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2019 in books – *why* do I find it hard to pick favourites?? :D

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As we slide into a new decade, it’s time for a look back over 2019 and the books I read – and there really were some crackers in there! But I really struggle to pick favourites, because so many of my reads are outstanding for different reasons. I can’t possibly do a Top Ten, so instead I thought I’d post some thoughts about favourite books, publishers and genres – here goes!

Russians

Inevitably I have read more Russian authors this year, although there was a slight hiatus at one point so that I ended up thinking the blog was suffering from Russian Reading Deficiency! However, a quick dose of the Gogols soon sorted that out! Spring was the season of Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”, in a lovely new edition from Alma Classics, and it was an intense read which absorbed me for some time; it was a bit of a marathon in the end, but worth every minute spent reading it. A really epic book in many ways, full of the humour and drama you’d expect from Dosty – wonderful!

I’ve also been enjoying some more modern works from the wonderful publisher Glagoslav; they’ve put out some excellent titles from countries I haven’t always read from before. A really interesting imprint, and one to watch.

Golden Age Crime

There has been, I’m pleased to say, a lot of Golden Age Crime on the Ramblings this year. It’s a favourite reading genre of mine and much has come from the wonderful British Library Crime Classics imprint. There have been some excellent books released, lots of new authors and some really great anthologies. Plus plenty of Reggie Fortune, which makes me happy! I also revisited the Queen of Crime, who’s always a joy to read; next year, I must spend some time with Lord Peter Wimsey!

Poetry

There has also been much poetry on the Ramblings in 2019, which makes me very happy. I discovered the Morden Tower poets, Basil Bunting, Tom Pickard and the vastly entertaining (and very clever) Brian Bilston. I also went back to Philip Larkin, one of my favourite poets ever. I still don’t read enough of the wonderful verse volumes I have on my shelves so that’s another thing I need to rectify in 2020. Interesting how many of the poets I love are from the cold North (a place I’m often drawn back to) – and published by Bloodaxe Books!

Essays and Non-Fiction

I’m not sure why I’ve been drawn to non-fiction works so much this year, but I seem to have read quite a lot! There are of course all the lovely books put out by Notting Hill Editions, who make an art of issuing fascinating essay collections which are also beautiful to look at. If I can find my Shostakovich, I’ll share a picture of all my NHE books at some point…

Equally, Fitzcarraldo Editions release some really thought-provoking works and I rather crave adjoining book shelves with my Fitzcarraldo and Notting Hills next to each other. The Ian Penman collection was a particular treat this year from Fitzcarraldo; and other publishers have produced equally fascinating books, like the marvellous “Selfies”.ย  A lot of these books lie outside any strict definition of fiction or non-fiction, and I do find I like that kind of book nowadays.

Translated Literature

Mention of Fitzcarraldo brings me by necessity to Olga Tokarczuk’s “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” which definitely *is* one of my books of the year. I was blown away by her “Flights” last year, and this title didn’t disappoint. I read a lot of translated works, and am eternally grateful to translators. NYRB and Pushkin Press have issued numerous wonderful books in translation that I’m so happy to have read, like “Isolde” and “Rock, Paper, Scissors” and “Portraits without Frames”…. I was also so happy to rediscover Mishima and find that I loved his work just as much as ever. Well, I could go on and on, but suffice to say that I am made a happy reader thanks to the efforts of all those fine people who translate books! ๐Ÿ˜€

John Berger

Berger deserves a special mention; I’ve read a number of his books this year (and there is a review pending of one I finished very recently) and each has been a wonderful, thought-provoking and unique experience. Several have been in beautiful editions from Notting Hill; and he’s proved to be a a very human (and humane) writer with so much to say. I really have no doubt that I’ll continue to read him in 2020.

Reading Clubs

I’ve been very happy to once more co-host two Reading Club weeks during 2019 with Simon from Stuck in a Book. This year, we focused on books from 1965 and 1930, and it was such fun! We plan to continue in 2020, with the 1920 Club happening in April, so do join in – we have the most wonderful discussions and it’s a great way to pick up ideas for books to read!

Documentaries and Interviews!

c. ClearStory/BBC

I took a slight tangent on what is, after all, a book blog in March when Professor Richard Clay’s “How to Go Viral” documentary aired on UK TV. I first became aware of his work back in 2014 via his documentary on French Revolutionary iconoclasm, followed by his fascinating look at the history of graffiti and then his epic series “Utopia”; and so I was delighted when Richard agreed to be interviewed for the blog. I do love a good documentary (and apart from a few notable exceptions, there’s been a bit of a dearth lately). Richard’s ideas are so very interesting, and you can read the interview here and here. He’s been filming a new documentary recently, so that’s something to look forward in 2020! ๐Ÿ™‚

The Summer Big Book

The Notebooks

I can’t finish this rather rambly post without mention of a very special reading experience I had in the summer; if I was forced at gunpoint to pick a read of the year, I would probably have to mention Victor Serge’s Notebooks, published by NYRB. I’ve raved about Serge’s writing many times on the Ramblings, and was ridiculously excited about the release of this very chunky collection. At just under 600 pages, it’s no quick read, but a wonderfully rich and rewarding one; it accompanied me on my travels during the summer, giving me a glimpse into Serge’s life and mind, as well as all the notable people and places he encountered. A brilliant and immersive read, and one I won’t forget.

It has been a very difficult time out there in Real Life recently, with a feeling (here, at least) that the world is slipping gradually into being a more harsh and intolerant place; reading and books and ideas have always been my coping mechanism, and will continue to be essential I suspect. Anyway – this post will have to do as a bit of a snapshot of my 2019 reading, although I can’t help feeling I’ve missed too many out. There are *so* many books I’ve read and loved this year that I feel mean not mentioning them; I’ll just suggest you go and read my posts to see what books have meant the most to me! 2019 has been a great reading year, and here’s hoping 2020 is as good!

*****

A lot of people have been doing their “Books of the Decade” this month, and I did consider this for a brief moment. However, the blog’s only been here since 2012, and frankly before that I couldn’t tell you what I was reading!! My end of year posts during the blog’s life would no doubt give you a flavour of how my reading tastes have evolved – and I’m sure they have – so check them out if you wish!

Festive incomings at the Ramblings!

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I do hope everyone has had a lovely seasonal break; if youโ€™re anything like us at the Ramblings, thereโ€™s been a lot of food and drink and silly games and laughter with family, which has been quite lovely. There were also plenty of parcels to unwrap, and inevitably there have been books – in fact, rather more than I might have anticipated!

Things were slightly complicated by my birthday also being a December one, and so I thought I would split the arrivals into the two categories and share some of the bookish arrivals! ๐Ÿ˜

This rather modest pile is the birthday books. My BFF J. presented me with another beautiful Beverley for my collection (which gets larger daily!) and the Vegan cookbook was from a local friend. โ€œDaygloโ€, about the amazing Poly Styrene, was from my brother in law, and the rest of the books were inspired gifts from Mr. Kaggsy. There is an intriguing sounding book about D. H. Lawrence in there which will become particularly pertinent as this post continues… I was very excited to get the new translation of the Bruno Schulz stories too!

Well – letโ€™s get on to Christmas… Here’s the rather daunting pile of new arrivals!

I must admit I wasn’t anticipating quite so many bookish gifts – here’s a little more detail… ;D

This impressive pile of D.H. Lawrence titles comes from my BFF J., who has obviously decreed that 2020 will be the year that I read DHL! Let’s hope I like him… She actually lugged them all the way round London when we met up at the end of November, which is no mean feat – thanks J.!

These books are from other pals! “The House with the Stained Glass Window” comes from my old friend V., and as a fascinating translated work, it sounds right up my street! The Vita and Carter books are part of my Virago Secret Santa this year, and my Santa turned out to be Simon at Stuck in a Book – thanks Simon! ๐Ÿ˜€

And this stunning pile comes from family – including the Copenhagen trilogy from Middle child, Montaigne, Oscar Wilde, the Cold War, Buzzcocks and the wonderful behemoth at the bottom – The Penguin Book of Oulipo. I am ridiculously excited about all of these, and the Oulipo book is the icing on the cake!

So I’m obvs going to have to rearrange the shelves and have a bit of a clear out to house these wonderful volumes – and fortunately Mr. Kaggsy rather cleverly gifted me something which will be the perfect aid:

This is a rather wonderful library stool/step (the bottom bit slides out when you want to use it as a step) which I can keep in the spare room where the books live and use to hop up and down from the higher shelves, and sit on to have a quick sneaky read whenever I want! It’s absolutely fab and will no doubt help my investigations of some of my top shelves (and may even help me locate my missing Shostakovich books…)

So – I have been thoroughly spoiled over recent weeks with books and am now going to have even more issues deciding what to read next! I’m very lucky to have been so gifted. I hope all my bookish friends have had some wonderful Christmas arrivals, and do share what lovely books have been incoming at your homes! ๐Ÿ˜€

 

Christmas greetings from the Ramblings!

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I’ll be offline for a while over the Christmas period, as we’re lucky enough to have a visit from the three Offspring – festivities all round and some book-shaped parcels, so all will be fun! I’ll be back afterwards with some bookish eye-candy… ;D

2019 has been a wonderful year of blogging, so I just wanted to thank everyone who’s read and followed and shared and commented – the book blogging community is a lovely one and I’m looking forward to a shiny new year of more bookishness. Happy Christmas from all at the Ramblings! ๐Ÿ˜€

 

 

 

On My Book Table… 4 – decisions, decisions!

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Since I last reported on the state of my Book Table, it has been through several changes as there have been bookish comings and goings as well as raging indecision about what to read next. This of course is particularly bad at what is a busy time of year, but as I’m now off work for the festive season, it seemed a good time to tidy up a little and take stock. So here is the current state of the Table itself:

As you can probably tell, there are a number of heavyweight books on there (and I don’t mean in size necessarily, but in content). Shall we take a closer look?

This stack is mainly review books – some lovely British Library Editions, glorious Russians from Pushkin Press, an intriguing title from Michael Walmer and an author new to me from NYRB. Then there’s “Jam Today”, a book I was very excited to track down recently. All of these would be ideal next reads.

This is what I mean by heavyweight… Essays, short fiction, Montaigne, Proust, Pessoa, philosophy. I’d like to read them all at once, which is not helpful. Especially as I feel as if I could quite easily have a month of reading nothing but Fitzcarraldo books!

And finally, Barthes… Three physical books (there is a digital one too) and the Binet book about Barthes which has been on the Table for months. I am nearing the end of “Mythologies”, but unsure whether I should read another Barthes straight off or let the first settle a bit…

Of course, there are the birthday arrivals which came into the house recently and haven’t made it to the Book Table yet (and they’ll no doubt be joined by some Christmas arrivals at some point soon). A further complication exists in the form of the Book Token my work presented me with on my birthday which is itching to be spent. An embarrassment of riches, but I do find that the more choices I have, the harder the decision becomes! What would *you* read next??? ๐Ÿ˜€

“Words possess the power to change reality” @TeamRedCircle

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Earlier on in the year, I spent some happy reading time discovering a new publisher with a very novel method of bringing translated Japanese literature to Anglophone readers. The venture is Red Circle Authors, and I wrote about their ethos and their first three books for Shiny New Books, as well as for the Ramblings.

The works they issue are called the Red Circle Minis; bite-size pieces of new writing by a variety of esteemed Japanese authors, these stories are being published for the first time in English, which is really innovative. I found the first three Minis fascinating; and now RCA have issue two more titles, both of which provide much food for thought, as well as being entertaining reading.

At first glance, the two books seem very dissimilar; one is the tale of a warlord from the past, based on a real historical figure; the other looks to future society and the ravages inflicted on our poor planet and much of its population by those in control. The differing subject matter of these two books really does show the range and variety of Japanese literature, and the admirable willingness of Red Circle Authors to embrace that.

First up, “The Refugees’ Daughter” by Takuji Ichikawa, translated by Emily Balistrieiri (Mini 4). The author is a high-flier in the world of Japanese literature, although his work doesn’t seem readily available in English. “The Refugees’ Daughter” is set in a future time, where society has collapsed, climate change has wrecked the ecosystems, and groups of refugees try to avoid the warring factions and find some place of sanctuary. The daughter of the title, Aimi, is gifted with a way to communicate with those who might help them escape their dystopian landscape; and when she receives a communication which may guide them to a mythical gate, Aimi and her family plus another group must try to escape the soldiers and make their way to safety.

We took such a beautiful planet of water and, in a matter of a hundred years, we turned it into a grimy mud ball.

My somewhat simplistic description belies the depth and compexity of “Refugee…”; tense as it is, this is not just an adventure story. As the group travel, it becomes clear that humanity is almost split into two types: there are the aggressors, those in charge who just want to destroy and control; and those who resist, almost hippie-like and pacifist in tendency, who want a peaceful and fair world. The group discuss their fears, beliefs and ideals as they travel, and it’s hard not to see parallels with our own world; it did seem that the time portrayed in the book is a look forward at what may be the inevitable result of our current state. I sensed threads of criticism of the patriarchal system and celebration of a matriarchal alternative, which was fascinating. There are elements of magic realism in the book, which sit naturally in the story, and it’s actually a very uplifting read.

Hateful words are just like bullets. The media has been at the beck and call of The Complex for ages now. The more hate speech spreads, the more hate grows in people’s hearts. Itโ€™s like a zombie virus.

In complete contrast, “The Chronicles of Lord Asunaro” by Kanji Hanawa, translated by Meredith McKinney (Mini 5) looks back to a time when Japan was ruled by powerful warlords. However, the story captures the country in a time of change; although the titular lord inherits a kingdom, he’s as unlike his powerful father as it’s possible to be. He prefers a life of luxury amongst concubines to a samurai-style life; and instead of fighting battles and extending his kingdom, his main achievement seems to be the production of a prodigious amount of children! The story gently critiques not only the heroic tales of warlords of old; it also questions how many of us, if placed in a situation of power like Lord Asunaro, would simply enjoy excess and the luxuries riches and power bring. It’s very entertaining on the surface, yet thought-provoking underneath.

…. this had been a moment when the earth chose to assert itself a little and remind everyone that it is a living being.

I found the two new minis an excellent and contrasting pairing; both authors obviously deserve their high status in the world of Japanese literature, and the stories made excellent, enjoyable and intriguing reading; I kept thinking about both books long after finishing them. I’ve read a reasonable amount of Japanese authors over the years, though fewer modern ones, and it’s a country which has produced some of my favourites; and it’s reassuring to see, from the Red Circle Minis, that Japan is still producing most wonderful writing!

NB I always try to credit the translator in my posts, as I certainly wouldn’t have the breadth of reading I enjoy without them. D’oh – I forget this time, so post amended and thanks to Simon for nudging me by asking who was responsible! ๐Ÿ˜€

Dark deeds, Russian Imperial fortunes and murder – seasonal joy from @BL_publishing @medwardsbooks #BLCC

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The Christmas Egg by Mary Kelly

As we edge ever closer to the dreaded C-word, I must confess to being quite happy about the opportunities for reading created by the darker nights and the need to hunker down somewhere cosy! I seem to have been drawn to classic crime a lot lately – those kind of books do seem just right for this time of year – and an added bonus is the annual treat of a seasonal release from the British Library in their Crime Classics imprint. This year’s book is by another author new to me, Mary Kelly, and when I read the blurb I realised that it was going to be ideal reading…. ;D

Getting kind of festive chez Ramblings! ๐Ÿ˜€

“The Christmas Egg” was Kelly’s third book to feature her detecting duo of Chief Inspector Brett Nightingale and Sergeant Beddoes. Published in 1958, it’s subtitled “A Seasonal Mystery” and the action takes place over three days just before Christmas. The setting is a London still physically showing the after-effects of WW2; there are bombed out areas waiting to be rebuilt, and a kind of tension in the air, with a feeling that times are changing. Gangs of burglars are on the loose, and the old values have fallen away to be replaced with a more nebulous environment. Living in squalor in this world is Princess Olga Karukhin; an exiled survivor of the Russian Revolution, she’s discovered dead as the book opens. Although you might anticipate the possibility of an elderly woman living in poverty to dying in the depths of winter, it transpires that this was murder – and when it emerges that her trunk of valuable treasures has been emptied, the plot really does thicken! Throw in a potentially dodgy dealer in jewellery and antiques, an infatuated young woman, the dead woman’s feckless grandson Ivan, plus a gang of toughened criminals and you have all the ingredients for an exciting and fascinating mystery – which this certainly is!

As I said, Mary Kelly is not a name I’ve come across before, but as Martin Edwards’ excellent introduction reveals, she was very highly rated in her day although she only published a handful of works before abandoning writing. The book is unusual, focusing as it does on the subtleties of class (which was undergoing significant changes at the time) and also on the motivations of its characters. There’s plenty of detecting, yes, and the book doesn’t shy away from showing the police having to do legwork, calling in reinforcements, making mistakes and having a real struggle with their adversaries. Nightingale and Beddoes are an engaging pairing, bouncing off each other and sparring pleasingly, and I wish I’d had the opportunity to get acquainted with the detecting duo in their earlier adventures.

The supporting characters are lively and well-painted bunch too; Majendie, the antique dealer, is an old acquaintance of Nightingale’s, and his hidden depths are gradually revealed during the story. Nightingale’s wife (an opera singer) appears off-camera – he apparently sings too – and he spends part of the book dealing with a young shop assistant from Majendie’s who is not only important to the plot but also has a huge crush on the detective. The Russian element is intriguing (and if you have any knowledge of Imperial Russia, you can probably guess what kind of egg the title is referring to!), and the links back to the past from the 1950s are a reminder that events like the Revolution are really not so far away.

Such a lovely cover illustration – the BL do always choose some wonderful images!

There is a wonderful extended sequence towards the end of the book involving several characters imprisoned in a car racing through Kent in the foul winter weather, while Nightingale expounds on the mystery; this was brilliantly handled, and the book was one where I had a genuine fear for safety of characters. The plot is marvellously twisty, where you really don’t know which side people are one, and I loved that ambiguity. I shan’t say too much more, because the joy of this book is in the reading, but it’s one with plenty of surprises, a vividly conjured atmosphere and location (much of the book is set in Islington) and some stellar characters.

“The Christmas Egg” was a wonderful read, and an excellent addition to the British Library Crime Classics imprint (and their Christmas-based reading!) I ended up thinking it was such a shame Kelly didn’t write more stories of Night and Bed (as they’re ironically referred to at one point), as they really are a wonderful pairing and the occasional reference to their backstories made me extra keen to know more. Kelly’s work was highly regarded by such luminaries as Edmund Crispin, and she was a member of the prestigious Detection Club, so it’s wonderful to see her work creeping back into print. It’s a quirky and entertaining seasonal read, and would be perfect in your Christmas stocking! ๐Ÿ˜€

“”…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! ๐Ÿ˜€

“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 leftโ€ฆ

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! ๐Ÿ˜€

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

ETA: Helen has also read and loved this book, so do pop over to see her thoughts. We agree it’s a fab book to read but possibly difficult to write about without spoilers! ๐Ÿ˜€

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