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Coming up in August – Women, Spain and Viragos! #WITMonth #AllViragoAllAugust #SpanishLitMonth

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August is a busy time for reading challenges and events, and although I generally fight shy of these nowadays (as I mentioned in my post on Reading Challenges and Me), there are three that fall during this coming month in which I do like to take part. These are Women In Translation month, All Virago/All August and Spanish Lit Month (which seems to run for two months nowadays…); and of course these are all great excuses to grab books off the shelf and make lists and piles of books!

First up, Women in Translation; this event was started in August 2014 by book blogger Meytal Radzinski, with the aim of celebrating and promoting women writers in translation, as well as their translators and publishers. It’s a wonderful and laudable event, in which I always try to take part; and frankly, with the amount of translated women on my TBR there’s plenty of choice. I have specifically not bought anything new for this challenge, but a quick cast around for what I have unread and easily locatable revealed this large pile:

That’s a substantial selection of works; many from the Russian and a mixture of fiction and non-fiction; and any would be fascinating right now. I’m particularly keen on getting to the Copenhagen Trilogy or a Petrushevskaya, but who knows? There is one book missing from these stacks which I’ve already read for #WITmonth – look out for my review tomorrow! And there was a late arrival on the scene when I succumbed to a purchase from the Folio Society summer sale – a new purchase yes, but not specifically for #WITmonth:

I wasn’t the only blogger who couldn’t resist this beautiful collection of Akhmatova’s poems… ;D

Next up is Spanish Lit Month, hosted by Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog; he’s a stalwart of translated lit and an inspiration in how widely he reads. This is the pile of potentials I came up with:

A more modest pile, which contains works translated from the Spanish, Galician and Portugese. I had a minor panic at one point because, although Stu usually allows Portugese language books, I wasn’t sure if that was happening this year. Apparently it is, which is a great relief as if nothing else, there’s a Saramago I’m dying to read!

And finally All Virago/All August. This is an annual event on the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group; I never stick to reading only Viragos for a month but I try to read at least one (and Persephones are allowed too). In contrast to the above stacks, I currently have just one contender:

I read about “Drawn from Life”, Stella Bowen’s autobiography, on Lisa’s blog and felt I just had to read it, so managed to procure a copy (not so easy…) It sounds marvellous and I hope this will be the month I get to it!

So – sort-of plans for August, but what I actually stick to and read remains to be seen. I guess if I read one from each category I shall be happy with that achievement. Are you joining in with any of these reading events? 😀

“But I am wandering away from my theme…” #montaigne @NottingHillEds

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Back to Montaigne! Having refreshed myself with Golden Age crime, I’ve had the chance to let Sarah Bakewell’s excellent book settle in my mind; and it really was a most thought-provoking work. As I mentioned, I’ve intended to read Montaigne for some time, and I have a lovely little selection of his essays in a beautiful volume from Notting Hill Editions. It’s entitled “Drawn from Life” and is introduced by Tim Parks (who’s previously made an appearance on the Ramblings, back when I reviewed his “Pen in Hand” last year). The translations are by the wonderfully-named M.A. Screech (who gets an honourable mention in Bakewell’s book, so I feel happy trusting his work); and the book collects 13 essays over 185 pages (which is a fraction of what the man actually wrote!)

The subjects of the essays range far and wide, over Fear, Cannibals, Smells, Clothing, Drunkenness and Cowardice, to highlight a few; but the fact is, Montaigne *never* sticks to a subject. He’s a man who likes to digress, and digress he does, at the drop of a hat. So he’ll start off at one point, tell you a tale of someone else, take a diversion to another story, tell you how he feels about something else, and so on. Does he get to the point? *Is* there a point? That’s perhaps debatable, or maybe that *is* the point – that there’s no point, and Montaigne is just representing the unstructured nature of human thought (he was certainly very keen to never commit himself to a single, rigid point of view!)

Portrait of Montaigne (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

However, what’s particularly revelatory when it comes to Montaigne’s essays is that they’re basically about himself; a very modern concept and perhaps one which has made him dip in and out of favour over the centuries (something which Bakewell covers in her book). However, it means that no subject is taboo, from high philosophical musings to the pain in his prick (as he describes it) when he has to pass kidney stones (ouch)!! This makes his writings very relatable and very entertaining; and may well have a lot to do with the fact that he’s often taken to be a good guide to life.

It’s absolutely fascinating following the meanderings of Montaigne’s mind, and this little selection of his essays is a wonderful introduction to him. Rather than go on a lot, I’ll instead treat you to some quotes from his writings below and encourage you to explore further. Montaigne still seems a relevant and entertaining thinker, and maybe when I finally retire I can sit down with a complete volume of his essays and make my way slowly through them!

***

Man is indeed an object miraculously vain, various and wavering. It is difficult to found a judgement on him which is steady and uniform. (from We Reach the Same End by Discrepant Means)

It is not sensible that artifice should be reverenced more than Nature, our great and powerful Mother. We have so overloaded the richness and beauty of her products by our own ingenuity that we have smothered her entirely. Yet wherever her pure light does shine, she wondrously shames our vain and frivolous enterprises… (from On The Cannibals)

A man’s worth and reputation lie in the mind and in the will: his true honour is found there. Bravery does not consist in firm arms and legs but in firm minds and souls: it is not a matter of what our horse or our weapons are worth but of what we are. (from On the Cannibals)

Our normal fashion is to follow the inclinations of our appetite, left and right, up and down, as the winds of occasion bear us along. What we want is only in our thought for the instant that we want it: we are like that creature which takes on the colour of wherever you put it. What we decided just now we will change very soon; and soon afterward we come back to where we were: it is all motion and inconstancy… (from On the Inconstancy of Our Actions)

What a stupid nation we are. We are not content with letting the world know of our vices and follies by repute, we go to foreign nations in order to show them to them by our presence! Put three Frenchmen in the Libyan desert and they will not be together for a month without provoking and clawing each other… (from On Cowardice, the Mother of Cruelty)

“… the faint clues of a perfect crime…” #thewomaninthewardrobe #petershaffer @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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What do you read straight after a fascinating, engrossing and entertaining look at a 16th century philosopher? A British Library Crime Classic, obvs (well. if you’re me you do!) 😀 I often fancy a complete contrast when choosing my next read, and that was certainly the case here; though this book was just as pleasurable as the last one.

The volume in question is a new release from the British Library, “The Woman in the Wardrobe” by Peter Shaffer; and before you even get onto reading it there’s the fascinating fact to get over that Shaffer, one of Britain’s most influential playwrights, wrote crime novels – who knew???? In fact there were three, written partly in collaboration with his twin brother Anthony Shaffer (also an author, probably most known for “Sleuth” and “The Wicker Man”); this is the first, initially published in 1951 and returning to print for the first time since (yay, BL!)

Verity by Nicholas Bentley

“The Woman in the Wardrobe” is set in the seaside town of Amnestie; local amateur sleuth, Mr. Verity, is on his way from his villa to the sea for an early morning bathe. However, as he passes by the local Charter Hotel, he notices something odd – a man climbing into a window. Being a good Golden Age amateur, he can’t let this pass and pops in to find out what’s going on – and stumbles headlong into a dramatic locked-room mystery!

He was an immense man, just tall enough to carry his breadth majestically. His face was sharp, smooth and teak-brown; his blue eyes small and of a startling brilliance. He wore a fine chestnut Van Dyke, an habitual cloak in winter and the (some would say cultivated) expression of an elderly ‘Laughing Cavalier’. By this time, of course, he had long been a noted figure in the world of detection, and wonderfully respected by the Yard. In fact, if that were possible, almost as much respected as disliked.

One of the guests, a Mr. Maxwell, is found shot in his room when the door is forced open. Trussed up and locked into the wardrobe is one of the hotel’s maids, Alice. At least two other male guests have been in and out of the room, but in the end the door and window had to have been locked from inside; so who is responsible for the killing? Fortunately, Mr. Verity is well known to the local police force, and when Inspector Jackson arrives from the nearby local big town he’s happy to have Verity on board. And fortunately, Detective Inspector Rambler of the Yard, an old friend of Verity, happens to be on holiday nearby. But it will take all the ingenuity of these three investigators to solve the mystery. The pairing of Verity and Rambler is particularly inspired, and Shaffer nails their differences quite wonderfully:

Verity respected the tamed logic in Rambler; Rambler the explosive vision in Verity. Both shared in common an immense bulk, a healthy appetite for the bizarre, and an absence of friends. Their differences were only such as could not be helped. Verity had a temper and a beard; but Rambler was a professional and could afford neither.

“Woman” was a wonderfully entertaining tale from start to finish and I read it with a broad grin on my face. It’s probably obvious from the use of names that Shaffer was laying out a certain amount of broad brush characterisation in the book, and certainly there’s a tongue in cheek element at play all the way through. There’s the drug addict and the London girl masquerading as something she’s not; the local lad with the bad temper; the hotel manageress with a past; and the poison of a merciless blackmailer at the heart of the story. The humour doesn’t detract from an engrossing mystery and there is a strong moral sense running through the book; the murder victim really *is* a nasty piece of work, and although  those he preys on are no saints, I couldn’t help thinking that the victim really did deserve what he got. Shaffer allows his characters to gradually develop a little, with their human foibles, and for a shortish book (205 pages) there was a lot going on.

Rambler by Nicholas Bentley

As the for the mystery and its solution, that was ingenious and *very* twisty; I shan’t give anything away, but I really wasn’t expecting Verity to reveal what he did and wouldn’t have guessed it in a million years – I love it when that happens. So “Woman” is a short, sharp, funny and clever entry into the Crime Classics series; and an extra excellent element is the inclusion of the wonderful original line illustrations by Nicholas Bentley. I love his drawings (I have fragile old books containing them), and I hadn’t taken on board before that he’s the son of E.C. Bentley, creator of the magisterial “Trent’s Last Case” – so what an intriguing connection!

“The Woman in the Wardrobe” comes with a preface by Elinor Shaffer, Peter’s sister-in-law; and the usual excellent introduction by Martin Edwards, in which he describes the book as “straightforward, unashamed fun”. I couldn’t agree more; this is definitely one of the wittiest of the BLCCs I’ve read, yet with some depth and pathos behind the story. Wonderful fun and highly recommended!

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

“… he took up books as if they were people, and welcomed them into his family.” #montaigne @Sarah_Bakewell

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Back in June I was in that wonderful position of being able to choose exactly what I felt like to read next, with no book making particular demands on me and any number of volumes ready and willing to be picked up. In fact, I shared an image of the ones I felt most drawn to on Twitter, and the ambience was predominantly French! In the end, I plumped for “How to Live” by Sarah Bakewell; subtitled “A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer”, it had come highly recommended and as I had a selection of his essays also standing by, it seemed the perfect choice – which indeed it was!

A French-themed pile…

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (usually just referred to by the last part of his name) is himself a figure I’ve been skirting round for quite a while; a 16th century French nobleman contemporary with Shakespeare, he’s best known for popularising the essay as a literary form and espousing some wonderful views on humanity and the best way to live. His works are incredibly influential, affecting writers as wide-ranging as Shakespeare himself (possibly), Descartes, Pascal, Rousseau, Woolf, Zweig and even Asimov. According to Wikipedia, he wrote some of the most influential essays ever – which is some legacy!

Bakewell sets out to tell his life story, but in an intriguing way; she asks the question which Montaigne himself was posing – How to live? – and examines his story broadly chronologically in 21 chapters which look at his life in relation to the answers his essays provide. It’s a very clever concept, because it allows her to not only relate his life events but also explore his philosophies, the wider world in which he lived and what it really means to be a human being.

Essayer, in French, means simply to try. To essay something is to test or taste it, or give it a whirl. One seventeenth-century Montaignist defined it as firing a pistol to see if it shoots straight, or trying out a horse to see if it handles well. On the whole, Montaigne discovered that the pistol shot all over the place and the horse galloped out of control, but this did not bother him. He was delighted to see his work come out so unpredictably.

Montaigne lived slap-bang in the middle of the Renaissance, a period when Europe was going through a cultural, artistic, political and economic revival following the grimness of the Middle Ages. Humanity was starting to explore the world physically and intellectually, the arts and sciences were developing, and the question of how humans should live was considered really important. Montaigne’s essays were ground-breaking in their free-ranging quality; no tightly-controlled arguments, clear-cut answers for this man; instead, he allowed his throughts to roam freely, jumping from one idea to another almost at random, pulling in all kinds of concepts and analogies as he went. This format was revolutionary at the time, and popular; Montaigne’s essays were instant best-sellers, and still are.

What takes Bakewell’s book into a different realm, however, is the breadth of it. Yes, there is a roughly chronological look at Montaigne’s life, and that in itself is fascinating. But as well as this, she discusses at length the philosophies – Stoic, Epicurean, Sceptic – which informed his thinking; she reveals in depth the world in which Montaigne lived, its beliefs, its wars and its problems (plague!!); and she draws out of Montaigne’s writings lessons which can still be relevant and helpful to how we try to live today. All of these elements make for a compelling and fascinating read, and the book really opened my eyes to what that period of time was really like.

One thing which was a bit of a revelation was the state of conflict between the Catholic and Protestant religions; I don’t know if I’d quite appreciated quite how rabid, bloody and bitter the dissent between the two strands of Christianity actually was, but the behaviour of both sides as related by Bakewell was shocking. Whyever can’t human beings learn to accept that other people have different beliefs and let them get on with it; we don’t seem to have learned from the past (correction – we *definitely* haven’t). And it does seem that France has been in a constant state of conflict and revolt through most of its history, which I hadn’t quite taken on board before.

I was also taken by Montaigne’s general tolerance and humanity; and in particular his views on animals and the natural world and his hatred of cruelty in general. Bakewell quotes this from one essay, and it’s a timely and still relevant view:

There is a certain respect, and a general duty of humanity, that attaches us not only to animals, who have life and feeling, but even to trees and plants. We own justice to men, and mercy and kindness to other creatures that may be capable of receiving it. There is some relationship between them and us, and some mutual obligation.

As well as his essays, Bakewell relates how Montaigne kept a journal whilst on an extended journey, some written by his secretary and some by himself. It obviously gives a different view of the great man, and sounds entertaining in its own right – she says of it at one point:

It makes for a better read than any number of overblown Romantic travelogues, precisely because it remains so tied to detail. It has little beds under big beds, messy Swiss sauces, room-sized birdcages, circumcisions, sex changes and ostriches: what’s not to like?

I may have to track it down, because his travels themselves are entertaining too (he used them as a way to dodge political duties…); and the section of Rome oddly took me back to Bowen’s thoughts on the history of the city and its constantly changing architecture.

Portrait of Montaigne (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As you might have realised, I loved this book; as well as being a fascinating biography, it takes in so much history and philosophy that there’s a danger of going off exploring down any number of wormholes. Bakewell’s coverage of the legacy of Montaigne is also revealing; so many later philosophers and writers worked themselves up into a right lather over his wonderfully laisser-faire attitude and refusal to stick to any kind of fixed opinion. He was a real rambler – so obviously a kindred soul…

“How to Live” turned out to be a real winner; thoroughly enjoyable, very stimulating, beautifully written and extremely erudite, it was also often very funny. Bakewell’s wonderful book has made me very keen to pick up my little selection of Montaigne’s essays soon; and fortunately I also have her “At the Existentialist Cafe” lurking, which promises equally marvellous delights… ;D

“…death and the photograph as memento mori…” #indexcards #moyradavey @FitzcarraldoEds

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It’s pretty obvious from my blog posts this year, and particularly my involvement in co-hosting with Lizzy the Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight, that I’m a huge fan of the publisher’s output. In fact, I credit their books with my rekindled love of the essay format as so many of their non-fiction works have taken that genre and riffed on it in an individual way. So when I read about their recent release, “Index Cards” by Moyra Davey, I was convinced it would be one for me – I mean, anything slated as weaving into its narrative Mary Wollstonecroft, Jean Genet, Virginia Woolf and Roland Barthes (yes, that man again!), to name but a few, is likely to be a book which appeals to me! 😀

Based in New York, Davey is an acclaimed artist, photographer, writer, and filmmaker; possibly most known for her film “Les Goddesses”, which explores the connections between the artist’s family, and the family of Mary Wollstonecroft (Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley, Claire Clairmont and Fanny Imlay). Certainly that’s the work of hers of which I’d heard, and the Wollstonecroft women *do* make regular appearances in this book. But what, exactly, *is* “Index Cards”?

The book is billed as a collection of essays, and since that form is an elastic one encompassing all manner of structures nowadays, it’s probably the best one to use. The pieces in the book are dated, ranging from the early 2000s up to more modern times, but the subject matter often travels back in time to Davey’s childhood as well as historical times. Some essays, such as the opener “Fifty Minutes”, read more like a film script or written narration; others are more fragmentary, reading like diary entries or indeed jottings on an index card. Because of that loose structure “Index Cards” can be hard to categorise; but it’s never anything less than a bracing and exhilarating read.

Davey’s main artistic medium is obviously the visual and many of her writings focus on the art of photography, with the changes which have taken place in that discpline over the years. She takes several deep dives into the theory of photography and its changing focus; the morals and ethics of street photography; and looks closely at the work in this field of Barthes and Sontag. Her contemplation of her own films and those of her contemporaries is also fascinating. Davey is honest in these writings; she’s not afraid to interrogate her art and her motivations, discussing her period in analysis, her health issues, her friendships and her emotions about the loss of her son as he grows up and moves on in his life. I felt she revealed an underlying sense of uncertainty about her arts, constantly questioning herself, and her honesty in revealing her doubts was refreshing.

The other major theme which struck me in “Index Cards” was that of reading and writing. On the second page of the book Davey finds herself in a situation which will be familiar to most readers:

I spend most of my time trolling through half a dozen or so books, all the while imagining there’s another one out there I should be reading instead, if I could only just put my finger on it. Often I find the spark where I least expect it, in a book I may have been reading casually, lazily, wondering why I am even bothering to read it. Sometimes I persist with the book, even just through inertia, and it can happen that the writing will suddenly open itself up to me.

Personally, I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been in that position… Davey quotes freely from the writers who inspire her, and the list is impressive (with many oddly familiar to me…): Bowen, Akhmatova, Benjamin, Sontag, Janet Malcolm, Barthes, Perec, Calvino, Robert Walser, Jean Genet, Jane Bowles and Violette Leduc are just some of the names making an appearance. Virginia Woolf’s flaneurie of reading is something of a touchstone, and even Larkin and his destroyed diaries appear in passing. Later on in the book she goes on to consider the problem of reading in the modern world, with so much available and distracting our attention from focusing on just one work at a time. Her reading is obviously wide-ranging, with the authors quoted having a particular resonance for her.

I found, and still find the letters oddly comforting for the way they translate thorny life problems into Gertrude-Stein like, droning-on prose. I’ve often thought that diaries and letters are the real modernism: stream of consciousness without the contrivance. (On Jane Bowles’ letters)

At one point in “Index Cards”, while Davey is discussing Sontag’s writings on photography, she comments on its “epigrammatic structure, where ideas, indented with dingbats, accumulate, and indeed follow one another with a sort of loose, fragmentary randomness.” Although Davey she says never connected emotionally with Sontag, intriguingly I felt her own work could well have been described in the same way. In many ways “Index Cards” reads as a Commonplace Book (albeit a very brilliant one) with the randomness and immediacy of a journal; however, despite its apparently disparate nature, there are elements which run through the book; including the constant theme of the drawing of resonances between the life of herself and her family, and those who inspire her. Stories and recollections reappear like a thread running through the narrative of the essays, and the repetition of these elements serves to emphasise their importance to Davey. She quotes Barthes at one point as saying “Note-taking gives me a form of security“, and certainly I can empathise with the need to record events in order to make sense of life itself.

Lots of post-its… maybe I should have made notes on index cards…

Even after reading it and writing about it, I still find “Index Cards” a book which is impossible to pin down and categorise (which is maybe why I loved it so much). It could perhaps be considered a sum of its parts, a book rich with references and full of provocations which throws up many questions which linger in the mind long after finishing it (as can be seen from the sheaf of post-its sticking out of my copy). Davey’s blurring of lines between art forms is fascinating, and I was left with the impression of an artist taking stock of her work in various formats, wanting to leave behind her something which might inspire artists, writers and readers to come in the same way she had been inspired by others. “Index Cards” is a stunning book in all senses of the world, one which resonated with me throughout and a work I will no doubt be drawn back to again and again.

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

The Inside and Out Book Tag – let’s talk about bookish habits! :D

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There are all manner of tags and memes which go round the InterWeb and as a rule I don’t often do these. However, I saw one recently on Annabel’s blog, which she had got from Calmgrove, and Calmgrove had got it from Bookforager and who knows where it was before! I thought it was quite fun, and so before you could say Proust, I thought I’d have a go myself – so here goes!

1. Inside flap/back of the book summaries: Too much info? Or not enough?

I like something which gives me a hint of what the book is about although not too much – I want to go on a voyage of discovery in a book, after all, and if the whole plot is laid out there it rather puts me off reading a book. But I *do* need to get some idea of whether the book is going to be for me, so it’s a balance really. Much as I love Persephone’s books, for example, they really don’t tell you a lot on the cover! What I do get fed up with, though, is the modern trend of covering book covers with endorsements from other authors. I prefer a sensible quote about a book, like the ones Fitzcarraldo put in the front of their books; or a couple of endorsements like the two which appeared on M. John Harrison’s recent “The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again” from Robert Macfarlane and China Mieville. That was just right; any more would have been too much.

2. New book: What form do you want it in? Be honest: Audiobook, eBook, Paperback or Hardcover?

Never an eBook. I loathe reading on a screen; it’s not good for my eyes, I can’t take it in, I work on screens for a good part of the day anyway, and I can’t bear not being able to flick about within a book. As for hardback or paperback, I can’t really give a decisive answer to that one. What matters to me most is readability in the form of text size and handleability. Sometimes a nice, decent sized paperback that flops open easily can be just as good, if not better, than a big hardback and doesn’t have the weight issue.

An example of how mad I go with post-its when I’m loving a book… ;D

3. Scribble while you read? Do you like to write in your books; take notes, make comments, or do you keep your books clean, clean, clean?

Never. Absolutely never. I do not write on books ever. I don’t understand why you would do that. I mark bits with post-its and write scribbly notes on bits of paper if I need to. But never on the book itself. Shudder…

4. Does it matter to you whether the author is male or female when you’re deciding on a book? What if you’re unsure of the author’s gender?

It doesn’t matter in the slightest; I choose a book entirely because I think it will interest me, entertain me, move me, take my thinking in different directions or change me permanently (and any numbers of the books have done all these things to me over the years). It doesn’t even matter if I don’t know what the author’s gender is; I can’t see why that would be relevant. What matters to me is the book and what it’s going to say to me and the places to which it will take me.

5. Ever read ahead? Or have you ever read the last page way before you got there?

Only extremely rarely, and that would be in cases when I was so invested in a particular character that I couldn’t bear to wait to find out if something would be resolved. But this is very rare, and I usually hate doing that kind of thing.

An example of the kind of way my shelves often look…

6. Organized bookshelves or outrageous bookshelves?

All over the place bookshelves… I’ve got books and shelves all over the house and they’re sort of in some kind of rough order, though it is becoming harder to always track things down. I used to fairly reliably be able to find a book, but that’s not the case nowadays. I’ve shared any number of my #showusyourshelfies online, which made realise how scattered my books are. The dream is to one day have neat, orderly single stacked bookshelves all in one room and in an orderly fashion, so that I could find whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, and know exactly what I own. But I suspect that may never happen…

7. Have you ever bought a book based on the cover (alone)?

Often! Not just because a cover is beautiful (although in the case of e.g. the British Library Crime Classics, the vintage designs are irresistible.) Sometime a cover can strike a chord or resonate in an unexpected way. The earliest one I can recall is “The Abortion” by Richard Brautigan, because the author picture on the cover reminded me of someone I had a teenage crush on!

8. Take it outside to read, or stay in?

Usually inside. I’ve never been much of a read in the sunshine type because I have pretty sensitive eyes; and I’ve developed hay fever as I’ve got older which doesn’t help. Having said that, I do try never to leave the house (not that I do at the moment…) without a book so that if I’m stuck anywhere like the dentist’s waiting room I have something to pass the time. So although I don’t actually seek to read outside, I can probably read anywhere given half a chance! 😀

Well, that was jolly entertaining! This is a fun tag, so do pinch it and join in; because I love to read about everyone else’s reading habits too!

“What I struggle with is scope and intensity.” @sublunaryeds @joshuarothes

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Sometimes a book comes along which defies classification; and although you love it and find it fascinating, stimulating, thought provoking and the like, you find it really hard to write about. Today on the Ramblings I’m featuring one such book, and you’ll have to bear with me a bit while I try and marshall my thoughts about it!

That Picasso once painted a portrait of Stalin at the request of Louis Aragon. Make of it what you will.

The book in question is “The Art of Great Dictators” by Joshua Rothes, who’s editor of Sublunary Editions, its publisher; he was kind enough to offer a copy to anyone interested on Twitter, and I was very intrigued by the title so stuck my my metaphorical hand up and said “Yes please!” Well, there’s likely to be a Russian connection, isn’t there? Sublunary is a fascinating small press which focuses on issuing short texts – stories, novellas, poetry, fragments – which in our fractured world is certainly very appealing, although it would be a mistake to think that short texts = easy reads!

The Art of the Great Dictators is not an unfinished book; it is a book never earnestly begun, utterly amorphous and orphaned, notes and fodder for a thesis that, brought to bear, would not suffer the faintest of blows.

Anyway! “The Art of the Great Dictators” presents as a series of notes for an actual book of that title which was never written, by an art critic who (presumably) didn’t exist. The scope of the work was intended to be wide-ranging, taking in the artistic ambitions of dictators from Hitler and Stalin through to Caeusescu (though interestingly Castro, often reckoned to be one of that body of rulers, doesn’t get a mention.). The notes explore all manner of aspects of art and power, mixing in uncredited quotes, musings on history and politics, and instructions to the author as to how to write the book; which if these notes are anything to go by, would have been a mammoth undertaking…

History in the years since has turned empirical; much like the hard sciences, it seeks models and explanations rather than facts. A working knowledge is what is important. Can one apply the model and get results? It is not only fair to say that the atomic bomb and the horrors of the Gulag must be given credit for postmodernism. There is no abstraction without annihilation. Something must be given over

Initially, it’s hard to quite work out how you should read something like this; a book of notes is not necessarily going to cohere into a whole, particularly when there are quotes and references which may be real or invented, something guaranteed to throw you off guard. However, as I kept reading I became more and more involved in following the narrator’s musings on their subject and the book of notes almost seemed to morph into a book of aphorisms, which was quite fascinating.

The danger is always in seeing in yourself the potential to be an agent of change; the natural end of this is totalitarianism, or else madness.

A portrait of Comrade Stalin 1937… (Isaak Brodsky / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The pieces raised all kind of thoughts about the value and function of art, its place in the world and the eternal debate of art vs money – which I guess, in the end, may be what the author intended! The dictator as failed artist is a trope that runs through recent history, most obviously with Hitler; and here Rothes explores that much more interestingly than I’ve seen before!

The dictator stands as the embodiment of all social guilt, the worst of our nature become flesh, the reification of our demons ruling over us; they are what we deserve, and what we nonetheless must resist.

As you can see, I ended up with a *lot* of post-its sticking out of this little book, and I could have stuffed this post full of quotes from it. “Art…” is a very clever piece of writing, and the notes often hint at the (fictional?) author’s cheeky wish to fool their readers: “Something must be said, of course, about the stolen art of the Nazis, though not what they might think.” I could share with you more than I already have, and I’ll add one final quoted quote below; but instead I’ll encourage you to seek work out. It’s an intriguing and thought-provoking book where almost every paragraph makes you want to stop and think – fascinating!

“It is impossible to be an artist without simultaneously being a utopian, and there is no room for utopia yet; we bear a burden for the past, and utopian thought denies this by skipping the process of struggle and restitution for an end goal that the artist feels we are somehow deserving of.”

(Book kindly provided by the author, for which many thanks! You can find out more about Sublunary Editions here.)

A bumper book of bliss from John Bude! @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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Death in White Pyjamas/Death Knows no Calendar by John Bude

Back to comforting crime, with one of the big successes of the British Library Crime Classics series – John Bude. He was a respected writer in his time but became neglected in recent year; it’s been wonderful to see his works come back into print and I’ve enjoyed many of his books featuring his regular detective, Superintendant Meredith. However, the latest offering of his from the BL is a bumper volume containing two stand-alone mysteries and they were the perfect read during a recent cold and soggy weekend.

The first of the two, “Death in White Pyjamas”, was originally published in 1942; featuring an entertaining cast drawn from the world of the theatre, it’s set mainly around the country residence of Sam Richardson, a biscuit millionaire-turned-theatre owner. Together with his partner, the rather sinister Basil Barnes, he’s set up a highly successful cult theatre, The Beaumont; he provides the backing and Basil provides the art. During the summer recess, a number of cast and crew members are staying down at Old Knolle, including Angela Walsh, a beautiful and rather naive starlet; Willy Farnham, an ageing character actor; Clara Maddison, a veteran actess; and Deidre Lehaye, the glamorous and slightly mysterious stage designer. Inevitably, there are tensions (of an emotional and artistic nature) between the various visitors; and things get worse when Rudoph Millar, a young playwright (and also Clara’s nephew), visits to tout his latest work. The team approve, Angela is smitten, and Basil (who has designs on her) is consumed by jealousy. However, all this gets put to one side when a body is found in grounds, wearing white pyjamas; and the scene is set for an entertaining and twisty tale. Will the authorities, in the form of Inspector Harting and Sergeant Dane, be able to solve the puzzle?

They were poles apart: in looks, character, ideas, ambitions, everything. Where Sam was short, fat, bald and benign, Basil was tall, slender, sleek-haired and slightly sinister. Sam, apart from business in all its aspects, was a child. His simple faith in everybody was delightful, if expensive; for he could never listen to a hard-up story without putting his hand in his pocket. If Basil put his hand in his pocket you expected him to produce a revolver. Actually, he produced plays.

Death has no Calendar” (from 1944) steps into a different world, that of the murder of a talented woman artist. Married to a slightly ne’er-do-well figure who seems mainly to be sponging off of her, Lydia Arundel inspires strong emotions in those around her; including local farmer Stanley Hawkinge who adores her dumbly from a distance; the Rev. Swale-Reid, who has had some kind of unspecified brief encounter with her in the past which has left him emotionally scarred and tormented; and Major Boddy, a retired military man who admires her greatly but knows she’s not for him. Add into the mix Lady Dingle and her lisping niece Honoraria, the latter of whom has set her sights on Hawkinge; plus the slightly dubious houseboy Willis; and you get a very volatile situation. No seasoned reader of murder mysteries will be surprised when Lydia is found dead, apparently having shot herself. Her artist’s studio was locked from the inside, and there is no way anyone could have got into it; yet there are inconsistencies. It’s left to Major Boddy, aided by his loyal ex-batman Syd Gammon, to investigate; and the tale of what they uncover is unexpected to say the least!

It’s unusual, perhaps, to have two mysteries collected in one volume like this, but I’m certainly not complaining. The second one, in particular, is described as having been very hard to get hold of up until its reissue here, so it’s wonderful to see it back in print. And I have to confess to having spent a wonderful weekend relaxing with both of these stories, which are extremely diverting and entertaining.

Not sure if any of the country residences in the stories are like this one, but it’s rather jolly! (T. Raffles Davison (d. 1937), architectural illustrator / Public domain – via Wikimedia Commons)

One element I’d forgotten was just how funny a writer Bude can be. As Martin Edwards reminds us, in his informative introduction, these stories came out in wartime and Bude was no doubt writing with intent to divert and entertain. There’s plenty of wry humour, the characterisation is often broad and slightly caricatured, which raises a laugh, and there are some wonderfully witty lines. However, he often lapses into lyrical passages which really capture his time and setting, and these are lovely.

… the following Tuesday dawned bright and beautiful. As the hours advanced there descended on Beckwood, like an inverted shining cup, one of those peerless June days that transform the face of rural England into an earthly paradise. The scent of the Etoile d’Hollande was heavy on the still air and the bees were working in the clover fields. The red tiles of The Oasts threw off an aura of shimmering heat. A few birds piped languidly in the feathery branches of the conifers and peace, clear and perfect, seemed to have settled over the village.

As for the mysteries, I found that I sussed out a fair amont of “White Pyjamas” reasonably early on; the motivations weren’t difficult to divine, although the actual modus operandi and sequence of events wasn’t obvious and was very cleverly plotted by the author. He tied up the loose ends nicely, as well, which I always like; although the denouement was perhaps slightly foreshortened.

Even in these democratic days it demands great courage to tell a titled woman that she has a face like a horse.

As for “Calendar”, that flummoxed me a bit more; I was pretty sure I had a bit of an idea who the villain was, but the motives were less clear, and until the Major started discovering more about the murderer’s life I was as much in the dark as he was. And I had *no* idea how the murder was committed! Boddy was a very satisfying amateur sleuth to follow; although, interestingly enough, the detecting duo in “Pyjamas” didn’t make their appearance until well into the book.

The Russian gloom deepened. Basil had now bought a samovar. The cast of The Red Ant sat around it and wallowed in lukewarm tea and primitive emotion.

A particularly interesting aspect of the stories was the fact that Bude set both in a different kind of artistic setting. The theatre milieu in “Pyjamas” was really well portrayed, and it’s no surprise to learn that the author was keen on amateur dramatics himself. There were some wonderfully droll scenes as the actors attempt to get to grips with a spurious Russian play by a made-up Russian author (well, I *assume* he’s made up because I’ve never heard of him…) Seeing their life reflect art as they descend into gloom was very funny. Acting turns up also in “Calendar”, although here the dominant art form is Lydia Arundel’s painting career, and the picture she was working on at the time of her death makes recurring appearances…

It seemed that the atmosphere of Beckwood parish was charged with electricity. The local soothsayer prophesied the end of the world. A fireball passed over the church. A puppy with two heads was delivered in the house of the District Nurse. Old Mrs Faddian slipped on a wet brick path and broke her wrist. A hooded figure was seen near Beddow’s Bottom. Tragedy, swore Beckwood, was in the air!

So this bumper book of Bude was a real winner for me, hitting the spot perfectly just when I needed some relaxation and escapism. Despite the bulk of the book, I flew through it and absolutely loved it. Both “Death in White Pyjamas” and “Death Knows no Calendar” are worthy additions to the BLCC range and evidence of John Bude’s talent for writing wonderful and entertaining murder mysteries. If you enjoy Golden Age Crime and need some enjoyable escapist mysteries, this book and John Bude are for you! 😀

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

Penguin Moderns 27 and 28 – Provocative and Mind-Expanding

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Those of you with long memories will no doubt recall that a couple of years ago I was gifted a beautiful box set of Penguin Moderns, little books with extracts from stimulating bigger books from the Penguin Modern Classics range. It was a Mother’s Day present from the Offspring, and I *had* been gradually making my way through the set, two at a time. However, I was shocked to realise that I hadn’t actually read any for nearly a year, which is dreadful; and so recently I picked up the next two in the sequence, and a stimulating pair they turned out to be!

Penguin Modern 27 – New York City in 1979 by Kathy Acker

Reading Kathy Acker is not for the faint-hearted; and I can say that because I read a good amount of her work back in the day, including her seminal “Blood and Guts in High School”, which came out in 1984. Because of the amount of sex, drugs and violence in her books, she was touted as a female William Burroughs, though I would say that was doing two very individual authors a disservice. Structurally, the book pushed the boundaries (as it did with subject matter) and it was a fascinating read (although not for everyone). Possibly I should revisit it – I think I still have my crumbly old copy somewhere. Anyway, on to the Penguin Modern…

“NYC” is made up of texts written by Acker in 1981 but not published until much later. Illustrated with photographs by Anne Turyn, it presents vignettes of alternative night life in the city of the time; plus the story of Janey and Johnny, and their encounters with the denizens of NYC’s underground. Sex and drugs are the motivating factor – one of the pieces is titled, “Intense Sexual Desire is the Greatest Thing in the World”.

Reading Acker now took me straight back to the past; to the late 1970s when things seemed to be falling apart, punk music had altered our way of looking at things and it was becoming ok for women artists to address the subjects that were ok for men to tackle. A challenging read, yes – but intriguing and provocative and a reminder of just how Acker was pushing the boundaries back then.

Penguin Modern 28 – Africa’s Tarnished Name by Chinua Achebe

Achebe probably needs no introduction; a Nigerian novelist, poet, professor, and critic, “Things Fall Apart” is his best-know book and I really ought to read it. However, I haven’t, so starting with this little book was a great way to get an introduction to a writer new to me. “Africa’s Tarnished Name” is non-fiction, collecting together four essays originally featured in his 2011 book “The Education of a British Protected Child”; and they made stimulating, if sobering, reading. The essays are: “What is Nigeria to Me?”, “Traveling White”, “Africa is People” and the title piece; and as you can see from the number of post-its, they really made an impact.

A human is a human because of other humans.

Achebe lived through troubling times, in particular the Nigerian Civil War which caused dreadful suffering. I was fairly ignorant of much of this, although when I was quite young I remember hearing appeals for help for Biafra; in my innocence, I had no idea of the bigger picture. Achebe covers this in his first essay, and hearing of the suffering followed by the political corruption was heartbreaking. He also tackles his experiences of racism, whilst travelling through South Africa, and it’s shocking. It also made we wonder how much we’ve moved on from then…. The title essay is a powerful piece, taking on Joseph Conrad’s fetishization and distortion of the African experience, and it made me very much rethink my reaction of “Heart of Darkness”; it’s some time since I read it, but I do recall feeling quite uncomfortable about it. Achebe quotes James Baldwin at one point, words which have stayed with me:

Negroes want to be treated like men; a perfectly straightforward statement containing seven words. People who have mastered Kant, Hegel, Shakespeare, Marx, Freud and the Bible find this statement impenetrable.

I read this book while there was rioting in the USA and iconoclasm in Bristol; I can understand both, and it shocks me that we’re still in a world where racial injustice exists. Whatever happened to the idealised melting pot where we all lived in harmony together? Inspirational books like this encourage us to think about these issues, try to recognise the prejudice in ourselves and look to where we can improve. A very important Penguin Modern indeed.

*****

So two completely different Penguin Moderns by writers who couldn’t be further apart; yet both act as a bracing wake-up call to not accept the everyday, to look more closely at the world and its norms, and to consider whether it needs change. I’m so glad I jumped back on the Penguin Modern wagon, and I will try not to leave it so long until the next two!

“There is no war, not bred of wars, that was not nursed on lies!” #hughlofting #victoryfortheslain

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Victory for the Slain by Hugh Lofting

As a vegan, I’ve always loved the concept of being able to talk to animals; I thoroughly approve, therefore, of the character of Dr. Doolittle, created by author Hugh Lofting. However, until Mike Walmer approached me to see if I’d like to review one of his recent books, I had no idea that Lofting had written anything else – and particularly not a long pacifist verse!

“Victory for the Slain” is the latest release in Mike’s poetry series, which so far has featured volumes from James Montgomery and Katherine Mansfield (I reviewed the latter here). A striking, red-covered hardback of 61 pages, it contains Lofting’s only work for adults, and was published in 1942 – only in the UK. Bearing in mind this was slap bang in the middle of WW2, I’m surprised it managed to get into print at all!

Lofting fought in the First World War, witnessing the horrors of that conflict personally; so it’s perhaps no surprise that a second major global battle filled him with dismay. He became a pacifist after the Great War, campaigning for peace and building his philosophy into his children’s books. “Victory for the Slain” is, therefore, a real cry from the heart, and one which resonates today.

“These banners and standards, tattered, hung;
The trophies of battle on alien soil.
Sole prizes of courage and suffering toil,
For these
How many in their graves are lain?
In war the only victors are the slain.”

The poem is divided up into seven sections and follows the narrator as he encounters a veteran soldier who’s lost his hand, visits a church or cathedral where he has an emotional reverie on past and present, as well as seeking solace from his surroundings. However, the bombs constantly raining down destroy any chance of peace, and the narrator despairs of human folly and our race’s inability to live in any kind of harmony. In the end, he reaches some kind of equilibrium with the hope that the memory of the ‘victorious slain’ will lead humanity towards a better future.

Hugh Lofting when young (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Apparently, the poem was not a success when it was first published. Lofting was living in California at the time, and it appeared in print just after the main part of the London Blitz. I can imagine at the time that readers didn’t want to particularly hear this kind of attitude, particularly from someone not in the thick of it; which is a shame, because it obviously reflects Lofting’s life-long, strongly held views.

“Wars to end wars? – War again!
Must Mankind forever kill and kill,
Thwarting every decent dictate
Of the human will?”

“Victory…” is a compelling and moving piece of writing, and not what you might necessarily expect from someone who’s a well-known children’s author. Although a slim book, it’s remarkably powerful, full of vivid imagery, heart-wrenching soul-searching and often real despair for the future of the world, as well as a hope that we can learn. At a time when our world seems to be falling apart once again, that’s something to hang onto. Highly recommended.

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

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