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‘Bone’ by Yrsa Daley-Ward ****

I rarely review poetry here on The Literary Sisters, despite the fact that I adore to read it.  I thought, therefore, that I would leave some comments upon a wonderful collection which I have read recently, Yrsa Daley-Ward’s Bone.

9781846149665Fantastic; startling, rich, and admirable. Daley-Ward’s writing is stark, vulnerable, and musing, and she balances her prose so well. She also deals with some incredibly important themes, from sexuality to being taken advantage of; from love to loss; from parenthood to grieving. Her writing is clever, and the collection comes together seamlessly; it is a singular unit, made up of small stories. She melds together cultures in a really interesting manner. There is a brutal honesty about Daley-Ward’s varied and immensely readable collection, and I for one cannot wait for her next book.

I shall leave you with an extract from ‘What is now will soon be past’:

‘Just because you do it
doesn’t mean you always will. Whether you’re
dancing dust or breathing light
you’re never exactly the same, twice.’

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‘The Hearing Trumpet’ by Leonora Carrington ****

‘One of the first things ninety-two-year-old Marian Leatherby overhears when she is given an ornate hearing trumpet is her family plotting to commit her to an institution. Soon, she finds herself trapped in a sinister retirement home, where the elderly must inhabit buildings shaped like igloos and birthday cakes, endure twisted religious preaching and eat in a canteen overlooked by the mysterious portrait of a leering Abbess. But when another resident secretly hands Marian a book recounding the life of the Abbess, a joyous and brilliantly surreal adventure begins to unfold. Written in the early 1960s, The Hearing Trumpet remains one of the most original and inspirational of all fantastic novels.’

9780141187990Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet is as wonderfully odd and obscure as it sounds. The novel is amusing, sometimes startlingly so; it made me laugh aloud in a few places, which very few books manage to do. (I do have a sense of humour. Promise.) Whilst I wasn’t at all fond of the religious aspects, I found our protagonist Marian quite a character. She and her best friend Carmella are two great eccentrics, really. One never quite knows what they’re going to do next.

I would categorise The Hearing Trumpet as falling somewhere between magical realism and utterly fantastical; there are recognisable elements, but it often reads like what I imagine a strong drugs trip might do to one. There were, rather strangely, echoes of Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree for me here; read it, and you’ll understand why. There are also a few harks back to fairytales – ever so strange ones, but fairytales all the same.

The Hearing Trumpet is perhaps the epitome of Surrealist literature, and I have never read anything quite like it; the closest I have come to date is probably the work of Scottish author Naomi Mitchison, who is undeservedly neglected. The ending was even stranger than I was expecting, and verged upon the disturbing. My favourite quote from the whole is: ‘People under seventy and over seven are very unreliable if they are not cats’.

As a final thought, it was a wonderful surprise to discover that the introduction to the volume which I borrowed from the library was written by one of my absolute favourite authors, Ali Smith; her work is, as ever, fantastic, both fascinating and funny, and she set the tone of the whole perfectly.

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Penguin Little Black Classics

I tend not to read many Penguin publications – not due to poor quality, but because I find the spelling rules which they adhere to a little irritating (both -our and -ize endings are utilised, which does not make a great deal of sense to this former proofreader).  I do, however, find myself growing increasingly fond of their Little Black Classics list.  I had read several from the list before they were published, and have since acquired rather a few, either as gifts, to make up the money so that I could get a stamp on my Waterstone’s card (shameless behaviour, I know), or just to try something a little different.

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Blackwell

If you are not familiar with them – which I am sure the majority of you will be – the Little Black Classics are a range of eighty short books (each of around sixty pages), published to coincide with the eightieth anniversary of Penguin.  They are inexpensive; their corresponding price of eighty pence means that the entire collection is relatively cheap to amass, and will certainly provide some food for thought.

Rather than write reviews of each of the books which I have read from the list to date, I thought it might be a nice idea to focus upon several of the books, along with an enlightening Guardian article about them.  The list which follows is as diverse as Penguin’s publishing list, and I feel as though each and every one of them would serve as a great introduction to the series.

3. The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue
Anonymous Icelandic sagas are wonderful.  I first read this in a collection some years ago, and revisited it last year thanks to the wonderful Poetic Edda.  Written towards the end of the 13th century, the saga is comprised of 25 verses, and is of great importance in both Icelandic and Norwegian history.  It tells of two Icelandic poets, who duel over their shared love for Helga the Fair.

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‘Madeleine undressing’ by John Everett Millais; inspired by Keats’ The Eve of St Agnes

13. The Eve of St Agnes by John Keats
One cannot go wrong with Keats.  He is one of my absolute favourite poets, and sitting down with his work is about the most relaxing thing which one can do.  He wrote beautifully, and The Eve of St Agnes is no exception.  His depiction of nature and the countryside, and his evocation of the cold, is utterly sublime.

23. The Tinder Box by Hans Christian Andersen
I am sure that most are familiar with Andersen’s fairytales, and this one is one of the more  well-known.  It perhaps needs no introduction, but the very idea of it is inventive.  A soldier acquires a magical tinder box which is capable of summoning three dogs to do his bidding.  It sounds strange, but the story is sure to delight (and possibly frighten!) children and adults alike.

42. The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
First published in 1892, Gilman presents an incredibly important early feminist tract, revolving around the female protagonist’s rest cure.  I won’t say too much about this before you embark; just know that it is both wonderful and semi-autobiographical.

50. Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen
I absolutely adore war poetry, and Wilfred Owen is another of my favourite poets.  He wrote so strikingly about his own experience during the First World War, in which he was killed just a week before Armistice.  I am unsure as to which poems this collection includes, but I imagine his most well-known works will be included.

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Katherine Mansfield

72. Miss Brill by Katherine Mansfield
I would be doing myself an injustice if I didn’t include Katherine Mansfield here.  I absolutely adore her work; I find her so inspiring, and really admire the way in which she can present such a vivid slice of life in just a few pages.  A wonderful short story author, and this is one of my absolute favourites.

 

 

 

Which of the Little Black Classics have you read, and which are you coveting?  Do you like the format of the books?

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‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck ****

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.

‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck (Penguin)

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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‘The Moon is Down’ by John Steinbeck ****

‘The Moon is Down’ by John Steinbeck (Penguin)

John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down was first published in 1942.  Its title comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and on reflection, it suits the piece marvellously.  Unlike much of Steinbeck’s other work, no concrete setting has been decided upon within The Moon is Down.  Even the country in which the action happens is ambiguous, with many believing that it is set somewhere in Scandinavia.

The informative afterword to the novella, which has been written by Donald V. Coers, tells the reader that in The Moon is Down, Steinbeck ‘had decided to write a work of fiction using what he had learned about the psychological effects of enemy occupation upon the populace of conquered nations’.  In doing so, Coers goes on to say that Steinbeck ‘refused to adopt the contemporary Teutonic stereotype’ for either his setting or his protagonists.  He also believes that The Moon is Down ‘demonstrates the power of ideas’, and one can only concur with this.

The first sentence is striking, and leads on wonderfully to the main thread of the story: ‘By ten forty-five it was all over.  The town was occupied, the defenders defeated, and the war finished’.  At the beginning of the novella, six of the soldiers who have been involved in a brutal spur-of-the-moment shootout ‘became dead riddled bundles’, and three others are deemed ‘half-dead riddled bundles’.  This repetition of violence makes it all the more chilling.

Steinbeck goes on to write about the way in which, in the occupied town, ‘The days and the weeks dragged on, and the months dragged on…  The people of the conquered country setled in a slow, silent, waiting revenge’.  Steinbeck exemplifies the solidarity of the community throughout, particularly with regard to the attitudes rallied against the outsiders.    The community in question is centered around mining, and the colonel who infiltrates the town tells the Mayor that his people ‘will be in danger if they are rebellious.  We must get the coal, you see.  Our leaders do not tell us how; they order us to get it…  You must make them do the work and thus keep them safe’.  The Mayor responds that the ‘authority is the town… [and] when a direction is set, we all act together’.  The point of view of both sides has been considered throughout, a technique which works marvellously in a novella, and which makes the whole an incredibly rich read despite its deceptively short length.

John Steinbeck

As with Steinbeck’s other work, I was struck immediately by the quality of his writing and his deft skill, both at building characters and rousing compassion for them.  The scenes which he crafts are unfailingly vivid, and everything which he turns his hand to describing comes to life before the very eyes: ‘Beside the fireplace old Doctor Winter sat, beared and simple and benign, historian and physician to the town…  Doctor Winter was a man so simple that only a profound man would know him as profound’.  Joseph, the serving-man belonging to the Mayor, on the other hand, had a life ‘so complicated that only a profound man would know him to be simple’.  The divisions, like this one, which he creates between his characters have all been so marvellously realised: ‘Joseph had tried carrying Doctor Winter’s remarks below-stairs before and it had always ended the same: Annie always discovered them to be nonsense’.  Such juxtapositions, which can be found at various points throughout the novella, allow Steinbeck to make his work and his characters so distinct.  His perceptions in such matters are always intelligent.

The Moon is Down is a sage novella, written by a man who is a master at creating believable dialogue and conversational patterns between his characters.  He captures their thoughts and feelings in the most sublime of manners; it feels, in consequence, as though he knows them inside out.  The way in which he captures the foreboding which hovers above the town is stunning, and the entire novella is eminently human and thought-provoking.

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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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