The compromises of love… #ninaberberova @mbs51


The Revolt by Nina Berberova
Translated by Marian Schwartz

There’s been quite a buzz on blogs and bookish Twitter about author Nina Berberova, and I suspect there might have been a bit of a run on some of her books via online booksellers because of it. Berberova was a Russian-born author who left her country in 1922 with her husband, the poet Vladislav Khodasevich; they lived in Berlin, then Paris (where Khodasevich died in 1939) and she eventually emigrated to the USA in 1950 where she spent the rest of her life. I came across her work in the book “Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky” which I read and reviewed here (and her short story was also included in Penguin Modern 21). I found her writing particularly interesting, and so when I read Max Cairnduff’s review of “The Revolt” I really felt I needed to track down a copy.

I was ahead of the game a little, I think, as I snagged a first edition hardback with dj from an online reseller for a minimal price; sadly, much of her work seems to be out of print, and that’s a great shame. However, New Directions in the USA publish a number of works, and there are a few editions in this country; but it does seem she needs to be properly rediscovered and give a bit of a promote by someone like Pushkin Press. That’s by the by; when I was casting round recently for the next book to read, Max reminded me that Berberova was calling, and this slim novella was indeed the ideal read. At 61 pages it’s in that grey area between short story and novella; however, what it might lack in length it certainly makes up in intensity!

I feel sorry for people who are alone only in the bathroom, never anywhere else.

“The Revolt” opens in Paris, 2nd September 1939; the narrator, a young Russian emigre called Olga, is seeing off her Swedish lover Einar. The latter is returning to his home country as war breaks out, and neither know if they will ever meet again. They talk of visiting each other, of meeting up in other places, other countries and promise never to forget each other. Needless to say, war keeps them apart and life goes on; Olga survives the conflict and the occupation (although her uncle does not). However, she never forgets Einar, despite the fact her letters had been returned unopened; so when she has the chance to travel to Stockholm in order to collect an inheritance she takes it. Is Einar still alive, and will she find him? How will their circumstances have changed? Well, the blurb doesn’t hide much, and Einar is alive and well and married to Emma. The latter is described as “voluptuous”, as physically unlike Olga as she could be; and although Emma outwardly is all smiles and loveliness, underneath she’s a manipulative piece of work. Olga is eventually faced with the opportunity of a second chance – but there is a cost attached, and the crux of the matter is whether she’s willing to accept this.

It seemed to me that he and I had never had a past, and there was nothing to say about the future – a spectre ahead, spectre behind, we were both spectres, and all around us was spectral, and of it all the only thing real was that force tearing us asunder: right now you’re here, with me, right now we’re together, but in an hour you won’t be here; you’re alone, I’m alone, and there’s nothing whatsoever to keep us together other than an idea – yours about me and mine about you.

“The Revolt” is a beautifully written work and on the surface seems a fairly straightforward story of love and the compromises we make for it. Are we prepared to sacrifice all for it, or are there times when we have to back away. Repeatedly, Olga has Berberova emphasise the importance of personal space and control over your life, and it seems that she’s a woman who will take love on her own terms or not at all – perhaps a more modern concept than we might expect. There is much that’s under the surface with Berberova’s writing; she tells Olga’s backstory of exile from Russia with economy, and the wartime years are sketched in just enough for us to be aware of them but not allow them to dominate the narrative. All of this is enough to paint a portrait of Olga’s character so that her actions in the end (in Venice, of all places) are entirely understandable. In fact, the choice of Venice for the final sequences is probably significant as there are any number of masks, illusions and deceptions surrounding Einar, Olga and Emma.

Berberova and Khodasevich (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Berberova’s novella is a subtle, nuanced piece of writing which certainly lingers in the mind. For such a short work of art to evoke so many places, sensations and emotions seems to me a real achievement; and though I’m surprised this book isn’t better known, I’m very grateful to the bloggers promoting her work and pointing us in its direction. “The Revolt” really is a little treasure and I have to confess to now having other Berberova stories nestling on the TBR waiting for me…


“The Revolt” has also been reviewed by Guy Savage here, and if the buzz around the author on Twitter is anything to go by there will be more to follow!

And a quick word about the translator (they’re some of my favourite people!) Berberova’s work is translated by Marian Schwartz and a quick look at the latter’s website reveals that’s she’s translated a dizzyingly impressive array of books. She’s also regarded as the pre-eminant translator of Berberova’s works, having actually known and worked with the latter during the 1980s and 1990s – there is a fascinating interview with Schwartz here, and she’s obviously done a marvellous job of bringing Berberova’s work into English!

“I have to pawn all my words…” @NewDirections @maryanncaws


The Milk Bowl of Feathers (edited, introduced and translated in places by Mary Ann Caws)

The fact that I can’t recall what prompted me to pick up a copy of this book recently proves just how shocking my memory is… Yet it’s only been in the house a few weeks so goodness know why I felt the need to buy it just at this time! However, it turned out to be an ideal read following on from the Leonora Carrington Penguin Modern; because the subtitle of this intriguing little book is “Essential Surrealist Writings”, and Carrington herself does feature in it!

“Milk Bowl…” is edited and introduced by Mary Ann Caws, who also translates many of the pieces – all of which is an amazing achievement. The book was published by New Directions and draws on a 1940 anthology by the publishing house’s founder, James Laughlin. I suspect, however, the involvement of Caws may have something to do with the pleasing presence of a large number of surrealist women, which really helps make this an absolutely fascinating read.

The Milk Bowl of Feathers

Surrealism grew out of Dada, and Caws covers the genesis of the movement in her introduction, as well as discussing themes and major practitioners. The extracts which follow and make up the body of the book are a wide-ranging, stimulating and really fascinating selection. There are pieces by Aragon, Breton and Dali; poems by Robert Desnos and Paul Eluard; even occasional illustrations. In fact, it’s probably the poetry that will stay with me most from this anthology, as some of it is really stunning and intense. Interestingly, Caws highlights the fact that the “notion of impassioned love” is one of the most important things in surrealist writing, and that’s reflected here, most particularly in the poetry. Desnos, Joyce Mansour and Eluard provide luminous, beautiful and intense verse, all dealing with love and its vagaries, although often with a dark edge which recalls Baudelaire. Leona Delacourt’s draft letters to Breton are fragmented and passionate; and Leonora Carrington’s short but sharp story is as a grim as anything the Brothers ever wrote!

I think Surrealism, like Dada, often comes across as difficult, scary or offputting; additionally, it’s probably more often linked with the visual arts as opposed to the written. However, the variety of the extracts on show here reveals that Surrealist writing can be strange, confusing, exciting, intense, dark and passionate – and definitely accessible to anyone who wants to read it. “The Milk Bowl of Feathers”, at a concentrated 78 pages, is an ideal introduction to this kind of writing and whatever prompted me to pick up a copy, I’m very glad that I did! 😀

(Re the translators – I always name the translators of the books I read, but in this case each of the 30-odd extracts has a translator/translators named at the end of the piece, and frankly to list them all here would just look silly. You will see their names and appreciate all their work if you buy this book – which I urge you to do!)

Penguin Moderns 23 and 24 – Inspirational women writers


Two more Penguin Moderns from my box set on the Ramblings today, and this time a pair of rather wonderful female authors – one new to me and one I’ve read before. And both bracing and intriguing in very different ways!

Penguin Moderns 23 and 24

Penguin Modern 23 – The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House by Audre Lorde

It’s very pleasing to see the number of women authors featured in the Penguin Moderns (16 if I count correctly, although obviously a 50:50 split would be nicer…); and also to be introduced to some *new* women authors. Audre Lorde is one of those, as I’ve only recently come across her – which is my loss… Lorde has an impressive pedigree if you have a look at her Wikipedia page. Writer, feminist, activist and academic, her influence is still being felt and it’s clear from this collection that she was a trenchant thinker.

Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

Audre Lorde via Wikipedia Commons – Elsad [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D

PM23 collects together five of her essays which range over topics such as the reclaiming of the erotic, the point of poetry, how to direct your feminist anger and lessons to be learned from the 1960s. They’re powerful and thought-provoking pieces, and from the internal evidence I think they span a few decades (it would have been nice if they’d been dated).

Poor women and women of colour know that there is a difference between the daily manifestations of marital slavery and prostitution because it is our daughters who line 42nd Street. If white American feminist theory need not deal with the differences between us, and the resulting difference in our oppressions, then how do you deal with the fact that the women who clean your houses and tend your children while you attend conferences on feminist theory are, for the most part, poor women and women of colour? What is the theory behind racist feminism?

One of the strongest elements I perceived was something that was an issue much discussed in my early feminist days; in fact it was a regular topic in Spare Rib at the time, and that was the double discrimination suffered by women of colour, who had to deal with the racism they faced as well as the sexism. The examples Lorde gives of the reactions she received from white feminist woman are quite disturbing, although I wonder if the situation was the same in the UK as it was in the USA – I don’t remember the women I mixed with behaving like that, although I understand that in many cases our feminism comes from a place of white privilege and with the luxury of a certain economic stability. Many of our sisters lack that and their feminism is part of their attempt to simply survive.

I wheel my two-year-old daughter in a shopping cart through a supermarket in Eastchester in 1967, and a little white girl riding past in her mother’s cart calls out excitedly, ‘Look, mommy, a baby maid!’ And your mother she shushes you, but she does not correct you. And so fifteen years later, at a conference on racism, you can still find that story humorous . But I hear your laughter is full of terror and disease.

I would *definitely* like to read more of Lorde’s work after my introduction to her writing through the Penguin Moderns; a powerful and inspirational author.

Penguin Modern 24 – The Skeleton’s Holiday by Leonora Carrington

The wonderful Leonora Carrington is an author I *have* read and written about before. I reviewed her “Down Below” memoir ffrom NYRB and I’ve also covered “The Hearing Trumpet” on the Ramblings. This particular Penguin Modern features seven short pieces by Carrington and they certainly are beautifully surreal!

My Virago edition of Carrington short stories.

Hair as mould, diseased people, rabbits, hyenas, odd relatives – definitely there’s much strangeness here, and the thread running through them is of horses. The latter were obviously a touchstone for Carrington, even appearing in the title of one of the stories; possibly a symbol for the writer herself with her constant need to flee…

When I was a debutante, I often went to the zoo. I went so often that I knew the animals better than I knew girls of my own age. Indeed, it was in order to get away from people that I found myself at the zoo every day. The animal I got to know best was a young hyena. She knew me too. She was very intelligent. I taught her French, and she, in return, taught me her language. In this way we passed many pleasant hours.

The humour is dark, the stories dreamlike (or indeed sometimes like nightmares) and the imagery often startling. I must admit I felt sure I’d read some of these before, though I can’t see that I’ve reviewed them on the Ramblings; so it may simply be that I’ve dipped into the short story collections I have, or I picked up some plots from the biography I read. Anyway, I did love these rather dark and delicious stories, and reading them has made me keen to pick up “The Seventh Horse” sooner rather than later!


This was a really interesting pairing of Penguin Moderns, featuring two very different but very inspirational women. Both wrote from a particularly individual place and carved out their own way through life. And both are authors I want to spend time with in future!

The blurred lens of history… #solovyovandlarionov #eugenevodolazkin @LizoksBooks @OneworldNews


Solovyov and Larionov by Eugene Vodolazkin
Translated by Lisa C. Hayden

One of last year’s outstanding books for me was a title I read and reviewed for Shiny New Books – “The Aviator” by Eugene Vodolazkin. That book was the Kiev-born author’s third novel; however, his works have not been translated in the order of publication. His second work, “Laurus” came out in 2016 and “The Aviator” a year ago. However, his debut, “Solovyov and Larionov”, came out via Oneworld last November. Again rendered most wonderfully into English by Lisa C. Hayden (who translated his other books), I was *very* keen to read  “S&L”; and Oneworld were kind enough to provide a review copy.

The premise of the book is fascinating; Solovyov is a Russian historian with a focus on a general of the White Army, Larionov. The latter is something of a mystery; having fought to defend the Crimea in the post-revolutionary Civil War, somehow the General not only survived the carnage meted out by the Red Army, he also made it through the Soviet years, living his life out in Yalta and dying finally in 1976. The mystery of how and why the General avoided execution absorbs not only Solovyov, but also any number of scholars (some of who feature in the book). Solovyov himself is perhaps an unlikely protagonist; a somewhat diffident man, he was born by a railroad halt in the middle of nowhere which only has a number, not a name. Absorbed by books from a young age, he has an intense friendship with a local girl which blossoms into something more, before finally escaping to Petersburg to study. Whilst following the trail of the General’s life, he travels to Yalta to attend a Larionov conference, encountering the remaining associates/relatives of Larionov and also entering an intense relationship with the daughter of one of the General’s assistants. There are searches for lost manuscripts; a wonderfully satirical and often screamingly funny rendition of the events of the conference and the awfulness of a collection of academics in one place; and gradual discoveries of lost parts of the General’s life which bring Solovyov closer to home than he might have expected.

That’s a somewhat simplistic summary of what is a very complex, clever, multi-layered and thought-provoking book, and to describe it as a literary detective story as the blurb does is perhaps underselling it. The construction of the novel itself is quite remarkable; Vodolazkin manages a brilliant interweaving of the title characters’ stories where the narrative switches between the two without even a pause, yet it’s never anything less than clear as to what’s happening. Although ostensibly about Solovyov’s search to find out the truth about the General, the book is also actually the story of Solovyov finding himself, of his reckoning with his own past as well as Russia’s, and of his coming to terms with his journey to the current point of his life. On the evidence of the two of his works that I’ve read, Vodolazkin is always totally in control of his narrative, here brilliantly bringing all the strands of his tale together to an ending which reveals just how entwined the two lives have been.

We could approach the explanation from another angle. There exist people who possess the gift of contemplation. They are not inclined to interfere with the course life takes and do not create new events, because they believe there are already enough events in the world. They see their role as comprehending what has already taken place. Might that attitude toward the world be what begets genuine historians?

His writing is beautiful too; although he often seems to deliberately adopt the detached tone of a historian (taking on an authorial “we” when it suits), the description of place and atmosphere is stunning, and at times I felt I was in Yalta with either Solovyov or Larionov. The narrative is studded with references to Russian history and literature, a lot of which I got but many of course I probably missed, and the spell of Chekhov hangs over the Yalta sections in particular (the great writer spent his final days there). Petersburg and its surrounding waters are brilliantly conjured too (both Solovyov and Larionov are drawn to the sea). As well as beauty, however, there is of course conflict; there are details of the General’s battles and the horrors of the Civil War are clearly shown; as well as the sheer exhaustion of the Russian people, unable after so much fighting to even understand what they were battling for and why they were on a particular side.

This is how strange the war was – Russians against Russians – when solders taken prisoner could fight the very next day for the other side. They did so just as selflessly as before. There were quite a few people for whom shifts of this sort became a habit. For some, it was the only possible work under war conditions. For some, it was a way of life at a time when, by and large, people were indifferent about whom they fought for… Essentially, there were not many choices.

That this is a book about a historian is particularly relevant, because the more satirical and humorous elements certainly poke fun at the absurdity of some academics, with their own particular focus on a section of the past, their skewed reading of it and indeed their own particularly odd theories (including one that the General was actually a woman…!) It becomes clear as Solovyov continues with his endeavours to find out the truth that an accurate rendering of the past, and indeed an understanding of it, may never be possible; the historian’s researches are like a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing and it’s only if particular things can be found out, by the person with the knowledge to interpret them correctly, that all will fall into place. Like “The Aviator”, “Solovyov and Larionov” ends with a certain ambiguity in place, leaving behind it a book of characters and events and places that linger beautifully in the mind.

Yalta: View from the Tsar’s Path via Wikimedia Commons

“Solovyov and Larionov” was nominated for a number of Russian awards and I can understand why; it’s hard to accept that this was a first novel, particularly as it’s such a wide-ranging work which takes in so many themes. However, the major thread I sense running through Vodolazkin’s works is that of memory, whether individual or collective. There is a fascinating conversation with Vodolazkin and Lisa Hayden at the LA Review of Books, and the former states:

Memory … What do we have except memory? Nothing. Memory is the consciousness of a person, whereas history is the consciousness of the people.

I think that may well sum up what Vodolazkin is trying to capture in his books, particularly in a country where memory and history have been so twisted and warped over the years. The author is himself a historian, which lends further authenticity to his account of the vagaries of research, the complexities of tracking down sources and the frank impossibility of ever really knowing the truth – either about history, or one’s own memories, which are of course human and therefore fallible.

As is probably obvious, I found “Solovyov and Larionov” to be just as good a book as “The Aviator” in its beautiful writing, its thought-provoking narrative and its wonderfully atmospheric sense of place and time. I can see that I’m going to be pondering on it for quite some time to come, and although his second novel “Laurus” has a very different setting (mediaeval Russia) I may just have to seek it out…

Tolstoy gets worked up (and not in a good way)… :(


When it comes to Russian literature, there’s often a Tolstoy v. Dostoevsky split, and despite having read quite a bit of the former, I always come down in favour of the latter. However, as I’ve read both Tolstoy’s epic big works, I’ve been trying to make my way through some of his shorter works, though it’s a little while since I got to any. However, I was reminded recently of this little volume of four collected works that Mr. Kaggsy gifted me some time ago:

I’ve read the first two stories, “Family Happiness” and “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and found them both interesting, although I could see Tolstoy’s rather troubling views about marriage forming. However, I confess to having stalled at the third story in the book – “The Kreutzer Sonata“. I tried to read this some years back (possibly pre-blog) and I abandoned it after a few pages – the extreme anti-women spouting of the main character was just too much for me. However, I’m pretty sure this was before I read “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace”, so I determined to be strong and give it another go. I rather wish, however, that I hadn’t….

“The Kreutzer Sonata” is a later work by Tolstoy, and the introduction to my edition describes it as controversial; it’s not hard to see why. Set during a train journey, the narrator encounters a fellow passenger who turns out to have murdered his wife, and this man tells his story to the narrator. It’s not a pretty one, laced as it is with misogyny, guilt, obsession, jealousy, lust and moral rantings. It’s uncomfortable reading at the best of times, particular as a woman, and this is made worse with knowledge of Tolstoy’s behaviour to his long-suffering wife and the fact that some of the nastier elements in the story are drawn from the author’s life.

I guess it’s worth remembering that later in his life Tolstoy had become a bit of a religious fanatic, and this informs much of the narrative. However, if the views of the husband are those of Tolstoy, they’re actually terribly worrying. One minute he’s berating men for seeing women only as sexual objects, then he’s chastising women for taking sexual pleasure, then saying women should be virgins, then saying that any act of sex is debauchery, and so on. It’s desperately contradictory and when you read the afterword where Tolstoy states his views following the release of the story, it gets worse. He *does* have a point when he goes on about the marriage market, as pre-Revolutionary Russian was notorious for this, marrying young women off to rich old men (although I’m sure just about every Western country did the same). However, he seems to believe that love between man and woman can’t and doesn’t exist, marriage is only to allow the “animal” love, and that basically everything is the woman’s fault. This is not nice, to put it mildly, and if he had such a problem with sex he should have stopped putting it about, frankly. For goodness sake, he even thinks that music is an issue!

“The Kreutzer Sonata” is a horrible book to read; a madman raving about the horror of sexual relations, about his wife being burdened by childbirth and then rediscovering some kind of pleasure in life, about his wild jealousy and his murder of his wife, and this is someone who’s supposed to be making a moral point for Tolstoy? His beliefs were obviously pretty extreme by this point (as well as contradictory), and the fact that the murderer is acquitted just reinforces the nastiness of this story. Apparently G.K. Chesterton was very critical of Tolstoy’s beliefs as reflecting that what the Russian disliked was being a man, going on to say, “You are at least next door to hating humanity, for you pity humanity because it is human”. Certainly, I think Tolstoy had problems…

Tolstoy used real instances from his life in “Kreutzer” (for example, the fact he showed his wife to be a diary of his earlier sexual activities) which kind of makes this book even worse. By the end of his life he’d obviously moved to a position of rigid fanaticism, and as someone who has no problem with the sexual act I can’t begin to get into his mindset. This really is a nasty book; I have no sympathy with Tolstoy or his characters, and I can’t imagine what his poor wife had to put up with. The book is hysterical, muddled, skewed, dismissive of sexuality (female in particular), judgemental and downright disturbing. I’ll continue to read Tolstoy, and explore more of his shorter works, but I shan’t touch this one again with a bargepole. And it’s going to be Dostoevsky for me *any* time….

In praise of the old, fragile and crumbly (and their lost publishers…)


Those of you who follow me on social media might have seen me haul a rather interesting book from the local Oxfam a couple of weeks back. The item in question is entitled “The Existentialist Imagination: From de Sade to Sartre”, and it was lurking in the Philosophy section, costing the grand sum of £1.99… I’ve been drawn to that particular section a lot recently (part of me wants to bring most of it home), but this one is a little unusual in that it’s a collection of fiction writing which apparently expresses the existentialist outlook. It certainly is old, fragile and crumbly (as are many paperbacks of its age – it was published in 1973) but a casual glance at the blurb sent me off digging in my shelves and then pondering…

“Existential…” is edited by Frederick R. Karl and Leo Hamalian, and the blurb mentioned that they also edited a collection called “The Naked i”, also published by Picador, back in 1971. I knew I had owned this collection, picking it up in the late 1970s because it had a story by Sylvia Plath, and I was a bit vexed by the fact that I might have discarded it over the years in one of my periodic clear outs. A frantic rummage in the Plath shelves revealed the book in question, which brought a huge sigh of relief. I like the fact of having both of these companion collections, despite the fact that they have ageing brown pages and fragile spines – because the contents look inspiring, and reminded me of the vagaries of publishers and publishing, how authors can disappear by the wayside, and how mainstream publishing is perhaps less attuned to the individual and curious nowadays.

The Picador Brautigans from the late 1970s

When I look back to the late 1970s, which was the time I first had disposable income, so could buy books, it seems to me a time characterised by the spirit of adventure and exploration. I lived in a cold-water flat in Cheltenham for a while, and the local bookshop I hung about in most often was called Paperback Parade – and of course sold only paperbacks! They operated what was in effect a mini-Foyles system, and their stock was shelved according to publisher. I was often drawn to Picador Books, as their titles seemed exotic and a bit left-field – and in fact my first Richard Brautigan books were Picador editions from Paperback Parade’s shelves. Alas, however, if I look back to those days many of the small imprints seems to have disappeared, been swallowed up by larger operations or rather lost their individuality.

Yes – I have finally found the missing original “Dreaming of Babylon” which I had mislaid for the #1977Club…!

There was a sense back then (or at least so it seems to me) that publishers perceived their readers as having an intelligence and a wish to be stretched or provoked; smaller imprints appeared to have a genuine independence and a wish to push boundaries. Both of these collections are thought-provoking and wide-ranging, taking in authors from Tolstoy, de Sade, Dostoevsky, Borges and Kafka, up to Plath, Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Leonard Michaels and Ken Kesey. That heady and eclectic mix is maybe unusual and also a snapshot of the authors considered relevant at the time.

Authors do, of course, slip in and out of fashion; one that springs to mind is Alberto Moravia who’s been championed by Grant recently. And any number of women authors have disappeared under the radar; popular names during the last century, they’re now dismissed as perhaps not relevant, and it takes publishers like Virago, and more increasingly imprints like Persephone and Handheld, to bring them back into print. Those current small presses (and there are any number of them on my sidebar, and which I love), have rescued some real treasures and saved some amazing works from obscurity. Nevertheless, not everything is going to make it back into print; and I suppose what I’m actually saying is that it’s a good thing to hold onto the old, fragile and crumbly. Certainly, many books on my shelves are no longer available or harder to track down; so I think I’m going to have to check very carefully when I have any clear-outs and make sure I *really* want to get rid of a book, just in case I change my mind and find a replacement hard to source. There’s a lot to be said for hanging onto your own personal library! 😀

True confessions… @PimpernelPress @BacklistedPod @RichardDawkins @OWC_Oxford @RusLibrary


… of the bookish kind, of course…

Yes, there have been more arrivals at the Ramblings (although I have squeezed several volumes out in Happy Mail and donations). Mainly these have been review copies (as anyone who follows me on social media might have spotted), but I have to admit to a few little purchases…

So let’s share those first… And entirely to blame is the Backlisted Podcast which recently focused on Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year“. I’d been considering reading this for a while – it somehow kept slipping onto my radar – and the podcast finished me off. After a Twitter discussion of which version was best to get, I somehow ended up with two…. Which will I read first? Who know, but I now own *two* Norton Critical Editions (my first was the Adrienne Rich collection I bought a while back)! 😀

Journal of the Plague Year

The next incomings are from charity shop and local Waterstones (who were having a sale).

Dawkins and Fellinesque…

A Dawkins for £1 is not going to stay in the charity shop when I’m about. And I have no idea what Fellinesque is (except I have a nagging feeling I might have read about it somewhere – if it was on your blog please tell me in the comments!) It sounds a bit weird, has the French Revolution in it (obvs with a guillotine on the front…) and was also £1. Worth a punt, methinks…

As for review books, the first arrived during the week and I was *so* excited about it, as I’ve been waiting to cover it for Shiny New Books:


I’ve read several of the titles put out in Columbia University Press’s Russian Library imprint, but I was particularly keen on reading this. Khodasevich is a poet I discovered fairly recently, and this book is about Russian writers from the early part of the 20th century. Can’t wait!!

And yesterday two more lovelies popped through the letterbox (well, actually, were handed to me by the postie, who is probably getting a bit fed up with carting large heavy book packages to the door – these were particularly weighty…)

Woolf and Carlyle

The one on the left is just gorgeous – a glossy colour picture illustrated book all about Virginia Woolf‘s houses. I’ve had a quick flick and it looks amazing! And interestingly on the right (because of Woolf’s interest in the Carlyles) is Thomas’s French Revolution history. A bit of a chunkster, but I’m desperate to read that too. I went to Carlyle’s house with my BFF J and it was surprisingly dark and small…

As I was grumping on Twitter this morning, it’s a little alarming when your review books form their own, separate Mount TBR. Self-inflicted wound I know, first world problem and all that.

Mount (Review) TBR…

However, I shall hopefully spend some time later on today sitting surrounded by a pile of books, flicking through them, reading bits and seeing which one hooks me the most. Yes, spoiled for choice…. 😉

In celebration of a seminal Beat figure @shinynewbooks @FaberBooks #Ferlinghetti


I have a new review up at Shiny New Books today, and it’s a work I was very keen to read – “Little Boy” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

The author is perhaps best known for his seminal role in the promotion of the Beat Generation writers, and for his famous San Francisco bookshop “City Lights” (which I’ve never visited, but my brother has….) Ferlinghetti passed his century in March and this poetic, stream of consciousness memoir was published to mark his birthday. It’s an exhilarating and individual ride, and you can read my full review here.

An enterprising trip on the Trans-Siberian @Glagoslav


I’ve often wondered whether I should create a bucket list, and pondered what I’d put on it; travel would probably come high up, and there are any number of places I’d like to see (Paris, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vienna, Berlin – the obvious ones!!). One trip I’d consider, but might bottle out of it unless I was travelling in a very supportive group, would be making a journey on the Trans Siberian Express; I’ve read a number of books on the subject (Eric Newby’s is a favourite) but I’m not sure it would be the best thing for a woman travelling alone! So I was obviously very interested in a book on the subject from the lovely Glagoslav Publications“A Brown Man in Russia” by Vijay Menon.

The book is subtitled “Lessons Learned on the Trans-Siberian” and it follows Menon’s journey with two friends on that railway in December 2013. Afflicted with wanderlust at a young age, the author decided in the summer of that year that he wanted to spent Christmas Day in Mongolia; so what better way to get there than by taking the Trans-Siberian from Moscow? He recruits two willing accomplices, Avi and Jeremy, and the three arrive in Moscow towards the end of the December. However, in many ways the little group are ill-equipped for the journey; as Americans used to Californian temperatures, the cold they encounter is a major issue. Additionally, none of them speaks any Russian, and they can barely make out the cyrillic characters they encounter. To complicate things, Menon and Avi are persons of colour with Indian ancestry, and therefore unsure of the reception they’ll receive in the country. All of these ingredients create a fascinating mix in a very individual book!

The structure of the book is in fact a little unusual, and it’s important to understand that this grew out of Menon’s TED talk on the subject. Therefore, each short chapter of the trio’s journey is followed by a lesson that Menon drew from the experience. And it’s heartening to note that the group encountered friendliness, helpfulness and kindness in just about every place they visited; this is especially noteworthy as often they were the first people of colour encountered by the Russians they met. From youngsters to army recruits to old babushkas, every Russian seemed welcoming and keen to make contact with the travellers; a fact that makes me very happy in this day and age when there is so much distrust and suspicion between countries and peoples.

User: (WT-shared) Gorilla Jones at wts wikivoyage [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

I loved watching the group making their way to Mongolia (and SPOILER ALERT they do get there in time for Christmas Day!) Their encounters with the Mongolian people were particularly touching, with the latter making every accommodation they could for their guests. And the book is enhanced with a section of photos from the trip which brought to life the experiences and the different cultures; Menon was very taken with the beauty of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow and that really came across in the book.

I fixated on its beauty, silently chiding the thousands of pedestrians walking by who lacked my palpable sense of entrancement while purposely ignoring the reality that they had probably seen thousands of times prior. Seconds turned to minutes, and it became exceedingly difficult to pry my eyes away from the ornately crafted towers that rose to the sky, symbolizing a bonfire with its mysterious embers rising upwards to the heavens.

If I was to be completely honest, I think I would have liked the sections of the book on the journey to be a little longer; the slightly mismatched trio were entertaining fellow travellers and I did love accompanying them on their adventures. Menon appears to have taken much from his trip, and the points he was trying to make about what he’d learned – acceptance, pushing and stretching yourself, being true to yourself etc – are just as well made, if not better, by show rather than tell.

Nevertheless, “A Brown Man in Russia” was a fascinating book to read, showing an enterprising journey from a perhaps more unusual viewpoint, and I was happy to make the acquaintance of Vijay, Avi and Jeremy. It just goes to show that humans can interact despite the differences of language and culture, finding connections in the most unexpected places; this book certainly proves that, and kudos to Glagoslav for publishing yet another book that breaks the mould!

(Review copy kindly provided by Glagoslav Publications, for which many thanks!)

Erasing the line between literature and science @ajlees @NottingHillEds


Mentored by a Madman by A.J. Lees

One of the things I love about small and indie publishers is the sheer variety of books they publish. I love the quirky or the unusual or the frankly left of centre, and there’s often little of that to be found from mainstream books nowadays. A favourite imprint is Notting Hill Editions, and I’ve read and reviewed any number of their beautiful hardback essay collections – they really are a treat. However, they publish some of their works in very lovely paperback editions, with French flaps and slightly deckled edges; and a fascinating volume popped through my door recently, which turned out to be a quite marvellous, stimulating and rather unusual book!

The book is subtitled “The William Burroughs Experiment” which is actually the key to what this book is about. Lees is an award-winning neurologist, currently serving as Professor of Neurology at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Queen Square, London and University College London. According to Wikipedia, he’s been named in the past as the world’s most highly cited Parkinson’s disease researcher, and a quick look down their entry for him reveals that he’s been responsible for a number of breakthroughs in the treatment of that disease, as well as overseeing all manner of different branches of research,

“Mentored…” is a kind of memoir, where Lees looks back over his life and career, pinpointing the various junctures in his life where he’s had lightbulb moments, gone down dead ends, come back to follow a different path to then make those imaginative leaps that take research forward into uncharted territory. And running through all of this is the presence of author (and addict!) William S. Burroughs, creator of the alarming character of Dr. Benway, amongst other manic medics! (Here’s Burroughs/Benway in action – not for the faint-hearted!)

So taking your medical guidance from WSB might be regarded as the height of madness (which I suppose is where the title of this book comes from!); however as Lees reveals, while tracing his career, Burroughs actually turned out to be a surprisingly good guide when it came to exploring the possibilities of developing new drugs for use in the treatment of Parkinson’s. In particular, WSB’s championing of apomorphine (which he used to wean himself off junk) eventually lead to Lees exploring the use of that drug for treating the effects of Parkinson’s with some success…

Lees and Burroughs never met, though the former was an avid reader of the latter, and in later years made contact with a number of Burroughs’ friends and associates, often in serendipitous ways. And Lees obviously regards the presence of Burroughs in his life to be a constant, a thread always returned to and always providing guidance. As the author traces the line of his life and career, that willingness of Burroughs to look outside the box is reflected in Lees’ desire to explore the unusual and use his intuition, as well as refusing to be hidebound by bureaucracy when it comes to research; a tendency which has obviously borne fruit!

As a layperson, I did wonder whether I would be a bit overwhelmed by jargon when reading this book (a worry that has made me a little nervous also about approaching Oliver Sacks; coincidentally a friend and contact of Lees). However, the narrative is always clear and understandable, and absolutely fascinating. I followed Lees’ attempts to find solutions for his patients as anxiously as the families involved must have, cheering at successes and disappointed by set-backs; it’s an involving read. Lees also draws on the history of his field, looking back at the work of those who came before him; and reveals the influence, perhaps surprisingly, of Sherlock Holmes! One particularly valuable aspect seemed to be Burroughs’ understanding of the form addiction takes in humans, which was particularly relevant when Lees was dealing with addition issues arising from some treatments. As Lees reminds us:

He believed that all humans were hard-wired to be insatiable wanting machines. Sugar, laxatives and even shoplifting had the potential to become external objects of false satisfaction. Provided a novelty factor was introduced almost anything could be turned into a consumable. Corporations increased their stranglehold on the masses by alluring advertising. Junk was the ultimate merchandise and, in his paranoid but prescient world, a part of the global conspiracy.

Looking around at our rabid capitalist society, he’s not wrong, is he? 😦

What shone through very forcibly, however, was Lees’ humanity; at the root of all of his work is his care for his patients and (a rarity in my experience) he feels strongly that those being treated deserve compassion, understanding and respect. He also decries the control exerted by the pharmaceutical companies, who are only motivated by making huge profits and whose interests restrict the research process. It’s nowadays harder to take risks or imaginative leaps to try to find better cures for disease simply because if there isn’t big money in it, the companies have no interest. He laments the high prices they charge for some drugs, and certainly I’ve seen issues surrounding colleagues who need a particular medication but it’s expensive or impossible to source because of the control of the manufacturing companies. Lees rightly lambasts rigid, inflexible thinking and the concern only for money being the factors which control the development of new medicine, and he’s right; imagination and inventiveness are needed for exploration, and that’s sadly lacking nowadays, with attempts at innovation being drowned in red tape.

… I felt uncomfortable about a system where money was made out of illness and where the patient was treated as a customer. The company knew the price but not the value to the patients.

“Mentored by a Madman” was an absolutely fascinating read, and even if you know nothing about Burroughs I think you would get a lot out of this book (though personally, I read tons of his work back in the day and I’m a huge fan of his dark, dry wit and drawling delivery). Lees comes across as a humane and committed man, determined to do his best for his fellows and obviously frustrated by the modern money-men and the outsourcing of the NHS. As well as that, the book reflects the times, from the opening steps of his journey in the 1960s through the changing times of the end of the twentieth century and into our corporate modern world. I’m old enough to remember some of that, and it made me realise that although we’ve made many gains with progress, we’ve also lost so much individuality.

And, very importantly, Lees writes marvellously, proving that science and literature can combine in a work of art. His compassion shines through, his erudition is worn lightly and his book is never less than engrossing. “Mentored by a Madman” is not a book I would necessarily have stumbled across had it not been for Notting Hill Editions, and I can’t recommend it highly enough – a wonderful, subversive, enlightening and often moving reading experience.

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)


Whilst noodling around online in prep for this post, I came across a number of interesting interviews with, and videos featuring, Andrew Lees talking about his life and work and books. These two – a conversation, and a reading plus interview session at Shakespeare and Co – are particularly fascinating for anyone wanting to explore further. There’s also plenty of Burroughs online, but you can find that yourself! 😀



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