2

The Book Trail: Nature and Non-Fiction Edition

I am beginning this latest Book Trail with one of my favourite works of non-fiction from recent years – Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. As ever, I have used the Goodreads’ ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool in order to come up with this list. As ever, please let me know which of these books you have read, and which whet your appetite!

1. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
‘Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator. When Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer—Helen had been captivated by hawks since childhood—she’d never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk. But in her grief, she saw that the goshawk’s fierce and feral temperament mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Once and Future King author T.H. White’s chronicle The Goshawk to begin her challenging endeavor. Projecting herself “in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her” tested the limits of Macdonald’s humanity and changed her life. Heart-wrenching and humorous, this book is an unflinching account of bereavement and a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast, with a parallel examination of a legendary writer’s eccentric falconry. Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator.’

2. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane
‘Robert Macfarlane travels Britain’s ancient paths and discovers the secrets of our beautiful, underappreciated landscape. Following the tracks, holloways, drove-roads and sea paths that form part of a vast ancient network of routes criss-crossing the British Isles and beyond, Robert Macfarlane discovers a lost world – a landscape of the feet and the mind, of pilgrimage and ritual, of stories and ghosts; above all of the places and journeys which inspire and inhabit our imaginations.’

3. Notes from Walnut Tree Farm by Roger Deakin
‘When Roger Deakin died in August 2006, his death was considered by many to be a great loss to literature. “Notes From Walnut Tree Farm” collects together the jottings, musings and observations with which he filled a series of notebooks for the last six years of his life. In this beautiful illustrated collection, descriptions of walks on Mellis Common and thoughts on the importance of nature sit side by side with memories of the past and musings about literature, while perfectly rendered observations of the tiny, missable visual details of everyday life are skilfully woven with a gentle, wise philosophy. Organized into twelve months of impressions, the notes reveal a passionate but gentle character and his extraordinary, restless curiosity. Capturing Deakin’s unique turn of phrase and inspired use of language, and infused throughout with the magically meditative tranquility of Walnut Tree Farm, this is a charming introduction to one of the most important of modern nature writers, or the perfect follow-up to “Wildwood” and “Waterlog”.’

4. The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck
‘In 1940 Steinbeck sailed in a sardine boat with his great friend the marine biologist, Ed Ricketts, to collect marine invertebrates from the beaches of the Gulf of California. The expedition was described by the two men in Sea of Cortez, published in 1941. The day-to-day story of the trip is told here in the Log, which combines science, philosophy and high-spirited adventure.’

5. Tree Story: The History of the World Written in Rings by Valerie Trouet
‘Children around the world know that to tell how old a tree is, you count its rings. Few people, however, know that research into tree rings has also made amazing contributions to our understanding of Earth’s climate history and its influences on human civilization over the past 2,000 years. In her captivating new book, Tree Story, Valerie Trouet reveals how the seemingly simple and relatively familiar concept of counting tree rings has inspired far-reaching scientific breakthroughs that illuminate the complex interactions between nature and people. Trouet, a leading tree-ring scientist, takes us out into the field, from remote African villages to radioactive Russian forests, offering readers an insider’s look at tree-ring research, a discipline formally known as dendrochronology. Tracing her own professional journey while exploring dendrochronology’s history and applications, Trouet describes the basics of how tell-tale tree cores are collected and dated with ring-by-ring precision, explaining the unexpected and momentous insights we’ve gained from the resulting samples. Blending popular science, travelogue, and cultural history, Tree Story highlights exciting findings of tree-ring research, including the fate of lost pirate treasure, successful strategies for surviving California wildfire, the secret to Genghis Khan’s victories, the connection between Egyptian pharaohs and volcanoes, and even the role of olives in the fall of Rome. These fascinating tales are deftly woven together to show us how dendrochronology sheds light on global climate dynamics and uncovers the clear links between humans and our leafy neighbors. Trouet delights us with her dedication to the tangible appeal of studying trees, a discipline that has taken her to austere and beautiful landscapes around the globe and has enabled scientists to solve long-pondered mysteries of Earth and its human inhabitants.’

6. Things the Grandchildren Should Know by Mark Everett
‘How does one young man survive the deaths of his entire family and manage to make something worthwhile of his life? In Things The Grandchildren Should Know Mark Oliver Everett tells the story of what it’s like to grow up the insecure son of a genius in a wacky Virginia Ice Storm-like family. Left to run wild with his sister, his father off in some parallel universe of his own invention, Everett’s upbringing was ‘ridiculous, sometimes tragic and always unsteady’. But somehow he manages to not only survive his crazy upbringing and ensuing tragedies; he makes something of his life, striking out on a journey to find himself by channelling his experiences into his, eventually, critically acclaimed music with the Eels. But it’s not an easy path. Told with surprising candour, Things The Grandchildren Should Know is an inspiring and remarkable story, full of hope, humour and wry wisdom.’

7. Close Encounters with Humankind by Sang-Hee Lee
‘What can fossilized teeth tell us about our ancient ancestors’ life expectancy? Did farming play a problematic role in the history of human evolution? And what do we have in common with Neanderthals? In this captivating bestseller, Close Encounters with Humankind, paleoanthropologist Sang-Hee Lee explores our greatest evolutionary questions from new and unexpected angles. Through a series of entertaining, bite-sized chapters that combine anthropological insight with cutting-edge science, we gain fresh perspectives into our first hominin ancestors and ways to challenge perceptions about the traditional progression of evolution. With Lee as our guide, we discover that we indeed have always been a species of continuous change.’

8. The Ghost Orchard by Helen Humphreys
‘For readers of H is for Hawk and The Frozen ThamesThe Ghost Orchard is award-winning author Helen Humphreys’ fascinating journey into the secret history of an iconic food. Delving deep into the storied past of the apple in North America, Humphreys explores the intricate link between agriculture, settlement, and human relationships. With her signature insight and exquisite prose, she brings light to such varied topics as how the apple first came across the Atlantic Ocean with a relatively unknown Quaker woman long before the more famed “Johnny Appleseed”; how bountiful Indigenous orchards were targeted to be taken over or eradicated by white settlers and their armies; how the once-17,000 varietals of apple cultivated were catalogued by watercolour artists from the United States’ Department of Pomology;  how apples wove into the life and poetry of Robert Frost; and how Humphreys’ own curiosity was piqued by the Winter Pear Pearmain, believed to be the world’s best tasting apple, which she found growing beside an abandoned cottage not far from her home. In telling this hidden history, Humphreys writes movingly about the experience of her research, something she undertook as one of her closest friends was dying. The result is a book that is both personal and universal, combining engaging storytelling, historical detail, and deep emotional insight.’

3

The Book Trail: From Blaming to Small Pleasures

This edition of the Book Trail kicks off with a novel which I very much enjoyed reading last year – Blaming by the wonderful Elizabeth Taylor. As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

  1. Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor
    ‘When Amy’s husband dies on holiday in Istanbul, she is supported by the kindly but rather slovenly Martha, a young American novelist who lives in London. Upon their return to England, Amy is ungratefully reluctant to maintain their friendship, but the skeins of their existence seem inextricably linked as grief gives way to resilience and again to tragedy. Reversals of fortune and a compelling cast of characters, including Ernie, ex-sailor turned housekeeper, and Amy’s wonderfully precocious granddaughters, add spice to a novel that delights even as it unveils the most uncomfortable human emotions.’

2. A Celibate Season by Carol Shields and Blanche Howard
‘Carol Shields, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and Blanche Howard, winner of the Canadian Booksellers’ Award, teamed up to write this delightful epistolary novel that probes the inner life of one couple’s rocky marriage. Faced with a job-related ten-month separation, Jocelyn and Charles choose to maintain contact through letters — an economic decision that paves the way for two very different and very entertaining sides of the same story. As the months progress, the couple’s letters grow less frequent and more revealing — and their “season of celibacy” becomes more of a challenge than either Jocelyn or Charles had imagined. Posing important and timely questions about commitment, monogamy, and the pressures of career and money, this insightful novel by two extraordinary writers offers a perceptive and hopeful look at how men and women really communicate.’

3. Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky
‘There are still places on earth that are unknown. Visually stunning and uniquely designed, this wondrous book captures fifty islands that are far away in every sense-from the mainland, from people, from airports, and from holiday brochures. Author Judith Schalansky used historic events and scientific reports as a springboard for each island, providing information on its distance from the mainland, whether its inhabited, its features, and the stories that have shaped its lore. With full-color maps and an air of mysterious adventure, Atlas of Remote Island is perfect for the traveler or romantic in all of us.’

4. The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer
‘For readers of Ottessa Moshfegh and Han Kang, a whip-smart debut novel in which a woman on the verge of major change addresses her doctor in a stream of consciousness narrative. In a well-appointed examination in London, a young woman unburdens herself to a certain Dr. Seligman. Though she can barely see above his head, she holds forth about her life and desires, her struggles with her sexuality and identity. Born and raised in Germany, she has been living in London for several years, determined to break free from her family origins and her haunted homeland. But the recent death of her grandfather, and an unexpected inheritance, make it clear that you cannot easily outrun your own shame, whether it be physical, familial, historical, national, or all of the above. Or can you? With Dr. Seligman’s help, our narrator will find out. In a monologue that is both deliciously dark and subversively funny, she takes us on a wide-ranging journey from Hitler-centered sexual fantasies and overbearing mothers to the medicinal properties of squirrel tails and the notion that anatomical changes can serve as historical reparation. The Appointment is an audacious debut novel by an explosive new international literary voice, challenging all of our notions of what is fluid and what is fixed, and the myriad ways we seek to make peace with others and ourselves in the 21st century.’

5. What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez
‘A woman describes a series of encounters she has with various people in the ordinary course of her life: an ex she runs into by chance at a public forum, an Airbnb owner unsure how to interact with her guests, a stranger who seeks help comforting his elderly mother, a friend of her youth now hospitalized with terminal cancer. In each of these people the woman finds a common need: the urge to talk about themselves and to have an audience to their experiences. The narrator orchestrates this chorus of voices for the most part as a passive listener, until one of them makes an extraordinary request, drawing her into an intense and transformative experience of her own. In What Are You Going Through, Nunez brings wisdom, humor, and insight to a novel about human connection and the changing nature of relationships in our times. A surprising story about empathy and the unusual ways one person can help another through hardship, her book offers a moving and provocative portrait of the way we live now.’

6. Monogamy by Sue Miller
‘Graham and Annie have been married for nearly thirty years. A golden couple, their seemingly effortless devotion has long been the envy of their circle of friends and acquaintances. Graham is a bookseller, a big, gregarious man with large appetites—curious, eager to please, a lover of life, and the convivial host of frequent, lively parties at his and Annie’s comfortable house in Cambridge. Annie, more reserved and introspective, is a photographer. She is about to have her first gallery show after a six-year lull and is worried that the best years of her career may be behind her. They have two adult children; Lucas, Graham’s son with his first wife, Frieda, works in New York. Annie and Graham’s daughter, Sarah, lives in San Francisco. Though Frieda is an integral part of this far-flung, loving family, Annie feels confident in the knowledge that she is Graham’s last and greatest love. When Graham suddenly dies—this man whose enormous presence has seemed to dominate their lives together—Annie is lost. What is the point of going on, she wonders, without him? Then, while she is still mourning him intensely, she discovers that Graham had been unfaithful to her; and she spirals into darkness, wondering if she ever truly knew the man who loved her.’

7. Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
‘Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s two families—the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode when secrets are revealed and illusions shattered. As Jones explores the backstories of her rich yet flawed characters ”the father, the two mothers, the grandmother, and the uncle ”she also reveals the joy, as well as the destruction, they brought to one another’s lives. At the heart of it all are the two lives at stake, and like the best writers – think Toni Morrison with The Bluest Eye – Jones portrays the fragility of these young girls with raw authenticity as they seek love, demand attention, and try to imagine themselves as women, just not as their mothers.’

8. Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers
‘1957, south-east suburbs of London. Jean Swinney is a feature writer on a local paper, disappointed in love and – on the brink of forty – living a limited existence with her truculent mother: a small life from which there is no likelihood of escape. When a young Swiss woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fraud. But the more Jean investigates, the more her life becomes strangely (and not unpleasantly) intertwined with that of the Tilburys: Gretchen is now a friend, and her quirky and charming daughter Margaret a sort of surrogate child. And Jean doesn’t mean to fall in love with Gretchen’s husband, Howard, but Howard surprises her with his dry wit, his intelligence and his kindness – and when she does fall, she falls hard. But he is married, and to her friend – who is also the subject of the story she is researching for the newspaper, a story that increasingly seems to be causing dark ripples across all their lives. And yet Jean cannot bring herself to discard the chance of finally having a taste of happiness… But there will be a price to pay, and it will be unbearable.’

Have you read any of these books?

5

The Book Trail: From ‘The Fire Starters’ to ‘Piranesi’

This edition of The Book Trail begins with a novel which I very much enjoyed when I read it last year; I found its depiction of The Troubles quite surprising, and also highly chilling at times. As ever, I have used the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature to generate this list.

1. The Fire Starters by Jan Carson
‘Dr Jonathan Murray fears his new-born daughter is not as harmless as she seems. Sammy Agnew is wrestling with his dark past, and fears the violence in his blood lurks in his son, too. The city is in flames and the authorities are losing control. As matters fall into frenzy, and as the lines between fantasy and truth, right and wrong, begin to blur, who will these two fathers choose to protect? Dark,propulsive and thrillingly original, this tale of fierce familial love and sacrifice fizzes with magic and wonder.’

2. Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan
‘In 1973 Moll Gladney goes missing from the Tipperary hillside where she was born. Slowly her parents, Paddy and Kit, begin to accept that she’s gone forever. But she returns, changed, and with a few surprises for her family and neighbours. Nothing is ever the same again for the Gladneys, who learn that fate cares little for duty, that life rarely conforms to expectation, that God can’t be relied upon to heed any prayer. A story of exile and return, of loss and discovery, of retreat from grief and the saving power of love.’

3. After the Silence by Louise O’Neill
‘Nessa Crowley’s murderer has been protected by silence for ten years. Until a team of documentary makers decide to find out the truth. On the day of Henry and Keelin Kinsella’s wild party at their big house a violent storm engulfed the island of Inisrun, cutting it off from the mainland. When morning broke Nessa Crowley’s lifeless body lay in the garden, her last breath silenced by the music and the thunder. The killer couldn’t have escaped Inisrun, but no one was charged with the murder. The mystery that surrounded the death of Nessa remained hidden. But the islanders knew who to blame for the crime that changed them forever. Ten years later a documentary crew arrives, there to lift the lid off the Kinsellas’ carefully constructed lives, determined to find evidence that will prove Henry’s guilt and Keelin’s complicity in the murder of beautiful Nessa. In this bold, brilliant, disturbing new novel Louise O’Neill shows that deadly secrets are devastating to those who hold them close.’

4. A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ni Ghiofra
‘A true original. In this stunningly unusual prose debut, Doireann Ni Ghriofa sculpts essay and autofiction to explore inner life and the deep connection felt between two writers centuries apart. In the 1700s, an Irish noblewoman, on discovering her husband has been murdered, drinks handfuls of his blood and composes an extraordinary poem. In the present day, a young mother narrowly avoids tragedy. On encountering the poem, she becomes obsessed with its parallels with her own life, and sets out to track down the rest of the story. A devastating and timeless tale about one woman freeing her voice by reaching into the past and finding another’s.’

5. Actress by Anne Enright
‘Katherine O’Dell is an Irish theater legend. As her daughter Norah retraces her mother’s celebrated career and bohemian life, she delves into long-kept secrets, both her mother’s and her own. Katherine began her career on Ireland’s bus-and-truck circuit before making it to London’s West End, Broadway, and finally Hollywood. Every moment of her life is a star turn, with young Norah standing in the wings. But the mother-daughter romance cannot survive Katherine’s past or the world’s damage. With age, alcohol, and dimming stardom, her grip on reality grows fitful and, fueled by a proud and long-simmering rage, she commits a bizarre crime. Her mother’s protector, Norah understands the destructive love that binds an actress to her audience, but also the strength that an actress takes from her art. Once the victim of a haunting crime herself, Norah eventually becomes a writer, wife, and mother, finding her way to her own hard-won joy. Actress is a book about the freedom we find in our work and in the love we make and keep.’

6. Weather by Jenny Offill
‘Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: she is a fake shrink. For years she has tended to her God-haunted mother and her recovering addict brother. They have both stabilized for the moment, but Lizzie has little chance to spend her new free time with husband and son before her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. She’s become famous for her prescient podcast, Hell and High Water, and wants to hire Lizzie to answer the mail she receives: from left-wingers worried about climate change and right-wingers worried about the decline of western civilization. As Lizzie dives into this polarized world, she begins to wonder what it means to keep tending your own garden once you’ve seen the flames beyond its walls. When her brother becomes a father and Sylvia a recluse, Lizzie is forced to address the limits of her own experience–but still she tries to save everyone, using everything she’s learned about empathy and despair, conscience and collusion, from her years of wandering the library stacks . . . And all the while the voices of the city keep floating in–funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.’

7. Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings
‘In a small Western Queensland town, a reserved young woman receives a note from one of her vanished brothers—a note that makes question her memories of their disappearance and her father’s departure. A beguiling story that proves that gothic delights and uncanny family horror can live—and even thrive—under a burning sun, Flyaway introduces readers to Bettina Scott, whose search for the truth throws her into tales of eerie dogs, vanished schools, cursed monsters, and enchanted bottles. In these pages Jennings assures you that gothic delights, uncanny family horror, and strange, unsettling prose can live—and even thrive—under a burning sun.’

8. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
‘Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house. There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.’

Have you read any of these books? Which of them pique your interest?

0

The Book Trail: The Non-Fiction Edition

As the starting point for this edition of The Book Trail, I have chosen a searing memoir which I read earlier this year, and which I have seen nobody else pick up – Inferno: A Memoir of Motherhood and Madness by Catherine Cho.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

 

1. Inferno: A Memoir of Motherhood and Madness by Catherine Cho 48077651
‘The riveting story of a young mother who is separated from her newborn son and husband when she’s involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward in New Jersey after a harrowing bout of postpartum psychosis.  When Catherine and her husband set off from London to introduce their newborn son to family scattered across the United States, she could not have imagined what lay in store. Before the trip’s end, she develops psychosis, a complete break from reality, which causes her to lose all sense of time and place, including what is real and not real. In desperation, her husband admits her to a nearby psychiatric hospital, where she begins the hard work of rebuilding her identity. In this unwaveringly honest, insightful, and often shocking memoir Catherine reconstructs her sense of self, starting with her childhood as the daughter of Korean immigrants, moving through a traumatic past relationship, and on to the early years of her courtship with and marriage to her husband, James. She masterfully interweaves these parts of her past with a vivid, immediate recounting of the days she spent in the ward.  The result is a powerful exploration of psychosis and motherhood, at once intensely personal, yet holding within it a universal experience – of how we love, live and understand ourselves in relation to each other.’

 

33516728._sy475_2. The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness: A Memoir by Sarah Ramey
‘The darkly funny memoir of Sarah Ramey’s years-long battle with a mysterious illness that doctors thought was all in her head–but wasn’t. A revelation and an inspiration for millions of women whose legitimate health complaints are ignored.  In her harrowing, defiant, and unforgettable memoir, Sarah Ramey recounts the decade-long saga of how a seemingly minor illness in her senior year of college turned into a prolonged and elusive condition that destroyed her health but that doctors couldn’t diagnose or treat. Worse, as they failed to cure her, they hinted that her devastating symptoms were psychological.  The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness is a memoir with a mission, to help the millions of (mostly) women who suffer from unnamed or misunderstood conditions: autoimmune illnesses like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic Lyme disease, chronic pain, and many more. Ramey’s pursuit of a diagnosis and cure for her own mysterious illness becomes a page-turning medical mystery that reveals a new understanding of today’s chronic illnesses as ecological in nature, driven by modern changes to the basic foundations of health, from the quality of our sleep, diet, and social connection to the state of our microbiomes. Her book will open eyes, change lives, and ultimately change medicine.’

 

3. Know My Name: A Memoir by Chanel Miller 50196744._sx318_sy475_
She was known to the world as Emily Doe when she stunned millions with a letter. Brock Turner had been sentenced to just six months in county jail after he was found sexually assaulting her on Stanford’s campus. Her victim impact statement was posted on BuzzFeed, where it instantly went viral–viewed by eleven million people within four days, it was translated globally and read on the floor of Congress; it inspired changes in California law and the recall of the judge in the case. Thousands wrote to say that she had given them the courage to share their own experiences of assault for the first time.  Now she reclaims her identity to tell her story of trauma, transcendence, and the power of words. It was the perfect case, in many ways–there were eyewitnesses, Turner ran away, physical evidence was immediately secured. But her struggles with isolation and shame during the aftermath and the trial reveal the oppression victims face in even the best-case scenarios. Her story illuminates a culture biased to protect perpetrators, indicts a criminal justice system designed to fail the most vulnerable, and, ultimately, shines with the courage required to move through suffering and live a full and beautiful life.  Know My Name will forever transform the way we think about sexual assault, challenging our beliefs about what is acceptable and speaking truth to the tumultuous reality of healing. It also introduces readers to an extraordinary writer, one whose words have already changed our world. Entwining pain, resilience, and humor, this memoir will stand as a modern classic.

 

436825524. How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones
Haunted and haunting, Jones’s memoir tells the story of a young, black, gay man from the South as he fights to carve out a place for himself, within his family, within his country, within his own hopes, desires, and fears. Through a series of vignettes that chart a course across the American landscape, Jones draws readers into his boyhood and adolescence—into tumultuous relationships with his mother and grandmother, into passing flings with lovers, friends and strangers. Each piece builds into a larger examination of race and queerness, power and vulnerability, love and grief: a portrait of what we all do for one another—and to one another—as we fight to become ourselves.  Blending poetry and prose, Jones has developed a style that is equal parts sensual, beautiful, and powerful—a voice that’s by turns a river, a blues, and a nightscape set ablaze. How We Fight for Our Lives is a one of a kind memoir and a book that cements Saeed Jones as an essential writer for our time.

 

5. The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom 43347603
In 1961, Sarah M. Broom’s mother Ivory Mae bought a shotgun house in the then-promising neighborhood of New Orleans East and built her world inside of it. It was the height of the Space Race and the neighborhood was home to a major NASA plant–the postwar optimism seemed assured. Widowed, Ivory Mae remarried Sarah’s father Simon Broom; their combined family would eventually number twelve children. But after Simon died, six months after Sarah’s birth, the Yellow House would become Ivory Mae’s thirteenth and most unruly child.  A book of great ambition, Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House tells a hundred years of her family and their relationship to home in a neglected area of one of America’s most mythologized cities. This is the story of a mother’s struggle against a house’s entropy, and that of a prodigal daughter who left home only to reckon with the pull that home exerts, even after the Yellow House was wiped off the map after Hurricane Katrina. The Yellow House expands the map of New Orleans to include the stories of its lesser known natives, guided deftly by one of its native daughters, to demonstrate how enduring drives of clan, pride, and familial love resist and defy erasure. Located in the gap between the “Big Easy” of tourist guides and the New Orleans in which Broom was raised, The Yellow House is a brilliant memoir of place, class, race, the seeping rot of inequality, and the internalized shame that often follows. It is a transformative, deeply moving story from an unparalleled new voice of startling clarity, authority, and power.

 

40163119._sy475_6. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
From award-winning New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe, a stunning, intricate narrative about a notorious killing in Northern Ireland and its devastating repercussions.  In December 1972, Jean McConville, a thirty-eight-year-old mother of ten, was dragged from her Belfast home by masked intruders, her children clinging to her legs. They never saw her again. Her abduction was one of the most notorious episodes of the vicious conflict known as The Troubles. Everyone in the neighborhood knew the I.R.A. was responsible. But in a climate of fear and paranoia, no one would speak of it. In 2003, five years after an accord brought an uneasy peace to Northern Ireland, a set of human bones was discovered on a beach. McConville’s children knew it was their mother when they were told a blue safety pin was attached to the dress–with so many kids, she had always kept it handy for diapers or ripped clothes.  Patrick Radden Keefe’s mesmerizing book on the bitter conflict in Northern Ireland and its aftermath uses the McConville case as a starting point for the tale of a society wracked by a violent guerrilla war, a war whose consequences have never been reckoned with. The brutal violence seared not only people like the McConville children, but also I.R.A. members embittered by a peace that fell far short of the goal of a united Ireland, and left them wondering whether the killings they committed were not justified acts of war, but simple murders. From radical and impetuous I.R.A. terrorists such as Dolours Price, who, when she was barely out of her teens, was already planting bombs in London and targeting informers for execution, to the ferocious I.R.A. mastermind known as The Dark, to the spy games and dirty schemes of the British Army, to Gerry Adams, who negotiated the peace but betrayed his hardcore comrades by denying his I.R.A. past–Say Nothing conjures a world of passion, betrayal, vengeance, and anguish.

 

7. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear 40538681Disaster by Adam Higginbotham
‘The definitive, dramatic untold story of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, based on original reporting and new archival research.  April 25, 1986, in Chernobyl, was a turning point in world history. The disaster not only changed the world’s perception of nuclear power and the science that spawned it, but also our understanding of the planet’s delicate ecology. With the images of the abandoned homes and playgrounds beyond the barbed wire of the 30-kilometer Exclusion Zone, the rusting graveyards of contaminated trucks and helicopters, the farmland lashed with black rain, the event fixed for all time the notion of radiation as an invisible killer.  Chernobyl was also a key event in the destruction of the Soviet Union, and, with it, the United States’ victory in the Cold War. For Moscow, it was a political and financial catastrophe as much as an environmental and scientific one. With a total cost of 18 billion rubles—at the time equivalent to $18 billion—Chernobyl bankrupted an already teetering economy and revealed to its population a state built upon a pillar of lies.  The full story of the events that started that night in the control room of Reactor No.4 of the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant has never been told—until now. Through two decades of reporting, new archival information, and firsthand interviews with witnesses, journalist Adam Higginbotham tells the full dramatic story, including Alexander Akimov and Anatoli Dyatlov, who represented the best and worst of Soviet life; denizens of a vanished world of secret policemen, internal passports, food lines, and heroic self-sacrifice for the Motherland. Midnight in Chernobyl, award-worthy nonfiction that reads like sci-fi, shows not only the final epic struggle of a dying empire but also the story of individual heroism and desperate, ingenious technical improvisation joining forces against a new kind of enemy.

 

44526650._sy475_8. Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come by Richard Preston
The 2013-2014 Ebola epidemic was the deadliest ever–but the outbreaks continue. Now comes a gripping account of the doctors and scientists fighting to protect us, an urgent wake-up call about the future of emerging viruses–from the #1 bestselling author of The Hot Zone, soon to be a National Geographic original miniseries.  This time, Ebola started with a two-year-old child who likely had contact with a wild creature and whose entire family quickly fell ill and died. The ensuing global drama activated health professionals in North America, Europe, and Africa in a desperate race against time to contain the viral wildfire. By the end–as the virus mutated into its deadliest form, and spread farther and faster than ever before–30,000 people would be infected, and the dead would be spread across eight countries on three continents.  In this taut and suspenseful medical drama, Richard Preston deeply chronicles the outbreak, in which we saw for the first time the specter of Ebola jumping continents, crossing the Atlantic, and infecting people in America. Rich in characters and conflict–physical, emotional, and ethical–Crisis in the Red Zone is an immersion in one of the great public health calamities of our time.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which titles pique your interest?

2

The Book Trail: From the Unit to California

This edition of The Book Trail begins with a dystopian novel which I received for my birthday, and very much enjoyed.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

 

1. The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist 71wd5kifoul
‘Ninni Holmqvist’s uncanny dystopian novel envisions a society in the not-so-distant future, where women over fifty and men over sixty who are unmarried and childless are sent to a retirement community called the Unit. They’re given lavish apartments set amongst beautiful gardens and state-of-the-art facilities; they’re fed elaborate gourmet meals, surrounded by others just like them. It’s an idyllic place, but there’s a catch: the residents–known as dispensables–must donate their organs, one by one, until the final donation. When Dorrit Weger arrives at the Unit, she resigns herself to this fate, seeking only peace in her final days. But she soon falls in love, and this unexpected, improbable happiness throws the future into doubt.  Clinical and haunting, The Unit is a modern-day classic and a chilling cautionary tale about the value of human life.’

 

2744237._sy475_2. Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall
‘In her stunning novel, Hall imagines a new dystopia set in the not-too-distant future.   England is in a state of environmental crisis and economic collapse. There has been a census, and all citizens have been herded into urban centers. Reproduction has become a lottery, with contraceptive coils fitted to every female of childbearing age. A girl who will become known only as “Sister” escapes the confines of her repressive marriage to find an isolated group of women living as “un-officials” in Carhullan, a remote northern farm, where she must find out whether she has it in herself to become a rebel fighter. Provocative and timely, Daughters of the North poses questions about the lengths women will go to resist their oppressors, and under what circumstances might an ordinary person become a terrorist.’

 

3. Distant View of a Minaret and Other Stories by Alifa Rifaat 206228
‘”More convincingly than any other woman writing in Arabic today, Alifa Rifaat lifts the vil on what it means to be a women living within a traditional Muslim society.” So states the translator’s foreword to this collection of the Egyptian author’s best short stories. Rifaat (1930-1996) did not go to university, spoke only Arabic, and seldom traveled abroad. This virtual immunity from Western influence lends a special authenticity to her direct yet sincere accounts of death, sexual fulfillment, the lives of women in purdah, and the frustrations of everyday life in a male-dominated Islamic environment.  Translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies, the collection admits the reader into a hidden private world, regulated by the call of the mosque, but often full of profound anguish and personal isolation. Badriyya’s despariting anger at her deceitful husband, for example, or the hauntingly melancholy of “At the Time of the Jasmine,” are treated with a sensitivity to the discipline and order of Islam.’

 

11392114. The Tiller of Waters by Hoda Barakat
‘This spellbinding novel narrates the many-layered recollections of a hallucinating man in devastated Beirut. The desolate, almost surreal, urban landscape is enriched by the unfolding of the family sagas of Niqula Mitri and his beloved Shamsa, the Kurdish maid. Mitri reminisces about his Egyptian mother and his father who came back to settle in Beirut after a long stay in Egypt. Both Mitri and his father are textile merchants and see the world through the code of cloth, from the intimacy of linen, velvet, and silk to the most impersonal of synthetics. Shamsa in turn relates her story, the myriad adventures of her parents and grandparents who moved from Iraqi Kurdistan to Beirut. Haunting scenes of pastoral Kurds are juxtaposed against the sedentary decadence of metropolitan residents. Barakat weaves into her sophisticated narrative shreds of scientific discourse about herbal plants and textile crafts, customs and manners of Arabs, Armenians, and Kurds, mythological figures from ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, and Arabia, the theosophy of the African Dogons and the medieval Byzantines, and historical accounts of the Crusades in the Holy Land and the silk route to China.’

 

5. Without a Name and Under the Tongue by Yvonne Vera 420461
‘Yvonne Vera’s novels chronicle the lives of Zimbabwean women with extraordinary power and beauty. Without a Name and Under the Tongue, her two earliest novels, are set in the seventies during the guerrilla war against the white government.  In Without a Name (1994), Mazvita, a young woman from the country, travels to Harare to escape the war and begin a new life. But her dreams of independence are short-lived. She begins a relationship of convenience and becomes pregnant.  In Under the Tongue (1996), the adolescent Zhizha has lost the will to speak. In lyrical fragments, Vera relates the story of Zhizha’s parents, and the horrifying events that led to her mother’s imprisonment and her father’s death. With this novel Vera became the first Zimbabwean writer ever to deal frankly with incest. With these surprising, at times shocking novels Vera shows herself to be a writer of great potential.’

 

18061536. Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon by Nicole Brossard
‘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.’

 

7. Defiance by Carole Maso 153596
‘Bernadette O’Brien: misfit…child prodigy…professor of mathematics at Harvard…sentenced to die in the electric chair for the shocking murder of two male students. In her journal, her death book Bernadette takes a dark look back at the unfolding events that led to the extraordinary crime for which she was convicted.In the incandescent, erotically charged prose for which she is known, Maso probes the depths of a female psyche inextricably embedded in a uniquely American matrix of sexuality, violence, and the clash of class difference. A raw and fearless performance by an author of fierce vision, Defiance stays with readers long after they put the book down.’

 

97044818. Lola, California by Edie Meidav
‘The year is 2008, the place California. Vic Mahler, famous for having inspired cult followers in the seventies, serves time on death row, now facing a countdown of ten days. For years, his daughter, Lana, has been in hiding. Meanwhile, her friend Rose, a lawyer, is determined to bring the two together.  When Rose succeeds in tracking down Lana at a California health spa, the two friends must negotiate land mines of memory in order to find their future. In sharp episodes infused with pathos and wit, Edie Meidav brings her acclaimed insight and poetry to friendship, parenthood, dystopia, and the legacy of the seventies.   Lola, California speaks to our contemporary crisis of faith, asking: can we survive too much choice?’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which pique your interest?

2

The Book Trail: From ‘After the End’ to ‘It’s Raining in Mango’

I wasn’t overly taken with the ending of Clare Mackintosh’s After the End, which marks a departure from her successful thriller-writing career.  However, it posed a lot of interesting questions and scenarios, and I know that I will be thinking about it for some time to come.  I have therefore chosen it as the starting point for this edition of The Book Trail.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

 

1. After the End by Clare Mackintosh 42649682._sy475_
‘Max and Pip are the strongest couple you know. They’re best friends, lovers—unshakable. But then their son gets sick and the doctors put the question of his survival into their hands. For the first time, Max and Pip can’t agree. They each want a different future for their son.  What if they could have both?  A gripping and propulsive exploration of love, marriage, parenthood, and the road not taken, After the End brings one unforgettable family from unimaginable loss to a surprising, satisfying, and redemptive ending and the life they are fated to find. With the emotional power of Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, Mackintosh helps us to see that sometimes the end is just another beginning.’

 

414395622. Someone Knows by Lisa Scottoline
‘From the New York Times-bestselling author comes a pulse-pounding domestic thriller about a group of friends who have been bound for twenty years by a single secret—and will now be undone by it. Someone Knows is an emotional exploration of friendship and family, as well as a psychological exploration of guilt and memory.  Twenty years ago, in an upscale suburb of Philadelphia, four teenagers spent a summer as closest friends: drinking, sharing secrets, testing boundaries. When a new boy looked to join them, they decided to pull a prank on him, convincing him to play Russian roulette as an initiation into their group. They secretly planned to leave the gun unloaded—but what happened next would change each of them forever.  Now three of the four reunite for the first time since that horrible summer. The guilt—and the lingering question about who loaded the gun—drove them apart. But after one of the group apparently commits suicide with a gun, their old secrets come roaring back. One of them is going to figure out if the new suicide is what it seems, and if it connects to the events of that long-ago summer. Someone knows exactly what happened—but who? And how far will they go to keep their secrets buried?

 

3. The Neighbour by Fiona Cummins 42259311._sy475_
FOR SALE: A lovely family home with good-sized garden and treehouse occupying a plot close to woodland. Perfect for kids, fitness enthusiasts, dog walkers… And, it seems, the perfect hunting ground for a serial killer…  On a hot July day, Garrick and Olivia Lockwood and their two children move into 25 The Avenue looking for a fresh start. They arrive in the midst of a media frenzy: they’d heard about the local murders in the press, but Garrick was certain the killer would be caught and it would all be over in no time. Besides, they’d got the house at a steal and he was convinced he could flip it for a fortune.  The neighbours seemed to be the very picture of community spirit. But everyone has secrets, and the residents in The Avenue are no exception.  After six months on the case with no real leads, the most recent murder has turned DC Wildeve Stanton’s life upside down, and now she has her own motive for hunting down the killer – quickly.’

 

296339084. Jerzy: A Novel by Jerome Charyn
‘Jerzy Kosinski was a great enigma of post-WWII literature. When he exploded onto the American literary scene in 1965 with his best-selling novel The Painted Bird, he was revered as a Holocaust survivor and refugee from the world hidden behind the Soviet Iron Curtain. He won major literary awards, befriended actor Peter Sellers, who appeared in the screen adaptation of his novel Being There, and was a guest on talk shows and at the Oscars. But soon the facade began to crack, and behind the public persona emerged a ruthless social climber, sexual libertine, and pathological liar who may have plagiarized his greatest works.  Jerome Charyn lends his unmistakable style to this most American story of personal disintegration, told through the voices of multiple narrators—a homicidal actor, a dominatrix, and Joseph Stalin’s daughter—who each provide insights into the shifting facets of Kosinski’s personality. The story unfolds like a Russian nesting doll, eventually revealing the lost child beneath layers of trauma, while touching on the nature of authenticity, the atrocities of WWII, the allure of sadomasochism, and the fickleness of celebrity.’

 

5. Fatal Inheritance by Rachel Rhys 35478400._sy475_
‘1948: Eve Forrester is trapped in a loveless marriage, in a gloomy house, in a grey London suburb.  Then, out of the blue, she receives a solicitor’s letter. A wealthy stranger has left her a mystery inheritance. And to find out more, she must travel to the glittering French Riviera.  There Eve discovers that her legacy is an enchanting pale pink villa overlooking the Mediterranean sea. Suddenly her life could not be more glamorous. But while she rubs shoulders with film-stars and famous writers, under the heat of the golden sun, rivals to her unexplained fortune begin to emerge. Rivals who want her out of the way.  Alone in this beguiling paradise, Eve must unlock the story behind her surprise bequest – before events turn deadly . . .  Reminiscent of a Golden Age mystery, Fatal Inheritance is an intoxicating story of dysfunctional families and long-hidden secrets, set against the razzle-dazzle and decadence of the French Riviera.’

 

28592806. A Fence Around the Cuckoo by Ruth Park
‘This first volume of Ruth Park’s autobiography is an account of her isolated childhood in the rainforests of New Zealand, her convent education which encouraged her love of words and writing, and the bitter years of the Depression.She then entered the rough-and-tumble world of journalism and began a reluctant correspondence with a young Australian writer.  In 1942, Park moved to Sydney and married that writer, D’Arcy Niland. There she would write The Harp in the South, the first of her classic Australian novels. A Fence Around the Cuckoo is the story of one of Australia’s best storytellers and how she learnt her craft.’

 

7. The Shiralee by D’Arcy Niland 625198
‘A shiralee is a swag, a burden, a bloody millstone – and that’s what four-year-old Buster is to her father, Macauley. He takes the child on the road with him to spite his wife, but months pass and still no word comes to ask for the little girl back. Strangers to each other at first, father and daughter drift aimlessly through the dusty towns of Australia, sleeping rough and relying on odd jobs for food and money. Buster’s resilience and trust slowly erode Macauley’s resentment, and when he’s finally able to get rid of her, he realises he can’t let his shiralee go. In evocative prose that vividly conjures images of rural Australia, The Shiralee reveal an understanding of the paradoxical nature of the burdens we carry, creates a moving portrait of fatherhood, told with gruff humour and a gentle pathos.’

 

16704008. It’s Raining in Mango by Thea Astley
‘Like a deal of Astley’s fiction, It’s Raining in Mango is set in north Queensland, an inhospitable locale in many ways but one which the Laffey family of Mango find compelling and to which they are drawn back after their half-hearted forays into urban life. The book is written in the saga form, spanning four generations from 1861 to the mid-1980s, though the path from past to present is neither straight nor defined. It is, rather, a broader and interwoven series of relationships in which the generations of the past continue to inform the present and all meld in the land and landscape. As Connie Laffey puts it: ‘So closely meshed all of us, the nature of our closeness bound up with this place. With family.’   The novel opens in the early 1980s with Connie Lafey and her middle-aged son, Reever, protesting against development which is decimating to the rainforest in the Mango area. Connie, anxious about Reever’s safety—he has chained himself fifty feet up a celerywood tree—heads off to find help when she falls and concusses herself. The attendant delirium is the starting point for the narrative saga as the past and present converge in Connie’s reverie. The narrative transports us back in time to the first generation of immigrants and the courtship and marriage of Cornelius Laffey and Jessica Olive in 1861.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which of them pique your interest?

2

The Book Trail: From ‘Kitchen’ to Short Stories

I am beginning this particular Book Trail post with a translated novel I reviewed last month, and very much enjoyed.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads to generate this list.

 

97805713427231. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Kitchen juxtaposes two tales about mothers, transsexuality, bereavement, kitchens, love and tragedy in contemporary Japan. It is a startlingly original first work by Japan’s brightest young literary star and is now a cult film.   When Kitchen was first published in Japan in 1987 it won two of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes, climbed its way to the top of the bestseller lists, then remained there for over a year and sold millions of copies. Banana Yoshimoto was hailed as a young writer of great talent and great passion whose work has quickly earned a place among the best of modern literature, and has been described as ‘the voice of young Japan’ by the Independent on Sunday.’

 

2. Woman on the Other Shore by Mitsuyo Kakuta
‘This compelling novel, widely acclaimed for its perceptive portrayal of the everyday lives and struggles of Japanese women, struck a deep chord with readers throughout Japan. In 2005 it won the prestigious Naoki Prize, awarded semiannually for the best work of popular fiction by an established writer.  Sayoko, a thirty-five-year-old homemaker with a three-year-old child, begins working for Aoi, a free-spirited, single career woman her own age who runs a travel agency-housekeeping business. Timid and unable to connect with other mothers in her neighborhood, Sayoko finds herself drawn to Aoi’s independent lifestyle and easygoing personality. The two hit it off from the start, beginning a friendship that is for Sayoko also a reaffirmation of what living is about.  Aoi, meanwhile, has not always been the self-confident person she appears to be. Severe classroom bullying in junior high had forced her to change schools, uprooting her and her family to the countryside; and at her new school, she was so afraid of again becoming the object of her classmates’ cruelties that she spent most of her time steering clear of those around her.  The present-day friendship between Sayoko and Aoi on the one hand, and Aoi’s painful high school past on the other, form a gripping two-tier narrative that converges in the final chapter. The book touches on a broad range of issues of concern to women today, from marriage and childrearing to being single and working for oneself. It is a universal story about both the fear and the joy of opening up to others.’

 

3. Now You’re One of Us by Asa Nonami 856275
In the tradition of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, here is a new classic about the bride who’s no longer sure what to think. All families have their own rituals, secrets, and credos, like a miniature religious cult; these quirks may elicit the mirth or mild alarm of guests, but the matter is rather more serious if you’re marrying into a household. If its’s a Japanese one with a history, the brace yourself: some surprising truths lurk around the corner.’

 

4. Beyond the Blossoming Fields by Junichi Watanabe
‘As a young girl from a wealthy family, Ginko Ogino seems set for a conventional life in the male-dominated society of 19th-century Japan. But when she contracts gonorrhea from her husband, she suffers the disgrace of divorce. Forced to bear the humiliation of being treated by male doctors, she resolves to become a doctor herself in order to treat fellow female sufferers and spare them some of the shame she had to endure. Her struggle is not an easy one—her family disowns her, and she has to convince the authorities to take seriously the very idea of a female doctor and allow her to study alongside male medical students and take the licensing exam. Based on the real-life story of Ginko Ogino—Japan’s first female doctor—Jun’ichi Watanabe does full justice to the complexity of her character and her world in a fascinating and inspirational work of fiction.’

 

6169535. Salad Anniversary by Machi Tawara
‘In her collection of brief poems, Tawara explores the fleeting emotions and momentary experiences that comprise modern life and love.’

 

6. Astonishments: Selected Poems by Anna Kamienska
‘Kamienska came of age during the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Poland and lived under Communism. These experiences, as well as the sudden death of her husband, led her to engagement with the Bible and the great religious thinkers of the 20th century. Her poems record the struggles of a rational mind with religious faith, addressing loneliness and uncertainty in a remarkably direct, unsentimental manner. Her spiritual quest has resulted in extraordinary poems on Job, other biblical personalities, and victims of the Holocaust. Other poems explore the meaning of loss, grief, and human life. Still, her poetry expresses a fundamentally religious sense of gratitude for her own existence and that of other human beings, as well as for myriad creatures, such as hedgehogs, birds and “young leaves willing to open up to the sun.”‘

 

7. From the Fatherland, With Love by Ryu Murakami 17794325
From the Fatherland, with Love is set in an alternative, dystopian present in which the dollar has collapsed and Japan’s economy has fallen along with it. The North Korean government, sensing an opportunity, sends a fleet of rebels in the first land invasion that Japan has ever faced. Japan can’t cope with the surprise onslaught of Operation From the Fatherland, with Love. But the terrorist Ishihara and his band of renegade youths – once dedicated to upsetting the Japanese government – turn their deadly attention to the North Korean threat. They will not allow Fukuoka to fall without a fight.  Epic in scale, From the Fatherland, with Love is laced throughout with Murakami’s characteristically savage violence. It’s both a satisfying thriller and a completely mad, over-the-top novel like few others.’

 

8. The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, edited by Theodore W. Goossen
This collection of short stories, including many new translations, is the first to span the whole of Japan’s modern era from the end of the nineteenth century to the present day. Beginning with the first writings to assimilate and rework Western literary traditions, through the flourishing of the short story genre in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Taisho era, to the new breed of writers produced under the constraints of literary censorship, and the current writings reflecting the pitfalls and paradoxes of modern life, this anthology offers a stimulating survey of the development of the Japanese short story.   Various indigenous traditions, in addition to those drawn from the West, recur throughout the stories: stories of the self, of the Water Trade (Tokyo’s nightlife of geishas and prostitutes), of social comment, love and obsession, legends and fairytales. This collection includes the work of two Nobel prize-winners: Kawabata and Oe, the talented women writers Hirabayashi, Euchi, Okamoto, and Hayashi, together with the acclaimed Tanizaki, Mishima, and Murakami.   The introduction by Theodore Goossen gives insight into these exotic and enigmatic, sometimes disturbing stories, derived from the lyrical roots of Japanese literature with its distinctive stress on atmosphere and beauty.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which pique your interest?

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

The Book Trail: From Painting Dead Men to The Big Why

We begin this edition of The Book Trail with a fantastic novel by Sarah Hall.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

 

1. How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall 9780571224890
‘The lives of four individuals—a dying painter, a blind girl, a landscape artist, and an art curator—intertwine across nearly five decades in this luminous and searching novel of extraordinary power. With How to Paint a Dead Man, Sarah Hall, “one of the most significant and exciting of Britain’s young novelists” (The Guardian), delivers “a maddeningly enticing read . . . an amazing feat of literary engineering” (The Independent on Sunday).’

 

2. The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey
‘It’s Jake’s birthday. He is sitting in a small plane, being flown over the landscape that has been the backdrop to his life – his childhood, his marriage, his work, his passions. Now he is in his mid-sixties, and he isn’t quite the man he used to be. He has lost his wife, his son is in prison, and he is about to lose his past. Jake has Alzheimer’s.  As the disease takes hold of him, Jake struggles to hold on to his personal story, to his memories and identity, but they become increasingly elusive and unreliable. What happened to his daughter? Is she alive, or long dead? And why exactly is his son in prison? What went so wrong in his life? There was a cherry tree once, and a yellow dress, but what exactly do they mean? As Jake fights the inevitable dying of the light, the key events of his life keep changing as he tries to grasp them, and what until recently seemed solid fact is melting into surreal dreams or nightmarish imaginings. Is there anything he’ll be able to salvage from the wreckage? Beauty, perhaps, the memory of love, or nothing at all?  From the first sentence to the last, The Wilderness holds us in its grip. This is writing of extraordinary power and beauty.’

 

62568403. The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds
Based on real events in Epping Forest on the edge of London around 1840, The Quickening Maze centres on the first incarceration of the great nature poet John Clare. After years struggling with alcohol, critical neglect and depression, Clare finds himself in High Beach Private Asylum – an institution run on reformist principles which would later become known as occupational therapy. At the same time another poet, the young Alfred Tennyson, moves nearby and becomes entangled in the life and catastrophic schemes of the asylum’s owner, the peculiar, charismatic Dr Matthew Allen.  For John Clare, a man who had grown up steeped in the freedoms and exhilarations of nature, who thought ‘the edge of the world was a day’s walk away’, a locked door is a kind of death. This intensely lyrical novel describes his vertiginous fall, through hallucinatory episodes of insanity and dissolving identity, towards his final madness.  Historically accurate, but brilliantly imagined, the closed world of High Beach and its various inmates – the doctor, his lonely daughter in love with Tennyson, the brutish staff and John Clare himself – are brought vividly to life. Outside the walls is Nature, and Clare’s paradise: the birds and animals, the gypsies living in the forest; his dream of home, of redemption, of escape. Rapturous yet precise, exquisitely written, rich in character and detail, this is a remarkable and deeply affecting book: a visionary novel which contains a world.’

 

4. The Island Walkers by John Bemrose
‘Within a bend in the Attawan River lies the Island, a small neighbourhood of white-washed houses and vine-freighted fences, black willows and decaying sheds. It is here that Alf Walker, a fixer in the local textile mill like his father before him, lives with his family.  It is 1965, and when a large corporation takes over the mill, and workers attempt to unionize, Alf’s actions inadvertently set in motion a series of events that will reverberate far into the future and burden him with an unspoken shame. This is also the year when his eldest son, Joe, falls headlong for a girl he first glimpses on a bridge – and his world is overturned by the passion and uncertainty of young love. The bittersweet story of Joe and Anna is juxtaposed against his father’s deepening role in the tensions building at the mill and his unsettling connection with a local Native woman, Lucille Boileau. Meanwhile, Alf’s wife, Margaret, must reconcile her middle-class English upbringing with her blue-collar reality, as her marriage is undermined by forces she cannot name.  Set over the course of a single year, the novel reaches back to the past – to Alf’s haunting memories of the Second World War and his brother’s death; to the stories of the town’s founder, Abraham Shade, and those of the eccentric river man Johnny North.  Bemrose weaves an intricate, absolutely spellbinding narrative. Besides the five members of the Walker family, he introduces a large cast of characters, including Archie Mann, Joe’s sad and inspiredteacher; Liz McVey, the wilful daughter of the town’s richest man; union organizer Malachi Doyle; and Anna Macrimmon, worldly, gifted, mysterious, who turns Joe’s world upside down.

 

5. The Russlander by Sandra Birdsall 295787
‘Katherine (Katya) Vogt is now an old woman living in Winnipeg, but the story of how she and her family came to Canada begins in Russia in 1910, on a wealthy Mennonite estate. Here they lived in a world bounded by the prosperity of their landlords and by the poverty and disgruntlement of the Russian workers who toil on the estate. But in the wake of the First World War, the tensions engulfing the country begin to intrude on the community, leading to an unspeakable act of violence. In the aftermath of that violence, and in the difficult years that follow, Katya tries to come to terms with the terrible events that befell her and her family. In lucid, spellbinding prose, Birdsell vividly evokes time and place, and the unease that existed in a county on the brink of revolutionary change. The Russländer is a powerful and moving story of ordinary people who lived through extraordinary times.’

 

6. A Student of Weather by Elizabeth Hay
‘From some accidents of love and weather we never quite recover. At the worst of the Prairie dust bowl of the 1930s, a young man appears out of a blizzard and forever alters the lives of two sisters. There is the beautiful, fastidious Lucinda, and the tricky and tenacious Norma Joyce, at first a strange, self-possessed child, later a woman who learns something of self-forgiveness and of the redemptive nature of art. Their rivalry sets the stage for all that follows in a narrative spanning over thirty years, beginning in Saskatchewan and moving, in the decades following the war, to Ottawa and New York City. Disarming, vividly told, unforgettable, this is a story about the mistakes we make that never go away, about how the things we want to keep vanish and the things we want to lose return to haunt us.’

 

1164867. The Underpainter by Jane Urquhart
‘In Rochester, New York, a seventy-five-year-old artist, Austin Fraser, is creating a new series of paintings recalling the details of his life and of the lives of those individuals who have affected him–his peculiar mother, a young Canadian soldier and china painter, a First World War nurse, the well-known American painter Rockwell Kent, and Sara, a waitress from the wilderness mining settlement of Silver Islet, Ontario, who became Austin’s model and mistress. Spanning more than seven decades, from the turn of the century to the mid-seventies, The Underpainter -in range, in the sheer power of its prose, and in its brilliant depiction of landscape and the geography of imagination- is Jane Urquhart’s most accomplished novel to date, with one of the most powerful climaxes in contemporary fiction.’

 

8. The Big Why by Michael Winter
‘Michael Winter’s powerful new novel, The Big Why, brilliantly fictionalizes a pivotal year in the life of celebrated American artist Rockwell Kent. In 1914, at the age of thirty, Kent decides to escape the superficial world of New York City and move to Brigus, Newfoundland, with his wife and three children to follow a few months later. A socialist and a philanderer, certain in the greatness of his work, he is drawn north by a fascination for the rocky Atlantic coast and by the example of Brigus’s other well-known resident, fabled Arctic explorer Robert Bartlett. But once in Newfoundland, Kent discovers that notoriety is even easier to achieve in a small town than in New York. As events come to a head both internationally and domestically and the war begins, Kent becomes a polarizing figure in this intimate, impoverished community, where everyone knows everyone and any outsider is suspect, possibly even a German spy. Writing in Kent’s voice, Michael Winter delivers a passionate, witty, and cerebral exploration of what makes exceptional individuals who they are–and why.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which pique your interest?

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The Book Trail: From ‘The Lark’ to ‘Reuben Sachs’

I am using E. Nesbit’s quite charming novel, The Lark, which I recently reviewed on the blog, as my starting point for this edition of The Book Trail.  As ever, I am using the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to generate this list.  Do let me know which of these books you have read, and if you are interested in reading any of them!

 

1. The Lark by E. Nesbit (1922) 9781911579458
‘It’s 1919 and Jane and her cousin Lucilla leave school to find that their guardian has gambled away their money, leaving them with only a small cottage in the English countryside. In an attempt to earn their living, the orphaned cousins embark on a series of misadventures – cutting flowers from their front garden and selling them to passers-by, inviting paying guests who disappear without paying – all the while endeavouring to stave off the attentions of male admirers, in a bid to secure their independence.’

 

17769932. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes (1947)
‘It’s a summer’s day in 1946. The English village of Wealding is no longer troubled by distant sirens, yet the rustling coils of barbed wire are a reminder that something, some quality of life, has evaporated. Together again after years of separation, Laura and Stephen Marshall and their daughter Victoria are forced to manage without “those anonymous caps and aprons who lived out of sight and pulled the strings.” Their rambling garden refuses to be tamed, the house seems perceptibly to crumble. But alone on a hillside, as evening falls, Laura comes to see what it would have meant if the war had been lost, and looks to the future with a new hope and optimism. First published in 1947, this subtle, finely wrought novel presents a memorable portrait of the aftermath of war, its effect upon a marriage, and the gradual but significant change in the nature of English middle-class life.’

 

3. Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther by Elizabeth von Arnim (1907) 1140708
‘This enchanting novel tells the story of the love affair between Rose-Marie Schmidt and Roger Anstruther. A determined young woman of twenty-five, Rose-Marie is considered a spinster by the inhabitants of the small German town of Jena where she lives with her father, the Professor. To their homes comes Roger, an impoverished but well-born young Englishman who wishes to learn German: Rose-Marie and Roger fall in love. But the course of true love never did run smooth: distance, temperament and fortune divide them. We watch the ebb and flow of love between two very different people and see the witty and wonderful Rose-Marie get exactly what she wants.’

 

71337934. Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge (1935)
Even though she is a renowned painter Lady Kilmichael is diffident and sad. her remote, brilliant husband has no time for her and she feels she only exasperates her delightful, headstrong daughter. So, telling no one where she is going. she embarks on a painting trip to the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslavia – in the Thirties a remote and exotic place. There she takes under her wing Nicholas, a bitterly unhappy young man, forbidden by his family to pursue the painting he loves and which Grace recognises as being of rare quality. Their adventures and searching discussions lead to something much deeper than simple friendship…  This beautiful novel, gloriously evoking the countryside and people of Illyria, has been a favourite since its publication in 1935, both as a sensitive travel book and as [an] unusual and touching love story.’

 

5. Miss Mole by E.H. Young (1930) 1983763
‘When Miss Mole returns to Radstowe, she wins the affection of Ethel and of her nervous sister Ruth and transforms the life of the vicarage. This book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1930.’

 

29218749._sx318_6. Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple (1932)
‘Persephone Books’ bestselling author Dorothy Whipple’s third novel (1932) was the choice of the Book Society in the summer of that year. Hugh Walpole wrote: ‘To put it plainly, in Dorothy Whipple’s picture of a quite ordinary family before and after the war there is some of the best creation of living men and women that we have had for a number of years in the English novel. She is a novelist of true importance.”

 

7. Fidelity by Susan Glaspell (1915) 933516
‘Set in Iowa in 1900 and in 1913, this dramatic and deeply moral novel uses complex but subtle use of flashback to describe a girl named Ruth Holland, bored with her life at home, falling in love with a married man and running off with him; when she comes back more than a decade later we are shown how her actions have affected those around her. Ruth had taken another woman’s husband and as such ‘Freeport’ society thinks she is ‘a human being who selfishly – basely – took her own happiness, leaving misery for others. She outraged society as completely as a woman could outrage it… One who defies it – deceives it – must be shut out from it.’  But, like Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier in ‘The Awakening’ and Nora in ‘A Doll’s House’ Ruth has ‘a diffused longing for an enlarged experience… Her energies having been shut off from the way they had wanted to go, she was all the more zestful for new things from life…’ It is these that are explored in Fidelity.’

 

27022868. Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy (1888)
‘Oscar Wilde wrote of this novel, “Its directness, its uncompromising truths, its depth of feeling, and above all, its absence of any single superfluous word, make Reuben Sachs, in some sort, a classic.” Reuben Sachs, the story of an extended Anglo-Jewish family in London, focuses on the relationship between two cousins, Reuben Sachs and Judith Quixano, and the tensions between their Jewish identities and English society. The novel’s complex and sometimes satirical portrait of Anglo-Jewish life, which was in part a reaction to George Eliot’s romanticized view of Victorian Jews in Daniel Deronda, caused controversy on its first publication.’

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The Book Trail: From Edward Thomas to Russia

I begin this particular Book Trail with a wonderful biography on Edward Thomas which I read last year.  As ever, I have gone through the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.  It soon becomes wonderfully Russian.

 

1. Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis
12267095‘Edward Thomas was perhaps the most beguiling and influential of First World War poets. Now All Roads Lead to France is an account of his final five years, centred on his extraordinary friendship with Robert Frost and Thomas’s fatal decision to fight in the war.  The book also evokes an astonishingly creative moment in English literature, when London was a battleground for new, ambitious kinds of writing. A generation that included W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost and Rupert Brooke were ‘making it new’ – vehemently and pugnaciously.  These larger-than-life characters surround a central figure, tormented by his work and his marriage. But as his friendship with Frost blossomed, Thomas wrote poem after poem, and his emotional affliction began to lift. In 1914 the two friends formed the ideas that would produce some of the most remarkable verse of the twentieth century. But the War put an ocean between them: Frost returned to the safety of New England while Thomas stayed to fight for the Old.   It is these roads taken – and those not taken – that are at the heart of this remarkable book, which culminates in Thomas’s tragic death on Easter Monday 1917.

 

2. Selected Letters by John Keats 269534
‘The letters of John Keats are, T. S. Eliot remarked, “what letters ought to be; the fine things come in unexpectedly, neither introduced nor shown out, but between trifle and trifle.” This new edition, which features four rediscovered letters, three of which are being published here for the first time, affords readers the pleasure of the poet’s “trifles” as well as the surprise of his most famous ideas emerging unpredictably.  Unlike other editions, this selection includes letters to Keats and among his friends, lending greater perspective to an epistolary portrait of the poet. It also offers a revealing look at his “posthumous existence,” the period of Keats’s illness in Italy, painstakingly recorded in a series of moving letters by Keats’s deathbed companion, Joseph Severn. Other letters by Dr. James Clark, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Richard Woodhouse–omitted from other selections of Keats’s letters–offer valuable additional testimony concerning Keats the man.  Edited for greater readability, with annotations reduced and punctuation and spelling judiciously modernized, this selection recreates the spontaneity with which these letters were originally written.’

 

3. The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy by Sofia Tolstaya
8189924‘After marrying Count Leo Tolstoy, the renowned author of Anna Karenina and War and Peace, Sofia Tolstoy kept a detailed diary until his death in 1910. Her life was not an easy one: she idealized her husband but was tormented by him. She lived against the background of one of the most turbulent periods in her country’s history, as old feudal Russia was transformed by three revolutions and three major international wars.  Yet it is as Sofia Tolstoy’s own life story—the study of one woman’s private experience—that these diaries are most valuable and moving. They reveal a woman of tremendous vital energy and poetic sensibility who, in the face of provocation and suffering, continued to strive for the higher things in life and to remain indomitable.’

 

4. The House by the Dvina: A Russian Childhood by Eugenie Fraser
‘The riveting story of two families separated in culture and geography but bound 1230537together by a Russian-Scottish marriage includes the purchase by the author’s great-grandfather of a peasant girl with whom he had fallen in love, the desperate sledge journey in the depths of winter made by her grandmother to intercede with Tsar Aleksandr II for her husband, the extraordinary courtship of her parents, and her Scottish granny being caught up in the abortive revolution of 1905. Brought up in Russia but taken on visits to Scotland, Eugenie Fraser marvelously evokes a child’s reactions to two totally different environments, sets of customs, and family backgrounds. With the events of 1914 to 1920—the war with Germany, the Revolution, the murder of the Tsar, and the withdrawal of the Allied Intervention in the north—came the disintegration of Russia and of family life. The stark realities of hunger, deprivation, and fear are sharply contrasted with the adventures of childhood. The reader shares the family’s suspense and concern about the fates of its members and relives with Eugenie her final escape to Scotland.’

 

5. Michael and Natasha: The Life and Love of Michael II, the Last of the Romanov 97410Tsars by Rosemary and Donald Crawford
Michael and Natasha is both an astonishing love story and an illuminating look at the last glorious days of the Romanovs and the brutal revolution that ended their reign. Based on private diaries, letters, and documents long hidden in the Soviet archives, it sheds light on an extraordinary tale of enduring love and ultimate tragedy that, until now, has never been told. He was the Grand Duke Michael Aleksandrovich, the tall, dashing brother of Tsar Nicholas II. She was Nathalie Wulfert, a beautiful, elegant, intelligent, divorced commoner, and the wife of a Guards officer under Michael’s command. Everything was wrong…yet for Grand Duke Michael, it was love at first sight-an obsession that would lead to disgrace, humiliation, and exile.  Much of Michael and Natasha’s story is told in their own words, through hundreds of hitherto unpublished letters. Here they reveal their passion, their joy, and their despair as they are banished from their own country, bathed in scandal in the courts of Europe, and forced to suffer cruel separation. But more than a love story, Michael and Natasha is a historical drama played out against the elegant background of a bygone age and a world at war. It is a spell-binding account of Michael’s return to Russia, his reputation as a war hero, the downfall of Nicholas II, the strange and short reign of Grand Duke Michael, and the cruel and tragic end of one of the most colorful eras in world history.’

 

6. Elizabeth, Grand Duchess of Russia by Hugo Mager 1154620
‘Had Elizabeth married the future Kaiser of Germany, as her grandmother so shrewdly desired, World War I might well have been deterred, and had she not arranged the marriage of her younger sister, Alexandra, to the man who became Tsar Nicholas II, the Russian Revolution might have been averted. Modern European history was shaped by the choices Elizabeth made. Thoroughly researched and elegantly composed, Hugo Mager’s biography of Elizabeth captures the soul of the Grand Duchess of Russia and the spirit of her times as it follows her journey into the tide of monumental events, from the Franco-Prussian War to the Russian Revolution, that forged the modern world.’

 

948947. St Petersburg: A Cultural History by Solomon Volkov
‘The city of St. Petersburg became the center of liberal opposition to the dominating power of the state, whether czarist or communist. Acclaimed Russian historian and emigre Volkov writes the definitive “cultural biography” of that famed city, sharply detailing the well-known figures of the arts whose works are now part of the permanent fabric of Western high culture.’

 

8. Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia by Suzanne Massie
”Land of the Firebird’ is a WONDERFUL and ENGAGING in-depth look of Russian history 775380from 987-1917, spanning the ascension of Vlad and the Orthodox Church to right before the Revolution. With colorful prose Suzanne Massie details the variety of Russian existence–tsars and serfs and merchant-princes and babushkas–no stone is left uncovered as she cross-references nearly a thousands years, writing with equal consideration of art, poetry, country-life, court-life, politics and its myriad games, myths and legends, influence “outside the sphere.”‘

 

Have you read any of these books?  Do any pique your interest?

Purchase from The Book Depository