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

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

Comfort reading

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

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

Indie Presses and Subscriptions

Some of the treats from my Renard Press sub.

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

Which leads me on to…

Challenges/Events

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

Fitzcarraldos – I love Fitzcarraldos…

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

Which leads me on to…

Reading Weeks

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

Social Media

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

A little pile of my Harvill Leopards!

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

Roland Barthes, a documentary and another interview!

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

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

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

Shiny New Books

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

Trends in my reading

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

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

Outstanding books

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

“…I seemed always to be on the verge of an important revelation…” @ajlees @NottingHillEds

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Back in 2019 I read a fascinating book from one of my favourite publishers, Notting Hill Editions; I’ve commented before on the wonderful range of books they produce, often unusual and slightly left-of-centre works which don’t necessarily fit into any category, and this was one of them. It was a marvellous and stimulating book called “Mentored by A Madman” by A.J. Lees, and I absolutely loved it. Lees is a Professor of Neurology at The National Hospital, London but he’s also no mean author! “Mentored…” looked at his life and career through the filter of the influence of William S. Burroughs; and now NHE have released an equally fascinating book by Lees: “Brazil That Never Was“.

Saint Helens was a throbbing, pulsing place full of work. Everything was for use and nothing for ornament. Salt of the earth, salt of baptism, salt of wages, salt of preservation, salt that gave lucidity. Time was spent, not killed. Its families lived from pay packet to pay packet, made to do with what they had been given and took life as it came.

As with “Mentored…”, “Brazil…” is rooted in autobiography; as a youngster growing up near Liverpool during the 1950s. Lees would regularly visit the docks with his father and was transfixed by the ships from Brazil unloading their cargoes and then sailing off again to strange, faraway lands. His fascinating with all things Brazilian was further fuelled by a book handed to him by his father: “Exploration Fawcett” told the true story of one Colonel Henry Fawcett, a British explorer who’d disappeared in 1925 while searching for a lost city in the Amazon.

The Oakwood Library became my sanctuary. Its grand drawing rooms, with picture rails and sunburst stucco ceilings, were lined with hardback books, fresh and stale, fat and thin, large and small. I roamed the shelves, following paths that fascinated me, and taking in the scent of wisdom. The hours flashed by in minutes as I sat on the ledge of the bay window absorbing the colourful stories of the dead. Cocooned in this place, I was able to divine the Atlantic from a grain of salt.

As can be seen from the above quote, Lees was one of those children for whom the library was a vital part of their young life (and I empathise strongly with that!) The book captured the young boy’s imagination; the concept of there being places in the world still undiscovered was a heady one and it stayed with Lees so much that he began to explore the story of Fawcett’s life and adventures. His researches soon revealed there was more to Fawcett’s life than the book had hinted at; and “Brazil…” is not only the story of Lees’ detective work and what he found, it’s also the tale of his own trip to Brazil in the footsteps of his hero.

The history of Fawcett’s travels and beliefs is in itself fascinating and often gripping; he was a man with contacts, even trying to involve such luminaries as T.E. Lawrence and H. Rider Haggard in his schemes. Lees gained access to family members as well as collections of papers and records from all manner of sources, and discovered there was much more going on behind the scenes than just an attempt to find lost civilisations; the occult was involved, as well as a sect who believed in special beings who co-exist with humans. Fawcett, his family and his friends all seemed to accept that there were life forms who moved on separate planes and his strange beliefs would affect any number of people connected with him.

Author photo via the publisher’s website

As I said, Fawcett’s story alone is gripping; however, what lifts this book to another level is Lees’ narration, telling of his personal interest in the events and recalling how the tale of Fawcett’s adventures affected his own life. Lees is a wonderful storyteller; he writes beautifully and atmospherically; and his chronicle of how he dug deeper with his research into Fawcett’s expeditions is absolutely fascinating. However, one of the elements I loved best was the reminiscences of his childhood; these were so wonderfully evocative that they really brought alive his experiences of growing up in the middle of the 20th century. That world is in many ways as lost as the world Fawcett was searching for, and I loved the way Lees brought it to life again.

The once beautiful waterfall was reduced to a litter-strewn muddy trickle. Manaus was a metastasis in the earth’s green lung, a conflagration of billowing smokestacks created by Man’s insatiable appetite for self-combustion. On its edgeland, the disconnected trees in the charred clearings seemed to be crying in pain. They were like street children, isolated, damaged and struggling to survive.

Following Lees on his explorations, both physical and mental, is an exhilarating experience. He obviously had a wanderlust, perhaps inherited from his teacher father, and in the end was moved to visit Brazil himself, although it was very different from the Brazil which had been in his head. An almost Burroughsian experience in the jungle leads him to the conclusion that it *is* still possible to travel into uncharted territory nowadays – but the kind of journey is a mental one, deep inside yourself, rather than a physical one.

“Brazil That Never Was” is a stunning book, and one which will stay with me for a long time. The wonderful blend of travelogue, memoir and reflection makes for a heady and affecting read, and I found myself going back to read passages which had resonated strongly the first time over. Andrew Lees is not only an author with a tale to tell, but one who tells it quite brilliantly. The Brazil he dreamed of in his childhood may never have actually been a real place, but it existed in his mind and will always exist in this wonderful book. Highly recommended!

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

Erasing the line between literature and science @ajlees @NottingHillEds

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Mentored by a Madman by A.J. Lees

One of the things I love about small and indie publishers is the sheer variety of books they publish. I love the quirky or the unusual or the frankly left of centre, and there’s often little of that to be found from mainstream books nowadays. A favourite imprint is Notting Hill Editions, and I’ve read and reviewed any number of their beautiful hardback essay collections – they really are a treat. However, they publish some of their works in very lovely paperback editions, with French flaps and slightly deckled edges; and a fascinating volume popped through my door recently, which turned out to be a quite marvellous, stimulating and rather unusual book!

The book is subtitled “The William Burroughs Experiment” which is actually the key to what this book is about. Lees is an award-winning neurologist, currently serving as Professor of Neurology at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Queen Square, London and University College London. According to Wikipedia, he’s been named in the past as the world’s most highly cited Parkinson’s disease researcher, and a quick look down their entry for him reveals that he’s been responsible for a number of breakthroughs in the treatment of that disease, as well as overseeing all manner of different branches of research,

“Mentored…” is a kind of memoir, where Lees looks back over his life and career, pinpointing the various junctures in his life where he’s had lightbulb moments, gone down dead ends, come back to follow a different path to then make those imaginative leaps that take research forward into uncharted territory. And running through all of this is the presence of author (and addict!) William S. Burroughs, creator of the alarming character of Dr. Benway, amongst other manic medics! (Here’s Burroughs/Benway in action – not for the faint-hearted!)

So taking your medical guidance from WSB might be regarded as the height of madness (which I suppose is where the title of this book comes from!); however as Lees reveals, while tracing his career, Burroughs actually turned out to be a surprisingly good guide when it came to exploring the possibilities of developing new drugs for use in the treatment of Parkinson’s. In particular, WSB’s championing of apomorphine (which he used to wean himself off junk) eventually lead to Lees exploring the use of that drug for treating the effects of Parkinson’s with some success…

Lees and Burroughs never met, though the former was an avid reader of the latter, and in later years made contact with a number of Burroughs’ friends and associates, often in serendipitous ways. And Lees obviously regards the presence of Burroughs in his life to be a constant, a thread always returned to and always providing guidance. As the author traces the line of his life and career, that willingness of Burroughs to look outside the box is reflected in Lees’ desire to explore the unusual and use his intuition, as well as refusing to be hidebound by bureaucracy when it comes to research; a tendency which has obviously borne fruit!

As a layperson, I did wonder whether I would be a bit overwhelmed by jargon when reading this book (a worry that has made me a little nervous also about approaching Oliver Sacks; coincidentally a friend and contact of Lees). However, the narrative is always clear and understandable, and absolutely fascinating. I followed Lees’ attempts to find solutions for his patients as anxiously as the families involved must have, cheering at successes and disappointed by set-backs; it’s an involving read. Lees also draws on the history of his field, looking back at the work of those who came before him; and reveals the influence, perhaps surprisingly, of Sherlock Holmes! One particularly valuable aspect seemed to be Burroughs’ understanding of the form addiction takes in humans, which was particularly relevant when Lees was dealing with addition issues arising from some treatments. As Lees reminds us:

He believed that all humans were hard-wired to be insatiable wanting machines. Sugar, laxatives and even shoplifting had the potential to become external objects of false satisfaction. Provided a novelty factor was introduced almost anything could be turned into a consumable. Corporations increased their stranglehold on the masses by alluring advertising. Junk was the ultimate merchandise and, in his paranoid but prescient world, a part of the global conspiracy.

Looking around at our rabid capitalist society, he’s not wrong, is he? 😦

What shone through very forcibly, however, was Lees’ humanity; at the root of all of his work is his care for his patients and (a rarity in my experience) he feels strongly that those being treated deserve compassion, understanding and respect. He also decries the control exerted by the pharmaceutical companies, who are only motivated by making huge profits and whose interests restrict the research process. It’s nowadays harder to take risks or imaginative leaps to try to find better cures for disease simply because if there isn’t big money in it, the companies have no interest. He laments the high prices they charge for some drugs, and certainly I’ve seen issues surrounding colleagues who need a particular medication but it’s expensive or impossible to source because of the control of the manufacturing companies. Lees rightly lambasts rigid, inflexible thinking and the concern only for money being the factors which control the development of new medicine, and he’s right; imagination and inventiveness are needed for exploration, and that’s sadly lacking nowadays, with attempts at innovation being drowned in red tape.

… I felt uncomfortable about a system where money was made out of illness and where the patient was treated as a customer. The company knew the price but not the value to the patients.

“Mentored by a Madman” was an absolutely fascinating read, and even if you know nothing about Burroughs I think you would get a lot out of this book (though personally, I read tons of his work back in the day and I’m a huge fan of his dark, dry wit and drawling delivery). Lees comes across as a humane and committed man, determined to do his best for his fellows and obviously frustrated by the modern money-men and the outsourcing of the NHS. As well as that, the book reflects the times, from the opening steps of his journey in the 1960s through the changing times of the end of the twentieth century and into our corporate modern world. I’m old enough to remember some of that, and it made me realise that although we’ve made many gains with progress, we’ve also lost so much individuality.

And, very importantly, Lees writes marvellously, proving that science and literature can combine in a work of art. His compassion shines through, his erudition is worn lightly and his book is never less than engrossing. “Mentored by a Madman” is not a book I would necessarily have stumbled across had it not been for Notting Hill Editions, and I can’t recommend it highly enough – a wonderful, subversive, enlightening and often moving reading experience.

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

*****

Whilst noodling around online in prep for this post, I came across a number of interesting interviews with, and videos featuring, Andrew Lees talking about his life and work and books. These two – a conversation, and a reading plus interview session at Shakespeare and Co – are particularly fascinating for anyone wanting to explore further. There’s also plenty of Burroughs online, but you can find that yourself! 😀

 

 

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