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The price of love #ViragoAuthoroftheMonth

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My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather

At the beginning of the month, I wittered on about not known which Willa Cather book I should read from the rather imposing pile of books by her that I own. I received lots of lovely comments and suggestions, but as the month rolled on and its end became closer, I was getting no nearer to reading one. So I have to confess that the choice was eventually made in a terrible fashion – I went for the book that was slimmest…. :s

“My Mortal Enemy” was first published in 1926, and if I’m honest at 122 pages of biggish type it really should be classed as a novella. The book is narrated by the wonderfully named Nellie Birdseye, and she tells us the story of Myra Driscoll, later Henshawe, whom she meets at pivotal points in her life.

Their first encounter is when Myra makes a return visit to the (fictional) small town of Parthia. Myra grew up here, friends with Nellie’s aunt Lydia, and has become something of a scandalous figure since her elopement with Oswald Henshawe. Brought up by her great-uncle, Myra always has a wild streak and unfortunately her uncle disapproved violently of her beau. So Myra marries for love and by doing so loses the chance of a decent inheritance from her relative.

Nellie is fascinated by the idea of Myra and her dramatic love affair, and somewhat dazzled by the older, glamorous woman. She and her aunt Lydia are invited to New York to spend Christmas with the Henshawes, and the setting is still rather glittering and exciting to the provincial girl. However, Nellie becomes aware of cracks below the surface; Myra is a jealous woman, money is an issue, and Oswald seems to attract admiring women…

We (and Nellie) finally encounter Myra and Oswald some years later on the Californian coast. Nellie, now grown up (and possibly married?) is teaching and Myra is now a bedridden invalid. Tormented by noisy upstairs neighbours and looking for comfort in a return to her religion, Myra nevertheless still exerts a fascination on those around her. Oswald cares for her faithfully, despite still managing to attract the friendship of younger women, but Myra is a woman wracked with regrets – for having given in to love, cursing herself is a shallow person who should have instead stayed with the money she loved and needed. As her life comes to an end, she looks for fulfilment elsewhere and seems to find a kind of inner peace.

So I may have chosen my shortest Cather but it certainly isn’t a thin read! There are big themes here – whether love or money is most important; whether complete honesty is crucial to a marriage; whether what we receive in this world or the next is most important. I understand that Cather returned to her own religion too, and the comfort Myra draws from this at the end of her life is perhaps taken from her own life.

As to the mortal enemy of the title and to whom this refers, I actually felt that was rather nebulous. Some have taken it to mean her husband; some Myra herself; and some the whole process of love, what we’ll do for it and the havoc it can cause in our lives. Certainly, Myra has suffered for the decision she made, regretting the fact that she left behind a comfortable life with plenty of money; but she has always been victim to her passions and in many ways paid the price.

I sat down beside her, and we watched the sun dropping toward his final plunge into the Pacific. “I’d love to see this place at dawn,” Myra said suddenly. “That is always such a forgiving time. When that first cold, bright streak comes over the water, it’s as if all our sins were pardoned; as if the sky leaned over the earth and gave it absolution.

Cather’s writing is lovely throughout, and in such a short book she manages to paint nuanced portraits of all the characters. In particular, the relationship between the Henshawes is subtly rendered, and Cather captures brilliantly the delicate balancing act they go through to keep the marriage on track.

So my Willa Cather read for this month turned out to be a good choice in the end. “My Mortal Enemy”, despite its short length, is a thought-provoking and enjoyable read and if it’s any indication of the quality of Cather’s work, I’m definitely up for more! 🙂

Truth and Lies

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The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay
Translated by Sheila Fischman

I’ve written before about Peirene Press and their lovely books, having loved and reviewed “Sea of Ink” and “The Last Summer“. The latter was the first of this year’s releases, and the publishers tend to theme their books with the current series being titled “East and West”. The first book of the year looked at the divide between different classes and outlooks in pre-Revolutionary Russia; this second book looks at another setting, that of conflict in a war-torn zone, and the ideological divide here is just as fatal as the one in “The Last Summer”.

Ahmed and Aziz are twin boys, living in the Orange Grove in an unspecified country with their father Zahed and mother Tamara. The family is slap bang in the middle of a conflict and we are in no doubt of that from the first page, when bombing kills their extended family. The boys’ mother tries to maintain some kind of normal life, homeschooling them when the school is destroyed; however, their father is aware of his obligations to his kind and when local militants call, demanding that one of the boys carries out a suicide bombing attack, he cannot refuse.

The boys, although twins, are very different: Ahmed hears and sees things he cannot explain, whether spirits or visitations we’re not sure; Aziz is in some ways weaker, with an unspecified illness, and no fancies at all. A local militant, the dangerously persuasive and charismatic Soulayed, requires one of the boys to make his way over the hills wearing a belt primed with explosives to destroy the base on the side which has been bombing them and which destroyed their house and killed their grandparents. The point is, which twin? Zahed has to choose, but Tamara would make a different selection, and the boys themselves may have a view on this too…

The second part of the book is set in Canada; the surviving twin, known as Aziz, is now 20 and studying to be an actor. As he works on a play by his tutor Michael, the prospect of performing it brings to the surface his hidden past – for the play deals with terror and militants and is perhaps too close to home. In conversation with Michael, he tells the final truth about what happened near the Orange Grove and it’s shocking and shattering.

Not everything can be explained. Not even war. You can’t explain it when it kills children.

“The Orange Grove” is a quietly powerful book, yet devastating and absolutely necessary in this day and age. As with all the Peirene books it’s short and designed to read in one sitting but my goodness, does it punch above its weight! In 160 pages it covers the complexities of family life and loyalties, the rights and wrongs of war, the lies told in the name of ideology and the terrible cruelty of involving children in conflicts like this. All the family wants to do is to carry on living in the shade of the Orange Grove, a small area of sanity carved out of a war zone, but they cannot help but be involved in the fighting around them.

A strong element in the story is the clash between heritage and beliefs; the surviving twin initially believes all he is told by his father and Soulayed, accepting that his people are in the right, but the truth becomes clear as he grows up and moves into the wider world. Aziz starts to recognise the lies he has been told towards the end of his time in his native country, but once he is in Montreal the full horror is made clear. But what can you believe when you’re in the middle of conflict? It’s only at a distance, with perspective, that you can see things more clearly.

The majority of the characters in the book are male, but the two female presences there, the twins’ mother and her sister who has emigrated, see things very differently. It’s hard to imagine the emotions of a mother asked to sacrifice one of her children; and it’s bad enough to separate brothers in this way, but twins? It’s also terrifying how young the boys are, and in one scene they’re described as playing together, which is what they should be doing at that age, not becoming involved in death and destruction.

Obviously, this is a profoundly moving and affecting book, and I’m still thinking about it a long after finishing it. Sensibly, Tremblay does not define where the conflict actually is, what the ideology is or attempt to present the opposing views, which allows the book to be a comment on the horror and futility of war and its effects. The bottom line is that children are being killed and that is wrong, wrong, wrong – even more relevant bearing in mind recent events. “The Orange Grove” is a powerful addition to Peirene’s stable, an essential read that I can’t recommend strongly enough.

******

A word about the author, Larry Tremblay, who was a name new to me. He’s a writer, theatre director and actor based in Montreal who writes in French, and he’s written novels, short stories, poetry and plays. I wondered whether he drew on his own experiences for the second part of the book; and on the strength of this book I think his work definitely warrants further exploration.

Early signs of genius

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Teenage Writings by Jane Austen

Well, 2017 really *is* turning out to be the year of anniversaries, isn’t it? As well as it being 100 years since the Russian Revolution, I’ve also been covering the work of the artist and writer Leonora Carrington, who was born in the same year as that Revolution. But I was reminded of the fact that it’s also 200 years since the death of Jane Austen by the arrival of a lovely review copy from Oxford World Classics – a beautiful book collecting together her teenage writings.

It’s been some years since I read anything by Austen – decades, in fact – and I can’t be sure now what I’ve actually read and what I haven’t, although I’m pretty sure on “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion”. So I wondered how I would find these juvenile works by an author who is arguably one of the most famous in the English language and who probably needs no introduction from me!

As always for OWC, the books is put together in a most exemplary fashion. There is an erudite and knowledgeable introduction from Kathryn Sutherland and Freya Johnston, both from St. Anne’s College, Oxford; a chronology of Austen and her works; detailed notes to support the contents of the text, and also notes that deal in detail with textual variations; maps, family continuations of the works, and three volumes of the actual stories (about which more below)! The scholarship which has gone into this book is impressive, making it a very special volume which is ideal for the reader who doesn’t necessarily have much background knowledge of Austen’s history, the era and the context (me!).

One of the hand-made books

Jane Austen was an inveterate reader of novels herself, and absorbed whatever books she could get hold of, high- or low-brow. Her early writings were done not ‘for the drawer’ but to be circulated amongst family and friends, and she collected them together into three mock books, the source of the works here. The earliest date from when she was 11 or 12, and the final pieces from her later teens when she was around 17. The early pieces are understandably shorter but Volume 3 has two substantial pieces, “Evelyn” and “Kitty, or the Bower”, the latter of which is the first opportunity to read the story as she actually wrote it, as it was apparently subject to alteration by family members later on.

If you think of Austen as a purveyor of gentle prose, you might be quite surprised when you read these stories! They take a variety of forms, from short pieces a page or so long, through little playlets to the longer, more dramatic stories in volume 3. The book includes her most famous piece of juvenilia, “Love and Freindship”, and it’s fascinating to see what a sophisticated wit she displays for one so young – this from one of the early pieces, for example:

… I daily became more amiable, & might perhaps by this time have nearly attained perfection, had not my worthy Preceptoress been torn from my arms, e’re I had attained my seventeenth year. I shall never forget her last words. “My dear Kitty, she said, Good night t’ye.” I never saw her afterwards, continued Lady Williams wiping her eyes, she eloped with the Butler the same night.

There’s a surprising amount of boozing going on, with one particular lady in the very early stories regularly drunk and knocking back the alcohol! Love is dramatic and tragic, and there is even a little murder thrown in…

An entertaining diversion comes in the form of “The History of England”, which appears in Volume the Second. Here, Austen turns her talents to relating the stories of the various monarchs of the country. Some warrant only a line or two, but titans such as Henry VIII earn entries of a decent length. I was particularly pleased to note that Austen refuses to believe the propaganda about Richard III declaring that she supposes him “a very respectable Man”. The entries are illustrated by Austen’s elder sister, Cassandra, but unfortunately she’s not able to present an image of Edward V as Jane tells us that “This unfortunate Prince lived so little a while that no body had time to draw his picture. He was murdered by his Uncle’s Contrivance, whose name was Richard the 3rd.” (Hmm – so perhaps Austen was being a little sarcastic in her views on the latter….)

I’m not enough of an Austen reader or scholar to comment on how strongly these early pieces relate to her later works, but I’m told that many of the themes in the teenage writings appear more subtly in her adult work and certainly I picked up elements of parody. This is an entertaining and enjoyable collection providing a unique glimpse into the world of the young Jane Austen. Is it a work for the general reader? I think so, though it would make more sense to have read some of her adult works before you come to this one. But this is a beautifully presented volume which presents an essential collection of early works by one of our best-loved authors – and it couldn’t have been put together any better!

(Many thanks to Oxford World Classics for kindly providing a review copy)

“Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.”

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The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

You might be sensing something of a theme here on the Ramblings….

… because I do seem to be reading rather a lot of books set in or about Soviet Russia! I guess that’s kind of inevitable in the anniversary year of the 1917 Revolution, and I’m not complaining as it’s fairly obvious to even the most casual reader that I do have an interest in that country and its literature. However, I’ve been circling “The Noise of Time” for a little while now, slightly apprehensive and unsure if I should read it, mostly because of my well-known discomfort with fictionalised real lives, and also because it’s about Shostakovich, whose work I absolutely love (despite knowing very little about music in a technical way).

Dmitri Shostakovich is probably one of the most well-known Russian composers of the 20th century and he does tend to attract a little controversy, being either regarded as a puppet of the regime or a man who survived by saying one thing and meaning another. Barnes obviously subscribes to the latter view, and his portrait of the composer is nuanced and compelling.

But one of life’s many disappointments was that it was never a novel, not by Maupassant or anyone else. Well, perhaps a short satirical tale by Gogol.

“Noise” focuses on three pivotal points in Shostakovich’s life where he reaches a critical point – times when survival could well be in doubt. Each of these years – 1936, 1948, 1960 – is twelve years apart and a leap year, and the superstitious composer is very aware of this. In the first section of the book we find him waiting outside the lift in his building, a small suitcase in his hand; for Shostakovich is convinced he is about to be arrested, taken in the night as so many of his friends and colleagues have been, and he wishes to be prepared and orderly rather than grabbed in his pyjamas. As he waits, he reminiscences and ponders on his past; his relationship with his family, previous loves, and the fact that the failure of his opera, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” has led to him being denounced and vilified.

He did not want to make himself into a dramatic character. But sometimes, as his mind skittered in the small hours, he thought: so this is what history has come to. All that striving and idealism and hope and progress and science and art and conscience, and it all ends like this, with a man standing by a lift, at his feet a small case containing cigarettes, underwear and tooth powder; standing there and waiting to be taken away.

Through a quirk of fate Shostakovich survives 1936 and when we next encounter him he’s returning from a politically motivated propaganda visit to America. This has been stressful, as he’s been made to spout speeches and soundbites written for him by the authorities, as well as encountering hostile émigré Russians. By now, the composer knows that to speak out would mean trouble for both him and his family, and instead irony is the best defence against tyranny – particularly useful when dealing with a functionary sent to give him a little political education.

The final section focuses on an older Shostakovich, dealing with declining health and a final indignity. Living through the thaw that followed Stalin’s death, everyday life has become slightly easier; however, this brings its own problems and the composer is faced with having to make a choice which will completely compromise him morally and is one of the hardest things he ever has to do.

The Composer

Barnes draws on two major works for his portrait of the composer: “Shostakovich: A Life Remembered” by Elizabeth Wilson, and “Testimony”, Shostakovich’s memoirs as related to Solomon Volkov. Both of these books are on Mount TBR and I’m well aware that the latter has also been controversial, with differing claims about its authenticity. Nevertheless, the voice that Barnes gives to Shostakovich here is one I found entirely convincing and the book is a compelling, fascinating and very moving read. Barnes captures brilliantly in his narrative the effects of living a life in constant fear; the daily horrors, the wish to escape and just be left alone to create your work. Despite his dismissal of himself as a “worm”, Shostakovich’s narrative is wryly witty in places, a dark humour that was probably a necessary response to years of living under the iron heel of tyranny.

In the old days, a child might pay for the sins of its father, or indeed mother. Nowadays, in the most advanced society on earth, the parents might pay for the sins of the child, along with uncles, aunts, cousins, in-laws, colleagues, friends, and even the man who unthinkingly smiled at you as he came out of the lift at three in the morning. The system of retribution had been greatly improved, and was so much more inclusive than it used to be.

The title of this book is also that of a collection of memoirs by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, and it’s also a thread that runs through the narrative. On the surface you couldn’t find two more different Soviet artists than the poet and the composer. Mandelstam spoke his mind about Stalin during the height of the purges, was betrayed and paid the ultimate price of madness and death; Shostakovich, by contrast, considered himself a coward and often failed to speak out, instead trying to negotiate a path through the stormy waters of the Soviet regime. It was a life endured with constant ups and downs, one day in favour, the next day out, and I would argue it took a certain moral resilience to live that way. How he actually managed to cope with constant fear and uncertainty while producing stunning works is a bit of a miracle; and actually living with the daily stress of not knowing if you’ll be denounced or arrested or tortured or killed takes its own kind of courage. And despite the portrait given here, Shostakovich *did* speak out in support of other artists and also produced work attacking anti-Semitism; so he was not without courage.

What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves – the music of our being – which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history. This was what he held to.

Four Russian Geniuses

There’s a wonderful photograph, which I’m reproducing here, which basically shows four Russian geniuses in 1929. Clockwise from the top left you have Mayakovsky, Rodchenko, Meyerhold, and Shostakovich. Mayakovsky would commit suicide a year later; artist Rodchenko managed to survive until 1956; the great man of the theatre Meyerhold was tortured and executed in 1940; but somehow Shostakovich made it through until my lifetime, dying in 1975 – a link to that Soviet past that lasted into the modern world.

A Very Brilliant Author

So “The Noise of Time” turned out to be one of the best reads of the year so far, and a book that I’m so glad I picked up. It deserves all the plaudits it received: not only does Julian Barnes paint a sympathetic and suggestive portrait of a great composer who survived a terrible regime against all the odds, he also provides a frighteningly vivid depiction of what happens to art under totalitarian rule. That’s becoming a running theme on the Ramblings, one which is particularly relevant to our world today; and I can’t recommend this book highly enough, especially if you need to be reminded of what we have to avoid.

A descent into Hell

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Down Below by Leonora Carrington

2017 is shaping up to be quite a year of anniversaries so far. The obvious one, and the one which has been gaining quite a bit of attention from my neck of the woods, is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. However, 2017 is also the centenary of the birth of the artist and writer Leonora Carrington and there have been a number of significant releases to mark the event. I’ve recently read and reviewed for Shiny New Books a biography of Carrington by her cousin, Joanna Moorhead, and you can read about that here. However, NYRB are leading the field with a reissue of her seminal work “Down Below”, an autobiographical piece which explores a nervous breakdown she had in the 1940s, and it’s a stunning piece of work.

Carrington is usually labelled as a surrealist and bracketed with that group of artists, owing to her association with them and her affair with Max Ernst, one of the movement’s leading practitioners. But to restrict her by that label seems unfair; she wrote as well, and a number of her books have been published over the years by Virago, keeping her work in the public eye – and in fact they are the publishers of the Moorhead book.

Carrington and Ernst

Carrington was born into a privileged background; her father was a successful, self-made businessman, and Carrington herself was presented at the court of King George V as a debutante in the season of 1935, along with her mother. However, she railed against conventionality and after several failed educational attempts, she was allowed to study art in London. It was here that she met Ernst, and despite the 23 year gap in their ages there was an instant attraction and the pair ran off together, initially to Cornwall. The partnership was a fruitful one and the couple ended up in France at the start of WW2. It was here that things began to go wrong: Max, as a German national was sent to a concentration camp, leaving the young Leonora on her own. Unable to cope, she had a nervous breakdown which led to her incarceration in a most nightmarish asylum, and this experience forms the basis of the book “Down Below”. It’s a slim volume with a chequered publication history, and it’s perhaps a little surprising initially that a work of this length (63 pages) has been published separately, as it could well have been slotted into a collection of her works. But I can understand the logic of wanting the piece to stand on its own, and its augmented by a wonderful and erudite introduction by Marina Warner, who draws heavily on her own meetings with Carrington in the 1970s – which makes it even more interesting.

In some ways, I find “Down Below” a hard book to review – what can you say a book that is nakedly honest about someone’s disturbed mental state without risking sounding trite? Carrington relates her story in an almost detached tone, telling of her inability to cope with Max’s imprisonment, her long periods of not eating and the attempts of friends to help her. She sees symbols everywhere, and as the War situation deteriorates, she is driven off to Spain by two friends. The car freezes up and will go no further; Carrington identifies herself with the car and considers herself frozen too. Her family become involved and she is institutionalised, where she slips between fantasy and lucidity and receives some truly horrific treatment. The drugs used on her induce fits and her dream is to reach the habitation ‘down below’ where all is calm and well. Eventually, she escapes the doctors and her family by making a marriage of convenience and fleeing to America, but the treatment she has endured is simply brutal.

Carrington’s map of ‘down below’, featured in the book

“Down Below” is a disconcerting book; the detached tone makes what’s happening even more shocking, and the lines between what’s real and what’s imagined are hard to find. Carrington relates shortly and in a calm tone that she was gang raped by soldiers; allowed to lie in her own filth for ages; stripped naked and tied down. It’s stark stuff, lifted by passages of beauty, and Carrington’s identification of her body in relation to the world is fascinating. Some of the passages are dizzying and dazzling, and the book is laced with symbolism – a kind of written equivalent to her visual art.

In the end, Carrington fought her way through the madness, made her escape, and eventually based herself in Mexico where she continued to paint and write, made a happy marriage and had two children. She produced an impressive body of work, and her books seem to reflect her art with their surreal stories and strange happenings. Certainly I can see the connections between her worldview in “Down Below” and the surreal landscapes and powerful women in “The Hearing Trumpet”. As a document of what it can feel like to go through a period of madness, this book is peerless; and as an account of a surreal view of life it’s unmatched. The excellent introduction puts all in context, and if you want to explore Leonora Carrington’s life and work, this book gives some valuable insights into the unique artist that she was.

Sassy, foul-mouthed and very entertaining!

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Zazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau
Translated by Barbara Wright

When I read Raymond Queneau’s “The Sunday of Life” for the 1951 Club, I had several commenters tell me how good his book “Zazie in the Metro” was; and as I already had a copy on my shelves, I determined that I should read it soon – and look! I have! 🙂

Published in 1959, “Zazie” is the book Queneau is best known for; this may be because it was made into a very successful film, or perhaps it was just published at the right time to hit the zeitgeist. Whatever it was, it’s certainly an entertaining and enjoyable read and definitely deserves its status.

The titular Zazie is a young girl who’s farmed out to her uncle Gabriel in Paris for a couple of days while her mother goes off in pursuit of a lover. Zazie’s age is never specified and we never really get a full description; however, as she’s constantly perceived as a potential target for sex maniacs, I did wonder if perhaps she was meant to be slightly older than the actress who portrayed her in the film, Catherine Demongeot.

Zazie has one great desire in Paris, which is to ride on the Metro. Alas, this is closed as the staff are on strike, so instead Zazie takes off on a series of madcap chases round the city, hotly pursued by her rather odd uncle (who has a job as a cross-dressing performer in a gay nightclub), a series of women who seem to be interested in her uncle, a tour guide, a parrot with a fairly limited range of words and a ‘chap’ who may be a policeman, pervert, a detective or something more sinister indeed…

The ending is riotously surreal with mayhem and murder breaking out all over the place, but things return to a status quo of sorts, and the slightly dream-like feeling that comes over at the end did make me wonder if everything which took place was not meant to be as real as it first appeared.

The whole manic story is told in a wonderful kind of vernacular, with phonetics and puns abounding. It’s wildly funny, kind of like an old-style screwball comedy but set in a more modern Paris and with plenty of bad language and innuendo. Zazie is a lovable, if foul-mouthed youngster, and we learn more about her from her reactions and interactions with other characters than we do from any kind of character building by the author. In fact, looking back on the book, that’s one of the cleverest things about it. Queneau doesn’t go in for big descriptions of the various protagonists; instead, he builds them up from their actions and what the other characters say about them. Simple things, like the fact that Zazie’s enigmatic aunt Marceline always says things ‘gently’, tell you all you need to know about them.

As with “Sunday” however I think there’s definitely more to the book than meets the eye. Gabriel is prone to deeper thought, and at one point muses (with a no doubt deliberate little nod to Sartre):

Being or nothingness, that is the question. Ascending, descending, coming, going, a man does so much that in the end he disappears. A taxi bears him off, a metro carries him away, the Tower doesn’t care, nor the Pantheon. Paris is but a dream, Gabriel is but a reverie (a charming one), Zazie the dream of a reverie (or of a nightmare) and all this story the dream of a dream, the reverie of a reverie, scarcely more than the typewritten delirium of an idiotic novelist (oh! sorry).

I suspect there are many, many linguistic tricks and in-jokes that I’m missing, and I ended the book thinking that I really want to read it again but with a mindset of appreciating the language more instead of relishing the fantastic and entertaining action. Regardless of that, Zazie is a wonderful romp, a joy to read and a certain indication that I should definitely read more of Raymond Queneau’s work!

(Kudos have to go to translator Barbara Wright again for rendering such sparkling and clever wordplay – what a wonderfully talented woman!)

A sentimental purchase

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I’ve written before about the pivotal effect on me of visiting the local library at a young age; it was a place that opened the door to books we could never afford at home, and I still have memories of my father taking me there to borrow another treasure. One early book that became a favourite was Dr. Seuss’s “I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew”, and that came from the library when it was in its old location in our town – down near the river in an old, dark building.

When I started earning I bought my own copy….

The library later moved to a new shiny building in the 1960s style modern precinct built in the middle of town. Inside was all bright and new, and I still made use of it all the time (and kept doing so until I finally moved away from home for good). And it was with books borrowed from this library that I was able to really expand the breadth of my reading and move onto more adult titles in my early teens.

The original Hobbit from 1971 – battered and bruised and just about holding together!

One set of books I read and loved was Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Some friends of the family had seen me reading the Narnia books and suggested I would like “The Hobbit”. They then sent us a copy and both my dad and I devoured it (he was quite a reader and a fan of sci-fi and fantasy). The natural progression was to “The Lord of the Rings” and so we borrowed this from the library – lovely hardback editions in blue-grey (laminated on) dust jackets with gorgeous big fold out maps in the back. We were both transfixed by the books, and I’ve returned to them many, many times over the years, owning my own paperback copies.

However, it’s a while since I read the trilogy, and I developed a hankering recently to revisit it. And I decided I’d like to re-read the books in the format I originally did – hardbacks with a fold out map. A little research online revealed that these were the second edition books from the 1960s and getting hold of a set in decent condition would be very, very pricey, so I put the idea on the back burner – until I recently stumbled upon these…

Yes, they’re very, very battered, and yes there are bits of the dust jackets missing – but this is a sound enough set of the second edition books in readable condition and so I’ll be able to read the books again as I did first time with my dad. And joy of joys, there are lovely intact maps in the back in super condition!

The set was ridiculously cheap and despite the rather bedraggled state of them, I’m happy to have them in the house ready for a summer revisit. OH has kindly covered the books with a mylar-type plastic to keep what’s left of the jackets together and make it easier for me to read. So summer will see a sentimental trip into my past – I’m looking forward to it! 🙂

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