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Penguin Moderns 43 and 44 – more recent Japanese fiction plus a bit of a revelation

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When I was casting about recently to see what other Japanese titles I had TBR which could be suitable for the Japanese Literature Challenge, I realised that one of the next two books in my Penguin Moderns series featured an author I’d wanted to read for quite some time – Yuko Tsushima. So it seemed a good idea to dip into these two titles, particularly as they were short and engaging during stressful work times earlier in the month!

Penguin Modern 43 – Of Dogs and Walls by Yuko Tsushima

Tsushima was a renowned author of fiction, essays and criticism whose work has had a recent renaissance in translation, with two full length works appearing in Penguin editions, as well as these stories in the Penguin Modern, all translated by Geraldine Harcourt. Born in 1946, she was the daughter of the sometimes controversial author Osamu Dazai, who committed suicide when she was one year old. The two stories in this collection, “The Watery Realm” and “Of Dogs and Walls” both seem to contain autobiographical elements, which I guess is not surprising…

You’re afraid of the water that stole your husband, but all you can do is consort with it. It’s always around you. As far as you’re concerned, he didn’t die, he turned to water. What happens on land vanishes in water, and the reverse is true, too. Water is your greatest fear…

“Watery…” is a beautifully written short work which intertwines narratives from a daughter and her mother, and explores their lives, as well as that of the daughter’s brother who suffers from learning difficulties. The narrative is as fluid as the watery images which pervade it, and looks back at the lost father who drowned himself with a lover (as did Dazai) as well as the relationship between mother and daughter and their misunderstandings. The narrative in “Of Dogs…” could almost be a continuation of the first story as again we have a mother, daughter and troubled brother. The story has a more conventional structure and is set at a later date where the characters are looking back to the sister and brother in their younger years, the dogs and houses of the families and the blurring effects of time on memories. In both cases, as I implied, it’s impossible not to read these stories autobiographically.

I’d heard good things about Tsushima’s writing and she certainly lives up to her reputation with these two short works (which I believe aren’t available anywhere else). Evocative, poignant and moving, the stories reveal the complexities of family relationships and explore how easy it is to misunderstand someone close to you. The story of the brother was particularly touching and the dream-like quality of the prose is haunting. A definite winner in the Penguin Modern set, and I shall obviously have to check out her other works in translation.

Penguin Modern 44 – Madame du Deffand and the Idiots by Javier Marias

Well, this was something of a surprise! I have only ever tried to read Javier Marias once – well, twice I suppose, as I had two goes at one book and didn’t get on with it so abandoned it. So when I picked this out of the Penguin Moderns set I had no expectations at all. It turns out that “Madame…” is non fiction; five short portrait of famous literary figures, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, and I absolutely loved them!!!

The pieces cover the title lady, Nabokov, Djuna Barnes, Oscar Wilde and Emily Bronte. They’re certainly brief, and each has a small picture heading the essay, but they’re sparkling, witty, slightly cheeky takes on each of the figures – and despite his often irreverent stance, Marias really does seem to have an affection for his subjects and captures them beautifully in wonderfully readable and entertaining prose. The Nabokov portrait was particularly affecting, as was that of Oscar, the latter looking at his life after he left prison – always something which makes me emotional.

This was a wonderful little gem of a Modern, and I enjoyed it so much that I’m sorely tempted to read the whole collection from which they’re drawn. I’m also obviously going to have to rethink my attitude towards Marias, because if I can enjoy his non fictions so much, maybe I *would* like his fictions – I’ll just have to try a different book to the one I failed with twice!

*****

This particular pair of Penguin Moderns were memorable and wonderful, both great introductions to authors whose work I need to explore further. Plus another read for the Japanese Literature Challenge! Has anyone any recommendations of where I should go if I fancy exploring Marias’ work further??

Looking back on highlights of 2021’s reading…

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During December, on book blogs and Twitter, I’ve seen many a ‘best of’ post; however, I always prefer to leave my look back on the year until the very end – I have known, in the past, some of my best reads of a year to arrive at the very end! 2021 has not been an easy year in many ways, but I have read more books than ever (my coping mechanism) and so I shan’t pick a best of – I never do – but instead will look back at some of the highlights… 😀

Classic Crime

As always, I have sought consolation at difficult times with murder, mayhem and mysteries! Golden Age Crime has always been a huge favourite and a comfort read for me, and 2021 was no different. As well as any number of marvellous British Library Crime Classics, I’ve managed to find an excuse to revisit Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime. And Edmund Crispin, another long-term love, has made appearances here. Really, I doubt I would have made it through the year without crime!!

As an extra crime treat, I was invited to take part in the Crime Reprint of the Year Award by Kate at Cross Examining Crime, and was happy to nominate two favourite books – such fun! 😀

British Library Women Writers

As well as reissuing some wonderful Classic Crime, British Library Publishing have also been releasing stellar titles in their Women Writers series. I’ve covered a number this year, including Edith Olivier’s The Love Child and Diana Tutton’s Mamma. However, a highlight was their reissue of F. Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to See the Peepshow, a book I regard very highly. I was delighted to take part in the blog tour and sang the book’s praises – a wonderful and moving read!

Russia

Inevitably there are Russians, as books and authors from that country are some of my favourites. I spent time with Dostoevsky for his bicentenary; squeezed in Nabokov short stories; read a wonderful anthology of classic short works, and a brilliant collection of new writing; and reacquainted myself with a recently rediscovered author who wrote for the drawer. I can never read enough Russians, and frankly I think you’ll see plenty more books from that country appearing here in 2022!!

France

As well as a love for Russian culture, I also have a passion for all things French, most particularly Parisian. There were plenty of French treats this year, from unpublished fiction from a favourite writer, a marvellous non-fiction work exploring the culture of mid-century Paris, poetry from that city, some hypnotic prose from Marie Ndiaye and a lovely look at Sylvia Plath‘s relationship to the place. All lovely, and all have drawn me back to reading French authors; I’m currently rediscovering Jean Genet, and have a good number of unread Sartre, Camus and others on the TBR!

Of course, I have to mention Roland Barthes, who has been much on my mind this year. I’ve only read one of his works in 2021, and also Derrida‘s piece on him, but I am keen to continue with him in 2022. A readalong on Twitter of A Love’s Discourse went by the by leading up to Christmas, as my head was in totally the wrong place, but I shall hope to get back to this one soon.

New to me authors vs old favourites

I must admit to being a reader who loves to discover new authors and books, though this year I’ve also sought comfort from the familiar. I don’t do statistics, but I do see from the list I keep that I *have* explored new writers this year. Margarita Khemlin, Marguerite Duras, Amanda Cross, Gilbert Adair and Alex Niven are just a few names who have intrigued this year, but I’m happy to keep the mix of old and new going. From the old guard, George Orwell continues to be a constant delight – I can’t foresee a time when I’ll ever stop reading him! John Berger is a more recent favourite and I’ll definitely be continuing with his works in 2022. Burroughs and Beverley Nichols, a disparate pairing if there ever was one, are both names I love to revisit regularly. Really, there are so many books and so little time, as we always say!

Projects and Reading Events

We get onto shaky ground for some of these, as I’m often a bit rubbish at keeping up with this kind of thing. As far as events go, I co-hosted Read Indies Month in February with Lizzy and this was wonderful fun – so many great independent publishers to support! And Simon and I co-hosted two reading club weeks this year – 1936 and 1976. Both years had an excellent selection of books available to read, and the response was wonderful! I’m happy to say we’ll be running the #1954Club from 18-24 April 2022 and there are some really great books from that year, so do join in!

As for other events, I have dipped into Spanish Lit Month, German Lit Month, Novellas in November and a few more – I like to take part in these when I can and when it fits in with the TBR and also what I fancy reading!

My own personal reading projects, which are all really centred round various Penguin collections, have been pretty intermittent this year – whether from lack of focus, the state of the world or just wrong book at wrong time, the only one I’ve made headway with is the Penguin Moderns box set. I’ve had great fun with this little series of books – there are some marvellous authors and titles in it – and I have high hopes that I might actually finish reading it in 2022!

Disappointments…

I always try to be selective in what I read, but there are occasional misfires and DNFs. I started the year with one, The Housekeeper and The Professor, which really didn’t gel with me; I struggled with Confessions of a Heretic, which was not for me; and I tried to read a high profile book about Russian authors and frankly disliked it immensely. But the balance is heavily in favour of successful reads, so that’s good!!

Poetry

2021 also saw me spending a good amount of time with poets and poetry, and this was a real pleasure. There were biographies – John Sutherland’s marvellous Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me was a highlight, as was Gail Crowther’s magisterial Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz, which explored the lives of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I discovered new poets, too, often via the NYRB Poets imprint, and this was particularly wonderful.

Translated works

I generally read a lot of work in translation. And I continued to read a lot of work in translation during 2021 – yay! And I shall continue to do so in 2022. Thank you *so* much to all those who translate works into English – my reading life is richer because of you!

Favourites?

I can *never* pick favourites or a top ten or a book of the year, and my BFF J. always reckons it’s because I read such a disparate range of books. I tend to think she might be right, and in any case I’ve read so many stunners this year it seems wrong to pick out one. But to satisfy those wanting me to choose *something*, a few which particularly stood out were In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, every short story I read by Nabokov, Unwitting Street by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, New Model Island by Alex Niven, The Edge of the Object by Daniel Williams and Gentleman Overboard by Herbert Clyde Lewis. All of those were oustanding reads, but probably all for very different reasons!!

Well, there you have it! Some of my reading highlights for 2021. Come back to the Ramblings tomorrow to see if I have any plans for the new year, so you can place bets on whether I’ll stick with any of them! 🤣🤣🤣

Penguin Moderns 41 and 42 – fiery feminism and poignant poetry!

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Well, so much for me charging through the last fifth of the Penguin Moderns box set… I haven’t actually read any since July (where does the time go???) so I figured it was time to take a look at the next two – and an interesting, though disparate, pairing they are! 😀

Penguin Modern 41 – The Problem That Has No Name

If you’re a feminist of a certain age, the name of Betty Friedan will be very familiar. Although I’m a bit later than the generation she was writing for, when I first encountered what was called Women’s Lib Friedan was still a reference point. A pioneering American feminist, her book “The Feminine Mystique” (1963) was a groundbreaking work which attempted to identify the problems faced by those 1950s housewives who were told they had it all, but felt that they didn’t…

Here, two selections from “Mystique” are featured – the title essay and “The Passionate Journey”, and they still read as rousing rallying cries for woman who are still being short-changed by the patriarchal societies which continue to exist all around the world. “Problem…” is stirring stuff; particularly in America of that era, women were told that with a husband, children, home and all mod cons they had all they could ever want and should be grateful. This was part of the post-war return to traditional ways, following the advances into the workplace made during WW2. Well, we know how well being restricted to house and home went for women – I mean, just look at Plath and Sexton…

Betty Friedan (c. Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

The second essay looks at the lies and disinformation spread to discredit feminists and suffragettes from the early days on, warping and distorting their aims – again, not much has changed, has it?

It is a strangely unquestioned perversion of history that the passion and fire of the feminist movement came from man-hating, embittered, sex-starved spinsters, from castrating, unsexed non-women who burned with such envy for the male organ that they wanted to take it away from all men, or destroy them, demanding rights only because they lacked the power to love as women. Mary Wollstonecraft, Angelina Grimm Kay, Ernestine Rose, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Julia Ward Halle, Margaret Sanger all loved, were loved, and married…

Friedan’s trenchant writing still makes inspiring reading, but I found myself a bit saddened that her thoughts still seemed so relevant. When it comes to the feminist cause, it often seems it’s one step forward, two steps back… 😦

Penguin Modern 42 – The Dialogue of Two Snails by Federico Garcia Lorca

This was a book I’d hoped to get to during Spanish Lit Month, but alas I failed. Better late than never, then… Anyway, the great Spanish poet Lorca probably needs no introduction, and this Modern brings together what the blurb describes as “A representative sampling of (his) poetry, dialogues and short prose”. The translator is Tyler Fisher, and apparently some of the works appear here in English for the first time which is rather lovely.

So much for living.
All for what?
The path is flat and dreary,
and there is not love enough.

What to say about Lorca which hasn’t been said before? His work is lyrical, sometimes quirky, often dark and really does stick in the mind and the heart. The prose is particularly lovely, and I’m not sure I was aware before that Lorca had written anything other than poetry.

Statue of Lorca in Madrid (Lourdes Cardenal, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

A sharp emotion, like an elegy for the things that have never been – good things and bad, large things and small – invades the landscapes of my eyes, which are almost hidden behind a pair of violet-tinted glasses. A bitter emotion that compels me to walk towards this quivering garden on the highest prairies of the air.

Of the poems, there are beautiful words and phrases, romantic verses about people and nature, and “They Felled The Trees” is a particularly stunning lyric. Lorca’s sketches are dotted through the book, and as I read it I couldn’t help but lament his early death… A particularly lovely inclusion in the Moderns series.

*****

So – a *really* different pairing of authors here, with little in common, perhaps. Nevertheless, both of these little volumes were great reads in their own individual ways and so I am impelled forward to read the next two in the seires – hopefully before too long!!

Penguin Moderns 39 and 40 – searing prose and memorable poetry

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I was reminded that I haven’t read any of my Penguin Modern box set recently by Lisa’s posts on two of the books from the collection – Fernando Pessoa’s “I Have More Souls Than One” and Lorca’s “The Dialogue of Two Snails”, both of which she covered for Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month. I’ve read and loved the Pessoa, and haven’t yet reached the Lorca – but I decided to press on with the next two books, and intriguing reads they turned out to be!

Penguin Modern 39 – Letter to my Mother by Georges Simenon

Simenon of course needs no introduction; I’ve read tons of his Maigret stories, and love them, as well as a few of his romans durs, as he called his non-Maigret fictions. This, however, is something a little different; “Letter to my Mother” is an autobiographical piece which is indeed in the form of a letter addressed to his mother, written after her death.

Via Wikimedia Commons – By Jac. de Nijs / Anefo (Nationaal Archief) [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

By all accounts, Simenon had a difficult upbringing and a complicated, distant relationship with his maternal parent; and in “Letter…” he places himself at her deathbed, recalling the past, trying to reconstruct her early life and fill in gaps – and ultimately to try to understand a woman who gave birth to him, but to whom he’d never been close.

There are two or three billion people on earth… How many have there been since prehistoric times? No one has any idea. What does seem reasonable to suppose is that they’ve always fought and killed each other as they do now, that they’ve always had to fight their neighbours, natural disasters, and epidemics.

Of course, by the time Simenon’s reached this point, it’s too late; there can be no real reckoning and instead he’s left to carry with him all the things left unsaid between them – which is perhaps the point of this work. It’s a stark, often painful piece of writing, but incredibly powerful. The relationships between parents and children are incredibly complicated (I know that from my own experiences) and to lay them bare like this takes a certain kind of courage and also the strength to examine yourself. Simenon is someone who doesn’t seem to shy away from difficult subjects, and this was an unforgettable read.

Penguin Modern 40 – Death the Barber by William Carlos Williams

In contrast to the intensity of the prose in the Simenon, PM40 is verse, and by a poet whom I know I’ve read before – William Carlos Williams. I suspect I read him in my teens, when I discovered a lot of 20th century poets, thought I don’t think I own a book by him, so I probably discovered him in anthologies. The poems in this PM are drawn from a dozen collections, ranging from 1917 to 1962, so do cover a wide range of Williams’ writing.

William Carlos Williams, from his passport photo (Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

And this is the kind of poetry I love; short, immediate verses which grab and hold the attention, paint little pictures with words, drop beautiful little phrases into your line of sight where they lodge, and which stay with you afterwards.

These

are the desolate, dark weeks
where nature in its barrenness
equals the stupidity of man.

The PM contains what is probably WCW’s most famous verse “This is just to say” (all about the plums in the icebox!), but there are so many other fabulous poems – “These” was particularly memorable. I picked up hints of e e cummings in places, perhaps, but WCW has a wonderfully individual and idiosyncratic way of writing – another PM which I loved to bits!

*****

So two extremely different but equally great Penguin Moderns today – at 58 pages, the Simenon is definitely best published and read as a standalone piece (I don’t know if it always is) so you can read properly, digest and ponder upon it. And a poetry collection of 55 pages is just the right length, as it’s so easy to get overwhelmed by large chunky editions. These two PMs were both excellent entries in the series and hey! guess what! – I’m now four fifths of the way through!!! 😀

Penguin Moderns 37 and 38 – poles apart – or are they???

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It’s been a little while since I spent any time on my Penguin reading projects, and a recent narrow reading window seemed the perfect time to fit in the next two in the Penguin Moderns sequence. These titles are very different from each other – but oddly enough there are resonances!

Penguin Modern 37 – The Cracked Looking-Glass by Katherine Anne Porter

Porter is another one of those authors I know of, but have never read. Yet she was a prolific and critically acclaimed writer, perhaps most known for her novel “Ship of Fools”; and her short stories are apparently very highly regarded. This PM contains just one work, the title story, and it’s a moving piece of work.

Rosaleen sat silent, without rancor, but there was no denying the old man was getting old, old. He got up as if he gathered his bones in his arms, and carried himself into the house. Somewhere inside of him there must be Dennis, but where?

First published in 1922, the story tells of Rosaleen, married to a considerably older man and living an unsatisfactory life on a farm in rural Connecticut. At 30 years her senior, Dennis is aware that he is no longer man enough for his wife, who is obviously unhappy and bored. As the story progresses, both characters think back; both are aware of their flaws; and both have deep regrets about the loss of a child, a missing friend and how their lives could have been very different. Rosaleen is drawn to other men, yet holds back; and a trip to the city will test her real feelings.

Porter packs a lot into the 55 pages of her story, and it’s a poignant and atmospheric read. Rosaleen and Dennis share much, including their Irish heritage, and as a portrait of the ties that bind a marriage together, “Cracked…” is excellent. Porter’s writing is excellent, and on the strength of this I definitely would like to read more!

Penguin Modern 38 – Dark Days by James Baldwin

In contrast, book 38 is from the acclaimed author James Baldwin. He’s an author I’m familiar with, having read several of his works back in the day; however, I think these were all fiction, so I was keen to explore the essays in this volume. The book contains three titles: Dark Days (1980), The Price of the Ticket (1985) and The White Man’s Guilt (1965); and each is a powerful and moving read.

To be black was to confront, and to be forced to alter, a condition forged in history. To be white was to be forced to digest a delusion called white supremacy.

The essays explore the situation of people of colour in the USA, and Baldwin draws on his own life; growing up in Harlem, being given breaks by people whom he came to love and trust, and managing to make his way in the world, despite the odds being against this. He digs deeply into the prejudice faced by every one who is non-white, dismantling the illusion that there can be equality until white people’s supremacy is no more. One particularly resonant point he made was about education; this is, of course, structured by white people with a particular bias, and so even if a person of colour gains an education, it is skewed. The essays are inspirational reading, and still very, very relevant today…

…I am facing sixty. Dark days, for we know how much there is to be done and how unlikely it is that we will live another sixty years.

You see, I put in above the years the essays were published because I think it’s worth noting, tragically, how little has changed. In the 1960s and 1980s Baldwin was writing about police brutality to people of colour; and we saw last year how the same attitudes and prejudices lead to continuing violence against non-whites and how those who perpetrate it don’t seem to be brought to justice. It’s a sobering reminder of how much still needs to change.

Baldwin’s writing is, of course, excellent; his arguments are persuasive and his sense of outrage palpable. He’s obviously a writer I need to return to.

*****

This pair of PMs might on the surface, therefore, seem to be quite unalike. However, there are similarities; both books deal with the kind of system of inequality which exists in the USA. Rosaleen and Dennis are marginalised because of their povery and their Irish heritage; Baldwin because of race; and it struck me reading these works that America has a class system of its own. It does seem that those who emigrated to the New World took all their problems and prejudices with them, and if you aren’t one of the white folk who scrambled to the top and are clinging onto your privilege, life is still very hard. A thought-provoking pair of books, which I highly recommend!

“… I ride and ride and I never arrive.” #JapaneseLitChallenge14 #mishima

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Having had an underwhelming experience with my first read for the Japanese Literature Challenge, I didn’t want to let January pass without trying another work from that country; particularly as I’ve read some marvellous books from Japan. An old favourite is Yukio Mishima, an often-controversial figure; and I was delighted when previously untranslated works starting appearing recently in new English versions. So I decided to cheat! I say cheat, because the book I read was no 51 in the Penguin Modern series of bite size loveliness – and I am supposed to be reading the series in order!! However, the Mishima was issued after the box set came out so that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it!

The work in question is “Star” and it’s a novella-length work first issued in 1961, in a short story collection of the same name. In contrast to many of his major works, which look back to a golden past in Japan, “Star” is set firmly in the present. It tells of Rikio “Richie” Mizuno, a young actor at the height of his fame who’s nevertheless suffering from insecurity, disillusioned with fame and the film world. Despite being surrounded by hysterical young adoring fans, his most important relationship is with his personal assistant, Kayo. The latter is older that Richie, and considered unattractive; yet she offers the actor emotional and physical support, keeping him grounded in some kind of reality.

… threads of permanence cling to the underbelly of all formulaic poetry. It comes as a false shadow, the refuse of originality, the body dragged around by genius. It’s the light that flashes from a tin roof with a tawdry grace. A tragic swiftness only the superficial can possess.

Aside from the complexities of acting while surrounded by screaming fans, another problem occurs when a struggling actress inveigles her way onto the set and into the film. Things go wrong when she proves not to be up to the task of acting the part, and takes dramatic action. Needless to say, the PR people use this to their advantage, leaving Richie just as full of self-doubt as ever…

Real love always plays out at a distance.

“Star” may be a short work, but it’s just as brilliant and full of impact as any of Mishima’s longer works. Richie is the pefect Mishima character; struggling with the hollowness at the heart of his fame, losing sense of reality because of the number of different personas he has to adopt, his life feels empty and he’s assailed by doubt and ennui. The constant wearing of (metaphorical) masks has detached him from the reality around him; and the intense and unlikely relationship with Kayo is more real to him than anything else. Despite the fact that this anchors him, he acknowledges that the relationship is just as much of an illusion; and the couple can sit and calmly discuss the prospect of his suicide, as if this is a logical end to which his life is headed.

A star is more of a star if he never arrives.

Needless to say, reading this wonderful novella from Mishima has restored my faith in my love of Japanese writing. Inevitably, because of the author’s complex relationship with his country and fame, it’s hard not to imagine him drawing from his own life and feelings when writing “Star”. Mishima had himself recently had a go at movie acting and it apparently proved not to be to his taste; so presumably much of that experience was funneled into this story. It’s a compelling, beautifully written work, and I can’t understand why it’s taken so long for it to appear in translation.

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

Like my encounter with another recently translated book, “The Frolic of the Beasts“, reading “Star” has reminded me what a stunning writer Mishima was and how I really need to revisit his other works. And rather wonderfully, I also have another previously untranslated work of his sitting on the TBR…. ;

“Star” is translated by Sam Bett, who apparently has received kudos for his work – to which I would like to add my thanks and praise! Any previously untranslated Mishima is very welcome in this quarter!!!

Penguin Moderns 35 and 36 – Marlon and melancholia…

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After the excitement of considering revamping the Penguin Projects, it seems only fitting that I should continue to move on through the various collections I have; and after the disappointment of my first foray into Japanese Literature Month, I thought I would return to the Penguin Moderns to try to ensure a good read – which these two certainly delivered!

Penguin Modern 34 – The Duke in his Domain by Truman Capote

Capote is an author with whom I’m fairly familiar (and who probably needs no introduction); I read “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood” back in the day, and loved and admired both. In particular, I find his journalism compelling, so I was particularly keen on reading this short work: a profile of the young Marlon Brando, marooned in a Kyoto hotel whilst filming “Sayonara”. First published in 1957 in the New Yorker, the piece makes absorbing reading.

As Capote reveals, he had first run into Brando in the actor’s early years appearing on stage in “A Streetcar Named Desire”. Then, Brando had been at the start of his career; here, he’s at the top of his game, a box office certainty, and in many ways an enigma. Whether attempting to write his own screenplays, studying the various philosophy books strewn around his room or juggling his entourage, Brando remains basically unknowable, completely enigmatic. Capote observes and records, as the perfect journalist would do, and really captures the time and place and the mystique.

What struck me, too, as I read this Modern, was the strong impression I got from it of Japan; a stronger impression, I have to say, than I got from “The Housekeeper and The Professor”…. Which I suppose tells you much about the quality of Capote’s writing. An excellent entry in the Penguin Moderns collection and a nudge to me to read more of Capote’s non-fiction!

Penguin Modern 36 – Leaving the Yellow House by Saul Bellow

The next Modern is an author I know of but have never read – Saul Bellow. A Canadian-American author who won all manner of literary prizes (including the Nobel), I guess maybe “Herzog” is his best known work. First published in Esquire in 1958, and in book form a decade later, “Leaving the Yellow House” is an evocative and beautifully written story of a woman and a house and the West.

The main character is an older woman called Hattie, who lives on her own in the Yellow House near a desert town by Sego Desert Lake. Hattie is a hard-drinking character with a past; and a car accident and injury forces her to attempt to face up not only to what’s happened in her life so far, but also whether she has any future. Her only friends are a few local neighbours, some of whom will help and some who will take advantage; and as the story progresses we explore Hattie’s past with the various men in her life, her complex relationship with her friend India, and her drinking. That latter element has become the most important part of her life (in fact, certain flashbacks hint it might always have been), and I ended the story wondering what would eventually become of Hattie.

“Leaving the Yellow House” is a title with a double meaning as you’ll see if you read this story; and I do recommend it highly. It’s beautifully written, very evocative and captures the area in which Hattie lives vividly. Bellow obviously deserved all the awards he received, and this was a brilliant introduction to his writing.

*****

So once again, a pair of great Penguin Moderns featuring two titans of American writing.  Re-encountering Capote was a real joy, and discovering Bellow a revelation. And that’s basically what I’m hoping to get out of these little books – renewal of acquaintances or an introduction to new writing. Perfect!  ;D

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

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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

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!

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