Who's reading what?

Was Albert Camus a better goalkeeper than George Orwell? Have your say here.
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Re: Who's reading what?

Post by k-j » Tue Mar 17, 2015 5:55 pm

So what's the title all about? Sticking together? Or is there an equine angle?

You can totally be a sensualist and a rationalist, in fact I think they go naturally together, don't they? But both fairly broad terms, I suppose.
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Re: Who's reading what?

Post by bodkin » Tue Mar 17, 2015 6:50 pm

k-j wrote:So what's the title all about? Sticking together? Or is there an equine angle?

You can totally be a sensualist and a rationalist, in fact I think they go naturally together, don't they? But both fairly broad terms, I suppose.
Oh, yes, sorry poor explanation there.

The lead character is a journalist on a adhesives trade magazine, and tends to draw analogies with forms of glue technology.

Rationalism and sensualism are, of course, totally compatible. As long, that is, as neither strays into extreme behaviour: slash fiction notwithstanding, Mr Spock and whipped cream don't really go together.

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Re: Who's reading what?

Post by bodkin » Mon Apr 13, 2015 9:16 pm

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

I got this for £1 in a charity shop because the premise interested me. I am not sure whether it is brilliant or just quirky.

The premise is that Blue van Meer during her final year at (American) high school, finds one of her teachers dead (hanging by a piece of electrical cord). The death is ruled suicide, but Blue is not convinced and investigates.

OK, so far, so Mary Drew.

However, if I reveal that this is a ~500 page book, but the disturbing event of finding the body doesn't occur until around page 400, then you will realise this isn't structured as a typical murder mystery. Blue is undoubtedly a rather weird child. Mother long dead in a car accident; raised by rogue, brilliant political science professor father; moving three times a year as he changes jobs because (i) he is only interested in teaching the non-elite students, and (ii) he believes that by being travelled extensively Blue will grow up rounder and more remarkable...

The whole text is peppered with spot references to Blue interpreting everything in terms of books and culture she has read/studied. 17/18 year old Blue is basically her father's intellectual equal, reads the same things he does, sometimes grades his student's essays, and expects to be the top of any class she arrives in (for one term).

The whole first 400 pages are one huge flashback, initially to her mother's death, but then to her final year of school when her father decides she needs more stability and a bit of celebration for this crucial time, and so rents a big house and takes a job for a whole year. We then follow the whole year through with the befriending of Hannah Schneider (Film Studies teacher) and the far less ready acceptance of the clique of rich kids who are already in Hannah's coterie. Then there's an accidental death at a party they shouldn't be at, some running off the rails, surprising revelations about the other kids, and finally the death of Hannah, seemingly by suicide, but after some frankly bizarre behaviour and in the deep dark woods in the middle of a camping trip.

So in the last 100 pages Blue investigates and there's things I'm not telling you :-)

So, in summary, highly cerebral young lady, rich kids, mysterious and bohemian teacher, eccentric and brilliant father, lots of people-watching and analysis, death, investigation, and some more at the end I'll keep quiet about. There's also a lot of speculation about various politically subversive/revolutionary organisations, ancient and modern, as that is the father's stock-in trade. This may or may-not be significant.

Enjoyed it, and would probably try another by the same author.
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Re: Who's reading what?

Post by k-j » Mon Apr 13, 2015 9:20 pm

Thanks Ian, good review. Would you say it was well-written, in terms of style/quality of the prose? Or is the prose just a medium?
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Re: Who's reading what?

Post by bodkin » Tue Apr 14, 2015 7:44 am

I thought it was well written, however I'm not the most traditional literary type, and it may be I was appreciating the quirky touches as much as the bulk of the prose... I didn't spot anything negative...
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Re: Who's reading what?

Post by k-j » Fri Apr 17, 2015 10:27 pm

March, 13 books

War Music - Homer - Christopher Logue

More of a cover version than a translation, Logue's Iliad is like no other. He manages to evoke the deep alienness of the ancient Greeks and at the same time the universality of Homer's themes. The writing is grasping, full of sinew, supple, always in motion, like a wrestler. I should have dogeared some examples. The occasional anachronistic image seems to be Logue's way of distancing his work from straightforward "translation". Original and very effective.

Sentimental Education - Flaubert

This is really the story of a period in French (Parisian) history and my lack of knowledge (or, if I'm honest, interest in) that period prevented me from getting much out of the book. It doesn't help that the main character is your basic feckless monied chap squandering his fortune on women and not really evolving over the course of the rather long narrative. The people around him do change, and there is an entertaining cast of revolutionaries, arty types and money men. But this was a let-down for me after the exquisite focus and tragedy of Bovary and the baroque Salammbô.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont - Elizabeth Taylor

Well-written, at times sharply funny and occasionally moving story of an old widow retiring to life in a nondescript South London hotel. Despairing of her fellow inmates, she strikes up an acquaintance with a directionless young man with vague designs on writing a novel. There is a certain amount of bleakness as you would expect in a novel about people counting out their days, but it never turns into a grief-fest. Great characterisation. Economical and quietly powerful.

Portrait of a Young Man Drowning - Charles Perry

After the embarrassing early sections which pay feeble homage to Joyce's Portrait with its moocow, this turns into a fairly gripping account of a youth sliding into psychosis as he climbs the greasy pole in the New York City mob. Well and truly fucked up by his mum and dad, the former a batshit crazy shame-monger and the latter a feckless good-for-nothing, the writing is on the wall from very early on and the only suspense is how the inevitable will transpire. Nonetheless, most of the characters manage to avoid cliché-dom and the street argot feels natural and accomplished.

Tenth of December - George Saunders

Hugely-hyped short story collection which I thought was patchy. The range of themes and styles is impressive, but sometimes it seems like Saunders is writing to a method or as a challenge rather than to express anything inside him; some of these feel like creative writing exercises. The best ones I thought were "The Semplica Girl Diaries", a truly weird dystopia where affluent families decorate their gardens by importing young women from the third-world to hang around, literally, and the title story which is driven by a warm current of humanity. I shouldn't hold the hype against it but I've got to say this book is overrated.

Matter - Iain M. Banks

Another "Culture" novel and this one is pretty good. The medieval-period world in which much of the action takes place seems to have pissed off a lot of reviewers but I quite liked it, especially in contrast to the multitude of advanced civilisations it rubs up againt. I love the concept of the shellworld, which really is just the old hollow-earth idea on steroids, and also the way this concept is repeated in the hierarchies of civilisations at different levels of development, each only dimly aware of how inferior they are to their betters. The story is fairly straightforward and there's a sassy drone like in other culture novels. The end is incredibly rushed; after 500 pages of leisurely (not slow) storytelling, Banks wraps the whole thing up in about five.

Lucky Jim - Amis père

Perhaps not as consistently uproarious as I'd been led to expect, but still a brilliant comic novel. The physical comedy jumps off the page, the satire of academia is joyous and there's a more than adequate comedy of manners/social comedy as well. But what surprised me was how much feeling there is in the book and how strongly we come to sympathise with the hero and the woman he falls in love with. The ending in particular is an unabashedly happy one, a throwback to the original meaning of comedy. Maybe this is what elevates this sort of book to classic status. It's the same with Waugh in Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust, although Amis's conclusion is not as gloomy as Waugh's. After all the fun and games you're actually left with something substantial.

Mother Night - Vonnegut

Been a long time since I read any Vonnegut and this reminded me why. I'm really starting to loathe his glib style, all the "so it goes"es and one-line paragraphs where he smugly invites the reader to draw his own conclusion. The story itself is good, better I think than his more SF-nal books, but Vonnegut's voice is so pungent - he always seems to be saying how smart he is, and how smart you must be for reading him, and how not-smart all those other people are who don't read him - that I was glad when it was over.

A Wild Sheep Chase - Haruki Murakami

Also been a long time since I read any Murakami. This is an early novel of his but it's straight out of the Murakami cookie-cutter. Young, recently-single, male protagonist who likes whisky and jazz, eats pasta, has a job he's good at but doesn't really care about. One day weird shit starts happening, he meets a strange girl and goes on a quest. It probably falls in the middle of the Murakami novels I've read in terms of quality. There's a bit at the start that never seems to connect to the rest of the story. Most of the characters were amusing enough. There's a fantastic sheep-man character late on who's evocative of animist beliefs, hilariously funny and sad at the same time. I think I've outgrown Murakami, to be honest.

Windy Arbours: Collected Criticism - Aidan Higgins

Collection of about 150 book reviews by Higgins, one of the prose stylists I most admire. His reviewing style is pretty idiosyncratic; he's fond of beginning and ending with unmoored quotes from the book under review or elsewhere, and his commentary jumps around like a gazelle, straight up into the air and straight down again in a completely different place. It turns out he's a huge fan of Faulkner which I wouldn't have guessed from his fiction. I added several books/writers to my wishlist as a result of this interesting and enjoyable compilation.

Embassytown - China Miéville

Bah. Like Perdido Street Station this book is a great premise mishandled in a major way. I like the universe Miéville develops here with its "immer" and "manchmal" (my German learning paying off again!) types of matter allowing for strange, restricted interplanetary communion. And the idea of basing a novel around a truly alien form of language is terrific, and Miéville goes some way to realising such a language. BUT the main character (in fact, all the characters) is a complete nothing, there are no real characters in the book. The theoretical framework underpinning the linguistic side shows through way too strongly; you can practically see the author's reading pile of books on (post)structuralism looming in the background. The structure of the novel seems unnecessarily complex with its interlokcing "now" and "then" narratives - they converge half way through and you wonder why they were separated to start with. I think Miéville thinks he's a better writer than he is and it's also clear he thinks that he's a thinker. But in the end this didn't strike me as very profound stuff.

Hobson's Island - Stefan Themerson

Interesting novel which seems a bit like three or four short scenarios (skillfully) stitched together. A motley cast of individuals finds themselves together on a remote rock somewhere west of the Scilly Isles. It's a lot of fun and the writing is very good, although the ending is disappointing.

Station Eleven - Emily St John Mandel

Super-popular recent dystopian novel about a post-pandemic world and a company of traveling players making their way through it. In contrast to Embassytown this makes great use of complex structure as the reader pieces events together from various perspectives in time and space. There isn't really much of a story but the appeal of the novel is in the way the themes - of the persistence of art and love in harsh circumstances - permeate the different narrative strands and coalesce so well. Enjoyable (although it goes without saying not up to the hype).
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Re: Who's reading what?

Post by bodkin » Sat Apr 18, 2015 10:08 am

I mentioned Embassy town further up the thread (although Nicola had a glitch and lost some posts, so I think I had to rewrite it as a summary). I thought I was missing something that a language theorist would have grasped... Something about them having no word for "that"?

Matter -- well you know I love Banks. After some years you realise he has themes and " quest for lost relative/colleague" and "lost one returns from higher-civilisation, changed" are two. If you would prefer "quest for the possibly mythical", you may like " The Algebraist"...

Lucky Jim, a favourite of my mother's but I tried to read it years ago and couldn't get past a few chapters... I think the "kitchen sinkiness" of it failed to resonate with my middle-classness. Maybe now I'm more about people the people would compel me more.

Muricami, will look out for that one. Although, yes I think one may have done him after only a few... The sheep man reappears in "Dance, Dance, Dance" which was the first I read of his...
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Re: Who's reading what?

Post by k-j » Tue Apr 21, 2015 4:15 pm

I also had a problem suspending my disbelief about the language in Embassytown. It was so extremely weird that it reminded me of the Tamarians (?) in that TNG episode who communicate only through metaphor, which is fun but a bit ridiculous as surely a metaphor has to be grounded in something to mean anything. Mieville dresses his Tamarians up in a lot of linguistic theory but ultimately that's all they are.
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Re: Who's reading what?

Post by bodkin » Tue Apr 21, 2015 6:21 pm

I guess my problem was not knowing the linguistics... He seemed to make a bit deal of there being no "that"... But I didn't see why I that was significant...

I remember that ST...

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Re: Who's reading what?

Post by k-j » Fri Aug 21, 2015 5:00 am

I'll try to do one review every day or so to catch up on this thread. We're back in April:

A Midsummer Night's Dream

It was snowing hard so I picked up my Shakespeare and read one of my favourite plays. I've always loved this one. What I like most about it is how earnestly the mechanicals enact their travesty of a play, and how much Shakespeare honors them for their efforts.

Macbeth

One of five or six Shakespeares I'd never seen nor read. I loved the witchery of course, but the play seems a bit rushed compared to his other tragedies. For me, it's the weakest of them, although Macbeth and Lady are excellent characters, studies in wrongness and malice respectively. I suppose this accounts for the play's enduring popularity.
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Re: Who's reading what?

Post by Antcliff » Fri Aug 21, 2015 7:59 pm

Macbeth is buried near where I live. I can see the general mound with only mild assistance. It is a plausible claim because we know it was the burial ground for Scottish kings of the period. I have never seen it at the theatre. Wish I had. Duncan is buried at the same spot.
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Re: Who's reading what?

Post by k-j » Sat Aug 22, 2015 5:42 am

Duplex - Kathryn Davis

Wow, this is a wild one. It's a meditation on suburban life, especially in mid-century America, written in that fractured, modern-surreal style that you see in Ben Marcus or in David Ohle's classic Motorman. There are robot families, and huge, never-explained "scows" which drift in the night sky. Essentially it seems to be a story of young love gone wrong, but it's endlessly arresting - the trivial things become terrifying and the awful things workaday. I really struggled to make my mind up about this novel, but a week or so after, I determined on an emphatic yes. I've always been interested in the American suburbia - even before I lived there* - and this articulates it in a language I love.

*Where I live is more like what used to be considered suburbia, forty years ago. It's not exurbia, which is the modern suburbia.
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Re: Who's reading what?

Post by k-j » Sat Aug 22, 2015 5:43 am

Antcliff wrote:Macbeth is buried near where I live. I can see the general mound with only mild assistance. It is a plausible claim because we know it was the burial ground for Scottish kings of the period. I have never seen it at the theatre. Wish I had. Duncan is buried at the same spot.
That's pretty cool. Is there any kind of inscription? Has anyone tried to authenticate it? I just assumed he was legendary, like King Arthur. Which is not to say that Arthur wasn't real and isn't actually buried somewhere.
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Re: Who's reading what?

Post by Nash » Sat Aug 22, 2015 4:28 pm

k-j wrote:I'll try to do one review every day or so to catch up on this thread. We're back in April:

A Midsummer Night's Dream

It was snowing hard so I picked up my Shakespeare and read one of my favourite plays. I've always loved this one. What I like most about it is how earnestly the mechanicals enact their travesty of a play, and how much Shakespeare honors them for their efforts.

Macbeth

One of five or six Shakespeares I'd never seen nor read. I loved the witchery of course, but the play seems a bit rushed compared to his other tragedies. For me, it's the weakest of them, although Macbeth and Lady are excellent characters, studies in wrongness and malice respectively. I suppose this accounts for the play's enduring popularity.
I'm pretty much the opposite, I love Macbeth and I can take or leave Midsummer Night's Dream. I've never actually read Shakespeare (or any other play, come to that, it always seems an odd thing to do), but I have seen a fair few productions.

The Gregory Doran production of Macbeth for the RSC, with Anthony Sher as the lead, was fucking amazing. Helped by being in The Swan, it was completely immersive with the action going on all around the audience. The second best thing I've ever seen on the stage.

On the other hand, I've seen several productions of MND and I'm always left underwhelmed. It's enjoyable enough as a comedy but it always seems a bit of a mess.

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Re: Who's reading what?

Post by k-j » Tue Aug 25, 2015 4:09 pm

Great Jones Street - Don DeLillo

Picked this up second hand somewhere and it sat on the shelf for a while. It's the story of the perfectly-named rock star Bucky Wunderlick who walks off stage at the height of his fame and holes up in an anonymous tenement on the titular NYC street. Although this is an early DeLillo, his trademark style seems fully developed. People talk in that staccato, disconnected, aphoristic way, and every line of dialogue is really just DeLillo delivering highbrow-subversive social commentary and postmodern quips. The main ideas seem to be (i) satire of the music biz - this works great and is very funny at times, (ii) fame vs. anonymity especially in the context of the big city - also pretty well done and maybe (iii) the nature and purpose of creativity - the plot hinges on a transaction involving a new wonder-drug and a lost tape of Bucky's late work. Some chapters consist of really godawful embarrassing samples of Bucky's lyrics and I wasn't sure if these were included with (i) or (iii) in mind. I hope the former. Definitely not my (or I suspect anyone's) favourite DeLillo but he's a writer who is always worth reading.
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Re: Who's reading what?

Post by k-j » Tue Aug 25, 2015 4:17 pm

Nash wrote:I'm pretty much the opposite, I love Macbeth and I can take or leave Midsummer Night's Dream. I've never actually read Shakespeare (or any other play, come to that, it always seems an odd thing to do), but I have seen a fair few productions.
As you point out, it maybe doesn't make much sense to compare the plays just based on reading them. As soon as you see one on the stage, that production - if it's any good at all - effaces the reading and then every subsequent production adds layers to your impression. On the other hand, good productions of Shakespeare are relatively rare even where I live.
Nash wrote:On the other hand, I've seen several productions of MND and I'm always left underwhelmed. It's enjoyable enough as a comedy but it always seems a bit of a mess.
I have seen this one two or three times. I agree it's a bit of a mess and I like that about it! I like the sheer fantasy of it, I like plays-within-plays, I like the physical comedy. I get the feeling with MND that WS started out writing one play and changed course half way, ending up with something different.
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Re: Who's reading what?

Post by David » Tue Aug 25, 2015 7:15 pm

I like reading the Arden volumes of Shakespeare - all those lovely footnotes. A truly immersive experience. (And longer ones at the back of the book.)

We don't get a lot of Shakey here either, and I truly envy your King John-type outings, John. One of my favourite memories, however - have I mentioned this before? - is of attending a performance of Twelfth Night at one of our local castles (Castle Rushen, not Peel, k-j). The play moved from room to room (to staircase to garden to battlement) for each scene. And the staircases were lit by candles while a genial ruff-ian played the lute as we moved from one floor to another. Best of all, the staircase was decorated by portraits of members of the Stanley family, the erstwhile Lords of Man, one of whom - Wiliam Stanley, the 6th Earl of Derby - is thought by some (idiots) to be the true author of Shakespeare's plays. And on that night, in that light, there did seem to be a certain ironic knowingness about his look.

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Re: Who's reading what?

Post by Antcliff » Thu Aug 27, 2015 5:15 pm

k-j wrote:
Antcliff wrote:Macbeth is buried near where I live. I can see the general mound with only mild assistance. It is a plausible claim because we know it was the burial ground for Scottish kings of the period. I have never seen it at the theatre. Wish I had. Duncan is buried at the same spot.
That's pretty cool. Is there any kind of inscription? Has anyone tried to authenticate it? I just assumed he was legendary, like King Arthur. Which is not to say that Arthur wasn't real and isn't actually buried somewhere.

Unfortunately his bones are in with those of various other kings and chieftains in the Iona Abbey mound, so it would be hard to identify his remains even if there. I suspect that tests may be done at some point.


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Re: Who's reading what?

Post by k-j » Thu Aug 27, 2015 5:54 pm

Last Night at the Lobster - Stewart O'Nan

This was one of the books I got my wife for Xmas, thinking it might bring back memories of her time in a not too dissimilar restaurant. It's a very short novel/novella taking us through 18 hours or so in the last day of a Red Lobster somewhere in New England. It's told from the perspective of the manager and we learn a little bit about his background, love life etc. We meet the staff on shift that day and they are fairly predictably, a mixed bunch. O'Nan conveys well the "end of an era" atmosphere - helped by setting it at Christmastime with a snowstorm on the way - but there's no tension and the plot unfolds fairly predictably. Probably worth two hours' reading if you've worked in a casual restaurant. There's one quite funny moment at the end when a busload of lost Chinese tourists, under police escort, shows up half an hour before closing, only to use the toilets.
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Re: Who's reading what?

Post by k-j » Fri Aug 28, 2015 6:51 pm

Les Miserables - Hugo

I saw my kids in a school production of this and felt guilty for not knowing the story, so I ordered the Everyman edition that evening. At first (once I'd got past the very long and superfluous backstory with which the book begins) I found quite a lot to admire: Valjean is quite lovable as reformed rogues go, not coming over as too prissy and putting his ill-gained talents to work in the service of good. The Thénardiers, when they come on the scene, are superb panto villains. There is a total lack of moral nuance in all the characters, of course, but the same goes for Dickens and your typical Hollywood movie. And the chase/manhunt through the streets of Paris is tautly written, gripping and quite modern.

I can see why many editions omit Hugo's essay-length digressions. I thought the one on Waterloo was very good, the one on monasteries bored me to tears, the others were in between.

As the book went on I became increasingly annoyed with Hugo's knowing, pompous, and windy narration. Or maybe it wasn't me, but the narrative voice gradually becoming more stentorian as the pages turned. Hugo sure does want to make sure you get his Message! By the fourth book I was running out of steam, and four months later I'm about a third of the way through the fifth book, knowing but not caring how it will end, reading about a chapter a week when I feel like chastising myself.

I've mentioned Dickens. His novels are not my cup of tea, but they are a lot more fun than Les Mis. Another comparison would be War and Peace which, although a much more complex and deeply considered novel, is written by a similarly didactic author. But at least with War and Peace, most of the bloviating is saved for the concluding book/essay/explication, and readers can very easily skip it altogether. Hugo by contrast - except for the signature essays which open each book - interlards his pontifications with his narrative, making them more difficult to avoid. After many hours of practice, I am now quite adept at doing so, but I'm not sure it was a skill worth acquiring.

I'm comfortable concluding that the school-musical version is superior to the novel.
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Re: Who's reading what?

Post by David » Fri Aug 28, 2015 11:21 pm

We tried watching the Hollywood musical version recently. Bleeding awful, we thought.

We have not read the Hugo.

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Re: Who's reading what?

Post by David » Sat Aug 29, 2015 9:02 am

On the other (Hugo) hand, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame is great Gothic fun. I stumbled through a French cahier de poche of Notre-Dame de Paris in conjunction with the Penguin version, so I feel I've really read it.

Some of the poetry seems pretty good too, but I've only found that in an anthology so far.

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Re: Who's reading what?

Post by k-j » Thu Sep 03, 2015 3:39 pm

David wrote:On the other (Hugo) hand, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame is great Gothic fun. I stumbled through a French cahier de poche of Notre-Dame de Paris in conjunction with the Penguin version, so I feel I've really read it.

Some of the poetry seems pretty good too, but I've only found that in an anthology so far.
Yes, I've also enjoyed a few poems by Hugo in anthologies. One to follow up on one day.
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Re: Who's reading what?

Post by k-j » Thu Sep 03, 2015 3:52 pm

Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems and Selected Prose - Rosemary Tonks

I bought this after enjoying the two pieces by Tonks in Staying Alive. I'm ashamed to admit that the biographical backstory may have enhanced the appeal, but I can honestly say I really did rate the poems in the Bloodaxe anthology. Unfortunately, having now read all her published poems, I can say that those are the two best. Far too often her work dissolves into a watery Bohemian mist, and instead of the stark imagery and pitiless self-awareness of her best writing there is only a vague, sometimes irritatingly naive, portrait of a young woman feeling lost in a big city. Some individual lines are still arresting, but they never add up to much.

The prose - a short story, book reviews, essays - didn't really appeal to me. The short story was interesting, actually, but very much an apprentice effort and too close to prose-poetry for my liking. The rest I just skimmed.
fine words butter no parsnips

David
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Re: Who's reading what?

Post by David » Mon Sep 14, 2015 7:45 pm

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. Very good, with some wonderful writing, but also at times - I thought - a bit overwrought and overwritten. The thought occurred, on occasion, that SH is for Slightly Hysterical. Or even, now and then, that SM is for Silly Moo. But I do recommend it.

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