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2018 – so what were my standout reading experiences? :)

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When it comes to doing an annual best of list, I tend to leave it to as close to the wire as possible; I’ve been known to read some corkers that end up at the top of the tree in the dying embers of the year. I also like to stretch the format a little, going for themes or concepts as well as just titles or authors. Anyway, without further ado, here’s what rocked my reading boat in 2018!

Books in translation

I don’t keep detailed statistics about the kinds of book I read, but I *do* now keep a list! And I can see from a quick glance down it that I’ve most definitely read a lot of works in translation. This has always been the case with my reading, and I’ve probably tended to focus on French, Italian and of course Russian originals. However, I’ve branched out a little more this year, with Spanish-language works, a stand-out Polish book (the incredible Flights!) and of course continued very strongly with the Russians…

They pretty much deserve a section on their own, but suffice to say I’ve encountered a number of authors new to me, from a shiny new book in the form of the marvellous The Aviator, to a poetic gem from Lev Ozerov and a very unusual piece of fiction (if it was fiction…) in the form of The Kremlin Ball. The wonderful humorous and yet surprisingly profound Sentimental Tales by Zoshchenko was a joy. Marina Tsvetaeva has been an inspirational force, and in fact Russian poetry has been something of a touchstone all year. I don’t think I will *ever* tire of reading Russian authors.

I spent quite a lot of time musing about poetry in 2018, actually, including the intricacies and issues of translating the stuff… Part of this related to the Baudelaire-Benjamin rabbit hole into which I fell, and I’ve actually been gifted a very fat book of French poetry in verse translation which I’m really looking forward to. The Baudelaire prose translations I’ve been reading are just wonderful and so I’m hoping this approach will work for French poetry generally.

To pick out one particular book in translation would be hard, but I do want to say that Saramago’s Death at Intervals has remained with me since I read it, particularly the delicate portrayal of the relationship between Death and the Cellist. In fact, whilst browsing in Foyles at the start of December, I found myself picking the book up and becoming completely transfixed by the ending again. Obviously I need a re-read – if I can only work out where I’ve put my copy…. :((

And a book of the year must be the poetic wonder that is Portraits without Frames by Lev Ozerov. Books like this remind me of how much I’m in debt to all the wonderful translators in the world!

Club Reads

The club reading weeks which I co-host with Simon have been a great success this year, and such fun! We focused on 1977 and 1944 during 2018, a pair of disparate years which nevertheless threw up some fascinating books. I was particularly pleased to revisit Colette, Richard Brautigan, Sylvia Plath and Edmund Crispin, as well as exploring Borges‘ work. The clubs will continue into 2019 so join in – it’s always fascinating seeing and hearing what other people are reading!

The British Library

I think BL Publishing need a special mention for the continuing wonderfulness of their books; I’ve read a number of their Crime Classics this year, which are always a joy, and I’ve also been exploring the new range of Science Fiction Classics which they’ve been putting out. I credit them, together with a chance Virago find in a Leicester Charity Shop, with my discovery of the books of the amazing Ellen Wilkinson – definitely one of my highlights in 2018!

They publish other books than these, of course, and as well as the excellent Shelf Life, I was gifted some fascinating-looking volumes about areas of London for my December birthday – I feel a possible project coming on…. 😉

Non-fiction

I’ve always been fond of reading non-fiction, and this year I’ve read quite a few titles. Inevitably there have been Russians (with How Shostakovich Changed My Mind being a real standout) as well as Beverley Nichols on the 1920s and numerous books about books. However, there’s been quite a focus on women’s stories with Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley both featuring strongly, as well as Flaneuse, a book that intrigued and frustrated in equal measure. The French Revolution made a strong entry, with Olympe de Gouges’ Declaration of the Rights of Women proving to be stirring stuff. Looking down the list of books I read, there’s a lot of Paris and Russia in there!

Bookish arrivals

There have been *so* many bookish arrivals this year, that at times Mr. Kaggsy was getting quite fretful about the fact that we would soon be unable to move around the house… However, I *have* been clearing out books I think I won’t return to, and intend to continue having a bit of a (careful) purge in 2019. I have been very fortunate on the bookish front, though, and having not been able to afford much in the way of books when I was growing up, I’m always grateful to have them and thankful to the lovely publishers who provide review copies.

There *have*, inevitably, been some particularly special arrivals this year. My three Offspring gifted me the Penguin Moderns Box Set for Mothers’ Day, and although my reading of them has tailed off a little of late, I do intend to continue making my way through them in 2019, as so far they’ve been quite wonderful.

And a year ago (really? where has that year gone!) I was ruing the fact I couldn’t get a copy of Prof. Richard Clay‘s fascinating monograph Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: the Transformation of Signs, and forcing one of my offspring to borrow a copy from their university library to bring home for me to read over the break. Through diligent searching and bookseller alerts, I managed to secure a copy, which I was inordinately excited about. On the subject of the Prof’s documentaries, I’m very much looking forward to seeing his forthcoming one on the subject of memes and going viral – watch this space for special posts! 🙂

New discoveries, rediscoveries and revisits

One of the delights of our Club reading weeks is that I always seem to manage to revisit some favourite authors, as I mentioned above. However, this year I also reconnected with an author I was very fond of back in the day, Julian Barnes. The Noise of Time was a hit last year, and I finally read and adored The Sense of an Ending this year. I now have a lot of catching up to do.

Returning to George Orwell is always a reliable delight, and I made peace with Angela Carter after a rocky start. Robert Louis Stevenson has brought much joy (and most of his work has been new to me), and Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners was my first Seagull book. I keep being drawn back to Jose Saramago, though; Death at Intervals really got under my skin and I *must* find my copy…

Challenges

I’ve been keeping my commitment to challenges light over the last few years, and this is actually working quite well for me. I don’t like my reading to be restricted, preferring to follow my whim, and I think what I’ve read has been fairly eclectic… I dipped into HeavenAli’s Reading Muriel celebration of Spark’s 100th birthday; dropped in on the LT Virago Group’s author of the month when it suited; joined in with the reading clubs (of course!); and for the rest of the time mostly did my own thing. It’s been fun… Will I take part in any next year, or set myself any projects? Well, that remains to be seen…. 😉

So that’s a kind of round up of the year. Looking down the list of books I’ve read, I’m more than ever aware of the grasshopper state of my mind – I don’t seem to read with any rhyme or reason. Nevertheless, I mostly love what I read, which is the main thing – life is too short to spend on a book you’re really not enjoying…

The inevitability of the arrival of new books…

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Let’s make no bones about it – I’m a book addict. Have been since I learned to read, really, and I can’t say I’ve ever denied it. So despite the bulging nature of my shelves, there have inevitably been books arriving recently (and those of you on social media may have seen some of these already). They’re a fairly eclectic bunch as usual, with a lot of nice Russians in there, and in the spirit of sharing I thought I would post some images here! 😀

So, what have we here? Well, from top to bottom:

Penguin Modern Poets #17 – yes, I know I’ve got completely behind with my reading of this series, but I hardly ever see them second-hand, and it was 49p in the Oxfam and it has Kathleen Raine. I’ll get back to this series eventually – honest!

The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter – why, you may ask, have I picked up another copy of this when I had such a bad experience before?????? Well – for a start it’s an original green Virago in great condition for only 99p and the one I have is a nasty modern version. But mainly, my fiercely feminist Middle Child insists that it’s a work of genius, and so I fear I should pay attention to her and give it another try with an open (and in the right frame!) mind. We shall see…

Pulse by Julian Barnes – I’ve loved my recent reads of Barnes’ work, and this is short stories. I’ve not read any of  his shorter works so for £1.49 I’m happy to have a go!

(Incidentally, the three above were all from the local Oxfam which seems to have calmed down a little with its prices and I can’t help but scream “bargain”!!!)

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees – all I know about Mirrlees is that she has a Woolfian connection, so when I saw this lurking in the local BookCrossing location (Caffe Nero) I figured it should come home with me.

Letters: Summer 1926 by Pasternak, Tsvetaeva, Rilke – a nice NYRB edition at Full Price! (Eeek) There is a story attached to this which will come in a later post rambling on about Russians and poetry…

Orphic Paris by Henri Cole – another NYRB I bought at full price because I just loved the sound of it. I’m currently reading it and it’s stunning and I will write about it eventually but I am a bit behind with reviews at the moment, alas…

The Wives by Alexandra Popoff – I read about this online somewhere, and for the life of me I don’t know where. It’s about the wives of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov etc etc and how they were literary partners and support to their husbands. Sounds just fascinating and this is a lovely second-hand-but-in-wonderful-condition-and-very-cheap copy. Result!

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed a couple of spines with no writing and these are they:

This little lovely has been on my radar for a while, and as I’m having a bit of a Russian poetry binge at the moment and want to read a range of different translations, I thought “WTF! I work for a living, I shall buy books!” and sent off for it. More of the Russians in a later post, as I hinted above!

The other arrival is one I was ridiculously excited about:

Again, a lovely little chapbook I’ve been aware of for a while which is stuffed with Mayakovsky (amongst others) and translated by Boris Dralyuk! The cover image is from a Mayakovsky agitprop poster, and the inside is equally beautifully illustrated as well as containing an interview with the translator. Why have I never bought a copy before? Possibly because I’ve been trying to be good about book purchases (and, frankly, failing) and also because the price is not low as it’s from a small press. However, for some unknown reason to do with the weird vagaries of book pricing, I happened upon it the other day with the price slashed. So I ordered it, and even more weirdly the next day it had returned to full price. No, I don’t understand it either.

Fortunately, I have managed a fair amount of reading over the summer, and another purge is looming. However, it won’t necessarily be so easy to get rid of the extra books, as will be revealed in the forthcoming post about Russians and poetry…

(Oh, the mug? Fancy you asking! I saw it online – possibly Twitter or Instagram – and how could I resist? It’s Penguin orange, from M&S and yes, it describes me perfectly. It’s so beautiful I can hardly bear to use it…)

Postcards from the edge

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A Card from Angela Carter by Susannah Clapp

Angela Carter and I have had a somewhat up and down relationship recently. I was always convinced I loved her work, but my reading of “The Passion of New Eve” shook that conviction a little. However, good relations were restored when I had a wonderful reading experience with “Fireworks”, and so I’m now once again convinced that I really do enjoy her books!

I do still have a number of Carter titles lurking, but for some reason this little book caught my eye recently – why I picked it up at this particular moment in time I have no idea, but it turned out to be the perfect read at the perfect time.

Susanna Clapp, Carter’s friend and literary executor, had received a number of postcards from the author over the years, and after Carter’s death she revisited these. Using them as a jumping off point, she recreates the woman she knew in what are in effect a series of snapshots, stimulated by the postcards themselves. Some of the postcard images are reproduced in the book (albeit in black and white) which adds an extra element.

What emerges is a moving and surprisingly detailed portrait of the Angela Carter that Clapp knew; with all her faults, idiosyncracies, humour and insight on show, the book gives us a privileged peek into Carter’s personality. The book is only 103 pages long, but somehow feels as if it reveals the real person behind the public persona; the short reminiscences build up a remarkably vivid portrait of a strong and striking woman. And Clapp reminds us of what a transgressive writer Carter was, spelling out just how radical her prose and her concepts could be:

Let us allow Bluebeard’s last victim to be rescued not by a man but by her mother. Let us load the prose with red stains and howls, wet lips and shudders, and make evident what is buried in the stories we read to our children. Let us take the girls of traditional fairy tale and give them some force of character…

Her political affiliations are shown, too, and one particularly outstanding quote reminds us that in the 1980s Carter was saying very prophetically,

The worst things are things we probably don’t know about. They’re to do with surveillance and they’re to do with the Secret Service, and they’re to do with the inaccessibility of information…

Plus ca change…

Susannah Clapp does not shy away from showing us Carter in her last days, as her health failed on the way to her tragically early death; and the final sequences relating her funeral and memorial are desperately poignant. However, what remained with me most strongly from reading this little gem of a book is the image of a fiercely intelligent, yet somehow vulnerable woman who lived life her own way and created the books she wanted to create. It’s an essential read for anyone who loves Carter’s work and has definitely increased my eagerness to get more of those books of hers off the shelves.

“velvet nights spiked with menace” – in which Angela and I are reconciled…

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Fireworks by Angela Carter

As a rule, I don’t generally have disastrous reading experiences. Life is too short to waste on books you don’t like so I try to tailor my reading to things I actually want to read or hope I’ll get something from; or to continue the ongoing search for those works which change your life. However, I had a less-than-pleasant encounter with Angela Carter during our week of reading for the #1977club, when I found “The Passion of the New Eve” to be most unpleasant with no redeeming features. This *did* irk me a bit, because I’ve enjoyed her work in the past; so, as Carter is the author of the month on the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group, I resolved to try again, and picked up “Fireworks” a slim volume of short works.

Sorry Virago, but I really *don’t* like that cover at all – I want a green version……

First published by Virago in 1988, the book collects works that span a number of years, some as early as 1974 (though it isn’t specified which is dated when). I had previously read, and been intrigued, by the opening story “A Souvenir of Japan”; and indeed several of the stories seem to be set there (and apparently draw heavily on the period Carter lived there in the early 1970s). There are nine stories here, all very disparate in subject but all very much in Carter’s style.

I speak as if he had no secrets from me. Well, then, you must realize that I was suffering from love and I knew him as intimately as I knew my own image in a mirror. In other words, I knew him only in relation to myself. Yet, on those terms, I knew him perfectly. At times, I thought I was inventing him as I went along, however, so you will have to take my word for it that we existed. But I do not want to paint our circumstantial portraits so that we both emerge with enough well-rounded, spuriously detailed actuality that you are forced to believe in us. I do not want to practise such sleight of hand. You must be content only with glimpses of our outlines, as if you had caught sight of our reflections in the looking-glass of someone else’s house as you passed by the window.

I don’t know if it was just that I was in the right mood this time, but I found myself seduced by Carter’s prose from the very start. The stories cover much ground – the complexities of personal relationships (“A Souvenir…”, “Flesh and the Mirror”); myth, legend and brutality in far countries (“The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter”, “Master”); morality (or lack of it) in disintegrating landscapes (“Elegy for a Freelance”, “Master” again); being an outsider, the ‘other’ (“A Souvenir…” again, “The Smile of Winter”); plus strange and haunting works which draw on fairytale and fantasy (“Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest”, “Reflections”, “The Loves of Lady Purple”). These stories are disturbing and beautiful and I found myself lost in other worlds brilliantly created by Carter in astonishing prose.

These tree trunks bore an out-crop of plants, orchids, poisonous, iridescent blossoms and creepers the thickness of an arm with flowering mouths that stuck out viscous tongues to trap the flies that nourished them. Bright birds of unknown shapes infrequently darted past him and sometimes monkeys, chattering like the third form, leaped from branch to branch that did not move beneath them.

I mentioned brutality and yes, there is violence (emotional, physical and sexual); however, I didn’t have quite the problem with it that I did reading “Passion…” Maybe I recognised that it was necessary here for the stories Carter was telling; maybe the storytelling was so strong that I could see the point; or maybe her beautiful writing counterbalanced the darkness and provided a necessary harmony in her work. Certainly Angela Carter’s prose was just stunning in these tales; hypnotic and haunting, it convinced me that I hadn’t been wrong in my belief that I had loved her work previously – and still can and do. The stories are multi-faceted, multi-layered things of beauty and cruelty, and I think that a second reading would pull out many more references and resonances than I saw on my first read.

I had fallen through one of the holes life leaves in it; these peculiar holes are the entrances to the counters at which you pay the price of the way you live.

Picking favourites is always difficult (and maybe controversial!) when reading a collection of short works, but I have to mention in particular “Reflections”; this wonderful and dark fairy tale, drawing on mythology, had the most amazing imagery and the pictures it painted in my head will stay with me.

Carter in the early 1970s

So Angela and I are reconciled. Yes, there is violence and cruelty (and rape, I’m afraid) in these stories, but this time around I felt Carter was using these things for a purpose. The worlds she portrays are beautiful and brutal, filled with vivid landscapes, striking imagery and troubled people, smoke and mirrors, dreams and allegories. I am pleased to say that I will *definitely* be reading Carter again

#1977Club – a final post!

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Phew! So we reached the end of the #1977club in one piece and having read, discussed and discovered some very interesting titles! In the end, as always, I ran out of time and didn’t read all I wanted to – but these are the ones I *did* read:

Four books in total, only one of which was a fail (the Carter). Rediscovering favourite authors like Brautigan and Plath was a joy, and exploring Margaret Atwood’s early stories just served to reinforce what an excellent writer she really is. Despite my issues with the Carter, I *will* try other titles by her – if for no other reason than to prove I haven’t turned into a soppy old wuss!!

Alas, I didn’t get to the Barthes; but that will remain on the TBR and hopefully be read at some time in the future. If you’re still reading from 1977, please do leave links on the 1977 page – it’s been wonderful seeing what everyone else has been reading and watching the discussions. Here’s to the next club, whichever year that may be…. 😉

#1977club – a rarity – DNF and Did Not Really Get On With….

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The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter

First up, a bit of a TRIGGER and SPOILER warning. This post will discuss a reasonable amount of detail about this book, and it’s fair to say that it covers subjects like rape, anal sex, violence, bondage, sadomasochism, gender re-alignment and a lot of post-apocalyptic stuff. So, not a light, sunny read, really…

Where to begin? I first read Angela Carter back in the 1980s, and I liked what I read. I’m aware that Carter was an uncompromising author who pushed the boundaries and is not going to be a cosy read, but I was keen to re-engage with her work after quite a gap and as this one was published in 1977 it seemed the ideal place to go. Or perhaps not.

Broadly, the story tells of Evelyn, a young Englishman who decamps to New York; however, this is no regular city, but one descending into apocalyptic chaos. Gangs abound, whether people of colour or feminist groups; the rats are taking over; violence is the order of the day; and Evelyn’s behaviour is not particularly pretty in itself.

After a tortuous affair with a glamorous dancer, Leilah, which ends in unpleasantness and disaster, Evelyn heads off to the desert where everything goes to hell in a handcart. It was here I began to lose interest; suffice to say that Evelyn encounters the formidable Mother, a many-breasted entity; undergoes gender realignment; gets captured and repeatedly raped by a mad, one-legged poet; and so on and so on. I confessed I glossed over a lot of what was happening, because not only was it fairly unpleasant, I just wasn’t finding myself drawn into the story or caring about anybody in it.

I found myself wondering if I’d gone a bit prudish in my old age; after all, I read Burroughs and Kathy Acker in my teens without any problem, so did I just react badly to this because of the content and was I unable to see past this to what Carter was saying? And what actually *was* she saying?

This may be the problem I had with the book, because I don’t think actually that’s very clear. Evelyn is not a pleasant character as a man, and as any reader is probably going to anticipate, halfway through he becomes the Eve of the title. As a woman, the kind of treatment meted out to him is perhaps the kind Evelyn would have been happy to serve up to any woman he encounters – and certainly he’s pretty brutish while still a man. If Carter’s intention is to highlight the bad way that men treat women, then she wraps it up in a load of apocalyptic pseudo-mythology that for me really didn’t work.

Another problem was the writing; some of the early prose was excellent, really evocative and beautiful, conjuring up the crumbling city of New York and its denizens in a very evocative way. However, I found it often descended into cliché, particularly when dealing with the various sex acts, and the overall narrative seemed to lose coherence too often for me, becoming quite clunky in places. I really struggled to engage, but I couldn’t, so I lost patience and skipped through much of the book.

It may be that this book has dated badly and would have been more groundbreaking or innovative in 1977; or it may be that I missed something I was supposed to get out of it. Certainly, many online reviews rate “The Passion of New Eve” really highly, but it’s not one for me. I was sorry about this, because I’ve enjoyed Carter’s writing in the past; and indeed I was lucky enough to meet her at a film showing/signing back in the 1980s (and I still have the signed book to prove it!)

I rarely write negative posts because I try very hard to read books I’m going to enjoy, or get something out of, or that will stimulate or move me, or educate me, or make me think, or make me laugh, or make me cry. Unfortunately, this did nothing for me at all, except make me wonder what the point of it all was. So alas my first ‘bad’ read for ages was for the #1977club – let’s hope the next one is a bit more satisfying….

#1977club – here we go! :)

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Yes, time for another week of reading, discovering and discussing books from a particular year – and this one is 1977. We reach a more modern decade than we’ve been covering up until now, and one which certainly takes us away from Simon’s comfort zone of the 1920s! :)) However, I was initially unsure of what I would read from the year until I began to dig, and I actually came up with a bit of a pile of books that I already own:

Yes, I really *do* own three copies of “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams”. No, I don’t know why…

I also own two other books from 1977 that piqued my interest, but alas I cannot at the moment lay hands on them – “The Women’s Room” by Marilyn French is a feminist classic and I have a battered old Virago copy, but it’s currently lurking on a shelf in Middle Child’s flat as I have loaned it out – so I won’t be reading that one… I also own Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “A Time of Gifts” but several trawls through the shelves have failed to find it (although I *did* find some other books I was looking for). So I may well choose from the above – some are re-reads, some unread, and I’d like to go for a mix if I can.

And then there’s this, lurking electronically:

I really want to read Barthes but frankly, I’m a Bit Scared. I’m *not* an academic and I fear I will fail miserably to understand this and then feel stupid. Oh well. Nothing ventured, nothing gained….

So do join Simon at Stuck in a Book and myself in the #1977club – it’s great fun, great reading and always fascinating to see what books people come up with! Here goes…!

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