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Really Underrated Books (Part Four)

The penultimate post of this week’s Really Underrated Books showcase brought a lot of gems to my attention which I’m going to scour secondhand bookshops for for the foreseeable.

909053.jpg1. The Furies by Janet Hobhouse
An exhilarating, fiercely honest, ultimately devastating book, The Furies confronts the claims of family and the lure of desire, the difficulties of independence, and the approach of death.  Janet Hobhouse’s final testament is beautifully written, deeply felt, and above all utterly alive.

 

2. Swallow by Sefi Atta
‘In the 1980s in Lagos, the government’s War Against Indiscipline and austerity measures are in full swing. A succession of unfortunate events leads Tolani, a bank secretary, to be persuaded by her roommate Rose to consider drug trafficking as a way to make a living. Tolani’s subsequent struggle with temptation forces her to reconsider her morality—and that of her mother Arikes—as she embarks on a turbulent journey of self-discovery.’

 

3. Burn Lake by Carrie Fountain 7734078
Set in southern New Mexico, where her family’s multi­cultural history is deeply rooted, the poems in Carrie Fountain’s first collection explore issues of progress, history, violence, sexuality, and the self. Burn Lake weaves together the experience of life in the rapidly changing American Southwest with the peculiar journey of Don Juan de Oñate, who was dispatched from Mexico City in the late sixteenth- century by Spanish royalty to settle the so-called New Mexico Province, of which little was known. A letter that was sent to Oñate by the Viceroy of New Spain, asking that should he come upon the North Sea in New Mexico, he should give a detailed report of “the configuration of the coast and the capacity of each harbor” becomes the inspiration for many of the poems in this artfully composed debut.

 

4. Stone Virgin by Barry Unsworth
A mysterious sculpture of a beautiful and erotic Madonna holds the key to the Fornarini family’s secrets. When Raikes, a conservation expert, tries to restore her, he is swept under the statue’s spell and swept under the spell of the seductive Chiara Litsov, a member of the Fornarini family now married to a famous sculptor. Raikes finds himself losing all moral grounding as his love for statue and woman intertwine in lust and murder.

 

2187700.jpg5. In the Shadow of the Magic Mountain: The Erika and Klaus Mann Story by Andrea Weiss
Thomas Mann’s two eldest children, Erika and Klaus, were unconventional, rebellious, and fiercely devoted to each other. Empowered by their close bond, they espoused vehemently anti-Nazi views in a Europe swept up in fascism and were openly, even defiantly, gay in an age of secrecy and repression. Although their father’s fame has unfairly overshadowed their legacy, Erika and Klaus were serious authors, performance artists before the medium existed, and political visionaries whose searing essays and lectures are still relevant today. And, as Andrea Weiss reveals in this dual biography, their story offers a fascinating view of the literary and intellectual life, political turmoil, and shifting sexual mores of their times.  In the Shadow of the Magic Mountain begins with an account of the make-believe world the Manns created together as children—an early sign of their talents as well as the intensity of their relationship. Weiss documents the lifelong artistic collaboration that followed, showing how, as the Nazis took power, Erika and Klaus infused their work with a shared sense of political commitment. Their views earned them exile, and after escaping Germany they eventually moved to the United States, where both served as members of the U.S. armed forces. Abroad, they enjoyed a wide circle of famous friends, including Andre Gide, Christopher Isherwood, Jean Cocteau, and W. H. Auden, whom Erika married in 1935. But the demands of life in exile, Klaus’s heroin addiction, and Erika’s new allegiance to their father strained their mutual devotion, and in 1949 Klaus committed suicide.  Beautiful never-before-seen photographs illustrate Weiss’s riveting tale of two brave nonconformists whose dramatic lives open up new perspectives on the history of the twentieth century.

 

6. The Shadow-Boxing Woman by Inka Parei
In The Shadow-Boxing Woman, a novel from German writer Inka Parei, a decaying apartment building in post-Wall Berlin is home to Hell, a young woman with a passion for martial arts. When Hell’s neighbor disappears she sets out across the city in search of her. In the course of her quest, she falls in love with a bank robber, confronts her own dark memories, and ends up saving more than just her missing neighbor.  What is on the surface a crime novel is actually a haunting dual portrait of a city and a woman caught up in times of change and transition. This debut novel in English combines Parei’s tight prose with a compulsive delight in detail that dynamically evokes many lost and overlooked corners of Berlin.

 

7. Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon by Nicole Brossard 1806153
Carla Carlson is at the Hotel Clarendon in Quebec City trying to finish a novel. Nearby, a woman, preoccupied with sadness and infatuated with her boss, catalogues antiquities at the Museum of Civilization. Every night, the two women meet at the hotel bar and talk – about childhood and parents and landscapes, about time and art, about Descartes and Francis Bacon and writing.  When Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon appeared in French (as Hier), the media called it the pinnacle of Brossard’s remarkable forty-year literary career. From its intersection of four women emerges a kind of art installation, a lively read in which life and death and the vertigo of ruins tangle themselves together to say something about history and desire and art.

 

8. Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms by Eugenia Bone
An incredibly versatile cooking ingredient containing an abundance of vitamins, minerals, and possibly cancer-fighting properties, mushrooms are among the most expensive and sought-after foods on the planet. Yet when it comes to fungi, culinary uses are only the tip of the iceberg. Throughout history fungus has been prized for its diverse properties—medicinal, ecological, even recreational—and has spawned its own quirky subculture dedicated to exploring the weird biology and celebrating the unique role it plays on earth. In Mycophilia, accomplished food writer and cookbook author Eugenia Bone examines the role of fungi as exotic delicacy, curative, poison, and hallucinogen, and ultimately discovers that a greater understanding of fungi is key to facing many challenges of the 21st century.  Engrossing, surprising, and packed with up-to-date science and cultural exploration, Mycophilia is part narrative and part primer for foodies, science buffs, environmental advocates, and anyone interested in learning a lot about one of the least understood and most curious organisms in nature.

 

3281869. The Tiger in the House: A Cultural History of the Cat by Carl van Vechten
“A god, a companion to sorceresses at the Witches’ Sabbath, a beast who is royal in Siam, who in Japan is called ‘the tiger that eats from the hand,’ the adored of Mohammed, Laura’s rival with Petrarch, the friend of Richelieu, the favorite of poets”—such are just a few of the feline distinctions that Carl Van Vechten records in this glorious historical overview of humanity’s long love affair with the cat. As delightful as it is learned, Tiger in the House explores science, art, and history to assemble a treasury of cat lore, while Van Vechten’s sumptuous baroque prose makes the book’s every page an inexhaustible pleasure.

 

10. The Perfect Prince: The Mystery of Perkin Warbeck and His Quest for the Throne of England by Ann Wroe
In 1491, as Machiavelli advised popes and princes and Leonardo da Vinci astonished the art world, a young man boarded a ship in Portugal bound for Ireland. He would be greeted upon arrival as the rightful heir to the throne of England. The trouble was, England already had a king.   The most intriguing and ambitious pretender in history, this elegant young man was celebrated throughout Europe as the prince he claimed to be: Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the “Princes in the Tower” who were presumed to have been murdered almost a decade earlier. Handsome, well-mannered, and charismatic, he behaved like the perfect prince, and many believed he was one. The greatest European rulers of the age—among them the emperor Maximilian, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, and Charles VIII of France—used him as a diplomatic pawn to their own advantage. As such, he tormented Henry VII for eight years, attempting to invade England three times. Eventually, defeated and captured, he admitted to being Perkin Warbeck, the son of a common boatman from Flanders. But was this really the truth?  Ann Wroe, a historian and storyteller of the first rank, delves into the secret corners of the late medieval world to explore both the elusive nature of identity and the human propensity for deception. In uncovering the mystery of Perkin Warbeck, Wroe illuminates not only a life but an entire world trembling on the verge of discovery.

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Really Underrated Books (Part Three)

Part three of this week’s Really Underrated Books showcase is, again, made up of some quite diverse books which I feel deserve a wider readership.

1. Savage Coast by Muriel Rukeyser 16057098.jpg
As a young reporter in 1936, Muriel Rukeyser traveled to Barcelona to witness the first days of the Spanish Civil War. She turned this experience into an autobiographical novel so forward thinking for its time that it was never published. Recently discovered in her archive, this lyrical work charts her political and sexual awakening as she witnesses the popular front resistance to the fascist coup and falls in love with a German political exile who joins the first international brigade.  Rukeyser’s narrative is a modernist investigation into the psychology of violence, activism, and desire; a documentary text detailing the start of the war; and a testimony to those who fought and died for freedom and justice during the first major battle against European fascism.

 

2. The Trail of the Serpent by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1837–1915), Victorian England’s bestselling woman writer, blends Dickensian humor with chilling suspense in this “exuberantly campy” (Kirkus Reviews) mystery. The novel features Jabez North, a manipulative orphan who becomes a ruthless killer; Valerie de Cevennes, a stunning heiress who falls into North’s diabolical trap; and Mr. Peters, a mute detective who communicates his brilliant reasoning through sign language.’

 

16057518.jpg3. Advice to Little Girls by Mark Twain
When Mark Twain wrote the sparky short story “Advice to Little Girls” in 1865, he probably didn’t mean for it to be shown to them. Or maybe he did, since we all know Twain was a rascal. Now, author and illustrator Vladimir Radunsky has created a picture book based on Twain’s text that adds all the right outlandish touches.

 

4. All My Friends by Marie NDiaye
A moody and beautiful reflection on relationships, and how our idea of the world too often fails to match reality, All My Friends delivers five stories that probe the boundaries between individuals to mediate on how well we really know anybody, including ourselves. Written in hypnotic prose with characters both fully fleshed and unfathomable, All My Friends opens with the fraught love story of a man who has fallen for his housekeeper, his student of many years ago. Losing his grip as he feels his own family turning against him, he plots romance between the housekeeper and an old friend, whom he thinks is perfect for her. Later NDiaye gives us the harsh tale of a young boy longing to escape his life of poverty by becoming a sex slave—just like the beautiful young man that lived next door. And when a woman takes her mentally challenged son on a bus ride to the city, they both know that she’ll return, but he won’t. Chilling, provocative, and touching, this is an unflinching look at the personal horrors we fight every day to suppress—but in All My Friends they’re allowed to roam free.

 

2533255. Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time by A.S. Byatt
Unruly Times is a superlative portrait of the relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge, and a fascinating exploration of the Romantic Movement and the dramatic events that shaped it. With a novelist’s insight and eye for detail, A. S. Byatt brings alive this tumultuous period and shows a deep understanding of the effects upon the minds of Wordsworth, Coleridge and their contemporaries – de Quincey, Lamb, Hazlitt, Byron and Keats.

 

6. Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess by Hannah Arendt
She was, Hannah Arendt wrote, “my closest friend, though she has been dead for some hundred years.” Born in Berlin in 1771 as the daughter of a Jewish merchant, Rahel Varnhagen would come to host one of the most prominent salons of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Arendt discovered her writings some time in the mid-1920s, and soon began to reimagine Rahel’s inner life and write her biography. Long unavailable and never before published as Arendt intended, Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess returns to print in an extraordinary new edition.  Arendt draws a lively and complex portrait of a woman during the period of the Napoleonic wars and the early emancipation of the Jews, a figure who met and corresponded with some of the most celebrated authors, artists, and politicians of her time. She documents Rahel’s attempts to earn legitimacy as a writer and gain access to the highest aristocratic circles, to assert for herself a position in German culture in spite of her gender and religion.

 

7. Happy Moscow by Andrei Platonov 13533706
Moscow Chestnova is a bold and glamorous girl, a beautiful parachutist who grew up with the Revolution. As an orphan, she knew tough times—but things are changing now. Comrade Stalin has proclaimed that “Life has become better! Life has become merrier!” and Moscow herself is poised to join the Soviet elite. But her ambitions are thwarted when a freak accident propels her flaming from the sky. A new, stranger life begins. Moscow drifts from man to man, through dance halls, all-night diners, and laboratories in which the secret of immortality is actively being investigated, exploring the endless avenues and vacant spaces of the great city whose name she bears, looking for happiness, somewhere, still.’

 

8. In the Year of the Long Division by Dawn Raffel
Dawn Raffel’s debut delivers us to the wild spaces of a youth in the Midwest and to the blank terrors of the heart. There is a cold wind blowing through these stories, whose sentences come to us as a rebuke to anything felt. In her flight from sentiment, Raffel masterfully reifies the new will to absence that marks the moral and emotional bearing of her generation. The result is not just an acknowledgment of all our long divisions – the divide between impulse and the means to apprehend it, between desire and entrapment – but of the final sweet concession that we must each of us make to the futility of even the smallest mending. In the Year of Long Division gives us the triumph of craft over the obstinance of expression and the installation of a writer certain to be cited in the continuing reinvention of the American short story.

 

17574841.jpg9. Laziness in the Fertile Valley by Albert Cossery
Laziness in the Fertile Valley is Albert Cossery’s biting social satire about a father, his three sons, and their uncle — slackers one and all. One brother has been sleeping for almost seven years, waking only to use the bathroom and eat a meal. Another savagely defends the household from women. Serag, the youngest, is the only member of the family interested in getting a job. But even he — try as he might — has a hard time resisting the call of laziness.

 

10. Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth by Mark Hertsgaard
A fresh take on climate change by a renowned journalist driven to protect his daughter, your kids, and the next generation who’ll inherit the problem.  For twenty years, Mark Hertsgaard has investigated global warming for outlets including the New Yorker, NPR, Time, Vanity Fair, and The Nation. But the full truth did not hit home until he became a father and, soon thereafter, learned that climate change had already arrived―a century earlier than forecast―with impacts bound to worsen for decades to come. Hertsgaard’s daughter Chiara, now five yea rs old, is part of what he has dubbed “Generation Hot”–the two billion young people worldwide who will spend the rest of their lives coping with mounting climate disruption.  HOT is a father’s cry against climate change, but most of the book focuses on s olutions, offering a deeply reported blueprint for how all of us―as parents, communities, companies and countries―can navigate this unavoidable new era. Combining reporting from across the nation and around the world with personal reflections on his daugh ter’s future, Hertsgaard provides “pictures” of what is expected over the next fifty years: Chicago’s climate transformed to resemble Houston’s; dwindling water supplies and crop yields at home and abroad; the redesign of New York and other cities against mega-storms and sea-level rise. Above all, he shows who is taking wise, creative precautions. For in the end, HOT is a book about how we’ll survive.

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Really Underrated Books (Part Two)

Part two of this week’s Really Underrated Books showcase brings to light some fascinating looking tomes.

1. Going West by Maurice Gee 866199
For all the promise of his name, Jack Skeat cannot be a poet. His friend Rex Petley – eel-catcher, girl-chaser, motorbike rider – takes that prize. Is he also a murderer? And why, forty years later, does he drown out on the Gulf? Jack has to find out, and is drawn to examine their lives. Going West has long been regarded as one of the most autobiographical of Maurice Gee’s novels.

 

2. Roger Fry: A Biography by Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf’s only true biography, written to commemorate a devoted friend and one of the most renowned art critics of this century, who helped to bring the Postimpressionist movement from France to England and America.

 

16198633. I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister, 1791-1840, edited by Helena Whitbread
Upon publication, the first volume of Anne Lister’s diaries, “I Know My Own Heart,” met with celebration, delight, and some skepticism. How could an upper class Englishwoman, in the first half of the nineteenth century, fulfill her emotional and sexual needs when her sexual orientation was toward other women? How did an aristocratic lesbian manage to balance sexual fulfillment with social acceptability?  Helena Whitbread, the editor of these diaries, here allows us an inside look at the long-running love affair between Anne Lister and Marianna Lawton, an affair complicated by Anne’s infatuation with Maria Barlow. Anne travels to Paris where she discovers a new love interest that conflicts with her developing social aspirations. For the first time, she begins to question the nature of her identity and the various roles female lovers may play in the life of a gentrywoman. Though unequipped with a lesbian vocabulary with which to describe her erotic life, her emotional conflicts are contemporary enough to speak to us all.  This book will satisfy the curiosity of the many who became acquainted with Lister through I Know My Own Heart and are eager to learn more about her revealing life and what it suggests about the history of sexuality.

 

4. Victorine by Maude Hutchins
Victorine is thirteen, and she can’t get the unwanted surprise of her newly sexual body, in all its polymorphous and perverse insistence, out of her mind: it is a trap lying in wait for her at every turn (and nowhere, for some reason, more than in church). Meanwhile, Victorine’s older brother Costello is struggling to hold his own against the overbearing, mean-spirited, utterly ghastly Hector L’Hommedieu, a paterfamilias who collects and discards mistresses with scheming abandon even as Allison, his wife, drifts through life in a narcotic daze.   And Maude Hutchins’s Victorine? It’s a sly, shocking, one-of-a-kind novel that explores sex and society with wayward and unabashedly weird inspiration, a drive-by snapshot of the great abject American family in its suburban haunts by a literary maverick whose work looks forward to—and sometimes outstrips—David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and the contemporary paintings of Lisa Yuskavage and John Currin.

 

5. The Penguin Book of First World War Stories, edited by Barbara Korte 3212619.jpg
This new collection of short stories about World War I features works by such famous British authors as Joseph Conrad, W. Somerset Maugham, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Buchan, Rudyard Kipling, D. H. Lawrence, John Galsworthy, Radclyffe Hall, Katherine Mansfield, Robert Graves, Muriel Spark, and Julian Barnes. Written during the war and after, these stories illustrate the impact of the Great War on British society and culture, as well as the many ways in which short fiction contributed to the literature of that time period.

 

6. Muriel Spark: The Biography by Martin Stannard
Born in 1918 into a working-class Edinburgh family, Muriel Spark ended her life as the epitome of literary chic, one of the great writers of the 20th century. This book tells her story.

 

208197177. The Crocodiles by Youssef Rakha
Set in Cairo between 1997 and 2011, The Crocodiles is narrated in numbered, prose poem-like paragraphs, set against the backdrop of a burning Tahrir Square, by a man looking back on the magical and explosive period of his life when he and two friends started a secret poetry club amid a time of drugs, messy love affairs, violent sex, clumsy but determined intellectual bravado, and retranslations of the Beat poets. Youssef Rakha’s provocative, brutally intelligent novel of growth and change begins with a suicide and ends with a doomed revolution, forcefully capturing thirty years in the life of a living, breathing, daring, burning, and culturally incestuous Cairo.

 

8. 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.

 

9. Orpheus: The Song of Life by Ann Wroe 16088815
A powerful and poetic work of history on the figure of Orpheus: his life and myth, and his representation and imagining from the sixth century BC to the present day.  For at least two and a half millennia, the figure of Orpheus has haunted humanity. Half-man, half-god, musician, magician, theologian, poet and lover, his story never leaves us. He may be myth, but his lyre still sounds, entrancing everything that hears it: animals, trees, water, stones, and men.  In this extraordinary work Ann Wroe goes in search of Orpheus, from the forests where he walked and the mountains where he worshipped to the artefacts, texts and philosophies built up round him. She traces the man, and the power he represents, through the myriad versions of a fantastical life: his birth in Thrace, his studies in Egypt, his voyage with the Argonauts to fetch the Golden Fleece, his love for Eurydice and journey to Hades, and his terrible death. We see him tantalising Cicero and Plato, and breathing new music into Gluck and Monteverdi; occupying the mind of Jung and the surreal dreams of Cocteau; scandalising the Fathers of the early Church, and filling Rilke with poems like a whirlwind. He emerges as not simply another mythical figure but the force of creation itself, singing the song of light out of darkness and life out of death.

 

10. The Giants by Jean Marie G. Le Clezio
Upon an immense stretch of flat ground at the mouth of a river bathed in sunlight rises Hyperpolis. It stands there, surrounded by its four asphalt car-parks, to condemn us – a huge enveloping supermarket. Each of us will see ourselves reflected in the characters who move mindlessly about Hyperpolis, but The Giants is a call to rebellion. This bold and inventive novel is the work of a tremendously talented writer and both an intoxicating and exhilarating read.

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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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Reading the World 2017: ‘The World According to Anna’ by Jostein Gaarder **

I have read several of Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder’s books in the past, many of them during my teenage years when I was just discovering the joy of the adult world of translated literature.  Thus far, nothing has matched up to the strength of The Orange Girl for me, a wonderful and underrated festive tale about how the young protagonist’s late father kept crossing paths with a woman he named ‘The Orange Girl’ in his native Oslo. The overtly philosophical Sophie’s World, the book which has been sold over thirty million copies, and which Gaarder is undoubtedly most well-known for, didn’t appeal to me anywhere near as much; whilst it raised some interesting questions, I felt that the plot let the whole down, and the characters which peopled the tome were not as realistic as they should have been for me to invest my feeling with them.  The same can sadly be said for the newest novel of Gaarder’s to be translated into English by Don Bartlett, The World According to Anna.

The novel’s storyline piqued my interest; our protagonist is Anna, a young woman on the eve of her sixteenth birthday.  She begins to have vivid dreams set in the future – in 2082, to be precise – which feature her granddaughter, Nova.  These are not just dreams to Anna; rather, messages are transmitted to her through the medium.  Her parents, who reside in a secluded part of Norway, decide to consult a doctor in Oslo, who refers Anna to a psychologist.  He, of course, believes that there ‘may be some truth to what she is seeing’.

9780297609735The World According to Anna begins on New Year’s Eve, but there is little that is festive about it, despite its promising opening sentence: ‘New Year’s Eve was a special time.  Normal rules did not apply, and everyone mixed freely.  On that evening they left one year behind and entered the next.  They stepped over an invisible boundary between what had been and what would be’.  In fact, the novel can be termed a dystopian work in some ways.  The future which Anna sees is barren and isolated.  She follows Nova through the landscape, along with ‘a band of survivors, after animals and plants have died out’.  Dystopia is not my personal favourite in terms of a literary genre, but if it is done well – for instance, in works by Margaret Atwood – it can be incredibly effective.  Not so here.  It soon becomes up to Anna alone to save the world, which is where the whole thing turned sour as far as I was concerned.

Anna is not a good character.  She is flat and underdeveloped, and the way in which she speaks often seems far above her fifteen years.  She seems to have an unshakeable wisdom, which one would expect of a literary character far older than she.  There is little here, in fact, to indicate that she is a teenager.  When her psychologist, Dr Benjamin, asks her what she is afraid of, she gives this answer, which is at once important, but also curiously impersonal: ‘”… I’m afraid of climate change.  I’m afraid that we’re risking our climate and environment without a second thought for future generations.”‘  Along with the conversations, much of the prose within The World According to Anna tends to read like a geography textbook at times, particularly with regard to the interactions between Anna and Dr Benjamin.  Whilst what they say is interesting, it is relayed so matter-of-factly that it feels as though they are merely reading from a book.  The relationship between them is incredibly strange too; perhaps the professionalism is lost in translation or something of the like, but it is unsettling almost to the point of becoming creepy.

The Norwegian winter is well set out, as are the changing conditions and altered migration patterns which Gaarder portrays.  This is perhaps the strength of the novel; we as readers do see the landscape altering irrevocably.  The third person perspective which has been used throughout is essentially a distancing device; Anna does not feel realistic enough to stand alone in this manner, and it perhaps would have been a more effective novel had Gaarder written from her perspective.  The use of the narrative dream too is unsuccessful, largely because it is a device which is repeated over and over, and thus loses much of its meaning.

The World According to Anna undoubtedly makes one think about issues which our planet and civilisation face.  However, the entirety is rather melodramatic.  The novel sounded promising and important, but it soon becomes trite; its potential has not been reached.  Gaarder has barely scratched the surface at times; it does not feel as though he ever goes deep enough to make his book believable.  There is no lightness of touch in the prose or the translation, and it feels rather banausic in consequence.  Whilst he has clearly attempted to tell this novel in a similar manner to Sophie’s World, The World According to Anna is neither as philosophical, nor as thoughtful.

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Really Underrated Books (Part Four)

Here is the penultimate post of this week’s Really Underrated Books series.  As ever, I hope something here piques your interest, or inspires you to go and find some underrated books of your own!

1. Bleakly Hall by Elaine di Rollo 9613541
Monty and Ada are old friends. They worked together on the frontline in Belgium, where Monty was a nurse and Ada drove ambulances – like the devil. And now, Bleakly Hall hydropathic has brought them together again.  Monty has just arrived to look after the gouty residents – there to take the Hall’s curative waters via nozzle, douche and jet – and Ada is the maid and driver. For all those at Bleakly, the end of the Great War has brought changes. Not all of them good.  Monty has a score to settle with the elusive Captain Foxley; Ada misses her wartime sense of purpose; the Blackwood brothers must reinvigorate Bleakly for a new era; Foxley has his own particular ways of keeping his ghosts at bay. But with the crumbling, rumbling hydropathic threatening to blow its top, what will become of the folk thrown together in its bilious embrace?  This wonderfully original novel brings together an irresistible cast of characters – including Bleakly Hall itself – in the wake of one of history’s great tragedies. To powerful effect, it combines fizzing comedy with a deeply moving look at the aftermath of war.

 

2. Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage by Glyn Williams
The elusive dream of locating the Northwest Passage—an ocean route over the top of North America that promised a shortcut to the fabulous wealth of Asia—obsessed explorers for centuries. While global warming has brought several such routes into existence, until recently these channels were hopelessly choked by impassible ice. Voyagers faced unimaginable horrors—entire ships crushed, mass starvation, disabling frostbite, even cannibalism—in pursuit of a futile goal. In Arctic Labyrinth, Glyn Williams charts the entire sweep of this extraordinary history, from the tiny, woefully equipped vessels of the first Tudor expeditions to the twentieth-century ventures that finally opened the Passage. Williams’s thrilling narrative delves into private letters and journals to expose the gritty reality behind the often self-serving accounts of those in charge. An important work of maritime history and exploration—and as exciting a tale of heroism and fortitude as readers will find—Arctic Labyrinth is also a remarkable study in human delusion.

 

33742493. A School in South Uist: Reminiscences of a Hebridean Schoolmaster, 1890-1913 by F.G. Rea
These are the memories of Frederick Rea, an English teacher who became headmaster of Garrynamonie School in South Uist in the 1890s. At that time, the Hebrides were as remote and forbidding to mainlanders as the Antarctic is to us today, and South Uist was one of the poorer districts. Roads were often no more than rough tracks across the mountain moorland or over the storm-swept machair. His Gaelic-speaking pupils were often frozen and starving, and fever epidemics were frequent. Rea’s memoirs show how he strove to meet these difficulties. His pupils remember him as a sincere, conscientious man and an excellent teacher. This book also reveals his keen powers of observation, and his interest in the unfamiliar scenes and events he witnessed and recorded. His lack of city comforts was more that compensated for by the wonders of the natural world and the uncommon kindness and generosity of the islanders. Dr. Rea treasured his memories of South Uist for the rest of his life, and his love and respect for the islands is wonderfully conveyed in this vivid testament.

 

4. Painted Shadow by Carole Seymour-Jones
By the time she was committed to an asylum in 1938, five years after T. S. Eliot deserted her, Vivienne Eliot was a lonely, distraught figure. Shunned by literary London, she was the “neurotic” wife whom Eliot had left behind. In The Family Reunion, he described a wife who was a “restless shivering painted shadow,” and so she had become: a phantomlike shape on the fringe of Eliot’s life, written out of his biography and literary history.  This astonishing portrait of Vivienne Eliot, first wife of poet T.S. Eliot, gives a voice to the woman who, for seventeen years, had shared a unique literary partnership with Eliot but who was scapegoated for the failure of the marriage and all but obliterated from historical record. In so doing, Painted Shadow opens the way to a new understanding of Eliot’s poetry.  Vivienne longed to tell her whole story; she wrote in her diary: “You who in later years will read these very words of mine will be able to trace a true history of this epoch.” She believed (as did Virginia Woolf) that she was Eliot’s muse, the woman through whom he transmuted life into art. Yet Vivienne knew the secrets of his separate and secret life — which contributed to her own deepening hysteria, drug addiction, and final abandonment: the tragedy of a marriage that paired a repressed yet sensual man with an extroverted woman who longed for a full sexual relationship with her husband.  Out of this emotional turbulence came one of the most important English poems of the twentieth century: The Waste Land, which Carole Seymour-Jones convincingly shows cannot be fully understood without reference to the relationship of the poet and his first wife. Drawing on papers both privately owned and in university library archives and, most importantly, on Vivienne Eliot’s own journals left to the Bodleian Library, Oxford, Carole Seymour-Jones uses many hitherto unpublished sources and opens the way to a new understanding of Eliot’s poetry.

 

5. The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai by Han Bangwing 407756
Desire, virtue, courtesans (also known as sing-song girls), and the denizens of Shanghai’s pleasure quarters are just some of the elements that constitute Han Bangqing’s extraordinary novel of late imperial China. Han’s richly textured, panoramic view of late-nineteenth-century Shanghai follows a range of characters from beautiful sing-song girls to lower-class prostitutes and from men in positions of social authority to criminals and ambitious young men recently arrived from the country. Considered one of the greatest works of Chinese fiction, The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai is now available for the first time in English.

 

6. Once Upon a Time by John Barth
From master storyteller and National Book Award winner John Barth comes a bravura performance: a memoir wrapped in a novel and launched on a sea voyage. A cutter-rigged sloop sets sail for an end-of-season cruise down into the “Chesapeake Triangle.” Our captain: a middle-aged writer of some repute. The sole crewmate: his lover, friend, editor, and wife. The journey turns out to be not the modest three-day cruise it at first seems. As we sail through sun and storm, our skipper spins (and is spun by) the Story of His Life – an operatic saga that’s part Verdi, part Puccini, and more than a dollop of bouffe, a compound narrative voyaging through the imagination. Crisscrossing the past, mixing memory with desire, our narrator navigates among the waypoints of his life, beguiling us with tales of adventure and despair, love and marriage, selves and counterselves, aging and sailing, teaching and writing – steering always by the polestar of Vocation, the storyteller’s call.

 

2684457. The Butcher’s Wife and Other Stories by Li Ang
Li Ang’s highly charged fiction has made her one of the most widely known Taiwanese authors of her time. This new anthology begins with the internationally acclaimed “The Butcher’s Wife,” a novella that evoked shock and outrage in Taiwan when it first appeared in 1983. The shorter stories that follow range from Li Ang’s first story, “Flower Season” (1968), through “A Love Letter Never Sent” (1986), and include stories that are erotic, thought provoking, and cautionary.

 

8. The Tower of Glass by Ivan Angelo
The five interlocking stories in The Tower Of Glass create a singular, powerful account of a nation in turmoil – and a prophetic warning about an oppressive government’s need to control not just the society but the mind. Through symbolism, wry humour, and outrageous sexual frankness, Ivan Angelo tells of businessmen and whores, poor working people and Death Squads, truth and illusion, and methods of political manipulation and terror. From the gritty, bawdy story of “Bete the Streetwalker” to the Kafkaesque portrait of a prison made of glass, the fictional pieces demonstrate Angelo’s masterful wordplay, and his ability to take formal and structural risks without a false step.

 

9. What’s Become of Waring by Anthony Powell 6977196
This fascinating catalog of the comic relates the ironic and ludicrous adventures of a noted (but mysterious) English travel-book writer whose reported “death” throws the London literary world into a tizzy.’

 

10. Herculaneum: Italy’s Buried Treasure by Joseph Jay Deiss
A vivid portrayal of life in Pompeii’s sister city, this book includes a detailed description of the ancient Villa dei Papiri, on which the present Getty Museum in Malibu is modeled.

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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.’

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