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November Book Haul

The eagle-eyed amongst you might have spotted that I haven’t published any book haul posts since August.  This is because I have been very restrained with adding to my TBR, focusing instead on reading books which I already own, as well as many tomes which are still unread on my Kindle.  I have caved a little in November however, and thus have a few different titles recently added to my shelves, both literal and virtual, to talk about.

9781474604796I shall detail those which I have bought for my Kindle first.  I tend not to buy books from Amazon, whose morals are not up to scratch in a lot of ways, but wanted a few things to read both over Christmas, and on future holidays.  Everything which I purchased was rather cheap (under £2 per book), and they are largely tomes which I have found it difficult to get hold of in physical editions.  I thus chose four titles by the wonderful Celia Fremlin, whose work I have recently discovered: Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark: Short Stories, The Trouble-Makers, Uncle Paul, and The Jealous One, all of which have been recently reissued by Faber Firsts.  I took advantage of two Kindle daily deals to buy a rather lovely-looking novel, The Boy Made of Snow by Chloe Mayer, along with a shortlisted title from this year’s Man Booker Prize, The History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund.

I have been a big fan of Nancy Pearl, librarian extraordinaire, for rather a few years 9781477819456now, and am starting to actively choose and seek out those titles which she has recommended, and which appeal to me (which, to be fair, is most of them).  I saw a copy of Susan Richards Shreve‘s Plum and Jaggers on the Kindle store for just £1, and couldn’t resist purchasing it.  To appease a bout of nostalgia, I also chose to download a copy of Christmas Tales by Enid Blyton, one of my favourite childhood authors.  I’m very much looking forward to snuggling up with it next month!

I saw a wonderful review of Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman, and decided to sneak a secondhand copy into my AbeBooks basket, which I purchased soon afterwards.  It’s a memoir of her experience with breast cancer, and whilst not the most cheerful tome, I’m hoping to read it over the Christmas holidays.  I have also been 9781509813131keen to undertake a year-long reading project for a few years now, and have finally found what I hope is the perfect book with which to do so – Allie Esiri‘s beautiful A Poem for Every Night of the Year.  I am gifting myself a lovely hardback copy for Christmas, and shall be savouring one poem every day (or, rather, night) in 2018.

As some of you may have seen, I am taking part in the Around the World in 80 Books challenge next year, and have been busy preparing lists, and finding tomes on my to-read pile which fit.  There are several countries I wish to read about which were proving difficult to find books from, at least with regard to my existing titles and those which I can find in the library, and I thus bought five from AbeBooks to prepare myself well.  I chose Two Under the 9781870206808Indian Sun by Jon and Rumer Godden, Spanish author Mathias Malzieu‘s The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, Sigrid Rausing‘s memoir of working on an Estonian farm, entitled Everything is Wonderful, Welsh author Eiluned LewisDew on the Grass, and Marguerite Yourcenar‘s Coup de Grace, which is set in Latvia.

Going forward, for ease of admin more than anything else, although with a little sprinkling of hope that I will gain enough willpower not to buy any new books, I will be grouping two or three months into each of these book haul posts.  They will thus be far more infrequent, but rather larger than detailing one or two new books each month.

Which books have you bought this month?  Are there any on my list which pique your interest, or which you would like to see full reviews for?

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‘Two Underdogs and a Cat’ by Slavenka Drakulic ****

‘Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic here presents an unorthodox, imaginative take on the transition from Communism to capitalism in the former Soviet Union. Three characters – a dog, an underdog, and a cat – offer the reader narratives that reflect on life under Communism and what has followed in its wake. The first, “An Interview with the Oldest Dog in Bucharest,” is about a dog named Charlie, whose mother, Mimi, together with thousands of other pets, was thrown out into the street during the Ceausescu regime. In this interview, Charlie describes how not only people but animals, too, became victims during the destruction of downtown neighborhoods in Bucharest in order to build a pyramid-like ‘Palace of the People’. In “A Guided Tour of the Museum of Communism,” a sixty-year-old souvenir vendor-cum-cleaning woman in Prague reflects upon the meaning of such a museum and concludes wryly that she herself is possibly the museum’s best exhibit. Finally, “A Cat-keeper in Warsaw” describes an encounter with a person “of feline origin” who claims to be in possession of the cat-keeper called ‘General’ who declared martial law in Poland on December 13, 1981. The three stories are unified by powerful, but troubling questions: Are democracy and capitalism really a change for the better? Is the idea of social justice lost forever? Is there such a thing as collective responsibility? And how do we remember and understand our past?’

9781906497286I have wanted to read Slavenka Drakulic’s work for ages, and borrowed Two Underdogs and a Cat: Three Reflections on Communism, the only book of hers which my library had in stock. The volume is comprised of three short stories entitled ‘A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism’, ‘An Interview with the Oldest Dog in Bucharest’, and ‘The Cat-Keeper in Warsaw’, told from the perspective of a mouse, a dog, and a cat respectively.

Drakulic’s work is clever, deep, and well informed, with a touch of whimsy. Each story is engaging, and the way in which they are told and the content which they express mould to become something quite profound. In the first story, for instance, Drakulic writes the following: ‘Maybe the absence of individual stories is the best illustration of the fact that individualism was the biggest sin one could commit.’

Informative, powerful, and rather different to many of the reflections on Communist rule which I have read to date, Two Underdogs and a Cat is one of the most memorable books I have come across in quite a while. Drakulic effectively demonstrates how far-reaching Communism was, and the effects which still remain today for ordinary people. As she writes in ‘An Interview with the Oldest Dog in Bucharest’, in a clear play on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, ‘In the transition from Communism to capitalism, all people are unequal but some are more unequal than others’.

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‘Letters from Klara’ by Tove Jansson *****

‘The rich seam that is Jansson’s adult prose continues with this penultimate collection of short stories, written in her seventies at the height of her Moomin fame and translated into English for the first time. In these light-footed, beautifully crafted yet disquieting stories, Jansson tells of discomfiting encounters, unlooked for connections and moments of isolation that span generations and decades. Letters From Klara proves yet again her mastery of this literary form.’

9781908745613I could not resist ordering a newly translated collection of short stories by one of my absolute favourite authors when I first heard about it, and I dove in almost immediately. Tove Jansson’s Letters from Klara is such a treat. Each tale was written whilst Jansson was in her seventies; one can see a marked shift between these contemplative pieces, and those of her younger years, which share an extremely perceptive vivacity. The stories within the collection are largely quiet and slowly paced, but they are all the lovelier for it. The blurb of Letters from Klara, in fact, describes them as ‘subtle’ and ‘light-footed’ stories, descriptions which I wholeheartedly agree with.

Letters from Klara provides a wonderful breather from the hectic modern world. Its stories are varied and quite diverse, but humanity is at the core of each. A lot of the stories are about ageing and death, clearly subjects which become more pressing and important during Jansson’s literary career. Letters from Klara is neither her best, not her most memorable, collection, but it is absolutely filled to the brim with tiny gems, and gorgeously evoked slices of life which appeal to all of the senses.

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‘Record of a Night Too Brief’ by Hiromi Kawakami ***

Kawakami Hiromi has been one of the authors I meant to read more of this year (I had only read her short story 「神様2011年」 (translated in English as “God Bless You, 2011”) for my Modern Japanese Literature course in my Master’s degree last semester), so seeing this story collection published by Pushkin Press (one of my favourite publishers) I just had to get my hands on it. 9781782272717

This book consists of three separate stories (they’re not actually short at all, so I’ll just call them stories). The first one, “Record of a Night Too Brief”, which gives the entire collection its name as well, is a truly peculiar one and probably my least favourite of the three. It is divided in 19 smaller parts, each one describing a different, utterly peculiar situation. Each of those snipets has a very strange, dream-like quality.

“The girl was already showing signs of no longer being a girl. In a short span of time, her skin had become like paper, her eyes transparent. The ends of her arms and legs had begun to divide into branches; her hair had fallen out.”

The format of this story, being divided into separate sections or dreams, is very reminiscent of Natsume Sōseki’s “Ten Nights of Dream” which follows the exact same pattern. The snipets describe utterly absurd situations which can also be characterised as fantastic,

“No matter how much I poured into the cup, it never filled. And then I realized that the liquid I assumed to be coffee had, unbeknownst to me, turned into night.”

but they resemble more nightmares rather than mere dreams, since their endings are often unpleasant.

The second story, “Missing”, is also rather strange and has many fantastic elements throughout. In it, some people disappear (perhaps a metaphor for death) physically but their spiritual form may linger around their past surroundings. The protagonist’s older brother disappeared like that one day but his presence in the house was very quickly replaced by the second brother. This story is filled with Japanese folkloric elements, such as lingering spirits, talking utensils, as well as beliefs like every family needing to consist of five people exactly (I’m not sure whether that actually was a true belief in Japan), which add more to the absurd atmosphere of the story.

“A Snake Stepped On” is the third and final story of the collection and my personal favourite out of all three. Japanese folkloric beliefs and the fantastic are also widely present here as well, as certain snakes are transformed into women and impose themseves on the houses of the people who accidentally step on them, trying to lure them in the snake world (perhaps another allusion to death). This story held my interest for much longer than the previous two and I found it much more intriguing. Interestingly enough, this story is the one which gives the title to the Japanese version of this collection, as it is the one which won the prestigious Akutagawa literary prize in 1996. I’m not sure why the editors decided to change the title in the English version, especially since, in my opinion, the snake story is of higher quality than the rest.

Overall, this collection is very nicely put together, since there are certain themes which can be traced in all them. However, I wouldn’t suggest a newcomer to the fictional realm of Kawakami Hiromi to start with this collection, since the absurdity of those stories (especially of the title one) and Kawakami’s quirky style of writing might scare them away if they are not very accustomed to it.

This book was provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

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‘May We Shed These Human Bodies’ by Amber Sparks *****

I adored Amber Sparks’ second collection, The Unfinished World and Other Stories, which my parents bought for me from the wonderful Strand Bookstore in New York last year.  I was therefore markedly impatient to get my hands on her debut short story collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies.  Despite the moderate expense for a secondhand book, and the fact that I had to order it from the USA, I decided that it would be the perfect treat to read whilst on holiday in France in August.

May We Shed These Human Bodies has been very well received.  Matt Bell writes that it ‘is a collection of marvellous inventions, each one a wonder-machine propelled by fairytale and dream and human and hope, ready to carry us off into new adventure’, and Ben Loory captures his thoughts thus: ‘I always love a book that makes me fear for the writer’s sanity.  I’m over here praying for Amber Sparks.’.

9780983422877There is almost an ethereal quality to Sparks’ books; her prose is complex and multilayered.  Some of the stories within May We Shed These Human Bodies are strange, and all are startling.  There are some very short stories to be found within her debut, which run to less than two full pages.  Others are quite a bit longer.  The individuality of each tale shines through; whilst none of them are alike, the collection is coherent, and reads like a singular unit.  This is helped, in part, with the unusual, intriguing, and quirky titles Sparks gives to her stories.  Here, they range from ‘The Monstrous Sadness of Mythical Creatures’ and ‘Gone and Gone Already’, to ‘All the Imaginary People are Better at Life’ and ‘The Ghosts Eat More Air’.

I could quote extensively from May We Shed These Human Bodies, beautiful and thought-provoking as it is, but rather than ruin some great surprises for those of you whose interest is piqued, I shall whet your interest by sharing the initial paragraph of ‘The City Outside of Itself’: ‘The City longed to travel.  He hadn’t been anywhere in ages, and wanted to see what things looked like outside of himself.  So the City asked his best friend Tammie if she would mind giving him a lift.  Tammie took her gum out of her mouth and twirled it around and around her index finger, pink on peach on pink, while she thought about it.’

May We Shed These Human Bodies is a beguiling and absorbing collection, from an author who already has such a distinctive voice.  Sparks’ use of language is often beautiful and original, and sometimes loaded with meaning.  A great balance of reality and magical realism has been struck.  All of these stories here chill, and sing, and sparkle, and Sparks’ playfulness serves to make the collection entirely surprising.  Inventive, creative, and intelligent, May We Shed These Human Bodies became a firm favourite of mine on my first reading, and is certainly a tome which I hope to pick up many more times in the future.

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The Book Trail: A Persephone Special

We begin this edition of The Book Trail with one of my favourite reads of late, Elizabeth Jenkins’ depiction of a real Victorian murder case, Harriet.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed…’ feature on Goodreads to compile this list.  Harriet is a Persephone publication; each of the recommended reads on its page, as well as pages for following books, is also published by the same wonderful press.

1. Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins 13607031
This story traces the life of Harriet Richardson, a mentally-disabled young woman who was allowed to die of starvation by her husband.

 

2. Tea With Mr. Rochester by Frances Towers
When these captivating and at times bizarre stories were published posthumously in 1949, Angus Wilson wrote: ‘It appears no exaggeration to say that Frances Towers’s death in 1948 may have robbed us of a figure of more than purely contemporary significance. At first glance one might be disposed to dismiss Miss Towers as an imitation Jane Austen, but it would be a mistaken judgment, for her cool detachment and ironic eye are directed more often than not against the sensible breeze that blasts and withers, the forthright candour that kills the soul. Miss Towers flashes and shines now this way, now that, like a darting sunfish.’ ‘At her best her prose style is a shimmering marvel,’ wrote the Independent on Sunday, ‘and few writers can so deftly and economically delineate not only the outside but the inside of a character…There’s always more going on than you can possibly fathom.’ And the Guardian said: ‘Her social range may not be wide, but her descriptions are exquisite and her tone poised between the wry and the romantic.’

 

14458613. Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories by Mollie Panter-Downes
‘For fifty years Mollie Panter-Downes’ name was associated with “The New Yorker”, for which she wrote a regular ‘Letter from London’, book reviews and over thirty short stories; of the twenty-one in “Good Evening, Mrs Craven”, written between 1939 and 1944, only two had ever been reprinted – these very English stories have, until now, been unavailable to English readers.  Exploring most aspects of English domestic life during the war, they are about separation, sewing parties, fear, evacuees sent to the country, obsession with food, the social revolutions of wartime.’

 

4. The Priory by Dorothy Whipple
The setting for this, the third novel by Dorothy Whipple Persephone have published, is Saunby Priory, a large house somewhere in England which has seen better times. We are shown the two Marwood girls, who are nearly grown-up, their father, the widower Major Marwood, and their aunt; then, as soon as their lives have been described, the Major proposes marriage to a woman much younger than himself – and many changes begin.

 

5. The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher 2703159
Although this novel first appeared in 1924, it deals in an amazingly contemporary manner with the problems of a family in which both husband and wife are oppressed and frustrated by the roles they are expected to play. Evangeline Knapp is the perfect, compulsive housekeeper, while her husband, Lester, is a poet and a dreamer. Suddenly, through a nearly fatal accident, their roles are reversed: Lester is confined to home in a wheelchair and his wife must work to support the family. The changes that take place between husband and wife and particularly between parents and children are both fascinating and poignant.

 

6. Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd
Tells the tale of a woman who goes on a cruise and is swept overboard. She lives for three years on a desert island before being rescued by a destroyer in 1943. When she returns to England it seems to her to have gone mad: she cannot buy clothes without ‘coupons’, and she is considered uncivilised if she walks barefoot or is late for meals.

 

7. Doreen by Barbara Noble
Describes the mind of a child torn between her mother, whom she leaves behind in London, and the couple who take her in.

 

8. Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski 163544
Hilary Wainwright, poet and intellectual, returns after the war to a blasted and impoverished France in order to trace a child lost five years before. Is the child really his? And does he want him?

 

Which of these books have you read?  Have any of them piqued your interest?  Which is your favourite Persephone publication?

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One From the Archive: ‘Revenge’ by Yoko Ogawa ****

The eleven ‘dark’ stories in Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge were originally published in Japan in 1998, and have been translated into English by Stephen Snyder.  Ogawa, who has won every major Japanese Literary Award, has been compared to the likes of Haruki Murakami, and this collection has been heralded ‘beautiful, twisted and brilliant’. 9780099553939

All of the tales in Revenge have been linked together, with settings and characters overlapping from one story to the next.  Strings of plot meander their way through the whole.  Similar themes are repeated too, which adds to the feeling of one coherent whole – ageing, death and dying, grief, despair, and adultery, for example.

Some of the stories are very sad – in ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’, a woman purchases a strawberry shortcake for her son’s birthday.  When asked how old he will be, she says, rather matter-of-factly, ‘Six.  He’ll always be six.  He’s dead’.  Others are merely creepy, and are filled with foreboding from the very start: a woman pulls up hand-shaped carrots from her vegetable patch, which have grown as a result of a sinister occurrence, and a woman’s revenge upon her lover when he refuses to leave his wife, for example.  Rather unusually, all of the stories are told using the first person perspective.  Ogawa focuses upon both male and female protagonists, and each narrative voice is as strong as another.

Ogawa’s work has been crafted and translated with such care.  Her descriptions are sometimes beautiful – for example, ‘The sky was a cloudless dome of sunlight’.  She fills her tales with quite surprising details – the narrator of one story is invited along when a quiet classmate meets her father for the first time, and the pair do not speak again, an elderly landlady has surprising strength, and an abandoned post office is filled to the brim with kiwi fruits.  The stories in Revenge are odd, quirky and unusual, and are sure to linger in the mind for days afterwards.

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