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.
Five people plunge to their deaths when an old Inca bridge across a gorge in Peru snaps. Who were these people? And why these five? That’s what Brother Juniper, a Catholic priest, sets out to investigate in the glorious little novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. ‘Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan’ Brother Juniper reasons. So which one is it?
A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell is a 12-volume sequence of novels that has been lauded as one of the greatest works of 20th century English literature. The books start in the late 1920s and take us up to the 1960s, feature a huge cast of characters and offer a remarkable vision of changing social history, a deftly sustained narrative, some wonderfully memorable characters and a stark vision of the impact that time wreaks on our lives.
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
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.
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?