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One From the Archive: ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ by Elizabeth Jenkins ****

First published in March 2014.

As I am sure lovely readers of The Literary Sisters know by now, I am currently working through the Virago Modern Classics list.  A few years ago now, some beautiful ‘Designer Collection’ books were issued by the publishing house, and I just cannot resist them.  I can only hope that Virago choose to release more of them in the near future (hint, hint).

‘The Tortoise and The Hare’ by Elizabeth Jenkins

Without further ado, I chose to purchase the beautiful The Tortoise and The Hare last time I placed a book order, as Elizabeth Jenkins is an author whom I have wanted to read for a very long time.  The introduction to this novel has been written by Hilary Mantel; she states that it is ‘exquisitely written’ and goes on to say that ‘Jenkins has provided a thoughtful and astringent guide to the imperatives of sexual politics – and one of which is of more than historical interest’.  The novel has received some stunning reviews on the various book blogs which I hold in high esteem, and Jenkins is very well respected in terms of the stunning and perceptive books which she authored.

The Tortoise and The Hare is rather a quiet novel, as many of the Viragos tend to be, but that purely means that more focus is placed upon the beautiful writing and well drawn characters.

The novel’s blurb is quite intriguing:

“In affairs of the heart the race is not necessarily won by the swift or the fair.

Imogen, the beautiful and much younger wife of distinguished barrister Evelyn Gresham, is facing the greatest challenge of her married life. Their neighbour Blanche Silcox, competent, middle-aged and ungainly – the very opposite of Imogen – seems to be vying for Evelyn’s attention. And to Imogen’s increasing disbelief, she may be succeeding.”

It is a book about love and hate, about the very emotions which are liable to tear us, and the relationships which we have tried so very hard to build, apart.  In this respect, Jenkins has done a marvellous job, highlighting the ease with which facades can slip, and the way in which single actions can destroy what is so taken for granted.

Throughout, I found the majority of the characters so very intriguing.  I did not like many of them, as such, but I did become fond of Imogen towards the very end of the novel, and Tim Leeper, the young friend of Imogen and Evelyn’s son, was a real sweetheart.  It is clear that Jenkins respects her characters, and everything which she envisioned has been so well set to paper.

Whilst The Tortoise and The Hare is not my favourite on the Virago list, it is a thought-provoking novel, both intelligent and witty, which I will be sure to pick up again in the future, and which I will heartily recommend.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Little Paris Bookshop’ by Nina George ***

At the beginning of Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop, fifty-year-old bookseller Jean Perdu is told that he is ‘cashmere compared with the normal yarn from which men are spun’.  The owner of a book-filled barge, moored upon the Seine and called the Literary Apothecary, he ‘could not imagine what might be more practical than a book’.

Jean decided to open his bookshop in order to aid Paris’ citizens, believing that ‘it was a common misconception that booksellers looked after books.  They looked after people’.  He says: ‘I wanted to treat feelings that are not recognised as afflictions and are never diagnosed by doctors.  All those little feelings and emotions no therapist is interested in…  The feeling that washes over you when another summer nears its end….  Or those birthday motning blues.  Nostalgia for the air of your childhood.  Things like that’.

Jean, a lonely bachelor who is mourning a lost love, intrigues from the very beginning: ‘Over the course of twenty-one summers, Monsieur Perdu had become as adept at avoiding thinking of __ as he was at stepping around open manholes.  He mainly thought of her… as a pause amid the hum of his thoughts, as a blank in the pictures of the past, as a dark spot amid his feelings’.  George goes on to write that he had ‘become extremely good at ignoring anything that might in any way arouse feelings of yearning.  Aromas.  Melodies.  The beauty of things’.  We get a feel for Jean and his sadness immediately: ‘The two rooms he still occupied [in his apartment complex] were so empty that they echoed when he coughed’.

Characters who remain upon the periphery throughout are used as a clever tool to allow us to learn about the novel’s protagonists.  The gossips in Jean’s apartment building at 27 Rue Montagnard are perhaps the best example of this technique.

One of George’s strengths lies in the way in which she builds geographical locations: ‘Over it all drifted the perfume of Paris in June, the fragrance of lime blossom and expectation’.  The Little Paris Bookshop is filled with some lovely and rather thoughtful ideas, particularly with regard to those which shape themselves around literature: ‘We all grow old, even books.  But are you, is anyone, worth less, or less important, because they’ve been around for longer?’

The Little Paris Bookshop is a largely charming work, which has been intelligently written.  George has taken a relatively simple plot and given it depth.  The only thing which let the book down as far as I am concerned is the sheer predictability which a lot of the plot sadly succumbs to.

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‘Thursday’s Children’ by Rumer Godden ****

Rumer Godden is the author of over sixty works of fiction and non-fiction, for both children and adults. Virago have recently reprinted a handful of her books to add to their impressive canon of women’s fiction. First published in 1984, Thursday’s Children is amongst the newest offerings. As its title suggests, this novel is based upon the childhood rhyme ‘Monday’s Child’, in which ‘Thursday’s child has far to go’ – a definite precedent for the story which Godden has woven. 9781844088485

Thursday’s Children focuses upon a young boy named Doone Penny, who was ‘born to dance’. His sister Crystal, also a dancer, receives much of the attention in the Penny family, and Doone’s brothers and father look upon him with something akin to contempt at times, believing that any boy who enjoys ballet is the worst kind of ‘sissy’. He is the youngest child in rather a large family, a surprise baby who was born to a mother who wanted her beloved daughter, born after four boys, to be her last. ‘To be the youngest in a family is supposed to be enviable, but that is in fairy-tales; with four older brothers and an important older sister, Doone rarely had a chance to speak’. From the start, Doone is not treasured as he should have been: ‘… he was an unsatisfactory child… [he] was persistently ragamuffin, his socks falling down, his shoes scuffed… he was often puzzled and, often, when spoken to seemed curiously absent, too dreamy to be trusted with the simplest message. He was to be a failure at school – every term a worse report – did not learn to read properly till he was ten and was so silent that he seemed to Ma secretive’.

The first part of the novel opens with Doone’s spoilt elder sister complaining about having to take her brother along to the dance class which she attends. Since his early childhood, Doone has been largely ignored by those around him, and even his mother sees him as somewhat of a burden. He is an incredibly musical child and is taught to play the mouth organ when a tiny little boy by a wonderfully crafted little man named Beppo who helps out in his father’s North London grocery shop. When Beppo is forced to leave his employment, Doone realises ‘that now there was nobody who wanted him’. When the eldest brother, Will, suggests that he should be given lessons in his beloved mouth organ as it is unfair that the majority of the family’s money is spent on Crystal and her dancing, Ma Penny says, ‘… when, in a family, one child has real talent, the rest have to make some sacrifice’.

Doone’s own love of dancing is realised when he is given the opportunity to attend a professional ballet performance with his mother. He begins to have clandestine dance classes along with four other London boys. It is a coming of age novel of the most satisfying type. We see Doone, our protagonist, grow before our eyes, and triumph over the situations and family members which try to overcome him.

Dance runs throughout the entire book, as one might expect given the storyline. However, Godden has gone further than merely to write about dance. Indeed, the novel is presented as something akin to a theatre programme, outlining the ‘cast list’ before it begins, and opening with a ‘Prelude’, which sets out the ‘World Premiere of Yuri Koszorz’s “Leda and the Swan”‘. Here, Doone has been cast as a cygnet: ‘No boy of that age, in Mr Max’s remembrance, had been entrusted with dancing a solo role in a ballet at the Royal Theatre’. Despite this prelude merely being Doone’s dream, these nice touches to the book launch us straight into the life of the ballet.

Godden’s writing is marvellous. She weaves an absorbing story and intersperses it with touching anecdotes about its characters, pitch perfect dialogue and the loveliest of descriptions. The settings which she uses come to life in the mind of the reader: ‘It was only a prelude; the music changed, the clouds came down, and Doone could feel an almost magnetic stir in the audience beyond the orchestra pit’, and ‘the Royal Theatre, for an English-born dancer, was not only the Mecca, the peak of ambition, but also home’. Her love of dancing and the theatre shines through on every page: ‘the music, the lights, the little girls – it seemed to him a hundred little girls – all in party dresses and dancing shoes, moving to the music in what seemed to him a miracle of marching, running, leaping’. Her character descriptions, too, give us a real feel for the leading men and women of the book: ‘It was difficult to believe Pa had once been a romantic young man who, when he was not learning to be a greengrocer, willingly went without tea or supper to go to a musical or a revue’.

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Really Underrated Books (Part Five)

The final part of this week’s Really Underrated Books brings with it a question – which is the book which has caught your attention the most this week?

1. The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger 253668
Tess Slesinger’s 1934 novel, The Unpossessed details the ins and outs and ups and downs of left-wing New York intellectual life and features a cast of litterateurs, layabouts, lotharios, academic activists, and fur-clad patrons of protest and the arts. This cutting comedy about hard times, bad jobs, lousy marriages, little magazines, high principles, and the morning after bears comparison with the best work of Dawn Powell and Mary McCarthy.

 

2. Postmortem: How Medical Examiners Explain Suspicious Deaths by Stefan Timmermans
As elected coroners were replaced by medical examiners with scientific training, the American public became fascinated with their work. From the grisly investigations showcased on highly rated television shows like CSI to the bestselling mysteries that revolve around forensic science, medical examiners have never been so visible—or compelling. They, and they alone, solve the riddle of suspicious death and the existential questions that come with it. Why did someone die? Could it have been prevented? Should someone be held accountable? What are the implications of ruling a death a suicide, a homicide, or an accident? Can medical examiners unmask the perfect crime?  Postmortem goes deep inside the world of medical examiners to uncover the intricate web of social, legal, and moral issues in which they operate. Stefan Timmermans spent years in a medical examiner’s office following cases, interviewing examiners, and watching autopsies. While he relates fascinating cases here, he is also more broadly interested in the cultural authority and responsibilities that come with being a medical examiner. How medical examiners speak to the living on behalf of the dead is Timmermans’s subject, revealed here in the day-to-day lives of the examiners themselves.

 

3. The Devil’s Footprints by John Burnside 3057525
Once, on a winter’s night many years ago, after a heavy snow, the devil passed through the Scottish fishing town of Coldhaven, leaving a trail of dark hoofprints across the streets and roofs of the sleeping town.  Michael Gardiner has lived in Coldhaven all his life, but still feels like an outsider, a blow-in. When Moira Birnie decides that her abusive husband is the devil and then kills herself and her two young sons, a terrible chain of events begins. Michael’s infatuation with Moira’s teenage daughter takes him on a journey towards a defined fate, where he is forced to face his present and then, finally, his past…

 

4. Awake in the Dark by Shira Nayman
Bold and deeply affecting, “Awake in the Dark” is a provocative and haunting work of fiction about who we are and how we are formed by history. These luminous stories portray the contemporary lives of the children of Holocaust victims and perpetrators as they struggle with the legacy of their parents — their questions of identity, family, and faith. “Awake in the Dark” is peopled by characters embarking on journeys of self-discovery; they unearth the past and the secrets that shaped them. In “The House on Kronenstrasse,” a woman returns to Germany to find her childhood home; in “The Porcelain Monkey,” the shocking origins of an Orthodox Jewish woman’s faith are revealed; in “The Lamp,” the harrowing experiences of a young woman leave her with the perfect daughter and a strange light; and in “Dark Urgings of the Blood,” a patient is convinced that she shares a disturbing history with her psychiatrist.

 

5124915. Lucky in the Corner by Carol Anshaw
Nora and Fern’s relationship as mother and daughter is a tumble of love and distrust. To Nora, her daughter is an enigma — at the same time wonderful and unfindable. Fern sees her mother as treacherous — for busting up their family to move in with her lover, Jeanne. As their lives become complicated by the arrivals of a skateboarding boyfriend for Fern, a shadowy affair for Nora, a baby in need of a family, and by the failing health of Lucky, their beloved dog, this mother and daughter find their way onto a fresh footing with each other.

 

6. I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops by Hanan Al-Shaykh
At the intersection of tradition and modernity, East and West, childhood and adulthood, the characters in this book find their way through the shifting and ambiguous power relationships that change the landscape of the modern Arab world.

 

7. Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (one of my personal favourites!) 7516243
A single mother takes her two sons on a trip to the seaside. They stay in a hotel, drink hot chocolate, and go to the funfair. She wants to protect them from an uncaring and uncomprehending world. She knows that it will be the last trip for her boys.  Beside the Sea is a haunting and thought-provoking story about how a mother’s love for her children can be more dangerous than the dark world she is seeking to keep at bay. It’s a hypnotizing look at an unhinged mind and the cold society that produced it. With language as captivating as the story that unfolds, Véronique Olmi creates an intimate portrait of madness and despair that won’t soon be forgotten

 

8. Focus by Ingrid Ricks
In her powerful memoir, Ingrid Ricks delves into the shock of discovering at age thirty-seven that she was in the advanced stages of Retinitis Pigmentosa, a devastating degenerative eye disease that doctors said would eventually steal her remaining eyesight. Focus takes readers into Ingrid’s world as she faces the crippling fear of not being able to see her two young daughters grow up, of becoming a burden to her husband, of losing the career she loves, and of being robbed of the independence that defines her.  Ultimately, Focus is about Ingrid’s quest to fix her eyes that ends up fixing her life. Through an eight-year journey marked by a trip to South Africa to write about AIDS orphans, a four-day visit with a doctor who focuses on whole-body health, a relationship-changing confrontation with her husband and a life-changing lesson from her daughters, Ingrid learns to embrace the moment and see what counts—something no amount of vision loss can take from her.

 

831719. America’s Boy by Wade Rouse
‘Wade didn’t quite fit in. While schoolmates had crewcuts and wore Wrangler jeans, Wade styled his hair in imitation of Robbie Benson circa Ice Castles and shopped in the Sears husky section. Wade’s father insisted on calling everyone “honey”—even male gas station attendants. His mother punctuated her conversations with “WHAT?!” and constantly answered herself as though she was being cross-examined. He goes to school with a pack of kids called goat ropers who make the boys from Deliverance look like honor students. And he both loved and hated his perfect older brother.  While other families traveled to Florida and Hawaii for vacation, Wade’s family packed their clothes in garbage bags and drove to their log cabin on Sugar Creek in the Missouri Ozarks. And it is here that Wade found refuge from his everyday struggle to fit in—until a sudden, terrible accident on the Fourth of July took his brother’s life and changed everything.  Equally nostalgic, poignant, funny, and compelling, this is a story of what it is to be normal, what it means to fit in, and what it means to be yourself.’

 

10. The Debut by Anita Brookner
Since childhood Ruth Weiss has been escaping from life into books, and from the hothouse attentions of her tyrannical and eccentric parents into the gentler warmth of lovers and friends. Now Dr. Weiss, at forty, a quiet scholar devoted to the study of Balzac, is convinced that her life has been ruined by literature, and that once again she must make a new start in life.

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Really Underrated Books (Part One)

Welcome to another week where I showcase fifty more Really Underrated Books. These is an enjoyable post for me to put together; it makes a nice break from researching, and still feels constructive, but also brings some books I’ve never heard of to my attention.  What could be better?

1. Totempole by Sanford Friedman 9781590177617
Totempole is Sanford Friedman’s radical coming-of-age novel, featuring Stephen Wolfe, a young Jewish boy growing up in New York City and its environs during the Depression and war years. In eight discrete chapters, which trace Stephen’s evolution from a two-year-old boy to a twenty-two-year-old man, Friedman describes with psychological acuity and great empathy Stephen’s intellectual, moral, and sexual maturation. Taught to abhor his body for the sake of his soul, Stephen finds salvation in the eventual unification of the two, the recognition that body and soul should not be partitioned but treated as one being, one complete man.

 

2. Mascara by Ariel Dorfman
Mascara delves into the dark terrain of identity and disguise when the lives of three people collide. A nameless man with a face no one remembers has the devastating ability to see and capture on film the brutal truths lurking inside each person he encounters. Oriana, a beautiful woman with the memory of an innocent child, is relentlessly pursued by mysterious figures from her past. Doctor Mavirelli is a brilliant and power-hungry plastic surgeon who controls society’s most prominent figures by shaping their faces. The twining of these three fates plays out in a climactic unmasking.

 

97805780705993. Burnings by Ocean Vuong
“I was born because someone was starving…” ends one of Ocean Vuong’s poems, and in that poem, as in every other of his poems, Ocean manages to imbue the desperation of his being alive, with a savage beauty. It is not just that Ocean can render pain as a kind of loveliness, but that his poetic line will not let you forget the hurt or the garish brilliance of your triumph; will not let you look away. These poems shatter us detail by detail because Ocean leaves nothing unturned, because every lived thing in his poems demands to be fed by you; to nourish you in turn. You will not leave these poems dissatisfied. They will fill you utterly.

 

4. The Illustrated Virago Book of Women Travellers, edited by Mary Morris
In this newly illustrated edition, 300 years of wanderlust are captured as women travel the world for pleasure and peril. Among the extraordinary women whose writing is included here are Gertrude Bell, Rose Macaulay, Mary McCarthy, Vita Sackville-West, Freya Stark, Edith Wharton, and Mary Wollstonecraft. Whether it is curiosity about the world, a thirst for adventure, or escape from personal tragedy, all these women are united in approaching their journeys with wit, intelligence, and compassion for those encountered along the way.

 

5. A Voice from the South by Anna Julia Cooper 9780195063233
At the close of the 19th century, a black woman of the South presents womanhood as a vital element in the regeneration and progress of her race.

 

6. Red Juice: Poems by Hoa Nguyen
Red Juice represents a decade of poems written roughly between 1998 and 2008, previously only available in small-run handmade chapbooks, journals, and out-of-print books. This collection of early poems by Vietnamese American poet Hoa Nguyen showcases her feminist ecopoetics and unique style, all lyrical in the post-modern tradition.

 

91226537. Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper by Alexandra Harris
‘n the 1930s and 1940s, while the battles for modern art and modern society were being fought in Paris and Spain, it seemed to some a betrayal that John Betjeman and John Piper were in love with a provincial world of old churches and tea shops.  Alexandra Harris tells a different story: eclectically, passionately,wittily, urgently, English artists were exploring what it meant to be alive at that moment and in England. They showed that “the modern”
need not be at war with the past: constructivists and conservatives could work together, and even the Bauhaus émigré László Moholy-Nagy was beguiled into taking photos for Betjeman’s nostalgic An Oxford University Chest.  A rich network of personal and cultural encounters was the backdrop for a modern English renaissance. This great imaginative project was shared by writers, painters, gardeners, architects, critics, and composers. Piper abandoned purist abstracts to make collages on the blustery coast; Virginia Woolf wrote in her last novel about a village pageant on a showery summer day. Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen, and the Sitwells are also part of the story, along with Bill Brandt and Graham Sutherland, Eric Ravilious and Cecil Beaton.’

 

8. Of Africa by Wole Soyinka
A member of the unique generation of African writers and intellectuals who came of age in the last days of colonialism, Wole Soyinka has witnessed the promise of independence and lived through postcolonial failure. He deeply comprehends the pressing problems of Africa, and, an irrepressible essayist and a staunch critic of the oppressive boot, he unhesitatingly speaks out.  In this magnificent new work, Soyinka offers a wide-ranging inquiry into Africa’s culture, religion, history, imagination, and identity. He seeks to understand how the continent’s history is entwined with the histories of others, while exploring Africa’s truest assets: “its humanity, the quality and valuation of its own existence, and modes of managing its environment—both physical and intangible (which includes the spiritual).

 

9. The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, edited by Colm Toibin 1980450
This extraordinary volume presents the entire canon of Irish fiction in English from Jonathan Swift, born in 1667, to Emma Donoghue, born in 1969. In between are selections from almost 100 renowned writers including Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Iris Murdoch, William Trevor, and Roddy Doyle. Colm Tóibín-one of Ireland’s most accomplished writers-has carefully chosen the selections and gives fascinating background information in a provocative introduction. His commentary combines with the inspired selections from Ireland’s greatest writers to provide an authoritative and enlightening exploration of Irish fiction.

 

10. The Embroidered Shoes by Can Xue
Written by the true heir to Kafka, Borges, and Angela Carter, The Embroidered Shoes is a magical collection of hallucinatory tales set in a world where anything can happen, and everything does. Constructed like a set of graduated Chinese boxes, these postmodern ghost stories build into philosophical and psychological conundrums that leave the reader pondering long past the last page.

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One From the Archive: ‘Young Hearts Crying’ by Richard Yates ****

I very much admire Richard Yates’ work.  Young Hearts Crying, published in 1984, is his penultimate novel, published eight years before his death.  The New Statesman describes his work as follows: ‘Bad couples, sad, sour marriages, young hopes corroded by suburban life’.

Here, Yates presents not just a married couple or a family to us, but a whole community; we are given a feel for how intrinsically individuals fit into a particular place or setting.  The protagonists of the piece, regardless, are a young married couple named Michael and Lucy Davenport.  The pair are very much in love at the beginning of the novel, yet cracks soon begin to appear within their marriage.  When Young Hearts Crying begins, Michael is a new Harvard graduate, who wants desperately to become a poet.  Rather than live upon Lucy’s sizeable trust fund, he is determined to make a living by himself; when he gets a job which he is not entirely satisfied with in New York, his friends and acquaintances begin to syphon off, doing bigger and better things.

As protagonists, Michael and Lucy are both well built.  Whilst Michael is not at all likeable (I would go as far to say that he is actually moderately awful in most of his thoughts and behaviour), Lucy is; the balance struck between the pair, augmented by their small daughter Laura, is pitch perfect.  One of Yates’ definite strengths here is the way in which he encompasses secondary characters from all walks of life, from the privileged to the poverty-stricken.  Young Hearts Crying is not overly heavy in its plot, and whilst one is able to guess what is going to happen as the story moves forward without any great effort, these elements do not make it any less compelling.

I always say this of Yates, but he is an incredibly aware and perceptive author.  Young Hearts Crying is so well written, and whilst it is not his strongest novel, it is a great, striking and relatively easy read nonetheless.

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‘Leaving Home’ by Anita Brookner ****

‘At twenty-six, Emma Roberts comes to the painful realization that if she is ever to become truly independent, she must leave her comfortable London flat and venture into the wider world. This entails not only breaking free from a claustrophobic relationship with her mother, but also shedding her inherited tendency toward melancholy. Once settled in a small Paris hotel, Emma befriends Francoise Desnoyers, a vibrant young woman who offers Emma a glimpse into a turbulent life so different from her own. In this exquisite new novel of self-discovery, Booker Prize-winner Anita Brookner addresses one of the great dramas of our lives: growing up and leaving home.’

9781400095650I purchased Anita Brookner’s Leaving Home with my thesis in mind, without quite knowing if it was literary enough to include.  Prior to this, I had only read Hotel du Lac, which I chose for a book club I was part of several years ago.  Whilst I enjoyed it, I also found it a touch underwhelming.  From the very beginning of Leaving Home, however, I was captivated.  The narrative voice is strong, and it says a lot about interiority whilst following a single female character, Emma, who is trying to make her place in the world.  Emma is rather unusual at times in her outlook; she does not permit herself to fall in love, but cultivates platonic relationships with two men.

In some ways, Leaving Home does feel rather dated; it has antiquated dialogue patterns, in which nobody seems to use any colloquialisms whatsoever.  Despite this, Emma is rather realistic.  She has rather a lot of freedom, and spends her time flitting back and forth from London to Paris.  In the sensitively wrought Leaving Home, which is a coming-of-age novel of sorts, Brookner demonstrates what it is like to be a lonely young woman.

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