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Literary Blog Hop – The Results!

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Firstly, thank you all so much for taking part in this and for your lovely suggestions – there are some great sounding books there that I will be following up!
To choose the winners of the books, all the names were put in a big plastic bag and three were drawn out for me by Youngest Child at random (after much shaking of the bag and mixing in the names!) – and the winners are:

The Good Soldier – Kristia

All Passion Spent – Zsuzsanna

The Booklover’s Companion – Birgit

I will be emailing the winners to get their contact details and sending the books off soon. I wish I could have given out books to everyone, but I did enjoy the Blog Hop and here’s to the next one!

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Recent Reads: Wings by Mikhail Kuzmin

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This slim Hesperus volume had been sitting on my tbr for ages – I was attracted by the fact that it was by a Russian author I hadn’t heard of and that Hesperus had felt the need to publish it! So as I couldn’t decide what to read, I kind of went for this as a holding operation.


Mikhail Kuzmin was a prominent Russian poet at the turn of the last century so I do feel rather ashamed that I hadn’t come across him before. His novel “Wings” tells the story of a naive young man, Vanya Smurov, who after the death of his mother, travels to Russia to live with family. He finds a mentor in the form of Stroop, an older, somewhat mysterious man who several female characters seem to be in love with but who maintains a lofty distance. They discuss aesthetics, beauty and art, and Vanya is drawn to Stroop on an intellectual and emotional level. However, he struggles with the issue of the physical – and when he comes upon evidence of a full-blooded relationship with Fyodor, Stroop’s ‘manservant’ (which has dramatic results for other characters) he flees with his classics tutor to Italy. Here, after a lot of soul-searching and discussion, Vanya encounters Stroop again – but is he ready to take the final step and accept the full range of his feelings?

This is an unusual little volume. The format of the novel is very singular – normal linear narrative, explanation and back story are almost absent and we learn things simply in a series of short vignettes, most only a page and a half in length. A wide array of characters drift past us, beautifully portrayed in a few words – Kuzmin is very adept at conveying a lot in a few words. And the story is not hard to follow, although much of it is told by implication, rather than directly.

As for the subject matter itself, which is basically the tale of Vanya coming to terms with the physical homosexual act – that could be discussed for hours, frankly. Much is made of the Greeks and the Romans, and it could be argued that in a sense the various characters are ‘grooming’ Vanya to make the final step. Is he discovering his true nature, or would his nature be different in another set of circumstances? There is a pivotal point in the book where one of the female characters, Maria Dimitriyevna, throws herself at Vanya and he is disgusted and repels her – this is obviously a defining moment in his recognition of his true feelings.

But as a woman and a feminist there were elements of this book that irritated me – there is a negativity about women (which I suppose may be inevitable from a gay writer) and a callousness in their treatment. They are dismissed as worthless – relationships between men and women are portrayed as base and coarse, whereas those between men as heavenly – hence Stroop’s instruction to Vanya near the end of the book: “One more effort, and you’ll grow wings. I can already see them.” Despite the era in which it was written, and the fact that Kuzmin was undoubtedly brave in tackling such a subject publicly in a homophobic society, I still feel a little uncomfortable with the treatment of the women in the book.

Putting those niggles aside, the book is beautifully written and I did enjoy reading it. But I don’t think it’s a volume I would necessarily return to again.

Literary Blog Hop 27th – 30th October: Giveaway Time!

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I’m very pleased to be taking part in the Literary Giveaway Blog Hop organised by Leeswammes! I’ve seen a few of these but this is the first one I’ve had a chance to take part in, and I do like an excuse to give away books.

I’m going to be offering 3 freebies as pictured below (and please excuse the somewhat rubbish photos!):

First up is “All Passion Spent” by Vita Sackville-West. Reckoned by many to be her best work, this is a nice Virago edition. It is pre-owned but is in really great condition and you’d hardly know apart from a bit of tanning on the page block!

Next up is a brand new Wordsworth Classics edition of Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier”. FMF has been much in the news lately after the BBC adaptation of “Parade’s End”. “The Good Soldier” is shorter and a little more manageable! (My copy is gradually edging towards the top of my tbr). I rather like the look of the new, black covered Wordsworth Classics, don’t you?

Finally, some non-fiction – an intriguing little book (brand new copy again) called “The Book Lovers’ Companion”. This contains good ideas of What To Read Next – with little summaries and suggestions of books ranging from “Mary Barton” to “Cloud Atlas”.  Ideal for any book lover I should think!

So how can your get your hands on one of these? Well, I’ve realised recently that my major book loves are all from the 20th century (mainly before 1980). So if  you’d like to win one of these three lovelies, please leave a comment below with a suggestion of a 20th century volume that I might like and might not have heard of! Winners will be picked at random and if you would prefer one particular book, please say so! I’m happy to send to overseas places, but this will be by surface mail due to horrid UK postal costs.  Looking forward to hearing your suggestions!

Here are all the lovely bloggers taking part in the giveaway:

  1. Leeswammes
  2. Read in a Single Sitting
  3. Ephemeral Digest
  4. My Devotional Thoughts
  5. Devouring Texts
  6. Tony’s Reading List
  7. Nishita’s Rants and Raves
  8. Too Fond
  9. The Parrish Lantern
  10. Kristi Loves Books
  11. The Book Club Blog
  12. Sam Still Reading
  13. Silver’s Reviews (USA)
  14. Bibliosue
  15. Heavenali
  16. Under My Apple Tree
  17. Misfortune of Knowing (North America)
  18. Lena Sledge’s Blog
  19. Lost Generation Reader
  20. Seaside Book Nook
  21. The Relentless Reader
  22. Rikki’s Teleidoscope
  23. Monique Morgan
  24. That READioactive Book Blog
  25. kaggsysbookisahramblings
  26. Ragdoll Books Blog
  27. Kate’s Library
  28. The Book Garden
  29. Uniflame Creates
  30. Curiosity Killed The Bookworm
  1. Ciska’s Book Chest
  2. The Book Divas Reads
  3. Alex in Leeds
  4. Simple Clockwork
  5. Bluestalking (USA)
  6. Fresh Ink Books
  7. Sweeping Me
  8. Giraffe Days
  9. Escape With Dollycas Into A Good Book (USA)
  10. Books Thoughts Adventures (USA)
  11. emmalikestoread
  12. Colorimetry
  13. Page Plucker
  14. Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity
  15. 2606 Books and Counting
  16. Book Nympho
  17. She-Wolf Reads
  18. The Little Reader Library (Europe)
  19. Booklover Book Reviews
  20. Dolce Bellezza

Recent Reads: Crazy Pavements by Beverley Nichols

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I must confess I’d never heard of Beverley Nichols till I stumbled across an intriguing review of this book on the rather wonderful Reading 1900-1950 blog. Of course, having recently read Bright Young People, I now know a lot more about the author and it seems he had quite a varied and interesting career. But I felt that “Crazy Pavements” was worth a read, particularly as it seemed to be early criticism of the BYP and also to have prefigured much of Evelyn Waugh’s work.

Our protagonist is a young man called Brian Elme. Brian is a gossip columnist who blags his way through his daily routine by making up stories about the glitterati (in those days the aristocracy) which they are too stupid or too far away travelling round the world to care about. He shares rooms with Walter (an ex-Naval officer) and they live a happy, if impoverished, life together. But Brian is entranced by the distant image of the beautiful Lady Julia Cressey and things start to go horribly wrong when their paths actually cross. The rather naive Brian is taken up by Julia and her group as an antidote to their ennui. He is drawn into a dark, corrupt world of vapid people who drink, drug and party all night long and are empty, emotionless shells. Will he survive or will he be tainted and then destroyed by them?

For a book written with such a light touch, this novel deals with some pretty heavy stuff! The corrupt, aristocratic world which Brian enters is portrayed very graphically for the time – there are constant cocktails, drug taking, sexual predators (in particular Anne Hardcastle, a grotesquely voracious older woman), plastic surgery: you name it, it’s there. Well, apart from one thing – homosexuality is obviously a huge subtext here but is not mentioned by name, only implication. This is understandable because it was illegal in the 1920s, but the relationship between Walter and Brian really can’t be properly understood in any other terms, and similarly with Lord William Motley and Maurice Cheyne.

Nichols is scathing about his characters – the descriptions of the way that Ann Hardcastle’s face has been sculpted into shape are disturbing, and his dissection of Maurice’s personality is similarly harsh. Lord William comes closest to recognising the truth about the way the group really are with his private collection of masks. These reveal, in a kind of Dorian Gray way, the personalities beneath the facade that the party-goers wear and he seems to be a surprisingly astute judge of character. His mask of Brian reveals a handsome but weak young man, and indeed Brian comes close to losing himself completely to decadence during the book.

Julia Cressey is something of a sad figure, totally unable to experience or express any emotion. She briefly falls in love with Brian and has a night of anguish wrestling with an emotion she is unused to dealing with, but she cannot sustain this and quickly returns to her old ways. There are some quite shocking scenes at the end where Julia’s behaviour descends into the horrible depravity of trying to persuade Brian to give himself to Anne Hardcastle as Anne is blackmailing her. Brian is suitably disgusted and this episode spells an end to his love of Julia.

Nichols drew strongly on the real lives and events of the Bright Young People, and a pivotal moment of the book is the party based on the real Second Childhood Party, where the guests attend dressed as infants. As behaviour degenerates, both Brian and Julia realise how preposterous the whole situation is and how foolish their way of life.

But the book is surprisingly readable for all of the unpleasantness it portrays. Nichols’ style is engaging – as a narrator he is very witty and keeps breaking off to address the reader. There is a lot of humour, though it’s humour with bite, and it’s hard not to get involved with the characters. The ending is perhaps a little trite, but I feel that maybe Nichols wasn’t quite sure how to resolve things for Brian. I guess love will conquer all is the message, although the kind of love harks back to the subtext! In fact, in later life Nichols stated, “Of course Brian and Walter were lovers, and Lady Julia was based on one of those predatory young queens who collects conquests like scalp-hunters collect scalps,” but in the 1920s he could not have been so outspoken.

One finds oneself wondering what Nichols’ contemporaries thought of the book – as he was one of the BYP himself, he was rather biting the hand that fed him. But from the point of view of literature, this is a nice little work and deserves more than its current forgotten status.

(As a side note, I’ve never come across Florin Books before but they seem to be lovely little volumes, and the list of other titles in the back makes me want to go off searching the Internet!)
* Lovely 1920s flappers from http://bumblebutton.blogspot.co.uk/

Recent Reads: Maigret’s Failure by Simenon

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One of my long-term mottoes is “If in doubt, read a crime Penguin” – and since I was undecided about what to read next, this seemed the best idea! The volume in question is a recent vintage green acquisition and is a middle-period Maigret (1950s).

The book opens with a beleaguered police departments suffering from flu, illness and staff shortages. As so often with Simenon’s books, the atmosphere comes alive and we feel as we are in a rainy, dull Paris suffering alongside the characters. The police department is investigating the disappearance of an Englishwoman on a coach trip, and finding absolutely no clues, when an old friend from school turns up needing help.

“Friend” is perhaps the wrong word. Fumal was known at school as “Fattie Fumal” and was not a popular boy. He has grown up into an unpleasant businessman, owning a large butchers conglomerate. To get to this point in his life he has made many enemies on the way and destroyed a number of other businesses. Now Fumal is receiving threatening letters and wants help and protection, so he uses his influence with politicians to pressurise Maigret into seeing him. But our detective has unhappy memories of his school days and the effect that Fumal’s father had on Maigret’s own father, so he is reluctant to help.

Needless to say, Fumal is murdered and Maigret finds himself wondering if he did enough to help the man. Battling the weather conditions and the illness in the department, Maigret investigates and finds a solution – so where is the failure of the title?

As this is a Simenon book, there is a lot more than just a straight detective story. There various players in the drama are revealed to have secret lives, past histories and things they don’t want Maigret to know. It seems that all of the members of Fumal’s household have a motive for the murder and it takes a lot of disentangling to find out who it was that actually committed the act.

This was an excellent Maigret – full of well drawn characters, intriguing and atmospheric. I realised while reading it that one of the things I like about Simenon is his economy of style. For example, a sentence like “Aren’t you having a car sent round?” enquired Madame Maigret, who made herself as small as possible on such occasions tells you all you need to know about Maigret’s state of mind on finding out that Fumal has been murdered.

And the failure? Well, it could be argued that Maigret feels he has failed Fumal by not preserving his life. But there is also failure in that the killer escapes and eludes capture; similarly, the missing Englishwomen is not found by the authorities. But Simenon gives us resolution in the last few pages and as usual with his novels, this was a satisfying read!

Wouldn’t you like to be a fly on the wall?

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Sylvia Plath Meets Elizabeth Bowen

(via the rather wonderful A Piece of Monologue blog)

Recent Reads: What’s become of Waring? by Anthony Powell

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Yes – I *know* I’m meant to be reading “A Dance to the Music of Time” by Anthony Powell, and I *know* this isn’t one of the books from the series – but it got a lot of referencing in “Bright Young People” and sounded quite fun, so I figured it might be a good way to get to know Powell’s style (well, that’s my excuse for buying another old Penguin and I’m sticking to it!)

Wikipedia describes the book thus:

“What’s Become of Waring” is set in large part in the publishing firm of Judkins and Judkins, and informed by Powell’s experiences with both Duckworth and Warner Brothers. Dinner parties and seances abound, featuring unusual and uncomfortable mixtures of guests. Coincidence, often noted as a significant feature of “Dance to the Music of Time”, here plays a larger role than in any of Powell’s other early fiction.

The novel is narrated by an anonymous publishing firm employee, who is himself working on a book about Stendhal and violence. At a séance, an apparent warning is received that something is wrong with bestselling travel writer, T.T. Waring. Waring, anticipating Thomas Pynchon in his insistence on privacy and anonymity, is soon confirmed dead. Through various efforts to bring out an official life of Waring, many secrets are slowly revealed, especially concerning Waring’s identity and the sources of his travel literature.”

This was Powell’s fifth novel, published in 1939 and was the first to feature a first-person narrator. We first encounter our unnamed guide (shall we call him Tony, just for the hell of it?!) as a disinterested wedding guest, where he runs into an old acquaintance, Eustace Bromwich. He knows Eustace through another mutual friend, Roberta Payne, who flits in and out of the story but is one of the pivotal characters, strongly influencing and affecting the other players in the book. Judkins and Judkins is run by the two brothers Bernard and Hugh, who are very amusingly at permanent loggerheads about the type of book they should publish (and just about everything else too!). We also meet Tiger Hudson, currently with the TA, and persuaded into researching the life of T.T. Waring; and the Pimley family of Camberley, including daughters Beryl (engaged to Tiger) and Winifred, plus ga-ga grandfather Captain Plimley who knows more than it seems.

The plot is surprisingly complex, with rapid shifts of location. With its deadpan, matter-of-fact narration, it initially reminded very much of “The Rock Pool” by Cyril Connolly, which I read recently – and this is interesting, because Connolly and Powell were of course contemporaries and ‘Bright Young People’. However, “Waring” is by far the better book, much wider in its scope and brilliantly constructed. It is, in fact, a marvel of assembly – there are a large number of characters and plot strands woven together very cleverly which are all drawn together by the author by the end of the book. ‘Tony’ is an impassive observer in many ways, often seemingly to be a still point in the middle of the tale, while a wonderful supporting cast of authors, spiritualists, army men and general hangers-on swirl around him. Somehow it turns out that all of these disparate figures are linked in very unexpected ways and towards the end of the book the coincidences are fast and furious and very funny.

The book is very cleverly written so that the reader often feels he or she can see what’s coming before the narrator. I was trying to analyse this and then found a wonderful piece of description of the effect on the emilybooks blog:
“….the feat of rendering a gap between what is understood by the narrator and what is understood by the reader. To my mind, this is one of the cleverest things a novelist can do. The writer has to create a blinkered narrator, deliberately limiting their knowledge, while at the same time dropping sufficient hints of the greater truth for the reader to grasp it. It’s a tough balance to get just right – not too obvious, not too obscure.

That nails Powell’s effect beautifully! But it isn’t just a clever-clever piece of literature – it’s humourous and very readable and I found myself enjoying it hugely. The style, once you get used to it, is really easy to read and I got really absorbed in the plot, wanting to know what wonderful surprises were in store next!

‘Tony’ concludes at the end that all most people are looking for is power. Whether this is the message of the book or not is debatable. It’s a lively and entertaining portrait of the publishing world, with the firm of Judkins based on Duckworths, where Powell was working in the 1930s (and helping a lot of his friends get into print). But it also considers the nature of books and their authors, and whether any work can be original and whether this matters to the general reading public. The subject of fictions in life is covered too – the characters deceive themselves and each other on a regular basis, with one crucial protagonist leading a double life. The novel also reflects the strangeness of the 1930s – there are seances, religious cults and a general feeling of unease and uncertainty. Is everything in life coincidence or design? Whichever it is, this novel presents an enjoyable example of the intersections and complex links of modern society.

I ended up loving this book – it’s witty, clever, brilliantly written and compellingly readable. As an introduction to Powell it’s got me well hooked and I’m now very much looking forward to embarking on “A Dance to the Music of Time”!

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