Most Memorable Reads of 2013

Given I’ve read close to 160 books this year (158 to be exact), I found it almost impossible to narrow my list down to just ten books. Besides, why should I? I’ve been lax about writing reviews this year, so thought I’d just write a quick line or two about each of my 31 choices explaining why they were especially memorable to me. They are listed in reading order:

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris ★★★★½
Faber & Faber (2012), Paperback, 440 pages.
Because an unreliable narrator done this well always makes me want to go right back to the first page and start all over once I’ve finished the book.

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay ★★★★★
Bolinda Audio (2006), Unabridged MP3, 21h34.
Because one little guy’s dreams of glory as a boxing champion to make reparations for a whole nation makes for a captivating read in Courtenay’s hands. He’s a bestselling author in Australia, but apparently little known everywhere else. Aussie actor Humphrey Bower narrates all Courtenay’s books and is a real pleasure to listen to. 


84, Charing Cross Road
by Helene Hanff ★★★★★
Penguin Books (1990), Paperback, 112 pages.
Because these genuine written exchanges between a quirky American writer and a very English London book vendor in postwar years make for every book lover’s delight.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (3rd reread) ★★★★★
The Folio Society (2012), Hardcover 336 pages. Illustrated by Anna and Elena Balbusso. Because rereading one of my all-time favourite novels from a gorgeously illustrated Folio Society edition started me on avery expensive, but highly satisfying craze.

Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim ★★★★★
Blackstone Audiobooks (2006), Unabridged MP3, 3h47. Narrated by Nadia May.
Because von Arnim made me, a city bound dweller, fall in love with her garden as well as her feisty character. The perfectly adequate audio version compelled me to search high and low for a beautiful vintage collector’s edition and I was rewarded with this little jewel from the MacMillan Company (1901), first American edition. 

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin ★★★★½
Harper Audio (2013), Unabridged MP3, 7h39.
Because reading this story set in ’70s San Francisco was like getting acquainted with the roots of everything the 80s pop culture of my childhood and youth became for the rest of the world. Frances McDormand narrates this audio edition; quite a treat. 

Good Behaviour by Molly Keane ★★★★½ Folio Society (2011), Hardcover, 240 pages. Illustrated by Debra McFarlane.
Because reading about the misadventures of the Irish St Charles family whose prime concern is keeping up appearances, as seen through the lens of Aroon St-Charles, the unlovely and ungainly heroine, made for a gripping ride as they all descend from riches to rags

Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuściński ★★★★½
Folio Society (2012). Hardcover, 248 pages.
Because Kapuściński’s love letter to Herodotus’ The Histories made me want to get better acquainted with the ancient historian and read more works by them both.

Middlemarch by George Eliot ★★★★½ Naxos AudioBooks (2011), Unabridged MP3, 35h40.
Because it’s a classic love story and social commentary about a small English community peopled with fascinating characters I hope to revisit again and again. This audio version is narrated by the Divine Juliet Stevenson, but I’ve got a Folio Society edition standing by for future rereads. 

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin ★★★★½
Folio Society (2012), Hardcover, 280 pages.
Because it’s a captivating tragic story about unrequited love complete with a duel to the death. Because it’s told in verse, yet still reads like a gripping novel. The Folio Society edition illustrated by the Balbusso Twins is to die for. And the Opera version by Tchaikovsky isn’t bad either. (A short editorial)

Le fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux ★★★★½ Le Livre qui parle (2005), Unabridged CD, 10h.
Because I finally got to discover the mysteries of the Phantom and the story had more intrigue to offer than I could ever have hoped for.

Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh ★★★★½
AudioGO (2010) Unabridged MP3, 6h49.
Narrated by Michael Maloney.
Because it’s a hilarious send up about an African emperor’s misguided attempts to bring his country into the modern age, and everything that can go wrong does so with a vengeance. Waugh is so brilliant I want to read everything he’s ever written.

Jumping the Queue by Mary Wesley ★★★★½
AudioGO (2011), Unabridged MP3, 5h36.
Because Mary Wesley had a talent for creating fascinating characters and made me deeply care for an old woman intent on suicide, and not find ridiculous that she fell in love with a much younger suspected matricide. Wesley, who started writing in her 70s and became a huge success is an author worth discovering. Anna Massey, one of my favourites narrates this edition.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (reread for Coursera The Fiction of Relationship course) ★★★★½
White’s Fine Editions (2010), Hardcover, 448 pages.
Because that crazy woman in the attic makes Rochester’s unforgivable behaviour almost understandable.

The Potato Factory by Bryce Courtenay ★★★★★
Bolinda Audio (2005), Unabridged MP3, 23h27.
Because it tells the story the real life Fagin, the criminal Ikey Solomon, and while it doesn’t make him the least bit more likeable, it turns him into the centre of an epic tale you can’t help but be carried away with.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare ★★★★½
Sterling Signature (2012), Hardcover, 456 pages.
Because I finally got to discover for myself what the big deal is, and the Prince of Denmark had no difficulty transcending his own fame. This gorgeous edition features cut paper illustrations by artist Kevin Stanton.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibin ★★★★½
McClelland & Stewart (2012), Kindle Edition, 112 pages and Simon & Schuster Audio (2013), Unabridged MP3, 3h07.
Because Tóibin presents us with a completely believable Mary who has a mind very much her own. It made for a compelling and very short read, but then was worth revisiting on audio, if only because Meryl Streep as Mary is a something you don’t want to miss.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos ★★★★★ Frémeaux & associés (2001). Unabridged MP3 CD.
Because I was one of the many fans of the movie when it was originally released and found the book told in a series of letters delivered that much more intrigue and obscenely irresistible cruelty. The audio version featuring a cast of over 10 actors is a real treat, but I supplemented that with a Bibliothèque de la Pléiade edition featuring fascinating essays and additional notes. 

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry ★★★★★
Phoenix Audio (2000), Unabridged MP3, 36h11. Narrated by Lee Horsley.
Because even though I wasn’t all that keen initially on reading a Western story about a cattle drive, once I read this book I just wanted to—and did—stay on with the characters for three more novels.

Harvest by Jim Crace ★★★★½
Hamish Hamilton (2013), Hardcover, 224 pages.
Because this one man in this tiny isolated community in the middle ages seem to express the pain all of humanity has faced since the dawn of the industrial age.

Music & Silence by Rose Tremain ★★★★¾
New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (2000), Paperback, 464 pages.
Because this story is about a musician in King Christian’s IV’s Danish court in the 17th century and introduced me to a world I wasn’t familiar with. Because the lutist is a beautiful and idealistic man who falls in love with a lovely young maiden. Because in stark contrast, King Christian is mad and his wife is a manipulative wench who makes Pretentiousness Somehow Appealing.

Le Comte de Monte-Cristo by Alexandre Dumas père ★★★★¾
Livraphone (2008), Unabridged MP3 CDs, 49h50.
A man who becomes almost godlike in his quest for vengeance. Epic. Classic. Mythical. Legendary. Bring on the superlatives. Dumas stole from Arabian Nights and created his own Masterpiece.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding ★★★★¾
Random House Audio Publishing, (2002). Unabridged CD. Narrated by Martin Jarvis.
Because over 30 years after seeing the movie, this dystopian tale about children run amok on a desert island still has the power to chill and enthrall, and then some. I’m treating myself to the Folio edition illustrated by Sam Weber. 

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev ★★★★½
Tantor Media (2010), Unabridged MP3, 8h16.
Because Turgeniev made his nihilistic anti-hero Bazarov the centre of an outstanding commentary on family, social struggles, love and friendship, all in one very small package that leaves you with plenty to think about. My full review here. 

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris ★★★★½
Random House Audiobooks (2013), Unabridged MP3, 16h03. Narrated by David Rintoul.
Because Harris presents the Dreyfus affair from the point of view of a man who initially condemned him, and then became one of his most ardent defenders, and does so in a way that has you on the edge of your seat even though the outcome of the affair is well documented. Really liked David Rintoul’s narration.

91AFB7e1SpL._AA1500_Dragonwyck by Anya Seton ★★★★½
Chicago Review Press (2005), Paperback, 352 pages.
Because the Gothic and Tragic elements of this story about a young farm girl invited to stay with her supremely wealthy cousin were absolutely overpowering (in a good way) and made for a truly delightful reading experience. The Joseph L. Mankiewicz movie version starring Gene Tierney and Vincent Price did a good job of capturing the mood, but could not encompass the richness of the novel. Mariner Books have recently published new editions of a selection of Anya Seton’s novels featuring lovely cover designs (as shown) also available as eBooks. (Recent review here)

An Elephant in the Garden by Michael Morpurgo ★★★★½
Harper Collins Children Audio (2010), Unabridged MP3, 4h18.
Because I feel a soul connection with elephants, though I’ve never laid eyes on one in the wild, and this WWII true story about a zoo elephant who saves a family from the utter annihilation of Dresden really is very affecting. (Recent review here)

The Man of Property by John Galsworthy ★★★★½
Blackstone Audio (2006), Unabridged MP3, 13h49. Narrated by David Case.
Because the first novel in the Forsyte Saga makes clear that the Forsytes are everywhere to be found, and though it is set in late 19th century London, Galsworthy perfectly captured the mentality of the upper middle-class which is still prevalent today, with captivating characters and a story I definitely want to keep following. Narrator David Case aka Frederick Davidson has an unbelievably snooty delivery which often puts me off, but sometimes works very well, as with this novel. With time I intend on completing not just the Forsyte Saga, comprising three books and two interludes, but the complete Chronicles, which includes nine books and four interludes. (Recent review here)

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini ★★★★★
Riverhead Trade (2008), Paperback, 432 pages.
Because Hosseini has a unique talent for telling unputdownable horror stories about the trials of the Afghan people (in this case two women) filled with outrageous violence on an individual and social scale, yet always reminding us that as long as there is love, any kind of love, there is always hope.

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson ★★★★½ Vintage (1995), Paperback, 460 pages.
Because through the telling of one Japanese American man’s struggle to find justice in a small island community which has convicted him because of his heritage, the pain of an entire post-WWII nation is revealed with unique beauty. (Complete review here)

Morality Play by Barry Unsworth ★★★★½ AudioGO (2012), Unabridged MP3 5h34. Narrated by Michael Maloney.
Because it’s a damned well written little novel set in the Middle Ages of plague and widespread fear about a young cleric on the lam who joins a troupe of actors, in and of itself a dangerous and unsanctioned move. But then the troupe decides to enact the play of a murder which has just occurred in the village to draw in the crowds and in the process uncover dangerous secrets that might doom players of the troupe and the real life act alike. Read with a rushed, breathless delivery by Michael Maloney which suits the first person narration very well. 

Legends Never Truly Die Away

lawrence-of-arabia-cu

Peter O’Toole, the lead character in the 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia, a role which led him to be considered one of his generation’s most respected actors, passed away yesterday at 81. I tried watching this epic movie in my youth, but a four-hour movie about skirmishes in the Arab desert somehow failed to capture my addled teenage brain back then, even if blonde blue-eyed, six-footer O’Toole was quite the dish in his prime.

I recently acquired a beautiful Folio Society edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence—the original Lawrence of Arabia—who wrote about his involvement in the Arab Revolt on which the film was based. What sold me on it wasn’t so much the blurb on the Folio site as much as this description of a paperback edition:

This is the exciting and highly literate story of the real Lawrence of Arabia, as written by Lawrence himself, who helped unify Arab factions against the occupying Turkish army, circa World War I. Lawrence has a novelist’s eye for detail, a poet’s command of the language, an adventurer’s heart, a soldier’s great story, and his memory and intellect are at least as good as all those. Lawrence describes the famous guerrilla raids, and train bombings you know from the movie, but also tells of the Arab people and politics with great penetration. Moreover, he is witty, always aware of the ethical tightrope that the English walked in the Middle East and always willing to include himself in his own withering insight.

Earlier this week I got a great deal on the audio edition of the recently published Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson, of which Janet Maslin writing for The New York Times says: ‘For those already fascinated by Lawrence’s exploits and familiar with his written accounts of them, Mr. Anderson’s thoughtful, big-picture version only enriches the story it tells.‘ So now it seems I’ve got my work cut out for me: read T. E. Lawrence’s book, then listen to Anderson’s, after which I should be well prepared to fully appreciate the movie version.

You’ve got to listen to this!

I’d never heard of The Idan Raichel Project before, but Kerry, a friend on LibraryThing has been quietly posting some links to great music on my LT thread lately (including The Hobbit’s Song of the Lonely Mountain).

The following directly from the The Idan Raichel Project site:

The Idan Raichel Project burst onto the global music scene in 2003, changing the face of Israeli popular music and offering “a fascinating window into the young, tolerant, multi-ethnic Israel taking shape away from the headlines” (Boston Globe).

Idan Raichel, the creator and leader of the Project, began his musical journey by inviting collaborations from artists of different generations, multiple ethnicities and singing in languages as diverse as Hebrew, Spanish, Arabic, Amharic and Swahili. The resulting albums shattered sales records in Israel, made Raichel his country’s biggest musical breakthroughs, and sold over half a million records worldwide. The Project was honored as the “Musical group of the Decade” in Israel in 2010, and the song “Mima’amakim” was selected the “Best Song of the Decade”. As described by The New York Times, “His arrangements bind the voices together in somber minor-mode anthems paced by electronic beats, earnestly seeking to uplift.”

The Project’s blend of African, Latin American, Caribbean and Middle Eastern sounds, coupled with a spectacular live show, has enchanted audiences worldwide. They have headlined in some of the world’s most prestigious venues, including New York’s Central Park Summer Stage, Los Angeles’ Kodak Theater, The Apollo Theater, the Sydney Opera House and Radio City Music Hall. They have also performed across Europe, South & Central America, Hong Kong, India, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Singapore to enraptured audiences of all backgrounds.

Freaky Friday

Freaky Friday

The cover design of this Mary Rodgers book is by Edward Gorey. Copies of the original hardcover published in 1972 can be found via online used book merchants. The blurb says: ‘Freaky Friday’ is an imaginative story about family life, and waking up one morning to find out that you’ve turned into your mother!

I’m tempted to get it myself!

Image found on my vintage book collection (in blog form)) via l’entonnoire du lièvre (tumblr)

Tanti Auguri, Birthday Girl!

 

Today is Monica Vitti’s 81st birthday, so I thought I’d send her best wishes and show her beautiful face in her prime to embellish my blog (besides which, current photos of her proved nearly impossible to find). I’ve heard of her since I was very young, but I don’t believe I ever saw a movie she was in, so I decided to have a little Vitti festival by borrowing L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961, with Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau), and Eclipse (1962, with Alain Delon) from the library, all in Italian with English subtitles, and all directed by Michelangelo Antonioni and forming his famous “trilogy on modernity and its discontents”. According to wikipedia, Antonioni “redefined the concept of narrative cinema” and challenged traditional approaches to storytelling, realism, drama, and the world at large. He produced “enigmatic and intricate mood pieces” and rejected action in favor of contemplation, focusing on image and design over character and story. His films defined a “cinema of possibilities”. Should be interesting. And nice to look at!

 

Steinbeckathon Parts 1 & 2

Some time last year, after I finished re-reading The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (a five-star read for me which I reviewed right here), I decided it might be time to focus on this author’s work, re-read some favourites and discover many new-to-me titles. I mentioned this idea over on LibraryThing and quite a few people said they’d like to jump in too, and so the Steinbeckathon was born. A few buddies and I came up with a schedule for the year, thirteen novels in twelve months, highly feasible considering some of his works run no more than 100 pages. I’m a little bit late reporting this, since we started in January of course. Our first work was the short novel Cannery Row in January, which we’ve followed up this month with The Wayward Bus (links lead to the discussion threads). Here are my reviews for those first two novels:

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A Change of Plans

I spent a good part of the day with my friend Liselotte today, whom I officially adopted as my surrogate grandmother, since she literally could be at 93 years of age. We were supposed to go to the museum of fine arts to see the latest exhibit and attend some conferences about Lyonel Feininger, who was a very famous artist in Germany at the turn of the 20th century. I’m a little bit shocked that I’d never heard of him before, considering he was a famous cartoonist, then was part of Der Blaue Reiter and taught at Bauhaus among other things, but then, I keep learning something new-to-me every day. Continue reading