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Shuffling the shelves – again….. #books #MountTBR

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I had a minor bookish crisis at the weekend when I took a look at the piles of books all over my workroom (which holds most of Mount TBR) and realised that I had really lost track of what was in there. A quick rummage revealed not only several titles I had actually read, but also a great number I’m not planning to read immediately. I realised it was time for a shuffle (and those of you on social media might have seen this picture appearing…)

The main problem (which is the problem with *all* of the books in my house) is the randomness – the different types and authors and genres were all muddled together and that annoyed me on Sunday… So I resolved to have a bit of a sort and try to bring some order to the piles. Which took a little time…

The first thing I wanted to get organised was the poetry books and unfortunately they’ve had to be double shelved. This is the back row:

(You can see the general state of disarray on the other shelves while I sort things out).

And this is the front row when I’d done more shuffling:

This is, of course, not all the poetry I own. For example, all my Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes books are upstairs in the spare room that houses much of my collection. But I wanted to gather all of these together so they’re handy for dipping into – reasonable, no?

The next thing to do was to try to group the remaining books loosely together (and my sorting of books is always a little eclectic). This involved Books All Over The Floor, which always makes me a bit nervous – here are some of them:

The Russians, of course, took up a huge space of their own – I think they might be trying to take over….

Finally, after much shuffling and stress, things began to look more organised (if a little precarious at points):

And the main shelves have come together nicely:

The bottom shelf is Russians (and believe me, this is only a fraction of the Russian books I own). The next up is the poetry books. The third shelf up is slightly heavier tomes (not physically, but in content) including Penguin Little Black Classics, Penguin Great Ideas and lots of things from Verso and the like. And the top shelf has my Penguin Modern box, a number of books vaguely related to art and the French revolution, as well as my Iconoclasm books.

It seems that the Iconoclasm books have been quietly reproducing when I wasn’t looking…. 😀

Any road up, this group of books is now a little more orderly. I sent some images to the Offspring while I was mid-shuffle, and Middle Child commented that I had a book problem. I did remind her that I’ve never denied that (and if she knew how many books have spread into her old room, she’d probably have a fit…)

But never mind – I feel a bit clearer-headed about what’s on the immediate TBR and things are notionally together, which was the point of the exercise. Success! :)))))

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Three things… #1 @GaiaBird1

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Paula over at the always interesting BookJotter recently came up with a lovely idea for a feature where she looks at three things she’s recently been Reading, Looking and Thinking. She encouraged other bloggers to join in and although I can’t guarantee to do this regularly, I did have a few notions I thought I might share. It’s been a bad week for a lot of Planet Earth, and although I don’t always reflect on that aspect of life on the Ramblings, it does seep into my worldview and often affects what I’m reading.

Any road up, here we go:

Reading

Current reading is a review book for Shiny New Books, in the form of “The Aviator” by Eugene Vodolazkin. Taking in memory loss, the Russian Revolution, possibly some sci-fi elements and beautifully evocative prose, it’s compelling reading and yet painful, as the protaganists live through difficult times. I can’t wait to see where this one goes…

Looking

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Last week was my wedding anniversary (shan’t say how long….) and my OH (who always seems to come up with very clever gifts) presented me not only with a build-your-own model of St. Basil’s Cathedral, but also a DVD called “Festival Express”. I have had an enduring love of Janis Joplin ever since discovering her music in my teens, and the DVD has a documentary about a Canadian music tour undertaken by train in 1970, with groups such as The Grateful Dead and The Band travelling along with Janis. It made wonderful viewing, with Janis giving some stand-out performances which put most modern singers to shame. So I thought I’d share one of my favourites by her – not from that tour, but from an appearance on the Tom Jones Show in 1969. Still gives me goosebumps….

Thinking

I think a lot. Which is perhaps a silly thing to say, but then I’m not convinced everyone else does… Anyway – there are a multitude of Bad Things happening in the world at the moment, and I’ve been feeling constantly frustrated about the horror of it all (I’m not going to specify but Brexit madness, the current state of the UK political system and the vileness of separating children from the parents and putting them in cages are three things which make me despair of humanity). I find myself wishing I could do something about these things, and upset and angry that I don’t know what I can do. Should I do a runner from work and go and protest on 13th July? Should I abandon everything and become an activist? Should I hide my head in a hole like an ostrich and not think about it? I don’t know what the answers to the world’s problems are but I do believe that if human beings could stop being greedy and nasty, and become more tolerant of each other, the world would certainly be a better place.

*****

So that’s where I am with those three things at the moment. This is a fun little feature – do join in on your own blog if you like, or if you don’t have one comment below on what *you* might be up to!

In search of a vanished land #bookreview

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There are *sooooooo* many books out there nowadays that it’s really hard to keep track of the things you might be interested in; even harder to come across those books that you didn’t even know you might want to read. That’s one of the things I love about the randomness of charity shop finds; I’m very blessed to have a lot locally, and they’re often a source of the unexpected or serendipitous. “The Debatable Land” is a case in point: it turned up in one of our local shops a few weekends ago, and I recognised the author’s name and was intrigued by the title so I picked it up. Graham Robb is the author of “Parisians”; another charity shop find which lurked unread on the shelves for years and which I fear I’ve donated back again. Annoying, that…

Any road up, let’s explore “The Debatable Land”! The book’s genesis took place when Robb and his wife Margaret moved north to be nearer to his mother in Scotland. They ended up near the border, with Carlisle the closest big town, and while settling in Robb began to explore the landscape and find out more about the history of the place. Because tucked away in the north-east of the country is a small area known as the Debatable Lands; a place which was a kind of no-man’s-land, belonging to neither England nor Scotland and with its own set of rules and morals. As Robb and his wife wrestle with the extremes of the northern climate, as well as getting to know their neighbours, he delves deeper into the legends of the reivers – local outlaws/bandits/Robin Hoods/criminals, depending on your viewpoint – and a fascinating history it is.

The Debatable Lands were originally a neutral territory (at a time when England and Scotland were very separate countries); a place where no one was meant to settle, and anyone could graze their cattle. The area had its own legal system (March Law) which resolved disputes and the system worked until the middle ages, when interference by the two countries allowed local clan groups to take over. These groups fought off any attempts by the two government to take away control, and raided the neighbouring areas of both countries frequently (earning the name of the Border Reivers – a word for thief or ruffian), building up considerable fortunes. However, this state of affairs couldn’t really continue forever, and as England and Scotland began to move closer to a union, James VI and I took strong action against the clans, breaking much of their hold on the area.

Robb covers all of this history in detail, roaming the land around his house, identifying landmarks and historical areas where the Reivers lived and raided. And the book is beautifully illustrated with maps, drawings and photographs of the various locations which really bring the narrative to life. He’s happy to debunk the myths perpetuated (particularly by writers such as Sir Walter Scott) and bring some realism to the history of the area and its people. Interestingly, towards the end of the book Robb attempts to trace the events of the missing early centuries, where there is, naturally, no record of events. By re-interpreting Ptolemy’s ancient map of Britain, he finds records of the place existing in these times; and he uses this knowledge to tie the locality into a Northern route for the battles of the legendary King Arthur. These discoveries are particularly intriguing, and I would perhaps have liked to see them given more prominence.

The Debatable Lands (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

All of this made fascinating reading, but I did have some slight issues with the book. The narrative is a little choppy – Robb jumps from personal events and investigations into the results of his findings, which would be fine, except that those finds are not presented in a linear fashion so the whole story of the Debatable Lands loses coherence. The final section, in particular, has a slightly tagged-on feel and is coloured by politics; indeed, as the book progresses, the issues of Scottish Independence and Brexit are a constant sub-text, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but I felt that it affected the cohesion of the book slightly. And I actually would have liked to read more about Robb and Margaret’s adventures in moving north to such a climatically extreme area, as those bits were particularly interesting.

So in the end this was an absorbing read, but not an outstanding one for me. Robb is an interesting author, and he writes really well (and also obviously researches really well, as some of his findings and deductions about the Debatable Lands were really engrossing). What I think the book needed was a bit of restructuring and a bit of editing to make it form a more unified whole; it rambled a bit in places (and I should know about that…) and lost impact because of the structural issues. Nevertheless, the whole topic of the Debatable Lands is absolutely fascinating and this is a good enough place to start exploring! If I ever move north again, I’ll have to try to pop over to have a look at the place! And I *really* wish I hadn’t donated back that “Parisians” book… 😦

“Paris is a city one can read without a map”

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Devotion by Patti Smith

I try, as a rule, not to splurge *too* much on brand new books, although that’s been going a little out of the window recently. I picked up “Devotion” at the same times “Bergeners”, as I’d missed getting a copy when it came out for some reason, and I tend to want to own anything Patti Smith publishes. “Devotion” is part of a series entitled ‘Why I Write’ and mixes memoir, fiction and discussion of the whole process of composition – which in the hands of Smith is always going to be intriguing.

This is one of those books you can read in a single sitting, yet contains much to think about and much which lingers in the mind. Smith’s latest work has at its heart a short fiction entitled “Devotion” and this is bookended by two pieces where she relates her travels, her motivations and the triggers that caused the composition of the story. These two pieces are fascinating; she journeys around Europe, searching for the grave of Simone Weil (one of the inspirations for the story) and visits the house of Albert Camus (also one of her touchstones here). Whilst travelling, she meditates on what makes an author write, the compulsion which causes the need to stop doing everything else and pick up a pen – it’s clear that Smith is driven to constantly be creating. Illustrated by her photography, this is a rare and engaging insight into the way her mind works.

Smith also brings memoir into her work, in particular when visiting Paris and returning to places she previously explored in 1969 on a trip to the city with her sister. The writing is evocative and atmospheric, capturing place and time, so immediate that you almost feel that you’re travelling alongside the author. As she travels, elements lodge in her mind, leading to the genesis of the story which is central to the book.

So, the short story… “Devotion” is a work that deals with obsession; specifically the differing obsessions of the two central characters. Eugenia is a 16-year-old orphaned exile from Estonia; Alexander is in his late thirties, and a solitary collector. When their two worlds collide, her obsessive need to skate and his obsessive need to collect her will lead inevitably to tragedy. It’s a dark tale, full of betrayal, absence and death and leaves disturbing echoes in the mind.

As I mentioned when I posted about the arrival of “Devotion”, I own pretty much everything Smith’s published; I started getting hold of her slim poetry books in the late 1970s when I could track them down (not so easy in those days) and I’ve kept up with what she’s published over the years. A high point was when her collection “Babel” came out in 1978; and in many ways this story reminds me of the fictions featured in that volume. I was entranced with them at the time; but if I’m honest I perhaps have slight reservations about them now. “Devotions” would easily slot in amongst the “Babel” stories, and they’re works that would perhaps move you more when read at a younger age than I am now. The characters in the story never developed enough for me; they were symbols rather than real people, and it *is* possible to bring a character to life in a short work (as the many short stories I’ve read prove). There was some beautiful imagery in the story, and up to a certain point it worked well. However, at the point the couple travelled off into the desert (or whatever it was) the story did tend to lose focus. As a tale of the unholy collision of two driven individuals, it works well enough, but maybe nowadays I’m looking for a little more. Additionally, there is an ambiguity and unpleasantness in the relationship between the 16-year-old and the much older man which made me very uncomfortable; although there was revenge, I wondered what motivated the storyline in the first place.

By Daigo Oliva from São Paulo (Originally posted to Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

However, the ‘bookends’ are marvellous; Smith is an excellent chronicler of her own life, her thoughts, her rituals and her quests for the remnants of her heroes. “M. Train” and “Just Kids” proved just how good she is at that kind of writing, and I found myself wishing that we had had more of Smith’s journals and maybe less of her fictions! That may sound a little harsh; nevertheless, this book has plenty to recommend it, not least Smith’s record of her visits to her French publisher Gallimard, who murmurs that he knew her hero Jean Genet; and the trip to the Camus residence, which proved such an inspiration. Smith is not afraid to wear her heart on her sleeve when it comes to her idols, and that’s refreshing.

So “Devotion” was a bit of a mixed bag: the sections about writing, travelling, revisiting her past were prime Patti, compelling and beautiful; the story that forms the book’s centrepiece much more problematic. Nevertheless, I’m glad to have read “Devotion” and it will no doubt sit on my shelves alongside the rest of her work. An online review of the book I read mentioned hoping for an “M. Train 2” and I have to concur – *that’s* a book I’d love to read!

“To write is love unto death” @seagullbooks

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Bergeners by Tomas Espedal
Translated by James Anderson

I’ve been aware of the publishers Seagull Books for some time now; not least because they sent me a copy of their beautiful catalogue, which is a work of art in its own right, but also because of the love shown by a number of esteemed bloggers I follow (most notably Joe at Rough Ghosts, who even spent quite some time interacting with them on a trip to India – check out his fascinating posts on his blog!) Despite wanting to, I’d somehow never actually picked up a copy of any of their books (possibly because the choice is so great I didn’t know where to begin); but Bergeners received so much blogging acclaim that I figured it would be a good place to start and picked up a copy! 🙂

Tomas Espedal is a Norwegian author new to me. and “Bergeners” was originally published in 2013; the Seagull edition, translated by James Anderson, came out last year. It’s a lovely edition, beautifully put together and with a stylish dustjacket; if this is an indication of the quality of Seagull books I can see myself acquiring more… And I see that several of Espedal’s book are available from the publisher – oh, the temptation!

“Bergeners” is one of those book which defies classification; notionally tagged as being about the people of Bergen, “a love letter to a writer’s home town” as the blurb puts it, it’s really much more. After a vivid opening memory, the book switches to New York, with the narrator experiencing the huge strangeness of that city, before being dumped by his girlfriend. And actually, to attempt any linear description of the book’s content after that would be pointless, as the narrative is a fragmentary and heady mixture of memoir, fiction, poetry and meditations on life. Espedal stirs in reminiscence of his young life, his difficulties at home, growing up, hints of a failed marriage and encounters with other Norwegian figures in the arts world (most notably one “Karl Ove” – I wonder who that could be…) He was can also be drily funny at times!

Simen Hagerup pays a visit. His hairstyle seems to indicate that he wants short hair and long hair at the same time.

The book ranges widely in location, from New York to Madrid, Albania, Nicaragua, Paris, Berlin and of course Norway. There are fragments and poems; diary entries; short stories; and sections which read like memoir and meditation. Running through the book is a thread of loss, ageing and melancholy, alongside a constant sense of absence. There is a past wife; a lost girlfriend; parents who are dead or in care; friends who drift apart; and, perhaps most painfully; a grown up daughter who moves away to live her own life.

By Bjørn Erik Pedersen [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

The blurring of past and present creates an evocative narrative which lingers in the mind; and Espedal seems to be reflecting on the inevitable changes that come in life, time passing, and the effects of age. I could perhaps be trite and say the man’s having a mid-life crisis; but I think we use that term pejoratively nowadays, and actually life is so frantic that we often find that age catches up with us when we pause to take a breath. That happened to me when I went back to work after 15 years of looking after Offspring – it was like coming out of the other end of a tunnel and wondering where my life had gone. But I digress.

From the window of the room at Hotel S. Anselmo, on the second floor, you can see right into a lime tree. It’s as if you’re sitting behind the curtain to expose the tree’s secret. One of its branches grows towards the window and scratches the pane when the wind blows. If the window was kept open, the branch would grow into the hotel room. The line-tree branch would spread inside the room, its leaves would unfurl, it would turn to winter, spring, and there, hidden behind the curtain, you imagine how the tree and the seasons would take over the empty room.

“Bergeners” is full of evocative images, the kind of book where you find yourself wallowing in the beauty of the writing. What is fact and what is fiction is never clear, but to be honest I don’t think that matters here. If you want plot, this is *not* the place to look. But if you want poetry, poetic prose, vivid imagery and the kind of narrative that will set you thinking and keep you thinking for a long time after you finish the book, then Espedal could well be the author for you. My first experience of a Seagull book was a stunning one – and I’m sure it won’t be my last.

*****

I’m not sure that I’ve actually done this book justice, so for further thoughts you could check out Joe’s thoughts here, and also Melissa’s here. Anthony has also written about Espedal’s other works on his excellent blog.

A few quick literary links…. @lithub @parisreview @guardian

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A lot of lovely blogs tend to have regular features with links to all the exciting posts, articles and features that pop up on the InterWeb. It’s not a thing I generally do, but today’s newsletter from LitHub had some links I just felt I had to share!

By Ginny from USA (book sale loot) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Feminize Your Canon – a really interesting initiative from The Paris Review (which has been widely shared on Twitter today). It’s a new monthly column celebrating neglected woman writers, starting with Olivia Manning, and deserves to be read and applauded. You can subscribe to receive daily updates from the PR which are always worth reading as well.

Top 10 lost women’s classics – an interesting piece from the always-interesting Guardian newspaper in a similar vein, which has some very intriguing books featured.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Penelope Lively on Virginia Woolf – on LitHub this time, a fascinating extract from Lively’s book, “Life in the Garden”.

If you don’t subscribe to LitHub’s daily newsletter, I’d suggest signing up. A daily dose of literary links can be just what the doctor ordered – although always potentially bad for the wishlist and TBR…. 🙂

 

“Know one thing: you will be old tomorrow….” @poetrycandle @PushkinPress

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Ten Poems from Russia
Selected and Introduced by Boris Dralyuk
Published by Candlestick Press in association with Pushkin Press

You might have seen me expressing great excitement recently all over social media about the arrival of this slim but gorgeous collection of Russian verse. That’s going to be no surprise to any passer-by of the Ramblings; I love Russian literature in all its shapes and forms, and it’s a country with a long and deep tradition of verse. You only have to look at the number of books of Russian poetry on my shelves to realise just how many great poets the country’s produced, and my collection only scratches the surface…

Candlestick Press are known for producing beautiful little themed booklets which are designed to send instead of a card; indeed, I’m pretty sure I have one based on “Mothers” which was gifted to me one Mothers’ Day (by Middle Child, if my memory doesn’t fail me). Candlestick have been championed by Dove Grey Reader, and she’s right to do so – personally, I think that anything which gets people reading more poetry is a Good Thing! Pushkin Press, of course, need no introducing – they publish the most wonderful books in translation, and are responsible for bringing some brilliant works to us; including all the wonderful Gazdanovs rendered by Bryan Karetnyk, as well as Boris Dralyuk’s excellent Babel translations and his “1917” anthology (one of my favourite reads of last year).

Any road up, that’s enough rambling – what do you actually *get* here? Well, you get a beautifully produced, A5 booklet with a stunning cover design, on quality paper and with a matching bookmark (for you to write a message on if you so wish) plus envelope. And the contents are equally stunning; ten poems from the Russians, expertly chosen, in some cases translated, and introduced by Boris Dralyuk. The authors range from Pushkin (of course!) through Akhmatova Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Pasternak et al up to Julia Nemirovskaya, a living poet. And each poem is a little gem. What particularly pleased me was the fact that there were poets new to me, including Nemirovskaya and Georgy Ivanov; and I was also pleased to see Nikolay Gumilyov featured, as I’m keen to read more of his work. Half of the works are translated by Dralyuk, the rest by Robert Chandler and Peter France; and some appear here translated for the first time, which is fab!

Akhmatova by Zinaida Serebriakova

It’s hard (and perhaps unfair) to pick favourites in any collection of works, so I won’t. But I *will* say that the Akhmatova is as stunning as she always is, with her poem on the fate of Russian poets, always menaced by “the shaggy paw of voiceless terror” (what imagery!) And I’m finding that the more I read of Tsvetaeva, the more I’m appreciating her writing; the poem featured here, “To Alya”, addressed to her daughter, is particularly stunning. But I’m not going to quote any of the poems because I want you all to go out a buy a copy of this… 🙂

Editor and translator Boris Dralyuk

Boris Dralyuk has themed his collection to capture the range of the Russian soul; from myth through terror, taking in art, love and life, the selection really does cover all the bases. In his introduction, he uses a rather beautiful image to describe what he’s trying to do with this anthology, that of leading you into a corridor with multiple enticing doors leading off; each one of which opens into a room full of wonders, and more doors… I was already in that corridor, having opened some of those doors; but what this marvellous little collection has done is offered me new doors to open, new poets to explore and more wonderful Russian verse which is always balm to the soul. If, like me, you love Russian poetry you should still buy this booklet because it’s such an illuminating collection; but if you’ve never read the Russians, it’s the perfect place to enter the corridor and begin your journey of exploration – you won’t be disappointed!

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