February was another excellent reading month in terms of quality if not quantity; mostly a mix of translated lit (from Germany, Chile & Argentina) and 20th century women’s literature. I continued to participate in the #NYRBWomen23 reading project, and also made a couple of contributions to #ReadIndies.
So, without further ado, here’s a brief look at the five books…You can read the detailed reviews on each one by clicking on the title links.
GRAND HOTEL by Vicki Baum (tr. from German by Basil Creighton)
Grand Hotel is a resounding triumph, in which by focusing the spotlight on five core characters from varied walks of life brought together by fate, Baum dwells on their internal dramas as well as their interactions; these are tragic, haunting characters grappling with their inner demons and insecurities while also wrestling with some of the bigger existential questions. The novel sizzles with a vivid sense of place (1920s Berlin) and the language is wonderfully tonal and visual. Also, Baum has a striking way with words that captures the essence of her characters in a few sentences. I read this for #NYRBWomen23 and it was great.
THE TWILIGHT ZONE by Nona Fernández (tr. from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer)
Using the motif of the 1950s popular science fiction/fantasy show The Twilight Zone, Fernández delves into the unimaginable spaces of horror, violence and murkiness of the cruel Pinochet regime where beatings, torture and unexplained disappearances disturbingly became a part of the fabric of everyday life.
In March 1984, Andres Morales, a government security services agent, labeled by our narrator as “the man who tortured people” walks into the offices of the “Cauce” magazine and offers his testimony in exchange for safe passage outside the country. After years of imposing torture tactics on Pinochet’s detractors – members of the Communist party, resistance movements, and left-leaning individuals -something inside Morales snaps (“That night I started to dream of rats. Of dark rooms and rats”). Possibly aghast at the monstrosity of the crimes committed, Morales wishes to confess and in the process hopes to be absolved of those horrific acts.
Much of the book highlights crucial moral questions at play, and the fate of the man who tortured people is central to it – Should he be absolved of his crimes because he had a change of heart and now wants to do right? It’s a powerful, unforgettable book about loss, repression and rebellion where the premise of the TV show is used to brilliant effect – an exploration of that dark dimension where strangeness and terror rule the roost, and is often unfathomable.
TWO THOUSAND MILLION MAN-POWER by Gertrude Trevelyan
Two Thousand Million Man-Power is a brilliant, psychologically astute tale of a marriage with its trials and tribulations, the indignity of unemployment, the wretchedness of poverty…in a seamless blend of the personal with the global.
The book centres on the relationship and subsequent marriage of Robert Thomas, a scientist at a cosmetics firm and Katherine Bott, a teacher at a council school; both idealists who believe in progress and prosperity. As they marry, they enjoy a brief period of comfortable suburban living only to be followed by crippling poverty when Robert loses his job. Interwoven with Robert and Katherine’s lives and peppered throughout the novel are snippets of headlines depicting both national and international events; encompassing a period from the early 1920s to a couple of years before the advent of the Second World War; Robert and Katherine’s relationship is placed in a wider context of astonishing technological advancements but also disturbing political developments.
It’s this placing of the personal against a broader economic and political landscape that makes the novel unique and remarkable.
TWO SHERPAS by Sebastián Martínez Daniell (tr. from Spanish by Jennifer Croft)
In the beginning, two Sherpas peer over the edge of a precipice staring at the depths below where a British climber lies sprawled among the rocks. Almost near the top of Mount Everest, the silence around them is intense, punctuated by the noise of the gushing wind (“If the deafening noise of the wind raveling over the ridges of the Himalayas can be considered silence”). Wishing to emulate the feat of many others before him, the Englishman had aimed to ascend the summit but that ambition now is clearly in disarray. Assisting him in the climb are two Sherpas, one a young man, the other much older, but with this sudden accident, the Sherpas are in a quandary on how to best respond.
Thus, in a span of barely ten to fifteen minutes and using this particular moment as a central story arc, the novel brilliantly spins in different directions in a vortex of themes and ideas that encompass the mystery of the majestic Mount Everest, its significance in the history of imperialist Britain, the ambition of explorers to ascend its summit, attitudes of foreigners towards the Sherpa community to Shakespeare, Julius Caesar and Rome. This is a brilliant, vividly imagined, richly layered novel that gives the reader much to ponder and think about.
YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN by Dorothy Baker
Young Man with a Horn has been inspired by the “music of Bix Beiderbecke”, an influential jazz soloist and composer in the 1920s, although the life and music trajectory of its protagonist Rick Martin has not been modeled on Bix’s life. The prologue at the start of the novel gives the reader a fair idea of Rick Martin’s short but dramatic career as a jazz musician – his gradual ascent in the world of music to become the golden boy of jazz only to culminate in a string of disappointments, heavy drinking and death.
Rick is an orphan but from the very beginning he displays talent and flair for music, although with not much opportunity to harness that passion largely because of his circumstances. Once employed at Gandy’s Pool Hall, he meets Smoke Jordan, a black aspiring drummer and a tentative employee and the two immediately slide into an easy friendship fuelled by their passion for jazz. At its very core, Young Man with a Horn is an exploration of music, male friendship, ambition, obsession and transcending racial boundaries. Some of the racial terms used in the book might be hard to digest for modern readers (I did find quite a few of them jarring), but I was reluctant to judge Baker by today’s sensibilities given that the book was published in 1938. The novel is not always perfect, but Baker’s rendering of the jazz world – practice sessions, recordings, the kinship between musicians – and her beautiful portrayal of male friendship alone make it well worth reading. This was the second book I read for #NYRBWomen23.
That’s it for February. In March so far, I’ve read Death at La Fenice, the first of Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series set in Venice followed by Dorothy B. Hughes’ In A Lonely Place and Barbara Pym’s Crampton Hodnet – all three were excellent. I’m also reading The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan and All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg, so it’s shaping up to be another terrific month.
2 thoughts on “A Month of Reading – February 2023”
Great month of books! I’ve read and loved three of those!
Thank you, Karen 🙂 I liked the Baker but Trevelyan, Baum, Daniell and Fernandez were particularly superb!
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