“Translators are people who read books for us.” @almabooks @TimParksauthor


Pen in Hand: Reading, Re-reading and Other Mysteries by Tim Parks

Books about books are obviously a huge favourite of we bookish bloggers (although I suspect I don’t have as many on my shelves as some do….!) Yet they come in all shapes, sizes and formats; and the contents and focus can vary so much, taking in everything to a person’s history of their reading life to more erudite analyses of why we read, that it could be argued that they really don’t constitute a genre of their own. Tim Park’s new collection of essays is a good case in point: the subtitle hints that there might be something a little more in depth than usual and that turned out to be the case.

Parks is known as a novelist, essayist and translator, and it’s in this latter guise that I’ve encountered him in the past; he’s been responsible for translating some of the works of my beloved Italo Calvino, but I’ve not read any of his fiction or non-fiction works. So when Will from the lovely Alma Books kindly offered a review copy of “Pen in Hand” I was intrigued and keen to give Parks a look. “Pen…” is a very dippable work, so I’ve been spending time with it over several weeks; and a very stimulating read it is too!

The pieces in the book have appeared online in the New York Review of Books Daily and the New York Times; having them collected in one volume makes perfect sense because each essay can be read separately, but there is a continuity between them and the cumulative effect is mentally exhilarating. Parks has divided his writings up into four sections, titled “How Could You Like That Book?”, “Reading and Writing”, “Malpractice” and “Gained and Lost in Translation”. Within the book’s pages is contained wide-ranging discussions of everything from visualising when reading through Dylan’s Nobel to whether too many books are being produced.This latter particularly resonated, as I’ve long wondered about the effect of modern publishing techniques; it’s so easy nowadays to produce a book in a word-processing program and press a button – voila, latest attempt at a bestseller. My late dad was a typesetter by trade, setting metal type by hand for many, many years until computers took over (and he retrained). If a book was going to be set by hand, it had to be considered worthwhile putting into print; I’d go along with the argument that a *lot* of stuff that appears nowadays isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

But I digress. Parks produces a wonderful essay on another modern blight, the constant distractions which beset us, called “Reading: The Struggle”; there is a thoughtful discussion of autofiction which I found particularly helpful when reading an excellent example of that kind of book recently; and he expressed concern about our current tendency to novelise our novelists, stating “We should read our great authors, not mythologize them.” He’s a drily witty writer, dropping in all sorts ot sentences which raise a chuckle while making a point: for example, “My mother used to warn me that God saw everything I did and even thought, so that one of the reliefs of losing faith was the recovery of a little privacy.”

An extensive section of essays on translation make up the final part of the book, and these were particularly timely and fascinating. Several cover the translation of Primo Levi’s writings, specifically in the Collected Works (three ginormous volumes I lugged back from a trip to London a while back). Parks is critical of some of the renderings (being a translator from Italian himself, of course) and gives examples with which it’s hard to argue (although his renderings are perhaps a little more literal than the versions he critiques). Translation is a difficult art, I guess, and Parks has the advantage of having lived in Italy for many years so that as well as being linguistically suited to translate, he also has the cultural background. However, despite his misgivings, I hope the power of Levi’s words will still come through to me in English as I make my way through the massive volumes.

“Pen in Hand” is certainly no light read, and that’s a good thing in my view. The essays are stimulating, sometimes controversial, entertaining and each set me thinking about any number of bookish and literature-related subjects. There were some real “Yes!” moments when he nailed some thought I’d been struggling to pin down, and although I didn’t always agree with Parks’ views, reading them was fascinating. To combine the scholarly and the entertaining in a way that’s always readable is a real achievement and if you want to read some invigorating and enjoyable essays on reading and its perils, I can’t recommend this book highly enough!

Review copy kindly supplied by Alma Books, for which many thanks.

Simon at Stuck in a Book has also reviewed the book, and you can read his thoughts here.

Skinny Book Therapy! @almaclassics @almabooks


What on earth is she wittering on about, I hear you cry! Well, simply that in our modern crazy-busy world it’s often impossible to find the time to read a classic because, frankly, some of them are just *soooo* big! Dickens, Dostoevsky, Trollope, Tolstoy – all produced some amazing books, many of which are my favourites; but they are, honestly, doorsteps. Now I love a brick of a book as much as the next reader, but sometimes I struggle to engage mentally with one, particularly when I’m going through a busy phase at work. However, a useful solution is at hand…. 🙂

I review books from the lovely publisher Alma regularly on the Ramblings, and their Evergreens series of affordable classics is a joy. These feature some truly great authors, from Woolf through Mansfield and back to Austen and the Brontes and so on. The books are always beautiful and often have extra supporting material. Plus they publish pretty new editions of my beloved Dostoevsky on a regular basis so that has to be good…. (note the editions in that *large* TBR pile!)

However, Alma have come up with an interesting new series entitled “101-page Classics” which features books of, you’ve guessed it, 101 pages in length! Now 101 pages is a very manageable size – I can read something that long in one go usually – and so I think this is a fabulous idea! There are 12 titles on the list so far, and the authors are a very nice selection, including Chekhov, Wilkie Collins, Dostoevsky, Emily Dickinson and Italo Svevo – so plenty of variety. Alma have been kind enough to provide a review copy of Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif” which I plan to read and review very soon, and there’s a serious risk of me wanting to start a special shelf for the 101 books…

Here are a few cover images of some of the forthcoming books – do check these out, especially if you’re nervous of a big fat chunky classic, or embarking on 800 pages from an author new to you – a 101-page Classic could be just the thing to help out…

Layer after layer after layer of storytelling… @almabooks


Locus Solus by Raymond Roussel
Translated by Rupert Copeland Cuningham

The Argumentative Old Git had a really interesting post recently about the importance of plot in a work of literature. I’m in agreement with him that, actually, plot is not always relevant, and reading “Locus Solus” by Raymond Roussel kind of reminded me of that post; because the book has rather strangely got either masses of plot, or none, depending on how you look at it!

“LS” is a book that was obviously going to appeal to me; cited as an influence by members of OuLiPo and lauded for its imaginative strangeness, it’s part of the roster of the John Calder list now republished by Alma Books. Roussel (1877 -1933) was a French poet, novelist, playwright, musician, and chess enthusiast (so rather a polymath!) and although I don’t think he’s read so much nowadays, his influence seems to have stretched far and wide, taking in the Surrealists, the aforementioned OuLiPo (he’s rated highly by Queneau), and the ‘nouveau roman’ authors like Alain Robbe-Grillet.

The story’s narrator introduces us to Martial Canterel, a rich scientist and inventor, who’s invited a group of associates to visit his country estate, from which the book takes its title. The grounds of Locus Solus consist of huge grounds filled to the brim with wonders, and Canterel takes his guests on a dazzling tour of the grand inventions it contains. Each chapter opens with the group being met with a strange scenario – for example a pile driver which constructs a mosaic made of human teeth; a giant glass diamond full of water which contains a dancing girl, a hairless cat and the head of Danton; or a set of scenes peopled by some very gruesome beings (about which I will say no more…) Once the group has witnessed whichever event it is, Canterel goes on to explain the story behind the scenario, which in some cases ends up being multiple layers of storytelling as the source of the tale reaches back through historical events and influences.

The stories become more and more bizarre and more outlandish as the book goes on, with tales from myth and legend, ancient times and ancient lands. Each chapter presents a series of increasingly precise, meticulous descriptions of scientific miracles and rather gruesome inventions and it seems that Canterel has conjured up some terrifyingly ingenious and phantasmagorical devices. The dense allusive text becomes almost a compendium of wonders and the imagery is stunning and imaginative.

The rather dapper Roussel – a model for his character Canterel?

“Locus Solus” is a fascinating, dazzling yet sometimes difficult read and I haven’t actually pulled out any quotes because it’s a book that’s very much a sum of its parts. I’ve seen it described as being like the written equivalent of a surrealist painting, and in many ways that’s an accurate interpretation as the strangeness of each scenario is so visually realised by the prose. The dizzying degree of detail can become boggling and because of this “Locus Solus” is perhaps best read in small doses a chapter at a time rather than all in one go as I did. The style of writing and depth of detail does create a certain distance from the narrative and events which makes this a book to admire rather than love. I’m someone who loves wordplay and clever writing, and LS has this in abundance; and it’s worth remembering that the book was published in 1914 when the world was embracing new sciences and also facing major conflict. Canterel is something of a control freak, attempting to tame the world with his inventions and his discoveries, and that need for order may well have been a reaction to the coming chaos of the world at large.

I’ve read that in the original French the book’s wordplay is even more pronounced, with numerous puns and constraints, though I’m not sure if these have transferred over to the English version. Nevertheless, “Locus Solus” is a fascinating, strange, often a bit grim but never less than intriguing read, and the imagery it contains will haunt me for some time.

(Review copy kindly provided by Alma Books for which many thanks!)

Christmas reading – from magazines to academia…!


I always hope to get a lot of reading done over the Christmas period, but what with family visits and the like it never seems to happen… I decided not to aim for too much this year, but I’ve ended up spending time with an oddly disparate range of reading material!

To be honest, I mostly try not to buy magazines nowadays, because I find it hard enough to manage the distractions from reading at the best of times. However, a couple did slip into the house recently:

I picked up the London Review of Books whilst collecting one of the Offspring from the railway station for their Christmas visit; I was early and had rather foolishly forgotten to bring a book!! And needing something to keep me company with my coffee, this was the obvious choice. The review of the Gorbachev book alone is excellent reading – I obviously need to buy this more often.

As for The Happy Reader, I’ve been contemplating subscribing for ages, and the fact that this issue had much content on Zamyatin’s “We” tipped the scales. Fascinating stuff.

In complete contrast to magazines, I also had a wrestle with this beast of a book, Richard Clay’s “Iconoclasm in revolutionary Paris: the transformation of signs”:

This book, I have to confess, has been vexing me much of late. I wanted to read it VERY very badly, and it’s quite impossible to get hold of – out of print, the cheapest copies online run to some £800 (!!!) and I can’t justify that… I was getting frustrated searching for a copy (and no, the local library hasn’t got one) until I stumbled on a site which told me which university libraries held it. Fortunately, one of the universities on that list happened to be one where an Offspring works who is able to borrow books from the library…. (I knew I sent my children to university for a good reason). Said offspring borrowed the book and brought it home, and so I have had to cram reading it into a week – which is not easy for a non-academic like me, as it’s a very academic book (one of those where the notes often take up more space on the page than the actual main text). Nevertheless, I get what he’s saying – and the arguments are VERY interesting – and so I’m glad that the Offspring has managed to get it back safely. I admit I was terrified of it going missing and the Offspring concerned receiving a very big bill. Yes, I *will* go to any lengths possible if I want to read a particular book (and I would like to *own* a copy of this one, but that ain’t happening any time soon by the look of things…)

So what’s up next after all that brain-frazzling activity? Well, there are the Christmas books, which I will post on in a couple of days , and I also still have some recently arrived review books – here they are:

Yes, it’s the Russians again…

The top book is a lovely volume from Notting Hill Editions which I’ll be covering for Shiny New Books in the new year, so look out for that.

Their books are just so pretty…

The other two are from the lovely Alma Books:

I’ve been waiting for the new edition of “The Devils” to come out, as it’s a Dosty I haven’t read – and it’s a chunkster, so I may start 2018 going down the rabbit hole of another big book! The Turgenev was an unexpected bonus, and I’m keen to read this too after looking at the description.

I’ll post about my reading year soon too, when I’ve finished pulling my thoughts together. In the meantime, what Christmas reading have you been up to? 🙂

A Journey to the end of the Night…


Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

If you’re a long-term reader like me, there are always books and authors on your radar you’ve always meant to read but never got round to. Antoine de Saint-Exupery is one of those. I’ve been aware of his book “The Little Prince” for as long as I can remember, though I’ve never actually read it; but it’s his other books that have appealed to me more, covering his experiences during the early days of flight. I’ve kept running across them recently, and then the lovely Alma Classics produced a new edition of his book “Night Flight” and kindly provided a review copy – so I’ve had no excuse not to read it.


I wonder why SE’s best known work has tended to overshadow his others? Be that as it may, I approached “Night Flight” with little knowledge about the man and his work apart from the fact that he was something of a flying pioneer and that he died young. NF is a slim novel, almost a novella, and it tells the story of one night in the life of several characters involved in the work of the mail planes in South America. Fabien is a young pilot, making a night flight over Argentina carrying the mail to link up with the European mail plane. In these early days of flight, travelling at night is dangerous – the planes have limited instrumentation and navigation aids, and simply can’t handle the dark or bad weather. But Rivière, Fabien’s boss, is determined to show that planes are the most efficient way to carry the mail and he will risk all – even his pilots’ lives – to prove this.

The earth was spread with lights sending out their appeals, each house lighting up its own star, in the face of the immensity of the night, like a lighthouse turning towards the sea. Everything which sheltered a human life was now sparkling. And Fabien adored the way his entry into the night was like a slow and beautiful entry into a harbour.

So Fabien flies on through the night in his mail plane, contemplating his life and the bigger universe. As the storm increases and the weather deteriorates, so do the chances of the plane making it through. As the characters on the ground (including the inspector, Robineau, and Fabien’s wife) watch and wait, we share their anxiety as we wonder whether Fabien and the plane will make it through.

Fabien is roaming around in the night over the splendour of a sea of clouds, but down below him is eternity. He is lost among the constellations, where he alone dwells. He still holds the world in his hands and balances it against his chest. In his joystick he grasps the weight of human wealth, and carries, from one star to another, this useless treasure which he will have to give up…


While this is a deceptively simple tale on the surface of things, and a slim volume at 110 pages, “Night Flight” certainly punches above its weight, as they say. The book is about many things: the desire of mankind to conquer the elements, whether the end justifies the means, collective responsibility vs the individual – and all couched in the most poetic prose. The translation, by David Carter, reads beautifully and captures wonderfully the feeling of working through the night, the sense of being out of the normal run of things, and the tensions of those on watch. Fabien himself is an elusive figure, contemplating the world and his lot with relative calm, and Saint-Exupery paints the pilots as pioneers – which they were – and heroic figures, battling the elements for the common good. There are no clear-cut conclusions at the end, and although Rivière is responsible for Fabien’s ultimate fate, he does not entirely take the blame.

“Night Flight” is one of those books that stays with you; the imagery of the night flying, the vigil on the ground and the thoughtful explorations of life and living are evocative, and still lingering in my mind long after finishing the book. If the qualities here are reflected in Saint-Exupery’s other books, I’ll certainly be wanting to read more – and fortunately, I do have a few more titles on the TBR…. 🙂


(A word about the book itself – my review copy was kindly provided by Alma, and it’s an absolutely lovely edition. The cover image and design is perfect for the content, and it’s that almost plasticky type of cover you sometimes get nowadays. I wasn’t sure about it on one book I had this on, but here it works really well, lending the book the air of something that should be resilient enough to go on a Night Flight with you! If you plan to get a copy, I really recommend this one!)

Getting to the heart of the Russian soul


Midnight in Siberia by David Greene

Some books are just made for the particular reader, capturing a particular interest or love they have, or just speaking to them more strongly than others. Let’s face it, I’m known for my love of all things Russian, but not all books about the country or its people grab me. However, “Midnight in Siberia”, just published by Alma Books, could have been written with me in mind.


David Greene is a reporter forNPR in the USA, and has a history of spending time in Russia. Assigned there in 2009 as Moscow Bureau Chief for NPR News, this book was inspired by a return visit and his second trip on the Trans Siberian Express (the first having been taken in 2011 with his wife Rose). This time round, he travelled for the most part with a Russian NPR colleague, Sergei, and his intention seems to have been to get to the heart of the Russian people. The travels were featured in a series of broadcasts on NPR, and then David was persuaded to turn his experiences into a book.

Greene obviously feels a strong attachment to ordinary Russians, so much so that each of the chapters is named after the main character he encounters in it. It’s an unusual format, and made me think that perhaps there should have been less emphasis on the train journey in the blurb; because, truth be told, Greene’s interest is very much more in the people than in the landscape or the journey!

David and Sergei travel for the most part third class, crammed into small compartments and surviving on a diet of tea and instant noodles (made with the water in the carriages for tea-making!) As they journey on deeper into Russia they encounter a variety of people from different backgrounds, all seemingly struggling to get along in the modern Russia with its political corruption and extremes of rich and poor. David chases a meteorite; visits the factory of the inventor of the Kalashnikov rifle; bonds with Sergei’s family; and finally reaches Vladivostok, the end of the line, which feels rather like the edge of the world.

There’s a great tradition of travel writing about the journey to Siberia, from Chekhov through Eric Newby to more recent authors like Ian Frazier. I’ve read Chekhov’s “Sakhalin Island” and Newby’s “The Big Red Train”, both of which gave a strong sensation of travelling through the land and the landscape, encountering the vastness that is Siberia whilst meeting people along the way. A more recent read, “Journey into Russia” by Laurens van der Post, also took me into the depths of the Russian countryside.

However, if I’m honest, I got much less of a sense of travelling with this book; the journey Greene seems more keen to make is one into the Russian psyche. He seems to have a great need to understand them as a people, and it’s this aspect that informs the book most. Greene is coming from a western, very American viewpoint, and he often seems baffled by the Russians’ reaction to events. Throughout his narrative he repeatedly expresses surprise and frustration that they don’t rebel more, kick out their corrupt leaders and embrace democracy.

What a strange purgatory Russians live in. For so many years they could not travel freely and took a major risk if they wrote or said anything critical of the government or anyone well connected. There were severe limits on where people could work and who could own businesses or property. Today many of those restrictions are gone. Life is more free and open. And yet the fear remains. The risk remains. In a way, maybe clear limits of toleration are less fearsome that erratic limits of toleration. Uncertainty about being punished is more intimidating that certainty. You are always just left to wonder.

However, as the book goes on, he comes to recognise that the Russian people are very different to those in the west; they have a history of strong leadership, a patriarchal figure, whether the early Rus’ leaders. Ivan the Terrible or Stalin. As the book continues and Greene’s understanding of the Russians widens, he realises that Putin is only the latest in a succession of these figures and that nothing has really changed over centuries of Russian culture. There is a divide between the ruling classes and the general mass of the population, with the latter feeling powerless to take any action. The Russian people crave stability and the only thing they perceive which gives them this is a strong leader.

Nevertheless, the western world, with its extremes of poverty, its huge gulf between rich and poor, and its constant government surveillance, is not so different as the Russia which is portrayed here; a reality which Greene doesn’t always seem ready to grasp, with his slightly naive and old-fashioned belief in western democracy.


I felt that the end of the book was somewhat contracted, as the last leg of the journey was covered in one paragraph; it was as if Greene had become restricted by the structure he’d chosen for the book. As it was very much based on interviews with the people he’d come across on the journey, if he had none he felt he had nothing to say about the journey and the country. This was a shame in a way, because when he forgot his self-imposed restrictions and wrote about landscape he encountered, there were some beautiful images of places and people.

However, there was much to love in this book; the glimpses of travel on the train were evocative; the insight into the difference between Russian behaviour in public and private were fascinating; and the deep affection which developed between Greene and the various people he encountered was very moving. The book provided a wonderful snapshot of life in modern-day Russia – and I hope Greene gets to visit again to reconnect with a people he obviously loves!

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

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