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Portrait of an oblivious man @ShinyNewBooks @KateHandheld

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Elizabeth von Arnim is an author who probably needs no introduction to readers of the Ramblings. Best known for her “Elizabeth...” novels and “The Enchanted April“, she was the cousin of Katherine Mansfield and a prolific author.

Some of her novels might be regarded as light-hearted and witty, which indeed they are; however, she has a steelier core than you might think and even in the lighter novels her strong views seep through. And a number of her other books address darker topics, with “Vera” perhaps being one of the darkest (I’ve not yet read that one, but I’ve read enough about it to make me a little nervous!) Anyway, lovely Handheld Press have re-released her 1909 novel “The Caravaners” in a beautiful new edition, and I’ve reviewed it for Shiny New Books. It’s witty, satirical yet with that dark centre, taking on a number of issues from militarism to misogyny, and I highly recommend it  – my review is here.

On My Book Table… 1

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Now that I’m lucky enough to have a dedicated reading chair with its little table alongside, I’ve taken to popping books onto the table for consideration as forthcoming reads – even, possibly, a bit of polyreading! The pile next to the chair changes according to my mood, but I thought it might be nice to share a little snapshot of what’s in my line of sight at the moment.

On the Book Table

That’s a chunky pile of books, isn’t it? Shall we look at some specifics?

“The German House” is a very pretty ARC from HarperVia, which I had hoped to get onto for WIT Month. Alas, that didn’t happen but I do want to read it soon – it sounds right up my street!

Next up is a book that’s been sitting on my TBR since I bought it in a frenzy of enthusiasm a while back. I loved Binet’s “HHhH” – such a clever work which plays with the whole structure of books and writing – and this sounds just as thought-provoking. I keep picking it up and getting distracted – the story of my life with books, really!

Elizabeth Hardwick’s “Seduction and Betrayal”, in the form of a quite old NYRB Classic, has been languishing unread for a number of years since I had a bit of a binge on buying Hardwick books after reading her “Sleepless Nights“. There is a shiny new Faber edition which I *nearly* bought in London recently, but held back because I thought I might already have it. Obviously, I do – it comes highly recommended and has essays on women authors from the Brontes to Plath. Glad I refrained in London, really, because I don’t need two copies!

Melancholy…

Finally on the Book Table is this behemoth of a book. As I related in an earlier post, I looked for this all around London and eventually rooted out a copy in the lovely LRB Shop. You can see how fat it is from the first picture above – it’s a book that will sit on the Book Table for some time for dipping into, as the advice is that that’s the best way to read it. Certainly, I don’t think I’ll be powering through it in one go! 😀

So what will I pick up first? Good question – as I write this I’m between books and trying to decide. Having just read several fiction titles (reviews are pending!) I may be drawn to the Hardwick as I’m really enjoying essays at the moment. Watch this space!

 

“.. the strange codes passing back and forth between audience and stage…” @pawboy2 @FitzcarraldoEds

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It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track by Ian Penman

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time recently with lovely Fitzcarraldo Editions books; and indeed I amassed several from their back catalogue in a recent flash sale they held, which are sitting prettily on my TBR. However, I was very excited to hear about one recently published volume from the publisher, and they were kind enough to provide a review copy. You might think it’s perhaps not an obvious title for me to read (or you might, given my eclectic taste and grasshopper mind!) So first off, I should really nail my colours to the mast where this book is concerned and give a little background.

Back in my teens/early twenties, I had another coping mechanism alongside books, and that was (and still is, to a certain extent) music. I grew up through Glam and then Punk and then into the 1980s and all the amazing Post-Punk stuff. However, my taste stretches backwards and forwards from those points and can take in anything from Shostakovich to Billie Holiday to Wire to the Manics to my current and recently discovered favourites, Public Service Broadcasting. I followed the music press religiously back in the day, and New Musical Express in its heyday was an amazing publication with some incredible writers on board. The cream of these were the dynamic duo of Ian Penman and Paul Morley, both of whom I still count amongst my favourite authors. They took music journalism off into esoteric and often surreal directions, producing some work that was inventive, unusual, occasionally impenetrable but always entertaining. Since then, I’ve read pretty much every book Morley has put out, but Penman has been more elusive. There was a collection of journalism a couple of decades back (which I have) and he’s continued to write for various publications, including the London Review of Books and City Journal. “It Gets Me Home…” brings together a selection of pieces originally published there, and makes for the most marvellous and stimulation collection.

There’s a clue here to how it is that a lot of supposedly lightweight easy listening, far from being merely diverting kitsch, can contain a whole world of stronger, darker currents. How often it feels, as Apollinaire said of De Quincey, like a ‘sweet and chaste and poisoned glass’.

“It Gets Me Home…” contains eight substantial pieces, each focusing on a different musician or musical culture; ostensibly perhaps they could be regarded as reviews of music books, but they’re really so much more than that as Penman takes those works as jumping off points to consider the life, music and legacy of some of the greats. There’s James Brown, a pioneering and yet complex man; Elvis, about whom you would think there was nothing left to say (but you’d be wrong); jazzman Charlie Parker and crooner Sinatra; and the late Prince, as well as others. These are not subjects that I would, necessarily, read about; but in Penman’s able hands, each essay becomes a stellar piece of reading and writing, and the book is just fascinating.

In Charlie Parker’s 1940s heyday jazz was one of the few spaces where black performers might carve out a life of relative artistic freedom, mostly on their own terms.

As I read through the book, it struck me that Penman has a rare ability to really capture and put into words the effect that music has on us. Our response (or at least mine) is so often a visceral, emotional one that it can be hard to pin down how and why music affects human beings so powerfully. In particular, the twentieth century saw such a massive increase in the influence of popular music owing to modern recording methods, radio and TV and the ability of everyone to have the music they loved in their own homes to listen to whenever they wanted. Penman is particularly astute on the changes that had to be made in the presentation of music when it moved from being seen live in concert or dance halls to being recorded.

For the music business the switch from live music to recorded in the 1950s was as much of a revolution as Hollywood’s changeover from silent cinema to the talkies.

What shines throughout the book is the sheer quality of Penman’s writing; I marked any number of pithy truths and ‘yes’ moments, too many to probably quote here, and his breadth of knowledge allows him to take a wider intellectual view. His essay on the Mod phenomenon is particularly fascinating, recognising as he does the cultural forces involved which many other commentators don’t; and he sensibly decries the modern trend of any kind of musical revival as being entirely sterile when taken away from the context in which it originally developed. He’s spot-on in his discussion of the difference between the lovers of Trad jazz and modernist jazz, commenting that “mods backed the darker horse of existentialism”. Running through the book is Penman’s love of jazz, and haunting the narrative is the discreet presence of the great Billie Holiday, who Penman acknowledges in his introduction should have been central to it; excitingly, he hints that decades of his writing about her may make it into a book and THAT would be wonderful!

Even if you’ve loved this music for half a lifetime, you can find the algebraic lingo of jazz theory about as clarifying as a book of logarithms baked in mud.

The title of this book is drawn from an Auden poem (not a song lyric, as you might expect) and as the blurb suggests, music can be a crucial support when all around is madness (and certainly the world seems very like that nowadays). It can give a sense of belonging; it can speak to our souls; for many it can be a lifeline. As Penman says in his introduction, “When all else fails, when our compass is broken, there is one thing some of us have come to rely on: music really can give us a sense of something like home.”

A Pair of Penmans

I’ve often perceived a snobbery about writing on the subject of popular music, but “It Gets Me Home…” smashes that prejudice with the insights it gives, with the social commentary Penman weaves seamlessly into his essays and with his deep understanding of just how profoundly music is essential to human beings. He’s an extremely erudite man, though never showy, and as he references everyone from the Bauhaus through Camus and Adorno to Anita Brookner, this never feels gratuitous, simply highly relevant and necessary to his exploration of the cultural significance of music. Even if you think you don’t like the artists covered or writings about music, I would recommend you read this marvellous selection of pieces; Ian Penman was one of the first writers I read who made me realise that you could push the cultural boundaries and that it was a good thing to do so – and he’s still doing it! 😀

 

Taking on the Machine Age – a wonderful collection over @ShinyNewBooks @PeterOwenPubs

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I  have a new review up today in Shiny New Books, and it’s a lovely work by an author I’ve read since my early twenties and whom I’ve revisited in recent years – the singular and very wonderful Anna Kavan.

Kavan was a very individual author as well as a painter; despite working in relative obscurity for much of her life, she found a champion in the publisher Peter Owen. The company still puts out her books, and has just released a very marvellous collection of short writings called “Machines in the Head”. As well as a splendid selection of short fictions, it also features some non-fiction and plates of her artwork. Highly recommended, and you can read my review at Shiny here!

Russian art, blogging buddies, an old friend and books…

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… the perfect day out in London, plus a lovely surprise when I returned home!

Perfect train journey with coffee, book, Gregg’s vegan sausage roll and a comfy seat! 😀

I refer of course to my trip to the Big Smoke yesterday, which those of you who follow me on social media might have seen some mention of… 🤣 The trip was the idea of the lovely JacquiWine who thought it might be nice to meet up in real life, having encountered each other digitally for so long. And so she suggested that she and HeavenAli and I get together in London for bookish chat and book shopping – what a perfect concept!

Goncharova Self Portrait

As the ladies were not going to be in London until the middle of the day, I took the opportunity of a cheap train ticket to get into London at silly o’clock and rolled up at the Tate Modern as they opened for the day. I had been meaning to visit the Natalia Goncharova exhibition they were staging over the summer but never got round to it; and as it closes today I was happy to be able to squeeze in a visit!

One of Goncharova’s stunning images

Goncharova is an artist I’ve loved since I first discovered Russian avant garde art back in my late teens/early 20s, so being able to see some of her work in the flesh was a real treat. Her artwork is stunning, the exhibition was excellent and I was relieved to be able to make it through the exhibition shop with only the purchase of some postcards… 🤣

Postcards

I met up with the ladies at Foyles (of course!) and after lunch at a nearby Pret, we did a little browsing.

Foyles – I love the place!

Vegan lunch from Pret – very yummy!

Ali was lucky enough to have a book token and found some interesting titles which will no doubt appear on her blog in due course! I was after a particular title (more of which later..) but it wasn’t in stock; neither were a couple of other authors I was seeking out. So I thought I might get out unscathed, until at the last minute I spotted an imported Calvino I wanted. Irresistible, really!

The Calvino from Foyles plus a slim volume of poetry from Skoob

We then headed for Judd Books in Marchmont Street to meet up with my BFF, J, who was in town visiting another friend and had a few hours spare. We were keen for a catch up as it was a while since we’d met, and she also came with a carrier bag of books (gulp). It was in Judds that things went a bit pear-shaped as there were so many temptations- which I did not resist… Oh well – you only live once and I did send 4 boxes of books to the charity shop recently!

Several from Judd Books plus a Bourdouxhe from Ali – thank you! 😀

After Judds it would have been rude not to walk the few steps to Skoob Books – so we did! Here I was very restrained and only came out with one poetry book (pictured further up the post) – but none of us got out unscathed. Skoob is so tempting…. We also had a lovely chat with a lady who’d just moved to London from America and heard us nattering away about books!

Books from J. – mostly returned loans but there’s a rather lovely Mishima in there – one of only a couple of titles of his I don’t have… 😀

After coffee, Ali and Jacqui took their leave to catch respective trains, whilst J. and I bimbled back in the direction of Tottenham Court Road tube – which of course took us dangerously near the London Review Book Shop where things went off the rails. As I hinted above, I had been asking everywhere I went about a particular book, which might just have been inspired by the Backlisted Podcast – “The Anatomy of Melancholy” by Robert Burton. I wanted to have a look at it, to see what I thought about it and whether I could (or indeed wanted to) read it. Well, the LRB shop had a copy (thank you, very helpful guy behind the counter if you’re reading this, for pointing me in the right direction and encouraging me!!) It was so intriguing when I dipped in at random that I succumbed, and it came home with me. I blame that Andy Miller (again…)

Hurrah! And very interestingly, it cost less in a beautiful bricks and mortar bookshop than it does from a certain online source…

So I got home tired, happy and laden with books (the best state to be in, really). It was lovely to meet up with Jacqui and Ali, as well as catching up with J. However, I arrived to a bit of a surprise…. I have a reasonably big birthday coming up in December and Mr. Kaggsy has been fretting about what to get me (that isn’t more books). It transpired that he had decided I should have my gift now so I can get plenty of use out of it, so I returned home to find I now have my very own dedicated reading chair!!!

The Reading Chair! 😀

It’s quite marvellous – comfy, with pockets at the side to keep books in, plus he’d procured a special side table to keep pens, notebooks, additional books, drinks etc on! I call that fairly inspired from a man who doesn’t read, and its arrival was the perfect end to the perfect day. Now I just need to get settled and get reading!! 🤣

(You can read Ali’s post about our day here!)

“All committees are clay in the hands of determined men who fix agendas” #JLCarr

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How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup by J.L. Carr

…which is possibly the longest book title I’ve reviewed – and it’s the second book about football on the Ramblings! Or is it?

I read and loved and reviewed Carr’s best-known work, “A Month in the Country” back in 2013. It’s pretty much universally loved, from what I can gather, and is a perfect and evocative novella set in the English countryside in the summer. I wasn’t really aware of any other works by Carr until recently, when I spotted a copy of this one in the charity shop. Alas, I didn’t buy it, and then regretted it. Then I read a review on someone’s blog that made me very keen to read it (and I’m sorry but I can’t remember where…) Then I kept looking for a second hand copy and it never came up and so basically I cracked, and picked up a copy at my local Waterstones. I have no willpower…

“Steeple…” is billed very much as a comedy, and it *is* funny. Narrated by Joe Gidner, who’s been sent down from an ecclesiastical college for an unspecified misdemeanour, the story is set in the small community of Steeple Sinderby. The location is vague, but this is Middle England in the early 1970s and it’s a world which I found very recognisable. The title gives away exactly what the book is going to be about, and Joe (who’s secretary and general factotum for the Wanderers) has been instructed by Mr. Fangfoss, the Chairman, to write a straightforward history of what happened. That history is wonderfully entertaining, enlivened with extracts from the committee minutes, newspaper reports, and possibly suspect recollections. It’s fab!

An Englishman is partial to doom-talk and always has been, as is demonstrated by the nightmare stone carvings all over Barchester Cathedral, and misses it now that the Church doesn’t go in for Religion raw, red and bleeding anymore. Our countrymen appreciate confirmation that Hell yet prevails and that it is well on the cards that they are thither bound.

The idea of training a small local team up to win the biggest football trophy in the land is generated by Dr. Kossuth, a Hungarian refugee who heads the local school. A remarkably inventive man, he comes up with a series of scientific rules which, if applied, should make a team invincible. Enter Alex Slingsby, a teacher at the school who abandoned his footballing career to look after his invalid wife. Alex is in exactly the right frame of mind to take on this kind of challenge, and starts to build a local team. This in itself is hilarious, as they seek out the ideal goalkeeper from a local milkman, and use the tub-thumping sister of the local vicar to lure a former soccer star, languishing with an attack of melancholia, back to the fold. And once the team is built up and trained, the matches begin…

The road to cup fame, of course, is not without its bumps and potholes; and it will take all of the strength, training and willpower of Steeple Sinderby Wanderers to get to that final and win their cup. How they do and what happens afterwards is a real blast and has some wonderful laughs. So on the surface, this might seem like a very different book to “A Month in the Country”; but scratch the surface of the humour and you find there’s an awful lot going on underneath.

For a start, there’s the wonderful portrait of English country life; not the bucolic, pretty tourist type village you might see in adverts or on vapid TV programmes, but a much more realistic take on it.

People don’t know about rural England between the last Mystery Autumn Foliage Coach Trip and the Mystery Blossom Journey into Spring. Mud, fog, dripping trees, blackness, floods, mighty rushing winds under doors that don’t fit, damp hassocks, sticking organ keys, stone floors and that dreadful smell of decay.

There are feuds and infighting, poverty and stupidity; and underlying much of the narrative is a real sense of despair. There is pathos in Alex’s relationship with his wife; in Gidner’s loneliness; and in the lack of purpose in many of the characters’ lives. The modern world is encroaching on Steeple Sinderby, and that place just doesn’t like it much. The book is as much a study of the effect of mass publicity and a sudden spotlight on a quiet little place as anything else, and it’s quite fascinating to see how the locals react.

Carr is a remarkably clever writer, and it’s clear he’s on top form here. He plays with reality, adding in spurious quotes from Pevsner’s guidebooks, inventing histories which involve Steeple Sinderby, creating a locality and a topography for it; all of which obfuscation succeeds in hiding up where the place actually might be! He’s happy to send up football and its fans, local MPs and bigwigs, any of his characters and the general backwardness of the country. His melancholic outlook seeps through and the story ends up being surprisingly moving.

Part of the success of “Steeple…” is of course down to the characterisations. Carr peoples his story with some wonderfully alive characters with the most outlandish names, and yet I came to love them. There’s the wonderfully named Mr. Fangfoss, a local farmer who’s the club’s chairman and has things under control most of the time. He’s not a fan of the modern world, preferring to have out of work people forced to take jobs and certain people castrated (yes, really!); yet you can’t help but cheer him on, whether he’s standing up to a local Lord who wants to come in and make money out of the situation, or a jumped up TV interviewer who tries to get the better of him on live TV and fails. Fangfoss is an unusual character, with a very dodgy home set up, and yet he becomes lovable. Joe Gidner is someone you really want to get to make more of himself rather than just festering away in a village writing verses for greetings cards; there’s the lively Alice ‘Ginchy’ Trigger whose mangled prose is employed to write up the matches in the local paper, and is just too influenced by Thomas Hardy; and of course Alex Slingby, the driving force behind the team who’s so obviously crushed by his love for his wife and her plight. There are so many wonderful players in this book – basically, you need to read it and get to know them for yourself.

via Wikimedia Commons. Although Steeple Sinderby is set in the 1970s, it frankly feels more like the team should look like this…. 😀

“Steeple…” is brilliantly constructed; Carr’s narrative sucks you in and cleverly draws out the strangeness of the story in a way that keeps you hooked. Of course, the British love to see an underdog win (Leicester City, anyone?) and so the plot is an appealing one to start with. But there *is* so much more to this book, from comments on the national character, the national game, and basically life itself. “Steeple…” may *appear* to be a lighter, more superficial story than “A Month…”, but it really isn’t…

But the great and abiding Truth I learnt these weeks was how many people in this world have no Purpose in life, people who live second-hand, sitting all the hours God gives them free of drudgery, staring at either picture papers or TV, waiting like little kids for just another story or for Guidance.

I could say so much more about this book; about its quiet despair at the modern world and its longing for the past; about the sense it gives that life can often be pointless but sometimes magnificent; about the effect the media can have on a place, and the aftermath when the attention has moved on elsewhere; and about the underlying pathos of most human stories. Even such a simple paragraph as Carr/Gidner’s comment on an opposing side reveals much about the need to escape from our everyday lives:

Mostly, they were very respectable men, muffled against the winter day in home-knitted cardigans with large leather buttons; a phlegmatic, shuffling, stamping lot, grey men who had handed over 20p to cram close to grey men, huddling under a grey sky in a grey landscape on their grey way to the town cemetery. Here, lost in the throng, they had bought another identity for ninety minutes. They bellowed disbelief at incompetence, cried scornfully to the great heavens in godlike despair, clamoured angrily for revenge. For 20p they did all this and were not called to account.

(Is that a kind of Utopia? Yes, according to Richard Clay in part one of his documentary on the subject, where he suggests the ritual of Saturday football as a search for the fabled land! But I digress…)

I picked up “Steeple Sinderby…” because I rated Carr’s most famous work so highly, and despite the fact it was apparently about football it sounded – intriguing… It’s more than that, it’s a remarkable piece of art; funny, provocative, entertaining and with surprising depths, it completely absorbed me and left me quite moved at the end. If you want a book that amuses and gets you thinking, as well as giving a glimpse of a kind of small-town England that may well be gone, I recommend you get acquainted with Joe, Alex, Mr. Fangfoss, Ginchy Trigger, Giles the Vicar, his sister Biddy, Sid Swift, Monkey Tonks and all their fellows – you really won’t regret it! 😀

(As an aside, I can’t help wondering if the “Golden Gordon” episode of Michael Palin’s “Ripping Yarns” was just a teeny bit influenced by this book!)

“What’s the difference between a word and a sigh?” #marcchagall

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My Life by Marc Chagall
Translated by Dorothy Williams

When I was rushing through St. Pancras station in the summer, en route to the Midlands and a visit to the Aged Parent and the Offspring, I made time to pop into their little branch of Hatchards. It’s a small but perfectly formed shop which always has interestingly-themed tables, and I rarely come out empty-handed. This occasion was no different, and I was tempted specifically by this lovely Penguin Modern Classics version of Marc Chagall’s “My Life”. It called to me particularly as I was heavily absorbed in Victor Serge’s Notebooks; and Chagall’s book deals also with exile from Russia. So of course I picked up a copy… To be honest, though, you couldn’t really get two more dissimilar books than the Notebooks and this one. In size, writing style and subject Chagall and Serge are complete opposites; though both are very entertaining and enjoyable writers!

Chagall grew up ina a close-knit Russian-Jewish community, and much of the book covers his childhood; his beloved family; his struggles at school; and his growing desire to become an artist. He writes in short, impressionistic and vivid sentences, conjuring small-town life and the warmth of the people around him (as well as a slightly claustrophobic atmosphere which eventually becomes too much). The book is illustrated with some lovely sketches of his life and surroundings, which are a real treat; and we follow Chagall as he takes tentative steps outside the realm of his childhood into the wider world. The artist came from a poor family and is in some ways out of his depth to start with. But he’s driven to make art, and manages to find contacts in St. Petersburg to help him along.

The essential thing is art, painting, a painting different from the painting everyone else does.

Eventually he escapes to Paris, and the chapters set here are particularly evocative. Again, there is the struggle and lack of money, but he mixes with other artists who help. Blaise Cendrars is a kind and constant presence; Apollinaire makes appearances. Chagall gradually starts to make a kind of name for himself but returns to Russia and here we’re treated to a different view of the Revolution; an elliptical one, from a man who does his best to support what’s happening but really only wants to make art.

Can we help it if we can only see world events through canvas, paint, and painting materials, thickening and vibrating like poisonous gases?

Again, there are glimpses; figures like Meyerhold, Lunacharsky, Trotsky and Mayakovsky pass through Chagall’s pages. However, he never hides the harshness of living through these times and dark actions creep into the narrative. The book ends in 1922 when, in a bid for essential stability, Chagall left his homeland for good, living almost exclusively in France until his death in 1985.

Marc Chagall – The Birthday – 1915 (public domain via Wikimedia
Commons)

“My Life” is a striking book; the prose initially perhaps seems a little brief, stacatto, but as your reading ear attunes to this type of writing it becomes very compelling. And the line drawings complement the story beautifully, their economy of line matching that of the narrative; both nevertheless draw you into Chagall’s world, creating a very moving experience.

So my impulse purchase at St. Pancras station turned out to be one that I’m very glad I made. It gives a privileged glimpse into the life and art of a great artist (some of whose works I’ve seen in the flesh in recent years), as well as revealing the artistic view of the Russian Revolution. Highly recommended!

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