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A notorious case – Rex V Thompson @shinynewbooks @ApolloFiction

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My latest read for Shiny New Books was one I’d been keen to get my hands on since I heard it was coming out. I first came across the Thompson-Bywaters murder case via the wonderful Virago book, “A Pin to see the Peepshow” by F. Tennyson Jesse. It’s a remarkable and brilliant fictionalization of the case by an author who was also a journalist and criminologist, and I would recommend anyone who hasn’t read it to search it out.

Covering the case for the newspapers was another journalist and author, one of my favourites in fact – Beverley Nichols. I’ve read two volumes of his autobiographies. written decades apart, and in each he touches upon the case. He was obviously deeply affected by it, and perhaps somewhat haunted.

Author Laura Thompson

The new book by Laura Thompson is a bracing look at the events and the trial, accessing papers not released before, and making a robust case for a miscarriage of justice. Thompson appears to have been judged on her gender, her sexuality and on a class basis, rather than any evidence. You can read my review here on Shiny New Books – a remarkably powerful work!

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Coming up next! (well, in six months’ time….) – 1944!

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The 1977 Club is over, and what a success! So many of you took part – thank you! – and it was fascinating seeing what books you’d discovered, read and discussed. I know some were hoping the next club would move on to the 1980s, but I think that was a bit of a bridge too far for Simon and myself. So when we discussed the options for choosing the next date, we did consider going back to the 1920s again, then Simon came up with the clever idea of going for a random year. I liked that a lot too, and so Simon did all the hard with random.org (as well as designing the logo) and the result was – 1944!

As Simon mentions in his post, this is the first time we’ve chosen a wartime year, so there could be a number of interesting works to read here. You have six months to plan, and we hope as many of you as possible of you will join in. There’s plenty of preparation time – so let’s get searching the stacks! 🙂

#1977Club – a final post!

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Phew! So we reached the end of the #1977club in one piece and having read, discussed and discovered some very interesting titles! In the end, as always, I ran out of time and didn’t read all I wanted to – but these are the ones I *did* read:

Four books in total, only one of which was a fail (the Carter). Rediscovering favourite authors like Brautigan and Plath was a joy, and exploring Margaret Atwood’s early stories just served to reinforce what an excellent writer she really is. Despite my issues with the Carter, I *will* try other titles by her – if for no other reason than to prove I haven’t turned into a soppy old wuss!!

Alas, I didn’t get to the Barthes; but that will remain on the TBR and hopefully be read at some time in the future. If you’re still reading from 1977, please do leave links on the 1977 page – it’s been wonderful seeing what everyone else has been reading and watching the discussions. Here’s to the next club, whichever year that may be…. 😉

#1977Club – early and brilliant short stories from @MargaretAtwood @ViragoBooks

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So, after a fairly rotten experience with Angela Carter, I decided that my last read of the week should be the ever-inspiring Margaret Atwood. I hoped I would be on slightly safer territory here and thank goodness, I was!

”Dancing Girls”is a 1977 collection of short stories by Atwood and my edition was published by Virago in 1984. Interestingly, Ali’s post notes that there are differences in the stories selected for the different editions, which made me curious about the stories excluded. Perhaps we’ll have a collected stories of Atwood one day….  Anyway, this book is early Atwood, published a point where she was known for poetry and three novels; and as I haven’t finished reading it yet, I thought I would share thoughts on some of the stories I’ve read so far.

The collection opens with The Man from Mars, which tells of a kind of stalking episode (as we would now call it). And Christine, the girl being stalked, almost finds a kind of validation in the attention she receives, despite the man concerned being alien to her in many ways. It’s a strong and memorable story which stays with you.

I want to tell him now what no one’s ever taught him, how two people who love each other behave, how they avoid damaging each other, but I’m not sure I know.

Under Glass features an alienated narrator, struggling with a serially unfaithful lover; it’s cleverly written, suggesting much instead of spelling things out, and also lingers in the mind. As for The Grave of the Famous Poet, this was particularly striking. Although the story is allusive rather than direct, I presume the poet is Dylan Thomas and the setting is Laugharne – that would tie in with mention of Welsh cakes, the sea, the need to get a bus to somewhere big enough to have a railway station, and the like. Again, a couple struggle with their relationship which plays out against the foreign landscape and comes to a crashing conclusion.

This is an interval, a truce; it can’t last, we both know it, there have been too many differences, of opinion we called it, but it was more than that, the things that mean safety for him mean danger for me. We’ve talked too much or not enough; for what we have to say to each other there’s no language, we’ve tried them all.

All these stories attempt to navigate that complex and slippery terrain where men and women attempt to deal with their personal relationships; it was difficult in the 1970s, and is probably no easier now. “Dancing Girls” is an early work, with perhaps an unevenness in some of the stories, but it’s proved memorable so far. Although we’re coming to the end of the #1977club, I shall continue to read this one; because I have to say that I’ve never found an Atwood book I don’t love in some way – and “Dancing Girls” is no exception!

 

 

 

 

#1977club – a rarity – DNF and Did Not Really Get On With….

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The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter

First up, a bit of a TRIGGER and SPOILER warning. This post will discuss a reasonable amount of detail about this book, and it’s fair to say that it covers subjects like rape, anal sex, violence, bondage, sadomasochism, gender re-alignment and a lot of post-apocalyptic stuff. So, not a light, sunny read, really…

Where to begin? I first read Angela Carter back in the 1980s, and I liked what I read. I’m aware that Carter was an uncompromising author who pushed the boundaries and is not going to be a cosy read, but I was keen to re-engage with her work after quite a gap and as this one was published in 1977 it seemed the ideal place to go. Or perhaps not.

Broadly, the story tells of Evelyn, a young Englishman who decamps to New York; however, this is no regular city, but one descending into apocalyptic chaos. Gangs abound, whether people of colour or feminist groups; the rats are taking over; violence is the order of the day; and Evelyn’s behaviour is not particularly pretty in itself.

After a tortuous affair with a glamorous dancer, Leilah, which ends in unpleasantness and disaster, Evelyn heads off to the desert where everything goes to hell in a handcart. It was here I began to lose interest; suffice to say that Evelyn encounters the formidable Mother, a many-breasted entity; undergoes gender realignment; gets captured and repeatedly raped by a mad, one-legged poet; and so on and so on. I confessed I glossed over a lot of what was happening, because not only was it fairly unpleasant, I just wasn’t finding myself drawn into the story or caring about anybody in it.

I found myself wondering if I’d gone a bit prudish in my old age; after all, I read Burroughs and Kathy Acker in my teens without any problem, so did I just react badly to this because of the content and was I unable to see past this to what Carter was saying? And what actually *was* she saying?

Sorry Angela – this wasn’t for me…. (image c. Jane Bown/The Observer)

 

This may be the problem I had with the book, because I don’t think actually that’s very clear. Evelyn is not a pleasant character as a man, and as any reader is probably going to anticipate, halfway through he becomes the Eve of the title. As a woman, the kind of treatment meted out to him is perhaps the kind Evelyn would have been happy to serve up to any woman he encounters – and certainly he’s pretty brutish while still a man. If Carter’s intention is to highlight the bad way that men treat women, then she wraps it up in a load of apocalyptic pseudo-mythology that for me really didn’t work.

Another problem was the writing; some of the early prose was excellent, really evocative and beautiful, conjuring up the crumbling city of New York and its denizens in a very evocative way. However, I found it often descended into cliché, particularly when dealing with the various sex acts, and the overall narrative seemed to lose coherence too often for me, becoming quite clunky in places. I really struggled to engage, but I couldn’t, so I lost patience and skipped through much of the book.

It may be that this book has dated badly and would have been more groundbreaking or innovative in 1977; or it may be that I missed something I was supposed to get out of it. Certainly, many online reviews rate “The Passion of New Eve” really highly, but it’s not one for me. I was sorry about this, because I’ve enjoyed Carter’s writing in the past; and indeed I was lucky enough to meet her at a film showing/signing back in the 1980s (and I still have the signed book to prove it!)

I rarely write negative posts because I try very hard to read books I’m going to enjoy, or get something out of, or that will stimulate or move me, or educate me, or make me think, or make me laugh, or make me cry. Unfortunately, this did nothing for me at all, except make me wonder what the point of it all was. So alas my first ‘bad’ read for ages was for the #1977club – let’s hope the next one is a bit more satisfying….

#1977Club – Revisiting some Plathian prose

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Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams by Sylvia Plath

In 1977, what you might call the cult of Sylvia Plath was still in its infancy; controversy raged about her legacy, but probably more in feminist circles than in the mainstream (that was to come later). But in that year, Faber and Faber issued “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams”, a collection of prose by Plath, and it must have been manna from heaven for those who wanted more from the author. I have three copies – I’m not quite sure why – and one at least will have been from the late 1970s or early 1980s when I was first discovering Plath. I couldn’t say if I’ve revisited it since, but I was really keen to do so to find out what I thought of it now. All I can recall for sure is that I thought the title story was weird…

Yes, I do indeed have three copies of “Johnny Panic” and this was the one I read…

The book pulls together a number of prose works, collected by Ted Hughes, and these he divides into those he considers “more successful”, other stories, notebook excerpts and stories found in the Lilly Library. It’s perhaps an odd way to assemble a book, and his introduction doesn’t help matters by referring to her ‘lost’ novel “Double Exposure” (now so famous that mention of it turned up in a book a reviewed not long ago…) So what of the works that *are* included here? Well, of course they’re marvellous.

The bottom one is my original from way back when – and I can see from an ancient bookmark, that I did re-read at least *some* of it at one point!

As well as being a magnificent poet, Plath was also a great prose stylist and these works are little gems. Yes, the title story *is* a bit weird – drawing on Plath’s experience of mental illness, presumably – but it’s bloody good and no wonder I remembered it. So are the others – good, that is – with a particular favourite being “The Daughters of Blossom Street”, again with a hospital setting. The works are an interesting mixture really – and from what we now know of Plath it’s easy to see how the fictions draw on the material of her life, and sit so well alongside the non-fiction pieces. A short one and a half page prose piece, “Context”, is particularly strong, with Plath discussing where her poetry sits. She identifies very much with the attitude “the personal is political”, and it’s rather frightening to think how little has changed in the conflicts present in our world over the last 50 years or so.

For me, the real issues of our time are the issues of every time – the hurt and wonder of loving; making in all its forms – children, loaves of bread, paintings, buildings; and the conservation of life of all people in all places, the jeopardizing of which no abstract doubletalk of ‘peace’ or ‘implacable foes’ can excuse.

Then there are memoir pieces like the evocative “Ocean 12-12W” recalling her young life by the sea at her grandparents’ house; and “Snow Blitz”, which presumably was one of her final pieces of writing, dated as it is 1963 and dealing with the frozen winter that had its part in her final demise. Chilling, in both senses of the word.

… the simple, lugubrious vision of a human face turning aside forever, in spite of rings and vows, to the last lover of all.

The notebook extracts are tantalising, reminding me of the fact that I really need to sit down and read Plath’s journals and letters, and also making me crabby about the fact that some of them were destroyed. In all her prose works, Plath shows herself to be a sharp observer of human behaviour and also a writer capable of conjuring a setting or an atmosphere seemingly at ease; and I can only wish that there were more works available.

Because much as I love being able to read these prose works of Plath, it strikes me as what we have here is inadequate. In 1977, apart from the individual poetry books, “Letters Home” and “The Bell Jar”, nothing else was available and *anything* was a bonus. Now, however, I think we need a proper collection; someone to undertake the bringing together of all her shorter prose pieces, in much the same way as her letters and journals have been collected. Plath was constantly writing and submitting works, so I presume there are plenty more lurking somewhere. I think in many ways Hughes was not necessarily the right person to curate her writings, and it needs a scholar to bring objectivity to them and also proper organisation. As an example, the works collected here are in no particular order and if Hughes chose a thematic approach, I can’t quite see what that was. However, a chronological gathering would allow the reader to see how her prose developed as she honed her craft and that would be fascinating. I believe that her work and her legacy deserves this, as do her many readers. Nevertheless, “Johnny Panic” is an essential collection until we get something more definitive, and another wonderful title from 1977.

#1977club – some previous reads

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Well, we’re halfway through our week of reading from 1977, and I thought I would take a look at some previous reads – both on the blog and off. Interestingly, I don’t seem to have covered many books from 1977 here on the Ramblings, but I don’t record the publication dates so I may have missed some. Anyways, as they say, here are a few I’ve written about before:

Interestingly, I guess you could possibly say that these are what might be called ‘difficult’ books; Clarice Lispector, who I wrote about here, definitely has a reputation as not being a straightforward read. The Strugatskys wrote some marvellous speculative and sci-fi books – this one is a wonderfully twisty tale and you can read my thoughts on it here. And the Lem was one of a series of re-issues by Penguin. Again writing under a Soviet regime, so lots of subtexts, I covered it for Shiny New Books here.

However, in pre-blog times I’ve read some substantial books from 1977, including these:

I went through a phase of reading Diana Wynne Jones in the 1980s (and was lucky enough to meet her once). She was a marvellous author (much better than a certain HP writer, in my view…) and this is one of her Chrestomanci books. She always twisted reality rather wonderfully. The Tolkien came out not long after I had discovered The Lord of the Rings , and I was keen to read anything by the author; although I’ve never found anything that matched up to the trilogy.

The very fat Agatha book was essential reading for any fan of the great Christie and I read it back in the day although if you asked me for specifics I would collapse in a heap of poor memory. As for the Woolf diaries – well, I came upon these in the early 1980s (which is when I think they first appeared in paperback). I had a daily train commute at the time and I immersed myself in Woolf’s diaries and letters and all the wonder and strangeness of Bloomsbury – developed a real obsession with the group, in fact. I would love to read them all again – maybe in retirement – but time isn’t going to permit that during this week.

I also recall that I once owned and read a copy of “In Patagonia” and I think I rather enjoyed it – but it, and my memories of it, have I’m afraid flown off in the wind…

So – some previous reads on and off the blog. I’m still planning a mix of new and old reads this week, and it’s actually nice that our club reads give me what I feel is an excuse to re-read. What are you enjoying from 1977 this week?

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