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Looking back on highlights of 2021’s reading…

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During December, on book blogs and Twitter, I’ve seen many a ‘best of’ post; however, I always prefer to leave my look back on the year until the very end – I have known, in the past, some of my best reads of a year to arrive at the very end! 2021 has not been an easy year in many ways, but I have read more books than ever (my coping mechanism) and so I shan’t pick a best of – I never do – but instead will look back at some of the highlights… 😀

Classic Crime

As always, I have sought consolation at difficult times with murder, mayhem and mysteries! Golden Age Crime has always been a huge favourite and a comfort read for me, and 2021 was no different. As well as any number of marvellous British Library Crime Classics, I’ve managed to find an excuse to revisit Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime. And Edmund Crispin, another long-term love, has made appearances here. Really, I doubt I would have made it through the year without crime!!

As an extra crime treat, I was invited to take part in the Crime Reprint of the Year Award by Kate at Cross Examining Crime, and was happy to nominate two favourite books – such fun! 😀

British Library Women Writers

As well as reissuing some wonderful Classic Crime, British Library Publishing have also been releasing stellar titles in their Women Writers series. I’ve covered a number this year, including Edith Olivier’s The Love Child and Diana Tutton’s Mamma. However, a highlight was their reissue of F. Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to See the Peepshow, a book I regard very highly. I was delighted to take part in the blog tour and sang the book’s praises – a wonderful and moving read!

Russia

Inevitably there are Russians, as books and authors from that country are some of my favourites. I spent time with Dostoevsky for his bicentenary; squeezed in Nabokov short stories; read a wonderful anthology of classic short works, and a brilliant collection of new writing; and reacquainted myself with a recently rediscovered author who wrote for the drawer. I can never read enough Russians, and frankly I think you’ll see plenty more books from that country appearing here in 2022!!

France

As well as a love for Russian culture, I also have a passion for all things French, most particularly Parisian. There were plenty of French treats this year, from unpublished fiction from a favourite writer, a marvellous non-fiction work exploring the culture of mid-century Paris, poetry from that city, some hypnotic prose from Marie Ndiaye and a lovely look at Sylvia Plath‘s relationship to the place. All lovely, and all have drawn me back to reading French authors; I’m currently rediscovering Jean Genet, and have a good number of unread Sartre, Camus and others on the TBR!

Of course, I have to mention Roland Barthes, who has been much on my mind this year. I’ve only read one of his works in 2021, and also Derrida‘s piece on him, but I am keen to continue with him in 2022. A readalong on Twitter of A Love’s Discourse went by the by leading up to Christmas, as my head was in totally the wrong place, but I shall hope to get back to this one soon.

New to me authors vs old favourites

I must admit to being a reader who loves to discover new authors and books, though this year I’ve also sought comfort from the familiar. I don’t do statistics, but I do see from the list I keep that I *have* explored new writers this year. Margarita Khemlin, Marguerite Duras, Amanda Cross, Gilbert Adair and Alex Niven are just a few names who have intrigued this year, but I’m happy to keep the mix of old and new going. From the old guard, George Orwell continues to be a constant delight – I can’t foresee a time when I’ll ever stop reading him! John Berger is a more recent favourite and I’ll definitely be continuing with his works in 2022. Burroughs and Beverley Nichols, a disparate pairing if there ever was one, are both names I love to revisit regularly. Really, there are so many books and so little time, as we always say!

Projects and Reading Events

We get onto shaky ground for some of these, as I’m often a bit rubbish at keeping up with this kind of thing. As far as events go, I co-hosted Read Indies Month in February with Lizzy and this was wonderful fun – so many great independent publishers to support! And Simon and I co-hosted two reading club weeks this year – 1936 and 1976. Both years had an excellent selection of books available to read, and the response was wonderful! I’m happy to say we’ll be running the #1954Club from 18-24 April 2022 and there are some really great books from that year, so do join in!

As for other events, I have dipped into Spanish Lit Month, German Lit Month, Novellas in November and a few more – I like to take part in these when I can and when it fits in with the TBR and also what I fancy reading!

My own personal reading projects, which are all really centred round various Penguin collections, have been pretty intermittent this year – whether from lack of focus, the state of the world or just wrong book at wrong time, the only one I’ve made headway with is the Penguin Moderns box set. I’ve had great fun with this little series of books – there are some marvellous authors and titles in it – and I have high hopes that I might actually finish reading it in 2022!

Disappointments…

I always try to be selective in what I read, but there are occasional misfires and DNFs. I started the year with one, The Housekeeper and The Professor, which really didn’t gel with me; I struggled with Confessions of a Heretic, which was not for me; and I tried to read a high profile book about Russian authors and frankly disliked it immensely. But the balance is heavily in favour of successful reads, so that’s good!!

Poetry

2021 also saw me spending a good amount of time with poets and poetry, and this was a real pleasure. There were biographies – John Sutherland’s marvellous Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me was a highlight, as was Gail Crowther’s magisterial Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz, which explored the lives of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I discovered new poets, too, often via the NYRB Poets imprint, and this was particularly wonderful.

Translated works

I generally read a lot of work in translation. And I continued to read a lot of work in translation during 2021 – yay! And I shall continue to do so in 2022. Thank you *so* much to all those who translate works into English – my reading life is richer because of you!

Favourites?

I can *never* pick favourites or a top ten or a book of the year, and my BFF J. always reckons it’s because I read such a disparate range of books. I tend to think she might be right, and in any case I’ve read so many stunners this year it seems wrong to pick out one. But to satisfy those wanting me to choose *something*, a few which particularly stood out were In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, every short story I read by Nabokov, Unwitting Street by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, New Model Island by Alex Niven, The Edge of the Object by Daniel Williams and Gentleman Overboard by Herbert Clyde Lewis. All of those were oustanding reads, but probably all for very different reasons!!

Well, there you have it! Some of my reading highlights for 2021. Come back to the Ramblings tomorrow to see if I have any plans for the new year, so you can place bets on whether I’ll stick with any of them! 🤣🤣🤣

“…the British remain teenagers too long” @halfpintpress @awildslimalien

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As I mentioned in my post on Friday, I’ve been spending happy time with some wonderfully innovative works written by Daniel Williams and published by Half Pint Press. “Letterpress [n]” was a gentle introduction into lipograms; however the book I’m going to feature today, “The Edge of the Object”, takes things much further, venturing into calligrams and producing an unforgettable and Oulipian piece of writing…

First up, a description of its physical form: “Edge…” is made up of three large format, perfect bound volumes (around A4 size) in a hand-made slipcase, with the colours of red, white and blue presumably representing the French flag as their spines peek out of the slipcase. The design is stunning, two of the volumes featuring calligrams in the form of images either wrapped by the text, or which the text forms; these images are, of course, a main point of each page. The book is brilliantly constructed so that the image and text therefore complement each other, and the calligrams force the mind to focus on the meaning behind each page.

As for the story, it’s set in the 1990s and tells the story of an unnamed narrator making his escape from England to hide in rural Normandy. Living in a decrepit cottage, with limited French and few human contacts, the narrator is trying to make sense of himself and the life he’s left behind. So he cycles the countryside; lives simply on bread and cheese; and looks back on events which have brought him to this point, in particular his dull work and his relationship with Louise, the woman he loves.

In part two, after a period of time in the cottage, he heads off to Paris and then on tour with some indie bands he knows, drawing on his time spent as a photographer (albeit one who has abandoned his Leica for the moment). Our protagonist follows the chaos of life on the road as an outsider and observer – which is in line with his role as photographer really – and becomes attracted to a woman called Sophie whom he encounters during his time with the bands. In part three, after another period of solitude, the narrator sets off for the south of France to track down Sophie and see if she feels the same as he did – or whether his perceptions were mistaken…

A simple description of the plot really does bely the complexity of “Edge…”, and for a number of reasons. For a start, parts 1 and 3 are written from the second person POV. which is most unusual and I’m actually struggling to think of another work I’ve read like this. I did wonder how I would feel about this kind of writing, but it’s incredibly immediate and works brilliantly here to take you inside the protagonist’s head. The narrative form allows him to dig deep into his emotions and psyche, and so the second person is an excellent way to convey the feelings of someone living very much in isolation. By necessity, it seems, part 2 is told in the first person, as the narrator is mixing with others, in a more outward looking setting, and here there are no calligrams.

By the table, there is a light which doesn’t work – always a light which doesn’t work, as if the whole French nation had an aversion to changing light bulbs, or that when one blew, they shrugged and decided they liked the slightly darker atmosphere better.

So the writing is really excellent, and captures not only the narrator’s insecurities but also the emotions of being on your own and trying to survive that solitude and not slip into some kind of madness – his alienation is often palpable. The fact that the narrator is a photographer is extremely relevant too, as he so obviously presents as an observer, somewhat detached from what’s happening around him; despite having abandoned his Leica, he still sees things in photographic terms, and is always an outsider looking in. He’s obviously a man with issues – as you read through the book, you learn to recognise his selfishness and awkwardness, yet he does have charm…

An example of the stunning calligrams

Alongside the deeper elements of the book there is also much humour; there are little references to e.g. Smiths lyrics and rural Suffolk to ground the narrative in the familiar; and a wry acceptance that the music industry is always focused on youth and the next trend, with talented older musicians being cast by the wayside.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that as soon as there are sufficient Scots to fill a small foreign bar, beer will get downed at breakneck speed. Throw in some English introverts self-medicating to overcome their shyness, and things are likely to become rowdy.

As I hinted above, the immediacy of the second person narrative drawns you in completely, and I found myself totally absorbed from the first page. The writing is often lyrical, the setting vividly conjured and the wonderful calligrams really add to the experience of reading the book. I have to say that, because the narrator is unnamed and first or second person, I did suspect I was reading autofiction (but then, so much fiction *is* autofiction, so it really doesn’t matter). Whether it is or not is by the by in the end, however; I loved the experience of reading this book, following the narrator on his adventures through love, loss, isolation, travels on the road and his search for himself.

The inclusion!

“Edge…” is a work which continues to intrigue all the way through. Part way through the third part, I came upon what Nicholas Royle (in his book “White Spines“) would call an “inclusion” – in this case, what looks like a little information leaflet about Oloron-Sainte-Marie (a small town in the south of France). As the Half Pint Press website website reveals, each copy of the edition includes a little, unique relic of the author’s own trip to France in 1991. That might be a bit of a map or a bus ticket or a receipt or a pressed leaf. It’s a nod to the real world adventure that @awildslimalien twisted into this novel and also to previous Half Pint Press efforts which play with the real world and the imaginary world and found objects that might sit inbetween.” This certainly added to the specialness of having a copy of this rather wonderful edition!

“The Edge of the Object” is a stunning book not only as a physical object, but also as a piece of writing, and I suspect I’ve only touched on the many layers in the work in my post. The designing and setting of the calligrams alone are an incredible and impressive achievement (by Tim of Half Pint). The book is available as a limited edition from Half Pint Press (you can find more information here) and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a wonderful, experimental piece of writing and publishing which is actually really accessible – brilliant!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

A little taster of what’s to come… @halfpintpress @awildslimalien

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If you saw the picture of my November reads which accompanied my post at the start of the month, you might have noticed two works by Daniel Williams which couldn’t be further apart in size, although in concept and execution they’re actually closely related! Both “Letterpress [n]” and “The Edge of the Object” were published by the wonderful indie Half Pint Press, who’ve appeared on the Ramblings before; I covered their release of Gertrude Stein’s “Vacation in Brittany” back in February this year, during Read Indies month. Half Pint are truly indie in that many of their works are produced by hand by publisher Tim on a real letterpress machine; and “Letterpress [n]” is a fine example of that!

Author Daniel Williams is an author whose work has been published by a wide range of indies. He’s worked as music journalist, and also has a website A Wild Slim Alien, where a number of his fascinating lipograms can be found. Ah yes – lipograms…

A lipogram is defined as “a written work in which a particular letter or group of letters is intentionally omitted”, and it’s a writing constraint much favourited by Oulipian authors; possibly the most famous example is Georges Perec’s “A Void” (translated by Gilbert Adair) which I wrote about here. “Letterpress [n]” is exactly what the title says; a short work of lipogrammatic fiction which omits the letter n. However, a rather wonderful extra element is added here in the Half Pint Press edition as the lipogrammatic tale is also published in letterpress, hand set and hand printed edition by Tim Hopkins – which features a striking visual feature, as you can see from the image below!

Each page of the story has been typset to reflect the missing n in a gap in the text; so not only is n missing from the story itself, but there is a blank n shaped space on every page. It’s such an inventive and clever way to print a story, and I don’t think I’ve come across visual lipogramming (calligrams?) before (although I may be showing my ignorance here and it could be a common practice!).

As for the story itself, it’s a lovely little tale of star-crossed lovers, one of whom has a letterpress, all told without the letter n – very cleverly done and very enjoyable. Of course, I could have been smart and tried to write my review with a particular letter missing, but frankly I don’t think my brain is quite up to that! I loved reading “Letterpress [n]” as a kind of appetiser for the book I’m going to be writing about next week; it was the perfect introduction to this kind of writing/publishing and a fascinating signpost of what was to come. Watch this space for more innovative publishing initiatives! 😀

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