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Penguin Moderns: ‘The Dialogue of Two Snails’ by Federico Garcia Lorca ***

9780241340400I was looking forward to trying a selection of Federico Garcia Lorca’s poetry, having never read any of his work before.  The 42nd Penguin Modern, The Dialogue of Two Snails, is described as ‘a dazzling selection of the beautiful, brutal and darkly brilliant work of Spain’s greatest twentieth-century poet.’

The collection, which has been translated by Tyler Fisher, contains work which appears in English for the first time, and presents a ‘representative sampling of [his] poetry, dialogues, and short prose.’  The poems collected here also appear with the dates in which they were written, which I think is a useful touch.

Other reviewers have commented that the placing of poems here feels disjointed, and that the quality of the translation renders the poems stilted.  I have no reference points with which to compare Garcia Lorca’s work, and so I did not let this affect my reading of The Dialogue of Two Snails.

As I find with many collections, there were poems here which I didn’t much like, and others which I thought were great.  Some of Garcia Lorca’s ideas are a little bizarre and offbeat, but I am definitely intrigued enough to read more of his work, and to see how the translations compare.  Some of what he captures here is lovely, and so vivid, and I enjoyed the diversity of the collection.  As ever, I will finish this poetry review by collecting together a few fragments which I particularly enjoyed.

From ‘The Encounters of an Adventurous Snail’:
There is a childlike sweetness
in the still morning.
The trees stretch
their arms to the earth.

From ‘Knell’:
The wind and dust
Make silver prows.

‘Seashell’:
They’ve brought me a seashell.

It’s depths sing an atlas
of seascapes downriver.
My hear
brims with billows
and minnows
of shadows and silver.

They’ve brought me a seashell.

 

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‘Rhyming Life and Death’ by Amos Oz **

I received a copy of Amos Oz’s Rhyming Life and Death from a dear friend for my birthday.  I had not read any of prizewinning author Oz’s work before, and was suitably intrigued by the blurb of this novel, which was first published in 2007, and has been translated from its original Hebrew by Nicholas Lange.  The Guardian calls Rhyming Life and Death ‘A master class in interlocking character sketches, and a fable on the themes of sex, death and writing pitched somewhere between the fictional universes of JM Coetzee and Milan Kundera.’  The Scotsman declares it ‘a meditation on the art of writing, the relationship between literature and life, between life and death.’

9780099521020In the novel, which is set during the 1980s, an unnamed author spends a window of time, before he is due to give a reading, waiting in a bar in Tel Aviv ‘on a stifling hot night’, making up ‘the life stories of the people he meets.’  The story culminates in his asking a woman who declares herself a huge fan of his work for a drink.  Although she declines, he ‘walks away, only to climb the steps to her flat that night.  Or does he?  In Amos Oz’s beguiling, intriguing story the reader never really knows where reality ends and invention begins…’.

Rhyming Life and Death opens with a wealth of frequently asked questions which have been posed to ‘the Author’, as he is referred to throughout.  They include: ‘Why do you write the way you do?’, ‘Do you constantly cross out and correct or do you write straight out of your head?’, and ‘Why do you mostly describe the negative side of things?’  There are many such questions, and a lot of them cross the line between public and personal.

Oz’s writing errs on the sensual.  He seems particularly concerned with evoking the smells of Tel Aviv.  Of a man lying in the terminal ward of a hospital, he writes: ‘With every breath his lungs are invaded by a foul cocktail of smells: urine, sedatives, leftover food, sweat, sprays, chlorine, medicines, soiled dressings, excrement, beetroot salad and disinfectant.’  Sounds, too, are important to Oz’s descriptions of Israel, and they are paired in the novel with musings about the Author, and the strange power which his fans believe him to possess: ‘The night is pierced by the staccato alarm of a parked car struck by sudden panic in the darkness.  Will the Author say something new this evening?  Will he manage to explain to us how we got into this state of affairs, or what we have to do to change it?  Can he see something we haven’t seen yet?’

In this novel, Oz certainly gives insight into elements of what it is like to be a writer, and to be known.  The public throughout have quite unrealistic expectations of him, as, indeed, he has of others.  The stories which he invents of people whom he meets are often overly detailed.   I found some of these inventions more interesting than others, but the constant repetition of details did become tiresome rather quickly.  There are scenes here which are rather cringeworthy, and crammed with a series of cliched metaphors.

Whilst the novel was interesting enough to read, and I could never quite guess in which direction it was going, it has not made me want to pick up any of Oz’s other work in a hurry.  I found Rhyming Life and Death rather rambling and peculiar in places, and the story meanders rather than takes a natural path.  There is, however, a definite feeling of purpose to Oz’s chosen structure.  The novel is gritty at times, and muses upon the meaning of life.  I can certainly see why his writing has been compared to Kundera’s, but I must admit that on my experience of reading this book alone, I far prefer Kundera’s work to Oz’s.

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Penguin Moderns: ‘The Problem That Has No Name’ by Betty Friedan ****

The 41st book in the Penguin Moderns series is Betty Friedan’s The Problem That Has No Name.  The selected work in this volume was first published in her seminal The Feminine Mystique (1963), in which Friedan ‘gave voice to countless American housewives… and set the women’s movement in motion’.  In The Problem That Has No Name, one finds the titular essay, as well as a piece entitled ‘The Passionate Journey’.

I have read criticism about Friedan’s work before, and other tracts which mention her, but this was my first taste of her original work.  Friedan notices a marked shift between the 1920s and 1950s in the priorities of women in the United States: ‘A century earlier, women had fought for higher education; now girls went to college to get a husband.  By the mid fifties, 60 per cent dropped out of college to marry, or because they were afraid too much education would be a marriage bat.’  This denotes a crisis in society; few women decided to pursue careers for their own fulfilment, working instead to support their families.9780241339268

Friedan’s work is all-encompassing, and she is very understanding of Everywoman.  The first essay begins in the following way: ‘The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women.  It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States.  Each suburban wife struggled with it alone.  As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slip-cover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffered Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question: “Is this all?”‘  As the title of this work suggests, Friedan suggests reasons as to why a name had never before seen given to ‘this yearning in the millions of words written about women, for women…’.  The ‘problem that has no name’ consisted of the many women believing that any individuality they once had was swallowed up as soon as they became wives and mothers.

Useful statistics have been woven in throughout The Problem That Has No Name, in order to reinforce or better illustrate Friedan’s points.  She also makes use of the many interviews which she has conducted with females all across America, discussing various problems which they had with their husbands or children.  It is in these instances that her profession of magazine journalism really shows.  She notes the point at which she began to notice signs of something buried within widespread society, and common for so many different women: ‘But after a while I began to recognize the telltale signs of this other problem.  I saw the same signs in suburban ranch houses and split-levels on Long Island and in New Jersey and Westchester County; in colonial houses in a small Massachusetts town; on patios in Memphis; in suburban and city apartments; in living rooms in the Midwest.’  In the 1960s, Friedan notes that news outlets began to report on ‘the actual unhappiness of the American housewife.’  Although she does not talk about her own life in detail, Friedan also touches upon her own experiences of bringing up her children during this period.

The dissatisfaction of women is a major theme in the second essay too, but from an historical perspective which focuses on the path to women’s rights.  ‘The Passionate Journey’ begins: ‘It was the need for a new identity that started women, a century ago, on that passionate journey… away from home.’  Of this journey, which women felt compelled to make in order to keep a grasp on their personal individuality, and to try and escape from societal confines, Friedan writes: ‘Theirs was an act of rebellion, a violent denial of the identity of women as it was then defined.  It was the need for a new identity that led these passionate feminists to forge new trails for women.  Some of these trails were unexpectedly rough, some were dead ends, and some may have been false, but the need for women to find new trails was real.’  This essay is a real celebration of what women have achieved.

Friedan’s writing style is highly accessible, and she takes a clear point of view throughout.  Her prose is highly engaging and quite easygoing, despite the wealth of information which she denotes.  She is incredibly perceptive of womankind, viewing them as individuals rather than as a singular collective, and recognising that many women who were suffering silently during the period which she examines did so for myriad reasons.  The Problem That Has No Name is an empowering tome, and I will certainly be reading the rest of The Feminine Mystique at some point.  Despite the fact that it was published over five decades ago, Friedan’s work is still highly relevant in the twenty-first century.

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‘The Butcher’s Hook’ by Janet Ellis ****

Of former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis’ debut novel, Hannah Kent writes: ‘Ellis has created something marvellous in the character of Anne Jaccob – her voice is strange, dark and utterly mesmeric…  This is historical fiction as I’ve never encountered it before: full of viscera, snorting humour and obsessive desire.’  Other reviews which pepper the cover and the first page of The Butcher’s Hook describe it variously as ‘bewitching’, ‘dark, shocking and funny’, and ‘terrific.’  I was therefore suitably excited to begin, and snapped up a gorgeous turquoise hardback copy for myself. 9781473625112

The Butcher’s Hook is set in Georgian London during the summer of 1765.  Nineteen-year-old Anne Jaccob, the eldest daughter in a wealthy but unhappy family, is our protagonist and narrator.  Although ‘her family want for nothing, her father is uncaring, her mother is ailing, and the baby brother who taught her how to love is dead.’  In the novel’s first few chapters, Anne is ‘awakened to the possibility of joy when she meets Fub, the butcher’s apprentice, and begins to imagine a life of passion with him.’  However, as suited the time, Anne’s family have chosen her ‘a more suitable husband’ than the lowly Fub could ever become.

The novel opens when Anne’s mother is in childbirth, and Anne fully expects that she will not get back up again.  She says: ‘This is my nineteenth summer, but I have known only thirteen happy years to this date.  And that is only if I include my early childhood in the reckoning, back when, in all honesty, I owned no accountable state of mind.  Without that, it is a very poor tally.’  Anne’s present is interspersed with memories from her childhood, many of them rather dark and maudlin.

Anne is a headstrong character, who does not let societal mores prevent her from living as she pleases.  This is a pivotal time in her life, in which she is learning about herself, her body, and her sexuality, along with the amount of power which she can wield.  Throughout, she ‘shows no fear or hesitation.  Even if it means getting a little blood on her hands…’.  Anne has a rather hard and cold interior.  Of the ‘Scrap in the cot’, as she addresses her new sister, she expresses: ‘Do not think me harsh that I do not coo at this new-born infant, but I had done much loving with that boy my brother, and he had coughed his last just before his third birthday two years ago, so a lot of good all that loving did him.’

As a character construct, Anne is fascinating and unusual.  She has psychopathic tendencies, which are revealed close to the novel’s beginning.  As a young girl, she collected dead things which she viewed as treasure, and fantasised about heavy stone curlicues falling on a peer: ‘If it cracked and fell, it would flatten her…  I wanted it to happen so much that my teeth felt loose in my gums.’  Anne is not likeable, but she has such a depth and complexity about her.

Ellis’ character descriptions felt vivid and curious from the outset.  For instance, she writes: ‘This man was a great long coil of a person, his face was a thin stripe of flesh with features squeezed on, even his hands were stretched and narrow.  I imagined his daughter perched beside me, so tall that her hair would catch the breeze, like a pennant on a ship’s mast.’  When Anne meets Fub for the first time, she says: ‘I have never seen him before, but it is as if I recognise him.  I stop in my tracks, because otherwise I might run to him.  He looks as if he would speak but cannot remember how.  We stare as intensely as if we’re about to jump together from a great height.  The world gives a great lurch then resumes its customary spinning.’  Similarly, when she first meets loathsome suitor Simeon Onions, who has been selected by her father, she muses: ‘The only way I can think of his heart without crying aloud is to imagine it impaled on a fruit knife and that lace shirt of his getting redder by the minute.’  Anne’s voice reminded me at times of the narrator of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace.

Georgian London has been vividly and vigorously applied to The Butcher’s Hook, and its dingy streets, strewn with poverty and disease, spring to life.  A real sense of place is evoked, and Ellis reminds one throughout of the nuances of the city in which Anne lives.  When she enters a church, she tells us: ‘Their numbers thin as I approach the church, and by the time I tread the path to the door, I am alone.  The huge heavy door is only slightly ajar, and it’s quite a struggle to push it further.  A smell of wax, incense, dust and something floral is so thick in the air it’s almost visible.  Not so any other person, for my footsteps sound loudly on the floor and even my skirt’s swish is distinctly audible.  There are no candles lit, doubtless to save money, for, even though it is morning and daylight outside, within is fusty darkness and shadows.’

The Butcher’s Hook is an unusual novel, with a vivid and realistic protagonist.  Its subject matter is rather dark, but its style is easy to read, and so immersive.  I found it engaging from the outset, and the volatility of Anne as a character made some of the twists quite surprising.  There are sparks of lovely imagery in the novel, and Ellis’ writing is taut and accomplished.  I found the ending markedly satisfying, and look forward to Ellis’ future publications with interest.

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The Book Trail: From Virago to Persephone

I have chosen one of Muriel Spark’s books for this, the first of 2019’s, edition of The Book Trail.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

 

1. The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark 17593886
To rendezvous with her archeologist fiance in Jordan, Barbara Vaughn must first pass through the Mandelbaum Gate–which divides strife-torn Jerusalem. A half-jewish convert to Catholicism, an Englishwoman of strong and stubborn convictions, Barbara will not be dissuaded from her ill-timed pilgrimage despite a very real threat of bodily harm and the fearful admonishments of staid British diplomat Freddy Hamilton.

 

2. The Summer House: A Trilogy by Alice Thomas Ellis
In The Summer House trilogy, three very different women, with three very distinct perspectives, narrate three very witty novels concerning one disastrous wedding in the offing.  The Clothes in the Wardrobe: Nineteen-year-old Margaret feels more trepidation than joy at the prospect of her marriage to forty-year-old Syl.  The Skeleton in the Cupboard: Syl’s mother, Mrs. Monro, doesn’t know quite what to make of her son’s life, but she knows Margaret should not marry him.  The Fly in the Ointment: And then there’s Lili, the free spirit who is determined that the wedding shall not happen, no matter the consequences.

 

174655123. A Long Way From Verona by Jane Gardam
Jessica Vye’s ‘violent experience’ colours her schooldays and her reaction to the world around her- a confining world of Order Marks, wartime restrictions, viyella dresses, nicely-restrained essays and dusty tea shops. For Jessica she has been told that she is ‘beyond all possible doubt’, a born writer. With her inability to conform, her absolute compulsion to tell the truth and her dedication to accurately noting her experiences, she knows this anyway. But what she doesn’t know is that the experiences that sustain and enrich her burgeoning talent will one day lead to a new- and entirely unexpected- reality.

 

4. Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr
Ill and bored with having to stay in bed, Marianne picks up a pencil and starts doodling – a house, a garden, a boy at the window. That night she has an extraordinary dream. She is transported into her own picture, and as she explores further she soon realises she is not alone. The boy at the window is called Mark, and his every movement is guarded by the menacing stone watchers that surround the solitary house. Together, in their dreams, Marianne and Mark must save themselves…

 

5. Mistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White 29124
‘Ten-year-old Maria, orphaned mistress of Malplaquet, discovers the secret of her deteriorating estate: on a deserted island at its far corner, in the temple long ago nicknamed Mistress Masham’s Repose, live an entire community of people—”The People,” as they call themselves—all only inches tall. With the help of her only friend—the absurdly erudite Professor—Maria soon learns that this settlement is no less than the kingdom of Lilliput (first seen in Gulliver’s Travels) in exile. Safely hidden for centuries, the Lilliputians are at first endangered by Maria’s well-meaning but clumsy attempts to make their lives easier, but their situation grows truly ominous when they are discovered by Maria’s greedy guardians, who look at The People and see only a bundle of money.’

 

6. The House in Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively
No.40 Norham Gardens, Oxford, is the home of Clare Mayfield, her two aged aunts and two lodgers. The house is a huge Victorian monstrosity, with rooms all full of old furniture, old papers, old clothes, memorabilia – it is like a living museum. Clare discovers in a junk room the vividly painted shield which her great-grandfather, an eminent anthropologist, had brought back from New Guinea. She becomes obsessed with its past and determined to find out more about its strange tribal origins. Dreams begin to haunt her – dreams of another country, another clture, another time, and of shadowy people whom she feels are watching her. Who are they, and what do they want?

 

5025367. They Knew Mr Knight by Dorothy Whipple
The Blakes are an ordinary family: Celia looks after the house and Thomas works at the family engineering business in Leicester. This book begins when he meets Mr Knight, a financier as crooked as any on the front pages of our newspapers nowadays; and tracks his and his family’s swift climb and fall.

 

8. Fidelity by Susan Glaspell
Set in Iowa in 1900 and in 1913, this dramatic and deeply moral novel uses complex but subtle use of flashback to describe a girl named Ruth Holland, bored with her life at home, falling in love with a married man and running off with him; when she comes back more than a decade later we are shown how her actions have affected those around her. Ruth had taken another woman’s husband and as such ‘Freeport’ society thinks she is ‘a human being who selfishly – basely – took her own happiness, leaving misery for others. She outraged society as completely as a woman could outrage it… One who defies it – deceives it – must be shut out from it.’  But, like Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier in ‘The Awakening’ and Nora in ‘A Doll’s House’ Ruth has ‘a diffused longing for an enlarged experience… Her energies having been shut off from the way they had wanted to go, she was all the more zestful for new things from life…’ It is these that are explored in Fidelity.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which have piqued your interest?

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Japanese Literature Challenge 12 TBR

Created by the wonderful Dolce Bellezza, Japanese Literature Challenge has become one of the reading challenges I eagerly anticipate every year and one I can guarantee I can participate, since Japanese literature is always included in my yearly reading.

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This year’s Japanese Literature Challenge runs from January until March. You can view the announcement post here where you can find more details about the challenge, as well as the giveaways that will be running for the participants.

The books I plan to read for the challenge are:

  • Masks by Enchi Fumiko
  • A Midsummer’s Equation by Higashino Keigo
  • And Then by Soseki Natsume
  • Three Japanese Short Stories by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Nagai Kafu and Uno Koji (Penguin Modern Classics #5)

I also plan to read Poison Woman: Figuring Female Transgression in Modern Japanese Culture by Christine L. Marran, an academic non-fiction book, throughout the duration of the challenge.

Since in 2019 I want to stop being afraid of reading in Japanese and have decided to start reading a short story every one or two months, I decided to add that to the challenge, as a little extra for myself. The book I will be reading the short stories from is 20の短編小説 [20 no tanpen shosetsu], an anthology of 20 short stories by various contemporary Japanese authors that centre around the theme of “20” in one way or another.

Are you participating in this challenge? If yes, what do you plan to read? Don’t forget to use the hashtag #JLC12 on Twitter and Instagram if you do participate!

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Challenge-Free 2019

Each year since I have been seriously recording my reading, and particularly since I have been blogging, I have decided to participate in year-long reading challenges.  This year’s Around the World in 80 Books challenge took me only four months to complete, but in the past, I have tended to get a little bored by the challenges which I set myself several months beforehand, and other, non-challenge reading has taken over instead.  This issue has been complicated further by my studies; I had so much to read whilst doing my Master’s that I wanted to make the most of the reading which I was able to do in my spare time, and did not want to have to adhere too much to challenge conventions.

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From Goodreads

Despite the evident interest which reading challenges give me (for the first few months of the year, at least!) I have decided that I will not set myself any reading goals during 2019.  I want to be able to pick up books as and when I feel like reading them, rather than having to squeeze in books I am not as interested in, just because they contribute to a particular challenge.  I will also have far less time in which to read during 2019, as I will be working full-time and expect to be commuting every weekday.

I am taking part in a project with my sister, in which we are going to be ticking off every book mentioned in the Gilmore Girls, a series which she loved.  I engineered the challenge in order to encourage her to read, but she is adamant that she’s going to watch as many dramatised versions as she can find, and then read only what she can’t get hold of on Netflix…  I will, of course, be reading each title.  Our deadline goal is the end of 2020, so it should be doable!

I will be participating in the Goodreads yearly challenge, merely in terms of a set number of books which I want to read, although I haven’t decided on my goal yet.  In 2018, I let my mother select it for me; she went for 275 books.  The number which I settle for will more than likely be far lower next year.  I want to set myself a reachable goal whilst still challenging myself, but have no idea how many books I will be likely to get through.

What are your personal experiences with reading challenges?  Do you like to participate in them, or do they detract from the enjoyment which reading should bring you?  What are your goals for reading during 2019?