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It’s December – so that means more books…

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There is an inevitability about the arrival of new books in December; as well as Christmas, there is also my birthday which occurs about a week beforehand. As my friends and family know me well, there will always be book gifts and this year is no exception. So I thought I would share them as usual – well, why break a habit?? ;D

First up, this little pile arrived from various sources on my birthday (and I did share an image on Instagram):

A fascinating selection! The top four are from Mr. Kaggsy – three wonderful books from the British Library focusing on my favourite areas of London, and a period crime novel set in the Jazz Age – I’m intrigued, and with the London books there’s another risk of a reading project… “Nihilist Girl” came from a Family Member after instructions were issued, as did “At the Existentialist Cafe” after a link was sent to my Little Brother! French Poetry came from Middle Child and the Beverley is from my BFF J. who is a great Nichols enabler…

There was a late arrival courtesy of Eldest Child in the form of this:

I follow the Bosh! boys on YouTube as they come up with some marvellous (and relatively easy-seeming!) Vegan recipes, and I’m always keen for new foodie ideas – so this will be just the ticket!

Next up, some arrivals from my Virago Secret Santa; this is a tradition we have on the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group and it’s such fun to take part! My Santa this year was the lovely Lisa from the USA, and by some weird trick of randomness, I was *her* Santa. Needless to say, I was spoiled….

The two Mrs. Oliphant books complete my set of the Chronicles of Carlingford – I’m very keen to get to read these all at some point. The Nemirovksy is short stories and I’ve not read any of these. And a lovely hardback of “Golden Hill” which sounds fascinating! Thank you Lisa! 😀

Then there are the Christmas arrivals! Some of these were requests/instructions and some of them my friends and family improvising.

The second volume of Plath letters was from Middle Child; the Katherine Mansfield Notebooks from Youngest Child. I long to sink myself in both…. The beautiful first edition of Beverley’s “Sunlight on the Lawn” (with dustjacket!!) is from my dear friend J. – just gorgeous…. “Sweet Caress” is from my old friend V. and I don’t think I’ve read any Boyd so I’m interested in taking a look… The rest are from Mr. Kaggsy who has been as inspired as ever. The John Franklin Bardin omnibus is a particularly intriguing; I’d never heard of the author but he seems to have been a highly regarded and very individual crime writer so I can’t wait to explore. However, Mr. Kaggsy excelled himself this year with this:

“But, Kaggsy!” I hear you cry, “you already have so many copies of The Master and Margarita!” Yes, I most certainly do, but I’ve always wanted a copy of the Folio Society edition. It seems to have been spiralling upwards in price to dizzying heights, but amazingly Mr. Kaggsy managed to track down a Reasonably Priced copy and snapped it up! Grinning like the Cheshire Cat here….

Finally, some review books have snuck in (as they say); I can’t share most of them, as the publication dates are a little way away, but one I can is this beautiful volume from Notting Hill Editions:

I love their books, and as an inveterate walker, the content looks just perfect for me. I want to get reading this one soon, so look out for a forthcoming review.

So as usual I have been utterly spoiled with new books and my only issue, as usual, is what to pick up next? Never an easy decision… Which would you choose??

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The power of words #bannedbooksweek #russia @shinynewbooks

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This week is Banned Books Week, an initiative focusing attention on the pernicious practice of forbidding the act of reading certain volumes. It’s a practice that exists all over the world, often enforced by restrictive regimes but also in so-called free countries where despite the right to free speech being enshrined in their laws, certain religions or beliefs seek to restrict access to works they believe evil or immoral. Needless to say, as an extreme bibliophile, it’s not something I approve of, so I was pleased to be able to provide a piece for Shiny New Books in their BookBuzz section. And here’s the kind of thing I talk about:

Yes, needless to say, I’m on about the Russians again… However, I think it’s fair to say that not only have Russian writers suffered over the centuries from one repressive regime after the other (regardless of the political viewpoint of those regimes); they’ve also understood the power of words and literature, finding ingenious ways round the censor or just “writing for the drawer”.

The little heap above is just some of my banned Russians. Yes, there are multiple copies of most of the titles, but I can justify that – honest, guv! The “Master and Margarita” copies are all different translations; so are the Zamyatins. The two Solzhenitsyns are radically different versions, with the bigger version being the later unexpurgated version. I have no excuse for the Dr. Zhivagos as they’re all the same version, but they are very pretty….

Anyway, my piece is over at Shiny here, so do pop over and have a read of my ramblings about the vagaries of being a Russian writer. And read some banned literature this week, and resist to the end the banning of books! 🙂

Carpe Librum! or, in which I fear for the foundations…

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(of the house, that is….)

Yes. I’m afraid the sorry state of the book piles continues with yet more arrived chez Ramblings… and here is the latest bunch:

Pretty, aren’t they? But not small…  And probably not much I can say in mitigation, although there *are* yet more review books:

All of these are titles I requested and want very much to read – in fact, I’ve just finished “Malacqua” which was quite stunning and it’s going to take me a while to work out what I want to say about it. I’ve started the M. John Harrison and the first few stories have been outstanding, so I’m very excited about that one. And “Locus Solus” just sounds – very intriguing…..

Ahem. As I am prone to say, damn you Verso Books with your money-saving offers! Currently, the publisher has 50% of ALL of their books (so I make no excuse for using shouty capital letters because that’s an offer worth shouting about!). Yes, I know I have the e-book of “October”, but I loved it so much I wanted the tree version. And I’ve wanted “Night Walking” for ages too, and this was the time to buy it. 50% off. With a bundled e-book if one is available. Go check out Verso. Now!

This was a beautiful and unforeseen treat, in the form of the wonderful Seagull Books catalogue. It’s known to be a work of art in its own right and I was over the moon when the publisher kindly offered to send me a copy. It has masses of content including contributions from such blogging luminaries as Melissa, Joe, Anthony and Tony, so I plan to spend happy hours over the Christmas break with it. Plus they publish Eisenstein – how exciting!!!

As for this – well, it came from The Works over the weekend when I was browsing for Christmas gifts. I picked it up because it looked pretty, imagining I would find it a bit sappy or soppy, stuffed with twee verse. Well, there *are* the usual romantic love poems (the classics, which is no bad thing) but there were some powerful pieces I didn’t know, including one by Marina Tsvetaeva. I was hesitating till I looked at the last poem in the book, by Owen Sheers, and it was so stunning I had to buy the book…

And finally – a little bit of madness in the Oxfam:

This weighs a bloody ton, frankly, and I ended up lugging it round town for hours. But – it cost £1.99 and how could I resist pages like this:

and this????

Mayakovsky! A Bulgakov picture I’ve never seen! And so much more! I confess OH looked at it a little askance and sighed, but it was a no-brainer. My shoulder is still recovering, however…

So – I’m definitely still seizing the book – time for another clear out, methinks…. =:o

Exploring the rather wonderful Bulgakov Collection!

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It’s no secret here on the Ramblings that I’m a huge fan of small publishers and there are several whose books I love to read and write about on a regular basis. One of my favourites is Alma Classics, who are always bringing out delicious editions of excellent books (particularly the Russians I’m so fond of) in new translations and with extra material. The publisher has rather wonderfully become something of a champion of the work of Mikhail Bulgakov, producing absolutely lovely versions of his works, and I was very excited to hear that Alma has put together collections themed by author or genre which you can get at very reduced prices! Of course, the Bulgakov Complete Fiction Collection was the one that appealed to me, and it really is a great selection of books:

bulgakov-complete-works-banner-b-format

As you can see there is a wonderful array of titles featured, and the covers are stunning. Alma were kind enough to provide a copy of “The Fatal Eggs” for me to read in the translation by Roger Cockrell (who’s rendered several of the versions here) and I loved getting reacquainted with it! The last time I read the book, I commented on what a strong presence in the book was the city of Moscow:

Moscow was the adopted city of Bulgakov’s heart, and this is very clear from all his fictions. IN FE he captures brilliantly the effect of the events on the populace, utilising all the modern trappings of the city, from newspapers to neon signs. FE is funny, pithy, thought-provoking and unforgettable – highly recommended.

I felt the same again reading this wonderful book, and it really is a treat, painting a vivid picture of the Soviet Union in times of change, with science coming to the fore and the media out of control (somewhat familiar, that last thing….) But all of Bulgakov’s writings are worth reading, and the Alma Collection is a great way to get hold of them, and includes his most famous title, “The Master and Margarita”. The price is pretty good too – although the banner I’ve put in above says £50, when I last looked at the Alma website the price had been slashed so check this out to see if you can snag a real Bulgakov bargain.

The Collections also feature children’s classics, opera, gothic and horror titles, as well as one which appeals to me very strongly – The Complete F. Scott Fitzgerald Collection in absolutely gorgeous covers. It’s so tempting – if only I wasn’t supposed to be buying too many books at the moment… 🙂

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.

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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.

Glimpses of Russian Giants

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The Grass of Oblivion by Valentin Kataev

Well, I have Shoshi’s Book Blog to blame for having finally pushed me into reading Valentin Kataev! He’s an author I was aware of, and in fact I have his “Time, Forward!” on the shelves, though I think I picked it up because it was regarded as a classic of Soviet literature, and also because I love Sviridov’s music of the same name:

However, Shoshi’s excellent post here woke me up to him a bit more, and I went off and did a bit of research, and what I found out was fascinating. Wikipedia has a fairly short entry: Valentin Petrovich Kataev (16 January 1897 – 12 April 1986) was a Russian and Soviet novelist and playwright who managed to create penetrating works discussing post-revolutionary social conditions without running afoul of the demands of official Soviet style. Kataev is credited with suggesting the idea for the Twelve Chairs to his brother Yevgeni Petrov and Ilya Ilf. In return, Kataev insisted that the novel be dedicated to him, in all editions and translations. Kataev’s relentless imagination, sensitivity, and originality made him one of the most distinguished Soviet writers.

However, other entries I’ve found are a little more critical, implying that Kataev is a complex figure to deal with; an author who survived the Stalin era, and went on writing into the Thaw; someone who was able to satirise the Soviet regime, but also to write what could be considered the definitive novel of Socialist Realism; and someone who did not obviously stand up against the regime, but was known for assisting other authors. He was seen to criticise some writers, and they him, but the moral complexities of living in the Soviet Union are hard to judge in simple black and white terms, and so it seems best to try to form an opinion him on his writing alone – that’s what we’re interested in, after all.

grass

Despite having “Time, Forward!” on the shelves, I was attracted by the sound of “Grass” which was written in the 1960s. In lyrical prose, Kataev casts his eye back to his youth and his inspirations, through his friendships with authors Ivan Bunin and Mayakovsky. It was the latter that particularly pulled me in, as I’ve had an obsession with Mayakovsky for well over 30 years, and I was fascinated to find out that Kataev knew him. And the two writers discussed here could not be more diametrically opposed: Bunin, supporter of the old regime, despiser of the new, and the man whose memoir of the Bolsheviks coming to power is titled “Cursed Days”; and Mayakovsky, Futurist, revolutionary and ardent Red.

The book begins in Odessa, where Kataev grew up, living with his father and brother Yevgeni Petrovich Kataev (Petrov). Bunin was living locally and the fledgling author, still at school, sought out the great man and somehow a friendship sprang up. As life changes around them and Kataev comes of age, the friendship continues, but Bunin is unhappy about what is happening in Russia and his views differ from the younger man, who is enthused by the coming of the revolution. The second section, at a later stage of Kataev’s life, gives snapshots of Mayakovsky close to the end of his life, and in fact on the eve of his suicide; Kataev records Mayakovsky’s struggles against the increasing bureaucracy in the Soviet Union and the closing down of freedoms to write. Towards the end of the books we encounter Kataev travelling in Paris, as he tries to meet up once more with Bunin but their paths are never destined to cross again; what he does do is leave behind a touching portrait of Bunin’s widow in exile.

For an author often dismissed as a Soviet realist, Kataev’s writing is vivid and evocative; it’s also very beautiful in places and really brings to life whatever he’s writing about. The author describes his style as “mauvism”, which he claims is “the art of writing badly” but he does himself a disservice here; and when he later admits it may be more a case of writing how he wants to, it’s clear he may be a little tongue in cheek… Kataev employs an impressionistic, almost stream-of-consciousness technique, fusing memoir, quotation, fiction and autobiography. It’s a heady mix which really transports you into the world about which he’s writing; there are wonderful pen-portraits of life in pre-War and Revolution Odessa, snapshots of the countryside during the Civil War, and a vivid memoir of Mayakovsky which really brings the great man alive.

The transition between the two parts of his story becomes a transition between two worlds, and Kataev tells this brilliantly by dipping into fiction. Because of the long distance between his current self and that past strange world of Civil War, he creates himself as a fictional character Pcholkin and we witness him suffering from typhus and recovering, travelling the country during the conflict between Red and White to try and educate the country people, and dramatically cheating death.

–o–?—C–?–µ–? –i. –u. 1934

Of course, this book having been written so long after the events, it’s possibly to question how much of it is accurate, particularly in view of the dramatic events that were taking place at the time. Kataev addresses this himself in several places, stating “It should not be forgotten that I am writing down in these notes only what memory has retained….”. However, even if the conversations are approximations recreated from memory, the book still gives a vital and strong sense of both Bunin and Mayakovsky, and the world all the writers were living through. There is in particular a wonderful vignette of Mayakovsky meeting Bulgakov, and I *so* wanted to read more of this! (In fact, I read later that Kataev was in love with Bulgakov’s sister, which is another odd coincidence).

The book is translated by Robert Daglish, who provides an illuminating foreword and discreet, occasional footnotes. “Grass” is probably not a book to be read if you don’t have some background knowledge of Russian/Soviet history and the context, but for anyone who loves the country and its landscape and writers this is essential reading. I personally came out of the book feeling I’d been through the emotional wringer, witnessing the dramatic changes in Russia, the effect on older writers, the Revolution being embraced by younger writers and the despair of Mayakovsky when he saw the causes he’d believed in so strongly going sour. “The Grass of Oblivion” goes straight onto my list of favourite Russian reads, and I can’t wait to read more of Kataev’s work!

Not quite 1924….

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One of many nice things about focusing on the year of 1924 for the 1924 Club has been the chance to dig about in my books, looking to see what I already own from that year. I must admit that, when first glancing down the Wikipedia list that Simon sent, I glimpsed the name of Bulgakov and gave a bit of a start because I hadn’t been aware that one of his books was published in 1924!

fatal eggs

In fact, it was a mistake – Bulgakov’s book “The Fatal Eggs”, had been listed in the drama section, when in fact it’s a novella and although it was written in 1924 it wasn’t published until 1925. Which is a bit of a shame, because I did fancy rambling on again about how wonderful it is!

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However, as we haven’t actually started posting about 1924 yet, I’ll take the opportunity of pointing you at my original review of the book here. I said at the time:

As with Heart of a Dog, Bulgakov the doctor is having a swipe at science and where it can go wrong. The authorities want to control it, the bureaucrats are incompetent and make mistakes which cause catastrophic events to take place, and Bulgakov clearly thinks there is a limit to what human beings should mess with.

“Dog” is a fascinating, funny and thought-provoking read and even though it wasn’t published in 1924, I commend it to you!

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