3

Reading Around the World: Canada

The books set in Canada which I have read are largely by three authors, all of whom I have included here.  This is not a varied set of recommendations, by any stretch of the imagination; rather, they are all relatively popular and well-known books which I have just happened to enjoy.

1. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
‘”Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess. Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor.” Grace Marks. Female fiend? Femme fatale? Or weak and unwilling victim? Around the true story of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the 1840s, Margaret Atwood has created an extraordinarily potent tale of sexuality, cruelty and mystery.’

2. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields 9780143105503
‘One of the most successful and acclaimed novels of our time, this fictionalized autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett is a subtle but affecting portrait of an everywoman reflecting on an unconventional life. What transforms this seemingly ordinary tale is the richness of Daisy’s vividly described inner life–from her earliest memories of her adoptive mother to her awareness of impending death.’

3. Runaway by Alice Munro
‘The matchless Munro makes art out of everyday lives in this exquisite collection. Here are men and women of wildly different times and circumstances, their lives made vividly palpable by the nuance and empathy of Munro’s writing. Runaway is about the power and betrayals of love, about lost children, lost chances. There is pain and desolation beneath the surface, like a needle in the heart, which makes these stories more powerful and compelling than anything she has written before. It is the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2009.’

97818604988004. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
‘Laura Chase’s older sister Iris, married at eighteen to a politically prominent industrialist but now poor and eighty-two, is living in Port Ticonderoga, a town dominated by their once-prosperous family before the First War. While coping with her unreliable body, Iris reflects on her far from exemplary life, in particular the events surrounding her sister’s tragic death. Chief among these was the publication of The Blind Assassin, a novel which earned the dead Laura Chase not only notoriety but also a devoted cult following. Sexually explicit for its time, The Blind Assassin describes a risky affair in the turbulent thirties between a wealthy young woman and a man on the run. During their secret meetings in rented rooms, the lovers concoct a pulp fantasy set on Planet Zycron. As the invented story twists through love and sacrifice and betrayal, so does the real one; while events in both move closer to war and catastrophe. By turns lyrical, outrageous, formidable, compelling and funny, this is a novel filled with deep humour and dark drama.’

5. The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews
‘Meet the Troutmans. Hattie is living in Paris, city of romance, but has just been dumped by her boyfriend. Min, her sister back in Canada, is going through a particularly dark period. And Min’s two kids, Logan and Thebes, are not talking and talking way too much, respectively. When Hattie receives a phone call from eleven-year-old Thebes, begging her to return to Canada, she arrives home to find Min on her way to a psychiatric ward, and becomes responsible for her niece and nephew. Realising that she is way out of her league, Hattie hatches a plan to find the kids’ long-lost father. With only the most tenuous lead to go on, she piles Logan and Thebes into the family van, and they head south.’

 

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Reading the World: Asia (Part Two)

The second part of our reading adventure around Asia!  Again, I must apologise for the lack of diversity and overrepresentation of Japan overall; I will work on my Asian reading in future, and that is a promise.

97800992864311. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (China)
‘1971: Mao’s cultural Revolution is at its peak. Two sons of doctors, sent to ‘re-education’ camps, forced to carry buckets of excrement up and down mountain paths, have only their sense of humour to keep them going. Although the attractive daughter of the local tailor also helps to distract them from the task at hand. The boys’ true re-education starts, however, when they discover a hidden suitcase packed with the great Western novels of the nineteenth century. Their lives are transformed. And not only their lives: after listening to the stories of Balzac, the little seamstress will never be the same again.’

2. Geisha by Liza Dalby (Japan)
‘Liza Dalby, author of The Tale of Murasaki, is the only non-Japanese woman ever to have become a geisha. This is her unique insight into the extraordinary, closed world of the geisha, a world of grace, beauty and tradition that has long fascinated and enthralled the West. Taking us to the heart of a way of life normally hidden from the public gaze, Liza Dalby shows us the detailed reality that lies behind the bestselling Memoirs of a Geisha and opens our eyes to an ancient profession that continues to survive in today’s modern Japan.’

3. The Flamboya Tree: A Family’s Wartime Courage by Clara Olink Kelly (Indonesia)
‘When the Japanese invaded the beautiful Indonesian island of Java during the Second World War Clara Kelly was four years old. Her family was separated, her father sent to work on the Burma railway, and she together with her mother and her two brothers, one a six-week-old baby, was sent to a ‘women’s camp’. They were interned there until the end of the war. Clara’s descriptions of the appalling deprivations and impersonal brutality of the camp, easily recognisable as the same techniques used in the infamously cruel Japanes prisoner of war camps – standing in the baking heat for hours of ‘Tenko’ role-call, living on one cup of rice a day – are countered by the courage and resilience shown by all the internees, most poignantly her own mother.’

4. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri ((partially set in) India) 9780006551805
‘”When her grandmother learned of Ashima’s pregnancy, she was particularly thrilled at the prospect of naming the family’s first sahib. And so Ashima and Ashoke have agreed to put off the decision of what to name the baby until a letter comes…” For now, the label on his hospital cot reads simply BABY BOY GANGULI. But as time passes and still no letter arrives from India, American bureaucracy takes over and demands that ‘baby boy Ganguli’ be given a name. In a panic, his father decides to nickname him ‘Gogol’ – after his favourite writer. Brought up as an Indian in suburban America, Gogol Ganguli soon finds himself itching to cast off his awkward name, just as he longs to leave behind the inherited values of his Bengali parents. And so he sets off on his own path through life, a path strewn with conflicting loyalties, love and loss…Spanning three decades and crossing continents, Jhumpa Lahiri’s much-anticipated first novel is a triumph of humane story-telling. ‘

5. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (Afghanistan)
‘Afghanistan, 1975: Twelve-year-old Amir is desperate to win the local kite-fighting tournament and his loyal friend Hassan promises to help him. But neither of the boys can foresee what will happen to Hassan that afternoon, an event that is to shatter their lives. After the Russians invade and the family is forced to flee to America, Amir realises that one day he must return to Afghanistan under Taliban rule to find the one thing that his new world cannot grant him: redemption.’

97807475683396. Empress Orchid by Anchee Min (China)
‘To rescue her family from poverty and avoid marrying her slope-shouldered cousin, seventeen-year-old Orchid competes to be one of the Emperor’s wives. When she is chosen as a lower-ranking concubine she enters the erotically charged and ritualised Forbidden City. But beneath its immaculate facade lie whispers of murders and ghosts, and the thousands of concubines will stoop to any lengths to bear the Emperor’s son. Orchid trains herself in the art of pleasuring a man, bribes her way into the royal bed, and seduces the monarch, drawing the attention of dangerous foes. Little does she know that China will collapse around her, and that she will be its last Empress.’

7. Brick Lane by Monica Ali (Bangladesh, in part)
‘Still in her teenage years, Nazneen finds herself in an arranged marriage with a disappointed man who is twenty years older. Away from the mud and heat of her Bangladeshi village, home is now a cramped flat in a high-rise block in London’s East End. Nazneen knows not a word of English, and is forced to depend on her husband. But unlike him she is practical and wise, and befriends a fellow Asian girl Razia, who helps her understand the strange ways of her adopted new British home. Nazneen keeps in touch with her sister Hasina back in the village. But the rebellious Hasina has kicked against cultural tradition and run off in a ‘love marriage’ with the man of her dreams. When he suddenly turns violent, she is forced into the degrading job of garment girl in a cloth factory. Confined in her flat by tradition and family duty, Nazneen also sews furiously for a living, shut away with her buttons and linings – until the radical Karim steps unexpectedly into her life. On a background of racial conflict and tension, they embark on a love affair that forces Nazneen finally to take control of her fate. Strikingly imagined, gracious and funny, this novel is at once epic and intimate. Exploring the role of Fate in our lives – those who accept it; those who defy it – it traces the extraordinary transformation of an Asian girl, from cautious and shy to bold and dignified woman.’

8. Life of Pi by Yann Martel (India) 9780739377956
‘”The Jungle Book “meets “Not Wanted On the Voyage” in a triumph of storytelling and originality: a novel, as one character puts it, to make you believe in God. Piscine Molitor Patel, nicknamed Pi, lives in Pondicherry, India, where his family runs a zoo. Little Pi is a great reader. He devours books on Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, and to the surprise of his secular parents, becomes devoted to all three religions. When the parents decide to emigrate to Canada, the family boards a cargo ship with many of the animals that are going to new zoological homes in North America, and bravely sets sail for the New World. Alas, the ship sinks. A solitary lifeboat remains bobbing on the surface of the wild blue Pacific. In it are five survivors: Pi, a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger. With intelligence, daring and inexpressible fear, Pi manages to keep his wits about him as the animals begin to assert their places in the foodchain; it is the tiger, Richard Parker, with whom he must develop an inviolable understanding. ‘

9. A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute (Malaya)
‘Jean Paget is just twenty years old and working in Malaya when the Japanese invasion begins. When she is captured she joins a group of other European women and children whom the Japanese force to march for miles through the jungle – an experience that leads to the deaths of many. Due to her courageous spirit and ability to speak Malay, Jean takes on the role of leader of the sorry gaggle of prisoners and many end up owing their lives to her indomitable spirit. While on the march, the group run into some Australian prisoners, one of whom, Joe Harman, helps them steal some food, and is horrifically punished by the Japanese as a result. After the war, Jean tracks Joe down in Australia and together they begin to dream of surmounting the past and transforming his one-horse outback town into a thriving community like Alice Springs.’

10. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (China)
‘This novel, told from the viewpoints of four Chinese mothers and their four American-Chinese daughters, examines the nature of the mother-daughter relationship, and the problems of cultural identity the characters face.’

 

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Reading the World: Asia (Part One)

I am absolutely fascinated by Asia (in fact, my boyfriend and I are planning a trip there next year), but I have oddly read very few books set on the continent.  I had not realised quite how lacking my reading around Asia was until I started perusing lists for what to include in my recommendations.  With the exception of Japan and China, I have barely explored at all, in a literary sense.  That said, I have still managed to eke out two posts filled with Asian books, which I would heartily recommend.

1. Human Acts by Han Kang (South Korea; review here9781846275968
‘Gwangju, South Korea, 1980. In the wake of a viciously suppressed student uprising, a boy searches for his friend’s corpse, a consciousness searches for its abandoned body, and a brutalised country searches for a voice. In a sequence of interconnected chapters the victims and the bereaved encounter censorship, denial, forgiveness and the echoing agony of the original trauma. Human Acts is a universal book, utterly modern and profoundly timeless.’

2. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (Japan)
‘This is a seductive and evocative epic on an intimate scale, which tells the extraordinary story of a geisha girl. Summoning up more than twenty years of Japan’s most dramatic history, it uncovers a hidden world of eroticism and enchantment, exploitation and degredation. From a small fishing village in 1929, the tale moves to the glamorous and decadent heart of Kyoto in the 1930s, where a young peasant girl is sold as servant and apprentice to a renowned geisha house. She tells her story many years later from the Waldorf Astoria in New York; it exquisitely evokes another culture, a different time and the details of an extraordinary way of life. It conjures up the perfection and the ugliness of life behind rice-paper screens, where young girls learn the arts of the geisha – dancing and singing, how to wind the kimonok, how to walk and pour tea, and how to beguile the most powerful men.’

97800994484713. Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami (Japan; review here)
‘Twenty-two-year-old Sumire is in love with a woman seventeen years her senior. But whereas Miu is glamorous and successful, Sumire is an aspiring writer who dresses in an oversized second-hand coat and heavy boots like a character in a Kerouac novel. Surprised that she might, after all, be a lesbian, Sumire spends hours on the phone talking to her best friend K about the big questions in life: what is sexual desire and should she ever tell Miu how she feels for her. rustrated in his own love for Sumire, K consoles himself by having an affair with the mother of one of his pupils. Then a desperate Miu calls from a small Greek island and asks for his help, and he discovers something very strange has happened to Sumire.’

4. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (India)
‘This is the story of Rahel and Estha, twins growing up among the banana vats and peppercorns of their blind grandmother’s factory, and amid scenes of political turbulence in Kerala. Armed only with the innocence of youth, they fashion a childhood in the shade of the wreck that is their family: their lonely, lovely mother, their beloved Uncle Chacko (pickle baron, radical Marxist, bottom-pincher) and their sworn enemy, Baby Kochamma (ex-nun, incumbent grand-aunt). Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize-winning novel was the literary sensation of the 1990s: a story anchored to anguish but fuelled by wit and magic.’

5. The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad (Afghanistan) 9781844080472
‘Two weeks after September 11th, award-winning journalist Asne Seierstad went to Afghanistan to report on the conflict there. In the following spring she returned to live with an Afghan family for several months. For more than twenty years Sultan Khan defied the authorities – be they communist or Taliban – to supply books to the people of Kabul. He was arrested, interrogated and imprisoned by the communists and watched illiterate Taliban soldiers burn piles of his books in the street. He even resorted to hiding most of his stock in attics all over Kabul. But while Khan is passionate in his love of books and hatred of censorship, he is also a committed Muslim with strict views on family life. As an outsider, Seierstad is able to move between the private world of the women – including Khan’s two wives – and the more public lives of the men. And so we learn of proposals and marriages, suppression and abuse of power, crime and punishment. The result is a gripping and moving portrait of a family, and a clear-eyed assessment of a country struggling to free itself from history.’

6. Falling Leaves: The Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter by Adeline Yen Mah (China)
‘This is the story of an unwanted Chinese daughter, growing up during the Communist Revolution, blamed for her mother’s death, ignored by her millionaire father and unwanted by her Eurasian step mother. A story of greed, hatred and jealousy; a domestic drama is played against the extraordinary political events in China and Hong Kong. Written with the emotional force of a novel but with a vividness drawn from a personal and political background, “Falling Leaves” has been an enduring bestseller all over the world.’

97801410272897. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (India)
‘High in the Himalayas sits a dilapidated mansion, home to three people, each dreaming of another time. The judge, broken by a world too messy for justice, is haunted by his past. His orphan granddaughter has fallen in love with her handsome tutor, despite their different backgrounds and ideals. The cook’s heart is with his son, who is working in a New York restaurant, mingling with an underclass from all over the globe as he seeks somewhere to call home. Around the house swirl the forces of revolution and change. Civil unrest is making itself felt, stirring up inner conflicts as powerful as those dividing the community, pitting the past against the present, nationalism against love, a small place against the troubles of a big world.’

8. Asleep by Banana Yoshimoto (Japan)
‘In these three novellas, Yoshimoto spins the stories of three young women bewitched into a spiritual sleep. Sly and mystical as a ghost story, with a touch of Kafkaesque surrealism.’

9. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (China) 9780747582922
‘Lily is the daughter of a humble farmer, and to her family she is just another expensive mouth to feed. Then, the local matchmaker delivers startling news: if Lily’s feet are bound properly, they will be flawless. In nineteenth-century China, where a woman’s eligibility is judged by the shape and size of her feet, this is extraordinary good luck. Lily, now, has the power to make a good marriage and change the fortunes of her family. To prepare for her new life, she must undergo the agonies of footbinding, learn nu shu, the famed secret women’s writing, and make a very special friend, Snow Flower. But, a bitter reversal of fortune is about to change everything.’

10. NP by Banana Yoshimoto (Japan)
‘In “N.P.,” a celebrated Japanese writer has committed suicide, leaving behind a collection of stories written in English, entitled “N.P.” But the book may never be published in his native Japan: each translator who takes up the ninety-eighth story chooses death too including Kazami’s boyfriend, Shoji. Haunted by Shoji s death, Kazami discovers the truth behind the ninety-eighth storyand comes to believe that everything that had happened was shockingly beautiful, enough to make you crazy.’

 

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Reading The New Woman

One of my favourite things to learn about during my MA lessons was ‘The New Woman’, a feminist idea which emerged in the late nineteenth century, and inspired feminism and women’s movements during the twentieth century.  They were free spirited, and shunned the Victorian ‘Angel of the House’ ideal, eschewing marriage in favour of careers and independence.

newwoman

‘The New Woman on Wash Day’ – R.Y. Young (from The Library of Congress)

The New Woman is an endlessly fascinating subject for those of us who are interested in female social history and the like.  I thought that I would put together a little reading list for everyone who is interested in reading about The New Woman, or just fancies trying something a little different.

Firstly, we shall begin with two social history books, and will then go on to some depictions of The New Woman in literature.

The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin-De-Siecle by Sally Ledger
‘By comparing the fictional representations with the lived experience of the new woman, Ledger’s book makes a major contribution to an understanding of the ‘woman question’ at the fin de siecle. She alights on such disparate figures as Eleanor Marx, Gertrude Dix, Dracula, Oscar Wilde, Olive Schreiner and Radclyffe Hall. Focusing mainly on the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the book’s later chapters project forward into the twentieth century, considering the relationship between new woman fiction and early modernism as well as the socio-sexual inheritance of the ‘second generation’ new woman writers.’

 

The Rise of the New Woman: The Women’s Movement in America, 1875-1930 by Jean V. Matthews 9781566635011
‘Following on her history of the women’s movement in America that took the story to 1876, Jean Matthews’s new book chronicles the changing fortunes and transformations of the organized suffrage movement, from its dismal period of declining numbers and campaign failures to its final victory in the Nineteenth Amendment that brought women the vote. Ms. Matthews’s engaging narrative recaptures the personalities and ideas that characterized the movement in these years. She draws deft portraits and analyzes the intellectual currents-in politics, the economy, sexuality, and social thought-that competed for women’s commitment. And she shows how new leadership and new strategies at last brought success in the long struggle during which many feminist leaders had grown old. The Rise of the New Woman emphasizes the historical contexts, including progressivism, in which the women’s movement operated; the disputes and tensions within the movement itself; and the perennial question of who was to be included and excluded in the quest for women’s rights. It also considers the often baffling aftereffects of the 1920 constitutional victory, when women found themselves wondering what to do next.’

 

9780472065080The Heavenly Twins by Sarah Grand
‘Sarah Grand’s dual novel of the diabolically mischievous twins Diavolo and Angelica and the coming of age of nineteen-year-old Evadne valiantly explores subjects considered taboo for a female writer of the Victorian age. Through her characters, Grand, considered one of the “New Woman” writers of the late 1800s, courageously advocated “rational dress,” financial independence, personal fulfillment over marriage and motherhood, and the freedom of women to initiate sexual relationships outside of wedlock and to openly discuss such volatile sexual topics as a woman’s right to contraception. She was one of the first to explore the complexity of gender roles and their inherent constraints.’

 

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen 9781408106020
‘The slamming of the front door at the end of A Doll’s House shatters the romantic masquerade of the Helmers’ marriage. In their stultifying and infantilised relationship, Nora and Torvald have deceived themselves and each other both consciously and subconsciously, until Nora acknowledges the need for individual freedom. A revised student edition of classic set text: A Doll’s House (1879), is a masterpiece of theatrical craft which, for the first time portrayed the tragic hypocrisy of Victorian middle class marriage on stage. The play ushered in a new social era and “exploded like a bomb into contemporary life”.’

 

The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner
‘A searing indictment of the rigid Boer social conventions of the 19th century, the first great South African novel chronicles the adventures of 3 childhood friends who defy societal repression. The novel’s unorthodox views on religion and marriage aroused widespread controversy upon its 1883 publication.’

 

9780199538539The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy
‘Love, and the erratic heart, are at the centre of Hardy’s ‘woodland story’. Set in the beautiful Blackmoor Vale, The Woodlanders concerns the fortunes of Giles Winterborne, whose love for the well-to-do Grace Melbury is challenged by the arrival of the dashing and dissolute doctor, Edred Fitzpiers. When the mysterious Felice Charmond further complicates the romantic entanglements, marital choice and class mobility become inextricably linked. Hardy’s powerful novel depicts individuals in thrall to desire and the natural law that motivates them.’

 

The Odd Women by George Gissing 9780199538300
‘The idea of the superfluity of unmarried women was one the ‘New Woman’ novels of the 1890s sought to challenge. But in The Odd Women (1893) Gissing satirizes the prevailing literary image of the ‘New Woman’ and makes the point that unmarried women were generally viewed less as noble and romantic figures than as ‘odd’ and marginal in relation to the ideal of womanhood itself. Set in grimy, fog-ridden London, these ‘odd’ women range from the idealistic, financially self-sufficient Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn, who run a school to train young women in office skills for work, to the Madden sisters struggling to subsist in low-paid jobs and experiencing little comfort or pleasure in their lives. Yet it is for the youngest Madden sister’s marriage that the novel reserves its most sinister critique. With superb detachment Gissing captures contemporary society’s ambivalence towards its own period of transition. The Odd Women is a novel engaged with all the major sexual and social issues of the late-nineteenth century. Judged by contemporary reviewers as equal to Zola and Ibsen, Gissing was seen to have produced an ‘intensely modern’ work and it is perhaps for this reason that the issues it raises remain the subject of contemporary debate.’

 

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Reading the World: Europe (Three)

Five final recommendations from the depths of marvellous Europe!

97800071774241. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (Bosnia)
People of the Book takes place in the aftermath of the Bosnian War, as a young book conservator arrives in Sarajevo to restore a lost treasure. When Hannah Heath gets a call in the middle of the night in her Sydney home about a precious medieval manuscript which has been recovered from the smouldering ruins of wartorn Sarajevo, she knows she is on the brink of the experience of a lifetime. A renowned book conservator, she must now make her way to Bosnia to start work on restoring The Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish prayer book – to discover its secrets and piece together the story of its miraculous survival. But the trip will also set in motion a series of events that threaten to rock Hannah’s orderly life, including her encounter with Ozren Karamen, the young librarian who risked his life to save the book. As meticulously researched as all of Brooks’ previous work, ‘People of the Book’ is a gripping and moving novel about war, art, love and survival.’

2. Purge by Sofi Oksanen (Estonia)
‘Deep in the overgrown Estonian forest, two women are caught in a deadly snare. Zara is a prostitute, and a murderer. Aliide is a communist sympathizer, the widow of a party member, a blood traitor. And retribution is coming for them both. A haunting, intimate and gripping story of suspicion and betrayal set against a backdrop of the oppressive Soviet regime and European war.’

3. The True Story of Hansel and Gretel by Louise Murphy (Poland) 9780142003077
‘In the last months of the Nazi occupation of Poland, two children are left by their father and stepmother to find safety in a dense forest. Because their real names will reveal their Jewishness, they are renamed “Hansel” and “Gretel.” They wander in the woods until they are taken in by Magda, an eccentric and stubborn old woman called “witch” by the nearby villagers. Magda is determined to save them, even as a German officer arrives in the village with his own plans for the children. Combining classic themes of fairy tales and war literature, Louise Murphy s haunting novel of journey and survival, of redemption and memory, powerfully depicts how war is experienced by families and especially by children.’

4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (All over Europe)
‘The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. The black sign, painted in white letters that hangs upon the gates, reads: Opens at Nightfalll Closes at Dawn As the sun disappears beyond the horizon, all over the tents small lights begin to flicker, as though the entirety of the circus is covered in particularly bright fireflies. When the tents are all aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign appears. Le Cirque des Reves The Circus of Dreams. Now the circus is open. Now you may enter.’

5. Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner (Switzerland) 9780140147476
‘Into the rarefied atmosphere of the Hotel du Lac timidly walks Edith Hope, romantic novelist and holder of modest dreams. Edith has been exiled from home after embarrassing herself and her friends. She has refused to sacrifice her ideals and remains stubbornly single. But among the pampered women and minor nobility Edith finds Mr Neville, and her chance to escape from a life of humiliating spinsterhood is renewed…’

 

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Reading the World: Europe (Two)

The second part of miscellaneous book recommendations around Europe!

1. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (Ukraine) 9780141008257
‘A young man arrives in the Ukraine, clutching in his hand a tattered photograph. He is searching for the woman who fifty years ago saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Unfortunately, he is aided in his quest by Alex, a translator with an uncanny ability to mangle English into bizarre new forms; a “blind” old man haunted by memories of the war; and an undersexed guide dog named Sammy Davis Jr, Jr. What they are looking for seems elusive – a truth hidden behind veils of time, language and the horrors of war. What they find turns all their worlds upside down…’

2. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka (Ukraine, England)
‘For years, Nadezhda and Vera, two Ukrainian sisters, raised in England by their refugee parents, have had as little as possible to do with each other – and they have their reasons. But now they find they’d better learn how to get along, because since their mother’s death their aging father has been sliding into his second childhood, and an alarming new woman has just entered his life. Valentina, a bosomy young synthetic blonde from the Ukraine, seems to think their father is much richer than he is, and she is keen that he leave this world with as little money to his name as possible.If Nadazhda and Vera don’t stop her, no one will. But separating their addled and annoyingly lecherous dad from his new love will prove to be no easy feat – Valentina is a ruthless pro and the two sisters swiftly realize that they are mere amateurs when it comes to ruthlessness. As Hurricane Valentina turns the family house upside down, old secrets come falling out, including the most deeply buried one of them all, from the War, the one that explains much about why Nadazhda and Vera are so different. In the meantime, oblivious to it all, their father carries on with the great work of his dotage, a grand history of the tractor.’

97800995077893. The Dogs and the Wolves by Irene Nemirovsky (Ukraine, Paris)
‘Ada grows up motherless in the Jewish pogroms of a Ukrainian city in the early years of the twentieth century. In the same city, Harry Sinner, the cosseted son of a city financier, belongs to a very different world. Eventually, in search of a brighter future, Ada moves to Paris and makes a living painting scenes from the world she has left behind. Harry Sinner also comes to Paris to mingle in exclusive circles, until one day he buys two paintings which remind him of his past and the course of Ada’s life changes once more…’

4. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Spain)
‘The discovery of a forgotten book leads to a hunt for an elusive author who may or may not still be alive…Hidden in the heart of the old city of Barcelona is the ‘cemetery of lost books’, a labyrinthine library of obscure and forgotten titles that have long gone out of print. To this library, a man brings his 10-year-old son Daniel one cold morning in 1945. Daniel is allowed to choose one book from the shelves and pulls out ‘La Sombra del Viento’ by Julian Carax. But as he grows up, several people seem inordinately interested in his find. Then, one night, as he is wandering the old streets once more, Daniel is approached by a figure who reminds him of a character from La Sombra del Viento, a character who turns out to be the devil. This man is tracking down every last copy of Carax’s work in order to burn them. What begins as a case of literary curiosity turns into a race to find out the truth behind the life and death of Julian Carax and to save those he left behind. A page-turning exploration of obsession in literature and love, and the places that obsession can lead.’

5. Zlata’s Diary by Zlata Filipovic (Bosnia) 9780140374636
‘Zlata Filipovic was given a diary shortly before her tenth birthday and began to write in it regularly. She was an ordinary, if unusually intelligent and articulate little girl, and her preoccupations include whether or not to join the Madonna fan club, her piano lessons, her friends andher new skis. But the distant murmur of war draws closer to her Sarajevo home. Her father starts to wear military uniform and her friends begin to leave the city. One day, school is closed and the next day bombardments begin. The pathos and power of Zlata’s diary comes from watching the destruction of a childhood. Her circle of friends is increasingly replaced by international journalists who come to hear of this little girl’s courage and resilience. But the reality is that, as they fly off with the latest story of Zlata, she remains behind, writing her deepest feelings to ‘Mimmy’, her diary, and her last remaining friend.’

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3

Reading the World: Europe (One)

Since setting out my Reading the World project, and working out which books fit best for each country, I have found that there are a wealth of countries which I have read only one or two books from or about, and some which I have not touched upon at all.  Rather than discard these posts altogether, I thought that it would be a good idea to bring them together under the broad heading of ‘Europe’, and schedule a few posts which showcase fiction and non-fiction from many other countries on the continent.  Without further ado, here is part one.

1. Dracula by Bram Stoker (Transylvania, Romania) 9780141199337
‘A chilling masterpiece of the horror genre, Dracula also illuminated dark corners of Victorian sexuality. When Jonathan Harker visits Transylvania to advise Count Dracula on a London home, he makes a horrifying discovery. Soon afterwards, a number of disturbing incidents unfold in England: an unmanned ship is wrecked at Whitby; strange puncture marks appear on a young woman’s neck; and the inmate of a lunatic asylum raves about the arrival of his ‘Master’, while a determined group of adversaries prepares to face the terrifying Count.’

2. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (many different places around Europe)
‘Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters addressed ominously to ‘My dear and unfortunate successor’. Her discovery plunges her into a world she never dreamed of – a labyrinth where the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s mysterious fate connect to an evil hidden in the depths of history. In those few quiet moments, she unwittingly assumes a quest she will discover is her birthright – a hunt for the truth about Vlad the Impaler, the medieval ruler whose barbarous reign formed the basis of the Dracula myth. Deciphering obscure signs and hidden texts, reading codes worked into the fabric of medieval monastic traditions, and evading terrifying adversaries, one woman comes ever closer to the secret of her own past and a confrontation with the very definition of evil. Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel is an adventure of monumental proportions – a captivating tale that blends fact and fantasy, history and the present with an assurance that is almost unbearably suspenseful – and utterly unforgettable.’

97807553908543. The Book of Summers by Emylia Hall (Hungary; review here)
‘Beth Lowe has been sent a parcel. Inside is a letter informing her that her long-estranged mother has died, and a scrapbook Beth has never seen before. Entitled The Book of Summers, it’s stuffed with photographs and mementos complied by her mother to record the seven glorious childhood summers Beth spent in rural Hungary. It was a time when she trod the tightrope between separated parents and two very different countries; her bewitching but imperfect Hungarian mother and her gentle, reticent English father; the dazzling house of a Hungarian artist and an empty-feeling cottage in deepest Devon. And it was a time that came to the most brutal of ends the year Beth turned sixteen. Since then, Beth hasn’t allowed herself to think about those years of her childhood. But the arrival of The Book of Summers brings the past tumbling back into the present; as vivid, painful and vital as ever.’

4. Liquidation by Imre Kertesz (Hungary)
‘Kingbitter, an editor at a publishing house on the verge of closure, believes himself to have been the closest friend of a celebrated writer and Auschwitz survivor, B, who recently committed suicide. Amongst the papers B has left him, Kingbitter finds a play entitled Liquidation that uncannily predicts the behaviour of B’s ex-wife, his mistress and Kingbitter himself. As he obsessively reads and rereads the play, Kingbitter becomes transfixed with the idea that buried within these papers is B’s great novel: the book that will explain his relationship with Auschwitz. Harrowing but also bleakly comic, Liquidation is both a literary detective novel and an exploration of how B’s decision to end his life after surviving the horrors of Auschwitz affects those he leaves behind.’

5. The Tiger’s Wife by Thea Obrecht (unnamed Balkan country) 9780753827406
‘Natalia is on a quest: to discover the truth about her beloved grandfather. He has died far from home, in circumstances shrouded in mystery. Recalling stories her grandfather told her as a child, Natalia suspects he may have died trying to unravel two mysteries. One was the fate of a tiger which escaped during German bombing raids in 1941; the other a man who claimed to be immortal. But, as Natalia learns, there are no simple truths or easy answers in this landscape echoing with myths but still scarred by war.’

 

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3

Women on the Page: Then, Now, and Next

I often find blogging inspiration at unlikely times.  The idea for this post – Women on the Page – came when I was researching Virginia Woolf’s essays for my dissertation, and stumbled across the aforementioned pages on the Penguin website.  I thought that I would take the opportunity to note down the books suggested (all Penguin publications, it goes without saying), and then ask your fine selves which books by women would make your lists of Then, Now, and Next.

Then: exploring and rediscovering the classics from some of our most revered, erstwhile scribes…

  • Orlando by Virginia Woolf
  • A Pair of Silk Stockings by Kate Chopin cover-jpg-rendition-242-374
  • The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield
  • Collected Stories by Clarice Lispector
  • Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Youcenar
  • The Collected Dorothy Parker
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
  • Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti
  • Tove Jansson: Work and Love by Tuula Karjalainen
  • On Photography by Susan Sontag
  • The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
  • French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David
  • A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft
  • Heroes and Villains by Angela Carter

 

Now: from modern classics to contemporary favourites, explore some of the most inspiring female writers around…

  • cover-jpg-rendition-242-3741How to be both by Ali Smith
  • Is Shame Necessary? by Jennifer Jacquet
  • Women in Clothes by Sheila Heti, et al.
  • The Unloved by Deborah Levy
  • The End of the Story by Lydia Davis
  • This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein
  • Various Pets Alive and Dead by Marina Lewycka
  • Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton
  • Age Sex Location by Melissa Pimentel
  • The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith
  • Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector
  • The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson
  • Looking Glass Girl by Cathy Cassidy
  • The Woman Who Stole My Life by Marian Keyes

 

Next: looking to the next generation of fantastic, pen-wielding women…

  • Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller cover-jpg-rendition-242-3742
  • Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
  • Made in India by Meera Sodha
  • Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe
  • Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper
  • Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville
  • Half Wild by Sally Green
  • Half Bad by Sally Green
  • Gods and Kings by Dana Thomas
  • Thrown by Kerry Howley

 

 

Which of these have you read, and which would you recommend?  Which books by women would make your lists?

1

Reading the World: The Czech Republic

I visited Prague a few years ago, and fell in love with the beauty of the Czech Republic.  There aren’t very many books published which are set in the country, and many of the English translations seem to be weirdly unavailable anywhere outside of Prague’s city limits, but I have pulled together five which I would heartily recommend.

1. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera 9780571200832
‘In this novel – a story of irreconcilable loves and infidelities – Milan Kundera addresses himself to the nature of twentieth-century ‘Being’ In a world in which lives are shaped by irrevocable choices and by fortuitous events, a world in which everything occurs but once, existence seems to lose its substance, its weight. We feel, says the novelist, ‘the unbearable lightness of being’ – not only as the consequence of our private acts but also in the public sphere, and the two inevitably intertwine. Juxtaposing Prague, Geneva, Thailand and the United States, this masterly novel encompasses the extremes of comedy and tragedy, and embraces, it seems, all aspects of human existence. It offers a wide range of brilliant and amusing philosophical speculations and it descants on a variety of styles.’

2. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera
‘Widely held as a work of genius, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is the novel that first brought him to the forefront of the international literary scene. Rich in stories, characters and imaginative range, it was written while Kundera was still forbidden to publish in his home country of Czechoslovakia, which was then behind the Iron Curtain. In seven wonderfully integrated parts, different aspects of modern existence — from the posthumous erasure of “enemies” of communism from the historical record, to the subtle agony of the fading memory of a lost love, to the bizarre sexlessnes of modern promiscuity — are explored with boldness, subversive humor and the magical power of fiction.’

97807553794393. Far to Go by Alison Pick
‘Longlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, Far to Go is a powerful and profoundly moving story about one family’s epic journey to flee the Nazi occupation of their homeland in 1939. Pavel and Anneliese Bauer are affluent, secular Jews, whose lives are turned upside down by the arrival of the German forces in Czechoslovakia. Desperate to avoid deportation, the Bauers flee to Prague with their six-year-old son, Pepik, and his beloved nanny, Marta. When the family try to flee without her to Paris, Marta betrays them to her Nazi boyfriend. But it is through Marta’s determination that Pepik secures a place on a Kindertransport, though he never sees his parents or Marta again. ‘

4. A Traveller’s Companion to Prague by Jan Kaplan
‘The turbulent history of The City of a Hundred Spires is revealed through eyewitness accounts from medieval to modern times. Czech-born Jan Kaplan is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and a notable Prague historian.’

5. Prague Tales by Jan Neruda 9789639116238
‘Collection of Jan Neruda’s intimate, wry, bitter-sweet stories of life among the inhabitants of Mala Strana, the Little Quarter of nineteenth century Prague. These finely tuned and varied vignettes established Neruda as the quintessential Czech nineteenth century realist, the Charles Dickens of a Prague becoming ever more aware of itself as a Czech, rather than an Austrian city.’

 

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1

Wishlist: Ten French Books

Following on from my review of The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction, I thought it might be a nice idea to compile a wishlist of sorts, filled with recommendations which I feel will appeal to the bookish.  I have selected ten different authors here, all of whom have published markedly different works.  For each, I have copied the official blurb.

1. Conversations with Professor Y by Louis-Ferdinand Celine 97954

‘”Here’s the truth, simply stated…bookstores are suffering from a serious crisis of falling sales.” So begins the imaginary interview that comprises this novel: a conversation between the stuffy, incontinent Professor Y and Céline himself, who rails against convention and defends his idiosyncratic methods as a writer. In the course of their outrageous interplay, Céline comes closer to explaining his controversial life and work than in any of his other books. But soon the not-so-polite conversation begins to degenerate into a bizarre farce, as all pretense to the “interview” is dropped and Professor Y reveals his true identity—leading the author on a hilarious quest through the streets of Paris toward a climax skewering pretension, celebrity, polite society, and the establishment itself.’

2. Gilles and Jeanne by Michel Tournier

‘This novella by Prix Goncourt-winner Tournier (Friday, The Ogre) recreates medieval history by exploring the bizarre love of Gilles de Rais for Jeanne d’Arc, satanist and saint respectively. The homosexual Gilles, a noble and a marshal of France, finds in the boylike Jeanne an “intoxicating fusion of sanctity and war.” He escorts and protects her in battle against the English, and later tries vainly to save her from the stake. After her death, Gilles is diabolically transformed. He seeks to raise Jeanne’s spirit by putting on the mystery play Siege of Orleans. Gilles’s subsequent crimes earn him the name of Bluebeard: young boys are lured to his castle, feasted and then torturedwith erotic refinementsto death. Gilles rationalizes his grisly deeds by invoking the martyred Holy Innocents. Obsessed with Jeanne’s memory, he burns the children’s bodies in rites of necromancy, hoping to turn them to spiritual gold. Finally, Gilles is condemned to burn, like his adored saint. Tournier’s fervent and striking meditation on these legendary figures suggests that heaven and hell are the obverse sides of a coin. ‘

3. A Jew Must Die by Jacques Chessex 9781904738510

‘On April 16, 1942, a handful of Swiss Nazis in Payerne lure Arthur Bloch, a Jewish cattle merchant, into an empty stable and kill him with a crowbar. Europe is in flames, but this is Switzerland, and Payerne, a rural market town of butchers and bankers, is more worried about unemployment and local bankruptcies than the fate of nations across the border. Fernand Ischi, leader of the local Nazi cell, blames it all on the town’s Jewish population and wants to set an example, thinking the German embassy would be grateful. Ischi’s dream of becoming the local gauleiter is shattered, however, when the milk containers used to dissimulate Bloch’s body parts is discovered floating in a lake nearby, leading to his arrest.’

4. The Flight of Icarus by Raymond Queneau

‘Called by some the French Borges, by others the creator of le nouveau roman a generation ahead of its time, Raymond Queneau’s work in fiction continues to defy strict categorization. The Flight of Icarus (Le Vol d’lcare) is his only novel written in the form of a play: seventy-four short scenes, complete with stage directions. Consciously parodying Pirandello and Robbe-Grillet, it begins with a novelist’s discovery that his principal character, Icarus by name, has vanished. This, in turn, sets off a rash of other such disappearances. Before long, a number of desperate authors are found in search of their fugitive characters, who wander through the Paris of the 1890s, occasionally meeting one another, and even straying into new novels. Icarus himself–perhaps following the destiny his name suggests–develops a passion for horseless carriages, kites, and machines that fly. And throughout the almost vaudevillian turns of the plot, we are aware, as always, of Queneau’s evident delight at holding the thin line between farce and philosophy.’

97819419200915. Sphinx by Anne Garreta

‘Sphinx is the remarkable debut novel, originally published in 1986, by the incredibly talented and inventive French author Anne Garreta, one of the few female members of Oulipo, the influential and exclusive French experimental literary group whose mission is to create literature based on mathematical and linguistic restraints, and whose ranks include Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, among others. A beautiful and complex love story between two characters, the narrator, “I,” and their lover, A***, written without using any gender markers to refer to the main characters, Sphinx is a remarkable linguistic feat and paragon of experimental literature that has never been accomplished before or since in the strictly-gendered French language.’

6. Our Beautiful Heroine by Jacques Roubaud

‘This lightweight but appealing romantic mystery in which the crime is never solved and the lovers never united is set in a bustling middle-class Parisian neighborhood replete with butcher shop, bakery, produce market and peopled with a spirited group of opinionated busybodies. These include the narrator George Mornacier, an ardent girl-watcher and astute observer of the human scene; Bertrand Eusebe, an innocently lecherous grocer; Madame Crussant, the goodhearted baker; and Monsieur Orsell, scholar and philosopher. These voluble neighbors are preoccupied with the whereabouts of the heir to the kingdom of oil-rich Poldevia, young Prince Gormanskoi, missing for two years since a state visit to France. Also dominating the neighborhood’s interest is the identity of the perpetrator of the “hardware store horrors,” acts of vandalism against 52 hardware stores carrying plaster Poldevian statuettes. When Hortense, a voluptuous student long admired by Eusebe and George, meets a young man with dark, noble features and long, delicate hands, a uniquely chronicled chain of events ensues that leads to the identification of the missing prince, a passionate liaison ending in marriage and the trial of the hardware store vandal: all with unexpected results. Although it is sometimes sidetracked by tedious digression and much of Kornacker’s translation is clumsily phrased, this is basically a vigorous and agreeable work.’

7. Happening by Annie Ernaux 41js73x1-el-_sx327_bo1204203200_

‘In 1963, Annie Ernaux, 23 and unattached, realizes she is pregnant. Shame arises in her like a plague: Understanding that her pregnancy will mark her and her family as social failures, she knows she cannot keep that child.  This is the story, written forty years later, of a trauma Ernaux never overcame. In a France where abortion was illegal, she attempted, in vain, to self-administer the abortion with a knitting needle. Fearful and desperate, she finally located an abortionist, and ends up in a hospital emergency ward where she nearly dies.  In Happening, Ernaux sifts through her memories and her journal entries dating from those days. Clearly, cleanly, she gleans the meanings of her experience.’

8. The Mustache by Emmanuel Carrere

‘”What would you say if I shaved off my mustache?” asks “The Mustache”‘s hero of his wife. Once removed, his wife and friends not only fail to recognize him, but deny the existence of the former mustache altogether. A metaphysical nightmare of the grandest kind, “The Mustache” is a stunning blend of absurdist comedy and philosophical speculation.In “Class Trip,” young Nicholas’s vivid imagination gets the best of him when a boy disappears from a school excursion. What the youthful detective finds is even more terrifying than his wildest fantasties.Brought together in one volume, the piercing early novels of Emmanuel Carrere constitute some of the most devastating psychological portraits in contemporary fiction.”‘
9. Red Haze by Christian Gailly

‘”One day unlike the others, he’ll run into a husband worse than the others, he’ll run into trouble. I often thought this. Well, I was wrong, it was a woman he ran into, a woman worse than the others, here’s what happened.” What happened is the shocking tale told deftly by the brilliant French minimalist Christian Gailly in Red Haze . It is a story at once spare and mysteriously complex, complicated by the ever odder perspective of the narrator as the details accumulate. Lucien, the narrator’s friend, is a rake, a womanizer who womanizes once too often and loses his offending member to his latest conquest. As the narrator’s interest in the mutilated man and the vengeful woman grows into an obsession, Red Haze becomes an unsettling story of how closely intertwined love and hatred, passion and cruelty can be. Winner of the prestigious Prix France Culture, Red Haze is the third of Christian Gailly’s ten novels to be published in English.’

61uots711il-_sx344_bo1204203200_10. The Bathroom by Jean-Philippe Toussaint

‘In this playful and perplexing book, we meet a young Parisian researcher who lives inside his bathroom. As he sits in his tub meditating on existence (and refusing to tell us his name), the people around him―his girlfriend, Edmondsson, the Polish painters in his kitchen―each in their own way further enables his peculiar lifestyle, supporting his eccentric quest for immobility. But an invitation to the Austrian embassy shakes up his stable world, prompting him to take a risk and leave his bathroom . . .’

 

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