Incoming – and planning what to read next…


Now that things have calmed down a little after the excitement of reading for the 1947 Club, I’ve been thinking about what to read next and the answer is not obvious! I’m of course behind on the challenges I’m involved in this year – reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage and HeavenAli’s Woolfalong, though I may well be able to catch up a bit over half term.

There *have* been new arrivals recently in the form of a large pile of review books (which are obviously like buses, not coming for ages and then arriving all at once…). Some of these will be for Shiny New Books but I’m not sure which yet. However, I did bring home a couple of volumes at the weekend:


“Letters from Iceland” is from the library so theoretically I should try to read it soon. The Sebald was from a charity shop because I really do want to give him another try (I read him years ago but didn’t quite get him….)

I also felt the need to revamp the “interested-in-reading-soon” shelves as they were so crowded that things were getting out of hand and I really couldn’t see what was what. So now the big shelf looks like this:


There is a *lot* of poetry on those shelves, which I’m not likely to get to soon, plus a lot of Russians. We shall see…

There’s also a small shelf area with potential reads which looks like this:


More poetry in the form of Edith Sitwell (and I have a lovely big biography of her that Liz kindly sent me on the other shelf). The Beverley is calling as I haven’t read any of his books for a while. Decisions, decisions…

#1947 Club – phew, what a week it’s been!


Indeed it has! It’s been a wonderful week of reading, and not only have I enjoyed what I chose to read very much, I’ve also loved hearing about what everyone else has been reading.

When I started to think about what books I would choose for the club, I actually had a pile of volumes chosen from my shelves, which was a bit of an achievement. I did eventually buy one title that intrigued me and which I considered trying to squeeze in, so this was the final stack.


The Steinbeck was the book I bought, and I will read it eventually I’m sure! And I ran out of time and energy so didn’t make it to re-reading Nabokov’s “Bend Sinister”, alas (it’s been a bit of a week at work and home). But I’m pleased that I did get to all the other titles on the pile, and a wonderful bunch they were. I don’t think I could pick one out as a favourite, but I will say that my revisit to “The Plague” was very special!

So thanks to my co-host Simon and to everyone else who took part.  I have a load of links on my 1947 Club page and I will try to keep updating this with people’s posts, but if I’ve missed yours, please be sure to leave a comment so I can include you. Here’s to the next Club*!🙂

*Adding in here, now that Simon has done the Big Reveal, that next time we will be focusing on 1951 – so get planning! :))

#1947 Club – Pounding the Beat with Inspector Maigret


So, coming to the end of my reading for the 1947 Club I realised that I had only been reading books I already owned – which is great! However, I was faced with the few remaining titles I’d earmarked and I honestly didn’t feel like starting any of them. I started casting around for something else on the shelves, and decided to check out my Maigrets. I didn’t think I had any of the novels from 1947, but when I began to dig into short stories I found that two fact Penguin omnibus editions I own contained several short works from 1947 – result! I was just in the mood for Maigret and so the day was saved!


In fact, as I investigated further, it transpired that one of the collections, “Maigret’s Christmas”, contained “Maigret in Retirement”, which is listed as a 1947 novel; the line between short story and novel is often blurred with Simenon as his novels tend to be quite short anyway, and several of these stories are pretty much novellas. Whatever – it meant I had another 6 titles from 1947 ready and waiting. I’m basing my dating of the stories on the copyright dates given at the start of the book – how accurate that is, is anybody’s guess but I’m claiming these stories for the 1947 Club!

So, on to the tales themselves. First up was Maigret’s Pipe, the short title piece of the first of the two books. I actually read this and mentioned in briefly in the early days of the Ramblings, and it’s a satisfying story which really captures the essence of Maigret. Like so many of his investigations, this once comes about by chance circumstances; whilst being consulted about a very trivial seeming occurrence, the detective’s favourite pipe disappears and in following up this mystery Maigret is led onto a much larger crime which might not have otherwise been discovered.

In Maigret and the Surly Inspector, we encounter Lognon, a recurring detective in the books. Married to an invalid wife and with a constant run of back luck, here an apparent suicide takes place in his district. However, Maigret was on hand when the report came through to the police call centre, and he’s intrigued enough to follow it up. Running the investigation from behind scenes as tactfully as he can, he reveals that the suicide is most definitely not what it seems. Maigret’s long personal experience is helpful here, as it is in The Evidence of the Altar Boy. Again, there is an apparently unimportant report, an altar boy claiming to have seen a body which miraculously disappears. However, Simenon’s sleuth is able to draw on his own experience as an altar boy to get into the mindset of the young man and solve the mystery.

There are always little quirks in the stories that set off the investigation, and in The Most Obstinate Customer in the World this is simply the oddness of a customer who sits in a cafe from morning to night doing absolutely nothing. Simenon cleverly throws you straight into the action with eye-witness accounts, allowing the story to gradually unfold until the human drama behind the seemingly innocent action is revealed. And human quirks are also on display in Death of the Nobody where the murder victim is the most ordinary, regular man in the world – so why would anyone want to kill him? It takes all Maigret’s persistence and quiet determination to find out the truth.

My final 1947 read for the week was the novella Maigret in Retirement, which takes the detective very much out of his comfort zone. Maigret has indeed retired from the force and although he’s keeping his home in Paris, he’s currently in the country growing vegetables (shades of Poirot with his vegetable marrows and Holmes with his bee-keeping come to mind). However, into this relatively calm paradise explodes Bernadette Amorelle. The elderly head of a business family, she demands that Maigret comes immediately to her home to solve the mystery of the recent death of her granddaughter. Initially reluctant, Maigret finds himself drawn into her circle where he finds an old school friend made good. In fact, the whole milieu of money and status is one in which Maigret is always uncomfortable; but despite attempts to scare him off he digs into the past of the Amorelle family, revealing several shocking skeletons and bringing about a dramatic climax to the adventure.


Simenon in Maigret pose!

I’m never disappointed in a Maigret story and I wasn’t here. The setting, the mysteries and the lovely ensemble cast (Janvier, Lucas, Torrence, Mme Maigret) can always be relied upon to intrigue and entertain. However, what really stood out during these readings was Simenon’s interest for the human drama and the story behind the crime. What starts off as something banal or fairly straightforward always morphs into something unusual or quirky, and Simenon and Maigret are always concerned for the people themselves and the situations they’re in which have caused their actions. At one point, Simenon has the detective refer to his “obstinacy, his intuition and his understanding of human nature” and I think it’s the latter that’s really his strength here, and what makes him such a fine detective. I’ve seen these books criticised for lack of character development, but that really isn’t the case. Maigret himself and all his colleagues are really well-rounded, believable characters, and all the additional players are brilliantly captured by Simenon’s pen; their loves, their hates, their everyday problems and irritations, the stupidity of their lives, the cruelty, cupidity and greed. Simenon and Maigret find joy in the simple and the everyday (witnessed, for example, by Maigret’s straightforward friendship with Raymonde, the serving girl at the inn where he stays while investigating the Amorelle family – he would rather eat a meal of eggs, sausage, cheese and bread in the kitchen with her than a fine gourmet meal with the cold and corrupt family in the big house). And Simenon’s descriptions bring alive whichever location the action’s set in, so that you’re walking in the dark in the country or through the rain in Paris alongside Maigret.

So a wonderful and satisfying set of stories to finish reading from 1947. It’s been a great week and I’ve really enjoyed each and every book I’ve chosen. I’ll do a little round up post tomorrow, but meanwhile don’t forget to link any of your reviews so I can add these to the page!

#1947 Club – Visiting post-War Japan


The Setting Sun by Osamu Dazai
Translated by Donald Keene

One of the joys of this reading week has been the fact that so far it’s taken me to some very far flung places! “The Labours of Hercules” took Poirot all over the world; “The Plague” was set in French Algeria; “A Girl in Winter” looked at England before and during WW”; and now I’m off to post-War Japan with Osamu Dazai’s work, “The Setting Sun”.


Dazai (June 19, 1909 – June 13, 1948) was an enigmatic figure whose early suicide (after several attempts) turned him into a cult in Japan. “The Setting Sun” was one of his last works, and it’s set immediately after WW2 – which of course saw a crushing defeat for Japan. This loss is referred to throughout the book, and the story is one of decay – of the old way of Japanese life, of the old regime, of the old morality and specifically of the aristocracy. The book is narrated by Kazuko, daughter of noble family who have fallen on hard times. The father is dead, the brother Naoji missing, and Kazuko and her mother (always referred to as being ‘a lady’) scrape a living. The family home has been sold and they’ve moved to a small dwelling in the country. But despite constant sales of clothes and jewels, the family barely get by, and the situation is not improved by the return of the prodigal son. Naoji himself is in decline, being a recovering drug addict and pretty much an alcoholic.

But Kazuko is no blushing flower, and has her own history of a broken marriage and a stillborn child, as well as dalliances with artistic friends of her brothers. And as her mother and brother continue to decline, Kazuko is drawn to change and a need to live.

The older and wiser heads of the world have always described revolution and love to us as the two most foolish and loathsome human activities. Before the war, even during the war, we were convinced of it. Since the defeat, however, we no longer trust the older and wiser heads and have to come to feel that the opposite of what they say is the real truth about life. Revolution and love are in fact the best, most pleasurable things in the world, and we realise it is precisely because they are so good that the older and wiser heads have spitefully fobbed us off on their sour grapes of a lie. This I want to believe implicitly: Man was born for love and revolution.

Her answer to her emotional dilemma is to throw herself at Mr Uehara, author friend of her brother’s, and frankly not much of a catch from the description here. She wanders round Tokyo looking for him, shamelessly caring nothing of the fact that he has a wife, a child and numerous lovers. Her encounter with him will decide her future, but what a broken future that is…

“The Setting Sun” was an unusual, sometimes fragmentary book, but absolutely fascinating. It’s chock full of symbolism, which of course refers to the so called “Land of the Rising Sun” being in decline, and there is a recurring motif of snakes. These turn up regularly, usually as a portent of death and at one point Kazuko burns some snake eggs which she feels brings on a kind of curse. Fire is a theme too, with the eggs, and with Kazuko almost setting fire to the house and consequently the whole village.

Kazuko herself is a complex character; Dazai’s books are often described as semiautobiographical and I did find myself wondering if her behaviour was typical of women of that era. She drinks, runs around Tokyo in pursuit of men and often seems to have little regard of what people think about her. But the more I thought about it, the more I understood that she was also symbolic. It seems to me that Kazuko and Naoji represent the reality of the aristocracy; on the surface very powerful and revered but underneath actually corrupt and dissolute.


Dazai’s style is also of interest; he has a very distinctive way of structuring his chapters, with what is almost the climax of the action at the start which he then works his way towards during the rest of that chapter. It makes for stimulating, if unusual, reading. As for the subject matter, I imagine that a scholar of Japanese life and culture would sense even more symbols and references in the book than I did; nevertheless, I did enjoy “The Setting Sun” immensely. It’s a book I think I admire and like, rather than love, and I put that down to a certain detachment in the storytelling. Kazuko herself was a character I struggled with in places; it’s hard sometimes to sympathise with her melodramatic monologues and although I understand she’s meant to be a woman caught in a changing society, trapped between ancient and modern, I didn’t feel she was necessarily rounded enough.

Despite that caveat, the glimpse of post-War Japan presented here was fascinating, and I’ll be interested to read his other cult classic “No Longer Human”, which I have lurking on Mount TBR. The 1947 Club is certainly throwing up some intriguing books and stay tuned to find out which counry I’ll end up visiting for my last reads of the week!

#1947 Club – Some of my previous reviews


As we draw closer to the end of our week of reading books from 1947, I thought I would share some older reviews of books I’ve read from that year. It certainly was a bumper year for publishing and there are some great titles – so here are a few I’ve read in the past!

One Fine Day by  Mollie Panter-Downes

One fine day

Oddly enough, I picked up my copy of this wonderful novel in the Bloomsbury Oxfam shop during a LibraryThing Virago group get-together – and it was Simon who pointed it out! It’s a wonderfully written book that captures post-War England quite brilliantly and I absolutely loved it, coming to the conclusion that I couldn’t praise it enough. You can read my full review here.

Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

706_largeThis rather clever and interesting book was written by a master of word games and member of the OuLiPo group. Basically it tells the same story in a huge number of styles and it’s very entertaining. Read what I thought about it here!

The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding


A lovely Persephone and a fabulous thriller which I read in a borrowed copy from the library. Set in America in the middle of the war, it tells of an ordinary housewife who falls into the grip of blackmailers and thugs and it’s a fabulous, unputdownable read – highly recommend, and read my review here!

Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross


A great read, this, looking at life on the eve of WW2 from the point of view of a man trying to make a living by selling vacuum cleaners. Shades, perhaps, of Orwell, and a vivid picture of a seedy seaside setting. JMR was a wonderful writer, and this is an essential read from 1947 – my review here!

So there are a few of the books I’ve read in the past from this bumper year in publishing. Don’t forget to leave links to your posts so I can add them to the 1947 Club page, and let’s see how many more books we can get in before the end of the week!🙂

Dreams and Fragments


(A little break from the #1947 Club, with a review of a lovely new book out today from NYRB)

Girlfriends, Ghosts and other Stories by Robert Walser
Translated by Tom Whalen with Nicole Kongeter and Annette Wiesner

Swiss author Robert Walser, who wrote in German, is another one of those authors I’ve been circling for a while, thinking that I really should get on and read one of their books. So when NYRB kindly offered a review copy of a new collection of his short pieces, I was really pleased to have the chance to get to know him. Well-known during his lifetime owing to early success, his star waned as he got older and his mental state became more fragile; his ability to make a living apart from his writing declined and he ended his days in a variety of sanatoriums. However, his work was rediscovered in the 20th century and has continued to be recognised into the 21st.


So what exactly is Walser’s writing about? Well, it seems that many of his works are shorter ones, and indeed this lovely book collects together 81 short pieces (often of 1 page in length), all dated and presented chronologically. Interestingly, it seems he was admired by a wide range of writers, including Robert Musil, Hermann Hesse, Stefan Zweig, Walter Benjamin and Franz Kafka, which gives some idea of his literary stature. The afterword by translator Tom Whalen describes the works as feuilletons and this is an art of which I’ve written on the Ramblings before, most particularly in relation to Mikhail Bulgakov, who wrote many in his time. Short, newsy pieces on any topic of interest, I’m not entirely sure the word fits Walser’s very unique writings, but that’s by the by.

The living picture of the dear revered one with her face and noble expression rose softly and mysteriously out of the unfathomable depths of the green, silent grave. I stood there a long time. But not melancholy. Even I and you, all of us will come here once where everything, everything is still and comes to a close, and everything ends, and everything dissolves into silence.

In fact, deciding how to describe these pieces is quite difficult. They’re a mixture of fiction, comment and personal opinion, little nuggets and vignettes from the mind of Walser. The early ones are perhaps more straightforwardly stories, but as the book progresses the pieces become almost abstract, meditations on whatever Walser feels like talking about. So the first story “A Morning” (one of my favourites in the collection) follows a bored clerk through an interminable morning at the office; in “The Young Travelling Salesman”, Walser retells a story from a pulp magazine that frightened him as a child; and in numerous pieces he wanders through the natural world and wonders. There is infinite variety in the stories, and short as they are the linger in the mind, making you look at the world around you in a slightly different way.


The last piece in the book is dated 1933, and in that year Walser abandoned writing completely. In the time leading up to this his working practices had become increasingly more eccentric, as he wrote in pencil on tiny scraps of paper and in code. These works were eventually rediscovered and collected, and this volume draws on some of those writings. They’re evocative and intriguing metafictional pieces; Walser is constantly smashing the fourth wall, breaking off from his story to reflect on the fact that he’s writing a sketch, so that the reader is never in any doubt that what he or she is reading is filtered through the author’s particular and individual perceptions.

We don’t need anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.

I thoroughly enjoyed my first experience of reading Robert Walser; his works are unlike anything else I think I’ve read, and my only caveat about this book would be that it’s best read a little at a time rather in big gulps, just to allow Walser’s beautiful writing to settle in the mind. W.G. Sebald, a great admirer of Walser, refers to him as a ” solitary walker just pausing to take in the surroundings” and that’s very much the impression I got from reading the book. The quotidian can be very special if we just take the time to pay it the proper attention and Robert Walser was obviously one of those people who did just that.

(Many thanks to NYRB for kindly providing a review copy)

#1947 Club – A poet’s novel


A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin

One of the things that always surprises me when we do these weeks of reading from a particular year is the incredible variety of the books. It would be easy to assume that all the works produced in the same year would have strong similarities, but you certainly couldn’t get two more different books than those I’ve read so far – “The Plague” and “The Labours of Hercules”. And today’s book is yet another type of read, an evocative little novel by a man better known for his poetry – “A Girl in Winter” by Philip Larkin.

Yes - I have two copies of this book...

Yes – I have two copies of this book…

The book opens with a lyrical description of the English countryside in winter, then whisks us away to an unnamed town where we meet the girl of the title – Katherine Lind, working in a provincial library and suffering the cold and privations of wartime England. Divided into three parts, the first and last all take place on one day in winter where Katherine goes through a number of changes. A colleague is taken ill with toothache and Katherine accompanies her to the dentist and then home; she has a run in with her dreadful boss, Mr. Anstey, and then by a curious set of circumstances discovers things about his private life; and a friend from the past threatens to make a reappearance, disturbing the delicate balance she’s managed to construct to maintain her own life.

The central section is a flashback to a pre-war visit a teenage Katherine made to England to spend some weeks in the summer with the family of her penpal, Robin Fennel. For as we read, it becomes clear that Katherine is a refugee from an unnamed European country, and her presence in England is as a result of her fleeing the war. Katherine, of course, has a crush on Robin, but finds it impossible to completely understand the English and their way of life. Robin’s sister Jane is awkward and abrasive and hard to read, and Katherine spends most of the visit struggling to relate to her. And she thinks she has misjudged Robin’s feelings towards her too, until close to the end of the visit…

In the final section of the book, back in wartime winter, Katherine reaches a kind of crisis point with her job, her relationships with her co-workers and also with the Fennel family. The book ends on a note of ambiguity with Katherine unsure of her future – as were, no doubt, many of those stuck in the middle of World War 2.

The first thing that sprang to mind for me was that Larkin really could write beautiful prose – which I suppose for a poet is not entirely surprising. I’m surprised that he didn’t write more novels because this one is not only wonderfully written, it’s very evocative too. Larkin brilliantly brings out the stark contrast between the bleakness of a wartime British winter and the pre-war British summer, and the difference between the two is striking. The fog, the cold, the damp and the privation would probably seem alien to a young, modern reader but I’m old enough to remember pre-central heating days and what that was like. Larkin is just brilliant at capturing the atmosphere of his setting, whether the heat and stillness of an English country day by the Thames, or the nastiness of a city winter with its fogs and dirty snow.

Philip Larkin in a library. Photograph by Fay Godwin. © The British Library Board

Philip Larkin in a library. Photograph by Fay Godwin. © The British Library Board

The sections in the library are as good as you would expect from someone who worked in one for much of his life, but the strongest element for me was the sense of loneliness and alienation captured by the novel. We have no clear idea of where Katherine Lind comes from, but it’s obvious from some of the elliptical references that her past life has been completely wiped away and so it’s reasonable to assume that it might be somewhere very much affected by German invasion. In fact, I looked up the surname and it’s often a South German Jewish name which would certainly add another element to her story. Whatever happened to her, Katherine’s past life of home, school and school friends, and university life has been lost forever and she’s only survived by cutting herself off from it completely. When Robin reappears in her life, she has matured but it seems that he has not, and the gulf between them seems unbridgeable. Similarly, Katherine’s co-workers, from the troublesome Anstey through the other library ladies, Jane Fennel and Anstey’s lady friend, all seem stuck in isolation, trying to battle with their loneliness but not always succeeding. Whether this is a symptom of the War or not, Larkin seems to be saying that however much we try to reach out to other human beings, we are essentially alone in the world and it’s only those with inner strength who can deal with this.

So, “A Girl in Winter” was a surprisingly thought-provoking novel and I’m astonished not only that it’s not more widely known and read, but also that Larkin didn’t write more as this one is *so* good. Luckily, I do still have his first novel “Jill” waiting for me, as well as the collection of his slightly risqué girls’ school stories! But this book was a wonderful read; understated and not showy or shocking, but commenting discreetly on the effects of the War and loneliness – another highlight of the 1947 Club!🙂

(Jacqui has already done a lovely review of the book here)

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