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2020 in Books – in which I once again fail to pick an outright winner…. ;D

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As is traditional on the Ramblings, I’m going to take a look back over my year of reading to pick out some highlights. It certainly has been a very strange and unpleasant year, unlike any I’ve known – I hope 2021 will be better, but who knows what’s to come. Books have, as always, been a comfort and my coping mechanism; and I *have* read a little more than usual, despite the strains of coping with a pandemic world. As usual, I’m not going to do any kind of countdown or top ten – let’s just look at the bookish things which have kept me going!

Comfort reading

A favourite from this year’s BLCC’s releases!

2020 has most definitely been year when there’s been a need for comfort reading. My go-to books are Golden Age crime and once again the British Library Crime Classics have been a source of great joy. I’ve read a good number, and not a dud amongst them! I’ve also felt the urge to do a sudden bit of re-reading – for example, at one point needing pick up Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and revisit the wonderfully perfect ending. Longing for less complex times, I guess.

Indie Presses and Subscriptions

Some of the treats from my Renard Press sub.

If this year has been anything for me, it’s been the year of indie presses and subscriptions! Despite the lockdowns and restrictions, it’s been a joy to see independent publishers flourishing, supported by the love of serious readers and booklovers. I have spent happy hours with many wonderful indie imprints, authors and books, including Notting Hill Editions, Little Toller, Fum d’Estampa, Salt, Galley Beggar, Sublunary Editions and Renard Press; in fact, I did a nice little Q&A with Will Dady, the man behind the latter, for Shiny New Books. And of course it’s been lovely to keep up with Fizcarraldo Editions, who’ve released some quite marvellous volumes this year.

Which leads me on to…

Challenges/Events

I tend to steer away from most of these nowadays, as I find I get all enthusiastic about joining in then instantly want to go off in another direction! However, I did get involved in a Twitter-based readalong of the marvellous Malicroix (published by NYRB Classics), thanks to the influence of Dorian Stuber! A wonderful book and a great joy to take part in this! I’ve managed to reboot some of my personal reading projects, and even expand their scope – let’s see how that works out then…

Fitzcarraldos – I love Fitzcarraldos…

I also ended up co-hosting a two week celebration of the aforementioned Fitzcarraldo with Lizzy – Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight. Not only was this great fun, but it also got me reading quite a bit of my TBR – result! 😀

Which leads me on to…

Reading Weeks

As usual, Simon and I co-hosted two Reading Club Weeks this year, focused on 1920 and 1956. These are always such fun – if you haven’t encountered them, we basically read whatever we want from the year in question, review, post on blogs and other social media and share ideas of great books from the year. We’ll be hosting another in April 2021 so do join in! 😀

Social Media

Social media of all kinds has become pretty much a lifeline over 2020 and it’s been great to be able to keep in touch over the various platforms. Book Twitter is particularly lovely and I have been lucky enough to interact with some wonderful people on there. There have been postcards going around the world and moral support offered to our online friends who have suffered losses over the year. It is a lovely place to visit. Of course, there are always so many reading events to tempt me there, but mostly I manage to hold back because I know I will fail… I didn’t with Malicroix though, so result!

A little pile of my Harvill Leopards!

Twitter was also responsible for the Harvill Leopard Hunt, as it shall be titled, where a number of interested bookish people contributed to a wonderful master list of books issued in that imprint by Tim at Half Print Press. It was huge fun being involved in the detective work, and the resulting checklist is a thing of great beauty and use – you can check it out here! (Do take a look at Half Pint Press too – they produce some gorgeous things!)

Roland Barthes, a documentary and another interview!

Although I was often looking for comfort reads, it hasn’t all been lightweight this year. In particular, I seem to have been haunted by the spirit of Roland Barthes! I first read his Mythologies back at the end of 2019, reviewing it in January this year, and have revisited his work at various points over the year. He’s not always an easy read, but certainly fascinating, stimulating and thought-provoking!

Professor Richard Clay with Dr. Lonnie Bunch (c. Clearstory/BBC)

This also tied in with my Documentary of Year (and Decade!) 21st Century Mythologies with Richard Clay – it was quite superb, and I was delighted to welcome Richard back onto the Ramblings for a return interview. He’s always such an interesting interviewee, brimming with ideas! No doubt I shall continue to return to Barthes – there are several titles I have lurking on the TBR…

Shiny New Books

I continued to provide some reviews for Shiny New Books, the wonderful independent recommendations website. I always enjoy reading other people’s contributions and SNB covers such a wide range of books. Always worth checking out if you’re not sure what to read next, or want to find out what’s come out recently and is worth reading!

Trends in my reading

A translated work I enjoyed very much this year, which led on to many other reading ideas…

I’ve continued to read a lot in translation, from the Russian of course but also from French, German, Portuguese, Polish…. I’ve enjoyed poetry, and also a lot of non-fiction this year. There have been times when I’ve felt that I couldn’t engage properly with fiction, and so essays, philosophy, history, nature writing, travel writing and books which don’t actually fit into any category have been there for me to turn to in times of need. I plan to continue to follow no path but my own and read what I *need* to read!

Outstanding books

I’m not going to pick a best of the year, because I can’t. The kind of books I read are so disparate that it seems unfair to measure them against each other. However, I *shall* highlight some particularly special reads from 2020.

First up, I have ended the year reading Robert Macfarlane’s Underland and it’s a stunning book. Mesmerising writing and brimming with ideas and visions, it certainly lives up to its hype and it was the perfect book with which to finish off the year.

I’m a huge fan of Paul Morley’s writing, and so was delighted to be able to review his latest book, A Sound Mind, for Shiny New Books. A wonderfully Morley-esque exploration of classic music in all its shapes and forms, I absolutely loved it.

Another author whose work I’ve loved for a long time is M. John Harrison. He’s hit the public eye a bit more than usual recently, and this year saw the release of a new novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. It’s another stunning read, proof that Harrison’s powers only increase with the years, and I was so pleased to see it win the Goldsmiths Prize! Lovely Comma Press also released a collection of his stories, Settling the World, which was another outstanding read.

A newer discovery for me is Andrew Lees; I read his wonderful book Mentored by a Madman last year, in a lovely paperback from Notting Hill Editions; it was a marvellous read, and Lees is such a good writer – in this book proving that literature and science go together. NHE published a new book by Lees this year, Brazil That Never Was, and I absolutely loved it. I described it in my review as a “wonderful blend of travelogue, memoir and reflection”, and Lees’ storytelling skills produced an atmospheric and memorable read. I can’t wait for his next book!

I can’t finish this section without mention of Square Haunting, which I covered in February for Shiny New Books. A quite brilliant book covering the lives of five inspirational women living in the same square in London, although at different times, it was an unforgettable read as well as an amazing work of scholarship – and it deserves all the praise it’s had!

*****

Frankly, that’s probably enough for one post – if I go on any longer I shall end up reliving the whole year and with 2020, that’s not something I necessarily want to do. The books I’ve read this year have been 99.9% pure joy (with the very occasional dud…) Whatever 2021 chucks our way I shall hang onto books as a way of maintaining some kind of sanity. Here’s to a better year for us all!

“…troublesome history thought long since entombed is emerging again” #underland @RobGMacfarlane

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Underland by Robert Macfarlane

So often I seem to end the year with a stupendous read, and this most ghastly 2020 is no different. And once again I am faced with a book that is so immense that I am unsure how to write about it – but I will try!

The book in question is “Underland” by Robert Macfarlane, and it’s received so many plaudits that I feel slightly humbled trying to decide what to say about it. I first read Macfarlane back in 2013 when I failed to completely gel with his “The Old Ways”; I now wonder if it was right book, wrong time and fortunately I kept it so am very keen now to revisit it (particularly after listening to the Backlisted Christmas edition on “The Dark is Rising”). More recently I read his pamphlet “The Gifts of Reading” which brought me great joy; so when I heard about “Underland” I was of course very keen to read it; but I held off until the paperback came out, and then got a copy earlier this year. I was waiting for the right time to read the book, and this was certainly it.

Ice has a memory and the colour of this memory is blue.

Macfarlane’s writing is actually difficult to categorise (which I like); it encompasses nature, travel, science, history, people, the world… well, you get the picture. This book ranges far and wide and digs deeply into life and history on our small blue green planet. “Underland” takes as its premise the exploration of what lies beneath our feet; we consider that we are in solid ground, never particularly thinking on a daily basis about the earth upon which we stand. However, as Macfarlane proves with his explorations, our grounding is anything but stable…

Cities have long been vertical. When Christopher Wren excavated the foundations of the Old Saint Paul’s after the Great Fire he found a row of Anglo-Saxon graves lined with chalk-stones, beneath which were pre-Saxon Coffins holding ivory and wooden shroud pins. At a still greater depth were Roman potsherds and cremation urns, red as sealing wax and embellished with greyhounds and stags, and beneath those were the periwinkles and other seashells that spoke of the ocean that had once covered the area.

And those explorations are incredibly wide-ranging; channelling sources from Calvino to Don De Lillo, Macfarlane discovers what is hidden but always there, and it can be unnerving at times. He visits deep and distant cave systems; discovers cave paintings by beings who lived on this planet thousands of years before us; explores parts of the Paris Catacombs never seen by casual visitors; and reveals the fungal systems under the surface ground which tie together plant lives in ways we have only just begun to understand. He travels to extreme landscapes of the north, witnessing the changes taking place to the frozen parts of our world, much of which is below our sight line but which affects our world deeply; and chillingly, he witnesses the steps needing to be taken to ensure our ancestors are not left with a buried time bomb…

It’s hard, without just throwing superlatives about, to convey just how deeply profound “Underland” is; Macfarlane is dealing here with things far beyond the human scale. The planet records and recalls events from deep time, whether coded into ice or into rocks; and if you know the language (as many of those he encounters do), you can read back far beyond written history. “Underland” gives you the sense of being a tiny blip in an epically long history; its scope is immense and the book is not just about going underground in the sense of lifting the turf; this is really deep exploration, under ice, land and sea, and Macfarlane visits places to which few have been. I have to say how much I admire his grit; as a claustrophobe, I would struggle with many of the small spaces into which he has to squeeze and he is honest enough to admit feeling uncomfortable when he’s in situations which had me squirming just reading about them!

Paris Catacombs (Dale Cruse from San Francisco, CA, USA, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

There are important issues to expound upon here, and Macfarlane being the man he is, there is of course exploration of ecological aspects. He never lays things on with a trowel, but there is no doubt from his discussion of our treatment of the planet and the effects on it long term that we are at a serious point in human history. Just about everywhere he travels, Macfarlane encounters human waste – plastics in the sea, unwanted dross dumped over cliffs – and it’s depressing to hear about this.

Philip Larkin famously proposed that what will survive of us is love. Wrong. What will survive of us is plastic, swine bones and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain.

Macfarlane’s observations about the melting ice, underground mining for all manner of resources and what this is doing to the Earth are actually scary in places and made me want to drop everything and go out and join Greta Thunberg in her campaigning.  The effects of the oil industry on the planet are particularly shocking; even though I was aware of the problems being caused, the book pushes this firmly into focus so you can’t ignore it. The contrasts between Macfarlane’s exploration of natural underlands and the hellish man-made places designed for nuclear waste are striking. We really *do* seem to want to destroy this lovely little planet, don’t we?

Urban exploration might be best defined as adventurous trespass in the built environment. Among the requirements for participation are claustrophilia,  lack of vertigo, a taste for decay, a fascination with infrastructure, a readiness to climb fences and lift the manhole covers, and a familiarity with the varying laws of access across different jurisdictions.

However, despite the heavier elements of the book, it’s an engrossing read from start to finish. Just following Macfarlane’s journeys (which I believe took place over a period of ten years) is breathtaking enough; he captures the landscapes, underground regions and peoples he meets vividly, glimpsing the beauty and terror which can found on Earth, and he is always human and humane in his encounters. It’s a work which which emphasises our connection with all aspects of the world around us; as Macfarlane points out at one point, “We are part mineral beings too – our teeth are reefs, our bones are stones – and there is a geology of the body as well of the land. It is mineralization – the ability to convert calcium into bone – that allows us to walk upright, to be vertebrate, to fashion the skulls that shield our brains.”

Greenland Ice Sheet (Christine Zenino from Chicago, US, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

An additional element is that the book is so beautifully written; eloquent and elegant, Macfarlane’s prose shimmers off the page and is eminently readable. Profound, compelling and unforgettable, “Underland” is an epic work of exploration and scholarship (and I’ve really only scratched the surface here); it will most likely change your relationship with our planet (it has mine). “Underland” will definitely feature in my Books of the Year round-up and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

*****

As a coda, I thought I would point you towards the Christmas Day edition of the wonderful Backlisted Podcast. As I mentioned above, Robert Macfarlane was one of the guests on this edition, discussing “The Dark is Rising” by Susan Cooper, a book I first read longer ago than I would care to acknowledge. Backlisted is always joyous listening and this is a particularly fine episode; and it was perfect company just after finishing “Underland”, as it seems that Cooper’s book informs Macfarlane’s work… You can find it here – if you’re a regular listener you’re in for a treat. If you’re not a regular listener  why not?????

 

A little post-Christmas and Birthday round-up

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As I’ve mentioned before on the Ramblings, I am blessed (cursed?) with having a birthday fairly close to Christmas. It means I have to wait all year without celebrations and then two come along at once… Which can be a nuisance; but as my friends and family know me well, it also means there are often a fair amount of bookish incomings at this time of the year. Despite the fact that 2020  has been the year from hell and unlike any other, it’s comforting to find I still have piles of incoming books to share… ;D

First up the birthday pile:

There are some rather fascinating books in the heap, some of which I requested and some of which were inspirational choices by Mr. Kaggsy! From the bottom up, there’s “The Way of the World” by Nicolas Bouvier from Youngest Child; from what I’ve heard this should be a fascinating travel book! Then there’s “Moscow in the Plague Year” by Marina Tsvetaeva courtesy my Little Brother – he thinks the combination of Russia and Poetry and depression is ideal for me! ;D

Next up on the pile is Emile Zola – the first two books in his great cycle of novels. I have kind of conceived a desire to read the whole lot in sequence (gulp!) so requested these from Brother-In-Law. Then we get to Mr. Kaggsy’s choices, and he has done well. I love Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, so a pair of books by and about them promise great things. Mr. K. had a great attack of inspiration when he decided on the “Nineteenth-Century Russian Reader” as I don’t have this, and it’s stuffed full of fascinating stuff, as is “Russian Literature: A Very Short Introduction”. The final book from Mr. K, “The Day They Kidnapped Queen Victoria”, is one I’d never heard of – but it sounds a hoot!

Finally, atop the pile is volume 1 of the Journal of Montaigne’s Travels from my BFF J. (I am expecting remaining volumes to arrive later) – an antique and very pretty edition. Yay! Lovely birthday treats, all – and I’m keen to pick them all up at once, of course!

As for the Christmas arrivals, I sometimes expect to get less in the way of books but this year has seen some lovely books turning up under the tree:

I was a little knocked out by all the arrivals! To look more closely, from the bottom up, first we have books from family:

The bottom three are from Mr. Kaggsy, who managed to once again successfully get me books I want and don’t have – result! The next three are from the Offspring – thank you children! – and the top book is from brother-in-law who is usually good at following instructions re gifts…!

Next up is bookish arrivals from my Virago Secret Santa! As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m part of the Virago Modern Classics group on LibraryThing, and each year we do a little Secret Santa. This year my gifts were from Alvaret, who I know through her own blog, and she sent me the most wonderful books!

Thoughtfully, she included one book from my wishlist (Nancy Spain), one she thought I would like based on my reading taste (“The Boarding School Girl” – spot on!) and a book she would like me to read (“The Brothers Lionheart” – I’m intrigued!) Such lovely gifts – thank you!

Last but not least, books from friends:

The Ocampo is an impromptu gift from the lovely Jacqui – thank you so much! Perfect! In the middle is volume 2 of the Montaigne mentioned above – hopefully volume 3 will eventually make an appearance… And finally, “The Salt Path” is from my old friend V. – an inspired choice, as I’ve been thinking I should read this one for a loooong time!

So I have been very spoiled bookishly in the last couple of weeks – and once I have shaken this “Underland” book hangover off, I will really have to try to choose what to read next! 😀

Christmas Greetings, as we celebrate during a year like no other…

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Normally I post a short Christmas greeting here on 25th December each year as we spend the day celebrating with any of the Offspring who have come home. This year will be very different though, as we all took the decision early that none of our family would travel over the Christmas period. In retrospect, I’m very glad we made that choice when we did, as it *has* avoided major disappointments.

So Mr. Kaggsy and I will be celebrating quietly at home, and spending time connecting with the family digitally. It *will* be odd, but we would rather this and all stay safe than take any risks. I hope that, wherever you are, you and your loved ones stay safe – and have as Merry a Christmas as you can! I will be back in a few days with gratuitous pictures of new books and an attempt to round up my best of the year’s reading – in the meantime, take care all!

A Surprise at Christmas – in more ways than one! :D @BritLibPublishing #BLCC @medwardsbooks

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Over the last few years, the lovely people at the British Library have got into the habit of bringing out a Christmas crime classic which makes ideal reading in the run up to the festive season. There have been novels, and last year a lovely short story collection. This year was no different, and so I was very happy happy joy joy when “A Surprise at Christmas” popped through my door. Selected by the series consultant, Martin Edwards, the book contains 12 seasonal mysteries from an excellent range of authors. It was the perfect book to turn to, particularly during a busy time at work and whilst attempting to fed off another reading slump; and it had an extra sting in the tale which I’ll get to later… ;D

Normally, when I feature short story collections on the Ramblings, I tend to pick out favourites or themes. However, this was such a strong selection I may end up mentioning them all! The book opens with The Black Bag Left on a Doorstep by Catharine Louisa Pirkis; she’s an author new to me, and this story introduces her detective Loveday Brooke and was published in 1893. It’s a satisfying and clever mystery and Brooke is a feisty heroine – I’d like to read more of her adventures! Next up is The Hole in the Wall by G.K. Chesterton; this tale doesn’t feature his usual detective, Father Brown, but is from 1921 and the sleuthing is done by Horne Fisher. It’s a vaguely spooky tale with a very satisfying end. Then there’s Death on the Air by Ngaio Marsh; I read a *lot* of Marsh back in the day, and this lives up to the standard I expect from her. An elderly tyrant is found dead by his radio; was he electrocuted? And how? And which of his bullied family could be responsible? Great fun!

The Marsh is followed by Persons or Things Unknown by Carter Dickson (pen name of John Dickson Carr). Needless to say, there’s a kind of locked room mystery, but there are spooky elements and the bulk of the story is set in the past. I found this to be one I needed to read in daylight…. Trailing after the Dickson is Dead Man’s Hand by E.R. Punshon; the latter is again an author I’ve not come across before, but I loved this short and punchy story about the effects of guilt – excellent stuff! Then we have The Christmas Eve Ghost by Ernest Dudley, with a slightly more noir setting and a clever trap to catch a killer. Dick Whittington’s Cat, which follows, is by Victor Canning, a prolific author much neglected nowadays. I don’t think he’s usually remembered for his mysteries, but this clever seasonal tale of burglary is very entertaining.

The title story, by Cyril Hare, is another short punchy one about how retribution for past wicked deeds can come at the most unlikely time and in the most unlikely fashion – great fun! This is followed by another big name in crime writing, Margery Allingham with On Christmas Day in the Morning. A postie has been found dead, but proving how he was killed is impossible because of the route he took on his round. It will take all of Mr. Campion’s empathy to unravel the sad solution behind things. Give Me A Ring by Anthony Gilbert is the longest entry in the collection, at around 80 pages almost stretching to a novella; and it’s most entertaining, telling a nail-biting tale of an innocent young woman who strays into the path of some dangerous criminals during a London fog; the tension does ramp up towards the end! And finally there’s The Turn Again Bell by Barry Perowne, which is more of a slightly spooky Christmas tale than a mystery, but it’s an enjoyable and fitting end to the book.

What do these books have in common? Hint – it’s *not* that they’re about Christmas…. ;D

The observant amongst you will notice that the above adds up to 11 stories – and the one I want to mention last is the Surprise for Christmas I mentioned above! The tale is called Father Christmas Comes to Orbins by Julian Symons, and it’s a brilliant story of a meticulously planned burglary that goes wrong. However, as I read it I was hit by a massive attack of deja vu and became convinced that I’d read something very like it before. I had a dig through some of my other BL short story collections and could find nothing, until I suddenly hit on the idea of looking at last year’s festive book, “The Christmas Card Crime”. It did indeed feature a Symons story, entitled ‘Twixt the Cup and the Lip – and as I looked at the opening pages of that one, I realised that they were indeed the same story!! (Which is proof that I *do* actually remember what I read).

Looking at the introductions, it seems that the original version (Orbins) was published in 1963 in the Illustrated London News; the later one (Twixt) was published in 1965 in the Ellery Queen Magazine. So I presume that the title was changed for the US and that’s where the confusion arose! I was quite amused after I’d worked out what was going on, and relieved to find I wasn’t going completely insane. And it *is* a good story and definitely deserves to be featured in these collections – whichever title it’s under! 😀

Anyway, that’s by the by; the bottom line is that this is a really strong collection of Christmas stories in the BLCC range; the quality is high, the stories are entertaining, mystifying, sometimes spooky and very Christmassy. I can really recommend this collection – it’s perfect reading for the time of year!

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

“… all young readers are omnivorous…” #kennethgrahame #paganpapers

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Pagan Papers by Kenneth Grahame

In much the same way that A.A. Milne‘s career was overshadowed by the success of Winnie the Pooh, the author Kenneth Grahame is nowadays only really remembered for his classic work “The Wind in the Willows” (1908). However as a recent re-release from Mike Walmer reveals, Grahame had an illustrious career as an esteemed essayist long before his hit with “Willows”…

Grahame was born in Edinburgh in 1859, but grew up in Berkshire, spending the majority of his working life at the Bank of England. He published essays and stories in literary journals, and three collections of these were issued between 1894 and 1898; this is the first volume from 1894 which established his name.

In book-buying you not infrequently condone an extravagance by the reflection that this particular purchase will be a good investment, sordidly considered: that you are not squandering income but sinking capital. But you know all the time that you are lying. Once possessed, books develop a personality: they take on a touch of warm human life that the links them in a manner with our kith and kin.

“Pagan Papers” collects together 18 pieces and they really do make for entertaining reading. Grahame has a very individual voice, which shines through, and an interesting take on things. He considers roads, the romance of walking down them and wondering where they might lead or what adventure take you on. He ponders railways and although a little resistant to progress, recognises they have a romance of their own too. Grahame’s views on books and reading are bracing; he acknowledges what will be familiar to any bibliophile: the joy of possession and the hopeless inability to read all the books one owns. As someone basically self-taught, I was less in tune with his views in “Cheap Knowledge” where he eschews the idea of lending libraries and the access they allow everyone to learning. However, he *is* in favour of novel reading, so that’s something!

….blessed blank oblivion, happiest gift of the gods! For who, indeed, can say that the record of his life is not crowded with failure and mistake, stained with its petty cruelties of youth, its meannesses and follies of later years, all which storm and clamour incessantly at the gates of memory, refusing to be shut out?

Needless to say, Grahame’s paean to the pleasures of smoking is something which would be frowned upon nowadays, but is entertaining to read. And it’s quite surprising to see him obliquely referring to the pleasures of opium in the essay “The White Poppy” – though that might account for some of the stranger scenes in “Willows….”!!

All in all, this was a enjoyable, entertaining and, yes, quite thought-provoking collection of essays which definitely deserves to see the light of day again. Mike Walmer has released it in a nice paperback edition as part of his ‘Belles-Lettres’ series, and if you’re keen to read some classic essays (in elegant but slightly old-fashioned language, it has to be said!) I can highly recommend it to you!

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

 

Advice from a Russian sage…. @renardpress #tolstoy #gandhi

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A Letter to a Hindu by Leo Tolstoy
(translator unknown)

A slightly unusual item here on the Ramblings today, in the form of a little hand-bound pamphlet released by the lovely Renard Press. It’s entitled “A Letter to a Hindu” and is by none other than Leo Tolstoy; and it comes with an introduction by Mahatma Gandhi! I confess it’s not a work of Tolstoy’s that I’d come across before, and so it was a real treat to get this as part of my Renard subscription (I know they like to bring out more neglected works by great authors) – and it did indeed make fascinating reading.

As the excellent supporting material explains, Tolstoy’s letter was written in 1908 to Tarak Nath Das, a Bengali scholar and revolutionary who was campaiging to free India from British Colonial rule and approached Tolstoy for support. However, that towering figure of Russian literature provided a response that perhaps was not what was wanted; although if you know anything about Tolstoy you might not be surprised…

At the point of writing the letter, the Russian author had less than two years left to live; and by then had become an intense Christian activist and pacificist. Therefore, his response to was to counsel against violence, instead suggesting that the Indian people should undertake peaceful protests and strikes. His teaching had a profound effect on Ghandi, who would go on to follow this advice to great effect. As I mentioned in my review of “A Philosophy of Walking“, learning of the vile behaviour of the British colonialists was a real shock, and so it was fascinating to see the chain of influence back to Tolstoy and to think that the latter had had a part in ending the British Empire (thank goodness…)

Tolstoy’s strong moral and religious beliefs shine through in his letter; and interestingly he is of the opinion that the Indian people (and indeed all enslaved peoples) almost collude in their condition by fighting violence with violence. If you respond in this way you are no better than those oppressing you, and therefore the pacifist approach is one he espouses. Does this work in real terms? I’m not enough of a historian (or even a psychologist!) to know; but certainly history is littered with examples of passive, non-violent resistance. I think, however, that if the oppressor is evil enough, pacifism will not really be effective. One element that did fascinate me here, though, was that in 1908 Tolstoy was referring to various indigenous peoples struggling against subjection and refers to “a Negro defending himself against the North Americans” – which seems to place him remarkably ahead of his time…

As you might have guessed, this little booklet really does provide a lot of food for thought. It’s a beautifully produced item in its own right, printed on quality paper and hand-bound; and as I said, it has excellent notes and extra material to support the main text. I *have* had occasional issues with Tolstoy and his views over recent years, but there’s no denying his power as a writer; and this is an excellent addition to your Russian classics shelf (you *do* all have one of those, don’t you???) 😀

Finding out more about a new indie press – @renardpress over @shinynewbooks!

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Something a little different to share with you today! You may well have noticed me blethering on about the lovely books and pamphlets produced by Renard Press, a new indie publisher on the block who are producing some quite beautiful editions at the moment. I have taken out a subscription to their items and just look how lovely these are!

It turns out that the man behind Renard is the multi-talented Will Dady; and I first encountered Will a while back when he was working for another indie publisher and was very kind when it came to supplying review copies! Will’s set out on his own with Renard, and I thought it might be interesting to find out more about his background, plans for the press and the kind of book he intends to print and publish. Will kindly agreed to be quizzed and you can read the results here over at Shiny New Books! Renard’s website is here, and I do feel they’re an indie to watch. I’m looking forward to seeing what they release next, and look out for my thoughts on one of their recent publications soon…. ;D

“Every body of water is drawn to the sea” @QCfiction #ineverywave

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In Every Wave by Charles Quimper.
Translated by Guil Lefebvre

Earlier in the year, I read a fascinating review of “The Electric Baths” by Jean-Michel Fortier on Tony’s always interesting blog. After I commented on his post, the publisher of the book, QC Fiction, contacted me and kindly offered me a review copy. I was very keen to read the book, but when it turned up they’d actually also sent along another slim volume they publish – “In Every Wave” by Charles Quimper. To my eternal shame, it’s taken me until now to pick up one of the books, but for some reason the Quimper called recently – and what a remarkable novella it is. I say remarkable, but it’s also one of the most gut-wrenching and emotionally draining books I’ve ever read. It’s not gruesome or violent and horrific; yet if you’re a parent, I think that “In Every Wave” will tap into your worst nightmares.

The story is a first person narrative, told by a man who has lost his daughter while swimming one summer. This proposition in itself is heartbreaking enough; and as the book opens he has set sail in a boat in search of his lost child in the hope of being reunited with her. As he narrates his journey in the small craft, he looks back on the events of that fateful day. Tormented by the most unbearable guilt, he gradually reveals how his relationship with his wife Marie suffered after the accident; and as their relationship dies, his own sanity seems threatened… His daughter of course is not findable in this world; whether he will find her elsewhere is another matter.

“In Every Wave” is first and foremost a brilliant piece of writing, as Quimper portrays vividly a man on the edge; that moment of inattention which led to tragedy is played out over and over again, although each time the story changes a little so the reader is never quite sure what actually happened by the water that day. The narrator is haunted by the sound of water in his house; he sees that liquid as his way back to his lost child and the more he thinks along these lines, the less rational he seems. In the end, it’s unclear what is the truth and what imagined in his narrative; all that remains is his pain.

I am a dying star, a fading supernova, but there is strength yet in my hands and somewhere in my chest. If I search long enough I’ll find you. It’s inevitable.

I described the book in my opening paragraph in quite dramatic terms, and that’s because I write as someone who was an anxious parent of all three Offspring. I lived in terror of that moment when you took your eyes off your child for a single moment and the unthinkable happened. That this is the premise of “In Every Wave” really hit a nerve, and I found the book terrifying and moving in equal amounts. The way Quimper conveys the narrator’s despair is utterly convincing, and I felt emotionally exhausted after reading the story. It was 78 pages of pure emotion for me, and I applaud his achievement while having to take a bit of time out to recover from the story.

As far as I can tell, this is Quimper’s first and only fiction, and it’s a remarkable achievement. Reading his portrayal of a father consumed by grief is quite shattering; and it will resonate with anyone who’s ever been an anxious parent. I hadn’t intended to read this book from QC first, as it was “Electric Baths” I’d expressed interest in. But I’m so grateful to Peter McCambridge for sending this over; it’s a devastating and stunning read, and spot on in its depiction of the intensity of parental love. Quite unforgettable.

*****

Other lovely bloggers have written eloquently about the book and you can find their thoughts here:

Tredynasdays

Winstonsdad’s Blog

Tony’s Reading List

ANZ Litlovers

My Life in Books – 2020!

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I spotted this meme first on Annabel’s blog and then Lisa picked it up, and I thought it would be fun to do – not sure that I have ever taken part in this before:

Using only books you have read this year (2020), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title. (Links in the titles will take you to my reviews where they exist)

In high school I was: Settling Scores (Various)

People might be surprised by: The Art of the Great Dictators (Joshua Rothes)

I will never be: The Woman in the Wardrobe (Peter Shaffer)

My life in lockdown was like: The Year of Reading Dangerously (Andy Miller)

My fantasy job is: Settling the World (M. John Harrison)

At the end of a long day I need: A Sound Mind (Paul Morley)

I hate being: Beyond the Fell Wall (Richard Skelton)

Wish I had: A Russian Journey (Paul Hogarth and Alaric Jacob)

My family reunions are (a): Journey Through a Tragicomic Century (Francis Nenik; translated by Katy Derbyshire)

At a party you’d find me with: The Carlyles at Home (Thea Holme)

I’ve never been to: Paris (Michael Schwab)

A happy day includes: Three Types of Solitude (Brian Aldiss)

Motto I live by:  Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead (Milan Kundera)

On my bucket list is: A Time in Rome (Elizabeth Bowen)

In my next life, I want to have: Happy Half Hours (A.A. Milne)

I did this quickly so what it actually tells you about my life and my reading habits, I don’t quite know – but it was great fun to do.

Do join in – what will *your* 2020 reading say about your life! 😀

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