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The Rise, The Fall and The Rise by Brix Smith Start

Say the name of Brix Smith to people of a certain age and musical persuasion and they’ll instantly recognise her as a one-time member of legendary punk band “The Fall”. Notorious for the lo-fi quality of their records and their curmudgeonly attitude, they were huge favourites of DJ John Peel; however, it was only with the arrival of Brix into their fold that they achieved more mainstream success.

Brix’s connection with the band doesn’t end with her songwriting talents, however; she was famously married to the band’s driving force, Mark E. Smith, and when that marriage failed had a high-profile relationship with musician Nigel Kennedy. The media have no doubt been happy to pigeonhole her, and so her wonderful memoir “The Rise, The Fall, The Rise”, published yesterday, is a frank, revelatory and fascinating read and I was delighted to be offered a review copy.

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Brix was born Laura Elisse Salenger and raised in Los Angeles by her mother, a TV executive. The family moved to Chicago when Brix’s mother remarried, and after studying in Vermont she took up music, adopting the name “Brix” after her favourite Clash song, “The Guns of Brixton”. In April 1983 she met Mark E. Smith at a concert in Chicago; by July of that year she was married to him and living in Manchester; and by the end of the year she was recording with The Fall. However, marriage to Smith and life in the band was not easy, and in 1989 the couple divorced. Brix rejoined the group in 1990s, before finally leaving in 1996. At that point, her life went through many highs and lows until things got back on track after her marriage to entrepreneur Philip Start in the early 2000s. Reinventing herself as a fashionista and TV presenter, she’s set up a boutique chain with her husband and regularly appears on fashion shows.

“The Rise…” is a riveting book, and a chance for Brix to tell her story from her side, cutting through rumour and hype. Her American upbringing was not an easy one, overshadowed by drugs, rape and eating disorders, and her relationship with her biological father was very tricky. However, she was blessed with a wonderful stepfather, who eventually adopted her, and she did manage to make her peace with her biological one.

(The Fall go commercial!)

The sections dealing with her time in The Fall are particularly revelatory, and her portrait of Smith is vivid. In the early part of their relationship they were obviously soul mates, and the tales of life in 1980s Manchester, touring with the band and recording John Peel sessions are fascinating. Frankly, they seem like an unlikely couple – a troubled American girl and a Northern lad on the way to mutating into an Andy Capp lookalike, so it’s amazing things worked out so well at the start. The sections where Brix first starts to get to grips with the north of England in the 1980s are fascinating – it was obviously a real culture shock for her. But their marriage was marred by his infidelity; Smith was a difficult man at the best of times, and during the later 1996 tour (after their break-up) he seemed to become completely unbuttoned, spiralling into a terrible state through drink and drugs, and the behaviour presented here is quite appalling. Brix eventually fled The Fall for good to save her own sanity, and it’s wonderful to see that she’s found the confidence to return to music and reclaim the songwriting she contributed to band in her live shows.

Also fascinating is the time she spent with Nigel Kennedy; the media hoopla and circus surrounding him is incredible, and it certainly takes some stamina to survive that. The constant knock-backs would be enough to undermine anyone, and having struggled with self-esteem issues from a young age, picking herself up and starting again must have been particularly difficult. In fact, what shines through in “The Fall…” is Brix’s strength; to survive her unconventional upbringing, her years in The Fall and her crises of identity must have taken some resilience, and she’s truly an inspirational woman.

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Women have never had it easy in the music business; in fact, you could say women don’t have it easy in life. However, the punk and post-punk years brought forth a number of remarkable and strong woman performers who produced some of the best music around. Their memoirs have made waves in the publishing world recently (I’m thinking of Viv Albertine and Tracey Thorn here) – but I think they’d be hard-pressed to compete with Brix Smith Start’s book for her unflinching honesty and the sheer wildness of her story. Needless to say I loved the book – highly recommended!

Review copy kindly provided by Lee Brackstone/Faber for which many thanks!

Fleeing the Russian Civil War

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Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi

As I mentioned in my review earlier today, when I covered the wonderful “Rasputin and Other Ironies”, there is a second Teffi book arriving today from Pushkin Press, in the form of her stunning memoir, “Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea”, translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson and Irina Steinberg. Teffi left Russia for good in 1919 and this volume, first published in instalments in Paris between 1928 and 1930, tells of her flight from her homeland.

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The story opens in an autumnal Moscow, cold and suffering from food shortages. As people scavenge to survive, Teffi is offered temporary relief via a rather elusive impresario nicknamed Gooskin. The latter has a plan to take Teffi to Kiev and Odessa, doing public readings, as there is reputedly more food there (and they’ll also be in less immediate danger from the conflict). However, getting out of Moscow is not so easy in the middle of Civil War and the obtaining of passports takes some wangling. However, Teffi is a much-loved figure in Russia and the necessary permissions are eventually obtained. So in the company of Gooskin and some fellow performers, Teffi takes leave of Moscow and begins a long and tortuous journey that will eventually lead her into exile.

And it’s a journey that’s fraught with problems; Civil War Russia was a dangerous and insecure place to live in, with vicious and cruel fighting taking place. Those on both sides were not just conscripts or regular soldiers; they were people deeply committed to their cause, who had come through the horrors of the first world war and were now battling for an ideology. So the country was desperately unstable, with pockets of conflict everywhere, and the traveller never quite knew whose hands he or she would fall into next.

Now that something had been arranged, I realized just how much I wanted to leave. Now that I could gather my thoughts, I felt frightened. I could see what life would be like for me if I stayed. It wasn’t death itself that I was afraid of. I was afraid of maddened faces, of lanterns being shone in my eyes, of blind mindless rage. I was afraid of cold, of hunger, of darkness, of rifle butts banging on parquet floors. I was afraid of screams, of weeping, of gunshots, of the deaths of others. I was tired of it all. I wanted no more of it. I had had enough.

In engaging prose, Teffi takes us on the journey with her, as the troupe carefully make their way to Kiev, and then Odessa. There are run-ins with troops and border guards; encounters with fans; ghastly lodgings and influenza; and all the time the spectre of pursuit and troops. Because make no mistake, despite Teffi’s light tone, she’s travelling through a very dangerous landscape where brutal and unspeakable things have been, and are still, happening and where humanity is losing its grip.

Teffi during WW1

Teffi during WW1

Teffi is never anything less than an engaging narrator, and reading this I couldn’t help wishing she was somebody I had been able to make the acquaintance of. She’s always resilient, trying to put the best spin on everything, but the moments of humour and irony are counterbalanced with the horrors being experienced in Russia at the time; and Teffi is clear-eyed enough to know exactly what is happening in her beloved homeland.

And then there I was, rolling down the map. Fate had pushed me on, forcing me wherever it chose, right to the very edge of the sea. Now, if it so wished, it could force me right into the sea – or it could push me along the coast. In the end, wasn’t it all the same?

Eventually, Teffi reaches the end of the road; in Novorossiisak, despite trying to hang onto some normality and making appearances at a nearby town, it becomes clear that there is nowhere else to go but abroad. Constantinople is the next stop for Teffi and we take our leave of her as she bids an emotional farewell to the homeland she would never see again. It’s a poignant moment, especially for the reader who knows that Teffi will travel on, eventually spending the majority of the rest of her life in Paris. In essence, the whole of the book is a long farewell to her former life and it’s quite obvious that she never really managed to accept the loss of her Russian life or the fact of Bolshevik rule.

I close my eyes and gaze into the transparent green water far beneath me…. A merry shoal of tiny fish is swimming by. A school of tiny fish. Evidently they are being led by some wise fish, some fish sage and prophet. With what touching obedience the entire shoal responds to his slightest movement. If he moves do they all. And there are large number of these fish. Probably about sixty of them. Circling, darting this way and that way, wheeling about… Oh little fish, little fish, can you trust this leader of yours? Are you sure your foremost philosopher-fish is not simply a fool?

I really can’t recommend this book highly enough; if you want a glimpse into the chaos of the Russian Civil War through the eyes of a great writer, this book will give you that. It will also show you the highs and lows that human beings can reach, how friendships can come from unexpected sources, and how fragile the thread holding our lives is. Teffi’s writing is vivid and evocative, and while I was reading “Memories” I was living the experiences alongside her, both good and bad. Thank goodness she survived to tell her tale….

******

As an aside, kudos have to go to Pushkin Press again for producing yet another perfect book. A beautiful object to look at and read, printed on quality paper with a lovely jacket, it also has a map showing Teffi’s route, exemplary notes by Robert Chandler and an excellent foreword from Edythe Haber, who’s apparently working on a biography of Teffi (squee! very excited!). Additionally, there’s a fascinating list of other memoirs from the era that are worth reading (and I might just be investigating those at the moment….) Really, this is exactly how a book should be – other publishers take note!:)

Glimpses of a lost world

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Rasputin and Other Ironies by Teffi

One of my highlights from 2014 was the discovery of the writings of the wonderful Teffi. I reviewed her “Subtly Worded” collection when Pushkin Press brought this out and was swept away by her wonderful, evocative prose. So as you might imagine, I was very, very excited to discover that the publisher was bringing out two more Teffi volumes; the first, a collection of autobiographical pieces entitled “Rasputin and Other Ironies”, is out today – and it’s a treat!

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Isn’t the cover beautiful????

Teffi was a master of the short form, and the pieces gathered here are arranged chronologically to build up a picture of her life. As one of the translators, Anne Marie Jackson, points out in her introductory note, much of her writing harks back to her past and all through her life as an émigré she had a longing for her lost homeland. The book is divided into four sections, covering aspects of her work, her early life, her experiences during the revolution and civil war, and finally her portraits of other writers and artists. Two of the pieces were previously published in “Subtly Worded” and an earlier version of one in Robert Chandler’s exemplary collection, “Russian Short Stories: From Pushkin to Buida”.

Teffi has the reputation of a humorist, but there’s really so much more to her than that. Playing the buffoon, supposedly writing light-weight prose, actually allows her to get many sharp observations across. Her prose is quite beautiful and evocative, and she conjures up her life as a child wonderfully.

The morning of each long day began joyfully; thousands of small rainbows in the soapy foam of the wash bowl; a new, brightly coloured light dress; a prayer before the icon, behind which the stems of pussy willow were still fresh; tea on a terrace shaded by lemon trees that had been carried out from the orangery in their tubs; my elder sisters, black-browed and with long plaits, only just back from boarding school for the holidays and still seeming strange to me; the slap of washing bats from the pond beyond the flower garden, where the women doing the laundry were calling out to one another in ringing voices; the languid clucking of hens behind a clump of young, still small-leaved lilac. Not only was everything new and joyful in itself but it was, moreover, a promise of something still more new and joyful.

She’s also a very astute observer of character and her memories of time spent working on left-wing journals and meeting with Lenin are priceless. As for her recollections of Rasputin, they’re really fascinating and it’s chilling to see him trying to exercise mesmeric techniques on her. Fortunately, our Teffi is strong-minded enough to resist, but she paints a clear portrait of what can happen when someone like Rasputin gains influence over weak-minded rulers and everyone else then crowds round trying to curry favour. But there is humour, too, and Teffi’s turns of phrase are wonderful – for example, she describes one gent’s rather spectacular sounding beard as being “like a bush of Austrian broom. Each of the curly dark hairs on his head grew in a distinct spiral, and one half-expected these spirals to chime together in the wind.”

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However, Teffi doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and one of the most powerful pieces in the book is “The Gadarene Swine”. Here, she lambasts the powerful fleeing Russia during the Civil War to save their own money and skins, and laments the fate of the ordinary people, the refugees unable to survive or find food and shelter during the conflict who leave with nothing.

“Rasputin and Other Ironies” was a real joy to read; the translations were in the capable hands of Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson and Rose France, edited and with introductory material by R. Chandler and Jackson. A helpful glossary of historical characters appears at the end, as well as informative notes. The rediscovery of Teffi has to rank high in the achievements of Pushkin Press, alongside their championing of Stefan Zweig and Gaito Gazdanov. Let’s hope there will be more Teffi volumes in future – but at least there’s another to look forward to next week…. !:)

Where no man has gone before

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The Star Diaries by Stanislaw Lem

Early last year I had the pleasure of reading my first book by Stanislaw Lem – The Cyberiad – and it was a wonderful experience. I found his mixture of slightly spoofy, satirical sci very appealing and clever, and so when I noticed that Penguin Modern Classics had brought out another of his books, “The Star Diaries” I was awfully tempted. I resisted for a while, settling for recommending that the Offspring bought a copy as a birthday gift for a sci-fi loving friend. But I kept coming across the book and finally succumbed in Norwich recently!

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Lem is probably best known for Solaris (and I do have a copy of that book sitting on my shelves); this book, however, features a space traveller called Ijon Tichy who apparently appears in several of Lem’s books. “The Star Diaries” collects together several accounts of his journeys through the stars and once again, in stories a little reminiscent of The Cyberiad, we’re met with a wonderful mixture of humour, satire and deeper meanings.

… every great idea must be backed by force, as one can see in numerous examples from history, which illustrate that the best argument in defense of a theory is the police.

There are twelve Voyages in all, starting with the Seventh, ending with the Twenty-eighth and losing several in between. Tichy has all sorts of strange encounters, including a couple that involve severe temporal confusion – in fact, the Seventh Voyage has multiple versions of our hero from different days of the week trying to sort out all sorts of issues in the spaceship and the resulting confusion is very, very funny.

In another, Tichy travels to the United Planets as Earth’s delegate, encountering a confusing number of different and strange life forms only to find out that humans were the result of a very strange evolutionary process…. He comes across planets occupied by robots; becomes involved in another time travelling project intended to correct the mistakes of evolution; visits another planet attempting to use ‘evolution by persuasion’ to turn its occupants into underwater creatures; and so on. Each tale is individual and intriguing and very, very clever.

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For, much as there was with “The Cyberiad”, there are plenty of hidden meanings here. Lem is quite clearly having a dig at those who try to control everyone; to fit everyone into the same mould; and to re-write the past. On one particular planet, each inhabitant becomes someone else the next day so no-one has an individual identity, and as one character states:

“Know, O uninvited alien… that ours is the knowledge of the ultimate source of all the cares, sufferings and misfortunes to which beings, gathered together in societies, are prone. This source lies in the individual, in his private identity. Society, the collective, is eternal, obeying steadfast an immutable laws, as do the mighty suns and stars. The individual, on the other hand, is characterized by uncertainty, indecision, inconsistency of action, and above all – by impermanence. Therefore we have completely eliminated individuality on behalf of the society. On our planet there are no entities – only the collective.”

Quite how Lem got that past the Soviet censor I don’t know… And in one of the other stories we hear:

You forget where you are and to whom you speak… For six hundred years there has been among us no a single “natural” mind. Thus it is impossible, among us, to distinguish between a thought spontaneous and a though imposed, since no one need secretly impose a thought on anyone else, in order to convince him.

Obviously, using space age settings to make comments on a totalitarian regime was a sensible move. Yes, the stories are very, very funny (I was laughing aloud all the way through) but they’re also a very clever way to get across Lem’s points about the repressive regime under which he was living, human foibles and failures and the dangers of messing with science. The wonderful mix of the absurd and the serious reminded me in some places of Douglas Adams and in others of Calvino; but Lem has a voice all of his own and “The Star Diaries” was a fabulous read.

*****

As an aside, I think translator Michael Kandel definitely deserves some kind of award for rendering this book so brilliantly in English. As I mentioned before, Lem is notoriously hard to translate because of his punning and wordplay in his original language; Kandel has obviously handled this brilliantly and given us English versions that are just as funny, while presumably retaining the brilliance of Lem’s storytelling. There are other collections of Tichy’s stories available, but I’m a little nervous of trying them because they aren’t translated by Kandel…

Another side to a great author

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The Complete Poems by George Orwell

The words poetry and George Orwell are not ones that you could normally expect to hear in conjunction with each other. He’s an author much more known for his trenchant essay writing and deceptively straightforward prose style; so the fancies of verse aren’t what you’d expect to find. Yet scattered through all his works are examples of verse and he obviously had a great love of poetry. So Dione Venables, a founding member of the Orwell Society, came up with the wonderful idea of collecting together all of the examples of Orwell’s poetry in one book of Complete Poems. Needless to say, as an Orwell completist I had to have it, and fortunately the offspring were well trained enough to produce it for Christmas!

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This slim little book is beautifully put together and collects all Orwell’s work, down to lost scraps and verse that featured in his great works like Nineteen Eighty Four. It’s a laudable thing to do, and gives the Orwell fan a chance to look at his poetry and see what they really think about it.

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So was Orwell a great poet? That’s always going to be a subjective judgement, although I think it’s fair to say that some of this is juveline work and some of it probably counts as doggerel. But Owell had a great love of poetry, and there are times when his verse really takes flight and becomes something special. He wrote love poems, celebrations of lost heroes, evocative memorials to past times, limericks and a spirited defence of his right to fight for his country. The stand-out for me was “The Italian Soldier Shook My Hand” from 1942, which evokes his time in Spain fighting fascism and ends with these two moving verses:

Your name and your deeds were forgotten
Before your bones were dry,
And the lie that slew you is buried
Under a deeper lie.

But the thing I saw in your face
No power can disinherit:
No bomb that ever burst
Shatters the crystal spirit.

So George Orwell may be known as a wonderful prose writer (and that’s probably how I’d like to think of him); but on the evidence of this volume and in particular those verses above, he certainly had a talented leaning towards poetry – and I’m very glad I’ve read his complete verse.

Differing Standards

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Interim by Dorothy Richardson

Volume 2 of Pilgrimage is made up of two books – the first, longer “The Tunnel”, which I reviewed here, is followed by the shorter “Interim” and finishing this means I’m now halfway through my read of this epic modernist sequence of novels.

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“Interim” takes up where the previous story left off – well, sort of. Miriam is still living in her garret but the start of the book finds her spending Christmas with the Broom family. As always, she struggles in situations which require her to deal with people – she’s always so much more comfortable on her own, and at the Brooms’ she find it hard to strike the right note. She’s also very aware of the subtleties of class, wondering why some should serve on others and not knowing quite how to address the maidservant.

Much of Miriam’s life continues in the same vein as “The Tunnel” – she works at the dentists, attends lectures and concerts, visits her friends Mags and Jan, and revels in a new bicycle. But it is the focus here that is different, which reminds the reader again of how we are seeing things filtered through Miriam’s eye. “Interim” is very much about her life in Mrs.Bailey’s lodging house, her interaction with the various lodgers and about how she not only misjudges social situations, but also how she is judged by men because of her behaviour. And despite the fact that sister Eve has left her governess post and moved to London to work in a flower shop, she makes only a fleeting appearance in the book.

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Miriam’s accommodation has changed since Mrs. Bailey started providing meals for her boarders, and Miriam is gradually drawn into the more social side of the house (and also the occasional meal, finally stemming her constant hunger!). There are a number of characters living there, mainly men, and Miriam is able to hold her own in discussions. They seem to be mainly Canadian doctors, and one in particular, de Vere, is very taken with Miriam. However, her friendship with Mr. Mendizabal, a Spanish Jew, is misunderstood; the simple act of spending time with him causes the doctors concern, particularly when he boasts about his influence over her. Instead of asking Miriam’s opinion, they jump to stupid conclusions and de Vere draws away from her. Most of the Canadians return to their home country, and it seems that Miriam has lost the chance of finding someone who loves her.

All of this might seem a little prosaic were it not for Richardson’s extraordinary ability to capture Miriam’s thoughts and emotions; in fact, the whole human condition as we stumble through life attempting to relate to, and understand, each other and very often failing miserably. Richardson’s prose does bring the complexities of life into sharp focus, but it creates complexities of its own; and there are sections of stream-of-consciousness here where it is very hard to know quite what is happening and who is thinking/saying what. The book ends with the somewhat odd re-appearance of Miss Dear, who seems to stay for a short while with Miriam, causes disruption in the Bailey house, and then leaves. The whole thing feels a little abrupt and rushed, and bearing in mind the shortness of the book I did wish that if Richardson was going to introduce this element, she’d done more with it.

Occasional confusion is an occupational hazard of reading Richardson, and I can understand that it makes her a writer not for all. Woolf, for example, seems more structured and her presentation of the randomness of thought processes is still comprehensible. Despite that, I’m still enjoying my reading of Richardson very much and I’ve learned to let the parts that don’t make total sense slide past me, because the majority of this wonderful work is quite spellbinding – and I’m looking forward to the next volume!

(Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, who’s responsible for motivating this read, has done an excellent review of the book here and Liz has a review here)

The all-seeing “I”

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The Eye by Vladimir Nabokov

I came very close to reading another Nabokov for the 1938 Club in the form of “The Gift”, but alas ran out of time. However, when I was visiting Norwich earlier in the month and having a browse through the bookshops, I had a quick look at this title, one of the few by Nabokov I don’t have a copy of. It sounded fascinating (as do all his books) so I set about procuring a reasonably priced copy, and felt obliged to read it as soon as it arrived…. Well, it *is* quite short!

the eye

In fact, at 103 pages it’s most definitely no more than a novella, and could indeed be a long short story (if we must put labels on things). However, this being Nabokov, there’s plenty to think about. The eye in question is the all-seeing one of the unnamed narrator, a young man living in émigré Berlin. He scrapes a living as a tutor, and entertains himself by having a rather unenthusiastic affair with a woman called Matilda. However, when her husband gives him a sound beating in front of his charges, he decides that the best thing to do is end it all and shoots himself. Or does he….

From the start, it’s unclear whether the narrator really is dead. Although he thinks he is, some kind of consciousness continues and he (and we) can’t be sure if the surroundings and people we see are created by the narrator. They could be real, and the detachment of the narrator due to his recovering from his illness; or he could be in some other realm and simply imagining all that he tells us. Nevertheless he apparently has a job in a bookstore and mixes with a variety of other emigres – from the priggish Colonel Mukhin to the lovely sisters Evgenia and Vanya. One character in particular, the young man Smurov, fascinates the narrator and he spends much time observing the man as he falls in love with Vanya. Depending on where he sees Smurov, who with and in what circumstances, he’s presented with a different image of the young man. Who actually *is* this Smurov? Once again, the lines between reality and imagination are blurred.

Kashmarin had borne away yet another image… Does it make any difference which? For I do not exist: there exist but the thousands of mirrors that reflect me.With every acquaintance I make, the population of phantoms resembling me increases. Somewhere they live, somewhere they multiply. I alone do not exist.

All becomes clear in the end and Smurov’s real identity becomes clear, but I shan’t say how. In a way, that isn’t really the point. Instead Nabokov takes us on a kind of journey through an inner life, and gets us questioning how much of what we perceive can be trusted. The narrator is, of course, completely unreliable (as so often with Nabokov) and that adds to the joy and confusion of reading this.

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Of course, this being Nabokov, the writing is also superb. The book was written in 1930, published in Russian in 1965 and translated by Nabokov and his son in 1966. Any reading of Nabokov’s work is fascinating, thought-provoking and sometimes difficult, but always worth the effort. And this shorter work would be a good place to try his writing out if his longer books seem a little intimidating. I’m rather wishing I *had* read “The Gift” for the 1938 Club now…:)

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