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“Life on other planets is difficult” (Einsturzende Neubauten)

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The Air of Mars
Translated and edited by Mirra Ginsburg

I shared a picture of this book a few weeks back when I picked up a copy, thanks to a hint from Joachim Boaz at Science Fiction Ruminations; having provided a guest post for him on Women Soviet Sci Fi authors, he knew of my interest in such things, and this book features two such pieces! It has the added bonus of a work by a favourite of mine, Kirill Bulychev, so of course it was inevitable I’d track it down! As I mentioned, this is an ex-library book from Towson State University in the USA, and it still has the library card and tag in it, which I love. Though interestingly enough, it seems to have been classified as “Juvenile”, which is kind of odd – maybe some libraries consider sci-fi only suitable for teenagers… 😉

As this is probably not a common book, I thought I’d list the contents, which are:

Temira by Olga Larionova
The Brat by Valentina Zhuravleva
A Tacan for the Children of Earth by Kirill Bulychev
We Are Not Alone by Sever Gansovsky
Twelve Holidays by Vladlen Bakhnov
The White Pilot by Mikhail Yemtsev and Yeremy Parnov
A Ticket to Childhood by Victor Kolupayev
The Garden by Gennady Gor
The Air of Mars by Dmitry Bilenkin

Of the authors included, I’ve read Larionova and Bulychev, and heard of Gor. So this is something of a voyage of discovery for me!

The ever-dependable Mirra Ginsburg states in her short introduction “In choosing the stories, I sought above all for variety, excitement, surprise and delight” – and she delivers that in bucketfuls. What is so impressive about the book is the range of the stories: encompassing everything from traditional space-based narratives through future Earth tales, time travel and clever authorial in-jokes, the scope is wide and very entertaining.

“Temira” and “Tacan” are structured as traditional outer space tales with expeditions from Earth visiting other planets and civilisations. However, both delve into the effect that Contact can have on a different world, although in the latter Bulychev seems to conclude that some alien beings are subject to the same vanities as humans. Two of the stories, “Holidays” and “A Ticket”, feature time travel, and the latter is particularly poignant as the narrator grapples with the fact that his past and his visits to it seem unlike those of others. “The White Pilot” is almost Wellsian or Vernian tale, with a shipwrecked man developing a strong link with marine life.

Naturally, the king never consulted anyone when he devised his innovations. True, he was surrounded by counselors and sages, but in Yonia counselors earned their title only by listening to the king’s counsel; and sages, by nodding sagely every time the king spoke. (“Twelve Holidays”)

“The Garden” and “We Are Not Alone” were more fable-like in atmosphere. The former again features time travel as well as a being with the ability to make an exceptional transformation. The latter is a dystopian story of a society kept in darkness, and it is this tale that most strongly resonates as one making parallels with Soviet society. “The Brat”, however, is a very different kettle of fish; more of an in-joke about science fiction authors and very funny.

That just leave the title piece, “The Air of Mars”, which is a marvellous story about a doomed man on the surface of that world. Lost and running out of air, a condition he had on Earth which was regarded as a kind of disability turns out to be something he can work to his advantage on a planet with different physical requirements. It’s a moving and powerful read, and a strong end to an excellent collection.

The library trappings…

Normally when I read Soviet sci-fi I end up looking for hidden messages or subtexts, as so many authors living under repressive regimes have turned to sci-fi as a way of hiding up their ideas and their dissent. Certainly, there were elements in some of the stories here, most obviously in “We Are Not Alone”, when any heresy against the dominant ideology is harshly punished. And in “Twelve Holidays” the clever trick used to get rid of a ruler could have been wishful thinking on the part of an author living with the cult of great leaders. However, whether or not there are hidden messages, all of these stories sparkled and entertained and made me look at the world and universe around me with fresh eyes – which for me is what I look for in science fiction writing.

So once again, Soviet science fiction does the trick. It certainly seems that the communist years where a golden time for that kind of writing, and I don’t think I’ve read a dud in all the short works I’ve read recently. This book is another one of Macmillan’s Russian Science Fiction issues, and it seems that the publisher can take much credit for bringing these works to the English-speaking world; not only have some of the other Soviet works I’ve read come from them, but I also have another one of Ginbsburg’s translations for them lurking on the stacks – but that’ll be for a later date…. In the meantime, this one comes highly recommended!

 

Meeting Letty Fox #shinynewbooks

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You might have noticed me mentioning in a few places recently that I had been reading a rather large review book. That volumes was “Letty Fox: Her Luck”, a long, interesting and in some ways frustrating read!

This was my second encounter with Christina Stead, who certainly can write although seems to me to be in need of an editor! The book is another lovely reprint from Apollo, and they certainly do produce some lovely editions.

My review is here – do go and check it out, as well as all the lovely bookish things on Shiny New Books!

A fish out of water

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Maigret Takes a Room by Simenon
Translated by Robert Brain

I didn’t think it would be long until I read my latest Maigret! I actually started reading this book over a coffee on the day I found it in a local charity shop, and as I was nearing the end of a review book I carried on with the Maigret as soon as I could. They’re addictive – and very, very readable – and a strong case could be made for having a month of reading nothing but the exploits of Simenon’s famous detective!

“Maigret Takes a Room” opens with the great man very much out of his comfort zone! Madame Maigret is away visiting a sick sister, and so her husband is rattling around in an empty flat, feeling guilty if he goes to a restaurant or has a drink, but unable to cope with the silence. However, sudden dramatic events involving the shooting of one of his officers take Maigret off to a quiet boarding house which seems to be at the centre of things. The wounded officer, Maigret’s loyal side-kick Janvier, was watching the house in pursuit of some robbers, and so Maigret takes a room in the building in an attempt to track down the perpetrators.

And an intriguing place it is, too. The establishment is run by a middle-aged woman with an obvious love of cakes and Chartreuse, Mme Clement; according to her all of her lodgers are lovely people with no issues. There are a couple of struggling families; some young women with occupations of varying respectability; some gentlemen with rather dull jobs, and a retired musician who teaches piano to young girls. Maigret watches the neighbourhood from his window, misses his wife and solves the mystery of the missing thief quite quickly. However, as usual with Simenon, there’s much more to be investigated than just the simple, obvious crime, and as Maigret steeps himself in the atmosphere of the area and studies its inhabitants, he comes to a startling conclusion about the reality behind the shooting of Janvier.

Jean Gabin as Maigret

Simenon is *such* a clever writer, and that’s amply on display here. As always, Maigret seems to mooch through his investigation, soaking in the ambience of the neighborhood and getting to see what’s behind the facade of what goes on around him. Simenon’s prose is spare and economic, yet he always manages to capture brilliantly the atmosphere of a place and convey his characters with all their foibles and issues. Mme Clement in particular is vividly depicted, and a worthy foil for the detective. And I always love the way Simenon takes a seemingly straightforward crime, embellishes it with his wonderful characters and setting, then twists the story so something completely unexpected develops.

As you might be able to tell, I thoroughly enjoyed this read, and I’m so glad I picked it up in the local charity shop. I find I can’t go wrong with a Maigret, particularly if I’m in one of those moods when I don’t quite know what to read. And the 20th century translations seem to work well for me, so despite the fact the lovely shiny new Penguin editions are very appealing, I’ll probably keep sticking to the old battered versions I know and love!

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As I mentioned in my haul post, when I picked up this particular Companion Book Club edition, my decision to purchase was swayed by the fact that there is an interview with Simenon in the back of the book. This is a reprint of the Paris Review interview and it makes fascinating reading. The author comes across as something of a writing machine; once he has the idea for the book he simply has to sit down and write it, a certain number of chapters a day without a break, or it won’t come to fruition. Interestingly, more of the focus seems to be on the non-Maigret writing, and the detective gets very little mention at all. An essential read for those wanting an insight into Simenon’s creative process!

A charity auction

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Something a little different from me today – and the kind of thing I don’t usually post about but I’ll make an exception for a good cause!

I was contacted by Clementine, who used to work for Alma Books, as a charity she supports called Three Peas is holding an online auction of children’s book illustration artwork. The charity supports refugee families stranded in Greece and Clementine has provided this information about the auction:

From 23rd of June to 2nd July 2017:  Illustrators for Three Peas Art Auction!
Three Peas charity will be auctioning artwork by some of the best-loved children’s book illustrators… You could grab an original Axel Scheffler, Tony Ross, Lauren Child or Chris Riddell drawing, get your hands on limited prints by Oliver Jeffers or Ella Okstad or even a Liz Pichon Tom Gates doodle and much, much more! 
Come in and browse…
All the funds raised will go to Three Peas charity, helping stranded refugee families and individuals in Greece. 
To learn more about Three Peas, you can visit our website at www.threepeas.org.uk
It sounds like a pretty good thing to me, and  there are some lovely artworks which have been donated. So if you love children’s illustrations and want to support a good cause, you might want to pop over the Jumblebee and have a look! 🙂

 

A tentative commitment #warandpeacenewbies

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Yes, you read that correctly. In the year of planning to have no plans, I am making a tentative commitment to join in to a group read! Gulp!

So far this year the only real project I’ve got involved in, apart from our reading years of course, is the LibraryThing Virago Group’s monthly author choice. This has been enjoyable, and I feel that I can drop in and out of this one as necessary, so there isn’t any pressure.

Old hardback Maudes version

However. When I read that Laura of Reading in Bed was hosting a War and Peace Newbies read over the summer, I was sorely tempted. Tolstoy’s great work is one I’ve intended to grapple with for years and have simply never got to. Yet I loved “Anna Karenina” so there’s no good reason not to, apart from size!

Laura’s read is split up into manageable weekly chunks and looks doable. She’s come up with a Q&A to go with the tag and you can read her thoughts here. I thought I would have a go, too, so here’s my take on the meme!

Have you read (or attempted) War and Peace?

No, basically. I’ve owned a copy for decades but I don’t think I’ve got farther than reading the first two pages.

What edition and translation are you reading?

I have two copies of “War and Peace” in the house if I’m not sure of which translation I fancy reading. One is a lovely two-volume set with box that came out at the time of the old BBC adaptation, and it’s translated by Rosemary Edmonds. The other is *very* old – and I’ve had it for decades – and is the Maudes version. I tend to always go for a contemporary rendering if I can so that would suggest the Maudes – we shall see.

The BBC tie-in version

How much to you know about War and Peave (plot, characters, etc)?

Not a lot really – I know the names of some of the main characters and that Napoleon’s in there, but apart from that I come to War and Peace with little foreknowledge!

How are you preparing (watching adaptations, background reading, etc?)

I’m not. I figure I want to come to this with no preconceptions and I already have some as I visualise Pierre as a young Anthony Hopkins! So I’ll try to judge it as I find it, and I’ll have all the plot twists to come with no expectations.

The hardback even has a lovely little map inside

What do you hope to get out of reading War and Peace?

I don’t actually know! But I loved Anna Karenina – one of those books you kind of live through – and I’m hoping for a similarly immersive experience.

What are you intimidated by?

The length. And having a schedule. I don’t do too well with schedules….

Do you think it’s okay to skip the “war” parts?

Definitely not. You need to have the contrast between the two elements. I shall try to read each page, despite any occasions of my attention flagging during battle scenes.

So – I will give it a go and see if I can stick to a small section of “War and Peace” every week. I’m not always good at disciplined reading that like but I think it’s worth the attempt – to see if 2017 will be my Summer of “War and Peace”!

If you’re keen to join in, do go and check out Laura’s site – it should be fun! 🙂

Some Russian book winners!

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So I’ve closed the giveaway, and thanks to all who entered and offered interesting recommendations!

I printed out the names of the entrants and popped them into a decorative mini pail I had knocking about, then drew out two winners and they are:

Laura from Reading in Bed – In the Twilight

Melissa from  The Bookbinder’s Daughter – Five Russian Dog stories

Congrats to both ladies and thanks to all entrants for taking part. I’ll be in touch with the two winners and the books will be winging their way off round the globe soon! 🙂

A fateful journey…

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Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale

After my recent prolonged bout of fiction, I really felt I needed a complete change in the form of something very, very factual – and fortunately I had just the thing standing by, in the form of a book I picked up on a recent jaunt to London. While there I popped into Bookmarks, the left-wing bookshop almost opposite the Bloomsbury Oxfam, and it felt appropriate to be picking up a volume I’d been contemplating for some time: “Lenin on the Train” by Catherine Merridale.

I’ve written about Merridale’s work on the Ramblings before; she was in the same year as me at our Grammar School, ending up as head girl, and I’ve followed her books with interest, as well as wondering if it was the education we received that sparked the interest for both of us in all things Russian. Her last book, which I reviewed here, was absolutely fascinating; focusing on The Kremlin, it was an epic volume covering centuries of history. By contrast, her latest book takes one specific event which took place 100 years ago (that anniversary again!) but which had wide-ranging effects, rather like ripples in a pond from one small stone.

Lest your Russian history is hazy, the events covered in the book are roughly this: at the outbreak of the first Russian Revolution in St. Petersburg/Petrograd in February 1917 (or March, depending on your part of the world), Lenin was in exile in ZĂźrich, and trapped there by the fact of World War 1 raging in countries surrounding. Like all Russian exiles, he was desperate to get home and participate (or in his case, take control) but because of the impossibility of travel he was stuck. Things were complicated by the fact that Russia was allied with France and Britain against the Germans, and as Lenin and his cohorts were vocally in favour of an end to the War whatever the cost, those allies were violently against helping Lenin get back to Russia. However, a rather shady deal was struck whereby Lenin and a group of Bolsheviks were transported through war-torn Germany in a sealed train carriage to enable them to make their way to Petrograd via the Scandinavian countries. That journey has been the subject of speculation and controversy ever since.

The Petrograd to which Lenin was returning was in a parlous state. After the abdication of the Tsar, Russia was in effect being run by two agencies in uneasy alliance: the Provisional Government, the stars of which were Kerensky and Miliukov; and the Workers’ Soviet. Neither side agreed ideologically and things were likely either to collapse into complete anarchy or revert to some kind of watered down version of what had gone before. It needed a visionary to come sweeping in and take control, forging a single state and new kind of governing body out of that chaos, and that’s what eventually happened.

Socialist realism at its worst (hint: Stalin wasn’t actually there…)

However, this book is concerned with events leading up to that point, and it makes fascinating reading. As a contemporary, Merridale has read (and cites) many works on Lenin and Russia with which I’m familiar, and which are regarded as standards. However, as her scrupulous research shows, these sources are not always factual or accurate. She sheds light into all the murky corners, looking past the accepted history and getting to as close an accurate rendition of events as I think is possible. Merridale is an exemplary historian; the breadth of her knowledge is stunning and contributes to the success of the book. Her sources (which are wide) are always cited, and she takes her knowledge of Russia and its history and peels away the layers of myth and accepted wisdom about what happened in the lead up to Lenin’s arrival, getting down to the nub of things.

What’s particularly fascinating is the diplomatic manoeuvring and espionage going on behind the scenes, which is revealed in all its tortuous glory here. Fortunately, many of the overseas visitors involved left accounts of their time, and alongside the well-known diplomats and agents like Sir George Buchanan and Robert Bruce Lockhart, there are also plenty of writers on hand (Hugh Walpole, Somerset Maugham and Arthur Ransome). It’s actually some time before the book gets to the actual train journey, but that’s because these early chapters on what was going on off camera in the lead up to the main event are so essential.

The controversy over the years has focused particularly on whether Lenin was actually in the pay of the German government and Merridale firmly quashes this idea (backed up by plenty of sources, and dismissing in particular the post-Soviet historian Dimitri Volkogonov, whose books I shall look at in a new light). Yes, the Germans bankrolled the journey and provided funds for the Bolsheviks, mainly through Parvus, a shadowy and highly dubious figure who brokered the whole deal with the Germans to get the Bolshevik train through their territory; but they were using Lenin and his cohorts to try and bring an end to the War for their own purposes, and Lenin used them back. It wasn’t long before he was calling for German workers to follow their Russian colleagues in revolt, after all…

Although Merridale’s narrative ends with Lenin’s arrival in the then Russian capital and his battle for control, she does provide a little more information about what followed. The final chapter is ironically titled “Fellow Travellers” and tells of the final fate of those who made the journey with Lenin, and in most cases it was not a happy one. Stalin, after all, was not on that train or in at the beginning of it all (despite what socialist realist painters would have you believe!) and it was in his interest to ensure there was nobody around to challenge his supremacy and his flunkies’ version of history… She also touches briefly on the long-term legacy of Lenin and the fact that to this day his embalmed body is enshrined in Red Square, with the Russian people fighting any attempt to remove it.

In all of Merridale’s books that I’ve read, I’ve seen that she has a great empathy with the ordinary Russian people, who seem to have suffered more than many peoples from a terrible succession of rulers. She’s not blind to the flaws of her subjects but is even-handed in her treatment of them, recognising the terrible plight of the people of Russia and their need for an escape from centuries of slavery and serfdom. As for the main player in this drama, I was pleased for once to read a balanced portrayal of someone who is a controversial figure; many of the books I’ve read or attempted to read in previous years have been written by authors who obviously hate the man and intend to paint a negative portrait. I’m the first to accept he was ruthless, single-minded and brutal at times. However, he also believed strongly in the revolution and the equality of all and that shouldn’t be overlooked. Merridale’s portrait of Lenin is nuanced and non-judgemental, and I found this very refreshing. Despite the fact that she recognises his flaws, and the dreadful consequences of his actions, I can’t help feeling she has a sneaking admiration for him…

“Lenin on the Train” is definitely shaping up to be one of my reads of the year. One of the most fascinating parts was actually the introduction, where Merridale retraces Lenin’s route, taking the same journey he did and reporting it exactly (it’s another thing misrepresented over the years) with a nice accompanying map. The book has a couple of lovely plate sections, mixing images contemporary to her narrative with some from her journey following Lenin’s trail, and they add an extra frisson to the reading of the work.* If you don’t know much about Russian history and its major players, Merridale’s eminently readable account would be a great way to find out about one of the pivotal events of the Revolution of 100 years ago – highly recommended.

* Merridale’s website has a wonderful interactive map of her journey with photos and information about the various stops en route – highly worthwhile exploring if you’re interested in more information about her pilgrimage.

 

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