New Books February 2023

February may be the shortest month, but there has been no shortage of books arriving at the library! With a number of anthologies as well as fiction, poetry, and literary studies all making their EFL debut, there’s plenty to choose from. Keep reading to find out more about a few select highlights, or browse all our new books on LibraryThing.

Cover for Forbidden Journeys, edited by Nina Auerbach and U. C. Knoepflmacher.Nina Auerbach & U. C. Knoepflmacher, Forbidden Journeys: Fairy Tales and Fantasies by Victorian Women Writers (1993).

This anthology brings together eleven stories by Victorian women writers, all of which were previously inaccessible to readers in modern published forms. They are presented here with their original illustrations, along with critical introductions and biographical notes which illuminate their historical and social context.

Auerbach and Knoepflmacher group the stories into four sections. The unifying theme is subversion, both of the tropes of traditional children’s literature and of the gendered expectations placed upon Victorian women.

Some reviewers have questioned Auerbach and Knoepflmacher’s commentaries. They’ve queried how subversive women’s association with fairy tales could be, given the genre’s association with domesticity and childcare, as well as a general contemporary acceptance of children’s literature as appropriate for women writers. Others have wondered whether the concerns of late twentieth-century feminism drive the editor’s commentaries, rather than the texts or the authors themselves. Forbidden Journeys is nonetheless a fascinating collection, though it perhaps reveals as much about late twentieth-century reappraisals of fairy tales as it does about the Victorian women who wrote them.

There are numerous works by Auerbach and by Knoepflmacher at the EFL – click the links to browse them on SOLO.

Cover image for The Oxford Book of The Sea, by Jonathan Raban.Jonathan Raban, The Oxford Book of the Sea (2001).

When the subject of your anthology covers seven-tenths of the earth’s surface, no-one is going to be entirely satisfied with your selections – making it all the more impressive that reviewers almost unanimously agree that this remains an excellent anthology.

Raban organises his selections chronologically, ‘from bitter Anglo-Saxon to wry Updike, without the breakwaters of chapter divisions’. But that structural continuity doesn’t mean there’s been no change in literature about the sea. In fact, underpinning Raban’s selections is a growing attention to and curiosity about the sea, especially after the Enlightenment.

With such a large topic, one anthology is never going to cover everything. There is a geographical focus on British, with the addition of some American, writing – while this makes the subject infinitely more manageable, Raban notes that ‘the French sea, the German sea, the Japanese sea are importantly different places’ and an equally rich anthology could be compiled on each (p.xvii). All the same, ‘although the ideal Book of the Sea, the whole sea and nothing but the sea, has yet to be written, this foretaste of it makes a very agreeable companion’.

There are numerous works by Raban at the EFL – you can browse them on SOLO.

Cover image for Demon Copperhead, by Barbara Kingsolver.Barbara Kingsolver, Demon Copperhead (2022).

Demon Copperhead – winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023 – takes Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield as its inspiration. Those familiar with Dickens’s work will recognise not only many characters but many of the events in the titular Demon’s life, as Kingsolver transposes the Victorian poverty, suffering and injustices that Dickens exposed to her own home territory of Appalachia, and a community in the grip of the opioid crisis.

Kingsolver paints a grim picture of ‘a society so ailing, the word bleak is a cheerful way to describe it’. The novel is rescued from becoming merely a grim melodrama by the wry humour and weary cynicism of its narrator, Demon. Many have praised Kingsolver’s characterisation of Demon and her use of ‘the natural poetry of the American vernacular’, a key element of Demon’s charm.

Comparisons will always be drawn between Demon Copperhead and David Copperfield – though not always favourably. Like Dickens, Kingsolver has produced a damning critique of society’s marginalisation of the most vulnerable. It is a striking and compelling examination of poverty and addiction ‘tucked away in the richest country on earth’.

Other work by Kingsolver at the EFL: Flight Behaviour (2013); Unsheltered (2019).

Cover image for Was It for This, by Hannah Sullivan.Hannah Sullivan, Was It for This (2023).

Was It for This is Sullivan’s second collection – her first, Three Poems, won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2018. Encompassing themes of home, tragedy, and the passage of time, this collection is just as stunning as her debut.

The collection contains three poems. The first focuses on the Grenfell fire in 2017, blending the personal with the collective and political as Sullivan, who lived nearby at the time, is wrenched from the ‘cocoon’ of new motherhood and confronts the tragedy. The second explores home: the places Sullivan has lived, the generational chasm synonymous with home ownership, and the memories our homes hold. The third and final poem, Happy Birthday, is preoccupied with ageing and the passage of time.

Sullivan’s poems are powerful and emotional, so compelling that ‘the masterful architecture of her writing is almost invisible’. Her poetry often shifts into prose, as she ‘moves instinctively between forms as if stepping from one room into another’ – fitting, in a collection to which homes are so central. All these elements come together beautifully, as they ‘combine to consecrate the orindary among the exceptional’.

Other work by Sullivan at the EFL: The Work of Revision (2013); Three Poems (2018).

Cover image for The Decameron Projected, edited by the New York Times Magazine.New York Times Magazine (ed.), The Decameron Project: 29 New Stories from the Pandemic (2020).

In the fourteenth century, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote The Decameron. The story takes place during the Black Death which ravaged Europe at that time, following a group of young people who flee Florence, hole up in a country retreat, and share stories to entertain one another – and to process the enormity of the plague.

In 2020, the New York Times Magazine revived the idea and structure of The Decameron in response to COVID-19. They gathered an international group of authors, each of whom crafted their response to the pandemic in the form of a short story. The stories were first published in the New York Times Magazine in July 2020, and are now brought together in this edition.

The stories all have fascinating premises, though the quality of their execution varies; these are after all rapid-fire responses to immediate crisis. The definitive COVID novel is yet to be written – and we almost certainly need more distance from the pandemic before it can become reality. But while we wait, these stories show the power of fiction, and its ability to help both storyteller and listener process anxiety and the isolation which the pandemic brought.

Cover image for The Wife of Bath: A Biography, by Marion Turner.Marion Turner, The Wife of Bath: A Biography (2023).

Following her biography of Chaucer in 2019 (available at the EFL and online), Turner has written another biography. This time, she focuses not on the poet but on one of his creations: Alison, the Wife of Bath.

It may seem strange to write a biography of a fictional character, but what Turner has achieved is a compelling account of both the ordinary medieval women Alison represents and her literary legacy in the 600 years since Chaucer wrote her. Turner argues that Alison is the first fully-rounded character, male or female, in English literature, presented in all her complexity. This complexity has been celebrated, demonised and censured, according to the values of her various interpreters, but ‘at no point has she been a neutral figure’.

Chaucer wrote Alison as ‘a rounded character with an interior life’, and it is this which draws readers to her. Yet adaptations of the Wife of Bath have more often than not depicted her as a monster or reduced her to fit within narrow gender stereotypes – as Turner says, ‘it is only in very recent years that new adaptations are no longer less progressive than the original’. Nevertheless, the Wife of Bath – and our fascination with her – persists; ‘her voice is now louder than ever’.

Also available as an e-book.

Turner discussed this book in a piece for The Conversation – we’ve republished it on the EFL blog.

Other work by Turner at the EFL: A handbook of Middle English studies (2013); Chaucer: A European Life (2019).

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