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Welcoming 2022 with some tentative reading plans… 😳😊

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Following on from yesterday’s highlights of 2021, it’s first of all time to wish you all a very Happy New Year! Let’s hope that 2022 is a little less fractious than last year was… I did promise that I would take a look today at possible reading plans and events which might be coming up, although as usual I’m a bit reluctant to commit to too much as I always prefer to following my reading whims!

Of course, I’m already involved in one event which started appropriately enough in December and is carrying on into 2022 – the Narniathon! I really enjoyed my reacquaintance with “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” last month, and January will see me reading “Prince Caspian“. I’m hoping that because the books are slim I should be able to keep up the momentum.

January *is*. however, a month with some challenges, and I shall most definitely be taking part in! The first is the Japanese Literature Challenge, hosted by Meredith and you can find out more about this here.

Some lovely Mishimas and an intriguing collection from Uno Chiyo

As you can see from the image, there are some titles which are immediately shouting at me from the TBR, but it wouldn’t take me long to pick out some more!

Then there’s the first of Annabel’s challenges, NORDIC Finds, which features books from any of the five Nordic countries – Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden.

Tove Ditlevsen and Edith Sodergran – both intriguing possibilities for January!

Again I do have a few obvious titles shouting at me from the TBR, any one of which would be a lovely read; but I’d also be keen to explore further from any of the countries. I read a *lot* of Scandi-crime and a fair amount of Icelandic crime pre-blog so I’m not sure if I would revisit these. But there’s lot’s more out there and Annabel has more guidance on her blog, plus a list of featured books for each week.

Then there’s the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group monthly themed read. January is for books featuring nuns, teachers or governesses, and a quick dig in the TBR revealed these possible unread titles:

The two Kate Fansler titles are perhaps stretching things a little, as she’s a university lecturer turned detective, but they *are* Viragos, so we shall see!

Added to all this, there’s the temptation of Twitter readalongs, and two are calling at the moment – Finnegans Wake and Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. I really would like to commit to these two, but frankly am not sure if I would keep up – I anticipate it being a bit manic when I return to work next week, so we shall have to see…

Apart from these events, if I’m truly honest I would like to make a big dent in Mount TBR; it has grown considerably over the Christmas period, as you might have seen, and some of the older books on it could probably do with a bit of a prune. Meantime, here are some titles which are calling particularly strongly; whether I will have the brain space for them when I go back to work next week is another matter, but I will certainly try!!

Lots of very inviting titles…

So, plenty of choices for me… Are there any there which appeal to you? And do you have reading plans for 2022 or are you just prepared to wing it?? 🤣🤣

Looking back on highlights of 2021’s reading…

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During December, on book blogs and Twitter, I’ve seen many a ‘best of’ post; however, I always prefer to leave my look back on the year until the very end – I have known, in the past, some of my best reads of a year to arrive at the very end! 2021 has not been an easy year in many ways, but I have read more books than ever (my coping mechanism) and so I shan’t pick a best of – I never do – but instead will look back at some of the highlights… 😀

Classic Crime

As always, I have sought consolation at difficult times with murder, mayhem and mysteries! Golden Age Crime has always been a huge favourite and a comfort read for me, and 2021 was no different. As well as any number of marvellous British Library Crime Classics, I’ve managed to find an excuse to revisit Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime. And Edmund Crispin, another long-term love, has made appearances here. Really, I doubt I would have made it through the year without crime!!

As an extra crime treat, I was invited to take part in the Crime Reprint of the Year Award by Kate at Cross Examining Crime, and was happy to nominate two favourite books – such fun! 😀

British Library Women Writers

As well as reissuing some wonderful Classic Crime, British Library Publishing have also been releasing stellar titles in their Women Writers series. I’ve covered a number this year, including Edith Olivier’s The Love Child and Diana Tutton’s Mamma. However, a highlight was their reissue of F. Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to See the Peepshow, a book I regard very highly. I was delighted to take part in the blog tour and sang the book’s praises – a wonderful and moving read!

Russia

Inevitably there are Russians, as books and authors from that country are some of my favourites. I spent time with Dostoevsky for his bicentenary; squeezed in Nabokov short stories; read a wonderful anthology of classic short works, and a brilliant collection of new writing; and reacquainted myself with a recently rediscovered author who wrote for the drawer. I can never read enough Russians, and frankly I think you’ll see plenty more books from that country appearing here in 2022!!

France

As well as a love for Russian culture, I also have a passion for all things French, most particularly Parisian. There were plenty of French treats this year, from unpublished fiction from a favourite writer, a marvellous non-fiction work exploring the culture of mid-century Paris, poetry from that city, some hypnotic prose from Marie Ndiaye and a lovely look at Sylvia Plath‘s relationship to the place. All lovely, and all have drawn me back to reading French authors; I’m currently rediscovering Jean Genet, and have a good number of unread Sartre, Camus and others on the TBR!

Of course, I have to mention Roland Barthes, who has been much on my mind this year. I’ve only read one of his works in 2021, and also Derrida‘s piece on him, but I am keen to continue with him in 2022. A readalong on Twitter of A Love’s Discourse went by the by leading up to Christmas, as my head was in totally the wrong place, but I shall hope to get back to this one soon.

New to me authors vs old favourites

I must admit to being a reader who loves to discover new authors and books, though this year I’ve also sought comfort from the familiar. I don’t do statistics, but I do see from the list I keep that I *have* explored new writers this year. Margarita Khemlin, Marguerite Duras, Amanda Cross, Gilbert Adair and Alex Niven are just a few names who have intrigued this year, but I’m happy to keep the mix of old and new going. From the old guard, George Orwell continues to be a constant delight – I can’t foresee a time when I’ll ever stop reading him! John Berger is a more recent favourite and I’ll definitely be continuing with his works in 2022. Burroughs and Beverley Nichols, a disparate pairing if there ever was one, are both names I love to revisit regularly. Really, there are so many books and so little time, as we always say!

Projects and Reading Events

We get onto shaky ground for some of these, as I’m often a bit rubbish at keeping up with this kind of thing. As far as events go, I co-hosted Read Indies Month in February with Lizzy and this was wonderful fun – so many great independent publishers to support! And Simon and I co-hosted two reading club weeks this year – 1936 and 1976. Both years had an excellent selection of books available to read, and the response was wonderful! I’m happy to say we’ll be running the #1954Club from 18-24 April 2022 and there are some really great books from that year, so do join in!

As for other events, I have dipped into Spanish Lit Month, German Lit Month, Novellas in November and a few more – I like to take part in these when I can and when it fits in with the TBR and also what I fancy reading!

My own personal reading projects, which are all really centred round various Penguin collections, have been pretty intermittent this year – whether from lack of focus, the state of the world or just wrong book at wrong time, the only one I’ve made headway with is the Penguin Moderns box set. I’ve had great fun with this little series of books – there are some marvellous authors and titles in it – and I have high hopes that I might actually finish reading it in 2022!

Disappointments…

I always try to be selective in what I read, but there are occasional misfires and DNFs. I started the year with one, The Housekeeper and The Professor, which really didn’t gel with me; I struggled with Confessions of a Heretic, which was not for me; and I tried to read a high profile book about Russian authors and frankly disliked it immensely. But the balance is heavily in favour of successful reads, so that’s good!!

Poetry

2021 also saw me spending a good amount of time with poets and poetry, and this was a real pleasure. There were biographies – John Sutherland’s marvellous Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me was a highlight, as was Gail Crowther’s magisterial Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz, which explored the lives of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I discovered new poets, too, often via the NYRB Poets imprint, and this was particularly wonderful.

Translated works

I generally read a lot of work in translation. And I continued to read a lot of work in translation during 2021 – yay! And I shall continue to do so in 2022. Thank you *so* much to all those who translate works into English – my reading life is richer because of you!

Favourites?

I can *never* pick favourites or a top ten or a book of the year, and my BFF J. always reckons it’s because I read such a disparate range of books. I tend to think she might be right, and in any case I’ve read so many stunners this year it seems wrong to pick out one. But to satisfy those wanting me to choose *something*, a few which particularly stood out were In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, every short story I read by Nabokov, Unwitting Street by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, New Model Island by Alex Niven, The Edge of the Object by Daniel Williams and Gentleman Overboard by Herbert Clyde Lewis. All of those were oustanding reads, but probably all for very different reasons!!

Well, there you have it! Some of my reading highlights for 2021. Come back to the Ramblings tomorrow to see if I have any plans for the new year, so you can place bets on whether I’ll stick with any of them! 🤣🤣🤣

A journey back to childhood… #Narniathon21

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When Chris over at Calmgrove canvassed for interest in a readalong of the Narnia books, back in the middle of the year, I was instantly interested; C.S. Lewis‘s books were crucial to me when I was growing up, and I read them over and over again. I still have my fragile old Puffin paperbacks and although I haven’t looked at them in decades, I do feel that I know them backwards. I wondered how I would find them now, as an old bat rather than a young stripling, so I shall try to stick to the schedule and re-read one a month – which shouldn’t be too much of a hardship!

Happily, the reading order is publication order, of which I am very much in favour – after all, that’s how Lewis wrote them and the order in which the story developed, so that just seems right to me. The first book in the series is of course the most famous, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, and even those who haven’t read the whole sequence probably know of this one.

The book opens simply with the lines “Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.” They will be our protagonists throughout, and as the story begins they’ve been sent away to the country during WW2 for their own safety. Billeted in a big rambling house with an old professor and his housekeeper, there’s plenty to do outside to occupy the children. However, bad weather sends them off exploring the house and it’s in a room empty of everything but a wardrobe where the adventures begin. Lucy, the youngest, discovers as she hides in the wardrobe that it leads to another land, called Narnia, where it’s always winter but never Christmas. Here she meets a faun, Mr. Tumnus and has tea with him. There are all manner of talking animals and trees, and eventually Mr. Tumnus reveals the land is ruled by a White Witch who has an interest in human children… Lucy makes it back to her own world, but no-one believes she’s been gone; but things do not end there, and all four children will enter Narnia, encounter Aslan the lion king and fight battles they never imagined…

A great crowd of people were standing all round the Stone Table and though the moon was shining many of them carried torches which burned with evil-looking red flames and black smoke. But such people! Ogres with monstrous teeth, and wolves, and bull-headed men; spirits of evil trees and poisonous plants; and other creatures whom I won’t describe because if I did the grown-ups would probably not let you read this book – Cruels and Hags and Incubuses, Wraiths, Horrors, Efreets, Sprites, Orknies, Wooses, and Ettins. In fact here were all those who were on the Witch’s side and whom the Wolf had summoned at her command. And right in the middle, standing by the Table, was the Witch herself.

The story captivates from the start, and reading it as an adult I can see why. Much of this I put down to Lewis’s wonderful writing style; he was obviously a born storyteller. Conversational, descriptive, addressing the reader directly, any child picking this up would be sucked straight into the story – and I certainly was, both as a youngster and now! The story itself is totally absorbing – its creatures marvellous inventions, its setting completely realised, and the concept of a portal into another world through a wardrobe is just inspired. The action is stirring, the good characters lovable and the evil ones quite chilling. It’s a fully convincing world, and I know I would have liked to step into it when I was young.

Obviously reading the book now I see the underlying moral concepts, and these *are* interesting. Lewis’s Christianity is visible though it never takes over the story; rather ideas of good and evil are demonstrated, and certain characters learn lessons about what’s right and wrong. The bad guys are brilliantly portrayed, and really scary – and appear quite strikingly in one of Pauline Baynes’ excellent illustrations.

The latter, in fact, deserve special mention of their own as they must have formed the visual image of Narnia for a multitude of children as well as myself. The drawings are perfect, as far as I’m concerned, and I’ve never wanted to see anyone else’s interpretation. As I re-read “Lion…” I realised quite how important those drawings had been to my perceptions of Narnia, augmenting Lewis’s wonderfully chatty prose – they really are stunning!

So they lived in great joy and if ever they remembered their life in this world it was only as one remembers a dream.

I re-read “Lion…” in pretty much one sitting and found myself completely engrossed, despite knowing the story so well. Even though I remembered what was to come, the tension was still there when characters were in peril, and I found myself immersed emotionally in the telling of the tale. I come back to Lewis’s writing here, because I really can’t praise it enough – I have a love of language and good writing, and maybe some of that stems from my childhood reading of the Narnia books.

Well, I could go on but there’s no point slingling more superlatives about; and I’m sure that Chris will have a really interesting post coming out looking at the underlying symbolism and imagery in the books, and the themes. Me, I’m just happy I had the excuse of reacquainting myself with this wonderful storyteller; and as I remember the rest of the books less well than this one, I’m really looking forward to the rest of the readalong! 😀

Death – by mince pie??? @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks #murderafterchristmas

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A recent Christmas tradition here on the Ramblings has been to read, enjoy and write about whichever marvellous Crime Classic the British Library has chosen to rediscover as their Christmas title. There have been some really great books and stories making a festive reappearance – sometimes a full novel, and sometimes an anthology, they’re always the perfect comforting read at this time of year.

However, this year the BL have gone for something quite quirky in the form of “Murder After Christmas” by Rupert Latimer; not only is the title intriguing, but the story itself is really entertaining, taking many of the tropes of detective fiction and giving them a bit of twist!

During the next few days it stopped snowing and thawed overnight, froze again and snowed again. The village streets became impassible. Deplenished of traffic, St. Aubyns became more full of life than usual, the village pond being black with skaters and the surrounding hills squirming with tobogganing children. The proud young possessor of a pair of skis paraded the roads, ubiquitously aloof from his less fortunate elders who crept gingerly around familiar corners which had now become death-traps for the unwary. It was soon no unusual sight to find middle-aged ladies lying prone in gutters and sober, normally upright characters moving slowly uphill, virtually on their hands and knees.

The action takes place during Word War 2, and features the Redpath family plus a wide array of relatives and contacts. Frank and Rhoda Redpath are living in the country with Aunt Polina, and owing to the privations of War they’re obliged to invite their Uncle Willie for Christmas. Uncle Willie, otherwise known as the stinking rich and fiercely grumpy Sir Willoughby Keene-Cotton, is truculent and single-minded, and as the book continues it appears that just about everyone concerned would be happier if he was dead. There are any number of greedy ex-wives, children and step-children and general hangers-on who think they deserve a chunk of his fortune; and in fact even the Redpaths would not be averse to a little of the funds coming their way.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that Uncle Willie is found dead after Christmas, and in quite outre circumstances. However, it’s hard for the local police to get a handle on who did the murder as there are frankly so many people with a motive! There are hints of all kind of family secrets, as well as a number of marriages, children and assorted dependants with an interest in Willie’s fortune, as well as a rather bluff and clueless Chief Constable, Major Smythe (who’s also an old friend of the deceased). Faced with all this obfuscation and confusion, it’s a miracle that Superintendant Culley manages to come to any kind of sensible solution…

“Murder..” is a very clever book with what is quite a convoluted plot, all manner of red herrings and a cast of characters from which frankly anyone could be picked out as the murderer! Uncle Willie was a pretty insufferable man who’d lived such a long and complex life that he seemed to have made enemies everywhere. As well as that, with jobs and money tight during the war, there’s the impetus for just about everyone to want to try to get their hands on his money! The supporting cast members were a lively and entertaining bunch, and I was particularly taken with Aunt Polina, a wonderfully drawn character who appeared on the surface to be quite innocent and demure, but obviously had much going on underneath the placid exterior!

‘With so many detective stories written, murdering people has become a kind of intellectual sport nowadays,’ said Frank.

I found “Murder” very entertaining, if occasionally a little exhausting; the flippancies of the Redpaths, the constant confessions and the repartee sometimes felt slightly overwhelming! But the book was often very funny, almost meta in its references to what would happen in a real detective story, and I did enjoy the way Latimer played with the conventions of detective fiction. Much of the plot hung on an element which had a significant part in one of my favourite Golden Age crime books (I shall say no more) and it’s very cleverly worked in here. Interestingly, the War is a more discreet presence in the background than, say, a Lorac book, but that could well be because the story isn’t set in London.

First published in 1944, “Murder…” was Latimer’s second crime novel, after a career taking in acting and non-detective fiction. Having suffered ill health for most of his life, he died tragically young from a brain tumour, and it’s a great shame that his writing life was cut off so soon. It’s clear from this book that he was a really talented author and it would have been lovely to see what mysteries he came up with later on. The book comes with the usual useful introduction by Martin Edwards, and is another excellent entry into the British Library crime classics catalogue – there really is so much variety in these wonderful books!

A round up of December’s bookish arrivals! :D

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Inevitably, as I have a birthday in December and well-trained family when it comes to Christmas, there are always bookish arrivals! So I thought I would share what’s been coming into the Ramblings and weighing down the rafters…

First up, a few non-event arrivals!

These are two lovely volumes from subscriptions I have with publishers – the Pessoa is from Sublunary Editions, the Bernhardt from Renard Press. I say subcriptions I *have*, but in fact the Pessoa is the last I’ll receive from Sublunary, as they’ve had to stop overseas subs because of the prohibitively high postage costs. I sympathise greatly, because I know just how these charges have been hiked since Brexit and the Tr*mp administration; but it’s a real shame, because they’ve produced some marvellously individual works and I shall miss them. However, I’m very glad to still be able to support Renard, as they also issue some really intriguing titles, and I’m looking forward to exploring the Bernhardt, especially in the light of my reading of “Levels of Life” by Julian Barnes! 😀

Next up, an unexpected treat:

The wonderful Tove Jansson needs no introduction here; I’ve read many of her adult works and all of the Moomins (bar some short pieces), and I absolutely love her writing (and also her art). “Notes from an Island” went straight onto my wishlist when it came out, and then a very kind friend offered me a spare copy they had! I was delighted to say the least – thank you, friend! I may try to read this over the holiday period as I think it will be the perfect book to sink into.

Then there are the birthday books – here they are in all their glory!

That’s quite a chunky pile, isn’t it, and such a lovely variety! From the top down, the Beauvoir and Genet were generous gifts from my old friend J. and I was very excited to have them in my collection as I’ve never seen or read them! The double Zola comes from family, the next two in his Les Rougon-Macquart sequence – I really must get started on these soon. Next up is a piece of inspiration from Mr. Kaggsy – I really don’t know how he does it, but he managed to find a pair of Russian books I’ve never read!! I know of Kropotkin, of course, but somehow in all the years I’ve been reading Russians, he’s managed to slip past me. No more! I now have two of his works! Walter Benjamin’s “Arcades Project” has been on the wishlist for ages, so when my Little Brother asked what I’d like for a birthday gift, I suggested this and it did indeed arrive. It’s a whopper! One I will no doubt spend next year dipping into…

Last but definitely not least for the birthday was this lovely which you can see at the bottom of the image above:

I have frankly been coveting “The Penguin Modern Classics Book” since I saw it come out, so when the Offspring asked for ideas, I suggested they might considering getting me this jointly – which indeed they did! It’s absolutely gorgeous, but may well have a very bad effect on the wishlist….😳😳

As for Christmas, again I was very spoiled and here are the books which made it to underneath the tree:

The bottom four titles, which are all by V.S. Pritchett, were a flash of inspiration from Mr. Kaggsy. I’ve never read Pritchett, who’s apparently reckoned to be the English Chekhov, and he seems to have had a long and illustrious career. He also wrote about Chekhov, Spain and lots of short stories so I’m looking forward to exploring his work, including the two doorstoppers. For a man who occasionally lets out a groan at the amount of books in the house, Mr. K shot himself in the foot there…

The decluttering book is from Middle Child, and the collection of Berger poems from Eldest Child (Youngest rather thoughtfully presented a Blackwell’s token!) The three final books are from my old friend V (Arrival) plus the Giono from JacquiWine and the Capote from HeavenAli – I salute and thank them all for finding me lovely books I don’t already have and want to read!!!

So it has been a bookish time, and I just need to find myself a little space amongst all the festivities to sit and have a quiet read. I hope you’ve all had a bookish and happy festive time – there will be a few more posts coming on the blog this year, including highlights of my reading year. Now I just have to decide which favourites I want to feature!! 😀

Christmas Greetings from the Ramblings!

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Well, I thought 2020 was hard enough, but 2021 has been pretty difficult too, so I’m ready for some relaxation! I shall be off grid today, but hope that all you lovely bookish people I encounter online have a wonderful day celebrating with friends and family and loved ones and pets – whoever you choose to spend your time with! Look forward to encountering you again after the festivities with news of bookish arrivals… Stay safe, all! 😀

“…honest good humour is the oil and wine of a merry meeting…” @RenardPress @threepeasinapot

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One of the joys of Christmas is wallowing in books and stories set at this time of year; and in 2020 I was happy to support a wonderful initiative by one of my favourite indies, Renard Press, which not only supported a very deserving charity, but also provided some wonderful seasonal reading. Add to that the fact that the item in question could be sent to bookish friends as a card as well as something to read, and you had a winner! The item is a short story which doubles as a greetings card, and the charity is Three Peas, a group which helps refugees and asylum-seekers.

Last year, Renard chose to featured a marvellous story by Willa Cather; this year, they’ve picked an entertaining tale by Washington Irving called “The Christmas Dinner” and it should have winged its way to many of bookish peeps I know by now! The tale is presented this year as a small perfect bound booklet with envelope, and I believe they sold out quite quickly!

Washington Irving is, of course, best known for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”; here, however, he turns his eye to the traditional English Christmas dinner in all its excess… Taken from his collection “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent” (in which “Sleepy Hollow” first appeared), this story is set in the country house of Bracebridge Hall and captures vividly what we would consider to be a typical upper class gathering, with food, drink and traditions all making an appearance. The Squire regales his guests with stories from the past; the narrator is overwhelmed with the ceremony of it all; and there is no real plot as such, this is simply a picturesque vignette of times gone by.

“The Christmas Dinner” is a wonderfully entertaining little tale (despite the non-vegan elements), and really put me in the mood for celebrating myself! I don’t think I’ve read any of Irving’s writing before, and so it was lovely to get an introduction to him with this festive little outing. The book comes with useful supporting notes, as do all the Renard books I’ve read so far. They really are an innovative indie, and these Christmas story cards are a marvellous idea – I can’t wait to see what they pick next year! 😀

Penguin Moderns 41 and 42 – fiery feminism and poignant poetry!

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Well, so much for me charging through the last fifth of the Penguin Moderns box set… I haven’t actually read any since July (where does the time go???) so I figured it was time to take a look at the next two – and an interesting, though disparate, pairing they are! 😀

Penguin Modern 41 – The Problem That Has No Name

If you’re a feminist of a certain age, the name of Betty Friedan will be very familiar. Although I’m a bit later than the generation she was writing for, when I first encountered what was called Women’s Lib Friedan was still a reference point. A pioneering American feminist, her book “The Feminine Mystique” (1963) was a groundbreaking work which attempted to identify the problems faced by those 1950s housewives who were told they had it all, but felt that they didn’t…

Here, two selections from “Mystique” are featured – the title essay and “The Passionate Journey”, and they still read as rousing rallying cries for woman who are still being short-changed by the patriarchal societies which continue to exist all around the world. “Problem…” is stirring stuff; particularly in America of that era, women were told that with a husband, children, home and all mod cons they had all they could ever want and should be grateful. This was part of the post-war return to traditional ways, following the advances into the workplace made during WW2. Well, we know how well being restricted to house and home went for women – I mean, just look at Plath and Sexton…

Betty Friedan (c. Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

The second essay looks at the lies and disinformation spread to discredit feminists and suffragettes from the early days on, warping and distorting their aims – again, not much has changed, has it?

It is a strangely unquestioned perversion of history that the passion and fire of the feminist movement came from man-hating, embittered, sex-starved spinsters, from castrating, unsexed non-women who burned with such envy for the male organ that they wanted to take it away from all men, or destroy them, demanding rights only because they lacked the power to love as women. Mary Wollstonecraft, Angelina Grimm Kay, Ernestine Rose, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Julia Ward Halle, Margaret Sanger all loved, were loved, and married…

Friedan’s trenchant writing still makes inspiring reading, but I found myself a bit saddened that her thoughts still seemed so relevant. When it comes to the feminist cause, it often seems it’s one step forward, two steps back… 😦

Penguin Modern 42 – The Dialogue of Two Snails by Federico Garcia Lorca

This was a book I’d hoped to get to during Spanish Lit Month, but alas I failed. Better late than never, then… Anyway, the great Spanish poet Lorca probably needs no introduction, and this Modern brings together what the blurb describes as “A representative sampling of (his) poetry, dialogues and short prose”. The translator is Tyler Fisher, and apparently some of the works appear here in English for the first time which is rather lovely.

So much for living.
All for what?
The path is flat and dreary,
and there is not love enough.

What to say about Lorca which hasn’t been said before? His work is lyrical, sometimes quirky, often dark and really does stick in the mind and the heart. The prose is particularly lovely, and I’m not sure I was aware before that Lorca had written anything other than poetry.

Statue of Lorca in Madrid (Lourdes Cardenal, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

A sharp emotion, like an elegy for the things that have never been – good things and bad, large things and small – invades the landscapes of my eyes, which are almost hidden behind a pair of violet-tinted glasses. A bitter emotion that compels me to walk towards this quivering garden on the highest prairies of the air.

Of the poems, there are beautiful words and phrases, romantic verses about people and nature, and “They Felled The Trees” is a particularly stunning lyric. Lorca’s sketches are dotted through the book, and as I read it I couldn’t help but lament his early death… A particularly lovely inclusion in the Moderns series.

*****

So – a *really* different pairing of authors here, with little in common, perhaps. Nevertheless, both of these little volumes were great reads in their own individual ways and so I am impelled forward to read the next two in the seires – hopefully before too long!!

Classic Crime – my second nominaton for Reprint of the Year!

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Following on from last week’s post, where I nominated my first choice for the classic crime Reprint of the Year Award run by the Cross Examining Crime blog, today I’ll feature my second choice – and it’s another British Library Crime Classic! I know that many, many other publishers are doing sterling work reissuing lost classics, but the BL books are the ones I read regularly and love, and so my second nomination inevitably came from that imprint! It was a real favourite, and it’s the anthology “Guilty Creatures”!

Now, I’m a huge admirer of the BL anthologies, which are always so expertly collected by Martin Edwards, so let me explain why this particular one stood out for me. Subtitled “A Menagerie of Mysteries”, the book collects together a wide range of stories and authors and the choice is interesting; there are better-known names like Conan Doyle, Chesterton, Edgar Wallace and Christianna Brand; however there are names which were new to me, such as Headon Hill, Vincent Cornier and Garnett Radcliffe. This made the collection a particularly enjoyable one to read, as I do love to encounter new authors!

The stories range far and wide with all kind of animal taking part, from F. Tennyson Jesse’s “The Green Parrakeet” in which the title bird is the key to uncovering a particularly devious crime. Then there’s Wallace’s “The Man Who Hated Earthworms“, which is a very entertaining tale of a mad scientist; Radcliffe’s “Pit of Screams“, a short, sharp story of a very clever crime; and Josephine Bell’s “Death in a Cage“, which I wouldn’t have worked out in a million years! Bell’s writing is also particularly good, and she captures vivdly a sense of place.

The fog that November night was thickest in Central and North London. Cars in the Mall, edging blindly about the wide roadway near Buckingham Palace, came to a standstill where the kerbs gave them no help. Queues of traffic formed behind drivers who, mistaking a gap in the pavement for Birdcage Walk, had jammed themselves against the railings. A slow procession moved around Hyde Park. In Knightsbridge the buses went to head to tail, scarcely moving. Further north the fog lay thickly upon Regent’s Park. The canal was invisible even from the bridges over it. No cars coming to the circles of this Park, because the street lamps there are set too far apart to be much use in fog. The unaccustomed absence of traffic joined with the blanket of fog to still all noise. Under the trees the gentle fall of drops from the branches above was startlingly loud.

Chesterton’s “The Oracle of the Dog” was a really interesting and quite dark read; I’ve always found the Father Brown stories a wee bit odd, and in this one the clerical detective managed to solve the puzzle without moving from his armchair; and he also had very strong views about the human tendency to attribute all sorts of powers and emotions to dogs! Brand’s “The Hornet’s Nest” was another treat; featuring her regular detective, Inspector Cockrill, it again flummoxed me till the end, and of the suspects available after the murder of the unpleasant Harold Caxton, I never would have picked the correct one!

Those who are quick in talking are not always quick in listening. Sometimes even their brilliancy produces a sort of stupidity. Father Brown’s friend and companion was a young man with a stream of ideas and stories, an enthusiastic young man named Fiennes, with eager blue eyes and blonde hair that seem to be brushed back, not merely with a hair-brush but with the wind of the world as he rushed through it. But he stopped in the torrent of his talk in a momentary bewilderment before he saw the priest’s very simple meeting.

And here we get to the clincher for me – there is an author I always hope to see in a BLCC anthology, and I wasn’t disappointed here. H.C. Bailey’s marvellous Reggie Fortune is present in “The Yellow Slugs“, a story in which a pair of youngsters appear to be guilty of heinous crimes. It takes all Reggie’s skills to get to the truth of the matter which is clever, chilling and quite fiendish. Reggie is a powerful creation, the story is really quite dark, and I know Bailey’s writing is considered an acquired taste, but I rate it very highly. He’s a compelling storyteller, and the Reggie stories I’ve read are some of my favourites.

“Guilty Creatures” really hits the spot; I find the British Library Crime Classics anthologies to be a particular success, and this collection was a really appealing one, with an interesting array of authors, and some wonderfully twisty plots. This was a collection I couldn’t fault, and the breadth of stories represented here made it a real stand-out in a year with a *lot* of classic crime re-issues. I’m happy to nominate this collection for the award and can’t recommend it highly enough!

“The prison gate was ajar…” @deepvellum #thenewadventuresofhelen

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I started off December by reviewing a book by a Russian woman writer and I’m happy to be continuing that trend today. The author in question is Ludmilla Petrushevksaya, whose acquaintance I made earlier this year via her memoir “The Girl from the Metropol Hotel“; and the book is her latest release, “The New Adventures of Helen”, translated by Jane Bugaeva and published by Deep Vellum. Petushevskaya is probably best known for writing fable-like short fictions with quirky titles (“There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby”), and this collection again brings together short works – the book has the subtitle “Magical Tales” so it’s a fair guess that these stories might well be subverting the norm!

“Helen…” contains seven stories, and opens with the title work. Here, Helen of Troy is reborn in an unnamed seaside resort, ready for her beauty to wreak its usual havoc. However, a magician has prepared a trap, in the form of a magic mirror which renders anyone who looks into it invisible. Needless to say, this will have an unexpected effect on Helen who finds she can pass through the world without causing any disruption; which is all well and good until she finds herself attracted to a billionaire who can’t see her…

“Nose Girl” deals with notions of beauty; the title girl is beautiful, but has a nose which spoils this. However, will the perfect nose solve her problems and make the man she loves love her back? Next up is “The Prince with the Golden Hair”, which is probably the story closest to pure fairytale; the titular prince’s hair seems to be literally gold and everyone is after him and his kingdom. His adventures with his mother take in imprisonment by a travelling circus, where the erstwhile queen has to use all her wiles to stay safe and escape. “Queen Lir” is a hoot, with an elderly queen going AWOL and causing trouble wherever she goes. Although this is a very funny story (Lir getting a mohican haircut is hilarious!), there are serious undertones; Petrushevksaya is quite happy to slyly show how those with power and money can’t function on the most basic level when left to their own devices to manage things themselves.

Think about it: the royal quarters were always cleaned when the queen was away, so Lir remained quite clueless. She’d never laid eyes on a broom or dustpan in all her life. Apparently, the poor woman imagined that chambermaids swept with hats. (Come to think of it, many men and children wish it were that way in their homes; they don’t want to see any of the process, just the results. But, like it or not, they end up witnessing it all – the laundry, the ironing, the sweeping, the potato peeling, the pasta boiling – and are sometimes even obliged to help out…)

“Nettle and Raspberry” tellis the story of two sisters who are like chalk and cheese, and kind of live up to their names. Mostly they manage to get along, until love gets in the way and they become rivals. Sisters also feature (obvs) in “Two Sisters” where a sibling pair of old women stumble upon an ointment that makes them physically teenagers, but with their older minds. It will take all of their wisdom to negotiate a hostile world, hold onto their independence, make sure they get their pension payments and not get take into care as if they’re actually orphans.

Housing problems are something the sisters have to deal with (an issue which persists from the very dawn of Soviet times!), and this element is at the centre of the final entry, “The Story of an Artist”. Here, the title character struggles to keep possession of his apartment as well as producing his pictures. As the story develops, however, it seems that his paintings have a strange effect and as he comes to realise this, it seems he may be able to use his unusual and surreal talents to his advantage.

Petrushevkaya’s tales are wonderfully funny, quirky and entertaining, but she’s obviously a dab hand at using her fictions to take swipes at all manner of people and situations when she wants to! As you can see from the quote above, useless royals or men and children who don’t pull their weight are in for short shrift. The virtuous usually win out, which is a relief – well, these *are* magical tales after all – but there are harder truths embedded in the stories, and Petrushevskaya is clear-eyed about the realities of the world and the platitudes people trot out…

Mama died a day after Papa; she lay in bed all day and never woke up. At the funeral, people said they were lucky, that it happened only in fairy tales – a couple living a happy life then dying on the same day. But truth be told, these two supposedly happy people didn’t die at the same moment. One of them had seen death and understood that they were left alone. One of them had cried.

I was sold on Petrushevskaya’s economic yet effective prose after reading her memoir, and I’m pleased to say that her fictions are just as compelling. Whether subverting the norms, reversing fairy tale tropes or having sly digs at those she thinks deserve it, she’s produced an enjoyable and often thought-provoking collection. “The New Adventures of Helen” is my first experience of Petrushevskaya’s fictions but it definitely won’t be my last!!

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

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