The Book Trail: From Hours to Ours

I reread Michael Cunningham’s phenomenal novel, The Hours, back in February, and thought it would be a good place to start for a Book Trail.  As ever, all of these books have been found via Goodreads’ ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature.

1. The Hours by Michael Cunningham 3076525
Passionate, profound, and deeply moving, “The Hours” is the story of three women: Clarissa Vaughan, who one New York morning goes about planning a party in honor of a beloved friend; Laura Brown, who in a 1950s Los Angeles suburb slowly begins to feel the constraints of a perfect family and home; and Virginia Woolf, recuperating with her husband in a London suburb, and beginning to write “Mrs. Dalloway.” By the end of the novel, the stories have intertwined, and finally come together in an act of subtle and haunting grace, demonstrating Michael Cunnningham’s deep empathy for his characters as well as the extraordinary resonance of his prose.


8059692. The Collected Stories by Jean Stafford
These Pulitzer Prize-winning stories represent the major short works of fiction by one of the most distinctively American stylists of her day. Jean Stafford communicates the small details of loneliness and connection, the search for freedom and the desire to belong, that not only illuminate whole lives but also convey with an elegant economy of words the sense of the place and time in which her protagonists find themselves. This volume also includes the acclaimed story “An Influx of Poets,” which has never before appeared in book form.


3. Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (another of my favourites!) 27908523
Brilliant, evocative, poetic, savage, this Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel (1934) written when Josephine Winslow Johnson was only 24, depicts a white, middle-class urban family that is turned into dirt-poor farmers by the Depression and the great drought of the thirties. The novel moves through a single year and, at the same time, a decade of years, from the spring arrival of the family at their mortgaged farm to the winter 10 years later, when the ravages of drought, fire, and personal anguish have led to the deaths of two of the five. Like Ethan Frome, the relatively brief, intense story evokes the torment possible among people isolated and driven by strong feelings of love and hate that, unexpressed, lead inevitably to doom. Reviewers in the thirties praised the novel, calling its prose “profoundly moving music,” expressing incredulity “that this mature style and this mature point of view are those of a young women in her twenties,” comparing the book to “the luminous work of Willa Cather,” and, with prescience, suggesting that it “has that rare quality of timelessness which is the mark of first-rate fiction.”


2669784. The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1965, The Keepers of the House is Shirley Ann Grau’s masterwork, a many-layered indictment of racism and rage that is as terrifying as it is wise.  Entrenched on the same land since the early 1800s, the Howlands have, for seven generations, been pillars of their Southern community. Extraordinary family lore has been passed down to Abigail Howland, but not all of it. When shocking facts come to light about her late grandfather William’s relationship with Margaret Carmichael, a black housekeeper, the community is outraged, and quickly gathers to vent its fury on Abigail. Alone in the house the Howlands built, she is at once shaken by those who have betrayed her, and determined to punish the town that has persecuted her and her kin.   Morally intricate, graceful and suspenseful, The Keepers of the House has become a modern classic.


5. A Fable by William Faulkner 2010541
This novel won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1955. An allegorical story of World War I, set in the trenches in France and dealing ostensibly with a mutiny in a French regiment, it was originally considered a sharp departure for Faulkner. Recently it has come to be recognized as one of his major works and an essential part of the Faulkner oeuvre. Faulkner himself fought in the war, and his descriptions of it “rise to magnificence,” according to The New York Times, and include, in Malcolm Cowley’s words, “some of the most powerful scenes he ever conceived.”


2213276. Early Autumn by Louis Bromfield
Bromfield takes a close look at the Pentlands- a fictional rich family in New England- exposing the hypocrisy and ignorance behind their luxurious facade. Bromfield’s eloquence when describing both his characters and their surroundings is breathtaking, and his accuracy in describing the characters’ complicated emotions makes it apparent that he knows human nature very well. A fascinating study on the struggle of one woman to escape the stifling influence of her husband and in-laws.


7. Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington 2634040
Alice Adams, the daughter of middle-class parents, wants desperately to belong with the people of “high society” who live in her town. Ultimately, her ambitions are tempered by the realities of her situation, which she learns to accept with grace and style. Alice’s resiliency of spirit makes her one of Booth Tarkington’s most compelling characters. A fascinating story that won the Pulitzer Prize. This publication from Boomer Books is specially designed and typeset for comfortable reading.


8197098. One of Ours by Willa Cather
One of Ours is Willa Cather’s 1923 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the making of an American soldier. Claude Wheeler, the sensitive but aspiring protagonist, has ready access to his family’s fortune but refuses to settle for it. Alienated from his uncaring father and pious mother, and rejected by a wife whose only love is missionary work, Claude is an idealist without ideals to cling to. Only when his country enters the Great War does he find the meaning of his life.


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

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American Literature Month: One From the Archive – ‘Tigers in Red Weather’ by Liza Klaussmann ****

Tigers in Red Weather begins on the east coast of America in September 1945, just after the end of the Second World War.  Cousins Nick and Helena have grown up spending a long spring of summers at Tiger House, the family’s estate on Martha’s Vineyard, a place which both women hold fondly in their memories.  

At the outset of the novel, we meet Nick and Helena, ‘wearing their slips and drinking gin neat out of old jelly jars’ in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Helena is about to get married for the second time and is on the cusp of moving to Hollywood, a decision which she views with some optimism: ‘At least this way I won’t turn into an old maid, mad as a hatter and warts on my nose’.  Simultaneously, Nick is travelling to meet her husband Hughes in St. Augustine, Florida.  The couple make their home here in a rented pre-fab, ‘just like all the others surrounding it’.  From the start, several small fissures reveal themselves in the relationship between the couple, and it is clear that calling them ‘happily married’ would be rather far from the truth.  Despite the cousins growing up together, their adult lives veer off in entirely different directions, living at opposite ends of the country and losing the regular contact with each other which they both heavily rely upon.

The second part of the novel begins in 1959 and lays focus upon Nick’s daughter Daisy, who believes her mother to be a ‘bit crazy’.  She and Nick are travelling to Tiger House to spend the summer with Helena and her son Ed.  Here, dawning understandings are realised by many of the characters.  When Daisy sees her mother and aunt on the porch of Tiger House, for example, she becomes ‘mesmerized.  It was as if her mother and aunt had been snatched away by goblins and replaced with fairies of some sort.  They looked so beautiful to her, and so different…  They could have said anything, and she would have loved them’.

We as readers learn a lot about the characters as the narrative progresses, from details about their pasts to their thoughts and feelings regarding a whole host of varied subjects.  Each character is given a plausible past and their relationships with one another have been crafted both sympathetically and skilfully.  The novel is strong in social history, and the inclusion of music and films throughout really historically grounds the novel.  A clever touch is the way in which we are able to see the technological progressions of such things as both time and the book go on.

Ed and Daisy’s discovery of a dead body in a seemingly abandoned shack in the woods soon shrouds the entire family, whose lives are already fraught with troubles and secrets.  Tigers in Red Weather becomes, in part – if rather a small part – a murder mystery story, but it is so much more than that.  It is an elaborate study of several characters, a rich social history which spans rather a wide chronological scale.

The novel is split into five separate sections, each of which follows a different character.  The majority of the novel uses the third person omniscient perspective and only the final section is told from the point of view of one of the characters.  The book is not a chronological one and some of these narratives do jump around a little in time, a technique which becomes a little confusing at times, but this is really the only drawback of the novel.  The conversations which Klaussmann has crafted between her characters work wonderfully.

Throughout, Klaussmann’s descriptions are often original: a train which ‘smelled like bleach and excitement’ – and sometimes rather lovely: ‘The oak tree in the backyard cut pieces from the moon’.  The entire novel is incredibly well written.

Tigers in Red Weather is rather an absorbing and incredibly intriguing read from the outset, and it is certainly a masterful debut.  It is an exceedingly well planned and well thought out novel, and Klaussmann has really done justice both to her characters and to the story which she has constructed.

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One From the Archive: ‘Various Pets Alive and Dead’ by Marina Lewycka ****

First published in February 2012.

Having greatly enjoyed Lewycka’s previous literary efforts – Two Caravans, We Are All Made of Glue and the bestselling A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian – I was incredibly excited to read her fourth novel, the quirkily titled Various Pets Alive & Dead.

The novel begins on the 1st of September 2008.  Its opening focuses upon one of the book’s main protagonists, Serge Free, who is currently working in an office on the London Stock Exchange.  He is leading his parents, overprotective Doro and quiet Marcus, to believe that he is still finishing his abandoned Maths PhD at Cambridge, rather than letting them know that he actually has rather a high paid job in the capital.

Serge, along with his sisters Clara, a primary school teacher on a Doncaster estate, and Down’s Syndrome sufferer Oolie-Anna, were brought up in a commune in the south of Yorkshire ‘with a floating population of adults, children and various pets alive and dead’.  The Free siblings could not be less alike if they tried.  Serge is incredibly clever if a little naïve at times, Clara is strait-laced and sensible, and Oolie-Anna strives for the independence which her disability has taken away.

The characters themselves are all incredibly likeable.  They each have different quirks which immediately appeal to the reader.  Lewycka focuses upon the strengths and weaknesses of each of the Frees, and describes such elements as how ‘Doro has a long list of things she disapproves of, including consumerism, racism, war, Botox, Jeremy Clarkson, and trans-fatty acids’.  Even those who feature merely momentarily in the novel are well-developed.   Every chapter of the novel essentially focuses on a different character.  Each chapter heading is followed by a witty or amusing subtitle – for example, ‘Vandalism, Pee and the Doncaster Climate’, ‘The Carrot Rocket’ and ‘The Slowness of Plants’.

One of Lewycka’s strengths lies within the narrative voices which she creates.  Various Pets Alive & Dead is strong from the outset and begins with a great opening sentence: ‘The whole world is deranged, though most people haven’t noticed yet’.

The novel is told from the third person perspective, often in the present tense.  This gives the reader a real sense of comradeship with the incredibly believable characters which combine to create the novel.  The narrative style itself is quite relaxed but is still incredibly attentive to detail.  Irony, sarcasm and amusement are included throughout.

The dialogue throughout is well crafted and incredibly amusing in places.  Lewycka captures the dialects of her characters perfectly.  Whilst the reader is made aware that some of the characters speak with an accent – Eastern European Maroushka Malko, a colleague of Serge’s, and the youngest Free child, Oolie-Anna – their accents are subtle and not overdone.

Lewycka’s descriptions are fresh and original.  One of the best examples of this is the way in which she describes aftershave smelling of ‘aniseed and benzene lighter fuel’.  Lewycka puts series of words together so cleverly that even her descriptions of the more mundane aspects of life seem fresh and exciting.  The novel, particularly aspects such as the stock market which is detailed throughout, has been very well researched.  It is clear, even without reading the Acknowledgements page, that Lewycka has approached experts in the more intricate details of her novel.

Various Pets Alive & Dead is filled with a barrage of surprising twists and the reader can never quite predict where the story will end up.

Various Pets Alive & Dead is an incredibly absorbing novel.  Lewycka has a wonderful knack of bringing her stories, and the characters within them, to life.  Unlike many contemporary authors, she brings a vibrancy to the ordinary and offers fresh perspectives.  She manages to produce books which are incredibly different from one another in terms of story and setting, but which all contain her trademark humour and polished writing style.  Lewycka’s stylistically bold fourth novel is contemporary literature at its very best.

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‘The Love Child’ by Edith Olivier *****

‘The Love Child’ by Edith Olivier (Virago)

Only those who have tried to purchase this novel will know how rare it is.  It has not been in print for quite some time (my copy dates from 1982), and when I first looked for it a couple of years ago, there were no copies to be had below £80.  When I spotted this online for just £5, I simply had to have it, even with my to-read shelves groaning under the weight of unread books.  I began it on the same day that it dropped through my letterbox (after gazing at the beautiful cover for a while, of course).

This particular Virago has been introduced by Hermione Lee, who writes about the novel insightfully.  Before reading this, I had such high hopes for the book, as the few reviews which I have read of it have all been entirely positive.

The premise of The Love Child is enticing:

“At thirty-two, her mother dead, Agatha Bodenham finds herself quite alone.  She summons back to life the only friend she ever knew, Clarissa, the dream companion of her childhood.  At first Clarissa comes by night, and then by day, gathering substance in the warmth of Agatha’s obsessive love until it seems that others too can see her.  See, but not touch, for Agatha had made her love child for herself alone.  No man may approach her elfin creation of perfect beauty.  If he does, the love with summoned her can spirit her away…”

The novel is just as haunting as its plot promises.  Without giving too much away, the characters are complex and intricately crafted, and Olivier’s prose is absolutely beautiful and deserves to be savoured as far as possible.  The entirety is stunning, mesmerising and absolutely beautiful.  It certainly deserves its place on my favourites list, and is a novel which I will happily revisit each and every year to come.

(Side note: I have just seen that this is going to be reissued in a hardback edition by Macmillan Bello on the 27th of March, and I am so pleased that Olivier will be readily accessible once more!  You can preorder your copy from The Book Depository here).