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Books for Wintertime

I have always been a seasonal reader to an extent – particularly, it must be said, when it comes to Christmas-themed books – but I feel that my reading choices have been aligned more with the seasons in the last tumultuous year. Connecting my reading with the natural world around me has given me a sense of calm whilst the world has reached such a point of crisis, and picking up a seasonally themed book has become rather a soothing task. With this in mind, I wanted to collect together eight books which I feel will be perfect picks for winter, and which I hope you will want to include in your own reading journeys.

These books are best enjoyed with a big mug of cocoa, a light dusting of snowfall outside your window, and a cosy blanket

1. A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

‘Following the widely acclaimed and bestselling The Summer Book, here is a Winter Book collection of some of Tove Jansson’s best loved and most famous stories. Drawn from youth and older age, and spanning most of the twentieth century, this newly translated selection provides a thrilling showcase of the great Finnish writer’s prose, scattered with insights and home truths. It has been selected and is introduced by Ali Smith, and there are afterwords by Philip Pullman, Esther Freud and Frank Cottrell Boyce. The Winter Book features thirteen stories from Tove Jansson’s first book for adults, The Sculptor’s Daughter (1968) along with seven of her most cherished later stories (from 1971 to 1996), translated into English and published here for the first time.’

2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

‘Narnia… the land beyond the wardrobe door, a secret place frozen in eternal winter, a magical country waiting to be set free. Lucy is the first to find the secret of the wardrobe in the professor’s mysterious old house. At first her brothers and sister don’t believe her when she tells of her visit to the land of Narnia. But soon Edmund, then Peter and Susan step through the wardrobe themselves. In Narnia they find a country buried under the evil enchantment of the White Witch. When they meet the Lion Aslan, they realize they’ve been called to a great adventure and bravely join the battle to free Narnia from the Witch’s sinister spell.’

3. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

‘This epic tale about the effects of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath on a bourgeois family was not published in the Soviet Union until 1987. One of the results of its publication in the West was Pasternak’s complete rejection by Soviet authorities; when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 he was compelled to decline it. The book quickly became an international bestseller. Dr. Yury Zhivago, Pasternak’s alter ego, is a poet, philosopher, and physician whose life is disrupted by the war and by his love for Lara, the wife of a revolutionary. His artistic nature makes him vulnerable to the brutality and harshness of the Bolsheviks. The poems he writes constitute some of the most beautiful writing featured in the novel.’

4. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

‘The classic novel of despair, forbidden emotions, and sexual undercurrents set against the austere New England countryside Ethan Frome works his unproductive farm and struggles to maintain a bearable existence with his difficult, suspicious and hypochondriac wife, Zeena. But when Zeena’s vivacious cousin enters their household as a hired girl, Ethan finds himself obsessed with her and with the possibilities for happiness she comes to represent. In one of American fiction’s finest and most intense narratives, Edith Wharton moves this ill-starred trio toward their tragic destinies. Different in both tone and theme from Wharton’s other works, Ethan Frome has become perhaps her most enduring and most widely read book.’

5. Winter Trees by Sylvia Plath (my own review)

I have read Sylvia Plath’s beautiful Winter Trees several times, and find fresh beauty on every reread. These poems were all written within the last nine months of her life. As always with poetry collections, I have collected together a few of my favourite excerpts or fragments from some of these stunning poems.

– From ‘The Rabbit Catcher’:
‘I tasted the malignity of the gorse,
Its black spikes,
The extreme unction of its yellow candle-flowers.
They had an efficiency, a great beauty,
And were extravagant, like torture.’

– From ‘By Candlelight’:
‘This is winter, this is night, small love -‘

– From ‘Lesbos’:
‘We should meet in another life, we should meet in air,
Me and you.’

– From ‘Three Women’:
‘What did my fingers do before they held him?
What did my heart do, with its love?’

6. The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland by Barbara Sjoholm (my own review)

‘I was incredibly excited to read Barbara Sjoholm’s The Palace of the Snow Queen, in which she spends several winters in the Arctic Circle. Sjoholm’s entire account is vivid and fascinating; she brings to light so many elements of life in the far north, always with the utmost sensitivity for those who live there.

Throughout, Sjoholm writes about the Sami, tourism, custom and tradition, the Icehotel in Sweden, and ways to travel around, amongst a plethora of other things. She strongly demonstrates just how quickly times change, and how some centuries-old traditions are being dropped in favour of the necessity of tourism.

Everything has been so well researched here, not only with regard to her own experiences, but with insight by others who have explored the region in years past. Her narrative voice is incredibly engaging, and I learnt so much from her account. It was the perfect tome to read over the Christmas period, and has extended my wanderlust even further. The Palace of the Snow Queen is undoubtedly one of the best travelogues which I have ever read, and is a sheer transportative joy to settle down with during long winters’ nights.’

7. Wintering: How I Learned to Flourish When Life Became Frozen by Katherine May

‘Wintering is a poignant and comforting meditation on the fallow periods of life, times when we must retreat to care for and repair ourselves. Katherine May thoughtfully shows us how to come through these times with the wisdom of knowing that, like the seasons, our winters and summers are the ebb and flow of life.’

8. Wintering: A Season with Geese by Stephen Rutt (my full review can be found here)

‘The arrival of huge flocks of geese in the UK is one of the most evocative and powerful harbingers of winter; a vast natural phenomenon to capture the imagination. So Stephen Rutt found when he moved to Dumfries in the autumn of 2018, coinciding with the migration of thousands of pink-footed geese who spend their winter in the Firth. Thus begins an extraordinary odyssey. From his new surroundings in the north to the wide open spaces of his childhood home in the south, Stephen traces the lives and habits of the most common species of goose in the UK and explores the place they have in our culture, our history and, occasionally, on our festive table. Wintering takes you on a vivid tour of the in-between landscapes the geese inhabit, celebrating the short days, varied weathers and long nights of the season during which we share our home with these large, startling, garrulous and cooperative birds.’

I hope you have enjoyed my seasonal recommendations throughout the year. Also, let me know if you have any seasonal reads to recommend!

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‘Memories of a Swedish Grandmother’ by Sarah Windebank ****

Sarah Windebank’s slim poetry collection, Memories of a Swedish Grandmother, has been attractively published as part of a small collection by Spotlight.  This grouping of six books – three poetry collections and three short stories – is a collaborative project, the aim of which is to ‘discover, guide and support writers whose voices are under-represented.’  Of the Spotlight series in its entirety, Kerry Hudson writes that the ‘dazzling series shows that if the barriers can be vaulted there is true beauty to be found in the lesser-walked streets of literature.’

More specifically, John McCullough calls Windebank’s debut collection ‘evocative and moving’.  Robin Haughton believes that in Memories of a Swedish Grandmother, Windebank’s ‘recollections are depicted with Proustian precision; there’s a gorgeous richness to the writing… the collection showcases Windebank’s range and ear for language.’spotlight_swedish

Windebank grew up in a household ‘where her Swedish mother and grandmother spoke to each other in a foreign language’.  Her first collection is filled with ‘feminist, philosophical and linguistically playful’ pieces, and with ‘accent and domestic detail, at once foreign and familiar’.

In the titular poem, Windebank writes about her Mormor: ‘In a Baltic-blue work bib, she held me close / in her horny hands’, and ‘She proved, then plaited weave / into rye bread, learnt from the loom’s warp and weft.’  She goes on to speak of her grandmother’s ‘Norse-inflected pidgin’.

The poems in Memories of a Swedish Grandmother are evocative, detailed, and sensual.  I love the imagery which Windebank manages to create with just a handful of words.  In ‘A University Library’, for instance, she writes: ‘… dry debris, duly catalogued / by fossilised librarians…’. Her descriptions are delightful, and sharp.  Nettles are a ‘spangle of jade fronds’, fox cubs spend time ‘gambolling their short life away’, and polar bears are ‘like icy yeti’.

As a poet, Windebank has such control, as well as a wonderful sense of rhythm and wordplay.  Take the final stanza of ‘The Girl on the Allotment’ as an example: ‘Joy hoes clods in her corduroy coat, / buds sup sun in the bullish wind, / and oxeyes spring from the seedy earth.’  Throughout, she uses a range of different poetic forms to great effect, creating an exciting and cohesive collection.

Windebank’s poetry is striking, and she ties together so many different elements – stories from mythology, dedications to Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop, musings on motherhood and childhood…  This slim collection contains so much to marvel over.  Some of the pictures which Windebank creates will stay with me for a long time.  A particularly memorable stanza for me is found in ‘Swedish Santa Lucia Party’, where the poet writes: ‘The winter sun that sets at three / is a marshmallow on fire, / and a dish of heart-shaped cakes is scented / with cyanide / from almonds buttered into the ginger’s heat.’  In ‘Gap Year’, too, Windebank writes: ‘And at odd times, she’d appear as a complex shadow / in the village square, then drift down the river.’

At just under 50 pages, Memories of a Swedish Grandmother is more of a poetry pamphlet than a full collection.  However, it showcases a wonderful new voice in poetry, and I very much look forward to reading Windebank’s future publications.  She is clearly a poet with a lot to give.  I also hope that Spotlight will expand their range of books in this new collection, and that other publishers might follow suit, to allow readers access to more underrepresented voices.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Poetic Edda’, translated by Carolyne Larrington ****

First published in 2014.

The Poetic Edda is a collection of Norse-Icelandic mythological and heroic poetry, which has inspired so much of the literature and media which we in the modern world know and love.  Many of the poems in this collection – which has been both translated and edited by Carolyne Larrington – were penned by an unknown writer around the year 1270, and can be found in a medieval Icelandic document, the Codex Regius.  It has not been possible to prove whether these poems came from Iceland or Norway, as experts on the poems have noted that elements of importance are often included from both countries.  It is worth noting that many of the poems within The Poetic Edda were written before the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity.

9780199675340In her introduction, Larrington sets out the importance of the poems within The Poetic Edda.  She believes that the collection is ‘comic, tragic, instructive, grandiose, witty and profound’, and that it contains scenes which have been ‘vividly staged’.  Larrington goes on to write that the Edda, incorporating as it does ‘comedy, satire, didactic verse, tragedy, high drama and profoundly moving lament’, is one of the greatest masterpieces in world literature.  Larrington’s introduction is well written and informative, and is split up into useful sections which deal with such different elements as the Old Norse cosmos and mythological history.

The Poetic Edda ‘contains the great narratives of the creation of the world and the coming of Ragnarok, the doom of the Gods’.  It traces the exploits of many characters from Icelandic and Norse mythology, from Thor to Sigurd and Brynhild, and their doomed love affair.  In their style, the poems are relatively simple, but they are often profound and always striking in the scenes and imagery which they present.

Larrington’s version of The Poetic Edda has been beautifully translated, and the flow of each poem is perfect.  The narrative voices and structure used in each is coherent and well wrought, and the collection as a whole is absolutely fascinating.  Each poem is different from the next, and every single one is filled with many memorable characters and scenes.  Violence abounds in The Poetic Edda, as do history, passion and emotions.

Oxford World’s Classics’ revised edition of the poems includes a select bibliography and a section on the genealogies of giants, gods and heroes.  Larrington has also chosen to place two new poems within the collection – ‘The Lay of Svipdag’ and ‘The Waking of Angatyr’.  There is also an invaluable section with notes on the meter and style of the poems, which is essential for any student of the work.  Each poem is prefaced by a useful contextual introduction, making The Poetic Edda accessible to all.

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The Book Trail: From ‘Kitchen’ to Short Stories

I am beginning this particular Book Trail post with a translated novel I reviewed last month, and very much enjoyed.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads to generate this list.

 

97805713427231. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Kitchen juxtaposes two tales about mothers, transsexuality, bereavement, kitchens, love and tragedy in contemporary Japan. It is a startlingly original first work by Japan’s brightest young literary star and is now a cult film.   When Kitchen was first published in Japan in 1987 it won two of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes, climbed its way to the top of the bestseller lists, then remained there for over a year and sold millions of copies. Banana Yoshimoto was hailed as a young writer of great talent and great passion whose work has quickly earned a place among the best of modern literature, and has been described as ‘the voice of young Japan’ by the Independent on Sunday.’

 

2. Woman on the Other Shore by Mitsuyo Kakuta
‘This compelling novel, widely acclaimed for its perceptive portrayal of the everyday lives and struggles of Japanese women, struck a deep chord with readers throughout Japan. In 2005 it won the prestigious Naoki Prize, awarded semiannually for the best work of popular fiction by an established writer.  Sayoko, a thirty-five-year-old homemaker with a three-year-old child, begins working for Aoi, a free-spirited, single career woman her own age who runs a travel agency-housekeeping business. Timid and unable to connect with other mothers in her neighborhood, Sayoko finds herself drawn to Aoi’s independent lifestyle and easygoing personality. The two hit it off from the start, beginning a friendship that is for Sayoko also a reaffirmation of what living is about.  Aoi, meanwhile, has not always been the self-confident person she appears to be. Severe classroom bullying in junior high had forced her to change schools, uprooting her and her family to the countryside; and at her new school, she was so afraid of again becoming the object of her classmates’ cruelties that she spent most of her time steering clear of those around her.  The present-day friendship between Sayoko and Aoi on the one hand, and Aoi’s painful high school past on the other, form a gripping two-tier narrative that converges in the final chapter. The book touches on a broad range of issues of concern to women today, from marriage and childrearing to being single and working for oneself. It is a universal story about both the fear and the joy of opening up to others.’

 

3. Now You’re One of Us by Asa Nonami 856275
In the tradition of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, here is a new classic about the bride who’s no longer sure what to think. All families have their own rituals, secrets, and credos, like a miniature religious cult; these quirks may elicit the mirth or mild alarm of guests, but the matter is rather more serious if you’re marrying into a household. If its’s a Japanese one with a history, the brace yourself: some surprising truths lurk around the corner.’

 

4. Beyond the Blossoming Fields by Junichi Watanabe
‘As a young girl from a wealthy family, Ginko Ogino seems set for a conventional life in the male-dominated society of 19th-century Japan. But when she contracts gonorrhea from her husband, she suffers the disgrace of divorce. Forced to bear the humiliation of being treated by male doctors, she resolves to become a doctor herself in order to treat fellow female sufferers and spare them some of the shame she had to endure. Her struggle is not an easy one—her family disowns her, and she has to convince the authorities to take seriously the very idea of a female doctor and allow her to study alongside male medical students and take the licensing exam. Based on the real-life story of Ginko Ogino—Japan’s first female doctor—Jun’ichi Watanabe does full justice to the complexity of her character and her world in a fascinating and inspirational work of fiction.’

 

6169535. Salad Anniversary by Machi Tawara
‘In her collection of brief poems, Tawara explores the fleeting emotions and momentary experiences that comprise modern life and love.’

 

6. Astonishments: Selected Poems by Anna Kamienska
‘Kamienska came of age during the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Poland and lived under Communism. These experiences, as well as the sudden death of her husband, led her to engagement with the Bible and the great religious thinkers of the 20th century. Her poems record the struggles of a rational mind with religious faith, addressing loneliness and uncertainty in a remarkably direct, unsentimental manner. Her spiritual quest has resulted in extraordinary poems on Job, other biblical personalities, and victims of the Holocaust. Other poems explore the meaning of loss, grief, and human life. Still, her poetry expresses a fundamentally religious sense of gratitude for her own existence and that of other human beings, as well as for myriad creatures, such as hedgehogs, birds and “young leaves willing to open up to the sun.”‘

 

7. From the Fatherland, With Love by Ryu Murakami 17794325
From the Fatherland, with Love is set in an alternative, dystopian present in which the dollar has collapsed and Japan’s economy has fallen along with it. The North Korean government, sensing an opportunity, sends a fleet of rebels in the first land invasion that Japan has ever faced. Japan can’t cope with the surprise onslaught of Operation From the Fatherland, with Love. But the terrorist Ishihara and his band of renegade youths – once dedicated to upsetting the Japanese government – turn their deadly attention to the North Korean threat. They will not allow Fukuoka to fall without a fight.  Epic in scale, From the Fatherland, with Love is laced throughout with Murakami’s characteristically savage violence. It’s both a satisfying thriller and a completely mad, over-the-top novel like few others.’

 

8. The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, edited by Theodore W. Goossen
This collection of short stories, including many new translations, is the first to span the whole of Japan’s modern era from the end of the nineteenth century to the present day. Beginning with the first writings to assimilate and rework Western literary traditions, through the flourishing of the short story genre in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Taisho era, to the new breed of writers produced under the constraints of literary censorship, and the current writings reflecting the pitfalls and paradoxes of modern life, this anthology offers a stimulating survey of the development of the Japanese short story.   Various indigenous traditions, in addition to those drawn from the West, recur throughout the stories: stories of the self, of the Water Trade (Tokyo’s nightlife of geishas and prostitutes), of social comment, love and obsession, legends and fairytales. This collection includes the work of two Nobel prize-winners: Kawabata and Oe, the talented women writers Hirabayashi, Euchi, Okamoto, and Hayashi, together with the acclaimed Tanizaki, Mishima, and Murakami.   The introduction by Theodore Goossen gives insight into these exotic and enigmatic, sometimes disturbing stories, derived from the lyrical roots of Japanese literature with its distinctive stress on atmosphere and beauty.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which pique your interest?

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Penguin Moderns: Andy Warhol and Primo Levi

Fame by Andy Warhol ** (#47) 9780241339800
Andy Warhol’s Fame is the forty-seventh book on the Penguin Moderns list.  I read a little book by Warhol about cats several months ago, and didn’t much like it.  Whilst Fame is very different in what it set out to do, I was not much looking forward to reading it.  In this book, ‘the legendary pop artist Andy Warhol’s hilarious, gossipy vignettes and aphorisms on the topics of love, fame and beauty’ can be found.  The pieces collected here were selected by the editors of The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975).

Fame consists of three sections – ‘Love (Senility)’, ‘Beauty’, and ‘Fame’.  Each section is made up of fragments of various pieces which Warhol wrote.  From the beginning, I must admit that I did not enjoy his prose style; I found it a little too matter-of-fact and bitty.  The prose also felt rather repetitive, more so due to the distinct subject groupings used here.  Some of the fragments have very little to say, and there is barely any flesh on many of his utterances; rather, there is only a kind of skeleton structure to the book.  It feels as though scores of random ideas and sentences have been jotted down in a notebook, and were not revised in any way before being published.

I found Fame rather jarring to read.  Much of the content verged on odd, and the entirety was very dated.  There is no sense that it has transferred well to the twenty-first century.  I found this collection shallow and superficial, and Warhol sometimes crosses lines.  For instance, Warhol writes: ‘Sometimes people having nervous breakdown problems can look very beautiful because they have that fragile something to the way they move or walk.  They put out a mood that makes them more beautiful.’  Fame was not particularly interesting in any way to me, and it is one of a handful of Penguin Moderns which I have finished solely because it is short.

 

9780241339411The Survivor by Primo Levi **** (#48)
I have read some of Levi’s non-fiction in the past, but had no idea that he had written any poetry until I picked up The Survivor, the forty-eighth book on the Penguin Moderns list.  The blurb notes: ‘From the writer who bore witness to the twentieth century’s darkest days, these verses of beauty and horror include the poem that inspired the title of his memoir, If This is a Man.’  All of the poetry collected in The Survivor has been taken from Collected Poems, which was first published in 1988, one year after Levi’s death, and have been translated from their original Italian by Jonathan Galassi.

I imagined, quite rightly, that the poetry collected here would be rather hard-hitting.  The majority of these poems are haunted by Levi’s experiences of the Holocaust, and his imprisonment in Auschwitz.  Throughout, Levi’s words and imagery are evocative and heartfelt, and there is a questioning and searching element to each of his poems.  The collection is poignant and incredibly dark.  Much of the imagery here is chilling; in ‘Shema’, for instance, he writes:

‘Consider if this is a woman,
With no hair and no name
With no more strength to remember
With empty eyes and a womb as cold
As a frog in winter.’

There is an overarching sense throughout the collection, however, of looking forward rather than back, and of not losing hope.  I found Levi’s spirit remarkable; even in his darkest days, he is able to picture his future.  In ‘After R.M. Rilke’, he says:

‘We’ll spend the hours at our books,
Or writing letters to far away,
Long letters from our solitude;
And we’ll pace up and down the avenues,
Restless, while the leaves fall.’

The Survivor is an incredibly memorable collection, and one which I will certainly revisit in future.

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Penguin Moderns: ‘The Dialogue of Two Snails’ by Federico Garcia Lorca ***

9780241340400I was looking forward to trying a selection of Federico Garcia Lorca’s poetry, having never read any of his work before.  The 42nd Penguin Modern, The Dialogue of Two Snails, is described as ‘a dazzling selection of the beautiful, brutal and darkly brilliant work of Spain’s greatest twentieth-century poet.’

The collection, which has been translated by Tyler Fisher, contains work which appears in English for the first time, and presents a ‘representative sampling of [his] poetry, dialogues, and short prose.’  The poems collected here also appear with the dates in which they were written, which I think is a useful touch.

Other reviewers have commented that the placing of poems here feels disjointed, and that the quality of the translation renders the poems stilted.  I have no reference points with which to compare Garcia Lorca’s work, and so I did not let this affect my reading of The Dialogue of Two Snails.

As I find with many collections, there were poems here which I didn’t much like, and others which I thought were great.  Some of Garcia Lorca’s ideas are a little bizarre and offbeat, but I am definitely intrigued enough to read more of his work, and to see how the translations compare.  Some of what he captures here is lovely, and so vivid, and I enjoyed the diversity of the collection.  As ever, I will finish this poetry review by collecting together a few fragments which I particularly enjoyed.

From ‘The Encounters of an Adventurous Snail’:
There is a childlike sweetness
in the still morning.
The trees stretch
their arms to the earth.

From ‘Knell’:
The wind and dust
Make silver prows.

‘Seashell’:
They’ve brought me a seashell.

It’s depths sing an atlas
of seascapes downriver.
My hear
brims with billows
and minnows
of shadows and silver.

They’ve brought me a seashell.

 

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Penguin Moderns: Georges Simenon and William Carlos Williams

Letter to My Mother by Georges Simenon (#39) ****9780241339664

I love reading correspondence, and was looking forward to the extended Letter to My Mother, written by Georges Simenon, most famous for his Maigret series of detective novels.  This is a ‘stark, confessional letter to his dead mother [which] explores the complexity of parent-child relationships and the bitterness of things unsaid.’  First published in 1974, and translated from its original French by Ralph Manhem, Letter to My Mother is filled with sadness from its beginning.  Simenon writes, very early on, ‘As you are well aware, we never loved each other in your lifetime  Both of us pretended.’

Simenon grew up in the Belgian city of Liege, and wished to revisit his pained childhood here.  A period of three and a half years elapsed between the death of Simenon’s mother and the writing of this letter, and he is almost seventy years old when he puts pen to paper.  He tells her about this, stating: ‘perhaps it’s only now that I’m beginning to understand you.  Throughout my childhood and adolescence I lived under one roof with you, I lived with you, but when I left for Paris at the age of nineteen, you were still a stranger to me.’  Even when he was young, Simenon was aware of his mother’s problems: ‘You endured life.  You didn’t live it.’  He then muses, after speaking of the favour his mother showed his younger brother: ‘It seems to me now that perhaps you needed a villain in the family, and that villain was me.’

The relationship between Simenon and his mother was fraught and complicated.  This tender and honest letter details their troubled interactions, and his mother’s lack of warmth toward him.  He speaks throughout about the unknown events of his mother’s own childhood, which may have caused her to behave in the disconcerting way which she often did.  Writing such a letter is a brave act; it seems a shame that his mother was never able to see it.

 

Death the Barber by William Carlos Williams (#40) ****

9780241339824The fortieth Penguin Modern publication is a collection of poetry by William Carlos Williams, entitled Death the Barber.  The poems here are ‘filled with bright, unforgettable images… [which] revolutionised American verse, and made him one of the greatest twentieth-century poets.’  I do not recall having read any of Williams’ work prior to this, and was expecting something akin to e.e. cummings.  Whilst I was able to draw some similarities between the work of both poets, their work is certainly distinctive and quite vastly different from one another’s.

The poems in Death the Barber are taken from various collections published between 1917 and 1962.  Whilst I recognised ‘This Is Just to Say’, the rest of the poems here were new to me, and have certainly sparked an interest within me to read more of Williams’ work.  There is so much of interest here, and the varied themes and imagery made it really enjoyable.  Whilst some of the poems seem simplistic at first, there is a lot of depth to them.  I shall end this review with two of my favourite extracts from this brief collection.

From ‘Pastoral’:
The little sparrows
hop vigorously
about the pavement
quarrelling
with sharp voices
over those things
that interest them.
But we who are wiser
shut ourselves in
on either hand
and no one knows
whether we think good
or evil.’

From ‘To Waken an Old Lady’:
Old age is
a flight of small
cheeping birds
skimming
bare trees
above a snow glaze.

 

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One From the Archive: Christmas with Carol Ann Duffy

Last Christmas, I read the majority of Carol Ann Duffy’s annual Christmas poems, all of which I very much enjoyed.  To get us in the mood for the current festive season, I thought that I would amalgamate my short reviews of them all into one post.

Another Night Before Christmas (2010) 9780330523936
This extended poem, about a young girl’s longing to find out whether Santa is real, is just as lovely as ever.  The artwork here is gorgeous; minimalist and lovely.  A delightful volume.

The Christmas Truce (2011)
9781447206408This was the first of Duffy’s Christmas poems which I read after finding a lovely little copy for fifty pence in a Notting Hill bookshop, and it evokes one of my favourite historic Christmas stories, that of the 1914 truce between German and English soldiers in the trenches, when they played the famous football match and sang carols.  There is such humanity and sensitivity packed into these pages, and it is a true delight to settle down with each winter.

Wenceslas (2012) 9781447212027
A beautifully illustrated and rather sumptuous poem; perfect for making one think of Christmas past, and the true message of the season – good will to all men.

Bethlehem (2013)
9781447226123Alice Stevenson’s art is lovely and fitting, particularly with regard to scenery and still lives, and Duffy is on form with the originality of her wordplay throughout.  I particularly enjoyed the use of sibilants, and think that this would be a great volume to read aloud: ‘The moon rose; the shepherd’s sprawled, / shawled, / a rough ring on sparse grass, passing / a leather flask’, for instance.  On the whole, it is a really sweet poem which promotes a nice message, but I think it would have been better had it been extended slightly.  Still, it is a lovely contemplative Christmas read.

Dorothy Wordsworth’s Christmas Birthday (2014)
9781447271505I put off reading Dorothy Wordsworth’s Christmas Birthday when it was first released as Carol Ann Duffy’s annual Christmas poem, but couldn’t resist ordering a secondhand copy to read over Christmas 2016.  It’s not that festive, but it is a lovely little volume.  The art style is gorgeous, and I loved the use of just a few colours, an effective and evocative choice on the part of the illustrator.  The poem itself was sweet; not my favourite Duffy, but a simple and vivid story nonetheless.  It is not as playful as a lot of her other work; the vocabulary used is not unusual, and was even a little simplistic in places.  Still, I feel that I will probably indefinitely reread this once a year as the festive season rolls around.

The King of Christmas (2016)
9781509834570I love the fact that The King of Christmas is based upon tradition from the Middle Ages, in which a Lord of Misrule could be appointed to take charge if the original ruler was in need of a break, or some light relief.  The art here is very appealing, and Duffy’s rhyme scheme and wordplay worked perfectly.  Thoughtful and mischievous, The King of Christmas evokes winters past in rather a magical way.  It is a perfect addition to the set.

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Penguin Moderns: Fernando Pessoa, Shirley Jackson, and Gazdanov and Others

I Have More Souls Than One by Fernando Pessoa **** (#19) 9780241339602
Collected in the nineteenth Penguin Modern, Fernando Pessoa’s I Have More Souls Than One, are a series of poems which were written by Fernando Pessoa under four separate names, or ‘souls’: his own, Alberto Caiero, Ricardo Reis, and Alvaro de Campos.  They were first translated to English from their original Portuguese in 1974.  The blurb calls the collection ‘strange and mesmeric’, and details that they ‘express a maelstrom of conflicted thoughts and feelings’.

Whilst I preferred the poetry of some of these personas to others, I found each to be intelligent and insightful.  Pessoa was clearly a very talented poet in the diversity of forms and subjects which he addresses and explores.  This quite wonderful collection surprised and startled me in its clarity, and I definitely want to read the rest of Pessoa’s oeuvre in future.
9780241339282The Missing Girl by Shirley Jackson ***** (#20)
Shirley Jackson is one of my absolute favourite authors, despite having a couple of her novels still outstanding, and not yet having made a dent in her short stories.  In The Missing Girl, says the blurb, ‘Malice, deception and creeping dread lie beneath the surface of ordinary American life in these miniature masterworks.’  Each of these stories – ‘The Missing Girl’, ‘Journey with a Lady’, and ‘Nightmare’ – appeared in a posthumous 1997 collection entitled Just an Ordinary Day.

Jackson is a veritable master at building tension, as anyone who has read a single one of her novels will recognise.  Each of these tales is wonderfully unsettling for one reason or another, and I have never read a story like ‘Nightmare’ before; it is so unusual, and the heights of tension make one feel almost claustrophobic when reading.  I absolutely loved this collection, and am so looking forward to reading more of Jackson’s work soon.
Four Russian Short Stories by Gazdanov and Others **** (#21) 9780241339763
Each of the four authors collected together in the twenty-first Penguin Modern, Four Russian Short Stories, were exiles of Revolutionary Russia.  Galina Kuznetsova, Yury Felsen, Nina Berberova, and Gaito Gazdanov each ‘explore deaths in a world in which old certainties have crumbled’ in ‘Kunak’ (1930), ‘A Miracle’ (1934), ‘The Murder of Valkovsky’ (1934), and ‘Requiem’ (1960) respectively.

I was very excited to get to this volume, as I adore Russian literature, and had not read anything by any of these authors before.  The content of these tales is varied and far-reaching, as one might expect; the first is about a horse, the second about hospital patients and addiction, the third deals with a married woman’s infatuation with another man, and the fourth, which takes place in wartime Paris, focuses upon the emergence of the black market and artwork.  Four Russian Short Stories is fascinating to read, and a real treat for fans of Eastern European literature.

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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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