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‘The Virago Book of Women Travellers’, edited by Mary Morris and Larry O’Connor ****

9781860492129‘Some of the extraordinary women whose writings are including in this collection are observers of the world in which they wander; their prose rich in description, remarkable in detail. Mary McCarthy conveys the vitality of Florence while Willa Cather’s essay on Lavandou foreshadows her descriptions of the French countryside in later novels. Others are more active participants in the culture they are visiting, such as Leila Philip, as she harvests rice with chiding Japanese women, or Emily Carr, as she wins the respect and trust of the female chieftain of an Indian village in Northern Canada. Whether it is curiosity about the world, a thirst for adventure or escape from personal tragedy, all of these women are united in that they approached their journeys with wit, intelligence, compassion and empathy for the lives of those they encountered along the way. Features writing from Gertrude Bell, Edith Wharton, Isabella Bird, Kate O’Brien, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and many others.’

I am an enormous fan of Virago, as anyone who knows even a little of my reading habits can probably discern.  To my delight, I spotted The Virago Book of Women Travellers online at a ridiculously low price, and decided to treat myself (another of my favourite things in life is travelling, after all!).  I had originally intended to read it over the Christmas holidays, but true to form at such busy times, I did not really get a chance to do so.  I thus picked it up in February, just before a wonderful trip to The Netherlands.

The selection of extracts here is extensive and varied, and encompasses an incredible scope of geographical locations.  Societally and historically it is most interesting, and some extracts – Beryl Markham’s about elephant hunting, for instance – are very of their time (thankfully so, in this case!).  Some of my favourite authors were collected here – Vita Sackville-West, and Rebecca West, as well as Rose Macaulay.  As ever with such collections, there were several entries which I did not quite enjoy as much as the rest, but each was undoubtedly fascinating in its own way.  I very much enjoyed the ‘can do’ attitude which every single one of the writers had, regardless of circumstance or destination, and very much liked the way in which this singular thread bound all of them together.  The chronological ordering made for a splendid reading experience.

The Virago Book of Women Travellers is a marvellous volume in which to dip here and there, to reconnect with old favourites, and to discover new writers to find, and new women to admire.  I adore the idea of thematic travelogues, and there is something really rather special and inspiring about this one.  It has brought some marvellous women, both in terms of personality and writing ablity, to my attention, and I can only conclude this review by saying that it is a joy for any women traveller to read.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Oxford Book of War Poetry – edited by Jon Stallworthy *****

I always mark Remembrance Sunday by reading some semblance of war poems.  This year, I decided to read the marvellous Oxford Book of War Poetry for the umpteenth time, focusing solely upon those featured which were written during the First World War.  This book features some of my absolute favourite poets (Alfred Lord Tennyson, John McCrae, Wilfred Owen, etc.), and spans from battles outlined in the Bible and an extract from Homer’s Iliad, to present day conflicts.  It is, I think, the most marvellous and extensive collection of themed poetry which exists.

My favourite poems from the First World War in this collection are: ‘The Soldier’ by Rupert Brooke, ‘Into Battle’ by Julian Grenfell, ‘In Flanders Fields’ by John McCrae, ‘All the hills and vales…’ by Charles Sorley, ‘Range-Finding’ by Robert Frost, ‘Calligram, 15 May 1915’ by Guillaume Apollinaire, ‘Reprisals’ by W.B. Yeats, ‘The Hero’ by Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Glory of Women’ by Siegfried Sassoon, ‘In Memoriam’ by Edward Thomas, ‘The Cherry Trees’ by Edward Thomas, ‘Rain’ by Edward Thomas, ‘As the team’s head brass’ by Edward Thomas, ‘To His Love’ by Ivor Gurney, ‘The Silent One’ by Ivor Gurney, ‘On Receiving News of the War’ by Isaac Rosenberg, ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ by Isaac Rosenberg, ‘Dead Man’s Dump’ by Isaac Rosenberg, ‘Returning, We Hear the Larks’ by Isaac Rosenberg, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’by Wilfred Owen, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ by Wilfred Owen, ‘Exposure’ by Wilfred Owen, ‘Insensibility’ by Wilfred Owen, ‘The Send-Off’ by Wilfred Owen, ‘Futility’ by Wilfred Owen, ‘Strange Meeting’ by Wilfred Owen, ‘Two Voices’ by Edmund Blunden, ‘Winter Warfare’ by Edgell Rickword, ‘My sweet old etcetera…’ by e.e. cummings, ‘next to of course god…’ by e.e. cummings, ‘i sing of Olaf’ by e.e. cummings, ‘In the Dordogne’ by John Peale Bishop, ‘For the Fallen’ by Laurence Binyon and ‘Rouen’ by May Wedderburn Cannan.

I shall end with one of the poems I mentioned above, ‘Winter Warfare’ by Edgell Rickword.

Colonel Cold strode up the Line
(tabs of rime and spurs of ice);
stiffened all that met his glare:
horses, men and lice.

Visited a forward post,
left them burning, ear to foot;
fingers stuck to biting steel,
toes to frozen boot.

Stalked on into No Man’s Land,
turned the wire to fleecy wool,
iron stakes to sugar sticks
snapping at a pull.

Those who watched with hoary eyes
saw two figures gleaming there;
Hauptmann Kalte, colonel old,
gaunt in the grey air.

Stiffly, tinkling spurs they moved,
glassy-eyed, with glinting heel
stabbing those who lingered there
torn by screaming steel.

Colonel Cold strode up the Line
(tabs of rime and spurs of ice);
stiffened all that met his glare:
horses, men and lice.

Visited a forward post,
left them burning, ear to foot;
fingers stuck to biting steel,
toes to frozen boot.

Stalked on into No Man’s Land,
turned the wire to fleecy wool,
iron stakes to sugar sticks
snapping at a pull.

Those who watched with hoary eyes
saw two figures gleaming there;
Hauptmann Kalte, colonel old,
gaunt in the grey air.

Stiffly, tinkling spurs they moved,
glassy-eyed, with glinting heel
stabbing those who lingered there
torn by screaming steel.

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‘Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology’ – edited by Tim Kendall ****

Oxford World’s Classics’ beautifully produced Poetry of the First World War is one of the most important and far-reaching anthologies to have been published in this, World War One’s centenary year.  In his introduction, Kendall, the book’s editor, writes: ‘this anthology represents the work of poets who lived through the First World War, from Thomas Hardy, 74 at war’s outbreak and the unrivalled elder statesman of English letters, to [John] Edgell Rickword, 58 years his junior, who left school to enlist in 1916’.

Kendall’s introduction works well, and his passion about First World War poetry comes across immediately.  He states that he has tried to include poems which are as diverse as possible, making room for those written by the following throughout: ‘Men and women, soldiers and civilians, patriots and pacifists – the poets of the First World War came in all forms’. Kendall describes the way in which, ‘during the First World War, poetry became established as the barometer for the nation’s values: the greater the civilization, the greater its poetic heritage’.  He then goes on to say that ‘pride in their nation’s literary achievements was a common ingredient in the patriotism of soldiers and civilians alike’.

Kendall has made well considered contributions to Poetry of the First World War, and successfully encompasses writers – all from Britain and Ireland, mind – from all walks of life.  The poems which he has selected were penned between 1914 and 1966.  He has also included something a little different; a selection of Music Hall and trench songs relating to, or prevalent at the time of, the conflict.  The dates in which the poems were written – often very precise – have been included too; this is an important yet simple piece of information which is so often missing from poetry anthologies.

As with all Oxford World’s Classics editions, a wealth of important contributory information has been included, from an extensive selection of informative notes, to a large bibliography.  Each poet’s introduction begins with a comprehensive biography, the majority of which relates heavily to their place within the First World War, and all of which have been carefully written.  The chronology of war poets and the conflict which has been provided is a useful tool.

As with most collections of this nature, there is an imbalance between the showcased poets and the number of their poems included; here there are ten by Thomas Hardy and seventeen by Ivor Gurney, for example, but only one from the likes of established names such as A.E. Housman, Lawrence Binyon and David Jones.  Poetry of the First World War is still, however, a very enjoyable, thought-provoking and well considered collection, which deserves a place on every bookshelf.

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‘Only Remembered’, edited by Michael Morpurgo ***

‘Only Remembered’ (Jonathan Cape)

Only Remembered, edited by Michael Morpurgo, is part of what will undoubtedly be swathes of First World War-based literature and non-fiction published in this, its centenary year.  This particular volume is aimed at children, and has been illustrated by Ian Beck.  The book’s subtitle states that it presents ‘powerful words and pictures about the war that changed our world’.

A wealth of different takes on and elements of importance in the conflict can be found within the pages of Only Remembered.  Many different sources have been used as inspiration too, from poems to extracts from comic books like ‘Charley’s War’, and from musings about what it would have been like to be a pilot in the RAF, to a critique of the trench-produced newspaper, ‘The Wipers Times’.  Famous contributors can be found amongst the ranks – politician Lord Paddy Ashdown, actors Joanna Lumley, Tony Robinson and Emma Thompson, and writers Richard Curtis and Jacqueline Wilson, the former children’s laureate.  Oddly enough, there is no material here which has been penned by Michael Morpurgo, despite the novels which he has set against the backdrop of the First World War.

Whilst some of the contributions are rather simply written – to suit a much younger audience, one feels – others feel far more poetic and well-rounded.  Actor Jeremy Irvine, for example, talks about fighter planes ‘jousting in the sky… a chivalry that couldn’t be found in the bloody slaughter of trench warfare on the ground’.  The random ordering of the work suits the style of the book, as does the way in which the authors have adopted different styles to present their information.  Some of the contributions take the form of mini essays, which show how the war impacted upon those who fought within it.  Others merely introduce poems and comics by using just a paragraph or two.  In this way, the book does tend to feel a little uneven.

Only Remembered hascertainly had a modern twist put upon it at some points.  In one of the first contributions in the book, Shami Chakrabarti, who introduces Wilfred Owen’s haunting poem ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, refers to the poet as ‘perhaps… an original “emo”‘.  I found this an incredibly odd analogy, and hoped that the rest of the book would not follow the same pattern.  Thankfully it does not, and all of the other personalities who have contributed do seem to take the First World War a lot more seriously.

There is certainly some thought-provoking work of quality here, and my favourite pieces were Jeremy Irvine writing about fighter pilots, Richard Curtis talking about the World War One-based sketch on Blackadder, and Jacqueline Wilson’s musings on author Noel Streatfeild’s war.  To conclude, Only Remembered is quite a short book, but it feels as though it will be an important one, which is sure to answer questions that children may have about the conflict.

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‘The Haunted Life and Other Writings’ by Jack Kerouac ***

The late Jack Kerouac, most well known for his stream of consciousness novel On the Road, had many previously unpublished fragments to his name, which have been collected together within The Haunted Life and Other Writings. The work within its pages has been separated into three different sections – the first is comprised of ‘The Haunted Life’, a relatively short work, Part Two consists of various sketches and reflections, and the final segment is entitled ‘Jack and Leo Kerouac’.

The selection has been edited by Todd Tietchen, who is also the author of the book’s rather long introduction, ‘Jack Kerouac’s Ghosts’. Tietchen’s introduction is nicely written and rather informative, setting out as it does the start of Kerouac’s friendships with the likes of William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, and the more important elements of his life and writing. Tietchen believes that the thing which ‘emerges from these writings is an image of the young Kerouac as a careful and thorough drafter of his ideas, committed to an artistic process that does much to refute the public perception of Kerouac as a spontaneous word-slinger whose authorial approach merely complemented his Dionysian approach to life’.

The title story, ‘The Haunted Life’, is not stylistically similar to the majority of Kerouac’s work; it is built largely of dialogue and conventional prose, and talks mainly about America – her history, her political situation, the many races which she consists of, and the influence of President Roosevelt.

As each section or inclusion here tends to be quite short, the entirety does feel like rather a mismatched collection at times. Often, there are no threads of cohesion which link one entry to the next. Whilst some of the considerations within the title story and the essay fragments are interesting, nothing is quite long enough to render it memorable.

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Two Poetry Books

In February, I borrowed two very enjoyable poetry books from the library, and thought that a joint post would work quite well, despite the fact the books in question are so different.  One is quite a fun and imaginative work by Ted Hughes, and the other is a compilation of First World War poetry by women.

‘Meet my Folks!’ by Ted Hughes

Meet My Folks! by Ted Hughes ****
I spotted this whilst searching for The Tales of Beedle the Bard, and it looked too adorable to pass up.  Meet My Folks! was Ted Hughes’ first work for children, and it is the first of his young poetry collections which I have read.  It originally contained eight poems, and more have been added over various reprintings, to make thirteen in total.  It is consequently quite a slim volume, and is only just over sixty pages long.  In the poems, Hughes has written about rather an unusual family and certainly creates an interesting mixture of characters, from his sister Jane, who is really a crow, to his grandfather, who collects live owls.  The rhyme scheme which Hughes has used works well, and the accompanying illustrations are charming.  Meet My Folks! is sweet, silly, enjoyable and is certain to charm both children and those who are refusing to grow up.

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‘Scars Upon my Heart’ by Catherine Reilly

Scars Upon My Heart: Women’s Poetry and Verse of the First World War, edited by Catherine Reilly ****
I was so impressed to find this lovely Virago, which looked like it had never been read before, upon the non-fiction shelves.  I adore First World War poetry, but have read barely any poems by women written about the conflict.  Indeed, there are many poets within this collection whom I had never heard of before I started to read.

Reilly has included the work of seventy nine female poets in total, and the scope of the book is absolutely marvellous in consequence.  The preface, written by Judith Kazantzis, is measured and intelligent, and well describes the overbearing and stifling enormity of war.  She writes that the anthology ‘fills a poignant gap’, and that ‘these women poets speak for the women whose own lives were often blighted by that miserable loss’ of their generation.  Reilly’s introduction too is wonderfully informative.

Scars Upon My Heart is such a lovely volume, filled with beautiful and startling verse, and I love the fact that there is a companion volume about Second World War poetry written by women.  It is fascinating to be able to see such a conflict from the female perspective – particularly apt in its centenary year – and to see how wartime attitudes differed.  I would heartily recommend Scars Upon My Heart to anyone with any hint of interest in the First World War.

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Flash Reviews (4th March 2014)

A beautiful William Morris print

Pre-Raphaelite Poetry: An Anthology by Paul Negri ****
I adore the Pre-Raphaelites, and have wanted an anthology like this for such a long time.  The introductory note, which one presumes is written by the book’s editor, Paul Negri, is insightful.  The book’s blurb states that it ‘contains a rich selection of works by the major Pre-Raphaelite poets’.  These ‘major’ poets are comprised of five in total – Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Morris and George Meredith.  I would not personally call it an anthology in this respect, but each to their own.  I liked the little biographies which appeared at the start of each poet’s work, and it is true to say that this is such a lovely collection and, indeed, selection of work.

To talk about the poetry, then.  I very much adored all of Christina Rossetti’s work, as I knew I would, and I loved much of her brother’s too.  Swinburne and Meredith were both poets whom I had not read before, and I very much enjoyed their style.  The imagery which their poems created in my mind was stunning.  I was so pleased to see William Morris here, and think it quite sad that his poetry is so neglected.  For me, it is as beautiful as his prints:

He did not die in the night,
He did not die in the day,
But in the morning twilight
His spirit pass’d away,
When neither sun nor moon was bright,
And the trees were merely grey.
(From ‘Shameful Death’)

‘Silas Marner’ by George Eliot (Penguin)

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Silas Marner by George Eliot ***

Having not read any of Eliot’s work for some time, I had the sudden urge to plunge headfirst into Silas Marner, a far shorter work than the likes of Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss. Silas Marner is a linen weaver living in the ‘early years of this century’.  He has moved to the Midlands after being falsely accused of a crime in the northeast.  A cruel and miserly young man named Dunstan Cass creeps into Marner’s deserted cottage one day and steals all of the money which has been secreted beneath the floor.

Whilst the social history was well exemplified, some of the details which Eliot wove in seemed a little superfluous at times – for example, the constant talk of horses and making profits on them.  I did not grow to like any of the characters, but I found them all interesting.  Overall, Silas Marner was not as enjoyable as Middlemarch or The Mill on the Floss, for me – the lack of a powerful and feisty female, perhaps?  It must be said however that Eppie, the baby found in Marner’s home after her mother perishes in the snow outside, was wonderfully built up to the point that she felt real.

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Listening to Whales: What the Orcas Have Taught Us by Alexandra Morton ***

A killer whale (BBC)

My dear friend Caroline sent me this after writing such an insightful review of it.  It took such a long time to come out of my choice jar, but I was so glad when I pulled out the little slip of paper with its title on.  Morton has studied whales for twenty five years, and even has a hydrophone installed in her home in Western Canada.  She often wakes to the calls of whales, which sounds like a beautiful way in which to live.  ‘I am their shadow’, Morton says, describing the way in which she follows every whale sighting in her boat.

Listening to Whales is part nature book and part memoir.  At the start of the volume, Morton sets out her childhood love for animals and her life before she decided to devote it to tracking and trying to learn as much as possible from whales.  She began to work with dolphins, studying them with the help of a small time, and was captivated by the behaviour of two whales whilst working at an aquarium in California.

For me, the most interesting part of the book was to see how science had progressed since the late 1970s, with regard to such things as gestational periods, the preferred diets of sea creatures, and their habitats.  A drawback was the way in which the illustrations throughout had been put in rather haphazardly.  During a chapter which focuses upon killer whales and those who study them, a drawing of a sperm whale has randomly been included.  Overall, Listening to Whales is really interesting, and I certainly learnt a few things from it.

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