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2017 – or, Distracted by Documentaries…

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That might seem an odd title for a post rounding up my thoughts on my best reads of the year, but I fear that my reading rate has actually slowed down quite a lot over recent months and I suspect that might have something to do with my constantly being distracted by the BBC…..

Margaret Atwood image c. Jean Malek

This all kind of began over the summer months with the series of programmes on BBC4  focussing on Utopias of all sorts, and in particular Prof. Richard Clay’s three-part series on the subject (I also blame him for sending me off down a bit of an iconoclasm rabbit hole…) Since then, I seem to have been awash with documentaries of all sorts, from classical music through Margaret Atwood to Mexican art, all of which are a bit distracting and take the mind away from books (or send the mind off in strange directions after other books aside from the ones I was meant to be reading…) So my rate of reading has slowed down a bit I think generally because of this, and spending time in chunksters like “War and Peace” and “Crime and Punishment” has compounded the problem.

However, I have read some absolutely marvellous books this year; I never do anything as formal as a top ten, but here are a few of my highlights. And note that two of them have been read in December, so yes! doing one of these lists before January is premature! So – here goes…

Russians

This blog would not be about my reading without having a lot of Russians in there, and 2017 was by necessity dominated by them. It has been, of course, a year of marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution and two of the outstanding books of the year for me were ones dealing with this. China Mieville’s October and the collection 1917, put together by Boris Dralyuk, were fine books which really brought the events of a century ago alive and both will stay with me.

On the Russian fiction front, I spent a great deal of time with some classic chunksters. Finally reading “War and Peace” was a milestone for me, and revisiting “Crime and Punishment” by my beloved Dostoevsky was also a special experience.

There were new treats too, in the form of “The Return of Munchausen” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, and “Memoirs of a Revolutionary” by Victor Serge. Both authors are recent discoveries and both I would now count as amongst my favourites.  And the wonderful collection of Russian Emigre Short Stories, collected by Bryan Karetnyk and which I covered for Shiny New Books, was a real eye-opener and treat.

Still with Russia, but with non-Russian authors, I actually loved to bits two novels set in that country – “A Gentleman from Moscow” by Amor Towles; and “The Noise of Time”, Julian Barnes’ masterly portrayal of Shostakovich. Really, as a lover of Russian culture and history, I *have* rather been spoiled this year!

Classic Crime

Unsurprisingly, given my taste for it, I’ve delved into a lot of classic crime this year. Much of it has come in the form of lovely books from the British Library Crime Classics editions; and I find it hard to pick favourites from them, although “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a real treat.

I also discovered John Dickson Carr with a vengeance. It’s not for nothing he’s known as the king of the locked-room mystery, and I’ve spent many a happy hour with Dr. Gideon Fell this year.

Margaret Atwood

A living legend. A genius. ‘Nuff said. I rediscovered her work this year too, and definitely want to keep that trend going during 2018. Certainly, her non fiction books have been a real revelation and I can’t praise her highly enough.

Translated literature

There has been a *lot* of translated literature flowing through the Ramblings this year – and if I was more organised I daresay I could get the spreadsheet I keep my list of books read in to work out some statistics. I suspect there could well be more translated that native language books in there – maybe I’ll calculate one day…

Anyway, spending time with Georges Perec is always a joy and I read more of his works this year. I still have a book or two left unread, thank goodness – I dread getting to the last of his works available to me in English.

And one of the highlights of my reading year, during December was the book “Malacqua” – an author and book new to me which I stumbled upon because of the recommendation on the front from Italo Calvino. An unusual, hypnotic and memorable work.

Sci-Fi (or slipstream or speculative fiction or whatever  you want to call it…)

I’ve always dipped into this kind of genre over the years, but during 2017 I really reconnected, after dipping into Soviet sci-fi during 2016. The late, great Brian Aldiss is turning out to be something of a treasure, but my main incursions into the genre came via M. John Harrison. I read some of his shorter works for the 1968 Club and then had the joy (also in the last month of the year!) of reading his newest collection of shorter works, “You Should Come With Me Now”. It’s a powerful and unforgettable work and another book of the year arriving at the last minute.

Reading Clubs

On the subject of the reading clubs I co-host with Simon at Stuck in a Book, we spent time in 1951 and 1968 last year, and we have 1977 lined up for this one – do join in if you can, these events are such fun!

2018 – plans or not?

I started 2017 giving myself few challenges and reading plans or restrictions – which seems to have worked best for me, and I plan to continue on that road for 2018. I don’t function well as a reader if I feel that I *must* read a book; instead I intend another year of No Plans At All and simply following the reading muse!

One reading challenge I *will* try to drop in on occasionally is HeavenAli’s centenary read-along for Muriel Spark. I’ve read a fair bit of Spark over recent years, but there are plenty of titles I haven’t read so if the timing is right, I’ll be there…

I must too say thank you to all who drop in here, leave comments, discuss and recommend books – I always love engaging with people about reading, and look forward to interacting with you all in 2018. And thanks also to the lovely publishers who’ve provided review copies this year (and contributed to the lack of space in my house…)

Apart from that – lead on, Reading Muse, I’m right behind you…. 🙂

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Dispatches from the Revolution

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1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, edited by Boris Dralyuk

Sometimes a book comes along that you just know is going to be perfect for you; and “1917”, just published by Pushkin Press, is certainly the right one for me! It’s no secret here on the Ramblings that I have something of an interest in Russian literature and culture, and this reaches back a long way with me, since I first studied the Russian Revolution at the age of 12 or 13. This engendered my lifelong fascination and so a book celebrating the 100th anniversary of the country’s year of change is something I was quite desperate to read!

1917

1917 was indeed a year of turmoil for Russia, with not one but two revolutions taking place: in February/March the royal family was overthrown and a provisional government put in place; and in October/November the more famous conflict occurred, with Lenin’s Bolsheviks seizing power. This was eventually followed by a bloody civil war which tore the country apart and continued until 1921, when the old guard of the White Army were finally defeated. During the relatively liberal decade that followed, there were many accounts which looked back on the uprisings, but those featured in this excellent book are all between 1917 and 1919 (when the tide really turned in the Civil War, in favour of the Red Army), so they’re from right in the eye of the storm.

Expertly collected (and often translated) by Boris Dralyuk (who also translated the volume of Babel’s “Odessa Stories” I reviewed recently), he’s keen to stress the importance of contemporary reactions to the conflict. The book features an amazing range of authors espousing a variety of viewpoints, and all witnessing the conflict at first hand. Some embraced the revolution, some were horrified and rejected it, but all responded with lyrical passion. The various works are grouped thematically with erudite and informative introductions providing context and the first half of the book concentrates on poetry.

Remember this – this morning, after that black night –
this sun, this polished brass.
Remember what you never dreamt would come to pass
but what had always burned within your heart!

(from Russian Revolution by Mikhail Kuzmin
Translated by Boris Dralyuk)

From well-known names like Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Pasternak, Esenin and Akhmatova to names new to me like Vladimir Kirillov, Alexey Kraysky and Georgian poet Titsian Tabidze, there’s a wonderful array of work on view here. The marvellous Mayakovsky, often thought of as the poet of the Revolution, earns a section to himself, and his complex reactions to the conflict are covered. But central to the poetry section, and crucial, are Alexander Blok’s two great works “The Twelve” and “The Scythians” – starkly powerful, the former is rendered brilliantly by Dralyuk and Robert Chandler. As someone who sometimes struggles to read collections of poetry, I found this one gripping and absorbing, with such a wonderful range of imagery and human emotion.

The second section is prose – short fictions, journalism and responses from such luminaries as Teffi, Zamyatin, Zoshchenko and the great Bulgakov. I was pleased to see an evocative piece by Kataev which was new to me, a powerful story called “The Drum”. Dralyuk draws on an astonishingly wide range of works, pulling in as many peoples and creeds affected as he can. For example, Dovid Bergelson wrote in Yiddish and his imaginative piece “Scenes from the Revolution” is memorable. Teffi, of course, is her usual pithy, outspoken, no-nonsense self and her pen portrait of Lenin is devastating; her satirical story “The Guillotine” chilling.

And what of my beloved Bulgakov? He closes the book with an early piece entitled “Future Prospects” – his first piece of writing, in fact – which looks ahead with desperate hope. Bulgakov was at the time a White Army supporter and with our benefit of hindsight his optimism seems misguided and tragic – or perhaps born of desperation as the world around him crumbled.

dralyuk-2013-1

Boris Dralyuk dedicates this collection to the memory of his grandmother, and he does have a very personal connection to the Revolution through his grandparents which you can read more about here. I can’t praise enough the work he’s done compiling and translating this wonderful book; needless to say, “1917” not only lived up to my expectations, it exceeded them. I could simply sit here and churn out superlatives, but that’s not really constructive. This is a book that captures a moment in time when the world was changing, in rich, beautiful and sometimes visceral writing. Tellingly, a character in “The Soul’s Pendulum” by Alexander Grin comments on the perspective of history, and it is this missing perspective that gives the works their immediacy, capturing the chaos and uncertainty of a society in flux. It’s easy for us to look back now, a hundred years on, and see the events of that time as a structured thing, with a beginning and an end; living through them was an entirely different experience, but it’s one that can be glimpsed through the pages of this wonderful collection. “1917” was an entirely absorbing, moving and exceptional read, and it’s definitely going to be high on my list of books of the year.

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