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“….justice, such a rare commodity these days….” @glagoslav

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Alpine Ballad by Vasil Bykau
Translated by Mikalai Khilo

I like to think that I read reasonably widely here on the Ramblings, but I’m well aware that there are many gaps. Interestingly, a recent read made me realise that I have probably never read anything from Belarus; however, thanks to Glagoslav Publications, that’s now been rectified! Vasil Bykau is an author new to me; although he’s apparently a household name in his native Belarus, I’ve not come across him before and so I was very keen to read “Alpine Ballad”, an early work by an author who was at one point touted for the Nobel Prize. Bykau often drew on his experiences as a young man during the Second World War, and this book reflects that.

“Alpine Ballad” opens with a dramatic escape from a German Prisoner of War Concentration Camp following an explosion. Ivan, our protagonist, is fleeing literally for his life; chased by German soldiers and Alsatian dogs, it’s touch and go as to whether he will make it. Things become complicated as he encounters a fellow prisoner attempting to make her own escape – a young Italian woman called Giulia. Initially, Ivan is reluctant to take her along with him, fearing that she’ll slow him down. However, she’s not so easy to shake off, and after she helps him they fall in to travelling together. As they make their way, planning to go through the Alps to Trieste, the tormented Belarusian comes to trust the Italian woman and they manage a kind of communication in several languages. The narrative flashes back to events leading up to the explosion, as well as previous acts of betrayal, and inevitably the two fellow travellers are drawn closer, to the point where a delicately portrayed relationship develops. But pursuit is always at hand, and the struggle to stay ahead of the guards and the dogs becomes a matter of life and death.

We saw it all. Old things were broken and rebuilt – we paid heavily for it. With blood. And the difficulties are quickly forgotten, good things are remembered. Sometimes it seems that none of this happened. Our life was hard, troublesome, maybe unfair at times. But peaceful. And that’s the most important thing. I sometimes think: let it all come back, both the difficulties and the hunger, but without the war. We would cope with everything. We certainly would, after so much blood.

“Ballad” is a powerful read, bringing home a number of harsh truths; the portrayal of life under the Nazis is not pleasant, and touched a nerve with me during a time when we’re seeing right wingers on the rise again. However, there is a subtext with the book (I love a subtext!); first published in 1964, Bykau seems to have used his characters as something of a vehicle for his views. At that time, speaking out against the Soviet regime was a dangerous thing, and the author regularly clashed with the authorities. Giulia has a naive trust in the Russian regime but Ivan informs her of some truths about the Soviet world; and by drawing comparisons between the Fascist and Communist regimes, Bykau uses Ivan to obliquely critique the Soviets. It’s a brave stance to take, and the author should applauded for it.

But putting the message aside, “Ballad” stands on its own as an excellent piece of writing. The tension of pursuit is nerve-wracking; the romantic element moving and beautifully drawn; and the ending (and coda) very emotional. The story is a reminder of how humanity can flourish in the most extreme situations, and how differences between people can be overcome. Glagoslav state that the book is being brought out “as a gesture of peace and a reminder to all of the human cost of wars that ransack our planet to this day” and it’s a laudable aim. The book is newly translated directly from the Belarusian by Mikalai Khilo (as the Soviet Russian version was heavily censored) and comes with a useful introduction by Arnold McMillin from UCL. Apparently, Bykau’s writing is generally very hard-hitting and “Ballad” is unusual for its gentler elements. However, it’s a gripping and wonderful read, and probably a very good way to be introduced to the work of a fascinating author – highly recommended!

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

The author (http://evitebsk.com/w/images/0/0e/Bykaw.jpg [Public domain – via Wikimedia Commons])

Looking ahead – to the past? ;D #1930Club

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Those of you paying attention will have noticed that we’re edging ever closer to October; and during that month Simon at Stuck in a Book and I will be co-hosting one of our regular six-monthly reading Club weeks! If you’re new to these, basically we pick a year and encourage everyone to discover, read and discuss books from that year. You can review on your blog, post on other social media or just comment on our blogs. We love to hear what gems you’ve discovered or want to share, and the whole thing is great fun. Simon came up with the idea and as you can see from the different Club pages on my blog, we’ve done quite a few…:D

The next year we’re going to be focusing on is 1930, and as I usually try to read from my stacks I thought I’d have a nose around and see what I have that would be suitable. I was surprised (and not displeased!) to find that I own quite a substantial amount of books from that year and more than ever I think I’m going to find it very hard to choose what to read! Normally, I don’t share much ahead of the Club weeks as it’s fun to be surprised by what people read. However, there are so many books on the pile that I feel impelled to have a look now in the hope that some commenters might be able to recommend ones they think are particularly good. The mystery this time is going to be what books I actually choose!

A large stack of possible reads from 1930

So as  you can see, the pile of possibles from books I already own is quite large… Let’s look a little more closely!

1930 Viragos

It should be no surprise, really, that there are several Virago titles from 1930 and these are all from my collection of green spined lovelies. I’ve definitely read the Mansfield; probably the Delafield and Coleman; and possibly not the Sackville-West or Smith. All are tempting for either a new read or a re-read.

Classic Crime from 1930

Again, no surprise that there should be classic crime from 1930. Sayers is a favourite of course (yes, I have two copies of “Strong Poison” – don’t ask…) and this would be a welcome re-read. The Christies are again books I’ve already read, and I know “Vicarage” very well, so the “Mr. Quin” book would be a fun choice. Hammett too would be a re-read. Not sure here what to choose, if I end up re-reading.

1930 Russians

There are indeed Russians from 1930, which might be unexpected bearing in mind the events that were taking place amongst the Soviets in that troubled era. Certainly, Platonov was probably written for the drawer; and Nabokov and Gazdanov were in exile, as was Trotsky. Mayakovsky’s last play was published in 1930, the year he died. Well. I think I’ve read the Platonov, the Nabakov, the Gazdanov and the Mayakovsky definitely. Not so sure about the Trotsky. All are very appealing.

A selection of other titles from 1930

And here’s a pile of general titles from the year in question. The Rhys is again a book I’ve read (fairly recently); “Last and First Men” was purloined from Eldest Child who I think might have studied it at Uni; “War in Heaven” I’ve had for decades and have probably read – I do love Charles Williams’ oddness so that’s a possible. I confess that the Huxley at the top of the pile is a recent purchase, as I saw it was published in 1930. It’s short stories, in a very pretty old Penguin edition, and I’d like to read more of him.

As for the two chunksters at the bottom, well thereby hangs a tale… I’ve owned these books by John Dos Passos for decades and never read them (oops); “U.S.A.” is a trilogy of three novels, and the first of these was published in 1930. Dos Passos was known for his experimental writing and why I’ve never picked them up is a mystery to me. I’m thinking that if I can motivate myself to read the 1930 novel it might set me on the road to reading the rest – we shall see…

Oh – in case you were wondering what the paper on top of the pile of books was, it’s this:

Woolf On Being Ill…

I hoped to find some Virginia Woolf to read for 1930, but the only thing could see was her long essay “On Being Ill”. I couldn’t easily find it in the essay collections I own, but I managed to track down a scan of the original magazine publication online. I love Woolf in all her forms, so this one may well get some attention.

So what can we be sure will be on the Ramblings during the #1930Club? Well, for a start there’s likely to be a guest post from Mr. Kaggsy (which is becoming a regular occurrence!). I hope to read at least one Agatha, and also something of substance. I’d like to try to really work out which of these books I’ve actually read and which I haven’t, going for new reads instead of re-reads. Apart from that – well, watch this space to find out what I finally pick for the #1930Club! 😀

“Teasing makes time trip up.” @NottingHillEds #johnberger

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What Time Is It? by John Berger and Selcuk Demirel

John Berger needs no introduction on the Ramblings; I’ve written often about this wonderful polymath thinker, and most recently on his thought-provoking book Confabulations. I’ve also regularly sung the praises of Notting Hill Editions and their beautful hardback editions. So the fact that the two come together in a new book has got to be a bonus! In fact, NHE have previously published two books by Berger and Demirel (I really must get hold of these…) and this final collection is something of a tribute to Berger. As the introduction by editor Maria Nadotti makes clear, the two men had discussed producing a book on the theme of time; Berger’s death came before this could be done. However, Nadotti has selected quotes from Berger’s work which Demirel has illustrated and result is just marvellous.

Nadotti, having worked on Berger’s texts over the years, is convinced that “Time” is the recurring theme of his art. Certainly, the quotes she’s selected are varied, thought-provoking and really intriguing; as someone who’s not read that many of his works, I would have been interested in knowing from which work each piece was chosen. But that’s by the by. Each quote is accompanied by one of Demirel’s illustrations, and they really are excellent. The blurb tells me that he’s a Turkish artist now based in Paris, and I can well believe that he’s much in demand. His images are quirky, colourful, thought-provoking and really quite beautiful. Nadotti describes the concept as being of the text and illustration walking together hand in hand, and they really do seem to do that.

Narrative is another way of making a moment indelible, for stories, when heard, stop the unilinear flow of time.

You can see example on the cover of the book; and here’s another – so clever and memorable, and yet they’re all so different.

As for Berger’s words, well they reflect many of the concerns I’ve picked up in his other books. The telling of stories; the passing of life; and of course politics and the inequalities of the world.

Migrant workers, already living in the metropolis, have the habit of visiting the main railway station. To talking groups there, to watch the trains come in, to receive first-hand news of the country, to anticipate the day when they will begin the return journey.

As always, Berger’s words resonate…

“What Time Is It?” is a thoughtful little volume, which I’ve found myself dipping into and going back to; not only to revisit Berger’s words of wisdom but also to study Demirel’s illustrations. Berger’s meditations on time are fascinating, reminding us that it often seems a fluid concept – five minutes until the end of a hated school lesson always seemed so much longer than the five minutes left until you were having to stop a pleasant occupation! The blurb describes the book as an “essay in pictures” which I think is a wonderful way of putting it. The works of Berger and Demirel illustrate and complement each other, and in 106 pages say a lot more than many weightier volumes! Another lovely volume from Notting Hill Editions, which I highly recommend!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks! “What Time is It?” is published today.)

Nautical mysteries and watery graves @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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Deep Waters: Mysteries on the Waves – Edited by Martin Edwards

My go-to books for stressy times have in recent years become the British Library Crime Classics; and so being back at work and being busy meant that I was naturally very keen to reach for one of these lovely volumes! I’ve read several rather wonderful anthologies of stories, edited by the redoubtable Martin Edwards, and the most recent one collects together a marvellous of array of short stories involving water. And bearing in mind that that can mean anything from an ornamental pond to the sea, there certainly is a lot of scope for murder, mayhem and mystery involving the wet stuff!

Another lovely British Library Crime Classic – isn’t the cover wonderful?

Edwards provides a useful introduction, looking back over watery crime writing over the years, as well as providing a short piece on the author of each story. The collection launches (ahem) with a Sherlock Holmes yarn, “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott“; this is a notable story in the Holmes canon, as it’s one in which the Great Detective reveals something of his past (as well as being very clever and entertaining). The final story is a Michael Innes ‘Appleby’ story first published in 1975. And in between there is an excellent selection of writers, from better known names like C.S. Forester, Edmund Crispin and E.W. Hornung, to more obscure authors like R. Austin Freeman and Josephine Bell, and relative unknowns such as Kem Bennett. I was particularly happy to see one of H.C. Bailey’s ‘Reggie Fortune’ stories included, as he’s a relatively recent discover for me and I absolutely love him. Both author and character are very individual and idiosyncratic, and I imagine Bailey’s writing is not necessarily to everyone’s taste. But I think his stories are clever and wonderfully written, and I do wish more were available.

Well – it’s hard with short story collections, because I can never decide to pick favourites or not. And this (like previous collections) is so good that there isn’t actually a dud in there. However, I’ll mention a few which really struck me. “The Echo of a Mutiny” by R. Austin Freeman was a longer entry in the book, and featured his regular detective Dr. Thorndyke, as well as an atmospheric lighthouse setting and a clever solution. Gwyn Evans’ “The Pool of Secrets” had some wonderfully outré elements and a fiendish plot. “The Turning of the Tide“, a mystery by C.S. Forester (better known perhaps for the Hornblower series), was short, sharp and shocking. And “The Swimming Pool“, the Reggie Fortune story, is really quite dark and remarkably ingenious.

H.C. Bailey, creator of Reggie Fortune – George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress) [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

But I could really pick out any of the stories to commend, as they’re each one of them an entertaining and enjoyable read, with clever detectives and perplexing puzzles. These are such wonderfully twisty tales where, as well as the sleuth’s usual brilliant methods of deduction, knowledge of such arcane subjects as the tides, marine life and types of tobacco can help solve the mystery. There really is such an appetite for Golden Age crime fiction nowadays; and I’m not sure whether it’s just that we’re looking for escapism from the madness of the modern day, or the reassurance of a world where things may get turned upside down but an all-seeing, all-knowing detective can put life back together again and normality will return. Whatever it is, for me the British Library Crime Classics are the perfect distraction from the craziness of daily life; and this particular collection is definitely an outstanding entry in their catalogue.

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

Books and fun – locally!! 😁 #thomasbernhard #simonarmitage #mishima @i_am_mill_i_am @NottingHillEds

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Normally when I share days out meeting friends, lunching and book shopping it means that I’ve had a fun day in London. However, I had an equally lovely day yesterday as my dear friend J. popped over to visit me and we had a great day out in the local Big Town!

Of course, I’m a regular in the local charity shops but they were new to J., so we had a wonderful browse round them, as well as finding some new and interesting crafty shops in an area of the town I don’t normally visit. Lunch was at the amazing Hank’s Deli, a recently-opened vegan place in town – I’ve become something of a regular there!

J. had some great finds in the various shops (and there also were stationery purchases…) Bookwise, however, I was restrained(ish) – I had some library reservations to pick up for a start:

There’s been a lot of buzz on Book Twitter recently about Bernhard thanks to that pesky Andy Miller mentioning him. I’ve been interested for a while so to save the creaking rafters of the house, I reserved a couple of titles from the library to see what I think of him.

As for the charity shops, I remained unscathed until we hit the Samaritan’s Book Cave. There were many temptations in the poetry section, but I restricted myself to a couple of Simon Armitage books I don’t have.

I love Armitage’s writing so these were a real find!

So restrained, for me – until I remembered that I wanted to pop into Waterstones. A particular book had come out that I thought I’d preordered and hadn’t and I wanted to see if it was there – which it was! Our local branch is particularly well stocked…

I’m very excited about this one, as I’ve been rediscovering Mishima of late (as you might have noticed…) – and it’s a very pretty edition bought from a bricks and mortar bookshop – yay me! 🤣🤣

So a lovely time was had by us both and it just goes to prove that you don’t always have to travel far to have a nice day out! 😁

Oh – and as a coda, I may have forgotten to share this recent arrival from the lovely Notting Hill Editions!

Isn’t it beautiful? And as a dog lover, an anthology of writings about our faithful friends is going to be something special for me! I’m looking forward greatly to reading this one; and watch out later this week for a review on the Ramblings of another gorgeous volume from NHE! 😀

Portrait of an oblivious man @ShinyNewBooks @KateHandheld

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Elizabeth von Arnim is an author who probably needs no introduction to readers of the Ramblings. Best known for her “Elizabeth...” novels and “The Enchanted April“, she was the cousin of Katherine Mansfield and a prolific author.

Some of her novels might be regarded as light-hearted and witty, which indeed they are; however, she has a steelier core than you might think and even in the lighter novels her strong views seep through. And a number of her other books address darker topics, with “Vera” perhaps being one of the darkest (I’ve not yet read that one, but I’ve read enough about it to make me a little nervous!) Anyway, lovely Handheld Press have re-released her 1909 novel “The Caravaners” in a beautiful new edition, and I’ve reviewed it for Shiny New Books. It’s witty, satirical yet with that dark centre, taking on a number of issues from militarism to misogyny, and I highly recommend it  – my review is here.

On My Book Table… 1

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Now that I’m lucky enough to have a dedicated reading chair with its little table alongside, I’ve taken to popping books onto the table for consideration as forthcoming reads – even, possibly, a bit of polyreading! The pile next to the chair changes according to my mood, but I thought it might be nice to share a little snapshot of what’s in my line of sight at the moment.

On the Book Table

That’s a chunky pile of books, isn’t it? Shall we look at some specifics?

“The German House” is a very pretty ARC from HarperVia, which I had hoped to get onto for WIT Month. Alas, that didn’t happen but I do want to read it soon – it sounds right up my street!

Next up is a book that’s been sitting on my TBR since I bought it in a frenzy of enthusiasm a while back. I loved Binet’s “HHhH” – such a clever work which plays with the whole structure of books and writing – and this sounds just as thought-provoking. I keep picking it up and getting distracted – the story of my life with books, really!

Elizabeth Hardwick’s “Seduction and Betrayal”, in the form of a quite old NYRB Classic, has been languishing unread for a number of years since I had a bit of a binge on buying Hardwick books after reading her “Sleepless Nights“. There is a shiny new Faber edition which I *nearly* bought in London recently, but held back because I thought I might already have it. Obviously, I do – it comes highly recommended and has essays on women authors from the Brontes to Plath. Glad I refrained in London, really, because I don’t need two copies!

Melancholy…

Finally on the Book Table is this behemoth of a book. As I related in an earlier post, I looked for this all around London and eventually rooted out a copy in the lovely LRB Shop. You can see how fat it is from the first picture above – it’s a book that will sit on the Book Table for some time for dipping into, as the advice is that that’s the best way to read it. Certainly, I don’t think I’ll be powering through it in one go! 😀

So what will I pick up first? Good question – as I write this I’m between books and trying to decide. Having just read several fiction titles (reviews are pending!) I may be drawn to the Hardwick as I’m really enjoying essays at the moment. Watch this space!

 

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