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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 There were plenty of French treats this year, from unpublished fiction from a favourite writer, a marvellous non-fiction work exploring the culture of mid-century Paris, poetry from that city, some hypnotic prose from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! 🤣🤣🤣

“Morbid nostalgia is the evil twin of technological modernity.” @Alex_Niven @RepeaterBooks #NonFicNov

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As I’ve probably said before many a time, one of my favourite things as a reader is when you randomly stumble across something really wonderful which takes you off on a reading tangent and down a wormhole of exploration. That happened with me recently, when I came across mention of “Newcastle, Endless” on Twitter, which I promptly sent off for, loved and reviewed here. Needless to say, I felt the need to explore more of author Alex Niven‘s work and a quick check online revealed his recent book“New Model Island” (which was mentioned in “Newcastle…”). Lovely Blackwells obliged and it was another book I felt needed to bypass the TBR mountain; I seem to be doing a lot of that lately…

“New Model Island” was published by Repeater Books in 2019, so is writing about a pre-pandemic world; and its subtitle, “How to build a radical culture beyond the idea of England”, reveals just what an interesting work it is. Taking a dramatic starting point of the opinion that England and Englishness don’t actually exist, Niven sets out to explore the void at the centre of the mythologies and stereotypes perpetrated by the mass media. The 20th century cliche of tea, crumpets and cricket is most definitely a construct, and a dig deeper into the past of the humans living on what Niven calls our archipelago of islands reveals a past built out of many different peoples from different backgrounds and with radically different living experiences than the patriotic rhetoric would suggest.

To be English is to feel hemmed in, straitjacketed, resentful of neighbours, and ready to direct political anger at the nearest adjacent target (women, immigrants, benefit claimants, or even just the normative working class) rather than the real source of one’s actual imagined impoverishment: so often the millionaire beneficiary of old or new money, who lives in a large house hidden by trees on the edge of town.

The structure of the book is fascinating; Niven mixes his theories with personal memoir and experience, focusing strongly on his friendship with the writer, music critic, cultural theorist, philosopher and teacher Mark Fisher, one of the founders of Zero Books, who took his own life in 2017. That loss has a dramatic effect on Niven, and as well as drawing on Fisher’s theories, he explores the whole history of Zero books. That history took another turn recently, as Repeater have apparently bought back Zero Books so as to be wholly independent again. Interestingly, I have a number of Zero titles on my shelves and was prompted to dig them out again…

My original Zero books from many moons ago – the Hatherley was the first I obtained…

But I digress. The author, therefore, has a strong political lean to the left (with which I empathise…) and is happy to take on any number of sacred cows (Orwell and Billy Bragg included!) Niven’s historical knowledge of the history of our archipelago is impressive, and he ranges widely, drawing into his discussion anything from Basil Bunting’s “Briggflatts” to Alton Towers, where he identifies the void at the heart of England. The chapter on this is perhaps unexpected, but fascinating…

If England really exists, it does so in a highly limited sense that can only be clearly glimpsed at ostentatiously hidden sites like Alton Towers, sites that would probably rather be forgotten by advocates of both the convervative-pastoral myth of Englishness, and the modern liberal fantasy that England is a sophisticated multicultural democracy with just a couple of minor problems.

Having explored that void, he then advances his radical idea of how to restructure our lands, by splitting it into two large and equally resourced administrative areas, with a divide running diagonally from the north east down to Wales, thereby creating a north and west triangle to balance the south and east, where power lies at the moment. It’s a revolutionary concept, but one that certainly makes more sense that the current so-called government’s mealy-mouthed talk of ‘levelling-up” which is basically meaningless.

Towards the end of the book, Niven explores the then current political situation, seeing hope in the coming of Corbyn to Labour, and a possible end to Tory monopoly in sight. Alas, that was not to be, and the last few pages of the book reminded me of a time when I’d dared to hope this country was moving towards a fairer society, instead of what Niven describes as “a confused, post-imperial half-nation founded on structures of monarchism, financial services and rentier capitalism.”

Although superficially about a very different topic to “Newcastle, Endless”, it’s clear that Niven’s ideas and beliefs suffuse both works and I found his narrative gripping. No, there aren’t sheaves of post-its sticking out of my copy – there was so much which stimulated my brain that I had to keep jotting down things in a notebook! As a Scot, and therefore an outsider, I perhaps found the arguments easier to appreciate than someone born in e.g. the south east of the country would; but it’s worth approaching the book with an open mind as this will really bring rewards. “New Model Island” is an invigorating and thought-provoking work which buzzes with ideas; and its wonderful blend of the personal and the political means that the book is never a dry, academic work. Instead, it makes compelling reading and puts forward a really fascinating blueprint for a new structure on our islands which would ensure a fairer distribution of control and therefore wealth for everyone. A utopian concept, maybe, but one that really should be considered seriously…

*****

I’ll claim this title for Non-Fiction November, and highly recommend it and “Newcastle, Endless” if you want to have your thoughts provoked! Needless to say, I’ve felt the need to track down two more Niven titles (published by Zero Books back in the day – thank you again, wonderful Blackwells). These sound just as interesting as the two Nivens I’ve read! 😀

“…I was celestially kissed…” @Alex_Niven @CanalsidePress #newcastleendless

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Something a little different on the Ramblings today, as I share my thoughts on a lovely little indie publication which straddles several genres! “Newcastle, Endless” by Alex Niven was a title I stumbled across on Twitter (such a bad influence for books), and I was intrigued. I reviewed “The Book of Newcastle” back at the beginning of 2020, and related in that post my connection with the city via a visit many moons ago. Being an exiled Scot, I’m always drawn north anyway, and I’ve explored the work of the Morden Tower poets too. I thought Niven’s book sounded like it might be an essential adjuct to these readings, and I wasn’t wrong.

“Newcastle, Endless” is published by Canalside Press, and is a beautiful little edition which as well as containing Niven’s verses, also features colour images of the city by Euan Lynn, a prologue from Adam Sharr, and an afterword by Patrick Lynch, Editor and Publisher at Canalside. The poems explore the architecture and landscape of the city, an every-changing one, with the supporting texts focusing on the effects on the city structure of T. Dan Smith. The latter was an idealistic leader of the Labour Newcastle City Council in the 1960s, and although he was brought down by scandal it’s clear that his intentions for the city were sound ones. So the verse is divided into sections, interspersed with extracts from Smith’s autobiography, and the resulting book is a fascinating mixture of poetry, architecture, politics and history.

Niven is a lecturer in English Literature at Newcastle University, as well as a regular contributor to a variety of publications and author of another very interesting sounding book I may have to track down. His verse is a variation on the sonnet form, but lacking punctuation, which makes it beautiful and hypnotic to read. There’s also one poem which takes a more tradition ballad form and it’s very moving – this is the opening verse:

Once I was a man of light
The day was early in my head
But now my heart is with the night
And all my dreams are of the dead

Other verses explore city locations such as the Civic Centre, Fenwick’s department store, Grainger Town and the Tyne Bridge. As one of the pithy quotes from Smith points out, we love water and mountains and things which appear to exist ‘naturally’ but are often offended by built landscapes – why is that, he wonders, and are we capable of integrating our constructions into a landscape so that they belong there? I think that’s probably something town planners are still trying to work out (if they actually think about what they’re doing nowadays, instead of just allowing anything interesting to be torn down and any old thing to be thrown up…)

I found “Newcastle, Endless” to be one of those unexpected, serendipitous discoveries, where you find a book purely by chance and it turns out to be quite brilliant. As a meditation on the changes in Niven’s city, it’s moving; the poems are lyrically engaging and lovely; and historical elements intriguing. And as well as being fascinating to read, it’s a beautiful object in its own right, with the images complementing the text and the extra material enhancing the whole experience of reading – I shall have to take a look at the rest of Canalside’s books. Anyway, this turned out to be a wonderful and evocative read which really made me think about the landscapes in which we live. Highly recommended and I’m off to see what Niven’s other book is about… ;D

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