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My Gift to You (aka wonderful books you should know about!)

July 20, 2010

I’m overwhelmed by all of the support y’all showed on my post yesterday. At this point, I know I should expect it, but I still found myself with tears in my eyes just contemplating the level of kindness our little corner of the blogosphere operates at. I’ll be answering each of your comments individually soon (I just caught up on replying to comments from June!), but for now I thought I’d tell you about the best books I’ve read and not yet discussed here. Hopefully, you’ll find a book to fall in love with, and that’s the best way I can think of to repay you all. :)

For the cosy mystery/historical fiction fan: if you haven’t heard of Anna Dean’s Bellfield Hall yet…you need to run, not walk, to your nearest bookstore or library! It’s a closed house mystery set in a country estate during the Georgian Era featuring Dido Kent, a spinster aunt visiting at the request of her niece, whose engagement is suddenly in trouble. The puzzle mystery aspect is marvelous…Dean drops just the right amount of clues, and I had great fun picking my suspect (I was right!). And Dido is great fun…here’s an excerpt from a letter to her sister early in the novel:

Meanwhile, her ladyship sits upon her sofa and wrings her hands and declares that ‘one does not know what to hink’; hoping, I suppose, that someone will tell her what to think and so save her the trouble of forming an opinion of her own.

The setting is wonderfully brought to life, and Dean’s writing is marvelous…light without being fluffy, if that makes sense (to be fair, I found it a bit rocky in the beginning, but by page 50 it was all smooth sailing). My only complaint is that this is Dean’s debut novel! I cannot wait for her next book to release, and just writing about Bellfield Hall makes me want to run out and reread it! Perfect comfort reading….best accompanied by a cup of tea and some thunderstorms. ;)

For those who enjoy their fiction quirky and touching: Twinkle Twinkle by Kaori Ekuni is one of the most affecting novels I’ve read in a long time. The narration alternates between chapters, which I find a difficult thing to pull off, but Ekuni does it perfectly. Our first narrator is Shoko, a young-ish Japanese woman who has agreed to a marriage of convenience with Mutsuki. She’s an alcoholic with serious depression, and her voice is so pitch perfect that almost every page had me in tears (I mean that in the best way). Here’s a taste:

By the time I realised what I was doing, I had thrown everything I could lay my hands on at Mutsuki. Teapot, Tea strainer. CDs. Watering can. Tea cozy. Mints. Paperbacks. My tears were flowing freely now, as I hurled one thing after another in his direction. I could hear myself bawling. He was like a little hedgehog, his honesty standing up like tiny prickles. He wasn’t afraid to speak the truth. I was scared to death of it, of course. As far as I understood, words weren’t there for telling the truth. I felt heartbroken. What had I ever gotten married? Why did I have to like Mutsuki so much?

Mutsuki is our other narrator, and he’s been in a relationship with a man for years now. Their relationship is certainly unusual, but it feels so true…they both care about each other so deeply, even if not in a sexual way, and their little triumphs and disasters in trying to make each other happy were all so important to me as I was reading it. I find it hard to explain just how much this book got under my skin, but I truly urge you to read it. Also, there’s a lot of humour and insights into Japanese culture that are the cherries on top! I’m just sad that this is the only Ekuni novel my library has (it’s the only one translated into English)…I hope more of her works become available to English speakers soon. (Also, if this convinced you but you don’t have much reading time, it’s less than 200 pages…so a quick treat.)

For the news junkies: now you know that my international relations nerdiness would come out soon! ;) For y’all I have a double-feature. First is the just-released Everything is Broken by Emma Larkin. I adored her first book about Burma (Finding George Orwell in Burma), and this follow-up confirmed my love for her. It’s centered around the Nargis tragedy, but it’s about so much more than that. Larkin provides so many insights and stories into Burmese culture, and she does it in a way that’s both international relations-y AND literary. That’s a difficult combination to find! ;) Meanwhile Alma Guillermoprieto essay collection The Heart that Bleeds is fascinating in part of its age…the essays were written in the late 80s and early 90s, and comparing the Latin America of then to the one of now added an extra dimension for me. Especially the essays on Colombia! Guillermoprieto’s viewpoint as a Mexican intellectual made me trust her, and since her essays were all originally published in The New Yorker she provides enough context and background for a North American like me to always understand. And her writing is at the level you’d expect for The New Yorker! This is a pretty thick book, but it was a delight to dip into…each essay was self-contained and the perfect length.

For those who love a good family saga: A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka has two storylines, both set in Poland, about the same family through three generations. The stories are entertwined perfectly, and both the rural village life of pre-WWII and resistance Poland as well as the Krakow of post-Communist Poland are beautiful rendered. Pasulka is an American, but she moved to Poland in the 90s and now speaks the language and all that. ;) One of my favourite little things in international fiction is when there’s just enough of the foreign language mixed in to give it flavour…Pasulka strikes that balance perfectly (also, as a Russian student, it was great fun to compare the Polish and Russian!). The story looks not only at the importance of family but also of stories and how we shape our lives with the things we tell. I can’t say it’s a perfect book…there are a couple moments in the plot that seemed unnecessary except for the sadness factor, but it’s a compulsively readable, enchanting book which is marvelous despite those two flaws. The writing style is just so perfect…here’s the opening:

The Pigeon was not one to sit around and pine, and so the day after he saw the beautiful Anielica Hetmanska up on Old Baldy Hill, he went to talk to her father.

The Pigeon’s village was two hills and three valleys away, and he came upon her only by Providence, or “by chance,” as some would start to say after the communists and their half-attemps at secularization.

I dare you not to want to read more! ;) It’s also a story focused primarily around strong women, which as you imagine scores extra points for me!

For those who read graphic books for the artwork as much as the writing: The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman is almost indefinable in the best sense of the word! It’s Kalman’s journal over a year, and it’s full of the most random thoughts, both banal and profound, with the most beautiful sketches and photographs. It’s one of those books that you can spend as long as you want reading it, because each page could become a meditation. As y’all know, I’m not the most covetous of readers, but I immediately went to Amazon to check the price of the trade paperback edition, and you can bet it’ll top my Christmas wishlist this year. It’s a very human book, and one I can’t imagine a reader not connecting with. Even if graphic books make you a bit nervous, do give this one a go. You can see her addictive art style in her blog for the NYT.

For those who swoon over lyrical writing: it’s a shame that Green Mountain, White Cloud by Francois Cheng is out of print (despite a relatively recent publication date). This is a lovely novel with a definite fable flavour, and Cheng’s beautiful writing takes center stage, along with an exploration of love and sex and how we experience them. I loved every second I spent with this one, but I realise it won’t be everyone…those who love plots above everything else will probably be bored. Here’s a taste of the writing…it should be easy to decide for yourself if this is your style:

She opened the palm of her hand and let him press his to it. It was a silent moment of communion, of wordless ecstasy. The intimacy born of these two hands was as when two faces approach, or two hearts are imprinted upon each other. When the corolla of give petals unfolds, like a glove being turned inside out it delivers up its secret depths, letting itself be nourished by the warm breeze, or bounced by eager butterflies and honeybees that light upon it. Between two hands with fingers interlaced a fluttering of wings produced a tin shudder, the slightest pressure a wave that expanded in radiating circles. What one hand caressed was not simply another hand by the very caress of the other.

The book is framed as a story-within-a-story, a bit like The Name of the Rose, which I thought was a lovely final touch. ;)

For those who always think they really should be reading more nonfiction: The Thoughtful Dresser by Linda Grant is a just-released (in the US) book based on columns Grant has written over the years. It’s a book about clothes and humanity and how the two relate. ;) I could tell you what a powerful writer Grant is, but instead I’m just going to ask you to read the first chapter, available for free (that link is to a PDF file). After reading that, I stalked my library catalogue to be first on the list to get the book, and I wasn’t disappointed. Except for a subpar chapter on post 9/11, the entire book was one delight after another. This would be a perfect Women Unbound selection too! ;) Plus, look at that cover: how can you resist?!

I hope one of these caught your eye: they were all delicious reads for me, and I think they will be for you as well!

77 Comments leave one →
  1. July 20, 2010 4:18 am

    Well I have to say I do really quite fancy Bellafield Hall, have seen some buzz around this book though am not sure if and when its out here in the UK!?!! Will have to do some research on that one.

    I have the Pasulka and thats going to go up the TBR after your wonderful review of it, I havent quite fancied it until now so a big thanks… well there will be if I love it as much as I now hope I will, ha!

    I must read some of Grant’s fiction, I have two of her books on the TBR and have let them linger there for far too long! Lovely post Eva!

    • July 21, 2010 8:23 am

      I assumed that since she’s a British author, Bellfield was already released in the UK! I don’t know for sure, though.

      I hope you enjoy the Pasulka too so that I get that big thanks! ;)

  2. July 20, 2010 5:00 am

    Wow, what a great list! I’ve jotted down three of the titles – I’m especially excited about A long, long time ago, as I’m Polish and don’t often read books set there! Thanks for the ideas!

    • July 21, 2010 8:24 am

      I’m curious to see what you think of the Pasulka since you’re Polish! :) I’ve got a fair bit of Polish in me from my mother’s side, but all Polish American…it was my great-grandparent generation that came over.

  3. July 20, 2010 5:13 am

    Bellafield Hall really catches my attention. I have only just started to read cozy mysteries, so it does sound good.

    • July 21, 2010 8:25 am

      I think you’d enjoy it Vivienne! I really dislike the whole ‘cosy mystery’ phrase, lol, but it is a good shorthand. ;)

  4. July 20, 2010 5:50 am

    Wow Eva, what a great list! A number of these are going on my wishlist (especially The Heart that Bleeds – I do love me some international relations nerdiness!). Definitely something for everyone in this list.

    • July 21, 2010 8:26 am

      I thought of you when I was talking about the international relations books! heehee

  5. July 20, 2010 5:54 am

    Ooh lots of new books to look into! Love the sound of Bellfield Hall, A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True, Twinkle Twinkle and The Heart that Bleeds.

    As an aside, it’s interesting how rarely you post about a book I’ve actually heard of! It’s great :D

    • July 21, 2010 8:32 am

      That’s the best compliment anyone could give me! heehee

  6. July 20, 2010 6:47 am

    I love country house mysteries. I’ve got a copy of BELLFIELD HALL and look forward to reading it. Glad you had such a good experience with it. Love the “run don’t walk” recommendation!

    • July 21, 2010 8:35 am

      If you’re a country house mystery fan, I think you’ll REALLY enjoy Bellfield!

  7. July 20, 2010 6:51 am

    Thank you for this wonderful list- that’s so sweet of you!

  8. July 20, 2010 7:09 am

    Wonderful post, Eva! I was only familiar with one of the titles you mentioned, so you’ve given me a lot of books to seek out! They all seem exciting and delightful in their own ways and would certainly be a great way to mix up my reading.

  9. July 20, 2010 7:33 am

    Bellfield Hall sounds wonderful! I’m checking my library’s catalog straightaway!

  10. July 20, 2010 7:49 am

    So I guess I shouldn’t just keep Bellefield Hall on my wishlist but actually go and get it! Kaori Ekuni is one of my favourite Japanese writers. Even more than Twinkle, Twinkle, I loved her version (the red book) of ‘Reisei to Jyonetsu no Aida (Calmi Cuori Appassionati)’ – translated as ‘Between Calmness and Passion’ . It’s a love story from the woman’s point of view (Rosso written by Kaori Ekuni) and the man’s point of view (Blu written by Hitonari Tsuji). I just hope it gets translated into English one day so that you can read it.

    • July 22, 2010 9:00 am

      I’m so jealous that you’re able to read more of Ekuni! I really hope your favourite gets translated into English too. Or that I just magically wake up one morning with a reading knowledge of Japanese. ;)

  11. July 20, 2010 8:37 am

    Eva, it is so good to have you back, doing what you do best–making people excited about books they might otherwise have missed. I’ve taken three books of this list as must-reads (and you know how many others you’ve expanded my mind with).

    As for the fibro, my step-MIL has it, so I have an inkling of the challenges it presents you. My heart goes out to you every time you experience a ‘flare up.’ It is not easy, I know. Just remember that you are a gift to all of us, and we will support you in any way possible. Keep reading & keep blogging. It’s a great release.

    • July 22, 2010 9:00 am

      That means so much to me, so thank you for such a wonderful comment. :)

  12. July 20, 2010 9:30 am

    Great suggestions, Eva! In particular, I have a friend of Polish descent who is fascinated by the history of the Warsaw Resistance, etc., and I bet she would love the Pasulka book. As for me, The Thoughtful Dresser seems right up my alley…thanks, lady!

    • July 22, 2010 9:01 am

      The WWII storyline takes place in rural Poland, not in Warsaw, but I still think she’d enjoy it! I’d love to hear your take on The Thoughtful Dresser. :)

  13. July 20, 2010 10:10 am

    I have A Long Long Time Ago sitting on my bedside table!! I can’t wait to get started!

    • July 22, 2010 9:01 am

      Isn’t it a gorgeous cover?! I was sad to return that one to my library.

  14. July 20, 2010 10:41 am

    Sadly, I haven’t read any of these, but as usual, you’re helping me add to my stacks. I’m noticing an upswing in good covers lately. Many of these are stunning! I’m so proud of the publishing industry. lol

    • July 22, 2010 9:02 am

      I’ve been enjoying the good looking covers too! And like you, I feel like a proud parent. ;) lol

  15. July 20, 2010 11:38 am

    I admit I didn’t love Bellfield Hall. I Thought it was a good start, but it wasn’t a book that wowed me at all. I think I had serious issues with one of the master-servant relationship type things going on. I didn’t see the point of that being in the story at ALL, and it seemed to imply a lot that I found unnecessary and impeded my enjoyment of the book.

    • July 22, 2010 9:10 am

      Are you a fan of ‘cosy’ (I hate that adjective, lol) mysteries in general Aarti? I think I loved this one because it was so perfectly what I want from a mystery. ;)

      I’m trying to think of the master-servant bit you’re talking about…is it about the servant in the coachhouse?

      • July 22, 2010 4:24 pm

        No, it’s about the footman, I think? The boy tried very hard to avoid a certain guest. That whole (useless, in my view) relationship was pointless to me and had implications that upset me.

        I don’t know that I love “cosy” mysteries. I really like mysteries, but I don’t ever really know which qualify as “cosy.”

      • July 24, 2010 9:14 am

        Ohhh; now I know what you’re talking about. I agree it was a bit pointless, and I think I know what implications you’re talking about. I hate the word ‘cosy,’ because I really think it just means a classic-style mystery a la Christie, where the murders are gore-free and more like puzzles than anything else. At least, I think that’s what it means!

  16. July 20, 2010 1:09 pm

    So good to see you back! And I’m glad you will continue to write about the books you read. You have a wonderful gift and your excitement is contagious. You’ve provided such a nice, well rounded selection in this post and they all sound wonderful. I think I will start with the free chapter of the Linda Grant book!

    • July 22, 2010 9:10 am

      Aww: thank you Terri! Do let me know what you think of that first chapter. :)

  17. July 20, 2010 2:04 pm

    The thoughtful dresser sounds especially intriguing.

  18. July 20, 2010 3:09 pm

    Given what a raging success Sea of Poppies and Fagles’s translations were with me, it is clear that I must follow all your directions hereafter. :p I loved Maira Kalman’s art enough to get Principles of Uncertainty for my sister this past Christmas (hm, hope she liked it, she never said). I’m bookmarking the PDF first chapter of the clothes book to read after I catch up on my Google Reader stuff this evening.

    • July 22, 2010 9:11 am

      Ohh: I feel all-powerful! ;) And I want to know what you think of the first chapter of that clothes book! I’m totally following Kalman’s blog now…and I’m unspeakably jealous that I can’t make lovely art like that.

  19. July 20, 2010 3:20 pm

    Oh, there are books here I will add to my TBR list, particularly Twinkle, Twinkle and The Principles of Uncertainty. I’m so glad you are feeling better.

  20. July 20, 2010 4:32 pm

    Welcome back Eva! I really don’t think it matters how often you post. Most people (if not all) use feed reader these days, so we can always see if there’s something pops up without having to check one’s blog all the time to see if there’s anything new.

    I never heard of the book by Kaori Ekuni and Maira Kalman and I’m so intrigued now! Your library is awesome.

    • July 22, 2010 9:17 am

      Thanks Mee! You’re probably right about readers. :) And yep: my library is definitely awesome!

  21. Juanita permalink
    July 20, 2010 5:02 pm

    I read A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True last year and really enjoyed it. I spotted someone reading it on the bus, and I liked the cover so much that I looked it up as soon as I got to a computer. I liked reading about the contrast (and sameness) between pre- and post-capitalist Poland. These transitions from communism to capitalism never quite seem to work as well as hoped.

    • July 22, 2010 9:24 am

      Isn’t the cover marvelous?! And I’m glad you enjoyed this one too. I studied Russian in college and studied abroad there, so the transition from communism to capitalism is definitely something I find fascinating (and depressing).

  22. July 20, 2010 5:06 pm

    Glad you’re back and that you’re going to keep blogging. Some of these books sound great and are going on my library reserve list right now!

    • July 22, 2010 9:24 am

      Thanks Lindsey! Which ones did you choose?

  23. July 20, 2010 5:40 pm

    wow. Some fantastic books and most totally new to me. Argh… the wish list grows and grows.

    • July 22, 2010 9:25 am

      Heehee! I remember pre-blogging, when my TBR list mainly consisted of books by authors I’d already read and loved. Blogging changes everything. ;)

  24. July 20, 2010 6:53 pm

    Great suggestions. I will definitely give that one by Francois Cheng a look in

    • July 22, 2010 9:25 am

      Yay! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. :)

  25. July 21, 2010 4:48 am

    You do pick the coolest books and I so appreciate your sharing with us when you find these goodies. I added The Thoughtful Dresser to my list and her Booker nom.

    • July 22, 2010 9:25 am

      Thank you Care! I definitely think you’ll like The Thoughtful Dresser.

  26. July 21, 2010 5:42 am

    Oh, you are so evil, my dear! In the most delightful sort of way, of course. :)

    Three more to my wish list. Bellfield Hall sounds wonderful! I love cozy mysteries, but for some reason read very few of them. This one definitely sounds like one I need to make time for. And Twinkle Twinkle–well, that passage you quoted totally sold me! And The Heart That Bleeds, I suspect I would very much enjoy this one because I would learn so very much.

    I would have added Everything is Broken, too, if I hadn’t seen it in the store the other day and already added it to my wish list. But now, having your recommendation, I can definitely see that one making its way onto my shelves much sooner! As in, I’m having a really, really hard time not going to order it this very second! Because, yes, that is what your recs do to me. You are my non-fiction guru! :)

    • July 22, 2010 9:26 am

      Yay Debi! I think Twinkle Twinkle is a very Debi book, and Bellfield Hall is just perfect comfort reading. :) And I feel so proud to be called a nonfic guru…I love spreading international relations love. lol

  27. July 21, 2010 7:32 am

    What a great list! I love that you have something available for everyone, except of course I couldn’t choose and have now added all to my wishlist.

  28. July 21, 2010 12:03 pm

    I also loved the Principles of Uncertainty! Quietly beautiful. And I’m glad to hear you enjoyed The Heart That Bleeds; I’ve been eyeing it.

    • July 22, 2010 9:50 am

      Quietly beautiful is a great way to describe it. :)

  29. July 21, 2010 1:02 pm

    Ah thank you for mentioning Bellfield Hall. I remember seeing that one a while back and had forgotten about it. That totally sounds like my kind of book :)

  30. July 22, 2010 4:53 am

    That´s such a great list, Eva. Thanks for posting it! :) Can´t wait to try these books now, especially the mystery since it sounds like something I´d love.

    • July 22, 2010 9:53 am

      Thanks Bina: I’m glad you enjoyed it! Bellfield Hall was total comfort reading; I hope if you read it you post on it. :)

  31. stacybuckeye permalink
    July 24, 2010 8:20 am

    Well, I haven’t read any of these so thanks for giving me some new books to look for, Eva!

    • July 24, 2010 9:15 am

      I hope you enjoy whichever ones you find! :)

  32. July 24, 2010 12:45 pm

    I’ve considered Twinkle Twinkle many times; it sounds so intriguing!


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  3. Thoughts: Bellfield Hall: Or, The Observations of Miss Dido Kent « Bonjour, Cass!
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  5. My Mother’s Wedding Dress (thoughts) « A Striped Armchair
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  13. Bellfield Hall (A Dido Kent Mystery, #1) by Anna Dean « The Sleepless Reader

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