Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

The art of haiku and unrequited love…

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Thériault

theriaultI’ve been meaning to read this bittersweet novella ever since Hesperus Press published it in England last autumn. Read now, it made a perfect palate-cleanser between some heavier reads for the new issue of Shiny New Books (out on Thursday 8th October), and also crossed the ‘Canadian Author’ box off my BookBingo card (just a few to go on that now!).

It begins with a haiku:

Swirling like water
against rugged rocks,
time goes around and around

The Japanese poetic form will play a large part in this beguiling novella, which has a rather unusual love story at its heart. Although letters sent through the mail are the main driver of the exquisite plot, this is not an epistolary novel. It is, however, about the titular postman, and his extraordinary habits…

Bilodo is a postman in Montreal. He is twenty-seven, fit and efficient at his job – you’d have to be with 1495 steps on 115 staircases to climb up and down every day out on his round. However, he lives all alone with just his goldfish, Bill, for company in his little apartment. He does have one friend, Robert, who is rather oafish and always trying to set him up with dates. The only other person he really interfaces with in any way is Tania, the waitress at the brasserie where he lunches and practises his calligraphy.  He has no-one to write to him – it’s as if the world has forgotten him.

As an antidote to this, he has developed a naughty habit. “Bilodo was an inquisitive postman.

He takes letters home, carefully steams them open, enjoys reading them and takes a photocopy for his files before carefully sealing them back up and delivering them to their proper destination the next day. “He had been practising this clandestine activity for two years now. It was a crime, he was well aware of that, but guilt paled into insignificance beside supreme curiosity.”

Letters from one sister to another, from a father in prison to his son, servicemen in Afghanistan, love letters and Dear John ones. “All together they formed  kind of soap opera with multiple plots. Or rather half of a soap opera, whose other half, the one of the ‘outgoing post’, was unfortunately unavailable to him. But he liked to make up that other part, to draft elaborate replies he never posted, and when another letter arrived he was often amazed to see how naturally it fitted in with his own secret reply.”

None of these letters enchanted him more than the ones from Ségolène in Guadeloupe. Her missives to Gaston Grandpré each consist of a single haiku. A letter from Ségolène is a cause for celebration for Bilodo. He saves it until after dinner is finished and tidied away, puts on some soft jazz and lights a candle before reading and re-reading each little poem.  He is entranced by the form of the haiku and his vision of the woman writing them with whom he falls in love. It becomes an obsession, and his life, such as it was, outside his apartment starts to suffer.

It’s hard to say more about this story without spoiling the plot, but one day something happens which will throw a spanner in the works of the well-oiled chain of correspondence between Ségolène and Grandpré.  Bilodo, deep in the throes of his unrequited passion, realises that he can step into the breach, but it will require him to learn to write haiku…

Told with a great sense of humour, this novella is completely charming on the surface. At first glance, it may appear to be a story of unrequited love, but as you read on, something darker and more twisted is revealed – and fate will overtake Bilodo. In this, the story is much like the deepest black comedies by Frenchman Pascal Garnier, (see here and here). The Hesperus edition also comes with lovely French flaps covers, plus Reading Group questions and an interview with the author. Superbe! (9/10)

* * * * *

One thing this novel will make you want to do is to explore the world of the haiku, and maybe have a go at writing your own – something I’ve dabbled with in the past. Here is my latest effort, inspired by the arrival this weekend of the rides and sideshows for the Michaelmas Fair in Abingdon which is on Monday and Tuesday next week.

The fair is in town.
Hot-dogs, diesel, music, lights,
assault the senses.

* * * * *
Source: Own Copy.

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Thériault, translated by Liedewy Hawke. Hesperus, 2014. Paperback, 128 pages.

Buy Books for Syria with Waterstones and Oxfam

There will be book reviews here soon – promise. This week has been insanely busy and it’s my daughter’s birthday and the next issue of Shiny New Books next week – but I am reading, just no time for blogging much. However, today I’m going to plug an extremely worthwhile campaign that I’m sure you’ll all hear a lot more about in coming days.

Waterstones have teamed up with lots of publishers and lovely authors to raise money for Oxfam to support their work in Syria. 100% of the proceeds from sales of all the books on the list will be donated. Find out more about the campaign and the full list of titles available here: Buy Books For Syria.

I was invited to champion a particular book on the list. More on my second another time, but my first choice is:

The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier

lady and the unicorn Not one of Chevalier’s best known books, it was published in 2003 and I read it pre-blog. I really enjoyed it though, because it features the creation of my favourite things in Paris – the wonderful La Dame à la Licorne tapestries at the Musée National du Moyen Âge formerly known as the Musée de Cluny.  The set of tapestries are all housed in one large room, and I could sit there for hours contemplating them.
My best bits of Paris
The six tapestries represent the five senses, plus one last one called À mon seul désir, pictured right. The style is mille-fleurs and they date from the end of the 15th century. They were woven in Flanders and this is where Chevalier’s book is set. Like many of Chevalier’s novels, there is a mixture of art and romance, in this case a forbidden romance between the tapestry-maker and the daughter of the nobleman who commissions them.

Little is truly known of their provenance, so Chevalier is able to weave a great story from the bare threads (!)

If you’d like to support the campaign and buy this book – Click on the picture below which will take you to the edition in this promotion where you can ‘click and collect’ or pop into your local Waterstones.

Worth every penny?

List of the Lost by Morrissey

list of the lostRegular visitors will know that I am willing to try reading anything, and I always try to look for the best in a novel.

I read Morrissey’s ‘Autobiography‘ and reviewed it here, finding some parts, especially the childhood sections a fair read – it soon descended into being bitter and twisted and oh so boring though.

So, I couldn’t resist spending £5.59 on a copy of his novel, out yesterday – my copy arrived this morning, and I have skimmed bits of it at coffee break and lunchtime.

The first sentences reads thus:

Ezra, Nails, Harri, Justy. You’d dig hard and deep to excavate four names quite so unusual. Yet there they were and there they stood, sounding exactly like what they were.

Nothing special, except I already thought I’d rather re-read about another foursome – Jude, Willem, Malcolm and JB!  The fourth sentence continues:

You would be offered a hearty shake of the javelin hand as expressions of possession of command from the four boys, each one fully developed into the blissful torment of their turnabout twentieth year – a pleasantly resolved marital union almost closed off in its camaraderie to the onlookers of the mookish great world.

Seriously, it had lost me already.

*** SPOILERS ***   *** SPOILERS ***  *** SPOILERS ***

Skimming on, the foursome get into an assortment of scrapes including an encounter with hobo who dies, finding a body long-buried in their college grounds. Oo-er! All sounds a bit Secret History suddenly…

Then, on page 99 begins an excruciating sex scene between Ezra and his girlfriend Eliza.  The Times informs me it is 72 lines long!

… Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone. …

Private Eye, you can award him the Bad Sex Award now!


It’s ranty, overblown, very abstract at times, and very annoyingly, the dialogue is in italics.

Mercifully, it is only 118 pages long, but I don’t think I can be bothered to read it in full.  Still for the price of a pint and a half, it has ‘entertained’ me.

* * * * *

Source: Own copy – DNF

List of the Lost by Morrissey – published 24th Sept 2015 by Penguin. Paperback original. 118 pages.

Too much life?

A Little Life by Hanya Yanahigara

YanagiharaThis novel has really divided its readers into camps. Most, but not all, of those reading along with Scott didn’t like it, and neither did James and Teresa. But, on the other side, Simon S, Jackie and Rebecca all loved it.

Where do I stand? Well – I’m a little on the fence. It’s not that I lack the courage of my convictions to come out and say that I loved or hated this book. It’s just that for everything I loved about this book, there was nearly always something that irked me too. Irked rather than hated though, so I guess I’m just inside the fence. In truth I found it unputdownable (for as long as I could hold the book up). Once started I was hooked and there was no way I wouldn’t read it through to the end.

It was very interesting to (actually manage for once) to readalong with a group of others, commenting back on  Scott‘s blog after each section. Part three in particular generated a wonderful discussion based around one bad sentence highlighted initially by Janet.

I’m going to assume you’re slightly familiar with the basics of A Little Life by now and just outline a few of my thoughts (there may be slight spoilers!)

  • For me, 746 pages was about two to three hundred too many. I didn’t need all the repetitive detail, although it does emphasise some of the awfulness of Jude’s life of suffering. I read that she disregarded some of the cuts her editor suggested, which was probably a shame.
  • It will make a marvelous mini-series, should someone like HBO be brave enough to make one. There are real ‘duff-duff’ moments (Eastenders signature style cliff-hangers), which leads me to say that I think it may be the latest ‘Great American Soap Opera’ rather than the latest ‘Great American Novel’.  Soaps aren’t all bad though…
  • The author obviously worked hard to be inclusive in her four male leads – sexuality, ethnicity, economic status etc – at the beginning all are there which makes it interesting but also makes it feel like all boxes have been ticked.
  • I loved the beginning. Meeting the four guys, letting Jude take a back step so that we could get to know Willem, JB and Malcolm. Malcolm remained so undeveloped though that he was ultimately expendable. I wanted more Malcolm. I was very fond of Willem, and found JB interesting rather than likeable – his obsession of only painting his three best friends in his art over the years was a little creepy I thought.
  • I had been determined that Jude’s pain wouldn’t get to me. I’ve recently read James Rhodes’ memoir, Instrumental and thought that a fictional account of child abuse couldn’t get to me having read about a real one and the ongoing effects in his life. Although horrific, it didn’t – however, it was when Jude was let down by someone he’d mistakenly begun to trust in part IV that the floodgates opened, and I wept realising that Yanagihara was never going to let Jude stop being a victim, he’d only get sicker as she put it in an interview for Vulture.

“I wanted A Little Life to do the reverse: to begin healthy (or appear so), and end sick — both the main character, Jude, and the plot itself.”

  • Although Yanagihara has said it’s not impossible that Jude could suffer so much and be so successful at work, it is improbable – but, as Sherlock Holmes says in The Sign of Four: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”
  • The book never deviated from telling us about the lives of the four men over its forty years or so. If it didn’t involve one of the quartet, it wasn’t in the novel.
  • There were no cultural touchstones at all – it was timeless. This was one of the novel’s great successes, and also one of its bigger flaws. It meant the author didn’t have to bother with anything that would date it, but also that external events that the guys must surely have come into contact with like HIV, 9/11 and everything relating to politics could be left out. Given how detailed she was about the minutiae of things, I missed a bit of scene-setting in this regard.
  • There were other things I missed. I’d have loved more about the lives of Harold and Andy, the two other men who loved Jude as surrogates, father and big brother respectively. By the time Yanagihara introduces Andy’s surname, it seems too late; the author keeps introducing little snippets of information like this that you would have expected earlier in the text.
  • Malcolm gets the least page-space of the quartet (see above). He’s the straight married one. Conveniently he and Sophie decide not to have children; it’s never mentioned again. There will be no next generation for any of them – a godchild for Jude would have cast a spanner in the works, giving him a cause to live for.
  • Even when Jude does allow himself to be happy, he’s still totally insecure, even in bed next to Willem:

‘All I want,’ he’d said to Jude one night, trying to explain the satisfaction that at that moment was burbling inside him, like water in a bright blue kettle, ‘is work I enjoy, and a place to live, and someone who loves me. See? Simple.’

Jude had laughed, sadly. ‘Willem,’ he said, ‘that’s all I want, too.’

‘But you have that,’ he’d said quietly, and Jude was quiet too.

‘Yes,’ he said, at last. ‘You’re right.’ But he hadn’t sounded convinced. (p521)

  • As a portrait of friendship, and the trials and tribulations of maintaining friendships over the years, this novel did touch me deeply. However, it was also very claustrophobic – it was lot of life crammed, even shoehorned, primarily into Jude’s experience. Even when there was momentary relief from the misery, you knew that something else would be around the corner.
  • I’m so glad the UK cover illustrates the apartment that Willem and Jude rent together in the first part – one of the more positive sections of the book. I would have had to take the d/j off if I had the US cover with its anguished face on the cover.

So, there you have it, a book I enjoyed but didn’t love, a compulsive but flawed read that didn’t quite make the hype worth it.  Will it win the Man Booker? It must be favourite, but I have a feeling this could be Anne Tyler’s year (since Marilynne Robinson was not shortlisted)… Who can tell.

Which camp did you fall into, or did you like me stay nearer the fence with A Little Life?  (7/10)

* * * * *

Source: Own copy.

A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara. Pub Picador 2015. Hardback, 746 pages.

Seven today!


It feels like I’ve been blogging for an awful long time but also, that this year’s blog anniversary has come around very quickly. For Annabel’s House of Books, which started off on Blogspot being called ‘Gaskella‘ on Sept 17th 2008, is seven years old today.

As always, my profound thanks to everyone who has ever stopped by,
whether just passing through or leaving comments.

Reading Routines

Week two of a new academic year and life is yet to settle back into its normal rhythm.

reading in bed

Jessie Willcox Smith ‘The Bed-Time Book’ 1907

With a teenager in the house who likes her lie-ins whenever she gets a chance, the summer holiday has meant more time in bed for me reading every morning too. Luxury! If for any reason I woke up during the night, instead of struggling to get back to sleep, I’d read for a bit until Morpheus beckoned again. At night, I’d go to bed at a reasonable hour and read until I fell asleep.

After one week back at school,  my reading routine is not there yet – I can’t keep awake for long enough to read much at all at bedtime. Mornings are easier thanks to the alarm clock. On a good weekday I can quickly make a cuppa (and feed the cats) and then go back to bed for half an hour before having to get up, but I need to get back to getting that hour of reading before going to sleep.  Fingers crossed that I’ll get back in the groove very soon.

I realise that anyone who doesn’t work term-time only won’t appreciate my woes, but reading is such a great pleasure it’s makes me grumpy when I don’t get enough of it!

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