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Pioneering female fiction – @shinynewbooks @laurakanost @stockcero

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One of the delights of the Internet and social media is the ability to stumble upon books you might not have otherwise come across. “A Dead Rose” by Aurora Cáceres is a case in point: I saw it mentioned on Twitter (and I’m sorry I can’t remember who pointed it out) and after checking it out thought it would be a book I definitely should read.

The publishers, Stockcero, were kind enough to provide a copy for me to review for Shiny New Books and it makes fascinating reading. I’d not heard of the modernista movement before, and Cáceres was obviously a real pioneer, not only with her writing but also with the way she lived.

“A Dead Rose” is moving and memorable, with multiple layers, and definitely worth checking out if you want to explore pioneering women’s writing in translation. My review is here – do check it out! 🙂

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Penguin Moderns 7 and 8 – Distinctive voices, polar opposites

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Well – this must be the least likely pairing so far in my choices of two Penguin Moderns to read at a time! I’ve been picking them out in pairs in numerical order, but George Orwell and Gertrude Stein?? Not obvious bedfellows…

Stylistically, I don’t think you could two more dissimilar authors: Orwell is prized in these parts for his wonderful clarity, immense reasonableness, and his clear-sightedness about humans, their foibles and the way the world was going; Stein, however, can be a murky writer, spinning webs of words that often appear to make little sense. Yet both have been acclaimed as geniuses in their own way which just goes to show that there is plenty of appetite out there for different kinds of writing. So – what did I make of these two little books?

Penguin Modern 7 – Notes on Nationalism by George Orwell

It’ll be no surprise to anyone that this was a great joy – Orwell is much loved on the Ramblings. And Penguin are remarkably clever at choosing very apposite Orwell essays to reprint which chime in remarkably well with the times. Penguin Modern 7 contains three essays first published in 1945: the title one, Antisemitism in Britain and The Sporting Spirit.

The nationalism Orwell refers to is not just an extreme love of country, but a violent partisanship for country, creed or group. It’s a dangerous state of mind, breeding intolerance and causing conflict and as always Orwell is spot-on at identifying problems which are still relevant today.

To study any subject scientifically one needs a detached attitude, which is obviously harder when one’s own interests or emotions are involved. Plenty of people who are quite capable of being objective about sea urchins, say, or the square root of 2, become schizophrenic if they have to think about the sources of their own income.

The anti-Semitism essay is of course remarkably topical and GO is clear about how it is impossible to look at the subject objectively as so many emotions get in the way – as we can see from hysterical modern media reactions. As for sport – well, that one had me laughing all the way through!

Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.

There speaks a fellow sport-hater! :)))

As always, and as I (and many others) have said before, what strikes you is Orwell’s basic decency and reasonableness. I read this little book while the Royal shenanigans were going on, distracting us all from the real issues and hiding everything up in fake news. As GO says so presciently:

The calamities that are constantly being reported – battles, massacres, famines, revolutions – tend to inspire in the average person a feeling of unreality. One has no way of verifying the facts, one is not really fully certain that they have happened, and one is always presented with totally different interpretations from different sources.

As with all of Orwell’s writings, I ended up with a sheaf of post-its marking relevant and quotable parts, places where I shouted “Yes!” as I was reading (not literally of course, as that would have alarmed OH – though I did feel obliged to read him the above quote, and send messages to the Offspring reminding them how much I love Orwell and what a genius he was. Youngest Child was moved to reply that she lived for receiving such messages from me… But I digress!) The world is in many ways no better or no different from how it was in Orwell’s day; the rich are getting richer (and greedier) while the poor suffer lack of services, lack of basic living standards, lack of respect. Oh, how we need Orwell now…

Penguin Modern 8 – Food by Gertrude Stein

Aaaaand, in complete contrast – Gertrude Stein. Where Orwell is all clarity, Stein’s work comes in varying degrees of comprehensibility. I’ve read a number of her works (mostly pre-blog) and have enjoyed some more than others. These pieces come from her book “Tender Buttons” which I have vague memories of struggling with – and I can understand why…

… it is so easy to change meaning, it is so easy to see the difference.

The short extracts are given titles like Roastbeef, Breakfast and Single Fish. Do they describe food? Or the art of cooking? Or shopping? Or dining? Or indeed sex, as the blurb claims. The answer is, I don’t know! I’ve found when reading Stein in the past that if you treat the prose as musical, going for sound rather than obvious meaning, you get further. But I didn’t, if I’m truly honest, get very far trying that here.

It may be that because the text actually had a strong subject I was looking *too* hard for meaning and wasn’t able to get past that into the sound. Or it may just have been the wrong timing. Or it may just be that this was one of Stein more incomprehensible works. Which was a little frustrating, because occasionally lovely and silly phrases did jump out at me!

This is no authority for the abuse of cheese.

If you’re looking to read some Gertrude Stein, I have to honestly say this is probably not the best place to start. “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” (which I read decades ago) I remember as definitely being more approachable – “Tender Buttons” and its extracts I would class as for Advanced Stein Readers only!

***

So a mixed bag of Penguin Moderns this time. I obviously loved the Orwell (but then when do I *not* love reading Orwell?) Stein was difficult, and I think I will go for something less lexically complex next time I want to read her. Any road up – the next two titles in the box look rather intriguing. Watch this space! 🙂

British Library Crime Classics – and trains!!! @shinynewbooks @BL_Publishing

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Ahem.

As you can see, I am a little behind on my reading and reviewing of the latest releases in the wonderful British Library Crime Classics series….

However, I *have* read one title in the series recently, a rather wonderful collection of short works featuring (you’ve guessed it!) trains and entitled “Blood on the Tracks”. Put together by the excellent Martin Edwards, it’s a really strong entry into the series and absolutely unputdownable.

The book has the added bonus of a Sherlock Holmes pastiche and Lord Peter Wimsey (not in the same story, of course…) I can’t recommend this one highly enough and you can read my full review over at Shiny New Books! 🙂

Imps and Immortals – treats from an independent publisher @AmpersandPubLtd

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Tree-based publishing has had something of a resurgence recently, despite rumours of its demise at the hands of e-reading; and much of this, to my mind, is down to the increase in smaller, independent publishers. They excel in producing unusual, innovative and unexpected works, and many of these are classics – lost or forgotten ones, previously untranslated ones, or just plain unusual ones. Needless to say, I’m a fan; I blog regularly on books from the indies, so I was excited to see a name new to me on Simon’s blog recently – Ampersand Press.

Aren’t they cute?????

Ampersand are truly independent, in that they have their own printing press (shades of the Hogarth Press there!) and it was their classics imprint which particularly caught my eye. They have an intriguing range of short works available and were kind enough to provide two titles for me to have a look at – both of which turned out to be excellent reads! The books are dinky little editions, about 5 inches square, and with striking cover illustrations; and I particularly like the colour of the paper they use; it’s off-white so easier for my slight astigmatism! So here are some thoughts on the two I’ve read.

Fagu Malaia by Robert Louis Stevenson

You might have noticed that I’ve developed a thing about RLS recently (not helped by my visit to Edinburgh) and I have several of his works on the shelves that I’m intending to read. However, this short work really hit the spot! “Fagu Malaia” is more commonly known as “The Bottle Imp” and it’s one of Stevenson’s best-loved tales (as well as the name of an online Scottish literary magazine). As the introduction reveals, though, the story was written in Samoa and originally published in the Samoan language. The Samoan title given here is most directly translated as “The Cursed Bottle” and this little edition is complemented by two Hawaiian folk songs.

RLS image c. the lovely National Library of Scotland

So what of the story? Well, it’s a gripping and intense read: the tale is of Keawe, a man with no money but who craves a beautiful house. He buys the titular bottle, and the imp it contains who will grant his every wish. He does indeed get the luxurious lifestyle he wanted, as well as a beautiful wife he adores. However, the bottle comes with a catch – if the owner dies in possession of the bottle, they will burn eternally in hell, and the bottle can only be sold on at a price less than was paid for it. The scene is set for an emotional tale of love and loss, the bottle changing hands hither and thither, and a race against time to see who will actually possess the bottle when the value is so low that it can’t be sold on any more…

Stevenson was a hell of a storyteller, that’s for sure! “Fagu Malaia” is dark, entertaining and exciting and made compelling reading – ideal for something enjoyable to be read in one sitting. Now I *really* want to read more RLS!!

The Mortal Immortal by Mary Shelley

As with RLS and his wonderful “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, I’ve read Shelley’s most famous work – “Frankenstein”. However, despite having other works by her on the shelves I’ve never picked them up (do you sense a pattern here?) So this collection of three short pieces was just the ticket.

The collection is introduced by Dr. Tabitha Kan, who is fierce in her defence of Shelley as actual author of “Frankenstein” (I had obviously missed that there was any kind of controversy…) and interestingly, all of the stories featured have a common thread with that work – the concept of life after death. Not for nothing is the book subtitled “and other tales of monstrous animation”. The title story deals with a mortal man who has drunk a mysterious elixir which extends his life; “The Reanimated Englishman” has apparently been frozen in suspended animation for a century and a half; and we never find out how “Valerius: The Reanimated Roman” came back to life; but like all of these characters, he’s not that happy…

Because although we might all dream of living forever, Shelley takes on the realities behind that dream and shows how it would become a nightmare. Our loved ones would age and die while we wouldn’t; we would age mentally and be out of keeping with our times; or we would come back to a world that had changed beyond all recognition, to spend our time lamenting the loss of the life we once knew.

Death! Mysterious, ill-visaged friend of weak humanity! Why alone of all mortals have you cast me from your sheltering fold? O, for the peace of the grave! the deep silence of the iron-bound tomb! that thought would cease to work in my brain, and my heart beat no more with emotions varied only by new forms of sadness!

All of these dark, haunting and yet beautiful stories prove how unsuitable humankind is for immortality; and they also prove that Mary Shelley was not just a one trick pony and that I really *should* get one of her other books down off the shelves…

I seem to have developed a tendency for reading short works lately (which may be as much to do with being in the middle of a hideously busy phase at work as anything else); and despite their brevity, these little classics have much to say about human beings and the human condition, as well as being exceptionally pretty and very entertaining. I can see that there may well be future Ampersand Classics featuring on the Ramblings and there is serious risk of another collection building up…

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

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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

Penguin Moderns 5 and 6 – Erotica and the Orient

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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…. :)

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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…

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