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The Book Trail: From Nuns to Chickens

I am beginning this episode of The Book Trail with the historical fiction novel that I reviewed in the previous post, Matrix by Lauren Groff. As ever, to generate this list, I have the used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature on Goodreads. Please let me know if you have read any of these books, and which of the titles pique your interest!

1. Matrix by Lauren Groff

‘Lauren Groff returns with her exhilarating first new novel since the groundbreaking Fates and Furies.

Cast out of the royal court by Eleanor of Aquitaine, deemed too coarse and rough-hewn for marriage or courtly life, 17-year-old Marie de France is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey, its nuns on the brink of starvation and beset by disease.

At first taken aback by the severity of her new life, Marie finds focus and love in collective life with her singular and mercurial sisters. In this crucible, Marie steadily supplants her desire for family, for her homeland, for the passions of her youth with something new to her: devotion to her sisters, and a conviction in her own divine visions. Marie, born the last in a long line of women warriors and crusaders, is determined to chart a bold new course for the women she now leads and protects. But in a world that is shifting and corroding in frightening ways, one that can never reconcile itself with her existence, will the sheer force of Marie’s vision be bulwark enough?

Equally alive to the sacred and the profane, Matrix gathers currents of violence, sensuality, and religious ecstasy in a mesmerizing portrait of consuming passion, aberrant faith, and a woman that history moves both through and around. Lauren Groff’s new novel, her first since Fates and Furies, is a defiant and timely exploration of the raw power of female creativity in a corrupted world.’

2. Minor Detail by Adania Shibli

Minor Detail begins during the summer of 1949, one year after the war that the Palestinians mourn as the Nakba – the catastrophe that led to the displacement and expulsion of more than 700,000 people – and the Israelis celebrate as the War of Independence. Israeli soldiers capture and rape a young Palestinian woman, and kill and bury her in the sand. Many years later, a woman in Ramallah becomes fascinated to the point of obsession with this ‘minor detail’ of history. A haunting meditation on war, violence and memory, Minor Detail cuts to the heart of the Palestinian experience of dispossession, life under occupation, and the persistent difficulty of piecing together a narrative in the face of ongoing erasure and disempowerment.’

3. At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop

‘Alfa Ndiaye is a Senegalese man who, never before having left his village, finds himself fighting as a so-called “Chocolat” soldier with the French army during World War I. When his friend Mademba Diop, in the same regiment, is seriously injured in battle, Diop begs Alfa to kill him and spare him the pain of a long and agonizing death in No Man’s Land.

Unable to commit this mercy killing, madness creeps into Alfa’s mind as he comes to see this refusal as a cruel moment of cowardice. Anxious to avenge the death of his friend and find forgiveness for himself, he begins a macabre ritual: every night he sneaks across enemy lines to find and murder a blue-eyed German soldier, and every night he returns to base, unharmed, with the German’s severed hand. At first his comrades look at Alfa’s deeds with admiration, but soon rumors begin to circulate that this super soldier isn’t a hero, but a sorcerer, a soul-eater. Plans are hatched to get Alfa away from the front, and to separate him from his growing collection of hands, but how does one reason with a demon, and how far will Alfa go to make amends to his dead friend?

Peppered with bullets and black magic, this remarkable novel fills in a forgotten chapter in the history of World War I. Blending oral storytelling traditions with the gritty, day-to-day, journalistic horror of life in the trenches, David Diop’s At Night All Blood is Black is a dazzling tale of a man’s descent into madness.

Selected by students across France to win the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, David Diop’s English-language, historical fiction debut At Night All Blood is Black is a “powerful, hypnotic, and dark novel” (Livres Hebdo) of terror and transformation in the trenches of the First World War.’

4. A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam

‘A young man journeys into Sri Lanka’s war-torn north in this searing novel of longing, loss, and the legacy of war from the award-winning author of The Story of a Brief Marriage.

A Passage North begins with a message from out of the blue: a telephone call informing Krishan that his grandmother’s caretaker, Rani, has died under unexpected circumstances–found at the bottom of a well in her village in the north, her neck broken by the fall. The news arrives on the heels of an email from Anjum, an impassioned yet aloof activist Krishnan fell in love with years before while living in Delhi, stirring old memories and desires from a world he left behind.

As Krishan makes the long journey by train from Colombo into the war-torn Northern Province for Rani’s funeral, so begins an astonishing passage into the innermost reaches of a country. At once a powerful meditation on absence and longing, as well as an unsparing account of the legacy of Sri Lanka’s thirty-year civil war, this procession to a pyre “at the end of the earth” lays bare the imprints of an island’s past, the unattainable distances between who we are and what we seek.

Written with precision and grace, Anuk Arudpragasam’s masterful new novel is an attempt to come to terms with life in the wake of devastation, and a poignant memorial for those lost and those still alive.’

5. The Promise by Damon Galgut

The Promise charts the crash and burn of a white South African family, living on a farm outside Pretoria. The Swarts are gathering for Ma’s funeral. The younger generation, Anton and Amor, detest everything the family stand for — not least the failed promise to the Black woman who has worked for them her whole life. After years of service, Salome was promised her own house, her own land… yet somehow, as each decade passes, that promise remains unfulfilled.

The narrator’s eye shifts and blinks: moving fluidly between characters, flying into their dreams; deliciously lethal in its observation. And as the country moves from old deep divisions to its new so-called fairer society, the lost promise of more than just one family hovers behind the novel’s title.

In this story of a diminished family, sharp and tender emotional truths hit home. Confident, deft and quietly powerful, The Promise is literary fiction at its finest.’

6. Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

‘From the critically acclaimed and award‑winning author of Golden Hill, a mesmerizing and boldly inventive novel tracing the infinite possibilities of five lives in the bustling neighborhoods of 20th-century London.

Lunchtime on a Saturday, 1944: the Woolworths on Bexford High Street in southeast London receives a delivery of aluminum saucepans. A crowd gathers to see the first new metal in ages—after all, everything’s been melted down for the war effort. An instant later, the crowd is gone; incinerated. Among the shoppers were five young children.

Who were they? What futures did they lose? This brilliantly constructed novel lets an alternative reel of time run, imagining the life arcs of these five souls as they live through the extraordinary, unimaginable changes of the bustling immensity of twentieth-century London. Their intimate everyday dramas, as sons and daughters, spouses, parents, grandparents; as the separated, the remarried, the bereaved. Through decades of social, sexual, and technological transformation, as bus conductors and landlords, as swindlers and teachers, patients and inmates. Days of personal triumphs, disasters; of second chances and redemption.

Ingenious and profound, full of warmth and beauty, Light Perpetual illuminates the shapes of experience, the extraordinariness of the ordinary, the mysteries of memory and expectation, and the preciousness of life.’

7. Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

‘Spanning Prohibition-era Montana, the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, New Zealand, wartime London, and modern-day Los Angeles, Great Circle tells the unforgettable story of a daredevil female aviator determined to chart her own course in life, at any cost.

After being rescued as infants from a sinking ocean liner in 1914, Marian and Jamie Graves are raised by their dissolute uncle in Missoula, Montana. There—after encountering a pair of barnstorming pilots passing through town in beat-up biplanes—Marian commences her lifelong love affair with flight. At fourteen she drops out of school and finds an unexpected and dangerous patron in a wealthy bootlegger who provides a plane and subsidizes her lessons, an arrangement that will haunt her for the rest of her life, even as it allows her to fulfill her destiny: circumnavigating the globe by flying over the North and South Poles.

A century later, Hadley Baxter is cast to play Marian in a film that centers on Marian’s disappearance in Antarctica. Vibrant, canny, disgusted with the claustrophobia of Hollywood, Hadley is eager to redefine herself after a romantic film franchise has imprisoned her in the grip of cult celebrity. Her immersion into the character of Marian unfolds, thrillingly, alongside Marian’s own story, as the two women’s fates—and their hunger for self-determination in vastly different geographies and times—collide. Epic and emotional, meticulously researched and gloriously told, Great Circle is a monumental work of art, and a tremendous leap forward for the prodigiously gifted Maggie Shipstead.’

8. Brood by Jackie Polzin

‘A new literary voice–wryly funny, honest and observational,–depicts one woman’s attempt to keep her four chickens alive while reflecting on a recent loss.

Over the course of a single year, our nameless narrator heroically tries to keep her small brood of four chickens alive despite the seemingly endless challenges that caring for another creature entails. From the forty-below nights of a brutal Minnesota winter to a sweltering summer which brings a surprise tornado, she battles predators, bad luck, and the uncertainty of a future that may not look anything like the one she always imagined. This book is a meditation on life and longing.’

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‘Matrix’ by Lauren Groff ****

Lauren Groff is one of a handful of authors whom I will happily read anything by. I had not even glanced at the blurb of her 2021 novel, Matrix, before borrowing it from my library. It came as something of a surprise to me that this is a work of historical fiction, given that her previous books have been so rooted in the contemporary world. It is safe to say that my hopes for Matrix were very high indeed.

The protagonist of Matrix is seventeen-year-old Marie, a young woman living in the court of Eleanor of Aquitane, the Queen of France. Marie, who is loosely based on a twelfth-century poet named Marie de France, is a ‘bastardess sibling of the crown’. She has proved ‘too wild for courtly life’, and is swiftly despatched to an abbey in the north of England. On a cold morning in the winter of 1158, Marie is expelled from the life she has known, and sent away from her secret lover, Cecily. Cecily is ‘… this rough person who had up until this moment been everything to Marie, mistress and sister and servant and pleasure and single loving soul in all of Angleterre.’

Marie is forced to become the abbey’s prioress, despite not believing in any higher power. She finds the religion bestowed upon her ‘vaguely foolish… Her faith had twisted very early in her childhood; it would slowly grow ever more bent into its geography until it was its own angular, majestic thing.’ After she has lived there for around two decades, Groff writes that her faith has shifted entirely: ‘How strange, she thinks. Belief has grown upon her. Perhaps, she thinks, it is something like a mold.’ One of the many strengths in this novel is the portrait which Groff draws of a woman forced against her will into a way of life, and the ways in which she copes with, and adapts to, it.

In the opening scene, Marie arrives at her new home: ‘She sees for the first time the abbey, pale and aloof on a rise in this damp valley, the clouds drawn up from the ocean and wrung against the hills in constant rainfall. Most of the year this place is emerald and sapphire, bursting under dampness, thick with sheep and chaffinches and newts, delicate mushrooms poking from the rich soil, but now in late winter, all is grey and full of shadows.’ The young woman is ‘tall, a giantess of a maiden, and her elbows and knees stick out, ungainly… Her stark Angevin face holds no beauty, only canniness and passion yet unchecked.’ She has been sent to the desolate, neglected abbey during a raging epidemic of one disease or another, which has caused many of the nuns there to perish. The nuns are viewed with suspicion by those who live around the abbey; the townsfolk see them as ‘suspect, unnatural, sisters to witches.’

Over the decades which she spends at the abbey, Marie is nothing short of radical. She looks after the women around her, and comes up with bold new ideas to turn the struggling abbey into a profitable place. This element of the novel in particular will appeal to any feminist; she is a strong woman surrounded by others who become stronger under her direction. She becomes, for the abbey, an agent of change. As Groff says, ‘Her mastery will be gradual but, by the time she becomes abbess many years later, complete.’ She makes renters settle their debts; she sets up a scriptorium where the more educated nuns produce beautiful manuscripts, which can then be sold; she persuades nobles to donate the land around the abbey to the nuns.

The narrative here has been wonderfully controlled. I liked the way in which Groff wove in explorations of feminism, particularly within the female-only space of the abbey. Marie, for instance, grapples with her sexuality throughout, as do others around her. Groff writes: ‘There is no mention of female sodomy in any of the books, and the great angry moralists would have mentioned it if it were a sin, surely. Marie has searched; she has found only echoing silence.’

I do not believe that I’ve read another novel quite like Matrix. It is inventive in true Groff style, and I know that the story and its wonderfully drawn characters and scenes will stay with me for quite some time yet. The novel is wonderfully rich in detail, and I was pulled right into its story. The historical context which Groff provides is at once vague and detailed, and altogether, the story which has been told here is thoroughly beguiling. I really like the way in which Groff captures what was going on in the world whilst the nuns were cloistered away; for instance, when she writes: ‘Marie is forty-seven. From Rome, from Paris, from London, her spies have written swift panicked letters; Jerusalem has fallen again to the infidel.’ Groff has put such thought into how to make this world as realistic and believable as possible.

I love it when I have the chance to read a book by an author which proves a real departure from their previous publications. Matrix is definitely this for Groff. Whilst it is recognisably her work, there is definitely a different feel to it overall. The magical realism which her other novels and short stories are steeped in is barely visible here, only appearing in a couple of ‘visions’ which the nuns have. These small glimpses work wonderfully with the realism which the rest of the story is suffused in. The scenes which she has implanted magical realism into are few and far between, but also beautiful: ‘Lightning sparks at the tip of her fingers. Swifter than breath it moves through her hands, the flesh of her arms, her inner organs, her sex, her skin, and it settles jagged and blazing in her throat. Wondrous colors bloom in the sky above the forest. With a thunder that shakes the ground beneath Marie’s feet, there is a split in the sky that opens. In the split Marie sees a woman made of the greatness of all the cities in the world together, a woman clothed in radiance.’

Time passes quickly in Matrix, and I enjoyed every second. It was not the novel which I was expecting, but I thoroughly admired the way in which Groff tackles so many topics here; it is a novel of religion, sexuality, bonds, friendship, and female power, amongst much else. She has created a stylish and playful work of historical fiction, which feels fresh and exciting. Matrix is undoubtedly a very clever book, and I am so excited to see what Groff comes up with next.

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Books for Summertime

I have always been a seasonal reader to an extent – particularly, it must be said, when it comes to Christmas-themed books – but I feel that my reading choices have been aligned more with the seasons in the last tumultuous year. Connecting my reading with the natural world around me has given me a sense of calm whilst the world has reached such a point of crisis, and picking up a seasonally themed book has become rather a soothing task. With this in mind, I wanted to collect together eight books which I feel will be perfect picks for summer, and which I hope you will want to include in your own reading journeys.

These books are best enjoyed with a deckchair in the shade, vivid wildflowers, and a tall glass of something cool

1. Let Us Now Praise Famous Gardens by Vita Sackville-West

‘In this unique gardening chronicle Vita Sackville-West weaves together simple, honest accounts of her horticultural experiences throughout the year with exquisite writing and poetic description. Whether singing the praises of sweet-briar, cyclamen, Indian pinks and the Strawberry grape, or giving practical advice on pruning roses, planting bulbs, overcoming frosts and making the most of a small space, her writings on the art of good gardening are both instructive and delightful. Generations of inhabitants have helped shape the English countryside – but it has profoundly shaped us too. It has provoked a huge variety of responses from artists, writers, musicians and people who live and work on the land – as well as those who are travelling through it.English Journeys celebrates this long tradition with a series of twenty books on all aspects of the countryside, from stargazey pie and country churches, to man’s relationship with nature and songs celebrating the patterns of the countryside (as well as ghosts and love-struck soldiers).’

2. A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

‘A raucous comedy that thrusts a quartet of reckless young lovers headfirst into a world of magic and fantasy, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is edited by Stanley Wells with an introduction by Helen Hackett in Penguin Shakespeare. ‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend More than cool reason ever comprehends’ Lovers Lysander and Hermia flee Athens to escape the authority of their parents, only to be pursued by Hermia’s betrothed Demetrius, and her friend Helena. Unwittingly, all four find themselves in an enchanted forest where Oberon, the king of the fairies, and Titania, his queen, soon take an interest in human affairs, dispensing magical love potions and casting mischievous spells. In this dazzling comedy, confusion ends in harmony, as love is transformed, misplaced, and – ultimately – restored.’

3. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

‘A foundling, an old book of dark fairy tales, a secret garden, an aristocratic family, a love denied, and a mystery. The Forgotten Garden is a captivating, atmospheric and compulsively readable story of the past, secrets, family and memory from the international best-selling author Kate Morton. Cassandra is lost, alone and grieving. Her much loved grandmother, Nell, has just died and Cassandra, her life already shaken by a tragic accident ten years ago, feels like she has lost everything dear to her. But an unexpected and mysterious bequest from Nell turns Cassandra’s life upside down and ends up challenging everything she thought she knew about herself and her family. Inheriting a book of dark and intriguing fairytales written by Eliza Makepeace—the Victorian authoress who disappeared mysteriously in the early twentieth century—Cassandra takes her courage in both hands to follow in the footsteps of Nell on a quest to find out the truth about their history, their family and their past; little knowing that in the process, she will also discover a new life for herself.’

4. Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams

‘The play is a simple love story of a somewhat puritanical Southern girl and an unpuritanical young doctor. Each is basically attracted to the other but because of their divergent attitudes toward life, each over the course of years is driven away from the other. Not until toward the end does the doctor realize that the girl’s high idealism is basically right, and while she is still in love with him, it turns out that neither time nor circumstances will allow the two ultimately to come together.’

5. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

‘Meet little Mole, willful Ratty, Badger the perennial bachelor, and petulant Toad. In the almost one hundred years since their first appearance in 1908, they’ve become emblematic archetypes of eccentricity, folly, and friendship. And their misadventures-in gypsy caravans, stolen sports cars, and their Wild Wood-continue to capture readers’ imaginations and warm their hearts long after they grow up. Begun as a series of letters from Kenneth Grahame to his son, The Wind in the Willows is a timeless tale of animal cunning and human camaraderie.’

6. Florida by Lauren Groff

‘The stories in this collection span characters, towns, decades, even centuries, but Florida—its landscape, climate, history, and state of mind—becomes its gravitational center: an energy, a mood, as much as a place of residence. Groff transports the reader, then jolts us alert with a crackle of wit, a wave of sadness, a flash of cruelty, as she writes about loneliness, rage, family, and the passage of time. With shocking accuracy and effect, she pinpoints the moments and decisions and connections behind human pleasure and pain, hope and despair, love and fury—the moments that make us alive.’

7. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

‘An elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter while away a summer together on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. Gradually, the two learn to adjust to each other’s fears, whims and yearnings for independence, and a fierce yet understated love emerges – one that encompasses not only the summer inhabitants but the island itself, with its mossy rocks, windswept firs and unpredictable seas. Full of brusque humour and wisdom, The Summer Book is a profoundly life-affirming story. Tove Jansson captured much of her own experience and spirit in the book, which was her favourite of the novels she wrote for adults. This new edition sees the return of a European literary gem – fresh, authentic and deeply humane.’

8. Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner

‘Sophia Willoughby, a young Englishwoman from an aristocratic family and a person of strong opinions and even stronger will, has packed her cheating husband off to Paris. He can have his tawdry mistress. She intends to devote herself to the serious business of raising her two children in proper Tory fashion. Then tragedy strikes: the children die, and Sophia, in despair, finds her way to Paris, arriving just in time for the revolution of 1848. Before long she has formed the unlikeliest of close relations with Minna, her husband’s sometime mistress, whose dramatic recitations, based on her hair-raising childhood in czarist Russia, electrify audiences in drawing rooms and on the street alike. Minna, “magnanimous and unscrupulous, fickle, ardent, and interfering,” leads Sophia on a wild adventure through bohemian and revolutionary Paris, in a story that reaches an unforgettable conclusion amidst the bullets, bloodshed, and hope of the barricades. Sylvia Townsend Warner was one of the most original and inventive of twentieth-century English novelists. At once an adventure story, a love story, and a novel of ideas, Summer Will Show is a brilliant reimagining of the possibilities of historical fiction.’

Please stay tuned for subsequent autumn and winter recommendation posts, which will be published at the beginning of each new season. Also, let me know if you have any seasonal reads to recommend!

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Three Favourites: Norah Lange, Sally Rooney, and Lauren Groff

people-at-the-roomPeople in the Room by Norah Lange
I purchased Argentinian author Norah Lange’s novella, People in the Room, after randomly coming across it during a weekly browse of the Kindle store.  Much to my dismay, I have read very little Argentinian fiction, and would like to remedy this.  Lange’s novel – which is, as far as I am aware, the only piece of her work currently available in English translation – sounded fascinating.

The introduction, written by Cesar Aira, is both insightful and interesting, despite the fact that it gave quite a lot of the story away.  I loved Lange’s writing style and its translation into English felt fluid.  I loved the way in which almost all of the characters remained unnamed, and the element of obsession was so well handled.

I found People in the Room to be unsettling and beguiling in equal measure. I’ve never read anything quite like it, and could feel the claustrophobia closing in as it went on.  The tension in the novel is almost palpable.  I’m not sure that I have ever read anything quite like People in the Room before, and it is certainly a book which will stay with me for a very long time.

 

Normal People by Sally Rooney 9780571334650
I was a little sceptical about picking up Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, due to the sheer amount of hype which it has been getting since its publication. I have been disappointed before by novels which many others have raved about, and am therefore a little wary whenever I see the same cover splashed over blogs and BookTube. However, I need not have worried.  Normal People is wonderfully perceptive, and I got a feel for its two main characters, Connell and Marianne, immediately. There is a lot of dark content here, which becomes more prominent as the novel progresses, and I cared immensely for the protagonists.

The structure which Rooney has adopted here was effective, and kept me interested throughout. I admired the fact that she focuses in such detail upon relationships, and the ways in which they can shift. There are some very topical issues which have been tackled well here. Whilst I was a little disappointed by the ending, which I felt was a little too twee to match the tone of the rest of the book, Rooney’s writing is so pitch-perfect, and her characters so real, that I could not give this anything other than a five star rating.

Normal People is incredibly immersive; beware, and only pick it up if you have a whole afternoon free to spend in its company. I read this in two sittings, as I could barely put it down, and am now incredibly excited to get to her debut, Conversations with Friends.

 

91gogy5bsxlFlorida by Lauren Groff
Lauren Groff has been one of my favourite authors for years now.  I have always been astounded by how much atmosphere she creates, and yet how succinct her writing still is.  The stories in her newest collection, Florida, have the US state at their centre, ‘its landscape, climate, history and state of mind’ are what each character and each plot revolve around.  I love collections with a centralised heart like this, and loved being able to revisit Florida without having to take another eight-hour flight.

Showcasing eleven stories in all, and coming in at less than 300 pages, Florida is a truly masterful collection.  Groff demonstrates her insight and understanding of the diverse state in which she lives, and the sense of place which she creates is always highly evocative.  In ‘Ghosts and Empties’, for example, she writes: ‘The neighborhood goes dark as I walk, and a second neighborhood unrolls atop the daytime one.  We have few streetlights, and those I pass under make my shadow frolic; it lags behind me, gallops to my feet, gambols on ahead…  Feral cats dart underfoot, birds-of-paradise flowers poke out of the shadows, smells are exhaled into the air: oak dust, slime mold, camphor.’  In this story, we are walked through what was once a poor neighbourhood, but which is beginning to gentrify.

Groff showed me a Florida which I was largely unaware of in these stories, and which I haven’t seen with my own eyes.  Tales are set in Florida during the cool wintertime, as well as in areas which I haven’t visited – the Everglades, for instance.  The darker side of life nestles up against the bright vibrancy which tourists see.  Never is Groff’s version of the Sunshine State sugarcoated; she shows poverty, homelessness, abandonment, neglect, and death.  Throughout, she challenges perceptions, and she does this so well.

One never knows what will happen in one of Groff’s stories, and this collection shows just how strong a writer she is.  Each tale is perfectly formed, and together they provide a kaleidoscopic view of a state at once beautiful and wild.  As anyone familiar with her work will know, she uses magical realism to perfection.  Florida is a wonderful short story collection, and one which I cannot recommend enough.

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Highly Anticipated: 2018 Releases

I am currently trying to stop adding books to my extensive to-read lists, but I could not resist sneaking a peek into a few book lists which detail 2018 releases.  With this in mind, I have made a list of ten which I will be seeking out over the course of the year.

1. Awayland by Ramona Ausubel (short stories; 1st January) 35792793
‘An inventive story collection that spans the globe as it explores love, childhood, and parenthood with an electric mix of humor and emotion.  Acclaimed for the grace, wit, and magic of her novels, Ramona Ausubel introduces us to a geography both fantastic and familiar in eleven new stories, some of them previously published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. Elegantly structured, these stories span the globe and beyond, from small-town America and sunny Caribbean islands to the Arctic Ocean and the very gates of Heaven itself. And though some of the stories are steeped in mythology, they remain grounded in universal experiences: loss of identity, leaving home, parenthood, joy, and longing.  Crisscrossing the pages of Awayland are travelers and expats, shadows and ghosts. A girl watches as her homesick mother slowly dissolves into literal mist. The mayor of a small Midwestern town offers a strange prize, for stranger reasons, to the parents of any baby born on Lenin’s birthday. A chef bound for Mars begins an even more treacherous journey much closer to home. And a lonely heart searches for love online–never mind that he’s a Cyclops.  With her signature tenderness, Ramona Ausubel applies a mapmaker’s eye to landscapes both real and imagined, all the while providing a keen guide to the wild, uncharted terrain of the human heart.’

 

2. Two Sisters: Into the Syrian Jihad by Åsne Seierstad 35259571(non-fiction; 13th February)
‘One morning in October 2013, nineteen-year-old Ayan Juma and her sixteen-year-old sister Leila left their family home in Oslo. Later that day they sent an email to their parents. ‘Peace, God’s mercy and blessings upon you, Mum and Dad … Please do not be cross with us…’  Leila and Ayan had decided to travel to Syria, ‘and help out down there as best we can’. They had been planning for months. By the time their desperate father Sadiq tracks them to Turkey, they have already crossed the border. But Sadiq is determined to find them.  What follows is the gripping, heartbreaking story of a family ripped apart. While Sadiq risks his own life to bring his daughters back, at home his wife Sara begins to question their life in Norway. How could her children have been radicalised without her knowledge? How can she protect her two younger sons from the same fate?  Åsne Seierstad – with the complete support of the Juma family – followed the story from the beginning, through its many dramatic twists and turns. It’s a tale that crosses from Sadiq and Sara’s original home in Somalia, to their council estate in Oslo, to Turkey and to Syria – where two teenage sisters must face the shocking consequences of their decision.’

 

354580383. The Red Word by Sarah Henstra (novel; 13th March)
A smart, dark, and take-no-prisoners look at rape culture and the extremes to which ideology can go, The Red Word is a campus novel like no other. As her sophomore year begins, Karen enters into the back-to-school revelry–particularly at a fraternity called GBC. When she wakes up one morning on the lawn of Raghurst, a house of radical feminists, she gets a crash course in the state of feminist activism on campus. GBC is notorious, she learns, nicknamed “Gang Bang Central” and a prominent contributor to a list of date rapists compiled by female students. Despite continuing to party there and dating one of the brothers, Karen is equally seduced by the intellectual stimulation and indomitable spirit of the Raghurst women, who surprise her by wanting her as a housemate and recruiting her into the upper-level class of a charismatic feminist mythology scholar they all adore. As Karen finds herself caught between two increasingly polarized camps, ringleader housemate Dyann believes she has hit on the perfect way to expose and bring down the fraternity as a symbol of rape culture–but the war between the houses will exact a terrible price.  The Red Word captures beautifully the feverish binarism of campus politics and the headlong rush of youth toward new friends, lovers, and life-altering ideas. With strains of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, Alison Lurie’s Truth and Consequences, and Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, Sarah Henstra’s debut adult novel arrives on the wings of furies.’

 

4. Collected Stories by Bruno Schulz (short stories; 15th March) 51cviifluxl-_sx331_bo1204203200_
Collected Stories is an authoritative new translation of the complete fiction of Bruno Schulz, whose work has influenced writers as various as Salman Rushdie, Cynthia Ozick, Jonathan Safran Foer, Philip Roth, Danilo Kis, and Roberto Bolano.Schulz’s prose is renowned for its originality. Set largely in a fictional counterpart of his hometown of Drohobycz, his stories merge the real and the surreal. The most ordinary objects-the wind, an article of clothing, a plate of fish-can suddenly appear unfathomably mysterious and capable of illuminating profound truths. As “Father,” one of his most intriguing characters, declaims: “Matter has been granted infinite fecundity, an inexhaustible vital force, and at the same time, a seductive power of temptation that entices us to create forms.”This comprehensive volume includes all of The Cinnamon Shops, restoring the original Polish title to Schulz’s most famous collection (sometimes titled The Street of Crocodiles in English), and Sanatorium under the Hourglass. Also included are four previously uncollected short stories that pay tribute to Schulz’s enduring genius. Madeline G. Levine’s masterful new translation shows contemporary readers how Schulz, often compared to Proust and Kafka, reveals the workings of memory and consciousness.’

 

 

5. Macbeth by Jo Nesbo (novel; Hogarth Shakespeare; 5th April) 33952851
Set in a dark, rainy northern town, Nesbo’s Macbeth pits the ambitions of a corrupt policeman against loyal colleagues, a drug-depraved underworld and the pull of childhood friendships.  Get ready to helter-skelter through the darkest tunnels of human experience.

 

366244156. Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean (non-fiction; 10th April)
Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm—these brilliant women are the central figures of Sharp. Their lives intertwine as they cut through the cultural and intellectual history of America in the twentieth century, arguing as fervently with each other as they did with the sexist attitudes of the men who often undervalued their work as critics and essayists. These women are united by what Dean terms as “sharpness,” the ability to cut to the quick with precision of thought and wit, a claiming of power through writing rather than position.  Sharp is a vibrant and rich depiction of the intellectual beau monde of twentieth-century New York, where gossip-filled parties at night gave out to literary slanging-matches in the pages of the Partisan Review or the New York Review of Books as well as a considered portrayal of how these women came to be so influential in a climate where women were treated with derision by the critical establishment.  Mixing biography, literary criticism, and cultural history, Sharp is an enthralling exploration of how a group of brilliant women became central figures in the world of letters despite the many obstacles facing them, a testament to how anyone not in a position of power can claim the mantle of writer and, perhaps, help change the world.

 

7. Florida by Lauren Groff (short stories; 5th June) 36098092
Groff says in an interview: “The collection is a portrait of my own incredible ambivalence about the state where I’ve lived for twelve years. My feelings for Florida are immoderate, and I love the disappearing natural world, the sunshine, the extraordinary and astonishing beauty of the place as passionately as I hate the heat and moisture and backward politics and the million creatures whose only wish is to kill you. I wrote this collection very slowly and was surprised when it came together to find that the stories built into a ferocious protracted argument.”

 

My eighth, ninth and tenth books on this list are the forthcoming Persephone publications for April 2018.  I can find little information about any of them as yet, but I am very excited to read Despised and Rejected by Rose Allatini, Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple, and Tory Heaven by Marghanita Laski.

Which books are you most excited about during 2018?  Will you, or have you, read any of these?

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4

Short Story Series: Part Five

I adore reading short stories, and don’t see many reviews of collections on blogs in comparison to novels and the like. I thought that I would make a weekly series to showcase short stories, and point interested readers in the direction of some of my favourite collections. Rather than ramble in adoration for every single book, I have decided to copy their official blurb. I have linked my blog reviews where appropriate.

1. The Birds by Daphne du Maurier
‘A classic of alienation and horror, ‘The Birds’ was immortalised by Hitchcock in his celebrated film. The five other chilling stories in this collection echo a sense of dislocation and mock man’s sense of dominance over the natural world. The mountain paradise of ‘Monte Verita’ promises immortality, but at a terrible price; a neglected wife haunts her husband in the form of an apple tree; a professional photographer steps out from behind the camera and into his subject’s life; a date with a cinema usherette leads to a walk in the cemetery; and a jealous father finds a remedy when three’s a crowd …’

2. Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman
‘Tenderly, observantly, incisively, Edith Pearlman captures life on the page like few other writers. She is a master of the short story, and this is a spectacular collection.’

3. Lying Under the Apple Tree by Alice Munro
‘Spanning her last five collections and bringing together her finest work from the past fifteen years, this new selection of Alice Munro’s stories infuses everyday lives with a wealth of nuance and insight. Beautifully observed and remarkably crafted, written with emotion and empathy, these stories are nothing short of perfection. It is a masterclass in the genre, from an author who deservedly lays claim to being one of the major fiction writers of our time.’

My review can be found here.

4. Delicate Edible Birds and Other Stories by Lauren Groff
‘”Delicate Edible Birds” includes nine stories of vastly different styles and structures. “L. De Bard and Aliette” recreates the tale of Abelard and Heloise in New York during the 1918 flu epidemic; “Lucky Chow Fun” returns to Templeton, the setting of Groff’s debut novel, for a contemporary account of what happens to outsiders in a small, insular town; the title story of “Delicate Edible Birds” is a harrowing, powerfully moving drama about a group of war correspondents, a lone woman among them, who fall prey to a frightening man in the French countryside while fleeing the Nazis. With a dazzling array of voices and settings, “Delicate Edible Birds” will cement Lauren Groff’s reputation as one of the foremost talents of her generation.’

5. Under a Glass Bell by Anais Nin
‘”Under a Glass Bell” is one of Nin’s finest collections of stories. First published in 1944, it attracted the attention of Edmond Wilson, who reviewed the collection in “The New Yorker.” It was in these stories that Nin’s artistic and emotional vision took shape. This edition includes a highly informative and insightful foreword by Gunther Stuhlmann that places the collection in its historical context as well as illuminates the sequence of events and persons recorded in the diary that served as its inspiration.’

6. Selected Short Stories by Virginia Woolf
‘Virginia Woolf tested the boundaries of fiction in these short stories, developing a new language of sensation, feeling and thought, and recreating in words the ‘swarm and confusion of life’. Defying categorization, the stories range from the more traditional narrative style of “Solid Objects” through the fragile impressionism of “Kew Gardens” to the abstract exploration of consciousness in “The Mark on the Wall”.’

7. Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson
‘What is the real world? Does it exist, or is it merely a means of keeping another reality at bay? Not the End of the World is Kate Atkinson’s first collection of short stories. Playful and profound, they explore the world we think we know whilst offering a vision of another world which lurks just beneath the surface of our consciousness, a world where the myths we have banished from our lives are startlingly present and where imagination has the power to transform reality. From Charlene and Trudi, obsessively making lists while bombs explode softly in the streets outside, to gormless Eddie, maniacal cataloguer of fish, and Meredith Zane who may just have discovered the secret to eternal life, each of these stories shows that when the worlds of material existence and imagination collide, anything is possible.’

8. Selected Short Stories by Honore de Balzac
‘One of the greatest French novelists, Balzac was also an accomplished writer of shorter fiction. This volume includes twelve of his finest short stories many of which feature characters from his epic series of novels the Comedie Humaine. Compelling tales of acute social and psychological insight, they fully demonstrate the mastery of suspense and revelation that were the hallmarks of Balzac’s genius. In The Atheist’s Mass, we learn the true reason for a distinguished atheist surgeon’s attendance at religious services; La Grande Breteche describes the horrific truth behind the locked doors of a decaying country mansion, while The Red Inn relates a brutal tale of murder and betrayal. A fascinating counterpoint to the renowned novels, all the stories collected here stand by themselves as mesmerizing works by one of the finest writers of nineteenth-century France.’

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