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#ReadIndies – some independent publishers from my shelves!

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

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

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

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

Next up let’s have some Versos:

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

A more recent discovery for me has been Little Toller:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some poetry next, in the form of Bloodaxe Books:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Seagull by Anton Chekhov
Translated and adapted by Anton Korenev

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anton Chekhov by Iosif Braz, 1898
© State Tretyakov Gallery

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

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

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

Shuffling the stacks – and revamping the reading projects!

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

Penguin Great Loves box set

Penguin English Journeys box set

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Marshlands by Andre Gide
Translated by Damion Searls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unknown author, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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

*****

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

Announcing Reading Independent Publishers Month #ReadIndies (February 2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First up is Japanese Literature Challenge 14 from Dolce Bellezza:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Comfort reading

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

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

Indie Presses and Subscriptions

Some of the treats from my Renard Press sub.

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

Which leads me on to…

Challenges/Events

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

Fitzcarraldos – I love Fitzcarraldos…

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

Which leads me on to…

Reading Weeks

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

Social Media

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

A little pile of my Harvill Leopards!

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

Roland Barthes, a documentary and another interview!

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

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

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

Shiny New Books

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

Trends in my reading

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

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

Outstanding books

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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Underland by Robert Macfarlane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

 

A little post-Christmas and Birthday round-up

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

First up the birthday pile:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last but not least, books from friends:

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

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

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