Tuesday Teaser: Silences, or A Woman’s Life.

I love the cover! ūüíĖ

Ten years of partial paralysis had subjected her to a pitiless apprenticeship of immobility, but they had taught her as well the art of movement. None of her gestures was haphazard. She was aware of the slightest blink of her eyelids, of the smallest arc her good arm described. It was a feat to drink a cup of tea without spilling a drop. To follow an entire conversation and respond to every question demanded of her a concentration that only her infinite pride could disguise as easygoing urbanity. Her liveliest moments were thus for her the most exhausting. But she let nothing show‚ÄĒat most a flush would redden her brow or a sigh escape her lips.

Marie Chaix, ‘Silences, or A Woman’s Life.’

Tuesday Teaser: Memories of London

I was seventeen years old when I made my first journey to London in 1909. I had never until then left my family, where I was as happy as one can be at that age of torment, with a mother and a sister who were ideally companionable. The three of us lived in a state of perpetual enthusiasm for everything that seemed beautiful to us, in whatever domain it might be. Debussy and Maeterlinck were our gods. That year, 1909, had brought us the dazzle of the Ballet Russes.

The Very Rich Hours of Adrienne Monnier.

Just started dipping into (& very much enjoying!) this delightful collection of essays by Adrienne Monnier, the lifelong companion and advisor to the legendary Sylvia Beach, founder of The Shakespeare and Co. bookshop in Paris. The bookshop was originally located across the street from Monnier’s Maison des Amis des Livres (literally translated as the ‘house of the friends of books’) on the Left Bank. ūüôā

The Door

szabo - the door

It’s only barely three weeks into the new year, and I think I may well have just encountered my book of the year.
Yes, this one.
Magda Szabo’s brilliant piece of storytelling – The Door.

In less than 200 pages, Szabo has managed to plunge me so deeply into the hearts and minds of her two main protagonists that upon finishing the book, I was left with such an overwhelming sense of heaviness and exhaustion, that it was as if I too, had just lived through what they did.

Although I suppose the fact that animals had featured largely in the story was one of the main reasons for the affinity, I know it was certainly much more than that too.

It’s a story that tells of the dynamics and the evolution in the relationship between the narrator, a writer by profession, and her stoic but fiercely loyal and selfless housekeeper, Emerence, over the course of some twenty over years.

Two wildly different individuals forming a complex yet intense bond, leading to eventual traumatic consequences.

The writer, being one who relies on the written word as a form of refuge, and uses them to construct as well as comprehend her reality:

I only know what I have to do on paper. In real life, I have difficulty finding the right words.

Emerence, who has no regards (and even a little contempt) for the written word, who believes that action speaks louder than words, and that true value can only come from solid physical labour.

Emerence was a generous person, open-handed and essentially good. She refused to believe in God but she honoured Him with her actions. She was capable of sacrifice. Things I had to attend to consciously she did instinctively. It made no difference that she wasn’t aware of it – her goodness was innate, mine was the result of upbringing.

It’s also a story that tells about how one’s affections can often fail to be conveyed and expressed in ways that can be understood or reciprocated by the other.

Of how often one’s best intentions and hopes can fail to translate well into the precise words and actions required to bring about the desired results and outcomes.

Of how easily love and affection, when clumsily executed by flawed individuals, can bring about the greatest hurt and damage imaginable.

Of how, despite one’s best efforts, one can still fail to honour one’s word and live up to the expectations from loyalties once pledged.

And of how then, does one live with the echoes of regrets reverberating long into the days, when all is said and done.

I know now, what I didn’t then, that affection can’t always be expressed in calm, orderly, articulate ways; and that one cannot prescribe the form it should take for anyone else.

I am reminded of another passage from Thornton Wilder:

Now he discovered that secret from which one never quite recovers, that even in the most perfect love one person loves less profoundly than the other. There may be two equally good, equally gifted, equally beautiful, but there may never be two that love one another equally well.

Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey

The ‘door’ inferred to in the title goes beyond just the physical front door that Emerence had kept closed to the outside world for most of her life. It also refers to the door to her heart, which she tries so hard to keep shut too, in order to protect herself from the hurt and suffering that comes from the pain of losing what she loved.

In her own words :

You should never love anyone, or any animal, that much.

This reminds me of a similar quote which I love, from C. S. Lewis’ The Four Loves, with regards to choosing or not, to put one’s heart on the line for anyone or anything.

Reading this ‘miracle of a book’, as a dear friend puts it, will hurt.
Especially if you have ever known what it is like to have loved and cared for an animal unconditionally.
Yes, I’ve told you animals play a large role in this story.

Don’t you see? You’re all I’ve got left. You, and my animals.

And that was how Szabo managed to find her way right into my very core, and tugged really hard.

My first Maigret

simenon - maigret1a

I have finally started on my first Inspector Maigret novel, after hearing and reading¬†all the good things about this¬†famous creation of Georges Simenon’s.¬†So far (at the halfway point, that is), I am happy to report that¬†it is living up to¬†expectations. ūüôā

Simenon has been described as the most economical of writers, following closely the advice given by Colette to “Be simple. Never try for literary effect. Leave out every word or syllable you can.”¬†¬†Although the writing is often economical and taut, it is however, not without its literary flair. The wonderful¬†feel¬†for places and people that Simenon has is one of the reasons for the Maigret novels’¬†appeal.¬†It is said that¬†Simenon‚Äôs empathy, and his insight into how people behave when they approach the breaking point, is what¬†lifts his work high above the common run of crime fiction.

I think I am rather inclined to agree with that, after coming across the excerpts below in the first half of Pietr the Latvian:

Inside every wrong-doer and crook there lives a human being. In addition, of course, there is¬†an opponent in the game, and it’s the player that the police are inclined to see. [….] Some crime or offense is committed. The match starts on the basis of more or less objective facts. It’s a problem of one or more unknowns that a rational mind tries to solve.
Maigret works like any other policeman. […] But what he sought, what he waited and watched out for, was the crack in the wall. In other words, the instant when the human being comes out from behind the opponent.


It’s a long way from Gare Saint-Lazare to Hotel de Ville, there’s a whole city centre to get through. Between six and seven in the evening, pedestrians flood the pavements in ocean waves, and traffic pulses along the streets like blood pumping down an artery. [….] He reached the ghetto of Paris, that’s to say, the area around Rue de Rosiers, in the Marais. He sidled past shop fronts with signs in Yiddish, kosher butchers and window displays of matzot. At one¬†corner, giving on to a passageway so dark and deep it looked like a tunnel, a woman tried to take him by the arm, but let go without his saying a word. Presumably he had made a strong impression on her.

Seeing that this is just the first¬†of all his¬†75 Maigret novels, one can certainly look forward to taking one’s time in getting better acquainted with the Inspector, I guess.

I¬†don’t think I could have made a better choice than to have started off with this, for this year’s Paris in July.

Oh, and if you are interested to¬†go on¬†a¬†trail of Maigret’s Paris one of these days, do check this out. ūüôā




The Rights of A Reader

rights of a reader 2b

You can’t make someone read. Just like you can’t make them fall in love, or dream.

This is Daniel Pennac’s passionate defense of reading for pleasure, and one in which I have decided to take refuge in right at the onset of this new reading year.¬† I find his reminder to readers of their rights to read anything, anywhere, at any time, as long as they are enjoying themselves, to be rather timely in helping me decide to stop reading Emma (in fact, I had already stopped a couple of weeks ago) and to put it back onto the shelves (without feeling guilty) until I find it calling again. My initial plans to read it in conjunction with its 200th anniversary seems to have hit a snag and instead of struggling to overcome it, I have opted to exercise my “right to not finish a book”. For now, at least. I certainly want to come back to it someday, just not now.

rights of a reader 1a

I got this copy from the recent book sales, but it was somehow misplaced and I didn’t even realize it was missing when I shared the photos of the book hauls in my previous year end¬† post until it re-surfaced again sometime last week. Just when I was debating on what to do with Emma. A bookish godsend, I guess. ūüôā

Happy New Year!

NY2015cHappy New Year, everyone!

The old has gone, and the new has come.¬† As usual, I didn’t managed to read quite as many books as I had wanted to, but bought a good deal more books than I had planned for, in the past year. And as always, I will still strive to do the reverse this year, with hopefully better results.

Nevertheless, I was thrilled to have made acquaintance with a few writers that were new to me in 2014.¬† It was a pleasure to have discovered the writings of William Maxwell, Primo Levi, Javier Marias and Patrick Modiano. I will definitely be looking out for more of these writers’ works in the days ahead. The anticipation alone is exciting enough in itself. ūüôā

The stack pictured above is the possible reading choices that I am likely to start the year off with. These are the ones that seem to be calling out to me at the moment. Am especially looking forward to the Ishiguro and the Nichols.

The Remains of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Down The Garden Path by Beverley Nichols.
A Little History of British Gardening by Jenny Uglow.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens.

What about the rest of you? Which would be the first book you reach out for to mark this new reading year?

Whichever your choice might be, I wish you all a happy reading year, filled with all the bookish goodness that one can possibly find! ūüôā

Have been trying to remedy my bout of flu with some good old fashioned murder mystery and mushroom soup. By the way, I just love the cover of this Agatha Christie. I must confess, I bought the book solely on the strength of its cover, really.


One thing leading to another…..

Can’t believe it’s already the end of September. And once again I’ve managed to post nothing till now. This is certainly not the path I wish¬†to see¬†this little blog¬†go down. I do miss¬†spending time¬†here,¬†as well as¬†time spent visiting all your lovely bookish blogs out there. It feels abit like I have just¬†spun myself out of orbit lately.

September¬†had actually started off on a rather promising note. I started going back to the gym consistently (3 or 4 times a week), and was¬†getting back into the audiobooks I had got going earlier. It felt good to¬†have finally¬†managed to get past¬†Hugo’s neverending extensive chapters describing the Battle of Waterloo and get on with the story of poor little Cossete instead,¬†in Les Miserables. I also enjoyed listening further¬†to how Mary Russell was getting on¬†at her first encounter with the enigmatic feminist Margery Childe in¬†A Montrous Regiment of Women. This is my first Mary Russell book and I think it won’t be the last.

Besides these, I¬†also found myself¬†getting rather caught up in¬†Barbara Vine’s¬†atmostpheric tale of murder and mystery with¬†an imposing¬†rural estate as its setting in A Fatal Inversion. William Gaminara’s reading¬†is just perfect¬†in this¬†telling¬†of the tale. Somehow, I am¬†reminded of Donna Tart’s The Secret History, which I happened to have just finished listening to recently. Maybe it’s¬†the tone or theme on youthful passions gone awry, and how¬†one carries on¬†living a life¬†of guilt and regrets that I find similar to The Secret History.

I am not a reader of crime novels usually, but somehow one thing seemed to have led to another, and as a result of having read¬†this post at Books to the Ceiling¬†a few weeks back, I found myself¬†browsing through the shelves at the Crime/ Thriller section¬†while I¬†was¬†at one of the local bookstores recently. A couple of the new¬†Penguin editions (with new translations) of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret series caught my eye and before long, I decided that I¬†wanted to¬†get better acquainted with Inspector Maigret and spend some time in the some of the seedier¬†parts of Paris¬†(and¬†her neighbouring countries,¬†as well). And so,¬†out of the¬†entire 75 Maigret novels¬†that Simenon had churned out, I¬†think I’m going to start with this one.

Don’t they all look great? Such stylish noir…. ¬†it does make crime look rather inviting, don’t you think?

“The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien was written in the autumn of 1930 and draws on Simenon‚Äôs experiences in Li√®ge years earlier, just before he moved to Paris. At that time, he had been involved with a literary set, comprised of poets and young artists. A member of the group, Joseph Jean Kleine, was found hanging from the doorway of the church of Saint-Pholien during this period, a tragedy that left its mark on Simenon.”

Besides the new Penguin Simenons, there was one other particular book cover that stood out and caught my attention.
Peter May’s Extraordinary People. Any book that has a¬†black and white shot of Paris on its cover will always get my attention.¬†It doesn’t hurt to also find that the book does actually have an interesting storyline to go along with, and its author is one whom I have read good things about.¬†Never mind that¬†those good things I’ve read about Peter May were mainly to do with his award-winning Lewis Trilogy, which strangely,¬†does not hold¬†much of an appeal¬†to me. Not as much as this does, anyway.

Peter May - Extraordinary Ppl


An old mystery
As midnight strikes, a man desperately seeking sanctuary flees into a church. The next day, his sudden disappearance will make him famous throughout France.

A new science
Forensic expert Enzo Macleod takes a wager to solve the seven most notorious French murders using modern technology – and a total disregard for the justice system.

A fresh trail
Deep in the catacombs below the city, he unearths dark clues deliberately set – and as he draws closer to the killer, discovers that he is to be the next victim.

So, is anyone else in the mood for some murder?



What One Finds in a Fireball Book Sale…..

BBW FS (all)

This picture does look rather familiar now, doesn’t it? The the story that follows is just as familiar, I’m afraid. Same old, same old …..
Yes, I have gone a book-hunting again, and came back with no small haul (as usual), I’m afraid. It was the lure of the Big Bad Wolf’s Fireball Book Sale, where every book has been given a further mark down in prices, following the mega year end sale they had back in December. Technically, these were supposed to be the ‘leftovers’ from the previous sale. But in reality, I found many more exciting stuff here that I had not even come across during the December sale. And to find all these at even lower prices…. well, it is just pure bliss! ūüôā

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I have¬†the first volume¬†of Virginia Woolf’s¬†collection of essays in The Common Reader sitting on the shelves for awhile now. So, getting the second volume to keep the first one company was just the natural thing to do, I guess. I also found a¬†biography of hers, Virginia Woolf: Bloomsbury & Beyond by Anthony Curtis and thought, why not? At any rate, it was a nice looking hardback, bountifully illustrated with sepia photographs.

As you can see, I also convenienty found her dear friend Vita Sackville-West’s volume of letters with her husband (Vita’s, that is) Harold Nicolson, as well as a volume of Nicolson’s diaries. I would not have thought of wanting to read his diaries or letters if it were not for those delightful excerpts that I had read on The Captive Reader’s blog sometime back. Getting these at only RM5 (less than a pound) each, makes¬†the find¬†all the more delightful!

France On Two Wheels by Adam Ruck “…. follows¬†the writer¬†through six intricately plotted Gallic cycling routes; from Lake Geneva to the Channel, the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, Vichy to Roanne, Paris to Provence, Roanne to the Atlantic, and Burgundy to Spain. Both a practical companion and a story of exploration and rediscovery, France on Two Wheels offers detailed descriptions of useful routes, stop-off points and watering-holes, along with detours into subjects as varied as wine, Flaubert, windmills, Wodehouse, belfries, battlefields and beer. It is vivid proof that the only way to experience the French countryside is on two wheels.”¬† Sounds good to me.

I also found another book to do with bikes and travelling (pictured in one of¬†the stacks below) Britain By Bike: A Two-Wheeled Odyssey Around Britain¬†by Jane Eastoe. That one is¬†based on a six-part BBC series, Britain by Bike providing all the authoritative information a biker needs, from interesting routes and unusual attractions to great lodgings.¬†Well, that should be quite enough biking now for someone who doesn’t even own a bike. :p

So having gotten off the bikes, I found myself a copy of Caroline Sanderson’s Rambling Fancy: In the Footsteps of Jane Austen. “Following in Jane Austen‚Äôs footsteps, Sanderson tramps the muddy fields around Austen‚Äôs childhood home in rural Hampshire, walks the elegant streets of Bath, and strolls along the breezy promenades of south coast resort. Drawing upon Jane Austen‚Äôs letters as well as her many novels Caroline Sanderson charts her own experiences of the very places from which Jane Austen sought inspiration, reaching some original and fascinating conclusions.”
Hmmm, I wonder what might those be.¬† Anyway, I also managed to¬†find a pretty Penguin English Library edition of Austen’s Mansfield Park and thought it’s high time I read more Austen.

I think it’s also high time that I get down to reading some Orhan Pamuk as well, and was glad to find a copy of his The Naive and Sentimental Novelist. In this fascinating set of essays, based on the talks he delivered at Harvard University as part of the distinguished Norton Lecture series, Pamuk presents a comprehensive and provocative theory of the novel and the experience of reading. Drawing on Friedrich Schiller‚Äôs famous distinction between ‚Äúna√Įve‚ÄĚ writers‚ÄĒthose who write spontaneously‚ÄĒand ‚Äúsentimental‚ÄĚ writers‚ÄĒthose who are reflective and aware‚ÄĒPamuk reveals two unique ways of processing and composing the written word. He takes us through his own literary journey and the beloved novels of his youth to describe the singular experience of reading. Unique, nuanced, and passionate, this book will be beloved by readers and writers alike.”

Another writer whom I’m really looking forward to reading more of, is Wilkie Collins. I¬†loved¬†his No Name and am halfway through listening to The Moonstone. Have yet to read his supposedly best work, The Woman in White (which incidentally, is said to be¬†the partial inspiration for Sarah Water’s Fingersmith, one of my all time favourite reading experiences). So I’m looking forward to read Peter Ackroyd’s¬†take on the man himself, Wilkie Collins.

Next are¬†two books on¬†reading. One is¬†the general history¬†of reading over the ages, while the other, John Tytell’s Reading New York, is a combination of memoir and historical criticism on a more personal note.

BBW FS (2)I have not read anything by Richard Yates before, and all I know of him is that he wrote the book behind the movie, Revolutionary Road. What got my attention here was the the title Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, the book from which some of the stories found in this collection, The Collected Stories of Richard Yates were taken from. I will see what I make of my acquaintance with Mr Yates and report back duly.

I have not heard of Nabokov’s The Luzhin Defense before, but this came in a beautiful Penguin hardback edition which has¬†the kind of fonts, paper texture and binding that I just¬†love, so it was definitely coming home with me. I was glad to know upon further examination that the story is actually about¬†“….. the strange yet oddly endearing chess-playing genius Luzhin. Discovering his prodigious gift in boyhood and rising to the rank of international Grandmaster, Luzhin develops a lyrical passion for chess that renders the real world a phantom. As he confronts the fiery, swift-swooping Italian Grandmaster, Turati, he brings into play his carefully devised defence. Making masterly play of metaphor and imagery, “The Luzhin Defense” is the book that, of his early works, Nabokov felt “contains and diffuses the greatest warmth”. Back in my school days, I used to play chess competitively and was President of the Chess Club. For me, it wasn’t just the game itself that I enjoy. It was also very much the opportunity for long talks and quality time that the game offers me to spend with a friend, or with someone whom I would like to get to know better and wouldn’t mind looking at (discreetly, of course) for a few good hours maybe. ūüėČ

I have read good things about Lucy Wood’s Diving Belles¬†and from the little samplings that I have taken from it so far, I’m already finding myself falling under its charm.

Colette Rossant’s Return to Paris: A Memoir with Recipes¬†looks to¬†be another charming read. “It is 1947 and Paris is recovering from the war. As soon as Colette’s family arrive from Cairo, her mother abandons her yet again. Terribly homesick, Colette finds solace in the kitchen with the cook Georgette, and discovers a love for French food – roasted lamb stuffed with garlic, springtime strawberries bathed in creme fraiche, the first taste of truffle. And it is through food that Colette finds happiness in Paris, skipping school to go to the farmers’ market in Port de Neuilly and dining in Michelin-starred restaurants with her new stepfather. Then at sixteen, she meets a dashing young American – and, despite all opposition from her family, never looks back…”

I found both Michael Holroyd’s¬†A Book of Secrets and Margaret Drabble’s The Pattern in The Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws and brought them home with me without realizing that both these writers were married to each other! It was only when I started reading Drabble’s introduction the next day, that I got to know it. Margaret Drabble weaves her own story into a history of games, in particular jigsaws, which have offered her and many others relief from melancholy and depression. Alongside curious facts and discoveries about jigsaw puzzles ‚ÄĒ did you know that the 1929 stock market crash was followed by a boom in puzzle sales? ‚ÄĒ Drabble introduces us to her beloved Auntie Phyl, and describes childhood visits to the house in Long Bennington on the Great North Road, their first trip to London together, the books they read, the jigsaws they completed. She offers penetrating sketches of her parents, her siblings, and her children; she shares her thoughts on the importance of childhood play, on art and writing, on aging and memory. And she does so with her customary intelligence, energy, and wit. This is a memoir like no other.

I think this one is going right to the top of the pile. I used to love doing jigsaws when I was younger and it’s been ages since I last did one. Drabble mentions in her book that The World’s Most Difficult Puzzle is a 340-piece jigsaw based on Jackson Pollock‚Äôs painting Convergence. Personally, the most challenging jigsaw that I have ever come across is one of those reverse perspective puzzles, in which the picture on the box is merely a clue for the puzzle you will be putting together. The image on the box depicts a cartoonish scene of surprise and tumult and the goal is to discover the source of the commotion by figuring out what the characters in the scene are seeing. I had gotten myself one of these in my enthusiasm back then but sadly, after a decade of more now, the pieces are still left sitting in the box, undone. I may yet again attempt it, someday.

I love the cover of Diana Athill’s Instead of a Letter: A Memoir. This classic memoir tells the story of Athill “…… as a young woman, was engaged to an air force pilot‚ÄĒInstead of a Letter tells how he broke off the engagement, married someone else, and, worst of all, died overseas before she could confront or forgive him. Evoking perfectly the picturesque country setting of her youth, this fearless and profoundly honest story of love and modern womanhood marks the beginning of Athill‚Äôs brilliant literary career.”

Being an Anglophile, I was happy to find A.N. Wilson’s The Elizabethans¬†and both Liza Picard’s Elizabeth’s London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London and Victorian London: The Tale of a City 1840-1870. These books help make history come alive in the lively and engaging way that they were written. Highly readable stuff. Oh, and I also found a lovely hardback copy of England’s Forgotten Past: The Unsung Heroes and Heroines, Valiant Kings, Great Battles and Other Generally Overlooked Episodes in Our Nation’s Glorious History. Seems like a fun one.

BBW FS (3)For a more contemporary take on Great Britain, I got Ian Jack’s The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain. “In this selection from¬†more than 20¬†years of reporting and writing, Ian Jack takes us to a place of which there are now only memories and ruins‚ÄĒthe Great Britain that gave us the Industrial Revolution, a nation that led the world in feats of engineering, a Britain of empire, a place of vital cities, each with their own unique identity, and a country whose residual presence can still be found in the strangest corners of the world.”

I also found two short biographies, one of the great American evangelist D.L Moody, the other is that of F. Scott Fitzgerald in a collection of personal essays and articles written before his fatal heart attack at the age of forty four.

For my dose of armchair gardening, I found Jamaica Kincaid’s My Favourite Plant: Writers and Gardeners on The Plants They Love, E. Buckner Hollingsworth’s garden classic, Flower Chronicles, and Mandy Kirkby’s The Language of Flowers: A Miscellany.

As for my dose of armchair travelling, I found a lovely looking hardback edition of Umbria by Patricia Clough. “When Patricia Clough bought a house in Umbria, she knew that buying her dream home did not mean that one‚Äôs life became a dream. By the end of this book she is sure that ‚Äúif one has basic requirements for being happy, then Umbria provides some of the best surroundings for happiness.‚ÄĚ

In Made In Italy: A Shopper’s Guide to Italy’s Best Artisanal Traditions, Laura Morelli revisits Italy‚Äôs best shops and craftsmen to provide a thorough shopper‚Äôs guide to Italy‚Äôs best local traditions.

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Judith Martin’s No Vulgar Hotel: The Desire and Pursuit of Venice is said by Donna Leon to be one of those books that one must read before coming to Venice.¬†This is the definitive book for managing an incurable passion for a decaying, water-logged village. Whether you already have a raging case of Venetophilia or are among the fifteen million people who yearly put themselves in danger of contracting it, here is where you get your fix of Venetian wit, history, practicality, and enchantment.”¬†I have not been to Venice yet, so maybe I should take up the advice.

Eric Newby’s On The Shores Of The Mediterranean.
As they travel around the sea at the center of Western history, Eric Newby and his wife Wanda visit not only the better-known Mediterranean sights and cities but also venture into places where Westerners are few: Albania under Hoxha, the holy Muslim city of Fez, and a country about to disappear in civil war – the former Yugoslavia. Eric Newby entertains and enlightens as he follows in the footsteps of Cleopatra and St John, and waits for a meeting with Colonel Gaddafi. With his customary flair for description, he is equally at easy pondering King David’s choice of Jerusalem as the site for a capital city or enjoying a meal cooked by one of France’s finest chefs. His acute curiosity and encyclopedic knowledge combine to make absorbing reading, whether he is explaining the workings of a defunct Turkish harem or the contemporary Mafia. From antiquity to the present, Eric Newby’s erudite, engaging tale is not a simple tour but a tour de force.

For the longest time, Miguel De Cervantes’ Don Quixote has always seemed like an intimidating giant to me. But flipping through this Edith Grossman translation of the Spanish masterpiece, I found it to be surprisingly engaging and very readable. It also helped that this Harper Perennial edition comes in the form of one of my favourite combinations for a book – French flaps with rough cut pages. The book, though close to a hefty thousand pages, feels so easy on the hand. So, this is all looking very promising indeed, for my getting acquainted with Mr Cervantes.

Though I have heard of John Mortimer before, I have never read any of his Rumpole stories. But coming across a copy of his Forever Rumpole: The Best of the Rumpole Stories at one of the tables, my interest was suddenly stirred and I found myself enjoying the writing more than I expected. So, what better place to start than with ‘the best of the Rumpole stories’ right?
While still a practicing barrister, Mortimer took up the pen, and the rest is literary history. His stories featuring the cigar-chomping, cheap-wine-tippling Rumpole and his wife, Hilda (aka “She Who Must Be Obeyed”), have justly earned their place in the pantheon of mystery fiction legends, becoming the basis for the very successful television series Rumpole of the Bailey. Bringing fourteen of Rumpole’s most entertaining adventures (seven of which were collected in The Best of Rumpole) together with a fragment of a new story, Forever Rumpole proves beyond a reasonable doubt that Rumpole is never less than delightful.”

You would have probably noticed Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, sitting on my sidebar for quite some time now. What I had previously was just a copy of the e-book. Finding the physical edition of the book at the sale for only RM8 (slightly less than ¬£1.5) was really quite the catch of the day for me! It is a highly readable biography of the artist’s life and works, generously illustrated with his paintings throughout. I am quite determined to finish reading this 900+ pages door stopper of a book, even if it’s gonna take me forever.

Well, back to the British and their eccentrics. David Mckie’s Bright Particular Stars: A Gallery of Glorious British Eccentrics ….. examines the impact of 26 remarkable British eccentrics on¬†26 unremarkable British locations. From Broadway in the Cotswolds, where the Victorian bibliomaniac Sir Thomas Phillipps nurtured dreams of possessing every book in the world, to Kilwinning in Scotland, where in 1839 the Earl of Eglinton mounted a tournament that was Renaissance in its extravagance and disastrous in its execution, McKie leads us to places transformed, inspired, and sometimes scandalized by the obsessional endeavors of visionary mavericks. [….] But together their fascinating stories illuminate some of the most secret and most extraordinary byways of¬†British¬†history.”

Maybe reading Sir Thomas Phillipps’ story would help put my book buying habits (and yours too, perhaps?) in their proper perspective. ūüôā

Johnson’s Life of London: The People who Made the City that Made the World by Boris Johnson promises to be quite another interesting one too. “Boris narrates the story of his city as a kind of relay race of outsized characters, beginning with the days when “a bunch of pushy Italians” created Londinium. He passes the torch on down through a procession of the famous and infamous, the brilliant and the bizarre – from Hadrian to Shakespeare to Florence Nightingale to the Rolling Stones- illuminating with unforgettable clarity each figure and the era he or she inhabited. He also pauses to shine a light on places and developments that have contributed to the city’s incomparable vibrancy, from the flush toilet to the King James Bible. As wildly entertaining as it is informative, this is an irresistible account of the city and people that in large part shaped the world we know.

CAM00326aEnough of the British for now. Let’s move over to Paris for a change in scenery, shall we?

Ross King’s The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave The World Impressionism.
While the Civil War raged in America, another revolution took shape across the Atlantic, in the studios of Paris: The artists who would make Impressionism the most popular art form in history were showing their first paintings amidst scorn and derision from the French artistic establishment. Indeed, no artistic movement has ever been quite so controversial. The drama of its birth, played out on canvas and against the backdrop of the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune, would at times resemble a battlefield; and as Ross King reveals, it would reorder both history and culture, and resonate around the world.

I have always been interested in the lives of the Impressionists, ever since being introduced to the BBC mini series, The Impressionists, by a dear friend back in 2006. I have a copy of Sue Roe’s The Private Lives of The Impressionists which I am looking forward to reading too. I think that will tie up quite well with the reading of the Ross King one.

Paris: Capital of the World by Patrice Higonnet.
In an original and evocative journey through modern Paris from the mid-eighteenth century to World War II, Patrice Higonnet offers a delightful cultural portrait of a multifaceted, continually changing city. In examining the myths and countermyths of Paris that have been created and re-created over time, Higonnet reveals a magical urban alchemy in which each era absorbs the myths and perceptions of Paris past, adapts them to the cultural imperatives of its own time, and feeds them back into the city, creating a new environment. […] Insightful, informative, and gracefully written, Paris illuminates the intersection of collective and individual imaginations in a perpetually shifting urban dynamic. In describing his Paris of the real and of the imagination, Higonnet sheds brilliant new light on this endlessly intriguing city.

Yes, I do find Paris to be endlessly intriguing, and certainly don’t think there can be too many books on it. Do you?

And for something completely different from all the rest, I had picked Oliver Sacks’s A Leg To Stand On for a very personal reason.
Dr. Oliver Sacks’s books Awakenings, An Anthropologist on Mars and the bestselling The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat have been acclaimed for their extraordinary compassion in the treatment of patients affected with profound disorders.

In A Leg to Stand On, it is Sacks himself who is the patient: an encounter with a bull on a desolate mountain in Norway has left him with a severely damaged leg. But what should be a routine recuperation is actually the beginning of a strange medical journey when he finds that his leg uncannily no longer feels part of his body. Sacks’s brilliant description of his crisis and eventual recovery is not only an illuminating examination of the experience of patienthood and the inner nature of illness and health but also a fascinating exploration of the physical basis of identity.”

A very dear friend of mine, the same one whom I had mentioned was the one who introduced me to The Impressionists, had an accident a little over a year ago. Like Dr Sacks, her journey to recovery has been (and still is) a rather strange one. While it was a leg in Dr Sacks’s case, for her it was an arm that she finds herself being alienated from. And all these has taken a toll on her general state of mental well-being. I am hopeful that what Dr Sacks has to share in his journey would be helpful in shedding more light to understanding some of these anomalies my friend is experiencing, and be of an encouragement to her.

BBW FS (4)Lastly, a few lovely coffee table books on gardens and gardening. And I should really end this seemingly never-ending post, and start spending some time with all these lovelies instead!

Happy reading to you all, too! ūüėČ

To Serve or Not To Serve

i-will-not-serve service with a smile

I have just¬†been reading¬†simultaneously two books that¬†couldn’t have been further apart in terms of¬†the mood, tone, style of writing and subject matter. Thus, Eveline Mahyere’s dark and desperate I Will Not Serve somehow ended up being¬†just nicely balanced out with the sunlit, cheery writing of Wodehouse’s Service With A Smile. (And I just realised how ironic¬†it is¬†to see both the titles are put together.)

I have been on the lookout for a copy of the Mahyere ever since it was brought to my attention¬†following my reading of Antonia White’s Frost In May a couple of years back.¬†Maybe it was¬†because both books had used the¬†convent¬†as the¬†backdrop for¬†the stories¬†to be told, and that had somehow led me from one to the other. It was probably also because Antonia White happened to be the one who did the translation for this VMC edition. But while the¬†protagonist in White’s novel¬†takes us on a¬†coming-of-age¬†journey of growth and self discovery,¬†Mahyere’s portrayal of the rebellious and impetuous seventeen year old Sylvie Ceyvenole on the other hand, is one that leads us along in witnessing¬†her journey¬†towards self destruction¬†as a result of¬†her unrequited love for Julienne Blessner, her twenty five year old teacher¬†from¬†the convent who is in preparation to becoming a nun.

The impact from the prose is made all the more poignant when one learns of the¬†fact that this being¬†Mahyere’s only novel,¬†is considered to be somewhat autobiographical and was written¬†just shortly before she took her own life at the age of thirty two. It is an intense piece of narration, taking on the forms of letters and diary entries in giving¬†us a glimpse of¬†just¬†how destructive¬†youthful passions¬†(or obsessions) can sometimes be.

“… You are perhaps 25, I am only 17, so you claim the right to put up a wall of respectability between us. But I am an outrage to respectability. […] I hope, too, that you don’t hate me for writing to you as I’m doing . In any case, I’d promised myself to tell you that I loved you as soon as I’d left the convent. But I’ve got to admit to myself that what I’ve just told you is bound to shock you; my imaginary blasphemies will doubtless do so far more than the reality of the ‘crime’. [….] There is something that you have never told me , something that I have been able to read in your look when, twenty times in a single lesson, our eyes used to meet over the little plaster statues. It is because of that look that I have left the convent, and the thought of leaving you there behind me is literally intolerable to me. If you do not come to me, I shall carry you off by force with a silken ladder. But you are going to write aren’t you, and say you prefer me to the little plaster St. Thereses?
I love you.

Julienne Blessner did not answer this letter.

A few excerpts from Sylvie’s diary.

“13th May.
When she left me, Julienne asked me , in a friendly voice, to telephone her. That was two days ago but I cannot bring myself to do it. Not that I have stopped loving her; I love her ruthlessly, hopelessly, desperately, but if it weren’t for the six bars of the slow movement, I should say I meant nothing whatever to her. If she had insulted me, I could have dreamed of fighting and conquering her one day. But she smiled at me as charmingly as possible, almost without seeing me, as if I had been Mother Marguerite-Marie.”

“7th July.
I cannot believe it and yet I know it is true. Through my own fault, because I didn’t dare make her step down from her pedestal, I have lost Julienne. I’ve driven her into this novitiate, I’ve dedicated her to the convent. Yet I have never loved her more. I keep repeating St. Augustine’s cry: ‘Oh, the madness of not knowing how to love men as men!’ and it acquires a meaning for me that the author of the Confessions certainly did not intend…. [….] I cannot imagine the days going on and on without her, and yet I know that it cannot be otherwise. Would my heart burn so fiercely if it were not devoured by the impossible? Where did I get this passion for the impossible that has always made me neglect the possible? Julienne has broken with me yet she could not have imprisoned me more completely. Now I am locked up in the absolute of this forbidden love. I shall never be cured of it. I am caught in a spell, bewitched. I want to die, to die of love, to exhaust all the oxygen in my lungs , to burn like a torch. She is everything to me. Never shall I be able to go on living without seeing her, without writing to her. I shall extinguish myself like the fire when one smothers it.”

I really love some of the many keen observations that Mahyere manages to so perceptively capture throughout her writing.

“What could a passer-by do – come to her aid, take her to the hospital? No charitable soul could have understood the absence of Julienne. People pity a man who falls from a scaffolding, a woman who loses her husband. Because they suffer? No, only because they have the official right to suffer.”

“There is no greater happiness than the anticipation of happiness. For then happiness and hope melt into one and sweep your heart away. Such suspense is at once blissful and dramatic. Even though one is not yet entitled to experience it, the joy is imagined so intensely that it submerges all reality.”

“Silence can sometimes be so heavy that it has all the weight of an accusation, an admission, an overwhelming piece of evidence.”

Perhaps one can have a better understanding of the driving force behind that which ultimately drove Sylvie to the extremes, looking at these closing lines to one of her letters to Julienne.

I love you.
(And, contrary to what you suggest, this love is not in the least murky but as bright and blinding as a great fire.)

It is truly a pity to know that Mahyere, like Sylvie, had ultimately chosen to be extinguished together with that fire.