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On taking a little break from books (but not from reading!)

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That’s a heading that sounds a little alarming, and I confess that I’m actually struggling a bit with reading at the moment. It’s not so much the reading of the books when I actually get going, it’s settling on what I want to actually read – I’ve started several recently and discarded them almost straight away because the mood just doesn’t seem right.

(Image courtesy Cafepress)

(Image courtesy Cafepress)

I wonder: have I overdone it and exhausted my brain a little? I’ve certainly read many volumes over recent weeks, so much so that I have quite a reviewing backlog. Usually, flinging myself into the nearest book tends to work but it hasn’t recently, and I’ve had a few disappointments too, so perhaps something radical is needed.

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Therefore, having just finished the Penelope Lively I picked up at the weekend (and jolly good it was too – review will follow!) I think I might spend a day or two reading Slightly Foxed – I have part of the last issue and the lovely new one which arrived today, and it may be that some shorter non-fiction pieces will do the trick.

Here’s hoping that the reader’s block goes and normal service is resumed asap! :s

Haunted by the Past

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The Search Warrant by Patrick Modiano

When French author Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, there was quite a flurry in the media, as many people had neither heard of him or read his work – and I confess I fall into that category! However, I’m always keen to widen my horizons when it comes to literature, and so I was very pleased to pick up a copy of his book “The Search Warrant” on one of my recent trips to Foyles.

search

The book’s original French title is “Dora Bruder”, the name of the character who occupies much of the narrative. The author spots a missing ad in an old copy of Paris Soir from 1941, stating that a 15-year-old girl called by that name has gone missing. This was in the middle of the Nazi occupation of France and the girl had run away from her convent school in a freezing cold December, and the author, familiar with the area, begins to investigate, trying to find out about Dora and her life and what happened to her. Interspersed with this narrative are vignettes from his life, points where he might have intersected with Dora and people who knew her. The trail widens a little to take in the lives of others living under the Nazis and although the author finds out much about Dora and her fate, he will never know everything.

A short description like that really doesn’t do justice to this slim book, however. Modiano’s writing is superb, slipping between several different points in time, and capturing the harshness and uncertainty of life under Nazi occupation. For of course Dora was Jewish, and therefore her fate becomes somewhat inevitable. In deceptively simple prose, Modiano not only tells Dora’s story but also that of many others who suffered and died until you realise he’s actually making a big point about the brutality and arbitrary horror of the Nazi regime.

I was intrigued, too, to find myself reading another book billed as fiction where it was unclear as to whether the author/narrator is Modiano or a fictional author standing between the author and the reader. I believe that many of Modiano’s fictions have this effect, of the blending of real and imaginary, and an interesting foreword to another collection of his stories quoted him as saying that his novels are “a kind of autobiography, but one that is dreamed-up or imaginary. Even the photographs of my parents have become portraits of imaginary characters.”

modiano

I find this fascinating, particularly as parts of TSW explore Modiano’s somewhat troubled relationship with his father, who also had problems under Nazi occupation. It may be that Modiano uses his fictions to work out parts of his past, but nevertheless the book is gripping, with its exploration of the past and its speculation on how lives intersect. The final impact of the book is powerful with the realisation of just how many Parisians were affected by the occupation and also how it still seems to touch modern generations. I often have the feeling that the French people are still haunted by the war and the occupation, and certainly it does seem to inform a lot of their modern fiction.

This was a very thought-provoking read, and one I’ve kept returning to long after finishing it. On the strength of this book, I can certainly see why Modiano won the Nobel, and I’ll be interested in reading more of his work.

Little Black Lovelies!

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I have (rather sadly) spent most of this week in a state of great excitement about the impending publication of the Penguin Little Black Classics – 80 volumes at 80p each to celebrate 80 years of Penguin Classics. There’s a remarkably wide of range of authors represented, including many of my favourites, and so I’ve been keen to get my hands on some!

Penguin-330x330I was also very keen to buy them at a proper bookshop, rather than online, so I popped into my local Waterstones last week to find out if they would be stocking them. They told me they were going to be stocking the whole range – yay! – and when I went in today they’d done a wonderful display on the first floor next to the fiction section – I wish I’d had my camera on me, but anyway, well done Ipswich Waterstones!

I confess I came home with several of them – and I could have happy picked up the lot! – but here are the ones I chose:

black stackAnd here they are, all spread out:

black flat

The top row is Russians (of course!) – Tolstoy, Leskov, Chekhov, Turgenev, Dostoevsky and Gogol.

The middle row is English language writers – Conrad, Darwin, Whitman, Wharton and Pepys.

And the bottom row is Japanese/Chinese authors – Basho, Kenko, Shen Fu and Pu Songling.

They’re beautiful little books, worth 80p of anyone’s money – and I suspect more of them might make their way into the Ramblings before too much longer…

As for other weekend purchases – well, I was restrained:

lively

A nice hardback of “A House Unlocked” by Penelope Lively – I’ve read all her children’s books and have several adult ones on Mount TBR – but this was only 50p and sounded fascinating!

So today has been a very happy bookish Saturday! :)

A Russian Snapshot

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Twilight of the Eastern Gods by Ismail Kadare

I guess most readers will have had that thing where a book or an author keeps floating into your line of vision, until you just think that you better get on and read it so it stops bothering you! I had that last year with this book, which turned up regularly on my Big River recommendations, as well as on a number of blogs I was following. So when I stumbled on a nice hardback copy for £2 in an Oxfam shop just off the King’s Road, picking it up was a no-brainer.

Twilight of the eastern gods

Ismail Kadare is an Albanian poet and author, and “Twilight” is based on his experiences in Moscow in the 1950s. He spent time at the prestigious Gorky Institute for World Literature and was there at the time of the “Dr. Zhivago” scandal – when Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, while his novel could not even be published in the Soviet Union! So, ideal reading material for me, really…

The book opens with our unnamed narrator having a holiday at a writer’s retreat in Riga, on the Baltic. As he’s a young man, naturally much of his time is taken up with thoughts of girls – his beloved Lida Snegina, whom he’d been seeing in Moscow, plus a local beauty who reminds him of Lida. He befriends the local girl, telling her of the Albanian legend of Constantin and Doruntine, whereby a dead boy returns to bring his sister home for a celebration, fulfilling his promise to his mother. The legend informs the rest of the story and recurs throughout, in strange ways.

On the narrator’s return to Moscow, we are pitched into an unsettling and unstable world. Soviet Russia in the 1950s place was not an easy place to be, with its shifting loyalties, and the narrator soon comes to suspect that Albania may not be a favourite country with the authorities for much longer. He drinks and parties; fails to reconnect with Lida and tells his friend to have her instead, telling her he’s dead; and in a deserted part of the dormitory building he lives in, he stumbles across some samizdat pages of a book called “Dr. Zhivago”…

Shortly after this, Pasternak is awarded the Nobel Prize and a media storm erupts (not unlike a modern Twitter-storm, except this is in the form of radio and newspapers). The narrator is already disillusioned with the factory-like methods at the institute, where all the books turned out are Socialist Realist pap portraying idyllic peasants; therefore, he’s not really surprised at the reaction of the authorities. As the anti-Pasternak campaign howls through Russia like a Siberian wind, the young man lives a kind of precarious half-life, waiting to see whether he will have to leave Moscow and whether he can resolve the situation with Lida.

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If I’m honest, I’m finding hard to decide what to say about this book; I wanted to like it a lot more than I did, but I ended up thinking that it was too fragmented, not coherent enough. The mix of the Albanian legends and the narrator’s odd relationship with Lida didn’t sit that well alongside the narrative about Soviet literature, and the Pasternak element was actually quite minor; almost something of an aside. I did enjoy reading “Twilight” but I didn’t really feel any link with the characters, and in many ways where this book worked best for me was in its portrait of the Moscow students and literati of the time. Many of the characters are based on people who were really at the Institute with Kadare, and many were real Russians like Yevtuschenko. It might be that this story would have worked better as a simple memoir of Kadare’s student years, but as it was things didn’t quite gel for me.

Nevertheless there was plenty that was enjoyable in the book (excellently translated, as usual, by David Bellos who also provides an essential foreword). The writing is lovely and Kadare is really good at catching the atmosphere of a place or time. He also captures the uncertainty of 1950s Moscow quite brilliantly, with the narrator’s insecurity, the never quite knowing what’s going to happen next. I’m glad I’ve read Kadare and I do have another of his works on the TBR – so maybe a further volume will change my mind!

A Japanese Trio

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Back in the day (well, the 1990s/early 2000s – not quite so far back as my First Big Reads in the 1980s!) I went through what OH called my Japanese Period, when I was fairly obsessed with the country, its literature and its art. I read stacks of books by and about Mishima, drank plenty of tea and covered the walls with Japanese prints. It’s a hankering that still comes back to me periodically, and it was rekindled recently by my little post on Richard Brautigan’s birthday. He was a real lover of Japan and its culture (and its women!!) and I felt the need to dig out some Japanese titles I hadn’t read yet. In fact, rummaging among the shelves of Japanese books was an enjoyable and therapeutic exercise, and I ended up picking out and reading three different books: “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Basho; “Of Love and Barley – Haiku of Basho”; and “The Book of Tea” by Kakuzo Okakura. The haiku book is one I’ve had for a long time; the tea book was a Christmas gift; and I sent off for the “Narrow Road” because I just liked the sound of it!

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches by Basho

narrow road

Matsuo Basho is widely regarded as the greatest master of haiku, and Wikipedia says of him “Matsuo Bashō (?1644 – 1694) was the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan. During his lifetime, Bashō was recognized for his works in the collaborative haikai no renga form; today, after centuries of commentary, he is recognized as the greatest master of haiku (then called hokku). Matsuo Bashō’s poetry is internationally renowned; and, in Japan, many of his poems are reproduced on monuments and traditional sites.”

However, as well as a poet he was also an inveterate wanderer, and this collection brings together several brief travel sketches. Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa, who also provides a very informative introduction, the book contains five pieces; from Basho’s earliest travellings in “The Records of a Weather Exposed Skeleton”, to the title work where his art had reached its highest point. Each is a mixture of prose and haiku, with the most successful being when the transition between the two is seamless, evoking the journey and its emotional effect on the traveller.

Intriguingly, the translator renders the haiku in a four-line, stanza form, rather than the more usual three-line format. He explains that the rhythms of the stanza would seem more natural to the English-speaking reader and that his book is more for lovers of poetry than for scholarly study – which is a lovely idea, and certainly I’m not going to go all purist about it.

It was the middle of April when I wandered out to the beach of Suma. The sky was slightly overcast, and the moon on a short night of early summer had special beauty. The mountains were dark with foliage. When I thought it was about time to hear the first voice of the cuckoo, the light of the sun touched the eastern horizon, and as it increased, I began to see on the hills of Ueno ripe ears of wheat tinged with reddish brown and fishermen’s huts scattered here and there among the flowers of white poppy.

At sunrise I saw
Tanned faces of fisherman
Among the flowers
Of white poppy.

The prose is spare, yet evocative, putting the haiku into context and showing us how Basho would take a moment of existence and capture it beautifully in a few lines. A lovely, slim volume with some beautiful, memorable imagery.

Of Love and Barley – Haiku of Basho

barley

I picked this book up ages ago, but after reading Basho’s travel writing I wanted to read more of his haiku, and this collection has them rendered in the more traditional three-line format. Translated by Lucien Stryk, the book also has an excellent introduction by him which did a lot to help me understand the purpose of haiku which in turn helped me read and enjoy this book so much more. As Stryk says:

So the poet presents an observation of a natural, often commonplace event, in plainest diction, without verbal trickery. The effect is one of spareness, yet the reader is aware of a microcosm related to transcendent unity. A moment crystallized, distilled, snatched from time’s flow, and that is enough. All suggestion and implication, the haiku event is held precious because, in part, it demands the reader’s participation: without a sensitive audience it would appear unimpressive.

Certainly, these short but lovely haiku *do* capture the fleeting moments of life and perhaps are also useful in slowing us down a little, making us more mindful of our surroundings, of the everyday simple things which make up our life. In these days of mass media, constant distractions from gadgets and social media, and all the pressures of modern living, we certainly need all the help we can get to remember what it is to be human!

Moonlit plum tree –
wait,
spring will come.

The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura

book of tea

The third of my Japanese books was a Christmas gift from Eldest Child, picked from my wishlist. I can’t actually recall where I stumbled across mention of it, but I like tea and I like Japan, so I guess those things were instrumental in my choice!

Okakura himself sounds a fascinating character; given a Western education when young, he didn’t actually start to learn anything about his traditional culture until he was 11. He travelled the world, lived in India and America, and was something of a cultural ambassador for Japan. The book was written in English, and although it purports to be a study of Japanese tea culture (or “Teaism” as he jokingly call it) it’s actually a lot more. Okakura uses the format of his book to sneak in a number of observations about the differences between East and West, as well as providing a study of Japanese culture as a whole – its religions, its aesthetics and its attitudes to life, love and war.

Those of us who know not the secret of properly regulating our own existence on this tumultuous sea of foolish troubles which we call life are constantly in a state of misery while vainly trying to appear happy and contented. We stagger in the attempt to keep our moral equilibrium, and see forerunners of the tempest in every cloud that floats on the horizon. Yet there is joy and beauty in the rolls of the billows as they sweep outward toward eternity. Why not enter into their spirit or, like Liehtse, ride upon the hurricane itself?

There’s some beautiful, thought-provoking writing in this deceptively slim volume, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone wanting to explore the Japanese soul.

Reading these three volumes in succession was a wonderful experience; if I can’t travel in real life, at least I can do so in books, and my recent visit to Japan was a joy! :)

Eccentrics and Long-Forgotten Stories

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Bright Particular Stars by David McKie

One of the things I love about OH is his unfailing ability to find me unusual and interesting books – in fact, it was owing to his relating a recommendation from a work colleague many decades ago that I first read Italo Calvino! He (OH, that is) came up trumps at Christmas time as well, by presented me with this intriguing-sounding book that turned out to be an excellent read.

bright partic

“Bright Particular Stars” is a collection of 26 chapters, each containing the tale of a Great British Eccentric and the Place They Were Attached To – or something along those lines! Author David McKie is a former Guardian editor and obviously has a love of Great Britain and some of the individuals the nation has produced. So we get stories of people like G.F. Muntz who encouraged the cult of the bushy beard to great effect during the reign of Queen Victoria (an attempt to establish masculinity under a female monarch, apparently!); Garibaldi’s visit to the UK which was perceived as a danger to the nation because of the support he had from the working classes; and Victorian bibliomaniac Sir Thomas Phillipps who nurtured dreams of possessing every book in the world:

Don Juan in pursuit of some ravishing beauty was a model of self-denial compared with Sir Thomas on the trail of some lusted-for book or manuscript. The word bibliophile fell hopelessly short of describing his condition. Some called him a bibliomaniac. Sir Thomas himself went further. He described his disease as ‘vello-mania’, since manuscripts and every kind of original document were a part of his addiction too. He could never resist a purchase.

I kind of know how he felt…. :)

However, I have to say that I thought the description of the book as a “Gallery of Glorious Eccentrics” was in fact a little misleading, and didn’t actually do the book justice. There are some quite dark stories here, like the one about the factory children of Tideswell and the dreadful privations they suffered; and the rather strange religion of the Jezreels in Gillngham.

As well as the crazies and the cruelties, there are also some really inspiring stories of those who’ve gone the extra mile to improve things for their fellow human beings, like Mary Macarthur, a trade unionist who fought to improve the lot of woman chain-makers; and Adelaide Proctor who helped women train as typesetters. Then, of course, there are the out-and-out eccentrics, like Peter Warlock, known to ride naked round the village of Eynsford on a motorbike…

Author David McKie

Author David McKie

This was such an enjoyable read! I confess to being a bit of a fan of programmes like “Coast”, full of bite-sized, informative pieces about places round the UK and in some ways this was like a book version of that! McKie certainly knows his stuff, and there were some quite moving moments while he was visiting the places in his essays and reflecting on the history and events that had taken place there. The piece on Scottish self-taught geologist and writer Hugh Miller was particularly effective.

“Bright Particular Stars” is a wonderfully dippable, very entertaining read and was a great joy to read during dark and dull January nights. Another winner from OH! :)

The Joy of Library Sales! (and of course charity shops…)

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It’s been an odd sort of week at the Ramblings – mostly because I chose to spend the bulk of the half-term break being ill with some kind of flu-like virus. I was not amused, but at least I seem to be coming out of it – just in time to return to work!

I also got a *lot* of reading done before the illness really kicked in (reviews to folllow) and then hit a slump, which I am only just coming out of – I didn’t much like it when I was in it, though. And it was also a week in which no new books arrived – until today, that is…

I felt well enough to pop into town and return a library book; only to find that the library were having a little book sale. This is often an excuse for wild abandon and mass book buying, but I *was* restrained, picking up just two:

beauvoir zweig

I was most chuffed with the Stefan Zweig – I already have Buchmendel, but not the other story, and having been bowled over by “The Grand Budapest Hotel” recently, I feel ready to read more Zweig. I already own the Beauvoir, but this copy comes with extra material at the end. And it was 50p for two books, so there you go!

As for the charity shops, I wasn’t intending to visit them today, but I slipped into the British Heart Foundation as last week they’d been moving their bookshelves around and so I couldn’t browse. The newly tidied shelves had one volume that caught my eye:

mystery in white

This particular volume of the British Library Crime Classics has been highly rated by many bloggers I respect, so I was happy to part with my £2 for a copy in brilliant condition!

And last, but definitely not least, I thought I’d show my face in the Samaritans Book Cave – a place where I could happy pick up umpteen books – and came away with two wonderful Virago titles:

miniver robertson

I was particularly pleased with these because they’re original green covers and they’re in fabulous condition – the Samaritans peeps opined that they looked unread, and I’d agree; they’re just a little tanned on the pages with age, but the covers are lovely. The peeps were saying they hadn’t had many Viragos in lately (they know of my love of them!) and so it was an extra delight to find these. I’ve actually read “Mrs Miniver” in a modern cover version, so it was nice to get a green. And I own a different E. Arnot Robertson (an author who strongly divides Virago readers!) so was a great find.

So the week ends well, with some lovely new acquisitions to make up for a dullish, illish few days – off to do some reading! :)

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