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Am I a superficial reader?

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Perhaps a frivolous sounding heading for a post, and I don’t think things are entirely superficial on the Ramblings as I do like to read books of substance (balanced with lighter works!) However, the thought occurred to me when I was taking such pleasure recently in some lovely new volumes which had arrived, in the form of the Oxford Classics hardbacks. I’m currently contemplating making my way through the beautiful copy of “Crime and Punishment”, a book I’ve been meaning to revisit for a long time, and indeed I have at least one copy already. Yet it takes the arrival of a shiny new version to make me pick it up again – and I think this is a tendency I’ve noticed before.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been seduced by the new – Alma Classics, for example, often produce glossy new versions of books I already own, and it will frequently be those versions I read, not the ones I already have. And you’ll have noticed that I brought home a very pretty new copy of “Middlemarch” recently, despite already owning one.

So is this superficial? Well, I’m not so sure. Back when I first started seriously reading, I had less money for books and less access to them than I had now, so I would often settle for whichever copy I could get hold of. If it was a second-hand copy, perhaps a little pre-loved, it really didn’t matter as long as I could read it. My eyes were better then, I was younger and reading voraciously anything I could get hold of, and although I loved a beautiful book, I mainly wanted to get at the content.

However, I read differently now I think. For a start, my eyesight has most definitely gone downhill! I don’t have the hours in the day I used to have to read, I struggle holding awkward or fragile books, and I perhaps appreciate a book as an aesthetic object a lot more nowadays. Plus there is the complication that many of my original volumes have deteriorated over the 30 years or so since I got them and I do find that’s starting to detract a little from the reading experience.

So no – on balance, I don’t think I *am* a superficial reader. Even if nowadays I like to read an attractive edition with bigger pages and type, at the end of the day it’s what’s in the book that matters the most. Certainly, “Crime and Punishment” is proving an immersive experience, whichever copy I’m reading (more of that in a later post…) – so bring on the pretty books and let’s have our stories of substance housed in lovely containers! :))))

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The Continuing Relevance of George Orwell

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Working out what to read after an immersive experience with a book, is never easy and particularly so after something like “In Other Worlds”. However, I was looking through the stacks and this little pamphlet slid into view; I picked it up earlier on in the year and somehow it seemed the time was right to read it. I’ve dipped into Orwell’s essays off and on over the years and even if I don’t always agree with what he has to say, he’s always a thoughtful and thought-provoking read.

“England Your England” was first published in 1941 as the opening essay of a collection entitled “The Lion and the Unicorn”. In it, Orwell, surrounded by signs of the War and with bombers flying overhead, casts his eye over his country and its inhabitants and tries to make some sense of England whilst looking to its future. The quote featured on the back of the booklet will give you a flavour of the narrative:

England is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family… A family with the wrong members in control.

That latter sentence *does* seem particularly relevant still, but I wondered how the rest of his arguments would hold up. We are, of course 60-odd years on from that point, and the country could be considered to have changed beyond all recognition. Well, yes and no…

Orwell considers patriotism, the relationship between the English and other countries, the state of the Empire, whether there are national characteristics and if we are a homogenous nation. He even berates himself for using the words “England” and “English”, because of course he is considering the UK. Many of his arguments touch on class and the division of wealth, and this is where I think he’s still very much spot on.

What was it that at every decisive moment made every British statesman do the wrong thing with so unerring an instinct?

Although the class system has broken down to a certain extent, we still live in a country where there is apparently democracy, and also a Royal Family, a House of Lords, and the Eton-type public school system which *still* produces so many of those who are supposed to be providing sensible government but don’t.

England is a country in which property and financial power are concentrated in very few hands.

And somehow, despite the decline of the aristocracy, they have managed to survive by absorbing up and coming wealthy manufacturers, financiers and the like (the subject of so many 20th century middlebrow novels about mixed-class marriages!) However, Orwell does not reserve his ire exclusively for the monied and the upper classes; he is equally scathing about those left-wing intellectuals who toe the Soviet party line and refused to believe anything wrong about Russia and what was really happening there. He has strong words about the inability of the English working class to ever do anything as decisive as starting a revolution, and he cites this as one of the differences between this country and, say, the working class of France or Russia (both of which have managed multiple revolutions).

How can you not love a man who said “The only ‘ism’ that has justified itself is pessimism.”??

Despite the fact that some elements of this essay have by necessity become dated, there are many things in it that ring true and leave you wondering if even the superficialities have changed as much as you might think. Football, for example, is still a force for entertaining the masses on a Saturday afternoon, and the reliance on the hope of a win via the pools has simply been replaced by the dream of a lottery jackpot. However, there is a sense that with the current state of the world we are edging away from those slightly bumbling elements that kept England safe from extremism taking hold; the innate belief in the legal system and its fairness; the lack of real enthusiasm for war; the preference for the everyday distractions rather than developing any strong philosophy of life or a belief system of any kind. Orwell refers to “the strange mixture of reality and illusion, democracy and privilege, humbug and decency, the subtle network of compromises, by which the nation keeps itself in its familiar shape” and I found myself wondering in the modern world if this kind of safety net was being eroded.

“England Your England” is a surprisingly wide-ranging piece of writing for 40 pages, and ends on a note of optimism which was perhaps ill-founded (and which Orwell may have rejected a little later in his life). He states “This war, unless we are defeated, will wipe out most of the existing, class privileges“. Looking around me today, I don’t think, alas, that that is the case. We seem to me to be living in a world just as riddled with inequality as it was in Orwell’s day, where the rich are getting richer, and the poor getting poorer, to paraphrase the old song. OH often comments that there is only one cake to go round and that the greedy lot just want to make their big piece even bigger at the expense of the rest of us, and I think he’s not far off. This was a fascinating little essay to read at this moment in time, and it makes me wish we still had commentators of the calibre of Orwell taking on those in power…

 

Making sense of worlds real and imagined with @MargaretAtwood

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In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood

I must admit to approaching this review in a state of trepidation. Reading Margaret Atwood’s “In Other Worlds” has been something of an all-consuming experience; it’s a wonderful and complex book, full of delights and revelations, and I doubt I can do it justice in a simple blog post. However, for what it’s worth I’ll put down my thoughts and share them with you – however flimsy my views seem to me after reading this book.

A lot of visitors to the Ramblings will have no doubt seen the recent BBC documentary on Atwood, which I thought was marvellous. There were a number of quotes scattered through it that drew on the author’s early life and I tracked these down to this book; there are several points where she talks about her formative reading years which particularly resonated and so it seemed a good time to take this one off the shelf and explore further.

“In Other Worlds” is subtitled ‘SF and the Human Imagination’ and collects together a series of lectures/essays given by Atwood, either in person or in written form. Appended to this are a selection of reviews of, and writings on, specific science fiction works, as well as some short fictions of Atwood’s own that could be said to slot into the genre. She is, of course, the author of a number of longer works which could be classified as sci-fi, although the fluid nature of that classification is one of the many things she explores in her writings. The genre has expanded to include basically anything which is not straightforward narrative rooted in reality, and more and more modern books seem to encompass what she calles “bendiness of terminology, literary gene-swapping and inter-genre visiting”.

But surely all draw from the same deep well: those imagined other worlds located somewhere apart from our everyday one: in another time, in another dimension, though a doorway into the spirit world, or on the other side of the threshold that divides the known from the unknown. Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Sword and Sorcery Fantasy and Slipstream Fiction: all of these might be placed under the same large “wonder tale” umbrella.

And as she later reminds us, “the membranes separating these subdivisions are permeable, and osmotic flow from one to another is the norm.”

The first three, longer pieces, collected as “In Other Worlds” are a personal history of Atwood’s relationship with sci-fi and her thoughts on it, and they’re absolutely fascinating. “Flying Rabbits” looks at the genesis of sci-fi and where the impulse comes from to write such stories; “Burning Bushes” explores the relationship between religion and mythology, and how they mutated into and informed the genre we know and love; and “Dire Cartographies” looks at the physical placement of our larger-than-life fictions, how we map them and the problems with utopian/dystopian settings. Yes, we’re back with Utopias again – a recurrent theme on the Ramblings at the moment, and in a world that is turning truly more dystopian every day, a very relevant one.

Margaret Atwood image c. Jean Malek

The autobiographical elements here were absolutely fascinating; Atwood relates how she began writing stories as a child, how sci-fi stayed with her through her growing up and university years, and how she eventually came to write the adult fictions we know now. I loved reading about her time at university and as a young writer; the critical writings of Northop Frye, obviously an important influence in her formative years, are a regular touchstone. It was astonishing to read that she was actually not allowed into a particular library which housed modern poetry simply because she was female. However, there’s so much more than the autobiographical in this work. The narrative is studded with brilliance: discussions of our human need to tell stories and make sense of the world, exploration of what exactly sci-fi should or can be defined as and how it relates to the everyday world. Blending the autobiographical with criticism makes for a potent and engrossing mix, and also stops the book from ever being dry and dusty. In fact, the only dry thing here is Atwood’s sly wit, with a number of turns of phrase making me laugh out loud. For example, she reminds us when discussing “Brave New World” that “who can do what, with which set of genital organs, and with whom (is) one of humanity’s main preoccupations”!

Atwood makes many fascinating points about the development of utopian and dystopian fiction and is of the opinion that there are no pure utopias: each attempt at one carries within itself a dystopian mirror image, a kind of yin/yang thing which perhaps represents the dual nature of human beings. In fact, she regards the two states as so indivisible that she conflates them, coining the term ‘ustopia’ to encompass them both. She’s right that, as a species, we’re nothing if not contrary and as questing beings are never really satisfied with perfection. Instead we have the constant need to explore; and Atwood makes the pertinent point that while the world was unmapped, early utopian stories were placed on the margins of what we knew; as the world became explored more widely, tales of strangeness were set on lost islands or dark areas of the globe; finally as the world became too familiar, sci-fi took over in the form of other lands and parallel realities. I suppose underneath this was a certain strand of escapism: if this world is too difficult we can slip sideways into another but of course, we go back to the human need for exploration again. Her comments on our need for maps for understanding everything around us (not just ‘proper’ geographical things, but to make sense of our world) are outstanding. Her take on the place of religion in all this is also pithy, warning the reader at one point about the Bible of “the dangers inherent in applying every word in that extremely varied document literally”.

The second section of the book “Other Deliberations”, with its collection of Atwood’s thoughts on sci-fi works and authors, gives us a fresh look at some classics, and always through her wonderfully individual eye. Some of the stories she writes about are those you would expect: “Brave New World”, “The Island of Dr. Moreau”, plus a heart-felt and potent homage to Orwell, stressing his relevance to the modern world. Some, however, were new to me and left me with a long list of books to go out and explore. In fact, Orwell and Huxley reappear at regular intervals throughout the book, with their works coming to exemplify the tendencies Atwood sees in modern society:

Approximately five years after ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was published, the Soviet Union disintegrated, the West slapped itself on the back and went shopping, and pundits proclaimed the end of history. It looked as if, in the race between ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and ‘Brave New World’ – control by terror versus control through conditioning and consumption – the latter had won, and the world of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ appeared to recede. But now we see a United States weakened by two draining wars and a financial meltdown, and America appears to be losing faith in the basic premises of liberal democracy. After 9/11, the Patriot Act passed with barely a cough, and in Britain citizens have accepted a degree of state supervision that would once have been unthinkable.”

And finally, a selection entitled “Five Tributes”, short pieces written by Atwood that fall into the sci-fi genre. Having been primed about her thoughts on sci-fi in the previous section, these were particularly powerful and moving; Atwood is such a magnificent writer that she often cuts straight to the heart of things with a single, perfectly formed sentence which can devastate the reader. Undercutting all of the stories is her intelligence, her wild imagination, her love of our planet and her horror at what we’re doing to it. These are not just works about science and the future, but are really about the fundamental human condition. Ending the book are two entertaining shorts: an open letter to the Judson Independent School District, who had banned “The Handmaid’s Tale”, and a very entertaining piece on pulp magazine covers – the former a reminder that there are still plenty around who would stifle freedom of expression, and the latter advising us not to be judgemental about what constitutes art and what doesn’t!

We are not only what we do, we are also what we imagine. Perhaps, by imagining mad scientists and then letting them do their worst within the boundaries of our fictions, we hope to keep the real ones sane.

I make no apology for the length of this review, because I think “In Other Worlds” is a profound and important work. It has so many riches that it’s hard to know where to start, really, and I’m still not sure if I’ve actually conveyed just how powerful a book it is. You can see from the sheaf of post-its sticking out of my copy what an effect it had on me and how many things I wanted to quote and remember. I haven’t attempted to pass all of them onto you, because I would have to quote half of the contents and that would be a bit silly. What I can say about this book is that it’s one of the best things I’ve read all year – possibly *the* best, although we still have a few months to go – and that it would most definitely go onto my pile of desert island books. It’s thought-provoking, entertaining, erudite, funny and wise. Who else could range with ease across subjects as wide-ranging as the birth of a reader, the tendency for world-building and the significance of metal bras? I always knew Margaret Atwood was a genius – but reading “In Other Worlds” has confirmed it for all time. As I’ve said, this is not a simple book about sci-fi, but one which touches on matters that involve all humanity and their fate on this small, beautiful and much-abused blue-green planet. All I can say is – go out and read the book- it’s that important.

Mysterious Happenings on the South Downs

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The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts

The British Library Crime Classics series tends to get a lot of love on the blogs I visit – as well as on my own, as you’ll note from my many posts on them – and one particular title that’s been turning up lately is “The Hog’s Back Mystery”. Fortunately, I had a copy lurking, picked up at some point in a charity shop, and I must admit the thought of another relaxing mystery was just what I needed on my return to work after the summer break.

Freeman Wills Crofts is not a name new to me; back in the 1980s when I first had my Golden Age crime splurge and read more books by classic authors than I can remember, he was one of those whose works I tracked down. His Inspector French stories were hugely popular when they came out, and were still highly regarded among aficionados when I was reading him, so I wasn’t sure why his titles had slipped out of sight – and as I couldn’t remember anything about the Crofts titles I’d read I came to this completely fresh!

The book is set in the Surrey countryside, an area apparently well known to Crofts, and it deals with a sequence of mysterious disappearances. Dr James Earle and his wife Julia live in a comfortable country house, with no apparent worries. Julia’s sister and an older friend are visiting when Dr Earle suddenly vanishes from his house, in his carpet slippers and taking nothing with him. There is no evidence of foul play and no explanation, and the police are baffled. Fortunately, the local men are able to call in Inspector French, who proceeds along his methodical way, asking questions, looking for clues and always making sure he gets his breakfast! Earle has been seen up in ‘Town’ with an unknown woman who, when eventually identified, proves to have also disappeared. Was there a romantic connection, as it seems the Earle marriage was perhaps developing cracks? However, when one of the house guests also vanishes, the plot really thickens. The motive for the disappearances is unclear, there are no bodies, anybody who might be suspicious has an alibi; and it will take all of French’s brain-bashing to get to the solution.

Well, I can see why “The Hog’s Back Mystery” has received so much praise: it’s an excellently constructed puzzle, full of twists and turns, and eminently readable. French himself falls into the category of detectives who succeed by sheer graft (much like John Bude’s Meredith who I wrote about recently). There is no flashy detecting, no dramatic set-piece denouement and no Holmes-like disguises and chicanery. Instead, French follows up every little clue, interviews people over and over again, as well as doing a remarkable amount of leg-work. However, he still manages to have those lightbulb moments (which surely every human being gets) when all of the pieces slot into place and it only takes a bit of research and careful checking to prove a theory.

Hog’s Back on the South Downs

Crofts as an author plays fair with the reader, so much so that when we reach the chapter with the solution, each deduction or fact has a page reference so that the reader can pop back and check this. I would think this is perhaps guaranteed to disgruntle the reader a little, as it kind of says that if they had been as astute as French they would have solved the mystery too – and I confess I didn’t! 🙂 I *did* work out something about a guilty party before it was revealed, but the intricacies of the alibis etc were beyond me, despite the clues – which isn’t a problem, as I *do* like to be fooled by a murder mystery!

So, yet another satisfying read from the British Library Crime Classics series. A couple of the early titles I read seemed perhaps a little lightweight but I must admit that the recent books I’ve read have been excellent examples of the genre. And of course, they’re perfect relaxing reading when your brain is a bit frazzled and you want to watch someone else doing all the hard work for you…. 🙂

*****

“Hog’s Back…” has also been loved and reviewed by BookerTalk and HeavenAli, and so you might want to pop over and have a look at their posts.

Books. Tomes. Publications. Texts. And a marvellous festive treat from @BL_Publishing !

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It’s the usual story on the Ramblings: despite my best intentions, books *will* keep finding their way into the house… In fairness, I have bought very few of them, and I *have* piled on the floor in one of the Offspring’s ex-bedrooms at least 100 volumes to be sold or donated or passed on to friends. So the house rafters will hopefully survive for a little longer, and in the meantime I thought I should share some book pictures – because, let’s face it, we all get vicarious pleasure from seeing other people’s book hauls!

First up, the charity shops. I should just avoid them, I suppose, but *do* pop in every week – and mostly I’m good, reminding myself that I have plenty to read at home.

However, the previous weekend I couldn’t resist another Allingham (I kind of think I might have read this once, but I can’t remember) – it sounds good and was terribly cheap! The Capote short stories is a book I haven’t come across in my second-hand book searching, and I blame Ali – she’s reviewed Capote’s short stories glowingly, and although I’ve read his longer works I haven’t read this, so I had to pick it up.

The rather large volume that is “Middlemarch” is a Bookcrossing book – they have a little selection in my local Nero, and since I always have a coffee there on a Saturday I always check the books out. I have a very old and gnarled Penguin of the book, but the type is so small that it’s off-putting – so I figured this might spur me on to read it. It’s in almost new condition with decent size type and lovely white pages (as opposed to the brown and crispy ones of my old book) so that’s a bonus!

However, the bestest find (so to speak) of recent weeks is this lovely!! I’ve written about Anthony Berkeley’s works before on the blog – I love his Golden Age fictions, as he brings such a twist to the format, and in particular the British Library Crime Classics reprint of “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a really outstanding addition to their range. It seems the BL are not the only ones going in for classic crime reprints (although I would say they are leading the field), as this is a Collins reprint which seems to be part of a series of ‘Detective Club’ reissues. A lovely hardback in a dustjacket, for £2 not to be sneezed at. I can see myself picking this one up very soon!

Then there are the review books…. gulp. As you can see, a few have been making their way into the Ramblings – some rather substantial and imposing ones amongst them, particularly from the lovely OUP. The hardback Russians are calling to me, particularly “Crime and Punishment”, which is long overdue a re-read. Then there’s another edition of the quirky and entertaining Stella Benson from Mike Barker.

As for the Christmas paper… well, you’ve probably picked up on social media and the like that the British Library have a rather special volume planned as their Christmas Crime Classic this year, and this is what popped through my door, beautifully wrapped.

Early Christmas present – has to be good! This will be the 50th British Library Crime Classic, and it’s being released in a hardback with special extra material. Inside, it looks rather like this:

Isn’t it beautiful? The story itself sounds wonderful enough, but the book comes with an exclusive essay on the history of Christmas crime fiction, as well as an introduction, all by the marvellous Martin Edwards. And the book itself is beautifully produced, with the usual gorgeous cover image, plus a ribbon bookmark (I *love* books with a built in bookmark). What a treat! Part of me wants to devour it straight away, and part of me wants to wait until Christmas – what torture. Thank you, British Library!

So – some fascinating incoming books, I feel, and yet more difficult decisions to be made about what to read next. At least there’s not much risk of me running out of things to read…. 😉

An eclectic reader…

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I said recently, after having reintroduced myself to Margaret Atwood’s wonderful books via “Murder in the Dark“, that perhaps I should just have a month of reading her works and nothing else. Well, I’m now thinking that might not be a bad idea; I’m currently making my way through her collection “In other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination”, and it’s absolutely marvellous and very, very thought-provoking. The number of post-its sticking out of my copy already will tell you not only how much of an effect the book is having on me, but also how hard it will be for me to write a cogent and sensible review!

However, I wanted to share one particular quote which particularly resonated with me. Atwood draws on her lifelong love of books as a reader, scattering the narrative with autobiographical references, and this really chimed in with the way I feel about reading:

By the time I was nine or ten, I had become a confirmed under-the-covers midnight flashlight reader, devoting myself not only to adventure stories but also to comic books of an increasingly wide variety. In my daytime life, I would read anything that was handy, including cereal boxes, washroom graffiti, Reader’s Digests, magazine advertisements, rainy-day hobby books, billboards, and trashy pulps. From this you might conclude that I quite possibly have never been an entirely serious-minded person, or perhaps that I simply have eclectic tastes and like to rummage. Given a choice between a stroll in a classic eighteenth-century garden and the chance to paw through someone’s junk-filled attic, I would probably choose the attic. Not every time. But often.

As someone who used to sit and read the HP Sauce bottle over and over again whilst eating my mum’s frankly indifferent cooking, and who loves to rummage, I can empathise… More on this book when I’ve finished it – it really is excellent!

Russian Émigré Short Stories at @shinynewbooks @Bryan_S_K

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I have a new review up at Shiny New Books today that I wanted to share with you, and it’s of a wonderful chunky volume of stories which has been involving me for a few weeks.

“Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky” is a landmark collection from Penguin. Skilfully collected, edited, annotated and mostly translated by the talented Bryan Karetnyk, it collects together a wonderful array of works by authors who were exiled from their homeland by the Russian Revolution and the Civil War 100 years ago.

Translator and all-round clever person Bryan Karetnyk

Some authors are well-known (Nabokov, Bunin), some recently rediscovered (Teffi, Gaito Gazdanov) but many new to me and newly translated and quite marvellous.

You can read my review here – and I can’t recommend this collection highly enough.

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