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Heretical views? @NottingHillEds

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As a rule, I tend to try and choose my reading carefully; after all, life is short and I own more books than I’ll ever be able to read (although having so many is something of a comfort in these times of supply chain crises…) However, I do sometimes feel I should step outside my comfort zone more often, and so when Notting Hill Editions kindly offered me a review copy of one of their new essay collections I accepted, realising that I really was challenging myself… The author is Roger Scruton and the book “Confessions of a Heretic”, a collection of his essays. Published by Notting Hill Editions in one of their lovely cloth covered volumes, this is apparently a revised edition (I believe a couple of essays have been removed) and is introduced by Douglas Murray.

Scruton is described as a philosopher and political thinker, and his views are decidedly conservative; mine, fairly obviously, veer to the left. So it was inevitable that our views were unlikely to coincide. Nevertheless I approached the book with an open mind and was prepared to listen to the author, even if I didn’t always agree with him.

Thre book collects together eleven of Scruton’s works and these range over many topics. From modern art through our relationships with animals, conserving nature and defending the west, Scruton has strong views which he does present very eloquently. And on the odd occasion, I did find myself in slight agreement with him (I *do* wonder about modern art at times!) However, if I’m honest I mostly disagree with his views, and often quite vehemently. He’s a man who approves of Empire and dislikes modern architecture; and I found his views on government unrealistic as he makes the mistake of assuming that all people are capable of making reasoned decisions and behaving rationally. Scruton’s discussion of the problems of the longer lives we lead nowadays was interesting, though, and he did have some valid points upon our constant usage of screens nowadays in another essay.

However, we parted company strongly on his attitude towards animals – I am *never* going to see eye to eye with a man who says he loved his horse, which died under him while he was out hunting… And from what I know of his views on women, I know we would never see eye to eye.

Reading “Confessions…” was an interesting, if sometimes infuriating, experience. I’m happy to explore ideas opposite to my own, but I did find Scruton’s thought much too far from my own viewpoint. And I felt that a lot of his thinking came from a position of male, white, moneyed privilege which gave him an air of arrogance and lack of empathy with different kinds of people. However, I shall consider my mind suitable expanded by having explored the thinking of someone so diametrically opposed to my own, and at least I probably won’t need to read any more of his work….

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks.

“A disagreeable sensation of eeriness crept over him” @BL_Publishing #MurderByTheBook @medwardsbooks #BLCC

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The British Library have been excelling themselves recently with their crime classic re-releases, and in particular with their short story collections. These have always been a high point, bringing some wonderful forgotten authors back into the public eye, and I was knocked out by “Guilty Creatures” which I read back in July. However, the most recent release was one which was guaranteed to appeal to not only me but to just about every bookish person out there! The volume in question is called “Murder by the Book” and it’s subtitled ‘Mysteries for Bibliophiles’. Edited and introduced by the excellent Martin Edwards, it’s a collection which really lives up to its promise.

It would be all too easy to fall into the habit, when putting together an anthology like this, of picking out the usual names; ones which devotees of Golden Age crime will know or expect to see. However, the BLCCs have never gone down this route, either with their full length works or their collections, and part of the joy of reading these books has been the chance to make your reading acquaintance with a new author. “Murder by the Book” is no exception to the rule, mixing well known names with obscurer ones, making it a real pleasure to read.

”Murder…” contains 16 short stories of perhaps surprising variety. As well as authors and publishers featuring, there are tales where the solution hangs on a particular volume, books are subject to theft, the plot pivots on a manuscript or booksellers are involved. The range is impressive and all are wonderfully enjoyable.

As for the authors, well the selection can’t be faulted. There’s Gladys Mitchell, with her “The Manuscript”, a knotty tale which proves that Bulgakov was wrong… “Chapter and Verse” is a story of Inspector Alleyn and his wife Troy by Ngaio Marsh which, as well as being clever and entertaining, reminded me how much I enjoy her books and how long it is since I read one. In “We Know You’re Busy Writing…” the marvellous Edmund Crispin tackles the problems faced by a writer who’s constantly being interrupted. And I was particularly delighted with the inclusion of an uncollected Philip Trent story from E.C. Bentley, “Trent and the Ministering Angel”, as I have read and loved all of his other works.

Authors I know less well or not at all, such as Roy Vickers, Marjorie Bremner, Victor Canning and the Coles, provide some cracking mysteries, and our cousins across the pond also make an appearance in the form of a chilling tale from Philip MacDonald called “Malice Domestic”. Many of these are authors I really should read more of, including Nicholas Blake (the pseudonym of poet Cecil Day-Lewis) – his detective is Nigel Strangeways and his books highly regarded, though I think I’ve read little (possibly none…) of his work. The story of his collected in this volume is “A Slice of Bad Luck” which sees Nigel investigating a most outré murder which takes place very dramatically amongst a dinner gathering of authors who are members of the Assassins Club (a skit on the Detection Club, of which Blake was a member). A bold killing in the dark creates its own problems, although there’s one obvious suspect. However, after some twisty deduction Strangeways brings the case to a satisfactory, if perhaps unexpected, resolution, and I hope the real dinners of the Detection Club were not quite as dramatic…

Needless to say, “Murder by the Book” is another stellar collection from the British Library. There’s such variety in the stories, from more traditional country house style crimes to tales like John Creasey’s “The Book of Honour” which takes the reader to India. The book may be aimed at crime-loving bibliophiles but it’s a great read from start to finish and ideal for anyone who loves a good mystery short story. A real treat, and highly recommended!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

“…something destined just for me.” #moscowinthe1930s @Glagoslav

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August was a very successful reading month for me in terms of Women in Translation books, although I didn’t get to all the books I had planned to read. However, #WIT books are for life, not just for August, and so I went on to pick up one of the volumes for which I ran out of time – and it turned out to be a very intriguing read indeed!

The book in question is “Moscow in the 1934s” by Natalia Gromova (translated by Christopher Culver and published by Glagoslav Publications in 2016). From the start it’s an interesting book which puts the reader to the test with its subtitle “A Novel from the Archives”; just what genre does this book fall into? Gromova has worked in libraries, as an editor on The Soviet Encyclopedia, at the Marina Tsvetaeva Museum, and spent many years exploring Russian archives and private collections. This has led to her authoring a number of historical and biographical studies, although I’m not sure if any of these are available in English. The suspicion must therefore be that this is a book drawing on her researches, her contacts and her experiences of life and work in and out of the Soviet Union; and this certainly makes for a fascinating book.

Life rolls on like a ball, lifting up its heroes on high and then dropping them to the bottom. This ball keeps rolling even after the person passes away, it continues to act on his fate in the same was when he was among us. How many times have I had to witness the strange reflections or distortions of a person’s life in their posthumous existence!

“Moscow….” sets out to explore the literary scene of the time, and certainly the 1930s was a complex decade of change, with many falling foul of Stalin’s purges. Writers and artists were particularly vulnerable, struggling to balance the demands of their own muses and the authorities’ desire for art for the masses; not an easy time to live through. Many names well known in the English-speaking world flit through the book’s pages – Akhmatova, Pasternak, Tsvetaeva et all – but Gromova’s main focus is on those less well-known to non-Russian readers (well, at least to me…) and these are intriguing names, such as Olga Bessarabova, Maria Belkina and Lydia Libedinskaya. Then there is Lugovksy and his circle, plus the Andreyevs. And what is perhaps most fascinating is that Gromova was able to make contact with the survivors from that time, talk about their archives and private collections, and recreate some of the story of the past.

Because as you realise as you read through her narrative, much of the past was hidden during Soviet times and the reality of history and previous events was often not known by the descendents (the story of Gromova’s own grandfather springs to mind, concealed for a large part of her life). Some survived the Purges and following World War; some did not; and the truth was often buried. So much of Gromova’s narrative is spent teasing out facts and histories, piecing together events from old letters and diaries. Bulgakov, Elena Bulgakova and even Mayakovsky make more or less fleeting appearances, but the focus is not directly upon them.

The more I read, the more I became convinced that this is a hybrid work, pulling together what can be known of the histories of the various protagonists, but also exploring the experience of the archivist. One of the most fascinating and valuable parts of the book is the insight it gives as to the complexity of the archivist or researcher: the constant sifting of material, much of which reveals nothing; the serendipity involved when a chance encounter brings an important result; and the sheer randomness of research. Often it seems as much about knowing what to look for as it is about knowing where to look. In some ways, the book reminded me of the works of Maria Stepanova and Sarah LeFanu which I’ve read and reviewed recently; the journey the author takes in their explorations is just as interesting as the results they achieve, although for a researcher in the Soviet Union things were infinitely more complicated.

“Moscow…” also shares with Stepanova’s “In Memory of Memory” a certain complexity in its structure, in that it is anything but a linear narrative. I suspect that might be deliberate, as if to mimic the process of research where your trails can take you in all different directions at once. This did mean I struggled occasionally to keep my footing with the book and it does require a little work from the reader. Where I thought the book could have helped would have been with a dramatis personae of some kind for the non-Russian reader; as many of these figures are not familiar to me, I did find it a little difficult to keep track at times. Also, some kind of potted history of the main characters would also have helped – an example being Maria Belkina, one of the main protagonists and apparently author of an important book “The Intersection of Fates”. I could find nothing about her online, and only brief mention of the Russian version of the book on Amazon USA. As Gromova’s narrative is structured in a fragmentary way, some background to the lives of her characters would have helped.

As Lisa from ANZLitLovers says in her review (linked below), it’s best to just go with the flow and read the book, not worrying too much about connections and who or what is what, because there is much here which is fascinating. For example, I knew, of course, from knowing about Akhmatova, that she was evacuated to Tashkent for safety during the Second World War, but hadn’t realised there was a whole colony of writers and artists out there. Tashkent is a recurring motif in the book and there are references to Gromova’s Tashkent book (which I assume is the “Wanderers of War” mentioned on the back of this one) – that would be a fascinating title to be translated into English!

The book ends with an autobiographical piece from Gromova and then a photographic section which contains a poignant collection of snaps of the various participants in the story (presumably from Gromova’s collection). This provides a moving coda to what is an interesting and often very evocative book, albeit one which does present a few difficulties for the non-Russian reader. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating work and if you want to explore the complexities of living in 1930s Soviet Moscow this book will certainly open your eyes!

Review copy kind provided by the publishers, for which many thanks

You can read Lisa’s review here

Stu has also reviewed the book here

 

“…the man who weaves these symbols…” #jorgeluisborges #thealeph

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As I mentioned in my post on “With Borges”, after finishing that book I felt incapable of reading anything but more of Jorge Luis Borges’ own fictions – so obviously that meant digging out my lovely US Penguin volume of his ‘Collected Fictions’ (translated by Andrew Hurley). I picked this up many years ago on a trip to Foyles in Charing Cross Road, and have slowly over the years been making my way through it. The first collection of his was called “A Universal History of Iniquity” (1935) and I read that back in 2016; his next work “Ficciones” was one I was delighted to read as part of the #1944Club. So going chronologically, next up is “The Aleph” from 1949, and I couldn’t wait…

And instantly I come up against the barrier of how to say anything new or profound about a wonderful and revered writes like Borges. As I said in my review of “Ficciones”, what a bloody amazing writer he is. I don’t know I’ve read anyone with an imagination like his, or the ability to conjure up strange tales and words. Anyway, here goes…

“The Aleph” contains 17 short works (and they *are* short, some only a couple of pages) which range far and wide over setting and topic. There are puzzles, doubles, mysteries, magic and of course the regular appearance of labyrinths and mazes; in fact, one is the crux of a story, “Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth”, which is set in Scotland and is also a kind of clever locked room mystery (the fact that I mentioned John Dickson Carr as one of Borges’ favourites authors here is perhaps relevant…!) Mysticism also creeps in, with explorations of Islamic culture and characters, the Aleph of the title story (a magical point in space and time which appears to hold all points of space and time at once) plus the secret of immortality. Borges’ prose quite brilliantly conjures the strange cities and landscapes in which his stories are set, and it often seems there is no limit to his imagination.

I had realized many years before I met David Jerusalem that everything in the world can be the seed of a possible hell; a face, a word, a compass, an advertisement for cigarettes – anything can drive a person insane if that person cannot manage to put it out of his mind.

Mirrors, a recurring trope, make an appearance, as well as South America cowboy-style plots, strange architecture, the clash between reality and dreams, the passing of time, crime and vengeance. As with all of Borges’ work, each story is wonderfully woven, with twists often appearing unexpectedly (there’s a marvellous one at the end of “The House of Asterion”) and I think repeated readings would reveal so much more.

Borges in 1951 (via Wikipedia Commons)

I loved all of the tales, and was particularly taken with “Emma Zunz” which although it appears on the surface to be a tale of revenge taken by a woman is also, I think, about the fine line between truth and falsehood, and whereabouts one becomes the other. “Deutsches Requiem” is another powerful piece, narrated by a Nazi concentration camp administrator who sets down his version of events, feeling no guilt and triumphing that violence has won – it really is chilling, to say the least. The title story and “The Zahir” both deal with the narrator’s obsessions, whether with a mysterious marker or a dead woman, and they’re haunting.

Now an implacable age looms over the world. We forged that age, we who are now its victim. What does it matter that England is the hammer and we the anvil. What matters is that violence, not servile Christian acts of timidity, now rules. If victory and injustice and happiness do not belong to Germany, let them belong to other nations. Let heaven exist, though our place be in hell.

Well, once again I could go on and on, but I stand by my description of Borges as “bloody brilliant”; these stories are just stunning and unforgettable, and Borges really was a genius of a storyteller. Haunting, mind-bending, imaginative and strange, “The Aleph” is an astonishingly brilliant collection and a real joy to read. Fortunately, I’m only just over half way through the book so I still have plenty of Borges left to enjoy… ;D

 

“…time as a river and life as a voyage and a battle…” #Borges #Manguel

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As I’ve mentioned many times, Twitter can be a dangerous place for booklovers – all those pictures, all those recommendations, all those wonderful books you’ve never heard of before!!! And as I revealed in my end of August post, one particular recent arrival was prompted by just such a nudge – I think it may well have been a tweet on the occasion of Borges’ birthday, which resulted in the arrival of a slim volume simply entitled “With Borges” by Alberto Manguel.

Both Manguel and Borges have made a number of separate appearances on the Ramblings, but I can’t say that I knew there was a connection between them. So I was very excited to discover this book and the minute it arrived I had to read it straight away – yes, another new book bypassing the TBR and beating all the books which have been waiting there patiently for so long…

Borges should, of course, need no introduction; in fact, neither should Manguel! Borges is described by Wikipedia as “a key figure in Spanish-language and international literature” whereas they cast Manguel as “an Argentine-Canadian anthologist, translator, essayist, novelist, editor, and a former Director of the National Library of Argentina”. Both are connected by Argentina, of course, and this book came about because the 16 year-old Manguel (working then at a bookstore) was one of a number of young men who would read aloud to Borges, who was by that time (1964) completely blind. In the book, Manguel recalls fragments of his time with Borges and paints a portrait of the great author which is affectionate, atmospheric and moving.

Borges would ask almost anyone: students, journalists who came to visit him, other writers. There exists a vast group of those who once read out loud to Borges, minor Boswells whose identities are rarely known to one another but who collectively hold the memory of one of the world’s greatest readers.

It’s a tragedy, of course, that sometime like Borges should go blind and I believe this was hereditary. Despite his blindness, Borges retained his intense interest in literature and continued to write, often dictating poetry to his readers. As well as conjuring the actual times he would read to Borges in present tense, italicised paragraphs, Manguel also discusses the author more generally – his work, his legacy, his behaviour towards others – and all of this combines to make a short but evocative read which really captures both Borges and Manguel. Of particular interest, of course, is Borges’ library, and as well as a mass of reference books, there is a dazzling list of authors from Wells, Wilkie Collins and Joyce, through John Dickson Carr, David Garnett, Wilde, Carroll – well, I could go on, but he was obviously a varied and voracious reader!

Borges 1951, Via Wikipedia Commons

Manguel is, of course, a wonderful writer of non-fiction, and I have read two of his books about books – “A Reading Diary” and “The Library at Night“. I guess you could consider him as one of the heirs of Borges, whose own work ranges surprisingly far and wide over many topics. I’ve read a number of his collected short stories and after reading this I basically felt that I couldn’t read anyone else. So if nothing else “With Borges” has prompted me to pick up my chunky volume for the first time in ages and remind myself of what a unique writer Borges was. If you like either the author or the subject of this little gem of a book, I can highly recommend it!

“…there is always the exception that proves the rule.” #beverleynichols #therichdiehard

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As I approached the return to work at the start of September (yes, I’m behind with my reviewing…) I was in desperate need of some pure comfort reading; often I turn to classic crime, and often I turn to Beverley Nichols. So what better idea than to combine the two, in one of Beverley’s wonderful crime novels? 😀

Nichols was a man of many talents, and I’ve written about him many times on the Ramblings; and I’ve read and covered three of the five crime novels he produced during his writing life (“No Man’s Street“, “The Moonflower” and “Death to Slow Music“). I do own all five, and they weren’t easy to track down (and not always cheap), but I’m very happy to have my battered old copies with their fragile covers. His books feature his detective Horatio Green, and I would probably say that the ones I’ve read have been really enjoyable although not necessarily the best mysteries written! Nevertheless, they’re a real joy and pure escapism, so I decided to pick up the fourth, “The Rich Die Hard”.

My Mystery Book Guild edition with what remains of its cover… 😦

Looking back at the blog, I see that I haven’t read one of these mysteries since 2014, which is a little alarming – time does fly… By the time of the third book, I felt that Beverley was getting into his stride with crime writing, and that “Death to Slow Music” was the best so far; I may have to revise that opinion… ;D

“Rich…” takes place in that quintessential setting of the Golden Age mystery, a country house. This particular one, Broome Place, is owned by the financier Andrew Lloyd, and it is simply dripping with excess. The fixtures and fittings are luxurious, the artworks original and priceless, everything is tasteful, nothing is vulgar. Staying at the house are a number of characters: the host, Andrew and his wife Nancy; Sir Luke Coniston, Andrew’s great rival, and his wife Sybil; Miss Sally Kane, a rich young woman; Mr Cecil Gower-Jones, a briliant musical critic; and Miss Margot Larue, who starts the story very drunk and is soon very dead!

Mr. Green sat at the window of his bedroom, listening to the wind. This had always been one of his favourite occupations, and Broome Place, on this wild November evening, was an ideal situation in which to indulge it. The old house flung back a thousand answers to the wind’s assaults, shrill protests in the high chimneys, long-drawn sighs in the gables, and many threats and whispers in the dark arches of the courtyard.

Needless to say, the local police are baffled; and there are attempts to pass the death off as suicide. However, things do not add up, Superintendant Waller is soon on the scene, and a certain Mr. Horatio Green happens to be passing by Broome Place with his niece Charlotte, hoping that the gardens are open to the public so they can take a look… Before long, they are, of course, embroiled in detecting, and when you add in a butler with a past, a late arrival to the party, a mysterious figure flitting round the edges of the story, and even what you might call an act of iconoclasm, then you have all the ingredients for a fine mystery – which this certainly is!

Beverley (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

“The Rich Die Hard” is certainly a fascinating read on a number of levels, not least the portrait it paints of the monied, the way they live and the kind of people they are. Nichols’ characterisation is particularly interesting here; the protagonists are not likeable people, driven by money of course, and they’re often eaten up with envy and verging on madness. They hide their secrets deeply, enabled by that money, but despite all they have it certainly doesn’t bring them happiness. I’ve found that Beverley’s writing often has a harder core than you might expect, and although he’s not explicity judgemental, he certainly seems to recognise his characters for what they are. Mr. Green may enjoy the comforts and luxuries of Broome Place (as I’m sure his creator would) but he certainly is under no illusions about its owners and their guests.

From the top drawer he took out his camera, and old-fashioned model in a worn leather case. He handled it gingerly, as he handled all mechanical objects; he could never rid himself of a childish complex that they were secretly hostile to humanity and might take it into their heads to explode.

Needless to say, there are many twists and turns to the plot, and Mr. Green quietly moves through the action observing and exercising his ‘little grey cells’, though he isn’t always able to prevent further tragedies. I have to say I had no idea regarding the final denouement which was very clever although quite unexpected (and maybe if I’d concentrated more I would have picked up hints), but that doesn’t matter. The motivations were dark, the characters somewhat twisted, and the lives people had led up to the murder often tragic. There was certainly the sense that there was really no point in having all that money, because despite the luxury, it didn’t bring the rich characters any happiness.

The monologue – entitled simply “Mary Anne” – was one of those trifles which, in the hands of Miss Beatrice Lillie, are transformed into souffles of delight. In the hands of Lady Coniston it was not so easily digestible. However, a British audience always prefer to see an amateur – particularly a titled amateur – make a fool of herself by accident than a professional make a fool of herself by design.

Nichols’ writing is, of course, always a joy; and thought there’s plenty of dry wit on show, there’s perhaps less flippancy here than normal because of the subject matter. In fact, Beverley can do darkness and drama with the best of them, and there’s certainly plenty of that here, leading up to a very dramatic event at the end. “Rich” was a book I sped through in a couple of sittings because I was so engrossed and was enjoying it so much. The book was first published in 1957, although in some ways it feels a little like it was set in earlier times. Interesting, reference is made to one character (a personable young man with a police record) having been accosted by ‘certain elderly gentlemen’ and suspected of importuning; it’s worth remember that 1950s Britain was still virulently anti-homosexuality, so a mild non-judgemental mention such as this is telling and I’m not sure whether Nichols’ sexuality would have been common knowledge at the time.

My BN crime collection!

So turning to Beverley was exactly the right thing to do when I needed comfort and escapism. “The Rich Die Hard” is an excellent entry in the Horatio Green mystery series (and I wish I had more than one left unread!!!) The detective himself is a treat (with his olfactory skills on show – he’s always sensitive to smells!) and the whole story wonderfully engrossing. There *are* a couple of references which reflect the age of the book, although the worst word I think is being used to reflect the character of the speaker, as Mr. Green’s language is milder. However, the book is a joy from start to finish, and if you get a chance to read any of Nichols’ detective books I highly recommend them – the perfect antidote to the ghastliness of the modern world!

“Humankind has lost its essential moral character” @TeamRedCircle #MonkeyMan

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It’s been a little while since I wrote about the Red Circle Minis; a series of short works by Japanese authors but published first in English translation, I’ve read and covered the first six releases and all have been fascinating and very varied reads. So I was very pleased to hear that another Mini was on the way, and Red Circle were kind enough to provide a review copy. The new Red Circle is “Monkey Man” by Takuji Ichikawa, translated by Lisa and Daniel Lilley; and although the publisher hints that the book is aimed at a Young Adult audience it certainly made fascinating reading for me, and I’m miles away from being young!!

Ichikawa also authored one of the earlier Red Circle Minis, “The Refugees’ Daughter” (Mini 4, which I wrote about here) and in many way explores here concepts related to the first book. The story is set in a world facing ecological catastrophe (much like our own, then…) and our misfit narrator Yuri is starting a new high school. Her past has been a difficult one and she hopes to settle in and be a normal student. However, her life is not like that, and an encounter with Tengo, a rather invidual classmate, reveals that he is not what he seems – and nor is Yuri. Many young people of this world are blessed with special abilities which they keep hidden, for a very good reason.

If we lose our reason to primitive instintcs, the rest is simple. People will comply with whatever The Complex says. They’ll dance along to their tunes of divisive rhetoric and see all other groups as enemies. Excessive collective group-demands generate a mandate for strong, autocratic aggressive and populist leaders. In short: dictators.

The Complex, a rather worrying organisation with seemingly unlimited power behind the scenes, is tracking down the youngsters to harvest their abilities for nefarious purposes. However, Generation Alpha have had enough of the mess their elders are making of the world and are determined to fight back, using technology and online gaming platforms to subvert the dictators. But are Yuri and Tengo strong enough to escape the clutches of The Complex and its operatives?

Kindness is the very reason why we didn’t end up extinct and managed to keep surviving until today.

“Monkey Man” is a short but exciting read, with the young people up against powerful forces, and you do fear for their safety at time. The Complex, of course, featured in Ichikawa’s earlier book, and it’s clear the author is exploring concerns about the control large organisations have over us all, and the effects of corporations on the planet. Of course, activitists like Greta Thunberg have demonstrated just how committed the young can be to changing the ways of life on our planet for the better, and we can only hope that the rest of her generation will continue to take their elders to task.

As I mentioned, “Monkey Man” is aimed at Young Adult readers, but I think it has much to say to *all* readers; corporate control, blind acceptance of authority and the fact that we hand ourselves and our lives over to social media organisations lock, stock and barrel is worrying. Works like this, as well as being good reads, are vital in reminding us to try to take back control of our lives every day – if we all did that, who knows what the effects might be! 😀

“…all we creatures…should perish once and for all…” #johncowperpowys #upandout @spikenard65

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Back in December 2019, just before the world descended into chaos, I reviewed a slim hardback volume released by Michael Walmer as part of his Zephyr imprint. It’s one of my favourites of the many series he publishes, focusing on classic short works, and I’ve loved and reviewed most of them. The book in question was “The Owl, The Duck and – Miss Rowe! Miss Rowe!” by John Cowper Powys – an unusual title, an unusual book, and yet it was quirky, beautifully written and ultimately very moving. So when Mike kindly offered me a review copy of another Powys in the Zephyr series I couldn’t resist!

The new work is “Up and Out” – and yes, that *is* a kind of giant slug on the cover, and yes it’s relevant to the story! If “The Owl…” was quirky, “Up…” is out and out strange – but nevertheless a fascinating and really thought provoking read! The book focuses on Gor Goginog and Rhitha, an intense young couple who find most of the world to be an unpleasant place. So when a giant atomic explosion destroys the world, they seem remarkably unfazed to find themselves floating through space on the last tiny green scrap of the world which has survived. Here they encounter Org, a creature created Frankenstein-like from the mad acts of vivisectionists, and his human partner Asm (ahem…) As the small piece of planet floats through space, the four survivors debate what has happened. They encounter a giant fork-tongued slug which is Time; pass into the Void; encounter mythical being and Greek Gods; and end up party to a debate on free will between God and the Devil. All the while, most of creation seems to have had enough of existence and is committing mass suicide wherever you look. Does God have the answer, or is oblivion best??

Why are we – answer me that, angel of my heart! – why are we debarred from deciding that this confounded creation of life, by this Grand Inquisitor and Master Vivisector we call God, this life which the greatest of all philosophers maintains appears by the eternal processes of matter – why, I say, are we debarred from deciding that it is the opposite of a praiseworthy thing, that it is in fact a wicked and abominable thing, to allow this life to go on?

If this sounds a bit bats, well it probably is – but it’s certainly an entertaining and fascinating read!! Powys is obviously drawing on Welsh myth and history in places, with Gor invoking all sorts of gods and mythologies at places. However, the discussions range far and wide over all kinds of beliefs and creeds, with the whole universe eventually coming to the conlusions that suicide is the best option as life is so horrible. Certainly, the early pages of the book deplore much of the progress of the time, with vivisection coming in for some bitter criticism (with which I wholeheartedly agree), and Powys does seem very disillusioned with life.

But it seemed to me that a world without free will, a world ruled by absolute determinism from the start, would be so dull and tedious an experiment as to be hardly worth making.

The book does eventually come to the crux of the matter, something which often features in arguments about religion. Free will is something we’ve apparently been granted by God, and so humans can be good or bad. At one point in “Up…” God does point out that he could easily create a new world, take away free will so that everyone behaves nicely and there is a lovely calm world – but as he says, this would be terribly boring… Perhaps God is coming to believe also that self-destruction and oblivion is the best option…

More than this I shall not say, but I would encourage you to read the book if you can as it’s very thought-provoking, full of ideas and quite intriguing! Powys writes in a melodramatic fashion, which adds to the entertainment, and he’s not afraid to explore all manner of concepts – which is very refreshing! Me, I’m a godless woman so I tend to think that you’re not here, then you are here, and then you’re not again, so you might as well enjoy the time inbetween the darkness. But I found reading “Up and Out” a fascinating, if sometimes strange, experience and so kudos to Mike for bringing this back into print – another worthy addition to the Zephyr series! 😀

“…literally hundreds of possibilities…” @BL_Publishing #sciencefictionclassics

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I have to confess to hitting a bit of a wall after finishing Klotsvog and the Derrida/Barthes essay; a kind of book hangover, I suppose, although it was more like an attack of havering indecision where I just couldn’t settle to any book and everything I picked up just didn’t grab me. After having a reshuffle of the piles, I decided to have a try with a collection of short stories – and boy, was it the right book at the right time! The volume in question is from marvellous British Library Publishing, who often feature on the Ramblings, mostly with their Crime Classics range. However, this is something a little different…

As well as the Crime Classics, BL also produce Science Fiction Classics, and I’ve read and covered a few of these in the past. They really are most entertaining, and I confess to being very behind with reading them… However, this particular book is a bit special as it’s kind of a crossover volume. Called “Future Crimes” and released this year, the subtitle gives it away – ‘Mysteries and Detection through Time and Space’. Yes, this is a mash-up of Classic Science Fiction and Classic Crime and it’s inspired as well as being quite brilliant!

The collection is edited by Mike Ashley, who also provides the introduction, and it’s clear that he’s as important to the curation of the Sci Fi Classics as is Martin Edwards to the Crime Classics. The book is a satisfyingly chunky one, and contains ten stories from an intriguing range of authors. Some are well-respected names in sci fi circles, like Asimov, John Brunner and E.C. Tubb; others are better known for their crime writing like Jacques Futrelle and P.D. James; then there’s Anne McCaffrey, usually bracketed as fantasy, and some names which are new to me. What these stories have in common, though, is a mystery or crime of some sort, and a science fiction element or setting.

I have to say up front that all of these stories make marvellous reading; whether you’re a fan of science fiction or not, these are wonderfully written tales with mysteries which will flummox you and ingenious concepts which take the fighting of crime further than normal. The opener, for example – “Elsewhen” by Anthony Boucher – looks at the possibility of using time travel to aid in committing a crime; yet it seems firmly set in classic crime territory, with a very clever denouement. A similar element exists in “The Absolutely Perfect Murder”, a humorous short by Miriam Allen deFord which closes the collection.

There *are* of course stories set in space: John Brunner’s “Puzzle for Spacemen” deals with the effects of being in space on mental health, and also the complexities of telepathy, whilst locating all of this in a kind of locked-room mystery. “Death of a Telepath” by George Chailey and “Apple” by Anne McCaffrey also explore telepathy and kinetic powers, with mysteries to be solved in both cases, but also issues raised about humanity and tolerance and understanding of those different to us. “Nonentity” by E.C. Tubb goes to similar territory with a closed group of people fighting for survival and not tolerating those who are different to them.

In fact, accepting and living alongside those who aren’t like us is probably one of the strongest threads in the book, and it takes centre stage with P.D. James’s “Murder, 1986”; written in 1970, it envisages a divided world where elements of the population are infected with a space disease and so lesser citizens. Murder is still murder though… Jacques Futrelle’s “The Flying Eye” is quite Wellsian, and although the mystery is perhaps slighter than in the other stories, it’s still very entertaining. Asimov, as might be expected, explores the robotic angle in his story “Mirror Image”; setting out his three laws of robotics, he features two humans and two robots who tell mirror image stories about an event; one must be lying, but robots cannot lie, so how will the truth be found out?

As you can see, I’ve left one story until the last, and that’s “Legwork” by Eric Frank Russell. I don’t usually like to single out favourites from an anthology of short stories, but this one was a real treat and I loved it from start to finish. At just over 60 pages it’s a long short story, and it hails from the 1950s in the middle of the Cold War. An ancient and super-intelligent alien entity comes down to Earth to investigate it for colonisation; as a superior being, able to manipulate human minds, it should be able to outfox the plodding human beings and gather all the data it needs before returning to its people to arrange invasion. However, despite the author reminding the reader at several junctures that humanity doesn’t have flashes of brilliance but proceeds through dogged legwork, that legwork proves to be quite a match for the invader. I shan’t say more for fear of spoiling the story for potential readers, but it was a pure joy from start to finish; brilliantly constructed, with small-town American settings, local cops and newsmen, I suppose it’s a bit like a 50s B-movie in story form – but because there are no creaky special effects, it travels better than they do! Anyway, I loved it to bits, and it was the real jewel in the crown of an excellent collection!

I’ve lauded the British Library Crime Classics releases many a time on the Ramblings; but have read fewer of the Science Fiction classics (which needs to be rectified). However, even if you don’t think you like sci fi, I would really urge you to give one of these releases a try. This particular anthology would be a brilliant place to start, with its fusion of sci fi and crime, and it was a wonderfully engrossing and distracting read which really hit the spot just when I needed it. Highly recommended! 😀

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

Reading Derrida: memories of Roland Barthes #Derrida #Barthes

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Although I have read an *awful* lot of books during my lifetime, there are many authors who are still a bit intimidating and whom I’m nervous of approaching; Roland Barthes was one of those, and although I love what I’ve read, he’s definitely not the easiest of reads. However, even scarier is Jacques Derrida; nevertheless, I’ve often thought of reading him, and when I heard about his book “The Work of Mourning”, which includes a piece on Barthes, I succumbed. I may not get everything he writes, and it may well be a funny place to start with Derrida, but I will give it a go! 😀

Derrida was a French philosopher; born in Algeria, he’s probably best-known for his work on the process of ‘deconstruction’ as a way to understand a text, and he’s closely associated with post-modernism. “The Work of Mourning” is a collection of texts written between 1981 and 2001 in which Derrida reflects on the loss of friends and colleagues over this period. Some are lectures, some eulogies, but all are either engagements or re-engagements with the work of those he’s memorialising.

I do not yet know, and in the end it really does not matter, if I will be able to make it clear why I must leave these thoughts for Roland Barthes fragmentary, or why I value them for their incompleteness even more than for their fragmentation, more for their pronounced incompleteness, for their punctuated yet open interruptions, without even the authoritative edge of an aphorism. These little stones, thoughtfully placed, only one each time, on the end of a name as the promise of return.

As I said, I was intrigued to see what Derrida had to say about Barthes; the pieces are presented in chronological order of death so RB appears at the start, and Derrida focuses in the main on Barthes’ first and last works, “Writing Degree Zero” and “Camera Lucida”. Exploring his reactions to those books, he also explores Barthes’ work in them and the resulting text is exhilarating, if not always an easy read…

What’s particularly interesting is how Derrida draws on “Camera Lucida” as also being a work of mourning; it was, of course, Barthes’ last work and was informed by a photograph of the philosopher’s mother who had recently passed away. This is covered more directly in Barthes’ “Mourning Diary” (which I wrote about here), but Derrida seems to be suggesting that “Camera…” is just as much about mourning, memory and loss as is the other work. As he points out, Barthes final book’s “…time and tempo accompanied his death as no other book, I believe, has ever kept watch over its author.” Barthes, of course, tragically died not long after the publication of his last work, and I believe it’s been actually regarded as the writer’s eulogy for himself.

Although I’ve read “Writing Degree Zero“, I’ve yet to read “Camera Lucida”; however, I know enough about it to trail Derrida in his musings; and although I didn’t always follow his train of thought, there were many shafts of brilliance which stood out from this piece (I could have marked many more than I have…) Certainly, his explorations of photography and memory were fascinating, and I can see how the effect of having photographic records and the way these alter our modern life is continuing to be explored by authors like Maria Stepanova. It also seems to me that Derrida was using the death of Barthes to not only return to the great man’s work, but also to meditate on mortality itself, how we react to it, deal with the loss of a person, and how we think of them after they’ve gone. It’s never less than fascinating, and I’ll be very interested to see his responses to the loss of other friends and colleagues.

“The Working of Mourning” was edited by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, who provide a detailed introduction, and each chapter opens with a short biography of the subject who follows. I suspect, from the quick look I’ve had, that Derrida’s style will vary from piece to piece; certainly the length does, as some are simply a letter sent on the occasion of a death, and some longer, more detailed works like the Barthes. Anyway, my first encounter with Derrida was intriguing, if mentally bracing, but I am determined to keep going with the book – watch this space to see how I continue to get on with him! 😀

 

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