Favourite Books in 2015

I didn’t try to limit myself this year in terms of how many books made the cut. No cuts. Out of just over 200 books read during the year, there were lots of hits, and a few misses, but just over 40 of them stood out for me as books I’d like to revisit sometime. Any books I rated 4.5 stars and up is included in this list; a four-and-a-half star rating, in my personal system automatically pointing to my favourites of the year, that I’d want to read again, and five stars indicating my all-time favourites (which I would read “again, and again… and again!”). So here is my list of

Favourites of 2015:

                                                

 

★★★★★ Five-star reads:
The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (review)
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (review)
Les gens de l’ours by LB (manuscript)
All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
West with the Night by Beryl Markham (review)

★★★★½ and up, in reading order:
Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth (review)
The Blind Contessa’s New Machine by Carey Wallace
Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesen
Clockwork by Philip Pullman (review)
Lamentation by C. J. Sansom
The Scapegoat by Daphne Du Maurier (review)
The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng
Small Gods: Discworld #13 by Terry Pratchett (review)
Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther by Elizabeth von Arnim (review)
The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (reread – tutored read with Liz)
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (reread)
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter
The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer
The Leopard by Guisepe Di Lampedusa
Ross Poldark by Winston Graham (review—sort of)
The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble (review)
The Accursed Kings: The Iron King (Part 1) by Maurice Druon
The Accursed Kings: The Strangled Queen (Part 2) by Maurice Druon
The Accursed Kings: The Royal Succession (Part 4) by Maurice Druon
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh (reread)
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (mini-review)
Nothing Like the Sun by Anthony Burgess (review)
The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield
Parle-leur de batailles de rois et d’éléphants by Mathias Enard (review)
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (reread)
Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan (comments)
Farthing by Jo Walton
Cecilia by Fanny Burney
Le liseur du 6h27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (review)
Man-Tiger by Eka Kurniawan
Rumpole at Christmas by John Mortimer (comments)
How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell (comments)
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (comments)

Tell Them Of Battles, Of Kings and Elephants *

2356412883.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Book #99: ♫ Parle-leur de batailles de rois et d’éléphants / Tell Them Of Battles, Of Kings and Elephants* by Mathias Enard ★★★★½
Source: Municipal Library
Edition: Audiolib (2011), Unabridged MP3 CD; 3h20
Awards & Distinctions: Goncourt des lycéens (2010)
Goncourt Shortlist (2010)
Original publication date: 2010

I picked up this amazing little book because it came highly recommended in a “best of” directory consisting mainly of French writings (La bibliothèque idéale RTL edited by Bernard Lehut); it has not been translated into English yet, but it can only be a matter of time given it won a prestigious French literary award, its vastly famous protagonist—the artist Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, aka Michelangelo—and the compelling premise that the great Italian Renaissance master had made a trip to what was then known as Constantinople in 1506 after being invited by Sultan Bayezid II.

Portrait_of_Sultan_Bayezid_II_of_the_Ottoman_Empire

8th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Bayezid II (1447 – 1512)

From a few verifiable facts, Mathias Enard has weaved a highly poetic tale on the premise that following the Sultan’s invitation, (which Michelangelo’s famous biographer Giorgio Vasari noted in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects), the great master did in fact accept the invitation and spent three months in Constantinople to present plans for a bridge connecting the Eastern and Western parts of the great capital. Sultan Bayezid II has been mostly forgotten by history, but it seems he was a great visionary who promoted learning, fine arts, poetry and earned the epithet of “the Just” because of the smooth running of his domestic policies. Among other things, he organized the evacuation of Jewish and Muslim Spanish civilians who were evicted from Spain as part of the Inquisition, and granted them full Ottoman citizenship. Bayezid II was keen to have a bridge designed by one of the great Italian Renaissance masters, and asked Leonardo da Vinci to submit his designs first. This drawing is still in existence today, but it seems the proposed bridge was deemed impossible to build with the technology available at the time and it was rejected by the Sultan’s engineers, after which Bayezid II turned to Michelangelo.

The story he weaves here begins with Michelangelo’s arrival to Constantinople in May 1506, where is he given shelter by an Italian merchant and greeted by one of the Sultan’s protégés, the Ottoman poet Mesihi of Pristina. The two men couldn’t be more different; Mesihi, though now still considered as an important contributor to Ottoman letters, having died young in an impoverished state and total obscurity, while Michelangelo went on to become rich and famous and died towards the end of his ninth decade. Mesihi enjoyed much food and drink, and openly courted both men and women, while Michelangelo was of an ascetic nature, refusing all drink and eating little. But here Enard imagines the two men developing an unlikely friendship and the poet introducing the renaissance artist to a performer of great beauty and indefinable sex during one of their outings. The language is sublime, and we are privy to some of Michelangelo’s actual correspondence with one of his brothers, which Enard has translated into French for his book.

As for the intriguing title of the short novel, the author took the sentence from Rudyard Kipling’s preface of Life’s Handicap, a short story collection. This preface contains a fictive conversation between Kipling and “Gobind the one-eyed”, a holy beggar, who explains the art of telling stories:

“Tell them first of those things that thou hast seen and they have seen together. Thus their knowledge will piece out thy imperfections. Tell them of what thou alone hast seen, then what thou hast heard, and since they be children tell them of battles and kings, horses, devils, elephants, and angels, but omit not to tell them of love and suchlike. All the earth is full of tales to him who listens and does not drive away the poor from his door. The poor are the best of tale-tellers; for they must lay their ear to the ground every night”.

Such a beautifully told tale that it’s well worth reading twice in a row.

*Proposed translation for the English title

Rich, Dark and Fascinating

f82e1d6edf8d49759716a676a51444341587343♫ Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth ★★★★½
Source: Audible.com
Edition: Blackstone Audio (2014), Unabridged MP3; 19h26
Original publication date: 2012

Partly based on the true life story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force—a cousin of the Sun King, Louis XIV—who was banished from the court of Versailles by the King for a series of scandalous affairs to live in a nunnery, this book interweaves her own life story with the fairy tale we’ve come to know as Rapunzel. According to Wikipedia, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, or Mademoiselle de La Force, was a French novelist and poet, and her best-known work was her 1698 fairy tale Persinette which was adapted by the Brothers Grimm as the story Rapunzel, though it seems this story originally came from an Italian folk tale which Mademoiselle de La Force would have had no way of becoming acquainted with, and Kate Forsyth uses her ample skill as a novelist to suggest how this now famous fairy tale might have been transmitted to her.
Marquise-de-Caumont-La-Force-by-Francois-Hubert-Drouais
When Charlotte-Rose arrives at the convent where she is to spend the rest of her life locked up and isolated from the rest of the world, she meets with a harsh and brutal reception. Stripped of her luxurious court garments and shorn of her cascading locks of hair, then systematically bullied by her overseer, she is eventually taken under the wing of an old nun, Soeur Seraphina, who comforts her with an old Italian folk tale about a young girl who was taken from her parents because her father has stolen a handful of bitter greens; before little Margherita was born, her mother nearly died during the pregnancy because she was unable to eat. At her request, her husband stole a handful of herbs from the garden of the renowned courtesan next door. According to the story, Selena Leonelli was a famous courtesan in the Venice in the 16th century, the favourite model of a great painter, and by that point also a powerful witch with dark powers. When she catches Margherita’s father stealing the herbs, she threatens him with declaring him to the authorities, the punishment for theft being the cutting off of both hands. A bargain is made, and so the parents must agree to eventually give their daughter away. On her seventh birthday, Margherita is taken away, first to a convent to receive a proper education and then into a tower where she is shut off for years, her only visitor being Selena Leonelli on monthly calls and blood rites. There are monstrous secrets hidden in the tower, which has no doors nor stairs, and Margherita must drag around yards of hair which the witch uses to climb up to the only window every month, and the only company the girl has the rest of the time is her own beautiful voice to distract herself, with the hope that someday somebody might hear her and come to her rescue.

Kate Forsyth has a gift for storytelling and we get a narrative from three points of view: there is Charlotte-Rose, locked away in the convent and looking back on her youthful follies and excesses; Margherita in her tower, becoming a woman and looking back on her childhood while learning to outsmart a powerful witch; and Selena Leonelli, telling her own fascinating life story starting in the plague-ridden Venice of the early 16th century and explaining how and why she became Margherita’s jailer. The long narrative of her life is perhaps the most fascinating of all.

I haven’t yet read Angela Carter, and looking forward to redressing that omission, but from the descriptions I’ve read about the way she retells fairy tales, it seems Kate Forsyth has also adopted a very modern, adult and feminist point of view which is rich, dark and fascinating. Certainly miles away from the Disney folks and their ilk. A thrilling book with which to start the year, and heartily recommended.

14 Favourites of 2014

Out of the 233 books I read in 2014, I tried to narrow down my selection of favourites to a top 5, or even a top 10, but couldn’t do it. So I guess fourteen favourites is an improvement over the 31 I came up with last year—not as far as quality of course, only in terms of paring down the numbers.

In reading order:




The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (review)
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household (review)
Lady Susan by Jane Austen (review)
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (review)
The Quick by Lauren Owen (ARC) (review)
Dissolution by C. J. Samson (review)
The Unstrung Harp: Or, Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel by Edward Gorey
Restoration by Rose Tremain (review)
The Waiting Game by Bernice Reubens (review)
Breakfast With Lucian: A Portrait of the Artist by Geordie Greig (review)
The Ruby in Her Navel by Barry Unsworth (review)
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
Le joueur d’échecs / Chess Story by Stefan Zweig

I may yet review the few I managed to overlook so far.

Five Stars for this Gem

0385509634.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_♫ The Ruby in Her Navel
by Barry Unsworth ★★★★★
Source: Audible
Edition: AudioGO (2007), Unabridged MP3, 12h22
Awards & Distinctions:
Booker Prize Longlist (2006)
Original publication date: 2006

This book by the fine historical novelist Barry Unsworth is set in 1149 Palermo, Sicily, where power struggles between East and West have left King Roger hard pressed to maintain his throne. Both the Pope and the Bishop of Rome refuse to recognize his rule, and Conrad Hohenstaufen (ruler of the West) and Manuel Comnenus (ruler of the East) are threatening to invade Sicily to secure their powers. Palermo has always been tolerant to various ethnic communities, but a Christian group is making false accusations against Muslims, Jews, and other “outsiders” to take over power.

Thurstan Beauchamp narrates this story. He is a young man still, the son of a Norman knight and a Saxon mother. He works in the Diwan of Control, the central financial office at the palace, where his employer is Yusuf Ibn Mansur, a Muslim man with political savvy and of unimpeachable honesty who is willing to help Thurstan become influential if he can avoid falling into one of the dangerous political games the various factions are playing against each other. Traveling throughout Europe as “Purveyor of Pleasures and Shows”, Thurstan finds a group of five Yazidis, including Nesrin, a belly dancer with uncommon talent, and immediately hires them to come to Palermo to perform for the king. He is drawn to Nesrin’s great beauty and allure, but things take yet another turn when he meets again with the Lady Alicia on the same trip, once his great love when he was still a boy and she then just a girl also. Now she has returned from the land of Jerusalem as a widow of considerable wealth and power, and she seems just as taken with Thurstan as he still is with her, when he finds his love for her has not abated over the years.

We learn early on in the novel that Thurstan’s most cherished dream has been to become a knight and fight in the crusades, as his father has done before him, though this opportunity was taken away from him just when it seemed about to be realised. Now with Lady Alicia’s return on the scene and the considerable influence of her relations, many opportunities beckon. The novel builds up at a moderate pace, all the while filled with period details which inform us about aspects of daily life in 12th century Palermo. Thurstan, narrating in the first person from the vantage point of a period after the events have taken place, is a personable main character, whom we cannot help but empathise with, though he makes many grave gaffes and mistakes, and much as his naïvety and youth show he has yet much to learn and ought to know better, we see the events though his eyes before he had gained the advantage of hindsight, so that the reader is offered only glimpses of the whole, until a complex mystery is revealed.

A jewel of a book which I can’t wait to reread to pick up on all the fine intricate details I may have missed upon first reading; I also loved Andrew Sachs’ narration in this audio version; a well-earned five stars for this gem, which only makes me want to read yet more of Unsworth’s wonderful prose. Lucky for me, I still have his 1992 Booker Prize winner Sacred Hunger and it’s follow-up, The Quality of Mercy, as well as The Songs of the Kings, all historical fiction novels also, as well as the travel memoir Crete to look forward to in my vast personal reading and listening library. It’s not unlikely I may end up trying to get hold of everything Unsworth has written in his long and fruitful career, during which he published a total of 17 novels, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times.

Writing About Poetry, Victoria’s Secret Models, and Dogs

0375503803.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins ★★★★
Source: Municipal Library
Edition: Random House (2001), Hardcover, 192 pages
Awards & Distinctions: ALA Notable Books for Adults
Original publication date: 2001

I’m not a natural to poetry; I really have to make a special effort to make time for it and pay attention to it and work at appreciating it, which is odd, because I have my quiet and unexpressed poetic way of looking at the world, but too often the language of individual poets is obscure to me, the imagery too specific or too filled with references I don’t understand, rhythms I can’t pick up on, moods I’m not in tune with. Billy Collins is new to me, and I decided to give this poetry collection a try after seeing a few of his best poems on one of my LT buddy’s threads. This collection gathers some “new” selections (as of 2001), as well as older ones from collections from The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988), Questions About Angels (1991) The Art of Drowning (1995), and Picnic, Lightning (1998), the latter of which includes one of my absolute favourites poems by Collins, which my buddy Joe transcribed in full on one of his threads, called Victoria’s Secret. It’s rather long, so here are just the first three of nine verses:

Victoria’s Secret

The one in the upper left-hand corner
is giving me a look
that says I know you are here
and I have nothing better to do
for the remainder of human time
than return your persistent but engaging stare.
She is wearing a deeply scalloped
flame-stitch halter top
with padded push-up styling
and easy side-zip tap pants.

The one on the facing page, however,
who looks at me over her bare shoulder,
cannot hide the shadow of annoyance in her brow.
You have interrupted me,
she seems to be saying,
with your coughing and your loud music.
Now please leave me alone;
Let me finish whatever it was I was doing
in my organza-trimmed
whisperweight camisole with
keyhole closure and a point d’esprit mesh back.

I wet my thumb and flip the page.
Here, the one who happens to be reclining
in a satin and lace merry widow
with an inset lace-up front,
decorated underwire cups and bodice with lace ruffles along the bottom
and hook-and-eye closure in the back,
is wearing a slightly contorted expression,
her head thrust back, mouth partially open,
a confusing mixture or pain and surprise
as if she had stepped on a tack
just as I was breaking down
her bedroom door with my shoulder.

What appealed tremendously to me about this particular poem I guess is I heard an inner voice, or was it the voice of my own mother maybe, who has a mean sense of humour and has always liked to put words in the mouths of the models on the glossy magazines we always had laying around the house, so there was something familiar about it, which took nothing away from the humour of it, and just made it all that more engaging in fact. Collins often writes poems about the process of writing poetry which are surprisingly appealing. There’s often a sense of playfulness in his work, though in his “new” work, there is more talk of death, since it seems he lost his mother around 2001 and was quite understandably more focused on themes of death and dying, but not always. My favourite poem from that particular collection is about a dog and like so much of his work, just seems so spot on:

Dharma

The way the dog trots out the front door
every morning
without a hat or an umbrella,
without any money
or the keys to her doghouse
never fails to fill the saucer of my heart
with milky admiration.

Who provides a finer example
of a life without encumbrance—
Thoreau in his curtainless hut
with a single plate, a single spoon?
Gandhi with his staff and his holy diapers?

Off she goes into the material world
with nothing but her brown coat
and her modest blue collar,
following only her wet nose,
the twin portals of her steady breathing,
followed only by the plume of her tail.

If only she did not shove the cat aside
every morning
and eat all his food
what a model of self-containment she would be,
what a paragon of earthly detachment.
If only she were not so eager
for a rub behind the ears,
so acrobatic in her welcomes,
if only I were not her god.

Play It Like It’s 1986

0385368267.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell ★★★★⅓
Source: National Library OverDrive Collection
Narrators: Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra
Edition: Listening Library (2013), Unabridged MP3; 8h56
Original publication date: 2013

When new girl Eleanor shows up on the school bus one day, things start out very badly for her when nobody wants to make room for her, even though there are still plenty of empty seats left. She’s overweight, has long wild curly, very red hair and is dressed pretty strangely, and though this is 1986 and new wave music and punk rock rule, her kind of weirdness just doesn’t fly. Park happens to be a misfit of sorts too, being the only half-Korean in an otherwise all-white or black Omaha, Nebraska, though he’s managed to fly under the radar with strategic friendships and alliances, and he’s not sure he’s willing to compromise that for the new girl, but he can’t help himself from wanting to help Eleanor when he bluntly tells her to just sit next to him on that first day, and there she’ll sit henceforth on their daily trips to school and back. He doesn’t find Eleanor attractive exactly, but for some reason, he starts sharing his beloved comic books with her, like the Watchmen series, and then introducing her to some of his favourite music like The Smiths and The Cure and Alphaville and Elvis Costello (and the list goes on and on as the book progresses).

Eleanor has never heard any of this music, so he makes her mixed tapes, but in her typical brusque way she refuses to take the first one, till he finally figures out she’s refusing because she has no way of listening to it; she then just as rudely refuses when he helpfully offers to loan her his Walkman, till his kindness and insistence wear her down. They’ve soon got a friendship going, based on all the things Park likes, including many more mixed tapes, which prove to be a salvation for Eleanor, because her home life is a living hell. Her mother’s taken up with a violent alcoholic called Richie who doesn’t hesitate to hit on his wife on a whim and threaten Eleanor and her four younger siblings with unnamed injuries. They’re so poor they don’t have a phone in the house, in which the bathroom and the kitchen share a space and aren’t even separated by a door. To add to her misery, Eleanor is being bullied at school, persecuted by one of the most popular girls, and then regularly finds disgusting pornographic inscriptions on the covers of her school manuals which she has no idea who could be putting there.

As friendship progresses to declared love, Park invites Eleanor into his home. Eleanor knows the respite she finds there with his parents, who slowly come to accept her despite her strange appearance and awkward ways, can only be temporary, because her parents, and especially Richie, are bound to find out about this relationship, which over the months she’s been passing off as time spent with a fictitious girlfriend, and she also knows without a doubt there’ll be a price to pay when Richie finds out. Only, things keep getting better and better with Park, who fills her life with music and makes her feel things she never knew she had the capacity to feel before.

Many people on LT raved about this book and I remained skeptical about whether I’d like it too since YA fiction doesn’t always do it for me, but it ended up being a big winner. I happen to be the same age as our two main protagonists, so was just as influenced by most of the music which is mentioned in the book (The Smiths were my all-time favourites back then), and though I thankfully never had the kind of nightmarish home life Eleanor has, I could definitely identify with her feeling like the odd girl out and the bullied misfit at school. Rainbow Rowell writes sensitively and realistically about what it feels like to be a teenager and to experience first love and complete bewilderment and fear, all this in a way that also makes for compelling reading. She also has an interesting take on the parents, who each deal with challenging life situations in their own individual ways, some showing willingness to grow and evolve, and some, not so much, just like real-life people in other words.

***

This book ended up causing me to spend a small fortune on iTunes. I haven’t been listening to much music of late because am constantly plugged into audiobooks, but I was compelled to create my own “1986” soundtrack and made lots of new additions to my golden 80s oldies collection. I partially based myself on Rainbow Rowell’s own playlist as posted on her blog; music which inspired her as she wrote the various scenes of the book, then added a few from a list the songs mentioned in the book. I added to that all my favourite Smiths songs missing from my catalogue beyond How Soon Is Now (I’d forgotten how arty the music video was), like Shout by Tear for Fears, which was a huge deal when it first came out one day at school, when everyone just went nuts over it, banging on every available surface. Added too a nice serving of The Psychedelic Furs and other music from Pretty in Pink, and a bunch of other music I remember listening to back when I was 16 (The Cure anyone?) And I can’t believe I’ve survived with only 3 Suzanne Vega songs up to now! (Fixed). Not sure when I’ll make time to listen to it all, because audiobooks really are my thing lately, but I’ll make time for it here and there; Alphaville’s Forever Young and A Flock of Seagulls’s I Ran (So Far Away) while I was walking in the sun with Coco happily running around in the park yesterday really made my day.