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One From the Archive: ‘The Road Through the Wall’ by Shirley Jackson *****

‘In… an attractive suburban neighbourhood filled with bullies and egotistical bigots, the feelings of the inhabitants are shallow and selfish: What can a neighbour gain from another neighbour, what may be won from a friend? One child stands alone in her goodness: little Caroline Desmond, kind, sweet and gentle, and the pride of her family. But the malice and self-absorption of the people of Pepper Street lead to a terrible event that will destroy the community of which they are so proud. Exposing the murderous cruelty of children, and the blindness and selfishness of adults, Shirley Jackson reveals the ugly truth behind a ‘perfect’ world.’ 9780141392004

The Road Through the Wall is Queen of Creepy Shirley Jackson’s first novel.  In the foreword to the Penguin edition which I borrowed from the library, Ruth Franklin writes: ‘Compared to The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson’s masterful late novels, The Road Through the Wall is a slighter work.  But it is marvellously written, with the careful attention to structure, the precision of detail, and the brilliant bite of irony that would always define her style’.

The novel was published in 1948 to a ‘largely unappreciative audience’; its critics were ‘put off by the book’s unpleasant characters, its grim tone, and its violent conclusion’. The Road Through the Wall is a prelude of sorts to ‘The Lottery’, which was published the following year.  It takes place in 1936, on Pepper Street in small town California.  Instead of a familial saga, it is rather more of a neighbourhood affair, although the familial relations are nothing less than fascinating throughout.  We meet several families resident on the street, and come to know them intimately thanks to Jackson’s wonderful, measured prose.  Every single character has differing traits, and one of Jackson’s real strengths here (and there are many) lies in demonstrating the imagination and power of children.

The Road Through the Wall is not my favourite of Jackson’s works, but it is taut, surprising and compelling, and certainly an accomplished debut.  It took a final direction which I wasn’t expecting, but which made an awful lot of sense in retrospect.  The ending is marvellously and creepily crafted, and I very much liked the way in which Jackson left some of the most pressing questions unanswered.

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‘Mr Fox’ by Barbara Comyns ****

I love Comyns’ work, and try to pick up her novels whenever I place an online order, difficult as they seem to locate in physical bookshops.  Virago have reissued three of her books – The Vet’s DaughterSisters by a River, and Our Spoons Came From Woolworths – in the last few years, and NYRB have just brought out a lovely edition of The Juniper Tree, but I have seen nothing about a republication of her 1987 novel, Mr Fox.  I therefore purchased a copy of it online, and was eager to begin.

Comyns’ penultimate novel, Mr Fox is set during the Second World War, and moves from London to some small, imagined towns and villages nearby.  At the outset of the novel, which is narrated in its entirety by Caroline Seymore, Mr Fox, a ‘spiv’, offers her and her young daughter, Jenny, assistance.  The pair were deserted by Jenny’s father, Oliver, whilst Caroline was still pregnant, as he felt that running off to Spain to fight against Franco was more important than providing for his family.  Mr Fox promises the Seymores ‘a roof over their heads, advice on evading creditors and a shared – ie. dubious – future.’  Mr Fox is ‘always full of new ideas about making money and was often very prosperous, but sometimes almost penniless.’  He takes on many schemes to make dishonest 7191026money, and is unable to keep any savings in the bank, due to the temptation of spending them.

The novel opens in the following manner, which wonderfully sets the tone for the whole: ‘The other people in the house where I lived didn’t like me.  I expect it was because I was living with a man I wasn’t married to.  We just had “Mr Fox and Mrs Caroline Seymore” written on the door that led to our flat.  There was a Miss Seymore living there, too, but she didn’t have her name on the door because she was only three years old.’  Adhering to social conventions is something which does not greatly bother Caroline; the welfare of herself and her daughter during wartime is her primary concern.  Of her marriage to Oliver, Caroline writes: ‘I don’t think it’s a frightfully good thing to do to marry poets.  My mother was very much against it, but she was rather a dreary kind of woman and I didn’t want to grow dreary too, so I left her and married Oliver, who was delightful and sparkling, and it was only afterwards I discovered he was shallow and spoilt and really rather affected, and his poetry was affected, too.’

Their existence with Mr Fox is often rather tumultuous.  Early on in the narrative, Caroline admits: ‘We often did things that made him [Mr Fox] displeased with us, but we had nowhere else to go, so we had to go on living with him.’  Once the air raids begin in earnest, she and Mr Fox decide to move out of London.  They find a ‘shoddy little house’ in the fictional town of Straws, near the factory where Mr Fox is able to get a job.  Caroline writes: ‘It wasn’t the war that depressed me so much but life at Straws.  It was the most dreary, lonely place in the world, and it made Mr Fox unbearable.  He became frightfully bad-tempered and nervy and had completely changed from the dashing kind of crook he used to be; leading an honest life didn’t suit him at all.’  Although she has been removed from the fear of being bombed, she feels increasingly trapped and frightened, with nowhere else to go, and no friends to speak to.  Despite her misfortunes, Caroline does not allow herself to become pessimistic: ‘In the back of my mind I was always sure that wonderful things were waiting for me, but I’d got to get through a lot of horrors first.’

The chatty style which Comyns employs works so well here; Caroline feels like a three-dimensional creation, always candid and often rather funny.  Comyns also gives one a real feel for the period as the threat of war, and later conflict itself, progresses: ‘But it wasn’t the same as the scare the previous year.  The war came nearer and nearer and there was no escaping it, you could almost see it coming like a great dust-storm.’  In Mr Fox, Comyns tells of a quite ordinary woman’s experiences during wartime, crafting rather a straightforward and sincere voice in which to do so.  Mr Fox is an immersive novel, and an unfairly neglected one too.  I’m crossing my fingers that a publisher will reprint it soon, so that it can be discovered by a whole new clutch of readers.

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Around the World in 80 Books: Three More I Didn’t Enjoy

I have encountered some real gems on this year’s Around the World in 80 Books challenge, but as I half expected when I began, there are quite a few books which I just did not get on with.  I am nearing the end of my challenge, and thought that I would collect together the reviews of three books which I ended up giving up on.

 

9789814346207The Bondmaid by Catherine Lim (Singapore)
I had hopes that The Bondmaid would resemble work by Lisa See or Amy Tan, but was unfortunately rather disappointed in this respect. I’ve said this about a few books of late, but The Bondmaid felt purposely complex with regard to its long sentences, and range of less common vocabulary; essentially, it was overwritten.

A lot of the sentences, despite their length, did not say a great deal; for instance: ‘In his time, the author too had stood, trembling, in punitive assembly with his siblings, and his father before him, in a long tradition of that cruelty, not just of parents, but of deities and gods themselves in their temples and river shrines, which sees fit to visit upon all the sins of one.’ This prose style really put me off, particularly when it was contrasted with short paragraphs, consisting of just one or two very simplistic sentences. The dialogue, too, felt unimaginative and matter-of-fact; the whole novel felt ultimately clumsy. The Bondmaid flits about far too much in time, and whilst I did find the cultural information interesting, I felt from the beginning that the story could have been far better handled than it was in actuality.  You can probably see now why I gave up on it.

 

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng (Malaysia) 9781905802142
The Gift of Rain, which is set on the Malaysian island of Penang, has been on my Kindle for a long time. I have not read anything else by Tan, but his debut novel seems to be rather admired, judging by the reviews here on Goodreads.

From the outset, I found the prose rather overwritten, with the odd awkward paragraph of very matter-of-fact writing; there was simply no balance to it at all. The plot felt meandering from several pages in too, and issues were circled around rather a lot with no real conclusion. The Gift of Rain is long and rambling; whilst I expected it to be really absorbing, I never really found myself getting into the story. The dialogue was stilted, and the depth which I anticipated was simply not here. Whilst there are undoubtedly a lot of descriptions here, Penang never felt vivid; neither did the characters, who did not feel at all realistic to me. The Gift of Rain is a laborious tome, which I became rather frustrated with. I did not have enough interest in the novel as it progressed to read past the 10% mark.

 

9780380018178The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough (Australia)
The Thorn Birds has been on my Kindle for such a long time, after purchasing it as part of a Kindle Daily Deal some years ago. I must have done this solely because the novel features on the Virago Modern Classics list; nothing about the plot particularly interests me, and that is probably why it has remained unread for such a long time.

I don’t enjoy romance novels on the whole, and a few reviewers have mentioned that this is like a soap opera; again, a genre which I do not I even like to watch on the television, let alone read. McCullough’s writing is not bad, but the opening was disengaging more than anything. I read the first 3% of the novel, but found it very bland, with its awkward dialogue and shadowy characters. I was unwilling to invest so much time on getting through the whole when I doubted I would enjoy it, and so this tome joins my ever-expanding Kindle graveyard.

 

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The Book Trail: The Russian Edition

I am beginning this episode of the Book Trail with a novel I read recently and very much enjoyed; my detailed review will be up in the next week or two, once I get around to typing it up!  As ever, I have used the Goodreads’ ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to compose this list.

1. A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov 226378
In its adventurous happenings, its abductions, duels, and sexual intrigues, A Hero of Our Time looks backward to the tales of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron, so beloved by Russian society in the 1820s and ’30s. In the character of its protagonist, Pechorin, the archetypal Russian antihero, Lermontov’s novel looks forward to the subsequent glories of a Russian literature that it helped, in great measure, to make possible.

 

2. The Queen of Spades and Other Stories by Alexander Pushkin
The Queen of Spades has long been acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest short stories, in which Pushkin explores the nature of obsession. The Tales of Belkin are witty parodies of sentimentalism, while Peter the Great’s Blackamoor is an early experiment with recreating the past. The Captain’s Daughter is a novel-length masterpiece which combines historical fiction in the manner of Sir Walter Scott with the devices of the Russian fairy-tale. The Introduction provides close readings of the stories and places them in their European literary context.

 

580433. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov
In this powerful and brutal short story, Leskov demonstrates the enduring truth of the Shakespearean archetype joltingly displaced to the heartland of Russia. Chastened and stifled by her marriage of convenience to a man twice her age, the young Katerina Lvovna goes yawning about the house, missing the barefoot freedom of her childhood, until she meets the feckless steward Sergei Filipych. Sergei proceeds to seduce Katerina, as he has done half the women in the town, not realizing that her passion, once freed, will attach to him so fiercely that Katerina will do anything to keep hold of him. Journalist and prose writer Nikolai Leskov is known for his powerful characterizations and the quintessentially Russian atmosphere of his stories.

 

4. The Golovlyov Family by M.E. Saltykov-Shchredin
Searingly hot in the summer, bitterly cold in the winter, the ancestral estate of the Golovlyov family is the end of the road. There Anna Petrovna rules with an iron hand over her servants and family-until she loses power to the relentless scheming of her hypocritical son Porphyry.   One of the great books of Russian literature, The Golovlyov Family is a vivid picture of a condemned and isolated outpost of civilization that, for contemporary readers, will recall the otherwordly reality of Macondo in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

 

5. The Queue by Vladimir Sorokin 2376088
Vladimir Sorokin’s first published novel, The Queue, is a sly comedy about the late Soviet “years of stagnation.” Thousands of citizens are in line for . . . nobody knows quite what, but the rumors are flying. Leather or suede? Jackets, jeans? Turkish, Swedish, maybe even American? It doesn’t matter–if anything is on sale, you better line up to buy it. Sorokin’s tour de force of ventriloquism and formal daring tells the whole story in snatches of unattributed dialogue, adding up to nothing less than the real voice of the people, overheard on the street as they joke and curse, fall in and out of love, slurp down ice cream or vodka, fill out crossword puzzles, even go to sleep and line up again in the morning as the queue drags on.

 

6. White Walls: Collected Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya
Tatyana Tolstaya’s short stories — with their unpredictable fairy-tale plots, appealingly eccentric characters, and stylistic abundance and flair — established her in the 1980s as one of modern Russia’s finest writers. Since then her work has been translated throughout the world. Edna O’Brien has called Tolstaya “an enchantress.” Anita Desai has spoken of her work’s “richness and ardent life.” Mixing heartbreak and humor, dizzying flights of fantasy and plunging descents to earth, Tolstaya is the natural successor in a great Russian literary lineage that includes Gogol, Yuri Olesha, Bulgakov, and Nabokov.  White Walls is the most comprehensive collection of Tolstaya’s short fiction to be published in English so far. It presents the contents of her two previous collections, On the Golden Porch and Sleepwalker in a Fog, along with several previously uncollected stories. Tolstaya writes of lonely children and lost love, of philosophers of the absurd and poets working as janitors, of angels and halfwits. She shows how the extraordinary will suddenly erupt in the midst of ordinary life, as she explores the human condition with a matchless combination of unbound imagination and unapologetic sympathy.

 

5892577. Soul by Andrei Platonov
The Soviet writer Andrey Platonov saw much of his work suppressed or censored in his lifetime. In recent decades, however, these lost works have reemerged, and the eerie poetry and poignant humanity of Platonov’s vision have become ever more clear. For Nadezhda Mandelstam and Joseph Brodsky, Platonov was the writer who most profoundly registered the spiritual shock of revolution. For a new generation of innovative post-Soviet Russian writers he figures as a daring explorer of word and world, the master of what has been called “alternative realism.” Depicting a devastated world that is both terrifying and sublime, Platonov is, without doubt, a universal writer who is as solitary and haunting as Kafka.  This volume gathers eight works that show Platonov at his tenderest, warmest, and subtlest. Among them are “The Return,” about an officer’s difficult homecoming at the end of World War II, described by Penelope Fitzgerald as one of “three great works of Russian literature of the millennium”; “The River Potudan,” a moving account of a troubled marriage; and the title novella, the extraordinary tale of a young man unexpectedly transformed by his return to his Asian birthplace, where he finds his people deprived not only of food and dwelling, but of memory and speech.

 

8. The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays by Vasily Grossman
The Road brings together short stories, journalism, essays, and letters by Vasily Grossman, the author of Life and Fate, providing new insight into the life and work of this extraordinary writer. The stories range from Grossman’s first success, “In the Town of Berdichev,” a piercing reckoning with the cost of war, to such haunting later works as “Mama,” based on the life of a girl who was adopted at the height of the Great Terror by the head of the NKVD and packed off to an orphanage after her father’s downfall. The girl grows up struggling with the discovery that the parents she cherishes in memory are part of a collective nightmare that everyone else wishes to forget. The Road also includes the complete text of Grossman’s harrowing report from Treblinka, one of the first anatomies of the workings of a death camp; “The Sistine Madonna,” a reflection on art and atrocity; as well as two heartbreaking letters that Grossman wrote to his mother after her death at the hands of the Nazis and carried with him for the rest of his life.

 

Which of these books pique your interest?  Have you read any of them before?

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‘Have the Men Had Enough?’ by Margaret Forster *****

Margaret Forster’s 1989 novel, Have the Men Had Enough?, is an incredibly astute familial saga with an ageing matriarch, Grandma, as its central focus.  At the outset of the novel, Grandma is clearly beginning to lose her focus, believing that her father and brothers will be coming home shortly, and that she needs to cook their dinner.

Have the Men Had Enough? is told from two perspectives, those of Grandma’s daughter-9780099455646in-law, Jenny McKay, and her seventeen-year-old daughter, Hannah.  Of Grandma’s diagnosis, the family are told ‘the long-term memory remains after the short-term has gone.  Grandma cannot remember what she had for dinner an hour ago but she can remember every detail of what she ate on the train journeys to the Highlands in the 1920s.  And it makes her happy.  It does not seem to worry her in the least that she cannot remember her husband’s first name or the colour of his eyes or what he liked and did not like.  He remains in her memory as the subject of a few unflattering anecdotes and, if she had to sum him up, she is content to say he was “a man’s man”.’  Despite these two perspectives, and their sometimes conflicting views, Grandma is always the focus of the narrative; we learn about the other characters largely with regard to their actions toward, and feelings about, her.

It was fascinating, and often saddening, to see such a story unfold from the perspective of a family who have different beliefs as to what would be the best course of action for Grandma’s ongoing care.  Her daughter Bridget, a nurse, lives next door, and is determined to keep caring for her at home for as long as she can manage.  One of her sons, Stuart, keeps away, saying that he does not want the hassle of involvement.  Her son Charlie, Jenny’s husband, funds Grandma’s flat and nursing expenses.  Whilst they live nearby, and Jenny does a lot to help from time to time, both find the process exhausting.  Jenny expresses her fears about caring for Grandma: ‘I want to act now, to protect us all.  And yes, I am afraid, afraid of what it will do to us all if we keep Grandma in our midst to the bitter end.’  Granddaughter Hannah is incredibly observant, continually questioning what would be best for Grandma; at first, she asks, ‘Haven’t the women had enough too?’, before veering back and forth on the idea of Grandma being cared for in their family home, something which her brother Adrian wants dearly.  Hannah is concerned throughout with Grandma’s happiness, and treats her with tenderness and understanding at all times.

Certainly poignant, Have the Men Had Enough? raises a wealth of important questions about ageing, and who will care for us when we reach a stage at which we are no longer able to care for ourselves.  Each of the characters is forced, at points, to reflect upon their opinions of what would be best for themselves and for Grandma.  This thought-provoking reflection makes the novel feel eminently human, and so well balanced; we recognise the discomfort of each of the characters in turn.

Others have written that Have the Men Had Enough? is a difficult book to read, both in terms of prose and content, one which takes time and concentration.  Certainly, Forster’s writing is intelligent, but from the very beginning, I found it immersive.  The story itself was a little draining at times, and one feels terribly for the McKays, in having to make such a difficult decision which will ultimately impact upon and affect them all.  There is a wonderful variation to the novel, given the range of characters, opinions, and voices.

Whilst a devoted fan of Forster’s biography of Daphne du Maurier, and devouring one of her more recent efforts, The Unknown Bridesmaid, a few years ago, I am baffled as to why it has taken me so long to read more of her work.  Forster is an author who has published a wealth of books which appeal to me, and I will certainly try my best to read more of them over the coming months.  I shall conclude this review with a wonderful quote by Hilary Mantel, which sums up my thoughts on the novel: ‘It is close to life in a way we hardly expect a novel to be, and finally very moving.’

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Waves of Woolf

I have read an awful lot of novels about aspects of Woolf’s life, as well as many biographies.  I have scoured library shelves, and thought that I’d made a real dent in reading reflections upon and criticisms about her work.  It seems that I was misled in this however, as whilst researching before Christmas, I came across an awful lot of wonderful looking tomes which view Woolf’s life in different ways, and from different angles.  Some are critical, and others not so much.  I thought that I would group these together in a single post, as a wishlist of sorts, as well as a resource for those I know also admire Woolf and her work.

 

1. Virginia Woolf’s Nose: Essays on Biography by Hermione Lee 785085
‘What choices must a biographer make when stitching the pieces of a life into one coherent whole? How do we best create an accurate likeness of a private life from the few articles that linger after death? How do we choose what gets left out? This intriguing and witty collection of essays by an internationally acclaimed biographer looks at how biography deals with myths and legends, what goes missing and what can’t be proved in the story of a life. Virginia Woolf’s Nose presents a variety of case-studies, in which literary biographers are faced with gaps and absences, unprovable stories and ambiguities surrounding their subjects. By looking at stories about Percy Bysshe Shelley’s shriveled, burnt heart found pressed between the pages of a book, Jane Austen’s fainting spell, Samuel Pepys’s lobsters, and the varied versions of Virginia Woolf’s life and death, preeminent biographer Hermione Lee considers how biographers deal with and often utilize these missing body parts, myths, and contested data to “fill in the gaps” of a life story.  In “Shelley’s Heart and Pepys’s Lobsters,” an essay dealing with missing parts and biographical legends, Hermione Lee discusses one of the most complicated and emotionally charged examples of the contested use of biographical sources. “Jane Austen Faints” takes five competing versions of the same dramatic moment in the writer’s life to ask how biography deals with the private lives of famous women. “Virginia Woolf’s Nose” looks at the way this legendary author’s life has been translated through successive transformations, from biography to fiction to film, and suggests there can be no such thing as a definitive version of a life. Finally, “How to End It All” analyzes the changing treatment of deathbed scenes in biography to show how biographical conventions have shifted, and asks why the narrators and readers of life-stories feel the need to give special meaning and emphasis to endings.  Virginia Woolf’s Nose sheds new light on the way biographers bring their subjects to life as physical beings, and offers captivating new insights into the drama of “life-writing.”  Virginia Woolf’s Nose is a witty, eloquent, and funny text by a renowned biographer whose sensitivity to the art of telling a story about a human life is unparalleled–and in creating it, Lee articulates and redefines the parameters of her craft.’

 

1160912. Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground by Gillian Beer
‘Eminent feminist critic Gillian Beer’s work on Woolf, George Eliot, and Victorian scientific discourse are well known and admired. As the essays in this collection affirm, Beer has an extraordinary command of British cultural history, a talent for interpretative prose, and a gift for pursuing genuinely rewarding questions. In Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground,Beer’s essays on Woolf are brought together for the first time in a single volume.  Through her close investigative textual readings, she demonstrates how Woolf’s conceptualizations of history and narrative are intimately bound up with her ways of thinking about women, writing, and social and sexual relations. This is demonstrated through precise, detailed configurations, setting Woolf alongside texts both contemporary and distant, scientific and literary, with the effect that Woolf’s writing is illuminated in entirely new and unexpected contexts.  Beer’s introduction pulls together the critical themes of her work, and renders Woolf accessible to the large audience of scholars interested in English Literature as well as women’s writing.’

 

3. Afterwords: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf, edited by Sybil Oldfield 108651
‘On 28 March, 1941, at the height of Hitler’s victories during the Second World War, Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse near her home in Sussex. At the time of her death some voices in the press attacked her for showing cowardice in the face of the enemy and for setting a bad example to the general population. Woolf’s suicide has been the subject of controversy for the media, for literary scholars, and for her biographers ever since.  Just when it may seem that nothing else could be said about Virginia Woolf and the ambiguous details of her suicide, Afterwords provides an entirely fresh perspective. It makes available to a wide readership for the first time letters sent to Leonard Woolf and Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf’s sister) in the aftermath of the event. This unique volume brings together over two hundred letters from T. S. Eliot, H. G. Wells, May Sarton, Vita Sackville-West, Edith Sitwell, E. M. Forster, Radclyffe Hall, and many others, including political figures and religious leaders. In addition, informative annotations reveal the identities of many unexpected condolence-letter writers from among the general public.’

 

173470274. Virginia Woolf’s Garden: The Story of the Garden at Monk’s House by Caroline Zoob
‘A chronological account takes the reader through the key events in the lives of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and their deaths. This is allied to an account of the garden and its development, and the creation and development of the key areas of the garden. A wonderful selection of full-colour contemporary photographs, archive photographs, illustrated maps and planting plans take the reader through the various garden ‘rooms’, including the Italian Garden, the  Millstone garden, the Orchard, the Vegetable Garden, the Terrace, the Walled Garden, the Fishpond Garden and the Greenhouses and Conservatories. Throughout there are quotations from Virginia and Leonard’s diaries, giving a vivid account of their plans for, views on and activities in the garden.’

 

5. Travels With Virginia Woolf by Jan Morris 3176787
‘Virginia Woolf had a lively sense of place and delighted in `lighting accidentally. . . upon scenes which would have gone on, have always gone on, will go on, unrecorded, save for this chance glimpse. Following Virginia’s footprints from her beloved Sussex and Cornwall to wartime London, Italy and the Riviera to Greek mountains and the wilds of Spain, Jan Morris intersperses swift verbal sketches of a Greek peasant wedding, a fenland sky, an elderly spinster in a hotel dining room in Italy, or Bognor pier in the rain with her own brief, telling comments on both writer and subject’

 

188436. Women and Writing by Virginia Woolf and Michele Barrett
‘Known for her novels, and for the dubious fame of being a doyenne of the ‘Bloomsbury Set’, in her time Virginia Woolf was highly respected as a major essayist and critic with a special interest and commitment to contemporary literature, and women’s writing in particular. This spectacular collection of essays and other writings does justice to those efforts, offering unique appraisals of Aphra Behn, Mary Wollstonecraft, the Duchess of Newcastle, Dorothy Richardson, Charlotte Bronte, and Katherine Mansfield, amongst many others. Gathered too, and using previously unpublished (sometimes even unsigned) journal extracts, are what will now become timeless commentaries on ‘Women and Fiction’, ‘Professions for Women’ and ‘The Intellectual Status of Women’. More than half a century after the publication of A Room Of One’s Own, distinguished scholar Michele Barrett cohesively brings together work which, throughout the years, has been scattered throughout many texts and many volumes. . . affording these very valuable writings the collective distinction they deserve at last.’

 

7. The White Garden: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Stephanie Barron 6561286
‘In March 1941, Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in England’s River Ouse. Her body was found three weeks later. What seemed like a tragic ending at the time was, in fact, just the beginning of a mystery. . . .  Six decades after Virginia Woolf’s death, landscape designer Jo Bellamy has come to Sissinghurst Castle for two reasons: to study the celebrated White Garden created by Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West and to recover from the terrible wound of her grandfather’s unexplained suicide. In the shadow of one of England’s most famous castles, Jo makes a shocking find: Woolf’s last diary, its first entry dated the day after she allegedly killed herself.  If authenticated, Jo’s discovery could shatter everything historians believe about Woolf’s final hours. But when the Woolf diary is suddenly stolen, Jo’s quest to uncover the truth will lead her on a perilous journey into the tumultuous inner life of a literary icon whose connection to the White Garden ultimately proved devastating.   Rich with historical detail, The White Garden is an enthralling novel of literary suspense that explores the many ways the past haunts the present–and the dark secrets that lurk beneath the surface of the most carefully tended garden.’

 

Which are your favourite books about Woolf?  Have you read any of these?

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The Book Trail: Asian Literature Edition

The first Book Trail of 2018 begins with a book I would very much like to read this year, and takes us through some rather interesting Asian literature picks which are going straight onto my to-read list (if they aren’t there already, of course!).  As ever, I am using the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads to come up with this list.

 

1. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie 4101648
Beginning on August 9, 1945, in Nagasaki, and ending in a prison cell in the US in 2002, as a man is waiting to be sent to Guantanamo Bay, Burnt Shadows is an epic narrative of love and betrayal.  Hiroko Tanaka is twenty-one and in love with the man she is to marry, Konrad Weiss. As she steps onto her veranda, wrapped in a kimono with three black cranes swooping across the back, her world is suddenly and irrevocably altered. In the numbing aftermath of the atomic bomb that obliterates everything she has known, all that remains are the bird-shaped burns on her back, an indelible reminder of the world she has lost. In search of new beginnings, two years later, Hiroko travels to Delhi. It is there that her life will become intertwined with that of Konrad’s half sister, Elizabeth, her husband, James Burton, and their employee Sajjad Ashraf, from whom she starts to learn Urdu.  With the partition of India, and the creation of Pakistan, Hiroko will find herself displaced once again, in a world where old wars are replaced by new conflicts. But the shadows of history–personal and political–are cast over the interrelated worlds of the Burtons, the Ashrafs, and the Tanakas as they are transported from Pakistan to New York and, in the novel’s astonishing climax, to Afghanistan in the immediate wake of 9/11. The ties that have bound these families together over decades and generations are tested to the extreme, with unforeseeable consequences.

 

117877522. Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif
The patients of the Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments are looking for a miracle, and Alice Bhatti is looking for a job.  Alice is a candidate for the position of junior nurse, grade 4. It is only a few weeks since her release from Borstal. She has returned to her childhood home in the French Colony, where her father, recently retired from his position as chief janitor, continues as part-time healer, and full-time headache for the local church. It seems she has inherited some of his gift.With guidance from the working nurse’s manual, and some tricks she picked up in prison, Alice brings succour to the thousands of patients littering the hospital’s corridors and concrete courtyard. In the process she attracts the attention of a lovesick patient, Teddy Bunt, apprentice to the nefarious ‘Gentleman Squad’ of the Karachi police. They fall in love; Teddy with sudden violence, Alice with cautious optimism.Their love is unexpected, but the consequences are not.  Alice soon finds that her new life is built on foundations as unstable as those of her home. A Catholic snubbed by other Catholics, who are in turn hated by everyone around them, she is also put at risk by her husband, who does two things that no member of the Gentlemen Squad has ever done – fall in love with a working girl, and allow a potentially dangerous suspect to get away. Can Teddy and Alice ever live in peace? Can two people make a life together without destroying the very thing that united them? It seems unlikely, but then Alice Bhatti is no ordinary nurse…  Filled with wit, colour and pathos, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is a glorious story of second chances, thwarted ambitions and love in unlikely places, set in the febrile streets of downtown Karachi. It is the remarkable new novel from the author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes.

 

3. The Scatter Here Is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer 18781341
A vivid and intricate novel-in-stories, The Scatter Here Is Too Great explores the complicated lives of ordinary people whose fates unexpectedly converge after a deadly bomb blast at the Karachi train station: an old communist poet; his wealthy, middle-aged son; a young man caught in an unpleasant, dead-end job; a girl who spins engaging tales to conceal her heartbreak; and a grief-stricken writer, who struggles to make sense of this devastating tragedy.  Bilal Tanweer reveals the pain, loneliness, and longing of these characters and celebrates the power of the written word to heal lives and communities plagued by violence. Elegantly weaving together different voices into a striking portrait of a city and its people, The Scatter Here Is Too Great is a tale as vibrant and varied in its characters, passions, and idiosyncrasies as the city itself.

 

212709474. The Smoke is Rising by Mahesh Rao
With India’s first rocket launch to the moon, the scenario is changing fast. It is this changing world of Mysore which Mahesh Rao’s novel speaks about. In this story, Mysore is gearing for an international remake with the construction of HeritageLand, Asia’s largest theme park. Citizens and government officials alike prepare themselves for a complete makeover, one that not everybody welcomes. An elderly widow finds herself forced into a secretive new life, and another woman is succumbing to the cancerous power of gossip as she tries to escape her past. Another woman must come to terms with reality as her husband’s troubling behaviour steeps out of hand. In Mysore, where the modern and the eclectic fuse to become something else entirely, everyone must hang on to their own escapes or find themselves swept under the carpet of the sublime change called development.

 

5. Salt and Sawdust by R.K. Narayan 2682894
A delightful new collection of stories and essays, some never published before, by India’s greatest living novelist  ‘Salt and Sawdust’, the title story, is a witty portrayal of a wife who cannot tell the difference between salt and sawdust (when it comes to seasoning food), leaving her husband with no option but to cook himself. The wife meanwhile is writing a novel, which takes up all her time and when it is finished she is, ironically, advised by her publishers to turn her novel into a cookery book!  In addition to short stories this book also has a section called Table Talk, which, according to R.K. Narayan, is a new form of writing, without the compulsion of an argument or conclusion, on any theme and without too definite a form. Writing in this vein then he gives us humorous pieces on, among others, language, personalities, travel, government—even parrots and a hangover.  Narayan’s stories and sketches are, as always, infused with wit, warmth and a wonderful timelessness making this book an essential read for all Narayan enthusiasts.

 

147603126. Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar
Sachin Kundalkar started on his first novel at 20 and finished it when he was 22. The novel was Cobalt Blue, the story of a brother and sister who fall in love with the same man, and how a traditional Marathi family is shattered by the ensuing events – a work that both shocked and spoke to Marathi readers.

 

7. The Music Room by Namita Devidayal 6240326
When Namita is ten years old, her mother takes her to Kennedy Bridge, a seamy neighborhood in Bombay, home to hookers and dance girls. There, in a cramped one-room apartment lives Dhondutai, the last living disciple of two of the finest Indian classical singers of the twentieth century: the legendary Alladiya Khan and the great songbird Kesarbai Kerkar. Namita begins to learn singing from Dhondutai, at first reluctantly and then, as the years pass, with growing passion. Dhondutai sees in her a second Kesarbai, but does Namita have the dedication to give herself up completely to the discipline like her teacher? Or will there always be too many late nights and cigarettes? And where do love and marriage fit into all of this?  A bestseller in India, where it was a literary sensation, The Music Room is a deeply moving meditation on how traditions and life lessons are passed along generations, on the sacrifices made by women through the ages, and on a largely unknown, but vital aspect of Indian life and culture that will utterly fascinate American readers.

 

225294018. She Will Build Him a City by Raj Kamal Jha
As night falls in Delhi, a mother spins tales from her past for her sleeping daughter. Now grown up, her child is a puzzle with a million pieces, whom she hopes, through her words and her love, to somehow make whole again.  Meanwhile, a young man rides the last train from Rajiv Chowk Station and dreams of murder.  In another corner of the city, a newborn wrapped in a blood-red towel lies on the steps of an orphanage as his mother walks away.  There are twenty million bodies in this city, but the stories of this woman, man, and child–of a secret love that blossoms in the shadows of grief, of a corrosive guilt that taints the soul, and of a boy who maps his own destiny–weave in and out of the lives of those around them to form a dazzling kaleidoscope of a novel.  Beautiful, beguiling, and audacious, this is the story of a city and its people, of love and horror, of belonging and forgiveness: a powerful and unforgettable tale of modern India.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which have piqued your interest?

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