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…in which I find myself unreasonably amused by some literary parodies…

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Pistache by Sebastian Faulks

After reading “Locus Solus” I felt I definitely needed a change of pace, and browsing through the Christmas arrivals I decided to pick up this little volume of pastiches. I have to confess that this is actually the first book by Faulks I’ve ever read, and it obviously isn’t typical of his work; but it does show him as a very clever writer with strong literary awareness! Pleasingly, the book carries the pastiche element all the way through to the author biography on the inside jacket flap, the acknowledgements and even the book title itself!

Now, I love a good spoof; I have a wonderful volume called “The Faber Book of Parodies”, and I’ve been known to laugh like a drain for hours at some of the great joys it contains, like “The Skinhead Hamlet”, much to the annoyance of anyone within hearing distance… So really, this was likely to be the ideal read for me, and it was – I devoured it in a couple of sittings and had I had more spare time I would have read it in one go.

Faulks obviously knows his literature, and the book contains a mixture of short poetry and prose pieces, each a take on some famous author or literary group. The titles on their own are pretty amusing; such as “Kingsley Amis has a shot at a female narrator”, “Jane Austen steps out with an American Psycho”, “Samuel Beckett writes a monologue for Ronnie Corbett” or “T.S. Eliot reflects that it might have come out better in limericks”. Each piece is just the right length to make its point, as there’s nothing worse than an over-extended joke, but I was actually left feeling I wanted more and I could happily have read a collection of these which was twice as long.

Of course, I did have some particular favourites! “Charles Dickens has a shot at being concise” is an absolute hoot, with a weather report which could simply have been rendered in the words “it was raining” treated to an ornate paragraph or two of Dickens’ wonderfully long-winded prose. “George Orwell confronts the real 1984” captures the real year surprisingly well; and as someone who remembers it, I can recall how much our view of 1984 was coloured by our thoughts of the book, but we actually had little idea at the time of how the world really *was* going to go down the road of Orwell’s visionary work. “Hilaria Holmroyd offers an exclusive extract from her new literary biography” features extracts from a spoof Bloomsbury-style work (presumably of the type purveyed by Michael Holroyd…) and is spot on about the ridiculous complexities of their personal lives. As for “Philip Larkin prepares lines in celebration of the Queen Mother’s 115th birthday” (which the book’s spurious blurb claims was banned and cut by the BBC!) this manages to mix wit with surprising pathos, and is a real winner.

Some guy who writes very funny parodies….

I have to say that “Pistache” had me snorting away merrily in many places, which did have a slightly irritant effect on OH (who was being a bit sniffy about the book). The book also has some lovely line illustrations by George Papadakis, which add to the jollity. It probably helps if you know a bit about the writing style of the authors being sent up (and possibly you need to have a particularly British sense of humour), but even if you don’t, it’s wonderful, silly, clever fun and a great way to lighten a gloomy January day! I think I may just have to dig out my old copy of that Faber book and be a bit more irritating…. 😉

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Loving my local library…

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Despite its inability to stock certain of the more obscure books (ahem!) I want to read, I really do love my local library! A case in point is a couple of titles I recently brought home with me. I *am* trying very hard not to buy any more books just at the moment, but there were a couple I wanted very much to explore:

“The Sandcastle” is of course the result of Liz’s Great Iris Murdoch Readalong. I’ve been wondering if I should join in and I was intrigued by the sound of this one so I decided to borrow a copy rather than doing my usual clickety-click buying thing… I’ve dipped into the first chapter and am interested – so I may actually read my first Murdoch!

As for “Flaneuse”, I’ve loved the sound of this one since I first heard about it; the temptation to buy was there also, but as the library stocked it I reserved it. The first couple of pages are marvellous – but as I’m currently in the middle of Muriel Spark’s “Robinson” both of these will have to wait. Very frustrating…. I shall just have to give up sleep!

Layer after layer after layer of storytelling… @almabooks

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Locus Solus by Raymond Roussel
Translated by Rupert Copeland Cuningham

The Argumentative Old Git had a really interesting post recently about the importance of plot in a work of literature. I’m in agreement with him that, actually, plot is not always relevant, and reading “Locus Solus” by Raymond Roussel kind of reminded me of that post; because the book has rather strangely got either masses of plot, or none, depending on how you look at it!

“LS” is a book that was obviously going to appeal to me; cited as an influence by members of OuLiPo and lauded for its imaginative strangeness, it’s part of the roster of the John Calder list now republished by Alma Books. Roussel (1877 -1933) was a French poet, novelist, playwright, musician, and chess enthusiast (so rather a polymath!) and although I don’t think he’s read so much nowadays, his influence seems to have stretched far and wide, taking in the Surrealists, the aforementioned OuLiPo (he’s rated highly by Queneau), and the ‘nouveau roman’ authors like Alain Robbe-Grillet.

The story’s narrator introduces us to Martial Canterel, a rich scientist and inventor, who’s invited a group of associates to visit his country estate, from which the book takes its title. The grounds of Locus Solus consist of huge grounds filled to the brim with wonders, and Canterel takes his guests on a dazzling tour of the grand inventions it contains. Each chapter opens with the group being met with a strange scenario – for example a pile driver which constructs a mosaic made of human teeth; a giant glass diamond full of water which contains a dancing girl, a hairless cat and the head of Danton; or a set of scenes peopled by some very gruesome beings (about which I will say no more…) Once the group has witnessed whichever event it is, Canterel goes on to explain the story behind the scenario, which in some cases ends up being multiple layers of storytelling as the source of the tale reaches back through historical events and influences.

The stories become more and more bizarre and more outlandish as the book goes on, with tales from myth and legend, ancient times and ancient lands. Each chapter presents a series of increasingly precise, meticulous descriptions of scientific miracles and rather gruesome inventions and it seems that Canterel has conjured up some terrifyingly ingenious and phantasmagorical devices. The dense allusive text becomes almost a compendium of wonders and the imagery is stunning and imaginative.

The rather dapper Roussel – a model for his character Canterel?

“Locus Solus” is a fascinating, dazzling yet sometimes difficult read and I haven’t actually pulled out any quotes because it’s a book that’s very much a sum of its parts. I’ve seen it described as being like the written equivalent of a surrealist painting, and in many ways that’s an accurate interpretation as the strangeness of each scenario is so visually realised by the prose. The dizzying degree of detail can become boggling and because of this “Locus Solus” is perhaps best read in small doses a chapter at a time rather than all in one go as I did. The style of writing and depth of detail does create a certain distance from the narrative and events which makes this a book to admire rather than love. I’m someone who loves wordplay and clever writing, and LS has this in abundance; and it’s worth remembering that the book was published in 1914 when the world was embracing new sciences and also facing major conflict. Canterel is something of a control freak, attempting to tame the world with his inventions and his discoveries, and that need for order may well have been a reaction to the coming chaos of the world at large.

I’ve read that in the original French the book’s wordplay is even more pronounced, with numerous puns and constraints, though I’m not sure if these have transferred over to the English version. Nevertheless, “Locus Solus” is a fascinating, strange, often a bit grim but never less than intriguing read, and the imagery it contains will haunt me for some time.

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

A Cracking Start to the Year!

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Murder in the Museum by John Rowland

Well, start as you mean to go on, I suppose! (With a winner, that is…) Technically speaking, this book actually belongs to 2017, as I finished on the last day of that year, but I’m still playing catch up with reviewing (and some pieces I’m doing for Shiny New Books) and so here it is… “Murder in the Museum” was one of the gifts OH presented me with at the end of the year, and I was most impressed he found one I hadn’t read and didn’t own – especially as he has no idea where any of my books are shelved in the house… MITM came out in 2016 and is a most apt title for the British Library Crime Classics series, as it’s set in the Reading Room of the British Museum! Rowland is definitely a forgotten author, and this book has been out of print since its initial appearance in 1938; so ripe for rediscovery then!

The book opens with the discovery of a dead professor in the aforementioned Reading Room, and the body is found by one Henry Fairhurst. Henry is a timid bachelor who lives with a battle-axe of a sister, but his meek exterior hides a slightly more steely nature and he’s soon embroiled in the investigation. The enquiry is led by Inspector Shelley (apparently Rowland’s regular sleuth) who isn’t averse to collaborating with Fairhurst – especially as it seems that the latter can often bring more information or a different slant to things.

The plot soon thickens, as it seems that the dead professor, Julius Arnell, was an expert in Elizabethan literature, and wont to become involved in academic disputes on the subject. And oddly some of his colleagues/rivals seem to have met unpleasant fates, leading the detecting duo to speculate on whether the finer points of literary research are the cause of the killings. Events are complicated by financial implications: Arnell appears to be connected to a Texan oil millionaire; there are questions about his will; Arnell’s daughter might inherit, but her fiance is a suspect who has connections to another victim; and there is an impoverished cousin lurking in the background as a rival to Arnell’s daughter regarding any legacy. Dramatic and exciting events lead up to a chase all over the country and a very satisfactory denouement!

MITM turned out to be the perfect read to wind up and year (and also to wind down a bit too!) The setting was wonderful, of course (and as I pass the BM regularly when I visit London and set out to visit the LRB bookshop, I loved the fact I was familiar with the location). Inspector Shelley and his sidekick Cunningham were the perfect GA police pair; however, the introduction of Henry added an extra fun element. It was particularly entertaining to see him constantly surprising Shelley with extra bits of information or unexpected deductions, and it was lovely to see him in at the kill.

Were there any down sides? Well, as Martin Edwards mentioned in his introduction, the question of the portrayal of Jewish people does come up again (as it so often does in murder mysteries from this era), but despite Rowland dealing with his characters in a slightly stereotyped way things are not as clear-cut as they might seem. At one point Shelley refers to a money-lender in disparaging terms but then goes on to say “He’s one of those unpleasant people whom the Fascists are so fond of portraying as the typical Jew. Nothing of the sort really, of course, and to call him such is a libel on the Jewish race.” This is not completely unproblematic, but I guess is better than the usual dismissive attitude that can be taken, and presumably shows an awareness by Rowland, in 1938, of the threat that was looming in Europe. As the author was also a journalist, this perhaps could be expected.

Anyway – “Murder in the Museum” was a fun read from start to finish, with plenty of humour mixed in with the drama and the action, and another winner from the British Library Crime Classics imprint. I liked the setting particularly, and the interactions between Henry and his sister were great fun. On the strength of this book, it’s a shame Rowland has been out of print for so long; fortunately, I do have another one of his titles lurking on the TBR courtesy of OH!

Ermmmm – so I may have missed a couple…

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The post-Christmas period before I go back to work is always a good time for a bit of a tidy, and shuffling the books into some kind of order has been fairly essential – though the current TBR is now so big and scary that I daren’t look at it…

And I discovered when tidying that there were a few new arrivals I hadn’t shared here – but for the sake of transparency I should confess that these lovelies have come into the house, and it was ENTIRELY MY FAULT!!

Ahem. Well. Two of them came from the local Oxfam charity bookshop (so it’s a good cause and that’s my excuse!)

I don’t own this Nabokov (one of the few I was missing) and it was £1.99 – so I didn’t even bother to argue with myself. On a second occasion over the hols I stumbled on the Hogg, which is a title I had been considering after it came up in a list of Scottish books to read I’d been meandering through. So it *would* have been rude not to snap it up, wouldn’t it?

As for this:

Well, I completely blame Lord Steerforth for this. If my increasingly feeble memory serves me correctly, he praised it up on Twitter and I was a bit sold. And it was cheap. So there.

So, I’ve confessed to profligate book buying despite receiving loads for Christmas. I don’t necessarily feel better for it, nor do the rafters and book shelves, but at least I’ve been honest…. 😉

2017 – or, Distracted by Documentaries…

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That might seem an odd title for a post rounding up my thoughts on my best reads of the year, but I fear that my reading rate has actually slowed down quite a lot over recent months and I suspect that might have something to do with my constantly being distracted by the BBC…..

Margaret Atwood image c. Jean Malek

This all kind of began over the summer months with the series of programmes on BBC4  focussing on Utopias of all sorts, and in particular Prof. Richard Clay’s three-part series on the subject (I also blame him for sending me off down a bit of an iconoclasm rabbit hole…) Since then, I seem to have been awash with documentaries of all sorts, from classical music through Margaret Atwood to Mexican art, all of which are a bit distracting and take the mind away from books (or send the mind off in strange directions after other books aside from the ones I was meant to be reading…) So my rate of reading has slowed down a bit I think generally because of this, and spending time in chunksters like “War and Peace” and “Crime and Punishment” has compounded the problem.

However, I have read some absolutely marvellous books this year; I never do anything as formal as a top ten, but here are a few of my highlights. And note that two of them have been read in December, so yes! doing one of these lists before January is premature! So – here goes…

Russians

This blog would not be about my reading without having a lot of Russians in there, and 2017 was by necessity dominated by them. It has been, of course, a year of marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution and two of the outstanding books of the year for me were ones dealing with this. China Mieville’s October and the collection 1917, put together by Boris Dralyuk, were fine books which really brought the events of a century ago alive and both will stay with me.

On the Russian fiction front, I spent a great deal of time with some classic chunksters. Finally reading “War and Peace” was a milestone for me, and revisiting “Crime and Punishment” by my beloved Dostoevsky was also a special experience.

There were new treats too, in the form of “The Return of Munchausen” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, and “Memoirs of a Revolutionary” by Victor Serge. Both authors are recent discoveries and both I would now count as amongst my favourites.  And the wonderful collection of Russian Emigre Short Stories, collected by Bryan Karetnyk and which I covered for Shiny New Books, was a real eye-opener and treat.

Still with Russia, but with non-Russian authors, I actually loved to bits two novels set in that country – “A Gentleman from Moscow” by Amor Towles; and “The Noise of Time”, Julian Barnes’ masterly portrayal of Shostakovich. Really, as a lover of Russian culture and history, I *have* rather been spoiled this year!

Classic Crime

Unsurprisingly, given my taste for it, I’ve delved into a lot of classic crime this year. Much of it has come in the form of lovely books from the British Library Crime Classics editions; and I find it hard to pick favourites from them, although “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a real treat.

I also discovered John Dickson Carr with a vengeance. It’s not for nothing he’s known as the king of the locked-room mystery, and I’ve spent many a happy hour with Dr. Gideon Fell this year.

Margaret Atwood

A living legend. A genius. ‘Nuff said. I rediscovered her work this year too, and definitely want to keep that trend going during 2018. Certainly, her non fiction books have been a real revelation and I can’t praise her highly enough.

Translated literature

There has been a *lot* of translated literature flowing through the Ramblings this year – and if I was more organised I daresay I could get the spreadsheet I keep my list of books read in to work out some statistics. I suspect there could well be more translated that native language books in there – maybe I’ll calculate one day…

Anyway, spending time with Georges Perec is always a joy and I read more of his works this year. I still have a book or two left unread, thank goodness – I dread getting to the last of his works available to me in English.

And one of the highlights of my reading year, during December was the book “Malacqua” – an author and book new to me which I stumbled upon because of the recommendation on the front from Italo Calvino. An unusual, hypnotic and memorable work.

Sci-Fi (or slipstream or speculative fiction or whatever  you want to call it…)

I’ve always dipped into this kind of genre over the years, but during 2017 I really reconnected, after dipping into Soviet sci-fi during 2016. The late, great Brian Aldiss is turning out to be something of a treasure, but my main incursions into the genre came via M. John Harrison. I read some of his shorter works for the 1968 Club and then had the joy (also in the last month of the year!) of reading his newest collection of shorter works, “You Should Come With Me Now”. It’s a powerful and unforgettable work and another book of the year arriving at the last minute.

Reading Clubs

On the subject of the reading clubs I co-host with Simon at Stuck in a Book, we spent time in 1951 and 1968 last year, and we have 1977 lined up for this one – do join in if you can, these events are such fun!

2018 – plans or not?

I started 2017 giving myself few challenges and reading plans or restrictions – which seems to have worked best for me, and I plan to continue on that road for 2018. I don’t function well as a reader if I feel that I *must* read a book; instead I intend another year of No Plans At All and simply following the reading muse!

One reading challenge I *will* try to drop in on occasionally is HeavenAli’s centenary read-along for Muriel Spark. I’ve read a fair bit of Spark over recent years, but there are plenty of titles I haven’t read so if the timing is right, I’ll be there…

I must too say thank you to all who drop in here, leave comments, discuss and recommend books – I always love engaging with people about reading, and look forward to interacting with you all in 2018. And thanks also to the lovely publishers who’ve provided review copies this year (and contributed to the lack of space in my house…)

Apart from that – lead on, Reading Muse, I’m right behind you…. 🙂

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