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Penguin Moderns: ‘Dark Days’ by James Baldwin ****

The thirty-eighth book in the Penguin Modern series is Dark Days by James Baldwin, a selection of three searing and important essays – ‘Dark Days’ (1980), ‘The Price of the Ticket’ (1985), and ‘The White Man’s Guilt’ (1965).  All of them draw upon Baldwin’s own experiences of prejudice, and a life growing up in poverty.  I really enjoyed Baldwin’s novel, Giovanni’s Room, and have been hoping to read more of his work ever since, so I was very much looking forward to this title.

9780241337547Whilst Baldwin’s prose style is beautiful and intelligent, the content of these essays is sometimes quite difficult to read.  The titular essays begins with Baldwin’s beliefs about racial ideas which prevailed during the Great Depression: ‘To be black was to confront, and to be forced to alter, a condition forged in history.  To be white was to be forced to digest a delusion called white supremacy.  Indeed, without confronting the history that has either given white people an identity or divested them of it, it is hardly possible for anyone who thinks of himself as white to know what a black person is talking about at all.’  He goes on in this essay to discuss his education, which he received in Harlem during the Great Depression: ‘My education began, as does everyone’s, with the people who towered over me, who were responsible for me, who were forming me.  They were the people who loved me, in their fashion – whom I loved, in mine.  These were people whom I had no choice but to imitate and, in time, to outwit.  One realizes later that there is no one to outwit but oneself.’

Despite the brevity of these essays, Baldwin discusses an awful lot of topics, many of which are interconnected, in depth.  He talks about race, the economy, migration, family, community, war, identity, politics, education, sexuality, and poverty, to name but a handful.  He writes with piercing insight, and so much talent.

Baldwin comments throughout on American society and culture.  In ‘The White Man’s Guilt’, he writes, for instance: ‘This is the place in which, it seems to me, most white Americans find themselves.  Impaled.  They are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence.  This incoherence is heard nowhere more plainly than in these stammering, terrified dialogues which white Americans sometime entertain with that black conscience, the black man in America.’

Dark Days feels incredibly modern, both with regard to the problems which it speaks about, and the harshly divided world which it presents.  The essays here are important and insightful, and should be read by everyone.  If we all took Baldwin’s ideas and sentiments to heart, the world would be a much nicer place in which to live.

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‘When I Was A Wolf’ by Terayama Shūji ****

As winter is settling down for good and Christmas is fast approaching, what better way to spend those chilly days than cosy up with a hot beverage and a good book of fairy tale-inspired stories. 61II3YJTd9L

My fascination with fairy tales and folk stories is nothing new, so as soon as I found out about When I Was A Wolf, a book of classic Western fairy tale retellings by Terayama Shūji, a Japanese author, I was incredibly excited to get my hands on it. Fairy tale retellings have been quite popular for a long time now, but since they are usually retold by a Western perspective, I thought it would be very intriguing to gain some insight on what a Japanese author would make of those Western tales most of us grew up with and are so fond of.

Terayama Shūji doesn’t merely retell the classic fairy tales that have been chosen for this collection, but instead he twists and turns them into an entirely different entity. Attempting to give them an adult twist, much like Angela Carter had also done, Terayama creates stories that are definitely not suitable for children, mostly due to the numerous sexual references and inuendos. One such example is Pinocchio’s nose, which is being turned into a phallus that grows more and more whenever he tells a lie. This collection is excellently translated by Elizabeth L. Armstrong, who also wrote a very useful and highly informative preface to the book, giving some much needed insight into the author’s style and literary achievements.

The book is divided into two main parts. The first one contains some essays and thought pieces where Terayama explains his interpretation of fairy tales like ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, ‘Puss in Boots’, ‘Pinocchio’, as well as of literary masterpieces like Ibsen’s ‘Doll House’, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, ‘Don Quixote’ and so on. I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed his literary voice and the way he expressed his opinion, even if it was one that I wouldn’t always agree with. Terayama is a very talented critic and most of his opinions on the literary pieces he commented on were spot on and gave me a lot to ponder. What shines through the entire book, though, is undoubtedly his wit and sense of humour. Every sentence, every remark he makes is witty and purposeful and I believe this is what made me truly enjoy this book in the end.

The second part contains the actual retellings of fairy tales by Andersen, Aesop’s Fables and Perrault’s Mother Goose, which Terayama turns into adult-themed stories. Although it was this part of the book I was most looking forward to reading, I have to admit I was slightly disappointed in the result. Yes, the author’s wit and caustic humour encompass his writing and that makes it enjoyable, but I was probably expecting something different. In most cases, instead of a full-fledged story, we get a conglomeration of opinion pieces, “readers’ letters” and a partial rewriting of the fairy tale in question. I soon came to realise, though, that this is just Terayama’s writing style and my disappointment is mostly due to my creating unrealistic expectations, as I was expecting a rather conventionally retold story, if I can call it that.

Elizabeth L. Armstrong, the translator, perfectly describes the experience of reading Terayama’s essays and stories in her preface: “His work is often like a piece of performance art you simply cannot tear your eyes away from, so you bear witness to it, awash with feelings of revulsion, morbid attraction, revelation and compassion” (p. vii). This first encounter with Terayama’s work might not have been what I expected, but it definitely piqued my interest and made me want to seek more of his work, especially since he’s an author I had never heard of before.

Have you read this book? Do you enjoy fairy tale retellings and if yes, which is your favourite? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

A copy of the book was very kindly sent to me by the publisher, Kurodahan Press.

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Penguin Moderns: ‘Notes on “Camp”‘ by Susan Sontag **

Penguin Modern number 29 is Susan Sontag’s Notes on “Camp”, which is comprised of the title essay alongside ‘One Culture and the New Sensibility’.  These two essays, both of which can be found in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966), are heralded in the book’s blurb as ‘the first works of criticism to break down the boundaries between “high” and “low” culture, and made Susan Sontag a literary sensation.’

9780241339701To date, I have only read two of Sontag’s other essays, collected together in Illness as Metaphor and Aids and Its Metaphors, and read for an Illness Narratives class during my Master’s degree.  The essays were interesting enough, but I did feel as though they were rather too brief in places.

In ‘Notes on Camp’, Sontag essentially talks about our concept of what is ‘camp’.  She believes ‘Camp’ to be a demonstration of artifice, something ‘silly’ and ‘extravagant’.  Near to the beginning of the essay, she writes: ‘One of the facts to be reckoned with is that taste tends to develop very unevenly.  It’s rare that the same person has good visual taste and good taste in people and taste in ideas’.  Of course – and this is something which Sontag strangely does not consider at all in her essay – taste is entirely subjective.  This put me off on the wrong footing with Sontag’s work.  Throughout, I must admit that I found her brand of essayism a touch pretentious.

‘Notes on Camp’ feels quite fragmented to read.  It is as though Sontag randomly jotted down a lot of quotes and thoughts, and did not bother to sort them into any order, or even to categorise them coherently.  It very much feels like a series of notes which could perhaps have done with a little revising.  Oscar Wilde quotes are shoved in at random, and not commented upon for the most part.  I found it quite bizarre in places.  Sontag believes, for instance, that ‘many of the works of Jean Cocteau are Camp, but not those of Andre Gide; the operas of Richard Strauss, but not those of Wagner; concoctions of Tin Pan Alley and Liverpool, but not jazz’.  Never does she explain how or why she has come to these strange conclusions.  When she does occasionally give reasoning for a point which she makes, I found it quite odd, and did not appreciate the occasional prejudices which come to light in her writing.

In the second essay, Sontag proposes that there exist “two cultures”: the literary-artistic and the scientific.  She goes on to write: ‘According to this diagnosis, any intelligent and articulate modern person is likely to inhabit one culture to the exclusion of the other.  He will be concerned with different documents, different techniques, different problems; he will speak a different language.  Most important, the type of effort required for the mastery of these two cultures will differ vastly.  For the literary-artistic culture is understood as a general culture.  It is addressed to man insofar as he is man…  The scientific culture, in contrast, is a culture for specialists; it is founded on remembering and is set down in ways that require complete dedication of the effort to comprehend.’  In this essay, which is slightly more coherent than the first, and more traditional in its structure, Sontag also talks about the progression of art.

I always feel as though I should enjoy Sontag’s work more than I do.  However, Notes on “Camp” has cemented that I am not a great fan of her essayism.  The collection shows its age rather; perhaps it is just a product of its time, but it is not one which I particularly enjoyed, or took much from.  Sontag writes with a sort of knowing superiority, and I did not find her arguments here to be particularly measured, or compelling.  Her tone feels final and definite, as though her answers are the only correct ones.  I prefer the essayists I read to be more open in their conclusions, allowing inclusion, something which Sontag does not seem to concern herself with.

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Penguin Moderns: ‘Africa’s Tarnished Name’ by Chinua Achebe *****

The twenty-eighth book on the Penguin Modern list is ‘the father of modern African literature’ Chinua Achebe’s Africa’s Tarnished Name.  Of Achebe’s work, the only book of his which I had read before picking this up is Things Fall Apart, which I very much enjoyed.  I was really looking forward, therefore, to reading some of his non-fiction, and this collection of ‘electrifying essays on the history, complexity and appropriation of a continent’ felt like the perfect way in which to begin his oeuvre.9780241338834

Africa’s Tarnished Name is comprised of four essays: ‘What’s Nigeria to Me?’, which is adapted from a speech given in Lagos in 2008; ‘Travelling White’, which was first published in The Guardian in 1989; the titular essay, published in Another Africa in 1998; and ‘Africa is People’, which has been adapted from a speech delivered in Paris in 1998.  All of these essays can be found in the 2011 collection entitled The Education of a British-Protected Child.

Achebe was born into the ‘Igbo nation’, one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa, and the largest in Nigeria.  In ‘What’s Nigeria to Me?’, Achebe discusses nationality, and the granting of independence to Nigeria in 1960.  He goes on to point out the governmental issues which came with this independence, and the subsequent coups and massacres of citizens, which led to a bloody Biafran civil war.  He discusses, quite openly, his difficult relationship with Nigeria.  He writes that his feeling toward the country ‘was one of profound disappointment’, before going on to say: ‘I found it difficult to forgive Nigeria and my countrymen and -women for the political nonchalance and cruelty that unleashed upon us these terrible events, which set us back a whole generation and robbed us of the chance, clearly within our grasp, to become a medium-rank developed nation in the twentieth century.’

Achebe’s essays feel immediately warm and amusing, particularly with regard to their tongue-in-cheek humour.  The first essay begins: ‘Nigerian nationality was for me and my generation an acquired taste – like cheese.  Or, better still, like ballroom dancing.  Not dancing per se, for that came naturally; but this titillating version of slow-slow-quick-quick-slow performed in close body contact with a female against a strange, elusive beat.  I found, however, that once I had overcome my initial awkwardness I could do it pretty well.’

He discusses, amongst other things, the portrayal of Africa in fiction, and Western perceptions of the continent.  Achebe makes some very interesting points throughout.  ‘Africa’s Tarnished Name’, for instance, begins: ‘It is a great irony of history and geography that Africa, whose landmass is closer than any other to the mainland of Europe, should come to occupy in the European psychological disposition the furthest point of otherness, should indeed become Europe’s very antithesis.’  The second essay, ‘Travelling White’, details Achebe’s travels in other African countries during 1960, and the racism which he encountered along the way.

In each of these essays, Achebe has packed so much into such a compact space, without sparing his reader explanations.  He writes with brevity, and with confidence, and speaks with both authority and intelligence.  These essays are filled with wisdom and measured arguments, and are often quite profound.  There is so much which can be learnt from this important collection, and it is clear to see why the author is so revered.  Achebe is a gifted essayist, and I certainly do not want to leave it too long before I read more of his work.

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Penguin Moderns: Italo Calvino, Audre Lorde, Leonora Carrington, and William S. Burroughs

9780241339107The Distance of the Moon by Italo Calvino ** (#22)
I have not really been a fan of what I have read of Italo Calvino’s work thus far, but went into this collection of ‘exuberant, endlessly inventive stories’ with an open mind nonetheless.  The tales collected here – ‘The Distance of the Moon’, ‘Without Colours’, ‘As Long As the Sun Lasts’, and ‘Implosion’ – were published between 1965 and 2009, and have been variously translated by Martin McLaughlin, Tim Parks, and William Weaver.  I found Calvino’s work interesting enough, particularly with regard to the metaphors which he uses.  There is some really imaginative imagery to be found here too.  Overall, however, I found this collection – which hovers between the classifications of science fiction and fantasy – peculiar, and not to my taste.  It is nothing which I would have chosen to read had it not been included in the Penguin Moderns Collection.

 

The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House by Audre Lorde **** 9780241339725(#23)
This collection of ‘soaring, urgent essays on the power of women, poetry and anger’ was my first taste of Audre Lorde’s writing.  The majority of the essays collected here were first given as conference papers between 1978 and 1982.  The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House includes the titular work, as well as ‘Poetry is Not a Luxury’, ‘Uses of the Erotic’, ‘Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism’, and ‘Learning From the 1960s’.  Throughout, Lorde writes with confidence and intelligence.    The 23rd Penguin Modern is an accessible book, which explores feminism and the issues which it poses for minority women, and those whose identify as anything other than heterosexual.  Lorde weaves in elements of black history and lesbianism.  Each of these essays is thought-provoking, and I would definitely like to read more of her work in the near future.

 

9780241339169The Skeleton’s Holiday by Leonora Carrington **** (#24)
Leonora Carrington’s The Skeleton’s Holiday is one of the books which I have been most looking forward to in the Penguin Moderns series.  I read her novel, The Hearing Trumpet, last June, and very much enjoyed its brand of absurdity.  The titular story was written as part of a collaborative novel in 1939, and the other stories – ‘White Rabbits’, ‘Uncle Sam Carrington’, ‘The Debutante’, ‘The Oval Lady’, ‘The Seventh Horse’, and ‘My Flannel Knickers’ – have all been translated from their original French by the likes of Marina Warner and Carrington herself.  The writing here is characteristically Carrington’s; each tale is filled with oddity, and surprises the reader at every grotesque turn.  Throughout, Carrington has a wonderful knack of vividly setting scenes, and her prose is at once odd and beguiling.  There is a dark, startling humour throughout, and an otherworldly sense to her stories.  The author clearly had such an imagination; this collection has left me eager to read more of her work.

 

The Finger by William S. Burroughs ** (#25) 9780241339077
These stories – ‘The Finger’, ‘Driving Lesson’, ‘The Junky’s Christmas’, ‘Lee and the Boys’, ‘In the Cafe Central’, and ‘Dream of the Penal Colony’ – have all been taken from William S. Burroughs’ Interzones (1989).  Of his work to date, I have read only Naked Lunch, which I found quite odd.  These stories, however, were far stranger.  As a collection, I did not feel as though there was a great deal of coherence between them, despite an overlap of characters.  Some of them also felt rather brief and unfinished.  I do enjoy Beat writers on the whole, particularly Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, but I find Burroughs’ work far more difficult to get into.  Whilst the tales here were readable enough, I found that some of the descriptions made me feel rather sick, and I did not enjoy a single one of them.  On the whole, there did not seem to be a great deal of point to any of these stories.  Not for me.

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Penguin Moderns: Clarice Lispector and Ryszard Kapuscinski

Daydreams and Drunkenness of a Young Lady by Clarice Lispector ***** (#15)
9780241337608I was so looking forward to the inclusion of Clarice Lispector in the Penguin Moderns series, and am happy to report that Daydreams and Drunkenness of a Young Lady, the fifteenth book, is my favourite so far.  I have not read much of Lispector’s work to date, but find her writing glorious, and the perspectives which she uses fascinating.  The three stories collected here – ‘Daydream and Drunkenness of a Young Lady, ‘Love’, and ‘Family Ties’, all of which were published in 1960, and have been translated by Katrina Dodson – promise the blurb, are ‘three intoxicating tales of three women – their secret desires, fears and madness – from a giant of Brazilian literature.’

There is a peculiar beauty to each of these tales; they have an almost otherworldly quality to them, even when Lispector is writing about rather mundane things.  The titular story in this volume begins: ‘Throughout the room it seemed to her the trams were crossing, making her reflection tremble.  She sat combing her hair languorously, before the three-way vanity, her white, strong arms bristling in the slight afternoon chill.  Her eyes didn’t leave themselves, the mirrors vibrated, now dark, now luminous…  Her eyes never pried themselves from her image, her comb working meditatively, her open robe revealing in the mirrors the intersecting breasts of several young ladies.’

Daydreams and Drunkenness of a Young Lady is both emotive and absorbing, and is filled with intelligent nuances.  Lispector’s voice is searching and perceptive.  I was utterly swept away with the three stories here, and absolutely loved each one of them.
An Advertisement for Toothpaste by Ryszard Kapuscinski *** 9780241339329
Before picking up An Advertisement for Toothpaste, I had not read anything by Ryszard Kapuscinski.  The sixteenth Penguin Modern was translated from its original Polish by William R. Brand, and consists of several essays, all of which were written in 1963 and published in 2017.  In these essays, states the blurb, ‘the great traveller-reporter finds an even stronger and more exotic society in his own home of post-war Poland than in any of the distant lands he has visited.’

An Advertisement for Toothpaste consists of the title essay, as well as ‘Danka’, ‘The Taking of Elzbieta’, and ‘The Stiff’.  I was not sure what to expect in this volume, but found myself really enjoying Kapuscinski’s descriptions; in ‘Danka’, for instance, he describes the way in which he ‘went back into the town.  I won’t give its name, and the reportage will explain why.  It lies in the northern part of Bialystok province, and there is no one who has not seen, at least once in their life, one of a hundred little towns like this.  There is nothing distinctive about any of them.  They put on a drowsy face, damp patches growing with lichens in the furrows of their crumbling walls, and anyone who walks across the town square has the impression that everything is staring at him insistently from under half-closed, motionless eyelids.’  Kapuscinski certainly uncovers some interesting things, and meets a whole cast of interesting people along the way.  Whilst I found these essays interesting enough to read, it has not sparked in me a desire to read any more of the author’s work.

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Penguin Moderns: George Orwell and Gertrude Stein

Notes on Nationalism by George Orwell **** (#7) 9780241339565
George Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism is the seventh book in the Penguin Moderns series. I have read a few of his non-fiction works to date, and always find his tone engaging and his content incredibly well informed. Here, in this series of essays first published in 1945, Orwell offers ‘biting and timeless reflections on patriotism, prejudice and power, from the man who wrote about his nation better than anyone.’

Collected here are ‘Notes on Nationalism’, ‘Antisemitism in Britain’, and ‘The Sporting Spirit’. As ever with Orwell’s work, his essays feel so relevant to twenty-first century Britain – and, indeed, to many other countries. Orwell writes with such wonderful turns of phrase, and his arguments are set out logically and intelligently. Of course, it must be noted that given the year in which these essays were written, some parts of Orwell’s narrative feel very of their time, particularly with regard to some of the vocabulary which he uses to describe groups of people. Regardless, Notes on Nationalism is a thoughtful and thought-provoking collection.
9780241339688Food by Gertrude Stein * (#8)
‘From apples to artichokes, these glittering, fragmented, painterly portraits of food by the avant-garde pioneer Gertrude Stein are redolent of sex, laughter and the joy of everyday life’, proclaims the book’s blurb.

I shall begin this rather negative review by pointing out that I have not read much Stein before, save for a few fragmented pieces. Despite loving modernism as a genre, I have found those extracts of Stein’s which I have come across quite hard work to read, and a couple of them have been almost impenetrable. Food was therefore one of the books which I was looking forward to least in the Penguin Moderns collection, despite loving food and food writing.

Food was first published in Tender Buttons in 1914 and, I imagine, was just as unintelligible then as it proves to be now. Clearly Stein was pioneering in her use of language, but I do not enjoy repetitive sentences like those which fill this book, some of which appear say nothing whatsoever, and others which go on and on far longer than is necessary. From the essay on ‘Roast Beef’, for instance, Stein writes: ‘There is no use there is no use at all in smell, in taste, in teeth, in toast, in anything, there is no use at all and the respect is mutual’.

Collected here are a series of highly meandering essays, some of which are more like lists, and others which seem to evade their titular subject entirely. If this book had not been so short, I definitely would have stopped reading it quite early on, and it was definitely a source of irritation to me as it reached its end; it has been the first Penguin Modern which I have not enjoyed in the slightest. Food has, however, done one very positive thing; it has confirmed entirely that Stein is not for me.

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