I’m off to a good reading start for 2024. Although I enjoyed some titles more than others (and was disappointed with some), I enjoyed digging into these diverse novels. Unless otherwise designated, publication dates were 2023. I’m eager to get to some 2024 releases!
COLD COMFORT FARM by Stella Gibbons (1932)
This novel was written about 90 years ago. It was recently given to me as a gift from a friend and I found it to be quite the entertaining, funny read that includes a cast of characters and a story that might have been written 180 years ago (i.e.,Hardy, Bronte). Flora Poste is orphaned at age 19 and chooses to live with relatives in a farm in Sussex. She finds herself wanting to bring order to the somewhat idiosyncratic routines and dysfunctional family relationships. Cold Comfort Farm claims to be a send-up of romantic cliches (madwoman in the attic, The eccentric characters: Aunt Adam Doom who constantly calls up an awful incident from the past, Amos Starkadder, a hellfire preacher, Seth, handsome and over-sexed, Meriam Beetle, a hired girl, Mr Myberurg (aka as Mr. Mybug, a writer determined to win over Flora) and not to mention four cows named Feckless, Aimless, Pointless and Graceless make for a wild romp in the countryside. And Stella Gibbons witty language sharp dialogue and vivid descriptions (“The sharp blue air of spring thundered silently on window-panes by her slow batrachian breath. Powerless waves of fury coursed over her inert body.” (p. 181) make Cold Comfort Farm, a wondrous engaging satire. .
A Google search of almost quotes from Cold Comfort farm provide a good taste of Stella Gibbons writing:
“I saw something nasty in the woodshed.”
“Like all really strong-minded women, on whom everybody flops, she adored being bossed about. It was so restful.”
“She liked Victorian novels. They wre the only kind of novel you could read while eating an apple.”
“Happiness can never hope to command so much interest as distress.”
“Women are all alike – aye fussin’ over their fal-tals and bedazin’ a man’s eyes, when all they really want is man’s blood and bis heart out of his body and his soul and his pride.”
FIRST TO LEAVE THE PARTY by Salah. Bachir
Salah Bachir is a Canadian philanthropist extraordinaire. He has organized a ‘wealth’ of fundraising galas (Gala Salah), lifetime achievement tributes and has dedicated himself as an enthusiastic gay activist. Salah Bachir has worked in the film world for more than four decades and has the luxury of being an avid art collector and style guru who confidently wears wild hats, scarves, brooches, pearls and diamonds that add to his uniqueness. His life and work experiences have afforded him the rich opportunity to become friend and companion to a banquet of celebrities. First to Leave the Party is a record of Bachir’s ‘life with ordinary people.. who happen to be famous.” One can marvel at the Table of Contents list of playwrights, movie stars, singers, comedians and like-minded philothranpic persons who he has hosted, dined with, corresponded with and befriended: Marlon Brando, Ella Fitzgerald, Norman Jewison, Stephen Sondheim, Edward Albee, Margaret Atwood, Andy Warhol (to name a few of the 60 who happen to be famous.) This was a very entertaining read with sparkling, stories from the kindest of men who lives and loves to the fullest. Wow! Wow! Wow!
HANMNET by Maggie O’Farrell (2020)
Hamnet was the name of William Shakespeare’s and Agnes/Anne Hatheway’s son who died at the age of eleven in 1596. The facts of his death have not officially been recorded, but the author speculates that his death was caused by the bubonic plague. Hamnet had an older sister named Susanna and a twin sister named Judith. His father (the name Shakespeare is not mentioned once in the novel) removes himself from the family and sets off to London to work on his plays. The novel is told in alternate narratives: 1)the meeting and marriage of Hamnet’s parents 2. the lead up and aftermath of the young boy’s death.
Because I’m going to see the play in London, I decided tore-read this wonderful novel that I so enjoyed when I first read it during the pandemic and, upon second reading, continue to sing its praises. I have several friends who consider this to be one of their very favourite novels in recent years. The writing is sublime. The story is fascinating. The setting (Stratford, England) and family and community characters of the 16th century are portrayed in vivid detail. The book packs an emotional wallop describing parents grieving over a lost child. I have a hard copy of this book, entitled Hamnet. I have a paperback version, entitled Hamnet and Judith. I have no hesitation in recommending this novel who wants to read an outstanding piece of historical fiction, a great story. + I am looking forward to the movie version, directed by Chloe Zhao and starring Paul Mescal and Jessie Buckley. (P.S. I did not enjoy the rather pedestrian theatre production of Hamnet which I recently say in London. Boring!)
HOW TO BUILD A BOAT by Elaine Feeney
A story about a troubled boy. A story about a troubled teacher who helps the troubled boy. An Irish writer. For me, these were intriguing ingredients to spend time with a novel. Thirteen year-old Jamie O’Neill, is on the autism spectrum obsessed with mathematics,he colour red and the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe. Even though his mother died when he was born, Jamie is grieving over her and has a dream of building a Perpetual Motion Machine which he feels will establish a connection to his mother, a dedicated swimmer. When Jamie arrives at his new school he is bullied and finds himself somewhat challenged by school expectations and curriculum. Two teachers are eager to work alongside Jamie to help him through his journey of adolescents and his dedication to assembling gthe boat (i.e. a currach). Both teachers have troubles of thair own. Tess Mahon, who has has experienced trouble getting married has a troubled marriage and Tadhag, the woodworking teacher, is a rather lonely individual who years to experience love. If truth be told, I was hoping to enjoy this book more than I did I found my interest floundering from time to time (e.g. the detailed putting together of the boat takes up space mid-novel) but I stuck with it, however, and was rather engaged when Elaine Feeney dug into the feelings of the characters. This book was on the longlist for The Booker Prize, 2023.
THE HEAVEN AND EARTH GROCERY STORE by James McBride
James McBride (The Color of Water; Deacon King Kong, The Good Lord Bird (National Book Award), is a mighty fine writer. When I read that his newest novel was chosen as Barnes and Noble’s book of the year, I was intrigued. The book takes place in the 1920’s and 30’s in Pottstown Pennsylvania, a dilapidated neighbourhood of Chicken Hill where immigrant Jews and African Americans live side by side comfortably, since all those citizens have ambitions, sorrows and hopes. The Heaven and Earth Grocery store, owned by Moshe and Chona Ludlow, is at the centre of the community happily serving all Chona is the kindest priority admired by all. Moshe, a Romanian immigrant runs the town’s integrated dance hall, hiring popular musicians to entertain customers. The novel starts off with the discovery in 1972 of a human skeleton, but (spoiler) we don’t really know the secret of the body until the final pages of the book. Those expecting a murder mystery thriller will be disappointed. In fact, readers who expect linear narratives to keep them going may be disappointed. McBride paints remarkable detailed portraits of characters who encounter bigotry and deceit. The novel becomes centred on the story of a deaf black child, named Dodo, who the state claims needs to be institutionalized. Chona and her neighbours bond together to keep the boy safe. The novel is presented in 29 chapters + Epilogue, each with a title that serves to unpack descriptions of characters and events (e.g., ”The Stranger’; ‘Monkey Pants’; ‘Bernice’s Bible’. Each of these chapters could be considered a short story, which together form a mosaic of a time, a place and a people. Throughout the book, there are passages that are written with vivid description and yes, humour. Winner of the Kirkus Prize for fiction, 2023. The book (deservedly) has received raves (“Heart-healing” “Wondrous” “Vibrant” “Stunning” and is considered one of Barack Obama’s favourite books of 2023. Just sayin’. I liked this book a lot and would be pleased to hear about any awards that come its way. .
THE LITTLE BIG THINGS by Henry Fraser / Memoir (2017)
At 17 years of age, Henry Fraser had a tragic accident diving into the sea which severely crushed his spinal cord. This memoir chronicles Fraser’s journey of recuperation and conquering unimaginable difficulties to embrace a new life and new way of living being paralysed from the shoulders down. Readers are taken inside Henry’s head as he struggles with medical procedures and physiotherapy. Most of all, it is a story of perseverance and hope and staying positive. One chapter, entitled “Accept and Adapt” serves as a mantra for making progress through dark times. There is no doubt that it was the devotion of family and friends that guided Henry Fraser to acceptance and believing that the little things are big things. Henry Fraser has become a motivational speaker and mouth artist d by author J.K. Rowling who has championed Henry as “living proof that acceptance and aspiration are not mutually exclusive” (p. 3). I read this book in preparation to see the musical in London which was an inspirational, mvoing, production of an inspirational life.
PACIFIC OVERTURES by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman (script) /1976/1986
Set in 19th century Japan, Pacific Overtures tells the story of the country’s westernization starting in 1853, when American ships forcibly opened it to the rest of the world. The story is told from the point of view of the Japanese. The genius behind this musical is Stephen Sondheim. The songs ‘Please Hello’, ‘Bowler Ha’t are oh so brilliant. ‘Someone in a Tree’ capturing an elderly man’s memory of his younger self cleverly depicts how historical moments are perceived and interpreted over time. Sondheim’s work is always sophisticated so it was worth reading the script to dig into the intricacies and intellect of his songs. I first saw this musical in 1976 and was lucky enough to see another production at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London. I loved it. (I wept three times).
from Someone in a Tree
It’s the pebble, not the stream.
It’s the ripple, not the sea,
That is happening.
Not the building but the beam,
Not the garden but the stone
Only cups of tea
And Someone in a tree.
SMALL PLEASURES (edited by The School of Life publishers) (2016)
This is a collection of 52 small pleasures of every day life, Each mini essay is accompanied by a photograph that invite readers to pay attention to the things that give joy and wonder and “to move the small pleasures from the margins closer to the centre of our collective consciousness and our lives.” Some examples include: “Sunbathing’; ‘A Night Alone in a Hotel’; ‘Staring out of the Window’; ‘A Hot Bath’; ‘Cypress Trees’ (yes!); and A Book That Understands You’. The book reminds me of the special picture book by award-winning author illustrator, Sophie Blackall entitled Things to Look Forward To: 52 small Joys for Today and Everyday, a book I gifted to a dozen friends last year.
STRANGERS by Taichi Yamada (1987/ English Translation by Wayne P. Lammers / (2003)
If I read a book, I often like to see a movie version whenever it is released. Though I’m not too fond of it, I occasionally read a book on which a movie is based after seeing the film. The movie All of Us Strangers was one of the first films I’ve seen in 2024 and it knocked me out. The performances were dynamo (Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Claire Foy, Jamie Bell) and the meeting with the parents’ ghosts and the gay themed-love story was quite moving. The movie, written and directed by Andrew Haigh was based on the Japanese book, Strangers. The novel is centred on a divorced, rather lonely TV scriptwriter named Horada who works in a building that is mostly empty at nights. A visit to a theatre in an area of Tokyo where Harada grew up leads him to follow a man who looks exactly like his father. Horada is thrust into a reality where he has meetings at his childhood home with his mother and father who appear at the exact age they had been when they died. Horada (and readers) are caught in the strange reality of talking to ghosts. Yamada evokes sympathy for this character, who has amorous adventures with a woman whom he meets in his building. The physical deterioration and mental health of Horada makes for an haunting story which ultimately (like the film) is about grief and isolation and a longing for things we have lost and are unable to have again. At 201 pages Strangers was a rather eerie, but intriguing, story. I think I will go see the brilliant, poignant movie again.
WATER by John Boyne
A new John Boyne title always makes me happy. This Irish author, whose work is the most translated author of all time is a very favourite of mine. His novels have given me much reading pleasure in recent years=. A great storyteller indeed (e.g.,The Absolutist, The Hearts Invisible Furies, A Ladder to the Sky; All the Broken Places). Water is John Boyne’s newest publication and what is especially exciting is that this title is the first release in the four-part series, “The Elements” (Water, Earth, Fire, Air). This book tells the story of Vanessa Carvin who escapes Dublin to live on a small island. Hoping to escape from her past she changes her name to Willow Hale. We learn that her ex-husband had been involved in a scandal and Vanessa questions whether she was complicit in his crimes (pedophilia). Willow Hale is grieving soul and now living a rather hermetic life on the island, hoping to come to terms with guilt, truth and hopefully peace. Once again, John Boyne stirs up the heart. I eagerly await the three other novellas to be released over the next year.
THE LITTLE LIAR by Mitch Albom
Eleven-year-old Nico Krispis becomes ‘the little liar’ when a German officer offers him a chance to persuade Jewish residents living in Salonika Greece to board the train heading north where jobs and safety await. This is a cruel ruse, of course, but Nico’s innocence leads him to reassure passengers on the railroad platforms who, we know will be lead to a horrific doom in Auschwitz. The novel unfolds by interweaving stories of Nico, who becomes a pathological liar in order to survive; Sebastian, an older brother who seeks revenge for what he believes was Nico’s fault for herding his family to the boxcar, Fannie a girl who is forced to choose between Nico and Sebastian and Udo Graf, the demonic Nazi officer who was responsible for destroying the lives of thousands. The narrative takes us from the round-up of Greek Jews, to the concentration camps and the years beyond where Nico, Sebastian, Fannie and Udo are haunted by horrors of the Holocaust. The book held my attention from the very beginning to the gripping climax and conclusion. Brilliantly, Mitch Albom narrates the story by the voice of Truth itself. Mitch Albom (Tuesdays with Morrie, The Five People You Meet in Heaven) is a great storyteller. For me, The Little Liar is the best of his popular titles.
There are many fine examples of historical fiction set in the Holocaust. The recent release of The Postcard by Anne Berest is an important contribution to the genre, not to mention some fine examples of children’s literature that help to bring insights into the Holocaust (Note: Books by Kathy Kacer + see Dr. Larry Recommends posting, ‘The Holocaust: True Stories 2023/04/05) The Little Liar is one of the first novels I read in 2024 and I know it will be at the top of my list of favourites by year’s end. It’s a fantastic book! Do yourself a favour and read it.
Excerpt (p. 7)
“You can trust the story you are about to hear. You can trust it because I’m telling it to you, and I am the only thing in this world you can trust… But I am the shadow you cannot outrun, the mirror that holds your reflecgion. You may duck my gaze for all your days on eararth, but let me assure you, I get the last look.
I am Truth.
And this is the story of a boy who tried to break me.”