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In Praise of Independent Publishers

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One of my favourite things as a reader (and blogger) is coming across an obscure or lost book that I’ve never heard of before. I’ve rapidly come to the conclusion that 20th century writing is my favourite era, but alas in these modern days of mass-produced best-sellers, a lot of the type of books I like have disappeared from the shelves and are hard to track down.

So it’s always delightful to follow the current trend of smaller publishers who are bringing back into print lost classics or just lost quirky, individual works! I’ve ranted on a lot about Hesperus here, as they have some wonderful books in their Classic imprint, but also excel in bringing new works to light. They have a book club here, if anyone is interested, and the current book is a new and intriguing sounding Scandinavian crime novel which I’ll be reviewing here at some point.

However, I was very pleased her hear about a new reprint publisher, Michael Walmer, who was featured on Simon’s Stuck in a Book blog recently. Michael is based in Australia and as his site states “Michael Walmer has set about publishing a list where the main ingredient is quality. Authors will be sourced from all over the world, with a love of erudition, be it elegant or rough-edged, simple or complex, poetic or blunt, or all of these!, as the enlivening and guiding principle.” Certainly, the titles published so far are intriguing – wit is celebrated, in the form of authors like Saki and Max Beerbohm, but there are also writers like George Sand and Mary Webb – so an eclectic mix!

Michael has been kind enough to provide me with a review copy of a book I’ve been keen to read for a while – Ronald Firbank’s first novel “Vainglory”. Firbank is possibly something of a forgotten name, but I enjoyed his “Valmouth” very much when I read it many years ago and he’s an author I wanted to explore a little more.

220px-Portrait_of_Ronald_Firbank

As Simon points out, the books are POD, which is actually the way a lot of reprint publishers are going nowadays – Bello Books for example – and this could well be a positive way to use POD, bringing back to life books that the big boys in publishing wouldn’t see as commercially viable but which many of us would love to read. And if “Vainglory” is any guide, these are beautifully put together books with very striking and individual covers – I love the Aubrey Beardsley design.

vainglory

So do give Michael’s site a look and see if there are any titles that grab you. I believe the books are available from The Book Depository, which could be the easiest way to get hold of them – let’s support another independent publisher!

Recent Reads: The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

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We tend to think of terrorist outrages as a relatively modern thing, part and parcel of the somewhat unstable world we live in nowadays. However, a cursory glance through Russian literature, or a look at works like my most recent read, soon gives lie to this. As soon as man created the means of mass destruction, there were human beings happy to use them against their own kind for a political or moral cause.

Secret Agent cover image

“The Secret Agent” by Joseph Conrad is an unusual novel for a number of reasons: it’s not the usual sea story or trip to dark continents normally associated with him; it’s actually got a lot of sparky humour; and it’s based on a real event. The book opens with the reader being introduced to the Secret Agent of the title, Mr. Verloc. He runs a seedy shop in London, selling mild pornography and contraceptives, where he lives with his wife Winnie, brother-in-law Stevie and mother-in-law. Stevie has some kind of mental disability and Winnie is, in effect, his carer, acting more like a mother than a sister. Verloc has an oddball set of revolutionary friends: Comrade Ossipon, Karl Yundt, Michaelis and the rather sinister ‘Professor’, purveyor of explosives. They are a pretty ineffectual bunch, producing pamphlets and well-known to the local Chief Inspector Heat – in fact, the only one who is really threatening is The Professor, who carries a bomb at all times, prepared to self-immolate rather than be arrested.

Verloc works as a spy for an unnamed foreign country, and he is summoned to the embassy as they are not happy that enough is being done in the way of agitation. Ironically, because of the British justice system, they feel that there is not enough oppression in the country which would allow them to persuade the working classes to revolt. Therefore, they want Verloc to create some kind of bomb outrage to cause a clamp-down. Verloc is thrown into disarray by  this, as he is petty purveyor of secret information, not a bomb-throwing anarchist. Nevertheless, he finally decides to take action and a bomb explodes in a park near the Greenwich Observatory. But the bomber is killed as well, and it initially seems that Verloc has destroyed himself accidentally. However, the case is more complex than this, and as Heat begins to investigate, he is hampered in this by his superior, who has social connections with one of the anarchists. Who really did throw the bomb, why, and what will the consequences be?

The structure of TSA is unusual, shifting back and forward in time – from the initial scenes of Verloc being told to create an incident, we then flash forward to after the incident and the investigations taking place by Heat and his boss, the Assistant Commissioner. We then flash back again to before the explosion and follow the Verlocs in the time leading up to the explosion and then the immediate consequences for them.

If I’m honest, it was pretty obvious early on who the bomber was and what had happened, but this novel is certainly not meant to be a mystery at all. TSA is a novel that is less about actions and more about the motivations and results of those actions. The main event in the book, the bomb, actually ends up being of secondary importance to the exploration of why people take these actions and the consequences to all. But more than anything else, it is a novel about Winnie Verloc – her childhood and upbringing, her marriage and life choices, what it was that made her what she is, a women who does not look to closely at things; and how this is the undoing of her, and those around her. Conrad’s genius is in the way he allows the story to unfold gradually, shifting from one viewpoint to another as the characters come to recognise what has happened and what effect this has had. He never the rushes the reader, and we take the journey with the characters, witnessing Verloc’s lack of understanding of his wife’s temperament, Ossipon’s panic, the Assistant Commissioner’s joy at his unusual behaviour and ultimately, Winnie’s despair.

Conrad’s prose is quite dense but very lovely, and this is all the more surprising when you remind yourself that he was born a Ukrainian so English is not his native language. The book is remarkably involved and involving, following the emotions, motivations and beliefs of the main characters, but also featuring some wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of foggy London, its post-Dickensian squalor and moral and physical poverty of the people living there. It even has dry humour:

“Mr. Verloc was an intermittent patron. He came and went without any very apparent reason. He generally arrived in London (like the influenza) from the Continent, only he arrived unheralded by the Press, and his visitations set in with great severity.”

Everything in the book is distorted some way  – the characters physically (Michaelis and Verloc are obese, the Professor and Yundt like skeletons); the family relationships of the Verloc are askew (Winnie being like a mother to her brother, Verloc being more like a father than a husband). There is also Verloc’s skewed moral outlook, as he believes he is undertaking his actions to provide for his family and he tries very hard to perpetrate a bombing outrage that will bring no physical harm to people. However, because he and his wife never communicate, he is unaware of the one small action she has taken which will bring about their downfall.

Joseph_ConradThe discussion of the morals and motivations of terrorism as an act is quite chilling, too. We live in an age that has become almost used to random acts of violence, but reading the rationale behind the acts, and seeing the fanaticism of its followers spelled out, is frightening.

“But what is one to say to an act of destructive ferocity so absurd as to be incomprehensible, inexplicable, almost unthinkable; in fact, mad? Madness alone is truly terrifying, inasmuch as you cannot placate it either by threats, persuasion or bribes.”

Or as the Professor says, when discussed the inability of the authorities to stop him dealing in explosives:

“They are bound to all sorts of conventions. They depend on life, which, in this connection, is a historical fact surrounded by all sorts of restraints and considerations, a complex organised fact open to attack at every point; whereas I depend on death, which knows no restraint and cannot be attacked. My superiority is evident.”

However, the final irony is that this bomb outrage is not perpetrated by a madman but simply by an agent wanting to keep his job.

I was absolutely riveted by this novel – it’s an exceptional piece of writing, a gripping tale, and a very thought-provoking exploration of the points where the personal and the political meet – highly recommended.
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As a side note, on the subject of the physical book, this is my first Penguin English Library volume and what lovely things they are too! The cover is sturdy and slightly plasticky, so nice and strong, and there is an author picture on the inside cover. I can see myself investing in a few more of these…..!

Monday Music

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One of the joys of the Internet is YouTube and the access it gives us to such wonderful old footage as this. Sadly, I can just about remember when things looked like this…. :s

#DorisInDecember: reading The Grass is Singing

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The Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing really needs no introduction from me! A writer of great versatility – sci-fi, feminism, novels, criticism, poetry, plays, librettos – you name it, she wrote it, during her long and productive life. Her passing away at the age of 94 in November has prompted Simon at SavidgeReads to come up with the wonderful idea of reading her first novel, “The Grass is Singing”, during (you’ve guessed it!) December and after a bit of hesitation (I’m really *hopeless* at deadlines) I’ve decided to join in!

doris-lessing

I believe much of the discussion will be on Twitter (see Simon’s post here) and I’m not a tweeter myself – so my review will appear on this blog on 15th December! The only other Lessing book I’ve read is “The Golden Notebook” (which I found difficult but inspiring) so I’m greatly looking forward to TGIS. And the setting and subject (South African and racial divides) is not something I would necessarily always choose to read about – I find the cruelty and injustice hard to take – so it will perhaps be a good thing to take me out of my comfort zone!

grass

So do join in with #DorisInDecember if you can – it should be a stimulating and rewarding experience!

Recent Reads: The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

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This review is not one I’ve been looking forward to writing, I have to confess. As I’ve hinted, I’ve been struggling to finish this book, and this is frustrating for a number of reasons: I came to the book with high expectations; it’s been very highly rated on blogs that I read; and I ended up pretty disgruntled about having in effect wasted several days on it. This will probably sound a somewhat harsh review, and I appreciate that the majority will probably not agree with me, but let me try to explain…

“The Old Ways” by Robert Macfarlane was published last year to rave reviews, and it’s the third in a series of books he’s written about his travels; and it might have helped if I’d read the first two, but I have seen it said that you don’t need to. It’s billed as a book about old paths, with Macfarlane wandering ancient tracks which criss-cross Britain, its waters and overseas continents – the blurb has that it combines natural history, cartology, geology, archaeology and literature. And thinking about it, maybe that statement should have flagged something up to me.

oldways
The book is divided into sections – Tracking, Following, Roaming etc – with each section having chapters with the title of the element which is focused upon – Chalk, Silt, Water and so on. Macfarlane starts by following old paths, but soon his narrative radiates off into a variety of directions, and we are discussing the works and life of Edward Thomas, ghosts, bronze age barrows, Morecambe whelk pickers, ancient history and the odd hint of the modern world. Alas, I quickly lost any connection I made with the author and his travels and as the book continued I had to struggle to keep reading it. The author is constantly dropping references to other walkers, writers, artists etc into the text, but in a very disconnected way, which is disorienting and I found it hard to stay with what he was saying. The writing is so elaborate that I actually found it hard to translate it into any kind of description and it got in the way. I didn’t like the writing style at all – he favours either short, clipped bursts of description which are irritating, or longer, wordy pieces that convey nothing. As one reviewer on Amazon put it, he needed to have “more love for the complete sentence”.

The trouble is, this book is as rambling and meandering as an old trail, and maybe that was the point. But it ends up being frustrating because of its lack of focus, and the language is just too florid – which is an unusual thing for me to say, because I’m a great fan of convoluted sentences! Some reviewers have commented on the fact that the book is so much about Macfarlane, but in itself I wouldn’t have found this a problem as most travel writing I’ve read is invested with the personality of the writer. However, I found a lack of connection – with the landscapes and seas, and with Macfarlane himself. Parts of the book worked beautifully, but too much of it didn’t, and too often Macfarlane lapsed into a series of staccato phrases to describe a place or event.

And despite all his endless pontificating, there did seem to be a lack of depth and detail. Comparisons are odious, they say, but I found myself constantly comparing TOW; most often with Iain Sinclair’s “London Orbital”, a book I read a year or two ago in which the author walked round the M25 in a number of journeys. This latter book is a dense, involving read, and did indeed send me off in search of other works; but Sinclair’s work itself was deep, coherent and thoughtful, with much more of a structure and purpose. LO restricted itself to a finite area – the M25 – and because of this its author was able to be detailed about his walks and what he experienced, and also about the things he encountered on the way and the tangents on which he went off. With TOW we get just a short paragraph or two on a particular side interest, and these can be scattered at different points of the book and are very surface level. And rather surprisingly, Macfarlane seems to venture little in the way of a personal opinion – does he feel strongly about the massacre of baby puffins? or the destruction of the natural world by the modern? or the fact that his book might affect the wilderness and tracks he writes about by encouraging more people to take to them? Any in-depth analysis seems to be missing from the book, and the actual sections of writing about the walking itself feel quite short and don’t give you much sense of walking alongside the author.

I think I’m quite a tolerant reader, and I have read *a lot* of books about walking and travelling – from George Borrow (much mentioned in TOW), through H.V. Morton, Gerald Brenan, Laurie Lee, Colin Thubron, Eric Newby and up to more modern walkers like Nicholas Crane. I’ve got a lot from all of these writers – different things from different books – but I’ve never struggled with one of their books like I did with this one. When I got to the chapter about Edward Thomas, I skipped it – whatever his merits, what has a whole chapter about the life and death of a poet (albeit one who was a great walker) got to do with a book that’s subtitled “A Journey on Foot”?

I really wanted to like this book, and there were parts of it I did – the luminous descriptions of the chalk pathways of the south; the walk over the glistening sands of Essex. But too much of TOW has sent me off to read other writers who have written better about walking the British Isles and I’m afraid Macfarlane just didn’t engage me enough. I think the bottom line for me is that Macfarlane just didn’t know whether he wanted to write a philosophical study of the art and history of walking, a record of his own walks, a biography of Edward Thomas or a book about all his artist friends. In the end, he combined them all into one mishmash which didn’t work for me. 😦
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(On a side note, and perhaps something that is nothing to do with the author, I had a couple of issues with the physical book itself. Firstly, a big pricey hardback of this nature could do with more illustrations than a dark and dingy photo printed at the beginning of each chapter on ordinary paper. Secondly, maps – although some of the travels that Macfarlane was making were mental as well as physical, maps showing locations would have been a bit essential in my view, for those of us who are a little geographically challenged, or indeed for readers from other countries who have no idea where somewhere like Foulness is. Yes, we can all look at an atlas or the Internet – but map(s) would have improved this book.)

Life imitating Art

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I *do* love it when life and books synchronise unexpectedly!

I have been trying very hard not to amass new books recently, and have been doing quite well. However, there are times when you just can’t resist and I was particularly pleased to stumble across this in the local Oxfam bookshop:

As I’ve been reading about MacLaren-Ross’s fictional version in Anthony Powell’s “Books do Furnish a Room“, this was an ideal find!

And on further shopping news, I was absolutely unable to resist this lovely jute bag from M&S – for obvious reasons!!

No more shopping allowed till Christmas…..

(ETA:)

Just to add to the strangeness, I rummaged on the shelves for a book to read this morning, having staggered to the end of “The Old Ways” in a state of disgruntlement (more about that to follow), and pulled out Joseph’s Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” which I picked up a little while back:

Secret Agent cover image

Turns out it’s his birthday today – so many happy returns Joseph Conrad!!

Monday Music

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Another piece of Moodies Magic for a Monday – beautiful song!

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