#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!— 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: Émile 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.

Last Book Splurge, 2018

It’s not as bad as it looks, because some of these books are from the library (the thickest ones). I am clearly hoping for a quiet Christmas holiday period, with lots of reading. But I have to admit that I’ve also been tempted to spend more than usual on books this month, because in January my self-imposed book ban kicks in.

Christmas presents for the boys:

The full set – maybe something for the future.

They love manga and graphic novels, but I’m trying to get them to broaden their tastes, so I bought The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman and one volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s monumnetal History of Showa Japan (the Second World War). That’s because my older son is quite keen on history. Keeping the Japanese theme going (given my own background and the fact that we are planning a trip to Japan in 2021), a beautifully illustrated volume entitled How to Live Japanese by Yutaka Yazawa. Another passion that unites us all is the love for our cat, Zoe, and the little book Test Your Cat should provide hours of entertainment. Two further books – the first ones I bought for them before I became a little too indulgent – are Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe for the future engineer, and Inventing Ourselves. The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain by Sarah=Jayne Blakemore for the argumentative future lawyer. Last but not least – although not strictly speaking a book – I also bought some sheet music for my older son, who’s recently started playing the keyboard: The Very Best of John Williams (a compromise between the classical music I like and the stuff that would be too complicated for him to play).

Christmas presents for myself:

I’ve renewed my subscription for another year with the Asymptote Book Club, as I get so much out of it, even when I sometimes struggle to keep up with the reading (it shouldn’t be the case, it’s only one book a month, right?). So the Christmas delivery is finally a book from Africa (come on, publishers, do translate more from that continent!). The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga is going to be an emotional read, I can foresee, based on the author’s mother’s story of trying to save children during the genocide in Rwanda.

On my last day at work I also finally made a trip to the nearby Persephone Bookshop, that so many of you have praised to the skies (or warned me about, depending on your level of concern for my financial health). I came away with 4 books that I wrapped up and gave to myself as Christmas presents. No one ever gives me books as a present because: a) I allegedly have too many already; b) I’ve read everything already; c) they don’t know what I like. To which my answers are: a) I can always squeeze in a few more and regularly give away to charity; b) no; c) pretty much omnivorous.

So my Persephone choices were:

Noel Streatfield: Saplings – simply because I grew up with Ballet Shoes and Curtain Up and White Boots and loved all the brave and talented young girls in her books. I know this is one for adults, but it’s about children suffering as a result of evacuation during the war.

Dorothy Whipple: Someone at a Distance – my first Whipple, the last novel she wrote, an author warmly recommended by the likes of Ali Hope , Jacqui and Simon Thomas. Plus, it’s about adultery and the breakdown of a marriage, a subject I feel rather an expert in!

Elisabeth De Waal: The Exiles Return – Edmund De Waal’s mother was born in Vienna and grew up there until they had to flee in the 1930s. She never got a chance to return, but in this novel her protagonists return from exile. Can you ever fit back into a place that pushed you out?

Dorothy Canfield Fisher: The Home-Maker – written in the 1920s but still surprisingly relevant today, about the frustration of stay at home mothers, and the challenges (and satisfaction) of role reversals among parents.

Little Bits Inspired by Twitter:

Uwe Johnson: Jahrestage (Anniversaries)

Readers whose opinions I respect were just going on and on about the recently translated 4 volume masterpiece and I’m such a herd animal that I had to check it out for myself. I found a second-hand Suhrkamp box-set edition dating from 1988 on a German bookshop website and ordered it. It may not be pretty, but it was affordable and should keep me busy for the next several years!

Fernando Sdrigotti: Shitstorm

I’ve been following Argentinian writer and editor of online literary journal Minor Literatures for a while now on Twitter. This novelette is about a wealthy nobody who goes viral when he slays a protected lion on the plains of Africa (remind you of any recent story?). Described as a sharp and perceptive chronicle dissecting the murky waters of viral news.

Katya Apekina: The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish

I think this one might have been mentioned on one of those ‘under the radar’ books of 2018. It sounds like a pretty hard-hitting story: two young girls who are sent to live with their estranged father after their mother’s suicide attempt. Besides, I’m always fascinated by people who write in languages other than their mothertongue (same applies for Sdrigotti, above).

Penelope Skinner: Linda

I saw this performed in November and discovered that there is a script published by Faber and Faber.

Shirley Hazzard: The Transit of Venus

I’ve read Hazzard’s satire about the United Nations bureaucracy in People in Glass Houses and her look at Anglo expat life in Italy in The Bay of Noon. She has a great eye for human foibles, but above all such stylish and precise sentences! She was mentioned in The Paris Review’s annual round-up of favourite reads and I realised that I’d quite like to read her book about two Australian sisters coming to live in England.

Ralph Dutli: Soutines letzte Fahrt (Soutine’s Last Journey)

When I wrote about seeing a Soutine exhibition at the Courtauld roughly a year ago, one of my blogger friends Shigekuni (aka Marcel Imhoff) drew my attention to this novel about the last few weeks of Soutine’s life, as he goes back to occupied Paris in 1943 for a potentially life-saving operation. On the way, in a morphine-induced haze, he remembers his childhood and life in exile.

From the Library:

C.J. Sansom: Lamentation

Would you be shocked to hear that I’ve never read any of C.J. Sansom’s historical fiction? I read Dominion, his alternate take on post-war Britain as a satellite state of Nazi Germany (and was not that fond of it). However, so many people whose opinion I respect have raved about his most recent novel Tombland and just generally about the Shardlake series, that I felt I had to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Elif Batuman: The Idiot

I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since I saw it shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK and for the Pulitzer Prize in the US. But mostly because it’s about a foreigner attending college in the US and trying to adapt to another culture. I cannot resist those ‘intercultural dialogues and misunderstandings’ themes. In the meantime, 180 pages in I realised that most of it was so dull that it didn’t make up for the few flashes of insight. So I abandoned it.

Claire Fuller: Bitter Orange

Simmering resentments and darkness, atmospheric, and the story of friendships knitted in the late 1960s – a good companion piece, perhaps to Sigrid Nunez The Last of Her Kind. I’ll read the two of them together.

I hardly dare to add up the total number of unread books lurking on my shelves, chests of drawers, bedside tables, in artistic piles on the floor etc. Suffice it to say that I think I might have a book to see me through every single day of 2019! So let’s get cracking!

Womanly Wit, Satire and Compassion

Two books I read in September (but never got around to reviewing) have stayed with me for similar reasons, even though outwardly they couldn’t have been more different. The first was a family saga of sorts, seen through the eyes of three generations of women. The second book was a satire, a series of interconnected short stories set in a nameless (but easily recognisable) international organisation.

The obvious similarity between them is that they might both have been labelled ‘women’s fiction’ – but of course that is a meaningless term. What they both brought to me as a reader was a wit at once fierce and yet tender. So if there is such a thing as women’s fiction, is it possible that women are more prone to sharp observation of character flaws, but also more gentle and forgiving of them?

hadleycoverTessa Hadley: Everything Will Be All Right

Family sagas are so not my thing (although I did go through a brief period in my teens when I enjoyed the Cazalets, Flambards and the Eliots of Damerosehay). But this book is more about exploring what it means to grow up a woman in three (perhaps even four) different eras, each one with its own challenges, opportunities and limitations. Joyce grows up in the early 1950s and wants to break free of the constraints of the housewifely existence she sees in her mother’s and aunt’s generation. Art school seems to be her way out of suburbia, but then she marries her art teacher and has children. Very soon, she learns to content herself with dressmaking, homemaking and a less than perfect marriage.

Her daughter Zoe disdains these compromises and grows up in the more adventurous 1970s, with expectations of gender equality. Yet when she falls in love with fellow student, the scornfully intellectual Simon, and falls pregnant, she too struggles with the ‘tension between motherhood and intelligent life’. Finally, Zoe’s daughter Pearl is still a thoughtless teenager in the late 1980s or early 1990s: the only thing she is sure of is that she doesn’t want to end up either like her cerebral mother or her domesticated grandmother.

In her Q&A session in Morges, Tessa Hadley said that this was the most autobiographical of her novels. She certainly describes all the permutations of female emancipation in a no-nonsense Northern family, with memorable characters and sensitive descriptions of complex mother/daughter relationships. Throughout, she casts a remarkably lucid and critical eye on the shortcomings of each generation – there is none who seems to have got it entirely right. Women are all still chasing after their illusions and learning to live with disillusionment.

The multiple points of view, although the shift is a little jarring at times, allow us to see each character, warts and all. It could be argued that the men are particularly covered in warts in this story – useless, unlikeable and, above all, unreliable. Yet often, in their unsentimental, selfish way, they see things most clearly. Here’s what Simon has to say about studying with babies:

He had not wanted this baby. He had always had a horror of a certain kind of semi-academic domesticity, PhD students turned whey-faced and sour-tempered over their grubby-mouthed and badly-behaved offspring; rented flats filled up with a detritus of toys; typewriter and books pushed resentfully aside to make room for plates of baby pap. It seemed to him self-evident that intelligent women with minds of their own would not make the best mothers: how could they bear, if they liked room to think and breathe and read, to be constrained as the mothers of small children must be to the sticky and endlessly repetitive routines of domestic life?

I don’t know if it’s a sad indication of things not having moved on very much, that women nowadays still have to make those restrictive choices of hearth and career, life of the mind or domesticating the body, that motherhood still reverts us back to gender stereotypes.

glasshousesShirley Hazzard: People in Glass Houses

Shirly Hazzard worked for the UN Secretariat in New York for a number of years, but was also familiar with diplomatic service and British Intelligence, so she had quite a choice of ‘organisations’ and ‘corporate nonsense’ to ridicule. This was probably the first book to lampoon organisational man (and woman) and the absurdities of the bureaucratic world. Yet the author reserves her sharpest arrows for the stultifying, soul-crushing organisation itself, its odd rules and procedures, the way it forces people to pretend and cheat. So many great insights into how organisations with their pretensions and doublespeak grind down and dehumanise people, how only the mediocre and ‘well-adapted’ or sycophantic survive.

The people themselves are mocked with compassion, perceived perhaps as victims. We see erudite, gentlemanly but rather slapdash Algie Wyatt being given the boot. Geeky researcher Ashmole-Brown is made fun of but then publishes his results and hits the bestseller lists; Swoboda, a Slav refugee during the war, has made up for lost educational opportunities through sheer hard work – yet is denied the promotion he feels he deserves and loses all respect for his bosses. Idealistic Clelia Kingslake flies out to Rhodes to deal with a crisis – but finds that no one seems to care about or rate her peace-keeping abilities.

All this in an elegant, uncluttered prose. The anger is toned down, yet with sly asides – a very British irony which reminds me of Barbara Pym.

Clelia Kingslake was happy because, first of all, she was a Canadian. Fished out of the Annual Reports Pool at Headquarters… flown to Rhodes at one day’s notice, arriving there to sunlight and sea, to trees in leaf, flowers in bloom, to the luxury of finding herself beside the Mediterranean – all this by itself might not have been thoroughly enjoyable to her strict northern soul had she not come to assist in a noble undertaking. She had been sent to serve the peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean in their hour of need, and it was this that sanctioned her almost sensual pleasure in her surroundings…

Have you read these books or other books by these authors? I will certainly be seeking out more of their work.