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“…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.

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 sublime account of some pioneering womens’ lives over @ShinyNewBooks #squarehaunting @francescawade @FaberBooks

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In between reading some absolutely marvellous books for our #fitzcarraldofortnight, I spent many happy hours this month reading a fantastic new books from Faber and Faber – “Square Haunting”, by Francesca Wade.

The book is a look at the lives of five inspirational and pioneering women at a point where they intersect; all five spent time living in Mecklenburgh Square, Bloomsbury and all had varied and wonderful lives. The book was highly anticipated, and didn’t let me down – it will be one of my books of the year, for sure, and it’s hard not to just turn into a gushing idiot when writing about it! 😀

The women concerned are H.D., Dorothy L. Sayers, Jane Harrison, Eileen Power and Virginia Woolf; and the book is a triumph. You can read my full review here!

In celebration of a seminal Beat figure @shinynewbooks @FaberBooks #Ferlinghetti

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I have a new review up at Shiny New Books today, and it’s a work I was very keen to read – “Little Boy” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

The author is perhaps best known for his seminal role in the promotion of the Beat Generation writers, and for his famous San Francisco bookshop “City Lights” (which I’ve never visited, but my brother has….) Ferlinghetti passed his century in March and this poetic, stream of consciousness memoir was published to mark his birthday. It’s an exhilarating and individual ride, and you can read my full review here.

A fledgling work of genius #sylviaplath #maryventura @FaberBooks

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Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath

There’s been quite a flutter of excitement around the planned releases to celebrate the esteemed publisher Faber and Faber’s 90th birthday. Known for their marvellous poetry publishing (and former employer of T.S. Eliot), Faber have issued works by everyone from Beckett, Betjeman and Hughes to Eliot himself; and very importantly, one of my favourite authors, Sylvia Plath! Central to the celebrations was the release of a number of little volumes of individual short stories; and the major excitement came from the fact that one of these was a short work by Plath which had never been published before. It was a given that I had to have this, and a copy duly arrived on release date, 3rd January. Trouble was, I was almost scared to read it in case it didn’t live up to the hype…

Well, reader, it did! “Mary Ventura…” was written in 1952, when Plath was a student at Smith College. The title character takes her name from one of Sylvia’s high school friends, and had featured in an earlier unrelated tale; this story, described by Plath as a ‘vague symbolic tale’, was submitted to Mademoiselle magazine in December 1952. Sylvia had recently won their writing prize, but they magazine rejected this new work; their loss, I’m afraid, because I think it’s excellent and I’m so glad it’s finally seen the light of day!

And I here I hit my first problem. “Mary Ventura..” is 40 pages long and to give away too many plot details would really spoil your reading experience (and you ARE going to go out and get a copy of this, aren’t you??) Let’s just say the story opens with Mary being seen off on a long train journey by her parents; they’re oddly distanced and distracted, and Mary seems unsure if she wants to make the long journey north, stating that she isn’t ready to leave. Nevertheless, the train departs with Mary on it; yet nothing seems quite normal. Mary is unsure of where she’s actually going; a woman keeping her company seems to know more about what’s happening than her young fellow traveller; and a vague air of foreboding hangs over the whole enterprise. The ending is symbolic and perhaps unexpected.

I got to the end of the story thinking “Blimey! That’s brilliant!” and then wondering why on earth it hasn’t been published before. Yes, perhaps it’s a little unpolished in places – Plath was, after all, still a fledgling author – but the concept is clever, the atmosphere effectively conjured and the allegory isn’t heavy-handed. In fact, it’s pretty impressive how Plath uses the ‘less is more’ approach, creating tension and uncertainty by implication rather than stating things out-and-out. Motivations and settings are often left cloudy and unresolved, and this makes the story’s unsettling impact even stronger.

Giovanni Giovannetti/Grazia Neri [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Approaching “Mary Ventura…” with knowledge of Plath’s sometimes complex family history and her own struggles does perhaps colour your reading of it. However, even without that background, I think the story stands in its own right, as a look at the complexities of striking out on your own, being ready to leave family life and take on independence, and the importance of a supportive family network around you. For a short piece, it certainly raises a number of issues.

The Faber Stories collection consists of 20 short works which are listed on the flap of this one, and the list of authors is impressive, taking in for example Brian Aldiss, Djuna Barnes, Edna O’Brien, P.D. James and Sally Rooney, to name just a few. Yet I can’t help feeling that Sylvia Plath’s story is the jewel in the crown here; it lingers in the mind and the topics it raises are thought-provoking ones. Aside from that, it’s simply a readable, fascinating, often unsettling tale with can be read in one burst (because you’re desperate to get to the end and find out what happens!) but which then has you wanting to revisit it to look for clues. Very clever, and evidence of just what a great writer Sylvia Plath was, and what a loss she was at such a young age. And it’s set me wondering about what other unpublished gems of hers might be in existence; I do hope that, if there are any out there, they surface in my lifetime…

…so of course, I had to get the set…

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… although I’m not sure if they’re regarded as a proper set as such – but they feel like it to me! I’m rambling on, of course, about Lawrence Durrell’s books about Greek islands – “Prospero’s Cell”, “Reflections on a Marine Venus” and “Bitter Lemons”. I picked up PC recently as I mentioned here, following the rather wonderful piece in “Slightly Fixed”. Of course, I felt the need to have a set and here they are:

Aren’t they lovely? And yes, they’d beautiful old Faber paper editions and they were a deliberate choice. The books are available in more modern editions, but I have a huge love of old Fabers – my original copies of Sylvia Plath’s books were these, and I have many others in my collection by authors from Eliot to Charles Williams. I’ve always loved the design and  the typography, the individual look of the books. It’s strange, but if you put in front of me a nice old-fashioned Faber edition of a book like these, or a modern shiny new one, I’d very probably choose the Faber!

However, several books *have* left the house recently, to a local school fete – so I don’t feel entirely guilty……. 🙂

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