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“… a 688-page punishment beating.” @i_am_mill_i_am #yearofreadingdangerously

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I’m carrying on catching up with my reviews here on the Ramblings; I *have* been reading some marvellous books, and with the current state of things they’ve become a welcome distraction. In recent months I’ve become, rather belatedly admittedly, a huge fan of the Backlisted Podcast; so much so that it moved me to read Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year” (sadly a rather timely title just now) and invest in a very chunky copy of “The Anatomy of Melancholy“. So it’s a surprise, really, that I’ve never read podcaster Andy Miller’s “The Year of Reading Dangerously”, particularly as I love books about books! I was aware of the book when it came out, but somehow just never got round to it However, I ran across a copy of the book in the Oxfam recently, and the time seemed right. It was certainly a good choice to pick up after some of my more intense recent reading! 😀

I imagine many readers of the Ramblings have read this book as well, lovers of books about books as we are, so it probably doesn’t need a lot of description. Basically, I think it could have been subtitled “In which Andy Miller has a mid-life crisis and rediscovers his love of books”! His year of reading is kick-started by the realisation that he’s claimed to have read any number of book which he hasn’t, and by the chance stumbling-upon of a copy of “The Master and Margarita” whilst looking after his young son. Miller is hooked by the book (which I can understand – though I found myself quibbling with a couple of details in his description of the plot!) That’s by the by, though – what matters is that Andy’s reading mojo has been nudged back into life and he embarks upon his project of reading Great Works (plus one Dan Brown…) with gusto.

It took me a little over five days to finish The Master and Margarita, but its enchantment lasted far longer.… The Master and Margarita had made its journey down the century, from reader to reader, to a Broadstairs bookshop. Some part of that book, of Bulgakov himself, now lived on in me. The secret of The Master and Margarita, which seems to speak to countless people who know nothing about the bureaucratic machinations of the early Stalinist dictatorship or the agony of the novel’s gestation: words are our transport, our flight and our homecoming in one. Which you don’t get from Dan Brown.

The book follows the trials and tribulations of his journey: the difficulties of reading a complex book on a noisy commute, what to do if you really *don’t* like a book and the euphoria that reading something really wonderful can bring. Interspersed with the reading are snapshots of his life with his admirable and entirely sensible-sounding wife and his young son. It makes for a wonderfully enjoyable read, and one with which I very much identified.

I had heard that other people dealt with this sort of problem by having ill-advised affairs with schoolgirls, or dying their hair a ‘fun’ colour, or plunging into a gruelling round of charity marathon running, ‘to put something back’. But I did not want to do any of that; I just wanted to be left alone. (On his ‘midlife crisis’)

Because *anyone* who’s brought up children will know the havoc it wreaks with your reading! In my madness, I produced three, and reading while dealing with small children is Not Easy! How can you sink into pages and pages of sublime prose while coping with crying, tantrums, fighting, demands for food and requirements to change nappies? (To list just a few of the horrors of children). It’s not easy at all, and like Miller I spent many years either not reading much or reading light stuff because it was impossible to read anything of substance.

Is it wrong to prefer books to people? Not at Christmas. The book is like a guest you have invited into your home, except you don’t have to play Pictionary with it or supply it with biscuits and stollen.

Luckily, Andy shares childcare and work arrangements with his wife, so there are times where he commutes or is away for work and so can fit in reading. And as the sensible advice says, if you read 50 pages a day, you *will* finish the books! He reads his way through some excellent works, providing entertaining insights as he goes; I didn’t always agree with his assessments, but I enjoyed reading them. And I loved his coda at the end where he revealed his various encounters with the late, great Douglas Adams (I really should re-read the Hitchhiker books…)

Many of my favourite books mimic the Pevsner guides in this respect, as though the narrator and their subject have become locked in an increasingly ill tempered tussle for control of the text: Pale Fire by Nabokov, Revolution in the Head by Ian McDonald, Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes, most of BS Johnson’s novels, even Roger Lewis’s cantankerous The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.… Although it was not my intention at the outset, it seems to be how The Year of Reading Dangerously has turned out.

“Year… ” was first published in 2014, and there are some elements which were perhaps a little surprising; Andy seems to foresee the dramatic death of the printed book, a phenomenon which seems less likely to happen nowadays than it did then. And his views of bloggers and blogging (which I recall Annabel commenting on in her review) are provocative; our perspective (or at least mine) is very different from his because, at the end of the day, he is someone writing for a living. I write my blog for pleasure, because I want to share my love of books out there in cyberspace. I’m not wound up about views and comments and the like (although I *do* like to interact with people about books, so I’m happy when people want to comment and discuss). We’ll have to agree to differ there, Andy, because I think bloggers and blogging are valuable, and I mostly get my recommendations and bookish ideas from other bloggers I trust rather than ‘professional’ commentators.

I can understand The Master and Margarita inspiring anyone…. ;D

But I digress. I’m glad I finally read “The Year of Reading Dangerously” because it was a really entertaining and enjoyable book; Miller is an enthusastic and knowledgeable commentator on the works he reads, the autobiographical elements are often funny and touching, and I love his quirky sense of humour. It was a joy to watch him on his journey to rediscovering a deep love of reading, one of the best friends a human being can have. This is definitely an essential addition to any shelf of books about books, and I’m looking forward to reconnecting with the Backlisted podcast when it makes its long-awaited return! 😀

Russian art, blogging buddies, an old friend and books…

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… the perfect day out in London, plus a lovely surprise when I returned home!

Perfect train journey with coffee, book, Gregg’s vegan sausage roll and a comfy seat! 😀

I refer of course to my trip to the Big Smoke yesterday, which those of you who follow me on social media might have seen some mention of… 🤣 The trip was the idea of the lovely JacquiWine who thought it might be nice to meet up in real life, having encountered each other digitally for so long. And so she suggested that she and HeavenAli and I get together in London for bookish chat and book shopping – what a perfect concept!

Goncharova Self Portrait

As the ladies were not going to be in London until the middle of the day, I took the opportunity of a cheap train ticket to get into London at silly o’clock and rolled up at the Tate Modern as they opened for the day. I had been meaning to visit the Natalia Goncharova exhibition they were staging over the summer but never got round to it; and as it closes today I was happy to be able to squeeze in a visit!

One of Goncharova’s stunning images

Goncharova is an artist I’ve loved since I first discovered Russian avant garde art back in my late teens/early 20s, so being able to see some of her work in the flesh was a real treat. Her artwork is stunning, the exhibition was excellent and I was relieved to be able to make it through the exhibition shop with only the purchase of some postcards… 🤣

Postcards

I met up with the ladies at Foyles (of course!) and after lunch at a nearby Pret, we did a little browsing.

Foyles – I love the place!

Vegan lunch from Pret – very yummy!

Ali was lucky enough to have a book token and found some interesting titles which will no doubt appear on her blog in due course! I was after a particular title (more of which later..) but it wasn’t in stock; neither were a couple of other authors I was seeking out. So I thought I might get out unscathed, until at the last minute I spotted an imported Calvino I wanted. Irresistible, really!

The Calvino from Foyles plus a slim volume of poetry from Skoob

We then headed for Judd Books in Marchmont Street to meet up with my BFF, J, who was in town visiting another friend and had a few hours spare. We were keen for a catch up as it was a while since we’d met, and she also came with a carrier bag of books (gulp). It was in Judds that things went a bit pear-shaped as there were so many temptations- which I did not resist… Oh well – you only live once and I did send 4 boxes of books to the charity shop recently!

Several from Judd Books plus a Bourdouxhe from Ali – thank you! 😀

After Judds it would have been rude not to walk the few steps to Skoob Books – so we did! Here I was very restrained and only came out with one poetry book (pictured further up the post) – but none of us got out unscathed. Skoob is so tempting…. We also had a lovely chat with a lady who’d just moved to London from America and heard us nattering away about books!

Books from J. – mostly returned loans but there’s a rather lovely Mishima in there – one of only a couple of titles of his I don’t have… 😀

After coffee, Ali and Jacqui took their leave to catch respective trains, whilst J. and I bimbled back in the direction of Tottenham Court Road tube – which of course took us dangerously near the London Review Book Shop where things went off the rails. As I hinted above, I had been asking everywhere I went about a particular book, which might just have been inspired by the Backlisted Podcast – “The Anatomy of Melancholy” by Robert Burton. I wanted to have a look at it, to see what I thought about it and whether I could (or indeed wanted to) read it. Well, the LRB shop had a copy (thank you, very helpful guy behind the counter if you’re reading this, for pointing me in the right direction and encouraging me!!) It was so intriguing when I dipped in at random that I succumbed, and it came home with me. I blame that Andy Miller (again…)

Hurrah! And very interestingly, it cost less in a beautiful bricks and mortar bookshop than it does from a certain online source…

So I got home tired, happy and laden with books (the best state to be in, really). It was lovely to meet up with Jacqui and Ali, as well as catching up with J. However, I arrived to a bit of a surprise…. I have a reasonably big birthday coming up in December and Mr. Kaggsy has been fretting about what to get me (that isn’t more books). It transpired that he had decided I should have my gift now so I can get plenty of use out of it, so I returned home to find I now have my very own dedicated reading chair!!!

The Reading Chair! 😀

It’s quite marvellous – comfy, with pockets at the side to keep books in, plus he’d procured a special side table to keep pens, notebooks, additional books, drinks etc on! I call that fairly inspired from a man who doesn’t read, and its arrival was the perfect end to the perfect day. Now I just need to get settled and get reading!! 🤣

(You can read Ali’s post about our day here!)

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

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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.

Festive greetings from the Ramblings!

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I’m scheduling a little Christmas Day post to send good wishes to all of you who take the time to visit this site and read my ramblings!

I’m planning a peaceful and relaxing day with family (Middle Child has already visited, but the other two Offspring will be at home to spend time with Mr. Kaggsy and I). There are book-shaped parcels waiting to be opened (the above are from my Virago Secret Santa!), plenty of vegan good food and no need to go out and do chores, think about work or do anything we don’t want to. And when everyone else is sleeping off their Christmas lunch, I usually manage to sneak in a little reading…. 😉

So wherever you are and whatever you’re doing today, have a lovely (and hopefully bookish!) Christmas! x

Three Things… #2 – documentaries, and the price of books…

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I quite enjoyed my first go at this nice little meme, thought up by Paula, where we post about what we’re Reading, Looking and Thinking. So I thought I would share again where I am – a little snapshot of my state of mind today, you might say!

Reading

Choices, choices…

I’m dipping into a number of books at the moment, mostly shorter ones after the epic, mammoth, involving and wonderful read that was “The Aviator”. There are the next couple of Penguin Moderns and a pair of lovely review classics from Ampersand. Also on the immediate TBR is “Flights” and a very interesting-sounding British Library Crime Classic, “The Division Bell”. As well as books, I’m trying to catch up on the issues of the London Review of Books which have been massing on the coffee table, along with copies of the TLS (a Russian special) and the latest “Happy Reader”. Plenty to keep the avid bibliophile amused….

Looking

Great excitement chez the Ramblings, as BBC4 (finally!) decide to repeat one of the Documentaries that Distracted last year – and probably my favourite. The three-part “Utopia: In Search of the Dream”, written and presented by Professor Richard Clay, was one my viewing highlights of 2017, so I’m glad to see it getting another airing. The series was a bracing and eclectic mix, looking at utopias, dystopias, repressive regimes (from both sides of the politic divide), architecture, art, music et al – very broad indeed. I’d recommend catching the series while you can if you have access to BBC4 or the iPlayer – thought-provoking stuff!

Which obliquely leads on to…

Thinking

A topic vexing my mind lately has been the cost of books. Not just ordinary new books, which do of course vary according to where you buy them, and in what format; but older, out of print or rarer titles that seem to fluctuate madly according to the day of the week.

Of course, we all know that a certain big river store’s prices are often slashed wildly and that real bookshops struggle to compete. There’s the issue also of local shops not always stocking what you want, but as they now all seem to be able to order in quickly I’m finding myself drawn back to Waterstones and the like, and if I have to order online I tend to go for Wordery nowadays who seem quite a decent lot.

The iconoclasm books continue to breed…. =:o

However, old or rare books are a different kettle of (vegan) fish. It was the “Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: the Transformation of Signs” book by the aforementioned Richard Clay which got me thinking about values. As I’ve posted about on here before, I had been unable to find this one at a sensible price anywhere, so I resorted to getting Youngest Child to borrow it from her University library over Christmas. With second-hand copies going at over £1,000, I wasn’t going to be owning a copy any time soon.

But I set up alerts on a number of online booksellers and one morning, ping! A load of messages starting to come in with Reasonably Priced and Brand New copies available at under £100. So as I’ve posted, I picked up a copy and was dead chuffed. However, the interesting follow-up to this is that I never got round to cancelling all the alerts and messages are still rolling in with copies for sale – and the price since I bought my copy has been gradually creeping up and up, until a recent email dropped in offering a second-hand version for an eye-watering £8,792.58…. Yes, really…. And it seems to keep going up…

One of my rarer Viragos…

So WHY is it that some book prices vary so intensely and what sets the value? I know this one is an academic book, published in limited quantities by a smaller publisher, but is it simply the rarity value? It’s not only academic books that can have rare prices – I know Jane at Beyond Eden Rock has written about Margery Sharp’s “Rhododendron Pie” which is almost impossible to find at a decent price; and when I first wanted to read A.A. Milne’s “Four Days’ Wonder” it was prohibitively priced so I didn’t bother. I guess it’s some kind of complex calculation of the rarity of the book vs the amount of people who want to read it; when Simon at Stuck in a Book first blogged about “Guard Your Daughters”, the price of second-hand copies rocketed; and Anne Bridge’s “Illyrian Spring”, long sought after by Virago devotees, commanded silly prices before its reprint by Daunt Books.

I guess the moral is simple: if you want a book, and you see it at a price you’re prepared to pay, grab it. Certainly, I’m very glad I got hold of my iconoclasm book when I did – because there’s no way I could afford getting on for nine grand!!!!

*****

So there’s a snapshot of where my head is at the moment – full of books, magazines, documentaries and iconoclasm – the usual rambling and eclectic mix! 🙂

Shuffling the shelves – again….. #books #MountTBR

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I had a minor bookish crisis at the weekend when I took a look at the piles of books all over my workroom (which holds most of Mount TBR) and realised that I had really lost track of what was in there. A quick rummage revealed not only several titles I had actually read, but also a great number I’m not planning to read immediately. I realised it was time for a shuffle (and those of you on social media might have seen this picture appearing…)

The main problem (which is the problem with *all* of the books in my house) is the randomness – the different types and authors and genres were all muddled together and that annoyed me on Sunday… So I resolved to have a bit of a sort and try to bring some order to the piles. Which took a little time…

The first thing I wanted to get organised was the poetry books and unfortunately they’ve had to be double shelved. This is the back row:

(You can see the general state of disarray on the other shelves while I sort things out).

And this is the front row when I’d done more shuffling:

This is, of course, not all the poetry I own. For example, all my Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes books are upstairs in the spare room that houses much of my collection. But I wanted to gather all of these together so they’re handy for dipping into – reasonable, no?

The next thing to do was to try to group the remaining books loosely together (and my sorting of books is always a little eclectic). This involved Books All Over The Floor, which always makes me a bit nervous – here are some of them:

The Russians, of course, took up a huge space of their own – I think they might be trying to take over….

Finally, after much shuffling and stress, things began to look more organised (if a little precarious at points):

And the main shelves have come together nicely:

The bottom shelf is Russians (and believe me, this is only a fraction of the Russian books I own). The next up is the poetry books. The third shelf up is slightly heavier tomes (not physically, but in content) including Penguin Little Black Classics, Penguin Great Ideas and lots of things from Verso and the like. And the top shelf has my Penguin Modern box, a number of books vaguely related to art and the French revolution, as well as my Iconoclasm books.

It seems that the Iconoclasm books have been quietly reproducing when I wasn’t looking…. 😀

Any road up, this group of books is now a little more orderly. I sent some images to the Offspring while I was mid-shuffle, and Middle Child commented that I had a book problem. I did remind her that I’ve never denied that (and if she knew how many books have spread into her old room, she’d probably have a fit…)

But never mind – I feel a bit clearer-headed about what’s on the immediate TBR and things are notionally together, which was the point of the exercise. Success! :)))))

A few quick literary links…. @lithub @parisreview @guardian

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A lot of lovely blogs tend to have regular features with links to all the exciting posts, articles and features that pop up on the InterWeb. It’s not a thing I generally do, but today’s newsletter from LitHub had some links I just felt I had to share!

By Ginny from USA (book sale loot) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Feminize Your Canon – a really interesting initiative from The Paris Review (which has been widely shared on Twitter today). It’s a new monthly column celebrating neglected woman writers, starting with Olivia Manning, and deserves to be read and applauded. You can subscribe to receive daily updates from the PR which are always worth reading as well.

Top 10 lost women’s classics – an interesting piece from the always-interesting Guardian newspaper in a similar vein, which has some very intriguing books featured.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Penelope Lively on Virginia Woolf – on LitHub this time, a fascinating extract from Lively’s book, “Life in the Garden”.

If you don’t subscribe to LitHub’s daily newsletter, I’d suggest signing up. A daily dose of literary links can be just what the doctor ordered – although always potentially bad for the wishlist and TBR…. 🙂

 

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