women who remade themselves and the world through their art.   Gertrude Stein, Mae West, Margaret Mitchell, Eudora Welty, Ayn Rand, Doris Lessing, Anais Nin, Zora Neale Hurston, Marina Tsvetaeva, Hannah Arendt and Mary Mccarthy, and Olive Schreiner: Pierpont is clear-eyed in her examination of each member of this varied group, connectng her subjects firmly to the issues of sexual freedom, race, and politics that bound them to their times, even as she exposes the roots of their uniqueness’

 

5. Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson 9780143128045
‘In a hilariously charming domestic memoir, America s celebrated master of terror turns to a different kind of fright: raising children In her celebrated fiction, Shirley Jackson explored the darkness lurking beneath the surface of small-town America. But in Life Among the Savages, she takes on the lighter side of small-town life. In this witty and warm memoir of her family s life in rural Vermont, she delightfully exposes a domestic side in cheerful contrast to her quietly terrifying fiction. With a novelist s gift for character, an unfailing maternal instinct, and her signature humor, Jackson turns everyday family experiences into brilliant adventures.’

 

6. A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx by Elaine Showalter
A Jury of Her Peers is an unprecedented literary landmark: the first comprehensive history of American women writers from 1650 to 2000.  In a narrative of immense scope and fascination—brimming with Elaine Showalter’s characteristic wit and incisive opinions—we are introduced to more than 250 female writers. These include not only famous and expected names (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Willa Cather, Dorothy Parker, Flannery O’Connor, Gwendolyn Brooks, Grace Paley, Toni Morrison, and Jodi Picoult among them), but also many who were once successful and acclaimed yet now are little known, from the early American best-selling novelist Catherine Sedgwick to the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Susan Glaspell. Showalter shows how these writers—both the enduring stars and the ones left behind by the canon—were connected to one another and to their times. She believes it is high time to fully integrate the contributions of women into our American literary heritage, and she undertakes the task with brilliance and flair, making the case for the unfairly overlooked and putting the overrated firmly in their place.  Whether or not readers agree with the book’s roster of writers, A Jury of Her Peers is an irresistible invitation to join the debate, to discover long-lost great writers, and to return to familiar titles with a deeper appreciation. It is a monumental work that will greatly enrich our understanding of American literary history and culture.’

 

78217. Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature by Elizabeth Hardwick
‘The novelist and essayist Elizabeth Hardwick is one of contemporary America’s most brilliant writers, and Seduction and Betrayal, in which she considers the careers of women writers as well as the larger question of the presence of women in literature, is her most passionate and concentrated work of criticism. A gallery of unforgettable portraits – of Virginia Woolf and Zelda Fitzgerald, Dorothy Wordsworth and Jane Carlyle – as well as a provocative reading of such works as Wuthering Heights, Hedda Gabler, and the poems of Sylvia Plath, Seduction and Betrayal is a virtuoso performance, a major writer’s reckoning with the relations between men and women, women and writing, writing and life.’

 

8. Pitch Dark by Renata Adler
Pitch Dark is the story of the end of a love affair—a story that, in Renata Adler’s brilliant telling, becomes a richly diffracted, illuminating, investigation of an exceptional woman. After a nine-year affair with Jake, a married man, Kate Ennis decides to escape. She takes off, looking for something beautiful and quiet by the sea, but finds herself in a pitch dark and driving rain on a lonely Irish road. It is only months later that she learns that she may have committed a crime, but by then she is home, once more negotiating with Jake for time, for attention, and for love.’

 

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Two Disappointing Reads

Sadly, at the start of the month I read two rather disappointing books one after the other.  I was so looking forward to both of them, and was a little disgruntled that I didn’t enjoy either.

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick **

‘Sleepless Nights’ by Elizabeth Hardwick

Attracted as I am to lovely green Viragos, I spotted this in a Brighton bookshop.  It isn’t a novel which I’ve come across on my many book shopping jaunts before, and so I had to purchase it.  From the start, I found Hardwick’s prose rather beautiful:

“So, from Kentucky to New York, to Boston, to Maine, to Europe, carried along on a river of paragraphs and chapters, of blank verse, of little books translated from the Polish, large books from the Russian – all consumed in a sedentary sleeplessness.”

The entirety of Sleepless Nights is made up of fragmented memories, some true and some fabricated, but there is nothing whatsoever to distinguish between the two.  Whilst interesting, the structure of the book made the entirety feel a little too disjointed, and I found that it did not flow at all.  Characters were introduced at whim and disappeared just as quickly, and it was therefore rather sifficult to identify or sympathise with any of them.  I am not sure how I feel about reading more of Hardwick’s novels.  I think that they will all be stylistically intriguing, but I am not sure whether I will enjoy them.  On further thought since finishing this volume, I have decided not to read any more of her books on the lack of strength of Sleepless Nights.

Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway **
I do really enjoy Hemingway’s fiction, particularly the way in which he uses language so sparingly.  This was the first volume of his non-fiction which I had come across.  I should perhaps have studied the blurb a little when I came across it in Fopp, as I am fascinated with Africa and African society, but not with the hunting of innocent animals.  I found some of the passages rather difficult to read.  The entirety was rather gory, and I found Hemingway’s flippancy about such horrible things rather unsettling at times.  His writing does not seem so startling or interesting when he is writing non-fiction, and in consequence, it seemed a little dull and too matter-of-fact.