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‘Uncanny Stories’ by May Sinclair *****

I have been coveting a copy of Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair for such a long time.  She is an author whom I was originally focusing upon in my current postgraduate thesis, and whilst my scope has changed since I began my project, I am still very keen to read her entire oeuvre.  This particular book proved rather difficult to find, but I struck gold by keeping my eye on Abebooks, and finding a copy which was around £20 cheaper than those which I have previously seen.

The Wordsworth Edition which, whilst out of print, seemed to be the only edition which I could find, has been edited and introduced in a thorough manner by the well-informed 9781840224924Paul March-Russell.  The stories were first published with this title in 1923, and throughout, Sinclair ‘combines the traditional ghost story with the discoveries of Freud and Einstein.’  March-Russell, who calls her a ‘pivotal writer in the development of the ghost story’, recognises the myriad elements which influenced Sinclair’s work, calling her ‘one of the most intellectually driven of writers, pursuing the “new” and the “modern” in philosophy, psychoanalysis, mysticism and the paranormal.’  These eight tales promise to ‘shock, enthral, delight and unsettle’.  March-Russell writes that due to the very nature of these stories, they are ‘disturbing’ both in their content and the Modernist form in which they have been written.

A recurring motif in Sinclair’s stories is the ‘horror of family life’, and the ‘theme of self-denial’; she explores both in each of these stories, weaving them cleverly in with mysterious circumstances and paranormal occurrences.  Her writing is what really shines here.  A contemporary critic of hers named Julian Thompson said that her writing was ‘pin-sharp, often harrowingly economic.’  Everything here feels almost effortless; there is such a sense of flow and control in Sinclair’s writing, which often feels like a mixture of the Victorian Gothic and the Modernist tradition.

Uncanny Stories has a curiosity about it; it is as though Sinclair has chosen to explore our world through things which cannot be proven to exist, but which a lot of people in the Victorian era, for instance, as well at the time of writing, were highly interested in.  The descriptions which Sinclair has crafted are vivid and mysterious at once.  ‘The Finding of the Absolute’, for example, deals with differing dimensions and the emergence of Kant conversing with the narrator in this particular space, and is the most unusual story in the collection.  Here, she writes: ‘He found himself alone in an immense grey space, in which there was no distinguishable object but himself.  He was aware of his body as occupying a portion of this space.  For he had a body; a curious, tenuous, whitish body.  The odd thing was that this empty space had a sort of solidity under him.  He was lying on it, stretched out on it, adrift.  It supported him with the buoyancy of deep water.  And yet his body was part of it, melted in.’

Different narrative techniques and perspectives can be found from one story to another so, despite the often recurring themes, there is a freshness and variety to the collection.  Given its main theme, Uncanny Stories could so easily have been melodramatic, but not a single story can be categorised as such.  Sinclair has a way of making obscene and otherworldly things seem entirely reasonable; she provides ghosts and hauntings almost with a sense of normalcy.  The tension is built masterfully, and the theme of obsessive love has been explored in such depth in many differing situations.  Whilst there is a trope in these stories in which many young wives come back to haunt their husbands, the ways in which they do so vary, as does the reasoning.  The only thing here which I felt was a little overdone were the accents, some of which felt almost impenetrable.

The stories collected here were originally presented with illustrations; they have since been removed, which seems a shame.  Of this collection, I had only read one of the stories before, ‘The Flaw in the Crystal’; this, I enjoyed even more the second time around. The influence of psychology particularly here is fascinating; there are so many layers to each story, and psychological elements can be picked out in every single tale.

Uncanny Stories is highly engaging, and whilst I read it during a heatwave in France, it would definitely better suit a dark evening with a crackling fire.  The stories here should be better known and more widely read, as, indeed, should the rest of Sinclair’s books.  She is a wonderful and unjustly neglected author, and this collection demonstrates just how versatile she was.

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The Book Trail: From Heartburn to Varieties of Exile

I am beginning this edition of The Book Trail with a fabulous novel about pregnancy and its pitfalls.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.
2253431. Heartburn by Nora Ephron
Is it possible to write a sidesplitting novel about the breakup of the perfect marriage? If the writer is Nora Ephron, the answer is a resounding yes. For in this inspired confection of adultery, revenge, group therapy, and pot roast, the creator of Sleepless in Seattle reminds us that comedy depends on anguish as surely as a proper gravy depends on flour and butter.  Seven months into her pregnancy, Rachel Samstat discovers that her husband, Mark, is in love with another woman. The fact that the other woman has “a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb and you should see her legs” is no consolation. Food sometimes is, though, since Rachel writes cookbooks for a living. And in between trying to win Mark back and loudly wishing him dead, Ephron’s irrepressible heroine offers some of her favorite recipes. Heartburn is a sinfully delicious novel, as soul-satisfying as mashed potatoes and as airy as a perfect soufflé.
2. Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall
England is in a state of environmental crisis and economic collapse. There has been a census, and all citizens have been herded into urban centers. Reproduction has become a lottery, with contraceptive coils fitted to every female of childbearing age. A girl who will become known only as “Sister” escapes the confines of her repressive marriage to find an isolated group of women living as “un-officials” in Carhullan, a remote northern farm, where she must find out whether she has it in herself to become a rebel fighter. Provocative and timely, Daughters of the North poses questions about the lengths women will go to resist their oppressors, and under what circumstances might an ordinary person become a terrorist.
3. Distant View of a Miaret and Other Stories by Alifa Rifaat 19433013
“More convincingly than any other woman writing in Arabic today, Alifa Rifaat lifts the vil on what it means to be a women living within a traditional Muslim society.” So states the translator’s foreword to this collection of the Egyptian author’s best short stories. Rifaat (1930-1996) did not go to university, spoke only Arabic, and seldom traveled abroad. This virtual immunity from Western influence lends a special authenticity to her direct yet sincere accounts of death, sexual fulfillment, the lives of women in purdah, and the frustrations of everyday life in a male-dominated Islamic environment.  Translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies, the collection admits the reader into a hidden private world, regulated by the call of the mosque, but often full of profound anguish and personal isolation. Badriyya’s despariting anger at her deceitful husband, for example, or the hauntingly melancholy of “At the Time of the Jasmine,” are treated with a sensitivity to the discipline and order of Islam.
4. The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta
Nnu Ego is a woman who gives all her energy, money and everything she has to raising her children – leaving her little time to make friends.

802135. Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe
Chris, Ikem and Beatrice are like-minded friends working under the military regime of His Excellency, the Sandhurst-educated President of Kangan. In the pressurized atmosphere of oppression and intimidation they are simply trying to live and love – and remain friends. But in a world where each day brings a new betrayal, hope is hard to cling on to. Anthills of the Savannah (1987), Achebe’s candid vision of contemporary African politics, is a powerful fusion of angry voices. It continues the journey that Achebe began with his earlier novels, tracing the history of modern Africa through colonialism and beyond, and is a work ultimately filled with hope.

6. The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye
At the beginning of this masterpiece of African literature, Clarence, a white man, has been shipwrecked on the coast of Africa. Flush with self-importance, he demands to see the king, but the king has just left for the south of his realm. Traveling through an increasingly phantasmagoric landscape in the company of a beggar and two roguish boys, Clarence is gradually stripped of his pretensions, until he is sold to the royal harem as a slave. But in the end Clarence’s bewildering journey is the occasion of a revelation, as he discovers the image, both shameful and beautiful, of his own humanity in the alien splendor of the king.

7. Tropic Moon by Georges Simenon 139054
A young Frenchman, Joseph Timar, travels to Gabon carrying a letter of introduction from an influential uncle. He wants work experience; he wants to see the world. But in the oppressive heat and glare of the equator, Timar doesn’t know what to do with himself, and no one seems inclined to help except Adèle, the hotel owner’s wife, who takes him to bed one day and rebuffs him the next, leaving him sick with desire. But then, in the course of a single night, Adèle’s husband dies and a black servant is shot, and Timar is sure that Adèle is involved. He’ll cover for the crime if she’ll do what he wants. The fix is in. But Timar can’t even begin to imagine how deep.

8. Varieties of Exile by Mavis Gallant
Mavis Gallant is the modern master of what Henry James called the international story, the fine-grained evocation of the quandaries of people who must make their way in the world without any place to call their own. The irreducible complexity of the very idea of home is especially at issue in the stories Gallant has written about Montreal, where she was born, although she has lived in Paris for more than half a century.  Varieties of Exile, Russell Banks’s extensive new selection from Gallant’s work, demonstrates anew the remarkable reach of this writer’s singular art. Among its contents are three previously uncollected stories, as well as the celebrated semi-autobiographical sequence about Linnet Muir—stories that are wise, funny, and full of insight into the perils and promise of growing up and breaking loose.

Have you read any of these books?

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Penguin Moderns: Clarice Lispector and Ryszard Kapuscinski

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

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

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

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

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One From the Archive: ‘Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries’, edited by Martin Edwards ****

First published in July 2015.

The eye-catching British Library Crime Classics publications now have a short story collection in their midst.  Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries has been edited by Martin Edwards, and presents a ‘collection of vintage mysteries’, all of which centre upon the theme of holidays.

In his introduction, Edwards writes9780712357487 that Resorting to Murder ‘shows the enjoyable and unexpected ways in which crime writers have used summer holidays as a theme’.  The tales have a wide range across the Golden Age of British crime fiction, encompassing both ‘stellar names from the past’ and uncovering ‘hidden gems’.  Edwards believes that some of the stories which he has selected for publication within the volume are ‘obscure’ and ‘rare’, and have ‘seldom been reprinted’.  Well-known authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Arnold Bennett and G.K. Chesterton thus sit alongside the lesser-known likes of Basil Thomson, Leo Bruce and Gerald Findler.

Only British writers have been focused upon here, but the settings which they use as their backdrops are rather diverse.  We visit Conan Doyle’s Cornwall, E.W. Hornung’s Switzerland, and stop off at golf courses, secluded resorts and walking tours conducted in France along the way.

Edwards’ aim was to present ‘vintage stories written over the span of roughly half a century, and which have the backdrop of a holiday’, whether at home or abroad.  ‘This straightforward unifying theme,’ he tells us, ‘is counterpointed by the stories’ sheer diversity’.  The differing perspectives and shifts with regard to time periods and settings works marvellously, and ensures that the collection can be read all in one go by the greedy traveller, or dipped in and out of by the more relaxed reader.  Diversity exists between the detectives themselves, too; there are shrewd man-of-the-moment types who go out of their way to appear in charge of the situation, and those who are quite unsuspected by others until the pivotal moment at which all is revealed.

It is a nice touch that each story within Resorting to Murder has been introduced with biographical details of each author, as well as the ‘background to their writing’.  The only unfortunate detail which is missing is that nowhere does it specify which year each story was written or published in.  Chronologically ordered they may be, but one cannot help but feel that this small yet important element would have been useful in a collection which purports to show the progression of crime stories.

Resorting to Murder is engaging and filled with aspects of interest.  As is often the case with anthologies, particularly thematic ones, some tales are far stronger than others, but there is definitely something for everyone within its pages.  Resorting to Murder is a wonderful choice for summer escapism, as well as the perfect book for the discerning armchair traveller.

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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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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: ‘Three Japanese Short Stories’, and ‘The Veiled Woman’

Three Japanese Short Stories by Akutanagawa and Others *** (#5)  9780241339749
I have not read much Japanese fiction that I have really enjoyed to date; rather, I tend to find it a little hit or miss, and usually a bit off the wall in its plotting for my particular taste. I was intrigued by this collection, however; it consists of ‘three beguiling, strange, funny and hair-raising tales of imprisonment, memory and atrocity from early twentieth-century Japan’, all of which have been newly translated by Jay Rubin. Overall, I found the collection difficult to pin down; I very much enjoyed the first story, but was not much of a fan of the second or third.

‘Behind the Prison’ by Nagai Kafu is told in the form of a letter, addressed to ‘my dearest excellency’. The narrator is a thirty-year-old man who, after living in the West, has returned to Japan to live ‘in a single room on my father’s estate, which is located behind the prison in Ichigaya.’ He describes quite how this came to be, when his greatest desire was to hide away amongst people who have no knowledge of him, or of his family. I found the writing in this story poetic, and quite absorbing.

The second story, ‘Closet LLB’, is a third person perspective story written by Uno Koji. It provides an account of an unambitious law graduate, whose only wish lies in becoming a novelist. He has delusions of grandeur about his person, and is both self-important and self-obsessed. This story was not quite to my taste; I found the character almost loathsome, and the tone of the narrative felt a little off to me.

The third and final story collected here is ‘General Kim’ by Akutanagawa Ryunosuke. This is rather a short story in comparison to those by the previous two authors. It follows two ‘powerful Japanese generals, who had crossed the sea to assess military conditions in the neighbouring kingdom of Korea’. In some ways, this was quite interesting, but it was also, almost overwhelmingly, bizarre.

 

9780241339541The Veiled Woman by Anais Nin **** (#6)
I adore what I have read of Nin’s work so far; I have read a few of her books, but have much of her oeuvre left to get stuck into. Here, ‘transgressive desires and sexual encounters are recounted in these four pieces from one of the greatest writers of erotic fiction’. These stories were first published in the 1970s, three of them taken from <i>Delta of Venus</i>, and one from <i>Little Birds</i>.

Nin writes incredibly well; the scenes which she depicts have a vividness and vivacity to them. Her female narrators feel realistic, and impart their deepest thoughts and desires to the reader. Nin’s character descriptions hum with life and richness; for instance, from ‘The Veiled Woman’: ‘She was extraordinarily lovely, with something of both satin and velvet in her. Her eyes were dark and moist, her mouth glowed, her skin reflected the light. Her body was perfectly balanced. She had the incisive lines of a slender woman together with a provocative ripeness.’

Nin’s visions are strange and unexpected. These particular stories are all quite highly erotic ones; it is a genre which ordinarily I would steer away from, but there is beauty in these tales regardless. The four stories here are perfect examples of the kinds of tales which Nin’s reputation has sprung from.

 

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