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The Final Shininess of the Year!

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SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245Today is the publication day for the final issue of Shiny New Books for 2016- number 13! It’s also, I believe, going to be the final one in this format, so do go and enjoy all the lovely content there.

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I’ve been pleased to provide a few reviews this time round and I thought I would first of all point you to my thoughts on a beautiful new edition of “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” from Alma Classics. Aimed at a younger audience, and featuring black and white illustrations plus a plethora of extra material, it really is a lovely thing. You can read my full review here, and of course there will be much in the way of fascinating reading to be found in the whole of Shiny New Books!🙂

Making the Acquaintance of Mr. Campion!

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The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham

I’ve probably moaned before about the knotty problem of trying to decide what to book to take on a train journey and for a day out; and the issue reared its head again when I had my lovely LT meet up recently. I had just finished one book and was expecting a review copy – which actually arrived just before I left for my trip! However, the review book was big and heavy, and I really didn’t fancy lugging it round London with me, especially if I was going to be buying more books….

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Fortunately, I spotted a small pile of Margery Allinghams – I picked up a set of three when someone at work was putting in a Book People order, and at £5 for the set it seemed rude not to! And since this included the first Albert Campion title, published in 1929, that seemed like the ideal kind of light read (mentally and physically!) for my journey. Back in my twenties I read stacks of Golden Age crime fiction, and I really would struggle to tell you now which titles I read. Allingham was one of the ones I loved, and I made my way through a lot of Albert Campion stories. I remember enjoying them very much; however, when I read “The Tiger in the Smoke” recently, Campion actually didn’t have the major part so I was keen to see how he appeared in his first story.

Black Dudley itself is a country house deep in the wilds of East Anglia. Visiting for the weekend is George Abbershaw, a somewhat staid young man; a pathologist by trade and occasional assistant of Scotland Yard, he was at college with the owner of the house, Wyatt Petrie, and his interest in attending the house party is mainly the presence of Meggie, a flame haired young woman who makes him want to behave in an altogether more lively fashion than he usually does! Also present are Colonel Coombe, Wyatt’s uncle by marriage who lives in the house; the Colonel’s doctors and rather sinister friends; a random group of bright young things known to Wyatt; and a rather strange young man called Albert Campion, who nobody actually seems to know and nobody actually seems to have invited!

The house is, of course, dark and creepy and full of secret passages and family legends, the latter involving the Black Dudley dagger which is supposed to reveal a person’s guilt. Wyatt suggests they play the traditional game whereby the dagger is passed round in the dark, although Abbershaw is not at all happy about that. Needless to say, things go wrong and someone is murdered. However, all is not what it seems; Abbershaw and another doctor, Prenderby, are both asked to sign a death certificate without seeing the body; and an important possession has gone missing which some of the residents are very, very keen to get hold of. Suddenly, the guests are prisoners in the house, being held by a sinister gang with no way to escape. But can they trust Albert Campion, a man who seems to know more about what is going on than any of them?

“The Crime at Black Dudley” was a fabulous read, and perfect for a slow train journey! Allingham’s writing is excellent and atmospheric, and this was pure Golden Age crime fiction. What was particularly interesting was to see that in Campion’s first appearance, he was not initially the main focus of the story! Abbershaw is quite obviously intended to be the detective and focal character, but as the book progresses Campion gradually comes to the fore, almost as if Allingham changed her mind as she was writing and decided that he would be a much more interesting detective than her initial choice!

Peter Davison as Albert Campion

Peter Davison as Albert Campion

And I have to agree with that, as Albert Campion is definitely a more nuanced character than Abbershaw. In fact, here he is very much in silly ass mode, resembling early Wimsey or someone from a P.G. Wodehouse tale, so much so that his fellow guests struggle to deal with him:

Martin looked at him wonderingly. ‘Do you always talk bilge?’ he said

‘No,’ said Mr. Campion lightly, ‘but I learnt the language reading advertisements.’

However, this is obviously an act, as when the going gets tough it is Campion who comes up with solutions and proves that despite his protestations to the contrary, he can handle a gun and deal with the physical stuff. And the threat the guests are facing is very real and convincing; the baddies may be a little cartoonish but they are pretty nasty and although nothing unpleasant takes place on camera, it *is* implied. This may be the world of Golden Age mysteries, but it’s not a place where the crimes are lightweight and the villains trite.

The thought that possessed Abbershaw’s mind was the pity of it – such a good brain, such a valuable idealistic soul. And it struck him in a sudden and impersonal way that it was odd that evil should beget evil. It was as if it went on spreading in ever-widening circles, like ripples round the first splash of a stone thrown into a pond.

Campion here is presented as something of a mystery man; his name is not his real one, he is working outside of the law, and Abbershaw has come across him before. In fact, at one point Campion whispers to him the name of his mother, and Abbershaw is dumbstruck. All of these elements do make him a better choice as a major character!

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“Crime…” actually ended up having several resolutions plus plenty of twists and turns, as the two issues of the murder and the disappearing property appeared to have separate perpetrators. I was beautifully bamboozled by all of this, and thought the final ending was rather wonderful. Abbershaw and his Meggie were lovely creations, but I’m glad Allingham decided to go with Campion as her detective instead – he’s a much more interesting character, and now I’m really keen to get on with reading more of the Albert Campion stories. Luckily, there are at least two more lurking on Mount TBR….🙂

Dispatches from the Revolution

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1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, edited by Boris Dralyuk

Sometimes a book comes along that you just know is going to be perfect for you; and “1917”, just published by Pushkin Press, is certainly the right one for me! It’s no secret here on the Ramblings that I have something of an interest in Russian literature and culture, and this reaches back a long way with me, since I first studied the Russian Revolution at the age of 12 or 13. This engendered my lifelong fascination and so a book celebrating the 100th anniversary of the country’s year of change is something I was quite desperate to read!

1917

1917 was indeed a year of turmoil for Russia, with not one but two revolutions taking place: in February/March the royal family was overthrown and a provisional government put in place; and in October/November the more famous conflict occurred, with Lenin’s Bolsheviks seizing power. This was eventually followed by a bloody civil war which tore the country apart and continued until 1921, when the old guard of the White Army were finally defeated. During the relatively liberal decade that followed, there were many accounts which looked back on the uprisings, but those featured in this excellent book are all between 1917 and 1919 (when the tide really turned in the Civil War, in favour of the Red Army), so they’re from right in the eye of the storm.

Expertly collected (and often translated) by Boris Dralyuk (who also translated the volume of Babel’s “Odessa Stories” I reviewed recently), he’s keen to stress the importance of contemporary reactions to the conflict. The book features an amazing range of authors espousing a variety of viewpoints, and all witnessing the conflict at first hand. Some embraced the revolution, some were horrified and rejected it, but all responded with lyrical passion. The various works are grouped thematically with erudite and informative introductions providing context and the first half of the book concentrates on poetry.

Remember this – this morning, after that black night –
this sun, this polished brass.
Remember what you never dreamt would come to pass
but what had always burned within your heart!

(from Russian Revolution by Mikhail Kuzmin
Translated by Boris Dralyuk)

From well-known names like Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Pasternak, Esenin and Akhmatova to names new to me like Vladimir Kirillov, Alexey Kraysky and Georgian poet Titsian Tabidze, there’s a wonderful array of work on view here. The marvellous Mayakovsky, often thought of as the poet of the Revolution, earns a section to himself, and his complex reactions to the conflict are covered. But central to the poetry section, and crucial, are Alexander Blok’s two great works “The Twelve” and “The Scythians” – starkly powerful, the former is rendered brilliantly by Dralyuk and Robert Chandler. As someone who sometimes struggles to read collections of poetry, I found this one gripping and absorbing, with such a wonderful range of imagery and human emotion.

The second section is prose – short fictions, journalism and responses from such luminaries as Teffi, Zamyatin, Zoshchenko and the great Bulgakov. I was pleased to see an evocative piece by Kataev which was new to me, a powerful story called “The Drum”. Dralyuk draws on an astonishingly wide range of works, pulling in as many peoples and creeds affected as he can. For example, Dovid Bergelson wrote in Yiddish and his imaginative piece “Scenes from the Revolution” is memorable. Teffi, of course, is her usual pithy, outspoken, no-nonsense self and her pen portrait of Lenin is devastating; her satirical story “The Guillotine” chilling.

And what of my beloved Bulgakov? He closes the book with an early piece entitled “Future Prospects” – his first piece of writing, in fact – which looks ahead with desperate hope. Bulgakov was at the time a White Army supporter and with our benefit of hindsight his optimism seems misguided and tragic – or perhaps born of desperation as the world around him crumbled.

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Boris Dralyuk dedicates this collection to the memory of his grandmother, and he does have a very personal connection to the Revolution through his grandparents which you can read more about here. I can’t praise enough the work he’s done compiling and translating this wonderful book; needless to say, “1917” not only lived up to my expectations, it exceeded them. I could simply sit here and churn out superlatives, but that’s not really constructive. This is a book that captures a moment in time when the world was changing, in rich, beautiful and sometimes visceral writing. Tellingly, a character in “The Soul’s Pendulum” by Alexander Grin comments on the perspective of history, and it is this missing perspective that gives the works their immediacy, capturing the chaos and uncertainty of a society in flux. It’s easy for us to look back now, a hundred years on, and see the events of that time as a structured thing, with a beginning and an end; living through them was an entirely different experience, but it’s one that can be glimpsed through the pages of this wonderful collection. “1917” was an entirely absorbing, moving and exceptional read, and it’s definitely going to be high on my list of books of the year.

December ramblings…

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I can’t believe we’re coming to the end of 2016, but like many I won’t be sorry to see the back of this year – it’s been a difficult one all-round.

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Reading-wise, I am behind (of course!) on the few limited challenges I hoped to take part in. Although I’ve reached the last volume of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage sequence, I still have a few titles to go. I’ve decided not to beat myself up about it – if I end up finishing it over Christmas, or it stretches into January, that’s fine. Any deadlines I set my reading are ultimately my own and I’m not going to stress about it.

One title I *do* intend to start very soon, however, is this one for the final part of HeavenAli’s wonderful Woolfalong:

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I haven’t read “Jacob’s Room” for about 35 years, and my poor old copy is developing crumbly pages – so this lovely new edition, picked up recently in London, will be just the thing.

Apart from that, I’m trying not to plan too much for December’s reading. I have a couple of lovely British Library Crime Classics lined up, plus a wonderful sounding collection of funny ghost stories from Jerome K. Jerome – just right for the cold dark nights!🙂

Penguin Modern Poets 6 – Jack Clemo, Edward Lucie-Smith, George MacBeth

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The sharp-eyed amongst you will have notice that once again I have got behind on my reading of the Penguin Modern Poets series. I plead in my defence that life has been getting in the way and also there have been a significant number of review books lately…. Be that as it may, I finally had a little gap recently in which to pick up volume 6 and so here are my thoughts on it.

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The three poets in this volume are Jack Clemo, Edward Lucie-Smith and George MacBeth. The former is a writer completely new to me; I’ve heard of the second; and I’m pretty sure I read the third at school. However, as that was a long, long time ago, I came to this book with no preconceptions at all, which is what I’ve been doing with many of these volumes, and it’s been stimulating to read the poems ‘cold’.

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First up was Jack Clemo (11 March 1916 – 25 July 1994).  A Cornish poet inspired by the landscape of his country and by a strong religious belief inherited from his mother, he suffered from early loss of sight and hearing. I have to be very honest here and say I didn’t like his work at all. In fact, he’s probably the poet I’ve liked least of all I’ve read in this series so far. His poetry is dense and bleak, shot through with visions of clayey landscape and religious imagery to which I found it difficult to relate. There was little I could get a handle on, and in fact many of the motifs seemed to be repeated over and over again in a way that completely lost my interest. So I think Clemo’s poetry is definitely not for me, and I moved on swiftly to the next in the book.

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It’s possible I might have read Edward Lucie-Smith (born 27 February 1933) at school, as we studied a *lot* of poetry when I was in Grammar School – but as my reaction to him this time wasn’t particularly positive, I imagine I would have forgotten him fairly quickly. The poems are almost chronological, drawing from his early childhood in the tropics, through what are presumably school and college days with the attendant sports, to later poems which often drawn on artistic inspiration. I didn’t warm to these at all and once again moved on in hope!

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And the final poet, the Scottish George MacBeth (19 January 1932 – 16 February 1992), was one I enjoyed much, much more. His poems are memorable and quite dark – drawing on imagery of concentration camps, imprisonment and trials. I can’t recall which of his works we studied at school, but with the kind of education we were having, we did look quite deeply at this kind of literature, still being within fairly recent memory of WW2 and all its horrors. Interestingly, the poet provided a short coda at the end of the book in the form of notes to his poems, which was really interesting, clarifying his subject matter – and I think this is something that certainly the more dense poems of any writer could do with, as so often the subject and meaning can be obscure and the reader can get lost trying to untangle them!

I think it’s worth reminding myself at this point that the verse featured in these books isn’t necessarily representative of each poet’s work as a whole; in many cases they continued writing for a long time after publication of these volumes. However, had I encountered this book in my youth I think it might rather have put me off poetry a little… So choosing a favourite won’t be easy. The poem that spoke to me most was probably the chilling “Report to the Director”, in which a functionary reports on the efficiency of a centre for torture – it could be a concentration camp or a more modern site, that’s not made clear. The language is matter-of-fact, showing how the most horrible things can become ordinary – Hannah Arendt’s “The Banality of Evil”, maybe? I won’t quote it all here, but I’d recommend searching it out if you can.

So, not the most satisfying of Penguin Modern Poets collections this time. Hopefully, the next one will be a bit more enjoyable and stimulating…

Literature as a business

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New Grub Street by George Gissing

I suppose I’m not alone amongst readers and book bloggers in having a rather romantic view of the author, picturing them sitting in a beautiful study, pen in hand, waiting to be visited by the muse and then pour out wonderful words to enchant us. Or at least to type them onto the computer for the same effect. However, that’s rather naive of me really, as writing has always been a business, and a lovely new edition of George Gissing’s “New Grub Street” from OUP really hammers that home!

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George Gissing (1857 – 1903) was an English writer who produced quite a number of novels and short stories, a surprising amount of which appear to have been published posthumously. It’s clear from a quick glance at his biography that he struggled to make a living from his writing, supplementing his income with teaching, and so I approached this book expecting it to come from the heart.

Published in 1891, the title of the book refers back to Grub Street, an area in London previously known as the home of hack writers, poets and minor publishers; it was referred to by Samuel Johnson in his dictionary and the term came to denote writers and writings of no literary value. Gissing takes that concept and brings it into his modern world, telling us the story of a pair of writers who are diametrically opposed in their character and outlook.

Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skilful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets.

We first meet Jasper Milvain, a somewhat cynical young man trying to make his way as a journalist and regarding writing as simply a career and the way to make money (although he isn’t doing that very successfully at the moment…). His friend Edwin Reardon is a novelist with talent; however, his books are not selling and he’s made an unsuitable marriage so things are not going well for him.

Circling these two are the extended friends and family: Milvain’s two sisters, as dependent on his widowed mother as Jasper is himself; and the Yule clan, including Amy (who has become Reardon’s wife), her cousin Marian, and their respective fathers. Jasper becomes entranced by Marian; Amy is regretting her marriage to Edwin. Alfred Yule, Marian’s father, is a writer of sorts himself, with a little influence in literary circles and with many ongoing feuds; his brother John, uncle to both girls, is completely anti-intellectual, preferring instead to rabidly promote sport and healthy outlets. Ironically, his love of the outdoors has rendered him an invalid.

So we watch the Milvains and the Yules attempt to navigate the world, the real one as well as the literary one; the action moves from the country to London, where the Milvain girls befriend Marian. Characters fall in and out of love, marriages break up and new alliances form, all against a background of literature in its highest and lowest forms. Money is seen to be the motivating factor in most of the relationships and though certain characters end up together, it’s never quite clear whether this is because of emotion or necessity.

“New Grub Street” was a fascinating read, if a little unsettling at times! I found myself quite shocked at the cynical attitude of many of the characters, particularly Jasper, who coldly discusses the selling of words for money, or the necessity of marrying a rich wife. In fact, Jasper wasn’t likeable in many respects, sponging off his mother’s small legacy and diminishing the amount she and his sisters had to live on to support his literary endeavours.

Gissing, sporting a jolly fine moustache...

Gissing, sporting a jolly fine moustache…

The book also catches women at a kind of cusp – as the author points out, the Milvain girls would have had much less education 20 years before and would have been satisfied with a simple life. As it is, they had been educated, which put them in a slightly different class from those with whom they were mixing , and they hadn’t yet reached the time of full emancipation. Despite their education, marriage ends up being the only long-term solution to their problems.

But the recurring theme of money *is* an important one, particularly for the struggling writer (and it’s one that Orwell picked up on later when he praised Gissing). To take that step into writing is to give up all chance of a regular income and any kind of living wage, unless you become a bestseller with all the compromises that implies. It’s a dichotomy that probably hasn’t changed since Gissing’s time, particularly in our modern era when publishing has become so much easier, but the flooded market means that picking out the good from the bad is increasingly complex.

“New Grub Street” made fascinating reading. Gissing’s style is eminently readable, and as usual with Oxford Classics the book is beautifully presented, with copious notes, an excellent introduction and supporting material. As the notes flag up, many of the experiences that Milvain and Reardon have reflect the issues that beset Gissing during his writing life, and it’s fascinating to consider whether either author (or maybe both!) is something of a pen self-portrait.

I’ve intended to read Gissing for some time, as his book “The Odd Women” has been lurking with the Viragos on Mount TBR for goodness knows how long. However, it took the push of this nice new edition to get me picking up his work and a very enjoyable and thought-provoking read it was – so hopefully it won’t be too long before I pick up another one of his works!

Review copy kindly provided by Oxford World Classics, for which many thanks!

An unexpected tale from Stefan Zweig

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german-literature-month-vi

Back in the summer of 2015 I was fortunate to stumble on a pair of lovely Pushkin Collection volumes of Stefan Zweig stories – “The Governess and other stories” and “Wondrak and other stories”. I read a story from each and then, typically for me, popped them on a shelf to read later. Roll on nearly 18 months, and I came across them whilst I was reshuffling a few books, and thought that I should at least give Zweig some reading time during German Literature Month!I recalled flipping through “The Governess…”, and the first story in that volume (“Did He Do It?”) is a really intriguing and unexpected one for a tale from Zweig; so I thought I would re-read it and see what I thought second time round.

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Unusually, the story is set in England, near Bath to be precise, and it’s narrated by a lady called Betsy. She opens her tale with the bald statement that she’s sure that “he” is the murderer – who “he” is and who was killed is left to be revealed as the story progresses, but it’s a dramatic opening guaranteed to ensnare the reader from the very start!

Betsy and her husband have retired to a little cottage in the area, near a canal, and are enjoying their rest. Their tranquillity is ruffled a little by the arrival of some neighbours, the Limpseys, who build a love nest nearby. The Limpseys have been married for some years, and it’s clear from early on that it’s the husband John who dominates. An overenthusiastic man with no restraint, he throws himself into situations and relationships, exhausting those around him with his over-the-top zeal – it’s clear he has an abundance of energy which needs an outlet! His poor wife is overwhelmed and in many ways secretly happy when he’s away at work.

The couple are childless and Betsy makes the mistake of procuring a pet dog for them, given the name of Ponto. Needless to say, Limpsey throws himself into pet ownership, so much so that before long it’s the dog that rules the roost in the household and the neighbours are actually quite happy that he has an aversion to them. However, life for the Limpseys takes another odd turn, one which will have a dramatic effect on Ponto and then tragic results for his owners themselves. More than that I cannot say without risking ruining the story for you.

What could be a straightforward, whodunnit-ish type of tale is transformed here in the hands of a master storyteller. This is less of a mystery than a psychological study – of the relationships between man and animal, of the dangers of unchecked behaviour and of the consequences of extreme emotions. The portrait of Ponto’s temperament, changing from devotion to dominance through abandonment and then malevolence is impressive, and he becomes the central character of the story.

Zweig with Lotte and neice Eva in Bath - 1940

Zweig with Lotte and niece Eva in Bath – 1940

I love Stefan Zweig’s writing, and this was something of a departure – but a fascinating one! In a short work he can pack in so much and his narrative voice, as a retired Englishwoman, was entirely convincing (apparently Zweig did live near Bath for a while). “Did He Do It?” was further evidence of Zweig’s talent (if that was needed!) and I constantly find myself wondering why he was ignored for so many years. If you haven’t yet read Zweig, I highly recommend you do – you have so many treats in store!

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