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Penguin Moderns: Ralph Ellison, Jean Rhys, and Franz Kafka

The Black Ball by Ralph Ellison **** (#12) 9780241339220
Four of Ralph Ellison’s stories – ‘Boy on a Train’, ‘Hymie’s Bull’, ‘The Black Ball’, and ‘In a Strange Country’ – have been collected together in The Black Ball, the twelfth Penguin Modern book. These are ‘stories of belonging and alienation, violence and beauty, racial injustice and unexpected kindness, from a writer of searing emotion and lyricism.’ The majority of these stories have been taken from a collection published in 1996, and entitled Flying Home and Other Stories. I had somehow not read any of Ellison’s work before picking up this selection, but found it highly engaging. His prose is quite startling in places, and he is an author not afraid to poke into the darker elements of life. I am so looking forward to reading more of Ellison’s books in future.
9780241337585Till September Petronella by Jean Rhys **** (#13)
Unlike many readers, I have not yet been blown away by Jean Rhys’ work; thus, I was both looking forward to, and felt a little sceptical about, the thirteenth Penguin Modern book, Till September Petronella. This collection includes ‘four searing stories of women – lost, adrift, down but not quite out – that span the course of a lifetime, from a Caribbean childhood to ruinous adulthood, to old age and beyond.’

The stories here – ‘The Day They Burned the Books’, ‘Till September Petronella’, ‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel’, and ‘I Used to Live Here Once’ – were published in 1968 and 1976. I thoroughly enjoyed each of these searching and multilayered tales, and am very much looking forward to immersing myself into the rest of Rhys’ short stories in future; these are by far my favourites of her work to date.
Investigations of a Dog by Franz Kafka ** (#14) 9780241339305
I was not much looking forward to the fourteenth Penguin Modern, Franz Kafka’s Investigations of a Dog. I am not a fan of The Metamorphosis, and have not enjoyed the short fiction of his which I have read thus far. I am also far more a cat person than a dog one. However, I tried to go into this with an open mind. The blurb states that in this ‘playful and enigmatic story of a canine philosopher, Kafka explores the limits of knowledge.’ The story was originally written in 1922, and published posthumously in 1931.

Investigations of a Dog is told from the imagined perspective of a canine who has, it must be said, rather an impressive vocabulary. Whilst intrigued by the style of the story, it did not capture my attention as I was unable to suspend my disbelief enough. Investigations of a Dog is well written, but it was simply not enjoyable for me in terms of its subject matter. I also found it rather meandering as it went on. I may try another of Kafka’s books in future, but at present, I am of the opinion that he is not an author for me.

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‘Devotion’ by Nell Leyshon ****

I very much admired Nell Leyshon’s The Colour of Milk upon reading it a few years ago, and was eager to read more of her work.  It has taken me a while, but I was able to find a copy of her second novel, 2008’s Devotion, online, and eagerly read it whilst on holiday during the summer.

9780330426428Devotion sounded more traditional in terms of its plot and setting than the aforementioned The Colour of MilkThe Observer has described it as ‘a moving tale of a family falling apart’, and author Catherine O’Flynn writes that it is ‘a compelling study of a family cast adrift; written with subtlety and sensitivity, this deceptively simple tale pulls the reader closer with each page.’  The Times Literary Supplement says that Devotion questions ‘how we understand situations and feelings, and how we read the story of ourselves.’

Rachel, the wife of Andrew and mother of two girls named Grace and Tilly, decides at the outset of the novel that her marriage is no longer working, and asks Andrew to leave.  At this point, she feels as though she is in control, and knows what she is doing, ‘but Rachel is wrong, and her decision has consequences no one could have foreseen.’

The entire story is told from all four of their perspectives, an approach which adds an awful lot of depth.  Tilly, the youngest family member at six years old, is the one who struggles the most with the decision, not really understanding what has happened, or what has caused it.  At the end of her first piece, she says: ‘His books are still here even though Dad isn’t.  I watched him drive off with his car full of insects and suitcases and books, but I don’t know where he went.  Teenage daughter Grace is the one who discovers quite how quickly her mother has moved on after going to deliver a cup of tea to her bedroom one morning: ‘My mother’s dyed red hair was spread over the pillow.  Her skin was tanned and she wore her silver bangles on her arm which was draped over him.  Her arm, over him.  This person I had never seen before.’

Devotion is a highly immersive contemporary novel.  One quickly gets a feel for the characters; the girls particularly have a vividness and vivacity to them, and their voices feel like realistic ones.  Leyshon is incredibly perceptive, and so understanding of emotions; she notes how each character changes as the novel goes on, and how they are forced to change by others.  She demonstrates the ways in which people can protect others, and also how they can put them at their most vulnerable, and their most alone.  The feeling of unease which begins to creep in has been placed so well.

It is tempting to speed through this thoughtful and searching novel to its cataclysmic ending, merely in order to see what happens, but this is a novel to savour.  Leyshon’s writing has a quiet beauty to it, particularly with regard to her descriptions of the natural world.  The highly accomplished Devotion is a book which I likened to Ali Smith’s wonderful The Accidental as I was reading it, and I hope it is one which many readers discover sooner rather than later.

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Penguin Moderns: Stanislaw Lem, Patrick Kavanagh, and Danilo Kis

9780241339398The Three Electroknights by Stanislaw Lem ** (#9)
I would not have picked up Stanislaw Lem’s The Three Electroknights had it not been collected as part of the Penguin Moderns series. The stories here rest in the genre of science fiction, which is not one that I enjoy. They feature ‘crazy inventors, surreal worlds, robot kings and madcap machines’. Originally written in Polish, they have been translated by Michael Kendall. Collected here are the titular story, along with ‘The White Death’, ‘King Globores and the Sages’, and ‘The Tale of King Gnuff’.

Lem’s tales are well written and translated, and it cannot be said that they are not highly inventive. As I suspected, the collection was not to my taste, and I read it through to the end only because it was short. The final story was by far the most interesting to me, but I was left feeling largely indifferent by the others.
The Great Hunger by Patrick Kavanagh *** (#10) 9780241339343
These poems, selected from the oeuvre of the man said to have ‘transformed Irish verse’, span the period between 1930 and 1959. I do not think that I had read even a single poem of Kavanagh’s before picking up <i>The Great Hunger</i>. I enjoyed some of the poems here more than others, but was mesmerised throughout by the lingering presence of the Irish countryside, which so many rely upon for their livelihoods. Kavanagh’s poems are heavily involved with nature, as well as the turning of the seasons; some of the corresponding descriptions are absolutely lovely. Whilst I did enjoy reading this collection, it has not made me want to rush out and read the rest of Kavanagh’s oeuvre immediately.
9780241339374The Legend of the Sleepers by Danilo Kis ** (#11)
In these two stories, ‘sleepers awake in a remote cave and the ancient mystic Simon Magus attempts a miracle’. The blurb also heralds Kis as ‘one of the greatest voices of twentieth-century Europe’. I was unsure as to whether I would enjoy these stories, as I’m not the greatest fan of magic, but was suitably intrigued. Throughout, I found Kis’ descriptions to be rather sensory ones, which certainly helped to build the mysterious elements of his stories. The first story, ‘The Legend of the Sleepers’, held my interest throughout, but the second, ‘Simon Magus’, was a little too religious in tone and plot for my personal taste. The collection was interesting enough, but I do not feel eager to read more of Kis’ work in future.

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New Look

I ordinarily love choosing new layouts for the blog every three or so months, but it has been quite a while since I last made it feel fresh.  (Blame University).  I have therefore removed our rose gold polka dots, and replaced them with a far brighter pattern for summer and beyond.  I hope you like it as much as I do!

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Restructuring the Blog

Since opening The Literary Sisters just over five years ago, I have been able to pride myself on the amount of regular posts which I have scheduled ahead of time.  Yes, the odd one – particularly of late, during busy student periods – has been an archived post which I have chosen to recycle, but I like to ensure that there is enough fresh content being posted here, as far as is possible.

At present, I upload a book review, or other bookish content on occasion, every weekday, plus more relaxed weekend posts; at present, these consist of a Saturday quote and a Sunday song, just to break up the content a little, and make it slightly easier on the eyes when scrolling.

However, it has become necessary to think about the sustainability of my blogging here.  Whilst I am adamant that I will never close this blog, and will always be able to create new content, from this point onwards I have little choice but to schedule fewer posts.  I am in the last couple of months of my thesis (eek!), and a lot of time needs to be dedicated to the last of my studies during this period.  I also have a couple of trips planned in September and October, and will (hopefully) be joining the world of work soon afterwards.  Add into the mix the fact that my boyfriend and I are moving back to England next year, and this makes for quite a busy schedule!

Whilst I will still endeavour to read as much as I can, there is no feasible way in which I will be able to do so at the pace which I have been enjoying during my student life.  I will not have as much time for blogging either.  I do not want to compromise the quality of my posts, or of my book reviews, and so limiting the frequency of posts seemed like the only sensible option to adopt.

I have thus devised a slightly reduced schedule for The Literary Sisters going forward (just like the train service of late here in the United Kingdom…).  There will still be new content by way of reviews, book lists, and the like, but instead of posting something every weekday, I will now be posting only on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, effective immediately.

Blogging is such a joyful thing, providing an escape from academic work, but still making me feel as though I’m achieving something.  I have come across and interacted with such a wonderful array of fellow readers during my time here, and blogging is something which I never want to lose.  Thanks so much for your understanding, and your ongoing support of The Literary Sisters.

– Kirsty

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One From the Archive: ‘Every Eye’ by Isobel English *****

Every Eye is a beautiful Persephone novella, complete with, as ever, stunning endpapers.  It was the publishing house’s fifteenth publication, and is one of my favourites to date.  The copy does not contain a blurb – as many Persephones do not – but, perhaps unusually, there is no extract from the work itself either, as is often the Persephone way.  Rather, we are given an insight into the novella through an extended John Betjeman quote.  In the Daily Telegraph in 1956, Every Eye‘s publication year, he wrote: ‘Sometimes, but not often, a novel comes along which makes the rest one has to review seem commonplace.  Such a novel is Every Eye.  It is remarkable for the skill of its construction, and for the style of its writing…  [English] is on the mark whether she is observing scenery or character.’  I hasten to agree. 9781903155066

Isobel English is a pseudonym for June Braybrooke, a friend of the likes of Muriel Spark, Olivia Manning, and Stevie Smith.  For simplicity’s sake, I shall refer to the author as English throughout my review.  The novella’s preface was written by her husband, Neville Braybrooke; he includes many fascinating biographical details, and writes also about the rather charming publication preparation of Every Eye: ‘… after it was returned [from being typed], she wrapped it in a silk scarf, as was her custom, and delivered it by hand to her publishers…’.  English published only three novels in her lifetime, between the years 1954 and 1960.  In 1974, she won the Katherine Mansfield Prize for her collection of short stories entitled Life After All.

Every Eye runs to just 119 pages, but its length is perfect; English’s writing certainly works well in the more compact literary frame.  The novella charts the life of a newly married woman named Hatty, and begins with the death of her aunt, Cynthia: ‘It is strange that this news should arrive today, the eve of our departure.  Tomorrow morning Stephen and I are to set off for Ibiza, the most savage of the Balearic Islands.  We have been married a year and this is a long-promised holiday.  Now it seems something over and above, an involuntary almost predestined mark of respect to a dead person, for it was Cynthia who first told me of this place which must have been when I first met her  about the time of my fourteenth birthday’.  Indeed, Cynthia, who was married to Hatty’s ‘big brown bear’-like Uncle Otway, lived there for much of her life.

Hatty is often frank, and I was immediately endeared to her; she strikes one as rather an original character construct, by all accounts.  When asked for Cynthia what she likes to read after a fraught exchange has taken place, for instance, we are given the following information: ‘Still cautious but placated almost completely, I answered, a little gruffly I remember: “I like good books,” and then to illustrate the extent of my knowledge: “I like Rider Haggard very much, but I can’t stand Jane Austen”.’

Every Eye is not at all a run-of-the-mill portrait of a young newlywed.  The details which English gives too, particularly with regard to Hatty and Stephen’s relationship, and their wider circle, intrigue: ‘6.30am and Victoria.  Stephen’s mother, Amy, is already on the platform waiting to see us off; she has brought with her the young girl that she hoped Stephen would marry before he met me.’

The structure which English has used here, of a continuous narrative with no chapter breaks to speak of, works well; it allows her to present us with a coherent barrage of thoughts and memories, which run simultaneously alongside her present day life and travels.  English’s descriptions are incredibly perceptive; she picks up on all kinds of minute details.  Of the train journey which Hatty and Stephen take through France, for instance, she writes: ‘To begin with we are a carriageful of nondescript putty-coloured figures.  But with the thinning out from station to station, there develops before our accustomed eyes brilliant coloured designs on women’s dresses, cyclamen gashes on mouths and headscarves; the cerulean of the sky greased and shining on the eyelids of the girl in front of me’.

Hatty has such realistic touches to her, and she has been thoughtfully and intelligently constructed.  English’s writing is strong and distinctive throughout, and the novella is often quite darkly funny: ‘So it is Wednesday, and the first for Cynthia below the ground – the cold raw earth lined with evergreens.  “Six feet of semi-detached will do me nicely, dear,” I had heard her say often enough when she was looking for another smaller flat when their lease expired.  At last this has been realised as a permanency’.  Every Eye is a beguiling and sometimes unsettling book, with a vivid sense of place.  From the first it is incredibly absorbing, and is a fantastic choice if you are looking for something which you can read without too much trouble in a single sitting.

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‘Eden’s Garden’ by Juliet Greenwood ****

I adored the first novel of Juliet Greenwood’s which I read a few months ago, We That Were Left, and was most keen to read the rest of her oeuvre.  I ordered a copy of her debut novel, Eden’s Garden, because I am so drawn to books which contain two distinct stories within them, and which overlap towards the end.  The stories here are set in 2011 and 1898.

9781906784355In the contemporary story, we follow a protagonist named Carys, whose ‘dreams for the future are falling apart as she returns to the Snowdonia village where she was born, to look after her mother.’  Greenwood describes the way in which ‘Carys’ past was here, amongst the mountains rising up behind the shabby little seaside town.  And in the smaller – and even shabbier – time-passed-by village in the hills, where every road and path led towards the rambling grounds of Plas Eden.’

Whilst in Wales once more, Carys is drawn back to this ‘ramshackle country house’, where she bade her childhood sweetheart farewell.  This episode is related in the prologue, which is set in 1996, and which marks the tone and sumptuous descriptions of the story that follows.  In the prologue, Greenwood writes: ‘It was strange, seeing the house from this unfamiliar angle.  Close to, Plas Eden was slightly shabby, in a homely, comforting sort of way.  Between the ivy, white paint peeled away from the masonry.  Moss collected where slates had slipped or broken, and the skinny beginnings of a tree sprouted from a broken edge of guttering on one side.’

The late Victorian story in Eden’s Garden intrigued me most: ‘The last time Ann was in London she was a spoilt, aristocratic bride.  Now she stands destitute on London Bridge, with the Meredith Charity Hospital her only lifeline.  But who can she trust, and will she ever escape her past?’  Both Ann and Carys ‘struggle with love, family duty, long-buried secrets and their own creative ambitions’, and are mysteriously connected to one another.

I was more interested in the Victorian story at first, but became far more drawn into the contemporary part of the novel once the mystery element was introduced.  The female characters almost sprang to life upon the page, but I found the males more problematic; some of them felt as though they had not quite been drawn realistically enough.  Regardless, the novel is still a highly atmospheric one, which takes place in both the Welsh and Cornish countryside, and is all the richer for having more than one setting.  The layering effect of story upon story here works wonderfully too.

Eden’s Garden is a wholly transporting novel, which I found immediately absorbing.  It is, like We That Were Left, a novel which entirely sweeps one away.  For a debut, this novel is highly polished, and its mystery carefully and cleverly pieced together.  I did find a couple of elements which Greenwood had dreamed up a little unbelievable, and others rather twee, but I thoroughly enjoyed the novel overall.  Greenwood is an author who certainly deserves to be read more widely; I would recommend her work for fans of the likes of Kate Morton.

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