Book of the month

Welcome to the Book of the month page. We have fallen a bit behind here! If you would like to suggest a Book of the Month and write a review please contact us.

Each month we try to feature a book from Penguin's publishing house. These are introduced by Frostie, Penguin-in-Chief of the Penguin Archive Project. Named in honour of Eunice Frost, the influential Penguin editor and the publishing house's first woman director, Frostie currently resides in the Project team office, when she's not sorting through lost treasures in the Archive.

The Penguin Study Day in November 2011 was delighted to welcome Helen Gordon to talk about her debut novel Landfall. She was joined in conversation by her editor Juliet Annan. Penguin Books say:  Landfall marks the arrival of a new, intriguing voice and a major literary talent.

Alice Robinson is having doubts about her job on a fashionable London art magazine. Agreeing to house sit for her parents, she moves back to the suburban streets of her childhood, a world of Girl Guides, Tudorbethan houses and blossom trees, and finds herself confronting some truths about the way she's chosen to live her life. How can we connect? What are the maps and manuals that show us how to live today?

Exploring the landscape of the South East and the nature of life on an island, this clear-eyed, mordantly witty, warm and unsparing novel culminates in one of the most surprising and destabilizing endings you'll have read in some time.

Previously in this section Frostie and Penguin Archive Project PhD student Rob Crowe took a look at Roger Lancelyn Green's Tales of the Greek Heroes.

Frostie the Penguin

Tales of the Greek Heroes (Puffin, 1958)
Roger Lancelyn Green

Roger Lancelyn Green (1918-1987) was a Penguin regular, and his books, especially those published under the Puffin imprint, were (and still are) a standard part of young people’s literary upbringing. Tales of the Greek Heroes is a collection of well-known stories – or so they now seem, no doubt partly due to this very book! – about the Greek gods and heroes: from Admetus to Zeus and most things in between. Breathtaking feats of strength, daring, cunning and foolhardiness are the order of the day. It remains in print and has been honoured with Puffin Classic status in recognition of its huge sales and canonical status. It was reissued in a thicker, chewable edition in 2004. This new version carries brooding illustrations by Alan Longford, which are closer to the traditions of modern fantasy and graphic novels than the stylised, comfy cartooning (which Frostie loves, by the way) of Betty Middleton Stanford’s originals.

Lancelyn Green’s signature ability was to remake in shrunken and digestible form the mythic and legendary classics from a variety of cultures. His knowledge was broad and deep (he worked his magic over British, Norse and Egyptian folklore too), and in addition to his children’s literature he produced, to select a few from an oeuvre of over 100 titles, authoritative biographies of Peter Pan’s J.M. Barrie, C.S. Lewis (a friend and co-Inkling from his studies at Oxford) and the Scottish man o’letters Andrew Lang. He was also a renowned expert on the life and work of Lewis Carroll.

Tales of the Greek HeroesGreek myths have seemingly always demanded to be retold, and they have often been popularised, each generation leaving its stamp on the sprawling corpus. For example, the task of setting out the Odysseus story for younger readers attracted Charles Lamb (he of Tales from Shakespeare and other family dramas) and Charles Kingsley’s The Heroes . In the United States, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales did the job of bringing Greece home. But popularisations have rarely been more popular than Penguin’s, and this book’s status as a cheap and accessible bestseller, many times reprinted, allowed the stories of Greek mythology to be absorbed by successive generations of keen Puffin readers.

This work, along with The Tale of Troy (also 1958, telling the stories of the Trojan War and its protagonists in reasonably orthodox fashion), was the latest in a tradition of popularising versions of classical myth, but its outstanding success and pervasive influence ensured that filmic adaptations such as stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981) played to audiences already familiar with the material. Lancelyn Green attempted to give readers a sense of what he saw as the continuity and relatedness of the Greek myths, rather than simply to move from one isolated story to another. Even the epilogue hints that the story meaningfully continues elsewhere, directing the reader to The Tale of Troy*.    

Frostie particularly likes that in the new edition, even though the target audience remains the young (rather than nostalgic olds), the prefatory and rather grown-up quotations at the head of each chapter have been retained. As well as various snippets of Shakespeare, Matthew Arnold, William Morris and the Brownings, we have RLG’s own translations of bits of Pindar and the obscure Greek epicist Nonnos. But above all, what pleases her is the recyclability of the stories and the re-readability of this version. Lancelyn Green’s stripped down, swift and vital prose rarely tires. Moreover, it is frequently punctuated by something to remind Frostie that she’s taking her turn in reading a body of lore, which, in one reshaping or another, has reflected all that has gone before and will influence much that is to come.

*Frostie learns from one of her less learned friends that TTOT was still being used as a prescribed book for sixth-form students at around the turn of the last century.