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A Scary Statistic…

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So, WordPress just reminded me that it’s 5 years ago today that I uploaded my first post to the Ramblings!! And that’s pretty scary because I find it hard to believe I’ve been babbling on about books here for that long – it seems only yesterday…. 🙂

I confess I’ve enjoyed every moment of that five years of blogging: as well as taking pleasure in sharing my thoughts about books in general, actually sitting down and reviewing them has not only deepened my enjoyment and engagement with them, but has also helped fix them more in my mind (and given me a good reference tool for what I’ve read!)

But I think one of the most delightful parts of blogging has been meeting, either virtually or in real life, with other bookish types. Some of these have been from the Virago LibraryThing group and others who have blogs, or just follow what happens on them. It’s a real joy to share bookish love and so I wanted to thanks everyone who’s ever taken the time to read my witterings or leave a comment – these latter are always appreciated as I love to interact with anyone who loves books as much as I do!

Onward and upward – here’s to more reading and sharing our bookish love!

10 of the Best Sylvia Plath Poems Everyone Should Read

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Fascinating post on some of Plath’s poems.

Interesting Literature

The best poems by Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath (1932-63) was a prolific poet for the few years that she was active before her untimely death, by her own hand, aged just 30. But what are her greatest poems? A few titles spring to mind, but it’s not easy to reach a consensus on, say, Sylvia Plath’s top ten best poems. But we like a challenge here, so we’ve suggested ten of Plath’s finest and most famous poems, along with a little bit about each of them.

Lady Lazarus’. Lazarus is the man in the New Testament who is raised from the dead by Jesus. Plath gives the name a twist in this poem, one of Plath’s finest poems, by linking it to her numerous suicide attempts. ‘Lady Lazarus’ contains the famous line ‘dying is an art’, among many other haunting and memorable lines and images.

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An entertaining diversion

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Untimely Death by Cyril Hare

You might be forgiven for thinking, with all the brouhaha that surrounds them, that no publisher had ever done reprints of classic crime novels before the British Library. However, back in the 1980s, I spent many a happy hour reading some lovely purple-covered volumes from Hogarth Crime, and in fact I’ve rediscovered some of these recently – with authors as excellent as Gladys Mitchell and Anthony Berkeley. However, when I was last up in London for a day out with my old friend J., she picked up one of these volumes from Any Amount of Books on the Charing Cross Road, and after reading it passed it on to me to have a look at too – so kind!

Hare has an intriguing back-story; his real name was Alfred Clark and his day jobs included practicing as a Barrister and a Judge! Clark/Hare wrote a number of crime novels, the most famous of which is probably “Tragedy at Law” (1942), and this book introduced his regular character Francis Pettigrew, a not very successful barrister. Pettigrew and his regular sidekick Inspector Mallett appeared in several books together and this novel, from 1958, was their last outing. Originally published as “He Should Have Died Hereafter”, it was called “Untimely Death” in the US and also for UK reprints (like this one!)

The novel opens with a retired Pettigrew and his somewhat younger wife, Eleanor, taking a holiday on Exmoor; the area has long-buried memories for Francis, who suffered some kind of childhood trauma there and is hoping to bury the ghosts for once and for all. Cleverly, Hare doesn’t reveal straight away what this was; instead, we learn about it gradually as Francis goes through a similar present day experience – which involves coming across a dead body on the moors which has a tendency to disappear and reappear…

And there are plenty of other elements stirred into the interesting and absorbing mix. For a start, there’s the fact that Francis feels he’s getting old and unsure of himself which tends to throw a lot of doubt on the things he *says* he’s witnessed. Then there’s the Gorman family, a local clan with familial links so complicated that no-one seems to want to attempt to explain them, and who all seem to have some kind of interest in the murder and an inheritance. There is Mr. Joliffe, the local butcher and also landlord of the Pettigrews’ holiday home, whose behaviour is a little odd and who seems obsessed with money. There’s even an entertaining court scene which Hare clearly had fun with, as it was a setting with which he was obviously familiar.

An Exmoor pony…

And the book *was* entertaining, though I do have a few caveats. For a start, there was the fact that the Pettigrews were visiting Exmoor at the time of a stag hunt, and that was an element I had to skim over when it appeared in the storyline – I’m very much *not* a fan. However, more substantially, I did feel that the book was a little undercooked; I would have liked more development of the background and characters, particularly the Gormans who seemed to have been sketched in rather than fully realised. And although there is a very satisfactory resolution, with a little twist I didn’t see coming, there were loose ends: Francis succeeds in laying his ghost but we’re left with the unresolved issue of his childhood experience, and perhaps a more skilful novelist would have developed this aspect more, tying the two strands together.

However, there’s plenty to love about the book: Francis and Eleanor make an appealing central pair, with his endearing woolliness being balanced nicely by her practicality. Mallett was great fun, as was Eleanor’s old school friend Hester Greenway, and there was some lovely wry humour, mostly at the expense of Francis. In particular, the whole sequence of his ride on a recalcitrant pony and encounter with some hunting types was very funny. And Hare conjured up wonderfully the bleak setting of the moor, making it a rather spooky background to Francis’s scary childhood experience.

As this was Hare’s last book and he died the year it was issued this may have some bearing on my niggles. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the book – I did, reading it through in two sessions – but I couldn’t help feeling that it had the potential to be so much more if it had been expanded and developed. Nevertheless, I think this is my first Cyril Hare book and it’s left me keen to explore more of Francis Pettigrew’s adventures; I think I shall definitely keep my eye out for “Tragedy at Law” (which I’m sure I’ve seen knocking about as an old Penguin….) 🙂

A reading update – and forthcoming plans!

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I can’t believe that it’s actually June already – where the time goes, I don’t know, but to suddenly find myself halfway through the year is a bit of a shock!

May was a reasonable reading month, although I didn’t make it through as many books as I intended; things started well but then I found myself involved in a very looooong review book which took up the back-end of the month! Now I’m through that and trying to decide what to read next…

This month’s Virago author is Margaret Laurence and the choice of which I could read is going to difficult:

These are the only two Laurences I own, and I believe they’re both part of a sequence and not the first part! I’m trying not to buy books at the moment, but I may have to make an exception here if I want to read something by this intriguing-sounding author in June…

Speaking of buying books, I have purchased just one volume recently, thanks to a hint from a certain sci-fi blogger who’s aware I have an interest in Soviet sci-fi written by women (You Know Who You Are….)

This one took a little bit of tracking down, and I eventually had to procure an ex-library copy from the USA – but it’s in really good condition, and I don’t mind it being ex-library. I get a little sentimental about old-school library cards and trappings in this kind of book and I like to give books like this a good home. Pleasingly, as well as the story by Olga Larionova, whose work I rate highly, there is also one by Kirill Bulychev who I also rave about regularly. So a good find!

And there was a good bookish find of another kind recently! Youngest Child and Middle Child paid a flying visit at the end of May, which was absolutely lovely, and while they were here did a bit of room clearing (as we still have so much of their junk stuff in the house). Whilst rooting about in her room, Youngest Child found she had two of my books hidden away on her shelves, one of which in particular I was very pleased to have back:

I’ve had the Emily Dickinson book since I was a teenager and was most aggrieved that I couldn’t find it. So at least it is now back on my shelves with my other poetry books – result!

Continuing with my plan to have no plans, I don’t have any idea what I’m going to read in June and as I’m feeling a bit undirected reading-wise at the moment, I may well be lurching into more classic crime – well, you can’t go wrong there, can you? 🙂

The price of love #ViragoAuthoroftheMonth

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My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather

At the beginning of the month, I wittered on about not known which Willa Cather book I should read from the rather imposing pile of books by her that I own. I received lots of lovely comments and suggestions, but as the month rolled on and its end became closer, I was getting no nearer to reading one. So I have to confess that the choice was eventually made in a terrible fashion – I went for the book that was slimmest…. :s

“My Mortal Enemy” was first published in 1926, and if I’m honest at 122 pages of biggish type it really should be classed as a novella. The book is narrated by the wonderfully named Nellie Birdseye, and she tells us the story of Myra Driscoll, later Henshawe, whom she meets at pivotal points in her life.

Their first encounter is when Myra makes a return visit to the (fictional) small town of Parthia. Myra grew up here, friends with Nellie’s aunt Lydia, and has become something of a scandalous figure since her elopement with Oswald Henshawe. Brought up by her great-uncle, Myra always has a wild streak and unfortunately her uncle disapproved violently of her beau. So Myra marries for love and by doing so loses the chance of a decent inheritance from her relative.

Nellie is fascinated by the idea of Myra and her dramatic love affair, and somewhat dazzled by the older, glamorous woman. She and her aunt Lydia are invited to New York to spend Christmas with the Henshawes, and the setting is still rather glittering and exciting to the provincial girl. However, Nellie becomes aware of cracks below the surface; Myra is a jealous woman, money is an issue, and Oswald seems to attract admiring women…

We (and Nellie) finally encounter Myra and Oswald some years later on the Californian coast. Nellie, now grown up (and possibly married?) is teaching and Myra is now a bedridden invalid. Tormented by noisy upstairs neighbours and looking for comfort in a return to her religion, Myra nevertheless still exerts a fascination on those around her. Oswald cares for her faithfully, despite still managing to attract the friendship of younger women, but Myra is a woman wracked with regrets – for having given in to love, cursing herself is a shallow person who should have instead stayed with the money she loved and needed. As her life comes to an end, she looks for fulfilment elsewhere and seems to find a kind of inner peace.

So I may have chosen my shortest Cather but it certainly isn’t a thin read! There are big themes here – whether love or money is most important; whether complete honesty is crucial to a marriage; whether what we receive in this world or the next is most important. I understand that Cather returned to her own religion too, and the comfort Myra draws from this at the end of her life is perhaps taken from her own life.

As to the mortal enemy of the title and to whom this refers, I actually felt that was rather nebulous. Some have taken it to mean her husband; some Myra herself; and some the whole process of love, what we’ll do for it and the havoc it can cause in our lives. Certainly, Myra has suffered for the decision she made, regretting the fact that she left behind a comfortable life with plenty of money; but she has always been victim to her passions and in many ways paid the price.

I sat down beside her, and we watched the sun dropping toward his final plunge into the Pacific. “I’d love to see this place at dawn,” Myra said suddenly. “That is always such a forgiving time. When that first cold, bright streak comes over the water, it’s as if all our sins were pardoned; as if the sky leaned over the earth and gave it absolution.

Cather’s writing is lovely throughout, and in such a short book she manages to paint nuanced portraits of all the characters. In particular, the relationship between the Henshawes is subtly rendered, and Cather captures brilliantly the delicate balancing act they go through to keep the marriage on track.

So my Willa Cather read for this month turned out to be a good choice in the end. “My Mortal Enemy”, despite its short length, is a thought-provoking and enjoyable read and if it’s any indication of the quality of Cather’s work, I’m definitely up for more! 🙂

Truth and Lies

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The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay
Translated by Sheila Fischman

I’ve written before about Peirene Press and their lovely books, having loved and reviewed “Sea of Ink” and “The Last Summer“. The latter was the first of this year’s releases, and the publishers tend to theme their books with the current series being titled “East and West”. The first book of the year looked at the divide between different classes and outlooks in pre-Revolutionary Russia; this second book looks at another setting, that of conflict in a war-torn zone, and the ideological divide here is just as fatal as the one in “The Last Summer”.

Ahmed and Aziz are twin boys, living in the Orange Grove in an unspecified country with their father Zahed and mother Tamara. The family is slap bang in the middle of a conflict and we are in no doubt of that from the first page, when bombing kills their extended family. The boys’ mother tries to maintain some kind of normal life, homeschooling them when the school is destroyed; however, their father is aware of his obligations to his kind and when local militants call, demanding that one of the boys carries out a suicide bombing attack, he cannot refuse.

The boys, although twins, are very different: Ahmed hears and sees things he cannot explain, whether spirits or visitations we’re not sure; Aziz is in some ways weaker, with an unspecified illness, and no fancies at all. A local militant, the dangerously persuasive and charismatic Soulayed, requires one of the boys to make his way over the hills wearing a belt primed with explosives to destroy the base on the side which has been bombing them and which destroyed their house and killed their grandparents. The point is, which twin? Zahed has to choose, but Tamara would make a different selection, and the boys themselves may have a view on this too…

The second part of the book is set in Canada; the surviving twin, known as Aziz, is now 20 and studying to be an actor. As he works on a play by his tutor Michael, the prospect of performing it brings to the surface his hidden past – for the play deals with terror and militants and is perhaps too close to home. In conversation with Michael, he tells the final truth about what happened near the Orange Grove and it’s shocking and shattering.

Not everything can be explained. Not even war. You can’t explain it when it kills children.

“The Orange Grove” is a quietly powerful book, yet devastating and absolutely necessary in this day and age. As with all the Peirene books it’s short and designed to read in one sitting but my goodness, does it punch above its weight! In 160 pages it covers the complexities of family life and loyalties, the rights and wrongs of war, the lies told in the name of ideology and the terrible cruelty of involving children in conflicts like this. All the family wants to do is to carry on living in the shade of the Orange Grove, a small area of sanity carved out of a war zone, but they cannot help but be involved in the fighting around them.

A strong element in the story is the clash between heritage and beliefs; the surviving twin initially believes all he is told by his father and Soulayed, accepting that his people are in the right, but the truth becomes clear as he grows up and moves into the wider world. Aziz starts to recognise the lies he has been told towards the end of his time in his native country, but once he is in Montreal the full horror is made clear. But what can you believe when you’re in the middle of conflict? It’s only at a distance, with perspective, that you can see things more clearly.

The majority of the characters in the book are male, but the two female presences there, the twins’ mother and her sister who has emigrated, see things very differently. It’s hard to imagine the emotions of a mother asked to sacrifice one of her children; and it’s bad enough to separate brothers in this way, but twins? It’s also terrifying how young the boys are, and in one scene they’re described as playing together, which is what they should be doing at that age, not becoming involved in death and destruction.

Obviously, this is a profoundly moving and affecting book, and I’m still thinking about it a long after finishing it. Sensibly, Tremblay does not define where the conflict actually is, what the ideology is or attempt to present the opposing views, which allows the book to be a comment on the horror and futility of war and its effects. The bottom line is that children are being killed and that is wrong, wrong, wrong – even more relevant bearing in mind recent events. “The Orange Grove” is a powerful addition to Peirene’s stable, an essential read that I can’t recommend strongly enough.

******

A word about the author, Larry Tremblay, who was a name new to me. He’s a writer, theatre director and actor based in Montreal who writes in French, and he’s written novels, short stories, poetry and plays. I wondered whether he drew on his own experiences for the second part of the book; and on the strength of this book I think his work definitely warrants further exploration.

Early signs of genius

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Teenage Writings by Jane Austen

Well, 2017 really *is* turning out to be the year of anniversaries, isn’t it? As well as it being 100 years since the Russian Revolution, I’ve also been covering the work of the artist and writer Leonora Carrington, who was born in the same year as that Revolution. But I was reminded of the fact that it’s also 200 years since the death of Jane Austen by the arrival of a lovely review copy from Oxford World Classics – a beautiful book collecting together her teenage writings.

It’s been some years since I read anything by Austen – decades, in fact – and I can’t be sure now what I’ve actually read and what I haven’t, although I’m pretty sure on “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion”. So I wondered how I would find these juvenile works by an author who is arguably one of the most famous in the English language and who probably needs no introduction from me!

As always for OWC, the books is put together in a most exemplary fashion. There is an erudite and knowledgeable introduction from Kathryn Sutherland and Freya Johnston, both from St. Anne’s College, Oxford; a chronology of Austen and her works; detailed notes to support the contents of the text, and also notes that deal in detail with textual variations; maps, family continuations of the works, and three volumes of the actual stories (about which more below)! The scholarship which has gone into this book is impressive, making it a very special volume which is ideal for the reader who doesn’t necessarily have much background knowledge of Austen’s history, the era and the context (me!).

One of the hand-made books

Jane Austen was an inveterate reader of novels herself, and absorbed whatever books she could get hold of, high- or low-brow. Her early writings were done not ‘for the drawer’ but to be circulated amongst family and friends, and she collected them together into three mock books, the source of the works here. The earliest date from when she was 11 or 12, and the final pieces from her later teens when she was around 17. The early pieces are understandably shorter but Volume 3 has two substantial pieces, “Evelyn” and “Kitty, or the Bower”, the latter of which is the first opportunity to read the story as she actually wrote it, as it was apparently subject to alteration by family members later on.

If you think of Austen as a purveyor of gentle prose, you might be quite surprised when you read these stories! They take a variety of forms, from short pieces a page or so long, through little playlets to the longer, more dramatic stories in volume 3. The book includes her most famous piece of juvenilia, “Love and Freindship”, and it’s fascinating to see what a sophisticated wit she displays for one so young – this from one of the early pieces, for example:

… I daily became more amiable, & might perhaps by this time have nearly attained perfection, had not my worthy Preceptoress been torn from my arms, e’re I had attained my seventeenth year. I shall never forget her last words. “My dear Kitty, she said, Good night t’ye.” I never saw her afterwards, continued Lady Williams wiping her eyes, she eloped with the Butler the same night.

There’s a surprising amount of boozing going on, with one particular lady in the very early stories regularly drunk and knocking back the alcohol! Love is dramatic and tragic, and there is even a little murder thrown in…

An entertaining diversion comes in the form of “The History of England”, which appears in Volume the Second. Here, Austen turns her talents to relating the stories of the various monarchs of the country. Some warrant only a line or two, but titans such as Henry VIII earn entries of a decent length. I was particularly pleased to note that Austen refuses to believe the propaganda about Richard III declaring that she supposes him “a very respectable Man”. The entries are illustrated by Austen’s elder sister, Cassandra, but unfortunately she’s not able to present an image of Edward V as Jane tells us that “This unfortunate Prince lived so little a while that no body had time to draw his picture. He was murdered by his Uncle’s Contrivance, whose name was Richard the 3rd.” (Hmm – so perhaps Austen was being a little sarcastic in her views on the latter….)

I’m not enough of an Austen reader or scholar to comment on how strongly these early pieces relate to her later works, but I’m told that many of the themes in the teenage writings appear more subtly in her adult work and certainly I picked up elements of parody. This is an entertaining and enjoyable collection providing a unique glimpse into the world of the young Jane Austen. Is it a work for the general reader? I think so, though it would make more sense to have read some of her adult works before you come to this one. But this is a beautifully presented volume which presents an essential collection of early works by one of our best-loved authors – and it couldn’t have been put together any better!

(Many thanks to Oxford World Classics for kindly providing a review copy)

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