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#ReadIndies 2021: The Index! :D

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Now that we’re at the end of our wonderful #ReadIndies month (and a bit), Lizzy has been busily compiling an index page of all the reviews and posts people have shared of their reading experiences, and you can find this here!

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, it has been *such* fun to co-host the event, and we’ve loved seeing what everyone has been reading, and what indies are lurking on their shelves. Massive kudos to Lizzy, as it was she who came with the idea of extending our Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight into a month of supporting independent publishers; it’s a laudable project and she’s put immense amounts of work in behind the scenes with the linky and the index. Thank you Lizzy!

And as she says on her post – See you next year?

“…days slipping by unrecorded…” #VirginiaWoolf #AlexandraHarris

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I’ve come to realise that when your TBR is as big a mountain as mine is, a regular reshuffle of the piles is essential to stop coveted arrivals disappearing into the stacks. A case in point is a wonderful book I read recently – “Virginia Woolf” by Alexandra Harris. I first read about this back in 2018 on Simon’s blog and loved the sound of it; I’ve read *a lot* by and about Woolf over the decades and I absolutely love her. I was reassured by Simon’s statement that this was a book even a well-versed Woolf-lover could enjoy, and merrily sent away for a copy. It’s languished in the stacks ever since, to my shame, and when I stumbled upon in during a recent rummage it was exactly the book I was in the mood to read.

Author Alexandra Harris is someone I’ve read before, although I have to say that I was a tiny bit underwhelmed by “Romantic Moderns” when I explored it pre-blog, finding it not quite holding together enough for me. Here, though, her focus is firmly on one woman, the very inspirational Virginia Woolf. In ten relatively short chapters (the book is only 191 pages, including illustrations, notes, appendices etc) she relates clearly Woolf’s life, her work and her legacy in a wonderfully readable tome. Her early life in Hyde Park Gate, holidays in Talland House at St. Ives, the family tragedies, the move to Bloomsbury, the break with convention, the struggles to write, and the successes – all is here, covered brilliantly and evocatively. Also present is the illness – Harris treats Woolf’s breakdowns sensitively and sympathetically, always with a carefully balanced view. And I think it’s this latter element that really stood out for me in the book.

Virginia Woolf has attracted an immense amount of scholarship since her untimely death; much of it is partisan, some of it is downright weird. It was only when I read the section entitled “Afterwards” that I realised how much strangeness has been projected on Woolf over the years. To her credit, Harris is measured in her discussion of this (as with everything in the book) and that was really refreshing. It’s a concise book yet tells you everything you need to know about its subject and that’s a real achievement.

Reading was also, quite practically and literally, a means of survival. Virginia learned how to use it to stabilize herself when she felt the ‘agitation’, the ‘fidgets’, and mood swings that were a part of her illness. She learned this out of necessity during these difficult years.

Even though I’m very familiar with the facts of Woolf’s life, I got much from reading this book. Harris is particularly strong on how Woolf’s life fed into her work, and she gives you the essential VW in a clear and balanced form. I have to say that I have one very minor caveat, and that is that I wouldn’t suggest reading this book *before* you’ve read all of Woolf’s works. There are inevitably spoilers when it comes to discussing the books, and one particular one from “To The Lighthouse” which is a particular bugbear of mine. The specific event which I’ve seen spoiled on a number of occasions had a terrific emotional impact on me when I first read “Lighthouse”, and I do feel that you should read that book with no knowledge of what is to come.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Putting that aside, however, I can highly recommend Harris’s book as a great way to explore Woolf and her life once you’ve read the work. It rekindled my love for Woolf (if it ever needed that!), and really brought wonderful insight into the relationship between Virginia’s life and her writing. Harris’s work was originally published by Thames and Hudson in 2011, 70 years after Woolf took her own life in the River Ouse. When I saw the publication date, I suddenly realised that on the 28th of this month, it will be 80 years since then, and it’s also 40 years ago that I first read her work. Time has passed but Woolf’s work is no less brilliant and will endure – a tribute to her genius and her fight against her demons to produce the works she needed to write.

A wonderful month (and a bit!) of #ReadIndies – plus some that got away!

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We’re now at the end of our extended #ReadIndies month and bit, and it’s been quite wonderful to enjoy so many books from amazing indie presses; and to see what everyone else has been reading! I hope you’ve all been leaving your links on the Mr. Linky page! 😀 I had a pretty great month of reading in February and here is the pile:

The observant amongst you will notice that a. not all of those have been reviewed yet or are indie publishers, and b. all the indies I reviewed in February are not on that pile… You see, I tend to be a bit behind in my reviewing because I usually read quite quickly, and so I started reading for February in the middle of January! Even so, I didn’t read all the books I wanted to for #ReadIndies, and here are a few which got away:

There are so many interesting titles there from so many interesting indies – I shall have to stop them dropping down the TBR because they all sound fascinating!

As for what’s in store as we continue through March; well, there will be reviews of the books you can see in the top picture which haven’t yet made it onto the Ramblings. I’m hitting the busy time of the year at work, so there may be a lot of comfort reading creeping in. And of course there are a few reading projects I haven’t been near for a while, which means that this little pile is calling to me…

Will I get near to any of these soon? That remains to be seen….. ;D

“It is impossible to live in a void.” #ReadIndies @PushkinPress #Montaigne #StefanZweig #WillStone

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I was really glad when Lizzy proposed that we allow an extra week for #ReadIndies reviewing as, like many, I ended up reading far more books during February than I could squeeze onto the blog! And for my last review for the event, I was very keen to cover the wonderfully-named Pushkin Press, one of my favourite indies and a publisher whose books I’ve featured regularly on the Ramblings. They’ve produced any number of books I love, but during February I spent time with a very special title that took in two favourite authors: “Montaigne” by Stefan Zweig.

Both subject and author of this little book have appeared on the Ramblings regularly; Zweig is a wonderful author who’s deservedly been rediscovered after decades in the wilderness; Montaigne crossed my path more recently, and his work and life are inspirational (as are those of Zweig). So to discover that one had written a monograph on the life of the other was a real treat!

“Montaigne” is translated by Will Stone, who’s also appeared on the blog as he’s produced wonderfully rendered English versions of a number of books I’ve loved. Most recently, I read his translation of Zweig’s “Journeys”, which was fascinating and poignant; and Stone’s foreword to this volume makes sobering reading, as he reveals that this was the last book Zweig was working on before he took his life in 1942. Zweig took comfort from reading Montaigne’s work, hanging on to the threads of hope as long as he could; but in the end, the collapse of the civilised world he loved so much was too much for him.

… one of life‘s mysterious laws shows that we only notice the authentic and essential values when it’s too late: youth, once it has fled, health at the moment it abandons us, freedom of the soul, that most precious essence, at the very moment when it is taken from us, or has already been taken.

So in typically Zweigian fashion, the author explores the life and work of his great forebear and how it’s still relevant to the modern world. Interestingly, as I read through the book I found much of the biographical detail was familiar from my reading of Sarah Bakewell’s excellent book, so Zweig obviously did a wonderful job in encapsulating Montaigne in a much smaller work.

Only the contemptuous stand in the way of freedom, and Montaigne despises nothing more than “la frénésie“, the violent madness of those dictators of the spirit who crave with supreme arrogance and vanity to impose on the world their “glad tidings“ as the sole and indisputable truth, and for whom the blood of hundreds of thousands of men is as nothing in the fanatical pursuit of their cause.

However, what was particularly fascinating was seeing Montaigne through the prism of Zweig’s sensibility; much of the book is about his current experiences, how Montaigne’s words, writtin during a period of world conflict, resonated with Zweig as he was living through the catastrophe of World War 2, and how Montaigne’s life and work can stand as advice on the best way to stay true to yourself in difficult times. We are still in the middle of a particularly trying period of human history, one which Montaigne would have recognised as he lived through a plague era himself; and so reading his words brings comfort now, as it did to Zweig back in the 1940s.

Stefan Zweig (via Wikimedia Commons)

Zweig’s “Montaigne” was a joy from start to finish; a beautifully written little book which not only brought to life the great essayist, but also gave me a glimpse into the author’s mind at that late stage of his life. Reading this little gem from Pushkin Press was a poignant, deeply moving and yet uplifting experience, and I’m so glad I chose it as my last book for #ReadIndies month (and a bit…)

“…such a store of energy still existed in her…” #ReadIndies #HenryHandelRichardson #MichaelWalmer

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Choosing the books and publishers to focus upon during #ReadIndies month has actually been very difficult, as I’ve discovered that there are so many indie presses that I love! I think I could have continued to read indies for a couple of months (and I probably will read them over the whole year, if I’m honest). However, there’s one publisher I want to squeeze in to our extension, and that’s Michael Walmer, whose books have featured regularly on the Ramblings over the years.

Mike originally started publishing from Australia, where he was based; however, he’s recently relocated to the wilds of Shetland and is continuing to issue fascinating books from ‘Oop North’! He releases works across a wide range of authors and genres, as you can see from the pile at the bottom of this post (many of which I have still to read – I do need to do some catching up…) There are classic authors like Saki and Max Beerbohm; neglected novelists like Stella Benson and Hugo Charteris; more recent writers like Rosalind Brackenbury; and well-known names like George Sand and Karel Capek. I’m particularly fond of Mike’s Zephyr series which has some intriguing short works by authors like John Cowper Powys and Elizabeth Berridge; and his series of essays and belles lettres has also revealed some wonderful and unjustly neglected works.

A recent Zephyr release is an intriguing novella by Henry Handel Richardson, a name familiar to me from my Virago Modern Classics edition of “The Getting of Wisdom”. Richardson, born Ethel, had a fascinating life, moving from Melbourne to Germany to pursue musical stidues, and finally ending up in London. As well as her autofictional novels, she’s also acclaimed for her trilogy “The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney”; and “The End of a Childhood” is a kind of coda to that, although it works well as a piece of fiction on its own.

In four short chapters, Richardson introduces us to Mary Mahoney and her children Cuffy and Luce. Widowed Mary is struggling to bring up her two children in a small Australian village where she works as the postmistress. However, Cuffy is growing up and will need to go away to school; and so Mary takes the fateful decision to travel to Melbourne to search for a scholarship for her son. However, an unforeseen accident will change everything and truly lead to the end of Cuffy’s childhood.

Richardson’s novella is only 76 pages long, but what a marvellous piece of writing it is. In four chapters she captures her location, her characters and their lives quite brilliantly; the atmosphere of the little village is alive, Mary’s determined character clear from the beginning, and the child’s eye viewpoint of Cuffy is vividly portrayed. Mary’s accident, seemingly trivial, in some ways reminded me of the minor slip which caused so much havoc in Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Illych”; and there’s such a sense of sadness at how easily it could have been avoided. “The End…” is a very moving piece of writing, and my heart was breaking for Cuffy and Luce at points in the story.

Some of Mike’s releases…

I shall say no more about the plot; but I will say that I was mightily impressed with Richardson’s writing. It’s a long time since I’ve actually read her works, and I intend to keep my eye out for the Richard Mahoney books. “The End of a Childhood” is a powerful and evocative read and I applaud Mike Walmer for reissuing it! Do check out his website, as there are some fascinating books there to be discovered! 😀

“…College griefs were wild and bitter…” #MissPymDisposes #JosephineTey @BacklistedPod

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Although I have more reviews to come of lovely #ReadIndies books, I wanted to share some thoughts today on an old favourite which I was impelled to revisit when I heard it was to feature on the Backlisted Podcast – “Miss Pym Disposes” by Josephine Tey. I’m sure Backlisted needs no introduction here; I’m a huge fan and their podcasts are always entertaining, pithy, funny and enlightening – and always very dangerous for those of us suggestible types who can’t resist wonderful sounding books. However, I often haven’t read the books they feature; this time, however, I had, as I read all of Tey’s books back in my twenties and her novels are some of my favourites. I’ve revisited “The Daughter of Time” regularly (it’s brilliant!) and also “The Franchise Affair” during this blog’s life; however, despite happy memories of “Miss Pym…” I don’t think I’ve re-read it for some time. So when the Backlisted schedule was announced, I couldn’t resist…

As I said back when I covered “Franchise….” ‘Josephine Tey was a pseudonym used by Elizabeth Mackintosh (25 July 1896–13 February 1952) a Scottish author best known for her mystery novels. She also wrote as Gordon Daviot, under which name she wrote plays with an historical theme.’ Although her novels are categorised as crime, they’re often a little left of centre; “Franchise…” is an intriguing look at an accusation of kidnap; and “Daughter…” a historical investigation. Tey has a regular detective, Alan Grant, who appears in many of her books, but “Miss Pym…” stands alone in that it’s not so much about a crime as the psychology behind crime; and her central character is the author of a book on psychology!

As the book opens, Lucy Pym has been invited to Leys College by her old friend Henrietta Hodge, who is the principal there. The college is a physical education one for girls, and the regime is intense. The students seem under immense pressure from morning to night, studying PE, medical subjects, dance – you name it, they seem to do it, with the results being high class students who go on to prestige positions when they pass their exams. There is much at stake at Leys, therefore, and Miss Pym is intrigued by what she sees. Initially invited to give a talk to the girls on her book, she ends up becoming involved with the College and its denizens; staying on to see how the end of term demonstrations go, she’s witness to odd behavior from certain students, machinations behind the scenes and inexplicable behaviour by her old friend. A dramatic accident causes her to rethink her initial judgements of the students and staff; but how will she deal with events when she is put in the position of having to decide the future of some of the girls?

As a psychologist she began to suspect she was a very good teacher of French.

Tey was a wonderful writer, and that quality really shines through in “Miss Pym…”; I once again found myself completely involved in the world she creates and I couldn’t put the book down, staying up far too late to read it and finishing it in two sittings. I was always drawn to stories set in boarding schools when I was young (brought up on Enid Blyton!) and so that element appeals anyway. However, the psychology is what’s particularly relevant here (as it was, perhaps, in Dorothy L. Sayers’ “Gaudy Night”, another favourite); not only of a grouping of people under one roof, but also the intense pressures they face. Emotions are bubbling under the surface, futures are at risk, and the differing backgrounds and personalities the girls bring to Leys can create all manner of issues. Lucy Pym cannot always read the girls correctly, and neither can we; and that’s the point, maybe. We can jump to judgement too quickly without seeing the underlying causes of behaviour. And Tey leads us through Lucy’s experiences so skilfully that we feel we’re part of the story ourselves, and just as invested in the girls and their futures as she is.

There are so many wonderful characters in the book, including the various staff members with their own issues, especially the anxious Henrietta who is intensely worried about the reputation of her college. The students range from the engaging Beau Nash, to whom everything in life is served on a plate; Innes, a troubled girl who should be lined up for a bright future; the unpopular Rouse who struggles to reach the necessary grades; and the exotic and entertaining Teresa from Brazil, known as the ‘Nut Tart’. Even those pupils with a lesser role are brilliantly painted, and the story is not without male characters, in the form of Teresa’s distant cousin Rick, who is enchanted by her; and the ageing thespian Edward Adrian, an old admirer of Miss Lux, one of the academic staff.

There’s so much about this book to love and so much I could ramble on about here: Tey’s capturing of the atmosphere and essence of Leys; the way she allows Lucy Pym to be subtly drawn into the way of life their until she feels a part of it herself; Lucy’s own psychology and her response to the affection the girls display for her; the contrast between that and her own controlled and austere life back in London. Really, there are so many elements in this novel that I possibly hadn’t appreciated on my first reading!

The book’s been released as a green crime Penguin, though it’s more about psychology than crime.

Of course, running through the book is an inevitable moral conflict; Miss Pym is aware of a wrong which has been done and has it within her power to influence how things will turn out. In the title of the novel, “Disposes” is used in its literary meaning of determining the course of events; and Miss Pym has to decide what is the morally right action to take. It’s not easy, and Tey saves a delicious twist right until the end (which I *did* remember as I approached it, but which still gave me a frisson when I reached the closing of the book).

It was obvious to me during this re-read why I hold Josephine Tey’s books in such high regard, why I’ve held onto them all these years, and why each revisit is such a joy. Her prose is wonderful, her characterisation and her settings brilliantly realised, and her books completely engrossing. There’s much more to her work than simply a mystery and these are books that linger in the mind long after finishing them. I should mention that there are perhaps minor linguistic terms that we wouldn’t use nowadays, an inappropriately jokey reference to rape and an occasional broad brush to characterisation of students from other countries (sometimes from as far away as Scotland and Wales…) As a Scottish person I didn’t find this objectionable, and I always think context is all, so I these didn’t detract from my deep enjoyment of the book.

So re-visiting Leys College and its denizens alongside Miss Pym was a pure joy and a happy way to end February (when I was *supposed* to be reading indies). As I write and schedule this to coincide with the Backlisted main release, I haven’t yet listened to the podcast and I’m really looking forward to finding out whether I agree or disagree with the participants, and what insights they bring (I am sure there will be many). If you haven’t encountered Backlisted before, I highly recommend you start exploring; and if you haven’t read the work of Josephine Tey, this novel might be great place to start – you’re in for a treat on both counts! 😀

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