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#ReadIndies – some independent publishers from my shelves!

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As you might have noticed, we’re edging ever closer to February and Reading Independent Publishers Month! Hopefully you’ve all been trawling your TBRs to find suitable reads, or even purchasing the odd book or three to help support our smaller presses. However, I thought it might be nice to share a few images of some of my indie books – let’s face it, gratuitous pictures of books are always fun, and this also might give you a few ideas for interesting reads, should you need them. So here goes!

First up, let’s take a look at Fitzcarraldo Editions, the subject of Lizzy and my Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight last year:

These are books from the publisher I’ve read – quite a few of them actually! And all were marvellous, whether blue fiction or white non-fiction titles. However, I still have some unread:

All of these look wonderful, and there are also some ARCs hanging about the house too. There will definitely be Fitzcarraldo titles read during February – watch this space to see which ones! 😀

Next up let’s have some Versos:

Verso are a left-wing publisher with a wide range of publications from politics and philosophy to fiction and biography (and they do a diary and a notebook…) I signed up for their book club last year and haven’t regretted it – some fascinating physical books (and shedloads of ebooks) have come my way and I am also certain there will be Verso books appearing in Febuary’s posts. I mean, look! A Saramago I haven’t read yet!!

A more recent discovery for me has been Little Toller:

A smaller collection of these so far – but both were recent successes (the Skelton is here and the Thorpe here). I have another Little Toller lurking which promises to be just as good!

One of my all time favourite indie presses is Notting Hill Editions, and I have a larger collection of these:

NHE produced beautiful books, often essay collections or anthologies, but also works which are unclassifiable – but all are wonderful, and since they published my beloved Perec and Barthes they’re always welcome on my shelves. Plus, they *also* do notebooks… ;D

Let’s see what else I can track down – well, here’s a few things from another lockdown discovery, Sublunary Editions:

Based in the USA, they publish all manner of fascinating texts in different formats and I’ve loved what I’ve read from them so far. Like many of the indies, they push the boundaries in terms of both form and content, which is wonderful.

Based ‘oop North’ in Manchester, Comma Press produced some amazing books; as well as two wonderful collections of M. John Harrison’s shorter works, I loved their Book of Newcastle.

Here are the MJH books; Comma is definitely an imprint worth exploring!

A publisher I’ve been reading for a bit longer is Pushkin Press and here’s some of my collection (probably not all of them, as I they’re not all shelved together):

Not shown here are my Russian author Pushkins which are on my Russian shelves. But you can see a few other interesting publishers like Peter Owen, Calder, Granta and Melville House Press (assuming they’re all indies…)

Some poetry next, in the form of Bloodaxe Books:

Again, this is not all my Bloodaxes – I have several on the poetry shelves and also the TBR. The great Basil Bunting features here and plenty of stuff which hails from Newcastle. Really, I should consider doing a month of reading only poetry…

Back to US publishers, and here we have some works from NYRB Classics – again, I’m presuming they count as an indie press. I’ve read a *lot* of their books and have many TBR – always fascinating, and lovely to see them reissuing so many lost works.

And last, a couple of more recent finds, in the form of Fum d’Estampa and Renard Press:

Here you can see a few of my Fum d’Estampa titles – beautiful translations from the Catalan, and in such lovely covers. At least one of their books will be featuring in #ReadIndies month! And next to them is the beautiful shiny edition of Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” from Renard Press – here is another image:

Both of these indies are presses I’ve subscribed to, and haven’t regretted it; a regular supply of interesting and beautiful new reading material has been helping keep me sane in these pandemic times.

So there you go – just a few of the indie books on my shelves. There are so many other publishers I could have mentioned or featured, had I more time and space (and been able to find them – where *is* my small collection of Peirene Press books???) But hopefully this might give you some ideas of what to read during February – there are riches to be found from independent publishers! 😀

….in which I experience a rare reading failure…. #JapaneseLitChallenge14

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The Housekeeper and The Professor by Yoko Ogawa
Translated by Stephen Snyder

Well, it’s rare that I experience a reading failure, as I always try to choose books I think will give me *something* or that I’ll engage with. However, my first read of 2021, a book I chose for the Japanese Literature Challenge, turned out to be not one for me. The book in question is “The Housekeeper and The Professor” by Yoko Ogawa, and it comes highly rated; I’ve seen any number of glowing reviews, and bloggers I follow love it. I don’t, and I’ll try to explain why.

Plotwise, the book is initially intriguing; a young woman is employed as a housekeeper for an ageing professor of mathematics; the latter has memory issues following an accident decades ago, and can only retain memories from the last 80 minutes after which things are wiped clean and his memory starts again. Anything from before the accident is fine, so he still has his mathematical skills, but day to day living is problematic. The Housekeeper is employed by his sister-in-law, referred to throughout as The Widow, and the other character in the story is the housekeeper’s son. He’s nicknamed Root because his flat head reminds The Professor of the square root sign; and the book follows the bonds that develop between the three main characters, while The Housekeeper copes with having to reintroduce herself to her employer every morning…

So far, so good – the premise of the book *is* appealing. However, I had a number of issues which in brief are:

1. I failed to engage with any of the characters; the writing felt flat, the main protagonists underdeveloped and I felt detached from the whole reading experience.
2. The plot was again underdeveloped; there was far too much unsaid and unexplored, and several hints were so low-key you could miss them. Without giving too much away, there was a situation with The Widow and The Professor which could, and should, have been expanded – I think my feelings boil down to the fact that this book was very undercooked and could have been much more than it actually was.
3. I understand why the author gave the characters titles, not names, as I imagine they were meant to represent that part of Japanese society – an esteemed Professor, a lowly Housekeeper – but that didn’t help with the distancing effect.
4. In many ways, I often felt that the setting of Japan was irrelevant to the book and it could have been anywhere – I never got a strong feeling of being in Japan.
5. Baseball and Maths…. Much of the plot (and the book) hangs on the twin prongs of baseball and maths. The Professor sees the world in terms of numbers and attempts to transmit this to The Housekeeper and Root. And strangely, for an uneducated person who’s had to bring herself up, she grasps compex formulae and sees the beauty of numbers. The book is riddled with formulae which lost me – I’m not mathematical and tbh this left me cold – and I found this element too prominent. As for baseball, the Professor and Root are obsessed by it (fair enough); but it becomes again the most important thing for the little pseudo-family, and dominates the book to the point that I completely switched off.

Well, I could go on, but I won’t. You might wonder why I actually finished the book, but I found it so slight that I read it in a day; I kept hoping it would develop into something stronger, but it didn’t. The end frankly peters out and I was left wondering what had been the point? If Ogawa was trying to show that the most unlikely combination of people can form a kind of family group, she could have done so without being so heavy on the maths and baseball, and in fact what happens in the book could be told in novella length. There was so sketchy a backstory for the characters that I could find nothing to latch onto; they seemed like stereotyped cardboard cut outs to me. And much more should have been made of The Widow. There *were* some nice touches to the story; the fact that The Professor had little scraps of paper attached to his clothing to remind him of important things; the occasional hint to events in the past which had led up to the current situation; but these were not enough to compensate for the rest of it.

Enough. This was not a book for me, and I’m just glad that I didn’t spend longer with it. I accept that it may just be me; my expectations may have been too high and I could have been anticipating a completely different book; and I know many love it. But I found it slight, underdeveloped and completely underwhelming. I don’t often write negative reviews, but this was an unfortunate start to my Japanese Literature Month reading, and I wanted to at least share my thoughts. If you’ve read the book and felt differently, do tell me why! As for my copy, I shall pass it on to my old friend J. who is a bit of a Japanophile – maybe it will work better for her! 😀

“…I’m attracted to the lake, like a seagull…” #Chekhov @AntonSKorenev

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The Seagull by Anton Chekhov
Translated and adapted by Anton Korenev

It’s been a little while since we had any Russians here on the Ramblings, so what better way to greet a grey January than with some time spent with that country’s greatest playwright – Anton Chekhov! (I don’t think anyone would argue with that sweeping statement, although Russia has some amazing authors who’ve written plays). Here I must make a confession – despite having read and loved many, many of Chekhov’s short stories, I can’t be sure if I’ve ever read any of his plays… (*gasps of horror from the audience*) So when I was offered the chance to read a new translation of “The Seagull” I did of course jump at it… ;D

The new version is translated/adapted by Anton Korenev, a Russian director and actor who is also an attorney in New York. His original intention was to present the play in theatres; the pandemic, of course, has rather got in the way of that plan… However, his version is published this year and he was kind enough to offer an ARC of the book – which I was very keen to read!

Chekhov described his play as a comedy with “…Many conversations about literature, little action, and five poods [181 pounds] of love.” As the publicity material goes on to reveal, “Medvedenko loves Masha, Masha loves Treplev, Treplev loves Nina, and Nina loves Trigorin, all while Shamrayev loves Polina Andreyevna, Polina Andreyevna loves Dorn, Dorn loves Arkadina, and Arkadina loves Trigorin.” Phew! That is indeed a lot of unrequited love!

Life should be portrayed not as it is, and not as it should be, but as it is being imagined in dreams.

The play takes place on the country estate of Pyotr Sorin. His sister, the famous actress Irina Arkadina, is in residence along with her young lover, the writer Boris Trigorin. Irina’s son, Treplev, has written a new modern play which is being staged in the grounds, Nina, a young woman from a neighbouring estate, is taking the leading role. The performance does not go well, leading to all sorts of fallings out, and the love triangles continue to become more complicated, getting even more tangled when two characters actually find themselves in love with each other! But jealousy, fickle feelings and reality will get in the way of any real happiness and the death of a titular seagull will foreshadow later tragedy.

Once there’s love in the heart, it should be thrown out.

I have to say first of all that I was surprised to find “The Seagull” described as a comedy, because although there *is* humour in it, there’s a lot of darker stuff. Obviously there’s a staggering amount of high emotion in the play, with everyone yearning after someone who has no interest in them. This can be, and often is, humorous, but it leads to some real heartbreak and unhappy relationships. Then there’s the issue of whether it’s better to have commercial or artistic success; Irina is a famous actress, ageing but still convinced of her talent; whereas Nina is younger and determined to make her name in new, modern works. Which kind of success is best? And of course this leads onto another topic, the huge difference between the characters’ perceptions of their lives and work, and the reality of this. Nina is young and idealistic; Irina older and theoretically more experienced; both, however, fool themselves over the truth of their life. The writers are no better off, experiencing disillusionment throughout the play, and it’s not a spoiler to say that there is tragedy of many kinds at the end. Trigorin, in particular, struggles with his need to write; everything he encounters instantly enters into his world of fiction and the compulsion to convert each new experience this way stops him actually living.

Anton Chekhov by Iosif Braz, 1898
© State Tretyakov Gallery

“The Seagull” in written form is a relatively quick read, yet leaves so much to think about (as I would expect from Chekhov). There’s an overarching sense of melancholy, despite the humour, and I felt a huge empathy for all the characters and their dilemmas. This being a Russian drama, there was never going to be a happy ending but the sacrifices made by many of the characters were immense. As for the seagull? Let’s just say it’s very symbolic…

I’m not sure, really, why it’s taken me so long to get round to reading a Chekhov play, because I love his fiction! And as this is the first play for me, it’s perhaps difficult for me to comment directly on the translation as I don’t speak Russian. However, the play read beautifully, there was nothing which felt anachronistic and the whole thing had a very ‘Chekhovian’ feel to me – so I take that to mean that it’s a good rendition! 😀 I have to thank Anton for kindly offering me an ARC of “The Seagull”, because it’s finally pushed me to read one of the great Russian author’s plays – and a wonderful experience it was! Highly recommended!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher; you can read more about it here)

Shuffling the stacks – and revamping the reading projects!

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Post-Christmas, with all the new bookish arrivals, I got into that slightly overwhelmed frame of mind, with all the books all over the place and clamouring for attention. As I shared on social media, I decided to have a bit of a reshuffle – this always tends to clarify the mind as well as reminding me what books I actually own! But there was an added impetus to this, as a Twitter conversation with Retroculturati had reminded me that I had two boxes of Penguin collections somewhere in the house… A bit of digging about revealed them and this is what I found:

Penguin Great Loves box set

Penguin English Journeys box set

The observant amongst you will be aware of my Penguin Reading Projects: I’m gradually making my way through the Penguin Moderns box as well as the Penguin Modern Poets and the Penguin Great Ideas. These are not projects that will be completed any time soon… However, the temptation to add the English Journeys and Great Loves to my Penguins was immense and after a lot of shuffling I ended up with this:

Please excuse my rubbish photography skills – the unit is not lopsided, I’ve just made it look so….

I was pleased to discover that all the various Penguins for the projects fit nicely on this little bookcase and this will help me keep my mind clearer about them. To look more closely at each shelf:

The top shelf has my Penguin Modern box set, alongside the Little Black Classics. I’ve read a lot of the latter, but I by no means own them all. So that’s going to be a long-term project!

Next up the middle shelf. This houses the Penguin Modern Poets and the Penguin Great Ideas. Once again, I am far from owning all of these! Another project is actually going to be getting hold of all of the missing books!

Finally, on the bottom shelf, we have the Penguin English Journeys and the Penguin Great Loves. Both fit nicely on the shelf, with a bit of space, which is very convenient…. Because the conversation I had with Retroculturati started when they shared an image of some Penguin Great Journeys books, and I wasn’t sure if I’d come across that set. A quick online search revealed that they might be another series I would be interesting in reading. And as I had a Christmas gift card lurking – well, this happened:

Ahem. I’ve only got four of the titles so far (with one more on the way) but I think this will be an equally lovely set of books to make my way through. This one and the English Journeys are particularly appealing during these times when we’re not allowed to travel!!

So now the bottom shelf of the case looks like this:

And pleasingly, there’s plenty of space to fit in more Great Journeys. Having done all this, I suppose at some point I’ll have to update my Penguin Projects pages to reflect the new sets. Gulp – I hope I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew! 😀

“The water is always murky…” @nyrbclassics #Gide #Marshlands

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Marshlands by Andre Gide
Translated by Damion Searls

The first proper book review on the blog for 2021 is actually for a volume I finished at the tail end of 2020. After fighting my way out of the “Underland” book hangover, I actually sped through a few books quite quickly – one of which was “Marshlands” by Andre Gide.

Gide is a writer already present on my shelves; in fact I have mainly old Penguins of his works, most of which date back to being purchased in the 1980s! Despite having owned these for ages, I can’t actually be sure if I’ve read any; so there’s a certain typical irony that I should actually end up reading a shiny new book by the author instead of those on my shelves. However, having loved this one, it may be the spur I need to go to read more Gide in 2021!

Andre Gide (1869-1951) was a prolific author, producing novels, short stories, poetry, plays, travel writing and autobiography during his long career. A winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1947, he’s considered by many the greatest French author of the 20th century (which is no mean claim when you consider what talent the country produced during that 100 year period). His writings seem to range far and wide, and his politics are fascinating – for example, he was brave enough to speak out about where Russian Communism had gone wrong after visits to that country in the 1930s. However, “Marshlands” is a book from the early part of his career; first published in 1895 under the French title “Paludes”, it’s now being reissued by NYRB in a sparkly new translation by Damion Searls.

“Marshlands” is a book about a man writing a book called ‘Marshlands’… which kind of gives you the idea right from the start that is is a satirical work! The sub-version of ‘Marshlands’ is about a reclusive man who lives all alone in a stone tower, studying the marshes. However, our narrator/author is anything but reclusive; instead he spends all his time as a social butterfly. Whether visiting friends, receiving friends, making himself available at the lovely Angela’s salon, or taking an abortive trip out of Paris with her, he seems to spend a *lot* of time mixing, and very little writing! When asked by friends what he’s doing, he of course attempts to explain that he’s writing ‘Marshlands’, but the plot is vague, and his fellow socialites seem unable to grasp the point. Whether our author does either is debatable…

Silence, man of letters! First of all, I only care about the insane, and you are frightfully reasonable.

If “Marshlands” is a reliable portrait of the Paris literary period of the time, it’s frankly a miracle that *anything* got written! The constant flitting from occasion to occasion, whilst declaiming one’s artistic trials and tribulations, is very funny indeed. Gide gives his narrator an almost deadpan tone, the fictional author quite convinced of his genius and importance; attributed which are on display by most of the characters, in fact; and the narrator seems incapable of recognising his friends’ dismissive attitude towards him and his work!

I said nothing as usual. When a philosopher answers you, he makes it impossible for you to understand in the slightest what you had asked him.

The satirical element alone would be enough to make this a wonderful read; however, the meta elements appealed too, with Gide very cleverly building in the different levels of a book about an author writing a book, and even including extracts from the ‘Marshlands’ written by the narrator – which certainly served to convince me that he was nowhere near as good an author as Gide himself!

It’s nerves, I think; they come over me every time I make a list.

“Marshlands” turned out to be a wonderfully playful and entertaining portrait of a man who thinks he’s busy and involved, but in fact really seems to be fighting off ennui. There are so many clever elements to it; for example, the fact that the narrator keeps a planner to try to organise his life, but if he fails to live up to something he intended, e.g. getting up at 8 a.m, he just alters the planner to make it fit what actually happened! As he says at one point:

I arrange facts to make them conform to the truth more closely than they do in real life.

Which I suppose is a statement you could apply to most fiction writers…

Unknown author, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Anyways, as they say; if I haven’t read any Gide before this, that’s my loss, because it really was a clever, funny and intriguing read. The book comes with an interesting foreword by Dubravka Ugresic (and I had to applaud her when she stated “There is no one single favourite book for a bona fide lover of literature”.) It’s translated brilliantly by Damion Searls; I say ‘brilliantly’ because I think, from his comments in his ‘Translator’s Note’, that he’s done a good job of compromising at a sensible point between sticking to old-fashioned language which might have been more of Gide’s era and bringing in too many modernisms. The book was a great end to 20201, a brilliant and very funny read; and hopefully 2021 really *will* be the year I read more Gide! 😀

*****

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks. I should say, too, that this edition comes with some excellent extra material, in the form of two excised scenes, a later afterword by Gide and several other items – so it’s definitely the version to seek out!

Announcing Reading Independent Publishers Month #ReadIndies (February 2021)

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For the past few years there have been a number of publisher focused fortnights. There have been 2 Pushkin Press fortnights (I definitely took part in one), 1 NYRB fortnight, 1 Seagull Books Fortnight and last year Lizzy and I co-hosted Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight. We started talking about a second …

But remembering that 2020 was rough on everyone (who could possibly forget!), singling out one publisher for a focussed event didn’t seem fair. So we decided to highlight and support as many independent publishers as we can by spending a whole month reading from their lists. February 2021 is hereby designated #ReadIndies month.

The badge names 32 independent publishers based in the UK. There are many more. Apologies if your favourite is not listed, but there had to be a cut-off somewhere. Neither does this mean that reading is restricted to UK publishers. Global reading is encouraged for this event!

Lizzy and I are currently busy reviewing our TBRs in preparation. We are amazed at the variety of reading available. The challenge will be whittling our choices down to a manageable shortlist. An enjoyable one, of course.

Is it one that appeals to you? Will you join #ReadIndies next month?

2021 – dare I make tentative bookish plans????

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That’s a good question on a number of levels really, as 2020 was something of a hideous year and frankly 2021 isn’t looking any better at the moment…  Add in the fact that as a rule, I’m rubbish with challenges or events and you get the picture… However, I *am* going to commit to a couple of things in the first half of the year and we’ll see how it goes!

First up is Japanese Literature Challenge 14 from Dolce Bellezza:

I pretty much always try to take part in this but don’t always succeed. I love Japanese Lit, though, and have any number of books I could read, so I will try..

Coming  up in April, I will be co-hosting the 1936 Club with Simon from Stuck in a Book; our clubs are always such fun and this looks to be another great year – do join in if you can! 😀

I don’t know if there is a formal challenge for this, but I want to spend as much time as possible in 2021 reading from the stacks; Mount TBR is in a ridiculous state, desperately needing pruning and I would like to make some serious inroads. So I shall try to limit the incomings and read what I have (which is enough to keep me going for a lifetime). Will I be able to resist the lure of the new and shiny? We shall see.

There are, of course, all manner of reading events in the second half of the year; Women in Translation month, for example, which takes place in August, as does All Virago/All August – I sometimes try to combine the two. And November is stuffed to the gills with challenges, from Non-fiction November, to Novellas, to German Lit Month and many more. I usually try to do those too, but that’s not for a while so I shan’t worry about them now!

Apart from that, I plan to keep it fluid and read what takes my fancy. However, there *is* one rather special reading event in which I shall be taking part… But you’ll have to wait for more news on that! ;D

 

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