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Around the World in 80 Books: My Top Ten

I officially completed my Around the World in 80 Books challenge back in April, having started on the first of January this year.  The project has been both delightful and enlightening, and I have so enjoyed immersing myself in so many portrayals of countries and their very diverse cultures.  Whilst I have no plans to repeat the challenge in coming years (particularly as I found it rather difficult to find a single tome which I was interested in from several of my previously chosen countries), I have found the process to be a wonderful one.

I chose to travel to one continent at a time, beginning with my home country, and sweeping through each of them in turn.  If you wish to see a full itinerary of this year’s ‘travels’, then please click here.

I thought that it would be a nice idea to gather together my favourite books which I encountered during my challenge.  They are in no particular order, but I thoroughly enjoyed each and every one of them, and highly recommend them.  Included alongside them are snippets of my reviews.

 

1. Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart (France)
I really enjoy Mary Stewart’s fiction; all of her books are markedly different, despite sharing similarities in terms of traits and characterisation. As ever, Stewart’s real strengths here come with setting the scene, and building her protagonists. Nine Coaches Waiting, which takes place just a few miles away from the Swiss border, has a wonderfully Gothic feel to it.

2. The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (Norway) cover-jpg-rendition-460-707
Much of Vesaas’ writing is given over to the landscape within the more pivotal moments of The Ice Palace. His descriptions of ice and snow are varied, and startlingly beautiful. When she reaches the ice palace, he writes, for instance, ‘Unn looked down into an enchanting world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes. Soft curves and confused tracery. All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually. Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms. Everything shone.’

3. Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin (South Korea)
So-nyo’s complex character is pieced together fragment by fragment. This technique gives a real depth to her, and is a very revealing and effective manner in which to tell such a story. So-nyo’s family begin to realise just how important she is to them, and the many ways they have taken advantage of her, or taken her for granted over the years. Their own mistakes, both collective and individual, glare out at them: ‘You don’t understand why it took you so long to realise something so obvious. To you, Mother was always Mother. It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old. Mother was Mother. She was born as Mother. Until you saw her running to your uncle like that, it hadn’t dawned on you that she was a human being who harboured the exact same feeling you had for your own brothers, and this realisation led to the awareness that she, too, had had a childhood. From then on, you sometimes thought of Mother as a child, as a girl, as a young woman, as a newly-wed, as a mother who had just given birth to you.’

97818702068084. Dew on the Grass by Eiluned Lewis (Wales)
Movement, particularly with regard to the younger characters, has been captured beautifully: ‘Released at length from the spell of Louise’s eye and the cool, leafshadowed nursery, they danced out on the lawn, shouting, hopping with excitement, ready for something adventurous, scarcely able to contain their glee.’ The natural world of Lewis’ novel has been romanticised in the gentlest and loveliest of manners; it never feels overdone or repetitive, and is largely filled with purity and charm.

5. The Colour by Rose Tremain (New Zealand)
‘Tremain gives a marked consideration to colour in her novel from its very beginning.  She writes: ‘It was their first winter.  The earth under their boots was grey.  The yellow tussock-grass was salty with hail.  In the violet clouds of afternoon lay the promise of a great winding-sheet of snow.’  I was struck by Tremain’s writing immediately.  She has such a gift for seamlessly blending her vivid descriptions with her characters, and the actions which they take.  There is a timelessness to Tremain’s prose, despite the effective rooting of her novel in a very particular period and setting.  She uses her chosen framework in order to explore many different themes relating to expatriation, nature, and human nature, particularly with regard to the ways in which changing conditions alter the relationships between husband and wife, and son and mother.’

6. Guiltless by Viveca Sten (Sweden)
I had not read the first or second novels in the series, but that did not seem to matter at all. I found that it worked very well indeed as a standalone novel. Guiltless takes part on a small island in the Swedish archipelago named Sandhamn, and is engaging from its very first page. Throughout, the novel is really well plotted and structured, and its translation is fluid. The sense of place and characters are well built, and I found Guiltless overall to be so easy to read, and so absorbing.

7. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Croatia) 17237713
From the outset, the male narrative voice which Forna has crafted is engaging, and I was immediately pulled in. There is such a sense of place here, and it has definitely made me long to go back to Croatia. Another real strength of The Hired Man is that quite a lot is left unsaid at times; these careful omissions make the story even more powerful.

8. Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra (Chile)
Ways of Going Home uses a structure of very short, and often quite poignant, vignettes. These are made up at first of retrospective memories and memorials from the narrator’s childhood, and then from his adulthood. This structure works wonderfully; I often find that books made up of vignettes build a wonderful story, allowing us to learn about the characters, as well as the conditions under which they live, piece by piece. Zambra’s writing style is gripping from the very first page; it begins in the following manner: ‘Once, I got lost. I was six or seven. I got distracted, and all of a sudden I couldn’t see my parents anymore. I was scared, but I immediately found the way home and got there before they did. They kept looking for me, desperate, but I thought they were lost. That I knew how to get home and they didn’t.’

97800071729179. Eight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel (Saudi Arabia)
Well written, as Mantel’s work always is, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is culturally fascinating. It gives one a feeling for the city of Jeddah, where Frances and Andrew settle, immediately, as well as Frances’ position within it. Her life soon feels very claustrophobic, largely unable, as she is, to leave the block of flats in which the couple live; this is due to the incredibly subservient position of women in the male-dominated society, which leaves her – a trained cartographer – unable to work, as well as the stifling heat which grips the city for most of the year. Frances has been made almost a prisoner in her own home, and has to rely on the friendship of the other women in the building to wile away those long, hot hours in which Andrew is working.

10. Two Under the Indian Sun by Jon and Rumer Godden (India)
I have read quite a few of Rumer Godden’s books, many of which have been reissued by Virago in the last few years, but I have never come across anything of Jon’s before. I loved the idea of a collaborative memoir, particularly one which focuses almost exclusively upon their childhood, which was largely spent in India. Two Under the Indian Sun covers several years, in which the girls were taken back to their parents in East Bengal, now a part of Pakistan, after the outbreak of the First World War.

 

Have you taken part in this project before?  If not, have you been inspired to?  Which are your favourite reads from around the world?

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2018 Travel: Books Set in France

My final stop so far in 2018 is France, where I am currently enjoying the Easter holidays (thank goodness for scheduling posts ahead of time!).  Here are seven books set in France which I have loved, and which, I feel, round off the week nicely.
5894091. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky (2004)
Beginning in Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation in 1940. Suite Française tells the remarkable story of men and women thrown together in circumstances beyond their control. As Parisians flee the city, human folly surfaces in every imaginable way: a wealthy mother searches for sweets in a town without food; a couple is terrified at the thought of losing their jobs, even as their world begins to fall apart. Moving on to a provincial village now occupied by German soldiers, the locals must learn to coexist with the enemy—in their town, their homes, even in their hearts.  When Irène Némirovsky began working on Suite Française, she was already a highly successful writer living in Paris. But she was also a Jew, and in 1942 she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she died. For sixty-four years, this novel remained hidden and unknown.
2. The Matchmaker of Perigord by Julia Stuart (2007)
Barber Guillaume Ladoucette has always enjoyed great success in his tiny village in southwestern France, catering to the tonsorial needs of Amour-sur-Belle’s thirty-three inhabitants. But times have changed. His customers have grown older—and balder. Suddenly there is no longer a call for Guillaume’s particular services, and he is forced to make a drastic career change. Since love and companionship are necessary commodities at any age, he becomes Amour-sur-Belle’s official matchmaker and intends to unite hearts as ably as he once cut hair. But alas, Guillaume is not nearly as accomplished an agent of amour, as the disastrous results of his initial attempts amply prove, especially when it comes to arranging his own romantic future.
3. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (2006) 6238269
A moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.  We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence.   Then there’s Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.  Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma’s trust and to see through Renée’s timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.
4. A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse (2009)
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 rein. 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.

158618055. My Life in France by Julia Child (2006)
In her own words, here is the story of Julia Child’s years in France, where she fell in love with French food and found her “true calling.” Filled with the black-and-white photographs that her husband Paul loved to take when he was not battling bureaucrats, as well as family snapshots, this memoir is laced with stories about the French character, particularly in the world of food, and the way of life that Julia embraced so whole-heartedly. Above all, she reveals the kind of spirit and determination, the sheer love of cooking, and the drive to share that with her fellow Americans that made her the extraordinary success she became.

6. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (2007; review here)
Orphan, clock keeper, and thief, Hugo lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station, where his survival depends on secrets and anonymity. But when his world suddenly interlocks with an eccentric, bookish girl and a bitter old man who runs a toy booth in the station, Hugo’s undercover life, and his most precious secret, are put in jeopardy. A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message from Hugo’s dead father form the backbone of this intricate, tender, and spellbinding mystery.
7. Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan (1954) 1183167
Bonjour Tristesse scandalised 1950’s France with its portrayal of teenager Cécile, a heroine who rejects conventional notions of love, marriage and family to choose her own sexual freedom.  Cécile leads a hedonistic, frivolous life with her father and his young mistresses. On holiday in the South of France, she is seduced by the sun, sand and her first lover. But when her father decides to remarry, their carefree existence becomes clouded by tragedy.

 

Which of these have you read, and which have taken your fancy?

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A Month of Favourites: ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’ by Brian Selznick

Brian Selznick calls his debut, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, “not exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things”.  It was the movie ‘Hugo’ which made me go and seek out this beautiful book – for a book it certainly is – and I purchased the very last copy in Waterstone’s whilst on a post-Christmas shopping trip.

‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’ by Brian Selznick (Scholastic)

The book was the first novel to win the Caldecott Medal in 2008, the award usually applying only to picture books.  The film also won five Academy Awards in 2012.  I am so pleased that I have a copy of The Invention of Hugo Cabret to sit in pride of place upon my bookshelf.  Just like the film, it is a thing of beauty – lavishly illustrated in black and white, with attention to detail present on every single page.

The style of the book is so very interesting: “With 284 pages of original drawings, and combining elements of picture book, graphic novel, and film, Brian Selznick breaks open the novel form to create an entirely new reading experience”.  It is quite unlike anything which I have ever read before, and the mixture of narrative types and techniques works beautifully.

Selznick’s blurb, too, is beautiful:

“Orphan, clock-keeper, and thief, twelve-year-old Hugo lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station, where his survival depends on secrets and anonymity. But when his world suddenly interlocks with an eccentric girl and her grandfather, Hugo’s undercover life, and his most precious secret, are put in jeopardy. A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message from Hugo’s dead father form the backbone of this intricate, tender, and spellbinding mystery.”

Hugo and Isabelle look out over Paris

The novel takes place in 1931, ‘beneath the roofs of Paris’.  Selznick has woven in the true story of French filmmaker Georges Melies, and has created fictional elements alongside to build his very inventive plot.  His sense of place is sublime, and I love the way in which the story was told, making use of its glorious Paris surroundings throughout.  Hugo’s world is so well evoked.

Hugo Cabret is one of my favourite child characters.  He is so very determined and so headstrong, and he is also incredibly industrious.  I love the way in which he looks after himself and is able to fend for himself in such a large city.  I adore the levels of his curiosity, and the way in which he will work at something until it is fixed and he is satisfied with the result.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is exquisite, and it is truly a work of art.  The entirety is enchanting, and its characterisation perfect.  The pace which Selznick has stuck to works marvellously with the unfolding story, and the book and film are certain to charm both children and adults alike.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘The Ladies’ Paradise’ by Emile Zola

First published in 2014.

Prior to this, the only Zola which I had read was a marvellous little novella entitled The Flood.  I was encouraged to read The Ladies’ Paradise when I saw Astrid the Bookworm wax lyrical about it on her YouTube channel. I searched high and low for it and finally found it on a trip to Waterstone’s Picadilly at the very end of November.  I began to read it the novel on New Year’s Eve, and as I finished it in January, I counted it as my first novel which was read in 2014.

‘The Ladies’ Paradise’ by Emile Zola

I was so captivated by The Ladies’ Paradise from the outset.  First published in France as Au Bonheur des Dames in 1883, the novel tells the story of the rise of department stores in Victorian-era Paris.  In the insightful Oxford World’s Classics introduction, it is said that Zola was given the inspiration to write such a novel after witnessing the rise of Le Bon Marche, one of the city’s most famous department stores.

I did not realise until I had finished the novel that The Ladies’ Paradise is actually a sequel to a novel named Pot-Bouille, which features the same protagonist, Octave Mouret.  The Ladies’ Paradise stood alone marvellously, and it did not matter at all that I had not read the previous novel – nor any of Zola’s other Rougon-Macquart series (this is the eleventh book), for that matter.

Brian Nelson has done a marvellous job with the novel’s translation.  The extra information which has been included in the edition, too, complemented the novel beautifully.  There are maps showing the location of the department store and the main settings of the novel, a select bibliography, and a chronology of Zola’s fascinating life.

The scene was set immediately, and it has left me longing to go back to Paris.  Each and every scene, building and character which Zola turned his hand to describing were truly stunning – so vivid, and dripping with colour.  Whilst this novel is a relatively quiet one in terms of its plot, the way in which Zola cites the foundations of such a store in Paris and how it grew to such dizzying heights has been so well imagined.  The social history has clearly been so well considered.  The characters which Zola uses to people his store – nicknamed The Ladies’ Paradise by all – felt so realistic, and I was particularly enchanted by his main female protagonist, Denise.

The Ladies’ Paradise is an exquisite novel, and parts of it really made me smile.  It was a book which I struggled to put down, and would happily have read it until the clock chimed midnight on New Year’s Eve if we weren’t hosting a party to celebrate.  I cannot wait until Monsieur Zola and I are reacquainted.  I sense that there are some real gems in store to encounter.

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Reading the World: ‘Mend the Living’ by Maylis de Kerangal ***

9780857053855Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living, which won the Wellcome Book Prize in 2017, was first published in France in 2014, and has been translated from its original French by Jessica Moore.  Its critical reception has been incredibly good; M. John Harrison in The Guardian writes that the novel is: ‘Filmically powerful, beautifully translated… [and] glorious’, and Astrid de Larminat in Figaro states: ‘This breathless novel has all the beauty of a Greek tragedy.’  Mend the Living was also longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

Mend the Living takes place over the space of a single day, and essentially tells the story of a heart transplant.  At the beginning of the novel, the heart resides in young Simon Limbeau; he is rendered braindead after a severe car accident following a beautifully evoked surfing trip.  The novel’s opening sentence, which is three hundred words long, begins in the following way, and gives one a great taster of de Kerangal’s prose style: ‘What it is, Simon Limbeau’s heart, this human heart, from the moment of birth when its cadence accelerated while other hearts outside were accelerating too, hailing the event, no one really knows…’.

Following Simon’s death, de Kerangal writes: ‘… and on this night – a night without stars – while it was bone-crackingly cold on the estuary and in the Caux region, while a reflectionless swell rolled along the base of the cliffs, while the continental plateau drew back, unveiling its geological stripes, this heart was sounding the regular rhythm of an organ at rest, a muscle slowly recharging…’.  De Kerangal’s prose is similarly poetic throughout, but does tend to verge upon the pretentious – with its ‘grandiloquent choreographies’, and ‘alveolar intensity’ – from time to time.  It is so vivid and sensual, however, that it gives the reader the opportunity to be present in every single moment depicted.  Moore’s translation is flawless; it must have taken an awful lot of work to render such long, complex sentences, and the style of prose.  Of a lot of interest is Moore’s translation note; she describes the way in which she ‘grappled with Maylis’s labyrinthine phrases’.

De Kerangal captures the uncontrollable grief of Simon’s mother incredibly well: ‘… the past has grown massive all at once, a life-guzzling ogre, and the present is nothing but an ultra-thin threshold, a line beyond which there is nothing recognisable.  The ringing of the phone has cloaked the continuity of time, and before the mirror where her reflection freezes, hands clutching the edges of the sink, Marianne turns to stone beneath the shock.’  The author also makes good use of building tension and creating uncertainty.

Mend the Living is certainly an intelligent and thoughtful novel.  It is not an easy read, per se; one really has to concentrate upon each, almost invariably long sentence.  I am one of the few not to adore it, but Mend the Living is certainly an admirable novel, with so many qualities to it.  The medical elements have clearly been meticulously researched, and the use of each chapter following a different character creates further depth.  Regardless, de Kerangal did not quite capture as much as I would have imagined.

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Reading the World: ‘Therese Desqueyroux’ by Francois Mauriac ****

Therese Desqueyroux is my first Francois Mauriac title.  I read, not the edition pictured, but an older Penguin Classics compilation of the titular story, Therese Desqueyroux (1927) as well as three other tales which follow Therese’s life – ‘Therese and the Doctor’ (1928), ‘Therese at the Hotel’ (1928), and ‘The End of the Night’ (1935).  The dates mentioned relate to their original French publication; the years in which they were first translated into English are 1928 for the original, and 1947 for the three others.  Gerald Hopkins is the translator for both Penguin editions.

9780141394053The two novellas, and two short stories, which follow Mauriac’s most famous literary creation, are set in Bordeaux and Paris.  They chart her ‘passionate, tortured life…  Her story, brilliantly and unforgettably told, affirms the beauty and vitality of the human spirit in “the eternal radiance of death”‘.  Of Mauriac’s writing, Justin O’Brien tells the following in the New York Times: ‘Both his subject and his style frequently recall Racine and Baudelaire; and indeed we often feel that we are dealing here with a poem, so rich is the symbolism and so fleet is the arrangement of themes.’  Martin Seymour-Smith says that: ‘His books are bewitchingly readable.’

The author’s foreword, directed as it is toward Therese, ends: ‘I take my leave of you upon a city’s pavements, hoping, at least, that you will not for ever be utterly alone.’  The title story begins with Therese walking from court, ‘having been charged with attempting to poison her husband’.  We then follow Therese as she is banished from her home, escapes to Paris, and spends her final years of solitude waiting.  Mauriac’s depiction of the Paris cityscape is nothing short of stunning: ‘It is not the bricks and mortar that I love, nor even the lectures and museums, but the living human forest that fills the streets, the creatures torn by passions more violent than any storm.’

There are so many small yet unusual details which render Therese a believable, and markedly human, character: ‘She took off her left-hand glove and began picking at the moss which grew between the old stones of the walls they passed’, and ‘Once more she breathed in the damp night air like someone threatened with suffocation.’  Mauriac clearly believes that he has built her up to such a realistic position; he writes: ‘But compared with her own terrible existence all inventions of the novelist would have seemed thin and colourless.’  His depiction of Therese’s motherhood is often startlingly beautiful: ‘There, in the darkness, the young mother would hear the even breathing of her slumbering child, would lean above the bed and drink down, like a draught of cool, refreshing water, the small sleeping life.’

In Therese Desqueyroux, Therese tries desperately to remember why she married her husband; she loves him, both for himself, and what he stands for – property, family, security – but the passion which she would have imagined she had felt is unavailable to her.  Soon after their marriage, Mauriac shows that things began to go sour, particularly for her husband, Bernard: ‘… their being together no longer gave him any happiness.  He was bored to death away from his guns, his dogs, and the inn…  His wife was so cold, so mocking.  She never showed pleasure even if she felt any, would never talk about what interested him.’  As for Therese: ‘She was like a transported criminal, sick to her soul of transit prisons, and anxious only to see the Convict Island where she would have to spend the rest of her life.’

Therese Desqueyroux has been both beautifully written and translated.  Therese’s story is incredibly sad, and demonstrates how one can be overruled and shunned in terms of their character and choices. One cannot help but feel for Therese; she is a fascinating character to study.  I did not quite love the collection, but the title story particularly was so interesting to read.

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