Would you read a book about the right to die by someone who committed suicide five years afterward? A colleague handed me this book as he was cleaning off his desk for the summer and said I’d enjoy it. Since I had loved his recommendation of Le gone du Chaâba by Azouz Begag, I decided to push past my initial distaste of the front cover (two naked figures—a child sitting on a woman’s lap—with stones for heads and black dots for navels) and my confusion about the back page description: “The story of a little Arab boy’s love for an old Jewish woman”. Love, like romantic love, I wondered?
But not three pages in, I was hooked. The characters, the setting, the first-person narration, the symbolism and the surprising ending make it obvious why this novel won the Prix Goncourt in 1975 for “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”.
What a title. It scared me a little at first because I thought it would be about some kind of witches’ coven. Instead, behind one of the catchiest titles I’ve ever heard, is a story about mothers and daughters and about friendship and love.
The story wastes no time in getting to the inciting incident. Right on the third page we learn that Siddalee Walker, a theatre director, has spilled her soul to a New York Times reporter who writes that Vivi Abbott Walker, her mother, was a tap-dancing child abuser. Ouch. Vivi is so hurt she refuses to speak to Sidda for months. But the fact that one time Vivi did beat all her children, with her eldest daughter Sidda taking the brunt of the belt buckle, will not go away. Sidda has spent her whole life trying to make sense of this event and of her mother’s subsequent lengthy absence. However, thanks to the intervention of her three best friends, who with her compose the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Vivi agrees to send her daughter a scrapbook she calls her Divine Secrets, and which Siddalee has asked for to help her prepare for directing a play about women and friendship.
This rich emerald green with black and white contrasting colours has got to be one of the more gorgeous covers in the Penguin Drop Caps series. The initial L is in fact composed of two Ls, one a black woodblock style, the vertical line dotted with the windows of high-rise apartments, the other a white curlicue L dancing over top. Jessica Hische’s drop cap makes allusion to the New York setting of the novel, as well as the dual identities of the narrator, a Korean-American industrial spy.
On the back is the quote “Quell the old tongue, loosen the lips. Listen, the hawk and cry of the American city.” This perfectly captures Chang-Rae Lee’s lyrical style, his frequent use of the word quell (four times), and the themes of language and the urban melting-pot.
As I write this, it’s supposed to be spring, but Toronto is being hit with the usual April snow, this time in the form of slushy white pellets of freezing rain. It feels appropriate under today’s heavy grey skies to tell you about In the Midst of Winter, Isabel Allende’s latest novel.
November 2017, my dear friend Liz lured me down to Brooklyn because she had tickets to see Isabel Allende at the Brooklyn Public Library. We stood in a line that snaked around inside the building as far the children’s section and finally began inching back toward the main lobby where the talk was to be held. Before taking our seats, we were each handed an autographed hardcover copy of In the Midst of Winter. (Squeal of excitement!) From our places nearly at the back, it was hard to see either the author or her interviewer who were seated, and their amplified voices were not easy to hear in the high-ceilinged, reverberant cafeteria space. Still, I managed to take four pages of notes which helped me appreciate both her writing process and the book itself. “My calling,” she said, “was not the truth. My calling was fiction.”
Before Seinfeld, before Murphy’s Law, there was Voltaire’s Candide. In stark contrast to Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, where “everything is awesome,” to quote The Lego Movie, Candide’s world is a string of executions, STDs, natural disasters, wars, rapes, killings and financial disasters. And this is what his tutor Pangloss calls “the best of all possible worlds.” Everything about this philosophical tale contrasts with Siddhartha, even the colour of the cover whose juicy purple is diametrically opposite Siddhartha’s fluorescent yellow. The Penguin Drop Caps edition has a V on the front cover formed by two bolts of lightning, converging to strike a little yellow man. Yep, that’s Candide, for whom whatever can go wrong does go wrong.
“Know thyself.” ~ Greek maxim
Gretchen Rubin is a self-confessed habit-junkie. Even more than obsessing about her own habits, she gets a thrill from helping her friends and family improve theirs. And she’s on a mission to help change yours and mine. She came to habits in an unusual way, by first focusing on happiness. What will make me more happy, she asked herself? And in 2009 she published the result of her one-year quest to become more happy, The Happiness Project. Through this process, she came to believe that if happiness is the destination, habit-change might well be the journey. But how can people go about changing their habits, she wondered?
The Penguin Drop Caps edition is a vibrant fluorescent yellow with bright green stain on the edges of the page. The contrast colour on the spine and the initial H is sky blue. I puzzled over the initial for a long time, trying to figure out its connection to the story. Perhaps the blue swirls symbolize the river, a central character. The H is composed of two swirly lines that intertwine in the middle; is this a reference to the notion of oneness? “And all of it together, all voices, all goals, all yearnings, all sufferings, all pleasures, all good and evil—the world was everything together.” (p. 187) I also noticed the font was considerably larger than the other Drop Caps volumes, which meant this would be a shorter read. Good thing.
“To me, O’Hara is the real Fitzgerald.”
—Fran Lebowitz, The Paris Review, 1993
Gloria Wandrous is young, beautiful, liberated and alcoholic. She wakes up the morning after spending the night with wealthy businessman Weston Liggett who has ripped her dress down the centre seam when she plays coy. Having nothing to wear home she wanders through his Upper East Side apartment, eventually finding a mink coat in what she assumes is his wife’s closet. Putting it on over the remains of her dress, she hails a cab and leaves.
The rest of the story is a meander through the speakeasies, restaurants and bedrooms of New York as Liggett tries to recover the coat before his wife notices it's missing. The novel moves seamlessly from past to present, revealing key characters’ stories along the way.
The Penguin Drop Caps edition is turquoise blue. Jessica Hische’s clever cover illustration is a mascara’d eye peering out through the centre of an O as through two curtains which form the vertical lines of an H, with the eye as its horizontal bar. The edges of the pages are stained blue and the contrasting colour on the spine is a deeper blue. The rubbery cover makes it a joy to hold while you read.
The Penguin Drop Caps edition is a vibrant lime green with gray for the contrast colour. The I for Ishiguro is a clear paint pot, half filled with liquid, with a paintbrush floating in it. For the key quote for the back of the book the editor chose “He moved his lantern again, causing one picture to fade into shadow and another to appear,” from the scene of dialogue between Ono, the student, and Mori-san, the master. Mori-san believes that he and his students should only paint what he calls “The Floating World”, the world of the pleasure district, of wine, women and song, the world that comes into being at night and vanishes at sunrise, beautiful and fragile. My guess is this quote was chosen because it comes from the scene where the intriguing phrase “floating world” is at last defined, halfway through the novel. Or perhaps because Masuji Ono’s first “picture” of his achievements (I’m a great artist) fades into shadow and another “picture” (I’m responsible for great wrong) appears.
This is a book about sex before marriage. The Penguin Drop Caps series has chosen Tiina Nunnally’s 1997 translation from the Norwegian, though the original story was written in 1920. I love the rich purple cover, slightly rubbery, with its illustration of a U-shaped wreath of roses on the cover, the darker purple stain on the edges of the pages and the bright Joker-green title on the spine. Tiina Nunnally’s version is masterful; at no point does the word choice or syntax remind you it’s a translation.
Page one, we are introduced to Kristin’s parents, Lavrans and Ragnfrid, who are landowners in a small agricultural community in 14th century Norway. Their marriage was arranged and their first three children, all sons, have died in infancy. Kristin is the first child to survive, and she is her father’s pride and joy, while her mother stays in the grips of depression that keeps her isolated and distant both from their community and her own daughter.
In order to slow down my frenetic book-eating, I'm writing reviews of the books I read to better digest them. Bon appétit!