A Month of Reading – April 2021

Putting up this post a bit late, but better late than never. So these are the books I read in April, a mix of contemporary fiction, translated literature, crime, short stories and 20th century women’s literature. All were excellent, but my favourites were the Rumer Godden and Barbara Pym.

I have already reviewed some of them, you can access them by clicking on the links. I plan to put up detailed reviews for a couple of the others over the coming days. Meanwhile, here’s a brief write-up for each book.

BLACK NARCISSUS – Rumer Godden

Set in 1930s India when the British still ruled the country and featuring a cast of British Christian nuns, Black Narcissus is a sensual, atmospheric and hallucinatory tale of repressed female desire.

When the novel opens, Sister Clodagh and four nuns under her command are given instructions by their Order (the Sisters of Mary) to establish a convent in the Palace of Mopu, situated in a remote hilly village in Northern India, some miles away from Darjeeling. Close to the heavens, the nuns feel inspired, working fervently to establish their school and dispensary. But the presence of the enigmatic agent Mr Dean and the General’s sumptuously dressed nephew Dilip Rai unsettles them. Distracted and mesmerized by their surroundings, their isolation stirs up hidden passions and interests, as they struggle to become fully involved with their calling. There is a dreamlike quality to the story that makes Black Narcissus irresistible and hard to put down. Armed with a riveting plot and memorable characters, it is a wonderful, old-fashioned piece of storytelling.

THE DRY HEART – Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Frances Frenaye)

The Dry Heart begins in a dramatic fashion with a matter-of fact pronouncement made by the narrator…

 I shot him between the eyes.

The ‘him’ is none other than the narrator’s husband Alberto, a man considerably older to her. What follows, thereafter, is an unsentimental, psychologically astute tale of an unhappy marriage told with astonishing clarity.

It’s a novella that takes us into the anxiety riddled mind of a woman trapped in a loveless union – her insecurities, her dashed expectations, her inability to walk away when there are clear signals telling her to do so, and the circumstances that compel her to eventually crack. It’s a tale that plunges into the chilly waters of loneliness, desperation and bitterness. The prose is stripped of any sentimentality, the narrator’s voice is unemotional, unvarnished…she states things the way they are, and if her seething rage is palpable, it just about stays under the surface, always in control.

A GHOST IN THE THROAT – Doireann Ní Ghríofa              

A Ghost in the Throat is a wonderful book that came to my attention because of its shortlisting for the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. It’s a difficult book to define – it is part memoir, part essay, part historical fiction, if you will. A Ghost in the Throat tells the stories of two women, born centuries apart – Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill and Doireann Ní Ghríofa herself. The author traces Eibhlín through her shadowy past, she is the woman who has penned the 18th century poem and lament, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire. Doireann combines a blend of research and rich imaginings to weave a story around Eibhlin, her family and the violent death of her fiery husband Art, who dies in a duel. At the same time, while deep in her research, Doireann writes of her own life as a mother in language that really soars – lyrical, moving and gorgeously descriptive. Her portrayal of the daily grind of motherhood is quite something – Doireann finds great joy and beauty in her chores, it instills in her a sense of purpose. There is a particular chapter which dwells on how she nearly lost her daughter, born prematurely, that makes for very poignant reading. This is a “female text” that deserves to be read for its themes of domesticity, desire, creativity, and what binds women across ages.

JANE AND PRUDENCE – Barbara Pym

Jane and Prudence is another wonderful, poignant read from Barbara Pym’s oeuvre. Jane Cleveland and Prudence Bates, despite the gap in their ages, are friends. But the two could not have been more different. Jane, having married a vicar, has settled into her role of being the clergyman’s wife, although she’s not really good at it. Having studied at Oxford, Jane had a bright future ahead of her with the possibility of writing books, but that ambition falls by the wayside once she marries. Carelessly dressed and socially awkward, she can cause a stir by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Prudence, also having graduated from Oxford, is elegant, beautiful, and still single with a flurry of relationships behind her. Prudence is getting older but has lost none of her good looks, and is an independent woman working in a publisher’s office in London run by Mr Grampian. Mr. Grampian is an older, married man, but Prudence has taken a fancy for him, although Jane remains doubtful of anything meaningful coming out of it. Meanwhile, an introduction to Fabian Driver, a good-looking widower in her village, brings out the matchmaker in Jane, and she casually mentions Fabian to Prudence. When Prudence visits the Clevelands, she and Fabian get along quite well and begin to see each other. Will it result in a significant announcement being made?

As was evident in Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle, Pym excels in describing the eccentricities of parish life, its small time politics, how a woman meeting a man can set tongues wagging, and how rumours of people’s lives fly thick and fast. In this novel, particularly, with great depth and subtlety, Pym explores how, as we grow older, our lives can completely deviate from the path we had originally envisaged in our idealistic youth. We might not live the life we had planned, but once we accept it, we can somehow make it work. She also raises the point of how in an era when women were destined for marriage, being single and living independently can bring its own share of rewards.

THE ENCHANTED APRIL – Elizabeth von Arnim

The Enchanted April is a delightful, charming novel centred on four women from different walks of life who decide to spend a month in summer holidaying in Italy.

We are introduced to Lottie Wilkins, who married to a city lawyer, feels bogged down and stifled by their humdrum existence in Hampstead. While on one of her shopping trips, she spends a miserable afternoon at a women’s club, and there chances upon an advertisement in the newspapers that sets off a chain of thoughts. The ad is addressed to those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine and proposes to let furnished for the month of April a small mediaeval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean. When she spots Rose Arbuthnot staring wistfully at the ad too, she approaches Rose, the two strike up an earnest conversation and Lottie gradually convinces her that if they in turn advertise for two more companions, the four of them could split the costs of staying at the castle so that the individual burden will be considerably reduced.

These women come from completely different backgounds, but there’s one common thread binding them: they are disillusioned with the sameness of their days and are desperately seeking an outlet that will bring some colour to their lives along with the much needed rest and solitude.

Once ensconced in the Italian castle, the four women begin to interact with each other and it is these exchanges that make The Enchanted April so delightful – the awkward dinner conversations, the various machinations of Mrs Fisher and Caroline Dester to claim the best rooms and views for themselves, and their opinions of each other.

The Enchanted April then is a gem of a novel with much wit and humour to commend it. Arnim’s writing is lovely and evocative and all the four women in the novel are brilliantly etched, they come across as fully realized characters. This was a perfect book to read in April with a particularly feel-good vibe in these trying times.

THE CHILL – Ross Macdonald     

The Chill is another fine, intricately woven crime novel in Ross Macdonald’s brilliant Lew Archer series with a fascinating, byzantine plot and a stunning twist in the final chapter.

Here are the bare bones of the story…A distraught, young man Alex Kincaid approaches private detective Lew Archer with the hope of hiring him to locate his runaway bride. Alex reveals that his wife Dolly Kincaid nee McGee ditched him just a couple of days into their honeymoon and the police are not taking him seriously. Despite Dolly’s weird behaviour, Alex is a supportive, steadfast man and refuses to annul the marriage even when others are advising him to do so. The duo quickly locates Dolly, but it’s clear that there is more to the matter than meets the eye. For one, Dolly appears psychologically disturbed, and it does not help that subsequently she finds herself entangled in two murders practically decades apart.

Characters are aplenty in the book, some of whom are – Roy Bradshaw, dean of the college where Dolly has enrolled herself; his formidable, overbearing mother Mrs Bradshaw; the flirtatious college professor Helen Haggerty; the over-protective psychiatrist Dr Godwin; Dolly’s aunt Alice Jenks, a self-righteous and allegedly principled woman, to name a few.  As the world weary Lew Archer digs deeper, he is often stonewalled when questioning the various cast of people connected with the case, but steadily their defenses break down and the skeletons begin to tumble out of the closet.

The plot in The Chill is extraordinarily deep and complex, but in Macdonald’s assured hands, it is never difficult to follow. This is a tale of mistaken identities, dark family secrets, fractured relationships, deceit and trauma. Plus, it has all the trademarks of a theme that the author continually explored in his books – how the ghost of the past always haunts an increasingly fragile present. The final twist is quite unexpected but also strangely satisfying.

A PERFECT CEMETERY – Federico Falco

This is a good collection of stories – five in total – with a strong sense of nature and place. In ‘Silvi and Her Dark Night’ when the titular character, a 16-year old girl, informs her parents that she is abandoning her Christian faith, she decides to convert into a Mormon. Her reason is misplaced though – it has nothing to do with religion, but is largely driven by her infatuation with a Mormon missionary. It’s a story that also explores Silvi’s relationship with her parents – her mother Alba Clara, a deeply religious woman who is tormented by SIlvi’s lack of faith, and her father, who is a much more tolerant man and uses a different approach to communicate with Silvi.

In ‘A Perfect Cemetry’, Victor Bagiardelli, is awarded the biggest assignment of his life – to design a cemetery for Mayor Giraudo’s father in the town of Colonel Isabeta. Mayor Giraudo’s father, called Old Man Giraudo is not yet dead, but because of his frail health, he is being cared for in an old age home. Bagiardelli begins to envisage what to him is ‘a perfect cemetery’, the abundance of land given to him for the project fuels his creative energies to transform it into his best design yet. His plans also include transporting an ancient oak tree to the premises under which will lie Old Man Giraudo’s grave. Bagiardelli, even visits the old man, and describes the cemetery he has created, but Old Man Giraudo is a tough character and is not ready to hang up his boots yet, he is determined to live on. It’s a story that explores the uncertainty of death and how a man’s all consuming passion for his craft can make him oblivious to the other possibilities in his life.

In ‘Forest Life’, after losing their family home, Wutrich desperately offers his daughter Mabel’s hand to any man who will take them in. Mabel finally marries a Japanese settled in town, but will she learn to adapt to her new life, or will her yearning for the past unravel her like it does for Wutrich?

Connecting with nature, loss of home and faith, grief, and radically reinventing the self to new circumstances are some of the themes explored in this collection.

All in all, April was a great reading month. I started May with Jhumpa Lahiri’s brilliant new offering Whereabouts, a fragmentary novel of solitude, alienation and fleeting connections. I am also dipping into The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, which has been compiled and edited by Lahiri, and am enjoying it immensely. There are 40 authors covered and so this book is going to keep me nicely occupied for a month.

A Month of Reading – July 2020

July 2020 was another excellent reading month. I managed to read seven books all of which were very good. My favourites were Earth and High Heaven, Look At Me and The Weather in the Streets.

Here is a round-up of the seven books with links provided for those I have reviewed in detail separately.

Earth and High Heaven – Gwethalyn Graham

Earth and High Heaven is a wonderfully absorbing novel the focal point of which is a love affair between a Gentile woman and a Jewish man portrayed against a backdrop of racial prejudice.

The novel is set in the city of Montreal in Canada in the early 1940s when the war was still raging in Europe. The implication of racial prejudice is a big theme of the novel, particularly the danger of making sweeping generalisations.

Erica Drake, an English Canadian born to a wealthy family, falls in love with Marc Reiser, a Jewish man with origins in Austria. Erica’s parents are highly opposed to this relationship because of their deep-seated prejudices against the Jews and they refuse to cast them aside and see Marc as an individual. Will the couple surmount all odds and eventually marry?

Earth and High Heaven is a brilliantly immersive novel. Graham’s writing is sensitive and intelligent and many of the discussions and arguments between Erica and her parents and Erica and Marc are tense but riveting.

Look At Me – Anita Brookner

At a little under 200 pages, Look At Me is a compelling and searing portrait of loneliness and wanting to belong.

By day, our narrator, Frances Hinton works in a medical library and in the evenings spends time in solitude in her large flat, writing. However, one day the charismatic doctor Nick Fraser and his equally dynamic wife Alix appear on the scene and Frances finds herself in their company thoroughly enjoying herself. Until something terribly goes wrong and Frances finds that the Frasers are no longer interested in her.

Look At Me then is quite a fascinating but heartbreaking account of a lonely woman who can never really belong to the social circle she wants to be a part of, having to contend with the role of an outsider.

Brookner’s writing is brilliant. Her sentences are precise and exquisitely crafted and she captures perfectly Frances’ mental state as she is drawn towards the allure of the Frasers and then cruelly cast aside. 

The Invitation to the Waltz – Rosamond Lehmann

Invitation to the Waltz is the first of the Olivia Curtis novels. When the book opens, Olivia has turned seventeen and there is a family gathering to celebrate and present her with gifts. The novel charts the emotions of a young girl on the cusp of womanhood – the anxiety as well as the excitement of making a good impression at the dance, hopes for a schedule full of dance partners alternating with the fear of being left alone.

Lehmann’s prose is lush and beautiful and I was immediately struck by her impressionistic writing style. Set in the 1930s, she also subtly brings to the fore the class differences prevalent in the society at the time.

The Weather in the Streets – Rosamond Lehmann

Set ten years after Invitation to the Waltz, The Weather in the Streets revolves round the doomed love affair between Olivia Curtis and the married Rollo Spencer who is first introduced to readers in the final few pages of the first novel.

Olivia is the narrator and she is now residing in London, in cramped quarters with her cousin Etty and is leading a bohemian lifestyle with her artist set of friends. While on a trip to the countryside to meet her family, particularly her father who is down with pneumonia, she starts talking to Rollo Spencer on the train and they hit it off.

From thereon Olivia and Rollo embark on a passionate affair that is played out behind closed doors and shrouded in a veil of secrecy.

Lehmann brilliantly captures the stages of the affair as it pans out from Olivia’s point of view – the first heady days of the affair gradually when the world is seen through rose-tinted glasses, and then followed by moments of desperation as Olivia endlessly waits for Rollo’s call.  

Lehmann manages to turn the ‘done-to-death’ tale of an extra-marital affair into something entirely new, and her sensitive portrayal of Olivia’s plight is truly heartbreaking and evokes the sympathy of the reader.

The Hours Before Dawn – Celia Fremlin

“I’d give anything – anything – for a night’s sleep.”

Thus begins Celia Fremlin’s wonderful novel The Hours Before Dawn. The protagonist Louise Henderson is an utterly exhausted housewife. Her newborn son Michael insistently wails every night at an odd hour thereby disrupting her sleep. So as to not disturb her husband Mark and her daughters Margery and Harriet, Louise often takes Michael to the scullery to calm him down as soon as he starts crying in the dead of the night.

The lack of sleep is debilitating for Louise because for a larger part of the day she is trying to complete the household chores in a dazed state leaving her very tired. The day is busy as she has to juggle her daughters’ school activities, meals for the family and keeping the house clean, all of which begin to take a toll on her physically and mentally.

Louise has to do it all single-handedly. Her husband Mark is not much of a support. Michael’s night crying annoys him. And his meager attempts to show concern for her only ends up stressing Louise more.

Moreover, the neighbours are of no help either. They are judgmental, they consistently complain about the noise the children make, and Louise finds herself apologizing all the time. Louise is also wracked with guilt and inadequacy as she struggles with all the multi-tasking expected of her.

Into this household, comes a new lodger to stay – Vera Brandon. When Louise shows Vera the room, she accepts it without asking any questions which surprises Louise but doesn’t particularly distress her at the time since the family needs the extra income with a new baby born.

Things begin to get sinister when a friend of Louise’s, Beatrice, makes a chance remark that Vera had approached her husband Humphrey to enquire about the Hendersons. This unsettles Louise since she is under the impression that Vera had responded to the Hendersons’ advertisement in the newspapers.

As Louise’s suspicions about Vera grow, so do her exhaustion levels so much so that there are times when her dreams begin to merge with reality.

This is a wonderful novel, which besides having shades of a psychological thriller, also has moments of black comedy thrown in. In a world where it is taken for granted that motherhood is only full of joys, Fremlin provides a realistic portrayal of how challenging being a mother can be and how society is not always kind in understanding this.  

Who Among Us? – Mario Benedetti (tr. Nick Caistor)

This is a story of an unusual love triangle where the reader gets to see the perspective of all the three participants.

Miguel and Alicia fall in love when they are teenagers and their relationship proceeds simply until the charismatic Lucas turns up on the scene. Miguel sees the spark grow between Alicia and Lucas as they have passionate discussions on various topics, and he assumes that he and Alicia have no future. And yet, Alicia chooses to marry Miguel, and Lucas fades away. After eleven years of marriage (and two kids), Miguel somehow comes to see their union as a mistake. Thus, he persuades Alicia to meet Lucas whence a chance for a trip to Buenos Aires turns up.

Miguel’s perspective on the events is in the form of undated notebook entries as he analyses in deep detail the nature of the relations between the three of them. Through his entries, it becomes apparent that Miguel is a passive man who considers himself second-rate. We see Alicia’s perspective in the form of a letter she writes to Miguel which casts a different light on what we have read in Miguel’s account. Alicia loved Miguel but acknowledges that their marriage has deteriorated and largely blames him for it. Lucas’ viewpoints are displayed to us in the form of a short story, including footnotes, which explains the text and how it relates to the reality of what happened.

At less than 100 pages, Who Among Us? is an absorbing novella that explores the themes of love, missed opportunities and misunderstandings.

Solea – Jean-Claude Izzo (tr. Howard Curtis)

I had read the first two books in Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy – Total Chaos and Chourmo – a few years back. Billed as Mediterranean noir, these books featured the cynical, beaten-down cop Fabio Montale and his attempts to solve the crimes surrounding his best friends Manu and Ugi killed by the Mafia and cops respectively.

What also stood out in these books is the vivid evocation of Marseilles, its sights and smells, various mouth-watering descriptions of food and drink. It also highlighted the uglier side of the city – the poverty, crime, racism towards immigrants and the crippling corruption.

Both of them were very atmospheric books but for some reason I completely forgot about the third installment in this trilogy – Solea.

In Solea, Montale’s former lover and investigative journalist Babette is on the run from the Mafia as she is about to publish some shocking details about the organization. The Mafia wants Montale to find her for them. To show that they are dead serious about it, two people very close to Montale are murdered.

That’s the basic premise of the plot and I won’t reveal more. But Solea is also suffused with Montale ruminating a lot about his past and the level of growing corruption and extremism in Marseilles and on a larger scale in France. In that sense, the novel is quite cynical and bleak.  While Solea is a solid book, I somehow felt that it was not on the same level as either Total Chaos or Chourmo.

That’s it for July.

I intend to devote August entirely to Women in Translation (WIT Month), and have begun my reading with Olga Tukarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and Eileen Chang’s collection of novellas Love in A Fallen City, both of which I am enjoying.

A Month of Reading – May 2020

May turned out to be quite an incredible month in terms of quantity and quality of books I read while the lockdown continued. Here is a brief round-up…

Untold Night and Day – Bae Suah (tr. from the Korean by Deborah Smith)

The first book I read during the month, Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day is a deliciously disorienting and strange book. At a basic level, the plot centers around Ayami, a woman who has been working at a nondescript audio theatre for two years. The theatre is now on the verge of being shut down and Ayami’s future is quite uncertain. But that is barely scratching the surface.

Throughout the novel, perspectives keep shifting, the book abounds with repetitions of descriptions (both people and places). The reader is never sure of standing on solid ground, a ground that keeps disintegrating. The novel is made up of four sections, and each section has something new in it while also echoing many elements of what has gone on before giving the novella a circular structure.

A large part of what makes the book so readable is Bae Suah’s writing. The prose is elegant and a pleasure to read and the repetitions only enhance its hypnotic quality. 

The Wall – Marlen Haushofer (tr. from the German by Shaun Whiteside)

The Wall is a powerful book about survival, self-renewal and the capacity to love. While holidaying in an Alpine hunting lodge, our unnamed narrator wakes up one day to an unimaginable catastrophe. She is possibly the last living person although she is yet to grasp the significance of this.

Against such a terrifying backdrop, the bulk of the book is all about how the narrator fights for survival and ekes out a living in the forest. The deep bond that she forms with her coterie of animals is very sensitively portrayed and is one of the highlights of the book. And there are some wonderful passages on existentialism and the meaning of life, love and caring, and the evolution of the physical and metaphysical selves. Ultimately, the narrator’s strength of will to forge ahead is what makes the book so beautiful.

A Far Cry from Kensington – Muriel Spark

I became a Spark convert last year when I read three of her novels – Memento Mori, The Girls of Slender Means and The Driver’s Seat, all wonderful. I hope to read more of her work this year and eventually make my way through the 22 novels she penned.

The world that Spark creates in her books is superbly off-kilter, with elements of strangeness mixed in with the ordinary. Beneath the surface, there is also a darker current running and this was evident in A Far Cry from Kensington too.

The novella is set in 1950s London. The protagonist Mrs Hawkins is a young widow staying in a guesthouse peopled with eccentric characters, the chief one being the Polish seamstress Wanda and this forms one plot point in the book. Further, Mrs Hawkins is a considered a capable woman working in publishing at a time when publishing jobs were much sought after. But then a dramatic encounter with the hack journalist Hector Bartlett ensues. Mrs Hawkins continuously labels him ‘pisseur de copie’ (meaning that Bartlett urinates bad prose), and this leads to some unexpected consequences.

In a little under 200 pages, Spark marries these two plot points and weaves a deft world which includes blackmail, a bizarre scheme involving a Box, and a dig at the publishing world where one pays a price for speaking the truth. This, then, is another superb Spark novel!

Winter in Sokcho – Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

Winter in Sokcho is a haunting, dreamlike novella set in the seaside town of Sokcho in the far northeastern part of South Korea and close to the border with its impenetrable neighbour. Our protagonist is a young woman working as a maid and cook in a dead end guesthouse and nothing much happens there until the arrival of an enigmatic French graphic artist Kerrand.

It’s all very atmospheric and the author wonderfully captures the remoteness of Sokcho which in a way that mirrors the sense of alienation the protagonist feels. There are some sumptuous descriptions of food thrown in with a bit of background on the tensions with North Korea. Overall, this is a beautifully written novella with its dreamy quality and a wonderful sense of place. I read it on Kindle.

School for Love – Olivia Manning

Olivia Manning’s superb books – The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy – were the highlights of my reading in 2019. Set in locations as varied as Bucharest, Athens, Cairo, Jerusalem, Manning has brilliantly captured the feel of these cities on the brink of war and the feeling of uncertainty that grips its inhabitants.

School for Love is set in Jerusalem during the last few years of World War Two. It is a poignant, coming of age story of young and orphaned Felix Latimer (possibly sixteen years old) who arrives all alone in Jerusalem after his mother dies in Baghdad. A relation of his father, Miss Bohun offers to lodge him in the guesthouse that she runs. Miss Bohun is miserly in her dealings with everyone and this only accentuates Felix’s sense of loneliness. And then one day, Mrs Ellis, a young widow, comes to stay in the guesthouse and stirs things up.

Manning has wonderfully brought to life the café culture in Jerusalem with Arabs and Jews gathering to discuss politics and art. But she has also captured with keen insight the gamut of emotions that Felix goes through – from despair and loneliness fuelled by his mother’s death to his infatuation with Mrs Ellis and its consequences. This book is another gem from Manning’s oeuvre.

Normal People – Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney’s Normal People is as wonderful as Conversations with Friends, which made my ‘Best of’ list last year.

The story begins in high school when Connell and Marianne (both in their teens) fall in love. In school, Connell is the popular, nice guy, while Marianne largely keeps to herself and is not much liked. The tables, however, turn when they move to Trinity College in Dublin where Marianne finds her kind of crowd, while Connell struggles to fit in. The book then goes on to chart the on and off relationship between these two over the years.

The story is pretty simple. But what Rooney captures so well is the complexities and uncertainties of young adult love as they struggle against class differences and their own personal demons. The writing is sensitive, fresh and honest and the dialogue between the two feels very real. I loved this book.

Don’t Look Now and Other Stories – Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier has written some excellent novels – Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, My Cousin Rachel to name a few – but she was also quite adept at penning short stories.

My edition contains nine tales pulled from various collections and here is a glimpse into a couple of them…The title story Don’t Look Now is set among the canals in Venice where a couple who have recently lost their child come across a pair of old ladies who have clairvoyant abilities. In The Blue Lenses, a woman undergoes an operation to improve her vision but when the new lenses are inserted into her eyes what she begins to see disturbs her greatly.

All of these nine tales are unsettling and macabre and display to great effect du Maurier’s excellent storytelling skills.

Isolde – Irina Odoevtseva (tr. from the Russian by Bryan Karetnyk)

Left to her own devices in Biarritz, fourteen-year-old Russian Liza meets an older English boy, Cromwell, on a beach. He thinks he has found a magical, romantic beauty and insists upon calling her Isolde. Meanwhile, she is impressed with his Buick and ability to pay for dinner and champagne.

Disaffected and restless, Liza, her brother Nikolai and her boyfriend Andrei enjoy Cromwell’s company in restaurants and jazz bars later in Paris – until Cromwell’s mother stops giving him money. When Liza and Nikolai’s own mother abandons them to follow a lover to Nice, the group falls deeper into its haze of alcohol and murky dealings.

Isolde is a quite a dark tale of young Russian exiles feeling alienated and out of place in a foreign city. Liza yearns not only for her mother (who has no time for her) but also for her motherland Russia (which also seems out of her reach). It all moves towards a conclusion that seems inevitable and yet tragic.

The House of the Spirits – Isabel Allende (tr. from the Spanish by Magda Bogin)

Set in an unnamed Latin American country (possibly Chile), The House of the Spirits spans three generations beginning with the taciturn and volatile landowner Esteban Trueba who marries the clairvoyant Clara after the latter’s beautiful sister Rosa dies mysteriously.  

Besides being a family saga revealing both tragedies and triumphs, the novel is also peppered with politics. The younger generation increasingly embraces Socialism and fights for the rights of workers clashing with the landowners and conservatives represented by Trueba. While for the most part, the book was engrossing, the ‘magical realism’ elements at times felt a bit over the top. Also, I felt the book could have been a lot shorter. The House of the Spirits is worth reading but I wasn’t blown away by it.

Three Poems – Hannah Sullivan

I loved the first poem in this collection called ‘You Very Young in New York’ which is a wry look at the possibility of romance, disappointment and unattainability of innocence. Sullivan’s descriptions of the New York cocktails bars are quite sensual suffused with a lot of atmospheric imagery. Lights going off one by one are compared to ‘a diminished Mondrian’, while bartenders are figuring out the winter cocktail lists ‘telling each other that Cygnar, grapefruit bitters, and a small-batch Mezcal will be trending in the new year…

Here’s how the poem begins…

Rosy used to say that New York was a fairground.

‘You will know when it’s time, when the fair is over.’

But nothing seems to happen. You stand around

On the same street corners, smoking, thin-elbowed,

Looking down avenues in a lime-green dress

With one arm raised, waiting to get older.

And that concludes my reading in May – 10 books in total. My favourites were the Haushofer, Manning, Spark, Rooney and Bae Suah, while Winter in Sokcho and the du Maurier short stories were also special. Hope to discover some more great books in June.

A Month of Reading – April 2020

The whole of April was spent in lockdown. I was somehow drawn towards authors whose books I had loved before, and this plan really worked because almost all the books I read were marvelous.

Like last month, I read six books in April too. Of these, I have reviewed two, and should hopefully write about the others in the coming weeks.

In the meanwhile, here is a brief round-up of what I read in April…

We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson

This is a fabulous book – an unsettling tale about an ostracized family sprinkled with doses of dark humour and one of the most strangest and unforgettable narrators ever – the eighteen year old Merricat Blackwood. Jackson is great at creating atmosphere that is seeped in gothic elements – the creeping sense of dread as we read about the fate of the Blackwood sisters in their large home – even if there are no actual ghosts present. 

Whose Body? – Dorothy L. Sayers

This is classic golden age crime and the first book in the delightful Lord Peter Wimsey series, who calls himself an amateur detective. A naked corpse is discovered in a bathtub and the owner of the house has no clue who it is. While the identity of the corpse and circumstances of death continue to perplex the detectives, at around the same time a well-known financier goes missing. The link between the two is for Wimsey to decipher.

Wimsey’s mannerisms sometimes reminded me of Bertie Wooster and this was a solid mystery although I hear that the books subsequently get better.

Evening in Paradise (More Stories) – Lucia Berlin

A few years ago I was blown away by Lucia Berlin’s ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’, a collection of stories that mostly drew on rich material from her real life – and what a life it was! Brought up in the remote mining camps of the Midwest, she was a lonely child in wartime Texas, a rich and privileged young woman in Santiago, and a bohemian hipster in 50s New York. She held jobs as an ER nurse and cleaning woman among others while raising four boys all one her own.

Her writing is unique, full of personality and verve and this is in full display in Evening in Paradise too, which contains a fresh batch of stories. There are 22 pieces in this book and I thought they were every bit as good as in ‘A Manual.’

Some Tame Gazelle – Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym’s world of the parish, curates and garden parties is a real delight and there were dollops of this in Some Tame Gazelle. The book revolves around the Bede sisters – Belinda and Harriet – who are spinsters. Harriet is the outspoken of the two and is more interested in the young curates who come to work in the village, even though she continuously receives marriage proposals from an Italian count. Belinda, meanwhile, has been carrying a torch for the Archdeacon in the village who has been married to another woman for quite some time. But things gets shaken up a bit with the arrival of Mr. Mold and Bishop Grote. Both these men disturb the peace of the village and leave the sisters wondering if they’ll ever return to the order of their daily routines.

Pym’s comic timing is superb and there are some wonderful conversations between the characters particularly between the two sisters. Each character is wonderfully etched and even within the narrower contours of village life, Pym has a flair for bringing out the subtle differences in human nature.

The Soul of Kindness – Elizabeth Taylor

I plan to read every book that Elizabeth Taylor has written – her writing is sublime! In the Soul of Kindness, Taylor focuses on a group of characters at the centre of which is Flora Quartermaine. Flora is gorgeous, married to Richard and they live an enviable life with a comfortable home and a child. Flora has a circle of people she is close to – her best friend Meg, Meg’s brother and aspiring actor Kit, the writer Peter with whom Meg has fallen in love, Flora’s mother Mrs Secretan, Richard’s father Percy and Percy’s mistress Ba. Flora unwittingly believes in performing acts of kindness for them without realizing that these may not always be in their best interest. All of them strive to protect her from herself but there is one character called Liz, a painter unknown to Flora, who sees Flora for what she really is.

Taylor’s writing in The Soul of Kindness is a marvel – elegant, restrained with such a keen insight into the human mind, particularly when it comes to describing the insecurities and the loneliness her characters grapple with.    

The Custom of the Country – Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton’s ‘The Custom of the Country’ is a brilliant, brilliant novel that explores the subtle differences between old and new money in New York in the early 1900s and the implications of divorce for women during that time. All of this is examined through her unique and unforgettable anti-heroine, Undine Spragg whose burning ambition to climb the social ladder has serious repercussions on the people close to her. Wharton’s prose is as ever top-notch, elegant and incisive.

That about sums it up. I thought the Sayers was good, but the rest of the five were simply excellent.

As May begins, I have forayed into Korean Lit – Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day. It’s already super interesting and I am wondering where Suah will be taking me.