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“… some girls are so silly…” @spikenard65 #fmmayor

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It’s been marvellous to see over recent years the resurgence of interest in, and republishing of, many neglected women writers of the 20th century. Virago, of course, led the way with their Modern Classics, launched in the 1980s; Persephone and Furrowed Middlebrow are more recent imprints; then there’s the freshly launched British Library Women Writers series which is going from strength to strength. Michael Walmer, whose books you’ll have seen featured on the Ramblings a number of times, is also responsible for some lovely reprints of unjustly ignored books; his Zephyr series of attractive hardback editions, which I’ve covered before, has featured some intriguing writers like Sarah Grand, Henry Handel Richardson and Elizabeth Berridge, all of whom produced excellent works. His latest release in the series is from another woman author, one who straddles the 19th and 20th centuries and has been released in VMC – F.M. Mayor. The book is a short piece entitled “Miss Browne’s Friend” and it certainly makes intriguing reading.

At just over 30 pages, this is more of a short story than anything else, and it was first published in four parts between June 1914 and March 1915, not long after her first novel, “The Third Miss Symons” had been released. “Miss Browne…” takes as its subject the relationship between the titular lady and a young woman called Mabel Roberts. Set just before the first World War, the story takes place in a time where unmarried women who’d reached a certain age and were obviously not going to marry and settle down became what Barbara Pym would later call ‘excellent women’. Helping to support family members and involving themselves in good works was seen as suitable occupation for them; because, being of a certain class, they would not be expected to do any kind of paid job, and something was needed to fill their time.

So into Miss Browne’s life comes Mabel; of a different class to her benefactor, she has had a Bad Start in life and fallen into what the blurb calls ‘dubious ways’. Miss Browne is charmed by Mabel’s pleasing looks and helps her to find a position as a maid so that the young woman can turn her life around. However, all does not go to plan, and as time goes on, Mabel moves from post to post, with the reports of her behaviour by her employers contrasting sharply to how she appears to Miss Browne. Can the latter help Mabel take a better path in life, or will the younger woman slip back into her bad ways?

Mayor’s story captures so much in so few pages, which is pretty impressive. In particular, the contrast between the two women of completely different backgrounds and class is brilliantly portrayed. Miss Browne is hopelessly naive, with little experience of the kind of world in which Mabel lives and moves; and Mabel, with her disingenuous behaviour and clever ways, can easily persuade Miss Browne that she is the wronged one, not her employers. You can’t really condemn Mabel, though; because as the book makes clear, whatever class you come from, the options for women during this period of time are very limited. Mabel would no doubt appreciate the Cyndi Lauper song “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”, because she does – and who can blame her? Meanwhile, poor Miss Browne, well-meaning but blind to the reality of Mabel’s true nature, stumbles on, trying to do her best but never really understanding what it’s like to start life as Mabel did, and to have to deal with what life throws at you when you have no money and no prospects.

“Miss Browne’s Friend” is an enjoyable read which really shows how narrow women’s lives were at the start of 20th century. The various Suffragette and feminist movements over the years would gradually change things (although we are still having to fight for women’s rights in the 21st century); but it’s interesting to look back and at least see how far we’ve come. Mayor’s story is a fascinating read and a vivid little window into the past – highly recommended!

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

 

A book of inspiration for ‘grammar vigilantes’!! #hyphensandhashtags @NonFictioness

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I seem to be spending quite a lot of time with non-fiction reading lately; I do think that sometimes, when life is a bit frantic, I don’t always have the mental energy to engage properly with fiction and I’ve spent many happy reading hours recently with all manner of non-fiction. “Hyphens and Hashtags” by Claire Cock-Starkey was a book I was particularly interested in reading; I read her lovely “Library Miscellany” back in 2018, and it was absolutely fascinating. Cock-Starkey is the author of a number of non-fiction works, and here she takes a look at the punctuation and symbols we use every day in written communication. As well as being a really interesting read, there was much I learned which I didn’t know before!

Here I should declare a particular interest: my dad worked in the print trade for much of his life, initially setting metal text by hand and then transitioning to computer typesetting when that came in. So the nuts and bolts of getting language onto a printed page really have a fascination for me. If you add to that the fact that I did a secretarial diploma course when I was young and learned to touch-type on old manual typewriters, then nice shiny new electric machines, it becomes obvious that I really am the ideal reader for a book about making marks on paper and understanding their meanings!

“Hyphens…” starts off with a section that looks at puncutation marks and their history; and it’s quite fascinating to follow the development of the various marks into the standardised forms we use now. Cock-Starkey then goes onto explors glyphs (hash tags, asterisk, pound signs etc), maths symbols and those endangered or lost forms we don’t use any more. Interestingly, she covers the Tilde in this section (one of these ~) and I recall these being commonplace in the early days of the Internet, and a friend of mind having to explain to me what one was! Apparently this endangered sign is possibly being rescued by use on Twitter, which is nice! So many of the symbols are fluid in meaning, often being reinvented for different usage as the world changes. And it was lovely (for personal reasons…) to see acknowledgement of the influence of typesetters in codifiying the use of signs over the years!

I really enjoyed my journey through our written signs and symbols; the book is surprisingly wide-ranging, reaching all the way back into history (ampersands in Pompei!!) and considering the future of the various marks we make, and how we use them. “Hashtags…” is very readable and stuffed full of fascinating facts – I was particularly interested in the influence of the Humanists on the standardisation of punctuation, which I’d not read about before. It’s a book which you could either dip into, or read straight through – either works, although there is perhaps a little repetition if you do the latter, though it’s not a problem.

Metal_movable_type.jpg: Willi Heidelbachderivative work: Daniel., CC BY 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve read a number of Bodleian Library books over the years, and they’re always beautifully produced; this particular edition is a compact hardback with nice thick paper and a lovely clear typeface which is a pleasure to read. You might not really have thought much about the punctuation marks we use every day, but as “Hyphens and Hashtags” reminds us, they’re absolutely vital, particularly for us readers. Without them, everything we read would just be an endless sea of words with no breaks or boundaries – and although some modernist authors might have aimed for that effect, by and large we certainly need our punctuation! This is a lovely book and a fascinating read – highly recommended!

“I believe…that the future belongs to ghosts…” #maelrenouard @NYRB_Imprints

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There are a number of imprints which turn up regularly on the Ramblings, and NYRB is one of those; as a rule, I tend to read their Classics range, although their poetry is sneaking in now and again; and today I want to share some thoughts about a recent release from their main imprint. The book is “Fragments of an Infinite Memory” by Maël Renouard – and the subtitle of “My Life with the Internet” gives some idea of what it’s about.

Renouard is a novelist, essayist and translator who’s taught philosophy at the Sorbonne; and as he reveals, is old enough to remember the time before the Internet, but young enough to have embraced it and absorbed it into his life. Here he gathers together a wonderful and thought-provoking series of writings which range far and wide whilst exploring the effect the Internet has had on human beings – and it really is a fascinating read.

Today, images come one after another, devour each other, replace each other pitilessly, as if to outmatch the boundlessness of our desire.

“Fragments…” is split into eleven numbered sections, which I would hesitate to designate as chapters, or even essays, as each branches off in many different directions. There are memoirs of the early days of the Internet; quotes from friends reflecting on their feelings about it; spoof historical sections referencing the ‘Book of Face’; projections of how we might adapt to technology in the future; and so much more. Because of the author’s memories of pre-technology times, he’s able to take a long view on how humans have been changed by their increasing interactions with the digital, and I found some fascinating resonances in these sections. Renouard’s musings on memory chimed in very much with my reading of “In Memory of Memory” by Maria Stepanova, with both authors exploring how humanity’s constant recording of the present is turning into a giant respository of information which will be accessible to all in the future.

Who hasn’t gone on the Internet looking for past loves and friends not seen for years? Time lost in search of lost time.

Renouard also explores the more potentially problematic nature of the Internet; how it’s hard to remain invisible nowadays, how we can track old friends and colleagues; and how we now seem to feel the need to share so much of ourselves online. Conversely, it’s also possible to create an online presence of someone who doesn’t actually exist… There is a whole section on photography which again ties in with Stepanova’s discussion of this, and Renouard is aware of how we lose the immediacy of the moment we’re in by constantly recording it on our phones. Whether lamenting the loss of non-digital processes, considering the possibilities of AI or discussing the concepts of immortality, Renouard is never less than fascinating.

In the Internet there is a fountain of youth into which at first you drunkenly plunge your face, and then in the dawn light you see your reflection, battered by the years.

Although the author initially seems to treat the internet as some kind of stand-alone external global memory, exploration reveals that is not the case. Mr. Kaggsy, who has a long memory, is fond of pointing out that the Internet is only a load of massive servers; despite Renouard’s occasional assertions that you can find anything you want on it, it’s not a mass repository of all knowledge and all history because it is a human creation and only reflects what is uploaded to those servers. Mr. K and I will often recall a song or a TV programme from the past, and find no mention of it online; the Internet is as fragmentary as our human, grasshopper minds, full of scraps of often random or pointless knowledge retained heaven knows why, but certainly by no means complete…

In Stalin’s time, you got rid of a person by erasing every last trace of him. Today this task is accomplished by exhibiting every last inch of him to public view.

“Fragments…”, here translated by Peter Behrman de Sinéty, was originally published in 2015 in French and so of course the Internet Renouard discusses has obviously changed markedly in those years; technology certainly never stands still nowadays. This is not a work that I feel intends to draw one overall conclusion; however, its series of observations, musing and explorations delves quite deeply, setting you off on all manner of trains of thought, and you can see by the number of places I marked how fascinated I was by the book! 😀

Map of the Internet – Matt Britt, CC BY 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

The Internet and how it affects us is a huge topic, and Renouard’s exploration of the subject is multi-faceted and really would repay re-reading; it’s a book I’d like to return to and spend time dipping back into. It can’t be disputed that we humans have been irrevocably changed by the advent of the online experience, and a quick glance at any group of people in the streets glued to their phones only serves to reinforce this. What reading a book like this encourages you to do is at least *think* about how you’re interacting with the Internet and maybe take back a little more control. We live in a digital age, and that isn’t going to change; but maybe at least we can try and keep control in our hands, and not with the machines!

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

Some thoughts on Daphne du Maurier for #DDMreadingweek

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This week has seen HeavenAli’s wonderful initiative of the Daphne du Maurier Reading Week – and I have to confess up front that I shall once again fail to read a book in time to join in… It’s not as if I don’t have two possible titles lined up, both of which I’m eager to read, and here they are:

Both have elements which make me very keen to read them: “I’ll Never Be Young Again” is du Maurier’s second novel and sounds quite fascinating. She adopts a male narrator’s voice and parts are set in Paris, so that’s of course right up my street. And “The Glassblowers” is set in the French Revolution so once again it’s ideal reading. Alas, time and other reading commitments are against me this week, so I shall have to save them for the right moment…

My first encounter with Daphne du Maurier was actually a long, long time ago when I read “The House on the Strand” in my teens. My edition, which I don’t think I have any more, looked like this:

Although it’s decades since I read it, I have happy memories of the book and have often considered revisiting it; though there’s always the risk of a disappointment when re-reading after such a long break. But apart from this, I’m *fairly* sure I’ve not read any other novels by du Maurier, particularly her most famous titles “Rebecca” and “Jamaica Inn” – which is a little shocking really. The trouble is, the plots are so well known, that I can never be sure…

However, I *did* very much enjoy “The Breakthrough“, one of du Maurier’s short stories which I read as part of my Penguin Moderns set:

You can read my thoughts here, and I must admit that I’d be keen to read more of her short works; this was a particularly striking story and it impressed me very much.

Anyway, I’ve been enjoying reading everyone’s posts on Daphne du Maurier and if you check out Ali’s blog she has a dedicated page for the week which will no doubt send you off in all directions seeing what everyone has been reading. I do hope she decides to do a DDM reading week next year – if I get organised far enough in advance I might actually manage to take part! ;D

“..it was secret and nobody could trick her out of it.” #Zilberbourg2021 #LikeWater

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As a rule, I am totally rubbish at taking part in, and sticking to, any kind of reading challenge. Whether it’s someone’s reading week, or a readalong, or just making my own plan and following it through, I pretty much always fail. So when I approached a recent Twitter readalong – which I really *did* want to take part in! – I had little confidence I would see it through. However, I’m pleased to report that not only did I stick to the schedule, but also that this turned out to be the perfect way to read the book in question! 😀

The book is “Like Water and Other Stories” by Olga Zilberbourg, her English-language debut published in 2019 by wtaw press. Zilberbourg was born in what was then Leningrad, USSR, but grew up in what reverted to St. Petersburg in 1991 and now lives in California. As well as publishing three Russian-language collections of stories, she serves as a consulting editor at Narrative Magazine and as a co-facilitator of the San Francisco Writers Workshop. She also runs the excellent Punctured Lines blog with Yelena Furman, taking a feminist look at literature from the former Soviet Union. For clarity’s sake, I should say that Olga was kind enough to send me a copy of her book, for which I am *very* grateful. I sensed that it would be my sort of book, and it certainly is, and so to have a copy directly from the author is a real treat – thank you, Olga. The Twitter readalong was organised under the hashtag #Zilberbourg2021 by Reem @PaperPills and the reading schedule was put together by Kim @joiedevivre9 – thank you both, ladies, for the motivation!

“Like Water” collects together a series of short works, varying in length from half a page to several pages long. In these, Zilberbourg explores a real range of tales and right from the start the stories are stunning. The collection opens with Rubicon which slips through time and place, as well as introducing an element which will recur – the mixtape and its importance in the courtship rituals of the young! Evasion takes a quirky look at ageing, equating it with growing in size. Helen More’s Suicide, a longer piece, explores why we live and choose to die; and Dandelion is a wonderful story, and one which puts you inside the mind of a writer, sending their work off into the wider world.

The forty-year-olds required higher ceilings, taller furniture. An occasional forty-year-old, nostalgic for her childhood, tried dating a twenty-something, but the romance was physically difficult to sustain. She had to crouch down to him, and he could not, on his own, open the door to her fridge and take out the pot of beans.

Other stories, like My Sister’s Game, explore the pains of coming of age; Therapy. Or Something. is a quite devastating look at a smothering parent (and as I have a complex relationship with my mother, it certainly made me squirm). Dr Sveta was a particularly powerful story, drawing on Russia’s Soviet past, and revealing just how little choice women had under that regime. Many of Olga’s stories feature women torn between two cultures, fighting the expectations of society (and their own family); and the pressures this puts on the characters were tellingly revealed. Whether set in Russia or America, all of these women narrators are negotiating a complex path through life, and their struggles are very relatable (even when the stories twist off into more surreal territory).

“Like Water” turned out to be such an excellent read, and I’m so glad Book Twitter came up with this readalong! What was particularly brilliant about reading the stories in this way, a set amount of pages each day, was that it allowed time to savour the writing and let the tales settle in the mind. “Like Water” is a particularly varied collection of stories, and even had I read it all in one go I think there would have been no danger of them running together. However, the scheduled gap allowed even more time to think back and appreciate the brilliant storytelling. And as well as everything else, having this very doable schedule to work to allowed me to read a non-fiction work alongside “Like Water” (more of which in a later post!) and so that was a double result!!

As you might have guessed, I loved this collection; Olga’s stories are funny, human, clever, sad, as well as being very thoughtful and thought-provoking. I mean it as a compliment when I say that at times I picked up hints of Tolstoya, another author straddling two continents; although Zilberbourg’s voice is completely individual and her style very much her own. Whether writing about childhood in Russia, struggling as a working woman in America, dealing with unexpected anti-Semitism, or discovering differences in the immigrant experience, Olga takes a clear and vibrant look at things, and it’s always terrific reading. I know I’m not alone in my love for this collection, and I highly recommend it!

“…you’ve made the world…” @sublunaryeds #rilke

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I have to confess to having been in a little bit of a reading slump recently; I read very intensely the wonderful book “Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me”, which I’ll be covering for Shiny New Books, and it left me with such a book hangover that I’ve struggled to know what else to pick up. “Adolphe” was a pleasant distraction, and after that I decided to let my grasshopper mind settle for a little while on some poetry – a slim and fascinating collection by that wonderful versifier, Rainer Maria Rilke.

Here I need to add another confession; although I’ve read Rilke’s fiction and letters as well as a book about his time in Paris, I’m not sure I’ve ever sat down with his poetic works… Which is a bit shocking, really.  So “The Voice and Other Poems”, translated by Kistofor Minta and part of my subscription to Sublunary Editions, was just right to pick up at the moment and rectify this.

This dual language collection brings together what the translator describes works which contrast with Rilke’s “thing-poems”; I’m of course not well-versed (hah!) enough to comment, but what I can say is that the works here were very beautiful and memorable. Most are drawn from the collection “The Voices”, where the poet speaks in the voice of others, such as the beggar, the blind man, the orphan, the leper and so on. Particularly striking was “The Song of the Suicide”:

They hold out the spoon to me,
The spoon of life;
No, I want and I want no more,
Let me spew myself up.

Other works are drawn from “The Book of Images” and “New Poems (1907-19080”; all somehow suggest people struggling and suffering yet somehow surviving; and all linger in the mind. “The Prisoner” was another standout, with its opening lines:

My hand has only one
gesture – I frighten them off with it;
Onto ancient stones,
drops fall from dank rocks above.

A work like “Girl’s Lament” demonstrates that very little changes in the world, as children quarrel and pick sides in their games; and “The Song of the Widow” was heartbreaking:

…we both had nothing but patience;
but Death has none.
I saw him coming (how wickedly he came),
and I watched as he took and took:
there was nothing that belonged to me.

I often find poetry very hard to write about, and I couldn’t honestly say I understand the meaning behind all of these verses. However, I did love reading them, once again wallowing in the beautiful sound of words. “The Voices…” has really whetted my appetite for Rilke’s poetry and I think instead of reading round the edges of his writings, I need to dive in and explore much more of his verse. This was the perfect read for an unsettled brain!

“Love is but a luminous point…” #adolphe #benjaminconstant @riverrunbooks

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Books tend to come into the Ramblings from all sorts of directions; a case in point being the title featuring on the blog today. “Adolphe” by Benjamin Constant is a work from 1816 which was reissued in 2021 by riverrun editions. My copy came via (I think) a Twitter giveaway and it turned out to be a fascinating read! Constant himself is an intriguing figure; a political activist and writer on political theory and religion, he was involved in the French revolution of 1795, then spent much time over the following decades switching allegiance to and from Napoleon, fleeing France and returning to it, and even supporting Louis Philippe I during the revolution of 1830! A very lively life indeed!

“Adolphe” was Constant’s only novel to make it into print during his lifetime, and has a somewhat convoluted history. After its publication in 1816, the author faced all kinds of accusations that the book was based on real people and events, and it was seen as a kind of act of revenge on his previous lover, Madame de Stael. The book had originally been published in French in 1816 by the Bond Street bookseller, Henry Colburn; the 1816 English translation by Alexander Walker was issued in 1817 in Philadelphia; and the version here is based on that edition. As well as the original text itself, it also includes prefaces to the second and third edition, plus a passage excised from the 1816 edition and restored to that of 1824. A book with a complex time-line, then!

On to the work itself. “Adolphe” presents itself as a ‘found’ text, handed to a stranger who then decides to publish it. The first person narrator, Adolphe himself, tells the story of his affair with his older lover, Ellenore; the Polish mistress of the Comte de P***, she has worked hard to get herself slightly accepted by society, and has children with the Comte. Into her life comes the alienated Adolphe, melancholy and introverted; and inspired by the affair of a friend, he decides that he should try his hand at seduction, settling on Ellenore. To be honest, she’s not the obvious choice; ten years older than him, and yoked to the Comte by bonds of loyalty and the many travails they have gone through, she does resist him at first. And the more she resists, the more he convinces himself he loves her. Inevitably, once he’s won through her reserve and she’s fallen in love with him, his ardour cools. Thus begins the emotional tug-of-war between the two which will lead to her leaving her security behind, to Adolphe vascillating between the demands of lover and family and duty, and ultimately to tragedy. More than that I will not say…

Whoever had read my heart in her absence, would have taken me for a cold and unfeeling seducer. Whoever had seen me at her side, would have believed he discovered in me a lover inexperienced, interdicted, and impassioned. They would have been equally deceived in these two opinions. There is no complete unity in man; and scarce anyone is entirely sincere, or entirely deceitful.

“Adolphe” was an intense and engrossing read, full of angst and emotion and duels and high dudgeon! I was reminded in places of Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” and the authors of the time didn’t shy away from dealing with deeply romantic scenarios; in fact, it’s notable that we read much more about the emotions and the angst of the characters, with the settings and locations getting scant mention. The focus is on humans and their passions; the setting could be anywhere.

The riverrun edition is edited, with a preface by Richard Sieburth and this too makes fascinating reading. He provides background information about Constant, his relationships with women, and the inspiration behind “Adolphe”, all of which adds to the reading experience. He also draws parallels with the Byron/Shelley menage who were at the time writing at the Villa Diodati, which was unexpected. Most interestingly, he makes a strong case for the Walker translation being the best one to read; although there have been more recent versions (Leonard Tancock in 1964, and Margaret Mauldon in 2001), Sieburth is of the opinion that Walker’s is a more accurate rendering, and notes that the later translators have for example added quotation marks to the speech in the novel, whereas Constant explicitly excised these from both editions of the book he oversaw. That kind of sells me on this version…

So a slightly unexpected arrival, and one which turned out to be a thoroughly absorbing and transporting read. The book is only 128 pages long, which is probably just right for prose at such an intense level; the characters and their fate linger in the mind; and the emotions which spark back and forth between the two protagonists do seem very modern and recognisable… “Adolphe” is an excellent read and if you fancy spending some time with it, I do recommend this edition!

 

Drama, humour and mystery in the early days of the war! #BLCC @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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In complete contrast to my last read, today on the Ramblings I’m heading off to WW2 London with another marvellous release in the British Library Crime Classics range. Truth be told, a good number of my favourites have been set during that conflict, and the blessing of having crime fiction into which you can escape is something Martin Edwards picks up in his excellent intro. More of that later, maybe – but now onto the book, which has an interesting history of its own…

“Murder’s a Swine” was first published in 1943, and was the second crime book from Nap Lombard; the first was “Tidy Death” in 1940. However, fascinatingly, Nap Lombard was actually a pseudonym for a husband-and-wife writing team – Pamela Hansford Johnson and Gordon Neil Stewart. Johnson would go on to be a successful novelist in her own right, later marrying the writer C.P. Snow; Stewart seems to have sliped into obscurity. However, on the strength of this mystery, they made a formidable writing team!

The protagonists/sleuths of “Swine…” are Agnes and Andrew Kinghof; and the setting is the ‘phoney war’, that period of time in World War Two from September 1939 to April 1940 when war had been declared but nothing much seemed to be happening apart from a lot of messing around with blackouts, sandbags and air raid wardens. In the middle of this set-up, Agnes, whose husband is away in the army, stumbles on a dead body hidden in the sandbags of their building’s bomb shelter. Fortunately, Andrew turns up on leave, as hot on the heels of this discovery, one of their upstairs neighbours is terrorised by the sight of a pig’s head at her fourth-floor window! This is followed by threatening messages signed “Pig-sticker”, and the amateur sleuths can’t help but get involved. Luckily, the wonderfully-named Inspector Eggshell is happy to have them on board, although Andrew’s cousin is not. The latter, Lord Winsterstone, ironically nicknamed by the Kinghofs “Lord Pig”, is something high up in Scotland Yard and is furious at them getting involved!

As the two detectives sleuth away, it becomes clear that someone in their block of flats is likely to be the guilty party. An old family feud is revealed; there is another death plus more and more frights and threats. But who *can* the culprit be? Madame Charnet, a deaf Frenchwoman, seems unlikely; Mr. Warrender, who works in Government, appears very respectable; and Felix Lang, the trainee doctor, surely has to be too scatty to behave in such a sinister way… With Andrew coming and going according to the vagaries of the army, Agnes getting herself into all sorts of scrapes, Eggshell beavering away behind the scenes to try to get to the truth, the entrance of a lovely young legatee, and Lord Pig attempting to control his temper and get the better of the Klinghofs, there really wasn’t a dull moment in the story! It builds up to a wonderfully dramatic climax (which is perhaps a tad unorthadox, but nevertheless really enjoyable), and the book left me wishing there were more Nap Lombard tales to read!

Waterloo presented its usual appearance of war-time excitement. Tired men in khaki and blue trailed the kit towards the platforms, wives and sweethearts roamed in search of their lovers through the bands of fog. In the buffets glasses and thick china rattled and clattered. The smoke from a thousand cigarettes rose to the vaultings above. Porters swung the trolleys wild just in time to miss the heedless lounger. Men and women kissed and clung, oblivious to the sifting crowds. Mothers, with nodding, wailing babies awake too late, sought their men folk.

One particular joy in “Swine” was the wonderful portrayal of the Klinghofs; as Martin Edwards mentions in the intro, there’s more than a hint of Nick and Nora Charles from “The Thin Man” (which is a huge favourite of mine) and their drinking, verbal repartee and obvious affection for each other is quite lovely (there’s even a sly reference to Myrna Loy, who played Nora in the films). Agnes is a particular standout; given by the author(s) plain looks but an outstanding voice and legs, she’s plucky and game for any adventure. The supporting cast is wonderful too, with Eggshell a real favourite; and watching Lord Pig failing to outdo the Klinghofs was hilarious. In fact, humour is a strong element of the book; although that doesn’t stop there being a corresponding darker side. The villain is really villainous; a right nasty piece of work, and there are times when I was on edge because of the genuine peril in which the heroes and their allies found themselves!

“Murder’s A Swine” has to count as one of the most enjoyable British Library Crime Classics I’ve read; and I *have* read a lot of them, and I *have* loved most of them, so the bar is high. But the combination of wartime setting, fiendishly clever mystery (I didn’t guess….), brilliant characterisation, plus laugh out loud humour balanced with creepy terror, made this one a real winner. I so wish that the Nap Lombard pair had created more books relating the exploits of Agnes and Andrew Kinghof; but they didn’t, so I can only hope that at least the British Library will release their other title as a Crime Classic! As Martin Edwards concludes, this kind of escapist, entertaining mystery must have been a wonderful distraction during the War, and he’s definitely right that it is during a pandemic too…

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

April reading – and whence May??

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I really *don’t* know where April went to; I do think that living under a pandemic has done something weird to time. Nevertheless, it is now May and so I think I’ll have to regroup once more and consider what shape my reading will take this month!

April itself was, of course, brim full of (mostly) good books, and here’s what I actually read during the month:

As you can see, there are a number of chunky ones! Several were for the #1936Club (though I hasten to point out I did *not* read the whole Nabokov short story collection!); and I have a couple of titles to review for Shiny New Books. There was, of course, one dud for me, but c’est la vie – mostly I enjoy what I choose.

Looking forward to May, I’m not quite sure what I’m going to read next. I finished the “Monica Jones….” book last night and have a bit of a hangover, and probably want something of a change. Plus I have a number of review books in the stacks demanding attention, and they’re all very appealing:

Mainly chunky review books…
This one is calling strongly!
Some lovely titles from the British Library

These are some other options – what I’ll pick I don’t know!

Is there anything here which takes your fancy or which you’d recommend??? 😀

“My body was alive with the sounds…” @FitzcarraldoEds #fiftysounds

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Travelling to another country to live and work, with only a limited knowledge of the language, is a brave and perhaps risky thing to do. However when the culture you’re choosing to embrace is one which is a polar opposite to your own, the shock to the system is immense. That’s what author Polly Barton did, and in a recent release from Fitzcarraldo Editions she tells the story of the time she spent in Japan using elements of the language as touchstones. The result is the fascinating and absorbing “Fifty Sounds”.

Barton moved to a Japanese island at the age of 21; here, she was employed as an English teacher and simultaneously was trying to learn the language. Her travels would lead her to periods in Japanese cities and eventually to a career as a translator from that language. In “Fifty Sounds” she tells the story of that journey, but in a clever and unusual way.

Immersion in a foreign language is a bombardment of sounds, until you decide that you’re going to actually do this thing and learn, and then it becomes a bombardment of imperatives: learn this, learn this, learn this.

The Japanese language is a complex one (and even after reading the erudite explanations in parts of the book, I’m not sure I completely understand its structure…) However, the book is built around onomatopoeic words, which are an important branch of Japanese, and Barton uses fifty of the ‘sound words’ to illustrate the sections of her life. So there will be a chapter entitled “koro-koro: the sound your teeny little identity makes as it goes spinning across the floor”; inevitably, this deals her struggles with the language, even when she was well into her study; and there’s “pota-pota: the sound of red dripping onto asphalt”, relevant when involved in a car accident; or, more darkly, “bishi-bishi; the sound of being struck sharply and repeatedly by a stick-like object, or (infrequently) of branches breaking”.

It’s a clever way to tell her story, and also in itself gives some hint of the diffulty of dealing with the Japanese language. Barton spends a long time in the country; during her tenure teaching on the island, she has an affair with an older, married fellow teacher, Y, which informs much of the narrative. The relationship adds another level of complexity to her feelings about Japan itself, and it did strike me that she was very vulnerable and young when she travelled to the country. The break with Y, moves to big cities, relationships with women and trips back to England do tend to undermine Barton’s stability, and she becomes clear towards the end of the book that she had desperately wanted to get away from her home country. However, despite her willingness to meld with Japan, that isn’t in the end so easy.

From the point of view of language, Barton’s attitudes are underpinned by her study of Wittgenstein and her knowledge of Barthes. The longer she practices and learns the Japanese language, the more she becomes aware of how it is near impossible to translate without a complete understanding of culture and nuance in both languages. This is probably more pronounced where you have countries and lifestyles that are very, very different; but again and again Barton finds herself stumbling and making basic errors when she thought she had a grasp of Japanese idiom.

Really, you are not just translating ‘two words’, but also a broader cultural heritage leading back decades or centuries which those two words conjure up, and about which the average Anglophone reader or listener knows nothing. In order to truly understand – in order to sense things slotting into place or ‘falling to your internals’ as they say in Japanese – you need more.

And despite her determination to become fluent in Japanese language and culture, she begins to become out of kilter with Japanese society, perceiving herself as large and loud compared to the country’s native population. Eventually Barton comes to the realisation that to completely assimilate would mean losing too much of herself, suppressing parts of her real nature to comply with the cultural requirements of Japanese society. The language is tied up with the bigger issues of cultural difference, and it finally comes as something of a relief to Barton to be with people who have the same expectations and understandings as her.

How I imagine Japan – which is probably very inaccurate… (Tokyo – Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) – MuckDiva, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

“Fifty Sounds” was a fascinating read on so many levels. As someone who is Anglophone and relies on translators to read much of the literature I love, I was absorbed by the discussions of the difficulties of complete understanding and the need to grasp those cultural nuances. And Barton’s story was also an engrossing one; her struggles on a personal and linguistic level, her need to belong somewhere, and her view of Japan always engaging. She doesn’t shy away from approaching the darker side of life in Japan, including oblique references to her own experiences, but is always discreet – and, in fact, the book is dedicated to Y.

So I found “Fifty Sounds” an immersive read from start to finish. The device of using the sound words was brilliant and so interesting to someone with no real knowledge of the Japanese language; the discussions of language itself fascinating; and Barton’s story, and view of Japan, quite unforgettable. Even if you aren’t particularly keen on linguistics, “Fifty Sounds” is a unique and absorbing book and I really recommend it. Barton won the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize for the book, and it’s not hard to see why.

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

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