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“… I hate the smugness of the just” @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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I often turn to a British Library Crime Classic between other books, especially if I’ve been reading something intense and I’m not sure what to pick up next; they *are* the perfect palate cleanser. One of their recent releases is another title by John Dickson Carr; they’ve issued a number of his books, including the Bencolin series of wonderfully dark and atmospheric escapades. However, Carr’s best-known detective is probably still Dr Gideon Fell, master of the locked-room mystery, and the latest release, “The Seat of the Scornful: A Devon Mystery”, features that venerable detective. It’s a joy to read and very entertaining, but it does raise some interesting and thought-provoking issues!

“Seat…” was first published in 1942, but is set earlier, and interestingly its main mystery is not a locked-room one. Central to the story is Mr Justice Ireton, a high court judge with no tolerance for those appearing before him, happy to hand out a death sentence whenever possible. A widower, his daughter Constance is a nervy girl, dominated by his wishes. Unfortunately, she’s taken up with a shady type, Tony Morell, whom the judge is convinced wants to marry his daugher for her money. So when the police are called to the judge’s seaside holiday bungalow to find Morell dead on the floor, killed by a gunshot, and the judge sitting in a neaby chair clutching a pistol, it doesn’t seem as though there will be much detecting to do…

However, the case is not as straightforward as it seems; the judge declares his innocence, Constance’s story of where she was complicates matters, and there are other players in the drama who have a possible interest. There is Fred Barlow, a KC desperately in love with Constance; Constance’s friend Jane Tennant, who is in love with Fred; and the lawyer Appleby who seems to know quite a lot about the money matters of all concerned. Fortunately, Dr Gideon Fell is on hand, and the local police are able to call on him to unravel the mystery – which he does, although the book has a most singular resolution!

There’s a surprising amount to chew over with this particular Carr book, and I wanted to pick up on one aspect which is often criticised in Golden Age crime, and that’s characterisation. It’s somehow become a trope that this genre consists of paper thin characters acting out the mystery. I’ve read a good number of books which challenge that stereotype, and certainly “Seat…” does just that. All of the players are well developed, from the judge himself through Fell and the various policemen to the other possible suspects. Constance and Jane are an interesting study of two friends who are actually very unalike, and they change and develop over the course of the story. Likewise Fred and Morell, the two male protagonists, who are seen to be perceived as one kind of person but actually another – demonstrating that there’s more to most of us than meets the eye.

As for the judge, well he dominates the story in more ways than one. His character is a monstrous, cold one; eschewing the warm emotions, his pleasures seem to come from toying with his victims, playing cat and mouse with their feelings even though he appears to have none himself. His behaviour towards his daughter is very controlling, and I couldn’t help wondering what his poor late wife had seen in him. Carr does excel in painting darker characters, and the judge is certainly one of those.

At about nine o’clock on that same night, Miss Jane Tennant drove her car into the car park beside the Esplanade hotel, Tawnish. The Esplanade is a showplace, garish between the skeins of lights along the promenade and the red hills behind. Its famous basement swimming-pool, with tea and cocktail lounge attached, offered the luxury of warmed sea water in winter – and on such summer days, which were many, when only an Eskimo could have ventured into the sea without triple pneumonia.

Where Carr is also brilliant is in his scene-setting. The Devon seaside setting, the bungalow, the nearby coastal town with its hotels and swimming pools, is wonderfully conjured; and the gaiety of the young people who make up Jane Tennant’s party, drinking and fooling around, is in strong contrast not only to the harsh coldness of Justice Ireton, but also to the sinister events stalking them. Carr knows how to ramp up the tension, and there are several places in the narrative where things get quite scary and I feared for the safety of some of the characters!

… I hate the smugness of the just. I hate their untroubled eyes. I hate their dictum, which is: ‘This man’s motives do not count. He stole because he was hungry or killed because he was driven past the breaking point, and therefore he shall be convicted.’ I want a fair fight to win my case and say: ‘This man’s motives do count. He stole because he was hungry or killed because he was driven past the breaking point; and therefore, by God, he shall go free.’

“Seat..” is an interesting book on so many levels, and not least the plot’s morals and denouement. From the very opening of the book, where Justice Ireton sentences a man to death for murdering his wife, and the contrasting views of those watching the trial are picked up by Constance (who’s in attendance), Carr is clearly wanting to explore the subject of whether murder is ever justified. Martin Edwards picks up on this element in his excellent introduction, and without wanting to give anything away, after a *lot* of twists and turns, the ending of the book is perhaps unexpected. The murder victim is not painted as a particularly nice character, but then neither is the judge; and however the killing happened and whoever the murderer actually was, Dr. Fell takes matters into his own hands, in quite an imperious way, and decides how things will be resolved. According to Edwards, the ethics of the resolution have been much discussed and I can see why; it’s a satisfying end in some ways, but one that might well leave readers uncomfortable.

So “The Seat of the Scoundrel” turned out to be a standout entry in the British Library Crime Classics list. As a mystery read, it’s incredibly satisfying, full of twists and turns and revelations as the narrative goes along, and I was a million miles away from getting the solution. It’s also really well characterised, with a well-rounded cast who develop as the book goes on, revealing unexpected strengths and weaknesses. And it raises many issues, which I’m still debating with myself, as to the morals of murder, and who has the right to judge another person. As well as the perfect comfort read of GA Crime, I also found this to be a book which really made me think – highly recommended!

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

July reading and August plans! #AllViragoAllAugust #WITMonth #TDiRS22

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Without wanting to turn into a moany old bat, I have to say that July was not without its issues… The heat, for one thing, was phenomenal in my part of the UK, and I don’t deal with it well. There was ongoing stuff to do with the Aged Parent, work was screamingly busy and I was so tired all the time that I often strugged to read. What I did read was marvellous, though, and here it is – things picked up a little towards the end of the month, though I can only show here one of the latest chapbooks from Nightjar Press (the other was a digital copy), both of which were wonderfully unsettling! No duds as such, although I *was* slightly underwhelmed by one title!

I’m now on the summer break from work (hurrah!) and have found that my reading speed has picked up a little. Looking forward to this month’s plans, again I’ll be keeping things simple.

August has traditionally been a month which is designated by the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group as ‘All Virago/All August‘, where we try to focus on reading as many Virago and related books as possible (so Persephone, Furrowed Middlebrow etc). There is also our monthly Virago prompt, which for August is a book about a journey, whether factual or fictional. I have had a dig and have the following options, though it will very much depend on my mood!

Two of those are possibles also for the following event… 😊

August is also, of course, Women in Translation month. Now, I do read a fair amount of translated women already, but I shall definitely look to be reading some of those unread volumes on the stacks – here’s my initial heap of potentials!

There are some lovely titles there, though the risk is as always that I try to take on too much!!

Another August event is a Twitter readalong of Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin”, which is very tempting… I have these two physical copies in the TBR:

and I think there’s a digital copy of the controversial Nabokov translation lurking somewhere too. Knowing me I will run out of time, especially as there’s also an Alkmatova readalong, and I just can’t decide. We shall see…

2022 has, of course, been a bit of a year of re-reading for me, and I think that tendency may be continuing! Annabel announced a few days ago that she’s hosting a monthly readalong of Susan Cooper’s ‘The Dark is Rising’ sequence, running from August to December;  and I’m most keen to join in!

I’ve meant to revisit these books so many times in recent years as there are often readalongs around Christmas time, usually spurred on by the enthusiasm of Robert Macfarlane! I always run out of time, but one book a month worked for me with the Narnia books and I’m sure it will with these! Here are my fragile old editions, dusted off and ready to go!

Apart from these, there’s one book I’m pretty sure I shall be picking up. I hope to be off on my travels for the first time since the pandemic began, visiting my Aged Parent and the Offspring, and I plan to take this one with me:

“Only one book???” I hear you cry? Well, it’s a chunky one (as are most of Victor Serge‘s books) and I suspect it will keep me company for most of my travels. And if I finish it – well, there are bookshops in Leicester, and I *will* have some e-books on the tablet if things get desperate!!

So simple plans for August, and I suspect there may be some incoming titles too! What reading plans do *you* have for the month??

“The intensity of this unease would increase…” @nightjarpress #johnfoxx #TheLake

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I’ve previously featured on the Ramblings those lovely limited edition chapbooks released by Nightjar Press, mainly titles issued of M. John Harrison‘s stories, but also a chilling little tale from Robert Stone. A new batch has just been issued (hurrah!) and today I want to share my thoughts on two of the releases which rather intriguingly share the same title – although the contents are very different! Both stories are called “The Lake” and one is by Livi Michael, the other by John Foxx. Needless to say, coming from Nightjar, they contain unsettling tales… Let’s take a look at them! 😀

The Lake by Livi Michael

The first of the two watery tales is from an author new to me, and she’s published prolifically, with 19 novels and numerous short stories to her credit. “The Lake” is a chilling little story, narrated by a precise, almost OCD widower. Since his wife, Emma, died he’s kept a diary, more to ground himself than anything else; the entries give structure to his life, reminding him to do daily tasks, and there’s immediately the sense that his life is very empty since his loss. However, one day this controlled existence is turned upside down by an entry in the diary which he doesn’t recall making; and more follow. As the story continues, it’s clear that there’s more to his connection to the lake than meets the eye – but what do the messages mean?

It’s very hard to discuss this chapbook in any more detail without giving away essential plot points, but like the other Nightjars I’ve read, it’s brilliantly written. The tone of the narrative really captures the protagonist’s nature, his state of mind and the sense of him unravelling slightly as he loses control of his daily life. It’s a very cleverly done piece of writing and I was most impressed!

The Lake by John Foxx

Some might find John Foxx an unexpected visitor to the Ramblings in written form, as he’s probably best known for his musical releases; firstly from the original line-up of Ultravox!, and thereafter for his acclaimed solo releases (I’m a huge fan). However, Foxx is something of a polymath, running an alternative career in graphic design and also as a writer. The original 1981 release of his vinyl LP “The Garden” had a booklet insert which featured some of his writings, and he’s more recently issued a collection of these works called “The Quiet Man”, as well as a spoken word album “The Marvellous Notebook”. So, a very multi-talented man!

Anyway, his take on “The Lake” is an equally unsettling one, with a narrator who grew up near a particular body of water and was drawn to it as a boy. As he got older he continued to visit the lake, until one day a strange and disturbing encounter changed his relationship with it forever. That event was never explained – but will there ever be some kind of resolution? More than this I cannot say…

Again, this is a wonderfully discomfiting and atmospheric piece of writing which captures the setting and the sheer strangeness of the encounter quite brilliantly. As I’ve discussed in the past, when covering the work of M. John Harrison, water can be suggestive or sinister, and as we humans are made up of a lot of the stuff, we’re often drawn to large bodies of it. What we’ll find there is another matter…

***

Once again, Nightjar have come up with some very unsettling and suggestive reads, and both explorations of what happens at lakes turned out to be wonderful (although difficult to discuss in detail without spoilers!). If these two titles are indicative of the quality of the latest eight releases, I recommend you track them down! You can find more info about the Nightjar titles here (and also on Twitter); in the meantime, I think I’m definitely going to avoid going near any lakes for a while… ;D

 

“The immemorial passion for material possession endured.” @nyrbclassics #JozefCzapski

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I’ve been melting in the heat a little recently, as no doubt many of you have too! My reading has slowed down quite a lot during July, but I *have* been reading , and the book I want to talk about today is one which has been on my radar for some time. I received a proof of it ages ago (the original publication date was March 2020); then it was put back to April 2021, and finally was published in March 2022. Was it worth the wait? Well, yes – very much so!!

The work in question is “Memories of Starobielsk: Essays Between Art and History” by Josef Czapski (translated by Alissa Valles), and the author has appeared on the Ramblings before, when I covered his “Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp“. Perhaps his most famous work is “Inhuman Land”, where he relates his quest to discover the truth about the fate of thousands of Polish officers who were massacred in Katyn Forest in 1940. “Memories…” is related to both these works in that many of the pieces collected here were written during WW2 while these events were still recent, and also because some of them discuss art and literature. Czapski was primarily a painter, although on the evidence of the books of his I’ve read, his writing is outstanding.

“Memories…” gathers together the title work, as well as 19 other pieces labelled as “Essays, Interviews, Letters (1943-1987)”. All are powerfully and beautifully written, ranging from memories of meetings with Anna Akhmatova to thoughts on ‘Blok and Inner Freedom’. Many of the works collected here were written whilst Czapski was travelling on diplomatic business, and they’re presented chronologically and usually dated. Often they were published in ‘Kultura’, a leading Polish-émigré literary-political magazine which ran from 1947 to 2000; and it’s clear from pieces like ‘Katyn and the Thaw’ that Czapski never stopped following world events closely, determined that the fate of his fellows from Starobielsk would not be forgotten.

‘The poet is a child of harmony. He has to fulfil the world a role in world culture,’ Blok says.

That thread of memory runs through most of the works collected in this volume, and in fact one of the longest pieces, ‘Recollections’ (from an interview conducted in 1971) makes fascinating reading as Czapski looks back over his life. He discusses his art; what a painter needs to be able to work, and to recognise when his work is not going well and he needs to abandon it; and explores the work of other artists like Chaim Soutine. In all of these pieces, his analysis is measured yet there’s an underlying passion in his prose, and that comes out most strongly in the title piece of the book.

“Memories of Starobielsk” is a litany of memory; whilst held in the camp. Czapski had no materials to write or draw or record things and so as soon as he was able, he put down onto paper as many of the people and events he could remember from the camps. He was obviously determined to record as much as he could, and no doubt took these memories with him when he set out to try to find the truth about what happened in Katyn. It’s a particularly powerful and moving piece, and I must admit my heart broke reading about all these creative, cultured, talented people who were blindly massacred. Truly, war is evil.

Not knowing contemporary man, I know eternal man, whose face is visible/shines through in art. Why does Egyptian sculpture give me something more than rapture, why is the drawing of a horse in a cave across a distance of fifteen thousand years closer to me than the best drawing from Degas’s last period?

Jozef Czapski was obviously an intelligent, humane man who lived through unspeakable times and tried to help his comrades as well as ensuring they weren’t forgotten. He also brought his impressive intellect to a number of subjects, both written and visual arts, and it’s clear he believed that culture was essential to humanity. When I was writing about his “Lectures on Proust…” I commented “It’s a testament to the power of words and the importance of literature that the deep love of those works of art helped to keep these prisoners sane whilst living through inhuman conditions.” I stand by that even more so, having now read more of his memories and more of his thoughts on art generally. As culture continues to be dumbed down all around us, we need to keep hold of the arts – I do believe they are what make us human, and I suspect Jozef Czapski would agree with that too. “Memories of Starobielsk” is a powerful, unforgettable book and kudos to NYRB for publishing this and his other works.

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

A few reading highlights of the year so far! 😊

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As we’re over halfway through the year, I noticed that a number of fellow bookbloggers have been posting a variety of memes revealing their mid-point best-ofs. I am never that disciplined when it comes to picking favourites, and find it impossible to make a numbered list at the end of the year; and picking books to shuffle into half-yearly categories is beyond me! However, I thought it might be nice to share a few little reading highlights of my year so far – by theme mostly – so here goes!

Works in Translation

I loved to read translated books and they’re always a strong feature on the Ramblings. Of course, August is Women in Translation month and I have my sights on quite a few interesting titles. However, this year I have read some marvellous titles from publishers like Glagoslav, Columbia University Press, V&Q Books and many others.

Two particular standouts have been hybrid reads: The Naked World” by Irina Mashinski, which combines prose and poetry; and My Hollywood and other poems by Boris Dralyuk, which blends original poetry with translations. Both of these works are original and striking, and will definitely make it into my year-end post. Highly recommended reading from here!

Re-reads

I don’t re-read as much as I like, as a rule, but this first half of the year has seen me revisiting some of the most important books from my younger years. The #Narniathon, which started last year, nudged me into re-reading C.S. Lewis‘s wonderful sequence, and it was such an enjoyable experience; I read these books constantly in my youth, but hadn’t gone back to them for decades!

Then there was “The Lord of the Rings“. I moved on to these books as a child after loving the Narnia ones, and in my early twenties re-read them compulsively. I’ve meant to go back to them in recent years, and in fact purchased a shabby set of the same edition I first read; but it took the #1954Club to nudge me into the re-read and I loved every minute!

Finally, there’s Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books; another set I read in my teens and which really changed my life. I re-read the first, “Titus Groan“, a while back; but it took the wonderful Backlisted Podcast covering the sequence to nudge me into returning to “Gormenghast“. What an amazing experience it was; I really must build more re-reading into my schedule!!

Reprints

Although I do read modern works (and I’ve done so quite a lot recently), I tend towards classics or modern classics, as well as Golden Age crime, often in reprint. As usual, British Library Publishing have been spoiling me with some marvellous reprints plus new collections; a recent anthology, “The Edinburgh Mystery” was a particular treat, bringing together as it did stories related to my home country and city. Another publisher bringing out interesting reprints alongside new works is Renard Press, and their books have the addition of always being so beautifully produced.

And a recent arrival to the scene is Recovered Books with their fabulous series via Boiler House Press; the first title, “Gentleman Overboard“, was a stunner and they’re continuing to release some excellent titles! I do love a good reprint!!

The Penguin Modern Box

I have a number of ongoing Penguin Projects, most of which are moving quite slowly… But I have managed this year to finally finish my reading of the 50 books in my Penguin Modern box set. This was a really enjoyable and rewarding experience; I got to discover and explore so many marvellous new authors; and I really do need to get my act together and get on with the other projects too!!!

ReadIndies

Talking of projects, I have mostly tried to keep reading events and challenges simple so far this year. However, I was particularly pleased to co-host again with Lizzy #ReadIndies (an event which grew out of Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight). Indie publishers are some of my favourites, and in these difficult times when it can be a struggle for them to make ends meet, I was so happy to do what I could to help promote them. Hopefully this is an event which will return next year!

Chunky non-fiction

Several very thought-provoking, chunky, and enjoyable non-fiction books have made it onto the Ramblings recently. I’ve always enjoyed a good non-fiction read, and I find as I get older that I tend to be reading even more. Over recent months I’ve had much mental stimulation from “Letters to Gwen John” by Celia Paul, “A Spectre, Haunting” by China Mieville and “The Life of Crime” by Martin Edwards. All very different, all very chunky and all brilliant reads!

So there you have it – a few of the highlights of my reading year so far. Despite real life often being screamingly busy, I really have been lucky enough to read some marvellous books; and as there are still several months until it’s time to round up the whole year, I have plenty of reading time left for new titles and new favourites. Watch this space to see what I’m reading next – I wonder which books will finally make it onto the end of year best-of???? 🤣🤣

“You asked about the blood.” #Borges #Verissimo

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After a run of wonderful books by women authors, I was casting around to decide what I wanted to read next, and struggling a bit tbh. Then I remembered Stu‘s Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month, and had a quick dig in the stacks. I still have tons of Pessoa calling to me, and plenty of unread Borges; however, I spotted a slim volume which I thought might be just the thing to pick up next – and it was! The book is “Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans” by Luis Fernando Verissimo, translated by Margaret Jull Costa – and it’s a real hoot!!

The book is narrated by one Vogelstein, a loner who lives an isolated life surrounded by books. Obsessed with the great writer, Jorge Luis Borges, he even writes to the master in his younger years, sending him stories which receive no reply. However, by several twists of fate (including his cat, Aleph, dying), Vogelstein gets he chance to attend a conference on Edgar Allan Poe in Buenos Aires; and here, to his joy, he finally meets his idol. But the conference is riddled with academic discord and competing arcane theories; and when one of the attendees is murdered, Vogelstein, Borges and the criminologist Cuervo (which translates as Raven!) set out to solve the mystery.

The twists and turns of the plot will leave the participants (and the reader!) baffled; which of the three knives found killed the victim? does the beautiful Angela have anything to do with the plot, as she arranged to have Vogelstein housed in the same hotel as Borges and co? and what is the significance of the Japanese professor who is constantly being knocked over? The story will lead you through a fantastic and complex plot exploring hidden language, demons, the mysteries of the Kabbala and the strange tale of the occultist John Dee and his ‘eternal Orang-Utan’ which would supposedly be able to to write all the known books in the cosmos if left alone for long enough…

I have to say that this book was a delight from start to finish! Obviously riffing on Borges’ own writings (particularly the story “Death and the Compass”), as well as that of Poe’s (I won’t say why…), it manages to combine a locked-room mystery with an extremely metafictional narrative which kept me hooked from the very beginning. Although Vogelstein is relating his story to the reader, it is mostly addressed to Borges himself, as if setting everything out clearly so that the great writer can solve the mystery – assuming, of course, he’s a reliable narrator… And indeed, at several points in the tale it does seem as if Borges has found a working solution. Cuervo, however, struggles to accept most of the options proposed, and then something else will occur to change things – it’s all very entertaining!

Inevitably a solution is arrived at, and I was perhaps starting to suspect a little of it as the narrative went on. However, once you reach the end of the book, and Borges’ final words, it all seems so clear that you find yourself going back to the start to pick up all of the clues you missed – such fun, and a lovely homage to Borges himself, too!

As you might have guessed, I loved “Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans”. It’s one of those books which has you questioning everything by the time you get to the end; from the various arcane mysteries to Dee and his Orang-Utans, I suspect that there’s very little which is actually grounded in fact. I even found myself questioning the biography of the author at the end of the book, as his name actually translates as “very true”, but a quick search online does seem to confirm he exists!! Nevertheless, this is a treat of a book; if you love quirky crime books or metafictional narratives, this is definitely one for you!

“…their resilience and discreetness…” #thenakedworld @IrinaMashinski

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When author and translator Irina Mashinski contacted me to see if I would be interested in reading her book, “The Naked World” I didn’t hesitate for a moment; in fact, I probably bit off her hand! I’d been aware of her work since reading “The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry”, which she co-edited with Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk. She also works on the Cardinal Points Journal, and has published many books of poetry and essays in Russian. I hadn’t appreciated, though, how widely she’d written and “The Naked World” (her first work in English) sounded as if it would be the perfect read for me – which it was!

Mashinski was born and raised in Moscow (in the spring of 1958, “5 years, 4 months and 10 days” after Stalin’s death); she emigrated to the USA in 1991. “Naked” explores her life straddling two continents, but does so by utilising two written forms; the book blends prose and poetry, and the results are stunning.

Each time when you raise your eyes to the stars, you see the past, and each time when you raise your eyes to the moon, you see the reflected the present. Past and present blend within you like the stars and the moon and those sparks of tiny flowers on the dark Soviet apron. And if there is a rhythm, it’s muted.

The book is divided into four sections: “Patterns”, “The Myth”, “In the Right-of-Way” and “Borders”, and each examines different aspects of Mashinski’s life, from her years living under Soviet rule to her time in the West as an emigre. Her memories stretch back to Stalin’s Great Terror, which affected her grandparents who were sent into exile, and these sections were particularly moving. In fact, the book opens with Stalin’s death and the effect that had on many Russians; of Jewish heritage, her family were particularly vulnerable in the Russia of the 20th Century, and it’s clear that what happened to them has left emotional scars.

So the first two parts of the book deals mainly with the past, with Mashinski exploring her family history, reliving her memories of her forebears and their sufferings, and reflecting on her own life. Even though Stalin had died, it was still not easy to live in the USSR, and Mashinski’s family were still at risk. However, going into voluntary exile and becoming an emigre is not so easy either, and when the family flee to the West, the sense of feeling stateless, not belonging, runs through many of the writings too. Although Mashinski comes to terms with her new world, it’s clear her homeland will never leave her.

It’s the time when
dreams fill
with my dead, mountains
block what’s left of the sun

They darken toward evening,
first one, then the second, the third,
they linger, turning mauve, and move off to the west,
like leaves to the ravine.

Irina Mashinski’s story is moving, inspiring and often heartbreaking; however, what makes this book stand out particularly is the wonderful writing. An intriguing hybrid of prose, original poetry, adapated poetry and translated poetry, it captures so many moments from her past and life in lyrical and memorable writing. This is a singularly original way to tell a story and it works quite brilliantly! Her poetry in particular cuts through to the heart. Poignantly, the book ends with a section setting out “Notes on the Great Terror”; even if you know something about this (which I do), it hits hard to see the awful facts set out here in black and white.

“The Naked World” is not an easy book to categorise, encompassing as it does so much; memory, family myths, cultural history, exile and the emigre experience. It’s a work which gets under the skin, leaving images lodged in the brain of forests and patterned wallpaper and wastelands and sunsets and a new world seen through the eyes of someone leaving a complex past behind. Her memories are vivid and moving, her verse beautiful and reading the book was such an immersive experience. It’s a work with disparate elements which are woven together beautifully to create a powerful and moving whole, and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to read it.

You remember me leaving, right? One takes off filled up to the brim – and lands in a new place empty. I wanted to tell you how it feels to cross the ocean and see your own flat giant shadow on the water, and peel yourself off and recognise that you’re real… emigration is like evacuation: sacks, trunks, random acquaintances, other people’s things that try to latch on to you, and wide unknown rivers covered with ice. And then several years pass, and it turns out that you’re full again, full to the brim.

In bringing her work to English, Mashinski has had the input of a stellar collection of collaborators to aid with the translation, including Boris Dralyuk, Robert Chandler and Maria Bloshteyn; and poet Ilya Kaminsky provides a heartfelt preface. Mashinski dedicates her book to the memory of her parents and grandparents, and it’s certainly a moving memorial of their life and sufferings.

As I hoped and expected, “The Naked World” turned out to be an unforgettable read; lyrical, moving, laced with beautiful prose, poetry and imagery, it’s a work which will stay with you, and it’s definitely going to be in my end of year best-of! Irina Mashinski’s marvellous book is published by MadHat Press, and I highly recommend you track down a copy.

If you want to explore further, there’s a wonderful recording of a pre-launch discussion which includes contributions from Mashinski, Chandler, Dralyuk, Bloshteysn and others available here.

“Love imposes obligations…” #astartinlife #anitabrookner

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As I mentioned in my Flaming June post, I have finally made a start on reading Anita Brookner properly! I say properly, because up until now I’ve only ever encountered “Hotel du Lac” which I’ve read twice; once, back in 1984 when it won the Booker Prize, and more recently when I re-read in 2013. Both times, the book really didn’t work for me, but I *have* been told it isn’t necessarily her best and I’ve been determined to have another go. So I’ve picked up a couple of early novels, and decided to go with her first – “A Start in Life” from 1981. Reader, I can report that this was a much better experience!!

As well as being a novelist, Brookner was also an art historian and academic, specialising in 18th century French art and later the Romantics. I do in fact have a couple of her non-fiction books, one on the artist David from 1980 and one on Romanticism from 2000; she did have a long and varied career! Anyway, “A Start in Life” opens with the uncompromising line “Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature“, and goes on to explore the early days and upbringing of Ruth Weiss. Born of a German emigre father and a flighty actess mother, Ruth’s lynchpin during her young years is her solid German grandmother. The literature that ruins her life starts early, with the fairy tales told to her by her grandmother; Cinderella never does go to the ball… Ruth ends up an expert on Balzac’s women, having made her way through school, university and even a spell studying in Paris. Meanwhile, her selfish parents act, frankly, like children; once Ruth’s grandmother has died, they employ a housekeeper, Mrs. Cutler, and the three adults have a rackety, chaotic existence while Ruth tries to carve out her own life. But can she escape her past?

There is no need to hide one’s inner life in an academic institution. Murderers, great criminals, should ideally be dons: plenty of time to plan the coup and no curious questions or inquisitive glances once it is done.

I shan’t say more about the plot, because I enjoyed watching it unfold without any real pre-knowledge. However, I will say that I absolutely loved the book and have definitely become a Brookner convert. I tried to approach the book with no expectations and was completely seduced by her prose; that was one of the positives I took from “Hotel du Lac” and here it’s just marvellous. She writes beautifully, and although the story is bleak (yes, the word I applied to HDL) it’s also darkly humorous and very atmospheric; she captures place and people brilliantly. Interestingly, too, although Ruth is in many ways the focus of the book, Brookner explores the rest of the characters quite deeply so that we understand why they’re behaving quite the way they are. Taking that focus away from Ruth at times certainly keep me interested in reading on, and also led me to sympathise with almost everyone in the story!

She knew that she was capable of being alone and doing her work – that that might in fact be her true path in life, or perhaps the one for which she was best fitted – but was she not allowed to have a little more? Must she only do one thing and do it all the time? Or was the random factor, the chance disposition, so often enjoyed by Balzac, nearer to reality? She was aware that writing her disseration on vice and virtue was an easier proposition than working it out in real life. Such matters can be more easily appraised when they are dead and gone. Dead in life and dead on the page.

Running through the book, of course, are some wonderful literary references, quotes from Balzac and Ruth’s desperate attempt to understand, in the end, why her life took the path it did. Her conclusion may well be that it’s better to be light, attractive and engaging, rather than intelligent and interesting, but she was never given the tools to go in that direction. In the end, what she has is her career, the books she’s writing and a friendship group; whether she’ll ever have any more is not something we readers will ever know. Certainly, she cherishes her independence and her academic career and they may well be enough for her; although interestingly I did sense a passivity in her, much the same as there was with Edith in HDL, and it may be that Brookner is deliberately engaging with characters who are buffeted by events, reacting to life rather than taking an active part.

Inevitably, it’s possible for the book to be considered as some kind of autofiction, as the kind of background portrayed here does accord a little with her own life (although more perhaps in concept than in fine detail). Whether or not that’s the case doesn’t really matter though; what does matter is that this is a wonderful novel, exploring a woman’s life and choices in the mid-20th century. I got truly involved in Ruth’s story, in the fate of her friends and family and although this is a short, concisely written book it certainly provokes a lot of thought. So I count my first proper read of Anita Brookner to be a real success and I’m happy that I have many more of her novels through which to make my way!

“The bitter pill of taking help…” @neglectedbooks @bhousepress #tessslesinger

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Regular Ramblings readers will recall that I wrote in glowing terms last December about the first release from a new imprint, Recovered Books, from Boiler House Press. That book was the marvellous “Gentleman Overboard” by Herbert Clyde Lewis, and it seems to have been wonderfully recieved by readers. So I was excited to hear they were issuing more titles, and very happy indeed to receive a review copy of one of these: “Time: The Presented – Selected Stories” by Tess Slesinger.

Slesinger is an author I’d never heard of before, and that fact in itself is shocking – because she’s incredibly good and I can’t believe her work isn’t better known (but then I guess that’s what Recovered Books are here for!) A Jewish New Yorker born in 1905, she was considered one of the most promising young writers of the 1930s, publishing widely in everything from Vanity Fair to the New Yorker. A left-winger, it’s clear from these stories that she supported those who struggled to make a living, and her politics were never hidden. Slesinger wrote one novel, “The Unpossessed“, and died tragically young at the age of 39. “Time: The Present” was originally published in 1935, and is reissued here with an introduction by Vivian Gornick and an afterword by Paula Rabonowitz.

The book opens with “White on Black” from 1930 and closes with “A Hollywood Gallery” which was published posthumously in 1979 (I think the original final story of the collection was probably the one before this, “A Life in the Day of a Writer” from 1935). It’s clear from the very start that Slesinger is a fine writer, with the opening story observing the changing attitudes of white schoolchildren towards their fellow pupils of colour as the group grows up; told in the first person plural, the narrator watches these changes with a detached eye, and it’s clear that the external pressures to stick to your own caste are being imposed upon, and learned by, the group.

Life began at fourteen. We became acquainted with the interiors of taxi-cabs, and in the whirling little rooms we learned to drink like acrobats – on the wing, straight out of the flask. We discovered tea-dancing to fill our afternoons – we went to more times than we were allowed (dressed in our jerseys and outlandish felts, our bright bright red mouths and flat-heeled shoes) to the Plaza, the Commodore, the Biltmore; we felt our power as we crashed place after place and captured it by making it unendurable to the older generation – and then when we had taken a place by storm, we coldly abandoned it and caused the rush to some place else. We began to crash the night-clubs too, and, pretty soon, there was no place in town where our parents were ashamed to be seen that we youngsters didn’t know.

As well as a relatively straightforward narrative in some stories, Slesinger also writes very modernist prose, exploring her characters’ thoughts in stream of consciousness prose; and this form is particularly effective in “Jobs in the Sky“, a story focusing on one day of work in a department story where at any moment the axe will fall and a staff member (or two) will be out of work. Slesinger’s prose is brilliant here, capturing the frantic pace of the day, the pressures of selling and the emotions in play from those who will or will not go home still employed. In fact, employment is a recurring theme, with Slesinger well aware of the difficulties of her times and the poverty abounding in the 1930s; “Ben Grader Makes a Call” is another sharply-observed story of unemployment and also the effect it will have on a marriage.

I mentioned earlier Slesinger’s sympathies with the underdog, and “The Friedmans’ Annie“, with its impressionistic prose, captures the sheer drudgery and exploitation of a serving girl employed by a wealthy family, who gaslight her with gifts of cast-offs so she won’t forge out on her own and make a new life with her boyfriend. It’s a moving story, and one which makes you furious for Annie and the employers who manipulate her.

Included also in this collection is a groundbreaking work first published in Story magazine in 1932; “Missis Flinders” deals explicitly with the subject of abortion, and its emotional effects. It’s a powerful and heartbreaking piece of writing, and apparently Slesinger expanded it and incorporated it into the first paragraph of “The Unpossessed”.

Those are just a few of the highlights of a collection which is brimming with brilliant writing and unforgettable stories. Slesinger moved to Los Angeles in 1935 with her second husband, the screen writer Frank Davis; here they had two children, and Slesinger turned her talents to writing screenplays herself, including “The Good Earth” and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (together with Frank, and for which they won an Oscar nomination). Her early death robbed the literary world not only of a talented scriptwriter but also of a remarkable prose author; and I’m just glad that Recovered Books have reissued this marvellous collection. I’ve seen Slesinger described as one of the finest short story writers of her generation and I heartily agree; a wonderful author, thankfully back in print! 😀

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

“..valour, insanity and violent cunning…” @BL_Publishing #theedinburghmystery @medwardsbooks

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That grasshopper mind of mine has been at play again! After finishing my re-read of “Gormenghast” I had such a massive book hangover that I had no idea what book to pick up next; Peake is so all encompassing that it’s hard to step out of his world and into another! So I decided to pick up a volume which had been calling to me since it popped through the letter-box; it combines two of my loves (Scotland and Golden Age crime!) so I thought it might be the ideal palate-cleanser – and it really was! The book is “The Edinburgh Mystery and other tales of Scottish Crime” , edited by Martin Edwards, and it was a treat from start to finish.

As I’ve mentioned before, I was born in Edinburgh and I’m an exiled Scot, so this was always going to be the perfect book for me! The BL GA crime anthologies are themed collections of loveliness, and this particular edition is no exception. Editor Martin Edwards provides an interesting introduction which gives an overview of Scottish crime writing (“Tartan Noir” is very much a thing nowadays, as we all know!); and then the stories kick off with a spooky and memorable murder story from Robert Louis Stevenson, “Markheim”, which I’d not come across before and which I was glad I was reading in daylight!

Interestingly, the collection draws in a wide variety of authors and stories by choosing not only Scottish writers but also stories set in Scotland by other writers. So there are names you would expect to see, like Conan Doyle, Josephine Tey, Anthony Wynne and Margot Bennett; as well as authors like Chesterton, Baroness Orczy and Cyril Hare. It’s a wonderfully wide-ranging anthology, coming right up to date with a name new to me, Jennie Melville. In fact, that was one of the particular joys of “Edinburgh…” – there were plenty of authors I’d not read before, and I do love to discover new writers!

This note of a dreamy, almost a sleepy devilry, there is no mere fancy from the landscape. For there did rest on the place one of those clouds of pride and madness and mysterious sorrow which lie more heavily on the noble houses of Scotland than in any other of the children of men. For Scotland has a double dose of the poison called heredity; the sense of blood in the aristocrat, and the sense of doom in the Calvinist.

As for some specifics and stand-outs; well, there wasn’t a dud really and it’s hard to select some and not others! “The Field Bazaar“, the Holmes story, was great fun, being something of an in-joke which was published in the Edinburgh University student magazine to help raise funds for them. The Tey,”Madame Ville D’Aubier” is a real rarity, apparently out of print since 1930, and it’s a brooding and atmospheric story of domestic unhappiness in France with a dark end. Margot Bennett’s story is only four pages long but quite brilliant!

Footsteps” by Anthony Wynne was another spooky treat, with a dark and storm ridden location in the Highlands, murderous lairds and scary footsteps in the night; I’m reminded I still have an unread Wynne BLCC on the TBR which should come off it soon. “The Alibi Man” is a wonderfully twisty tale of revenge which had me totally bamboozled; and Michael Innes’ “The Fisherman” has his famous detective Appleby dealing with a very puzzling conundrum on a fishing trip to Scotland. As for the title story, it’s a clever tale of theft and murder, with the “Old Man in the Corner” solving a mystery which seems very straightforward but is not.

Those are just some of the treats from this cornucopia of a book; really, all of the stories are thoroughly enjoyable, puzzling and very, very clever! As usual, Martin Edwards provides a potted biog of each author before their story, and I had such fun reading the book; it was the perfect thing to distract me after the Peake and is a worthy addition to my ever-growing pile of BLCC anthologies! 😉🤣

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

 

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