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“…it’s a dark, twisted road we are on…”

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It’s been a bit of a year on the Ramblings, emotionally, and very much the year of listening to the wonderful First Aid Kit. I discovered the band early in the year (thank you to whichever blog it was that pointed me to them) and have listened to them constantly. They’ve resonated a lot, particularly their hit “Emmylou”, which references Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, as my dad, who we lost this year, was a huge fan of both (and of country music in general). This has to be one of my favourite FAK songs:

However, it’s the traditional time for books of the year round-ups, and reading matter has been a bit of a refuge. It’s always hard to pick favourites, but I’ll have a try! Rather than just doing a simple list, I thought I might split them into categories a bit; and these are just a few random choices, really, as there have been *so* many good books this year.

Colette

colette

2015 was the year I really returned to Colette. In fact, her “Shipwrecked on a Traffic Island” collection was one of the first books I read, and I went on to revisit “The Blue Lantern” and “The Other Woman” both of which were magnificent. My goodness, that woman could write!

 

 

Russians old and new

librarianNeedless to say, I spent a fair amount of time reading Russians this year; some were revisits and some authors new to me, and all excellent. One particular highlight was Mikhail Elizarov’s “The Librarian”, a new book from Pushkin, which was stunning; and the Strugatskys’ “The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn” crossed and stretched genres in a wonderfully inventive way. I *finally* after about 40 years read “Doctor Zhivago” and loved it more than the film. And I re-read “The Master and Margarita” and “Dead Souls” and thought they were both utterly marvellous. I do *love* my Russian authors….

Other re-reads

5a_voyage_out_1957I’m often a bit twitchy about re-reading, thinking there are new books I need to get to. But since I’ve been reading for so long, and my memory is often sketchy, some re-reads are like new reads and I did make time to revisit some titles this year. Particularly striking was Virginia Woolf’s “The Voyage Out“, which I’d last read nearly 35 years ago. I returned to it in its centenary year and found it excellent; when I first read it, I’d just been stunned by “Mrs. Dalloway”, and I don’t think I did “Voyage” justice. Another stunner was “The Bell Jar“, which I was happy to discover I loved as much as I did in my teens! And an unexpected pleasure was Charles Williams’ “All Hallow’s Eve“, quite a dark book but wonderfully written and absolutely gripping. And I ended the year by beginning my re-read of Dorothy Richardson’s seminal “Pilgrimage” sequence, which promises to be quite an experience.

Some new titles and some new classics

UzupisClassics (anything pre about 1980 really) are pretty much my favourite books and I spent a lot of time on them this year. However, one modern book I read and loved was “The Republic of Uzupis” by Hailji, a Korean author. The book had come highly recommended and I found it bewitching; clever, unusual and dream-like, it was one of my best modern reads for ages. However, there were some wonderful classics in my reading life too: Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” was an epic read for German Literature Month; Adolfo Bioy Casares’ “The Invention of Morel” was absolutely engrossing and very, very clever; and Lampedusa’s “The Leopard” lived up to its reputation.

 

The 1924 Club

green hat

 

This wonderful initiative by Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book saw a whole lot of us bloggers reading books from 1924, which was a fascinating and rewarding experience. My books included Colette, Michael Arlen’s “The Green Hat” (a real treat), Agatha Christie’s “Poirot Investigates” and Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist“. All great fun, and we plan to do another Club next year for 1938!

 

 

So although the year has had some hideous low points, the reading has helped to keep me sane and let me encounter other worlds and cultures – which is one of the reasons I love to read. I’m making no big plans for the new year apart from to read the rest of Dorothy Richardson and follow my muse. So let’s hope 2016 brings better experiences and even more reading!

It is “a pity” that a woman should write – The Camomile: A Virago Guest Review.

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The Camomile by Catherine Carswell

(Middle Child has been so enthused by her reading of this wonderful book, republished as a Virago Modern Classic, that I invited her to share her thoughts again here. I read “The Camomile” myself pre-blog and loved it – Carswell is another writer deserving of our continuing recognition. Over to Middle Child!)

It is a common occurrence in my family to find yourself in some small, tucked away charity shop in a cold town in England, a pile of green-covered novels in one hand and a phone dialling your mother in the other. “Hi Mum, it’s me. I’m in a book shop and they’ve got some Viragos. Yes, I’ll read you the titles…” After a comical discussion about which ones she has, but which ones I ‘must read’, I dump a stack in front of the bored volunteer on the till, who gives me a vague look of confusion. Catherine Carswell’s The Camomile was a result of one such occasion, found in a Loros in Leicester. As exposed in my previous guest post, I am guilty of book-list-anxiety – switching off to the ever-growing MUST READ list and instead retreating to knitting. Therefore, it took me several months to get through the first eighty pages, but mere hours to dash full speed, heart-first through the rest.

camomile

I won’t relay Carswell’s entire life story to you; we all know how to use Wikipedia now (thanks Mum). Instead, I just want to nod to the parts I find fitting. Catherine Carswell grew up in Glasgow and dabbled in art, literature and writing, enrolling for English Literature classes at the University of Glasgow. Although the best pupil, she was denied a degree because of her gender. Carswell made legal history in 1908 when she successfully filed for annulment from her husband Herbert Jackson, who was taken to a mental institution where he remained for the rest of his life. Carswell lived a full life, working as a critic for the Glasgow Herald (a job she subsequently lost after a favourable review of her close friend D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow), re-marrying and having a son, writing her two novels Open the Door! and The Camomile, and winning the Andrew Melrose Prize for the former novel. But now, for our protagonist (and have fun drawing the parallels).

Ellen Carstairs is a young woman in Glasgow in the early twentieth century, who lives with her ‘ridiculous and annoying’ Aunt Harry and her brother Ronald. The first section of the novel focusses on Ellen’s artistic exploits, including a long trip to Frankfurt to study music, and her experimental writing back in Glasgow. Ellen is constantly trying to escape convention, whether it is avoiding her evangelical Aunt’s mood swings or the private pupils that she teaches music to. She rents a ‘frowsty and poor’ room in order to evade her Aunt and write, including her journal-letters to her Frankfurt friend Ruby, now living in London. Aunt Harry practically passes out every time Ellen picks up a pen, Ronald thinks it is a ‘mistake for a woman’, and the women in her circles are all getting married, a predicament that Ellen perceives as like ‘a lamb going of its own free will to the slaughter’.

As the story advances, Ellen befriends a priest-turned-scholar, John Barnaby, who she nicknames Don John. He is several years her elder and mentors her writing ability, sending several of her stories to London publishers. Don John seems to be the only one that supports Ellen’s exploits, but is distracted by his own hunger for literature that veils the fact he is on the verge of starvation. Life brightens for Ellen when Ruby invites her to London for a visit filled with promise, but then there is the passing of a couple of months before we are reunited with our protagonist again (and with less than 100 pages left!).

And something awful has happened. Something terrible.

Ellen is engaged to be married.

At this point I found myself racing through the pages in a panicked frenzy, as the journal entries become shorter, less vivacious, and Ellen’s literary hopes and artistic dreams deteriorate into shopping trips, fancy dresses, and pearl necklaces. Her fiancée, doctor Duncan, is unbearable, not because he is a bully, womanizer, or unfaithful, but because he is the quintessential repressed man. When Ellen tries to discuss the deeper meaning of their relationship, or asks him why they have to keep to convention, he ‘simply laughs’ at her. He is caught between loving Ellen for her individuality, but wants her soul and being to be their ‘delicious secret’ and for her to tone herself down for others:

In India I must not speak of anything abstract or “superior,” or of “high-brow works of art,” unless I am content to be regarded as a bore and a blue-stocking.

In a heart-beat, I felt like I had switched from reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage to D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. Suddenly, Duncan’s ‘shoulders blot out all the rest of the world’.

carswell

I will not spoil the ending for you, but instead dwell on a theme that I felt very strongly shined out of the pages. Mental health is an undertone that ominously pervades the book. Suicide occurs before the book begins, and a peripheral character goes to the asylum. Small mentions of peculiar feelings in the initial chapters of the book gave me the impression that Ellen was experiencing depression. After Ellen becomes engaged it seems to worsen; she reflects on those unpredictable days when she awakes only to find the veil on the world has been lifted:

Will anyone ever be able to explain why on some days, though one may feel quite cheerful and even happy, one sees a world without any magic in its outlines and colours? With me, when such days have followed one another in a fairly long succession – say for a week on end – I begin to wonder if this may not be the true and normal vision of life?

She tries to explain to her friend Madge that she is ‘feeling very low’, but Madge does not really believe in ailments unless ‘the other person can show at least a broken bone’, so she ‘simply laughs and says “Never you mind!”’. To me, this seems very familiar to the attitudes of many today, and it is eerie that almost a century later, perceptions of mental health still feel very similar to Madge’s.

At the centre of these themes, Ellen is fierce, unconsciously radical, and organically relays her turbulent navigation of convention, love, and intellectual desire. Carswell is now considered an integral female Scottish writer of the early 20th century, thanks to the republication of her novels by Virago.

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this with us, Middle Child. On a lighter note, MC has also rather cleverly tracked down a nail varnish that matches the Virago green of these early books and here it is:

Barry-M-christmas-tree_20_5_

It’s from Models Own and the picture is courtesy of http://marinelovespolish.blogspot.fr/2014/12/mon-beau-sapin.html. So if you want Virago nails, this is the polish to go for! :)))

Festive Bookishness!

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As I’ve probably mentioned before, Christmas is usually a bookish time for me as all my friends and family know how much I loved the printed word… Plus I have a birthday quite close to Christmas so there’s often double bookishness at this time of year; and I have been particularly lucky this festive season, so without further ado here are some snaps!
patti First up a couple of treats from in-laws in the form of Patti Smith’s latest volume, M Train, plus her Collected Lyrics. As I’ve loved Smith and her work for 40 years, this is rather wonderful!

hughesNext up a birthday lovely from my brother and his family – being a huge fan of Robert Hughes, this was essential, particularly as it contains some unpublished work. Plus it’s a lovely big American hardback with rough cut pages – fab!

vam,pioreEldest Child spoiled me with a book from my wishlist, an obscure Easter European classic I read about somewhere (who knows where?) which does sound rather fascinating.

wintonMy old friend V sent me a Tim Winton book I haven’t read (and I think she’s sent me Winton before). Another one that sounds intriguing!

hunger

And my dear friend J sent me a beautiful hardback of Hamsun’s Hunger, a book I really want to read, so this has arrived at just the right time!

orwellAll three offspring gifted me George Orwell’s poetry collection which, as an Orwell completist, I was really anxious to have!

vsssAs a member of the Virago LibraryThing group I take part in their Virago Secret Santa, and I was lucky enough this year to receive two beautiful volumes from my wishlist from Cushla – very excited about these, and thank you Cushla!
beverley

My dear friend J came up with a wonderful idea for my birthday – in the form of a personalised handmade book! I had stumbled across mention of a Beverley Nichols article on his apparent relationship to Jane Austen and we were keen to track down a copy. J managed to find one in the Charing Cross Road bookshops and put together a little handmade book containing the article – here is the inside:

beverley insideNeedless to say, the article is wonderful and pure Beverley, which had me giggling madly – thank you J!

escher

OH has also been beavering away madly on the book front and came up trumps with several titles, including the lovely Escher collection above and the Groucho book below:

grouchoHe also came up trumps with some wonderful finds, in the form of E.C. Bentley:

bentley1Beautiful editions of his three ‘Trent’ detective stories (which I’ve been really keen to read for absolutely ages) and also his Complete Clerihews (a form of humorous biographical verse named after him). These are just wonderful and I was so chuffed!

bentleyPhew! What a lot of wonderful books and I’m so lucky to have family and friends that know me well! The final few photos are some bookish-related gifts – the necklace from OH and the tote bag from Middle Child, both of whom have taken on board this blog’s title and used it for personalised gifts!

bag nnecklace

bag back

necklace close up

I’ve been awfully spoiled this year, and Christmas has been a lovely end to what has been an up and down year. I hope your festivities have been lovely, and now I’m left with that eternal bookish problem – what to read next?! 🙂

Christmas on the Ramblings!

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Tomorrow you’ll all no doubt be merrily opening parcels and spending time with friends or family or pets or on your own if that’s what you like! We’ll be having a family day here, and I hope to grab some time to spend with one of my favourite festive stories – “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas.

christmas wales

I have a beautiful little edition of this tale, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, and the drawings perfectly complement the text – I highly recommend it to anyone with a love of words, pictures and Christmas. There is a wonderful recording of Thomas reading the story which you can have a look at here:

Also, one of my favourite musicians, the Welshman John Cale, wrote a magnificent song of the same title which was on “Vintage Violence”, his first proper solo album. Here’s a later rendering of it:

I hope whatever you’re doing over the festive season, it brings you joy; Happy Christmas from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings!

Finding Freedom in Germany

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Pointed Roofs by Dorothy Richardson

Approaching Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” sequence can be daunting, until you break it down into individual volumes and realise that they aren’t actually that long. The first book, “Pointed Roofs”, was published in 1915 when Richardson was in her forties and is a slim volume, but one packed with meaning.

pilgrimage 1

In terms of plot, the storyline is simple; our heroine is Miriam Henderson, the 17 year old daughter of a genteel but impoverished Victorian family. She flees the nest to take up a post as an English teacher at a small girls’ school in Germany; here she experiences friendship and hostility, mixing with German, French and English girls and the occasional male. Miriam discovers the wider world and falls in love with the country of Germany; but her idyll is a short one, there are subtle difficulties and she returns home at the end of the term. But this simple, surface-level summary hides a book of incredible depth and complexity, and one which reveals insight into the female psyche in the way books had never done so before.

The book does, of course, draw on Dorothy Richardson’s life experiences, and it would be easy enough to conflate the book and its author. However, you could argue that all fiction is grounded in autobiography and it’s perhaps best to put this aside and simply consider the tale of protagonist, which is in itself fascinating.

Miriam is a girl coming to womanhood at the cusp of an age; the world is still hide-bound by many of the Victorian sensibilities and her father has to escort her to Germany for her own safety. The role of women is still restricted and the contrast between the view of Fräulein Pfaff and the young girls with their longing for a freer life is striking. They moon over boys in a way that would be instantly familiar to modern eyes; a way that is somehow naive, but is condemned by the school’s principal as immoral. Most of the girls are lining themselves up for marriage to a suitable man (the school is no doubt based on the finishing school at which Richardson herself taught) and even young Mademoiselle, the French teacher, seems to think only of relinquishing her independence to become a wife and chattel.

German Gothic house from Pinterest

German Gothic house from Pinterest

However, there’s another layer here in that Miriam herself does not fit in with the traditional world, either from the point of view of what is acceptable as a woman, or intellectually. She cannot make small talk, and finds superficial social gatherings unbearable. Instead, she is reaching out for something more, a new way of living and relating to others, and she finds herself out of keeping with most of the people with whom she comes into contact. She constantly misunderstands events or people around her, and her naivety is cleverly revealed by her reactions.

What the book does so brilliantly is capture Miriam’s inner voice; we perceive the world through her eyes and share her experiences and perceptions entirely. She is our filter and Richardson allows us to view the world with Miriam’s sensibilities. Prior to the modernist experiments in literature narrative had been linear, with more often than not multiple viewpoints or an omniscient narrator. Here, it is only Miriam who is narrating, and with her inner voice, with all its randomness and inconsistencies, flitting from subject to subject. Richardson writes like you might think, capturing Miriam’s flights of fancy, her distractedness and her misconceptions. It’s hard nowadays, in a world where there are seemingly no restrictions on how an author can write, to remember just how radical and revolutionary this was.

It’s also a technique that vividly brings alive the people with whom Miriam mixes, from Fräulein Pfaff, through the English and German pupils, the elusive and rich Ulrica, young Mademoiselle the French teacher, to the rather dubious Pastor Lahman (with whom Miriam almost strikes up a tenuous friendship). This latter relationship is an intriguing one; although we only receive hints, there is definitely an attraction and also the implication that Fräulein Pfaff is perhaps interested in the Pastor, which is probably at the root of their eventual falling out (although it may just be because the Fräulein is a man-hater and is disgusted by any hint of contact between male and female – the book is often nebulous). Often things are implied rather than stated outright, leaving the reader to interpret events or read between the lines. However, it becomes clear that Miriam and the Fräulein do not see eye to eye, with Pfaff becoming less pleasant to Miriam, and the latter’s departure becomes inevitable.

dr

Throughout the book, though, Miriam’s (and Richardson’s) love of Germany as a country shines through, and this element made the book deeply unpopular when it was first published in 1915. The descriptions of the countryside, the visits to churches, the old buildings and the sense of being somewhere different from the everyday world of England all give a vivid background to Miriam’s story.

Despite its reputation as a difficult book, I found “Pointed Roofs” remarkably easy to read; if you just relax and go with the flow of the language, you find yourself sailing through. There is the odd German phrase that isn’t translated or explained in the narrative (but there’s online translation to help with that), and the occasional time when you need to go back and check whether you’re reading Miriam’s feelings correctly.

Dorothy Richardson’s writing is remarkable and subtle, and her achievement amazing; in a literary world that was structured and predominantly male, to take the reader inside the female consciousness and experience, and in such a compelling way, was without precedent. “Pointed Roofs” is a wonderful introduction to the “Pilgrimage” series and I’m *so* looking forward to continuing with my read.

Re-reading Dorothy Richardson – some thoughts…

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2015 seems to have been very much the year of novelist Dorothy Richardson. Author of the pioneering sequence of novels known as “Pilgrimage, and an often unacknowledged early instigator of the stream of consciousness technique, Richardson has long been beloved of readers of modernist feminist literature and lauded amongst those circles. These year has seen her finally getting her due for the innovatory techniques and general genius of her writing, culminating in a high-profile novel of her life, “The Lodger” by Louisa Treger.

dr

Dorothy Richardson by Man Ray

So when the lovely Jane at Beyond Eden rock mentioned on the LibraryThing Virago group that she planned to read the sequence, one a month over the next 13 months, and that anyone was free to join in what was a relaxed and low-key readalong., I jumped at the chance

It’s a long, long time since I read the whole sequence – I still have my lovely Virago set from the 1980s – but Richardson has been coming back onto my radar for a while. In fact, Middle Child’s dissertation a few years ago featured comparisons of Richardson and Woolf, and at the time I bought her a complete set of the Virago volumes (which I hope she’ll hold onto, as they’re hard to find now and very lovely).

Richardson was a fascinating woman; born in 1873, her early years were characterised by a close family life somewhat blighted because of her father’s financial problems. She worked as a Governess and teacher, initially in Germany, but later had to give this up to look after her mother. The latter suffered from severe depression and eventually committed suicide. Richardson later worked for a dental surgery, and then began to associate with other writers including Wells and the Bloomsbury group. Fascinatingly, she had a brief affair with Wells, which was followed by a miscarriage, and Richardson never appears to have had children. Her writing career took off in the 1900s and “Pointed Roofs” was published in 1915. In 1917 she married the artist Alan Odle, a somewhat unusual figure who was 15 years her junior and they lived in London and Cornwall for most of the rest of their lives. Odle died in 1948 and Richardson in 1957.

Dorothy Richardson and Alan Odle

Dorothy Richardson and Alan Odle

You might be forgiven for thinking, from all the hoo ha online, that nobody had even thought about Dorothy Richardson during the previous few decade, but that’s far from true. Virago’s sterling work in reissuing the series shouldn’t go unnoticed, particularly as they collected together the final volumes in the sequence for the first time, and the books were one of their flagship publications in the early years of VMCs. However, there were people striving for recognition of her work before that – for example, I recently tracked down a 1973 book “Dorothy Richardson: The Genius They Forgot” by John D. Rosenberg, and a quick look at her Wikipedia entry reveals numerous critical studies.

So although Dorothy Richardson might seem to be an author who’s ripe for rediscovery, some of us have been aware of her for a long time! I’m particularly keen to read “The Lodger” and author Louisa Treger has been kind enough to provide a beautiful review copy. So there’s never been a better time to re-read Dorothy Richardson, and if she’s new to you do join in – the “Pilgrimage” books are a wonderful experience which will stay with you!

Catching Up With The Magazines!

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I’ve had a week of feeling under the weather (the usual seasonal cold….) and reading has been a bit of a struggle. But with Christmas in sight, I thought it might be a good time to catch up with something a little less taxing in the form of some magazines.

mags

I tend not to read high-street glossies, because there are few that actually hold my attention. I’m occasionally drawn to something crafty, but so often these focus just on card making or crochet, neither of which are really my thing.

However, I do subscribe to two lovely journals, both of which are wonderful reading but which are very different! First up is the Manchester Modernist Magazine. I can’t even recall how I first stumbled across this lovely little indy mag, but I’ve been subscribing since issue 1; it carries features on all sorts of brutalist and modernist architecture and the like and it’s a great read.

modernists

The second is probably known to many readers of this blog, and that’s Slightly Foxed, a wonderful literary journal. It’s packed with wonderful bookish pieces of a bite-sized length and makes ideal browsing. It’s also very bad for the wish list!

foxed

And if you add in the most recent Persephone Biannually mags which I have lying about, that makes a bit of a backlog… Time for some catching up! 🙂

persephone

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