A Troubadour’s Journey


Walking Home by Simon Armitage

Poet Simon Armitage is actually something of a polymath, as his writings include poetry, travel books, plays and novels as well as translations, plus TV and radio work. “Walking Home” is subtitled “Travels with a Troubadour on the Pennine Way” and takes the form of a travel book interspersed with the odd poem; however, it’s also the story of an adventure, as Armitage aimed to walk the Pennine Way in reverse, ending up at his home, and fund himself by doing poetry readings along the way – hence the ‘troubadour’ bit! I read about this book when it first came out, and figured it would be something I would like very much, so I was really happy when it turned up in the local Oxfam.


The first work of Armitage’s I read was in fact another travel book – “Moon Country”, written with Glyn Maxwell, when the two poets went off to explore Iceland. A mixture of prose and poetry, I found the book evocative and thoughtful, and I’ve picked up Armitage’s work whenever I’ve had the chance.

The Pennine Way is, of course, very northern – as is Armitage – and the thought of walking all that way in the wind and the rain and the fog would be quite daunting to the most experienced trekker. Armitage, however, is not that trained up and although not old, admits he’s middle-aged and perhaps not that fit; so the journey will be a test of strength and willpower, and also a test of whether the troubadour tradition survives and whether he can sustain himself by way of the written word.

Of course, it’s not quite so simple as just packing a bag and setting off, and Armitage is honest enough about this, relating the background to the trip, the network of friends and contacts made online who’ll arrange the readings and guide him along the way; and also those responsible for carting his luggage from spot to spot! He’s an engaging and honest writer, and never glosses over either the difficulties, or the help he’s received.


The lovely weather en route…

So the journey begins up north in Scotland, and Armitage makes his way through what is often a quite barren landscape, meeting some kind, fascinating and unusual folks on the way. The readings are by and large a success (with funds collected in a sock at the end!), and despite getting lost occasionally he manages to stay on course. And there’s plenty of chance for meditation, as Armitage mulls over life, walking, poetry and all sorts of other subjects on his way, dropping in poems here and there that have been composed en route.

Simon Armitage by Paul Wolfgang Webster

Simon Armitage by Paul Wolfgang Webster

Illustrated with photos taken en route, this was an excellent, stimulating read; I confess I’m very much an armchair traveller (though I would get out more if I could!) and this was one of the most enjoyable journeys I’ve read about in a long time. I’ve come to realise that the travel books I read and like most are the ones where you make some kind of connection with the author; for example, I’ve read a lot of Colin Thubron, but never warmed to him in the same way I have to Eric Newby and his works. I think the person you travel alongside when reading a book like this really does matter – and Simon Armitage is a great travelling companion!

Spoofing the Crime Novel – with a little bit of Sci Fi thrown in!


The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky

I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised that I’m discovering new and wonderful books and authors after all these years of reading – but I still get a real kick out of stumbling across something wonderful! I did last year with “Definitely Maybe” by the Strugatsky brothers; a piece of Soviet satire/sci-fi that was thought-provoking as well as being a fantastic read. it was published in the excellent Melville House Press’s Neversink Library, which seem to specialise in bringing obscure-ish works to us, and they’ve come up trumps with another book by the duo, in the form of “The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn”, a work from 1970 translated into English for the first time – and what a treat it turned out to be…

dead mountaineers

The blurb has it that the brothers were sick to death of fighting with the censors, trying to get their work published; so they decided to produce a detective novel, in which no harm could be possibly seen. However, this being the Strugatskys things didn’t exactly go as planned… Despite having all the tropes of a classic crime novel – isolated ski chalet, motley collection of guests, vacationing detective, avalanche, murder and locked room mystery – the brothers take things a step further, throwing in ghostly manifestations, a decidedly intelligent dog, plus possible zombies and extra-terrestrials…. The whole book is a wonderful mix, but also a very, very wonderful read.

The detective in question is Inspector Peter Glebsky, escaping from routine and family to take a skiing trip to the Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, recommended by his friend Zgut. You get the impression quite early on that Glebsky is a bit of an unreliable narrator, and certainly that does seem to be the case as the book progresses. Glebsky hits it off instantly with the Inn’s owner, Alek Snevar, and also the St. Bernard Lel (left over from the titular mountaineer). And the guests *are* a motley crew – there’s the scientist Simone, constantly climbing up walls and emitting hysterical laughter; Mr. and Mrs. Moses – the former very eccentric, the latter very beautiful; the magician du Barnstoker and the child of his deceased brother, known as Brun and of indeterminate sex; the highly strung Hinkus; and Olaf Andvarafors, described as a “blond viking”.

None of these characters are remotely straightforward, and as Alek and Peter strike up a kind of friendship, drinking together and chewing the fat, the Inn is subject to apparent manifestations; why is the shower always in use, but no-one knows who’s in it? Is Brun a boy or a girl? Does Lel know more than the humans? And why is Hinkus spending so much time on the roof in the snow? As the protagonists become trapped at the Inn by an avalanche, events become more and more mysterious and a murder takes place – but the body is in a locked room with absolutely no way of entry, the murder method itself is decidedly odd, and Glebsky (who is turning out to be a somewhat unreliable narrator) struggles to make sense of what’s happening around him. I’m not going to reveal any more about the plot because it’s a real delight watching it unfold, but let’s just say that the denouement is completely unexpected and surprisingly thought-provoking.

By midnight the owner and I had a pitcher of hot port already under our belts, and had moved on from discussing how best to notify the guests that they had been buried alive to more universal questions – for example, Is mankind doomed to extinction (Yes, doomed, but we won’t be around when it happens); Is there a force in nature that the human mind cannot fathom (Yes, there is, but we’ll never know anything about it); Is Lel the St. Bernard capable of sentient thought (Yes, he is, though convincing scientific dolts of this is impossible); Is the universe in danger of succumbing to so-called “heat death” (No, it is not in danger, due to the existence of perpetual motion machines of both the first and second type in the owner’s barn); Was Brun a boy or a girl (Here I was unable to come to any conclusion, but the owner put forward the odd idea that Brun was a zombie, that is, a sexless creature animated by magic)…

“The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn” is a book that obviously is going to work on several different levels, and I expected no less approaching a work written during Soviet times: it functions as a basic murder mystery story, as a spoof of the genre itself and the tropes associated with it, but also crosses genres in a way that’s very ahead of its time. And of course it is a comment on the state of the world as it was in 1970 and how it would be seen by people from other worlds. It’s important not to forget that the Strugatskys are mostly known for their science fiction; a genre much used in Soviet times, and one that would allow them to slip commentary past the vigilant eyes of the censor.


In some ways, the book reminded me of another Neversink treasure I read recently, “Where There’s Love, There’s Hate” which also spoofed the detective genre very successfully. I loved that book very much, but I think the Strugatskys take things to another level with this book, which left me meditating rather deeply on the mess humanity’s made of this planet and the failings of the human race. There were also hints of the influence of Stanislaw Lem, another recent discovery of mine, and I can’t help thinking that Soviet sci-fi writing is something which would bring rich rewards if explored.

Many years ago I discovered the Russian director Tarkovsky and was captivated by his film “Stalker”. It’s only very recently that I realised it was based on “Roadside Picnic” by the Strugatskys (a book I’ve recently invested in). Although I don’t read much hard sci-fi nowadays it was a type of writing I was very fond of in the past and I think I could quite easily be drawn back to it again…

…in which it becomes clear that I have something of a reputation!


Not a really bad one, I should hasten to add! However, it’s obviously known in the Samaritans Book Cave that I am a bit of a Virago collector. So much so that the lovely folk who run it always look out for vintage green volumes when they’re gathering donations for the shop. They’d mentioned a few weeks ago that there would very likely be a few Virago titles coming soon but nothing had turned up yet. However, when I walked in today and said a cheery hello, I did get the impression that they were kind of waiting for a reaction… And this has got something to do with why!

virago finds

Quite a *lot* of Virago green originals had arrived!! And I had rather foolishly come out without any lists of what I had an hadn’t got. However, I was able to choose some I knew I didn’t already own and some I knew needed an upgrade and brought home seven lovely books!

The top row are the upgrades – and in fact the Comyns is one I only have in a modern version so I was very happy to find a green! The bottom row are new titles – lots of lovely Willa Cather and an intriguing sounding Enid Bagnold. The spares from the upgrade will be offered on to the Virago Group on LibraryThing; and I really, *really* must update my Virago list and remember to take it with me next week…. :)



Stories from Behind the Iron Curtain (and in front, actually!)


Moscow Tales – translated by Sasha Dugdale / edited by Helen Constantine

moscow tales

Short stories have been something of a life-saver, reading wise, in recent weeks, and this lovely collection was no exception. I’m not sure whether I’ve just felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of books I want to read, or it’s just been the lack of reading time I’ve had; it’s just been hard to get into, and commit to, big books – well, some of the time anyway! I confess, however, that I was waiting for a new arrival I desperately wanted to read, and so starting something big at this point would have been silly. But as I’d been dipping into this volume off and on, it seemed the ideal thing to keep me going…

OUP have brought out a whole series of “Tales” books, each focusing on a particular city (Paris, Berlin, Madrid etc) all apparently edited by Helen Constantine, and I must confess that I’d rather like to read the series. However, I stumbled over Moscow Tales in the Bloomsbury Oxfam, a book which had been on my wish list for some time; with my love of Russian and its literature, it’s a bit of a given that I’d want to read this!


“Moscow Tales” contains 15 stories ranging in time from Karamzin’s “Poor Liza” (1792) up to modern tales like “Underground Sea” by Marina Galina (2010) and it’s an excellent and varied selection. One particular thing which pleased me was the amount of new material available, previously untranslated – to a monolingual Russophile like me, that’s a huge treat! The only title I’d read before was Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog”, so MT was a real voyage of discovery. And the stories are wonderful and varied! A particular stand-out was the aforementioned “Underground Sea” about a man who falls asleep on the tram and wakes lost somewhere in the city; the author conjures a frightening, nightmarish scenario of being lost in the night, struggling to find a landmark or even a person to point you in the right direction.

Then there’s “A Couple in December” by Yuri Kazakov, the tale of a pair of young people off skiing in the winter, and their mutual misunderstandings and inability to understand each other’s real feelings. And of course, there are dogs (Russians seem to love their dog stories): the Chekhov, of course, but also “The Red Gates” by Yuri Koval, a story about a young boy coming of age and his adopted dog, who in many ways takes the place of a lost brother – it’s moving and thoughtful, brilliantly portraying the relationship between the boy, the animal, and also the boy’s tutor.


It’s difficult to keep picking out individual stories as they’re pretty much all great reads. I confess I did struggle with “Poor Liza” a little – it’s an old-fashioned sentimental tale and perhaps a little out of keeping with the others, though it does give a good flavour of what old Moscow and the surrounding countryside was like. And the range of the tales really captures the city in all its phases from old wooden city through modern Soviet metropolis to the current concrete jungle.

MT is beautifully put together, illustrated with a photo at the start of each tale, author biographies and helpful notes. If this is the standard of the “Tales” books, I’ll certainly be looking out for more. But in the meantime, I’m still dreaming about Moscow past and present, as evoked by this wonderful collection.

Little Black Classics – Bittersweet Women!


For my second visit to the Penguin Little Black classics, I decided to read a couple of collections of short works by two very wonderful women writers – Katherine Mansfield and Kate Chopin. Chopin is particularly known for her novel “The Awakening” in which there’s been something of a resurgence of interest recently. Mansfield, of course, needs no introduction; short story writer par excellence, she was the one serious rival to Virginia Woolf and the one author of whom Woolf was jealous. I read “The Awakening” a long time ago, and can’t recall much about it (though I obviously liked it enough to keep my copy!) But I’ve revisited Mansfield more recently, and was even more impressed by her writing than on my first reads.

Miss Brill by Katherine Mansfield


This little volume contains three stories: “Marriage a la Mode”, “Miss Brill” and “The Stranger”. I recognised the stories from my last encounter with Mansfield, but this is no way spoiled my enjoyment. Mansfield is a sharp observer of the realities of life, of how events can slip out of our grasp because of our lack of ability to control someone else’s emotions. Marriage is central to the first and last stories and Mansfield brilliantly portrays the failure of two people to have a successful union; how we are still strangers within that relationship. And “Miss Brill” is a poignant study of self-deception with Mansfield’s writing capturing the turn of mind of the title character and her delusions about her lonely life. There are no huge, dramatic happenings in these works; instead, events are quietly devastating, with human frailties highlighted and human needs thwarted. Characters are unintentionally cruel to one another, and there’s the sense that human beings will never really understand each other. These are powerful little tales and Mansfield was an incredible writer.

A Pair of Silk Stockings by Kate Chopin


Chopin’s work is based in the south of America, and like Mansfield’s protagonists they experience self-deception and the unfairness of the world. “Desiree’s Baby” in particular is quite devastating, touching on prejudice and heredity, topics which also feature in “Neg Creol” and “Miss McEnders”. This is a world where men hold the power, where they cannot be expected to be fair, or constant, or kind, and women are very much at their mercy. “The Story of an Hour” particularly highlights this, when a wife receives news of her husband’s death as a liberation not a loss. And the title story features another running theme, that of poverty and temptation – when Mrs. Sommers suddenly finds herself in possession of a large sum of money, it’s so easy to indulge in all the little luxuries she’d gone without while holding her family together and providing for them.

Both of these collections were striking and strong, proving that there are plenty of women writers who can claim high status in the world of short story writing. And both have made me want to go out and re-read more of their authors’ works – which can’t be a bad thing. Another pair of winners from Penguin’s Little Black Classics! :)

Shiny Newness!


While I was running around like a mad thing last week, the very wonderful Shiny New Books reached the milestone of its first birthday, and also launched issue 5 – very exciting, with lots of lovely bookish stuff to read, and you can dip in here!

SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245I’ve been very pleased to provide a couple of reviews for SNB, including one of a book which I think will be one of my favourites of the year – “The Librarian”, by Mikhail Elizarov, published by the ever-wonderful Pushkin Press.


To quote myself: “We all believe in the transformative power of literature; however, what would happen if books really did change us in dramatic ways, bringing strength to old people and wisdom to fools? That’s the premise behind Ukrainian author Mikhail Elizarov’s extraordinary new novel from Pushkin Press.”

“The Librarian” is a remarkably powerful work of literature, engrossing and unforgettable. You can read the rest of my review here, and the book is definitely going to feature highly in my end-of-year round-up!


Elizarov is a writer whose work is new to the English-speaking reader, and as far as I can tell this is the first book of his to be translated. Let’s hope there are more to follow!

Getting back to normal (or at least trying to…)


Because it hasn’t been very normal on the Ramblings lately, I’m afraid. While my scheduled posts were popping up during the week, I’ve been running around like a mad thing dealing with a few emergencies re the Aged Parents, involving emergency ops, finding a safe place for one AP, and kennelling their dog. It’s a good thing I wasn’t at work, really, but it wasn’t the Easter break I’d been anticipating… Fortunately things have settled a bit, and I can get a little reading in before the hols are over.

I *had* planned a little post over the Easter weekend which was to be titled “I love it when a book calls my name!” – because that’s what it felt like recently when I had quite a nice book haul. I had a few little arrivals from various sources and they went something like this:


“Roadside Picnic” by the brother Strugatsky came through the post – I’ve loved both the books of theirs that I’ve read so I figured it was about time I read their most famous work (and I did love Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker” that was based on this book).


Two lovely old books by Mark Aldanov, also through the post – inspired by the interesting post here, on the Russian Dinosaur blog – I love discovering new (old) Russian authors. And aren’t the covers lovely??


I wish I could remember where I heard about Mavis Gallant and this book of hers – but I can’t. However, it sounded lovely and I ordered a cheap copy online – the first version that arrived had the right dustjacket with completely the wrong book inside it… Fortunately, a replacement was forthcoming….

The rest of the books to follow were charity shop finds, and very nice ones too!


First up, a couple of Simenon titles in a nice old Book Club edition: “Maigret and the Millionaires” and “Maigret and the Gangsters” – which were perfect reading for recent stressful times.


This one I’m not too sure about, however. It sounded good from the blurb, so I risked 75p, but when I looked it up online, I read quite a few negatives about the quality of the writing and the lack of original content. I’m not sure if I should spend any time on it – has anyone read it, and have they any opinions??

Down in the Samaritans Book Cave, I spotted this:


I have Ratushinskaya’s memoir, but I didn’t know she’d done a novel too – and it should hopefully be right up my street! I scanned the rest of the shelves and didn’t spot anything, so was just about to go and pay a paltry 50p for the above, when I swear a book was calling to me…


Even though I’d checked out the fiction section, my eyes must have slid over this one without seeing it, because I’ve been looking for it for ages! And it must have known and called out to me, because something made me go back and check to see if it was there and it was! So a lovely few new books  have arrived, and I feel no guilt because there are four large boxes of books in the garage on their way out and more to follow. Now I just need to get my brain back into gear to do a little more reading…. :)

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