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Penguin Moderns 27 and 28 – Provocative and Mind-Expanding

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Those of you with long memories will no doubt recall that a couple of years ago I was gifted a beautiful box set of Penguin Moderns, little books with extracts from stimulating bigger books from the Penguin Modern Classics range. It was a Mother’s Day present from the Offspring, and I *had* been gradually making my way through the set, two at a time. However, I was shocked to realise that I hadn’t actually read any for nearly a year, which is dreadful; and so recently I picked up the next two in the sequence, and a stimulating pair they turned out to be!

Penguin Modern 27 – New York City in 1979 by Kathy Acker

Reading Kathy Acker is not for the faint-hearted; and I can say that because I read a good amount of her work back in the day, including her seminal “Blood and Guts in High School”, which came out in 1984. Because of the amount of sex, drugs and violence in her books, she was touted as a female William Burroughs, though I would say that was doing two very individual authors a disservice. Structurally, the book pushed the boundaries (as it did with subject matter) and it was a fascinating read (although not for everyone). Possibly I should revisit it – I think I still have my crumbly old copy somewhere. Anyway, on to the Penguin Modern…

“NYC” is made up of texts written by Acker in 1981 but not published until much later. Illustrated with photographs by Anne Turyn, it presents vignettes of alternative night life in the city of the time; plus the story of Janey and Johnny, and their encounters with the denizens of NYC’s underground. Sex and drugs are the motivating factor – one of the pieces is titled, “Intense Sexual Desire is the Greatest Thing in the World”.

Reading Acker now took me straight back to the past; to the late 1970s when things seemed to be falling apart, punk music had altered our way of looking at things and it was becoming ok for women artists to address the subjects that were ok for men to tackle. A challenging read, yes – but intriguing and provocative and a reminder of just how Acker was pushing the boundaries back then.

Penguin Modern 28 – Africa’s Tarnished Name by Chinua Achebe

Achebe probably needs no introduction; a Nigerian novelist, poet, professor, and critic, “Things Fall Apart” is his best-know book and I really ought to read it. However, I haven’t, so starting with this little book was a great way to get an introduction to a writer new to me. “Africa’s Tarnished Name” is non-fiction, collecting together four essays originally featured in his 2011 book “The Education of a British Protected Child”; and they made stimulating, if sobering, reading. The essays are: “What is Nigeria to Me?”, “Traveling White”, “Africa is People” and the title piece; and as you can see from the number of post-its, they really made an impact.

A human is a human because of other humans.

Achebe lived through troubling times, in particular the Nigerian Civil War which caused dreadful suffering. I was fairly ignorant of much of this, although when I was quite young I remember hearing appeals for help for Biafra; in my innocence, I had no idea of the bigger picture. Achebe covers this in his first essay, and hearing of the suffering followed by the political corruption was heartbreaking. He also tackles his experiences of racism, whilst travelling through South Africa, and it’s shocking. It also made we wonder how much we’ve moved on from then…. The title essay is a powerful piece, taking on Joseph Conrad’s fetishization and distortion of the African experience, and it made me very much rethink my reaction of “Heart of Darkness”; it’s some time since I read it, but I do recall feeling quite uncomfortable about it. Achebe quotes James Baldwin at one point, words which have stayed with me:

Negroes want to be treated like men; a perfectly straightforward statement containing seven words. People who have mastered Kant, Hegel, Shakespeare, Marx, Freud and the Bible find this statement impenetrable.

I read this book while there was rioting in the USA and iconoclasm in Bristol; I can understand both, and it shocks me that we’re still in a world where racial injustice exists. Whatever happened to the idealised melting pot where we all lived in harmony together? Inspirational books like this encourage us to think about these issues, try to recognise the prejudice in ourselves and look to where we can improve. A very important Penguin Modern indeed.

*****

So two completely different Penguin Moderns by writers who couldn’t be further apart; yet both act as a bracing wake-up call to not accept the everyday, to look more closely at the world and its norms, and to consider whether it needs change. I’m so glad I jumped back on the Penguin Modern wagon, and I will try not to leave it so long until the next two!

“There is no war, not bred of wars, that was not nursed on lies!” #hughlofting #victoryfortheslain

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Victory for the Slain by Hugh Lofting

As a vegan, I’ve always loved the concept of being able to talk to animals; I thoroughly approve, therefore, of the character of Dr. Doolittle, created by author Hugh Lofting. However, until Mike Walmer approached me to see if I’d like to review one of his recent books, I had no idea that Lofting had written anything else – and particularly not a long pacifist verse!

“Victory for the Slain” is the latest release in Mike’s poetry series, which so far has featured volumes from James Montgomery and Katherine Mansfield (I reviewed the latter here). A striking, red-covered hardback of 61 pages, it contains Lofting’s only work for adults, and was published in 1942 – only in the UK. Bearing in mind this was slap bang in the middle of WW2, I’m surprised it managed to get into print at all!

Lofting fought in the First World War, witnessing the horrors of that conflict personally; so it’s perhaps no surprise that a second major global battle filled him with dismay. He became a pacifist after the Great War, campaigning for peace and building his philosophy into his children’s books. “Victory for the Slain” is, therefore, a real cry from the heart, and one which resonates today.

“These banners and standards, tattered, hung;
The trophies of battle on alien soil.
Sole prizes of courage and suffering toil,
For these
How many in their graves are lain?
In war the only victors are the slain.”

The poem is divided up into seven sections and follows the narrator as he encounters a veteran soldier who’s lost his hand, visits a church or cathedral where he has an emotional reverie on past and present, as well as seeking solace from his surroundings. However, the bombs constantly raining down destroy any chance of peace, and the narrator despairs of human folly and our race’s inability to live in any kind of harmony. In the end, he reaches some kind of equilibrium with the hope that the memory of the ‘victorious slain’ will lead humanity towards a better future.

Hugh Lofting when young (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Apparently, the poem was not a success when it was first published. Lofting was living in California at the time, and it appeared in print just after the main part of the London Blitz. I can imagine at the time that readers didn’t want to particularly hear this kind of attitude, particularly from someone not in the thick of it; which is a shame, because it obviously reflects Lofting’s life-long, strongly held views.

“Wars to end wars? – War again!
Must Mankind forever kill and kill,
Thwarting every decent dictate
Of the human will?”

“Victory…” is a compelling and moving piece of writing, and not what you might necessarily expect from someone who’s a well-known children’s author. Although a slim book, it’s remarkably powerful, full of vivid imagery, heart-wrenching soul-searching and often real despair for the future of the world, as well as a hope that we can learn. At a time when our world seems to be falling apart once again, that’s something to hang onto. Highly recommended.

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

“Can any man remain in Moscow without softening of the brain…” #woefromwit # alexandergriboedov @RusLibrary

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Woe from Wit by Alexander Griboedov
Translated by Betsy Hulick

Back in 2018, I reviewed a fascinating book for Shiny New Books called Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar by Yuri Tynianov. That book was a fictionalised retelling of the life of an intriguing Russian author Alexander Griboedov; a friend and contemporary of Pushkin, he’s probably best known for his play, “Woe from Wit”. So when I heard the that Columbia University Press were bringing out a shiny new translation in their wonderful Russian Library imprint, I was very keen to explore it! Reading plays is not something I do on a regular basis; however, this is the second in a fairly short space of time (as I loved my re-encounter with The Government Inspector back in November). Must be something to do with the Russians… ;D

Griboedov had a fascinating and ultimately dramatic life; as well as being an author and composer, he was also a diplomat. And it was in that role that he met an unpleasant end when the Russian Embassy in Persia (now Iran) was stormed and he (plus many others) were slaughtered. It’s his play he’s remembered for nowadays, and it’s about as far away from the story of his life as you can get!

She must be mad.
You’d better warn her she can lose her sight.
What good is there in books? The French ones keep
you up, the Russians make you sleep.
(Famusov on his daughter’s apparent wish to read all night)

Subtitled “A Verse Comedy in Four Acts”, “Woe from Wit” was written in 1823 but subject to all manner of censorship (as was common in Russia at the time) and not published in full until 1861, long after the author’s death. It’s a humorous and satirical work, taking a wry look at Moscow society of the period; and as it was such fun to read, I imagine it would be a joy to see on stage!

The central character is one Alexander Andreyevich Chatsky, an idealistic young man who has been away travelling in foreign climes and is now returning to visit the house of Pavel Famusov; here, he hopes to re-encounter his childhood sweetheart, the latter’s daughter, Sophia Pavlovna. An understanding of sorts had existed between the two young people and Chatsky looks forward to seeing his beloved Sophia again. However, from the very start of the play, it is clear that Sophia has been allowing her affections to wander elsewhere; she spends all night billing and cooing with Molchalin, her father’s live-in secretary, as well as having all manner of admirers. Sophia’s maid Liza spends much of her time covering her mistress’s back so that her father is not aware of what’s going on – so the arrival back of the prodigal Chatsky makes things even more complicated. Add in a ball, where all manner of very individual guests turn up, a rumour of Chatsky’s madness which takes hold rapidly, and Liza’s need to juggle the fact that Molchalin is making a play for her while planning on Sophia as a wife for the sake of duty, and you end up with a wonderful and entertaining comedy of manners.

And who is “everyone”? I ask you.
Decrepit brains, deplorable antiquities.
The enemies of free expression,
unearthing their ideas from an old stock of
faded headlines…
(Chatsky, about to go off on his major speech attacking the old regime…)

However, what makes “Woe from Wit” stand out is the subtext; which actually isn’t as sub as you might think! One of the reasons that it was hard to publish the play at the time is was written is because of the strong element of social critique; Chatsky is an ‘angry young man’, looking for change, and he views what he sees of Moscow society at the Famusov’s ball with horror. He cannot attempt to fit in, criticises the guests and the whole of society, and indeed expresses such strong views that the rumour of his madness is easily spread. Will Sophia want Chatsky back? Will she find out the truth about Molchalin? Does Chatsky actually want to *be* with Sophia and in her milieu? Well, you’ll have to read the play to find out.

Portrait of Griboedov via Wikimedia Commons (IILE / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

“Woe from Wit” is a wonderfully entertaining read, with laugh-out-loud lines and memorable set pieces; and as I said above, I’d love to see it performed. The Moscow of the period, after the Napoleonic Wars, was a place hidebound by social restrictions and niceties; and someone with the views of a Chatsky would never fit in with it. The translation reads wonderfully, and the book comes with an excellent introduction by Angela Brintlinger which puts the play and Griboedov himself into context. I have to say, too, that I think Betsy Hulick has done a wonderful job, as rendering a verse play into another language must be extremely tricky (although I couldn’t tell you how freely she’s had to treat the original!) Interestingly, it seems that many of the phrases used in the play have become everyday expressions in Russia, so Griboedov’s influence is obviously a long one. Reading his play was hugely entertaining but also very thought-provoking; its window into Russia’s past and the society of the time was a real eye-opener; and it just goes to prove that comedy is a marvellous vehicle to get your message across!

Review copy kindly provided by the publishers, for which many thanks!

“…I am not quite ready/for them to disappear.” #wendycope #anecdotalevidence @FaberBooks

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Anedcotal Evidence by Wendy Cope

Sometimes, often when you least expect it, a book you pick up on a whim turns out to be one of those which whacks you in the emotions and has a profound effect on you; at least, that’s happened to me in the past, and did so recently when I yielded to an impulse purchase and sent off for Wendy Cope’s most recent collection of poetry, “Anecdotal Evidence”. If you follow me on Twitter, you might have seen me reacting to it…

Cope is a poet I first encountered when her debut collection, “Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis” appeared in 1986. It was an instant hit at the time, and I absolutely loved it; but I confess that I had drifted out of contact with her poetry since then, though I *had* gathered some unread volumes which are sitting on the TBR at the moment. I can’t recall now what impelled me to send off for this in May – perhaps a glimpse of one of the poems somewhere – but I’m really glad I did.

Cope’s poetry is very immediate, but that doesn’t make it trivial or light. Personally, I feel her work communicates brilliantly, perhaps in the same way that Larkin’s does; and maybe your response to it depends on who you are and when you read it. And that might be why I reacted so strongly to “Anecdotal Evidence”. This is her fifth collection of adult poetry, released in 2018, and trumpeted as her first since 2011. It contains the mature work of a mature woman (and I speak as one myself) and the poems are evocative, elegiac and often very moving.

The subjects Cope writes about are often seemingly simple, everyday concerns: the point of poetry; memories of old friends; reminiscences of visits to Shakepeare plays; going to boarding school for the first time; dreams; and nature. Yet these are filtered through a poetic sensibility that renders the event or memory or musing deeply moving and deeply profound. Cope is older than me, at a point of life where she’s looking back at her life and memories, her friends no longer here, her parents and her Nanna, the passions of her youth; and also reflecting on the love she has for her husband and what their future holds. This resonates strongly, as I think it will with anyone experiencing growing older and having more of your life behind you than in front of you; and many of the poems hit me powerfully, almost like a blow to the stomach. I was so moved at times, as I tweeted, that I had to stop between poems to recover.

I realise I’m not going into specifics, so I’ll mention a few favourites from the collection. “A Wreath for George Herbert” is a wonderfully clever tribute to a fellow poet; “An Afternoon” remembers Cope’s parents most movingly at a time of sadness; “Christmas Cards” takes a poignant look at the annual ritual of sending cards that may no longer be delivered; “A Little Tribute to John Cage” very cleverly captures that composer’s experimental nature; and “Que Sera” contains the wonderful lines:

….Always keen to organise
the future, though the enterprise
is sculpting water.

And I couldn’t write about this collection without mentioning “A Statue”, a moving meditation on one of my comedy heroes, Eric Morecambe – just wonderful.

It’s obviously quite impossible for me to do a sensible review of this book; instead, you’ll have to make do with a very personal response! All I can say, really, is that I found these to be beautiful, powerful and affecting works which looked at all manner of life’s vagaries and what it is to be human. The forms vary from free verse to very structured and clever works with repeating patterns (if I was cleverer, I’d know the name for these); it’s an eminently readable collection, yet one with hidden power. Basically, I was moved, and I still am, thinking back to the experience of reading it.

My Wendy Cope collection

Poetry does, I think, have the power to move in ways that prose sometimes doesn’t, and that was certainly the case here. I don’t know that I can really say anything more, or more sensible, about this collection except that it had me in tears in places (easier, I think, in these strange times, but nevertheless not a state I always get into over poetry). Whoever or whatever made me pick this up right now, thank you – I think Wendy Cope is an amazingly wonderful poet and I do recommend you read her if you can.

“Blanched Sun, – blighted grass, – blinded man.” #whyruskinmatters #johnruskin @QuercusBooks

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The observant amongst you will remember that back at the end of May, I posted a *lot* of pictures of piles of potential reads; the post was a popular one, for some reason, and I have to admit that the possible choices were very tantalising. Typically, however, I have so far only read *one* book from all of those; which is very me, and also why I don’t as a rule take part in things like “20 Books of Summer”, much as I’d love to. The one book I *have* read from the piles, however, was a real joy: “To See Clearly: Why Ruskin Matters” by Suzanne Fagence Cooper. I picked it up on a whim after seeing an image on Twitter (I think) and I’m really glad I did.

Fagence Cooper is by training an art historian, lecturing widely for Cunard and the Arts Society. She’s written extensively on the Pre-Raphaelite movement and also Victorian Women, as well as curating exhibitions; and is an honorary visiting fellow of the University of York. It seems, too, from reading this book that she has been strongly influenced by the writer and art critic John Ruskin; and her book sets out to remind us just how visionary his writings were, and how ahead of his times he was in many ways.

Ruskin is a complicated figure; his influence during his lifetime was immense, yet nowadays he’s much less remembered for his writings than his problematic personal life. Fagence Cooper acknowledges this, but in her view his work is more important than the personal. “To See Clearly” is a small, beautifully produced hardback, illustrated with some of Ruskin’s lovely pencil drawings, and is just over 200 pages long; yet it makes a passionate and compelling case for us to remember Ruskin as a pioneer.

I should confess up front that John Ruskin is an author I’ve been aware of since my teens, always intending to read but simply never getting round to it. I became aware of him when I watched the old BBC TV series “The Love School”, all about the Pre-Raphaelites, where he was portrayed most excellently by the late actor David Collings; and there was plenty of the personal scandal in that series! However, Ruskin’s beliefs and writings were wide-ranging, and Fagence Cooper divides her book up into chapters which look at different aspects of Ruskin – with titles like “Seeing”, “Loving” and “Learning”, she has the freedom to look at Ruskin’s life from different angles, which gives a refreshing and new vision of the man and the thinker.

He is the master of interdisciplinarity, a man whose mind could dart about, from now to then, from here to there, from text to image to building to rock formation, with marvellous felicity. And he draws us in his wake, opening up fresh visions and calling us to action with his constant questions and explanations. He never expects us to know as much as he does. But he never talks down to us either. As long as his mind holds firm, he is an excellent guide, saying time and again, ‘Have you seen this? Have you thought about this? Because I have, and I think you should too. I’ve found something important, and no one else seems to have noticed.’

And there does seem to be much to learn from Ruskin. He was a man living through the latter part of the Industrial Revolution and its after-effects, and he was already aware of what these changes were doing to our world. He detested the speed of train travel, arguing for a slowing down of pace and for us to really look at something so that we did indeed see it clearly. The emphasis is on our vision of the world, perhaps something which influenced John Berger; and nowadays, with our short attention spans and our rushing about, the ability to look properly at what’s around us so that we can understand it, is a tendency we need to encourage.

All lovely architecture was designed for cities in cloudless air; for… cities built that men might live happily in them, and take delight daily in each other’s presence and powers. But our cities, built in black air which, by its accumulated foulness, first renders all ornament invisible in distance, and then chokes its interstices with soot… cities in which the object of men is not life, but labour; and in which the streets are not the avenues for the passing and procession of a happy people, but the drains for the discharge of the tormented mob, in which the only object in reaching any spot is to be transferred to another; in which existence becomes mere transition, and every creature is only one atom in a drift of human dust, and current of interchanging particles, circulating here by tunnels underground, and there by tubes in the air; for a city, or cities, such as this no architecture is possible – nay, no desire of it is possible to their inhabitants. (Ruskin; from “The Study of Architecture in Our Schools”)

What was also fascinating to learn was of Ruskin’s early ecological concerns. At the time he lived, the massive increase of industry in the UK was already poisoning the environment; the ‘dark satanic mills’ of Blake were wreaking havoc with the landscape, and the smog and pollution was having a terrible effect. Ruskin recognised this, and warned against it, though I got the impression from this book that he was a lone voice crying in the wilderness. It’s shocking that 200 years on from his birth we haven’t learned our lesson and still seem intent on destroying our planet. Interestingly, Ruskin also attacked capitalism, seeing its pernicious effect on the poor, and this didn’t do his reputation a lot of good at the time…

It has to be said up front that Fagence Cooper is very partisan when it comes to Ruskin, and makes no secret of her admiration for him and the influence he’s had on her life and work. Ruskin was responsible for her deciding it would be possible to become an art historian, and it *is* a fascinating discipline; decoding the art of the past can tell us so much about people and their times. So I did worry that perhaps she would ignore the more difficult aspects of Ruskin’s life and beliefs (you can check out his Wikipedia page if you want to explore them more fully). In short, his attitudes to women were complex and problematic; and he often lapsed into madness or religious fervour. I wondered whether the author would choose to ignore these aspects, but to her credit she doesn’t; instead, she looks at causes for these. Ruskin had a difficult childhood, as the only child of ridiculously over-protective and restrictive parents who also seem to have lacked warmth or empathy; and his mother’s intense Evangelical Protestant principles don’t seem to have helped. Giving this background does help to add balance to our knowledge of Ruskin.

David Collings as John Ruskin in the BBC’s 1975 series “The Love School” (c. BBC)

“To See Clearly” ended up being a compelling and excellent read. Ruskin is probably best remembered for his writings on art and architecture, particularly his “Stones of Venice” (which had a negative effect on the place because of the number of visitors it drew there – a situation he decried). However, he was also active in conservation of old buildings, producing fine drawings to record places before they were lost forever, and taking an active part in stopping the poor restoration of ancient buildings. “To See Clearly” reveals a man of passions (albeit never really in the personal sense) who tried to improve the world around him, observe it in all its glory and preserve the beauty in it. His influence is long (William Morris, Gandhi and the founders of the British Labour Party reference his work) and in fact the list of those acknowledging their debt to him in his Wikipedia entry is wide-ranging. But perhaps not surprising; the quotes from his work included in this little treasure of a book are compelling, and I really will have to get on to reading some of his actual works soon!

Pioneering Modernist women – two wonderful new releases over @ShinyNewBooks @norvikpress #WITmonth

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Today I want to share with you two reviews I have up at Shiny New Books; the books I cover are a wonderful pair of Modernist works which are newly translated and completely fascinating!

The books have been published by Norvik Press, an imprint coming out of the Department of Scandinavian Studies at UCL, London; and their backlist, I have to say, is very, very tempting… Anyway, the books I’ve read and reviewed are from two inspirational women authors: Karin Boye (whose “Kallocain” I’ve also covered for Shiny) and Hagar Olsson (who’s a new name to me). The lives of both women are fascinating in their own right, and the works they produced are ground-breaking, innovative, explorative, complex, stimulating and fabulous reading. You can read my thoughts on Boye here and Olsson here – do check them out and read the books if you can; they’d be ideal for August’s #WITMonth! 😀

Reading challenges and me….

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It’s probably fairly clear to anyone who reads my ramblings regularly that I’m an utter failure when it comes to reading challenges – either joining in with those run by others, or with the self-imposed ones I set myself in a flurry of enthusiasm and then allow to fall by the wayside… In fact, the only reading event I usually manage to stick to is the bi-annual reading clubs I co-host with Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book; and that’s with a lot of organisation and forward planning… And I was reminded recently that I devised (back in 2015!!) the project of reading all 27 books in the Penguin Modern Poets series, released between 1962 and 1979. In fact, I even have a page on the blog for it…

My Penguin Modern Poets collection!

However, if you have a look you will see I stalled early, at book no. 6, which was back in 2016 – which is pretty feeble. However, despite that utter failure, I am still fighting the urge to approach another reading project; it was this which reminded me of the Poets, and it came about when I saw (on Twitter, I think) that Penguin are releasing set 6 of their Penguin Great Ideas series in September – and it includes Perec and Calvino and Camus amongst many other rather wonderful authors!

My Great Ideas…

A quick hop onto Wikipedia revealed details of the 5 earlier sets, and I hadn’t quite realised how many there were; but I knew I had the whole first set and assorted volumes from the later ones. So of course I had to make a list, which is fatal for any book addict; because immediately you want to start collecting the whole lot, ticking them off merrily as you acquire them (well, I do, anyway…)  Looking down the checklist, there is a fantastic range of titles, all of which I’d be happy to read. And a lightbulb ping moment in my head said “You could read them as a project, you know…” Of course, we know how badly I do with these things, and so it really *isn’t* a great idea (ha!). Still. I’m tempted – and trying to fight against it. You can see from the image above that although I have all the first set, I only have a few of the later ones, so that would be a lot of purchasing and a lot more shelf space needed. No, it really isn’t a good idea…

Penguin Moderns box set and Little Black Classics pile

This also reminded me, of course, that I still have the Penguin Moderns box to make my way through, and I had been doing quite well, getting up to book 26 a year ago; and then I stalled… I *have* been galvanised to pick these up again, and have some reviews coming up next month of later volumes. However, as you can see from the picture, there are also the Penguin Little Black Classics, and I haven’t read all of them either. Yikes!

Anyway, I am going to try to take up the Poets Project again, and so I dug them out on Sunday to see what I had, where I was and generally take stock. This kind of necessitated a shuffle of the general poetry shelves which were slightly in disarray, and looked even worse when I started moving things about:

Poetry mid-shuffle

It was a useful exercise though; after having a bit of a crisis, I decided to shelve them alphabetically and put anthologies at the beginning, and after removing the Russians they fitted in quite nicely. Here’s the back row:

And here’s the front row:

This is, of course, not all the poetry in the house. The Russians are mostly on the shelf below; Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes are upstairs; and there are various Bloodaxe/Morden Tower anthologies lurking on other shelves. And probably others if I looked properly. Anyway, this is the next Penguin Modern Poets volume in the series:

Watch this space to see if I finish it! As for the Penguin Great Ideas – I think I’m going to be battling the concept of a project for a while; I’ve already sent off for one of the ones I don’t have, and will definitely be investing in more in September. Oh dear, oh dear….

Faber Stories – the Women! #djunabarnes #celiafremlin #mariannemoore @faberbooks

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Following on from my last post, about an entertaining pair of slim volumes in the Faber Stories series, today on the Ramblings I’ll be considering a trio of offerings from some very different women authors. Two are names I’ve read before; one is a writer I’m very keen to explore further; all are very thought-provoking!

The Lydia Steptoe Stories by Djuna Barnes

Barnes is a celebrated modernist author, best known for her novel “Nightwood”. I own several of her works, and read at least that one back in the day; but frankly I can recall nothing about it, so I was interested in reacquainting myself with her writing. The three stories in this book were the only oneswritten by Barnes under the pseudonym of Lydia Steptoe, and they appeared in a variety of publications. This is the first time they’ve been published together, and so kudos to Faber for gathering them up for us; their titles are “The Diary of a Dangerous Child”, “The Diary of a Small Boy” and “Madame Grows Older: A Journal at the Dangerous Age”.

Each story features a character wrestling with burgeoning sexuality of one type or another, and there are undercurrents in each story. Whether a fourteen year old girl planning to become a virago, a young boy being tempted by his father’s mistress or an older woman falling in love and wondering whether she can be bothered with it, each of these tales subverts expectations and wrong-foots the reader. I found them wonderfully entertaining, vaguely reminiscent of Leonora Carrington although slightly less melancholy – I may have to dig out my Barnes books…

Fairy Tales by Marianne Moore

When I was up in London for a day out just over a year ago (sob…) I picked up a collection of Marianne Moore’s poetry in the wonderful Judd Books. She’s another one of those poets I’ve wanted to explore for ages, and the collection was reasonably priced and irresistible. This, however, is prose; and not new stories as such, but retelling of the fairy tales popularised by Charles Perrault. So we meet, in the originals, “Puss in Boots”, “Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella”; and of course these are very different from the sanitised modern cartoon versions.

Puss is a wiley moggy, lying and tricking his way to status and gaining his master a princess and a castle. The princess in “Sleeping Beauty” is not actually awakened by a kiss, and is married to the prince in secret – a prince who has family skeletons of his own. And Cinderella goes to the ball more than once before losing her slipper! Moore provides an introduction explaining her love of fairy tales, and this was an unexpected and enjoyable distraction.

Ghostly Stories by Celia Fremlin

Celia Fremlin is an author I first read pre-blog, when I picked up a copy of her Virago title “The Hours Before Dawn”. It’s a stunning thriller which takes place in an ordinary domestic setting, with the protagonist struggling with exhaustion from bringing up children and trying to work out if her suspicions about a lodger are correct. It’s one of those books you don’t forget, and a short story of hers which featured in a recent British Library Crime Classics anthology was just as effective. So I had high hopes of this collection of two spooky stories – and I wasn’t disappointed. The titles are “The Hated House” and “The New House”, and each takes a different slant on the complex mother-daughter dynamic. In the first, a teenager revels in being left on her own for once, as her overbearing and quarrelsome parents go away for a visit. In the second, the narrator, guardian of her sister’s child, is concerned for her neice’s safety as she prepares to marry and settle down in her own home. Neither story has the outcome you might expect.

Fremlin was an exceptional author; she captures the sense of creeping dread you can have when on your own, or when you have unspecific fears, quite brilliantly. In the first story she really gets inside the head of her teenage protagonist; and she’s brilliant at the unreliable narrator. I made sure I read these in daylight because they’re most unsettling…

I’ve seen Fremlin compared to Highsmith and Jackson; and the blurb on this little Faber describes her as long-neglected. If she is (and I know a number of fellow bloggers rate her highly), she really shouldn’t be. If you want a taste of her writing, this is a good way to get it; and I think I really will have to track down more of her works.

*****

So my three female Faber Stories reads were just as good as the two male reads; truly, these are lovely little books and a great selection of authors – at least in the ones I’ve read. There *are* still a number of others which were issued (I recall seeing them in Waterstones in those Times Before when we could go out book shopping….) Time for a little online exploring… ;D

Faber Stories – the Men! :D #brianaldiss #milankundera @faberbooks

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Something a little different on the Ramblings today – short books! I must admit that when I finished reading the Malaparte, I was unsure as to where to head next; I really hate it when I get into one of those moods when I can’t commit to something substantial. However, whilst rummaging in the shelves, I rediscovered a selection of slim Faber Stories books which were issued to celebrate their 90th birthday last year. I guess the highest-profile release was the previously unissued Sylvia Plath story “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” (which I covered here); but there were a number of other intriguing titles and I had five on the shelves. I raced through them all in a day, with great enjoyment, and thought I would touch on them briefly over a couple of posts. For simplicity, I’ve divided them up by author gender, and so today it’s the turn of the men! 😀 The writers couldn’t be more different, but both of these little volumes were very punchy and effective reading.

Three Types of Solitude by Brian Aldiss

Aldiss is an author who’s no stranger on the Ramblings – I was very taken with his “Report on Probability A“, loved his tale of a young man’s bookselling days in “The Brightfount Diaries“, and have been most impressed by the short story collection into which I’ve dipped over the years. “Three Types…” brings together three short later works: “Happiness in Reverse”, “A Single-minded Artist” and “Talking Cubes”.

Oh, sadness is just happiness in reverse. We humans have to put up with it. Just being human is an awful burden to bear.

The subject matter ranges from the quirkiness of a lonely man causing havoc by creating a new species, through an artist finding contentment in an unexpected solitude, to a couple revisiting a past encounter with the aid of a modern technology. I was impressed all over again by Aldiss’s writing and his imagination; he’s so skilful at subverting your expectations, and often what starts as a seemingly simple tale ends up as something completely different and much stranger. Reading this has rather made me want to go back and read some of those other Aldiss books lurking on the TBR…

Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead by Milan Kundera

On to a completely different author. Kundera is a French-Czech author, hailing from the latter country but now writing in French. He’s probably best known for “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (1984), but the one story included here is from 1969 and was published in the “Laughable Loves” collection in 1974. It’s a clever and moving story, telling of a reunion between a man and a woman who had briefly been lovers 15 years earlier. The woman had been older and married; she’s now a widow. The younger man finds himself an ageing bachelor. And despite the age difference, and the fact that the woman is now effectively an *old* woman (and we know how they’re regarded as not really women any more…), there *is* still an attraction. The story cleverly plays out in alternating chapters from the point of view of each character, and it’s clear their viewpoints and motivations are different. It’s inevitable that they’ll sleep together, equally inevitable that the encounter will end in disgust; but for a short time, the author allows them their illusions.

“Let the Old…” is a very clever, very effective story, brilliantly told; and quite moving, dissecting the motivations and emotions of the two participants. There *will* be no happy ending, but perhaps some kind of comfort for both. Very impressive, and as I know I have at least *one* unread Kundera in the house, I must try to track it down…

*****

Faber have been a favourite publisher of mine since my teens; I had collections of Dickinson and e.e. cummings and Plath in their imprint, which are still with me; and they have such a rich and wonderful history of books published. The Faber Stories really are lovely little books and a great way to make the acquaintance of new authors.

Next time on the Ramblings – the Faber Stories Women’s Edition! 😀

A unique take on the memoir format – over @ShinyNewBooks @BelgraviaB #georgesperec

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If you’re a regular follower of Shiny New Books (and I do hope you are – there are some marvellous book reviews there, and it will be very bad for your TBR…); anyway, if you are, you might have seen my Bookbuzz piece back in April which looked at the playful yet serious work of the Oulipo literary group. Their shining star is most probably the great French author, Georges Perec, and so I was very excited to discover recently that Gallic Books were bringing out a new edition of his “I Remember“; a book only translated in 2014, and not published in the UK until now!

Perec was a prolific author, producing all manner of varied works which took in differing formats and constraints; and by the time of this work he’d already dipped into oblique memoir with his book “W, or The Memory of Childhood“. “I Remember” takes a very unusual angle whilst dealing with memory and the past, and is absolutely fascinating; to find out more, you can check out my review here! 😀

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