I was hoping to be able to read and review something new for the wonderful 1968 reading club, hosted by Simon and Kaggsy, but my best intentions have been swallowed up in thesis writing. I therefore thought that rather than miss out on contributing entirely, I would schedule a review for one of my favourite books, Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man, which just so happens to have been published in 1968.
The Iron Man tells the story of a ‘man’ made entirely of metal, thought at first to be an enemy of the people. He is found by a group of local villagers whilst snacking on their farm equipment, and they decide that the best thing to do in such circumstances is to build an enormous pit and lure the Iron Man inside. This they do. What they don’t factor into the equation is that the Iron Man is able to escape. This he does. A friendship with a young boy named Hogarth ensues, and to prove his worth to the sceptical adults, the Iron Man is tasked with saving the earth from an evil space creature.
This sounds very sci-fi, I know, and my wariness of choosing this as my first Hughes book to read was based purely upon the fact that I don’t overly enjoy science fiction as a genre. All of my apprehension about it dissipated on the first page however, and I found The Iron Man to be an incredibly enjoyable little novel. The story is one of the most inventive which I’ve come across in a long while, and I loved the way in which Hughes crafted his tale. Despite the other-worldly beings, the writing style and descriptions throughout made it appear almost believable.
As a character, I adored the Iron Man. He was wonderfully invented, and the passage about how his destroyed body rebuilt itself was so beautiful and startling that I read it numerous times. Hughes’ imagination is a marvellous one, and Andrew Davidson’s monochrome illustrations which accompany the volume are beautiful. The prose throughout is enchanting and vivid, and is certainly no less fascinating to read as an adult than I imagine it would have been to read as a child.
As a youngster, in fact, I would have been both terrified and utterly enchanted by the brilliant and memorable story and its characters. There is nothing at all in the novel which I feel could be improved, and it has become a firm favourite of mine.
I feel that I should end on the wonderfully heartwarming message of the book:
“You are who you choose to be.”
I shall begin this review by saying that I am an enormous admirer of Sylvia Plath’s work. I was utterly spellbound by The Bell Jar and her poetry as a teenager, and never wanted her diaries and Letters Home to end. I have read a fair amount of biographical criticism relating to Plath, but interestingly, Mad Girl’s Love Song is the only one which I have come across that deals solely with her early life; as Plath deemed it, ‘the complex mosaic of my childhood’. A wealth of information has been contained here about her childhood, some from ‘previously unavailable archives’. Wilson has chosen to draw on primary materials rather than other biographies; thus, any conclusions which he draws are essentially his own.
Wilson has linked almost every single one of Plath’s childhood memories to one or more of her poems; here, he writes particularly intelligently. Throughout, his prose style is enjoyable. A strength in Mad Girl’s Love Song lies in the psychological standpoint, which is both strong and fascinating. I loved reading about the effects which certain books had upon Plath, and the criticism of The Bell Jar, much of which I hadn’t come across before. As always, I very much enjoyed the accounts of Plath’s life in Cambridge, my home city.
I have a slight issue with the way in which Wilson categorically states that he will take no other Plath biographies into account. Surely to create a full picture of the author in his mind, he must have read at least a handful of her biographies in the past, and one surely cannot part with the conclusions of other experts so easily as he claims to do. In terms of Plath scholarship, I do not feel as though the book adds a great deal of new or previously unknown information. There are many anecdotes included within the pages of Mad Girl’s Love Song which I have read before, which takes a certain freshness away from his endeavour.
Still, one cannot argue with the fact that the scope here is vast, and that Wilson has been respectful in his handling of the material. Ultimately, Plath was a fascinating woman, and no account of her could really be dull. I cannot help but compare it to my favourite Plath biography to date, Bitter Fame by Anne Stevenson, which I feel is incredibly thorough and invigorating, and also takes the whole of Plath’s life into account. Whilst Wilson’s approach is interesting, I do not feel as though the sheer depth of Plath has been reached. I must take issue with the afterword though; at only two pages long, I honestly feel as though the book would have been far better had Wilson not skipped over so many important details and ‘neatly’ summed up her suicide.
I have been speaking to a lot of English students about poetry of late, and it seems that they either adore it and cannot get enough, or really don’t know where to start. I have been sharing weekly poems on the blog almost since its inception, and thought I would make a little guide of where to start with poetry, and where to continue with it if you are already a fan. I have adored work by the poets below, and would highly recommend them, both for new and established readers of one of the most beautiful forms which literature has given us.
3. Edward Thomas (1878-1917; British poet, essayist, and novelist); begin with Collected Poems
4. Jo Shapcott (1953-; English poet, editor and lecturer); begin with Of Mutability
5. Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926; Bohemian-Austrian poet); begin with Letters to a Young Poet
6. Ted Hughes (1938-1998; English poet and children’s author); begin with Birthday Letters
7. Ruben Dario (1867-1916; Nicaraguan poet); begin with Eleven Poems
In February, I borrowed two very enjoyable poetry books from the library, and thought that a joint post would work quite well, despite the fact the books in question are so different. One is quite a fun and imaginative work by Ted Hughes, and the other is a compilation of First World War poetry by women.
Meet My Folks! by Ted Hughes ****
I spotted this whilst searching for The Tales of Beedle the Bard, and it looked too adorable to pass up. Meet My Folks! was Ted Hughes’ first work for children, and it is the first of his young poetry collections which I have read. It originally contained eight poems, and more have been added over various reprintings, to make thirteen in total. It is consequently quite a slim volume, and is only just over sixty pages long. In the poems, Hughes has written about rather an unusual family and certainly creates an interesting mixture of characters, from his sister Jane, who is really a crow, to his grandfather, who collects live owls. The rhyme scheme which Hughes has used works well, and the accompanying illustrations are charming. Meet My Folks! is sweet, silly, enjoyable and is certain to charm both children and those who are refusing to grow up.
Scars Upon My Heart: Women’s Poetry and Verse of the First World War, edited by Catherine Reilly ****
I was so impressed to find this lovely Virago, which looked like it had never been read before, upon the non-fiction shelves. I adore First World War poetry, but have read barely any poems by women written about the conflict. Indeed, there are many poets within this collection whom I had never heard of before I started to read.
Reilly has included the work of seventy nine female poets in total, and the scope of the book is absolutely marvellous in consequence. The preface, written by Judith Kazantzis, is measured and intelligent, and well describes the overbearing and stifling enormity of war. She writes that the anthology ‘fills a poignant gap’, and that ‘these women poets speak for the women whose own lives were often blighted by that miserable loss’ of their generation. Reilly’s introduction too is wonderfully informative.
Scars Upon My Heart is such a lovely volume, filled with beautiful and startling verse, and I love the fact that there is a companion volume about Second World War poetry written by women. It is fascinating to be able to see such a conflict from the female perspective – particularly apt in its centenary year – and to see how wartime attitudes differed. I would heartily recommend Scars Upon My Heart to anyone with any hint of interest in the First World War.
Crow by Ted Hughes ***
In December, I made my boyfriend a bookish advent calendar, where he had one book to open each morning. It proved a roaring success, and is something which I will be doing every year from now on. Crow was the only poetry book which I selected for him, and he read it so quickly that he was able to let me borrow it almost immediately. I liked the idea of the central theme of the crow as a character, and of course, I always love the way in which Hughes uses words, and how he arranges them in certain ways. The collection presents an incredibly dark series of poems, all of which deal with destruction in some way. It is a peculiar little book in its content, and is not my favourite of his works so far, but it is certainly very memorable.
Purchase from The Book Depository
A Brief History of the Vikings by Jonathan Clements ****
I am obsessed with Scandinavia, and when I spotted this in a fabulous little Cambridge bookshop a few weeks after my most recent visit to the Jorvik Viking Museum in York, I just had to buy it. I loved learning about the Vikings at school, and wanted to expand my knowledge of them, something which I feel I have certainly been able to do with the aid of this volume. A Brief History of the Vikings is absolutely fascinating. It is coherent and very well written, but sadly it is not as well edited. I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in the Vikings or in Scandinavian history as a whole, and will certainly be seeking out more of the ‘A Brief History of…’ books.
The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning ****
This is one of the books on the Virago Modern Classics list which I have been most looking forward to reading. I have heard such marvellous things about Olivia Manning’s work, and thought that a novel with such a wonderful title as this would be a great one to start with. April very kindly sent me a copy of the book, and I could not wait to begin it.
The Doves of Venus tells the story of eighteen-year-old Ellie, ‘pretty’ and ‘brave’, who has ‘come to London in search of adventure’. From the outset, Manning describes her affair with well-to-do older man Quintin Bellot. Her descriptions are beautiful, and she sets the scene so well from the very first page. As a protagonist, I really liked Ellie. Her determination to live alone in a strange city at such a young age was very admirable, really. It was nice to see that she constantly tried to achieve all of her dreams, even if they did not quite turn out as she might have expected, or hoped. The third person perspective worked marvellously well, and nothing of Ellie’s character was lost as a result of its having been used. The Doves of Venus is such an absorbing, believable and well done novel, and I was sucked into the world of 1950s London immediately.
The black cat yawns,
Opens her jaws,
Stretches her legs
And shows her claws.
Then she gets up
And stands on four
Long still legs,
And yawns some more.
She shows her sharp teeth,
She stretches her lip,
Her slice of a tongue
Turns up at the tip.
On her delicate toes,
She arches her back
As high as it goes.
She lets herself down
With particular care,
And pads away
With her tail in the air.
– ‘Cat’ by Mary Britton Miller
We adore cats here at The Literary Sisters, and when I spotted a book entitled The Poetry of Cats on the book stall in Cambridge market, I knew I just had to buy it. In the book, a marvellous scope of poets has been included, from Edward Lear and John Keats to Ted Hughes and Francis Scarfe.
The edition has been beautifully produced, and whilst my edition’s dustjacket is faded with age, it is still a lovely collection to add to my bookshelf. The artwork included, from an equally wide range of sources, complemented the poetry perfectly. Carr’s introduction too, whilst rather short, was informative and wonderfully written, and his love of felines shines through from the outset.
My favourite poems in the collection were ‘The Song of the Jellicoes’ by T.S. Eliot, ‘Esther’s Tomcat’ by Ted Hughes, ‘Five eyes’ by Walter de la Mare, ‘Cats’ by Eleanor Farjeon, ‘Last words to a dumb friend’ by Thomas Hardy, ‘The Cat and the Moon’ by W.B. Yeats, ‘Cat’ by Lytton Strachey, ‘The Cat’ by Richard Church, ‘The Singing Cat’ by Stevie Smith, ‘Choosing Their Names’ by Thomas Hood, ‘To a Cat’ by A.C. Swinburne, ‘On the death of a cat’ by Christina Rossetti, ‘Cat’ by Mary Britton Miller (shown above), ‘Cat’s Eyes’ by Francis Scarfe and ‘Marigold’ by Richard Garnett.
The Poetry of Cats is an absolutely lovely book, and one which is sure to be treasured by every cat fan.