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Part novel, part travelogue, totally delightful! #michaelwalmer #stellatennysonjesse

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Eve in Egypt by Stella Tennyson Jesse

I’ve mentioned in the past on the Ramblings (and elsewhere!) how highly I think of F. Tennyson Jesse’s remarkable novel “A Pin to see the Peepshow”; one of my favourite ever Virago books, it fictionalises the story of the Thompson-Bywaters murder case, turning it into compelling fiction as well as making a very strong case against capital punishment. So when Michael Walmer kindly offered me a review copy of FTJ’s sister Stella’s only novel, “Eve in Egypt” I was intrigued, to say the least…

Stella was the older of the two sisters, and made her name as a stage actress; notably appearing in plays by her brother-in-law H.M. Harwood (FTJ’s husband). “Eve..” was her only novel and it has an interesting genesis. Based on a trip up the Nile which Stella took in 1926/7 in the company of her sister, brother-in-law and a bachelor uncle, the book was apparently written as a result of a £10 bet between the Harwoods and Stella (or so Mike Walmer tells me!) Whatever caused the book to be written is an intriguing and enjoyable work, and I had a blast reading it.

Our titular heroine, Eve Wentworth, is young and beautiful and awash with suitors. Harold and Hubert have asked for her hand in marriage but tellingly she is incapable of deciding between them. While she havers about trying to make up her mind, her sister Serena and brother-in-law Hugh receive a timely invite for the three of them to join a family friend on a tour of the Nile. This is the perfect escape for Eve, but alas things are not so simple; the family friend is Jeremy, known to Eve since they were both young, and as the trip progresses Eve realises she has feelings about her erstwhile playmate. To complicate things further, whilst travelling the group encounter a rich American woman, Isobel Page, who seems to attract Jeremy’s attention; and Isobel’s brother Tony makes the plot even thicker! Is Eve about to have her heart broken? Will she be left to choose between the two Hs? Will the scenery and location be enough to distract her from her heartache? Or can we expect a happy ending? 🙂

By New York Public Library (Sphynx et la grande pyramide.) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

This could of course be just another frothy, enjoyable 1920s romance (which is no bad thing) with the usual misunderstandings, potentially broken hears, witty dialogue and hilarious camel rides (OK, that latter bit doesn’t usually turn up in this type of book, but it *was* very funny). However, what lifts the book above the norm is the clever way it blends travelogue and novel. There are many, many photographs featured throughout the book of the various locations described, all taken by Stella and they give a wonderful insight into the Egypt of that era. Of course, the country was very much in vogue at the time, following the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter in 1922, and it’s a place which had an endless fascination for the British during the first part of the twentieth century (Agatha Christie’s novels being a good case in point). I imagine that modern Egypt is a very different place from that of the 1920s so I really enjoyed the window on that world that the book gave. The book is laced with the history and mythology of the country and the Pharaohs, yet never in a way which feels out of place or burdensome, and I really sensed Stella’s love of the place.

I can’t think, to be honest, why this book has been out of print for so long. It’s an entertaining and enjoyable read, with the lovely added extra elements of the narrative which deal with the setting, and these give an extra frisson to the book. I have to be honest and say that of course it isn’t on the same level as FTJ’s great novel, but nevertheless “Eve in Egypt” is a work that deserves much more attention than it’s had; its lovely blending of fact and fiction make for an unusual and unexpected read, and kudos to Michael Walmer for republishing it!

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Three things… #4 – Revolutions, plus difficulties with older books…

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Time for another go at the “Three Things” meme created by Paula at Book Jotter; this is where we post things we are reading, looking (at) and thinking. The book I’m currently reading has influenced what I’m currently watching (as there is still a dearth of documentaries, alas…), and this ties in also with my thoughts on some bookish and not so bookish things at the moment. So here goes!

Reading

I’m currently deeply immersed in “The Race to Save the Romanovs” by Helen Rappaport, which I’m going to be reviewing for Shiny New Books. Give my interest (alright, obsession) with all things Russia, it’s inevitable that I’ve read a *lot* of books over the decades about the last Tsar of Russia and the fate of his family. This particular volume promises new insights, specifically into the failure of any of the other Royal houses in Europe to intercede and come to the aid of their relations, and it’s intriguing reading so far. This is actually the first of Rappaport’s books I will actually have finished; I bailed out of her book on Lenin fairly early as I sensed an underlying inability to really accept the concept of someone devoting their whole life to a cause which undermined the narrative for me. However, we’ll see what this book brings! Although Rappaport is acknowledging the huge and fatal flaws of the regime, I *am* sensing a slight bias, and so I turned to some vintage viewing:

Looking

Mr. Kaggsy is something of an enabler when it comes to DVDs, and one box set he gifted me a while ago was the complete BBC series “Fall of Eagles” from 1974, which I’m gradually making my way through. A classic drama from what I tend to think of as the golden age of TV (!), it tell in 13 parts of the collapse of the three main royal dynasties in Europe at the time of the First World War and Russian Revolution. It’s stuffed to the gills with marvellous actors (Patrick Stewart perfect as Lenin; Barry Foster actually *is* Kaiser Wilhelm) and I remember being enthralled when I was just a wee thing, freshly captivated by the Russian Revolution. Revisiting it has been a wonderful experience; so after reading a bit of the Rappaport, I watched the episode “Dear Nicky” which deals with the pre-war correspondence between the Tsar and the Kaiser against a backdrop of suffering and unrest in St. Petersburg, and was reminded of a number of things:

1. Just how good the series was – the acting!
2. How it was also even-handed in that the royals were shown as flawed and the people were shown as suffering.

Which led onto…

Thinking

… well, thinking about revolutions generally. I have to say up front that I deplore violence (well, as a vegan, I would.) However, we live in a world which is unequal and unfair, and frankly it’s hardly surprising that the people often have to take up an aggressive stance against those in charge when the latter are exploiting and enslaving them. Russia was a case in point, and I’m finding my reading of the Rappaport book a little problematic because although I can’t condone the violence meted out to the Tsar’s family, neither can I countenance the violence done to the Russian people. It will be interesting to see what I finally conclude.

And as I’ve blogged recently, I’ve been incubating a possible reading project of French Revolutionary fiction. Well, it started as fiction, but might not end up being limited to that, as a few internet searches have thrown up a very tempting list of possible books. Some of which may have slipped quietly through the letterbox when Mr. Kaggsy wasn’t paying attention….

The revolutionary French are obviously breeding…

One in particular really caught my eye because of its focus on women’s involvement; when I posted about “The Declaration of the Rights of Women” by Olympe de Gouges earlier in the year, I commented on the fact that I’d been looking for the female voice int he French Revolution. I also alluded to the figure of Théroigne de Méricourt, who I’d heard mention of in Richard Clay’s excellent “Tearing Up History” documentary, where he credited her with urging on the men who were hesitating to storm the Tuileries Palace. I found very little about her in the books I have relating to the Revolution, so the fact that she features in this recent arrival is rather nice…

I must admit I feel inclined to pick it up and start reading straight away, but the problem is, it’s only one of a number of Big Books about Inspirational Woman that I have lurking…

All of these are crying out to be read instantly, but there isn’t enough time. Plus the French Revolution books are massing offstage… And as I hinted in the heading to this post, some of the older titles are really giving me issues. If you go off to search for a more obscure old book, like a Victor Hugo or a Joseph Conrad which *isn’t* one of the well know titles, you end up being offered weird, expensive reprints on the online sites. (I found this when I was looking for Robert Louis Stevenson’s book on Edinburgh, and ended up buying a very old copy instead – but that’s by the by…) I would like to have actual *physical* copies, as I really hate reading on a screen, but as you might have guessed by the glowing screen in the picture further up this post, I have had to resort to Project Gutenberg. Really not my preferred way of reading, but beggars etc etc as they say… Anyway, onward and upward with the Romanovs – hopefully by the time I’ve finished that, I’ll have more idea of what I want to read after it! 😀

Ellen Wilkinson – the Newcastle connection! @appliedcomics @historyNCL

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One of my happiest literary discoveries this year has been the two novels of Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson. A pioneering woman and a moving force in the Jarrow March, she also turned out a couple of wonderful reads and they’ll definitely be up there in my books of the year. However, a chance tweet by @appliedcomics earlier in the month reminded me of something I had on the shelves with a Wilkinson connection which is in a format I don’t often read…

Last year, Newcastle-upon-Tyne launched the Freedom City 2017 programme of events; the city was not only celebrating the fact that it was 50 years since the University had awarded Dr. Martin Luther King an honorary degree, but also its rich heritage of activism. That activism, of course, included the region’s Jarrow March, and the tweet I mentioned reminded me that not only was it the anniversary of that event, but also that I had the item they were featuring – the Freedom City 2017 comic!

The comic was produced under the aegis of the university, and issued free of charge last year; and a contact in Newcastle sent it on to me as he thought I would be interested (which I was!). I read the comic whilst watching footage of the unveiling of a statue of Dr. King in the university (fascinating event), but I had forgotten that one of the events featured in pictorial fashion was the Jarrow March and Wilkinson’s part in it.

You can still read some parts of the comic online at the university website, and the Ellen Wilkinson chapter is up here:

https://research.ncl.ac.uk/fccomics/chapters/therighttowork.html

The city is obviously still rightly proud of its heritage, and the university laudably provides educational materials supporting the comic – ideal for any younger people you may have around you in the form of friends and family (or indeed if you work in an educational establishment!) The whole comic is interesting (if you can get hold of a copy) and a timely reminded of the agitation and activism of the past, how our freedoms are hard-won, and how we still need to fight to hold onto them.

A controversial lost feminist author? @shinynewbooks

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Back in the day (well, the 1980s…) I stumbled across the French author, Violette Leduc. She was a name I’d never heard before at the time, but the book I discovered had an introduction by Simone de Beauvoir, which meant I was instantly interested. I investigated, ending up with the pile of rather tatty volumes you can see in the image, gathered from jumble sales and second-hand shops, and found that Leduc was certainly a very individual author…

Her works were considered controversial at the time, dealing frankly with female sexuality and desire (for both the sexes) and I recall them as being shot through with a kind of self-hate, as if Leduc was not happy in that prison of her own skin… And the covers were often lurid, as if to warn the reader of the kind of thing they were going to read:

Well, it’s a long, long time since I read Leduc – though it’s interesting that I’ve held onto the books all these years – and I did feel that she’d become a forgotten author. However, Penguin seem to be trying to put that to rights, and they’ve issued a beautiful new edition of a slim work by her, “The Lady and the Little Fox Fur”. You can see it on top of the pile above, and this is its lovely cover (it’s part of the new Penguin European Writers series):

I was pleased to read this for Shiny New Books and revisit this lost author – you can read my review here, and I think I might well be giving those tatty old volumes some fresh interest. Thirty years on, I wonder whether my views on Leduc and her work will have changed? 🙂

#1944Club: we made it to the end – but where next….?

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Well, what a week of reading that was!  I don’t know about everyone else, but I read some absolutely fantastic books from different genres, as well as revisited some old friends, and it’s been marvellous fun! Thanks to everyone who posted, commented, shared bookish thoughts and got involved (and thanks to Mr. Kaggsy for his guest post, which did take the pressure off a bit during a particularly hectic week at work while I was trying to juggle the blog and real life…) Only six months to the next Club…

On the subject of which, Simon and I were having a chat about the picking of the next reading year, and he came up with the idea of throwing things open to our readers/commenters/participants! So – what year do *you* think would be a good one to feature for our next Club? We’re not even restricting this to decades, though to be honest Simon and I both seem comfortable with the period between 1920 and 1979  so if your year is in that bracket we would probably be more favourable…. 😀

So leave a comment and make a suggestion, either here or on Simon’s blog. We’d like you to make a case for your chosen year, rather than just giving us a date, as we’d love to know why you want everyone to read books from a particular year. How will we choose the ‘winner’? That remains to be seen, but we look forward  to hearing your nominations!

In the meantime, after all last week’s intense reading and reviewing and posting, I ought to have a lie down really – but there are plenty of books vying for my attention and I’m not quite sure what I’ll pick up next. I shared this image on Instagram recently, and certainly any of these would be particularly appealing:

There are also a reasonable number of review books lurking, and then there’s a little idea I have in the back of my head…. As has been obvious on the Ramblings over the last year or so, I’ve developed quite an interest in iconoclasm and the French Revolution (ahem!) A chance glance at a newsletter from Oxford World Classics recently brought “The Scarlet Pimpernel” to my notice, and an idea sort of began to germinate… What if I curated my own French Revolutionary *fiction* reading list? Could it be a project? Are there enough interesting titles? Do I *dare* set myself another challenge and then just fail? Of course, I read “A Tale of Two Cities” back in the day – but since this idea first popped into my head, the pile of possibles in the house has grown a little… (gulp)

It’s only a little pile at the moment, and I’m sure there are plenty more titles that could be added to the list…. (no! no! I do *not* need to buy any more books!!!) We shall see – I may or I may not. Watch this space to see what turns up next! 😀

#1944Club : “In all the Library, there are no two identical books”

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Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges
Translated by Andrew Hurley

My final read for the #1944Club is a book which comes with a massively high reputation, and although it was not a difficult read, actually writing about it may be harder than expected. I’ve written about Jorge Luis Borges on the Ramblings before; a titan of South American literature, I read him back in my early twenties, and have revisited him more recently when I read his first collection “A Universal History of Iniquity” (1935). However, for the Club I’ve visited the next section of the rather large book in the picture and it was a spellbinding experience, to say the least…

“Ficciones”, which was published of course in 1944, consists of two slim collections entitled “The Garden of Forking Paths” and “Artifices”. Slim they may be in size, but certainly not in content. In 1956, Borges added three extra stories to the latter selection, and they’re included with “Ficciones” in my beautiful Collected Fiction volume (American edition, deckled page block edges, gorgeous). So I did read them, even though technically speaking they were published after 1944 – but I co-host the Club week, so I don’t care! 😀

Anyway, Borges…. What a bloody amazing writer, basically. Does he need any introduction? I’m not going to attempt one here, so if anyone reading this post doesn’t know who Borges is, I suggest they go and Google him straight away and then read him. However, Wikipedia says “Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges Acevedo KBE was an Argentine short-story writer, essayist, poet and translator, and a key figure in Spanish-language literature” and the BBC, while stating the case for Borges being the most important 20th century author, says “Reading the work of Jorge Luis Borges for the first time is like discovering a new letter in the alphabet, or a new note in the musical scale”. Quite. I agree. So let me dispense with waffle and attempt to respond to my reading of what could be argued to be Borges’ most important work, or at least the stories that made his name.

Ashe was afflicted with unreality, as so many Englishmen are; in death, he is not even the ghost he was in life… My father had forged one of those close English friendships with him (the first adjective is perhaps excessive) that begin by excluding confidences and soon eliminate conversation.

Firstly, it’s worth noting the sheer breadth of the stories in this collection, which range far and wide in both location and also subject matter. There are historical narratives in any number of locations; stories of fictional worlds, cowboys and gauchos, erudite scholars, Europeans and South Americans, world builders and criminals. There are spurious biographies of fictional authors; and memorable characters, such as Pierre Menard, whose ambition was to write “Don Quixote” – not a version of the book, but the actual book that Cervantes had already produced…. Obviously at times Borges has his tongue firmly in his cheek, although each story still has a serious purpose behind it; “The Lottery in Babylon”, for example, is a parable of the random forces at play in our lives.

Borges often blends fact and fiction, and he and his friends often feature as characters in the various stories; and the fantastic and the surreal mingle in a way which is utterly captivating, leaving a haunting impression on the mind. Each story is a gem, a breathtaking piece of writing in its own right, and coming to these stories after decades of reading since I first discovered Borges I saw so many resonances in other authors’ works; particular my beloved Calvino, whose strange worlds and allegorical tales seem to me to have been informed by the legacy of Borges. There are recurring themes of labyrinths, mirrors, unreal or non-existent books or worlds; and several of the stories have wonderful twists at the end.

He understood that the task of molding the incoherent and dizzying stuff that dreams are made of is the most difficult work a man can undertake, even if he fathom all the enigmas of the higher and lower spheres – much more difficult than weaving a rope of sand or minting coins of the faceless wind.

I’m not going to discuss any more specifics as I would rather just encourage you to pick up this book and read with no real preconceptions – and prepare to be blown away by your encounter with a unique and glittering imagination. If you want favourites, well “The Garden of Forking Paths” is pretty damn perfect, as is “Death and the Compass”, as it the aforementioned “The Lottery in Babylon”, as is “The Library of Babel”. Oh, basically it’s a work of genius! 😀

Re the translation, there’s not a lot I can say except that it reads beautifully to me, and Andrew Hurley has also provided useful supporting notes. It’s so long since I read the “Labyrinths” collection that I have nothing to compare this to, but I think Hurley deserves an award for translating all of these stories so wonderfully so they can be gathered in a collected edition – ’nuff said.

Via Wikipedia Commons

Well. This is not really the kind of post I expected to write on Borges, but frankly when I sat down to gather my thoughts I wasn’t sure how I would tackle it, and I felt vaguely incapable of doing justice to these stories, so you can just have my reactions. Borges needs no praise from me as he’s already a revered writer (and as Mario Vargas Llosa is quoted as saying on the cover of this book, it was a crime that Borges never received the Nobel). If you’ve never read him, I would urge you to do so. He’s *not* a difficult writer; just a stimulating, thought-provoking, intriguing, mind-bending, clever and unforgettable one. My last read for the #1944Club was a marvellous experience, and it’s wonderful to think that I’m only a third of the way through the book – all that lovely Borges left to read…. 😀

#1944club – a heroine takes control of her own destiny

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Gigi by Colette
Translated by Roger Senhouse

Well, what a week it’s been so far! We’re getting to the end and today I wanted to post about one of my favourite authors, a writer I was so pleased I could re-read for the #1944Club! I’ve written fairly extensively on the Ramblings about Colette (and she’s probably trending, as they say, at the moment owing to there being a biopic in the offing); so the fact that one of her most famous works was published in 1944 was a real bonus.

Pretty but fragile Penguin edition….

“Gigi” is one of the titles that springs to the lips of those in the know when Colette’s name is mentioned; possibly because of the film starring Leslie Caron; and yet when I picked it up for a re-read I was astonished at how short it actually is. At around 50 pages in my pretty old Penguin, it would struggle to be classed as a novella, and I would almost expect to find it in my volume of her collected short stories. In fact, my Penguin has “Gigi” paired with “The Cat”, a longer work; yet reputation of the title story is large, and for a very good reason.

Gilberte, known affectionately as Gigi, is 15 going on grown-up; on the cusp of womanhood, still naive and closely protected by her mother, her Grandmother and her aunt Alicia, she is being discreetly lined up for life as a courtesan. The family is slightly on the outside of things; although they have higher class associates, they struggle financially, with Gigi’s mother singing at night to earn money. A legacy of one of Grandmother’s past liaisons is a current friendship with Gaston Lachaille, a rich man who nevertheless seems to enjoy calling on the little family of women where he can relax. Gigi calls him Uncle Tonton, and is happy to be spoiled with little treats. However, Tonton has broken up with his society girlfriend, at a point where Gigi is reaching an age to be of interest as more than a family friend. The older women seem to be considering some kind of modern version of Grandmother’s friendship with the Lachaille family; however, Gigi has ideas of her own…

As always, Colette’s writing is a pure delight. Despite its short length, “Gigi” brims with atmosphere, characters, settings and stories. Gigi herself is headstrong and engaging; Tonton a convincing besotted man . Leaving aside any morals here (when did we ever look to a Colette book for morals???), the story is beautifully told and it’s a joy seeing Gigi get her own way despite the attempts of the older women to control her.

So I might have shelled out on an expensive ‘paper lovers’ magazine just because it had some postcards of women reading, including Colette and Hepburn….

OK, OK, the morals. Tonton is 33, Gigi is 15; that age gap and her youth are problematic, although it has to be borne in mind that the story is set some considerable time in the past (which is no excuse really). However, I can’t help being reminded of how Colette married a man older than her, the libertine Willy (she was a naive looking 20, he was 34); and I wondered how much this coloured her narrative. Nevertheless, “Gigi” is beautifully written, evocative of time and place, and a fascinating look at the lives of certain women too easily dismissed. This was a time when being wife or mistress seemed the only options, unless you had money, and Gigi is intelligent enough to know which was the better choice.

“Gigi” was made into a successful stage show, and then a film; the former launched the career of Audrey Hepburn, when Colette reputedly pointed her out as the perfect actress to play her heroine. The film became a classic (though staring Caron not Hepburn) and Colette continued writing until her death. I wouldn’t say “Gigi” is necessarily the best place to start with her work; but nothing she writes is ever dull, and I’m happy to have become reacquainted with “Gigi” again for the 1944 Club!

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