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Some Russian book winners!

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So I’ve closed the giveaway, and thanks to all who entered and offered interesting recommendations!

I printed out the names of the entrants and popped them into a decorative mini pail I had knocking about, then drew out two winners and they are:

Laura from Reading in Bed – In the Twilight

Melissa from  The Bookbinder’s Daughter – Five Russian Dog stories

Congrats to both ladies and thanks to all entrants for taking part. I’ll be in touch with the two winners and the books will be winging their way off round the globe soon! 🙂

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A little Russian giveaway…

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As you may have picked up, I’ve been trying to downsize the book piles a little chez Ramblings, as things have really been getting out of control. I’ve not been buying much, and I’ve been hauling piles off to the charity shops as well as throwing spare volumes at people I think might enjoy them. And whilst shuffling books, I came across a couple of lovely Russian books that I don’t need/want, but which I’d like to send off to a good home.

“In the Twilight” is a beautiful collection of Chekhov short stories from Alma Classics, and I have a spare copy as I won a prize last year.  The Russian doggie tales book is from Hesperus Press and this came from the Kew Bookshop when I visited the gardens. I’ve read and loved it, but I doubt I’ll return to it, so it’s also looking for a new home.

So if you’d like to win one of these books leave a comment below saying which one you’d like, and suggesting a book you think I might enjoy. I’ll leave the giveaway open for a week or so, and winners will be drawn at random. This is open worldwide, so I’ll look forward to hearing your recommendation! 🙂

Visiting the Russians at the NPG – plus some bookshop thoughts

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With my well-known love of all cultural things Russian, it was a given that I’d want to visit the National Portrait Gallery in London when they held their exhibition of portraits from the Tretyakov Gallery in Russia. And I was lucky enough to win a couple of tickets (plus some wonderful Russian books!) thanks to a Twitter competition – thanks to both the NPG and Alma Books for this! 🙂

I chose yesterday for the visit as I was hoping the trains would be in sensible mode – for several months at the beginning of the year there were no direct weekend trains to London without hideous bus journeys – and they were pretty much well-behaved, if a little delayed. I could have done with the Central Line being open, though!

I spent the day in the company of my dear friend J. and we met up in the lovely Foyles cafe for a catch up. It’s rather alarming to think that we’ve been visiting the Charing Cross Road bookshops for over 30 years, but nice that we can still do so! J. had very kindly brought me along some Beverley Nichols books she had procured for me, which was exciting:

beveerleys

I was so pleased with these, particularly “Yours sincerely” which still has a dustjacket of sorts. The others are two of his children’s books which will be in their original unedited form – apart from a slight issue in that each has had a page removed! J. is investigating possibilities to find the missing pages…

Of course, I couldn’t resist a look around Foyles, and picked up this:

midnight

I am having a bit of a Victor Serge thing at the moment, as I’m in the middle of “The Case of Comrade Tulayev” which is one of the most wonderful books I’ve ever read – so there may be more Serge below…

exhibition

After Foyles, we wandered down to the NPG and the exhibition – and it really was quite magical. I was keenest, of course, to see the famous Dostoevsky portrait in real life. It’s the only one of him painted from life, and it’s quite remarkable – you can see the sufferings of his life in his eyes.

Fedor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872 © State Tretyakov Gallery

Fedor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872
© State Tretyakov Gallery

Who else was there? Well, amongst others Tolstoy, Turgenev, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky – and Chekhov! The latter’s portrait was also quite amazing – the best portraiture really does make you feel as if you’re in the presence of the subject.

Anton Chekhov by Iosif Braz, 1898 © State Tretyakov Gallery

Anton Chekhov by Iosif Braz, 1898
© State Tretyakov Gallery

We went back to the Dostoevsky and Chekhov portraits a lot, but there was also this very striking image that drew us to it:

Anna Akhmatova by Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaia, 1914 © State Tretyakov Gallery

Anna Akhmatova by Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaia, 1914
© State Tretyakov Gallery

All in all, this was a remarkable exhibition – some wonderful and evocative portraits and a rare chance to see them in real life without having to travel to Russia. It runs until 26th June and I really recommend visiting it!

After the culture, we decided to head to Piccadilly, as I had a yen to visit the Waterstones there, and J. wanted to pop into Fortnum and Mason! Waterstones Piccadilly is touted as the biggest bookshop in Europe, sited in a beautiful art deco shop, and it certainly is lovely. Stretching over five floors it even has a Russian language bookshop within it, with some very pretty looking books that I couldn’t read! We decided to lunch on the top floor restaurant, which was a treat:

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The bookshop itself is gorgeous, with an excellent selection, some shelves devoted to small publishers and lots of chairs to sit in while you consider what to purchase. I spent a *looong* time browsing while J. sat and finished this book which she then donated to me – how kind!

reader for hire

It was unlikely I would get out of the shop without purchases, and that was the case. As well as finding the perfect birthday present for my brother, I chose these for myself:

graveyard unforgiving

J. picked up a lovely little hardback collection of Akhmatova’s poetry but was much more restrained than I was today.

On to Fortnum and Mason – well, let’s just say it’s the poshest place I’ve ever been! I bought a little something for OH, and certainly thought that this was a glimpse of how the other half live…

After Piccadilly, we decided to head back to the Bloomsbury end of town, and fortunately J. spotted a useful bus! A quick visit to the Bloomsbury Oxfam revealed not a lot, and some very over-priced volumes – this is obviously a current trend on Oxfam shops which is a bit of a shame. So we decided to end the day with a cuppa in the LRB Bookshop cafe (they do *lovely* tea) and of course had a bit of a browse. I was particularly keen on looking for this title, which hadn’t been in either Foyles or Waterstones – but the wonderful LRB shop did have it!

zoo

So, another fab day out in London, with good company, artistic stimulation and books! It was interesting to range a little further with the book shopping and I got to thinking about the differences between the type of shops I visited (I’m thinking new books here, as I didn’t do any second-hand shopping). Despite its hugeness, and the loveliness of its architecture, I didn’t think the Waterstones was particularly superior to Foyles. The selection at the latter is just as good – in fact, they had titles that Waterstones didn’t – and I got the feeling that there is more in the way of mainstream fiction in Waterstones than the more out of the way books I like. Certainly the Waterstones biography section was remarkably good, and I imagine that they carry more stock of different genres, non fiction and the like. But interestingly it took the LRB Bookshop to come up with the Shklovsky I was looking for – so I guess it goes to show that there is room for a large number of bookshops, and I’m all in favour of that! 🙂

Autumn Shininess!

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Issue 7 of Shiny New Books is out today and you can read it in all its wonderfulness here!

SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245As usual, it’s packed to the rafters with bookish news and reviews, all of which is guaranteed to enlarge your wish list in a big way!

prank

I’ve been very happy to contribute a review of “The Prank”, a new collection of Chekhov’s early work from NYRB, which you can read here. It’s a wonderful collection and well worth your time! So what are  you waiting for? Head over to Shiny New Books and enjoy!

 

It’s a Dog’s Life!

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Five Russian Dog Stories
Translated by Anthony Briggs

When I visited the lovely Kew Gardens last summer, I dropped into the Kew Bookshop on my way and picked up this little volume of canine tales (or tails – ha!) from a selection of Russian authors. Published by Hesperus and translated by Anthony Briggs, it seemed ideal to turn to during my book hangover following “Dead Souls”!

5 russian dogs

The book does indeed contain five dog stories: “Mumu” by Turgenev; “Good old Trezor” by Saltykov; “Chestnut Girl” by Chekhov; “Arthur, the White Poodle” by Kuprin; and “Ich Bin from Head to Foot” by Ilf and Petrov. The stories are interspersed with little verses and rounded off by a postscript by Turgenev. First off, I should give a TRIGGER WARNING – these dogs don’t in the main have happy lives and as my Middle and Youngest Child used to cryptically say to each other, “End well it will not”.

“Mumu” and “Good Old Trezor” tell tales of long-suffering dogs and it’s immediately clear that you should read these as allegories, with the sufferings of the dog standing in for the suffering of the peasants – and in fact the peasants in the stories don’t have a particularly nice life either. “Chestnut Girl” is less bleak, with the title dog running away from home and meeting up with a circus performer and becoming part of his act. But the call of home, however much worse it is than the new life, is always there….

Anton-Chekhov-510x274

“Arthur…” also features a performing dog, but here the range of the story is a little wider as the canine and his owners travel the Russian coast performing and trying to make a living. Their encounter with a rich family and an unbelievably spoiled brat makes for a very entertaining tale. And the final piece by Ilf and Petrov is a wonderful satirical story of a poor dog attempting to fit into the restricting requirements of Soviet realism and failing miserably…

ilf_PetrovThis volume was a lovely collection, very enjoyable to read and despite the sadness, very thought-provoking. It’s quite clear that you wouldn’t want to be either a peasant or a dog in either Tsarist or Soviet Russia! The translations read well in the main, although I did have some quibbles with the Chekhov… As I read, I realised I’d already encountered this story, in the “Moscow Tales” book I read a while back. There, it was titled “Kashtanka” (the animal’s actual name); the dog was described as “rust-coloured” which I rather felt captured the dog’s nature and circumstances better than “chestnut”; and the other circus animal all had their original names (proper Russian forename and patronymic) which again conveyed the quirkiness of the whole situation better. The way the names had been Anglicised somehow smoothed the story out, made it less Russian and less comic and for me, I prefer the version in “Moscow Tales” by a long chalk.

However, that caveat aside, I liked my peep into the world of Russian dogs – the only question is now, what to read next!

Stories from Behind the Iron Curtain (and in front, actually!)

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Moscow Tales – translated by Sasha Dugdale / edited by Helen Constantine

moscow tales

Short stories have been something of a life-saver, reading wise, in recent weeks, and this lovely collection was no exception. I’m not sure whether I’ve just felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of books I want to read, or it’s just been the lack of reading time I’ve had; it’s just been hard to get into, and commit to, big books – well, some of the time anyway! I confess, however, that I was waiting for a new arrival I desperately wanted to read, and so starting something big at this point would have been silly. But as I’d been dipping into this volume off and on, it seemed the ideal thing to keep me going…

OUP have brought out a whole series of “Tales” books, each focusing on a particular city (Paris, Berlin, Madrid etc) all apparently edited by Helen Constantine, and I must confess that I’d rather like to read the series. However, I stumbled over Moscow Tales in the Bloomsbury Oxfam, a book which had been on my wish list for some time; with my love of Russian and its literature, it’s a bit of a given that I’d want to read this!

moscow

“Moscow Tales” contains 15 stories ranging in time from Karamzin’s “Poor Liza” (1792) up to modern tales like “Underground Sea” by Marina Galina (2010) and it’s an excellent and varied selection. One particular thing which pleased me was the amount of new material available, previously untranslated – to a monolingual Russophile like me, that’s a huge treat! The only title I’d read before was Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog”, so MT was a real voyage of discovery. And the stories are wonderful and varied! A particular stand-out was the aforementioned “Underground Sea” about a man who falls asleep on the tram and wakes lost somewhere in the city; the author conjures a frightening, nightmarish scenario of being lost in the night, struggling to find a landmark or even a person to point you in the right direction.

Then there’s “A Couple in December” by Yuri Kazakov, the tale of a pair of young people off skiing in the winter, and their mutual misunderstandings and inability to understand each other’s real feelings. And of course, there are dogs (Russians seem to love their dog stories): the Chekhov, of course, but also “The Red Gates” by Yuri Koval, a story about a young boy coming of age and his adopted dog, who in many ways takes the place of a lost brother – it’s moving and thoughtful, brilliantly portraying the relationship between the boy, the animal, and also the boy’s tutor.

old-moscow

It’s difficult to keep picking out individual stories as they’re pretty much all great reads. I confess I did struggle with “Poor Liza” a little – it’s an old-fashioned sentimental tale and perhaps a little out of keeping with the others, though it does give a good flavour of what old Moscow and the surrounding countryside was like. And the range of the tales really captures the city in all its phases from old wooden city through modern Soviet metropolis to the current concrete jungle.

MT is beautifully put together, illustrated with a photo at the start of each tale, author biographies and helpful notes. If this is the standard of the “Tales” books, I’ll certainly be looking out for more. But in the meantime, I’m still dreaming about Moscow past and present, as evoked by this wonderful collection.

Little Black Classics – The Russian Edition!

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It’s been common knowledge round the Ramblings that I’ve been suffering from a bit of a reader’s block – not a thing that happens often, but nevertheless very painful when it strikes. For days I was unable to settle to reading *anything* at all and began to wonder if I would ever be able to get through another volume. Fortunately, salvation came in part from the Penguin Little Black Classics! Commendably enough (in my view, anyway) the series features number of classic Russian authors, all of whom I’ve read and all of whom I love. So these were the perfect way to revisit them in small bites and ease back into reading! I tackled them in the order below and I’ll share just a few thoughts on each.

ruskies 1

The Nose – Nikolai Gogol

Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (1809 – 1852) is one of Russia’s most important authors, and generally regarded as the country’s first realist writer. He wrote on classic novel, “Dead Souls”, and some brilliant short works; this volume contains “The Nose” and “The Carriage”. The first is one of his most famous tales, in which a Collegiate Assessor wakes up one morning to find that his nose has disappeared and taken on a life of its own. Of course, without a nose of his own, it’s quite impossible that he should appear in his normal circles, and the story follows his attempts to track down his nose, which makes appearances here and there wearing a uniform and attempts to establish its existence in its own right. This is wonderfully absurdist nonsense which shows up the prejudices of the class system and civil service in Russia as well as being very, very funny. “The Carriage” is a cautionary tale about what happens when you get drunk and boast too much. The protagonist, Chertokutsky, lives in a small town which goes from dull to lively when the army is posted nearby, and is foolish enough to brag about the wonderful carriage he possesses; unfortunately, owing to imbibing just a little too much he oversleeps and forgets to warn his wife that there will be officers calling on them the next day to have a look! Gogol was a satirical genius and these tales display his talents brilliantly!

Gooseberries – Anton Chekhov

Chekhov needs no introduction on the Ramblings, and this volume collects three tales, “The Kiss”, “The Two Volodyas” and “Gooseberries”. Basically, the man could write short stories like no-one else… “The Kiss” is a poignant tale of a man haunted by a mistaken embrace; “The Two Volodyas” about the choices we make in love; and “Gooseberries” about the choices we make in life. Read Chekhov – just read him! 🙂

Kasyan from the Beautiful Lands – Ivan Turgenev

Turgenev is possibly best known for his novels (and his famous dispute with Dostoyevsky) but he was also great at the shorter form. There are two stories in this volume, the title one and “District Doctor”. The latter is very moving, the tale of a provincial doctor and a lost love. The title story portrays serfs living on the land, the hardships they endured and the strangeness of some of their beliefs. Turgenev’s tales apparently helped with the campaign to abolish serfdom, and they’re also excellent reading.

ruskies 2

How Much Land Does A Man Need? – Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy also needs no introduction; the giant of Russian literature produces works that were as short as “War and Peace” were long! The two stories here (the title one and “What Men Live By” are suffused by Tolstoy’s faith and “How Much Land….” (a parable of a peasant’s bargain with the Devil) is apparently considered by James Joyce to be the world’s greatest story. I don’t know about that, but it’s very powerful and thought-provoking!

The Steel Flea – Nikolay Leskov

I was particularly delighted that Leskov was included in the LBCs, as he’s a Russian author that often doesn’t get as much attention as the others. Also, he’s suffered a lot at the hands of translators as his particular style of vernacular speech and punning is apparently very hard to translate. The version of one of his most famous stories (also known as “Lefty”) is in the translation by William Edgerton, which comes highly recommended by ace translator Robert Chandler (for his thoughts about working on Leskov, see here). This is a fabulous and fantastic little story about the rivalry between craftsmen of different nations (and thus the nations themselves), rendered with verve and lots of punning!

The Meek One – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Last, but most definitely not least – the wonderful Dostoevsky. I’ve read many of his longer works but less of his short ones. This is a magnificent piece of writing, 57 pages of pure genius. The style recalls that of “Notes from Underground” in that it’s in the form of a monologue by an unreliable narrator. He’s a pawnbroker and he’s telling us the story of marriage, leading up to his wife’s story. Initially we’re unsure of the facts, but as the story unfolds it becomes clear that the pawnbroker has a somewhat disreputable past and much of what happens is due to his obsessive love of his wife, his inability to express his emotions and his stifling of any natural relations with his wife. As the story builds to a climax, the tension is almost unbearable and the powerful narrative is totally absorbing. At the end it’s not even clear which of the two is the meek one of the title, but the tragic story is brilliantly told. Dostoyevsky is a writer of genius and if you were only going to read one of the Russian LBCs then I would really say that this is the one!

So a wonderful reading experience with these little books. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of reading the Russians and fortunately there are still plenty I haven’t tackled yet!

(As an aside, I’ve reproduced the author names exactly as they are on the books – and isn’t it interesting how the names can be transliterated with different spellings depending on the translator – languages are fascinating!)

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