Penguin Moderns 33 and 34 – hobos and pre-war Germany…


Next up on the Ramblings is the latest pair of Penguin Moderns from my lovely box set. Numbers 33 and 34 feature two male authors who really couldn’t be more different – yet reading them both was extremely enjoyable and convinced me I should try to pick up books by them sooner rather than later! 😀

Penguin Modern 33 – Piers of the Homeless Night by Jack Kerouac

I am on very familiar ground with Kerouac, as back in my teens I read pretty much everything available by him (and I’ve hoovered up most of what’s been released in the interim). Inevitably, because of the period in which his works were written I have occasional issues with his attitudes to women, but when his prose soars I love him. “Piers…” contains two short sections extracted from “Lonesome Traveler”, his account of his travels around American which was first published in 1960. The title piece is a beautifully written evocation of his encounter with an old buddy in San Pedro, and his failure to ship out as a crew-member on a boat as does his friend.

Kerouac was always drawn to the sea – it’s a recurrent motif in his work, if I recall correctly from my readings all those decades ago – and the prose here is so hypnotic. The second piece is “The Vanishing American Hobo”; it finds Kerouac in philosophical mood, musing on the changes taking place in his country and the modern difficulties of bumming your way around America. It was no longer easy to hop a freight train or sleep under the stars without the authorities moving you on; I imagine it would be nigh on impossible nowadays, and that’s another kind of freedom gone…

I don’t go back to Kerouac often; maybe part of me is worried that I won’t find the magic in his prose that I did before. However, on the evidence of this I obviously should!

Penguin Modern 34 – Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch? by Hans Fallada

In contrast to Kerouac, Fallada is an author who’s come to prominence in the English-speaking world relatively recently; his novel, “Alone in Berlin” caused a stir on its release in 2010, and many of his works have now been published widely in translation. I tried (and failed!) to read “Alone…” pre-blog, so I was very interested to see how I would find the three short works collected here. Spoiler alert – I loved them! 😀

There are three short stories featured in the Penguin Modern, all drawn from the collection “Tales from the Underworld” (2014). The title tale is a humorous ‘cry wolf’ story of a watchmaker’s son who seems to find it impossible to hold on to the timepieces given to him by his father; “War Monument or Urinal?” brilliantly captures the range of small town politics in pre-war Germany, and the tensions that existed; and “Fifty Marks and a Merry Christmas” is a touching story of a couple trying to make ends meet at the edge of the poverty line.

I found these stories wonderful and compelling, so I can’t understand, looking back, why I struggled with “Alone…” unless it was simply a case of right book, wrong time. Whatever – Fallada writes wonderfully, brilliantly capturing so much of his times in these short works!


So PMs 33 and 34 were winners! A revisit to a favourite author and an introduction to a new one, both of which I loved. The Penguin Moderns really are proving to be the best way to meet new authors and rediscover old ones – can’t wait to see who comes up next!  ;D

#1965Club – looking back at some previous reads…


During our Club reading weeks, I always like to do a post looking back at books from the particular year which I’ve read in the past; in some cases, there will be reviews here on the Ramblings, and in others they’ll be pre-blog reads. Either way, I always find it interesting to revisit previous books, and there were quite a number from 1965! First up, let’s look at the older ones.

Pre-blog reading

The pre-blog pile has a bit of a variety! There is, of course, “I had trouble in getting to Solla Sollew” by Dr. Seuss; it’s one of the pivotal books in my life and I’ve written about it before. When I borrowed it from the library in my childhood it obvs hadn’t been around for long! Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” is a no-brainer; I’ve had my original paperback since my teens, and I can never read enough of her work.  “Roseanna” by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö is a more recent arrival; Mr. Kaggsy bought me the whole sequence of Martin Beck crime novels (of which this is the first) many years ago and I love them to bits – my favourite Scandi crime books. Jack Kerouac’s “Desolation Angels” is also a book I’ve owned since my teens and I probably would be less tolerant of him and it nowadays; I would have liked to re-read had time permitted this week, but somehow I don’t think that will happen… And finally, the majestic “Black Rain” by Masuji Ibuse, a book I read when I first began to read Japanese literature. It’s powerful and unforgettable and I can’t recommend it enough.

There are no doubt many more pre-blog reads from 1965 (it was a bumper year!) but those were the obvious ones I could lay hands on. So let’s move on to 1965 books I’ve previously covered on the blog!

1965 Books on the Blog!

Let’s start with a couple of favourite authors. And in fact Italo Calvino has been a favourite since I was in my 20s; the rather battered copy of “Cosmicomics” on top of the pile is from that era. I revisited the book with “The Complete Cosmicomics” and was even more knocked out than the first time. I love his books. End of.

Stanislaw Lem is a more recent discovery, but his quirky and clever and thought-provoking sci-fi stories have been a fast favourite at the Ramblings. “The Cyberiad” came out in 1965 but my lovely Penguin Modern Classic is more recent. Definitely an author I’d recommend.

Here’s another pair of very individual authors… Nabokov needs no introduction and his book “The Eye” is a short, fascinating and tricksy book with a very unreliable narrator. Georges Perec‘s “Things” is another unusual one – from the amount of Perec on this blog, you know that I love his work, and this particular title, exploring ennui in the budding consumer society of the 1960s, was very intriguing.

It wouldn’t be the Ramblings without some Russian authors, would it? Here’s another of my favourite authors, Mikhail Bulgakov.Black Snow” and “A Theatrical Novel” are translations of the same book, one of the author’s shorter and more manic works. If I had time, I’d start a project of re-reading his works in order.

And “An Armenian Sketchbook” by Vasily Grossman proved to me a. just how bad my memory is and b. that it’s a good thing I have this blog… I was all set to read this book as one of my 1965 choices, when there was a little niggle in my head. I checked, and I’d read and reviewed it back in 2013….  *sigh*

Finally, something a little lighter – or is it??

I’m a recent convert to Tove Jansson and the Moomins, but really this book should be subtitled “Moominpappa’s mid-life crisis“! The titular father has a bit of a panic at feeling useless and so drags the whole family off to sea. There’s an awful lot of stuff going on below the surface here…

So… that’s just a few of my previous reads from 1965. I’m sure there would be tons more if I looked harder, but I’m going to concentrate on new reads for the rest of the week. And while I do that, next up on the blog will be a guest post from Mr. Kaggsy! 😀

Happy Birthday, Jack Kerouac

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“I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all. The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling.”
― Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

Many happy returns, Ti Jean…

The Beats of Summer: The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac


To carry on with the Beat theme, I decided to follow up my failure with “The Sea is My Brother” by returning to “The Dharma Bums” as it was the first Beat book I ever read. I rather hoped that I would have a better experience with this read!

When I was in college, in the late 1970s, I had quite an obsession going with the 1960s and hippie culture. One of my fellow students, Joan Swain if I recall correctly, handed me a copy of DB with the instruction that I should read it because the Beats came first, before the hippies, and she was sure I would love it. Well, Joan was right and she had set me off on a lifetime of reading the works of Kerouac and co.


But it’s an awful long time since I’d read DB, so I did approach it a little nervously. Although I read and loved the scroll version of “On The Road”, DB has always been special so I was worried my view would have changed.

The book opens with our narrator, Ray Smith (based on Kerouac himself of course), hopping a train to San Francisco to meet up with the book’s other protagonist, Japhy Ryder (a thinly disguised Gary Snyder). Ray arrives in SFO just in time for a pivotal poetry reading, populated by other notables such as Alvah Goldberg (Allan Ginsberg) – Kerouac certainly used his life in his art!

Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder

Japhy has introduced Ray to Buddhist ideals and much of the book is concerned with the two men working through their beliefs. However, there’s plenty of action alongside, with wild parties, mountain climbing hikes, Ray’s hitching home to his mother for Christmas, and a final sequence of Ray working for the summer as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak (later expanded in “Desolation Angels”).

Thankfully, I found the book had the same effect on me as the first time around, swallowing me up and transporting me into the world of 1950s California. This is the prose I remember from reading Kerouac initially, which seduced me then and still does.  I just *love* Kerouac’s beautiful, long-winded, poetic sentences which have an almost hypnotic effect. However, inevitably my response towards the content, although I still love it, has changed – because books don’t change, only our perception of them. As we grow and mature, our views develop, so our response to a book will be very different, particularly when the context has changed.

There is firstly the inevitable sexism. I noticed it more this time round because I’m so much less tolerant of that type of thing nowadays. The Beats were a bit of a boys’ club, and their view of women was frankly Neanderthal. It’s not the casual sex that strikes me, though, as that works both ways frankly. My main changed reaction was to the character of Rosie Buchanan, who kills herself while Ray is supposed to be keeping an eye on her so Cody (Neal Cassady) can go out to work. Rosie, based on Natalie Jackson, is yet another one of Cody/Neal’s women, messed around, cheated on and in some cases beaten up. When I first read the book I would have accepted her story at face value as it’s painted by Kerouac, a tragic character who was lost and doomed. But now any reading is coloured by what I’ve learned about Kerouac and Cassady and I can see what’s behind Rosie’s tale, and recognise the fault in the men, which Kerouac tries to smooth over, romaticising her and therefore distancing her, so that the men aren’t regarded as culpable. To be honest, Cody/Cassady has never been my favourite Beat, and this rather reinforced my view.

My reactions now are inevitably different for another reason: I came to DB in 1977 with no knowledge of Kerouac at all as he was something of a neglected figure at that time. The only biography available was the Ann Charters one, and so this was pure reading of a type only really available in pre-Internet days. I came to the book with no preconceptions, whereas when I read it now I have so much knowledge about Kerouac and his circle which informs my reading. It’s impossible to approach the Beats unknowingly, without all the baggage that goes with it.

But there is so much to love in this book, apart from just the wonderful prose. JK can conjure up wonderful atmospheres, painting pictures of lively gatherings, beautiful solitude and wanderings through the great land of America. There are fantastic images from the book which stay with you, from Japhy leaping down the mountain like a goat to the jumping, jiving beat get-togethers.

Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac

And there is a real sense of Ray/Jack trying to find enlightenment. Kerouac’s was a deeply divided nature and this is very much on show here – the mixture of his natural Catholicism with various types of Buddhism as he searches for satori. The book is set in 1956, just before “On the Road” hit the bigtime and changed Kerouac’s life forever; although he was already a published author, he was only a minor one and this was his last time for wandering before he became too well-known.

Kerouac was always searching – for meaning, revelation, some kind of solution to why we are here. His restless nature was incapable of settling for one system of belief, one place to rest, and he would alternate bouts of hobo wandering with periods living comfortably at home with his relatives – neither completely satisfying him. JK is very critical of everyday life:

“…colleges being nothing but grooming schools for the middle-class non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time while the Japhies of the world go prowling in the wilderness, to find the ecstasy of the stars, to find the dark mysterious secret of the origin of faceless wonderless crapulous civilization.”


“But there was wisdom in it all, as you’ll see if you take a walk some night on a suburban street and pass house after house on both sides of the street each with the lamplight of the living room, shining golden, and inside the little blue square of the television, each living family riveting its attention on probably one show; nobody talking; silence in the yards; dogs barking at you because you pass on human feet instead of on wheels.”

And yet, contrast those passages with his attitude as he returns to his mother’s home for Christmas, and spends the time (when he isn’t meditating in the woods) watching TV and living off his family (to the annoyance of his brother-in-law). As he arrives at the house he sees his mother through the window and wonders what’s wrong with white tile kitchens anyway – a perfect demonstration of the duality of his nature.

Although the Beats were adopted by the hippies, Kerouac often tried to deny the connection. But his peaceful, Buddhist beliefs, trying to fight against the temptations of the flesh (particularly alcohol) were in time with their thoughts in many ways. As he says:

“I recalled with a twinge of sadness how Japhy was always so dead serious about food, and I wished the whole world was dead serious about food instead of silly rockets and machines and explosives using everybody’s food money to blow their heads off anyway”

Early Ban-the-Bomb rhetoric no less! But in his constant battle against his own nature, he encapsulates the fractured psyche of post-War USA. The 1950s were in many ways a safe decade, with the post-War consumerist boom and the perfect nuclear family portrayed in advertising and media. But the downside of this was McCarthyism and intolerance of anyone who didn’t fit the mould. On his own personal level, it is a great shame he didn’t win the battle against alcohol because that was what killed him in the end.

Kerouac’s work was condemned by Truman Capote as just “typing” which completely overlooks the lyrical quality of his prose and denies that any work has gone into it. The differences between the scroll version of “On The Road” and the final published version give lie to that statement!  “The Dharma Bums” still works on several levels: as an eminently readable tale of two young men in the 1950s searching for enlightenment; as a fascinating (fictionalised) view of Kerouac’s life at that time; and as a luminous and refreshing antidote to our shallow, gadget-driven world. I loved revisiting it, and it’s very much restored my faith in my early book judgements!

The Beats of Summer: The Sea is My Brother by Jack Kerouac (DNF)



Wow! Yes, that’s right – I did not finish a Jack Kerouac book, one I’d been looking forward to reading! I’ve been reading Kerouac since my teens and never failed to finish one of his books, even the more dense volumes like “Visions of Cody” (which did take a bit of perseverence). So what went wrong here?

Let’s start with some basics: “The Sea is My Brother” is trumpeted as Kerouac’s ‘lost’ novel. That’s a bit misleading, really, because it wasn’t lost, it just hasn’t been published before. It was his first attempt at writing a novel, when he was just 20, and he dismissed it later as a “crock” and wouldn’t publish it in his lifetime. Fair enough, but posterity often want to see what a writer has left behind, and particularly their juvenilia (into which category this falls). There have been a number of posthumous Kerouac publications and so it seems inevitable that “Sea” would find its way into print.

One of the first peculiarities is the timing and content of the British and US publications. The Penguin UK edition came out *before* the US edition and contains a considerable amount of extra material. The Penguin has the title story (about 150 pages) plus several shorter fragments of stories and journals, plus a section at the back focusing on Jack’s relationship with the Sampas family, particularly Sebastian, a fledgling poet who was killed in the war. In contrast, the US edition contained only the story, although I believe the other material has been published in America since.


The UK version (which is the one I read, borrowed from my local library) is edited, put together and with notation by Dawn Ward, who seems to be an art teacher rather than a literature scholar, and I have to say that I found the layout of the book a bit odd – the editorial comment in italics didn’t stand out enough, and there was unclear division between the different pieces. And the notes were mostly unnecessary and superfluous – if I was an inexperienced 17 year old, I might have found some of them useful, but I’m not, and I doubt that this book is aimed at such a reader.

As for the content – well, “Sea” is juvenilia for sure. It’s obviously a first work and if it was by any other author than Kerouac I doubt I would have picked it up. It’s not that it’s terribly bad (I’ve read *much* worse) but it’s unformed, unfinished and obviously a book by someone who still has to find a style. Parts read terribly awkwardly, parts are repetitive and parts show hints of the kind of prose Kerouac would soar to later in his career. It was, in all truth, a bit dull and as it was obviously incomplete and unpolished, in many ways it would be of interest mainly to scholars. I’m not sure the casual reader would get much.

As for the other pieces – well, in many cases they’re just fragments and I wondered why these particular pieces had been chosen. I’m not against posthumous publication, far from it – I have several of the latter-day collections of Kerouac’s shorter pieces, and very much enjoyed “And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks”, the joint work by Kerouac and Burroughs which came out recently. I also saw the Scroll last year, and found the publication of it in book form a fascinating read (although I can understand why people got frustrated with the *long* introductions!) However, the fragments included here didn’t seem to have particular merit, imho, and didn’t sit well alongside the main story.

As I tried to read on through this book, I was feeling more and more uncomfortable. The words “scraping” and “barrel” kept coming to mind, and I found it hard to work out what it was that was bothering me most. I wondered what other people had thought and popped online to see what other reviewers had said. There seemed to be quite a mixed response, but then I stumbled across Paul Maher’s excellent site here, and what he said about “Sea” crystallised for me the problem I was having with the book. I won’t repeat all Paul says, because I recommend you read it yourself, but in effect I agree with him that this is a book with an agenda – it is more about Sebastian Sampas than Jack Kerouac and seems to be trying to promote him as a lost poet in his own right. Anyone with more than a passing interest in Kerouac’s life is probably aware of the controversies that have surrounded his estate, and I’m not going to go into them here – I have my opinions and beliefs on the rights and wrongs as I’m sure most readers do – and so the timing this book, coming very close to the release of the “On The Road” movie, is interesting.

So I didn’t finish this book, because in the end it didn’t feel to me by or about Kerouac. I felt like it detracted from his legacy, instead of adding to it, and I’m going to go back to some of his works I love most to reinforce what I feel about him. When his poetic prose soars, his long descriptions paint wonderful pictures in your head, when his characters whoop and laugh and rush out to embrace life – that’s the Kerouac I love and will continue to read.

(Looking back over this post I see that I’ve actually mentioned little about the actual story itself. Basically, “Sea” concerns a live-at-home-with-the-family college lecturer who hooks up with a drunken merchant seaman on leave and ends up taking off to sea with him – then the story stops. Probably based on Kerouac’s short-lived experience at sea – 8 days if I recall correctly – ’nuff said!)


Paul Maher has posted a couple of ‘follow-ups’ to his piece linked about on the Empty Mirror site and they are definitely worth reading for an insight to the oddities behind the publication of this book:



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