A charity auction


Something a little different from me today – and the kind of thing I don’t usually post about but I’ll make an exception for a good cause!

I was contacted by Clementine, who used to work for Alma Books, as a charity she supports called Three Peas is holding an online auction of children’s book illustration artwork. The charity supports refugee families stranded in Greece and Clementine has provided this information about the auction:

From 23rd of June to 2nd July 2017:  Illustrators for Three Peas Art Auction!
Three Peas charity will be auctioning artwork by some of the best-loved children’s book illustrators… You could grab an original Axel Scheffler, Tony Ross, Lauren Child or Chris Riddell drawing, get your hands on limited prints by Oliver Jeffers or Ella Okstad or even a Liz Pichon Tom Gates doodle and much, much more! 
Come in and browse…
All the funds raised will go to Three Peas charity, helping stranded refugee families and individuals in Greece. 
To learn more about Three Peas, you can visit our website at www.threepeas.org.uk
It sounds like a pretty good thing to me, and  there are some lovely artworks which have been donated. So if you love children’s illustrations and want to support a good cause, you might want to pop over the Jumblebee and have a look! 🙂


A tentative commitment #warandpeacenewbies


Yes, you read that correctly. In the year of planning to have no plans, I am making a tentative commitment to join in to a group read! Gulp!

So far this year the only real project I’ve got involved in, apart from our reading years of course, is the LibraryThing Virago Group’s monthly author choice. This has been enjoyable, and I feel that I can drop in and out of this one as necessary, so there isn’t any pressure.

Old hardback Maudes version

However. When I read that Laura of Reading in Bed was hosting a War and Peace Newbies read over the summer, I was sorely tempted. Tolstoy’s great work is one I’ve intended to grapple with for years and have simply never got to. Yet I loved “Anna Karenina” so there’s no good reason not to, apart from size!

Laura’s read is split up into manageable weekly chunks and looks doable. She’s come up with a Q&A to go with the tag and you can read her thoughts here. I thought I would have a go, too, so here’s my take on the meme!

Have you read (or attempted) War and Peace?

No, basically. I’ve owned a copy for decades but I don’t think I’ve got farther than reading the first two pages.

What edition and translation are you reading?

I have two copies of “War and Peace” in the house if I’m not sure of which translation I fancy reading. One is a lovely two-volume set with box that came out at the time of the old BBC adaptation, and it’s translated by Rosemary Edmonds. The other is *very* old – and I’ve had it for decades – and is the Maudes version. I tend to always go for a contemporary rendering if I can so that would suggest the Maudes – we shall see.

The BBC tie-in version

How much to you know about War and Peave (plot, characters, etc)?

Not a lot really – I know the names of some of the main characters and that Napoleon’s in there, but apart from that I come to War and Peace with little foreknowledge!

How are you preparing (watching adaptations, background reading, etc?)

I’m not. I figure I want to come to this with no preconceptions and I already have some as I visualise Pierre as a young Anthony Hopkins! So I’ll try to judge it as I find it, and I’ll have all the plot twists to come with no expectations.

The hardback even has a lovely little map inside

What do you hope to get out of reading War and Peace?

I don’t actually know! But I loved Anna Karenina – one of those books you kind of live through – and I’m hoping for a similarly immersive experience.

What are you intimidated by?

The length. And having a schedule. I don’t do too well with schedules….

Do you think it’s okay to skip the “war” parts?

Definitely not. You need to have the contrast between the two elements. I shall try to read each page, despite any occasions of my attention flagging during battle scenes.

So – I will give it a go and see if I can stick to a small section of “War and Peace” every week. I’m not always good at disciplined reading that like but I think it’s worth the attempt – to see if 2017 will be my Summer of “War and Peace”!

If you’re keen to join in, do go and check out Laura’s site – it should be fun! 🙂

Some Russian book winners!


So I’ve closed the giveaway, and thanks to all who entered and offered interesting recommendations!

I printed out the names of the entrants and popped them into a decorative mini pail I had knocking about, then drew out two winners and they are:

Laura from Reading in Bed – In the Twilight

Melissa from  The Bookbinder’s Daughter – Five Russian Dog stories

Congrats to both ladies and thanks to all entrants for taking part. I’ll be in touch with the two winners and the books will be winging their way off round the globe soon! 🙂

A fateful journey…


Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale

After my recent prolonged bout of fiction, I really felt I needed a complete change in the form of something very, very factual – and fortunately I had just the thing standing by, in the form of a book I picked up on a recent jaunt to London. While there I popped into Bookmarks, the left-wing bookshop almost opposite the Bloomsbury Oxfam, and it felt appropriate to be picking up a volume I’d been contemplating for some time: “Lenin on the Train” by Catherine Merridale.

I’ve written about Merridale’s work on the Ramblings before; she was in the same year as me at our Grammar School, ending up as head girl, and I’ve followed her books with interest, as well as wondering if it was the education we received that sparked the interest for both of us in all things Russian. Her last book, which I reviewed here, was absolutely fascinating; focusing on The Kremlin, it was an epic volume covering centuries of history. By contrast, her latest book takes one specific event which took place 100 years ago (that anniversary again!) but which had wide-ranging effects, rather like ripples in a pond from one small stone.

Lest your Russian history is hazy, the events covered in the book are roughly this: at the outbreak of the first Russian Revolution in St. Petersburg/Petrograd in February 1917 (or March, depending on your part of the world), Lenin was in exile in Zürich, and trapped there by the fact of World War 1 raging in countries surrounding. Like all Russian exiles, he was desperate to get home and participate (or in his case, take control) but because of the impossibility of travel he was stuck. Things were complicated by the fact that Russia was allied with France and Britain against the Germans, and as Lenin and his cohorts were vocally in favour of an end to the War whatever the cost, those allies were violently against helping Lenin get back to Russia. However, a rather shady deal was struck whereby Lenin and a group of Bolsheviks were transported through war-torn Germany in a sealed train carriage to enable them to make their way to Petrograd via the Scandinavian countries. That journey has been the subject of speculation and controversy ever since.

The Petrograd to which Lenin was returning was in a parlous state. After the abdication of the Tsar, Russia was in effect being run by two agencies in uneasy alliance: the Provisional Government, the stars of which were Kerensky and Miliukov; and the Workers’ Soviet. Neither side agreed ideologically and things were likely either to collapse into complete anarchy or revert to some kind of watered down version of what had gone before. It needed a visionary to come sweeping in and take control, forging a single state and new kind of governing body out of that chaos, and that’s what eventually happened.

Socialist realism at its worst (hint: Stalin wasn’t actually there…)

However, this book is concerned with events leading up to that point, and it makes fascinating reading. As a contemporary, Merridale has read (and cites) many works on Lenin and Russia with which I’m familiar, and which are regarded as standards. However, as her scrupulous research shows, these sources are not always factual or accurate. She sheds light into all the murky corners, looking past the accepted history and getting to as close an accurate rendition of events as I think is possible. Merridale is an exemplary historian; the breadth of her knowledge is stunning and contributes to the success of the book. Her sources (which are wide) are always cited, and she takes her knowledge of Russia and its history and peels away the layers of myth and accepted wisdom about what happened in the lead up to Lenin’s arrival, getting down to the nub of things.

What’s particularly fascinating is the diplomatic manoeuvring and espionage going on behind the scenes, which is revealed in all its tortuous glory here. Fortunately, many of the overseas visitors involved left accounts of their time, and alongside the well-known diplomats and agents like Sir George Buchanan and Robert Bruce Lockhart, there are also plenty of writers on hand (Hugh Walpole, Somerset Maugham and Arthur Ransome). It’s actually some time before the book gets to the actual train journey, but that’s because these early chapters on what was going on off camera in the lead up to the main event are so essential.

The controversy over the years has focused particularly on whether Lenin was actually in the pay of the German government and Merridale firmly quashes this idea (backed up by plenty of sources, and dismissing in particular the post-Soviet historian Dimitri Volkogonov, whose books I shall look at in a new light). Yes, the Germans bankrolled the journey and provided funds for the Bolsheviks, mainly through Parvus, a shadowy and highly dubious figure who brokered the whole deal with the Germans to get the Bolshevik train through their territory; but they were using Lenin and his cohorts to try and bring an end to the War for their own purposes, and Lenin used them back. It wasn’t long before he was calling for German workers to follow their Russian colleagues in revolt, after all…

Although Merridale’s narrative ends with Lenin’s arrival in the then Russian capital and his battle for control, she does provide a little more information about what followed. The final chapter is ironically titled “Fellow Travellers” and tells of the final fate of those who made the journey with Lenin, and in most cases it was not a happy one. Stalin, after all, was not on that train or in at the beginning of it all (despite what socialist realist painters would have you believe!) and it was in his interest to ensure there was nobody around to challenge his supremacy and his flunkies’ version of history… She also touches briefly on the long-term legacy of Lenin and the fact that to this day his embalmed body is enshrined in Red Square, with the Russian people fighting any attempt to remove it.

In all of Merridale’s books that I’ve read, I’ve seen that she has a great empathy with the ordinary Russian people, who seem to have suffered more than many peoples from a terrible succession of rulers. She’s not blind to the flaws of her subjects but is even-handed in her treatment of them, recognising the terrible plight of the people of Russia and their need for an escape from centuries of slavery and serfdom. As for the main player in this drama, I was pleased for once to read a balanced portrayal of someone who is a controversial figure; many of the books I’ve read or attempted to read in previous years have been written by authors who obviously hate the man and intend to paint a negative portrait. I’m the first to accept he was ruthless, single-minded and brutal at times. However, he also believed strongly in the revolution and the equality of all and that shouldn’t be overlooked. Merridale’s portrait of Lenin is nuanced and non-judgemental, and I found this very refreshing. Despite the fact that she recognises his flaws, and the dreadful consequences of his actions, I can’t help feeling she has a sneaking admiration for him…

“Lenin on the Train” is definitely shaping up to be one of my reads of the year. One of the most fascinating parts was actually the introduction, where Merridale retraces Lenin’s route, taking the same journey he did and reporting it exactly (it’s another thing misrepresented over the years) with a nice accompanying map. The book has a couple of lovely plate sections, mixing images contemporary to her narrative with some from her journey following Lenin’s trail, and they add an extra frisson to the reading of the work.* If you don’t know much about Russian history and its major players, Merridale’s eminently readable account would be a great way to find out about one of the pivotal events of the Revolution of 100 years ago – highly recommended.

* Merridale’s website has a wonderful interactive map of her journey with photos and information about the various stops en route – highly worthwhile exploring if you’re interested in more information about her pilgrimage.


“Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you…”


One of Cleopatra’s Nights by Theophile Gautier

I’ve written regularly on the Ramblings about the books produced by Michael Walmer, an independent publisher based down under in Australia. Mike’s books are lovely reprints of interesting lost works, ranging from Australian classics through essays and works of European literature. His newest imprint is one he’s titled Zephyr Books, with the aim to focus on classic novellas, and the first in the series is a gorgeous little story about a night in the life of the most beautiful yet deadly women in history…

French-born Gautier (1811-1872) was a novelist, poet, playwright and journalist, as well as penning art and literary criticism. His work is often bracketed with Romanticism, and was highly thought of by authors as wide-ranging as Pound, Proust, Eliot and Wilde. “One of Cleopatra’s Nights” was published as the title work in a collection of 1882 and at 77 pages probably straddles the line between short story and novella.

Those 77 pages, however, are utterly captivating. The story is, as you might suspect, about one night in the life of the famous Egyptian queen, and as it opens the regal one is suffering from ennui. Bored with the bleak arid landscape of her country, bored with her current lovers, she throws a somewhat petulant hissy fit, wishing for some kind of grand adventure. Little does Cleopatra know that she has an admirer: a lowly young man called Meiamoun, handsome yet poor and obscure, worships her from afar. He follows her around when he can, worshipping from a distance, and dreams only for his queen to know he exists. And on this magical night their trajectories will collide, although what will result remains to be seen.

The story is a simple one, but affectingly told, and much of the appeal comes from Gautier’s wonderfully lush prose. His writing is just gorgeous, vividly conjuring images of the Egyptian night and the hot bare landscape of that country. The story drips atmosphere, and although the style might seem a little overwrought, it actually works beautifully for this book. You can feel the stifling heat of the sandy country; sense the dark night where the temperature barely drops and there is no relief; and visualise the harsh landscape. It is this latter element that was one of the most fascinating to me as I read; I’d never really considered what it would be like to live somewhere with just sand and stone as far as you can see. I guess that living in a country that’s blessed with plenty of rain and greenery, you kind of take that sort of thing for granted…

The wonderfully flamboyant-looking author…

Reading a story of a slave meets a queen, especially when it’s a monarch as cruel and capricious as Cleo, you wouldn’t necessarily be expecting a happy ending. But the work has a kind of beauty in it, pointing out that perhaps a perfect night with the woman you love can be the only point of your life. Certainly this lovely little hardback edition is a thing of beauty in its own right, and an excellent introduction into the work of a intriguing-sounding author. Another winning volume from Mike Walmer!

(Many thanks to Mike for kindly providing a review copy – much appreciated!)

Ahem. #books


What was that phrase about the best laid plans? Oh yes – I think that came from a book, too….!

So there was I, feeling all smug about not buying much in the way of books lately, and with piles of them in the hall waiting to be donated. But today, I happened to wander into a couple of charity shops, not really looking for anything in particular and not wanted anything in particular. But Bookish Things Happened….

The first charity shop had a little clutch of Companion Book Club editions – always recognisable because of their distinctive jacket design, if they still have one. These two particular titles did, and although they’re a little battered, they were 50p each, so…. “Sailing to Freedom” is a real life story of an Estonian family sailing from Sweden to America during WW2 to escape repatriation and the consequences by the Soviet Union – sounds absolutely fascinating. As for the Maigret, it’s a title I don’t have (I think!) but was essential because of this:

I’m rather intrigued by the inclusion of an interview with Simenon, and I’m hoping to get onto this one soon – the Maigret stories are *so* readable!

I popped into the Samaritans Book Cave also, as I’m donating to them this week, and I happened upon this in their poetry section (which I always check out to see if there are any volumes of the Penguin Modern Poets I need):

Intrigued? You bet I was! I know (or can remember) very little about Dickinson’s life, and Gordon is a respected biographer, so I’m hoping for a torrid tale of family fallings-out and vicious vendettas!

And finally, a library book:

I thought I would borrow “The Stone Angel” and see if I felt like reading it and joining in with the Virago author of the month for June. Much better than buying it, especially as Mount TBR is still tremblingly high.

Well, it could have been worse – last week the library had a book sale where the volumes were 5 for £1 and I exercised great restraint and only came home with a BIG catalogue book from a Royal Academy Russian show from ten years ago. I think I did pretty well, considering… 🙂

A little Russian giveaway…


As you may have picked up, I’ve been trying to downsize the book piles a little chez Ramblings, as things have really been getting out of control. I’ve not been buying much, and I’ve been hauling piles off to the charity shops as well as throwing spare volumes at people I think might enjoy them. And whilst shuffling books, I came across a couple of lovely Russian books that I don’t need/want, but which I’d like to send off to a good home.

“In the Twilight” is a beautiful collection of Chekhov short stories from Alma Classics, and I have a spare copy as I won a prize last year.  The Russian doggie tales book is from Hesperus Press and this came from the Kew Bookshop when I visited the gardens. I’ve read and loved it, but I doubt I’ll return to it, so it’s also looking for a new home.

So if you’d like to win one of these books leave a comment below saying which one you’d like, and suggesting a book you think I might enjoy. I’ll leave the giveaway open for a week or so, and winners will be drawn at random. This is open worldwide, so I’ll look forward to hearing your recommendation! 🙂

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