Tag Archives: Other Press

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!

The Secret in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri (tr. John Cullen)

First published in Spanish in 2005 with an English translation following in 2011, The Secret in Their Eyes was Argentine writer Eduardo Sacheri’s debut novel. If the title sounds familiar, that might be because the book was turned into an award-winning film. The original screen adaptation—which happens to feature one of my favourite actors, Ricardo Darín—picked up the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009. It’s been a while since I last watched the film, so the time felt right to pick up the book. I’m so glad I did. This is a first-rate novel—part psychological mystery, part exploration of corruption in the Argentine criminal justice system, but always engrossing.

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As the novel opens, Benjamín Chaparro is retiring from his post as a deputy clerk in the Buenos Aires investigative court, a position he has held for over thirty years. After two unsuccessful marriages, Chaparro is a little weary of life—in short, he is a man not entirely comfortable in his own skin. A little unsure as to what he is going to do with the rest of his life, Chaparro decides to write a book: an account of the fallout from a brutal crime that has occupied his thoughts for the past thirty years.

Rewinding to May 1968, a beautiful young woman, the recently-married Liliana Colotto, is raped and strangled in her home in Buenos Aires. As the deputy clerk on duty at the time, Chaparro is required to attend the scene of the murder where he meets the police officer in charge of investigating the case, Inspector Báez. The crime leaves Liliana’s husband, bank clerk Ricardo Morales, utterly devastated.  As Chaparro watches Morales, this quiet, unremarkable man seems completely lost.

It seemed to me most likely that he was taking a mental inventory of everything he’d just lost. (pg.50)

It was as if Morales—once he’d cooled off, once he was empty of emotions and feelings, once the dust cloud had settled on the ruins on his life—could perceive what his future would be like, what he had to look forward to, and as if he’d realized that yes, beyond the shadow of a doubt, his future was nothing. (pg. 51)

As the case progresses, it gets under Chaparro’s skin. Three months down the line, there are no firm leads or pieces of evidence on which to proceed, but Chaparro keeps the case file open despite the wishes of his boss. As far as the investigative judge is concerned, the fewer the number of active cases the better. During this time Chaparro keeps in touch with Morales, meeting him in a bar to discuss the situation every now and again. He soon discovers that Morales is too detached and too intelligent to find solace in anything other than the truth. Something about the young bank clerk’s melancholy demeanour, the way he appears resigned to suffer the harshest of blows in life, prompts Chaparro to do everything in his power to help him.

I tended to think that my work had made me immune to emotions, but this young guy, collapsed on his chair like a dismounted scarecrow and gazing glumly outside, had just expressed in words something I’d felt since childhood. That was the moment, I believe, when I realized that Morales reminded me very much, maybe too much, of myself, or the “self” I would have been if feigning strength and confidence had exhausted me, if I were weary of putting them on every morning when I woke up, like a suit or—worse yet—like a disguise. I suppose that’s why I decided to help him in any way I could. (pgs. 72-73)

As a result of his discussions with Morales, Chaparro uncovers a lead in the case and decides to do a little investigating himself. With the help of Inspector Báez, he identifies the murderer and so the case moves into a different phase. The police set off on the trail of Liliana’s killer, various developments happen, time passes. This is a slow burn story of a crime and corruption in the system, but it’s one that kept me gripped throughout.

Things are never straightforward, especially in Argentina in the 1970s, a time when the country’s Dirty War was rumbling away in the background. At one point, it becomes clear that Chaparro’s own life is in danger, a situation that prompts him to move away from Buenos Aires for a number of years until he can return safely. Our protagonist is also very open about his frustrations with the Argentine judicial system, an organisation that seems to favour assholes and imbeciles in equal measure.

During the previous three years in the court, few things had changed. We’d been able to get the wretched Clerk Pérez off our backs—he’d been promoted to public defender—but losing our boss that way had left a bitter taste, because it appeared to confirm our belief that a certain level of congenital stupidity, such as the kind he displayed like a flag, could auger a meteoric ascent in the juristic hierarchy. (pg. 192)

The chapters recounting the investigations into Liliana’s murder, the subsequent developments, and Chaparro’s relationship with Morales are interspersed with shorter passages in which our protagonist reflects on his own life. Or, more specifically, the questions he is grappling with while trying to write his book…not to mention his feelings for Irene Hornos, the current judge in the investigative court. Following his retirement, Chaparro remains in touch with Irene—the woman he has loved from afar for the last thirty years—visiting her at work during the twilight hours of the night.

With her lips, she’s asking him to explain why he’s blushing and squirming in his chair and looking up every twelve seconds at the tall pendulum clock that stands against the wall near the bookcases; but with her eyes, besides all that, she asking him something else. She’s asking him what’s wrong, what’s wrong with him, with him and her, with him and the two of them, and she seems interested in his answer,… (pg. 269)

The story also touches on Chaparro’s enduring friendship with his assistant, Sandoval, the very astute accomplice who plays a pivotal role in the investigation. At the end of the day, though, the core of Sacheri’s novel revolves around the inextricable bond between Chaparro and Ricardo Morales, a man who continues to radiate an unrelenting aura of loss.

When I saw Morales sitting there in front of me on that June afternoon in 1973, I understood that the brevity or longevity of a human being’s life depends most of all on the amount of grief that person is obliged to bear. Time passes more slowly for those who suffer, and pain and anguish leave definitive marks on their skin. (pg. 256)

The Secret in Their Eyes is an excellent novel, one that’s definitely worth reading even if you’ve seen the film. As is often the case, the book is much subtler and more layered than the screen adaptation. There are differences in emphasis between the two forms as the novel allows more space for character development along with greater exploration of the connection between Chaparro and Morales. Certain aspects of the narrative differ as well, but I’ve kept discussion of the novel’s plot to a minimum for fear of revealing any major spoilers. Ultimately, this is an intricate story from an author in complete control of his material. Highly recommended.

Interestingly, Sacheri worked as an office employee in the Buenos Aires sentencing court in the late 1980s. (In his introduction, the translator John Cullen explains that the Argentine judiciary at the time of the novel was divided into two jurisdictions: investigative courts and sentencing courts.) During his time in the sentencing court, Sacheri happened to hear an anecdote about an old case from the seventies. Even though the novel’s plot and all of its characters are entirely fictitious, Sacheri used the core of this anecdote as inspiration for a key element in his story. To say any more would take me into the realm of spoilers, but Sacheri’s own experience undoubtedly gives the novel an air of credibility.

Guy has also reviewed this book, which I read for Richard’s Argentine Literature of Doom event.

The Secret in Their Eyes is published by Other Press. Source: personal copy. Book 16/20, #TBR20 round 2.

Drowned by Therese Bohman (tr. by Marlaine Delargy)

Where to start with Drowned? Well, I should say upfront that it’s a psychological novella by the Swedish editor and literary critic, Therese Bohman. Drowned is a little different to the types of books I typically choose, but a reading friend recommended it and I was keen to give it a shot.

The story is divided into two parts, and the first section opens with Marina, who narrates the story, arriving in Skåne (in the Swedish countryside) to visit her older sister, Stella. The two sisters have not seen one another in some time, and Stella now lives with Gabriel, a relatively famous novelist in his mid-forties. Gabriel is a good fifteen years older than Stella, an age difference that appears to have caused the girls’ parents some concern.

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The differences between the two sisters are evident from the opening pages of this novella. In the blistering heat of midsummer, Marina arrives by train feeling listless, grubby and headachy from the journey, whereas Stella appears cool and elegant. Marina seems ambivalent about the demise of her relationship with boyfriend, Peter (who has gone to Spain with friends), and shows little enthusiasm for her studies at Stockholm. By contrast, Stella invests much energy in her role as a landscape planner; she is a keen gardener, both at home and at work where she heads up the planning section of the council and parks department.

Gabriel works from home in the couple’s somewhat isolated idyllic cottage surrounded by a garden bursting with plants and flowers, and these images form one of the key themes within the book. Following the success of his first novel, Ophelia (another reference point), Gabriel is frustrated by the process of re-writing his second. Marina read Ophelia some years ago in high school, and while her memories of the book are somewhat vague, she can recall a ‘cloying sense of love bordering on obsession’ so well written it was almost as if she had experienced it herself.

In the heady and intense summer heat, it’s not long before a precarious attraction develops between Marina and Gabriel. In this early scene, Gabriel has been painting the henhouse in the garden and on seeing Marina, he realises there is a smear of paint on his forehead:

I move a step closer and run my thumb gently over the mark on his forehead. He looks at me, no longer smiling. There is a strong smell of paint, as if the hot, still air is intensifying the smell, making it linger. The lock of hair falls into his eyes again, and I gently push it aside to get at the paint. I can feel his breath against my cheek, he is close now, bending his head toward me so that I can reach. His forehead is brown from the sun, his whole face, his arms, he is wearing a faded black T-shirt and he smells wonderful, warm.

“Has it gone?”

“Yes.”

I hold up my hand to show him, red paint on my thumb and forefinger, and he suddenly grabs hold of my wrist, twists my hand around, and looks at my fingers. It is a rapid movement, decisive, his grip is hard, just like when I met him on that first evening, the firm handshake. Perhaps he isn’t aware of how strong he is.

“Pretty nail polish,” he says.

I did my nails last night, a cool pink, shimmering like mother-of-pearl in the sunlight.

“Thanks,” I say quietly.

My cheeks flush red. (Other Press, pg. 33)

There is a vague sense of unease in the relationships between each of the three main characters. Relations between the two sisters feel a little strained, and I’ve already touched upon Marina and Gabriel. As for Gabriel and Stella, at times the writer is loving and attentive towards his partner, but on other occasions he wonders what he’s supposed to do to make her happy. Moreover, Stella hints to her sister that she finds Gabriel somewhat unstable and difficult to live with.

Bohman brings a claustrophobic, stifling atmosphere to this first section of Drowned. Aromas pervade the air, and the heady, oppressive, almost fecund mood is augmented by descriptions of plants and flowers as they creep and spread into every available space:

There is a vase of sweet peas on the table now, spreading a perfume that seems to grow more intense as the day goes on. They clamber up a length of chicken wire in the kitchen garden, getting entangled in one another and in the wire, winding their tendrils like lianas around everything they can reach, greedily, clinging on tightly, some are impossible to pull free when you’re picking them. (pg. 72)

The second section of the book moves forward to November as Marina returns once again to the house in Skåne. The torrid heat has long gone, but this part of the story remains atmospheric as a result of a plunge in temperature:

This is late fall, raw and rainy. I can no longer smell the rotting leaves, it is no longer possible to tell that it was once summer. The entire landscape is in a state of torpor, it has resigned itself, let go. No fall colours, only brown and gray, no leaves left on the trees, they are lying on the ground now, sodden in the puddles, crushed, a mush of fallen leaves covering the lawn. (pg 111)

I enjoyed this psychological novella about how secrets, obsessions and guilt can bind people together. Bohman explores the darker aspects of our relationships, and she does so in a way that held my interest throughout. There are a few themes I would have liked to discuss further in this review, but it’s very difficult to do so without disclosing key elements of the plot. Drowned is an unsettling read, and in some ways it reminds me a little of Hanne Ørstavik’s The Blue Room (tr. by Deborah Dawkin), certainly in terms of the novella’s somewhat claustrophobic and unnerving atmosphere – while Drowned maintains an air of ambiguity, The Blue Room is a more slippery read and harder to pin down.

I’ll wrap up with one final point. Occasionally during the narrative, Marina reflects on memories of her relationship with Stella when they were children, and I found myself looking for hints and clues from the past. I’ll leave you with a quote from one of these sections:

I think about when I was little, when it was winter and Stella and I were waiting in the backseat of the car for Mom and Dad, who had gone off to do some shopping or something, and the windows got all misted up on the inside and we drew flowers and animals and hearts, and Stella wrote the names of the boys she was in love with. Dad used to tell us to try not to breathe until he had closed the car door and we would laugh and try, timing each other to see how long we could hold our breath, Stella always won. (pg. 136)

I read this book to link in with Biblibio’s focus on Women in Translation (#WITMonth), which is running throughout August.

Drowned is published by Other Press. Source: personal copy.