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Happiness is….. well trained children!

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My three rather bright offspring treated me very nicely yesterday for Mothering Sunday:

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Lovely (Russian-themed) books and a beautiful vintage Czech milk glass necklace – they know me well, and truly, I was spoiled!

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Happy Birthday Nikolai Gogol

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Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (31 March  1809 – 4 March 1852) was a Ukrainian-born Russian dramatist, novelist and short story writer.

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“I am fated to journey hand in hand with my strange heroes and to survey the surging immensity of life, to survey it through the laughter that all can see and through the tears unseen and unknown by anyone.” – Gogol

Happy birthday to one of my favourite Russian writers!

Vintage Crime Shorts – The Secret Cell by William E. Burton

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And here goes with my first excursion into the “Dead Witness” anthology! The stories are chronological and this, the first to be featured, dates from 1837 – which puts it well ahead of Poe’s ground-breaking “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”! According to editor Sims, this is definitely the first proper detective story, and fascinatingly enough Burton published a journal called “The Gentleman’s Magazine” for which Poe wrote. “The Secret Cell” hasn’t been republished since 1837, so kudos to Sims for digging it out and getting it back to readers!

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TSC is a classic in many ways – it features a missing heiress, the early police force, fake asylums, criminal gangs, and an unnamed but intelligent police detective. There’s dry wit from our narrator, coach chases, fights, secret hiding places – the works, basically. And what’s fascinating is that so many of these elements appeared in much more well-known works by authors like Poe, Collins, Dickens et al, but this predated them considerably.

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It’s an exciting, gripping tale with all you could want from a vintage crime story. Sims’ introduction puts the story in context and gives it the credit it’s due – although I agree with his assessment that although it’s an earlier story than Poe’s, it doesn’t have quite the greatness of that tale. Additionally, the detective is not really the dominant, main character in the story – it would take the arrival of C. Auguste Dupin to start the trend for the unusual, individual detective who was the centre of the action. And that’s where I’ll be going with the second story in the anthology…

Nevertheless, this was a great read and I think I’ll enjoy interspersing my heavier books (Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” at the moment) with some wonderful classic crime!

A Diversion into some classic crime!

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As I mentioned in my review of “The Triumphs of Eugene Valmont”, I recently rambled through the Ellery Queen list of recommended crime stories, and while searching online to see what was available, I came across an intriguing looking anthology: “The Dead Witness”, edited by Michael Sims. Needless to say, a very reasonably priced copy was soon winging its way towards me, and it turns out to be such fun!

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The book collects together stories and extracts from the earliest days of crime stories right up to 1915. Fascinatingly enough, the first tale, from 1837, is regarded as the first ‘proper’ detective story, and hasn’t been reprinted until now.

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I have to confess I was a little unsure about committing to 500 pages of vintage crime, as there are so many books I want to read just now. So I shall break my current rule of only reading one book at a time, and I’ll dip into this volume as an aside when I feel in the mood. Watch this space for reviews of classic detection!!

Recent Reads – Confession of a Murderer (told in one night) by Joseph Roth

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Since my first read of a Joseph Roth book, “Hotel Savoy”, I’ve been keen to investigate more of his work – and so I used the excuse of World Book Day to send away for this volume, which sounded quite intriguing!

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Published in 1936, “Confession” is a short novel/novella (190 pages) set in Paris and narrated by a writer. The (unnamed) author lives opposite a Russian bar, the Tari-Bari, and spends much of his time popping in and out. It’s full of émigrés, eking out their lives in exile, but one particular character catches his eye. The habitués of the cafe don’t realise that the author can understand Russian and one day he overhears a couple of fellow drinkers referring to the interesting character as “our murderer”. But the ‘murderer’, one Golubchik (‘little dove’ in Russian) knows more about the writer than he thinks, and after the bar owner has closed and locked the doors, he settles down to tell them his story.

And what a story it is! Ranging from rural Russia, through the pre-War Okhrana Russian secret service, to Paris and then the war, the tale he tells is of a man born into poverty, denied his real heritage and seeking love and acceptance. I won’t give too much away, but this is a fascinating piece of storytelling – utterly gripping and involving. The story absorbed me, along with the other cafe habitues, until it suddenly switched back to the present for an unexpected and surprising ending!

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Roth is an excellent writer, and really gets inside the head of Golubchik. We feel his loneliness; the hurt and bitterness at being denied the use of the name of his rich (blood) father; the depth of his passion when he first falls in love.The prose is beautifully atmospheric, like this piece which describes the sense of being swept away from reality, isolated in the locked bar and detached from the rest of the world:

“…it seemed as though Time had ceased; and the hands on the white (clock) face were no longer simply black, but frankly ominous. Yes, they were as ominous as eternity. They were unchanging in their obstinate, almost treacherous, immobility, and it seemed to us as though they stood still, not because the clock work had stopped, but from a sort of malice and as if to prove that the story which Golubchik was telling us was an eternally recurring, eternally hopeless story, independent of time and space, of day and night. And since time stood still, the room too, in which we were sitting, became exempt from all laws of space; and it was as though we were no longer on solid earth, but floating on the eternal waters of the eternal sea. It seemed as though they were in a ship. And our sea was the night.”

Roth is often bracketed with Stefan Zweig although I must say that, having read their works closely together, I wouldn’t say they’re particularly alike. Zweig’s work is really, really intense – you could almost say overwrought – and I think too much at one time would be like having a fabulously rich meal at every sitting. However, Roth’s work, though it has passion, has somehow more depth – he is intense, but not too overdone!

“Confession…” was a great read – involving, intriguing, entertaining and with a cracking ending! Highly recommended, and I’ll definitely be reading more Roth!

Virago Volumes: Sunlight on a Broken Column by Attia Hosain

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This is the first Virago I’ve picked up for a little while, and I was inspired to do so by Liz (her review is here), and Ali has also read along (see her review here). “Sunlight” was Hosain’s only novel and my copy came from on the lovely local charity shops. One of the things I love about Virago books is their diversity – this isn’t a title I would have necessarily thought of as being my sort of reading matter, and yet I found myself completely absorbed.

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Of Hosain, Wikipedia says: Attia Hosain (1913–1998) was a writer, feminist and broadcaster. She was born in 1913 in Lucknow in a taluqdar background. She studied at Isabella Thoburn College from the age of fifteen and Lucknow University, being the first woman from a taluqdar background to graduate. She moved to Britain in 1947. What’s also intriguing is that she’s the mother of Waris Hussein, who directed the first “Doctor Who” serial – a cool, weird kind of synchronicity, that (I have a bit of a history of a serious “Doctor Who” habit…) But enough of that.

“Sunlight…” is set in Indian during the 1930s; this is a colonial India, reaching the end of its existence. The cracks in society are showing, the Empire is fading, but this time the story is from the point of view of an Indian woman, as opposed to the usual white, male writers. Laila, our narrator, is a young orphan, being brought up by aunts in the home of her grandfather. The aunts are traditional and keep purdah, so that Laila’s movements are restricted. Her closest friend is her cousin Zahra, and the women live a very segregated life. But Laila has had an English governess, an education, and is a great lover of books – they are something of a refuge for her. She pushes against the restrictions, questions why things are why they are, and struggles to engage with the political causes of her friends and family, as her own struggles are the most immediate issue for her. After her grandfather’s death, she is sent to live with a more liberal aunt and uncle and is able to attend university. Still fighting for her own independence, she is surrounded by cousins and fellow students who are all involved in one way or another in the fight for India’s independence. As the old world starts to crumble around her, Laila makes her own step away from her family and towards freedom….

This really is a little gem of a novel. It’s hard not to conflate the life of the author with the life of her character Laila, and I suspect that many of the experiences in the book are based on Hosain’s own life. The writing is rich and evocative, and the picture painted of traditional India is vivid,  bringing to life the tastes, sounds and smells of the country. It brings alive a culture where so much was invested in the extended family, who lived together under one roof and cared for one another; the nuclear family with its 2.4 children was an anathema.

I confess that I was sadly ignorant of the history of India’s independence, and looking up the Partition online was quite an eye-opener. The struggles between the various parties involved in the land and its future were intense and violent, which is reflected in many of the discussions and disputes which take place in “Sunlight”. Pre-partition India, as portrayed here, is a deeply divided place: whether it is by higher and lower class; Hindu or Muslim; East or West; woman or man. The conflicts are sharply drawn, and one of the strongest conflicts is between the generations, with the older, traditional family members completely unable to understand the emotions and politics of the younger.

ATTIA HOSAIN1One of Laila’s strongest instincts is for justice – she is unswerving in her hatred of the hypocrisy she perceives, exemplified in the scene where a servant girl (who turns out to be one of her staunchest allies) is beaten for something that a higher caste male is doing all the time. In many ways, the themes are universal – girl rebels against restrictive upbringing; boy and girl fall in love; family disapprove; they fight against the odds to be together. But there are deeper levels, because of the conflicts in Indian society and the massive changes about to take place.

The final section of the book is a poignant one, taking place some 14 years later, post-Partition. Laila makes a final visit to her grandfather’s house before it is sold off, and we learn of the events that have taken place. There is a bitter sadness in the disintegration – both moral and physical – which has occurred during those 14 years, and in many ways this reminded me of the scene in “Dr Zhivago”, when Yuri returns to his old home after the revolution, only to find it divided up into makeshift dwellings. The Russian Revolution and the Indian Partition were both cataclysmic events in terms of their effects on people, but does the quest for human equality have to mean the destruction of all that is beautiful? The images of a country being dragged into modernity are shocking and sad, especially when you call to mind some of the pictures we see nowadays of the poverty in India and the conditions in which some people live.

And Hosain is wise enough to recognise that much has been lost, and that although the traditions have been broken down, there are still those in power and those who have nothing – simply the positions have switched. As she says of her confused, formerly westernised aunt:

“It was part of her refusal to accept the fact that her world has gone forever. She had clothed herself in remembered assurances of power and privilege just as the story-book Emperor had donned his non-existent clothes, but there was no-one to make her see the nakedness of her illusions. Traditional courtesies had restrained everyone. She only knew that power and privilege still existed, that position still counted; except that others, whom she had once patronised, possessed them.”

One of the strengths of Virago was the bringing together of women from different cultures who had more in common than they might have realised, and certainly “Sunlight” is a bit of a revelation on that score. I found myself returning to the truisms that were bandied about in the early feminist days and realised that they *are* true: women’s struggles are the same the world over, and we are all sisters under the skin.

Thanks, Liz, for motivating me to read this book – I’ve even felt the need to pick up the collection of Hosain’s short stories that Virago issued. Truly, she’s a writer we still need to read today.

A Very Virago Day Out!

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There was much bookish excitement at the Ramblings over the weekend, as Saturday saw a lovely trip to London to meet up with some fellow book-lovers! One of the ladies from the Virago Modern Classics LibraryThing group, Laura, was over from America visiting family – so what better excuse for a LT get-together? I must confess this was my first – and I really hope it won’t be my last, as it was such fun!

Of course, apart from the book buying, the nicest part was meeting people in real life that I only knew as names and blogs – including Laura, of course, who was one of my first blog contacts, plus Heavenali and Simon Stuck-in-a-Book. It was great to know we could all chunter on about books in person just as easily as we could online!

As well as a delicious lunch in a wonderful restaurant called The Old Dutch Pancake (yum!), there was of course a little book buying in the various shops we visited – and here are my finds in order of emporium:

Firstly Foyles (I *love* that shop!) – some volumes I’ve been after for a while, including a complete collection of Borges’ fictions – only available complete in an American Penguin edition for some reason? Plus another in the Neversink Llibrary series, this time a Mary McCarthy.

Next, Any Amount of Books, and some bargains! The Aldiss was only £1 from the bargain bin, and the Richardson is an early Virago I’ve never actually got round to acquiring.

After that, Henry Pordes, where Simon kindly (!) pointed me at some Barbara Comyns books. I didn’t have Skin Chairs, but when I got home realised I *did* have  A Touch of Mistletoe – however, the new volume is in much better condition so I don’t really mind!

We all needed lunch and a sit-down after that (well, I know I did!) and luckily The Old Dutch Pancake was on the way to our next port of call – the Bloomsbury Oxfam bookshop:

A couple of small and reasonably priced finds here – including a Kay Boyle Virago I’ve wanted for a while, and a lovely old hardback version of One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes (thanks again Simon, for pointing it out – you are a *bad* influence!)

Once we escaped from the Oxfam (with the staff calling after us to “Come again, ladies!”), it was a short hop to the London Review of Books shop. I get emails from them all the time with news of lovely events, but had never visited the shop. And it was *very* hard to resist all the wonderful new books there, but I contented myself in adding a lot of titles to the wish list…

And finally, to the Persephone Shop:

Here, I was remarkably restrained as I have quite a number of Persephones on Mount TBR – so I contented myself with picking up some missing bookmarks for my second-hand volumes. It’s very hard not to get carried away in the Persephone  Shop…

However, these were not all as one of our number, the lovely Luci, had brought along bags and bags of spare books to offer around – so generous:

Both of the Thirkells come from her – thank you *so* much Luci! And the Muriel Spark was a spare from Simon, for which many thanks Simon! I *did* take a couple of spares to give away myself, so at least the shelves may not groan *too* much!

I had an amazing day out on Saturday and met some fabulous people – truly, I think the people on the LibraryThing Virago group are the loveliest! Here’s to next time!

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