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One book in, Eight books out – the cull begins….

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…and so far it’s been reasonably cathartic! Having said that, many of the books that have gone so far are not mine, as Middle Child and Youngest Child were doing a lot of clearing out last week. But I donated 8 books to the Samaritans and came home with this:

a ring has no end

It’s a lovely Companion Book Club edition, and the story sounds like a bit of a hoot – it seems from reviews I’ve read that the author is attempting a bit of a War and Peace-type epic, spanning the Russian Revolution. Could be good, could be very, very bad – we shall see!

But starting to clear the shelves a bit is essential, and I’m trying to be practical – looking at books and asking myself honestly:

a. will I *really* ever read this or

b. will I *really* ever read this again?

Obviously there are many books I’ll keep for sentimental reasons, but I’m trying to be realistic before I run out of space. And (whispers) – decluttering really *does* make you feel better!! Wish me luck… :)

Recent Reads – The Architects by Stefan Heym

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Still smarting from my failure with “Black Sun”, I fairly rushed into this book and luckily it proved easy to read and very absorbing! I wish I could remember where I stumbled across it – that’s the trouble with all the wonderful blogs and sources of inspiration online. Anyway,this *was* an ideal book for me and first a little about Stefan Heym:

“Helmut Flieg (April 10, 1913 – December 16, 2001) was a German writer, known by his pseudonym Stefan Heym. He lived in the United States (or served in its army abroad) between 1935 and 1952, before moving back to the part of his native Germany which was, from 1949–1990, German Democratic Republic (GDR, “East Germany”). He published works in English and German at home and abroad, and despite longstanding criticism of the GDR remained a committed socialist.”

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It’s worth mentioning up front that the historical context is very important to this novel as this was a generation who trained themselves into a mode of controlled behaviour that radiated from the top downwards. There’s an excellent afterword which explains this and can be read without fear of spoilers, so I’d suggest looking at this first if you’re not familiar with Soviet/Communist history. Anyway, the novel takes place mainly in 1956, an important year in Soviet history; three years after Stalin’s death, and Khrushchev makes his ‘secret speech’ denouncing Stalin and admitting that many people tried and convicted under his regime were innocent. Our protagonists are East German architect Arnold Sundstrom and his younger wife Julia. On the surface the perfect couple, there is much locked away in their past which is never referred to – for Julia’s parents were Arnold’s friends, all three had fled to Moscow during the War to escape persecution from Hitler, and Julia’s parents were tried and executed as traitors. Arnold had promised to take care of their daughter and he did, in what might seem quite an odd way: raising her and then falling in love with her and marrying her! All this is kept hidden under the surface, gradually being revealed, as the novel progresses , and the couple initially live a regular life, governed by a socialist ideology in which Julia has total faith, with their son Julian, work colleagues and friends.

Life in 1950s GDR is not easy, however – there are the constant uncertainties of toeing the party line; ensuring your building plans are socialist and not Western-influenced; and trying to read the subtle nuances required in your relations with other communists, where every word could be a potential mistake and you can never really say what you feel. Into this mix comes a returning comrade, Daniel Wollin – also an architect and friend of Julia’s parents, but one who has been in camps for years and has now been freed under the change of regime.

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Even the fact that he’s been pardoned is enough to shake the status quo for the Sundstroms, particularly Arnold; because if Daniel is innocent and wrongly tried, so are many others and the repercussions could be immense. Arnold struggles to keep pace with the sudden shifts in power and favour, while trying to design an extension to his triumph, World Peace Road, along with Julia (who is now also an architect) and the rest of his team. But things begin to unravel – Julia’s total faith in the socialist way is seriously undermined by these changes, and she falls into an affair with John Hiller, another one of the team. There are hints of dreadful deeds and betrayals in the past; Arnold cannot cope; and the secrets start to come out. As the structure of the communist world starts to shift, so do the relationships within it…

“Again, his words remained hanging in midair. Why, why, why, he kept thinking. Why had they done this? Why not let the dead stay buried? He would never be through telling; there was no end to it once you started unravelling that tangle, and every inch of the thread was dipped in blood.”

I think this is a deceptively deep novel, and the more I think about it, the cleverer it seems and the more it’s trying to say. This is a book of ideas and ideals, full of symbolism. The architects of the title are not simply designers of buildings; we talk about architects of revolution, and the buildings are symbolic of the brave new world itself and the regime. Although impressive and imposing on the outside, they crumble and crack under the veneer and it’s obvious that Heym is using this imagery as an analogy for communism under Soviet control. The novel brilliantly captures life under communist rule in East Germany with its petty party politics and flexible loyalties, and some of the scenes where Sundstrom is conversing with his superior, almost in coded speech, are quite chilling.

“Read that speech and look at our part of the world … at the houses we build and the goods we make,. the lectures we hear and the novels we write, shoddy, false, unsatisfactory. It’s like a blight that has come over us. It’s a way of running things that has nothing to do with socialism or democracy or even dictatorship of the proletariat. It produces people whose spine is crooked from constantly looking back over their shoulders and whose mind is split from saying one thing and thinking another.”

However, this perhaps make it sounds as if this book is a dry, socialist-realist novel, and it certainly isn’t. Although it’s shot through with the issues it discusses, it’s also a gripping read. The characters are mostly real and fallible, the relationships between them well-drawn and the East German society vividly portrayed. The dovetailing of architecture, ideology, morals and real life is fascinating and perhaps unusual in fiction. However, there was one point where felt that the characterisation suffered a little bit, and this was when it came to the women…

To be more specific, the female characters did come across a little clichéd; maybe if I’m generous this was intentional, and under this kind of regime they’re reduced to stereotypes. However, they did fit into the moulds – the naive beauty (Julia), the ugly but sexually potent woman (Waltraut), the unapproachable, sparkling society girl (Kathchen), the plain party wife (Elise Tolkening); and were often defined very much by their sexuality. Julia’s story is in some places more interesting than her character itself, although she does develop as the book goes on, and her complex relationship with her demanding and irritating son is perhaps meant to mirror the troubled relationship with her father-figure husband. Is her lack of memory of her childhood credible? I thought not at first but then under the communist regime it was often vital to forget in order to survive. But I did find myself questioning the denouement a little as well (SPOILER ALERT!) , as it felt as if Julia was destined to spend her life swapping father figures, as if the loss of her real one had made it impossible for her to have a relationship with someone her own age.

Nevertheless, these are minor quibbles. In the end this was a powerful, gripping novel which really absorbed me and has left me still pondering on its contents days after finishing it. I definitely want to explore more East German fiction if it’s as rich and rewarding as “The Architects” was!

Happiness is…

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…discovering that your retired-lawyer OH has a copy of Sybille Bedford’s “The Best We Can Do” lurking on his shelves:

bedford

While you’re discovering Bedford for the first time. And loving her prose. And it’s a lovely old green Penguin. And it’s a first edition. And it’s in *really* good condition.

I wonder if he would notice if it went missing….?

Very Inspiring Blogger Award!

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I was delighted to find that not one but two of my favourite bloggers, Annabel and Victoria, have kindly nominated me for a Very Inspiring Blogger award – which is a lovely compliment and their kind words about the Ramblings were very much appreciated! I *do* love my Russian lit, which Annabel highlighted, although I try to read other books as well! And Victoria, if the reviews appear effortless that’s a wonderful accolade, but they really aren’t!

very-inspiring-blog-award-logoThe rules of the award are:

  • Thank and link to the person who nominated you.
  • List the rules and display the award.
  • Share seven facts about yourself.
  • Nominate 15 other amazing blogs and comment on their posts to let them know they have been nominated
  • Optional: display the award logo on your blog and follow the blogger who nominated you

So – seven facts about myself? Tricky!

1. I’m Scottish – born in Edinburgh though I haven’t lived there since I was 6. I still feel a strong connection and attraction to the country and would like to visit again. Bagpipes make me sentimental!

2. I come from a family of readers – my mum and dad were always reading when I grew up (although their tastes are very different from mine now!) In fact, my mum’s Mary Stewarts and the Agatha Christies lying around the house were most useful as a transition to adult books! Sadly, my dad doesn’t read any more since having two strokes a few years back, but mum still does when she has a moment!

3. I also love music – in fact, I grew up watching The Monkees TV show, and I still kind of imagine my life as having a soundtrack to it. The introduction of the Walkman was a high point in my life… Consequently:

4. I never leave home without a book and a personal music player – even if I’m not going far, I don’t like to be without reading matter or music! I panic regularly that there isn’t enough time left in my life to read all the books I want to – but I’m trying very hard to get to them!

5. I wanted to be a librarian when I grew up – but somehow I ended up as a secretary, then a mother, then working in a school office. Go figure! Mind you, if I *had* ended up working with books all day I might not love them so much… But I can still dream about running a bookshop – though I would never want to part with the books.

6. I’m a vegetarian – I converted when I was 18 and never looked back. If I had more time and willpower I would be vegan – and I mostly am, apart from the odd ingredient in some foods.

7. I have a tiny bit of an obsession (well, actually, a huge one) with Russia and its culture. I blame studying the Russian Revolution at the impressionable age of 12…

15 blogs is perhaps optimistic, but here are 10 favourites below in no particular order:

1. The Literary Sisters – a fairly new-to-me blog, posts mainly by Kirsty, who’s a voracious reader and her love of books is very infectious.

2. Yasmine Rose’s Book Blog – another new-to-me blog, and Yasmine reminds me of me when I was younger, with her strong feminist leanings and feisty views!

3. HeavenAli – Ali’s was one of the first blogs I started to follow and I share her love of Viragos and Persephones. And I’m always impressed with the breadth of her reading and her passion for Thomas Hardy!

4. Adventures in reading, writing and working at home – Liz was also an early discovery and very often our tastes coincide quite dramatically! Again, she has such a wide range of reading and always has interesting reviews.

5. Mirabile Dictu – I love to read Kat’s blog – a mixture of erudite commentary on books and tales of her escapades with her cousin!

6. Silver Threads - always an interesting read and Nancy covers a lovely range of books too!

7. JacquiWine’s Journal – Jacqui’s blog is new to me but I love the eclectic mix of wine and reading!

8. 746 Books – Cathy has undertaken the rather admirable task of reading all 746 books on her TBR – I watch in awe and envy and wish I could be so disciplined!

9. Buried in Print – I’ve followed BIP for some time. She has a wonderful tendency to focus on Canadian literature which is quite fascinating and even if I don’t always read the same authors I love to read the posts.

10. Just One More Page – Book reviews! Cats with things on heads! ‘Nuff said – great fun!

This was a fun meme – thanks for nominating me Annabel and Victoria!

Recent Reads – Prospero’s Cell by Lawrence Durrell

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I should confess up front, before going on to talk about this book, that I’ve never read anything by Gerald Durrell (not even My Family and Other Animals – though I am of course aware of it, as it’s one of OH’s favourite books of all time!) So really, I’m approaching the Durrells and their work with a fresh eye, and all that’s set me to reading this was a wonderful article in the latest “Slightly Foxed” magazine! But I like travel-type memoirs, I like old Fabers and I like good writing – so I hoped this would fulfil all the criteria! And actually, I think it does!

Wikipedia says of Durrell: “Lawrence George Durrell (27 February 1912 – 7 November 1990) was an expatriate British novelist, poet, dramatist, and travel writer, though he resisted affiliation with Britain and preferred to be considered cosmopolitan. It has been posthumously suggested that Durrell never had British citizenship, though more accurately, he became defined as a non-patrial in 1968, due to the amendment to the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962. Hence, he was denied the right to enter or settle in Britain under new laws and had to apply for a visa for each entry. His most famous work is the tetralogy The Alexandria Quartet.”

The book opens in 1937 with Lawrence Durrell and N. (his first wife Nancy) arriving on Corfu in the blue mediterranean – and the prose of the first paragraph is enough to hook you! This is still a primitive place, with superstitions, lack of plumbing and a belief in the local saint. In a series of pieces of varying length, Durrell records day-to-day life and impressions on the island; their dear friends and neighbours, including four characters credited at the beginning – Theodore Stephanides, Zarian, Cound D. and Max Nimiec; and the history and legends of Corfu itself. They swim and drink, witness olive pressing and the vine harvesting, talk and discourse on history vs myth, and all the time against the backdrop of a wonderful Mediterranean island. As the book comes to a close, we suddenly find that there a rumbles of War in the offing – this seeming paradise is under threat.

Lawrence and Nancy

Lawrence and Nancy

If I’m honest, it took me a little while to get into this book, and I’m not sure why – maybe I was just expecting too much, or had just gained a differing image of what the book was like from the review. But once I got sucked in and involved, it was hard to leave. Durrell’s prose is very beautiful and evocative, bringing the island, its dazzling light, its blue sea and sky very much to life. In many ways, he gives away little about himself and Nancy, a point picked up in his Wikipedia entry which described the book as “somewhat fictionalised”. And it is worthwhile noting that the rest of the Durrell clan seem to have been spread over the island at the same time, but you wouldn’t know it from this book! I would say not fictionalised – more that the book is characterised as much by what Durrell left out so that he could concentrate on the portrait he wanted to paint of his friends and the place they were in. Count D. in particular is a wonderful character, an amateur philosopher who comes out with some fabulous sayings:

“Philosophy…is a doubt which lives in one like a hookworm, causing pallor and lack of appetite. Suddenly one day you awake and realize with complete certainty that ninety-five per cent of the activities of the human race – to which you supposed you belonged – have no relevance whatsoever for you. What is to become of you?”

greece1_2249153b

And there is a reason for this. At the end of the book, written in Alexandria while the war was on, Durrell brings us briefly up to date with the fate of the island after the fighting. It’s clear that he wanted the book to be a kind of tribute to Corfu and its people, a record and a memorial of his time there, reflecting his sadness at the destruction and his poignant feelings about the past. It’s a moving epilogue to what is a beautiful tale, recording a simple, in many ways idyllic life which has been lost. Innocence is destroyed by war and can never be regained.

“Two days before Christmas we climbed the dizzy barren razorback of Pantocratorus to the monastery from which the whole strait lay bar, lazy and dancing in the cold haze. Lines of dazzling water crept out from Burtrino, and southward, like a beetle on a plate, the Italian steamer jogged its six knots towards Ithaca. Clouds were massing over Albania, but the flat lands of Epirus were frosty bright. In the little cell of the warden monk, whose windows gave directly upon the distant sea, and the vague rulings of waves to the east, we sat at a deal table and accepted the most royal of hospitalities – fresh mountain walnuts and pure water from the highest spring; water that had been carried up on the backs of women in stone jars for several hundred feet.”

I ended up loving this book very much – for its conjuring up of the atmosphere of Corfu, for the wonderful characters and their conversations, for the glimpse into a lost (and perhaps simpler) world. And I *am* glad I have the other two volumes to look forward to!

(As an afterthought, has anyone read The Alexandria Quartet – and would you recommend it?)

A Quiet Weekend….

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… well – on the book buying front, anyway. (Having all three offspring temporarily at home is *not* quiet…)

However, I did manage to pop into town at the weekend, and came across these three titles:

Virago Travellers are always a delight to find (though the copy of “High Albania” is an upgrade for my existing copy). As for Fred Vargas – I *know* I’ve read about her books somewhere on one of the lovely blogs I follow but I simply can’t remember which. However, I like a crime diversion, and French crime is usually pretty reliable. In fact, it’s calling for me very strongly at the moment…. :)

The Legs of Izolda Morgan by Bruno Jasienski

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SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245One of the many joys of being involved in Shiny New Books has been that of discovering new authors and publishers, and I was particularly pleased to be pointed in the direction of Bruno Jasienski, whose work has been published by Twisted Spoon Press.

180px-Bruno_Jasieński_portrait

Of Polish birth, Jasienski moved around in the fragmented Europe of the early 20th century, involving himself in Futurism and then rejecting it, finally falling victim to Soviet purges in 1938. His fictions are wonderful, and having read and reviewed “The Legs of Izolda Morgan”, which you can find here, I’m keen to explore his work further.

 

Legs-215x300

A word, too about Twisted Spoon Press, based in Prague. Their list of works, almost all the authors unknown to me, is very, very enticing. And their books are beautiful objects too – hardbacks with illustrations, wonderful covers and all the important little details like ribbon bookmarks. It’s books like this that make you happy to be a reader!

There’s lots and lots to read at Shiny New Books – so do head on over and take a book!

 

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