Little Black Lovelies!


I have (rather sadly) spent most of this week in a state of great excitement about the impending publication of the Penguin Little Black Classics – 80 volumes at 80p each to celebrate 80 years of Penguin Classics. There’s a remarkably wide of range of authors represented, including many of my favourites, and so I’ve been keen to get my hands on some!

Penguin-330x330I was also very keen to buy them at a proper bookshop, rather than online, so I popped into my local Waterstones last week to find out if they would be stocking them. They told me they were going to be stocking the whole range – yay! – and when I went in today they’d done a wonderful display on the first floor next to the fiction section – I wish I’d had my camera on me, but anyway, well done Ipswich Waterstones!

I confess I came home with several of them – and I could have happy picked up the lot! – but here are the ones I chose:

black stackAnd here they are, all spread out:

black flat

The top row is Russians (of course!) – Tolstoy, Leskov, Chekhov, Turgenev, Dostoevsky and Gogol.

The middle row is English language writers – Conrad, Darwin, Whitman, Wharton and Pepys.

And the bottom row is Japanese/Chinese authors – Basho, Kenko, Shen Fu and Pu Songling.

They’re beautiful little books, worth 80p of anyone’s money – and I suspect more of them might make their way into the Ramblings before too much longer…

As for other weekend purchases – well, I was restrained:


A nice hardback of “A House Unlocked” by Penelope Lively – I’ve read all her children’s books and have several adult ones on Mount TBR – but this was only 50p and sounded fascinating!

So today has been a very happy bookish Saturday! 🙂

A Russian Snapshot


Twilight of the Eastern Gods by Ismail Kadare

I guess most readers will have had that thing where a book or an author keeps floating into your line of vision, until you just think that you better get on and read it so it stops bothering you! I had that last year with this book, which turned up regularly on my Big River recommendations, as well as on a number of blogs I was following. So when I stumbled on a nice hardback copy for £2 in an Oxfam shop just off the King’s Road, picking it up was a no-brainer.

Twilight of the eastern gods

Ismail Kadare is an Albanian poet and author, and “Twilight” is based on his experiences in Moscow in the 1950s. He spent time at the prestigious Gorky Institute for World Literature and was there at the time of the “Dr. Zhivago” scandal – when Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, while his novel could not even be published in the Soviet Union! So, ideal reading material for me, really…

The book opens with our unnamed narrator having a holiday at a writer’s retreat in Riga, on the Baltic. As he’s a young man, naturally much of his time is taken up with thoughts of girls – his beloved Lida Snegina, whom he’d been seeing in Moscow, plus a local beauty who reminds him of Lida. He befriends the local girl, telling her of the Albanian legend of Constantin and Doruntine, whereby a dead boy returns to bring his sister home for a celebration, fulfilling his promise to his mother. The legend informs the rest of the story and recurs throughout, in strange ways.

On the narrator’s return to Moscow, we are pitched into an unsettling and unstable world. Soviet Russia in the 1950s place was not an easy place to be, with its shifting loyalties, and the narrator soon comes to suspect that Albania may not be a favourite country with the authorities for much longer. He drinks and parties; fails to reconnect with Lida and tells his friend to have her instead, telling her he’s dead; and in a deserted part of the dormitory building he lives in, he stumbles across some samizdat pages of a book called “Dr. Zhivago”…

Shortly after this, Pasternak is awarded the Nobel Prize and a media storm erupts (not unlike a modern Twitter-storm, except this is in the form of radio and newspapers). The narrator is already disillusioned with the factory-like methods at the institute, where all the books turned out are Socialist Realist pap portraying idyllic peasants; therefore, he’s not really surprised at the reaction of the authorities. As the anti-Pasternak campaign howls through Russia like a Siberian wind, the young man lives a kind of precarious half-life, waiting to see whether he will have to leave Moscow and whether he can resolve the situation with Lida.


If I’m honest, I’m finding hard to decide what to say about this book; I wanted to like it a lot more than I did, but I ended up thinking that it was too fragmented, not coherent enough. The mix of the Albanian legends and the narrator’s odd relationship with Lida didn’t sit that well alongside the narrative about Soviet literature, and the Pasternak element was actually quite minor; almost something of an aside. I did enjoy reading “Twilight” but I didn’t really feel any link with the characters, and in many ways where this book worked best for me was in its portrait of the Moscow students and literati of the time. Many of the characters are based on people who were really at the Institute with Kadare, and many were real Russians like Yevtuschenko. It might be that this story would have worked better as a simple memoir of Kadare’s student years, but as it was things didn’t quite gel for me.

Nevertheless there was plenty that was enjoyable in the book (excellently translated, as usual, by David Bellos who also provides an essential foreword). The writing is lovely and Kadare is really good at catching the atmosphere of a place or time. He also captures the uncertainty of 1950s Moscow quite brilliantly, with the narrator’s insecurity, the never quite knowing what’s going to happen next. I’m glad I’ve read Kadare and I do have another of his works on the TBR – so maybe a further volume will change my mind!

A Japanese Trio


Back in the day (well, the 1990s/early 2000s – not quite so far back as my First Big Reads in the 1980s!) I went through what OH called my Japanese Period, when I was fairly obsessed with the country, its literature and its art. I read stacks of books by and about Mishima, drank plenty of tea and covered the walls with Japanese prints. It’s a hankering that still comes back to me periodically, and it was rekindled recently by my little post on Richard Brautigan’s birthday. He was a real lover of Japan and its culture (and its women!!) and I felt the need to dig out some Japanese titles I hadn’t read yet. In fact, rummaging among the shelves of Japanese books was an enjoyable and therapeutic exercise, and I ended up picking out and reading three different books: “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Basho; “Of Love and Barley – Haiku of Basho”; and “The Book of Tea” by Kakuzo Okakura. The haiku book is one I’ve had for a long time; the tea book was a Christmas gift; and I sent off for the “Narrow Road” because I just liked the sound of it!

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches by Basho

narrow road

Matsuo Basho is widely regarded as the greatest master of haiku, and Wikipedia says of him “Matsuo Bashō (?1644 – 1694) was the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan. During his lifetime, Bashō was recognized for his works in the collaborative haikai no renga form; today, after centuries of commentary, he is recognized as the greatest master of haiku (then called hokku). Matsuo Bashō’s poetry is internationally renowned; and, in Japan, many of his poems are reproduced on monuments and traditional sites.”

However, as well as a poet he was also an inveterate wanderer, and this collection brings together several brief travel sketches. Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa, who also provides a very informative introduction, the book contains five pieces; from Basho’s earliest travellings in “The Records of a Weather Exposed Skeleton”, to the title work where his art had reached its highest point. Each is a mixture of prose and haiku, with the most successful being when the transition between the two is seamless, evoking the journey and its emotional effect on the traveller.

Intriguingly, the translator renders the haiku in a four-line, stanza form, rather than the more usual three-line format. He explains that the rhythms of the stanza would seem more natural to the English-speaking reader and that his book is more for lovers of poetry than for scholarly study – which is a lovely idea, and certainly I’m not going to go all purist about it.

It was the middle of April when I wandered out to the beach of Suma. The sky was slightly overcast, and the moon on a short night of early summer had special beauty. The mountains were dark with foliage. When I thought it was about time to hear the first voice of the cuckoo, the light of the sun touched the eastern horizon, and as it increased, I began to see on the hills of Ueno ripe ears of wheat tinged with reddish brown and fishermen’s huts scattered here and there among the flowers of white poppy.

At sunrise I saw
Tanned faces of fisherman
Among the flowers
Of white poppy.

The prose is spare, yet evocative, putting the haiku into context and showing us how Basho would take a moment of existence and capture it beautifully in a few lines. A lovely, slim volume with some beautiful, memorable imagery.

Of Love and Barley – Haiku of Basho


I picked this book up ages ago, but after reading Basho’s travel writing I wanted to read more of his haiku, and this collection has them rendered in the more traditional three-line format. Translated by Lucien Stryk, the book also has an excellent introduction by him which did a lot to help me understand the purpose of haiku which in turn helped me read and enjoy this book so much more. As Stryk says:

So the poet presents an observation of a natural, often commonplace event, in plainest diction, without verbal trickery. The effect is one of spareness, yet the reader is aware of a microcosm related to transcendent unity. A moment crystallized, distilled, snatched from time’s flow, and that is enough. All suggestion and implication, the haiku event is held precious because, in part, it demands the reader’s participation: without a sensitive audience it would appear unimpressive.

Certainly, these short but lovely haiku *do* capture the fleeting moments of life and perhaps are also useful in slowing us down a little, making us more mindful of our surroundings, of the everyday simple things which make up our life. In these days of mass media, constant distractions from gadgets and social media, and all the pressures of modern living, we certainly need all the help we can get to remember what it is to be human!

Moonlit plum tree –
spring will come.

The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura

book of tea

The third of my Japanese books was a Christmas gift from Eldest Child, picked from my wishlist. I can’t actually recall where I stumbled across mention of it, but I like tea and I like Japan, so I guess those things were instrumental in my choice!

Okakura himself sounds a fascinating character; given a Western education when young, he didn’t actually start to learn anything about his traditional culture until he was 11. He travelled the world, lived in India and America, and was something of a cultural ambassador for Japan. The book was written in English, and although it purports to be a study of Japanese tea culture (or “Teaism” as he jokingly call it) it’s actually a lot more. Okakura uses the format of his book to sneak in a number of observations about the differences between East and West, as well as providing a study of Japanese culture as a whole – its religions, its aesthetics and its attitudes to life, love and war.

Those of us who know not the secret of properly regulating our own existence on this tumultuous sea of foolish troubles which we call life are constantly in a state of misery while vainly trying to appear happy and contented. We stagger in the attempt to keep our moral equilibrium, and see forerunners of the tempest in every cloud that floats on the horizon. Yet there is joy and beauty in the rolls of the billows as they sweep outward toward eternity. Why not enter into their spirit or, like Liehtse, ride upon the hurricane itself?

There’s some beautiful, thought-provoking writing in this deceptively slim volume, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone wanting to explore the Japanese soul.

Reading these three volumes in succession was a wonderful experience; if I can’t travel in real life, at least I can do so in books, and my recent visit to Japan was a joy! 🙂

Eccentrics and Long-Forgotten Stories


Bright Particular Stars by David McKie

One of the things I love about OH is his unfailing ability to find me unusual and interesting books – in fact, it was owing to his relating a recommendation from a work colleague many decades ago that I first read Italo Calvino! He (OH, that is) came up trumps at Christmas time as well, by presented me with this intriguing-sounding book that turned out to be an excellent read.

bright partic

“Bright Particular Stars” is a collection of 26 chapters, each containing the tale of a Great British Eccentric and the Place They Were Attached To – or something along those lines! Author David McKie is a former Guardian editor and obviously has a love of Great Britain and some of the individuals the nation has produced. So we get stories of people like G.F. Muntz who encouraged the cult of the bushy beard to great effect during the reign of Queen Victoria (an attempt to establish masculinity under a female monarch, apparently!); Garibaldi’s visit to the UK which was perceived as a danger to the nation because of the support he had from the working classes; and Victorian bibliomaniac Sir Thomas Phillipps who nurtured dreams of possessing every book in the world:

Don Juan in pursuit of some ravishing beauty was a model of self-denial compared with Sir Thomas on the trail of some lusted-for book or manuscript. The word bibliophile fell hopelessly short of describing his condition. Some called him a bibliomaniac. Sir Thomas himself went further. He described his disease as ‘vello-mania’, since manuscripts and every kind of original document were a part of his addiction too. He could never resist a purchase.

I kind of know how he felt…. 🙂

However, I have to say that I thought the description of the book as a “Gallery of Glorious Eccentrics” was in fact a little misleading, and didn’t actually do the book justice. There are some quite dark stories here, like the one about the factory children of Tideswell and the dreadful privations they suffered; and the rather strange religion of the Jezreels in Gillngham.

As well as the crazies and the cruelties, there are also some really inspiring stories of those who’ve gone the extra mile to improve things for their fellow human beings, like Mary Macarthur, a trade unionist who fought to improve the lot of woman chain-makers; and Adelaide Proctor who helped women train as typesetters. Then, of course, there are the out-and-out eccentrics, like Peter Warlock, known to ride naked round the village of Eynsford on a motorbike…

Author David McKie

Author David McKie

This was such an enjoyable read! I confess to being a bit of a fan of programmes like “Coast”, full of bite-sized, informative pieces about places round the UK and in some ways this was like a book version of that! McKie certainly knows his stuff, and there were some quite moving moments while he was visiting the places in his essays and reflecting on the history and events that had taken place there. The piece on Scottish self-taught geologist and writer Hugh Miller was particularly effective.

“Bright Particular Stars” is a wonderfully dippable, very entertaining read and was a great joy to read during dark and dull January nights. Another winner from OH! 🙂

The Joy of Library Sales! (and of course charity shops…)


It’s been an odd sort of week at the Ramblings – mostly because I chose to spend the bulk of the half-term break being ill with some kind of flu-like virus. I was not amused, but at least I seem to be coming out of it – just in time to return to work!

I also got a *lot* of reading done before the illness really kicked in (reviews to folllow) and then hit a slump, which I am only just coming out of – I didn’t much like it when I was in it, though. And it was also a week in which no new books arrived – until today, that is…

I felt well enough to pop into town and return a library book; only to find that the library were having a little book sale. This is often an excuse for wild abandon and mass book buying, but I *was* restrained, picking up just two:

beauvoir zweig

I was most chuffed with the Stefan Zweig – I already have Buchmendel, but not the other story, and having been bowled over by “The Grand Budapest Hotel” recently, I feel ready to read more Zweig. I already own the Beauvoir, but this copy comes with extra material at the end. And it was 50p for two books, so there you go!

As for the charity shops, I wasn’t intending to visit them today, but I slipped into the British Heart Foundation as last week they’d been moving their bookshelves around and so I couldn’t browse. The newly tidied shelves had one volume that caught my eye:

mystery in white

This particular volume of the British Library Crime Classics has been highly rated by many bloggers I respect, so I was happy to part with my £2 for a copy in brilliant condition!

And last, but definitely not least, I thought I’d show my face in the Samaritans Book Cave – a place where I could happy pick up umpteen books – and came away with two wonderful Virago titles:

miniver robertson

I was particularly pleased with these because they’re original green covers and they’re in fabulous condition – the Samaritans peeps opined that they looked unread, and I’d agree; they’re just a little tanned on the pages with age, but the covers are lovely. The peeps were saying they hadn’t had many Viragos in lately (they know of my love of them!) and so it was an extra delight to find these. I’ve actually read “Mrs Miniver” in a modern cover version, so it was nice to get a green. And I own a different E. Arnot Robertson (an author who strongly divides Virago readers!) so was a great find.

So the week ends well, with some lovely new acquisitions to make up for a dullish, illish few days – off to do some reading! 🙂

Love and Loss in South America


Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis

Sometimes with books there’s a kind of serendipity: you stumble upon something new-to-you and interesting in a charity shop which turns out to be a really great read; you find a little novella in a bookshop by the same author which is excellent; and then a lovely publisher brings out a new edition of the author’s best-known work. That’s what’s happened to me with Machado de Assis, and I can’t help feeling there’s some kind of book fairy at work somewhere!

dom casmurro

The book in question is “Dom Casmurro”, widely regarded as Machado de Assis’s masterpiece, and the lovely publisher is Daunt Books, who’ve very kindly supplied me with a review copy. And first off, I have to say this is such a beautifully produced book (as are all the Daunts I own) – lovely embossed cover, French flaps; it’s a joy!

“Dom Casmurro” is the narrator of our story, and his real name is Bento Santiago; however, the nickname comes from his perceived reticence and aristocratic bearing. Bento is looking back on his life in his later years, reflecting on the past and his great love for his neighbour, Capitu.

Bento lives in Rio with his beloved mother, a variety of relatives and the family hanger-on Jose Dias. As both young people are making their way through their teens a revelatory moment betrays to Bento his feelings towards Capitu. A kind of obsessive love takes hold of him, and the rest of his life will be determined by this love.

Capitu is a complex character; portrayed as flirtatious and capricious, Bento is early on tormented by jealousy, convinced she’s going to be swept off her feet by someone else. Things are further complicated by the fact that Bento’s mother has made a promise to God that he’ll become a priest – which is the last thing he wants!

A coconut palm that saw me perturbed and divined the cause murmured from the top of its crown that it was not unseemly for boys of fifteen to get into corners with girls of fourteen; on the contrary, adolescents of that age had no other occupation, nor corners any other use. It was an old coco tree, and for myself, I believed in old coco trees, even more than old books. Birds, butterflies, a grasshopper that was practising his summer music, all the living folk of the air, were of the same opinion.

Bento plots and plans to get out of going to the seminary, helped (and often hindered!) by Jose Dias; he begins his studies but eventually manages to make his escape, becoming a lawyer and marrying his beloved. With a home of his own, and his happily married best friend close by, things should be ideal for Bento. However, jealousy will eat away at any temperament, and Bento’s is not one to be calm. Additionally, there is the problem of a son and heir – Capitu eventually produces one, but all does not seem to be right…

In “Dom Casmurro” Machado de Assis has created a wonderfully unreliable narrator! Bento sees events through a filter of his own sensibility, and all of his emotions are tempered by jealousy and insecurity. He eventually comes to suspect his wife and best friend of the biggest betrayal you could imagine, though the reader is never sure if this is the case or if it’s just a figment of Bento’s fervid imagination.

Machado de Assis’ writing here is quite wonderful; his captivating flights of fancy are just lovely, and the narrative proceeds at what is quite a leisurely pace, allowing us to live alongside Bento, almost inside his mind and seeing things from his point of view. All of the characters are vibrant and alive; I was particularly fond of the self-serving Jose Dias, with his opinions shifting like a leaf in the wind! And there are wonderful examples of the absurd, with the narrative going off in unusual directions, which are just a delight.

Let us be happy once and for all, before the reader, half dead with waiting, picks himself up and goes for a walk.

However, the book is also a serious portrait of how jealousy can blight not only the life of the person consumed by it, but also those around them. Bento is marked by his mistrust, but it affects his wife, his friend and his son. Machado de Assis is a clever enough writer never to make it clear whether Capitu really *is* unfaithful, with all the consequences of that purported action also being in doubt. Jealousy is a poisonous emotion and here it certainly poisons all those around it.

Machado de Assis

I find it hard to actually describe what it is about Machado de Assis’ style that’s so unique, but his work is quite unlike anything else I’ve read. Certainly, there’s an impressionistic quality about the writing, with some lovely imagery and a narrative that really gets us inside the head of Bento. This is the third of the author’s works I’ve read, and with each one I’ve loved his writing more and appreciated his very individual brilliance. I didn’t know quite what I was stumbling on when I discovered “A Chapter of Hats” in the Oxfam all those months ago, but I’m so glad I did because without that, I wouldn’t have read this wonderful work!

(“Dom Casmurro” is published today by Daunt Books; many thanks to them for providing a review copy)

Getting to the heart of the Russian soul


Midnight in Siberia by David Greene

Some books are just made for the particular reader, capturing a particular interest or love they have, or just speaking to them more strongly than others. Let’s face it, I’m known for my love of all things Russian, but not all books about the country or its people grab me. However, “Midnight in Siberia”, just published by Alma Books, could have been written with me in mind.


David Greene is a reporter forNPR in the USA, and has a history of spending time in Russia. Assigned there in 2009 as Moscow Bureau Chief for NPR News, this book was inspired by a return visit and his second trip on the Trans Siberian Express (the first having been taken in 2011 with his wife Rose). This time round, he travelled for the most part with a Russian NPR colleague, Sergei, and his intention seems to have been to get to the heart of the Russian people. The travels were featured in a series of broadcasts on NPR, and then David was persuaded to turn his experiences into a book.

Greene obviously feels a strong attachment to ordinary Russians, so much so that each of the chapters is named after the main character he encounters in it. It’s an unusual format, and made me think that perhaps there should have been less emphasis on the train journey in the blurb; because, truth be told, Greene’s interest is very much more in the people than in the landscape or the journey!

David and Sergei travel for the most part third class, crammed into small compartments and surviving on a diet of tea and instant noodles (made with the water in the carriages for tea-making!) As they journey on deeper into Russia they encounter a variety of people from different backgrounds, all seemingly struggling to get along in the modern Russia with its political corruption and extremes of rich and poor. David chases a meteorite; visits the factory of the inventor of the Kalashnikov rifle; bonds with Sergei’s family; and finally reaches Vladivostok, the end of the line, which feels rather like the edge of the world.

There’s a great tradition of travel writing about the journey to Siberia, from Chekhov through Eric Newby to more recent authors like Ian Frazier. I’ve read Chekhov’s “Sakhalin Island” and Newby’s “The Big Red Train”, both of which gave a strong sensation of travelling through the land and the landscape, encountering the vastness that is Siberia whilst meeting people along the way. A more recent read, “Journey into Russia” by Laurens van der Post, also took me into the depths of the Russian countryside.

However, if I’m honest, I got much less of a sense of travelling with this book; the journey Greene seems more keen to make is one into the Russian psyche. He seems to have a great need to understand them as a people, and it’s this aspect that informs the book most. Greene is coming from a western, very American viewpoint, and he often seems baffled by the Russians’ reaction to events. Throughout his narrative he repeatedly expresses surprise and frustration that they don’t rebel more, kick out their corrupt leaders and embrace democracy.

What a strange purgatory Russians live in. For so many years they could not travel freely and took a major risk if they wrote or said anything critical of the government or anyone well connected. There were severe limits on where people could work and who could own businesses or property. Today many of those restrictions are gone. Life is more free and open. And yet the fear remains. The risk remains. In a way, maybe clear limits of toleration are less fearsome that erratic limits of toleration. Uncertainty about being punished is more intimidating that certainty. You are always just left to wonder.

However, as the book goes on, he comes to recognise that the Russian people are very different to those in the west; they have a history of strong leadership, a patriarchal figure, whether the early Rus’ leaders. Ivan the Terrible or Stalin. As the book continues and Greene’s understanding of the Russians widens, he realises that Putin is only the latest in a succession of these figures and that nothing has really changed over centuries of Russian culture. There is a divide between the ruling classes and the general mass of the population, with the latter feeling powerless to take any action. The Russian people crave stability and the only thing they perceive which gives them this is a strong leader.

Nevertheless, the western world, with its extremes of poverty, its huge gulf between rich and poor, and its constant government surveillance, is not so different as the Russia which is portrayed here; a reality which Greene doesn’t always seem ready to grasp, with his slightly naive and old-fashioned belief in western democracy.


I felt that the end of the book was somewhat contracted, as the last leg of the journey was covered in one paragraph; it was as if Greene had become restricted by the structure he’d chosen for the book. As it was very much based on interviews with the people he’d come across on the journey, if he had none he felt he had nothing to say about the journey and the country. This was a shame in a way, because when he forgot his self-imposed restrictions and wrote about landscape he encountered, there were some beautiful images of places and people.

However, there was much to love in this book; the glimpses of travel on the train were evocative; the insight into the difference between Russian behaviour in public and private were fascinating; and the deep affection which developed between Greene and the various people he encountered was very moving. The book provided a wonderful snapshot of life in modern-day Russia – and I hope Greene gets to visit again to reconnect with a people he obviously loves!

(Review copy kindly provided by Alma, for which many thanks!)

Shifting Sands and Shifting Loyalties


Tales from the Queen of the Desert by Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Bell was a pioneering and fascinating woman, very much ahead of her time. As Wikipedia tells us: Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, CBE (14 July 1868 – 12 July 1926) was an English writer, traveller, political officer, administrator, archaeologist and spy who explored, mapped, and became highly influential to British imperial policy-making due to her skill and contacts, built up through extensive travels in Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Arabia. Along with T. E. Lawrence, Bell helped establish the Hashemite dynasties in what is today Jordan as well as in Iraq.

She played a major role in establishing and helping administer the modern state of Iraq, utilising her unique perspective from her travels and relations with tribal leaders throughout the Middle East. During her lifetime she was highly esteemed and trusted by British officials and given an immense amount of power for a woman at the time. She has been described as “one of the few representatives of His Majesty’s Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection”.

Yup – that’s pretty inspirational! Her books are still in print today and she turns up regularly in anthologies of travel writing. And the full Wikipedia entry makes fascinating reading; here was a woman not afraid to go out into the world and explore it, trying to change it for the better.


“Tales from the Queen of the Desert” collects extracts from two of Bell’s works, “Persia” and “Syria: The Desert and the Sown”, and it’s been published to coincide with a planned movie of Bell’s life starring Nicole Kidman. As I haven’t read the originals, I can’t give any info on what’s been edited or whether this edition improves on reading the full books. However, what I can say is that it’s absorbing stuff!

With the impression of the deserted western roads still fresh in your memory, the appearance of the bazaars and of this eastern gate will fill you with surprise. Tehran, which from the west looked almost like a city of the dead, cut from all intercourse with the outer world, is alive after all and in eager relationship with a world of its own. Here in the dust and the sunshine is an epitome of the living East, and, standing unnoticed in such a doorway, you will admit that you have not travelled in vain. But as the wonderful procession of people files past you, too intent upon their own affairs to give you more
than a contemptuous glance, you will realize what a gulf lies between you. The East looks to itself; it knows nothing of the greater world of which you are a citizen, asks nothing of you and of your civilization.

Bell was a seasoned traveller and a great lover of antiquities and archaeology and that shines through in her prose. She’s keen to discover new and uncharted sites, unflustered by the difficulties of travel and seems to rise to meet any challenge unbowed. Whether dining with a notable host in soaking wet clothes, travelling half the length of a country without a passport or negotiating the delicacies of Arab politics, nothing flummoxes her. Although it’s not revealed by this book, she had quite a hand in the formation of the modern Arab countries as the Wikipedia article reveals, and the peoples of the countries she travelled through seem to hold her in great esteem.

I have to admit that I find Eastern politics frankly baffling and I did struggle a little here, not knowing the background in detail. Much of the problems seem to stem from tribal and religious feuds and dissent which continue to today, and it’s a great shame that some kind of peace and tolerance has not been found amongst races and creeds. Bell observes the East with a cool Western gaze and is quick to define particular races by particular characteristics, something we might not do so rapidly nowadays.

And these gardens, also with their tall trees and peaceful tanks, are subject to the unexpected vicissitudes of Eastern fortune. The minister falls into disgrace, the rich merchant is ruined by the exactions of his sovereign ; the stream is turned off, the water ceases to flow into the tanks and to leap in the fountains, the trees die, the flowers wither, the walls crumble into unheeded decay, and in a few years the tiny paradise has been swept forgotten from the face of the earth, and the conquering desert spreads its dust and ashes once more over it all.

However, where the book comes alive is with its travel reportage. Bell’s writing is wonderful, with luminous descriptions of landscape and desert. It’s clear she adored the country, loving the freedom of travel, and revelling in the relative lack of restriction compared with Victorian and Edwardian society. What’s fascinating also is seeing the difference between the tribal attitudes to woman and that accorded to her, as a Christian Englishwoman, given much more liberty that the females in the harem.


It’s the imagery I return to, the wonderful conjuring up of the strange terrain and the mystical ruins she passes through, recording many for posterity before the locals dismantle them without ceremony to build their own dwellings. I got to the end of this book and suddenly felt a loss, only then realising quite how absorbed in Bell’s life and travels I’d become.

To wake in that desert dawn was like waking in the heart of an opal. The mists lifting their heads out of the hollows, the dews floating in ghostly wreaths from the black tents, were shot through first with the faint glories of the eastern sky and then with the strong yellow rays of the risen sun. I sent a silver and purple kerchief to Fellah ul ‘Isa, “for the little son ” who had played solemnly about the hearth, took grateful leave of Namrud, drank a parting cup of coffee, and, the old sheikh holding my stirrup, mounted and rode away with Gablan. We climbed the Jebel el ‘Alya and crossed the wide summit of the range ; the landscape was akin to that of our own English border country but bigger, the sweeping curves more generous, the distances further away. The glorious cold air intoxicated every sense and set the blood throbbing to my mind.

Bell quotes an Arab poem which ends with the words “And the best companion for all time is a book.” I have to concur with that, because this book was a wonderful companion and allowed me to spend some time alongside Gertrude Bell during her travels. If you’re interested in pioneering women, this is definitely a good place to start – and I really want to explore more of her life and work!

(Review copy kindly provided by Hesperus Press, for which many thanks!)

Who was mad and who was sane


The Alienist by Machado de Assis

Another of my favourite authorial discoveries last year was Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, usually just known by his surnames. I stumbled across his short story collection, “A Chapter of Hats”, in the local Oxfam and loved his writing style and his vivid imagination. So when I was in London at the end of the year, I quickly picked up a copy of his novella “The Alienist” from the lovely Foyles. Published by Melville House Press as part of their ‘Art of the Novella’ series, it sounded really intriguing.


“The Alienist” of the title is one Simão Bacamarte, a physician who sacrifices a burgeoning career to return to his home town and dedicate himself to the new science of psychology. The town welcomes him with open arms, and it’s not long before he’s opened its first asylum and is merrily committing citizens to it, ready to investigate what’s causing their insanity. However, the number of people interred increases; Simão’s wife becomes discontented; the townsfolk start to rebel when obviously harmless and sane people are locked away; and it becomes harder and harder to discern who is mad and who is sane.

The plot of this short book twists and turns marvellously, as the poor confused people of Itaguai try to come to terms with having such a prodigal son of a scientist in their midst. The definitions of sanity are increasingly tenuous and fragile until it almost seems as if the whole town is mad. The army doesn’t help the matter and I started to wonder how Machado de Assis could possibly resolve the story!


But he did – and brilliantly! This is of course a very clever satire on the human condition, and a wonderful commentary on how varied we mortals are. Sanity is often something of a sliding scale, depending on the mores of the society we live in, and fortunately nowadays we’ve learned to be less judgemental. Some of the reasons given for committing people are laughable and I do hope it wasn’t really like that in the author’s time!

Machado de Assis’ style is wonderfully dry and witty, and this was definitely one of the best of his that I’ve read. Luckily, Daunt Books have very kindly sent me a copy of his “Dom Casmurro” which I’m very much looking forward to reading. If you haven’t read this wonderful author before, “The Alienist” would be a very good place to start!

Five out, two in – and a small collection begins…


I’ve often learned to my cost that if I don’t grab a bargain in a charity shop when I see it, the book will most likely be gone if I return a week later, kicking myself for hesitating.

And last week I hesitated – despite buying the lovely Trollopes with the retro covers, and contemplating the collectability of the designs, I *didn’t* bring home a copy of “Persuasion” from the same series. And yes, I kicked myself. And yes I went back to the Oxfam yesterday. And yes (thank goodness!) it was still there so it came home with me!


“Persuasion” is my favourite Austen – so I’m glad I finally got it. I don’t suppose four books really count as a collection, and I’m not going to scour the Internet for copies. But if I see any interesting titles in this series, they really will come home with me….

I did think I was doing quite well this weekend, as I took in five (large) volumes to donate, so the ratio of in/out books was a good one. However, on the way to my bus, I spotted that one of the local building societies was having a charity book sale. And since every blogger I know raves about Shirley Jackson, it would have been impolite not to bring this home:


So the ratio is still good and having actually given away some books I feel empowered to clear out even more!


Meanwhile, I thought I would point you to another couple of reviews I provided for the recent edition of Shiny News Books! The first is a non-fiction title, “Nairn’s London” by Ian Nairn. I’ve reviewed one of his other books here, but this is considered his best and it didn’t let me down.

nairnNairn’s a wonderfully opinionated author, with a real passion for what he writes about – you can read more here.

dear readerThe other book I covered turned out to be a real treat. “Dear Reader” by Paul Fournel is published by Pushkin Press in a lovely little edition, and it takes on the subject of e-reader vs paper in a very entertaining way. However, I was very excited to find out that Fournel is an Oulipan, and the book is sprinkled with references to Calvino, Perec and the like. Find out more here.

Shiny New Books is of course stuffed full of reviews, recommendations and bookish stuff – you’ll most definitely come out of it with an expanded wish list! 🙂

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