In My Hands Today…

The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch – Anne Enright

The novel opens in Paris, in the midst of the sexual embrace that makes Eliza Lynch the mistress of Francisco Solano López, the third dictator of Paraguay. She is nineteen years old but wise beyond her years-initiated into sex by a Mr. Bennett, a friend of her family’s, while still at school, she has had many lovers and even been married, to an abusive Frenchman named Quatrefages from whom she escaped in north Africa to return to Paris. She is currently a society paramour who maintains a respectable façade even while sleeping with a dressmaker in exchange for credit. López is a young comer in Paraguayan politics, the son of the current dictator, who is in Europe on a diplomatic tour and to recruit engineers and others to help on his plan to build the first railway in South America. He goes to Eliza Lynch for French lessons, but history has other plans for them. A few months later, Eliza realizes she is pregnant.

Eliza accompanies López on his tour of the continent and they are now aboard the Tacuarí, having made the Atlantic crossing and navigating the Rio Parana towards Asunción, Paraguay, López’s home. Hugely pregnant, Eliza swings in a hammock feeling simultaneously imperious (she drinks champagne, cooled by being dragged through the river’s water on a rope; she presides over card games which mimic the high society she has left behind and gets to know the English engineer and Scottish doctor her husband has hired) and helpless, completely out of her element in a tropical, buggy landscape.

But Eliza is a quick study-she befriends Miltón, her husband’s Guaraní Indian servant, who teaches her to starch her dresses with porridge to combat the humidity, as the locals do, and quickly begins to think about fixing up Francine, her maid, with one of the men her husband has recruited to assist in his nationalist ambitions. Eliza proves herself a formidable woman, with exactly the right combination of strength, will, resources, and the strategic ability to make allowances for the powerful that will prove her, over the course of López’s rule, his most powerful ally. When it becomes clear López-“my dear friend” as Eliza calls him-wants to sleep with Francine himself, Eliza sends the girl off to him, consolidating her own power even as she betrays herself. As they arrive in Asunción, she dresses in a lilac gown that is at the cutting edge of Paris fashion, astonishing the crowd at the pier with her poise, her beauty, her blonde, physical foreignness, even as she is going into labor.

In My Hands Today…

The Coward’s Tale – Vanessa Gebbie

Nine-year-old Laddy Merridew, sent to live with his grandmother for reasons he does not understand, stumbles off the bus in a small Welsh town where he begins an unlikely friendship with old Ianto Passchendaele Jenkins, the town beggar-storyteller.

Through Ianto, Laddy learns of the collapse decades earlier of a coal mine called Kindly Light-a disaster whose legacy has echoed through generations, shaping lives in unexpected ways. And while Ianto spins the lively stories of so many men and women in this town, it’s his own history in Kindly Light that is the story he can’t tell.

In My Hands Today…

Scenes from Early Life – Philip Hensher

“At that time, there were children you weren’t supposed to play with. You knew why. Their parents had been informers during the war. And it hadn’t been long since you could have got into trouble for singing a song. My grandfather hid all his Bengali poetry in the cellar.

“I was a baby during the war. We stayed inside for months. All my aunts took turns in feeding me. I couldn’t be heard to cry. You see, there were soldiers in the streets. They would have known what a crying baby meant. So I had to be kept silent. No, not everyone came out of the war alive.”

One family’s life, and a nation – Bangladesh – being created through conversation, sacrifice, songs, bonds, blood, bravery and jokes.

In My Hands Today…

Offshore – Penelope Fitzgerald

On the Battersea Reach of the Thames, a mixed bag of the slightly disreputable, the temporarily lost, and the patently eccentric live on houseboats, rising and falling with the great river’s tides.

Belonging to neither land nor sea, they cling to one another in a motley yet kindly society. There is Maurice, by occupation a male prostitute, by happenstance a receiver of stolen goods. And Richard, a buttoned-up ex-navy man whose boat dominates the Reach. Then there is Nenna, a faithful but abandoned wife, the diffident mother of two young girls running wild on the waterfront streets.

It is Nenna’s domestic predicament that, as it deepens, draws the relations among this scrubby community together into ever more complex and comic patterns.

In My Hands Today…

The Conservationist – Nadine Gordimer

Mehring is rich. He has all the privileges and possessions that South Africa has to offer, but his possessions refuse to remain objects.

His wife, son, and mistress leave him; his foreman and workers become increasingly indifferent to his stewarsship; even the land rises up, as drought, then flood, destroy his farm.

In My Hands Today…

Moon Tiger – Penelope Lively

The elderly Claudia Hampton, a best-selling author of popular history; lies alone in a London hospital bed. Memories of her life still glow in her fading consciousness, but she imagines writing a history of the world. Instead, Moon Tiger is her own history, the life of a strong, independent woman, with its often contentious relations with family and friends. At its center — forever frozen in time, the still point of her turning world — is the cruelly truncated affair with Tom, a British tank commander whom Claudia knew as a reporter in Egypt during World War II.