#ReadIndies – an update and an extension!


It appears that February 2021 was too short a month for your hostesses to review all the books from independent publishers they have read for the event.  It might be the case for you too.  So we’re extending the deadline for reviews until midnight March 6, 2021.  Thereafter we’ll publish an index of all the #ReadIndies reviews, of which there are many covering books from over 50 publishers!   We’ll also reveal the most popular publisher of the event and the most popular title.  Can you guess what they will be?

PS If you’ve reviewed for the event, please add your review to the linky over at https://readindies2021.blogspot.com/2021/01/our-indie-bookshelf.html.


“… our relationship to nature has become warped.” @NottingHillEds #ReadIndies


Today on the Ramblings my focus for #ReadIndies is another indie publisher of which I’m a huge fan, and who feature in my reading regularly – the very wonderful Notting Hill Editions! NHE are celebrating their tenth birthday this year, and it’s been a decade of producing some beautiful and wonderful books. I’ve reviewed a wide range of them on the blog, and I have to say I’m a massive fan. NHE focus on the essay form, but this is not exclusive, and they’ve some wonderfully unexpected and left-of-centre works which might not have caught my attention otherwise. If I recall correctly, my first NHE may have been a Perec anthology; and then there’s the two works of A.J. Lees they’ve published, “Mentored by a Madman” and “Brazil That Never Was”, which really don’t fit into any category (hurrah!). There’s a brilliant collection of Virginia Woolf essays; likewise Montaigne and Priestley. Really, I could go on and on, but I would urge you instead to visit their website and be tempted…

Anyway, today’s book is a new release from NHE, coming out on 9th March, and it’s a new anthology titled “Sauntering: Writers Walk Europe”. Edited and introduced by Duncan Minshull, it’s a companion volume to “Beneath My Feet”, another anthology he put together for NHE, which I reviewed here. Minshull’s been described as ‘the laureate of walking’, and as I loved his first collection I was very keen to read this one too!

Dérives involve playful behaviour and awareness of psycho-geographical effects, and are quite different from the classic notions of a journey or a stroll. (Guy Debord)

Well, the list of contributors is impressive: from Mark Twain through Elizabeth von Arnim, Joseph Roth, George Sand, Rilke, Joseph Conrad, Edith Wharton, Guy Debord and right up to date with Robert Macfarlane, the authors featured write about walking in all manner of countries, all kinds of time period and from a huge range of viewpoints. The extracts vary in length, from half a page to several, and make fascinating and joyous reading!

… Nature has acquired a purpose where we are concerned. Its task is to amuse us. It no longer exists for its own sake. It exists to satisfy a function. In summer it provides woods where we can picnic and doze, lakes where we can row, meadows where we can bask, sunsets to send us into raptures, mountains for walking tours, and beauty spots for day-trips. We have Baedeker-ized nature. (Joseph Roth)

I have to admit that I have the same issue with anthologies as I do with short story collections, in that I really don’t like to pick out favourites! However, a few pieces which stood out particularly were Joseph Roth‘s lament on the commercialisation of travel (a sentiment Stefan Zweig would agree with…); Robert Louis Stevenson‘s passionate notes on forests; George Sand‘s joy in striding freely around Paris in male garb, unhindered by the usual restrictions placed on her sex; Guy Debord‘s meditation on the dérive; and Marie Bashkirtseff‘s look at Nice with a painter’s eye. But really, I could have picked out any of the extracts, as each one is a joy and the book is eminently dippable!

I cannot tell you the pleasure derived from my boots – I would gladly have slept in them, as my brother did in his youth, when he put on his first pair. With those little iron heels, I felt secure on the sidewalks. I flew from one end of Paris to the other. Also, my clothing made me fearless. (George Sand)

As I’ve mentioned before, Notting Hill Editions not only produce fascinating books, they’re also lovely objects in their own right. As well as their hardback editions, which feature cloth covers, creamy paper and bookmark, they also issue lovely paperbacks of some of their titles. NHE are definitely one of the success stories of independent publishing, and I feel personally that’s down to them focusing on what they want to release (essays in all shapes and forms), bringing their books out in gorgeous formats, and ensuring they keep the quality up – which they certainly have!

Some of my Notting Hill Editions….

“Sauntering” was a pleasure to read from start to finish; if you’re remotely interesting in reading about walking and travelling, in the words of all manner of great authors, then this is definitely the book for youI I would suggest that it might be good for your emotions (but not necessarily for your bank account!) if you pop over and have a look at the Notting Hill Editions website – but I might be accused of being a bad influence! 😀

“…one has to think fearlessly…” @renardpress #ReadIndies #GeorgeOrwell


Today’s indie press needs no introduction on the Ramblings, as I’ve featured them many times; in fact, I even interviewed Will, the man behind the imprint, for Shiny New Books! They are, of course, Renard Press, purveyors of lovely handbound editions of a really fascinating range of works; and today I want to talk about their recent release of some essays from one of my favourite authors of all time – George Orwell!

Renard have recently issued a lovely set of Orwellian pamphlets, each featuring one of the great man’s essays; and as well as being beautiful objects, they’re a timely reminder of how relevant his writing still is. Renard’s pamphlets are hand bound, each with its own bookmark and with a removeable dustjacket; this is a lovely format, and as well as having decent sized type on quality paper (making it easy to read…), they look rather lovely on the shelves! Onto the essays themselves!

Up first is “Why I Write”, the most fundamental thing an author considers, I suppose. After providing a kind of mini summary of biography, telling of his early attempts at poetry and short stories, Orwell explores the theme of constantly telling a story in his head and covers his development as a writer. He discusses the main motivations for writing, and spells out the importance of the political and the personal meeting in his own works. His politics are as clearly laid out as his writing, and it’s obvious that he feels his best writing is that which has a political as well as artistic purpose.

Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, AGAINST totalitarianism and FOR democratic socialism, as I understand it.

Pamphlet 2 of the Essays features “Politics and the English Language”. This is a fascinating essay, which I’ve read before though possibly haven’t written about; and in it Orwell explores the kind of political language which is, as he says, “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. I’m pretty sure I’ve quoted that from an anthology of his writing before, and he’s spot on. In this world of spin and fake news and the media feeding us constant lies, Orwell’s commentary on the distortion of political language is an essential counterpoint to the nonsense being flung at us from every angle. Quite brilliant.

In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.

The third essay is “The Prevention of Literature”, which I’ve read before in one of my Penguin Great Ideas volumes. It’s a deep and thoughtful discussion of how political regimes affect the literature of their authors, and Orwell is so clear eyed about the effect of totalitarianism on writing, on what can survive during a dictatorship and about the pressures on authors. Interestingly, he thinks poetry has the best chance in a country under tight control, and he may well be right. Lots of food for thought here.

…in England the immediate enemies of truthfulness, and hence of freedom of thought, are the press lords, the film magnates and the bureaucrats…

Pamphlet 4 contains “Politics vs. Literature”, the longest of the four essays, and a really fascinating one. It’s subtitled “An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels”, and in it Orwell takes a close look not only Swift’s great work but also his politics and viewpoints. Despite loving Swift and his book, Orwell is critical of the thinking expressed in the book, even equating Swift with Tolstoy when it comes to both men’s intolerance. Nevertheless, he does feel that despite his disagreement with Swift politically he loves the book, considering it a great work of art; and feels that even if a book expresses a viewpoint with which he disagrees, it can still be good!

Orwell is always a wonderful essayist to read, expressing his arguments so clearly and in such seemingly plain yet actually quite sophisticated language. I have numerous collections of his writings, but somehow reading them in pamphlet form worked quite brilliantly. Not only was I not pressured or overwhelmed by the vast amount of his wisdom waiting to be discovered, the format is a pleasure to read physically, and there is time to pause after finishing each pamphlet to reflect. I don’t know if Renard are planning to issue more Orwell essays like this, but I do hope they do. It’s a wonderful initiative, a great way to visit (or revisit) the great man’s works, and they really *are* going to look pretty on my Orwell shelf… [ You *do* all have an Orwell shelf, don’t you? 😉 ]

“…something intangible, a veil, a glimmer of unreality…” #ReadIndies @Influxpress #MarieNDiaye


When I was planning which books and publishers I wanted to spend time with during #ReadIndies month, I had a pretty good idea of what I intended to read and cover. However, there’s always a spanner in the works – and in this case it was a very good one! I was approached by Influx Press, who I’ve encountered before when I read “Plastic Emotions”; and they kindly offered a review book of a new book they were issuing, “Self Portrait in Green” by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump. The description sounded very enticing, and as NDiaye is a new author to me, I was happy to accept – and I’m very glad I did!

Marie NDiaye is a French author with an impressive record; longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker International Priz, she’s also been awarded the Prix Femina as well as being the first Black woman to win the Prix Goncourt, which is the highest honour a French writer can receive. The author of a dozen plays and works of prose, her book “Self Portrait in Green” is a novella length piece of fiction, and it’s absolutely mesmerising.

The book is told in the form of non-chronological diary entries, and the unnamed narrator seems to be a troubled and perhaps unreliable one. The novella opens with the Garonne River preparing to flood – it’s a place that will haunt her throughout the book – and the narrator goes on to relate a series of encounters with mysterious green women. Whether taking her children to school, visiting her estranged family members, or conversing with a suidical woman who may or may not already be dead, the image of green women possesses her. Real or unreal, as the narrator explores her life and her past, the idea of women turning into these strange and elusive green females becomes an obsession, and in the end it’s hard to know whether they’re part of her imagination or whether they really exist…

“Self Portrait in Green” is beautifully written and as haunting as the women it portrays. The constantly shifting locations and imagery are unsettling, the prose hints at things which aren’t seen and it’s a book that raises many questions but leaves the reader with no real answers. There’s a hint of the Gothic, a sense that the narrator may be projecting her anxieties onto these other women and a real feeling that her perceptions are unreliable. It’s a fascinating piece of writing and of course the title does suggest that the narrator is as much a women in green as the others she encounters, whatever the significance of that colouring is… Is the green the environment, the threat it’s under or the threat it brings? Green is of course the colour connected with jealousy, and that *is* an emotion which appears in the book. It’s all very intriguing, and open to interpretation, which I rather love.

On the evidence of this, Maria NDiaye is an author whose work I really would like to explore. As I said above, the writing is quite beautiful, the shifting atmospheres she creates convincing and the nebulous reality discomforting at times. I’ve no idea if this is typical of her work, but it’s a remarkable book and I’m very glad that I had the chance to include it in #ReadIndies. “Self Portrait in Green” is published on 25th February, and I highly recommend it!

“I was, I suspect, insufferable on the quiet.” #ReadIndies @RepeaterBooks #charliehill


Something a little different here on the Ramblings today for #ReadIndies month; a book by an author I haven’t read before and which I might not have picked up on had he not kindly offered me a copy. It’s published by Repeater Books, and there was debate over whether they were an indie publisher; however, they’re included on the list Lizzy sent me, so I feel justified in reviewing this one for our monthly event! The book in question is “I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal” by Charlie Hill; and its subtitle is “Stories of a Birmingham Boy“.

Hill is the author of a number of works, ranging from novels to short stories, poetry and essays. “Taj Mahal…”, as you might guess, is his foray into memoir and it’s a wonderfully engaging piece of work! Charlie grew up in Birmingham during the 1970s, 80s and 90s, and the book tells of his life in a series of short pieces ranging from a paragraph to a couple of pages. It’s a format which is unexpectedly compelling, capturing a life in vignette form and telling the story as much as by what’s not there as what is.

I was a patsy, a sap, a pawn, a heel.

So we encounter Hill as someone born in the Black Country from a family living in Birmingham, and feeling himself to be neither one thing or another. School was a torment and Hill spent more time focused on his left-wing activities than traditional learning, eventually falling into a succession of short-term jobs and equally short-lived relationships. He travels, he contemplates his identity, tries to work out what he wants to do with his life and finally comes to writing and a more settled family life. His journey to that point has taken in so much of what took place in England of those decades, including poverty, social change and the toughness of life in working class Birmingham, and this is all conveyed economically yet poetically and often very wittily.

In the autumn my fellow festival-goers and I set up a vegetarian restaurant in an art gallery in Hockley… which was run sneeringly by the Revolutionary Communist Party. The enterprise was a smoosh of fine dining and anarcho-libertarian politics: during the week we cooked high-end dal and chilli beans with coffee and cocoa to an accompaniment of Vaughan Williams, while every other weekend we had a side room at the Que Club all-nighters, distributing anti-Criminal Justice Bill flyers, and serving bowls of Coco Pops to people off their cake.

When Charlie approached me about reading “Taj Mahal…” he mentioned that comparisons had been made with Perec’s “I Remember” and I did feel that was valid as I read the book. The brevity of it makes for a really effective read because it focuses you on the events of the life, cutting away the chaff and padding which can so often fill out a chunky biography. Hill does not shy away from confronting the grittier and messier parts of his life – the sex, the substance abuse, the relationships that go wrong, the various high and low points – and reveals all, though with discretion and from his point of view. It’s a testament to the quality of his writing that he can convey so much in so few (but cleverly chosen) words and such a slim book. And it’s a work full of humour, as well as a genuine love for his family which shines through towards the end, as his life becomes more stable.

You may have guessed that I really loved reading “Taj Mahal…”! I know Birmingham a little from past regular visits to the city (and still have bookish pals there); and the sense I got of the place and the changes it’s gone through was very strong. There were obviously times when it could have been touch and go if Hill was going to survive the drinking and drugging kind of lifestyle he was leading; but I’m glad he did, and went on to tell the tale in this book. “I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal” is a funny, sad, entertaining, moving and very human read, and I highly recommend it!

“Immortality, as we understand it, is a kind of trick…” #ReadIndies @FitcarraldoEds @SashaDugdale


The focus on the Ramblings today for #ReadIndies is another of my relatively recent discoveries: Fitzcarraldo Editions, an imprint which quickly became a fast favourite and which has provided many of my top reads over the last few years. Their range encompasses fiction, published in striking blue covers, and non-fiction, which appears in white. However, intriguingly enough, I find that when I read one of their books the lines are often blurred – and I regularly find myself querying what is actually fact and what actually fiction… Today’s book may well be a case in point!

The book in question is “In Memory of Memory” by Maria Stepanova, translated by Sasha Dugdale; and it’s released in Fiztcarraldo’s white non-fiction covers. However, a recent and fascinating interview with the author on the Punctured Lines blog refers to the book as a documentary novel; well, whatever you want to categorise it as, “Memory…” is a stunning and unforgettable read!

This book about my family is not about my family at all, but something quite different: the way memory works, and what memory wants from me.

Stepanova is a poet, essayist and journalist, having produced ten poetry collections and three books of essays. As well as winning a number of awards, she’s also the founder and editor-in-chief of the onlne independent crowd-sourced journal, Colta.ru. Sasha Dugdale is already responsible for translating a collection of Stepanova’s poetry, “War and the Beasts and the Animals”, published by Bloodaxe Books (another great indie) and both women have appeared together at events discussing and reading Stepanova’s work.

“In Memory of Memory” opens with the death of Stepanova’s aunt; and the author finds herself left with an accumulation of old postcards and letters, faded photographs, diaries and souvenirs, gathered up over a century of history. As she begins to explore the story of her family as revealed (or partly hidden) by these fragments, she realises that not only does the history relate to her relations, but also to life in Russia during the 20th century. Stepanova’s family is Jewish, and therefore their history is peppered with persecutions and repressions, narrow escapes and tragedies, and it reflects the larger fate of the Jewish people during that period.

This is, however, no straightforward narrative, and Stepanova’s approach is fascinating and unusual. For example, she examines the family photograph through the lens of Sontag and Barthes; she considers the fate of artists like Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva; she relates her own personal journeys to visit locations from her family’s past; and she considers the wider aspect of history itself. This latter element is particularly interesting, as her meditations on what history is, how truthful or not it can be, and the changing relationship we have with the way we record our lives are deep and thought-provoking. The sections on our modern way of charting our every move, photographing everything we do and filling the world with images which may never been looked at again set me thinking deeply about our use of social media and our intense narcissism. In contrast to the way our ancestors lived their lives, it does often seem that we’ve got it very wrong…

However, the way we document our lives is not always so different from those in the past; the example of Charlotte Saloman, whose story Stepanova covers in detail, is deeply moving. Saloman chronicled her life in a frenzied artistic effort, producing 769 paintings in the two years before her murder in Auschwitz. The painterly version of our current obsession with Instagram? Maybe. Then there’s Francesca Woodman, an American photographer who would be roughly my age now, but who took her own life when young, leaving behind a body of nebulous, perplexting work which resists easy definition. And of course there are Rembrandt’s endless self-portraits – another early version of the selfie. As for Mandelstam, he’s a recurring presence in the book, each appearance so desperately moving. “Memory…” does not shy away from the dark elements of 20th century history; even an aside like her comment on the poet Valentin Stenich where she notes darkly, “It’s said that he did not conduct himself with honour at his interrogation. God forbid anyone should find out how we conduct ourselves at ours” is a reminder of just what horrors took place during the relatively recent past.

It’s not only the visual which features in the book, however; there are plenty of written records upon which Stepanova can draw. Interspersed with the main chapters are what she titles “Not-a-chapter” sections; these reproduce letters to and from her various ancestors and these are moving remembrances of her family, often from their younger years when courting or away fighting or working. These perhaps inform the sections where Stepanova queries our treatment of the dead; with our access to recorded history and the endless research resources available nowadays, we can reclaim them and remember them in ways they may never have wanted, instead of allowing them to quietly fade away into distant family memory. With the development in the 20th century of the technology for us to film and record ourselves and our dearest ones, we have given them a kind of fixed immortality which perhaps blurs the lines between past and present. Yet Stepanova queries whether we have lost the ability to recognise the past as the past and learn from its mistakes – something which is very relevant nowadays.

As you might have gathered, “In Memory of Memory” is an often startling and unique book, encompassing art, literature, history and so much more. It’s a work which operates successfully on a number of levels, weaving together personal history and History with a capital H, always informed by Stepanova’s “not obvious”, as she puts it, Jewish heritage. There are juxtapositions of beauty and horror – the stunning art of Charlotte Salomon followed by the stark relating of her fate. The chapter on the Siege of Leningrad in particular shows Stepanova’s skill; here, from a plethora of sources (eye witness accounts, diaries etc) she pieces together the story of Lyodik, her grandfather’s cousin, alongside that of scores of others caught in the siege, from Lydia Ginzburg who left behind her blockade diary to the tragic author Daniil Kharms who died of starvation during the siege. That particular section is remarkably powerful and packs a real emotional punch…

Leningrad during the Siege (Deror_avi, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

At one point in the narrative, Stepanova describes this as the book she was always going to write, regarding herself as her family’s chronicler and stating (perhaps with a nod to Lenin at the Finland Station):

I always knew I would someday write a book about my family, and there were even periods when this seemed to be my life‘s purpose (summarizing lives, collecting them into one narrative) because it was simply the case that I was the first and only person in the family who had a reason to speak facing outwards, peering out from intimate family conversations as if from under a fur cap, and addressing the railway station concourse of collective experience.

Certainly the family couldn’t have had a better writer to record their lives and fates, albeit in such an unusual and inspiring format. As I mentioned at the start of this post, although “Memory…” is published as non-fiction by Fitzcarraldo, Stepanova has herself described it as a novel, and she does indeed query the accuracy and literal truth of any history. Certainly, hindsight can blur our reactions to the past, our memories are often partial and mistaken (another theme in the book) and there are no real absolutes when we look back. We are human and fallible, but the best we can do is to explore the past and draw conclusions from it. What conclusions do I draw from “In Memory of Memory”? That it’s a remarkable, brilliantly written book which provokes all manner of thoughts, questions, ideas and memories in me as a reader as well as keeping me gripped from start to finish. The book is 500 pages long and I didn’t feel there was a word wasted. Intriguingly, translator Sasha Dugdale reveals in her note at the end of the book that the book evolved in its English version as author and translator collaborated together; a tribute to both of their work and they’re obviously another author/translator match made in heaven.

“In Memory of Memory” is an outstanding achievement; a personal history which extends to a wider History as well as an exploration of the culture and life of the 20th century, it’s unlike anything else I’ve read and it’s a book which will really stay with you. It’s full of riches (only some of which I’ve been able to touch upon here), and as you can see, my copy is riddled with sticky notes; I could do a whole post just of amazing quotes from it. However, it’s published today and I urge you to get a copy and read it if you can – a wonderful book and an unforgettable reading experience.

“… an elemental power.” @LittleToller @marcussedgwick #ReadIndies


Today on the blog, I’m off to explore for #ReadIndies a book from a lovely indie press which is relatively new to me – Little Toller Books. I’m not entirely sure where I came across them, but it was probably on book Twitter; and they’re a publisher specialising in classic and new writing about nature, wildlife and landscape. I’ve read and loved two of their books so far – “Beyond the Fell Wall” and “On Silbury Hill“. Both are part of the Little Toller Monographs range, and today’s book is another one of those – “Snow” by Marcus Sedgwick.

Since every snowflake must take an individual path towards the ground, no two will have had precisely the same conditions for growth, and so no two will be alike.

Sedgwick is an author and illustrator with many prizes under his belt; and “Snow” takes a very personal look at that white fluffy stuff that appears to be so pretty but can be so devastating to the human species. Divided into six sections, to replicate the six points of a snowflake, the book explores different aspects of show – from the science, the art inspired by it, its histories and mythologies to the transformations it brings about. Sedgwick is old enough (like me) to remember times when snowfall was more prolonged and dramatic in the south of Britain; and interestingly, he explores whether this is just his faulty memory making more of what happened and concludes from consulting meteorological records that in fact it was the case – winters *were* snowier when he (and I!) were younger.

The explorations of the past are also fascinating, looking at periods like the Little Ice Age (which features so memorably, for example, in Woolf’s “Orlando” during eras when the Thames would freeze); and also going back to the times of the glaciers, looking at the effects on our landscapes. There are of course many fables and legends set in cold worlds, such as the fairy tale of the Snow Queen; and as Sedgwick points out, it’s not surprising that Jadis in the Narnia stories has the land plunged into permanent winter. Cold and snow equate with ice which is symbolic of darker, more evil people and intent.

For most of us, life in the fullest sense of the word is unthinkable without some form of art. I have met people who deny there is any great need for art; that the important things in life are food, shelter, education and so on. And yes, of course these things are vital, with but without art in some form, be it music, film, literature etc., we are not living.

“Snow” is a slim work of only 104 pages, yet it probes deeply into our relationship with the weather, and how snowfall appears throughout our stories, whatever form they appear in. Woven into the book are Sedgwick’s personal experiences with the substance; he currently lives at the edge of the French Alps, and as he relates, snowfall and the avalanches it brings can be a matter of life and death.  Sedgwick’s descriptions of waking up to a silent, changed world really resonated – there’s a strangeness to the world when it’s been blanketed in snow, and I’m not sure humans are ever completely reconciled to that.

Nature’s timescales are somewhat longer than our own, even than that of our species. Nature has a way of doing what she wants to, in the end, and it only needs a little land and snowslide to block the road to remind us of that.

Ironically, I started reading this book on the first day of this winter’s snow in my part of the world; and it certainly shed light on my sometimes complex feelings about this kind of weather and the effect it has on our everyday world. The emotions stirred when you’re faced with a landscape covered with untouched snow are deep, and the spectacle is beautiful. Yet there’s always an ambivalence because of the restriction and disruption it can cause to everyday life, as well as the actual physical danger it can create. Particularly in this country, we never seem prepared to deal with the changes snow brings, and I have felt nervous and slightly threatened in the past during heavy falls; at those times, my go-to therapy is reading “The Long Winter” by Laura Ingalls Wilder and reminding myself that what’s happening here is not so bad and even if the trains aren’t running properly for a day, I’m not going to starve… And during these lockdown times I am less bothered as I’m not exactly going anywhere much; though seeing how the car behaved during the recent snow on a short trip to the shop for vegetables was a reminder of the substance’s power to disrupt.

Psy guy, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

But I digress. “Snow” is a beautiful book and another delight from Little Toller. An often poetic and profound meditation on the white stuff and its effects, it was ideal reading whilst snuggled down and cosy. The book is the perfect mix of the personal and the universal, and Sedgwick’s thoughts on the effects of climate change were also sobering, and got me thinking again about the need to channel my inner Greta Thunberg. Will we reach a time on the planet when there is no more snow? I fear we will, and that will be such a shame. It’s a substance that has the ability to transform our landscape, fascinate us and allow us to look at our world anew, inspiring myths and stories – and without snow, our world will be a poorer place.

“… I prefer a symbol to an explanation.” #ReadIndies @sublunaryeds #mihailsebastian


Up today on the Ramblings for #ReadIndies is a relatively recent discovery for me; a wonderful indie producing some fascinating and provocative texts in a variety of formats – Sublunary Editions. Based in Seattle in the USA, the publisher offers (like many indies) a subscription option; and that’s how I’ve been exploring their work over the last six months or so. I’ve written about some of their releases previously on the blog, but today I want to share a recent arrival in the form of an obscure work from an author I’ve read before: “Fragments from a Found Notebook” by Mihail Sebastian, translated from the Romanian by Christina Tudor-Sideri.

I discovered Sebastian when his seminal work, “For Two Thousand Years”, was finally issued in English translation by Penguin Modern Classics; and you can read my thoughts about that book here. There’s obviously a lot more to this author than just that one book, and if you check out Marina Sofia’s blog you’ll find more coverage of Sebastian. Suffice to say he was a playwright, essayist, journalist and novelist; a multi-talented man who suffered during the 20th century because he was Jewish, and died far too young.

To circle life as a spectator, to adjust it here, to prop it up there, to arrange it. Between a shrub that grows barbarically and a gardener with scissors and plans, my animal sympathy resides wholeheartedly with the first one.

As far as I’m aware, “Fragments…” was Sebastian’s first published work, released in 1932; and it’s making its debut here in English, so kudos to Sublunary for putting this out. The framing narrative is that the main text is taken from a notebook found by the River Seine in Paris, with the author merely the translator (and providing occasional notes to the text). The body of the work is indeed fragmentary; the writer (perhaps channelling his inner Barbellion) recounting parts of his life, episodes of ennui, and his general decadence and dissipation.

Friends and mistresses stayed with me somewhere, bonding to words I had not uttered, fooled by a shadow that was not me.

The writing is, of course, beautiful. And the atmosphere of the narrative oozes from the pages – Paris really is the perfect setting for a work of this kind! The question arises of course as to how much of the narrator was Sebastian himself, and that I can’t answer as I know little about the man and his life. What I *do* know, however, on the evidence of the two works I’ve read, is that he was a marvellous writer.

“Fragments…” is a fascinating read, one which is not necessarily a straightforward narrative, but which catches the thoughts of a man in a particular time and place, perhaps struggling with his sense of identity. I marked quite a number of passages or phrases which resonated, and could have stuck post-its on many more – which shows how much impact this has for such a short work. This is another marvellous release from Sublunary, who really do like to bring out such a wonderful selection of texts; and it’s definitely whetted my appetite to track down more work by Mihail Sebastian!

“…a liquid chorus…” @saltpublishing @HaslerPoet @RebTamas #ReadIndies


In contrast to my recent post on a fascinating novel in translation from Verso, today I want to focus on an independent publisher closer to home – Salt Publishing, who hail from the East of England. They’re an imprint I wanted to feature during #ReadIndies month as I’m a great fan of their poetry releases, and that’s what I’ll be posting about here.

I’ve previously reviewed a couple of Salt books here on the Ramblings – Marina Warner’s excellent collection of short stories, “Fly Away Home“, and an unexpectedly wonderful book of poetry, “Appearances in the Bentinck Hotel” by Tim Cockburn. I loved both of these, and today’s offerings were equally impressive. Both slim collections were issued in the Salt Modern Voices range (as, I think, was the Cockburn) and they made excellent reading.

“natural histories” by Emily Hasler

Hasler’s volume was first released in 2011, so I guess any biographical information might not be up to date. However, it seems she’s also indiginous to the East of England, and has published her poetry widely as well as winning prizes for it. Since releasing NH, she seems to have issued another collection and on the strength of the Salt volume I’d be very keen on exploring this.

The poetry featured here is very much rooted in nature; but using nature as a jumping off point to explore life and emotions more deeply. There’s an immediacy to this verse which I loved, and many of the poems resonated with me. I was particularly taken with a sequence entitled “The Safe Harbour” which explored the life of Flora McDonald, known of course for her connection with Bonnie Prince Charlie; a very moving series of verses.

She blows out the stars clumps at a time
as though a dandelion clock.

Another poem which struck home was “Snow”, focusing the mind on the changes that weather condition brings, in just a few lines. Nature and the land runs through the words, and interestingly, Hasler uses a quote from Basil Bunting’s great “Briggflatts” as the epigraph to her collection. An impressive and thoughtful book of poetry and worth picking up from Salt if they still have copies.

“The Ophelia Letters” by Rebecca Tamás

Another older release from Salt, Tamás’ collection was issued in 2013 and at that point she was also publishing in journals as well as receiving the Grierson Verse Prize. Like Hasler she’s also released another collection since this one, again sounding most interesting.

As with Hasler’s collection, in Tamas’ work nature and landscape is often to the fore, although she explores more visceral territory – this is nature red in tooth and claw as they say. Meaning is not always obvious, but there is still an immediacy about the writing and some startling, vivid imagery.

There is no road to run down,
no tunnel that leads in or out.

Central to the collection (well, actually at the end of the book, and making up most of the page count!) is the long title poem; and this is a particularly powerful piece of work. Made up of nineteen sections, the verses explore a possible life of Shakespeare’s Ophelia – or possibly an amalgam of Ophelia and the poet herself. Obsession, frozen weather, sex in the snow and dark landscapes appear, while the narrator declares “Clarity, that’s what I keep looking for”. As rain and water begin to appear as motifs towards the end of the work, it’s impossible not to think that this may be prefiguring Ophelia’s eventual fate.

Tamás is another poet whose work I’d love to explore further, and indeed both of these writers have such strong individual voices that it’s not hard to see why Salt published them. Slightly annoyingly, I notice that both poets’ more recent books are rather lazily labelled by the Internet as their debut collections. That’s obvs not the case as these Salt volumes were around long before…

But that’s by the by. Both of these poetry collections were wonderful reads, full of beautifully composed words and vivid imagery. Salt Publishing are definitely one of the indies I’d recommend trying out if you can – they publish a wonderful array of titles and for poetry alone are definitely worth your time and money! 😀


“….too weak to hold the fragments together….” #ReadIndies @VersoBooks


Up today on the blog for #ReadIndies month is a book from a publisher who’s featured on the Ramblings before – Verso. I’ve covered their Book Club before, and the title appearing here today is one which has received a lot of positive coverage and was part of my membership – Long Live the Post Horn! by Vigdis Hjorth (translated by Charlotte Barslund).

Hjorth hails from Norway, and she’s published a substantial number of works in her native country. I suppose her name first came to promimence with English speaking readers following the release of another of her books by Verso: “Will and Testament”, which came out last year. It garnered a lot of praise, attention and controversy; so I was very keen to see what “Long Live…” was like, particularly as it’s about a subject close to my heart – the postal service!

The post has been much in focus during these strange times, with the USPS under threat from unscrupulous politicians, and our own Post Office doing sterling work getting essential things (like books!) through during the pandemic. The focus in “Long Live…”, however, is the Norwegian postal service and the threat to it from EU directives…

Our narrator is Ellinor, a detached PR consultant who runs a firm with two colleagues, Dag and Rolf. As the book opens, Ellinor is in a strange, mentally disengaged state of mind, looking back at her past and wondering where her life is going. News that Dag has resigned and simply disappeared does not help, and relations with her boyfriend Stein seem equally disconnected. Ellinor is clearly not feeling well at the moment; in fact, her emotions seem quite frozen (much like the Norwegian weather). She’s going through life almost on autopilot, and it’s not until she gets involved with an obscure EU postal directive that things seem to change…

I yearned for a breakdown. To surrender to it and be carted off to a quiet and balmy place far away where the pace was slow.

The Norwegian Postal Workers Union hire Ellinor and Rolf to help them fight the directive, which by allowing competition could completely undermine the country’s postal system. Initially uninterested, Ellinor is drawn into the cause, becoming committed to a most unlikely fight against powerful forces in Government and the EU. Will the fight to save the Post Horn also be a fight to save Ellinor’s sanity?

On its own, the story in “Long Live…” is fascinating enough. Ellinor is a woman at a crisis point, and the fact that at one point she references Plath’s “The Bell Jar” is very relevant. Our narrator is often distracted, incapable of focusing and completely without direction. The fight for the postal system is the key to her recovery, and that battle is also very involving; if you have left wing sympathies like me, and like to root for the underdog, you *will* become invested in that element of the story, although the prospects of a positive result are not good.

However, what lifts the story even more is the language; Hjorth writes quite wonderfully (and I commend her translator, Charlotte Barslund!) The narrative conveys vividly Ellinor’s state of mind, in almost stream of consciousness prose at times, and it’s fascinating watching her change as events start to influence her and her clarity begins to return. Ellinor’s lack of focus on anything but her own internal monlogue is sometimes funny, but often disturbing, and I did wonder at Stein’s apparent failure to notice this… (or maybe the episode with the sex toy was his attempt to get her to engage!)

So “Long Live…” is a perfect combination of story and form, with some wonderfully painted and completely memorable characters; from the absent Dag through the stressed Rolf, via the anxious union members and the committed postal workers, these are all people I felt I knew. The importance of letters and the people that deliver them to our lives become very clear as Ellinor hears stories from the postal workers, and this leads to some poignant moments in the narrative. In particular, the sub-tale of a lost letter and its effects on those who finally receive it is quite moving. As Ellinor regains equilibrium, the people with whom she interacts come into sharper focus – this is a remarkably clever book!

I guess by now you can tell that I absolutely loved this book! We had a slogan back in my early feminist days that the “personal was political” and that’s very much the case here, with a quite brilliant weaving together of those two strands by Hjorth. It’s by looking at the personal, how these big rulings affect people’s everyday lives, that Ellinor not only finds the motivation to try to help them, but also brings her own life back into line. Are there happy endings for all concerned? Are there ever in life? I’m not going to say – but I will instead encourage you to get hold of this book and enjoy it. The fight against an EU directive may not sound like the most obvious subject for a great read, but this book is proof that it is! Highly recommended!

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