Aya of Yop City: written by Marguerite Abouet, drawn by Clément Oubrerie

The three young women in Aya of Yop City, the first in a series of graphic novels, have boys, parties, marriage and future careers on their mind. They rebel against their parents, pick unsuitable boyfriends and try to figure out their place in the world. The three friends—Aya, Adjoua and Bintou—live in Youpougon (known as Yop City in slang), a neighbourhood of Abidjan in the Côte d’Ivoire.

The central character, Aya, is a hard-working and ambitious young woman who wants to become a doctor. Adjoua and Bintou, on the other hand, are interested in the “three c’s”: “coiffure, couture et chasse au mari” (hairstyles, clothes and the hunt for a husband, preferably a rich one). It’s a conventional role for a woman, and something that Aya’s parents want for her too. But she has other plans and is determined to see them through.

Aya’s parents set up a meeting with Moussa, the spoiled and none-too-bright son of Aya’s father’s boss. Aya is not at all interested, but her friends are. Moussa has money to spend, and takes Bintou partying. Meanwhile, he is also seeing Adjoua. The relationship has gone beyond partying, with the inevitable outcome—she becomes pregnant.

The family is central, and the girls’ families are very much part of the story. In the first few panels, the reader is introduced to all of them. When Adjoua becomes pregnant, she goes to see Aya’s mother, Fanta, who is a healer. The mother and daughter are the core of this community—both, in their own ways, provide succour and level-headedness.

Aya of Yop City is, in many ways, a universal story, and young women (or those of us who were once young!) will identify with it. But it is also a glimpse into life in Yopougon. Young people go to the maquis, open-air restaurants that are informal and cheaper than proper restaurants. And once the maquis close, it is where lovers meet at night. At the end of the book, there is a recipe for sauce arachide, the peanut sauce that is typical of the region. And that is what is so great about this series—this mix of the familiar and the new. (An aside about the familiar: as a young woman living in my hometown, I had to put up with visits from so-called eligible bachelors living abroad who were scouting around for a nice Indian wife! So Aya’s visit to Moussa’s family resonated with me.)

The book combines humour and social critique with believable characters. I felt like I’ve met some of these people, and I want to know what happens to them.

The book is beautifully drawn by Clément Oubrerie and captures the vibrancy of both the place and characters. Although it is not autobiographical, it is based on Marguerite Abouet’s experiences growing up in the Côte d’Ivoire. Like many Africans, she was fed up of the media’s focus on the wars, famines and poverty, and wanted to present the day-to-day life of ordinary Africans. She has succeeded with this very enjoyable series.

(The series has been translated from the French into English by Drawn and Quarterly.)

Of Human Freedom: Epictetus (translated by Robert Dobbin)

Review by Thomas Peak

This magical little book comes from a time and place far, far away. It is adapted from the Discourses written by Epictetus, an emancipated Greek slave living in the Roman Empire (55- 135 AD). His world is gone. But this hopeful guide to living a worthwhile life, on how to be a happy person and a good person (which are one and the same) feels as present and necessary as ever.

Amongst the greatest of classical Stoic philosophers, Epictetus’ goal is to teach others how to achieve peace and satisfaction, by focusing on what is truly valuable, and not on things which only appear to be. Cultivation of freedom is the ultimate pursuit of human life, and ‘What else is freedom but the power to live our life the way we want?’ (p. 25.) This freedom, we are told, and the calm, happy life is within everybody’s reach. It is the release from excessive desire for anything ‘external’; the acceptance of things as they are; and a rejection of worries. ‘Freedom is not achieved by satisfying desire, but by eliminating it.’ (p. 81.) To invest our well-being and in things essentially beyond our control is a foolish delusion. It is slavery. Money, lust, fame, things of these kind are diversions away from the source of true happiness, they are things which cannot deliver the satisfaction that we hope to achieve through them.

In vivid language, which avoids the dry and obscure prose of much more recent philosophy, it is difficult to see how a person could read this book and not come away with any benefit. To follow Epictetus’ advice is to treat others kindly, not to judge them, to recognise that you are as weak and as fallible as anybody else. ‘If you must laugh at someone [who is superficial and not perfect] then laugh at yourself as well.’ (p. 87.) From this two-thousand year old pen we read that we are all slaves together, to the extent that we submit ourselves to passing and unstable things. Thus, the bad person – the selfish, greedy, or the unjust – is simply somebody who lives and acts the way he does involuntarily; because nobody would choose to be a slave and to live an unhappy life.

Who wants to live with delusion and prejudice, being unjust, undisciplined, mean and ungrateful? ‘No one.’ No bad person, then, lives the way he wants, and no bad man is free. Who wants to live life experiencing sadness? So, can we find any bad person who is without sadness, fear, frustration or misfortune? ‘No.’ No more, then, can we find one who is free. (p. 53.)

So, the question is why should we be angry with people who mistreat us?

At times the standard can seem impossibly high. Epictetus is demanding. We are expected to monitor our thoughts, always being conscious of weaknesses and excessive desires, thinking about how we should or will approach various scenarios that we might encounter day-to-day. This is the training needed to live in equanimity and harmony with the world around us, enjoying it and appreciating its beauty for the very short time we have. But imagining freedom in the way Epictetus describes, can at first be as disheartening as to step in the gym thinking about deadlifting 500kg or running a two-hour marathon; of course, this is possible, just not for me. The point though, is not necessarily to be perfect but to try to live freer, happier lives. It is the effort that counts:

‘If you’ve succeeded in removing or reducing the tendency to be mean and critical, or thoughtless, or foul-mouthed, or careless, or nonchalant; if old interests no longer engage you, at least not to the same extent; then every day can be a feast day – today because you acquitted yourself well in one set of circumstances, tomorrow because of another.’ (p. 91.)

To choose fewer things which make us unhappy, and to look at other people more kindly, this seems like a good goal.

This short and accessible book can be read on a single long flight or train journey. It is easy to pick up and difficult to put down, and what’s more, Epictetus’ philosophy is not just warm, intensely thought provoking and witty, it is good medicine for the difficult moments in life. It deals directly with concerns like bad relationships, not having enough money, and not feeling important enough. Epictetus’ advice is the best prompt for reading this book:

Instead of a rich old man, cultivate the company of a philosopher, be seen hanging around his door for a change. There’s no shame in the association, and you won’t go away unedified or empty-handed, provided you go with the right attitude. Try at least; there is no shame in making an honest effort (p. 81)

Winter: Ali Smith

In 2017, two very different writers—Karl Ove Knausgård and Ali Smith—published books around the seasons, starting with Autumn and ending with Summer. However, while Knausgård’s books are more memoirs/missives to his young daughter, Smith’s books are novels that look at “the state of the nation” (ie, the UK).

I’ve only read the second in the Ali Smith series, and I loved it. It is a book about how people react to the issues that threaten the world, either through action or through withdrawal. The central theme, however, is relationships—the things that bring people together and push them apart.

The books starts on the day before Christmas, with Sophia in her large house chatting to the disembodied head of a child floating around her. Perfectly happy to be alone in her home with the ghostly head for company, she isn’t looking forward to spending Christmas with her son Art and his girlfriend Charlotte, whom she will be meeting for the first time.

Art, who lives in London, is not looking forward to going to his mother’s for Christmas either. He has just broken up with Charlotte and is dreading his mother’s questions when he shows up alone. To make matters worse, it has been a nasty breakup—Charlotte has hijacked the Twitter account of his blog, Art in Nature, and is posting ridiculous messages (which, in the way social media operates, actually serves to build his following). As Art is taking in the extent of the damage at an Internet café, he sees a young woman at a bus stop. She is clearly not waiting for a bus. Why doesn’t he just pay this homeless woman to pretend to be Charlotte?

So the young woman, Lux, walks into Art’s dysfunctional family. Art’s father died when he was a child, and he has two mothers: his own and his aunt, Iris, Sophia’s elder sister. The two women are very different: Sophia, a businesswoman of sorts, is anxious and insecure. Iris is strong and self-confident: she is an activist, was part of the anti-nuclear protests and is now helping migrants in Greece. (She reminds me of the Argentinian cartoon character, Mafalda, grown up.) The two women have not spoken to each other for years. Sophia rebelled against her elder sister’s involvement with protest movements and her scruffy friends and cut Iris out of her life.

Lux is a migrant who came to Britain because of Shakespeare. Reading Cymebeline, she thought “if this writer from this place can make this mad and bitter mess into this graceful thing it is in the end, where the balance comes back and all the losses are compensated … then that’s the place I’m going”. She lives up to her name, bringing light into dark corners of the family. She has an ability to see people—really see them. Lux has barely been in Sophia’s house for a few hours before she’s not only engineered a reconciliation of sorts between Sophia and Iris but has managed to get Sophia to eat, which until then she had refused to do.

The book deals with so many things: the migrant crisis, Brexit, protests—especially the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—social media, and of course, families and relationships. And Smith does it all with a light touch.

It feels like the characters in this book are essentially alone, looking for companionship, sometimes in spite of themselves—they come together and drift apart again. There are no resolutions at the end, but it left me with a feeling of warmth, and I wanted to know what happened to these people. This is a generous, but unsentimental, book. If you have issues with magical realism, don’t be put off by some of the weird stuff. The book is well worth the read. I am looking forward to the rest of the series.

The Eye of the Jade: Diane Wei Liang

This is a detective story set in Beijing that provides a glimpse into life in modern China with all its contradictions. The central character, Mei, is a private detective. She is approached by a family friend, Uncle Chen, to look for a Han dynasty jade seal. The seal had gone missing during the Cultural Revolution when the Red Guards destroyed many historical artefacts. Because so many of them were lost, the surviving artefacts are extremely valuable. If the jade were found, it would be a national treasure, but Uncle Chen wants to sell it on the black market. Mei, in spite of her better judgement, decides to take on the case.

The hunt for the jade is less important in itself than in what it unearths. The Cultural Revolution still throws long shadows: Mei’s father was sent to labour camp for being an intellectual. The family went with him, but her mother managed to get herself and her two daughters out, and Mei’s father eventually died in the camp.

Mei’s relationship with her mother is central to the book. It is a complicated one (as it often is). Mei adored her father and couldn’t understood why her mother abandoned him, and never really forgave her for it. Her mother wants her daughters to be successful and to be able to play the game, so to speak—something that Mei refuses to do. She feels that she has disappointed her mother.

Mei had a prestigious job at the Chinese State Security but, for reasons that become clear later, had to leave. She works on the margins, as private detectives are banned in China, relying on some of her contacts in State Security to help her. She earns enough to have her own apartment, a car and a very useful male assistant, but it’s not much compared to her sister Lu, who is extremely successful in television and is about to marry a rich man.

Mei’s mother has a stroke, which lands her in hospital. Who is the mysterious man who Uncle Chen brings to visit her? There are obviously family secrets that Mei knows nothing about. What is the eye of the jade? Although the old proverb says that the truth shall set you free, when Mei finally learns the truth, it is not liberating.

What I enjoyed about this book was the glimpse of life in modern China. On the surface, it seems to be a consumer society like many others, where money rules. However, the fallout from the Cultural Revolution still affects people, even those who were very young when it happened. It feels like different historical periods coexist in the city, along with the ever-present ghosts of the past.

Diane Wei Liang was in a labour camp with her parents when she was a child, and was part of the Tiananmen Square demonstration as a young woman. I think this book could have been longer with more about China’s past. As it stands, it is a light, enjoyable read, but one that could have done with a bit more heft.

Reflecting on The Grapes of Wrath

Review by Kamakshi Balasubramanian

Rereading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath after a gap of nearly 50 years has left me with untold riches.

The Grapes of Wrath is not an easy work to summarize, unless one sacrifices many of its uniquely brilliant and always affecting facets. It is a great work of fiction first, meticulously structured and flawless in the portrayal of its characters, their voices pitch-perfect.

His creative genius aside, it is John Steinbeck’s powerful portrayal of agrarian capitalism that dominates his novel. Set in the years of the Great Depression in the USA, the story tells us how small farmers—sharecroppers and tenant farmers—are uprooted from their land one cruel season when the rains fail and the earth becomes a restless bowl of red dust. Land-owners, desperate for quick returns because they owe money to the banks, have tractors sent in to work the land and evict the farmers, breaking down their lives, home by home, family by family, and spirit by spirit.

The plot of the story tracks the excruciating journey of one large family, the Joads—grandparents, parents, four sons and two daughters, the elder of whom is pregnant with her first child, a son-in-law, an unattached uncle, a has-been preacher, and a dog—and their losses, heartbreaks, and shattered dreams; their undying spirit in the face of boundless despair; their goodwill to fellow-travelers on this pitiless road to vanishing dreams. Their dog is the first to die—a vehicle hits him on the highway when the family makes its first stop; the next victim is the grandfather, who had to be drugged and forcibly lifted on to the back of the truck, so determined was he not to leave his home.

Pauperized families fall prey to ruthless car salesmen. Beleaguered families are cheated and humiliated when forced to barter their possessions for gasoline, food, and shelter.

As the hungry and homeless move seeking work, their entire worlds hoisted on rickety wheels, the frightening truth of faceless capitalism unfolds, showing what happens when businesses take over farming, recklessly exploiting precious land to speed up profit. Technology and science accelerate this process, innovating methods, intensifying work, and increasing yields. Expounding on what this means to the migrant farmers, in one profoundly nuanced digression (Chapter 25), the narrator meditates on how science has the capability to help humanity but can’t when it is run by money.

Speaking of “men of understanding and knowledge and skill, who experiment with seed, endlessly developing the techniques for greater crops of plants whose roots will resist the million enemies of the earth…,” the narrator calls them “Great men.” Pretty quickly following this, he introduces a sub-text that raises a question about the wisdom of interfering too much with the processes of the earth. “And always they work,” he says of the scientists in the experimental farms, “selecting, grafting, changing, driving themselves, driving (my emphasis—KB) the earth to produce.” And when the cherries and purple prunes and pears yield like never before, their price falls, and only “the great owners can survive, for they own the canneries,” where “four pears are canned” per container and sold for huge profits, because canned fruit does not spoil.

What about the grapes that grandpa craved? “There’s a thing I ain’t never had enough of. Gonna get me a whole big bunch of grapes off a bush, or whatever, an’ I’m gonna squash ‘em on my face and’ let ‘em run offen my chin,” he says. To be sure, there are a lot of grapes in the scientifically enriched farms, but that fruit is not meant for the likes of grandpa. The excess produce of grapes, not fit for good wine, gets pressed into alcohol, smelling of decay and chemicals, on which to get drunk.

The narrator then draws the inevitable conclusion in dirge-like tones that “Men who can graft the trees and make the seed fertile and big can find no way to let the hungry people eat their produce … And the failure hangs … like a great sorrow.”

This recognition becomes an elegiac note, a key moment in the novel. We read, “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Such despair and such disappointment break down some folks, but in others the inescapable friction ignites fires of revolt. Activism to unite farm workers in the USA—anathema to capitalism—is born, and the Joad family’s journey gains a huge historical significance, when two of the novel’s characters, the one-time preacher and his jailbird buddy, set out to revolt against the inhuman exploitation of the poor and destitute farm workers. Even the usually submissive pa observes, “They’s a change a-comin’. I don’t know what. May be we won’t live to see her. They’s a restless feelin’. Fella can’t figger nothin’ out, he’s so nervous.”

It is no surprise that The Grapes of Wrath was banned soon upon publication in parts of California, where the migrant farm laborers suffered most.

Steinbeck’s work is way more than a fat pamphlet or a rant against agrarian capitalism. It is an exquisite novel, meticulously shaped, with the plot-line regularly interspersed with philosophical digressions, sometimes satirical, sometimes lyrical, and sometimes tragic. If the Joad family members are memorable, so are the many itinerant characters whose lives intersect with that of the Joad clan, friends as well as foes.

Nowhere is Steinbeck’s artistry more stunning than in the way he peoples his fictional world. His characters speak in such individual voices that it doesn’t take long for the narrator to establish a sense of their inner lives without any overt commentary whatsoever. And every one of the characters undergoes change. How could they not, for the journey they are forced to undertake is to destinations that are mirages and worse? We see the large and closely-knit Joad family fall apart on this journey, with deaths and desertion taking away elders, brothers, and even a young husband. Steinbeck tells of the pain of such loss as if in a play, always through the voices of characters speaking of their new and frightening despair, where once there were dreams and hopes.

Remarkably, the novel begins with dust and ends in a deluge, and yet it is not nature that destroys the lives of the poor. The story of the journey begins with a young couple anticipating the birth of a child, and ends with the abandoned wife, now enfeebled and distraught with her own immeasurable loss, who still finds the courage to give life to another. As the novel draws to a close, the Joad family is nowhere near a destination, but one gets a feeling that now, for them, a new journey has begun.

The riches contained in The Grapes of Wrath will continue to inspire all who respect life and love the earth.

Levels of Life: Julian Barnes

“You put two things together that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.”

This book is about coming together and moving apart, of soaring to the sky and slipping into the underworld. It begins with balloonists in the late 19th century, then moves on to a love affair between two of the balloonists before leading to the heart of the book: the death of the author’s wife.

Ballooning was dangerous but liberating, a way of breaking free from constraints, both physical and social. It was, however, a freedom that was subservient to the weather, to the direction and force of the wind, and could easily end in disaster. You could be floating in the sky one moment and flung down to earth the next, knee-deep in a rose bed.

The title of the first chapter, The Sin of Height, has echoes of Icarus, the man who flew too close to the sun which melted the wax on his wings. As the book begins, in Britain and France in the mid- to late 1800s, people are taking to the skies in hot air balloons. The author focuses on three of these balloonists: Colonel Fred Burnaby of the Royal Horse Guards in Britain, and the actress Sarah Bernhardt and photographer Félix Tournachon, better known as Nadar, in France.

All the characters in this book are real. Nadar, one of the early portrait photographers, also combines photography and aeronautics. Unlike his contemporaries, he is more interested in “the vertical” than the horizontal. Even his portraits attempt to plumb the psychological depths of his sitters, which is what makes them so memorable. But images can be formed in other, more ephemeral, ways: such as when Burnaby and his companions in their hot air balloon notice that the sun is projecting their shadows onto a cloud, like a “colossal photograph”.

We come down to earth in the second chapter, On the Level, which is about the affair between Sarah Bernhardt and Fred Burnaby. Bernhardt has conquered the stage in spite of being too small, too pale and too thin (she claims to be able to “slip between raindrops without getting wet”). She is Jewish in an anti-Semitic country and also a bohemian, which appals the puritans. Burnaby is a well-travelled man with no time for conventions. The affair between these two misfits in their worlds feels inevitable and natural—until it ends when Bernhardt moves on to another lover. Burnaby is heartbroken but cannot be angry with her. After all, she had always been honest with him: “on the level”. He eventually marries someone else but never gets over losing Sarah Bernhardt.

This takes us to the third chapter, The Loss of Depth, which is the crux of the book. We are now in the subterranean depths of grief: the loss of love, but in a more final and devastating way. After 30 years of being happily married, Barnes’s wife dies. And this is what the book has been leading up to—the unbearable pain at the loss of a loved one. This chapter is hard to read at times because it is so close to the bone, especially if you have been through the death of someone dear to you.

When I started this book, I wasn’t sure how the author was going to lead up to his wife’s death. But it all fits together. The images of height and depth run through the book: “Life’s sonar is broken and you can no longer tell how deep the seabed lies.” Plummeting several hundred feet when a balloon collapses is not so different from the shock of losing a loved one. (I’m sorry, Julian Barnes, I know you hate the use of the word loss to describe death.)

This gem of a book is an elegant and beautiful tribute to Barnes’s wife, Pat Kavanagh. I’d like to end with a line from the last chapter. Barnes goes back to the image of the three balloonists created by the sun: “And so it is with our life: so clear, so sure, until, for one reason or another—the balloon moves, the cloud disperses, the sun changes angle—the image is lost forever, available only to memory, turned into anecdote.”

Under Milk Wood: Dylan Thomas

“To begin at the beginning. It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and- rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.”

Thus begins one of my favourite books, a book of magical writing. It is a play for voices about a day in the life of Llagergub, a Welsh fishing village. Nothing much happens in terms of plot but it is buzzing with life, with people’s dreams and desires, with village gossip and children’s games. When it starts, the villagers are asleep, and the first narrator (there are two) takes the reader through the village. “It is night… in the four-ale, quiet as a domino; in Ocky Milkman’s lofts like a mouse with gloves; in Dai Bread’s bakery flying like black flour. It is night, dumbly, royally winding through the Coronation cherry trees; going through the graveyard of Bethesda with winds gloved and folded, and dew doffed; tumbling by the Sailors Arms.”

You are then introduced to the characters through their dreams, and each one of them is memorable. The old blind sea captain, Captain Cat, dreams of his long-drowned mates (“Dancing Williams. Still dancing”) and the one love of his life “that was sardined with women”, Rosie Probert. Myfawny Price “dressmaker and sweetshop keeper” dreams of her lover Mog Edwards. The couple write passionate letters to each other (duly steamed open by the mailman’s wife) but never meet, although they live in the same village. Then there is Butcher Beynon, who dreams of “sneaking up on corgis with my little cleaver”; Polly Garter with babies from several men (“Nothing grows in our garden but washing. And babies.”); Dai Bread the baker with two wives, “one for the daytime, one for the night”; and Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard, a twice-widowed guesthouse owner obsessed with hygiene, who won’t rent a room to a man because he might “sneeze on her china”. And then there is the Reverend Eli Jenkins, whose sermons are poems about the village he loves.

The magic is in the writing. Dylan Thomas used to agonize over every word, and you can see the result. Nothing is out of place. He is a master of language and uses it to immerse you, through all your senses, in whatever is going on. Take his use of sound and rhythm: the slow lilt of the night; the busyness of the day with “the clipclop of horses on the sun-honeyed cobbles of the humming streets”; the languid afternoon when the “sunny slow lulling afternoon yawns and moons through the dozy town”; and the winding down of the day. When he describes old photographs as “the dickey-bird watching pictures of the dead”, you know exactly what he is talking about. I love the way he catches the women gossiping, with malice and humour in equal measure:

“Seen Mrs Butcher Beynon?”
“She said Butcher Beynon put dogs in the mincer.”
“Go on, he’s pulling her leg.”
“Now don’t you dare tell her that, there’s a dear.”
“Or she’ll think he’s trying to pull it off and eat it.”

My decades-old love of Under Milk Wood began when, as a teenager, I found the recording in my father’s collection. I had no idea what it was about, and it took me a while to get into—I kept waiting for a plot to develop. But repeated listening paid off, in which I was helped by my then boyfriend (and now my husband), a big admirer of Dylan Thomas. (I still joke that he dated me only because he found out that I had the record!) And the story doesn’t stop there but continues to the next generation. My nephew staged a memorable performance of the play at his university.

Under Milk Wood is funny, sly—Llagergub spells “Bugger all” backwards—and moving. And all these years later, when I hear or read the opening line, “To begin at the beginning”, I feel I’m being transported to a familiar and well-loved place that I will never tire of.

I cannot separate the book from the recording. If you have the time, I recommend buying the CD or downloading the recording (the 1954 one with Richard Burton playing First Narrator—please don’t see the film). I promise you won’t regret it.

Best books of 2017

Photo by Caio Resende from Pexels

I asked people what they enjoyed reading most in 2017. Their combined list is below, and the variety bears testament to their wide range of interests.

The books listed under fiction are about refugees, women power, slavery, dictators, relationships between women and between families, and a take on Sherlock Holmes. The authors are from around the globe: USA, Pakistan, Turkey, Algeria, UK, Finland, Italy, Japan and Australia.

Under non-fiction, books cover issues such as atrocities against Native Americans, the Roman empire, big data, the influence of media, travelling on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and animals such as the octopus, pig and human beings.

Some people picked series of books, which are listed at the end of the fiction list. Links, for the most part, are to reviews on this blog.

I hope you find books here that will make it to your reading list of 2018. If you want to add yours to this list or just want to share your list for 2017, add a comment to this post.

Here’s to another year of reading good books!

Contributions by David Dunkley, Jenifer Freedman, Jo Grin-Yates, Kristine Goulding, Orsolya Tóth, Usha Raman and Suroor Alikhan

Fiction

4 3 2 1—Paul Auster (2017)

Exit West—Mohsin Hamid (2017)

IQ—Joe Ide (2017)

Little Fires Everywhere—Celeste Ng (2017)

Three Daughters of Eve—Elif Shafak (2017)

The Power—Naomi Alderman (2016)

Children of Earth and Sky—Guy Gavriel Kay (2016)

The Underground Railroad—Colson Whitehead (2016)

The Dictator’s Last Night—Yasmina Khadra (La dernière nuit du Raïs) (2015)

Vanessa and her Sister—Priya Parmar (2015)

The Mountain Shadow—Gregory David Roberts (2015)

Station Eleven—Emily St John Mandel (2015)

Levels of Life—Julian Barnes (2014)

Everything I Didn’t Tell You—Celeste Ng (2014)

The Summer Book—Tove Jansson (2008)

Cloudstreet—Tim Winton (2002)

Plainsong—Kent Haruf (2000)

The Neapolitan Quartet—Elena Ferrante (2012­­–2015) (Review of My Brilliant Friend, the first in the series)

The Shardlake series—C.J. Sansom (2003­­–2008) (Note: there are two more books in this series. The dates cover the first four that I read. Review of Dark Fire, the second in the series.)

The Tom Thorne series—Mark Billingham (2001­­–2013)

 

Non-fiction

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI—David Grann (2017)

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire—Kyle Harper (2017)

The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World—Catherine Nixey (2017)

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States—James C. Scott (2017)

The New Paris: The People, Places and Ideas Fueling a Movement —Lindsey Tramuta (2017)

A Short Ride through the Jungle: The Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorcycle—Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent (2016)

The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data—Michael Patrick Lynch (2016)

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness—Peter Godfrey-Smith (2016)

The Well-Tempered City: Jonathan F.P. Rose (2016)

Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig—Mark Essig (2015)

Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch—Nick Davies (2014)

Sapiens—Yuval Hariri (2014)

The End of Absence: Reclaiming What You’ve Lost in a World of Constant Communication—Michael Harris (2014)

The Arrival of the Fittest: Andreas Wagner (2014)

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster—Svetlana Alexievich (1997)

Keeping company with ghosts

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Today is Christmas Eve: the perfect time for pulling our chairs closer to the fire, virtually speaking, and telling stories about ghosts.

Ghosts have fascinated me ever since I was a child and was on the lookout for beautiful churels (female ghosts or demons) who lure away wandering children. (You could tell them by their feet—they were the wrong way around.) As a nine-year-old in Chile, travelling with my parents on a boat from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas, I used to scan the moonlit sea for a glimpse of a phantom ship that was said to spirit away fishermen sleeping in their boats.

Then there were my mother’s close encounters with ghosts—my mother, who was one of the most unsuperstitious people I’ve known. As a young couple, my parents lived briefly with my grandfather in an old house that belonged to the Indian Railways in Hyderabad. My mother said she had a constant feeling of being watched. She heard inexplicable sounds like a drunken Englishman singing or even, once, maniacal laughter. Four decades later, my parents were in the area on their way to dinner with some friends and drove past the old house. It had been abandoned—the garden was overgrown, the paint was peeling and the windows shattered. They mentioned it to their host, who said “Oh, the haunted house? No one wants to live in it. An English officer committed suicide there, and they say his spirit haunts the house.” The officer had killed himself in the room my parents were staying in.

My fascination with the spectral didn’t disappear as I grew up—quite the opposite. So when I found Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories, I couldn’t resist it. Apart from writing for children, Dahl has written several very disturbing stories for adults. I was curious to see which stories he would pick.

In his introduction, Dahl says that he read hundreds of ghost stories but dismissed most of them as badly written and not spooky enough. According to him, the 14 stories collected here were the best he found. This is just the kind of statement that sets an editor up for a fall—saying these are his favourites is one thing, but saying they are the only good ones is, in my opinion, rubbish. I can’t believe he dismissed the master of ghost stories, MR James, Dicken’s The Signalman and so many more (for example, Susan Hill, whose novella The Woman in Black is terrifying).

What I enjoyed about this collection was that I hadn’t read most of these stories. And that’s saying something! As in any collection, the quality varies. There are some excellent ones: W.S. by LP Hartley, about why writers should think very carefully about what they write; Harry by Rosemary Timperley, about a child and her brother; Edith Wharton’s Afterward about a man whose sins catch up with him; and The Ghost of a Hand by Sheridan Le Fanu, which is downright creepy. But equally, there are a few that aren’t very spooky and quite ordinary, which is why I took issue with Dahl’s sweeping statement.

But Dahl’s persnicketiness has resulted in exposing readers to tales that don’t often make it to standard collections of ghost stories, and for that alone, this book is worth a read.

An evening (or two, or many) with the Bloomsbury Group: Vanessa and her sister by Priya Parmar

E M Forster, Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, Clive Bell, and most importantly, Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf… a bunch of undeniably privileged, smart social and cultural radicals who gathered over pastries and coffee most evenings in [what is now] Central London to discuss art, literature and life, and of course, to gossip. You are invited into that small circle, become privy to the conversations, the flirtations, the intellectual repartee and the creative energies that flow through those evenings. You get to feel the thrill, with these insiders, of reading through drafts of “Morgan’s new novel” even as you realise that it is Howards End that is being discussed. You feel the blustery winds and blue skies of the Cornish summer as you walk those paths with the Stephens women–Vanessa and Virginia–and can discern the origins of To the Lighthouse. 

Vanessa and her Sister is a fictionalised account of the early days of the Bloomsbury Group as told through in the voice of painter Vanessa Bell (nee Stephen), Virginia Woolf’s older sister. Her account reveals the tensions and the joys of the relationship between the sisters: Vanessa the sensible, grounded older sibling and the mercurial and brilliant Virginia, who veers dangerously and inescapably between sanity and madness. The intense equation between the two, marked by Vanessa’s protectiveness and Virginia’s possessiveness, is disrupted when Vanessa marries Clive Bell. Virginia, fiercely resentful of what she sees as her sister’s betrayal, begins to drive a wedge into the marriage by flirting and then successfully hijacking Clive’s affections.  Although the affair is never consummated and eventually peters out, it leads Vanessa to gradually become free not only of her marriage but also her sister’s demands. She recognizes that “Marriage is a binding, blending thing that runs on a low-burning fuel of habit and faith. Love, on the other hand, is unanchored and lissom in its fragility.” And unanchored from this marriage that has become nothing more than habit, Vanessa finds love in and with others, and of course, in her own art.

Vanessa and Virginia are no ordinary sisters; they are the heart and soul of this bright set, hosting evenings that attract some of the brightest minds of the time. Vanessa’s diary, therefore, not only takes us on a personal journey but one that gives us an intimate sense of an intellectual moment that produced some remarkable literature and art. Interspersed with Vanessa’s diary entries are letters (many from actual archives) and telegrams from members of the Group. From Lytton Strachey to Leonard Woolf (who eventually marries Virginia), from Virginia to her friend Victoria, and several intriguing notes from art critic Roger Fry to his mother. There are mentions of liaisons with Bertrand Russell and interactions with Gertrude Stein and J P Morgan, and the emergence of a post-impressionist artistic sensibility. And in the middle of all this, Vanessa makes her art and Virginia, her writing.

Priya Parmar’s book is a work of great affection and attention to detail. Walking the fine line between fact and imagination, she paints a picture that is vivid and thoughtful, in prose that speaks lightly yet with an artistry that makes you want to re-read sentences. She says, in her author’s note: “It is not easy to fictionalise the Bloomsbury Group, as their lives are so well documented. They were prolific correspondents and diarists, and there is a wealth of existing primary material. For me the difficulty came in finding enough room for invention in the negative spaces they left behind.”

She has found that room and has used it well.