Classics

The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas

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The Birds

A compassionate portrait of a struggling everyman

None other than Karl Ove Knausgaard, Norway’s greatest literary export since Ibsen, has provided the endorsement quote on the reissued English edition of The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas, stating that it is ‘the best Norwegian novel ever.’ Vesaas (1897-1970) is still considered one of the country’s most important writers, and is now deservedly being published in English as part of Penguin Modern Classics. (PS never mind the hipster on the cover. I’m certain this is not how Vesaas envisioned Mattis). Read full Review

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Need something to cuddle up with this January?

Try the delightful Cazalet Chronicles - Jane Austen meets Downton Abbey

I was inspired to pick up The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard after hearing snatches of the Radio 4 a while ago, and reading reviews of Artemis Cooper’s biography of the author – about whom I knew little apart from the fact that she was unlucky enough to have been married to the old devil himself, Kingsley Amis. How glad I am that I did, particularly in the dying days of this particularly dismal year. The experience of reading the Cazalet series (The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion, Casting Off and All Change) is like stepping into a warm bath. Comforting, life-affirming, immersive – and you absolutely don’t want to pull the plug.

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The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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The Grapes of Wrath

A classic worthy of a re-read

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck somehow slipped through the cracks for me. I’ve spent the summer rectifying this and I can see why this novel has become such an enduring classic and a favoured choice amongst English teachers. The story of the Joad family, uprooting from their arid Oklahoma farm, fleeing poverty and industrialisation of farming in search of the American Dream is beautifully told, incredibly moving and a highly effective piece of political propaganda. If you haven’t read it yet, do. If you have, perhaps it’s time for a re-read?

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The Life Before Us by Émile Ajar

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The Life Before Us

Funny, moving and the best-selling French novel of the 20th century

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 U.K. publisher has given its cover a face-lift and republished this wonderful novel is a mystery to me. Read full Review

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The Moon is Down

A fascinating piece of war time propaganda

The story behind The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck World War II novel is as fascinating as the book itself. Steinbeck, a world famous author by the start of the war, was deeply concerned about the rise of Fascism in Europe. He’d noticed the Fascists’ clever use of propaganda and urged the precursor to the CIA, for whom he worked, to create their own. In 1941, Steinbeck wrote The Moon is Down, which is largely based on conversations with people who’d fled their occupied countries. The book would become one of the most read underground novels of the war, with thousands of copies printed clandestinely in France, Denmark, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands. Judging by its success, it must have played a role in mobilising resistance and keeping up morale.

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The Lost Estate by Henri Alain-Fournier

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The Lost Estate (Le Grand Meaulnes)

A poignant evocation of those feverish days of adolescence

Our narrator, François Seurel, is the bookish son of a schoolmaster, residing in a provincial French village in the 1890s. Passive and impressionable, he yearns for adventure, but will never be the architect of his own life. When the charismatic adventurer, Augustin Meaulnes, comes to board at his home, Seurel’s life is changed irrevocably. A French classic, often described as the greatest novel of adolescence in European literature, The Lost Estate deserves to be more widely read on this side of the Channel.

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Cassandra at the Wedding

An intense psychological drama

Cassandra and Judith Edwards are identical twins. Both brilliant and beautiful; one happily engaged to be married, the other severely depressed. This 1960s psychological drama is an intense read that will bring you into the psyche of both protagonists and show the devastating effects of depression not only on the depressed, but also those around. Brace yourself for something much darker and a great deal more profound than the title suggests.

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Cannery Row

A little book to make you happy

I’ve just been through one of the longest good book ‘droughts’ in my reading career. In the end I decided to reach for a classic, sometimes the only way out, and grabbed hold of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. It’s a short book that is more like a portrait of a community than a linear narrative, but within it are sublime little stories, descriptions of people, places and atmosphere that only an old hand like Steinbeck can conjure up.

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I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories

‘A basket of many coloured skies’

This is a beautifully produced scholarly edition of 18 of Fitzgerald’s short stories, none published in his lifetime. Varying in length from three pages to thirty, these stories are peopled not so much with the glamorous but damaged Jazz Age characters familiar to us from his novels but with a poorer, sadder, post-Depression cast including drunks, travelling salespeople, hypochondriacs, divorcing couples, movie producers, starlets, has-beens, and – overwhelmingly – the unwell. The best of these stories glitter with the author’s wit and familiar ability to demolish a character’s pretentions in a sentence. The others, more plodding, will appeal nevertheless to Fitzgerald fans for the light they shine on his preoccupations and problems, and for the glimpse they afford into the seedier side of 1930s small-town American life.

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The Handmaid’s Tale

Back to the future in this creepy, dystopian tale

I devoured Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace when they came out quite a few years ago, but somehow missed The Handmaid’s Tale. That was a mistake. Atwood’s dystopian, futuristic story about a totalitarian regime where women’s bodies are political currency has become a modern classic since it was published in 1985. Even more relevant now with religious and political extremism on the rise, The Handmaid’s Tale is about to come out as a TV-series. I suggest reading it first. It’s creepy, it’s dark and it’s a page-turner that will keep you reading long into the night.

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