2018 – so what were my standout reading experiences? :)


When it comes to doing an annual best of list, I tend to leave it to as close to the wire as possible; I’ve been known to read some corkers that end up at the top of the tree in the dying embers of the year. I also like to stretch the format a little, going for themes or concepts as well as just titles or authors. Anyway, without further ado, here’s what rocked my reading boat in 2018!

Books in translation

I don’t keep detailed statistics about the kinds of book I read, but I *do* now keep a list! And I can see from a quick glance down it that I’ve most definitely read a lot of works in translation. This has always been the case with my reading, and I’ve probably tended to focus on French, Italian and of course Russian originals. However, I’ve branched out a little more this year, with Spanish-language works, a stand-out Polish book (the incredible Flights!) and of course continued very strongly with the Russians…

They pretty much deserve a section on their own, but suffice to say I’ve encountered a number of authors new to me, from a shiny new book in the form of the marvellous The Aviator, to a poetic gem from Lev Ozerov and a very unusual piece of fiction (if it was fiction…) in the form of The Kremlin Ball. The wonderful humorous and yet surprisingly profound Sentimental Tales by Zoshchenko was a joy. Marina Tsvetaeva has been an inspirational force, and in fact Russian poetry has been something of a touchstone all year. I don’t think I will *ever* tire of reading Russian authors.

I spent quite a lot of time musing about poetry in 2018, actually, including the intricacies and issues of translating the stuff… Part of this related to the Baudelaire-Benjamin rabbit hole into which I fell, and I’ve actually been gifted a very fat book of French poetry in verse translation which I’m really looking forward to. The Baudelaire prose translations I’ve been reading are just wonderful and so I’m hoping this approach will work for French poetry generally.

To pick out one particular book in translation would be hard, but I do want to say that Saramago’s Death at Intervals has remained with me since I read it, particularly the delicate portrayal of the relationship between Death and the Cellist. In fact, whilst browsing in Foyles at the start of December, I found myself picking the book up and becoming completely transfixed by the ending again. Obviously I need a re-read – if I can only work out where I’ve put my copy…. :((

And a book of the year must be the poetic wonder that is Portraits without Frames by Lev Ozerov. Books like this remind me of how much I’m in debt to all the wonderful translators in the world!

Club Reads

The club reading weeks which I co-host with Simon have been a great success this year, and such fun! We focused on 1977 and 1944 during 2018, a pair of disparate years which nevertheless threw up some fascinating books. I was particularly pleased to revisit Colette, Richard Brautigan, Sylvia Plath and Edmund Crispin, as well as exploring Borges‘ work. The clubs will continue into 2019 so join in – it’s always fascinating seeing and hearing what other people are reading!

The British Library

I think BL Publishing need a special mention for the continuing wonderfulness of their books; I’ve read a number of their Crime Classics this year, which are always a joy, and I’ve also been exploring the new range of Science Fiction Classics which they’ve been putting out. I credit them, together with a chance Virago find in a Leicester Charity Shop, with my discovery of the books of the amazing Ellen Wilkinson – definitely one of my highlights in 2018!

They publish other books than these, of course, and as well as the excellent Shelf Life, I was gifted some fascinating-looking volumes about areas of London for my December birthday – I feel a possible project coming on…. 😉


I’ve always been fond of reading non-fiction, and this year I’ve read quite a few titles. Inevitably there have been Russians (with How Shostakovich Changed My Mind being a real standout) as well as Beverley Nichols on the 1920s and numerous books about books. However, there’s been quite a focus on women’s stories with Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley both featuring strongly, as well as Flaneuse, a book that intrigued and frustrated in equal measure. The French Revolution made a strong entry, with Olympe de Gouges’ Declaration of the Rights of Women proving to be stirring stuff. Looking down the list of books I read, there’s a lot of Paris and Russia in there!

Bookish arrivals

There have been *so* many bookish arrivals this year, that at times Mr. Kaggsy was getting quite fretful about the fact that we would soon be unable to move around the house… However, I *have* been clearing out books I think I won’t return to, and intend to continue having a bit of a (careful) purge in 2019. I have been very fortunate on the bookish front, though, and having not been able to afford much in the way of books when I was growing up, I’m always grateful to have them and thankful to the lovely publishers who provide review copies.

There *have*, inevitably, been some particularly special arrivals this year. My three Offspring gifted me the Penguin Moderns Box Set for Mothers’ Day, and although my reading of them has tailed off a little of late, I do intend to continue making my way through them in 2019, as so far they’ve been quite wonderful.

And a year ago (really? where has that year gone!) I was ruing the fact I couldn’t get a copy of Prof. Richard Clay‘s fascinating monograph Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: the Transformation of Signs, and forcing one of my offspring to borrow a copy from their university library to bring home for me to read over the break. Through diligent searching and bookseller alerts, I managed to secure a copy, which I was inordinately excited about. On the subject of the Prof’s documentaries, I’m very much looking forward to seeing his forthcoming one on the subject of memes and going viral – watch this space for special posts! 🙂

New discoveries, rediscoveries and revisits

One of the delights of our Club reading weeks is that I always seem to manage to revisit some favourite authors, as I mentioned above. However, this year I also reconnected with an author I was very fond of back in the day, Julian Barnes. The Noise of Time was a hit last year, and I finally read and adored The Sense of an Ending this year. I now have a lot of catching up to do.

Returning to George Orwell is always a reliable delight, and I made peace with Angela Carter after a rocky start. Robert Louis Stevenson has brought much joy (and most of his work has been new to me), and Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners was my first Seagull book. I keep being drawn back to Jose Saramago, though; Death at Intervals really got under my skin and I *must* find my copy…


I’ve been keeping my commitment to challenges light over the last few years, and this is actually working quite well for me. I don’t like my reading to be restricted, preferring to follow my whim, and I think what I’ve read has been fairly eclectic… I dipped into HeavenAli’s Reading Muriel celebration of Spark’s 100th birthday; dropped in on the LT Virago Group’s author of the month when it suited; joined in with the reading clubs (of course!); and for the rest of the time mostly did my own thing. It’s been fun… Will I take part in any next year, or set myself any projects? Well, that remains to be seen…. 😉

So that’s a kind of round up of the year. Looking down the list of books I’ve read, I’m more than ever aware of the grasshopper state of my mind – I don’t seem to read with any rhyme or reason. Nevertheless, I mostly love what I read, which is the main thing – life is too short to spend on a book you’re really not enjoying…

“But this is the twentieth century and no one believes any longer – not even the slow, reflective Spaniard – that we are sane.” @ViragoBooks #kateobrien


Farewell Spain by Kate O’Brien

One of the triggers for me starting the Ramblings (six and a half years ago!!) was the discovery of a number of book blogs via the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group. It’s a wonderful community of booklovers, and they always have lovely reading challenges going on during the year – in fact, I was in the middle of taking part in their Elizabeth Taylor readalong when I started rambling… I don’t always participate in the various projects, but I do drop in when the mood is right, and this year the focus was on authors of the month. I’ve taken part in a few, and some were more successful than others (I abandoned a Stevie Smith re-read after a few pages when I hit some casual anti-semitism…) December’s author is Kate O’Brien, an Irish writer I’ve never read, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read her fiction at the moment. However, the bio of her posted on LT revealed that she’d written a kind of travel book about Spain in the 1930s, and that sounded irresistible. So I may have had to send off for a copy…

The book was published as part of the Virago Travellers imprint, and I have a *lot* of these on my shelves; pioneering works of women travellers, they make up an eclectic collection (and I by no means have all of them) and are worth a reading project of their own (if I did such things any more…) Many of these books focus on early journeys, with authors like Isabella Bird, Flora Tristan and Lady Montagu featuring. However, a number of the books are women travellers from the 20th century and O’Brien’s books sits in that category alongside luminaries such as Beryl Markham and Gamel Woolsey. Really, this *would* be such a good reading project. But I digress…

O’Brien (1897-1974) was an Irish author, known as a playwright and novelist, and a number of her works are published by Virago and set in Spain. This edition, from 1985, is illustrated and introduced by artist Mary O’Neill; the latter features in the book and from what I’ve picked up elsewhere was O’Brien’s life companion. You wouldn’t know it from here, and although I can understand the 1937 edition being discreet about such things, I’m surprised at a 1985 issue being that coy. That’s by the by, however – what we want to read about is Spain.

“Farewell Spain” was written over the period from October 1936 to February 1937, and is very much informed by the conflict that was taking place in space. In fact, although it’s described as a travel book, the blurb on the back comes closer when describing it as “a distinctly personal elegy”; although you could argue that it’s in fact a political book disguising itself as travel and memoir! The book was written at the height of the Spanish Civil War by someone who had lived in Spain, travelled through Spain and loved Spain. So whatever label you want to stick onto it, it’s a bracing, beautiful, poignant and sometimes problematic read.

Pablo Picasso [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D – via Wikipedia Commons

O’Brien knew Spain well, having worked there as a governess and travelled extensively through it. Much of this book draws from events and visits in 1935, the year before the bloody conflict between the fascist General Franco and the communist Republican regime broke out and began to tear it apart. That conflict would be reflected in the coming World War, and indeed O’Brien recognises that this fundamental dissonance will tear Europe asunder. Hence, perhaps, the elegiac tone of the book, because she certainly seems to be lamenting a Spain (and a world) that is lost. O’Brien makes no bones about her grief at the loss of the Spain she knew; she bemoans the fracturing of the world which will descend into chaos and destroy the freedom to roam and travel through it; she laments the destruction of cities she knew and innocent lives; and I wonder how she would have reacted to the massacre of Guernica.

The hotel at Covadongo is rather grand and very quiet. As I sat on it its flagged terrace and heard the soughing of the trees and the running of the water, as I admired for the millionth time the Spanish sky and tried to count the points of the coronet of mountain peaks which, because I was nearly as high as they, did not oppress but only stimulated me, as I watched the village drowsing in the sun, and drank the cool, thin air – I had a deep desire to stay where I was then. The peace of the place seemed impenetrable that morning.

However, the book is not all doom, despite an air of melancholy. O’Brien uses her pages to celebrate the villages, towns, cities, regions and peoples she’s known; she relates humorous tales of tourists and their disillusion when the reality of Spain doesn’t match up to the travel posters; and she writes lyrically about the architecture, the countryside and the Spaniards in prose that can be beautiful and sometimes haunting.

Nevertheless, the book is not without issues. On a purely practical front, I found O’Brien’s prose a little heavy-going in places and it took me a while to get going. When her prose soars, it really soars, but there were areas where it was perhaps a little dense for me. Then, as I should have expected, there were the bullfights. You’re not likely to have a book about Spain without them, and fortunately the coverage was brief, but I did skip those bits. More problematic is O’Brien’s attitude to what she calls the Moors and the Moorish influence on the country. She states quite baldly at one point:

I, for my part, detest all signs of the Moor in Spain.

It’s a view she reiterates at intervals throughout the book and frankly, it rankles. She’s entitled to her preferences when it comes to architecture and the like, but to dismiss the richness of a whole culture in this way seems breathtakingly arrogant and pretty unpleasant – I’m not even sure if it’s acceptable to use the term ‘Moorish’ nowadays and I wouldn’t wish to offend anyone. My knowledge of Spain and its history is limited so maybe I’m not qualified to comment, but from what I understand the influence of that culture is strong and respected, and an important part of what makes up its past. If she decries the colonisation of parts of Europe by the Arabic world that’s a heap of steaming hypocrisy from an author from a European world which colonised left, right and centre. I’ve read that O’Brien may have been influenced by the fact that Moroccan troops were fighting in support of Franco’s regime and she was very much pro the Republic. Additionally, as she came from an Irish Catholic background, she may have perceived that religion’s cultural influence as being more important (and certainly large portions of the book cover the religious buildings and St. Teresa of Avila). However, I was unhappy and uncomfortable at times with this aspect of the writing, even considering giving up at one point. I stuck with the book, however, as O’Brien’s pen portraits brought the country she knew to life, and I did find it fascinating to read a book, written as it was in a world in a state of flux, by an author who had no idea there was a cataclysmic upheaval to follow and that Spain’s democracy would be destroyed.

So an intriguing, sometimes enlightening, idiosyncratic and very personal book on Spain by Virago author of the month. I’m glad I read it, and it will definitely stay on the shelves with the rest of my Virago Travellers; although if I’m truly honest I’m not sure I will read any more of O’Brien’s work. “Farewell Spain” is perhaps a bit of a curio: a missive from a time gone by, from a world descending into conflict and an era when fiercely opposing viewpoints were threatening to destroy the world – so, hey, a time not so different from ours, really…. 😦


Just for the hell of it, I went upstairs and checked my Virago Travellers after finishing this post; normally they lurk at the back of a double stacked shelf, but here they are revealed in all their glory:

Fact is, I had more than I thought, although I suspect I’ve read only a few (this, of course, needs checking). But ain’t they pretty??? 😀

A fun, festive (and surprisingly chilling!) little diversion… #efbenson #ghoststories #christmas


How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery by E.F. Benson

I don’t quite know why it is that ghost stories are so closely connected with Christmas – but they do seem to be! I hadn’t planned to squeeze in any festive scariness this year, but I found myself with an odd 15 minutes spare at work before the holidays and with no book to hand – the horror! Fortunately, I did have a tablet with me and as I’d just read somewhere (and I can’t remember where – possibly Twitter?) about this engaging-sound short work, I tracked down a copy and it certainly did entertain me nicely!

E. F. Benson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Benson is an author I’ve read quite a lot of, in the main the Mapp and Lucia stories I think. However, he seems to also be known as a short story writer, and there are collections of his ghost stories floating around on the Internet. This particular tale seems to get a lot of online coverage, and it’s not hard to see why – it’s a real little gem! The action takes place in the house of Church-Peveril, and the opening line sets the scene beautifully:

Church-Peveril is a house so beset and frequented by spectres, both visible and audible, that none of the family which it shelters under its acre and a half of green copper roofs takes psychical phenomena with any seriousness.

Immediately we’re in a milieu where ghosts are part of everyday life and the shades of the family ancestors are familiar and welcome. In some ways, I was straight away reminded of Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost”, and certainly Benson’s spooks are mostly benign. However, as with all families, there are the black sheep, and one particular part of the house has a haunting which is not to be endured – the Long Gallery of the title. This is to be avoided at all costs between sunset and sunrise, on pain of an awful fate, and the grim events which led to the manifestation which takes place there (two murdered infants) are related in the story. Alas, it seems as though one of the young family members may well be nodding off in the Long Gallery as the story progresses – is a dreadful demise in store?

I shan’t say any more about the story except to tell you to go and track down a copy if you want an involving, chilly and yet moving read. “Long Gallery…” manages to be witty, scary and thought-provoking all in one. There’s a villain who gets his comeuppance, unresolved trauma, and a moral ending with goodness seen as overcoming evil. It really is a delight of a read, and reminded me how much I like Benson’s writing; it even made me think I ought to track down a copy of his ghost stories, despite the fact I’m really not good at spooky reading (particularly at night – I abandoned Edith Wharton’s Ghost Story collection after reading the first one because it made me too nervy to put the light out!).

But there’s a warmth to Benson’s story, a feeling of resolution, that things will be all right in the end and that even the most awful things can be overcome. It made a wonderful diversion just when I needed one and at about 17 pages long (in the digital version I found) is a quick read. Perfect! 😀

It’s December – so that means more books…


There is an inevitability about the arrival of new books in December; as well as Christmas, there is also my birthday which occurs about a week beforehand. As my friends and family know me well, there will always be book gifts and this year is no exception. So I thought I would share them as usual – well, why break a habit?? ;D

First up, this little pile arrived from various sources on my birthday (and I did share an image on Instagram):

A fascinating selection! The top four are from Mr. Kaggsy – three wonderful books from the British Library focusing on my favourite areas of London, and a period crime novel set in the Jazz Age – I’m intrigued, and with the London books there’s another risk of a reading project… “Nihilist Girl” came from a Family Member after instructions were issued, as did “At the Existentialist Cafe” after a link was sent to my Little Brother! French Poetry came from Middle Child and the Beverley is from my BFF J. who is a great Nichols enabler…

There was a late arrival courtesy of Eldest Child in the form of this:

I follow the Bosh! boys on YouTube as they come up with some marvellous (and relatively easy-seeming!) Vegan recipes, and I’m always keen for new foodie ideas – so this will be just the ticket!

Next up, some arrivals from my Virago Secret Santa; this is a tradition we have on the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group and it’s such fun to take part! My Santa this year was the lovely Lisa from the USA, and by some weird trick of randomness, I was *her* Santa. Needless to say, I was spoiled….

The two Mrs. Oliphant books complete my set of the Chronicles of Carlingford – I’m very keen to get to read these all at some point. The Nemirovksy is short stories and I’ve not read any of these. And a lovely hardback of “Golden Hill” which sounds fascinating! Thank you Lisa! 😀

Then there are the Christmas arrivals! Some of these were requests/instructions and some of them my friends and family improvising.

The second volume of Plath letters was from Middle Child; the Katherine Mansfield Notebooks from Youngest Child. I long to sink myself in both…. The beautiful first edition of Beverley’s “Sunlight on the Lawn” (with dustjacket!!) is from my dear friend J. – just gorgeous…. “Sweet Caress” is from my old friend V. and I don’t think I’ve read any Boyd so I’m interested in taking a look… The rest are from Mr. Kaggsy who has been as inspired as ever. The John Franklin Bardin omnibus is a particularly intriguing; I’d never heard of the author but he seems to have been a highly regarded and very individual crime writer so I can’t wait to explore. However, Mr. Kaggsy excelled himself this year with this:

“But, Kaggsy!” I hear you cry, “you already have so many copies of The Master and Margarita!” Yes, I most certainly do, but I’ve always wanted a copy of the Folio Society edition. It seems to have been spiralling upwards in price to dizzying heights, but amazingly Mr. Kaggsy managed to track down a Reasonably Priced copy and snapped it up! Grinning like the Cheshire Cat here….

Finally, some review books have snuck in (as they say); I can’t share most of them, as the publication dates are a little way away, but one I can is this beautiful volume from Notting Hill Editions:

I love their books, and as an inveterate walker, the content looks just perfect for me. I want to get reading this one soon, so look out for a forthcoming review.

So as usual I have been utterly spoiled with new books and my only issue, as usual, is what to pick up next? Never an easy decision… Which would you choose??

Festive greetings from the Ramblings!


I’m scheduling a little Christmas Day post to send good wishes to all of you who take the time to visit this site and read my ramblings!

I’m planning a peaceful and relaxing day with family (Middle Child has already visited, but the other two Offspring will be at home to spend time with Mr. Kaggsy and I). There are book-shaped parcels waiting to be opened (the above are from my Virago Secret Santa!), plenty of vegan good food and no need to go out and do chores, think about work or do anything we don’t want to. And when everyone else is sleeping off their Christmas lunch, I usually manage to sneak in a little reading…. 😉

So wherever you are and whatever you’re doing today, have a lovely (and hopefully bookish!) Christmas! x

Seasonal and sometimes chilly crime! @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks #BLCC


The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories
Edited by Martin Edwards

It’s fast becoming a tradition around the Ramblings to spend the end of December with some wonderful Christmas Crime from the wonderful British Library Crime Classics, and 2018 is no exception! Last year Ann Meredith’s “Portrait of a Murderer” marked 50 books being published by the BL in the series; in 2016 I read and loved the “Crimson Snow” collection; this year’s festive treat is the third superb collection of seasonal short stories curated by the redoubtable Martin Edwards, and needless to say it’s a pure joy.

The book features eleven stories, some short, some long, but all very clever and twisty. All are set in or around Christmas and are arranged chronologically, ranging in time from Baroness Orczy up to the more modern tales of Julian Symons and taking in such luminaries as Carter Dickson, Francis Durbridge and John Bude. What’s so good about the BL collections, apart from the fact they’re sheer enjoyment, is that they’re also the perfect way to get to know new authors and in some cases their serial characters. For example, I’ve not read any of Baroness Orczy’s ‘Lady Molly’ stories, so the one included here was an ideal introduction (on the evidence of which I’d like to read more!) Similarly, despite having several E.C.R. Lorac books lurking on Mount TBR, I haven’t actually read them yet, and the story here has whetted my appetite.

McBride, the philosopher, was the host of the great man; and he felt bound to interfere, partly from the sense of hospitality, partly because he always likes to be desperately just. (Nobody, it has been said, has seen more points of view than McBride, or adopted less.)

The style of story is wonderfully varied too. There are traditional, country-house style mysteries; tales that veer towards ghost story territory; locked room mysteries; light-hearted jaunts; thrillers; and so much more. It’s always hard to pick favourites in any excellent collection, so I won’t; but I will mention that the Lorac was very cleverly constructed; the Carter Dickson brilliant and chilling; the Knox had a wonderful twist (as well as including a nod to Agatha Christie by naming one of the characters Westmacott); and the Symons was a most unexpected and wonderful exposition of how a seemingly perfect crime plan can go completely awry.

I regularly sing the praises of the BL on the Ramblings, and for good reason; the Crime Classics have to be lauded for bringing so many unjustly neglected authors and books back into the public eye. I always find I can’t go wrong with one of their books, and their Christmas collections are no exception. Highly recommended seasonal reading! 🙂

“A journey is a dismal thing when there can be no homecoming.” #stanislawlem


The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem
Translated by Michael Kandel

Regular readers of the Ramblings will be aware of my love of the writing of Stanislaw Lem; I’ve reviewed several of the lovely reissues of his books in beautiful Penguin Modern Classics editions, either here or on Shiny New Books. So when I happened upon this lovely copy of “The Futurological Congress” in Foyles early this month, it would have been rude not to pick it up, wouldn’t it??

Lem is a fascinating author, writing in the sci-fi genre but with a considerable amount of provoking stuff bubbling under the surface. Most of the books of his I’ve read have been set in space, often with his character Ijon Tichy whizzing around from planet to planet, encountering odd civilizations; or else there are stories of robot worlds that seem somehow oddly human and familiar. However, “Futurological…”, although a story once again featuring Tichy, was a very long and strange trip indeed…

Tichy is attending the Futurological Congress, which is being held in Costa Rica; the time period is unspecified, but seems in many ways contemporary with the book’s publication date of 1971. However, this is a very unstable regime and location; there is political unrest, demonstrations, kidnappings, riots – in fact, an exaggeration of how the world actually was in that era. Tichy is ever resourceful and manages to avoid most of the trouble to start with, hiding out in a massive 100-storey Hilton Hotel. However, throughout the book there is a constant thread of drug use, and by that I mean drugs used to control; hallucinogens, pacifiers, drugs to cause anger, drugs to cause love – again, a reflection perhaps of the 1960s which were coming to a nasty end, but rather unusual, at least in the Lem books I’ve read. Nevertheless, despite being written in an era long gone, there was much that was familiar (alas) in this day and age…

I immediately assumed that this was either a madman or a professional terrorist-fanatic (we have no lack of them these days), but again I was mistaken.

As things explode (literally!) Tichy ends up in the sewers under the city, hiding alongside Professor Trottelreiner and subject to continual hallucinations which are only countered by throwing himself into the sewer (yuk!) Things get weirder and weirder until eventually he’s shot, rescued, transplanted into another body, frozen, and thawed out in a very unpleasant future. But how many of Tichy’s experiences can he (or we?) accept as real?

Who’d ever have guessed, in my day, digital machines, reaching a certain level of intelligence, would become unreliable, deceitful, that with wisdom they would also acquire cunning?

I guess I approached “Futurological..” expecting something a little oddball (bearing in mind my previous readings of Lem’s work) – but perhaps something not quite this wacky… It’s a roller-coaster of a read, with Tichy careering from one crisis to another, or one hallucination to another, and it’s entertaining and disconcerting to read because you’re never quite sure quite what is real or unreal, whether the things he thinks are happening really are, and how he’ll get out of the situation he’s in, or perceives himself to be in! You could perhaps argue that he’s the ultimate unreliable narrator!

I was amazed to find articles full of saccharine platitudes on the theme of the bonds of love as the surest guarantee of universal peace – right beside articles that were full of dire threats, articles promising bloody repression or else an equally bloody insurrection. The only explanation I can think of for this peculiar incongruity was that some of the journalists had been drinking the water that day, and some hadn’t.

Nevertheless, the book does of course have an underlying seriousness. It generates deep questions on the nature of reality and perception, on how much we can really trust our subjective view of the world and perhaps reflects concerns of the times about how drugs could be used to manipulate the general population. Tichy has a handle on what’s happening to him some of the time, but at others is completely convinced by the illusion and that’s very unsettling for both him and the reader.

Once again, the book has been translated by Michael Kandel and his handling of what must have been complex decisions about how to render Lem’s wordplay seem remarkable and effective. The section of the book where Tichy is in the future are particularly fascinating, as in that future much control is dependent on the manipulation of language. This is not a new concept – Orwell, for example, had this as a vital element in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” – but Kandel produces some wonderful linguistics which showcase just how essential it is that we understand and can express ourselves with words. The importance of language and communication can’t be overstated as we see time and again in dystopian fiction – and this *is* certainly a dystopian world.

However, although Lem is making serious points, he’s always a funny writer. I’m assuming from Kandel’s humorous and clever wordplay that Lem is just as witty in the original language.

A few grams of dantine, for instance, and a man goes around with the deep conviction that he has written The Divine Comedy. Why anyone would want that is another matter and quite beyond me.

There’s a dry, sardonic humour at play here, and the hapless Tichy and his companions do go through some hilarious and entertaining adventures. The sub-text that I always find in Lem’s writing was less obvious; I didn’t so much see parallels with the repressive regime of the East, but more a commentary on the world in general and a projection forward of where humanity could end up if we don’t take care of our planet and our civilisation. So – a stimulating, intriguing, weird and a little wacky read; brilliantly clever language and translation; and a lot of food for thought. I never seem to go wrong with reading Lem!

“… a half-forgotten scandal and disgrace” – a short post on a short book! #ianmcewan


My Purple Scented Novel by Ian McEwan

Confession time… I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Ian McEwan, despite the fact that he’s won umpteen awards and regularly features in lists of Best British Authors and the like. There’s no particular reason for it, really, apart from I guess the fact that there are many modern novelists I haven’t read. I tend to gravitate towards the translated, the old and the off-centre more and more of late and McEwan certainly doesn’t obviously fall in to those categories. However, I’ve often been intrigued by the descriptions of his books, and I was particularly struck by the sound of this slim short work which Annabel wrote about recently.

Imagine my delight, then, when I copy popped through my door a few days later; Annabel had kindly had a copy sent to me, so of course it would have been rude not to read it! And what fun it turned out to be.

“My Purple Scented Novel” runs to just 48 pages and was published to celebrate McEwan’s 70th birthday. It’s a wickedly funny tale of writers and their shenanigans, and is narrated by Parker Sparrow, an obscure novelist (in his own words). He relates the story of his friendship and career rivalry with Jocelyn Tarbet. Spanning a number of decades in a very short space of time, “Purple…” deftly shows how life can deal out different fates for people starting from the same point, and also how, given the right circumstances and a little craftiness, you can influence that fate.

“Purple…” was a wonderful distraction from the big piles of books glaring at me and demanding attention. Short, sharp and very funny, it’s a clever look at modern media trends, the effects of self-publishing and how it’s possibly to very sneakily manipulate events in your own favour. I can’t say more without risking giving things away, but it’s a delicious experience watching events unfold…

So my first introduction to Ian McEwan was an enjoyable and successful one! I must thank Annabel, not only for her review, which piqued my interesting, but also for providing me with a book by a new author! Such fun! 🙂

“Those who have faith, have need of nothing else!” #frenchrevolution


The Gods Will Have Blood by Anatole France
Translated by Frederick Davies

For some reason, I seem to have been finding myself a little unfocused over the last couple of weeks when it comes to reading. Some books I’ve been drawn to read straight away, but then I seem to find myself flailing around trying to decide where to go next. Book hangovers don’t help either…. I think it’s partly the manic time of year (work is horrendous) and also a plethora of lovely books to choose from.

Anyways, as they say – I decided to fling myself with wild abandon (ok, gently) at the French Revolution pile and settled on Anatole France’s “The Gods Will Have Blood”. Written in 1912, the book comes highly talked up and apparently has resonances with conflicts that occurred in the 20th century. Well – it was *interesting*, but a book not without problems and one that I would argue doesn’t always live up to the hype…

Anatole France is an author I’m pretty sure I haven’t read before (although I *did* own one of his books in the past, though I suspect that might have gone back to the charity shop in one of my periodic clear outs). France won the Nobel Prize in 1921; his reputation as a person and an author seems to have varied over the years, though very laudably he supported Zola during the Dreyfus Affair; and as a man of letters wrote across genres, producing anything from poetry, prose, plays and memoirs to a number of variants of criticism. “Gods…” was one of his last novels, and it’s more literally translated sometimes as “The Gods are Athirst”. This Penguin Classics version perhaps goes for a more inflammatory title, bearing in mind the subject matter, but I’m not sure it’s any better or worse than the other.

The sole destiny of all living beings seems only to become the fodder of other living beings fated also to the same end.

That’s by the by, really; what of the subject matter? Central to the story is Evariste Gamelin, a young painter living in Paris during the aftermath of the 1789 revolution. Evariste is a strong and strident supporter of the Jacobin regime; Marat and Robespierre are his gods; and as he becomes drawn more deeply into the administration of the new leaders, his fanaticism increases in inverse proportion to his compassion and kindness. At the start of the book he is a good man, in love with Elodie, the daughter of Jean Blaise, a print maker. At the end of it, he has become some kind of monster, ready to be devoured by the savage regime he has helped create and perpetuate.

The story is populated with a number of characters, all struggling to survive and carry on some kind of normal life during extraordinary events. Most interesting, perhaps, is Maurice Brotteaux who lodges above Evariste and his mother. Brotteaux is an intellectual, scraping a living from making puppets, and it’s tempting to see him as representative of the author. He’s cynical, susceptible to a beautiful woman, an atheist and somewhat to one side of the main run of the French people (Jacobins, aristocrats and religious types). Despite all that, he’s one of the most moral people in the book, helping a vulnerable monk and a troubled prostitute, and eventually becoming enmeshed in the vicious campaign of violence into which Paris is descending.

You live in a dream; I see life as it is. Believe me, my friend, the revolution’s become a bore: it’s lasted too long. Five years of rapture, five years of brotherly love, of massacres, of endless speeches, of the Marseillaise, of bells ringing to man the barricades, of aristocrats hanging from lamp-posts, of heads stuck on pikes,, of women with cannons between their legs, of little girls and old men in white robes on flower-bedecked chariots, the prisoners, the guillotine, semi-starvation, proclamations, cockades, plumes, swords, carmagnoles, it’s all gone on too long! Nobody knows anymore what it’s all about! We’ve seen too much, we’ve seen too many of these great patriots raised up for us to worship only for them to be hurled from your Tarpeian Rock – Necker, Mirabeau, La Fayette, Bailly, Petion, Manuel and all the rest of them. How do we know you’re not preparing the same fate for your new heroes?… Nobody knows any more!

What of Evariste himself? In many ways, his character may be part of the slight issues I had with the book. He’s rigid, in many ways narrow-minded and I actually didn’t find either himself or his lover, Elodie that sympathetic. However, sympathetic characters are not always a necessity and I reminded myself that France was using him as a tool in this book, to show how a reasonable and good person can be corrupted. At the start of the story he’s living with his mother, for whom he provides, and is capable of acts of great kindness; but his personality traits mean that inevitably his fervour for change will overwhelm his good points. The book throws up so much food for thought: is an ideal more important than a family link? Does terror beget terror, and is it ever justified? Is a pure love ever possible between people who don’t possess like minds? Does power always corrupt? Some of Evariste’s mental monologues are quite chilling and to watch his relationship with Elodie degenerate as he becomes more embroiled in death is not pleasant.

Gamelin was beginning to turn punishment into a religious and mystical ideal, to give it a virtue and merit of its own.

Despite the power of some of its portrayals, I do have some caveats about “Gods…” For a start, the writing seemed a little uneven, with the language veering from lyrical to melodramatic, and taking in long passages of philosophical musing. “Gods…” is very much a book of ideas and France’s need to discuss beliefs sometimes got in the way of the story. The characterisation often seemed underdeveloped, and again there was an unevenness, with important personages (for example, Evariste’s sister Julie) being brought into the story quite late on. It did sometimes seem that France was unsure as to whether he was writing an adventurous story of the Revolution, a political and philosophical treatise or a bodice-ripping pot-boiler; certainly there was a warped sensuality to some of the characters, which I get was intended to reflected strange events, strange times and the brutalising effect of violence – but it still jarred a little.

Storming of the Bastille (Jean-Pierre Houël [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons)

As for the Revolution itself, to be honest that was oddly muted and often seemed to be happening offscreen. Although the book was peppered with historical characters from David to Danton to Marat to Robespierre to the Austrian woman, the events were not particularly strongly delineated, so you would have to be fairly well versed in the French Revolution to really fully engage with the book. And the notation was quite limited, which was a bit of a shame because even with what I’ve read about the period I felt I could have done with a little more support.

Anatole France (Atelier Nadar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

However, the book *does* have many strengths, in particular its portrayal of the dread of living under the constant threat of denunciation and the guillotine. The horror is visceral and very real, and the parallels with what would come next under Stalin (or indeed any terror-driven regime you could name nowadays) are striking. Much is made of France’s prescience; well, I feel it’s probable that his view of the corruption which exists under any regime was informed by his experiences during the Dreyfus Affair. Yes, the events he describes in his book very much anticipate events following the Russian Revolution and Civil War (even down to the concept of children denouncing their parents), where just as much blood must have been spilled in the name of a cause as was during the French Revolution(s); but let’s face it, we’re a species that is very happy to kill for an ideal…

But “Gods…” captures a real sense of what it was like to live under that kind of terror and regime, and how under even the most impossibly circumstances human beings will still try to get on with their lives. France creates a wonderfully sympathetic character in Brotteaux; Evariste’s sister Julie was also a stand-out creation for me, and I would have like to see her make her entrance earlier in the book – I found her a nice antidote to the insufferable Elodie, who seemed no more than a shallow sensualist. However, despite my reservations, “The Gods Will Have Blood” was a powerful read which has very much lingered in my mind for days after I finished it. As a portrait of the consequences of rigid and unswerving belief, which inevitably lead to a loss of human empathy and compassion, it’s exemplary and France’s achievements here do outweigh the flaws. And if nothing else, reading this book certainly got me thinking that I must attack the very loosely constructed French Revolutionary reading pile soon, and in a slightly more focused way! 🙂

A love-hate relationship #Edinburgh #RobertLouisStevenson @RLSonline


Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes by Robert Louis Stevenson

Just over a year ago, I took a trip north with my Aged Parent; our road (or, rather, train) trip was to revisit the city of our birth, the very beautiful and atmospheric Edinburgh. My mum had been back more recently; I hadn’t visited for decades; and it was an emotional visit for both of us.

However, one thing I wanted to do while up there was to connect with the cultural aspects of the city, and in particular her famous son, Robert Louis Stevenson. It took a while, but I eventually tracked him down via the Writers’ Museum, just off the Royal Mile, as well as passing by his childhood home in Heriot Row. I came back with a collection of his poems, which I dip into regularly; and of course I’ve followed his journeys through the mountains of France with a hapless donkey… However, a browse online earlier this year reminded me that I wanted to read his little book about our home city, “Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes“, although getting a nice edition was not quite as straightforward as you might expect – more of which later…

… for after a hospital, what uglier place is there in civilisation than a court of law?

Anyway. RLS’s book was published in 1878 and was actually his second work to make it into print. Drawn from a series of essays, it takes a look at the city of Edinburgh and although described as a paean, RLS is not always complimentary about the place – which actually makes entertaining reading! There are ten chapters, focusing on different aspects, and RLS delves into the history and legends of the city, the famous characters who’ve passed through, the customs of the people – and of course, the weather, which is a recurring issue… When ruminating on the effects the climate has on the populace, driving them to either hearth or drinking establishment, RLS is very funny:

To none but those who have themselves suffered the thing in the body, can the gloom and depression of our Edinburgh winter be brought home. For some constitutions there is something almost physically disgusting in the bleak ugliness of easterly weather; the wind wearies, the sickly sky depresses them; and they turn back from their walk to avoid the aspect of the unrefulgent sun going down among perturbed and pallid mists. The days are so short that a man does much of his business, and certainly all his pleasure, by the haggard glare of gas lamps. The roads are as heavy as a fallow. People go by, so drenched and draggle-tailed that I have often wondered how they found the heart to undress. And meantime the wind whistles through the town as if it were an open meadow; and if you lie awake all night, you hear it shrieking and raving overhead with a noise of shipwrecks and of falling houses. In a word, life is so unsightly that there are times when the heart turns sick in a man’s inside; and the look of a tavern, or the thought of the warm, fire-lit study, is like the touch of land to one who has been long struggling with the seas.

Stevenson was only 28 when this book was published, but he’d already started to display the restlessness that would lead him to travel for the latter part of his life. It’s clear that he had a complex relationship with Edinburgh, and his continuing ill-health must have had a lot to do with this (hence the constant grumbling about the weather!) He can be forgiven for being snarky about that, after all, and he obviously still had a great affection for the place which does show through. His writing about Edinburgh is often lyrical, he knows its history well and is happy to share to share stories and opinions on the city, the Scots and their habits. I had to laugh at his asides about the horrors of eating Black Bun, and his pithy commentary on the gruesome architecture of Scottish churches and graveyards was a joy.

Setting aside the tombs of Roubiliac, which belong to the heroic order of graveyard art, we Scotch stand, to my fancy, highest among nations in the matter of grimly illustrating death. We seem to love for their own sake the emblems of time and the great change; and even around country churches you will find a wonderful exhibition of skulls, and crossbones, and noseless angels, and trumpets pealing for the Judgment Day. Every mason was a pedestrian Holbein: he had a deep consciousness of death, and loved to put its terrors pithily before the churchyard loiterer; he was brimful of rough hints upon mortality, and any dead farmer was seized upon to be a text.

And yet, he’s always a thoughtful observer. He’s realistic about the hardness of life in the Old Town, and even-handed in his discussion of the New Town. It’s worth remembering that the building of the New Town, a long and complex process, was only really completed around the time of Stevenson’s birth, and Princes Street, with its Gardens constructed on the bed of the drained Nor’ Loch, was still a shiny new thing. Stevenson was therefore writing about relatively recent changes to the city, which had not always been popular, and it’s fascinating to read his take on it.

View of the Pentland Hills – cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Anthony O’Neil – geograph.org.uk/p/5835135

However, it was the final chapter, “To the Pentland Hills”, that spoke to me most personally. The southern edge of Edinburgh is bordered by that range, and I grew up in a house overlooked by them. When we returned to it last year, mum and I stood and studied them, and she recalled looking out of our home’s window at the hills all those years ago. Maybe that’s why I’m so fond of hills and mountains to this day… The area we lived in was the Colinton Mains one, and that of course is a very recent development – in fact, mum revealed to me that my great-uncle’s building firm constructed the house we lived in, which she had lived in with my nana, so I learned a new bit of family history. Anyway, in Stevenson’s time the area was of course undeveloped country, but the following passage caught my eye:

The district is dear to the superstitious. Hard by, at the back-gate of Comiston, a belated carter beheld a lady in white, ‘with the most beautiful, clear shoes upon her feet,’ who looked upon him in a very ghastly manner and then vanished; and just in front is the Hunters’ Tryst, once a roadside inn, and not so long ago haunted by the devil in person. Satan led the inhabitants a pitiful existence. He shook the four corners of the building with lamentable outcries, beat at the doors and windows, overthrew crockery in the dead hours of the morning, and danced unholy dances on the roof. Every kind of spiritual disinfectant was put in requisition; chosen ministers were summoned out of Edinburgh and prayed by the hour; pious neighbours sat up all night making a noise of psalmody; but Satan minded them no more than the wind about the hill-tops; and it was only after years of persecution, that he left the Hunters’ Tryst in peace to occupy himself with the remainder of mankind.

We got about by bus while in Edinburgh (the Lothian Bus app is amazing!) and frequently jumped aboard conveyances with “Hunters’ Tryst” on the front (the number 27 – our favourite one!). I checked out Wikipedia and the inn is still there and in use – so that was a lovely little case of synchronicity and I felt rather happy about discovering another connection with RLS.

Edinburgh Castle from the illustrated Seeley edition

This post seems to be drifting off in a weirdly autobiographical direction, which wasn’t quite what I intended. However, it was inevitable that I’d have a deeply personal response to this book, and I loved following Stevenson round my home city while he shared his thoughts on it. It’s a wonderful city and what a marvellous writer he really was!


As a coda, I do feel I need to have a word about editions! When I decided I wanted to read this book, I did a bit of an online search as I couldn’t find anything in a bricks and mortar shop. As I’ve grumbled about before, if you go on Amazon there are all sorts of odd and nasty-looking editions; if a book is old and out of copyright, I guess people think they can produce random copies all over the place, and there’s no real guide to what they’re like. But I could see no decent, modern edition, so I turned to the rather wonderful Robert Louis Stevenson Club (who can be found here) and dropped them a message asking for advice.

The cover of the illustrated Seeley edition

Their very helpful Duncan Milne confirmed that there was no decent modern volume, so I followed his suggestion of picking up a pretty second-hand one. He recommended the Seeley edition of 1903; mine is actually from 1910 and alas lacks the illustrations. However, archive.org to the rescue with a scan of the 1903 Seeley complete with lovely engravings and etchings! So I had the pleasure of reading a pretty vintage edition obtained at a Very Reasonable Price, and looking at the illustrations I’d found online. Which just goes to show it’s worth researching a bit to find a nice copy which makes the reading experience so much better!

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