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Reads of the Year (possibly!)

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With the madness of Christmas receding a little, I thought I’d catch my blogging breath and try to put together a post on my favourite books of the year. It’s a hard thing to do, as looking back over the list I’ve kept of this year’s reading, there are so many wonderful volumes I’ve enjoyed. So I’ll probably summarise a little, but here are my thoughts about my favourite literary bits of 2014!

The Russians

russian lit week

No reading year of mine would be complete without some of my favourite Russian authors, and 2014 was a bumper one! As well as Dostoevsky’s long and involving “The Idiot“, I also lost myself in Bely’s “Petersburg”, a huge, impressionistic masterpiece. But there were also shorter works – newly translated gems from Teffi and Gaito Gazdanov, as well as previously unavailable treats from old favour Bulgakov and newer favourite Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. I have plenty more Russians on Mount TBR – in fact, I could probably spend a good few years of the rest of my life reading only them! 🙂

European authors

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-B0509-0010-006,_Christa_Wolf

I spent time with a good number of European authors this year, including several from Germany. Christa Wolf, a Virago author long on my must-read list, was a revelation when I finally encountered her “The Quest For Christa T.” Timur Vermes shocked and impressed with “Look Who’s Back” and Laurent Binet’s unusual take on the historical novel, “HHhH”, was very special. I read more of the wonderful Stefan Zweig and also discovered Antal Szerb‘s very individual, quirky storytelling. And of course I made my first inroads into Proust, making my way through the first two volumes of his mammoth sequence.

Georges Perec

lifeperec

I guess Perec might well be my favourite discovery of the year. His writing is individual, brilliant, thought-provoking and very, very special. After being knocked out by “Life: A User’s Manual” early in the year, I went on to read several more of his books. All are different, all are excellent and none have disappointed me. I wish I’d discovered Perec earlier…

The North by Paul Morley

morley

Another chunkster – a huge, personal, absorbing and idiosyncratic book about what the north is and what it means to be a northerner by one of my favourite ever writers, Paul Morley. I guess you’d class it as non-fiction – I didn’t read a lot of that genre this year, but The North was probably enough on its own!

Rediscovering my Roots

lanark

Well, sort of. “Lanark” by Alasdair Gray is a very Scottish book and its epic, inventive and unconventional narrative really hooked me. One of those reads I couldn’t put down!

A Special Mention

The authors looking very cool!

“Where There’s Love, There’s Hate” by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo was a short but exceptionally entertaining read, parodying the classic crime genre beautifully but with hidden depths. I wish the authors had written more in this vein!

I could go on and on – looking back I’ve been lucky enough to read some *amazing* books this year – but these are the ones that stand out and strike me most. Let’s hope 2015’s reading is just as wonderful! 🙂

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So. I popped into the library yesterday to collect a book…

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This one in fact:

carey

I’ve enjoying reading and listening to John Carey’s thoughts for a while and I dealt with the book itch by reserving it from the library. Trouble is, it came in a couple of weeks ago and I forgot about it… Luckily (or unluckily) Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book mentioned it as he’d got a copy for Christmas and this reminded me and so I went to pick it up – which was a mistake, as it turned out, because the library sale section (old and unwanted books) had been revamped and I also came out with these:

library

I think I can hardly be blamed, though! The Orwell is a hardback of some uncollected pieces which will match my boxed hardback complete works thingy. The Persephone (a Persephone!) is the same collection of Dorothy Whipple short stories that captivated my friend J. in the Bloomsbury Oxfam. And the third book is a selection of Julian Maclaren-Ross’s letters (why does my library want to get rid of his books??) All for £3.40….. Not that I need any books after Christmas…

And then there was this in the Oxfam:

leeI read “Cider with Rosie” at school when we studied it in my Grammar School days. I loved it on first reading and hated it after we’d analysed it to death. But I’m intrigued by his Spanish Civil War days and so I figured maybe I should revisit and see what I make of it all those years late…. And £1.99 is not a bad price.

However, I got home to find a lovely review book from Michael Walmer:

charteris

And there is the Willa Cather from Heaven-Ali’s lovely giveaway:

my antonia

Well, I can’t deny that Mount TBR is out of control – it’s the floorboards I fear for most at the moment….. :s

…in which a variety of Santas *do* bring books!

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After the recent birthday bonanza of books, I wasn’t necessarily expecting a huge book haul over the festive period. However, I was delighted to receive several gems and surprises, as well as a lovely Secret Santa – I’ve been very blessed with books recently!

First up, OH surprised me with some unexpected titles (as he always manages to!):

bright particular

This rather appealing sounding book is nothing I’ve ever heard of – but as I’ve not read a lot of non-fiction in 2014, it’ll be ideal for next year!

russian books

He also tracked down a couple of Russian titles – one I’d heard of and one I’d not. Fascinating fact of the season – I went to school with Catherine Merridale! She was in my form at Grammar School and ended up being our Head Girl – small world!

colette

Middle Child came up trumps with this lovely new Colette title. I put it on my wish list recently to try to restrain my buying impulses, so I was very excited that she chose this – thanks, MC!

george sand

This was from my lovely friend J. who decided it would be a Good Thing for me after I reviewed my first George Sand book earlier in the year. Translated by Robert Graves, no less! 🙂

humans covenant

These two lovelies came from a work colleague and an old friend – I know nothing about either but they sound varied and interesting so that’s got to be good!

plath drawings

And from mother-in-law (with a little help from OH I suspect!) Sylvia Plath’s drawings – very exciting!!!

Last, but most *definitely* not least is the Virago Secret Santa. On the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group some of us do a Secret Santa every year, and my wonderful gifts came from the lovely Genny T (who I’d been lucky enough to meet up with earlier in the year at a London get-together). The parcel arrived adorned intriguingly with tape quoting L.M. Alcott:

pkg 2

pkg 1

Inside were three beautiful packages wrapped in bookish paper plus a card:

vss parcels 1

vss parcels

The contents turned out to be as fabulous as the exterior!

vss2014

“Bid Me to Live” by HD is probably the Virago I’ve been most keen to find but have failed most miserably to get, so I was *so* excited to receive this! And the Persephone is “Flush” by Virginia Woolf which I also don’t have! The tape is emblazoned with a Woolf quote and as Genny surmised will come in very handy this year! I was bowled over by my lovely VSS gifts; they’re just perfect – thanks Genny!

So Mount TBR gets a little larger and creakier – I will *definitely* have to do more book pruning in the new year….. =:o

Happy Christmas from the Ramblings!

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christmas_feature

(image courtesy untitledbooks.com)

Just a quick post to send good wishes to all readers of my ramblings! I do hope you all have a wonderful, relaxing and bookish festive season – posts will resume when I’ve recovering from opening all the oblong parcels under the tree! 🙂

2014 in First Lines!

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Image courtesy freewallsource.com

Image courtesy freewallsource.com

I don’t often pick up on the memes floating about online, but this one is very appealing and as I’ve found the ones I’ve read on other people’s blogs (Stuck-in-a-Book, Annabel’s House of Books, Fleur Fisher in Her World) fascinating, I thought I’d have a go to see what this tells me about the Ramblings! So here goes…

January:

Today is the birthday of author E.M. Forster…

February:

Echo – by Anna Akhmatova

The roads to the past have long been closed
and what is the past to me now?
What is there? Bloody slabs,
or a bricked up door,
or an echo that still could not
keep quiet, although I ask so…
The same thing happened with the echo
as with what I carry in my heart

March:

Every so often I feel the need to dive into a chunkster – I got through a few last year, including “Anna Karenina” and “The Brothers Karamazov”, as well as “Life: A User’s Manual”. All hefty tomes, but it’s so enjoyable to sink yourself into a big book and really wallow in it for a while, not worrying about rushing to finish it and letting all the other books go to the bottom of Mount TBR….. 🙂

April:

Having really enjoyed my read of “Journey to the Centre of the Earth“, I’ve been keen to read another Verne – so stumbling across this Everyman edition of “Around the World in Eighty Days” in the local Oxfam book shop for 99p was rather timely!

May:

Finnish author Tove Jansson is probably best known as the woman behind the Moomins – certainly, that’s how I’d heard of her, although I confess that I’ve never read (or watched) the adventures of the little white creatures!

June:

Yes – that means I’m actually considering reading plans for this month; and we all know how disastrously things like that tend to go for me! For example, I honestly intended to take part in the LibraryThing Virago group’s First World War read-along – and I’ve totally failed to read even one book for that, despite having several on the shelves.

July:

I love reading a new author for the first time, and Boll is one of those – although I have been aware of his name and work for a little while.

August:

And let’s face it, I’m not knowing for succeeding with reading schedules! 🙂 However, August is the month designated by the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics to read just Viragos (and Persephones, which are counted as honorary Viragos!).

September:

… plus other niceness in London!

Yes, I managed to escape for another day out in the Big Smoke at the weekend – a joint visit to Kew Gardens and also the lovely bookshops of the Bloomsbury/Charing Cross Road area!

October:

As I’ve mentioned before, way back in the early 1980s, in my early days of exploratory reading, I stumbled across the book “Literary Women” by Ellen Moers. It became a book that shaped my life in many ways, because it sent me off in pursuit of a number of women writers including Colette, Simone de Beauvoir (and then Sartre) and of course Virginia Woolf.

November:

November is German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life. And what a good idea, because there’s so much wonderful German literature to be read and celebrated!

December:

I don’t often wish I was in other countries (except when I’m having grand dreams of travelling round Europe and Russia by train!) but I confess that I would rather like to be in New York next week!

Hmm – so what does that all tell me about my reading year?

1. I’ve read a lot of Russians

2. I’ve read a lot of Germans

3. I’ve shopped quite a bit

4. I still love Virginia Woolf!

You can read the original posts by clicking on the links; I shall do a proper sort of round-up before the end of the year. Having kept a little spreadsheet of all I’ve read, it will be interesting to see what I think are my best reads of the year! 🙂

 

Reading challenges ahoy!

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I often feel somewhat notorious (and a bit of a failure!) because of my inability to complete reading challenges! The first one I tried was the LibraryThing VMC group’s Elizabeth Taylor readalong a couple of year’s back, and I just about made it (though I did join in halfway through….). In 2013 their group read was for Barbara Pym and I burnt out mid-year. And this year, they went for a Great War themed readalong which I didn’t even get started with! I *did* succeed with my plan to read Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” series, however, and I’ve also completed the first volume of Proust (out of three I have) plus Olivia Manning’s “Balkan Trilogy”, so I suppose I’m not doing too badly!

I'm particularly keen on this era of Penguins

For 2015 I’ve decided, along with HeavenAli, Liz and possibly others, to read “The Forsyte Saga” – nine novels plus the odd interlude so at less than a book a month that should be manageable. However, a couple of other possibilities have reared their heads…

pp.001Ð050.indd

The most recent edition of Slightly Foxed magazine had an article on C.P. Snow, which reminded me that I have his “Strangers and Brothers” series of 11 novels on my bookshelves. I think they would be a remarkably interesting exercise following on from the Powells, particularly as Snow was satirised in “Dance” as J.C. Quiggin. The main issue I have with Snow is deciding on the order of reading, as the early novels were published in one order, but later Snow recommended a different reading order. I am one of those odd pedants who insists on reading the Narnia books in the order published, refusing to read “The Magician’s Nephew” first, so I think if I do read the Snows I shall be awkward and stick to the publication order.

Then there is Lawrence Durrell. I read and enjoyed “Prospero’s Cell” earlier in the year, and have been humming and hawing about whether to try his fiction, in particular his Alexandra Quartet. The question was decided in the Samaritan’s Book Cave at the weekend, when I popped down in search of books for Youngest Child’s university studies and instead came out with these:

alexandria

Yes, all four volumes of the Alexandria Quartet in lovely old Faber editions for £1 each. Cheaper than online with no postage involved (just the wear on my shoulder carting them around town).

So there are several series I could pick up and run with (let alone all the other recent arrivals). I am *definitely* going with “The Forsyte Saga”; but as for the others, I shall keep my mind very much open and free, and if those books happen to float past me, I may well be picking them up…! 🙂

Dimensional Doodlings

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Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott

Science fiction is a bit of a knotty topic for me, as I like some of but I’m a bit picky! In my twenties I did go through a phase of reading some ‘hard’ science fiction (alien battles and strange worlds) but if I’m honest I’m more attracted by the Star Trek / Doctor Who / fantasy and classic sci-fi type of work than the space army sort. I’ll happy read H.G. Wells and Douglas Adams but I’m not so comfortable with Asimov and Peter Hamilton!

flatland

“Flatland”, therefore, is the kind of speculative fiction that falls into my remit: described as a “mathematical fantasy about life in a two-dimensional world”, it was first published in 1884. Abbott, according to Wikipedia, was an English schoolmaster and theologian and although he wrote many works, this is the one that’s still read today. I picked my copy up while passing through St. Pancras station recently (no, not on my way to Hogwarts!) and it’s a very pretty little black Penguin Classic.

“Flatland” is a place of only two dimensions, and the story is narrated by an anonymous Square. He describes his world thus: “Imagine a vast sheet of paper on which Lines, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it… and you will have a pretty correct notion of my country and countrymen.”

So far, so good. However, this world of flatness has a rigid social hierarchy, at the bottom of which are women (straight lines) and at the top of which are the Polygons (the more angles you have, the higher your status). Everything is controlled by this hierarchy, and no progress is possibly through society for certain of the shapes; for others, the right sort of marriage or dangerous surgery when young to produce more angles or more equal lines, can help them rise in status. Abbott helpfully provides little diagrammatic illustrations in places to help us understand his concepts.

The Square tells us of life in Flatland; how the shapes learn to move around without damaging each other; the danger of women who, being straight lines, can seriously injure or kill anyone with whom the come into contact; and how any attempts to conceive of a world outside this one are punishable by destruction. However, the Square has strange experiences to come; first he dreams of a Lineland where creatures of different lengths exist along a line and communicate by song; then, as the millennium turns, he is visited by a Sphere from a three-dimensional world who opens his eyes to the reality of things like cubes that are not flat. It seems that every millennium this kind of visit happens, and attempting to pass the information on about three dimensions will have severe consequences for the Square…

Of course, we are very much in the land of satire here! Abbott was using his analogies here to comment on the rigidity of Victoria society and the restrictions placed upon people at that time. Social definitions were all (you only need to read Dickens or the Brontes to see that) and “Flatland” throws this into sharp relief. Particularly apt is the attitude towards women – let’s not forget that the Brontes published their books initially under male pseudonyms, and many of their subjects were women restricted by the mores of the era).

Abbott_older-medium

However, the book also has a scientific angle which is fascinating. It’s a little hard (for me, at least) to get your head around the concept of existing in one or two dimensions, as we’re so used to the three we have. Equally, the Square pushed the Sphere to reveal further secrets and consider if there is a fourth dimension – an idea that had been around for some time before Abbott was writing. The Sphere is a little resistant, but the point I think the books is ultimately making is that our perceptions and our understanding of the world are limited by our circumstances. This chimes in with the message in a James Burke programme I was watching on the BBC recently – everything is relative, there are no scientific absolutes and what we think at the moment may radically change as we discover more about ourselves and the universe around us. The Square struggles to hang onto the concept of three dimensions once he is back in Flatland – but once having been shown something new, he can never go back to his old way of thinking.

This was a fascinating little read, and I can see why it has survived as a classic. I’m no scientist, but I do like to watch popular science progs on TV, and “Flatland” still seemed relevant to our modern ways of thinking. Even if you haven’t got a scientific bent I still recommend Abbott’s book – it’ll certainly get you thinking about the space around you if nothing else! 🙂

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