After reading a few contemporary duds, I’ve taken refuge in the haven of mid-20th century American literature and read The Easter Parade by Richard Yates. I adore literature from this era for it’s well-edited, unpretentious yet profound writing and I haven’t been disappointed this time either. We’re in 1930’s New York. Sarah and Emily are sisters and the children of divorced parents Pookie and Walter Grimes. The opening sentence sets the stage: ‘Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.’ Expect no happy ending.
A treat for you on Women’s Day! Austrian author Stefan Zweig (The Post Office Girl, Beware of Pity and many novellas) was once the world’s most translated author. No wonder. This steaming hot novella about a woman and her whirlwind 24 hour affair with a much younger man is absolutely spellbinding, even more so when you know it was written by a man and almost 90 years ago!
There’s something seductive about Fitzgerald’s writing, it’s so gentle and light that it almost seems effortless. It’s not, of course, and that’s the genius of it. No wonder Fitzgerald has become a writer’s writer, with hoards of author fans. If you enjoy a well-written book, I suspect you will like her novels too. Be warned, though, Innocence, like her other books, is not action packed, but rather a funny, contemplative story where a lot more goes on than meets the eye.
The Blue Flower is based on the true-life love story between the 18th century German philosopher and poet Georg Philipp Friedrich (Fritz) Freiherr von Hardenberg and a young girl, Sophie von Kühn. Sounds dreary? No, it’s not, actually! It’s a great book, thanks to Penelope Fitzgerald’s light, funny and authentic writing. No wonder her horde of fans include Jonathan Franzen, Allan Hollinghurst, Julian Barnes, James Wood…I could go on and on…who all hail this as a modern classic.
I’d forgotten how good John Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men really is. Just re-read it after many years and what a gem of a little story! In a mere 120 pages, Steinbeck dives deep into themes such as loneliness, dreams and loyalty while portraying the nomadic lives of ranch hands in America during the Great Depression. To top it off are the most exquisite descriptions of landscapes and farm life.
There’s something wonderfully innocent and warm about this 1950s classic, despite its dead serious subject matter of racism. Life is simple; the goodies are good, the baddies are bad. Fundamentally, the book is about tolerance, for the lonely, weirdo neighbour, for the sick, angry, old lady down the road and, of course, for blacks, otherwise ostracised by 1930s Alabamian white society. I read this book 20 years ago and found it a joy to re-read, although my older more cynical self did think it a bit sentimental at times.
I cannot recommend this Spanish classic highly enough. The House of Ulloa is funny, clever, progressive and colourful, written by the feisty and daring Emilia Prado Bazán in 1886 and, luckily, reissued in English recently. We meet the gentle, devout chaplain Julián who’s been asked by Don Manuel, a prominent noble, to clean up the sinful House of Ulloa, the country estate of his unruly nephew, Don Pedro. This hilarious meeting of polar opposites takes place amidst magnificently described Galician landscapes and decrepit aristocratic homes.
I’ve made a list (in no particular order) of seven books that come to mind every time I think of classics. Most of these I read a while ago and some of them I have read several times, but all of them are brilliant. There is a wide variety, from stories about love and betrayal to dark outposts and surreal transformations, from very long to very short. Take your pick and enjoy!
Stoner has become somewhat of a publishing sensation over the past eighteen months, topping bestseller list in Holland, France, Italy, Spain, Israel and, more recently, in the UK. Written by American John Williams in 1965, Stoner barely made a mark at the time. A few favourable reviews and 2000 copies sold was all there was to it. Somehow, miraculously, nearly 50 years later, the novel has been given a second lease of life, and is now a shining example of a ‘word-of-mouth’ bestseller.
Another long forgotten but fabulous novel is Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner from 1987. We meet two couples, Larry and Sally Morgan and Sid and Charity Lang, life-long loyal friends, soul mates, occasional competitors and mutual supporters. If you’re in the mood for a contemplative, tightly and exquisitely written novel, reach for Crossing to Safety.