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“”…frayed, ragged, blurred and indistinct.” #JohnCowperPowys #MichaelWalmer

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The Owl, The Duck and – Miss Rowe! Miss Rowe! by John Cowper Powys

I hate to have to confess this, but there are books on my TBR which have been there for literally decades… And in many cases, I really don’t want to get rid of them because I’ve come across absolute gems when I’ve finally got round to reading some of those pending books. A case in point is “The Mandarins” by Simone de Beauvoir, which I bought in the 1980s and finally read in the 2000s: it turned out to be a most wonderful book, which I love and would never part with. Hence, I suppose, my difficulty in getting rid of the things… ;D

Anyway, one particularly large pile is my collection of John Cowper Powys books – here they are:

The pile of Powys books is so big it threatens to eclipse Christmas… ;D

Yes, it’s a very large pile of very chunky books. Yes, I have two copies of “Wolf Solent” (the most recent edition came home with me because of the larger type). Yes, the little red book on top is his monograph about Dostoevsky. Yes, I really *should* get on with reading one of these books soon (I did get well into “Wolf Solent ” some years ago, pre-blog, but got distracted). I’m afraid I have to admit that, in typical fashion, I *have* read a John Cowper Powys book recently, but it wasn’t any of these. Instead, I spent some very happy book time with this lovely edition of an early and obscure and hard-to-get story by Powys: “The Owl, The Duck and – Miss Rowe! Miss Rowe!“, which has just been reissued by Michael Walmer – and what a treat it turned out to be!

Loving the cover of this edition! πŸ˜€

“Owl…” was first published in 1930 in a limited edition of 250 copies (and I think it’s been quite hard to get hold of since). It’s a short, quirky and extremely individual story; and bearing in mind it was published a year after “Wolf..” it’s probably not what his readers might have been expecting. The story is set in a small flat in 1920s New York, a place which is occupied by an old couple; retired circus performers, they live in fear of “the Authories” who seem determined to put them in a home. However, the old couple are not the only inhabitants of the flat; there are a number of inanimate objects who appear to have an existence, from a wise stuffed owl through an amorous china duck, a rude glass fish, some Eastern Gods, an emotionally charged doll and a crumbling wooden horse. All of these objects have their own opinions on life, the universe and everything, and are happy to voice them to each other. However, there is another layer of occupation which involves a pair of partially created characters from an unfinished novel of a long-gone tenant, and the filmy ghost of the kind old lady who lived in the flat before the old couple arrived.

They were not elves, or ghosts, or elementals, these Two Beings. They were not sylphs or salamanders or undines. That they should have existed in the Known World at all only proved that the philosophy of the Owl was correct when he made it clear to the Duck by irrefutable logic that at every known point in space thousands of unknown dimensions meet and overlap.

All of these different beings maintain a fragile co-existence on their different planes; however, the Authorities are imminent and the objects are incapable of preventing cataclysmic change. Is there anyone amongst them who can save the old couple from the horrors of a home?

The plot really does sound outlandish, but it actually is quite brilliant, and in 60 pages Powys manages to pack in humour, pathos and moments of real emotion. The writing is quirky and if you haven’t got the turn of mind which can accept the unlikely or impossible you may find the oddness a bridge too far. I, however, absolutely loved it; I was utterly gripped, whether listening to the objects debating their philosophies or sympathising with the poor doll’s desire for romance or empathising with the couple’s desire to simply be left along. It’s a fantastic tale, yes, but has roots in something deeper; it considers existence in all its different forms, concluding I think that people should be left alone to resolve their own lives.

But in the great clanging, marbly, brassy City, littered with sordid lives, strewn with wind-tost debris and bitter dust, exhaling mephitic stenches and corpse-chills, one resource, one issue, one last escape is left…

The end solution is signalled fairly early on, and is desperately moving; the book ends on a slight note of ambiguity, which is entirely suitable; and as soon as I’d finished reading I felt like going back and reading again to see if I’d missed any nuances. It’s unusual, perhaps, for such a short and idiosyncratic work to have such an effect; but “Owl…” really got under my skin, and as I’d finished it during my lunch-hour I felt completely unsuited for work for the rest of the day!

Even the inside is pretty!

Mike Walmer’s Zephyr imprint is a series of classic short works in hardback and I reviewed the first, by Gautier, back in 2017 (I have the second waiting to be read!) I think they’re an excellent collection so far, works that really deserve to be available, and there’s an added bonus in that they’re also very pretty! I absolutely loved “The Owl, The Duck and – Miss Rowe! Miss Rowe!”, and you never know – this might spur me on to actually *read* some of those Powys chunksters lurking on Mount TBR! πŸ˜€

(Review copy kind provided by Mike Walmer, for which many thanks!)

Frantic jealousy and crimes of passion! #MichaelWalmer #MarieBellocLowndes

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Noted Murder Mysteries by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Classic crime of all types has been turning out to be a bit of a lifesaver here on the Ramblings lately. Whether it’s the time of year, the fact that Real Life is screamingly busy, or because trying to read “Berlin Alexanderplatz” was a bit of a disaster, I’ve just found myself looking backwards to Golden Age Crime; or in this case, some real life crime cases from the past!

Marie Belloc Lowndes is a name I’d come across before; I have her classic novel “The Lodger” sitting on the TBR, and I’ve meant to pick it up on several occasions. However, when Mike Walmer kindly offered me a review copy of Lowndes’ “Noted Murder Mysteries”, I just couldn’t resist. It’s the fifth release in his Belles-Lettres series (I’ve reviewed several titles from this in the past), and was a fascinating and thoroughly entertaining read.

“Noted…” contains eight essays by Lowndes on famous crimes of her era. Some cases were familiar to me, such as the Charles Bravo affair (I’ve read and reviewed a fascinating book about it on the Ramblings) and the Madeleine Smith case; others, like the murder of poor Hippolyte Menaldo, were completely new to be me. However, all were gripping, engrossing and often dark stories, and the book made compelling reading. Lowndes is a natural storyteller, relating the events as if they were exciting fiction rather that dull fact. And what adds so much to the book is the verve with which Lowndes tells her tale; she ramps up the tension and the drama while she relates these tragic stories, and she’s often partisan about the outcome.

It’s worth pointing out that Lowndes chooses to retell a particular type of crime story; all of these murders are what you would call crimes of passion, motivated by romantic emotions or sexual obsessions, and a significant number of them take place in France. Something as sordid as Jack the Ripper does not make an entry here; instead, she focuses on crimes of the domestic, of emotional betrayal, misplaced devotion and the consequences of social disgrace. Interestingly, though, her novel “The Lodger” (which I mentioned earlier in this post) was published a year before “Noted…” and drew on the Ripper case!

However, Lowndes obviously had a wonderful talent for storytelling; she had me very much invested in the characters and their fates, so much so that I regularly ended up heading online to see what the modern take was on some of the cases. Several have their own Wikipedia page, and on the whole it seems that Lowndes’ reading of the facts was often spot on. However, some of the names and crimes seem to have slipped into obscurity, so this is a welcome re-release which brings these stories back into circulation. And as the blurb says, some of these cases have remained mysteries to this day – I do love a good mystery, and “Notable…” does not disappoint on that front!

I don’t know how you could *not* want to race into a book that says this when you open the cover!! ;D

It’s perhaps a little odd that I should find relief from the darkness of Weimar Berlin in the darkness of crimes of passion; but maybe that last word is the clue here. All of Lowndes’ stories are about people consumed by emotions and passions, and those very human feelings are something to which I could really relate.

So my reading mojo returned strongly thanks to this book, which turned out to be the perfect antidote to the struggles I’d been experiencing. Marie Belloc Lowndes – who was interestingly the elder sister of Hilaire Belloc – was obviously a formidable talent in her own right and kudos to Michael Walmer for bringing this work of hers back into print – highly recommended! πŸ˜€

Scientifically dabbling detection! @BL_publishing @medwardsbooks #BLCC

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The Measure of Malice: Scientific Detection Stories
Edited by Martin Edwards

You may have picked up a couple of things on the Ramblings i.e. that I’m very behind with my reviewing and that I got a bit bogged down in November with “Berlin Alexanderplatz”…. The first couple of sections of that were so downbeat that I ended up interspersing them with some Golden Age crime, and my! was it a joy in comparison!!

The book in question is the latest collection of short stories in the British Library Crime Classics series, and it’s a wonderful gathering of works called “The Measure of Malice”; the subtitle “Scientific Detection Stories” makes it clear that we’re to be treated to a varied and marvellous selection of tales where the detecting heroes employ all manner of scientific methods; some of which to have a sounder basis than others… ;D

“Measure…” has been expertly compiled by Martin Edwards (the man really *does* deserve an award for services to detective fiction!) and opens neatly with a classic mystery featuring Holmes and Watson, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”. This is quintessential Conan Doyle with a race to save a wrongly accused man, crimes that stretch into the past and overseas, the introduction of Inspector Lestrade and Holmes at his best; it is the latter’s scientific study of footprints that proves so crucial in this case. Most satisfying!

The book is stuffed with other familiar names; Dorothy L. Sayers‘ short tale, “In The Teeth of the Evidence” has poor Wimsey suffering the dentist and solving a devious crime. Edmund Crispin‘s “Blood Sport” is even shorter, and unusually doesn’t feature his regular detective Fen; instead, Inspector Humbleby traps the killer with a particular kind of specialist knowledge. Some of the sciences are very outre, like the belief that the last thing a person sees as they die is imprinted on their retina; others are ahead of their time; and some of the techniques are a really chilling, such as the method employed in “The Man Who Disappeared”.

I particularly liked the fact that this collection drew on a good number of less well-known authors, and the stories by C. E. Bechhofer Roberts and J.J. Connington were very clever and entertaining. L.T. Meade shares credit for two of her stories with other authors, Robert Eustace and Clifford Halifax; both are clever and atmospheric, and she’s obviously a woman whose work needs tracking down and rediscovering. I was less taken with Ernest Dudley‘s “The Case of the Chemist in the Cupboard”; the story itself was clever and devious, but his detective Doctor Morelle has an insufferably patronising attitude towards his female assistant Miss Frayle (who is obviously quite smart) and I ended up wanting to slap him!

Langdon is one of the outlying suburbs of London, but most of it was built last century. Then it attracted men who are making comfortable, third-class fortunes. The result is that it consists chiefly of genteel villas, each in its own piece of ground, which have tried hard to be unlike one another with contortions of inconvenience. Some of these are still inhabited by the survivors or descendants of those who put them up. Others have been converted by the forces of progress into modern ugliness as blocks of flats offering modern comfort to those who do without babies.

Breakfastless and pallid, Reggie came to the hospital built in the lowest, dampest situation which the hills of Langdon provide.

I’ve left the best for last. Any anthology which features Reggie Fortune, surgeon and Home Office Consultant, is a winner in my mind, and this one contains a wonderful story entitled “The Broken Toad”. I’ve sung the praises of H.C. Bailey and his marvellous detecting creation before on the Ramblings; I love Bailey’s writing, Fortune’s idiosyncratic character and his fierce determination to protect the innocent (particularly children). “Toad” is a pure delight, featuring Reggie’s tolerant wife Joan and his regular sidekick, Lomas of the CID. The mystery itself is quite brilliant; the sudden death of a policeman by poison in the middle of the night is unfathomable, and it takes all of Reggie’s ingenuity and deductive skills to get to the bottom of matters. In doing so, he uncovers a real nest of iniquity and the story is utterly gripping. Really, what’s needed is a concerted campaign to get Reggie republished! πŸ˜€

“The Measure of Malice” is a lovely chunky anthology of nearly 350 pages; and yet it took me less time to read than a small section of “Berlin Alexanderplatz”… This is another wonderful collection of Golden Age crime from the British Library, and the books are a real treat for the connoisseur of detective stories (or indeed just the casual reader!) Perfect reading for dark evenings when you’re snuggled up in front of the fire (or in whatever cosy corner you might have) – definitely a book for your Christmas list! πŸ˜€

“Why aren’t they screaming?” – exploring the late poetry of Philip Larkin #highwindows @faberbooks

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Well, here I go again – attempting to write about poetry… But I can’t not in this case, as it’s one of my favourite poets – Philip Larkin – and although I have a chunky Collected edition of his works, I was moved to pick up a slim volume, “High Windows”, in the charity shop recently. And having a skinny book of verse most definitely fires the poetry reading part of the soul more than a big edition does!

I’m hoping that Larkin doesn’t need any introduction here on the Ramblings; I’ve written about him regularly, and he could be described as the best Poet Laureate this country never had. I first read his poems back in my Grammar School years, and carried his “If, my darling” round in my heart for decades. On the basis of his novel “A Girl in Winter” he was no mean prose writer too, and his rather lugubrious poetry (and delivery of it!) is a huge favourite of mine. I’m not sure quite what impelled me to pick this up now (unless it was as a reaction to my recent reading along of the dense “Berlin Alexanderplatz”), but there you go!

“High Windows” was the last collection of new works released by Larkin in his lifetime; it was issued in 1974 and Larkin died in 1985. But for a book released so late in his career, a career in which he’d already attained a high profile, it contains a remarkable number of well-known titles. His most notorious is perhaps “This Be The Verse” which opens with the unforgettable line “They f*** you up your mum and dad” and goes on to opine that there’s not much point in carrying on the human race! Then there’s “Annus Mirabilis”, where the ageing poet laments the fact that he was born too late for the sexual revolution of the 1960s, instead having to live through times when sex had to be bargained for through marriage.

The poems are often bitter, the words of an ageing man trying (and usually failing) to come to terms with the increasing frailties of the body. However, his range is not narrow and a poem like “Going, Going” sees Larkin addressing in a prescient manner the mess we’re making of the our beautiful planet:

Things are tougher than we are, just
As earth will always respond
However we mess it about;
Chuck filth in the sea, if you must:
The tides will be clean beyond.
-But what do I feel now? Doubt?

…. For the first time I feel somehow
That it isn’t going to last…

Inevitably, however, the poems turn on death and decay; but despite the subject matter perhaps being gloomy, these are profound, moving and very human verses and I found myself seduced all over again by Larkin’s writing.

At death, you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other forever
With no one to see. It’s only oblivion, true…

And despite his grumpiness, he often shows compassion and a kind of empathy for his fellow man; the last poem in the collection, “The Explosion”, is a powerfully resonant piece of work about a mining disaster and lingers in mind.

Philip Larkin by Humphrey Ocean [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Basically, I love Larkin and I think his poetry is just *so* good. He writes about the ordinary, the domestic, the daily lives and struggles of human beings in a way that gets to the nub of things. I may be no expert on poetry, but I know what I like and relate to – and Philip Larkin will always be in my top ten; it’s not hard to see from this collection why he’s such a well beloved poet! πŸ˜€

Loving London, bookish wanderings and catching up with an old friend!

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I’ve written before on the Ramblings about my trips to the Big Smoke; I often pop up for exhibitions, meetings with friends and browsing the bookshops, and this is one of the regular joys in my life. I had a brief get-together with my BFF J. in September when I also had a meet up with Jacqui and Ali; however, we decided on a Winter meeting and had scheduled a day out for 30th November. The awful events of Friday night were just tragic; and Mr. Kaggsy was a bit nervous about me travelling to London on Saturday. But a. I refused to change my life because of horrible, evil people and b. I reckoned there would be lots of security over the weekend. So J. and I determined to enjoy our life and have our day out, and we did.

Barthes and a Greggs vegan sausage roll – the perfect travelling companions!

Travelling this weekend was a bit of a pain, anyway, because of rail replacements (WHY do the train companies do this on the weekends leading up to Christmas???? WHY????) So it was train-bus-train, which did limit the reading time (as I can’t read in buses or cars without getting queasy); however, I had the very wonderful Roland Barthes for company, and OMG what a wonderful book this is!!! πŸ˜€

Coffee and vegan brownie – yum!

After meeting up with J. our first port of call was the wonderful cafe at Foyles, for coffee and a shared vegan brownie – yum! πŸ˜€

Stationery! (including a notebook constructed by clever J.

We had a good chat and a catch up, before setting off to explore the Bookshops of Charing Cross Road (with a slight diversion into Cass Art and Cecil Court). After lunching at Leon in Tottenham Court Road, and spending some time in Tiger and Paperchase (stationery!!!), we ended the day with trips to Judd Books and Skoob, two of my favourite places which are so conveniently closely located! ;D I had an amazingly restrained day, all things considered, and only purchased four books:

Here’s a little more detail about what and where! The first purchase was this poetry collection from Any Amount of Books:

I don’t think I know anything specific about Szirtes, but I recognise his name and this is published by Bloodaxe (which is always the sign of good poetry). And the first poem is about Chet Baker, which gets my vote; so when a quick glance at some of the other verse really grabbed me, it was a definite purchase!

Next up, I was unlikely to get out of Foyles empty handed:

More John Berger – I cannot resist this prolific and rather wonderful author. This is a slim book of what appears to be poetic prose and again a quick glimpse grabbed me. I may have to end up with a dedicated Berger shelf…

Astonishingly, I got out of Judd Books without buying a Single Book! There *were* temptations, but I have several things on various Christmas lists so had to be quite careful about what I purchased today. However, our last minute nip to Skoob before heading off for a train was not so restrained:

The Baudelaire was a very exciting find, as I’ve wanted a copy of this for absolutely AGES! So I was over the moon to find this in the midst of very tempting shelves of black covered Penguin Classics. And I spotted the book about Tsvetaeva at the last minute and grabbed it. I’ve never seen or heard of it, and I have no idea if it’s any good – but it’s Tsvetaeva!! Not pictured is the copy of Brian Bilston’s “You Took the Last Bus Home” which I bought as a little gifty for J. – she loves Roger McGough, so I hope she will also love BB!

However, these were not the only books I came home with, as there was this which J. had sourced for me:

A new Beverley! I have a number of his works as Florin Books, and they’re awfully pretty – very exciting! There was also a big box containing birthday and Christmas gifts J. had brought for me, and I suspect there will be More Books involved. It was very heavy – she lugged it manfully around London all day, so well done her!

So we had a lovely day out in lovely London; I always adore visiting the city, even though they’re *still* tearing apart Soho and some of my favourite bits… 😦  There are still lots of wonderful bookshops if you know where to look (and I wish we hadn’t run out of time and had made it to the LRB shop…) What was interesting, too, was how often we gravitated towards the poetry sections of the various places, and in my case to a lot of non-fiction, essays and philosophy. However, I think J. actually ended up with more books than me, so the shops of London did quite well out of us. It was the perfect day – what could be better than bookshopping in a place you love with an old friend? πŸ˜€

****

However…. this was not the end of the bookishness of the day… I arrived home cold but happy to find lovely book post from the wonderful FitzCarraldo Editions:

This looks and sounds fascinating, and had it been available earlier would have been a much more pleasant alternative to “Berlin Alexanderplatz” for German Lit Month!! ;D – though it’s not out until next month, so maybe not…

And finally! This has just appeared. Came across mention of it a couple of days ago (damned if I can remember where – my short term memory is now appalling) and when I checked online with various shops I was due to be visiting there was no stock (or I would have bought it in person). So it had to be an Internet purchase and it sounds most fascinating. It’s a good thing I’m so hooked by the Barthes, or I would be having a real crisis about what to read next! πŸ˜€

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