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Penguin Moderns: Allen Ginsberg, Daphne du Maurier, and Dorothy Parker

Television Was a Baby Crawling Toward That Deathchamber by Allen Ginsberg **** (#2)
9780241337622This new collection of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s work, Television Was a Baby Crawling Toward That Deathchamber, is the second book in the Penguin Moderns series. Whilst the poems have been printed before, in Ginsberg’s Collected Poems 1947-1977 (2006), they have not appeared in this particular selection before.

Throughout the admirable poems exhibited here, Ginsberg tackles many issues which were contemporary to him – atom bombs, the political system in the United States, Communism, the Cold War, propaganda, the state of the world, and oppression, to name but a few. With regard to their approach, some of the poems here are far more structured; others read like stream-of-consciousness pieces, or monologues. In Television Was a Baby Crawling Toward That Deathchamber, Ginsberg presents a fascinating and creative view of a bygone time, whose issues are still relevant to our twenty-first century world. Despite the vulgarity at times, the wordplay here is impressive, and there is such a variance to the selection which has been made.

 

The Breakthrough by Daphne du Maurier **** (#3)9780241339206
Daphne du Maurier’s short story ‘The Breakthrough’ has been reprinted by itself as the third book of the Penguin Moderns series. I have read it before, but was very much looking forward to coming back to it. Whilst not quite amongst my favourite pieces of her short work, there is so much here to admire. First published in 1966, ‘The Breakthrough’ still surprises and startles, even upon a second reading. I found this a chilling tale, and whilst I do not want to give any details of the plot away in my review, it is one which I would highly recommend.

 

The Custard Heart by Dorothy Parker **** (#4)
9780241339589The Custard Heart is the fourth book in the Penguin Moderns series, which I have decided to read in order after receiving the full boxed collection in all of its glory. The three stories by Dorothy Parker in this collection – ‘The Custard Heart’, ‘Big Blonde’, and ‘You Were Perfectly Fine’ – have all been taken from The Collected Dorothy Parker, which was first published as The Portable Dorothy Parker in 1944. Whilst I’ve not read any of Parker’s short stories before, I have read the entirety of her poetry output.

The descriptions in each of these stories, which are ‘tales of women on the edge’ are startling and vivid. From ‘The Custard Heart’, for instance, ‘… Mrs Lanier wore yellow of evening. She had gowns of velvet like poured country cream and satin with the lacquer of buttercups and chiffon that spiraled about her like golden smoke. She wore them, and listened in shy surprise to the resulting comparisons to daffodils, and butterflies in the sunshine, and such…’.

Here, Parker paints intimate portraits of three women, in a perceptive and introspective manner. Parker looks at ageing, relationships, emotions, and womanhood at different stages, amongst other things. ‘Big Blonde’, which shows the slip into depression and its depths, was as tense as it was fantastic. I found each of these tales immediately immersive, and am very much looking forward to reading the rest of her stories in future.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Wonderful Weekend Book’ by Elspeth Thompson ****

When is there a better time to read such a book as The Wonderful Weekend Book than over a bank holiday?  That is exactly what I did.  I had hoped that I could read a little here and there and supplement it with other books, but that didn’t happen in the end.  Instead, I read it from cover to cover in one greedy gulp.  In The Wonderful Weekend Book, Thompson has created such a lovely concept for a piece of non-fiction.  She aims to help her readers to reclaim their weekends back from the mundane tasks which seem to fill them – chores and supermarket shopping being top of her list.

9781848540538Some of the ideas which Thompson has come up with to make the most of weekends are absolutely lovely.  I personally loved the way in which the book was split up into the four seasons, which enables the reader to easily locate appropriate activites to fill hours or entire days.  Thompson’s mini essays are very sweet, as are her introductions. The illustrations throughout are lovely, and I really like all of the different inclusions of recipes.  I was given so many ideas for places to visit, all of which have been entered into my travel journal.  I have picked up my hardback notebook which I began to fill with lovely quotes I came across a few years ago once more, and am now referring to it as my ‘anthology’, as Thompson does in her book.

Despite the general loveliness of this volume, there were a couple of definite drawbacks for me.  The first was that although the lists work well, they are entered rather haphazardly into the main body of text and often split up paragraphs in consequence.  Another downside was that much of the book felt like a plugging exercise for different brands and companies.  Early on in the book, Thompson speaks about buying ‘good bath towels from John Lewis’.  Rather than merely making this statement and moving on, she puts John Lewis’ phone number and website address in brackets right after it, which detracts a little from the text.  Overall, The Wonderful Weekend Book is a wonderful addition to any bookshelf, and will be invaluable for anyone aiming to spend their weekends doing more worthwhile things.  It is a volume which I will be dipping into a lot in future as the seasons change.

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Penguin Moderns: ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’ by Martin Luther King Jr. ****

I received the wonderful boxed collection of the new Penguin Moderns series for my birthday, and have decided to read and review them in order.  The first book in the collection, and therefore my first review, is black rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail.  The blurb states that this ‘landmark missive from one of the greatest activists in history calls for direct, non-violent resistance in the fight against racism, and reflects on the healing power of love.’  Despite its being written in 1936, in the margins of a newspaper in Alabama, it still seems incredibly current in the issues and widespread disparity which it addresses.

9780241339466‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’ was written as a ‘response to eight white clergymen in Alabama, who argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought in the courts – not the streets’.  Whilst discussing at the beginning of his letter why he finds himself in Alabama, King writes: ‘I am in Birmingham because injustice is here…  I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and voices.  I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’  He has such compassion for those who feel they have been forced to fight for their rights as citizens: ‘It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.’  King goes on to say: ‘We know through painful experience that freedom is never inherently given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.’

Along with the issues which King is currently fighting for from his prison cell, he sets out the historicity of black people, and the glaring lack of freedom which they have in the United States: ‘The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.’  King poses many interesting questions and comparisons upon what makes a law ‘just’ or ‘unjust’, and the terrible things which he has had to face as a black man in a segregated society.

In conclusion to his highly respectful, engaging, and insightful letter, King muses that his creation of the piece was a direct consequence of his being imprisoned: ‘Never before have I written so long a letter.  I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time.  I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?’

The second piece in this collection, ‘The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life’, was delivered as a sermon in Chicago in April 1967.  This follows on from the disappointment with the church which he says he has in ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’, when the ‘white church’ is happy enough to sit back and not get involved in the plight of fellow Christians.  The sermon has been transcribed from a recording, and was delivered under the premise that ‘if life itself is to be complete, it must be three-dimensional’.  Circumstantially, this piece is very involved with Christianity.  King’s faith is a constant throughout both of these pieces, but it is more explicitly depicted in this second piece.

Throughout this collection, King’s words are searching and intelligent.  The pieces here are moving, and ought to be read by everyone, regardless of their race or creed.  The proposals which King gives, and the ideas which he thoughtfully discusses, could serve to make our world a better, and more peaceful, place.

King inspires throughout; he shows that a single voice has the ability to change the way in which people act, and challenge how we view one another.  I shall end this review with an incredibly powerful and empowering fragment taken from ‘The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life’: ‘Too many Negroes are ashamed of themselves, ashamed of being black.  A Negro got to rise up and say from the bottom of his soul, “I am somebody.  I have a rich, noble, and proud heritage.  However exploited and however painful my history has been, I’m black, but I’m black and beautiful.”‘

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‘Hannah Goslar Remembers: A Childhood Friend of Anne Frank’ by Hannah Goslar and Alison Leslie Gold ****

Hannah Goslar, a friend of Anne Frank’s and a survivor of the Holocaust, tells her story here in tandem with Alison Leslie Gold. The two met in Israel in 1993, where Goslar now lives, and Gold transcribed what Goslar told her. ‘We did the interviews in English,’ Gold writes, ‘which Hannah had learned as a schoolgirl over fifty years ago. Because I wanted the book to sound like Hannah, sometimes the style is a little cryptic.’  Hannah Goslar Remembers: A Childhood Friend of Anne Frank is, says its blurb, ‘a moving testimony to a girl who survived a terrible ordeal and another who did not.’ 9780747592242

This particular Holocaust memoir is very much aimed at younger readers; it presumes that one knows very little about the Holocaust in its introduction, or of Anne and her diary. The book uses an omniscient voice, in which Goslar herself appears as a character rather than a narrator. This narrative style sometimes verges on the simplistic.

The Goslar and Frank families, both of whom had moved from Germany during the Nazi Party’s rise to power in the late 1930s, were neighbours in Amsterdam for almost a decade, and became very close friends. The account which Goslar provides here begins in 1942, when she found out that the Franks had left their home. They did so under the guise of going to neutral, and therefore safe, Switzerland, and brought this up with various friends and neighbours before they went into hiding in the annexe of Otto Frank’s workplace.

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Anne Frank and Hannah Goslar, Amsterdam, May 1940

A Childhood Friend of Anne Frank feels, in tone and style, as though it would be the perfect accompaniment to the likes of Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and its sequels. It is a compelling memoir, filled with such sadness, but also a great deal of hope. Of course, it tells of Goslar’s own experiences more than it does Anne Frank’s; we learn about Goslar before, during, and after she and her family were transported to Westerbork, in Eastern Holland. Goslar later met up with Anne Frank again when both were moved to Bergen-Belsen, where Anne sadly died shortly before the camp’s liberation. A Childhood Friend of Anne Frank is moving, and gives an insightful portrait of a childhood friendship, and the war and persecution which tore it apart.

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Project Twenty Update

We are only halfway through July, but I thought that I would write my first update post detailing how I am getting on with my Project Twenty challenge.  The idea behind it is to get my to-read pile down to between fifteen and twenty books, and keep it that way.

It will, I’m sure, surprise very few people who have followed such challenges of mine in the past to find out that it hasn’t quite gone to plan.  I have been keeping a list of how many books I own, both physical and those bought on my Kindle, at the outset of each month.  I have then recorded how many books have been added, splitting them again into physical and Kindle purchases.  The most important part of my challenge was to endeavour to read as many books from my own TBR as I could; I have therefore temporarily stopped borrowing books from the library, and am more selective about what I choose to read from Netgalley.

Let us begin with my progress – or lack thereof – in May.  I read 14 physical books and 4 on my Kindle.  18 in total does not sound too bad, but one must factor in that I purchased 17 physical books throughout the month.  My total TBR at the end of May consisted of 36 physical books, and 7 Kindle books, 43 in total.

During June, my TBR went from 43 total books to 78.  I celebrated my birthday during the month, and as mentioned in my original TBR Goals post, received the entire box set of all fifty of the new Penguin Moderns series.  I also purchased 8 books, 4 in physical copies, and 4 on my Kindle.  I read 19 books and 4 Kindle books during the month, but those 23 did not make much of a dent in my TBR pile.

I have been making more of a concerted effort during July not to buy much; saying that, it is only the halfway point of the month, and I have already added 2 physical books, 2 Kindle books, and 2 review copies to my collection…  Thus far, I have read 23 physical books, and no Kindle tomes.

Going forward, I think I’m going to focus less upon how many books I’m reading and adding to my TBR pile.  I will still strive to get to the fifteen to twenty book mark eventually, but I still want to have a nice varied collection to pick from.  Added to this is the fact that some of my to-read books are currently with me in Scotland, and others are at my parents’ house back in England; thus, it is rather difficult to get down to my chosen number.

I’m sure that when I do, finally, shrink my TBR, I will post about it, perhaps with some advice on how to shrink your own to-read pile.  For now, however, I will try and steer away from bookshops and online book sales, and just savour the reading material which I have.