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Time for some 1970s clubbing…

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… by which I’m not suggesting that we all get dressed up in flares and platforms heels and go out discoing to glam rock…

Instead, I thought I would mention that the results are in! Simon has been feverishly counting the votes for the next reading Club year, and the winner is:

So there you have it! Our next reading week will be the #1977club. Time to start digging in the stacks and online lists to see what titles we can come up with. I know that there is at least a Richard Brautigan I have from that year (somewhere…), and as I failed to squeeze him into 1968 I shall do my very best to make sure I read at least this one!

Simon has come up with another eye-catching logo (he’s so good at these!) and as you’ll see from the dates, you have five months or so to get preparing, researching and reading – and we’re looking forward to seeing what you come up with! 🙂 I had a preliminary dig in the stacks and found that I have at least three other books from 1977 without even looking very hard:

Some commenters have wondered why we aren’t going on into the 1980s or back before the 1920s with the clubs, and to be honest that’s because of our personal tastes! Simon is particularly happy in the 1920s I know, and I don’t think either of us always feel drawn to modern writing. Personally, I’m inordinately fond of 20th century literature in the decades we feature, and as Simon pointed out to me, the dawn of cheaper printing from the 1920s onwards gives us more books choose from.

OK – maybe some things about 1977 weren’t so good…..

So – here’s to the #1977club, and we hope as many of you as possible will join in with this next year –  happy reading! 🙂

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‘I have gone where you did not want me to go’ (Lenin) @VersoBooks

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October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Mieville

Such enthusiastic bedlam might seem a nightmare, or a strange, faltering carnival, depending on one’s perspective.

First up, before attempting to discuss this book, I should nail my colours firmly to the mast. I’ve read a good number of books about the Russian Revolution over the years since first studying the subject at Grammar School (I mean REALLY a lot!) and this one of the best – if not *the* best. Yes, it’s that good. And this is going to be a very personal response, rather than anything approaching a formal review…

“October” is published by the left-wing imprint Verso Books, and I hesitated initially before buying it. Having read so much on the subject, would I find anything for me in yet another work on the great upheaval of 100 years ago? Nevertheless, I *did* pick up an e-book version when it was on offer earlier in the year (damn you, Verso, with your constant money-off emails!); and what tipped me into reading it, as the anniversary approached, was Mieville’s appearance in that execrable documentary on BBC2 that I moaned about here. Along with Tariq Ali, he came across as a voice of sanity, and as I have been becoming heartily sick of right-wing revisionist readings of those cataclysmic events, I decided that this was the time to read the book. And that was most definitely the right decision.

From the very first paragraphs Mieville hooks you; his writing, as he debunks the myths about the founding of St. Petersburg, is just marvellous. Immediately, you sense that Mieville is bringing his novelist’s sensibilities to the telling of a history and the results are stunning.

After providing a succinct background of the Russian nation, Mieville takes you into the heart of his story, with a series of chapters devoted to each month between the February and October revolutions. There’s no point me relating the story, as the author does this so well, but basically the monarchy falls at the beginning of the book, with a variety of provisional governments attempting to rule alongside, or in opposition to, the soviets and myriad other groups with an interest in bringing democracy to Russia. And there are endless meetings, discussions, talks about having talks until you despair a little and wish someone would get on with seizing power!

Political activism through passive–aggressive dinner parties.

By the second, rather bloodless revolution at the end of the book, the in-fighting and dissension amongst political groups, added to lack of food and the failure of those temporarily in charge to end the ruinous first world war, led to the Bolsheviks seizing power and the formation of the first socialist state in the world. Mieville touches on the aftermath, but most reading this book will know how the 20th century panned out for Russians. The search for freedom and utopia would certainly go horribly wrong…

‘The man of the future in Russia’, says Alexander Herzen at the start of the 1850s, ‘is the peasant.’ Development being slow, with no meaningful liberal movement in sight, the narodniks look beyond the cities to rural revolution. In the Russian peasant commune, the mir, they see a glimmer, a foundation for an agrarian socialism. Dreaming their own better places, thousands of young radicals ‘go to the people’, to learn from, work with, raise the consciousnesses of a suspicious peasantry.

So – what makes this book stand out so much from the many others I’ve read? Well, a number of things, actually. There are other books that are more detailed, more politically involved, perhaps even more analytical, but I don’t know that I’ve ever read one that brought events to life so vividly. Drawing on a vast range of material, which he uses to bring the story truly to life, he renders complex events with incredible clarity and sheer narrative drive – this is writing so good that it gives you shivers as you read it. Mieville has a wonderful way of delivering snappy one-liners that cut right to heart of the matter at hand, and his narrative makes sense of the dizzying array of political groupings. Even though I knew what was coming, Mieville’s narrative was nail-biting; and as history can be dull, this was a considerable achievement!

3 a.m. Kerensky, who only a few hours earlier had claimed to be ready to face down any challenge, tore back, distraught, to General Staff headquarters, to hear a litany of strategic points falling. Loyalist morale pitched. Worse, though, quickly came. At 3:30 a.m., a dark presence cut the shadowed Neva. Masts and wires and three looming smokestacks, great jutting guns. Out of the gloom came the armoured ship Aurora, making for the city’s heart.

“October” also reminds us that the revolution was the result of a combination of factors – the push for reform by the revolutionaries, and perhaps more importantly a populace that had had enough of war and poverty. Mieville says everything that needs to be said about the Russian Revolutions, and much more eloquently than I possibly can.

Gone was the obsequiousness of 1905. Citizens across the empire waged what Richard Stites called a ‘war on signs’, the destruction of tsarist symbols: portraits, statues, eagles. Revolutionary fever infected unlikely patients.

Yes, there was iconoclasm; in the more modern definition of the word, literally ‘image breaking’, and applied to all representations of power in public space and not just religious ones. When you’ve been downtrodden for years and you come across the symbols of that repression what more visceral reaction is there likely to be than the need to destroy those symbols?

It was endgame at the Winter Palace. Wind intruded through smashed glass. The vast chambers were cold. Disconsolate soldiers, deprived of purpose, wandered past the double-headed eagles of the throne room. Invaders reached the emperor’s personal chamber. It was empty. They took their time attacking images of the man himself, hacking with their bayonets at the stiff, sedate life-sized Nicholas II watching from the wall. They scored the painting like beasts with talons, left long scratches, from the ex-tsar’s head to his booted feet.

Whilst decrying the violence that took place, Mieville recognises the urgent need for change and the crippling inequality which was perpetuated by an ineffectual regime. And he’s not blind to the faults that existed within the various revolutionary groups, refusing to be drawn into hagiography and acknowledging that no one person was responsible for what happened and that often events led with revolutionaries following.

To be a radical was to lead others, surely, to change their ideas, to persuade them to follow you; to go neither too far or too fast, nor to lag behind. ‘To patiently explain.’ How easy to forget that people do not need or await permission to move.

What’s also refreshing is that Mieville strips away the layers of dismissal that have been applied to the Revolution since the fall of the Soviet Union and not only attempts to get back the state of mind that recognises that change was essential and inevitable, but also refuses to judge those events by what came afterwards.

Stalin, of course, was not yet Stalin. Today, any account of the revolution is haunted by a ghost from the future, that twinkly-eyed, moustachioed monstrosity, Uncle Joe, the butcher, key architect of a grotesque and crushing despotic state – the -ism that bears his name. There have been decades of debate about the aetiology of Stalinism, volumes of stories about the man’s brutality and that of his regime. They cast shadows backwards from what would come.

With the horrors that came after the revolutions and the fall of the monarchy, it’s easy to forget just how radical a change took place in Russia; what had been a feudal, autocratic country, which failed drastically to fit into the parameters defined by Marxists of a place that could host a revolution, actually *had* one and needed to be dragged, screaming into the modern world. The expectation of a world revolution was a mistaken one, leaving Russia isolated in its attempt at socialism. The incompetence of the Romanovs is quite clear and Mieville nails the ineffectual Nicholas II beautifully:

He is a well-educated vacuity stuffed with the prejudices of his milieu.

And later:

The tsar paddled on, dignified and proper, eyes on the horizon, the current hauling him towards a cataract.

Running through the books are masterly portraits of the protagonists, and Mieville is always fair in his portrayal of the Bolsheviks. Lenin and Trotsky appear in all their complex and contradictory glory, and the latter comes across as a powerful and crucial contributor to the success of the uprising. The narrative always comes back to Lenin, however, and although the revolution was in fact an often ramshackle and random affair, there is the sense that events would not have finally succeeded without Lenin’s vision and drive. Mieville also acknowledges that it is very hard to look at 1917 without hindsight and a knowledge of what would come later (and he includes some lovely little nods to other great authors…)

And Stalin, the ‘grey blur’ at the heart of the machine, builds up his power base, his own status as most equal of all.

Fittingly, I finished “October” as the anniversary dawned, and as I was composing my post on this truly magisterial work I was watching the revolution unfold ‘live’ on a fascinating iPad app which drew on, and provided, much of the same material as the book (yes, it’s taken me that long to pull my thoughts together…) I found it impossible not to be caught up in the emotion and the excitement of it all while I was reading “October” and whatever your political colour, this book will give you a marvellous insight into the motivations and actions of the revolutionaries.

The future for which the Marxists yearn, communism, is as absurd to their detractors as any peasant’s Belovode. It is rarely distinctly outlined, but they know it beckons beyond private property and its violence, beyond exploitation and alienation, to a world where technology reduces labour, the better for humanity to flourish. ‘The true realm of freedom’, in Marx’s words: ‘the development of human powers as an end in itself’. This is what they want.

There are a lot of quotes in this post, I realise, but I could have pulled out so many more – the writing is that good and Mieville’s take on events so necessary. What makes this book particularly vital is its acknowledgement that change was, and still could be, possible; and that we should not accept inequality and corruption but should strive for a better world. In a year when the world seems to be getting madder and madder, and the lunatics really *do* seem to have taken over the asylum, we need to be reminded that we can and should still dream of a utopia and an alternative. Read this book.

*****

There are a number of videos and interviews with Mieville available online which a quick search will bring up. They are making fascinating watching and reading as I start to explore them…. 🙂

‘To become what we are capable of becoming is the only end in life’ – #RLSDay 2017!

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I discovered recently – lord knows where, but I think it had something to do with moustaches…. Anyway, as I was saying, I discovered recently that there is a rather wonderful Robert Louis Stevenson Day, celebrated every year on his birthday which happens to be today, 13th November. So I thought I would join in a little, as RLS is an author who I’m keen to explore more of, having loved what I’ve read so far!

On my recent jaunt to Edinburgh (his home city) I was keen to look for traces, as I mentioned, and fortunately the very lovely Writers’ Museum had a whole room dedicated to him. The Museum itself was a beautifully atmospheric place, and I really felt the presence of RLS in the room – here are a few pictures from the visit:

The lovely Writers’ Museum

Way into the RLS room

One of the exhibits

Another exhibit!

I also discovered that the walk down the long hill from Henderson’s Salad Table to our holiday rental took me past Heriot Row, and it was at number 17 that Stevenson grew up. On my last night in Edinburgh I had a quick peep at the place (which is apparently a family home, but used for RLS events).

Heriot Row picture c. Scotiana

You can read more about the place here:

http://www.cityofliterature.com/a-to-z/17-heriot-row-stevenson-house/

Finally, I have been dipping randomly into the book of Selected Poems by RLS which I picked up at the Writer’s Museum and I wanted to share one rather poignant verse which really struck me:

I SAW RED EVENING THROUGH THE RAIN

I saw red evening through the rain
Lower above the steaming plain;
I heard the hour strike small and still,
From the black belfry on the hill.

Thought is driven out of doors tonight
By bitter memory of delight;
The sharp constraint of finger tips,
Or the shuddering touch of lips.

I heard the hour strike small and still,
From the black belfry on the hill.
Behind me I could still look down
On the outspread monstrous town.

The sharp constraint of finger tips,
Or the shuddering touch of lips,
And all old memories of delight
Crowd upon my soul tonight.

Behind me I could still look down
On the outspread feverish town;
But before me, still and grey,
And lonely was the forward way.

If you want to read more about the RLS Day, there is a site devoted to it here:

https://rlsday.wordpress.com

and of course there is masses more online. I’m just wondering to myself why it’s taken me quite so long to explore the work of this great Scottish writer more deeply! Happy RLS Day! 🙂

Time for some bookish confessions…

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Yes. Good intentions. Not to buy more books, to read from the stacks and to try to downsize the amount of volumes in the house. Unfortunately, as OH observed a little fretfully recently, even more seem to be arriving on a regular basis (and he hasn’t actually seen all of those that have made their way in…) I seem to be destined to acquire books, however hard I try, so I though I would share the latest fruits of my addiction with you… 🙂

First up, some titles have arrived courtesy of Very Kind Fellow Bloggers:

The very lovely Liz at Adventures in reading, writing and working at home kindly passed on to me the Alexei Sayle autobiographies when she’d read them. I’m looking forward to them very much, as he’s so funny and of course staunchly left-wing, so they should be a fab read.

“Rupture” arrived from Sarah at Hard Book Habit, and I’m also really looking forward to that one, as I haven’t read any Icelandic crime for a while and this one comes highly recommended. So kind!

So I can’t take the blame, can I, when lovely people send me books? Or, indeed, when lovely publishers send me books like these!

The top two titles are ones I’m covering for Shiny New Books and probably should be read next. Then there are a couple of lovely titles from the British Library, which are very exciting – particularly the collection of translated crime shorts. Below them are two titles from the excellent Michael Walmer that sound marvellous; and finally at the bottom an intriguing book from OUP on scent in Victorian literature…

And then – ahem – there are the books I’ve been buying, and here they are:

I should say that this has been over a period of several weeks but even so, it’s not good for the rafters… To be specific:

I bought these two online – “The Cornish Trilogy” because of Kat’s excellent review and because I felt I really should read Robertson Davies; and “Grand Hotel Abyss” because it sounded marvellous and Verso sent one of those rotten emails with substantial discounts (they do this regularly and it’s Very Bad for the TBR!!)

These three are from charity shops. The two on the outside were £1 each so there was no question about picking them up. Patrick Leigh Fermor is a must, and Saramago is an author I want to read. The Orwell was more expensive (thanks, Oxfam) but, hey – it’s Orwell so no contest.

This, of course, was inevitable… Although I picked up a copy of Stevenson’s poems in Edinburgh I wanted more. I’ve been rummaging through bookshelves all week to try to find my copy of “Jekyll” and having failed, I picked up a copy for £1 in a charity shop last weekend. The other two came from an online source, and in particular I was keen to get “New Arabian Nights” after Himadri at The Argumentative Old Git waxed so lyrical about it recently.

And finally – with all my reading around the French Revolution and (shhhh!) iconoclasm recently, I came across recommendations for these two books. Well, they were cheap – although to be honest, it’s not the cost that is ever the issue with book buying, as I tend to go for the bargains. It’s whether I can shoe-horn any more into the house… Ah well – carpe librum, as they say!!

In mitigation, I should direct your attention to the heap waiting to be removed from the house in one way or another (not the Dickens books, I hasten to add – they’re on my Dickens shelf and they’re staying there….):

We are sick and tired of living in debt and slavery… We want space and light…

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Those who count themselves on the side of the revolution must engage with these failures and crimes. To do otherwise is to fall into apologia, special pleading, hagiography – and to run the risk of repeating such mistakes. It is not for nostalgia’s sake that the strange story of the first socialist revolution in history deserves celebration. The standard of October declares that things changed once, and they might do so again. October, for an instant, brings a new kind of power. Fleetingly, there is a shift towards workers’ control of production and the rights of peasants to the land. Equal rights for men and women in work and in marriage, the right to divorce, maternity support. The decriminalisation of homosexuality, 100 years ago. Moves towards national self-determination. Free and universal education, the expansion of literacy. And with literacy comes a cultural explosion, a thirst to learn, the mushrooming of universities and lecture series and adult schools. A change in the soul, as Lunacharsky might put it, as much as in the factory. And though those moments are snuffed out, reversed, become bleak jokes and memories all too soon, it might have been otherwise.

(“October” by China Mieville; Verso Books 2017)

#1968Club – the ones that got away…

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Well, that was fun! What an amazing array of books 1968 turned out to produce – truly a bumper year for publishing it seems. In the end I had terrible trouble deciding which books to choose (compounded by the fact that I was away the week before, and also spent much of October reading “Crime and Punishment” so couldn’t really prepare). Inevitably, there were some that got away, and these are the most significant:

There were many, many more I could have chosen to read, but I was trying to draw mainly from books I already owned, and there were a surprising amount from 1968 which I hadn’t actually got to yet. I think I actually bought two for the week – the Helen MacInnes and the new copy of the Kerouac – and typically they weren’t ones I read…

Which ones do I regret missing out on? These two, really:

The Brautigan is one I really wanted to return to; I love his work dearly, first coming across it in my late teens, and I’ve gone back to his books many times over the years. In fact, I had a complete chronological re-read pre-blog and it was marvellous. I’m sure I’ll read him again, though probably not for one of our reading years unless I’m lucky.

And I bought a nice new copy of “Vanity of Duluoz” to revisit as my ancient Quartet copy from back in the 1970s is getting very brown and crumbly. I probably have a more complex reaction to Kerouac’s work nowadays, but I still wanted to revisit this one. We shall see…

So – how was 1968 for you? Any books you wish you’d got to, any that didn’t turn out as planned?  Don’t forget to leave any links to your reading on the 1968 page. And just because the week is over, doesn’t mean we should stop reading books from what really was a stellar year! 🙂

#1968Club – A Little Vintage Crime from opposite sides of the Pond

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I have a little joke with myself that when it comes to our club reads, there’s pretty much always at least one Maigret story that I can read from the year in question. 1968 is no exception, and there were two titles available, although I only own one – and as I’m trying to read from the stacks where I can, I went for that one.

However, when I was looking through titles of books for the last Club, the name of Rex Stout came up. I hadn’t read any of his Nero Wolfe titles for absolutely ages (decades probably) and I had wanted to squeeze one in to 1951. That didn’t happen, but as I had access to a 1968 book I decided to go for that too. So a double-header today and a pair of rather wonderful, if different, crime reads.

First up I read the Stout, “The Father Hunt”; narrated by Archie Goodwin, sidekick to Nero Wolfe (who always tells the tale as far as I can recall), it’s about a young woman called Amy Denovo who asks Archie to help her find out who her father was. Her mother was killed in a hit and run accident, and she knows nothing about her missing male parent. Amy’s mother was remarkably secretive, and of course as Archie is employed by Wolfe and can’t act on his own, he draws the great detective into the quest. It turns out that Amy was left a lot of money by her mother, which came from her absent father over the years, and so she can afford Wolfe’s large fee (well, he does have a collection of rare orchids to maintain!) As usual in these stories, there are tight-lipped millionaires, starchy bankers and uncooperative policemen, all ripe for Archie to annoy (I can still remember the format even though it’s such a long time since I read a Stout!) There’s a wonderful ensemble cast and although the solution was perhaps a little rushed, it was still an enjoyable read.

The Simenon was “Maigret’s Boyhood Friend” and concerns the murder of a women known as Josee who has been shot. Josee had a number of ‘friends’ who helped her to pay her way, regular visitors with regular days; but she also had an almost live-in lover in the form of Florentin, the class clown from when Maigret was at school. It is Florentin who presents himself at Maigret’s office, claiming that Josee was murdered and it was not him – he had been hiding in the cupboard and had heard the murderer but does not know who it was.

Janvier could not help smiling. He was well acquainted with this mood, and, as a rule, it was a good sign. It was Maigret’s way, when he was working on a case, to soak everything up like a sponge, absorbing into himself people and things, even of the most trivial sort, as well as impressions of which he was perhaps barely conscious. It was generally when he was close to saturation point that he was at his most disgruntled.

Maigret is, of course, skeptical, and sets off to investigate the murdered women’s visitors. His investigation is hampered by Florentin’s antics, and the fact that Maigret really dislikes his old school classmate. Despite this, however, he finds it impossible to believe the man is a murderer, and so there has to be much grilling of the other suspects, and also of a monumental and uncooperative concierge who troubles Maigret greatly. Once again, there is a wonderful ensemble cast, plenty of Parisian atmosphere and a clever, twisty solution (as well as a little nod to one of Poe’s seminal crime stories). I don’t think I’ve ever read a Maigret that disappoints, and this one was no exception.

So, looking back over these two crime tales, how different actually are the French and the American detectives? In some ways, there are similarities: both are very individual, both detect in their own way which often baffles those around; both have an ensemble team around them and a very distinctive location. Despite the superficial differences of New York vs Paris, neither detective suffers fools gladly, neither likes to admit defeat and neither functions well without their particular foils or sidekicks. Maigret and Nero Wolfe are more alike than you might think, both these books were a marvellous read, and this double-header was a wonderful way to finish off the #1968Club reading week! 🙂

*****

As an aside, I read the Stout on my tablet (e-book! eek) but the Maigret in paperback; and the latter was a most unpleasant experience, as it was a *very* old anthology edition with crispy brown pages and as soon as I opened it these started falling out as obviously the spine glue had given up the ghost. Not fun, and it’s odd for me to have found an ebook a more enjoyable read… !

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