Monthly Archives: December 2015

My Books of the Year, 2015 – favourites from a year of reading

For me, 2015 was another year filled with great reading. I read around 90 books in 2015 (mostly older books), and only a handful turned out to be disappointing in some way. Once again I found it very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, but I’ve managed to whittle it down to a final thirteen: a baker’s dozen of excellent books, plus a few honourable mentions along the way! These are the books I love, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day. I’ve summarised each ‘winner’ in this post, but you can click on the links should you wish to read the full reviews.

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First up, five category winners:

Reread of the Year: The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

Considered by some to be Yates’ best, this novel follows two sisters who take very different paths in life. Their story taps into a familiar theme in this author’s work: the search for happiness and fulfilment that always seems to elude his characters. Despite the deep sense of sadness running through the novel, this was my favourite reread of the year. A superb book (I doubt whether it gets much better than Richard Yates).

Honourable Mentions (All of these are winners in their own right): After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys; A Heart So White by Javier Marías; The Long Good-Bye by Raymond Chandler.

Crime Novel of the Year: The Secret in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri (tr. John Cullen)

Set against the backdrop of Argentina’s Dirty War, the story focuses on the bond that develops between a clerk in the Buenos Aires investigative court and the husband of a murder victim. This is a first-rate novel—part psychological mystery, part exploration of corruption in the Argentine criminal justice system, but always engrossing.

Honourable Mentions: Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac; Topkapi – The Light of Day by Eric Ambler

Autobiographical Novel of the Year: Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan (tr. George Miller)

To be honest, I’ve only read a couple of autobiographical books this year, but the de Vigan was so good that I had to find a slot for it somewhere! Virtually impossible to summarise in a couple of sentences, this remarkable story focuses on a woman’s quest to gain a deeper understanding of her mother following the latter’s death by suicide. A genuinely absorbing book, beautifully written – de Vigan’s prose is luminous. 

Novella of the Year: The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Poor Florence Green is up against it at every turn as she tries to open a bookshop in the (fictional) Suffolk town of Hardborough. The town is the kind of microcosm where everybody knows everybody else’s business, a place where gossip, hierarchies and class systems all play an important role. Fitzgerald writes with great insight about life’s failings and disappointments, but she is a humorous writer too – every scene is so finely observed. Of the three Fitzgerald novels I’ve read to date, this is my favourite.

Honourable Mentions: Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós; Madame de___ by Louise de Vilmorin; Agostino by Alberto Moravia.

Short Story Collection of the Year: Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)

I love the stories in this edition of forty-two pieces drawn from a lifetime of Ocampo’s writing, the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory. Several of her stories point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday. An unusual and poetic collection of stories that blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. Highly recommended, especially if you’re looking for something different.

Honourable Mentions: Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile; Subtly Worded by Teffi.

And now for the novels, eight favourites from a year of reading:

Run River by Joan Didion

It was a tough call between this book and Didion’s iconic Play It As It Lays; in the end, Run River was the one that stood out for me. I love the melancholy tone of this novel which explores the disintegration of the relationship between a husband and wife living in California. There is a sense of things dying here: Lily and Everett’s relationship; the traditional rancher’s way of life; people die too. I can’t imagine it being set anywhere other than California. In some ways, it’s a lament for a time that has all but disappeared. One for fans of Richard Yates – there are similarities with The Easter Parade.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

This novel follows a recently widowed elderly lady, Mrs Palfrey, as she moves into the Claremont Hotel where she joins a group of residents in similar positions – each one is likely to remain there until a move to a nursing home or hospital can no longer be avoided. This is a beautiful, bittersweet, thought-provoking novel, one that prompts the reader to consider the emotional and physical challenges of old age: the need to participate in life, the importance of small acts of kindness, the desire to feel valued. Taylor’s observations of social situations are spot-on (there are some very funny moments). A real gem.

A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien

Part compassionate satire, part touching coming-of-age story, this semi-autobiographical novel was inspired by O’Brien’s experiences of growing up in Los Angeles in the 1940s and ‘50s. The boy’s father used to be a famous actor, but his career has faded over the years. By the time he is twelve, the boy is living with his melodramatic, alcoholic mother, acting as her confidante and helping her through the bad times. This is a wonderful book – funny, sad, ironic and sympathetic. In many ways, it reminds me of early-to-mid-period Woody Allen (you know, the good ones before things went astray).

Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker

Dorothy Baker makes my reading highlights for the second year running, this time with Young Man with a Horn, a novel inspired by the music of jazz legend, Bix Beiderbecke. The story focuses on the life of a fictional character named Rick Martin, a jazz musician whose passion for music is so great that he struggles to keep pace with his own ability. This is good old-fashioned storytelling strong on mood, atmosphere and the rhythm of the music. Baker’s writing is top-notch.

Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross

Set in the 1940s, this novel is narrated by Richard Fanshawe, a young man who finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to eke out a living by selling vacuum cleaners to sceptical housewives. The story is shot through with dark humour, much of which stems from Maclaren-Ross’ wonderfully sharp observations on Fanshawe’s experiences as a salesman and life at the boarding house where he rents a room. Probably my favourite read of the year – a must for Patrick Hamilton fans.

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

Set in New York in the late 1960s, this short novel follows a weekend in the lives of Sophie and Otto Bentwood, a childless upper-middle-class couple living in Brooklyn. When Sophie is bitten by a cat, the incident is the first of a number of disturbing events that threaten to destabilise the Bentwoods’ seemingly harmonious existence. This is a subtle and very effective character study; slowly but surely Fox peels away the layers to expose Sophie’s vulnerability and Otto’s failings. A novel that has grown in my mind over time.

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

Set in Enniscorthy (the author’s birthplace), a small town in the south-east of Ireland in the late 1960s, Tóibín’s latest novel is the touching story of a woman who has to find a new way to live following the death of her husband. This is a novel that speaks to me on a personal level; so much of Nora’s story reminds me of my own mother’s experiences following the loss of my father. A subtle character study of a woman’s inner life. As one might expect with Tóibín, the sense of place is wonderful, too.

Carol / The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith’s ‘underground’ novel centres on the development of a relationship between Therese, a young aspiring designer and Carol, an older woman in the midst of a divorce and custody battle for her child. I really love this book; it is beautiful, insightful and involving. The central characters are so well drawn – the longing Therese feels for Carol is portrayed with great subtlety. While Carol is quite different to the other Highsmith novels I’ve read, it contains moments of real tension, both sexual tension and flashes of fear and anxiety. Familiar Highsmith themes such as obsession, desire and morally complex scenarios are here, albeit in a different context. This is the source novel for Todd Haynes’ recent film, Carol – both the novel and the movie come with a high recommendation from me.

Thank you to everyone who has read, shared or commented on my posts over the last year, I really do appreciate it. Wishing you all the best for the festive season and the year ahead, may they be filled with many wonderful books!

My Reading List for The Classics Club

Some of you will be very familiar with The Classics Club, but if it’s new to you, there’s some more information about it here. It’s a way of uniting people who like to read and write about classic literature as part of the range of books they cover on their own blogs.

Classics Club members are invited to put together a list of at least 50 classics they intend to read and blog about at some point within the next five years. The structure allows for some flexibility – each member can set their own end date provided it’s within five years. Also, the definition of what constitutes a “classic” is fairly relaxed – as long as the member feels the book meets the guidelines for their list, he or she is free to include it. All books need to be old, i.e. first published at least twenty-years ago – apart from that, the definition is pretty flexible.

With this in mind, I’ve put together a list of fifty classics that I would like to read by December 2018. (I’ll be reading other books as well, so this list will run alongside my other reading choices.) Most of these books having been hanging around on my shelves for a few years, but I’ve also added a handful of new ones to freshen things up a little. There are twenty-five classics by women writers on my list, which gives me a 50:50 split between male and female authors. All the titles on my list are 20th-century classics as these are the books I tend to enjoy the most.

Here is my list (A-Z by author). I’ve tried to include a few translations alongside British and American Classics, plus some short story collections and classic noir for a bit of variety. None of these books are rereads.

  1. Pitch Dark by Renata Adler
  2. They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy + an additional post on the politics and history
  3. A Legacy by Sybille Bedford
  4. The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
  5. Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain
  6. The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
  7. My Ántonia by Willa Cather
  8. The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate
  9. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns
  10. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
  11. An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov
  12. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
  13. Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton
  14. The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
  15. Vain Shadow by Jane Hervey
  16. Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith
  17. In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes
  18. The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue
  19. The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata
  20. Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood
  21. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  22. The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krudy
  23. The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
  24. Passing by Nella Larsen
  25. The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning
  26. The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
  27. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore
  28. Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara
  29. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes
  30. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
  31. Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys
  32. Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth
  33. A Certain Smile by Françoise Sagan
  34. Improper Stories by Saki
  35. The Widow by Georges Simenon
  36. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  37. The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
  38. The Gate by Natsume Soseki
  39. Love in a Bottle by Antal Szerb
  40. A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor
  41. A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor
  42. Spring Night by Tarjei Vesaas
  43. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
  44. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson
  45. Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
  46. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  47. Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams
  48. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates
  49. The Burning of the World by Béla Zombory-Moldován
  50. Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig

Do you have any thoughts on my list? Have you read any of these books?

Update – March 2016: I keeping coming across more books that will fit my definition of a ‘modern classic’ so I’m going to add them to the list as I find/read them:

Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac (tr. Geoffrey Sainsbury)

When Pushkin Press launched their new crime imprint—aptly named Pushkin Vertigo—back in September, I couldn’t resist buying a couple of titles: the Boileau-Narcejac I’m reviewing here, plus Leo Perutz’ Master of the Day of Judgement. I’ve yet to read the latter, but if Vertigo is anything to go by, I’ve got a treat in store.

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First published in France in 1954, Vertigo (originally titled D’entre les morts, meaning Among the Dead) is the source novel for the Hitchcock film of the same name. Even if you’re familiar with the movie, the book is well worth reading. I think the novel is darker and more disturbing than Hitchcock’s adaptation. Moreover, the characterisation feels stronger and more nuanced here. In any case, it’s a terrific read, especially if you’re interested in the themes of desire and obsession.

As the story opens, we find ourselves in Paris in 1940, and the signs of war are rumbling away in the background. Lawyer and former police officer, Roger Flavières is approached by an old friend, Paul Gévigne, who wants to ask a favour of him. Even though he hasn’t seen Gévigne for fifteen years, Flavières can tell that his old acquaintance is not entirely at ease. Gévigne is worried about his wife of four years, a lady by the name of Madeleine. According to Gévigne, Madeleine has always had a rather variable temperament, ‘up one minute, down the next’, but lately she has become prone to odd silences; more specifically, there are times when she appears to drift off into a world of her own.

‘…She’s absent-minded, as though her body no longer belonged to her, as though she had become someone else…’ (pg. 12)

Despite the fact that several doctors have examined Madeleine and found nothing wrong with her health, Gévigne remains concerned. His wife seems to have developed a strange fascination with her great-grandmother, Pauline Lagerlac, who, unbeknownst to Madeleine, took her own life at a young age. With all this in mind, Gévigne asks Flavières to keep an eye his wife, to follow her from a distance and provide an opinion on her behaviour. Even though he suspects Madeleine is simply having an affair, Flavières agrees. He is also not terribly fond of Gévigne, which you’ll see in the following quote.

Madeleine… He liked the name. It had a gentle, plaintive sound. But how could she have brought herself to marry this stocky, corpulent man? Of course she was carrying on with somebody else… Those attacks!… Dragging a red herring across her own tracks… Serve him right. Gévigne deserved to be made a fool of by his wife. Because of his smug affluence, his cigars, his contract for building small craft—because of everything. Flavières didn’t like people with too much self-assurance—and, outwardly at least, Gévigne had plenty—though it was a quality he would have given anything to possess himself. (pgs. 22-23)

Once he sees Madeleine in the flesh, Flavières experiences a change of heart. She is beautiful, elegant and graceful, but there is something a little fragile about her, too. Flavières is smitten, and as he continues to follow Madeleine, he becomes increasingly fascinated with her.

Madeleine was like him: he felt sure of it; and he was tempted to overtake her. They wouldn’t need to talk. They would simply walk side by side watching the barges gliding through the water. It wouldn’t do, of course, and to curb the impulse he stopped altogether and allowed her to get well ahead. He even thought of going home. But there was something a little intoxicating and more than a little questionable in this pursuit which fascinated him, obsessed him. He went on. (pg. 46)   

One day, while he is watching Madeleine, Flavières is forced to step in and make contact. An incident occurs that appears to mirror something from Pauline Lagerlac’s past, an episode which suggests Madeleine is in need of constant protection. As he reflects on Madeleine’s behaviour, Flavières identifies two sides to her demeanour. On the one hand, she seems happy, lively and full of the joys of life—this is the luminous side of Madeleine’s character. By contrast, the other side is much darker and more mysterious. At times, she seems detached and somewhat dislocated—in other words, much more vulnerable and harder to reach.

Gévigne was quite right: as soon as you stopped entertaining her, holding her back into this life, she sank into a sort of numbness which was neither meditation nor gloom, but a subtle change of state. It was as though her soul might at any minute float away and gradually dissipate itself in the wind. Several times Flavières had seen her slip silently into this condition as she sat with him, like a medium whose real self has been summoned to another world. (pg. 58)

The second section of the story takes place four years later in Marseilles in an atmosphere that reminds me a little of Anna Seghers’ haunting novel, TransitAs Flavières pursues Madeleine with a feverish obsession, he becomes trapped in a nightmare of his own, increasingly fuelled by drink and a deep desire for the “truth”. I say “truth” in inverted commas because there is a blurring of the margins between reality and the imaginary.

Vertigo is a short novel, and thoroughly absorbing with it, so I’m wary of saying too much about the plot for fear of revealing any major spoilers. I would like to mention something about the characterisation, though. It is clear from the opening chapter that Flavières has troubles of his own. He is haunted by an incident in his past when, during his days as a detective, his fear of heights prevented him from pursuing a suspect who had taken refuge on a rooftop. When Flavières’ colleague, Leriche, stepped in to help, the officer slipped and fell to his death. Consequently, Flavières still holds himself responsible for the loss of his former colleague, a story he shares with Gévigne during their initial meeting.

He always encountered the same bewildered incredulity when he told his story. No one ever took it seriously. How could he ever make them hear Leriche’s scream, which went on and on, passing from a shrill note to a lower one with the distance? Perhaps Gévigne’s wife too was burdened by some gnawing secret, but it couldn’t be half as hideous a one as his. Were her dreams torn by a scream like that? Had she allowed someone to die in her place? (pg. 20)

For me, this is one of the key passages in the novel as the themes expressed here reverberate and echo through the narrative. Flavières is more than a little vulnerable himself. His health is failing and his mental state fragile. Is Flavières simply chasing an idealised image of Madeleine, a fantasy figure he has created in his own mind, or will he find the real Madeleine in the end? And just how significant is Madeleine’s connection with her great-grandmother, Pauline Lagerlac? I’ll leave you to discover the answers to these questions for yourselves should you decide to real this excellent, mind-bending novel.

Before I wrap up, just a few words on the Pushkin Vertigo edition. It is beautifully produced and comes with an interesting afterword on Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac who collaborated together under the nom-de-plume Boileau-Narcejac. Tired of traditional British crime fiction and the hardboiled style of American detective novels, they sought to create a new kind of mystery which placed the victim at the heart of the story (albeit a victim who might not realise the true extent of their position). To my mind, that’s exactly what they have achieved with Vertigo.

Several other bloggers have reviewed this novel. Posts that have caught my eye include those from FictionFan, Guy and LitLove, some of which go into more detail about the differences between the book and Hitchcock’s film.

Vertigo is published by Pushkin Vertigo. Source: Personal copy.

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

Does it get much better than Richard Yates? I’m not sure that it does. That’s certainly my feeling after rereading his 1976 novel, The Easter Parade. According to the quotes at the beginning of the book, Joan Didion considers it to be Yates’ best novel, and I can understand why. It’s a desperately sad story, one that taps into a familiar theme in this author’s work: the search for happiness and fulfilment that always seem to elude his characters. Despite the deep sense of sadness running through the novel, this is a wonderful book. It has left me keen to read more of Yates in the future.

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The Easter Parade follows the lives of two sisters, Sarah and Emily Grimes, from their childhood through to middle age. Neither of the sisters seems destined to live a happy life, and the novel makes this clear from the opening line. By 1930, their parents are divorced, and the girls go to live with their mother in a rented house in New Jersey. The mother, Pookie, is a bit unstable. She aspires to belong to a higher social class, to live in a bigger and better house. Just as the girls get settled in one home, Pookie insists on moving them to another. In short she is constantly seeking the finer things in life.

One of the pleasures of this novel (and this author’s work in general) is Yates’ ability to capture a sense of character in just a few short sentences. Here’s how he introduces Pookie:

Esther Grimes, or Pookie, was a small, active woman whose life seemed pledged to achieving and sustaining an elusive quality she called ‘flair.’ She pored over fashion magazines, dressed tastefully and tried many ways of fixing her hair, but her eyes remained bewildered and she never quite learned to keep her lipstick within the borders of her mouth, which gave her an air of dazed and vulnerable uncertainty. (pg 7, Vintage Books)

The girls have a somewhat idealised view of their father, a copy-desk writer for the New York Sun newspaper, whom they visit every now and again. He dies young from pneumonia although there are hints of a reliance on alcohol and cigarettes which may well have contributed to his death.

The focus of the story is the different paths the two girls follow in their lives, each of them yearning for happiness, neither of them finding it within their grasp. Sarah is four years older than Emily. As a young woman, she is curvy, attractive and her father’s favourite. Keen to get married and settle down, Sarah marries Tony, a well-educated, handsome young man with the look of Laurence Olivier about him. They go to live in a country cottage within the grounds of Tony parents’ estate in St. Charles, Long Island. Three sons follow within the space of a few years. On the surface, everything appears rosy, but as this is a Richard Yates novel, we know that’s not going to be the case here.

By contrast, Emily’s life follows a more independent route than that of her sister. Emily is tall, rather flat-chested and perhaps a little plain compared to Sarah. There is a sense of vulnerability about Emily’s character. At first she appears somewhat self-conscious, especially in the shadow of her older sister, but as the years slip by she grows in confidence. The novel focuses on Emily, so we see most of the story from her point of view. She gains a scholarship to Barnard College and her education enables her to find work as a librarian, a journalist, and ultimately as a copywriter in an advertising agency. At Barnard, she meets and marries a philosophy grad assistant named Andrew. The marriage, however, is a disaster – blighted by Andrew’s bitterness over his impotence – and so the couple separate within a matter of months.

While working on the editorial staff of a trade journal, Emily falls for her editor, a divorcee and published poet named Jack. They move to Iowa when Jack lands a role teaching at a writer’s workshop at the university there. At first everything seems to be going well, but as Jack struggles to complete his next book, everything starts to fall apart. A holiday to Europe turns sour leaving Emily feeling more alone than ever before.

‘It isn’t you; why do you always think everything’s you? It’s just – it’s just that this is my first night in a foreign country and it’s made me feel so vulnerable.’ And that was true enough, she decided as she got up from the bed to blow her nose and wash her face, but it was only part of the truth. The rest of it was that she didn’t want to travel with a man she didn’t love. (pgs. 112-113)

During the years that follow, Emily goes from one doomed relationship to another, forever seeking the love and companionship of a stable partner. While she continues to hope things will finally come together, there is occasionally a feeling of relief if they don’t.

As the cab pulled away she turned around in the heavy scent of roses to see if he would wave, but she caught only a glimpse of his back heading into the sidewalk crowd.

Except that she wanted to cry, she didn’t really know what she felt. She tried to figure it out all the way home until she discovered, climbing the stairs, that she felt a great sense of relief. (pg. 62)

As the years pass, the sisters drift apart. While Emily grows increasingly lonely, cracks begin to appear in Sarah and Tony’s marriage. When Emily meets her sister for lunch in town one day, she finds her much changed. Sarah appears so much older than her forty-one years, her faced lined and shadowed, her hand permanently clutching a glass of martini. At first, Sarah is keen to maintain appearances – she pretends everything is okay, resorting to drink as she attempts to wipe away the reality of her life with Tony. By the evening, however, it becomes clear that she is the victim of domestic abuse. In a particularly painful scene, Sarah calls her sister from a hotel; when Emily goes to see her sister, she urges her to leave Tony.

The only important thing now is to make up your mind. Either go back to St. Charles, or start a new life for yourself here.’

Sarah was silent, as if pretending to think it over for the sake of appearances; then she said ‘I’d better go back,’ as Emily had known she would. ‘I’ll take the train back this afternoon.’

‘Why?’ Emily said. ‘Because he “needs” you?’

‘We need each other.’

So it was settled. Sarah would go back; all of Emily’s days and nights would be free for Michael Hogan, and for whatever man might follow him in the long succession. She had to admit she was relieved, but it was a relief that couldn’t be shown. ‘And what you’re really afraid of,’ she said, intending it as a kind of taunt, ‘what you’re really afraid of is that Tony might leave you.’

Sarah lowered her eyes, displaying the fine little blue-white scar. ‘That’s right,’ she said. (pgs. 155-156)

The underlying tragedy of these sisters’ stories is that they each crave a little part of what the other one has in her life and yet they seem unable to share their true feelings with one another. In her younger days, Sarah aspires to be a writer, but her promising start in putting together a book of letters falls by the wayside; her duties as a wife and a mother must come first. Sarah envies her sister’s independence, and yet she is unable to break free from Tony even though she knows her situation is likely to deteriorate even further over time.

Emily, on the other hand, longs for a different type of fulfilment: the stability of a permanent relationship. Not quite the type of marriage that Sarah has made with Tony, but something more loving, more caring.

By the end of the novel, I found myself wishing they had been able to help and support each other more along the way. If so, perhaps things would have turned out differently for both of them…

Update: Kim (at Reading Matters) and Carly (guesting at tomcat in the red room) have also reviewed this novel – just click on the links to read their excellent reviews .

The Easter Parade is published by Vintage Books. Source: personal copy. Book 17/20, #TBR20 round 2.