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Anna Akhmatova: June 23, 1889 – March 5, 1966

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The Muse (1924)

All that I am hangs by a thread tonight
as I wait for her whom no one can command.
Whatever I cherish most – youth, freedom, glory –
fades before her who bears the flute in her hand.

And look! She comes … she tosses back her veil,
staring me down, serene and pitiless.
“Are you the one,” I ask, “whom Dante heard dictate
the lines of his Inferno?” She answers: “Yes.”

(Translated by Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward)

in which there *will* be casualties…

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Yes, I’m afraid I really *will* have to start pruning after this weekend’s arrivals – and try to decide which of the books on Mount TBR I am realistically likely to read, and which will have to go…

Clearing out bookshelves is not something I enjoy doing, as I always regret it – my Mapp and Lucia books, for example, and “Madame Solario” – both of which I’ve missed recently. But there are only so many shelves and only so much time left to read – the house will only hold so much before it bursts 😦

These are this week’s culprits:

and I have perfectly good reasons for buying them all!!

The Antonia White diaries is a Virago – which is reason enough, particularly as her “Frost in May” has the honour of being the first VMC! ‘Nuff said.

“Recovery” by Stephen Benatar sounded intriguing – Benatar himself sounds intriguing! Plus I have his “Wish Her Safe At Home” on Mount TBR and this can keep it company. And it’s signed by the author too!

“Twelve Horses….” is by Gladys Mitchell and it’s a vintage green crime Penguin, so once again that’s a no-brainer – there’s no way it was going to stay on the Oxfam shelf.

Zamyatin’s “We” – well, of course, I already have two other editions of this book. But I owned this particular edition with its lovely cover once and loaned it to Eldest Child for a university module. I don’t recall seeing it since…. so of course felt the need to replace it.

And lastly Heinrich Boll – an author I’ve never read, although since he’s a Nobel winner I should have. This is his first novel and it’s short too – so I was intrigued enough to try it.

Now for some painful violence on the shelves…..

Recent Reads – The Stonehenge Letters by Harry Karlinsky

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Although I was born in Scotland, I spent a lot of my young life growing up near the Hampshire border and Stonehenge was just a stone’s throw away (ha!) It was a place we visited when we had relatives or friends staying, intriguing and mysterious, and in those days you could wander among the stones, sit on the fallen ones and really soak up the atmosphere; I think there’s even a small fuzzy photo somewhere of me in amongst them with grandparents.

So I’ve always had an attachment to the place, which meant that the offer of a review copy of this intriguing-sounding book was extremely welcome. This is Harry Karlinsky’s second novel – it proclaims itself as such on the cover – yet it’s a fascinating book that defies categorisation and plays with the genres. If you like, it could be described as fiction masquerading as non-fiction.

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The book’s narrator is an unnamed psychiatrist, puzzled as to why Sigmund Freud never received the Nobel Prize. He finally gains access to the Nobel records to try to find out the reason, but instead stumbles across something hidden – there was once a secret Nobel prize, only open to previous winners, and to be awarded to the person who solved the mystery of Stonehenge.

The book goes on to explore the background of the prize and the theories of the Nobel Laureates who entered; ranging from Marie Curie via Theodore Roosevelt to Rudyard Kipling. Was there a solution? Was the prize awarded? And why did Freud never receive the Nobel?

This is a delight of a book, the most wonderful interweaving of fact and fiction. Karlinsky captures wonderfully the tone of a dry, academic psychologist, albeit one with a strong sense of curiosity. It’s lively, entertaining and very unputdownable, particularly the various submissions purporting to be from the Nobel winners. I was particularly impressed with the one attributed to Kipling, as this is framed as a short piece featuring Dan, Una and Puck from “Puck of Pook’s Hall” which I read recently, and Karlinsky brilliantly captures the voice of the book. Intriguingly, he’s actually a psychiatrist in real life, which adds another layer to the many on display here.

TSL is also very dry and witty, and some of the one-liner notes in particular are really funny. Karlinsky’s taken the concept of crank letters to the Nobel authorities and created a most wonderfully readable fiction. Satisfyingly, the notes at the end reveal enough of what is fact and fiction to clear the reader’s mind. The book is scattered with illustrations and the end section has some fascinating biographical facts.

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This is a really inventive piece of fiction, blurring the lines between the real and the made up in a most entertaining way. I’m not always a great fan of modern fiction, but TSL was an excellent and enjoyable read and deserves to be much more widely known – highly recommended!

…in which I somewhat belatedly discover Slightly Foxed!

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As someone who loves books, longs for a decent literary periodical and reads a lot of blogs, you would think, wouldn’t you, that I would have become involved with Slightly Foxed before now! For anyone who doesn’t know (and there shouldn’t be many) SF is a bookshop based on the Gloucester Road in London, and a quarterly literary magazine. They also produce beautiful editions of lost memoirs as well as lovely paperback editions. So what’s not to love?

I don’t know why I’ve resisted for so long, unless it’s the knowledge deep down that I would have to subscribe and this would give me yet more reading material with not enough time. Suffice to say, I succumbed recently when I read that issue 41 contained some thing about one of my favourite painters, (Dora) Carrington.

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In the early days of my Bloomsbury obsession, in the early 1980s, I was reading everything to do with the group I could. I worked my way through everything of Woolf first (including *all* the diaries and letters published at the time!) then started to explore further. Carrington’s wonderful paintings caught my eye, and then I read about her life (biography and letters and diaries) – I had quite an obsession with her, which never really went away. So when I saw that the spring issue of Slightly Foxed featured a piece on her, I cracked and ordered a sample copy. That was that, really – I’ve now subscribed and thankfully have a lovely literary journal to look forward to quarterly. And what a delight it is too – beautifully put together and printed on lovely creamy paper, packed full of fascinating pieces. I’m trying to pace myself so that the articles keep me going between issues.

Of course, now the real danger is that I rather want to visit the Slightly Foxed shop……. And as for their lovely books – well, let’s not even go there!!

Recent Reads – Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson

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The hypnotic prose of Tove is definitely getting to me! I keep being drawn back to her work, and I’m gradually accumulating a little collection of Moomin books. This is the third in the series and from what I’ve read is regarded as the first ‘proper’ introduction to all the main Moomin characters. Of course, we’ve encountered many of them in “Comet in Moominland” but it seems that each book in the series introduces a wider range of beings who reside in Moomin Valley. However, FFM was the first of the Moomins books to be translated into English and so I believe it’s often been regarded as the first in the series over here. My very sweet little old Puffin version has a foreword attributed to Moominmamma explaining all about Moomins for English children, which I assume was written in that language by Tove herself!

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FFM opens with the Moomins hibernating, after eating lots of pine needles (yuk!) When Moomintroll awakes it is spring, and with Sniff and Snufkin, he discovers a large hat which he brings home. This, however, is a magic hat, belonging to the Hobgoblin, and it has the ability to change things…. Much fun and mayhem follows, with the arrival of new characters (Thingumy and Bob), adventures with the old (the Muskrat and my favourite, the Hemulen). The extended family has a wonderful boat trip, Moominmamma loses her handbag and the Hobgoblin returns from the moon in search of a royal jewel.

Tove Jansson had such a wonderful way with words, and she’s created such a beautiful and surreal world here. Moominvalley is definitely somewhere you’d like to live – accepting, full of creatures happily getting along together, and the Moomin family itself is so welcoming:

“They had had many strange adventures on this river and had brought home many new friends. Moomintroll’s mother and father always welcomed all their friends in the same quiet way, just adding another bed and putting another leaf in the dining-room table. And so Moominhouse was rather full – a place where everyone did what they liked and seldom worried about tomorrow. Very often unexpected and disturbing things used to happen, but nobody ever had time to be bored, and that is always a good thing.”

All is not sweetness and saccharine though, as there are elements of threat in the story – the Groke, in particular, a most unpleasant creature who freezes the ground where she’s been sitting. The Hobgoblin is a bit unsettling until he arrives, and there is definitely the feeling with his hat that there are some kinds of magic with which it’s better not to meddle…

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The drawings of course are a huge delight, bringing the story, the characters and the valley to life – I actually wish the book was in larger format so the pictures were easier to see, as a small paperback really doesn’t do them justice. I’m definitely finding that if I need to switch off and escape for an hour, Moominvalley is the place to go!

A little bit of wonderment….

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…..from Kristin Hersh, featuring Michael Stipe.

A sombre anniversary

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Today is the birthday of American journalist John Hersey, who’s best known for his stunning piece of work “Hiroshima”. I first stumbled across this in a little book department above a stationers in Grantham, Lincs, where I was visiting with family. It was a slim, ‘silver cover’ Penguin Modern Classic, and I knew nothing about it but as I also knew little really about the horrors of Hiroshima I bought it and read it.

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Hersey’s book is an amazing journalistic exercise, bringing home the horrors of the atomic bomb in an unsensational way which is all the more effective because it’s unhysterical. As the consequences and effects of the bomb become clear, it’s hard not to despair of the mentality of the people who dropped it, with no real knowledge of what the long-term effects would be.

Wikipedia describes Hersey thus: John Richard Hersey (June 17, 1914 – March 24, 1993) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer and journalist considered one of the earliest practitioners of the so-called New Journalism, in which storytelling techniques of fiction are adapted to non-fiction reportage. Hersey’s account of the aftermath of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, was adjudged the finest piece of American journalism of the 20th century by a 36-member panel associated with New York University’s journalism department.

I can’t disagree with that assessment – Hersey’s account is definitely one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve come across and should be required reading for anyone interested in the history of the 20th century.

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Rather chillingly, I also discovered at the same time a book by Japanese author Masuji Ibuse, “Black Rain”, which covers the same ground as Hersey’s. And I found as I read it incredible parallels between the two works, in structure and in the sequence of telling the story. Ibuse’s book was longer but in many ways they were telling the same story in the same way, but simply from very different perspectives – Hersey’s journalistic outsider viewpoint and Ibuse’s insider view, as a Japanese citizen. Interestingly, I believe Ibuse used historical records of the devastation as source material, and I can’t help but wonder if Hersey’s book was one of those.

Both books are essential reading in my view for any understanding of our world and what human beings are capable of.  “Hiroshima” in partircular must have had a huge impact at the time. As the Writer’s Almanac comments:

“He wrote more than a dozen books, but he’s best known for his 31,000-word nonfiction piece “Hiroshima,” which appeared in The New Yorker on August 31, 1946. The cover of the late-summer magazine issue featured a cheerful picnic with people sunbathing, strumming mandolins, dancing, playing croquet and tennis. Then, readers opened to the “Talk of the Town” page to find the beginning of Hersey’s voluminous essay and this note from The Editors:

“TO OUR READERS. The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city […]”

John Hersey’s Hiroshima begins:

“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”

Hersey did the world a great service by recording the aftermath of the atomic strike and deserves all the accolades heaped on him.

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Happy birthday Mr. Hersey.

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