As with many people, the pandemic has disrupted my sleep patterns. I often fail to go to sleep or wake at about 2.30am and can’t fall asleep again. I often read at that time (also listen to podcasts, or just fret). For these bouts of insomnia I like books of short stories, or with short sections. I am not trying to be bored to sleep but to occupy my restless mind. These three books have answered the need recently.
- Rose Macaulay: Personal Pleasures: Essays on enjoying life
- Zora Neale Hurston: Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick
- Marina Benjamin: Insomnia
Personal Pleasures: Essays on enjoying life by Rose Macaulay
Ideal for dipping into, Rose Macaulay presents sixty essays on a range of topics. She gives us something on Cows, Flattery, Hatching Eggs, Elephants in Bloomsbury, Heresies, Logomachy, Solitude, Reading, Writing and many other subjects. Some are short, less than a page, others much longer or with subdivisions.
Notice the sub-heading: essays on enjoying life. What is on show is a writer who is confident that she has something to say, and that she can showcase her wit, her love of words and her erudition. She enjoys using arcane words and constructing them as well.
The lightness of touch reflects her position at the time: a respected and confident writer, in a steady if clandestine relationship, and earning enough from her writing to be independent. Personal Pleasures was published in 1935, and much was yet right with the world, or at least not yet of great concern in Europe (although there are several references to the Nazi Party and her objections to their policies and actions.)
Handheld Press has been responsible for reissuing many of her books, some of which I have reviewed on the blog (see below).
Personal Pleasures: Essays on enjoying life by Rose Macaulay, first published in 1935 and a new edition has been issued by Handheld Press (2021). I found the introduction and notes by Kate Macdonald to be invaluable.256pp
Non-Combatants and Others: writings against war (1916) by Rose Macaulay
Potterism (1920) by Rose Macaulay
The Towers of Trebizond (1956) by Rose Macaulay
Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston
This is such a good title, for it immediately conveys something to be considered, something unexpected. Besides it is much longer than most titles. Genevieve West, who collected and edited these stories, made a good choice there. And it matches the title of her best-known novel: Their Eyes Were Watching God.
The twenty-one stories in Hitting a Straight Lick are told in a mixture of phonetic colloquialisms or dialect and more conventional narrative style. You might imagine that they were difficult to read, but I soon got used to the rhythms of the voices.
Most of the stories feature Black people living in meagre conditions. The women have endless household chores to do while earning money at the same time. The men work in the docks, or in other industrial settings often in very low paid posts. The men woo women, often younger women who are newly arrived in their community, and they try to use violence to discipline and control the women to whom they are married. I enjoyed most the stories when the women get their own back. One character who appealed to me was Caroline Ports in The Country in the Woman. She had some amusing and innovative ways of deterring women from messing with her husband. Here’s the best example:
Delphine Hicks – Caroline had waited for her beside the church steps one First Sunday (big meeting day) and had thrown her to the ground and robbed the abashed vampire of her underthings. Billowy underclothes were the fashion and in addition Delphine was large. Caroline had seen fit to have her pony make the homeward trip with its hindquarters thrust into Delphine’s ravished clothes. (197)
There is genuine tension in Sweat, a story about a man who provokes his wife with a snake. And some stories feature very human situations, such as the older man who marries a much younger wife only to find that his much-loved son and his wife fall in love in Under the Bridge.
Zora Neale Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891 and raised in Eatonville, Florida. She died in 1960. Her grandparents had been slaves, but she made the best of new opportunities in the 20s and ‘30s. Her name is often associated with the Harlem Renaissance (along with Nella Larsen and Langston Hughes).
There are some less appealing stories in this collection, but overall it has been a pleasure to share my waking hours with this innovative and witty writer.
Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston, her collected short stories, first published together in 2020 by HQ (Harper Collins). Collected and edited by Genevieve West. 253pp
Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston
The first two books were written around the same time but are sharply contrasted. In March last year I wrote a post for this blog on the theme of sleep. I included this slim and invaluable volume:
Insomnia by Marina Benjamin (2018)
Recommend by Deborah Levy:
A sublime view of the treasures and torments to be found in wakefulness. Entertaining and existential, the brightest star in this erudite, nocturnal reverie in search of lost sleep, is the beauty of the writing itself.
This book sits on my bedside table and I continue to dip into its paragraphs and reflections on insomnia and sleep as required.
Insomnia by Marina Benjamin, published by Scribe in 2018. 144pp.
You can find the post Sleep in Fiction by clicking on the link.