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June reading, and the end of an up and down month…

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June has been an odd month, really; reading-wise, I started well and read with enthusiasm. However, I was hit by a stinker of a cold/flu thingy midway through the month, which I can only think I picked up whilst attending the dentist – very annoying, to say the least, and it knocked me for six as I haven’t had one for yonks owing to isolating and masking. I struggled through, but my energy for reading dropped to almost nil as when I wasn’t working I just wanted to sleep. So I think I have done quite well with the reading, all things considered, and I have enjoyed some really wonderful books this month:

(Please note I didn’t read *all* of that chunky Orwell – only one essay!!!)

Again, not a dud amongst them – even the difficult or whacky ones were interesting!! 😀

As for July plans, I must admit I’ll be very glad to get to the end of the school term and have a break. There are a couple of reading events this month I’d like to take part in, and the first is Stu’s Spanish and Portuguese Lit month! He runs this event regularly and I always try to join in. Somehow, I often seem to end up reading more Portuguese language books than Spanish, but these are a few of the possible titles:

I’ve been intending to read Pessoa for years and years and years, but always get distracted. Maybe this year… And another Saramago – yay! I love the books of his I’ve read and tried to get to this one during Read Independent Publishers Month but ran out of time. We shall see…

Also up in July is the Paris in July event, held by Thyme for Tea; now, I love Paris and have pulled three possibles off the TBR:

All are titles I would be happy to pick up and dive into straight away. Oh, for more reading time…

Rose Macaulay pencil sketch (Jburlinson, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

I’m also planning to spend several days focusing on the marvellous author Rose Macaulay, with particular focus on some titles from lovely Handheld Press. Macaulay is one of those women authors who’s been unjustly neglected, though she’s made a return to the public eye at points over the years; and Handheld have been spearheading a series of reissues of books by and about her, several of which I’ve read and loved. I’m not doing anything like a formal Rose Macaulay Reading Week as such, but if you fancy following along and reading any of her excellent books, please do join in! I’m planning to post between 12th and 16th July, all being well…

Apart from this, there is basically the ginormous TBR which does stretch over a couple of rooms… Thinking about it, at least one of the review books on the pile would qualify for the Paris challenge but it’s a chunkster…

Anyway – whatever I read, you’ll hear about it on the Ramblings! How was your June reading, and are you taking part in any of these events (or any other ones??)

Going Out – and Incomings! :D

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Those of you who encounter me on Instagram or Twitter might have picked up that last weekend was a rather special one here at the Ramblings. After making it through two lock-ins and living pretty much in isolation since March 2020, Mr. K and I were reunited with two of our Offspring (plus one of their partners) at the weekend (and the third will be coming to visit as soon as fully jabbed!) Not only was it lovely to see them, but we also took a couple of little carefully planned and socially distanced trips out, and it was marvellous! Simple pleasures!

A jaunt to the coast was our first outing – although there is a seaside town within driving distance, the ‘holiday’ end is mostly a bit tatty, so we head for the older end of town which has wide coastal views and a pleasant path to amble along. Here’s a few views!

Although the sky was a little leaden at times, it was warm with a lovely sea breeze, so perfect walking conditions. I always feel that this particular part of beach has a kind of Dungeness feel about it!

There’s also quite a lot of nature managing to grow and survive in the coastal conditions:

We looked this up, and after having nicknamed it ‘sea cabbage’ all afternoon, it seems this is what it’s actually known as…. 😀

We had a lovely walk plus time for seaside chips, and managed to get home before a deluge which caused flash flooding, so result!!

And Saturday was a bit of a red-letter day in that I ventured into the local Big Town for the first time since March 2020. This was quite a big step for me, but I did feel surprisingly comfortable being out – I suppose having had both jabs and keeping masked helped, though I was still surprised by the amount of people not wearing masks or keeping a distance. As Middle Child said, you just have to be alert and make sure you keep away from people…

Anyway – while I was in isolation things had changed a bit in town. My favourite vegan eatery, Hank’s, have expanded their range considerably, opening a little vegan supermarket and also a vegan pub!! So we had lunch at the latter and it was marvellous!

Here’s the pub!

Main course – a gorgeous buddha bowl.

Dessert – vegan baked New York cheesecake – yum!

Eating outside in the pub garden was lovely, though some of the flowers appear to have made their way into my dessert…. ;D

As well as lunch and company, there was of course a little shopping – it did feel slightly weird going into shops after all this time, and I may have lost my shopping mojo a little as I felt less inclined to browse for long periods or buy wildly. But needless to say, there was the odd book…

The trusty KBR tote has its first outing for a long time!!!

It was a joy to visit the Oxfam again, though their prices have *definitely* crept up. However, I have wanted to read this Szerb for a long time so couldn’t of course resist!

It was good to be in Waterstones again, too, so I searched out a title I wanted; I read Audre Lorde as part of my exploration of my Penguin Moderns box set and loved her writing. I had intended to read more by her for ages, so it seemed like a good time to pick up this one.

Finally, I rather belatedly took part in Independent Bookshops Week by popping into our local indie, Dial Lane Books. They opened just before the pandemic hit and have therefore had a bit of a rocky ride. I’m pleased they’ve managed to survive, though, and the premises have expanded and improved inside since my firsts visit. I came out with one of these lovely ‘instead of a card’ poetry booklets, which I think I shall keep for me… 😀

So it was a wonderful weekend, reconnecting with family and Going Out and mixing and even shopping! It did feel strange at times, and I have a sense that if the world is to get back to how it was before, it will take a long time. But I think I can kind of adjust to this kind of ‘normal’ for a while and will feel more comfortable about venturing into the world. And I do hope it isn’t another 15 months until I go out again…. ;D

“… it’s better to die violently and not too old.” #georgeorwell

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I can’t recall now what it was that prompted me to dig out my old Penguin edition of vol 4 of Orwell’s Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, to seek out a specific essay; but I’m glad I did because as usual George is spot on… The essay in question is called “How The Poor Die“, and it was first published in November 1946. In it, Orwell looks back to time spent in a public ward of a French hospital in 1929 (presumably during the time covered in “Down and Out in Paris and London”); and what he relates is quite chilling…

Orwell was, of course, really living down and out in Paris at the time, and so when he was taken ill with pneumonia he had no option but the nearest hospital because he certainly couldn’t afford a doctor… The treatment he received was quite shocking: cupping, a mustard poultice, indifference from the various doctors and nurses, and disgustingly insanitary conditions where disease must have spread unchecked. Patients died and were left in their beds until someone could be bothered to move them; whether you were actually treated by the doctors often depended on how ‘interesting’ your illness was; and running through all this was an attitude from those supposedly caring of total disinterest, with most of them treating the patients as if they were less than human.

A few feeble protests that I uttered got no more response that if I had been an animal. I was very much impressed by the impersonal way in which the two men started on me. I have never been in the public ward of a hospital before, and it was my first experience of doctors who handle you without speaking to you, or, in the human sense, taking any notice of you.

Orwell escapes as soon as he’s well enough, though not before he’s thoroughly shocked by what he’s experienced; and he compares it with the kind of treatment he would have received in an English hospital which would have been very different. However, this was in the pre-NHS days, so presumably the kind of treatment you got still depended on how much money you had (something which I picked up in my reading of the British Library Crime Classic, “The Port of London Murders” – here, the struggle from hand to mouth and the cost of medical care was very much an issue). Anyway, Orwell rounds up his essay reflecting on the fact that in 1929 medical treatment was often viewed with suspicion, being still in its infancy in many ways, and up until the introduction of anaesthetics most people tried to avoid doctors and hospitals…

As always, Orwell is a wonderful essayist – immediate, clear, getting to the point, yet setting his scene wonderfully and capturing the experiences he lived through so vividly. “How the Poor Die” was profoundly moving in places, focusing on the poor suffering people with no way out other than a cold, lonely death. Orwell seems of the opinion that it’s better to die young and quickly, rather than a long and lingering and eventually painful death at an old age – and I can see where he’s coming from…

By BBC [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This essay also set me thinking about our own NHS, so lauded, yet often criticised, underfunded and under threat. Having read about the cost of healthcare, and the horrors of trying to get treatment, in the USA, I’m glad we have the system we do; although I think other countries have more efficient systems than ours. And I see the NHS is under attack again at the moment; I try not to stray into politics too much on the Ramblings, for the good of my blood pressure; but having witnessed what Orwell saw and went through, all those years ago, I really think we need to start protecting and improving the system we already have in place. As always, Orwell’s wonderful writing really does bring clarity and focus the mind!

The perfect combination – Coffee and Crime! :D @ArmchairSleuth

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Something different, but rather exciting, on the Ramblings today (and which will be of great interest to bookish types, I am sure!) 😀 I was contacted recently by Kate Jackson, who runs the rather wonderful crossexaminingcrime blog (where she hosted a marvellous poll of 1936 crime novels leading up to our 1936 Club earlier in the year). Kate’s name may also be familiar to fans of the British Library Crime Classics, as she’s compiler of these two lovely “Pocket Detective” Classic Crime Quiz books which are great fun for anyone who loves Golden Age crime:

However, Kate has a very interesting sideline, and that is in curating “Coffee and Crime” book subscription boxes. I must admit I’ve never signed up for a book subscription box, because I frankly own so many unread volumes it would be a very dangerous thing to do… But when Kate asked if I would like a sample box to review, I couldn’t resist – I mean, they sound so wonderful! Each box comes with a newsletter, two vintage mystery novels, a sachet of luxury coffee (with tea or chocolate as alternatives), and crime related goodies – how exciting!

The box duly arrived, and if I had a YouTube channel I would have done an unboxing – but I don’t, so you’ll have to make do with the snaps I took as I was opening!

First up we have the sturdy box the items come in – well packaged and protected in transit!

At first glance the contents look amazing!

As I started to explore, I realised just how many lovely things were included in the box!

As you can see, my box contained some lovely treats! Kate, realising that I’m vegan, consulted on the chocolate, and I chose a tea option (I love green tea!) There’s also the interesting double-sided newsletter to look at whilst drinking and munching if you can’t wait until you get to the books!

The coaster and the bookmark will be *very* useful, of course; and the postcard is of a favourite vintage crime movie.

The Escape Room Puzzle Book looks fascinating; I’ve never tried ‘escape rooming’ but I love a locked room mystery so this will be fun to explore! I like puzzles too, and some of these apparently involve paper crafting – as a closet crafter, I’m intrigued…

As for the vintage crime books, you can see how beautifully they were packed, in brown paper and string, each with a vintage style ‘evidence’ label with details of the contents; and I am mightily impressed because Kate has managed to find books and authors I haven’t read, which is fantastic! Here’s the big reveal:

I was aware of S.S. Van Dine (and might possibly have read a short story, though certainly not any of the novels); his detective is Philo Vance and “The Gracie Allen Murder Case” sounds great! Mignon G. Eberhart is completely new to me, and the description of her as “America’s Agatha Christie” has me champing at the bit to read “Hasty Wedding“, which comes with many plaudits. The fact that both of these are American titles is a bonus, as I’m less well-read with GA crime from the USA, and so the books will definitely rectify that.

I have to say that this was a wonderfully curated box, which really hit the spot for me. Some of the book boxes I’ve looked at in the past have been potentially interesting, but there’s always been the risk of receiving a book I’ve already read. However, the care that went into choosing the items for the “Coffee and Crime” box was obvious, and Kate seems to have a real knack of picking out just the right things for her recipients – I was certainly delighted to receive this one!

Coffee and Crime” boxes can be purchased as one-offs or as a subscription, and you can find more information about them here: I was absolutely delighted with mine (and thank you, Kate, for the care you put into choosing the contents). These boxes would make the ideal treat for yourself or gift for any crime fiction lover you know; and I reckon my Christmas shopping this year could be a lot easier! 😀

(“Coffee and Crime” box kindly provided by Kate Jackson for review – thank you! :D)

“…it is power or conflict which produce the purest types of writing.” #rolandbarthes

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Back to Barthes! Since my first reading of his work with “Mythologies” back at the end of 2019, I’ve been on a bit of a journey with his writings. I’ve also read “Mourning Diary” and Roland Barthes; and was transfixed by Prof Richard Clay’s marvellous documentary updating Barthes’ ideas, 21st Century Mythologies. There are any number of Barthes books lurking on the TBR, but for some reason felt very drawn recently to one which is his first published work – “Writing Degree Zero” (here published by Hill and Wang, and translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith).

As the foreword by Adam Thirlwell makes clear, “Writing Degree Zero” was produced during a very interesting period for French writing (it first appeared in 1953); the French intellectuals of the time were heavily involved in a whole range of debates exploring the possibility of a left-wing literature, its form, whether it needed to reach a mass audience and indeed, whether a piece of writing which *did* reach the masses was automatically left wing (I’d argue strongly against the latter, but that’s just me). The debate ranged over the pages of Camus’ newspaper ‘Combat’ and the journal ‘L’Observateur’; and in the midst of this Barthes published his first book which explored these topics and much, much more.

The book is in two parts, each featuring a number of short pieces with titles such as “What is Writing?”, “Political Modes of Writing”, “Writing and Revolution”, “The Utopia of Language” and so on. In these essays, Barthes explores the history of French literature, how political it is, whether it’s accessible to all and what future it has. The first part is particularly interesting because it detaches the concept of ‘writing’ from that of ‘style’ or ‘language’; and Barthes goes on to look back at French classical literature which was designed with a purpose, to educate and inform. He explores the ‘preterite’, a tense which doesn’t exist in English, and discusses its relationship to the structures and conventions of novels. And he declares that Literature is the product of a modern, Capitalist society, and therefore of course not necessarily part of the normal use of language in the everyday.

Roaming through the different phases of French literature, he notes the changes in style and fashion – for example, after the French Revolution – and he believes that after the 1850s the writer was “without Literature” which rather leaves him or her out in the cold. The art of writing becomes a craft, and Barthes ends his exploration of the history of writing by struggling to find a way forward for French literature, some kind of pure, Utopian form, a colourless, almost neutral type of writing which allows a journalistic style to take over – he cites Camus’ prose as a good example.

Well – that’s kind of what I get out of “Writing Degree Zero”, though it’s possible I’m way off – I do find Barthes a Bit Hard at times! But despite this, I found the book absolutely engrossing, particularly the discussions of political writing. Those of us who read regularly perhaps forget that there are many who don’t or can’t, and they may be in the parts of society where political writing should reach. So how do you get those ideas to the people that need them, and in what form? It’s a puzzle, and the discussions here are fascinating though I still don’t know what the answers are. Barthes traces many issues to the roots of bourgeous writing, reminding the reader how elitist it was (and probably still is):

This classical writing is, needless to say, a class writing. Born in the seventeenth century in the group which was closest to the people in power, shaped by force of dogmatic decisions, promptly ridding itself of all grammatical terms of speech forged by the spontaneous subjectivity of ordinary people, and drilled, on the contrary, for a task of definition, bourgeois writing was first presented, with the cynicism customary in the first flush of political victory, as the language of a privileged minority.

As with everything else I’ve read by Barthes, “Writing…” was fascinating; he of course regards language as a form of signs, and those signs are by necessity allied with power. He’s also very aware of the tricks which words can play on us, using (unexpectedly!) the example of Agatha Christie to show just how easy it is for a writer who is clever with language to totally bamboozle any reader. Certainly, if you take a look at any kind of political rhetoric you will see how right he is on that point.

So I didn’t always find “Writing Degree Zero” the easiest of reads, and this post is probably a very simplistic reading which only scratches at the surface; but the rewards reading the book brings are immense. If nothing else, I feel it demonstrates that literature and language are just a couple of the many modern mythologies which Barthes set out to unpick, a process which deserves to be taken up by all and sundry so that we can fight against the constant barrage of lying words we seem to be faced with nowadays..

“Prose invents – poetry discloses.” #jackspicer #afterlorca @NYRBpoets @NYRB_Imprints

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Poetry is a form which makes infrequent appearances on the Ramblings, mainly when I return to my ongoing project of reading through the Penguin Modern Poets collections. I do love to read poetry, but don’t always get to it enough; however, I’ve recently started to take notice of the NYRB Poets imprint. The publisher was kind enough to send me a copy of “Magnetic Fields” by Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault, which I absolutely loved; and a recent arrival from them, in the form of “After Lorca” by Jack Spicer, sounded fascinating. Spicer is a new name to me; working in the middle of the last century, he was part of the San Francisco Renaissance and despite his short life made a lasting impression with his poetry and has also been described as “a quiet, unsung hero of the LGBTQ+ art movement”, producing six short books of work during that brief life.

“After Lorca” was published in 1957 and it’s an intriguing collection of writings; as is hinted at in the title, it takes its inspiration from the great Spanish poet Lorca; and claims that the poems are translations. The book comes with a foreword from beyond the grave by Lorca himself(!), and the poems are interspersed with letters from Spicer to Lorca. It’s not clear which poems really *are* translations from Lorca, and which have been written by Spicer himself; or indeed how accurate any translations may be. What is clear, however, is what wonderful poetry this is…

At ten o’clock in the morning
The young man could not remember.

His heart was stuffed with dead wings
And linen flowers.

(Suicide)

I always find that I prefer poetry to which I can respond instantly; whether I feel I understand it, or whether I’m just hit by the sound of the words, I want to have that connection with the work and the poet straight away. That was certainly the case with Jack Spicer; his verse is beautiful, often allusive and very atmospheric. The poems speak of life, love, death and suicide – I guess often the major topics of verse! – and writing is vivid and wonderful. “He Died at Sunrise”, for example, is particularly stunning, with its repeated phrases and beautiful imagery.

At that time I’ll imagine
The song
Which I shall never sing.

A song full of lips
And far-off washes

A song fill of lost
Hours in the shadow…

(Verlaine)

The letters too are fascinating; it’s as if Spicer considered Lorca as a kind of spiritual mentor, the two poets in dialogue; and he uses these prose pieces to discuss the whole art of poetics. The poems appear to take place over a summer, with the final letter realising that the year is starting to draw to an end and the link between master and pupil is over. It’s a moving end to the work which seems to have a strong thread of melancholy running through it.

We want to transfer the immediate object, the immediate emotion to the poem – and yet the immediate always has hundreds of its own words clinging to it, short-lived and tenacious as barnacles. (Extract from one of the letters)

Spicer was of course writing at a time when the San Francisco beat poets (such as Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Snyder) were making a name for themselves; yet from what I’ve read about him, he stood apart from them, refusing to copyright his poems, criticising the City Lights bookshop and at one point declining to publish his work outside California. However, I sensed in some of the poems a kind of kinship with Ginsberg, a common influence from Whitman, and I personally feel that his writing needs to be seen in the context of the time.

Anyway, “After Lorca” turned out to be a fascinating read. I was probably aided by the fact that I’ve read little Lorca, and what I have was a very long time ago! So to be honest, I wasn’t looking to see what belonged to which author, because in the end I think these poems and letters are just Spicer – and wonderful they are. I’ve included extracts from some favourite poems/letters, and I highly recommend this collection. It was a marvellous and unexpected delight, and evidence (if it were needed) that the NYRB Poets imprint is definitely worth exploring! 😀

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

“…his logical powers had not been in abeyance…” @BritLibPublishing #crimeclassics #twowaymurder

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One of the very many joys of reading the wonderful releases in the British Library Crime Classics range is the opportunity to discover so many excellent authors whose books have slipped into relative obscurity over the years. E.C.R. Lorac is one of those, and from what I’ve seen amongst my fellow bloggers and tweeters, her books are very popular. Lorac was Edith Caroline Rivett, who also wrote under the name Carol Carnac (I reviewed a particularly fine mystery by her here); and she was a prolific author. However, the BL came up trumps with their most recent release by Lorac, as it turns out that the book, “Two-Way Murder”, was written during the final years of her life but never published! Needless to say, I was very, very keen to read it!

“Two-Way…” is a standalone mystery in that it doesn’t feature Lorac’s regular detective, Inspector Macdonald. The action takes place in the coastal town of Fordings, where the local Hunt Ball is the biggest event for miles around and even attracts people from the capital! Nicholas Brent and Ian Macbane travel down together in a very nasty fog; and both seem to be drawn to the main attraction of Fordings, the lovely Dilys Maine. However, she has a long-standing friendship with Michael Reeve, the heir of a somewhat notorious and unpopular local family who in olden times were lords of the manor. Romantic complications must be put aside, however, when a body is discovered on the road by Nick and Dilys; but who is he? As Nick goes to report the death, he’s attacked; the local Inspector, Turner, seems flummoxed; and it’s down to Waring of the CID, a much more imaginative man, to investigate further.

The story has plenty of twists and turns; there are long-standing local grievances between the Reeve family and the Hoyles who run the local pub (and probably have many more dodgy enterprises going on behind the scenes). Then there’s Dilys’s widowed father, who has all manner of bees in his bonnet, keeping a tight control on his daughter and hiding secrets of his own. And how is this all connected with the disappearance of Rosemary Reeve, Michael’s sister, some years ago? It will take all of Waring’s skill and imagination to untangle all of the various threads, leading to a dramatic climax – although there’s a dark horse in the middle of the plot, in the form of the Maines’ housekeeper Alice, who seems at times to be a better detective than the CID man!

Well, I can’t for the life of me imagine why this book was never published, because it’s a real gem. It’s set in the late 1950s, a little bit on from most of the Loracs I’ve read which have either been during the War or shortly after. The world is continuing to change in the post-War era, and that’s reflected in the world of Fordings; class assumptions are gradually changing, old habits like smuggling are being abandoned and modern trends like motor bike riding are sneaking in. And interestingly, at one point two of the characters are discussing the fact that the terminology they’ve previously used about a particular kind of establishment is now not the done thing, and they need to use a new-fangled description – sentences which could have come out of any modern tabloid! However, as the unfolding plot reveals, old emnities die hard, and it’s necessary to look back to the past to find out the motives of present actions – all wonderfully plotted and written by Lorac.

Martin Edwards’ excellent foreword reveals how the book came to publication, and it seems we have to thank one James M. Pickard who had the manuscript in his collection and kindly shared it with the British Library – well done, that man! The release of this lost Lorac is a real coup for the BL Crime Classics range, and I’m so glad it’s been finally published. “Two-Way Murder” is a wonderfully clever, brilliantly written and thoroughly enjoyable read from start to finish; I loved it, and I’m going to have to dig out the unread Loracs I have lurking very soon!

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

“…great acts of violence are covered up as legitimate acts of war…” @ColumbiaUP @RusLibrary

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Today on the Ramblings sees a return to one of my favourite types of reading matter – something Russian! It’s been a little while since anything from that country graced the blog (well, a week since I directed you to Shiny New Books!), and I always fear dipping into RRD (Russian Reading Deficiency…) Fortunately, one particular publisher is always on hand to help rectify that – the very wonderful Columbia University Press with their Russian Library imprint. I’ve covered a number of their titles (several for Shiny New Books) and they issue some really fascinating works which are not so well known as all the Tolstoys and Dostoevskys that a certain pair of celebrity translators keep going back to again and again and again… (ahem…) Today’s book is a case in point; I’ve never come across either author or title before, but it was an absolutely fascinating read.

“Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow” by Alexander Radishchev (here translated by Andrew Kahn and Irina Reyfman) was first published in 1790, the time of Catherine the Great, and it caused a stir; so much so that the author was initially condemned to death although this was eventually commuted to Siberian exile. So why should what is ostensibly a travel book cause so much uproar, and have such radical results for its author?

Radishchev was born into a minor noble family, and his book recounts a fictional journey between the two great cities of Russia. The path is along the postal route, with the narrator halting at points along the way, encountering many different types during his journey and exploring the good and bad points of Russian society. This framing device allows the author to have his character take a look at the social and economic issues facing the country, including the problem which seems to be the one which usually occupies the Russian intellectual – the evils of serfdom.

How much good can it do you, boyars, that you eat sugar while we go hungry? Children are dying, adults die too. But what can you do – you grieve for a while, you grieve but do what your master orders.

The book’s format is wonderfully flexible, allowing the author to include sentimental stories, poetry, theatrical plots, essays on history, theories on how to best raise children, and of course many meditations on the structure of Russian society and politics, with the corruption that runs through it. All of this makes for a fascinating and entertaining read, and I can see why it was considered so subversive. The author/narrator is particularly concerned with the ethical and moral, and his views on the evils of serfdom were considered very radical at the time. Although the book was apparently seen as a challenge to Catherine the Great, Radishchev did not think of himself as a radical; he simply recorded what he saw. And what he witnessed is actually quite shocking, whichever way he tells it; the serfs had a terrible life, being no more than slaves, and it’s not surprising that anyone wanting change knew that freedom for the serfs was vital.

One particularly striking section is where the narrator dreams of being all-powerful, a regal power ruling over an obsequious court. This power goes to his head and he’s on the point of ordering the invasion of another country when the figure of truth appears in the form of a “Straight Seer and Eye Doctor” to show him the error of his ways. So it’s not surprising that Catherine perceived the book as a threat, is it?

Although medication always traveled with me just in case, it was according to the proverb “each wise man has his share of foolishness”: I was not forearmed against delirium, which is why my head, when I arrived at the postal station, was in worse shape than a wig stand.

“Journey…” was a fascinating read from start to finish (and often unexpectedly entertaining!), and I’m not surprised that it’s considered the precursor of all the subversive literature which followed in Russia, right up to Solzhenitsyn in the 20th century. It’s a text which I believe has been little known to the general reader of Russian literature up until now (certainly I hadn’t heard of it), so it’s particularly pleasing to have it rendered so readably into English by Kahn and Reyfman (I have heard that the Russian here is not always easy to translate). As with all CUP Russian Library titles, there’s an excellent introduction (here by the translators), plus copious supporting notes.

Radishchev (Public Domain – By Unidentified painter – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1265966)

Radishchev did not live a long life; on return from his exile to Siberia he was confined to his estate, but continued to try to work on political reforms in his country. Despite his efforts, he was unable to make changes, and in 1802, after mention of another possible exile, he took his own life. His most famous work, however, remains, as a wonderful insight into the Russia of Catherine the Great, its politics, its social issues and the suffering of the serfs. A fascinating book, and an essential read for anyone interested in the society, thought and literature of the time!

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

 

“She was as familiar with the edge of a scalpel as she was with the tip of a paintbrush” @NottingHillEds #fridakahlo

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Back in 2018, I took a trip to London with my dear friend J. to visit the Frida Kahlo exhibition “Making Her Self Up” at the V&A Museum. Kahlo is an artist whose life and work I find endlessly fascinating, and I’ve read much about her over the years. So when Notting Hill Editions revealed they were publishing a new work by Emily Rapp Black entitled “Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg”, I was very intrigued; the collision of one of my favourite artists and one of my favourite publishers was always going to be intriguing!

Rapp Black is the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and a school nurse, and her childhood was dominated by her health; born with a congenital birth defect that resulted in the amputation of her left leg, her essay/memoir explores that experience, how it’s affected her over the years and how she’s drawn on her emotional connection with Frida Kahlo during her life.

Frida painted her corsets to be objects of beauty, even after her body was rent like a garment of grief, even after her back collapsed, even after her leg was gone. She was playful with her pain; she adorned it, advertised it, knowing that there is no story that stops death.

Rapp Black has been an amputee for the bulk of her life; Kahlo became one during her final years. Yet Rapp Black senses a kinship between them, and in the book she explores Kahlo’s life and experiences through her art, her letters, her diaries and her relationships. It’s not hard to understand how Kahlo can be so inspirational; she survived a bout of childhood polio, and then the most shocking, devastating injuries during a bus crash. It’s really unbelievable that she made it through that (I winced being reminded of just how horrible the effects were) and went on to live the full life she did – although she was never able to bear children. But Kahlo had to deal with medical intervention all through her life, as has Rapp Black, so it’s clear that Frida was a touchstone and an inspiration.

As well as relating her experiences exploring Kahlo’s life and work, Rapp Black also tells the story of the life and death of her young son Ronan to Tay-Sachs disease. This is a rare degenerative condition I hadn’t heard of before, and Ronan’s life story is absolutely heart-breaking. This element of the book made powerful and emotional reading, and I can’t imagine being able to cope with this kind of loss. During parts of the writing of the book, Rapp Black was pregnant with her daughter, Charlie, and it’s a joy to know her daughter came safely into the world.

The parts of the book where Rapp Black related her own experiences as an amputee were hard-hitting and something of an eye-opener. When she was growing up the technology providing prosthetics was primitive, involving wood and leather straps, and it’s telling (and a little shocking) that it’s taken the involvement of the USA in several wars to enable the provision of modern artificial limbs for amputees. What’s also shocking is the attitudes which Rapp Black has had to deal with over the years, from the nasty to the unthinking to the just-plain-ignorant. I hope I would never have behaved as badly as some of the people she’s encountered, but I will certainly always now try to be sensitive in my dealings.

Throughout “Frida Kahlo…” Rapp Black is fascinated by the artefacts of Kahlo’s life: her corsets, her clothing, her casts. The book, naturally therefore, culminates with Rapp Black visiting the same exhibition as I did in 2018, and seeing all of the personal effects from Kahlo’s life, from the dresses to her combs, and of course the casts and her artificial leg. The exhibition was incredibly moving and Rapp Black’s response to it is profound; to be confronted with the physical presence of the person to whom you’ve related and drawn inspiration from over the years is a one-off experience. Rapp Black’s take on Kahlo is a robust one, refusing to see her as a victim or in any way deficient, and objecting to her life and art being defined only by her pain. Certainly, if you look at the many photos of a confident, smiling, happy Frida, you have to agree.

A woman is embodied, and she is judged accordingly. We want to think that we are beyond this, that we are more than our bodies, but, in the end, we are not. We are both easily reduced to the sum of our parts, but sometimes we are reduced only to our parts. As a woman who wears a permanent machine, I still feel this acutely.

The book closes with Rapp Black seemingly reaching a point of understanding and reconciliation with her body, with which she’s always had a complex relationship. Moving from a point of dreaming of miracle cures and wanting to be so-called ‘normal’, to a place of acceptance, has been a long and often excrutiating journey. “Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg” is a beautiful, devastating and unforgettable book and one I’m so glad I’ve read.

(Review copy kindly provided by the published, for which many thanks! As usual, this is a beautiful, cloth-covered NHE hardback with lovely paper and bookmark, and comes with several full colour illistrations of Kahlo’s art and clothing. The book is released, I believe, on 15th June.)

“Only poets are innocent enough to invent such monstrosities” #baudelaire @melvillehouse

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Despite the teetering piles of the TBR, I can never resist procuring new books and they certainly haven’t stopped trickling into the Ramblings recently… They tend to suffer one of two fates: either joining the piles and getting lost in there forever (or for quite a while) or getting picked up and read pretty rapidly. Today’s book is one of the latter; I had been intending to pick up a copy for absolutely ages, as it’s Baudelaire! and prose! but somehow hadn’t. However, I stumbled across a reasonably-priced copy and as I was in the middle of reading some chunky volumes for Shiny New Books, it seemed the ideal distraction between a couple of these. The book in question is “Fanfarlo”, translated by Edward K. Kaplan and released in the Melville House Press ‘Art of the Novella’ series; and it’s fascinating.

As well as being a stunning poet, Baudelaire was also a writer of prose, and I have a collection of his writings on art, as well as “Paris Spleen” and others. However, “Fanfarlo” is rather special as it’s his only piece of prose fiction and was written a decade before his masterwork, “The Flowers of Evil”. An intense 61 pages long, it tells a story which really does seem to mirror that of its author; of an obsessive love affair which will change the life of the protagonist forever.

… Samuel was, more than all the others, the man of failed works of beauty;- a fantastical and sickly creature, whose poetry shines forth much more in his person than his works…

The protagonist is one Samuel Cramer; a poet, dandy and aesthete, he becomes embroiled in a situation with a childhood friend. She is Mme de Cosmelly, and her husband is obsessed with the titular Fanfarlo, a beautiful burlesuque dancer. Cramer is charged with seducing her himself, persuading her away from M de Cosmelly; however, all does not go as planned, and Samuel finds himself falling under Fanfarlo’s spell. Quite what effect this will have on his life and his work remains to be seen…

… he gave her his volume The Ospreys, a collection of sonnets, like those everyone has written and everyone has read, at the age when our judgement was so short and our hair so long.

As I mentioned above, “Fanfarlo” is reckoned to be drawn from Baudelaire’s complex relationship with the dancer Jeanne Duval, and if this is a self-portrait of the poet in his youth, it’s certainly a fascinating one. Samuel is a wonderfully entertaining and very complex character; oscillating between laziness and ambition, constantly drawn to shiny new things and experiences, he seems, in fact, no match for the women he meets. Fanfarlo, though, is a bit of a puzzle; in some ways less defined than Samuel, she’s a sensual and hot-blooded character, and likely to hijack his artistic ambitions. The result of the collision of these two forces of nature plays out in what might be the expected manner, and the narrator/author perhaps seems a little disappointed at this! Interestingly, Mme de Cosmelly is a more rounded character, and Baudelaire allows her to express some very modern and strong views about the education of women, allowing them to be given much more knowledge of the vices of men so they can approach adulthood and a marriage with a clear view of reality.

Étienne Carjat, Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, circa 1862 – Public Domain

“Fanfarlo” was such an interesting read, and was enhanced very much by the extra material which is accessible after purchasing the book. I have several of these MHP ‘Art of the Novella’ editions (they’re so lovely) and the publisher describes them as a ‘hybrid book’. There is a link in the back (or a QR Code to scan) which takes you to a PDF containing some wonderful addition information to support the reading of the book. There are images, biographical extracts and discussions of the work itself which make interesting reading in themselves as well as adding to the experience of reading “Fanfarlo”. I don’t know that I’ve actually accessed any of these before, despite, as I mentioned, owning a number of books in the series – that’s something I need to check out soon…

So this acquisition turned out to definitely be worth the wait! I love Baudelaire’s writing and this translation worked well for me (apart from the occasionally Americanism…) The poet seems to love self-deprecation, mocking his alter-ego regularly, although I found myself wondering about how he would feel later on in real life, seeing how his relationship with Duval played out. The prose was very beautiful, and on the evidence of “Fanfarlo” I rather wish Baudelaire had written more fiction… Highly recommended, particularly in this lovely edition with the extra material!

 

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