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“As you walk around Paris do not take space for granted.” @_CopyPress #michaelschwab

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Paris by Michael Schwab

As we’re all still confined to barracks, the only way left to travel is in films or books, and the latter is my preferred choice – I like to let the words take me on journeys. Paris is a place I’ve still not managed to visit but it has an endless appeal; however, a recent encounter via a slim book what not quite what I anticipated…

Imagine you were to pick up a book by a photographer apparently exploring the trees of Paris. You would expect maybe a glossy monograph filled with tastefully and beautifully taken images and lyrical commentary. “ Paris” by Michael Schwab is indeed a study of some trees in Paris, but it’s as unlike those expectations as you could imagine!!

Shwab is a German artist who takes a very individual view of his craft, and it’s his clever image which adorns the cover of this thought-provoking little book. Intriguingly, however, he takes as his central premise the idea of a photographer who sets out to snap the trees of Paris but has forgotten his camera. How to log and record what he sees? Instead of some kind of attempt to draw the foliage he instead devises a gadget and sets out chart the trees by a complex measuring method (set out at the start of the book). The result is an abstract diagram which represents the tree though of course looking nothing like it; yet which has a beauty of its own.

Each diagram is accompanied by text explaining where the measurements were taken, describing the location and also the response of local people to his actions. It’s a fascinating concept, somewhat Perecian to my mind; a visual constraint as opposed to a linguistic one; and the results really are singular. Despite the fact that the diagrams look nothing like trees, you still get a strong sense of place from the combination of the plan and the description; and the two have a kind of beauty of their own.

Space: In the drawings space is uneven. It is as if spaces move under my eye like waves in a sea that break and fold back onto themselves. When the figure is developed in the drawing, and imaginatively brought back to site, it is space that is affected first. The real, lived space starts to move too and all sense is reconfigured. This happens already when a site is measured and the figure emerges. The drawing give uneven space an established form, like a memory.

“Paris” is published by Copy Press in their ‘Common Intellectual’ series, a set of short 100-page works; according to the publisher, “each title makes a proposition for living, thinking and enjoyment.” Certainly this book make me think about representation; whether we can best capture a place by a simple snap, or whether thinking outside the box and looking more deeply gives a better impression. Schwab is London-based and so presumably wrote the text in English, and it’s evocative writing, capturing the artist in the process of undertaking his work and interacting with those around him. All in all, it adds up to a fascinating short book which is not really like anything else I’ve read.

An example of one of the diagrams from the Copy Press website: https://www.copypress.co.uk/index/paris/

This really was a most interesting experience, reading “Paris”; the more I think about it, the more I feel that Shwab is coming from a very Oulipian perspective, with the mixture of maths and words and constraints; even down to the cover photograph with the foliage reflecting the shape of the Eiffel Tower behind it. I’m still trying to remember where I stumbled across this one (possibly Twitter…), but I’m very glad I did. The Copy Press website lists some very tantalising titles, and I may have to explore a little further… ;D

“The power of good and truthful writing…” @OxUniPress @ViragoBooks

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A Bite of the Apple: A Life with Books, Writers and Virago
by Lennie Goodings

I’ve talked many times on the Ramblings of my love for Virago books, in particular the Virago Modern Classics range; in fact, my joining the LibraryThing Virago Moden Classics group was something of a catalyst in the starting of my blog. I don’t go back to them as often as I used to, but the Virago books are a major part of the history of my reading life, and were inspirational when I was a teenager and younger reader. So when I saw that Lennie Goodings had written a book on her life in pubishing, I was very excited and keen to read it!

Goodings has been part of the Virago team since the early days in a variety of roles and is currently the imprint’s Chair. She’s well-placed, therefore, to tell the story, and indeed she does in “A Bite of the Apple”. However, the book is much, much more, taking in publishing in general, changing waves of feminism, inclusion and intersectionality, as well as some marvellous snapshots and vignettes of the many wonderful authors with whom she’s been connected.

Lennie was born in Canada, coming to the UK in her early twenties and settling in London, where she looked to getting into the publishing trade. Fortunately for us, she stumbled across the fledgling Virago and joined the team in its early days. The book opens with her letter to Carmen Callil in May 1978, expressing interesting in Virago and asking if there is a place for her with them. She was welcomed into the fold and the book follows her life and work with the company, making her way through all manner of roles with Virago to where she is nowadays. That in itself is quite a journey – the sections on editing are particularly fascinating – but through her involvement with Virago she’s witnessed the changes in women’s lives and also in feminism which took place over the 40-odd years since she started with them.

And there *have* been any number of changes! To the company, for one thing, which has weathered take-overs, buy-outs, management disputes, high and low points with sales, as well as the sniping from media and other publishers about being either a female ghetto, irrelevant or too business-like. Truly, if you’re a woman you can’t win…

One of the things I loved about the VMCs was their mission to bring forgotten women authors back into circulation and to adjust the way they’re perceived. That challenge to the canon is a battle which still goes on, and Goodings discusses this in detail; the way a woman writer is read and perceived is still different to attitudes towards a male author and much needs to change. There is also much consideration of the problems occuring from the different interpretations of feminism; the concept of post-feminism; what we mean when we use the term; and the wrong turns which were taken by the movement along the way. It’s clear from Goodings’ examples that we are far from any kind of Utopia; and certainly recent world changes have made it very clear that it’s the men who are still holding onto the power and are trying to restrict women’s lives again. Feminism is obviously going to remain a relevant movement with an ongoing battle to hold onto any rights we’ve gained.

Every woman who becomes a feminist has woken up to an understanding of injustice, to the corroding effect of patriarchy. I grew up with petty and belittling remarks and expectations; I witnessed and was angered by unfairness for girls and women; and when I was at university I began to understand how we women have learned to be our own censors, voyeurs of ourselves, checking and modifying ourselves for correct looks, behaviour, and even dreams and ambitions.

Because the book begins in 1978, Goodings’ story runs through similar times to mine, and she captures wonderfully the era as I remember it; the small presses and magazines springing up; the consciousness-raising meetings; Spare Rib; the Silver Moon bookshop; and the sense of being on a mission, part of a cause, fighting for the good of women. In many ways, feminism was so much simpler in those days, as the wrongs were so much clearer; nowadays, young women have to negotiate so much more, with the judgements of social media, body shaming, public pressure, the argument that being liberated means you have to shag any man going etc etc. I’m frankly not sure I would like to be back in my teens today…

A few of my Viragos….

“A Bite of the Apple” was an outstanding read for so many reasons. The range of topics covered by Goodings was fascinating, and she had at times a wonderfully discursive manner of telling her story; the result was a little like reading an entertaining patchwork quilt of a book which ranged far and wide over politics, women’s lives, literature, publishing, feminism, the daily battles we face and the triumphs of Virago. Her tone is always engaging and the book is a little like having a chat with an old friend! Lennie never shies away from difficult topics, and there have been plenty of dramatic fallings out during the years; clashes of personality amongst the team; realisations that feminism (and Virago) were not doing enough to ensure diversity in race or class or physical restrictions. She’s honest about these issues and accepts failings where they existed; she thinks we’re more aware nowadays of the need to include all which can’t be a bad thing.

One of my favourite elements of “A Bite…” was Goodings’ recollections of her relationships with her authors; Margaret Atwood, a fellow Canadian, makes regular appearances in the book, and is an often mischievous delight. The much-missed Angela Carter is championed; and Maya Angelou was obviously a complete treasure. Seeing these inspirational women through Lennie’s eyes was a real privilege.

As you can probably tell, I absolutely loved “A Bite of the Apple” (and it makes the perfect companion piece to the Virago documentary which recently repeated on BBC4 and should hopefully still be on the iPlayer). Goodings is a candid and entertaining commentator, brilliantly conjuring up the era she lived through and celebrating the women she’s worked with over the years; whether author or colleague, they’re all inspirational and proof that women working together can achieve so much. It’s a marvellous look at a fascinating slice of history and I can’t recommend it highly enough!

(Review copy kindly provided by Oxford University Press, for which many thanks!)

A fabulous rediscovered Russian author over @ShinyNewBooks @RusLibrary @Bryan_S_K

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As we carry on through the increasingly strange landscape of our modern world, the escapism of books is becoming ever more essential. I recent read a quite wonderful new volume from Columbia University Press press in their Russian Library imprint and I’m just stunned I’ve never come across his works before.

The book is “Fandango and Other Stories” and the author is Alexander Grin. His works are, I think, unlike anything I’ve read before. The writing is quite stunning, the sense of place vivid and the settings often unusual. In particular, the stories with a partial backdrop of post-revolutionary St. Petersburg had a resonance I wasn’t expecting…

The book is expertly translated by Bryan Karetnyk (whose translation work I can’t recommend highly enough). You can read my review here!

 

“… a 688-page punishment beating.” @i_am_mill_i_am #yearofreadingdangerously

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I’m carrying on catching up with my reviews here on the Ramblings; I *have* been reading some marvellous books, and with the current state of things they’ve become a welcome distraction. In recent months I’ve become, rather belatedly admittedly, a huge fan of the Backlisted Podcast; so much so that it moved me to read Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year” (sadly a rather timely title just now) and invest in a very chunky copy of “The Anatomy of Melancholy“. So it’s a surprise, really, that I’ve never read podcaster Andy Miller’s “The Year of Reading Dangerously”, particularly as I love books about books! I was aware of the book when it came out, but somehow just never got round to it However, I ran across a copy of the book in the Oxfam recently, and the time seemed right. It was certainly a good choice to pick up after some of my more intense recent reading! 😀

I imagine many readers of the Ramblings have read this book as well, lovers of books about books as we are, so it probably doesn’t need a lot of description. Basically, I think it could have been subtitled “In which Andy Miller has a mid-life crisis and rediscovers his love of books”! His year of reading is kick-started by the realisation that he’s claimed to have read any number of book which he hasn’t, and by the chance stumbling-upon of a copy of “The Master and Margarita” whilst looking after his young son. Miller is hooked by the book (which I can understand – though I found myself quibbling with a couple of details in his description of the plot!) That’s by the by, though – what matters is that Andy’s reading mojo has been nudged back into life and he embarks upon his project of reading Great Works (plus one Dan Brown…) with gusto.

It took me a little over five days to finish The Master and Margarita, but its enchantment lasted far longer.… The Master and Margarita had made its journey down the century, from reader to reader, to a Broadstairs bookshop. Some part of that book, of Bulgakov himself, now lived on in me. The secret of The Master and Margarita, which seems to speak to countless people who know nothing about the bureaucratic machinations of the early Stalinist dictatorship or the agony of the novel’s gestation: words are our transport, our flight and our homecoming in one. Which you don’t get from Dan Brown.

The book follows the trials and tribulations of his journey: the difficulties of reading a complex book on a noisy commute, what to do if you really *don’t* like a book and the euphoria that reading something really wonderful can bring. Interspersed with the reading are snapshots of his life with his admirable and entirely sensible-sounding wife and his young son. It makes for a wonderfully enjoyable read, and one with which I very much identified.

I had heard that other people dealt with this sort of problem by having ill-advised affairs with schoolgirls, or dying their hair a ‘fun’ colour, or plunging into a gruelling round of charity marathon running, ‘to put something back’. But I did not want to do any of that; I just wanted to be left alone. (On his ‘midlife crisis’)

Because *anyone* who’s brought up children will know the havoc it wreaks with your reading! In my madness, I produced three, and reading while dealing with small children is Not Easy! How can you sink into pages and pages of sublime prose while coping with crying, tantrums, fighting, demands for food and requirements to change nappies? (To list just a few of the horrors of children). It’s not easy at all, and like Miller I spent many years either not reading much or reading light stuff because it was impossible to read anything of substance.

Is it wrong to prefer books to people? Not at Christmas. The book is like a guest you have invited into your home, except you don’t have to play Pictionary with it or supply it with biscuits and stollen.

Luckily, Andy shares childcare and work arrangements with his wife, so there are times where he commutes or is away for work and so can fit in reading. And as the sensible advice says, if you read 50 pages a day, you *will* finish the books! He reads his way through some excellent works, providing entertaining insights as he goes; I didn’t always agree with his assessments, but I enjoyed reading them. And I loved his coda at the end where he revealed his various encounters with the late, great Douglas Adams (I really should re-read the Hitchhiker books…)

Many of my favourite books mimic the Pevsner guides in this respect, as though the narrator and their subject have become locked in an increasingly ill tempered tussle for control of the text: Pale Fire by Nabokov, Revolution in the Head by Ian McDonald, Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes, most of BS Johnson’s novels, even Roger Lewis’s cantankerous The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.… Although it was not my intention at the outset, it seems to be how The Year of Reading Dangerously has turned out.

“Year… ” was first published in 2014, and there are some elements which were perhaps a little surprising; Andy seems to foresee the dramatic death of the printed book, a phenomenon which seems less likely to happen nowadays than it did then. And his views of bloggers and blogging (which I recall Annabel commenting on in her review) are provocative; our perspective (or at least mine) is very different from his because, at the end of the day, he is someone writing for a living. I write my blog for pleasure, because I want to share my love of books out there in cyberspace. I’m not wound up about views and comments and the like (although I *do* like to interact with people about books, so I’m happy when people want to comment and discuss). We’ll have to agree to differ there, Andy, because I think bloggers and blogging are valuable, and I mostly get my recommendations and bookish ideas from other bloggers I trust rather than ‘professional’ commentators.

I can understand The Master and Margarita inspiring anyone…. ;D

But I digress. I’m glad I finally read “The Year of Reading Dangerously” because it was a really entertaining and enjoyable book; Miller is an enthusastic and knowledgeable commentator on the works he reads, the autobiographical elements are often funny and touching, and I love his quirky sense of humour. It was a joy to watch him on his journey to rediscovering a deep love of reading, one of the best friends a human being can have. This is definitely an essential addition to any shelf of books about books, and I’m looking forward to reconnecting with the Backlisted podcast when it makes its long-awaited return! 😀

Sontag, Barthes and the hybrid novel #rolandbarthes #susan sontag #thislittleart @FitzcarraldoEds

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Well, as the world continues to battle on with what’s being thrown at it right now, I’ll continue rambling about books here; they’re being a great comfort to me, as they always are in crises, and hopefully are to you too. Anywa,y if you follow me on social media, you might have seen the photo I shared recently of the pile of Susan Sontag books I hauled home from the local library (probably now closing for the duration….) Since reading “Essayism” in particular, I’ve been keen to explore Sontag’s writings, and I have a tendency to use the library as a way of trying to stave off random and hysterical book purchasing… Needless to say, they’ve had to go back as I ran out of time to read them. However, I *did* manage to dip into her seminal collection “Under the Sign of Saturn” and read one particular essay which called to me strongly: “Remembering Barthes” (yes, it really *is* that man again!)

Sontag was of course friends with the great theorotician, as well as later editing a volume “The Barthes Reader”; there is a picture online of her attending one of his lectures alongside soiologist Richard Sennett and author Umberto Eco. Her essay was written after his untimely death following a car crash in 1980 and it’s a moving piece, conjuring up her memories of her friend vividly.

I found the essay fascinating, and Sontag’s writing excellent (so I will definitely be exploring her work more – I wonder if there is a Sontag Reader?) But I wanted to share one particular quote which resonated.

In “This Little Art“, Kate Briggs spent much time considering Barthes’ stated ambition to write a novel, a project which occupied much of the substance of his last lectures, which she translated; alas his death put an end to that plan. However, the novel as a form is something which was being much debated at the time, and at one point Sontag opines of Barthes that he is:

… the writer whose most wonderful books – Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes and A Lover’s Discourse – are themselves triumphs of modernist fiction in that tradition inaugurated by Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which crossbreeds fiction, essayistic speculation, and autobiography, in a linear-notebook rather than a linear-narrative form.

Apart from having resonances with my other reading (Rilke and of course his links with Pasternak and Tsvetaeva), that description of the modernist format really struck home as very much the kind of book I’m enjoying reading nowadays. Less straightforward story and more speculative form, blending all kinds of different writing.

I think I’m going to get on with Susan Sontag! 😀

“…under a shower of bird notes” – some thoughts on R.S. Thomas #dewithon

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Over at the lovely Book Jotter blog, Paula is hosting her second annual Wales Readathon event during the month of March; known as Dewithon, it promises much of interest and so far I’ve read some fabulous posts, with loads of ideas for more reading…. (as if I needed any more of those!)

Wales is a country for which I have a great love; when the children were younger we holidayed in North Wales every year, and I love the landscape, the people and the country. Some of my favourite musicians are also Welsh (John Cale, Manic Street Preachers) and of course the literature is outstanding. I probably won’t have time to read anything Welsh of substance this month so instead I thought I would share some thoughts about one of my favourite Welsh poets – R.S. Thomas.

Thomas was a complex man; a Welshman brought up speaking English, he wrote in that language but learned his native language at a later date and I’ve seen him talking eloquently in it with a somewhat cultured English accent. Intensely private, he was an Anglican Priest who took his calling seriously, balancing it with his work as a poet. After a number of ministries he retired in 1978 from his role as vicar of St Hywyn’s Church in Aberdaron, tucked away at the end of the Llŷn Peninsula in North Wales and lived in a tiny and primitive cottage in Y Rhiw, where he continued with his writing and political activism until his death in 2000.

Many of Thomas’s early works deal with the Welsh landscape and labourer; later writings took a more political turn, rueing the anglicisation of Wales and supporting Welsh Nationalism. His late poems are particularly powerful, often bitter, and I imagine he may well not have been an easy man to get on with…

I feel a strong connection to Thomas’s verse, and also with his location; because it was on the Llŷn Peninsula we would holiday, and in fact we even managed to get a look at the cottage from a distance on one visit. It overlooks the dramatic bay of Hell’s Mouth and I can imagine it would have been a most striking location during extreme weather.

These are my Thomas books; a good number of which I picked up on visits to North Wales. I read him avidly back in the day, but it’s a while since I’ve picked up one of his books. A particularly moving poem is a favourite of mine, however, and I wanted to share it here:

A Marriage

We met
        under a shower
of bird-notes.
        Fifty years passed,
love’s moment
        in a world in
servitude to time.
       She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
      closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
      ‘Come,’ said death,
choosing her as his
      partner for
the last dance, And she,
      who in life
had done everything
      with a bird’s grace,
opened her bill now
     for the shedding
of one sigh no
     heavier than a feather.

Thomas was married to Mildred Eldridge, an artist whom he called Elsi, and the poem was written after her death in 1991. Elsi isn’t remembered enough in my view; she produced murals and book illustrations, amongst other works, and what I’ve seen is lovely. I sense that her career may have had to take second fiddle to that of her husband (though her Wikipedia page lists some interesting activity), and as I recall he wrote mostly very obliquely about her (and Gwydion, the son they had). Nevertheless, this poem is quite beautiful, one of the most moving things I’ve ever read. The imagery is telling, too, as the only example of Elsi’s work I have is in the form of an old Medici greetings card (she often used to illustrate for them I believe):

Elsi specialised in birds, you see, apparently produced multitudes of artworks for nature in later life deep in the Welsh countryside. So the metaphors in this beautiful poem are very apt.

There’s much online about Thomas, and pleasingly more information now about his wife. Gwydion sadly passed away in 2016, though his children are a link to the poetic past of their grandfather. Thomas’s poetry is not always easy, but it’s often a powerful and emotional read; I recommend you search it out to discover the voice of a different Welsh poet called Thomas! 😀

On My Book Table…6 – a bit of a shuffle!

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The world is a little bit scarier than usual at the moment, as we’re all quite aware, and so I’m trying personally to balance keeping my awareness of what’s happening at a sensible level and trying to keep myself on an even keel. Books have always been my go-to in times of stress and frankly are being a little bit of a lifeline right now. Anyway, after all the recent excitement of the #fitzcarraldofortnight, plus a number of new arrivals, I thought it was time to take stock and reorganise a little. Reading from one publisher is a lovely experience, but as I have so many other books lurking I wanted to try to clarify what I planned to pick up next. Of course, I never stick to reading plans, but it’s always fun to spend time shuffling books, as well as being very therapeutic… 😀

After spending some time digging among the stacks and moving books about, I ended up with a few piles I currently want to focus on and here’s the first:

This rather chunky pile has some of the weightier books (intellectually and literally!) that are calling right now. Some of these were in my last book table post, but some have snuck in when I wasn’t looking. There’s a lot of French writing there and both the Existentialist Cafe and Left Bank books sound excellent. Barthes is of course still hanging about in the wings even though I haven’t added him to the pile. I could go for a Barthes fortnight (or longer…) quite easily, but that might a bit brain-straining. Some of the volumes *are* reasonably slim so I might be able to slip them into my reading between bigger books – we shall see! 😀

Next up, some of the review books I have pending:

These are only *some* of the review books lurking, but if I put them all in a pile it looks scary and I panic, so I thought a modest selection would do. There are some beauties from the British Library Crime Classics and Science Fiction Classics range, as well as Camus and a classic Russian play and Frankenstein! They all sound so marvellous….

And this is the pile of recent finds or other titles I really want to read at the moment:

More French writing. The top two are books about French authors – I’ve read the start of each and they’re marvellous. The Queneau is short but essential (and another play! I’m reading more drama!!), the Hitchens and the Christiansen arrived recently, as did the beautiful Persephone (which I think I might well pick up soon). And the Makioka Sisters is there because there’s a readalong going on. I doubt I’ll get to it – I’ve failed every one so far this year, getting nowhere near either Proust or Musil. But it’s there just in case.

However, there *is* another pile of interest lurking. Coming up in April, Simon and I will be hosting the #1920club, the next in our themed weeks of reading from a particular year. I’ve been thinking ahead about which books I’d like to spend time with, and there really are some wonderful titles from 1920. I always try to read from the stacks and a quick dig revealed I had these books on the shelves:

All of them are beautiful titles, and most of them would be re-reads – which is not really what I want to do with the reading clubs. I have another new title lurking digitally which I am definitely going to overcome my aversion to e-reading and get to; but with the re-reads I shall have to be picky so that I can perhaps focus on unread books. Though it *would* be nice just to spend the week re-reading Agatha, Virginia and Colette…

And of course, just after I had finished writing this post, a lovely collection of review books popped through the door looking like this:

There are some wonderfully exciting titles there, including a new Crime Classic from the British Library; two editions from their new imprint focusing on Women Writers (which is being curated by Simon – well done, that man!); and a fascinating book on Artemisia Gentileschi with an introduction by Susan Sontag – how timely!

So there we go. The state of the books at the moment. I have just finished reading Lennie Goodings’ wonderful book about her life in the book trade and with Virago which I will eventually get to reviewing (I’m very behind…) – I highly recommend it. And I confess to being unsure as to what I’ll pick up next, although it may have to be escapism in the form of Golden Age crime. As usual, watch this space! 😀

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