The Happy Prince – Oscar Wilde

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This book has as its full title The Happy Prince and Other Stories as there are three more short tales by Oscar Wilde included although easily the most famous is The Happy Prince. As I read this story it seemed familiar although I’m quite certain that I haven’t read it before I must obviously have maybe heard it or read a summary at some point. All of the stories carry a moral so lets look at the four stories individually, they are short so not giving away the ending in a review is tricky but I think I have managed it…

The Happy Prince

The prince in the story is actually a statue on a high pedestal looking out over the city, the statue is covered in gold leaf, has emeralds for eyes and a ruby set in the pommel of his sword and he is far from happy. The young prince he is modelled on however led a ‘happy’ and sheltered privileged life not seeing anything outside the luxurious palace grounds and not knowing anything of the poverty that surrounded his domain, so the statue became known as The Happy Prince. Up here on his column however he can see the poor all around him and wishes he could do something to help them. He is visited by a swallow seeking shelter for the night on his delayed migration to Egypt which is why he is flying alone after the rest of his kind. When the statue tells the bird of how he wants to help the people he comes up with a plan to donate the riches that he has on his body to the needy and enlists the help of the swallow to distribute what he can. The story is heartwarming but ultimately tragic and I really enjoyed it.

The Young King

This concerns another happy prince within his gilded cage although this time he is about to become king and he has not always lived this life of privilege. This one however is enamoured with the riches that surround him, lost in wonder in front of great art and fine fabrics and jewels. The coronation is coming the robe, sceptre and crown are prepared when the night before the ceremony the young king to be has three strange dreams. In them he is confronted with the reality of how his ceremonial raiment has been made, the grinding poverty of the weavers, the death of a pearl fisherman, the deprivation of the mines needed for the fine jewels. The next morning he explains his dreams to the courtiers come to dress him for the ceremony and refuses to wear the outfit prepared, preferring a more lowly guise of the goat-herder he had been before being recognised as the heir apparent. At this point I was sure I knew where the story was heading but I’m glad to say I was wrong.

The Devoted Friend

My least favourite of the four stories, perhaps because it just repeatedly bangs the reader round the head with the moral, where the devoted friend turns out to really be the one who doesn’t consider himself the title character. I confess that I got irritated by the story as Wilde kept pushing his point

The Model Millionaire

The shortest of the stories also includes my favourite quote from the selection with Wilde employing the barbed wit for which he is famous. The story concerns an impecunious young man who whilst visiting an artist friend finds him painting a portrait of a beggar. Now the young man is in love, but the father of his beloved has made it clear that as he has little money and no prospects of getting any he is not considered an appropriate suitor for his daughter. Despite this he hands the beggar most of the money he has on him only to find his generosity repaid handsomely. What is the quote I liked so much, well it makes much of a fine distinction.

Trevor was a painter, indeed few people escape that nowadays. But he was also an artist, and artists are rather rare.

The cover of the book is a detail from a painting by James Pryde and is perfect to represent The Happy Prince on his column. The book is part of the Penguin 60’s series, published in 1995 to mark 60 years of Penguin Books. I bought all of them at the time and I’m ashamed to say still have a lot of them to read twenty five years later.

Valley of Hunted Men – Paul Evan Lehman

There is an entire genre of fiction that I have never read any example from and that is the American Western. Well I’ve recently bought a copy of Valley of Hunted Men so time to find out if I should have explored the category years ago…

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First impressions were mixed, right from the first page we have a train robbery, six men holding up the express causing death and destruction before riding out of town with $20,000 in gold coins, a classic trope of the genre. So yes I was intrigued where this was going but I was already caught up in the issues of the language used in the novel, the slang and unusual spelling would be familiar with regular readers of this style but I found it off putting whilst recognising that it was a necessary part of the writing structure. One word in particular struck me as anomalous, which was the constant reference to the stolen loot as specie. Now I know this is the correct word for gold (and sometimes silver) coins rather than paper currency but I’d only ever come across the term in books written or set in Victorian London so it seemed odd to it was being used here, in fact I found it so jarring that it kept pushing me off the narrative and every few pages I’d put the book down and not pick it up again for a couple of days, I just couldn’t get into the story.

The tropes just kept coming though, a wounded mystery man falls off his horse at the feet of the pretty daughter of the man running the valley so she takes him home and nurses him back to health where he gives his name as Kirk Dane but refuses to say anything about how he came to be there. But the pretty daughter falls in love with him anyway. There are outlaws in them thar hills surrounding the ranch, and talking of the ranch there’s a grumpy old roustabout with a heart of gold to almost complete the set and then the biggest stereotype of them all rides into the mix…

“Stranger” muttered Butch to his companion, “Ain’t he a dude though

The man was of medium build with smooth olive skin, dark expressive eyes and perfectly moulded lips shaded by a small waxed black moustache. He was attired in a black frock coat, a white silk shirt and a stetson which must have cost fifty dollars at the least. Under the table Kirk had a glimpse of dark trousers and handmade boots of black Spanish leather.

And then finally I got it, I remembered the Spaghetti Westerns I had seen as a child. The wounded cowboy lounging on the porch smoking as he recuperates, the ultra smart man in black, we have Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef all that was needed was a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone and I was back almost fifty years. I could at last picture what I was reading and the second half was read in one sitting after fighting for two weeks with the first. It’s quite clear that Kirk is after the men who did the train robbery but why? Who else is on the same quest? Which of the various possibilities is the lawman on a mission, Kirk is too obvious and when about fifty pages in some of the outlaws decide he is the marshal after them it’s quite clear that he isn’t going to be. There were lots of characters to keep track of, although that does get easier as the book progresses as they start getting killed off. Of course it has a happy ending, well apart from those that don’t make it to the end anyway, I guess that is normal for the genre.

In the end I quite enjoyed the book but the first half was a real struggle until I finally managed to settle down with the plot flow. Will I read another Western? Probably not, it took me over fifty years to get round to reading this one and if that’s my rate of getting to them then I may not get there. Lehman appears to have been a successful writer in the genre with plenty of books to his name but no I don’t have the need to read another.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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This post is going up on Christmas Eve so I thought it would be good to look at one of the Christmas books sent as occasional gifts by Allen Lane (the founder of Penguin Books) and his family. This isn’t a review of one of the greatest works in English literature, rather I want to look at the book itself and how it came into existence.

The Ancient Mariner was the gift in 1945 from Allen and his brother Richard, sadly the third brother John had died during the war, and this was the first one published since 1930. The tradition of an occasional privately printed limited edition book was started by Allen’s uncle, John Lane, who founded his company The Bodley Head in 1887 initially to sell antiquarian books. In 1894 he started publishing in his own right and that year sent a small volume of the autobiography of Sir Thomas Bodley as a Christmas present to family and friends. It is not known how many copies were printed but it is rarely seen so presumably the print run was quite small. I featured this book in my first ever post on this blog.  There were three books printed as gifts from 1928 to 1930, the first was from Allen and Dick Lane, the other two were from Allen, Dick and John Lane and then whilst there was a gap in the production of books, there were some interesting Christmas cards printed instead in some of those years.

As mentioned above John Lane (Allen’s brother as opposed to his uncle of the same name) died during the war so this restart of a tradition came from Allen and Richard (no longer calling himself Dick). The resultant volume bears the mark of being a little hurried, after all it was only a few months after the end of the war and it was presumably also a little celebration that the conflict was over and normal life could start to return. The cover is full dark blue Niger leather with a medallion stamped in gold and looks rather fine (although it does fade quite badly) however the title page in particular is a bit of a mess with five different fonts and type sizes used in just seven lines.

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After that unprepossessing start though the presentation of the poem itself is rather lovely, the paper is hand made with a gilded top edge, the illustrations by Duncan Grant are also quite atmospheric and whilst better than the original attempts which were rejected by the artist were apparently not as good as they might have been.

Duncan Grant was not happy with the first illustrations we produced, so we did them again, adding I think two more colours

Richard Lane

Quite what they would have looked like without the extension of the colour palette I can’t imagine as they are fairly restricted in colours used even as ultimately printed. Hans Schmoller, Head of Typography and Design at Penguin Books from 1949 to 1976, also felt that they were not as good as they might have been, although for a different reason.

I’ve always thought it a pity that Duncan Grant’s beautiful coloured drawings were reproduced photo-lithographically instead of as auto-lithographs.

Auto-lithography is definitely a far superior process and one that Penguin already used very successfully to give far more subtle colour grading and is also under control of the artist so would presumably avoided Grant’s original problem with the first version of the prints. Maybe it wasn’t done because of this extra work that the artist has to do, but anyway the illustrations are good but as Schmoller says, could have been better.

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As can be seen above the actual text is very pleasingly done with the main part of the poem being in black whilst the commentary on the action is in Venetian red. There is also a lot of blank space round the text which makes it easier to read, this is especially noticeable after the cramped styling forced on publishers during the war when the need to conserve paper stocks led to small fonts and words as close to the paper edge as possible. Richard Lane again:

During the war the production of our publications was only moderate – very narrow margins and as many words to the page as we possibly could fit in – so in The Ancient Mariner we went to town on production

I like the book a lot, it is one of the more difficult Lane Christmas books to find as it appeals not only to collectors of these works but Duncan Grant is also very collectable and there were only 700 copies produced. This is a lot compared to the other Christmas books right up until 1950 when the first one with a print run of 1000 appeared but this does appear to be quite elusive, so was one of the last I have managed to acquire for my collection. I leave you with the image of the first appearance of the albatross that would cause so many problems for the Mariner and wish my readers a very Happy Christmas.

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Penguin Science Survey

I recently completed my collection of this interesting series, some of which are surprisingly difficult to find, so I thought it was time to review the fifteen books that make the set and the history of how they came to exist. Although they were all published in the 1960’s their genesis was back in the 1940’s with two ‘quarterly’ periodicals also published by Penguin; Science News which ran to fifty four volumes from June 1946 to March 1960 and New Biology which had thirty one volumes from July 1945 to January 1960. As you can see from the date ranges, although these were theoretically quarterly, in practice only Science News managed anything like a volume every three months, in fact there was a gap of nineteen months between New Biology 1 and volume 2. These books each contained various articles covering a wide range of scientific advances written by scientists at a level where the interested layman wouldn’t feel intimidated but detailed enough to be of interest to the scientific community. By 1960 though Penguin Books were getting out of the periodicals business, however there was still seen to be a need for something like Science News and New Biology so Penguin Science Survey was born the following year.

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1961 The Specials

Science News and New Biology had their own series codes within Penguin Books but as those had come to an end a new home was needed. The logical place was within the Pelican imprint which was well established as the main factual part of Penguin Books output and the 1961 volumes were therefore planned to go there. Both books have the Pelican logo internally and volume 1 even has a number in the Pelican range A526 (which was re-assigned to The Living Brain by W. Grey Walter published August 1961) but for some reason very late in the day it was decided they should be Penguin Specials and came out as S193 and S194 in June 1961 in what looks like a hasty rebinding with laminated thin card covers unlike anything else from Penguin at the time.

Volume 1 replaced Science News and covers such diverse subjects as elementary particles, The US space plan, geophysics, the development of nuclear weapons and several other topics. Each article is around twenty pages long and there are a dozen in total along with a preface by the editor Arthur Garrett and a section on units and constants. Volume 2 is the equivalent of New Biology and has fifteen articles ranging from smoking and cancer of the lung (an article well ahead of its time), world food production, the life of viruses, the cockroach, the brain of the octopus, etc. again these are normally around twenty pages long each and there is also a preface by the joint editors S.A. Barnett and Anne McLaren. Both volumes also have numerous line drawings within the text and a section of black and white photographic plates in the middle of the book. Having created this template in these volumes it was largely stuck to for the following years.

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1963 A new home

There were no editions in 1962 and when they re-appeared in February 1963 they were oddly assigned to be part of the ‘main series’ with catalogue numbers 1924 and 1925 where they shared space with novels, travelogues, biographies and plays, they had also become A and B rather than 1 and 2 although A continued to be the equivalent of Science News with B covering New Biology with the same editors as in 1961. Volume A has amongst its eleven main essays a good article on optical astronomy by Patrick Moore and a fascinating piece on computers subtitled a progress review where the author describes an amazing IBM machine that could store a massive 100 million characters; which is several orders of magnitude less than an average mobile phone today. Roughly half of volume B is taken up with a series of articles linked under the heading ‘Matters of Life and Death’ which cover chromosomes, contraception, malformations and family planning. Also included in the rest of the book is a piece on tissue transplantation which was still in its early days, along with eight other essays.

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1964 and 1965 A short period of stability

These two years continued the pattern of 1963 with the same editors and a wide spread of subjects covered. The books are still in the ‘main series’, which is where they would remain, and are assigned the following catalogue numbers 2043 and 2044 (April 1964) along with 2225 and 2226 (April 1965).

In 1964 subjects included elementary particles, Soviet space research, adhesion and a quirky short article entitled ‘How discoveries are made: a plea for intuition’ all in volume A, whilst volume B has life on other planets, the origin of man, learning a birds language, communication in bees amongst many other essays. In 1965 part A is split into three sections: Physical Research including superconductivity (still very relevant today), the physics of the brain, and automated spacecraft of the US. The second section is entitled Industrial Applications of Science and has diverse subjects such as Diamonds in industry, rubber, and supersonic aircraft. The final part is entitled Communications and has just two articles, the communication of information, and science on radio. Part B bounces all over the place from mental images, athletic physique, homosexuality, tranquillisers, and the yeasts of wine to other subjects equally intriguing.

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1966 A missing book and a new title

Any collector looking for Penguin Science Survey A from 1966 will look in vain because it was never published. B did come out in March as number 2467 and it was joined, the same month, by Penguin Technology Survey 1966 (number 2439) which covered some of the same ground as Survey A would have been expected to do, it is also edited by the regular Survey A editor Arthur Garrett. This book is probably the one that interests me most with essays on the impact of electrical engineering, new methods of printing, computer aided design (remember this is 1966 so really surprising to see what feels like a new technology in use over fifty years ago) and a look forward to nuclear fusion reactors (which is still the case) along with other subjects. Science Survey B has a new editor, Anthony Allison, but apart from that little has changed. Like Technology Survey the subjects feel up to date including the challenge of insecticide resistance, two articles on fighting virus infections by differing means, and several more on the effects of temperature in biology and medicine.

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1967 And then there was three

Any thoughts that the 1966 Penguin Technology Survey was a re-branding of Survey A which wasn’t done very well and left Survey B stranded was dispelled this year by the existence of three titles 2640 Penguin Technology Survey 1967 (April), 2687 Penguin Science Survey 1967 Biology (July) and 2688 Penguin Science Survey 1967 Physical Sciences (also July). The renaming of the surveys was presumably to make it more obvious what they covered rather than A or B and the same editors continued from the previous year along with Nicholas Valéry who took over what used to be Survey A and was now Physical Sciences.

Technology Survey has a good article on technological advances in Japan, something we would all become familiar with over the following decades and there are also a couple of excellent essays on technology in medicine but my favourite has to be the last one which deals with the problems of naming things as technology advances and is entitled “Let’s make up the words as we go along”. The Biology Survey is subtitled The Biology of Sex and all fifteen essays are concerned with some aspect of this subject including four on sex in the insect world, a couple on mammals in general and others including anthropology, and the x-chromosome. With technology now in its own volume what was Survey A is more restricted in its subject matter but this means it can look deeper into specific areas, instead of one article on space science which was the most you got up until now there are three, this better reflects the 1960’s Space Age fascination. There are also pieces on solar energy, detecting underground nuclear explosions (also a hot topic at the time) and high energy physics.

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1968 The last hurrah

Technology Survey only lasted for two volumes and was gone after 1967. 1968 would be the final year of the Penguin Science Survey. 2840 Penguin Science Survey 1968 Biology and 2841 Penguin Science Survey 1968 Physical Sciences finally hit the bookshelves in November and had the same editors as in 1967. As with the previous year the Biology volume took one overarching subject, in this case photobiology, and the twelve papers look at all aspects of the effect of light in biology. From photochemisty, through photosynthesis, to the impact of light in controlling flowers, and on to bioluminescence with plants and animals producing their own light there is lots to get into in this book. Finally comes Physical Sciences, there are ten articles in this volume and several of these are still major paths of investigation today such as the worlds weather, superconductors, controlled nuclear fusion, and life in the universe.

Conclusion

All properly written articles on science should finish with a summary of what we have learned and in this case I just want to stress how good these books are. As you can see from the selection of article titles I have picked out they are to some extent still relevant today and provide an interesting background to the development of modern science and technology. Apart from the 1963 volumes the covers were all designed by F.H.K Henrion which gives a pleasing consistency to the series, no designer is credited for the 1963 effort or 1967’s Technology Survey but that one at least looks like his work.

The price more than doubled over the eight years from six shillings (30p) in 1961 to twelve shillings and sixpence (62½p) in 1968 and they were always considerably more expensive than other Penguin books at the time which probably helped with their demise. In 1968 a novel the same length as one of the surveys would have cost five shillings (25p) so less than half the price, the reason is probably down to the lower print runs for specialised titles so fewer being sold but equally the price must have put off a significant number of potential readers therefore contributing to the downward spiral of purchasers.

Search them out, they are worth looking for and when you do find them still only cost a few pounds.

Strange Pilgrims – Gabriel García Márquez

For my 100th post on this blog I have chosen one of the lesser known works by Gabriel García Márquez, in fact it is his last published collection of short stories. They were started during the 1970’s and 80’s but were not actually published until 1992 with an English translation appearing a year later. My copy is the Penguin books edition translated by Edith Grossman and published in 1994 with a bizarre cover by Matthew Richardson of Eastwing Design. The twelve tales are linked by being all about Latin American characters travelling or living in Europe, this was a familiar position for Márquez at the time as he lived in Barcelona for seven years in the 1970’s, going there after the success of his novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude”.

Born in Columbia, Márquez spent a lot of his life in Mexico, although his time in Europe clearly had a significant influence on these works. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 he is probably best known for his novels, three of which are also on my shelves along with three more books of short stories. However because there are so many reviews of his novels such as “Love in the Time of Cholera”and “One Hundred Years of Solitude”  and also as I have a soft spot for well crafted short stories this collection had to be the one to read this week.

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In the preface Márquez explains the long gestation of these stories, beginning with an exercise book in which he wrote sixty four tales none of which he was quite happy with, the dates each story was started is given after each one in the book and I have added this information as a date in brackets after each title below. He had several goes at rewriting but was never satisfied and the book was added to his papers to be looked at again when he might have a better idea how to work with the material. Unfortunately the exercise book got lost, presumably thrown out by accident, so he had a go at recreating them from memory. This reduced the total to about thirty and he is sanguine about this regarding the other half as clearly not good enough if he couldn’t remember how they went. The stories were still not right though and it was not until a final eight months of solid work finished the last ten included in this collection, which were all worked on simultaneously, that he finally had a book that he was happy to publish in the early 1990’s.

The twelve stories are each briefly reviewed below:-

Bon Voyage, Mr President (June 1979)

The first story concerns a familiar subject for Latin America, that of a deposed and exiled president finding treatment for illness in a foreign country, in this case Geneva in Switzerland. He is recognised by one of the ambulance drivers who comes from his original country and the driver plans along with his wife to get money from him by selling a fake insurance and funeral plan. The plot does not go as they intended and the development of the three characters makes an interesting twist.

The Saint (August 1981)

The Saint in the story is the incorruptible body of a seven year old girl from Columbia being taken round Rome by her father in an attempt to have her recognised as a saint. Well that is the initial premise anyway. In truth the story is more about the various characters staying in the hostel near the Vatican and their inter-reactions not only with each other, the saint and oddly the lion in the nearby zoo. The final two sentences of the tale though switch the meaning of the title in an unexpected way.

Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane (June 1982)

I’m not sure what to make of this story, it has a distinct voyeuristic tone that can be a little uncomfortable. The narrator sees a beautiful woman in Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris and then is pleased to see that he has the seat next to her on the plane to New York. The descriptions of watching her sleep next to him throughout the flight without any communication taking part between them throughout the journey makes odd reading.

I Sell My Dreams (March 1980)

Another tale regarding sleep, although this time the prophetic dreams of a Colombian woman who had come to Europe as a child and is first encountered by Márquez in Vienna. He sees her again many years later in Barcelona when he meets the Chilean poet Pablo Naruda and she is in the same restaurant and she is still making money from her dreams.

“I Only Came to Use the Phone” (April 1978)

The most disturbing story in the collection. A woman is driving on the way to Barcelona in a storm when her car breaks down. She is eventually picked up by a bus which drops her off at its destination so that she can use the phone. However the rest of the passengers are female mental patients and it is assumed at the asylum that she must also be a patient and she is prevented from calling her husband, sedated and admitted. The story describes her ultimate mental collapse as she tries and fails to explain her true situation.

The Ghosts of August (October 1980)

At less than four full pages this is the shortest work in the collection and is a really good ghost story, this time set in Tuscany and again involving a real person, in this case Venezuelan writer Miguel Otero Silva.

María dos Prazeres (May 1979)

Maria is a semi-retired prostitute in her seventies, originally from Manaus in Brazil but living for most of her life in the Gracia district of Barcelona. She now has only one client who has come to her weekly for decades and it is more a relationship than a business proposition. Convinced she is soon to die the story concerns her elaborate plans for her funeral and what is to happen with her belongings including her little dog afterwards. You really get to know her as the story unfolds and just as with other stories in this collection things suddenly change at the end.

Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen (April 1980)

The eponymous Englishmen are simply bit players in this tale of a Colombian widow who has travelled to Italy planning to see the Pope soon after the end of WWII. What it is more about is her reactions to post war Naples and her fears when she has to make her own way rather than the planned help she was expecting.

Tramontana (January 1982)

The Tramontana of the title is a persistent and powerful wind that the narrator of the tale experienced for three long days whilst staying in Cadaqués in Catalonia. He describes it as oppressive presence taking a personal affront to the presence of him and his family. It also clearly has a strong effect on all those who experience it.

Miss Forbes’s Summer of Happiness (1976)

Two young boys from Alta Guajira on the Colombian Caribbean coast are on the island of Pantelleria at the southern end of Sicily for a long summer holiday. For the first month they were with their parents and all was wonderful but they had left them in the care of a German governess called Miss Forbes whilst they went on a writers retreat elsewhere in the Mediterranean. She is very strict and the holiday had become intolerable to the boys, so much so that they resolve to kill her but the plot does not go as they intended…

Light is Like Water (December 1978)

This very short tale (around five pages) is positively surreal and again features two young boys around the ages that Márquez’s children would have been when he started to write it. As the narrator explains, he was asked how the light came on at a touch of the switch and replied “Light is like water, you turn the tap and out it comes”. Taking this seriously the boys break a bulb and sail a boat on the pool of light that cascades out of it despite being in an apartment on the fifth floor of a building in Madrid. But you should never play with liquid light.

The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow (1976)

Like the boys in ‘Light is Like Water’ the protagonists of this final tale are originally from Cartegena de Indias on the Colombian Caribbean coast but this time they are wealthy young adults recently married and travelling from Madrid to Paris overnight in a Bentley convertible that had been a wedding present. But Nena has cut her finger on a rose thorn and the bleeding will not stop.

A very enjoyable collection and if you have never read any Márquez it’s a good place to start. The stories do all feel that they belong together, possibly due to the simultaneous final rewriting yet are sufficiently different to highlight alternate aspects of his style. Highly recommended.

Cannery Row – John Steinbeck

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.

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From the Penguin ‘Drop Caps’ series that I covered last year in a general review of all twenty six books, and I’m amazed that I had never read it before, the quote at the top is the opening line and immediately draws the reader in. What little Steinbeck I have read in the past I have thoroughly enjoyed, he really was a master wordsmith able to conjure totally believable characters with just a few sentences or even a handful of words and what characters he has populating Cannery Row and it was his “keen social perception” that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. There is a plot to the narrative but it is definitely secondary to the characterisations deployed. You really get to know marine biologist Doc and his lab/home, Mack and the boys at the Palace Flophouse and Grill (a rather grandly titled abandoned storage shed), Dora and her girls at the Bear Flag Restaurant (in reality a bordello), Lee Chong and his shop which seems to stock everything, albeit totally randomly, and the general human detritus living in whatever shelter they can find along the Row.

The people are poor but making the best of their situation, the time is the 1930’s during the Great Depression and times are hard. The main employers are the sardine canneries that give the area its name although the work depended on the arrival of the boats loaded with fish which also gives the area its distinctive odour. None of the characters are actually in employment at the canneries though, apart from when they need some money which they cannot get some other way. Lee Chong, Dora and Doc all have legitimate businesses in their own right. Lee’s grocery presumably would make money if his customers actually had any, what it mainly makes is debts which do mainly get paid off when he refuses to extend any more credit to somebody unless they actually part with some money to cover the backlog. Doc is the main character of the book, he owns Western Biological Laboratory, and if anyone in the US wanted a specimen of pretty well any sort of animal Doc would get it for them, eventually anyway. Dora as stated above owns the bordello and probably makes more money than any of the other characters but has to hand over large parts of it in ‘charity’ just to ensure that the authorities keep looking the other way. She is genuinely kind hearted though and looks after her staff who can’t work much due to age or infirmity, one breaks her leg during the book and there is no suggestion that because she can’t work she would lose her room or meals each day.

Mack and the boys at the flophouse, which they con Lee Chong out of at the start of the book, don’t work unless they have to, they have developed over the years a sense of contentment about their lives where they can get what little they need to survive somehow, even if it actually belongs to somebody else at the time. What they will do is get creatures for Doc at a fixed price that everybody knows because that’s more of an adventure than ‘working’ for a living. Despite their low grade criminality you can’t help but like them, they are more victims of their schemes than pretty well any one else and they are genuinely remorseful when things go badly wrong.

Even the bit parts are masterful, I particularly enjoyed the regular appearances of the old Chinaman as he wandered down to the sea and back each day; and like a minor character in a West End farce he always failed to interact with any of the major players whilst just walking through the narrative adding nothing to the plot apart from a comic interlude and a sense of wonder. Just what is it he is doing and why? It’s never explained.

The book revolves around Doc, his need for specimens and his love of classical music, his books and a quiet life. The plot, such as it is, involves Mack and the boys wanting to do ‘something nice for Doc’. They decide on a party so then need to raise some money to finance it, how they get the ‘money’ and the form it takes is really funny and the disaster of the party leads to real poignancy as the various characters reflect on how it went so horribly wrong and what to do to try to make it right. The book is brilliant and difficult to put down when you have started you just need to know more about the population of Cannery Row and apparently there is a sequel so I have to get a copy of that.

Ten Italian Folktales – Italo Calvino

20191022 Italian Folktales

As the title states there are ten tales included here and they are a wide mix so the best way to review the book is to look at each one in turn. Please note there will be the occasional spoiler but as these are folk tales it is entirely possible that you have come across the stories already or at least variants of them and it is those variants that I will mainly be referring to. The first story is Crack and Crook, this is one of the shortest tales and also one of the oddest included. It tells the story of two thieves who decide to team up to pull off a major robbery by tunnelling into the King’s treasury. They succeed in the attempt but this is where the story gets weird as the King, advised by another thief come up with stranger and stranger ways to identify the culprits. Story two is The Land Where One Never Dies which is basically a morality tale, the protagonist wishes to live forever but eventually discovers that he misses his family and local village.  Pome and Peel is another weird one as the title refers to two boys who were born after their mothers ate parts of a magic apple (one the flesh and the other the peel) and were inseparable throughout their lives until one wishes to marry a wizard’s daughter who puts a curse upon her when she runs away with the two men.

The Sleeping Queen is a strange variant of the classic Sleeping Beauty tale as it really seems to be two stories merged into one with the Sleeping Beauty part sandwiched between a morality tale. The middle bit has the castle surrounded by a motionless populace and in the castle is the Queen in her bed, however unlike the Perrault and Brothers Grimm versions of the story where she is awakened by a kiss, the Prince in this version gets into bed with her and she is awakened nine months later when she gives birth with everyone else starting to move again at the same time. This is much truer to the original version of the story from the fourteenth century where a princess gives birth to twins after her ‘rescuer’ leaves nine months earlier. But there is also the interwoven morality story in this tale about a blind King and his three sons who go off one after the other to find a cure for his blindness; but the two eldest abandon their quests when they find beautiful women that they fall in love with and decide to marry and forget all about the reason for their journeys. This leaves the youngest to complete the quest but he also gets betrayed by his feckless elder siblings before they get their comeuppance in their turn.

The next tale is The Enchanted Palace and this time a Prince gets lost in a forest whilst out hunting and finds a strange apparently deserted palace until a veiled lady with twelve maidservants suddenly appears, she dines and indeed sleeps with him all without saying a thing or removing her veil. It turns out she is under a curse and when he unwittingly breaks the terms of the spell she has of all things to go to Peterborough and be given as a prize in a jousting competition even though she is in fact the Queen of Portugal. That was a definite twist I hadn’t seen coming. After that is The King of Portugal’s Son so as the Italians clearly think the Portuguese Royal family are strange I was expecting something odd and wasn’t disappointed. It is difficult to summarise the plot of this one without giving too much away but yet again the twist in the end is well worth the reading of the story.

The two stories that follow are both very short, Apple Girl tells of a Queen who gives birth to an apple but inside the apple is a beautiful girl who escapes each day to bathe and do her hair before returning to the fruit until the spell is eventually broken. Joseph Ciufolo, Tiller-flautist is another short morality tale and is probably the weakest of the stories included.  There then follows Misfortune which is the tale of the youngest daughter of the Queen of Spain who is desperately unlucky and is cast out from her family to try to restore the luck of the rest of them. Eventually she meets and improves the temper of the grumpy witch who is controlling her fate thereby reviving her own fortune and that of her estranged family.

The final story in this selection is Jump into My Sack and this definitely felt familiar although I cannot place where I first heard it. It tells of a magic sack which will fill with anything the owner wishes and a stick which will do anything it is commanded to. Using these the hero of the story manages to have great wealth and use the powers for the betterment of others and even defeat the Devil.

Italo Calvino was born in Cuba in 1923 to Italian parents but grew up in Italy after they returned to their home country before he was two years old. After WWII he became a journalist on a Communist newspaper and also started to write novels and short stories. These folk tales are a selection from the two hundred that Calvino collated in 1956 from collections of folklorists across Italy. Having read this book, which was published in 1995 as part of a set marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of Penguin Books, I definitely need to get hold of the full collection to be able to enjoy the others but for now this is the only work by Calvino on my shelves.