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Really Underrated Books (Part Four)

Today’s inclusions are largely works of fiction which sound absolutely wonderful.  For some reason, a large part of the list I am consulting is made up of fiction rather than non-fiction, so the oversight is not a deliberate one!  As always, have you read any of these books?

 

1. Winter Birds by Jim Grimsley 9780552996990
‘On a snowy Thanksgiving day in North Carolina along a stretch of rural highway, a dreamy eight-year-old named Danny Crell is caught in the middle of a violent quarrel between his parents. Danny’s father, Bobjay Crell, has been at the mercy of doctors, unforgiving landlords, and cruel farm bosses ever since he lost an arm in a farm accident. His subsequent fits of rage and drunken jealousy have taken their toll on his wife and five children. The two hemophiliac boys, Danny and his younger brother Grove, have been particularly vulnerable. Bobjay isn’t the same man that young Ellen Crell married years ago, but still she will go to terrible lengths to keep him home and sober and, failing that, to just hold the family together. In the midst of the worst violence, Ellen becomes a stranger to the children, as frightening in her own way as Bobjay in his worst rages. In a ramshackle cottage the children name “The Circle House” for its circle of rooms where one door opens on to the next in a dizzy escape leading nowhere, Ellen and the children must face at last the tormented man who terrorizes them all. Jim Grimsley’s brilliant first novel unfolds in a strikingly unconventional way – as Danny tells himself his own story – and brings to light a shattering story of heartbreak, violence, and the endurance of the spirit.’

 

2. The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller
The Magician’s Book is the story of one reader’s long, tumultuous relationship with C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Enchanted by its fantastic world as a child, prominent critic Laura Miller returns to the series as an adult to uncover the source of these small books’ mysterious power by looking at their creator, Clive Staples Lewis. What she discovers is not the familiar, idealized image of the author, but a more interesting and ambiguous truth: Lewis’s tragic and troubled childhood, his unconventional love life, and his intense but ultimately doomed friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien.  Finally reclaiming Narnia “for the rest of us,” Miller casts the Chronicles as a profoundly literary creation, and the portal to a life-long adventure in books, art, and the imagination.’

 

97815901764673. Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban
‘Life in a city can be atomizing, isolating. And it certainly is for William G. and Neaera H., the strangers at the center of Russell Hoban’s surprisingly heartwarming novel Turtle Diary. William, a clerk at a used-book store, lives in a rooming house after a divorce that has left him without home or family. Neaera is a successful writer of children’s books, who, in her own estimation, “looks like the sort of spinster who doesn’t keep cats and is not a vegetarian. Looks…like a man’s woman who hasn’t got a man.” Entirely unknown to each other, they are both drawn to the turtle tank at the London zoo with “minds full of turtle thoughts,” wondering how the turtles might be freed. And then comes the day when Neaera walks into William’s bookstore, and together they form an unlikely partnership to make what seemed a crazy dream become a reality.’

 

4. Disturbances in the Field by Lynne Sharon Schwarz
‘As powerful now as when first published in 1983, Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s third novel established her as one of her generation’s most assured writers. In this long-awaited reissue, readers can again warm to this acutely absorbing story. According to Lydia Rowe’s friend George, a philosophizing psychotherapist, a “disturbance in the field” is anything that keeps us from realizing our needs. In the field of daily experiences, anything can stand in the way of our fulfillment, he explains—an interrupting phone call, an unanswered cry. But over time we adjust and new needs arise. But what if there’s a disturbance you can’t get past? In this look at a girl’s, then a wife and mother’s, coming of age, Schwartz explores the questions faced by all whose visions of a harmonious existence are jolted into disarray. The result is a novel of captivating realism and lasting grace.’

 

5. England, Their England by A.G. Macdonell 9781781550007
‘Set in 1920s England, this book chronicles the life of a young man forced to live among the English, rather than in his native Scotland. What follows is a series of interesting and satirical observations about English life, including fox hunting, domestic politics, and most famously, village cricket.  This classic book remains a hilarious look into everyday British life in the interwar years.’

 

6. Vanishing Point by David Markson
‘In the literary world, there is little that can match the excitement of opening a new book by David Markson. From Wittgenstein’s Mistress to Reader’s Block to Springer’s Progress to This Is Not a Novel, he has delighted and amazed readers for decades. And now comes his latest masterwork, Vanishing Point, wherein an elderly writer (identified only as “Author”) sets out to transform shoeboxes crammed with notecards into a novel — and in so doing will dazzle us with an astonishing parade of revelations about the trials and calamities and absurdities and often even tragedies of the creative life — all the while trying his best (he says) to keep himself out of the tale. Naturally he will fail to do the latter, frequently managing to stand aside and yet remaining undeniably central throughout — until he is swept inevitably into the narrative’s startling and shattering climax. A novel of death and laughter both — and of extraordinary intellectual richness.’

 

97806700258247. One for the Books by Joe Queenan
‘Joe Queenan became a voracious  reader as a means of escape from a joyless childhood in a Philadelphia housing project. In the years since then he has dedicated himself to an assortment of  idiosyncratic reading challenges: spending a year reading only short books, spending a year reading books he always suspected he would hate, spending a year reading books he picked with his eyes closed.   In One for the Books, Queenan tries to come to terms with his own eccentric reading style—how many more books will he have time to read in his lifetime? Why does he refuse to read books hailed  by reviewers as “astonishing”? Why does he refuse to lend out books? Will he ever buy an e-book? Why does he habitually read thirty to forty books simultaneously? Why are there so many people to whom the above questions do not even matter—and what do they read? Acerbically funny yet passionate and oddly affectionate, One for the Books is a reading experience that true book lovers will find unforgettable.’

 

8. Esther Waters by George Moore
Esther Waters (1894) was one of the first English novels to defeat Victorian moral censorship. George Moore’s story of a mother’s fight for the life of her illegitimate son won Mr Gladstone’s approval and was admitted, unaltered, into those bastions of Victorian conformity, the circulating libraries.  Esther Waters is forced to leave home and become a servant in a well-to-do household. Seduced in a moment of weakness she has to leave her position and the novel charts her poignant story of poverty and hardship: first the lying-in hospital, then service as a wet-nurse, and even the workhouse as she struggles to look after her child. Adapting the French literary practices of sexual frankness and social exploration to the British climate, Moore produced his masterpiece in Esther Waters. A landmark in publishing history, it is also one of the finest of naturalistic novels.’

 

9. Jenny and the Cat Club by Esther Averill
‘In Greenwich Village an orphaned black cat lives happily with her master, a sea captain. Still, the gentle Jenny Linsky would like nothing more than to join the local Cat Club, whose members include Madame Butterfly, an elegant Persian, the high-stepping Macaroni, and stately, plump Mr. President. But can she overcome her fears and prove that she, too, has a special gift? Join Jenny and her friends, including fearless Pickles the Fire Cat, on their spirited downtown adventures and discover why The Atlantic Monthly called Jenny “a personality ranking not far below such giants as Peter Rabbit.”‘

 

10. Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself by Robert Montgomery Bird 902287
‘Sheppard Lee, Written By Himself is a work of dark satire from the early years of the American Republic. Published as an autobiography and praised by Edgar Allan Poe, this is the story of a young idler who goes in search of buried treasure and finds instead the power to transfer his soul into other men’s bodies. What follows is one increasingly practiced body snatcher’s picaresque journey through early American pursuits of happiness, as each new form Sheppard Lee assumes disappoints him anew while making him want more and more. When Lee’s metempsychosis draws him into the marriage market, the money market, and the slave market, Bird’s fable of American upward mobility takes a more sinister turn. Lee learns that everything in America, even virtue and vice, are interchangeable; everything is an object and has its price.’

 

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The Book Trail: Albert Nobbs to The Pastor’s Wife

Another Book Trail is upon us.  This begins with an underrated novella which I read back in August and very much enjoyed, and takes us through a wealth of fascinating Virago-esque books.

1. Albert Nobbs by George Moore
‘Long out of print, George Moore’s classic novella returns just in time for the major motion picture starring Glenn Close as a woman disguised as a man in nineteenth-century Ireland.Set in a posh hotel in nineteenth-century Dublin, Albert Nobbs is the story of an unassuming waiter hiding a shocking secret. Forced one night to share his bed with an out-of-town laborer, Albert Nobbs’ carefully constructed facade nearly implodes when the stranger disovers his true identity-that he’s actually a woman. Forced by this revelation to look himself in the mirror, Albert sets off in a desperate pursuit of companionship and love, a search he’s unwilling to abandon so long as he’s able to preserve his fragile persona at the same time. A tale of longing and romance, Albert Nobbs is a moving and startlingly frank gender-bending tale about the risks of being true to oneself.’

2. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault 9781844089529
‘Set in 1937, The Friendly Young Ladies is a romantic comedy of off-Bloomsbury bohemia. Sheltered, naïve, and just eighteen, Elsie leaves the stifling environment of her parents’ home in Cornwall to seek out her sister, Leo, who had run away nine years earlier. She finds Leo sharing a houseboat, and a bed, with the beautiful, fair-haired Helen. While Elsie’s arrival seems innocent enough, it is the first of a series of events that will turn Helen and Leo’s contented life inside out. Soon a randy young doctor is chasing after all three women at once, a neighborly friendship begins to show an erotic tinge, and long-quiet ghosts from Leo’s past begin to surface. Before long, no one is sure just who feels what for whom.’

3. Olivia by Dorothy Strachey
‘Considered one of the most subtle and beautifully written lesbian novels of the century, this 1949 classic returns to print in a Cleis Press edition. Dorothy Strachey’s classic Olivia captures the awakening passions of an English adolescent sent away for a year to a small finishing school outside Paris. The innocent but watchful Olivia develops an infatuation for her headmistress, Mlle. Julie, and through this screen of love observes the tense romance between Mlle. Julie and the other head of the school, Mlle. Cara, in its final months.’

97808606834074. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay
‘Banished by her mother to England, Barbara is thrown into the ordered formality of English life. Confused and unhappy, she discovers the wrecked and flowering wastes around St Paul’s, where she finds an echo of the wilderness of Provence and is forced to confront the wilderness within herself.’

5. The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner
‘In memory of the wife who had once dishonored and always despised him, Brian de Retteville founded a 12th-century convent in Norfolk. Two centuries later, the Benedictine community is well established there and, as befits a convent whose origin had such ironic beginnings, the inhabitants are prey to the ambitions, squabbles, jealousies, and pleasures of less spiritual environments. An outbreak of the Black Death, the collapse of the convent spire, the Bishop’s visitation, and a nun’s disappearance are interwoven with the everyday life of the nuns, novices, and prioresses in this marvelous imagined history of a 14th-century nunnery.’

6. The Lost Traveller by Antonia White 9781844083695
‘When Clara returns home from the convent of her childhood to begin life at a local girls’ school, she is at a loss: although she has comparative freedom, she misses the discipline the nuns imposed and worries about keeping her faith in a secular world. Against the background of the First World War, Clara experiences the confusions of adolescence – its promise, its threat of change. She longs for love, yet fears it, and wonders what the future will hold. Then tragedy strikes and her childhood haltingly comes to an end as she realises that neither parents nor her faith can help her.’

7. Cousin Rosamund by Rebecca West
‘Rich in period detail, lyrical in its evocation of the Thames, a novel that reveals both the problems of marriage and the ecstasies of sexual love’

97818440828038. The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim
‘Ingeborg Bullivant decides spontaneously to join a tour to Lucerne-and returns engaged. Yet her new life as a rural Prussian pastor’s wife restricts her as much as her old; and when the dashing artist Ingram appears, musing about wondrous Italy, wanderlust tempts her a second time. Von Arnim’s accomplished and comic novel is based on her own first marriage and life in provincial Germany at the turn of the century.’

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