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Her Privates We by Frederic Manning

This book is an account of the day to day life of a group of British soldiers in the trenches of WWI, in the autumn of 1916. They have recently come back from the front, theoretically to rest and prepare for a return to the front later in the fall. They are moved from town to town, they deal with heavy rain, mud, lice, rats, occasional shortage of food, and they are sometimes frustrated by contradictory or pointless orders from their superiors. The central character is a man named Bourne. He is an attractive, well-spoken individual, probably better educated than most of the others. We do not know his first name, nor, with very few exceptions, do we know the first names of any of his associates. Moreover, we are told almost nothing about the histories of these men before the war--where they came from, what professions they may have followed, what schools they may have attended, or their family history. The result is that they seem to have come from nowhere--here they are, in a hideous situation, with no explanation of how they got there. read moreCollapse )

Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel

Although the title suggests a memoir of time spent in Africa, Impressions of Africa is nothing of the kind. It has nothing to do with any real place called "Africa." Instead, it is a fantasy novel, full of fantastic anecdotes, bizzarre events, and improbable coincidences piled one on another to the point of tedium. It begins with a strange pageant, which begins with the proclamation of the emperor, Talou VII, and the execution of some enemies of the state. There follows a series of extraordinary performances. Among them: a marksman shoots the white off a soft-boiled egg while leaving the still-liquid yolk perfectly intact, a trained worm plays the zither by making drops of a special dense water fall accurately on the strings, a man with a particularly wide mouth has trained himself to sing four-part harmony with each part coming from a different part of his mouth, a talking horse articulates words perfectly but without understanding, etc. etc. All the performances are incredible and perfect (except that of a celebrated ex-ballerina, now obese, who takes a tumble). The account of this pageant takes up nearly half the book. Read moreCollapse )

A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen

A World of Love describes the interactions of five people--Fred and Lilia Danby, married but largely estranged, their daughters Jane and Maud, and Antonia--who live, somewhat uneasily, at Montefort, a decaying manor in the Irish countryside. The house belongs to Antonia, who inherited it from her cousin, Guy, who was killed in World War I. He left no will, so the house went to Antonia, his closest relative. At the time of his death Guy had been engaged to Lilia; after his death Lilia, pressured by Antonia, married Fred, who had grown up at Montfort. She and Fred remained at Montfort, Fred running the farm and Lilia, after a fashion, the house, but their relationship soon decayed. Antonia visits the manor from time to time but does not live there year round. At the time of the novel, Jane is about 20, and a beautiful young woman; Maud is considerably younger.Read moreCollapse )

The Heart of Redness by Zakes Mda

Comagu, the central character in The Heart of Redness, returns to Johannesburg after living some decades in America. Frustrated by the bureaucracy and the politics that prevent him from obtaining work suited to his qualifications, he is on the point of returning to America when he is diverted by an alluring woman and, hoping to find her, goes instead to Qolorha, a village on the Eastern Cape. The village is divided between "believers," those adhering to traditional tribal values, and "unbelievers," those eager to embrace contemporary white civilization. The division stems from a nineteenth century struggle. At a time when cattle were dying from lungsickness, thought to have been introduced by the English, a prophetess, Nongqawuse, told the people to kill their cattle and destroy their crops, saying that if they did so, the ancestors would rise from the sea, bringing new disease-free cattle, and drive the English into the sea. Some people--the believers--followed her instructions and waited for the miracle, but others--the unbelievers--did not. When Comagu arrives, the present-day descendants of the believers and the unbelievers are divided over the question whether Qolorha should be the site of a glamorous new gambling casino and amusement park.Read moreCollapse )

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

As everyone knows, in recent decades there has been a dramatic shift in public attitudes toward gay people, starting roughly in the 1960's. There is now a considerable body of novels and stories with gay themes, and it is not considered shocking to offer a favorable picture of gay life. The situation was very different in the early 20th century. E. M. Forster, a gay man himself, wrote Maurice in 1913-14, but did not publish it; he thought it important that the book have a happy ending but felt that a happy ending for a gay couple would be considered unacceptable. Consequently, Maurice was not published until 1971, after Forster's death.

Radclyffe Hall was more daring. She published The Well of Loneliness, with its sympathetic depiction of lesbian love and its passionate plea for toleration and acceptance of gay people, in 1928. Forster was proven right; The Well of Loneliness was banned in England in 1928 (though it nevertheless sold twenty thousand copies immediately, thus becoming one of the year's best sellers), and it provoked a court battle in the United States.Read moreCollapse )

Out of Africa by Isak Dineson

Out of Africa, the first non-fiction book I've encountered on 1001 Books,
is a first-person description of life on a coffee farm in East Africa, near Nairobi, in the years during and after. Isak Dineson (Karen Blixen) bought the farm with her husband, managed it after she and he separated, and was finally forced to sell it because of the collapse of the coffee market in 1931. In this memoir she describes the landscape, her relations with various native peoples, her friends both native and European, and her travels around the countryside. What emerges is a vivid but personal picture of life of a certain class of people in an Africa that was not only different from European civilization then or now, but also utterly different from the post-colonial Africa of today. Read moreCollapse )

The Magus by John Fowles

The Magus tells the story of Nicholas Urfe, a young Englishman who ends his relationship with an Australian woman, Alison, to take a job teaching in an English school on a Greek Island. In that idyllic setting he meets Conchis, a rich, mysterious, somewhat sinister figure who, with the help of several accomplices, leads him through an increasingly tangled web of games, masques, hallucinations, puzzles, confused identities, and ultimately a mock trial. Read moreCollapse )

Thank You, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

ThankYouJeeves-PGWodehouse(England)"Thank You, Jeeves" is the first novel to feature the inncomparable valet Jeeves and his hapless charge Bertie Wooster - and you've hardly started to turn the pages when Jeeves resigns over Bertie's dedicated but somewhat untuneful playing of the banjo. In high dudgeon, Bertie disappears to the country as a guest of his old chum Chuffy - only to find his peace shattered by the arrival of his ex-fiancee Pauline Stoker, her formidable father and the eminent loony-doctor Sir Roderick Glossp. When Chuffy falls in love with Pauline and Bertie seems to be caught in flagrante, a situation boils up which only Jeeves (whether employed or not) can simmer down...

Well, that's not the most accurate blurb I've ever read - Bertie plays the banjolele (which is a cross between a banjo and a ukelele) not a banjo. Bertie is never in danger of being caught in flagrante, it's just that he rather gets tangled up in things that other people are doing, and Jeeves is always employed in the book, just mostly not by Bertie... But apart from all that - okay... *g*

I do rather adore Jeeves and Wooster (who I will forever picture as played by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie). I couldn't remember reading this one, and it's been so long since I read others that I can't tell why this was chosen for the 1001 books you must read list, rather than any other Jeeves and Wooster novel (maybe just because it was the first J&W novel (as opposed to short story) - but I was bursting into big grins and the occasional giggle all the way through, so that might be something to do with it. *g*

Bertie Wooster just has the most ludicrous, privileged, unaware way of looking at the world, although he's not entirely an idiot - and he's just part of his time and culture. And presumably somewhat exaggerated for comic effect. *g* But - oh, his description of the things that happen in that world, this put together with that, and... it just works as something that makes you smile.

A couple of gentle quotesCollapse )

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

CryBelovedCountry-AlanPaton (SouthAfrica)I'm afraid I put off reading this for a long time, partly because of life, but also partly because I was confusing it with the film Cry Freedom, also set in apartheid South Africa, but about Steve Biko. It wasn't that Cry Freedom wasn't an excellent film, it was that I knew it would be a difficult book to read, and perhaps needed easier times in which to read it. My first book read this year was The Poisonwood Bible, also set in Africa (the Congo), and when I'd finished I knew I wanted to read more African books, and so at last I picked up Cry, the Beloved Country. And of course it was a completely different book to the one I was expecting! But it begins There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. - and I was caught. Beyond any singing of it...

In many ways it was exactly what I'd been expecting from Cry Freedom - Cry, the Beloved Country is about life in South Africa under apartheid, and the truth of it, which is harsh. It was about the terrible things that human beings do to each other, even to the people they love, and the ways that this can rebound on us, and the way hope drains away to despair. But it's also about the corners of beauty that people have inside them, the little kindnesses that they do for each other that can also turn into bigger things, and this kept me reading.

The first half of this book...Collapse )

Virgin Soil by Ivan Turgenev

Published in 1877, Virgin Soil describes the activities of a group of the Russian revolutionaries who were active in the late 1860's and 1870's. They represent the movement now known as Populism. They were persuaded that the Russian peasantry was ready to rise and establish a socialist state and in this idealistic belief they formed clandestine groups, dressed in rustic clothes and spread propaganda among the people. The people, however, were uncomprehending, or suspicious, or hostile, and many of the Populists were arrested and imprisoned. Read moreCollapse )

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