Some Caribbean sun, a few daiquiris, a bit of spying and some good laughs make Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene the perfect Covid-January read. With a far-fetched plot – British Havana based vacuum clean salesman, Jim Wormold, is recruited as a spy for MI6 – it delivers some much-needed distraction. Wormold has been brutally dumped by his Cuban wife and is left to raise their 16-year-old daughter Milly by himself. Keeping glamorous Milly content is expensive and when Mr Hawthorne from the Foreign Office arrives from England, he makes Wormold an offer he can’t afford to refuse.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera is a powerful tour of the emotional realities of late-20th century Czech history. Centered on the story of the young couple Tereza and Tomas, the novel explores the themes of infidelity and meaning-making against the backdrop of the Prague Spring period of 1968. Although intellectual in tone, the novel is entirely readable, thought-provoking, and remains a vibrant lens on history as well.
The artist Marina Abramovic’s endorsement of Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima in the FT last week piqued my curiosity and, sure enough, this book really is something else. A fast-moving, surreal noir novel originally published in 1968, Life for Sale is about a man who offers his life up for sale. What he expects to be a carefree, albeit lethal, experiment, turns out to be a whole lot more complicated involving gangsters, vampires, hallucinogenic beetle powder and poisoned carrots. Darkly comic and totally twisted, this book will appeal to all fans of surreal fiction and Japanese literature.
As 2020 heads into autumn with no sign whatsoever of Covid relaxing its destructive grip on all that we know, this little-known novel provided me with a welcome distraction from the bombardment of grim headlines about Corona and Brexit. The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff was first published in 1931. Sherriff was the author of Journey’s End; a First World War play that is often hailed as one of the greatest of its time. The Fortnight in September is vastly different in subject matter but shares its emphasis on real people living real lives. It charmed and delighted me with its simple yet moving narrative.
The Life Before Us by Émile Ajar is a heart-breaking story narrated by Momo, a ten year-old Arab immigrant to France. Momo, who lives in an orphanage run by ex-prostitute Madame Rosa, has seen things no ten-year old should see and is far too advanced for his age. Darkly comical and wonderfully poignant The Life Before Us deserves to join the ranks of rediscovered classics. Why no UK publisher has given its cover a face-lift and republished this wonderful novel is a mystery to me. Read full Review
Wow…is all I can say about The Notebook by Agota Kristof. This is one of the more disquieting books I’ve read but it’s also impossible to put down. It’s the notebook of two nameless young twin brothers somewhere in Eastern Europe, sometime at the end of the Second World War. Calmly and unsentimentally, the boys tell us what war does to people. It’s not a pretty story but it leaves an indelible impression.
The cynical, whiskey drinking, mac-wearing sleuth Philip Marlow is one of crime literature’s most enduring characters. Written in 1936, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler has stood the test of time despite a dash of homophobia and sexism which, today, seem so outlandish it just makes you laugh. The story involves the wealthy General Sternwood, his spoilt, unruly daughters Carmen and Vivian, and blackmail. Chandler was in a league of his own when it came to astute observations of people and places and it’s this that sets The Big Sleep apart from so many others in the genre.
I’m finding that bitesized, escapist fiction suits my concentration levels these days and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, perfectly fits the bill. The story of two mysterious sisters living with their ailing uncle in a grand, ivy-covered Vermont house is unsettling from the word go. We Have Always Lived in the Castle was Jackson’s – the American queen of ghost and horror stories – last and, many think, best novel.
Esther Greenwood hasn’t washed her hair for three weeks. Personal hygiene seems futile when the days glare ahead ‘…like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue.’ This sombre path is walked by one of literature’s most infamous characters in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. The iconic writer’s portrayal of a young woman’s mental breakdown ties in perfectly with our Read With Your Teen challenge. Time to put your preconceptions on hold while sharing cross-generational thoughts on the novel’s oft-cited morbid self-obsession and stirring feminist observations.
Can’t think of a better escape right now than the 1938 novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, a glorious cocktail of jealousy, obsession, opulence and mystery. Our modest, unglamorous heroine works as a companion to a well-healed woman on holiday in Monte Carlo. There she meets the wealthy, dashing widower Max de Winter and an unlikely relationship begins. They marry and return to Manderley, de Winter’s palatial estate in England, where the ghost of de Winter’s dead wife Rebecca and the ghoulish housekeeper Mrs Danvers rule. An extraordinary psychological thriller.