Robert Harris: Cicero Trilogy: Imperium, Lustrum, Dictator
Historical fiction that brings alive the time, place, society, and personalities that defined the evolution of Rome and its empire, all framed through the life of one of the main protagonists. Cicero had neither family name, nor wealth, nor military exploits to his credit; what he did have was overweening ambition, a brilliant mind, and peerless ability as an orator, that let him scheme and manipulate and sway individuals and mobs. Life was a malestrom of shifting fortunes and political climates in which Cicero survived a long time, in and out of the pinnacles of influence and power, but in the end, he paid with his life. Not only excellent history but, in Harris's hands, page-turners that are hard to put down.
Lawrence Durrell: Justine
The first novel in The Alexandria Quartet. I will not attempt to summarize the plot of relationships between lovers (the narrator and the enigmatic Justine, whose husband is a good friend of the narrator), nor the role, much analyzed, of Alexandria as practically a character in the novel. But, the writing is a joy; it is poetic and allusive; it is exactly what great writing should be; the reader pauses again and again to reread a passage, to savour a phrase, to admire a quotation, to visualize and breathe-in descriptions of scenes and places, to marvel at the depiction of the complexities of life and relationships.
Vitaliano Brancati: Beautiful Antonio
Antonio is a young Sicilian who is so beautiful and sexually captivating that women of all ages and stations throw themselves at him with scant regard for consequences. His reputation is enormous, and entirely false: Antonio cannot get it up and all is revealed when his virginal bride of three years sues for annulment on the grounds of non-consumption of the marriage, after she learns from a maid what sex really is. A social and family scandal ensues. The story is always entertaining and often hilarious against the setting of Fascism in Italy, but there are deeper questions about the relationships between sexual and social/political dysfunctions, about character, about the interactions of mind and body, about the role of religion, and about the macho definition of manhood.
Pascal Mercier: Last Train to Lisbon
This is less a 'novel' in the conventional sense of a plot that develops over time with characters who interact/develop/grow/regress. It is more a story that provides a framework within which Mercier presents questions about life. Answers don't exist, but the questions about life, death, power, society, relationships can be stated, clarified, shaped, considered, argued. A book that deserves rereading.
Eka Kurniawan: Beauty Is A Wound
The is the first English translation of a novel by Kurniawan, a celebrated Indonesian writer. The novel begins, "One afternoon on a weekend in May, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for 21 years." This sets the stage for a multi-generational epic that weaves back and forth in time, moving from character to character, as the author tells the story of Indonesia from its Dutch colonial days, though Japanese occupation during WWII, and into independence as a modern state. Great story telling, fine characters, compelling plots.
John Horne Burns: The Gallery
This is not usually included in lists of American novels about WWII, but it should be. Based on Burns's own wartime experience, this fine novel is set in Naples in 1944 under mainly US occupation. Burns presents an uncompromising portrayal of the motives and methods of the occupation and its effects on individuals and morals on both sides. Burns spares nothing in his analysis of American failures.
Jose Saramago: Baltasar & Blimunda
This is a truly enchanting novel set in early 18th century Portugal under King Joao V who commissioned the construction of a massive monastery, at enormous fiscal and human cost, to fulfil a promise he gave to God if his queen produced a male heir. Set against this is the love of Balthasar, an ex-soldier who lost a hand in a war, and Blimunda whose mother died at the hands of the Inquisition. Also appearing is a scholar priest named Padre Bartolomeu, a real historical character, who dreamed of inventing a flying machine, a particularly dangerous thing to play with in the theological atmosphere of the time. The novel is a rumination on love, loyalty, royalty, the uses of power, and the power of classes. The characters are very much alive.
David Albahari: Götz and Meyer
It is challenging to find new approaches to writing about the Holocaust, not so much about the mechanics or the body count or motivations or different national reactions, but about the perpetrators, the cogs in the wheels without which the system would not have functioned. David Albahari has done so in this powerful novel centred around the extermination of the majority of Serbian Jews in 1942, largely using carbon monoxide in specially designed trucks. Gotz and Meyer are a team, driving one of the trucks. They are, in the words of the narrator, "...only one link stretching far into the future. But what a link they were! Sometimes it is precisely the little tasks such as theirs that form the cornerstone of a vast edifice; their sturdiness ensures the stability of the foundations."
Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day
A classic. If you have not read it, you should treat yourself; if you have, you should still treat yourself with the rewards of re-reading. A very fine novel that peels away the layers of emotions that guide and thwart, define and obscure, reward and stymie life and relationships.
Patrick Modiano: Dora Bruder
In 1988, Modiano stumbled across an ad in the New Year's Eve 1941 edition of Paris Soir: "Missing, a young girl, Dora Bruder, age 15, height I m 55, oral-shaped face, gray-brown eyes, gray sports jacket, maroon pullover, navy blue skirt and hat, brown gym shoes." Another official mention, nine months later, in September, 1942 marks the end of Dora's life: her name on a list of Jews deported from Paris to Auschwitz. This book defies categorization; it is not strictly a biography, nor strictly history. It might be called 'speculative biography'. It situates a person, a life, within a known historical period, and uses knowledge of that time to speculate on Dora's actions and motivations as the darkness closed inexorably around her. Modiano makes Dora an individual among the nameless millions who went to their deaths unheralded, unknown, and completely forgotten.
Gregor Von Rezzori: Anecdotage
Von Rezzori, born is what is now Romania, was a German language author, screenwriter, journalist, writer of radio plays, art critic, art collector, and actor. He may be best-known in English for his novel, Memoirs of Anti-Semite. His book, Anecdotage, published two years before his death in 1998 is a review of the physical and literary terrain of the twentieth century based, as he said, on the literary imagination of, "A nineteenth-century man of letters on the threshold of the twenty-first." Von Rezzori knew a great number of people, and had views on a great number of others. He did not temper his views, but he had interesting and wise things to say about life, life in the tumult of Central Europe, and especially life in the literary world.
Sarah Bakewell: Life of Montaigne
How to Live presents a history of Montaigne's life (1533-1592) within the historical contexts of his time, and of his great achievement in the Essays, published 1570-1592. Bakewell poses twenty questions on 'how to live' and presents her understanding of how Montaigne dealt with each of them. How to Live is also a history of the Essays, its place in the literary canon, how it has been constantly reinterpreted by successive generations, the ups and downs of its popularity, and why it should still speak to us today, in the 21st century. A very good book that I thoroughly enjoyed for its insights and introduction to Michel de Montaigne.
Geoff Dyer: White Sands
See the summary review on JustOttawa, July-August.
Robert Louis Stevenson: Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes
See the summary review in JustOttawa, July-August
Bruce Catton: The Civil War
For the non-expert with only a cursory knowledge of the background and progress of the Civil War, I found this to be an excellent one-volume history of the social, political and economic factors that exacerbated the push to war, as well as the planning and and conduct of that often brutal conflict, with highlights of the larger-than-life personalities on both sides.
Teffi is the pseudonym used by Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitsakaya (1872-1952), a Russian writer of short stories, observations on society and politics, plays, and one novel. Before the Revolution in 1917, she was very popular and, reportedly, a favourite author of both the Tsar and Lenin. During the Revolution of 1905, Teffi published political pieces critical of the Tsarist government, but by 1917, she had run afoul of the Bolsheviks. Teffi was scathing about Lenin himself: "Average height, gray complexion, completely 'ordinary'. Only his forehead is not good, very prominent, stubborn, heavy, not inspired, not seeking, not creative...". She called Lenin, "the sincere and honest preacher of the great religion of socialism". Teffi remained committed to the idea of socialism, but she asked, "Is not the word 'Bolshevik' now discredited forever and irrevocably?" Many people disappeared for expressing, never mind printing, such views. Teffi was living in St.Petersburg, but life became increasingly intolerable, both materially and morally in 1918. This is the beginning of Memories that chronicles Teffi's close observations of life in all its forms, during her often perilous flight from St.Petersburg to Moscow, Kiev, Odessa, Novorossiysk and finally Paris where she lived for the rest of her life. A wonderful book.
John Glassco: Memoirs of Montparnasse
See the summary review on JustOttawa, July-August.
Carlo Rovelli: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
This is a short book (80 pages, small format), but it rewards with the eloquence that Rovelli brings to the descriptions and summaries of the building blocks of the modern physics that we use to try to understand the world. These blocks or lessons are: Einstein's relativity, "the most beautiful of theories"; the strange world of quantum mechanics; the cosmos and the architecture of our universe; the world of elementary particles; the prospects of quantum gravity; and finally, probability and the heat of black holes. This book requires no technical expertise, just an open and inquisitive mind.
Paul Kalanithi: When Breath Becomes Air
Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon on the cusp of a brilliant career when he was diagnosed with lung cancer at 35. He died two years later. When Breath Becomes Air is a brilliant and very moving reflection on being a doctor and then becoming the patient, on the human experience of facing death, and on the joy he found despite terminal illness. This is a book that everyone should read.
Clare Leighton: Four Hedges
Clare Leighton (1898-1989) was a British writer, designer, artist. She is particularly known for her wood engravings; eighty-four reproductions are scattered throughout Four Hedges. These alone are worth the price of the book. They illustrate beautifully this twelve-month diary (April-March) describing the trials and joys of building a garden in the Chiltern Hills in England. This is not a 'how-to' book about gardening. It is a recounting of the planning and sheer physical hard work that goes into establishing, growing, and maintaining a garden. More than that, it demonstrates Leighton's acute powers of observation at all levels, observations tempered with great respect and even love for everything she sees. Leighton wrote a clean, unencumbered prose that flows and captures the reader in the vision and feel of light, weather, soil, birds, animals, flowers, plants, trees. The power of observation works on three levels to unify this fine book. First is Leighton's ability to describe and convey the challenges and joys of nature in, and through, the garden. The second is Leighton's thoughts on how we are losing, to our detriment as sentient beings, our engagement with the natural rhythms of life and nature. And third, how her observations parallel and limn conduct in life. This is the "keyboard of experience" that can be played moving back and forth among the three levels. This book is a hidden gem.