100 Must-Read Life-Changing Books by Nick Rennison – Bloomsbury Reading Guide – A Post a Day in May

I’m very fond of these little Bloomsbury Reading Guides. I say little because they are just a bit bigger than a hand. I own quite a few of them. I find them well-done, informative, and a good introduction to different kinds of books and genres.

Now “life-changing” might make a few people roll their eyes thinking this is about self-help books. But it’s not. It’s about books that have had a major impact on people’s lives for various reasons. Either because they were ground-breaking, or because the author wrote about something in a new way. Because they talk about social injustice, philosophy, or psychological ideas. Many are novels that were highly influential. Some of these books literally changed a lot of people’s lives. Because they made them see the world in a new way or understand things better. In his introduction, Nick Rennison writes that this isn’t meant to be a best of. Just a varied list.

The idea that there can be a definitive list of the books most likely to change lives, and change them for the better, is a ludicrous one. Books can change lives but they do so in a wide variety of often subtle ways. Very different books can, in different ways, be life-changing and the selection of titles in this book reflects that. 100 Must-Read Life-Changing Books finds space for, amongst others, a children’s novel about a young girl who discovers a key to a secret garden, a Chinese text on a war from the sixth century BC, a black comedy set in WWII, the autobiography of one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable statesmen, a handbook on happiness by one of the world’s great religious leaders and a fable about a pilot who meets a story-telling child in the Sahara desert.

The authors and their book are presented in alphabetical order. Author and book are then presented in a short bio, summary and history of the influence of the book. These chapters are followed by Read on lists, which either contain other books by the author or books by other authors that are similar.

Throughout the book you can find themed boxes with lists of books.

Here are some of the authors you can find in this book – I’m picking two for every letter:

Isabel Allende, Marcus Aurelius, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Albert Camus, Jung Chang, Dalai Lama, Simone de Beauvoir, Anne Frank, Sigmund Freud, Ghandi, Jean Giono, Stephen Hawking, Hermann Hesse, C.G. Jung, Helen Keller, Barbara Kingsolver, Harper Lee, Primo Levi, Nelson Mandela, Alice Miller, Friedrich Nietzsche, Boris Pasternak, Sylvia Plath, Sogyal Rinpoche, J.K Rowling, J. D. Salinger, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Henry David Thoreau, Sun Tzu, Kurt Vonnegut, Edmund White, Naomi Wolf, Paramahansa Yogananda

As for the books – you’ll find titles as varied as The Little Prince, Siddharta, The Origin of Species, Walden, The Beauty Myth, A Room of One’s Own, Life of Pi, The Outsiders, On the Road, The Art of War and many more.

Because I have already read many of the books that are mentioned here, I like to use it as a refresher or when I’m in the mood to read books on a theme or books that might be similar.

If this kind of book appeals to you – here is a link to an older post about the Bloomsbury Guide on Historical Novels. It’s excellent as well.

Killer in The Rain by Raymond Chandler – Precursor of The Big Sleep – A Post a Day in May

The novelette Killer in the Rain is one of the later short works of Raymond Chandler. He reused some of the elements with great effect in his first novel The Big Sleep.

As a teenager and early teen, I read all of Chandlers novels and loved them very much. Whenever someone asked me who my favourite writer was, I didn’t need to think twice – Chandler. As much as I loved him, I didn’t return to him because I rarely reread books. So, a few years back, someone asked me the question again and I said “It used to be Chandler”. That made it sound as if I didn’t like him anymore, but that wasn’t what I meant, it just meant – it’s been so long, I can’t be sure anymore. While I read and loved all of his novels, I hardly read any of his short stories and novellas, so it was with a lot of trepidation, that I started Killer in the Rain. What an experience this was. This isn’t as good as any of the novels, but it already has all the trademarks and reminded me why he once was my favourite author. Next time someone will ask me the question again, the answer will be – Chandler. And not in past tense, no.

Killer in the Rain is set in LA in the 30s and tells the story of a PI – probably Marlowe – who is asked to look after the daughter of a rich client. She’s been blackmailed and her dad is afraid that she’s got caught up in something sinister. Marlowe finds out the blackmailer owns a lucrative porn book lending business. When he goes to visit him, he finds him dead, his client’s daughter sitting stark naked and completely stoned on a chair, and someone running from the crime scene as soon as Marlowe enters. A little later, one of Steiner’s cars is found in a river, with a body in it.

Telling you more would spoil the story, but I think, this gives you an idea of what to expect.

Killer in the Rain is the novelette that’s closest to his novels in style. We can already see how different from other hard-boiled detectives Marlowe is – he isn’t named in the story, but we can assume it’s him. Marlowe cares. He’s anything but tough. Sure, he can act tough, doesn’t shy away from using a gun and shoot at someone, but he doesn’t do it lightly. As in all the later novels, solving the murder isn’t that important. Marlowe wants to help his client, keep him or her safe. While not as developed as in other books. there’s a social commentary here as well. The corruption of the police is obvious. Marlowe is one of two things that make me love Chandler so much. The other is his style. His books are written in a slang that’s not always easy to understand, especially not since a lot is made up. Chandler loved figures of speech and used them extensively in the novels. Here too, I found many wonderful sentences that made me chuckle.

“Carmen Dravec sat in Steiner’s teakwood chair, wearing her jade earrings.”

“Then all the expression went out of her white face and it looked as intelligent as the bottom of a shoe box.”

“Her giggles ran around the room like rats.”

As the title of the novelette evokes – it’s raining a lot in this book. The weather is always important in Chandlers work. It helps to create a moody atmosphere. I can’t remember if it rains often in his other books, but it does here and in The Big Sleep.

If you’ haven’t read Chandler yet and don’t know where to start this is a good pick. If you like it, you’ll already know that there’s much more and much better stuff where this came from. As for me, I might actually become a rereader after all.

Do you have a favourite Chandler novel? Mine is The Long Goodbye.

We Are Artists by Kari Herbert – Women Artists Around the World – A Post a Day in May

I stumbled upon the German translation of We Are Artists – Women Who Made Their Mark on the World in a book shop at the end of last year. Anything with Frida Kahlo on it, will get my attention. I browsed the book and liked the concept so much that I didn’t bother ordering the original but bought the German edition immediately. Comparing the two covers, I’m glad I did as I find the German cover more compelling. Both editions were published at the end of 2019.

Kari Herbert’s book is an homage to fifteen female artists from around the world. It’s illustrated with the works of the artists and illustrations in honour of the painters done by Kari Herbert herself.

At the beginning of each chapter is a full colour portrait of the artists by Herbert, followed by an illustrated fictional text and a short biography featuring chosen paintings of the artist.

Here’s the example of Indian painter Amrita Sher-Gil

The chapter on Mexican artist Frida Kahlo

Some of the pictures from the chapter of Finnish artist Tove Jansson

And the French painter Suzanne Valadon

Here is one of my favourites, a painting by Australian painter Emily Kame Kngwarreye

While this isn’t a book meant for children, it offers an excellent introduction for younger people. The way Herbert illustrated the book, inspired by the different artists, is in itself inspiring too.

Anyone who loves art, colour, and creativity, would enjoy this. It would also make an excellent gift.

Elizabeth Taylor: The Soul of Kindness (1964)

Published in 1964, The Soul of Kindness is one of Elizabeth Taylor’s later novels. It’s the seventh novel by her that I’ve read and since I want to read everything she has written, it won’t be my last. I have to be honest though – if this had been my first, I might not have been so keen to carry on. While most other novels have one, or two central characters, this is more of an ensemble piece. It says in the foreword that it is one of three novels that don’t centre on a main character. The other two being In A Summer Season and The Wedding Group, both of which I haven’t read yet. This may sound as if I didn’t like it – that’s’ not the case but I think it works better when you know her writing already and read it as part of her oeuvre. If not, you might feel a bit let down by the lack of plot and its feeling a bit disjointed at times, especially since the blurb tells us this is Flora’s story. I suppose that was a marketing decision, as it isn’t her story, not in a traditional way that is. She’s more like the central figure among a group of people. But she’s definitely “the Soul of Kindness” the ironic title alludes to.

When the book opens, we see her as a shining bride, all eyes on her. She’s the belle of the ball. While people do admire her and many think highly of her, nobody does so as much as she does herself. Right away she is presented as attractive and nice, but also too fond of herself and a little ridiculous.

“Here I am!” Flora called to Richard as she went downstairs. For a second, Meg felt disloyalty. It occurred to her of a sudden that Flora was always saying that, and that it was in the tone of one giving a lovely present. She was bestowing herself.

Most of the central characters of this novel, are present at the wedding. Especially those whose lives Flora wants to improve. Among those unlucky ones are Meg, her best friend, Kit, Meg’s brother, and Percy and Ba, her father in law and his mistress. They are unlucky because Flora might be well meaning but she’s so self-centred, her attempts to help leads to smaller and bigger catastrophes. To help another person one has to be able to see them for what they are and that’s something Flora is incapable of.

While there isn’t really a plot, and after these initial scenes, not even a main character, the book still offers a lot. There are so many astutely observed character portraits, small vignettes, and scenes, some of which quite funny, that it’s a joy to read. I was particularly fond of Elizabeth Taylor’s use of atmospheric descriptions to convey a mood.

Here’s a very melancholic passage. We see Mrs Secretan, Flora’s mother, who was wishing so much for Flora to marry well, but never thought what it would mean for her, as a widow, that her daughter would move out.

The air smelt autumnal. In no time there would be thick evening mist coming up from the water, a complete silence from the towing-path, and the river rising; perhaps floods. And Flora would be settled in London and never to come here again, except as a guest.

I made all the plans, Mrs Secretan thought; down to the last detail. But I forgot this, I forgot myself and the future. I particularly overlooked this evening. She read the letter through again, telling herself that Flora had meant well, meant very well, poor girl. In fact she had always meant well. That intention had been seen clearly, lying behind some of her biggest mistakes.

This passage shows us, quite clearly that even her mother doesn’t think of Flora as kind and good, but merely as well-meaning with fatal consequences.

And here’s a funny passage in which Mrs Secretan, encouraged by her son-in-law, thinks about travelling. It captures both characters, of Flora and her mother so well.

To Flora’s astonishment she (her mother) was quite seriously weighing the pros and cons – of Hellenic tours (‘might be too scholarly’), India (‘but I dare say it is spoiled, now that it doesn’t belong to us’), the Holy Land for Christmas.

‘Yes, I might plump for the Holy Land for Christmas,’ she had told Flora, who had been deeply shocked. At Christmas! she had thought in dismay. So what shall we do? Christmas had always been a sacred time, with cherished customs, not one for taking oneself off to the Holy Land.

Flora is so oblivious of other people and their needs that she’s pretty much the only happy character in this novel. All the others strive for something or someone they can’t attain. Or, because of Flora, they start to strive for something that’s not attainable, risking their contentment for a mirage.

In The Soul of Kindness, like in all of her novels, Elizabeth Taylor excels at creating well-rounded, believable characters. Their relationships are complex and at times complicated. Nothing is as simple as Flora perceives it. Not even her own husband Richard. He’s very much in love with his wife, because of her beauty, but knows that she’s too self-centred to be clever. No wonder he’s attracted to his unhappy neighbour. This relationship triggers Flora’s jealousy and we see, she can be perceptive when she feels threatened.

In the foreword, Flora is called demonic, which I find a total exaggeration. I don’t think she’s as bad as we’re initially led to believe. Yes, she’s self-centred, oblivious, and puts in motion some things that go terribly wrong, but she’s the glue that holds all these people together. Without her, this particular group of people and their relationships wouldn’t exist. And that’s not a little thing. It’s a gift to attract interesting people and to bring them together. I would, if I had to judge her, call her very imperfect, but neither demonic nor mean. That’s why, ultimately, she’s liked and forgiven.

There’s a lot to enjoy in this novel but I don’t think it’s as good as others. I believe it doesn’t succeed at being the portrait of one central character like Angel for example, but that’s how the beginning reads. All the initial chapters place Flora at the centre but this cohesion eventually fizzles out. As if Elizabeth Taylor had realized too late that Flora wasn’t a big enough character to carry a whole story. I could be totally wrong, of course, as critics have called this one of her, if not her best book.

Since this is one of three “group stories” I hope I will like the other two In A Summer Season and The Marriage Group more.

Here’s another take on this novel by Jacqui. 

Best Books I Read in 2019

There hasn’t been a year since I started blogging in which I reviewed as little as in 2019. I also read less, or rather, I finished less books. I have two huge stacks of almost finished and half-finished books next to my bed. I’ve never done this before, given up on a book twenty to thirty pages before its ending but I did this year. Some of them will still be finished someday but many, I guess, won’t. Not sure why this happened. Did I make bad choices? Was I in a reading slump? A bit of both, I suppose.

That said, I have read some wonderful books this year.

And here they are, in no particular order.

Fiction

William Maxwell – They Came Like Swallows

Tragic and beautiful, Maxwell’s book is one of the few I reviewed. Here’s what I said:

I’m full of admiration for the craft and looking forward to reading The Château next. And I think it’s an outstanding portrayal of grief and the awkward ways people treat the bereaved. It also shows very well how devastating the influenza pandemic was.

Philippe Delerm Sundborn ou les jours de lumière

Anglophone readers might not be familiar with Philippe Delerm, but let me just tell you – it’s an absolute shame. He’s one of my favourite French writers. After having read Autumn, his book on the Pre-Raphaelites, I chose to read Sundborn last year. Sundborn focusses on the Scandinavian artists surrounding Swedish painter Carl Larsson. Delerm is outstanding at capturing colours, landscapes moods, and this book is no exception. Anyone who loves Carl Larsson or Soren Kroyer would love this book. It needs to be translated.

Carl Larsson

Soren Kroyer

Barbara Pym – Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle

No need to introduce Barbara Pym to the readers of this blog. She’s a favourite of many. These were two excellent, witty, sharp, and at times amusing books. I couldn’t say which one l liked better. Possibly, Some Tame Gazelle, as it is a bit gentler. I’m a bit mad at myself for not reviewing them but when I read them, I was still in too much back pain to sit at my desk.

E.F. Benson Mapp and Lucia

While I didn’t review Barbara Pym, I did write a post on E. F. Benson’s famous Mapp and Lucia. What a delightful book. One that left me with a serious “book hangover”. It took weeks until I was able to move on and properly enjoy something else.

Here’s a bit from the review:

And there’s life at Tilling. A carefree life that’s so different from most of our lives nowadays. Not only because it’s set before WWII, but because it’s set among the British upper middleclass. Nobody works in this book. All the main characters own beautiful houses. All they think about is where they will dine next, who gives the best tea party. Gossip and petty quarrels aside, it’s a peaceful world. The conflicts are entirely the character’s own making. Nothing dramatic ever comes from outside. At least not until the end. After a while, I found spending time in this world very comforting. And funny. It’s a terrific social comedy. Lucia’s pretence to know Italian is hilarious and so is the way they constantly try to outsmart each other.

Joseph Roth Der Radetzkymarsch

Death, dying, and the end of an era are all themes in this marvellous novel. Sometimes you wonder why a book is a classic. Not in this case.

Vigdis Hjorth Will and Testament

This novel by Norwegian writer Vigdis Hjorth was so good and I did review it.  Here’s a bit from the review:

Will and Testament was a huge success in Norway, and I can see why. It’s highly literary but nonetheless as captivating as a thriller. The plot is moving back and forth in time, slowly revealing the dark secrets at the heart of the dysfunctional family depicted in the novel.

Willa Cather – The Professor’s House

Since I’ve started blogging, almost tens year go, I came across so many raving reviews of Willa Cather’s work. Every year I said the same – I need to read her but then I didn’t. Last year, finally, I read my first Willa Cather and the only thing I regret is that I didn’t review it. What a wonderful book. One could say it’s almost two books in one, something I’m usually not keen on but it really worked. First we have the more interior parts, told from the point of view of Professor St. Peter. Anyone who has ever tried to carve out some time for her/himself, will know how hard it can be to work either creatively or do research when there are many demands from friends, family,  . . . Professor St. Peter tries very hard and succeeds and the time he spends on his own turns into a trip down memory lane. He thinks about his former student and friend, Tom Outland, who died in the Great war. His death brought great wealth to St. Peter’s family but also complexity and animosity. The second book inside of the book is Tom Outland’s story. And in that part we see what Willa Cather was so famous for – her landscape descriptions. It’s quite magical.

Crime

Simenon – Maigret et l’Homme tout seul – Maigret and the Loner

It’s been a while since I’ve last read a Maigret. They are a bit hit or miss, but this one was fabulous. A homeless man has been killed and it seems so absurd. He kept to himself, had no possessions. What could anyone gain from killing him? Maigret’s in the dark for a long time. The end is surprising.

Sarah Vaughan Anatomy of a Scandal

This is embarrassing. I read this last January, didn’t review it and have practically forgotten everything about it. I just remember I LOVED it.

Carlo Lucarelli Almost Blue

I love a good noir. The mood, the atmosphere. This has all that and more. It’s a rare beast as it’s a genre blend. A serial killer noir. Don’t let that put you off. It really is good.

Nonfiction

Amy Liptrot – The Outrun

Another one of the very few I’ve reviewed. Such an amazing memoir about the way nature can help us heal.

Here’s a bit from the review:

I can’t recommend this highly enough. It’s an amazing insight into someone’s addiction and recovery and a fabulous account of life on Orkney. I could see the many migratory birds, feel the icy cold of the water, the force of the gales, and the beauty of the constellations in the night sky.

In defiance of this dissatisfaction, I’m conducting my own form of therapy through long walks, cold swims and methodically reading old journals. I’m learning to identify and savour freedom: freedom of place, freedom of damaging compulsion. I’m filling the void with new knowledge and moments of beauty. (p.180)

Elizabeth Tova Bailey – The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

If I had to pick one favourite of all the books I’ve read, I’d say it was this one. It’s beautiful and fascinating. Elizabeth Tova Bailey contracts a mysterious viral or bacterial infection that leaves her tied to her bed for years. During an especially bad phase, a friend gifts her a terrarium with a tiny forest snail in it. This tiny being becomes her companion. She’s so fascinated by it that she begins to read up on gastropods. The world she discovers is amazing. (Did you know snails have between 1’000 and 12’000 teeth?). The result of her research is an absolute gift to the reader. But the tiny snail does more than fascinate. It gives her comfort and solace.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong – Part 4

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong Part 3 – “Chapters” 8/9

 

  1. Reinhold is possibly the biggest villain in the story. Would you agree? Do you find his punishment satisfying?

 

I found him the biggest villain because he seems so harmless at first. Almost helpless. He really tricked Franz, making him help him, trusting him. But even without that, the Mieze story shows his cruelty and viciousness and then, on top of everything else, trying to frame his “friend” shows the extent of his depravity. In light of this, no, I don’t think his punishment was satisfying.

 

  1. The quote that returns most frequently in the last chapters – at least as far I could see – is taken from Ecclesiastes (There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven . . . ) How did you feel about this use? Did you find it effective?

 

I found it downright creepy. Especially how it was used in the Mieze section, but also later on. Like an echo of evilness. It’s obviously not used in context. It’s one of those instances that made me want to read up on the book.

 

  1. Were you surprised by the ending?

 

I was surprised and somewhat disappointed. I’m not entirely sure what I expected but not this. First the episode in which Franz is catatonic, and at a mental institution and then picking up work, like everything that happened before didn’t take place. Possibly, Döblin wanted to tell us he redeemed himself. His love for Mieze, is certainly a redeeming factor.

 

  1. Looking back, what did you like the most about the book and what did you like the least?

 

At times I read it like a puzzle. Not the story itself, but the way Döblin used collage technique. Quoted songs, poems, the bible . . . It was fascinating to hunt them. Unfortunately, those were also the elements that I found annoying at times. There’s just too much and while it’s interesting to see what quotes he chose and how he changed parts of them, it made the book frustrating at times. It’s a book that requires close reading and I didn’t have the time to do that.

 

  1. Would you reread it and/ or are you glad you read Berlin Alexanderplatz?

 

My answer is a resounding no. I will definitely not read it again. I’m glad I read it. as I always felt I was missing out because I hadn’t read it yet. I found it intellectually stimulating but not exactly enjoyable. At other times in my life, the stimulating part would have been enough. Not so now. I didn’t realize before starting it that it’s so long. My edition has just 400 pages, but they are densely packed. The copies in translation showed that it was closer to 600.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong – Part 3

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong Part 3 – “Chapters” 6/7

 

  1. The German original calls the chapters “Books” not chapters. In my opinion this is a gross error and robs the English reader of seeing some intertextual links. How do you feel about this?

 

I feel it’s a problematic omission. As I mentioned in the previous post, I’m pretty sure that in writing Berlin Alexanderplatz, Döblin referenced Simplicissimus, which is also divided in books, not chapters, uses a similar structure with short summaries at the beginning of each chapter (there are chapters with long titles in the books). One of Döblin’s later works, the over 1000 pages long historical novel Wallenstein (maybe an excellent choice for next year’s readalong? – just kidding) deals with the 30-year war, the same era during which Grimmelshausen’s famous work takes place. By the time he wrote Wallenstein, he most certainly knew Simplicissimus, but looking at BA’s structure he already knew it then.

But even if these intertextual links wouldn’t exist, I’m not sure why a translator has to change “book” to “chapter”. It seems a bit shoddy.

 

  1. Were you surprised to find out what happened to Franz after Reinhold pushed him out of the car? Do you find that Döblin is unnecessarily cruel to his creation?

 

It was a bit of a shocker and reinforced my earlier assumptions that Döblin likes to emphasize what a strong hold he has on his creature. Poor Franzeken is at his mercy.

 

  1. What does Berlin Alexanderplatz tell us about Döblin’s “Menschenbild” – his philosophical conception of human beings?

 

I find his concept of man very pessimistic. Not only does it seem that people can’t better themselves, they are also puppets on strings without any freedom. They are driven and things happen to them. Once the “machine infernale” is set into motion, there’s no stopping it. Fate will get you, no matter what. At the time when he wrote this novel, Döblin was an atheist. He’d been army doctor during WWI, and I assume that might have shaken his faith. When he was writing Berlin Alexanderplatz, he was “Nervendoktor”, – psychiatrist. He must have seen his share of tragedy and depravity. All this seems to come into play in his work.

 

  1. Do you have a favourite character so far?

 

I really like Herbert and Eva. Even crooks have a certain code of honour and while Reinhold is a character that doesn’t know any loyalty or honour, both Herbert and Eva are representative of this roguish code of honour, as I would call it and I like them for that. Yes, Herbert is a criminal and Eva a type of prostitute, or kept woman, but they are loyal to Franz and genuinely care. They help with anything they can.

 

  1. In these chapters, we see Franz attending political meetings. What did you think about these sections and his friend’s reactions?

 

I thought the reactions were extreme. I can only assume they didn’t like him exposing himself like this and drawing too much attention. The meetings he attends are meetings of the communist party. Franz isn’t even a communist, he’s far closer to national Socialist thinking. I read these sections as criticism of communism. I don’t know anything about Döblin’s political convictions, but maybe anti-communism was his own position.

 

  1. Most novels can be read without the reader knowing anything about the author’s life. What about this case? Were you compelled to read up on the author?

 

I find it always helps to know a bit about the author but often it’s not necessary. Not so in this case. I read up quite a bit. I was particularly interested in Döblin’s religion. For someone like me, who grew up in a Catholic environment, this was peculiar to read. While it’s very pessimistic, I also felt it had so many Catholic elements. It was interesting to me to know, while he was born into a Jewish family, Döblin converted to Catholicism. I could already sense it here and it helped me understand some passages and the use of some quotes.