Autumn 2021 Round-Up

Happy new year everyone! I hope the festive season was wonderful for you all. I was one of the unlucky few who caught Covid-19 in the days leading up to Christmas(!), but I still had a lovely time, despite isolation. Plus, since my symptoms were mercifully mild, I was able to get lots of reading done! I realise I haven’t updated this blog for a few months, so I thought it would be nice to post a brief round-up of the books I have enjoyed since September last year. So, without further ado:

Marie – Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans)

At the start of October, I treated myself to a flying visit to London for a gig. While there, I fulfilled a lifelong aim: I visited the incomparable Daunt Books!

It was utterly stunning and completely dreamy – my new favourite bookshop in England, for sure – but I think I may have to dedicate a whole separate post to it sometime soon! For now, I’ll briefly discuss the novella I bought there: Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe.

I was immediately drawn to it: written by a female author, it documents a married woman’s sensual interior life as she drifts through 1930s Paris. In particular, it describes Marie’s experience as she falls in love with a younger man, contemplating the conflict between cosy companionship and the thrill of someone new. It was originally written in 1940*, but is striking for its modernist, existential tones. It is packed with beautiful, poetic passages, flowing with vibrancy and emotion, gilded with yearning. It is, above all else, intensely moving, and captures the torment and ecstasy of love with sublime power.

He runs towards the rocks, stopping at the very point where Marie first noticed the young man. She sees Jean, in the same frame, making the same movements: it’s practically the same scene, but touched with another halo. Jean leans over and stands up, remaining still for a moment, offering his bare chest to the sun. Inclining her head, she watches him, watches all those gestures that she knows so well and so intimately. Reality tamed: a tender halo emerging from sweetness, from the warmth of the familiar, from someone you love.

And before? The unknown young man who thought he was invisible between two rocks? Another moment, another halo… A reality to guess at, to seize on, to make your own. The realm of the possible; the fascination and excitement of a new world.

Bourdouxhe’s work reminds me greatly of Virginia Woolf – her prose is full of ruminations about a middle-class woman’s lived experience – though much more, distinctively French. In fact, Simone de Beauvoir quoted Marie numerous times in The Second Sex. It certainly feels like a ground-breaking read, even all these years later. It was a firm favourite of 2021 for me, and I will certainly re-read it, since it was so exquisitely enjoyable.

They went up in a very narrow elevator where there was only room for two bodies face to face. Young maids in canvas pinafores, organdie bows in their hair, bright red lips in inscrutable faces, slip like spirits through the deserted corridors, respecting the anonymity, the secrets of every soul, and folding up quilts with vestal movements. Muffled sounds, orders given in low voices, words that turn into mysteries, doors that shut without a sound. The peace and safety of a temple, with all the solemn, human poetry of a lodging house.

*As Paris was occupied by the Nazis at the time, Bourdouxhe delayed publication by three years, determined to find a publisher untainted by fascism. It was eventually published in Brussels, where she worked during the war within the Resistance.

And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie

Okay, so, I hold my hands up: I’m incredibly late to the Agatha Christie party! I’m not entirely sure why I avoided reading the most popular author ever for so long – I just never got round to it. However, late last year a good friend urged me to read Christie’s classic novel, And Then There Were None, assuring me that I would absolutely love it. And she was absolutely right – I feel head-over-heels in love!

I’ll admit, I struggled with the story at first. In particular, I had difficulty remembering details about each of the (many) central characters. However, as the plot progressed (and the character list gradually diminished), I came to be helplessly engrossed. It was wickedly intelligent – completely fascinating – and yet also entirely readable. I, of course, came nowhere near to figuring out the mystery – it was so fantastically composed. I completely understand why this novel has come to be regarded so highly. A true classic. There is, naturally, very little for me to say which has not already been said (more eloquently) in the decades since its publication. But it certainly marks the beginning of what I’m sure will be a long love affair with Agatha Christie for me. I honestly can’t wait to read more!

Iron Curtain: A Love Story – Vesna Goldsworthy

My next read of 2021 was altogether very different indeed. In fact, it was an ARC kindly provided by Random House UK, due to be published in February 2022. Iron Curtain: A Love Story, written by Serbian author and poet Vesna Goldsworthy, tells the unconventional story of Milena, a ‘Red princess’ in an unnamed Soviet satellite state. (Incredibly, Goldsworthy writes in English – her third language!) The novel is set in the 1980s – a time of particularly intense Cold War tension – and, though Milena enjoys endless luxuries, her freedoms are limited. That is until she meets a firebrand British poet, falls in love, and follows him across the Iron Curtain. Her experiences in 1980s London cast a vivid light on not only the sociocultural contrasts between Soviet communism and Western capitalism, but on the intricate agonies of seemingly grand romance.

It is, of course, evident by now that I’m immediately intrigued by any novel which illustrates the Cold War experience. However, what (once again) really enthralled me with Iron Curtain was Goldsworthy’s depiction of a young woman’s interior life. This is the first of her works I’ve had the pleasure of reading, but the intelligence and empathy of her style struck me immediately. Plus, the singularity and authenticity of the story itself is sure to make this book among the greatest releases this year.

Rules of Civility – Amor Towles

So, as I’ve shared previously, I absolutely loved Amor Towles’ novel A Gentleman in Moscow. It was absolute perfection. And this made me very keen to read his lauded debut, Rules of Civility. Largely set in Manhattan in 1938, the book follows Katey Kontent as she stumbles through the city, forging friendships and love affairs; enduring great loss, heartache and growth.

While I was not as enamored by this work as by A Gentleman in Moscow, it was certainly charming, and told masterfully. It was delightfully character-driven, with New York City itself emerging as one of the most scintillating of all. Long Island parties, jazz bars, downtown poverty, Fifth Avenue luxury apartments – all are conjured so dazzlingly, it’s as if you’re transported there yourself. Yes, it owes lots to previous classics such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Great Gatsby and The Age of Innocence. And yes, at times Towles paints 1930s New York like a bizarre fairytale. (Who isn’t even just a little tired of books about the rich and careless social elite?) But if charming characters, glamorous settings and undeniably fantastic story-telling is your thing, you’re sure to love it.

(Also, in the last few months, I attempted to read Towles’ latest work, The Lincoln Highway. It started out well enough, but I only reached about halfway before giving up. I found it quite aimless and listless compared to his previous publications – Gentleman in particular. Should I give it another go? Is it worth persisting?)

Persuasion – Jane Austen

Finally! I’ve finally read something by Jane Austen!

So for the last few months, I’ve been working at my university library. This means I have spent a lot of time shelving, with practically unlimited access to any of the books the institution holds. One day, I found myself perusing a small, cluttered corner filled with Jane Austen, and decided that I’d (inexplicably) avoided her for long enough. After some quick research, which revealed that Persuasion is arguably her most beautiful, lyrical, melancholy and perhaps even most romantic work, I was sold. I took it straight home and got reading.

Now, again, there is very little I can say about Persuasion which has not already been said. But for anyone else who has not yet read it, the plot roughly reads as follows:

Twenty-seven-year old Anne Elliot is Austen’s most adult heroine. Eight years before the story proper begins, she is happily betrothed to a naval officer, Frederick Wentworth, but she precipitously breaks off the engagement when persuaded by her friend Lady Russell that such a match is unworthy. The breakup produces in Anne a deep and long-lasting regret. When later Wentworth returns from sea a rich and successful captain, he finds Anne’s family on the brink of financial ruin and his own sister a tenant in Kellynch Hall, the Elliot estate. All the tension of the novel revolves around one question: Will Anne and Wentworth be reunited in their love? (Taken from Goodreads.)

While it took a few chapters to settle into the naturally antiquated style, I ultimately really, really enjoyed this book. It was, without doubt, gloriously romantic. There was more than one occasion where I read and reread passages over and over, savouring how gorgeously ardent and adoring they were. The love she portrays is so wonderfully otherworldly – completely irresistible! And this story is all the more sweeping, since it recounts a second chance at a love thought lost.

There were times where I absolutely could not tear myself away from the novel, desperate to see its romances unfurl. Persuasion possessed quite a philosophical bent, too, which I thought was really lovely. Austen’s ruminations on womanhood, class and society are fascinating and pioneering – her protagonist Anne a true proto-feminist in her assured convictions. It was a delight to read.

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

The last book I read in 2021 was yet another great classic: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (including Part II, originally published as Little Wives). And yes, once again, I am incredibly late to the Little Women party! It has been on by TBR list for a long while now, particularly since I saw the absolutely divine 2019 adaptation by Greta Gerwig. And so, when I tested positive for Covid-19 four days before Christmas, I reached for it on my shelf as a source of festive comfort.

I never wanted to go away, and the hard part is leaving you all. I’m not afraid, but it seems as if I should be homesick for you even in heaven.

And I am so glad I did! By chapter three I already knew it had genuinely become a life-long cherished favourite. It was completely and utterly flawless – absolute perfection. I truly believe it is the kind of novel every author dreams of creating. The story was enchanting, the characters indelible and endearing, its lessons remarkably forward-thinking. Every time I opened its pages I felt completely enveloped in Alcott’s oftentimes idyllic childhood world. I felt its warmth, its emotion, its tenderness. I adored its dynamic, nuanced, unique femininity. And, naturally, it completely devastated me. Despite the fact I already knew the plot through the film adaptation, the novel’s most tragic moment still broke me. I genuinely cried, and had to take a day’s break from reading. And, when it came to closing the book for good, I felt truly bereft.

There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.

Little Women is a rare gem that beautifully illustrates the sheer joy of reading. It was so unbelievably affecting – I was lost in its spell for days on end. A wonderful way to see in a new year!

Temptation – Book Review

I’m back! After an incredibly hectic year, I have finally finished my master’s. I’m so relieved, and it feels so, so good to have actual free time again. And free time can only mean one thing: more reading! And more reviews! I thought I’d mark my return with a quick review of a really quite surprising gem I stumbled across during a recent trip to Edinburgh.

Recently translated into English from its original Hungarian, Temptation recounts the Dickensian tale of a young man coming of age in interwar Budapest. In almost 700 pages, its author János Székely evokes the grim devastation of working-class poverty in a rampantly capitalist – and increasingly fascist – society on the brink of war.

I’d never encountered him before, but Székely led a fascinating life. At 18, he fled the First World War, leaving Hungary for Germany. Over the next few years, while living in Berlin, Székely wrote screenplays for silent film stars – Marlene Dietrich amongst them. In 1938, he emigrated to the USA, where he continued his screenwriting work in Hollywood. He even bagged an Oscar for Best Story with the film Arise, My Love. In the McCarthy Era, however, Székely left the USA, living briefly in Mexico before settling in East Germany. Semi-autobiographical in nature, Temptation boldly encapsulates the political convictions, urge for adventure and great, humanistic compassion evident through Székely’s life and experiences.

“Do you know how big an appendix is? Like this. Well, Hungary’s about this big, too, compared to the rest of the world, and the rest of the world pays it about as much mind as a healthy man pays his appendix. But if these appendix-countries get inflamed one day, you’ll see, the whole world’ll feel the cramps. D’you see what I’m getting at?”

I didn’t fully understand, but I could have sworn that it was true. Elemer told the truth, and besides, he was a prole. My mouth was bitter with hunger.

“If only it were here already!” I grumbled. “This upper-class world could do with a bit of appendicitis.”

Temptation‘s protagonist, Béla, is compelling, resilient, impressionable, passionate, bright and endearing. Having grown up in a peasant woman’s household for abandoned children, he is ultimately reunited with his parents, finding work as a young man in an opulent city-centre hotel. Here, he becomes embroiled in a mesmeric cast of eclectic characters, from young communist revolutionaries to charming American socialites and devastatingly alluring aristocrats. Within the confines of its lush corridors, bars and elevators, Béla stumbles across first love, grief, infatuation, idealism, and righteous political indignation. He uncovers a blazing affinity with poetry, and an enduring, oftentimes fiery compassion for the impoverished. I was surprised and thrilled to discover Temptation‘s searing, polemical nature. However, Székely’s social commentary is far from dry – it is truly, deeply stirring. His evocation of Budapest’s downtrodden souls is genuinely haunting.

It must have been midnight. Hungary was sleeping. Europe, too, was sleeping. The world was sleeping. They’d been sung to sleep by Briand and Kellog’s lullabies, sixty-two countries declaring formally that they would never again “resort to war”. The Reverend Soderblom received the Nobel Peace Prize, the number of jobless grew and grew, people kept writing operettas about Hungary, and the world, unaware, hummed “The Blue Danube”, which carried on washing the bloated corpses of its suicides down from the Black Forest to the Black Sea in three-four time.

The ship turned slowly in the night. I thought of the smiling machinist. He must be standing before a metal handle now, just waiting for the order to release the steam. Yes, down below, people were already working away, and one day, the ship would go where they told it to.

Despite its enormous size, I absolutely tore through this engrossing bildungsroman. It was captivating – an outright twentieth century masterpiece. I’m certain I’ll return to it again and again for years to come.

Bookish Travels: High Peak Bookshop & Scrivener’s Bookshop, Buxton

On a recent sunny day, I was lucky enough to take a day trip out to Buxton, in the Peak District. It was wonderful, and made all the more lovely following so many months in lockdown. I found time to visit two fantastic bookshops there, and so thought it high time to write another bookish travels post after a long hiatus!

High Peak Bookshop

The first I visited was High Peak Bookshop. Easily missed, it sits alone on the side of a busy road nestled among the sweeping vistas of the Peaks. It resembles a roadside café, seemingly constructed entirely in corrugated metal. Inside, however, it is immediately charming.

First, you’re greeted by cards, stationary, prints, postcards, trinkets, and a whole host of other locally-sourced bits and gifts. To your right, through a quaint archway, is the bookshop’s café. Clustered and cosy, it serves a broad range of cakes and hot drinks (and even beers), and sells herbal tea leaves, coffee pots, mugs, chocolates and more. Dogs are very welcome, and the waiting staff are beyond lovely – so chatty and attentive. (Even the toilets were decorated floor-to-ceiling with immersive photographs of the Peak District, which is excellent for fans of natural toilets, I suppose!)

Back in the shop, there are brand new books of every genre: fiction, poetry, classic fiction, biography, local history, modern history, ancient history, photography, nature, music, plus a whole corner filled with gorgeous Taschen art books at well below RRP. In fact, the prices for all of the books are incredibly reasonable. There is even a whole room devoted to children’s literature, which is decorated beautifully. The entire shop has a really lovely atmosphere, filled with the murmurings of day-trippers, hikers, cyclists, families, locals and otherwise. It’s a fantastic place to start any day out to Buxton, or any of the stunning nearby walking routes.

Scrivener’s Bookshop

Later that day, I visited another bookshop in the heart of Buxton – Scrivener’s. This shop is genuinely every book-lover’s fairytale-esque dream. The building itself is so quaint and cute and otherworldly, while inside five floors hold over forty thousand second-hand books. As a former Victorian shop, it even houses a very tiny museum celebrating its history. However, this was shut when I visited – I presume because of Covid restrictions.

The layout is eclectic and cluttered in a classically charming way. The walls are strewn with tote bags, posters, framed pictures, artwork and ornaments, while every room is absolutely bursting with busy shelves. I primarily explored the fiction floor, which was a veritable maze of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves offering everything from classic to modern fiction, paperbacks and hardbacks (including Folios!) There were numerous nooks with seating available for anyone to sit and read in the cosy quiet, with charming window views of Buxton’s winding streets and clumsy stone houses below. There were even wooden ladders for anyone hoping to peruse the topmost shelves – a marvellous feature for any bookshop fan!

Ultimately, I came away with a large stack of 1920s Macmillan edition Thomas Hardy books to add to my growing collection. They were only £3.50 each and in fantastic condition:

If you are ever in this very beautiful part of the world, I really do urge you to seek these bookshops out. They are real gems, and you will find yourself passing hours away within them effortlessly. I’m absolutely determined to return to them as soon as I possible can!