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Powell’s ‘Indiespensable’ Novels

Powell’s Books in Oregon, whose headquarters claim to be the largest new and secondhand bookshop in the world, is somewhere that has been on my to-visit list for around a decade now.  I am determined to get there one day – perhaps with an empty suitcase in tow for a wealth of probable purchases – but for now, I have to make do with their website.  Powell’s champion a lot of small, lesser-known books on their website, and launched a wonderful looking subscription club some time ago, called ‘Indiespensable’.  I would love to sign up, but being in the UK, it is rather expensive.  I have, however, made my way through their archive and highlighted ten books which I really, really, want to read, along with Powell’s wonderful reviews and reasoning for choosing these particular tomes.

1. The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner featured-indie-73
‘With The Mars Room, bestselling author and two-time National Book Award finalist Rachel Kushner brings readers another award-worthy novel. Romy Leslie Hall, prisoner W314159, captivated us from the beginning, riding in a bus for female inmates heading to Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in California, to serve a double life sentence. Romy’s life has never been easy, and she reflects on her time before prison, when she worked as a stripper at the Mars Room and cared for her son, Jackson. From prison she offers commentary on the minutiae of institutional life, studded with vivid characters like Conan, an extremely masculine transgender male; Norse, a heavy metal-loving white supremacist; and smiley Laura Lipp, the “baby killer.” Entertaining and thoughtful, The Mars Room delves into the injustices of the American prison system and the routine violence inflicted upon marginalized children and women in our society. Switching between Romy’s voice and those of her fellow inmates, as well as a dirty cop, a well-intentioned prison employee, and the diaries of Ted Kaczynski, among others, the novel creates a provocative mosaic of those living within and around the prison industrial complex.’
2. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado’s sublimely creepy debut, draws on the lexicons of urban legend, the 19th-century British gothic, and American society’s evolving ideas about female corporeality to tell stories about women on the edge. Machado’s characters are subject to the familiar embarrassments, privations, and violence to which women worldwide are accustomed, but they ’re also privy to something else; in very different ways, Machado’s main characters share a consciousness of the enormity of the world’s brutality against women, whether it’s exercised through the condemnation of fat, the frequency of rape, the male gaze, the disavowal of female testimony, or campfire stories about bad girls getting what they deserve. In the liminal worlds of Her Body and Other Parties — positioned somewhere between 21st-century America and a horrorscape of breathing pavement and sentient dresses — an intangible, living darkness reaches out to hurt women, or convince them to hurt themselves. The dread this darkness inspires powers Machado ’s riveting short story collection, which heralds the arrival of a brilliant and incisive writer.’
329202263. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
‘From Jesmyn Ward, the National Book Award-winning author of Salvage the Bones, comes another timely and stunning addition to the literary canon. With Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward casts a careful, unsentimental lens on the most disenfranchised Americans. The novel traverses the Gulf Coast on a complex family odyssey, as the characters struggle to find hope and peace in a world that is unsympathetic to them. Leonie, a careworn waitress, finds solace in drugs and Michael, her white boyfriend and the father of their two children. Caught in the middle of Leonie’s quest for the “perfect” family are Jojo, her teenage son, and his toddler sister, Kayla, who prefer the comfort and security of Pop and Mam, the grandparents who raised them. Like Ward’s previous work, Sing, Unburied, Sing is raw and honest in its depiction of the generational poverty, racism, and regret that shadow this family and, more broadly, the rural South. Ward’s signature lyricism lends a visceral quality to her characters and their landscape, without evoking undue sympathy for the most troubled individuals. Sing, Unburied, Sing is an elegantly rendered, brilliant, and necessary reading of the American landscape.’
4. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
‘George Saunders’s writing has always been apropos of the current political and social climate, and though his theatrical debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is set in 1862, the modern-day parallels (and contrasts) are striking. The novel portrays a critical time in the life of Abraham Lincoln, who is deep in grief over the death of his son, Willie Lincoln. Disliked by the populace and presiding over a dramatically shifting country, Lincoln finds himself visiting the bardo — a Tibetan purgatory-like state — each night by returning to his son’s tomb while a gaggle of ghosts (including Willie) look on. Told through this chorus of spirits along with real-life and fictional characters, Lincoln in the Bardo turns our idea of the novel on its head. Yet through the fractured narrative, Saunders has created a deft historical tale that speaks volumes about our current unrest and ill-defined state.’

5. The Mothers by Brit Bennett 28815371
‘A contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, New Republic, and The Paris Review, Brit Bennett has never shied away from asking and answering the difficult questions when it comes to race. Her debut novel, The Mothers, is just as bold in its depiction of abortion. But the story doesn’t end with this polarizing topic — it begins with it, and each page gradually reveals the tangled lives and fates of three teenagers in a black Southern California community: Nadia Turner, an ambitious and rebellious teen; Luke, the local pastor’s son; and Aubrey, Nadia’s timid friend. Narrated by “the Mothers,” a chorus of elder parishioners of Upper Room Chapel, the story follows Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey from age 17 into their mid-20s. Bennett’s unflinching honesty in portraying these all-too-human characters (including the narrators) is something to be treasured. The Mothers is a beautifully reflective work about the decisions we make in our youth and their reverberations in our lives and throughout our community.’
6. The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil
‘We’ve had our eye on Josh Weil ever since his first book, The New Valley, came out in 2009. The collection of three linked novellas won the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and earned him a spot on the National Book Foundation’s esteemed “5 Under 35” list of upcoming young authors. So we had high expectations when his new novel found its way into our hands.  The Great Glass Sea lived up to — and surpassed — those accolades with its inventiveness, originality, and incredible story. Yarik and Dima are twin brothers living in an alternate and dystopian version of Russia. Inseparable as children, their adult lives begin to divide along lines of power, ideology, and fortune. Drawing strong influence from Russian folktales, The Great Glass Sea is a gorgeously written, intricately detailed look at how community, individuality, and love evolve in one imagined future. We are happy to be partnering again with Grove Atlantic, one of the country’s premier independent presses, to present this excellent work.
181439777. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
‘This novel tells the parallel stories of a blind French girl and a young German radio engineer during World War II. Whether he’s describing the locks in Paris’s National Museum of Natural History, the history of a notorious diamond, or the streets of a medieval French port, Doerr lends an expert’s eye to the details of the world he brings to life. But what truly elevates his second novel is how skillfully he uses each of his lyrical, evocative sentences, one after the other, to gradually reveal the complex inner lives of his truly memorable cast of characters. Abraham Verghese wrote: “It’s been a while since a novel had me under its spell in this fashion,” and we, too, feel absolutely enchanted by this book.’
8. In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell
‘When we read Matt Bell’s debut novel, our first thought was, Wow! Our second thought was, Indiespensable. Books like this are why we created a subscription club in the first place. We wanted a venue to promote those titles we would stake our reputation on but that might need a boost to reach the audience they deserved, hence the focus on independent presses, small print runs, and first-time authors. We’ll concede that this is not an easy book. It’s certainly difficult to describe, though Lauren Groff came pretty close when she called it “a big, slinking, dangerous fairy tale, the kind with gleaming fangs and blood around the muzzle and a powerful heart you can hear thumping from miles away.” But it is well worth the effort. Once you sink your teeth in, we’re confident you’ll love it as much as we did.’
9. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra 18428067
‘The moment we opened Anthony Marra’s brutal, beautiful debut novel about an orphaned Chechnyan girl hiding from the Russians during the country’s recent decade of war, we knew that for once our choice would be easy. Maile Meloy perfectly captured our experience: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is “both devastating and transcendent….You’ll finish it transformed.” One colleague was even more succinct, saying simply, “Gorgeous. Just gorgeous!”‘
10. Bright Before Us by Katie Arnold-Ratliff
Facing the prospect of fatherhood, disillusioned by his fledgling teaching career, and mourning the loss of a former relationship, Francis Mason is a prisoner of his past mistakes. When his second-grade class discovers a dead body during a field trip to a San Francisco beach, Francis spirals into unbearable grief and all-consuming paranoia. As his behavior grows increasingly erratic, and tensions arise with the school principal and the parents of his students, he faces the familiar urge to flee—a choice that forces him to confront the character weaknesses that have shattered his life again and again, and to accept the wrenching truth about the past he’s never been able to move beyond. A haunting debut novel, Bright Before Us explores the fraught journey toward adulthood, the nature of memory, and the startling limits to which we are driven by grief.

 

Have you read any of these?  Have you been lucky enough to go to Powell’s before?  Do you ever plan trips around visits to bookshops?

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Books with Wonderful Titles

I am particularly drawn to books which have quirky and unusual titles.  I (sadly) tend to spot less of these in bookshops than I do when browsing book websites, and have so many of them on my to-read list.  I thought that it might be a fun idea to gather together ten wonderfully titled books, and display them alongside their synopses.  I have read a couple of these, and the rest are either on my wishlist, or ones which I came across whilst compiling this post.

1. Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello 29633820
‘Beginning with Yuka, a 39,000 year old mummified woolly mammoth recently found in the Siberian permafrost, each of the 16 essays in Animals Strike Curious Poses investigates a different famous animal named and immortalized by humans. Modeled loosely after a medieval bestiary, these witty, playful, whipsmart essays traverse history, myth, science, and more, bringing each beast vibrantly to life.’
2. Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken ****
Spanning the waning years of vaudeville and the golden age of Hollywood, Niagara Falls All Over Again chronicles a flawed, passionate friendship over thirty years, weaving a powerful story of family and love, grief and loss. In it, McCracken introduces her most singular and affecting hero: Mose Sharp — son, brother, husband, father, friend … and straight man to the fat guy in baggy pants who utterly transforms his life.
8751363. The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits by Emma Donoghue
Donoghue finds her inspiration for these wry, robust tales in obscure scraps of historical records: an engraving of a woman giving birth to rabbits; a plague ballad; surgical case notes; theological pamphlets; an articulated skeleton. Here kings, surgeons, soldiers, and ladies of leisure rub shoulders with cross-dressers, cult leaders, poisoners, and arsonists.  Whether she’s spinning the tale of an Irish soldier tricked into marrying a dowdy spinster, a Victorian surgeon’s attempts to “improve” women, a seventeenth-century countess who ran away to Italy disguised as a man, or an “undead” murderess returning for the maid she left behind to be executed in her place, Emma Donoghue brings to her stories an “elegant, colorful prose filled with unforgettable sights, sounds and smells” (Elle). Here she summons the ghosts of those women who counted for nothing in their own day, but who come to unforgettable life in fiction.
4. Life is a Circus Run by a Platypus by Allison Hawn
Has being late to work due to dancing clowns ever been a problem for you? Have you ever had to defend yourself against a giant iguana? Does the overture to The Music Man make you violently twitch? In Life is a Circus Run by a Platypus readers are immersed into what it would be like to live every day as if a herd of ballerinas were chasing you, without the inconvenience of actually having to run. This collection of truly bizarre short stories taken from the author, Allison Hawn’s, life takes one across the world and into the strangest crevices of civilization. The lessons learned through her adventures might very well save the reader if they too ever have to face birthing a cow, calming distraught technical support or death by furniture.
5. The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts by Louis de Bernieres ** 828389
When the spoilt and haughty Dona Constanza tries to divert a river to fill her swimming pool, she starts a running battle with the locals. The skirmishes are so severe that the Government dispatches a squadron of soldiers led by the fat, brutal and stupid Figueras to deal with them.  Despite visiting plagues of laughing fits and giant cats upon the troops, the villagers know that to escape the cruel and unusual tortures planned for them, they must run. Thus they plan to head for the mountains and start a new and convivial civilisation.
6. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg ****
When suburban Claudia Kincaid decides to run away, she knows she doesn’t just want to run from somewhere, she wants to run to somewhere — to a place that is comfortable, beautiful, and, preferably, elegant. She chooses the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Knowing her younger brother Jamie has money and thus can help her with a serious cash-flow problem, she invites him along.  Once settled into the museum, Claudia and Jamie find themselves caught up in the mystery of an angel statue that the museum purchased at auction for a bargain price of $225. The statue is possibly an early work of the Renaissance master, Michelangelo, and therefore worth millions. Is it? Or isn’t it?  Claudia is determined to find out. Her quest leads her to Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the remarkable old woman who sold the statue, and to some equally remarkable discoveries about herself.
8976517. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat by Oliver Sacks ****
In his most extraordinary book, “one of the great clinical writers of the twentieth century” (The New York Times) recounts the case histories of patients lost in the bizarre, apparently inescapable world of neurological disorders. Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat tells the stories of individuals afflicted with fantastic perceptual and intellectual aberrations: patients who have lost their memories and with them the greater part of their pasts; who are no longer able to recognize people and common objects; who are stricken with violent tics and grimaces or who shout involuntary obscenities; whose limbs have become alien; who have been dismissed as retarded yet are gifted with uncanny artistic or mathematical talents.
8. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey ****
As a long illness keeps her bedridden, Elisabeth Tova Bailey becomes intrigued by a snail that has taken up residence in a pot plant next to her bed. Her fascination with the snail’s strange anatomy and its midnight wanderings kindles an interest that saves her sanity.  The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is an inspiring and intimate story of resilience, and an affirmation of the healing power of nature. It reminds us of how a small part of the natural world can illuminate our existence and deepen our appreciation of what it means to be fully alive.

 

9. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery **** 6238269
A moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.  We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence.  Then there’s Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.  Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma’s trust and to see through Renée’s timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.
10. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris
A guy walks into a bar car and…  From here the story could take many turns. When this guy is David Sedaris, the possibilities are endless, but the result is always the same: he will both delight you with twists of humor and intelligence and leave you deeply moved.   Sedaris remembers his father’s dinnertime attire (shirtsleeves and underpants), his first colonoscopy (remarkably pleasant), and the time he considered buying the skeleton of a murdered Pygmy.  With Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, David Sedaris shows once again why his work has been called “hilarious, elegant, and surprisingly moving” (Washington Post).

 

Have you read any of these?  Which are your favourite book titles?

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Virago: Ten Books from the Wishlist

Virago are currently celebrating their fortieth birthday, and along with a week-long celebration of their novels, I thought that it would be a good idea to select ten of the books on their wonderful Modern Classics list which I haven’t yet got to.  I did make a conscious effort for several years to choose books from this list, in order to try and get through it and discover some wonderful literature.  However, it has expanded considerably in recent years, along with my TBR list, and I have not got as far with the project as I would have liked.  I am hopeful that, by making this list, I will be able to seek out these particular Viragos and read them in the near future.

 

1396471. A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse (#11)
A Pin to See the Peepshow is a fictionalized account of the life of Edith Thompson, one of the three main players in the “Ilford murder” case of 1922.

2. Joanna Godden by Sheila Kaye-Smith (#115)
Joanna Godden is a ‘damn fine women’, big and blue-eyed with a brown freckled face and a weakness for fancy clothes. On the death bed of her father all her neighbours expect her to marry, for someone (some man) must run Little Ansdore, the Sussex farm she inherits. But Joanna is a person of independent mind: she decides to run it herself. Her strength as a woman and a lover, as a sister and a farmer are all broken by her defiance of convention and the inexorable demands of the land itself. But nothing can finally defeat Joanna: she bounces off the page triumphant, one of the most ebullient, most attractive country heroines in literature.
3. The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns (#224) 2702636
Her father dies and the ten-year-old Frances, her mother and assorted siblings are taken under the wing of their horsey relations, led by bullying Aunt Lawrence. Their new home is small and they can’t afford a maid. Mother occasionally dabs at the furniture with a duster and sister Polly rules the kitchen. Living in patronised poverty isn’t much fun but Frances makes friends with Mrs. Alexander who has a collection of monkeys and a yellow motor car, and the young widow, Vanda, who is friendly if the Major isn’t due to call. But times do change and one day Aunt Lawrence gets her come-uppance and Frances goes to live in the house with “the skin chairs.”
4. In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor (#112)
Kate Heron is a wealthy, charming widow who marries, much to the disapproval of friends and neighbours, a man ten years her junior: the attractive, feckless Dermot. Then comes the return of Kate’s old friend Charles – intelligent, kind and now widowed, with his beautiful young daughter. Kate watches happily as their two families are drawn together, finding his presence reassuringly familiar, but slowly she becomes aware of subtle undercurrents that begin to disturb the calm surface of their friendship. Before long, even she cannot ignore the gathering storm . . .
233532245. The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner (#299)
In memory of the wife who had once dishonoured and always despised him, Brian de Retteville founded a 12th-century convent in Norfolk. Two centuries later, the Benedictine community is well established there and, as befits a convent whose origin had such ironic beginnings, the inhabitants are prey to the ambitions, squabbles, jealousies, and pleasures of less spiritual environments. An outbreak of the Black Death, the collapse of the convent spire, the Bishop’s visitation, and a nun’s disappearance are interwoven with the everyday life of the nuns, novices, and prioresses in this imagined history of a 14th-century nunnery.
6. Pirates at Play by Violet Trefusis (#416)
Published to coincide with a biography of Violet Trefusis, this romantic comedy set in the Twenties shows young aristocrat, Elizabeth Caracole being finished in Florence with the family of a Papal count – the dentist. All five brothers fall for her, but their sister, Vica, has plans of her own.
7. Plagued by the Nightingale by Kay Boyle (#47) 1188052
This extraordinary novel, first published in 1931, recounts the love story of the American girl Bridget and the young Frenchman Nicolas whom she marries. Bridget goes to live with his wealthy, close-knit family in their Breton village and finds there a group — mother, father, sisters, and brother-in-law — who love each other to the exclusion of the outside world.  But it is a love that festers, for the family is tainted with an inherited bone disease, a plague which, Bridget slowly discovers, can also infect the soul. Then Luc — young, handsome, healthy — arrives and Bridget is faced with a choice: confronting the Old World with the courage of the New she makes the bravest choice of all…  In subtle, rich and varied prose Kay Boyle echoes Henry James in a novel at once lyrical, delicate and shocking.
8. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay (#104)
Banished by her mother to England, Barbara is thrown into the ordered formality of English life. Confused and unhappy, she discovers the wrecked and flowering wastes around St Paul’s, where she finds an echo of the wilderness of Provence and is forced to confront the wilderness within herself.
13430229. The Fire-Dwellers by Margaret Laurence (#304)
The Fire-Dwellers is an extraordinary novel about a woman who has four children, a hard-working but uncommunicative husband, a spinster sister, and an abiding conviction that life has more to offer her than the tedious routine of her days.  Margaret Laurence has given us another unforgettable heroine – human, compelling, full of poetry, irony and humour. In the telling of her life, Stacey rediscovers for us all the richness of the commonplace, the pain and beauty in being alive, and the secret music that dances in everyone’s soul.
10. I’m Not Complaining by Ruth Adam (#124)
Madge Brigson is a teacher in a Nottinghamshire Elementary school in the 1930s. Here, with her colleagues – ranging from the beautiful, “promiscuous” Jenny to the earnest communist Freda and kind, spinsterish Miss Jones – she battles with the trials and tribulations of that special world: nits in the hair, abusive parents, inspectors’ visits, eternal registers, malnutrition, staff quarrels and staff love affairs. To all of this Madge presents an uncompromisingly intelligent and commonsensical face: laughter is never far away as she copes with her pupils, with the harsh circumstances of life in the Depression, and with her own love affair. For Madge is a splendid heroine: determined, perceptive, warm-hearted, she deals with life, and love, unflinchingly and gets the most out of the best – and worst – of it.

 

Are you a fan of Virago?  Have you read any of these books?  Which books from the Modern Classics list do you have on your TBR pile to read, and which are you wishing for?

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The 1977 Club

As is sadly becoming habit, my studies and my current book-buying ban have left me with relatively little time to find a title from 1977 to contribute to the excellent ‘club’ run by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.  Whilst I have therefore been unable to contribute a full review, I thought I would collect together ten titles published in 1977 which I am looking forward to reading in future.

 

1. Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym 27411950
In 1970s London Edwin, Norman, Letty and Marcia work in the same office and suffer the same problem – loneliness. Lovingly and with delightful humour, Pym conducts us through their day-to-day existence: their preoccupations, their irritations, their judgements, and – perhaps most keenly felt – their worries about having somehow missed out on life as post-war Britain shifted around them.  Deliciously, blackly funny and full of obstinate optimism, Quartet in Autumn shows Barbara Pym’s sensitive artistry at its most sparkling. A classic from one of Britain’s most loved and highly acclaimed novelists, its world is both extraordinary and familiar, revealing the eccentricities of everyday life.

 

2. Delta of Venus by Anais Nin
In Delta of Venus Anaïs Nin penned a lush, magical world where the characters of her imagination possess the most universal of desires and exceptional of talents. Among these provocative stories, a Hungarian adventurer seduces wealthy women then vanishes with their money; a veiled woman selects strangers from a chic restaurant for private trysts; and a Parisian hatmaker named Mathilde leaves her husband for the opium dens of Peru. Delta of Venus is an extraordinarily rich and exotic collection from the master of erotic writing.

 

799093. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
An exhilarating look at a place that still retains the exotic mystery of a far-off, unseen land, Bruce Chatwin’s exquisite account of his journey through Patagonia teems with evocative descriptions, remarkable bits of history, and unforgettable anecdotes. Fueled by an unmistakable lust for life and adventure and a singular gift for storytelling, Chatwin treks through “the uttermost part of the earth”— that stretch of land at the southern tip of South America, where bandits were once made welcome—in search of almost forgotten legends, the descendants of Welsh immigrants, and the log cabin built by Butch Cassidy. An instant classic upon publication in 1977, In Patagonia is a masterpiece that has cast a long shadow upon the literary world.

 

4. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa
Mario Vargas Llosa’s brilliant, multilayered novel is set in the Lima, Peru, of the author’s youth, where a young student named Marito is toiling away in the news department of a local radio station. His young life is disrupted by two arrivals.  The first is his aunt Julia, recently divorced and thirteen years older, with whom he begins a secret affair. The second is a manic radio scriptwriter named Pedro Camacho, whose racy, vituperative soap operas are holding the city’s listeners in thrall. Pedro chooses young Marito to be his confidant as he slowly goes insane.  Interweaving the story of Marito’s life with the ever-more-fevered tales of Pedro Camacho, Vargas Llosa’s novel is hilarious, mischievous, and masterful, a classic named one of the best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review.

 

5. The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector 762390
The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector’s consummate final novel, may well be her masterpiece. Narrated by the cosmopolitan Rodrigo S.M., this brief, strange, and haunting tale is the story of Macabéa, one of life’s unfortunates. Living in the slums of Rio and eking out a poor living as a typist, Macabéa loves movies, Coca-Cola, and her rat of a boyfriend; she would like to be like Marylin Monroe, but she is ugly, underfed, sickly, and unloved. Rodrigo recoils from her wretchedness, and yet he cannot avoid realization that for all her outward misery, Macabéa is inwardly free. She doesn’t seem to know how unhappy she should be. Lispector employs her pathetic heroine against her urbane, empty narrator–edge of despair to edge of despair–and, working them like a pair of scissors, she cuts away the reader’s preconceived notions about poverty, identity, love, and the art of fiction. In her last book she takes readers close to the true mystery of life and leaves us deep in Lispector territory indeed.

 

6. Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong’o
‘The puzzling murder of three African directors of a foreign-owned brewery sets the scene for this fervent, hard-hitting novel about disillusionment in independent Kenya. A deceptively simple tale, Petals of Blood is on the surface a suspenseful investigation of a spectacular triple murder in upcountry Kenya. Yet as the intertwined stories of the four suspects unfold, a devastating picture emerges of a modern third-world nation whose frustrated people feel their leaders have failed them time after time. First published in 1977, this novel was so explosive that its author was imprisoned without charges by the Kenyan government. His incarceration was so shocking that newspapers around the world called attention to the case, and protests were raised by human-rights groups, scholars, and writers, including James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Donald Barthelme, Harold Pinter, and Margaret Drabble.

 

3387497. The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd
In 1903, a young Scotswoman named Mary Mackenzie sets sail for China to marry her betrothed, a military attaché in Peking. But soon after her arrival, Mary falls into an adulterous affair with a young Japanese nobleman, scandalizing the British community. Casting her out of the European community, her compatriots tear her away from her small daughter. A woman abandoned and alone, Mary learns to survive over forty tumultuous years in Asia, including two world wars and the cataclysmic Tokyo earthquake of 1923.

 

8. Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters by Anne Sexton (edited by Lois Ames)
An expression of an extraordinary poet’s life story in her own words, this book shows Anne Sexton as she really was in private, as she wrote about herself to family, friends, fellow poets, and students. Anne’s daughter Linda Gray Sexton and her close confidant Lois Ames have judiciously chosen from among thousands of letters and provided commentary where necessary. Illustrated throughout with candid photographs and memorabilia, the letters — brilliant, lyrical, caustic, passionate, angry — are a consistently revealing index to Anne Sexton’s quixotic and exuberant personality.

 

9. Monkey Grip by Helen Garner 7405876
In “Monkey Grip”, Helen Garner charts the lives of a generation. Her characters are exploring new ways of loving and living – and nothing is harder than learning to love lightly. Nora and Javo are trapped in a desperate relationship. Nora’s addiction is romantic love; Javo’s is hard drugs. The harder they pull away, the tighter the monkey grip. A lyrical, gritty, rough-edged novel that deserves its place as a classic of Australian fiction.

 

10. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Milkman Dead was born shortly after a neighborhood eccentric hurled himself off a rooftop in a vain attempt at flight. For the rest of his life he, too, will be trying to fly. With this brilliantly imagined novel, Toni Morrison transfigures the coming-of-age story as audaciously as Saul Bellow or Gabriel García Márquez. As she follows Milkman from his rustbelt city to the place of his family’s origins, Morrison introduces an entire cast of strivers and seeresses, liars and assassins, the inhabitants of a fully realized black world.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which is your favourite book published in 1977?

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Highly Anticipated Releases

As I do around this time every year, I thought that I would make a list of ten highly anticipated book releases which are coming out (and will hopefully be on my shelves) within the next few months.

1. Winter by Ali Smith (02/11/2017; Hamish Hamilton) cover-jpg-rendition-460-707
‘The dazzling second novel in Ali Smith’s essential Seasonal Quartet — from the Baileys Prize-winning, Man Booker-shortlisted author of Autumn and How to be both.  Winter? Bleak. Frosty wind, earth as iron, water as stone, so the old song goes. The shortest days, the longest nights. The trees are bare and shivering. The summer’s leaves? Dead litter.  The world shrinks; the sap sinks.  But winter makes things visible. And if there’s ice, there’ll be fire.  In Ali Smith’s Winter, lifeforce matches up to the toughest of the seasons. In this second novel in her acclaimed Seasonal cycle, the follow-up to her sensational Autumn, Smith’s shape-shifting quartet of novels casts a merry eye over a bleak post-truth era with a story rooted in history, memory and warmth, its taproot deep in the evergreens: art, love, laughter.  It’s the season that teaches us survival.   Here comes Winter.’

 

9781594634901_29a7f2. Awayland: Short Stories by Ramona Ausubel (06/03/2018; Riverhead Books)
An inventive story collection that spans the globe as it explores love, childhood, and parenthood with an electric mix of humor and emotion.  Acclaimed for the grace, wit, and magic of her novels, Ramona Ausubel introduces us to a geography both fantastic and familiar in eleven new stories, some of them previously published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. Elegantly structured, these stories span the globe and beyond, from small-town America and sunny Caribbean islands to the Arctic Ocean and the very gates of Heaven itself. And though some of the stories are steeped in mythology, they remain grounded in universal experiences: loss of identity, leaving home, parenthood, joy, and longing.  Crisscrossing the pages of Awayland are travelers and expats, shadows and ghosts. A girl watches as her homesick mother slowly dissolves into literal mist. The mayor of a small Midwestern town offers a strange prize, for stranger reasons, to the parents of any baby born on Lenin’s birthday. A chef bound for Mars begins an even more treacherous journey much closer to home. And a lonely heart searches for love online—never mind that he’s a Cyclops.  With her signature tenderness, Ramona Ausubel applies a mapmaker’s eye to landscapes both real and imagined, all the while providing a keen guide to the wild, uncharted terrain of the human heart.’

 

3. Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (23/01/2018; Penguin Books) 9780143128793_af956
From the rubble-strewn streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad, Hadi—a scavenger and an oddball fixture at the local cafe—collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognize the parts as people and to give them proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city, and reports stream in of horrendous-looking criminals who, though shot, cannot be killed.  Hadi soon realizes he’s created a monster, one that needs human flesh to survive—first from the guilty, and then from anyone in its path. As the violence builds and Hadi’s acquaintances—a journalist, a government worker, a lonely older woman—become involved, the Whatsitsname and the havoc it wreaks assume a magnitude far greater than anyone could have imagined. An extraordinary achievement, at once horrific and blackly humorous, Frankenstein in Baghdad captures the surreal reality of contemporary Baghdad.

 

9780143132004_c2ca34. Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson (10/10/2017; Penguin Classics)
For the first time in one volume, a collection of Shirley Jackson’s scariest stories.  There’s something nasty in suburbia. In these deliciously dark tales, the daily commute turns into a nightmarish game of hide and seek, the loving wife hides homicidal thoughts and the concerned citizen might just be an infamous serial  killer. In the haunting world of Shirley Jackson, nothing is as it seems and nowhere is safe, from the city streets to the crumbling country pile, and from the small-town apartment to the dark, dark woods…

 

5. I Was Anastasia: A Novel by Ariel Lawhon (20/03/2018; Doubleday) 9780385541695_eae33
Ariel Lawhon, a rising star in historical suspense, unravels the extraordinary twists and turns in Anna Anderson’s 50-year battle to be recognized as Anastasia Romanov. Is she the Russian Grand Duchess, a beloved daughter and revered icon, or is she an imposter, the thief of another woman’s legacy?  Russia, July 17, 1918: Under direct orders from Vladimir Lenin, Bolshevik secret police force Anastasia Romanov, along with the entire imperial family, into a damp basement in Siberia where they face a merciless firing squad. None survive. At least that is what the executioners have always claimed.   Germany, February 17, 1920: A young woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to Anastasia Romanov is pulled shivering and senseless from a canal. Refusing to explain her presence in the freezing water, she is taken to the hospital where an examination reveals that her body is riddled with countless, horrific scars. When she finally does speak, this frightened, mysterious woman claims to be the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia.  Her detractors, convinced that the young woman is only after the immense Romanov fortune, insist on calling her by a different name: Anna Anderson.
As rumors begin to circulate through European society that the youngest Romanov daughter has survived the massacre, old enemies and new threats are awakened. With a brilliantly crafted dual narrative structure, Lawhon wades into the most psychologically complex and emotionally compelling territory: the nature of identity itself.
The question of who Anna Anderson is and what actually happened to Anastasia Romanov creates a saga that spans fifty years and touches three continents. This thrilling story is every bit as moving and momentous as it is harrowing and twisted.

 

9781524732776_a1ec76. Aetherial Worlds: Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya (20/03/2018; Knopf)
Ordinary realities and yearnings to transcend them lead to miraculous other worlds in this dazzling collection of stories. A woman’s deceased father appears in her dreams with clues about the afterlife; a Russian professor in a small American town constructs elaborate fantasies during her cigarette break; a man falls in love with a marble statue as his marriage falls apart; a child glimpses heaven through a stained-glass window. With the emotional insight of Chekhov, the surreal satire of Gogol, and a unique blend of humor and poetry all her own, Tolstaya transmutes the quotidian into aetherial alternatives. These tales, about politics, identity, love, and loss, cut to the core of the Russian psyche, even as they lay bare human universals. Tolstaya’s characters—seekers all—are daydreaming children, lonely adults, dislocated foreigners in unfamiliar lands. Whether contemplating the strategic complexities of delivering telegrams in Leningrad or the meditative melancholy of holiday aspic, vibrant inner lives and the grim elements of existence are registered in equally sharp detail in a starkly bleak but sympathetic vision of life on earth.  A unique collection from one of the first women in years to rank among Russia’s most important writers.

 

7. Macbeth by Jo Nesbo (10/04/2018; Hogarth Press) 9780553419054_66497
Set in the 1970s in a run-down, rainy industrial town with low employment and high crime, Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth centers around a police force struggling to shed the incessant drug problem. Duncan, chief of police, is idealistic and visionary, a dream to the townspeople but a nightmare for the criminals. The drug trade is ruled by Hekate, whose illegal cultivation of substances, known as “the brew,” is overseen by her crew, “the sisters.” A master of manipulation, Hekate has connections with the highest in power, and she plans to use them to get her way.  Hekate contacts Inspector Macbeth, popular head of the Emergency Response Group, to tell him that one day he’ll be the chief of police if he cooperates with her. When Macbeth’s love interest, a casino owner named Lady, hears of Hekate’s prophesy, she calculates who lies between Macbeth and the top job: Duncan and the assistant chief, Malcolm. Under Lady’s pressure, Macbeth does what he believes needs to be done, making sure the blame is pointed at his best friend and colleague, Duff. What follows is an unputdownable story of love and guilt, political ambition, and greed for more, exploring the darkest corners of human nature, the aspirations of the criminal mind, and whether or not free will even matters. In his retelling of Macbeth, Jo Nesbø brings the gritty, powerful procedural gusto that made him an international New York Times bestseller to William Shakespeare’s most timeless tragedy.

 

9780062685711_622b88. The Vanishing Princess: Stories by Jenny Diski (05/12/2017; Ecco)
‘Jenny Diski’s prose is as sharp and steely as her imagination is wild and wondrous. When she died of cancer in April 2016, after chronicling her illness in strikingly honest essays in the London Review of Books, readers, admirers, and critics around the world mourned the loss. In a cool and unflinching tone that came to define her singular voice, she explored the subjects of sex, power, domesticity, femininity, hysteria, and loneliness with humor and honesty.  The stories in The Vanishing Princess showcase a rarely seen side of this beloved writer, channeling both the piercing social examination of her nonfiction and the vivid, dreamlike landscapes of her novels. In a Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale turned on its head, a miller’s daughter rises to power and wealth to rule over her kingdom and outwit the title villain. “Bathtime” tells the story of a woman’s life through her attempts to build the perfect bathtub, chasing an elusive moment of peace. In “Short Curcuit,” the author mines her own bouts in and out of mental institutions outside London to question whether those we think are mad are really the sanest among us.’

 

9. The Twelve-Mile Straight: A Novel by Eleanor Henderson (12/09/2017; Ecco) 9780062422088_01d24
‘Cotton County, Georgia, 1930: in a house full of secrets, two babies-one light-skinned, the other dark-are born to Elma Jesup, a white sharecropper’s daughter. Accused of her rape, field hand Genus Jackson is lynched and dragged behind a truck down the Twelve-Mile Straight, the road to the nearby town. In the aftermath, the farm’s inhabitants are forced to contend with their complicity in a series of events that left a man dead and a family irrevocably fractured.  Despite the prying eyes and curious whispers of the townspeople, Elma begins to raise her babies as best as she can, under the roof of her mercurial father, Juke, and with the help of Nan, the young black housekeeper who is as close to Elma as a sister. But soon it becomes clear that the ties that bind all of them together are more intricate than any could have ever imagined. As startling revelations mount, a web of lies begins to collapse around the family, destabilizing their precarious world and forcing all to reckon with the painful truth.  Acclaimed author Eleanor Henderson has returned with a novel that combines the intimacy of a family drama with the staggering presence of a great Southern saga. Tackling themes of racialized violence, social division, and financial crisis, The Twelve-Mile Straight is a startlingly timely, emotionally resonant, and magnificent tour de force.’

 

9780062676139_129e310. Census by Jesse Ball (06/03/2018; Ecco)
‘When a widower receives notice from a doctor that he doesn’t have long left to live, he is struck by the question of who will care for his adult son—a son whom he fiercely loves, a boy with Down syndrome. With no recourse in mind, and with a desire to see the country on one last trip, the man signs up as a census taker for a mysterious governmental bureau and leaves town with his son.  Traveling into the country, through towns named only by ascending letters of the alphabet, the man and his son encounter a wide range of human experience. While some townspeople welcome them into their homes, others who bear the physical brand of past censuses on their ribs are wary of their presence. When they press toward the edges of civilization, the landscape grows wilder, and the towns grow farther apart and more blighted by industrial decay. As they approach “Z,” the man must confront a series of questions: What is the purpose of the census? Is he complicit in its mission? And just how will he learn to say good-bye to his son?  Mysterious and evocative, Census is a novel about free will, grief, the power of memory, and the ferocity of parental love, from one of our most captivating young writers.’

 

Have you been lucky enough to read any of these already?  Which are your most anticipated forthcoming titles?

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Three Books About Books

As I’m sure can be said about the majority of bibliophiles, I love a good book which is about…  well…  books!  Many have come to my attention of late, so here is a little wishlist of three books about books which I am hoping to get my hands on soon.

1. Scribbles in the Margins by Daniel Gray 34466359
We lead increasingly time-poor lifestyles, bombarded 24/7 by petrifying news bulletins, internet trolls and endless noises. Where has the joy and relaxation gone from our daily lives? Scribbles in the Margins offers a glorious antidote to that relentless modern-day information churn. It is here to remind you that books and bookshops can still sing to your heart.  Warm, heartfelt and witty, here are fifty short essays of prose poetry dedicated to the simple joy to be found in reading and the rituals around it. These are not wallowing nostalgia; they are things that remain pleasurable and right, that warm our hearts and connect us to books, to reading and to other readers: smells of books, old or new; losing an afternoon organising bookshelves; libraries; watching a child learn to read; reading in bed; impromptu bookmarks; visiting someone’s home and inspecting the bookshelves; stains and other reminders of where and when you read a book.  An attempt to fondly weigh up what makes a book so much more than paper and ink – and reading so much more than a hobby, a way of passing time or a learning process – these declarations of love demonstrate what books and reading mean to us as individuals, and the cherished part they play in our lives, from the vivid greens and purples of childhood books to the dusty comfort novels we turn to in times of adult flux.  Scribbles in the Margins is a love-letter to books and bookshops, rejoicing in the many universal and sometimes odd little ways that reading and the rituals around reading make us happy.

 

2. The Book of Speculation by Erica Swyler
23014670‘Simon Watson, a young librarian, lives alone in a house that is slowly crumbling toward the Long Island Sound. His parents are long dead. His mother, a circus mermaid who made her living by holding her breath, drowned in the very water his house overlooks. His younger sister, Enola, ran off six years ago and now reads tarot cards for a traveling carnival.  One June day, an old book arrives on Simon’s doorstep, sent by an antiquarian bookseller who purchased it on speculation. Fragile and water damaged, the book is a log from the owner of a traveling carnival in the 1700s, who reports strange and magical things, including the drowning death of a circus mermaid. Since then, generations of “mermaids” in Simon’s family have drowned–always on July 24, which is only weeks away.  As his friend Alice looks on with alarm, Simon becomes increasingly worried about his sister. Could there be a curse on Simon’s family? What does it have to do with the book, and can he get to the heart of the mystery in time to save Enola?’

 

3. The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski 95979
Henry Petroski, “the poet laureate of technology” and author of the highly acclaimed The Pencil and The Evolution of Useful Things now sets his sights on perhaps the greatest technological advances of the last two thousand years: the making and storing of books–from papyrus scrolls to precious medieval codices to the book as we know it, from the great library at Alexandria to monastic cells to the Library of Congress.  As writing advanced, and with it broader literacy, the development of the book was seemingly inevitable. And as books became more common, the question of where and how to store them became more pertinent. But how did we come from continuous sheets rolled on spools to the ubiquitous portable item you are holding in your hand? And how did books come to be restored and displayed vertically and spine out on shelves? Henry Petroski answers these and virtually every other question we might have about books as he contemplates the history of the book on bookshelf with his inimitable subtle analysis and intriguing detail.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which are your favourite books about books?

Purchase from The Book Depository

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Furrowed Middlebrow

I’m sure that a lot of you are already familiar with Furrowed Middlebrow‘s fantastic and comprehensive ‘British Women Writers of Fiction, 1910-1960’ list (here).  If not, US blogger Scott has compiled an enormous list of just what it says above; British women writers, both popular and forgotten.  He has recently teamed up with Dean Street Press to bring some of the more neglected female authors back into the public eye, making their work more easily accessible to the modern reader.

With this in mind, I have perused the list and picked out ten novels which I very much like the look of, and will try my best to find in the weeks to come.  I would love nothing more than to work my way through Scott’s entire list, but this seems a little unrealistic, particularly with a thesis to write, and after yesterday’s announcement that I’m not doing that well with 2017’s reading challenges!

I have chosen books which I have never heard discussed for this list, and whilst all of the Dean Street Press publications (yes, all of them) appeal to me, I have deliberately not included any of them.  (That said, please go and read Ursula Orange and Frances Faviell immediately.  They are fantastic.)  For many of my choices, I have been unable to find a blurb, but have used the information which Scott has very helpfully written alongside his entries.

1. Perronelle by Valentina Hawtrey
This 1904 novel is set within fifteenth-century Paris, and is by an author who received most success with a translation of a book on Mary Magdalene.  You can read a 1904 review of the novel on the New York Times‘ site (here).

2. Island Farm by Hilda Brearley 51rd5fktvjl-_sx333_bo1204203200_
This children’s book was published in 1940, and was the first of the author’s three novels.  I cannot find much information about it aside from the following, but it sounds quirky and Enid Blyton-esque; what’s not to like?:  ‘3 children are the family of 2 unconventional archaeologists, and are sent to stay at an east-coast farmhouse.’

3. The Chinese Goose by Jean Edminson (aka Helen Robertson)
This 1960 novel sounds wonderfully strange; it is a mystery novel which revolves around a woman killed by swans.  I’ve never read anything quite like it, but am suitably intrigued!

4. Alice by Elizabeth Eliot
Alice was published in 1950, and compared to Nancy Mitford.  Scott deems it ‘clever’ and ‘darkly humorous’.  Kirkus Review writes the following: ‘A first novel which has considerable charm, an insouciant brightness, and a definite knowledge of the rather worldly world from which it derives- the indolent, elegant upper classes in England between the wars. As told by Margaret, her oldest friend, this follows the story of Alice from the time when they attend a rather impossible finishing school. Everything Alice does goes badly; she seems attuned to failure in her search for emotional security, the only thing she wants. The first boy she loves is appropriated by her older sister; she marries Cassius Skeffington, a self-absorbed, self-indulgent exquisite; she has an affair with a bluff but bad-tempered older man; and as finally she makes a success in the theatre, she obliterates reality when she loses her memory, her identity… The early scenes here, of both these jeunes filles en fleur and their devastating deflation of their elders and betters are highly entertaining; and if the wit here is more disarming and not quite as deadly as Nancy Mitford’s- who deals with much this same type of milieu- there should be a parallel public.’

vaughan-thinkofnoughttitlepage5. A Thing of Nought by Hilda Vaughan
This 1934 novel is Vaughan’s most famous, and is set in her native Wales.  It tells a couple who fall in love, but have to be separated when Penry Price, the youngest of five sons of a farming family, has to go to Australia in order to make enough money to marry his sweetheart.  Scott’s beguiling review of A Thing of Nought can be found here.

6. The Two Windows by Mary Cleland
I can find hardly any information about this 1922 novel, but Scott has found a charming quote from the Queenslander, which deems it ‘something fragrant, delicate, and altogether charming’.

7. The House by the Sea by Jon Godden
Jon Godden, real name Winsome Ruth Key Godden, was the older sister of the far more famous Rumer.  She wrote twelve novels of her own, and the siblings also co-authored several tomes.  This particular novel is about a woman named Edwina, who is able to embark on her own, free life after being left some money.  The lovely Jane at Beyond Eden Rock wrote an utterly splendid review of The House by the Sea, which can be found here.

8. Before the Wind by Janet Laing

Before the Wind is a 1918 novel, an ‘energetic comedy’, which focuses upon a young woman who serves as a companion to ‘two eccentric women in wartime Scotland’.  It sounds as though it includes everything I look for in a novel, and I shall be very pleased indeed when I can find my own copy!

9. Sallypark by Margaret Hassett 35490183
This entertaining story by the author of ‘Educating Elizabeth’ etc., tells of the experience of Mrs. Warmbath, a widow, when visiting her cousins the Hartes in Cork.  The atmosphere at Sallypark is extremely well done. The father is a local doctor, who keeps his three daughters in subjection and refuses to let any of them marry; the daughters, while paying respect to their father, carry on their love affairs behind his back; Mrs. Warmbath, against her will, gets involved in these affairs, and manages the father so successfully that the family become suspicious of her motive.  However all ends well in this highly amusing tale.

10. The Tinsel November by Julia Rhys
This 1962 children’s book is wonderfully described as as: “A fantasy tale of a gloomy All Hallow’s Eve, an old English house, some mysterious antique marionettes and a magical time of dark November days which will usher in the candle-glow of Christmas.”  It sounds utterly splendid, and I’m hoping that copies won’t be too difficult to find by the time the year is out!

 

Have you read any of these books?  Are you, too, wishing that you could work through the entirety of the Furrowed Middlebrow list, or are you actually in the process of doing so?  If so, which has been your favourite discovery to date?