Monthly Archives: March 2016

Review: Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Open Road Media through NetGalley.

My Review:
Cluny BrownI absolutely feel in love with the quirky, charming and free-spirited character of Cluny Brown.  We first meet her through the eyes of her Uncle Arn, who is distressed because he feels that Cluny doesn’t seem to know her proper place in life.  He tells a stranger that he meets in the park that his twenty year-old niece had the nerve to treat herself to tea at the Ritz.  Uncle Arn is simply beside himself that Cluny doesn’t understand that she is a plumber’s niece and has no business having tea at the Ritz.

Cluny is a young woman living in London in 1938; she is an orphan was raised by her Aunt Floss who has just died.  She is left to live with her Uncle Arn for whose robust plumbing business she answers the phone.  Through a series of hilarious circumstances through which Uncle Arn is further convinced that Cluny doesn’t know her place in life, Cluny is asked to leave Uncle Arn’s house.  His orderly, neat life just can’t tolerate a loose canon like Cluny Brown.  He finds a nice place for her in the countryside where she is to be employed as a parlour-maid.

Cluny lands in Devon at the estate of a country squire which is called Friars Carmel.  Cluny serves the family at Friars Carmel which consists of the squire himself, Lord Henry, his wife Lady Carmel and their son Andrew.  The family of the house has their own funny entanglements which mainly revolve around the question of Andrew’s bachelor status which threatens the legacy of Friars Carmel.

Cluny arrives at Friars Carmel at the same time as one of Andrew’s friends, a Polish writer named Adam who has apparently fled from the Nazis.  Adam is also an interesting and quirky character in his own right as he spends his days basking in the country air, taking walks with Lady Carmel and trying to get some inspiration for his latest book.  Adam thinks Cluny is one strange girl and they have some hilarious conversations in which they unsuccessfully try to understand one another.

There are many scenes in the book that are charming and funny due to Cluny’s naïve nature.  When she meets the local chemist, Mr. Wilson, and he invites her to tea she is completely smitten with his cozy living room and his elderly mother.  Cluny also has some interesting adventures when she makes friends with a neighbor’s dog and attempts to walk the beast through the English countryside.

I cannot recommend this charming book enough for its wonderful characters and delightful writing style; the end is also a bit of a surprise when Cluny finally figures out where she belongs in life.

I first heard about Margery Sharp’s books from Jane at Beyond Eden Rock.  Please visit her site for more reviews of Sharp’s books.

About the Author:
M SharpMargery Sharp was born Clara Margery Melita Sharp in Salisbury. She spent part of her childhood in Malta.

Sharp wrote 26 novels, 14 children’s stories, 4 plays, 2 mysteries and many short stories. She is best known for her series of children’s books about a little white mouse named Miss Bianca and her companion, Bernard. Two Disney films have been made based on them, called The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under.

In 1938, she married Major Geoffrey Castle, an aeronautical engineer.

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Filed under British Literature, Classics

Review: Distant Light by Antonio Moresco

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Archipelago Press.  The original novella was published in Italian in 2013 and this edition has been translated into English by Richard Dixon.

My Review:
Distant LightThis is a short yet powerful book that raises many more questions about the mental state of the main character than it answers.  We are led to understand from the beginning that the narrator is living alone in the mountains in what is now an abandoned village.  The only time he has interaction with other human beings is when he drives his car down the mountain to another small village.  He seems to do this only when he needs food or supplies.

The narrator spends quite a bit of time interacting with nature and even talking to the swallows, the fireflies and the trees that surround him.  Since he lives in complete solitude without an trace of another human around, he is captivated by a light he sees in the distance at the same time every night.  He spends a lot of time speculating what the light could be and it takes him a while to work up the courage to investigate the light.

I won’t fully give away what he finds when he investigates that light, but I will say that it brings him into contact with another person.  His interaction with this person makes us question the narrator’s mental state and what circumstances have brought him to live alone on that isolated mountain.  There is one sentence, which one could easily miss, in which he does say that at one point he was in the military but now chooses to live in complete solitude.  We are left to speculate if was his experience as a soldier that forced him to reject all human contact.

The book has an eerie and mysterious feeling to it, especially when the narrator figures out what is causing that light in the distance.  I would go so far as to even categorize the book as magical realism.  The narrator seems calm as he is relating his matter-of-fact existence among the foliage and animals on the mountain.  But there is an underlying uneasiness about him the punctuates the story and keeps us turning the pages to finds out what happens to this strange narrator.

This is a very quick read, one that can be finished over the course of an afternoon. I would love to hear what others think about this story since there is quite a bit of symbolism in this book that would make excellent topics for discussion.

About The Author:
A morescoAntonio Moresco did not find a publisher until late in his career, after being turned down by several editors. His output is centred on the monumental trilogy L’increato, whose three volumes are: Gli esordi (Feltrinelli 1998, republished by Mondadori in 2011 – 673 pages), Canti del caos (part 1 by Feltrinelli in 2001, part 2 by Rizzoli in 2003; republished by Mondadori in 2009 – 1072 pages), and Gli increati (Mondadori 2015).

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Filed under Italian Literature, Literature in Translation, Novella

Review: The Cold Eye of Heaven by Christine Dwyer Hickey

This is my first contribution to https://746books.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/readireland2016/ which is an event being run by Cathy at 746 Books.  This book was originally published in 2011.  My copy is the newly released paperback edition from Dalkey Archive Press.

My Review:
Cold Eye of HeavenThe focus of this book is an old man named Farley who lives by himself in the suburbs of Dublin.  When the book opens he is laying on his bathroom floor and it is evident from the symptoms he describes that he has suffered a stroke.  He can’t move and is unable to call for help so it is terrifying for him that no one knows he has fallen.  How long will he lay there before someone comes to his rescue?  The rest of the book is a retelling of his life as each chapter reaches back another ten years in his story, leading us all the way back to his early childhood.

As the author reaches back into the decades to tell us Farley’s story the details of his life and how he ends up alone are slowly revealed.  Farley was married to a woman whom he absolutely adored.  He meets her in the 1960’s when he is a young man and is unsure of the path his life will take.  He wants to move to Australia, much to the dismay of his widowed mother, and work as a car salesman.  But Martina comes into Farley’s life just at the right time to give him direction and grounding.  Farley gets a job as a clerk in an office, a job which he is proud of and does for the next forty years of his life.

A large part of Farley’s story is taken up with the grief he feels after the tragic death of his wife.  From the details he gives us about the last hours of her life it seems that Martina suffered a painful bout of cancer.  She was his whole life and he is completely devastated when she is taken from him.  A few months after her death his Uncle Cal is so worried about him that he goes to Farley’s house and gets him out of bed and urges him to clean up his house and get back to work.  Farley slowly begins to work his way out of his cloud of grief but he calls the entire year after Martina’s death his dark period.  Farley never finds the kind of love he had with Martina ever again.  Farley has an affair with Kathleen, Martina’s sister, who also happens to be married to his boss.  They both realize that Farley is trying to use Kathleen as a poor substitute and the affair gradually fizzles out.   Kathleen is worried that if her family finds out about the affair then she will lose all respect and love from her children.

So the pieces are gradually filled in to show us how Farley ends up alone at the end of his life on his bathroom floor.  The theme of loneliness pervades this story as Farley tries to make connections with people in his life.  But as an old man who is set in his ways this is no easy task.  When his Polish immigrant neighbor offers to take a key to his house so she can check in on him he practically runs away from her.  As he walks the streets of Dublin in search of a cobbler to fix his shoe he laments the changing landscape of a city he used to know so well.  But it’s changing store fronts and differences make him feel even more lonely and isolated.

The details that are given by the author about Farley’s life caused me to become emotionally attached to this old man.  I knew from the beginning that the story would not have a happy ending for Farley.  But then again, he does live a rich, full life filled with love, friends, and hard work. The fact that I was sad when the book was over is a testament to the author’s talented, character-focused writing.

About The Author:
C D HickeyChristine Dwyer Hickey is a novelist and short-story writer. Her novel Tatty was short-listed for Irish Book of the Year in 2005 and was also long-listed for The Orange Prize. Her novels, The Dancer, The Gambler and The Gatemaker were re-issued in 2006 as The Dublin Trilogy three novels which span the story of a Dublin family from 1913 to 1956.

Twice winner of the Listowel Writers Week short story competition, she was also a prize winner in the Observer/Penguin short-story competition. Her latest novel, Last Train from Liguria, is set in 1930’s Fascist Italy and Dublin in the 1990’s and will be published in June 2009.

 

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Filed under Irish Literature, Literary Fiction

Review: The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal

I received an advanced review copy of this title from the Publisher through NetGalley.  The original book was published in French and this English translation has been done by Sam Taylor.

My Review:
the heartEven though this book is a fictional account of the process of a heart transplant I learned quite a bit of information about the entire, complex procedure.  The storyline in the book takes place over a twenty-four hour period that begins with a surfing adventure.  Simon and his two best friends have woken up at the crack of dawn to pursue their favorite pastime, chasing waves.  I enjoyed the description of their love for this sport and how they go about finding the best waves.  They are young, fearless, and don’t have a care in the world which makes the tragedy that happens to Simon all the more shocking and upsetting.

On the way back from their surfing adventure, Simon’s friend drives the van in which they are traveling into a tree.  Simon’s two friends are both wearing seatbelts so, although they are badly injured, they do survive the accident.  But Simon is sitting in the middle of his friends in the front of the van and is thrown through the windshield on impact.  When Simon arrives at the emergency room it is determined that he is brain dead and the only things keeping him alive and keeping his heart pumping are machines.

There are several parts to the story that are absolutely heartbreaking (I apologize for the bad pun.)  When Simon’s mother arrives at the hospital she is desperately hoping that her son’s prognosis will be not be bleak.  The doctor tries to tell her as gently as possible that her son is brain dead and that his injuries are irreversible.  I sympathized with the doctor who had the role of delivering this horrible news to a mother.  He has to be gentle with his words, but being too gentle might cause her to have false hope.  I think that we oftentimes forget that a medical professional’s ability to effectively communicate with victims and their families is just as important, if not more so, than his or her technical skills.

My favorite character in the book is a nurse named Thomas whose job it is to coordinate the removal of the organs and coordinate their transfer to doctors in other hospitals around the country.  Thomas is also the person who speaks with the family about their decision to have organs donated.  Simon’s parents are in such shock that they don’t even realize who Thomas is or why he is speaking to them.  Thomas takes them to a comfortable room and slowly and compassionately broaches the subject.  Since Simon was not on the national donor registry in France, Thomas asks Simon’s parents what Simon would have wanted them to do.  They are really at a loss for words or ideas because they are in disbelief about what has happened to their son.  Thomas then asks a very pointed question: “Was Simon a generous person?”

What struck me most about this scene is how tender and understanding this nurse is to these grieving and devastated people.  He never pressures them or makes them feel guilty.  And when it looks like they are so upset that they can’t make a decision,  he is ready to give up the entire idea of donation.  I found it fascinating to learn that in France if a person is not on the donor registry then it amounts to tacit consent of organ donation at one’s death.  But Thomas would never even consider taking Simon’s organs without parental consent despite the fact that the law is on his side.  It is my sincere hope that all nurses in Thomas’ situation are as kind and good at their job as he is.

Finally, I have to mention the character who receives Simon’s heart.  She is a woman in her early fifties whose heart has been damaged by a virus.  She is a woman named Claire who lives in Paris and has been on a transplant list for months.  When she receives word that a heart is available for her I found her range of emotions fascinating.  She is not scared to die on the operating table, but instead she is upset that someone else had to die in order for her to receive this special gift.  It also keeps nagging her that she can never know any details about the donor because she wants nothing more than to be able to say thank you to his family.  I would have expected Claire to be happy and relieved that her own life is finally being saved, but her reaction to receiving a new heart is anything but selfish.

The author has done a meticulous job of research in order to bring to the reader the vivid details of the entire process of organ transplant.  After reading this book I will no longer take for granted the fact that these miraculous medical miracles take place in the 21st century.  The author also reminds us that, although unpleasant,  it is important to have conversations about organ donation with our loved ones and to investigate being on the donation list in our respective countries.

About the Author:
Maylis de Kerangal is a French author. Raised in Le Havre, Maylis de Kerangal went on to study history and philosophy in Rouen and Paris. She worked at Paris-based Éditions Gallimard, then travelled in the United States, and went back to studies at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences.

 

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Filed under France, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation