Category Archives: Poetry and literature

New books: September 2015

[This post was typed up in October, but I haven’t got round to posting it. Some of the things that I say in it are out-of-date by now, but I’m leaving the post as it was written. I’ll add the amendments at the bottom and maybe elaborate in a subsequent post.]


September threw up an unexpected surprise, as well as an unexpected sadness. I was going to do a separate post on both of these at the time, but didn’t get chance to, and it seems a tad pointless now. Anyhoo.

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  • Edmund White –  Chaos*
  • Valeria Parrella –  For Grace Received: Four Stories of Modern Naples*
  • Antoine Francois Prevost –  Manon Lescaut*
  • Todd Solondz –  Storytelling*
  • Malcolm Bradbury –  Inside Trading*
  • Gavin Young –  Something of Samoa**
  • Imme Dros –  Annelie in the Depths of the Night*
  • Philip Gross –  Marginaliens*
  • Sylvia Plath –  Collected Poems*
  • Marivaux –  The Game of Love and Chance*

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  • Nathaniel West –  The Day of the Locust.    50p
  • Thomas de Quincey –  Confessions of an English Opium Eater.    99p
  • Virginia Woolf –  Orlando
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez-  Love in the Time of Cholera***  –  In Evil Hour  –  Chronicle of a Death Foretold
  • Jon McGregor-  so many ways to begin***
  • Charles Dickens –  Martin Chuzzlewit***
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  • Thomas de Quincy –  On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.    80p
  • Charles Dickens –  The Signalman: A Ghost Story.    £1.99
  • Pu Singling –  Wailing Ghosts.    80p

* 20p

** 10p

*** Library book sale

Now the sad news. All of the books in the first picture were from Webberley’s, which we learnt over the summer is to close in the new year. Webberley’s is the only independent book shop in the city that sells new books (we have several second hand bookshops), and so will be a big, big loss to the city when it closes. On the plus side, there may be another sale… No, I think I’d prefer to have the bookshop still open rather than a few more bargains.

However, some good news that I wasn’t expecting this month. I knew that following the publication of ‘Autobiography’, Morrissey was working on his first novel. However, I only learnt on about the 21st that this was to be published on the 24th, so we rushed to Amazon to place an order. Yes, I know we should have gone to an independent bookshop (or at least Waterstones), but… we can be fickle. I read a few reviews of this on the day it came out, and was slightly surprised that they were so negative. I’d expected there would be some that were less-than-glowing (coz, hey, it’s Moz, and the British press love to hate him just because he is), but was shocked by just how scathing they were. This has coloured my opinion somewhat even before I read it, which I wish it hadn’t. I want to be impartial, or at least not be negatively influenced from the outset. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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[Since this post was originally written, Webberley’s has closed (mid-Jan.), and I read ‘List of the Lost’ (Nov?). Despite the rather unnatural dialogue, I didn’t think it was that bad. There are some wonderful turns of phrase in it, and the ending is actually quite shocking, even if the plot is a tad odd. I do hope he writes more, even if it is just to write a novel that is on the same level as the sublime ‘Autobiography’. I’ll do a full review eventually, but will definitely re-read it, as there are things to pull out of it with repeated readings.]

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New books: August

Now, I can’t put prices on these as I can’t recall how much I paid for some of them. However, brace yourselves. There’s a few.

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  • Victor Hugo –  Notre-Dame de Paris     50p
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald –  The Collected Short Stories     50p
  • Evan S. Connell –  Mrs Bridge     99p
  • Patrick Hamilton –  Hangover Square     99p
  • E. M. Forster –  The Obelisk     £1.49
  • Evelyn Waugh –  Vile Bodies     99p
  • Robert James Waller – The Bridges of Madison County     20p
  • Mary Shelley – Frankenstein The 1818 Text     20p
  • Roald Dahl –  The Enormous Crocodile     50p
  • Seth MacFarlane –  A Million Ways to Die in the West
  • Donald Barthelme –  Sixty Stories
  • Christopher Marlowe –  The Plays

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  • Apollodorus –  The Library of Greek Mythology
  • Herodotus –  The Histories

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  • John Kinsella –  Shades of the Sublime & Beautiful
  • William Congreve –  Incognita
  • Three Revenge Tragedies
  • Anne Fadiman –  Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
  • Brian Friel –  Translations     –     Making History
  • Edwin Morgan –  The Play of Gilgamesh
  • Beaumarchais –  The Marriage of Figaro

These seven were all from the book sale at Webberley’s, the bookshop I mentioned in the July books post.

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  • Jeffrey Brown –  Star Wars: Jedi Academy

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  • Jane Austen –  Mansfield Park
  • Jules Verne –  Around the World in Eighty Days
  • Edward Bellamy – Looking Backward

Now, the reason that I never got this post up in August or September was because in late August I ordered a number of William S. Burroughs books off eBay and Amazon, and Royal Mail being what it is, these took a while to arrive. However, there should have been another book arriving that never did, and it was waiting for this one that held me up. We contacted the seller after several weeks, and they sent another out. However, as I type this, I’m still waiting for either copy to turn up. Luckily, we were able to get our money back, but I was a little bit pissed about it.

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  • William S. Burroughs –  Naked Lunch     –     The Yage Letters Redux     –     Cities of the Red Night     –     The Burroughs File     –     The Western Lands     –     My Education: A Book of Dreams     –     Last Words: The Final Journals of William Burroughs

A slightly pedantic point: the edition of ‘Naked Lunch’ shown here isn’t actually the one that I ordered. The one I ordered was the one from the same series as ‘Last Words’ and the copies of ‘The Soft Machine’, ‘The Ticket that Exploded’ and ‘The Place of Dead Roads’ that I got from Oxford back in June. My wife says that she prefers this cover that came, but I’m not too sure.

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My book collection: Ted Hughes

I mentioned a number of blog posts ago that I’ve been going on a bit of a Ted Hughes blitz in recent months. This is due to the fact that (despite what some other bloggers and literary fans may think of him) I adore his work. You may wonder why I don’t bother just getting the collected poems, collected poems for children and other such books, but there’s a few reasons for this:

  1. I already have a good few of his books, and so don’t want these to become redundant
  2. I much prefer reading individual volumes of poems, rather than finding collections in a collected works. They are so much more convenient- they can be taken on the bus and slipped into a bag or a pocket
  3. Ted Hughes’ Collected Poems is notoriously confusing to work through, as poems are rejiggled between collections and sequences to reflect the interesting publishing history of his texts.
  4. Hey- I like books, so the more the merrier.

I may still get the collected poems for the several hundred uncollected poems that this contains, but not at any time soon.

Here are the few (…) I’ve picked up over the last few months:

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  • Meet My Folks!
  • How the Whale Became and other stories
  • Nessie the Mannerless Monster
  • The Iron Man
  • Collected Plays for Children
  • Season Songs
  • Moon Whales
  • What is the Truth?
  • Ffangs the Vampire Bat and the Kiss of Truth
  • Flowers and Insects
  • The Cat and the Cuckoo
  • Tales of the Early World
  • The Iron Woman
  • The Dreamfighter and Other Creation Tales
  • Difficulties of a Bridegroom: Collected Short Stories
  • The Iron Wolf
  • Frank Wedekind – Spring Awakening
  • Jean Racine – Phedre

All of these were off ebay or Amazon, except two: The Iron Man was picked up from a charity shop for 70p, and has the original illustrations by George Adamson, rather than the Andrew Davidson illustrations that are used in the subsequent reissues (including the one I picked up last year); The Iron Woman (the companion reissue edition to The Iron Man) was found in The Last Bookshop when I went down to Oxford back in June for that conference.

A few other points. Difficulties of a Bridegroom actually contains all of the prose from the wonderful collection Wodwo, along with three other stories, and it’s these I bought it for, as I already have the other six in the parent book. It’s also a bit of a bugger to find online cheap. Moon Whales (in this edition, not the original American release), The Iron Wolf (a collection of animal poems written for children, collecting several shorter volumes) and Ffangs… are all gloriously illustrated by the fantastic Chris Riddell, and are worth getting for this point alone. The animal poems and Ffangs… are also quite good books. Moon Whales isn’t great, I must admit. I am not a big fan of when Hughes tried to rhyme, as much sounds too contrived and a bit clunky. Flowers and Insects is an interesting one, as it has never been properly reissued by Faber (except in the Collected Poems) and has never been issued in paperback. It contains some bloody awful watercolours by Leonard Baskin, whose otherwise magical line drawings graced the covers and pages of Crow, the first issue of Moon Whales, Gaudete, Cave Birds and Moortown. However, the layout of the book is also a shambles, with pictures being sliced, repasted oddly, printed more than once, or just generally reproduced badly.

Lastly, The Cat and the Cuckoo is not published by Faber, and was a nice find on ebay, but my copy is somewhat let down by the foxing on the endpages, which doesn’t make it an overly approachable volume. The poems are all (except one) in The Iron Wolf, but this edition is worth having just for the illustrations by R. J. Lloyd.

Now, for completeness I’m missing a number of his plays, as well as the individual 2011 reissues of the original versions of Remains of Elmet and River (before they were annoyingly rehashed for Three Books), but here is my Ted Hughes collection as it presently stands:

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Not a shelfie as such, but enough shelf porn to keep me going!

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Bus Reads 5: Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’

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I was interested to read this book, as a friend of mine from Uni is from the Czech Republic, and the novel is set in Czechoslovakia during the turbulent 1960s, so it allowed me to see something of her nation’s story as well as giving me an idea about where she is coming from on various issues. I had no preconceived notion about this work, so the book didn’t surpass or fall below expectations, but I was surprised just how much the book revolved around sex. Now, I don’t have an issue with this, but it would be nice to be warned when I’m reading it on a bus. I feel that people may be reading over my shoulder and think I’m reading something salacious. Anyway. I’ve read much worse since.

The way in which sex and love were presented through the thoughts and actions of the different characters was interesting and thought-provoking, with Tomas seeing it as nothing but another way of getting to know women better, and indeed being the only way to fully know their individual differences. This view can be understood somewhat in his profession as a surgeon, as this would precondition him to see people as the same, working in the same ways and as perhaps highly impersonal, whereas the act of sex allows him to see beyond the mechanics of the body into the personality of the individual. However, this view of sex and love as two distinct entities was something that seemed to run through the novel with all of the characters, and which begun to grate on me after a while. I can’t say that I condemned the characters for their actions and their views (that sounds a bit harsh), and indeed they were all likeable, believable figures, but I did see myself in moral and ideological opposition to them. For me, the two should be intimately intertwined, and so I was perhaps less able to empathise with the people in the novel than I have with other literary creations.

I did find the passages concerning the dog Karenin rather moving, though, which was a tad embarrassing on the bus, but Kundera did well to make Karenin as well-formed a character as the others in the text. Also, the sense of loneliness and desolation created worked well, and tinged much of the work with a quiet sadness that made it a poetic read in one respect. However, I think the biggest problem I had with the novel was that I missed the central philosophical tenets that underpinned the idea of ‘lightness’ and its opposition. Perhaps another read may be in order, in a quiet room with no distractions and a steaming mug of something rich. I feel that the book deserves a second chance, as I don’t think I’ve done it justice.

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New books: July

I promise that I will give up buying books for a while now after this month. Having no shelving as of yet for books means that I just keep piling ‘em up and hoping that they will fit somewhere when we move, and I can’t keep on. However, this month has seen me tempted terribly by both pretty classics (Penguin and Oxford, I’m looking at you), and a ridiculous book sale in the only independent bookshop left in Stoke-on-Trent. It would be bad not to patronise them when they have a sale on, surely?

Webberley's Bookshop

Webberley’s Bookshop

All but five of the following books were from the sale, bought over four visits.

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  • Allen Ginsberg – Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems £2.99
  • Daljit Nagra – Look we have coming to Dover!*
  • Thomas Hardy – Wessex Poems*
  • Ian Duhig – The Speed of Dark*
  • Maurice Riordan – Floods*

The Ginsberg was spied in the Oxfam on Turl Street in the centre of Oxford when I went down at the start of the month with a group of Y10 and ex-Y11 students from work for a two-day (one night) residential at my college, St. Hugh’s. I did visit The Last Bookshop (as mentioned in a previous book-haul post), but didn’t come away with anything from there.

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  • Federico Garcia Lorca – The House of Bernarda Alba and Other Plays*
  • Sophocles – The Theban Plays**
  • Bertolt Brecht – The Good Woman of Setzuan*
  • William Shakespeare – Love’s Labour’s Lost*          –               Four Comedies : The Taming of the Shrew – A Midsummer Night’s Dream – As You Like It – Twelfth Night*            –               Anthony and Cleopatra**
  • Oscar Wilde – A Woman of No Importance*           –               Salome*

I already own a copy of the Sophocles plays (the Oedipus trilogy) in a Robert Fagles translation, but this is a different translation, which I thought would be interesting to compare it with. Also it’s a nice Penguin Classics edition.

In the same way, I already own a copy of The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night, but for the price I thought it daft not to get this four-in-one text; it works out at 5p a play. Also, it frees up some room, as the four-in-one take up far less room than my copies of those two plays do individually.

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  • Sivadasa – The Five-and-Twenty Tales of the Genie***
  • The Tain***
  • William Beckford – Vathek**
  • W. Somerset Maugham – Liza of Lambeth*
  • Colette – Cheri**
  • Jane Austen – Emma***
  • Henry James – Washington Square**
  • Henry Mackenzie – The Man of Feeling**

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  • Laura Schwartz – A Serious Endeavour: Gender, education and community at St. Hugh’s, 1886-2011             £10
  • Philip Ardagh – The Archaeologist’s Handbook**
  • Tracey Turner – Foul Facts from the Perilous Past**
  • Richard Mackay – The Atlas of Endangered Species***

The first of these was also bought when I was down in Oxford, from St. Hugh’s College itself. It was written for the 125th anniversary of the college in 2011, but I never got a copy when I was actually studying. The other three of these are for use at work.

Now, the next book (I hope) speaks for itself:

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How ACE. This was also from the book sale (**)

Now, lastly, these weren’t:

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  • Virginia Woolf – The Lady in the Looking-Glass**
  • Voltaire – Candide and Other Stories         99p
  • Marcel Mauss – The Gift £1.49

The Gift is one of the key texts that I used at Uni, and which I’ve meant to get my own copy of ever since I was studying. Also, on the subject of this book (and more specifically it’s author), our youngest son has a toy mouse that we’ve named Marcel. Only us…

Now- NO MORE BOOK BUYING!


* 20p

** 50p

*** £1

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New books: June

…and for this month’s books:

June books 1

  • Robert Louis Stevenson –  Treasure Island
  • John Osborne –  Look Back in Anger
  • Oscar Wilde –  The Importance of Being Earnest
  • Thomas Kyd –  The Spanish Tragedy
  • Oliver Goldsmith –  She Stoops to Conquer

These all came from a colleague at work who teaches in the English department, and who was offloading many of her university texts on the school library. I had first dibs on any that weren’t wanted for the students, and so I picked these few. Free books are greatly appreciated!

Now these ones I did have to pay for:

June books 2

  • John Milton –  The Portable Milton     50p
  • Andrew Motion –  Selected Poems 1976-1997     50p
  • Karel Capek –  Rossum’s Universal Robots     £2.50
  • William Golding –  The Double Tongue     £2.50
  • Kurt Vonnegut –  Breakfast of Champions  –  Armageddon in Retrospect     £2.50 each
  • William S. Burroughs –  The Soft Machine  –  The Ticket that Exploded  –  The Place of Dead Roads     £2.50 each

A few points- I already have a copy of Paradise Lost with extensive notes, and the Milton text here is a rather hefty tome, but it contains pretty much all of the poetry that he wrote, including Paradise Regained, so I thought it a worth-while purchase.

The Motion selection is also of note, as it adds to my collection of signed poetry books that I’ve managed to pick up cheap. I’ve already got two Simon Armitage and a Wendy Cope book signed.

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Ta-dah. Not bad for 50p.

Lastly, the last seven books were all picked up a few weeks back when I went down to Oxford for the day for a work conference. It’s the first time I’ve been back since the graduation in September 2013, so that was nice (even though it rained most of the time I was there), and I managed to nip to a favourite bookshop of mine. There’s a shop there called The Last Bookshop, which used to sell everything for £2, and which had quite a good run on academic texts, Faber poetry and classics. I spent  small fortune in there over the three years of my degree. It looks like it’s now under new management, and everything is now £3, but they do a nice ‘2-for-£5’ deal that led to me buying quite a few. Hopefully I can call in when I’m down again for work in the next few days!

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New books: May

Yep. I’m behind again. I’ve still got book reviews to type, and a few archaeology and anthropology posts to do. Will I ever get round to them? Perhaps not. For now, May’s books:

May books

  • Bob Dylan –  Tarantula     50p
  • Roald Dahl –  Rhyme Stew     50p
  • J.B.Priestley –  An Inspector Calls and Other Plays     £2.99
  • William Shakespeare –  Julius Caesar     20p
  • Bret Easton Ellis –  American Psycho     50p

I also picked up this:

Me, somewhat surprised with myself. I mean, come on- it's shit, isn't it? ...Isn't it...?

Me, somewhat surprised with myself. I mean, come on- it’s shit, isn’t it?

Don’t shoot me- I know it is shite, and just a cursory glance across the text and its grainy b&w plates reinforces the level of pseudo-archaeological, cod-scientific bull crap that it contains, but it is the book that got my Tutor at Oxford into archaeology, and I thought it worth buying just for that, and the comedy value. It was also only 50p. Expect a scathing deconstruction of this at some point, as I do intend on reading it soon.

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New books: February/March/April

I didn’t see the point in putting a new books post up for these months individually, as I’ve only had one or two each month. They’d have been pretty pointless posts. So the combined haul is as follows:

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  • Jack Kerouac – On the Road: The Original Scroll     £3
  • Aesop – Aesop’s Fables     99p
  • Ken Kesey – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest     50p
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky – Notes from the Underground        25p (library sale)
  • Yevgeny Zamyatin – We      25p (library sale)
  • Fred Wander – The Seventh Well      25p (library sale)
  • L. Frank Baum – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz      75p

I mentioned in my review of On the Road that I was interested in reading the unedited version, so the discovery of this in a Waterstones’ sale was quite nice. Also, you may notice from a previous post that I already have a Penguin Classics version of We. However, I read this recently (expect the review at some point in 2017…) and couldn’t follow it too easily, so wondered whether a different translation may help.

Also, Penguin have recently released a series of ‘Little Black Classics’ as per their previous small classics ranges for notable Penguin anniversaries, and I’ve had a few of these (all 80p each). I’m sure you can read the titles for yourself:

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Lastly, I have had more books than this over the past few months. I’ve purchased two poetry that I’ve forgotten to photograph:

    • Seamus Heaney – District and Circle
    • Simon ArmitageTyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid

Along with these (and after these) I’ve also bought quite a number of Ted Hughes books to try and complete my collection. These have all come off eBay and the tax paradise of Amazon, but I’m still waiting for a few more to arrive, so will do a separate post on all of these in due course (privatised Royal Mail permitting).

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Preparation for rejection

…I still haven’t heard anything either way regarding my poetry submission. Perhaps no news, as they say…

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Bus Reads 4: Thoughts on Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’

On the left, a very good cover for the book, with concentric circles suggesting a spiralling and trapped mental state...and on the right... my copy. Garish and rather hideous.

On the left, a very good cover for the book, with concentric circles suggesting a spiralling and trapped mental state…and on the right… my copy. Garish and rather hideous.

I’ve got a long way to go to be up-to-date with my book reviews, but this is another off the list. The problem is that I can’t really remember what I wanted to say about some of the texts, or even if I really wanted to say anything particularly about them at all. This is one such book that has been causing me issue.

Now, don’t get me wrong- I like this book. It is on the list of my favourite novels. However, I can’t really say why I like it. It’s not as though the subject matter is a cheery one that makes you want to read it for light relief, and considering how sublime a poet Plath was, her prose falls somewhat flat in comparison. Indeed, I often found the writing somewhat cold, but it could be said that this matches well the narrator’s mental state, suggesting one of detachment and introspection. The plot is not that elaborate, but I did like the way in which this allows Plath to focus on some of the mundane details and the actual mental state of her voice in the text. The novel also seems somewhat cyclical, with Esther being pretty much where she begun despite her sexual awakening, realisation of her freedom as a woman, and seemingly successful treatment, and this works well to suggest that her recovery is perhaps temporary and the clarity is transitory. I can’t fault Plath on the way in which she describes and illustrates the slow collapse of a person’s sanity and mind, and the sparse plot allows for this to be shown almost imperceptibly, taking the reader along with the narrator and really dragging them into the place of the character.

I feel that I also must comment on the opening line of the novel:

It was a queer, sultry summer; the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

This works to introduce the novel in miniature, with her confusion and isolation hinted at, along with the electro-shock therapy that Esther will undergo, and the fact that this was a summer that would stand out as being different and defining. I also like it for the fact that the juxtaposition of the summer and the death, almost glanced over, instantly startles and unnerves the reader, and conjures up the images of Plath’s poems. Definitely one to reread and reanalyse.

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New books: January

A bit late, but here’s January’s haul:

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  • Jerome K. Jerome –  Three Men in a Boat     £1.49
  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn –  A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovic     99p
  • Angela Carter –  The Bloody Chamber     49p
  • Douglas Adams –  The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy     49p
  • Dante –  New Life     50p
  • Anthony Trollope –  The Warden     50p
  • Richard Adams –  Watership Down     50p
  • Edgar Allan Poe –  The Works of Edgar Allan Poe     25p

You may (or more likely) may not notice that I do already own copies of the Jerome and D. Adams books (seen on posts here and here), but these new copies are better: the first is an interesting Penguin Classics edition, with notes and an introduction, and the second is not the film tie-in edition with added photos and interviews, so is shorter and thus takes up less space.

Now, I also had two other books:

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I will expand upon these in my next post!

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One resolution down! Life Update #11

Well, it’s often the case that resolutions made at New Year never seem to last much past January, and indeed it seems that the first resolution I made has already been broken. You may notice that this is only my third blog post this year, and I still haven’t got any more book reviews up. Sorry. However, there is one that I have already done- the tattoo. No I’m only joking. Last weekend though I did submit some of the poems from my completed book to a publisher. If you’ve been reading this blog since I started it, you will know that this is quite a big thing, as I have up until now never had the courage to actually take the plunge and do this. I don’t think I’ll actually get published, but still- I’ve actually submitted something, which is further than I’ve ever got with it before. Wish me luck!

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Resolutions 2015

Image: facebook.com/lego

Image: facebook.com/lego

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!

I suppose these should really be made on New Year’s Day, but they’re not too late.

  1. Get more blog posts up on here! I’ve got about 12 book reviews to get written, so I’d better get cracking!
  2. Bite the bullet and submit my book of poetry to publishers. That’s the one I finished editing in January 2014.
  3. Finish writing the book of short stories and random prose pieces that I begun in early 2014.
  4. Begin writing the novel I have planned.
  5. Return to archaeology in my spare time- it’s become a bit neglected of late. It may help that we’re planning on moving to a different (nicer) part of the city soon, which should enable me to actually get all of my Arch & Anth texts (and my uni notes and essays) in some sort of usable order and actually on SHELVES, which they are still without at the moment.
  6. Get my ear pierced and have a tattoo. Okay, maybe I’m joking with that one…
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New books: December and CHRISTMAS!

There’s quite a few to be getting on with here! First of all, those bought over the course of December:

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  • Kurt Vonnegut –  Slaughterhouse 5     25p
  • Louis de Bernieres –  Red Dog     25p
  • Penelope Lively –  Treasures of Time     25p
  • Brendan O’Carroll –  The Chisellers     25p
  • Andrew Shail & Robin Stoate –  BFI Film Classics: Back to the Future     50p
  • Niccolo Machiavelli –  The Prince     50p
  • Frank Parkin –  Past Masters: Durkheim     50p
  • Tom Baker –  The Boy Who Kicked Pigs     50p

The first four books were from a library sale, and I do already have a copy of the Vonnegut book, which I had for free from my Sixth Form when they were clearing out their library. However, this copy here is a lot better, so for the price I thought it worth ‘upgrading’. Also, I never realised that Tom Baker (i.e. The Fourth Doctor) had written a children’s book. Oh, here I could go off on a ‘children’s literature as adult literature’ rant, but I won’t.

Now for Christmas! I hope you all had a goodtime, and here are some of my new books:

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  • Carol Ann Duffy –  The Christmas Truce     –     Dorothy Wordsworth’s Christmas Birthday
  • In Flanders Fields: Poems of the First World War
  • Russell Brand –  The Pied Piper of Hamelin

The WWI book is a rather nice copy, in a slip case, and the Russell Brand book is a (whisper it!) children’s book, but also illustrated by Chris Riddell, one of my favourite illustrators.

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  • The Jedi Path
  • Book of Sith
  • The Bounty Hunter Code

Yep, I like Star Wars. In fact, I really like Star Wars. And these are rather indulgent books, made to look like they’re written by various characters, and annotated by others.

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  • Brian May with Simon Bradley –  Brian May’s Red Special: The Story of the Home-Made Guitar that Rocked Queen and the World
  • Glenn Povey –  Pink Floyd Treasures

I also really like Queen. And Pink Floyd.

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  • Mock the Week’s Only Book You’ll Ever Need
  • Chris Fern & George Speake-  Beasts, Birds and Gods: Interpreting the Staffordshire Hoard
  • Paul Parsons & Gail Dixon – The Periodic Table:  A Field Guide to the Elements

That last book is going o come in quite useful for reference at work, and the Hoard book is of particular interest, as it looks into the animal imagery of the Hoard and places it in a wider Anglo Saxon context. Also, George Speake works at the Institute of Archaeology in Oxford, so I may have come across him once or twice in my time there.

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New books: November

Dark evenings and a need for sleep. Neither are very conducive with blogging. Anyhoo. Here are my literary purchases from November- and all of them were 50p each:

What a truly terrible quality image. For that I apologise.

What a truly terrible quality image. For that I apologise.

  • Marcel Proust – Swann’s Way
  • Theodore Fontane –  Effi Briest
  • Sam Selvon –  The Lonely Londoners
  • Muriel Spark –  The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
  • John Mortimer –  Paradise Postponed, Titmuss Regained, and The Sound of Trumpets
  • Ernst Junker –  Storm of Steel
  • Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell –  Muddle Earth
  • Eric Hobsbawm –  The Age of Capital 1848-1875, The Age of Empire 1875-1914
  • Antoine de Saint-Exupery –  Southern Mail/Night Flight

Yes, you may have guessed that ‘Muddle Earth’ is a children’s book- I own it in hardback, but don’t really fancy reclaiming this from my parents’, and so intended to hunt out a cheap soft back. I didn’t expect to come across one quite so soon, to be honest. It’s worth getting just for the illustrations- I love Chris Riddell’s images in everything he illustrates- but it also helps that it is a ridiculously entertaining read. So what if it’s children’s fiction. I don’t believe that exists as a genre or a category anyway. But that’s for another post.

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New books: September and October

What with one thing or another, I didn’t get around to posting a ‘New books’ post for September, so thought that I may as well include it with October’s.

Here’s September:

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  • Tim Moore –  I Believe in Yesterday: A 2,000 Year Tour Through the Filth and Fury of Living History     10p
  • Roddy Doyle –  Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha     10p
  • Thomas Hardy –  Jude the Obscure     10p
  • Theocritus –  The Idylls     10p
  • Jennifer Hargreaves –  Sporting Females: Critical issues in the history and sociology of women’s sports     10p

These were all from two local library sales, hence the ridiculous prices. Also, astute readers may notice that I had this same edition of the Hardy book from a library sale (indeed, from the same library) several months back, but this copy here is in far better condition, so it replaces my previous version.

…and now October:

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  • Janni Howker –  Isaac Campion     50p
  • Daniel Defoe –  Robinson Crusoe     50p
  • Peter Schneider –  The Wall Jumper     £4
  • Jules Verne –  Journey to the Centre of the Earth     50p
  • Terry Pratchett –  The Colour of Magic     50p
  • Thomas a Kempis –  The Imitation of Christ     1 of 3 for £2
  • Gustav Flaubert –  Madame Bovary     2 of 3 for £2
  • Bernard McCabe –  Bottle Rabbit and Friends      3 of 3 for £2

I’ve already got a copy of Robinson Crusoe, but this is an Oxford World Classics edition, and infinitely nicer than my existing edition, and I’ve alredy got a copy of the Verne novel (a rather nice Folio Society one), but this newly-acquired edition will take up less room on a bookcase, and is slightly more reader-friendly. Also of vague interest is the fact that I met Janni Howker back in 2005 when she ran a creative writing course for schools in our area, and have meant to get one of her books to try since then- only managing to do so 9 years later! The purchase of her book and the last book listed are also examples of my point about adult and children’s literature (which I will at some point get round to writing a full post on), as I’m beginning to blur the distinction between the two when it comes to my choice of reading. And the latter is illustrated by Axel Scheffler. He illustrated The Gruffalo and is a personal favourite illustrator of mine, which is my excuse for getting it. He’s illustrated a copy of T.S.Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats which is high on my book wish list too.

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New Books: August

I mentioned in a previous post that I recently acquired several Penguin Modern Classics via a well-known internet auction site, and so here they are in all their shiny and much-anticipated glory:

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  • William S. Burroughs –  The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead
  • Albert Camus –  The Outsider
  • Albert Camus –  The Fall
  • Truman Capote –  Music for Chameleons
  • Truman Capote –  Answered Prayers
  • Hermann Hesse –  Steppenwolf
  • Franz Kafka –  The Trial
  • Franz Kafka –  The Castle

The reason that there is no price listed for any of them is because I had these for my birthday, even though I had picked them and knew they were coming (and didn’t bother receiving them wrapped in jazzy paper), and because I can’t remember the prices at any rate. However, I also got the book that I ranted a bit about in the aforementioned post:

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  • John Wyndham –  The Chrysalids

Here you can see a quite tatty and battered copy alongside the much cleaner edition that I was sent after complaining to the sender that it was not quite a ‘minor flaw’ afflicting it as they had suggested. The first one had been rather extensively water damaged, and was proving difficult to open effectively due to the crinkled pages.

Also, I picked this one up from a charity shop for 20p:

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  • Christopher Isherwood –  Goodbye to Berlin
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Bus Reads 3: Thoughts on Joyce’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’

joyce youngI daren’t say when I begun to read this book, or indeed when I finished it. However, I’ve got six more books to review after this one in order to catch up with where I’m at now with my reading. Hmm. The reason I’ve put this off for so long is that I’ve not really known what to say about this work. I mean, it is sublime, in my opinion. I adored it from start to finish, and find it so beautifully poetic that I took in more of the sound of the text and the feel of the words rather than any actual meaning. I probably read it in the way that Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are better read, actually, considering that A Portrait of the Artist… does have a conceivable and intelligible plot.

Firstly, I think that this text works so well due to its nature as a bildungsroman based upon Joyce’s own youth, and interestingly, the actual text almost ‘comes-of-age’ along with Stephen due to the clever way in which the writing style alters almost imperceptibly throughout the story. Morrissey stated recently that when writing his Autobiography, he “…wrote the childhood sequence almost as a child might, and the adolescent period as an adolescent might, and the adult section as a ‘suicidalist’ might”, and save for the last point, this rings true for Joyce here. In the same way as a person ages imperceptibly if you see them over a long period, the text also matures and develops in a way that is not really noticeable unless you stop and take a step back. I was unable to tell when the writing begun to alter until it had done so for many pages, and see in this part of Joyce’s genius, as the text is so fluid and well crafted.

I also quite enjoyed the way in which religion is given such a prominent role in the text and shown to have influenced and shaped Stephen in various ways, but have been debating with myself recently whether or not the tortuously long sermon was required at the length it was. I suppose that the length and somewhat repetitive and cyclical nature of this highlighted the nature of religion to Stephen and to Joyce, not only in focus (mainly sin and salvation) and the way in which this the affects the narrative and the way that the protagonist views himself and his actions, but in its almost smothering, incessant inability to go away (as the sermon seems to have no way of ending). However, this did make it rather heavy going, as it was a lot more preachy than the sermons I am personally used to hearing, but did also show me another side to Joyce, as I didn’t realise he was able to write such text.

The section I had most issue with, though, was the way in which the book ended. After the way in which the blurb built the end of the text up, with Stephen’s final break with everything around him and need for Wildeian artistic freedom, I felt that this didn’t really come across. It was a bit of a damp squib, really- somewhat akin to a child having a tantrum, and then calmly walking out of the room. Perhaps it needs a second read to pick up on everything here.

That said, I  adored the book, and can only look towards my next reading of it!

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Charlie and the Sexualised Plastic Doll Factory (‘A New Take by Penguin’, or ‘Dahl 2.0’)

10606393_10154424928960371_8941943695899364569_nYou may have seen the recent furore surrounding this latest upcoming release from Penguin in the wonderful Modern Classics range. As you can tell from the title, it is a fiftieth anniversary reissue of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and in a rare move, the publishers have released it as an adult Classic rather than as a Puffin children’s classic. Now, as you may have been able to tell from some of my previous blog posts, I really don’t have a problem with the appropriation of ‘children’s literature’ for adults, as truly great literature shouldn’t really be confined by age ranges and all that. I enjoy Roald Dahl now as an adult, and there are many children’s and teenage books that easily bounce between categories, mainly based upon their cover images (think Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Alice in Wonderland etc.), but here… oh dear. I can sort of see where Penguin are going, with the slightly dark and unnerving cover image, but I fail to see how it relates easily with the story. Sure, there’s bratty female characters in it that this could represent, with supporting and yet somewhat absent/ineffectual parents, but unless this is a more general representation of the parenting critiques offered by Dahl, I don’t find this truly representative of the novel as a whole. Personally, I can’t help but feel that a slightly cliched image of chocolate or sweets may have been better. Hopefully, Penguin may bend to public opinion in this case and change their offering before the publication next month.

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One year on WordPress! Happy birthday Electric Puppet!

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Well- today is my 1st anniversary on WordPress, and to be honest I never thought that I’d stick with it for a few months, Let alone a whole year! I can’t say that my reach has been that far, but I’m happy, as this blog has been something I’ve wanted to do for quite a while, as it provides me with the opportunity to just share things I find of interest, and to get things off my chest at occasional intervals. Also, I no longer keep a diary, and so it’s nice to be able to look back over it to see my first thoughts on various texts and to keep a track of my intermittent ‘Life Updates’. I’ll come back to this point at the end of this post, but for now will steal a bit from my New Year post, where I referred you to the best of Electric Puppet in 2013, and add some of 2014:

I think that’s enough links to my other posts to be getting on with for now. Anyway- check some of these out if you haven’t already, or have a browse of the blog and see what you come across. Also, you can follow Electric Puppet on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/electricpuppetblog

Lastly, I’ve got quite a few more book reviews and posts to get up on here over the next few weeks, but am toying with the idea of doing slightly more regular random life-post blogs, a bit like a daily blog. Feel free to comment if you think that this would be a good idea or not.

New books: July

july books

Up until the last few days in July, I’d only amassed the first four of these, and then…I weakened. Ahem. Anyway, they are as follows:

  • Nancy Mitford –  The Pursuit of Love     25p (Library book sale)
  • James Joyce –  Finnegans Wake     Free!
  • Leo Tolstoy –  Anna Karenina     50p
  • Philip K. Dick –  A Maze of Death     50p
  • Virginia Woolf –  To the Lighthouse     £1.49
  • Aldous Huxley –  Brave New World     99p
  • Graham Greene –  Brighton Rock     99p
  • Dante –  Inferno (trans. Robin Kirkpatrick)     £1
  • Teresa Monachino –  Words Fail Me     Free!

The two books that were free were given to me by my line manager at work, as he cleared out his office at the end of the school term (he’s leaving for a year) and didn’t want them. Obviously, greatly received by me though, especially considering I’ve been looking to get a copy of Finnegans Wake for a few months now. I’m quite interested in the cover, though, as it’s one I haven’t come across before. The 1990s Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition that keeps popping up on Google is the one with an image from the Book of Kells (I think it’s the Book of Kells- I should know considering the Early-Medieval period is my specialism), and the head of cartoon Joyce also appears on the spine, which is a tad unusual. This haul has also been profitable, as three of the books (Joyce, Huxley and Greene) were on my list of Classics to look out for. Usually, I don’t come across many of these if any, and those I get are just what I come across. And yes, I do have a list of Classics that I would like to own; a sort of wish list, if you like. The Dante book I do already own in a black Penguin Classics edition, translated by Mark Musa, but wanted to compare translations, and also fell in love with that cover. It’s embossed too, you know. Just zoom in on it or Google it. It’s a thing of beauty.

Also, just a quick point that the box room I mentioned we were going to clean out is now free of unnecessary and unused crap, and is home to books that are eagerly awaiting the arrival of shelves to sit on. I’ll be sure to take some pictures and get a post up when these are done.

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New Books: June

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Yep- only four this month. I’ve realised that if I keep buying at my previous rate, I’ll run out of room to house them, and I also will never get around to reading them all. So only four.

  • Fyodor Dostoevsky –  Crime and Punishment     £1
  • Rudyard Kipling –  The Jungle Books     50p
  • Colette –  Gigi and The Cat     50p
  • Milan Kundera –  Slowness     99p

I am tempted to go into a long rant about Penguin and their odd way of packaging their classics, but I won’t. Suffice to say that ‘The Jungle Books’ were published in 1894 and 1895, and so shouldn’t qualify as a Modern Classic, and now are published in the black Penguin Classics range. Anyway- it’s a nice edition of it, which I’ve been looking for for a while.

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Bloomsday

Image: Join Mo Kang/The New York Times

Image: Join Mo Kang/The New York Times

You may or may not have been aware that today was Bloomsday- so named after the character of Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s epic Modernist wordhaul ‘Ulysses’. The novel is set on the 16th June 1904, the day that Joyce and his future wife went on their first date, and since the book’s publication in 1922, there have been annual celebrations of the work around the streets and pubs of Dublin, with the first such day taking place in 1924. My own personal views and opinions regarding ‘Ulysses’ are rather mixed and I think tainted by the drawn out process that its reading became, so I will reserve comment until I finally get around to reading it again with a slightly more analytical mind on me. However, I cannot deny that the influence of this book has been enormous, and it does have numerous merits from a literary point, but for me the best thing is that the work inspires such an event each year, and in so many countries world-wide, not just in Ireland. Perhaps when I write, I should endeavour for such immortality!

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Bus Reads 2: Thoughts on Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’

Dubliners

The edition of my copy.

I bought this 4 years ago, whilst I was reading ‘Ulysses’, but only read it at the beginning of this year, as after finishing the aforementioned epic last summer (I did take a 3 year break from it- it didn’t take me 4 years to read), I didn’t feel like approaching Joyce for a while. However, I am so glad that I did. So glad, indeed, that I devoured ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ immediately afterwards. But that’s for the next post. Suffice to say, I adore both that work and this one.

Having read ‘Ulysses’ first, I was pleasantly surprised just how readable the ‘Dubliners’ collection is, with the prose style being at turns simple and yet poetic, and actually intelligible. There is such an attention to detail in the stories that the reader is placed within the action (or more often the inaction) to an immersive extent, and the mundane lives of the characters are presented through a microscope. For example, take this line from ‘A Painful Case’:

One evening as he was about to put a morsel of corned beef and cabbage into his mouth his hand stopped. His eyes fixed themselves on a paragraph in the evening paper which he had propped against the water-carafe. He replaced the morsel of food on his plate and read the paragraph attentively. Then he drank a glass of water, pushed his plate to one side, doubled the paper down before him between his elbows and read the paragraph over and over again. The cabbage began to deposit a cold white grease on his plate. The girl came over to him to ask was his dinner not properly cooked. He said it was very good and ate a few mouthfuls of it with difficulty.

This is fairly representative of the collection as a whole, to be honest, but I do not mean this as a negative at all- I like this painfully close attention to detail. However, this attention to the minutiae of everyday Dublin existence does allow Joyce to neglect plot somewhat- or at least create plots that share this mundane and somewhat pedestrian social environment. I didn’t really notice this as I read the text, but have been increasingly aware of the fact while mulling over what I should write on this post. Looking at the plot summaries on Wikipedia, I am still none the wiser as to what I should write regarding the narrative substance of the tales.

This aside, the collection truly bewitched me as I read it, and I will most certainly read it again (partly so as I can attempt a closer understanding of the individual plots). I will also say that I missed some of the messages of the text which are left to the reader due to the unfinished nature of many of the plot strands of the stories, so will make more of an effort to look out for these next time too. To be fair, perhaps a better way of summing the book up would be as a collection of scenes or vignettes, rather than stories. If it is approached like this- with less expectation of narrative completeness- then perhaps the text works on a higher level. Nevertheless- I loved it as it was, with my confusion intact.

To finish off, here is my favourite line from the book, which incidentally is the final line of the closing story (or novella), ‘The Dead’:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Pure poetry, and a hint of things to come with regards to Joyce’s next work.

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New Books: May

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Here are my book purchases for May:

  • Penguin Classics Catalogue     £2 (that’s full price)
  • Wilkie Collins –  The Moonstone     25p
  • William Gibson & Bruce Sterling –  The Difference Engine     25p
  • Rebecca Hunt –  Mr Chartwell     25p
  • Jane Austen –  Persuasion     99p
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle –  The Sign of Four     99p
  • Joseph Conrad –  The Secret Agent     99p
  • Ted Hughes –  The Iron Woman     50p
  • George Orwell –  The Road to Wigan Pier     99p
  • Joseph Heller –  Catch-22     50p
  • John Christopher –  The Death of Grass      99p
  • George Orwell –  Animal Farm     99p
  • Barry Hines –  A Kestrel for a Knave     99p

I know I already have a copy of ‘Animal Farm’, but this is one of the wonderful Penguin Modern Classics editions with the big text on the front and the white spine which I truly adore (I prefer these to the black Penguin Classics, personally), which both matches my edition of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and includes introductions, which my previous copy doesn’t.

However, the Ted Hughes book was a bit of a let down, as I didn’t notice until I got it home, but the first page is missing. Ho-hum.

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Bus Reads 1: Thoughts on E.M.Forster’s ‘Collected Short Stories’

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E.M.Forster by Roger Fry

Well this post has been a long time coming. I read this back in January, and have only now got around to posting anything on it. To be fair, the next few ‘Thoughts on…’ posts are similar, in that I’ve had them read for several months, but have just been so tardy in getting these posts written. Also, the labelling of this as a ‘Bus Read’ is because this was predominantly read on my way to and from work on the bus. As are the next few books, actually.

 


 

This isn’t the first time that I’ve read this book. I was leant it about 11 years ago by my family Vicar, and on the basis of it containing ‘The Machine Stops’, I bought a copy off ebay whilst at Oxford- only getting around to reading it at the start of this year. I have to say that this Wellsian tale is the real gem of the collection, and is perhaps the best short-story I have read- it is perfect in plot, style, message, pathos and irony. My favourite quote from this story has to be from when Vashti is taking an airship over the surface to visit her son Kuno, and refuses to look at the geography that is passing beneath her, just due to the irony and the way in which it pretty much sums up the view of Vashti as a character and the view of humanity in her time:

They were crossing a golden sea, in which lay many small islands and one peninsula. She repeated, ‘No ideas here,’ and hid Greece behind a metal blind.

The rest of the collection is not of the standard of ‘The Machine Stops’, but several of the stories are nevertheless quite noteworthy- and several are not. ‘The Celestial Omnibus’ is the title story of one of the parent volumes for this collection, and tells the tale of a young boy who finds an omnibus that takes him into Heaven, where he meets many mythical heroes. Later, the bus transports a middle-aged neighbour of the child’s, but he dies after falling from the carriage through the sky to the ground below. The story is a highly imaginative one that nicely portrays the imagination of children and the way in which this is closed to adults, as well as showing that children can often be telling the truth, despite the incredible nature of what they often say.

Indeed, my favourite stories in this book all revolve around Heaven or the afterlife (except the anomalous sci-fi tale): ‘The Celestial Omnibus’, ‘The Point of It’, and ‘Mr Andrews’. When it was first published, Forster states that his Bloomsbury friends asked of ‘The Point of It’, “What is the point of it?”, but personally I quite like this story, with its account of a life lived to the full by a man following the death of another young man who he believed was his friend, but who quickly faded from memory. We see the surviving character as he too dies and then reaches Heaven, and see him reassess the way his life played out. Even if the story doesn’t go anywhere particularly, I still like it for the droll manner of its writing, and in the almost Dante-esque descriptions of Heaven with its pillars and deserts of sand.

Similarly, ‘Mr Andrews’ tells of a man who dies and meets a Muslim man on his way into Heaven, where they compare and contrast lives and ideals to show that actually despite our cultural differences, everyone is fundamentally the same on the inside. A nice message, and very well put.

I’m not overly fussed with the other tales in the collection, to be honest, for the simple reason that they don’t seem to either go anywhere or leave any real lasting impression, but despite that I would certainly read this collection again (I have already read it twice, which sort-of vouches for that), with ‘The Machine Stops’ a must. However, I feel that this collection may be a bit like my experience with Fitzgerald. In his case, I adore ‘The Great Gatsby’, yet am not overly impressed with many of his short stories, whereas with Forster I really like many of his short stories, and so am worried that his novels may not live up to these. I shall have to hurry up and read some of his novels to find out!

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My Penguin Classics Collection Part 1

Penguin Classics

More book porn. I’ve meant to do this for a while, but haven’t really had enough of the black-spined Penguin Classics to warrant it until now. Personally, I quite enjoy searching through Google Images for pictures of other people’s Penguin Classics collections to get a feel for the thickness and physicality of certain volumes, and to generally foam over nice piles of pretty books, and so thought that I’d add to this be showing mine in case anyone is interested. Over the coming weeks, I will also do posts with my Penguin Popular Classics, Twentieth-Century Classics (the light-green spined ones), Modern Classics (both silver and white editions), and the older black and cream Penguin Classics.

Penguin Classics

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By Gove! I MUST apologise!

Following on from my post two days ago regarding Michael Gove and his horrendous idea for the GCSE English Literature syllabus, I must issue a correction and an apology. That great sociologist and educational reformer (cough) was not saying that American literature should be banned from the curriculum, but rather that there should be… well. I’ll quote from the DfE:

“It doesn’t ban any authors, books or genres. It does ensure pupils will learn about a wide range of literature, including at least one Shakespeare play, a 19th century novel written anywhere and post-1914 fiction or drama written in the British Isles.”

This new criteria also includes Romantic poetry, which is fine- but not a great vote-winner with teenagers, to be brutally honest. The Great Reformer (for it is he) has also said:

“I have not banned anything. Nor has anyone else. All we are doing is asking exam boards to broaden – not narrow – the books young people study for GCSE.”

Riiiight. So the possibility of studying a post-1914 US text still stands then, does it? Thought not. I can see their point that ‘Of Mice and Men’ is studied by the vast majority of schools, and that many students read this and no other novel whilst at school, with very few (around 1%) studying ‘Pride and Prejudice’, for example, but- I still don’t like the approach that has been taken.

Oh- wasn’t this meant to be an apology to someone who will never ever read or know of the existence of this blog? Okay- I’m sorry that I didn’t read all of the facts first. Big slap on the wrists for naughty little me. But everything I said in that previous post still stands. And I still think that Gove is a dick.

Image: stiffstiches.com

Image: stiffstiches.com

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The death of the Mockingbird (or ‘The best laid plans…’)

I dislike Michael Gove for a number of reasons. For one, he is a Tory. Also, as a member of staff in a secondary school, I can see first-hand just what an adverse effect some of his ideas and policies are having on the school, the teachers’ moral, and the students’ stress levels. However, as has been widely reported in the media over the last few days, he’s now decided that English Literature should be buggered about with. However, as with his views on the History syllabus several months back that got the country seething, this worries me due to its narrow, blinkered, and agenda-laden undercurrents.

It has long been part of the English GCSE syllabus taught in many English (state) schools that literature from other cultures and societies is compared and contrasted with that from our own. For example, when I was dong my GCSE’s, I studied a cluster of poems called ‘Poems from other Cultures’, which included works written by English speakers round the globe, and focussed upon issues that affected the society in which they wrote, such as apartheid, the Vietnam War (and its effects upon the Vietnamese people), superstition in an Indian village and homesickness when moving from the Caribbean. I also studied both modern and classic English/Irish poetry, John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’, J.B.Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’ and R.L.Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. It is perhaps clear from this little list that the focus of these texts was upon those written by English writers. Having just assisted several Y10 students through their GCSE English Literature papers, I can attest to the even greater focus upon English writers now, with the poetry not taking the form of two clusters, with one being foreign, but one cluster with predominantly English writers in it. The books studied are the same as those I studied, but again here the weighting is clearly 2:1 in favour of British writers (Stevenson being Scottish- he may class as foreign soon, I don’t know). However, Gove in his wisdom has decided that there is too much focus upon American texts such as ‘Of Mice and Men’, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘The Crucible’, and these should be taken off the paper in favour of all English texts. Now- okay, I can sort of see his point: not enough students are interested in or know much about the English ‘greats’ such as Austen and Dickens, and they should learn about our own cultural heritage before concerning themselves with other people’s. However, this falls down for me in several ways. From the practical point of view, Dickens is loooonnnnngggggggg. Apart from the Christmas stories, Dickens wasn’t really known for writing concise works, due in part to their initial publication in serial form. This means that it would be impossible to study an entire text of Dickens at GCSE due to the other constraints of the course and the teaching schedules of schools, meaning that students would need to be taught key passages of chapters and have to fill in the blanks with brief summaries, or read the text in their own time (which many students wouldn’t bother doing). As such, it would not be possible for the overall feel of the text to be gleaned, or for themes, images and ideas to be traced effectively through the course of the text. ‘Of Mice and Men’, on the other hand, is a short text. It is easy enough to read in class, with a plot that can be held in the head amongst the million and one other exam topics that students have to memorise, and enough themes and literary devices to fill several exercise book of essays. It is a good text that easily grabs students attention, proves popular, and is a jewel to write about. However classic they may be, Dickens and Austen are not quite as student (and more importantly teen) friendly- pick the wrong text, and you could nurture a hatred of literature that could last a lifetime, rather than inspiring a love that lasts a lifetime.

However, the thing that bothers me more is the problems that such Anglo-centric teaching could cause. I also hold this view on the focusing of the History syllabus on the ‘Great’ in Great Britain, which brings this in nicely. It is a plain fact that Britain is a multi-cultural nation. There is no getting away from this, and is indeed something to be celebrated rather than derided, as some political parties seem to think. As a result, many children in our schools do not come from British backgrounds, and so by focussing the curriculum solely upon the British Isles, there is the very strong possibility of isolating a very big part of the school community. Do students whose families have come over to Britain following the outbreak of war in Afghanistan and Iraq wish to sit through a History lesson where theory hear how ‘Great’ Britain was when it had an Empire and ruled their homelands? Or would people wish to study world history that focusses upon the positives and negatives of a nation, period or event, rather than a biased victors tale? They say that history is written by those who win, but that does not mean to say that we should take this a Gospel. Good history involves the criticism of evidence and the balancing of facts. That is what history does. It is unbiased, and does not plug an agenda. If teachers now are unlikely to praise the leaders of Britain in the World Wars, it is not due to a lack of pride in the nation, but rather down to their ability to understand that what these great people may have done in the past was no always right. We can learn from the past and our mistakes. Should we teach that Hague was a good general who won the Battle of the Somme, and cover up the thousands of Allied and German dead, or should we assess how well he did his job, looking at both the positives and the negatives in order to make an informed decision? By removing this option from students through the glorification of our national past, we are doing our young people a disservice, and taking away from them an important life skill, of being able to critically interpret evidence and information to make their own interpretations and conclusions rather than blindly following one course and one message. Or is that what the Government want?

In Gove’s manifesto on History, he also claimed that we as a nation should be proud of the Empire that we once owned an the position that we held on the world stage. Well- I’m sure that UKIP and the BNP would love that view of our past, but it is incredibly naïve and somewhat foolish. It is difficult to read an anthropological ethnography such as Evans-Pritchard or Malinowski without finding the shadow of Colonialism looming omnipresent and yet unmentioned over the texts. Much 20th century anthropology is tinted with its effects or after-effects, and indeed many of the world problems are due to the repercussions independence has had on these countries. We would be blind to try and pretend that the time of Empire was one of fearless explorers claiming savage lands for Queen and country, rather than seeing it for the danger, violence, barbarity (on our part as colonial overlords) and cultural repression that it was. Read ‘Heart of Darkness’, ffs.

Another thing that Anthropology teaches us is that to understand ourselves as people and as a society, we need to first understand the world. This is where Gove and his removal of American literature from the syllabus falls flat. Yes, we need to learn about our own culture in order to appreciate it, of course we do- but we also need to understand and appreciate other cultures in a reciprocal manner, to learn and grow as people. We can learn lesson from American and German, Chinese and African literature that we never could from our own. We use the Greek and Roman Classics as the foundation stones to much or our culture an society- should we dispense with these too? The key thing that Gove seems to be missing out, is that English Literature is not the study of Literature that is English (if it was, then we couldn’t study Yeats, or Heaney, or Stevenson), but the study of Literature written or translated into English. We should embrace and value the diversity and colour of language and the written word, and foster this passion and love in our pupils and students and children, not whitewash it.

Just one last point. Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ is set after a global economic recession, and focusses upon two itinerant farm workers on what are effectively zero-hour contracts, unable to move socially and unable to reach their goal and dream of owning their own property. The work suggests that dreams and ambitions are useless and futile, with circumstance being the cause of people’s misfortune rather than the desire and perseverance of the individual. Gove wants to drop this. Go figure.

Image: timeshighereducation.co.uk

Image: timeshighereducation.co.uk

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New Books: April

As promised on my last book-purchases post, here are my new acquisitions from April (albeit a tad late):

 

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  • Geoffrey Berg- The Six Ways of Atheism: New Logical Disproofs of the Existence of God     10p
  • Patrick Moore- The Guinness Book of Astronomy     10p
  • Lesley and Roy Adkins- The Keys to Egypt: The Race to Read the Hieroglyphics     20p
  • Suetonius- The Twelve Caesars    99p
  • Caesar- The Conquest of Gaul     99p
  • The Paston Letters     10p

 

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  • Charles Dickens- Great Expectations     20p
  • E. W. Hornung- Raffles     20p
  • Penelope Lively- Moon Tiger     20p
  • Yevgeny Zamyatin- We     £2
  • Ralph Ellison- Invisible Man     £2
  • Leo Tolstoy- War and Peace     50p
  • Mary Shelley- Frankenstein     10p
  • Philip K. Dick- The Man in the High Castle     50p
  • Jonathan Swift- Poems Selected by Derek Mahon     Bought for me
  • William Shakespeare- Henry IV Part 2, The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night     50p each

 

Also, I had these bought for me (which I’d asked for):

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  • Timothy Taylor- The Prehistory of Sex: Four Million Years of Human Sexual Culture
  • Evelyn Waugh- Brideshead Revisited
  • Hermann Hesse- Strange News from Another Star and Other Stories
  • Dante- The Divine Comedy Volume I: Inferno, The Divine Comedy II: Purgatory, The Divine Comedy III: Paradise (I translated by Mark Musa; II translated by Dorothy L. Sayers; III translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds)

 

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