Home

“velvet nights spiked with menace” – in which Angela and I are reconciled…

9 Comments

Fireworks by Angela Carter

As a rule, I don’t generally have disastrous reading experiences. Life is too short to waste on books you don’t like so I try to tailor my reading to things I actually want to read or hope I’ll get something from; or to continue the ongoing search for those works which change your life. However, I had a less-than-pleasant encounter with Angela Carter during our week of reading for the #1977club, when I found “The Passion of the New Eve” to be most unpleasant with no redeeming features. This *did* irk me a bit, because I’ve enjoyed her work in the past; so, as Carter is the author of the month on the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group, I resolved to try again, and picked up “Fireworks” a slim volume of short works.

Sorry Virago, but I really *don’t* like that cover at all – I want a green version……

First published by Virago in 1988, the book collects works that span a number of years, some as early as 1974 (though it isn’t specified which is dated when). I had previously read, and been intrigued, by the opening story “A Souvenir of Japan”; and indeed several of the stories seem to be set there (and apparently draw heavily on the period Carter lived there in the early 1970s). There are nine stories here, all very disparate in subject but all very much in Carter’s style.

I speak as if he had no secrets from me. Well, then, you must realize that I was suffering from love and I knew him as intimately as I knew my own image in a mirror. In other words, I knew him only in relation to myself. Yet, on those terms, I knew him perfectly. At times, I thought I was inventing him as I went along, however, so you will have to take my word for it that we existed. But I do not want to paint our circumstantial portraits so that we both emerge with enough well-rounded, spuriously detailed actuality that you are forced to believe in us. I do not want to practise such sleight of hand. You must be content only with glimpses of our outlines, as if you had caught sight of our reflections in the looking-glass of someone else’s house as you passed by the window.

I don’t know if it was just that I was in the right mood this time, but I found myself seduced by Carter’s prose from the very start. The stories cover much ground – the complexities of personal relationships (“A Souvenir…”, “Flesh and the Mirror”); myth, legend and brutality in far countries (“The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter”, “Master”); morality (or lack of it) in disintegrating landscapes (“Elegy for a Freelance”, “Master” again); being an outsider, the ‘other’ (“A Souvenir…” again, “The Smile of Winter”); plus strange and haunting works which draw on fairytale and fantasy (“Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest”, “Reflections”, “The Loves of Lady Purple”). These stories are disturbing and beautiful and I found myself lost in other worlds brilliantly created by Carter in astonishing prose.

These tree trunks bore an out-crop of plants, orchids, poisonous, iridescent blossoms and creepers the thickness of an arm with flowering mouths that stuck out viscous tongues to trap the flies that nourished them. Bright birds of unknown shapes infrequently darted past him and sometimes monkeys, chattering like the third form, leaped from branch to branch that did not move beneath them.

I mentioned brutality and yes, there is violence (emotional, physical and sexual); however, I didn’t have quite the problem with it that I did reading “Passion…” Maybe I recognised that it was necessary here for the stories Carter was telling; maybe the storytelling was so strong that I could see the point; or maybe her beautiful writing counterbalanced the darkness and provided a necessary harmony in her work. Certainly Angela Carter’s prose was just stunning in these tales; hypnotic and haunting, it convinced me that I hadn’t been wrong in my belief that I had loved her work previously – and still can and do. The stories are multi-faceted, multi-layered things of beauty and cruelty, and I think that a second reading would pull out many more references and resonances than I saw on my first read.

I had fallen through one of the holes life leaves in it; these peculiar holes are the entrances to the counters at which you pay the price of the way you live.

Picking favourites is always difficult (and maybe controversial!) when reading a collection of short works, but I have to mention in particular “Reflections”; this wonderful and dark fairy tale, drawing on mythology, had the most amazing imagery and the pictures it painted in my head will stay with me.

Carter in the early 1970s

So Angela and I are reconciled. Yes, there is violence and cruelty (and rape, I’m afraid) in these stories, but this time around I felt Carter was using these things for a purpose. The worlds she portrays are beautiful and brutal, filled with vivid landscapes, striking imagery and troubled people, smoke and mirrors, dreams and allegories. I am pleased to say that I will *definitely* be reading Carter again

Advertisements

Penguin Moderns 5 and 6 – Erotica and the Orient

18 Comments

My third pair of Penguin Moderns is perhaps a less obvious duo of books; the subject matter and country of origin don’t fall naturally together, but I seem to have got into a routine of reading two PMs together – so let’s see what I make of these…

Penguin Modern 5 – Three Japanese Short Stories

This particular Penguin Modern is one I was very much looking forward to; I read a lot of Japanese fiction back in the day (particularly Mishima), but not many short stories and none of the authors featured here, as far as I’m aware. And the three stories really couldn’t be more varied!

The first, Behind the Prison by Nagai Kafu, is narrated in the form of a letter from a renegade son; having spent time in the West, he’s returned to his homeland and family but struggles with ennui and dislocation. Critical of Japanese society, he is unable to find a place in the world; and the house behind the prisoner, in which he lives, confines him as much as that building does its inmates.

Closet LLB by Uno Koji, the second story in the collection, is a lighter, more humorous work; the title character is a lawyer (signified by the LLB!) although he keeps his qualification in the closet – as well as himself at points! He must be one of the laziest and most languid characters in literature; as unable as the narrator of the first story to find his place, but this is because he simply can’t be bothered…

Finally we have General Kim by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, which conforms very much to what I would call the ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ kind of Japanese storytelling; full of supernatural elements and dramatic fights and leaping in the air.

Of the three, the latter was my least favourite; I appreciated the second’s humorous twists; and I loved the first story a lot. It was beautifully written, with some atmospheric descriptions and one of those last lines that kicks you in the feels a bit. All of the stories are translated by Jay Rubin and are rather excitingly taken from the forthcoming Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories – which I may feel the need to read…

Penguin Modern 6 – The Veiled Woman by Anais Nin

And now we go off somewhere *very* different, with Anais Nin and her erotica! Three of the stories (The Veiled Woman, Linda and Marianne) are drawn from Delta of Venus, possibly her best known collection, and I *have* owned a copy of this at some point. The other (Mandra) I had read before, so possibly I had more than one book. And I think I have a copy of one of her Virago books, Collages, somewhere – possibly… (you’ll notice that I’m never quite sure what I own in the way of books, which is vaguely disturbing). Any road up, what of these stories?

Well, if I’m honest, I had a bit of a “meh” response and found myself not really that interested. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert in the subject of writings about sex, but as erotica the stories seem pretty well written, avoiding the cringe-worthy cliché that these things often fall into. There’s dominance, subjection, masks, anonymity, orgies, lesbianism and all that, which seems reasonable if you want to read that kind of thing. But I found myself querying why you would want to (apart from the obvious reasons…) As *literature*, as short stories, they’re not that great; when I think of the perfection of one of Chekhov’s short stories, that’s certainly not here. Nin famously began writing erotica as a kind of joke for a private collector, and apparently never expected the stories to be taken seriously.

However, it’s worth acknowledging that she *was* breaking new ground in that she was a woman writing in this field; and also noting that her female characters, though very clichéd, are active sexual beings who are often in control, rather than the passive cardboard cut-outs or dolls that might be portrayed by a male writer.

As I said, I’m no expert in this field; but I think I might have a dig in the stacks and see what else I have by Nin – it would be interesting to see what her other fictions are like!

*****

No – as hard as I try, I can’t find much connection between these two Penguin Moderns! Both, however, had points of interest; and in particular I’m very keen to see what the Penguin Japanese collection is like when it comes out. One thing is for sure, though – this Penguin Modern box is going to be full of plenty of variety! 🙂

My Blog’s Name in Books…. :)

35 Comments

There is a lovely meme doing the rounds at the moment that I’ve been umming and ahhing about, but I’ve finally succumbed! It originated with Fictionophile and basically you have to choose books from your TBR to spell out your blog name. Sounds fun, yes, and I’ve enjoyed everyone else’s posts on this; however, I hesitated for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because my TBR books are frankly all over the house; and because I figured it would take quite a lot of books. But I gave in at last, and with some helpful suggestions from OH behind the scenes, this is what I came up with:

Yes, there they are – a selection of unread books that spell out Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings! I’ve split them up into the three words (without apostrophe, of course) so that I can run through what they are. Be prepared – as my blog has a long name, this will be a long post…

First up, Kaggsys:

(The) Kremlin Ball by Curzio Malaparte – a fascinating sounding review copy from NYRB – I’m  hoping to get this one to the top of the pile soon!

A Passionate Apprentice – early essays by Virginia Woolf – one day I would like to read through all of Woolf’s essays – one day….

(The) Great Hunger – Patrick Kavanagh – a Penguin Modern from my box set by an author I’ve not read before.

Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jeffries – an interesting title picked up when Verso were having one of their regular online offers (which I can never resist – damn you Verso!)

Silas Marner by George Eliot – another lovely review copy, this time from OUP – I *may* have read this book decades ago, but I can’t be sure….

(The) Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramago – I loved my first experience of reading Saramago so I’m glad I had picked this one up in the charity shop. It has connections to Pessoa, too – more of whom later in this post… 😉

Selected Writings by John Muir – I had this on a wishlist for ages; then I had a fit of fedupness and decided to treat myself. So there you go.

Next up is Bookish:

Bats in the Belfry by E.C.R. Lorac – another beautiful review copy, this time from the British Library. It sounds fun. This meme is making me want to read all these books at once…

On the Beach At Night Alone by Walt Whitman – one of my many Penguin Little Black Classics – I need to get reading some more of those too. Plus the complete Walt Whitman that OH gave me. Gulp. Will the books to be read never end???

(The) Old Man of the Moon by Shen Fu – and another Penguin Little Black Classic. I love the diversity of Penguin books.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell – I was really struggling to find another K book, when OH suggested this. Now, I initially thought I’d read it but I went and had a look on my shelves anyway. And as I don’t have a paperback copy of it, I don’t think I can have – so George to look forward to!! This is a gorgeous hardback edition from a fancy box set that OH gifted me many years ago – he’s a great book enabler! 🙂

I am a phenomenon quite out of the ordinary by Daniil Kharms – this has been sitting on the TBR for a while and I’ve dipped but not read properly or finished. I love Kharms’ strange and beguiling work, and I really must get back to this one.

Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate – another lovely from the British Library – I obviously desperately need to catch up with review books.

His Only Son by Leopoldo Alas – and yet another review book from NYRB, one about which I know nothing but I’m willing to explore!

And finally, Ramblings (goodness knows, I do enough of that…):

(The) Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald – I didn’t get Sebald the first time round, but I think I’m probably better placed on a second attempt – we shall see…

Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning – another gift from my book-enabling OH who thought it was a pioneering feminist work I should have. I don’t think I’ve read it before, so on the TBR it sits.

Memoirs from Beyond the Grave by Chateaubriand – a review copy from NYRB which is fascinating so far (I *have* started it, I confess) and which promises to stretch into the French Revolution – so *that* should be good! 🙂

(The) Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa – which I’ve been intending to read for ages and which has links to the Saramago above. But I keep wondering which translation/version is best to read – any advice out there??

Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy – early sci fi which has been lurking for ages and which I might have nicked from Eldest Child (the sci fi buff of the family). One day I will read this…

Iconoclasm in revolutionary Paris by Richard Clay – #Iconoclasm #FrenchRevolution #ProfRichardClay #Coveted book I finally got a copy of. ‘Nuff said…

Notes of a Crocodile by Qui Miaojin – have you noticed several NYRB review books in this meme? I should catch up, I really should…

(The) Gigolo by Francoise Sagan – another Penguin Modern. I have had mixed experiences with Sagan so it will be interesting to find out how I react to this one!

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen – I have only read a couple of Austens, despite owning them all (sometimes multiple copies). Perhaps this gorgeous hardback review copy from OUP will help a bit.

*****

There – I told you it would be a long post! So what does this tell you about me and my TBR? Probably that I have a grasshopper mind, refuse to stick to genres or types of books, and that I have more books than I need and that I’ll probably die before I read them all. At least I’ll be ok for reading matter if there’s a zombie apocalypse…

“Her execution was used as a warning to other politically active women.” #feminism #frenchrevolution #iconoclasm

25 Comments

The Declaration of the Rights of Women by Olympe de Gouges
Translated by Allayne Pullen in association with First Edition Translations Ltd

Observant readers of the Ramblings may have noticed a certain tendency over the last few months towards France, Paris and the various revolutions that have taken place (stirred in with an interest in iconoclasm!) I’ve read (and amassed on the TBR) a number of books on the subject, and all of this is so interesting; however, one thing I’ve been looking for and struggling to find amongst all the revolutionary hyperbole is the female voice. Women were a huge part of the French Revolution: from Théroigne de Méricourt who shamed the men into storming the Tuileries Palace* to the tricoteuses, knitting away beside the guillotine (all that blood really must have messed up their work…) Anyway, as I dug into the subject, looking for what women had written during the period, one name kept coming up – Olympe de Gouges.

The Declaration, atop some heavyweight men…. 🙂

A little more digging revealed a woman with a fascinating history: born in 1748, she started her career as a playwright; however, as France edged closer to revolution, Olympe became more involved in politics, initially taking a strong stance against the slave trade in the French colonies. This mutated in pamphleteering and once the Revolution took hold, she wrote a pioneering feminist work, Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (1791) challenging male authority and the inequality of the sexes. However, the Revolution was never straightforward and because of her association with a Royalist party she was eventually guillotined in 1793. She had argued that there should be equality for both sexes in every respect and France’s method of execution was to be no exception.

Naturally, I was keen to read Gouges’ work, and I was really happy to find that Ilex Press were bringing out a new edition, and the publisher has been kind enough to provide a review copy. And what a fascinating and inspirational little book it is! The “Declaration” itself is relatively short, so they’ve cleverly decided to enhance it with the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against women (which drew on much of Gouges’ work for its substance) as well as a marvellous series of illustrations and some stirring quotes from writers as wide-ranging as the well-known Woolf, Beauvoir, Shakespeare and Rimbaud, plus a number of names (often French) new to me. These really do bring the book alive and it makes potent reading.

Yes, indeed, gentlemen – you who are such authorities on the internal workings of the soul and the psyche – reading does give women ideas. What sacrilege! How then are we to stem the flow of pleasure that reading brings to women?
Laure Adler and Stefan Bollman
Les femmes qui lisent sont dangereuses (2006)

I’m old enough to remember second wave feminism in the late 1970s – consciousness-raising groups, Spare Rib and Reclaim the Night marches – and the demands we were making then don’t seem that dissimilar to the ones Gouges made or those in the UN resolution. And although we are supposed to have made great strides forward in equality of pay and work conditions and the like, the recent news stories about the gender pay divide as well as the #metoo phenomenon tend to make me think we have not. When a book like Mary Beard’s “Women and Power” strikes such a chord, it’s certain that we are still far away from equality.

Only a man could launch the idea that the happiness of a woman should consist in serving and pleasing a man.
Margaret Fuller
Women in the Nineteenth Century (1843)

Olympe de Gouges’ eventual fate was tragic, particularly bearing in mind her views and her intelligence. 1793 saw the Reign of Terror and a spate of executions spreading across France, and it’s timely to be reminded that so often a revolution is man-made and for men only – as Wikipedia points out, “1793 has been described as a watershed for the construction of women’s place in revolutionary France, and the deconstruction of the Girondin’s Marianne. That year a number of women with a public role in politics were executed, including Madame Roland and Marie-Antoinette. The new Républicaine was the republican mother that nurtured the new citizen. While politically active women were executed the Convention banned all women’s political associations.” It’s a tendency that’s repeated over and over again; after the Russian Revolution, the women who supported it struggled to get their needs and views taken into account; and in the so-called liberated 1960s counter-culture, the women were meant to take a subservient Earth-mother role (which probably sparked much of the second wave of feminism). However, this was particularly galling in the case of the French Revolution, a conflict in which women were very much to the fore.

Colette’s thinking is guided neither by the imperative of the reproduction of the series, nor by the imperative of social stability assured by the couple and the assurances they make. The only constant is her concern with the freeing of the subject ‘woman’, who wishes to attain sensual freedom in order to maintain her curiosity and her creativity, not as part of a couple but in a plurality of connections.
Julia Kristeva
Colette, un génie féminin (2007)

So this book, with its apt subtitled of ‘The original manifesto for justice, equality and freedom’, is a very timely release from Ilex Press: whilst celebrating Gouges and her early declaration of women’s rights, it also acts as an inspirational rallying cry, showing how women (and men!) writers have over the centuries fought against discrimination and inequality. By choosing to enhance Gouges’ words with the extra material, they’ve shown how ground-breaking and yet still relevant her declaration was. The book is so beautifully put together, with its clever and striking original artwork, as well as the eloquent quotations. If you have any interest in feminism, the constant struggles women have had (and are still having) or indeed women’s contributions to the French Revolution, then I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Buy it for your mothers, your sisters, your daughters – and especially your sons, in the hope that it will change a few minds and help change the world…

The Declaration of the Rights of Women: The Original Manifesto for Justice, Equality and Freedom by Olympe de Gouges; published by Ilex Press, ISBN 978-1781575673; hardback; £10

*****

* I picked up this interesting factoid from Professor Richard Clay’s excellent “Tearing Up History” documentary, which I’ve mentioned before on the Ramblings (after spending far too long trying to decipher what name he was actually saying…) Théroigne de Méricourt was another complex and interesting woman who aroused much controversy during the revolution, and I may well have to investigate her life further. However, I didn’t want to just reiterate Professor Clay’s rather dramatic sweeping statement without checking, and I haven’t actually been able to substantiate her part in the events of 10th August 1792 (apart from a statement that apparently she was in the thick of the fighting) – but then I’m not an academic and I only have a limited number of books on the subject as you can see from the picture above! So – it sounds good but I can’t actually verify it…. 😉

And as an aside from my aside above, I just noticed that “Tearing up History” is having another re-run on BBC4 on 14th May – so you have no excuse not to have a watch either live or on the iPlayer – fascinating documentary! 🙂

A pioneering mathematical female – @BodPublishing

26 Comments

Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist
by Christopher Hollings, Ursula Martin and Adrian Rice

First things first: I should state straight away that mathematics and I do *not* get on well. Which is a little odd, because part of my work involves being a finance officer! However, I can do this as I have lots of lovely computer programs to do the difficult work for me; so it’s not surprising, therefore, that I’m grateful to, and keen to learn about, people like Ada Lovelace who were in at the beginning of such things. Coincidentally, I watched an interesting BBC4 documentary re-run recently about Lovelace’s work; so I was very excited to see that the publishing arm of the Bodleian Library was bringing out this book and they’ve been kind enough to provide a review copy.

“The Making of a Computer Scientist” is a beautiful, lavishly illustrated hardback which looks not only at Lovelace’s life but also her mathematical achievements. There is a certain amount of controversy about her status in the scientific world; claims are often made that she produced the first computer program, whereas counter-claims describe her work as simply being a condensation of other works. Certainly, she published no books of research or great scientific discoveries – but that’s because of the world in which she grew up and the way that women were educated at the time.

Ada was born Augusta Ada Byron, daughter of the poet Lord and his wife Annabella Milbanke; her father left when she was one month old and she had minimal contact with him. Her upbringing and education fell to her mother, who was determined to keep the girl’s mind on logical, mathematical subjects so as to counteract any tendency to madness (not for nothing had Lord Byron been known as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”). However, as this book makes clear, women’s education at the time was not straightforward; Ada was reliant on a number of personal tutors, including Mary Somerville (one of the first members of the Royal Astronomical Society) and the mathematician Augustus De Morgan. But her most significant intellectual relationship was with Charles Babbage, inventor of the ‘Analytical Engine’, considered the first computer. Their relationship lasted until Ada’s early death, and the latter had significant input into Babbage’s work on his engine.

Lovelace’s most visible contribution was left in her translation from Italian of a paper by Luigi Menabrea, who had taken notes of talks given by Babbage in Turin; the latter asked Ada to add something of her own, and her appendices were longer than the actual paper itself… Within her notes to the work, she included a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers (don’t ask…) and it’s this which has led to her being considered the first computer programmer and her method as the world’s first computer program. Frankly, I’m not knowledgeable enough to make a judgement on that, but it’s fascinating.

The text of this book is in itself interesting enough, giving a concise outline of Lovelace’s life and work; however, where it really comes into its own is the wealth of visual material it presents, not only about Lovelace herself but also giving context to her life and times. The book is packed with reproductions of unpublished letters, notes and images from the Bodleian archives; paintings of Lovelace and her associates; pictures of contemporary events and also happenings that informed Lovelace’s life. It really is a lovely and informative book!

It’s always important to remember how many things were stacked up against Ada Lovelace, and her wish to learn, analyse and discover. As the authors point out:

Success for a woman in science in nineteenth-century Britain required a combination of many fortunate circumstances: access to education and books; talent and ambition, recognized and nurtured by herself and others; good health; support from husband and parents; and wealth and social standing. Women were unable to attend university, or to join scientific societies or to access scholarly libraries. A woman needed a competent governess and tutors, and then, as her interests matured, mentors to give her access to scientific meetings and papers, and to work with her as intellectual equals, offering criticism as well as flattery. She needed to reconcile her talent and ambition with widespread concerns, among women and men, that mathematics was not an appropriate or decorous activity for women, that women were incapable of serious mathematical work or that they were not strong enough to undertake it.

Against this background, Lovelace’s achievements are all the more impressive and inspirational; although the class element has to be taken into account, as Ada had a husband and three children. If she hadn’t been rich, she wouldn’t have had the luxury of following her intellectual pursuits, having instead to give all her energies to her family.

However, it’s satisfying to note how highly she was regarded by the men she worked amongst. They appreciated her keen intelligence, perhaps acknowledging that as Ada had not been trained like a man in traditional ways of thinking she was therefore better placed to make instinctive leaps of reasoning. Her rigorous mind was often able to spot errors in the work of others (in particular an error of Babbage’s which she spotted and corrected) and it seems her contemporaries recognised a tendency in her to take the land of mathematics in new directions: “the way to enlarge the settled country has not been by keeping within it, but by making voyages of discovery”.

Time and time again, the authors highlight something Ada proposed and discovered, pointing out that she was right and ahead of her time. I confess that as the book progressed and Ada’s mathematical knowledge grew, I lost track of the various formulae explained (they were never my strong point…). Nevertheless, I can appreciate her remarkable achievements, stand in awe of how ahead of her time she was and lament the fact she died so young. If, like me, your maths is extremely basic (ahem), I wouldn’t shy away from approaching this book; it’s a beautiful and very readable account of a pioneering woman who made a notable contribution to science – highly recommended!

(Book kindly provided by the publishers via Emma O’Bryen – for which many thanks!)

Penguin Moderns 3 and 4 – striking women authors

24 Comments

Aren’t they pretty??? 🙂

The lure of my lovely Penguin Moderns is proving too hard to resist, despite all the big books on the pile demanding my attention! The next two in the series are by some big hitters among female authors, Daphne du Maurier and Dorothy Parker. Both of these are writers I’ve read and loved before, but it’s a long time since I read either, so this is a timely revisit! I love the fact this set is prompting me to go to places I wouldn’t normally at the moment!

Penguin Modern 3 – The Breakthrough by Daphne du Maurier

Although I’ve read du Maurier, most of it was a long time ago and to be honest I couldn’t be sure exactly which books they were. I’m pretty sure I read Rebecca, and I know I read The House on the Strand as a teenager because I was very struck with it. This little volume features one work, the story of the title, and a powerful piece it is indeed.

The book is narrated by Steve, an engineer, who’s sent off to the wilds of the east cost to a strange, deserted kind of research complex where some rather odd experiments are taking place. Headed by the obsessed Mac, the small group is ostensibly undertaking experiments with sound frequencies, and having managed to train the appropriately named camp dog Cerberus to respond to these. However, more worryingly, they’ve also tapped into the frequency of a local small girl, who has what we would now call learning difficulties. The survivor of a pair of twins, she’s become crucial to the underlying, hidden research going on at the base, which is to try to find out what happens to the essence of a human when they die. The results are unexpected…

This was a dark and somewhat unsettling story, focusing very much on science, what it can do, what perhaps it shouldn’t do, the link between twins, life after death and a lot more. du Maurier keeps the tension ramped up and the atmosphere unsettling, and I ended the story a bit rattled really! Which is probably what she intended…. I’ve never read any of her shorter works before but I must admit I’m keen to now.

Penguin Modern 4 – The Custard Heart by Dorothy Parker

I’m on slightly more familiar territory with this one, as I have had a copy of The Collected Dorothy Parker since my teens. Her poem Résumé was always popular amongst my group of angst-ridden BFFs but we always appreciated her wit too. PM4 features three short works – the title story, Big Blonde and You Were Perfectly Fine. The Custard Heart is the story of a selfish and self-centred society woman, Mrs. Lanier; totally vacant and obsessed with her wistful appearance, her heart is indeed as soft and brainless as a bowl of custard, and while real life goes on around her she wafts around in a world of unreality. Never has Parker’s satirical scalpel been so sharp!!

Big Blonde, the longest story in the book, tells of Hazel; something of a good time girl and known as a Good Sport, she in fact suffers from an excess of emotion. Her constant friendships with men and her brief marriage leave her with a void in her life; and even her attempt to leave it meet with no success.

You Were Perfectly Fine is short and brilliant; a young man, recovering from a night of heavy drinking and high jinks, finds that he may have said things to his companion that he might regret in the long term…

Three wonderful, witty, pithy and clever pieces of writing from Dorothy Parker; I can see why I’ve always loved her work and I can see that I’m going to have to re-read more of her soon. There’s a depth here that you might not expect, but then satire often has a serious purpose. The stories are described as being of women on the edge, which maybe doesn’t do them justice; the women in the stories are coping with a man’s world and an imperfect world in the ways they know best, and it’s fascinating to watch.

*****

So – the second two Penguin Moderns have been as good as the first two. Although both of these writers are female, the books couldn’t be more different; but both are just brilliant in what they do and say. I can’t wait to read more of this set! 🙂

Cryptic challenges

43 Comments

Beware of the Trains by Edmund Crispin

After wearing myself out with the #1977club, I was sorely in need of something a bit relaxing and comforting; and my go-to type of book in situations like that is always Golden Age crime. It’s not as if I don’t have plenty to choose from at the moment, but I was nudged in the direction of this collection of short stories by the excellent post at The Reader is Warned Blog.

I thought I had an interesting hardback version – alas, I have an old paperback with crispy pages…..

Edmund Crispin has been a long-time favourite of mine, and I’ve written about him on the Ramblings before. His detective stories, featuring the Oxford Don Gervase Fen as the sleuth, are gems: funny, entertaining, clever and readable, they often push the boundaries and break the fourth wall, which I love – early meta-detective fiction maybe! 🙂 I own, and have read, all of his books but it must be decades since I read this collection; and it seemed like the perfect thing to pick up at the moment.

And this is a particularly interesting collection, because the premise with all of these stories is that they are playing fair; i.e. in theory, the reader has all the information the detective has and should be able to solve the puzzle by him or herself! I must admit that I don’t mind being bamboozled – I quite enjoy the author pulling the wool over my eyes – but conversely I *do* quite like the odd occasion I work the plot out.

Anyway, as with most collections of short stories, it’s hard to know quite how much detail to go into; I think I’ll just mention a few of my favourites! The title story is a particularly striking one, which I believe has been anthologised, and the puzzle is the murder of a train driver with the culprit seemingly vanishing into thin air. A Pot of Paint seems breathtakingly simple when the solution to who murdered a householder painting his fence is revealed; but I challenge most readers to come up with the solution! The Name on the Window is a kind of locked room mystery concerning a body found in a summer house with only one way in or out and a single set of footprints which could not have been tampered with in any way. And in The Golden Mean, a short, sharp tale of a very nasty family member, Fen is rattled by meeting with a character who embodies pure evil.

Thinking about it, these tales (often quite brief) are all what you might call impossible crimes and the puzzle element is strong. However, Crispin’s writing is such a joy; I love the humour he laces his stories with, and he’s brilliant at conjuring atmosphere and character efficiently in works that are in many ways minimalist. Fen is often accompanied by Inspector Humbleby, who’s as much of a maverick in the police force as is Fen in the University establishment, and they make a perfect Holmes and Watson team with some wonderful repartee.

Intriguingly, the last two stories in the collection are ones which *don’t* feature Fen, and the final one, Deadlock, is a particularly dark and memorable tale. Despite Crispin’s surface levity with Fen and his various sidekicks, he’s not averse to tackling more downbeat settings or situations, and this tale, set on a remote kind of estuary, was very affecting. Unusually, the story is narrated from the viewpoint of a character who was a teenager at the time of the events; and it’s a little different in feel from Crispin’s more familiar Fen stories.

…the second porter, who was very old indeed … appeared to be temperamentally subject to that vehement, unfocussed rage which one associates with men who are trying to give up smoking.

One of the joys of reading Edmund Crispin, though, is the humour and the in-jokes, and there are plenty of these. The above description of a character from the title story is a perfect example of the kind of thing you get when reading a Fen story, and in another story Crispin manages to drop in reference to a fellow practitioner:

Gideon Fell once gave a very brilliant lecture on The Locked-Room Problem in connection with that business of the Hollow Man….

However, he’s also wonderful at capturing atmosphere and I make no apologies for quoting at length this paragraph that vividly brings to life post-Festival of Britain London:

The gathering darkness was accentuated by a fog which had appeared dispiritedly at about tea-time. Looking across the river, you could no longer make out the half-demolished Festival buildings on the far side; and although October was still young, the sooty trees on the Embankment had already surrendered their stoic green to the first spears of the cold, and there were few homekeeping folk hardy enough to resist the temptation of a fire. Presently, to a servile nation-wide juggling with clocks, Summer Time would officially end. In the meanwhile, it seemed that Nature’s edict had anticipated Parliament’s by a matter of several days; so that more than one belated office-worker, scurrying to catch his bus in Whitehall or the Strand, shivered a little and hunched his shoulders, as he met the cold vapour creeping into London from the Thames…

I’m so glad I chose to pick up this collection at this moment and refresh my love of Crispin and Fen. If I was recommending a book of theirs to start with, I would probably suggest “The Moving Toyshop”, which I think seems to be generally regarded as his masterpiece. However, if you want some short, fiendish and funny puzzles this is a great place to go. I have to agree with Dan at The Reader is Warned that Crispin is vastly underrated as a crime writer; if you have any interest in Golden Age crime (or indeed just good writing generally) you really should read him! 🙂

%d bloggers like this: