Thoughts: Selected Poems, by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, translated by Robin Milner-Gulland and Peter Levi

From children’s fantasy to soviet poetry. Such is the world of literature.

There’s a good translator introduction in this slim volume of poetry, which I appreciated but which also made me sad I can’t read Russian. It set out clearly the wider historical interest of the poems and poet (some of the first mainstream poetry to come out of the USSR into the West, and not overtly political, but concerned with ordinary life) and the direction the translators took with the work.

I appreciated it because I am also a translator, and I find this stuff interesting in general, but also because poetry is a particular challenge, a complex interplay of meaning, teferences, imagery, wordplay, rhyme, typography, words that pull a thousand times their own weight in the reader’s mind, all as economically as possible. You sort of can’t do it really. There are always compromises to be made, and the better the work, the more compromises you need. And that’s not even touching on the fact that different cultures* prize different things as “good poetry” – some cultures love identical rhymes (check out French holorime to blow your mind) and others consider any rhyme at all cheap and lazy (there’s no glory in rhyming anything in Japanese). Some cultures prefer following structured forms and others consider freeverse more clever. And probably every language has some unique features by which it can judge its poetry that don’t even exist in the target language. So sometimes even translating something “faithfully” can do the work a disservice.

The introduction explained that Yevtushenko is a master of wordplay, rhythm and rhyme, but the translators didn’t even attempt to recreate it exactly in their translations, focusing on other aspects instead. Understandable, but sad nonetheless. I kept wondering how it would read in Russian, whether it would be more pleasing to the ear. But these are things we can never have. Unless I learn Russian, I suppose.

I liked the poems as a whole, some more than others. They may have lost their original mystique to a Western reader, of a glimpse behind the Iron Curtain, but they still hold a certain time and place pressed between the pages, fresh and real. Zima Junction, the longest poem and I think Yevtushenko’s most famous, really is lovely.

One thing I will say if you’re reading on Kindle (I don’t know about other ebook versions) is that the transfer of text to digital hasn’t been done perfectly. I assume the publisher used one of those programs that automatically detects the text, but they also seem to have failed to give it even a cursory proofread – every time there’s a “t” followed by an “l”, it’s rendered as a “d” presumably because of the original typeface. There are a couple of places where things like this happen and it’s jarring to have to pause and decode the word visually.

There’s also a table at the back as a pronunciation guide to the Russian names and words which appear in the poems, which is a really nice touch (the translators say that even if you’re reading Russian to yourself it’s important to know where the stress falls on the words, which I absolutely agree with, especially in poetry where rhythm is so important)… except in the ebook version at least, it’s missing the accents to denote stress. These little flaws are a disservice to the book, poet and translators, especially because it’s so short and surely it wouldn’t have taken much time or effort. It just says that the publisher didn’t consider it a priority.

* And yes, of course, one culture will contain many, many schools of poetry! Not just English language poetry either, we’ll have none of that.

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Thoughts: The Girl of Ink and Stars, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

I am officially back on the reading train. Choo choo.

The Girl of Ink and Stars, as well as being a Thing of Thing and Thing title, is another book for younger readers, but a solid level younger than Orangeboy. If you are not a young person, this may impact your enjoyment of the book, quite understandably, because it isn’t really for us.

Still, it’s really rather lovely. It opens in this deceptively idyllic island life, shut off from the outside world (with slightly off country and continent names – Europa, Amrica, Afrik, Chine – that could be either fantasy or a result of the island’s isolation), but quickly you realise that some shady stuff is going on. The island’s governor is not a good person or a good ruler, and there’s something larger, non-human and bad on the way.

It plays with this idea of the privileged living alongside the poor, in the friendship between the two main girls, Isabella, daughter of a cartographer whose job has been rendered obsolete by the enforced isolation of the island, and Lupe, the daughter of the governor who enforced the isolation. Lupe is a product of her upbringing, impractical, a little spoilt, oblivious to the reality of life for the vast majority of the village outside her house, and the book doesn’t shy from it. She’s a fundamentally good, kind person, but she is also what she’s been made to be. I don’t think I’ve seen a book aimed at this age of audience really engage with that sort of inequality before, and I found it really interesting to see.

It also touches on the responsibility that goes along with privilege, and the consequences of shirking it, which touched some environmental nerve in me (especially given the nature of the disaster threatening the island and the way it manifests). There’s still plenty of magic involved though, and I don’t know if I’d call it eco-fiction or anything.

There’s a nice thread of the power of storytelling and mapmaking as well, these human ways we have of chronicling space and time, and learning from the past.

It starts quite lightly, but it got its hooks right into me, and I ended up desperate to know how it was going to end. It’s a strange little book, and though it would be fair to say that I heavily suspected it was going to have a happy ending of some kind, I had no idea how it would get there, or what that happy ending would look like.

And yeah, okay, now I have my ending, I sort of want a sequel.

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Thoughts: Orangeboy, by Patrice Lawrence

I can’t say too much about this one, because the unfolding sense of mystery was one of the best parts. It’s a little younger than my usual reading material, actual YA, not YA aimed at 20somethings, if you catch my drift, but I was so into it that I honest to god snapped at Spuggy for interrupting me during a particularly tense part.

It’s about Marlon, a 16 year old London kid, and the way gang culture overshadows families and areas outside its immediate grasp, reaching through space and time. I loved the characters, how complex they were, the history they had and the compromises they made to live and do what they wanted or needed to do. Lawrence also does that thing that British storytelling does really well, of portraying something of the naffness of reality, if you get what I mean? Marlon is a smart little nerd kid on the fringes of danger that is far out of his experience and depth, and everyone around him knows it.

I really enjoyed this, and it was a chunkier read than I was expecting, full of warmth, teenage banter and silliness, and a backdrop of black London life and culture as well as the darker issues it sets out to explore. Marlon does some stupid things, but I was never frustrated with him. He’s doing his best, and that’s all you can ask of him.

Yep, recommend.

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Thoughts: This Sporting Life, by David Storey

I’ve been pushed out of a lot of comfort zones lately, over and over again, but this one at least I chose to leave. I know absolutely nothing about rugby league (or rugby union for that matter). Buuut is it really about the rugby league? Of course not. It’s about life, and class, and growing up, and masculinity.

Some spoilers follow, as ever.

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Thoughts: Modelland, by Tyra Banks

Oh boy was this a book.

While I was reading it I kept track of many of my immediate thoughts in a large Twitter thread which you may enjoy!

I am going to spoiler the hell out of this book, so be warned. If you live in reachable distance of me I am also more than happy to spread this insane love around, please hit me up if you want to borrow it. This book has been good to me during awful times.

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Speedy End of Year Book Roundup!

I read a lot of books in quick succession at the end of the year, and frankly didn’t have the energy to review them properly because I was recovering from emergency surgery for an ectopic pregnancy (all fine* now) so let’s open the new year with a backlog spring cleaning. I have an ulterior motive, which is that I’m currently blazing through a book that I am very excited to talk about, so let’s boot everything else off the slate, shall we?

Warning: these are going to be short and probably unsatisfying.

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Thoughts: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

I don’t remember much about the film of this one, which I must have seen in 2017, but I remember enjoying it, or at least being quite enthusiastic about the idea of reading the book it was based on.

Well. It was certainly an experience.

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Electric cargo trike review (Babboe Curve Mountain)

Like a lot of people, the pandemic has got me thinking about how I get around. Because we live in the middle of Frankfurt, a car never made sense for us, so we did everything either or foot or by tram and train. That worked well enough for us, but it always meant there were some limitations. Carrying large, heavy objects like crates of drinks or furniture was difficult, and we were limited by the places public transport can reach. What we needed was something that could get to any location in the city and carry a full load of shopping. So, we got a cargo trike.

I’ve now had the trike for a few weeks and racked up around 250 km. Some people have asked me how it is to ride, so here are my thoughts. I’ve split it into the technical stuff and the actual ride experience – if you just want to know how the bike handles, click here to skip the statistics.

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Thoughts: Live By Night, by Dennis Lehane

After The Exorcist, my TBR decided I was in need of a good gangster romp. And boy, was I!

The main thing about Live By Night is that it’s cool in every way you want a gangster novel to be cool. The protagonist, Joe Coughlin, is clever but small fry (for a lot of the book, anyway). He’s unromantic, but decent. He gains a wider understanding of the effects on society of the bootlegging business, and American foreign policy in the 20s and 30s than you might expect from a gangster novel, and deals with it the same way as most of the rest of us deal with our own equivalent knowledge; by making the stopgap amends that he can, and thinking about it from time to time while he continues living as he did before.

There is a lot of what AO3 would call “period-typical racism”, so if you’re not in the mood for an awful lot of racial slurs, some (possibly?) dated and some very much not, then take that into account.

That said, there is a pretty satisfying gangsters vs KKK sequence.

Some of Joe’s ideas on foreign policy and how things are going to go, especially re: Cuba, are interesting, and his experiences in Ybor (heavily immigrant part of Tampa in Florida for the information of The Rest Of Us) are quite, I don’t know, humanist? But at the end of the day, period-typical racism.

I was surprised to see that this was the second book in a series, especially when we follow Joe Coughlin from his very early twenties throughout what must surely be the most eventful years of his life (I mean, for his sake as much as anyone’s) but on looking further into it, the first book follows one of his brothers and the third book is about a couple of weeks later in Joe’s life (unluckily for him, eventful ones!). Maybe I’ll sniff them out at some point.

The writing’s just lovely. The rhythms of the dialogue, from Boston to Tampa, are spot on. And Lehane is a storyteller with confidence – you know the type, or at least I hope you do. The type where you start reading, and immediately stop worrying about whether you’re going to enjoy yourself.

If this is a short post, then blame the heat, not the book. Frankfurt’s been heating up again and it’s been all I can do to sprawl out in front of the fan and give thanks, as I read, that I wasn’t in Florida with Joe. But now it’s over… I’m a little bit sad to leave him there and come back here.

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Thoughts: The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty

I have seen the film of The Exorcist, in the way that a lot of almost-teenage girls did – from behind a sofa.

I was kind of dreading this one.

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