2

Books with Wonderful Titles

I am particularly drawn to books which have quirky and unusual titles.  I (sadly) tend to spot less of these in bookshops than I do when browsing book websites, and have so many of them on my to-read list.  I thought that it might be a fun idea to gather together ten wonderfully titled books, and display them alongside their synopses.  I have read a couple of these, and the rest are either on my wishlist, or ones which I came across whilst compiling this post.

1. Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello 29633820
‘Beginning with Yuka, a 39,000 year old mummified woolly mammoth recently found in the Siberian permafrost, each of the 16 essays in Animals Strike Curious Poses investigates a different famous animal named and immortalized by humans. Modeled loosely after a medieval bestiary, these witty, playful, whipsmart essays traverse history, myth, science, and more, bringing each beast vibrantly to life.’
2. Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken ****
Spanning the waning years of vaudeville and the golden age of Hollywood, Niagara Falls All Over Again chronicles a flawed, passionate friendship over thirty years, weaving a powerful story of family and love, grief and loss. In it, McCracken introduces her most singular and affecting hero: Mose Sharp — son, brother, husband, father, friend … and straight man to the fat guy in baggy pants who utterly transforms his life.
8751363. The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits by Emma Donoghue
Donoghue finds her inspiration for these wry, robust tales in obscure scraps of historical records: an engraving of a woman giving birth to rabbits; a plague ballad; surgical case notes; theological pamphlets; an articulated skeleton. Here kings, surgeons, soldiers, and ladies of leisure rub shoulders with cross-dressers, cult leaders, poisoners, and arsonists.  Whether she’s spinning the tale of an Irish soldier tricked into marrying a dowdy spinster, a Victorian surgeon’s attempts to “improve” women, a seventeenth-century countess who ran away to Italy disguised as a man, or an “undead” murderess returning for the maid she left behind to be executed in her place, Emma Donoghue brings to her stories an “elegant, colorful prose filled with unforgettable sights, sounds and smells” (Elle). Here she summons the ghosts of those women who counted for nothing in their own day, but who come to unforgettable life in fiction.
4. Life is a Circus Run by a Platypus by Allison Hawn
Has being late to work due to dancing clowns ever been a problem for you? Have you ever had to defend yourself against a giant iguana? Does the overture to The Music Man make you violently twitch? In Life is a Circus Run by a Platypus readers are immersed into what it would be like to live every day as if a herd of ballerinas were chasing you, without the inconvenience of actually having to run. This collection of truly bizarre short stories taken from the author, Allison Hawn’s, life takes one across the world and into the strangest crevices of civilization. The lessons learned through her adventures might very well save the reader if they too ever have to face birthing a cow, calming distraught technical support or death by furniture.
5. The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts by Louis de Bernieres ** 828389
When the spoilt and haughty Dona Constanza tries to divert a river to fill her swimming pool, she starts a running battle with the locals. The skirmishes are so severe that the Government dispatches a squadron of soldiers led by the fat, brutal and stupid Figueras to deal with them.  Despite visiting plagues of laughing fits and giant cats upon the troops, the villagers know that to escape the cruel and unusual tortures planned for them, they must run. Thus they plan to head for the mountains and start a new and convivial civilisation.
6. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg ****
When suburban Claudia Kincaid decides to run away, she knows she doesn’t just want to run from somewhere, she wants to run to somewhere — to a place that is comfortable, beautiful, and, preferably, elegant. She chooses the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Knowing her younger brother Jamie has money and thus can help her with a serious cash-flow problem, she invites him along.  Once settled into the museum, Claudia and Jamie find themselves caught up in the mystery of an angel statue that the museum purchased at auction for a bargain price of $225. The statue is possibly an early work of the Renaissance master, Michelangelo, and therefore worth millions. Is it? Or isn’t it?  Claudia is determined to find out. Her quest leads her to Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the remarkable old woman who sold the statue, and to some equally remarkable discoveries about herself.
8976517. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat by Oliver Sacks ****
In his most extraordinary book, “one of the great clinical writers of the twentieth century” (The New York Times) recounts the case histories of patients lost in the bizarre, apparently inescapable world of neurological disorders. Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat tells the stories of individuals afflicted with fantastic perceptual and intellectual aberrations: patients who have lost their memories and with them the greater part of their pasts; who are no longer able to recognize people and common objects; who are stricken with violent tics and grimaces or who shout involuntary obscenities; whose limbs have become alien; who have been dismissed as retarded yet are gifted with uncanny artistic or mathematical talents.
8. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey ****
As a long illness keeps her bedridden, Elisabeth Tova Bailey becomes intrigued by a snail that has taken up residence in a pot plant next to her bed. Her fascination with the snail’s strange anatomy and its midnight wanderings kindles an interest that saves her sanity.  The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is an inspiring and intimate story of resilience, and an affirmation of the healing power of nature. It reminds us of how a small part of the natural world can illuminate our existence and deepen our appreciation of what it means to be fully alive.

 

9. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery **** 6238269
A moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.  We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence.  Then there’s Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.  Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma’s trust and to see through Renée’s timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.
10. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris
A guy walks into a bar car and…  From here the story could take many turns. When this guy is David Sedaris, the possibilities are endless, but the result is always the same: he will both delight you with twists of humor and intelligence and leave you deeply moved.   Sedaris remembers his father’s dinnertime attire (shirtsleeves and underpants), his first colonoscopy (remarkably pleasant), and the time he considered buying the skeleton of a murdered Pygmy.  With Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, David Sedaris shows once again why his work has been called “hilarious, elegant, and surprisingly moving” (Washington Post).

 

Have you read any of these?  Which are your favourite book titles?

Purchase from The Book Depository

3

2018 Travel: Books Set in France

My final stop so far in 2018 is France, where I am currently enjoying the Easter holidays (thank goodness for scheduling posts ahead of time!).  Here are seven books set in France which I have loved, and which, I feel, round off the week nicely.
5894091. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky (2004)
Beginning in Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation in 1940. Suite Française tells the remarkable story of men and women thrown together in circumstances beyond their control. As Parisians flee the city, human folly surfaces in every imaginable way: a wealthy mother searches for sweets in a town without food; a couple is terrified at the thought of losing their jobs, even as their world begins to fall apart. Moving on to a provincial village now occupied by German soldiers, the locals must learn to coexist with the enemy—in their town, their homes, even in their hearts.  When Irène Némirovsky began working on Suite Française, she was already a highly successful writer living in Paris. But she was also a Jew, and in 1942 she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she died. For sixty-four years, this novel remained hidden and unknown.
2. The Matchmaker of Perigord by Julia Stuart (2007)
Barber Guillaume Ladoucette has always enjoyed great success in his tiny village in southwestern France, catering to the tonsorial needs of Amour-sur-Belle’s thirty-three inhabitants. But times have changed. His customers have grown older—and balder. Suddenly there is no longer a call for Guillaume’s particular services, and he is forced to make a drastic career change. Since love and companionship are necessary commodities at any age, he becomes Amour-sur-Belle’s official matchmaker and intends to unite hearts as ably as he once cut hair. But alas, Guillaume is not nearly as accomplished an agent of amour, as the disastrous results of his initial attempts amply prove, especially when it comes to arranging his own romantic future.
3. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (2006) 6238269
A moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.  We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence.   Then there’s Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.  Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma’s trust and to see through Renée’s timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.
4. A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse (2009)
Ivan, a one-time world traveler, and Francesca, a ravishing Italian heiress, are the owners of a bookstore that is anything but ordinary. Rebelling against the business of bestsellers and in search of an ideal place where their literary dreams can come true, Ivan and Francesca open a store where the passion for literature is given free rein. Tucked away in a corner of Paris, the store offers its clientele a selection of literary masterpieces chosen by a top-secret committee of likeminded literary connoisseurs. To their amazement, after only a few months, the little dream store proves a success. And that is precisely when their troubles begin. At first, both owners shrug off the anonymous threats that come their way and the venomous comments concerning their store circulating on the Internet, but when three members of the supposedly secret committee are attacked, they decide to call the police. One by one, the pieces of this puzzle fall ominously into place, as it becomes increasingly evident that Ivan and Francesca’s dreams will be answered with pettiness, envy and violence.

158618055. My Life in France by Julia Child (2006)
In her own words, here is the story of Julia Child’s years in France, where she fell in love with French food and found her “true calling.” Filled with the black-and-white photographs that her husband Paul loved to take when he was not battling bureaucrats, as well as family snapshots, this memoir is laced with stories about the French character, particularly in the world of food, and the way of life that Julia embraced so whole-heartedly. Above all, she reveals the kind of spirit and determination, the sheer love of cooking, and the drive to share that with her fellow Americans that made her the extraordinary success she became.

6. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (2007; review here)
Orphan, clock keeper, and thief, Hugo lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station, where his survival depends on secrets and anonymity. But when his world suddenly interlocks with an eccentric, bookish girl and a bitter old man who runs a toy booth in the station, Hugo’s undercover life, and his most precious secret, are put in jeopardy. A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message from Hugo’s dead father form the backbone of this intricate, tender, and spellbinding mystery.
7. Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan (1954) 1183167
Bonjour Tristesse scandalised 1950’s France with its portrayal of teenager Cécile, a heroine who rejects conventional notions of love, marriage and family to choose her own sexual freedom.  Cécile leads a hedonistic, frivolous life with her father and his young mistresses. On holiday in the South of France, she is seduced by the sun, sand and her first lover. But when her father decides to remarry, their carefree existence becomes clouded by tragedy.

 

Which of these have you read, and which have taken your fancy?

Purchase from The Book Depository

3

Winter Reading Recommendations

The season is turning; trees are shedding leaves, the temperature is beginning to fall, and the Christmas decorations are already out in the shops.  That can only mean one thing; it’s time to crack out the hot water bottle, vat of hot chocolate, and a stack of suitably wintry books.  Below are eight recommendations which I think will be perfect to curl up with this winter.

1. Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson 9780312625412
‘Everyone knows the Moomins sleep through the winter. But this year, Moomintroll has woken up early. So while the rest of the family slumber, he decides to visit his favorite summer haunts. But all he finds is this strange white stuff. Even the sun is gone! Moomintroll is angry: whoever Winter is, she has some nerve. Determined to discover the truth about this most mysterious of all seasons, Moomintroll goes where no Moomin has gone before.’


2. A Winter Book by Tove Jansson
‘Drawn from youth and older age, and spanning most of the twentieth century, this newly translated selection provides a thrilling showcase of the great Finnish writer’s prose, scattered with insights and home truths. It has been selected and is introduced by Ali Smith. A Winter Book features 13 stories from Tove Jansson’s first book for adults,The Sculptor’s Daughter (1968) plus 7 of her most cherished later stories (from 1971 to 1996), translated into English and published here for the first time.’


97801413894003. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
‘Ethan Frome works his unproductive farm and struggles to maintain a bearable existence with his difficult, suspicious and hypochondriac wife, Zeena. But when Zeena’s vivacious cousin enters their household as a ‘hired girl’, Ethan finds himself obsessed with her and with the possibilities for happiness she comes to represent.’
4. Ariel by Sylvia Plath
‘The poems in Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, including many of her best-known such as ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Daddy’, ‘Edge’ and ‘Paralytic’, were all written between the publication in 1960 of Plath’s first book, The Colossus, and her death in 1963. “If the poems are despairing, vengeful and destructive, they are at the same time tender, open to things, and also unusually clever, sardonic, hardminded …’

5. If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino
‘Calvino’s masterpiece opens with a scene that’s reassuringly commonplace: apparently. Indeed, it’s taking place now. A reader goes into a bookshop to buy a book: not any book, but the latest Calvino, the book you are holding in your hands. Or is it? Are you the reader? Is this the book? Beware. All assumptions are dangerous on this most bewitching switch-back ride to the heart of storytelling.’

6. The Waves by Virginia Woolf 9780141182711
‘Tracing the lives of a group of friends, The Waves follows their development from childhood to youth and middle age. While social events, individual achievements and disappointments form its narrative, the novel is most remarkable for the rich poetic language that expresses the inner life of its characters: their aspirations, their triumphs and regrets, their awareness of unity and isolation. Separately and together, they query the relationship of past to present, and the meaning of life itself.’

97819060401857. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
‘Rene is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building. She maintains a carefully constructed persona as someone uncultivated but reliable, in keeping with what she feels a concierge should be. But beneath this facade lies the real Rene: passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives. Down in her lodge, apart from weekly visits by her one friend Manuela, Rene lives with only her cat for company. Meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her, and decides to end her life on her thirteenth birthday. But unknown to them both, the sudden death of one of their privileged neighbours will dramatically alter their lives forever. By turns moving and hilarious, this unusual novel became the top-selling book in France in 2007.’

8. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (predictable, but I could not resist recommending this beautiful novel!)
‘A bewitching tale of heartbreak and hope set in 1920s Alaska, Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child was a top ten bestseller in hardback and paperback, and went on to be a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Alaska, the 1920s. Jack and Mabel have staked everything on a fresh start in a remote homestead, but the wilderness is a stark place, and Mabel is haunted by the baby she lost many years before. When a little girl appears mysteriously on their land, each is filled with wonder, but also foreboding: is she what she seems, and can they find room in their hearts for her? Written with the clarity and vividness of the Russian fairy tale from which it takes its inspiration, The Snow Child is an instant classic.’

 

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

‘The Life of Elves’ by Muriel Barbery ***

The Life of Elves, originally written in French, slots in rather wonderfully with the Woman in Translation month which is going on around the Internet during August. I was excited to begin this, very much enjoying, as I have, Gourmet Rhapsody and The Elegance of the Hedgehog9781609453152

This novel immediately had an incredibly different feel to it from the aforementioned; it is almost fairytale-like in its telling. It has garnered rather a split opinion from reviewers thus far; some call it ‘stunning’, and others ‘overwritten’ and ‘confusing’. I did find some of the sentences a little (okay, sometimes very) long, and it was necessary to read them a couple of times over at points to ensure that I was getting everything. This isn’t ordinarily something which I have to do whilst reading, but parts of The Life of Elves felt a touch saturated.

Another unusual factor for me was that whilst I was reading, I had no idea how I felt about the book. Ordinarily, I have a very good idea about which rating I’m going to give a particular piece when I’m around two or three chapters in. I decided on three stars after much deliberation; there were parts which I really admired – the fairytale feel, and some of the phrasing, although I do tend to agree that the whole is rather unnecessarily overwritten – and others which I did not – the pseudo-Narnian battle which came quite out of nowhere, and involved both talking creatures and children. (Reepicheep, anyone?)

The Life of Elves is intended to have a sequel; whilst I did enjoy reading it, on the whole, I can’t say I’m overly interested to see what happens next. It is both a strange and interesting book, and like the best fiction, it made me think an awful lot.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

Sunday Snapshot: Five Books Set in Paris

A new feature for The Literary Sisters is entitled the ‘Sunday Snapshot’.  Each Sunday (if we remember!) we will be posting a list of five books on a common theme or genre.  The first of our Sunday Snapshots takes the beautiful city of Paris as its theme.

1. The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery
I’ve not seen many recommended reading lists for Paris which do not include Barbery’s wonderful novel.  It tells the intertwined stories of a quirky young girl named Paloma and the concierge of the building in which her family lives, Renee.  Whilst the protagonists on the surface of it seem to have little in common, they form rather a heartwarming friendship.  7 Rue de Grenelle provides the foundation for the relationship they build.  The social and political aspects of the story do not cloud its plot – rather, they add to it and make it a believable and fully rounded tale.  Barbery adds to this her lightness of touch, lovely writing style and deftness at crafting a memorable tale.

2. The Cat – Colette
I waxed lyrical about The Cat in an earlier review posted on The Literary Sisters.  Colette’s stunning writing and the way in which she makes Paris a character in itself makes the novella worth reading alone, whether you are a feline fan or not.

3. Sarah’s Key – Tatiana de Rosnay
This is not a happy novel by any means, but I believe that it is an important one.  It tells the stories of two separate protagonists from different time periods – a young girl named Sarah living in Paris during the Second World War, and a journalist of sorts who is investigating the Vel d’Hiv roundup of 1942, in which Sarah and her family were taken away.  I shan’t give any more of the plot away, but suffice to say that it is a startling and heartbreaking story about a little known event of the Second World War.

4. Down and Out in Paris and London – George Orwell
As with Sarah’s Key, Down and Out in Paris and London is not a happy book.  Far from it, in fact.  It tells, in Orwell’s marvellous style, of his struggles as a burgeoning author in the city.  It is filled with poverty and sadness at every turn, but it somehow still manages to be a fascinating piece of non-fiction of a world which is both lost and still present.

5. The Wine of Solitude – Irene Nemirovsky
It would be an obvious choice to put Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise on this list, but I have opted for one of her lesser known works. The Wine of Solitude opens with the character of eight-year-old Hélène Karol, an only child who lives with her parents, grandmother and governess in a tiny town in the Ukraine. The Wine of Solitude is extremely evocative of the places and period in which it is set, from St Petersburg to Paris, and from Finland to rural France. The different sections of the novel all encompass one or two of these settings, the descriptions of which are perfectly balanced and really build up a picture of each city or tiny town in the mind of the reader. The human psyche has been portrayed incredibly well and so poignantly by both author and translator, and we follow Hélène’s formative years to several different countries as she falls in and out of love and loses her innocence.