IWD: Awesome Female Writers

First of all, Happy International Women’s Day! Today is a great excuse to both look down at every step we have taken, and to look up and to look up and remember there’s still a long way to go to achieve justice, for women all over the world.

At high school and even at uni I was always amazed at how quickly some teachers dismissed the questions about why there weren’t enough women in the syllabus: “It’s not my choosing, there are actually not many women writers worth studying in this period”. While I am not at all for including any women writers just to make it half and half, I do believe we have not completely gotten over the myth of the literary canon.

Nowadays we think twice before assuming that books become “classics” just because of their literary value. Perhaps we know now that being a “classic” is a matter of politics and money and many other things we would never directly associate with literature… and yet we are so quick to assume that the writers we know and revere, Nobel prize winners and celebrities, go down in history thanks only to their talent as writers.

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Even when we have various famous examples of how the literary industry is hostile to women—J.K. Rowling didn’t publish under her actual name; Jane Austen and the Brontë Sisters published anonymously or under a male name; George Eliot, anybody?; Taylor Swift is still a hate target just because she writes lyrics about her own experiences; etc.—, I think we have not yet understood completely what Virginia Woolf meant when she said, “for most of history, Anonymous has been a woman”.

The further we look back in time, the more adventurous and courageous women had to be in order to get their writing published. Now it pains me to think of how many wonderful writers we will never have the pleasure to read just because they lived in a world that did not care for what they had to say.

Some voices, however, we do get to enjoy while we hope that, in the future, a woman doesn’t have to fight or be fierce or a prodigy to get the treatment she deserves as a human, and to be judged by her talent and not her gender. Without further ado then, I present you with 7 female writers that I love and that I think should be read by more people.  

Clarice Lispector

Some books remind us of things we feel but thought we couldn’t possibly put into words. Lispector’s prose is like diving into a kind of existence that precedes thought: it’s all emotion and mysticism. Both her novels and short stories take digs at the foundations of language and uncover the unsettling ferocity of existence, specifically of female existence. I recommend The Stream of Life for a start, and then The Passion According to G.H.

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Mariana Enriquez

Enriquez is one of the freshest voices in Latin American literature, and she’s sure to make you uncomfortable and even give you a few nightmares. She combines fantastic literature with contemporary concerns (mainly taken from the Argentinian political context) and creates deeply unsettling short stories. I specially recommend the collection Things We Lost in the Fire.

Anne Carson

Anne Carson is perhaps my favourite living poet. Instead of trying to explain why, I’ll just quote a fragment from Glass, Irony, and God:

“You remember too much,
my mother said to me recently.
Why hold onto all that? And I said,
Where can I put it down?”

Do yourself a favor and read The Glass Essay. Please.

 

Shirley Jackson

Jackson is again in the spotlight thanks to the Netflix adaptation of her novel The Haunting of Hill House (they’re completely different). However, most of the talk about her is still centered around her person (was she really a witch?). Her short story “The Lottery” is already a classic, and it pretty much shows what she’s about: people are way scarier than ghosts. My favorite Jackson is We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

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Robin Hobb

Many years ago I read Assassin’s Apprentice and I remember thinking, woah, there might be good fantasy writing after Harry Potter. A couple of days ago a friend told me it is actually the first book in a trilogy and I can’t wait to read the other two. If I had to describe Assassin’s Apprentice I would say it’s a bit a like GoT but well written.

Janice Galloway

I read Galloway for a class and I had never heard of her before. Her book The Trick is to Keep Breathing is just amazing. It is both a social critique and the story of a young woman trying to survive​ pain and loss. It also extremely quotable, so even if its a pretty bleak novel, it is still a pleasure to read it.

Carmen Boullosa

Boullosa has written almost 20 novels and they are all about completely different things. There’s one about the US-Mexico war, one about Anna Karenina, one about a saint, one about her own childhood. She’s one of the most versatile Mexican writers today and definitely worth checking out.Antes (Before) is my favourite.

So here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them. May we read them.

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Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence

Graduate life is proving to be both scary and exhilarating. Just when I finally thought I’d have more time to write and blog, I find myself the busiest ever. It is one of those times when there are so many things I want to do, that I do not know where to even start. But I’m getting better at managing my time, which means I’ll blog more regularly. It also means I have found enough time to go over my past readings, revisit old novels and watch some of my favourite movies, which is why I’m writing about Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. I believe this is one of those cases in which the movie is just as delightful as the book. But I being no film critic, I’ll content myself with writing about the book.

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The 1920s were for American literature a time of renovation in many ways. It is hard for me to imagine the first decades of the twentieth century without thinking of Gatsby, Art Deco and WWI. Yet amidst the chaos, the glitter and chic haircuts, the rapid changes, there is also the curious, nostalgic figure of Edith Wharton.

Wharton was born in New York in 1862, to a wealthy family. She wrote more than 20 novels and many more short stories between 1899 and 1937, when she passed away. Thanks to her family’s immense library, Wharton was always an avid reader. She was also interested in architecture and interior design—an obsession her writing does reflect—and was an intimate friend of Henry James. Although Wharton entered the spotlight as a writer thanks to her novels Ethan Frome (1911) and The House of Mirth (1905), it was her 13th novel, The Age of Innocence, which won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1920.

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The novel follows the life of Newland Archer, a young man whose life in New York’s elite of the 1870s is seemingly perfect. He’s engaged to May Welland, who is not only one of the most popular and respected heiresses of his social circle, but the very image of innocence and purity. However Newland admires her, he can’t help but feel that there are so many things he can’t discuss with her, such as the new and strange artistic movements making their way from Europe to America, to which Newland feels drawn to and which he would like to explore.

Unlike his friends, Newland finds it amazing that there can be a life so different to his: la vie bohéme, the life of the cafés and the studios, of small apartments and sordid parties. Such acquaintance makes him question his social duties and his relationship with May. His doubts are aggravated by the arrival of May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska. Ellen has spent the last decades in Europe among artists and is now separated from her husband, a situation the New Yorkers find shocking. The way Ellen behaves, disregarding every social rule, represents everything Newland has always wanted, but has been too afraid to try.

In a way, Newland’s dilemma is the dilemma of his times. He is torn between the familiar, a neoclassical word full of beautiful shapes and light, and the unstoppable future, the innovations in art and architecture that can only precede a new conception of the world. While the world he knows is beautiful, he knows the price to pay for it is ignorance, a blissful ignorance every one of his acquaintances seems to get on with by calling it innocence.

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Drawing by Dante Ferretti

New York in the last decades of the XIX century, the city in which Wharton grew up, is recreated with detail, both in its buildings and streets, as in the hypocrisy of its society. The irony of such conventions is subtly exposed by Wharton through the descriptions of her character’s, specially the lack of communication between them:

 

“What could he and she really know of each other, since it was his duty, as a ‘decent’ fellow, to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal?”

The most wonderful thing about Wharton’s novel is how she exposes the crash  between the old and the new, the classical and the extravagant, mostly through the descriptions of spaces and clothes. Wharton displays a narrative skill that manages to incorporate every detail, every piece of furniture, every door, window or garden of the houses belonging to the upper classes of New York, in her critique of their outdated moral standards. Her descriptions are so precise and exact that they border on the baroque. The spaces in which the novel takes place are a crucial element of the novel, and their configuration through a prolific use of nouns and adverbs manages to establish a sense of saturation and oppression, which helps us understand Newland’s suffocation:

 

“The small bright lawn stretched away smoothly to the big bright sea. The turf was hemmed with an edge of carlet geranium and coleus, and cast-iron vases painted in chocolate color, standing at intervals along the winding path that led to the sea, looped their garlands of petunia and ivy geranium above the neatly raked gravel.” (Wharton, 129)

Newland’s doubts come from his belonging to a rigid social structure from which he can see no way out, which implies certain, strictly defined roles for women, for art, culture and civilization itself.

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Drawing by Dante Ferretti

Wharton also explores the cultural differences between America and Europe. In a time which proved crucial for all arts in the Old Continent, Wharton’s New York seems outdated and decadent. It is a New York isolated by social conventions in which the protagonist’s sufferings come from realising this, a realization which implies a loss of innocence, “that kind of innocence, the kind of innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!”

Much of the charm of The Age of Innocence comes from the use Wharton makes of language: a precise, abundant, a bit snobby yet delightful choice of words awaits in every page—Henry James used to say of Wharton’s personality that it was like a “brilliant hyperbole”—. The book is also a personal testimony, a nostalgic remembrance of a time that was long gone by the time Wharton wrote about it. By the 1920s a rapid wave of change and industrialization had erased the remains of the society in which Wharton grew up. The new century would prove to be, as Newland Archer suspected, thoroughly different.

Have you read any of Wharton’s works? If so, how did you like them?

I am currently reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck and I can honestly say I hadn’t enjoyed a novel this much in a while.


 
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8 Books to Get Into the Christmas Spirit

December is already here, which means it’s time to get cosy by the Christmas tree and grab a book. Christmas is definitely my favourite time of the year and it’s usually when I read the most; everything during this season seems to me inviting to stay inside and read: warm beverages, comfort food, blankets, cold weather, twinkle lights. So this year I chose for you some of the books that never fail to make me feel christmassy.

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8. The Trick is to Keep Breathing, Janice Galloway

“No matter how often I think I can’t stand it anymore, I always do. There is no alternative. I don’t fall, I don’t foam at the mouth, faint, collapse or die. It’s the same for all of us. You can’t get out of the inside of your own head. Something keeps you going. Something always does.”

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This is Galloway’s first novel, published in 1989. It tells the struggles of 27-year-old Joy Stone, a drama teacher who lives in Irvine, Scotland. This is a very bleak yet surprisingly hopeful book. After the death of her lover Michael, a married man, Joy struggles with her mental health and basically has a really rough time. Told with mastery in a stream-of-consciousness style, this book is both a social critique and the story of a young woman trying to find the trick for surviving pain and loss. Spoiler alert, the trick is to keep breathing.

7. The Silver Linings Playbook, Matthew Quick

“Life is not a PG feel-good movie. Real life often ends badly. Literature tries to document this reality, while showing us it is still possible for us to endure nobly.”

9781447291480_lYou’ve probably seen the movie (and if you haven’t, you should). Pat Peoples has moved back with his parents after some years at a psychiatric institution following the separation from his wife. The only thing in his mind is getting back together with her, but along the way he meets Tiffany, whose husband recently died. Now, Tiffany and Pat couldn’t be more opposite, but together they devise a plan to get Pat and his wife back together… through a dancing competition that is to take place at Christmas. This book is funny, heartbreaking and heartwarming, filled with unique, quirky and complex characters throughout.

 

6. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë

“If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger.”

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This one doesn’t even need an introduction. Ghosts, desolated moors, jinxed lovers, revenge and forgiveness—that’s the stuff of Christmas right there.

 

 

 

 

5. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Agatha Christie

“There is at Christmas time a great deal of hypocrisy, honourable hypocrisy, hypocrisy undertaken pour le bon motif, c’est entendu, but nevertheless hypocrisy!”

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Agatha Christie has a book for every season, situation and setting you can imagine. In this one, a millionaire named Simeon Lee invites his four stranged sons and their wives back home for Christmas. His intentions are, however, not christmassy at all— he just wants to tell them he’s cutting off their allowances. But before he can act, he’s murdered, and his four sons are the main suspects. Enter Hercule Poirot.

 

 

4. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

“Watch and pray, dear, never get tired of trying,
and never think it is impossible to conquer your fault.”

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Another classic that needs no introduction. Get ready to cry though.

 

 

 

 

 

3. The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman

“One moment several things are possible, the next moment only one happens, and the rest don’t exist. Except that other worlds have sprung into being, on which they did happen.”

A1gACmqyxSLThis book is just amazing. Everything Pullman has written is definitely good, but the first one of His Dark Materials trilogy is simply extraordinary. This book is set in Oxford, not our Oxford, but a similar one. Lyra Belacqua has grown up at Jordan College, being told her parents died when she was just a baby. But Lyra has seen someone trying to poison his only relative, her uncle Lord Asriel, and starts suspecting it has something to do with her. At the same time, children in Oxford have begun disappearing, including her best friend. Lyra’s curiosity and stubbornness take her on an adventure wilder than anything she could have imagined. From a boat ride with gypsies to the inhospitable regions of Svalvard, this book is simply otherworldly, both complex and engaging. One of my favourite books of all time, with lots of snow and polar bears.

 

2. The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden

“All my life,” she said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.”

61quFkzBe5L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_This is a recent discovery. Set in Northern Russia, where it is winter for most of the year, it tells the story of another stubborn girl (honestly, stubborn girls make the best characters), Vasya, who is soon to be married. But these are hard times for everybody in Russia: the political situation is unstable, the winter is specially cold and famine is on its way. And Vasya is the only one who seems to know what is happening. Something is changing, ancient spirits whisper things in the depths of the woods. The wonders and terrors of fairy tales come together during the religious revolution that began to swept the Russian wilderness in the 17th century. This is a delightful read.

 

1. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.”

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Dickens at his best. Young Pip lives with his sister and her husband, a blacksmith, before being adopted by a rich spinster, Miss Havisham, who has “great expectations” for him. This turn of fate will not only alter Pip’s future, but also reveal many things about his past. As it happens with most of Dickens’ novels, every detail in the narrative comes to play a major role at the end of Great Expectations. A wonderful novel about love, rejection, good fortune, loyalty and temptation.

Spooky Reads

“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
—Alfred Hitchcock

The days get gloomier and my load of work for uni gets heavier and heavier: time for some spooky reads. I have always enjoyed reading about ghosts, vampires, superstition, magic and curses. I think the supernatural and otherworldly has always been a strong subject in literature, coincidences and oddities have always fascinated writers, and the unexplicable is always a great presence in our lives. Perhaps that is why we read about ghosts and haunted mansions, or perhaps we just need a scare every now and then. Either way, there is no greater season for unsettling reads than fall.

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Illustration: Edward Gorey.

If we get technical, there is a difference between horror and terror. Terror is anticipating something dreadful, fearfully expecting that those slight knocks on your windowpane are not the skinny fingers of a ghost. Horror is going out to actually find a dead corpse knocking on your door; it is the shock of actually seeing something dreadful. I honestly side with Ann Radcliffe, a pioneer of the gothic novel and sickly heroines, when she said terror dwells on indetermination and therefore requires more from the reader. Gothic novels, for example, could be categorised at terror, and also the reads I am about to suggest… although I can’t guarantee that the monsters and creatures that creep in their pages won’t actually come out of under the bed. As always, read at your own risk.

The Monkey’s Paw“, W.W. Jacobs

First things first. I think this short story is one of the greatest examples of terror. Could write about what it is about, but it’s so short you should just read it right now. Let’s just say, be careful what you wish for.

 

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson

As it title lets out, this is about a haunted house. This house is supposed to have driven out its inhabitants for years and now, a scientific is determined to prove that it is not haunted by bringing a group of peculiar people who are likely to perceive anything that is amiss in the house— among them an artist, a clairvoyant, a reclusive young woman—. So is the house haunted? Strange things definitely happen, but the thing with Shirley Jackson’s writings is that you should always fear people more than you fear ghosts. Did I mention Jackson was also a witch?

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Illustration: Edward Gorey.

 

Night Shift, Stephen King

What do quitting smoking, cornfields, trucks and a laundry press have in common? Basically that, when passed through King’s imagination, they can turn out to be pretty damn scary. In the stories that compose this volume you’ll find a wide variety of subjects; from creepy children to killing machines. It is really scary at times, but also entertaining and unsettling in more than one way. From King I have also read The Shining, which scared me a lot, and Pet Sematary, which I coulnd’t even finish.

Collected Short Stories, M. R. James

When it comes to ghosts, there is no one better than M. R. James. These the old fashioned ghosts than have been shaping nightmares forever, and another perfect example of “anticipating the bang”. The settings for Jame’s stories are also phenomenal: old abbeys, boarding schools, deserted inns, foggy paths in the night. Definitely read this, start right here with Number 13.

The October Country, Ray Bradbury

This small book of short stories might be Bradbury at its best. Ghosts, circus entertainers and mummies lurk in the pages of these stories, that I would describe as creepy. What is wonderful of this book is the way that the strange and the grotesque mix with human emotions such as nostalgia and love.

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Illustration: Edward Gorey

Of course, one should never skip the classics: Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde deserve a space on any spooky shelf. If short stories are more your thing, then most of Edgar Allan Poe‘s tales will definitely creep you out, an the same goes for the weird stories of H.P. Lovecraft. Charles Dickens and E. T. A. Hoffman also wrote a considerable number of short stories that involve ghosts. There’s Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper and Daphne DuMaurier’s “Don’t Look Now”. Ans also the American Classics, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving and “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. There are also many very good anthologies, like Late Victorian Gothic Tales from Oxford University Press.

 

Happy reading…

and be careful 🎃

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Illustration: Edward Gorey.

 

P.S. Currently I am reading Joyce Carol Oates’ The Accursed, so I might be adding it to the list. Next for me is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. What are you reading? Anything you would include in this list?

Favourite Fall Reads

We all think of certain things when we think about fall. Golden, crispy leaves falling from trees, chilly nights, Halloween preparations, allspice and cinnamon, the end of the school year (finally). Most of what I associate with fall, however, comes from literature and movies. Where I am from, fall is stealthy and subtle: the rainy season comes to an end and the temperatures slowly get a bit lower each night. I first experienced an actual autumn five years ago in England. One day I looked out of my window into Asbury Close in Cambridge and saw that the pavement and the grass were almost fully covered in a coat of leaves, orange and brown, held tightly together by the morning mist. Fall is perhaps my favourite season since. In Mexico City I love it too, but in a different way. The heavy rains stop and there are clear skies by day; the nights are cold and windy, and there’s pan de muerto in every supermarket.

Most Western cultures’ celebrations during the fall are related to the equinnox, the Celtic Samhain and the christian All Hallow’s Eve —Día de Todos los Santos and Día de Muertos here, traditions coming from Spain and native Americans—. Most of these celebrations are somehow related with death and rebirth, with the links between the living and the dead, and with the harvest.

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The view from what I wish was my window. It is actually York Minster and, so they told me, you can’t live there.

It actually makes sense that we have come to associate this particular season with nostalgia: the autumn marks the end of the summer, of fruits and green leaves, and the transition to winter, what was before a season of rationing and scarcity —and really, if it wasn’t for Christmas, winters would suck—: it is the year getting old, but also getting ready to start again.

It would suffice to take a look at most literature about fall, specially poetry, to get the blues. When I think of fall I usually see myself in an English cottage, having a cup of coffee and reading a book with a blanket on my lap. There’s usually a fireplace nearby and a big alaskan malamute dozing off at my feet. Oh, and in most of these reveries I have a very thick Yorkshire accent, who knows. And really, apart from taking a stroll outside (if you’re lucky enough to live where the trees actually shed their leaves and the quality of the air is okay—no offense here, Mexico City), and having pumpkin lattes/cakes/pies/lipbalms/hand creams, getting nostalgic over a book under a cosy blanket is the best next thing. If you agree with these statements, you might like the books I’m about to suggest.

 

9780141199887Villette, Charlotte Brontë

By now it is a tradition for me to read some Charlotte Brontë during the fall. Villette is one of those books that don’t get the attention they deserve. I would go as far as to say it’s one of the best novels of the 19th century, along with Jane Eyre. Villette is the name of a small town in an unnamed country in Europe —possibly in Belgium— to which the young Lucy Snowe arrives one cold evening. Lucy, just like Jane Eyre, has nothing but an indomitable self reliance, intelligence and hope.

All her life, Lucy has been taking care of an old lady for a living and now she finds herself in a strange land, a teacher in a girl’s boarding school. Like any good 19th century novel, there’s love, mean old people, class-based obstacles and even ghosts. A blending of sadness, hope and rebellion from the perspective of one of the greatest characters in literature. This is also a somewhat nostalgic book. Similarly to Jane Eyre, Villette is the narrative of Lucy Snowe’s memories, tinted sometimes with regret and sadness. If I had to name a theme for this book, it would be courage. Think of reading about ancient châteaus where eerie occurrences take place, of lonely musings by moonlight and of turbulent nights spent on a boat during a storm. Tempting, isn’t it?

 

12948The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

This one is really a must. Get yourself a pot of coffee, some blankets and read this when you’re all by yourself. All you need to know about the plot is that there’s something wrong with the kids this governess has to take care of, but she doesn’t know what exactly it is. Might have something to do with the fact that she has never met their parents, or that they live in a secluded property in the middle of nowhere, or that the only people there apart form themselves seem to know something and act weird all the time, or that these kids are just creepy. Enough to drive anyone crazy; now add some ghost stories about the house. Is there something wrong with the kids? What was that noise? Did you just hear something rapping at your actual window while reading this book? Really, a must.

 

9780006479239The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury

Mars. A red planet with red soil and red skies— what is more suitable for fall? This book can be read as a novel or as a series of short stories. In both cases, it is about the colonization of Mars from different perspectives: that of the martians, of the spacemen, of the people who remain in Earth. Bradbury manages to introduce one of his favourites themes into space: nostalgia.

Why humans leave the Earth is not nearly as important as showing how they try to make Mars resemble it once they’re there. What would you take to a different planet, where everything from houses to feelings are different? Not always good things. As always, Bradbury manages to sneak some deep reflections on human nature into masterly crafted sci-fi.

 

never-let-me-goNever Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

This is one of my favourite reads of the year. It is also one of the most sadly beautiful novels I have ever read. Narrated from the perspective of Kathy, a girl created for the purpose of becoming a “donor”, along with many other children, for sick people. The setting of the book is an England where kids like Kathy are raised in boarding schools away from society, where they learn about their “mission” and how they’re different from other people. Kathy’s best friends there are Rachel and Tommy. Apart from the romantic triangle between them, Ishiguro manages to build through Kathy’s perspective a cast of very complex characters who, despite of being told repeatedly that they are not human, love and cling to life bravely and painfully.

Kathy herself is a very interesting character, her narrative mixing an honest recollection of the past as well as some reflections on memory and the arbitrariness of it, a topic which appears throughout the whole novel and accounts for the generally nostalgic tone of the book. If you were looking for a nostalgic read, this is it.

 

UnknownAtonement, Ian McEwan

Another one for nostalgia. And another one made into a movie starring Keira Knightley, yay. Atonement is a story of love, guilt and childhood. It is narrated from the perspective of Briony, a 13-year-old girl whose mistaken interpretetaion of a scene changes forever the lives of her sister and her lover. The book is divided into three parts that deal with the childhood, young age and adulthood of Briony, and explore how she comes to realise her mistakes and deal with guilt. Beautifully written, McEwan’s settings, descriptions and narrative accuracy make this a book hard to forget.

 

45791The Ballad of the Sad Café, Carson McCullers

This was an unexpected jewel. McCullers is known to be one of the most important exponents of what is known as “southern gothic”. Whether that is an accurate description of this book or not, I really loved it. Seven short stories are included in this book, of which the most striking might be the homonimous “The Ballad of the Sad Café” and “Wunderkid”.

All the stories share this simple yet daring narrator, capable of evoking characters and places that are somewhere between the strange and the endearing. McCullers’ narrative offers a peculiar balance between the internal life of her characters and their exteriors, a balance that comes together in what I identified as the theme of the book: how bizarre human emotions are. Expect some southern settings, grotesque characters and sad love stories.

 

9789877382099Rayuela, Julio Cortázar

Perhaps Cortázar’s book that most resembles a traditional novel. Rayuela —or Hopscotch in English was first published in 1963 and what is perhaps the most striking thing about it is the way in which is it structured. The novel has 155 chapters, but there’s more than one way to read it. You can read it like a traditional book, from beginning to end (and you’d end in chapter 56), or in the order suggested by the author at the beginning of the book.

The book is mainly set in Paris, where Cortázar lived most of his life, and follows the adventures and shortcomings of a group of expatriated—you’ll be reminded of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast—, especially those of Oliveira and his relationship with the whimsical and peculiar Maga. There’s a bit of everything in the book, and most of what Oliveira reflects about along its pages, wandering through the rues of Paris, is the nature of narrative, the possibilities and limits of tellings stories and the links between experience and writing. You could say Rayuela is a love story if you think all literature is really about love, a statement I certainly agree with. It is a sad love story, though.

 

snows-of-kilimanjaro-and-other-stories-9781476770208_hrThe Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories, Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway is famous for his stripped, simple way of writing. I believe this book is where he takes this to the limit. Stories like “The Killers” and “Fifty Grand” set the way for modern writing and are majestic to read to this day. Reading this book I often thought that Hemingway’s mantra, “write hard and clear about what hurts”, made a lot of sense.

Love, loss and suffering are themes you’ll find among these stories, but overall courage, courage and an honest depiction of the eternal struggle between man and nature, a central theme to Hemingway’s writing. This is a profoundly sad book because not only does it ponder over the mean and the bad in human nature, but because it also depicts the brave and flawed search for love and greatness at the heart of every human endeavour.

Best reads of 2018 (so far)

June is over. Although I’m way behind on my reading, I have had the chance to read a few amazing books this year. I chose six I would love to discuss further with anyone interested, here they are:


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Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

To be honest, before he won the Nobel Prize, I had never read anything by Kazuo Ishiguro. I had watched the movie for this book some years before and I liked it, so I decided to read Never Let Me Go to get acquainted with Ishiguro. And I loved it. This is one of the most sadly beautiful novels I have ever read. Narrated from the perspective of Kathy, a girl created for the purpose of becoming a “donor”, along with many other children, for sick people. The whole purpose of these artificially conceived children is to one day give all their functioning organs to deadly ill humans. However, Kathy becomes first a carer for other donors and so delays her own donations.

The setting of the book is an England where kids like Kathy are raised in boarding schools away from society, where they learn about their “mission” and how they’re different from “normal” people. Kathy’s best friends there are Rachel and Tommy. Apart from the romantic triangle between them, Ishiguro builds through Kathy three of the most complex characters in literature who, despite of being told repeatedly that they are not human, love and cling to life bravely and painfully. Kathy herself is a very interesting character, her narrative mixing an honest recollection of the past as well as some reflections on memory and the arbitrariness of it, a topic with which dominates the whole novel and accounts for the generally nostalgic tone of the book. A must read, really, an overwhelming reflection of what it means to be human.


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MAUS, Art Spiegelman

This graphic novel was recommended to me many times before I finally got to it in January. It is one of the most inventive and heartbreaking pieces of graphic literature I’ve read. Spiegelman represents every race with different animals, Jewish people being mice (hence the name), and narrates, through text and mostly blank and white, simple drawings, his own creative process as a first generation American in New York, as well as his father’s recollections of WWII, Poland and the concentration camps. The simplicity and raw honesty of the stories told is at times painful and heartbreaking, but hopeful and even fun too.


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Into the Wild
, Jon Krakauer

I’ve written about this one in other posts and that’s because I’m OBSESSED with it. I think this book changed my life. Jon Krakauer, with honesty, tact and journalistic mastery narrates what he found about the life and death of young Chris McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, an American who hitchhiked his way to Alaska to live in and from nature only. I love this book because I think the critical job Krakauer does to distance himself from McCandless, without idealising or ridiculing him, is amazing. He talked to people who met him on the road, to his family and friends and collected other anecdotes from people who did similar things, and in the end this book is about more than McCandless, it’s about the urge that moved him and people like him to get away from “civilisation” and find a deeper meaning in life through a restored connection with nature and the hard work of survival. The book does not idealise nature either, it shows it at its best and worse, at its majesty and it’s moodiness and lethality. I recommend reading this to anyone interested in hiking, nature, ecology or American transcendentalism (Thoreau’s writings are a great companion for this).


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The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman

Last year I discovered Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and fell in love with it. I only wish I had read it younger, although probably I wouldn’t have understood its critique of Catholicism and institutional religion. So this year I got my hands on a beautiful edition (the UK edition) of the first volume of The Book of Dust. This story is set in an earlier time than  The Golden Compass, and tells of Lyra’s Oxford while she was a baby. The protagonist is a young boy called Malcolm, whose parents own an inn and has a canoe called La Belle Sauvage. The lives of Malcom and Lyra will become intertwined when a creepy (very creepy, really) villain and Mrs Coulter try to steal her from the convent where Lord Asriel placed her. If you haven’t read , it doesn’t really matter, although they give a lot of information about how this universe works. I recommend this for any fantasy readers, Pullman is a master of the genre.  


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Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

This is actually a reread for me, but still one of the best reads of the year. I absolutely love this book. Around a thousand pages, and still a complete page turner and a complex reflection on what it means to be brave and the different kinds of courage people can possess. Scarlett O’Hara is both one of the most hateful and greatest characters ever written, and equally complex and wonderful are Rhett Butler and Melanie Hamilton. Set in Georgia during the American Civil War, the book tells the story of a slave-owner’s daughter, her loves and struggles when her way of living suddenly disappears. Perhaps this book wouldn’t be that interesting if Scarlettn was not so selfish, mean, stubborn, wilful… and brave. What makes the book for me are the characters, and although I really like Mitchell’s descriptions of the old south, they’re obviously idealised and very politically incorrect nowadays. However, this is a novel that must be read once in everyone’s life. 


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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë

This one I just finished. My main reason to read this unpopular piece of nineteenth century literature was that I love both Emily and Charlotte Brontë’s writing, so I had to read Anne too. And she’s great as well, this family was something else. The book starts with the arrival of a mysterious young widow in a small country town in England. She’s a bit rude and very reserved, so obviously the most handsome dude in town falls for her. Oh, and she has a child. However, people soon start talking about her, as no one knows where she came from or if she’s really a widow, and handsome dude needs to know the truth, so she gives him her diary to read. And her diary composed most of the book. Anne Brontë reflects on many things in this novel: first, the social position of women; second, the implications of marriage both as a political institution and as a love affair; third, human nature’s propensity to vice; and fourth, religion’s role in both the submission and the liberation of women.

I must say this book is not quite as good as Wuthering Heights in feeling or Jane Eyre in style, it is very different from them in the way it uses literary devices like the letter and diary format, prayers and such. Nevertheless I found it a good companion, never too dull in its reflections and never too dramatic in its depictions of the sorrows of marriage. A very recommended for classic literature lovers as well as feminists (this might be Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House antecesor).

Have you read any? I’d love to hear what you think of these on the comments! 

Which have been your best reads so far?