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Book Haul (February 2017)

This post is a little early, coming as it is before February has even finished, but I am going on holiday in a couple of days, and wanted to ensure that I remembered to post it.  Without further ado, here are the books which I purchased during February, a month in which I’d told myself I wouldn’t buy anything new.  I bought thirteen books in total; unlucky for some, but lucky for my bookshelf!

9781743215524We begin the month with two travel guides.  My boyfriend and I had originally planned to travel to Riga, and so I bought the Riga Rough Guide before trying to book our flights (which, it turns out, is nigh on impossible from Scotland if we don’t want to change plane twice and have a thirteen-hour long journey…).  After three hours of searching supposed ‘direct’ flights – which was rather trying, believe me! – we eventually decided to book a trip to easy-to-get-to Amsterdam, hence my subsequent purchase of a Lonely Planet Guide to The Netherlands.  The Lonely Planet guides are a little pricier than others, but I absolutely love them, and try to buy them for as many trips as I can.

I lucked out somewhat by finding an omnibus collection of two Elisabeth Sanxay Holding novels.  I have wanted to read The Blank Wall for an absolute age, but have never found a physical copy of it, and those online were rather expensive.  I managed, somehow, to order a used copy with the aforementioned, as well as another of her novels, The Innocent Mrs. Duff.  Good old Internet!

February was, I suppose, a month of classics for me – or modern ones, at least!  I 18176595purchased my final outstanding William Maxwell novel, Time Will Darken It, which I am both ecstatic and rather sad about reading.  I also chose two books by Sylvia Townsend Warner – the Virago edition of her Diaries, and the also gorgeous green spined Selected Stories.  I love Warner’s work so much, and am just as excited to get to her non-fiction as I am to read more of her short fiction.  Carrying on with the green spines, I also bought one of my last outstanding Nina Bawden novels for some well-needed escapism away from my research work.  I chose A Little Love, A Little Learning almost at random, but have later found that it has been well reviewed by several of my friends, and bloggers whom I very much admire.

Two French classics have also made their way onto my shelves.  Whilst neither was 716381actually upon my original Reading France Project list, one of my esteemed reading friends on Goodreads gave both five star reviews, and I just couldn’t resist them.  Thus, I am very much looking forward to Andre Gide‘s Strait is the Gate, and Therese by Francois Mauriac, both of which I endeavour to read whilst in France over Easter.

Two further short story collections and two contemporary novels finish my haul for this 9780307957795month.  With regard to the short fiction, I chose to finally get my hands on a copy of Karen Russell‘s St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, which I have wanted for such a long time.  As Mother’s Day is also coming up, I plumped for a gorgeous Everyman’s Library hardback edition of Stories of Motherhood, edited by Diana Secker Tesdell.  With regard to my contemporary picks, I chose One by Sarah Crossan, in which my interest was piqued after watching a BBC2 documentary encouraging teenagers in one particular school to read, and Liz Jensen‘s The Uninvited.  I’ve not read anything by Jensen in a long time, and the storyline intrigued me rather.

So ends this month’s book haul!  Which books have you bought and received this month?  Have you read any of these?  Which should I begin with?

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One From the Archive: ‘Summer Will Show’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner ***

I read and very much enjoyed Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman earlier this year as part of my now defunct online book group’s reading schedule.  I hoped that Summer Will Show would be just as enjoyable, but alas, I was rather disappointed with it overall.

Claire Harman’s introduction to the lovingly produced NYRB edition of Summer Will Show is wonderful.  I liked the way in which she set out the social context of the story, and of Townsend Warner’s own life in respect to it.  Let us begin with the aforementioned social elements, then.  Sophia Willoughby, Townsend Warner’s protagonist, is a modern woman in many respects, particularly with regard to when this story is set and when it was written.  She has decided to separate from her husband, who quickly moves to Paris, run a household complete with staff, bring her children up almost single-handedly, look after her Uncle Julius’ illegitimate son, and going out on male dominated hunts, for example.

'Summer Will Show' by Sylvia Townsend Warner

‘Summer Will Show’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Despite her strength and independence, Sophia is difficult to like, or to feel sympathy for.  She is an interesting character on many levels, but her lack of compassion and overriding coldness, particularly at the more pivotal points in the novel, is difficult for a modern reader – at least, this modern reader – to stomach.

I write about descriptions a lot in my reviews, but Townsend Warner’s are truly sublime.  The sense of place she crafts is always so well realised, and this, for me, was the real strength of the novel.  I loved the monologue at the start of Part II as well, due to the beautiful writing and the amount of contrasts and comparisons which Townsend Warner inserted.  The majority of the similes and metaphors in this monologue are lovely and inventive – for example, the similarities she draws between a cluster of dark fir trees and Hebrew lettering.

The first part of Summer Will Show, despite the darkness it included, was wonderful, but it did tail off a little afterwards.  The middle of the novel particularly dragged, and in consequence I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would.

Suggested accompanying playlist:
– ‘Please Please Please, Let Me Get What I Want’ by The Smiths
– ‘Lightness’ by Death Cab for Cutie
– ‘Hospital’ by Tellison

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One From the Archive: ‘Cassandra at the Wedding’ by Dorothy Baker *****

First published in April 2014.

I received the gorgeous NYRB edition of Cassandra at the Wedding (pictured) for Christmas, and from what I already knew of the book, I was almost certain that I would adore it before I even began it.  This is the first of Baker’s novels which I have read, and as you can see from my five star review, I shall certainly be hunting out more of her work in future.

Cassandra at the Wedding was first published in 1962, and is hailed in its blurb as ‘a book of enduring freshness, insight, and verve…  it is the work of a master stylist with a profound understanding of the complexities of the heart and mind’.  There is also a charming quote on the back of the book from one of my favourite authors, Carson McCullers.  She states that “I… whose usual bed time is ten o’clock – stayed up all night reading that exquisite ‘Cassandra at the Wedding’ – dazzled by the pyrotechnics of such an artist.”  High praise indeed!  The novel’s premise is so very intriguing:

‘Cassandra at the Wedding’ by Dorothy Baker (NYRB)

“Cassandra Edwards is a graduate student at Berkeley: gay, brilliant, nerve-racking, miserable.  At the beginning of this novel, she drives back to her family ranch in the foothills of the Sierras to attend the wedding of her identical twin, Judith, to a nice young doctor from Connecticut.  Cassandra, however, is hell-bent on sabotaging the wedding.”

Cassandra Edwards is exactly the kind of heroine I like, and I was endeared to her from the very outset.  Her narrative voice is exquisitely crafted, and with passages like the following, it is difficult not to see her as a tangible and brutally honest being:

“As I say, if you move, if you push a little, you can get from Berkeley to our ranch in five hours, and the reason why we [she and Judith] never cared to in the old days was that we had to work up to home life by degrees, steel ourselves somewhat for the three-part welcome we were in from our grandmother and our mother and our father, who loved us fiercely in three different ways.  We loved them too, six different ways, but we mostly took our time about getting home.”

Cassandra reminded me a lot of Esther Greenwood, the narrator and protagonist in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and a character who is as vivid to me as any.  Esther and Cassandra share the same brand of wit, sarcasm and intelligence.  Although Cassandra was not always the most likeable of characters, I did come to very much enjoy her presence.  The way in which Edwards crafted her voice allowed me to know her inner workings, and she is certainly a protagonist whom, whilst I do not always agree with her actions, I respect.

The second part of the novel is told from Judith’s perspective.  She is a vastly different character to Cassandra, and using her narrative voice is a very simple technique, but it certainly works as an incredibly effective one.  Edwards is so astute; she presents the twins and their relationship – both when it is as its best and at its most strained – so very well.  Her prose is masterful and tight, and I cannot wait to read more of her work.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck ****

First published in May 2014.

The Grapes of Wrath, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940,is due to be released as part of Penguin’s new ‘Great Steinbeck’ series at the end of the month.  A note at the beginning of the book states that the text of this edition is ‘based upon the special fiftieth-anniversary edition of the novel, which reproduced the original text’.  The novel, arguably Steinbeck’s most famous, was first published in 1939, and takes as its subjects the Joad family from Oklahoma, who are intent upon chasing the American Dream. 

A long and informative introduction at the start of the volume, which heralds The Grapes of Wrath ‘the greatest of his seventeen novels’, sets out Steinbeck’s life and the elements which inspired him to write, as well as what he set out to achieve with this particular story.  The introduction goes on to say that ‘Steinbeck’s aggressive mixture of native philosophy, common-sense politics, blue-collar radicalism, working-class characters, folk wisdom, and home-spun literary form… qualified the novel as the “American book” he had set out to write’.  Further, it goes on to say that in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck ‘summed up the Depression era’s socially conscious art’.

The opening of the novel is stunning.  Steinbeck is so perceptive; he views scenes with such clarity, and uses even the smallest of details to build up a realistic vision in the mind of his readers.  He cleverly uses nature to demonstrate the ways in which scenes change, and to denote the passing of the seasons.  One of the most memorable such scenes here is in chapter three, when a tortoise tries to make its way across the highway, and is set back on his mission. Steinbeck’s beautiful writing is so vivid that one can almost feel the oppressive heat of the Oklahoma summer beating down upon him- or herself as one reads.  As in much of his work, he sets the visual scene marvellously, and here he does so mainly through the use of colour.  The start of the tale takes place in ‘the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma’, where ‘every day the earth paled’.  Here the Joads, a family of tenant farmers, live.  They are driven from their home in the infamous Dust Bowl due to hardship, and decide to follow the rest of the ‘Okies’ to California, in order to search for a more promising future.

Tom Joad is the first of the family whom we meet.  He has just been released after doing ‘time’ in a facility called McAlester, after murdering a man: ‘[I got] seven years.  I’m sprung in four for keepin’ my nose clean’.  Their experiences as a family unit are very sad, and occasionally almost brutal.  Along with the more obvious, two of the main themes in The Grapes of Wrath are loneliness and the notion of belonging, both of which almost every character is affected by.

On a wider scale, Steinbeck does not just follow the Joads on their physical and metaphorical journey.  Instead, he considers the whole community who are selling up or leaving their homes in Oklahoma, in order to set themselves up in the more promising location of California.  In so doing, we meet a wealth of different characters, from preachers like Jim Casy, who ‘ain’t got the call [of religion] no more’, and those to whom money matters more than anything else.  In consequence, Steinbeck has written such a rich novel, whose story is comprised of many small plots and stories which have been placed atop one another.  One of the strongest elements of The Grapes of Wrath is the way in which he has exemplified how humans can adapt to different and even alien environments, and how the places in which they find themselves can impact so heavily upon them for a wealth of different reasons.

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Classics Club #16: ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ by Thomas Hardy ****

The Mayor of Casterbridge, as well as being on my Classics Club list, is the second choice which the lovely Katie and I decided upon for our Chai and Sheep book club.  I adore Hardy’s writing, and very much enjoyed Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but had rather a few complaints about Far From the Madding Crowd (which, incidentally, was our first book club pick).

When I began The Mayor of Casterbridge therefore, I was dearly hoping that there were no Bathsheba-esque characters within it.  From the first page, I found it a lot easier to read than the aforementioned, perhaps merely because the story here interested me more.

To borrow the official blurb, the plot is thus: “In a fit of drunken anger, Michael Henchard sells his wife and baby daughter for five guineas at a country fair. Over the course of the following years, he manages to establish himself as a respected and prosperous pillar of the community of Casterbridge, but behind his success there always lurk the shameful secret of his past and a personality prone to self-destructive pride and temper.”

I loved the beginning of the novel, and found the twists which it took throughout rather clever; there were certainly very few of them which I predicted.  It did get a little stale towards the middle, in my opinion, when it became a touch more involved in the less exciting elements of country life – the price of wheat, for example.  Yes, such details have importance of a kind, and I can definitely see why Hardy chose to include them to further sculpt the historical and geographical landscapes amongst which his characters stood.  Thankfully, such aspects are not overdone here, as I have found them to be in his other books (*cough* Far From the Madding Crowd *cough*).  The sense of place here too does not feel as rigid, and thus allows the reader to make up his or her mind a little more – an element which I certainly welcomed.  His use of colours and textures is quite often sublime.

It almost goes without saying that The Mayor of Casterbridge is incredibly well written and sculpted.  I love Hardy’s character descriptions particularly; some of them here are almost quirky: ‘with a nose resembling a copper knob, a damp voice, and eyes like button-holes’.  It feels as though he really did his female characters justice for the most part here; they were not as submissive as some of his other creations (yes, I am measuring everyone against dear old Bathsheba), and had some thoughts and opinions which had – shock horror! – not been moulded by their male counterparts from time to time.

The structure of The Mayor of Casterbridge is both thoughtful and a success; a particularly great element is the way in which he follows different characters from one chapter to the next without losing any threads of the story, or any of the immediacy of the piece.

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One From the Archive: ‘Beowulf’ by Anonymous ****

2013 has been a great year for me in terms of reading old works.  I have ploughed through the Collected Works of William Shakespeare, becoming engrossed in all of those plays which I had not before read or studied.  I then chose to read The Iliad by Homer whilst on holiday in Menorca in September, and it surprised me that I so adored it.  For my last challenge of the year, I decided to give Beowulf a go.  It is a book which I probably should have read before going off to study English at University, but it was something which I never got around to.  Better late than never, I say.

‘Beowulf’, translated by Seamus Heaney

Beowulf is an Old English poem, and a wonderfully crafted one at that.  Whilst I did not read the pictured version, translated by Seamus Heaney, and opted instead for a free e-book, I was surprised at how easy the entirety was to read.  I am sure that a lot of people know this story already, since several film adaptations have been made which are either entirely or rather loosely based upon the storyline in the original.  If not, however, Beowulf deals with a monster named Grendel.  Beowulf, a hero of the Geats in Scandinavia, aids Hrodgar, the King of the Danes, whose ‘mead hall’ has been under attack by the monster.  The story goes on from here accordingly.

The scene is set immediately, both in terms of the physical geography and the social context.  The scenes created are so very vivid, particularly those which deal with battles.  The pace of the poem is fantastic, and the plot is very easy indeed to follow.  I did not quite fall in love with Beowulf as I did The Iliad, but I am beginning to really love epic poetry.

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Classics Club #11: ‘Medea’ by Euripides ****

The only Euripides play which I had read before compiling my Classics Club list was The Bacchae, an incredibly interesting work which I read as part of my undergraduate studies at University.  As much as I was coveting the Oxford World Classics edition of Medea (pictured), I downloaded an older Oxford University Press copy to my Kindle instead so that I could take it on holiday with me as a last-minute read.

9780199537969One of Euripides’ earliest plays, and one which was translated into ‘English Rhyming Verse’ by Gilbert Murray in 1906, the edition has a wordy yet thoughtful introduction: ‘The Medea, in spite of its background of wonder and enchantment, is not a romantic play but a tragedy of character and situation.  It deals, so to speak, not with the romance itself, but with the end of the romance, a thing which is so terribly often the reverse of romantic for all but the very highest of romances are apt to have just one flaw somewhere, and in the story of Jason and Medea the flaw was of a fatal kind’.

Jason met Medea when the Argonauts looked certain to be just days away from destruction.  She was ‘an enchantress as well as a princess’, banished with her two children by Creon, who ‘helped him through all his trials; slew for him her own sleepless serpent, who guarded the fleece; deceived her father, and secured both the fleece and the soul of Phrixus’.  Medea also ‘formed at the least a brilliant addition to the glory of his enterprise.  Not many heroes could produce a barbarian princess ready to leave all and follow them in blind trust’.

First acted in 431BC, and set in Corinth, where Creon is living, Medea is an incredibly absorbing play.  So many emotions are brought to the fore, and the whole is rather dark from its very beginnings.  Each of the characters has been beautifully and believably developed.  The Nurse says the following, for example: ‘Rude are the wills of princes: yea, / Prevailing alway, seldom crossed, / On fitful minds their moods are tossed: / ‘Tis best men tread the equal way. // Aye, not with glory but with peace / May the long summers find me crowned; / For gentleness – her very sound / Is magic, and her usages’.  Medea herself, in a later Act, gives the following, rather stirring speech, which exemplifies the position of women in Euripides’ world: ‘Women of Corinth, I am come to show / My face, lest ye despise me… / Oh we are drifting things, / And evil!  For what truth is in men’s eyes, / Which search no heart, but in a flash despise / A strange face, shuddering back from one that ne’er / Hath wronged them?’

The monologues within Medea are nothing short of exquisitely crafted, and the dialogue between various players is both striking and thought-provoking.  Each and every character, no matter the number of lines which they have to utter, has a distinctive voice.  The whole is well textured, both geographically and historically, and the social constructs within it are fascinating, particularly when seen from a modern viewpoint.  In Medea, Euripides successfully adds another layer to the myth of Jason and Medea, and probes their relationship in an engaging and absorbing manner.

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