Tag Archives: Penguin Modern Classics

The Tooth, by Shirley Jackson

4 stars4/5

After so enjoying two other editions from the Penguin Mini Classics set, I bought a copy of The Tooth, by Shirley Jackson. What a curious collection! Of the five stories in the book, I found three brilliant and the other two a little baffling.

Pengin Mini Modern Classics, The Tooth, Shirley Jackson

Pengin Mini Modern Classics, 2011 edition (paperback), 70 pages - own purchase.

The highlights for me were the shortest stories The Lottery, Charles and The Witch. All three sent shivers down my spine. In Charles and The Witch the stories are set in quite an ordinary situation, but as you read on, Jackson introduces an element of unease and plants an uncomfortable idea about what might be happening. These two stories also centre around the behaviour of children and what they might be capable of. The Lottery is more about community and the ability of the collective to affect the will of an individual.

The Tooth is the longest story in the book and I freely admit that I didn’t ‘get it’. It describes the experience of a young woman who travels to the city on her own to have her tooth extracted. I found it a little disorientating – which incidentally, is probably the point. In her drugged up, post-op state the woman experiences dreamlike moments of confusion. I thought it was evocative but something was missing for me because it was a little too abstract. I felt the same also with the final story – The Intoxicated.

I think that it is actually to be expected when reading stories designed to be disturbing that a reader should be more affected by some than others, if only because certain ideas will make a specific person feel more uneasy than others. As a collection I thought The Toothwas a brilliant bite-sized selection of unsettling moments and everyday horrors.

More Mini Moderns: You can read my reviews of other Mini Moderns – Children on their Birthdays, by Truman Capote (4/5), and Through The Wall, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (5/5), and see a list of other blogger’s reviews of this excellent series at the Curious Book Fans blog. Savidge Reads also read The Tooth and loved it.

Have you read any Shirley Jackson stories?

Serendipitous Book-Buying

Yesterday I was made a delightful last-minute diversion to see Savidge Reads after discovering that my trip up North for work would mean I was within spitting distance of Manchester. I was sad to have been unable to make it in time to go to John Rylands library – see how fabulous it looks:

John Rylands Library

Oh dear, I’ll suppose I’ll just have to go back and visit again!

Of course a trip to a book shop was in order, so we popped into Waterstones for a drink in the café.

Simon persuaded me that I should get the new Sophie Hannah book – Lasting Damage.  I’m a bit off a  devotee, having started out reading her short stories and going on to read every one of the Waterhouse & Zailer series. It was with very little difficulty that he overcame my grumbling about not having read A Room Swept White first by pointing out that the new hardback cost less than a paperback.

I was thoroughly impressed by the Penguin Mini-Moderns, and Shirley Jackson’s writing was recommended to me after my glowing review of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s short stories, so I also invested a modest £3 in the The Tooth.

And… what should happen today? I fell into my local second hand book shop and lo and behold a nearly-new copy of A Room Swept White was for sale for £2.50.

Have you made any serendipitous book purchases recently?

Through the Wall, by Ludmilla Petrushevskya

5 stars5/5

Wow – what a spooky and unexpected little collection this is! Possibly, sandwiching my sleeping time with reading Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s Through the Wall was a little ill-considered as I had some slightly odd dreams last night.

Through the Wall, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Penguin Books, 2011 edition, paperback, 69 pages - review copy.

I had never heard of the author, although Petrushevskaya is considered to be one of Russia’s greatest living writers and was so controversial that for decades, her writing was banned in the Soviet Union. Reading stories like this make me grateful for whoever decided to translate them and I am curious to read the disturbingly entitled There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby which is a collection of nineteen short stories.

 

I’m tempted to liken Petrushevskya’s stories to those of Angela Carter, because they are dark fairy tales, reminiscent of the style of those in The Bloody Chamber. However, the tales in Through the Wall feel much more of this world – albeit this world, seen through a distorted glass.

The Cabbage Patch Mother for example is the tale of a woman who has a tiny child named Dewdrop, who never grows. She is told to set her aside and forget her. Later she discovers that Dewdrop, who she placed amongst the leaves of a cabbage has become a full-size, mewling, clumsy real-life baby. This was the story I found most heart-breaking, as it is evidently an allegory for the experience of a woman who has undergone an abortion in the past and can’t forget the baby she might have had.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Click the image to read a short interview with the author in the LA times

Marilena’s secret is the story of a woman who is “so fat she couldn’t fit in a taxi, and when going into the subway took up the whole width of the escalator.” It turns out that Marilena is in fact two normal sized women, turned into one by a wizard. She becomes rich and famous for her unusual stature but begins to lose her real inner-selves as she is encouraged to become a poster girl for her husband’s dieting clinic. A tragi-comic tale where the manipulative husband eventually gets his come-uppance.

These are my favourite two of the five fantastic stories in this collection. The stories sound barmy, and yes there is a heavy dose of the surreal, but Petrushevskaya’s tales at their heart are real human experiences of grief, love and loss. They are dark and melancholy stories but each has a resolution and tells of human resilience.

By telling each story as a fairy-tale Pertrushevskaya somehow amplifies the impact of each situation. Isn’t it true that sometimes the most difficult experiences in life feel quite surreal?

What stories have you read that surprised you lately?

Children on Their Birthdays, by Truman Capote

4 stars4/5

Ever since I read In Cold Blood a couple of years ago, I’ve been a big fan of Truman Capote.

Children on Their Birthdays, Truman Capote, Penguin Modern Classics

Penguin Books, 2011 edition, paperback, 73 pages - review copy.

I love his keen observational style and wicked way with words. I was pleased to get my hands on this Penguin Mini Modern Classic, which felt like perfect reading for a hectic week and addled brain!

This edition contains three short stories, each of which represent a moment in time:

Children on Their Birthdays, opens by announcing that Miss Bobbit, a girl of eleven has been run down by the six-o’clock bus. Miss Bobbit has had a memorable impact on the community. The ladylike little girl creates a ripple in the Alabama backwater, attracting the attention of the boys of the town with her sophisticated way of dressing and behaving. She has aspirations of being a hollywood star, and although she is hugely precocious, there is genuinely something special and sweet about her as a character.

A Christmas Memory explores the tender relationship between a seven year old and a sixty-something lady, who is sprightly and makes whisky-spiked fruitcakes. Ingredients for the famous fruitcakes are bought with money scraped together including pennies collected by squashing errant flies. The making of the fruitcake is a special ritual in the build up to Christmas and kind whisky-supplying shopkeepers get extra cups of raisins in their portion.

A Tree of Night is about a young girl travelling back from her Uncle’s funeral. On the train, she encounters an old, rather odd-couple who become rather more sinister as the journey goes on.

The actual subject of the stories is almost secondary, in my mind, to the mood that Capote creates and the vivid character descriptions. Capote creates little observational pieces that capture a fleeting moment in time and impart a sense of nostalgia, or impress a particular feeling on the reader, whether that be warm and fuzzy (A Christmas Memory), or cold and creeping (A Tree of Night).

The three snippets below, one from each story are examples of the writing that I so admire.

“…a firefly hour, blue as milkglass…” (Children on Their Birthdays)

“…the path unwinds through lemony sun pools and pitch vine tunnels…” (A Christmas Memory)

“…icicles hung along the station-house eaves like some crystal monster’s vicious teeth.” (A Tree of Night)

I would definitely recommend this little collection. If you are a Capote devotee, you will surely enjoy them and if you haven’t read any of his writing this is a great way to dip your toe in the water.

Truman Capote with puppy

On a side note, I don’t often enjoy reading collections of short stories, but something about just having two or three in one volume appeals. As with food, perhaps it’s nice just to have a few bites as an appetiser?!

Have you read any Capote and if so what would you recommend? Which authors do you particularly admire for their way with words?

The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon

3 stars3/5

Well, this is probably the longest it has taken me to review a book. I read The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon for my book group back in August, and when I put it down I just wasn’t sure how I felt about it so decided that I should give it time to let it settle. Strangely it still hasn’t.

The Lonely Londoners, Penguin Modern Classics edition

Penguin Modern Classics, 2006 edition, 160 pages - Book group choice.

First published in 1956, The Lonely Londoners is a slim novel, but one that is packed with detail and filled with vivid descriptions of early 1950’s London seen through the eyes of Moses Aloetta, a migrant to the capital from Trinidad. At the beginning of the story, Moses is waiting at Waterloo Station. He is meeting another Trinidadian Henry ‘Sir Galahad’ Oliver who has just arrived in England. He doesn’t know him – all that connects them is the fact they are both West Indian. They are united by this fact alone and their sense of otherness, in a predominantly white city.

In The Lonely Londoners we are introduced to a variety of characters, all West Indian migrants and mostly young men. They get along however they can in the busy city, whether it be through hard graft or by hustling a living. Getting work is tough enough and the environment is hostile. Moses comments to Sir Galahad;

“English people don’t like the boys coming to England to work and live…they frighten we get job in front of them, though that does never happen. The other thing is that they just don’t like black people, and don’t ask me why, because that is a question that bigger brains than mine trying to find out from way back.”

Moses himself has been living in London for some time, and in some ways seems has now made himself at home. While he suggests that Sir Galahad “hustle a passage back home to Trinidad today”, he himself has almost become ingrained in the city. He marvels at how some people manage to save money from a measly three pounds per week wages to take back to their families, but he himself cannot, making the reader wonder if he is trapped or whether he really does ever want to return to the ‘mother country’. Selvon conveys the limbo that these migrants must have felt – never quite a part of London, but somehow divorced from their home country.

The book is written in vernacular which makes it at times a tough read. Many a moment I wondered what certain words (such as ‘test’) meant and muddled my way through with educated guesses. At the same time, the use of the vernacular added to the books authenticity and made me feel as if I was really hearing the voice of the narrator and the characters in the book.

And The Lonely Londoners has a cacophony of voices. Sometimes optimistic (Sir Galahad), sometimes contemplative (Moses) and also cocky (Cap). I had a mixed response to these characters. I kind of liked Moses who reminded me a bit of Eeyore in Winnie The Pooh (weird I know), really disliked Cap who seemed full of himself and chauvinistic but was quite enchanted by Big City with his tall stories and confusion of the word ‘music’ for ‘fusic’. I also loved the passage where one of the few female characters – Tanty, manages to convince a reluctant shopkeeper to give her a tab.

There were some tragi-comic moments, such as when Cap decides to catch a seagull for his dinner which I found genuinely funny, but I have to say The Lonely Londoners is quite hard work. The book switches from one character to another, and these snapshots of their lives are simultaneously fascinating and confusing. I liked some of the characters and found parts of the book beautifully described but for some reason it left me feeling at a distance from it. Perhaps it was the fact that the voices were mostly masculine, or because I didn’t really feel much emotion from the characters. This sense of distance is something that I think is exactly what Selvon intended, and adds to the theme of loneliness, but it didn’t quite work for me.

The Lonely Londoners is more of a portrait of an era than a ‘story’ and opened up my eyes to a part of British history that I had no previous knowledge of. While I didn’t enjoy this book enough to want to read more Sam Selvon in the near future, it does leave me wanting to read more about the experiences of migrants to England during this period of time. To hear another voice.

My rating:

6 out of 10

Can you recommend other novels which explore migrants to England in the 1950’s?

Interesting link I found from BBC History – Black British History Since Windrush