Recent reads in brief

While I am slowly making my way through more than 600 pages of Sophie’s Choice, I am actually a little behind on book reviews, so here are some brief thoughts on recent reads.

Letters to a Young Poet
by Rainer Maria Rilke
translated from German by Stephen Mitchell

This small volume was written 1903–1908 but its advice still feels relevant and wise, which is presumably why it quickly became a classic.

Franz Xaver Kappus was put in touch with Rilke by the chaplain at his military academy, who had known Rilke when he too was a student at the school 15 years earlier. Kappus aspired to write and Rilke was a revered (rightly so) poet. These 10 letters constitute Rilke’s advice on how to look at life as well as how to write and some non-advice observations from Rilke such as his thoughts on Rome (he was not a fan) and other places he travelled to (all the letters seem to be written from a different location, and often include reference to months spent somewhere else in-between).

What most caught my attention was Rilke’s thoughts on gender equality. He was a feminist if ever I read one. He truly believed that the two sexes were created equal and that society still unfairly favoured men as a relic from a bygone age when man’s superiority of strength and size was relevant to everyday life. Rilke not only believes that the time will come when women will be considered equal in all respects to man, he also thinks that in time women will take their turn as the gender running the show.

Rilke is sweet, earnest, but also troubled. He’s also extremely eloquent. Because he’s Rilke.

“Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would have us believe, most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.”

Briefe an einen jungen Dichter published 1929 by Insel Verlag.

This translation first published 1984 by Random House.

Source: Shakespeare & Sons, Berlin.

Continue reading “Recent reads in brief”

Holiday reads in brief

Trains Are Mint

I read quite a few books on holiday and it now feels like an age ago so I’m going to play catch-up with some shorter reviews of slightly unusual books I have read lately.

Trains are Mint
by Oliver East

This is a sweet but odd piece of graphic-novel-style journalism/travel writing. East took his notebook and pen on walks along railway lines from Manchester to Blackpool, drawing and taking notes on whatever grabbed his interest. Which sounds like a fascinating project. And both its niche appeal and its failure to grab me stem from exactly what it is that East finds interesting: rubbish, graffiti, kids hanging out, small railway stations and tumbleweed.

Published 2008 by Blank Slate.

Turning-Point
by Rainer Maria Rilke
Miscellaneous poems 1912–1926
Selected and translated by Michael Hamburger

I love Rilke. I don’t really understand a lot of it but I find it beautiful. In a different mood this might make me feel stupid or at least self-conscious but thankfully I read this book in the stately, studious surroundings of Cambridge and I just enjoyed floating on the words. And using the helpfully supplied German original texts opposite the English translations to remember how I once knew some German but have basically forgotten it all. It may take another read or three to get a little more from it. As Rilke says:

“Do not, do not, do not books for ever
hammer at people like perpetual bells?”

First published as An Unofficial Rilke in 1981. This edition published 2003 by Anvil Press Poetry.

The Hungry Ghost Festival
by Jen Campbell

This is a slim volume, which I have already read most of twice (see above for how this is a good thing with poetry), and I think it’s safe to say that these poems are right up my street. Campbell writes about growing up in north-east England, about being a teenager, the seaside, friendship, gossip, sex and illness. The poems tend to concentrate on the random details that give memories their surreal quality. They are both magical and grittily real.

Published 2012 by The Rialto.

The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs and Corso in Paris, 1957–1963
by Barry Miles

I started reading this book as part of my research for my dissertation at uni. I got halfway through it and then had to concentrate on finishing the dissertation so I put the book down and inevitably I had had enough of Bob Dylan and the Beat poets so I didn’t pick it up again…for eight years. I had forgotten how interesting a read it is. Miles uses lots of primary sources, plus his own interviews with many of the people involved, but slips them seamlessly into the narrative. He has a good grasp of what makes an interesting anecdote. If you have even a passing interest in the Beats I definitely recommend it and defy you to come away not wanting to go straight to Paris!

Published 2001 by Atlantic Books (UK) / Grove Press (US).