#AtoZofBooks – Favourites and Forgotten Books

Simon Thomas from Stuck in a Book started a trend on Twitter a few days ago with an A-Z of favourite books: an author for every letter of the alphabet.

Oh HI book twitter!

I’ve decided I’m going to share 26 brilliant books – an author for every letter of the alphabet. It’ll be a gradual thread. It’ll be fun.

Share your own #AToZofBooks!‚ÄĒ Simon Thomas (@stuck_inabook) May 22, 2019

This is such a lovely idea, that I wanted to emulate it on my blog – although I will no doubt curse the thought once I reach X or Z.

A: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, of course, one of the most perfect novels ever written.

B: Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal influenced me hugely in my teens and was probably the catalyst that provoked my own outburst of poetry at that age. I can still recite some of the poems by heart.

C: Another poet, Cavafy, whose collected poems I discovered much later, when I fell in love with a Greek man in my 20s. He had been forced to study Ithaka at school, and moaned about it, but I thought it was a fantastic poem and wanted to read more. The Greek man has since disappeared from my life (well, nearly… any day now… he’s a bit like Theresa May) but the love for Cavafy has remained. I have about 5 different translations of his work and can just about read the original Greek as well.

D: Dazai Osamu – I love all of the books by this nice ‘cheery’ Japanese author, but I have a soft spot for the first one I ever read by him: a collection of short stories which have been translated into English as Run, Melos! and Other Stories. The story from Judas’ point of view impressed me so much that I made my first attempt there and then at translating from Japanese.

E: Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone impressed me very much when I read it at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe.

F: Benjamin Fondane is Romanian-Jewish poet, translator, literary critic and essayist, who wrote in both French and Romanian and sadly was exterminated in Birkenau in 1944 at the age of just 46. His poetry collection Privelisti (Landscapes) is my choice here.

G: A masterpiece of satire and absurdity, the short story The Nose by Nikolai Gogol.

H: A surfeit of good authors with H, but I think I’ll choose the witty (yet gentle) indictment of UN bureaucrats in Shirley Hazzard’s People in Glass Houses.

I: Who else but Eugene Ionesco, my fellow countryman? And because I love anything to do with language learning and the dangers of miscommunication, I choose The Bald Soprano.

J: Shirley Jackson has long been a favourite of mine, mainly on the basis of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which is one of the most chilling yet perfect novellas ever written.

K: Franz Kafka’s Das Schloss (The Castle) – the author was never in doubt, although it’s hard to choose between this, Metamorphosis and The Trial.

L: C. S. Lewis: The Silver Chair – the Narnia chronicles provided me with many, many hours of joy in my childhood, and this one was perhaps my favourite of the lot, because I could relate to Jill and thought Puddleglum was hilarious.

M: Murakami Haruki’s Kafka on the Shore is probably my favourite novel of his, and not just because it features lots of cats.

N: Gellu Naum was a Romanian surrealist poet, but he is best known for his delightful children’s book about the little penguin Apolodor who is trying to find his relatives in Labrador.

O: On my first (and so far only) visit to Canada, I discovered Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals and have been smitten with this author ever since.

P: I could go for obvious choice Proust, but I will opt instead for Barbara Pym. Less than Angels may not be her best-known or most accomplished novel, but she pokes fun at anthropologists in it and I just cannot resist that!

Q: A tricky letter, as you might imagine, but not when you have a favourite called Zazie dans le metro by Raymond Queneau.

R: Which one of Jean Rhys‘ haunting novels to choose? In the end, perhaps After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is the most quietly devastating one.

S: Antoine de Sainte-Exupery’s The Little Prince will forever be one of my favourite books, sorry, cannot be objective about it at all, cry like a leaky faucet whenever I read it.

T: A slight cheating going on here, but I want to make sure that Tove Jansson gets a mention, as she is one of my most favourite writers ever. Plus the title of this book of hers starts with a T too: The True Deceiver.

U: Another avant-garde Romanian poet (we seem to be good at writing about absurdity, perhaps our history has taught us to see the surreal comedy and oxymorons in daily life) is Urmuz, considered a forerunner of Dadaism. His works (short prose and poetry) have been translated into English, if you are curious.

V: Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo gets a few things wrong, so the Colombian storyteller who inspired him decides to tell his own version of events. Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Secret History of Costaguana is a lively rewriting of literary history and Latin America’s riposte to Europe’s limiting vision of their continent.

W: I’m sure you all expect me to choose Virginia Woolf, but I will confound you by going for Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, which I read while visiting Granada as a child and had a lasting effect on me (again, very slightly cheating).

X: I love Qiu Xiaolong‘s Chief Inspector Chen series, set in a rapidly changing Shanghai in the 1990s, starting with Death of a Red Heroine.

Y: Very tempted to choose Richard Yates here, but instead I will mention Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, which should be far better known in the English-speaking world.

Z: √Čmile Zola is currently very much top of my thoughts, but it’s not The Debacle that I will be referring to here, nor Nana or Germinal, his best-known works, but the novel which supposedly brought about the end of his friendship with Cezanne, L’Oeuvre (The Work of Art), in which he somewhat satirizes the Bohemian art world in Paris at the time.

Events Summary for September

I started off writing a weekly summary of events for this post and then realised that it is the end of September, so a monthly summary might also be appropriate. But first the weekly bit.

Two rather lovely events this week. First, a literary evening as part of the Festival America events across London, with Canadian writers Heather O’Neill and Michael Redhill at the very beautiful Canada House in Trafalgar Square. They even had a throne under lock and key, made specially for George V when he visited Canada.

The main staircase at Canada House.

Both of them are prize-winning authors in Canada, less well-known over here, but there is such a contrast between the two of them. Heather O’Neill has been on my radar since I stumbled almost accidentally across her debut novel Lullabies for Little Criminals in the McGill University bookshop while I was on a business trip to Montreal. I was so moved by that story that I automatically wanted to read everything else written by O’Neill. Yet when I got to The Lonely Hearts Hotel, I was equally entranced and repulsed by it. Hearing about Heather’s crazy childhood and parents who ‘had no idea how to function in the real world’, it is understandable that her view of the world is a combination of hardcore cynicism and childish wonder. She is extremely entertaining when she talks about her horrific experiences as a child, but she has clearly turned to fiction as a way to process trauma. As she said ‘Children have no language to express the bad things that have happened to them. My fiction tries to give them that language without taking away any of the nuances.’

She also had interesting things to say about literary prizes, having been a judge on the Giller Prize (the Canadian equivalent of the Man Booker) this year. She said that most of the books she felt strongly about none of the other judges liked – ever the rebel!

Michael Redhill is a poet and novelist, and seems at first glance to fit very much into the mainstream straight white male cannon. I didn’t quite get what he tried to achieve with Bellevue Square, but I thought it was an interesting and brave attempt, like Paul Auster’s New York trilogy. Then you find out that he has also published crime fiction under the pseudonym Inger Ash Wolfe – now I look forward to reading some of those. And there was quite a bit of subversion in the way he talked about literature and literary prizes – in his opinion the books that win most years are the second place vote for everybody. In other words, the book that all the judges mind least if it wins. He said that for him Bellevue Square is a clearing house for humanity, with such an assortment of characters from all walks of life, and he particularly admired how Heather gave such depth of character to the people in her novels – people that we would normally dismiss or avoid or run away from.¬†

Heather O’Neill (left) and Michael Redhill being interviewed by Georgina Godwin.

On Friday I had the unexpected good fortune to go to an evening of ballet at the Peacock Theatre. The New English Ballet Theatre, who are a young, energetic company very much open to innovation, had a double bill of Remembrance/The Four Seasons and I reviewed it for View from the Cheap Seat.

September has gone by even faster than the previous months, so what have been the highlights?

We started off the month in one of my favourite places in England, Cambridge, then continued with another mother-and-sons trip down memory lane to Vienna. Although it is always bittersweet to go back to the places where you were once so happy, I hope that I’ve inspired a future generation to take advantage of opportunities and expand their horizons.

I had the bestest of times singing and dancing along to one of my living heroines, Janelle Monae. I did a short workshop with Isabel Costello and Voula Tsoflias about developing your resilience as a writer, which made me decide to focus more of my energy on submissions once more. I saw another of my writing heroines, Sarah Moss, and was inspired by the Poetry Book and Magazine Fair. And, alongside all that, I’ve been learning a new (and very counter-intuitive) events management system at work and helping roll out a new initiative, getting the boys settled into their new school year and starting contemporary dance classes.¬†

October is set to be just as busy, so let’s hope that this sprained ankle which has laid me low this weekend is nothing more serious (X-ray to follow tomorrow) and won’t slow me down at all.

Unusual Books about Unhappy Childhood

Once again, by complete coincidence, my reading seems to have followed a pattern: powerful and often unhappy childhood memories which have cast long shadows onto the protagonists’ later lives. I generally avoid ‘misery memoirs’, as they feel almost voyeuristic to me, but these books each have a more unusual perspective on traumatic pasts.

Fiona Melrose: Midwinter

Midwinter is the time of year when the book takes place, but it is also the name of the father and son duo at the heart of this book. It is also about the icy coldness and lack of communication which seems to exist between the two. Landyn and Vale Midwinter are hardy and dour Suffolk farmers. Ten years ago Landyn had tried to save the family from financial ruin by moving them to a farm in Zambia. During their time there, his wife (Vale’s mother) was killed and the two returned home but have never fully come to grips with the tragedy. Vale starts to act up, with stupid and tragic consequences, but his father is unable to talk to him about it, in this fierce indictment¬† of the ‘stiff upper lip’ or manliness which refuses to talk about pain and grief. Meanwhile, Landyn is fascinated by a fox he sees in the neighbourhood, whom he associates with his dead wife. This is very reminiscent of the Japanese folk tales about¬†kitsune, fox spirits, who shape shift into human form, and are typically the guardians and protectors of the family, as long as you do not try to delve too deeply into their secrets.

This is a slow, atmospheric read, designed to capture a farmer’s fierce love of the land and its creatures. There are some beautiful descriptive passages and sentences, polished like gemstones, but I can see how the overall effect could strike some readers as overloaded and cumbersome. I was enchanted by the book, despite its occasional repetitions. There is a timeless quality to it, you feel it could have taken place at any time over the past 100 years or so. Although very rooted in its local area, it reminded me in many ways of Michelle Bailat Jones’¬†Fog Island Mountains,¬†right down to the fox spirit, the complex husband/wife dynamic, the difficulty in communicating with the next generation, the loving respect and careful observation of nature.

For additional, longer reviews of Midwinter, see Savidge Reads, Lonesome Reader and Alba in Bookland.

Edouard Louis: The End of Eddy (transl. Michael Lucey)

Undeniably grim and yet no worse than other ‘misery memoirs’ about neglected/abused children or real stories I’ve heard about growing up gay in Eastern Europe or the Middle East. The shocking thing is that it’s not taking place in the 1950s or in some developing country, but in France in the 1990s, early 2000s. The contradictory nature of his parents, the equal amounts of disdain for politics and yet yearning for authority that they display is perhaps the best description of the background of many Le Pen voters. Yet I have to agree with Emma¬†that this feels like a very one-sided description of his childhood, that there must have been teachers and school authorities involved in helping him leave that miserable life behind. Nevertheless, it’s a more measured, dry, objective way of describing traumatic events than in some American memoirs of this type.

There were some fascinating similarities and differences with the film ‘Moonlight’, which also shows a perspective on what it means to grow up as a ‘double outsider’ in society, a perspective which is not often given a voice. Both show how violence (gun crime in the American perspective, brawling and fighting in the French perspective) is fetishised as ‘proof of manliness’. This book is as violent an indictment of working class values and prejudices, as Herv√© Bazin’s¬†Viper in the Fist is of Catholic rural bourgeois values.

For more thoughts on¬†The End of Eddy,¬†see Grant¬†, Lonesome Reader and of course Emma’s outstanding review, which gives you the view from France (about the name Eddy Bellegueule, for instance).

Heather O’Neill: The Lonely Hearts Hotel

Suffolk, Zambia, Picardy and now Quebec: proof that childhood unhappiness, abuse and neglect can be universal. Unlike the more contemporary novels above, O’Neill’s story takes us back to the 1920s/1930s, with this tale of two orphans, Pierrot and Rose, who find temporary comfort and escape in each other and the magical world they create with their music, dance and entertainment.

A strange, unsettling, provocative tale, with moments of magical flights of fancy and the language of legends applied to the very grim and unvarnished reality of the Great Depression and trying to lighten the mood of this bleak story. I am still not quite sure what to think of it, as it seems to be rather uneven or a novel of parts. Initially the style seemed almost too plain and bare (describing the rape of a minor), then it became increasingly ornate, even baroque at times. I was enchanted by it in parts, repelled in others – which is what I think the author intended. I expected the story to end when Pierrot and Rose finally find each other again as grown-ups, but this is a book about the desire to escape into fairy-tale, not a fairy-tale as such, so it doesn’t end on a happily ever after.

Heather O’Neill is a poet of a¬†writer who can seem to play around with words, always intriguing me but also punching me hard in the stomach. Despite the wistful waltzing around with imaginary bears, make no mistake: this book is just as¬†hard-hitting as Lullabies for Little Criminals. But don’t believe the marketing hype – it has very little in common with The Night Circus¬†by Erin Morgenstern, except that it defies easy categorisation.

It’s difficult to review this book coherently, but others have succeeded much better than me: Steph, the Literary Llama, Naomi Frisby.

 

October Reading Round-Up and Picks of the Month

Strange month of business trips, sleepless nights, work deadlines – all of which tend to spur me on to greater reading heights (anything to avoid having to deal with work). But this time I read rather less than in previous months. As for the writing – forget it, I don’t think I’ve written anything new since the 10th of August.

Back to reading, however. 9 books, of which 7 by men (to counterbalance the feminine July and August). 5 crime novels (arguably, Richard Beard’s biblical thriller could have fit into this category as well), plus one very unusual read out of my comfort zone – namely, a YA dystopian fantasy novel. I even managed to reread one book, an old favourite of mine, Jean Rhys. 3 of the books were translations or in another language. Finally, my trip to Canada did bear fruit, as I read two Canadian writers this month.

Crime fiction:

Gunnar Staalesen: We Shall Inherit the Wind

John Harvey: Cold in Hand

Jeremie Guez: Eyes Full of Empty (to be reviewed on CFL, together with an interview with the author)

Bernard Minier: The Circle (Le Cercle)

Alan Bradley: As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (to be reviewed on CFL)

YA fantasy:

wastelandersNicholas Grey: The Wastelanders

Since this is not my usual reading material, I lack the context and the comparisons to be able to say: this is good or this could have been better. I enjoyed the storytelling ability of the author, and it ends on a cliff-hanger, being the first in a trilogy. I believe it is in the Hunger Games mould, featuring children struggling to survive in a ruthless post-apocalyptic society headed by a dictator and inciting them to fight against the ‘monstrous outsiders’. An allegory of ‘otherness’ and abuse of power,¬†written in an accessible, exciting style which is sure to appeal to boys aged 11-14.

Unclassifiable:

Richard Beard: Acts of the Assassins

Women writers:

Heather O’Neill: Lullabies for Little Criminals

mackenzieJean Rhys: After Leaving Mr Mackenzie.

Here’s what I said about it on Goodreads:

I was attracted to its darkness and nihilism as a teenager, but now I can appreciate its understated drama and writing style more. A small masterpiece of descent into hopelessness from which all the current ‘middle-aged woman in a life crisis’ books could benefit.

And here’s an extract which should give you a flavour:

It was the darkness that got you. It was heavy darkness, greasy and compelling. It made walls round you, and shut you in so that you felt you could not breathe. You wanted to beat at the darkness and shriek to be let out. And after a while you got used to it. Of course. And then you stopped believing that there was anything else anywhere.

I want to write a longer feature about Jean Rhys at some point, as she is one of my favourite writers – you know me and my love for the gloomy! I also feel she is still somewhat underrated. I’ve also discovered there are two Jean Rhys biographies to discover (although so much is unknown about her life).

I enjoyed 5 out of my 9 reads very much indeed, and the rest were quite good as well, although I had certain reservations about a couple (as I mentioned in a previous post). My Crime Fiction Pick of the Month is John Harvey’s Cold in Hand, for its unsentimental, fearless yet very moving description of grief. But my top reads are actually the two books by the women writers, both very gripping, realistic and disturbing reads about those living on the edge of what society deems to be ‘nice’ and ‘acceptable’.

 

 

The Powers and Perils of Life on the Street

lullabiesThere may be a Friday Fun picture post later on today, but for the time being here is a book review. During the last few days of my business travels, I have been entranced and slightly horrified by the book I picked up in Montreal: Heather O’Neill’s¬†Lullabies for Little Criminals.

It tells the story of terrible events in the life of an imaginative but neglected twelve-year-old girl called Baby.

If I’d had parents who were adults, I probably would never have been called Baby… I loved how people got confused when Jules and I had to explain how it wasn’t just a nickname. It was an ironic name. It didn’t mean you were innocent at all. It meant you were cool and gorgeous. I was only a kid but I was looking forward to being a lady with that name.

Her father Jules is still in his twenties and a bit of a junkie, drifting from one hopeless money-making venture to another, one grotty hotel to another, in the red-light district of Montreal. Based on the examples of the adults around her (her hopeless father Jules, the pimp Alphonse, the drunks and drug dealers in the neighbourhood), Baby finds adulthood a boring, disgusting and often pitiful state of being that she is in no hurry to join, although circumstances seem to conspire to get her there too early.

The adult world was filled with perverts, so it hardly seemed like something worth preparing for.

Montreal
Montreal skyline

This is really the story of successive betrayals, large and small, by all the people around her, how the social care system fails her, but also of the small stolen moments of joy and the fragile friendships that are still possible. It is also the best description of the deliberate targeting and love-bombing of vulnerable young girls by pimps and how children realise that it’s only adults who have any power. Baby remains upbeat for most of the book, no matter how many things the author throws at her. She is non-judgemental and without a trace of self-pity. She sees people around her turning tricks and dealing drugs, she makes friends with outsiders and losers, and she finally descends into a morass of drug-fuelled frenzy.

Sometimes the description can get a little overwrought and the piling on of bad things can get repetitive:

We were addicted to kissing each other. We would kiss in shock, as if we had two buckets of water dumped on our heads. We would kiss sadly, as if the dog was lost in the night, We would kiss like cockroaches headed for the cracks… We stood there like hens pecking grains off the ground…

On the whole, however, the author manages to navigate the tricky path of rendering the unsentimental, clear voice of a child, although there are some odd moments of knowingness (and a hint that this is the grown-up remembering the child’s feelings at the time). Perhaps the innocence and good intentions of Baby do sound a little contrived initially. There is also perhaps too much impenetrable detachment later on in the book. Yet readers will be able to relate to her desire to be loved and her growing feelings of powerlessness, her despair at not being able to rely on anyone, not even her guardian angel.

Initially an honours roll student, Baby ends up neglecting school and finds refuge from an off-kilter, cruel world in heroin. As such, it is perhaps a Canadian version of Trainspotting or Christiane F.

I never thought I would end up doing heroin. I don’t think I did it because of Jules. I think we both did it for the same reason, though: because we were both fools who were too fragile to be sad, and because no one was prepared to give us a good enough reason not to do it.

Author photo from cbc.ca
Author photo from cbc.ca

With its sensitive descriptions of the competitiveness but also solidarity of deprived children of all backgrounds, I was not surprised to find out that there are autobiographical elements to this story. The survival of children in a world of inadequate parenting is described by the author thus:

An unwanted child is a bogeyman to its relatives… but a hero on the streets. Being neglected, you have a lot of freedom to develop outlandish, eccentric personalities in order to get love.

Even if I only spent a few days in Montreal, it was rather nice to recognise some place names and be able to place the action.¬†I seem to have been reading a number of books about what the Americans like to call ‘white trash’ – the poor (but not ethnically diverse) on the fringes of society – but not by American authors. French women authors seem to be particularly good at this, and I wonder if there is a mutual influence going on there with Qu√©b√©cois writers. This book reminded me of Sophie Divry, Virginie Despentes,¬†¬†Alice Quinn¬†or Jeanne Desaubry, but Qu√©b√©cois writers such as Nelly Arcan and Gabrielle Roy have also presented stark, realistic portrayals of working-class lives.