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Really Underrated Books (Part Four)

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Really Underrated Books (Part Five)

The fifth and final part of this week’s Really Underrated Books series is here.  These are so fun to create, particularly as I seek out underrated books myself to read and review.  Have you found any hidden gems this year?  Which were the most recent underrated books which you read?

97818702068081. Dew on the Grass by Eiluned Lewis
First published in 1934 to great acclaim, this enchanting autobiographical novel set in the Welsh borders vividly evokes the essence of childhood and a vanished way of life through the eyes of nine-year-old Lucy. She describes the great events—haymaking, harvest, a seaside holiday—set against the tapestry of the everyday  routines of summer and winter, with the constant background of the garden outside. There is the world of the imagination too, which includes the invested heroes and heroines of childhood whose deeds are as important as those of any real person. Recapturing this world in a deceptively simple style, this novel brings to life the whims, terrors, and intense feelings of childhood.

 

2. Blue Trout and Black Truffles: The Peregrinations of an Epicure by Joseph Wechsberg
After World War II, the author revisited some of Europe’s most famous restaurants. But every chapter in this book goes far beyond food critiques: each is a delightful essay on the art of graceful living.

 

3. The Alone to the Alone by Gwyn Thomas 6393369
Uniting the author’s lyrical and philosophical flights of narrative in a satire whose savagery is only relieved by irrepressible laughter, this work explores the underlying meaning of South Wales’ history, which is not so much documented as laid bare for universal dissection and dissemination. The novel, with its distinctive plural narration, is a choric commentary on human illusion and knowledge, on power and its attendant deprivation, on dreams and their destruction.

 

4. Europe in Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic
Hurtling between Weltschmerz and wit, drollness and diatribe, entropy and enchantment, it’s the juxtaposition at the heart of Dubravka Ugresic’s writings that saw Ruth Franklin dub her “the fantasy cultural studies professor you never had.” In Europe in Sepia, Ugresic, ever the flâneur, wanders from the Midwest to Zuccotti Park, the Irish Aran Islands to Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim, from the tristesse of Dutch housing estates to the riots of south London, charting everything from the listlessness of Central Europe to the ennui of the Low Countries. One finger on the pulse of an exhausted Europe, another in the wounds of postindustrial America, Ugresic trawls the fallout of political failure and the detritus of popular culture, mining each for revelation.  Infused with compassion and melancholic doubt, Europe in Sepia centers on the disappearance of the future, the anxiety that no new utopian visions have emerged from the ruins of communism; that ours is a time of irreducible nostalgia, our surrender to pastism complete. Punctuated by the levity of Ugresic’s raucous instinct for the absurd, despair has seldom been so beguiling.

 

184063185. Written in the Stars by Lois Duncan
An extraordinary look at the genesis of a great writer’s career, Written in the Stars is a collection of Lois Duncan’s earliest stories. composed from the ages of 13 through 22. From family relationships, to the joy and angst of first love, to the struggles of a young soldier returning from war with PTSD, this unique book, whose stories originally appeared in magazines such as Seventeen and American Girl, is a marvelous portrait of the depth and breadth of Duncan’s youthful work. As a special bonus, Lois has followed each story with a brief essay describing her work and life at the time the story was written. Written in the Stars is a must-have addition to the library of work from this spectacular and groundbreaking young adult author.

 

6. A Dog’s Head by Jean Dutourd
Jean Dutourd’s A Dog’s Head is a wonderful piece of magical realism, reminiscent of Voltaire, Borges and Kafka. With biting wit, Dutourd presents the story of Edmund Du Chaillu, a boy born, to his bourgeois parents’s horror, with the head of a spaniel. Edmund must endure his school-mate’s teasing as well as an urge to carry a newspaper in his mouth. This is the story of his life, trials, and joys as he searches for a normal life of worth and love.

 

7. Mario and the Magician: and Other Stories by Thomas Mann 1573375
In this extraordinary collection of short stories, Thomas Mann uses settings as diverse as Germany, Italy, the Holy Land and the Far East to explore a theme which always preoccupied him: the two faces of things. Thus, in A Man and His Dog and Disorder and Early Sorrow, small domestic tempests become symbolic of the discordant muddle of humanity. In The Transposed Heads and The Tables of Law the demands of the intellect clash with the desires of physiology, an idea developed more fully in The Black Swan, where body and spirit are tragically out of harmony. Written between 1918 and 1953, these stories offer us both an insight into Mann’s development of thought and also some impressive literature from these interesting times.

 

8. A Seventh Man by John Berger
Why does the Western world look to migrant laborers to perform the most menial tasks? What compels people to leave their homes and accept this humiliating situation? In A Seventh Man, John Berger and Jean Mohr come to grips with what it is to be a migrant worker—the material circumstances and the inner experience—and, in doing so, reveal how the migrant is not so much on the margins of modern life, but absolutely central to it. First published in 1975, this finely wrought exploration remains as urgent as ever, presenting a mode of living that pervades the countries of the West and yet is excluded from much of its culture.

 

48862679. The City of Yes by Peter Oliva
Alive with history, myth, and wonder, The City of Yes is a luminous novel of parallel journeys through old and present-day Japan. In Saitama to teach English, the narrator is confronted by unlikely visions of home as he gradually enters the world of contemporary Japan, with its floating stories, enigmas, and contradictions. His own story is deftly interwoven with that of a real-life nineteenth-century Canadian adventurer, whose strange confinement in a Japanese prison, beginning in 1848, is so vividly imagined by the narrator. Full of delightful tales and eccentric characters, and written with the delicacy of a brushstroke artist, The City of Yes is suffused with warm humour, and with the intelligence and curiosity of a keen observer of life’s riches and eccentricities.

 

10. The Stone Fields: Love and Death in the Balkans by Courtney Angela Brkic
When she was twenty-three years old, Courtney Angela Brkic joined a UN-contracted forensic team in eastern Bosnia. Unlike many aid workers, Brkic was drawn there by her family history, and although fluent in the language, she was advised to avoid letting local workers discover her ethnicity. Her passionate narrative of establishing a morgue in a small town and excavating graves at Srebenica is braided with her family’s remarkable history in what was once Yugoslavia. The Stone Fields, deeply personal and wise, asks what it takes to prevent the violent loss of life, and what we are willing to risk in the process.

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Reading the World: Italy

Our next stop is Italy; hopefully it will fill you with springtime joy to visit the beautiful landscapes and well-paced way of life which are evoked in the following books.

1. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke (2003)
‘Meggie loves books. So does her father, Mo, a bookbinder, although he has never read aloud to her since her mother mysteriously disappeared. They live quietly until the night a stranger knocks at their door. He has come with a warning that forces Mo to reveal an extraordinary secret – a storytelling secret that will change their lives for ever.’

2. Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare (c. 1588-1593) 9780199536108
‘Titus Andronicus was the young Shakespeare’s audacious, sporadically brilliant experiment in sensational tragedy. Its horrors are notorious, but its powerful poetry of grief is the work of a true tragic poet.’

3. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922)
‘A discreet advertisement in ‘The Times’, addressed to ‘Those who Apppreciate Wisteria and Sunshine…’ is the impetus for a revelatory month for four very different women. High above the bay on the Italian Riviera stands San Salvatore, a mediaeval castle. Beckoned to this haven are Mrs. Wilkins, Mrs Arbuthnot, Mrs Fisher and Lady Caroline Dester, each quietly craving a respite. Lulled by the Mediterranean spirit, they gradually shed their skins and discover a harmony each of them has longed for but never known. First published in 1922 and reminscient of ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’, this delightful novel is imbued with the descriptive power and light-hearted irreverence for which Elizabeth von Arnin is renowned.’

4. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann 9780486287140
‘”Death in Venice, ” tells about a ruinous quest for love and beauty amid degenerating splendor. Gustav von Aschenbach, a successful but lonely author, travels to the Queen of the Adriatic in search of an elusive spiritual fulfillment that turns into his erotic doom. Spellbound by a beautiful Polish boy, he finds himself fettered to this hypnotic city of sun-drenched sensuality and eerie physical decay as it gradually succumbs to a secret epidemic.’

5. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764)
”Look, my lord! See heaven itself declares against your impious intentions!’ The Castle of Otranto (1764) is the first supernatural English novel and one of the most influential works of Gothic fiction. It inaugurated a literary genre that will be forever associated with the effects that Walpole pioneered. Professing to be a translation of a mysterious Italian tale from the darkest Middle Ages, the novel tells of Manfred, prince of Otranto, whose fear of an ancient prophecy sets him on a course of destruction. After the grotesque death of his only son, Conrad, on his wedding day, Manfred determines to marry the bride-to-be. The virgin Isabella flees through a castle riddled with secret passages. Chilling coincidences, ghostly visitations, arcane revelations, and violent combat combine in a heady mix that terrified the novel’s first readers.’

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Classics Club #19: ‘Death in Venice’ by Thomas Mann ****

Thomas Mann is an author whose work I have always wanted to read.  Rather than starting with one of his weightier tomes, I thought I would plump for Death in Venice, one of his short yet major works.  I found a lovely old Penguin edition of the work, bound up with two other novellas (Tristan and Tonio Kroger), whilst on a mini BookTube/blogger meet-up with the lovely Katie.

9780099428657Translated from the German by H.T. Lowe-Porter and first published in 1912, Death in Venice flows just as well as it would had English been its original language.  Such thought and intelligence has been given to both the writing and translation processes.  A short work even by novella standards, the edition which I read runs to just 78 pages.

Death in Venice‘s plot, and the way in which Mann writes of it, veers toward the psychological.  It ‘tells how Gustave Von Eschenbach, a writer utterly absorbed in his work, arrives in Venice as the result of a “youthfully ardent thirst for distant scenes”, and meets there a young boy by whose beauty he becomes obsessed.  His pitiful pursuit of the object of his abnormal affection and its inevitable and pathetic climax is told here with the particular skill the author has for this shorter form of fiction’.  The craft of writing, and the way in which it can so utterly absorb one, has been woven in too: ‘… their creator could hold out for years under the strain of the same piece of work, with an endurance and a tenacity of purpose like that which had conquered his native province of Silesia, devoting to actual composition none but his best and freshest hours…  yes, even while his faithful following revelled in the characters he created, he, the young artist, was taking away the breath of the twenty-year-olds with his cynic utterances on the nature of art and the artist life’.

Mann conjures up the setting and protagonists so well from the novella’s very beginning: ‘Gustave Aschenbach – or Von Aschenbach, as he had been known officially since his fiftieth birthday – had set out alone from his house in Prince Regent Street, Munich, for an extended walk…  May had begun, and after weeks of cold and wet a mock summer had set in.  The English Gardens, though in tenderest leaf, felt as sultry as in August and were full of vehicles and pedestrians near the city.  But towards Aumeister the paths were solitary and still, and Aschenbach strolled thither, stopping awhile to watch the lively crowds in the restaurant garden with its fringe of carriages and cabs’.

His character descriptions are both striking and exquisitely rendered, and they build marvellously: ‘In his right hand, slantwise to the ground, he held an iron-shod stick, and braced himself against its crook, with his legs crossed.  His chin was up, so that the Adam’s apple looked very bald in the lean neck rising from the loose shirt: and he stood there sharply peering up into space out of colourless, red-lashed eyes, while two pronounced perpendicular furrows showed o his forehead in curious contrast to his little turned-up nose.  Perhaps his heightened and heightening position helped out the impression that Aschenbach received.  At any rate, standing there as though at survey, the man had a bold and domineering, even a ruthless, air, and his lips completed the picture by seeming to curl back, either by reason of some deformity or else because he grimaced, being blinded by the sun in his face; they laid bare the long, white, glistening teeth to the gums’.  Of Tadzio, the young Polish boy whom Von Aschenbach becomes infatuated with, Mann writes: ‘The lad had just reached the gate in the railings, and he was alone.  Aschenbach felt, quite simply, a wish to overtake him, to address him and have the pleasure of his reply and answering look; to put upon a blithe and friendly footing his relation with this being who all unconsciously had so greatly heightened and quickened his emotions’.

The scenes which Mann weaves before our very eyes are often gorgeous: ‘But evening too was rarely lovely: balsamic with the breath of flowers and shrubs from the near-by park, while overhead the constellations circled in their spheres, and the murmuring of the night-girded sea swelled softly up and whispered to the soul.  Such nights as these contained the joyful promise of a sunlit morrow, brim-full of sweetly ordered idleness, studded thick with countless precious possibilities’.

Many constructs, concepts and ideas are woven into Death in Venice, causing it to feel like an incredibly rich and almost intense read.  The way in which it has been written, with the use of an omniscient narrator, adds real texture to the piece, and focuses not just upon the protagonists, but upon society as a whole: ‘A solitary, unused to speaking of what he sees and feels, has mental experiences which are at once more intense and less articulate than those of a gregarious man.  They are sluggish, yet more wayward, and never without a melancholy tinge: sights and impressions which others brush aside with a glance, a light comment, a smile, occupy him more than their due; they sink silently in, they take on meaning, they become experience, emotion, adventure’.  The novella is well focused upon the concepts of beauty and art, and how they have the ability to affect every single one of us.  Death and illness, and the sheer power which they wield, are personified throughout, becoming just as important as the characters themselves.  Much Ancient Greek mythology has also been alluded to, and I loved this element of the book particularly.

The story here is well rendered, but the whole does not come across as plot heavy; rather, there is more of interest within the writing itself, and the sheer control which Mann has over the vocabulary which he has so carefully selected.  Death in Venice is almost worth reading for its exquisite descriptions alone.  Mann captures scenes and emotions perfectly throughout, and is continually aware of the influence of the outside world upon his characters: ‘With closed lids Aschenbach listened to this poesy hymning itself silently within him, and anon he thought it was good to be here and that he would stop awhile’.  Death in Venice is a tale which certainly deserves to be savoured.

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