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‘Letters from Klara’ by Tove Jansson *****

‘The rich seam that is Jansson’s adult prose continues with this penultimate collection of short stories, written in her seventies at the height of her Moomin fame and translated into English for the first time. In these light-footed, beautifully crafted yet disquieting stories, Jansson tells of discomfiting encounters, unlooked for connections and moments of isolation that span generations and decades. Letters From Klara proves yet again her mastery of this literary form.’

9781908745613I could not resist ordering a newly translated collection of short stories by one of my absolute favourite authors when I first heard about it, and I dove in almost immediately. Tove Jansson’s Letters from Klara is such a treat. Each tale was written whilst Jansson was in her seventies; one can see a marked shift between these contemplative pieces, and those of her younger years, which share an extremely perceptive vivacity. The stories within the collection are largely quiet and slowly paced, but they are all the lovelier for it. The blurb of Letters from Klara, in fact, describes them as ‘subtle’ and ‘light-footed’ stories, descriptions which I wholeheartedly agree with.

Letters from Klara provides a wonderful breather from the hectic modern world. Its stories are varied and quite diverse, but humanity is at the core of each. A lot of the stories are about ageing and death, clearly subjects which become more pressing and important during Jansson’s literary career. Letters from Klara is neither her best, not her most memorable, collection, but it is absolutely filled to the brim with tiny gems, and gorgeously evoked slices of life which appeal to all of the senses.

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‘The Lost Daughter Collective’ by Lindsey Drager *****

I was immediately intrigued by Lindsey Drager’s novella, The Lost Daughter Collective.  Throughout, bedtime stories told to young girls are used as cautionary tales; each, like a fairytale, starts off in rather a beguiling and sweet manner, but soon the sinister begins to creep in.

The main narrative, which in its first half introduces us to a five-year-old girl and her father, is interspersed with the smaller ‘bedtime’ stories, all of which add a lot to the whole.  This approach to structure is simple yet clever, and works incredibly well.  We do not learn the girl’s name, but learn about her through her thoughts, fears, and dreams.31305921

Grief is one of the mainstays of the novella, in all its many forms.  The Lost Daughter Collective of the title is a group for bereaved fathers, who have lost their daughters either to death, or to life.  The collective ‘gathers on the top floor of an abandoned umbrella factory in the downtown of a mid-sized city.  The group is composed of men who meet weekly to harness their mourning, a delicate practice best not undertaken alone.’  The fathers, different as they are, have decided that the best way to meet is to categorise their daughters into two distinct groups; there are the Dorothys, who are dead, and the Alices, who are missing.  ‘Qualifying their lost girls in this way,’ writes Drager, ‘is a silently endorsed coping mechanism.  When a new father arrives, no one need articulate the method of daughter-exit from his life.  The others can tell whether he is the victim of a Dorothy or an Alice by the new father’s posture and gait.  Father sorrow is best read through the mobile body.’

I loved the stylish fairytale feel which the prose had, and the fact that all of the characters, for the first half of the book, are unnamed; instead, they go by their job titles.  The father of our unnamed young protagonist is known as the ‘Wrist Scholar’ for instance, working as he is upon that almost unidentifiable space between hand and arm.  The themes which Drager has woven in are rather dark on the whole, and her clever ideas have such a power to them.  There is an awful lot to think about and mull over in The Lost Daughter Collective.  There are interesting twists which cause one to consider exactly what loss is, and whether one can truly overcome it.

Drager manages to be both charming and unsettling in her prose and storyline, and strikes a balance between the two marvellously.  She uses familiar stories and tropes – for instance, using ‘Dorothy’ of The Wizard of Oz, and Alice of Lewis Carroll’s books – and sometimes simplistic, fairytale-esque prose, in which she fits all of the separate stories.  Really, though, Drager makes them all her own; there is little similarity here between other books which have at least a partial basis in fairytale.  Drager also cleverly weaves in semi-autobiographical stories which feature the likes of Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Mary Shelley, which are wonderful to behold.

There is no predictability here, and whilst similar structures have been used, and parallels can be drawn, the ideas are all Drager’s own.  The Lost Daughter Collective is at once familiar and fresh, and uses artful repetition at junctures; it is as beautifully written as it is startlingly profound.  It is short enough to be read in a single sitting, but its depth of ideas and prose will linger long afterwards.  The Lost Daughter Collective is quite unlike anything I’ve read in ages, with its reimagined and reshaped stories, and its original approach.  It is a real gem of a book, both enchanting and entrancing.

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‘Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty’ by Ramona Ausubel *****

I was so eager to read Ramona Ausubel’s Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty that I ordered it directly from Washington state.  I adored her debut novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, which was published in 2012, and takes place in Romania during the Second World War.  The storyline of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty is rather different, but no less compelling.

1024x1024Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, which has been so wonderfully received, begins in Martha’s Vineyard on Labor Day, 1976, and spans generations and decades.  Fern and Edgar, who were high-school sweethearts, are holidaying with their three children.  Despite their ‘deeply professed anti-money ideals’, both have been living a ‘beautiful, comfortable life’ thanks to Fern’s recently deceased parents.  When Fern receives a phone call to inform her that all of the money, which she and her family have been so reliant upon, is gone, their ‘once-charmed’ life unravels immediately.

Fern and Edgar both leave the familial home on separate adventures, unaware that the other parent has also escaped, and their three children have been left completely alone, in the care of seven-year-old Cricket.  As their ‘paths divide and reunite, the characters must make crucial decisions about their own values, about the space they occupy in American history, and about the inner mould of their family.’  Ausubel poses questions regarding their situation, using them to explore the bigger issues of inherited wealth and privilege.  Perhaps the most striking of these is: ‘When you’ve worked for nothing, what do you owe?’

When surveying his family’s vacation house, Ausubel writes the following about Edgar: ‘He knew that the summerhouse, the sea view, belonged to him because he paid for them, yet it felt like his bloodstream pumped with this place, like the rocks and waves and saltmuck were in him, that he was of them.  But money, old money, got all the press.’  His own parents are wealthy too, enjoying the profits of a successful steel business, which has even allowed them to purchase their own private island in the Caribbean.  He has repeatedly been offered a position in the company, which comes with a very healthy salary, but has so far turned it down; he sees himself, rather than a business operative, as an aspiring novelist, writing back against industry and inherited wealth.  ‘Being rich,’ writes Ausubel, ‘had felt to Edgar like treading alone for all of time in a beautiful, bottomless pool.  So much, so blue, and nothing to push off from.  No grit or sand, no sturdy earth, just his own constant movement to keep above the surface.’  Although the family protest about inherited money, when Fern tells Edgar of their wealth running out, ‘It was like announcing a death…  The money had lived its own life, like a relative.’

Ausubel writes with such clarity, and there is a wonderful depth to Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty.  She notices and relays the most minute things back to the reader, making them astonishingly beautiful; for instance: ‘Fern had felt the very specific warmth of Edgar’s skin, different from anyone elses.  Suddenly, the car had slowed and they had both jolted forward.  The road ahead of them had turned all silver, shimmering and slippery, like mercury had spilled all over it.  It had melted like the sea.’  Ausubel’s characters are multi-dimensional, and she has a real understanding both for the adults and children whom she has created.  Cricket particularly is an endearing creature; she has been rendered vivid in both her actions and speech, and one warms to her immediately.  The family’s story plays out against important elements of social history – the Vietnam war, for example.

Whilst Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty has perhaps a more conformist feel to it than No One Is Here Except All of Us, it is no less beautiful.  Ausubel deftly and brilliantly evokes a once perfect relationship which soon becomes a troubled marriage, and explores such themes as belonging, trust, the notion of inheritance – both bodily and monetarily, and love.  Her prose is thoughtful throughout, and some passages incredibly sensual.  Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty is a deeply human novel, and I did not want it to end.

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‘May We Shed These Human Bodies’ by Amber Sparks *****

I adored Amber Sparks’ second collection, The Unfinished World and Other Stories, which my parents bought for me from the wonderful Strand Bookstore in New York last year.  I was therefore markedly impatient to get my hands on her debut short story collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies.  Despite the moderate expense for a secondhand book, and the fact that I had to order it from the USA, I decided that it would be the perfect treat to read whilst on holiday in France in August.

May We Shed These Human Bodies has been very well received.  Matt Bell writes that it ‘is a collection of marvellous inventions, each one a wonder-machine propelled by fairytale and dream and human and hope, ready to carry us off into new adventure’, and Ben Loory captures his thoughts thus: ‘I always love a book that makes me fear for the writer’s sanity.  I’m over here praying for Amber Sparks.’.

9780983422877There is almost an ethereal quality to Sparks’ books; her prose is complex and multilayered.  Some of the stories within May We Shed These Human Bodies are strange, and all are startling.  There are some very short stories to be found within her debut, which run to less than two full pages.  Others are quite a bit longer.  The individuality of each tale shines through; whilst none of them are alike, the collection is coherent, and reads like a singular unit.  This is helped, in part, with the unusual, intriguing, and quirky titles Sparks gives to her stories.  Here, they range from ‘The Monstrous Sadness of Mythical Creatures’ and ‘Gone and Gone Already’, to ‘All the Imaginary People are Better at Life’ and ‘The Ghosts Eat More Air’.

I could quote extensively from May We Shed These Human Bodies, beautiful and thought-provoking as it is, but rather than ruin some great surprises for those of you whose interest is piqued, I shall whet your interest by sharing the initial paragraph of ‘The City Outside of Itself’: ‘The City longed to travel.  He hadn’t been anywhere in ages, and wanted to see what things looked like outside of himself.  So the City asked his best friend Tammie if she would mind giving him a lift.  Tammie took her gum out of her mouth and twirled it around and around her index finger, pink on peach on pink, while she thought about it.’

May We Shed These Human Bodies is a beguiling and absorbing collection, from an author who already has such a distinctive voice.  Sparks’ use of language is often beautiful and original, and sometimes loaded with meaning.  A great balance of reality and magical realism has been struck.  All of these stories here chill, and sing, and sparkle, and Sparks’ playfulness serves to make the collection entirely surprising.  Inventive, creative, and intelligent, May We Shed These Human Bodies became a firm favourite of mine on my first reading, and is certainly a tome which I hope to pick up many more times in the future.

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‘If This is a Woman’ by Sarah Helm *****

In If This is a Woman, Sarah Helm has written utterly phenomenal study. She tells of the atrocities of Ravensbruck, a German concentration camp during the Second World War, and the only one of its kind exclusively for women prisoners. It is the first book to write extensively about Ravensbruck, one of the final camps to be liberated by the Russians.

9780349120034Only ten percent of Ravensbruck’s prisoners were Jewish, contrary to a lot of other camps; the rest were arrested due to opposition to the Nazi Party, and were drawn from such groups as communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Resistance in various European countries. There were also others deemed ‘asocials’, who ranged from lesbians to Gypsies. Among the prisoners were ‘the cream of Europe’s women’, including various countesses, a former British golfing champion, and the niece of General de Gaulle.

Helm draws upon the published testimonies of Ravensbruck’s prisoners, as well as seeking out those who survived the brutal conditions, and studying records of the court case which followed, aiming as it did to punish those who were in charge. Her research has been carried out impeccably, particularly considering that the majority of the papers relating to prisoners and conditions were burnt before liberation. Helm has aimed to create ‘a biography of Ravensbruck beginning at the beginning and ending at the end, piecing the broken story back together again as best I could’. The death toll from the camp is unknown, but is estimated to be somewhere between 30,000 and 90,000.

Helm’s writing style is immensely readable, and her research meticulous. If This is a Woman is such a well paced account, and the author never shies away from demonstrating how harrowing the conditions were, and how horrific the injuries and deaths which many within Ravensbruck faced. In trying to tell the individual stories of as many women as she possibly could, both prisoners and those who guarded them, she has added an invaluable biography to the field of Holocaust and Second World War studies.

If This is a Woman won the Longman-History Today Prize, which was incredibly well deserved. One can only hope that further accolades follow. <i>If This is a Woman</i> is, without a doubt, one of my favourite historical studies in terms of its far-reaching material and the sensitivity which has been continually demonstrated, as well as one of my books of the year.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson *****

The Haunting of Hill House was my second Halloween read of 2013, and is certainly one of my favourite books of 2013.  I have wanted to read it for years; more so after very much enjoying Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  I hoped that this novel would be just as good, and I was overjoyed to find that it was both better and creepier.

In The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson begins the story by telling the story of Dr John Montague, who goes to live in Hill House when he finds out that it is purported to be haunted.  He invites a few select people along to Hill House in rural America to stay there with him, whom he feels are interested enough in hauntings to warrant a place in the experiment of sorts which he is conducting.  One of the characters who accepts the invitation is Eleanor Vance, a spinster of sorts, who becomes the one whom Jackson places the most focus upon.

One of the primary things which I love about Jackson’s fiction is the way in which she makes the houses in which her protagonists live characters in themselves.  I love the way in which Jackson introduces her characters too – for example, ‘Luke Sanderson was a liar’.  I admire how matter-of-fact she can be, but how she also leaves many elements up to the imagination of the reader, and the way in which she weaves in loose ends at times in which they are not expected.  The entirety of The Haunting of Hill House is beautifully written, and the prose works marvellously with regard to her unfolding of the plot.  Some of the passages which Jackson crafts truly made me swoon.  For example, when describing Eleanor’s journey to Hill House, she writes:

‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson (Penguin)

She nearly stopped forever just outside Ashton, because she came to a tiny cottage buried in a garden.  I could live there all alone, she thought, slowing the car to look down the winding garden path to the small blue front door with, perfectly, a white cat on the step.  No one would ever find me there, either, behind all those roses, and just to make sure I would plant oleanders by the road.  I will light a fire in the cool evenings and toast apples at my own hearth.  I will raise white cats and sew white curtains for the windows and sometimes come out of my door to go to the store to buy cinnamon and tea and thread.  People will come to me to have their fortunes told, and I will brew love potions for sad maidens; I will have a robin…

The novel, as it gains momentum, is marvellously creepy.  The atmosphere which Jackson builds is powerful and rather oppressive.  Her pace is perfect, and the conversation between characters is fabulous.  Jackson never lingers into the field of mundanity, but is instead original in all that she writes and crafts.  The relationship which she builds between Eleanor and another of those who has accepted the invitation to stay at Hill House, Theodora, is believable and so well structured.  I read this novella almost in one go, as I struggled to tear myself away from it.

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Three Fantastic Novels

Whilst I have not written comprehensive reviews for the following books, I felt that they were all deserving of attention here on the blog.  I read all three at different times, but each has had an impact upon my reading life, and I find their stories incredibly memorable.

A Room With a View by E.M. Forster 9780141199825*****
‘Lucy has her rigid, middle-class life mapped out for her until she visits Florence with her uptight cousin Charlotte, and finds her neatly ordered existence thrown off balance. Her eyes are opened by the unconventional characters she meets at the Pension Bertolini: flamboyant romantic novelist Eleanor Lavish, the Cockney Signora, curious Mr Emerson and, most of all, his passionate son George. Lucy finds herself torn between the intensity of life in Italy and the repressed morals of Edwardian England, personified in her terminally dull fiance Cecil Vyse. Will she ever learn to follow her own heart?’

A Room with a View was one of just two outstanding Forster books which I hadn’t yet read. I had been meaning to read it for years before finally picking it up, and am kicking myself that I didn’t get to it sooner. The entirety is beautifully written, and the characters almost achingly realistic. There are some rather comic episodes and asides, which balanced the more serious elements of the novel nicely. A Room with a View is transportive; Florence is beautifully evoked from the beginning. Whilst I found the ending a touch predictable, it was so deftly handled that it didn’t matter so much. A Room with a View is still a fantastic novel, which I absolutely loved.

 

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte *****
9781784872397‘When Agnes’s father loses the family savings, young Agnes determines to make her own living – as a governess. Working for the Bloomfields, her enthusiasm is soon dampened by isolation and the cruelty of the children in her charge. Agnes hopes for better in her second job, but when the scheming elder daughter Rosalie makes designs on Agnes’s new friend, the kind curate Mr Weston, she feels herself silenced and sidelined. Becoming a governess is one thing, becoming invisible is quite another.’

I was prompted to reread Anne Bronte’s wonderful Agnes Grey after watching the BBC adaptation of the Brontes’ lives, To Walk Invisible. Agnes Grey is beautifully written throughout, and Anne was undoubtedly a very gifted writer. This is a wonderful tome to be reunited with, with its memorable storyline and cast of characters. Bronte’s turns of phrase are just lovely, and Agnes’ first person perspective is so engaging. A refreshing, thoughtful, and intelligent read in many respects, and a fantastic novel to boot.

 

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky ***** 9780099488781
‘In 1941, Irene Nemirovsky sat down to write a book that would convey the magnitude of what she was living through by evoking the domestic lives and personal trials of the ordinary citizens of France. Nemirovsky’s death in Auschwitz in 1942 prevented her from seeing the day, sixty-five years later, that the existing two sections of her planned novel sequence, Suite Francaise, would be rediscovered and hailed as a masterpiece. Set during the year that France fell to the Nazis, Suite Francaise falls into two parts. The first is a brilliant depiction of a group of Parisians as they flee the Nazi invasion; the second follows the inhabitants of a small rural community under occupation. Suite Francaise is a novel that teems with wonderful characters struggling with the new regime. However, amidst the mess of defeat, and all the hypocrisy and compromise, there is hope. True nobility and love exist, but often in surprising places.’

I reread Suite Francaise, one of my absolute favourite books, whilst in France over Easter. It is even more beautiful than I remember it being. All of Nemirovsky’s novels are sweeping masterpieces, but she perhaps reached the pinnacle here. I can think of very few novels which even touch this one in their brilliance and evocation. Nemirovsky’s descriptions are, of course, sublime, and the novel is – like all of her work – peopled with a complex cast of realistic characters. An incredibly insightful and important work about the Second World War by one of my favourite authors.

 

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