Nausea, J-P Sartre
I read this during our week long philosophy course in June this year devoted to Being And Nothingness. I’d read it before of course and remembered it well; including that I had not liked it much. But I got more out of this second reading thanks to the course. It’s a grim read but beautifully written. And as clear an exposition of existentialism as you’re likely to get.

Roads To Freedom Trilogy – The Age Of Reason, J-P Sartre
I loved this when I first read and I loved it all over again. More engaging characters than Nausea but the same challenging ideas about freedom and personal responsibility. It’s all so very French!

Roads To Freedom Trilogy – Reprieve, J-P Sartre
This is really inventive story telling; mixing up people and places and actions. It makes you want to know more about this historical period before the commencement of the Second World War. The reader is thrown straight into a maelstrom of events and emotions. It’s all a jumble, directly reflecting the chaos and confusion that beset people at the time: ordinary citizens and political leaders. Would there be peace or would there be war? Amazing writing.

Roads To Freedom Trilogy – In The Soul, J-P Sartre
After the first two books you are keen to find out what happens to the characters. Here we go back to just a few of the people we met in The Age of Reason who are now described more fully and in some cases, more sympathetically. There is also a stunning section describing the lot of soldiers during wartime; the boredom, the fear and finally what it’s like in the midst of battle. A tour de force. Followed by what happens in captivity. Quite compelling.

The Trauma Cleaner, Sarah Krasnostein
An amazing story beautifully told. Alternating chapters tell the life story of the Trauma Cleaner; one of the first persons to undergo a sex change in Melbourne. Set in the familiar environs of Footscray, St Kilda, Fitzroy as well as further afield in WA. With descriptions of her job as a trauma cleaner; incredible stories of clients battling all sorts of issues but in particular illuminating about the psychology and circumstances of hoarders. The author manages to tell a really difficult story with clarity and sympathy; clearly setting out where she thinks there may be some in accuracies in what she is being told by her subject. Strongly recommended.

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Simone de Bouvoir
I’ve never read Simone’s memoirs. I quite liked it. Amazing how she recreates the emotions and viewpoint of a young girl. And interesting to see how upper middle class her family was (as was Sartre’s). Along the way you learn quite a lot about French society; class rigidity, family rigidity, the role of the church, the impact of the First World War, even how industries and job opportunities were allocated to different classes of people.

In The Driver’s Seat, Muriel Spark
Hated this! Shocking story. I’m giving Muriel up.

Cedar Valley, Holly Throsby
I really loved her first book, Goodwood, and this one had a similar feel being set in a country town that is lovingly described and very authentic. In both books there is a mystery that has to be solved. This one was quite interesting, and based on something that really happened in Adelaide some time ago; a strange death that took place in the main street before lots of onlookers. How could it possibly be murder? Trouble with this one was that the policeman in charge of the investigation is quite an unsympathetic character unlike in the earlier book. He has marital problems that all seem to be his fault and which somehow seem to be resolved at the end but without any explanation or self awareness on his part. Various other side stories are also left hanging.

Echo, Violet Trefusis
Violet is one of those formerly popular women writers who have fallen by the wayside. On the basis of this book she shouldn’t have. It was great. Its only very short and it takes a little while for you to work out her style which is elliptical to say the least. But eventually you are swept up in this tale of a French woman whose entrance into the enclosed world of wild and unruly siblings causes chaos all round. Her relationship with her husband is finely drawn via letters between the two of them. Her relationships with her Scottish cousins, red-haired and boisterous twins who hitherto have formed an impregnable joint fortress against the civilised world takes longer to emerge. It’s a battle between civilised society and the untamed wilderness! An incredibly powerful conclusion. All so neatly told.

West, Carys Davies
Set in early America this was a strange little book and for much of it I wasn’t sure where it was going. Very short. Beautiful writing, very evocative of time and place. A man goes on a mad journey hoping to discover gigantic beasts ‘out West. A fool’s errand. He leaves behind his young daughter in the care of his strait-laced sister and various folk in the small settlement in which they live who are intent on harm. Alternating chapters report his progress, meeting rough traders and eventually a native boy who becomes his companion. Tension gradually increases both in respect to the journey undertaken and developments at home before being a glorious conclusion brings things together. The ending made the book. Which is very rare in fiction. I loved it.

The Accident On The A35, Graeme Macrae Burnet
This author was channelling Georges Simenon and it’s very beautifully done. The whole tone and the events described really bring to mind an typical Simenon novel. Set in France, an upstanding community member is killed in a car accident – on the A35. But is it an accident? His louche teenage son investigates. As do the police. There’s lots of following people around and hanging about in bars. A mysterious young woman. A too young, and not especially grieving widow. It all comes together in the end and is quite satisfying.

A life Of My Own, Claire Tomalin
I was disappointed with this because I have loved her biographies; especially the Pepys. She skims along the surface of what is really an interesting life. But stays firmly away from deep consideration of what drove her to do the things she has done and what she has learned along the way. She stays firmly away from any introspection which is a shame. By the end it seems to be just a litany of famous people she has known.

The Prime of Life, Simone de Beauvoir
I found this fascinating because I am interested in Simone and Sartre. I found the description of life in Paris, the bars, parties, living arrangements etc really interesting. And of course their meeting and the blossoming of their relationship although she is quite discreet about the details of that! Its interesting about what it takes to become a successful novelist. You have to have an incredible belief in yourself and keep at it. So I found it enjoyable. Although it is very detailed. At times it was difficult to follow when she talks about particular people who she obviously expects us to know; novelists, politicians, intellectuals etc who you don’t know and I couldn’t be bothered looking up many of them. As well as when she talks about different controversies. Again I couldn’t be bothered looking most of them up. Probably just for afficiandos!

Silent Death, Volker Kutscher
This is a pot boiler from the author of Babylon Berlin. Slight but fun. Set in pre-war Berlin, there are glancing references to the growing tension between communists and fascists but not much. There’s certainly intimations that the centre will not hold! There are a series of murders; of actresses. We are in the early period of the move from silent movies to the talkies and there is some interesting information about what that meant for the German, and probably the European, film industry. The reader knows who’s doing it before our hapless Inspector Gereon Rath who continues to be a lone ranger in the police force and therefore in trouble with the hierarchy for much of the time. But it’s nice to see his relationship with Charlotte Ritter back on track. The books are nowhere near as complex and engaging as the television series.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Schaffer & Annie Barrows
I read this years ago and could not remember a thing about it. So when Eleanor read it, I decided a re-read was in order. Even as I was reading, nothing came back to me! Still it’s a lovely story. All told by way of letters to and from different people. About an aspect of the Second World War that is not widely known, the impact of the German occupation of the British Guernsey Islands. Nicely drawn idiosyncratic characters and an engaging heroine.

The Rebecca Notebook And Other Memories, Daphne du Maurier
I found this book at the school fete I think. It was memorable because it contains the notes Daphne made for her most famous novel. She was thirty when she started the notes and living in Alexandria! She wanted to write a novel set in Cornwall. As she puts it; A beautiful home…a first wife…jealousy…a wreck, perhaps at sea, near to the house … But something terrible would have to happen, I did not know what It’s fascinating to see how closely she stuck to this original outline, although as she notes, she changed the ending. She also changed the names; Maxim was going to be Henry!!! Asked why she didn’t give the heroine a name she said she couldn’t think of one to start with, and once she was writing it, she decided she didn’t need to. So much more powerful without. It’s incredible to think that she mapped out the story in such detail before she came to write it which she did when she and her husband were back in England. She thinks it took her three or four months to write. In the writing she made Mrs Danvers more sinister, she’s not sure why. She refers to the popularity of Rebecca but says she can’t quite understand it. She also tells the history of the notes. After the film was made a plagiarism case was brought against her in America and she had to give evidence which included the notes. After the case, which was dismissed, she gave the notes to her publisher Ellen Doubleday as a memento. When Ellen died her daughter returned them to Daphne who hadn’t seen them for 30 years. What a story. The other memories are not so memorable. There’s a nice piece about her father who was a famous actor in his day and about whom she has written a biography called Gerald. There’s also a piece about the house on which Manderley was based, Menabilly. As well as a couple of other pieces that have not aged well. She rails a bit about the changing role of women. She was in her 70s when this was published.

Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
Having read the notes I couldn’t resist re-reading the real thing. It is just terrific. So evocative; from the famous opening line; Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. The hideous rich American; the horror of life as a lady’s companion. Being swept off her feet by the tall, dark and handsome stranger. Then the description of the grand house, which Daphne tells us in the Notes was the catalyst for the whole story. She based it on a real house that she eventually owned. Then the almost immediate tension that continues to build and build. Culminating in the fantastic scene where Mrs Danvers almost convinces our nameless heroine to jump out the second floor window and end it all. You feel almost at one with the victim, thinking she might as well do it. You want to beat Maxim about the head for not noticing anything and not coming to her aid. At the start I was a bit cross with her as well, but as I continued my sympathy was won all over again. My copy comes from my mother who was given it by her sister Monica for Christmas in 1949. Already at that stage it had been reprinted 33 times since it was published in 1936. If in need of a stimulating read, I thoroughly recommend this wonderful, ageless story.

Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead, Olga Tokarczuk
This is the book on which one of my favourite films from MIFF2017 was based, Spoor. The author also wrote the screenplay. I really think the name of the book is much better. It comes from William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell; In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy. Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead. I think having seen the film may have contributed to my enjoyment of the book; particularly in imagining the harsh and wild landscape in which it is set. We are on a plateau between wild woods on the one side and a mountain range on the other. On the harsh and unforgiving Polish side of the border with what she imagines to be the more warm-hearted Czecks. I loved the heroine; she who hates her first name (Janina) and who is always correcting the pronunciation of her second, Duszejko. She is a woman in her sixties living an independent life, protective of the wildlife that surrounds her which puts her at odds with the hunting shooting culture of the locals. She gives her neighbours nicknames that describe their characters; Oddball and Bigfoot. The story opens with the death of Bigfoot and we move on to a number of mysterious deaths of members of the hunting club. Duszejko insists that is the animals taking revenge but the police ignore her. Who takes notice of a crazy old woman? she asks. Who even sees a crazy old woman? She is a part-time teacher at the local school, until her antagonism to hunting gets her sacked. She also cares for the homes of some residents who only come to the place in summer. She is helping a former student of hers translate William Blake and there is a quote at the head of each chapter. The story rollicks along and there is a very satisfactory ending. Which I keep saying is a rarity but lately I have been lucky with them!

The Friend, Sigrid Nunez
This novel is all about writing; the narrator is a teacher of writing and there are lots of references to the trials and tribulations of dealing with creative writing students. She tells the story of a former writing teacher of hers with whom she has shared an intense, platonic relationship for many years. The novel opens with news of his suicide. Our narrator recalls her friend, their conversations and tries to come to terms with his death. She then discovers that he has asked that she look after his Great Dane and the book moves on to a description of her relationship with this dog, named Apollo and the difficulties she has housing him in her small apartment in which dogs are banned and her evolving relationship with him. It’s all very nicely done. Throughout there are long meanderings about the nature of fiction writing and the whole literary industry if you could call it that. I enjoyed it a lot.

 

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