“In every human presence Marcovaldo recognized sadly a brother…” #calvinobookclub @calvinopodcast


As I mentioned in my review of his “The Written World and the Unwritten World” in January, 2023 is the centenary year of the birth of the great author Italo Calvino. I’ve written about my love of his books many times, and the release of “Unwritten” brought me great joy. I was also delighted to stumble across recently the ‘A Plunge Into Calvinopodcast, which has so far provided some marvellous listening treats on a variety of the great man’s works. The podcast is also promoting a Twitter #calvinobookclub to encourage readalongs of a book a month; and although I managed to run out of time for the titles during January and February, I’m delighted that I was able to join in with March and revisit Calvino’s wonderful book, “Marcovaldo” (translated here by his long-term translator, William Weaver).

The book was first published in 1963 with the full title of “Marcovaldo, or The Seasons in the City“, and that title *is* very apt. The book gathers short fictions featuring events in the life of the titular Marcovaldo, a peasant turned manual labourer who struggles to cope with life in an industrial town in Northern Italy. Living in a sub basement with his wife Domitilla plus several children of indeterminate age, he appears as a kind of hapless Italian Everyman, working hard for a meagre living and longing for peace and quiet and the country.

Shoveling snow is no game, especially on an empty stomach; but Marcovaldo felt the snow was a friend, an element that erased the cage of walls which imprisoned his life.

The stories are structured in groups of four, taking place in five cycles of spring, summer, autumn and winter, and we follow Marcovaldo as he lives through a number of adventures. The opening tale “Mushrooms in the city” sets the tone, as Marcovaldo (and every other hungry worker) is transfixed by crops of wild mushrooms which appear out of nowhere; but the after effects are not pleasant. Food is often at the root of things, and attempts at fishing, catching birds, and even fattening up a rabbit go disastrously wrong – never quite in the way you might expect, but always because of the modern world. Health is an ongoing issue, with rheumatism and its attempted cures causing more problems for the ill-starred Marcovaldo. Even his efforts to improve the condition of a pot plant at his factory goes wrong, and his well-meaning attempts to entertain or instruct his children always meet with obstacles. Underlying all of this is the increasing modernisation of the city; “The forest on the superhighway” was a particularly funny and pointed look at capitalist advertising and how billboards are of more use as firewood to the poor worker of Italy.

Cold has a thousand shapes and a thousand ways of moving in the world: on the sea it gallops like a troop of horses, on the countryside it falls like a swarm of locusts, in the cities like a knife-blade it slashes the streets and penetrates the chinks of unheated houses.

As the seasons turn and time passes, the world of the city continues to change (and this perhaps reflects the fact that some of the stories were written in the 1950s, whereas later ones are from the 1960s, within the burgeoning comsumer society). These tales take in lots of issues, and as well as being quirky, evocative and sometimes surreal, there’s a critique of city life and consumer society which can’t be missed. The conflict between city and country runs through the stories, and there is a subtext (which is not always so sub…) of the dehumanising effect of modern city life. However, Calvino always handles this with a light touch, and the stories are beautifully written, often very moving and very clever. A wonderful example of this is the opening paragraph of story 16, one of the ‘Winter’ pieces entitled “Marcovaldo at the supermarket” and I make no excuse for quoting it at length!

At six in the evening the city fell into the hands of the consumers. All during the day the big occupation of the productive public was to produce: they produced consumer goods. At a certain hour, as if a switch had been thrown, they stopped production and, away!, they were all off, to consume. Every day an impetuous flowering barely had time to blossom inside the lighted shop-windows, the red salamis to hang, the towers of porcelain dishes to rise to the ceiling, the rolls of fabric to unfurl folds like peacock’s tails, when lo! the consuming throng burst in, to dismantle, to gnaw, to grope, to plunder. An uninterrupted line wound along all the sidewalks and under the arcades, extended through the glass doors of the shops to all the counters, nudged onwards by each individual’s elbows in the ribs of the next, like the steady throb of pistons. Consume! And they touched the goods and put them back and picked them up again and tore them from one another’s hands; consume! and they forced the pale salesladies to display on the counter linen and more linen; consume! and the spools of colored string spun like tops, the sheets of flowered paper fluttered their wings, enfolding purchases in little packages, and the little packages in big packages, bound, each, with its butterfly knot. And off went packages and bundles and wallets and bags; they whirled around the cashier’s desk in a clutter, hands digging into pocketbooks seeking change-purses, and fingers rummaging in change-purses for coins, and down below, in a forest of alien legs and hems of overcoats, children no longer held by the hand became lost and started crying.

However, many of the stories are surreal and dreamlike, as Marcovaldo wrestles with the blankness and oddness of city living, following cats back to hidden colonies they’ve made, or becoming so lost in the fog that he ends up in a most alarming situation. Marcovaldo sees the city at different times and in different ways than do many of its inhabitants, and in “The City All To Himself” seems to be the last man remaining in town, prompting speculation as to whether the city only exists when it is populated…

By Fotograf: Johan Brun, Dagbladet (Oslo Museum/Digitalt Museum) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

When I think back to my early reading of Calvino, I suspect that at the time I was so dazzled by ‘If on a winter’s night…’ that none of his other works compared to it for me. Revisiting his various books over the years, however, I’ve come to appreciate deeply just how good they are and just what an all-round brilliant writer he was. The ‘Complete Cosmicomics‘ was a bit of a revelation, and ‘Marcovaldo’ has been the same, mixing humour, pathos, atmospheric writing and social critique. I now fully intend to keep re-reading Calvino during 2023; there are good reasons I think of him so highly, and ‘Marcovaldo’ is one of them!!


“… a brisk, bright-eyed old gentleman who was having the time of his life.” #BeverleyNichols #MurderbyRequest


It’s a while since I picked up one of Beverely Nichols’ books (2021, to be exact) but if you do a quick search on the Ramblings you’ll see just how many of his books I’ve read and loved over the past. So when I was having a zoom with my BFF recently she mentioned having seen several reasonably priced Beverleys for sale online, and that reminded me that I hadn’t read him for so long and also that I had the final volume of his five detective stories, “Murder by Request” unread on the shelves. Inevitably I felt compelled to pick it up straight away and reacquaint myself with not only Beverley’s wonderful writing but also his very entertaining detective, Horatio Green.

As I’ve said about Nichols’ mysteries in the past, they aren’t necessarily the best of Golden Age style writing, but I really do enjoy them as pure escapism. Horatio Green is regarded as an elderly gentleman (though if I recall correctly, he’s only around 60 in this book…) and lives with his neice Charlotte who ably supports him in his daily life (and also tries to keep him away from detecting!) As the book opens, Christmas is approaching and Horatio and Charlotte are contemplating a relaxing and indulgent time. However, this peaceful prospect is disturbed by a visit from Sir Owen Kent. The latter has been receiving death threats, although no-one could possibly deliver them to the private residence in which he lives; and he asks Green to help him prevent the murder.

Charlotte is resistant until it turns out that Kent will be spending his Christmas at a health spa, ‘Harmony Hall’, run by Kent’s fanatical brother-in-law. Horatio does have a habit of over-indulging and as he’s sniffed out a potentially mysterious case, he’s able to persuade Charlotte that it would be good for him to spend Christmas looking after his health, and so off he goes.

The spa, it has to be said, is populated with a lively set of characters, from Kent’s sister Maisie, who has a fondness for alcohol through to journalist and TV crooner, Paul Stole, who has a very over-inflated ego. However, when the inevitable happens, Green’s old sparring partner, Superintendant Waller from Scotland Yard, is summoned to investigate; and the two will follow their own methods and trails to come to a somewhat surprising conclusion!

When Waller entered the room he found Mr Green lying on the chaise-longue, reading – for at least the twentieth time – the immortal adventures of Mapp and Lucia, by the late E.F. Benson. The old gentleman regarded the Lucia books as among the neglected masterpieces of comic literature and, like many other followers of the master, had an uncanny faculty for detecting a Luciaphile merely by a tone of voice or a turn of phrase.

As a mystery, “Murder by Request” was actually very enjoyable, although I must be honest here and say that Beverley doesn’t play fair; there are number of threads of investigation which are undertaken by the two ‘tecs but never revealed to the reader! Nevertheless, I believe from other online reviews that readers of the book *have* guessed whodunnit, so maybe I was just being dense. The plot was quite ingenious, though, the characters entertaining and well drawn, and the solution a satisfying one as far as I was concerned. Green is a wonderful character, with his highly developed sense of smell always providing an interesting angle to his investigations, and I’m actually a bit sorry I have no more of his stories to read.

The Horatio Green stories were published over the 1950s with this last one being issued in 1960, and so the modern world is creeping in – and I do love the way Nichols satirises this! The health spa, with its starvation diet and bizarre pseudo-medical treatments, is a hoot – imagine existing on water and lemon juice for days on end!! Tellingly, one of the female inmates is a young actress who Green observes needs to actually put on a little weight rather than losing even more, and it does seem that celebrity culture hasn’t changed that much.

As for the media, the journalist Stole is a marvellous creation; self-obsessed and desperate to scoop a story, he rushes off as soon as the murder has happened to write an execrable story for his paper. That piece is reproduced in the book, and it’s frankly worthy of today’s rags – a terrible, over the top story that wouldn’t sound out of place in the Daily Mail. Beverley definitely saw the gutter press for what they were…

The back of the jacket has a nice picture of Bev with one of his beloved cats!

So “Murder by Request” turned out to be a wonderful read for me, just when I fancied it, and a reminder of how much I love Beverley Nichols and his books. As I said above, I’m just sad that this is the final bow of Horatio Green because he really was a lovely creation; and these books were very highly regarded at the time, so it’s a shame they’re now out of print and hard to come by. I shall treasure my copies, and keep them safe – because I have no doubt I’ll want to return in future to the investigations of Horatio Green! 😀

“All of us feeling the grip around the throat” #kafka #thelostwritings @NewDirections


There really *is* no accounting for reading moods, is there?? On the morning of World Book Day, I was trying to choose my next read and vascillating wildly, faced with any number of books. After rejecting most of the obvious choices in front of me, as well as all of the ones I had leftover from #ReadIndies and all of the possibles I’d featured on the Ramblings, I spotted a small hardback I’d picked up in 2020 and ignored ever since. It was “The Lost Writings” by Franz Kafka (translated by Michael Hofmann), and it turned out to be the perfect choice!

Kafka is, of course, notorious for never actually having finished a book; and he instructed his friend and executor Max Brod to destroy all his works. Fortunately for us, Brod didn’t; however, he *did* tidy up Kafka’s writings for publication, and it’s only in recent years that scholars have begun to put together more definitive versions – but that’s a different story. Anyway, Kafka left behind him a huge amount of short pieces and fragments, which were collected into two volumes of the completed works in German. Some of these have been previously translated, but this volume brings together a selection of works including some which have not made it into English before; and it really does make fascinating reading.

The pieces range in length from a paragraph to several pages, and rarely have a title. Each is notably ‘Kafkaesque’ in theme, featuring characters in odd situations, dealing with strange surroundings or negotiating dream-like terrain. That feeling of claustrophobia, of often being faced with places or people or circumstances beyond our control is present in these short works, and although you have no idea who is narrating them, they’re quite hypnotic to read.

A delicate matter, this tiptoeing across a crumbling board set down as a bridge, nothing underfoot, having to scrape together with your feet the ground you are treading on, walking on nothing but your reflection down in the water below, holding the world together with your feet, your hands cramping at the air to survive this ordeal.

Inevitably, many of the works don’t have a conclusion, ending in a series of ellipses, and that can be tantalising to the reader (“A coffin had been made ready”, a 2 page tale, particularly springs to mind); however, I personally don’t have an issue with fragments or unfinished works (both Edwin Drood and Sanditon are big favourites). There were so many resonances I sensed, in particular (and perhaps unexpectedly) with Italo Calvino – the fragment with the first line of “The city resembles the sun, all its light is concentrated into one dazzling central circle…” particularly struck me as Calvino-esque! Definitely, if you give yourself up to these pieces and allow yourself to be sucked into Kafka’s worlds, the rewards are great; these strange little tales with their surreal settings and characters stay with you and I loved the book!

The collection has been compiled by Reiner Stach, who’s apparently responsible for a highly regarded biography of Kafka (I may have to seek that out…); he provides a fascinating afterword concerning the history of Kafka’s writing; and the translations by Michael Hofmann sound to my ear like other Kafka works I’ve read. “The Lost Writings” are vivid, quirky, individual and strange, the kind of short works which haunt you; highly recommended by me, and another title I would have squeezed into #ReadIndies if I’d had more time. As it is, I’m very glad I got the urge to read this now; and I may now have to search out the recent definitive versions of his well-known works… ;D

Something for the Weekend: #ReadIndies 2023 Event Index


Lizzy and I know how many love to go book shopping at the weekend. So just in case you need some ideas, the #ReadIndies event index is here!

Think of the index as a mini yellow pages of book recommendations and let your fingers do the walking …. before you walk for real into the bookshop, of course!

“Words, after all, are just another set of gestures…” #TheTraces #MaireadSmallStaid #Calvino @DeepVellum


Although we’re now comfortably into March I’m still continuing to catch up with reviews of indie books I read during February, and today’s post is about one which was a particularly fascinating and resonant read for me. The book is “The Traces: An Essay” by Mairead Small Staid, published by Deep Vellum, an indie out of Dallas, Texas, under their A Strange Object imprint; and it’s a multi-layered and profound work which certainly got me thinking.

Staid hails from Massachusetts and has published widely in magazines; she’s also, as parts of the book revealed, worked in a University library, for which I envy her, and in her acknowledgements at the back of the book mentions that she has spent much of her time working in independent bookshops and public libraries. I have to be honest and say that what initially attracted me to the book was the fact that much of Staid’s narrative is inspired and informed by her reading of Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities”, a book I’ve read and loved, but which I’m sure deserves a re-read! “Traces” focuses on a season Staid spent studying in Florence, and travelling around the capitals of Europe, when she was 20. And as she explores that past, she meditates on the process of memory, on the person she was then and who she is now, and on how much of what we remember is accurate.

We grow used to seeing ourselves in certain places, doing certain things, acting in a certain way. Our episodic memories accumulate, forming semantic ones: I did, I did, I did, therefore I am. We define ourselves by repetition, our persons – our personalities – formed like a portrait, brush stroke upon brush stroke slowly taking the shape of a cheek or a hand. We are creatures of habit, sure, and of habits, good and bad.

Much of Staid’s time in Europe is spent in pursuit of art; but she’s also juggling personal life and emotions, in particular her attraction to Z, a fellow student who is not single. They maintain their distance despite a mutual attraction, but that magnetism between the two of them is a constant thread through her narrative and inevitably colours her memories of Florence and Italy. She’s also coming out of a period of recurring depression, and this is another strand to her story; the anticipation of the return of the ‘black dog’ seems always in her mind.

But there are good times despite the potential issues, and Staid travels widely, mostly alongside her fellow student Annie. They smoke, drink, eat well and visit such a dazzling list of places that I can only gasp with envy and wish I’d done more travelling in my youth. Staid ponders many issues, but looking back I sense that the search to define and find happiness is one of the major ones; because of her periods of depression she struggles to identify what real happiness is, and in parts of her book looks back to other thinkers and philosophers to try to help. Is there any real meaning to the search for that happiness? I don’t know – I suspect it’s different for any human being. Certainly, Staid seems to be trying to work out if her period in Florence was the happiest point of her life, and if so, why was that? Are memories accurate and can they really ever be grasped? These are difficult questions and I’m not sure if there are actually definitive answers.

I think we are always hunting something that is hidden or merely possible or hypothetical, something whose tracks we follow as we find them on the surface of the ground. (Calvino, ‘Six Memos for the Next Millennium”)

In truth, “Traces” is a hard book to pin down and write about in some ways because of the different strands to her narrative. Periods of memoir will be interspersed with philosophical meditations which make the book a fascinating and heady mix; and her explorations of other writers has already had a dramatic effect on my immediate TBR as you’ll have noted in my recent posts. She quotes Pavese, Montaigne, Camus, Kafka – well, you name it, they’re probably on my TBR shouting to be read. Staid’s insights into these authors, and the influence they have on her, are fascinating, and I really want to get to some of these books soon!.

Running all the way through the book is the influence of the aforementioned Calvino and his “Invisible Cities”. Calvino was Italian, and Staid relates some of the descriptions of his cities to the ones she sees; indeed in the beautifully written chapter “Cities and Names”, she wonderfully recreates the mood of Calvino as a narrator travels by train between a number of European cities. The narrator is of course Staid herself, but it’s a particularly stand-out chapter in what is an already fascinating book.

Florence’s Duomo by Petar Milošević, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Another favourite chapter was “Cities and Eyes” which explores the work of Leonardo da Vinci via Berger, Benjamin and Vasari; Staid takes a look at the whole issue of authenticity and originality, what is ‘real’ and what has been recreated, and this was fascinating (and has also made me pull out Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ for reading asap!). Much of the book is indeed a commentary on art: the visual arts Staid sees on her travels and also the written arts (Calvino and Pavese are prominent here).

“The Traces” is a book filled with many riches: Staid’s writing is beautiful, her philosophical explorations fascinating, her memoirs evocative and her thoughts on Calvino in particular illuminating. If nothing else, I shall go back to “Invisible Cities” in a different frame of mind for my next re-read and look more deeply into it I hope. As for Staid, this is her first book, and I think it’s a wonderful and very original achievement; I hope she writes more and look forward to seeing what she comes up with next!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher – many thanks!)


“…there was more compassion among plants and animals than among human beings!” #eroshenko @ColumbiaUP


I’m continuing on into March with another indie book, and it struck me as I was reading this one just how valuable independent presses are in bringing neglected authors to a wider reading public. Today’s book is a case in point; the author is a completely new name to me, and his life and work are both fascinating. Interestingly, the publisher is Columbia University Press, responsible for the Russian Library imprint which often features on the Ramblings. However, they also publish more widely and although the author of today’s book hails from Ukraine, he had a fascinating and peripatetic life, as well as producing some inventive and memorable writing. His name is Vasily Eroshenko and the book is “The Narrow Cage and Other Modern Fairy Tales”, translated from the Japanese and Esperanto by Adam Kuplowsky.

The excellent introduction by Kuplowsky explores Eroshenko’s life; born in 1890 he was blinded at the age of 4 due to complications from measles. However, despite difficult times at a school for the blind, he made a career as a violinist in an orchestra of the blind, then travelled to London, Paris, then back to Moscow before leaving for Japan in 1914. Having learned Esperanto early, he had access to a global network of Esperantist, and travelled through many Asian and European countries, always preaching his left wing and anarchist views. I imagine he was not a comfortable guest in many places, particularly against the backdrop of the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the subsequent unrest in so many countries. However, he continued to work, write and agitate all through his life until his death in 1952 in Obukhivka, his birthplace.

“The Narrow Cage” collects together a range of Eroshenko’s fables and fairytales, some written in Japanese and some in Esperanto. His fables are, of course, grounded in political satire, using animals as stand ins for humans and their terrible actions. So a fish will suffer from religious confusion; a paper lantern will be riddled with jealousy; a captive tiger will attempt to free all of his fellow imprisoned animals; and a scholarly young mouse will suffer from not recognising the dangers of real life. It’s not difficult to deduce the kind of humans and their beliefs being satirised here. However, there are fascinating subtexts to his writing, as Eroshenko obviously cares deeply for the creatures he writes about, and is happy to sling criticism at humans and the mess they make of the planet (prescient for the early 20th century if nothing else!) He decries the human tendency to enslave and use animals as a product for their own ends, and I would say at times he’s edging close to a Buddhist attitude – which may well stem from his time in Japan.

…man has always derived his strength from the oppression of those who are weaker than himself, and having never known true freedom, has always lived in misery. What an unfortunate creature is man! And yet is it not man who claims dominion over every creeping thing? How ironic!

However, his basic viewpoint is one of wanting equality for all living creatures, and in his real life he constantly agitated for this. His fables were obviously an extension of his political activism, a way of trying to point out the stupidity of modern life, of the enslavement of certain parts of humanity by others, and of preaching equality and freedom. But I must say these tales are never dull or dusty; each story is a little gem in its own right, a pleasure to read and often very moving, and even if you don’t want to take on the political message, you can still enjoy each fable simply for the story it tells. And the political message is again a global one, that we are all confined in a narrow cage of some kind, and that narrow cage can indeed be an allegory of life itself.

The CUP volume is a brilliant introduction to Eroshenko’s work, because not only does it contain a good and representative selection of his fictions, it also contains extracts from his autobiographical writings, including a piece about his childhood in the school for the blind, and also a memoir of his expulsion from Japan, an event which obviously affected him greatly. All of these enhance his stories, and added to the introduction give a wonderful all-round portrait of the man and his work.

#ReadIndies was a great way to discover new authors, and I’m so glad that my continued focus on indie presses is continuing to do this. Eroshenko was a fascinating character, a powerful author and lived such an inspiring life with all the odds stacked against him. The tales in this collection are unforgettable, populated as they are with humans and animals trying to navigating a cruel world to ensure they not only survive but also try to create freedom for all. A marvellous read and highly recommended!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks. “The Narrow Cage” is published today.

“A name, a colour, a smell, a season…” #richardmabey #theunofficialcountryside @LittleToller


As I mentioned in my end of February round up, I’m going to try to keep focused on the indies lurking on Mount TBR and today I wanted to share my thoughts about a book I’d fully intended to get to for #ReadIndies month – “The Unofficial Countryside” by Richard Mabey, published by Little Toller Books as one of their nature writing classics. LT are a firm favourite at the Ramblings, and I’ve previously enjoyed several of their books – “Millstone Grit”, “Snow“, “On Silbury Hill” and “Beyond the Fell Wall“. I picked up “Unofficial” at the same time as “Millstone” and can say that its reputation as an important classic is more than justified…

First published in 1973, the book grew out of Mabey’s observations of the urban areas which we would certainly not describe as ‘countryside’ – abandoned city docks, left over bomb sites which hadn’t been touched since the end of the war, the towpaths of inner city canals, gravel pits, rubbish dumps; none of these are areas we would dub the picturesque countryside, yet as Mabey’s wanderings revealed, the wealth of wildlife to be discovered was surprising and stunning.

Split into four seasonal sections, the book explores these liminal spaces from different angles. So one part considers the earth, and what will grow in the soil of the wastelands; another looks at water, and the pools in gravel pits, marshy abandoned areas and the canals themselves. In Parks, Mabey explores Hampsted Heath and looks at the way we construct green spaces within cities and try to regiment them; and in Gardens he ponders upon the strangeness of humans, who want some wildlife as part of their living space but are intent on controlling it.

These are just some of the places Mabey goes whilst tramping the unofficial countryside, and following his journey is fascinating. Of course, the landscape of the UK has changed dramatically since the 1970s, as I know myself; when growing up during that decade, there was still an area of local scrubland at the end of my ordinary suburban street known locally as “The Woods”. It contained remnants of bomb shelters and a wooded area plus an overgrown area where some houses had formerly stood. It was a small piece of nature but much loved by us local children and we haunted the place, climbing the trees, building dens and occasionally venturing to the entrances of the ruined shelters (though never quite daring to go inside…) That kind of area is gone now – our woods were flattened and housed over by the end of the 20th century – but I look back and relish having had that kind of experience. And if I’d had Mabey’s eyes I would have been able to appreciate the species surviving the suburban sprawl in this natural area.

Because what this book is, most of all, is a tribute to the resilience of nature. The places Mabey is exploring are left over products of human endeavour; whether skulking near the runways at Heathrow, or exploring around industrial estates, he’s engaging with industry and its leftovers. But given a moment’s peace, natural things will return to claim back their space; birds will nest in unlikely places; rare plants will find a space to flourish; and lost species will make a comeback. It’s inspiring to see these examples of nature fighting for their place on our increasingly beleagured planet, and reading through the book, you share Mabey’s joy in encountering the species he does.

In areas of gross contamination most plants and animals quite simply die. They have no choice. We do have one, which is to clear up our own filth.

As I’ve said, the world has of course changed; and many of these havens of nature have been crushed again. Mabey’s writing is prescient in places, recognising that the increase in plane flights and dumping of rubbish will have long term effects on the planet, which we now know but still seem incapable of halting. He’s full of common sense, too, wondering why local authorities need to manicure their green spaces so much; the simple suggestion of putting hedgerows round parks instead of horrible railings, thus making something lovely to look at which will also provide a valuable habitat, seems quite a reasonable one; yet certainly none of my local parks have anything like this. Again, when discussing Hampstead Heath, he comments on the variety of the landscape, the differing levels, trees, overgrown areas, and all the things which add to the experience of being there and also to the visual appeal. Once more, my local parks are mostly bleak, unlandscaped and left as dull stretches of grass, presumably to allow people to kick a ball about. It’s not terribly inspiring…

Weeds are too close to us, too humdrum. We judge them by convention, not for what they are. Buttercups are admired in a grazing meadow yet hunted down with herbicides on front lawns. The notion that a plant is a weed is the most effective barrier for stopping us looking at it closely.

However, with Mabey as our guide perhaps we can get past this. His discussion of weeds is particularly interesting; I have no issue with them, particularly if they’re attractive and don’t try to take over. Some of the nicest plants which pop up in my garden are wild ones which appear every year (we have a particularly attractive batch of cyclamen which flower every late autumn). And I’ve seen small wild pansies popping up in the street through paving stone cracks; truly, nature always seems to find a way.

Colin Smith / Summer Wild Flowers via Wikimedia Commons

“The Unofficial Countryside” was a lovely read; Mabey is a pleasant companion through the world of urban rambling, his observations always on point, his views sensible and his discoveries fascinating. If nothing else, this is a book to set you off on your own local explorations, finding the spaces where nature is peeking through and reclaiming some space. The mania for modern flattening out of everything and building wherever you can is trying to squeeze out the remains of nature in built up areas, but it can still be found. A lovely book and a worthy reprint by Little Toller – another indie which punches above its weight!

(A little word about the loveliness of these Little Toller editions! The Nature Classics come with French flaps, interesting forewords – in this case, by Iain Sinclair – and illustrations. The artist featured here is Mary Newcomb, a name new to me, and her work does really enhance the book!)

February – reading a lot of wonderful Indie books! :D #readindies


Well, that was a quick month, wasn’t it? February seems as short as January was long, and although it whizzed past I have had another really wonderfully bookish month, helped by the fact that there was a half term in the middle of it and so I got a lovely lot of time for resting and reading. Here is my pile of February reads and they were frankly all wonderful! I’ve not reviewed everything on the pile yet, so anything not covered will be carried over to March!

February was of course #ReadIndies month, and just about everthing on the pile is an indie – and there have been some wonderful treats which just goes to show the riches of books from independent publishers. Some of my favourite presses and authors have been featured, but I also discovered some new ones so that’s wonderful! However, on the subject of reading indies, we won’t be extending our #ReadIndies event this year as Lizzy has other project commitments in March! But I’ve barely scratched the surface of the pile of independently published books on the TBR; so although I will continue to follow my reading muse as the year continues, I’m going to try to fit in as many indie publishers as I can! 😀

If you’ve been reading along with us during February, don’t forget to leave details of your posts in the Mr Linky here, as Lizzy always puts together an index of all the reviews, which is a wonderful resource. Of course you may still be catching up with reviews as are we, and so if you’ve read an indie, you have until 6th March to post the review and be included in the index!

So what are my upcoming reading plans? Well, vague and amorphous as usual! I’m currently reading a fascinating review book from Columbia University Press called “The Narrow Cage” by Vasily Eroshenko; the author hailed from Ukraine and lived a peripatic live, and the book is translated from Japanese and Esperanto so this is something of a first for me!

Then there is the pile of journals and notebooks and essays I assembled at the end of February when I was reading Sartre – here they are again and there are just so many options into which I’d love to sink…

But of course there are many, many more unread books on the TBR and of course March has the #Dewithon as a reading event – I may try to join in, but it will depend what I can find in the stacks. In the meantime, I shall continue to read independent publishers, and here are some of those stacks, showing just how many choices I really have… ;D

One of the TBR shelves, although I *have* read some of these!


Another shelf, a mixture of read and unread…


A heap of intriguing books which currently lives on a table!


A rather precipitous pile…

Looking at those, you can no doubt see how it can be difficult for me to decide which book to read; I guess this is why I usually go with my reading moods and I’m sure they’ll continue to guide me throughout March! What do *you* plan to read??

“We…were being prepared for the abnormal, even for chaos.” @NottingHillEds #ReadIndies #CaryGrantsSuit


When I was a teenager I was a bit of a movie buff, spending most of my Saturday afternoons at the local fleapit (‘The Savoy’!) watching whatever latest disaster film was showing. I would often go with schoolmates (in whose company I first discovered Russia and its Revolution via a re-run of ‘Doctor Zhivago’); but I was a bit of a loner at times and happy to go on my own too. However my real passion was Old Hollywood, in the form of the black and white movies of the classic years. A Bette Davis season on BBC2 was a real treat; if there was anything on with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, I was in heaven; and the highlight of our family visit to Los Angeles when I was 15 was getting to see Groucho Marx’s star on the Hollywood Boulevard. So really, I’m the perfect audience for today’s #ReadIndies book: “Cary Grant’s Suit: Nine Movies that Made Me the Wreck I Am Today” by Todd McEwen, from Notting Hill Editions.

This picture really doesn’t do justice to the loveliness of NHE books – I mean, the quote text is actually pale blue!!!

NHE should need no introduction; purveyors of most beautiful little cloth bound hardback editions devoted to the art of the essay, they’ve appeared on the Ramblings many, many times. Their latest book is penned by Todd McEwen, who hails from Southern California and has had a varied life working in radio, theatre and the rare books trade; after relocating to Scotland in the 1980s he worked at Granta, and now works editing and teaching as well as writing (he has a number of novels to his name). In “Cary Grant’s Suit” he takes a look back at his life as a movie addict, and the book is a joy from start to finish!

McEwen grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, in a normal street in a normal little Californian town; but was a stone’s throw away from the source of his celluloid dreams. A 1950s childhood was by necessity overshadowed by the aftermath of WW2, and McEwen and his friends were consumed by cinematic visions, re-enacting their current favourite, drawing their games from the on-screen action and living for those visits to the picturehouse. His book is structured around his memories of growing up with film and specific movies which are still lodged in his heart; however, it inevitably goes further than this, capturing a lost world, perhaps a more innocent one, as well as a time when cinema really was magnificent.

Some of the fun in sight gags comes from a love of destruction which is not very healthy, and these days it’s way out of control: the only movies most people now attend are nothing more than a series of explosions. Cats, houses, children, women, men, dogs, cats, cities, Russians and dinosaurs of all kinds all blown to bits in increasingly sadistic ways. Because we westerners, Americans in particular, hate and fear ourselves and the physical universe we have created. And so we should.

It has to be said that I’m not a fan of the modern movie, which frankly mostly seems to me to be a version of the computer game; so I find myself in sympathy with McEwen’s outlook. He starts by exploring Laurel and Hardy shorts (which I do love, though Mr. K is an even bigger fan); runs through such classics as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Casablanca and Chinatown (which he’s apparently seen 61 times – so far…); and explores the effect of technicolour, the humour of Jacques Tati and the sheer exhaustion of tramping round Scotland under the influence of The Thirty Nine Steps. There’s The Wizard of Oz, White Christmas, and of course Cary Grant himself – or rather, his immaculate suit, which manages to survive all of the dramatic action in North by Northwest with barely a crease! The latter piece is particularly entertaining; I never would have thought of looking at the film in terms of the leading man’s costume, but it actually is a fascinating study!

McEwen is a wonderfully humourous commentator, and I find myself laughing out loud at several points in the book. However, under the wit is such a genuine love of films and indeed the movie making business in general; McEwen seemed to make it a habit whenever he could to visit the projectionist’s booth; and although at several points he rues the fact that there was a lost opportunity to become involved in the movie business, films have obviously really affected his life!

When I was seven, I was going to be an Egyptologist, the skipper of a submarine, or a projectionist, which would have in some ways incorporated the other two: a projectionist unlocks certain aesthetic mysteries, and he also has at his command a lot of valves, switches, levers and bells. And there’s a bonus, as for a motion picture projectionist the possibility of being crushed to death on the floor of the sea or dying in agony from an ancient curse is somewhat reduced.

“Cary Grant’s Suit” was a treat from start to finish; I found myself empathising with McEwen all the way through, with his tales of his obsessions with movies, his deep dives into how those infatuations made him feel, and in places, with the sheer detail of his observations about the films. I’ve had obsessions with particular movies in the past, where I’d seen them so often that I could practially recite the dialogue, where I began to study the backgrounds and sets more than the action at the front of the shot, and so I totally get where he’s coming from. The book is also a wonderful paean to old Hollywood, to those classic, beautifully filmed, stunning works of art which can still hypnotise – it’s quite clear how much McEwen loves those movies. He’s also a very astute critic and I found his observations always spot on.

One thing I find with Notting Hill Editions is that, whatever the subject of their books, the quality of the essays and writing is aways superb, and that’s definitely the case here. McEwen is a funny and entertaining commentator, writing with real love about his life and the films which formed him. “Cary Grant’s Suit” was a wonderful read, and another success for #ReadIndies – really, what a wonderful month of reading it’s been!

And to round up this post in the way Madame Bibi Lophile often does, i.e. with a song, here’s a tune with which I was obsessed when it came out, and the black and white imagery in the video was the icing on the cake!

“Cary Grant’s Suit” is out today from Notting Hill Editions; many thanks to the publisher for the review copy!

“… a pure translucency, a purely passive thing…” #FrenchFebruary #ReadIndies @seagullbooks


We’re getting perilously close to the end of #ReadIndies month, and it’s become clear to me that I’m not going to fit in all the books I wanted to read and cover. However, I was really keen to include something which as well as being indie also qualified for MarinaSofia’s #FrenchFebruary challenge; hence this extra weekend post!

Finding a French indie looked like it might be problematic when I first rummaged through Mount TBR, but then I thought of Seagull Books; they’re an indie with a BIG French List, and I have several lurking. Many of these are lovely collections of Barthes’ works and though they’re most appealing, the manic quality of real life and work at the moment meant I doubted my ability to concentrate enough! Fortunately, though, I have a couple of slim volumes of Jean-Paul Sartre‘s writings, and although he’s no light read, I thought I’d have more chance of reading those at the moment – and I was right!

Sartre is an author I read mostly in my twenties, and then it was mainly his fiction; I’ve not revisited him much in recent years but have wanted to explore his non-fiction, and so this was the perfect introduction. His writing *can* be a bit intimidating, but on the whole I found these short pieces bracing and fascinating; so here are my thoughts on the individual volumes.

On Novels and Novelists

This is Volume 11 of the Seagull Sartre Library, and it collects together five pieces by the author of various lengths and on a variety of writers or works. Covered are Francois Mauriac, Andre Gide, Nathalie Sarraute, Jean Giraudoux and Jules Renard. Of the five, I’ve read Mauriac and Gide, and have a couple of Sarraute’s books on the TBR, so this made interesting reading. Sarte does not mince his words, and his critiques are pithy and entertaining; he’s not a fan of all of the authors or books covered, but when he wants to criticise he does it in a detailed and erudite way. He’s positive about Sarraute (and I think I was aware of this before), as well as Gide; however, I found myself very much in tune with his criticisms of Mauriac and his ‘Therese’ books. I read those quite a while ago and found them somewhat problematic, so it was frankly quite enjoyable seeing Sartre pulling them to pieces in such a clever way – the devastating last line of the piece made me laugh out loud.

For a book is either merely a little pile of dry leaves or, alternatively, a great form in movement: the act of reading. The novelist seizes upon this movement, guides and inflects it, he makes it the substance of his characters.

There was much in these pieces to set the brain whizzing and once I got my thoughts aligned with Sartre’s way of writing and expressing things, I had a whale of a time reading this collection. A real treat, and I shall definitely have to seek out more of his literary criticism!

On Camus

Camus and Sartre had a notoriously rocky friendship – close buddies and allies to start with, they famously fell out over a review of one of Camus’s books by a writer on Les Temps Modernes, of which Sartre was the editor. This collection (volume 8 of the Seagull Sartre Library) contains three pieces – a reply by Sartre to Camus’s response to the bad review, after the falling out had happened; a memoir of Camus after his untimely death; and a review of his most famous work, here titled “The Outsider”.

Our freedom today is merely the free choice to struggle to become free.

Both Camus and Sartre were powerful authors in their own right, and obviously powerful personalities as well. I haven’t read the actual review, nor Camus’s piece in response, but Sartre goes into great detail as to why Camus was misguided. The 1950s were, of course, a time of considerable conflict on the left, particularly in a country like France where artists were so politically engaged, and the issues were obvously very complex. The breach was enough to last until Camus’s untimely death in 1960; and the second piece in the book is Sartre’s moving homage to his erstwhile friend at that point. Despite their quarrel, he states he always regarded Camus as a friend, if an absent one, and you feel the real sadness at the loss of such a great intellect.

The final piece, a review of “The Outsider”, is excellent reading, exploring the meanings behind the book, Camus’s philosophy of the absurd, and expressing the importance of the novel to modern literature. There are many insights here, and I think that when I return to “The Outsider” Sartre’s thoughts will definitely inform my reading! As I said above, Sartre’s lit crit is definitely something to look out for!!

So both of these books were wonderful reads, full of food for thought as well as reminding me that I have some very interesting books from and about that period of French literature hanging about unread. Thanks to MarinaSofia for the nudge to search out something French and Indie – I have enjoyed my reunion with JPS very much!


As an aside, it seems that these volumes have been pulled from larger collections from Seagull and themed, which is a good idea to introduce Sartre’s non-fiction in bite sized collections. I do have other collections of his non-fiction, and in fact was prompted to dig out a number of books including these by my recent read of “Traces” by Mairead Small Staid (review to follow). Her book has mention of all manner of journals, diaries, notebooks etc from authors as diverse as Pavese, Gide and Camus. I have a lot of those books on the TBR and as you can see from this image I went down a bit of a rabbit hole – these are the tree books I own that kind of tie in with this angle and some of the insights in her book:

As well as the physical books, I also have a number of digital, so the choices are really endless, and I am sorely tempted by all of the non-fiction and diaries and journal collections I have. What to read next – so many books, so little time is always the issue!!

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