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A fledgling work of genius #sylviaplath #maryventura @FaberBooks

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Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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. πŸ˜€

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? πŸ˜‰

It’s December – so that means more books…

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There is an inevitability about the arrival of new books in December; as well as Christmas, there is also my birthday which occurs about a week beforehand. As my friends and family know me well, there will always be book gifts and this year is no exception. So I thought I would share them as usual – well, why break a habit?? ;D

First up, this little pile arrived from various sources on my birthday (and I did share an image on Instagram):

A fascinating selection! The top four are from Mr. Kaggsy – three wonderful books from the British Library focusing on my favourite areas of London, and a period crime novel set in the Jazz Age – I’m intrigued, and with the London books there’s another risk of a reading project… “Nihilist Girl” came from a Family Member after instructions were issued, as did “At the Existentialist Cafe” after a link was sent to my Little Brother! French Poetry came from Middle Child and the Beverley is from my BFF J. who is a great Nichols enabler…

There was a late arrival courtesy of Eldest Child in the form of this:

I follow the Bosh! boys on YouTube as they come up with some marvellous (and relatively easy-seeming!) Vegan recipes, and I’m always keen for new foodie ideas – so this will be just the ticket!

Next up, some arrivals from my Virago Secret Santa; this is a tradition we have on the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group and it’s such fun to take part! My Santa this year was the lovely Lisa from the USA, and by some weird trick of randomness, I was *her* Santa. Needless to say, I was spoiled….

The two Mrs. Oliphant books complete my set of the Chronicles of Carlingford – I’m very keen to get to read these all at some point. The Nemirovksy is short stories and I’ve not read any of these. And a lovely hardback of “Golden Hill” which sounds fascinating! Thank you Lisa! πŸ˜€

Then there are the Christmas arrivals! Some of these were requests/instructions and some of them my friends and family improvising.

The second volume of Plath letters was from Middle Child; the Katherine Mansfield Notebooks from Youngest Child. I long to sink myself in both…. The beautiful first edition of Beverley’s “Sunlight on the Lawn” (with dustjacket!!) is from my dear friend J. – just gorgeous…. “Sweet Caress” is from my old friend V. and I don’t think I’ve read any Boyd so I’m interested in taking a look… The rest are from Mr. Kaggsy who has been as inspired as ever. The John Franklin Bardin omnibus is a particularly intriguing; I’d never heard of the author but he seems to have been a highly regarded and very individual crime writer so I can’t wait to explore. However, Mr. Kaggsy excelled himself this year with this:

“But, Kaggsy!” I hear you cry, “you already have so many copies of The Master and Margarita!” Yes, I most certainly do, but I’ve always wanted a copy of the Folio Society edition. It seems to have been spiralling upwards in price to dizzying heights, but amazingly Mr. Kaggsy managed to track down a Reasonably Priced copy and snapped it up! Grinning like the Cheshire Cat here….

Finally, some review books have snuck in (as they say); I can’t share most of them, as the publication dates are a little way away, but one I can is this beautiful volume from Notting Hill Editions:

I love their books, and as an inveterate walker, the content looks just perfect for me. I want to get reading this one soon, so look out for a forthcoming review.

So as usual I have been utterly spoiled with new books and my only issue, as usual, is what to pick up next? Never an easy decision… Which would you choose??

#1977Club – a final post!

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Phew! So we reached the end of the #1977club in one piece and having read, discussed and discovered some very interesting titles! In the end, as always, I ran out of time and didn’t read all I wanted to – but these are the ones I *did* read:

Four books in total, only one of which was a fail (the Carter). Rediscovering favourite authors like Brautigan and Plath was a joy, and exploring Margaret Atwood’s early stories just served to reinforce what an excellent writer she really is. Despite my issues with the Carter, I *will* try other titles by her – if for no other reason than to prove I haven’t turned into a soppy old wuss!!

Alas, I didn’t get to the Barthes; but that will remain on the TBR and hopefully be read at some time in the future. If you’re still reading from 1977, please do leave links on the 1977 page – it’s been wonderful seeing what everyone else has been reading and watching the discussions. Here’s to the next club, whichever year that may be…. πŸ˜‰

#1977Club – Revisiting some Plathian prose

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Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams by Sylvia Plath

In 1977, what you might call the cult of Sylvia Plath was still in its infancy; controversy raged about her legacy, but probably more in feminist circles than in the mainstream (that was to come later). But in that year, Faber and Faber issued “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams”, a collection of prose by Plath, and it must have been manna from heaven for those who wanted more from the author. I have three copies – I’m not quite sure why – and one at least will have been from the late 1970s or early 1980s when I was first discovering Plath. I couldn’t say if I’ve revisited it since, but I was really keen to do so to find out what I thought of it now. All I can recall for sure is that I thought the title story was weird…

Yes, I do indeed have three copies of “Johnny Panic” and this was the one I read…

The book pulls together a number of prose works, collected by Ted Hughes, and these he divides into those he considers “more successful”, other stories, notebook excerpts and stories found in the Lilly Library. It’s perhaps an odd way to assemble a book, and his introduction doesn’t help matters by referring to her ‘lost’ novel “Double Exposure” (now so famous that mention of it turned up in a book a reviewed not long ago…) So what of the works that *are* included here? Well, of course they’re marvellous.

The bottom one is my original from way back when – and I can see from an ancient bookmark, that I did re-read at least *some* of it at one point!

As well as being a magnificent poet, Plath was also a great prose stylist and these works are little gems. Yes, the title story *is* a bit weird – drawing on Plath’s experience of mental illness, presumably – but it’s bloody good and no wonder I remembered it. So are the others – good, that is – with a particular favourite being “The Daughters of Blossom Street”, again with a hospital setting. The works are an interesting mixture really – and from what we now know of Plath it’s easy to see how the fictions draw on the material of her life, and sit so well alongside the non-fiction pieces. A short one and a half page prose piece, “Context”, is particularly strong, with Plath discussing where her poetry sits. She identifies very much with the attitude “the personal is political”, and it’s rather frightening to think how little has changed in the conflicts present in our world over the last 50 years or so.

For me, the real issues of our time are the issues of every time – the hurt and wonder of loving; making in all its forms – children, loaves of bread, paintings, buildings; and the conservation of life of all people in all places, the jeopardizing of which no abstract doubletalk of ‘peace’ or ‘implacable foes’ can excuse.

Then there are memoir pieces like the evocative “Ocean 12-12W” recalling her young life by the sea at her grandparents’ house; and “Snow Blitz”, which presumably was one of her final pieces of writing, dated as it is 1963 and dealing with the frozen winter that had its part in her final demise. Chilling, in both senses of the word.

… the simple, lugubrious vision of a human face turning aside forever, in spite of rings and vows, to the last lover of all.

The notebook extracts are tantalising, reminding me of the fact that I really need to sit down and read Plath’s journals and letters, and also making me crabby about the fact that some of them were destroyed. In all her prose works, Plath shows herself to be a sharp observer of human behaviour and also a writer capable of conjuring a setting or an atmosphere seemingly at ease; and I can only wish that there were more works available.

Because much as I love being able to read these prose works of Plath, it strikes me as what we have here is inadequate. In 1977, apart from the individual poetry books, “Letters Home” and “The Bell Jar”, nothing else was available and *anything* was a bonus. Now, however, I think we need a proper collection; someone to undertake the bringing together of all her shorter prose pieces, in much the same way as her letters and journals have been collected. Plath was constantly writing and submitting works, so I presume there are plenty more lurking somewhere. I think in many ways Hughes was not necessarily the right person to curate her writings, and it needs a scholar to bring objectivity to them and also proper organisation. As an example, the works collected here are in no particular order and if Hughes chose a thematic approach, I can’t quite see what that was. However, a chronological gathering would allow the reader to see how her prose developed as she honed her craft and that would be fascinating. I believe that her work and her legacy deserves this, as do her many readers. Nevertheless, “Johnny Panic” is an essential collection until we get something more definitive, and another wonderful title from 1977.

#1977club – here we go! :)

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Yes, time for another week of reading, discovering and discussing books from a particular year – and this one is 1977. We reach a more modern decade than we’ve been covering up until now, and one which certainly takes us away from Simon’s comfort zone of the 1920s! :)) However, I was initially unsure of what I would read from the year until I began to dig, and I actually came up with a bit of a pile of books that I already own:

Yes, I really *do* own three copies of “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams”. No, I don’t know why…

I also own two other books from 1977 that piqued my interest, but alas I cannot at the moment lay hands on them – “The Women’s Room” by Marilyn French is a feminist classic and I have a battered old Virago copy, but it’s currently lurking on a shelf in Middle Child’s flat as I have loaned it out – so I won’t be reading that one… I also own Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “A Time of Gifts” but several trawls through the shelves have failed to find it (although I *did* find some other books I was looking for). So I may well choose from the above – some are re-reads, some unread, and I’d like to go for a mix if I can.

And then there’s this, lurking electronically:

I really want to read Barthes but frankly, I’m a Bit Scared. I’m *not* an academic and I fear I will fail miserably to understand this and then feel stupid. Oh well. Nothing ventured, nothing gained….

So do join Simon at Stuck in a Book and myself in the #1977club – it’s great fun, great reading and always fascinating to see what books people come up with! Here goes…!

The “lost book” authors

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Reading a book about books is a dangerous exercise for any bibliophile, but “In Search of Lost Books” creates its own issues as it’s about books that don’t actually exist any more – or which may indeed have never existed. However, that book *did* send me off down the trail of wanting to dig out the volumes I own by the authors featured in it, and it turned out that I have a surprising amount of works by these particular writers – which may be why the book spoke to me so strongly. So, as someone who’s never averse to pictures of other people’s books, I thought I would share a few of mine here.

However, gathering all of these together *wasn’t* an easy exercise, as my ‘library’ seems to have become more randomly scattered around the house recently. I haven’t been able to locate everything I think I own, and I found that, as I suspected, any shelf-rummaging exercise throws up a huge number of queries, problems and exclamations – along the lines of:

Why is Joan Didion double-shelved behind Aldous Huxley?
Did I *really* buy all those books in the “Writers from the Other Europe” series and read hardly any of them?
Where *is* my copy of “A Moveable Feast”?
Oooooh, look – I have a book called “The Faber book of Utopias”!! I wonder if I ever read it…?
Why have I got two copies of “Under the Volcano”?
Where *is* my copy of “Ulysses”?
Isn’t it a shame that there isn’t anything else available by Bruno Schulz.
Hurrah! There’s my lovely Allan Ramsay book which I haven’t been able to find for ages.
Why have I got so many copies of “Anna Karenina”?
WHY HAVE I GOT SO MANY BOOKS????

And so on…

The serious difficulty in laying hands on a specific book shows how things have got out of hand with my ‘library’ and I can see I’ll need to take some serious action soon, maybe over the summer holidays, to just try and get things into a sensible order where I can locate titles with ease – and possibly even catalogue them sensibly. However, for now, here are some photographs of lovely, lovely books!

So – in no particular order – here is a selection of my books by and about Sylvia Plath. Yes, there are a lot…

I actually did a longer post a while back with more pictures. The pile has expanded since then, as I now have the enormously huge volume 1 of her letters too…

In contrast, we have Bruno Schulz. All that survives of his work is these shorter fictions, here all collected in one volume and I’ve reviewed and loved them.Β  As I grumbled above, it’s such a shame that nothing else of his written work survives.

schulz

Then we have Malcolm Lowry. I think my Lowry reading is all pre-blog, but I recall being entranced by “Under the Volcano”. His other work is good, though nothing lives up to his major novel.

Ah, Papa Hemingway. Source of much frustration in rummaging through the stacks, as I *know* I have a copy of “A Moveable Feast” because I’ve read and reviewed it and wouldn’t have got rid of it. It wasn’t with these two, wasn’t with my Gertrude Steins and wasn’t with my Fitzgeralds. Who knows where it is in the house – probably with the copy of “Fiesta” I suspect I still have (there were two in the house at one point….)

Let’s get serious now, with the Russians – or at least Gogol, who often *isn’t* serious! I have quite a pile of Gogols, surprising perhaps as there isn’t a lot available in English. This one is probably the prettiest.

I am ashamed that there is P/V translation in this pile, but it was 10p from the library discards and I think it has stories I couldn’t get anywhere else – well, non-Russian speaking beggars can’t be choosers. And yes – I’m afraid there are three copies of “Dead Souls”.

Last but not least Walter Benjamin. I’ve only read a little of his work (“Unpacking My Library” definitely) and I want to read more but never get round to it. I’d rather like his Arcades Project but I think I should read these before getting any more.

So there you have it – a little book p*rn to liven your day up. Although works by these authors have gone missing at least in most cases we have a reasonable amount of surviving work with which to console ourselves – and let’s face it, a good book can solve most ills… πŸ˜‰

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