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Ten Great Books

The instances in which I read a really enjoyable book, but don’t have time to write a comprehensive review of it seem to be increasing in frequency. I read so many works worthy of more comment, but unless I take comprehensive notes as I am going along, I rarely get around to writing about them in any detail.

With that in mind, I thought I would gather together ten books which I have read of late, and really enjoyed, and which I just haven’t had the time to review. I am loath to forget anything, so rather than leave you with a few hashed together thoughts from my reading journal, I have decided to copy across the blurb of each book. I hope that at least one of them tempts you, and that you find something of interest to add to your TBR

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

‘On the longest day of the summer, twelve people sit cooped up with their families in a faded Scottish cabin park. The endless rain leaves them with little to do but watch the other residents. A woman goes running up the Ben as if fleeing; a retired couple reminisce about neighbours long since moved on; a teenage boy braves the dark waters of the loch in his red kayak. Each person is wrapped in their own cares but increasingly alert to the makeshift community around them. One particular family, a mother and daughter without the right clothes or the right manners, starts to draw the attention of the others. Tensions rise and all watch on, unaware of the tragedy that lies ahead as night finally falls.’

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

‘Gustav Perle grows up in a small town in Switzerland, where the horrors of the Second World War seem only a distant echo. An only child, he lives alone with Emilie, the mother he adores but who treats him with bitter severity. He begins an intense friendship with a Jewish boy his age, talented and mercurial Anton Zweibel, a budding concert pianist. The novel follows Gustav’s family, tracing the roots of his mother’s anti-Semitism and its impact on her son and his beloved friend.

Moving backward to the war years and the painful repercussions of an act of conscience, and forward through the lives and careers of Gustav and Anton, The Gustav Sonata explores the passionate love of childhood friendship as it’s lost, transformed, and regained over a lifetime. It’s a powerful and deeply moving addition to the beloved oeuvre of one of our greatest contemporary novelists.’

Say Say Say by Lila Savage

‘Ella is nearing thirty, and not yet living the life she imagined. Her artistic ambitions as a student have given way to an unintended career as a care worker. One spring, Bryn – a retired carpenter – hires her to help him care for Jill, his wife of many years. A car accident caused a brain injury that has left Jill verbally diminished; she moves about the house like a ghost of her former self.

As Ella is drawn ever deeper into the couple’s household, she is profoundly moved by the tenderness Bryn shows toward the wife he still fiercely loves. Ella is startled by the yearning this awakens in her, one that complicates her feelings for her girlfriend, Alix, and causes her to look at relationships of all kinds – between partners, between employer and employee, and above all between men and women – in new ways.

Tightly woven, humane and insightful, tracing the most intimate reaches of a young woman’s heart and mind, Say Say Say is a riveting story about what it means to love, in a world where time is always running out.’

The Fogging by Luke Horton

‘Tom and Clara are two struggling academics in their mid-thirties, who decide to take their first holiday in ten years. On the flight over to Indonesia, Tom experiences a debilitating panic attack, something he hasn’t had in a long time, which he keeps hidden from Clara. At the resort, they meet Madeleine, a charismatic French woman, her Australian partner, Jeremy, and five-year-old son, Ollie, and the two couples strike up an easy friendship. The holiday starts to look up, even to Tom, who is struggling to get out of his own head. But when Clara and Madeleine become trapped in the maze-like grounds of the hotel during ‘the fogging’ — a routine spraying of pesticide — the dynamics suddenly shift between Tom and Clara, and the atmosphere of the holiday darkens.

Told with equal parts compassion and irony, and brimming with observations that charm, illuminate, and devastate, The Fogging dives deep into what it means to be strong when your foundation is built on sand.’

Blueprint by Theresia Enzensberger

‘At the beginning of the turbulent 1920s, she leaves her father’s conservative household in Berlin for Weimar’s Bauhaus university, with dreams of studying architecture. But when she arrives and encounters a fractured social world of mystics and formalists, communists and fascists, the dichotomy between the rigid past and a hopeful future turns out to be a lot more muddled than she thought.

She gets involved with a cult-like spiritual group, looking for community and falling in love with elusive art student Jakob. Luise has ambitions of achieving a lot in life – but little of it has to do with paying homage to great men. Surrounded by luminaries of the period, like Gropius and Kandinsky, she throws herself into the dreams and ideas of her epoch.

While her art school friends retreat into a world of self-improvement and jargon, her home city of Berlin is embroiled in street fights. Amid the social upheaval, she has to decide where she stands. From technology to art, romanticism to the avant-garde, populism to the youth movement, Luise encounters themes, utopias and ideas that still sahep us to the present day. Blueprint is a young woman’s dispatch from a past culture war that rings all too familiar.’

The Glass House by Eve Chase

‘Outside a remote manor house in an idyllic wood, a baby girl is found.

The Harrington family takes her in and disbelief quickly turns to joy. They’re grieving a terrible tragedy of their own and the beautiful baby fills them with hope, lighting up the house’s dark, dusty corners. Desperate not to lose her to the authorities, they keep her secret, suspended in a blissful summer world where normal rules of behaviour – and the law – don’t seem to apply.

But within days a body will lie dead in the grounds. And their dreams of a perfect family will shatter like glass. Years later, the truth will need to be put back together again, piece by piece…

From the author of Black Rabbit Hall, The Glass House is a emotional, thrilling book about family secrets and belonging – and how we find ourselves when we are most lost.’

The Push by Ashley Audrain

‘A tense, page-turning psychological drama about the making and breaking of a family, told through the eyes of a woman whose experience of motherhood is nothing at all what she hoped for–and everything she feared.

Blythe Connor is determined that she will be the warm, supportive mother she never had to her new baby Violet.

But in the thick of motherhood’s exhausting early days, Blythe doesn’t find the connection with her daughter she expected. She’s convinced that something is wrong with Violet–the little girl is distant, rejects affection, and becomes increasingly disruptive at preschool.

Or is it all in Blythe’s head? Her husband, Fox, says she is imagining things. Fox doesn’t see what Blythe sees; he sees a wife who is struggling to cope with the day-to-day challenges of being a mother. And the more Fox dismisses her fears, the more Blythe begins to question her own sanity…

Then their son Sam is born–and with him, Blythe has the natural maternal connection she’d always dreamed of. Even Violet seems to love her little brother. But when life as they know it is changed in an instant, the devastating fall-out forces Blythe to face the truth about herself, her past, and her daughter.

The Push is a rare and extraordinary gift to readers: a novel about the expectations of motherhood we’re taught not to challenge and what really happens behind the closed doors of even the most perfect-looking families. It’s impossible to put down and impossible to forget.’

After Midnight by Irmgard Keun

‘Nineteen-year-old Sanna just wants to drink her beer in peace, but that’s difficult when Hitler has come to town and his motorcade is blocking the streets of Frankfurt. What’s more, her best friend Gerti is in love with a Jewish boy, her brother writes books that have been blacklisted and her own aunt may denounce her to the authorities at any moment, as Germany teeters on the edge of the abyss. Written after she had fled the Nazi regime, Irmgard Keun’s masterly novel captures the feverish hysteria and horror of the era with devastating perceptiveness and humour.’

The Glass House by Beatrice Colin

‘Scotland, 1912. Antonia McCulloch’s life hasn’t gone the way she planned. She and her husband, Malcolm, have drifted apart; her burgeoning art career came to nothing; and when she looks in the mirror, she sees disappointment. But at least she will always have Balmarra, her family’s grand Scottish estate, and its exquisite glass house, filled with exotic plants that can take her far away.

When her estranged brother’s wife, Cicely Pick, arrives unannounced, with her young daughter and enough trunks to last the summer, Antonia is instantly suspicious. What besides an inheritance dispute could have brought her glamorous sister-in-law all the way from India? Still, Cicely introduces excitement and intrigue into Antonia’s life, and, as they get to know one another, Antonia realizes that Cicely has her own burdens to bear. Slowly, a fragile friendship grows between them. But when the secrets each are keeping become too explosive to conceal, the truth threatens their uneasy balance and the course of their entire lives.’

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield

‘This collection of stories is about women and their experiences in society, about bodies and the bodily, mapping the skin and bones of its characters through their experiences of isolation, obsession and love. Throughout the collection, women become insects, men turn to stone, a city becomes insomniac and bodies are picked apart to make up better ones. The mundane worlds of schools and sea side towns are invaded and transformed by the physical, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to the bodies of its inhabitants. Blending the mythic and the fantastic, the collection considers characters in motion – turning away, turning back or simply turning into something new.’

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Reading the World: ‘Gilgi, One Of Us’ by Irmgard Keun *****

Gilgi (full title, Gilgi, One Of Us) has been presented in a new English translation as part of Melville House Publishing’s Neversink Library collection.  First published in its original German in 1931, Irmgard Keun’s debut novel, published when she was just twenty-six, has been rendered into the most beautiful English prose by Geoff Wilkes.  In Germany, Gilgi became an overnight sensation, and Keun was driven to sue the Gestapo several years afterwards for blocking her royalties.

9781612192772The protagonist of Gilgi is Gisela Kron, a ‘disciplined and ambitious secretary’ in a hosiery business.  Immediately admirable with her hardworking stubbornness,  she is desperately ‘trying to establish her independence in a society being overtaken by fascism’.  Falling in love, however, is a ‘fateful choice’ which will ‘unmoor’ Gilgi from her own position in the world, that which she has fought for so long to uphold.  Gilgi is essentially a coming-of-age novel; whilst Gilgi is biologically older than a character whom we might expect to undergo such a formative transformation, she learns much about the world around her, and about herself, as the novel progresses.  She is made aware of her own strengths and weaknesses, and the place which she occupies in both public and private spheres in her home city of Cologne.

Keun’s choice of opening is fascinating, and very much sets the tone for the whole: ‘She’s holding it firmly in her hands, her little life, the girl Gilgi.  She calls herself Gilgi, her name is Gisela.  The two i‘s [sic] are better suited to slim legs and narrow hips like a child’s, to tiny fashionable hats which contrive mysteriously to stay perched on the very top of her head.  When she’s twenty-five, she’ll call herself Gisela.  But she’s not at that point quite yet.’  She is a cool-headed character, and faced with many of the challenges as she is, many other protagonists would have inevitably had some sort of breakdown or existential crisis.  Not Gilgi.  She is a firm believer in dealing with everything thrown at one, and she does so largely flawlessly.

Gilgi’s familial situation is exposed to the reader almost immediately: ‘No one speaks.  Everyone is earnestly and dully occupied with their own concerns.  The complete lack of conversation testifies to the family’s decency and legitimacy.  Herr and Frau Kron have stuck together through years of honorable tedium to their silver wedding anniversary.  They love each other, and are faithful to each other, something which has become a matter of routine, and no longer needs to be discussed, or felt’.

irmgard-keun-in-1935

Irmgard Keun

Gilgi is very of its time; Keun is never far away from inserting snippets of social history, or the economic struggles which many around Gilgi faced on a daily basis.  So many issues which are still of much importance in our modern society are tackled here – patriarchy, sexual relations, pregnancy out of wedlock, and the very concept of womanhood.  It is an astoundingly frank work, both ‘piercingly perceptive and formally innovative’.  Gilgi is told on the morning of her twenty-first birthday, for instance, that her parents are not biologically hers, and then given the details of her birth mother.

Gilgi herself provides a contrast to the societal norms held for women during the period; she is proactive, has her own job, and pays for her own things: ‘I want to work, want to get on, want to be self-supporting and independent…  At the moment I’m learning my languages – I’m saving money…’.  She may still live at home with the Krons who raised her, but she makes clear that her biggest aim in life is to fund her own apartment.

Until she meets Martin, the idea of being a kept woman repulses her; indeed, even with Martin, Keun has allowed Gilgi her independence.  The pair move in with one another to the vacant apartment of one of Martin’s friends; he is unshakeable in his existence and largely lives hand to mouth, so it is up to Gilgi to work and pay for everything.  Again, tradition is eschewed here, and Keun demonstrates to a point that a woman of the period could make things work by herself.  Gilgi’s grand ambitions still live within her, even when she becomes conscious that they are not perhaps achievable due to the pregnancy which befalls her naive self.

I was put in mind of reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage at several points during the novel; the narrative voice which Keun has crafted simultaneously weaves the first and third person perspectives together in a beguiling manner.  There is a wonderful stream-of-consciousness approach to the whole in places.  Gilgi is a fascinating, deeply complex, and thoroughly realistic character.  Each individual consequence which she has to face is tackled with the utmost verisimilitude.  Gilgi is a stunning novel, with prose echoes of Hans Fallada and Stefan Zweig.  It is absolutely wonderful, and sure to delight those with a fondness for strong female characters, or who want to read a striking piece of translated literature.

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