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On Roads – A Giveaway!

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The more I think about Joe Moran’s “On Roads” (reviewed here) the more I love it and want to share it with others! So I thought I would do a little giveaway!

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I have one brand new copy of the book to give to an interested reader. Names will be pulled out of a hat randomly and if you’re interested leave a comment to enter – all I ask is that you recommend me a really good non-fiction read you think I might like!

I’ll close entries in a week’s time and see if I can persuade OH to do the draw as Youngest Child is no longer on hand – good luck! :)

More Russian Lovelies from the Wonderful Alma Classics!

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Alma Books has long been one of my favourite publishers (you can find plenty of my praise on this site) and I was very pleased to hear that they’re issuing more wonderful Russians!

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Just published is a lovely collection of Chekhov’s short stories “In the Twilight”, which has been rendered readable for us Anglophones by one of my favourite translators, Hugh Aplin. As well as being in a sparkly new translation, the book features the usual excellent Alma extra material in the form of photos and biographical material.

This is a particularly interesting collection of Chekhov’s work as it was the third collection of his work published, and it was put together by the author himself (unlike many modern collections which are selected by publishers and translators). So we have the advantage of reading a work in the form in which Chekhov wanted us to see it.

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Chekhov’s Dacha in Yalta, courtesy Cornucopia magazine

Additionally, as Aplin points out in his interesting introduction, this set of stories catches Chekhov at an intriguing point in his development; here the author is making the transition from his earlier, more humorous pieces, written very much with a view to making a living, to the more serious works for which he would become known.

I’m looking forward to reading this very much, and a review will follow! Kudos to Alma, though, for bringing out this work in a lovely new edition.

Evergreen version of The Gambler - isn't it lovely?

Evergreen version of The Gambler – isn’t it lovely?

If you haven’t explored many Russian classics before, Alma’s Evergreen imprint is a good way to start, as this budget price set of books includes several titles from that country’s great authors. Gogol’s “Petersburg Tales”, Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” and “Notes from Underground” and “The Gambler” (my favourite!), plus Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” are some of the titles available, and at £4.99 you can’t go wrong.

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Finally, I was so excited to find out that Alma are issuing a new collection of some of Bulgakov’s stories under the title “Notes from a Cuff”. These are primarily early pieces, composed when the author was working as a doctor during the Russian civil war; and the best bit is that the book also contains some new works translated into English for the first time!

“Notes on a Cuff” is due out in November – and I’m very much looking forward to reading it! :)

A Secret History of Motorways – and the future we never had…

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On Roads: A Hidden History by Joe Moran

It’s been a little while since I read any non-fiction – I’ve really been submerged in various types of fiction lately, haven’t I? – but I stumbled across Joe Moran’s “On Roads” in The Works at a bargain £1.99 and it sounded too good to resist!

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Moran is a social and cultural historian who currently lectures at Liverpool’s John Moores University and has authored several other books apart from this one – and according to Wikipedia he’s influenced by my beloved Georges Perec among others, so that can’t be bad! “On Roads” tells the story of British roads post-WW2, which sounds though it might be boring – but actually is quite unputdownable! This is not about how roads were dug and concrete poured (although elements of that are discussed); instead, Moran covers a wide range of aspects including the planning and building of motorways, the evolution of service stations, the introduction of speed limits and breathalysers, anti-motorway protesting and a remarkably wide-ranging cultural look at how roads have influenced and shaped our country. We learn about how the road numbering was influenced by Napoleon; how traffic jams form and unform; how the Little Chef developed; the political waves which influenced motorway building; and the wonderful fact that 2.5 million Mills and Boons books are supporting the M6 toll road!

“The M6 Toll Road used up two-and-a-half million old Mills and Boons novels, romantic dreams crushed daily by juggernauts. So thank you, reader, for saving this book from being buried under one of the new lanes on the M1. Mind you, if I had to be pulped I can think of worse fates. Having your unread books vanish into the authorless anonymity of a road feels pleasingly melancholic, like having your ashes scattered in a vast ocean.”

This is cultural history at its best, and Moran’s sweeping range of knowledge is impressive – in fact, his erudition reminded a little of Iain Sinclair’s “London Orbital” but without the mysticism and with a little more of a left-wing bias (although he never lets his political beliefs get in the way of telling a good story and dropping in another fascinating fact). He’ll reference anything from the old band “Hatfield and the North” to J.G. Ballard via Swampy and Greenham Common and fog on the motorway, and the book is never less than engrossing. It’s also very drily funny!

Much of this book stirred memories, too. I’m old enough to remember travelling in the early days of motorways and at a time when there were no facilities such as the current motorway services to stop for the so-called ‘comfort break’ (it was behind the nearest bush when I was a child). I can recall the early Forte service stations and how modern they seemed at the time, and how wonderfully retro they would look now, and this book triggered many long-lost images. There was one particular Forte break we stopped in whilst travelling from Hampshire to Northants and I wish I could identify it….!

We’re often plagued nowadays by thoughts of the future we were predicted we would have, which is nothing like the one we got – “Nostalgia for an age yet to come” as Buzzcocks put it so well. This book brilliantly captures the feeling of anticipation experienced during the 20th century, when progress was seen as a sparkly, bright new future where all would be equal and everyone would have a wonderful life with gadgets to make life easier, and a modern cars and roads to get about on. Moran charts the changing views as the century progressed and attitudes shifted as environmental concerns came to the fore, and it’s sobering to see how quickly viewpoints altered as oil ran low and the car was no longer the be-all and end-all.

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This is an exceptionally good book – readable, enjoyable, informative, funny and thought-provoking. Why it ended up in The Works I don’t know, as I very much agreed with the quote on the front from the Sunday Times: “A beautifully written masterpiece”. I urge you all to go out and buy a copy – now!!!

In which “Books are my Bag” reaches Suffolk….

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and a day that starts badly ends up well!

Yes, I have been a tad grumpy lately – mainly because of bad quality second-hand books – and additional grief was caused by the fact that a planned visit to London yesterday to hang around Foyles with J. during Books are my Bag events had to be cancelled owing to OH being a bit poorly.

So I was pleased to find that BAMB was actually going to be celebrated by the local Waterstones branch (although I only heard the night before thanks to an email from Caboodle – nothing was showing up on the BAMB website). I intended to make an early visit in case events started promptly and all the bags went, but things went pear-shaped as we had to make an unintended visit to the local hospital with 92-year old mother-in-law….. Turned out that there was nothing wrong with her and the visit was a false alarm, but I hit town at midday convinced there would be nothing left in Waterstones.

Frankly, if I’m honest, you wouldn’t even know BAMB existed if you looked at the front of the shop. No displays or bags in the window or events or anything. I wandered upstairs to the fiction section and enquired rather feebly about the bags and the guy said “Oh yes!” and opened a plastic bag containing them – apparently I was the *first* person to ask!!

I had a little chat with him and pointed out that a little publicity might help; they didn’t show up as doing anything on the BAMB website and I’d only found out the night before, and that a window display might help (maybe I should be running the branch…) Anyway, what was nice was that, having been given a free bag, I felt inclined to explore the fiction shelves a bit and having dissed the store a few weeks ago, I have to withdraw my comments a little. Despite having moved their fiction into a smaller area, there was actually quite a good selection – particularly of smaller presses which I hadn’t expected. So well done Waterstones, Ipswich for being a little more adventurous with what you stock!

In the end I bought one *brand new* book in honour of the day – to add to the few second-hand volumes I’d found – and this is what came home with me:

The infamous bag – not a Tracy Emin one, but I don’t mind that at all! Plus the new book I bought which is this:

My first Pereine Press book – yes, Waterstones really *do* stock some of the good smaller presses! “Chasing the King of Hearts” chimes in with the kind of stuff I’m reading at the moment, so it was the obvious choice.

As for some of the second-hand bargains, these first two came from the local library old stock shelves, for 40p each:

I’ve picked up a number of decent books this way, and often in better condition than some of the second-hand books I buy online. And for 40p each! I’m determined to read Trollope soon and have heard good things about this. As for Francis Wyndham, I know I’ve read about him on a blog but I can’t remember where. But I will give his short stories a go!

And finally some charity shop finds:

This was from the Oxfam – again I’ve read about Claudel online (I think on Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) and it sounded intriguing. And last but not least from the Crack On charity shop:

I’d never heard of it but the blurb says it’s a mix of travelogue and family history and I’m intrigued enough to risk 75p on it!

So not a bad day in the end – not the one I had planned, but nevertheless with some lovely bookishness. How did you celebrate Books are my Bag? :)

Reading the Forsyte Saga – a Challenge for 2015!

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You might have noticed I’ve been muttering on about “The Forsyte Saga” recently, having conceived an interest in reading the books and picking up a set of interesting (and not so interesting!) Penguin copies:

Whilst the chattering was going on, Ali at HeavenAli came up with the ideal of having “The Forsyte Saga” as a read-along for 2015 – which I thought was a great idea, because it gives us 9 months for 9 books and plenty of catch up time if we get behind!

Ali has mentioned this in her post here, and if anyone wants to read along with us – please join in! The more the merrier! :)

Remembrance of things past….

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Mary by Vladimir Nabokov

Well, I *did* end up visiting another Nabokov quite soon, didn’t I? To be honest, I’ve been eyeing up this volume for a while – part of my Penguin Great Loves little box set, “Mary” was Nabokov’s first novel, written in Russian in Berlin soon after his marriage in 1925. My version is translated by Michael Glenny in collaboration with Nabokov – which is fascinating because Glenny’s translated many of the Russian books I’ve read and obviously was considered good enough by Nabokov which is praise indeed!

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The book comes with the byline “Love can be rewritten” and that’s a good point at which to start considering “Mary”. The protagonist is a Russian émigré by the name of Ganin, lodging in a dirty Berlin pension with a varied selection of fellow exiles – the old poet Podtyagin, Klara the typist, Alfyorov, plus the two ballet dancers Kolin and Gornotsvetov. The book opens idiosyncratically enough with Ganin and Alfyorov temporarily trapped in the old lift, though they are soon free – but the meeting will have consequences. We learn very little of substance about Ganin’s current life apart from the fact that he has had many and varied jobs while in exile, he has a girlfriend (Klara’s best friend Lyudmila) and his money is running out. The strange little pension is positioned next to a main train line and Ganin’s wanderlust is constantly kindled as he hears the trains thundering by. He plans to leave soon, which Alfyorov announces will be wonderful as the latter’s wife Mary is due to arrive in Berlin. He shows a picture of her to Ganin which is a revelation – because this Mary is the love of Ganin’s life and he has not seen her for many years, since before the revolution in Russia.

As what Ganin calls his shadow life in Berlin carries on around him, he slips mentally into reminiscence where memory of his early life in Russia is stronger and more real than the current one. He recalls vividly his young life, his meeting with Mary and the progress of their affair. His poignant and often painful memories are strong and when he does come back into real life it is to plan that he will meet Mary on her arrival in Berlin, they will be together and in effect run off into the romantic sunlight. Meanwhile, he splits up with his girlfriend, tries to help Podtyagin get a visa to go to Paris and ignores the fact that Klara is in love with him. But will Mary really arrive, will she be *his* Mary and will she still love him?

This wonderful little novella is about much more than just a love affair, however. Although the narrator’s love of Mary is never in doubt, the book is about memory, and is also a kind of lament for a lost Russia and an elegy for the Russian émigrés and what they had lost by leaving their country and losing a whole way of life. Ganin has lost his past and therefore feels homeless and unsettled; his constant restlessness and the feeling he wants to leave are exacerbated by the continual rumbling of the trains, reminding him of places he hasn’t seen:

“Meanwhile nostalgia in reverse, the longing for yet another strange land, grew especially strong in spring. His window looked out onto the railway tracks, so that the chance of getting away never ceased to entice him. Every five minutes a subdued rumble would start to move through the house, followed by a huge cloud of smoke billowing outside the window and blotting out the white Berlin daylight. then it would slow dissolve again, revealing the fan of the railway tracks that narrowed in the distance between the black, sliced-off backs of houses, all under a sky as pale as almond milk.”

I wonder if Nabokov had been reading Proust when he wrote “Mary”, because although it’s a fraction of the size of the Frenchman’s epic work, it’s a powerful evocation of how strong memory can be and how things remembered can be more real than current reality itself.

“Ganin now tried to recapture that scent again, mixed with the fresh smells of the autumnal park, but, as we know, memory can restore to life everything except smells, although nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.”

For Proust it was the taste of a Madeleine, but smell is just as strong a sense and I know that certain perfumes recall certain times and people for me.

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“Mary” is a beautiful little book – full of poignant memories of Russia before its changes, of lost loves and a lost world, and a wonderful portrait of a microcosmic émigré community surviving as best it can. I feel as if Nabokov’s first novel gives us a little more of a glimpse of the author than some of his other fictions do, as I imagine Ganin’s feelings of loss were mirrored by his author. The end of the book is unexpected in some ways, yet once you’ve assimilated it, the best way for the book to end. Ganin has been recreating and carrying on a relationship with Mary in his mind, and to rediscover her in reality simply wouldn’t work. If you haven’t read any Nabokov, this would be a good place to start; if you have, but have not read “Mary”, you have a treat in store!

Margaret Kennedy’s “The Feast” – a clash between good and evil

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Margaret Kennedy’s novel “The Feast”, which I’ve chosen for the Reading Week hosted by Fleur in her World, was published in 1950 and is set in 1947. Located on the Cornish coast, the story centres around the Pendizack hotel run by the Siddals, which is filled with a motley crew of guests.

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The book opens with a prologue in which the vicar of St. Sody, Rev. Bott (who is prone to Popish practices in his Anglican services) is attempting to write a sermon. He tells his visiting colleague that he is struggling with this, as it is meant to be read at a memorial for those killed recently when a portion of the cliff collapsed on the hotel. Bott reveals that the survivors made their way to him after the disaster, and talked – telling him more than perhaps they should. He begins to relate events, and then we flash back to the start of the week leading up to the tragedy.

The book is then divided into seven daily sections, each containing short chapters which introduce the various characters, letting us find out exactly what kind of people will be staying at the hotel. There are the Paleys, a couple with a shell of a marriage who’ve never recovered from the loss of their child; Sir Henry and his invalid wife Lady Gifford plus their four children (three adopted); Mrs. Cove and *her* three impoverished and neglected daughters; Miss Ellis, the bitter housekeeper; Nancibel, the kind-hearted maid; Anna, a hack novelist and family friend of the Siddals, along with her current toy-boy, Bruce; and Canon Wraxton, a fearsome, bullying and troublemaking preacher, accompanied by his downtrodden daughter Evangeline.

All of these characters are at, or reach, some kind of crisis point during the week. Miss Ellis goes on a kind of strike; Nancibel loves and loses; Evangeline achieves a kind of liberation; several relationships come to a head; the Cove children, mistreated and unloved, find the outside world and affection; and so on. It is the Cove girls who plan the feast of the title, as their dream is to be able to dispense bounty to others so some of their fellow guests conspire to help their dream come true – and it is the feast that will be pivotal to who survives and who does not.

“The Paleys always gave off this suggestion of a violence momentarily suspended. They would eat their breakfast every morning in a sombre, concentrated silence, as though bracing themselves for some enormous effort to be sustained during the day.”

In some ways, the book’s format is rather like that of one of those disaster movies which became so popular during the 1970s, in which a group of characters is set up in a situation where a dreadful event will take place and the entertainment as such is in seeing who will make to the end of the film and who will not.

Certainly, that’s a motivation here, and the suspense during reading builds dramatically towards the event at the end. But “The Feast” is much deeper than just a tacky movie – there is meditation on good and evil, some appalling people behaving very nastily, and a sense that the world has survived a War in which ‘good’ won, but that humanity has been tarnished and the Seven Deadly Sins are still very much alive and well. The strong War influence, with rationing still in place and a reference to the horrors of Belsen, informs much of the discussion in the book, and its effects have touched several people: Nancibel, who through her war work has stepped outside the confines expected of her to have a wider outlook on life; Lady Gifford, who fled to the USA and has no commitment or loyalty to her country; Sir Henry, who found a kind of freedom during the war years.

Siddal is the dispossessed head of the family who own the hotel, lurking in a back room in his dressing gown. He is also the slothful philosopher of the book, and despite his grumpy negativity and cynical viewpoint, is one of the most thought-provoking characters.

“I don’t think that man is going to survive. There is this fatal flow in our construction; a kind of moral imperviousness to a truth which we can perceive intellectually. Reason tells us that we should be grateful. Reason tells us that, if we were, we might be able to co-operate in the pursuit of happiness. But reason can’t run the machine. It can only draw up blue prints. Civilization after civilization has gone down into the dust because we cannot manage to be humble.”

He is the one character we know from the start will die, and it is his idleness that is also vital to events in the book…

The sufferings of the various children are a dominant factor in the story, particularly Hebe Gifford; bitterly aware of her adopted status, wise before her years owing to what she’s witnessed Lady Gifford getting up to while they were in America escaping the war, she’s ripe for exploitation by the unscrupulous Anna. In fact, the chapter where Hebe is whisked away by Anna into some extremely unsuitable company is brilliantly and subtly written. Hebe, like the three Cove girls, has suffered much and it is their future which is at stake during the week leading up to the collapse of the cliff. It is the yin and yang of life that Kennedy is depicting here, good and evil balanced against each other. As Siddal comments in a key passage:

“I daresay..that mankind is protected and sustained by undeserved suffering; by all those millions of helpless people who pay for the evil we do and who shield us simply by being there… If any community of people were to be purely evil, were to have no element of innocence among them at all, the earth would probably open and swallow them up. Such a community would split the moral atom.”

It is in fact when the evil, as seen through Kennedy’s eyes, are left alone at the hotel that the atom splits and destroys them…

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Kennedy’s characters are beautifully drawn and very believable. I got thoroughly involved with them; with their lives and their problems and their loves and desires, ending up knowing exactly who I hoped would survive the disaster and who I hoped wouldn’t. Watching them develop through the week was fascinating as Kennedy’s writing brilliantly brought each invidual to life. Seeing Christina Paley emerge from her self-imposed stupor was marvellous, as she started to take control of herself and try to help others; her input allows Evangeline to begin to gain a sense of self and this in turn enables Gerry to escape the smothering control of his family. I don’t want to say too much as giving away any hint of the richness of this novel might spoil it – I just recommend that you read it yourself.

Reading “The Feast” was a hugely enjoyable and rewarding experience and I’m so glad I chose it. In fact, I think it will benefit from a re-read as I was so anxious to reach the conclusion that I’m sure there are many profound little bits I’ve missed. Many thanks to Jane for hosting the week and prompting me to read my first Margaret Kennedy – wonderful stuff!

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