After my trip, I have yet to get into the groove of writing individual book reviews, so have decided to put up this themed post instead, this time on some of my favourite NYRB Classics titles in the last five years. I started reading NYRB Classics more than a decade ago, and have read some great books all these years, but for the purpose of this post I have deliberately narrowed it down to the last 5 years, and selected books I’ve loved within this period. It is also the second “Publisher” themed post on this blog, the first one on Fitzcarraldo Editions – The Best of the Blues – has turned out to be quite popular based on stats.
So without much ado, here is my selection of 15 Favourite NYRB Classics. For detailed reviews on each book, you can click on the title link…
THE HEARING TRUMPET by Leonora Carrington
If you thought a story centred on a 92-year old protagonist was bound to be dull and depressing, think again. Leonora’s Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet is a delicious romp, a stunning feat of the imagination and an iconoclastic book if you will that refuses to be pigeonholed into convenient definitions and genres; and in Marian Leatherby, the nonagenarian in this superbly off-kilter tale, Carrington has created an unconventional heroine who is charming, feisty and memorable.
The book begins in a quiet, residential neighbourhood on the outskirts of an unnamed Mexican city where Marian Leatherby, our narrator, resides with her son Galahad, his wife Muriel and their 25-year old unmarried son Robert. Marian is not welcome in the house and with the aid of a hearing trumpet gifted to her by her charming loquacious friend Carmella, Marian’s learns of her family’s plot to park her in an old age home.
The old-age home is unlike anything she had imagined, and Marian soon begins to settle in, gets introduced to her fellow residents, finds herself entangled in various adventures and is caught up in the fascinating life of an abbess. The Hearing Trumpet could be considered an extension of Carrington’s identity as Surrealist artist; the novel is a unique montage of styles and genres that resist the laws of conventional narration to brilliant effect. Just superb!
GRAND HOTEL by Vicki Baum (translated 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.
IN A LONELY PLACE by Dorothy B. Hughes
The first time I read In A Lonely Place was almost a decade ago and I remember being so impressed then. It’s a terrific novel – a great combination of mood and atmosphere laced with Hughes’ brilliant, hard-edged, nourish-style writing and a fascinating protagonist (Dix Steele) whose actions are as shadowy and black as the fog that envelops and obscures the city of Los Angeles in the night. I also loved the portrayal of the two women, Laurel and Sylvia; personality-wise, like ‘fire and ice’ respectively.
Violence, paranoia, the banality of evil, and the emptiness of post-war life are some of the themes that form the essence of In a Lonely Place; it’s an intense, suspenseful tale, superbly crafted in the way it is told through a killer’s perspective.
WOMAN RUNNING IN THE MOUNTAINS by Yuko Tsushima (translated from Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt)
Woman Running in the Mountains is a stunning, immersive novel of single motherhood, loneliness and alienation; a novel tinged with beauty and melancholia, with darkness and light, where haunting landscapes of the natural world offer pockets of relief from the harsh reality of a brutal family life.
The book opens with a scene of Takiko, a young, 21-year old woman, at home in her bed grappling with an intense pain in her belly signaling she’s in labour. Takiko is hell bent on going to the hospital by herself, trudging alone in the scorching hot midsummer sun, in pain but with a will of steel, determined not to let her mother accompany her. Once comfortably settled in the hospital, she gives birth to a healthy baby boy (called Akira). That’s the end of the first chapter, and the subsequent chapters move back and forth, dwelling on the daily challenges of new motherhood that Takiko must embrace, while at the same time dealing with her dismal family circumstances.
Single motherhood and its myriad challenges is one of the biggest themes in Woman Running in the Mountains, a topic obviously close to Tsushima’s heart given that she was also a single mother. It’s is a bracing, beautiful novel where Tsushima’s lyrical, limpid prose drenched in touches of piercing wisdom coupled with its range of vivid, haunting, dreamlike imagery makes it such a pleasure to read.
A VIEW OF THE HARBOUR by Elizabeth Taylor
A View of the Harbour is a beautifully written, nuanced story of love, aching loneliness, stifled desires, and the claustrophobia of a dead-end seaside town. The main plotline revolves around Beth Cazabon, a writer; her husband Robert, the town’s doctor; and Beth’s friend Tory Foyle who lives next door and is divorced. However, like the wonderful The Soul of Kindness, this is a book with an ensemble cast where the lives of the other members of the community are interwoven into that of the Cazabons. This is a drab, dreary seaside town where for desperate want of drama and excitement, the lives of its residents become fodder for speculation and gossip.
Taylor is great at depicting the small dramas playing out in the lives of these ordinary people with her characteristic flair for astute insights into human nature. This is a community struggling to feel important, where an annual innocuous, humdrum festival becomes an event to talk about given the lack of entertainment otherwise, and where the inhabitants’ lives never go unobserved. This is one of her finest books, simply top-tier Taylor.
MORE WAS LOST by Eleanor Perényi
An absorbing, immersive, and fabulous memoir in which Eleanor Perényi (who was American) writes about the time she spent managing an estate in Hungary in the years just before the Second World War broke out. What was immediately remarkable to me was Perényi’s spunk and undaunted sense of adventure. Marriage, moving across continents, adapting to a completely different culture, learning a new language, and managing an estate – all of this when she’s at the cusp of turning twenty.
THE SUMMER BOOK by Tove Jansson (translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal)
A lovely, beguiling novel that in twenty-two crystalline vignettes distills the essence of summer and captures the unshakeable bond between a 6-year old girl and her grandmother, two unusual but fascinating characters. Like the brilliance of cut diamonds, The Summer Book sparkles with wisdom and humour from every angle, and is life affirming in many ways.
LOVE IN A FALLEN CITY by Eileen Chang (translated from Chinese by Karen S. Kingsbury)
Love in a Fallen City is a collection of four novellas and two short stories offering a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people in 1930s/1940s Shanghai and Hong Kong.
I really liked the flavor of the four novellas in this collection accentuated by the fact that Eileen Chang’s writing is elegant and incisive with a lovely way of describing things. She has a flair for painting a detailed picture of the social mores of the time and well as for her perceptive depictions of the inner workings of her characters’ minds. And she also highlights the subtle differences between Hong Kong, which has more of a British essence, and Shanghai which is more Chinese.
Ultimately, there is something tragic about the men and women (the latter particularly) in her novellas, a sense of melancholy that leaves its mark on the reader.
THE GATE by Natsume Soseki (translated from Japanese by William F. Sibley)
The Gate is a beautiful and reflective novel of dashed dreams and lost opportunities interspersed with quiet moments of joy.
At the heart of this novel is a middle aged couple – Sosuke and Oyone, who eke out a simple life on the outskirts of Tokyo, following the same routine for many years with little room for any significant variations. They lead a quiet life and seem resigned to their fates, hardly ever complaining. But this delicate equilibrium is upset when they are confronted with an obligation to meet the household and educational expenses of Sosuke’s brother Koroku.
The Gate is one of those novels which harbours the impression that not much happens, but nothing could be further from the truth. Beneath a seemingly smooth and calm surface, emotions and tensions rage. Soseki’s writing is sensitive and graceful, and he wonderfully tells a story shot with melancholia but also suffused with moments of gentle wit.
LOLLY WILLOWES by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Lolly Willowes is wonderful tale of a single woman looking to lead an independent life by breaking away from the controlling clutches of her family. Till her late twenties, Lolly is shown to lead a pretty sheltered life in the country where her father has a brewing business and an estate called Lady Place.
But once she is in her mid-forties, Lolly feels trapped and stultified, and longs for a change. During one of her shopping trips, she chances upon a flower shop and learns of a village in the Chilterns called the Great Mop. Soon she begins poring over books and maps on the place. It’s a region that tickles her fancy and on a whim she decides to establish herself there and live independently.
The first half of Lolly Willowes proceeds conventionally as Lolly sinks into domestic routines both at Lady Place and in London, her role in both these houses being taken for granted. It’s in the second half that the novel slips into a bit of whimsy and magic as ‘witches’ comes into play, but it’s all quite charming and more importantly Sylvia Townsend Warner pulls it off. Not only does Lolly refreshingly choose to defy conventional societal roles, but the novel is also a statement that even in the mid or late forties, it is never too late for a woman to entirely change her course of life if she really wants to.
THE BALKAN TRILOGY & THE LEVANT TRILOGY by Olivia Manning
These are stunning trilogies. The first one i.e. The Balkan Trilogy highlights the chaotic lives of Guy and Harriet Pringle – British expats in Bucharest and subsequently in Athens during the Second World War. In The Levant Trilogy, we follow the Pringles to Cairo in Egypt, followed by Damascus and then Jerusalem in the midst of the raging Desert War.
In both the trilogies, Manning superbly brings to life different cities and its citizens during wartime – the increasing uncertainty of having to flee is nerve wracking, and yet at the same time there’s this sense of denial that maybe the conflict will not impact day to day life after all. While Guy and Harriet Pringle are the central characters, the supporting cast is great too…particularly Yakimov, an aristocrat fallen on hard times, and the wealthy, irreverent Angela Hooper who is forced to grapple with a personal tragedy.
THE JUNIPER TREE by Barbara Comyns
In ‘The Juniper Tree’, Barbara Comyns cleverly provides her own feminist twist to the Brothers Grimm fairytale of the same name as she examines what it means for a woman to be independent.
Bella Winter is scarred by an accident, ditched by her boyfriend and is the mother of an illegitimate child. Despite these challenges, she has the resolve to carry on and manages to eke out an independent life by working in an antiques shop, a job she comes to love. Then she becomes friends with the wealthy couple Gertrude and Bernard, and for a while things coast along smoothly. But will this idyllic existence last? The Juniper Tree is a wicked jewel of a novel suffused with a delicious sense of dread and foreboding and a tale that lingers in the mind long after the last page is turned.
SLOW DAYS, FAST COMPANY by Eve Babitz
Eve Babitz was a firm fixture in the L.A. circuit. But her flamboyant lifestyle, her string of lovers and the fact that she played chess nude with Marcel Duchamp lent her a notoriety that unfortunately overshadowed her standing as a strong writer.
Slow Days, Fast Company is absolutely delightful, simmering with hedonistic qualities in which Babitz makes L.A. and Hollywood come alive. She comes across as a spunky, witty and worldly woman who understands the trappings of her milieu, and is frank about it. The book is filled with immensely quotably lines and reminded me of another favourite short story writer of mine – Lucia Berlin.
BASIC BLACK WITH PEARLS by Helen Weinzweig
Here is the intriguing blurb from NYRB Classics – “Shirley and Coenraad’s affair has been going on for decades, but her longing for him is as desperate as ever. She is a Toronto housewife; he works for an international organization known only as the Agency. Their rendezvous take place in Tangier, in Hong Kong, in Rome and are arranged by an intricate code based on notes slipped into issues of National Geographic. But something has happened, the code has been discovered, and Coenraad sends Shirley to Toronto, the last place she wants to go.”
Told from Shirley’s point of view, it quickly becomes clear that things are not what they seem, and we are left with a narrative that is surreal and disorienting, but all in a good way. Is this then a straightforward espionage tale or something deeper and complex? Weinzweig’s idea for this multi-layered novel was inspired by the Canadian artist Michael Snow’s Walking Woman sculpture series – the concept of a one-dimensional woman moving nowhere.
THE NEW YORK STORIES OF EDITH WHARTON
There is no one quite like Edith Wharton when it comes to the portrayal of Old New York – its rigid society with its strict moral codes, and the passions that simmer beneath a seemingly respectable surface. This collection contains 20 wonderful stories gathered over the course of her writing career, and of these 5-6 are absolute gems.
In MRS MANSTEY’S VIEW, the titular character spends her final days in an old aged home, the large window in her room with its extensive view being the only bright spot in her day. When the threat of a possible blocking of this view looms large, Mrs Manstey resorts to drastic measures. In the brilliant nightmarish story A JOURNEY, a woman is travelling back home to New York with her very ill husband on a train, and is overcome with mounting fears of abandonment, helplessness and being judged by her fellow passengers.
In AFTER HOLBEIN, the octogenarian Mrs Jaspar entertains her lone guest at an imaginary dinner party, while in one of her finest stories, AUTRES TEMPS, Mrs Lidcote is compelled to realise that she remains condemned by the stifling codes of Old New York, and the newer, more modern society in which her daughter moves, holds no place for her.
The last story in the collection, ROMAN FEVER, is another brilliant piece, and takes place on the terrace of a hotel with gorgeous views of the Roman ruins. Two middle aged women, who were friends and neighbours in their younger days and now have a grown-up daughter each, reminisce about the past in the same city. It’s a past filled with rage, passion and deception as the story moves towards a corker of an ending.
And that’s it, but I’ll leave you with…
FIVE MORE WONDERFUL TITLES I READ PRE-2018 (NOT REVIEWED):
- The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton
- Wish Her Safe At Home by Stephen Benatar
- A Meaningful Life by L.J. Davis
- My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes
- The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore