0

The Book Trail: From Virago to Persephone

I have chosen one of Muriel Spark’s books for this, the first of 2019’s, edition of The Book Trail.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

 

1. The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark 17593886
To rendezvous with her archeologist fiance in Jordan, Barbara Vaughn must first pass through the Mandelbaum Gate–which divides strife-torn Jerusalem. A half-jewish convert to Catholicism, an Englishwoman of strong and stubborn convictions, Barbara will not be dissuaded from her ill-timed pilgrimage despite a very real threat of bodily harm and the fearful admonishments of staid British diplomat Freddy Hamilton.

 

2. The Summer House: A Trilogy by Alice Thomas Ellis
In The Summer House trilogy, three very different women, with three very distinct perspectives, narrate three very witty novels concerning one disastrous wedding in the offing.  The Clothes in the Wardrobe: Nineteen-year-old Margaret feels more trepidation than joy at the prospect of her marriage to forty-year-old Syl.  The Skeleton in the Cupboard: Syl’s mother, Mrs. Monro, doesn’t know quite what to make of her son’s life, but she knows Margaret should not marry him.  The Fly in the Ointment: And then there’s Lili, the free spirit who is determined that the wedding shall not happen, no matter the consequences.

 

174655123. A Long Way From Verona by Jane Gardam
Jessica Vye’s ‘violent experience’ colours her schooldays and her reaction to the world around her- a confining world of Order Marks, wartime restrictions, viyella dresses, nicely-restrained essays and dusty tea shops. For Jessica she has been told that she is ‘beyond all possible doubt’, a born writer. With her inability to conform, her absolute compulsion to tell the truth and her dedication to accurately noting her experiences, she knows this anyway. But what she doesn’t know is that the experiences that sustain and enrich her burgeoning talent will one day lead to a new- and entirely unexpected- reality.

 

4. Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr
Ill and bored with having to stay in bed, Marianne picks up a pencil and starts doodling – a house, a garden, a boy at the window. That night she has an extraordinary dream. She is transported into her own picture, and as she explores further she soon realises she is not alone. The boy at the window is called Mark, and his every movement is guarded by the menacing stone watchers that surround the solitary house. Together, in their dreams, Marianne and Mark must save themselves…

 

5. Mistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White 29124
‘Ten-year-old Maria, orphaned mistress of Malplaquet, discovers the secret of her deteriorating estate: on a deserted island at its far corner, in the temple long ago nicknamed Mistress Masham’s Repose, live an entire community of people—”The People,” as they call themselves—all only inches tall. With the help of her only friend—the absurdly erudite Professor—Maria soon learns that this settlement is no less than the kingdom of Lilliput (first seen in Gulliver’s Travels) in exile. Safely hidden for centuries, the Lilliputians are at first endangered by Maria’s well-meaning but clumsy attempts to make their lives easier, but their situation grows truly ominous when they are discovered by Maria’s greedy guardians, who look at The People and see only a bundle of money.’

 

6. The House in Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively
No.40 Norham Gardens, Oxford, is the home of Clare Mayfield, her two aged aunts and two lodgers. The house is a huge Victorian monstrosity, with rooms all full of old furniture, old papers, old clothes, memorabilia – it is like a living museum. Clare discovers in a junk room the vividly painted shield which her great-grandfather, an eminent anthropologist, had brought back from New Guinea. She becomes obsessed with its past and determined to find out more about its strange tribal origins. Dreams begin to haunt her – dreams of another country, another clture, another time, and of shadowy people whom she feels are watching her. Who are they, and what do they want?

 

5025367. They Knew Mr Knight by Dorothy Whipple
The Blakes are an ordinary family: Celia looks after the house and Thomas works at the family engineering business in Leicester. This book begins when he meets Mr Knight, a financier as crooked as any on the front pages of our newspapers nowadays; and tracks his and his family’s swift climb and fall.

 

8. Fidelity by Susan Glaspell
Set in Iowa in 1900 and in 1913, this dramatic and deeply moral novel uses complex but subtle use of flashback to describe a girl named Ruth Holland, bored with her life at home, falling in love with a married man and running off with him; when she comes back more than a decade later we are shown how her actions have affected those around her. Ruth had taken another woman’s husband and as such ‘Freeport’ society thinks she is ‘a human being who selfishly – basely – took her own happiness, leaving misery for others. She outraged society as completely as a woman could outrage it… One who defies it – deceives it – must be shut out from it.’  But, like Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier in ‘The Awakening’ and Nora in ‘A Doll’s House’ Ruth has ‘a diffused longing for an enlarged experience… Her energies having been shut off from the way they had wanted to go, she was all the more zestful for new things from life…’ It is these that are explored in Fidelity.

 

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

Purchase from The Book Depository

Advertisements
1

The Book Trail: From Penelope Lively to Elie Wiesel

I am beginning this Book Trail post with a memoir which I read as part of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge, and which I very much enjoyed.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

1. Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived by Penelope Lively 9780141188324
This autobiography is about growing up in Egypt. It is also an investigation into childhood perception in which the author uses herself and her memories as an insight into how children see and know. It is a look at Eygpt up to, and including, World War II from a small girl’s point of view, which is also, ultimately, a moving and rather sad picture of an isolated and lonely little girl.

 

2. The Italics are Mine by Nina Berberova
This is the autobiography of Nina Berberova, who was born in St Petersburg in 1901, the only child of an Armenian father and a North Russian mother. After the Revolution, and the persecution of intellectuals which followed, she was forced to flee to Paris, where she was to remain for 25 years. There she formed part of a group of literary Russian emigres that included Gorky, Bunin, Svetaeva, Nabokov and Akhmatova, and earned a precarious living as a journalist, barely surviving the hardship and poverty of exile. In 1950 she left France for the United States to begin a new life with no money and no knowledge of English. She is now a retired Professor of Russian Literature at Princeton, and has belatedly been acclaimed for the short novels she wrote in the 1930s and ’40s.

 

251472953. Zoo or Letters Not About Love by Victor Shklovsky
While living in exile in Berlin, the formidable literary critic Viktor Shklovsky fell in love with Elsa Triolet. He fell into the habit of sending Elsa several letters a day, a situation she accepted under one condition: he was forbidden to write about love. Zoo, or Letters Not about Love is an epistolary novel born of this constraint, and although the brilliant and playful letters contained here cover everything from observations about contemporary German and Russian life to theories of art and literature, nonetheless every one of them is indirectly dedicated to the one topic they are all required to avoid: their author’s own unrequited love.

 

4. The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes Coleman
In a prose form as startling as its content, “The Shutter of Snow” portrays the post-partum psychosis of Marthe Gail, who after giving birth to her son, is committed to an insane asylum. Believing herself to be God, she maneuvers through an institutional world that is both sad and terrifying, echoing the worlds of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Snake Pit.”  Based upon the author’s own experience after the birth of her son in 1924, “The Shutter of Snow” retains all the energy it had when first published in 1930.

 

5. Vain Art of the Fugue by Dumitru Tepeneag 759968
Clutching a bouquet of flowers, hurrying to catch his bus, and arguing with the driver once he’s on, a man rushes to a train station platform to meet a woman. This sequence of events occurs and recurs in remarkably different variations in Vain Art of the Fugue.  In one version, the bus driver ignores the traffic signals and is killed in the ensuing crash. In another, the protagonist is thrown off the bus, and as he chases after it, a crowd of strangers joins him in the pursuit.  As the book unfolds, the protagonist, his lovers, and the people he meets become increasingly vivid and complex figures in the crowded Bucharest cityscape. Themes, conflicts, and characters interweave and overlap, creating a book that is at once chaotic and perfectly composed.

 

6. Blindsight by Maurice Gee
Alice Ferry lives in Wellington, and keeps an eye on her brother, though he doesn’t know it. Alice as narrator begins telling us the story from their childhood, but there are things she’s hiding.  When a young man shows up on her doorstep, claiming to be her brother Gordon’s grandson, things get complicated.

 

48109717. Little Fingers by Filip Florian
In a little town in Romania, a mass grave is discovered near the excavations of a Roman fort. Are the dead the victims of a medieval plague or, perhaps, of a Communist firing squad? And why are finger bones disappearing from the pit each night? Petrus, a young archaeologist, decides to do some investigating of his own.   Meanwhile, an Orthodox monk in the surrounding mountains stumbles into history when he becomes the father confessor of a partisan bent on bringing down the government, one handmade grenade and one derailed train at a time. Not to mention a team of Argentinean forensic anthropologists who arrive in town in a cloud of rock music, shredded jeans, and tequila.   Florian has packed real history, a religious pilgrimage, a criminal investigation, a recipe for roast pigeon, and a love story into two hundred truly remarkable pages.

 

8. The Time of the Uprooted by Elie Wiesel
Gamaliel Friedman is only a child when his family flees Czechoslovakia in 1939 for the relative safety of Hungary. For him, it will be the beginning of a life of rootlessness, disguise, and longing. Five years later, in desperation, Gamaliel’s parents entrust him to a young Christian cabaret singer named Ilonka. With his Jewish identity hidden, he survives the war, but in 1956, to escape the stranglehold of communism, he leaves Budapest after painfully parting with Ilonka.  He settles in Vienna, then Paris, and finally, after a failed marriage, in New York, where he works as a ghostwriter, living through the lives of others. Eventually, he falls in with a group of exiles: a Spanish Civil War veteran, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, a victim of Stalinism, a former Israeli intelligence agent, and a rabbi—a mystic whose belief in the potential for grace in everyday life powerfully counters Gamaliel’s feelings of loss and dispossession. When Gamaliel is asked to help draw out an elderly, disfigured Hungarian woman who is barely able to communicate but who may be his beloved Ilonka, he begins to understand that a real life in the present is possible only if he will reconcile with his past.

 

Which of these books have you read?  Have any been added to your list?

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived’ by Penelope Lively ****

I have been wanting to read Penelope Lively’s childhood memoir, Oleander, Jacaranda, for such a long time, and it was thus one of my first choices on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge list.  I have read and enjoyed several of Lively’s novels in the past, and was keen to learn about the woman herself.  Where better to start than with her own memories of her childhood, lived in comfort in Egypt in the 1930s and 1940s?

9780141188324Almost every review on the Penguin paperback edition which I purchased spoke of how ’emotive’ Lively’s memoir is.  The Washington Times writes: ‘She sees herself with clarity as both child and adult, a rare accomplishment indeed’.  The Times believes her autobiography to be: ‘Unsentimental yet so vividly evocative that you can smell the dung, the jacaranda and the oleander.  It offers potent glimpses of British colonial life…  The result is a wise, colourful and touching tale.’

In her modest preface, Lively writes: ‘My childhood is no more – or less – interesting than anyone else’s.  It has two particularities.  One is that I was a product of one society but was learning how to perceive the world in the ambience of a quite different culture.  I grew up English, in Egypt.  The other is that I was cared for by someone who was not my mother, and that it was a childhood which came to an abrupt and traumatic end.’  Indeed, after living all of her early life in Egypt, and most of it just outside Cairo, Lively had to move to England after the Second World War, following the divorce of her parents; to the young Penelope, they are ‘peripheral figures… for whom I felt an interested regard but no intense commitment’.  Of course, her nurse, Lucy, who is variously described as ‘the centre of my universe’, is not part of her new life.

Lively’s aim in Oleander, Jacaranda was to ‘recover something of the anarchic vision of childhood – in so far as any of us can do such a thing – and use this as the vehicle for a reflection on the way in which children perceive.’  Whilst she recognises that her child and adult selves are linked in many ways, she is able to separate them for the purposes of her memoir.  She writes: ‘As, writing this, I think with equal wonder of that irretrievable child, and of the eerie relationship between her mind and mine.  She is myself, but a self which is unreachable except by means of such miraculously surviving moments of being: the action within.’

At the forefront of her exploration into childhood is the untrustworthy element of memory: ‘One of the problems with this assemblage of slides in the head is that they cannot be sorted chronologically.  All habits are geared towards the linear, the sequential, but memory refuses such orderliness.’  With this constantly in her mind, Lively presents both her recollections, and the historical facts, of spending her formative years in such a turbulent and fascinating period, and a place so different from the England that she would later call home.

The descriptions in Oleander, Jacaranda are sumptuous.  When talking of her daily routine, for example, she writes: ‘The daily walks with Lucy are merged now into one single acute recollection, in which the whole thing hangs suspended in vibrant detail – the mimosa and the naked leaping children and the grey mud-caked threatening spectres of the gamooses.  The pink and blue and lime green of children’s clothes, the white of galabiyas, the black humps of squatting women.’  Lively’s observations of her young self feel both thorough and beautifully handled: ‘No thought at all here, just observation – the young child’s ability to focus entirely on the moment, to direct attention upon the here and now, without the intrusion of reflection or of anticipation.  It is also the Wordsworthian version of the physical world: the splendour in the grass.  And, especially, Virginia Woolf’s creation of the child’s eye view.  A way of seeing that is almost lost in adult life.’

Throughout Oleander, Jacaranda, Lively explores our capacities for recollection.  Her memoir is one which feels balanced and measured from its opening page.  There are few moments of drama, or melodrama; things happen which make a great impression on Lively as a child, but the importance of the everyday shines through.  Lively’s voice is charming and beguiling.  It is fascinating to see those moments where her childhood memories and adult eyes meet, particularly when Lively discusses her return to Egypt in the 1980s.  Oleander, Jacaranda is honest, warm, and intelligent.  Lively somehow manages to make a very specific period of her life feel timeless in her depictions, and in consequence, her memoir of childhood is a joy to read.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

Really Underrated Books (Part Two)

The second part in this installment of Really Underrated Books is here!  Like me, I hope you are intrigued by some of the titles below.  Again, all of these books have less than 500 ratings on Goodreads (in fact, many of them fall below the 100 mark), and there are some surprisingly well-known authors upon it.

1. Subtly Worded by Teffi
Teffi’s genius with the short form made her a literary star in pre-revolutionary Russia, beloved by Tsar Nicholas II and Vladimir Lenin alike. These stories, taken from the whole of her career, show the full range of her gifts. Extremely funny-a wry, scathing observer of society-she is also capable, as capable even as Chekhov, of miraculous subtlety and depth of character.  There are stories here from her own life (as a child, going to meet Tolstoy to plead for the life of War and Peace’s Prince Bolkonsky, or, much later, her strange, charged meetings with the already-legendary Rasputin). There are stories of émigré society, its members held together by mutual repulsion. There are stories of people misunderstanding each other or misrepresenting themselves. And throughout there is a sly, sardonic wit and a deep, compelling intelligence.

 

97801401023902. Pack of Cards and Other Stories by Penelope Lively
In Pack of Cards, Penelope Lively introduces the reader to slivers of the everyday world that are not always open to observation, as she delves into the minutiae of her characters’ lives. Whether she writes about a widow on a visit to Russia, a small boy’s consignment to boarding school, or an agoraphobic housewife, Penelope Lively takes the reader past the closed curtains, through the locked door, into a world that seems at first mundane and then at second glance, proves to be uniquely memorable.

 

3. Death in Leamington by David Smith
Death in Leamington is more than a crime story; it is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Set in the genteel Regency town of Royal Leamington Spa, the murder of an elderly foreign visitor sets off an intricate chain of events, surprising literary encounters and one too many unexplained and gruesome deaths. Inspector Hunter and his new assistant DC Penny Dore race to solve the murders, but as the body count mounts and each new lead evaporates; Hunter becomes more and more convinced that there are darker forces involved.   Death in Leamington will appeal both to those who enjoy solving a crime mystery and those with an interest in history, art and music. The story is a celebration of the literary and folk heritage of this elegant Warwickshire town, incorporating many of the characters from its history, and a few literary ghosts from its past, including quotations from works as diverse as The Faerie Queene, The Scarlett Leter, Alice in Wonderland and even Shakespeare’s Queen Mab puts in an appearance.

 

4. Sleepyhead Assassins by Mindy Nettifee 1170236
By turns raunchy, vulnerable, youthful and wise, Mindy Nettifee has been a mainstay of the Southern California poetry scene for the last decade, and she makes her full-length book debut with this edgy collection.

 

5. A Farm Under a Lake by Martha Bergman
Home health care nurse Janet Hawn agrees to drive her latest client, a silent Alzheimer’s patient named May, from Green Bay, Wisconsin to her daughter’s house in northern Illinois. Janet and her husband Jack, an out-of-work salesman, grew up on neighboring farms in Illinois, and on the long drive through familiar territory, Janet reflects back on her childhood and courtship and tries to figure out where her life took a wrong turn.

 

10418556. Out of the Woodshed: A Biography of Stella Gibbons by Reggie Oliver
‘ Born into an Irish family in Hampstead where she lived for most of her life, Stella Gibbons is probably best remembered for her book Cold Comfort Farm. Written by her nephew, this biography of the novelist and poet draws on her personal papers including two unpublished novels.’

 

7. Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond, edited by Tina Chang
Language for a New Century celebrates the artistic and cultural forces flourishing today in the East, bringing together an unprecedented selection of works by South Asian, East Asian, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian poets as well as poets living in the Diaspora. Some poets, such as Bei Dao and Mahmoud Darwish, are acclaimed worldwide, but many more will be new to the reader. The collection includes 400 unique voices—political and apolitical, monastic and erotic—that represent a wider artistic movement that challenges thousand-year-old traditions, broadening our notion of contemporary literature. Each section of the anthology—organized by theme rather than by national affiliation—is preceded by a personal essay from the editors that introduces the poetry and exhorts readers to examine their own identities in light of these powerful poems. In an age of violence and terrorism, often predicated by cultural ignorance, this anthology is a bold declaration of shared humanity and devotion to the transformative power of art.

 

8. My Buried Life by Doreen Finn 25473286
What happens when you no longer recognise the person you have become?   Eva has managed to spend her twenties successfully hiding from herself in New York.  Attempting to write, but really only writing her epitaph, she returns to Ireland to confront the past that has made her what she is.  In prose that is hauntingly beautiful and delicate, Doreen Finn explores a truly complex and fascinating character with deft style and unflinching honesty.

 

9. Eagles’ Nest by Anna Kavan
In this powerful fantasy, Kavan describes the life of an individual who cannot face the harsh impact of modern civilization. Exploring the shifting territory between the concrete world and the world of dreams, she questions both the ultimate reality of personal identity and of existence itself.

 

2676671410. The Bridal March and One Day by Bjornstjerne Bjornson
‘Norwegian journalist, poet and novelist Bjonstjerne Bjornson (1832-1910) earned lasting fame with his “peasant novels,” especially “Fiskerjenten” (“The Fisher Lassie).” The tales in this volume, “The Bridal March” and “One Day,” give entrancing accounts of everyday life in Norway — one set in the country, the other in the town. Bjornson was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1903.’

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

One From the Archive: ‘How It All Began’ by Penelope Lively ****

First published in April 2014.

‘How It All Began’ by Penelope Lively

I had been wanting to read this novel ever since it first came out.  Thankfully, my library had a copy, so I borrowed it as soon as I spotted its pretty spine upon the shelves.  Like many readers, I really do enjoy Lively’s writing.  I have read several of her novels thus far, and my favourite is certainly Consequences.  The cover design of her newest novel, pictured, is one of the loveliest which I’ve seen in a long while.  I love the fact that several copies of Lively’s other novels can be spotted if one looks closely enough.

How It All Began is a highly acclaimed work, and many lovely review fragments have been scattered across the back of the jacket.  As her inspiration for the novel, Lively has focused upon a series of (often unfortunate) events, one of which directly causes or triggers the next, and so on – a sort of multi-causal butterfly effect, if you like.  The first of these events – ‘how it all began’, one supposes – is when protagonist Charlotte is mugged and breaks her hip.  Lively’s use of short sentences when writing of her accident works so well:

‘Trolley ride.  On and on.  Corridors.  People passing.  Right turn.  Halt.  More lifting.’

Throughout How It All Began, Lively touches upon a number of themes – ageing, education, opportunities, affairs, relationships and how they both develop and sour, community, racial integration, the notion of ‘fitting in’, making the best of bad situations, pain, healing, and the progress of time amongst them.  As is also the case with Alice Hoffman’s books (another author whom I heartily recommend), Lively writes intelligently without making her work too saturated, or at all taxing to read.  She is incredibly skilled at her craft.  I found that the domino-effect structure in this novel very much suited the style of her prose, and she made the plot work tremendously well in consequence.  The way in which she follows different characters throughout also works very well.  Lively pulled me into her story from the start, and there is not a character in the novel who does not hold some degree of intrigue or interest.  The only criticism which I can make here is that her dialogue does sometimes feel too prim and proper – almost of another era, really – for those who are speaking it.  Regardless, I would happily recommend How It All Began to everyone.

Purchase from The Book Depository

12

‘How It All Began’ by Penelope Lively ****

‘How It All Began’ by Penelope Lively

I had been wanting to read this novel ever since it first came out.  Thankfully, my library had a copy, so I borrowed it as soon as I spotted its pretty spine upon the shelves.  Like many readers, I really do enjoy Lively’s writing.  I have read several of her novels thus far, and my favourite is certainly Consequences.  The cover design of her newest novel, pictured, is one of the loveliest which I’ve seen in a long while.  I love the fact that several copies of Lively’s other novels can be spotted if one looks closely enough.

How It All Began is a highly acclaimed work, and many lovely review fragments have been scattered across the back of the jacket.  As her inspiration for the novel, Lively has focused upon a series of (often unfortunate) events, one of which directly causes or triggers the next, and so on – a sort of multi-causal butterfly effect, if you like.  The first of these events – ‘how it all began’, one supposes – is when protagonist Charlotte is mugged and breaks her hip.  Lively’s use of short sentences when writing of her accident works so well:

‘Trolley ride.  On and on.  Corridors.  People passing.  Right turn.  Halt.  More lifting.’

Throughout How It All Began, Lively touches upon a number of themes – ageing, education, opportunities, affairs, relationships and how they both develop and sour, community, racial integration, the notion of ‘fitting in’, making the best of bad situations, pain, healing, and the progress of time amongst them.  As is also the case with Alice Hoffman’s books (another author whom I heartily recommend), Lively writes intelligently without making her work too saturated, or at all taxing to read.  She is incredibly skilled at her craft.  I found that the domino-effect structure in this novel very much suited the style of her prose, and she made the plot work tremendously well in consequence.  The way in which she follows different characters throughout also works very well.  Lively pulled me into her story from the start, and there is not a character in the novel who does not hold some degree of intrigue or interest.  The only criticism which I can make here is that her dialogue does sometimes feel too prim and proper – almost of another era, really – for those who are speaking it.  Regardless, I would happily recommend How It All Began to everyone.

Purchase from The Book Depository