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Penguin Moderns 29 and 30 – Essays, dreams and ‘camp’ culture..

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Well, I’m pleased to report that following my read of Penguin Moderns 27 and 28 (Kathy Acker and Chinua Achebe) I was determined to keep the impetus up and pick up another two of these fascinating volumes. And, delightfully, numbers 29 and 30 were from authors I already know and love, so I had high hopes – which weren’t disappointed!

Penguin Modern 29 – Notes on ‘Camp’ by Susan Sontag

Sontag has made a number of appearances on the blog, most usually because of an essay mentioning her or an introduction to a book or the suchlike. However, I do have her lurking on the TBR and I loved her essay on Barthes. So I was keen to read the two essays included in this Penguin Modern – the title one, and a second called “On Culture and the New Sensibility“.

One of the facts to be reckoned with is that taste tends to develop very unevenly. It’s rare that the same person has good visual taste and good taste in people and taste in ideas.

“Notes…” is one of her seminal pieces, taking a look at the whole concept of camp culture, and exploring it in a series of numbered points as a cultural sensibility rather than an ideology. The whole notion of sensibility itself seems crucial to Sontag’s way of looking at things, hinting towards a more fluid, complex response to the world than most -ims allow for. She draws on the wonderful Oscar Wilde, possibly the epitome of classic camp, and explores what actually qualifies as camp and what doesn’t; whether it’s a naive or deliberate thing; and what art forms can actually be camp. It’s quite fascinating, opening up many avenues of thinking which I hadn’t considered before.

A great work of art is never simply (or even mainly) a vehicle of ideas or of moral sentiments. It is, first of all, an object modifying our consciousness and sensibility, changing the composition, however slightly, of the humus that nourishes all specific ideas and sentiments.

The second piece was perhaps for me even more interesting, taking as it does its starting point from C.P. Snow’s seminal essay “Two Cultures”. The latter looked at the conflict between the arts and sciences, arguing for that divide to be dissolved, but Sontag is dismissive of Snow’s work. Instead she argues for new definitions of both the arts and the sciences, and that there are fewer differences between them than we might think; particularly in our modern world (she was writing in the 1960s) when mechanical methods of production were infiltrating the art (Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechnical Reproduction” springs to mind too).

Both of Sontag’s essays made fascinating reading; and although I think she might be an author I won’t always agree with, I love her style and her individual take on things. There’s much to think about in these essays, and I suspect I’ll be pondering for quite some time…

Penguin Modern 30 – The Red Tenda of Bologna by John Berger

By contrast, I have read a *lot* of John Berger (although there is still much I haven’t; he was a prolific writer); so I approached this essay, which I hadn’t heard of, with great interest. I call it an essay, but really it’s a work which defies description – and I love works like that!

Whenever I stood beside him – in the figurative or physical sense – I felt resssured. Time will tell, he used to say, and he said this in such a way that I assumed time would tell what we’d both be finally glad to hear.

So it contains memoir, in the form of the story of his relationship with his favourite uncle, Edgar; a wonderful sounding man with whom Berger obviously had a close relationship, and who runs like a thread through the book. It contains travel, as nephew and uncle go on visits, and then Berger visits Bologna and meditates on his memories of his uncle, food, paintings, and the beauty of the city. He notes the distinctive red colour often used in the city, sets off to buy some fabric in that colour, and encounters his late uncle when he least expects too.

…in the evening Pleasure and Desolation take their evening stroll along the arcades and walk hand in hand.

The narrative of this short work has a wonderful dream-like atmosphere, and Berger’s writing is as beautiful as ever. He creates a nuanced, delicate picture of his uncle and their relationship; and his visions of Edgar after his death seem to imply that those we love live on in some shape or form within our lives. It’s a stunning and moving piece of writing, which was originally published in 2007 and hopefully will deservedly reach a wider audience now. Just wonderful…

*****

So two Penguin Moderns by highly-regarded authors at the top of their game. I’ve found each of the books in the set I’ve read so far to be excellent and stimulating, but these two in particular had me reaching for the post-its on numerous occasions. The Berger alone was worth the price of the set, and that’s high praise… Having got back into the groove with the Penguin Moderns, I can’t wait to see which authors come up in the next pairing! 😀

Penguin Moderns 27 and 28 – Provocative and Mind-Expanding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A human is a human because of other humans.

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

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

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

*****

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

Reading challenges and me….

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

My Penguin Modern Poets collection!

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

My Great Ideas…

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

Penguin Moderns box set and Little Black Classics pile

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

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

Poetry mid-shuffle

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

And here’s the front row:

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

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

Penguin Moderns 23 and 24 – Inspirational women writers

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Two more Penguin Moderns from my box set on the Ramblings today, and this time a pair of rather wonderful female authors – one new to me and one I’ve read before. And both bracing and intriguing in very different ways!

Penguin Moderns 23 and 24

Penguin Modern 23 – The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House by Audre Lorde

It’s very pleasing to see the number of women authors featured in the Penguin Moderns (16 if I count correctly, although obviously a 50:50 split would be nicer…); and also to be introduced to some *new* women authors. Audre Lorde is one of those, as I’ve only recently come across her – which is my loss… Lorde has an impressive pedigree if you have a look at her Wikipedia page. Writer, feminist, activist and academic, her influence is still being felt and it’s clear from this collection that she was a trenchant thinker.

Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

Audre Lorde via Wikipedia Commons – Elsad [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D

PM23 collects together five of her essays which range over topics such as the reclaiming of the erotic, the point of poetry, how to direct your feminist anger and lessons to be learned from the 1960s. They’re powerful and thought-provoking pieces, and from the internal evidence I think they span a few decades (it would have been nice if they’d been dated).

Poor women and women of colour know that there is a difference between the daily manifestations of marital slavery and prostitution because it is our daughters who line 42nd Street. If white American feminist theory need not deal with the differences between us, and the resulting difference in our oppressions, then how do you deal with the fact that the women who clean your houses and tend your children while you attend conferences on feminist theory are, for the most part, poor women and women of colour? What is the theory behind racist feminism?

One of the strongest elements I perceived was something that was an issue much discussed in my early feminist days; in fact it was a regular topic in Spare Rib at the time, and that was the double discrimination suffered by women of colour, who had to deal with the racism they faced as well as the sexism. The examples Lorde gives of the reactions she received from white feminist woman are quite disturbing, although I wonder if the situation was the same in the UK as it was in the USA – I don’t remember the women I mixed with behaving like that, although I understand that in many cases our feminism comes from a place of white privilege and with the luxury of a certain economic stability. Many of our sisters lack that and their feminism is part of their attempt to simply survive.

I wheel my two-year-old daughter in a shopping cart through a supermarket in Eastchester in 1967, and a little white girl riding past in her mother’s cart calls out excitedly, ‘Look, mommy, a baby maid!’ And your mother she shushes you, but she does not correct you. And so fifteen years later, at a conference on racism, you can still find that story humorous . But I hear your laughter is full of terror and disease.

I would *definitely* like to read more of Lorde’s work after my introduction to her writing through the Penguin Moderns; a powerful and inspirational author.

Penguin Modern 24 – The Skeleton’s Holiday by Leonora Carrington

The wonderful Leonora Carrington is an author I *have* read and written about before. I reviewed her “Down Below” memoir ffrom NYRB and I’ve also covered “The Hearing Trumpet” on the Ramblings. This particular Penguin Modern features seven short pieces by Carrington and they certainly are beautifully surreal!

My Virago edition of Carrington short stories.

Hair as mould, diseased people, rabbits, hyenas, odd relatives – definitely there’s much strangeness here, and the thread running through them is of horses. The latter were obviously a touchstone for Carrington, even appearing in the title of one of the stories; possibly a symbol for the writer herself with her constant need to flee…

When I was a debutante, I often went to the zoo. I went so often that I knew the animals better than I knew girls of my own age. Indeed, it was in order to get away from people that I found myself at the zoo every day. The animal I got to know best was a young hyena. She knew me too. She was very intelligent. I taught her French, and she, in return, taught me her language. In this way we passed many pleasant hours.

The humour is dark, the stories dreamlike (or indeed sometimes like nightmares) and the imagery often startling. I must admit I felt sure I’d read some of these before, though I can’t see that I’ve reviewed them on the Ramblings; so it may simply be that I’ve dipped into the short story collections I have, or I picked up some plots from the biography I read. Anyway, I did love these rather dark and delicious stories, and reading them has made me keen to pick up “The Seventh Horse” sooner rather than later!

******

This was a really interesting pairing of Penguin Moderns, featuring two very different but very inspirational women. Both wrote from a particularly individual place and carved out their own way through life. And both are authors I want to spend time with in future!

In which I get inordinately overexcited about some new releases… #mishima #penguinmoderns

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I think ony bookish peeps would understand the high state of excitement I got myself into at the end of last week…. I subscribe to a number of bookish and publishers’ newsletters (probably not a good thing for me to do) and one from lovely Penguin popped into my inbox with a focus on Japanese writing. Now I read a lot of JapLit back in my preblog days and still have some unread volumes on the shelves which I keep meaning to get to. However… while scrolling down the newsletter I spotted something fairly eye-popping – what appeared to be a book by Yukio Mishima which I’d never heard of!!

Via Wikimedia Commons – see here for attribution: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yukio_Mishima_01.jpg

My first thought was that it was a new translation of a book I’d already got but under a different title – I’ve been caught like that before. So, I clicked off to the Penguin site to explore and found out that not only was this a newly published title which hadn’t been translated before, but also that there was a new Penguin Modern (no 51!!!!) of another story of his which is freshly translated. Time for a quick meltdown at the Ramblings….

See, I read everything by Mishima back in the day and absolutely adored his writing. But I haven’t revisited it for donkeys and I thought there wasn’t anything new to come. Wrong!!!! Needless to say both new Penguins arrived promptly at the Ramblings and here they are looking very pretty. So exciting!!

And just for the fun of it, I’ll share a few images of all of my Mishima books. Here they are, nestling on the Japan shelves:

And here’s the first selection, including his famous tetralogy:

And the rest, including a couple of biographies:

There is I think another which I read from the library and don’t own – I may have to rectify that for the sake of completeness… Interestingly, Mishima is responsible for me first setting up an Amazon account back in the day. I was very resistant to buying books anywhere but in a bricks and mortar bookstore, but I wanted a decent biography of him. However, I enquired in Waterstones, and they said there was an American one but that they weren’t able to order it in… Hence my Amazon account. But I have forgiven Waterstones and still love to buy books there (as will be seen from my regular Waterstones Wobbles!)

Mishima was a troubled and strange man, whose dramatic end probably overshadows his work to a certain extent. However I remember being knocked out by the beauty of his writing and I can’t wait to find out what I think of his work nowadays.

Of course, this does also generate a worrying thought – if there’s a Penguin Modern 51, there are obviously going to be some more…..

Penguin Moderns 21 and 22 – Russians in exile and snippets of brilliance from a favourite author

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I’m in the odd situation, with the next two Penguin Moderns in my sequential read of the box set, of coming across two books containing works I’ve already previously read. The Russian PM I bought separately in advance of the box coming my way, as I love Gazdanov’s work so much, and it also served as a taster for a collection of his short stories; and the Calvino stories are drawn from one of my favourite collections of his work, “The Complete Cosmicomics”. Both have been reviewed here on the Ramblings, but as these are two favourite authors I was more than happy to revisit them!

Penguin Modern 21 – Four Russian Short Stories by Gazdanov and others (Translated by Bryan Karetnyk)

As I’ve probably mentioned before, Gazdanov is a recent discovery by me, thanks to the wonderful translations by Bryan Karetnyk which have been issued by the lovely Pushkin Press. I’ve read each one they’ve put out, and his writing is just marvellous. The four stories here, by Gazdanov, Nina Berberova, Yuri Felsen and Galina Kuznetsova, are all translated by Karetnyk and three of them featured in his wonderful anthology “Russian Emigre Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky”.

I reviewed that book here, and discussed PM21 here; and of the latter I said “if you want an introduction to Russian émigré writing this is definitely a great place to start. One of the things which please me about the “Russian Emigre…” volume was the gender balance and the fact that there were a goodly number of women writers featured; I’m glad to see that this has been carried over to PM21 as there is a 50:50 split.”

Gaito Gazdanov – picture from Russian Dinosaur blog

And of the full collection I said, “This important, landmark collection brings them back to life and into the public eye; and whether you have an interest in Russian 20th century writers, or just like wonderful stories, I can’t recommend this book highly enough to you.”

Revisiting the stories hasn’t changed my mind about the quality of the writing here; and as well as picking up PM21 for the marvellous uncollected story, I also of course still highly recommend the émigré collection!

Penguin Modern 22 – The Distance of the Moon by Italo Calvino (Translated by Martin McLaughlin, Tim Parks and William Weaver)

Ah, Calvino! I have had a major obsession with his work for a good chunk of my life which has never really gone away, ever since I was pointed in the direction of “If on a winter’s night a traveler…” back in the early 1980s. It would be one of my desert island books, as would be his “Complete Cosmicomics”. Both of these are books I’ve revisited on the blog, “Traveler…” here and “Cosmicomics…” here. The PM draws four stories from the collection: the title story (which is one of my favourites), Without Colours, As Long as the Sun Lasts and Implosion.

By Fotograf: Johan Brun, Dagbladet (Oslo Museum/Digitalt Museum) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Each is playful, profound and utterly memorable, as I’d expect from Calvino and when I was writing about “Cosmicomics” I opined “some of his inventiveness leaves you breathless” and went on to say, “His work was highly individual and singularly brilliant, and I think I appreciate a lot more on re-reading. It is fascinating to wonder what Calvino’s Cosmicomics would have made of modern society and I can only mourn his early loss and wish we still have Qwfwq [his narrator in the stories] to spin us tales of wonder and imagination about the scientific world around us. I can’t rate Calvino and his work highly enough – a five-star book and a five-star author!”

Again, that’s another statement I’d stand by; everything I’ve read by Calvino has been just amazing and he’s been one of those landmark authors in my life. Hopefully this Penguin Modern might sneak his work into a few more readers’  hearts… 😀

*****

So as well as encountering new authors, reading the Penguin Moderns is allowing me revisit some favourites. I’m blessed with this box set, really, and I can’t wait to see what comes next! 😀

Penguin Moderns 19 and 20 – poetry and illusion…

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Be impressed…. I’m returning to the Penguin Moderns very promptly, mainly because I enjoyed the last two so much and because the authors of these two are drawing me to them like a magnet. Well, maybe a little nervously when it comes to Shirley Jackson – but let’s see how I get on…. 😉

Penguin Modern 19 – I have more souls than one by Fernando Pessoa

Template:Cavalão [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Give me some more wine, because life is nothing.

I’ve wanted to read Pessoa for sooooo long; he’s best known as the author of “The Book of Disquiet” which exists in multiple forms (I own at least two unread copies) and I wondered what this volume would contain? It turns out he was also a poet and a number of his verses are featured here; however, this being Pessoa, nothing is straightforward…. Because Pessoa wrote poems under four different names, all of which are showcased!

I have no ambitions or wants.
To be a poet is no ambition of mine.
It is my way of staying alone.

In his poetry as well as his prose, Pessoa is a man with multiple voices and a slippery persona, applying layers between himself and his readers. He writes in the four distinct poetic voices included in this Penguin Modern, which makes for a fascinating sampler of his verse works. However, how do we know which is his *true* voice? Which should we take most seriously? Is each a facet of a very complex personality? Truly, Pessoa is a man who raises more questions that give answers!

To those for whom happiness is
Their sun, night comes round.
But to one who hopes for nothing
All that comes is grateful.

As for the works, well I’m not well versed enough (ha!) in the terminology of poetry to give these styles labels, but they *are* all very individual, and so kudos to translator Jonathan Griffin for capturing these distinctive voices. If I had to pick a favourite, I would say that the poems under Pessoa’s own name were the ones which spoke to me most directly, emotionally and strongly – “There was a moment” is particularly beautiful. But all were intriguing, and I’m definitely drawn to pick up “The Book of Disquiet” sooner rather than later – if I could only decide which version to read….

Penguin Modern 20 – The Missing Girl by Shirley Jackson

As I think I’ve mentioned before, my only encounter with Shirley Jackson is in the form of her notorious short story “The Lottery”; it nearly scarred me for life and I’ve actually never been near her writing since. However, I steeled myself, and read this one in daylight!

The book contains three short stories and fortunately they’re less obviously horrible than “The Lottery”. Instead, it’s words like unsettling and disturbing which come to mind. For example, in the title story, a teenage girl does indeed go missing, from some kind of summer camp. However, her presence in the place (and indeed life) seems so insubstantial that everyone begins to doubt she was actually there. Journey with a Lady tells of a nine year old boy’s first trip on his own to his grandfather’s. He encounters an enigmatic woman on the train who is not quite what she seems and they form an unlikely bond. And the final story, Nightmare, does indeed have the air of one, with a woman apparently pursued around New York by a weird advertising promotion – but is she really the Miss X people are to look out for? The denouement is suitably nebulous…

Well, I am delighted to reveal that Shirley and I are reconciled. I enjoyed these stories very much and read them with something bordering on a sense of relief. They’re marvellously constructed, compelling, clever and yes, very unnerving but impossible to put down. Jackson excels in portraying unease, particularly in the final story where poor Miss Morgan seems to be stalked by the media promotion. If her novels are like this I think I’ll really like them; I really was rattled by “The Lottery”, but on the evidence of these works I can and I will read more Shirley Jackson!

So two completely different but both excellent Penguin Moderns – and yay! I’m reading more poetry! That’s one of the things I’m most pleased about in the collection, actually – because as they’re bite-sized books I get the chance to explore new poets without being fazed by a massive volume of collected works. Here’s to more small books! 😀

*****

Saramago and Pessoa – including my beloved Death at Intervals….

As an aside, I’m looking for a little reading advice… As I mentioned above, I’ve still to read “The Book of Disquiet” but I also have sitting on the stacks “The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis” by Jose Saramago, which I’m itching to pick up. Saramago’s book is about one of Pessoa literary aliases (so this is going to be meta-metafiction by the sound of it!) but I wonder whether it’s best read after “Disquiet”? Is there anyone out there who’s read both and is in a position to offer a sensible suggestion??? 🙂

Penguin Moderns 17 and 18 – Picking up the reins again!

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It’s been a while since I read and wrote about any of the lovely little volumes in the Penguin Moderns box set; in fact, I see it was last October, which is fairly alarming!! However, I said in my no-plans-for-2019 post that I *did* want to pick these up again soon – and lo and behold! I have! 😀

Penguin Modern 17 – Create Dangerously by Albert Camus

See page for author [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve read a reasonable amount of Camus over the years, but pretty much always his fiction as far as I can recall; so a nudge to read some of his essays was always going to be welcome, and the three featured here are fascinating. The title piece is a speech which Camus delivered shortly after being awarded the Nobel prize, and is the longest; its focus is on the place of the artist in the modern world, the dichotomy of whether to focus on realism or not, and the relevance of art in the twentieth century. These are big topics, and Camus argues the case for art’s importance very strongly.

After all, perhaps the greatness of art lies in the perpetual tension between beauty and pain, the love of men and the madness of creation, unbearable solitude and the exhausting crowd, rejection and consent.

Defence of Intelligence is a sobering discussion of how France must first make friends with itself after the horrors of the Second World War before it can extend friendship to the rest of the world Finally, Bread and Freedom is a stirring defence of liberty and justice.

We are on the high seas. The artist, like everyone else, must bend to his oar, without dying if possible – in other words, go on living and creating.

Camus is an invigorating commentator, and the essays provided me with much food for thought. Post-War France must have been an unsettled place in which to live, and as the world moved into the 1950s the general state of the world seemed no calmer. Camus was obviously someone who thought deeply about art’s place and relevance in that world, and reading these essays has made me keen to dig out more. I know I have some longer non-fiction pieces, and there is also this which I stumbled upon a while back in the Oxfam; so no excuse not to read Camus!

Penguin Modern 18 – The Vigilante by John Steinbeck

The second PM I read in this batch is quite different from the Camus, although it still deals with the harsher side of life. John Steinbeck is again someone I’ve read a reasonable amount of, although I have a considerably larger number of his books on the shelves which are unread as opposed to read… Most of the ones I *have* spent time with were pre-blog, and I was particularly taken with “Cannery Row”, “Travels With Charley” and “A Russian Journal” – more non-fiction than fiction, actually. I’ve never read his shorter works, though, so was interested to see what the Penguin Modern would bring.

McFadden Publications, Inc.; no photographer credited [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, what I encountered were three very different stories: all hard-hitting tales in their own way, and all very memorable. The title story is a dark one, getting inside the mindset of a member of a lynch mob. It’s painful and uncomfortable reading; Steinbeck doesn’t seem to be setting out to judge, simply to present the horrible thought processes of Mike, the protagonist, and leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. The Snake is equally dark, and I found this particularly hard to handle, dealing as it does (partly) with vivisection. A cold fish of a doctor experiments on the animals in his Cannery Row rooms; however, an encounter with a tall, dark woman who wants to buy a snake unsettles him and her motives are unclear. The final story, The Chrysanthemums, appears initially gentle, dealing with a farming couple and the wife’s encounter with a travelling pedlar. However, the whole meeting unsettles her very existence and the story is just as devastating as the others. These are powerful works and evidence of Steinbeck’s great talents as an author.

*****

Both of these Penguin Moderns were deeply stimulating, and left me wanting to read more of each author’s work – which has to be a good thing. Hopefully, reading these little volumes will continue to send me sailing into uncharted waters, as I do love to discover new and wonderful writing from all over the world!

Looking forward into 2019 – some bookish non-resolutions!

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The start of a new year is traditionally a time when we book bloggers start looking ahead and making plans and deciding what challenges to participate in and what projects to undertake. When I first began the Ramblings I was well into that kind of thing and used to fling myself into numerous commitments – usually to fail.. I think I know myself better as a reader nowadays, and for the last few years I’ve kept things light; I dip into challenges and projects as the mood takes me, and apart from our Club weeks I commit myself to pretty much nothing! This seems to work well and I can see no need to change things for 2019. 😀

Some post-Christmas book piles…. =:o

However, there are certainly a few aims I have for 2019, so time for some gratuitous book pictures and resolutions that probably will go very much awry!

LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group reads

The lovely LT Virago group plan some wonderful group reads every year; most recently focusing on specific authors every month, and I did dip in last year. 2019 is to be dedicated to reading books written in, or set in, the 1940s, with a particular theme every month. January is ‘family’, and there are a number of books from either Virago or Persephone I could choose from, and as I already have several on the shelves it’ll be a choice from these if I decide the mood is right!


I must admit that “Dimanche” and the Attia Hosain are both calling strongly; I was late to Nemirovsky’s writing but do love it; and I read “Sunlight on a Broken Column” back in 2014 and was transfixed. Watch this space to see if I *do* actually join in!

Penguin Moderns

As I mentioned yesterday, I was very fortunate to receive this box set from my lovely Offspring on Mothers’ Day, and although I was happily reading my way through it I kind of got sidetracked towards the end of the year. Hopefully, I can climb back on the wagon soon…

Poetry

2018 was a year with an increasing amount of poetry in it, particularly Russian but latterly French. I’ve been loving dipping into big collections, and I need to keep myself in the mindset that I don’t need to read a collection in one go; I *can* just dip and enjoy as the mood takes me.

The rather large Elizabeth Bishop collection requires attention, as does the lovely French book I got for my birthday from Middle Child; and I really must finish Baudelaire…

Self-imposed Challenges!

I set myself up for failure, don’t I? I get all enthusiastic about something, put together a large pile of books on the subject, read one if I’m lucky and then instantly become distracted by another subject/author/shiny new book. The curse of the grasshopper mind, I fear.

There’s the French Revolution. There’s Utopia. There’s those lovely London area books Mr. Kaggsy got me. There’s two huge volumes of Sylvia Plath’s letters and all of Katherine Mansfield’s notebooks. Any of these would be project enough for a good few months, but will I stick to anything? Not very likely…

Clearing the decks and reading more

I think ultimately that’s my aim this year. I’m not going to impose a book buying ban, because I would fail instantly, but I *am* going to try not to amass quite so many books, and to pass on a book quickly after reading it unless it moves and shakes me, or I think I want to read it again at some point. I’ve been clearing out books I’ve had for decades and either not read or only read once. I’ve hung onto them out of some kind of sentimentality perhaps, but I’ve taken a long hard look and decided in many cases that I actually don’t want to read a particular book or two, and they will go. Which will make room for the recent incomings…

Plus I need to waste less time on YouTube and mindlessly looking at social media, and simply focus on reading more. I *will* continue to enjoy good documentaries when they turn up (as I mentioned yesterday, I’m very much looking forward to Richard Clay’s forthcoming prog on viral memes) but aside from these I want to give more of my time to reading. Currently, I’m deeply involved in this chunkster for a Shiny New Books review and it’s proving completely absorbing.

Whether I can keep up this level of involvement when I go back to work remains to be seen, but I shall try! What reading plans do you have for 2019? 😉

Penguin Moderns 15 and 16 – Luscious prose and evocative journalism

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I haven’t left it too long between pairs of Penguins this time, possibly because I was particularly keen on reading one of them, and possibly because I felt the need of something brief after a fascinating but dense doorstop of a Russian book. So without further ado:

Penguin Modern 15 – Daydream and Drunkenness of a Young Lady by Clarice Lispector

Lispector needs no introduction, I’m sure, to readers of the Ramblings. I’ve written about her before here, and although I’ve only read the one work by this celebrated Brazilian author, it was memorable and stunning and I’ve always meant to read more. So this Penguin Modern, with three short pieces, was an ideal way to ease back into Lispector’s work.

Rio de Janeiro – Estátua da escritora Clarice Lispector e seu cão Ulisses no Leme. (Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil) via Wikimedia Commons

The book contains three stories – the title one, “Love” and “Family Ties“. All concern women’s lives, all are beautifully written, and all are utterly memorable. The first story is that of a young lady who indeed daydreams and gets drunk. Her husband and children almost seem incidental; instead she lives in a haze, detached and somewhat alienated from her family, only really moved by a glamorous rival when she’s out drinking with her husband and a business client. “Love” tells of Ana, another married woman with children; stuck in a passive, content routine, an unusual chance encounter on a tram shakes her out of her complacency and threatens her everyday existence.

She had pacified life so well, taken such care for it not to explode. She had kept it all in serene comprehension, separated each person from the rest, clothes were clearly made to be worn and you could choose the evening movie from the newspaper – everything wrought in such a way that one day followed another. And a blind man chewing gum was shattering it all to pieces. And through this compassion there appeared to Ana a life full of sweet nausea, rising to her mouth.

Family Ties” in particular is a triumph; the central female character, Catarina, is seen in relation to her mother, her husband and her son, all of whom have different views of her and depend on her in different ways. Once again a seemingly happy existence is not what it seems, and Lispector dissects human relationships with frightening precision, laying bare in a few sentences the tenuous nature of love and life.

There was no escape… And there was no way not to look at it. What was she ashamed of? That it was no longer compassion, it wasn’t just compassion: her heart had filled with the worst desire to live.

This was a stunning addition to the Penguin Moderns series; Lispector is such a wonderful writer, and each hypnotic story lingered in the mind after. The language is often gorgeous, and I’m left wondering why I’ve left it so long to go back to Lispector’s work. After all, I think I might well have her complete stories lurking somewhere… 🙂

Penguin Modern 16 – An Advertisement for Toothpaste by Ryszard Kapuscinski

In complete contrast to book 15, Penguin Modern 16 is a collection of short journalistic pieces by Polish author Ryszard Kapuscinski, who was known also for poetry and photography. The four pieces collected in this book are all set in post-War Poland, a country that seems as far away and exotic as any distant regime.

By Mariusz Kubik, http://www.mariuszkubik.pl (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The title story sees the author visiting a small village dance, where future marriages will be decided; “Danka” tells of temptation and a clash between modernity and old-style religion; “The Taking of Ezbieta” is a striking piece which relates the effect on the parents when their only daughter is seduced into taking the veil; and in the final story, “The Stiff“, Kapuscinski joins a group taking the coffin of a miner back to his family.

That woman and that man did not have much of a life, although they gave it their lungs and their heart. After that, they tried to fight. But when solitary people try to fight for their cause, it is only at that moment when they naively forget that right must yield to might. In the end, that moment always passes. And what’s left is what’s left.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up this particular PM, but I don’t think I anticipated such striking, evocative and memorable pieces. The post-War Poland which Kapuscinski captures is indeed a strange place, struggling to move into modernity but hampered by the superstitions and beliefs of the past. Some of the conditions seem incredibly primitive for the 20th century, as if the little villages and towns had been missed by progress and lost in time. Kapuscinski’s writing is clever and at times sharp; his anger, for example, at the grievous hurt done to her parents by Elzbieta and the nuns is not far below the surface. Another excellent addition to this collection and another author I want to explore more of!

*****

I was really impressed with this pair of PMs and made an interesting discovery when I was looking up Kapuscinski online; one of the titles of his books sounded familiar, and when I went and had a dig in the stacks, I did indeed own it – a gift from youngest child some Christmases ago!

It sounds absolutely fascinating, and chimes in a little with my mindset at the moment. So hopefully that one will be coming off the stacks soon too! 🙂

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