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Around the World in 80 Books: My Top Ten

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Around the World in 80 Books: Abandoned Reads

Whilst I have made some fantastic choices so far for my Around the World in 80 Books Challenge, there have been several which just haven’t worked for me, and which I have consequently given up on.  I felt that it would be a good idea to group together these choices and, as always, would love your thoughts about any of these books if you have read them.

Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart (Madeira) 9781444715033
I have been thoroughly enjoying reading through Mary Stewart’s work, and have only been a little disappointed by one or two novels from her oeuvre thus far. Never did I think that I’d actually give up on one of her novels; that is, until I started Touch Not the Cat. I love Stewart’s writing – her descriptions in particular, but I just did not feel myself becoming immersed in this particular book.

It is not only the silly, overblown telepathic angle which I disliked here; there was no hint of the strong characterisation which I have come to expect from Stewart’s books, and barely anything happened in the first fifth of the novel which I made myself plod through. The pace, something which Stewart is normally so good at getting spot on, was off, and even the isolated country house setting – something which immediately endears me to a book – did very little to pull it out of its funk.

9781472152848Johannesburg by Fiona Melrose (South Africa)
Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg has been inspired by, and written as a response of sorts, to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, a novel which I absolutely love, and which I have read several times. I found Melrose’s comparisons and echoes to be too obvious, and also found that there were far too many characters to try and keep track of. The writing was abrupt as it shifted from one character to another in the space of just one or two pages, and nothing quite melded together. A lot of people have mentioned in their reviews that they adored Midwinter but were quite disappointed by Johannesburg, so I am not going to let it put me off reading Melrose’s debut.

 

Rotten Row by Petina Gappah (Zimbabwe) 9780571324194
I tend to adore short story collections, and whilst I admired the use of a single road in Harare as the geographical setting for each inclusion in Rotten Row, this book simply did not work for me. I read the first three stories, all of which seemed quite exaggerated at times in terms of the cultural stereotypes which they portrayed. I did not connect with any of these tales, or feel anything for their characters, and so I gave up on it; quite disappointing, as Rotten Row sounded like a promising and enlightening read on the face of it.

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2018 Travel: Books Set in Austria

I have been incredibly lucky with my travelling so far this year, and was able to revisit beautiful Austria whilst based in Munich.  I hadn’t been to Salzburg before, but am absolutely in love with the city.  To honour lovely Austria, here are seven of my favourite books set in the country.

1. Let Me Go by Helga Schneider (2001) 1522423
The extraordinary memoir, praised across Europe, of a daughter’s final encounter with her mother, a former SS guard at Auschwitz.  In 1941, in Berlin, Helga Schneider’s mother abandoned her, her younger brother, and her father. Thirty years later– when she saw her mother again for the first time– Schneider discovered the shocking reason: Her mother had joined the Nazi SS and had become a guard in concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ravensbrück, where she was in charge of a “correction” unit and responsible for untold acts of torture.  Nearly three more decades would pass before their second and final reunion, an emotional encounter at a Vienna nursing home, where her mother, then eighty-seven and unrepentant about her past, was ailing. Let Me Go is an extraordinary account of that meeting. Their conversation– which Schneider recounts in spellbinding detail– triggers childhood memories, and she weaves these into her account, powerfully evoking the misery of Nazi and postwar Berlin. Yet it is her internal struggle– a daughter’s sense of obligation colliding with the inescapable horror of what her mother has done– that will stay with readers long after the book has ended.
2. Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi (2001)
‘In Persepolis, heralded by the Los Angeles Times as ‘one of the freshest and most original memoirs of our day,’ Marjane Satrapi dazzled us with her heartrending memoir-in-comic-strips about growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Here is the continuation of her fascinating story. In 1984, Marjane flees fundamentalism and the war with Iraq to begin a new life in Vienna. Once there, she faces the trials of adolescence far from her friends and family, and while she soon carves out a place for herself among a group of fellow outsiders, she continues to struggle for a sense of belonging.  Finding that she misses her home more than she can stand, Marjane returns to Iran after graduation. Her difficult homecoming forces her to confront the changes both she and her country have undergone in her absence and her shame at what she perceives as her failure in Austria. Marjane allows her past to weigh heavily on her until she finds some like-minded friends, falls in love, and begins studying art at a university. However, the repression and state-sanctioned chauvinism eventually lead her to question whether she can have a future in Iran.  As funny and poignant as its predecessor, Persepolis 2 is another clear-eyed and searing condemnation of the human cost of fundamentalism.’

175696223. The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal (2013 in English)
The Exiles Return is set in Occupied Vienna in 1954-5. It describes five people who grew up there before the war and have come back to see if they can re-establish the life they have lost.  The novel begins with Professor Kuno Adler, who is Jewish and fled Vienna after the Anschluss (the events of March 1938 when Hitler’s troops marched into Austria). He is returning from New York to try and take up his old life as a research scientist. We realise through his confrontation with officialdom and with the changed fabric of the city (the lime trees are there no longer, it is hard to know who behaved well during the war and who was a Nazi sympathiser) that a refugee who goes back has a very difficult time.  Next we are introduced to a wealthy Greek named Kanakis. Before the war his family had lived in great style with a coach and horses and many servants, and now the 40 year-old Kanakis has come back to try and buy an eighteenth-century hotel particulier, a little palais, in which to live a life of eighteenth-century pleasure. He meets Prince Lorenzo Grein-Lauterbach (who owes more than a little to Tadzio in Death in Venice). Bimbo, as he is known – and the nickname is an accurate one – is a 24 year-old who, because his aristocratic, anti- Nazi parents were murdered by the Germans, was spirited away to the country during the war years and afterwards. He is penniless yet retains an overweening sense of entitlement. Kanakis and he develop a homosexual relationship (a brave thing to write about in the 1950s) and he is kept by his older lover. But he has a sister, Princess Nina, who works in a laboratory, the same one to which Adler returns. She lives modestly in the attic of her family’s former palais, is a devout Catholic, loyal to her brother and the memory of her parents, intelligent and hard-working, but, as she perceives it, is stocky and unattractive. Lastly, there is 18 year-old Marie-Theres, whose parents went to America just before the war; they, and her siblings, have become completely American, but Resi (as she is known, possibly with a deliberate echo of Henry James’s What Maisie Knew) has never fitted in and is déplacée. So she goes back to her Austrian aunt and uncle to see if she can make a life in the home country (from her parents point of view to see if she can be married off) yet here too she is an innocent abroad, unable, to put down roots. Her tragedy is at the core of this moving and evocative book, which explores a very complex and interesting question: if an exile returns, how should he or she behave morally? Some have moral fastidiousness (Adler, Nina), some are ruthlessly on the make (Kanakis, Bimbo), some have no moral code because they have never been educated to acquire one (Resi).
4. Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart (1965)
When Vanessa March arrived in Vienna she knew all about the white Lipizzan stallions at the Spanish Riding School. But she never expected to get involved with them or, indeed, with suspected murder.
5. Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1872) 17738894
When a mysterious carriage crashes outside their castle home in Styria, Austria, Laura and her father agree to take in its injured passenger, a young woman named Carmilla. Delighted to have some company of her own age, Laura is instantly drawn to Carmilla. But as their friendship grows, Carmilla’s countenance changes and she becomes increasingly secretive and volatile. As Carmilla’s moods shift and change, Laura starts to become ill, experiencing fiendish nightmares, her health deteriorating night after night. It is not until she and her father, increasingly concerned for Laura’s well-being, set out on a trip to discover more about the mysterious Carmilla that the terrifying truth reveals itself.
6. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (1929)
Rainer Rilke is considered one of the most significant poets in the German language. The letters in this book were written by Rilke to Franz Kappus, a 19-year-old student at the Military Academy of Vienna. Discouraged by the prospect of military life, Kappus began to send his poetry to the 27-year-old Rilke, seeking both literary criticism and career advice. After Rilke’s death, Kappus assembled and published the letters.  Although the first letter from Kappus asked for critiques of his poetry, Rilke gave him very little during their correspondence. He also discouraged Kappus from reading criticism, advising him to trust his inner judgment. Instead, the majority of the letters address personal issues that Kappus revealed to Rilke; their span is tremendous, ranging from atheism, loneliness, sexuality, and career choices.
61319957. The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig (1982)
The post-office girl is Christine, who looks after her ailing mother and toils in a provincial Austrian post office in the years just after the Great War. One afternoon, as she is dozing among the official forms and stamps, a telegraph arrives addressed to her. It is from her rich aunt, who lives in America.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which, if any, have you added to your list?

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The Book Trail: From Stewart to Smith

I am beginning this instalment of The Book Trail with a Mary Stewart novel, which I very much enjoyed reading during January.  As ever, I am using the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed…’ tool on Goodreads to collate this list, and have copied over the blurb for each title.

1. Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart 11031430
When Vanessa March arrived in Vienna she knew all about the white Lipizzan stallions at the Spanish Riding School. But she never expected to get involved with them or, indeed, with suspected murder.

 

2. While Still We Live by Helen MacInnes
It began very innocently. A holiday visit to Poland. But before enojoying the sights and sounds of this fascinating new place, happiness took a violent turn and became a nightmare of terror…when suddenly you’re mistaken for a Nazi spy, and to save your life, you have to prove you are innocent.

 

3. Mrs Tim of the Regiment by D.E. Stevenson 6620855
Vivacious, young Hester Christie tries to run her home like clockwork, as would befit the wife of British Army officer, Tim Christie. However hard Mrs Tim strives for seamless living amidst the other army wives, she is always moving flat-out to remember groceries, rule lively children, side-step village gossip and placate her husband with bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade. Left alone for months at a time whilst her husband is with his regiment, Mrs Tim resolves to keep a diary of events large and small in her family life. Once pen is set to paper no affairs of the head or heart are overlooked.When a move to a new regiment in Scotland uproots the Christie family, Mrs Tim is hurled into a whole new drama of dilemmas; from settling in with a new set whilst her husband is away, to disentangling a dear friend from an unsuitable match. Against the wild landscape of surging rivers, sheer rocks and rolling mists, who should stride into Mrs Tim’s life one day but the dashing Major Morley, hellbent on pursuit of our charming heroine. And Hester will soon find that life holds unexpected crossroads…

 

4. Before Lunch by Angela Thirkell
Middle-aged Catherine Middleton, married to an obtuse but endearing older man, is the still center of a swirl of two generations of gentry on the brink of WW II. The activities of youngsters and contemporaries go on around her and it is only gradually that one sees how, without conscious manipulation, nothing happens without her. The characters are subtly and humorously drawn–keep an eye on the hypochondriac and self-absorbed Miss Starter who displays a shrewd gift for defining the essentials and deflating the fatuous. At the end, youngsters and oldsters are properly sorted out and paired off, mostly as expected, after several false starts. Alistair, the older man who sets off after the ‘ing nue’ is nudged back into place with Catherine’s sister-in-law (his contemporary). She, in turn, sees ‘her young man’ off to seek his dream, leaving her bereft of the companions of her mind and heart — duty and honor intact, with the notion of ‘self-fulfillment at all costs’ decades away.

 

2137755. Fireflies by Shiva Naipaul
Fireflies tells the story of Trinidad’s most venerated Hindu family, the Khojas. Rigidly orthodox, presiding over acres of ill-kept sugarcane and hoards of jewellery enthusiastically guarded by old Mrs. Khoja, they seem to have triumphed more by default than by anything else. Only ‘Baby’ Khoja, who is parcelled off into an arranged marriage with a bus driver, proves an exception to this rule. She is the heroine, and her story the single gleaming thread in Shiva Naipaul’s ferociously comic and profoundly sad first novel.

 

6. The Polyglots by William Gerhardie
The Polyglots is the story of an eccentric Belgian family living in the Far East in the uncertain years after World War I and the Russian Revolution. The tale is recounted by their dryly conceited young English relative, Captain Georges Hamlet Alexander Diabologh, who comes to stay with them during a military mission. Teeming with bizarre characters—depressives, obsessives, paranoiacs, hypochondriacs, and sex maniacs—Gerhardie paints a brilliantly absurd world where the comic and the tragic are profoundly and irrevocably entwined.

 

7. Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell 80989
Beneath the unassuming surface of a progressive women’s college lurks a world of intellectual pride and pomposity awaiting devastation by the pens of two brilliant and appalling wits. Randall Jarrell’s classic novel was originally published to overwhelming critical acclaim in 1954, forging a new standard for campus satire—and instantly yielding comparisons to Dorothy Parker’s razor-sharp barbs. Like his fictional nemesis, Jarrell cuts through the earnest conversations at Benton College—mischievously, but with mischief nowhere more wicked than when crusading against the vitriolic heroine herself.

 

8. Topper Takes a Trip by Thorne Smith
Cosmo Topper, the mild-mannered bank manager who was persuaded to take a walk on the wild side by the ghosts of George and Marion Kerby in Topper, finds himself reunited with his dyspeptic wife for an extended vacation on the Riviera. But he doesn’t have long to enjoy the peace and quiet before the irrepressible Kerbys materialize once again and start causing fracases, confusing the citizenry, alarming the gendarmes, getting naked, and turning every occasion into revelry or melee. Soon Marion decides that Topper as a ghost would be even more laughs than Topper in the flesh. And all she needs to arrange is one simple little murder.

 

 

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

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