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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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Penguin Moderns: Allen Ginsberg, Daphne du Maurier, and Dorothy Parker

Television Was a Baby Crawling Toward That Deathchamber by Allen Ginsberg **** (#2)
9780241337622This new collection of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s work, Television Was a Baby Crawling Toward That Deathchamber, is the second book in the Penguin Moderns series. Whilst the poems have been printed before, in Ginsberg’s Collected Poems 1947-1977 (2006), they have not appeared in this particular selection before.

Throughout the admirable poems exhibited here, Ginsberg tackles many issues which were contemporary to him – atom bombs, the political system in the United States, Communism, the Cold War, propaganda, the state of the world, and oppression, to name but a few. With regard to their approach, some of the poems here are far more structured; others read like stream-of-consciousness pieces, or monologues. In Television Was a Baby Crawling Toward That Deathchamber, Ginsberg presents a fascinating and creative view of a bygone time, whose issues are still relevant to our twenty-first century world. Despite the vulgarity at times, the wordplay here is impressive, and there is such a variance to the selection which has been made.

 

The Breakthrough by Daphne du Maurier **** (#3)9780241339206
Daphne du Maurier’s short story ‘The Breakthrough’ has been reprinted by itself as the third book of the Penguin Moderns series. I have read it before, but was very much looking forward to coming back to it. Whilst not quite amongst my favourite pieces of her short work, there is so much here to admire. First published in 1966, ‘The Breakthrough’ still surprises and startles, even upon a second reading. I found this a chilling tale, and whilst I do not want to give any details of the plot away in my review, it is one which I would highly recommend.

 

The Custard Heart by Dorothy Parker **** (#4)
9780241339589The Custard Heart is the fourth book in the Penguin Moderns series, which I have decided to read in order after receiving the full boxed collection in all of its glory. The three stories by Dorothy Parker in this collection – ‘The Custard Heart’, ‘Big Blonde’, and ‘You Were Perfectly Fine’ – have all been taken from The Collected Dorothy Parker, which was first published as The Portable Dorothy Parker in 1944. Whilst I’ve not read any of Parker’s short stories before, I have read the entirety of her poetry output.

The descriptions in each of these stories, which are ‘tales of women on the edge’ are startling and vivid. From ‘The Custard Heart’, for instance, ‘… Mrs Lanier wore yellow of evening. She had gowns of velvet like poured country cream and satin with the lacquer of buttercups and chiffon that spiraled about her like golden smoke. She wore them, and listened in shy surprise to the resulting comparisons to daffodils, and butterflies in the sunshine, and such…’.

Here, Parker paints intimate portraits of three women, in a perceptive and introspective manner. Parker looks at ageing, relationships, emotions, and womanhood at different stages, amongst other things. ‘Big Blonde’, which shows the slip into depression and its depths, was as tense as it was fantastic. I found each of these tales immediately immersive, and am very much looking forward to reading the rest of her stories in future.

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Books for Pride

I am a little late in creating this post, but thought it would be a nice way to mark Pride, which is occurring worldwide during the month of June.  I have put together a list of ten books with LGBTQIA protagonists or themes, some of which I have read, and some of which are on my to-read list.

317062591. Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day by Peter Ackroyd
In Queer City Peter Ackroyd looks at London in a whole new way – through the history and experiences of its gay population.  In Roman Londinium the city was dotted with lupanaria (‘wolf dens’ or public pleasure houses), fornices (brothels) and thermiae (hot baths). Then came the Emperor Constantine, with his bishops, monks and missionaries. And so began an endless loop of alternating permissiveness and censure.  Ackroyd takes us right into the hidden history of the city; from the notorious Normans to the frenzy of executions for sodomy in the early nineteenth century. He journeys through the coffee bars of sixties Soho to Gay Liberation, disco music and the horror of AIDS.  Today, we live in an era of openness and tolerance and Queer London has become part of the new norm. Ackroyd tells us the hidden story of how it got there, celebrating its diversity, thrills and energy on the one hand; but reminding us of its very real terrors, dangers and risks on the other.
2. Transgender History by Susan Stryker
‘Covering American transgender history from the mid-twentieth century to today, Transgender History takes a chronological approach to the subject of transgender history, with each chapter covering major movements, writings, and events. Chapters cover the transsexual and transvestite communities in the years following World War II; trans radicalism and social change, which spanned from 1966 with the publication of The Transsexual Phenomenon, and lasted through the early 1970s; the mid-’70s to 1990-the era of identity politics and the changes witnessed in trans circles through these years; and the gender issues witnessed through the ’90s and ’00s.  Transgender History includes informative sidebars highlighting quotes from major texts and speeches in transgender history and brief biographies of key players, plus excerpts from transgender memoirs and discussion of treatments of transgenderism in popular culture.
3. A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood 16059558
When A Single Man was originally published, it shocked many by its frank, sympathetic, and moving portrayal of a gay man in midlife. George, the protagonist, is adjusting to life on his own after the sudden death of his partner, determined to persist in the routines of his daily life. An Englishman and a professor living in suburban Southern California, he is an outsider in every way, and his internal reflections and interactions with others reveal a man who loves being alive despite everyday injustices and loneliness. Wry, suddenly manic, constantly funny, surprisingly sad, this novel catches the texture of life itself.
4. Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
Call Me by Your Name is the story of a sudden and powerful romance that blossoms between an adolescent boy and a summer guest at his parents’ cliff-side mansion on the Italian Riviera. Unprepared for the consequences of their attraction, at first each feigns indifference. But during the restless summer weeks that follow, unrelenting buried currents of obsession and fear, fascination and desire, intensify their passion as they test the charged ground between them. What grows from the depths of their spirits is a romance of scarcely six weeks’ duration and an experience that marks them for a lifetime. For what the two discover on the Riviera and during a sultry evening in Rome is the one thing both already fear they may never truly find again: total intimacy.  The psychological maneuvers that accompany attraction have seldom been more shrewdly captured than in André Aciman’s frank, unsentimental, heartrending elegy to human passion. Call Me by Your Name is clear-eyed, bare-knuckled, and ultimately unforgettable.
325612375. Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter? by Heath Fogg Davis
Beyond Trans pushes the conversation on gender identity to its limits: questioning the need for gender categories in the first place. Whether on birth certificates or college admissions applications or on bathroom doors, why do we need to mark people and places with sex categories? Do they serve a real purpose or are these places and forms just mechanisms of exclusion? Heath Fogg Davis offers an impassioned call to rethink the usefulness of dividing the world into not just Male and Female categories but even additional categories of Transgender and gender fluid. Davis, himself a transgender man, explores the underlying gender-enforcing policies and customs in American life that have led to transgender bathroom bills, college admissions controversies, and more, arguing that it is necessary for our society to take real steps to challenge the assumption that gender matters.  He examines four areas where we need to re-think our sex-classification systems: sex-marked identity documents such as birth certificates, driver’s licenses and passports; sex-segregated public restrooms; single-sex colleges; and sex-segregated sports. Speaking from his own experience and drawing upon major cases of sex discrimination in the news and in the courts, Davis presents a persuasive case for challenging how individuals are classified according to sex and offers concrete recommendations for alleviating sex identity discrimination and sex-based disadvantage.  For anyone in search of pragmatic ways to make our world more inclusive, Davis’ recommendations provide much-needed practical guidance about how to work through this complex issue. A provocative call to action, Beyond Trans pushes us to think how we can work to make America truly inclusive of all people.
6. The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth
When Cameron Post’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief they’ll never know that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.  But that relief doesn’t last, and Cam is soon forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth and her well-intentioned but hopelessly old-fashioned grandmother. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and leaving well enough alone (as her grandmother might say), and Cam becomes an expert at both.  Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful, pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. She and Cam forge an unexpected and intense friendship — one that seems to leave room for something more to emerge. But just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to ‘fix’ her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the cost of denying her true self — even if she’s not exactly sure who that is.  The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a stunning and unforgettable literary debut about discovering who you are and finding the courage to live life according to your own rules.
7. Unbecoming by Jenny Downham 25582543
Three women – three secrets – one heart-stopping story. Katie, seventeen, in love with someone whose identity she can’t reveal. Her mother Caroline, uptight, worn out and about to find the past catching up with her. Katie’s grandmother, Mary, back with the family after years of mysterious absence and ‘capable of anything’, despite suffering from Alzheimers. As Katie cares for an elderly woman who brings daily chaos to her life, she finds herself drawn to her. Rules get broken as allegiances shift. Is Mary contagious? Is ‘badness’ genetic? In confronting the past, Katie is forced to seize the present. As Mary slowly unravels and family secrets are revealed, Katie learns to live and finally dares to love. Funny, sad, honest and wise, Unbecoming is a celebration of life, and learning to honour your own stories.
8. Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
Ocean Vuong’s first full-length collection aims straight for the perennial “big”—and very human—subjects of romance, family, memory, grief, war, and melancholia. None of these he allows to overwhelm his spirit or his poems, which demonstrate, through breath and cadence and unrepentant enthrallment, that a gentle palm on a chest can calm the fiercest hungers.
63446649. Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki
Heartbreakingly funny, moving and vibrantly drawn, Skim is an extraordinary book–a smart and sensitive graphic novel of the highest literary and artistic quality, by and about young women.  “Skim” is Kimberly Keiko Cameron, a not-slim, would-be Wiccan goth who goes to a private girls’ school. When Skim’s classmate Katie Matthews is dumped by her boyfriend, who then kills himself, the entire school goes into mourning overdrive. As concerned guidance counselors provide lectures on the “cycle of grief,” and the popular clique starts a new club (Girls Celebrate Life!) to bolster school spirit, Skim sinks into an ever-deepening depression.   And falling in love only makes things worse…  Suicide, depression, love, being gay or not, crushes, cliques, and finding a way to be your own fully human self–are all explored in this brilliant collaboration by cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. An edgy, keenly observed and poignant glimpse into the heartache of being young.
10. We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend, Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she’s tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit, and Marin will be forced to face everything that’s been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which are your favourites with LGBTQIA themes or characters?  Have you read anything specifically to celebrate Pride this month?

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Two Poetry Collections

9781784101244The Complete Poems by Muriel Spark ***
I have read a lot of Spark’s fiction, but none of her poetry; it seemed obvious, therefore, to pick up a copy of her Complete Poems and read it during the month of her centenary. The poems here are not chronologically ordered, which annoyed me a little; I like to see how poets evolve over time, particularly over the decades in which Spark wrote. The content here is quite varied; Spark writes extensively about writing and London, which I was expecting, but other poems deal with catching bad colds, and leaning over old walls, which I perhaps was not.

Spark’s poems are witty and clever, but the collection did not feel like a coherent one to me. Perhaps this is because of the lack of chronological ordering; had it been structured in this way, and one could see the progression of Spark’s poetic voice and the continuation of themes, it would have worked better. Sadly, some of the poems here were a little silly and juvenile for my particular taste, and I was largely indifferent to the collection as a whole; very few of these poems really stood out.

 

The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur ** 9781471165825
I downloaded a copy of Rupi Kaur’s The Sun and Her Flowers from my library’s online catalogue, mainly to see what all the hype was about. I am one of the few, it seems, that hasn’t read her debut poetry collection, Milk and Honey, and doubt that I will seek out a copy after my experience with this, her second book.

Firstly, I wasn’t at all a fan of the illustrations, and do not feel as though they have a place within poetry anyway; they detract somewhat from the actual writing, and make it feel a bit gimmicky. The Sun and Her Flowers largely felt fragmented to me, like a series of quite random thoughts had been quickly jotted down. It felt unfinished. I found the collection quite banal at times, because the same themes are repeated over and over again; the two overriding themes are ‘woe is me’, and ‘I am strong and powerful’. Whilst I enjoyed a few of these poems, I felt indifferent to the vast majority of them. It is not the kind of poetry which grabs you and doesn’t let go; yes, it passes a couple of hours, but I do not feel as though I really got anything of worth from the collection. I perhaps would have enjoyed it more before I had discovered the likes of Sylvia Plath, or had I read it whilst in my early teens. It had an overarching ‘Tumblr’ feel to it.

Also, as far as I’m concerned, the following is not a poem (yet it is in Kaur’s book): ‘you do not just wake up and become the butterfly’.

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Translation Database: Day Five

Today marks the final instalment of my picks from the wonderful Translation Database (view it here).  I have chosen all of these books at random, but have tried to ensure that there is a real diversity between picks, both in terms of subject matter, and the original written languages the books were published in.  I hope you have found some books in this week’s showcase which have piqued your interest.

 

1. The Book of Chameleons by Jose Eduardo Agualusa (translated from the Portuguese 1159038by Daniel Hahn; Simon & Schuster)
The narrator of this novel is a rather charming lizard. He lives on Felix Ventura’s living-room wall, Felix, the lizard’s friend and hero of the story, is a man who sells pasts – if you don’t like yours, he can come up with an new one for you, a new past – full of better memories, with a complete lineage, photos and all.”

 

176987392. The Warmth of the Taxidermied Animal by Tytti Heikkenen (translated from the Finnish by Niina Pollari; Action Books)
Brainy, rambunctious, gross and sad, the poems of Tytti Heikkinen’s debut English collection make clear why this young poet has become a major force in contemporary Finnish poetry. By turns lyric, limpid, lightly encrusted and slightly mad, these poems knit together the language of “where we are now” until it reads like where we’ve never been and where we are always sentenced to be.

 

3. Collected Body by Valzhyna Mort (translated from the Belarusian by Elizabeth 11505557Oehlkers Wright; Copper Canyon)
Valzhyna Mort is a dynamic Belarusian poet, and Collected Body is her first collection composed in English. Whether writing about sex, relatives, violence, or fish markets as opera, Mort insists on vibrant, dark truths. “Death hands you every new day like a golden coin,” she writes, then warns that as the bribe grows “it gets harder to turn down.”

 

254892154. Willful Disregard by Lena Andersson (translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death; Other Press)
Ester Nilsson is a sensible person in a sensible relationship. She knows what she thinks and she acts according to her principles.  Until the day she is asked to give a lecture on renowned artist Hugo Rask. The man himself sits in the audience, spellbound, and when the two meet afterwards, he has the same effect on her. From then on Ester’s existence is intrinsically linked to that day, and the events that follow change her life forever.  Bitingly funny and darkly fascinating, Willful Disregard is a story about total and desperate devotion and about how willingly we betray ourselves in the pursuit of love.

 

5. Walker on Water by Kristiina Ehin (translated from the Estonian by Ilmar Lehtpere; 21918964Unnamed Press)
A woman cultivates a knack for walking on water, but is undermined by her husband’s brain, which he removes each night when he returns home from work; a couple overcomes the irksome mischief of the gods; a skeptical dragon wonders what sex is all about: this is the world of Kristiina Ehin. From the 2007 British Poetry Society Popescu prize winner for European poetry in translation: a series of comic, surreal adventures. Kristiina Ehin’s quirky voice takes each story directly from the dream state, at times stubborn and resistant, at other times masochistically compliant. Ehin offers up modern folktales in which the very nature of our human identity is at stake-rampant with images and archetypes both new and old, and mediated by the abrupt changes we can only experience in dreams.

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Translation Database: Day Two

We have reached the second day of my picks from the wonderful Translation Database (view it here).  I have chosen all of these books at random, but have tried to ensure that there is a real diversity between picks, both in terms of subject matter, and the original written languages the books were published in.  However, I could not help but include both Serbian books, which sound wonderful.

 

74040421. Assembly by Novica Tadic (translated from the Serbian by Steven Teref and Maja Teref; Host Publications)
A dynamic artist at the height of his poetic powers, Tadic presents to the reader a world that is at once surreal and hauntingly familiar, a world of outlandish encounters and uncanny creatures. His poetry addresses the challenges of surviving as an artist in a Communist society, and themes of victimization, oppression and spiritual pollution permeate much of his work.  Assembly is a gently subversive and mischievous collection, a harrowing yet humanizing work that is a stunning testimony to Tadic’s outstanding abilities as an artist.’

 

2. Microfictions by Ana Maria Shua (translated from the Spanish by Steven Stewart; 6319086University of Nebraska)
Cinderella’s sisters surgically modify their feet to win the prince’s love. A werewolf gathers up enough courage to visit a dentist. A medium trying to reach the afterworld gets a recorded message. A fox and a badger compete to out-fool each other. Whether writing of insomnia from a mosquito’s point of view or showing us what happens after the princess kisses the frog, Ana María Shua, in these fleet and incandescent stories, is nothing if not pithy—except, of course, wildly entertaining. Some as short as a sentence, these microfictions have been selected and translated from four different books. Flashes of insight, cracks of wit, twists of logic, and quirks of language: these are fictions in the distinguished Argentinean tradition of Borges and Cortázar and Denevi, as powerful as they are brief. One of Argentina’s most prolific and distinguished writers, and acclaimed worldwide, Shua displays in these microfictions the epitome of her humor, riddling logic, and mastery over our imagination. Now, for the first time in English, the fox transforms itself into a fable, and “the reader is invited to find the tail.

 

86984833. The Calligrapher’s Secret by Rafik Schami (translated from the German by Anthea Bell; Interlink)
A new international bestseller from the award-winning author of The Dark Side of Love. Even as a young man, Hamid Farsi is acclaimed as a master of the art of calligraphy. But as time goes by, he sees that weaknesses in the Arabic language and its script limit its uses in the modern world. In a secret society, he works out schemes for radical reform, never guessing what risks he is running. His beautiful wife, Nura, is ignorant of her husband’s ambitions, knowing only his cold, avaricious side. So its no wonder she feels flattered by the attentions of his young apprentice. And so begins a passionate love story, the love of a Muslim woman and a Christian man.

 

4. Autopsy of a Father by Pascal Kramer (translated from the French by Tamsin Black; 31945214Bellevue Literary Press)
When a young woman returns to her childhood home after her estranged father’s death, she begins to piece together the final years of his life. What changed him from a prominent left-wing journalist to a bitter racist who defended the murder of a defenseless African immigrant? Kramer exposes a country gripped by intolerance and violence to unearth the source of a family’s fall from grace.  Set in Paris and its suburbs, and inspired by the real-life scandal of a French author and intellectual, Autopsy of a Father blends sharp observations about familial dynamics with resonant political and philosophical questions, taking a scalpel to the racism and anti-immigrant sentiment spreading just beneath the skin of modern society.

 

223442105. Learning Cyrillic: Selected Stories by David Albahari (translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursac; Dalkey Archive Press)
Learning Cyrillic presents a selection of fiction by Serbian master David Albahari written since his departure from Europe. In these twenty short stories, written and published in their original language over the past twenty years, Albahari addresses immigrant life–the need to fit into one’s adopted homeland–as well as the joys and terrors of refusing to give up one’s essential “strangeness” in the face of an alien culture.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘The World’s Wife’ by Carol Ann Duffy

‘The World’s Wife’ by Carol Ann Duffy

I was so excited when I opened this most beautiful of books on Christmas morning.  The entirety is so well presented, from its beautiful silver-foiled cover, to the fact that it comes complete with a contents page.

The blurb of The World’s Wife is so enticing: ‘That saying?  “Behind every famous man…?”  From Mrs Midas to Queen Kong, from Elvis’ twin sister to Pygmalion’s bride, they’re all here, in The World’s Wife.  Witty and thought-provoking, this tongue-in-cheek, no-holds-barred look at the real movers and shakers across history, myth and legend…  the wives of the great, the good, the not so good, and the legendary are given a voice in Carol Ann Duffy’s sparkling and inventive collection’.

Each and every poem within the book’s pages is so clever.  Duffy tells tales which we all know, and which form great parts of our human consciousness, from the perspectives of the women who appear within them.  ‘Little Red Cap’ is narrated by Red Riding Hood, and ‘Queen Herod’ from the viewpoint of Herod’s wife, who states that it was her idea to ‘kill each mother’s son’ so that no man would be able to make her baby daughter cry, for example.

The World’s Wife is absolutely beautiful in terms of the writing within each poem, and each syllable has clearly been so carefully thought out.  Duffy has a marvellous way with words, able to craft such vivid images in just a single line or two.

(From ‘Thetis):
‘I was wind, I was gas,
I was all hot air, trailed
clouds for hair.
I scrawled my name with a hurricane
when out of the blue
roared a fighter plane’

I love the different techniques which have been used throughout.  This causes each and every poem to stand out within the collection.  Each voice which has been crafted is distinctive.  In The World’s Wife, Duffy has demonstrated that she is the creme de la creme of contemporary poetry.

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