Love…it means too much to me

Anna KareninaAnna Karenina
by Leo Tolstoy
translated from Russian by Rosamund Bartlett

Phew, I made it to the end! This is a big book and it took me a month to read. But it wasn’t a slog. I found Tolstoy’s writing much more accessible than Dostoevsky or Dickens, his contemporaries.

I had a rough idea of the story before I started this book, but hadn’t realised that the story of Anna is not the only plotline. As its famous opening line suggests, the novel follows a few interlinked families, and Anna is not the focus of the first nor the last chapter. We open in Moscow with her brother, Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky, who is in trouble with his wife, Princess Darya Alexandrovna Oblonskaya (Dolly), after cheating on her with the nanny. Only the arrival of Anna from St Petersburg manages to calm the household down.

At the same time, Oblonsky’s close friend Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin has come to Moscow to propose to Dolly’s younger sister, Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya (Kitty), but unfortunately while he has been away at his country estate, Kitty has taken up a flirtation with Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky, a dandy young cavalry officer from St Petersburg. In confusion between her two suitors, she turns Levin down. But just a few days later, at a society ball, Vronsky meets Anna and their mutual attraction is immediately obvious to all.

“It was as if tears were the essential lubricant without which the machinery of mutual relations between the two sisters could not operate effectively – after the tears the sisters did not talk about what preoccupied them, but they understood each other even though they were talking about other things. Kitty understood that she had deeply wounded her poor sister with those words she had uttered in a fit of pique…but that she was forgiven. For her part, Dolly understood all that she had wanted to know.”

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They destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions

The Yellow Wallpaper and other stories
by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman

This is an astounding collection. It is all the more remarkable when you remember that these stories were written in the 1890s and yet most of them feel like they’re set in the 1950s or even later.

The title story is the best known and probably also the best written in the collection. It’s certainly the most psychologically complex. A married couple rent an old house while their own home is being remodelled. The wife, who narrates the story, takes an instant dislike to the yellow wallpaper in the large room they use for a bedroom. Her health and mental state deteriorate, leading her physician husband to confine her to bed, which she is sure is exacerbating the problem.

“I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin. It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions. The colour is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.”

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The sound of the freezing of snow over the land

Snow Country
by Yasunari Kawabata
translated from Japanese by Edward G Seidensticker

This is a classic novel about a man who travels from Tokyo to a small hot spring town in the mountains in December. It’s a short book filled with beautiful descriptions of people, scenery and everyday life.

Shimamura’s thoughts and intentions are revealed slowly. The novel opens with him on the train, staring at the reflection in the window of an attractive woman sat near him. Kawabata goes into great detail of the way the reflected image changes in response to the changing light and scenery outside. It’s a mark of the story to follow, this attention to the specifics of small moments.

“It was a stern night landscape. The sound of the freezing of snow over the land seemed to roar deep into the earth. There was no moon. The stars, almost too many of them to be true, came forward so brightly that it was as if they were falling with the swiftness of the void. As the stars came nearer, the sky retreated deeper and deeper into the night colour. The layers of the Border Range, indistinguishable one from another, cast their heaviness at the skirt of the starry sky in a blackness grave and sombre enough to communicate their mass.”

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Time interacts with attention in funny ways

a tale for the time beingA Tale for the Time Being
by Ruth Ozeki

I bought this book because it had good reviews and is set in Tokyo – and what better way to prepare for a holiday? It’s a strange story, with unusual narrators and perspectives, and I really do feel that it gave me some insights into life in Tokyo.

The story opens with Naoko, a 16-year-old girl, who is sat in a Tokyo cafe directly addressing her reader. She says that she is a time being and that she plans to write for her reader the story of her 104-year-old great grandmother Jiko before she dies.

Nao is confrontational, sarcastic and has a very dark sense of humour. She texts stories to Jiko about dead prostitutes, which is especially odd because Jiko is a Buddhist nun, formerly a feminist anarchist novelist, now living in a temple in the mountains north of Tokyo.

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Recent reads in brief

Giant Days: Volume 4
written by John Allison, illustrated by Max Sarin

I love this series. Room-mates Susan, Daisy and Esther are still battling through their first year of university. This volume opens during the Easter holidays. Esther has decided to drop out, so Susan and Daisy travel to her hometown of Tackleford (the main setting of Allison’s ongoing web series Scary Go Round) to talk her out of it. Hijinks and bonding ensue.

This volume is preoccupied by romance: break-ups, the aftermath of break-ups, the hint of something new. There is a corresponding lack of the surreal weirdness that usually characterises Allison’s work, but the story and in particular the girls’ friendship are so sweet and wonderful that I love it just the same. It’s adorable and it makes me happy.

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Like a vision seen in a dream and scarce remembered

Castle Dor book coverCastle Dor
by Arthur Quiller-Couch and Daphne du Maurier

Well what a contrast to my previous read. After lingering for two weeks over The Evenings, I raced through Castle Dor in 24 hours. Was it a case of the right book at the right time, or is it just a cracking good read? It is Daphne, after all.

Except that it’s only sort-of Daphne. This book was started by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (better known to many by his pen name Q), who Daphne knew a little as her near-neighbour in Fowey, but he was much older than her, so it was his daughter Foy (named for their beloved home town) who became a close friend of Daphne’s. When Q died in 1944 he left behind one final unpublished work of fiction: the first half of a novel retelling the story of Tristan and Iseult, set in 19th-century Cornwall. Some 15 years later, his daughter Foy persuaded Daphne that she was the perfect person to finish the book.

Knowing that in advance, it is certainly possible to spot the signs that different hands start and end the novel. But it is skilfully done, with no obvious seam. (Apparently Q’s manuscript was left mid-chapter, even.) I can tell you that the opening chapters felt more flowery and more scholarly than any Daphne du Maurier book I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot of them now). And the closing chapters had a touch of the supernatural, even spiritualism, that felt very Daphne and certainly hadn’t been so prominent in the book. But the join between the two felt entirely gradual and invisible.

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I only wish that I could stir it up, fan the fires

The Evenings: a Winter’s Tale
by Gerard Reve
translated from Dutch by Sam Garrett

After the emotional onslaught that was A Little Life, a comedy first published in the 1940s seemed like the perfect next read. But perhaps this was exactly the wrong choice at that moment, because I did not enjoy this.

Set in Amsterdam in the last few weeks of the year (presumably 1947, when it was written) this is the story of Frits van Egters, a young office worker living with his parents, trying to stave off the boredom of the long winter evenings. He is irritable and melancholic, prone to dark, violent thoughts and fantasies.

Frits has plenty of friends to call on the time of, which is perhaps surprising considering how rudely he speaks to them, verging on bullying at times. But he is also something of an entertainer, talking a lot, telling tall tales, passing on gossip and encouraging others to do the same. He drinks, smokes, listens to music, goes to the cinema, but is always dissatisfied.

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The pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive

A Little Life
by Hanya Yanagihara

This book has consumed my life for a month. It is often sad, upsetting, shocking even, but I still wanted to dive back in as soon as I could whenever life dragged me away from it.

This is a big book, and it takes a while for its main themes to become apparent. Although I knew quite a bit before I started reading, I’m going to avoid spoilers here.

We open with four men in New York, good friends since college, now in their late 20s and trying to put their stamp on the world. Willem is an actor, making most of his money waiting tables at a high-end restaurant. JB is an artist, trying to find his subject. Malcolm is an architect, working long hours, dreaming of the day when he will have his own projects. And Jude is a lawyer at the public prosecutor’s office, not really making enough money to live in Manhattan.

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Nothing actually happens. We are not sinister people

seed joanna walshSeed
by Joanna Walsh

I’ve been thinking lately about different forms of storytelling, particularly in computer games, and this new digital book feels like a natural extension. It’s an app, beautifully designed by Charlotte Hicks with botanical illustrations stretching vines and tendrils across the screen between chapters. You can swipe from chapter to chapter and read the story consecutively, or you can close each chapter after reading it and explore the map, opening chapters in the order of your choice.

The story is narrated by a girl in her last summer before going away to university. She lives in a small British hamlet, working at the local cattery. It’s the 1980s, complete with references to the music of Queen and Paul Simon and other luminaries I grew up with. The narrator reflects on her school and home life, on her friends and their homes, on the landscape she lives in.

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Harsh as a cry of terror in their quietness

Invisible Man
by Ralph Ellison

I have been meaning to read this for years, and especially so since I added it to two of my reading lists: Classics Club and the Luke Cake Reading List. I finally bought a copy after seeing the Gordon Parks photography project of the same name in Berlin last year (Parks and Ellison worked together on the project for LIFE magazine), which was a really moving experience.

The novel is also moving, but equally brutal and shocking. It opens and closes (aside from the slightly abstract, essayistic prologue and epilogue) with its most shocking scenes. The un-named narrator starts out as a successful scholar whose family can’t afford to send him to college. His one chance is to impress the local rotary club – i.e. powerful rich white men. At the club he finds himself in a group of black young men who are stripped to their underwear and forced to fight each other while blindfolded. Afterward they are made to scrabble on the floor for their pay. It’s upsetting, humiliating, dehumanising, and the outcome is that the narrator is given a scholarship to a black-only college. It seems that his life is set.

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