4

Magical Realism

Magical realism is a genre which very much interests me, but one which I know I don’t read enough.  I have created a post where I wish to showcase ten works of magical realist fiction – five which I have personally loved, and five which very much intrigue me – with the hope of incorporating more books of the genre into my future reading.

97801404554651. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov *****
Mikhail Bulgakov’s devastating satire of Soviet life was written during the darkest period of Stalin’s regime. Combining two distinct yet interwoven parts—one set in ancient Jerusalem, one in contemporary Moscow—the novel veers from moods of wild theatricality with violent storms, vampire attacks, and a Satanic ball; to such somber scenes as the meeting of Pilate and Yeshua, and the murder of Judas in the moonlit garden of Gethsemane; to the substanceless, circus-like reality of Moscow. Its central characters, Woland (Satan) and his retinue—including the vodka-drinking black cat, Behemoth; the poet, Ivan Homeless; Pontius Pilate; and a writer known only as The Master, and his passionate companion, Margarita—exist in a world that blends fantasy and chilling realism, an artful collage of grotesqueries, dark comedy, and timeless ethical questions.

 

2. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern ***** (review here)
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices plastered on lampposts and billboards. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.   Within these nocturnal black-and-white striped tents awaits an utterly unique, a feast for the senses, where one can get lost in a maze of clouds, meander through a lush garden made of ice, stare in wonderment as the tattooed contortionist folds herself into a small glass box, and become deliciously tipsy from the scents of caramel and cinnamon that waft through the air.  Welcome to Le Cirque des Rêves.  Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, a fierce competition is under way–a contest between two young illusionists, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in a “game” to which they have been irrevocably bound by their mercurial masters. Unbeknownst to the players, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.  As the circus travels around the world, the feats of magic gain fantastical new heights with every stop. The game is well under way and the lives of all those involved–the eccentric circus owner, the elusive contortionist, the mystical fortune-teller, and a pair of red-headed twins born backstage among them–are swept up in a wake of spells and charms.

 

3. The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter ****9781844085231
One night Melanie walks through the garden in her mother’s wedding dress. The next morning her world is shattered. Forced to leave the comfortable home of her childhood, she is sent to London to live with relatives she never met: Aunt Margaret, beautiful and speechless, and her brothers, Francie, whose graceful music belies his clumsy nature, and the volatile Finn, who kisses Melanie in the ruins of the pleasure garden. And brooding Uncle Philip loves only the life-sized wooden puppets he creates in his toyshops. The classic gothic novel established Angela Carter as one of our most imaginative writers and augurs the themes of her later creative works.

 

4. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger *****
Audrey Niffenegger’s dazzling debut is the story of Clare, a beautiful, strong-minded art student, and Henry, an adventuresome librarian, who have known each other since Clare was six and Henry was thirty-six, and were married when Clare was twenty-three and Henry thirty-one. Impossible but true, because Henry is one of the first people diagnosed with Chrono-Displacement Disorder: his genetic clock randomly resets and he finds himself misplaced in time, pulled to moments of emotional gravity from his life, past and future. His disappearances are spontaneous and unpredictable, and lend a spectacular urgency to Clare and Henry’s unconventional love story. That their attempt to live normal lives together is threatened by something they can neither prevent nor control makes their story intensely moving and entirely unforgettable.

 

97800995382645. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender ****
The wondrous Aimee Bender conjures the lush and moving story of a girl whose magical gift is really a devastating curse.  On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein, a girl at the periphery of schoolyard games and her distracted parents’ attention, bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the cake. She discovers this gift to her horror, for her mother — her cheerful, good-with-crafts, can-do mother — tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes a peril and a threat to Rose.  The curse her gift has bestowed is the secret knowledge all families keep hidden—her mother’s life outside the home, her father’s detachment, her brother’s clash with the world. Yet as Rose grows up she learns to harness her gift and becomes aware that there are secrets even her taste buds cannot discern.  The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a luminous tale about the enormous difficulty of loving someone fully when you know too much about them.

 

6. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore is powered by two remarkable characters: a teenage boy, Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home either to escape a gruesome oedipal prophecy or to search for his long-missing mother and sister; and an aging simpleton called Nakata, who never recovered from a wartime affliction and now is drawn toward Kafka for reasons that, like the most basic activities of daily life, he cannot fathom.  As their paths converge, and the reasons for that convergence become clear, Haruki Murakami enfolds readers in a world where cats talk, fish fall from the sky, and spirits slip out of their bodies to make love or commit murder. Kafka on the Shore displays one of the world’s great storytellers at the peak of his powers.

 

7. Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King 9781101994887
“I am sixteen years old. I am a human being.”  Actually Sarah is several human beings. At once. And only one of them is sixteen. Her parents insist she’s a gifted artist with a bright future, but now she can’t draw a thing, not even her own hand. Meanwhile, there’s a ten-year-old Sarah with a filthy mouth, a bad sunburn, and a clear memory of the family vacation in Mexico that ruined everything. She’s a ray of sunshine compared to twenty-three-year-old Sarah, who has snazzy highlights and a bad attitude. And then there’s forty-year-old Sarah (makes good queso dip, doesn’t wear a bra, really wants sixteen-year-old Sarah to tell the truth about her art teacher). They’re all wandering Philadelphia—along with a homeless artist allegedly named Earl—and they’re all worried about Sarah’s future.  But Sarah’s future isn’t the problem. The present is where she might be having an existential crisis. Or maybe all those other Sarahs are trying to wake her up before she’s lost forever in the tornado of violence and denial that is her parents’ marriage.

 

8. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood – where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.  In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor – engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven – but the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.  As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

 

97802419516519. Eva Luna by Isabel Allende
”My name is Eva, which means ‘life’, according to a book of names my mother consulted. I was born in the back room of a shadowy house, and grew up amidst ancient furniture, books in Latin, and human mummies, but none of those things made me melancholy, because I came into the world with a breath of the jungle in my memory’. Isabel Allende tells the sweet and sinister story of an orphan who beguiles the world with her astonishing visions, triumphing over the worst of adversity and bringing light to a dark place.’

 

10. The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass
‘On his third birthday Oskar decides to stop growing. Haunted by the deaths of his parents and wielding his tin drum Oskar recounts the events of his extraordinary life; from the long nightmare of the Nazi era to his anarchic adventures in post-war Germany.’

 

What is your favourite work of magical realism?  Have you read any of these?  Which other books would you recommend?

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3

Really Underrated Books (Part Five)

The fifth and final part of my foray into underrated books!  Which of these have you read?  Have you enjoyed this week’s post series?  Has it intrigued you to pick up anything a little different that you’ve not heard about before?

 

1. Miss Lulu Bett and Other Stories by Zona Gale
‘Lulu Bett lives in a small town with her sister Ina and Ina’s husband Dwight–a dentist who rules his household with self-righteous smugness. The unmarried Lulu has learned that she cannot question her role as chief cook, housekeeper, and gracious presence. But when Dwight’s sophisticated brother Ninian comes to visit, Lulu finds in herself a surprising wit–and the boldness to accept his playful proposal of marriage.
Through her appealing, determined heroine, Zona Gale satirically dispatches a sheaf of the social assumptions of her day, from male supremacy to the security of marriage. First published in 1920, Miss Lulu Bett was immediately acclaimed, and went on to become one of two bestselling novels of the year. Together with four of Gale’s short stories–including the O. Henry award-winning “Bridal Pond”–Miss Lulu Bett reflects Gale’s broad progressive interests and the fast-paced, affecting prose which made her one of the most popular writers of her time and a classic American storteller.’

 

97808028299622. Are Women Human? by Dorothy L. Sayers
‘One of the first women to graduate from Oxford University, Dorothy Sayers pursued her goals whether or not what she wanted to do was ordinarily understood to be “feminine.” Sayers did not devote a great deal of time to talking or writing about feminism, but she did explicitly address the issue of women’s role in society in the two classic essays collected here.  Central to Sayers’s reflections is the conviction that both men and women are first of all human beings and must be regarded as essentially much more alike than different. We are to be true not so much to our sex as to our humanity. The proper role of both men and women, in her view, is to find the work for which they are suited and to do it.  Though written several decades ago, these essays still offer in Sayers’s piquant style a sensible and conciliatory approach to ongoing gender issues.’

 

3. Quiver by Stephanie Spinner
‘It was Artemis, goddess of the hunt and mistress of the wild, who rescued the abandoned baby Atalanta, sending a she-bear to nurse her and a band of hunters to raise her in safety. Now sixteen, Atalanta, famous archer and swiftest mortal alive, has devoted her life to the goddess.  When strangers appear in Atalanta’s village one day, they bring shattering news. The father who forsook her is a king. And he has summoned his daughter with a simple, chilling command: marry and produce an heir. Fleet-footed Atalanta, determined not to betray Artemis, counters with a grim proposal. She will marry the first man to outrun her in a footrace, and those she defeats must die. It is Atalanta’s desperate hope that no man will be foolish enough to meet her challenge’

 

4. The Love We Share Without Knowing by Christopher Barzak 9780553385649
‘On a train filled with quietly sleeping passengers, a young man’s life is forever altered when he is miraculously seen by a blind man. In a quiet town an American teacher who has lost her Japanese lover to death begins to lose her own self. On a remote road amid fallow rice fields, four young friends carefully take their own lives—and in that moment they become almost as one. In a small village a disaffected American teenager stranded in a strange land discovers compassion after an encounter with an enigmatic red fox, and in Tokyo a girl named Love learns the deepest lessons about its true meaning from a coma patient lost in dreams of an affair gone wrong.’

 

5. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes by Angus Wilson
‘Gerald Middleton is a sixty-year-old self-proclaimed failure. Worse than that, he’s “a failure with a conscience.” As a young man, he was involved in an archaeological dig that turned up an obscene idol in the coffin of a seventh-century bishop and scandalized a generation. The discovery was in fact the most outrageous archaeological hoax of the century, and Gerald has long known who was responsible and why. But to reveal the truth is to risk destroying the world of cozy compromises that, personally as well as professionally, he has long made his own.  One of England’s first openly gay novelists, Angus Wilson was a dirty realist who relished the sleaze and scuffle of daily life. Slashingly satirical, virtuosically plotted, and displaying Dickensian humor and nerve, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes features a vivid cast of characters that includes scheming academics and fading actresses, big businessmen toggling between mistresses and wives, media celebrities, hustlers, transvestites, blackmailers, toadies, and even one holy fool. Everyone, it seems, is either in cahoots or in the dark, even as comically intrepid Gerald Middleton struggles to maintain some dignity while digging up a history of lies.’

 

97815679225306. The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers
‘Written in 1939, first published in 1942, a national bestseller and a 1943 BOMC Main Selection, The Seventh Cross presented a still doubtful, naive America a first-hand account of life in Hitler’s Germany and of the horrors of the concentration camps. Seven men attempt an escape from Westhofen; the camp commander erects seven crosses, one for each. Only one, the young communist, Heisler, survives, not by cunning or superior skill, but through the complicity of a web of common citizens unwilling to bow to the Gestapo and forced to make decisions that will determine the character of their future lives.’

 

7. Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays by Mary Oliver
‘Within these pages Mary Oliver collects twenty-six of her poems about the birds that have been such an important part of her life-hawks, hummingbirds, and herons; kingfishers, catbirds, and crows; swans, swallows and, of course, the snowy owl, among a dozen others-including ten poems that have never before been collected. She adds two beautifully crafted essays, “Owls,” selected for the Best American Essays series, and “Bird,” a new essay that will surely take its place among the classics of the genre.’

 

8. Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid by Wendy Williams 9780810984653
‘Kraken is the traditional name for gigantic sea monsters, and this book introduces one of the most charismatic, enigmatic, and curious inhabitants of the sea: the squid. The pages take the reader on a wild narrative ride through the world of squid science and adventure, along the way addressing some riddles about what intelligence is, and what monsters lie in the deep. In addition to squid, both giant and otherwise, Kraken examines other equally enthralling cephalopods, including the octopus and the cuttlefish, and explores their otherworldly abilities, such as camouflage and bioluminescence. Accessible and entertaining, Kraken is also the first substantial volume on the subject in more than a decade and a must for fans of popular science.’

 

9. The Noodle Maker by Ma Jian 9780099459064
‘From Mi Jian, the highly acclaimed Chinese dissident, comes a satirical novel about the absurdities of life in a post-Tiananmen China.  Two men meet for dinner each week. Over the course of one of these drunken evenings, the writer recounts the stories he would write, had he the courage: a young man buys an old kiln and opens a private crematorium, delighting in his ability to harass the corpses of police officers and Party secretaries, while swooning to banned Western music; a heartbroken actress performs a public suicide by stepping into the jaws of a wild tiger, watched nonchalantly by her ex-lover. Extraordinary characters inspire him, their lives pulled and pummeled by fate and politics, as if they are balls of dough in the hands of an all-powerful noodle maker.  Ma Jian’s satirical masterpiece allows us a humorous, yet profound, glimpse of those struggling to survive under a system that dictates their every move.’

 

10. My Grandfather: His Wives and Loves by Diana Holman-Hunt
‘A biography of William Holman Hunt, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, researched and written by his granddaughter from a broad selection of primary and secondary sources, including Hunt’s correspondence with F.G. Stephens, and many of her own friends possessing a personal interest in the Pre-Raphaelites and Victorian period.’

 

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2

Really Underrated Books (Part Four)

Today’s inclusions are largely works of fiction which sound absolutely wonderful.  For some reason, a large part of the list I am consulting is made up of fiction rather than non-fiction, so the oversight is not a deliberate one!  As always, have you read any of these books?

 

1. Winter Birds by Jim Grimsley 9780552996990
‘On a snowy Thanksgiving day in North Carolina along a stretch of rural highway, a dreamy eight-year-old named Danny Crell is caught in the middle of a violent quarrel between his parents. Danny’s father, Bobjay Crell, has been at the mercy of doctors, unforgiving landlords, and cruel farm bosses ever since he lost an arm in a farm accident. His subsequent fits of rage and drunken jealousy have taken their toll on his wife and five children. The two hemophiliac boys, Danny and his younger brother Grove, have been particularly vulnerable. Bobjay isn’t the same man that young Ellen Crell married years ago, but still she will go to terrible lengths to keep him home and sober and, failing that, to just hold the family together. In the midst of the worst violence, Ellen becomes a stranger to the children, as frightening in her own way as Bobjay in his worst rages. In a ramshackle cottage the children name “The Circle House” for its circle of rooms where one door opens on to the next in a dizzy escape leading nowhere, Ellen and the children must face at last the tormented man who terrorizes them all. Jim Grimsley’s brilliant first novel unfolds in a strikingly unconventional way – as Danny tells himself his own story – and brings to light a shattering story of heartbreak, violence, and the endurance of the spirit.’

 

2. The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller
The Magician’s Book is the story of one reader’s long, tumultuous relationship with C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Enchanted by its fantastic world as a child, prominent critic Laura Miller returns to the series as an adult to uncover the source of these small books’ mysterious power by looking at their creator, Clive Staples Lewis. What she discovers is not the familiar, idealized image of the author, but a more interesting and ambiguous truth: Lewis’s tragic and troubled childhood, his unconventional love life, and his intense but ultimately doomed friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien.  Finally reclaiming Narnia “for the rest of us,” Miller casts the Chronicles as a profoundly literary creation, and the portal to a life-long adventure in books, art, and the imagination.’

 

97815901764673. Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban
‘Life in a city can be atomizing, isolating. And it certainly is for William G. and Neaera H., the strangers at the center of Russell Hoban’s surprisingly heartwarming novel Turtle Diary. William, a clerk at a used-book store, lives in a rooming house after a divorce that has left him without home or family. Neaera is a successful writer of children’s books, who, in her own estimation, “looks like the sort of spinster who doesn’t keep cats and is not a vegetarian. Looks…like a man’s woman who hasn’t got a man.” Entirely unknown to each other, they are both drawn to the turtle tank at the London zoo with “minds full of turtle thoughts,” wondering how the turtles might be freed. And then comes the day when Neaera walks into William’s bookstore, and together they form an unlikely partnership to make what seemed a crazy dream become a reality.’

 

4. Disturbances in the Field by Lynne Sharon Schwarz
‘As powerful now as when first published in 1983, Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s third novel established her as one of her generation’s most assured writers. In this long-awaited reissue, readers can again warm to this acutely absorbing story. According to Lydia Rowe’s friend George, a philosophizing psychotherapist, a “disturbance in the field” is anything that keeps us from realizing our needs. In the field of daily experiences, anything can stand in the way of our fulfillment, he explains—an interrupting phone call, an unanswered cry. But over time we adjust and new needs arise. But what if there’s a disturbance you can’t get past? In this look at a girl’s, then a wife and mother’s, coming of age, Schwartz explores the questions faced by all whose visions of a harmonious existence are jolted into disarray. The result is a novel of captivating realism and lasting grace.’

 

5. England, Their England by A.G. Macdonell 9781781550007
‘Set in 1920s England, this book chronicles the life of a young man forced to live among the English, rather than in his native Scotland. What follows is a series of interesting and satirical observations about English life, including fox hunting, domestic politics, and most famously, village cricket.  This classic book remains a hilarious look into everyday British life in the interwar years.’

 

6. Vanishing Point by David Markson
‘In the literary world, there is little that can match the excitement of opening a new book by David Markson. From Wittgenstein’s Mistress to Reader’s Block to Springer’s Progress to This Is Not a Novel, he has delighted and amazed readers for decades. And now comes his latest masterwork, Vanishing Point, wherein an elderly writer (identified only as “Author”) sets out to transform shoeboxes crammed with notecards into a novel — and in so doing will dazzle us with an astonishing parade of revelations about the trials and calamities and absurdities and often even tragedies of the creative life — all the while trying his best (he says) to keep himself out of the tale. Naturally he will fail to do the latter, frequently managing to stand aside and yet remaining undeniably central throughout — until he is swept inevitably into the narrative’s startling and shattering climax. A novel of death and laughter both — and of extraordinary intellectual richness.’

 

97806700258247. One for the Books by Joe Queenan
‘Joe Queenan became a voracious  reader as a means of escape from a joyless childhood in a Philadelphia housing project. In the years since then he has dedicated himself to an assortment of  idiosyncratic reading challenges: spending a year reading only short books, spending a year reading books he always suspected he would hate, spending a year reading books he picked with his eyes closed.   In One for the Books, Queenan tries to come to terms with his own eccentric reading style—how many more books will he have time to read in his lifetime? Why does he refuse to read books hailed  by reviewers as “astonishing”? Why does he refuse to lend out books? Will he ever buy an e-book? Why does he habitually read thirty to forty books simultaneously? Why are there so many people to whom the above questions do not even matter—and what do they read? Acerbically funny yet passionate and oddly affectionate, One for the Books is a reading experience that true book lovers will find unforgettable.’

 

8. Esther Waters by George Moore
Esther Waters (1894) was one of the first English novels to defeat Victorian moral censorship. George Moore’s story of a mother’s fight for the life of her illegitimate son won Mr Gladstone’s approval and was admitted, unaltered, into those bastions of Victorian conformity, the circulating libraries.  Esther Waters is forced to leave home and become a servant in a well-to-do household. Seduced in a moment of weakness she has to leave her position and the novel charts her poignant story of poverty and hardship: first the lying-in hospital, then service as a wet-nurse, and even the workhouse as she struggles to look after her child. Adapting the French literary practices of sexual frankness and social exploration to the British climate, Moore produced his masterpiece in Esther Waters. A landmark in publishing history, it is also one of the finest of naturalistic novels.’

 

9. Jenny and the Cat Club by Esther Averill
‘In Greenwich Village an orphaned black cat lives happily with her master, a sea captain. Still, the gentle Jenny Linsky would like nothing more than to join the local Cat Club, whose members include Madame Butterfly, an elegant Persian, the high-stepping Macaroni, and stately, plump Mr. President. But can she overcome her fears and prove that she, too, has a special gift? Join Jenny and her friends, including fearless Pickles the Fire Cat, on their spirited downtown adventures and discover why The Atlantic Monthly called Jenny “a personality ranking not far below such giants as Peter Rabbit.”‘

 

10. Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself by Robert Montgomery Bird 902287
‘Sheppard Lee, Written By Himself is a work of dark satire from the early years of the American Republic. Published as an autobiography and praised by Edgar Allan Poe, this is the story of a young idler who goes in search of buried treasure and finds instead the power to transfer his soul into other men’s bodies. What follows is one increasingly practiced body snatcher’s picaresque journey through early American pursuits of happiness, as each new form Sheppard Lee assumes disappoints him anew while making him want more and more. When Lee’s metempsychosis draws him into the marriage market, the money market, and the slave market, Bird’s fable of American upward mobility takes a more sinister turn. Lee learns that everything in America, even virtue and vice, are interchangeable; everything is an object and has its price.’

 

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2

Really Underrated Books (Part Three)

We have reached midway in my rather enormous underrated books wishlist.  I hope you’re enjoying the mini series so far, and finding something which catches your eye.  In this particular post, I have focused upon translated works.

 

1. Le Batarde by Violette Leduc 9781564782892
‘An obsessive and revealing self-portrait of a remarkable woman humiliated by the circumstances of her birth and by her physical appearance, La Batarde relates Violette Leduc’s long search for her own identity through a series of agonizing and passionate love affairs with both men and women. When first published, La Batarde earned Violette Leduc comparisons to Jean Genet for the frank depiction of her sexual escapades and immoral behavior. A confession that contains portraits of several famous French authors, this book is more than just a scintillating memoir. Like that of Henry Miller, Leduc’s brilliant writing style and attention to language transform this autobiography into a work of art.’

 

97815856765142. Hash by Torgny Lindgren
‘The main ingredient in the recipes for Swedish hash, a dish known among the peasants of remote northern villages for its delectability and restorative powers, differ widely. The meats, offal, and grain that go into its preparation – an elaborate process of boiling, pickling, steaming, and stewing – can range from the heinous to the dangerous, and the results can be alternately emetic and sublime. The search for the most delicious dish of hash – the ultimate hash – forms the backbone of the blackly comic, marvellously innovative new novel from one of Sweden’s most esteemed and best-selling authors. In a small town where an epidemic of tuberculosis rages, two very different men arrive to a scene of suffering accepted by the inhabitants not with stoicism or as a test of fate, but almost with glee. Robert Maser is a travelling garment salesman whose accent and demeanour betray the fact that he is actually the fugitive Martin Borman, the Nazi leader rumoured to have slipped past Red Army lines during the fall of Berlin. He engages the local schoolteacher, Lars, on the bizarre quest to find world’s best hash, and together they wander the Swedish countryside, inviting themselves into peasant homes to sample the variety of humble family recipes. As their search becomes more impassioned, it becomes clear that their goal is much more than a culinary marvel, and that what they’ve really been seeking is the force of life that must present itself even in dark times.’

 

3. The Case of Comrade Tuleyev by Victor Serge
‘One cold Moscow night, Comrade Tulayev, a high government official, is shot dead on the street, and the search for the killer begins. In this panoramic vision of the Soviet Great Terror, the investigation leads all over the world, netting a whole series of suspects whose only connection is their innocence—at least of the crime of which they stand accused. But The Case of Comrade Tulayev, unquestionably the finest work of fiction ever written about the Stalinist purges, is not just a story of a totalitarian state. Marked by the deep humanity and generous spirit of its author, the legendary anarchist and exile Victor Serge, it is also a classic twentieth-century tale of risk, adventure, and unexpected nobility’

 

4. The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch 9780679755487
‘It is the reign of the Emperor Augustus, and Publius Vergilius Maro, the poet of the Aeneid and Caesar’s enchanter, has been summoned to the palace, where he will shortly die. Out of the last hours of Virgil’s life and the final stirrings of his consciousness, the Austrian writer Hermann Broch fashioned one of the great works of twentieth-century modernism, a book that embraces an entire world and renders it with an immediacy that is at once sensual and profound. Begun while Broch was imprisoned in a German concentration camp, The Death of Virgil is part historical novel and part prose poem — and always an intensely musical and immensely evocative meditation on the relation between life and death, the ancient and the modern.’

 

5. Cleaned Out by Annie Ernaux
Cleaned Out tells the story of Denise Lesur, a 20-year-old woman suffering the after-effects of a back-alley abortion. Alone in her college dorm room, Denise attempts to understand how her suffocating middle-class upbringing has brought her to such an awful present. Ernaux, one of France’s most important contemporary writers, daringly breaks with formal French literary tradition in this moving novel about abortion, growing up, and coming to terms with one’s childhood.’

 

97815901709536. Asleep in the Sun by Adolfo Bioy Casares
‘Lucio, a normal man in a normal (nosy) city neighborhood with normal problems with his in-laws (ever-present) and job (he lost it) finds he has a new problem on his hands: his beloved wife, Diana. She’s been staying out till all hours of the night and grows more disagreeable by the day. Should Lucio have Diana committed to the Psychiatric Institute, as her friend the dog trainer suggests? Before Lucio can even make up his mind, Diana is carted away by the mysterious head of the institute. Never mind, Diana’s sister, who looks just like Diana—and yet is nothing like her—has moved in. And on the recommendation of the dog trainer, Lucio acquires an adoring German shepherd, also named Diana. Then one glorious day, Diana returns, affectionate and pleasant. She’s been cured!—but have the doctors at the institute gone too far?  Asleep in the Sun is the great work of the Argentine master Adolfo Bioy Casares’s later years. Like his legendary Invention of Morel, it is an intoxicating mixture of fantasy, sly humor, and menace. Whether read as a fable of modern politics, a meditation on the elusive parameters of the self, or a most unusual love story, Bioy’s book is an almost scarily perfect comic turn, as well as a pure delight.’

 

7. The Spanish Ballad by Lion Feuchtwanger
The Spanish Ballad (originally published as “Die Jüdin von Toledo“) is a 1955 novel by German-Jewish writer Lion Feuchtwanger. The story focuses on the “Golden Age” of learning in medieval Spain, and also describes the affair of Alfonso VIII with the Jewish Raquel in Toledo.  In Lion Feuchtwanger’s prologue to the story, he mentions that the ballad was originally written by Alfonso X of Castile in regards of his Great-Grandfather (Alfonso VIII).’

 

8. Lost Paradise by Cees Nooteboom 9780099497158
‘Cees Nooteboom, hailed by A. S. Byatt as “one of the greatest modern novelists,” is one of Holland’s most important authors. In Lost Paradise, Nooteboom’s most ambitious book yet, he sets out to uncover the connections between two seemingly unrelated travelers: a beautiful stranger aboard a Berlin-bound flight and a haggard-looking man on a Holland train platform. With his fleeting impressions of these encounters, Nooteboom builds a complex, haunting story of longing, regret, and rebirth in the dawn of the new millennium. Alma, a young woman of German descent, leaves her parents’ Sao Paolo home on a hot summer night. Her car engine dies in one of the city’s most dangerous favelas, a mob surrounds her, and she is pulled from the automobile. Not long after, Dutch novelist Erik Zontag is in Perth, Australia, for a literary conference and finds a winged woman curled up in a closet in an empty house. The intersection of their paths illuminates the ways in which the divine touches our lives. Lost Paradise is an affirmation of our underlying humanity in an increasingly fragmented age, a deeply resonant tale of cosmically thwarted love.’

 

9. Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge
‘Unforgiving Years is a thrilling and terrifying journey into the disastrous, blazing core of the twentieth century. Victor Serge’s final novel, here translated into English for the first time, is at once the most ambitious, bleakest, and most lyrical of this neglected major writer’s works.  The book is arranged into four sections, like the panels of an immense mural or the movements of a symphony. In the first, D, a lifelong revolutionary who has broken with the Communist Party and expects retribution at any moment, flees through the streets of prewar Paris, haunted by the ghosts of his past and his fears for the future. Part two finds D’s friend and fellow revolutionary Daria caught up in the defense of a besieged Leningrad, the horrors and heroism of which Serge brings to terrifying life. The third part is set in Germany. On a dangerous assignment behind the lines, Daria finds herself in a city destroyed by both Allied bombing and Nazism, where the populace now confronts the prospect of total defeat. The novel closes in Mexico, in a remote and prodigiously beautiful part of the New World where D and Daria are reunited, hoping that they may at last have escaped the grim reckonings of their modern era.  A visionary novel, a political novel, a novel of adventure, passion, and ideas, of despair and, against all odds, of hope, Unforgiving Years is a rediscovered masterpiece by the author of The Case of Comrade Tulayev.’

 

978178168859510. Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan
‘A new generation of young literary figures in Indonesia, emerging after decades of repressive dictatorship ended in 1998, is renewing the culture of the world’s largest Muslim nation (and its language, which was only nationally instituted in 1945). Kurniawan’s Beauty Is a Wound and Man Tiger are the capstones of this movement. A slim, wry story set in an unnamed town near the Indian Ocean, Man Tiger tells the story of two interlinked and tormented families, and of Margio, an ordinary half-city, half-rural youngster who also happens to be half-man, half-supernatural female white tiger (in many parts of Indonesia, magical tigers protect good villages and families).  At once elegant and bawdy, experimental and political, Man Tiger will help to establish Indonesia’s new voice, underrepresented in world literature, while demonstrating the influence of world literature on Indonesian writers.’

 

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2

Really Underrated Books (Part Two)

Part two of my underrated books wishlist is here!  It’s rather a nice mixture of fiction, and works in translation.  Have you read any of these?

1. Tales of Moonlight and Rain by Akinari Ueda 9780231139137
‘First published in 1776, the nine gothic tales in this collection are Japan’s finest and most celebrated examples of the literature of the occult. They subtly merge the world of reason with the realm of the uncanny and exemplify the period’s fascination with the strange and the grotesque. They were also the inspiration for Mizoguchi Kenji’s brilliant 1953 film Ugetsu.  The title Ugetsu monogatari (literally “rain-moon tales”) alludes to the belief that mysterious beings appear on cloudy, rainy nights and in mornings with a lingering moon. In “Shiramine,” the vengeful ghost of the former emperor Sutoku reassumes the role of king; in “The Chrysanthemum Vow,” a faithful revenant fulfills a promise; “The Kibitsu Cauldron” tells a tale of spirit possession; and in “The Carp of My Dreams,” a man straddles the boundaries between human and animal and between the waking world and the world of dreams. The remaining stories feature demons, fiends, goblins, strange dreams, and other manifestations beyond all logic and common sense.  The eerie beauty of this masterpiece owes to Akinari’s masterful combination of words and phrases from Japanese classics with creatures from Chinese and Japanese fiction and lore. Along with The Tale of Genji and The Tales of the Heike, Tales of Moonlight and Rain has become a timeless work of great significance. This new translation, by a noted translator and scholar, skillfully maintains the allure and complexity of Akinari’s original prose.’

 

2. King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher
‘Far from London’s crime and pollution, Hanmouth’s wealthier residents live in picturesque, heavily mortgaged cottages in the center of a town packed with artisanal cheese shops and antiques stores. They’re reminded of the town’s less desirable outskirts—with their grim, flimsy housing stock and chain stores—only when their neighbors have the presumption to claim also to live in Hanmouth.  When an eight-year-old girl from the outer area goes missing, England’s eyes suddenly turn toward the sleepy town with a curiosity as piercing and unblinking as the closed-circuit security cameras that line Hanmouth’s idyllic streets. But somehow these cameras have missed the abduction of the girl, whose name is China. Is her blank-eyed hairdresser mother hiding her as part of a moneymaking hoax? Has she been abducted by one of the lurking perverts the townspeople imagine the cameras are protecting them from? Perhaps more cameras are needed?  As it turns out, more than one resident of Hanmouth has a secret hidden behind closed doors. There’s Sam and Harry, the cheesemonger and aristocrat who lead the county’s gay orgies. The quiet husband of postcolonial theorist Miranda (everyone agrees she’s marvelous) keeps a male lover, while their daughter disembowels dolls she’s named Child Pornography and Slightly Jewish. Moral crusader John Calvin’s Neighborhood Watch has an unusual reason for holding its meetings in secret. And, of course, somewhere out there is the house where little China is hidden.  With the dark hilarity and unflinching honesty of a modern-day Middlemarch, King of the Badgers demolishes the already fragile privacy of Hanmouth’s inhabitants. These characters, exquisitely drawn and rawly human, proclaim Philip Hensher’s status as an extraordinary chronicler of the domestic, and one of the world’s most dazzling and ambitious novelists.’

 

97815901701373. The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermout
The Ten Thousand Things is a novel of shimmering strangeness—the story of Felicia, who returns with her baby son from Holland to the Spice Islands of Indonesia, to the house and garden that were her birthplace, over which her powerful grandmother still presides. There Felicia finds herself wedded to an uncanny and dangerous world, full of mystery and violence, where objects tell tales, the dead come and go, and the past is as potent as the present. First published in Holland in 1955, Maria Dermoût’s novel was immediately recognized as a magical work, like nothing else Dutch—or European—literature had seen before. The Ten Thousand Things is an entranced vision of a far-off place that is as convincingly real and intimate as it is exotic, a book that is at once a lament and an ecstatic ode to nature and life.’

 

4. The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink
‘Nothing exciting ever happens to Kirby or Bitsy Mellen–that is, until their mother inherits a motel in Florida from her great-granduncle Hiram, complete with a roster of eccentric guests. New this winter are the Browns, obsessed with their suntans; Miss DeGree, obsessed with her poodles; and two mysterious men, obsessed, like Kirby, with trying to find Uncle Hiram’s rumored secret treasure.’

 

5. The Forest of Hours by Kerstin Ekman 9780701166144
‘Ekman’s central character is Skord, a magical being who is neither man nor animal. The novel begins in the Middle Ages when Skord finds himself in a forest with no memory, no past and no language. As he observes the behaviour of the human beings he meets in the forest, he begins to gradually to understand human civilisation and to learn their language. Although he can pose as one of them, however, he is also able to assume the form of animals and cause things to happen simply by willing them. Skord survives for five hundred years and lives many different lives but, despite his learning, he finds it difficult to resist the call of the forest and returns there periodically to rejoin the band of forest outlaws who live outside human society. He will live to see the nineteenth century and the age of steam, but, by then, he will have discovered that man’s supposed cultivation is in fact destructive and the most important thing in life is love – his love of a forest woman.’

 

6. Light by Torgny Lindgren
‘In medieval Sweden, a small community shares its meagre subsistence with its domestic livestock. When an imported rabbit introduces the plague the population is annihilated, all except a few villagers and the odd pig. By the author of Bathsheba and The Way of the Serpent.’

 

97814929805067. The Celestial Omnibus and Other Stories by E.M. Forster
The Celestial Omnibus is a collection of short-stories Forster wrote during the prewar years, most of which were symbolic fantasies or fables.’

 

8. Famine by Liam O’Flaherty
‘Set in the period of the Great Famine of the 1840s, Famine is the story of three generations of the Kilmartin family. It is a masterly historical novel, rich in language, character, and plot–a panoramic story of passion, tragedy, and resilience.’

 

9. The Pilgrim Hawk by Glenway Westcott 9780940322561
‘This powerful short novel describes the events of a single afternoon. Alwyn Towers, an American expatriate and sometime novelist, is staying with a friend outside of Paris, when a well-heeled, itinerant Irish couple drops in—with Lucy, their trained hawk, a restless, sullen, disturbingly totemic presence. Lunch is prepared, drink flows. A masquerade, at once harrowing and farcical, begins. A work of classical elegance and concision, The Pilgrim Hawk stands with Faulkner’s The Bear as one of the finest American short novels: a beautifully crafted story that is also a poignant evocation of the implacable power of love. ‘

 

10. The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren by Iona Opie
‘First published in 1959, Iona and Peter Opie’s The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren is a pathbreaking work of scholarship that is also a splendid and enduring work of literature. Going outside the nursery, with its assortment of parent-approved entertainments, to observe and investigate the day-to-day creative intelligence and activities of children, the Opies bring to life the rites and rhymes, jokes and jeers, laws, games, and secret spells of what has been called “the greatest of savage tribes, and the only one which shows no signs of dying out.”‘

 

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2

Really Underrated Books (Part One)

I’m sure I’m not alone when I express my love for Goodreads lists.  I’m not really a reader of popular fiction, and prefer those works which sneak under the radar for the mostpart, so the ‘underrated’ section for books to buy and consequently fall in love with is perfect for me.  To procrastinate ever so slightly from a proofreading manuscript, I have decided to detail fifty very underrated books which I have my eye on over the next week.  They are certainly a mixed bag, but all have intrigued me.  Have you read any of these?

 

1. Collected Stories by Wallace Stegner 9780143039792
‘In a literary career spanning more than fifty years, Wallace Stegner created a remarkable record of the history and culture of twentieth-century America. Each of the thirty-one stories contained in this volume embody some of the best virtues and values to be found in contemporary fiction, demonstrating why the author is acclaimed as one of America’s master storytellers.’

 

2. The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis
‘Maqroll the Gaviero (the Lookout) is one of the most alluring and memorable characters in the fiction of the last twenty-five years. His extravagant and hopeless undertakings, his brushes with the law and scrapes with death, and his enduring friendships and unlooked-for love affairs make him a Don Quixote for our day, driven from one place to another by a restless and irregular quest for the absolute. Álvaro Mutis’s seven dazzling chronicles of the adventures and misadventures of Maqroll have won him numerous honors and a passionately devoted readership throughout the world. Here for the first time in English all these wonderful stories appear in a single volume in Edith Grossman’s prize-winning translation.’

 

97800620590553. The Bat-Poet by Randall Jarrell
‘There was once a little brown bat who couldn’t sleep days—he kept waking up and looking at the world. Before long he began to see things differently from the other bats who from dawn to sunset never opened their eyes. The Bat-Poet is the story of how he tried to make the other bats see the world his way.  With illustrations by Maurice Sendak, The Bat-Poet—a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book selection—is a collection of the bat’s own poems and the bat’s own world: the owl who almost eats him; the mockingbird whose irritable genius almost overpowers him; the chipmunk who loves his poems, and the bats who can’t make heads or tails of them; the cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, and sparrows who fly in and out of Randall Jarrell’s funny, lovable, truthful fable. ‘

 

4. An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton
‘An “exaltation of larks”? Yes! And a “leap of leopards,” a “parliament of owls,” an “ostentation of peacocks,” a “smack of jellyfish,” and a “murder of crows”! For those who have ever wondered if the familiar “pride of lions” and “gaggle of geese” were only the tip of a linguistic iceberg, James Lipton has provided the definitive answer: here are hundreds of equally pithy, and often poetic, terms unearthed by Mr. Lipton in the Books of Venery that were the constant study of anyone who aspired to the title of gentleman in the fifteenth century. When Mr. Lipton’s painstaking research revealed that five hundred years ago the terms of venery had already been turned into the Game of Venery, he embarked on an odyssey that has given us a “slouch of models,” a “shrivel of critics,” an “unction of undertakers,” a “blur of Impressionists,” a “score of bachelors,” and a “pocket of quarterbacks.” This ultimate edition of An Exaltation of Larks is Mr. Lipton’s brilliant answer to the assault on language and literacy in the last decades of the twentieth century. In it you will find more than 1,100 resurrected or newly minted contributions to that most endangered of all species, our language, in a setting of 250 witty, beautiful, and remarkably apt engravings.’

 

5. Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon by Marjorie Kellogg
‘Junie Moon, Warren, and Arthur meet in the hospital and decide to live together when they leave. Each is coping with a disability with courage, strength, and friendship.’

 

6. The Tightrope Walker by Dorothy Gilman 9780449211779
‘When the quiet and shy Amelia Jones reads these words, her life changes irrevocably. She’s just become the new owner of the Ebbtide Shop, a musty antique store filled with merry-go-round horses and hurdy-gurdies, and it is while fixing one of these barrel organs that the scrawled and threatening note falls out. Armed only with the strange woman’s first name and the note written years before, Amelia begins a journey into the past, a search that takes her from the protective cocoon she’s wrapped herself in to a precarious world where passions boil underneath the surface, where nothing is the way it seems, where fear is second nature, and dark secrets just might uncover murder—her own…’

 

7. The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism by Megan Marshall
‘Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia Peabody were in many ways our American Brontes. The story of these remarkable sisters — and their central role in shaping the thinking of their day — has never before been fully told. Twenty years in the making, Megan Marshall’s monumental biograpy brings the era of creative ferment known as American Romanticism to new life. Elizabeth, the oldest sister, was a mind-on-fire thinker. A powerful influence on the great writers of the era — Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau among them — she also published some of their earliest works. It was Elizabeth who prodded these newly minted Transcendentalists away from Emerson’s individualism and toward a greater connection to others. Mary was a determined and passionate reformer who finally found her soul mate in the great educator Horace Mann. The frail Sophia was a painter who won the admiration of the preeminent society artists of the day. She married Nathaniel Hawthorne — but not before Hawthorne threw the delicate dynamics among the sisters into disarray. Marshall focuses on the moment when the Peabody sisters made their indelible mark on history. Her unprecedented research into these lives uncovered thousands of letters never read before as well as other previously unmined original sources. The Peabody Sisters casts new light on a legendary American era. Its publication is destined to become an event in American biography. This book is highly recommended for students and reading groups interested in American history, American literature, and women’s studies. It is a wonderful look into 19th-century life.’

 

97801411837498. Southern Mail by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
‘In his first novel, Saint-Exupéry pays homage to “those elemental divinities-night, day, mountain, sea, and storm,” turning an account of a routine mail flight from France to North Africa into an epic rendering of the pioneer days of commercial aviation. The book is also a poignant reminiscence of a tragic affair, in which the uncertainties of love and flight enhance the mystery of one another.’

 

9. At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom: Stories by Amy Hempel
‘Amy Hempel’s collection of 16 stories seems to ask: “What if people could be just a little more like dogs – -forever loyal, ardent and loving in our hearts?”‘

 

10. Later the Same Day by Grace Paley
‘In the 17 short stories collected here, Paley writes with verbal economy and resonance, pithy insights, and warmth and humor. The themes are familiar: friendship, commitment, responsibility, love, political idealism and activism, children, the nuclear shadow.’

 

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0

Poetry Wishlist

I have been browsing the book haven that is The Strand in New York City’s website of late, as well as various library catalogues (as you can more than likely tell, I am very much anticipating getting stuck into a whole city’s worth of bookishness), and thought I’d put together a post highlighting my current poetry wishlist.  All of these books were chosen at random from an enormous list.

1. Falling Awake by Alice Oswald 9781910702437
‘Mutability – a sense that all matter is unstable in the face of mortality – is at the heart of this new collection and each poem is involved in that drama: the held tension that is embodied life, and life’s losing struggle with the gravity of nature. Working as before with an ear to the oral tradition, these poems attend to the organic shapes and sounds and momentum of the language as it’s spoken as well as how it’s thought: fresh, fluid and propulsive, but also fragmentary, repetitive. These are poems that are written to be read aloud. Orpheus and Tithonus appear at the beginning and end of this book, alive in an English landscape, stuck in the clockwork of their own speech, and the Hours – goddesses of the seasons and the natural apportioning of Time – are the presiding figures. The persistent conditions are flux and falling, and the lines are in constant motion: approaching, from daring new angles, our experience of being human, and coalescing into poems of simple, stunning beauty.’

0811218716-1-zoom2. “A” by Louis Zukofsky
‘Long out of print, ‘A’ is the monumental life-poem by one of the most influential poets of the 20th century. Louis Zukofsky’s (1904-1978) poem brims over with daily love, light, intellect and music, expressing a new potency of poetic language to comprehend and counter-form the maddening expansion of human neglect wrought by the 20th century’s post-industrial, almost post-cultural, entropy. Zukofsky registers ‘a new music of verse stretching out into the future.’ (William Carlos Williams) – a surging tropism of possibility reformed.’

3. ‘Spain, Take This Chalice From Me’ and Other Poems by Cesar Vallejo

‘A definitive, bilingual collection of poetry by one Latin America’s most important poets features more than eighty poems that span the full range of his literary career, accompanied by an introduction that looks at Vallejo’s life, his complex literary style, his leftist politics, and more.’

4. Accepting the Disaster by Joshua Mehigan 0374100985-1-zoom
‘Blending together the naturalistic milieu of great chroniclers of American life with the cinematic menace and wonder of Fritz Lang, this much-anticipated collection of poems evokes real lives and institutions.’

5. The Accordion Repertoire by Franklin Bruno
‘Compressed and expansive by turns, Franklin Bruno’s first collection of poems moves through the languages of commerce and philosophy, theforgotten codes of old Hollywood and the radio serial, and thecontested spaces of the contemporary city with musicality, anger, and wit.’

6. The After Party by Jana Prikryl
‘Jana Prikryl’s The After Party journeys across borders and eras, from cold war Central Europe to present-day New York City,from ancient Rome to New World suburbs, constantly testing the lingua francas we negotiate to know ourselves. These poems disclose the tensions in our inherited identities and showcase Prikryl’s ambitiousexperimentation with style.  “Thirty Thousand Islands,” the second half of the collection, presents some forty linked poems in a great variety of structures and incorporating numerous voices. Rooted in one place that fragments into many places—the remote shores of Lake Huron in Canada, a region with no natural resources aside from its beauty—these poems are an elegy that speaks beyond grief.  Penetrating, vital, and visionary, The After Party marks the arrival of an extraordinary new talent.’

 

Have you read any of these?  Which would you recommend I begin with?  If you would also like to recommend some more poetry books for me to seek out, that would be much appreciated.

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